In the Dark
rating: +15+x
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I might not make it.

Adrian tensed in preparation for the inevitable sting of the bullet.

Except it didn't.

The bullet froze halfway to his head. Angel, not a stranger to anomalous combat, followed up with several more rounds, each of which decided to give up halfway. He frowned, dropping the weapon.

"Vesper failed to mention you were also unnatural."

He isn't.

The thought invaded both Adrian and Angel's consciousness as an arm stretched out from the shadows, followed by the unkempt figure of Mamba. Black blood pulsed through his veins, and his cold, unblinking eye exposed no emotion.

Angel raised an eyebrow, amused.

Mamba continued his silent approach before abruptly launching the suspended ammunition backwards. Countless white wings unfurled behind Angel, flaring into a brilliant white tempest.

He was also unnatural. Adrian didn't know much about the Special Assets Directive other than the fact that it existed, and it involved paranormal operatives. Back at the academy, anyone who displayed the slightest hint of an anomalous property was immediately swept up by administration. When they resurfaced — if they ever did — it would be as a Coalition operative.

They'd tamed this force of nature, he realized.

Angel swung several wings forward, sending a wave of razor-sharp pinions towards Mamba. The one-eyed telekinetic pulled a nearby dumpster in front of him to block the barrage before sending the feather-pierced mass back towards Angel, who promptly flapped all of his wings to thrust the dumpster backwards with a violent gale.

Garter told you to leave, Ross.

Mamba directed a barrage of scrap metal and pipes towards Angel. Glancing towards where Mamba had ripped his makeshift ammunition from, Adrian spotted an access into one of the numerous pillars supporting the upper city. It was an out, certainly, but Mamba stood no chance against the killing machine that loomed above him.

He looked back. Angel perfectly absorbed all of Mamba's projectiles into his storm of wings, forcing Mamba to stumble backwards. He desperately tried to block Angel's endless hail of feathers, but for each one he successfully deflected, dozens more would take its place. His arsenal wouldn't be depleted anytime soon, either, judging by the hundreds of frenzied wings behind him.

Finally, Angel managed to graze his opponent's shoulder, sending agonizing toxins throughout the telekinetic's entire body. Somehow, Mamba's face remained expressionless, but his eye glanced towards Adrian.

Down the column. Find Babel. Talk there, insisted Mamba.

Adrian paused for a moment realizing that there wasn't anything he could do to help Mamba. And if he didn't make it out alive, the telekinetic would have suffered for nothing.

Enough people have suffered at my hands.

He allowed himself one last glance while sprinting towards the towering pillar. The expression on Angel's face shifted from amusement to disgust as he began to realize his voiceless opponent would never sing for him in painful screams. Mamba slumped against a pile of stacked crates, desperately clawing at the cover. His lone eye strained from the excruciating venom flowing through his blood, until he finally grasped a crimson vial of rubedo.

Go.

Adrian felt the fire of a thousand black suns on his back as Mamba's makeshift alchemical explosive detonated, and then there was silence.


Adrian firmly clasped the metal framework running down the entire length of the kilometer-tall shaft. He figured he’d already been descending for an hour, but there was no way to know for sure. Usually, when he was left alone with his thoughts, time passed much more slowly.

Cramming his leg between two beams, he formed a sort of sideways knee bar, giving himself a moment to wipe away the cold sweat dripping from his brow. The whole chamber hummed with distant machinery, pulsing with a hollow presence. The Servants of the Silicon Nornir had buried the beating hearts of their silicon gods far below the surface, and these pillars were the veins of the living city.

I’ve got to be close to the bottom by now, he tried to convince himself. No doubt he’d already descended hundreds of meters, and his strength was definitely waning. He’d have to find a platform to rest on before he succumbed to exhaustion and fell towards certain death.

At least I'll be alone. Since he'd entered Eurtec through the backdoor of some backwater nexus nearly a week ago, Adrian hadn't dared to sleep a wink.

Scanning the area, he located a small niche where he’d be able to sit somewhat comfortably on. He sized up the jump, then, quickly deciding he couldn’t make it, took a deep breath and scaled a wall of wires before swinging onto the ledge. Adrian collected his breath before collapsing onto the cold steel platform, wiping his brow with hands that had begun to bleed from clinging so firmly to rusted metal.

Rusted?

These shafts weren't made to be accessed, even by the Servants of the Silicon Nornir. In all their careful planning, the caretakers certainly would've made sure moisture wouldn't intrude upon the inner workings of their city, let alone accumulate rust. Sure, the lower floors may have been in utter shambles, but the Nornir's systems were immaculate.

I'm not alone.

He sat up and immediately analyzed his surroundings, but could barely make out anything beyond the veil of shadows. He sighed, then took a deep breath. The air was cold and putrid, but it would sustain his consciousness for a little while longer — hopefully enough to reach the bottom.

Adrian slipped off his jacket and tied it around his waist tightly to create a makeshift harness, which he attached to several of the taut wires spanning the entire height of the shaft. It would definitely be riskier than clambering down the framework, but it would also be faster.

He gave the wires a good tug before grasping it firmly and pressing against the wall. It'd be enough to hold his weight as he horizontally descended the shaft.

After about a minute, he could make out the bottom. The tunnel was in fact not as deep as he'd thought, but it had been flooded with a dark liquid resembling crude oil, giving the illusion of a continuous tunnel. Several mangled forms dotted the surface, but he couldn't quite make out what they were.

Then the smell hit him, followed by a realization.

The forms were corpses.

Adrian closed his eyes and took a shallower breath. Pressing firmly against the wall, he realized he'd seen the liquid once before. Mamba's wound festered with something like this. He knew this was here, and he wanted Adrian to know, too.

What else did he know that I don't?


Adrian had managed to drop safely onto a ledge a few meters below him, landing with a clean roll. He'd have been relieved to have reached the bottom if it weren't for the fact that his whole body ached — he could hardly even think through the nauseatingly acrid fumes. He'd need to free himself from the suffocating miasma.

He quickly located a small hatch, no doubt an access panel. Ramming into black grime with his shoulder, it creaked open before falling off its hinges altogether, allowing Adrian to step out into the subterranean bowels of Eurtec.

The Undercity wasn't technically part of Eurtec — the lowest floor of the city proper was several stories above where Adrian now stood. However, in order to capitalize on vertical space, the underground had been allocated to any machinery that didn't directly contribute to the Nornir's systems. Over time, debris accumulated in pockets between the machinery, forming a ethereal mechanical wasteland where concrete towers stretched towards a black sky and light was a rarity.

Adrian collapsed against the pillar, finally allowing sleep to overcome him.


The world around him faded to nothing, replaced by the darkness of a festering womb where silent screams echoed under a starless night. Adrian found himself paralyzed in the tenebrous maw, seeing through closed eyes.

Adrian?

An unspoken whisper drifted to him over wandering currents of hypnagogic malaise. He wanted to reach out, but a sense of lethargy consumed him as he began sinking into the ebon abyss of cimmerian waters.

Why are you here, Adrian?

And then he realized he was drowning.

He frantically reached for the surface but found only more black bile. Anguished laughter replaced the earlier silence, entering his eyes, his ears, his lungs, his heart, and primal desperation overtook him. He would be consumed, and there was nothing he could do.

The darkness had finally come for him. It had taken everything else from him already — his parents, his comrades, his only friend…

And then for a moment, he could see her, even through the darkness. Jaiden lay peacefully submerged in a glowing white capsule, silent and still. Wires replaced her hair and a blindfold covered her eyes, but he still knew it was her.

"Jaiden?"

You shouldn't be here, Adrian.

Bile filled his lungs, but he could still speak.

"Where are you?"

He felt something pull him away from her, out of the darkness. He clawed at the waters, begging for the darkness to give him just a moment more, but its only response was a mocking laughter. Jaiden whispered one last thought to him before being swallowed again by the rolling black waves.

I'm in the dark.


When Adrian awoke, he wasn't alone. A grotesque, elderly man with an extremely prominent jaw sat next to him, trying to drink from a canteen but spilling water all over himself, while a Latino woman covered in scars leaned against a glass-tipped spear to his left.

Adrian turned to face the man for a moment, before realizing the sharp pain in his shoulder. A raccoon was wrapping a makeshift bandage around it, concealing the dark grime that had burned a hole in his jacket. He tried to brush away the small, fluffy mammal, wincing as he strained his wounded arm. The raccoon chittered several times in protest before finally leaping to the ground.

The man with the malformed jaw spoke first in a thick German accent, with surprising clarity. "I am called Baron."

His mouth twitched as he muttered the last word.

"Lucia," added the woman. "Can you stand?"

Pressing himself against the wall, he grimaced as a sharp pain jolted through his arm.

"Allow me." Baron extended a slender, six-fingered hand, which Adrian initially refused. Perhaps it was his distaste for the anomalous in general, or simply that he didn't trust strangers, but he continued painfully pressing himself against the pillar.

Baron sighed and placed his arms on Adrian's shoulders. Despite his deformed figure, he had surprising strength, and pulled Adrian to his feet with ease.

The raccoon stood on its hind legs, purring softly as though trying to say something.

"What brings you to this domain?" Baron inquired.

Adrian squinted at the strange crowd surrounding him. "That's for me to worry about."

"Fair enough," Baron grunted in response. "May I at least ask your name?"

"Glenn Forrester," Adrian replied curtly.

Baron attempted a weak smile, nodding. "It has certainly been a long while since I've last seen trees," he mused.

Adrian did not respond. Instead, he gazed out into the rows of pillars, where the darkness seemed to scorn him as the shaft had earlier. Only, this darkness blistered and grew the more he stared at it, swallowing however little light there was.

The lady glanced into the shaft. "He came from the black pool, but he isn't a shadow walker,"

"Shadow walker?"

"Foul creatures without any civility," offered Baron. His mouth twitched before he continued. "They taste even fouler,"

Lucia turned to face Adrian. "How did you survive falling into the black pool?"

"I didn't fall down. I climbed down, from Halfway,"

Baron chortled. "Why not travel the sewage route, as the rest of us have?"

Adrian flexed his hand. "I didn't have an option. I was escaping,"

Lucia shifted her weight, holding the glass spear over her shoulder. "Most everyone down here is escaping from one thing or another," she paused. "What were you being chased by? And is it still looking for —"

Suddenly, the raccoon scampered next to Lucia, nudging her in the ankle. She snapped her head up as an unidentified form plummeted hundreds of meters into the darkness of the black pool.

Baron growled and pushed Adrian back away from the pillar as Lucia raised her spear, staring at the darkness behind the access panel. They stood in tense anticipation for several tense seconds.

A dark form clambered out of the pillar as the black substance pooled at the base of the pillar. An oversized arm stretched through the access panel first, followed by a decaying, faceless figure. Releasing a depraved screech, the creature swung at Baron.

The deformed figure caught the shadow walker's claw with his forearm before being knocked to the ground, offering Lucia an opportunity to charge with her spear. Leaping upwards, she slashed at its neck, causing the entity to stagger backwards. Baron charged the shadow walker, ramming it back inside of the pillar and over the ledge, returning it to the black pool.

He panted for a moment, gazing into the murky abyss. "We'd best depart," he looked back towards the others. "We were on the path of return."

Lucia nodded in agreement, and turned to Adrian.

"You can follow us back if you want," she informed him in a tone that suggested she meant "if you want to survive."

Baron nodded and began walking away from the pillar, followed by Lucia and the raccoon. They were out of sight within seconds — the same amount of time that it took Adrian to decided he didn't want to face any more shadow walkers alone.

"Where are you guys headed?" he called out, sprinting as best he could.


Babel was the only real settlement in the entirety of the Undercity. Situated around a tower of rubble and refuse, it was illuminated by a single shaft of light emerging from a sewage tunnel in the ceiling. The locals believe that the settlement was first inhabited by a handful of Servants of the Silicon Nornir that had been trapped beneath Eurtec as it was first constructed. They'd painstakingly constructed the tower from nothing but junk to approach the opening far above them, hoping to escape.

Of course, the town's founders had long since disappeared. Babel's denizens primarily consisted of exiles and refugees inhabiting tents and alcoves in the tower, who had chosen to live down here, despite the hardships — surviving for the sake of survival.

As Adrian approached the edge of Babel, he realized that a shoddily-constructed scrap metal wall had been constructed around the perimeter of the settlement. Glass shards sparkled under the light next to misshapen corpses and black puddles.

Lucia noticed Adrian staring at the barrier. "The walls are somewhat new. They keep the shadow walkers out."

Baron shielded his eyes as the trio and raccoon stepped into the light. A few eyes turned to watch them as they entered, but the vast majority of settlers were preoccupied with their own business, sorting through salvage or spit-roasting bats, rodents, and other strange creatures Adrian had never seen before. Despite their liveliness, he could feel the underlying weariness that burdened Babel's inhabitants.

Soon enough, they were able to locate an unoccupied fire pit. Lucia whispered something to a nearby Indian lady before stepping back as an implosion lit a small fire. Adrian jumped a little, prompting Baron to chuckle before taking a seat next to the fire. Lucia notified the others that she'd be off to purchase some kebabs, at which the raccoon chittered happily.

Adrian studied his companions by the crimson glow of the campfire while waiting for Lucia to get back. The raccoon lay flat on its stomach, staring just past the fire as though it were thinking about something. He turned his attention to Baron, whose small, black eyes reflected the light of the flame. He picked at the fingernails of his six-fingered hand with a smaller, four-fingered hand, which Adrian could now see were both withered and pale. Wrinkles quivered on Baron's completely bald forehead as he hummed a classical tune through large, uneven teeth.

"You aren't human, are you?" inquired Adrian.

"I'm sorry?" Baron looked up.

"No offense, but you don't exactly look human,"

Baron smiled sadly, before looking down. "My forefathers were human. Obsessive, selfish, vile humans who committed unspeakable sins, yes, but is that not how we all are?"

Adrian didn't respond.

"I was a child when my home was razed by men in black," a heavy sadness filling Baron's raspy voice. "I still have the urges sometimes, but it is for that reason I have come here to simply live — that I might be the last of my blood."

He turned to look Adrian in the eyes. "That is my tale. Will you now tell me yours?"

Adrian looked up into the light, knowing that somewhere up there was the world he'd been born in.

"There isn't much to tell," he decided.

Baron frowned. "Nonsense, Forrester. Surely there must be a reason you descended into the darkness."

Jaiden, of course.

But why?

What did she mean to him?

They weren't madly obsessed lovers, or even lifelong friends. They had no duty to each other, and they definitely weren't bound by blood. Hell, she might already be dead for all he knew, and yet here he was, still searching for her.

"I'm searching for a light in the darkness."

Baron exhaled deeply, shaking his head. "You will find no brighter light here than the one overhead, Forrester. "

Adrian nodded, staring into the fire until his eyes began to sting.

"I do not contest, however," Baron added with a grin, "that food tastes better in the dark."

Lucia approached them carrying several kebabs in one hand. She smiled gently, offering Adrian a skewer. Looking up, he realized that Lucia's hair was noticeably shorter.

"Did you get a haircut?"

Lucia chuckled. "We had a bit of a disagreement over the price,"

Baron nodded understandingly. "She sells her body," he added.

"She what?"

Lucia chuckled before explaining. "I can exchange detached parts of my body as currency,"

She wiggled a four-fingered hand for Adrian to see. "Some parts are worth more, some less, but everything is worth something,"

"You still have not informed me what you exchanged a finger for," pouted Baron.

Lucia smirked. "It bought me your friendship, didn't it?"

Baron paused for a moment, looking at his six fingers, before shrugging in agreement. "Birds of a feather flock together,"

I don't belong here, Adrian realized. He wasn't anomalous in any sense, and he didn't want to be, either — even if it meant he stood a chance against the terrifying powers that dominated the world behind the Veil.

The mere existence of the anomalous discomforted Adrian, something that years of training with the Coalition had failed to resolve. They'd never be able to completely erase the trauma he'd accumulated over a lifetime. Even now, in the presence of Baron and Lucia, he didn't feel safe, simply because of who they were.

"Hey, Glynn?" Lucia interrupted his thoughts. "I didn't spend a whole lock on beef for you to waste it."

At this, Baron's eyes lit up. "The merchants have returned?"

Lucia nodded silently.

"One moment," he mumbled, dashing away towards the tower.

Lucia shook her head, sighing. "Some upper city company sends guys down here to trade trinkets. Baron's obsessed with collecting shiny things," she explained.

She gingerly placed a kebab in front of the raccoon. "Here you go, Lukas,"

"Lukas?" asked Adrian.

"Yeah. He told us himself. Or, wrote, I guess," answered Lucia.

"He must be a very smart raccoon, then,"

Lucia shook her head. "Oh, he isn't a raccoon. He's a raccoon-shaped human."

Adrian blinked. "What?"

"It just happened one day. He used to work as a doctor with the Foundation — the Manna Charitable Foundation, they come around once in a while — and then one day, he just woke up, and he was a raccoon."

Adrian nodded before looking at his shoulder. The dark blotch had spread, and the wound itself oozed with black blood. "So he knows what happened to my shoulder?"

The raccoon chittered quietly.

"The black substance. No one knows what it is, but the shadow walkers just began showing up one day, bringing it with them,"

Lucia looked towards the gate. "We kill the shadow walkers easily enough, but the black pools never go away."

Finishing her kebab, Lucia stood up. "You're lucky we found you before the shadow walkers did," she paused. "Once Baron gets back, we're heading back to the tent to get some rest. You can stay with us until you can find yourself lodging,"


When he fell asleep, he found himself in the darkness again.

Adrian?

The whisper echoed around him. Strangely, even though it surrounded him, the shadows didn't touch him.

"Jaiden."

You shouldn't be here.

"Shouldn't be where? Babel?"

In the dark.

"What does that even mean, 'in the dark'?"

The dark is within you, and I am in the dark.

Her whisper shattered, and the hollow closed around him.


Adrian woke with a cold sweat. Baron snored loudly against the wall while Lucia lay motionless on the floor and Lukas lay flat on the ground, limbs splayed in every direction. The soft glow of the outside peeked through a gap in the bottom of the tent, inviting Adrian back out.

He took a deep breath of the cold Undercity air, walking up the tower. That was two nights in a row he'd dreamed of Jaiden.

The dark is within you, and I am in the dark, he recalled. How helpful. The whole of the Undercity was drenched in darkness. It didn't mean anything — it was just his mind messing with him, delirium clouding his better judgement. But even then, he still couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something. He shivered, sending pain through his entire shoulder.

The dark is within me.

Adrian tilted his shoulder, wincing. Undoing the bandage with one hand, he was able to clearly see the black substance pooling in his shoulder and eating away at his flesh.

His mind reeled as he blinked several times in quick succession, trying to make sense of his own reasoning.

I've seen her in my dreams for two nights. I've had this black substance in my wound for two nights. Coincidence? Maybe. Two puzzle pieces with a notch and a tab didn't necessarily go together.

This black substance was brought here by "shadow walkers", who come from black pools. The black pools are filled with corpses. Those two jutted out like two protrusions — there needed to be another piece between them.

One foot after another, he approached the light at the top of the tower. How did an insignificant rubedo smuggler with a few fortunate connections stumble upon all of this?

How indeed. The uninvited thought pierced his consciousness, fired from the barrel of a familiar gun.

He looked up. A scrawny telekinetic with a scarf wrapped around his lower face was levitating several crates off of a hanging scaffold that had been dropped through the hole in the ceiling. Mamba's eye met Adrian's for a moment, before being interrupted by an individual in an immaculate dark suit.

An upper city company, Lucia had said.

And just like that, the jigsaw fell into place. He shot a glance at the crates, which, aside from numerous warnings, were marked with just three letters, that stood for three names.

Marshall, Carter, and Dark.


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