Chapter 19: Tendrils
Maximilian awoke to a choking darkness, one so absolute and suffocating that he believed he must have a sack over his head. Wouldn’t be the first time. The slightest impression of movement around him denied that idea. He must be underground, then. A basement, or perhaps a cave. Also wouldn’t be the first time.
He sat up and saw he was unbound. Whoever his captors were apparently didn’t consider him much of a flight risk. Either they underestimated him or they thought very highly of their prison. Wherever this prison was. How long had he been out? A bump on the head, as his last memory would indicate, shouldn’t have kept him down for more than a few minutes, but if they had kept him drugged he could have been moved unawares almost anywhere. Also wouldn’t be the first time.
A sudden flash of light caused Maximilian, whose eyes had already adjusted to the darkness, to squint. When he was finally able to see he realized the light was coming from bright flames that had somehow sprouted from the wall. Hidden panels, perhaps?
A figure stood against the far wall, outlined by the light of the fire. It was odd the way the light played against him, as if it refused to reveal any detail of his person from the shadows.
Maximilian rose and flattened the wrinkles of his suit with his hand. No doubt the trick with the light was for his benefit, to try and intimidate him. He put on his most passive expression to show he was not impressed.
He addressed his captor in the same way he might address an ant he found in his kitchen. “Let’s get on with it, shall we? You managed to get my attention, so you might as well tell me what you want.”
There was a light cackling that might have been a chuckle. “Oh, do not fear. We will be getting started very soon.”
Maximilian stood tall to show he felt no fear. He was no stranger to being threatened, to being captured, or even being tortured. It came with the territory. When your business associates included African warlords, religious extremists, and one particularly unpleasant Australian woman, it was inevitable. The key was to not lose control of the situation. Everyone wanted something from him, be it money, weapons, influence, or in one strange case, a spot on a late night talk show. He could offer those things, but he had to be careful not to seem desperate. No pleading for his life, promising them whatever they wanted. That would only make them demand more. If he played his cards right, he could even turn this situation around in his favor. One of his more profitable warlord relations started in a situation just like this.
“You could at least show some manners,” he scoffed. “Offer an introduction, or at least a drink. Something alcoholic, preferably.”
Another cackle. “I was told I would find you interesting. The business man. The cutthroat. A man who would do anything to make another dime, sell anything to make another nickel.”
With a sigh, Maximilian said, “Don’t tell me you are going to lecture me about my business methods?” Was this one of those anti-capitalist groups? Not that it would change his tactics for dealing with them, but it would mean he would be subjected to hours of lectures before they got to the point.
“Quite the opposite. Once I learned a bit about you, I became a fan. I admire your ruthlessness, your willingness to do what it takes. Your success is testament to your effectiveness. It makes me wish that we had met earlier. We could have accomplished great things together.”
If his captor’s goal was to disorient him with the mix of intimidating presence and strange compliments, it was somewhat effective. It was certainly a different tact than his captors would usually take. In his experience, they were either aggressively hostile to attempt to bully him into meeting their demands, or sickeningly friendly to ‘bond’ with him.
“And what business is it that you are in?” Maximilian asked, hoping to garner a shred of usable information.
“The world domination business.”
Maximilian smirked. “Aren’t we all?” So weapons, probably. “If you are looking to work together, I might need a little more than that, though.”
“Oh, no. As I said before, that time has passed. I just wanted a moment to speak with you before I get started. There is only one thing I need from you.”
“And what is that?” Maximilian asked with a scowl, not liking his inability to predict his captor’s train of thought.
His captor cackled yet again. “You will see.”
The figure stepped away from the wall and Maximilian found himself surprisingly anxious to be face-to-face with his captor. When was the last time he had been anxious? Back with that little run in with the FTC two years ago? That inspector had been surprisingly resilient to both bribes and intimidation. It had taken the intricate planning of an unfortunate accident to finally end the investigation.
To Maximilian’s fascination, the shadows that cloaked his features did not waver as he stepped closer. Even as he passed right by the flames on the wall, the light couldn’t seem to touch him. It had to be more than just a trick of the lighting. Was it some kind of active camouflage technology? He had heard about developments in that area but had never had a chance to see it in action.
He was still watching the shadowed figure with great interest when a cloaked hand reached out for him. It touched his collar and for a moment Maximilian thought his captor was going to adjust his tie. Certain men found that to be a power move. Instead the hand just lingered there, an uncomfortably intimate gesture.
Suddenly Maximilian was very cold despite the warmth of the chamber. It was as if someone had replaced his blood with ice water. His heart raced as an intense pressure bloomed on his chest. He tried to raise his arms to push away his captor and found his body wouldn’t respond. All he could do was stand, paralyzed, as his heart beat faster and faster and his body got colder and colder.
An impossible amount of time passed, an eternity. When his captor finally removed his hand from Maximilian, he was holding something … something strange yet familiar. It was an orb of the deepest black, darker by indescribable magnitudes than the shadows around it. The orb pulsated in beat with Maximilian’s heart, thumping rapidly at first and slowly quickly as the energy fled from his body.
He didn’t know what the orb was, but he knew, instinctively, that the orb was his. And it was precious to him. More important than all the money he had ever made, more important than any of his businesses, more important than his success and reputation. He would have traded every one of those things away in an instant if only he could recover it.
With a trembling hand Maximilian reached for it, a pleading murmur escaping from his lips. The last of his energy escaped him and the darkness closed in. Maximilian’s last thoughts as his life faded away were of something he had never known before: regret.
The void beckoned to Arthur, promising him the peace and solitude of its endless expanses if he would just step a little closer. Taking that step was proving an insurmountable challenge. It was all much clearer to him now, a result of his recent practice. The reflections of those using their power, the surreal forms of physical world objects, the ever present city in the unreachable distance. But something still preventing Arthur from making that step, crossing the gap from merely viewing the void and crossing into it bodily.
On the verge of exhaustion, Arthur allowed himself a break. His mind drifted back to his body, and he blinked as vision filled with the clear, sunny day surrounding him. He rose and stretched, the stiffness in his legs giving him an idea of just how long he had been at it. Despite hours upon hours of practice every day he seemed to be getting no closer to traversing the void on his own. In the meantime, if he was deciphering what he saw in the void accurately, things were getting bad. The minions of Adaghast were running unchecked.
He walked to the other side of the farmhouse to the training area. It had taken quite a bit of effort (as well as a healthy expenditure from the Riley account) to fix it up after the damage done by Aer. Even now it hardly looked the same, particularly with some many of the surrounding trees reduced to stumps.
Ai stood with a look that bordered awfully close to pride as their students practiced using their elements. They had all been at it really hard lately, motivated in their own ways by the recent battles, determined to never find themselves so outmatched again. Arthur had even caught Ai training during the early hours before the students awoke and her duties changed to those a teacher.
Sam’s progress was the most exceptional. A spiral of flames as thick around as a tree trunk snaked around him, twisting by his face, over his shoulders, and around his legs, close enough that it was a wonder he wasn’t singed. Despite the power he was channeling he didn’t seem to be breaking a sweat. Arthur had to repress an involuntary shudder as old memories threatened to resurface.
Marco was finally starting to get the hang of outward projections of his element. He was in a stance similar to his boxing form, stomping on the ground with his leading leg and bringing a large chunk of rock into the air. He punched out, sending the rock hurtling towards the awaiting Peter. Peter swung at the projectile with his impossibly-heavy bat. They connected with a sound like thunder, sending the rock flying into the distance.
“Come on, Mascle!” Peter called. “You can toss bigger ones than that!”
“Watch what you wish for, Lins,” Marco replied with a smirk.
Arthur sighed. “Don’t tell me they’ve got you doing that last name, too, Marco.”
Marco turned his grin on Arthur as he approached. “It’s a bonding thing.”
Peter planted his bat in the ground with a resounding thud. “You can get in on it, too. What is your last name, Arthur?”
Arthur scratched the back of his head. “Would you believe I don’t remember? I was kind of young when Ryu took me in. I can barely remember my parents.”
With an awkward cough, Peter glanced over at Ai. “How about you?”
“Orphan.” Her voice was as passive as if she was describing the weather.
For some reason, Sam laughed. “Hey, Lins, I’m starting to think our backstories aren’t tragic enough.”
“I don’t know,” Peter replied. “You’ve had to live your whole life with that face. That’s pretty tragic.”
Sam’s fire snake came to rest at his feet. “Not quite as bad as that game you had against West Side. Mercy ruled after four innings, right?”
The two exchanged friendly barbs, with Marco jumping in occasionally with details on his ever-depressing fall from boxing grace.
Ai stepped up to Arthur with an icy glare. “I take it your training is going well, if you have time to interrupt our students.”
“Oh yeah, just great,” Arthur lied. “Just needed a moment to regain my energy. How are things going here?”
“As well as could be expected. Sam has a great deal more control, and Marco is starting to get a hang of projecting his power. I wish I could be more help to Peter’s progress, but I have to admit I don’t understand the Wood Element too well. His ability to feel the life in others has improved.” She seemed thoughtful. “He says Ryu is getting stronger.”
“That’s good news. We could really use him right now.” Arthur grimaced as the recent memory of a man, most likely a carrier, being consumed forever by the darkness. They were helpless until either Ryu got back on his feet or Arthur mastered the void. “I should get back to it.”
He left to the sounds of Ai barking orders for the students to begin their physical conditioning exercises for the day. Everyone was working hard. Now was not the time to be slacking.
It was only a few hours later that day when Arthur had a big breakthrough. When attempting again to cross the boundary from viewing the void and entering into it, he found the barrier he had to expect suddenly absent. It’s disappearance was so unexpected that Arthur found himself plunging through the void instead of taking a controlled step. It was all he could do to gain control of his focus and avoid losing his physical form.
He found the flow of the Light and used it as a guidepost to stabilize himself and stop his uncontrolled drifting. To his surprise, he found that he had traveled quite far from his entrance back at the farmhouse in a short period of time. Nearby, the Light produced a twisted image of a busy highway that existed somewhere in the physical world. Cars, or the idea of cars, raced by him, disappearing into puffs of white mist as they reached the end of image.
While Arthur was trying to figure out how to reposition himself to travel back to the farmhouse, he noticed movement coming from something other than the cars. Black tendrils stretched through the void at the speed of a pouncing predator. Before Arthur had a chance to react the tendrils had stretched into the image. The highway cracked, twisted, and then shattered, sending Arthur spiraling out of control.
The void wasn’t dark so much as it was empty, its vastness somehow completely devoid of both darkness and light. When Arthur found himself completely surrounded by darkness he knew he was in trouble. He launched himself in the last direction he thought the farmhouse entrance was in. He didn’t make it far before the dark tendrils wrapped themselves around him, pulled at him, threatened to pull him apart and scatter his physical form across the void.
Arthur wanted to fight back. He wanted to yell his defiance at it. He wanted to scream. But it was all he could do just to hold himself together.
The darkness seemed to pulsate around him, a rhythmic thumping that reminded Arthur of a heartbeat, Among this thumping, Arthur swear he heard a voice calling out to him: MINE!
There was no question to Arthur the source of the voice: Adaghast, the Dark God. And he felt despair.
A flash of Light and Arthur was blinded. His ears with filled with a roar that might have shaken the entirety of the void. As Arthur’s senses returned to him, he saw Ruvian, the dragon that existed as part of the flow of the Light, cutting a swath through the darkness. It roared, and the tendrils retreated before it. Arthur was freed from their grasp, and only then did he realize that he had not been breathing. Or what passed for breathing in the void.
The dragon formed a circle around him using its serpentine body, shielding Arthur from further attempts from the tendrils. Arthur felt himself being caught in its wake, drifting through void at Ruvian’s whim. He could feel the darkness of Adaghast following close on their heels, staying just out of the reach of Ruvian’s fury. The darkness continued to grow, to consume the void around it, to become more powerful. How long before even Ruvian was consumed?
Ruvian guided a grateful, and confused, Arthur back to the entrance from the farmhouse. For a moment, Arthur looked back at the growing darkness, and then at Ruvian. The dragon seemed as indomitable as ever, yet there was something else, something different that only became apparent when the darkness was upon it. Something … human.
A moment later Arthur was back at the farm, his physical senses returning and his mind racing to catch up with what he just saw. The power of Adaghast.
And The Dark God had just seen him.
Slowly, Arthur tried to rise to his feet. He failed. Instead he collapsed into a heap, his breath coming rapidly, his head spinning, his whole body shaking. Arthur had known fear; he had faced and overcome it many times. He was even vaguely familiar with terror. What he felt right now, what that encroaching darkness had made him feel … neither of those words came close to doing justice. A sense of hopelessness washed over him as the full gravity of the enemy he faced came to rest on his shoulders.
And then Arthur did something he had not done since that day all those years ago when his parents were taken from him: he cried.