Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Nagaki's Burden

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Nagaki's Burden epilogue- A Darkness Unyielding

The Nick of Time

(and other abrasions)

Nagaki's Burden


A Darkness Unyielding


Al Bruno III

The following story was originally published by Eden Studios

He waited an hour longer than he was supposed to before he making his way to the boathouse. It made no sense; they’d had the Dread Lord dead to rights but death as the only thing that would have kept Wu-Han and Meng from their rendezvous. Hefting the two valises full of bank notes Jack Diamond wondered where he would go to now. He didn’t relish the idea of starting over again; the Gray Mandarin had put a lot of work into the City and he had put a lot of work into the Gray Mandarin. He’d grown comfortable here, perhaps too comfortable. He wondered briefly if the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues would have him back. He sneered at the thought. With what he’d learned here he’d be running the place in a week.

Something squelched underfoot. He cursed, as if his alligator boots hadn’t been through enough already. When he reached the door of the boathouse, he paused to look back at the City of Olathoe, with its clusters of minarets, domes and towers, with its dark wonders and teeming conspiracies, with its magic and mystery. It was a damn shame to loose it all, it was a fucking tragedy to loose it all this because of Jason Magwier and his mouthy girlfriend.

Unlocking the door he headed inside. Wu-Han’s ash-colored sloop wasn’t much to look at but it would be enough to get him to a quieter port of call. The ocean was choppy and streaked with pollution; he stepped carefully onto the bow of the boat. He was already making a mental checklist of things he needed to do before he could get underway. He wondered to himself if there were enough supplies for an extended voyage.

Not that it mattered of course, there was no way he was going back out there. Not on this night.

Making his way to the bridge he set down the valises and sniffed the air. What in the name of the Handsome Monkey King was that stench?

It came shambling from below decks before he had the time to react, swatting the .357 Desert Eagle from his hands and pinning him to the floor. It was the Dread Lord but he was blackened with rot, the flesh was peeling away from his bones in slimy, foul-smelling chunks.

“Almost time to go.” the nightmare of putrefied sinew and bone whispered, “The darkness calls me back, to wait until I am summoned again.”

A protective incantation flowed from Jack Diamond’s lips, but before he could finish it the dead man leaned in close like a lover and bit off his lower lip with a snap of his decomposing teeth.

“No. No. No.” the Dread Lord spat the half-chewed curl of flesh away, “Stop struggling, it’s all over now. I just wanted to know, who she was, she was such a good likeness.”

Jack Diamond screamed and cursed, he tore at the dead man’s flesh, ripping it away in oozing clumps. Chuckling with amused exasperation Mr. Nagaki moved in and gnawed off Jack Diamond’s nose. He did it slowly, taking long pauses between bites.

“I said who was she?”

“Meng.” Jack Diamond’s voice was slurred and bloody, “An actress.”

“Ah, her performance was uncanny. Award winning. She only made one mistake, you all only made one mistake.”

“You can’t do this! I am protected by the Monkey King-”

With a click of his teeth, Mr. Nagaki silenced him, “You see that’s why I have to be certain you die, because you did come so close. I did indenture my soul to the Celestial Kings to save Bai Rong-Bao from the torments of Hell. I did this because I loved her more than I loved life itself.”

“Then why are you here?” Jack Diamond shouted, “We had you, we had you dead to rights!”

The dead man leaned in close again, his crumbling teeth brushing tentatively against Jack Diamond’s carotid artery. He whispered, “Bao was my daughter.”

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Nagaki's Burden chapter five- The Definition Of Hell

The Nick of Time

(and other abrasions)

Nagaki's Burden

chapter five

The Definition Of Hell


Al Bruno III

The following story was originally published by Eden Studios

For as long as there has been a City of Olathoe there have been cats. Some legends say that they are the keepers of the City’s secrets. That they know all and tell nothing. Others believe that they are the souls of the City’s original inhabitants, forever reincarnating in feline forms. More modern minded thinkers theorize that they were drawn to the City because of the powerful alpha waves produced by its citizens. Over the centuries laws have been passed to protect them, parks had been set aside for their use and whole religions had sprung up in the wake of their mystery.

Mr. Nagaki never gave them much thought, he went about his business, they went about theirs. But now he found himself standing before the locked gates of the park on Kissos lane, led here by the last dwindling fragment of Liko’s memory.

Everywhere there were signs warning that trespassing in the park was punishable by death. Only felines were welcome here. Death, however was the least of Mr. Nagaki’s worries right now. He scrambled over the cold, slick wall to find himself knee deep in snow. In a matter of steps he left the City of Olathoe behind. The park grew wild with trees as tall as houses and blades of grass so long that even now the tips protruded from the drifts like stubble.

Cats padded in and around the trees, so many that he quickly gave up all hope of making a count. They seemed to be following him, watching him.

Up ahead, in the center of a grove of wilting elms he spied the Carillon. It was a tall, elaborate edifice of stone and stained glass. The wide sloping walls were carved with images of cats. Decades of neglect had taken their toll, the walls were stained and worn, the stained glass windows were cracked and broken. He had to give the Wu-Han credit. This was a perfect hiding place. The ornate bell tower had once been a haven for cat worshippers, modern day disciples of Bast. They made the mistake of offending the Regent in some small way and as punishment had been hunted down and slaughtered. The Regent however hadn’t been mad enough to raze the Carillon and burn the park. No one wanted to repeat the mistakes of doom-shrouded Ulthar.

Bao… he found himself thinking as he approached the wide brass door, Bao always liked cats.

There was a dull impact in the center of his back. Mr. Nagaki looked down to see the tip of an arrow protruding from his chest. He spun his claw fingers at the ready to see figures emerging from the snow, charging towards him; one of them was notching another arrow in his compound bow. They’d buried themselves and waited for him.

There were five of them in total, one had the bow and arrow, the others all had swords. Magic and explosions had failed Wu-Han, it looked as though he was now going to try dismemberment.

Another arrow caught him in the throat, lodging itself halfway in his neck.

Then the swordsmen were on him. He blocked two of their attacks with the hardened bone of his forearms. The third swordsman swung at his legs, cutting deep into the muscle. The fourth moved in and disemboweled him. Another arrow grazed Nagaki’s half-flayed face.

The thick loops of intestine slithered from the hole in Nagaki’s gut and grasped hungrily at the throat of the fourth swordsman. The archer fired again, but this time Nagaki was ready and he ducked down to let the arrow pass over him and catch the third swordsman squarely in the right eye.

The fourth swordsman dropped his blade and flailed mindlessly at the strangling intestines, his eyes bulged, his face turning purple. The first swordsman moved to help him and Nagaki darted his head forward and clamped his teeth down on the vulnerable softness of his neck.

The second swordsman swung wildly at the Dread Lord, all skill lost to panic, Mr. Nagaki backhanded him, pulping his nose. The first swordsman screeched like an animal. Nagaki held on, shaking his head like a frenzied dog. The archer fried again, another arrow embedding itself in the Dread Lord.

The first swordsman pulled free, a fine spray of blood jetting from his neck in time with his every heartbeat. Mr. Nagaki’s intestines released the fourth swordsman’s limp form. Blood flecked the snowy ground as the first swordsman staggered drunkenly, crimson bubbles seeping from the wound in his neck.

Another arrow sailed past Mr. Nagaki; he ignored it, turning his attention instead to the second swordsman- the last swordsman. His fingerblades reduced the man’s face to ribbons, his eyes to a weeping ruin. Mr. Nagaki let him fall to the ground. He pulled the arrows from his neck and chest, throwing them into the snowy Earth. The last swordsman was stirring, trying to fight, trying to live.

Mr. Nagaki turned him on his back with a single wellplaced kick to the ribs. He raised a booted foot and stomped hard on the swordsman's shoulder, the collarbone broke with an audible snap. The last swordsman’s cries became shrill. He stomped again, grinding the clavicle beneath his bootheel until the bones had been reduced to shards. As he worked, a half dozen more arrows flew past him; all fell wide of their mark.

When it was over, Mr. Nagaki looked up at the trembling archer. He was trying to load his last arrow, but his hands were shaking too hard. When he realized the Dread Lord was staring at him he dropped the bow with a yelp.

Mr. Nagaki’s glare deepened. “Boo.” he said.

The archer ran screaming into the woods.

The dead man retracted his intestines before opening the Carillon’s tarnished brass doors and stepping inside. There in the half-light the Gray Mandarin was waiting for him and he wasn’t alone. The sight of her sent a ragged gasp from Nagaki’s tattered lungs.


No! It’s another trick of the Monkey King. An illusion!

But this was no trick, no illusion she was real and she was walking towards him. He could hear the soft pad of her footfalls, see the gleam of the moisture on her pale red lips. Her capillaries were flushed from being in the cold. There was no fear in her eyes.

“Bao.” he said again.

The Gray mandarin smiled thinly, “An offering for you Dread Lord.”

“Bao is in… paradise.”

“Paradise?” she said, “Paradise without you?”

His every instinct screaming for him to attack, for him to fulfill his covenant, he could only speak, “I don’t understand…”

“The Celestial Kings prevaricated Dread Lord Nagaki,” the Wu-Han leaned against the grim-coated wall, “there is no Heaven, nor is there a Hell. There is only the infinite recursion of the psyche.”

“I don’t believe that.” the dead man shook his head.

She was right in front of him now, she reached out to stroke his cheek, “Look at the world around you, not a single leaf goes to waste, why would a soul?”

Mr. Nagaki flinched away from her touch, “How did you find all this out? How did you find out about-”

The Gray Mandarin stroked his chin as he spoke, “The legends about you are abundant, if diluted, that in tandem with magic and supposition are all that I required. It was Jack Diamond who found her, we realized that her soul would be searching for you, reincarnating again and again in an ineffective bid to find you again. She was so close, all along she was so close and the so-called ‘world protectors’ never told you.”

“They helped me remember.” she placed her delicate hands on his gore streaked chest, “I know what you sacrificed for me… I know what you’ve been through…”

Mr. Nagaki reeled at her touch, “I never meant- I’m-”

The gray mandarin drew closer, “I have a proposal for you. The Regent is corrupt, she places her own interests above those of his citizens. I mean to supplant her, but I need your support. You can strike at her in ways that no one else ever could. If you do this for me I will produce a new body for you, a living body”

“A Dread Lord cannot betray his covenant.” Mr. Nagaki whispered, “I would be annihilated. Bao would…”

“But Bao is here.” the Gray Mandarin said with a waggle of his finger, “The Tian-wang professed you that if you availed yourself to them she would be spared Hell. Don’t you see? They lied.”

She drew in close deluging him with her warmth, “I forgive you.”

“They said you would never see her again, another falsehood. You can be happy again.” The Wu-Han approached standing before the dead man, “Do you even remember what it was to be happy?”

The Dread Lord swayed, “I-I can’t- This doesn’t- I need-”

Her hand slipped beneath his shirt, her touch leaving warm trails in its wake as she gently fingered his wounds, “I need you my beloved…” she cooed, “I need to feel your touch… over me… in me.”

Mr. Nagaki smiled gently down at her, he closed his eyes and broke her neck with blissful ease.

“What?” the Gray Mandarin gasped with horror, as cold, greasy loops of intestine slithered over him, restraining him. He struggled wildly as they drew him closer to the Dread Lord, “But that was Bao! ”

“And you, you talk about Hell as though you understand. Do you know what Hell is Wu-Han?” Mr. Nagaki loomed over him, watching him writhe. With his fingerblades he began to cut into the Gray Mandarin with a surgeon’s precision, “Hell is to love no longer.”

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Nagaki's Burden chapter four- Riddles In The Dark

The Nick of Time

(and other abrasions)

Nagaki's Burden

chapter four

Riddles In The Dark


Al Bruno III

The following story was originally published by Eden Studios

He began to dig before the dust had settled over the mounds of rubble. He dug even though he did not know which way was up. He dug despite his fractured skull and crushed spine, despite pain the likes of which he hadn’t felt in generations. He dug because he was a Dread Lord and if he failed all his sacrifices and atrocities were for nothing.

But what if he had already failed? What if the Tian-wang had already abandoned him and cast Bao into an eternity of torment?

That thought made him dig all the harder, his crushed fingers scrabbling at the chunks of shattered stone. Bone protruded from his skin in dozens of places and as he squirmed and crawled they scraped against the debris. He had been lucky, lucky to escape from the Spire before that bastard Jack Diamond had set off his explosives, Lucky to only have been buried from the fallout of the blast and not beneath the ruins of the Spire itself.

That thought tasted like bile in his mouth- a Dread Lord should not have to rely on luck.

Slowly, painfully, he found his way back to the surface and lay on his back like an overturned bug. The sky was heavy with smoke, he couldn’t see the starts and for a strange moment he worried that he still had miles to dig ahead of him. Then his dead eyes adjusted to the murk and he scanned his surroundings. The Spire, as well as several buildings for blocks around it, had been destroyed. The vibrant bohemia of Shartok’s Circle had been transformed into a desolate, almost alien landscape. Stranger still, there were no Constables, no Sentries, no crowds of Citizens come to gawk at the destruction. He was alone.

Except for the baboon.

It surveyed him from atop a heap of wreckage, its flame-red pupils glinting. Mr. Nagaki tried to speak but his lungs had collapsed along with most of his ribcage. The baboon approached him, its spindly form loping down the mound of debris; it sniffed at him. Mr. Nagaki could see the baboon’s teeth were crooked and misshapen, protruding from the sweaty confines of his snout. He tried to speak again but all he managed was a guttural whisper. That alone was enough to send the sickly-looking creature skittering for cover.

Mr. Nagaki closed his eyes and concentrated, calling upon the power the Celestial Kings had invested in him. He felt the warm itch of bones re-aligning; the subtle tickle of damaged sinew stretching over opened wounds.

With a defiant roar the baboon shambled back into Nagaki’s field of vision hefting a chunk of rubble over its head.

“Wait!” he said in a panicked whisper. The baboon paused, still holding the chunk of debris over its head. It regarded him quizzically. Mr. Nagaki continued, “I am an agent of the Tian-wang, the world protectors… you dare not…”

The baboon’s laughter was harsh and barking; it sprayed spittle when it spoke. “I am Sun Wu-Kung the Monkey of the Mind! I care little for the ways of the Celestial Kings and even less for the ways of their little ghosts.” It laughed again, spraying spittle. “I have been summoned. Gifts have been promised. All I must do is tear you to pieces until I can no longer tell the part that speaks from the part that pisses. An easy night’s work!”

“But don’t you… don’t you remember me?”

“Of course! And that will make the smashing all the more fun!” it laughed again, hopping from foot to foot.

First the Overlord’s Serpent, now the Monkey King. What have you gotten me into Magwier? Even under the best of conditions there was no way he could physically defeat the twisted old spirit and this was certainly not the best of conditions.

The sickly-looking baboon raised the chunk of stone over its head once more, “Farewell Dread Lord Nagaki, of all the Tian-gou you were the least annoying.”

“Farewell Handsome Monkey King. It is better that I die then see you debased so.”

“What?” the stone tumbled from its scabby, pink fingers, “What?”

Mr. Nagaki struggled to keep his voice steady, “If I have existed long enough to see the Monkey King reduced to a common assassin then I have lived long enough.”

“No! I am Sun Wu-Kung! I am the Monkey of the Mind! I am no mere assassin.” the baboon’s nostrils flared.

“You were sent to kill me weren’t you?”

“How can I kill you when you’re not really alive?”

“I could say the same thing about you- assassin.”

“No! I was summoned, gifts were promised.”

“I was summoned as well, it makes no difference.”

“It does!”

“Once, long ago, you declared yourself the Great Sage before the Jade Emperor himself. Now you obey the orders of a petty mandarin? I’m disappointed.”

“No! I am the Monkey King!” its grubby hands shook with frustration, “I am born a stone egg! I stole the sacred peaches from Lao Tsu! I am wiser then the gods and more beautiful than the sky!”

“Then prove it.” Mr. Nagaki forced himself to sit up, “I propose a contest of riddles.”

“Riddles?” the baboon fell to the ground, convulsing with laughter.

“We will ask each other riddles, each riddle must be in a different language of man. The first one to answer incorrectly or fail to answer loses. If you win you destroy me, if I win you go away and leave me to my business.”

“Oh Nagaki, you fool!”

“Do you agree?”

“Agree? I insist!” the baboon laughed. “You will envy my wisdom before I destroy you.”

“You honor me.” Mr. Nagaki held himself steady with his relatively undamaged right arm. “I’ll go first.”

“Riddles!” the baboon shouted and capered through the ruins, “He dares test me with riddles!”

The Dread Lord spoke in Cantonese, “It never was and always will be. No one ever sees it and no one ever will, yet it is the confidence of all who live and breathe. What is it?”

“Tomorrow.” the baboon flipped head over heels, “The answer is tomorrow! What fun! Yours will not be so easy Nagaki.”

“I expect nothing less.”

The baboon’s shape began to blur, shifting in the shadows. This was another its little tricks, the mastery of form. Where there was once a sickly primate now stood Jason Magwier. The effigy spoke in Japanese, “What eats rocks, levels mountains, rusts metal, pushes clouds across the sky and can make a strong man weak as a kitten?”


“Clever.” The ersatz Magwier hissed, its shape shifting to that of a tall figure wearing golden armor decorated with runes of the Dragon Kings. “Clever for a dead man.”

Mr. Nagaki spoke again, this time in Latin, “At night they come without being fetched and by day they are lost without being stolen.”

“Obvious.” An angry chittering erupted from inside the golden armor, a few moments later the reply came, “The stars. It’s obvious.”


The golden armor melted away to reveal Wu-Han’s haughty features and drab robes. It spoke in Laotian, “What has two backbones but a thousand ribs?”

For a moment all Nagaki could do was stare dumbfounded, he had battled so many strange beasts in his lifetime. Had he ever known a creature with two backbones and a thousand ribs? Was this a reference to the Overlord’s Serpent? No, that was too obvious. It was a trick question- they were all trick questions when you got right down to it.

Gleeful chuckling interrupted his train of thought. “You look worried Dread Lord.”

Mr. Nagaki answered slowly “A railroad?”

“The luckiest of guesses!” it tore off Wu-Han’s robes and flesh to reveal a slender, humanoid shape with a simian face and a curling tail. It wore silk robes and a sash made from the pelt of a tiger.

“Perhaps.” The dead man said, his cadence shifting to the familiar patterns of the Chinese Hakka dialect “Both mother and father, seldom still but never wandering, never to birth, never to nurse.”

“A tree!” it snapped, its hairy face shifting to the smug features of Jack Diamond. The resemblance was uncanny, even down to the capped teeth and the alligator boots. Korean flowed freely from its lips, “Now, it is my turn. It has no top or bottom but it can hold flesh bones and blood all at the same time.”

“A ring” Mr. Nagaki felt his ribs snap back into place, when he spoke again it was in French, “Squeeze it and it cries tears as red as flesh, but its heart is made of stone.”

“These are children’s riddles Dread Lord. Children’s! The answer is a cherry.”

“The night is young Handsome Monkey King.”

“No, the night is not young and I grow tired.” its shape shifted as easily as his language, its features becoming soft, feminine. Jack Diamond’s hair turned dark and flowed down to waist length. The face became painfully familiar, the dark eyes, the gentle expression. The very sight of robbed Mr. Nagaki of his strength. When the effigy spoke again it was in Tibetan but with Bao’s voice, “There is a crime, that if attempted is punishable, but if it committed it is not punishable.”

Voices lost generations ago swam though his mind.

“Please, You must listen.”

I know all I need to know.

“You don’t understand.”

Get out of my sight whore.

“You don’t mean that... you can’t mean that.”

From this moment on you are dead to me.

Cold tears traced paths down Nagaki’s gritty face. He sobbed the answer, “Suicide. The answer is suicide.”

“Correct Dread Lord.” the feminine countenance melted away revealing a white-furred baboon wearing an iron crown. It gibbered and danced his crimson eyes full of malice. “Painfully correct I would guess.”

“Damn you, how did you know?”

“About your sweet lost Bao? I could have found out on my own for I am the Monkey of the Mind but my faithful disciple jack Diamond told me.”

“He did did he?”

“Oh yes! He told me all about the sacrifice you made for your lost love.”

“Really?” Mr. Nagaki pushed himself to his feet, forced himself to stand still, "He told you everything?"

“Of course!” it clapped his scabby fingers together, “I found the whole thing quite... romantic.”

“Romantic.” Mr. Nagaki repeated the phrase in English, rolling it around on his dead tongue, “Tell me, oh Pi Ma-Wen-”

“What? What did you call me? I am no stable boy!”

“Tell me Pi Ma-Wen what can you find at the beginning of eternity and the end of time and space? At the beginning of every end and the end of every place?”

The white-furred baboon hissed; its snout foaming, its teeth bared “You dare call me stable boy? I stole the sacred peaches from Lao Tsu!”

“Thief, assassin, and stable boy. Your mother must be very proud. Now answer me or leave me to my business.” he stepped towards it. “Don’t forget to reply to me in English now.”

“English! The language of liars and fools.”

“If the riddle has confounded you just say so.”

“Riddle? You dare call that offal you spoke a riddle? The answer is as obvious as my superiority!” the baboon skittered backwards, kicking up clouds of dust, “What can be found at the beginning of eternity and the end of time and space? At the beginning of every end and the end of every place? There is only one thing it can be! Chaos pure and simple.”

Mr. Nagaki let the baboon get halfway through a victory jig before he said, “Wrong answer.”

“What?’ it froze, “What?”

“I said, ‘Wrong answer’.” the Dread Lord’s spine reshuffled itself with a whispery crackling, he shuddered and stood straighter, “Now if you’ll excuse me...”

“You lie! You lie!” the baboon stomped and snarled. There was a desperate sheen to its red, red eyes. It grew smaller, deflating like a balloon. In moments it would be gone, “That could only be the answer!”

Mr. Nagaki turned and started walking in the direction of Kissos Lane. The drone of the wind drowned out the Monkey King’s squeal of rage.

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Nagaki's Burden chapter three- Sacrifices

The Nick of Time

(and other abrasions)

Nagaki's Burden

chapter three



Al Bruno III

The following story was originally published by Eden Studios

The Spire, located at the heart of Shartok’s Circle, was one of the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues’ crowning achievements. Through a combination of architecture, geology and sorcery the tower had been created from a single slab of bedrock and anchored in the center of the City. Almost seven hundred feet in height the Spire was, until recently, an institute for magical study. Students of the thamaturgical arts from around the world and beyond came here to study under the greatest minds in the occult sciences, as well as sample the City of Olathoe's catalogue of unearthly delights. Students who graduated from this institute were ranked among the most promising in the field; many went on to become great Magi in their own right, others still went on to become legends.

Thirty years ago all that had changed. A duel to the death between two of the Council’s junior members triggered the bloodiest wave of infighting since nineteen seventeen. When it was over at least ten Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues had lost their lives and several more had been coerced into 'stepping down'.

It was under the terms of his early retirement that sole ownership of the Spire was bestowed to Wu Han, former Preceptor of the Third Circle of the Greater Eastern Council of Mystagogues.

In the year that followed his humiliating defeat at the hands of a mere apprentice girl, Wu-Han worked quickly. The Institute was closed and teachers and students were sent scurrying into the streets. For almost a month the tower was quiet and dark. Many wondered if he had committed suicide and made the Spire his mausoleum.

But on a brisk spring day nearly all the leading powers of the City’s criminal underworld turned up dead. Those that survived were swearing allegiance to a new master- the Gray Mandarin. The Constables, the Sentries- even the Regent was afraid to act against him. He knew that in a handful of nights the City would be his.

But now Wu-Han was watching all that fall apart.

The TV screen before him showed a security camera's grainy black and white picture. The two guards manning the Spire’s front entrance had been, filleted. He stared long and hard at quivering, husks of boneless meat. It might have been a trick of the camera, but he could swear they were still moving.

"Damn you Magwier.” there was a keypad before the screen. He pressed a button changing the view from camera one to camera two. An empty hallway.

“Seal the Spire.” Jack Diamond said. “Seal every goddamn door.”

“Do you honestly believe for even a moment that such trifling measures will stop the Dread Lord Nagaki?"

"No, but it will slow him down, give me time to invoke the Overlord’s Serpent."

"A sterling point. Has Zhimu finished laying the plastique?”

“He’s just wiring up the detonators now, he’s a smart boy. I’m going to miss him.”

“He wants vengeance, it was the least I could do.” With a stroke of the keypad the Gray Mandarin locked the Spire’s automated doors. He turned his attention from the TV screen and surveyed the chamber Jack half-jokingly referred to as their 'War Room'. A waist-high window stretched around the chamber, offering them a three hundred and sixty-degree view of the City of Olathoe. Every room of the Spire and several key locations as far away as Nooker Street could be observed via the bank of security and monitoring devices that dominated a quarter of the room. It was also from here that radio and television signals could be sent and received. To the left of that, a rune-encrusted computer sat unused on a mahogany desk, its cursor blinking mindlessly. A featureless black table with manacles attached to each of the four corners occupied the center of the room, flanked on either side by cabinets full of medical equipment and unrefined jewels. Close to the chamber's only door was a long, wide weapons locker, its contents ranging from simple knives and revolvers to the exotic.

All the other furniture in the room had been pushed into the corner to make room for the bodies. Many members of his organization had fled to the Spire, seeking protection. Some had brought their wives and their children. The men and children soon fell prey to the drugged food and wine and now lingered unable to move but fully conscious as Jack Diamond arranged them in strange patterns on the floor and painted their bodies with a paint made from steric acid.

They had also made use of the women because the legends all told that a Dread Lord can be gravely wounded by a knife made from the femur bone of a murdered woman. They had enough blades to face a dozen Dread Lords now.

"He’s coming.” Kong Zhimu ran back into the room, he was shirtless and shoeless. He passed the detonator to Jack Diamond.

"We are aware of that fact.” the Gray Mandarin turned his attention back to the monitor screen, "Damn!”

“What now?” Pocketing the detonator, Jack Diamond grabbed Zhimu by the upper arm and led him into the center of the bodies. They were draped over one another like cordwood.

“The barracks. He’s already surmounted the barracks.” The picture became a wild, fractured kaleidoscope image. Wu-Han leaned in close, he could just make out the bodies, they crumpled this way and that, twisting in and upon themselves as one divided into another.

"Do you hear that?” Jack Diamond looked up from wetting his paintbrush, “Can you bring up the sound?"

The speakers issued a squall of static, all three men flinched. Beneath the electrical hiss they heard a single lonely sob.

Zhimu hissed with pain as Jack Diamond sketched strange symbols on his chest. “That stings!” asked.

“Wait’ll it sets in.”

“Are you sure this will work?”

Wu-Han’s fingers danced across the keypad, images began to flash by, “No one has ever rebuffed a Dread Lord...”

Jack Diamond looked up from his work, “No way is some half-assed zombie-demon whosawhatsit gonna take me down. Fuck that! I’ll eat his friggin’ brains! I’ll set his Goddamn dick on fire!”

“Eloquent as ever Jack,” Wu-Han said, his eyes never leaving the screen, “But I am certain that our researches at the Athenaeum of Seth the Blind have borne fruit. The Dread Lords you see are no mere monsters, they are divine agents of retribution.”

Jack Diamond went to the weapon locker. “They’re the fuckin’ Crow on steroids, that’s what they are. The Celestial Kings decided that they didn’t want to get their hands dirty protectin’ the world anymore so they make these guys instead. They make them out of human souls and not just any souls either, they...”

“Uh-huh” Slowly Zhimu sank to the floor, his eyes watering from the pain, his torso lightly smoldering.

“Just go with the pain.” Jack Diamond said, “Pain is just overwhelming pleasure. Concentrate on your revenge.”

“Uh-huh...” he replied his breathing shallow.

The screen stopped flickering, a guard lay face down on a stairwell, trails of blood trickling down step by step. Wu-Han’s expression tightened, "The armory."

“It’s almost Showtime.” Jack Diamond stepped up to him, bearing a knife made from bone, it was still dripping marrow, “Sorry I didn’t have time to gift wrap it.”

The Gray Mandarin examined the weapon grimly, “Such a waste.”

“Now get going.” Jack Diamond said, “I’ll take care of things here. I’ll catch up with you at the Carillon. Meng is already waiting there.”

The Gray Mandarin turned to go, “You be caref-”

Without warning, Jack Diamond pushed his commander behind the security station. Zhimu slumped to the floor, his quaking hands wrapped around the detonator. The door exploded inward, steel shrapnel shattered the monitor screen. Mr. Nagaki strode in through the billowing white smoke. His clothes were peppered with bulletholes, his leather coat still smoked from impact and exit wounds. Blood caked his fingers. He unslung the shotgun from his shoulder, "Wu-Han! I will not be denied."

“Fuckin’ poser.” Jack Diamond grumbled to himself.

“Did you honestly think you could escape?” He fired at the security station. The equipment exploded in a shower of sparks. He pumped the shotgun, the spent cartridge clattered to the floor, “No one escapes from me.”

Mr. Nagaki’s voice trailed off as he spied the pile of bodies laid over one another in a vaguely helical design. He recognized the phrases scorched onto their chests- they were all from the Song of Tian-gou.

Jack Diamond began to chant.

The bodies began to shiver. The shivering became a writhing as they drew closer to each other. Huddling close as though they were trying to warm themselves. They all began to sweat as one.

Jack Diamond’s chanting became fevered. “Is this supposed to impress me?” Mr. Nagaki fired wildly into the fleshy heap, blood spattered but there were no screams. If anything it seemed to accelerate the process, the myriad bodies began to melt, seething into one another.

The Gray Mandarin made a run for one of the chamber’s exits, Nagaki pumped the shotgun again. Another shell casing tumbled through the air. He drew a bead on the escaping figure. A sudden movement alerted Nagaki, he spun but Jack Diamond was a half- second faster, the bone knife dug deep into his cold flesh.

The pile of bodies churned and thrashed. Limbs boiled away, faces became distorted and inhuman. It began to uncoil itself. With each movement the nightmare jigsaw of skin and sinew became more and more defined, as the parts that made up its monstrous whole merged together like liquefied wax.

Jack Diamond wrestled the shotgun from Mr. Nagaki as he stumbled back. Impossibly, dark, syrupy blood was beginning to flow from the wound. The pain engulfed Nagaki, eclipsing his thoughts. The Gray mandarin was already gone, escaped... no one had ever escaped him before.

“Who’s! Your! Daddy?” Jack Diamond said, punctuating each word with a stab.

A warped, glistening shape reared up, casting the Dread Lord and his tormentor into its shadow. Jack Diamond sent Mr. Nagaki stumbling backwards with a single well-placed shove. Thick, fleshy coils caught him up and began to squeeze. The sound of his shoulder popping from the socket was like a gunshot.

“The thing that is about to end your miserable joke of a pseduo-exsitence... ” Jack Diamond paused long enough to lick the black ichor from his bone knife, “...mmmm is called the Overlord’s Serpent. It uses the same kind of Hac Tao that brought you into the world. It’s gonna torture you until I can get clear then I’m going to blow up the building.”

“You... can’t...” the coils tightened, his pelvis cracked.

“I just did.” he turned to go, “And that’s why you don’t fuck with Mrs. Diamond’s oldest boy!”

The Overlord’s Serpent coiled tighter, Nagaki struggled and bit but he was held fast. “You killed my lover,” the Serpent said in a chorus of whispers, “you killed him like it was nothing.”

There was no time to puzzle over what the monstrosity was yammering about gibbering about. He had to get away. While a Dread Lord might not be able to die, he certainly could do much when he was buried under tons of rubble. His left arm was free he reached around and tore his right pant leg.

“Is that fear I see in your eyes Dread Lord?” the Serpent cooed, “Or shame, shame at failing?” The Serpent spread its mouth open wide, it’s jaw unhinging. It slavered in anticipation of what was to come.

He tore the wakisashi free of his leg and swung it in a wide arc. The blade pierced the bottom of the Serpent’s jaw, rammed though the layers of muscle to protrude out of the top of its head.

With a chorus of screams the Overlord’s Serpent began to flail wildly about the room. Mr. Nagaki was thrown free; he rolled along the floor and came to rest against one of the windows.

The pain. He thought dreamily, I'd almost forgotten what it was like.

Standing woozily Mr. Nagaki ran for the exit, he had to get out of here before it was too late.

The Overlord’s Serpent reared up, it’s snout bloodied, it’s hodge-podge eyes narrowed with rage.

When he was a safe distance away, Jack Diamond turned back for one last look at the Spire. He pulled the detonator from his pocket and pressed the button.

There was a chorus of muffled thumps. The Spire wavered drunkenly and slowly began to collapse, loosing itself in a cloud of dust and debris.

Jack Diamond tossed the detonator with a self-satisfied smile, “And this is just foreplay motherfucker. This is just foreplay.”

Ignoring the crowds and general panic erupting around him Jack Diamond dropped to his knees and chanted a prayer to Sun Wu-Kung. As he chanted he slipped the razor from his boot and began to carve invocations into his skin.