The Nick of Time
(and other abrasions)
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.