Cordyceps

By Black Waltz 0

There was a hole in his guts.

He couldn't remember how it had happened but something had pierced through his shirt and into his main vitalus tank, like a spear thrust, or a bullet blast. The organs inside were still okay, he felt, but… but…

Thick vitalus fluid poured out of him and down his midsection and legs, pooling between his feet like a slow river of cold cough syrup. He had tried to scoop up whatever he could catch sluicing down his front with his hands, trying to push it back inside the ragged hole between shallow breaths, but he could not contain it. It just spilled out between his fingers. He groaned.

Before he could staunch the bleeding any further Formaldehyde's tanks slowly emptied. Were empty. Empty like a hollow shell. He lurched violently to the side, panting heavily, clenching his fists. He muttered in delirium for a few more moments and then gradually faded out, sinking into the sweet lullaby pang of impending hunger.

He experienced brief darkness for a time. It wasn't long, more like a quick nap in the middle of a warm afternoon, then…

His lover Yasty Silverbush, a young aurin scientist specializing in mosses and lichen had once told him about a strain of fungi native to Arboria and many other habitable planets; something called arboreitae cordyceps. It was parasitic in nature, infecting a host arthropod and manipulating the creature's motor functions in order to complete its reproductive cycle. "Similar to the squirg." He had said, in understanding.

She had hummed noncommittally at that, unconvinced. "Yeah, I guess, but…"

"What is it?"

"They're only the same on the surface. The squirg eat your brains and you're dead within the hour, but creatures infected with arboreitae cordyceps…" She had given him a cute little aurin smile at that. "They're still alive for a long time. Still conscious, but they're just along for the ride now until it's time to die."

Formaldehyde awoke.

He was crouched on the floor of his bedroom in the dark. The nearby lamp seemed to be smashed, the room was ransacked from top to bottom and his hands and arms stung, crushed broken glass stuck between his fingers and his nails. He felt burning hunger and unbridled bloodlust like a heat within himself but it felt disconnected somehow, disjointed, like feeling the warmth of a campfire while standing several yards away. He could think clearly, quite well actually, despite the sense of hunger and the pain. He was merely confused, he couldn't remember how he had gotten over here, and the grey vitalus that had spilled out earlier a darkness ago was already almost dry on his clothes and skin.

None of this made any sense but then he rose suddenly, swaying on his feet as if the act of standing and walking were unfamiliar to him now. His arms swung about with him like hanging meat, the usual dexterity in his limbs all but gone. Oh no. No. Coldness gripped his already dead heart, and yet Formaldehyde growled like an animal; an animal on the hunt.

He could not move his body. It had moved entirely by itself.

That growl had not been his; those hands hooked into talons were not the result of his brain's own issued commands. He was but an armless legless pilot locked out of his own body's control by an overzealous, malevolent autopilot.

The moan that slipped out between his lips he had heard a thousand times before.

In Everstar Grove.

In Grimhold.

Upon the planet Grismara, many years ago.

'No!' Formaldehyde wailed inside himself, but his vocal chords were silent. It seemed to echo within his own mind without an exit.

No alchemist or reaper ever knew what it was like inside the mind of a contagion sufferer, for no mordesh had ever fallen into the abyss of the ravenous state and ever recovered to tell the tale, but it had been easier to hope and believe that their fallen brothers and sisters had been lost to oblivion when the contagion took hold, so they would not have to second-guess themselves when the time came to mow their fellow mordesh down. They were wretches. They could not think. They could not feel.

'But I'm still here! I'm still here!'

How many ravenous had he himself personally slaughtered?

'I am not a monster! I can still think! I just can't… move…'

How many of the drooling slavering wretched beasts he had cut down had been just like him, begging and pleading while trapped behind their own mad, searching eyes?

He detected the jingle of keys from the first floor of his house and he heard the front door open. Formaldehyde's body seemed to pick up on it too and he clumsily started down the stairs, chipped claws leaving slight furrows in the wallpaper as he dragged a hand along behind himself.

The obvious occurred to him very quickly. 'Gods! Yasty! Wait! No! Stop!'

Perhaps the contagion was way closer to Yasty's cordyceps than anyone had chanced to realize.

And somehow, in some strange fashion, one of Formaldehyde's frenzied shrieks translated into electrical impulses made its way up his throat. "Y-… Yasteeeee…" He slurred in a low, gravel tone, teeth glinting and tongue lolling out of his mouth like a putrid, purple slug.

She heard him call for her from the stairs. There was a rustle of paper grocery bags seemingly coming from the kitchen. "Oh, hey Maldy! Sorry I'm so late! Things started to get crazy at the Academy, but I'm back now. Are you hungry? You want stir-fry for dinner?"

His body rocked his head drunkenly about and he could now see her long white tail sticking out of the threshold of his kitchen, waving back and forth playfully as she put things away. He could feel his own hunger in the same way that a man could watch an avalanche approach – overwhelming, irresistible, and final. His open mouth quirked up into a famished grin, absolutely deaf to the screams of the voice within. It was Contagion. It needed one thing only; to feed and feed until the rot it carried could be passed on to a new body, the reproductive cycle complete.

'Stop! N-No! Gods of fickle fortune, please! Take me and whoever else, but spare her! Spare her!'

She needed to realize something was wrong right now. They had been over this many times before; what signs to watch out for, what not to do (like hesitate), and where the precious syringes of Mortalus were stored. Yasty would notice, she had to notice. Couldn't she hear him breathing? The slur of his words? Couldn't she feel his hunger, rolling off him in waves?

Formaldehyde closed the distance between them, step by agonizing step. The hoarse and almost humorously high-pitched begging and howling within him soon devolved into hopeless sobs, because he already knew. His precious, funny little lover who had brought light into the darkness of his existence wasn't going to notice in time. She was going to wiggle that soft tail of hers along with her butt as she busied herself to death, and when he reached out to grab her, and spin her around…

'I beg of you… anything…'

He did so. God, she had been humming. She was just about to sing.

As predicted, Yasty did not react in time, but she did have enough of a moment to scream.

His body lunged forward. Teeth clamped down; tore through her skin like hot, melting butter. Her scream became a gurgle – it must have been her throat. His hands were busy tearing at her flesh – flesh! – but his incisors popped an artery like a juicy bubble and his mouth filled with blood. Warm, silken, comforting blood.

And it felt good.

xxx

Formaldehyde flinched awake and sat up in his sleeping bag, rolled out haphazardly on the floor of his home. His grey, vitalus-infused eyes automatically sought out the faint outline of the ceiling above him, and then he wrestled an arm outside of its warm confines and checked the pillow pile beside him.

Empty. Well, it was a Wednesday night so that wasn't unusual. Yasty would spend the evening at work and then sleep alone at her own place instead, but he always felt a thrill of almost childlike panic whenever he reached an arm out and couldn't feel a smooth leg, a fluffy ear, or her outstretched hand.

And it was always worse on those dark, lonely nights when he had those dreams. That dream.

The cordyceps dream.

The mordesh stalker, an elite Black Hoods agent and survivor of countless grisly battles curled up into himself in the shadows, put his head in his trembling, cold-sweating hands, and wept.

-fin

(Agent Formaldehyde, Entity PvE Server)
(Yasty Silverbush, Entity PvE Server)