Ombres Malvants: 4) Blackout

« Green Recruit | Ombres Malvants | … to be continued »

rating: +18+x

The shadows in the alley were ink. Tomàs was drowning.

The young woman's comatose weight dragged him downwards. He shouldn't leave her, but he couldn't afford to be found like this. He had to find the people who had done this to her. Tomàs' spinning thoughts immobilised him.

"You know, I think this means you're not getting lucky tonight after all."

The woman's voice sliced knife-like through his mental bonds. Speaking English, an American accent. Tomàs couldn't see her. He turned to search, letting the unconscious woman slide to the ground.

"I hope that's not how you treat all women, Tomàs, or we're not going to get along."

There - rising from the step in front of a darkened doorway. She was tall, maybe taller than him. Lank brown hair with a streak of cheap-looking pink through it, framing dark eyes that shone with feverish light.

"How did you know - ? You were eavesdropping," said Tomàs, realising. How much had she heard?

The woman shambled towards him, gangling in ripped jeans and a t-shirt that read "Nomeansno". Something about her looked almost familiar.

"We don't have time for fucking around, Tomàs," she said. "My name is Veronica. You're going to help me."

"What do you mean?" asked Tomàs. Then, "Wait, you're in that band, right? I saw you in the paper."

Veronica waved him away. "I told you, we don't have time. I saw your little 'performance' on La Rambla, and I've seen enough to know that razor-shadow you torched was no special effect. Whoever you and she work for, whatever you're doing, you're trapped in the same shit as me. So you're going to help."

Frowning, Tomàs considered his options, none of them good. "Help you with what?" he said finally.

"To hunt the fuckers who took my girlfriend." Veronica's jaw clenched, sharpening the words to hard edge.

She was already heading for the deeper darkness of the alley. A witness - Tomàs had to keep tabs on her until he could get amnestics. And maybe she had information he could use. He looked back at the woman's body slumped on the ground.

Veronica saw the look as she turned. "You're an agent, she said. Can you call this in?"

Tomàs shook his head.

"Then don't use your phone. I'll ring an ambulance on our way."

Things were moving too fast. "On our way where?"

"To the last place I saw Ashy. The place those assholes put a green patch on her arm. To Apagada."

The club was packed. Bodies pulsed in flashes of blinding white. Waves of abyssal bass deepened the darkness. Tomàs felt both: palpable noise and writhing limbs.

Veronica was leading him further into the maelstrom. Her story, told in jagged shards on their walk, made little sense, but he understood enough. She was seeking the same men as he was. Pursuing them. If he was driven, she was a fanatic. She pushed through the crowd's gyrations like a juggernaut.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a familiar face. Joan. He had been here with Tomàs and the others, the night Raf was murdered. He stood by the wall, opposite the bar.

Tomàs grabbed Veronica's arm, and she spun as if to strike him. The strobes amplified the intensity in her eyes. Tomàs held up a hand, then pointed towards Joan and pulled her along.

They squeezed out of the press in front of Joan, who was rocking drunkenly with the music's pulse. Veronica looked at his rough-shaven face and glanced skeptically at Tomàs. It was impossible to explain to her - everything was too loud. He tried to yell an introduction, but he could barely hear himself. Joan gave a snaggle-toothed grin, then leaned forward, putting a hand on Veronica's shoulder as he shouted something into her ear. To Tomàs' surprise, Veronica laughed. Joan chuckled, his paunch quivering under a too-tight shirt. Then he turned, beckoning, and they followed him through a staff door.

In the hallway beyond, the bass throb was lessened. Joan kept moving, leading them through a storeroom and down concrete stairs bleached by buzzing fluorescent bulbs. Tomàs hadn't realised that he worked at the club, but he supposed his sister must have mentioned it. She was better at keeping up with family.

At the bottom of the third flight was a bare room with several doors. Joan was about to open one, when Tomàs reached out to stop him. Joan's arm was warm, from the swarming club, or perhaps the alcohol.

"Joan, we can talk here," said Tomàs. "You work at the club, right? We need to ask you some questions."

Veronica was pacing like a caged tiger. "What is the trade here like? Do you know the dealers? What do they sell? How big is the crew?"

Joan cocked his head to one side, the movement exaggerating the wide set of his eyes. "Aim of brine woe forget ache, yeoman dust glimmering broken air."

"Sure, but how do you know where they've taken Ashy?" asked Veronica.

"Young boxed bled boy worms ago, callow begged. Ashes walk boon yes - all why welling." The lights flickered, buzzing. Cousin Joan looked at Tomàs expectantly.

"How many of them are there?" Tomàs pressed. "Do we need Xavi?"

"Skin bout wax able adopt. Zones wily arm ax broad ass been addle winter." Joan gave a rough guffaw, and again Veronica laughed along.

"Come on then, asshole," she said. She grinned at Joan, but with steel behind it. "Let's get those fuckers."

As they went ahead, Tomàs felt a sudden misgiving. Inexplicable, but unmistakable. Should he just go back up, call this in to his training supervisors? He shook off the feeling, rubbing his eyes for good measure. This was his anomaly to investigate. This was how he could make his mark. And he wasn't about to let Veronica go in there alone. He hurried after her.

The further they walked, the tighter the passage became. Tomàs hadn't noticed the shift from hallway to tunnel, but now the walls were rough, the air clammy. They crept forward single file, blindly. The last of Tomàs' phone battery was reserved for more important things than torchlight; how Joan could navigate he had no idea. Yet his cousin pressed onward, ignoring turnings, following the slope downwards. No-one had spoken for twenty minutes. Save for their footsteps, the only noise was an occasional muted fluttering, like unseen wings.

Joan gave a grunt from the blackness, and Veronica echoed a muttered warning. The walls ahead constricted further. Tomàs turned sideways, shuffling with his back pressed against the rock. The opposite surface was hidden in the dark, but he felt its closeness in the wash of his own hot breath reflected from stone.

Progress was slow, and the narrow crack stretched endlessly. Tomàs felt his muscles tense with the need for space. He thought he could hear Veronica ahead of him, but was that just his own movement echoing back? Tomàs reached ahead, but found only the same implacable hardness. He could feel the weight of it, on all sides, above him. Something dripped onto the nape of his neck, and wetness slid down his back. Tomàs tried to slow his breathing.

A sharp cry from ahead. Veronica. Tomàs rushed, knees and elbows rasping on the harsh surface. Then his lead arm swung in empty space, and he cried out too. After the passage, the openness felt like falling, and he collapsed to his knees on the cavern floor. Veronica was there too: a sudden glow from her phone showed her breathless but recovering. Beyond, Joan stood unmoving, watching them intently. The phone's light went out, and Tomàs saw only blackness and a phosphorescent afterimage in the shape of a man.

Then he heard it.

Something else was in the lightless chamber with them. A scrabbling of claws on rock. Throaty panting, on the verge of a growl. Tomàs and Veronica, trying to pinpoint its source, inched unconsciously closer to Joan.

A second noise spun them around. This was a wet flapping, inarguably separate from the first. And then a third: a drawn-out hiss, like a kettle almost boiling.

From closer to them came a deep rattling. In confusion, Tomàs imagined Joan with a football clacker, trying to scare off whatever had them surrounded. The creatures were unperturbed. Tomàs could hear them circling.

"Weave bull babe atop aught womb." Joan's voice was terse.

Tomàs backed closer to the others. "How, when we can't see them?"

"Apt as works, which, why bun yet yours bus brine." Joan gave a sudden stamp, and something near his feet skittered away. Tomàs listened to it wheel back in, closer.

"Fuck that," said Veronica. Her phone's dim screen lit up her face, determination leavening her fear. "Let's see what we're dealing with."

She flicked on the torch at the moment of the attack. The monstrosity darting at them screeched, a dozen eyes squinting as it swung out of the beam and into the dark. Tomàs had the impression of a hooked beak, a scaly tail and heavy paws - a madman's chimera.

A squeal echoed from behind them, and Joan answered with another clattering bellow. The torchlight swung crazily as Veronica bent over, dropping the phone. Then the second creature sprang at Tomàs' throat.

Sightless, his hands came up instinctively. The weight threw Tomàs to the floor of the cave. He pushed desperately against a feathered neck as slavering jaws snapped at his face. A forked tongue lapped at his closed eyes. Claws tore his clothes as the beast writhed and rolled. There was a clacking noise, as dozens of scorpion claws along the thing's jawline nipped at his hands, trying to dislodge his grip.

Something wet and muscular coiled around Tomàs' neck. His hand pulled at a suckered tentacle, wrapped tight and constricting like a python. With only one arm to fend it off, the creature's weight pressed down. Tomàs gulped for air, gaining none. The maw lunged, and he wrenched his head desperately aside. Bright spots swam behind his eyelids. The tentacle cinched harder.

A heavy impact flung the chimera off him. Tomàs heaved as air filled his lungs. His neck felt raw where the suckers had been ripped away. He realised that the torchlight was steady again, Cousin Joan looming over him in silhouette. Joan stepped over Tomàs, to where the creature had hit the rock wall. It made a high mewling noise. Joan kicked it again, hard, and there was silence.

Veronica turned the torch around. Another of the predator mongrels, lion-maned and bat-winged, lay in the centre of the cavern. Veronica bent over it, pulling a slim knife from its chest and sliding it into her boot. She met Tomàs' gaze with a shake of her head, and raised her phone high. On the far side of the chamber was what remained of the third animal. A mess of crab claws and snake heads, it had been torn almost in half.

Tomàs saw Veronica stare at Joan for a second. "There was another one, but it ran," was all she said.

"All asps bonding ever wits. Win assay bees."

"Shit on that," snapped Tomàs. "How is splitting up ever a good idea?"

"Boy and bathing, womb." Joan strode towards a tunnel entrance, leaving the circle of torchlight.

Veronica called after the retreating shadow. "You know, Johnny, I meant it - you are an asshole!"

There was no reply. They stood in a cave full of dead things.

After a moment, Tomàs gathered his thoughts. "Wait a second. Why did you call him Johnny?"

"Because he's my asshole cousin," said Veronica. "I've always called him that."

Stomach churning, Tomàs replied slowly. "No, his name is Joan. It's Catalan for John, because he's my cousin. What made you think -"

"No, he's here for the -" Veronica tailed off at the same time.

"I don't think we should wait for him," said Tomàs, with a shiver.

"That's the first smart thing you've said all night." Veronica was already heading for an opening on the opposite wall.

The tunnels kept sloping gently downwards, but these were wider than before, with a hint of movement in the air. Tomàs risked a little more of his phone battery. Without reception, he had no access to the full Foundation database, but the abridged version on the device itself was more than enough. 'Cousin Johnny' turned up a hit, and Tomàs read the summary in disbelief. Keter-class, mind-affecting, infiltrating religious occasions.

"Perhaps that's the reason for violence at all those funerals," he said aloud.

Veronica turned around. "Cousin - you mean the Johnny-thing? Is it fae?"

Tomàs was too exhausted to try to maintain the Veil now. "Fae? You mean like faeries?"

"They can draw power from ceremonies, from rituals," said Veronica. "I don't know what you're reading, but I told you, I have some … experience in this area."

Scanning through the rest of the page, Tomàs exhaled slowly. "No, this seems to be something else. Different, ancient maybe. It seems centered on Catholic liturgies. Jesus, perhaps it's here for Raf's funeral! Although, there was some sort of fight at your concert too, right?"

"No, that was … that was a more specific thing."

"Hey!" said Tomàs, shutting down his phone. His voice sounded pinched. "Perhaps you'd like to be a little more honest with me. If we're going to get out of here -"

"That's rich, from the man who won't tell me who he's working for," Veronica interrupted. She stopped dead, squaring up to him. "If you want honesty, you could try being less of a hyp -"

"Ssh!" Tomàs put a hand on Veronica's arm. With the phone off, his eyes had adjusted. Behind her, in the distance, a light flickered.

They stayed frozen for an age, but the light did not move. There was no sound from either direction. Without speaking, they stretched stiffening limbs and stepped cautiously towards the light.

It was an old oil lantern, on the floor of another rough-cut chamber. Pressed into the shadows of the tunnel, Tomàs risked a glance inside. He leaned close to Veronica's ear, speaking as quietly as he could, her hair tickling his nose.

"A cell. Bars, dark, can't see inside. One guard. No exits."

Veronica pulled away, eyes hard as she gestured back the way they had come.

"No," Tomàs continued. "Guard must know something. We need information. Follow me."

Without looking back, he strode towards the light, then sprinted across the small room. Before the guard could do more than stand, Tomàs barreled into the his midsection, throwing him backwards. The guard's head clanged off the bars of the unlit cell, and Tomàs shot a hand over the man's mouth as he slumped to the ground, dazed. Landing his weight on the guard's right side, Tomàs was relieved when Veronica arrived to grab the man's other arm. Her hand held the knife before the guard's eyes to make sure he saw it, then pressed the blade to his neck.

"Call for help and you're dead, understand?" said Tomàs, kneeling in front of the man as he ceased struggling.

The guard looked at him and blinked in acknowledgement.

"Okay, I'm going to remove my hand, and you're going to - quietly - answer my questions."

"Oh, I cannot think that this imbecile has anything of interest to share."

A gloved hand snaked from between the bars of the cell, grasping the guard's neck. Veronica pulled the knife away with a yelp as the man collapsed. She and Tomàs looked up to see a black-robed figure towering above them. The cultured voice had come from a long-beaked mask the colour of bone.

"Certainly my conversational attempts with him had been thoroughly tedious," the figure continued, "and the local bastardisation of French and Spanish is cumbersome to pronounce. I hope very much that you two understand English." It stood still, sharp eyes watching them closely from behind the mask.

Tomàs was the first to recover from the shock. Only now he saw that the chamber was hung with sprigs of lavender. He rose slowly. "Who - what - are you?"

"My profession, sir? Medicine. At which, I flatter myself, I have no small skill." The mask was fixed, but the voice was warm.

"Then you are responsible for all those squirrels, and those women who were drugged. For the pills I found, for the patches."

"Pills?" the doctor exclaimed, drawing himself to full height. "You do me dishonour. I am no mere purveyor of powders and ointments! You seek an apothecary, sir. I am a surgeon!"

"A plague doctor," said Veronica. Realisation dawned, and she stepped back suddenly from the body on the floor. "What did you do to him?"

"An unfortunate necessity, dear madam," said the doctor, seeming to recover his equanimity. "Although I presume by your actions that you did not wish him well! Still, be assured that he can do you no harm. And it seems that we may have a mutual interest."

Tomàs tried to regain his composure. Another anomaly, it seemed. At least this one didn't come disguised as family.

"What interest might that be?" he said cautiously.

"Why, in my work, sir - in my release! That man's associates had offered to assist me with human subjects for my research, but I'm afraid their previous hospitality has rather ceased. And this despite all of my progress with animals."

"Animals?" asked Veronica, and Tomàs knew what she was thinking. "What kind of animals?"

"Why, every kind," replied the doctor. "Animals are extremely useful for analysis and refinement of technique. I believe my erstwhile patrons wished me to impart to them a method for the partial severance of the soul from the body, but after I had finished with the squirrels, I was keen to show them that I am not solely a vivisectionist. No, my friends, the true art of the surgeon is in reattachment. And I have supplied them with excellent examples of the art."

Tomàs thought of the shape behind the door in the room of medicines, and of the creatures that had attacked them in the caves. He shuddered.

The doctor seemed oblivious to their slow retreat from the bars. "I do not detect the Pestilence in either of you," he said, then gave Veronica a second look. "There is something, perhaps, but … no, not the Pestilence. I would be most obliged if you would consent to release me from this -" the cloaked arms gestured, "- inconvenience. Perhaps I can be of service in return?"

"Do you know how to find the men who put you here?" Veronica was studiously ignoring Tomàs' look.

"Almost certainly. If you just retrieve the keys from this unfortunate gentleman, I will collect my bag and we can be on our way." The beaked face glanced toward the back of the cell.

"How can we trust you?" shot back Tomàs.

"What is it about you men that you are always so suspicious?" The doctor seemed not to require an answer. "Always trying to control everything. You should allow for uncertainty - experimentation is the essence of scientific progress."

Now it was Veronica's turn to shoot a look at Tomàs. "Forgive my colleague, sir. I can see that your intentions are honourable. If you get your belongings, we will offer your liberty."

"Most obliged, dear madam." The tall figure bowed deeply, then turned and walked into the darkness in the back of the cell.

"What the hell are you doing?" whispered Tomàs. The smell of the lavender was thick on his tongue, cloying. He felt almost dizzy.

"We're lost underground, everyone else we've met is trying to kill us, and he seems to have a grudge against the same people we're looking for."

"Veronica, in this case I suspect the enemy of my enemy is a lunatic." Tomàs kept both eyes on the bars, waiting for the doctor's reemergence.

"Call it the Eisenhower principle. At the very least, those bastards aren't going to be happy with him running around loose."

"Then - here, at least take some lavender. The amount they've left in here, it has to be some kind of charm."

Before Tomàs could say any more, Veronica knelt and took the keys from the dead guard's belt. She remained kneeling for a second longer, eyes closed.

"Are you okay?"

"Yes, just offering a short prayer in case anyone can hear us down here. If you're on speaking terms with g-d, you might want to do the same."

Veronica rose and walked to the cell. Tomàs thought for a second. He had been told that he would receive divine help when he was in need. He prayed that was true.

The keys clanked in the lock. As if called, the white mask came into the light.

"Ah, thank you," said the doctor. He walked through the door of the cell as it opened. "Now perhaps we can be properly introduced. I haven't yet met your other friend."

"The violence parades. Without the bankrupt declines a unused damned."

Tomàs and Veronica spun. In the tunnel opening stood Cousin Johnny. He looked at them blandly.

The doctor was the first to speak. "This fellow appears to speak a dialect with which I am unfamiliar." He walked towards Johnny, and the curved beak dipped and rose as he eyed up the new arrival. "You, sir, are a unique specimen, I believe. No trace of the Pestilence at all, but … hmm. Have you ever considered offering your body for the advancement of knowledge?"

Johnny ignored him. "A rabid standpoint explodes within a software."

"What does he say?" asked the doctor, turning to Veronica.

"He -" for a second, she faltered. "He said he can show us what we're looking for."

Cocked to the side, the masked face had an even more birdlike aspect. "And you see no reason not to follow him?"

Both Veronica and Tomàs were silent.

"Then I suppose we shall do so," said the doctor. "Lead on, good man."

The black hand reached out and grasped Cousin Johnny's bare arm. The movement was casual, but Tomàs' breath caught in his throat. Johnny stood still, and turned his head slowly towards the plague doctor, the neck turning slightly too far. A ripple seemed to run over his rough features, and he gave a slow blink.

The doctor dropped his hand and took a step back. "Forgive my presumption, sir," he said, head bobbing in confusion.

Cousin Johnny turned back, and walked into the tunnel. Tomàs could see Veronica take the deep breath she had been holding. The doctor wrung his hands, then picked up his black bag and followed. Veronica and Tomàs looked at each other, then did the same.

Johnny set a rapid pace through the dark passages. They hurried to keep up, the doctor murmuring to himself, the others silent. Tomàs recognised the chamber where Cousin Johnny had left them, but of the creatures there was no sign. Before he could investigate, they were in another shaft.

Tomàs felt a tightness in his stomach. What the hell had was he doing? Even the illusion of control of this situation was long gone. He wished he had searched the guard for a weapon.

The air felt warm, and again there was light ahead. Their speed quickened. Almost inaudible, Tomàs heard a low droning sound, like the echo of a voice or distant machinery.

They emerged into a huge cave, lit harshly by halogen floodlights on stands. A vaulted roof soared upwards, lost in night. The floor beneath was carved flagstones, broad and flat. The lights were facing inwards in a wide semi-circle, leaving the expanse beyond them shadowed. Then Veronica gave a stifled scream, and Tomàs realised what they were lighting.

White marble slabs, maybe fifty of them. Atop each lay the body of a woman. Veronica ran towards them, and Tomàs followed.

As they drew closer, the women became more distinct. No-one older than thirty, but otherwise no discernible connection. Tomàs saw several who looked like locals, wearing clothes for a night out. An Asian girl who looked very young indeed. A redhead in an Irish rugby shirt. With a shock, Tomàs recognised the woman on the next plinth - it was Anna, Raf's missing girlfriend. She must -

"Ashy!" Veronica cried. She ran towards the centre of the bodies, clutching at a willowy blonde in a silver dress. Tears smudged the dirt and makeup on her cheeks.

Tomàs was starting towards her, when something caught his eye. The woman lying nearest to him was dressed in a uniform, one that he recognised. "Diego" was the name across the pocket. There was no other insignia, but this was definitely a Foundation MTF agent!

"Tomàs, she's breathing!" called Veronica, relief cracking her voice.

"They all are!" Tomàs looked around, and noticed something else the women had in common. He rolled up Agent Diego's sleeve. "On their arms, Veronica - the green patch." He ripped off Diego's, and saw Veronica do the same for Ashy.

Behind them, the plague doctor strode into the light. His voice sounded ecstatic. "I was mistaken! My captors did not betray me. These are to be my subjects!"

Tomàs' face went cold, but his fears were cut off as a new voice sounded from the opposite side of the cavern.

"Not quite."

An animal control noose dropped over the doctor's shoulders and pulled tight. The robed figure struggled, but he was pushed forward by two men holding a metal pole to which the noose was attached.

Tomàs turned slowly towards the voice, and saw more men approaching from all sides. Young men, mostly, but some older. They were dressed plainly, as if they had walked in from the streets above, but their faces were smug, their eyes avid.

At the top of the semi-circle of lights was a broad dais. On it, lit in the razor-glow of halogen, was the man who had spoken. He wore a tailored suit without a tie, and his black hair was immaculate. On his right was the man with the spiked hair, glaring at Tomàs. From behind, Cousin Johnny climbed the steps onto the dais, rolled his neck slowly, and walked to the man's other side. They paused for a second in tableau.

"Tomàs Rey," said the man in the suit. "Veronica Fitzroy. I'm so glad that you were able to join us here."

He looked Tomàs in the eyes.

"You're just in time for the wedding."

(To be continued)

It looks like the Original Character Tournament might still be running? In any case, you can read my competitors' tales here:

Go check out the Tournament hub, and read some other entries. I've really enjoyed participating, and will look to finish off this story as soon as I can!

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