By Philip Bourque a.ka. Artificer Urza
Darkness, darkness as far as the eye could see. Darkness, void, emptiness, loneliness; all those described the landscape that the Old One called Mindi found herself in. She had been running, fleeing from some unknown, unspeakable horror for what seemed an eternity. She had been running forever for an infinite distance to escape, to be free and she knew if she stopped, even for an instant she would be caught. So, she ran, she didn’t look back and she prayed to whatever Powers were listening that she wouldn’t be caught.
Unfortunately, fate is rarely so kind, so giving to the pursued, even if they are the victims. Mindi tripped on something, in the vast and infinite darkness there were no shapes and thus no way to tell what she had tripped on. She did not fall to the ground, but her neck caught on a wire, it supported her, kept her from falling and strangled her, suffocating her at the same time. She tried to take the wire away, but she found she could not move her arms; she felt wire wrapped around her wrists and ankles, biting into the flesh, but not cutting off her circulation. She was afraid, deathly afraid: now HE would catch up to her, to taunt her, to torture her again. She could hear music as HE approached; creepy, eerie music as though some demented music box played for some deranged child’s amusement. In the darkness before her a Nikuzuki Nou-Men (Mask of Flesh), a white mask that had the appearance of an expressionless human face appeared, it was all she ever saw of his face, but it was enough.
“Thinking what were you? That run away you could? Ku ku ku... Foolish child you are. Marionettes, without their strings nor their master’s pulling, move they cannot.” The voice that sounded neither male nor female, of no particular race, said.
“I... I’m not your puppet.” Mindi replied, the wire around her throat chocking her.
The mask before her changed colour from white to green and the monotone expression became that of mirth, of laughter. Mindi was suddenly dragged into the air by the wires around her wrists, ankles and neck and the void around her became a stage and she became for all intents and purposes a puppet as her limbs moved out of her control.
“My dear, my puppet you are. Change that you cannot, even though my collection you are not a part of. Lead me to them you will, that is your purpose now. Lead me to them, they who are Tcaolin’s champion: the fiery haired one, the one who is many. Betray the world you will, to satisfy MY purposes, MY desires, as your purpose is as my puppet.” The mask laughed at her.
And Mindi could feel the wires pulling her in all directions, pulling her apart. She screamed; the pain was unbearable. She screamed for someone, anyone to help her, but no one was there except the laughing mask.
Mindi awoke with a scream. After a few brief seconds she remembered where she was: a small room hidden within the labyrinthine slums of Ir. She held her knees with her arms and tried to console herself, assure herself that she was doing the right thing. She was going home today, she was going back to the Old One village; she was going to see Cho and that weird effeminate human boy. They had taken the princess Tonbo to find sanctuary there; at least that’s what the rumourmongers said. It would be nice to be able to annoy Cho again; it was something of a game to Mindi, to see how far she could push ho and still avoid Cho’s temper. It was fun to pull her strings. Strings, thoughts like that would often bring her down into a depressive mood these days and she rubbed the back of her neck, a habit she had developed ever since she met HIM. She continued to tell herself she was not his puppet, that she was doing this of her own free will. And again she wondered how things had come to this point in only a month.
It had begun the day Monster had vanished along with the princess. Lord Kuroyama had sent Dali Dalai on an important mission. Dali would have uttered a protest and tried to convince his boss to send him on something more important except that Kuroyama was in a very foul mood; the kind of mood where he would redefine pain for any who so much as show any signs of anything resembling dissent. Even if he were just a doll with out any means of feeling pain, Kuroyama would have found a way to inflict so much unknowable pain upon Dali. Dali truly disliked field assignments; he still remembered the last one where he had been eviscerated by a dragon. This was supposed to be very simple, all he had to do was unlock a seal and release a new ally, but things were never simple.
Thus, here Dali was, standing before an ancient temple, mausoleum, however one referred to these ancient edifices that housed ancient demons. It didn’t matter that there was rubble strewn about, or that there were cobwebs in the interior or even that the stone seemed so old that it would crumble if anyone happened to breath upon it, and it was then Dali was thankful he didn’t need to breath. None of that mattered, the temple was merely the door to a pocket dimension where the demon was held prisoner. Dali walked inside the temple and came to a dais where the incantation to lock or unlock the seal on the pocket dimension was inscribed. The enchantment needed the dais as a focal point for the mystic lock; if the incantation wasn’t inscribed there, the pocket dimension would be wide open and the prisoner would be released to wreck vengeance and terror upon the land.
Too late to prevent that though. Dali thought as he began to read the inscription.
Another quirk of this particular incantation was that while anybody could seal it, but the one who released the seal must neither be living or dead otherwise it would never work. Of course Dali, being a doll fit that description perfectly. As he finished the incantation, he looked satisfied as the gate to the pocket dimension opened.
At least something’s going right today. He thought as he entered the gate.
As he entered the pocket dimension, he thought he saw a dark shape move past him, but discounted it as a shadow cast by the light entering the room. This eternal prison was a simple room with a bed, a desk with a large mirror, a second door and a shelf with food on it. At least it was the remains of food as whatever had been there was long since rotten and decayed. Most importantly, do Dali anyways, was that there was no one here. Supremely irritated, Dali stood and fumed for a moment, indulging in his anger for a bit. As he stood there he was suddenly aware of soft, haunting music coming form the second door. It was an eerie melody, as though someone playing a requiem with chimes; it had a most disturbing melody, which bespoke of loneliness and sorrow. Dali entered the second room and the music grew louder and he was truly disturbed by what he saw: the room was a long corridor and the walls were lined with people of every race and walk of life. They all looked very alive, except for their eyes, which were glassy and dull as though their souls had been removed.
“Well this place officially gives me the creeps.” Dali said.
He began to walk the corridor in search of something vaguely resembling a living, sentient being. That got old very quickly, for Dali was small and made very little progress in terms of distance.
“HEY!” Dali shouted. “Is anybody home? I’ve got a job for you from the great and powerful Kuroyama. You can do this as repayment for freeing you from this prison.”
No one responded and Dali realized that no one in this place could: the only sentient inhabitant was gone.
“Well shit. Boss-man ain’t gonna like this. I mean, how in the name of hellfire and brimstone am I supposed to find a million-year-old demon when we’re having trouble just finding Monster?” Dali growled to himself.
As he spoke those words, the corridor began to blur as figures rushed past him; he was moving at an incalculable speed down the corridor, but he was not actually moving. He came to a halt before a pedestal, and atop that pedestal was a crystalline orb. The pedestal sank into the ground until the orb was at Dali’s height and then a thousand voices talking in unison spoke to Dali from within the orb.
“Who are you who seeks the Master of Puppets?” The orb asked.
“I am called Dali Dalai. I am the general of lord Kuroyama.” Dali spoke calmly and with pride.
“Dali Dalai, who comes seeking the Master of Puppets; know this: he is not here.” The orb said.
“I knew that. I need to know where he could have gone. How could he have known someone was coming to free him?” Dali demanded of the orb.
“The mirror, you saw it? That mirror is a window into the outside world. It was meant to torture the Master of Puppets by showing him the world that he could no longer touch. He knew of your coming, of your purpose and he made ready to leave. He is the Lord of Shadows as well as the Master of Puppets; he used the shadows as his means of escape once the seal was broken.”
“Then where did he go?” Dali asked, growing far more irritated. At least the dragon went straight to the point. Dali thought recalling his last field assignment.
“The Master went to add another person to his collection. It has been a long time since someone was added that his collection has grown dull he thinks.” The orb said.
“Collection? You mean these people were once alive?” Dali asked, intrigued. He’d never even heard of anything that could do that and these bodies must have been millennia old and they showed no signs of decay.
“He tangled the bodies in his Soul Wires and made them living puppets. Extracted the souls with this orb. The souls have become an amalgam of spirits that are eternally loyal to him; that is us. He seeks something that is not in his collection: he seeks an Old One.”
“An Old One? Well that’s bleeding beautiful. Where the hell am I supposed to find him?” Dali asked, almost angered now.
“In the city called Ir there is an Old One with the power of life, she uses it even now. Go to Ir, find the Old One and you will find Ksam, the Master of Puppets, the Lord of Shadows.” The orb finished.
The pedestal raised itself out of the ground, beyond Dali Dalai’s reach. He looked around, disgusted and irritated. In his mind he dreamt of the horrible, bloody and violent things he would do to Monster should he ever see her again, this was, after all her fault.
“Well shit. The things I do for global domination.” Dali sighed.
At around the same time in an alley in Ir, an Old One was resurrecting a fae boy. The Nicks wounds had been deep and numerous, but he was now whole thanks to Mindi’s power. It had been a stroke of luck or divine intervention, depending on who you were, that Mindi had arrived when she did, where she did. Nick was barely conscious, exhausted due to the resurrection process and Firefox was growing impatient; she had things to do, places to be and this whole process was taking entirely too long. They didn’t see the shadows, one shadow in particular, where one black thing emerged from within the shade. The figure was a great black cloak, with no visible limbs, and within the hood of the black cloak was a simple, white mask that had the appearance of an expressionless human face. The figure hovered over to the trio and spoke.
“Ku ku ku... And thought, did I, that hard it would be to an Old One find.” The figure’s voice carried perfectly, as though unobstructed by the mask, though it was impossible to tell what gender or race the figure was.
Mindi and Firefox turned to look at the stranger, startled. The Nick, who was beginning to awaken, merely glanced in the general direction of the figure. Firefox was the first to react to the stranger’s presence, first going through a range of emotions: first surprise, then shock, horror and finally anger, pure and absolute.
“KSAM!!!” She yelled in fury. “You miserable piece of rotten shit. Who was the psycho who let you out?”
“Ku ku ku... Remember me you do, Kistune~bi?” Ksam said as his mask became yellow, adopting the expression of a smiley face.
“You... NO LONGER HAVE THE RIGHT TO CALL ME THAT! You abomination, monstrosity, I’ll kill you!” Firefox roared.
The mask became a deep red with an expression of anger; the shadows around them began to deepen and become darker, almost solidifying into humanoid shapes.
“Kill me? Kill me you cannot! Tried already you have. As for the name, fault of mine it is not, imprisoned me YOU did. All of you! And hate you for it I do. Now that my freedom have I obtained, all my puppets will you become; start will I the Old One with!” Ksam said as an arm grew from the side of the cloak.
Mindi, eyes wide in fear, got up and ran but didn’t get far as glowing blue wires lanced forth from Ksam’s fingers. Four of the wires wrapped around Mindi’s ankles and wrists and one around her neck attached to Ksam’s ring finger. The wires seemed to sink into her skin, vanishing, but still visibly attached to her; one could see the points where the wires descended into her flesh. She had stopped moving, an expression of fear transfixed upon her face. Ksam’s own mask had changed from red anger to yellow glee again.
“Fight you can, but win you shall not.” He said. “In time all shall be my puppets, even the gods.”
Firefox growled again and lunged for the wires that attached Mind to Ksam. She bit through the wires and Mindi stumbled, being able to move again. She fell forward to her knees and rubbed the back of her neck. Ksam’s mask had returned to its furious red expression and he hovered towards Firefox, but was interrupted by the Nick, who just rose from his sitting position. He still appeared exhausted, but far to stubborn to simply lie down and rest in this situation.
“Whoever you are, you have overstayed your welcome. Leave now or I may have to deal you serious physical harm.” The Nick said.
Ksam’s mask became green and mirthful in the face of The Nick’s threat.
“Ku ku ku... Another fae boy I need not for my collection. Go home little boy.” Ksam said in a sneering tone.
The Nick said nothing, but threw two daggers at Ksam as a response. As opposed to striking flesh and drawing blood, the daggers passed through Ksam’s body as though it were made of shadow. The Nick looked shocked and Mindi came to his side supporting him, trying to get him to leave with her, to escape Ksam.
“What, leaving so soon are you? Rude that is.” Ksam laughed as he began to hover towards the two limping figures.
“Don’t forget about me, abomination.” Firefox said, interposing herself between Ksam and his escaping prey.
And flame seemed to spread form Firefox, casting light in all directions and Ksam halted in his advance. His mask changed to a blue colour and a sorrowful expression graced his mask, with a white tear beneath the right eye. Firefox guarded The Nick and Mindi’s retreat, slowly backing away herself. She did not know how long she would be able to keep him at bay, perhaps he would lose patience and attack before she could ensure those two were safe. Even if Firefox was unable to kill Ksam, she could unleash her full power and put him in a hell of a lot of pain, but not with those two mortals here. Suddenly a small gate opened in a wall and Dali Dalai hopped out. Ksam turned to look at this new arrival and he being so distracted, Firefox took the opportunity to whisk herself and the Old One and Fae away to what she hoped would be safe haven. Ksam’s mask re-became its original white, expressionless self and he turned to face Dali.
“Escaped, my quarry has, because of you. Tell me why should I not add you to my collection?” Ksam asked of Dali.
“Because I’m the guy who set you free. Besides if anything happens to me, my boss would be veeeeery upset, if you catch my drift. He wants to speak to you: he wants something in exchange for letting you out.” Dali said.
“Speak to him I shall. Come looking for me at the Yorae Garden you will, once concluded our meeting has.” Ksam said raising his hand.
From within the shadows many people appeared. As they walked from the shadows, their movements appeared jerky and puppet-like but quickly smoothed out until they seemed no different than anyone else. Dali recognized some of them as the people from the room in Ksam’s prison; these were the living puppets from his collection, Ksam’s private army to scour Ir for Firefox, Mindi and The Nick. Dali continued to watch the puppets long after Ksam disappeared into the shadows. It was truly amazing, Dali felt; these puppets were undistinguishable from anyone else, they would make perfect spies and soldiers and they were absolutely loyal to Ksam, who would soon be loyal to the dark lord, Kuroyama.
In an abandoned house on the other side of Ir, Firefox brought Mindi and The Nick to what she hoped would be temporary sanctuary. The Nick, still tired from the resurrection process, collapsed onto the floor, his back to a wall. Mindi sat in a corner, closing her eyes rubbing the back of her neck. Lady Firefox sat in the middle of the empty room and watched the two, thinking about what to do now about what to tell the others about Ksam’s resurgence. The Nick was the first to break the silence.
“What was that demon? I’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” Nick asked of Firefox.
“That was... We’re not sure what he is.” Firefox said reluctantly.
“Not sure? But isn’t it a demon?” Mindi asked.
“Demons, despite their abilities, are not immortal; they can age and die. Ksam has been alive since the time of Queen Arera. What I want to know now is how Kuroyama found out about him.” Lady Firefox replied.
“Well, it’s true that I had never heard about him. But you seem to hate him so much, my lady, how can such a person not be recorded in history books or some such?” The Nick said.
“Record of his existence, of even his True Name was wiped from all records upon his imprisonment to prevent anybody from freeing him. After all would you try to free something you had never heard about?” Firefox said.
“Good point, but why imprison him at all? Wouldn’t killing him have been better?” Mindi said.
“Yes, but we couldn’t. You saw your dagger fly through his body; Sigmr Ch’k’s sword pained him but didn’t actually hurt him. When we caught him there was no other choice: we locked him up in a prison dimension and we thought we had sealed him in such a way that he would never escape. We hadn’t counted on Dali Dalai back then. An oversight that couldn’t be helped.”
“He called you ‘Kitsune~Bi’, who was...” The Nick had no time to finish his question as Firefox turned and glared at him.
“He was a traitor, he willingly betrayed us all, sacrificed thousands of lives and made puppets of hundreds more for the demons cause.” Firefox growled.
“Made puppets of people?” Mindi said in horror.
“Is that what he was trying to do to her back there?” The Nick said, his strength finally returning as he stood.
“Yes, he was using his ‘Soul Wires’ to imprison the Old One’s spirit so he could extract it later. It’s also through the Soul Wires that he can control a body that still has its soul. I freed her when I broke the wires.”
Mindi got to her feet a walked to the centre of the room. She looked at the goddess and the fae, as much as she appreciated their company she knew that it was herself that Ksam was after. She didn’t want for either of them to be hurt or for the fae boy to be killed: she’d revived him once; she didn’t want to have to do so again.
“Um… thanks for helping me escape form him and everything… Well goodbye.” Mindi said before she jumped into a portal she created.
“My Lady, shouldn’t we go after her or something.” The Nick asked.
“Let her go for now; you still need to rest. Don’t worry though, I’ll keep an eye on her; she may be useful later on.” Firefox replied slyly.
In the oldest garden in Ir, called the Yorae Garden, Dali Dalai waited for Ksam with great impatience and his emotions burned at being ordered by that walking bed sheet. After all, Ksam had no rank in Kuroyama’s army and yet he had ordered Dali as though he had been Kuroyama himself. Dali was so deep in his musings that he had not noticed Ksam rise out of the shadows. Ksam moved silently through the garden and came to a particular spot, where there bloomed a magnificent violet. Ksam merely stood there and the expression of his mask turned to a sorrowful one.
“Wonder do I; the one we planted are you? Or the seed of that one?” He said.
Ksam’s voice attracted Dalai’s attention and he walked over to Ksam. He truly didn’t like Ksam, there was simply something about him that didn’t feel right, something about Ksam that would have made Dalai’s hair stand on end or sent chills down his spine had he either hair or spine.
“Hey! We don’t have time to smell the roses here. I know you’ve agreed to work for Kuroyama so let’s find Monster already.” He growled at Ksam.
“Been looking for her I have since the end of my meeting with your master.” Ksam said his mask re-becoming monotone in expression.
A figure walked into the garden, it looked like a soldier however if one looked at the eyes one could tell it was a soulless husk; it was one of Ksam’s puppets.
“And, it appears found her we did.” Ksam said nodding to the puppet, who saluted and departed without having said a word.
Dali stepped within the shadow that Ksam stood and began to sink into the ground. It was a strange ability of his, instead of opening a port or gate to where he wanted to go, Ksam used shadows to get from place to place, after all shadows exist everywhere. They exited the shadows at the Irian Tikri, or at least as close as one could come to it and live. There lay Monster’s corpse, sliced wide open; there was no possibility that she as still alive and the blood appeared quite fresh so she had not died too long ago. Ksam approached the corpse, fascination gleaming in his mask’s eyes.
“Well this is just beautiful!” Dali said sarcastically. “Monster’s here but Ka-Mang and the princess ain’t. How’re we going to fin ‘em now? Boss man’s going to really be pissed now.”
Ksam said nothing as he extended his arm, a glowing blue wire descended from his finger and into Monster’s head. The phrase ‘dead men tell no tales’ cannot apply when Ksam enters a person’s mind for their mindscape remains even after they die. To Ksam it was pure joy and amusement to descend into a person’s still living mind. Each mindscape was different until a person died, then they were all the same: an infinite landscape littered with boxes containing the person’s memories, thoughts, feelings and desires from when they were alive. It was inside such a place that Ksam now found himself. However unlike everyone else’s dead mind he had visited he heard a sound: someone was whimpering. He looked around a spotted Monster sitting, cradling herself, sobbing. To Ksam this was odd and wonderful; odd because there shouldn’t have been anyone or anything within the mindscape besides the boxes, but it was wonderful because Ksam knew what this was: it was Monster’s soul. Of course her soul was still within her body because it had nowhere to go, being a demon soul there was no afterlife dedicated to the mortal who she was dedicated to. This was wonderful because now he could extract her soul and make her body apart of his collection, using her demonic powers to his cause. But first he had things to do.
“Show me what happened.” Ksam said.
One of the boxes opened and the mindscape changed. Ksam stood in a pure memory, one uncoloured by emotion and Monster’s insanity. He watched as a red-haired effeminate boy fought with Sigmr Ch’k’s sword, well actually at first the boy ran and dodged but then, there was a sudden change in the boy and he began to fight back. Ksam watched the scene, intrigued, he had never seen anyone so odd, so unique, Ksam desired to have this one as a part of his collection and then the fight was over, Monster was being strangled by the boy’s hair and Ksam’s mask became mirthful as he watched.
“I’m the wind. Also known as Red.” The boy said.
“…Bastard… Never… Get away… with this…” Monster replied.
“Half right. I AM a bastard. But I’m afraid YOU’RE fucked, dear. See I ALWAYS get away with it.” Red smiled cruelly.
“Kill me… you’ll never… see the princess… again!” Monster gasped.
“I could give a shit.”
“Aren’t… you… the… Champion?”
“Sure. What’s your point?”
“You’re…supposed to be… the GOOD guy.”
“Oh. I’ll keep that in mind.” Red finished as he snapped her neck.
Ksam watched as Red sliced Monster’s body open. Even though she was dead, her eyes were open and her ears still functioned so her mind still recorded the events. And he saw and heard where the Old One, the boy and the women went. It didn’t matter to him, the boy was a fractured soul, a broken mind; something so unique must be preserved for all eternity Ksam thought. And he returned to reality in his own body, two of his puppets had come and were busy readying Monster’s corpse for transport, he could remove her soul and repair her damaged body in time. He turned to Dali Dalai, the news and the plan he had would surely satisfy Kuroyama.
“Know where they are I do.” Ksam said. “And know how to get there I do.”
“Oh really?” Dali said sceptically. “And how is that?”
“The Old One, my total puppet she is not, but manipulate her I can. Open the gate to her village she will and follow her we will allowing us to bring the wall down from the inside and trapping our quarry we will.” Ksam’s mask turned black, an evil expression gracing it. “And all opposition will we crush.”
A Nou-Men is a Japanese theatrical mask, crafted to look like a human face. I got the idea while watching an episode of Inu Yasha.
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