* * *
It is a dark time for the people of Arrendu. Zenethor, the almighty being who descended from the stars, has been reawakened after two centuries.
Two young men, AJ and Sydo, confronted his devoted acolyte, Azeer, but the villain retreated to a secret lair, located somewhere amongst a network of underground tunnels once used for smuggling.
Carrying a message that must reach the few others aware of this imminent danger, our heroes must elude Azeer’s mind-controlled enforcers as they navigate this unfamiliar maze…
* * *
AJ awoke on the concrete floor of Sydo’s long-neglected apartment. Even with their safety apparently assured he hadn’t trusted enough to sleep deep. It was strangely easy to get accustomed to sleeping light when your life so often depended on it.
He sat up and saw that the serum he’d left brewing was now proofing, with enough ready for a few doses. He loaded some into the syringe and headed into the main room to check on Sydo.
To AJ’s amazement, Sydo was already up, playing around with his then-charging engineering staff.
“Hey,” AJ greeted.
Sydo said nothing, holding one hand up. He made a few minor adjustments then pressed a button. Nothing happened. Sydo furrowed his brow.
“Is that good or bad?” AJ asked.
“That depends on your perspective. I just unlocked and opened a door several blocks from here.”
“That’s pretty impressive.”
“Only, I’m not sure which door.”
“Yeah. Good for distractions, perhaps, but not so great for planning an escape route.”
“I guess finding one of the other components on your list would have allowed such precision?”
“I take it this means you’ve succeeded in increasing the range?”
“Yep. It might not be too much help if we come to multiple paths, but it should at least give us a better idea of the rough direction we need to be heading in.”
“We’re bound to start running into more guards soon. You know where we can get some better disguises?”
“Already taken care of.” Sydo picked up a small circular device and blindly pointed it towards AJ.
“What is it?”
“Voice modulator. Makes you sound like an old man.”
“Just pull your robe over your head, hunch slightly, and no one will suspect a thing. I even made a scabbard for your sword that makes it look like a walking stick.”
AJ approached the new sheath resting atop the workbench. It was pretty convincing for a wraparound cover. “You really made this?”
“Well, I had some old pieces of wood lying around, so all I had to do was break one into strips and stick them to a larger cover.”
“It’s good to know I can pull my weapon out in a hurry if need be.”
“It wouldn’t be much use if you couldn’t.”
“I can just imagine you making me duel like an old man too.”
“What do you take me for? You? Besides, the idea is to not get into a fight… you can go five minutes without eviscerating someone, yes?”
“Hang on, did the drug addict just preach to me about self control?”
“Hey, I used to be an addict. There’s a difference. Don’t forget, I haven’t maimed a single person my entire life.”
“It’s a wonder you’re still alive. Then again, you were poisoned…”
“Just proves my point, that’s all.”
“I made one mistake, okay?”
“Around here, that’s all it takes. Anyway, what disguise did you fashion for yourself?”
“Little old lady.”
AJ laughed. “You what?”
“Sydo, you’re a genius, but you’re also seriously messed up in the head.”
“Yeah, I know. It probably won’t get us very far, but at the very least it’ll give us a chance to see what we’re dealing with in terms of enemy occupancy. And no one ever follows old people, especially if they’re arguing.”
“So… we just use these to head to another safe house?”
“Hoping we can find one, yeah. Unless you have a better plan?”
“Nope, that sounds perfectly fine to me.” He held the syringe up. “You ready for a top-up?”
Sydo leaned his head to the side, exposing his neck. AJ leaned forwards and injected a dose. Sydo winced.
“You feeling okay?”
“Yeah, just a little sore.”
“Joints still feeling stiff?”
“That sucks. Any new growths?”
“I’m not sure. The pain where you dug out that small growth is back. Could you take a look?”
“Sure.” AJ sat cross-legged behind Sydo, who slipped his shirt off. “Shit.”
“That bad, huh?”
AJ surveyed the cracked crystalline formation. “It could be better. It’s in the same spot, but it’s way bigger…”
Sydo said nothing. AJ didn’t need to mention that the corruption had reached the next stage; they both knew it. Removing one growth would only produce more. There was no way to stop it now.
“It’s probably best if I leave it,” AJ said.
“No. It hurts like crazy. Please take it out. At least that’ll give me some relief… for a little while. It wouldn’t be so bad if I just knew how much time I had left.”
“I’d rather not know. Having a clock that told me the exact number of days until I died would drive me mad.”
“I guess I can understand that. You might just give up when there’s still time left.”
“You’re not gone yet. You still have time to finish what we started.”
“That’d be about right though, given my luck. Drop dead from this shit before I get a chance to make that bastard pay.”
“Let me treat you before you get all morbid on me. It might not be as bad as you think.” AJ prodded it. Sydo grunted. “Then again, it is pretty deep.”
“Can you get it out?”
“Maybe… but the last one was deep enough, and that was tiny compared to this. All I can tell you for sure is that it’ll hurt like a bitch.”
“Just do whatever you have to.” Sydo handed AJ his knife. “There are needles and some thread in the medicine cabinet for afterwards. I wish I had a mouthguard right about now.”
AJ injected more serum beneath the growth, then carefully inserted the knife. Sydo shuddered in pain. An inch deep, AJ still couldn’t find the base of the growth.
“Hold on,” AJ warned, “I’ve got to go deeper.”
Sydo took several deep breaths then nodded. AJ plunged the blade deeper. Sydo screamed through clenched teeth. AJ could only imagine the agony. The blade hit what felt like bone.
“That’s not good,” AJ remarked.
“Tell me that doesn’t mean what I think it does.”
“I think so. I think it’s growing from the bone.”
“Damn it. I suppose it had to happen eventually.”
“There must be something else I can do…”
“Just inject some more serum, as deep as you can get it.”
“It’s not like I have the equipment or you have the knowledge to perform bone surgery.”
“But there must be someone—“
“AJ, forget it. That’s it. I’m done.” Sydo shook his head and laughed. “Death’s a real bastard, huh? You can give him the runaround, but he’ll catch you in the end. I guess he finally wore me out.”
AJ carefully pulled the knife out then inserted the syringe into the deep wound. He injected the rest of the serum he had. Maybe it would buy Sydo a little more time.
“Where’s that medicine cabinet?” AJ asked.
“Over there.” Sydo pointed to a dark corner.
AJ approached, procured a needle and some thread, and sewed Sydo’s wound closed.
“All done,” AJ announced. “You rest up for a moment while I bottle up the rest of the serum.”
“All right, but don’t take too long. I’m itching to get going.”