|A Hero's Mask
Author: Lang Noi PM
WIP. Everything is a conspiracy. Sometimes, though, there are people conspiring on your side. A badly-confused and desperate Alex Mercer makes a deal with the darkness. Part 9 up. Read and review, please.Rated: Fiction M - English - Angst/Adventure - Chapters: 9 - Words: 53,014 - Reviews: 29 - Favs: 50 - Follows: 48 - Updated: 06-28-10 - Published: 02-01-10 - id: 5712487
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Chapter One: Deal With The Devil
Chapter One: Deal With The Devil
A/N: This will, in all likelihood, update faster than the other stories I'm working on. Why? [PROTOTYPE] is a short game, and I can work on this at school.
Borderline-telepathy is in bold.
Everything else is in varying levels of italics.
My name is Alex Mercer. They call me a killer. A monster. A terrorist. I'm all of these things.
But I'm also a brother. A friend. A comrade. A hero.
This is my story.
In the gloom below a burnt-out streetlight, a black shape picked its way through the rubble. It was of indeterminate size—its glowing yellow eyes seemed to bob up and down independent of its actual movement. Nonetheless, there was a clear impression of sharpness and spines—if you listened, you could almost hear bones snapping and flesh tearing under the strength of unseen jaws.
At about this time, a high-caliber bullet ripped through the shadows and the soldier heard something yowl. He laughed as the shot continued to echo through the deserted streets.
It should be said that this was a stupid thing to do. If the BlackWatch trooper had stopped to confer with his squadmates, he would have been informed of the mild-to-severe infestation of weird black monstrosities that didn't respond well to being shot at. Or he could have just turned around and noticed that the number of eye-reflections had gone from two to thirty.
But he didn't turn around, and he never got a chance to regret it. The pack of shadow-hounds swarmed all around, then leapt. They devoured him in seconds. Then they went back to feasting on the dozens of bullet-riddled bodies the BlackWatch patrol had left behind. They were the only scavengers who could eat Infected corpses freely, without even attracting the attention of the wandered hordes all around.
For the hyenas of a plague-infested Manhattan, life was good.
Two weeks ago…
It was either hideously early in the morning or unusually late at night when the GENTEK building experienced its third security breach in as many days. Like the last three, practically no one outside of the chain of command knew a thing before the excrement hit the rotating oscillator.
Near the building's outermost wall, a pack of shadow-hounds slunk around the confines of an empty road, hungry but unsure of where to go with so many terrible lights everywhere. They hated the lights of the city with a passion, especially the way it burned their sensitive hides. But there was no food…
What qualified as food for a shadow-hound was, essentially, anything they could corner in absolute darkness. Usually they ate things like rats, stray animals, and hobos, but there had been nothing out on the streets since the plague had hit only a few days ago. The rats had fled, the strays had died, and the hobos were inside buildings somewhere. That left them with nothing but trash when they craved live meat, and it drove them to desperation.
One of them, not particularly smart even among their kind, scrambled up the surface of a concrete wall to look over it, and it didn't mind the fact that razor wire seemed to be neatly severing its "skull." It managed to see a few things that it didn't immediately brush off as food/threat/thing. It saw a building—the GENTEK building, you idiot—and several humans.
Men in green? They were…they were pathologists. Disease-workers. Plague-finders. They seemed to be waiting for something, waving their arms. The sound of rotor blades filled the air. The shadow-hound turned its head up and spotted a helicopter descending from the night sky. Then it looked back at the courtyard below.
As it watched, a man stumbled from the building's front door, taking refuge briefly behind a delivery truck. The shadow-hound perked up—there was the scent of blood, but the injured one was still wandering around. Food. Its potential prey seemed more focused on the helicopter, though, so it looked over there, too.
The shadow-hound felt a strong rebuke from the other end of its collective intelligence. Its mistress was not happy with it, not at all. It cowered, pressing its head literally flat against the concrete.
Shut up. I don't want you going around eating humans again. You and yours cause enough trouble just existing. Now…let me see.
There were men dressed all in black—BlackWatch soldiers—standing in front of the helicopter now, arguing the pathologists.
Its mind was overridden as its mistress asserted her will. The combined being watched with interest as the BlackWatch soldiers gunned down the entire morgue staff and the man—black leather jacket, gray hood, jeans, decent shoes—tried to sneak past them shortly afterward. He didn't get far.
Well, duh, it/she thought. What does he expect to do? BlackWatch is smart, or at least not as stupid as the generic guarding-types should be. He's fucked. I really wish it wasn't this way…
"On alert—priority target!" Wait, priority? As in the umpteenth victim of the day is actually someone they've been assigned to kill? Hold on just one second—!
"Wait!" The shadow hound couldn't tell if the man was actually yelling anything, or if its mistress had planted the thought in its mind.
"Take him down!" They opened fire and the man's blood was splattered across the wall behind him as well as all across the concrete and he fell to his hands and knees.
"Hmurn…" the shadow-hound's mouth tried to say. No good. It couldn't form the words its mistress wanted. Its mouth was the wrong shape. What she wanted to do was call out a warning, because chances were that anything that did not flop to the ground dead after fifty rounds was not normal. But considering neither she nor her legions liked BlackWatch to any real degree, she wasn't sure who to root for in any case.
"…What's happening to me?" It/she heard the man half-scream, half-groan. Then he jerked his head to the left and, even though the soldiers hardly slowed their rate of fire even for a moment, He broke into a sudden, scrambling run. He leapt on top of a dumpster and jumped from there while the shadow-hound stared—the wall's twenty feet high!—and its head exploded as the man fell through where it had been.
Just as, several dozen blocks away and several tunnel systems below, the shadow-queen swore, the remaining members of the pack fanned out around the man, uttering almost subsonic growls. He didn't seem to notice them, not with the way he was breathing so hard that everything else was practically silence in comparison.
One of the pack members looked up as the helicopter's rotors became loud again. It backed away from the man to approach the wall in curiosity, and was the only one of its group to escape being vaporized by harsh white searchlights. Badly burned, it flattened itself against the wall, yowling, and could only watch as the man took off at something approaching a dead run, if stumbling every few seconds didn't count against him.
While the helicopter's spotlight was still trained on the street, it couldn't move. The shadow-hound felt its mistress speak. Wait. Stop. Track him.
Pack? it asked.
Yes, pack is here with me. Pack is waiting.
The lone shadow-hound whined. Pack not here.
It felt its mistress groan. Pack will come. Follow him.
This time, it didn't argue. As the spotlight moved away and the human leapt the fence at the end of the road, the shadow-hound gathered up its remaining strength and followed.
That was interesting. I wonder what went wrong in the GENTEK building.
Deep in the near-abandoned (since most people were rather edgy of a place associated with violent death as had occurred only a few days ago) subway tunnels of Manhattan, something huge stirred. Since the Penn Station incident less than three days ago, most people around the city had gone home ill. No one used the trains anymore, so that left the tunnels to whomever or whatever would claim them.
In the gloom, the shadows gained strength.
If someone had managed to accidentally wander this far into the tunnels with a flashlight or something similar, they would have been they would have been able to get a sense of slithering blackness all around them. Silent, sentient, and very, very patient. There would have been flashes of blue-black and deep purple as the light shifted, and occasional flickers of brilliant blood red, all seeming to just barely skitter out of the pool of light.
Then there would have been the eyes. Hundreds of glittering yellow eyes, reflecting the dim light, and one pair of pale blue, diamond-shaped eyes rising above the writhing horde, above a wicked white-fanged grin.
But no one had come down in a long time, so the conversation was conducted in total darkness and near-silence.
Ed, what do you think? the shadow-queen asked. It's only been a few days since the shooting at Penn Station and the sudden-onset 1918 flu season.
The creature designated "Ed" made a noise that was a cross between a trill, a coo, and a gurgle. Its head bobbed and its crooked antennae twitched as it made another, similar noise a moment later. But its mistress was no longer paying attention.
Who was killed at Penn Station? She was interrogating the collective memory of her thousands of minions by the time realization dawned on Ed. Images returned, fragmented by her followers' poor senses and intelligence, but functional. Black leather jacket. Gray hood. Denim. Glass. Blood.
Shots fired, shots fired…
He died there? But the omega of pack Three-Sixteen just saw him survive thirty gunshots! Something had clearly changed, and she, for one, was excited by the prospect. The idea of another possible superpowered being intrigued her far more than the recent disaster. She was suddenly intensely glad she had put the last shadow-hound, the beta of the destroyed pack, on the case. She would have her answers shortly.
Find out who he was, she told Ed sharply. Take as many hounds and bats as you need.
Ed bobbed his oversized head and melted into the darkness of the tunnel. She felt the old pack of the lone shadow-hound—now regenerated and back in top form—follow him. Her legions could never truly be killed, only temporarily destroyed and forced to return to her body, where all of them had been derived from. They would succeed.
GENTEK…GENTEK…what do we know about them?
She thought about his for some time, until her mental connection to the lone shadow-hound cut off with a snapping sensation. It had been destroyed.
As its body and mind were assimilated into her own, she caught fleeting impressions of light and sound and pain. And blood. Lots of blood.
The last tendril of the hound's independent life snaked downward into her dwelling from the surface, and then stayed taut like a fishing line. She tracked its length to an alley both high above her head and some distance across the island.
Whoever had killed her pet was still there and, curious, the shadow-queen followed the thread.
Several minutes earlier, the lone shadow-hound had been following the weakened human by slinking along the edges of bright lights and the shadows of anything it could find. This had involved ducking under cars as the man had leapt over them, crawling up the sides of buildings when the man decided to play merry-hell with the helicopters following him around, and finally dodging between the press of bodies as its target started to slow down.
With its rudimentary thought processes freed from its mistress's, it didn't recognize that the steady drip-drip of blood indicated that the man was dying. However, it did notice that something was off about the flesh-and-blood creature. He didn't smell human.
The man stumbled off into an alleyway, a shadow-hound's favorite lurking area. There was no other pack here, though, so there were no extra eyes or mouths.
The shadow-hound hid in the gloom behind a pile of trash and waited, watching as the man finally stopped stumbling and sank against a wall. He didn't move and still it watched with a mind like a camera, even noting clinically that there were indeed at least a dozen bleeding wounds in his chest.
The shadow-hound turned its head slightly at the sound of footsteps. Despite the fact that it didn't have any ears or even much in the way of a well-defined head, besides the jaws and eyes, it could hear the soldier's breathing as well. Must have been the gas mask.
It gave a subsonic growl. Even if this particular shadow-hound had never encountered a BlackWatch trooper personally, its link to other members of its kind was feeding information to it. BlackWatch operatives were Not Good.
It recognized the slow approach the soldier made. Fear. Caution. It recognized the weapon, too, but only as a gun. Humans pointed it and death came out. The barrel was pointed at the mad who now was leaning heavily against the brick wall, unresponsive. "Hostile sighted. Contact imminent."
Here the hound faced a dilemma. Its orders were to track. What was it supposed to do when its quarry was going to be killed by something else? The answer came quickly.
Tolerate no rivals. The shadow-hound surged into motion just as the BlackWatch soldier began to speak. It rushed in between the soldier and the fallen man in a black wave and, turning instantly, leapt.
The soldier fired and the shadow-hound's head exploded.
"What the fuck was that?" demanded the BlackWatch soldier after the beast's body began to drain away into the ground. It wasn't—it hadn't—what kind of—what the fuck?
"That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?" said a voice behind him. He turned and fired immediately at the sound, but there was no one there. Even the street beyond seemed deserted.
"Creepy, huh? You should probably see the shrink after this. Assuming you live that long." There it was again. It sounded female—low and taunting, though, and with an edge of malice.
"Fuck this," he growled. He turned and very deliberately put a round into his original target's forehead. The body jerked and slumped, blood splattering the brick behind it. Turning back around in search of the voice from before, he pulled out his radio and started to contact the rest of his squad. "Tango down. Terminated."
He didn't see his target stand up. He didn't even know that the last round had been far from fatal until he was grabbed from behind. He had about enough to yell in sudden panic, and he wasn't aware of much after that. This was because his head was near-instantly smashed against the pavement and his neck snapped.
The shadow-queen watched with interest as tentacles sprouted from the hooded man's back and the BlackWatch operative was—for lack of any better word—dragged inside. It reminded her of an extremely morbid and rather grotesque plant of some sort. Or an octopus.
With her body melded to the wall's shadows and the glow from her eyes extinguished, she was practically invisible even when she allowed her head to materialize some twenty feet off the ground. If the hooded man decided to look directly up at that moment, he would have seen here, but he didn't. Too bad.
It had been almost fun to non-lethally delay the trooper. She hadn't expected the tentacles, though. My, my, my, what interesting toys GENTEK has developed. A new super-soldier program, then? Except…no, that doesn't quite fit. If it's that, why doesn't this monster have a uniform?
I'll just have to observe. Undoubtedly I'm not the only one interested.
Just then, she found that Ed was trying to contact her, clawing at one edge of her senses like an annoying Chihuahua at a bedroom door. As the only truly independent shadow-creature she had, she trusted his judgment more than that of the others. He seemed to be in the GENTEK building's morgue, if the blast of cold and stark lighting were any hint. The room seemed empty.
Did you find anything?
He had. A clipboard, flung halfway across the room, resting in the shadows with papers everywhere. His little clawed hands settled on one.
Mercer, Alexander J. Next-of-kin: Mercer, Dana A., she read. Then Ed seemed to lose interest and crawl off. Damn it, Ed, you're supposed to be the smart one! She tried to ask him where Dana lived, but it was no use. He couldn't read and had apparently decided to go rogue for a while.
Well, I'll just have to follow him. Ed, come home. I need you for something more interesting.
Ed sent a vaguely questioning thought back.
The others…have them look in on BlackWatch headquarters. Spy on them. I think they need to be reined in a bit, don't you?
Following Mercer was easy enough. He didn't make much of an effort to be stealthy, for one thing. With Ed slinking along after him from less than ten feet away and a pack of shadow-hounds trailing still further behind, it would be impossible to lose him. Probably.
He was fast, though, she'd give him that. Far faster than any man had a right to be on foot. It's kind of funny, really. Here I am, commanding my legions to trail him like a pack of enamored fans and I haven't a damn clue what for. Hooray. It just proves that I'm stupid.
Ed, hide yourself in his shadow. He'll get in an elevator eventually, if he doesn't just scale the damn walls like some other mutant I could mention, and I'll need you to tell me which floor he'll choose. Don't get killed.
Ed sent a wave of wordless befuddlement back. He wanted to know why, more than anything.
Interesting things don't happen every day, silly. That's why they're exciting. A relief from the tedium of our everyday lives!
Ed protested—he, of course, liked tedium. It was safe.
Shut up. Just do exactly as I say and you won't be in any danger.
Ed gave a mental sigh and scurried off to do as his mistress asked. She asked a lot, sometimes.
I heard that. Don't make me squash you.
She watched through Ed's eyes as Mercer damn near kicked down the door to one apartment. She watched as the BlackWatch soldier inside, who held a woman hostage, had his throat stabbed clean through by a vicious punch from the hooded man. She watched as Mercer tried to comfort the blue-eyed brunette, as she flinched despite calling him her brother, and the shadow-queen grinned to herself in the shadows far below. Well then, I'll leave them alone. Oh puppies, where have you been?
Her hounds reported back to her that BlackWatch was already moving in. Damn, that was quick. They must all stay in constant radio contact. Well then, slow them down. Make them waste bullets. If his earlier performance is any hint, Mercer will eat them alive anyway—probably literally—but his sister is not bulletproof. You are. Now, go!
Less than a minute later, she could hear gunfire through her link to Ed's mind. Predictably, the Mercer siblings took off running. With her shadow-hounds fighting BlackWatch off less than ten feet from the front entrance to the apartment complex, they would probably be taking the fire escape.
She melted away into the ground, job complete.
It wasn't long before she discovered that the Mercers had escaped into the city's drainage system. Admittedly, she had been in the process of heading back to her underground lair anyway—none of her creatures could survive for long in direct sunlight—but this was just too perfect. She silently ordered her legions to stop the pair from leaving, but to otherwise leave them alone. Her nearest pack of shadow-hounds reported that they didn't seem to be in a rush. Just a precaution, she told them.
Ed, come here. I know you don't want to be there. You never did like hanging out with people you didn't know. She felt the tiny shadow merge with the damp darkness and speed on his way to rejoin her. It only took an instant for her to welcome him back into the fold. Now it was only a matter of finding a form appropriate to greet the visitors.
Still, I wish this wasn't so hard. I must be out of practice. I mean, I can't even remember the last time I had legs. Forcing a shape to the darkness was something only possible in the light. Regardless, she tried to confine her dimensions to a reasonably-sized humanoid shape. It wouldn't hold for long—she had spent too long away from direct sunlight to really remember what shape she was supposed to have—but it would do for now. It was a rush-job, after all.
She found Ed among her pets and picked him up. As usual, he shook.
She pulled on one of his antennae. Calm down, stupid. They couldn't hurt us if they tried, she said silently. He didn't stop twitching, though, not even as they both approached the pair of intruders into their sunless domain.
Dana came to a stop near the dead-end that seemed to be the only dry place in the underground. She sank against one wall of the tunnel, panting. Only when she sat down did her breathing slow at all.
"I need your help." Alex said quietly, trying not to scare her again. Dana shook her head, hugging her knees.
"Jesus…I knew something fucked-up was happening at GENTEK—what the hell happened to you, Alex?" She said it very quickly, almost despairing.
He could only shrug helplessly. If he couldn't remember what had happened to him before waking up in the morgue, how could he be expected to remember what had happened to him? His memories were limited to exactly half a second before the pathologists had run out, screaming for someone to kill him. Everything before that was a complete blank, the memories of the two devoured BlackWatch soldiers notwithstanding.
Dana went on, almost in a rant, "I've been researching that whole fucked-up organization for weeks, poking around to get you information." Her voice became desperate. "Don't you remember? You wanted to find out what was going on at the highest levels of GENTEK. Anything about the director of research."
There was a brief flash of a memory—an ID badge. Raymond McMullen…
"Are you okay?" Dana asked.
"Congratulations, it's the Daily Double. Would you like me to attempt to answer that for you, or would you like to try for yourself?" Both of the Mercer siblings jumped at the sound of that voice. It had a wavering, echoing quality that gave the impression that the speaker was at the bottom of a well. Alex stepped into the center of the tunnel and felt, rather than saw, Dana get up to stand behind him.
This end of the tunnel was a dead end. Even with the light of coming from the storm drain overhead, he couldn't see much. Except for the eyes.
There were two glowing eyes there, just hanging in the darkness about five and a half feet in the air, over a faint glint that indicated a mouth filled with needle-like teeth. As he watched, the "face" seemed to get closer. Then a second set of eyes, these ones yellow and at about waist height, became visible. Dana grabbed his arm.
"Jesus…" Alex breathed. For a minute, he could forget that he was apparently a monster in his own right. Whoever this other person was, she was freakier.
"No, I'm not a religious experience, but it's nice of you to say so." The grin widened. "Hello there."
"Who the hell are you?" Alex demanded. What the hell are you?
"Inky," the specter said, giggling. "It's a lie, of course, but that's all you get."
"Okay…Inky…what are you?" Alex ventured.
"I'm an enemy. Your enemy? Maybe." Had to be female. The giggling gave it away if nothing else did. "Don't be so suspicious!" Then he felt something poke his nose.
What. The. Hell. He watched what he assumed was her arm pull back—Jesus, it was fifteen feet long!—around the shaft of light and disappear into the darkness on the other side. "What the fu-?!"
"Shh!" she—uh, Inky—hissed sharply. Alex looked up when he heard helicopters passing by overhead. Then he looked back and saw Inky staring at him. He could see something like fog moving in the shadows and suppressed a shudders. Just unnerving.
"We're going to need to get out of here." Dana said quietly. "I know a place we can use."
"Okay." Alex said, and he looked back at Inky. He growled at her, "Move."
The shadows shifted and Inky's face disappeared. "No. I don't think so."
Alex felt a surge of frustration, but Dana spoke up first. "Why not?"
The little set of yellow eyes dropped to floor level. After a moment or two, a shape crawled into view on the edge of the light.
A "shape" was the best way to describe the little creature. It was less than a foot tall, with a head larger than its body and stumpy little limbs that hardly supported it. It had a pair of ribbon-like antennae with at least three kinks in each, as well as a wide mouth with craggy suggestions of teeth. It purred and the darkness twisted behind it. Dana stared.
"Both of you are wanted by BlackWatch. One possible hostage, one possible guinea pig." Inky said. Her voice was much lower now, seeming to fall on their ears like a crypt door slamming. "You might say I have a bone to pick with them."
Tendrils of purplish-black fog began to creep around the lighted area. Alex and Dana both backed away out of reflex. Though his sister gripped his left arm, Alex could feel his right arm spasm and try to reorganize into something deadly.
Inky's voice seemed to lower further still. "I did notice that they seem to hate you quite a bit more than normal. Given how many times you were shot, you shouldn't be breathing."
"Alex? What's she talking about?" Dana asked cautiously. She let go of his arm and faced him squarely.
How does she know? "Dana, I—" Hell, I don't even know what happened! "I think it's a side effect of…all this." He shrugged, and black and red waves of…something pulsed up and down his arms.
"Your musculature is shifting," said Inky. "Fascinating."
Alex looked at the moving dark. "You know what this is?"
"Sort of." Inky said vaguely. "I've looked at a few top secret files in my day, but I never had any real reason to do proper snooping." Something swished in the darkness and her face reappeared on the edge of the circle. "I could, though." The grin was back.
"Alex." Dana said it in a tone that came out as a warning.
"What are you offering?" Alex asked, ignoring her.
"Three things, really. One, if you accept my deal, Ed can fight off anyone who tries to hurt your sister, in case you're off somewhere." At this, the yellow-eyed creature purred. "Two, a military alliance. I'm willing to fight alongside you if I have a chance. And three," here, she grinned, "I can supply information as needed, to a certain degree. In return, well, you'll see. It's not anything you wouldn't end up doing anyway."
"Alex, this doesn't sound like a good idea." Dana whispered.
"Oh, it's not." Inky said playfully. "But since Dr. Alex J. Mercer will most likely be declared a terrorist within a few days, I don't think you have a whole lot of other options."
A terrorist? What the hell did I—? "You're going to tell me everything." Alex growled. The tendrils shifted along his entire body.
"Maybe. Do we have a deal?" Inky asked, and he saw a claw-like hand extend into view.
He felt like he was making a deal with the devil. "Yes."
The hand reached into the light, and as it did so Alex saw the shadow mass burn and shrivel in the sunlight. Inky herself followed, her entire body bubbling and writhing, which made it impossible to tell what she looked like beyond "sort of human, but as if adrift in a fog. Or black fire." As the blackness began to dissipate like so much tar, Inky's hand became normal. Sort of tanned on the back, with lots of freckles.
Alex shook her hand even as the darkness leapt up and swallowed them all.
Typed this in less than two days because inspiration struck and I already have like five chapters written up…
Anyway, this is what I'm messing with while Pieces of Eden refuses to get written.