Here be Monsters
“Doctor?” A female technician poked her head around the door, cutting off the argument between Ruthy and Baillargeon. The woman, who was around the same age as Rashari himself, looked harried, almost panicked.
“What is it?” Baillargeon rounded on the technician, whirling on stick-thin legs, his white coat flapping. The technician flinched back a step.
“S-sir, there’s a problem with subject Thirty-Two. Doctor Monsell asked me to come and get you.”
“Can that bloody woman not do her job without constant supervision?” Baillargeon demanded of everyone and no one at once. “What is the problem this time?” He snapped out between precise clicks of his teeth.
“Sir,” The technician bit her lip. “It’s happening again, just like subject Seventeen.”
Baillargeon paled, he opened his mouth and then closed it without making a sound, teetering on his back foot, caught on the edge of taking a step back. He caught himself at the last instant. Rashari was surprised when he turned to glare directly at him.
“Get up, you are coming with me. I will not lose another test subject.” He whirled and strode toward the door, forcing the technician to take a hurried step back.
Rashari was hauled to his feet by his two guards and frog-marched out the door. He was aware of Ruthy and Jaquard falling into step behind him. Assistant Thibeaux and the female technician ran along at the very rear. They formed an odd procession marching through the complex. Rashari looked around him, noted the many small rooms crammed with computers and work stations, staffed with white coated technicians, most of whom didn’t even look up at their passing. There were several security doors, manned by Imperial soldiers, and a series of gangtry walkways suspended over a mass of pulsing generators and pipes. They crossed into another of the buildings adjoining the tower and past a series of offices. Another checkpoint and a set of stairs led them into the tower proper – Rashari could tell immediately. There was an ache in the walls, which fairely groaned with ghosts pressed into the masonry.
The moment the adjoining door hissed closed with a whisper of pressurised air Rashari became aware of the screaming – a hideous, mangled sound – barely human. It was coming from below them, the walls of the tower echoing with the sound. The reek of phantasma and anima hit his nostrils like the proverbial blast from the past as his guards marched him down a spiral stair. He knew where they were headed, down into the bowls of the tower –the big hollow chamber where the pipes came up from the ground - the place where his father had imprisoned Smith all those years ago. Dread settled like a rock in the pit of his stomach. The screaming grew louder the lower they went.
The stench of anima and phantasma gas at the bottom of the stairs was thick enough to make him gag. The basement laboratory was much as he remembered it; a large stone chamber filled with equipment. The walls were lined with humming machinery, the stone floor striped with heavy cables feeding power between relays. Dozens of pipes sprouted from the floor and climbed the walls to the ceiling like steel plated columns. Instead of Smith’s glass and steel bell-jar cage, a series of examination tables had been bolted to the floor inside a transparent glass room. It had four walls and a glass ceiling and sat in the middle of the chamber like an upside-down fishtank. Ventilation grates were set high up in the glass walls and there was an almost invisible door cut into one side. The screaming was coming from one of the -things – strapped down to the examination beds.
There were six beds in total, and five of them appeared to be occupied by people. They had arms, legs, heads and torsos –and he was reasonably sure they were human. Each was restrained to the bed in four point restraints. Clumps of electrodes and wires sprouted from their chests like fungal growths. Each person on a bed wore an odd contraption around their head. It looked like a cross between a helmet and a halo; an almost delicate mesh of dainty wires criss-crossing back and forth between sunction pads and electrodes attached directly to the shaved head of each test subject. Twinkling lights sparked between the wires framing their heads, glittering in jewel bright colours like the nodes on a technomantic interface. More tubes and wires crawled down the test subjects’ arms, which were skewered with needles. Four of the test subjects were pale skinned, and the flesh of their arms was livid with the tell-tale mark of necromantic poisoning - under grey skin their veins burned black as coal. All five of the discernably human test subjects were completely still and limp, lying naked and uncovered on the beds; only the upward rise and fall of the thicket of wires, tubes and electrodes clumped over their hearts suggesting their bodies still breathed. The sixth test subject was another story altogether.
“Chaos take me,” Jaquard breathed at Rashari’s shoulder sounding genuinely shocked. “What is that thing?”
A trio of lab coated scientists had gathered around the sixth examination bed. Two of the three were trying to hold down the thrashing, screaming body just barely secured to the table while the third – a woman in middle age with salt and pepper hair pulled back into a severe bun –tried to inject the subject with something. That wasn’t what stole the breath from Rashari’s lungs and made him feel weak at the knees however.
There was a shard of green crystal growing out of the test subject’s chest. It was about as long and as wide as Rashari’s forearm, and was the colour of a rain washed emerald. At first Rashari thought the test subject had been impaled. Then the test subject – a man – bucked up from the bed, his spine bowing, and Rashari saw that the flesh of his torso was studded with much smaller outcroppings of the same coloured crystal. His skin, once a rich ebony was now dark grey, thin and flaking away around patches of glittering multi-faceted crystal. The major protrusion centred over his chest looked like a geode. Smaller spears of crystalline stone sprouted like sunbeams from his breastbone in all directions, framing the larger spear which struck straight up out of his chest. Rashari had never seen anything like it. The man was becoming living crystal.
Baillargeon grabbed his arm, his bony fingers digging in sharply. “Do something. Fix this.” The scientist hissed, all but throwing him toward the glass box. Baillargeon slapped his hand on the computerised security pad, wrenched open the glass door and hauled Rashari toward the sixth examination bed. Rashari was too stunned to resist.
Up close the sight was even more horrifying. He looked down at the man’s face. Wild eyes stared up at him. (Gods above, the man was awake.) A ridge of crystal crusted over his eyebrows and down the bridge of his nose. Sharp crystal spikes ruptured his left cheek, and the man’s jaw rolled unnaturally, lips spreading open oddly, as if his mouth was full of crystal inside and out. Rashari tried not to imagine crystals crawling down the man’s esophagus even as the man screamed his throat raw. There was nothing sane in the man’s eyes. They rolled wildly in their sockets, the whites yellowed with old blood from numerous burst capillaries. When Rashari caught the man’s gaze briefly all he saw was acres and acres of mindless animal agony. Rashari jerked his gaze away, and ended up staring down at his chest and the mass of crystal growing there. There was something at the very centre, sitting at the base of the crystal protrusion. The crystal shard wasn’t growing directly out of the man’s heart after all, instead it was....
“....No. No.” Rashari jerked back, ripping his arm free of Baillargeon. He felt as wild and crazed as the man on the bed looked. He thought he might throw up. He stared at Baillargeon. “No you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t use the scion stone for this.”
He took another step back and crashed into the nearest examination bed, his back thunking agains the the stainless steel edge. Unthinkingly he reached out behind him to steady himself and his fingers brushed against cool, clammy skin. He flinched, whirled around and stared at the woman lying on the bed. Embedded into the flesh between her breasts sat a very familiar piece of dull grey-white stone, no larger than a coin, smooth as an ocean pebble – a piece of Smith’s shattered scion stone. A piece no different than the one he’d carried embedded in his left palm. Rashari clenched his fists reflexively, acutely aware of the rough edged hole in his palm. He’d known that more pieces of Smith’s scion stone existed. He’d known that his father and DeLunde must have them, but he’d never imagined, never dreamed that they’d use them for this.
“What did you do?” He demanded, voice rising and cracking but he just didn’t care. “Pit damn you – what have you done?”
The man on the bed screamed again, bucking off the bed, head thrown back, broken jaw open wide on a garbled, horrendous howl. Baillargeon snatched his arm and threw him forward again.
“You can control it.” He hissed in Rashari’s ear, the spindly man somehow finding the strength to all but bend Rashari over the bed, until his face was dangerously close to the longest point of crystal. “Fix this. Stop this from happening.”
Rashari stared at Baillargeon, shaken out of his horror just enough to feel something like stunned incredulity. “Fix it? How can I fix this? I don’t...I don’t even though what you’ve done.”
Baillargeon opened his mouth, might even have answered him, but whatever answer he might have given was cut off before it could begin when the man on the bed lunged forward, head lashing up like a striking snake, and one arm twisting free of the restraint. He grabbed Rashari as the nearest warm body. The man’s cold, clammy hand latched around his left wrist.
It felt like he’d just shoved his head into a phantasma engine; it felt like he’d just drained a whole magazine of necromantic bullets. A connection formed between Rashari and the man-monster on the bed. He felt the negative space that had eaten the man alive – his body was a ruined sepulchre, a breathing graveyard for ghosts, any trace of the man who once lived in this body devoured by the death energy he’d been forced to channel through the scion fragment stuck in his chest. Rashari saw it all, like a play enacted before his eyes. He saw what DeLunde had done, how they’d charged the scion fragments with necromantic energy, like a mini phantasma battery, and stuck it right over the man’s heart. He felt the ghost memory of necromantic poisoning creeping through the man’s body, leaving him neither dead nor alive, his heart rotten and cold but still beating. He felt the ghost aftershocks reverberating through the man’s still breathing corpse as he was blasted with wave after wave of phantasma-anima fumes. DeLunde had hoped the scion fragment would start to convert the energy, becoming a deific catalyst, drawing on the tiny whisper of life still trapped in the man’s body to power the conversion.
This was how DeLunde was producing their deific power. These poor bastards - they were nothing more than living batteries, short lived and easily discarded. None of these men and women would ever be catalysts; they were dead in their souls and their ghosts had been devoured by the wraiths inside the phantasma Baillargeon had poisoned them with. There was no way to fix any of this. The bodies on the beds were beyond any help. They weren’t people anymore. They weren’t monsters, like Rashari and his scorpion. Their bodies were turning into pure deific crystal.
Rashari didn’t have time to pity the poor bastards, nor did have any chance of stopping what was about to happen. A connection had been forged, and just like he would when exposed to any direct source of death magic Rashari felt the scorpion’s hunger rising up. The scorpion used Rashari’s shock to its advantage, surging upwards to the surface. To the scorion the man strapped to the bed was another meal, no different from a phantasma engine or a handful of necro bullets. The scorpion’s hunger flooded his brain until Rashari couldn’t tell where it ended and he began. (Maybe there was no difference? Maybe he was the hunger and the hunger was him.) His fingers curled around the man’s cold hand, gripping tight. Light flared in front of his eyes, his vision washed away in cold white. He tasted static, the clean bite of shaved ice, and smelled the sickly sweet reek of spoiled meat. He heard a rushing in his ears, a roar like the crash of huge waves, or the howl of a gale through a tunnel. The scorpion drank deep.
It was over quickly. He felt a surge of energy, his heart skipping a beat, his breath catching in a hiccup of brief euphoria as the ghosts festering inside the man’s body flowed up through his arm, sparking free of the spikes of crystal bursting out of his flesh, and into Rashari. They flowed into him, and the scorpion swallowed them all down, down into the vast emptiness at its heart. He felt it when the man’s heart stopped.
Rashari opened his eyes, releasing the man’s limp hand. The dead man’s eyes stared upward, clouded white like the eyes of a dead fish. There was a powdery residue covering the man’s face. Rashari looked down at his chest. The outcropping of crystals had shattered into tiny shards, little splinters of glittering glass and green tinted powder. Pieces of the crystal covered the man’s chest and the table underneath him. Powder residue also covered the front of Rashari’s coat, and coated his lips when he flicked his tongue out to wet them. It would be wrong to say that the man looked restful laying there, the crystal extrusions that had crusted his body like open sores nothing more than shining powder limning his dead skin, but he at least had the dignity of looking human in death.
Slowly Rashari lifted his head to look at the other people gathered against the far wall of the glass box. Baillargeon stared at him, expression caught between fear and outrage. The female scientist with the silvered bun looked pale, Jaquard was not smiling and Ruthy was frowning. Rashari blinked, feeling strangely quiet inside, his old wounds not quite closed, the coldness of the hunger still clinging to his skin. The scorpion was with him, sitting just behind his eyes, but sated and quiescent. Distantly he knew that the scorpion was always the most dangerous when it appeared resting but the thought was dull and vague. He couldn’t make himself feel alarmed about what had just happened. Everything seemed just a little unreal. (Perhaps he was in shock? Perhaps all this was just a particularly hideous nightmare? Maybe he’d wake up if he pinched himself?)
“You were supposed to stop it.” Baillargeon said, voice quavering not with fear but anger. “You stupid boy; you were supposed to save the subject.”
“I did.” He replied, and his voice sounded odd to his ears. He thought that he should worry about that too. He smiled instead, smiled and fixed Baillargeon with eyes he didn’t know burned blue. The scientist blanched. Rashari laughed and felt the scorpion shift a little, like a lazy predator curled around his thoughts. His smile stretched wider, showing teeth. It was about time these bastards remembered that he was the biggest monster in the room.