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Revelations of the Kraken (Chapter 44: Falling Down)


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On 8/20/2019 at 11:04 AM, KSK said:

As we've seen in the last couple of chapters, there are worse things than Krakens and they cannot be vanquished... Hopefully that's not a metaphor for Ten Key's sorely missed absence. :(

 

I...

Yeah, let it not be that. :(

Cuz this next one went really dark.

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In those days, you shall know untold hardship,
Dread visions shall goad you by night,
And great calamity sting you by day,
A piece of bread shall buy a bag of gold,
And the sea shall give up her dead.

Chapter 39: The Walking Dead

The dawn has moved on, leaning only dusk. 

A harsh wind roars across a cracked, crumbling expanse of nothing, dried and dead, every last trace of moisture long gone. It kicks up gritty, alkaline dust, scouring the surface, shrouding the land in a sickly, yellow haze. Through this haze walks a figure, clad all in black, hunched over against the relentless wind. 

The roar all around it is eerie and hollow, the wind does not howl but screech. The sound is otherworldly, far too high, and yet empty, as if even the wind here is dying. For all its rage, and all its dust, it barely licks at the rags covering the forsaken form trudging through it. Yet here and there, the tug of a whisper is just enough to expose a glimpse of dry, weathered bone. 

The figure stumbles and falls on its endless course, sending up a puff of reddish-yellow dust that disappears into the haze. What might once have been a gas mask covers its face, the rubber cracked, the dark lenses scratched to near opacity. It pulls a dark cowl farther over its head as it huddles on the parched ground, lest it see up. No, never look up. To gaze upon what writhes in the angry red clouds of the alien sky above... is to know madness. 

I want to cry, but I cannot...

Instead the figure rises, lurches forward as if drawn against its will. Its bandaged hands scrabble, then find purchase. One ragged foot drags across the grit. The other follows. Onward, ever onward this lost soul trudges, the last walking thing in a world that has moved on

It passes a shape of some sort, a lump in the sand that has long since lost any meaning. Soon there is another. And then yet another. Out of the sepia murk ahead, a much larger shape now looms, void and without form. As the figure approaches, it materializes into a tall, broad structure. Ancient shipping containers, rusted and scoured until nearly unrecognizable, form a low wall. The figure lurches on, swaying, until it reaches the crumbling gate. Here, it stops and gazes; for an hour, for an eternity. 

Before the half-collapsed sheets of metal lay piles of dry bones. A skull stares back, its twisted and deformed features half-buried in the dust. The figure does not raise its face, but sets off across the pile, half climbing, half wading, bones crackling near-soundlessly beneath its feet to join the uncaring dust. A slight push against the yawning gate sends it crashing to the ground with a reedy, empty sound; the hungry wind devours the dust it kicks up. 

Within is a courtyard before another withered structure, in the center of this courtyard is what remains of a tree. What it once was... no longer matters. Now, it is only a bare fragment of a stump. The ceaseless wind and abrasive dust have scoured its surface, opening fissures, and left haunting shapes like faces writhing in torment. The figure pauses only a moment before moving on. 

Just beyond, bits of rusted metal or etched stone stick up from the ground on either side. What was once scrawled upon them has long since been erased. The figure stares long at these, as ages and eons come and go above. 

I want to cry, but I cannot.

Past these, the markers become more simple, often worn away to bare nubs, keeping eternal watch over oblong mounds on the surface. Further still, there are no more mounds, only the tattered remains of shrouds, soundlessly rustling as the wind scatters their contents over millennia as the figure plods on. And finally, before this last wasting structure, there are not even shrouds, only vague clusters of bones the wind has not yet disbursed. 

The figure pauses here, casting its masked visage over all it has passed, unwilling to continue... and yet drawn inexorably on. 

Inside, the empty howl of the endless wind is lessened. The roof has collapsed here and there, but not yet enough to bury what has transpired. Here, in this haunted place, is the last. Kerb’s final inkermanity to kerb. Here, there are more bones... each one charred, or knife-scored, or simply broken open on a rock. 

He sits, keeping eternal vigil here in this crumbling castle from his simple throne, holding his broken crown in his twisted hands: King Nothing, even his name long forgotten. His face is the most horrible of all, his features so deformed that he barely seems like a thing once alive. And yet, he is also the most piteous, his toothless mouth forever contorted in a wail of unknowable misery. 

I want to cry, but I cannot.

The ragged figure falls to its knees on the dusty floor, bones clinking with barely a sound. Here, it has reached the end.

I want to die, but I cannot.

Here, there are no more ends or beginnings. Here, there is only... eternity. 

 

***

 

Valentina shot upright, gagging, her chest twitching as it tried to draw air into lungs that felt like they had not taken a breath in—

...eternity...

She blinked eyes that burned with dryness, spat acrid grit from her mouth. As she raised her hands to paw at her face, she saw them cast in the pallor of a corpse. Then, as her eyes began to focus, her horror surged even more, as she saw it was not pallor but a thin layer of frost clinging to her skin. 

Her hands pressed against her face, hid her eyes. Dark whispers filled her ears. Her chest strained to draw in air, the sensations raising nightmare memories from a lifetime ago. 

DФ SVЇDДЍЇҰД, SГДLЇИSԞЇ!

Welcome... to oblivion.

Yet even as her mind struggled before this onslaught, a new and far more present sensation cut through the murk...  The acrid sting of smoke. 

Valentina looked down to find her sweat-soaked nightshirt smoldering. 

Now panic joined the fray, her hands felt like rubber as they fumbled about. And then, she could only stare in breathless confusion at the source of the burning. 

She held the Münstone formerly tucked behind her nightshirt up. Anywhere the sodden fabric touched it, for an instant burst into flame... and yet the metal-clad gem barely felt warm in her own hands. As she stared down at it, the distant whispers rose, indistinct but ever more frustrated. The stone began to glow deepest crimson before her eyes, but a flash drew them away. 

Over on the wall, the patterned wallpaper now set to smolder and bubble. Spots formed, and then lines, and lines grew into blackened, smoking letters:

YOU CANNOT DESTROY MY DESTINY

 

***

 

Edgas awoke from the nightmare, the scream trapped in his throat until his lungs grasped that they first must take in air to cry out. He choked and gagged as his mind and body fought for control. His chest ached, his eyes burned, and his tongue tingled with a sensation like... bubbling. The room seemed to swim as he felt like he hadn’t breathed in—

...eternity...

Yet no sooner did his mind begin to remember where it was, who it was, that an unpleasant pressure began to envelop it. Edgas raised hands to his head, his scream at last finding breath, as the pressure rose to pain, like probing... scratching... digging into his brain. All at once sound cut off, he felt a pop and something streamed through. 

DESTINY!

The dark room grew darker still. 

YOU CANNOT. DESTROY. MY. DESTINY. 

Edgas squeezed his eyes shut, but the presence did not relent. 

YOU CANNOT ESCAPE YOUR OWN. 

His head shook in impotent denial. 

FOOL! INSECT! VIRUS! YOU ARE WEAK! DID YOU REALLY THINK IT WOULD BE SO EASY? DID YOU REALLY THINK THERE WOULD BE NO PRICE?

Tremors built in his fingers, curled his hands into claws, creeping up his arms. 

LIAR! USURPER! YOU ARE NO BEARER OF HOPE, YOU... ARE THE BETRAYER OF HOPES!

He thrashed, tumbled backwards... his back arched as a spasm rocked his whole body. 

I AM ETERNAL! I AM... INEVITABLE.

YOUR GRAVE IS NO BAR TO ME! EVEN NOW, YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND. 

The shadows drew in. 

YOU WILL KNOW SACRIFICE. YOU WILL KNOW REGRET. IF THERE IS TRULY ANY PITY IN YOU FOR THE FLESH-VERMIN THAT INFEST YOUR WORLD, THEN YOU WILL ACCEPT YOUR FATE...

Vision collapsed to a singularity, and Edgas thought his skull might follow. 

AND ACCEPT... YOUR... DESTINY.

All at once, the pressure was gone, and the shadows returned to their usual places. Edgas could only lay there, drenched with sweat, his chest heaving and head throbbing. Time turned, aeons passed... and eventually, so did the horrible nightmare fugue, leaving only a crushing weariness that might have cemented him to the bed if not for his thirst. His tongue felt like a roll of rags in his mouth, his lips like sandpaper. His throat had clamped to a bare, wheezing pinhole that whistled with desert air between dry rocks. 

Edgas blinked his still-burning eyes back into focus, and found his water glass had been knocked to the floor in his thrashing. He let out a tired sigh, but roused himself, every muscle in his body seeming to cry out with aches, and set off for the kitchen.  

Just beyond his door to his stateroom, across the hall, was the grand double-staircase. He leaned here on the polished railing for a time, still blinking, Münlight from the glass ceiling above glimmering in the dim space. Despite his fatigue and thirst, he still marveled at the opulence of it. The Mün, veiled in gossamer clouds, cast stark, pale shadows across the cavernous room, glinting on golden accents, silhouetting carved wood. The velvety carpet beneath his bare feet felt soft as a pillow, and the marble floor below gleamed with silver accents and dark blood stains. 

The breath seized in Edgas’s parched throat. 

No...

No, they cleaned that...

He stumbled backwards, hands raised in warding. The shadows across the room seemed to shimmer and crawl towards him. His back met something solid, darkness loomed over him, and an icy hand reached out and took his shoulder. 

The scream his tired throat had not let pass finally escaped. 

Edgas spun around, hands still raised, and—

...Drew them slowly to his face. He then reached one out, hesitantly, almost trembling, and rapped a knuckle...

...bong, bong, bong...

The faint sound echoed softly in the still night air. Before him, a polished suit of plate armor stood impassively on a high plinth, one hand at its side, just about shoulder height, and the other grasping an enormous battle-axe. He glanced back toward the foyer, and saw his “bloodstains” disappear as the shadows shifted again. High overhead, faint clouds still danced around the Mün.

For a while Edgas just stood there, expecting everyone else to erupt from their rooms at his midnight outburst. Finally, he let out a low groan, shaking his head. It was just a dream, after all— horrible, but just a dream. There was no blood on the floor, and he bumped into a statue. It was right where it had been, standing there holding the axe in both hands—

W—

The suit of armor raised the axe high above its steel helm, Münlight glinting off the curved razor edge.

Edgas couldn’t even scream, only cower to the floor and await the inevitable crash of cold steel. And crash it did, breaking over him with a noise like an army marching. Everywhere, bits of metal went flying and tumbling, flipping over the railing to the marble floor below, or bouncing... bouncing... BOUNCING! all the way down the wide, curving staircase, each thunk and crash and rattle echoing from the walls and reverberating down the halls. Edgas pressed his hands against his ears, but it was a noise to wake the very dead. 

It echoed and rattled, but finally— finally!— the cacophony died away, after what seemed like an—

...eternity...

His face pinched in a tight wince, Edgas roused himself and peered down. An impossible amount of polished, dented metal littered the marble floor, and the old helm seemed to glare back up at him from the foot of the stairs, shaking back and forth in silent judgement. 

You idiot, the Scientist in him chided, that was easily worth more than you see in a year. Kerm, it was priceless, even!

Such things... are no longer so important, the Practical Kerbal in him noted, and also, what’s a Kerm?

Edgas opened his mouth. 

Edgas closed his mouth. 

Then he just raised a hand to his face, as if to stop the darkness itself from seeing what fascinating new colors it had turned. He stood there like this a long while, expecting that now everyone would finally burst from their rooms. After all, nobody could sleep through that! 

And yet... it would seem nobody had done just that. The night air kept its midnight stillness, quiet as—

...a tomb...

Edgas shook the thought away. Instead he shifted to thinking he should just go back to bed. He looked longingly towards his door, but felt his tongue like ashes in his mouth. No, he would never sleep like this. A quick glance down the stairs ruled that out, too— the helm was still there, slowly shaking itself at him. Instead, he set off down the darkened hallway off the landing towards the servants’ staircase, a hand still pressed to his face. 

He shifted it to first rubbing his temples, then the wide, flat spot between his eyes where his worst headaches always seemed to start. His mind was slowly waking up, coming out of that bizarre fog of sleep and adrenaline brought on by nightmares. Another quick shake of his head tried to nudge that away, too. If his mind woke up, he would start to think, and the last thing he needed right now was to—

Squelch.

Edgas froze. 

Once more he stood for an eternity, not daring to move. He could feel something wet and sticky between his toes. A chill worked up his spine, and he let his eyes sink to the floor, already knowing what he would find. 

Something dark, inky, glistened in the dim light. It sat in coagulated pools on the carpet, stained the walls with a sheen of black smears. As his eyes drew up, he beheld a shadowed figure, waiting for him at the end of the hall. 

Something deep in the back of his mind told him to run, flee! But his legs refused to act. They, like the dryness of his throat, felt a galaxy away now. 

The figure took an off-balance, shuffling step forward. Its arms swayed in time with the tatters of what might have been a dress, shaking free drops that splashed on the floor. 

“You...” its voice was as dry and sand, yet somehow gurgled and choked. 

Edgas could only lean away, feet rooted in place, his head shaking in vain denial of what his eyes saw. 

“You... did this... to... meee...” a few scraps of matted hair stood out in silhouette on its head.  

“No...” he could barely croak. 

It staggered, coming towards him, the sound of its footfalls conjuring a sense of a bag of bones... and rotting fruit.

Crunch-squish... crunch-squish...

“You left me...”

“I didn’t...”

Crunch-squish...

“You left me to him...”

“No, I didn’t—!”

Crunch-squish...

“I was all alone... and you left meee...”

The shadows danced and swayed, played games across the figure’s hidden face... here a glint... there a glimpse... madness lying in what they teased. It raised its arms, reached out for him... scraps of fabric and else dangling below.

Crunch-squish...

An errant strand of light played across its face, “you... betrayed... me...”

Edgas could feel his hands, unbidden, reaching for his own eyes, “I... I didn’t mean to...”

Just as fingers brushed, his feet broke free from their paralysis, and he turned to flee...

...And found his path blocked.

Another figure stood at the far end of the hall, its black form the unmistakable outline of a space suit... somehow, a bare flash of the dim light beyond glowing through the tiny hole in the center of its helmet. 

“You...” it was already reaching for him, coming closer, “you did this...”

His head shook wildly, he staggered backwards, only to be met by crunch-squish... crunch-squish...
 
“Ah trusted you,” the new figure loomed before him, “you led me into a trap...”

Edgas tried to scream, tried to cry out, but his throat was caked with the burn of alkali, and the dust of ages. 

“You... betrayed... me...”

He cringed back, frozen in place, squeezing his eyes shut as bony hands curled around his neck.

“Edgas!”

Finally, he screamed... and opened his eyes, to find Valentina looking at him with concern.

“Are you... all right?” she let her hands drop from his shoulders, “you like you have seen ghost...”

Edgas’s eyes darted back and forth, he spun around... only to find an unassuming hallway, the walls and floor as pristine as ever. Dim, and yet... 

He turned back to her, the hall, somehow, seemed to be bathed in a soft, stubborn light, “I...”

She took his chin, turned his face this way and that, looked hard at his eyes, “you do not look well. I think you need drink...”

Edgas ran clammy palms over his numb face, suddenly feeling very, very tired, “alcohol is the last thing I need right now.”

“Indeed,” Valentina reached up... and smacked him upside the head, “do not stereotype! What you need is nice, hot cup of tea, perhaps with chamomile. Calm your nerves. Come.”

Taking his arm in a gentle grip, she led him off down the hall towards the kitchen while behind them, the shadows reclaimed the night. 

 

***

 

Crunch-squish...

Crunch...

Crunch-crack!

Dmitri Kermaniv grinned a wide, checkerboard grin as he pulled his prize free. He wiped it on his grungy coat and held it up to the soft, filtered light the clouds above let pass. Faint rays sparkled from the small diamond set in gold. Oh, he would eat tonight! He knew just where to dispose of this ring, and the handful of other trinkets in his pocket. 

Then, his grin faded, as he looked off toward the calm, slate-grey sea. It had been... some time, since the last one. How long, he couldn’t say. But still he never turned his back to the sea, always kept one eye on it. Not that it would make any difference, if it happened again. 

All up and down this new shoreline, twisted steel beams, already rusting in the salt air, reached up from the bedrock like the pleading fingers of the damned. The bedrock itself was scored and scarred, with deep, fresh gouges running in parallel lines further inland. And beyond that...

Dmitri’s fearful cast changed as he looked down, a scowl carving furrows in his face not unlike the wounds in the rock. Fools! Ingrates! Traitors! These SГДLЇИ SԞ Ї had betrayed the Glorious Imperium, defiled the once-eternal Union! And now... they had reaped as they sowed. One hand rose to the worn, faded Kommisar’s crest, still clinging to the shoulder of his tattered greatcoat by few stubborn threads. Yes, he had seen...

He had seen, from his squalid hovel on the hill overlooking the city, clutching his rotting coat against the midnight chill. Seen, the twinkling lights of Krostov laid through with the crimson glow of tail lights choking every street. Seen, as red trails wound away to the north, unmoving, even their precious Autoways clogged to a standstill. The bright, wandering streaks had reminded him of the infection that had claimed two of his toes, cast out and forsaken here in the wilderness. 

His face split into a grin again. But the cure cometh, and that right soon. 

He had seen... by the light of the crescent Mün, a great shadow arise in the south. It spread from horizon to horizon, glimmering darkness in a sliver of Münlight, rushing northward with cold inevitability: a wall of water half a kilometer high. 

He had seen, as it fell upon the infection, sweeping it away with the rest of the city. 

The dawn had followed late, the sun tinged red by the cruel irony of a thousand fires burning unchecked, pouring smoke into the air. Oh, he had seen! And he had grinned, as flashing lights had descended from the mountains to the north, and streams of people swarmed out of the rubble... for they could not see the harbor empty itself. Then the water returned, every bit as fierce if not quite so high. 

He had seen, as it did so again... and again. And again. Now this once-shining monument to the decadence and treachery of the New Ways had been wiped from the map, buildings torn away, freighters and warships cast here and there upon the rubble like the forgotten toys of a spoiled child. Why even here, in this very place where he now stood, there had once been endless canyons of skyscrapers... now there were only the scattered bodies that the tide brought every morning. 

Dmitri looked down in disgust at the one at his feet. They were rich— were rich, he jangled his pocket— but all their wealth could not save them, for even the very ocean rose with indignation at their betrayal. His eyes drifted up to the new shoreline. But for him, today the sea had been... most generous. Strange dress, foreign, even, but who was he to know what manner of debauchery such as these had been about?

Leaning heavily on his stick, Dmitri moved on across the scarred rock toward the next one, and even before he reached it, his eyes lit up. He knelt down, practically gibbering with glee. An arm poked out from beneath a mass of colorful rags draped with seaweed, and on its wrist, glinting in the filtered sunlight...

A Rolux! Yes, a Rolux! He could tell even before he touched it. And solid gold, judging by the gouges and dents left by the rocks. That meant nothing, but so much gold meant that he would eat tonight! And possibly even tomorrow! And there may even be more, he reached down and shoved the body over...

...And was immediately struck by the confounding and unpleasant urge to scream and vomit all at once. 

His face...

His eyes...

As if in emphasis, a deformed crab as white as bone scuttled from one... not quite empty eye socket, and the urge to vomit ultimately won. But Dmitri quickly wiped his mouth on his grungy, ragged coat sleeve. He had seen... worse, of course. Perhaps. And there was gold, and ultimately food to be had. 

Keeping his own eyes from that ruined face, he fiddled with the clasp of the watch band, but found it jammed closed from damage and tiny sea creatures that had begun to grow on it. Still, this would not stop him. He had a knife, of course, but it had grown dull from these long years of hard use. He would need a rock, too...

Ah yes, just there, now to—

A soft, slimy hand grabbed his wrist, and the air caught fast in Dmitri’s chest. He spun and watched, unbelieving, as the corpse sat up, and turned its faceless, eyeless gaze upon him. 

“‘Lor?’” it said, “‘uggle?”

At last, the urge to scream had its moment, and Dmitri screamed as if he never had before, or would again. He screamed until his throat burned like a dust-scoured desert, until his lungs plead for breath like an airless void. He might have gone on screaming, has some primitive, animalistic part of his mind not realized his hand still clutched a rock. He swung it will all the force his weakened arm could muster, and it connected with the abomination’s head in a wet, yielding crunch. 

Dmitri scuttled backwards like the deformed crab he had seen a moment ago, until something else wet and spongy blocked his path. He turned to find ragged hands reaching for him from another pile of seaweed and cloth. He recoiled, looked up, to run... to flee...

And... he saw.

All up and down this haunted shoreline, the dead arose...

...And began to walk...


 

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So I've got this tune rolling around my head this morning. It's got a sort of resigned apocalyptic feel to it from the last but one chapter of this story.

Four friends will ride.
They cannot stop the darkness.
But they will stand and be true.
And they will be magnificent.

 

 

 

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Well this is going definitely in the super happy fun cheery direction! Curious to see how it progresses further......

Also, updated the compilation. Document supposedly has around 158700 words, if thats something interesting.

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  • 1 month later...

Not a speck of light is showing, 
So the danger must be growing. 
Are the fires of Hell a–glowing?
Is the grisly reaper mowing?

Yes, the danger must be growing, 
For the rowers keep on rowing, 
And they're certainly not showing 
Any signs that they are slowing!

Chapter 40: Blood from Stone

“Troubling. Most troubling. Troubling indeed,” Roland stroked his long white beard, looking... well, troubled. 

“Could there be any other... possible explanation?” the Empress, for her part, did not look troubled at all, though one thumb rubbed across the blue münstone at her neck in a mirror of him. 

“Even if I were inclined to disbelieve them,” his eyes flicked to Edgas and Valentina, “there’s no doubting the scorch marks on that wall.”

Valentina seemed not to notice. She gazed at Edgas who gazed at his plate and untouched food, or perhaps something far, far beyond them.

"Hey..." she nudged him, "you all right?"

Edgas gave a nod and a half-formed mumble.

“Troubling, certainly,” the Empress continued, seeming not to notice the lack of notice, “that it could not only touch the dreamworld but reality itself. And you are certain Ilamnediúan is still lost?”

Roland nodded, “we would know, if someone had found that again. But the last confirmed sighting was on board that ship,” he turned to Valentina, “right about the time you, er, disappeared.”

“Excuse me,” Burdous butted in, “I-llama-what?

Ilamnediúan,” the Empress eyed him, “an ancient artifact. A... dark grail, of sorts.”

“Said to grant whatever poor, unfortunate soul who finds it the curse of eternal life. Among several others,” Roland added, “and last seen in the hands of a certain Jerdous Kerman. I lost track of it... right around the time you disappeared,” he finished with a nod toward Valentina. 

“He had it,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “I saw it.”

“You... what?” Roland looked at her with something like awe. 

“A medallion so big,” she spread her hands, “and blacker than any night, yes? He bared it at me. Somehow, he was using it to speak in my mind... through Igor.”

Roland only blinked at her for some time, before shaking his head, “is... that so?”

“I... don’t think he had it anymore, not when I got there,” Burdous stared down with an odd mix of fear and hunger at his empty plate. 

Roland raised an eye... bulge at him, “eh? And how it that?”

“I’ll never forget it,” a quick shake of his head, “I arrived at the Jool ship right after everything... happened. My brother was in a fury, I’d never seen him so mad before. Now, granted, as far as I knew at the time, he’d just blown himself and everything else inside the ship out into space to save it from an insane, malfunctioning AI... no idea how he survived... but...” he looked up, “even then, anger at the whole situation when he was lucky just to be alive struck me as odd, even for him.”

Burdous gave a long sigh, “now... losing a really important evil dark MacGuffin sending him into a fit of rage... that makes a certain amount of sense.”

“That would seem to confirm what I do know,” Roland ran a claw-like hand over his beard with a considering look, “you can be rather clever when you want to. How long would it take such a thing to fall from orbit?”

Burdous thought for a moment, “at that altitude? Decades. Centuries, even, for something small.”

A nod, “then if it was lost in space, it’s most certainly still up there. Only he could find it again, and he is no longer a concern.”

“That seems logical,” the Empress still ran a thumb over her münstone, “but does not bring us any closer to the events last night.”

About this time, Dibella appeared, setting down plates of steaming food. Except for Burdous’s, which was mostly dropped. 

“Hey!” he frowned up at her, then glared at his plate, “and what the heck is this?

“They smell fine,” she sat down across the table, “besides, you’re never one to be picky.”

“Yeah, but...” Burdous winced in frustration, “where on Kerbin do you get green eggs?!

“From a yellow chicken,” Roland did not look up from his own.

Burdous opened his mouth. 

“The rooster was blue.”

Burdous closed his mouth. 

“And don’t you even ask about the ham.”

Burdous opened his mouth. 

Burdous closed his mouth. 

Burdous smacked himself in the face. 

And then, being Burdous, proceeded to consume his meal, and possibly some silverware, half the plate and a glass tumbler, without ever appearing to chew.

Roland gawked at this for some time, before letting out is own tired sigh, “well, at least that’s cleared us some space.”

Burp.

A stack of papers and a mangled fork hit the table from different directions, “now... we have a heist to plan.”

***

“That’s the third diagnostic Ah’ve run, Cap’n,” the technician rapped a knuckle on the screen, sending out little ripples across the LCD that looked ironically like what he should have been seeing, “Ah’ve never seen a glitch like this. We should be picking up the Pillars clear as day b’ now, at the very least!”

The Captain made a low noise deep in his throat, running a hand over a thick red beard that stubbornly refused to assent to the grey higher on his head, “Navigator, confirm our course again, please.”

“Right down the pickle barrel, sar,” the navigator turned from his console, a slight tone of incredulousness in his voice, “we’re within one meter of the ideal lane, it... it’s the tightest run Ah’ve ever made! We’ll pass directly between the Pillars in exactly—“ he glanced at his screen, “twenty-eight minutes, sar.”

“And no glitches?” the Captain kept staring at nothing, stroking his beard. 

“No, sar. GPS, AstraLink, LORAN... all in agreeance. And Ah’ve quadruple-checked me own plots on the chart, too,” he shook his head, “we’re exactly where we’re s’posed to be.”

With a nod, the Captain rose, moving between the banks of consoles to the wide array of windows. Beyond them, three hundred meters of shipping containers stretched out into the mist. That, at least, seemed to be clearing. A few minutes ago the fog had been so thick he couldn’t even see a hundred meters of containers. 

“So the glitch is limited to the radar,” he said at length, to no one especially, “both units, and the backup...”

“That should be impossible, Captain!” the radar operator quipped, gave up on his buttons and just slapped the thing. 

“And yet,” the Captain turned to him with a wry half-grin, “here we are.”

He returned to his seat at the center of the bridge, feeling rather... troubled. Something scritch-scratched at the back of his mind, some half-formed thought from some half-remembered snippet in some magazine or other, an age ago. He gave his beard one more stroke, as if the answer might lay hidden within. Beyond the distant bow, the fog continued to clear. 

“Mister Kerman,” he finally said, and the Mate appeared at his side, “send lookouts forward. We’ll feel our way through the Pillars with sticks if we must, these supplies need to get to Kerbelsk with all haste.”

“Aye, aye, sar!” the Mate said, and disappeared through a hatchway. 

It was about this time, that the radio speaker overhead crackled on the emergency channel, “attention vessel squawking transponder code 1191297, this Commander Horatio Kerman of the HMS Tartare, of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. You are about to enter a restricted area. Reverse your course at once.”

For a moment, the bridge crew could only stare at each other, dumbfounded. Even the Captain seemed at a loss for words. 

“The Omorkians? That Royal Navy?” the navigator said, “why in the bloody green blazes would they...”

The Captain held up a hand. He stood slowly, took a moment to straighten his uniform tunic before crossing to the radio. Beyond the long row of windows, the fog was quickly retreating. 

He took the handset and keyed the mic, “Tartare, this is Captain Kannery Kerman of the Layland Venture. We are a merchant vessel on a diplomatic mission, sailing under the flag of Gednalna in international waters. You have no right to restrict us.”

“By royal decree, this area is now under a military blockade,” the radio hissed back, “reverse your course at once, Venture.”

“Blockade?!” the navigator shook his head, “the radgers have gone mad, they have!”

Now the kerb at the wheel turned, his eyes wide and nervous, “course heading, Captain?”

“Hold your course,” the Captain said quickly before keying the mic again, “the Strait of Kerfrica is protected by international agreement. By what authority does the Crown of Omork presume to restrict it?”

“Ship ahoy, Cap’n!” a lookout called out, “starboard bow, bearing zero-seven-five... zero-six-five... zero-five— bloody hells she’s fast!”

The Captain followed his calls, but there was no missing it as it emerged from the fog like a twisted nightmare. A ship, grey as the mist and all harsh angles and straight lines. A tall roostertail of water rose behind it as it skated across the surface. 

Ker, she must be doing forty, fifty knots, easy!” the navigator gasped. 

While the crew gawked, three bright flashes came from the pursuer’s bow. Then their heads swung together to the left, as the sea erupted into towers of spray only a few hundred meters off their port bow. An instant later, the bridge was rocked by a staccato tirade of sonic booms. 

The mate burst through the hatchway, “bloody hells, is someone shootin’ at us?!”

The Captain snapped fingers at him without looking, “get on the horn to dispatch, they need to know about this.” Confusion flashed in the mate’s eyes for only a moment before he dashed to a console. 

“Course heading, Captain?” the helmskerb’s knuckles showed white as he gripped the yoke. 

“Reduce speed to one-quarter and make ready to—“

“Captain!” the mate’s face had lost all its green, “Ah’ve got no carrier. Satellite, wideband, VLF, nothing. No comms beyond maybe 50 kilometers. Somethin’s interferin’ with the signal, like its being jammed.”

“If this is blockade, why would they—“ the Captain stopped, the answer clear as the parting fog ahead. 

The radio crackled once more, “Layland Venture, you are in violation of a military exclusion zone. You will now maintain your course and speed... and prepare to be boarded.”

Off to starboard, the sleek yet angular destroyer pulled alongside, a VTOL rising from its hangar. But the Captain did not see this. As the fog fully lifted, he was unable to turn his eyes from the dark grey steel mountain ahead, where there should be only open sea. 

***

Tensions flared higher today in the Strait of Kerfrica as the Royal Omorkian Navy seized and interned a third Gednalnan container ship in alleged violation of their unilateral naval blockade of the crucial waterway. In a prepared statement, Kermingham Palace once again stressed that the blockade would remain, quote, “pacific,” due to the presence of the 145,000-ton nuclear-powered dreadnought HMS Leviathan, a ship the Royal Navy claims to have no equal in the world today. The statement said the blockade would remain in place and any ships attempting to pass would be seized and searched until the, quote, “threat of Gednalnan weapons of mass destruction, such as the technology for micronized nuclear weapons like those most recently deployed in Ponpín during the ongoing F9H1 crisis, and other elicit technologies, had been neutralized.”

In a short counter statement, Edinkurgh retorted that there were no international restrictions on the exchange of such technology, however maritime law is quite clear in the matter of piracy of civilian merchant vessels, and that further interference may be considered, quote, “an act of war.”

Following this, the visibly shaken Ussari Foreign Minister delivered this taped response, “this is madness! The vessels passing the Kerfrican Strait are not carrying weapons of mass destruction or weapons of any sort. They are bearing kermanitarian supplies so generously provided by the King of Gednalna to assist Ussari and her sister states around the Tethys Sea in the wake of the worst natural disaster in history. For the Omorkians to take advantage of the destruction of nearly all of our seaports like this, in order to squabble over delayed food and fuel shipments caused by the very same disaster, is the height of international pettiness, and to imply that we have been seeking weapons technology after years of good relations with the East is nothing short of insulting! The Ussari people will not be bullied over such nonsense!”

We should note that despite such strong words, the Ussari military has yet to mount any direct response, other than an increased presence of Kupolev 95M maritime patrol aircraft in the area.

Plip.

Click.

Violence erupted once again at a border crossing in the Catless Mountains, leaving 27 dead and dozens more injured. Thousands of refugees fleeing the growing chaos in Kleptogart still brave unseasonably frigid temperatures in the narrow mountain pass in hopes of gaining asylum in the United Federal People's Kingdom of Omork. Rumors that it was the Omorkian border guards themselves who fired into the panicked crowd were quickly rebutted by the Interior Ministry, which pointed out that all of the stricken were immediately granted emergency entry visas and taken to Omorkian hospitals already overflowing with the sick and injured from the expanding crisis. The Ministry stressed that it was processing asylum applications as quickly as possible, and directed blame for the attack at roving bands of marauders who have taken to raiding refugee caravans all along the border between the two nations. It announced a further increase in Royal Army presence at known hot spots, and would begin moving air support assets and armor into the areas, but again refuted any claims that Omorkian troops had actually crossed the border. 

In related news, reports continue to flow in of a similar buildup of Nefcarckalandern forces in the Northern Lowlands...

Plip.

A saline drop fell to the polished wood floor. 

Click.

KA-BOOM-boom...

Explosions continue to rock downtown Kerbin City as militants vie for control of crucial areas. Fears of all-out civil war following the constitutional crisis in the wake of President Kerman’s resignation only weeks ago have turned out to be not deep enough, as the two opposing sides of the conflict rapidly splintered into multiple factions, each fighting with all the others as well as local governors and community militias, plunging the once-prosperous nation into complete anarchy seemingly in the blink of an eye. Much of the north and central part of the country has been left without any rule of law, save for a small area around the Kerbin Space Center currently under the protection of a Gednalnan security force dispatched under Article 19 of the Treaty of Kerbin City.

With no functioning government, fires set off by the chaos have been allowed to rage unchecked across millions of hectares, burning entire cities to the ground including the world-famous Vinewood, once the center of the entertainment industry. The relatively stable southern provinces have apparently not been spared devastation either, as our news desk continues to receive reports of multiple F6-class tornados striking across the plains of Cansas, devouring everything in their paths. Attempts to validate these reports have been—

Click.

Plip.

Another drop joined its fellows on the floor, the salt of tears and sweat tinged with streaks of shadow in the dim, flickering light of the wall-screen. 

Click.

Wildfires have razed over sixteen million hectares in drought-stricken Cocomor and Ligartabia to date, destroying the once-fertile grasslands and leaving vast swathes of of the region completely depopulated. Due to the simple, semi-nomadic lifestyle of most of the indigenous population, any firm analysis of the Kerman toll of the disaster is difficult to estimate, but the death toll is currently thought to be in the—

Click. 

Plip.

...I must be steel...

Click.

...Worst winter storm to hit Krünia in its history continues to blow, after a polar vortex which had raged in the arctic for weeks descended southward and stalled over the region. The picturesque city of Münchkin remains paralyzed and isolated, with all roads into the area unfit for travel and the entire North Sea choked with ice earlier in the season than ever recorded. Nighttime temperatures are plunging to more than 40 degrees below zero, and sustained winds over a hundred kilometers an hour are straining local utility services, causing widespread power outages. An official with the regional magistrate’s office has deemed casualty reports as ‘staggering,’”

Click.

Plip.

...I must be ice...

Click.

”... Live footage from the Najipakali capital of Kajarta, where firefighters have been using aircraft, tanker trucks, and even plastic buckets to try to stem the tide of a massive lava flow from nearby Mount McKerman threatening to engulf the entire city. The long-dormant volcano, called Krakentoa by locals, was apparently spurred back to life by the massive earthquake in Dachland. For days now, clouds of choking ash and poisonous gas have rained down on the island, muddy lahars have cut off crucial roadways, and molten rock continues to spew from the volcano’s flanks in volumes unseen in recorded history. Despite the efforts to save the city, geologists are urging a complete evacuation of the islands, warning of the possibility of a chain reaction super-eruption along the entire Najikalkali fault, which would be nothing less, than catastrophic—“

Click.

Plip.

...I must be stone...

Edgas Kerman stood in the darkened Hall of Grail, his back ramrod-straight, his feet just apart, his hands clenched behind him. One of them clung to a small, grey, sparkly rock, trembling with effort. His eyes were wide, glassy, also trembling; they, too, seemed to sparkle in the flickering light of the wall-screen. His flesh glistened with moisture, rivulets stained with darkness ran down his neck, borne of sweat and tears. He let them flow. He allowed himself to blink, but not to tear his eyes from the horrors on the screen before him. 

And yet, even in the sparkle of light, shadows seemed smeared across his face. 

I must be steel. I must be ice. I must be stone.

No.

I must be stronger than steel, colder than ice, harder than stone. 

I must be purged...

Click.

And so, he watched, surrounded by objects of unknowable power, and let the images on the wall draw the tears from his eyes. Another newscaster appeared, the scene... not right. Her hair was done up, yet one lock dangled free before her face. Her makeup was proper, yet couldn’t quite hide the dark circles beneath her eyes. And those eyes seemed kept from a thousand-meter stare by only sheer force of will. Her words came clipped, slow and weary. 

Our top story this evening... the first relief convoy has reached the city center of Garish, capital of Dachland, once called the City of Light. The damage from the unprecedented 10.2-magnitude earthquake is difficult to put into words, our embedded reporter saying only, that not one stone is left upon another. The convoy has made exceedingly slow progress, relying on bulldozers and excavators to clear a path through dozens of kilometers of rubble many meters high, extracting victims where possible, in order to reach the site of the Parliament House. 

Along with establishing a logistical route into the city to enable further aid, the primary objective of the relief task force is to locate any survivors of the Dachlandish government. The earthquake struck during a rare joint session of Parliament, as President Jacques Kérman was delivering an emergency address related to the ongoing F9H1 epidemic. The Federal Government has been able to continue functioning, however, under the Emergency Powers and Succession act, as designated survivor Francois Kérman was not in the country at the time of the disaster.

The reporter’s eyes dropped to the papers before her for a moment, and somehow seemed yet more haggard when they rose again. 

The earthquake triggered the collapse of the entire western flank of the mighty Rim Range mountains, sending hundreds of cubic kilometers of rock plunging into the sea below. This, in turn, created a tsunami over two thousand meters high. The wave first struck the Gednalnan possession of Rim Island, and effectively wiped it... entirely... from the face of the map. The wave went on to cause utter devastation all along the coast of the Great Tethys Sea. Every major port city has been destroyed, and crucial farmland even hundreds of kilometers from the coast has been laid to ruin. In the confusion that followed, rescue forces from the dozen remaining nations on the Tethys swept into the rubble to aid survivors, only to be washed away in the following hours and days, as the sea rose again and again, sloshing back and forth like water in a bathtub until the massive energy from the mountain collapse had been dissipated. 

Perhaps even more concerning, the waves may have washed completely over the low-lying land of the Autmalagan Isthmus, completely demolishing the tenuous hold of the nascent Southern Coalition against hordes of F9H1 infected streaming from the former Ponpín. The nations of the Coalition were struck particularly hard by the tsunami, left vulnerable due to the massive amounts of kerbs and materiel sent to Autmalaga. Official communication with government contacts in the region has been... sporadic, at best, and fears of a complete loss of containment are mounting as reports continue to come in of infected washing up all along the shore of the Tethys Sea. We must stress that, due to the nature of the situation, such reports remain unverified.

The Layland-Wutani Corporation has issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to combating the outbreak despite the tense global situation, and maintains that it has made contact with company assets in western Andacania near the Ceriman border, but the time needed to redeploy those assets eastward remains uncertain.

Click.

Plip.

I am... not strong enough...

Click.

...death toll in this city alone could easily reach into the tens of thousands...

Click. 

...entire fishing industry wiped out...

Click. 

...hundreds of thousands...

Click. 

...fears of massive crop failures...

Click. 

...millions...

Click. 

...breakdown of basic services...

Click. 

...tens of millions...

Click. 

...implosion of government...

Click. 

...hundreds of millions...

Click. 

...widespread famine and disease...

Click. 

...lead to a worldwide loss of life... numbering in the billions...

Click. 

...mass societal breakdown...

Click. 

...over two-thirds of the world’s population...

Click. 

...global economic collapse...

Click. 

...extinction-level event...

Click. 

...even now what some are calling the Apocalypse, the mythical End of Days—

Click.

The screen dissolved into a stark blue glow. 

“Hardly appropriate viewing material,” the Empress set the remote down on a shelf, her face as blank as the screen, “you should be resting, it will be a long night.”

“I must be stronger,” Edgas‘s eyes dropped to the floor. 

She frowned at him, her own eyes flicking between him and the wall before widening just slightly, “you will do no good to torture yourself, and besides—“ she peered close, “wait, are... are you bleeding?

Plip.

“I’m fine.”

Her frown deepened, as the shadows cast in the eerie, off-color glow danced across his face, “you are not callous. Is in you nature to be... sensitive. It part of who you are.”

“You seem to know me very well,” his eyes still had not left the floor. 

“We have been watching you a very long time.”

“Then you know what I’ve been through... what I've... seen...”

“Indeed,” the Empress stepped closer to him, “and the fact that you are still standing here with a functional mind... mostly... speaks to your strength.”

Edgas’s eyes rose back to the screen. He made a gesture, and the horrid images returned, “is this really all that’s left for us? To have come so far, only to be left to die for the transgressions of some...thing we can’t even understand?”

“Such is the way of the Pattern. Our world must die, so the Great Wheel may turn on, and others might live.”

“Until they die,” he shook his head, “then something comes again and they die, over and over, dying for eternity. But we get oblivion.”

Suddenly he turned to her, and the agony and pleading on his face cut into her heart like a knife, “please, you’ve got to help me, please... there must be something I can do! Something impossible, some million-to-one chance so crazy is just might work... right?

The Empress stared at him for a long time, her stoic exterior slowly crumbling like a grand edifice before the ravage of time, but in the end could answer only simply.

“No.”

Edgas’s face fell once more. 

“I can’t accept that,” he said, his voice close to cracking, “I’ve got to find some way to stop it, stop it all.”

“Edgas...” she half-reached a trembling hand out to him, “you cannot stop the Wheel of Time.”

One more his face rose, and something in it made her step back, a stifled gasp in her throat. 

“I’m not going to stop the Wheel. I’m going to break the Wheel. Excuse me,” Edgas turned from her, and left the room. 

The Empress watched him go, the look still frozen on her face. The shadows in the room shifted, and Roland seemed to materialize beside her.

"The darkness in him stirs," he said, "our time grows short."

"He is the One," the Empress still watched the door, "I am sure of it."

"Are you now?" Roland raised an eye at her, "for if you are not, if there is any doubt in your mind... you know what you must do."

Unbidden, her eyes fell to a shelf, to the blade that never grew dull. She quickly tore them away.

"It will not come to that."
 

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We interrupt this broadcast for a paid announcement from The Layland-Wutani Corporation...

[The screen flickers for a moment, and we see an unassuming kerb we have seen before. His hair is combed, but hastily so. His shirt is clean and pressed, but his tie is loose and collar rumpled. His hands, folded before him, been washed, but not quite enough to get the last stubborn grease smears off. Behind him, people in dark uniforms and bright safety vests bustle back and forth...]

Chapter 41: Shadow and Flicker

 

My friends, he says, my brothers, and my sisters... these are the times that try our souls. The news coming from the Strait of Kerfrica, and Kleptogart, and elsewhere in the world has left me greatly troubled. My friends, my brothers and sisters, if we turn upon one another in this, our time of tribulation, then we shall indeed perish from this world, and thus rightly. And so I call upon all the leaders of this world, upon every principality and power: let us not take the step which cannot be untaken. Let us, instead, step back from this dread precipice upon which we find ourselves cast.

A house divided against itself surely cannot stand, and not a one of us is absolved from the obligation to our fellow kerman beings below that roof. To that end, I now say to all the leaders of this world: if you are burdened by the teeming masses upon your lands, if you are torn between your obligation to country and kermanity, if you cannot see a way forward without sacrificing those upon the distant shore, then in the name of peace for all kermankind, I now offer the following pledge to those very homeless and tempest-tossed souls. Come to me, you who are burdened, and I shall give you rest. Indeed, I say to the leaders of this world, if you will not, or cannot see to them, then give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

This morning I directed the heads of every division and subsidiary of the Layland-Wutani Corporation to immediately retool all possible infrastructure to the production of rapidly-deployable prefabricated housing, KHO-list essential medicines, and emergency food rations. All corporate campuses still under our direct control will be converted into relief centers for refugees, displaced persons, and anyone else wishing to add their labor to a solution for this crisis which knows no border. There will be work for anyone who wants it, a warm bed for anyone who needs it, and a hot meal for anyone at all. My friends, my brothers and sisters I cannot make the journey for you, but if you come unto my door and knock, it shall be opened. 

It is my most sincere hope that by, in some small measure, relieving the leaders of the world of this perceived burden, that they may each move forward with a mind toward self-reflection; that we all as citizens of the world may move forward with minds toward understanding and greater unity; and that we may all, each, every one of us, put aside self-serving desires, and instead move forward together, with minds not merely toward peace in our time, but for peace in all time. For it is only together, undivided, that we may truly build a better world. Thank you, my friends, and good night.

[Fade to black...]

***

A frigid wind howls through canyons of brick and stone, past blackened, groaning skeletal hulks, and past doorways and windows that now stand empty, looking down like ghostly specters keeping vigil over a world that is moving on. A moment ago, an Age ago, fire like the very bowels of all the Nine Hells raged down streets where once children played and shopkeepers hawked their goods, and the people fleeing before this tempest prayed for rain. And indeed, the rain did come, as if all the denied showers of years of drought were payed back at once. 

It came in raging, screaming torrents down city streets and over manicured gardens. With no one left to turn the valves or open the sluice gates, the water pulled down fire-ravaged hills and distributed them as mud across those very streets and gardens, as if trying to erase that they had ever existed. In time, if there were anyone left to see, there would be nothing to see here at all. 

Yet today, the solemn silence is broken by the sound of rapid, squelching foot-falls. A kerbelle rounds a corner, sliding in the thick mud, her own breath loud in her ears. She darts between windows and half-buried doorways, skitters, her head moving frantically as if seeking something. She looks back, gasps, and takes off down the entombed street. More sodden footsteps echo in the stillness. The kerbelle spares one last glance, finally loses her footing and goes sprawling face-first into the muck. 

Coughing, groaning, she forces herself back up, pausing only a moment before turning down an alleyway. Right away, she realizes her mistake, but she cannot go back now. At the far end there is a door, half-hidden in a pile of garbage. She grabs the knob and twists, knowing it will not turn. 

And yet it does. 

She flings the door open... but only a few centimeters.  Mud or debris or something else blocks the way. She tries but cannot squeeze through, slams her shoulder against it again and again, reaches a desperate, flailing arm into the dim safety beyond. 

“That’s about far enough.”

Shoulders heaving, she sinks into the pile of trash. 

“You’re a spunky one, alright,” says a figure as he squelches into the alley, panting, tapping a steel pipe against one palm, “you really think you can outrun me?”

Indifferent, dull clouds scud by overhead. Yet still his shadow draws over her.

“Just gimme the backpack and I won’t hurt you,” he grins, “...much.”

Defeated, the kerbelle slips one strap off her shoulder... then spins around, driving her other hand up and out.

“AAAAAAAAAAAARGH!” he stumbles backwards, the pipe and his hands dropping. 

She does not miss her chance. 

In an instant, the kerbelle is charging toward the open street beyond... only to have her way blocked by another figure. He ambles forward as if out for an afternoon stroll, whistling a jaunty tune. One hand rests a spiked wooden club on his shoulder, the other sits on the butt of a pistol at his hip. Two more join him from either side. 

“Just brain her, already, Kergan!” the first one comes limping forward, one hand pressed to his thigh, “little wench up and stabbed me! Ugh, I’m bleeding like a stuck pig, here...”

“Now is that any way to treat our guest, Camlie?” Kergan says, smiling a broad, dashing smile far more chilling than the icy wind.

“Get back!” the Kerbelle shrieks, brandishing a blood-stained hunk of jagged metal, “I’ll cut you!”

Kergan’s shoulders rock as he chuckles, “y’know, I really hate explaining this twice, don’t I, boys?”

“You sure do, Kergan,” says the one to his right, hefting a crowbar.

“Hate it a whole lot,” says the other, with his pitchfork. 

“Hey... hey I’m really bleeding here,” says Camlie.

A thoughtful cast comes over Kergan, “but hey, I’m a patient guy. I get it. Things are a little...” he turns back and forth, taking in the ruined buildings, “confusing right now. Tensions are running high, tempers are running short... maybe not eating for a week is making our blood sugar crash, so we’re not thinking quite right... so, just for you, I’ll make this one exception and explain this again...”

The smile falls away from his face, “give us all your stuff.”

And returns, cold as ever and twice as hungry, “...and we’ll let you go.”

“You stay back!” the hunk of rusted metal in the kerbelle’s hand begins to tremble. 

“Kergan... hey Kergan... I think I’m really hurt, here,” says Camlie, “I’m getting light headed...”

“Back!” the bit of metal whips back and forth between the three. 

Kergan lets out a tired sigh, “now, darlin’, we can do this the easy way or the hard way...”

“Get back!!”

“Ok,” he shrugs, raising the club over his head, “the easy way—“

Then Kergan gasps, his eyes growing wide as his smile evaporates. He seems to hang there a moment, frozen in time, before falling face-down in the mud with a loud splurch.

His comrades, to their detriment, look down at him instead of behind.

Cold steel slashes through the air, bites through cloth, and they, too, join him face first in the muck. The kerb remains, a smeared machete in one hand, raising a rifle toward Camlie with the other. 

“Now is the part where you run away,” he says plainly. 

Camlie just looks at him dully, before toppling forward and taking his own place in the mud. 

Slinging the rifle over his shoulder, the kerb bent down and wiped his machete on Kergan’s jacket, then received the latter of his pistol. 

“Hmph,” he grunted, throwing it away with a spluch, “movie prop.” He looked up, “you okay? They hurt you?”

“You get back! I’ll cut you!” the kerbelle’s shriek was close to breaking. 

“Ooooookaaay,” he stood, slowly returning the machete to its sheath before holding his empty hands up, “not gonna hurt you... kinda just saved your life, here...”

“Get back!” a drop of blood fell from her hand. Another soon followed. 

“Look, you were right not to trust these punks,” he gave one of them a kick, “I’ve been tailing them on and off for a few days. They never let anyone go.”

“Back! I mean it!” the trembling in her hand rose to shaking. 

The kerb watched her with patient eyes for a time, “that hunk of metal is really doing a number on your bare hand. Might want to snag a glove next time. You’re probably working on a nice tetanus infection.”

“Back!”

“You know tetanus, right?” he took a cautious step forward, his open palms raised high, “you’ll make it a few days, maybe a week. Then your jaw will lock up like this,” he said through clenched teeth, “fever and profuse sweating will follow, that alone is enough to kill you in this weather. Then the muscle cramps come, your limbs will seize up so hard you might break a bone or two. But there’s no delirium, so you’ll still be perfectly conscious when garbage like this—“ another kick— “find you helpless.”

“I mean it!” she shrunk back, now swaying a bit. 

He shrugged, “or maybe it’ll just be good ol’ fashioned staph. You’ll know when the red streaks start to work their way from your hand up your arm, towards your heart. You may or may not be with it when the gangrene follows, the smell is something else....”

Another cautious step, “and then there’s the maggots. Even with cold like this, somehow, maggots always find a way.”

The hunk of metal dipped, “wait, maggots?”

He nodded soberly, “maggots.”

The kerbelle’s face looked on the edge of panic for a moment, but the ferocity returned twice as strong and she took a quick, shaky swipe at him, “I’m not kidding around! Do I look like I’m flarping kidding around?!”

“You look like you’re exhausted and about to pass out,” the kerb said, unfazed, “now, I’ll help you but I am not gonna carry you, got it?” Slowly, very slowly, he swung his own pack around, and produced a smaller one from within, emblazoned with a white cross, “I’ve got medical supplies... antibiotics... clean water and food back at my camp.” Another cautious step, “so... why don’t you put the rusty stabby thing down and let me take a look, ‘kay?”

The rusty stabby thing shot back up just before his face, one hand now clasping the other, making wobbly, drunken arcs in the air like tracing some sort of abstract art, “you get back!

“Okay,” he threw his hands up in defeat, “I tried. But I’ll just leave you to your maggots.” He turned away, took a step, half-turned back, “oh, well, it might help if you just lop your own hand off. Tourniquet right about here,” he gestured, “clean it up real good first, have plenty of strong liquor and a nice, hot fire to cauterize. Make sure the axe is really sharp and whatever you do, don’t miss...” a shake of his head, “...you don’t wanna have to take a second swing.”

The kerbelle’s resolve seemed to crumble like the buildings around her. One hand fell, and then her shoulders followed. She stared down at the makeshift weapon as it unsure what it was. 

“Take it from me, lady, infection is a really lousy way to die,” the kerb approached again, pulling up one pant leg to reveal a bandage stained with... unpleasant colors, “trust me, I know...”

With that, the hunk fell from her fingers, drawing a hiss and a claret of blood as it did. 

The kerb stripped his gloves off, held up his clean, pale hands, “may I?”

She gave a hesitant nod, not meeting his eyes, rocking as she lifted her hand again. The kerb took it, as gently as he could, looking over the gashes on her fingers and palm as she is winced. 

“You’ve got spirit, alright,” he peered a bit closer, then looked up, “this one’s down the bone.”

He reached into the smaller back and produced a tiny can. As he sprayed it back and forth across the wounds, she tensed, expecting the astringent sting of alcohol, but finding only blissful numbness.

“That’ll stop the bleeding and help with the pain,” he said, “these will need stitches and you will have scars, I’m a pretty lousy seamstress.”

She finally looked up, trying to blink him into focus, “are you a doctor?”

“Medic,” he shrugged, “sort of. I’ve had some training.”

“Oh,” she nodded, the numbness in her hand seeming to drift up her arm until it was carrying her away to weightless, floating sl—

“GAAAH!” she stumbled backwards, both hands to her face, suddenly very much awake, “what the hells, that’s not smelling salts!”

The kerb tucked the vial away, “yeah, but it has the same effect, right? I told you, I am not gonna carry you.”

“Guh, I think I’m gonna be sick,” she wasn’t, but she wiped a grimy sleeve across her mouth anyway, which only seemed to make her mud-caked face even dirtier. 

“Here,” the kerb gave an embarrassed little sigh, and handed her a clean cloth.  

The kerbelle wiped her mouth, stared at the cloth a moment, then flipped it over and began wiping her face, too, sending little globs of mud falling to the ground. Once there was finally more filth on the rag than her face, she tucked it into a pocket and tried with only fleeting success to pull some of her matted hair back into line. 

“Hey...” the kerb bent down, peering at her, “heeeeeeey...” he jumped up and clapped his hands, “it really is you! You’re Lolli Kerman, right? The singer?”

She glanced at him, sighed, “I was. I guess.”

“I’ve got, like, all your albums,” he chuckled, “I know you don’t remember, but we actually met once, at Tower of Power records. You signed my CD of ‘Derrty.’”

She looked at him. 

He looked at her. 

He suddenly found the back of his head rather itchy, “er, sorry...”

She handed the rather, well, derrty cloth back to him, “you got a name?”

“Calford,” he said, “Calford Kerman. But everyone just calls me Cal,” he gestured to her hand, “I should probably bandage that up.” She let him, hissing and wincing as he wrapped strips of gauze over the wounds. 

After one particularly loud yelp Cal scolded, “hey, no fainting now! Almost done and I am seriously not carrying you.”

Lolli scowled at him, then noted his tattered green shirt, “are you a soldier?”

“I was,” he said plainly, still wrapping. 

“But... I thought all the soldiers were dead,” she jerked and swayed as pain and exhaustion competed for her mind’s attention, “you must not have been deployed to that city where... you know...”

“Oh, I was there, alright,” he huffed, “my unit was one of the last in, when they were still trying to evacuate people. A bunch of infected fell on us... literally... and tried to drag me away and—“

Lolli screamed, suddenly finding herself once more very much alert and jerking her hand back so quickly she fell down in the mud with a schplorch, “gaaaaaah! You’re one of those-those-those things!” One hand pawed frantically at her face. 

He stared down at her. 

Slowly, some sense retuned, “you’re... not one of those things...”

“They’re not things, they’re people,” he said softly, “sick people.”

“But...” Lolli stopped feeling for non-existent sores, “how are you not one of those... people? I thought everyone who even looked at them got all...”

“Because,” he said with a tired look, “I’m immune.”

Cal offered a hand, “now, can we get going, please? I’d like to get inside before sunset, feels like it’s going to freeze overnight.”

“Yeah,” she blinked at it with heavy eyes, “that sounds good.”

And promptly fainted. 

Splat.

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On 10/26/2019 at 12:12 PM, KSK said:

Very, very interesting...

And I see what you did there with Tower of Power records. :) 

All Things Serve the Beam. :ph34r:

2 hours ago, Kerballing (Got Dunked On) said:

*splat*

 

nice. I can visualize the sound effects. now to add some *quack*s and some *fzzzt*s

Glorp.  -_-

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2 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Glorp.  -_-

wha-guggle. :P

Also interesting to see Calford didn't die, after very much appearing to do so. Personally, I'd have left him dead (seems colder/darker i guess?), but it is your story so I guess there's some reason for him to be not dead. Interested to see where this goes afterwards...

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10 hours ago, qzgy said:

wha-guggle. :P

Also interesting to see Calford didn't die, after very much appearing to do so. Personally, I'd have left him dead (seems colder/darker i guess?), but it is your story so I guess there's some reason for him to be not dead. Interested to see where this goes afterwards...

As I’m fond of saying, it’s the end of the world, never know who might be coming back from the dead. :wink: Bigger question is, how is Cal immune? What could an otherwise unremarkable reserve soldier possibly have been exposed to to develop immunity to something that no one else is?

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6 minutes ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

As I’m fond of saying, it’s the end of the world, never know who might be coming back from the dead. :wink: Bigger question is, how is Cal immune? What could an otherwise unremarkable reserve soldier possibly have been exposed to to develop immunity to something that no one else is?

My immediate thought would be Mystery Goo but I'd need to re-read the relevant chapter to scavenge for better clues.

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1 hour ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

As I’m fond of saying, it’s the end of the world, never know who might be coming back from the dead. :wink: Bigger question is, how is Cal immune? What could an otherwise unremarkable reserve soldier possibly have been exposed to to develop immunity to something that no one else is?

All very good questions. Honestly first thought is genetics or super secret mystery experiment.... never know for sure.

also.. .chadvey? was that the Name? scottish guy.

1 hour ago, KSK said:

My immediate thought would be Mystery Goo but I'd need to re-read the relevant chapter to scavenge for better clues.

Having re-read said relevant chapter (11), I don't see anything about mystery goo.Only Cal's mind slowly going until the end of the chapter (if thats even at all relevant).

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  • 4 weeks later...
On 10/28/2019 at 1:07 PM, qzgy said:

Having re-read said relevant chapter (11), I don't see anything about mystery goo.Only Cal's mind slowly going until the end of the chapter (if thats even at all relevant).

And that particular revelation will have to wait for the next next chapter, as I’m still trundling along with this one... I hate these long gaps, but it’s shaping to be another monster. 
 

in the meantime, devoid of any context what so ever, here’s this:

 

On a dark deserted highway, cold wind in my hair,
Warm smell of leaked coolant, rising up through the air,
Can’t see ahead in the distance, just got this one headlight,
My nut bag’s empty but this possum’s slim,
And we might break down tonight..

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  • 1 month later...
7 hours ago, CatastrophicFailure said:

Dangit... month later and still plugging... it’s gonna be yuge... approaching that mythical 10 kiloword boundary...

My God - it’s over nine thousand!

And on a serious note, very glad to hear that things are still trucking along. Looking forward to reading the toe-breaker when it arrives!

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10 hours ago, KSK said:

My God - it’s over nine thousand!

And on a serious note, very glad to hear that things are still trucking along. Looking forward to reading the toe-breaker when it arrives!

You’ll probably get the underdone, still-quite-runny, “my Kerm in Grove what the hells were you thinking?!” version first. :P

But it might actually be Soon.™️

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  • 2 weeks later...

His dwelling is darkness, and his craft is Shadow,
From Eternal Twilight he sets the fate of kings and emperors.
With his hands he lifts the Dread Icon, the god-breaker,
And crushes our hopes to dust. 

Chapter 42: The Heist

[...For it is only together, undivided, that we may truly build a better world. Thank you, my friends, and good night...]

“Wow,” Dibella stared up at the wall, here eyes damp and dreamy, “such a gifted speaker.”

Burdous grunted, “pfft. Two-faced blowhard.”

Edgas gazed at the screen with a thoughtful look and a little smile. 

And Valentina... just muttered something under her breath that was fowl even for her. 

“Wait,” Burdous leaned in, “do what with a rooster? And I totally missed the thing about the sardines...”

She shook her head and waved him away. 

“Bah, enough of that nonsense,” Roland waved the screen away. 

“Nonsense, indeed!” Dibella raised both hands and rubbed at her temples, “I just do not understand, Ussari and Omork, squaring off like unruly kerblets in a playground! Grigori and I never agreed on anything, but he is the last person in the world to be seeking nuclear weapons technology. He always wanted to reduce the arsenal, eliminate it, even! ‘What could we ever want with a even dozen nuclear bombs?’ he would say, ‘that’s a dozen years of clean energy right when we need it so dearly!’ And the Omorkians, I do not know this new Prime Minister of theirs, but I know the Minister of Defense very well, I was at her sons’ graduation! She would never overreact like this to such a minor diplomatic spat...”

“People are getting scared,” Roland said, “and not without reason.”

“Maybe they are these... what did you call them?” Dibella eyed Valentina, “Shadowstained?”

“No,” Valentina shook her head, “the Shadowstained are all gone. It left when Edmund was... died. He was the... hive-mind..?” She shrugged. 

Dibella frowned, “well you don’t sound very sure, how do you even know?”

“One of them told me after I was in his... mind, or something,” Valentina frowned back, “I made it go away.”

“You... wot..?

She turned to find Roland staring at her in awe. 

“I do not know,” she shrugged again, “he tried to, whatever it is, infect me... looked deep in my eyes... but, I went... backwards... into his. It was like old, crumbling house. The Kraken was there. I sent it away.”

Roland continued to gawk at her, and not even the Empress could hide the shock from her ageless face. 

At length, she turned to him, “is such a thing even possible? For her?

“Well,” Roland took to stroking his beard again, “there’s nothing that says one must be Chelyaad, and if what that fool says is true,” he nodded to a scowling Burdous, “then she may indeed have the Spark. Although... everything ever written about the subject could fit on a single page, maybe two.”

“And you... drove the Shadow of the Kraken out?” he leaned toward Valentina, “just like that?”

She nodded. 

“How??”

“I...” another shrug, “just told it to go.”

“Just... like that..?”

Her eyes dipped, “well, there may have been some grabbing of the throat and threat of grave out-of-bodily harm involved, it was all rather spur of the moment, very confusing being in someone else’s mind...”

Roland sat back in his chair and grinned widely at her, “remarkable.

“You were not in his mind,” then the Empress intoned, the stoic self returning, “you were in his soul.”

Now it was Valentina’s turn to gawk, “I... what?”

“What you describe has not been done in over a thousand years, not since before the Fall of Arstotzka, and then only by the most powerful and disciplined of Chelyaad after a lifetime of study. It is called... well, the word roughly translates to Soul Diving. To say that it was otherwise forbidden is perhaps a stretch, as so few were ever born with the Talent, let alone learned to use it.”

“Why would it be forbidden?” Valentina frowned. 

“Because it is extremely dangerous,” the Empress fixed her with an icy gaze, “for both parties. If you are distracted or unsure, if you lose yourself for even a moment, you can become trapped in a creation of the other’s psyche... or whatever else is controlling it. You would spend your existence as no more than a figment of someone’s imagination, a tiny, fleeting voice in their mind, while to you it would seem as real as this table here, all while your body atrophies and decays but never quite dies Meanwhile, if you touch the wrong thread of another’s essence, you could leave them brain-damaged, emotionally scarred, or sever their own link to reality such they are left a raving lunatic... and all the while, you are still trapped in there with them.”

She leaned back, “as I have said before, there are worse fates than death.”

Oh.” Valentina said softy, reaching for her glass. Her mouth suddenly felt as dry as desert sand. 

“Well, all the while,” Roland waved a claw-like hand, “it is absolutely remarkable that she was able to drive the Shadow out without any of those, er, complications—“ he leaned to her, “he... was alright after, yes? No... brain damage?”

She blinked at him, an old memory drifting across her mind.

...but if you can't trust a creepy random stranger in a trenchcoat you met in the bathroom of a seedy pub, then who can ya trust, right?

“Er... at least no more than before.”

“There now, you see—“ Roland spun back to her, “wait, what?”

“Nevermind.”

He raised a quizzical eye... bulge at her, but in the end just shook his head, “at any rate, time waits for no kerb, and we’ve much to do. Is everybody clear on their roles for the night?”

“Yes,” Valentina said, brushing an errant bit of mangled silverware from a stained blueprint spread on the table, “due to current... circumstances, the museum has been closed to the public for days, and the staff evacuated. This leaves only a skeleton crew of guards. Two here,” she pointed at the print, “in the security room monitoring cameras. Four more on patrol outside, maybe another half-dozen inside. But first, we make our way by kar to this point, just outside the gate...”

“That’s the telco utility box,” Burdous continued in a bored tone, digging at something unpleasant under his fingernail, “they’ve powered off the satellite links and disconnected the ISP fiber line, essentially air-gapping the place, so it can’t be accessed from outside. Smart. So, I’ll have to hack in from there and disable the hyper-advanced nigh-impenetrable gigabit-encrypted security system,” he yawned, “piece of cake.”

Roland frowned at him, “that sort of arrogance is going to get you into trouble one day.”

“Eh,” Burdous kept digging at his nail. 

Moving on,” Edgas squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at the wide, flat spot between them as he spoke, “then we go around the exterior perimeter and disable the four patrolling guards—“ he spared an eye for Roland, “without harming them, before moving inside and picking them off one by one.” He drove the heels of his hands into his eyes for another moment, rubbed them, blinked, and finally pointed to the print, “the scepter is being kept here, in the Grand Hall. We crack the display case, commit a little grand larceny of government property,” he winced, “then head back to the kar and split.” 

After reactivating the security system with a timer to trip the alarm once we’re clear,” Burdous added. 

Dibella sighed, “and I shall remain here to... tend to Her Majesty.”

At that, Roland and the Empress shared a brief glance. Not a word was said, but the room somehow seemed to grow several degrees colder. 

“Yes, well,” he began, rising, “we shall need to be vigilant. Once we’ve left the manor grounds and the safety of the Ward I’ve set, we’ll be vulnerable. Whoever chased you here is likely to figure out what happened sooner or later and come looking, so we must be swift. A couple of hours’ drive to the museum, in and out in twenty minutes, then back here as quick as we can muster. Once the Staff is secure, we’ll continue trying to track down the Crown and the Stone.”

“Indeed,” the Empress’s tone was as blank as her face, “I shall continue my research here in the library,” her eyes flicked to Valentina, “and consider these new developments as well.”

Roland turned to her, bowing stiffly, “by your leave, Majesty.” She nodded, and he turned away, “now then, spit-spot! Much to do. We’ll take the Rolls.”

With a gasp, Burdous’s entire face lit up in unfathomable joy, his hands pressed together and voice close to breaking, “the Rolls!

***

The Rolls.”

“Yes. What were you expecting, the Rolls Kroyce?” Roland grumbled past, “I wouldn’t let you near Her Majesty’s kar even if you’d had a bath this year.”

“I had a bath last night!” Burdous snapped.

“Doesn’t smell like it,” Roland sniffed, “and I don’t even have a nose. Besides, we’re trying to keep a low profile, here.”

Burdous gaped at the listing heap before him, where rust and faded yellow paint both seemed to be vying to hold it together, “I don’t think this is going to do that! I feel like I need a tetanus shot just from looking at it.”

“Quite so.” Poke.

“Ow!”

“And you.” Poke.

“Ack!”

“You too.” Poke.

“Ouch!”

“Now then,” he tucked the syringe away, “I trust you’ve all had a recent rabies booster as we’re fresh out. If not, you may want to avoid the possums in the glove box.”

Three pairs of eyes blinked at each other. 

“I don’t think that’s... entirely safe...” Edgas offered. 

“Pish-posh, you try evicting them if you’d like, that’s been their ancestral home for generations,” Roland said, “and you don’t even want to know what’s in the boot.”

Right on cue, what was in the trunk thumped against the bootlid twice, leaving large dents. It gurgled disagreeably. 

Burdous only stared at this a moment before proclaiming, “shotgun!” and leaping into the passenger’s seat through the absent window. 

Roland grasped the driver’s side handle and pulled, the door opening with an infernal screeching like a million condemned souls, before settling behind the wheel as the kar settled lower to the left. Edgas and Valentina looked at each other, but could only sigh. He grabbed his door handle and pulled... just to have it pop off in his hand. The flood of spiders, earwigs, crickets, and assorted other crawly things that emerged en-masse from it led to a most undignified bout of high-pitched screaming and dancing around, but they were understandably quite traumatized by the whole thing. 

Edgas stood there for a long time staring at the empty, pitted, rusted-to-paper thin bit of metal, as unsure of what to do. Finally, Valentina pushed the door open from the inside with another hellish squeal, and he took his place on something that was more a bundle of rusty springs with a few rotting bits of foam still doggedly clinging to them than an actual seat. The thing in the trunk hissed laughter. 

Or possibly just hissed. 

“Quiet, you,” she slammed a hand on the rear deck, which cracked, but the thing quieted with a dejected whine. 

Up front, Roland pulled the choke knob, drawing a vague gagging noise from somewhere under the hood. Then he primed the fuel pump, switched on the battery (POW! Bzzzt...), adjusted the mixture, set the spark timing, locked the throttle, checked the blinker fluid, spun the muffler bearing, half-cocked the hammer, flubbed the powder, tamped it down, primed the pan, set the blasting cap, fully cocked the hammer, sent up a small burnt offering to whatever unfortunate minor deity was tasked with the Sisyphean labor of ensuring this particular rat-infested bucket of bolts actually turned over (much to the chagrin of said rats, and finally, pulled the trigger. 

Ker-BLAM!

What followed was a cacophony of truly epic proportions as billowing clouds of oily black smoke and a despondent but unsurprised family of field mice were ejected from the tailpipe. It was indeed a veritable maelstrom of dissonance sure to strike fear deep into the heart of anyone who knew anything at all about combustion engines, metallurgy, basic chemistry, sick beats, or possibly the summoning of unspeakable horrors from the deepest bowels of the Ninth Hell itself. While some motors might spark to life with a throaty roar, or a satisfying rumble, or perhaps a highly-tuned and legally trademarked “potato-potato-potato” sound, the noise expectorating from this particular rusty yellow hood could almost be heard as—

Just-kill-me-now-just-kill-me-now-just-kill-me-now...

Somewhere under that vast expanse of flaking yellow paint and rusty hood, sixteen reluctant cylinders circled around in a sequence that could possibly be described as, ‘two churning, two burning, two choking, two smoking, two on fire and two more unaccounted for.*’ Exactly which was doing what at any given moment was likely to change often and at random.
*Any similarity to certain real or fictional aircraft has been vehemently denied by the manufacturer. 

“There, now,” Roland said finally, with an air of satisfaction, “if everyone is ready—“

“Why am I so itchy all of a sudden?” Edgas blurted out, shifting around in his seat and scratching frantically. 

“Yes, is...” Valentina squirmed too, “is not very stealthy.”

“Oh, terribly sorry! I should have passed these out before we got in,” Roland handed them small, circular objects.

Edgas gawked at it, “a flea collar?!

“Indeed,” Roland shrugged, “I would suggest a very hot bath once we return and a good dip.”

Edgas raised a hand to his face. And scratched it. 

“Wait, why are you not itching?” Valentina asked Burdous as she slipped the collar on her wrist, “in fact, why is there growing halo of dead bugs around you?”

Burdous just shrugged. 

“Now, if you don’t mind, we do have a schedule,” Roland wrestled the gearshift sticking out of the floor around, sending forth an eruption of spine-jarring, eye-watering grinding noises. As it lurched forward, an exodus of all manner of crawly, furry, skittering things raced away like rats from a sinking ship... including the aforementioned rats themselves. 

“Hey, quit poking me!” Edgas suddenly blurted out. 

“I am not poking you.” Valentina shot back. 

“Hey, she’s poking me!”

“Am not poking you!

“Are too!”

“Are not!”

“Are too!”

Now it was Burdous’s turn to groan and raise a hand to his face, “yup, they’re siblings, alright.”

“Cut it out!”

“These are both hands!” Valentina held up said hands. 

“Then what...” Edgas again shuffled around to find an appendage sticking out from between the alleged back seat cushions. It somehow managed to be hairy, scaly, and slimy all at once.

“GAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”

Valentina slammed her hand on the deck again, “do not make me come back there!”

The thing in the trunk whined in acquiescence.

Roland joined Burdous in groaning into his palm, “it’s going to be a long night.”

The kar backfired in agreement. 

***

Somewhere, in an idyllic, verdant landscape beneath a brilliant sun, birds chirp and bees buzz happily amongst gossamer flowers. Woodland creatures scamper back and forth in the gentle breeze, while near the peak of one steep, wooded hill, a tiny, ever-stalwart machine chugs toward the crest to the cheerful tone of... 

I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can...

Wherever this halcyon somewhere is, it is not, unfortunately here.

Here, an icy wind cuts across through arching trees not yet bare of their leaves below heavy clouds, shrouding all in darkness despite the bloated Mün above. Patches of frozen-over snow dot the empty spaces between them, glowing pale in the meager light, ice rimes the rocks of a now-dry stream, and inching up a ragged, pot-holed road towards the crest comes a sad conglomeration of metal and corrosion, one headlight out, belching thick black smoke, and wheezing as it goes:

Oh-flarp-this-crap-oh-flarp-this-crap-oh-flarp-this-crap...

Shuddering as if against the cold, a series of loud bangs and crunches escape into the night wind, ending in one final explosion of smoke, gears, and a last stubborn mouse from the tailpipe, as it nearly creaks to a halt... then slowly, ever so slowly, begins squealing its way down the far side of the hill. 

“Is it going to do that every single time?” Valentina shot from the back seat, “roll down one hill but can hardly get up the next?”

“Why do you think it’s called a Rolls Kanardly?” Burdous shot back, tossing a nut to the possum in the glove box. It hissed laughter. 

“But...” she protested, “you said it has airplane engine...”

“Probably a good thing for that airplane,” he shrugged. The kar backfired in agreement. And something went ping off across the roadway. He finished with a sigh, “Omorkian engineering. This is why we have Kleptogarti cars and Krünish airplanes.”

“Hmph,” Valentina crossed her arms, “big, silly Kleptogarti kars, rusty airplane Omorkian cars, big, expansive car drive itself! Why cannot have normal Ussari kars, like Klada?” 

The Rolls went silent. Roland looked at Burdous. Burdous looked at Roland. Then Roland laughed, Burdous laughed, the kar laughed, good times. Meanwhile in the back, Valentina’s scowl deepened. Then, her eyes drifted to Edgas, who was huddled in his corner, turning a small, sparkly rock over in his fingers and staring very intently at nothing. 

Nudging him, she asked softly, "hey. What is eating you?"

He pointed.

"You stop that right now!" she smacked the decklid a few times, "is not nice to eat people!"

The thing in the trunk retreated.

"You are lucky that thing does not seem to have teeth," her hand moved to his shoulder, "what is on your mind?"

"Hm?" Edgas started, as if just realizing she was there, "I don't know, I've just got a bad feeling..."

“Yes, well,” Roland reached for the dash, “perhaps there’s something on the radio...”

Click.

...confirmed reports today of an increasing number of Ussari Air Force Kupolev-95 bombers orbiting just off the west coast of Omork, as tensions between the two nations over the disputed Strait of Kerfrica rise to unprecedented levels. A spokeskerb for the Ussari Foreign Ministry has stressed that these are unarmed patrol aircraft, in place to monitor the movements of the ever-more-active Royal Navy, and as such will adhere to an additional five kilometer buffer beyond the 20 kilometer line defining Omorkian territorial waters. Potentially compounding matters further, the Gednalnan VTOL carrier HRGMS Rosslynn is reported to have set sail from Edinkurgh this morning, and is steaming eastward at high speed. Officials with the Royal Gednalnan Navy have thus far declined to comment, however—

Click.

“On second thought,” he said, “perhaps that’s not such a good idea.”

“Oh, I know!” Burdous popped up, “singing always makes a road trip go faster! Hey have you heard this one?

Ooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhh... ten thousand bottles of non-alcoholic-carbonated-malt-based-space-beverage-in-a-bag on the wall, ten thousand bottles of non-alcoholic-carbonated-malt-based-space-beverage-in-a-bag! If one of those bottles should happen to fall, ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine bottles of non-alcoholic-carbonated-malt-based-space-beverage-in-a-bag on the wall! 
Ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine bottles of...”

Roland slowly lowered his head to the wheel, thumping it a few times, and letting out a low groan, “it’s going to be a long night...”

***

On a dark deserted highway, cold wind in my hair,
Warm smell of leaked coolant, rising up through the air,
Can’t see ahead in the distance, just got this one headlight,
My nut bag’s empty but this possum’s slim,
And we might break down tonight.

A long... very long... painfully, ear-splittingly long time later, the kar squealed and rattled and ground to a halt.

“Will you please shut up! Those aren’t even the right words,” now Roland slapped his own face, trying to coax some feeling back into it, then added, “but you’ve a lovely singing voice.”

Burdous leaned back with a wistful sigh, “Derpy Kerman, famous singer. Lolli Kerman, famous singer. But what do I get? Famous for falling off a ladder on 15 different worlds. And believe me, that hurts on Eve!”

“Quite so. Here,” Roland passed out little bundles of black cloth. 

Edgas picked through it and scowled, “ski masks? Really? Isn’t that a bit cliché?”

“Can’t have three famous faces trundling about during a major burglary,” Roland eyed Valentina, “especially one who’s supposed to be dead.”

“Gah! Ugh! PHHHHHHAWWWWWWWGH, this is horrible!” squealed Burdous as he yanked the thing off his face, “blech, it smells like an old gym sock! And there’s no holes...”

“Oh. Terribly sorry, here...”

“Gaaah! This one’s even worse!”

“Oh... that must be the other of the pair. Here...”

Burdous took it quite cautiously, inspecting for the necessary holes first before slipping it on, eyeing Roland the whole time. 

To fit said holes, the latter also passed around sets of night vision goggles, and slipped on a rather large rucksack before donning his own mask... which did not, at all, cover his beard, "now then, from here on we must be cautious, we may even already be on camera. Stealth is of the utmost importance, keep your voices low and your motions deliberate. Let’s be off.”

The door squeaked and groaned like the death throes of some fell beast as he pushed it open. One hubcap popped off and went rolling into the bushes.

Once more, a hand found Roland’s face, “it’s going to be a long night. Come on.”

They had only moved a short distance away when—

“Gaaah! Where’s the kar??” Burdous was gawking at the little nook in the undergrowth where he was sure the car had been a moment ago. 

“Um... it was parked right... there...” Edgas pointed at nothing. 

“The Mask of Mirrors,” grunted Roland, “it’s still there, I’ve just hidden it. It should be quite alright so long as no one—“

Clunk. “D’ouch, my shin!”

“...blunders into it.”

“Aaaaaah! Hisssss...” Burdous rocked back and forth on the ground, both hands pressed to his leg, “Aaaaaah! Hisssss... Aaaaaah! Hisssss... Aaaaaah! Hisssss...“

Roland glared down at him, “are you quite f—“

“Aaaaaah! Hisssss... Aaaaaah! Hisssss... Aaaaaah! Hisssss...“

“It’s going to a very long night,” he mumbled into his hand, “well, then, the rest of us will be moving along. Now, as I said, stealth is of the utmost importance. The utility box is just a short walk, watch your footing and voices low.”

The group set off, doing as Roland said. They moved at a crouch, carefully winding through the night-still forest, each footfall silent. Like shadows given form, they crept forward, ever wary, inching toward—

Bum bum, bum-bum, bum bum, bum-bum, bum bum, bum-bum, bum bum, bum-bum, BA-NANA....ba-nana... ba-nana... ba-na!

Will you kindly shut up!?!” Roland spun around. 

“Shhhhhhh...” Burdous shushed him, “we’re supposed to be keeping quiet.”

For a time, Roland could only stand there with his mouth flopping open and closed like a fish. 

A quiet fish. 

Finally, he groaned into his hand again, “I should have turned him into a newt when I had the chance.”

The four set off through the brush once more, silent as the grave save for...

Bum bum, bum-bum, bum bum, bum-bum...

“It’s going to be a long night...”

And a long night it was, trudging through the understory, everything lit in eerie green through the view of the goggles. Occasionally the Mün would peek out from the low clouds above, flaring the unsettling scene brighter for just a moment. After a time one of these flares did not diminish, and the group realized it was the glow of the Imperial History Museum’s lights reflecting on the clouds above. 

“Ah, here we are,smol” Roland whispered, as they entered a clearing off a service trail, surrounding an unremarkable utility box sticking out of the ground. Roland again produced his little figurine, waved a hand, and the stout padlock simply fell away. He motioned to Burdous, “you’re up,” who wasted no time swinging the cover open and plugging in a dizzying array of tablets and keyboards to its innards.

“I’m in,” he breathed as he tapped away. 

Good,” Roland turned to the others, “now, stay sharp, and be wary. We’re exposed, and must buy him time to—

“Done.”

He spun around, “WOT?!”

Burdous shrugged as he packed his things, “I told you, piece of cake.”

“Just... just like that??”

“Yup. I disabled the security system, rerouted the landlines, backfed a boring video loop from last night into the pipe so the hacks in the guard shack won’t see us, and left myself a backdoor in case I ever need to get back in. I also upgraded Portals, refreshed their virus definitions, ran a full system scan, removed an impressive amount of malware, installed an ad-blocker, optimized their wifi settings, defragged their hard drives, emptied the recycle bin, organized their desktops, and since there will no doubt be a thorough investigation when this is all over, I deleted everyone’s browser history.”

He thumped a fist across his chest, “because that’s what bros do.”

For a long time, as they stood there in the chilling, green-tinged darkness, Roland could only stare, his mouth hanging open. 

Valentina reached over and closed it for him, “I am finding more and more is best to not be surprised at these things and just accept and move on. Madness lies down that path.” Her voice drifted off, “wonderful, peaceful, floaty madness... But come, we should go.”

“Yes,” Roland kept blinking for a time, “indeed we should.”

They moved on through the brush in more or less the opposite way, turning here or there. The cold night air seemed to press in all around, squeeze them like deep water. Nothing moved in this towering, ancient forest, even in the eerie glow of the goggles there was not a critter or bat to be seen. Only the occasional blinding pale of the Mün between clouds. At length they came to a place where the more lowly glow grew much brighter. 

Roland motioned them down, and placed a hand on the branch just ahead, “alright, funny business is over. This is the edge of the perimeter, the museum promenade is just the other side of this clearing. Now, we must deal with flesh and blood.”

Roland pulled the branch down just slightly, revealing a guard walking his patrol. He was clad all in black, from his knit cap to his jackboots, and had an even blacker rifle pressed to his shoulder, held low. His eyes flicked their direction, his step slowing a bare fraction. 

“Um...” Burdous shrank back, “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. I’ll just... gowaitbackatthekarbye—“

Roland seized him by his mask, quite silently, and pulled him back, “nonsense. We must disable all four sentries at once, before they can raise an alarm. Synchronize watches on my mark... three... two... one... mark. Your tools,” he swung his rucksack around and held it open, “everybody take one.”

A hand shot to Edgas’s mouth, barely stifling a gasp. 

“That’s barbaric!” he huffed in a whisper, “I won’t do it!”

“The effects will wear off in a few days,” Roland shrugged. 

“It’s inkerman!” Edgas shot back, “it’s inkermane!”

“Well, I suppose I could just kill them,” Roland produced the little figurine again, “I do know a rather handy knitting for stopping one’s heart, the agonized thrashing only lasts a moment.” He rose. 

Edgas grunted and pulled him back down, “fine.”

“Good. Now then,” Roland eyed them all in turn, “very simple, pull the pin, count to three, and throw. They have an effective radius of about two meters, but any delay might give your charge time to cry out. So aim is crucial, go for the head. And whatever you do, don’t drop it.”

Once more he proffered the bag around, each of the other three taking an object, Edgas with a glare so sharp not even night-vision goggles could hide it. 

“To your positions. Keep low, stay to the woods, dance with the shadows,” Roland said, “we move in five.”

***

Mylar Kerman walked along, his black, padded boots making no sound on the polished marble promenade. His eyes twitched this way and that, scanning for anything of note, gloved thumb tucked just above the safety lever of his Kerlashnikov. 

And, for the umpteenth time tonight, wondered why. With everything else going on, what were the Politsiya doing guarding an old museum? Surely the some Ministry private security contractors would be more appropriate. If there was such concern, why not simply remove any valuables to a truly secure location? The building wasn’t anything special, there were plenty of old Imperial-era manors around the country. 

He let out a barely-audible half-sigh, half-grunt. 

Maybe he should go join the army. They were paying big enlistment bonuses these days, after all, and his skills would be much more appreciated. Maybe even get the chance to teach those Omorkian pig-dogs some respect. Imagine the nerve of those people! Blockading kermanitarian shipments in international waters over some made-up pretext! If they wanted a war, then just maybe

In an instant, Mylar dropped to one knee, target dot floating before his eye, rifle butt held tight to his shoulder. He scanned back and forth along the manicured treeline, his sharp eyes trimmed to laser clarity. The tiny red dot before his eye settled on one spot in the woods, growing into focus over his target. Breath came steady and measured to his ears. His thumb flicked the safety off. His finger found the trigger. 

And then... he stopped. He knelt, frozen in place like a statue. Then slowly, ever so slowly, unfolded himself upward, one joint at a time, at last flicking the safety back on and lowering his weapon. His eyes kept scanning back and forth across the woods as his frown deepened. 

For... just a moment... he could swear he saw dark, shadowy figures moving in the underbrush before the Mün retreated back behind a cloud. 

His earpiece crackled, “Watchdog 3, Homeplate... report in.”

Mylar did not move his eyes from the trees. 

“Watchdog 3, report!”

Finally he turned, touching a finger to his jaw, “Watchdog 3, all clear.”

He gave a tired sigh to the night, and continued along, sparing once last glance beyond the clearing. 

And then, a RatSquirrelFish hit him in the face. 

Unfortunately but quite understandably, then he tried to scream, and compounded his misery.  

A moment later, Edgas crawled up onto the landing, stripping off his mask. He crept past the squirming, twitching mass on the floor, lips pulled back from his teeth in a tight, all-to-knowing wince. 

“Sorry,” he breathed, then padded off. 

***

Four Kerbals scuttled together from different directions, dressed all in black, clumping together just below a wide, multi-paned window. Roland nodded, pointed, made a series of noiseless hand gestures directing their next actions.  

Burdous made a doggy and a ducky in the shadows on the wall. 

“I should have turned him into a newt when I had the chance,” Roland grumbled into his hand.

“This is cruel and unusual!” Edgas hissed at him. 

“They’ll be perfectly fine in a few days,” Roland hissed back. 

“They’re gonna... catch a disease or something!” Edgas tried to throw up his hands without moving much. 

“Oh, no, it’s quite safe,” Roland waved it away, “these are sterile medical-grade RatSquirrelFish,” he eyed Valentina, “from a certain place in Cerima.”

Her eyes shot up, “but... Tercella said there were no weaponized...”

“Tercella did not know everything,” he shook his head, “it would have been... much better if she had. Just... stay here.”

He slid further down the window a couple of meters, carefully raising his head just enough to peer in. Then dropped and spun, back pressed to the wall, cane in one hand and RatSquirrelFishGrenade in the other. His eyes looked out into the darkness of the woods beyond, his body frozen, as if waiting. All at once he sprang into motion: broke a pane of glass with his cane, pulled the pin with his teeth and hurled the grenade over his shoulder.  

A muffled, “wha—? Gurk!” wafted from inside. 

With no further pause, he readied a second grenade, pulled the pin, waited, tossed. 

“What in the Nine Bloody—GAK!”

Roland motioned the ‘all clear.’

Burdous offered a bunny. 

Roland buried his face in his hands. 

“Just... come on,” he led them to massive oaken main doors. With a wave of his hand, something inside the lock went clunk, and he pushed the door open. 

The crew quickly tiptoed their way past the two struggling forms on the floor, Edgas again pausing to offer a guilty, “sorry...”

Across the gran fo-yay, they came to another enormous set of doors, this one unlocked. Again, Roland led them in. 

“Whoooooah.”

None other than Ivan Grozny barred their path. 

“Holey mother of...” eyes kept drifting ever skyward. 

Roland stepped before him, going down to one knee, and thumped his cane upon the polished floor, “choshih Ivan, dada an’ mi dadan, dada an’ Ussaros, Tai’shar Ussaros hei, Koyn al Tyakual e Ma’vron an Clomacour’n,” then finished with a gesture on his forehead. 
 
Ivan, First of  His Name, glared down, looming over them like a mountain, perhaps a dozen meters high. Not marble or bronze, he was hewn from solid granite, his outstretched hands gripping an ornate scepter and battle-axe as tall as he, with deep blue eyes cold as ice and sharp as daggers. 

“Whoah, that is creeeeee-eeeepy,” Burdous muttered and he scuttled this way and that, “see how the eyes seem to follow you wherever you go? Some first-class artistry right there.”

“No, they’re actually following you,” Roland said as he rose.

“Um, what?”

“This statue itself is a grail,” he explained, “though we’ve never been able to ascertain what it’s for. It was crafted by Ivan II, the first Chelyaad Emperor, and a frighteningly powerful one at that.” Roland stepped forward and laid a hand on the haft of an axe that was thicker than he, “it is said that after stabbing his brother in the back and slaying the queen and young heirs, Ivan Grozny, his hair set alight, leapt from the parapet of the wall into the horde of barbarians besieging Kernobyl, and with this axe slaughtered ten thousand of them by himself, thus single-handedly saving his kingdom and people from a fate... worse than death.”

“That sounds a bit far fetched,” Edgas crossed his arms over his chest.

“Perhaps,” Roland turned toward a side door, but paused to glance back, “but stranger things have happened.”

The group slinked away, and Ivan watched them go. 

***

“Gak!”

Thud.

Edgas winced just as hard as they slunk past yet another gagging, struggling guard, “sorry...”

Roland led them through the Imperial Gallery— “guk!” the Blue Room— “hurgh!” the Grand Armory— “urk!” the Hall of Cutlery— “You put that spoon right back!” “c’mon, they’ve got plenty!” and finally, into the Grand Hall.

Whatever this room has once been, it was now done up as a reasonable facsimile of a throne room, with a high raised dais at one end supporting said throne. The walls were hung with all manner of official Imperial portraits, chronicling a dynasty of a thousand years. Stern faces looked down upon the group, all with the same eerie eyes that seemed to follow them as they moved, and each one holding in their left hand the same massive jeweled scepter, and in their right a gleaming golden orb. 

Yet the four remained focused only on the center of the expansive room, the objective they had come all this way for. Here, there was a huge cubic display case, the bottom half made of polished wood covered in ornate carvings, the top glazed with thick-looking sheets of glass surrounded by heavy iron bands. Within, was no mere king’s ransom, but a dragon’s hoard of sparkling gold, gleaming jewels, ceremonial weapons and Imperial regalia nothing short of priceless. And there, shining in the center of it all...

Burdous immediately trundled forward, arms outstretched, his face cast in a dreamy smile, “ooooooooooooh, sparkly—GAK!

“Back, you clouted, idle-headed barnacle!” Roland retrieved him with the pommel of his cane, “do you have any idea how many people have tried to steal the Imperial Crown Jewels over the last millennium?”

“Well, actually, now that you mention it, I—“

“Three thousand seven hundred and twenty one,” Roland cut him off, “now, do you have any idea why none of these were noted in the historical record?”

Burdous opened his mouth. 

Burdous closed his mouth. 

“Because there wasn’t enough left of any of them to even fill a dustpan, and the comings and goings of the Imperial Housekeeper are certainly not a matter of historical record. This first part is easy enough,” Roland took his little figurine in one hand, and waved the other over the massive lock securing the iron bands, and it simply unlatched and fell away. “Next, one of you will have to open the case. Just touching it would surely kill me.”

“What?!” Edgas gawked at him, “you just said it vaporizes people!”

“Only if they’ve come to steal it,” Roland said defensively. 

“And what are we here to do?!” Edgas shot back. 

“Well, yes,” Roland waved a claw-like hand at him, “but for the greater good, not petty avarice. Intent matters. It should be perfectly safe for one not Chelyaad.”

He nodded to Burdous, “here, you try it.”

Burdous’s eyes shot wide, “me?!”

“Well, you are the most likely to be...” Roland shrugged, “expendable.”

Burdous glared at him a moment, then grunted, “fine!” and stepped up to the box. Slowly, ever so slowly, he reached a hand out to the glass that was not glass...

Tap.

Nothing happened. 

Tap-tap.

Still nothing. 

Tap-tap-tap.

Burdous casually leaned up against it, “there, y’see? Nothing to worry about, it’s perfectly f—AAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUGH!”

Edgas screamed. 

Valentina screamed. 

A couple of paintings screamed. 

And then everyone realized that Burdous himself had gone from screaming to laughing hysterically. 

“Hahahahahaha! Oh, that was priceless!” he howled, half bent-over, “that was rich! Hohohoho! Oh, you guys shoulda seen the looks on your faces,” he leaned back up against the case, “you were all like— 

“GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!”

This time, there was no doubting his veracity, due to the warm actinic blue embrace of crackling electric arcs enveloping him from the four corners of the box. 

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGH!”

The noise and intensity swelled, blue going to white and then eye-watering octarine. The smell of ozone and burning hair filled the massive room. 

[email protected]@AiIIiiIIiiIIIeEeEEEeeEEeEeEE-HaaAAaAaAAaAaAAHh!”

The light grew brighter still, the crackling surged to thrumming and then buzzing so deep it was more felt than heard. Every hair in the room stood on and, and at the center of that blazing globe of whiteness, no matter if one squeezed their eyes closed against it or not, there was clearly visible a stocky black skeleton. 

And also a cell phone, kar keys, two knives, three forks, and a really nice serving spoon. 

Just as suddenly as it began, the electric light show ceased, and Burdous Kerman hung there a moment, the fringes of his hair glowing red and smoldering, before collapsing. 

“Burdous!” Valentina charged over to him, pulling him up, “are you all right?!”

He coughed out a cloud of acrid grey smoke at her, hacking and wheezing. 

“That was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life,” he croaked, before jumping up at the case and squealing, “AGAIN!!

Roland put a considering hand to his chin, “well, now... it always worked better when we had an official state function and an expendable page boy. Perhaps you should...” he eyed Valentina. 

“Am bit busy right now,” she growled back, still trying to contain Burdous. Finally she shoved him away, and approached the case herself. She half reached a hand out, brow pinched, then shook her head. 

“No, not me,” she turned to Edgas, “you.” Her eyes dropped away as if deep in thought, “of course it is you...

“Me?!” his eyes shot up for a moment, but he quickly sighed, and walked to the case. One hand shielding his face, he reached out a single cautious finger... and just touched the glass...

It rippled out in waves like a stone thrown into a pond, each set larger than the last, until a hole began to grow from the middle. It quickly spread until one entire side had disappeared, and the final iron lockworks swung open. 

“Whoah...” he breathed. 

Edgas again stepped forward, looking on the gleaming, jewel-encrusted scepter that towered over him on its stand. He glanced at Roland, received a nod, and gently began to lift...

And of course, being Edgas, the scepter immediately slipped free and tumbled toward the floor. 

He was quick, however, and snatched it up just before it smashed against the marble. As he lifted it in his hands, the lights in the room seemed to flicker and dim, casting dancing shadows across his face. The still, solemn space waxed utterly silent, and the very air grew chill around them. Even the paintings seemed to draw back as Edgas held the Scepter up. 

“Wow...” he whispered, “that’s heavy...”

“Indeed,” Roland intoned as he approached, his own eyes wide and fixed, “heavy is the head that wears the crown...”

“Eh, it’s not that bad,” quipped Burdous, “could use a little padding on the brow though.”

They turned to find him wearing not only the Imperial Crown but decked out in all manner of gold and jewels and finery. 

You put that back where it came from this instant or so help me—!

“Okay, okay, sheesh,” he began unceremoniously stripping things off, “I was just trying it...”

Roland’s eyes grew wide, “ALL of it.”

Burdous rolled his. He thumped a fist against his chest. Thumped it again. 

BURP.

Tinkle-tinkle-tink-tink-tink.

Roland’s expression didn’t change. 

Burp.

Tinkle-tinkle-tink.

He raised an eye... bulge. 

Urp.

Tink-tink.

Once again, he raised a tired hand to his face, “I really am getting too old for this nonsense.”

Beside him, Edgas was still hefting the scepter, “this is really heavy...”

Now it was Valentina’s turn to let out an annoyed grunt and roll her eyes, as she took the gleaming object from him, “you really need to get to gym more often, you know?” She swung it back and forth a few times one-handed, for emphasis. At this, the light seemed to return, although the fixtures kept flickering just slightly. 

“Hmm,” Roland eyed them, “we have what we came for, best we not dawdle,” and led them from the room. 

***

Valentina padded along beside him, clutching the scepter. It really did seem quite heavy, must be at least ten kilos if it was gram. Could the whole thing really be solid gold? Even she knew such ceremonial items usually weren’t—

The group rounded a corner and froze. Burdous’s hands shot to his mouth, muffling an unpleasant gurgle deep in his throat. Before them lay one of the disabled guards.  Only... there was something else there, too. A round, bug-like helmet black as night rose to reveal flesh that was more scars than skin. Twitching, half-torn lips pulled back from teeth filed to interlocking points like a shark’s mouth. Dripping and smeared, it drew open, exposing a ragged stump of a tongue deep within that quivered as it hissed. It fixed them with an feral, eyeless gaze. 

The thing leapt up and charged, screeching as it came, reaching out with hands curled into claws, sharpened finger bones jutting out from ragged gloves. 

Valentina took two quick steps, scepter in hand, wound up like a professional blurnsball player, then swung for the nosebleed seats and knocked it clear through the wall.

Roland gawked at the point where it had exited reality, “my... my word...”

Valentina frowned down at the golden scepter. Much of the fine filigreeing and airy detail work had been bent and smashed, and several large gems were missing. Yet, it almost felt like—

What... just what the flarp was that?!”

Eyes swung to the unusually crass word from Edgas. 

“Valar Arctûctis,” Valentina answered, not looking up. 

“What?”

“Children... Child of the <gulp> Kraken,” Burdous said, hand still pressed to his mouth, distinctly trying not to look at the scene still before them, “Ceriman mercenaries. But, what’s he doing here? And-and-and <gag> why would he—?” he turned aside, his face decidedly green... er.

“They’re far worse than that, I’m afraid,” Roland then tilted his head as if listening. In the suddenly still air, a low, guttural hissing seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, “and the more... degenerated ones have been known to resort to cannibalism, if they’re not fed regularly.” He shook his head, “we’ve been compromised, we have to go. Quickly, now! I’ll take the lead,” and nodded to Valentina, “you watch our backs.”

They set off from the room, the awful sound seeming to follow at an unknown distance. Valentina kept a tight grip on the haft of the scepter, so much that it seemed to be thrumming in her hands. They passed another of the guards they had disabled, this one— no, she couldn’t even look on him, let her eyes slip off as they wound past. Through the Green Hall, the Red Hall, and back through the Hall of Cutlery, they were halfway across the vast Grand Armory when a voice called out to them across the rows of plate and maille. 

“That’s fah enough.”

They turned, as the soft click of leather on marble echoed from the hall ahead. A lone figure appeared in the entryway, what first seemed to be a shadow given depth resolving into... a kerb in black. 

Black, nearly without contrast or variation. From the tall boots cobbled together from the dyed hides of a dozen unfortunate reptiles, to slacks cut just-so of dark fabric with no shine or sheen, to the suit jacket devoid of pinstripes or patterns, trimmed with onyx buttons, even the shirt was black as night in deepest winter, beneath a wide-brimmed hat with no discernible line between it and the shadow it cast. Pale hands rested on the butts of twin oxide-blacked revolvers with grips of worn ebony. 

The figure stepped forward, an homage to back, or perhaps a caricature, yet it served to make the mirthless, lopsided, too-white smile gleaming from the shadow beneath the hat all the more unsettling. 

Valentina took her own step, tightened her grip on the scepter. 

With a single thumb, the figure reached up, and pushed back the brim of its hat. 

Valentina felt her hands suddenly grow weak. 

“No... is impossible...” she breathed, “you are dead, I saw you die!”

She winced as the figure giggled, a sound like a young girl at a tea party or a boy at play, yet somehow tainted and twisted around on itself. The sound bit into her ears like thousands of insects. 

“Well now, y’see,” the figure spoke with a deep Exast drawl, “that woulda been mah twin brotha’ John Ross Kerman,” he tipped his black hat, and made a little bow, “Bobby Kerman, at yuh service.” The lopsided, wrong smile widened. It never came near his icy blue eyes. 

“Back. Back, quickly,” Roland hissed.

“Aw, now y’all can try y’all’s luck that way, if yuh want,” again the horrid giggle, “the Children are hungry, see, Ah ain’t fed ‘em in a while.”

As if in answer, the raspy, distant hissing that seemed to come from everywhere coalesced at the hall they’d just left. 

The kerb in black giggled again, then it became throaty, ear-straining laugh. He took something from his coat pocket, unwrapped it from a stained, sodden rag, and threw it to the marble before them. It landed with a wet thump. 

The smile grew until it seemed to split his face, “Katya Kermanov sends huh regards, likewise.”

The scepter nearly slipped from Valentina’s hands as she spun to catch Edgas. 

“You son of a—!” she struggled to hold him back against fury flowing and amplifying through her own mind that threatened to send her to rage. He nearly broke free, if Roland had not found his other arm. 

Laughter that seemed both seed and fruit of madness washed over them from shadow given form across the hall, “disappointing, really. Ah had so been lookin’ fo-wahd to a challenge, but she broke right away. Tol’ me to everthin’ Ah wanted to know.”

Edgas struggled against the two with new wrath, “she didn’t know anything!”

The kerb in black laughed as he if he’d just heard the funniest joke in the world, “Ah know!”

“Do not be troubled,” Roland shifted Edgas firmly into Valentina’s grasp, placing himself between them and the newcomer. He fished the little figurine from his pocket, “I shall dispense with this ruffian and then— guh!” He stumbled, nearly toppled forward, clinging to his cane to remain upright. 

More laughter roared from across the room, “they tell me it’s... unpleasant, when one of you people is cut off like that,” the kerb pulled some sort of medallion from beneath his shirt, shaped like the face of a dog, or perhaps a fox. 

He tucked it away again. As he continued to speak, he began to casually unbutton and slip off his suit jacket, “see here now, y'all have somethin' Ah want, but more important, mah employer has business with you lot. Seems y’all been causin’ some trouble,” he hung it upon the outstretched arm of a nearby suit of armor, “and just bein’ all unreasonable-like,” he unpinned his cufflinks and hid them away, rolled his black sleeves to his elbows, “cain’t have that, see. But first, there is anotha’ matter...”

Taking a basket-hilted saber from a display, which bore a blade that looked like porcelain, he swung it back and forth a few times with the air of one who knew how, then swept it back across another suit of armor. It sliced through without even a sound, until the top half tumbled to the floor. 

The kerb in black held the blade forth, pointing directly at Roland, “you killed mah brother.”

Now his entire countenance shifted, the wrong smile evaporating like a nightmare, but into something far, far worse. His lips pulled back into a snarl, his teeth grit together with such force that his face twisted into something savage and monstrous, “only Ah git to do that.” 

The snarl deepened, “Ah want a piece a’ you.”

“A piece you shall have,” Roland’s eyes narrowed. He stood tall, his back creaking and crackling, but only for a moment. He took his gnarled old cane in both hands, twisted, and with a click the top grip separated. From the other section it drew forth what looked like a pale, limp string, but with a flick of his wrist it grew straight, becoming a long, impossibly thin needle-like blade that almost seemed to be glowing. 

Claw-hand tucked behind his back, he held the sword before his face in salute, “on guard.”

The two stepped forward, eyes locked upon one another. The kerb in black shifted this way and that, as if trying to circle. Each time found his path blocked. Each time, his face twisted into new and more unpleasant masks. He feigned a quick attack, and Roland merely stepped aside. Another sudden, half-pulled lunge, yet Roland was simply not there when the blade passed through. Roland, for his part, was replete with all the calm and serenity of the Empress herself, his face as blank and unreadable as a statue. 

The real attack came with all the speed and ferocity the kerb in black’s probes had lacked. He roared as he charged, taking his saber in both hands, a devastating sideways slice that tore the air as it passed. Roland parried, his own gossamer blade holding the other frozen in place for a fraction of a moment before deflecting it away. He dodged the return, spun into a counter-attack of Kingfisher Circles the Pond, found his own attack deflected. 

He led the dance from the first clumsy thrusts into practiced Forms, from The Rose Unfolds into Arc of the Mün; slipped into Low Wind Rising, spun The Cyclone Rages into Doves Take Flight. His opponent’s Forms were... coarse. Yet no less effective, driven by anger and hate and perhaps drawing from those in strength what they lacked in grace. The Falcon Stoops, parry and step into Rain in High Wind, a dash against River of Light becoming Cat Dances on the Wall.

Valentina, of course, knew none of this. She watched in horror as the two kerbs wrenched back and forth, gleaming white blades swishing through the air. The sound was maddening, like the clink of ceramic plates bashing together, only without the shattering that her mind insisted must follow such a noise. Anything they touched that was not each other— a steel shield, a wooden beam, evan a marble column in the center of the room— the swords passed through with seemingly no effort, leaving a trail of destruction behind the combatants. 

The kerb in black grunted and strained with each blow, veins standing out on his sweat-streaked forehead, yet Roland’s face betrayed nothing. He might have been reading the Münday paper over a nice cup of tea or perhaps going for an evening stroll. It was as if all the feeling he must be feeling was channeled away into some all-consuming Flame. 

Valentina wished she could do the same. Beside her, her hand on his shoulder, Edgas was a crumpled heap on the floor. She could feel the raw emotion radiating off him like fever-heat. Grief. Horror. Despair. Guilt. And wrath, flowing into her like magma beneath a volcano, feeding and fanning her own rage bubbling just beneath the surface. 

Yet as she watched the two spin and clash, it became plain she would not have to contain herself for long. Even to her untrained eye, one of them was losing. This black-clad kerb, this Beast... he was clearly outmatched, his motions slowing, his moves becoming more erratic and clumsy. Her own conscious mind still struggled to comprehend all she was perceiving, her conflicting senses battling back and forth for attention like the two kerbs before her, yet her hyper-conscious mind, that still, small part of her that never slept, never rested, honed to a razor’s edge by years surviving in the harsh taiga was not so burdened. Instinct far sharper than any never-dulling blade kept watching, noting, rapidly rushing toward its own, unconscious, conclusion. 

The Wind Shakes the Trees ebbed into Tower of Morning. The kerb in black stumbled and barely blocked Leviathan’s RisingTwo Hares Leaping countered Hummingbird Kisses the Honeyrose.

“I do not aim with my hand,” Roland murmured, his face a mask, his eyes burning with intensity, “he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.”

The kerb in black growled back at him. Oak Shakes its Branches into Striking the Spark.

“I do not dance with my feet,” another sectioned suit of armor clattered to the floor, Cutting the Clouds met Leopard’s Caress, “he who dances with his feet has forgotten the face of his father. I dance with my mind.”

Half a helmet went skittering across the marble floor. The kerb in black faltered, withdrew, spat rage against Flower of Stars as his back met the wall. 

“I do not kill with my blade...”

Mün on the Water and Reaping the Barley.

“He who kills with his blade has forgotten the face of his father...”

Ivory-like swords clashed high and caught a bare moment. 

“I kill with my—“

“Guh!”

A sword clattered to the floor. 

“Ugh...”

Roland doubled over, the darkened point of a common hunting knife jutting from his back. The kerb in black’s face erupted into a twisted grin of triumph, one hand holding his blade aloft, the other twisting the knife deeper. 

“NO!”

Valentina’s conscious mind was only dimly aware of charging forward, of someone screaming, perhaps even her. The world seemed to red-shift into hues of crimson and ochre. That distant, always aware part of her had made the inevitable connection a fraction too late, and in shock and horror and rage she reached out across the abyss in near-panic to whatever she could find. 

What she found... was only darkness. The other still, small whisper always at the edge of perception, that had goaded her from a frantic aerial chase over a sprawling forest, to a spaceship of old friends turned enemies on the edge of forever, to the reflection of the Mün upon a pond in a burned-out crater a lifetime ago... and beyond. She reached out, in a flash of mindless weakness, and embraced it. 

A power foreign and somehow familiar flooded back, burned away the fear and confusion, and ground the razor’s edge sharper still. She swept up Roland’s fallen sword and set upon the kerb in black like a maelstrom. She did not know the Forms, had never danced the Dance, but what she did have was long years of simply staying alive in a world of things which sought to end her, not out of petty hate but simple hunger. 

She did not know the Way of the Blade, but was an old master in the Way of the Pointy Stick, and in the end, a sword was not so different. 

She came with such ferocity that the kerb in black was immediately staggered backwards, the victory wiped from his face and replaced by fear. Alabaster blades clinked together, here and there even drawing showers of sparks. Yet that was not her Way, and she fought with all she had, she fought dirty, with fists and feet and even her teeth. 

The kerb in black let loose a high, reedy scream and shoved her back, one hand pressed to the other. Her eyes still locked on his, she turned aside and spat out a lump of flesh. Fury burst again, and now he attacked, his motions ever more untempered. She parried, dodged, shrunk in upon her already smaller self before him. Then in an an instant, rose like Leviathan from the abyss, every muscle in her body driving her frame, and her fist, upward. It connected with his chin and she felt teeth shatter and bone crack. 

The kerb in black took one unsteady step away and went sprawling onto his back, his saber skittering away from his outstretched hand. Valentina fell upon him, a wordless cry tearing from her lungs... and drove Roland’s needle-like sword through his wrist and into the marble floor. 

But the move left her off-balance, and the kerb was able to gather himself and kick her back with both feet. 

Click-BLAM!
Click-BLAM!

Bullets whizzed past her head from his black revolver. Each shot was wild and unaimed, yet forced her to retreat. 

Click-BLAM!
Click-BLAM!

A shrill, ear-piercing shriek erupted from him, so grating and reedy and wrong that it bored into Valentina’s skull and made her vision quiver. The kerb in black wrenched his pinned arm back and forth, each motion driving his wailing to new levels until at last it tore free, leaving the sword embedded in the stone floor. 

Click-BLAM!
Click-BLAM!

He withdrew to the hallway, his other arm clutched to his chest, hand dangling from a few errant scraps of flesh, and disappeared. She moved to pursue him—

“Val!”

She turned back to Burdous. 

“We need you!”

She hurried over to where he and Edgas knelt with Roland in a growing puddle of blood. She cautiously peeled back the ski masks they had pressed to his middle, but could only shake her head, here eyes growing wide. 

“It’s alright, do not grieve for such as I,” he said, barely above a whisper, “you have what you came for, you must go.”

Edgas didn’t seem to hear, “we have to get him to a hospital!”

“Fool’s errand. I don’t matter. None of this,” he raised a trembling hand, “matters.” 

“What?!” Burdous cried out, “nonononononono you-you can’t die! Do... do that thing you did for me!”

“I can’t.”

“What? Why?!”

“I can’t Heal myself.”

“Why not?”

“As I told you,” he huffed and gasped, “there are rules.”

Roland produced the small jade figurine of the fat little kerb, and stared down at himself intently. He winced, grunted, and a tiny tendril of smoke rose up from beneath the sodden ski masks, bringing with it the smell of burning meat, “that will... buy time...” 

His hand shot up and seized Burdous by the collar with unexpected strength, “you! You beslubbering, paunchy, idle-headed onion-eyed rump-fed poppinjay! Her Majesty’s taken a liking to you, against my council. You have to look after her now. She is not as strong as she thinks she is... and more powerful than she could ever imagine.”

He released him, and took one of Valentina’s blood-slicked hands in his own, somehow managing a little bow, “my Lady Kermanova. Your name is well-earned, for you are... dauntless. You’d have made a formidable Ashmanni.” The claw-hand reached up to his collar with a practiced motion, then with it, he pressed something into Valentina’s palm, “so by my authority, I grant you a new name: Tai'Shar Arstotzka. Now, you are the last.”

Finally, he turned to Edgas, his voice drawing down to barely a whisper, “and you... remember what I’ve told you... remember... who you are,” his hand wrapped around Edgas’s clenched fist, “all our hopes go with you.”

Again he clung to the little figurine, and concentrated... Valentina felt nothing, but the great murmuring hiss beyond the far hallway shifted up in pitch... and abruptly silenced. 

“That should... clear you a path,” Roland’s voice drew ever weaker, “I’ll create a distraction, and see that you’re not followed. Now go, you have what you came for.”

For a painful moment, no one moved or said anything. Edgas looked down at the golden scepter, now in his hands, “we... we can’t just... leave—“ 

“You must... no time...”

“But...”

“Go, you have what you came for.”

Still, no one moved. 

“Go, then!” Roland snapped, “there are other worlds than these.”

Valentina forced herself to her feet, “is right, we must go.”

She grabbed Edgas, who grabbed Burdous. She herded them out the hallway, and did not look back. 

***

Roland watched them go. He took a long breath, shoveled pain and nausea and fear into the Flame until it was so distant as to belong to someone else, and tightened his good hand around the jade grail. Through it he channeled Air, barely a breath, not even a whisper, and set it spinning in the center of the room...

***

The Rolls Kanardly sputtered and shuddered through the ink-black night, its one headlight casting a weak beam just bright enough to turn Valentina’s stomach as it bounced around on the roadway beyond. 

“Can’t this thing go any faster?!” Edgas cried out from the passenger seat. The possum hissed at him defensively. 

Valentina kept her watering eyes on the road, and her foot on the floor, “have everything wide open but toolbox now!”
 
“I’m working on that!” pleaded Burdous, fighting over the toolbox with the trunk-thing. His eyes grew wide as he glanced out the back window, “um, guys... we’ve got company!
 
Blue lights flashed in the distance. 


***


Roland held the Weave still, wound it around on itself again and again, squeezing it down. Now he drew Fire, funneling it into the little whisp of Air, as much as he could. He spun it faster, the vision before him spreading out into a swirling disc as he fed it more. With each long breath, each pulse, body motionless save for his eyes, he crushed the flows down again and again. At length the point in the center began to glow, fist dull red then yellow into white. He could feel the pressure pushing back against his will. 
 
And, despite all that was and is and was still to come, his lips cracked into a little smile. Here, at last, was the fulfillment of Ages, the New Magic together with the Old, the science of the mystical, the alchemy of creation. A beginning, and an end.
 
He let the little figurine fall from his fingers. 
 
He gasped as the Power flooded into him, tried to scour him away and all that he was. He seized it even tighter, forced it to his will. Now that the Conduit was open, he no longer needed the grail, and for the first time in his very long life, touched the Source as it truly was, pure and untainted. The beauty and ecstasy of it threatened to wash him and all that he was away, but he held fast. Without the grail and its protective buffer, he was no longer limited, and drew every bit of the Power he could. The... dangers no longer mattered. 
 
He could feel it coursing through him, burning at every nerve ending in his body, washing over his brain like flames. And every bit, he Channeled into the tiny maelstrom before him, making it hotter, squeezing it tighter. The glowing center became a blazing light he could barely look upon. Tapestries and paintings on the walls began to singe and smoke.
 
Yet still Roland drew more, drank of the Power until his entire body burned like fire. He crushed down the little ball of light, smaller and smaller, smashing it toward a singularity. He drew of the Power, became the Power, and reached beyond it, to the Light itself. 
 
“Adieu, adieu...” his lips moved without breath, “parting is such... sweet sorrow...”
 
He let go.


***


Police klaxons blared all around the fleeing wreck as it plowed ahead, moving to surround it. One sleek electric cruiser pulled alongside, the shotgun-rider pointing something out the window at them. 
 
“Pull it over, now! Or we will use force!” its loudspeakers blared. 
 
Valentina cut the wheel hard and swerved at it, forcing it to back down, but the act sent their own kar skittering and fishtailing back and forth across the road, sending a hubcap, two chipmunks, and a very angry badger tumbling off into the undergrowth. 
 
“Am out of ideas!” she cried, still sliding over the road only half-controlled. 
 
Burdous made a couple of rude gestures out the back window, “this is all I’ve got!
 
“Is not helping!”
 
Edgas was curled up in his seat, once more turning the sparkly little rock, now stained with blood, over in his hands. His glazed-over eyes stared at nothing. 
 
All at once they grew wide, and his head shot up, “stop the kar!”
 
Valentina spun around “wha—?
 
“STOP THE KAR!!”
 
 She mashed her feet down on the pedals as hard as she could, bringing the Rolls to a skidding, screeching, shuddering halt. 
 
 Which took a very long time. 
 
The Politsiya had no such trouble. In an instant they were out. 
 
“Hands!”
 
“Lemme see some hands!”
 
“Hands, NOW!
 
“Get down!” Edgas screamed, “shut your eyes!” He didn’t wait to see if anyone did. He ducked in his seat and squeezed his eyes as tight as he could, yet still the back of his eyelids bloomed into a crimson glow. It lasted only an instant, but what followed was a hurricane gale that slammed against the kar shattering all the glass, flipping it around and threatening for one stomach-churning moment to roll it over. 
 
Just as quickly as it came, it ebbed, and the kar slammed back onto all four wheels as the suspension and a family of woodchucks groaned in protest. An eerie, empty silence followed. The stillness was broken only by the soft tinkle of little pebbles of glass as the three Kerbals sat up and beheld their surroundings. 
 
“Um...” someone said, “I think we should go now...”
 
“Yes,” Valentina agreed weakly, “go.”
 
She persuaded the still-idling kar back into gear, and disappeared into the night. 
 
A short time later, several dazed and bewildered Politsiya officers came blundering out of the woods, hands outstretched before them as bizarre after images danced across their vision. One of them managed to find his cruiser and pick up the radio.  
 
“One Ivan twelve, one Ivan twelve, requesting backup, over?”
 
Nothing. 
 
He keyed the mic a few times, punched some buttons, tapped in confusion at the large black screen in the center of the dash. His partner crumpled into the other seat, and as one they turned and looked out the broken window behind them...
 
...where, cast in silhouette by the fat gibbous Mün through the hole it had punched in the overcast, a tiny mushroom cloud rose.

***

A very long time later, as the ink of night at last began to give way to indigos and violets, the Rolls Kanardly sputtered to a stop before the manor house with one final blast of smoke. It quivered just a moment more before collapsing into a pile of rust, faded yellow paint, and assorted unhappy woodland creatures, all of which went scurrying off into the dawn. This left three equally bewildered Kerbals and a golden scepter sitting on the drive. They slowly mounted the stairs, weariness seeping deeper into their bones with each step.  
 
“Guys, how are we gonna tell her? What are we even gonna say?” Burdous said as put a hand to the door, “I mean, they were close...” 
 
He pushed.
 
“Um... I think she already knows.”

 

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Man - I proofread that one and it still kicked when I read it again.

Spoiler

 

Farewell, Roland. You remembered the face of your father. Aye, you remembered it very well.

Wherever you end up - teach them all  the finer arts of courtesy and wordplay.

 

 

Edited by KSK
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