Nicholas’s initial invigorated, running gait had soured into a
slow-trudging stomp, matching how his disposition had gone from
exhilarated and frightened to pissed-off and self-pitying. The sun was
burning upon his weary skin despite the canopy of tree limbs overhead,
combining with the chilling breeze to make him feel both sweaty and
frigid all at once. It was a pronouncedly uncomfortable sensation.
“Fuck my life…” he muttered between raspy gasps for air.
Running away from home had seemed like the best possible option given his circumstances, but he’d been out wandering blindly in the dense forest for hours until he realized his parents probably wouldn’t even care enough to look for him. Why would they decide to trouble themselves now of all times? They’d been threatening to kick him out for Christ’s sake, and all he’d really done was save them the trouble.
Just as Nicholas was thinking of giving up and heading back to his miserable, apathetic excuse for a home life, he noticed something that made him do a double-take. There were tracks left by a four-by-four vehicle of some sort in the mud in front of him, fresh ones too. This part of the woods had no good hunting seasons and was a fair distance away from the nearest small city of Alpenview. Nicholas figured he might as well find out where the tracks led. He had nothing else he could really do to occupy himself out here, and if he found someone with a truck maybe they’d give him a ride back and save him the long walk.
Along the way he noticed several tattered pieces of paper nailed to trees with a tall, shadowy figure scrawled on each one. He didn’t quite know what to make of that, but then again the events of the past twenty-four hours had seemed nothing if not consistently surreal.
It was then time for surprise number three: the tracks led to a well-worn road, albeit a dirt one but a heavily-travelled route nonetheless. This was getting strange, no one was supposed to be out here this time of year. There was just nothing of interest that Nicholas was aware of in this area to attract visitors. Just as the gears began to turn and it finally clicked to Nicholas that this road must have been used very recently by the same vehicle if the earlier tracks were any indication, he heard a muffled but nevertheless very harsh-sounding voice bark a single command.
“Hands in the air, bitch!”
Turning around Nicholas couldn’t help but let out an undignified, less than masculine little shriek. A man (to judge by the voice) stood there, with the swagger of one who held mastery of the situation in the palm of their hand. He must have been dead silent to have masked his approach so well. He was clad in a gas mask, trench coat, work boots, and for some reason rubber gloves. And he had a black polymer assault rifle leveled straight at Nicholas.
“I said put your hands above your head or I’ll blow it off your shoulders!” the man demanded of him.
Not wishing for that to happen anytime soon, Nicholas complied without hesitation.
“Alright. Now just walk in front of me and do what I say. Don’t make any sudden movements” the man ordered. Through his gas mask the statement was reduced to a mumble but it was still audible.
After a forced march for the longest ten or so minutes of Nicholas’s life the two arrived at the apparent source of the earlier tracks: a late-model Ford pickup truck with a machine gun of some sort mounted on a tripod in the bed. There were two other persons dressed in a fashion identical to Nicholas’s captor. One was manning the weapon fitted to the vehicle, and another one was sitting in the driver’s seat of the cab. Nicholas realized just then that they all had the same symbol present on at least one article of their clothing, and painted on the truck’s driver door as well. It was a cross with a line vertical to each point and a large “X” shape in the center.
“Everyone, this is Emmanuel reporting in.”
Nicholas glanced over and saw the man who had taken him in was speaking into a walkie-talkie.
“The search is over, yeah, I’ve got him…yeah, come right back. Over" the man apparently named Emmanuel said as he hooked the walkie-talkie to a clip on his belt before turning to Nicholas. “Okay, now answer this very, very carefully.”
“Y-yeah?” Nicholas responded with obvious unease.
“Are you lost or were you specifically looking for this place?” the man asked of him.
“I ran away from home, so I’d say lost. Why? What place is this? Are you guys survivalists or something?” Nicholas inquired.
“Not like I should tell you, but since you’re apparently just in way over your head I guess I can let you know. No. We’re not survivalists. We’re a cult.”
“….oh shit…” Nicholas had meant to say that in his head but couldn’t refrain from speaking it aloud.
Over the next few minutes the remaining two members of the search party that had apparently been dispatched to find Nicholas reported back one at a time. The two others escorted Nicholas into the back of the truck and sat there with him, fingers on their weapons’ trigger guards as the driver gunned the engine. As they began the drive to God knew where, Nicholas asked a question that had been bothering him.
“How did you guys find me so quick?”
“Talkative, aren’t you? Well I’ll field that one” the driver said. “The same way we found out we had an interloper in the first place: we’ve got closed circuit cameras and a lot of manned sentry posts all over this place. They’re well-hidden in natural defilades and the like, so I’m not surprised that a random kid like you wasn’t able to notice them.”
The drive ended at what looked like a hunting lodge or a rich person’s secluded second house, although Nicholas knew it probably wasn’t either of those things.
“A’ight, here we are. Come with us inside the compound and do as you’re told. Don’t try any sudden moves unless you want to die” the woman who had been sitting to his right for the right said as she stepped out. Nicholas had always wondered why crazy pseudo-militant groups seemed to attract only a few women as compared to men.
After being escorted inside Nicholas was equal parts impressed and terrified. The resemblance to a lodge or social club was vaguely there, emphasis on vaguely, although while making their way through the corridors and chambers every door held the unspoken promise of concealing something unspeakable behind it. The cult motif was certainly present, with occult symbols on tapestries and Renaissance paintings of Hell mixed in with the wine racks full of expensive red vintages and a state of the art PA system blasting a Hollywood Undead playlist mixed with a little Noisia. Those other people that were present seemed to be mostly Caucasian and Latino men in their early twenties, judging by those that had their facial coverings removed. Nicholas knew he was an outsider here, sensing the burning glares he was receiving that was palpable even from those still wearing their gasmasks. That symbol on their clothes was present too, emblazoned over practically every surface, person and object.
Eventually they made their way down an unnecessarily long staircase, arriving at an imposing ebony-wood door. Nicholas wondered half-seriously if the stairs had been elongated such as to simply further cement the theatrical aspects of the atmosphere as a whole.
“We’re here” the driver said as he knocked on the door.
“Come in, my children” a voice, male with a slight South American accent, called from inside.
The woman held the door open while Nicholas was escorted inside. The interior of the area beyond was exquisitely furnished; it was blatantly clear that no expense or expression of impeccable taste for the finer things had been spared. The furniture was all antique, baroque in its theme. Red was the predominant colour scheme, present in the form of tapestries and rugs made from exotic and no doubt very much endangered animals. There were quite a few books on various eclectic subjects present as well, lying on tables and in piles on the floor. Many of them appeared quite aged.
And seated on a leather couch directly in front of Nicholas was the one who must have been the leader. While he would otherwise be a rather unremarkable, Hispanic male in his late twenties, his smile and superior glare exuded ultimate authority. And stitched onto the left breast of his suit was the same symbol Nicholas had noticed here so many times.
“Where are the Praetorians, Jake?” one of the previously silent characters that had escorted Nicholas queried.
“They’re out securing a territory dispute” the leader who was evidently named Jake responded. “A real shame, there’s a gang war about to happen on the east side and I would have needed them there. But we can talk about business later. You there. What’s your name?”
Realizing he had been the one addressed, Nicholas responded took a moment to collect his thoughts before he noticed the cult leader impatiently tapping the ball of his foot. Not wishing to end up with his skin being made into a soup bowl or whatever cults did to their captives these days, Nicholas cut to the chase.
“My name is Nicholas Veresk. I was just wandering at random around here after running away from my horrible excuses for parents. I guess I took a few wrong turns. But, I mean, I know I’m not in a place to demand anything, but I at least want to know one thing. Who are you?”
“You’re not afraid of me?” Jake was still smiling so it didn’t seem he’d been offended. More likely he was merely entertained.
Jake seemed to be a man of leisure, content to let others do his work for him. Or at least that was the impression that Nicholas got. Ordinarily men and women with that attitude disgusted Nicholas to no small end, but this one time he figured he should probably bite his tongue lest it end up cut out.
“Not really. Even if you kill me or sacrifice me or whatever you’re just a human like me at the end of the day” Nicholas shrugged.
Jake’s eyes widened with delight and one of the cultists giggled wildly. This leader called Jake reached under his suit, producing a silver-plated Colt .45 with “King of Worms” engraved on the side in cursive from a concealed shoulder holster. Nicholas recognized it as a marksman’s custom-made model as built by the original manufacturer. A bead of sweat ran down Nicholas’s neck as he thought that maybe this Jake guy had in fact been offended. Or so he thought until Jake put the barrel to his own head and fired.
Instead of slumping dead on his cracked leather sofa, two things happened that really shouldn’t have. First, Jake kept staring at Nicholas with that entertained little grin, curving his lips into an even tighter smile after apparently committing suicide. His eyes still looked alive, and he even blinked purposely. Second, instead of fragments of bone and brain matter exploding out of wound left by the large-caliber round, various vermin such as maggots, tics, and locusts had emerged from the hole in his head which promptly closed before so much as two seconds had even passed.
“What…what-I-“ Nicholas stuttered.
“I am the King of Worms. I am the daemon in charge of this little extracurricular club known as the Charnel Worms, and I’m doing a fairly good job at it if you ask me. Now then, what did you have to say about me being human?”
“That was awesome.”
“Hmmm?” Nicholas had seemed to legitimately catch this King of Worms off-guard. His cultists seemed stunned beyond speech.
“That was fucking awesome! Can all your followers do that?!” Nicholas asked, eyes sparkling with genuine excitement.
“No…no, they can’t. But at the risk of sounding like a stereotypical Mob boss, I like your attitude, kid. I do, I really do! I was expecting you to turn into a gibbering wreck like, well, everyone else I’ve ever done that too!” the King of Worms laughed.
“Hell no, I’m not scared. Why would I be scared? I know this is sudden but can I join you guys?” a downright giddy Nicholas asked.
“Is this kid alright?” the woman who had accompanied him asked nobody in particular. Of course, the question was entirely rhetorical.
“Well I admit I wasn’t prepared to hear that” Jake admitted, still not sure what exactly to make of this odd young man.
“But can I? Join the Charnel Worms, I mean.” Nicholas’s pleading tone would have been more appropriate if he had been a child begging for his mother to buy him a bag of candy at the grocery store.
Nicholas had at all times been a bit odd. That was the thing about the types who became serial or spree killers, they very rarely acted like complete lunatics. Otherwise they would be easy to spot coming, so to speak. Men who were cracked and on the edge of pulling the proverbial trigger, men like Nicholas, were usually eccentric at most. So in that sense, at the least, the lust Nicholas had to take life and thereby gratify some inner daemon was to be expected. Nicholas obviously had nothing to lose in his current state, which the King of Worms knew well even if his instincts didn’t confirm it too. He could make use of this strange young man yet.
“Tell you what, you say you ran away from home? I have a test for you to prove your loyalty” Jake said
He beckoned Nicholas to come closer before leaning in low. The King of Worms then spent about a minute whispering something in Nicholas’s ear before leaning back in his seat again. Nicholas’s expression didn’t change one iota when he answered.
“I’ll do it.”
“Without even a moment’s hesitation or deliberation! You’ll go far here” Jake smirked. “Now listen, I’m willing to induct you as a temporary member until then. And I’ll explain why. In addition to acting as a cult we also function as a street gang. I guess you could say I had some experience doing that stuff before daemonhood, and they say you should stick with what you know. A gang war is brewing and we’re staging a pre-emptive strike on a safehouse of theirs. We need every extra gun we can get…”
The King of Worms trailed off as he seemed to remember something important.
“Which reminds me, weapons aren’t free. Do you have money?” he asked.
“Yeah. Before I left I stole my dad’s thousand dollar biweekly pay, from his under-the-table job” Nicholas answered.
“Holy fuck you’re twisted. I think you might just be my new favourite. Anyway, go see Andre upstairs, he’ll hook you up. Emmanuel, take him up there, we can give him the tour when he gets back. Assuming he’s still in one piece. The rest of you stay with me, I need some company. Redsy’s gone and wandered off. Again. You can all wait for those Emmanuel and the newcomer at your vehicle after we’re done chatting.”
After shutting the ebony door behind them, once they began the climb back up the overlong stairwell Emmanuel spoke when they were safely out of earshot.
“I’m impressed, dude. I thought we’d end up burying you in the back garden with the others who wander into these parts but hey, I was dead wrong.”
“Yeah, I surprise people a lot” Nicholas replied noncommittally. “By the way, what were those pieces of paper in the forest I saw? A warning?”
“I guess you could say that. Not ours though. Those belong to Slender and his proxies” Emmanuel said like that answered everything, instead of purely confusing Nicholas further.
“What’s a Slender?”
“It’s just a nickname for Slenderman, an old spirit that occupies forests. The woods around Alpenview are one of them; that’s why so many kids go missing here. Well, that and…other reasons. Namely us” Emmanuel snickered.
“You said Slenderman was old. How old?” Nicholas asked inquisitively as they neared the top of the stairs.
“It’s existed before our current universe was born, but that’s all I can tell you. Mainly because that’s actually all I know” Emmanuel answered, pausing in his steps before continuing. “Weird stuff if you ask me.”
The armory, handily located only a short distance away, was itself guarded by four men in ultra-heavy body and armour and wielding fearsome-looking semiautomatic shotguns. Within the area itself there was another character waiting for them, standing sentinel amidst racks of rifles and homebrewed Molotov cocktails. He was a heavily-tanned young man of indeterminate, possibly Indian or Middle Eastern ethnicity, with a hulking sort of frame to him. His workmen’s clothes were ripped and heavily frayed. Visible on his right cheek was a scar that had likely been left by a nasty chemical burn.
“Andre, we’ve got new blood” Emmanuel said to the one named Andre.
“What? Really?” Andre asked, blinking thrice in disbelief.
“It’s uh, a little complicated. But he needs the requisite firearms and he’s got an even thousand.”
“Okay then. Don’t worry, you get a discount as a member” Andre said, turning to Nicholas. “Every Worm needs a bulletproof vest, a longarm, a sidearm, a melee weapon, an explosive, and a chemical weapon. Something for every situation, ya know. You might notice nearly all our weaponry is Russian military surplus because-”
“Wait, a chemical weapon?” Nicholas asked, unable to hide the bubbling excitement in his voice.
“Yeah, we use a lot of self-produced mustard, sarin, and chlorine gas bombs in altercations. That’s what our gas masks and gloves are for, that and it helps with the fumes in the drug labs” Andre explained.
“I see. Thank you for explaining” Nicholas responded graciously.
“You gotta stop being so polite, kid.”
“Sorry. Please excuse me.”
“…never mind” Andre mumbled as he facepalmed.
After examining the stock in the armory and nearly cleaning out all of his stolen cash Nicholas had selected a Type IIIA bulletproof vest, an RMB-93 pump-action shotgun, an AEK-919K “Kashtan” machine pistol, a folding combat knife, and two nail bombs and chlorine gas canisters.
As part of this generous limited-time offer he also received his Charnel Worm’s “uniform”, the familiar gas mask, trench coat, heavy boots, and rubber gloves combo. He wished he had a mirror to see how cool he looked. Like most teenage boys he’d thought trench coats with guns were kind of badass ever since he’d first seen The Matrix.
“Alright then, you ready to go?” Emmanuel asked him.
“Go where?” Nicholas wheezed as he struggled to get used to his cumbersome facial covering.
“To kill some people.”
“What, we’re doing that now?!”
“Better sooner than later. What, you never fired a gun outside Call of Duty before?” Emmanuel asked incredulously.
“No, my dad used to let me use his Remington down at the range. That’s why I picked a shotgun” Nicholas explained.
“Then there’s no problem. Let’s get this ball rolling.”
Nicholas and Emmanuel swiftly and wordlessly jogged back all the way back outside to the same truck and group of cultists from earlier, who were already there waiting for them. The irony that he would be fighting next to people who had been willing to put a bullet in his head barely two hours earlier was not lost on Nicholas. However, after climbing into the back of the cab and pulling out along with three other off-road vehicles, the awkwardness Nicholas was feeling was beginning to eat at him. He figured he might as well make small talk to pass the time.
“Is there anything you can tell me about this group? Are there any leaders aside from that Jake guy?” he asked.
“No” the woman who still seemed to favour the passenger seat answered back. “But there are two elite sort of sub-groups within the Charnel Worms. The first are the Praetorians. These are The King of Worm’s personal bodyguard, although in practice they’re occasionally used for other highly important tasks. Those dudes are the best equipped and trained of the gang. The second are the Red Painters. These are a group of skilled snipers equipped with SVDS marksman rifles; here in the Charnel Worms we don’t do drive-bys. Too much potential for retribution and unwanted collateral damage. Instead we use the Red Painters to kill high-profile targets at a distance.”
“I see.” Nicholas figured he’d stay quiet for the rest of the trip. Whenever he was overwhelmed, he preferred silence.
A few hours later they were in Alpenview, having split up from the other vehicles. They were now driving down a street that looked completely deserted, the sort of place that even vagabonds and derelicts would avoid like the plague. Boarded-up windows, graffiti tags and smashed storefronts were in abundance in this part of the dying mining city. This epitomized really all there was to know about Alpenview. It was a languidly-dying city full of languidly-dying people.
Eventually, after driving through the lifeless urban wasteland for so long that Nicholas felt almost as if he’d entered Eraserhead’s world by mistake, they pulled around an (of-course) empty lot and the driver shut the engine off.
“A little bit of trivia for ya” one of the passengers said as they began disembarking. “We’re not all that far from the alley where Jake the human corpse turned into Jake the daemon.”
“Dare I ask?” Nicholas wondered. He then noticed the one who had been manning the machine gun in the bed was detaching it from the mount and unfolding its integral bipod.
“Wait, new question. You’re taking that thing with us?” he asked, wondering if a weapons that large could be practical in a fast-paced firefight.
“Yep. The basic design of the PKM machine gun is over sixty years old but it’s still one of the lightest weapons in its class, you can take it anywhere. Just so you know I’ll be outside the building, so if anyone on their side exposes their face I’ll tear it straight apart” the gunner explained.
“Sounds, uh, sounds like a plan” Nicholas said clumsily. Was this whole thing really going to happen?
“Yeah, you might notice we use more tactics than holding down the trigger until the problem goes away” Emmanuel added. “If you just run around shooting in the open during a firefight, nine time out of ten you’ll die in seconds.”
“One more thing, how does-“ Nick began, only to be carelessly cut off before he could have even flinched.
“Alright guys” Emmanuel said as he turned to the whole group. “Julia, me and Lyle will take the front. Nicholas and Parker will take the back. Matt, like you said, you’ll wait outside and provide fire support. Let’s move.”
The six cultists, Nicholas included, hustled through an open chain-link fence to the exposed buckled-in door at the rear of the building. Nicholas clumsily tripped over a long-forgotten trash bin in the process, interrupting several rat’s meals and narrowly avoiding a faceplant in the process, but he quickly recovered and no one seemed to have noticed. Matt then ran to a nearby warehouse, disappearing inside. He reappeared a minute later with his weapon and it’s belt-box of a hundred 7.62x54Rmm shells deployed on an upper windowsill, giving a thumbs-up to the rest of his group.
“Alright, let’s go!” Emmanuel shouted as he and his two squadmates of sorts raced to the front of the building, and Nicholas followed Parker into the back entrance double-doors.
Parker kicked them inwards in an unnecessarily dramatic fashion and Nicholas ducked inside, even having the presence of mind to check his corners as he did so. As unbelievable as it all felt, taking part in a probably gun-battle for the thinnest of reasons Nicholas felt oddly at home.
Within the dingy former apartment complex there were only a few subtle hints that somebody was still using this structure for anything other than shelter. Candy bar wrappers and empty needles littered the floor, along with empty shell casings in a corner where someone had evidently either been doing some target practice with a forty-five or had executed a few squealers. Nicholas absentmindedly thought that the latter reason would explain the lack of any corresponding shell marks on the walls. His mind was quickly ripped back to more pressing matters, namely the shouting and the echoing stomps of feet that could be heard reverberating from throughout the building. Nicholas tried not to think about how many of them could be in there as he and Parker began exploring the inner recesses of this urban Hell.
After only a few seconds inside he and Parker encountered their first problem. There was a branching hallway which seemed to extend for quite some length in either direction. The dim lighting only made each route’s distance appear even more interminably stretched.
“I’ll take right, you take left?” Parker suggested.
“Sounds good” Nicholas said. He and Parker split up, the two falling out of each other’s lines of sight in due course.
Nicholas began his sojourn down the corridor at a no-nonsense pace. There was a long period during which nothing stirred, leaving him mercifully alone with his thoughts. Still, something about his current scenario invoked a feeling of absolute paranoia in him. It was then that he abruptly heard frantic whispering coming from the other side of an apartment door. After a moment of brainstorming he realized he had the perfect answer. He reached into the pouch on his tactical vest which was full of shells and after briefly fumbling with it, produced a mustard gas penetrator slug. He hastily racked the slide of his shotgun back, loaded the round, and fired it directly into the door.
The steel nose of the slug splintered through the door, choking the inside of the room with the mustard gas payload. A tank-top clad man covered in thug tattoos shouldered the door open while coughing and sneezing. Unfortunately for him, Nicholas had already racked the slide again and he fired a 3” shell of tactical buckshot at his gut. The man crumpled like a paper doll in a trash compactor as those still inside the room blindly began returning fire. What with the blood seeping from their eyes and their lungs filling with fluid from the gas, their shots were needless to say completely scattered and random.
Nicholas strode into the barebones room which seemed to be a freebasing lab. He took careful aim, racking up kill after kill until the six-shell magazine of the shotgun had run dry. One of his opponents then managed to dive behind a table full of glass beakers while firing his AKS assault carbine. A burst of rifle shots connected with Nicholas’s chest. His vest took the brunt of the impact but Nicholas still reeled backwards from the shock and impact of the heavy .30 caliber rounds, and he fell in a heap onto the floor. He was pretty sure at least two of his ribs had been fractured and he figured since the bullets had broken through the vest he was probably bleeding internally too.
If there was one thing Nicholas had learned from Hollywood though, it was that the chemicals used to freebase cocaine were highly explosive. With that in mind he drew his Kashtan machine pistol and fired a clean one-handed burst at the equipment on the table in front of the wannabe gangster. The rate at which entire room went up in flames was nothing short of breathtaking, and the acrid fumes made Nicholas very glad he was wearing a gas mask. He crawled out of the room, hearing the agonized screams of the blazing man behind him grow less and less distinct against the growing roar of the fire.
Once back in the hall outside Nicholas laid down on the ground and began weighing his options. He knew had to get out, he was injured and because of years of neglect the building would probably be a flaming inferno within the hour. But before he could think of anything he was interrupted when the now barely-sane man he had set afire staggered out of the open doorway. Nicholas stuck his ankle out and tripped him, bringing the man’s peeling face crashing down next to his own.
Something broke in Nicholas when what he had done finally settled in. Confronted with this tortured, grotesque visage in front of him that was like this entirely due to his own actions, Nicholas realized the obvious. Instead of feeling guilty about having murdered five people and maimed another, he leaned in close to the man, pulling the hair that had melted into his scalp upwards so that he couldn’t look away.
Nicholas stared into the man’s terrified eyes for a good minute against the roaring backdrop of the fire. As the heat grew closer and closer to them second by second he tightened his grip, beginning to rip the hair clean out of the man’s jellied skin. Then, at last, Nicholas asked him a single question.
“Do I scare you?”