Everman and Uriel: Segment V
Everman stepped into a world that was not his own, a world which hell had consumed. He stood, looking about with the wide-eyed curiosity of a newborn, thrust for the first time into a strange and frightful new world. He stood slack jawed, his arms hanging limp at his sides. At the sight, he was left without thought, without speech, without even a breath until the ache of his lungs reminded his brain of that essential function.
After several long moments, he at length moved—only far enough to turn about and stop once more. The sight in the previous direction had shocked himun to the core. The sight in this new direction shocked him even further than that, if that were even possible.
Everman stood upon what was essentially an island. On this island, greeting Everman’s unbelieving eyes, was the remains of a city, a city utterly unlike anything he could have ever imagined. What Everman had taken so long considering, upon leaving the unnatural portal behind, were the remains of this once great civilization. The steel skeletons of rectangular buildings stood at an unbelievable height. All around him, down either side of the street that Everman stood upon, were broken and mangled structures. Entire walls had collapsed, the stone skins of houses had slithered down to their base, leaving only the iron frame work that had once held them aloft. Windows were without glass, doorways without doors. Enormous holes were punctured into the foreign structures nearest him, as if an enraged giant had swing its fists randomly, punching through the walls.
The street itself was the most disorienting. The road, for obviously it was a road, even though it resembled none Everman had ever seen, was covered in black rock, as if carved from one giant stone. Entire sections of the surrounding structures had tumbled onto the road, choking it with litter and splitting up the stone of the street itself.
Everman wasn’t left with much time to wonder about the design and creation of the immense structures—there was too much else to wonder about in the street itself. Tall, skinny poles stood silent guardian with heads nodded over the street. Steel carriages lay toppled and strewn as far as the eye could see. The debris from those carriages lay scattered. Chunks of steel, some flat and square-like, others formed into large blocks of complicated design, lay scattered like children’s toys. Something, perhaps explosive, had separated parts from those carriages that would be far too heavy for any man to bear alone.
And it was as Everman was only beginning to absorb his newest surroundings that he had turned and saw something that shocked him as greatly as the ruined city itself. There, only a few feet from where he now stood, the world… ended. The ground ended abruptly, falling away into forever. At the edge, buildings were torn halfway down the middle, where the ground had given away below. Steel girders jutted like broken fingers, spanning over the endless edge. And beyond the edge, beyond the world, was the very same thing Everman had witnessed in the Traveler’s ball of light, the same thing he had seen in the magical doorway’s frame.
A thick swirl of cascading blues and purples churned beyond the edge of the world, as if heavy clouds in perpetual motion. Lightning rippled angrily through the fog, often reaching beyond the bounds of the storms and striking the ground below, or the remnants of the buildings. Each time this occurred, a localized and deathly silent explosion tore apart a small chunk of whatever was unfortunate enough to be struck. Minute chunks of rock flew in all directions, propelled by the frightening force of the silent electric bolts.
Everman watched, frozen with shock, as one bolt of lightning extended out of the depths of the multi-colored swarm and, in the blink of an eye, reached dangerously far into the world and struck the ground not far from where Everman stood. The lightning, silent as death itself, blinded him momentarily, forcing him to look away, eyes shut, where he could still see the bright band of electricity burned into his retinas. When he turned back, he saw a crater in the ground, approximately one foot across, and some of the shattered remnants landing all around him, a few flying into the storms beyond the world, never to return.
Fearing another lightning strike, Everman took a step back, unable to remove his gaze from the world-ending storms. His foot struck something, and he stumbled. He looked down, then to his right, and saw a device of unquestionable purpose. A machine, black as ash, stood in the very center of the ruined street. A rectangular doorway stood at its center, a thin outline of black, pronounced against the skyless void above. Everman understood that it was this device that had portaled him to where he now stood.
Everman scrambled to his feet, eager to be out of this place. He searched the machine whole, but saw nothing other than the thin frame of a doorway and a wide black pedestal beneath. There were no clues as to the machine’s operation: no mechanics or controlling devices of any kind. It was also completely void of markings.
It stood there, looming before Everman, a dead thing—nothing more useful than the rocks around him.
Succumbing to defeat, Everman once more faced the storms beyond the edge of the world, and saw the flash of lightning. This time, the bolt prodded far into the world, smashing the ground where Everman had stood a moment before. Two cracks formed and ran in opposite directions, eventually swinging around to the world’s end. The cracks reached the edge, and a large chunk of the world, at least three feet in diameter, slipped away and sank slowly, very slowly, into the encompassing storms beyond.
The world is shrinking, Everman realized just then, his fears taking hold once more. Soon there will be nothing left.
Everman shuffled away from the edge, once more fearful of the lightning that reached further and further into the land. He plodded down the street, nearly tripping over a large chunk of rock then righting himself.
It was only then that he realized he still wore the soldier’s armor. In his bewilderment in this new place, he had forgotten about it completely.
Everman quickly stripped out of his mail, giving his mind a moment to cope with this new place. He could not return the way he had come. The world was steadily shrinking, so there was no where to go but in.
With a loud jingle of chain, Everman dropped the chest piece to the ground, once again returned to previous attire—which, Everman saw to his dismay, was the red tunic of his enemy. He still bore his disguise. For reasons he could not explain, as out of place as he felt in this dead alien world, he felt further alienated by not wearing the color of the Unicorn. It at least would have provided small comfort in this dead place.
Everman, with little choice of options, began to tread the street, his path zigzagging between refuse. Lifeless skeletons of houses surrounded him like standing corpses. The posts at either side of the street looked down at him disapprovingly. And the path ahead looked foreboding. But Everman looked up and noticed something he had not seen before. Up ahead, at the end of the street, was a tower unlike all the others around him. It soared to the top of the world, brushing the world-ending clouds with the tip of its angled roof. It also appeared intact from this distance, but Everman couldn’t be sure. With a new-found destination, his hopes raised. Perhaps in that tower, he might find a way home. Perhaps, also, Everman realized with dread, he might find the Traveler.
What manner of place is this? thought Everman as he advanced down the grim streets of this alien landscape. He swiveled his head from side to side, mindful of debris in his path, but also absorbing all there was to see. A thin blanket of twilight had begun to creep across the landscape as if, beyond the unnatural world ending storms above, there was a sun sinking below the horizon. His eyes remaining keen to the road ahead, he let his thoughts drift as he slowly covered ground. What manner of place would be surrounded in perpetual storms of ghastly hues whilst the entire world is battered apart by hellfire. What manner of magic could condemn an entire world to this type of damnation? Might it be caused by this civilizations' unworldly technology? Did they, in all their wondrous splendor, create their own undoing?
Noise pulled Everman abruptly from his thoughts. He froze in mid-step, moving nothing but his eyes, which swirled around in all directions, seeking the origination of the disturbance. Directly ahead of him, laying at an awkward angle over the single painted line that stretched down the middle of the road, were three of the steel carriages. Everman quickly realized that each of those three broken machinations were large enough to hide a man behind. He stared at them intently, looking between crevices, through broken windows, trying to pick up movement, while also straining his ears for any sound.
After but a moment, he heard it again. Click. The sound of metal tapping rock. A sword, perhaps?
Weary of unknown aggressors, Everman drew his blade, the sound of his steel pulled against hardened leather painstakingly loud in the hushing silence of a dead world.
Everman held his steel aloft, standing with feet apart and legs bent, battle ready, when he heard the noise several more times in rapid succession, coming from his immediate right. Click, click, click. Metal, being tapped against the stone of the road, behind the steel carriage not far from where he stood. He strained his eyes, concentrating, catching just a glimmer, a flash of movement through one of the twisted windows. It was just as quickly gone, leaving Everman wondering if his mind was trying to fool him.
Still, apparition or no, Everman took no chances in a place like this.
“If there is someone there,” Everman demanded, voice low but steady, “you will show yourself to me.”
More clicking of steel against stone. Everman became convinced that it was not a sword he heard. There was too much rapid clicking, several in a row, before settling into silence again. If it were not a sword, then Everman could not guess what might be making that noise.
Movement flashed behind the carriage, then was as quickly gone again. Everman took a step forward, boots cracking shards of glass underneath from the carriage's windows. Leaning forward, peering through the window of the carriage, Everman thought he saw something. It wavered slightly, as if in a private breeze. Inching another step forward, Everman saw more clearly, through dusk and shadow, that he looked upon an eye. Its owner was hiding behind the carriage, staring back at him. It swayed left and right ever so slowly, a movement that unsettled Everman for reasons he could not identify.
“You, there,” Everman called, voice wavering slightly in his uncertainty. “I can see you, hiding behind that carriage. Identify yourself immediately! I am a trained swordsman, and I am armed.”
“Human,” came his reply.
The word made Everman's skin crawl, and he reflexively shuttered, violently. Goose flesh erupted down his neck and arms, and he withdrew a step.
Everman turned aside a moment, clearing his thoughts, recomposing himself. Once finished, he thought back on what he had heard and tried to identify what had disturbed him so greatly.
The word itself had been unspectacular. Human. Indeed he was; was he now to assume that the owner of the voice was not? Everman, after seeing the Traveler's summoned demons, accepted that notion easily. Surely there were other races in existence that could speak the language. Elves, for instance, like his king. And the recently deceased leader of the Dragons, who was not even supposed to be an elf at all.
So his new friend was not human. This troubled Everman not. What did trouble him so greatly, Everman soon realized, was the creature's voice. It indeed sounded inhuman, but disturbingly so. The voice sounded... Everman struggled for the word. He was unfamiliar with such things, but once the word came to him, he knew it was a fit.
The voice sounded artificial. It sounded mechanical; an imitation of human speech, nothing more. It was not unlike a wooden sword, wrought with flimsy iron, made to imitate real steel.
The voice sounded human on the outside, but underneath the slim disguise was something... else.
“I am,” Everman admitted, regaining his composure. “You will identify yourself!”
“Flesh...” Again that voice sounded artificial, and again Everman shivered at its sound.
Everman heard the click of metal upon rock regularly now. It came and went, without pattern; seemingly without reason. Its purpose continued to elude Everman, though he was certain that it came from low to the ground, and that the noise shuffled from one end of the carriage to the other. And whatever made the noise, there were multiples of it. Everman imagined a man who stood upon mechanical legs shuffling around behind that carriage. The image made him uneasy, because he realized that, in a place like this, the truth may not be far off. Or it may be something worse.
And, as Everman watched, he saw eyes ducking out from behind the carriage, two of them this time. They watched him, intelligently, for a brief moment before ducking behind the carriage and popping out elsewhere, after a shuffling of those clicking metallic sounds.
The creature's last message filled Everman with foreboding. Flesh? His mind went back to the horrific demon in the Traveler's tower, disemboweling the souls there and reveling in their life juice. The unwelcome memory, still fresh in his mind, made him quiver once more. With a shake of his head, he dismissed it.
“What manner of creature are you?” Everman demanded, trying to give his voice the steel of anger.
The reply was simple, though its meaning wasn't clear.
“Explain yourself!” Everman instructed. “What manner of creature are you?”
“I am... you,” came the reply, in its unnatural, artificial voice. Everman decided then that the voice had a tinny quality to it, as if words spoken from a distance, through a long tube of metal. Without knowing the words, Everman could do no better at explaining it. “I am... flesh. Like you.”
Again those same two eyes popped out from behind the carriage, considering Everman openly, no longer in fear of being seen. But Everman could not see any qualities of the face surrounding those eyes. Was it too dark in the shadow of the carriage for him to make out any details but its eyes? And, again, the two eyes swayed slightly, as if it were lolling its head in small circles.
“You have come here,” said the creature suddenly. It did not sound like a question, but the voice was flat and utterly void of emotion. It was void of life.
“I have,” Everman agreed anxiously. “Through a doorway of magic. I did not intend to. I seek a man in green robes, who came through this way.”
“None have come here.”
Did the Traveler not come through this way? Everman wondered with growing dread if he were on the right road. Or, for that matter, even in the right place. Perhaps the Traveler's gateway of magic had deposited him in an entirely different location than where the Traveler had emerged.
Panic threatened to grip him, but Everman held fast his resolve, banishing the hateful thoughts. Such fears would do him no good. He would take one thing at a time, dealing with the Traveler if and when Everman found him in the tower ahead. If not, he would decide his course of action at that time.
“You are certain of this?” asked Everman. “He may have shielded himself in magic.”
“So strong... healthful.”
“I beg your pardon?” Everman asked, confounded. Was the creature still discussing the Traveler?
“Full of life. I am... envious.”
Everman hesitated, unsure of a response. Was it supposed to be taken as a compliment?
“I will be like you. I will... be... you.”
Fear gripped Everman's heart just then. His breath caught, and he took another step back, crunching glass underfoot. He jabbed his sword into the air in front of him, as if attacking the creature's words.
Pointing his blade at the carriage that the creature hid behind, he shouted, hysteria brushing his voice. “You stay away from me! I don't know what you are, but you stay away!”
Everman continued to slowly edge away until he backed into something hard. He felt the cold of steel kiss his neck. Swirling around fearfully, he saw that he had backed into one of the poles that lined the streets. It looked down at him with its cold, dead head, and Everman pointed its sword at it, as if expecting it to attack at any moment. He cowered down low to the ground, turning his body in circles, waving his sword at every steel creation around him, as if they were all alive but dormant, ready to wake and strike him at any moment.
During Everman's terror of the alien environment, the steel clicking resumed, fast and steady. Adrenaline coursing through him, Everman spun his head around toward the noise, and looked upon the carriage that hid the speaking creature. He saw the two eyes rise above it slightly, then move toward the edge. The eyes, the creature, was walking toward the edge of the carriage, the steel clicking constant. Everman saw a flash of light upon metal, then saw a single long steel bar lift from about two feet off the ground, out from behind the carriage, down to the ground beside it. It extended out and down like a finger pointing to the earth. The steel was square at the top, with a round joint halfway down, that flexed when the rod hit the road, as if pressure was being applied to it. The lower half was wide at the joint, but grew smaller as it went down, and curved like a talon, until it ended at a sharp point.
Everman watched, frozen in fear, as a second metallic claw extended from behind the carriage and hit the road with a click, the very same noise he had been hearing all along. An image followed, a shadowy silhouette of the creature's body, extending out from behind the carriage. A third claw clacked against the ground, then a fourth. The creature emerged further, and Everman could not lift his eyes from the legs, for now he could see that these were indeed the creatures legs that it strode upon. He could not force his eyes to look upon it any higher.
A fifth claw emerged, then finally a sixth, razor sharp like all the others. The whole of the creature was revealed from behind the carriage, walking up beside it with the rhythmic clicking of its mechanical legs.
Everman's mind froze, rejecting what he was seeing. It was unbelieving. It was impossible, too outlandish to even comprehend.
Everman closed his eyes, turning away like a young child unable to face the harsh world any longer. But the creature was there, in his thoughts, visible for him in the darkness behind his eyelids.
No, Everman cried in his mind. It can't be. That's impossible. That... creature could not exist!
The constant clatter of the creature's legs served as an audible reminder that the creature remained, not only possible, but here before him. Everman heard it walking closer upon its claws for legs, but still refused to believe it. His mind fervently tried to reject it, to wish himself back home in Anrene, with friends and family. He would imagine the barracks, the warmth of the fire within the hearth, the softness of his sheets and the comfort of good company surrounding him. Gabriel sat across from him, weaving fanciful stories of his exploits with the ladies. His stupid grin looked back at Everman convincingly.
Click, click, click. The creature approached. The sound assaulted his ears, relentless, and no amount of desperate imagination could dismiss the truth of what he heard. He was not at home, but in an alien world, surrounded by alien storms, being approached by an alien life form. Nothing here was normal. Nothing here was sane, least of all that which approached him.
The image of the creature burned in his closed eyes. Did he really see what he thought he saw? Everman studied the image in his mind a moment and decided that his eyes had not deceived him.
Everman hesitantly opened a single eye, looking down at the road beneath him. The clicking sound was loud now; the creature was very near.
Everman turned his head only slightly, enough to see the legs of the creature out of the corner of his one opened eye. They remained steel claws, just as he had thought. There was no mistaking it.
With one last deep breath, Everman steeled himself for what he was about to look upon, opened both eyes, and turned to stare straight at the incoming creature.
The sight caused him to choke and nearly gag, but he held fast. His stomach threatened to upheave. His eyes wanted to divert away once more, but he refused them the luxury.
What Everman saw, with painstaking detail, was this: a creature advanced upon him, walking upon six metallic legs that ended in razor-sharp claws, each about a foot long. The creature stood about five feet tall. Each leg connected to one of three thick, rusted shafts that grouped the legs into pairs. Those shafts came out either end of a corpse. A human corpse. A corpse that was naught but a torso, with all limbs, including the head, removed. Large, infected, puss-dripping scabs covered all the gaping holes leading from the torso. Furthermore, the body had died long, long ago, and was well along in the process of decomposition. The skin was grayish, translucent, and in many places falling off. The fluids were mostly gone, but heavy drops of congealed blood would slowly ooze out of the body in several places, leaving a trail of fluids wherever it walked. Jutting from the decapitated neck of the body were three strands of twisted rhubarb, all orange-red from years of rust. Those three rods bent upward, creating an improvised neck, that led up to a cradle, upon which a human brain sat. It, like the corpse, had ceased function long ago. Linking the brain with the body were strands of hanging intestines, dried and shriveled from age and exposure to the elements. Growing from the top of the brain itself were two stalks, on top of which grew the human eyes that Everman had seen earlier. They swayed slightly, never still, as if the stalks that held them upright were not quite able to support their weight. Underneath the cradle on which the brain sat, a loudspeaker, a mechanical voice box, hung, with a harness of electrical wires crudely linking it with the brain above.
“I will wear... your flesh,” stated the creature in its monotone, mechanical voice, spoken from the loudspeaker.
“How can you exist?” Everman cried to the abomination before him, his voice high and frantic. “How can you be real?”
“How can you?” came the simple reply in the mechanical drone of the creature's synthesized voice.
The creature, now upon Everman, raised itself up on its rear two legs, stretching upward its flesh and metal neck to stand the same height as Everman. As it did so, the torso of its body tipped backward, and more congealed blood slowly oozed out of it in large globs.
Its disemboweled eyes looked directly into Everman's own, mere feet from him, where they endlessly waved back and forth upon their thin stalks.
“You shall not have my flesh!” Everman growled, teeth grit together. “And you shall return to the hell from wence you came!”
Everman, looking at this flesh and steel abomination up close, took all of his fear and uncertainty and transformed it into rage. How dare such an impossible monstrosity such as this exist! The world had no place for such abominations, and he would deliver the world of it, whether it were an alien world or no.
Everman made the first strike, casting down his steel in rage, in defiance of something that could not and should not exist. The abomination swiftly raised his front claw to match, catching his own blade in a shower of sparks. Everman swung once more, this time countered by the creature's other arm in a blur of movement. Jellified fluids excreted from the torso with its every movement, but the creature seemed not to notice.
Everman back-pedaled, sword held at ready. The creature, even though half of it was dead and decaying, and the other half rusting off its hinges, was damned fast.
The abomination lowered itself back down on its six legs and lurched forward, jumping at Everman with front claws slashing.
“Relinquish... your flesh.”
Everman caught the blows with his blade, pushing against a creature that was impossibly strong. Its flurry of attacks soon overwhelmed Everman. He parried with his blade when he could, dodged when he could not. The creature caught Everman's blade in one claw then slashed downward with the other. Everman rolled away barely in time, and the claw hammered down into the stone of the street, sinking into it several inches.
The abomination tried to crawl toward Everman, but it tripped over its own front claw, still stuck in the road. With one of its armaments trapped, Everman seized the moment. Without hesitation, Everman swung at the hinge of the trapped claw. His blade merely bounced off the circular hinge, ineffective. Dodging a blow from the creature's free arm, he tried attacking the creature's improvised neck, but his blade just bounced harmlessly off the rusty rhubarb that protected the fleshy umbilical cord within.
Everman backed away once more, stepping off the street and onto the dirt beyond. Behind him was the remains of a structure where only the front wall remained, with two hollowed eyes of windows peering out sightlessly on either side.
With a moment's pause, Everman studied the creature anew, this time looking for an Achilles' heel. He had been too distracted by revulsion before to even consider flaws in the creature.
The legs were steel. The neck was encased by steel. A steel frame crisscrossed inside the dead torso, providing support for the legs. The only exposed point on it, Everman should have realized before now, was the head: the exposed brain, flopping about in its harness with every movement of the creature.
The abomination had stopped to consider its trapped claw. Then, but a moment later, it backpedaled, and pulled upward. It pulled free its claw, and small chunks of the road with it. Once free, the creature raced toward Everman at an unbelievable speed. Everman ducked behind one of the posts at the road's edge and waited with sword raised.
The abomination tried to circle around, but Everman countered by going the other way. The abomination changed course, headed the opposite direction, and Everman danced away, remaining behind the pole.
“Lovely flesh.” The mechanical voice box seemed to speak of its own will, unaware of what the rest of its body was doing. It began babbling incoherently, a mechanical drone of noise that blurred the lines between speech and static.
The creature swung a long claw around the pole causing Everman to jump backward just out of reach. The creature tried its other claw around the other side but to no avail. Finally, those floating eyes turned nearer each other, considering the pole immediately before it. The creature gripped the pole in both claws and pinched them together, like a crab squeezing a finger in its pincers.
The pole groaned loudly as the metal began to cave in beneath the claws. The shell of the hollow pole was soon twisted apart, and the creature popped the top of the pole clean off. It fell to one side, striking the one remaining wall of the building with a twisting of steel and a shattering of glass.
With only a stub of the pole remaining, the abomination attempted to clamber over top. More static poured from the electronic lips of the beast.
A sharp point of the remaining pole poked upward, left from the scissoring of the abomination. That edge caught the rear of the torso, digging into its hip. Flesh tore, coagulated blood dripped heavily into the dirt, and bones could be heard breaking.
The creature shrieked. The sound was unmistakable, and disturbing. From over the flood of static and gibberish came a loud wail like a siren that was both human and not at the same time.
“My flesh!” exclaimed the creature. Its eyes had rotated backward on their stalks and were looking at the huge gash left on the creature's underside by the pole it had tried to climb over. “My flesh! I am not whole! I am not whole!”
“You never were whole!” Everman exclaimed fervently. The creature swung its floating eyes back around to look upon its aggressor right before those eyes were severed from their brain by the edge of a sword. The eyes fell to the soil with half their stalks still attached. The half-stacks still protruding from the brain moved about wildly, like crazed antennas trying to find a signal.
Everman had, in a single stroke, hacked off the very same eyes that had been protruding from the darkness behind the steel carriage. He raised his sword again to pummel it through the creatures' brain, when the abomination suddenly lifted up as tall as it could go. The legs straightened and became stiff. The two flesh antenna stuck straight up, immobile. And, from the mechanical voice box emitted the loudest siren Everman had ever heard, far louder than the previous one a moment ago. Everman cowered, covering his ears, as the wail reached impossible decibel and echoed throughout the city.
“WARNING!” The creature's voice yelled in front of the siren, which was unceasing. “WARNING! INPUT ERROR! GRAPHICAL DATA ANOMALOUS! VISUAL DEVICE ERROR!”
Everman, so close to the creature, could not bear its intense volume. He stood there, crouched low to the earth with ears covered, but it did him no good. With firm resolve, he took his hands from his ears, gripped his sword, and jabbed between the rhubarb reeds of the creature's neck. The intestines linking the brain with the torso were severed, and fell like snake skin. The wires holding the loudspeaker on were cut, and the voice box fell to the ground. The creature itself remained standing, permanently immobile. The siren wavered slightly, decreasing in decibel for a moment as it plopped onto the soil. Then, amazingly, it continued its screeching garble, completely unaffected by the removal of the device from its owners body. The siren continued from the tiny sound box at an ear shattering volume, along with the creatures' own voice shouting out nonsense in front of it.
“SYSTEM ERROR! SYSTEM ERROR! ONE OR MORE DEVICES NOT FOUND! SYSTEM REBOOT! ABORT, RETRY, FAIL! ABORT, RETRY, FAIL!”
That last phrase the creature repeated over and over, endlessly. It were as if the creature were expecting him to do something. Or, rather, the programming inside the creature was expecting input.
Everman did not linger on it. He sheathed his blade and ran away from the creature, away from the merciless warble of its loud speaker. He ran as fast as he could, taking heed of all the obstacles scattered before him on the road. He dodged large chunks of the buildings, fallen poles, and a hundred steel carriages and their parts.
Once a hundred yards from the creature, the siren was muted by distance enough to where he could hear his own thoughts once more. A loud buzzing filled his ears, and a headache was threating to split his forehead into halves. But still he ran, anxious to be as far from that creature as possible.
He passed an intersection, where he suddenly stopped. He had been heedless of his surroundings, paying attention only enough to cut himself a path through the rubble. Now, however, standing with four roads extending into the compass directions, with a yellow box attached to multi-color lights hanging above, Everman gave pause. Movement had caught his eye as soon as he reached the intersection. He looked to his right, not wanting to, knowing what was there but not wanting to admit it.
In the center of the street to Everman's right were four more of the Steel Abominations, each different from the first, and different from each other. Two stood upon metallic legs, one stood upon human legs that were broken and battered, with one gash large enough to expose bone. The fourth rode forward on two large, rubber treads, like conveyor belts.
Their bodies were all misshapen constructs of rotting flesh and steel, turned into a madman's idea of a body.
They had been advancing toward the sound of the siren, but when they spotted Everman, they changed course straight for him.
This sound came from behind Everman, and he swiveled around to see six more Steel Abominations headed directly toward him from the other side of the street.
Everman resumed his flight toward the tower. He had no intention of battling any more hellish monstrosities. He wished to never see them again in his life.
Arms pumping at his sides, legs racing under him, Everman nimbly angled around a large section of rock, then dodged a steel carriage, leaping over a rubber tire. The tower was closer now. Its size loomed up, immeasurable, and it grew wider as Everman approached. No longer was it a skinny finger of a tower that reached forever upwards. A wide base supported a frame that grew skinnier as it went upwards. Dark bricks, black as ash, made up the outer shell of the tower.
Everman raced by another intersection and didn't bother to look when he heard a multitude of Steel Abominations exclaim “Human!” at his passing.
The tower was much closer now. He had only one more city block to traverse. The wail of the siren behind was ghastly, made into a whisper by the distance.
“Abort, retry, fail! Abort, Retry, fail! Abort, retry fail!”
Everman had not seen any Steel Abominations in his path so far. Despite this, Everman kept his eyes peeled for movement in the path ahead. He did not want to test fate.
And it was there, not more than one hundred feet before the tower, that his vigilance paid off. There in the road before him, three Steel Abominations lumbered forward, drawn by the wail of the siren.
Everman ducked behind a steel carriage, certain that the approaching Steel Abominations had not yet seen him. He hunkered down, waiting, listening. He was faced with the underside of a steel carriage, where he saw metallic tubes and tanks run down its whole length. He noted a puncture in one of the tanks where fluid had long since leaked out onto the ground upon which he now stood. Curious, he dipped his fingertips experimentally into the fluid, and brought it to his nose. He could not identify the smell. He had nothing like it back in his home world of Vayen. He reasoned that the substance was an alchemist's creation and dismissed it as yet another of the unanswerable mysteries of this place.
In the shadow of the carriage, under the failing light of the setting sun, invisible through the storms above, Everman watched as the three Steel Abominations appeared from behind the carriage and walked, or rode, down the center of the street, turning in practiced unison to avoid debris. One of the Steel Abominations was human-like in form, but was wrought almost entirely of steel, with a fleshy helmet that extended over most of the creature's metal skull. Long, blond hair extended down the creature's back from where the flesh was literally stapled to the creature's head. And the center of that creature was hollow, its chest nothing more than four steel rods extending up the four corners, with a human heart hanging suspended in the middle. It swung and beat against the four rods as the creature walked upon its mechanical legs. One of the creature's arms was missing; wires poked out of the empty socket, creating a spark whenever the wrong two rubbed together.
The second was mostly human, but with mechanical legs and forearms. Half of its head was missing, and where the remainder of the brain was supposed to be, circuitry and wires stuck out. An antenna and red light, flashing rhythmically, were fashioned upon the creature's exposed skull.
The third was only the top half of a human, bolted roughly to a chair with wheels. It rolled itself along with a joystick held in one of its hands. One arm was stripped all the way to the bone, where it hung loosely at the creature's side. The flesh taken from that arm was stapled over the wheels of the chair, as if trying to disguise the whole chair as part of its anatomy.
The creatures spoke as they passed by Everman's location, their voices a mixture of machine garble and human voice. They spoke with the same pronounced hesitation as the first Steel Abomination Everman had met, often pausing mid-word, as if sluggishly loading the next one into memory.
“Did you... catch... Opera on TV? Last night?”
“She had on... dog that could... was amazing.”
“But, but, but, but.” This one repeated itself for a few seconds before continuing on, as if it forgot what it was going to say. Everman suspected that a few of the gears on its inner workings were missing their teeth. “Nothing compared to... to, to, to, to Jerry Springer.”
All three nodded in consent, each saying the name 'Jerry Springer' like a prayer. They moved on, behind another steel carriage and out of sight. Everman rose out of his hiding place slowly, looking around to make sure the coast was clear before setting out again.
So, they believe that they are human, Everman pondered as he climbed over another steel carriage that blocked his path. This one was painted blue, and its four doors were hanging open.
He continued on his way.
Another ten minutes of walking brought Everman to the tower. The tower itself was an oddity, and in no way did it belong in this world. The tower was constructed of ash-colored bricks, a material he had seen at no place else in this world. Furthermore, it appeared that the tower had, quite literally, dropped from the sky, as Buildings were torn in half beside the base of the tower, and sections of pancaked cars were sticking out from underneath. The road below was cracked and disheveled all around its base, an apparent remnant of the tower's 'rough landing.' Everman suspected that the tower had fallen from the world-ending storms above him.
Everman began circling the tower and soon found stairs carved into the base, leading up to a tall doorway. He ascended, and reached two tall doors made of the same material as the tower itself. He grasped one of the pull rings, the only part of the tower not ash-gray. Before pulling open the large door, he inspected the ring, which was made of polished steel. It, unlike all other metals in this world, was in perfect condition, not rusting or rotting away. Etched into the base of the pull ring were three letters: D.N.A. Everman was unsure of what they might mean, or its significance.
Everman's inspection interrupted, he turned to see a small army of Steel Abominations walking or rolling his direction from the street he had just came. They were the ones he had seen at the intersections. They had followed him this way, as well as leading others along. Everman saw the three that had passed him a moment ago discussing Jerry Springer. They all approached solemnly, at a slow but constant pace, each babbling mechanical phrases or exclaiming the usual statements, like 'flesh' or 'human.'
Unwilling to linger further, Everman pulled upon the door ring, forcing the heavy door to swing outward upon giant hinges. He entered, than pulled the door closed, each time the hinges operated without the slightest squeak or complaint.
With the door closed, but not secured, behind him, Everman looked about the inside of the tower. It was a simple design: it was a single room, spanning the width of the tower, and ascending all the way up to the skyless storms above. There was not a wall nor pillar to break his view. Circling the inside of the tower's walls was a wide stairway, ash-gray like everything else.
And there, standing at the very center of the tower, was the simple black outline of a doorway. Everman hurried to it, and saw that it was the same device that he had arrived into this world through. He eagerly examined its entire surface, and, just like the one before, did not find a single marking or operating device. How is one to work these diabolical contraptions? Everman wondered angrily. He could not conceive a way to get back home if he could not operate these devices.
The door to the tower silently slid open, and Everman heard the sounds of metal slapping stone. Forced to leave the lifeless doorway behind once again, Everman made for the only other exit in the tower: the stairwell.
Round and round Everman went, rising up hundreds of stairs. He stayed near the wall of the tower, as the inner edge of the stairwell had no rail nor anything to keep him from falling all the way back down. He continually ascended, and minutes started to flow past. He grew tired and began to slow, after all the running to get to the tower, then a thousand steps more. He looked upward and saw nothing more than what he had been looking at for the last ten minutes: stairs, ash-gray, spiraling forever upward. It occurred to Everman that he had no idea where the light was coming from, but indeed it was easier to see within the tower than outside.
Everman continued his ascent. After a minute more, he came upon a surprise: a window. He went to it and halted his ascent, looking outward. The city was dark, well along in its night cycle, but he could see very well. He soared above all other buildings at a staggering height, higher than the birds, if there were any. He could see every building, roofless or not. He could even see all the way to the edge of the world, where the storms worked to shrink the world further with their lightning. He discovered that the horizon was not far off, and that it was perfectly round. It, at that moment, occurred to him that he stood upon an island. He was not on some vast world with strange, alien storms coming down to surround him and the tower. He was on an island, floating through the mists beyond the worlds. All the rest of the world had been devoured, ripped apart and lost in the storms, and this was all that remained. It comforted him to know that the Steel Abominations would be destroyed with the rest of the island, but also redoubled his anxiety at finding an exit.
Once satisfied, Everman resumed his climb. He passed several more windows then, at length, finally reached the end of the stairwell another five minutes later. As Everman ascended, the roof of the tower, for indeed he had finally arrived at the roof, slowly came down to meet him. Each step brought him a little closer, until he saw a doorway. The curving stairwell rose to, and above, the ceiling, with a small rising corridor just wide enough for the staircase. Walls surrounded him, leading upward from the ceiling. Everman ascended now in a small hallway, all surfaces ash-gray, until he soon reached the door, which was also ash-gray. Another ring hung from this door, and he pulled it upon, letting himself inside.
He stood now in another circular room, also as wide as the tower itself, and about four stories high. It looked eerily like the tower in Arrik, where he had first seen the Traveler. And, again here, at the topmost room of the tower, he once more saw the Traveler.
The Traveler's vile green cloak faced him at first, until he turned with an evil sneer between his impossible chin and frantic hair. His eyes sparkled jovially. That was, until he spotted Everman, upon which his snide grin quickly turned into a long frown. His eyes turned solemn, his face confounded. He leaned over to his right, looking around Everman, as if expecting someone to come up behind him. Perplexed, Everman followed his gaze. Nobody ascended the stairwell.
It was during this time, as Everman turned back away from the door, that he noticed the third person in the room, and was immediately taken aback by her beauty. His breath caught in his throat, and his heart missed a beat, then proceeded to beat even more energetically in his chest and ears. His wide eyes took in the beauteous form of the fairest maiden Everman had ever seen. Her hair was perfectly blond, and flowed long behind her. Her dress, low-cut and floor-length, was a light green silk both fair and eye-pleasing, unlike the Traveler's cloak. Her large blue eyes sparkled, her red lips were luscious, her curves sensuous, and her entire form was intoxicating.
“You are not Juggernaut,” said the Traveler, naked confusion in his voice and face. With an effort, Everman wrenched his gaze away from the beauty beside the Traveler. He returned his attention to the task at hand.
“I'm not,” Everman admitted, honestly. He wondered who this Juggernaut was.
“Who are you?” asked the Traveler, stepping nearer, inspecting Everman quizzically. “Why have you come here?”
“I... um,” Everman faltered, his gaze once again stolen by the illustrious beauty beside him. “I am... Who are you?”
This last question was directed to the lady in green.
“My name is Uriel,” replied the young lady. Her voice swept over Everman like warm sunshine, her voice musical without intending it to be, and she was just as lovely to hear as to gaze upon. “What is your name, stranger?”
“Everman,” came his hurried reply, the words tripping over his tongue in a rush as they exited his mouth. “Caleb Everman.”
Uriel curtsied briefly, holding the sides of her dress as she did so, bowing her head lightly. The waist-length golden hair spilt down around her shoulders swayed with her every movement. “It is a pleasure, Mr. Everman.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Everman replied eagerly. “You are the fairest creature I have ever had the pleasure of laying my eyes upon.”
“Yes,” came Uriel's simple reply. Too entranced by her appearance, Everman did not stop to ponder this. It was as if Everman were only stating a common fact, something that every man knew.
“May I intrude?” jeered the Traveler. He rushed forward, placing himself between Uriel and Everman. He looked down upon Everman sternly, like an irritated parent. “Now that we know who you are, what are you doing here?”
Uriel temporarily out of sight, Everman was able to recompose himself. Seeing the Traveler as if for the first time, Everman drew his steel and pointed it at him.
“I am here to place you under detainment and escort you back to the authority of fair King Elwyn, ruler of the city of Anrene, to answer for crimes against the crown, and for giving aid and comfort to the enemy!”
“I'm under arrest?” said the Traveler, amused. He chuckled lightly, the gleam of madness returning to his eyes. “So, I'm to follow you back to Vayen, am I, and spend the rest of my days in a dungeon?”
“That is not my decision to make,” Everman said flatly.
“Very well,” said the Traveler, beaming. His lunatic smile threatened to split his face. “You caught me, fair and square. Now, how are you going to get back to Vayen to turn me in?”
Everman hesitated, his sword point wavering. This he had not considered. The Traveler saw the blank look in his eyes and laughed a madman's laughter. “Hadn't thought of that, had you?”
“I was going to figure that out when the time came,” admitted Everman after a moment's thought.
The Traveler just nodded, unbelieving. “Sure you were. Which brings us back to my original question: how did you get here?”
“I followed you through the gateway of magic,” replied Everman honestly.
“Ah,” was the Traveler's reply. He nodded his understanding. “You were one of the guards. Or, rather, you were disguised as one of the guards. I see.” His face looked thoughtful, distant, as it turned away to look at nothing in particular. But now he faced Everman once again, with new resolve. “You shouldn't have done that.”
“Your pet demon didn't leave me much choice,” Everman replied, fresh anger seeping into his voice. “You killed a lot of people in that tower.”
The Traveler just shrugged. “It happens.”
“It happens?” exclaimed Everman, furious. “You unleash a demon that you obviously had no control over, and that demon kills every man in that room, mages and king included, and you say 'it happens?'”
“What do you care?” snapped the Traveler. “They were your enemies I killed, were they not? I did you a favor.”
“That is beside the point,” retaliated Everman, but the Traveler's words cut him short.
“Is it? Is it, really? You stand there and accuse me of giving aid and comfort to the enemy after I killed their leader and all of their magicians! How is that giving aid and comfort to anyone?”
The Traveler was raging by this point, his voice high and demanding. And to this, once again, Everman had no argument. His sword wavered once more, but did not yet fall to his side.
“You practice demonology,” continued Everman, his voice low and dangerous. “You exercise the dark arts. You know black magicks!”
“And one's knowledge and skills are enough to condemn him?” mocked the Traveler. “Be that the case, your world is indeed primitive. It was a waste of my time.”
Everman could only stand there, looking above the tip of his blade, casting murderous glances at the Traveler for insulting all of his people, friend or foe alike. Rage boiled through him as he spoke once more, his voice slow, each word pronounced.
“You will accompany me to Anrene.”
“Have you heard nothing I've said?” the Traveler shot back. “Have my words fallen on deaf ears, my superior logic lost to a simpleton? You are a barely conceived figment of dream, unable to evolve or comprehend! Begone from my sight, scum!”
The Traveler, in his anger, summoned his magicks, a dark fog covering his outstretched hands. Everman charged, shouting a war cry, sword thrust out before him. He aimed to skewer the Traveler, uncaring of law or justice. But the Traveler released his magic upon Everman: bolts of black lightning sizzled through the air and struck Everman's body, throwing him back against the stone. The unholy electricity danced through him, sending him into convulsions, as the Traveler continued his assault. Unable to act, Everman could do nothing but cower by the wall and suffer the Traveler's attack. The Traveler persisted, exerting even more power into Everman, causing him to cry out in pain. The Traveler walked nearer Everman, standing only a few feet away, concentrating all of his dark magicks down upon Everman. The electricity danced from the Traveler's fingers, pummeling Everman's entire body, from head to toe. Holes were soon charred into his clothing, burning away where the strongest lightning entered Everman's body. His tunic began to smolder and smoke. His long hair danced with electricity. One of his leather boots ignited, but fizzled out after burning only a small hole.
The attack continued for several minutes, Everman helpless to act. Finally, as the Traveler grew weary, he halted his onslaught, and collapsed onto one knee. Breathing laboriously, he waited patiently until his strength returned, his composure rebuilding. Afterward, he looked up at Everman.
His clothes smoldering and smoking, lit aflame in a few places, his hair sizzled and standing on end, Everman lay crumpled upon the floor, his body lifeless. Smiling to himself, pleased with his success, the Traveler gathered his long cloak about him and stood, turning away. He took several steps before hearing a cough.
The Traveler spun in place. He eyed the body of Everman to find him still alive, coughing and gagging. The Traveler was left bewildered and unbelieving. That spell should have killed him several times over! Why was he still alive?
Everman lay collapsed upon the floor. Every part of his body screamed in pain. He felt flesh burning in a few places, but was unable to move to douse the flames. His muscles had seized, throbbing in pain, unwilling to listen to his command. A pounding headache was threatening his head to explode.
Everman coughed suddenly, his body wracking with fresh waves of pain. The coughing fit consumed him, and he hacked up fresh blood, a bright red stain against the ash-gray floor. Once it finally subsided, the pain subduing only slightly, Everman wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He hoisted himself to a kneeling position, then, taking up his sword that had fallen to the floor, stood up upon unsteady legs and faced the Traveler once more. Small wafts of smoke rose up around his form as he once more raised his sword toward the Traveler.
The Traveler looked back at him flabbergasted, open shock and fear stamped onto his face.
“That should have killed you!” exclaimed the Traveler, his voice edging hysteria. “You should be dead!”
“You will accompany me to Anrene,” was all Everman said, his tone murderous.
The Traveler fell to his knees, his long green cloak crumpled up around him. He raised his arms to Everman, pleading: “Who are you? Who are you? I must know!”
“I am Caleb Everman,” replied Everman, simply.
The Traveler's next question was deathly serious; his eyes were tear filled, threatening to spill over. “Are you a god?”
Everman shook his head. “I am mortal. I am no god.”
“Perhaps..,” said the Traveler, thoughtfully. He regarded Everman in a new light, then. He saw silent power emanating from this man, invisible to him, a power the Traveler had seen only once before. “Perhaps... you are a son of a god.”
That was when the Steel Abominations finally arrived.