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Holy Shit the Climax was so Long I had to Split it into Multiple Parts - Parts I-III

Holy Shit the Climax is so Huge I had to Split it into Multiple Parts Part I Something had to happen. The whole town could feel it. The volatile energy emanating from St. Adelaide’s descended from its hill to the suburb below in waves. Aurum could feel it as she grilled Muirne endlessly on Atlantis and the Truth until she threatened to stab her. Servus, if he could even feel at all, felt it as he watched Muirne and she attempted to communicate with him again. The students of St. Adelaide’s stalked from hall to hall, looking anxiously over their shoulders. Victor felt it as he became slowly more aware of the situation he found himself in, the idea that Abigail might be more than she seemed. Gil felt it as he began to lose hope of ever seeing Muirne, or even Sonia, again. Doug felt it, dimly, from somewhere deep in the bowels of hell. And Abigail felt it, and began to make plans. And down in the town below, the people looked to the school and knew that something must be done. Cindy and Tommy knew that their brother was still in there somewhere, and needed their help. Marcell know not only that Cindy needed him, but also that the Truth was somewhere in there as well, and he had been searching for it for so long. Cowell sat in The Smiling Goat and knew that things were going to get very interesting… very quickly. Niko knew that something needed to be done. For his friends, for the students caught in the crossfire. For Lila. And he was gonna be the one to do it. But for his burgeoning plan to work, he was gonna need some help. And he thought that he knew just where he could get it. ~~ o ~~ They got the text at around three in the morning. All except Aurum, who did not have a cell phone and thus was called the old-fashioned way. But they all got the message one way or another: “Meet at EB. 7AM.” Tommy was not a morning person, and thus was slightly grumpy. But with a little coaxing from Cowell, who was annoyingly chipper as he knocked on Mathilda’s door at around six, he made it almost on time. This was not a problem for Marcell, to whom it wasn’t really morning at all, nor Cindy, who besides from a few hours nap on Marcell’s couch hardly slept. They arrived together, several minutes early. Aurum, Servus, and Muirne were, of course, already there, but none of them emerged from the back rooms before the library was occupied. Because when all of them opened the door to the central room of the East Branch, Niko was waiting for them. He stood behind a table, a blueprint of St. Adelaide’s laid out on its surface. He’d found a long trench coat and wide-brimmed hat somewhere, and a dark eye-patch now covered that missing device. He greeted them all with a handshake and a smirk. It was that look that he often adapted when he wanted to look like he had all the answers. But this time, not even Cindy could sense any artifice behind it. It was as if he did, in fact, have all the answers. Aurum attempted to explain the circumstances surrounding the ancient hero inhabiting the body of his cousin. He seemed troubled, but thoughtful. “You can use a sword?” “Aye. Trained with it since I was a wee lass.” He nodded. “That may make things a little easier. And you think you can get this ‘Gilveidan’ character on our side?” “I certainly hope so. I’m sorry about your cousin, by the way,” she added, as he began to turn away. “Just make her sacrifice worth it,” he said simply. When Tommy and Cowell finally pushed through the door a few minutes late, it looked as if everyone had arrive. “Well,” Cindy said, eager to see what this was all about. “It looks like we’re all here…” “Actually, we’re not,” Niko said, all eyes on him. “You see, I’d heard some rumors around the Valley, and I did a little digging, just to see if it was true. Turns out that there’s someone that wants St. Adelaide’s gone just as much as the rest of you. And she brings a lot of firepower with her.” He snapped his fingers, and the doorway to the library opened for one final time. From the darkness came four figures. Three women who looked like they could kick your ass into the next week just for staring at them funny, and a small girl with blonde pigtails. “Hey, what’s up fuckers?” asked the redhead. “These are the Talons,” Niko gestured. “And they’re gonna be what turns the tide in our fight against the school. Because believe me, it will be a fight. And we’re gonna go in guns blazing. So if that doesn’t sound like a good Tuesday night to anyone, now’s your chance to go.” No one moved. “Excellent.” Niko grinned, placing a hand on the blueprint in front of him. “Here’s what we’re gonna do…”

~~ o ~~ Victor was up very early that morning, working on his project. His obsession with it had risen to a fever pitch. He was so close, he could feel it. The heart had beat. It had shut down after a minute, but it had beat. At this point, he didn’t even know why he was doing it. This project had started as a sort of hypothetical ‘what if’. What if he could take something directly out of science fiction and make it a reality? But now that it might actually work, it was all he could think about. That and— Speaking of the devil, as soon as his thoughts seemed to wander in that direction she appeared. His better half, his muse, Abigail slunk through the door of the shop. “Good morning,” Victor smiled, even though he didn’t look up. “Same to you,” she said, suspiciously subdued, and Victor frowned. Usually she would have been much more chipper, and loud. He finally looked up, and noticed that she looked more serious—even slightly nervous—than she usually did. She approached him almost hesitantly. He blinked. “What’s wrong?” “Victor,” she said finally, after taking in a deep breath. “There’s something I have to tell you, because things are about to start moving very quickly and if I don’t tell you this now you’re going to find out at a very inopportune time and I need you with me on this.” It took him a second to get his mind out of project mode and process the massive amount of words that had just emerged from her mouth at a machine-gun pace. “Okay… he said after about a solid minute. “I’m the Director,” she blurted out immediately. Victor froze. For a second, the statement didn’t even register. Those two concepts were so fully separated in his head that it was difficult to think about them at the same time. Maybe that’s why he didn’t outright panic, because some part of him couldn’t fully make the connection. “Oh.” Was all that really came out. Abigail smiled tensely at the slightly gormless expression alighting his face. It had just crossed his mind that the Director was responsible for so many terrible, awful things. Could she really be the same person as the sweet, caring girl in front of him that even now was looking up at him in worry. And then a second thought popped into being: he couldn’t really have an opinion on the Director’s actions, because hadn’t he done things that were just as terrible? But that had been different, he justified to himself. The things he had done were for discovery, knowledge. To see if he could really get the designs that danced across his closed eyelids to work in this reality. But maybe… “Why’d you do all those things?” he asked her. “You know, the psychiatrists and the sessions and… stuff?” “Why, that’s simple,” she stared up at him, her wide eyes enormous behind her glasses. “To experiment, to discover. For lack of a better word, for science.” He felt the knot in his stomach loosen. It was as if she had taken the words right out of his mouth. “Do you hate me?” she frowned. But Victor shook his head. “No,” he said. “I think I understand you a little too well.” “Then you’ll help me?” she asked, immediately brightening. “Even if what I have to do might be… horrible?” He grabbed her arm, and pulled her into him. He didn’t care about good or bad. There was only one god he prayed to. “Let’s burn down the world together. For science.” “For science…” ~~ o ~~ “This is never going to work,” Cindy grunted as she was bumped along like a sack of potatoes. In fact, she was currently in a sack of potatoes, in the back of a large, unmarked delivery truck. “Trust me,” Niko said from the barrel next to her. “It is.” “Aren’t they going to check the cargo? You know, in case someone tried to pull the exact same shit we are currently in the process of pulling?” “Not if your brother does his job.” Niko looked incredibly confident. Almost too much so, and his calm unnerved Cindy greatly. “Besides, they’re lazy rich kids. Unless someone with brains, like that Doug kid, or Jilli Nakajima herself deems the shipment worthy enough of their attention, we’ll be a-okay.” “So you’re making a bet,” Marcell chimed in from atop a nearby crate. “Multiple bets actually. You’re betting on laziness, and you’re betting that no one recognizes Tommy.” Niko just waved the question off. “They shouldn’t. He never got close enough for anyone to get a good look at him. And with that getup we’ve got him in, even less of a problem.” “Tommy does have a rather distinctive look,” Cindy admitted. “There aren’t many other ‘urban gypsy hobos’ around these parts.” “Exactly. There’s just one wild card I’m concerned about,” Niko frowned, and everyone’s gaze turned to Servus, who nearly looked annoyed at begin shoved unceremoniously into a huge bag of socks. “Aurum promised not to have him go wandering off again,” Marcell reminded him. Raising an eyebrow, Niko didn’t look convinced. “I don’t know, you two seem pretty set on this whole ‘quest for the Truth’ thing. You endangered our lives once before.” “And so that’s why you split us up.” “Hey you’re the one who wanted to come with your girlfriend.” “Made it rather convenient for you, didn’t it?” Niko stared Marcell down, even while still maintaining his impressive smirk. “Just remember that this is a rescue mission. If we happen to find your ‘Truth’ or whatever then great, but if not, you’re not gonna fuck up my stellar plan, capeesh?” “Ladies, please. Stop bitching,” Cindy rolled her eyes. “We’re almost there.” And true enough, some of the boxes had begun to slide towards the back of the truck as it angled increasingly uphill. “I just hope this ‘stellar plan’ of yours works,” Marcell sighed. “If the other group does their job, which they will,” Niko leaned back. “Then we’ll be just fine…” ~~ o ~~ Aurum looked rather constipated, if Cowell was one-hundred-percent honest, which he often was, if only in his head. She scrunched up her face, concentrating hard. “Do I need to get a bucket for you to sit on?” Cowell asked when he couldn’t hold the joke in any longer. She glared at him. “I don’t need anything else from you, thank you very much.” “Is it usually this hard to form a connection with the deadpan hunk of metal?” “His name is Servus,” she corrected. Cowell just shook his head. “Ah yes, because ‘slave’ in Latin is so much better.” “But no, it’s not,” Aurum ignored him. “maybe it’d be easier if I didn’t have to stare at your smug gob.” “I’m sorry, am I just too stunningly attractive that you simply can’t concentrate?” He dramatically flipped a hand to his forehead. “I’ll turn away.” “Do that.” He turned on his heel, and looked off towards the far wall of books. There was quiet in the library for a minute as Aurum focused and Cowell played a game with himself to see how long he could draw out the tension. Finally, after a good, solid effort of about thirty seconds, he started to turn back around. “So, just curious, do you have any books in here with pictures at all, or are they all just as dry and boring as y—?” “Quiet!” she snapped. “I’m almost there… I…” And then she fell out of her chair. “Are you having a stroke?” Cowell asked. But she didn’t seem to have heard him. She just grabbed her chest and breathed heavily. “My god you are, aren’t you?” “No! Just shut up for one. Second and listen. He fought back against me.” Cowell shrugged. “Maybe he got sick of you mucking around in his head.” “He isn’t even capable of basic thought on his own. No there’s… there’s something… in there.” ~~ o ~~ The announcement had been made early that morning, and the remaining students, anxious, pale, cowed, gathered in the cafeteria. It was a very different student body than it had been at the beginning of the semester. It was smaller, for one, maybe half the size as it had been, but it was also quieter, furtive. Instead of waving to each other and laughing as they met, the students slunk from hall to hall, always looking over their shoulders. Jilli had rubbed off on them, and they had seen things. Now as they sat in the high, arched room, Abigail hardly had to wait a second for them to quiet down. The remnants of their once happy little family, Victor and Gil, stood to the side. Victor gave her an anxious little smile and a thumbs-up, while Gil simply glared daggers at her. Nihil was somewhere upstairs, keeping an eye on her office in case any rodents attempted to sneak in. Abigail smiled back at Victor, and took the stage. Gil leaned over to him. “I take it you are not yet aware of her true nature?” he asked. “Oh no. I am.” Blinking, Gil turned to him properly. “Then you’re aware that she has no real affection for you. That she only cares about her goals, whatever those may be?” “I don’t know about that,” Victor replied, with a surprising lack of naivete. “But yes, I know she’s using me. I’m using her too.” “I—” Gil frowned, stepping an inch away. “I seem to have misjudged you.” Meanwhile, Abigail stepped forward, and the room became so silent that it seemed the whole world was holding its breath. “Fellow students,” Abigail began. “This morning I’m here to bring you some unfortunate news. Jilli Nakajima is dead.” Even from the unnaturally quiet crowd of teenagers there was a shifting, an unbelieving rumble. “But never fear, even if your noble leader is dead, I have come to take back control.” She paused, grinning as the meaning of her words sunk in. “Some of you know me as Abigail Hodge, which is, of course, my name. But I also have another name. More of you know me by that title. You see…” she held her voice changing box to her mouth. “I am the Director. And from now on, with no suits, no parents, no society to hold me back, there are going to be some changes around—” The student body had, by this point of course, already begun to panic. It didn’t help matters when a flying motorcycle came through the window. A cry went up from the crowd as shattered glass fell among them, and then as the dust cleared, there was silence. A woman and a girl with blonde pigtails sat on the bike. Abigail blinked. “Paragon Alpha? Is that you?” she tittered as the little girl dismounted and faced her. “It is. You know, in a million years I never thought you’d come back after I kept you imprisoned for so long.” Gil stepped forward, and Victor reached for his remote control, but Abigail raised a hand and held them back. “I’ve thought about it long and hard, and I’ve decided to tell you the truth,” Buttercup said in a flat voice.

“Oh?” Abigail asked. “The truth? Really. I don’t know what you could possibly mean.” “You’ve been lied to, for all these years,” Buttercup continued, not breaking her intense stare. “And I’ll tell you, but first you need to let these children go.” “Why would they want to leave?” Buttercup sighed. “I know what you’re planning. You’re going to use them for experiments, to make yourself an army.” The crowd gasped as one, and from there a manic cacophony began to build. Abigail sighed. “Well, now you’re just causing panic. Fine. They can go. I can always find more subjects.” As if on command, the doors to the cafeteria blew open and the amalgamate of students rushed through. The two parties waited for the room to clear, and finally, when Abigail grew too impatient: “Alright, I’ve done what you asked. Now what is this about the truth?” Buttercup sighed. “You’ve been told your whole life that your father died for Project Paragon, died trying to prevent my escape. But that’s not the truth. I lied. I thought it would be easier for you to grow up thinking that. The truth is…” she shook her head. “He died trying to help me escape. The things they did to us, to me, was truly horrible, something your father realized too late to prevent. But it’s not too late for you. You can still—” Except that Abigail cut her off then, not with words, but with laughter, the harsh sounds biting through the air. “It that what you think this is about? Continuing my father’s legacy? He died when I was a child. I barely knew him. The only interest he held for me was his connection to the Project.” “Then think of the human cost,” Buttercup pleaded. “Do you really want to create more people like me?” “I already have.” There was silence. Abigail stared at Buttercup, Buttercup stared back, horror dawning on her face. “I was afraid of this.” She turned to her companion, the red-haired woman on the motorbike. “She’s too far gone, Lilith. We have to kill her.” “I was hoping you’d say that,” Lilith grinned broadly. She put a finger between her teeth and whistled, before revving the bike. “Ooohh,” Abigail clapped her hands together. “Are we having more company? Gil, Victor, you know what to do.”

Victor clicked a few switches on his remote control and a series of machines seemingly emerged from the walls, humming to life. Gil raised his hands, but only a few bolts of purple electricity passed between his palms before he froze. Because just then, a voice resounded through the room. “Gilveidan, you All-Knowing piece of garbage!” And suddenly, for the first time that any of them had seen, Gilveidan grinned from ear to ear. “I am in so much trouble.” Three women flew through the hole in the window, two that Gil didn’t recognize. But the third, her blonde hair flowing wildly behind her, her face set in an entirely different expression than he had become used to, he knew very well. Her face was still Sonia’s, but the fire in her eyes, that was undeniably… “Muirne,” he breathed. The Talons and Buttercup charged the machines, swords and tennis shoes blazing. And in the middle of it all, Gilveidan and Muirne met. He held her in his arms for the first time in so long. And it was odd, but he hadn’t even realized just how much he’d missed her until she was in his arms again. Then she slapped him. “I deserved that,” he said. “Siding with her?” Muirne nearly bared her teeth. “As the new expression goes: ‘what the hell are you on’?” “In my defense you weren’t coming back and it was sort of my only option.” Muirne stared him down. “Ooo, if we weren’t in the middle of a fight we would be having some words.” “Shall we ‘kick some ass’?” he smiled. “Aye,” she grinned back. “Let’s.” Across the room, Buttercup turned and saw Abigail and Victor sneak from the room. If she hadn’t been pinned by three different machines, each with a varying set of very sharp edges, she would have gone after them. But the others needed her here. She’d given the others as much cover as she could. If Abigail was to be believed, she had a sneaking suspicion of who her subject had been. Good luck to them. They were going to need every bit of it they could get.

Part II Cindy couldn’t hear much through the walls of the truck. In fact, after coming to a stop and waiting for a minute, presumably by one of the back entrances to St. Adelaide’s, she heard very little at all. There was the slam of the cab door as Tommy climbed out, a small bit of muttering for a second, and then… nothing. Niko stared back at her in silent horror as they both feared the worst. Tommy had been shot, or incapacitated, and here they were stuck in the back of a fucking delivery truck. There was a pop as the handle on the back door was opened, and Niko cocked his pistol. Then the door rolled upwards, and they both breathed as Tommy stood there in the white delivery man uniform. It contrasted horribly with his tattoos and near-dreads. “It’s all clear,” he said. “I… uh, took care of them.” They all climbed out after Niko, who hopped out first and surveyed the scene. Two students were lying unconscious on the ground. “Ya didn’t have to knock them out,” he commented. “Yeah, well, I didn’t feel like carrying you all into the building. I mean, you’re one thing.” Niko seemed to take offense at that. “But Cindy on the other hand…” “Knock it off you big jerk.” “No.” “I think we’re just lucky that they were so gullible,” Marcell chimed in. “Unfortunately, it won’t be so easy from here, because the Director isn’t.” Niko’s hand was still placed firmly on the trigger of his gun. “And there are a couple other pretty smart cookies to look out for. I don’t like that Abigail chick one bit.” The others followed him into the shadow of the school. Above, it towered far over their heads, daring them to make another assault on its hallowed halls. Niko led them forward through the service doors, pulling them open with a metallic shriek. They froze, but still, no one was there. Nodding, Niko gave the signal, and they rushed through the storage rooms, which to Cindy seemed almost dangerously under-stocked. Either the spoiled, rich kids had just simply been wasteful, or this little “society” wasn’t meant to last as long as had been claimed. Finally, as they neared the main corridors of the Bloch Building, they began to hear something. It sounded to Cindy an awful lot like panic. She and Niko pushed open the last set of doors and were nearly crushed by a stampede of crazed teenagers. Niko glanced back at Cindy, grinning. “Looks like the distraction worked wonders. We’ve gotta hurry though. As of right now, we’ve got no idea where they’re keeping your brother.”

“Actually,” Marcell had to strain to be heard over the cacophony. “We might. Last time you were here Aurum, ah, found a secret passage with Servus. It’s possible he could be down there.” Cindy frowned. That was the face Marcell made when he wasn’t telling the whole story. But there wasn’t time to argue now. She looked over to the small automaton. “Servus,” she said, “Or Aurum, if you’re there. Do you remember which way it is?” He paused for a minute, as if thinking, then visibly frowned. Finally, after around thirty seconds he nodded, and took off down the corridor. That was… strange. Servus had never really made a facial expression before, in all the time that Cindy had known him, at least. The five of them ran past hoards of students speeding to their dorms, the gates, anywhere but here. At one point Cindy almost got blown away by the crowd, but Marcell grabbed her hand and they kept running. What would they find in this “secret passage”? Cindy hadn’t really thought that far ahead. Of course, she was hoping that they’d find Mike alive and well, but what if they didn’t? What if he’d been tortured, or experimented on, or worse… what if he was dead? But Cindy shook herself of that thought. It was just as likely that they wouldn’t find him at all. She didn’t know which was worse. After a minute they headed up a flight of stairs and out of the main body of chaos. Now as they continued down the halls, they could still hear the calamity below, but muffled and distant. This floor was quiet, almost too much so. Servus led the way around one final corner and made for the room that appeared to be their destination. But unfortunately, something was standing directly in the middle of their path. At first, Cindy didn’t even recognize him. He was taller than she remembered, his hair longer and more wild, and from this distance she couldn’t really see his face. “This… doesn’t look good,” Tommy muttered. The person was just standing there, watching their approach, and it didn’t look like he was going to move anytime soon. Niko held out a hand, and they all stopped walking, except for Servus, who Tommy had to grab to keep from mechanically continuing forward. “Let me handle this.” Niko stepped forward. “Hi,” he said conversationally to the figure while cocking his pistol. “How’s it goin’?” The figure said nothing. “Not much of a talker, huh?” he shrugged and grinned. “That’s alright, we’ll start off easy: what’s your name?” “Nihil.”

His voice was hoarse, as if it hadn’t been used in a long time. If it hadn’t been for that, Cindy might have recognized it sooner. “He’s just toying with us,” Marcell whispered to Cindy. “Nihil is just ‘nothing’ in Latin.” Cindy frowned. “Maybe…” she said. “but something seems… strange.” “Okay, Nihil,” Niko continued. “We kind of need to get in that room you’re standing in front of. I uh, don’t suppose there’s any chance you would step aside?” “None.” Sighing, Niko slipped to the side. “Alright then, looks like we’ll have to do this the hard way.” He raised his gun, and fired. But in the millisecond it took the bullet to reach its target, Nihil was gone, and the bullet thumped uselessly into the wood of the door. “Shit,” Niko muttered, before hearing breath next to his ear, and turning to see Nihil suddenly directly behind him. The latter reached forward, quicker than could be seen, to grab Niko by the throat. Immediately, Marcell became fuzzy at the edges, half man and half mist. He floated above the two, where he solidified again and came down right on Nihil’s arm, who let go of Niko in surprise. Niko collapsed, coughing and sputtering. Tommy ran over to help him up, while Cindy and Marcell gave chase, as Nihil had flash-stepped away down the corridor. Marcell went on ahead, moving faster as mist down the hall, and Cindy followed behind. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something about their assailant seemed odd. Marcell turned a corner after Nihil, and by the time Cindy followed they were already locked in combat. Marcell punched and kicked, but Nihil blocked each as easily as if he could predict them coming. But the sheer swiftness and force of Marcell’s blows was pushing him backwards. Yet as he did so, Nihil seemed to notice how Marcell stuck to the spaces between the windows. He tilted his head to the side, and then, when the moment was right, he ducked under Marcell’s fist and punched through the glass on the windowpane. As the sunlight hit him, Marcell covered his face and slunk back, the skin on his arms blistering. Nihil raised a fist, except that at that moment Cindy dashed between then. She blew a plume of fire towards him, but gasped when the light hit his face. “I—” she managed. Marcell recovered then, and started forward again.

“Lucius, wait!” Cindy cried. A bullet zinged past them and missed Nihil by inches. Niko and Tommy were rounding the corner, followed closely by Servus. “Don’t! Stop!” Cindy screamed. “He’s Mike!” For a second, everything stopped. No one moved a muscle. Finally, Marcell looked down at Nihil and his eyes widened as well. “My god, you’re right.” That’s Mike?” Tommy interjected. “Why didn’t you tell me our little brother was a superpowered badass?” “This is a new development,” Cindy shook her head. Nihil simply looked confused. “That is not my name.” “What are you talking about?” Cindy asked, frowning. “Of course it is. You’re Mike Miller, my brother.” But there was no recognition in Nihil’s eyes. For a second, Cindy wondered if she was mistaken. But no, there was no doubt about it. The eyes that stared back at her were the very same as the ones she saw in the mirror every day. “You will not confuse me any longer, witch,” he grimaced, and proceeded to lunge forwards. But his hand was grabbed in midair. Cindy blinked. It was Servus, the metal of his arm groaning under the pressure of Nihil’s strength. “No,” he said, almost too quiet for anyone to hear over the creaking and the tearing. “Won’t… hurt… my friend.” The words came out slowly, painfully, as if he had to force them from his body. But he spoke. And just when it seemed as if Nihil would break the arm that Servus was holding him with, the latter delivered a kick to the gut that sent Nihil flying down the corridor and through the door of a classroom. The five of them ran after him, Cindy throwing out her hands to make a wall of fire in the doorway. Even if he could move faster than they could see, he still couldn’t walk through fire. Probably. By the time they made it to the classroom, Nihil had already recovered and was standing calmly just over the threshold. “You don’t have to bother,” he explained to Cindy. “I could kill you all easily, but you’ve proven that the effort required is simply not worth it.” Cindy narrowed her eyes. “Please.” he said. “I want to know about this ‘Mike Miller’.” ~~ o ~~ All the way down to the dark bowels of St. Adelaide’s, down in the deepest depths of the earth where the sun had never shown, the three of them followed him. Cancer came first, of course, the OG, the omnipresent, always there at the back of his mind with her parched, stretched lips and hairless visage. Behind her came Cocaine, her eyes crazed and nearly too big for her face, her dyed blonde hair wild, and bits of glass were embedded all across her face and chest. But now a third wraith joined the entourage of suffering. Her eyes were sad, tracks of mascara tears ran down her cheeks. The hole clean through her chest was still moist and bloody. Conscience. If only he’d listened to it sooner. And here they were, and here was Doug, all locked up together in some sort of cell. Mike, Nihil, whoever he was, had strapped Doug to a table. He didn’t know what he was doing, he didn’t know that the instant he left the room the three of them were on Doug like vultures. They stared down at him, pitying, more real, more human then they ever had before, and yet they were so still, so silent. They judged him, for the things that were not his fault, and the things that were. “Wow, he must be really out of it, we’re even able to talk,” Cocaine said. They had never done that before, but it seemed the most natural thing in the world at that moment. Cancer’s thin lips spread. “I believe this is what they call the ‘Heroic Blue Screen of Death’.” “Heroic?” Cocaine blew air out of her nose. “As if. Look, if he’s a hero then I’m fucking Zoey Deschanel.” Conscience didn’t say anything, just stared down at Doug, nearly pleading to him. “You know why she’s crying?” Cocaine asked, leaning down towards him. He recalled the smell of Elizabeth, the taste of her lips before she had smashed through the windshield. “It’s because you could have saved her. If you’d just said something. You could have saved me too, ya know?” “No, he couldn’t,” Cancer rolled her sphere-like eyes. “You made your own choices. You’re only here because you remind him of his equally bad ones.” “Well, what about you, then? Why the hell are you here?” She simply smiled for a moment. “I’m here to remind him that with this one, there was absolutely nothing he could do.” “Shut up,” Doug said quietly. “Oh shit, that’s good. You’re right.”

“I said shut up.” “Oh! So now after all this time you’re finally gonna speak up?” Cocaine asked. “Afraid it’s too little, too late there, buddy.” “Shut up! You don’t think I know that? Shut up shut up shut up!” Doug squeezed his eyes shut. And when he opened them again the three of them were gone, and he was alone. He really was alone now, truly alone. Jilli was dead. She was fucking dead, and if he had just intervened in time… He’d as good as killed her himself. The darkness around him was deafening. He was stuck here, wherever here was, with the one person he hated most in the world. Doug didn’t want to be here anymore. He didn’t want to be at all. He almost wished his demons would come back. At least he’d have all his mistakes to keep him company. It was too quiet. How did that one song go? The one that always got stuck in his head at the oddest of times? “The scene and herd…” he mumbled to himself. “Block out the sun like a flock of birds and I don’t wanna go…” huh. “I don’t wanna—” Then the door behind his head opened with a heavy creak, and the room came to life. He was in some kind of laboratory, that was for sure. As he blinked against the sudden brightness Doug couldn’t help gulping at the amount of beakers, knives, and various other tools of science that glittered from shelves and tables. The room, he now noticed, smelled vaguely like formaldehyde, and the walls were underlit with a sickly-green glow. “So, at least we’re here, face to face,” said a sickeningly familiar voice from behind him, and suddenly the table he was clamped onto spun upright. Abigail grinned at him, and Doug’s blood boiled. “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this day, to see the look on your face. And I have to say it’s just as wildly entertaining as I’d hoped.” Doug didn’t say anything. He didn’t trust himself to speak. But he glared back at her with all the anger he could muster. “No tears from you, of course. I didn’t expect that. But I said to myself, I said: ‘I want to see him angry. He’s always so gloomy.’ And now here we are. And it’s glorious. If all I had to do was murder a pretty girl in cold blood I would have done it ages ago.” “Why?” Doug asked, before he could stop the word from slipping out. She blinked innocently. “Why what? Why did I kill her? I already told you: I was done with her. She preformed her part beautifully, set the board of directors in a positive panic. But now, I don’t even need this school anymore, and I certainly don’t need any loose ends. Watching you die inside was just an added bonus.” “No, not just that,” Doug shook his head. “Everything. This school, the experiments. Why?” “Hmm…” she squinted, sizing him up. “Well, you’re going to be dead in a few minutes so I suppose it doesn’t matter. You see, Doug,” she leaned on a nearby metal table conversationally. “I’ve always been burdened with mankind’s greatest sin: curiosity. As soon as I don’t know something I simply must have the answer. Or I will die. Some of the more pressing questions in the early days of my career produced what you see before you,” she gestured to herself. “So now with my clock permanently reversed, you could say, I can now sate my unending curiosity on my own time. “The whole purpose of this school was to find the perfect candidate for Project Paragon. I knew I was going to need a teenager, they’re the only ones with the right brains, you see, so what better cover than a school? Unfortunately I needed a very specific brain, and it took years and years and years to find it. And I got bored of waiting. So that’s where you come in. “Because sometimes you get frustrated. Something your results aren’t what you want them to be and all you want to do is zap someone senseless for a few hours.” Doug’s heart dropped somehow further down. “That’s… that it?” he asked. “That’s the only reason?” “You were simply stress-release. I had to relieve my tension somehow. And you never disappointed.” She smiled almost girlishly, running a hand along his cheek. “Never broken, always prepared to go one more round. Oooo, I still think about it when I touch myself at night.” “Fuck you.” “While that would be ever so pleasant, I’m sad to say that I am already previously engaged. And besides, in my long life, there’s one thing I’ve learned. Sex is all fine and well, but only one thing brings true satisfaction. Any guess what it is?” He just stared at her silently. Fear. The oldest, and truest emotion. Because deep down, Doug, we’re all just scared animals. We’re all afraid. And to see all the layers of morals and lies come crashing down to get to the most base part down deep inside. Oh, I nearly cream myself every time I see it. And fear is the only way to get there. “So tell me, Doug,” and here she grabbed his chin and straightened past her small height so that they were nearly touching noses. “What is it that you’re afraid of?” “Bees.” She threw her head back and cackled. “That’s certainly a fear, but it’s not the fear. The one that drives you, the one that keeps you moving at all costs. You’ve gotten so used to running from it that I think you’ve nearly forgotten what it is. But that’s fine, I’ve already figured it out for you. You know you talk an awful lot in your sleep. “So in order to send you off with a bang, as thanks for all that you’ve done for me, I’m going to give you a very special death.” At that moment she hit a button and the table pitched back to flatten once again. “Do you know where Louis Carrol got his inspiration for the Mad Hatter, by any chance?” She stared down at him, the lights catching the rims of her glasses. “Not a clue.” “According to speculation, it was from the hatters,” she explained. “Back in ye olden days mercury was used to cure the felt with which hats were made, and since that material would then move directly to the hatters with no sanitation, they would constantly breathe in the mercury. Mercury is, of course, highly toxic, so most of them went a bit mad. They were so infamous for it that mercury poisoning was dubbed ‘Mad Hatter’s Disease’ for several years.” Doug didn’t know where she was going with this, but wherever it was, he didn’t like it one bit. “Now, those poor hatters had no idea what was happening to them. But I’ve always wondered what it would be like to really feel it, to have the knowledge that you are going crazy. Too bad you’ll be dead, or else I’d have you take notes, though you probably wouldn’t be able to hold a pen anyway.” She reached somewhere out of sight, and before he knew what was happening, she had placed a breathing mask over his face. “Now, in about, oh, ten seconds I’m going to turn this little valve here, and mercury off-gas will start pouring out of that breathing mask, so you’re going to be able to feel yourself going insane and then dying.” Eyes widening, Doug unconsciously began to breathe heavily, every sense kicking into over drive. He pulled at his restraints in vain. No. No, any way to die was fine. Anyway but this. “Now that’s the fear I like to see,” Abigail’s earsplitting caterwauling nearly shook the room. “If only I could see the whole thing. But alas, I have urgent places to be. Oh well, that’s what video cameras are for.” Without any hesitation she turned a valve on a canister with a squeak and then skipped to the door. “Smile for the camera,” she grinned. “And don’t forget to say ‘fuzzy pickles’!” The door closed, and she was gone. It was nearly impossible to keep himself from outright panicking. If he panicked, then the Adrenalin would kick in and he would start inhaling the mercury twice as fast. Maybe if he held his breath for long enough someone would find him before it was too late. But a second later, Doug realized the odds of that were next to zero. And besides, who would come to save him anyway? The only people who had maybe cared about him were dead. Still, he tried. He held out as long as he could if only to delay the inevitable. He wouldn’t mind dying, it was true, but not like this. Because the more unstable he got, the stronger they became. Cancer, Cocaine, Conscience, they were going to come for him. All of his regrets would stare and laugh at him until his body finally gave out. Doug didn’t want it to end like that. But as the seconds ticked by, the pressure in his chest became too great, stars began to dance across his vision as his forehead pounded. Instinct took over, and his took his first, poisonous breath. For a minute, nothing happened. Maybe, he thought, Abigail had been mistaken, and grabbed the wrong canister, or more likely, this was some kind of sick experiment to see how he would react under pressure. Except that then he began to cough. It was just a little at first, but more and more over the next few minutes until his body was wracking with violent convulsions. He couldn’t tell if the metallic taste in his mouth was blood, or just the mercury. Then he realized that the convulsions were increasingly not from the coughing. Even strapped down as they were, Doug’s hands were shaking. It was becoming increasingly difficult to focus on anything. He kept hearing things, random noises and laughter. Then he saw it out of the corner of his eye. Cancer, the fucking harbinger. And on the other side of the room, he could smell Cocaine smacking its lips. The shaking was getting worse, up his arms and legs, and the coughing was so bad that he hardly noticed Conscience straddling him, rubbing against him. Jilli. Jilli why her hands were in his hair, her perfume overwhelming him. Though he couldn’t see very well his vision cutting in and out as if the world was flickering, he saw with increasing panic that the inside of the mask attached to his mouth was red. He convulsed on the table, nearly dislocating his ankles and Cancer and Cocaine close in their smiles stretched wide and laughing laughter filling his head. Stop it stop it stop it nooooo but they haven’t reached him, why aren’t they coming? Are they waiting for him to do something are they mocking him what? But he can’t see he can’t turn his head his horns are in the way. And then— The straps were released from his wrists and ankles, the mask pulled off, and Doug shook himself off the table and onto the floor. Dimly, from somewhere very far away, he registered the pain from hitting the concrete. And then someone was dragging him to his feet and out of the room. But Doug was half-blind, the world smearing around him like finger-paints. He tried limply to help whoever was dragging him, but try as his might his legs were shaking far too much to be of any use. After a minute, his savior paused to catch his breath, and Doug managed to partially find his feet. “Who—?” he asked, blinking rapidly into the man’s face. Eyelids were just windshield wipers. That’s how they worked, right? The shape of his face slowly came into semi focus: Victor. If he had not just inhaled a near lethal dose of mercury, Doug might have questioned how in the hell Victor even knew about this place, but as it was, the thought didn’t even cross his mind. He just smiled drunkenly. “Jesus what on earth did she do to you?” Victor asked, mostly for his own benefit, but Doug tried to answer anyway. “Hatter… juice,” was all that came out. Victor’s face blurred spectacularly as he shook his head. “I don’t know what that means, but look,” he grabbed Doug’s shoulders to try to get him to focus on him, made difficult by the fact that his whole body was shaking like he was outside in the Antarctic wearing only a wet swimsuit. “You need to get out of here, she’ll be back any minute. There’s people upstairs. They’ll help you. Can you walk?” “Sure.” There was a noise, and suddenly, Victor was gone. Or maybe Doug had just momentarily blacked out, he wasn’t sure. But at that moment, he did what he’d always done, and the only thing that he ever could do. He started moving. Part III Now that Cindy finally got a good look at him, she could see that yes, Nihil was in fact her brother. His hair was longer and darker, his skin paler and cheeks gaunt. But the eyes didn’t lie. The look in them was different, they were harder, unrecognizing. Yet they were still his. What had the Director done to him? “I don’t think I’d trust him,” Niko warned. “He’s clearly not your brother anymore. He’s probably lying.” Cindy hesitated, the flames dancing in the doorway between them. Nihil stared back at her, and Cindy was shocked to realize that the gaze was nearly impenetrable. His mind, it was… hardly human anymore. Still, there was that small thought at the back of her mind. She hoped he was telling the truth. Cindy took a deep breath and let out the flames. Then she stepped past the threshold and into the classroom. “Tommy,” she called back over her shoulder. “Miller family meeting.” Tommy seemed nearly surprised to be included, but after a second followed after her. Marcell frowned. “The moment this goes south—” “You’re gonna tear his throat out, I know,” Cindy nodded, before she and her brothers disappeared into the classroom. Cindy had imagined this reunion numerous times, but it had never been like this in her head. She sat at a desk, and Tommy followed suit a second later. Nihil hesitated, as if unsure of what to do, before Cindy grabbed his hand to lead him to the desk next to her. He flinched at the touch, and Cindy’s heart nearly broke. “So you want to know about Mike?” she asked, mostly to Nihil, but also for Tommy’s benefit as well. “Mike was—is,” she corrected, he wasn’t gone yet. “Mike is…” But she stopped. How could she tell this complete stranger just who her brother was? How could she verbally explain the essence of a whole person, what made him Mike, in a way that this person would understand? “The… the mail,” she finally stuttered out. “Mike always got the mail. Our mother works so hard for us, and she’s usually so tired when she gets home that she forgets. So Mike always got the mail for her on his way in from soccer.” Tommy and Nihil stared at her, the former wondering where she could be going with this but the latter looking thoughtful. She took this as a good sign. “He was always the thoughtful one, in a way I never could be. I’ve always been a little jealous of that, the way he could just care about people. Like he never had to put any effort into it, he never had to think about it, it just happened. “Not that he couldn’t be a little shit. He was always forgetting his stuff in the weirdest places and begging me to go get them for him. But in the end, I guess that turned out for the best. “I doubt he knew, of course, but I think somehow he knew that getting that lunchbox would change everything. He’s smart like that. I’ve been trying to pick up the slack since he’s been gone, but I can’t be there for mom like he could.” “Carol,” Nihil said suddenly, and Cindy and Tommy nearly jumped. “Her name. It’s Carol, isn’t it?” Blinking, Cindy had to bite her lip to keep from letting out a sob. “Y-yes,” she said. “And you’re…” he seemed very confused, shaking his head. “You’re Cindy. Why do I know that? I don’t know anything. I’m nothing.” “Did she tell you that?” Tommy asked. Nihil was blinking rapidly. “No. It did.” “It?” Cindy asked, but Nihil refused to say more. “You’re not nothing,” she continued instead, gazing into his eyes. “You’re my brother. You’ve been single-handedly keeping our house together for years. You are amazing!” “I… I don’t…” he looked over to Tommy suddenly. “I don’t know you.” Cindy looked down. “You would have been too young to remember. Mom and I should have talked about it more.” “I’m Tommy,” he cut in. “I’m your older brother.” At this, Nihil’s eyes widened. “We didn’t have a father. Growing up we never had a father, I always wondered why. You and mom never said anything about it. I didn’t even know I had had a brother until I dug up an old newspaper clipping in the attic.” “You… found that?” Cindy asked. Nihil shrugged. “Neither of you were going to tell me anything about it. I didn’t want to make you sad… that’s… who is this?” he seemed nearly horrified at the words coming out of his mouth. “That’s Mike,” Cindy smiled. “That’s you. I don’t know what the Director did to you, but nothing will ever change that fact.” “No, I… I don’t understand,” he clutched at his head. “All these… these things. My head doesn’t make sense, my chest is tight.” Tommy patted him on the head, and he suddenly looked more his age. Less edges. Mike had no edges at all. “Those are called feelings, my man. They’re kind of a bitch, but we’ve all gotta deal with ‘em one way or another.” “I remember this. It’s terrible.” Laughing, Tommy just shook his head. “That it is.”

“I’m so confused,” Nihil rubbed his temple. “Who am I?” “I don’t know,” Cindy said. “You were Mike, now maybe you’re not.” “There’s so much I can’t remember. Some of it’s beginning to come back, but… can you help me?” he looked at Cindy, pleading with his eyes, and she couldn’t help seeing her pudgy-faced little brother asking her to play with him. “Can you help me find Mike again?” “You don’t need to find him, he’s still in there, I know it. But yes,” she grinned, “I’ll help you as much as you need.” She wrapped her arms around him. Tommy hesitated, not sure if he could join in, but Cindy winked and his arms were in turn around her. They sat there like that for a long time, just listening to each other breathe. Finally, for the first time in thirteen years, they were all together. “I hate to break up this touching family reunion,” came Niko’s voice from the doorway, “but it looks like we’ve got problems.” The three of them broke apart, and looked at each other for a moment, before following Niko from the classroom. Out in the hall, Mike looked around at the assembled crowd, all the familiar and unfamiliar faces. It seemed that Muirne and Gil had joined the group while the three had been having their feelings jam. Mike blinked at the two of them in recognition, but a second later, his eyes drifted over to Marcell. “Wait,” he said, all edges again. “You’re Mik—uh, my old history teacher. What are you doing here?” Marcell looked over to Cindy helplessly. “It’s a long story,” she said simply. “One you can tell later,” Niko interrupted. “You’re not gonna murder us, right?” he turned to Mike. “Only if you try first.” “Fair enough,” Niko replied, nodding. “These two just got here,” he gestured to Muirne and Gil. “It looks like it’s your lucky day, Marcell. We might get to find your Truth after all.” Gil took a step forward. “The army of mechanisms have been dealt with, and the angels of battle are helping the last of the children to safety. I’m sorry about your eye, by the way,” he added to Niko. “You’re not forgiven yet, but give me a little while,” Niko gave him. “That doesn’t matter now,” Muirne interjected. “The Director got away from us in the heat of battle. I believe she’s in league with the Truth. I can feel it. It is here. It will use her, and then it will destroy her. And who knows what will happen then. We can’t let this stand.”

“First and foremost,” Niko regained the floor, “this is a rescue mission. It looks like we were successful in that regard. Cindy, Tommy, Mike—Nihil, whatever the hell, if you guys wanna go back, feel free. You’ve been through a lot.” The three of them looked at each other. Then Cindy looked over at Marcell. He’d helped her so much with finding Mike. Now it was time to help him with his mission. “I’m staying,” she said, looking specifically at Marcell. “You’re gonna need all the firepower you can get.” “She’s right,” Mike said. “I… I think I’ve seen it, the thing down there. That Thing should never see the light of day.” “Well shit,” Tommy blinked. “If you guys are staying, I guess I will too. I uh, don’t suppose we could talk this thing to death, huh?” “Probably not,” Marcell grimaced. “In that case, I hope I don’t drag you all down.” “So we’re decided,” Niko said, and everyone nodded. “Then down into the depths we go.” “That room that the Director was having… Nihil guard,” Mike seemed to struggle with the name. “That’s the main entrance. If there’s any place it will be, it’s down there.” “Lead the way,” Niko said, and as a group, they all followed Mike back down the hallway and to the door that Servus had been previously leading them to. Cindy now saw with a pit growing in her stomach that the plaque on the door was engraved with the words “the Director”. Of course it was. At this point, she shouldn’t even have been surprised. They all hesitated at the door, and Niko rolled his eyes before twisting the handle, muttering something about having to do everything around here. The door opened near silently, and the eight of them stepped inside. The office was surprisingly barren, as if it was rarely used. In fact, nothing much was in there at all except an empty desk and a few bookshelves towards the back. Cindy opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a harsh crackle as unseen speakers came to muffled life. “My, there are a lot of you, aren’t there?” asked a voice, which Cindy vaguely recognized. “Isn’t that—” “Abigail Hodge is the Director we’ve already established this yes,” Gil sighed. “Far too many times.” “Hmm, I see you’ve undone my hard work on Paragon Beta. A shame, but not unexpected,” the voice continued. “A necessary sacrifice. He knows the way down. I’ll be waiting.”

With a click the speaker went dead once more. Cindy glanced back and forth between them all. What did they have to work with? A vampire, a Mafioso in training, her gypsy brother, an automaton, a super-powered human experiment, and two ancient heroes. It seemed like a lot, it’s true, but up against an evil so great that its very nature could only be described by the highly un-descriptive words “the Truth”? It may have not been enough. There was, however, only one way to find out. Mike flipped the switch on the wall on and off in quick succession, and without much fanfare the bookshelves on the far end of the room swung open to reveal an elevator behind. “Of course,” Niko shook his head. “I don’t know what else I expected.” Inside, the elevator was large, with enough room for all of them, plus some extra space to spare. It slid downwards, as smooth as water, so much so that it hardly felt like they were moving at all. They were all silent, glancing between each other with worried looks. Gil and Muirne locked eyes, while Marcell grabbed Cindy’s hand. Among them, only Mike looked unaffected by the approaching atmosphere. He simply stared straight ahead, waiting. After what seemed like a long time, the elevator came to a halt, but in the second before it opened, they all froze. For from the other side of the door, something was banging. Cindy raised a hand, Muirne gripped Brandubh. Everyone held their breath as slowly, the doors slid open. “Of course,” slurred a voice from the other side. “Of fucking course. Come on, I don’t wanna die down h—” It seemed to take the kid a second to realize that the door had opened. His white hair bobbed as he swayed on his feet, and his whole body was affected by what appeared to be spasms. He twitched uncontrollably, except for his hands, which endured a constant shaking. He blinked once or twice, then grinned stupidly as he caught sight of Mike. “Oh hey, Mike. What’cha doin down here with us sinners… wait, Mike?” Mike concentrated. It seemed to cause his head a great deal of pain. “You’re… my roommate, right? D… Doug?” “You’re not all angst-angst-murdery anymore? Jesus she really did a number on you too, huh?” Doug spasmed again and half-slid, half-fell against the wall. “This kid needs to get to a hospital,” Tommy said. “People aren’t suppose to shake like that.” Niko glanced up at him, unamused. “Thank you, Captain Obvious. Who can we spare?” He glanced around at the assembled group of witches, heroes, and science experiments. “You’re not gonna go for leaving Cindy, are you, Tommy?” “Not a chance.” “Welp,” Niko sighed. “I guess that leaves me. Besides, this ‘Truth’ thing is your guys’ schtick. I’ll head back up with this guy, and you all keep going.” Cindy blinked gratefully. “We’ll do our best.” The group trouped out of the elevator, and Niko stepped back inside, Doug’s arm braced against his shoulders. “Just don’t do anything stupid,” he said before the elevator doors closed. They all paused, as if waiting for something. Niko had been the one who made the decisions. But someone was going to have to step forward. Cindy sighed. “Alright everyone,” she said. “Let’s start looking.” She placed a foot forward, one in front of the other, and slowly, the others began to follow her, down into the abyss. ~~ o ~~ The elevator ascended in silence, Doug shaking and Niko trying to keep the taller man upright. Niko was worried about the others, it was true. Cindy would step forward to lead them, he knew that, but that lingering doubt about what they would face down there below the earth stuck with him. Either way, it made sense for him to come back up. His planning was done, he couldn’t possibly prepare for a formless horror from the nameless eons of history. He wasn’t particularly powerful, at least compared to the others. What he had was his mouth, and his head. And his head, right now was telling him to get this kid out of Hodge’s kinky torture dungeon. So lost in thought was he that he didn’t even realize Doug was staring at him, blinking blearily in confusion. “Do I… know you?” Doug slurred. Niko paused. “I was one of the people who broke into St. Adelaide’s the first time.” “No, no, I remember that,” Doug attempted to wave him off, but only managed a rather pathetic shake. “I mean from somewhere else, I’m sure of it…” “We’ve never met before. Whatever she did to you fucked up your brain.” “Hm… I was sur—how did you lose your eye?” Doug’s eyes were wide and unfocused as he stared down at the eyepatch. Caught off guard by the question, Niko stuttered. “I-I…” “Did you give it for knowledge and hang from the world tree for nine days?” “…What? Nine—” That’s how many days he’d been in the hospital. Doug laughed. “I’m just kidding,” he grinned lopsidedly. “Norse myth, Odin lost his right eye… never mind,” he concluded hastily at Niko’s frown. “I remember. Gil’s handiwork, right?” “You think you’re a pretty funny guy, huh?” Niko asked. “Me?” Doug shook his head. “I have to be to cover the crippling self-loathing.” “I can’t tell if this is the drugs or whatever the hell, or if you’re always like this.” A sudden spasm almost brought Doug to his knees, and Niko too under his weight. “I may never be the same again. I’m insane. Mercury poisoning right to the brain.” “Is that what she did to you? Jesus Christ. We’ve gotta get you to the hospital, stat.” “I’m sure the Bifrost can get us there lickety—” Doug began, before passing out, his head falling downwards like a deflated balloon. Something didn’t sit right with Niko. The elevator opened, but even as he dragged Doug through the doors, Niko couldn’t help feeling that he’d been here before… ~~ o ~~ This corridor was dark, the metal walls a rusted, corroded something, it was hard to tell, and the air tasted of blood and suffering. The only noise was the hard breathing the seven of them made as they slowly moved forward. Mike froze a few steps in, clutching his temples. “What’s wrong?” Cindy asked, placing a hand on his shoulder. He blinked several times. “She… she took me down here, in the dark, so… cold, pain, only It.” “It?” “The cold, hard, objective Truth.” “I can feel it too,” Muirne nodded. “It’s close.” “So that is what you’re after.” Abigail’s voice crackled suddenly from the walls, everywhere. “You want my little parasite. You can try, you might even think you’ve succeeded, but you’ll never be able to truly get rid of it for me.” They ignored her, and kept walking forward. “Oh? Are you still going to try?” she laughed. “Wonderful. I can see you’re all struck with the very same curiosity that I am. Just keep walking straight ahead. Big old doors, you can’t miss ‘em.” Her voice echoed in the sudden silence. The seven paused for a second, each suddenly uneasy. “I don’t think we want to go in there,” Mike said. “You haven’t seen it. You should spare your minds, and your sanity.” “But we’ve come so far,” Marcell interjected. “Do you know how many years I’ve been searching for this?” “Why would you look for it?” “Because I need to know, I—” Cindy put her hand in his. She understood his drive, what he hoped the Truth could give him. “You won’t be able to see for very long,” Gil stepped forward. “That thing needs to be destroyed once and for all.” “As long as I can get my answer first.” “Hey guys, normally I would say ‘let’s go for it,’” Tommy said suddenly. “But uh, Servus is shaking.” They all looked down at the automaton, only to see that Tommy was right. Servus’ eyes were wide, darting back and forth wildly as his whole body shook. “No…” he mumbled. “Don’t… go back… don’t want to… go back.” “Don’t want to go back?” Cindy asked. “What does he mean?” Marcell sighed, and turned to her. “The first time we were here, when Servus wandered off, he did so because Aurum was having him follow Abigail. He tailed her down here and we think he… saw the Truth. But we don’t know because that’s right when we lost connection.” “And after that is when he started acting strange…” Cindy concluded. “Do you think something… happened to him?” “Don’t go!” Servus blurted out, very loudly. Tommy patted him on the head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We won’t let anything happen to you. But right now we need your help.” Servus gulped, but his shaking began to subside. “Then we’re agreed?” Cindy asked. “We go in there, kick Abigail’s ass, and destroy the son of a bitch?” The group nodded, and started walking again. A minute later, they reached the door at the end of the hallway, just like Abigail said, and with only a second’s hesitation, Cindy took a deep breath and pushed it open. The room inside was large, and round. Instruments of science were set willy-nilly around the exterior, but the thing that drew all eyes was the enormous possibly-tank in the center of the room, its sides shuttered with huge slabs of metal. The seven of them filed in silently, each preparing in their own way. Marcell’s eyes widened, Muirne drew her sword. Cindy could see Mike practically jumping out of his skin. “So here we are, finally,” said an unmistakable voice, and the party glanced up to a balcony behind the tank to see Abigail Hodge grinning down at them, the harsh lights shining off her glasses. “I can’t say that I didn’t plan for this,” she continued. “The minute I saw you outside of the gates I knew you would be the ones. Oh, but where’s the short one with the insufferable smirk?” “He’s getting your experiment to a hospital,” Cindy glowered upwards. Abigail blinked. “Doug? He’s still not dead? Of course he’s not. At this point, I’m pretty sure that skinny, sickly-looking fuck is nigh immortal. But we’re not here to talk about Doug. Would you like to see my parasite?” She grabbed a button on a cord that dangled from the ceiling, but hesitated in pressing it. “You know, it feels almost… anticlimactic to end it like this. I mean, without this thing I would never have been able to finish my project, and here I am, feeding it to a bunch of cannon fodder. I mean, to be fair it will probably just kill you all and it won’t be a climax at all, but on the off-chance…” She shrugged. “Ah, well, that won’t happen. I admit I kind of feel bad, killing you all like this,” she continued, sighing. “You all had such potential, such character. It feels like such a waste to end it here. Some of you have hardly had any time to develop properly.” “What are you even talking about?” Tommy asked, narrowing his eyes in annoyance. Mike leaned closer to Cindy. “I’m going to go after her. There’s a corridor behind that balcony. As soon as she hits that button, she’s going to dash.” She nodded as imperceptibly as she could manage. “Enough monologuing,” Marcell interjected. “You’re right, I have done plenty of that, haven’t I?” Abigail’s grin widened. “Alright, suit yourselves. A pleasure to meet you all. Goodbye.” She hit the button, and immediately a cloud of fog obscured her balcony, covering her escape, and slowly, the metal shutters began to open… ~~ o ~~ Abigail ran. She wasn’t used to running, it wasn’t really her style. She was more of the ‘sit in a high-backed chair while stroking a white cat’ sort of person. But sometimes to get what you wanted you had to take the more difficult option. Besides, Paragon Beta was inevitably already behind her. The fog would slow him down. All of the water molecules would confuse him and make her harder to see. A little trick she’d learned from all those years she’d had Paragon Alpha locked up in the basement. And she needed him to be slow, because in her head was screaming. Betrayer. Forsaker. You disregard the Truth. That’s right, parasite. You’ve outlived your usefulness. These pawns back there will either die or tear you apart, and now all she’ll have to do is find a way to get rid of this little hanger-on in her head. Beta was getting closer. Abigail could hear his frustrated breath near her ear as he chased her upwards through the darkened tunnel. Now was the moment of truth, the light was up ahead. She’s be more visible to him now, a shadow against the light reflecting off the mist. A second later she felt a hand brush her shoulder. Too close. “You don’t want me dead, Nihil,” she called back to him. “Give me one reason why not.” His voice was different now. Monotone, lacking all the boyish nervousness that it had once possessed. She had broken him. God, it made her horny. She paused. He wouldn’t kill her until he got an answer. But she couldn’t die, not yet. “Because I’m the only one who can fix that scrambled head of yours.” Don’t call her bluff, don’t call her bluff. If he couldn’t see her face he couldn’t call her bluff. “I should kill you anyway.” “But you won’t,” Abigail began moving away. “I’ll see you again, Paragon Beta.” She took off, dashing towards the mouth of the tunnel, to the loading dock where Victor had already hot-wired the truck that those idiots had conveniently left behind. Abigail threw herself into the passenger’s seat, leaned over and wrapped her arms around Victor as she felt his tongue enter her mouth. After just a second, however, she pulled away, grinned at him, and simply said: “Drive.” ~~ o ~~ Meaningless. Everything is meaningless. You don’t matter. The Truth was in front of them, glaring at them from the confines of its glass tank. But they didn’t really see it. They were lost, blind, seeing it but not, seeing the endless abyss, the void of eternity. Tommy saw Remus dying, he saw Kei diving into a rift, all the people over the years he couldn’t save, that after everything he’d done, all the people he’d helped, there was nothing he could do. Helpless, still that eight-year-old kid at the mercy of the man who was in no way his father. Gilveidan saw his sister, corrupted, dead, not herself. He had to choke her, strangle the life out of her, the one person he held dear. We all die, nothing matters, nothing lasts. We all end, just like that. Eyes blank, skin cold. Dead. Muirne saw her mother, lost in delirium, not able to bear the death of her son, denial, abomination, the thing that had his skin, his eyes, but not him. Could not ever be him. This is what happens when you defy the Truth, insanity, horror, pain. Endless suffering. If Servus saw something, no one could guess what it could be. Perhaps just a flash, of sunlight, of breath, of things that some part of him might have known once, such a very, very long time ago. The flesh was not real, fleeting, pointless. Marcell saw all these things, and more. He’d had enough pain to last many lifetimes. But he took a deep breath, focused as hard as he could, through the images of Aurelia crushed, Julia coughing... Gaius’ lifeless body, his blood in Marcell’s mouth and on his hands, and asked his question. And there it was, the knowledge he sought, the humanity he craved. And the Truth simply stared at him. And laughed. It doesn’t exist, the Truth told him, if it did, what would be the point? You aren’t human, you are so far removed from the humanity you emulate that I’m surprised you’ve hid yourself this long. You’re not human, and you can’t ever be. You are a monster, alone denied the one pleasure that humanity receives: you will never die. He shook. “No,” he said. “No, nonononononono...” over and over. He fell to his knees. He was falling, back to that deep, dark place he’d found himself in so many times over the centuries. When he gave in to the hunger, and the want. Humans were worthless, their lives short and meaningless, just as the Truth said. All they were good for was to sustain him. All these people around him? He should just put them out of their misery now. He’d start with the one he cared for the most. Marcell grabbed Cindy’s shoulder. He felt the hunger rising, she would taste the best of all. He could tell. That’s why he’d been attracted to her in the first place, he knew that deep down. The greatest meal. What are you waiting for? Isn’t this what you’ve really wanted all along? It would be a mercy to end her life now, release her from the pain of the living. But then she looked at him, perfectly calm, perfectly fine. “Why are you listening to it?” she asked simply. He froze in place, and at that moment the reality of what he’d just been about to do came crashing down upon him. Letting her go abruptly, he fell back down to the ground. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled to the dirt, “I’m so sorry.” Cindy put a hand on his head, and turned back towards the Truth. Because she’d seen all of it, the helplessness, the ends, the fighting in vain, the loss, the uselessness, all of it. And yes, it was the Truth, entropy, meaninglessness, that was all true. But so what? She’d known this Truth for years, her rose-tinted glasses had been removed long ago. Looking back on it now, maybe she’d never really had them in the first place, feigning them so long she’d nearly forgotten how to take them off again. “You’re right,” she said to it. “That is the Truth, it’s all entropy and void and nothing. Sure, everything is pointless. But it’s not about that. Yeah, everything is going to end, but it’s here right now. You’re here right now.” The others began to look at her, first as if she was insane, and then more seriously as she kept speaking. “The point isn’t the Truth. Fuck the Truth. The point is what you make with the time you’ve got, and the people you share it with. It’s... it’s taken me a long time to learn that.” She paused as suddenly, Servus was beside her, slipping his hand into her own. He nodded. The Truth merely laughed at them, the sound reverberating around the inside of their skulls. Fools, fools. But then Tommy was there behind her, and Gil, and Muirne. And finally, Cindy reached down and grabbed Marcell’s hand.

“You picked me out of the dirt,” she sighed as he resisted. “Brought me out of the lowest of the low. Now let me do the same for you.” Slowly, he allowed her to help him to his feet. His eyes were still a bright shade of crimson, his features sharp and pointy. But she wasn’t afraid. She wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could so that nothing else could hurt him, not even himself, and whispered: “I love you.” She pulled away as she felt a tap on her shoulder. Muirne smiled at her, and placed the sword Brandubh in her hands. “I believe you’ll need this,” she said. But Cindy shook her head. “Together,” she insisted. All six of them grabbed onto the hilt of the sword now clutched in Cindy’s hands. Do you really think this will change anything? The Truth asked. “Maybe not,” Cindy said. “But like you’ve been saying: ‘Does it really matter’?” And there, feeling her friends that were there around her, Tommy, Servus, Gil, Muirne, Marcell, and those that weren’t, Niko, Mike, Aurum, Cowell… Lila, Cindy plunged the glowing sword into the heart of the beast. An ear-shattering scream filled her head, and Cindy promptly blacked out.

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