BLACKFRIARS BESTIARY 2.2: Engine
[Greg Rosa, Matthew J. Pierce, Jason S. Kenney, Ashley Corgan, Jack Buxton *]and[ Jacob Milnestein*]
The moral rights of Matthew J. Pierce, Ed Ainsworth, Jack Buxton, Bryn Fortey, Joseph W. Patterson, Matthew Cavazos, Jason S. Kenney, Kevin Joyce and Jacob Milnestein to be identified as the Authors of this Work have been asserted in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
This version published by smashwords
Cover image Pratt & Whitney Wasp Major aero-engine, United States Air Force photo, 1944
Logo by Mike Rasbury
[_Mirrored Lenses (Excerpt) _]© Greg Rosa 2015
[_The Winters Legacye _]© Matthew James Pierce 2013 – 2015
[_The Other Side: Excerpt from Chapter I _]© Jack Buxton 2014 – 2015
[_Siege Engine: Zero Hour _]© Ashley Corgan 2010 – 2015
[_Bodyguard _]© Jason S. Kenney 2013 – 2015
Bounty Hunters, Tournament Armoured Hero: Fist of Legend & Maids vs. Schoolgirls © Jacob Milnestein 2012 – 2015
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
&Mirrored Lenses (Excerpt) &by Greg Rosa
&The Winters Legacy &by Matthew James Pierce
&Bodyguard &by Jason S. Kenney
&Siege Engine: Zero Hour &by Ashley Corgan
&The Other Side: Excerpt from Chapter I &by Jack Buxton
&Bounty Hunters &by Jacob Milnestein
&Tournament Armoured Hero: Fist of Legend &by Jacob Milnestein
&Ashley Corgan: Clove Cigarettes and Emeralds&
Love Amongst Strangers: Timeline
A Brief History of Artifice Comics (Part II)
&Maids vs. Schoolgirls& by Jacob Milnestein
by[* Greg Rosa*]
In the backyard of the new house which I’ve moved into, there roam a lot of alley cats. These cats have grown accustomed to human contact. They mill about in the yard and sometimes clamour for food by the kitchen windows. There are about three or four of them.
There’s one cat in particular that I sometimes feed. It is a young tabby, less than six months old. I don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t part of the regular troupe. It was just there one day. It meowed and meowed at our rear window Until I broke down and gave it some food. There is a table in the yard by our window; she climbs up on the table and looks in. I feel bad because I know it has to be cold and hungry out there. Although it hasn’t snowed much, still, it is winter. And it has rained more than once.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I have two cats of my own already, I would probably have taken this tabby cat in by now. Even though she is a female, and female cats are a slight bit more bothersome to take care of. But they are more affectionate. Both of my cats are male.
This cat in the yard is so docile that I have even let her in the house through the window sometimes. That is how I know it is female: proximity.
One of my cats’ bowls is by the door to the back yard which leads out from our kitchen area. When the outside cat comes in through the window, she jumps to the floor and makes for the food bowl. Sometimes she stops for me to pet her first. It’s kind of funny. My other cats (Clint and Magic) try to investigate and get a whiff of her when she’s here, but I keep them away from her for fear of them getting fleas. She is an alley cat, after all.
This cat—that I named BooBoo—has gotten used to my feeding her, and if she sees me or hears me in the kitchen, she starts to meow. I don’t always let her in. Recently, the table that was out in the backyard fell, so she can’t simply look in through the window anymore. She has to jump from the ground to the window and literally hold on to the ledge with her nails. There is no room for her to stand or sit there. She has to hold on until she falls down or I let her in.
I don’t always let her in. I feel guilty about that sometimes, but I don’t always have the opportunity or the inclination to let her in, first stand guard so that the other cats approach her, then to clean and disinfect the area after she’s gone.
I feel guilty. But not guilty enough for all that.
I wrote the preceding in March. The cat was discovered dead on June 26. I had seen her last three days before that. At least I gave her food at that time.
Over the next several months, several other cats and kittens would die, including two litter of kittens (last kittens discovered dead on July 14th). There was even a horrible case which occurred in the fall, where I had to call the Animal Rescue Society to put to sleep a mother and her not-weaned kittens when the mother got hit by a car.
Taking care of some other creature’s life sometimes means having to take care of its death, as well. We each have to handle our responsibilities honourably and ably.
By the way, I have yet another alley-cat I have been feeding recently. His name is Mittens and he’s doing just fine . . .
I went out with a friend of mine yesterday. I have known him for almost twenty three years. I am twenty eight years old as I write this. His name is Felipe Irizarry. He is a year older than I. I have known him so long because his parents brought a house next to ours when I was six. That was way back around the time that man first walked upon the moon.
We were roommates for a short while. About a year and a half. I moved out less than a month ago. Due to the time and the length of our exposure to one another, we are very much alike.
We saw a movie together. It was supposed to be a comedy. It wasn’t. We were stoned. It didn’t help.
While going to the movie, I noticed my friend was acting strange. I postulated that there could come a time when I would be embarrassed or ashamed to walk with my friend if he was acting weird. Like if he was stoned. Or if the loneliness of his situation finally starts bending the strings of his mind, making him play odd tunes. Songs I don’t necessarily want to hear.
My friend is not a really social person. Now that he is alone I am sure he feels he can indulge his eccentricities more than when he was living at home with his folks or when we were roommates (along with various third parties). I have always been more self-conscious than he. So while we act pretty similarly when we are alone at his studio, I am less prone to indulge in my eccentric behaviour in public. He doesn’t always seem to feel this compulsion, thus prompting my thoughts.
The thought of Phillip and I not being friends, I realised, was a sad one.
I read about a condition of the mind called cognitive dissonance, which is described by James L. Adams as an:
‘internal state . . . that results from an inconsistency among a person’s knowledge, feelings and behaviour.’
— Conceptual Blockbusting, © 1986, James L. Adams.
It seemed somehow appropriate to the moment. On the one hand, there was the desire to remain on friendly terms with someone whom I have a long history. On the other about feeling comfortable around someone.
But there was no choice. As I’ve stated elsewhere, family is more than just a biological relationship. And family should never be something you take for granted or easily give up on.
We saw a movie, my friend and I. And as I said, it wasn’t very good. But I enjoyed the time together, even though there was that strain (on my part) of him acting oddball in front of people. I asked him if he always acted like that nowadays. He laughed and said no. I was relieved, even though I didn’t completely believe him.
We parted and agreed to meet again soon. I wasn’t so sure that we would, or that if we did keep meeting in the short term, in a year or two we would really be seeing much of each other. Only time would tell.
On the way home on the train, a busker was playing an acoustic guitar and singing the Beatles’ Yesterday.
That, too, seemed somehow appropriate to the moment.
I had slept fitfully, same as usual. I was tired as I made my way to school. Boarding the morning rush-hour train, I had to stand until I got to the exchange. Same as usual. A short young man stood next o me while I was on the train. He was muttering something under his breath in a sing song fashion. It sounded like: “They don’t know it’s too late. They don’t know it’s too late. . .”
When I left the train to transfer, he left as well. After that, he was lost in the crowd.
I am a student. I study computers. That is what I do. When I arrived at my stop, I had to walk to the far end of the station. The entrance at that end leaves me closest to the school. I looked at my watch. I was late. By the time I got to the end of the platform, most of the other commuters had gone. There was a woman in front of me. She had medium length auburn hair and was wearing a cape-like coat. Her back was to me. As I approached her, my imagination got the better of me (as it sometimes does). I wondered what I would do if she were to turn around to me and have no face, only the bare white grinning bone of a skull. What would I do? Would I run? Would I scream?
I imagined my heart pounding hammer strokes in my chest, my muscles constricting, blood pumping with the urge to flee, to escape this unnatural horror with all possible haste.
I believe the world is a far stranger place than is commonly suspected, magic and miracles and oddities abound, but since they are inexplicable, they go unreported for the most part. Seeing a skull-faced woman on a train platform in mid-town Manhattan wouldn’t do too much damage to my world-view. Odd things have happened to me before (though nothing, I admit, on this order of magnitude on the strangeness scale). Would I file this incident in the ‘Oddities’ file in my mind? I decided I probably would. What other choice would I have? To go mad? Not an option.
I didn’t imagine the skull-faced woman to be threatening, so I figured I would get away, shake with the after-effects of adrenaline and fright for a while, then I would simply get on with my life and relegate this incident to the back part of my mind. The human mind is wondrously adaptable
I passed the woman. She was a normal, average-looking woman in her mid-thirties.
Outside the train station exit there is a billboard which, in brightly lit bulbs, keeps track of the national deficit along with the corresponding financial burden which needs be borne by each individual tax payer in the United States because of the mounting debt. In 1993, interest payments on this debt will be the largest single item in the federal budget. I have, since the incident mentioned above, stopped walking that way to school. I prefer not to be reminded of the federal deficit every single morning.
There is a growing fervour for a Constitutional amendment that will insure a balanced budget. I think this will be a good thing. Keep mounting such a huge deficit and soon more foreigners will own a piece of the US than its own populace. I personally blame former President Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of industry and over-the-top spending on the military during his tenure. I find it easiest to blame him for quite a number of things, actually. I used to joke that would-be Presidential assassin David Hinckley should be put to death as immediately and as painfully as possible. Not for attempting to kill Ronald Reagan, but for failing to do so.
But I digress.
As I was saying, I went to school that day, and during the day I continued with my curriculum. I mentioned to one of my schoolmates that day that in a very real sense learning computer programming is only incidentally involved with the computers themselves. Mostly I see programming as being essentially about how to store, process and retrieve information ourselves. What sequence of codes to use to achieve the desired results and what variables or options are available to us.
Later on in the day of the (not-)skull-faced woman, I saw a beefed-up movie version of a short story by one America’s most popular writers. Like most movies of this Author’s works, it was only partially successful, although it had some spectacular special effects. However, special effects do not a movie make.
This movie’s plot had to do with computers and information technology. Its subject specifically was a new concept in computer-simulations called Virtual Reality, or VR. VR deals essentially with the programming of pseudo-realities in which an individual (or individuals) can be made to seem to be interacting with the ersatz environments. It would be like walking into an animated movie or a videogame. The concept is literally mind-boggling. Imagine it: you can escape this reality and enter into a reality of your own or someone else’s specifications. Although this technology is still in its nascent stage, it has been championed by — among others — a new crop of science fictioneers called CyberPunks (which is also the generic term for this subcategory of the genre). Virtual Reality. Possible applications into the videogame market are already being looked into. But there are other, more frightening possibilities for the application of VR technology.
In this, as in some other things, the computer field can be seen to be both fascinating and frightening. It is a two-headed serpent. I spent two weeks recently literally poring over a slew of magazines (like PC Publishing and Presentations, PC Magazine, Computer Buyer’s Guide, PC Home Journal, ComputerCraft, etc.), just learning the language and seeing the state of the field outside of the classroom environment. A couple of times during those two weeks — slightly longer, actually — my head felt like it was going to explode. I would try and fit one more fact in there and pop! goes the weasel.
My first day at school had been the same. It felt like someone had taken my mind, made formerly rigid walls elastic, then stretched my brain from one end of the horizon to another.
Sometimes I felt and feel a sort of desperation, a need, an urge to keep up. To be up-to-date. To keep from going under. Especially at the time, when I was trying to decipher for myself what sort of a computer I should get. There’s nothing like spending stupid money on a piece of hardware then seeing it rapidly become obsolete. I wanted to get a machine that would be durable enough to last me a few good years. I decided to get a 486DX2 33MHz with 300MB of memory and 64MB RAM with a 2400 baud modem.
I had enrolled in a computer mail order course some years prior to this, while I was in the army, and the computers which had been standard then were not even laughable now. Thence my worry. Thence my studying the catalogs and the articles: so I can get any idea of the hardware. Once involved with computers, I began to see just how completely they had become a part of our culture. Robert A. Heinlein, the noted science fiction author and scientist, once made mention that the boom in personal computers had taken him and quite a number of fellow futurists by complete surprise. There was no question that they had penetrated into popular culture. In the market, at home, at work, in cartoons. In movies. And now the same was happening with the new technology. I mean, there I was with my family seeing a movie dealing with VR. If Hollywood has gotten hold of an idea, then you know that idea has gone mainstream.
After we had finished seeing the mediocre movie made from the short story of that world-famous author, we went outside of the movie theatre and discovered it was raining. Our youngest child had fallen asleep and so me and my wife decided to take a cab home. We all piled in closely in the warm, slightly musty-smelling cab. It was Josephine, myself, Adriana (asleep) and Leilana (wide awake). In addition, we had Josephine’s nephew, Eddie. I gave the cab driver our address and off we went. On our way home, riding through the dark and rain-slick streets, I heard some unseen person shouting out something that maybe sounded like ‘the party’s over’. The movie had made me think about my growing awareness of the technologies that were affecting our lives. Now. The computer was not the wave of the future but the wave of the present. The future was now.
But thinking about computers made me think of the flashing billboard which I saw every day on my way to school: the billboard which kept a running tally of the national deficit. In addition to new technological achievements, the future would also be the time in which we would all begin to pay for the excesses of the Eighties. Together, we had bankrupted our children’s future by allowing government to slip away from the hands of the people by our complacency. I thought also of the strange figure I had imagined on my way to school that morning. The woman with the death’s head face. Some strange personal omen? Or perhaps just an overactive imagination. Then I looked over at the face of our sleeping child. Virtual and actual reality. They both kept swimming through the currents of my mind.
I heard the voice again. Very clearly it said: ‘The Party’s Over.’ Outside in the rain, perhaps going home as well, the pronouncement meaning something different to the utterer. Perhaps. Probably. No one in America likes to think too far in the future or make the painful decisions necessary to bring us back in line. But sometime soon, we were all going to have to. Only then could we fully benefit from our sparkling new technologies.
by[* Matthew J. Pierce*]
“Like an over turned bag of marbles.” That’s what Professor Charles Winters had once called the new Sol Three system, and he remembered that every time he glanced at planetary imagery of Earth and its circuit of man-made moons.
Far be it for Earth not to be the centre of its own universe; corporations had instead built around their mother planet, assembling orbital stations that were terra-ready planetoids for the offering. And while the Samsung Triumvirate and Verizon National built their corporate zaibatsu moon bases, nations unified against the encroaching threat of interstellar colonists built an artificial defence relay around Mother Earth. An orbital ring they simply called, the Halo.
Solar charged, the Halo was a theoretical barrier relay that would emanate its stored energy from its top and bottom surface which would then stretch about the planet, pulled by structures built at her poles. To date nothing had tested the Halo’s resiliency, because, to date, nothing had ever gotten past the thirteen Siege Engine Defenders that hovered several feet above its surface.
With skins of metallic chrome and featureless faces, the giant Defender series of Siege Engines waited patiently to be called upon to defend the billions of humans behind them. In the meantime they lay dormant, with only the ether-mind of the Siege Factory to keep watch just as it had since its birth the day vampires rose up against the Millennium Man.
Charlie Winters never had much use for the Factory’s ‘creator,’ Thomas Lansing. To him, Lansing was nothing more than lucky; a socialite with a hyperactive imagination who was born into money and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. No, to Charles the real Lansing genius was Thomas’ mother, Eleanor. So how fitting for Charlie that Thomas, who had always hoped to shadow his mother’s legacy, used Eleanor’s digitally rendered neural network to give the Siege Factory its artificial intelligence.
Charlie had visited Eleanor quite often over the last several years; having long ago introduced his own neural spectre into Mother Lansing’s logic network as a remote query. From the onset, Charlie found Eleanor to be twice the genius Thomas was and every bit the obstinate bitch. Interacting with Eleanor and the Siege Factory had allowed Charlie to analyse the capabilities of the Halo and the Siege Flotilla assembled above Earth’s equator. Though Charlie admired his interactions with Eleanor, his intentions were far from noble, which should have come to no surprise to anyone who remembered who he was.
Charlie Winters was contemplating a new login to Eleanor’s network even now as he shifted uncomfortably once again in the sterile, medical grade steel chair that sat in the centre of a medical cell inside the sixteenth floor of the Silbermann Building in West Harbour. Everything from the fifteenth floor up was leased by the Winters and had been his home now for nearly four decades. Though ageless in appearance and function, Charlie’s quest to remain relevant through the ages came with much effort.
“Bimini-FOY session eighty-two ready to commence, Professor,” announced the disembodied voice of the home’s central data processor.
Winters didn’t trust artificial intelligence and so hadn’t bought into its development or employment, but that was another story.
“Are you ready to begin?”
Even without a vocal reply, Charlie heard the hydraulic arm behind him activate, lifting a quintet of large barrel needles closer to his brain stem.
“You know I am, Nurse Ratchet. Let’s get this over with, I have shit to do.”
Acknowledgement enough, the arm crossed the remaining distance and the needles pierced Charlie’s skin.
Charlie was exaggerating. He didn’t have all that much to do. In fact, Charlie had done very little that didn’t have to do with preparing for the Second Coming, the return of the Imperial Magistrate. He had seeded decades of plans in hopes that the Earth would be ready for her return, even prolonging his own life despite the death of his wife and the other members of the Faustian Four during the First Contact.
Charlie considered himself vital to Earth surviving the Second Coming and doubted any plan of resistance that didn’t directly stem from one of his own machinations.
Since it occurred to Charlie that he hadn’t logged a query with Mother Lansing in some time, he figured now was as good a time as any. Once the neural link was established between Charlie’s neural network and that of the Siege Factory, his mind rendered a skyscraper penthouse office, with a neo-modern Pacific City as its backdrop. Of course it was complete fiction; nothing in Pacific City even resembled this.
“Good afternoon, Charles. I thought you might be paying me a visit today.”
The simulation translated Charlie’s puzzled look perfectly. “Did I miss an anniversary? I’m not remembering anything special about the date…” He took a seat in his usual arm chair, smiling across the glass and marble desk that Eleanor always sat behind.
“Oh no, my dear. There’s nothing extravagant about the date. It’s been one hundred three days since your last query; since our last chat. That in of itself is extravagant, Charles. You should visit more often.”
Eleanor’s avatar was based upon what she remembered of her appearance at the age of forty. Her face was thin, with rigid cheek bones and inquisitive, piercing eyes.
Charlie smiled at her.
“Still trying to guess what the Naughty Professor is up to, Eleanor?”
“Always, Charles,” she replied. “Though I’ve eliminated four thousand and forty two possible reasons since our first meeting. I’m getting warmer.”
A warning gift wrapped with her signature half smile.
Charlie had enough. “So what was it then that made you believe I’d log in today?”
“My latest deep space sensor scans, of course. I surmised long ago that you’re only interested in me for my toys.” She rendered another smile. “I calculate that although you will not be satisfied with the end result of the scans, you will still find them of great interest regardless.”
“All right, all right, Eleanor. Up with the skirts already and let’s see what you’ve got for me.”
The air between them was then filled with opaque displays and images. Deep space sensor scans, astral topography, enhanced terrestrial observatory projections, several artefacts to explain one easy to understand notion: something was coming.
“Imperial Magistrate,” Charlie concluded.
“That is a predictable assessment but an incorrect one, Charles. Look at the data again; with your eyes this time and not your desires.”
Again Eleanor smiled, and again it irritated Charlie.
He furrowed his brow, stood up from the chair and bent forward to look over the accumulated data more thoroughly. They were both silent for several moments and when Charlie’s eyes widened and he stood back full height, the artificially intelligence Eleanor Lansing knew he had it right this time.
“The Hand of Ura.”
“We will be ready, Charles.”
“I highly doubt that, Eleanor.”
Log in terminated. Session ended
Professor Charles Winters exited the elevator to the twenty-third floor of the Silbermann Building with a renewed bounce in his step. His stride and obvious determination masked his dread well enough from anyone who would have seen him but truthfully there were only three other people in the area leased by him.
Charlie had been preparing for the Second Coming ever since the Imperial Magistrate had slaughtered his wife and teammates. Even when he believed that Michael Manly would have been enough to safeguard them all against the Magistrate’s return, recent events suggested otherwise. Taking stock of what Earth had to offer for ‘heroes,’ Charlie had prolonged his own eternal rest to take on the responsibility himself.
Passive efforts, direct action, anything Charlie put in motion to ensure Earth’s preparedness seemed to be continuously undone by the evolution of her post-moderns. Complacent, obstinate, pretentious, selfish, the qualities of Earth’s hero-capable humans seemed to diminish with every new generation.
And so it was, thirty years ago, that Charlie Winters finally gave in and realised that all hope for Earth was lost. The day after, when Charlie awoke alone in his bed, nothing else mattered to him but the preservation of the Winters Legacy beyond Earth #746392.
On his way to the monitor womb, which would allow Charlie to control his own observation instruments and collect his own data, a door opened to the Biogenic Laboratory. Hearing the familiar hydraulic hiss of the door, he knew immediately who would be stepping into the corridor.
The decision wasn’t difficult even if the science behind it was. In the best interest of preserving his long-laboured legacy, Charlie had needed to perform one of the most taboo scientific achievements in history. He had resurrected his long dead wife, Shirley Winters.
“I was headed upstairs to find you,” Shirley announced.
When Charlie slowed she joined his side and leaned in for a peck on his cheek. He allowed the display of affection and the two synchronised their pace, proceeding down the long hallway.
“The core was showing me that you had the Omni-Sphere changing azimuth. That’s worrisome.”
As worrisome as it may have been, nothing in Shirley’s demeanour betrayed as much. Her constant calm was a quantity that Charlie loved in her and one he found unmatched in any other woman. This quality among others made his decision to bring her back one of no-contest. No other woman could listen, understand and readily accept what Charlie would one day tell her, but Shirley Winters had, and since that day had never faltered in aiding him in what became a joint mission of preservation.
“I’ll actually be reconfiguring the Omni-Sphere very shortly. I’ll be boosting the unidirectional gains; no need for the three-sixty.”
“Which direction interests you today?” Shirley looked up at her husband. To see them together might reveal how Charlie made the impossible happen. Shirley, in this incarnation, appeared half his age and biologically she was.
The original Shirley Winters was still dead; murdered by what the Magistrate had left behind after her defeat by Mysteria and Millennium Man during First Contact. This Shirley Winters had been grown, her DNA reanimated by science and raised from infancy to be an instrument in Charlie’s ultimate victory.
“Still not reading minds, sweetheart?” Charlie’s tone was off and Shirley showed her displeasure with his concern.
She adored him, loved him in every way a woman could love a man, but she always expected more of him, almost as if she expected him to rise above the normalcy of the common man to transcend into some sort of dimensional constant.
“I’ve gotten over it,” Shirley declared. She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head. “Whatever the source material was capable of has nothing to do with me, Charlie, you know that. Not being able to channel surf people’s thoughts has never stopped me from doing what’s needed to be done.”
“It was a jab, Shirley. It was a decent trade off. Telepathy for expanded telekinetic abilities; we may need them sooner than later.”
“Which direction interested you today, husband?” Shirley asked again.
Charlie looked down at her and raised a finger skyward, knowing that it would be answer enough.
“Mother Lansing detected vessels on the outer edge of her scanning range. I need to make my own analysis.”
“If they’ve only now shown up and just inside the limits of her range then we still have time, Charlie.”
He furrowed his brow in agitation. She should have been right about that.
“Lansing sat on the data. It was too far for any real resolution; just blobs on a black background. She had to wait for them to travel from out behind astral shadows so she could make out some of the shapes and markings.”
“Imperial Magistrate?” Her tone was steady, unrevealing.
“No.” Charlie and Shirley had reached the entrance to the monitor womb and the door opened in greeting.
Shirley walked to the right and Charlie to the left, both of them moving in unison as they had for many years now, complementing each other, a perfectly synchronised duo.
From smooth counter spaces rose monitors and keyboards in a softly painted plain-white room. Nothing about the room could distract either one of them from the data they wanted to review, whether it was printed on screen or displayed against the seamless walls around them. Charlie began re-directing the observation system’s priorities to concentrate on the pressing effort. Shirley, in the meantime, prepared empty database schemas to receive and store what they hoped would be a near endless stream of informative data.
“I always expected—planned—on the Imperial Magistrate’s return. Interrogations, multiversal sampling, casing some of the seediest deep space hubs outside of the Milky Way… everything suggested a new Magistrate had ascended after Akathriel Yan Yehod Sebaoth’s fall in Pacific City. But remote viewing, peering into what could be, that began to suggest other possibilities.”
The reconfiguration of Charlie’s observation devices, affixed to the roof top of the Silbermann Building, was complete. Accepting that the Siege Factory did not necessarily see Charles Winters as a trusted ally, there was a chance that whatever data Eleanor Lansing chose to share was only a fraction of the whole. There may have been more to what the A.I. detected and reasons to keep Charlie’s awareness at bay. He’d have to rely on his own devices and hijack others to make sure he was getting the full picture.
Charlie viewed full motion video, captured by various observation platforms both Earth bound and collected by surveillance systems scattered about the lunar moon bases. Shirley studied data captured into their local databases, directing their own advanced systems to translate it all into usable information. Charlie fell back into a seat at the counter and rested an elbow on the armrest. Tracing the coarse lines in his forehead, Charlie vocalised deductions made over the last few decades.
“If it were the Wrath, we might have stood half a chance. But the Hand…” he trailed into brief silence. He already knew what he wanted to do, but timing was so very important. He had to be careful not to show his hand too early or everything he had orchestrated would fall apart. ”We’ve already lost.”
“Charlie.” Shirley stood motionless across from him, staring at him sternly. How he envied her coldness sometimes. ”Maybe you should have grown another version of yourself too. A Charlie Winters that would stop whining and get off his ass, instead of throwing in the towel like an old man.”
Charlie leaned to one side of his seat and pinched his chin in thought.
“All right then. We’ve prepared for this eventuality. Time to prepare the package, my sweet Shirley.”
Shirley Winters smiled at her husband with obvious pride and proceeded out of the monitor womb without another word.
by[* Jason S. Kenney*]
“Damn it, Carter! You make a lousy bodyguard!”
It wasn’t the first time she had said it in their brief working relationship. Jeffery Carter cursed (not at her insult, he was willing to grant her that) but at the situation as he ducked a brick that just missed his head and shattered into the wall behind him.
“Does this damn thing have a face?” he shouted.
Ayesha Swanson didn’t hear him, concentrating on the contents of her bag as she dug around for something that might work.
“Christ, I hope this thing has a face,” Jeffery muttered to himself as he braced himself. “‘Cause I so want to punch it in it.”
He quickly reached out and snatched a flailing tentacle that caught Swanson’s attention just inches from her face.
“See,” Carter said, “good bodyguard.”
The tentacle wrapped around Carter’s wrist and whipped back, taking him with it.
“Keep it occupied!” Ayesha shouted after him, returning to her bag.
Jeffery hadn’t heard her but fulfilled her request just the same, though not on his own terms. The creature flung him across the room, sending him crashing into the far wall and sliding into a heap on the floor. He groaned as he got back to his feet, the beast’s full attention on him.
A dozen unblinking eyes floating on what looked to be tar were focused on him. The black mass sat atop a seemingly endless mass of tentacles that carried its bulk in Jeffery’s direction.
“Tall, dark and freaky,” Jeffery said aloud, smiling to himself before he finished his joke, “just like she likes ‘em.” He filed that one away to dig at Ayesha with once he finished punching this thing into submission.
He planted his feet as it slowly approached. He took a deep breath, nodded to himself, and was off, running a serpentine track, avoiding a straight path, hoping it’d keep the beast off guard. He ducked a tentacle, leapt over another, hit the ground and sprang again, this time higher, this time shouting as he reared back a fist and came down somewhere in the mass of eyes, hoping he’d found this thing’s face.
His fist connected. Then went into the creature’s body. Followed by the rest of him.
Jeffery popped out of the backside of the creature in a spray of black mass and what made up the beast‘s guts. The creature unceremoniously fell to the ground as Jeffery landed on his face.
“That’s one way to do it,” Ayesha said as Jeffery pushed himself up on all fours and heaved.
“Oh, God,” Jeffery said, “I think I swallowed some of it.”
“Don’t worry, puts hair on your chest.”
Jeffery resisted giving her the finger.
“That wasn’t so bad,” he said with a groan as he pushed himself back and into a seated position.
“That’s because you tore out its heart,” Ayesha tossed a red glowing orb into Jeffery’s lap.
“That’s its heart?”
“Heart, power source, soul, whatever. It’s what made it alive and now it’s dead. Good Jeffery.”
Jeffery tossed it back to Ayesha and pushed himself to his feet.
“So that’s it?”
“Huh. That was…’ Jeffery’s words were cut off with a choke that gave Ayesha pause.
He started hacking, hands up to his own throat as he bent over, staggered, eyes wide. He reared his head back as black tentacles started pulling out of his mouth.
Ayesha dropped the orb and ran back to her bag, quickly rummaging through and emerging with a simple wooden stick. She spun with it out stretched and shouted a language long dead, a bolt shooting from the stick and into Jeffery’s face, sending him back on the ground, the tentacles writing but still pulling, wrapping around his head in an effort to free themselves from his body.
She ran toward him, spun the wand in her hand and as she straddled Jeffery she jammed the tip into the mass of tentacles and down his throat. Another shout, another blast, and she was thrown off of Jeffery and onto the ground. She sat up and pushed her hair from her face, wand in outstretched hand, ready.
Jeffery squirmed and coughed, remains of the tentacles scattered around his face, smoke rising out of his open mouth. Another cough, a spasm, and he rolled onto his side, vomiting on the floor.
“You okay?” Ayesha asked. Jeffery held up a hand, shook his head and threw up again.
“Ugh,” he groaned, rolling back onto his back and taking a deep breath. “I’m never eating calamari again.”
“Good.” Ayesha pushed herself to her feet. “Let’s get going.”
Jeffery slowly got up and shuffled next to her as she put her wand and the orb into her gym bag.
“So was that an old friend of yours?” he asked as she zipped the bag shut.
“Tall, dark and freaky,” Jeffery said, nodding toward the immobile mass in the centre of the room. “Just like you like ‘em.”
He gave her a wink and a smile but she just stared at him blankly.
“That was a joke.”
“It wasn’t funny.”
Ayesha Swanson hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and walked past him.
“Yes it was,” Jeffery Carter muttered to himself, shaking his head and following after her.
Read what happens next in by Jason S. Kenney
by[* Ashley Corgan*]
He was trapped atop the arid mesa, nothing but hundreds of feet of screaming behind and a world of hurt before him.
Miguel regretted using the spin manoeuvre so early on. Overconfidence and dollar signs clouded his better judgment. Several claw slashes and a bullet wound later freed him of the mental noise.
Two days in the Outback, that’s nuffin’ for the Dustdevil.
A hydraulic hiss from his left made him run to his right, another set of claw marks wet his back.
“Fuck-a-roo,” he cried as his assailant uncloaked and Miguel Stevens spied the mechanical behemoth standing a dozen meters away, its missing arm embedded in his flesh heavily weighing him down.
The machine, running out of external weaponry about 14 hours ago, turned to launching its own arms as last ditch projectiles. The madness of desperation coupled with dehydration kept him from using his preternatural speed to use the arms to return fire.
Tears of frustration stung his dry, cracked flesh. He tore a bit of dead skin from his lips and chewed it absently. He was thoroughly fucked.
A choked cry escaped his lips as the arm began flexing its mechanical digits, further fraying his back muscles. The machine simply stood silently observing its wounded quarry.
Miguel tore the cowl from his face, his identity no longer a secret, not since his capture and trial. He dropped to his knees and spat at the machine, the red tinged mucus coming short of the gleaming metal of its feet.
“Lansing,” the beaten man whispered at the motionless monolith.
Dustdevil looked around the rocky shelf but to no avail.
Again, no response.
Think of it as a ‘Work Release’ program, he had been told.
After a short internment at Alhazred, he was diagnosed and treated for his mental illness and then transferred into a proper facility for his kind. He spent years in electromagnetic bonds, hobbled from using his gift, his curse of faster-than-sound speed. Years locked up had left him daffy, his brain capable of recognising and comprehending stimuli and thought faster than a normal man, so that every moment was indeed an eternity.
[We want you to run again.
__][Run, Miguel, run, like the devil you are.
__]He felt a gush of blood as he tensed his every-wired muscles for another hard push at the sound-barrier.
“This wasn’t the deal, Lansing! Not at fuckin’ all, you prick! WITH YOUR STUPID MACHINE,” he screamed heavenward, the machine unmoving, unmoved.
Miguel put his cowl back on, the built-in lenses protecting his eyes from the grit the wind carried.
“Yipee-kai-aye., he whispered.
Wrenching the metal talons from his back with terrible quickness, he deftly feinted to the right, his mind registering the movements of the infernal bipedal device as he instead made for the left.
There was a fraction of a second of delay as the machine cloaked, obviously readying for the pursuit, but Dustdevil was finished. His work was this test. His release, sweet death.
He did the spin manoeuvre again.
Running in a perpetual, perfect, concentric path until a tornado formed, pulling in the dust and grit into a funnel like that rose from the earth, like the finger of Hell.
Rocks and stone chips pelted the invisible assailant, metal pings and tangs resounded as the twister enveloped the once hidden automaton.
Discovered, the machine reacted with its final arm flying to the heart of flurry.
The sounds of a car wreck echoed meters apart. Metal kissing metal while metal penetrated flesh.
The earth of the arid desert drank deep of the fallen Dustdevil, the winds taking up bits of his costume and flesh, blood and dirt caked on the arm that stuck out of his chest.
A short distance from the welcomed death, the technical titan stood in Pyrrhic victory, itself impaled by its own arm, it too caked with blood and gravel.
Sparks issued from the gaping wound, smoke rose from the circumference of the hole that held the arm aloft, a recording played out from what one could call a head of the gleaming metal figure.
“Yipee-kai-aye,” it whispered.
Excerpt from “Chapter I”
by[* Jack Buxton*]
It took a second for her to compose her breathing, and thankfully, that’s all she could hear.
It soothed her for a second.
On her back, she looked towards the cave’s dimly moonlit roof in a blanket of safe silence, and saw a place that bred privacy, a space clear of any enemies and friends. It was so quiet and peaceful she felt the total comfort of solitude, as if in a locked bathroom within a big house, where you could take a hearty dump and feel zero embarrassment, or where you could masturbate freely, and nobody would ever hear or know.
Her breathing started to regulate back to its ordinary pace.
“That was a close one, bud,” a voice casually said from out the dark.
Ayesha’s heart raced with adrenaline, and she yelped with fright. Feeling the hot rush of blood to her head, it began again to throb in solid beats. There was something else in the cave, something that did not welcome her inside.
Blindness clouds judgement and the unknown becomes an evil nightmare.
Capture and torture in a foreign land. That is the only outcome here.
She undeniably concluded she would now be like a POW within the deep jungles of Vietnam, forced to play Russian roulette with a red bandana on her head—a game for her mysterious captors to enjoy before whatever held her prisoner ate her. Fear always makes human meat taste better off the bone.
“Bud, it’s me!” Mister Mo assured.
“Holy—” she sighed with a hint of relief. “Mister Mo? I can’t see you.”
His voice sounded close but simultaneously distant, like talking through a loudspeaker.
“I’m here,” he replied with a sense of arrogant certainty.
“MISTER MO!” she grunted, frustrated.
On the cave’s inner wall, his image appeared like an old picture drawn by a forgotten race of tribesmen from prehistoric times.
“The hell’s going on here?”
“Well, you’re not in a dream, that’s for sure.”
“What? Speak sense, man!”
“Okay, well, do you remember when we followed those instructions to meet that doctor?”
Ayesha frowned, “I can’t remember much. I had a handwritten note?’
“Yeah,” Mo replied, “Dr. Theodor Vince Ader. He wrote it.” Mo paused and echoed a brief laugh. “Wow, his mother must have hated her son to name him that!
“Well basically, he kidnapped us and sent your soul here.”
“And where might here be?”
“Well, our bodies are in London, near the Eye, but you’re simultaneously in that world.”
“What do you mean? What world?”
“What I mean to say, bud, is that he has sent part of you to another dimension,” Mister Mo spoke honestly, almost coldly.
Ayesha looked to the floor and wistfully kicked out at a small, lifeless rock with her dirty white Converse.
“Do you remember anything?” he asked.
She looked up and stared at him, detached and emotionless
Mo continued to speak, “We had a note sent from Vin, asking for our help with something. Don’t know what, though. He could’ve asked us to wipe his arse for him, who care’s as long as we’re paid, right?”
He chuckled, but Ayesha remained unyielding, she never liked when he laughed at his own jokes.
Mo coughed and moved the subject on, “We met him, and he attacked us. You cast a spell that hit his keyhole shaped mirror and it rebounded onto me and simultaneously sent you to only God knows where.”
“Were you hurt?” she shyly asked.
Mister Mo began to laugh. “What, by your magic? Not at all, it’s hard to damage this physique.
“It did do something to me though. That’s how I can travel to where you are, in this ghost form.”
Ayesha raised her eyebrows, “You what?”
“My body is still in London but my mind is here with you, right now.”
“I’ve discovered that, like in a dream, I can explore this world by impersonating different entities. Although my primary skills are limited and unpredictable, like now, I’m a drawing, but I managed to think that up. But earlier I was a ghost.
“Later on I could be a steaming pile of shit, who knows?” His image altered into an old worker’s boot with a creamy brown mass on the heel.
Reluctantly, she smiled at the image.
“It all depends on the thing I’m trying imitate, but I’m essentially asleep. Like, before you woke up, I appeared as a physical form of myself, but couldn’t move. Have you ever had that while dreaming?”
Ayesha nodded as her smile began to fade.
“I’m not sure why I was naked though…”
“You were what?” Her smile completely disappeared now.
“I was just kind of… standing there… over you… with no clothes on …”
An awkward silence fell between them, a change of subject begged for attention.
“How’s Aimi?” she quickly asked sitting herself crossed legged on the cold ground.
Following her question, Mo’s image transformed, and a detailed sketch of Vin’s lair began to carve itself into thin air in streaks of white neon lights.
“Can you see it?” he asked.
Ayesha tried to absorb every piece of information, and managed to make out that her, Mo and their friend Aimi Underwood were prisoners somewhere below ground level.
“My body is safe, right?”
“Think so. It was before I lost consciousness. I’m telling you, for a skinny bloke, the doctor can pack a punch.”
“Where am I, Mister Mo?” Ayesha snapped, standing up and running her hand down her face, smearing the drying blood across her cheek.
“Location is scarcely logical within existential realities. Personally, I think that you’re on another world, revolving around a foreign sun in an unknown galaxy—”
“Christ, you know how to dumb it down for me!”
“Bud,” Mo just simply stated like a teacher to his students.
Ayesha simply grunted.
“You’ve apparently been transported to an alternative universe, a place not even the Starship Enterprise has discovered yet.
“Just give me a couple of hours and I’ll figure out how to get you back.”
“Great,” she sarcastically said. “You’ve seen that my magic doesn’t work in this world. How am I supposed to fight against those stone freaks?”
Her thoughts returned to the vast orchards of rotting trees that breathed within a purple haze.
This is all just one twisted illusion from an eccentric madman, she thought.
Read the full story in by Jack Buxton
by[* Jacob Milnestein*]
“This is actual nonsense,” she said slamming her suitcase down upon the bed, watching it bounce amidst the neat covers pulled tightly over the mattress. “I really don’t want to do this!”
Her companion, dark hair tied back in a loose ponytail standing with her back to the bed, facing her own suitcase and the slightly open window, offered a pitiful shrug.
“Well, it gets you out of work for a bit, right?” she offered weakly.
“I like work! I like getting paid! I don’t like having to phone up my boss from Victoria coach station with a little bit of a cough, pretending I’ve got the flu because you want to drag me all the way out—out—here to stay in a bloody hotel room that I have to share with Mister bloody Mo of all people!”
Across the room, Mister Mo waved his arms like a penguin and looked faintly anxious.
“It’s okay, buds, we’re all friends here, right?”
“Not that bloody good friends, Mister Mo!” Aimi Underwood snapped, turning her attention fiercely towards him.
He shrunk further back into the corner.
With a sigh, Ayesha Swanson turned away from the window.
“Honestly, it’s not my fault. UKXD budgets aren’t what they once were and really I could only afford just the one room.”
“Then Mister Mo needs to bloody sleep in the hallway!” Aimi shouted.
Again, the large bodyguard trying to retreat into the corner of the room waved his arms anxiously.
“It’s okay, buds, I can spend the night in the bar, ah,” he paused, looking faintly uncomfortable, “especially if you need special lady time.”
“We’re not here for special lady time, Mister Mo,” Ayesha said, hefting up her Adidas sports bag onto her own bed and pulling open the zip. “We’re here because we have a job to do.”
Awkwardly, the large bodyguard looked between the two women, gently tapping his fingertips together and shuffling his weight from foot to foot.
“So that means I’ll be sleeping—?”
“In the hallway!” Aimi shouted, angrily ripping open her suitcase.
Ayesha offered her large companion an apologetic look and with a sigh, zipped up the sports bag on her bed once more.
“Come on, Mister Mo, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Don’t make any noise when you come back in!” Aimi snapped, refusing to turn back and look at them as she pulled the tangled wires of her hair straighteners from her suitcase. “I plan on being asleep within half an hour.”
Ayesha nodded meekly.
“I’ll be quiet, don’t worry.”
“Yes,” her friend turned, her face ablaze with anger. “Yes, you bloody well will.”
Her finger moved softly around the rim of the glass, a warm circle of melted water staining the wood below.
“So, tell me about these spidermen then,” Mister Mo said, lifting his pint of unfamiliar lager and taking a deep swig.
Ayesha looked down at the melting ice cubes at the bottom of the glass.
“Well, primarily there’s Ziggy, who played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly,” she offered.
“The other spidermen,” Mister Mo said, lowering his glass, “the ones we’ve come all the way out here to see.”
“Tsuchigumo,” Ayesha said still looking morosely at the remaining ice cubes and the last traces of her vodka and Red Bull. “They’re traders and merchants mostly, a nomadic people who stick to the mountains. Some of them can pass for human, others… can’t.”
“Well, if they mostly stick to these mountains why aren’t Russian Xenobiology Division or Chinese Xenobiology Division dealing with them?” Mister Mo asked indignantly, turning to look around at the handful of people present in the hotel bar.
It was evening, the light of the diminishing day still flooding the richly textured carpet, highlighting the vast French windows, the plush velvet curtains and the silent grand piano standing solemn on a raised dais at the back of the room.
Six months had passed since Ayesha Swanson and Aimi Underwood had been reunited by chance and necessity; six months since they put the past to bed, since they had both vanquished evil and forgiven spitefulness, crying together in each other’s arms and promising to never leave one another despite the darkness that seemed to follow them.
A cold Christmas had followed, a gentle spring and the beginning of a slow blossoming summer.
She tightened her hand into a fist, particles of dull light gathering at will.
So much had changed…
“Because, Mister Mo, as you well know there is no Russian Xenobiology Division or Chinese Xenobiology Division. If there were, we would have killed them.”
She lifted her head and tapped the side of the glass, nodding towards the distant bartender—an effeminate man or a boyish woman, she couldn’t tell which—and gesturing towards the bottles of spirits hanging above the mirror opposite her.
“We’re here because Mister Oblique tells us to be here and we don’t want to be transferred to Mister Obscure’s team like Bai and Lam because we decided to ignore him.”
Mister Mo shrugged and offered his friend a playful smile.
“Obscure’s not that bad, little bud.”
The bartender placed a fresh glass down in front of Ayesha and she reached into her back pocket, pulling open her wallet and placing down two crisp notes of 500 roubles each and not expecting much in the way of change.
A tourist trap, Aimi had called it when they had first arrived. Yet who in their right mind would want to come to a place like this, she wondered? Who would be interested in traipsing all the way out this far from civilisation in order to stay in such an ornate and antique hotel?
Something didn’t add up.
She smiled grimly, remembering that UKXD would not be picking up the tab. With slow movements, she lifted the glass to her lips and paused momentarily.
“Mister Mo, do you feel a little light-headed?” she asked.
Despite jet lag, despite the endless train journey crammed into a carriage with farmers and students, each of them shouting above her head as they seemingly moved about the train from carriage to carriage; despite the exhaustion of the journey and her recent argument with Aimi, Ayesha refused to accept that circumstances had worn down her metabolism to the point that what little alcohol in her system there was could already have affected her so.
Mister Mo frowned, attempted to rise from his stool at the bar and then dropped back down into it.
“Now that you mention it, bud—” he begun, his eyes suddenly losing focus, his great form swaying.
Struggling against sudden nausea, Ayesha turned on her stool.
“Aimi,” she murmured in panic, pulling the glass free from the bar, splashing drink across the carpet and holding it out like a wand. “Way of Blessing number nine! Óttar’s Recollection! With eyes wide, grant the wakening dreamer chance of—”
She staggered forward and toppled from her stool, the glass sliding from her grasp and falling uselessly on the damp carpet.
Despite the stirring of her lips, Ayesha Swanson was unconscious before she even hit the floor.
From the shadows of the velvet curtains, a broad figure stepped boldly forward, the other patrons of the hotel receding back into the folds of illusion and imagination.
“Well,” he squawked, surveying the scene with swollen, unblinking eyes, “that was certainly a lot easier than predicted.”
Shuffling into the centre of the room, the light washing over the sleek, dark feathers of his back, catching upon the sheathed sword bound to his side, his appearance was revealed to be more avian than human.
He turned slowly, looking around at the lavish directions and nodding his head in slow approval as if only just noticing the room he occupied. Within the curve of his sharpened beak, his tongue clicked, his chest swelling and puffing out the rust red feathers of his breast.
About his lower half, the leather belt to which his sword was bound swayed with each step of his taloned feet upon the soft carpet.
“Hey, Kitten Puke, how’d you come up with this place anyhow?” he called over his shoulder, turning his head slowly and regarding the window with his dark, bulbous eyes.
A young girl with a towering spear and a blank expression followed after him from behind the curtain, her slight form wrapped in crinoline and lace, velvet and satin, her feet carefully keeping her within the falling shadows of the curtains and away from the light.
“Thematic magic,” she answered blankly, “simple misdirection.”
The large avian creature’s chest swelled, his head thrown back as he let out a hearty laugh.
“And to think these guys fell for it! What a bunch of losers! I thought they were supposed to be some of the best in the game? I mean, I was at least expecting them to put up a fight.”
With a clawed toe, he kicked Ayesha gently in the side, rolling her prone form onto her back and staring down at her closed eyes and the shallow rise and fall of her chest.
“Oblique’s not paying us to complicate things, Caim,” the sullen girl replied curtly, walking in a slow circle about the room, never straying too close to the dimming light. “If they go down without a fight, that’s not a problem. It helps us preserve our resources.”
She glanced down at the fallen bodyguard, her lips twitching with distaste as she regarded his peaceful expression.
Still chuckling to himself, the giant bird nodded his head, one eye upon her, the other remaining on the slumbering magician at his feet.
“Right, right, I mean it’s no skin off our noses, yeah? We’ll get our money whatever happens next. It’s just, well, I was expecting something a little more—”
A peel of thunder echoed through the building, the foundations trembling as Caim was all but thrown from his feet, his vast bulk staggered backwards towards the polished bar.
Dust filtered down from the ceiling in the wake of the explosion, a membrane of drifting plaster flakes settling over the polished wood of the bar.
Kitten Puke shot him a sour look.
“That exciting enough for you?” she snapped angrily. “Go and check on the others.”
He nodded swiftly, his feathers ruffled even as he bit back a sharp reply of his own.
“And find out what the hell that was!” she shouted after him as he darted away, his pronged feet carrying him quickly across the carpet despite his bulk.
He did not turn to offer her a reply, did not decide to offer her the benefit of his wit. Instead, he remained focused on the curving bannisters and the broad staircase and the billowing embers of hot air that drifted down to meet him from the hotel’s seventh floor.
“What’s this? What’s this?” Gilead bellowed as the smoke washed over him, dust and ruin smeared across the surface of his charcoal grey overalls.
His companion offered him a wide-eyed look of surprise, her tousled hair dancing wildly in the storm that brewed on the seventh floor landing of the imaginary hotel.
“I tell you what this is,” Gilead shouted, ripping free the straps that secured his scorched breastplate and allowing it to tumble the floor, “this is not cool, that’s what it is. Not bloody cool.”
He was right of course, Joanne Faustus thought to herself as she struggled to come to terms with the sudden change in their circumstance.
The plan, as outlined by Oblique, had been to incapacitate the freelance magician and her bodyguard, secure the bag of artefacts and then deliver both the relics and their former owner back to London. It should have been simple.
At no point anywhere along the line, did anyone mention hotel rooms exploding or a guardian made of literal embers standing between them and their prize.
They needed to act and they needed to act quickly. Unless they got the situation under control all of their hard work would be undone and the money they were due would become as insubstantial as fairy gold.
The arrangements had been simple, conveyed to her by crow and magpie within her solemn sanctuary, Oblique’s seal delivered in the mouth of the piebald prince of birds, spat out across her desk and offered as a token of respect. She need do nothing more than ascended the ladder to the location announced by her feathered informants and rendezvous with the other assigned members of the team she would be working with.
There should not have been a problem. Oblique’s missive had stated explicitly that the only danger was the magician and her bodyguard, and after Kitten Puke’s use of thematic constructs in a hermetic bubble they were both out of the question.
A fictionsphere, she remembered suddenly. That was what they had called the impossible hotel Kitten Puke had dreamt into being.
The term resonated, a combination of words she was sure she should recognise.
Gilead waved the smoke away angrily, gesturing at her with a nod of the head and then looking directly towards the door as he reached down to the holster on his belt and drew forth a glimmering golden Walther PPK engraved with four complex Chinese characters.
Fengshen Bang—the Investiture of the Gods—Gilead’s weapon was well known in the circles she moved in, famed for the creation and dethronement of living deities. It was a gun created with a spark of divinity; bullets that burrowed into flesh and spattered blood and ruin in their passing, where from the resulting mess issued forth creation.
Quickly, she shook her head, pulling her own wand free from the bindings of knotweed and St John’s wort that wrapped about her inner thigh, beneath the folds of her simple frock, the fabric decorated with pictures of rocking horses and blossom.
She was short in stature, her face round, her hips full and her hair falling in warm, chestnut curls over her shoulders.
“W-Way of Blessing,” she stammered, lifting her wand and pointing past Gilead towards the billowing smoke that poured out of the shattered door-frame.
Before she could complete the spell, a vast, flaming hand reached out of the smoke, its burning fingers wrapping about her throat and lifting her from the ground.
Joanne Faustus screamed out in agony, her legs paddling against the air, her feet kicking against nothing as her hands reached up and dug into the flames that held her. Skin blackened and blistered as she frantically clawed at the fire, her head turning, her tears boiling in her eyes as she screamed and screamed.
From the pit of her stomach, from the root of her being, behind her tonsils and behind her flesh, something came loose.
Her chest heaved, and even as she screamed, a spray of corrosive vomit spilt from her lips, washing over the flames and dowsing them instantly as liquid spattered against the carpet.
She dropped to the floor, scarred and heaving as a howl resounded from the billowing smoke, the outline of a monster struggling with its truncated limb within.
Instantly, Gilead was at her side, pulling her to her feet and dragging her away, his eyes unable to ignore the blistering burns upon her throat.
Before them, a shape rose up from the spattered vomit, a terrible figure, leathery flesh dripping with puke.
“The serene summoner asks of your insubstantial majesties a boon,” she gasped between coughs. “Prince of falsehood, Mephistophilis—fulfil this wish!”
With a laugh of foul triumph, the horned figure assumed its final form, sickly green pallor smeared with residue.
The smoke cleared at last, revealing a blistering giant composed of flickering flames, one arm ripped free at the elbow.
There was a moment in which the two monsters viewed one another solemnly, and then with terrible cries they fell upon each other, spraying filth and flame against the walls as they commenced battle.
Voices washed over him, words drifting down to him from the world above as he silently cursed himself.
He kept his eyes firmly closed, listening as the language above him began to make sense.
It had been a long time since Mister Mo had been called upon to employ such a basic of field training, a long time since he had needed to remember how to do something as simple as feign sleep.
“That exciting enough for you?” snapped a female voice angrily, youthful in tone and betraying a certain lack of patience with her companion. “Go and check on the others.”
He heard the weight of feet, movement, a posture inhuman.
“And find out what the hell that was!” the girl shouted above him, her words mingling with the sound of heavy footsteps on the staircase.
The explosion that had echoed through the hotel had been unexpected for him, unnerving even, its only positive aspect being that the event appeared to have been unexpected for their two assailants also.
He struggled to keep his features serene, devoid of any sign that he was awake.
How many attackers were there? Was Ayesha okay? Was Aimi okay? He would need to act and soon yet he knew that acting too soon would betray the only advantage he had—surprise.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs receded.
He kept his breath steady, the rise and the fall of his chest regulated even as he listened to the sound of the woman pacing back and forth along the bar.
Where had the other inhabitants of the hotel, few as they might have been, disappeared to? What had happened to the bartender and the staff, where had the tourists fled to? Perhaps they had escaped when the explosion occurred, he reflected, and yet still he had heard no stampede of feet, no charge of fleeing holidaymakers.
“This should have been easy,” he heard the woman announce to herself, her voice curiously youthful and oddly familiar, her words seemingly echoed in the walls surrounding him.
How old are you, little bud? Mister Mo found himself thinking.
A flicker of a frown crossed his face again and the pacing footsteps stopped abruptly.
He cursed inwardly and opened his eyes in time to see a sharpened edge of an ornate, ebony spear driving down through the air towards his head.
Effortlessly he rolled aside and jumped to his feet, pulling at the decorative luchador mask in his pocket and unfolding the bunched up material with a flick of his wrist.
“You’re supposed to be asleep,” his opponent stated.
He found himself confronted by a young girl of roughly 13 years, her frail frame hidden beneath layers of lace and velvet, her stockings decorated with picturesque illustrations of stars and crescent moods, her tiny feet wrapped in creepers with a thick wedge of rubber heel.
Instantly, he felt his heart melt, his posture softening.
“Hello, Babette,” he said softly, “long time, no see.”
With a cry of anger, the young girl hefted up her sharpened spear and charged towards him.
Caim hopped up the stairs two at a time, pausing when he reached the landing of the seventh floor, the stench of vomit and blistering flesh offending his olfactory senses.
Stepping out onto the balcony, he sensed sunlight at his back, the presence of a vast window behind him and a reassuring warmth upon his ruffled feathers.
He did not bother to turn back to look at the glass, did not think to check to see if some threat awaited him beyond the bubble of the fictional hotel building.
There was no need.
Stationed outside of the bubble, far back in the distant reaches of the real world, were the final two members of the team, mechanical variations on a theme; golems of a sort.
The first they had picked up on the black-market through the usual channels, and despite showing some signs of modification during its previous stay in North Korea, the hulking machine was nonetheless still capable of performing within the parameters of its original programming; the suppression of any and all who possessed powers outside of the human norm.
Serge Engine it was called, a playful harkening back to both its initial title and original ownership by a now deceased French diplomat. Its outer shell was worn and decorated with graffiti, marked with scars and dents, and yet it still wore the tattered cloak of royal purple it had come supplied with when initially purchased.
The second machine was far more insidious in Caim’s eyes. All but indistinguishable from that of a man, the later model Engine, simply named Seven, was as much of a threat to the other members of the group as it was an insurance policy.
Without a doubt, Caim was convinced that had they not enlisted Seven as a member of their alliance, the cold, stoic looking machine would more than likely have been standing against them as a bodyguard itself.
He shuddered visibly, uncomfortable with any kind of artificial construction dressed in the manner of man.
There was something about humans building things in their own image that unsettled him, despite his own blasphemous nature.
Abruptly there came a tapping from the window, the sharp, insistent suggestion of something on the outside wanting to get in.
He stared back at it for a moment and then shuddered visibly, turning away and hastening along the hallway towards the burgeoning stench of bile and flames.
“Birds,” he muttered softly to himself, “I hate birds.”
Flames crashed over the flesh of the devil in waves, a screech of pain escaping its thin lips as it grappled with the burning monster before it, claws sinking beneath tongues of fire.
Behind the struggling monsters, framed in the shattered doorway and billowing smoke, stood a young woman, sweat pronounced on her furrowed forehead.
“A—summoner?” Faustus whispered, staring across the emptiness at the other woman, her hands leaning against Gilead for support even as the very flesh began to mend itself. “T-They weren’t supposed to have a summoner.”
“Looks like they changed their plans for this mission,” the old man remarked grimly, his bushy grey eyebrows converging above his hard eyes.
“W-Who is she?” Faustus continued, gingerly lifting her fingers to the wound upon her neck.
Her own power was not that of a master summoner, rather it was a bargain of sorts, a deal that had been done long, long ago between an unfortunate ancestor, a devilish intercessor and a woman displaced by time and lust. There had been no proper summoners in England since shortly after the war, that much was known to all who moved in similar circles to Faustus and Gilead.
Summoners were a rare breed, craftsmen skilled in the control of creatures from other realms, an art that had died out with the atrophy of the Empire and the advent of the 20th century. More often than not, when a summoner was encountered in any modern context, the practitioner in question was simply invoking a familiar spirit or shikigami, never an actual true otherworldly presence.
Yet there was something in the other woman’s stature, young as she seemed; something that betrayed her true skill to Faustus and assured her that even if her pet devil was capable of overthrowing the blistering monster before them, the woman had more than just the one guardian at her command.
Slowly but calmly she shook her head.
“We can’t win, Gilead,” she said, coughing even as she spoke.
His eyebrows drew even closer together.
“You sure?” he asked.
There was no point in questioning her, yet still the words came freely and unbidden. He knew enough about the young woman leaning on him and about the idea of devil summoning in general to realise that you should never question a magician on the weaknesses of the creatures he or she could call up.
Whilst the two of them had not always worked together, whilst there had even been times when they had directly worked against each other, Gilead knew her from the old magician and marksman’s circuit, and if she said her devil couldn’t win then he was willing to take her word for it.
He looked down at the golden gun still grasped in his hand.
“What about if we try and give your boy a power up?”
She looked doubtfully back at him.
“It’s never been tested,” she whispered, her face full of agony even as she spoke the words.
Smiling with confidence, Gilead shook his head and lifted the gun, pointing it directly at the back of her devil’s head.
“Then let’s give it a shot,” he replied, pleased with his pun.
His finger slipped inside the trigger guard.
Gently but firmly, Faustus reached up and placed her hand upon Gilead’s.
He looked at her in confusion, but she simply shook her head slowly from side to side.
“You can’t do this,” she whispered.
Angrily, he pulled away from her, taking aim once again.
“Why the hell not?” he snarled with twitching lips.
“Please,” she whispered, “we don’t know what will happen.”
“We know your devil might win this fight,” he said firmly.
“We don’t know what will happen to me!” she said suddenly.
He shivered despite the warmth of the blistering enemy before them, turning to look at the expression of fear and panic wrought upon her face, and suddenly he understood.
What changes the divine weapon might stir within the devil may also translate to her own flesh; what awakened in Mephistophilis might likewise awaken in her.
He shivered once more, a terrible image of this young girl mutated beyond recognition stirring within the folds of his imagination, and quickly he turned his face away from her.
Pull yourself together, Gilead, he admonished himself. You’re supposed to be a freelance magician, not some kind of blubbering romantic.
A second explosion rocked the floor beneath them, the structure of the hotel seeming to weaken with each successive moment that passed.
He lifted his eyes, glancing up at the dust falling from the ceiling.
“Kitten Puke is losing it,” he remarked.
Faustus swallowed hard, staring intently at her devil as blood oozed from its broken jaw, its leathery flesh misshapen with scars and bruises.
“So are we,” she whispered softly to herself.
“You ignorant, pig-headed son of a bitch!” Kitten Puke shouted, her face red, the tip of her spear slicing through countless bottles of vodka on the other side of the bar.
Mister Mo leapt backwards onto the floor, the mask still clasped in his hand.
“Cupcake, you’re too young for me,” he answered in a sympathetic tone, “I told you that before.”
“I don’t want to go out with you, you dirty old perv!” she shouted, leaping down after him and again thrusting the spear forward. “You were supposed to be my bodyguard! You were supposed to look after me!”
Effortlessly, Mister Mo sidestepped the point of the spear, still managing to shrug apologetically.
“I got reassigned,” he protested.
“And I got left behind in a house that never existed! Do you know how long it took me to break free of my own bottle universe, to shatter the glass I had forged to ensure that no one could break out?”
Again, he shrugged.
“Eight years, Mister Mo!” she screamed, driving the spear at him once more. “Eight years of being trapped in an imaginary house, eight years of being a 13-year-old girl! Eight years without any kind of human contact whatsoever! And now I find you here, swanning around with another magician like nothing ever happened, like I was never a member of UKXD too! Do you know how angry I am with you right now?”
“Sorry, little bud,” the broad-shouldered man replied, jumping upwards onto a table, glasses falling to the carpet as he paused to steady himself and pull the mask over his head. “But couldn’t you have just… made someone up whilst you were there?”
He looked up at her, pulling the material tight over his features, his calm expression hidden behind the visage of a skull decorated with butterflies and pearls.
“I mean, if I had been in your shoes, I would have totally imagined a whole room full of babes…”
“That’s not the point!” the young girl screamed, flying towards him.
Effortlessly, he reached out and snatched hold of the spear, stepping away from the sharpened point and pulling the shaft of the weapon close to him, leaving the young girl dangling in the air.
“Why didn’t you come after me?” she asked softly, tears stirring in her eyes.
The ground trembled, the details of their surroundings wavering.
Mister Mo shrugged once more, this time with less conviction.
“I thought Mister Oblique would rescue you,” he answered, his voice suddenly quiet.
“Idiot,” she spat, looking away, “you should know Oblique never rescues anyone.”
There was silence between them for a moment, the young magician hanging in the air before him, her hands still wrapped tightly around her ornate spear.
“Who are you working for now, Babette?” Mister Mo asked after a while.
She refused to meet his gaze.
“Who do you think?”
A tremor rocked the imaginary hotel and Caim staggered once more, crashing into the wall and stumbling forward.
All around him, the building began to lose substance, the colour draining from its appearance, running like wet paint down through the floor and taking with it the details of the structure.
He shook his head angrily, struggling to keep himself steady as the framework of Kitten Puke’s imagination seemed to fade, accelerated atrophy stripping the design away and leaving plain white walls around him.
The stench of vomit and fire remained however, stirring him to his senses, forcing him to keep moving ahead despite the disorientation of his changing surroundings.
Again he heard the tapping of the bird’s beak against the glass at his back.
If the hotel continued losing form then soon that little bird would break its way through, he reflected grimly.
Ahead of him, he caught sight of Gilead and Faustus standing amidst the afterbirth of the explosion, smoke curdling around them, Gilead’s arm outstretched.
His eyes widened, his heart quickening.
If one of those tremors had been Fengshen Bang and not Kitten Puke’s concentration…
Without warning the featureless wall on his left, and the stoic doors now lacking handles, broke open in a flurry of bleached splinters and stone as two massive beasts came barrelling into the corridor, fighting tooth and nail with each other.
He leapt back, his heart in his gullet, fear in his dark, expressive eyes and a tremble running through his frame even as he reached down and drew his sabre.
All of a sudden, the glass behind him shattered, the screech of a bird and the beat of swift wings echoing loudly in his ears as he turned and flinched instinctively, throwing his arms up over his head as a magpie sailed over him.
He turned again, his eyes tracking its path in the space between floor and ceiling, watching its pointed weak and widespread wings as it raced past the wrestling monsters, flew out of reach of Faustus and Gilead, and vanished into the smoke and ruin beyond.
All around him, the substance of the hotel faded, its walls and floors suddenly impossibly brittle.
With wide eyes, his attention was drawn towards the two monsters, the swollen form of the hulking fire creature, its one massive hand wrapped around the throat of its opponent, lifting it up into the air and hurling it into the wreckage of the featureless rooms to its right.
Mephistophilis did not get back up.
For a moment, the flaming monster stood in the hallway between Caim and his colleagues, and then slowly its lustre began to fade, its form petering out, paling in the bright light of the white structure that resided beneath the imaginary hotel.
The smoke began to clear, and with surprise he found another woman amongst them in the hallway, her expression twisted with anger, the wild magpie perched upon her shoulder.
He opened his beak to demand her name, to challenge her presence before them, but before he could call out, her lips were already moving.
“The awakened summoner requests of your insubstantial majesties a boon,” she said softly, the bird on her shoulder staring directly at him. “Come forth and swallow whole all that lies in your path, Jonah’s Whale.”
Without warning, a giant maw like a vast, black pit opened before them, darkness obliterating the white, obscuring both the sight of the young woman and the featureless décor of their surroundings.
Caim felt himself dragged forward, pulled through the air and into the void.
There was the brief impression of massive teeth, the understanding of small, dark eyes and smooth flesh over which endless waves had crashed, and then there was nothing.
The hotel of Kitten Puke’s imagination, the fallen magician and her bodyguard, the bag of relics, and even the girl with the fiery hair and the wild magpie at her side; all were gone in an instant.
Her eyes snapped open abruptly, the details of a pale white ceiling above her.
Within the space of a heartbeat, she leapt up, quickly taking in the subtleties of the whitewashed room, the vague impression of familiarity in the setting and the presence of Mister Mo, his mask covering his features, standing atop a table with a young girl in elaborate frills and a sharpened spear between them.
“Explain,” she said sharply, looking from one to the other, her right hand balling into a fist behind her back, warm light falling softly over her bare knuckles.
Mister Mo did not take his eyes off the young girl before him.
“No problem here, little bud, everything’s fine,” he announced, and yet his tone was strained, a certain degree of caution present in the way he spoke.
“Who is this girl?” Ayesha demanded. “Where’s Aimi?”
“I’m here,” called a voice from the curve of the white staircase.
Ayesha glanced sharply around to see the other woman leaning heavily on the bannister, shaken and covered in soot but seemingly unharmed.
On the stairs above her, a magpie perched, solemn and judgemental.
“Explain,” Ayesha said again.
The young girl relinquished her grasp on the spear and gently dropped to the surface of the table, refusing to look at Ayesha.
“We weren’t told there were three of you,” she remarked in a surly voice.
“Who didn’t tell you?” Ayesha demanded. “Why did you attack us?”
Unseen by Ayesha, Mister Mo shook his head gently from side to side, a subtle warning to his youthful opponent.
“D-Department of Homeland Security,” the child stammered.
Ayesha raised an eyebrow, her stance softening slightly.
“The Americans?” she asked. “Why did the Americans send you?”
The girl stole a swift glance towards Aimi, watching as she sighed with boredom and sat down upon the immaculate white stairs.
“What happened to my colleagues?” the child questioned.
Aimi gestured with a wave of her hand.
“They’re fine,” she remarked, “back where they came from, I imagine.”
The girl nodded.
Swiftly, Aimi shook her head.
“Not dead, no.”
Angrily, Ayesha took a step forward.
“I’m asking questions here!” she said firmly.
Another look passed between the child and Ayesha’s masked bodyguard, and then with a sudden and unexpected movement, she reached out, pulled on the shaft of the spear and jumped upwards into the air, disappearing into nothingness.
Ayesha cursed loudly, stamping her right foot on the ground.
“Mister Mo!” she shouted with exasperation. “Mister Mo, you son of a bitch, you totally let her get away!”
Her bodyguard shrugged apologetically and jumped down from the table, grateful for the mask and its decoration, the touch of the material against his face, hiding his true expression.
“Sorry, bud, she caught me by surprise.”
Ayesha glowered at him angrily and then turned towards her friend.
“Just for once,” Aimi remarked, “I’d like not to have to get into fights with prissy teenage girls, you know?”
Epilogue: One Week Earlier…
The aged bell above the door rang once, a warming chime that resounded through the shop as the door opened and the thin man in his crisp black suit slid wordlessly within.
The dust rose to greet him, a thin membrane of dead skin particles washing over him as his polished shoes moved softly over the creaking boards, rows of tarnished and aged trinkets lining the shelves on either side of him; solemn masks cut from rubber and plastic, commemorating former American presidents, stained beetles cast from unknown metals, dog-eared tarot cards and obsidian statuettes.
The broad window that illuminated the shop, a grime covered affair marked with rotting wood and fading gold letters, cast little insight into the unapproachable shop from the street outside.
Lost within the streets around St Martin-in-the-Fields, the humble little shop marked the spot of many an impoverished business before it. Blasted by weather, worn down by neglect, its antique status continued to grant it a degree of disinterest from the passing tourists that poured through Westminster daily, down towards Trafalgar and up towards Leicester Square.
It was an archaic hovel, a forgotten dwelling passed over by any and all save for those with something to share—something to lose.
Mister Oblique’s footsteps echoed as he advanced, his thin fingers reaching up and gently pulling back the sunglasses from his face, revealing cold eyes full of contempt and displeasure.
From the far end of the shop came a squeal and the scurried sound of hurried movement, unnatural steps upon the old boards of the wooden shop.
“Cantrip,” he called out in his low, rasping voice, “there’s no point in hiding, I know you’re here.”
Emerging from beneath the rows of cluttered shelves, he approached the flaking white paint of the counter, careful not to touch anything, to avoid placing his hands upon the surface of the wood or the iron and glass of the old Victorian till located amidst the folded scraps of parchment and forgotten newspapers.
Behind the counter, claws scratched against the boards.
Sighing with impatience, Mister Oblique stepped around the obstacle, looking down in disgust at a cowering creature forged in the likeness of a man yet not quite accurate in the depiction.
Dressed only in a battered leather jacket adorned with a tin star upon the lapel, Cantrip was a malnourished and snivelling creature no taller than a 15-year-old boy; his pallor a sickly green, his flesh rich with pockmarks and growing thorns, and his hair like knotted grass.
“Get up Cantrip, you wretched little shit,” the old man snarled angrily, “I have a task for you.”
The creature behind the till shivered, drawing the jacket closer about its sickly form, yet he did not disobey. With creaking limbs like the sound of cracking branches, Cantrip rose up, anxiously knotting the digits of his hands together, wringing his palms and looking furtively about the cobwebbed little shop.
“W-What kind of task?” he sniffed quietly.
Oblique smiled with sinister intent.
“I want four practitioners of the art, four adepts for hire who can be pitted against a summoner.”
Cantrip’s pointed ears twitched, his attention suddenly caught by Oblique’s words.
“UKXD has a new summoner?”
Oblique’s smile widened.
“Not yet it doesn’t,” he purred, “but soon, very, very soon.”
“Fist of Legend”
by[* Jacob Milnestein*]
Jyushin Kohei had not flinched in the face of a challenge.
He had prided himself on his ability to endure, to smother the pain he suffered with ambition. Standing now amidst the upturned cars and shattered shop windows of Damett City, an hour’s journey from the unfettered expanse of the aptly named Savage Forests, Jyushin swore that he would not be defeated now, not after having been through so much.
Expelled before Ryker’s academy had ultimately closed its door, Jyushin, like Kanemura before him, had been a victim of his own ambition; a desire not to stay in the shadow of those content to follow the path the former tournament fighters had laid out for them.
He had been both arrogant and precocious, indulgent of theistic Satanism as a way of attracting attention to himself.
Coming from a non-Christian family with very little exposure to Western religion outside of that glimpsed in American movies and television, Jyushin had felt very little distinction between service of devils to respect of oni or namahage. He had recast the central tenets of what he believed Satanism was within the context of his own cultural understanding.
It wasn’t until he had been expelled and his father had insisted on his pursuit of more traditional channels of academic learning that Jyushin, aged 18 and still full of resentment, had first encountered LaVeyan Satanism and the Left-Hand Path.
Despite some discomfort with the influence of Ayn Rand, Jyushin found the meaning of this other form of Satanism, this counter-religion, to be of tremendous significance. The empty posturing of his youth had fallen away despite his continued association with his contract beast, the elaborate shikigami, Burnseid.
The hollow shock value of his previous posturing evened out into a pro-humanist stance, a philosophy that allowed him to quell the anger that had raged within him and finally take advantage of the tools he had fashioned whilst at the academy.
The Devil Drag Claw remained bound to his right wrist, the Devildecker to his left, yet the boy who had once marched with Trevor Griffin’s morally dubious Blacklist movement had learnt to become a man of his own morals.
This had been his own very human apotheosis.
Standing now in the centre of that ruined street, knowing that the sound of sirens would not ferry officers to the scene quick enough to put an end to the carnage, Jyushin Kohei again felt the raging determination of his youthful ambition.
Here once more was the insistence that he must prove himself; here again was the necessity to stand his ground.
His opponent’s Black Drag Claw clashed against the blade of the Devil Sabre and Jyushin’s teeth ground together, the sound of metal upon metal sending a chill down his spine.
The man in the obsidian armour before him laughed wildly, his suit splashed with drying blood. It was as if the man had drained his victims, rising up at last from a pool of their own blood to bring havoc and chaos to Damett City with every step he took.
“Devil… Cutter!” Jyushin grunted, the words triggering a sudden surge of dark energy in the blade of the sabre, the muscles of his arms tightening as he pushed back against the claw and sent Long staggering back from him.
With one fluid motion, he reached up and tore the crimson cloak from his shoulders, jabbing the sabre down into the broken concrete before him as he thumbed a card from his utility belt and slashed it through the Devildecker.
“The hated summoner asks of his equal a boon,” he snarled, his teeth stained with blood. “Lend me your strength, Burnseid!”
A wall of fire erupted between them, the corpse-like features of the draconian monster emerging from the fire; jaws open in an enraged howl.
Long shook his head in disgust.
“Pathetic,” he sneered beneath the cool metal that covered his face, “As if that simple shard of mirror and stolen soul could compete with me!”
Without pause, he rushed forwards, bursting through the emergent shikigami and shattering its presence in the physical realm.
Jyushin gasped, his eyes wide with horror as his enemy barrelled forwards, the Black Drag Claws descending down in an arc towards his head—and then he was pulled abruptly from their path, thrown back amidst the street.
He caught a glimpse of another man, older than him by a number of years, his hair a fiery red.
Lifting himself up from the ground, he witnessed the armoured form of Long advancing, fire from Jyushin’s abortive summoning clinging to his sinister form.
“Oh, a new challenger?” the armoured man called out, his tone momentarily playful.
The other man did not waste time introducing himself or explaining his presence. He did not turn to look at Jyushin, did not confirm their camaraderie in any way.
He simply crossed his arms before him, his eyes glowering fiercely out from beneath that fringe of red hair.
“Red Tiger,” he said softly, “Relinquished.”
The wind whipped his face, pushing his dark fringe of hair back from his stern brow and sharp eyes, the endless desert below giving way to border towns, and, at last, to civilisation.
He stood on the open ramp of the giant mobile fortress as it moved undisguised above, one hand clasping a side rail, the other at his side.
Further back from where he stood, sheltered slightly by the walls of the landing bay, Joseph Dodgson leant heavily against Fait Accompli, his strength having deserted him with the warmer climate of the upper decks.
“You’re sure you want to do this, Mister Fong?” Lundunaborg’s commanding officer asked, his voice a shout above the rising winds.
Jian Li Fong, dressed in a simple pair of black trowsers and a black jumper, the stylistic choice mirroring that of the department’s dress code, turned and looked over his shoulder at the older man leaning against his subordinate.
“I trust you, Dodgson,” he said at last, “And I trust that you haven’t been wasting my time. I don’t think you would have called me if you thought you would be wasting my time.”
Dodgson nodded, his frostbitten lips parting to reveal white teeth and soft pink gums.
“You trust is not misplaced, Mister Fong. I appreciate it.”
Jian Li Fong smiled knowingly, turning to watch the great vista of America pass beneath the massive fortress.
“Won’t you get in trouble for this?” he called out to the other man.
Dodgson offered his own smile in reply.
“That is why we are sending you, Mister Fong.”
“Well,” the former actor announced, staring hard at the details of Damett City unfolded below, “I’m always happy to right wrongs.”
The vast form of the mobile fortress ground silently to a halt, the whispers of its massive imagination engines dreaming far below their feet in endless slumber.
He let go of the side rail, taking a few steps back and reaching for one of the identical UKMDF branded parachutes hanging along the wall close to the ramp.
“Are you sure we can’t interest you in your own Science Agent armour?” Dodgson asked. “We could have one modded in silver in less time that it would take you to reach the ground with that pack.”
Fong smiled as he tightened the buckles about his waist and chest.
“No thanks. I never saw the appeal in any of that. I prefer to fight with my fists.”
“Your opponent will not see things that way,” Dodgson warned.
Fong lifted his head and offered a boyish smile.
“Then I’ll have the advantage.”
Without further comment, he turned away, shook the tenseness out of his legs and then sprinted forwards, boots hammering the iron floor beneath him until the landing platform vanished, the shape of the fortress receded, and at last the wind rose up to greet him.
Mitsukai hung awkwardly a few steps behind, his face full of hesitation and anxiety as Sheila Torrance, her daughter reluctantly at her side, hammered a fist upon the door.
“I know you’re in there,” she called at the door. “Come on, stop sulking and open up. I’m not going to bite.”
Lina offered him an apologetic shrug as to say, ‘Oh, my mother. Isn’t she just the best?’ and Mitsukai returned a nervous smile.
He turned his head, glancing up and down the street at the silent houses and the lawns, now and again strewn with children’s playthings. Other than being a little more rundown than other neighbourhoods, it was all but identical to the area he and his wife, Reina had moved into.
Countless miles away and there was no evident change whatsoever.
“Come on!” A smile touched her lips, familiarity perhaps. “Stop playing hard to get.”
Still there was no reaction.
“Open the damn door!” Sheila suddenly shouted, Mitsukai nearly leaping at the sudden exclamation.
“Wow,” he hissed, his eyes wild like a startled animal.
“Quit being a damn scaredy cat,” Sheila said over her shoulder.
The click of the unlocking deadbolt turned both of their attention to the door.
“Patience, patience,” said the man behind the door as he pulled it open. He looked as if he’d just woken up, but that was just his style. “Some of us don’t run on your—”
The words trailed away as he looked from Sheila and then to Lina. He swallowed hard and dropped down on his hunches.
“Hey, princess,” he smiled warmly, the kind of warmth that often went hand in hand with silence. He nodded his head in Sheila’s direction, “How you finding life with this crazy lady?”
Mitsukai found himself strangely moved by the scene between daughter and estranged father.
What was it that happened to people when they could no longer accommodate each other, he wondered. What was it that was left over when two people could not fit one another into their lives?
Slowly, his eyes moved from his daughter, catching sight of Mitsukai for the first time. He straightened up, his posture suddenly stiffening as he sized the other man up.
“Who’s this?” he asked Sheila whilst looking directly at Mitsukai.
Sheila herself did not spare him a glance.
“Oh, just someone who wants me to save the world,” she sighed.
Lina’s father looked slightly offended.
“I’m good at saving the world,” he said, still sounding somewhat surly. “I’ve got experience.”
Sheila laughed, a warm sound of familiarity and amusement.
“You spent a few months babysitting a sulky kid who ended up pulling your ass out of the fire,” she smirked.
Her former lover offered a look of mock hurt.
“Baby, you know you’re the only sulky kid I ever want to pull my ass out of the fire.”
Lina rolled her eyes.
“Puh-leaze,” she muttered. “Do you two want to quit it or, you know, get back together or something?”
Sheila blushed like a young girl and looked away.
Slowly, her lover’s smile faded.
“Still working that whole dancing job?”
She nodded hesitantly and he looked sad.
“I get a pretty good wage, you know. These WildFire guys are paying me pretty well.”
She shook her head.
“It’s not about money.”
Reluctantly, he sighed.
“I get it,” he said softly and then tried to shake the conversation off with a laugh, “besides, it must be pretty tough being with someone as damn irresistible as me, right? I mean ladies can’t stop falling at my feet.”
“You haven’t changed have you?”
“Still the same charismatic winner you fell in love with.”
At last, he turned his attention to Mitsukai again, stepping around Lina and offering his hand.
“Sorry for giving you the cold shoulder.”
Mitsukai gripped his hand and tried to offer a warm smile.
“Mark Mitsukai,” he offered, “Pleased to meet you.”
“Jeffery Carter,” the other man replied, “Come on in; let me get you a drink.”
Michael Chadwick did not flinch as the armoured villain lashed out at him, artificial claws matching those which had grown from his own hands.
It had been longer than he cared to recall since the Wild Kru had been disbanded yet even then he had known there was something different about him. Like his father, Larry, he had been gifted with the ability to live life in two realms, to experience the world around him in another manner.
It was a family thing, he was told as a child, an inheritance of a more bestial past. Chadwick had never quite been able to believe that their family were descended from animals however. The idea seemed awkward and his tendency to transform in response to situations where emotions ran high left him feeling an outsider.
Only the Wild Kru had accepted him, warts and all. Sly, Eddy, Homer and Daffs… they had been like family to him, they still were like family to him. The only difference was that now he knew exactly what he was!
Barring his fangs, he retaliated against the man in the dark armour, the force and spite of his attack surprising his enemy and leaving deep grooves in his obsidian breastplate.
Above them, a dark cloud seemed to hang steadily over the city.
Both Michael and his father had learnt of the Relinquished at the same time.
Following the declaration of Sly as the XLW Heavyweight Champion of the World and the birth of his child, the old team had been disbanded.
There had been talk of reuniting at one point or another but sooner or later, Chadwick had begun to realise it was just that: talk. Not that he begrudged any of his teammates their happiness, certainly not Sly and his new bride, Sierra, but he’d learnt to take such talk with a pinch of salt.
Eddy and Homer were now signed up on contracts with the Universal Championship Wrestling Federation and Daffs was working in movies now, so he heard. The team was still as close as ever, but he knew the Wild Kru would never get back together.
The man in the dark armour roared with anger, throwing himself forward once more.
Chadwick ducked, dragging his claws along the gouges in his breastplate, sparks flying as the metal peeled back to reveal clothing below.
Had it not been for a timely call from the Densha de Police then he would have continued drifting without either purpose or knowledge of his heritage. The Densha de Police had taken him in, they had educated him in the knowledge of what he was, and, more importantly, they had given him the power to control it.
There was an unexpected cry of anger from behind him, warning bells suddenly ringing in his mind as he remembered the other fighter who had fallen at the hands of the man in dark armour.
“Hell’s Fire End!” the boy cried out in fury.
Chadwick only just managed to leap out of the way, his heightened animal senses warning him of the sudden crack of the whip, the blistering whisper of flame passing through the space where he had previously stood and engulfing their enemy.
Furiously, he turned to face the boy, an angry question forming in his maw.
The armoured figure barrelled into him, slashing at him with the claw mounted on his wrist, screaming obscenities and threats beneath the flat, emotionless surface of his mask.
He struggled beneath the weight of the villain, thrashing wildly and lashing out with his claws.
Out of the corner of his widened eye he saw the shambling figure of the fighter he had saved, his armour similar to that of the villain and yet decidedly different in colouration.
Anxiety filled him.
Whether he was ungrateful or deranged, if the younger man used that move again then this time Chadwick would be caught in the crossfire; this time he would not be able to escape.
The boy raised both the whip and the sabre he held.
Sensing his attack, Michael Chadwick’s assailant leapt back as he himself had done moments before.
“Devil Beam!” the boy shouted.
Chadwick rolled to his left as a blast of pure energy tore through the concrete, leaving a deep, smouldering trench behind it.
The boy staggered and their enemy took advantage of the confusion, leaping up into the air and throwing his leg out in a kick that knocked the similarly armoured youth flat on his back.
The dark armoured man crashed down onto the ground in a crouch, a pyre of sinister black flames igniting about him as his spiritual power intensified.
Aching from his wounds, his fur darkened with blood, Michael Chadwick rose again to his feet.
High above them, he noticed a lone figure drifting ever further down towards them on a parachute decorated with the Union Jack flag.
He frowned but was unable to question the sight before him.
Without warning, the armoured enemy leapt up from his crouch and turned towards him once more.
The space about them distorted in a spectrum of colour, warping material reality and transforming their surroundings in an ever changing kaleidoscope of fading mercury and fractured rainbows.
Tendrils of illumination licked the horizon, curling like the last whispers of dying cigarette smoke.
Travis Triton’s heart beat a rhythm inside his chest, a melodramatic throb of swelling muscle as blood raced through his veins.
He felt sick to his stomach, his mind struggling to comprehend the shift not only in location but dimension.
It was something like being turned upside down whilst underwater, limbs heavy and aching as the body was rotated steadily amidst the clash of oceans waves.
Abruptly, with a sudden crash of thunder, the world restored itself and the small group of travellers found themselves shrouded in a clinging mist.
Glancing over at his younger brother, he offered a weak smile.
“Do you ever get used to that?”
Christopher Triton-James shook his head.
Only Livingston Chance, a magpie perched upon his outstretched arm, seemed unaffected by the journey.
Beneath the mist, soft grass emerged, still stained by the morning dew.
Slowly, Triton began to focus upon the scene before him, taking note of the small porch and the marble steps leading from where he stood, the green grass touched by a calm breeze, the skies veiled by mist and the tall reach of fir trees forming a wall around the garden.
At the very centre rested an old stone well.
Sprawled out by the well was a young man, watched over by another magpie, its dark eyes tracking their movements as they emerged from the mist.
At times, the boy seemed youthful, no older than 19 or 20 maybe, and yet when he looked away he was left with the impression of a presence far older. Occasionally, he would catch sight of other individuals slumbering in the space where he had fallen; another boy in a tattered, colourful coat, a woman with blowing red hair and a stained white dress.
Silently the company of three continued forward, the mist eventually yielding a greater impression of the architecture of that vast and aged house, decrepit yet somehow marked by character and memory.
With a sinking feeling, Travis Trion realised he was out of his depth.
Suddenly, he caught sight of movement, three other figures moving from the opposite direction beyond the old well.
He reached down for the Exceed Buckler.
“Don’t,” Chance hissed. “You mess up now and this whole journey will have been for nothing.”
At the centre of the opposing group was a giant of a man wrapped in ancient robes of sackcloth, a thick beard of coarse curls and dark hair swept back from his broad forehead.
A thrill of surprise followed by a sudden sensation of sickness hit Triton as he realised that beneath that high forehead resided a single eye rooted deep in the space above the bridge of the nose.
He swallowed hard, his mouth dry as he tried not to scream out in panic.
It seemed absurd; all the monsters he had seen, all the monsters he had fought and here he was confronted by a Cyclops and he suddenly found himself utterly incapable of knowing how to react.
The two men either side of the mythical giant were less extraordinary; an older man with a pencil thin moustache dressed in beige corduroy trowsers and a burgundy jumper pulled over a white shirt and black tie. He had something of the bearing of a military officer about him, Triton thought, despite the lack of uniform.
The second man was dressed in a shabby, trailing black greatcoat, untidy hair the colour of tarnished silver.
Had it not been for the colour of the hair then Triton could well have mistaken him for yet another iteration of Livingston Chance.
The clothes of both men had seen better days, sand and dirt dulling their original lustre, much as the elements had done to their owners.
Whatever route these men had taken to this place, it was surely longer than the path they had travelled, Triton reflected.
Catching sight of the three strangers, the tall man with the solitary eye seemed to stiffen slightly, his nostrils flaring, his cheeks flushed with anger.
Upon Chance’s arm, the magpie spread its wings uncertainly.
“You are not welcome here!” the Cyclops announced, breaking ranks with his two companions and striding across the damp grass towards them.
Triton looked hesitantly from the oncoming giant towards Chance, who remained as calm as ever.
“This place possesses secrets that are not for you to hear,” the giant insisted, reaching Chance in several strides and towering over him, barring him from making any further progress towards the well.
“There is a great threat to our world,” Livingston Chance announced calmly, “a threat to all worlds.”
The Cyclops frowned, thrown by the softness of his opponent’s tone.
“Of this I am more than aware,” he answered, yet uncertainty had begun to creep into his voice.
“We journeyed here to find a way to destroy it, to bring the Storyteller back with us,” Chance continued.
The older man in the burgundy jumper suddenly pushed forward, angrily casting off his colleague’s attempts to restrain him.
“Over my dead body,” he snarled. “Who are you bloody people? How did you get here?”
The Cyclops shook his head sadly.
“The Storyteller is useless to you. He cannot go with you; there are other paths he must travel,” he murmured, the words like a recital from memory.
“This isn’t a request,” Chance replied calmly, straightening up. “I’m not asking your permission. I’m telling you what I’m going to do.”
“You can’t take him,” the other man announced, his cold blue eyes peering out from the tangles of his silver hair.
Chance arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Look at him,” the other gestured at the shifting form of the unconscious boy.
Reaching into his pocket, Chance drew forth his box of cigarettes, shaking one free and placing it in the corner of his mouth.
“Chris,” he said softly and instantly the younger Triton brother stepped forward. Chance’s eyes remained fixed upon the man standing behind the massive form of the Cyclops. “Chris, this man is a Promethean.”
Without needing any further explanation, Christopher Triton-James twisted the buckle on his belt and summoned his armour.
The sound of massive engines filled the air, the whirring, whispering thoughts of countless imaginations drawn into the filters of the giant machines and used to power their hideous frames.
Moving deftly between the ranks of the myriad Hybrid Cruisers that filled the entirety of Hongo Island’s former Towerhacker Stadium, Muro Takeru ignored the soulless Hiram units marching up their landing ramps and folding themselves down into partial inactivity within the hold of each vessel.
In the skies above, the massive shapes of the Steel Machine Legion hung solemnly above, waiting orders of dispatch.
With his tablet beneath his arm, an old Rider PDA attached to his belt, the former academy professor at last reached the foot of the fleet’s flagship, an overwrought and oversized Albion class Hybrid Cruiser nicknamed Bulwark.
Standing on the ramp with his back turned to him stood Chad Leiter, his hair once dyed black now a faded blond something like the colour of sand.
Without speaking, Muro ascended the ramp, taking his place at Leiter’s side.
“This woman,” he said at last when Leiter failed to acknowledge him despite the request he had received from Hammel to present himself, “This woman is worth abandoning our plans in favour of such a direct action?”
Leiter turned to him, suddenly red in the face.
“This woman is my wife!” he announced fiercely. “If I can’t make sure she’s safe then what can I do?”
Angrily he turned away, watching another row of Hiram units lock down.
“The deal was always that we bring Taryse and Amelia back here, that we make sure they were safe. Instead,” he turned away, blinking angrily, “instead I don’t even know if she knows I’m still alive.”
Muro arched an eyebrow.
“If she does then we haven’t done our job properly,” he noted.
Again, Leiter shook his head.
“She should have been here,” he muttered, another squadron of Hiram units marching past. “This is for her; this new world is going to be for her.”
Muro remained impassive, chusing to change tact rather than question Leiter’s emotions.
“Does Professor Ryker know you intend on taking such a large army out before our plans are finalised?”
“Of course he doesn’t,” Leiter snarled. “But what does he care? As long as there are no more armoured heroes then I’m fairly sure he’ll be satisfied that he’s made the world a better place or whatever.”
Muro nodded grimly.
David’s loss had devastated Ryker. He had been inconsolable, his grief swallowing up all that there was of him, leaving behind only the shadow of a man intent on making amends to the world that had robbed him of his only son.
It was impossible not to agree with him, Muro reflected, thinking back on the carnage and destruction rogue armoured fighters from the tournament had caused. Any technology that could produce such villains as Jaden Stryder, Marcus Calloway and Kanemura Jyunichi deserved to be regulated – that had been the point of the academy… only the academy had failed.
Calmly, the older man adjusted his glasses.
“Perhaps not, but I still think you should tell him. After all, a lot of the financing of these units came from Professor Ryker, it seems somewhat inconsiderate to take such liberties.”
Chad Leiter glowered at him.
“USMDF doesn’t grant priority to its sponsors, Captain Muro,” he snarled, emphasising the rank they both shared. “I have just as much authority, possibly even more, than Ryker to decide how we implement our tools.”
He turned away.
“Besides, more than anyone, Ryker should understand how important it is to protect your family.”
Without a further word, Leiter pushed his palm against the door control, forcing Muro to step back or be carried along into the ship’s hold.
Chad Leiter did not look back as the door closed firmly shut behind.
Jian Li Fong unclasped the parachute with disdain, looking back upon the crumpled Union Jack with a mixed sense of duty.
He had been raised beneath the flag of the Union, a citizen of colonial Hong Kong—yet despite this he had never considered himself British. He was familiar with the imported elements that had been replanted in Hong Kong and the New Territories, but despite the portrait of the Queen that had hung in his school, Jian Li Fong had remained above all else a Hong Konger.
His ties with UKMDF and the British government only served to complicate the well of feelings that surfaced whenever he was confronted with a reminder of that childhood in the pre-handover city. He felt a certain amount of obligation, yet not enough to consider himself in debt.
Dispensing with such feelings of nostalgia and melancholy, he shrugged free of the last of the parachute and turned his attention towards the struggle taking place before him; two figures in armour and one bestial form the like of which he had only seen before on the set of monster movies.
If there had been enough time, he would have asked for a more thorough breakdown of what he could expect from the situation surrounding the man in the dark armour.
“Long,” he said the name softly, testing the sound of it.
In another world, they might have been allies.
Both were raised in Hong Kong, both came from backgrounds marred by poverty, and yet clearly Long had gone off the rails somewhere.
Yet whatever trials Long had suffered, whatever tribulations he had endured seemed to have broken the man.
Following the first tournament held by Jack Ryker, Long had disappeared off the radar, failing to return his armour despite his questionable behaviour and a mounting crackdown enforced by USMDF.
He had returned a few days ago, cutting a bloody path through homes and bars on a vendetta against everyone associated with his past or in his way.
Of his family, only Ryusei Koji, a member of Dodgson’s Department Ɔ, now remained.
The department chief had called Jian in following the reports of Ryou and Yusei Ryusei. The remaining brother still remained painfully oblivious to his half-brother’s search for him.
Jian straightened up, cracking his knuckles.
“Sorry, kid,” he said softly to the absent UKMDF agent, “I’m about to make you the last surviving member of your family line.”
The Cyclops threw his arms up to the sky, crying out in alarm as Christopher Triton-James barrelled past him, a blur of white armour.
The Promethean remained where he stood, malevolent and hateful, his dark eyes gazing at the oncoming figure and moving only at the last when Triton-James was within reach of him.
He turned his eyes to Chance, questioning even as the younger man rose up behind him.
Livingston Chance returned the Promethean’s cold gaze.
“If it’s me you want to fight,” he offered, tossing his cigarette away as the magpie upon his arm spread wide wings and took flight, “then don’t be shy.”
Before Triton-James could reach him, the Promethean had lunged forward, his black coat billowing behind him like wings of his own.
He threw a punch with bruised, bleeding knuckles and Chance dodged, retorting with an attack of his own.
Dulled by whatever ordeal it was that had driven him to the shrine, the Promethean failed to avoid the fist as it smashed into his jaw, knocking his head sideways.
Chance followed up the blow with a knee to the stomach and a stamp of the foot, his head flying forwards and smashing into the Promethean’s own.
He lifted his fist again and found himself knocked suddenly to the ground by Iain Stuart.
“Will you bloody children stop fighting?” the old man roared angrily.
Livingston Chance glowered sullenly at his opponent.
“Your Cyclops is a fraud,” he said as Triton stepped over and pulled him to his feet. “It’s a machine, a tethered point in reality designed to attract wayward travellers, to stop them going further.”
“I know what it is,” the Promethean answered, leaning on Stuart as he too rose to his feet. “I can tell Promethean technology when I see it.”
Slowly, he turned his bruised face to regard the solitary eyed avatar.
“I know there’s the remnants of a Firewalker in there, that’s why we came here.”
He turned and looked over at the fallen body of the Storyteller lying solemnly by the well.
“Earth is being threatened by a Firewalker,” he continued. “I came here because I could sense Promethean technology… and because of the Storyteller.”
“Your Earth perhaps,” Chance offered in reply.
“Listen,” Stuart interjected, “that man lying there is my brother. I won’t have you two bartering over him like he’s some pawn in either of your games.”
The Cyclops turned sullenly from one man to the other, his large eye finally falling upon Stuart.
“Felix Rabbinovitch,” he announced, referring to him by a name that was familiar to none but the man himself, “it was you who chose to walk away from your family ties. You cannot expect to simply walk back in at this, the most inappropriate of times. This is not the path you will walk.”
Tears welled up in the elderly man and Travis Triton felt a pang of guilt, his own attention drawn to the other Chris as he disengaged his armour and joined the group.
“Damn you,” Stuart hissed, “He’s my brother.”
“A brother you neglected. You, not him, chose this path.”
The Promethean laid a bruised hand upon Stuart’s shoulder.
“Trust him, Iain,” the alien whispered, “you don’t want to do this.”
Angrily Stuart shrugged the hand from his shoulder.
“So I just have to swallow this shit? Just have to put up with it because of a stupid decision I made as a kid?”
The Cyclops nodded slowly.
“In a word, yes,” he replied.
The old man turned away, screwing his eyelids shut and tightening his fists.
“I hate this. This isn’t what I wanted.”
“Nonetheless, it is the path you chose. There is often a difference between what you chuse and what you want.”
There was silence for a moment, each man taking stock of his own private trauma.
“What happens now then?” Triton finally asked, glancing sideways at Chance. “If this Storyteller can’t be awakened then what do we do now?”
Again, there was a moment of silence.
“Each of you must shoulder the other’s burden,” the Cyclops declared at last.
The Promethean frowned.
“I don’t understand,” he admitted sourly.
The Cyclops looked again from Chance to the Promethean.
“You shall follow the two brothers back to the world in strife; you will confront the ill that drove them here to request a Storyteller’s powers.”
Chance looked doubtful.
“You can’t send a Promethean to do the job of a Storyteller,” he protested.
The single eye of the old Cyclops turned again towards him, narrowing slightly.
“Your world is already marked by the presence of this Storyteller, to introduce yet another variant would only complicate matters.”
Iain Stuart’s hopefulness suddenly flared up again.
“My brother is in your world?” he looked back at the slumbering shape, already straining to understand how his sibling had seemingly retained his youth.
“In this guise, he is not the boy you remember, Felix Rabbinovitch,” the Cyclops warned. “His face is hidden by armour, his name now is MONARCH.”
Alarm bells rang in Triton’s mind.
“MONARCH?” he asked.
Once more, the Cyclops shook his tired head.
“Another MONARCH,” he answered the other man’s confusion. “This MONARCH is not the warrior against whom your friends have fought; rather this MONARCH has overthrown the former owner of the title.
“He is a force of evil, a force of darkness,” the Cyclops whispered softly. “You cannot place your hope in him.”
“Get yer ass in here,” said Carter, turning and waving Mitsukai in, slapping him on the back as he entered. “Close the door behind ya,” he said over his shoulder as he led the group inside, hastily clearing a spot on the sofa.
Lina Torrance dropped down in the vacant space with her arms crossed, a frown forming on her forehead as she watched her parents engage in awkward conversation.
“Sheila, fetch us a couple beers, would ya?” her father continued.
Sheila Torrance didn’t move except to glare at him.
“How’d you get mixed up with her?” Carter asked, turning towards Mitsukai.
The other man shrugged uncomfortably.
“There was an accident in the desert,” he mumbled.
Carter’s expression became suddenly serious.
“What kind of accident?” he asked.
“People died, Jeffery,” Sheila said firmly.
Mitsukai nodded, confirming her comment.
“Anyone we know?” his tone jovial, yet his eyes betrayed a different feeling.
Lina watched him impassively. For as long as she could remember, her dad had failed to be able to express the things that went on inside his head, opting instead for a joke or a quip or something that always sounded that much more hollow save for the fact that his eyes always betrayed him.
Even when her mom had packed her bags, Lina standing obediently beside her, her dad had still tried to make a joke out of what was happening.
Sheila shook her head angrily.
“A kid and some other guy,” she said testily and then gestured towards Mitsukai. “Mark was sent to collect someone who was supposed to be near these guys but it looks like they got there first… or someone got to them.”
Carter nodded thoughtfully; stepping sideways into the kitchen and popping open the fridge.
“You work for anyone, Mark?” he called back over his shoulder.
He emerged a moment later with three beers and a can of Sunny Up! which he passed to Lina, having made a show of initially offering her a beer before feigning sudden recollection and swapping it for the can of fizzy drink.
Lina rolled her eyes but accepted the can gratefully.
“USMDF,” Mituskai said simply.
Carter’s face hardened.
“One of the victims was related to the woman I’m looking for,” Mitsukai continued. “The other had something that looked like it was USMDF issued but I can’t be certain. I don’t know why I would have been sent to collect Taryse and Amelia if there was another USMDF operative on the scene… unless he died trying to protect her…”
His gaze met Carter’s and he felt uncomfortable, the words dying in his mouth as he wilted beneath the other’s stare.
“Do you know a man named Johann Weisz?” Carter said at last, his voice low, measured.
Mitsukai frowned and then slowly shook his head.
“No, should I?”
“He works for USMDF,” the other man seriously.
Sheila reached out and placed a hand on his arm.
“Jeffery,” she whispered, “it’s over. Let it go.”
It took him a moment but slowly Carter nodded, his posture relaxing at last.
Watching the way she spoke to them, Mitsukai was at once reminded of his own friends – of Hao, Nero, Chad, of how it had been when they were all younger.
He smiled sadly to himself, looking down at the bottle of beer his host had placed in his hand.
“So,” Carter said at last, “what do you guys need me to do to help with this whole saving the world deal?”
Sheila squeezed his arm and smiled.
“Babysit Lina,” she answered simply.
Jyushin Kohei steadied himself, an ache pulsing through his bruised body, the scarred and torn armour saving him the disgrace of the tears of pain that stung his eyes.
Ahead of him, the other warrior that had saved his life struggled with the armoured villain, gloved hands crushing his throat, pinning him to the ground.
He tried to summon his energy once more, to prepare another Devil Beam to cut through his opponent. The strange, other warrior would die also if he unleashed his attack, yet Jyushin considered this a fair trade off.
It wasn’t as if he wanted to kill the man who had saved his life but somehow he had to stop Long Ryusei; he had to make sure that the enemy’s rampage was halted here!
The sound of heavy footfalls echoed on the cracked pavement.
Jyushin tensed, turning slowly with apprehension from the scene before him.
A man with an expression of terrifying determination rushed past him, his arms pumping as his feet made their mark against the stone again and again and again.
The young man staggered back in alarm, fearful of the presence the other, elder man, the streak of silver in his dark hair, the dignified lines of his frowning brow, the tense musculature arrangement evident beneath the slender black jumper and trowsers.
As if sensing this new arrival, Long also turned from his assault against his opponent, yet before he could lift the Black Drag Claw, the other was under his defences, turning his body away from the blade, flat palms slamming forwards into the breastplate.
Long staggered, an impossible fracture across the surface of the armour.
His enemy did not relent.
Taryse felt her heart suddenly strain in her chest, a yearning accompanied only by anxiety as the figure emerged from the building, leaning heavily upon a cane, his broad shoulders wrapped up in a crisp white shirt and red waistcoat.
She took a hesitant step forward but felt Amelia clutching at her jacket, holding her back.
It was him, she knew it was him—and yet his appearance was fearful, inhuman; the scars that crossed his teeth, the dark eyes staring out from the white fur that covered his body.
He was the White Lion Relinquished and yet, for all that, within those dark eyes there was not for fury, but rather soft compassion.
He was the White Lion Relinquished… and he was Nero.
Selfishly, she shook free of Amelia grasp and staggered forwards.
“Mommy, don’t,” the child mewled but made no attempt to follow her mother.
Taryse took another step forward, reaching the foot of the steps as the White Lion stopped short of coming down to the street.
“Nero,” she said softly, her voice a whisper. “Nero, that is you, isn’t it?”
The tall figure nodded slowly, an attempt at a smile that did little but reveal the sharpened teeth within his mouth.
“It’s me, Taryse,” he said, his voice sadder, deeper.
His dark, sad eyes stared directly at her.
“Time passed,” he answered softly. “Even Professor Ryker had no way of knowing how aggressive the Relinquished DNA introduced into my nervous system as a child would grow to become.”
He lifted his snout, dark eyes looking up at the blue skies, the sunlight reflected on the upper floors of the towering building at his back.
“I tried to understand it, tried to master the animal side of me, and in the end I found I could no longer turn back.”
He blinked, and for the briefest moment, Taryse imagined she saw tears in those dark eyes.
“It doesn’t matter,” he continued. “As it turns out, the Relinquished gene on a cellular level has a lot more in common with cancer than with the mechanism of our internal workings; it reproduces unchecked, consuming all resources, turning everything around it into the pattern encoded within it. I won’t pretend to understand it but our medical team inform me that even if I had not stirred up these hidden threads with my attempt to master these inner demons of mine, chances are I would have ended up transforming completely regardless.”
Again, he attempted to smile.
“At least this way, I’m still in control.”
She sniffed, rubbing tears out of her eyes with her good hand and feeling suddenly like all her problems amounted to nothing… and then abruptly she remembered the sacrifice Chazz made and the tears came at last.
With a terrible sob, she threw herself forward, wrapping her arms around Nero’s broad form and weeping bitterly into his fur.
He said nothing, yet gently, as she cried, he folded his arms around her and softly held her, insulating her at last from the terrible world around them.
Jian Li Fong twisted gracefully, another strike of his open palm sending a shudder through the dark armour worn by Long.
As a martial artist, Jian had learnt the intricate skills needed to fight armoured enemies out of necessity rather than choice.
Like the Science Heroes—those who dressed in costumes and possessed such awesome powers as to be only peripherally human—the armoured heroes were a foe with impossible advantages over his own simple arts.
Yet it was precisely this inequality that served as his greatest ally.
Men like Ryusei Long did not consider those without armour as equal to them, nor did they dream that a simple man with a career in action movies and Jeet-Kune Do could defeat them.
With a flourish bequeathed him by his career on the big screen, Jian twisted his wrist, his open palm closing, two fingers jutting forth and striking the centre of the plate where previously his palms had struck.
His art was as much physics as it was combat.
Early on, he had realised that no matter what was used in the construction of the armour of his foes—technology, magic, chi—each suit was intended to carry stress and weight equally; to support the owner as well as empower him.
Fighting armoured heroes was simply a case of understanding which variant suit they wore and breaking the whole by focusing on one single point.
Following Dodgson’s request, the infirmed head of Department Ɔ had attempted to provide Jian with the statistics and schematics of various USMDF armour suits with such laboriously boring titles as K-R-A 2 and K-R-A 3.
He hadn’t needed them.
The armour worn by both Ryusei Long and, from a cursory glance the younger man who had been engaged in fighting him, was not an armour comparative with USMDF.
He had seen the armour used during the popular tournaments of the past years; he knew that significant enhancements in the system could only by used by the insertion of specific tarot cards into the armour’s central mechanism.
It was a flaw that Jian planned fully to exploit.
As long as he kept attacking then no matter how powerful Long’s arsenal of cards, he would be unable to apply them.
Another jab of his fingers and the fractures in the breastplate spread further.
Jian Li Fong smiled knowingly to himself.
The boy’s breathing was heavy, his expression one of confusion and pain as he sat against the side of the silent Kabuto Kaiser, struggling to remain conscious, to fight off sleep.
On the horizon was an armoured figure marching into the distance, the red armour hidden again beneath the black, the cloak about his shoulders moving in the stale breeze.
This wasn’t how his battle against Raider was supposed to have happened.
He blinked, tears of pain in his eyes, sand washing over him with every movement of that anxious breeze.
He had spent months tracking Raider, finally hacking into a UKMDF satellite and learning of his involvements with the British branch of the Monster Defence Force. From there, he had traced Kabuto Kaiser’s signal and from there he had raced across the desert in pursuit.
When the giant machine had been downed, Sky Gedou had seen his chance to test Raider’s strength for himself—to at last find a master worthy of serving.
Raider’s response had been unprecedented, to say the least.
He closed his eyes, just for a moment or two.
Seemingly in the distance, he could hear the UKMDF operative working on the machine, adjusting the engine, struggling to imagine it back into working order.
Loose bandages had been wrapped about Gedou’s wounds. They would not kill him. What he found worse was the failure to find a master, a failure to tether his strength in the service of one greater than him.
Sky Raider had not been greater than him, he had simply proved heartless.
The darkness behind his eyelids seemed to engulf him, to warm him.
What was true strength? What was true power?
Something stirred in the shadows of his mind, something that promised true strength, true power.
Valiantly he struggled against them, lashing out against their cold, featureless forms, but for every felled deity a thousand-fold more sprung up to replace it. Expressionless, they wrestled him to the ground, overcoming his fearful struggles through the sheer weight of their congregation.
Thick tendrils of night overcame him, leaving stains of lavender distortion upon the pale, pock marked flesh he had so readily bargained away on that fateful night.
Briefly he imagined himself as a scholar, a wronged Faustus struggling with the daemons of his lesser self—and indeed, the lesser realms if they could be called that—only to be cast down at the last hour. There was no Germanic romance in his tale, only the bitter, uncompromising end to which he had so eagerly agreed.
The bruises spread, claiming further ground on the landscape of taunt and shivering flesh, rising up arms and legs, over genitalia and face alike.
Something in the back of his mind compared the experience to drowning.
The faint whisper of another man’s memory surfaced, the recollection of his experience not his own. He imagined hands forcing him beneath the surface of the cold, icy water on a pale, winter’s morning. Instantly he knew this other was a sibling and yet Gedou had been an only child.
He turned his head, his eyes opening, sweat staining his brow.
In the distance he saw a cave, a carved opening in the earth, stone steps leading down.
Voices called to him.
Terror and fear awoke within him, kicking and screaming, bursting forth from a womb of warm, stained shadows into the soft light of a world neither truly imbued with the qualities of complete darkness nor given to the shine of angelic radiance.
Again the voices of the cave whispered to him.
‘I am Wraith. I had neither father nor mother: I leaped out of a lion’s mouth when I was scarce half an hour old, and ever since I have run up and down the world, with this case of rapiers, wounding myself when I had nobody to fight withal. I was born in Hell—and look to it, for some of you shall be my father.’
He felt sick to his stomach.
The bruises clouded his vision, black tumours obscuring the burning sun above him.
Clouds brushed the surface of the orb, swallowing it whole.
Water clogged his eyes, not tears but perhaps the disturbed depths of the frozen lake that had ran in the grounds behind the house of his childhood.
No, not that water… this water was black… black as any river running through the heart of Hell itself.
He choked back vomit, trying to subdue the urge to spill forth further blackness upon the darkening flesh of his claimed body.
A strange yet familiar odour filled the air.
Perhaps it was not water that he swam beneath; perhaps instead it was the ash of some hideous inferno as yet unnamed.
Yet surely a fire of such magnitude would have given off light.
As a child he had loved to watch embers dancing playfully from the heart of those illicit summer bonfires. Sometimes he had even imagined that they were faeries… or angels….
Not angels; devils!
Yellowed bones the colour of nicotine stains cracked, snapping and reforming, the anatomy of the insane and the deeply disturbed.
Surrounding him in the air, the old gods looked upon what they had created and saw that it was good.
Again they intoned the name.
Cool air whispered against dark skin.
The shrivelled olives of his eyes turned, looking past the faceless expressions of their creators and seeing the landscape beyond.
Not the empty beach upon whose shores the ordeal had begun but rather somewhere else, somewhere familiar.
Stone had fallen away, replaced by the city’s horizons in the distance.
Deftly, he—it—clambered onto misshapen feet.
The gods parted and then faded once more into nothingness and again came the desert, the blistering heat, the back of the child as he worked upon his machinery.
Ahead, the cave called out to the new-born beast, summoning him into the warm, beckoning darkness.
With a howl of pain, the monster threw back its head and voiced its reply.
They walked through pristine corridors, constant light modulated to provide a comforting presence despite the hospital aesthetics of the vast building.
Behind Taryse, she was conscious of Amelia, her hesitation now transformed into wide eyed wonder as she stared up at the walls, listening out for every chime of an announcement piped through from the building’s heart, watching names and locales scrawled upon boards, red numbers on a black background.
Bringing up the rear was Spike Campbell, begrudgingly refraining from smoking due to Amelia’s presence, his heavy boots echoing loudly in the broad corridor.
“You might recognise some familiar faces,” Nero said, glancing over his shoulder to look at her.
“Who else works with you?” she asked, distracted by the constant messages glimpsed on the walls.
“Jessie and Gates Elias,” Nero said, although his tone seemed distracted somehow. “I’ve had dealings with Hao and Sky recently as well.”
He lowered his head, staring at his feet, his dark claws tapping against the floor.
“I’ve spent a long time trying to find Alicia, trying to find a way back into the sands of time. Something big is taking place and I don’t know if we’re prepared for it.”
He stopped abruptly and Taryse almost walked into him. He did not comment, merely turned to look at her once more.
“I’ve lost contact with both Jessie and Gates,” he said suddenly. “Likewise, I haven’t heard from Sky Raider or his Royal Family. I’m worried that something has happened, something that I don’t know how to fight.”
Slowly, his eyes fell, studying the vast pads of his paws, the heavy fur and the sharp ebony claws.
“Taryse,” he said softly, “I want to talk to you about Chad.”
Memories of the ruined living room arose once more in her mind’s eye, the blood that spattered the wall as vivid in recollection as if it had been her own.
She felt tears sting her eyes once more.
“Nero,” she whispered, uncertain of how to tell him. “Chad is… Chad is…”
Sadly, her old friend shook his head.
“Chad’s not dead, Taryse.”
Elation filled her, sudden excitement. She reached out and clutched his arm.
“H-He’s alive?” she stammered.
“The scene at your house… was a trap.”
Her joy soured into anger.
“Not for you,” Nero added quickly. “The plan was that both you and Amelia were to be spirited away to where Chad is hiding so that he could explain all of this to you in person.”
“W-Why?” she stammered.
“It was a trap for us,” he said softly.
Michael Chadwick watched in awe as the older man weaved about the armoured villain’s punches.
He struggled to follow each movement, each dodge, each pirouette, and most importantly, each punch, yet his eyes failed him.
Despite his enhanced senses, despite the intensity of his powers, he found himself woefully unequipped to read the movements of the older man. It was as if somehow he had been granted knowledge of each step his opponent would take and had somehow planned accordingly.
The majesty of his gestures, the economy of each movement and then the sudden flourish of a jab or a blow from his hands was a marvel.
Never in all his life had Chadwick seen a fighter so gifted, so capable.
Even the other armoured figure, the ingrate who had attempted to finish off his foe at Chadwick’s expense, even he stood silently by, numbed by the grace of their new ally.
Ally, he thought to himself.
They had no right to consider him their ally. They weren’t even in the same league as him!
A sudden resounding crack filled the air.
With a scream of incensed pain, the armoured villain looked down to see his breastplate crumble away.
“This is so unfair!” Lina Torrance protested, stamping her feet upon the floor.
Her mother did not look up, her attention focused solely on the knife in her hand and the peeling linoleum of Jeffery Carter’s kitchen.
With a sigh, Carter’s eyes also followed the movement, watching his former lover inscribing the ancient symbols on his floor.
“I really wish you wouldn’t do this. How am I going to explain this to my landlady? And what happens if I bring a hot girl back here and she starts asking questions about the pentagram in my kitchen?”
Sheila Torrance did not look up.
“You won’t be bringing any hot girls back here, Jeffery,” she muttered. “Only an idiot would fall for you.”
“Touché,” he replied.
Lina noted that sad look in his eyes even as he smiled.
Mark Mitsukai coughed politely.
“I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the idea of this mode of transport,” he said meekly.
Carter offered him a smile.
“It’s good to be afraid, means you’re still sane.” He turned back to look once more at Sheila’s devotions. “Can I at least get to the fridge behind you so I can have a beer?”
“Don’t you dare get in this circle, Jeffery Carter!” Sheila snarled.
He threw up his arms in surrender.
“Hey! You know me well enough to know that magic’s not my thing, right? Come on.”
Slowly she looked up, Mitsukai standing awkwardly at her side within the circle.
“Jeffery,” she said softly, and then turned to her daughter, “Lina. I know this is tough for both of you. It’s not something I want to do.”
She finished off the carving with a flourish and dropped the knife into her pocket, pulling free a deck of cards in its place and hastily sifting through until she found the right one.
“I love you,” she said looking up and smiling sadly, “both of you.”
The card fell to the centre of the circle before her, a vivid image of a naked woman clasping batons in each hand.
“Way of Blessing #13,” she said softly, “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Long screamed in rage, lifting his hands and tearing the helmet from his face.
“You think this can stop me?” he bellowed, his face swollen and red. “You think you can stop me now? You’re nothing to me! You’re no one!”
He lashed out wildly, his fists still clad in the gauntlets of his armour, and yet with every step, every crazed movement, more and more of it tumbled away, chunks of stone torn from a living statue.
“I’ll find him, you bastards!” Long screamed, “I know you’re hiding him from me!”
“You won’t see your brother,” Jian said calmly. “He won’t even know you’re looking for him.”
The other man’s eyes widened, his movements all the more excited, sweat pouring from his brow as his armour turned to ash at his feet.
“Where is he?” he screamed, throwing his head back, black tongues of fire igniting about him once more, an intense pyre of blistering spiritual energy that rose up like a pillar from the ruined heart of Damett City to stain the blue skies above them.
Jian remained where he was, watching on with disgust.
“Lundunaborg,” Jian lied, lifting his finger up towards the heavens.
As if it was waiting for his cue, the underbelly of the giant mobile fortress emerged from the behind the cover of the clouds.
Long’s face cracked in an ecstatic smile, the flames of his aura intensifying as he tossed his head from side to side, eyes rolling wildly.
Slowly, patiently, Jian Li Fong lowered his arm.
Long blinked, the smile fading from his cut lips.
Jian remained before him, his expression unchanged. In truth, Long had seen no movement on Jian’s part and yet he began to feel a curious discomfort in his chest.
He looked down and saw the ten digits of both Jian’s hands buried up to the knuckles in his flesh. He opened his mouth to cry out and blood gushed forth, staining his chin and splattering the remainder of the other’s hands.
Without expression, Jian Li Fong twisted his fingers.
The sickening sound of ribs cracking filled the air and he removed his fingers, blood running in dark patterns down his wrists.
Ryusei Long staggered back, a last look of surprise upon his face, swayed and keeled over.
He was dead before he hit the ground.
Taryse shook her head gently from side to side.
“T-That’s crazy,” she murmured, “Chad wouldn’t. H-He’s your friend, Nero…”
“He’s doing what he thinks is right, no doubt,” Spike Campbell interjected, stepping forward.
She turned slowly to face him as he approached, his expression grave, his eyes full of some emotion she couldn’t quite read, somewhere between respect and anger.
“The trouble is what Chad Leiter thinks is right isn’t necessarily true.”
Taryse turned back to Nero, looking questionably into his dark eyes.
“We’ve seen the future of Chad’s present actions,” the former tournament champion said, his voice weary. “In a world where Chad’s gambit played out there were no more armoured heroes. The door was left wide open for Neo-Shadows to rise up once again, to seize control of USMDF, and, in doing so, to seize control firstly of the military and secondly of government.
“War broke out first in Europe, fractions of UKMDF holding out for a good few months before the new United States of Neo-Shadows simply detonated a nuclear warhead in the skies over Britain.
“The entire nation went under instantly, cities nothing but elongated black shadows stretched out across arid soil. France bore the brunt of the fallout, a tsunami of dead fish washing up on the coasts as dust and cancer were drawn down deep into the lungs of every living, breathing resident.
“The Russian mafia rose up in opportune aggression, taking advantage of the chaos at home and away. German order collapsed, a new wall of corpses dividing Berlin from the reach of her Russian neighbours.
“China protested but failed to act first enough. The Middle East redrew its territorial boundaries with further nuclear detonations.
“The seas turned black, the soil shrivelled. The world ended.”
Taryse wasn’t aware she was crying until she felt the tears fall from her chin. Absently she searched out Amelia with her hand, and, as if sensing the gravity of the situation, the young girl responded by taking hold of the offered hand and holding on with all her might.
Nero turned away.
“It’s just one future… but it’s the one that keeps coming up. I tried to go into the sands of time myself, to find Alicia, to ask her to somehow help me turn our world away from such a course but she’s not there anymore.
“Instead, there’s something else there, like a cancer rotting beneath the top level of the black sand. Something has gone wrong with time, Taryse. Now we have only these moments to make a difference in.”
“B-But Chad…” she protested weakly, “H-He wouldn’t…”
The sudden screech of alarms filled the building, a shudder running through the very foundations, throwing them all off balance.
She stumbled, taking Amelia with her and falling into Nero’s chest.
Instantly, Amelia began to scream, a wail of fear and exhaustion escaping her lips.
“What’s happening?” Taryse called out.
Spike Campbell reached for his side, drawing out an old Rider PDA and thumbing through endless updates as they suddenly filled the small screen.
“We’re under attack,” he said firmly, lifting his eyes at last and looking directly at Taryse, “from USMDF.”
Professor Jack Ryker felt the eyes upon him without needing to lift his head. The presence of the other was like a candle in the darkness, a flame so bright that it could not be smothered by shadows.
He was radiant, the former founder of the academy that had once stood upon Hongo Island reflected. He was a guiding star, a lighthouse on the shore, a sign of gentler times.
Tears stirred his eyes into moistness, a tremble rising in his chest.
“You came back,” he whispered, staring at his chest, the stains of red wine upon white creases.
He did not lift his head, did not gaze upon the brilliance of his visitor.
The sound of heavy boots echoed upon the floor.
“I promised I would,” the familiar voice replied. “You didn’t think I’d leave you again, did you?”
Ryker shook his head yet his face cracked in emotion. He had thought that he had been abandoned once again. Despite himself, he had thought himself alone.
For once, he was thankful of the darkness.
The years had been unbearable, the pain impossible to withstand. In his dreams, he saw the same accident played out over and over; the fire that burnt like a funeral pyre in Joji Forest, the sinking of Towerhacker Stadium, its structure weakened by the successive explosions.
He remembered watching the failing stadium as its surface ignited in flames, he remembered David standing in his torn and shattered silver armour, pulling free the last of his fellow students from the ruin before the towers collapsed and the stadium sunk down into the water.
They had pulled the stadium up of course, had repaired its mechanism, replanted the trees of Joji Forest, but David could not be fixed.
In his dreams, he saw the body, twisted and burnt, remembered the faint hum of the life support machine they had put him on… and yet…
Slowly, he lifted his head, looking at the figure illuminated solely by the presence of spiritual energy within him.
It was the same energy that powered that silver armour, the same energy that had made him so strong, so noble.
The figure stepped forwards into the darkness and Ryker recognised his firm features, the strong nose, the dark eyes. He did not care for the boy’s shaven head, he wished once more to see the soft brown waves of his hair, yet regardless of this difference, his heart ached anew for the presence of the boy; for the presence of his son.
“David,” he whispered softly.
The young man nodded reassuringly, crouching down before the chair in which his father sat.
“I promised, didn’t I?” he said softly, yet his expression remained firm. “Don’t doubt me again.”
It seemed as if the days between David’s loss and his sudden, inexplicable return had been endless, and yet, in truth, the time could be counted in but single digits.
When first his son had returned, he had explained that he had been present on Hongo Island since the accident yet it had taken him a great deal of time to recover… a great deal of time and help. Without USMDF, he had told his father, he would never have escaped the solemn plot that had been dug for him in the cemetery near Bitter Realm Hillside.
Several years ago, Ryker had been visited by his friend, Muro Takeru. Accompanying the former academy professor had been Chad Leiter, the youthful spite now worn into an adult defiance. Together, the two men had proposed a new regulatory body for armoured heroes.
Too many rogue agents such as Ryusei Long still prowled the country. Too much power had been received by those without the sense or compassion to use the armour they inherited or constructed.
The academy had closed shortly after yet still the armoured heroes he had brought to such prominence remained.
He remembered watching as Erik Caine had torn through Towerhacker Stadium, his Stardust Sabre clashing with the silver blade of David’s own épée so that the very stadium had trembled.
He remembered the look on Caine’s face as he realised what he had done, as the blade shredded David’s armour, as the stadium crumbled and the building’s fell.
Professor Ryker did not need to be convinced that in some way he was required to atone for his irresponsibility. Closing the academy alone was not enough, the armoured heroes he had sent out into the world needed to be controlled.
David had returned but a few days ago, revealing himself to have been behind Muro and Leiter’s original proposal.
In the darkness, he had buried his light, working tirelessly to find a way by which his father could make amends.
Tears formed in Ryker’s eyes again. Truly, the son had suffered for the sins of the father.
“We’re ready to begin the final act now, father,” David said softly. “Ishinomori has been convinced to remain silent and Leiter has served his purpose. Now his final display of power will definitely serve to turn the public against him. We have to be ready to cast off USMDF, to become greater than we ever were before.”
He reached out and placed a hand over that of the older man. Ryker trembled, tears spilling down his face.
“Father,” he said softly, “do you remember what it was that Neo-Shadows did to you in that cave?”
The older man nodded; more memories, more loss.
Gently, David reached out and wiped away his tears, looking earnestly into his eyes.
“I need your armour, father,” he said softly. “I need Vergeltungswaffe 3.”
He remembered the hole in Mark Mitsukai’s chest, the smell of Jaden Stryder’s fear, the taste of blood in his own mouth; he remembered the agony, the suffering, the promise of death and the cruel resurrection.
Slowly, he nodded.
“It’s yours,” he whispered, forcing a smile to his lips. “I never asked for it in the first place.”
David nodded, answering the older man’s smile with one of his own, his thin lips curling, his eyes glinting.
“And that’s the difference between us, father,” he whispered, “I did.”
Originally conducted way back in 2010, we caught up with former Livejournal smut author, Ashley Corgan at the beginning of her run on the online serials, Talisman and Ars Magna for the shared universe project.
For those who have followed the development of the site, the following interview serves as a fascinating time-capsule of events taking place during the site’s long history.
Blackfriars Bestiary: Okay, first off, I’d like to ask how you got involved with Artifice Comics. How did you meet Matthew Cavazos and Jason S. Kenney?
Ashley Corgan: Welly, let’s see. I’m sure Mr. Matt has gone off about meeting me via a Livejournal group of questionable repute. I’m a bit of an anime fanatic, specifically yuri and girl romance. He saw some of my works and after much pandering I broke down and read the Artifice site.
BF: I’m going to avoid touching too much on the specifics of Artifice as a site and just ask about the dynamics of Talisman and Ars Magna (T/AM). I’m given to understand that Seraphim Wing is one hundred per cent your project. I was wondering if you could tell me what your initial impressions of T/AM were and how Seraphim Wing (SW) grew out of those impressions.
AC: Thanks, I’m still trying to absorb a lot of what I missed from the more capes and fantastic fisticuffs portions of the site. [Talisman _]drew me in with both the focus on Sheila Torrance, the whole Talisman dynamic, and being a bit of closet pokefan. Then I read the abandoned _Ars Magna fic and virtually bludgeoned Cavazos for the rest of his notes. He had a lot of aborted starts for issue #3 of Ars Magna but I felt a different approach should be taken. So as being a staunch Mobile Fighter G Gundam fan I decided to create a ‘grim and gritty’ side story that would intertwine and open up the [_Talisman _]mythos. Any and all apologies for the anime name dropping.
BF: I remember some of the abortive versions of AM #3 posted on LJ and boards over the years. One of my personal reactions was always that there was kind of a feeling of desolation there, a much stronger sense of desolation than is present in Matt’s earlier work —certainly more so than the two earlier issues. SW, for me, represents a kind of progression of the desolation, in that thematically the two are very similar. Was that an intentional response to the earlier AM #3 drafts or did SW just take shape like that from the word go?
AC: Yes, I think I remember the whole “advanced aging/pregnancy” debacle she was put in with little explanation. I believe Mr. Matt has a James Bond-women hating complex deep down. I jest, of course. Sheila Torrance, from the notes I’ve read and what I’ve written and had approved, is a very tragic figure, and as people will soon find out, isn’t a unique occurrence and has a greater purpose. Seraphim Wing brings in Schezerade Puecelle, who is a more adult character, who has a less miserable life but is equally repressed. So I can say there is a bit of a shift, instead of just piling all the horribles on little Sheila I brought in another couple of characters to share the burden, so to speak.
BF: I think you could have field day exploring the subtext of possible misogyny in T/AM in that I honestly feel that Matt was driven, in later issues, to put Sheila in increasingly darker situations. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that Matt is some angry woman hating brute but I feel that those drafts of [_AM _]#3 are perhaps in the context of a personal situation specific to the author, which is why can’t even begin to speculate on without detracting from the story. Nonetheless, I think the shadow is there.
[*AC: *](laughs) You’re probably right.
BF: Sheila appears to be at the eye of the storm whereas Shezerade is a portrait of a grown woman after the storm. I’m wondering if that was simply reactionary or whether you were specifically trying to set up that dynamic.
AC: Well, Sheila could be a child when she had a younger cousin, Mikey in her charge. She was empowered and had someone looking up to her. So there was a huge change from [Talisman _]to _Ars Magna. Here she was in an entire new situation shortly after the events of Talisman. No support. Stranger in a strange land kind of deal. Schezerade grew up in an unfriendly environment from the get go but was more a second class citizen than a target for abuse. But Mr. Matt’s notes had a more bizarre origin for Sheila and fate for her family. To be honest, Schezerade wasn’t even the original character for Seraphim Wing. The love interest for the hero became the heroine and the hero became a backstory mentor.
BF: I’d like to touch on the heroes in a moment but before we let go of the idea of contextual misogyny as a story theme, I want to talk about some of the other female characters in the series. None of these women, from Sheila to her mum to Schezerade to Lady of Shadows and even the Imperial Magistrate, are women who have led lives unfettered by extremities of suffering. How does that impact on the stories you’d like to tell?
AC: For some it’s a tempering of spirit, will. While others it’s like a diamond in the rough that’s being weathered away until you realise there was very little diamond to being with.
BF: I’m assuming you’re talking specifically about Schezerade or Lady in that last statement. That’s quite a bleak thing to say. It doesn’t give the reader much faith for their futures!
AC: Take it for what you will. Although, I meant more specifically for Sheila’s mother.
BF: So it would be wrong to interpret T/AM/SW as a story about the archetypes of women?
AC: They’re about as archetypical as using Dakota Fanning and Miley Cyrus to represent young girls as a whole.
BF: Actually, I want to bring up what I consider to be one of the most important aspects of the series: every adult male in the T/AM/SW storyline comes across as a potential predator. Discuss.
AC: (laughs) wow. Yes, you’re right. Sex is a big motivator and underlining theme in whatever acronym you just threw at me.
BF: It’s a very scary potential picture painted by the series.
AC: Again my previous writing entanglements were of a less male dominated sexual theme. If you look at Lady, Sheila, and Schezerade, there is a big gap in their lives where love should take up residence. They have love for others, and give love, but they don’t receive it.
BF: That ability to ‘give’ love puts all of them in danger though, or so it seems in Sheila’s case. I think there’s a very dangerous subtext between Johann Weisz and Sheila that’s uncomfortable to read in places.
AC: Oh, that’s undeniable. Both Matt and I really enjoyed Leon, or [_The Professional _]to the Americans. The whole Matilda/Leon dynamic is ever present with Sheila and Weisz.
BF: I think it’s a great film too, but, with that film, it’s easy to not judge Leon too badly because he exists in a very noble vacuum. With Weisz, we already know he’s very much a womaniser and a drunkard. These too facts alone are enough to put his mentorship of a 12/13 year old girl in a bad light without all the blossoming of Sheila’s understated feelings for him. Do you think this is the root of something in either of the characters that will continue to haunt them?
AC: Not so much haunt, as my plans for Sheila are a bit more finite.
BF: First: how do you feel about the manner in which T/AM/SW represents family? What, if any, is the underlying message about family units in the story?
AC: I thought I was done with essays. Sorry, Composition and Rhetoric flashbacks. Family. Hmm. [Talisman _]is about the atomic family, mother and father figure and the 1.2 children. In _Ars Magna it’s more about bloodlines and legacies.
BF: I’d also add that, in the context of Emerald and Golem, it’s also about tribes.
AC: Well, it’s less tribes and more back to the Atomic Units. [_Talisman _]partners and pairings are very close.
BF: And on that note, I think we’re good to go. Thank you for your time. Any parting gestures?
AC: I’d like to thank Mssrs. Kenney, Milnestein, and Cavazos for letting me into their little playpen. I’m hoping for a more superhero style story/project in the future.
BF: And I’m sure they’d like to thank you for writing for Artifice, if any of them were coherent enough. I’ll certainly be looking out for that superhero project!
[*1908 *]– Planet X discovered by Cambridge astronomers. As a result of this discovery, the Mortlake Collective is formed.
[*1946 *]– The Mortlake Collective, having received massive backing from left wing Labour Party MPs as well as under-the-counter support from the USSR, is eventually transformed into the United Kingdom Xenobiology Division.
1982 – Lam Kam Po is recruited into UKXD by Braithwaite.
1986 – Former Mister Oblique, Charles Atwell is murdered.[_ ]Frere Lud becomes Mister Oblique ([_Rag and Bone]).
1991 *]– [*Aimi Underwood’s father dies.
[*1996 *]– Night Bus
1999 – Time Again, [Love Amongst Strangers _]#0, _Love Amongst Strangers (original novel), Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot/Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)
[2002 *]– *Lam Kam Po reassigned to Mister Oblique’s department in London. Six months later he becomes Bai Qi’s bodyguard.
[*2003 *]– Séance, Training Wheels, Father Figure, Working Hours
[*2004 *]– Hops, Malted Barley, Maize, and Water, Twisted, Careless Whispers
[*2008 *]– Countdown to… An Echo of the Way You Knew Me Under Foreign Skies
[*2009 *]– An Echo of the Way You Knew Me Under Foreign Skies ~ Love Amongst Strangers (Again)
[*2010 *]– Department Ɔ finally absorbed into UKXD. XI, Bounty Hunters, The Golden Myth, The Other Side, Backwards
[*2011 *]– Nowhere is Somewhere Sometimes, Cornelius, Underclass
[*2012 *]– Jubilee
[*2013 *]– Margaret Thatcher in Hell, England is mine, it owes me a Living, Peter Black
2014 – [_ Hell’s Branch Line, _feeniks _]
January – Jeffery Carter returns to patrol as Bush43 for the first time since Alhazred. Mysteria attacks Bush43 who knocks her out and takes her home. Victoria Burke comes to in Burke Manor and tells Carter to leave, but her butler, Alfonse, insists that he stays. Alfonse begins training Jeffery Carter (Bush43 #9 – 10).
- Romanov/a gathers Mysteria, Michael Manly, Bush43, Johann Weisz and Lin Tsang Hsia in hir office and officially founds the New Mages, informing them of the New Mages of Earth #746364 and their desperate ploy to escape Planet Braeburn (New Mages #2).
February – Mysteria is contacted by the four Mages of America (Doctor Creep, Deadman Smith, the Lady of Knives, and Termin), who tell her stories about the history of Albert Weisz (Mysteria: Frozen In Heaven).
- Bush43 confronts Typhoid Mary in a fight where he almost kills her (Bush43 #11).
- The New Mages of Earth #746364 escape from Braeburn and are transported to Moonbase Churchill where they are confronted by Romanov/a’s own Mages. Romanov/a uses the fallen Cybernetic-Man of Earth #746364 to send Manly and Weisz back across space to the world from which the alternate Mages have escaped from. Whilst on Braeburn they encounter the ancient being known as Ura God who relates the history of the Millennium Man armada building up in deep space. Ura God also explains to Weisz that the scarab Victoria Burke was originally from the same Earth as the first Millennium Man in the armada and thus there is a third scarab in existence on the planet. Drawing his powers from the planet itself, Manly returns to Moonbase Churchill whilst Weisz heads to Earth. Bush43 tricks alternate New Mage, Eldritch into an escape capsule aimed at Pacific City in order to protect her. Shortly after, Moonbase Churchill is destroyed (New[* *]Mages #1 – 4).
March – Crowley and Victoria once more dine at Reste’s when their meal is interrupted by a walking hive of disease and sickness named Alan Hoylan, a former acquaintance of Crowley’s who asked the magician to give him eternal life (Mysteria[* *]#5 – 7).
- The mysterious pseudo-deity known only in mythology as the Lonely Stranger returns to Earth, arriving in Newcastle, England where he encounters a tired and familiar face in the shape of Geordie teenager Jennifer McLain (Lonely Stranger: 0.).
April – In Japan, the notorious SUNNY Corporation runs trials to harness the Millennial Spark that gave both Henry Burke and Michael Manly their powers and build an army of Millennium Men. The three test candidates, Yujiro Komatsubara, Kunihiko Ohshiba, and Kenta Ohshiba rebel against the company’s control and put an end to their nefarious schemes (Millennium Man #17 – 19).
May – Investigating a factory purported to transform average humans into Post Human Science Heroes, Eldritch, Weisz and Carter encounter the former Historic Era villain, Oliver Twisted (Bush43: Factory Work).
June – Having discovered Millennium Man’s secret identity during the fallout of Alhazred’s destruction, Trevor Mason, a former colleague of Victoria Burke, reveals this information in a live newscast (Millennium Man #20).
(It was supposed have been a fun night out; dancing with friends, far too many Jägerbombs, and maybe a little fun also.)
by Jacob Milnestein
She had not expected to become a superhero.
It had started on a Saturday night in a club playing cheesy, 80s music in Angel; Peter Dean greeting the audience to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Eastenders, dancers on stage in cockamamie flat-caps and work boots, solemn Pearly Kings and Queens from Mile End appearing with distaste and disinterest.
It was supposed have been a fun night out; dancing with friends, far too many Jägerbombs, and maybe a little mischief also.
Wouldn’t it be great, Briony Michelle had suggested a day or two before the event, if they all dressed up as schoolgirls?
She remembered the moment clearly, leaning back in her chair in the office, staring out of the window towards the Shard, hoping for one of those Diet Coke breaks that used to be on adverts all the time when she was younger but never seemed to happen in real life.
Briony Michelle had been taken with the notion from the moment it had left her small mouth, her neat lips.
Leaning back in her chair and pivoting slightly so that she could take in the sight of the entire office, a biro turning like a baton between her fingers, Briony Michelle had decided that they needed a night out, all of them, before the entire department became so bitter about the circumstance of their collective singlehood that they each became spinsters.
It was a great idea, everyone agreed, and it had been a great night, or at the very least, entertaining—until the goddess, Ceres turned up.
It had happened sometime after two in the morning, standing by the stairs leading up from the toilets to the club, pulling up her grey knee high socks, adjusting her white blouse to ensure that the request amount of buttons were popped open, trying to keep her boater on straight.
She had been too young to watch the St. Trinian’s films—save for that one with the Girls Aloud song in it—and she had never really been comfortable with the way in which school uniforms were considered sexy as certainly, in her own days, her uniform had been anything but; a baggy brown jumper, white shirt and brown pleated skirt, far from the overly sexualised image of the slutty schoolgirl she had seen plastered over various vacuum packed costumes in Escapade.
How can you be slutty and underage, she had thought to herself as she had awkwardly patrolled the aisles of the fancy dress shop; how was it possible to market a fetish for something that was inherently taboo for committing? After all, no one made pornography about the dead, she had thought, mere moments before she encountered a row of slutty zombie costumes.
Perhaps there was a problem with the way we’re being sold these ideas of each other, she thought casually to herself, stepping to the side to avoid a flash of light from an oak tree wand; perhaps these silly costumes everyone was sold for the sake of arousal—slutty schoolgirls, naughty nurses, mischievous maids one and all—on the proviso that no one actually went out and slept with schoolgirls, nurses, or maids (in the latter case, at least not whilst they were in their uniforms, in the former case, not at all) was actually part of the problem?
Seeing Briony Michelle ahead of her, her smile wide, her eyes full of madness as the wind caught the frills of the lacework about her maid’s outfit, she thought again how absurd it was that they had all so easily become defined by the uniforms they wore.
To make the night more interesting, Briony Michelle had decided that half of their department would be schoolgirls, whilst the other half would be dressed as maids.
This hadn’t been a problem at first, even after so many Jägerbombs, but then there was Ceres, and shortly afterwards, there had been Lilith, and the whole night out had ended up like a minor skirmish during the Trojan War, the two divinities making a decidedly human dispute a lot more complicated than it needed to be.
It had started with a guy at the bar, Martin, he had said his name was, worked in an accounts department for a firm somewhere in Essex; out on a big night out with the ubiquitous lads.
Briony Michelle had decided she liked him, and, after several Jägerbombs too many, could not understand how he could like Erin, the department’s intern—dyed red hair forever tied back; fringe over her hazel eyes, always dressed in denim shorts and black tights, flannel shirt several sizes too big for her—more than he did her.
And so an argument had broken out, voices had been raised, and suddenly there were agitated schoolgirls arguing with melodramatic maids on the dance floor—and that’s when Ceres appeared.
Before any of them could protest, their entire department had been pitched into the eternal conflict between the goddess Ceres and her rival, Adam’s first wife, Lilith.
Appearing as a schoolgirl herself, straw boater, skirt rolled up too short, wings of dove feathers, the ancient deity had explained her dispute with Lilith, who all the while had stood scowling at the bar in frills and lace, ordering myriad vodkas and Red Bull.
Conflict had begun shortly afterwards, the department clashing and dispersing, maids withdrawing to one part of the city, schoolgirls to another. What followed after was a year or so of struggles and guerrilla warfare, random fracases on the Northern Line, surprise attacks on the Central Line.
Wherever they went, life became disrupted, the city falling into disrepair as they waged their ancient grudge on behalf of their equally ancient benefactors.
She had not expected to become a superhero, she thought once again to herself as she dived forward, levelling her magic wand in the direction of Briony Michelle, and yet here she was, and here they would all remain until eventually the dispute between those ancient figureheads was finally resolved.
THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT EMILY, BY EMILY
by JACOB MILNESTEIN
The first time I saw her, like not in one of those god-awful videos they show endlessly on VH-1, was at my dad’[s house during some big Thanksgiving celebration. My dad sort of came out of nowhere and told us we were going to be celebrating Thanksgiving this year and I was all like, _]what the hell have I got to be thankful for?[ But, as is kind of the case in our family, my questions were conveniently brushed aside._]
They called it the Engine because it was driven: driven to destroy super-humans! And yet before that, there was the field test. In the vast of the Australian Outback, the former super villain Dustdevil struggles to outrun fate itself. Meanwhile, amidst the mountains, far, far away, freelance magician Ayesha Swanson and her bodyguard, Mister Mo wait for their contact amidst a reclusive race of spider-people when they find themselves ambushed by a group of loathsome bounty hunters of terrifying skill - and all the while, former superhero, Professor Charles Winters waits for the coming of the Singularity. Set within the Love Amongst Strangers universe, the new volume of our anthology series, Blackfriars Bestiary weighs in with seven unique stories, each detailing a unique corner of the vast series universe and featuring a diverse array of characters. Featuring authors such as Jack Buxton (Love Amongst Strangers: The Other Side), Greg Rosa (Dreamer's Syndrome: New World Navigation), Jason S. Kenney (Love Amongst Strangers: Twisted) and Artifice Comics legends, Ashley Corgan and Matthew James Pierce, Blackfriars Bestiary 2.2 serves as your jumping on point for the adventures of Ayesha Swanson and Mister Mo and the world in which they live. Recommended for fans of Doctor Who, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and John Constantine, Hellblazer, Blackfriars Bestiary is your first port of call for all things action and supernatural!