Part 1 : Fields of Blood
The shovel lands with a sharp clang. Another rock. Val Tarrow has been trying to expand the south field for several days now, and it has been slow-going to say the least. He wrenches the jagged rock from the earth and rolls it to the growing pile under the gnarled tree that marks the edge of the property. I might be able to build myself a shack with all of these, he thinks, while wiping at the steady stream of sweat pouring over his brow. His mechanical synthsteel fingers gently mopping his forehead. He begins to saunter back to where he dropped the shovel when he hears something. A rustling from the tree line beyond the property’s edge. He stops and turns toward the sound, his good eye finding nothing, and its chrome partner finds only the faintest of swaying in the leaves. He stares for a moment, wiping more sweat from his brow, but the sound does not return. He turns and continues with his leisurely pace. He reaches his digging line and reaches down for the shovel. He hears the sound again and his vision darts back to the treeline. This time the sound is paired with the unmistakable scent of rotting flesh. His mind races with all of the rational explanations on what could be emanating that smell, and not one of them are pleasant. Then he spots it. For a moment he sees a pair of horns and a shaggy goat’s head peer around the corner of the gnarled tree and it lock eyes with him. A Margr. He reaches down and grips the shovel, wishing that he had kept in fighting shape these last few years. When whatever ruse the margr was attempting to enact failed, it started to charge directly at Val, bleating a war cry, swinging it’s jagged spear above it’s head. He looked down at the beaten and rusted shovel, his hand of flesh and hand of steel holding it as tight as he dared, wishing that he had brought a sword, or even a knife with him out here. He clenched his teeth and prepared for the attack. Then he heard a different sound, this one coming from the opposite direction. The blow struck him in the left shoulder, hard enough to knock him to the ground. He emitted a strained groan as the wind left him, and when he tried to pull air back into his lungs, it was covered in field dust and soil. The second margr let out a satisfied grunt as Val struggled to get back up, holding a large battle axe between it’s fur lined fingers. It appeared to be made out of the jawbone of some mechanical creature, dried blood staining what remained of the blade. Stupid, he thought to himself, been out of the game for a few years and you let a margr sneak up on you? He shook the blow from his thoughts and leapt to his feet. The shoulder that the axe had hit had been replaced by steel long ago, and it would take more than the force of a margr’s axe to wound it now. He knew there wasn’t much time before the second beast caught up to him, so he had to move fast. He feigned a shovel swing at the axe margr’s face, and then swung low, connecting with the beast’s knee. It’s satisfied grunts abruptly stopped as it crashed into the ground and attempted a wild swing of it’s axe. Val’s reflexes were starting to remember his old skill and he easily stepped aside, swinging the shovel at full force into the side of the beast’s head. A satisfying metal clang rang out as the shovel head landed, and the margr stopped making any sounds at all. He saw movement out of the corner of his good eye as the second margr finally reached the melee. He brought the shovel around to try and deflect the spear charge, but then saw the broken half of the shovel fall limply to the ground. His left shoulder may be made of steel, but his right shoulder was still flesh, and the spearhead plunged through his skin and deep into the muscle tissue. A bright flash of pain blinded Val for a nanosecond as he attempted to push away from the margr and it’s horrid, rotting stink. He stumbled back, but managed to catch himself this time, bracing himself for the second attack he knew was coming. This time he sidestepped the charge and grabbed the spear out of the margr’s hands, pushing the monster hard in it’s intended direction. The margr lurched forward with the extra force and fell face first into the dirt of the field. In a momentary flash of anger, Val broke the spear over his knee and threw it next to the broken shovel. He picked up the battle axe of the first beast and walked slowly toward the margr, who had now rolled onto it’s back. It began bleating and barking, making strange gestures with his hands. What it was trying to convey didn’t mean much to Val, the wound in his shoulder was the only reason he needed. He raised the axe above his head and brought it down between the horns of the goat’s head with a wet thunk.
He tied his shirt around his shoulder and ran as fast as his legs would carry him back to the main house. The blood that dripped down his bicep and started to flow over his forearm was a secondary concern right now. Val’s first concern was making sure the Vint family was safe. Mentin Vint had hired him on as a hand almost four years ago, and even after he had discovered his mechanical pieces and limbs, had always treated him fairly. There weren’t many good people left in the Ninth World, but he definitely ranked higher than most. He heard it before the house came into view. Screaming. Female. He pushed himself further, forcing his legs to pump faster, swinging his arms in furious rhythm, feeling the head of the margr’s axe bang against his thigh as he crested the hill that overlooked the farmhouse. The scene that played out before him was a grim one. Mentin Vint was standing on the front porch of the house and firing a crossbow at a few margrs that were advancing from the west field. His oldest son, at 17, Mentin Jr, was loading another right behind him. Val quickly scanned the grounds for the source of the screaming, and found Pinze screaming through the window of the barn, frantically waving her arms at nothing in particular. She was the second oldest daughter, and at 14, already headed down the road to melodrama. He crossed the field in a flash and looked into the barn door. Savala, the oldest daughter, was pulling a knife from the neck of a grey, shaggy margr, flicking the blood onto the ground next to her. Upon spotting Val, she calmly made a fist and pounded it her chest twice, signaling that all was well. Val nodded and ran toward the house and the advancing goat-men. There were two left now, bellowing and charging the porch, in a final murderous push to take the farm. Mentin Jr. fired a shot that went wide, close enough to Val’s head where he heard the whisper of the bolt. Mentin Sr. fared better and landed one between the thing’s eyes. It turned and collapsed on shaking legs, and Val could see a long scar from it’s ear all the way down to it’s chest. A mark of some other past raid, he was sure. They both frantically tried to reload their crossbows, but there was no way they would be able to load them in time. Val was able to catch up to the last margr just as it put a hoof on the first step, and slashed at it’s calf, or tendon, whatever goat men have. It tripped and landed hard on the steps, bleating in pain. Val brought the axe down on it’s back. He swung again. And again. Until the bleating stopped. Both Mentins stared down at the twitching margr, their pale and shaken faces telling what state of mind they were in. Val placed a steady hand on Mr. Vint’s shoulder as he scanned the horizon. No more margrs in sight. He hurried into the house to see how the rest of the family was faring. He crossed the threshold and a blade sang through the air, stopping just short of his throat. Mrs. Vint stood there in her gleaming suit of plate armor, and a sigh of relief sailed from her lips. She had been a soldier before settling down to farm life, and apparently still kept her armor and weapons in fine shape. They sparkled with the morning sun. She smirked and dropped the blade. “Calaval’s Eyes! You’re lucky I spotted that chrome eye, or you would have been steaming like the rest of those cursed goat men out there.” she said. Val smiled and took a deep breath, letting his panic discharge with the exhale. “Small favors. There’s two more dead in the south field.” He scanned the room behind her. Two more goat men laid dead inside the back door, and another halfway through the back window. Mrs. Vint was a demon with that blade, it seemed. “Where is everyone else? Are the children safe?” She wiped blood from her blade and sheathed it before looking out the front window, watching two of her daughters run towards the house. The Mentins stepped into the room, and the three smallest children bounded down the stairs, apparently unharmed. “They’re fine, for the most part.” She frowned a bit and continued. “Pinze took bites to her leg and hands, before Savala got to her. That needs to be looked to.” She scanned the grounds and stood up straight, harkening back to her soldiering days. “We need to start thinking of defenses. Mentin, you and Junior go out…” She was abruptly cut off by Mentin, Sr. “Dear, we have no idea how many of them are out there. I’ve heard some rumors from town, they are saying there are more out there. A lot more. An army.” He held the crossbow up between them. “This won’t be enough next time. No matter what defense you cook up.” Val grasped at the hastily tied bandage on his shoulder and nodded. “I have to agree Mrs. Vint. It’s time to head to town. For defense, doctoring, and hopefully, answers.” Her frown deepened as she scanned the room, seeing only hurt, worry, and fear. She reached up and scratched the back of her neck, releasing a muted sigh. “You’re right. I know it. Everyone, grab what you can, we’re heading to Ellomyr.”
The Vints packed what they could into their old harvest wagon, and tied up their last Aneen to pull it. Val concerned himself with pulling his old adventuring gear from beneath his bunk, and attempting to wipe off the dust. He pulled out and strapped on his armor. A suit of plate mail fashioned from the armor plates of an Oorgolian Soldier that his old adventuring crew took down in the Scorpion’s Reach. Jin, their old Nano leader had fashioned some sort of radio jammer that had made the job easy. She was useful sometimes, that was true. If only things hadn’t ended the way they did. He tied on his twin swords and set to checking the perimeter of the farm while the Vints finished up. At the highest point of the farm, he was able to look over the nearby valley, and what he saw led him to believe the rumors Mr. Vint had heard in town. Margrs. Lots of them. Hundreds, maybe. They were encamped in various tents and rickety shacks, their fires trailing smoke into the sky above. Way too many to fight here. Hopefully they can warn the town and gather a force to break the tide before it consumed the whole plain. He flexed his metal hand and hefted one of his swords in the other. He spun it around and shook it to feel the weight again. It’s been too long, and I’m too slow, he thought. I hope we can still do this. He made a rude gesture towards the Margr army far away, and headed back to the farm. The trip into town was uneventful, but took the remainder of the day. They passed through the gates in the evening, a couple hours after sundown. They attempted to warn the locals, but they were apparently already aware and preparing the town defenses. There was buzzing activity everywhere. Some building towers or strengthening walls, while others were attempting to train farmers in the arts of war. The Vints went to a relative’s house, and although they offered a place to Val, he politely declined. They were safe here, for now, but he knew that his skills would be more useful out beyond the walls. He assisted some locals with reinforcing a wall for several hours before he decided to find an Inn and get some rest, but not before calming his nerves with a few drinks. He awoke early the next day to Mentin, Jr. shaking him awake. It took him some time to remember where he was, and then set to figure out what was currently happening. “I’m awake… I’m awake. What is so important?” He croaked, trying to wipe the sleep from his eyes. “Beezee isn’t here.” Mentin, Jrs face was solemn, and his tone was determined. Val remembered Beezee. That was short for something, but he couldn’t remembered what. She was a girl about Mentin’s age that he had been obsessing over for quite some time. I think she might have said two words to the boy, but he was smitten. “I’m going to find her, and I need your help.” He looked down at the floor for a moment, unsure. He wrung his hands a bit. “My parents already forbid me to go, but I need to. She’s in trouble. I need to help her.” His eyes raised back up to meet Val’s, and he could see the hurt there. He knew that if he said no, the kid would go anyway, and probably get himself killed. He took in a deep nasally breath, and then put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “OK, we will go.” He held up one steel finger. “But first, you’re going to need something fitting to travel out there with. Those farmer clothes and an ancient crossbow aren’t going to do you any favors.” The boy straightened up and nodded with grim determination. “We need to leave now. Hurry up.” He started to line up Val’s belongings and hovered around until he was ready. Val was able to trade his last worthwhile oddity to a merchant for what they needed. It was a locket that, when opened, showed a young woman smiling and laughing with wispy lights that flowed around her face. This repeated in a loop until the locket was closed. Who knows who she was, but judging by the clothes she wore, it was a long way away from here. He would sometimes stare at it and wonder who she was, or if she was actually that happy, or if it was just some trick. He helped the boy get into his new armor and stocked up on road rations and supplies. Mrs. Vint had taught all of the children how to use a blade, so at least he wasn’t hopeless. They stood at the gate and watched the townsfolk ready their defenses, and hoped that it would be enough. They started down the road to find BeeZee, and warn the other outlying farms what threat was lurking down in the valley. With some luck, they just might be able to save a few.
Part 2 : The Spider’s Offer
He returned to a town that was buzzing with even more activity than before he left to bring in the farmers from the remote fields. All manner of strangers now milled around the town square, under the Trilling Shard. Visitants, soldiers in shining armor, humans bearing steel limbs not unlike his own, and he could have sworn he saw some form of living rock. He paused next to a formation of training militia recruits; Mentin, Jr. and BeeZee among them. He waited for some time before Junior’s gaze left Beezee’s form long enough to recognize him. He flushed and looked to the ground when he saw Val nod in recognition, and raised his hand ever so slightly to signal back.
Val walked through the crowded square and began to make his way back to the Inn to drown in some well deserved drinks. A short, squat man was hailing passerby with a shrill, almost metallic voice. He couldn’t make out what he was saying, but judging by how his chosen targets were waving him away, he assumed he was trying to sell them something.
“You there!” He shouted, flailing his arms in Val’s direction. “Stop and speak with me a moment. I have a proposition for you.”
The man was covered in a tattered and stained grey robe, which at one time may have been blue. When he moved towards Val, he seemed to almost float over the ground, his robe dragging behind him, one hand carefully holding the robe taught in front of him. He put on a fake, sly smile, and attempted to grab Val’s hand to prevent him from walking off. He could see that his lower jaw was mechanical, covered in paint that may have matched his skin tone at one time, but was now ashen and flaking off in places. He had a pair of tattoos under each eye, a circle with what looked like crossed spear inside of it. His eyes were so brown, they were almost black.
“You look like you can handle yourself.” He said, matter-of-factly. “How would you like to make some shins? Maybe help this little town in the process?”
The little man smiled bigger now, and Val could see that his teeth were stained, brown synth, with bits of metal poking through in places. He attempted to adjust his cloak to cover his armor and weapons, but it was too late, the little man’s momentum wasn’t stopping.
“None of these people here can sense opportunity when it comes knocking.”
He gestured with a gloved hand at the crowds of people moving about. He then reached into the folds of his robe and brought out a small bit of metal. He rolled it around in his fingers, caressing the sides as he held it up for Val to see. As he did, glowing symbols appeared across its surface in bright blue and white. No symbols Val had ever seen before scrolled across it’s surface. Faster and faster, until the little man’s hand was glowing white with the light. He closed his hand and returned the object to the folds of his robe.
“I found this not too far from here. In a place the locals call ‘The Valley of Sins’. You’ve heard of it, yes?”
Val had been back in town for less than half a day, and that’s all everyone was talking about.
“Maybe I…” He began, but was quickly cut off by the man.
“Of course you have. These fools think they can find something out there, blindly groping about in the dark.” He mocked reaching up at the sky in quick movements, then chuckled. It sounded like grinding machinery. “But I know where to look! See?” He pointed at his own eyes, then back at the sky. “I have already found something.” His neck twitched to the side suddenly and his jaw clicked. He shook it off and continued, mumbling. “I just need someone with some strength to assist me. Someone who understands that I will be the one to claim what is out there.” He pushed his lips together for a moment, as if pondering something. “You will be paid well, I assure you. In currency and numenera. Numenera that can help this little town. Do you see now why you should assist me?” He looks up, obviously expecting an answer.
Val slowly raised up his hands and began to back away, remaining silent, worrying that any words he said would simply provoke the robed man into further rambling.
The man sneered and scrunched his nose, then reached into another fold in his robe and pulled out a fistful of shins. He pushed it into Val’s chest insistently, making small metallic grunts as he did so.
Val had to admit, that was more money than he had seen in four years working as a farmhand for the Vint family, and probably meant he could do something with it once this was all over. The many possibilities of a prosperous future flashed across his mind, his hands reaching up and taking the shins, almost on their own accord.
The little man smiled his crooked grin and hissed “Excellent. We leave immediately. Follow.” He floated across the surface of the square and beckoned for Val to follow.
Val sighed and began to follow the little robed man. The thought that this was a terrible idea played over and over in his head as he walked faster to catch up.
The little man led him far into the Valley of Sins, skirting around the other areas that the strangers seemed to be attracted to. Val’s companion wasn’t floating across the ground, but he wasn’t exactly walking either. He climbed over inclines and rubble with ease, having to wait impatiently for Val to catch up several times. Their walk ended at a large rock jutting out of the valley floor. The little man began digging at the ground for several minutes, revealing several wooden and thin metal sheets covering an opening under the rock. He tossed these aside and dropped in the opening. Val followed closely behind and noted that the tunnel appeared to have been dug by some form of machine or animal, as it was perfectly round and consistent in size.
The little man reached into the folds of his robe and pulled out a large glow globe. It floated to the top of the tunnel, and the man held onto it with a string, like a child holding a balloon. Val smiled at that thought and followed him deeper into the tunnel, trying to keep the pace his partner had set.
The tunnel abruptly changed from dirt and stone to metal and synth not long after they began walking. There were strange symbols and fixtures along the walls that he recognized from the bit of light the little man once held in his hand. He stopped for a moment and ran his steel hand over the symbol on the wall. He traced several towers and arches, various little dots and figures, and something that resembled a child’s drawing of a hound. Definitely ruins from a prior world. He tried to look closer at the hound when he heard a strange clicking sound coming from the wall beside him. He unsheathed a sword turned towards it, but there was nothing there. He tried to peer further down the passageway, squinting to see through the light of the glow globe above them. The sound started again, but this time he saw that his steel hand was vibrating and clicking against the wall. He let out a low growl and smacked it hard against the metallic wall, shaking it out afterwards. He thought about how long it had been since the last time he cleaned and greased his arm, when the little man squealed and zipped further down the passageway.
“Here we are. Beautiful, yes?” the little man said. He gestured his arm toward the ceiling of the room he had just entered, then zoomed out of sight.
Val moved out of the passage and into the room. Cavern was probably a better word. I was a circular room, at least a hundred feet in all directions. Piles of rubble and corpses of various beings were strewn about everywhere. Dried blood caked the ground and streaked across the angled walls. He spotted several fresh corpses wearing the same faded robes as his friend, all with matching tattoos under their eyes. The circle with the crossed spears. He took a step towards them and found that there were three of them, and they all looked identical to the little robed man. Same teeth, same eyes, same mechanical jaw. There were other corpses there as well. Some were strangers, but he recognized a few from town. It seems he was not the first to be lured down here. He looked around the room, trying to find where the little man had gone.
He spotted him against the far wall, in a little alcove that pulsed with the same blue and white light from his metallic bauble. The little man tore off his gloves and revealed segmented steel fingers, with far too many joints to be human. He began tapping at a little metal box in the alcove and the white light blinked red in unison with his tapping.
He began to speak without looking at Val, almost mumbling while tapping away. “I have done this several times, as you can see. But this time I am confident that I will gain entry.”
The box blinked bright blue and a chime tweeted a few notes. A voice boomed throughout the room in a language that Val did not understand.
The little man squealed and turned to a door that was opening in the alcove, next to the blinking box. He pushed his robe aside, and Val could see that the man did not have legs, but four steel appendages that resembled the legs of a spider or an insect.
“Do note that I said that I will gain entry. Please do your job and give me longer than 37 seconds. That’s all the last one gave me, and it wasn’t nearly long enough.” He skittered through the door and disappeared. It slammed shut behind him.
Val started to run after him, but only made a few steps before another door opened next to the alcove, and something emerged. Two somethings actually. A bright light flooded the room with white light, blinding Val, and it took his a second to adjust. Luckily his chrome eye was able to adjust just fast enough to see one of the things move with incredible speed around the edge of the room, advancing on him. He had no idea what these things were, but they smelled terrible. They had the sickly sweet stink of rot, and looked like animated corpses encased in a cage of metal. The metal hugged their bodies and appeared like a form of exoskeleton, rattling the corpse around within as it moved. They each held a sword, with many lights, wires, and circuits entwined within the handle and the blade. With speed unlike anything he had ever seen, the first corpse pushed off the wall and charged.
He was able to deflect the first blow, but the thing’s blade still only narrowly missed his face as it slid past. It swung again, too fast to deflect, and caught his steel forearm with a sharp clang. He attempted a counter swing and the thing easily ducked under it, then kicked him in the gut. Val staggered backward and almost tripped over one of the robed corpses, but steadied himself. He was able to unsheath his second sword and prepared for the next attack.
The second armored corpse, having taken the longer wall route, now reached him and attempted a slash from behind him. He was able to parry the blow and come down hard with his second sword. The thing easily brought up its own blade to block, and Val’s sword shattered against the numenera grafted blade. The blade exploded in metal shards, raining down on the second attacker. One shard managed to lodge itself in the thing’s eye, and it staggered back, wheezing. To Val, it sounded like what a scream would be without vocal chords. It furiously slapped at its face with it’s free hand, try to dislodge the broken blade.
The first corpse saw this as an opening and swung for his legs. He was able to parry it, but the corpse hooked his blade under the cross guard of the sword and swung hard, straight up. Val was able to sidestep the swing, but lost the grip on his sword. It sailed upwards and stuck into the ceiling, one hundred feet above.
The second corpse was able to pull the shard from its eye, and fall in line next to the first. Val started backing further away, now defenseless against two attackers. First he threw the broken hilt of his sword, then he began to pick up and throw whatever he found on the floor. A rock, a jacket, what appeared to be a severed hand. They all either flew wide, or were easily pushed aside by the corpses. He could see their eyes now, and he saw malice and arrogance there. They may be corpses, but these things were still there in spirit, it seemed, and they seemed to be enjoying this.
They slowly corralled him into the alcove corner with the door, being sure not to let him make a run for the exit passage. Once he saw that he had nowhere else to go, he stood up straight, clenching his fists, and setting his jaw, waiting for them to come down with the final blow.
They both started to shake. At first he thought it was another voiceless sound, this time laughter at what courage he attempted to show, but then he saw the smoke. The metal cage that contained their bodies, the exoskeleton, it began to smoke. The joints spewed a horrid burnt chemical smell into the cavern, and they slowly fell to their knees, then their sides, and then completely collapsed. He waved smoke from his face and stared at them, dumbfounded. Their eyes were dead now, staring blankly at the walls.
“Excellent. One minute and eighteen seconds.” Said the little robed man from within the door he entered earlier. It had apparently opened at some point during the battle.
Val entered the room and saw the man hunched over a thin piece of glass at the end of a pole. It glowed with the same blue and white light he saw before, pulsing with red, as the man’s snakelike segmented fingers danced across the glass. There were many symbols scrolling down the screen, much too fast to make any sense of. He looked around and saw that this was another room, about as big as the first cavern they were in, but this one had dozens of those glass lights mounted on poles. There were doors that led off the main room about every ten feet.
“Was that you that stopped those things? They just started smoking and fell down.” Val said, still glancing around in wonder of the prior world ruin all around him.
“Of course it was. Did you think you stopped them with mind power?” He chuckled that screeching gear sound. “With your brain? Not likely.” He flashed his hand across the screen again and light filled the room. Several large spark explosions poured from the roof, but there was still enough light to see with. “Now take your toys and run along now, I have work to do.” He waved his hand at a door at the far side of the room, and the door whooshed open, retracting into the ceiling. “Those will suffice for now, but I will bring more later. Both for you, and the town.” He adjusted his artificial jaw, as if it was out of alignment. “I will need sustenance and shelter to continue my research, and that town is the closest civilized area to base myself. I use the term civilized loosely, of course.”
“Who exactly are you, I don’t think I got your name…” Val said, realizing that he probably should have asked a long time ago.
“Names are unimportant, only actions matter. You have served me well, now you will take your rewards and go.” He stopped his finger dancing for a moment and stared down his nose at Val. “Or I could wake those soldiers back up if you wish to practice your skills further.” His eyebrow raised a bit after the last part.
“No, no…” said Val, holding up his hands in defense. “I’ll be going.”
The little man waved his hand again at the open door and went back to tapping at the glass. Val heard various hums and creaking coming from throughout the walls. A whole section of the wall and ceiling collapsed when a particularly harsh grinding noise permeated the room. The little man didn’t move an inch.
Val moved quickly to the newly open door. there was a symbol next to this door, and it was one he understood. It was a stylized shield with a sword across it. He entered the room. It was much smaller than he expected, with only a single rack against the far wall. He took a quick inventory on what was lined up there. Swords, staves, knives, a couple of slug throwers that looked like things he had seen Oorgolian soldiers carrying around, and various tubes and things with handles he had no idea about. Most of them appeared to be in bad shape. Dangling pieces, rattling grips, one slugthrower even fell in three pieces when he picked it up. He gathered all the pieces and put then all in a bag he found against the other wall. He might be able to fix some, and he hoped that the new strangers in town could fix more.
He passed the little man and waved on his way out. The little man ignored him and made sure to close the door after he returned to the room with the dead soldiers. He made sure to pick up their blades as well. He may not have any idea what those lights, wires and circuits along the blade meant, but he did know how to use a sword, and he did need replacements.
Part 3 : Web of Vengeance
Val Tarrow reached his hands into the wash basin and splashed water over his face. He held his hands over his eyes for a moment and tried to make sense over what has happened in this town over the past few days. The Margr attack. Blood and death. He has several new scars to add to his collection now, and quite a few grey hairs as well. The Vints didn’t make it. They fell under the first wave. He fought like hell to save them, but the sheer number of beasts was overwhelming. Gods, he had never seen anything like it. He did manage to protect their children, though. The ones who stood and fought. Mentin, Jr. and Savala were still alive and well. Both of them signed on to the militia for good. Beezee too. The little ones were safe and sound at their aunt’s house. Thankfully the horde never made it that far into the town.
He reached for the towel next to the basin and slowly pad dried his face. He looked up into the mirror and let out a heavy sigh. Too many didn’t make it. He still sees them behind his eyes. Dead eyes staring up at the smoke and ash; A sea of dead faces stretching off to the horizon. He growls and slaps himself awake. Nothing that can be done now, nothing but finding out why the man that dragged him into the ruins in the Valley of Sins hadn’t come back with aid. Maybe if he had come through with something, the Vints would be alive now. Maybe they all would. Maybe the Margr got him too? Doubtful. But if he was still there, he was going to answer for these deaths. He had a debt to pay. He would need more than a few broken weapons to make up for this.
He had been chasing down the remnants of the horde over the last few days, so he didn’t have time to think about the aftermath. He probably joined the hunting parties to avoid that very thing. They didn’t find them all, but they hopefully found enough to prevent them from banding together again, hopefully preventing another attack. Hopefully preventing the next generation from having to suffer the same horror they just survived. He did some good though, he tells himself, there would have been more death if he had just walked away. He was trying to convince himself of that, but the sheer number of losses was hard evidence to counter.
He liked to think that the weapons he brought back from the Valley of Sins helped in some way. He distributed them to the farmers he corralled in from the outlying farms. They were only able to get one of the slugthrowers to work in time, but that one didn’t make it through the first engagement. The blades and batons were solid though, they held up.
He finished cleaning himself up and buckled on his armor. He tied on his blades and prepared for the trip back to the Valley. Back to the little man who had much to answer for.
The entrance to the cave was exactly the same as when he left it. No tracks around it, nothing to indicate anything had changed at all. He unsheathed his blades and descended the same earthen passage. The walls changed to synth and steel and then opened up to the same antechamber. But what was within was definitely different.
The bodies that had been strewn around the floor earlier were all now hanging from the domed ceiling. They were now entwined with some form of tubes and wiring. He saw the tubes attached to seemingly random parts of the corpses, cocooning them in some kind of artificial shell. The tubes and wires didn’t look to be standard tech, it looked alive, as if it had been grown. They pulsed with the same blue and white light that he had seen earlier. The pulses traveled up the tubes into large globes that were now covering the ceiling. These globes dimmed and pulsed with the light traveling through their artificial veins. The whole thing reminded him of some kind a sea creature. An octopus or squid, maybe, with victims trapped in their multitude of tentacles. The clones of the man that brought him down here were intertwined with the poor saps who had followed him, and the corpse soldiers he had fought earlier.
He walked around the circumference of the room, trying not to get too close. He felt a shiver rise up his spine as he imagined being entangled in those tentacles and being dragged up there with the dead. As he reached the alcove with the door, it gently slid open with a light grinding noise. The room beyond was brighter than he remembered, but he ducked inside, holding his swords at the ready.
The same globes covered the ceiling of this dome as well. Only this room was free of corpses. The veins had travelled along the walls and attached themselves to the glass panels and poles that lined the room. He caught a glimpse of symbols and pictures dancing across the screen, much too fast to read. He scanned the room and found the little man at the same console he was at earlier. Val grimaced and pointed one of his blades in his direction.
“You!” Val shouted. “People died because of you! Where was the help you promised? We had to fight them off on our own… Good people died, little man. You better have some answers!”
The little man did not stir. He didn’t seem to react at all. Val sheathed his blades and walked slowly over to him, getting as close to the tentacles as he dared. He inched over to him with an outstretched hand and placed it on his shoulder. He spun him around and pushed closer, planning on getting close before attacking with his words. His eyes widened when he saw what had become of the little mechanical man. He had three tentacles attached to what was his face. Two for his eyes, and one for his mouth. His mechanical jaw was gone, the tube from his mouth reaching up to the ceiling like some form of inhuman tongue. He stepped back and reached for his blades, trying to see if any other tentacles were reaching for him.
He found something in the center of the globes in the ceiling. A mass of tubes and wires than began to writhe around and twist into itself. A sound from next to him made him jump. The little man was dragged to the ceiling by the tentacles and pulled into the mass of globes. The veins lowered something down to the floor gently, some form of pod. The tentacles retracted, revealing their contents. It reminded him of a huge onion, one made out of synth. The pod pulsed with light and began to peel itself back, layer by layer, revealing what had been inside.
It was another mass of organic wires. It began to unfold itself into a shape. A humanoid shape. As the wires unfolded, he could see there was a rudimentary steel skeleton within. It clicked and spun, turned and sparked. After it completed, it resembled some form of human and insect hybrid. It had a human upper body with four arms, the second set a bit smaller than the others. It’s bottom half resembled the thorax of an insect with four legs attached. They looked like spiders legs, with the wires raising from them like little hairs. It’s eyes and mouth were smaller versions of the large globes in the ceiling and pulsed with the same light, with the same rhythm. The little mechanical man’s jaw locked in place under the mouth. The veins and wires twisted around the steel skeleton to form what looked like muscles and skin.
It stepped forward, skittering on its insect legs, closer to Val, causing him to jump back and reach for his sword handle. It raised its four hands in a vaguely peaceful gesture then began to emit a low hum. It grew gradually louder and sharper, pulsing back with the rhythm of the light. He felt the vibration in his chrome eye, and in his steel arm. They began to twitch uncontrollably. The hum spiked to a shrieking feedback loop sound that felt like it would burst his eardrums. He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain and reached up to shield his ears. But once they closed over his ears, the shriek stopped, as did the hum. He could still feel it, but it was pleasant now, almost like the feeling after his first couple of drinks for the evening. Relaxing.
“Forgive us. We meant no harm.”
The voice was coming from within his own mind, but the new creatures eyes and mouth pulsed with the words.
“We had to scan for an interface to communicate. It can be a bit… uncomfortable for organics. Or so they have told us.”
It’s voice was pleasant, with a sinister undertone, like an angel mixed with a snake.
“Your enhancements were the interface. Dangerous to leave them so open to intrusion. We have secured them for you.”
“Who…” Val began to say, then corrected himself. “What are you?”
It articulated its hands so that all four of its palms raised up. “Unknown, we simply are. Our designation has been lost to us, with so much else.” It dropped its arms to its sides and drooped its head low. “We needed to find this place. This… Data, to find ourselves again.” It directed its hands all around the room. “Our agents have been searching for quite some time. We were barely more than a glimmer when they found us.”
“That little man, he was the agent?” Val asked.
“Correct. He is part of us now.” It crossed both sets of arms across its chest. “He volunteered, of course. I can read your fear. We did not take him.”
Val motioned to the room behind them, with the tangle of bodies hanging from the dome. “What about them? They volunteer too?”
“They have ceased to function. We needed material to rebuild.” It replied, curtly.
“Well, that’s great and all, but I was promised help. We’re fighting a war up there, and that little man promised us help. Help that never came.” He pointed to where he saw the little man’s body disappear into the ceiling.
It bowed its torso and head forward and raised its arms wide, appearing to be some form of apologetic movement. “We regret that we were unable to compile the data and assist. As you can see, we are still compiling. Much data is corrupted. We are rebuilding what we can.”
Val clenched his teeth together and growled. “People died up there while you were down here compiling. Will you still be compiling the next time Ellomyr is attacked?”
It folded its hands together and bowed its head even lower. “We do apologize. Our fate is linked to yours now. If your Ellomyr falls, it will be just a matter of time before we are found as well. Our calculations have predicted as much.” It gestured to one of the glass slates mounted onto a pole. A small door opened on the pole, and a small platform emerged holding up what appeared to be a sphere made of glass. “Please take this back to your Ellomyr. It contains plans that will benefit all.”
Val picked up the glass and pressed a post button he felt along the side. It projected some form of blueprints, and a lot of symbols that he didn’t recognize. He slid it into his belt pouch.
“Now please follow us. You are the reason we now exist in this form. Please let us aid you. Those enhancements are primitive and are unsafe to continue operation. We have access to plans for models that will benefit both of us. We need a new agent, after all.”
It reached out its hand and led Val to a side room containing a bed and many frightening surgical implements. The thought crossed his mind that this was probably another bad idea.
About Steve Salem
Just a guy from Chicago.