A Vale of Tears
rating: +63+x

“This city is enormous,” Victor remarked as he stared out the 303rd story window. The adjacent buildings stood around 1600 meters, with the tallest building being nearly double that, four times as tall as the tallest skyscraper in his world. These titanic spires were forged with frames of carbon nanotubes and diamondoid windows that sparkled in the sunlight. Just as impossible as their height and composition was their abundance, as the city stretched onwards for as far as Victor could see. “Why is it so huge?”

“Hmmm? Oh, well according to what information Skitter was able to find in the Library, this whole reality was ruled by a pseudo-Catholic theocracy for over three hundred years,” Iris replied distantly as she appraised a laptop she had found. “Extremely patriarchal and puritanical, and thus they experienced an above-average birth rate. But they also possessed the advanced technology that had been gifted to them by Him, and so were able to support a large population. This world’s population grew much bigger than ours ever did; at least tens of billions of people, maybe hundreds.”

Victor turned his gaze down to the streets below. Where once there surely must have been uncountable swarms of citizens going about their day, now there were only the Unclean; faceless half humans bigger than any non-anomalous animal that had ever lived, crawling through the ruined streets in a desperate search for something they could no longer comprehend.

“And now, all those hundreds of billions of people are just… gone?” he asked softly. “Jesus. This, this is even worse than that world where the sun turns people into wax monsters. At least those things seemed kind of happy. But the Unclean, you said that they -”

“In the words of another interdimensional traveller, ‘don’t think about it’,” Iris told him. “Step away from the window Victor.”

“Right, sorry,” he said. He turned his back to the horror outside and took off his glasses to clean them. “Maybe the next post-apocalyptic wasteland we visit can just be a regular nuclear holocaust?”

“Turns out those are surprisingly rare. I guess nuclear deterrence isn’t as crazy as it seems.”

“Speaking of nuclear and crazy, I haven't heard a peep out of Lolly in a while," he said. "Maybe we should check on her."

"I'm sure she just found something to keep her distracted."

"And quiet?"

Iris finally took her eyes off the laptop.

"You're right, let's go check on her."

Shutting the laptop and placing it in her bag, the two of them went to search for Lolly.

The floor they were on was primarily an open office, with all the light coming from a wall of windows on the far side. Numerous mundane personal items dotted the room - briefcases, hats and jackets, 3D photos of loved ones - still laying where their owners had abandoned them over half a century ago. Numerous chairs were askew or overturned, left to fall where they would in a mad dash to escape the city, with no one ever coming back to right them.

Victor and Iris were momentarily startled by the sound of an angelic chime over the somehow still functional PA system.

"All pause for the midday prayer," a serene male voice announced.

"He who art above, forever Pure be His name. His Kingdom is come, and His will shall be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

May He grant us the clarity to avoid Sin, and may His Tears Purify us when we stray. May He forgive us our deviances, and may He never forgive the Unclean.

May He lead the Blessed Militia to victory against the Unclean, and may the Unclean suffer for all Eternity for their unspeakable Sin, for His is the Kingdom and the Purity and the Virtue, forever and ever, amen."

Another set of angelic chimes signalled the end of the prayer break.

"That's been playing to an empty building for sixty years? So creepy," Victor remarked.

"Blarg!" Lolly shouted as she swung down from an air vent, having shape-shifted her face into the same blank visage of the Unclean. To her disappointment, neither of her colleagues seemed especially frightened. "Marp?"

"This is what you were doing instead of collecting electronics?" Iris asked with a raised eyebrow.

Lolly dropped down to the floor and shook her face back to normal.

"No, I did that," she replied, pulling out a sack from her hammerspace pockets. “I went through the whole office and nabbed everything that looked like a laptop, tower, tablet, or smartphone I could find. Are you sure these computers are magic though? Because they seem pretty normal to me.”

“I didn’t say they were magic, I said they were advanced,” Iris replied as she examined the contents of the sack. “I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what sort of hardware it is yet, but I do know it’s extremely efficient and not producing any waste heat. Memory and processing power are at least twenty times higher than a comparable top-of-the-line product in our reality. It charges wirelessly and in under a minute, consumes no power on standby, and a full charge can give you over a hundred hours of peak use. This Faithful OS, on the other hand, is, well, it’s what you would expect for a theocratic regime. The restrictions are rather severe so at the very least I’ll have to do some jailbreaking. Ideally, I’d like to make a version of DarkEnergy that’s compatible with this hardware and install that instead."

"Worst comes to worst, we could probably sell this stuff as is in Eurtec,” Victor suggested.

“Uh-huh. That’s cool, I guess,” Lolly said disinterestedly. “So… when are we going to get my hovercraft?”

“For the third time Lolly, we’re getting your hovercraft last, since we can’t very well haul a car through the building with us,” Iris huffed.

"Well we can't, but she might; I have no idea how much she can fit in those pockets," Victor countered. “Don't worry Lolly, the bottom forty stories of this place are a parking garage, so I’m sure you’ll have your pick. Just don’t wander off, since neither of us wants to re-enact a classic Seinfeld episode.”

Lolly squeed excitedly and started jumping up and down.

“This is so amazing! I’m going to get a hovercraft!”

Iris closed the sack back up and handed it back to Lolly.

“Alright, these are enough electronics to keep me and my tech team busy for a while," she said. "Let’s go check out the lab.”

The three of them moved through the administrative offices and into the medical facility in the back. Away from the windows, the place only became darker, and they were forced to take their flashlights out to navigate. The eerie silence was briefly broken by a soft rumble through the floor. They held still for a moment to make sure it wasn't a herald of something disastrous, and then pressed onwards.

At the very back there was a large sign on a heavy door which read ‘Authorized Personnel Only by Order of the Sacrosanct Father of Resplendent Penance’, but the door was slightly ajar and the electronic lock appeared to be non-functional.

As they stepped into the room, the lights attempted to turn on, flickering a few times before mostly giving up, strobing at random intervals. Either side of the room was lined with transparent tubes, two meters tall by a meter across. They were all empty and in pristine condition, with the exception of a single broken tube, whose shattered fragments still littered the ground around it.

Iris was focused so intently upon it that she nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard Lolly shriek in terror.

“Oh my god, look!” she said, pointing to the end of the room while cowering behind Iris and Victor.
There, sealed behind a barrier of thick diamond, was what had made the rumbling noise only a moment ago.

An Unclean.

It was a relatively small one, only a few tonnes in weight and a few meters in height. It lay on its side, perfectly still, its blank face turned away from them.

“Is it dead?” Victor whispered.

“No, I don’t think they can die and still remain intact,” Iris replied, shining her flashlight towards the caged monstrosity. “It doesn’t seem active though. It must have been in here since just before this World ended. It's probably the very same one that broke out of this tube here, and they never got the chance to ship it off to the Unfertile Lands. Well, if it’s been locked in there for sixty-four years already we probably don’t need to worry. Keep an eye on it though.”

“Mm-hmmm!” Lolly nodded in fervent agreement, keeping her gaze fixed on the abomination. At the end of the lab, across from the Unclean, they found an adjacent room full of storage tanks.

“His Holy Tears. Excellent,” Iris said as she began inspecting the first tank.

“It’s just a bunch of goop. How is this better than a hovercraft?” Lolly asked.

“It’s Akivic Purification Serum,” Iris said. “It generates off-the-chart levels of Akiva radiation in highly specific wavelengths. The radiation strengthens traits with matching spectral resonance and destroys traits with opposing resonance. Enough exposure to this stuff will purify you of sin and embellish your virtues, at least in the eyes of Him. This is how the Church was able to control this World. If you burn a heretic you create a dozen more, but bathe them in this stuff and you get a born-again missionary ready to spread the good news. It’s the most perfect mind-controlling agent any totalitarian regime could ever ask for.”

“And why exactly does Darke want this?” Victor asked nervously.

“He says he found someone willing to sell him some Incarnate Flesh, but before he buys it he wants to make sure he has a way to purify it,” Iris replied. “He intends to use alchemy to change the Akiva wavelength to whatever he needs. The specifics aren’t really my concern. It’s dangerous to use this stuff in its pure form so I want you two to look around for anything labelled Nutrient solution, a healing serum called Blessing, and maybe something called HFT. There was no explicit mention in any of the files about what it did. Combine that with the fact that there was a shortage of it right before the outbreak of Unclean, and I think it either prevents or reduces the chances of subjects mutating into the Unclean.”

As Victor and Lolly began searching through the storage area for the desired compounds, Iris dedicated her attention to retrieving the Tears out of the tank. There was a large pipe at the top that apparently sent the Tears to the tubes upon demand, but there was also a small faucet near the bottom, presumably for relieving overfill or in case they needed to test a sample. Placing a plastic container under the tap, she carefully turned the knob until a slow trickle started pouring out.

The substance was perfectly clear, utterly pure and uncontaminated by any foreign materials. It was slightly more viscous than water, yet flowed outwards with an odd sort of grace that seemed to ever so slightly skirt the laws of gravity and motion. The light was refracted through it in such a way as to give it a soft radiance, and even the sound of it flowing out from the tap and into the bucket was somehow melodious.

“Wow,” Iris murmured as she stared at it in awe. “It does have a strange allure to it. I suddenly do feel unclean, along with a slight compulsion to actually bathe in it, like it would be the most purifying experience imaginable. That’s a little unsettling actually. If I suddenly start stripping off my clothes one of you will stop me, right?"

“Of course,” Victor agreed.

“Nope, sorry,” Lolly giggled.

“Thank you, Victor,” Iris said with a smirk and slight shake of her head. “It’s interesting that I didn’t feel anything when it was still in the tank. I wonder if it’s shielded against Akiva radiation, and if there are any shielded containers we could use instead of -”

She was interrupted by a torturous, blood-curdling wail from behind them. All at once they turned to see the Unclean in the cage rising to an upright position. Even in its hermetically sealed chamber, it could somehow sense that there was now a free-flowing source of His Tears nearby. Finally roused from its long malaise, it slammed its fist into the diamond wall with unimaginable force. Cracks immediately appeared in the wall, and the Unclean slammed it again and again and again until it shattered into thousands of shards.

Lolly jumped straight upwards at a fantastic speed, breaking a hole through the ceiling. Iris and Victor stared as the monster crawled towards them at a frightening pace, cornered and with no time to mount a defence. Fortunately, Lolly had not forgotten them. She stretched her arms down, wrapping them around their waists like a rope, and yanked them up to the floor above just as the Unclean blundered through.

“Are you okay? Did it touch you? It didn’t touch you, did it?” she asked frantically.

“Get your noodle arm off me!” Iris said, freeing herself and rushing to the hole in the floor to see what was happening.

“We’re fine Lolly, thank you,” Victor said.

“That thing is drinking all the Tears, which is the whole reason we came here!” Iris retorted.

“That's the whole reason you came here. I came for a hovercraft, and I only agreed to that because I thought we’d be safe from the Unclean inside,” Lolly said as she retracted her arms back to their normal length. “But we’re not safe, so I’m aborting this mission.”

She reached into her pockets and pulled out her Kaleidoscope keys with the intention to turn the next door she saw into a Way back to the Circus.

“It’s just one Unclean, not even a big one,” Iris said as she rummaged through her backpack and pulled out a double-barrelled dart gun. “This is loaded with an alchemically enhanced formula of the serum Lord Blackwood invented to destroy the Unclean. Darke made it for me especially for this trip, so I guess you could call them Darkwood Tears. Far more potent than the original, plus that thing is a shrimp. A few rounds should be enough.”

“Iris, it’s not worth risking your life to fight that thing! We can find another source of Tears,” Victor insisted.

“Recon here is expensive, time-consuming and dangerous. Taking down this Unclean now is preferable to possibly fighting a multitude of bigger ones later,” she countered as she loaded the gun.

“Iris, don’t be stupid! Getting caught by one of those is actually a fate worse than death, because we know what happens to us when we die!” Lolly said. “I’m going to Oneiroi West permanently and you two will just have H’rasm’Kal grab your souls and stick them into new bodies, but none of that will happen if that thing gets you!”

“She’s right; you could end up trapped in a living hell until the sun blows up," Victor agreed. "It’s not worth it!”

“Now that you bring it up, I’m not actually sure if H’rasm can cleave a soul from the Unclean,” Iris mused. “Look, it’s not that bad. If it gets me, you just go back and get more Darkwood serum so that someone else can take this thing out.”

Just as she was about to jump down, she gave them a rare ear-to-ear smile.

“But it’s not going to get me.”

The four-meter drop to the floor below was nothing, and she landed on her feet with ease. The Unclean didn’t even react to the sound, for it was too busy greedily lapping up His Tears. Iris quietly fell back as far as she could to give herself the maximum amount of time for additional shots, and then fired a pair of darts into the Unclean’s back.

The being screeched in agony as enormous heaps of molten flesh sloughed off its form, briefly resembling the people they once were before dissolving completely, finally free of their torment. The Unclean turned to look at Iris, who had already reloaded another set of darts. She aimed for its head this time but only hit its neck, causing most of its left side to dissolve into brown ichor. Using its remaining arm, it furiously hauled itself towards Iris. Hurriedly reloading her gun once more, she took her last shot as it began to throw itself upon her.

It exploded into a horrific smelling brown goo, most of which rained down upon Iris.

“Huh,” Lolly said as she and Victor looked down through the hole in the floor. “Hey Victor, remember when we first met and I said I thought your job sounded boring? I take that back.”

The two of them jumped down and rushed to Iris’s aid, who was standing nearly catatonically still.

“Iris, are you okay?” Victor asked as he handed her a towel he had grabbed from a nearby bathing tank.

“I’m covered in Slenderman guts for the third bloody time!” she screamed, but then took several deep breaths to regain her composure, dabbing the ichor off her face.

“Third time? When was the second?” Victor asked.

“I was at the Ikea once, long story,” she replied. “Scoop some of this stuff up, won’t you? It might be worth something.”

“Sure thing.”

“That was pretty awesome,” Lolly told her. “Sorry about your clothes though. That turtleneck is cashmere, isn’t it?”

“It’s fine, I have plenty of them,” she said.

“Remember: if you want to take it off, I won’t stop you.”

Iris wiped some ichor off her sweater and flicked it at Lolly.

“Well, you’re not sitting in my hovercraft covered in that stuff!”

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