God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind
The hard grey light of Nortune snuck through the grimy windows of the prison dormitory, across the rows of bunks and in and out of the forest of hanging washing, slithering nastily over the bare wooden floor.
Fei closed his eyes and snuggled deeper into the thin blankets on the bunk, trying to chase down the warm elusive pleasure of his lost dream - it had had moonlight in it. But from outside the heavy curtain that separated the privileged sanctum of the A-rank bunk from the rest of the dormitory, there was a motley banging and shaking of blankets accompanied by harsh grunts as the other prisoners started to drag their sleep sodden bodies out into the morning chill. Fei lay on his back, glad for the curtain - he didn't know why but he didn't want that rough unwashed crowd around him when he was lying in bed - though he knew that none of them would dare try anything against the man who had fought the Champ, he still felt uneasy until the last echoing footsteps and harsh voices faded into sullen silence.
Fei drowsed, letting his mind play gently over the events of the previous night - perhaps if all his fights were that easy he could be in with a chance - assuming of course that his Gear didn't have another malfunction - but why though? He remembered the fervent admiration in Citan's voice when he had talked about Weltall's internal strength - odd that it should have some sort of accident. He thought of the great battle machine, it's sleek yet powerful shape, towering midnight purple and menacing, the by now familiar cockpit with it's soft padded grips and glinting controls, the slam of acceleration as the jets kicked in, the –
"Clomp! Clomp! Clomp!" The black heavy sound clattered into Fei's musings, each thudding footfall echoing slowly closer in a threatening, metonymic rhythm. Fei sat up in bed, letting the blankets slide off his shoulders to reveal the dark blue pyjamas Citan had given him the previous night. There was a click and creak --- the dormitory door had been opened.
"Hammer?" Fei called uncertainly, but the foot steps sounded far too heavy to be the light clipped frisking of the little demi-human.
With frantically delicate fingers, Fei tried to groom his sleep tousled hair into some sort of order, running the thick heavy strands through his hands, uncomfortably aware of the unshaven fuzz on his chin. Abruptly, the dark clumsy foot steps crossed the room and with a silent swish the curtain was pulled back, letting the squalid grey light invade Fei's private A-rank space.
Bestial green eyes in a craggy ugly face surveyed Fei expressionlessly as one massive hand with skin like mossy tree bark brushed the curtain contemptuously aside.
"Rico!" Fei half gasped, feeling a wave of embarrassment and anxiety wash over him - to be caught like this!
But the big man didn't appear hostile. With a strange studied courtesy Fei wouldn't have expected of him, the battling champ backed away and leaned his massive body against the post of one of the other bunks, his black and orange leathers gleaming dully like the chitin of some giant insect.
"What are you doing here?" Fei tried to keep his voice level, one hand found the cross-shaped pendent beneath his pyjamas and clutched it tightly, as if the small silver and ruby talisman would keep the wolfish monster at bay.
The champ threw back his head and fired off a short barking laugh. "Don't panic, I 'ain't here to fight you, kid." His voice was the same granite animal growl Fei remembered, snarling and sardonic. "Iin fact - " he paused reflectively. "You could say I'm here for your welfare."
Fei smiled half bitterly, pulling the blankets up to hide his pyjamas. "You expect me to believe that?"
Rico gave vent to another volcanic spurt of laughter. "Don't expect you to do anything, but this is me we're talkin' about."
With a sudden squeak the medical bay double doors swung open ejecting Citan in a wash of hard white luminescence like some holy clinical angel. The illusion of some heavenly messenger was heightened by the fact that he was once more wearing the white and green Kislev medical uniform, his hair unnaturally straight and clean in the hard wash of eradiating light. "Will you please quiet down in here, Fei? This is a sick room, and I have a lot of work - " Fei saw Citan's bespectacled eyes widen as he caught sight of the immense presence of the champ lurking, watchful and unmoving in the middle of the room like a very ugly piece of sculpture. "- The battling champ! - What is the likes of you doing here?"
With that uncanny speed Fei had seen in him before the demi-human moved panther-like to the doors and pressed them shut with a violent thrust of his massive calloused hands. Then he turned, his shoulder length flame coloured hair whipping about his face in unruly tangles. "Ya' fixed the kid up after the accident the other day didn't ya', doc?"
Citan nodded mystified.
"Well, then ya' might be interested to know that that explosion was no accident."
Fei felt thunderstruck, Weltall had been -! Then Hammer's words floated warningly out of his memory, 'Accidents', but who, and why?
"Don't look so shocked - happens all the time, and my men didn't really like ya' much after ya' baptism."
Fei lay back, propping his tousled head on one outstretched hand, staring at the champ with the startled flighty innocence of a hunted animal. "You mean Leonardo and Heinrich?"
With his usual thoughtful expression playing across his face, Citan began to pace back and forth, his neat black ponytail bobbing. "So they made the explosion appear accidental - sabotaged Fei's gear before the fight?"
Rico nodded, his big body propped once more against the bunks.
"Did they confess to their crime?"
Rico shot forth another of his barking laughs, moving his big head forward so that he could fix Citan with an intense and penetrating glower, Fei could almost see the quick survival machinery of Rico's brain wearing - as he decided how much he could trust the Solarian.
Citan stopped pacing and stared back, and Fei had the impression that he was trying not to blink.
"A little difficult to confess anything when your lungs are six feet away from the rest of ya'."
Citan took a step backwards, his skilled doctor's fingers clenching into fists. "They're dead!"
Rico glanced at Fei, a quick searching scornful look. "You're the doctor, I'd've thought you knew what was going on round here."
Citan backed towards Fei's bed and sat down on the edge of it, fists still clenched. "You mean the deaths in the sewers? I was under the impression that a high fatality rate was usual among those engaged in hunting sewer mutants."
"Not-- --that high." Rico growled heavily, cutting the air at throat height with one big hand, flattened like a corroded saw blade. "We've had five in the past 36 hours. But the interesting thing is -" He leaned slightly forward and fixed Fei with his glowering stare.
Only now did Fei realize that Rico's eyes were abnormally hard, glassy and reptilian, and as the big demi-human blinked Fei saw that they were covered by two gauzy snake-like lids.
"- the guys who got it in the sewer just so happen to be the guys who fixed your Gear."
Fei tore his eyes away from the hypnotic gaze and clutched the pendent more tightly, his eyes widening like pools under woodland shadow, rippling blackly under the impact of a stone. "- I'm not a murderer! I haven't been anywhere near the sewers!"
Rico held up one admonishing hand like a wooden board, the greenish brown skin looking particularly inhuman in the grey morning light. "You could be lyin' kid - I personally believe ya', but then again, I'm a forgivin' sorta' guy."
Fei snorted bitterly, by no stretch of the imagination could this hard-bitten creature be called forgiving.
On the foot of his bed Citan shifted position. "So - Fei hears about the sabotage and decides to carry out retribution - I can see the problem."
"But Doc, you know I didn't do it!"
Citan turned to Fei, a wise sad smile playing across his lined face, and in his eyes Fei saw a brief sympathetic reflection of that lore-of-the-jungle hardness he had seen the previous day. "I know it Fei --- but others in D-block will surely construe the facts otherwise."
"That's why I'm here." The champ cut in. "The only way anyone'll believe you're clean is if we go down into the sewers and drag out whatever's been killin' my men."
"I have heard several roomers of an unusually large and feral creature in the sewers since I came here." Citan put in, his face worried.
"Yeah --- they call it Redrum." Rico grunted.
"Redrum?" Fei asked, distractedly, his mind still reeling under the impact of the big demi-human's hammering accusations.
"Murder backwards." Citan muttered.
"I'm goin' down there to flush it out - and I thought ya' might want to come along." Rico finished, seeming not to have heard Fei's question. Fei felt his confusion clear, and a brief flash of Elly's face flicked across his mind, stern and resolute, her violet eyes full of stars.
"Well - if it's me that brings out the monster."
"No one'll doubt ya'." Rico finished.
Fei's words were more hesitant than his gaze. "Then --- I'll do it."
For one instant, it seemed that a look of approval slashed across the Champ's grim features, the twisted lips widening a little to reveal the sharp needles of the teeth, but then the hardness returned like granite doors closing. "But you'll have to look after your own neck - got it?"
"It's up to you Fei if you want to do this -- but I'll come with you if you are resolved."
Fei felt a weight of relief, and a moderately confident smile creased his face --- if Citan was with him nothing could go wrong. "Okay Doc."
Rico rumbled grittily. "But you're on your own too."
"I expected nothing else, Ricardo." Citan answered blandly.
For one instant Rico's hands balled into great knotted fists, and his eyes flashed, then he relaxed, and to Fei's surprise, grinned. "You're the first person to call me Ricardo in years, Doc."
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, my name is Citan Uzuki." The Solarian stood and gave a sarcastically graceful bow, oddly out of place in those shabby surroundings, but Rico didn't smile, his face was once more a mask of stone.
"I wouldn't do that too often round here, it's not a good idea to offer an enemy the back of your neck. I'll wait for you outside." And without a backwards glance he turned and strode from the room.
"What a pleasant fellow." Citan murmured.
Fei had expected the entrance to the sewers to be a manhole cover set into the flat grey pavement, but as it turned out it was a building, functional and predictably square, with the angular shape of an iron ladder crawling up it's side. "The entrance is up there?" Fei asked, his eyes following the ladder up to the building's flat roof. Rico gave a grunt in answer.
"What're you doing?" A brown haired head topped with the inevitable blue peaked cap protruded from over the roof, the two unfriendly dark eyes were joined by a third - the even more unfriendly eye of a gun muzzle staring down at them warningly.
"We're goin' into the sewers to flush out Redrum." Rico bellowed up, the guard's face seemed to go white, and the gun was quickly withdrawn.
"The champ - what're - "
"Just see we ain't disturbed, okay?" Rico interrupted, then with out looking either at Fei and Citan or up at the nervous guard he pushed is great body up the ladder in a swift yet jerky series of lunges, Citan followed, and Fei brought up the rear.
When they reached the rooftop, Fei saw Citan and Rico peering down into a dark maw opening in the flat concrete surface. Unceremoniously, Rico swung himself into the hole and from the clang of his boots Fei knew he was descending another ladder.
When they reached the bottom, Fei wiped his hands down the front of his white t-shirt leaving greenish stains either side of his chest, as he tried to rub off the muck that had transferred to them from the cold rungs of the ladder. Outside the circle of sooty daylight came the constant drip and trickle of water, and a nauseating smell attacked their nostrils viciously.
Citan wrinkled his nose. "I am glad I bought some medical supplies - this place is definitely unhealthy."
"Here." From the inside of his leathers Rico took three heavy metallic flashlights and thrust one roughly at each of them. "Well are we goin'?" He growled discontentedly, the dim light seeming to enhance the aura of dormant power and menace that hung around him like some strong animal odour.
Fei and Citan flicked on their torches and beams of light thrust their way into the smelly darkness - though it was hardly an improvement. They were in a circular brick lined tunnel, with the greenish current of filthy water flowing sluggishly to their left, iron gratings covered with scum alternated with the brick walkways, and above them large corroded metal pipes hung nastily from the ceiling like straight scaly worms, dropping flecks of rust as an alternative to the constant grimy drip of condensation.
With Rico in the lead, they began walking into the darkness, their footsteps echoing slightly in the tunnel, small sprays of moisture fountaining up from each boot as it came down onto the slimy bricks.
"Rico - do you doubt me?" The big demi-human turned, green reptilian eyes glowering at Fei through the darkness - Fei wondered briefly how good the champ's night vision was. "If I doubted you, do ya' think I'd've come down here with ya'? - alone?"
It had not been the answer Fei expected. "Well - I - "
"Quiet!" Citan's voice hissed, "I hear something." From somewhere around them there was the sound of slithering and Fei felt his flesh creep - he wished they could find this Redrum quickly, not only to clear his name but also to get out of here.
They stood in the darkness listening, like participants in some insane religious right, then after a long silence,
Citan turned his flashlight forward and started sloshing up the passage, seeming to gleam unnaturally in his green and white. "It's gone." He said shortly, not looking back.
Fei felt a clammy uneasiness creep coldly over him, it was almost unheard of for Citan to answer in monosyllables, it was almost as if the Solarian were afraid - but no, Citan couldn't be afraid - could he?
They walked on, passage after passage in the steady white light of the flashlights, twisting and turning like the coils of some brick snakes, with the constant profanity of the thick stream gurgling beside them.
It was Rico who spotted the blood first, a trail of sudden scarlet in this subterranean world of monotonous grey-green. The blood was splattered messily across floor and wall, it's dried and gluey patches marking the bricks like poisonous mould. Then a few paces further they found a main mass of red and bluish-black dismemberment, white slivers of bone poking painfully through the torn and ragged skin.
"One of the murders?"
Rico nodded. He stepped closer, face dispassionate as his clear lenses-like eyes surveyed the bloody carcass with professional interest. "This thing's got some good teeth on it." From his tone the demi-human sounded almost pleased, Citan knelt beside him, his look no less calculating though more sympathetic.
Fei took a few steps backwards from the heaps op dismembered humanity feeling a little sick, almost glad of the overpowering sewer reak, which covered up the sweetish stench of the body.
"Fei - what do you make of this?" Unwillingly Fei moved closer, feeling the hot thick sensation of bile rising in his throat as he got near the remains, But to his relief Citan was pointing past the body to a patch of thick slime on the tunnel wall. Shining his torch upon it, Fei saw that it was a dark mucus green and about the same consistency as the drying gore. "A token from our monstrous friend I think."
Rico bent forward like a questing wolf and sniffed, throwing his head backwards as he gulped at the reeking air. "Smells like burning - "
"What was that?" From further up the grimy passage there came a sudden splash and scuffle, then with the speed of a torpedo a V shaped track of greenish foam hurtled towards them along the surface of the filthy river.
Fei stepped backwards instinctively, as the thick writhing upper half of something enormous reared out of the water and flopped squirming onto the bank. It was shaped, Fei thought, like a gigantic fish, seven feet long and as thick as his waist, with a sinuous length of tale leading to the thrashing back fin. A cold fathomless eye peered from either side of its wide, half-open mouth. Its skin seemed to be a leprous yellow and scaly looking, blotched and scummed with patches of gooey effluence and clinging green ooze. Citan was the first to move, dropping his torch he took two dancing steps forward and thrust out one fist in a swift jab with all of his shoulder behind it. An instant later Rico leapt forward hammering both boots up in a crushing double kick. The fish swerved to avoid the hurtling Rico, swinging it's massive tail upwards, but then Citan's blow landed on target, in the cold gleaming center of its amphibian eye. The giant body convulsed, lashing and coiling in pain, thrashing its way to the safety beneath the water in a churning and boiling of dirty foam. But even as Rico and Citan stood back from the crumbling brink, two other fish things slithered menacingly out of the stream.
Fei's high kick toppled one onto it's back, revealing a reeking expanse of green pulsing belly, a perfect target for the axe edge of Rico's hand. Citan attacked the other, dancing away from the ponderously swinging tale and raining a flurry of blows on its snout and the sides of its head. With a lion like raw, Rico charged forward, black leathers gleaming in the dull glow of the three dropped torches, slamming the full weight of his hurtling body into the fish thing's skull in an awesome shoulder barge. The creature tumbled; the entire scaly length of it, back into the scummy water, sending a spray of odorous green liquid fountaining upwards. Fei looked anxiously after the massive mutant, expecting another attack, but it seemed that the fish had given up.
"Not bad, Doc." Rico began padding up the passage, flashlight bobbing.
"One tries to keep in practice." Citan grinned.
"What were they?" Fei asked, catching up to the swiftly loping Rico.
"Mutants - ya' get all sorts of weird stuff down here."
Time passed slowly, and Fei couldn't imagine how Rico knew where they were, the maze of dank passages and rotten mossy bridges, seemed unending.
Fei almost felt that he was imagining things, once he thought he heard a light musical tinkling like the sound of a bell frantically ringing in the dark. He became uneasy, his body over tense, expecting at any moment more fish things or other horrors to lunge out from cracks in the brickwork or the many dank mouths of side passages that gaped blackly from the shadows. He remembered Blackmoon forest, and the vicious cunning baboon mutants - but at least there had been light to see by.
Some time later they found another murder site, the same plethora of gory death, the same slime sprinkled wetly over the scene, leading in a dirty trail to the mouth of a wide lead pipe.
"Must be using the pipes." Rico muttered. "Highly possible." Citan replied worriedly.
It was perhaps ten minutes after they left the murder spot, that they were attacked again. It began as a squeaking and rattling of tiny claws on stone, a long way down the throat of a large passage on their right, but growing rapidly closer. They flattened themselves against the wall next to the passage, slime and ooze dripping onto their hair, ears pricked. Slowly the scrabble and scraping came closer, mingled with a sharp animal squeaking and the occasional cat like yowl.
"Do you know - " Fei began in a tense nervous whisper, but Citan gestured him to silence, head cocked to one side as he judged the distance of the noises. Then, with terrifying suddenness, the makers of the noise burst from the tunnel like a hundred small furry bullets from the mouth of a machine gun.
They were perhaps two feet high, tiny deformed monkey like creatures, with protruding jaws and gleaming rodent eyes, their long clawed feet mingling with bald rat-like tales. The short bristling fur that covered their bodies was a dull grey blue, and in their horny little hands each held a long three pronged fork which seemed to be made of the same corroding black metal as the sewer gratings on either side of the stream.
With vicious but shrill howls of fury, the mob of mutants surged forward, tiny pitchforks jabbing. Fei leapt upwards, striking out with both boots on his way down, pulping and crunching tiny furred bodies. Then the three of them began a strange high stepping ballet, Fei lightning quick, feet striking then pivoting then striking once more. Citan, slightly less quick but more calculating, boots tapping precisely onto small rodent sculls with delicate surgical precision. Rico was sinple and direct, stomping gigantic studded boots down in bloody thuds like a man treading grapes. A few seconds of battering and smashing and the fury tide retreated, leaving a barricade of dead and dying in front of them, like flotsam tossed up by an uncaring sea. Fei watched apprehensively as the host of beady greedy eyes winked at him from the tunnel, the jabbering creatures brandishing their weapons and gnashing their long yellow teeth.
"They don't appear beaten." Citan warned, smoothing down the front of his medical uniform even as he kept his torch trained on the ranks of milling critters. "I would surmise they're planning a new strategy."
Rico scowled angrily at the creatures, seeming more predatory than ever as his snake-like eyes ran over them with an intense concentration akin to hunger.
Fei watched the big demi-human, the two spade like hands with their thick deft fingers, the prodigious muscles rippling even beneath the thick covering of black leather, the perpetual relaxed explosive stance - all were the marks of a consummate fighter - a person who lived only to end the lives of others.
"Little bastards I - " Rico's words ended in a gasp of sudden pain. Swearing, he bent down, one hand going to the knee of his leathers where a long black handle protruded from between his greenish fingers, blood welling stickily around it. More of the pronged forks whistled through the air, and Fei and Citan were forced to step back, leaving the wounded Rico exposed like a hunched black rock before the mouth of the tunnel. The tide of grey bodies surged forward once more, yellow fangs gnashing, spears levelled like lances, yowling with feral hungry triumph.
"Stay still!" Citan's voiced hissed in Fei's ear, and the next moment the Solarian doctor had taken two rapid steps forward and launched himself into the air, hurtling upwards, almost high enough to touch the crumbling ceiling of the passage, arms reaching up above his head, ponytail flying. Then with the balletic grace of an avenging angel he brought his arms down and forward, palms outward - and the tunnel exploded with light and fury. A flair of incandescence seemed to bathe Citan's body, an unmistakable white light that Fei knew for ether, then as he fell towards the ranks of waiting mutants a roaring tearing blast like a hurricane whirled up the tunnel. Fei was knocked off his feet, curling his body into a foetal crouch as he skidded and bounced on the hard bricks, and even the solid Rico was pushed several feet backwards, but the blast hadn't been directed at them, and compared to the fist of air that whirled and span the mutants down the dark throat of the tunnel what had hit Fei had been merely a mild zephyr.
Fei got to his hands and knees just in time to see the last few grey blue creatures whisk up the passage, smashing bruisingly against the walls, tossed and bounced like dry autumn leaves. But what concerned him more than the amazing ether attack was Citan, the doctor had collapsed to one side of the tunnel, hands pressed to his chest, face pale, his breath rattling raggedly as if he had run a marathon.
"Citan!" Fei dashed across to his old friend, his eyes full of worry and fear - if anything happened to Citan!
"Only - a minor - problem." Citan gasped, his chest rising and falling in quick frantic jerks. "Just give me - a minute."
Rico stood up slowly, grimacing as his injured leg took its share of his massive weight. In the torchlight Fei saw that his face held a peculiar expression - admiration mixed with concern and a strange, self-deprecating jealousy. "Cool. I never saw ether like that before."
Citan smiled weakly. "Just a little something I picked up - in my youth."
"You mean when you were in Gebler?" Fei asked without thinking, then with the sudden nervousness of the inefficient conspirator he glanced at Rico.
"Figured he must be - you too - desert did ya'?" Rico's tone was offhand.
Fei shook his head, feeling a mixture of relief that Citan was all right, and apprehension about what he had just admitted.
"No I - I just."
"Forget it." Rico cut him off deadly. "Lots of guys in D-block got things they'd rather forget about --- like how Suzarn got that scar."
Citan reached into his jacket and took out a plaster and bottle of antiseptic cream, which he handed wordlessly to Rico. Without hesitation the big demi-human rolled up the leg of his trousers and began treating the three deep cuts just below his knee, barely even wincing as he smeared the wounds with the stinging cream.
"Don't you think we ought to go back?" Fei asked, looking from Rico to Citan, who slouched head hanging exhaustedly against the wall.
"Don't be a fool, I ain't givin' up just for a cut on the leg." Fei returned his gaze to Citan his eyes darkening almost to black - however tough Rico seemed he didn't want to endanger his friend.
Citan reached into the pocket of his uniform and pulled out a bottle of small white pills, with shaking fingers he pulled off the top and dry swallowed two of them. "Benzedrine." He explained pointlessly. "An adreno-stimulant - keeps you going."
"Don't you think - " Fei began, his eyes still clouded. "We ought to locate this Redrum Fei. I do not know how safe D-block would be for you if the story of the murder's gets out and the monster is still at large."
Fei nodded unhappily. "If this bastard's usin' the pipes ta' get around then we could try the sewerage treatment plant - that's where all the pipes go." Rico stood up, rolling down his trousers over his thickly muscled green skinned leg with the white wood of plaster just below his knee.
"A sound assumption - and we are probably more likely to find it there than just wandering about." Citan stepped away from the wall, onyx eyes peering into the gloom. He was still pale, but the Benzedrine seemed to have worked, as he stepped springily out into the darkness.
Moore passages, and this time a ladder leading down a dark noisome culvert to a deeper level, the ladder that ran down one sweaty wall corroded and damp. Then yet more tunnels, so similar to the ones above that Fei could hardly believe that they were going anywhere new at all, there were the same black iron gratings and the same effluent river crossed by the same rotting wooden bridges - and beside one of these, the same stain of red.
"It's - Heinrich." Bile rose in Fei's mouth, bitter and warm as he saw the piled remains, the blue overalls torn and bloodied, Heinrich had been callous cold and jealous, but looking at the squalid thing in the dirty sewer Fei found it hard to remember the explosion or the uncaring black eyes.
"This is different." Rico growled, bending forward to survey the remains more closely - his grim face just as hard now as it had been before, despite the fact that this was one of his own men.
"What - " Fei swallowed. "What do you mean?"
Rico straightened and turned to face Fei, hulking and dark behind the bright circle of his flashlight, his flame colourer hair streaked with strings and tendrils of scummy green.s"There're finger marks on the wrists - and the teeth marks are smaller."
Unwillingly Fei followed the gesture of one uncaring hand to the wrist of one severed arm, where the prints of five small fingers were clearly visible across the lacerated flesh and torn skin.
"A scavenger?" Citan's voice floated from the darkness behind him, unnaturally hollow and cold.
Fei turned to see the Solarian standing, feet slightly apart, his lined face full of a terrible emptiness, his eyes suddenly dark, narrow and distant as cracks into black infinity.
"This guy's been pulled apart, not eaten, just - pulled apart." Rico's voice was hushed and still, awed, all callousness gone.
Fei felt something cold and sharp grow in the darkness, a point of rising tension like the expanding screech of Weltall's engines, a swelling note of deathly chill that took his body and thrummed it like the string of a harsh dark harp. Like a man in a maze he flicked his eyes from the bloody mess to Rico, seeing the Demi-human's stance, his unnatural stillness. With wide desperate pleading eyes he turned to Citan, the torch light catching the glimmer of tears in their depths, his young face full of an unreasoning fear.
"There's nothing we can do - not now." Citan's voice was dull and weary, but behind his flat words was a warm, genuine sympathy. "Let's go."
The dread pursued Fei through the darkness, creeping and slow but always there - like the steady noxious sewer stench, which he had long before ceased to notice. This was not the simple animal fear of dark cracks and sudden violent attack but something more - something black, twisted and cold - like a clammy bitter web tightening smotheringly around him. Fei's mind probed ahead, imagining faces in the darkness, through tunnel after suffocating tunnel ahead to the thing that waited for them.
"This is it." Rico's flashlight bobbed and steadied, zeroing in on a flat-scarred surface of old metal. Fei and Citan joined their lights to his, and the metal surface became a door, it's face flaking and pitied as the cracked skin of an old man. Rico fumbled in the pockets of his leathers, the slight creaking and jangling of his movements seeming more than audible in the watery silence. Then abruptly he fired of a short disappointed swearword. "No keys - oh well."
With the same sudden rush he had employed against the fish thing the big Demi-human charged forward, launching his massive body into the air like a sullen black rocket, feet pumping forward like pistons to slam loudly against the doors rust-encrusted lock. With a grating screech the door shot backwards, rust and powdered masonary fountaining as metal parted company with the surrounding slippery bricks.
Citan frowned, his spectacles flashing with brief incandescence as he glanced worriedly at Rico who was climbing indolently to his feet, dusting his leathers with ostentatious casualness. "Undoubtedly a precipitous method of entry - but surely not the wisest course of action when we are trying to catch Redrum by surprise?"
Rico turned abruptly away, the light of his torch obscured by his bulky body. "Who cares - now let's get the bastard."
"A most abrupt person." Citan muttered sidelong to Fei as they followed the Demi-human through the shattered doorway, jagged metal and torn bricks opening either side of them like cracked and ancient teeth.
Fei was relieved to hear the normal pedantic note back in Citan's voice, the same mild scholastic chiding with it's aching load of nostalgia, apart from the weight of exhaustion Fei thought, he might have been sitting comfortably with Citan outside in warm summer light, commenting slyly on passers by. The darkness that had arisen in his friend, had sunk back beneath the surface, submerged - but not subdued.
The treatment plant was a small shadowy room, filled with a steady gurgling and sucking. Rusting pipes festooned walls and ceiling in slimy coils, and in one dark corner, the massive rusty form of a septic tank lurked, squat and square like an idol to a sewer deity. But the most interesting feature of the room was the nest of slime-covered rags huddled against one wall, and the many gnawed bones scattered about on the floor.
"Clearly you were correct - this is Redrum's lair."
Rico sniffed distastefully, playing his torch across the monster's refuse.
"Where do you think it's gone Doc?" Fei's eyes scanned the room worriedly, round in the gloom like twin moons.
"It must have escaped through the pipes again - " The doctor sighed gustily.
Fei looked from Citan's drawn and exhausted face to the hump of bandage that jutted from beneath the leathers on Rico's leg - the leg he was being careful not to lean too march of his considerable weight upon. "Doc, do you think - " Fei's voice was hesitant, his face full of a wise concern that mirrored Citan's.
"Perhaps a strategic withdrawal would be advisable - being as Fei is now the only fully functional member of the group."
Rico stood taller, once more menacing, his stance radiating a haughty pride, brashly masculine in its hard granite unreason. "I'm not running away from some piece-of-crap sewer freak." His gravely voice was once more harsh, and as Fei looked into the emerald mirrors of the Demi-human's eyes a sense of loneliness and aloof arrogance smote him like a physical blow.
Citan looked up at him, a weary angel holding a blazing torch, dark hair straggling down towards his specticals. "We can check on the way back - and if we don't find it, we'll come back tomorrow with an enlarged force."
"Okay." Rico turned away disdainfully and with the methodical displeasure of a cruel monarch kicked a pipe on one wall into rusty tatters.
But in spite of the champion's temper Fei felt a serge of pleasure that he would be getting out of here - out of the oppressive stink and darkness of the sewer. The drab compound with its dull grey light seemed a paradise to Fei, bright and warm and safe.
It was perhaps his feelings of relief therefore, that meant Fei didn't see the massive shape lowering outside the broken gaping door, just out of range of the friendly circle of torchlight, and it was Fei's misfortune that his usual blazing reactions were not quite fast enough to save him from the massive deformed hand that snaked swiftly from the viscous darkness and wrapped it's cold clawed fingers around his neck. The first thing Fei knew he was jerked up into the air, booted feet thrashing, his torch falling from one hand to fall down into crashing blackness as the iron grip drew him inexorably upwards.
Then with the sudden horror of a strike of lightning, a torch beam slashed upwards and Fei saw the thing's face above him. The face was hideous, puffy brown flesh covered with hard warty skin, and hair like mattered rope the colour of flames. The chin was sharp and pointed, protruding like the prow of some monstrous ship, and the open mouth was a great dark hole, ringed with huge wet dirty teeth stained a brilliant poisonous green. But it was the eyes that froze Fei as the face floated closer, blue eyes, faded and dilated by the darkness it was true, but still a pleasant clear slate blue like the sky through clouds. And they were so calm, like still pools of madness, untroubled and serine, as chillingly reasonable psychopath's voice that asks sweetly if the victim would perhaps prefer to go through life with a few less fingers.
Then all at once Fei felt the hand that held his neck jerk and the grip of those clammy fingers loosened and gave way like steadily rotting wood. The young man fell down through blackness, flailing, his body writhing like a fish out of water, cart wheeling to land with a bruising slam against the slippery bricks.
Near him on the floor, was one of the flashlights, flooding radiance outwards, and by its light Fei could see Citan and Rico grappling with one of the most nightmarish creatures he could imagine. It was massive, even a head taller than Rico's immense height, and would have been taller still if its bowed legs were not perpetually stooped in a vicious animal crouch. It's back was humped and ridged, moving like a great wet boulder beneath the torn grey slime spattered rags of its clothing. One arm seemed almost normal, but the other - the one it grabbed Fei with, bulged unpleasantly like a long solid crescent moon of deformed muscle, the thick lumpy hand with it's massive fingers trailing against the floor. With a whistling rip the massive arm clubbed forward, and Fei saw Rico duck, only his eye baffling speed saving him from that killing blow. Then Citan blurred in from the left, feinting to draw the huge arm, then arrowing forward like a mass of incandescent ether in his stained whites, hooking his right hand forward to crush sickeningly against the monster's belly.
Redrum gave a wheezing bellow, but instead of staggering back, fell forwards, mouth agape, calm greedy eyes fixed on Citan. Adrenaline rushing his body, Fei scrambled to his feet and sprang forward in one motion, extending a hand to seize the back of the Solarian's stained medical uniform and dragging him backwards as Redrum's massive body thumped wetly to the floor.
Then Fei was moving, and a roar from Rico told him that the big demi-human had the same idea, attack while the creature was down. But a wild beast cornered is never safe to approach, particularly when it possesses hidden weapons.
One instant Fei was hurtling forward, readying a vicious kick at the centre of the deformed face, then next he was staggering backwards, his chest burning with a thick ball of pain. He reeled, loosing his footing on the wet brick and falling, clutching at the spreading smoking stain of green slime that spattered the front of his T-shirt. The pain was unbelievable, as if every nerve in his chest was being rubbed with white-hot sand paper. With frantic fingers Fei clawed at his T-shirt, pulling the garment over his head, even as moans of pain wriggled from his lips.
As Redrum had spat it's toxic slime at Fei, Rico's blow had landed, but the clubbing punch aimed for the back of the monster's head merely glanced off the hard bony canapés of it's hump, as the mutant hauled itself to its feet and made a heavy lumbering run towards Citan. Citan saw the huge brown arm clutching for him, and he slid desperately under the creature's massive reach, but the crescent moon of flesh bent swiftly inwards, and the Solarian felt that huge clammy hand clamp around his throat.
Fei's vision was clouded, he lay dazed and dim, his mind wandering through what seemed to be a growing grey haze he saw the white form of Citan being held aloft in Redrum's clammy grip, with agonizing slowness the filthy maw of the mouth opened and moved closer, in an absurdly grotesque parody of a lover's kiss. Fei knew he should get up, should attack, but lassitude spread like a treacherous warm tide through his body, filling every nerve and muscle with the same grey obscurity that was gathering across his vision. With a sound like an amplified lion's snarl Redrum was knocked dizzyingly sideways. With a sudden jerk the hand loosed it's grip and then Citan was falling, and the monster was turning staggering, and reeling as the massive well homed Champion's fists lanced into it, even as the body swayed aside from the creature's clumsy lunges. Distantly Fei saw the deformed hand reach and grab, snatching at what seemed to be a dancing shadow, and there was a horrible crack accompanied by a sickening tearing crunch.
But apart from a low vicious snarl of pain, Rico seemed unaffected, and through his darkening eyes Fei saw a dim black figure, patches of orange flaming, lift the entire massive body upwards, forcing it into the air with it's good arm, shoulders and back, then hurl it down to the ground, and with the same impetus charge forward, one foot stomping brutally down into the centre of the deformed face. But even as that last bone-wrenching crunch hammered downwards, Fei felt his grip on reality first loosen, then give way completely.
"Your physical strength seems positively inhuman." Citan wheezed, lying on the hard mouldy bricks as if they had been a comfortable feather mattress.
Rico shot forth one of his harsh barking laughs. "That's good - because I ain't human, am I?"
One big hand reached down and Citan gripped it, pulling himself to his feet rather as if he were scaling a huge black mountain. But even as he gained the swaying summit of his ascent he stumbled, brushing lightly against Rico, thick hair damp and reaking of sewer condensation falling against the Demi-human's leathers. Citan's shoulder touched the huge creature's mangled left arm even as he righted himself, adjusting his glasses across his eyes while he still held gratefully to Rico's rock like hand. "Your arm is broken Ricardo?"
"Nothin'." Rico growled, Citan released the huge hand and walked over to the shattered treatment plant doorway to retrieve his torch.
"There is something wrong." The doctor looked concernedly at Rico's left arm. It hung at a peculiar angle, and there seemed to be several bulges beneath the sleek covering of leather. Citan's eyes widened in tired worry as a trickle of thick globular blood flowed stickily from the dangling sleeve to fall in a fat wet droplet onto the already slimy floor. "That looks like a compound fracture - a seriously mangled one I should imagine."
Rico gave one of his massive barking laughs. "I shouldn't worry - we inhumans heal very quickly."
Citan walked staggeringly over to the demi-human, one hand reaching inside his jacket, his body trembling with exhaustion. "Take some of these Benzedrine --- and this Aquasol." With uncharacteristic obedience Rico plucked the two bottles from the doctor's outstretched hands, stowing one in his pocket with his good hand while he swallowed some tablets, then pouring some of the etheric medicine down his throat with a quick violent jerk of his head.
For a brief moment green sparks glimmered out into the darkness, radiating from the huge black statue like fireflies fleeing a mountain, for a brief few seconds showing the under sewers in all their noisome glory, the light unwelcome. With the slow measured tread of the healer Citan crossed to Fei, his light playing delicately over the young man's naked chest. The skin was puckered and blistered; ugly shiny burns marring the smooth tanned surface.
Wordlessly Citan bent, his lips briefly tightening as the knee he had bruised in his fall twinged unpleasantly. Like a father he knelt beside Fei, pulling the young man's head onto his lap so that Fei's long dark hair washed over the doctor's knees onto the floor. Lying unconscious he appeared peculiarly peaceful, all the lines of guilt and fear on his face smoothed. Once more Citan was struck by how young he was, his face hard but still open beneath its sheet of damp hair.
With something that was almost tenderness he pulled a bottle from his pocket and poured a few drops onto Fei's chest, washing expressionless as solar flairs of lemon coloured light washed peacefully outwards, for a few instance changing this cold sewer into something else, a smaller place, simply he and Fei surrounded by light, safe and warm and separate from reality.
"Doc - " Fei's eyes opened slowly, for an instant puzzled and warm, naked as a child's, then suddenly full of hard urgent adult fear. "I'm sorry Doc, I - "
"You could not help it - that poison was extremely toxic. But do not worry - " Citan's voice was calm and measured, a healers voice once more, assuring a patient. "- the physiol I dosed you with should counteract it though."
Fei sat up, shivering as the damp air attacked his skin. The darkness stretched around them, beneath and above and away to either side, thick and black, only the meagre light of Citan and Rico's torches flitting about in it's black obsequious depths like small fish, deep under a mass of solid, suffocating sea.
Citan stood wearily, glancing over to where Rico was poking his head into the filthy sewerage treatment plant where Redrum had had its nest. When the big man turned, one massive slab of a hand was cradling something small and grey. Citan played his torch gently upon it, the light caressing it's tarnished out of shape surface. Then suddenly the Solarian's eyes widened, growing sombre and glistening like skies over parting lovers.
"It's - a bell." Rico's voice was mystified, and he stared down at the small piece of metal in his hand with green eyed grim perplexity.
Fei stood, and shuffled over to them, his eyes running over the sad little thing in the demi-human's hand. It was grey --- though the way the torchlight caught it, Fei half wondered if it were really silver, tarnished and disfigured beyond repair, changed from a dainty little ornament to a small ugly piece of trash.
"That monster - had almost human intellect."
Rico nodded tiredly, his twisted lips set in a snarl of ferocious pain.
"So." Citan's voice was quiet and soft, not the same black emptiness he had said before, but now merely a weary resignation, his face lined and drawn, his eyes dim and old and suffering. "It had human intelligence - or should I say, had left." With a brisk shrug the doctor shook himself, his stained clothes throwing tendrils of gruesome green gunk at the thick brick walls. "Well - the job's done. Now, maybe we ought to get back."