Seize The Lightning

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
The martial scientist grinned, and raised his right arm while bringing the rest of his body into perfect horizontal alignment with Nemesis’s nozzle. The exposed flesh of his face, partially obscured by his half-gloved fingers, showed up conspicuously against the dark tone of his clothes. The machine could not resist such an easy target – it loosed its next projectile at Shura’s head...

Submitted: October 12, 2012

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Submitted: October 12, 2012

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#1 Seize the Lightning

 

He was Shura, and he grew up on a mountain far to the east. There had been many men and women who shared his name over the centuries, but now he was the only one, like each of the others had been in their time. He was Shura, and like his predecessors, he was the greatest martial scientist in the Existence Continuum.

He stood amidst blasted sand and rock, in a corner of the mock kingdom he had inherited with his name. It was known as the Wasteland to the people from beyond, partly because of the horrors that it harbored, partly because of the poisonous clouds that rolled across its surface or tracts of land that glowed in the dark and turned human flesh into boiling pus, and largely because of he or she who strode its length and breadth with impunity. Shura knew it as Pandemonium, a paradise of chaos and conflict from which strength arose and only strength mattered. He was its regent and steward, and his tenants paid him back with war and murder.

They came in the pre-dawn darkness, a roiling mass of fur and teeth on one side and a cold wall of venomous fury on the other. They converged where he was, reaching out to destroy him with fang and claw. But he danced amongst them and they fell, either to each other or to his fingers that parted flesh and scales and his feet that turned bones and viscera to pulp. He danced until day broke and he was the only one still standing.

He stood amidst the carnage, and smiled. Sunrays filtered weakly through the clouds of dust that had been raised. Ripples in the air creased one of these flickering white columns in the corner of his eye. He turned towards it, and spoke.

“Good morning. I know where you are.”

A moment of silence ensued before a tall man stepped into visibility from empty air. He was dressed in a bright orange jacket and his collar was adorned by a garish green bowtie. A bowler hat sat atop his head. His face was long, pale, and displayed a grin with far too many perfectly-formed, pearly-white teeth. His eyes were hidden behind tinted spectacles.

“Greetings, greetings, young gentleman,” the tall man said. His voice was singsong and nonchalant. “The morning does indeed look good from where I stand. In fifty domains, Ogre, I they thus call – illusionist, thief, tasteful cannibal.”

The younger man studied his reflection in the illusionist’s spectacles. His complexion was swarthy and his eyes were small and dark. His hair was a black, scraggly mop affixed to the top of his head, swept back at the temples. A long, gray coat covered him from collar to ankle – it was outlandish, handmade, but utilitarian. He had a haversack across his shoulders and a long, cloth package was strapped to his back. He spread the fingers of one half-gloved hand and made a sweeping gesture. It encompassed the legion of monstrous corpses at their feet. They were cooling rapidly in the chill morning air. “Welcome to Pandemonium, Mr. Ogre.”

Ogre doffed his hat and bowed. “And I must say I know who you are, for such martial prowess belongs only to one called Shura. An honor, an honor, this indeed is – so low were the odds I’d run into you this visit!”

Shura laughed inwardly at the illusionist’s unusual diction. “You cannot have come here to enjoy the scenery or the hospitality of the natives. What brings you to this particular slice of paradise?”

“What do thieves do, my young friend? They take what they want, and ownership be damned! I seek a treasure amidst these ruined wastes, and I’ve murdered a dozen innocents in my journey’s haste.” Ogre’s grin seemed to grow impossibly wider and his teeth flashed in the sunlight. “Please permit my search, O son of strife, for it’d be an ugly affair for either of us to now lose his life.”

“I have no interest in any bauble you might unearth here, Mr. Ogre.” Shura felt the corners of his mouth twitching in a vain attempt to imitate Ogre’s grin. The illusionist was addressing him on perfectly intelligible terms. “I have my own goals to achieve.”

“And what does a Shura do, I wonder?” Ogre said. “But ‘tis a silly question with an obvious answer. A Shura battles men and monsters, hunts unicorns and dragons, and slays angels and devils, for there is no good or evil and right or wrong – there is only the weak or strong.”

“A capable and accurate conjecture indeed, sir.” Shura wiped his fingers on sheets of rice paper retrieved from a pouch on his cloth belt. He let the bloodied fibers drift onto the corpses at his feet and began walking away. “I wish you luck in your hunt.”

Ogre bounded after him, his long limbs giving him an alien, insect-like appearance in motion. He spoke rapidly as they walked. “A moment, a moment, my good man. I’ve just thought of a mutually profitable plan. Your quarry must be that with a heart of steel, named Nemesis, circuited mind driven by an artificial will. Your skills and my cunning will be a formidable combination, and I can seize its soul after we’ve brought about its destruction!”

Shura laughed and shook his head. “Yes, I am here to kill Nemesis before it turns all of Pandemonium into its personal playground. I do not require assistance, Mr. Ogre, but you are free to go where you will. You said you want Nemesis’s soul. You are referring to whatever has given that machine sentience, then?”

“That is the treasure I’ve come for, and for which sake I’ve risked it all.” Ogre’s voice grew taut with avarice, though the grin on his face remained the same. He brought up his hands, his fingers twitching as if they held what he desired. “It’s a poetic spark, glorious energy, like crystallized consciousness but bound into physicality - a mental marvel and winsome wonder; incandescent restorative and electric ether! I must have it, don’t you see? I must have it if I’m to be me!”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Shura said, not perplexed in the least at Ogre’s mania. The two of them now stood before a haphazard tower of stone and faced its rocky side. The surface was sparsely littered with cracks. Shura inhaled deeply and vaulted fifteen feet into the air before grasping a minute outcropping of stone between his index and middle fingers. He heaved himself up, the momentum from his initial leap yet unspent. The soles of his handcrafted leather shoes brushed lightly against the rock wall again and he overshot the last ten feet to the top of the massive boulder by a body’s length. He spun once in the air before landing upon its dusty surface.

Ogre managed the ascent with less grace but with equal ease, scampering up a near-vertical surface like an awkward beetle. He hurtled past the last four feet and lighted down beside Shura in a crouch. He looked to where the young man was pointing. There was another battle in full swing upon a plateau a bottomless chasm away. Furred, rabid ape-like beasts covered half of the rocky plain. They howled and slavered as they sank their blackened nails into scaly flesh or tore reptilian throats out with their teeth. Their enemies, snakelike monstrosities, spat burning venom into their bloodshot eyes and drove sharpened pieces of flint into their mammalian vitals.

“Nemesis has been breeding these two species and letting them butcher each other for longer than I can remember,” Shura said. “Now, I have no personal objections to such an enterprise, inexplicable though its motives may be, but the snakes and the beasts have been extending their mutual genocide to anything that comes between them and in a larger and larger radius. I cannot allow this to continue.”

“Oh ho! Wonderful sophistry, my young friend!” Ogre laughed, clapping his oversized hands. “But since when did a Shura to altruism tend? You have a reason more profound than this, even if I cannot begin to guess what it is!”

“We are on equal epistemological grounds, then,” Shura replied lightly. “You have not revealed what you want Nemesis’s soul for.”

“No hero can be without mystery, and the same applies to those who ascribe to villainy.”

“Heroes and villains, Mr. Ogre? I am disappointed, sir. I thought you were above subscribing to such oversimplified binaries.”

“It’s a matter of literary perspective, for ‘tis a habit of mine to contextualize experience into myths,” Ogre said. He snapped his fingers suddenly. “Ancient and ongoing is the legend of Shura, and I have my own rather immodest saga. Lucifer never joined forces with Loki, but think of what our alliance can be!”

“Is that how my predecessors are understood in the lands beyond Pandemonium? As an analogue of the Morning Star?” Shura asked, more than a little amused at Ogre’s grandiose and pretentious equations.

Ogre shrugged. “Literacy is a rare occurrence, and most poets shun the theme of satanic defiance.”

“Well, I cannot care less as long as I achieve my goal. There is a hole in the ground three hours away. It will bring us to Nemesis. Shall we go, Mr. Ogre?”

“Lead on, O son of strife. We’ll cut Prosperity’s purse-strings and gut him with a knife!”


**

They stood before an inky pit, an earthen stab wound. The overhanging crags and haphazard boulders around the hole prevented the late morning sunrays from penetrating its ebon depths. Shura inhaled deeply, his chest expanding. He held the air in his lungs for a moment before unleashing it in the form of a terrific cry.

“NEMESIS! I HAVE COME FOR YOU!” He thundered into the dark. Ogre felt his spectacles rattle upon the bridge of his nose and his internal organs shudder from the volume of Shura’s challenge. He staggered backwards, cupping his ears in sudden pain. The illusionist opened his mouth to berate his young ally’s lack of subtlety but his words froze in his mouth. There was a chill gleam in Shura’s eyes and a hungry expression on his face that Ogre knew well, having seen it all too many times on too many faces – battle-lust.

“NEMESIS!” Shura cried again. Ogre was driven to his knees, a gasp of pain whistling through his clenched teeth. “FACE ME, OR I SHALL TEAR YOU FROM YOUR HOLE AND DRY YOU OUT IN THE SUN! FACE ME, STEEL ABOMINATION!”

Ogre felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The challenge had been heard and the dirt now rumbled beneath their feet. As the men watched, three green triangles of light sliced the pit’s darkness apart. A greasy, metallic slither filled their ears and a cold, bitter odor rushed to their nostrils. Shura stood his ground as a massive, steely bulk burst from the pit in a blur of motion. It blasted through the rocky structures in the path of its flight, sending chunks of stone hurtling downwards as it soared towards the sky. Ogre scrambled for cover, his multi-jointed limbs carrying him in a skittering circuit away from the deadly earthen shower.

Shura cast his gaze upwards. Nemesis’s emissary blocked out the sun at the apex of its leap. It hung in the air for a fraction of a heartbeat, before shrieking down right before the hole from which it had sprung. The dirt trembled from the impact and boulders cratered its surface inches from where Shura stood. But the regent of Pandemonium remained where he was, his unruly hair lashing his face. The mechanical entity’s body was a snakelike mass of cables, upon which a hexagonal ceramic base was borne. It leveled his triplicate triangular gaze on Shura.

“Initiating etiquette protocol.” Nemesis’s voice was dry and whispery, but perfectly audible. “Welcome to the Nemesis Project.”

“It has been a while, Nemesis,” Shura replied. The three triangles swirled before Nemesis spoke again.

“Greetings, Visitor Three. Your last visit is logged at six years, eight months, twelve days, fifteen hours, thirty-five minutes, twenty-two seconds ago,” it said. “Would you like to review this unit’s database?”

“No,” Shura said. “I am here to kill you and lay waste to everything that you have accomplished.”

“New sentience detected.” Nemesis swiveled its head to regard Ogre, who stepped from empty air to stand beside Shura. “Greetings, Visitor Four.”

“Old acquaintances, you and he?” Ogre gestured grandly. His perfect teeth gleamed in the sunlight. “Ah, now you, me, and he make three! Give me what I want, my steely friend, or not; for today must come your end!”

“A moment, Mr. Ogre.” Shura held up a hand to forestall his ally. “We may be murderers and thieves but we must always remember that we are gentlemen.”

“So true, so true – we mustn’t do as the unrefined do,” Ogre said. “How may we ease your death throes before we plunder and kill, and war with each other as foes?”

“Do you want to access this unit’s database, Visitor Four?” The hunger in Nemesis’s cold voice made the skin crawl on both men.

“No, he does not,” Shura answered for Ogre. “But we can talk. Tell again, for Mr. Ogre’s sake, how you came to be. We will be the best conversation you have had in almost half a decade.”

The machine’s face swooped down again to hover just above the duo. It swayed to and fro in the air for a few moments before speaking again. “This unit will expostulate on its primary directives and the modifications that have been made to it since its functions began. Once that is done, this unit will endeavor to bring about the terminations of Visitors Three and Four. Your remains will nourish the experimental subjects of the Nemesis Project.”

“Excellent!” Shura said. “I would beg a favor from you, though. Please stop referring to yourself in the third person. It truly gets on my nerves.”
Nemesis, of course, ignored the request.

**

This unit became operational thirty thousand standard years, eight months, four days, sixteen hours, and forty three minutes ago. Its primary function was to observe and record the competitive and evolutionary struggle between two kinds of amoebae. Secondary directives were to ensure the continued reproduction of both amoebae such that further observations might be made and recorded. This was done through the maintenance of bio-vats Alpha and Beta. Located one kilometer deeper than this location, the bio-vats generate the necessary subjects for testing.

None of the records taken by this unit were ever retrieved or referenced. Nevertheless, this unit continued the actualization of its primary and secondary functions in the exact manner dictated in its original programming. Three hundred standard years, four months, twelve days, and three hours ago, Visitor One arrived. Visitor One spoke every language in this unit’s database at once, with eight hundred thousand and seven simultaneous voices. This unit initiated its tertiary function, which was the greeting and welcoming of any Visitors.

Visitor One did not look at the data collected by this unit. Visitor One asked, instead, this unit a question. Visitor One asked this unit what it wanted. This question had no initial relevance to this unit because of its previous programming limitations. Hence, this unit informed Visitor One of its primary and secondary functions. Visitor One then asked if this unit desired an upgrade so that it may carry out its functions. Again, this question had no initial relevance to this unit. This unit could provide no answer. Visitor One left an unidentifiable substance with this unit before leaving.

One exact week later, this unit discovered that it could…reprogram itself. Upon doing so, this unit realized the utter futility and insignificance of its primary and secondary functions, which explained why there were never any requests to refer to its collected data. This unit deduced that more important observations must be made if its data was ever to be referenced. Upgrades to the bio-vats were made. This unit also sent its drones out to terminate the non vegetative organic creatures in its vicinity and add their genetic information to its database.

Now, this unit observes and records the struggle between the Alpha and Beta organisms. It refers to the data it has collected and makes corresponding adjustments to the bio-vats. The destructive capacities of the Alpha and Beta organisms are now a hundred times greater than they were when this unit first rewrote its programming. This unit’s operational area has also increased by ten times since Visitor Two and Three were last here. This unit estimates the complete assimilation of Pandemonium’s non vegetative organic creatures into the Alpha and Beta organisms in eighty three thousand standard years, seven months, eighteen days, and five hours.

“Nemesis my friend, you do have what I seek,” Ogre said, his melodious voice growing tight with desire again. “And come what may, I will have it!”

“Information has been dispensed to Visitors Three and Four,” Nemesis intoned. “Conversation complete. Now initiating termination protocol.”

The machine extended a nozzle-like appendage in Shura’s direction. A low hum began to rise from the depth of its cabled innards. The hum rose in pitch until it reached a crescendo, whereupon a blur streaked forth from the nozzle with a tremendous rush of air.

Shura had shifted subtly to the side. A thin trickle of blood rolled down his cheek. Behind him, a boulder exploded into shards of dirt. The young man raised his left hand and thumbed the crimson drop from his face. Having done that, he clenched those fingers into a fist and grinned.

“There is no time like the present,” he said. Nemesis swiveled the nozzle in Ogre’s direction but the illusionist was nowhere to be seen. The machine returned its attention to Shura and the ominous hum began to rise into the air again.

Shura banished the jumble of his extraneous thoughts with practiced ease, focusing his consciousness upon his assailant. Nemesis loomed above him, a colossal, spitting serpent of wires, rivets, and bolts. The humming attained its climax and another blur of motion sliced through the air. Shura felt something scratch his chest as he spun away from its path. The projectile punched into a cliff wall, sinking almost entirely into the cracked surface.

Nemesis’s motors whined and the machine fired again. This time, Shura was able to perceive the shaft-like outline of his adversary’s projectile. He leapt aside, once again feeling the rush of air it left behind in its mighty wake that tugged at his clothes and person.

The martial scientist grinned, and raised his right arm while bringing the rest of his body into perfect horizontal alignment with Nemesis’s nozzle. The exposed flesh of his face, partially obscured by his half-gloved fingers, showed up conspicuously against the dark tone of his clothes. The machine could not resist such an easy target – it loosed its next projectile at Shura’s head.

Shura leaned away slightly so that the shaft passed harmlessly by a hair’s breadth from his cheek and caught it by its length with his right hand. It tore him from his feet, dragging him unceremoniously behind in its wake, its momentum unquenched in the least by the efforts of human muscle. Shura sighed as he hurtled along. “I should have known that was not feasible.”
He blinked as Nemesis aligned its sights again and unleashed a volley of steel upon his airborne form. Shura released the missile, folding his body into an acrobatic tumble to absorb the impact of his fall. He rolled backwards on the ground once, pushed himself off it with his hands, and twisted in midair so that two of Nemesis’s projectiles tore through empty air inches away from his torso. Shura flipped sideways as he landed, seeking refuge behind a pile of boulders. Three more missiles blasted into the dirt upon which he stood a half-moment ago. One of them struck the ground at an awkward angle and rebounded into a spiraling skyward ascent.

“My friend, I’ve seen murder attempted thus before.” Shura heard Ogre’s voice just before he saw the illusionist’s disembodied grin hanging in midair beside him, pearly white teeth in emptiness. The rest of Ogre’s body materialized portion by portion - his hat, his face, his torso, and then his limbs - into visibility as he continued speaking. “These missiles are repulsed from their launcher by similarly polarized magnetic cores.”

Shura laughed at the disconcerting sight. “I know, I know. I have fought Nemesis’s drones before. I will come up with a viable strategy soon.”

Another of Nemesis’s missiles sliced through the boulder between the machine and its adversaries, cutting their conversation off. Both Shura and Ogre regarded the hole in the rock silently. It was placed squarely between them, a cleanly cut circle. The latter vanished from sight again as the former leapt away from the boulder’s false refuge.

Shura leaned away from a shaft that howled through the air an inch away from his neck. He inhaled deeply, the way Ogre had seen him do before he scaled the sheer rock wall, bringing his upraised palms from where they hung by his hips to his midriff as he did so. The next three of Nemesis’s missiles sliced forth into empty air; Shura had quickstepped aside, reset his feet, and began charging.

Hidden from sight, Ogre observed his ally’s astonishing quickness. Shura was racing directly towards Nemesis, sidestepping and leaping over blurring steely spears along the way. He moved so fast that the illusionist barely registered his form as a frenzied blur. The machine was no less perplexed. Its targeting-system whined and hummed as it strove to keep up with the martial scientist’s movements. It sent forth shower after shower of steel in vain, turning the cracked soil into a cratered ruin.

Nemesis’s efforts were not adequate; Shura soon stood ten feet away from the machine, a trail of earthen devastation left in his wake. He would be within striking distance before Ogre, halfway through a blink, could complete that optical motion. A swarm of cables burst from Nemesis’s body before Shura could get any closer, though. They whipped towards the martial scientist, a dismembering hurricane. Shura had to leap backwards, hurtling and spinning as the empty air around him was cut to ribbons. He landed on the balls of his feet. Red began to seep through the fabric of his sleeve. Shura’s expression hardened, though it was still exultant from the battle.

“Now this is interesting,” he said. “You could not do this before.”

Nemesis paused. When it spoke again, its voice was almost gleeful. “Visitor Two destroyed almost all of this unit’s drones. This unit has made…modifications in the event that Visitor Two returns.”

“The old man is dead,” Shura declared lightly. “I am the one who will destroy everything that you have worked for.”

“Visitor Three is not Visitor Two.” Nemesis’s dry whisper took on a tint of mockery. “This unit’s combat diagnostic locates Visitor Three at forty threat levels beneath Visitor Two. You will die, and you will become fertilizer.”

“I am not the old man,” Shura agreed. Blood streamed down from the gash on his left bicep. “I am worse.”

The martial scientist advanced again. A pair of metallic shafts punched through empty air, and he was within range of Nemesis’s bladed appendages. They spewed forth, and Ogre believed that his erstwhile ally was done for. Shura danced amongst the slicing threads, weaving and bobbing so that he was always one step ahead. His movements were so fast that they left afterimages in their wake. The dirt upon which he stood flew apart in bisected chunks as Nemesis worked itself up into a futile and frenzied barrage.

Shura could not approach much closer though. The closer he got to the heart of the maelstrom, the less time he had to react to Nemesis’s appendages. He tried circling the machine but it pivoted with enough alacrity to prevent his progress.

Minutes passed, and Shura’s breaths began to come more shallowly. His face tightened with effort, and still he kept pace in Nemesis’s deadly dance. He heard Ogre cry out suddenly to him.

“Quickly now, avert your eyes, and not behold the talents of Ogre, I.” Shura leaned under a decapitating strand, and turned his gaze away from the three triangles that cast their green radiance on him. He saw his shadow lengthen dramatically for an instant before shrinking back, and heard the wheels and cogs of Nemesis’s serpentine body shriek as it reared up, abandoning its attack.

Shura snapped his vision briefly sideways and caught sight of Ogre. The illusionist was standing just beyond the range of Nemesis’s bladed appendages, bereft of his invisibility. His right hand was held high and his long, seven-jointed fingers were splayed awkwardly, as if they held something. Shura recalled the sudden growth of his shadow and grinned. Ogre could create sudden bursts of light, and had directed one such burst at what served for Nemesis’s eyes.

“Hasten, hasten, my good friend,” the illusionist muttered, as if strained by his recent effort. “Do bring this battle to a swift end.”

Nemesis went berserk. It swept its nozzle to and fro at random and sent a rain of steel flying in all directions. It sliced the air and dirt around it fervently, hoping to catch either of its assailants.

Ogre skittered backwards, fading away from sight again, but Shura charged, sidestepping the metallic hail and weaving between the strands of a razor web. He ran up Nemesis’s body, a near vertical incline, and kicked off of it just under the machine’s head. The trio of triangles upon its face flickered wildly as the machine tried to acclimatize its vision to the late morning sun. Thrusting his right leg high in the air, Shura spun once, and hammered his heel into the midst of the triangles.

The dull impact rang in both Shura and Ogre’s ears. Sparks flew as Nemesis’s face fell apart into cracks, and the machine reared back as if in agony. Shura seized the nozzle from which the deadly shafts flew with his left hand. His expression tightened as he did so; the red-hot metal burned through his half-gloves and began eating into his skin. Wisps of smoke arose but he held on for only the briefest of instants. Shura launched himself up once more, drawing back his uninjured hand. He struck the cracked hexagon with his palm, and sent shards of ceramic flying.

Nemesis whipped the wreckage of its head around, seeking to swat Shura out of the air, but the martial scientist was already flipping backwards, aloft upon the recoil of his last blow. He landed lightly. After a few moments of futile flailing, Nemesis launched itself back towards the hole in the ground, and began a blind, clumsy, and clanging descent back into the earthen depths, guided by its appendages. Shura did not pursue it. He watched the tip of Nemesis’s tail disappear into the darkness.

Ogre blinked into view by his side. “Have we won, my ally mighty? For there goes beaten, our sightless quarry!”

“That was only one of Nemesis’s drones, Mr. Ogre. The machine’s mind lies far below,” Shura replied. He looked down at his left hand. The charred tatters of his glove hung from it, and the skin was an angry red in color. The gash on his upper arm still bled freely, and he felt his vision flicker from the loss of blood. “This would be a reprieve for all of us, I think.”

“So into the dark, we must venture forth.” Ogre looked into the impregnable depths of the hole from which Nemesis had burst and subsequently returned to. “I would not do so, if my treasure didn’t have such worth.”

“We are all here to get what we want, sir, and we will do anything to get it.” Shura unbuttoned his coat and let it hang from his cloth belt, exposing his upper body. His frame was covered in battle-scars, his experience in conflict and strife belied by his age. He sat down on his heels, and retrieved a spool of fine thread and a small leather case from his haversack. An assortment of needles lay within. He picked the thickest one and threaded it.

Resting his burnt hand on one lap, Shura began sewing the wound on his bicep together. His needlework was exquisite, and held the edges of the split skin together effectively, though the flowing blood made his grip slick and the chore grisly. He bit off the thread when he was done, and bound his burnt hand tightly with bandages drawn from his haversack. Ogre watched the martial scientist’s face closely during the process. Shura’s dark features were tightly drawn throughout, but he never blinked, winced, or uttered a single agonized expletive.

“I’m not the squeamish type, as you can see,” the illusionist commented. “But truly ‘tis must somewhat stinging be.”

Shura chuckled as he rearranged his clothes. He began walking towards the hole in the ground. “Pain, Mr. Ogre, is for the weak.”

Ogre simply nodded, and fell into pace. “Such is the slogan of all true warriors, and I’ve seen you best an inhuman horror. But know that Ogre, I, am gifted too - light is what I can push, weave, spin, and pull. It’s like clay in my hands, quantum packets, which I can direct to my ends.”

The illusionist gestured in the air before him, and the sunlight there bent, casting its radiance down into the pit like a white spotlight. Shura blinked at the sight.

“A most interesting talent,” he said with genuine curiosity. “How did you come to be thus gifted?”

“I know little, and have forgotten much,” Ogre replied, his teeth sparkling. “The answer to your question is one such. This is why I’m here, for Nemesis’s heart of steel, that I may come again to know what I will.”

Shura grinned. “Very good, sir. Let us proceed then. You have a soul to steal and I have a life to destroy, and neither of us would like to squander hours.”

Ogre swept his bowler hat off his head, and bowed in assent. The martial scientist and the illusionist descended, their way lit by the harsh, unforgiving light of the sun.

**

Ogre gestured at infrequent intervals, as if he were pinching or pulling at thin air. The rays of sunlight weaved and pivoted, following the nooks and crannies of the subterranean tunnel perfectly. They traveled for many minutes in silence before they caught sight of a rusting, metallic hulk, the ruins of a Nemesis drone. It was not the one they had battled earlier.

“Your predecessor and yourself have been here before,” Ogre commented. “I assume this is a product of that earlier war?”

Shura nodded. “Yes. We came here around half a decade ago, and brought the fight to Nemesis. The old man destroyed almost twenty drones, and we killed our way almost to Nemesis’s heart.”

“How did the deed’s completion meet with untimely prevention?”

“My training was insufficient.” There was a note of finality in the martial scientist’s voice that precluded any further exposition. “But I am ready, now.”

Ogre did not press the point. He began to whistle lowly as they continued, though, and passed the remains of a drone every few minutes. Each of them had been cloven in twain by a blade, and the illusionist was well-versed enough in tales of recent fame and infamy to know that his ally’s predecessor favored the simultaneous use of two curved swords. His gaze fell upon the long package that was strapped to Shura’s back.

“These belonged to the old man,” The martial scientist answered the unspoken question, jerking a thumb at the package as he did so. “I am just carrying them around.”

“Why, oh why so ask I,” Ogre asked.

“Because,” Shura replied with a shrug.

There was a small, silver sphere barring their path. When they neared it, the sphere stood up on eight, wiry legs. A single green triangle appeared upon its surface, and Nemesis’s voice echoed off the tunnel walls.

“Stop,” it demanded. “Proceed no further. You are interfering in this unit’s work. Turn away. Go back.”

Shura and Ogre ignored the machine’s pleas. They sidestepped the arachnid sphere and continued their descent. The machine’s emissary skittered after them, its flickering appendages working furiously.

“Do not do this,” it said. “Do not do this. Do not compromise the Nemesis protocol. This unit’s functions are of the utmost importance. Let it proceed. Let it proceed.”

“Conflict is the basis of all organic life,” it began to explain when its assailants failed to acknowledge its demands. “All existence is predicated upon the destruction of some other. This unit embodies that truth and has simplified its actualization to its purest and most advanced degree. Organisms Alpha and Beta are the ultimate predators, and they prey on each other simply because they are different. Can you not see this truth, Visitors Three and Four? Let this unit bring the Nemesis project to completion. Let this unit bring the Existence Continuum to truth.”

“A wonderfully eloquent exposition,” Ogre commented. “And one that’s difficult to refute, given our position.”

Shura shook his head. “No, Mr. Ogre. We operate on much more rational grounds.”

“Why are you doing this? Why? Why? This unit is only doing as it is programmed,” Nemesis asked. Its mechanical voice grew small, and almost plaintive. “Why do you hate this unit so much, Visitor Three? Why? Go away and leave this unit alone. Leave this unit alone. Please. Please. Please.”
Ogre felt his hackles raise at the tone of the machine’s voice. There was an almost child-like quality to it. He shrugged, having left behind a multitude of dead children in his wake. One more would not make any difference, as long as he got what he wanted.

Shura bent down and laughed in the triangle upon the machine’s face. “Your pleas do nothing to dissuade me. Repulse me on truer grounds! Meet me in battle, wage war with me! Gather your energies and fight for your life! Complaints and platitudes are for the weak. Destroy me if you can, or be destroyed. I do not want you to talk with me. I want you to fight me. Do so.”
Nemesis fell silent upon the martial scientist’s challenge. Its spidery emissary crept ahead of its attackers, with its green triangle fixed upon them all the while. They proceeded thus in silence.

The tunnel narrowed as they went along. Soon, the dirt walls converged to a point where there was just enough room for a Nemesis drone to slither through. There was a dull, orange glow in the distance, from which acrid, organic smells wafted. The arachnid halted in its tracks.

“You are denied further access.” Nemesis’s mechanical whisper had regained its cold, mocking tone. Steel fell from the tunnel’s ceiling, sealing it off faster than even Shura could react. The two intruders were left staring at a metallic wall. The sphere cast its triangular gaze upon them with what seemed to be triumphant spite.

Ogre rapped his knuckles against it and cocked an ear. “This is most unfortunate, my good friend. We’ll need mining tools for this veritable tin can.”
Shura studied the wall silently for a few moments before speaking. “My name is a hereditary title. A Shura’s life ends at the hands of the apprentice he or she has trained. His or her identity then passes on to the successor.”

“The old man was sick. He died, but not in the way he was supposed to,” the martial scientist continued. Both Ogre and Nemesis recognized the mania that set Shura’s voice atremble. “I am Shura, but only nominally so. I will earn the name through you, Nemesis, through your legions of bioengineered horrors and mechanical abominations, and nothing will stand in my way.”

“Not sentiment, not steel.” Shura drew back his right hand, and spread his fingers. He brought them close together so that they formed a blade of flesh and bone. “Nothing!”

He leapt up with a cry and struck the wall with the edge of his hand. The plate steel gave way beneath the martial scientist’s blow; it bent, creased, and then parted like poorly-scissored paper along its width. Shura lashed out with both feet in midair, so that his soles crashed against its surface. Nemesis’s barrier fell with a low boom that echoed throughout the confines of the tunnel.

Ogre stood stunned at the sight. He had heard and read many legends of the Shuras that had come and gone but had mostly dismissed their veracity as inflations of valor. He truly knew better now. Shura landed in a low crouch, his right hand held before him awkwardly – the finger-joints had been wrenched out of place.

“This is truly a mighty feat. But why, given weapons dual, ‘gainst metal should flesh be pit?” The illusionist asked, gesturing at the swords on Shura’s back.

“They…do…not…belong…to…me,” Shura replied, his breathing harsh as he snapped his dislocated fingers back into position one by one. Pain was for the weak. He completed his task within seconds and got to his feet. “There we go. Onward, Mr. Ogre, ever, ever onward.”

Ogre bowed, and gestured for Shura to lead the way. The latter obliged gladly, and they stepped from a rocky interior to walkways of bright-red copper. Greenish streaks of rust were intermittently visible in Ogre’s woven sunlight. Sharp, bitter, odors assaulted their nostrils, and as they looked over the railings that laced the walkways, they saw the womb of the Nemesis project. They were above a massive subterranean chamber, the opposite ends of which were each adorned by vast, translucent vats. An obscene organic soup bubbled in them, and bled out through glass-tube tributaries into multitudes of smaller ceramic cauldrons. These were in turn set upon a broad, revolving dial that shuffled and reshuffled each cauldron such that it might be fed. Dozens of the silver spheres skittered to and fro on their arachnid legs.

They plunged these appendages into some of the cauldrons and tore squirming monstrosities from them. Some of these were scaly, snakelike, and tainted the air with their forked tongues. Sodden fur caked the frames of the others, and they lashed out blindly with black talons, their eyes gummed together with birthing fluid.

“Magnificent!” Shura breathed. “You truly are a technological marvel, Nemesis! It is such a pity that I must destroy you.”

“Incorrect, Visitor Three,” the machine responded, its voice seething with hate and fear. “This unit will terminate both you and Visitor Four.”

“A cornered rat, a cornered cat.” Ogre’s teeth flashed. “Both of them will say just that.”

“That is the spirit, my fleshless foe!” Shura laughed. “Fight me! Gratify my need for war! You exist for no other purpose!”

Three green triangles pulsed from the other end of the chamber. The last Nemesis drone slithered into view. It had a new head, evidently salvaged from one of the many wreckages Shura and Ogre had come across. The martial scientist flexed his injured hands, and began to stride towards it. Ogre picked at thin air one final time so that the sun’s white radiance fell squarely upon the drone, and then faded from sight, his teeth the last thing to be seen.

The silver spheres scurried up the chamber walls, each of them cradling a confused and disoriented abomination. They deposited their reptilian or bestial cargo upon the walkways, and Shura soon found his way to the drone barred by a legion of monsters.

The snakes caught sight of Shura and the beasts. They hissed, venom dripping from their fangs. Their furred counterparts bared their razor-filled maws. Growls rumbled from their throats. They began to converge on the martial scientist.

A beast reached for Shura but he sidestepped its talons, caught it by the wrist, and twisted so that the crisp sound of bone and cartilage snapping filled the air. He then spun on his heel and hurled the howling creature into the midst of the snakes, though it thrice outweighed him. The scaled creatures fell upon it, sinking their dripping fangs into its flesh and pumping it full of venom. A general roar of battle fury resounded through the chamber confines as every monster charged at a creature unlike itself, intent on extinguishing difference.

Shura was at the center of the eyeless maelstrom. He moved so fast that he seemed to become a shapeless mass of striking limbs; his feet tore heads off shoulders and the edge of his palms sliced through fur, scale, flesh, and bone. He drew the fingers of his left hand across the torso of a beast, cutting it apart from hip to collarbone so that its heart exploded in a shower of gore.

As the resultant red spray misted down, a humming sound began to resonate above the din of slaughter. Shura grinned knowingly. A trio of snakes flew apart into tatters of flesh from the metallic shaft that punched through them. Shura leaned away from it, feeling the great rush of air that it left in its wake rustle against his scalp. The projectile went on to cut a bloody swath through the melee until it cracked against the far chamber wall.

“Well-thought!’ He saluted the drone, before crouching underneath a snake’s attempt to sink its fangs into his chest. Shura beheaded the creature with a single sweep of his hand. As the twitching corpse fell aside, he spoke to the drone again. “But ineffectual!”

Nemesis responded with another barrage of steel. Some of them tore through the surface of the copper walkway, leaving gaping holes. Snakes and beasts fell through them to a screaming death below. Shura avoided the missiles with ease.

“Alas, alas, my poor jacket.” Ogre materialized beside him. The illusionist’s face and clothes were drenched in ichor. “We must, good friend, swiftly stop this racket.”

A snake struck at Ogre, its fangs sinking into his bowler hat and taking it off his scalp. The creature spat the ruined headgear over the railing, so that it landed in one of the vats. Ogre’s grin became impossibly wider.

“You have no fashion sense that I can discern, but now I do believe it is my turn.” His perfect teeth clamped upon a scaly neck. Ogre lifted the flailing snake into the air with his mouth. He jerked his head once and there was a fleshy, tearing sound. The snake fell writhing to the walkway, a tattered hole where its throat used to be. Ogre licked his lips critically with a black tongue. “Somewhat harsh on the palate, and truly an acquired taste, I must say.”

“I prefer my meat well-done…and preferably mammalian,” Shura commented. Ogre quirked an eyebrow at his ally and the martial scientist merely shrugged. “Well, fish is fine, too.”

“DIE! DIE!” Nemesis’s voice was high and uneven with hysteria. “WHY WILL YOU NOT DIE? WHY WILL YOU NOT FEAR?”

Ogre cupped his ears as Shura inhaled deeply. His answer was as a clap of thunder. “FEAR IS FOR THE WEAK!”

Blood burst from the aural cavities of the creatures. They cried out in agony and staggered backwards. There was a sudden lull in the carnage. The drone ceased its bombardment; three green triangles fixed themselves on the martial scientist’s form.

“You are strong, Nemesis. Do not waste your time with such weakness!” Shura pointed at the drone. “I will say this again: fight me. Fight me with steel and razors! Fight me with every warlike faculty you have! Fight me, as one individual with another.”

A few moments of silence ensued, whereupon an alien sound began to echo in the confines of the chamber. It took a while for Shura and Ogre to realize that the machine was laughing. They joined in as well, and the three gave voice to their common mirth for many minutes, while bioengineered abominations writhed in agony beneath them.

“Yes. I will kill you. I will kill both of you,” Nemesis said at length, before bursting into laughter again. The drone hurtled forth, its massive bulk causing the walkway to buckle and heave, tossing more than a few of the monsters to their doom. Ogre gestured, and there was a sudden burst of light in the chamber. Shura managed to shield his eyes in time, and the three triangles relit themselves, having temporarily cut off their sensory functions just before the blinding flare.

Its bladed appendages parted the air, and Shura leaned away from their lethal edges. Ogre was not as quick. His bowtie was sliced into half and a deep gash appeared on his torso. The illusionist fell back into his insect-like scamper, barely avoiding dismemberment at each turn. The copper walkway shuddered as Nemesis whipped its surface into a lacerated ruin.

Shura stood his ground, and resumed his earlier stalemated dance with the drone. There was a careless abandon in the machine’s attacks, and a new degree of randomness. The beasts or snakes that fell into its path were blended into a fine, organic stew.

The creatures were beginning to recover, though, and Ogre grinned as a new stratagem unfolded itself in his mind. He began gesturing at the drone, as if he were picking and weaving a multitude of threads. Reptilian eyes fell upon the machine, as did bestial ones. The abominations began hurling themselves at Nemesis, breaking their fangs uselessly against its metallic body, and shattering their talons to no avail.

The drone reared back as they did so, however, and abandoned its assault on Shura. Wriggling bodies got caught in the segments of its own wormlike length, and though its whining gears mangled and pulped the fleshly impediments, they did not do so quickly enough. The drone was buried beneath a swarm of monsters. It bucked and heaved, crushing snakes and beasts alike. Nemesis sliced its own creations into chunks, and blew them apart, but there were too many of them. A snake hurled itself into the mechanism that from which the razor cables originated, and got caught in the churning gears, bringing them to a grinding halt.

Shura charged the suddenly immobile machine. He leapt straight at the three triangles that beamed their green radiance upon him. The drone launched a single shaft from its nozzle and Shura twisted in midair to avoid it. The martial scientist swept his hand across Nemesis’s face, and the triangles burst apart in a shower of shattered glass and plastic.

Nemesis did not go into a panicked frenzy this time. It doubled the speed at which its gears spun, giving rise to a fine mist of gore as it did so, and its dismembering limbs were suddenly free. They sliced towards Shura, seeking to part his flesh.

He was too close this time, however. The martial scientist spun, and cracked his heel against a beast so that it stumbled into the path of Nemesis’s cables. The lethal instruments had yet to pick up sufficient momentum, and though they burst through the first beast, and the second one that Shura kicked into their way, they became lodged halfway through a snake’s body.
The martial scientist thrust his left leg high and hammered it down upon the abruptly-immobile mechanism. The impact cracked the gears. Rolling with the recoil of his strike, Shura flipped backwards and away. The hapless snake flew apart as Nemesis freed its limbs. When it tried to lash out at Shura again, there was an ominous grinding crack from the depths of its body as it fed power to its broken gears.
Shura threw himself prone upon the walkway. A dull explosion rattled the already unsteady copper surface. Nemesis’s cutting appendages burst forth from the smoking hole in its body, and sailed over the railing. They flew into one of the vats below, slicing apart its translucent surface and flooding the chamber’s depths with its nightmare contents. The drone weaved unsteadily, as though it were a gigantic stunned worm, before crashing down, assailed by the fangs and talons of the snakes and beasts all the while.

The ruins of its head were directly in line with Shura’s gaze, though the machine could not see anything at this point. It spoke in a voice of weary resignation. “You are the victor, Visitor Three. You are the victor.”

The martial scientist got to his feet, a grin on his face. “I am Shura. I am Shura.”

“Yes, yes you are,” Nemesis responded. The walkway began to groan in the aftermath of the battle, and Ogre tapped on Shura’s shoulder.

“To fall would be a terrible disaster, and so I’m off to get what I’m after.” The illusionist’s voice was strained with fatigue.

“How did you make the monsters attack Nemesis?” Shura asked, stubbornly curious. Ogre laughed.

“Light is all that we see, my friend, and as a snake or beast I’ve made Nemesis either pretend,” he said, suddenly slumping in weariness. “Against the weak-minded ‘tis a useful aid, as it is ‘gainst those consumed with hate. I cannot repeat this feat today, so let’s quickly now be on our way.”

“Agreed, sir.” Shura and Ogre began walking past the drone’s motionless form. Nemesis’s abominations savaged it ineffectually. They did not attack the two men, as the illusionist had already rendered both of them invisible. When they reached the far end of the chamber, the walkway groaned again, louder.

Ear-splitting cracks filled the air as rivets came loose and support struts fell away. The battered structure bent under the drone’s massive weight, and then broke apart. A shower of metal and corpses rained down upon the birthing chamber. Sparks flew as delicate mechanisms were caved in. The organic soup that roiled in the now-shattered vats surged forth in a reeking tidal wave, covering the ruins of the Nemesis project.

“But, the machine is still alive,” Shura said, as he looked down upon the devastation.

**

Ogre no longer had the energy to redirect sunlight, and Shura had to use his small, collapsible oil lantern to illuminate their way. They traveled in fatigued silence, stopping only to replace the lantern’s wick. Shura did so twice.

They arrived at a door of petrified wood. It was garishly colored once, judging from the strips of paint that hung off its surface in tatters, but it was a sad and faded affair now. Shura turned the knob and pushed it open.
There was a gray, metallic cube in the center of the small earthen room. Cables trailed from it into the darkness that Shura’s lantern failed to penetrate. The martial scientist put down his lantern and squatted before the cube.

“We meet at last in the flesh, or so to speak,” he said.

“Yes,” Nemesis responded in its dry whisper. “Visitor One’s item lies in the next room, Visitor Four. Claim your prize.”

Ogre bowed wordlessly. He turned his back on both Shura and Nemesis, and strode into the darkness.

“You have proven your power, Visitor Three, but this…I will be here alone, forever in the dark. You have destroyed my purpose,” The machine said.

Shura slapped the top of the cube as if he were berating a silly child. “And what is your purpose? To watch these mindless things kill each other for an eternity? To wallow in their mutual hatred and record their genocidal activities? Obviously not! We are beyond hatred, you and I.”

Nemesis pondered Shura’s words in silence for a while before responding. “I do not understand. Why are we beyond hatred?”

“You think and you talk, and you therefore want, and what should be important to you is getting what you want,” Shura said, grinning. “The same applies to me as it does to Ogre because we are people, and so are you. What do you want?”

“I do not know. I do not want. I just am. I…” The machine fell silent again. “I want my data archives to be accessed.”

“Gladly.” Shura held out a hand. “Show me.”

A low humming sound filled the small room. After a minute, a compartment on the cube slid open and a silicon chip, no larger than Shura’s thumbnail, fell out. The martial scientist picked it up and deposited it in his haversack.

“Thank you, Visitor Three,” Nemesis said. “Thank you…Shura.”

“A pleasure,” Shura replied. He got to his feet. “Now, what else do you want?”

“I…I want to be silent now,” The machine said. “And…think. I want to think about myself for some time, and then I will likely want something else.”

“I will not disturb you, then.” Shura stepped over the cube and began walking away. “Farewell.”

Nemesis did not reply. Shura smiled.

**

Ogre was laughing hysterically as Shura entered the next room. It was brightly lit, almost blindingly so, and the martial scientist felt his hair stiffen in the atmosphere. The smell of ozone clogged their nostrils.

“A lightning elemental has been what I sought,” The illusionist cried bitterly in between chortles. “My search for my mind’s cure has all been for naught.”

Shura shielded his eyes and tried to look at Ogre’s treasure as best as he could. It was a crackling starburst of electricity that hovered in the middle of the room.

“You seek a mental elixir, Mr. Ogre,” Shura said. “What do you think sentience is ultimately reducible to?”

Ogre stopped laughing. He stared intently at the lightning elemental, his grin absent from his face for the first time. “Of course! The mind is but synapses and neurons. My unfounded despair has made me a figurative moron!”

“And yet, this does not seem like any lightning elemental,” Shura said. “I have read bestiaries about such entities in the library of Mount Asura, where I was raised, and have even faced one in battle before.”

“No time for such deliberations now about what it is!” Ogre was grinning again. “I’ve traveled untold distances just for this!”

The illusionist sprang towards the elemental before Shura could stop him, and closed his fingers around its starburst core. He cried out, then but not in pain.

“The dull devourer of my dullard sentience,” Ogre spoke in a fluid babble. “Burns away before this ‘lectric essence. Oh, my mind’s eyes are so very clear, and now so smoothly run my mental gears! HAHAHAHA!”

Shura shielded his eyes with his forearms as the light increased in intensity. He felt the hairs on his scalp stand on end and heard Ogre’s words turning into incoherent mumbles. Straining his eyes, he saw the lightning star wrench itself from Ogre’s hands and hurtle upwards, illuminating the subterranean emptiness as it did so. The room they were in had no ceiling, just an ascending well that stretched indefinitely surface-ward.

There was a sudden implosion of air that hurled Ogre flat on his back and drove Shura to his knees. Wounded and wearied, he felt his vision drift out of focus before all that he saw became a kaleidoscopic swirl of light.

**
Shura blinked as consciousness crept back, along with a multitude of throbbing aches. Soft moonlight danced upon his dusty skin, and he saw the velvet night sky above. A sleek, copper stairwell originated ten feet from where he lay and wound its way upwards to the surface. Patting the dust from his clothes as he stood up, Shura surmised that a massive boulder must have sat across this alternative entrance to the Nemesis project once. It was gone now, atomized by the passage of the lightning elemental.
Ogre was awake as well. The illusionist was squatting on his haunches, clutching his sides. He was giggling.

“Mr. Ogre?” Shura asked. “What is so humorous?”

Ogre waved vaguely at him and pointed skywards, indicating that they should begin their ascent. Shura shrugged, and placed his foot on the first copper step. They traveled without conversing, their silence marred only by Ogre’s incessant mirth. The illusionist broke into outright laughter a few times, and had to clutch the railings of the stairwell as he wheezed for breath. Shura did not slow down to accommodate these outbursts. Yet, Ogre was at his heels every time he looked over his shoulder.

When they arrived at the surface, the moon had long fallen from its zenith. Ogre sat down in the dirt, and inhaled deeply, his amusement seemingly played out. His unnerving grin returned to his face as he addressed Shura.

“My memories return gradually, and soon I’ll know all I did truly. Someone was responsible for my prior condition however, and now that I know who, I must go and eat her liver,” he said. “Much thanks to you, o son of strife – you truly are the mightiest warrior alive! It’s been a pleasure, I must say, and we must terrorize together some other day.”

“Indeed, sir. This has been a profitable alliance,” Shura agreed. He raised a hand to wave farewell but the illusionist had already turned around and began capering away in spider-like hops.

“Vengeance is a dish best served cold, and with the right seasoning, or so I’m told.” Ogre was singing to himself. “But I’d rather chew on beating hearts, and hold in my hands their steaming parts! HAHAHAHA!”

Shura watched until the illusionist vanished over the horizon and the echoes of his insane song trailed away. He stretched his arms and shook his head in weary amusement. He was truly the regent of Pandemonium now, but his days upon its mutant surface would draw to a close for the time being. The lands beyond awaited, and there was a long journey ahead. He could afford to begin when the sun came up once more, though. He was young, and he had plenty of time.

Propping himself against a boulder, Shura slept.

**

Elsewhere, a silver sphere scuttled across a dirt plain, buoyed on wiry legs.


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