Chapter 1: A Dead Man's Tale
A hot summer breeze came in through the window of Saburo's room. He yawned sleepily. The dead silence was nice and peaceful, after all the chaos and drama he had experienced in just the past month or so. For now, though, things were quiet. He leaned back in his desk chair, arms crossed, eyes closed against the light of the full moon. It had almost been too quiet lately. Neither Kong nor Kontaibo had anything for him lately, hadn't even asked to hang out in a while. Perhaps it was the silence that made him too restless to sleep this hot night. Despite it, one thought gave him comfort: At least Miyo is safe.
A sudden barking startled Saburo from his daze, and he accidentally let his chair, already leaned far back, drop. A few inches from the ground, however, the chair stopped, and slowly rose back to a normal seated position. "Phew... doesn't matter whether or not I use my psionic powers, that always makes my heart stop, hehe..." Saburo stood up, patting the back of the chair, grinning stupidly to himself. He ran to his window, looking down to the streets below. Sure enough, Hachiro, that mangy mutt, was outside his house, barking at him.
Saburo massaged his temples. "Jeez, Hachiro, no need to yell..." He sighed. Of course, talking to the dog wouldn't get anything done... he had to use telepathy. "Quiet down, what's the matter? Ryuko still mad you buried her toy?"
Hachiro growled. "There's a psionic nearby. Feels powerful."
Saburo jumped down from his window to the streets, a cloud of dust rising from where he landed. "Just one this time? Where at?"
"This way!" Hachiro took off at a full sprint down the streets, panting.
Saburo kept close behind, running at full speed. Thank god, the town where he lived was boring and dead at night. Nobody had ever seemed to see him, despite him running across the roofs, a bolt of lightning fighting the evils of the Neo Human Empire. His feet pounded the dusty road, sweat making his unruly bangs stick to his forehead. Hachiro came to a stop near the docks, and Saburo, huffing, came up beside him, unbuttoning his sweat soaked shirt. "Hachiro, why did you have to run the whole way here! It's way too hot for me... to..." He slowed to a stop.
"Do you feel it, too?"
Saburo nodded. "It's like there's static in the air... There's definitely a powerful psionic here. Hachiro, I want you to stay outside here."
Hachiro whined, but obediently sat down. Saburo patted his head, scratching behind his ears and leaving his shirt with him before approaching the warehouses near the docks. An unearthly muffled scream arose from one of them, prompting Saburo into a run towards the nearest building. He slammed himself against the door, only to find it locked shut. He tried again, this time adding to his strength with psychic power, and the door flew inwards off its hinges. Only a few meager bulbs lit the place, which stank of fish. Not paying much attention, Saburo walked further in, only to find he had stepped atop a body. "UGH!" He jumped back, looking down to see some middle-aged man in a bussiness suit, a hole clean through the center of his forehead. "Jesus..." Saburo knelt down to inspect the body, but between the unnerving sense of an enemy nearby and the trickling of blood from the still freshly-dead man, he couldn't bring himself to, and stepped around the body instead. The lights flickered, making it even more difficult to see anything in the already dim building. Saburo sneered. "I KNOW YOU'RE IN HERE!" he yelled. His voice reverberated slightly in the mostly empty warehouse. He sneered. Closing his eyes to focus a moment, he attempted to pinpoint where the strange energy seemed to be coming from.
Saburo swept his hand out in an arc in front of him, throwing aside a few boxes near the far wall, when the lights went out a few seconds. When they flickered back to life, a figure in bizarre costume stood before Saburo. They were clad in black, with a flowing cape and strange white helmet-mask, with huge eye sections covered in red glass. "If you know what's good for you, kid," they said, voice low and serious, "you'll leave right now and not tell anyone about this."
Saburo stepped back in surprise, but he wasn't about to back down. "Who the hell are you?"
The mysterious masked figure smirked. "How much do you value your life?" The voice, although masculine in timbre, was a bit high and whimsical.
"I said, who the hell are you?!"
"Heeheehee. I'm a dead man... nobody you should worry about."
Saburo frowned. "Tell me," he demanded, "are you part of the Neo Human Empire?"
Their smile faded at this. "... No."
"You know about them?"
Saburo offered his hand to the strange individual. "If you're also a psionic looking to fight them... why don't you join the Youth League?"
They scowled. "Get lost, kid, I don't want to be part of your dumbass club. Hmph. But first..." They stepped closer to Saburo, "you never saw me here!"
"Urgh-!" Saburo felt a presence in his mind, trying to root through his thoughts and memories, and quickly shut it out of his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "Nice try, you bastard, but that won't work on me. Now, I'm not leaving until you tell me who you really are!"
"Tatsuo, speak to him, he may be useful!" a soft voice came from all around them. Saburo looked around, trying to pinpoint the source, but he felt no other presences. The other man, however, simply looked up slightly.
"Maya," Saburo heard the man's thoughts, "we don't need some kid to babysit, I'm fine working on my own."
"Who's Maya?" Saburo asked.
The man seemed to snap back to reality. "Humph. He knows too much, now!" He took a gun of some sort from a belt around his waist.
"I fuckin' dare you," Saburo growled.
"Tatsuo! Give him a chance. Don't kill him. He's just a child."
The man slowly put his gun up. "... I'm Skullman, a messenger from hell here to punish sinners and redeem myself."
"Skullman? You're the one who killed the man back there, weren't you?" Saburo motioned behind himself with his thumb towards the body near the entrance.
Skullman nodded. "Yeah I did. Got a problem? He deserved it. His company's been dumping chemicals in the water near here. Heavy metals, poisoning the fish. If I were you, I'd avoid Kazeta fish market a while longer, you hear me?"
Saburo said nothing. He had his concern's with his father's fish market for some time now, but hearing it from this smug, rude bastard infuriated him.
"Sounds like you're after the Neo Human Empire too, though. Maya seems to be interested in you, and I trust the judgement of that dear sister of mine, so I'll leave an open invitation to you. If you want to join me and strike at the heart of the Empire, you can join up with me and my pals. Or you can stay with your kiddie league. It's all up to you. Unlike that kiddie league of yours, however, I'm inches from the center of this... and shit's about to get wild, okay kid?"
"... Whatever. We don't need you."
"Then, go back to your family and tell them you love them, because I'm going to have to keep an eye on you now."
Saburo did his best to convince himself this was some hollow threat, but from the man's outfit to his demeanor to his high-tech looking gun, he knew he couldn't dismiss it, but he decided he'd want the help of the Youth League before approaching this man. Without another word, he went to the door, stopping briefly over the body once more. "May you rest in peace, you poor S.O.B." he muttered, before leaving and going back to Hachiro.
Hachiro growled. "I can still feel him."
"I know, boy," Saburo patted him, and tugged at his collar to direct him back home, "let's go.
The silent night air was even more unnerving now that Saburo was filled with questions. The mysterious Skullman was shaping to be another formidable enemy, and if he was indeed watching, then that put Miyo in danger. For all his teasing, he really did like her, and far too often she had been caught up in his confrontations. He groaned to himself. "That creepy bastard better not pull anything..." Saburo kept his eyes on the street. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, and Saburo swiveled around to see the falling debris from the warehouse he had just been in. Heat and light swept through the streets as he watched in horror, flames reaching out seeking more destruction, cries and screams from nearby. Hachiro barked.
"Saburo, we have to catch him!"
"Shut up!" Saburo tugged once more to pull him along, taking off for home. "We're going to need help first, but trust me, we'll take care of that sonuva bitch!"
Chapter 2: Garo's Job
Across from the Kazeta Fish Market, appearing as though melting in the summer heat, a small chihuahua lay sprawled out like a dirty, discarded, depressing dish rag. Its huge eyes were trained on an upstairs window, where Saburo's bedroom was. The little pup was just following orders, though. He only had one purpose in life, and that was to obey the will of Tatsuo, to protect and help him, and save him when need be. Tempting although it was to find some shadier spot, or to look for water, he remained. Garo was not easily swayed from his purpose.
Unfortunately, he had no clue that trouble was coming for him from Saburo's neighbor, until a rather large, scruffy looking mutt of some sort approached, growling, a small child atop its back. The little girl had messy, unkempt hair, and seemed rather a good match for her steed. Her eyes, unlike most children her age, held no wonder, curiosity, even fear. Instead, she gave off a strange sort of skepticism, and an unshakable aura that she was a lord over all she saw. Garo doubted she would pose any sort of difficulty in harassing him, but stood up in case he needed to move.
The dog barked. Its thoughts echoed in Garo's head. What are you doing here?
Down, boy, I'm not here for you. Garo did his best not to pay the creature any mind.
The small girl dismounted. She gazed disdainfully at Garo, who seemed just an apathetic, and rather pathetic, chihuahua. "... Hachiro, I don't like it either. That's no dog. You can kill it if you want."
Garo took off as fast as his tiny legs could carry him, and Hachiro was in close step, barking and trying to snatch little Garo up in his unforgiving, drooling jaws. It took quite a bit of effort to outmaneuver Hachiro's gait, but luckily the beast was lacking in any sort of gracefulness or higher intelligence, and could easily be run in circles. Hachiro barked and yelped as Garo ran about, nipping at his legs. This was taking way too long, though. This time being spent trying to wear out this ridiculous dog and child duo was time that should've been spent keeping a close eye on Saburo. Yipping, he took off into Kazeta fish market. Hachiro barreled after him, tripping over his long legs. Garo slipped beneath a crate of fish held up by a few bricks, and Hachiro crashed into it, spilling fish everywhere in a most fantastic fashion. The owner cried out in exasperation, grabbing hold of Hachiro, and yelling at the top of his lungs.
Garo slipped back out as quickly and quietly as he could. He would have to assume a new form before getting close again. Miyo ran over to see what Mr. Kazeta was swearing so loudly about, and apologized at length for her dog and little sister. While the livid fishmonger scolded Miyo and the poor clumsy Hachiro, Garo would his way around back, and transformed into a lizard, scaling the side of the building towards Saburo's window. The silence from inside unnerved him, but he was certain he could sense someone inside. He walked as close as he could to the open window while still remaining innocuous, and peered inside. Saburo stood in one corner of the room, arms crossed, eyes pinched shut in pensive thought. In two of the opposite corners, the light and air flickered before two more figures appeared. One was in sandals, a wifebeater, and wore the hat from some school uniform. He had a kendo sword that he hefted onto his shoulder. The way he carried it made it look heavier than it should be. "So Saburo, what the hell did you call us here for?"
The other figure, a bulky teenager with a barrel chest and shaved head, smirked. "Need a little extra muscle?"
"Feh! Something like that." Saburo opened one eye. "Kontaibo. Kong. I met this guy last night, some absolute motherfucker."
Kong, the barrel chested one, chuckled deeply. "What, is it some bully? Or does Miyo like him?"
"He was a psionic."
At this, the other two sobered up instantly. Kontaibo stepped forward. "Was he working for Banba?"
"No, it seemed he was after the Neo Human Empire just like we are..."
"Then, he's on our side, no need to fuss." Kong searched idly around Saburo's desk, knowing he'd find dirty magazines somewhere nearby.
Saburo, using his abilities, flung a piece of paper into Kong's face. "Stop poking around, this is serious!" Kong grumbled unhappily as he ripped the paper of his face, and glared at Saburo for an explanation. Saburo sighed. "This man is a killer. He's the one who blew up that warehouse near the docks yesterday. He may not be part of the Neo Human Empire, but he's..." He struggled a moment for words. "... He's evil. He can't be part of the Youth League, and he can't be allowed to kill again. We need to do something."
"Hmph." Kontaibo idly swung his kendo sword. "For the great Inazuman to ask us for help, I'm guessing you got your ass beat, didn't you?"
Saburo pouted. "Nah. I got the hell out of there. I could just tell he was trouble. Besides, we need to interrogate him. He said the Neo Human Empire was planning something... something big."
"That so? And you're sure he's not with Banba?"
"Naw. He called himself Skullman."
Kontaibo's swinging slowed. "Skullman? I remember hearing that before..."
"Sure it wasn't just from some cheesy superhero show?" Saburo chuckled.
"No. He was in the papers. Some killer. I thought the cops got him, though..."
Garo scuttled to the rooftop of the house, and sent a psychic signal to Tatsuo. He's talking to his friends about you. One of them heard about you from the papers. They plan on coming for you.
There was a long pause as Garo waited for a reply. Tatsuo's voice arrived to him, Let them come. We'll have something real nice prepared for him and his friends, hehe. Keep an eye on them awhile longer, will you Garo? Maya and I will prepare a warm welcome for our guests.
Chapter 3: Welcoming Party at Tiger Moon
Kontaibo dropped a heavy file onto the floor, and landed with a low thud. Saburo stared down at it.
"What the hell did you do that for? You coulda just given it to me."
"Drama. Pick it up, feel how heavy it is."
"No. YOU pick it up."
"No, YOU pick it up, Saburo."
"I'm not picking it up, you're the one who dropped it!"
"I SAID, it was for DRAMA!"
Kong, who had been keeping a healthy distance, grunted as he used his psionic powers to lift the file to deliver it to Saburo, accidentally shoving it in his face. Saburo grabbed it. "Geez, Kong, you really oughta learn a bit of delicacy..." He stared at the cover of it. Sure enough, the thing was dense and heavy with papers. TOP SECRET was stamped onto the front, right under the neat print declaring the folder's subject: Tatsuo Kagura. "Tatsuo... yeah, that's what his sister called him. Where'd you pick a thing like this up?"
"Had to dig around a few police stations and local detective agencies to get this whole file. You wouldn't believe the wraps it was under."
"Hmm..." Saburo idly flipped through it. There were many newspaper clippings, unexplained accidents, bizarre murders... He flipped to the summary page, taking it out. It was inked and censored to hell. "Did you read this?"
Kontaibo nodded. "This thing's a little vague, but it sounds like some missing orphan who got adopted by billionares took to crime, grabbed a skull mask, and just started killing at random."
"Did it say anything about his powers?"
"You and I both know they wouldn't publish that."
"Right..." Saburo flipped to the end of the summary. "... He died. Trapped in a burning building with two others."
"Which means you're dealing with a copycat."
"Or a zombie. Oooooooo, blech!" Saburo put his arms out in front of him walking stiffly towards Kontaibo. Kong got a chuckle out of it, but Kontaibo clearly couldn't care less.
"Shut the hell up, Saburo," Kontaibo sneered, "I've got something else. A rumor I picked up at the station, they heard someone's been at Skullman's old hideout. Wanna go check it out?"
"Yeah. Nothing to lose, after all." Saburo thrust the file into Kontaibo's arms. "Come on, Kong. Let's go take a look."
"This stinks!" Saburo groaned. "Like, literally, who the hell puts a house in the middle of some gross bog?"
"It's not a house, Saburo, it's a hideout." Kontaibo tapped him on the head with his kendo sword.
"Tch! Big difference! Who wants to stay in a stinky place like this?" As he approached the water's edge, his shoes sank into the mud. "Euch! How much further?"
"It's across the water, on a tiny island." Kontaibo pointed out much further. The soggy mud continued for another couple yards before giving way to the water of a mangrove, where the tops of the trees blotted out the sun.
Saburo took a deep breath, and moaned. "Alright, let's go!" He leapt at the nearest tree, clinging to the bark, and pulling himself up to a proper perch. "Are you coming?"
Kontaibo and Kong followed suit with their own trees, traveling the treetops of the mangrove until a building came into sight. Vines crawled up the walls, the brick wall around it was deteriorating, and the wood of the house was starting to splinter and crack. Saburo looked back at his subordinates. They nodded in affirmation, and together they jumped down to the front entrance. Kong peered into the windows. "Just looks like some run down old house inside," he grunted.
"Let's take a look," Saburo said, pushing the door open. It creaked as it swung on its hinges, and the scent of mold welcomed them. "Blegh. I don't think anybody's living here anymore." He stepped in, looking around. A cozy armchair sat by an old fireplace. Saburo went over to it. The red upholstery was still bright, well kept, completely different from everything else. "... hey guys, come look at this." Saburo motioned to Kontaibo and Kong, who came over to look at the odd spectacle of a chair. "This looks new. Maybe we've got something he--"
The floor suddenly seemed to give way beneath them, sending the three plummeting below the room.
They landed on a cold hard floor. "Oww...." Saburo picked himself up, rubbing his tailbone, and looking above him to where they fell from. The scene with the armchair was upside down on the ceiling above them, until the mechanism that had deposited them there turned the scene rightside up out of sight once more. More alarming, however, was a familiar voice.
"Welcome, welcome! Please, have a seat!"
It was only then that Saburo took a good look at his surroundings. Indeed, before them was a long banquet table, a white tablecloth covering it. At the end nearest them were three chairs, with three plates of fancy looking food. At the other end was Skullman, in full costume, cape and all... plus a red clip on bowtie. To one side of him was a young women near his age, wearing a white sundress. She waved shyly. At his other side was what seemed like some sort of homely butler, with large, slightly pointed ears, a square jaw, sappy eyes, and... a mullet? Was that a mullet? Saburo could hardly believe his eyes. He blinked hard. The hell was all this?
"Sit down, sit down! I'd like to talk to you three," Skullman pointed to each in turn, "Kong, Saburo, Kontaibo."
Saburo glanced back at his friends. The two were clearly shocked and threatened, and seemed ready to pounce. They looked to Saburo for direction, hoping to have him in on this. Saburo took a deep breath, and sat down at the table. "Come on, guys. Let's not be rude."
Kong and Kontaibo exchanged a betrayed look before throwing themselves in the chairs on either side of Saburo, sulking. Kontaibo put his feet up on the table, knocking aside the plate of food that had been set out for him. Skullman giggled. "I'd like to introduce you to my sister, Maya."
"We've met," Saburo glared at her.
Maya smiled and spoke to him, not with her voice, but with telepathy. "Hello again, Saburo. I'm glad I get to meet you face to face. Kontaibo, Kong, I hope you'll forgive my brother his odd mannerisms."
"I'd also like to introduce Garo, my best friend." Skullman motioned to the quiet man at his side. He nodded towards the Youth League members at the other end of the table.
"Cut the crap, Tatsuo," Kontaibo spat, "and tell us what the hell you want."
"Fu fu fu fu fu. Straight to the point, huh? You should be thanking me! I left all those little breadcrumbs at the police station for you. I suppose it's only fair, though. I wanted to talk to you about the Neo Human Empire. A couple people... that I used to know, that I was looking for, turned up there, and it turns out they've done something pretty terrible."
Saburo frowned. "You said they were plotting something, right?"
Skullman steepled his hands, his voice dipping in register as he dropped the whimsy. "Have you heard of 'Golgom'?"
Chapter 4: Golgom
Skullman unclipped the bowtie at his neck, standing up to put it on Garo. "There, now you look dapper!" He grinned. The ghost of a smile appeared on the other's face just a moment. "Garo, do me a favor, bring our guests the files we've amassed..."
Garo nodded, leaving to retrieve what he needed. Saburo eyed him suspiciously. "So, Skullman, what's the deal with that butler of yours anyway?"
"Butler?" Skullman scoffed. "He's no butler. He's my best friend. Garo is practically my brother."
Saburo nodded slowly. "I suppose he'd have to be, for you to even let him know you're alive."
"Trust me. He and I have a bond of fate."
Saburo wasn't sure whether or not he wanted that clarified, since it might've made things awkward, but luckily he wouldn't have had the chance to ask, as Garo came back in with a thick manila folder. He passed the folder to Saburo. Kong and Kontaibo got up, peering over his shoulder as he opened it. It was filled with the most arbitrary of things, it seemed. Obituaries. Dozens of health files. Newspaper clippings of a karate tournament. A report of a ship exploding with no survivors. "What is this? I can't make sense of any of it."
"That's all the work of Golgom, Saburo. They're a branch of the Neo Human Empire, a division focused on genetics." He stood up, and went to Saburo, sorting through the papers some. Eventually he picked out some sort of spending sheet. "Banba hired them to look into the genetic causes behind psionic powers, but it looks like they stole the money for their own research. See, they had a different idea of what 'Neo Humans' should be."
"So, what happened?"
"Banba cut them off. No more money. They never made much headway on psionic powers. Aaaaas it turns out, they didn't need to." Skullman pulled out the newspaper clipping of the karate tournament. "See these two poor bastards?" He pointed out two young men, probably in their mid twenties, each with their own black belts. "Hehe... Golgom kidnapped them. Experimented on them. Cut them open and rearranged their innards. Strapped them down and-"
"Enough," Saburo shivered, "that's enough. I get what they did."
"No you don't. Because one of them killed the other, along with anything Golgom threw at him. He's too powerful, probably even more so than you or me. We've only got one picture of him. It was hell to track down. Belonged to a couple sorry saps in America with a cryptid hunting show." He pulled out another paper from the bottom. The image clearly had a couple basic touch ups to make the image clearer. Just a bit off center to the left was some beast upon two legs with a black carapace and huge eyes. It had two arms that were normal, like a human's, but at its sides were smaller, deformed bugs' legs. It's hideous mouth was parted the tiniest amount. It was truly terrifying.
"Eugh... this is really him?" Saburo could barely hide his fear and disgust. "That's just not right."
"Couldn't agree more, Saburo. That's why I'm going to kill him."
Saburo blinked. "Wait... kill?" He looked at the picture of the monster, before looking back at the picture of the two men at the karate tournament. "There's really no saving him? I mean, isn't he a victim?"
"He is, but he's too powerful to allow him to live."
"Yeah? And what the hell does that make us?"
Skullman slammed his hands down. "We're freaks, Saburo! Freaks granted too much power! Power that means we have the responsibility of protecting normal folks from other freaks that'll hurt them, and the least we could do for that is to put this sorry motherfucker out of his misery!" He pounded his fist on the image of the grasshopper creature, then stepped back, taking a deep breath, and cradled his head in his hands. "Shit, give me a minute, I got too worked up there..."
Garo put an oversized hand on Skullman's shoulder. Skullman took off his helmet, and Saburo finally saw the face of the man Tatsuo beneath. He looked young, as young as he was supposed to have been when he died, and was even remarkably handsome, dark hair spiked in the back and a round face that made him look even younger. His eyes had a powerful intensity to them. Saburo watched as Tatsuo rubbed his eyes, his face, his temples, trying to compose himself.
"Why do you care so much?"
Tatsuo shot him a glare, and for a brief moment Saburo felt his body become unbearably hot, as well as feel as though under a great amount of pressure. He gulped. Did Tatsuo truly frighten him that much, or what that just a taste of his psionic powers? Tatsuo secured his helmet back on. "My parents work for Golgom. They're the reason I am the way I am. Myself, and my sister, and Garo. They created us." He looked to the ceiling, clearly thinking of that world above them they were so cut off from. "They created that beast too. I came back from the pits of hell to redeem myself, and that's how I'll do it. I'm destroying their legacy."
All became silent. Skullman looked up still, and all eyes were trained on him.
Tatsuo looked down, finally, at Saburo. "So are you going to help us or not?"
Saburo looked at Kong, and then to Kontaibo. They shook their heads. It was clear they wanted no part in this madness. He took a deep breath. "I don't want to help you kill this man, but I am coming with you. I want to save this man, from Golgom, and from himself."
Tatsuo nodded. "You've got balls. I have intel tracking him down. Prepare as much as you need to, and when you're ready, come and find me."
Chapter 5: An Old Friend at Uluru
"So, what the hell kind of cryptids are you looking for?"
Sam stopped fiddling with his camera awhile to look up at the tour guide driving. He looked to the woman beside him, wondering if she had any sort of stall. She hardly noticed Sam's pleading gaze. She was far too tired, far too distracted. The guide glanced back at them. "What, surprised I recognized you? Or did I make a mistake? Because, you sure do look an awful lot like Sam Spied."
"Oh, uh..." He frowned, turning his gaze back to his camera, carefully brushing sand from its crevices. "Yeah, that's me."
"Aha! I thought so!" He chuckled. "You know, I like your shows, although it's not hard to tell it's a load of shit. Especially lately. I mean, vampires in Venice?"
"Paris," Sam mumbled. He looked to Heather beside him once more. The last thing he wanted was to embarrass her in front of a stranger like this cheerful tour guide, but his worry gnawed at him. Sloppy scrunchy, dark circles under her eyes, no makeup. Only the gold hoop earrings stayed, the last spark of brightness left on her.
"Venice, Paris, doesn't matter, but I did like those special effects. You here for your show?"
Sam scowled. Of course, there weren't any special effects. "Yeah, sure." He sighed. His producer had been right. Nobody would believe that he had actually gone to an opera house, and filmed a artificially mutated person made into a monster in the image of a vampire. For them, it was all just television. He paused for just a moment, staring down at the expensive camera in his lap. It sure did bring back memories to think of it, though. It didn't even seem that long ago he and Heather had found Kotaro. He had just been a lone, naked, Japanese amnesiac in the sewers of New York. Somehow, in the months that followed, that sweet man became a friend, a compatriot, an invaluable cameraman, and somewhere in between all of it, a hero. Then, out of nowhere, he disappeared. It was a long time before they heard from him again.
"What, you looking for drop bears now? I'd love that."
Heather perked up a bit. "What's a drop bear?" She asked. Sam smiled. At least the newswoman in her still had the energy to ask questions. That was a good sign.
"Oh, you haven't heard?" He grinned, holding the steering wheel with one hand so he could motion with the other. "Well, see, it's this kind of koala. A little bigger, though, you know? Carnivorous, too."
"A carnivorous koala?" Heather was leaning forward a bit now, intrigued at the tale this man was weaving.
"Oh, yes. Sharp teeth, vicious creatures. Smart, too. You know, they recognize tourists like you."
Heather giggled. "Oh, is that so?"
"Damn right it is! It's their main source of food, 'round these parts. So, what you gotta do is, 'cuz they drop on ya from treetops, that's why they're drop bears, is you need to wear forks in your hair. That'll save you."
"Oh, I see." She smiled. The sight of it brought a bit of relief to Sam.
The guide parked near Uluru. "You said you wanted to go on your own, yeah? Well, I can stay here if you want, but before you leave I'm gonna remind you not to take too many pictures or climb Uluru. It's a sacred place and all, to the natives."
"Don't worry, we won't take too long," Heather said, climbing out, "and we promise not to touch anything either."
Sam got out of the car, and walked across the sun scorched earth towards Uluru. In his mind, he could still hear Kotaro's shaking voice from when he had called.
"Sam? Are you there, is that you?"
Sam had been at the editing studio when he got the call. All eyes were upon him when they heard Sam reply.
"Kotaro? Is that you? Where are you?"
"I'm... I'm in Australia."
"Australia?! Why the hell are you there?! Kotaro, where's Nobuhiko?"
A long silence had followed. Kotaro's shaky breaths became the loudest thing in the world.
"He's... dead. He's dead. Sam, I... I want to see you, and Heather. I'm at Uluru right now. Can you come?"
That was all it took. They dropped everything, and booked a flight for Australia as soon as they could. Uluru seemed to grow as they approached it, until it loomed over them. Beautiful at a distance, and yet so imposing up close. Heather suddenly grabbed Sam's arm. He was too short for her to easily reach his hand. "Ow, Heather, what-"
He followed her gaze and shut up. Peeking from around an outcrop of rock was Kotaro. Sam had seen his face morph into that of a monster's, and somehow, now, there was the ghost of those lines at the corners of his eyes, creeping along his face. He was struggling to look at Sam and Heather, his eyes full of fear and pain.
Heather moved first. "Kotaro?" She approached him slowly. Kotaro may have been a dear friend of hers, but she had seen him rip monsters apart, had even seen some of them incinerated. She knew better than to startle him. "Kotaro, what happened?"
Kotaro shied back from her, but she went up to him. He was so strong, and yet, looked so small when he acted the way he did. She put her hand upon his shoulder, making him flinch, but immediately thereafter, he started crying. He hid his face in one hand, trying to regain himself, but after everything that had happened, it was suddenly too much. "I killed him. I had to kill him. I'm horrible."
Heather, startled, gently rubbed his arm. "Shh, shh, calm down, Kotaro. Calm down."
Kotaro gently pulled Heather to himself, hugging onto her. Sam dropped his camera and hurried over, putting his hand on Kotaro's back. "Don't worry, we're here for you."
Kotaro took a deep breath. Everything was different now, permanently so. He hoped desperately he could change the future he had seen, a future where he had become the new king of a dark world. He looked to Heather, and then to Sam. He spoke aloud, gently, but with resolve.
"You guys... are dear friends, and I am going to protect you no matter what.
Chapter 6: The White Serpent
In the brisk night air above China, a bat was flying high in the sky, towards a mountain village. It was quiet, mostly uninhabited, but this creature had been given yet another task to fulfill. Tatsuo wasn't usually one to hand off errands to others; he got great enjoyment from holding the things he wanted in the palm of his hands. However, he had wanted to wait on Saburo back at his base, Tiger Moon. Thus, when he got word of a possible source of information from a ruined Golgom outpost, he sent Garo to look into it.
Garo perched upon a tree for a moment. His transformation abilities allowed him both excellent sight and hearing if he desired, but for now, he perceived with his mind. Up the mountain, he found the thoughts of a person, isolated from the others. "Maybe Grandpa was right. Who am I without Golgom?"
The last survivor of the Hubei Golgom base. This had to be it. Taking to the skies once more, Garo single-mindedly set out to find them. Atop the mountain, dimly illuminated by the light of the moon, there lay the remains of a toppled building. It seemed to have half fallen away, but part of the base remained intact. Garo brought himself close to the ground before slowly morphing back into a human form. His skin stretched and shrank unnaturally over him as he did. It did hurt, but he would never admit it. When finally his body settled into it's normal form, and Garo righted himself upon the earth after landing, he rolled his shoulders to settle his disturbed joints back into place before going to the ruins of the structure. He paused only briefly when something caught his eye nearby. To one side, there were mounds of earth, each marked with a stick of some sort. A tiny makeshift graveyard. Deciding to ignore it, he continued to the building. He could sense someone within.
He knocked at the door. It creaked and swung inwards. A glance easily revealed the lock was broken. Not wanting to intrude just yet, he waited patiently to see if anyone was there. Something silver flashed in a small patch of moonlight, to fast to see. Garo hardly ever spoke with words, and instead sent his message telepathically.
I know you're there. I'd like to speak to you.
Finally, a voice came shakily from the shadows. "I-is someone there?" A feminine figure stepped closer to the door, where the light was stronger, but their face remained hidden under a large hood. "What are you doing here?"
I want to ask you about Golgom.
Her body stiffened. "G-Golgom? I don't know what you're talking about." She spoke quietly, but Garo had access to her thoughts. "Have they been looking for me? Do they know what I did? Stay calm..." "Please, go away. Leave me in peace."
Not until I have answers.
The woman stepped back, and her body seemed to dissolve in an instant. Her clothes fell to the ground, and from them a large white snake slithered out, wrapping itself around Garo tightly, squeezing the air from his lungs. "LEAVE THIS PLACE!"
Garo struggled against her powerful grip. With a howl, he bit into her, sinking his mutant canines as far as he could into her flesh. She shrieked in reply, writhing, and Garo threw her off himself. Now out in the open, he could see the right side of her face illuminated, and it was covered in painful looking burns. She hissed loudly, baring fangs the size of a grow man's hand. Garo, unintimidated, leapt towards her, but she easily slithered away from him and out of sight. He had no time to react when she came up behind him, in the form of a human, and leapt on his back, arms around his throat, screeching. Garo, easily outmatching her in strength, wrenched her arms away, and tossed her aside. Her hood down, her face was even more paradoxical to behold in human form. At the right side, her lips were partially burned away, she had no hair, her nose had become crooked, and her skin was deformed, wrinkled and clinging to her jaw and cheekbone. Her left side, however, was perfect as a porcelain doll. It was without blemish, a round soft cheek, beautiful lips. Her eyes were dark, but soft, like the eyes of a doe, and she did indeed look much like a deer in headlights.
In his heart, Garo felt some sympathy for the poor creature. Fighting wasn't going to help either of them anyway. He sighed. If only he had that charisma, the way with people that Tatsuo always had... or at least his powers of psychic manipulation, this mission wouldn't have been bothersome in the least. As it were though, he was here alone, without the words this poor woman needed. He had no words of consolation, of comfort, of reassurance. He couldn't even find a lie to ease her fear. Her unguarded thoughts reached Garo clearly.
"This is it. I'm going to die."
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she began to tremble. Garo watched quietly, not moving. She began to sob violently.
"I'm a filthy backstabber! I betrayed Golgom! I admit it, now kill me!"
She still had no clue, it seemed, that Garo wasn't a part of Golgom. He doubted she would trust him at this point, no matter what he said. Words weren't enough here, especially when Garo had so few of them. He approached her and knelt down. He offered his hand, slowly, giving her space. She looked up at the hulking man. When she didn't accept his hand, Garo took it back, and bowed his head.
The woman then seemed to realize this man had no intention of hurting her. Her fear, her pain, gave way, and crying, she put a hand on the strange man, desperately seeking some sort of warmth and comfort. Garo gently hugged her, and patted her back as a father would. Years ago, he had done the same thing for Tatsuo, and still did when nightmares of Hell haunted him. In this moment, she was a child in his arms, and he was her protection.
Chapter 7: Skullman's Plan
When next Saburo arrived at Skullman's base, this time using the proper hidden staircase as opposed to having the entire floor flip him into a dining room, there was someone new. They wore some form of thick, hooded robe, which made it difficult to determine anything about them physically. Tatsuo sat across from them, backwards in his chair, same shit eating grin. A silence came over when Saburo stepped in. Both the stranger and Skullman turned to him, and Saburo could see the stranger had on a Noh mask. He scowled. This type of secrecy couldn't bode well.
"Who the hell are you?" He crossed his arms, staring them down.
The stranger said nothing in reply. They wrung their hands, looking away.
"Saburo," Tatsuo sung condescendingly, "be nice to my guest here, won't you?"
"Why should I? Who are they?"
Tatsuo stood up, and gently put a hand on Saburo's shoulder, speakingly gently to him. "Now, Saburo," he started, his mannerisms echoing a Youth Pastor in all the most unpleasant ways, "my friend here doesn't want her identity out. She's trying to lay low, okay? And she's very sensitive about her face. So, if you could please-"
"It's okay." A soft voice came shyly from the woman in the mask and hood. "My name is Xiao Qin... I was once a member of Golgom. Your friend here, this... Skullman, has told me he's looking for the same person as me. I can tell you a bit about him."
Saburo was clearly no more pleased than before. "Is that so? And why should I believe you when you won't even show us your face? You've still got secrets."
"Saburo~" Tatsuo grabbed Saburo's upper arm, squeezing like a parent on the verge on inflicting punishment.
He tried to pull his arm back, but was no match for Tatsuo's strength. "Ugh-! Let go!"
Xiao Qin stood. "Please, don't fight! It's okay..." Steeling herself, she took off the Noh mask. Indeed, one half of her face was horribly burned and deformed, the other half perfectly healthy and beautiful. Saburo stared in awe, and Tatsuo resentingly released him.
"I'm sorry about him, Xiao Qin. I didn't-"
"It's okay. It's fine." She did her best to smile, but it was clear it was painful for her. "The most important thing to me is to find Kotaro."
"Kotaro?" Saburo looked to Tatsuo, who resumed his backwards stance in his chair, arms leaned over the back.
"That's our man. Japanese, young adult, black hair, wild bangs. A gentle soul, reportedly, and to top it off, he is..." Skullman stared Xiao Qin down, grinning, "... wildly, wildly sexy."
She blushed, and struggled for words. "I never said that...!"
"You were thinking it."
Tatsuo tapped where his temple would be beneath his skull helmet. "I'm a mind reader, and right now you're envisioning his steamy hot abs."
She shut her mouth at that. "... He was working alongside a couple of Americans who had a TV show called 'Strange World'," she eventually said quietly, "and I'm sure they would know more."
"'Strange World'..." Saburo pondered a moment. "... Oh. Isn't that the show with all those cheesy monsters on it that tries to pass itself off as Nat Geo material? You know, 'Ghost Fuckers International' shit?"
"Ghost... Fuckers?" Xiao Qin stuttered, at a loss or words. "Well... I'm not sure I'd call it a 'Ghost Fuckers' show. Some of those monsters they film... were created by Golgom."
"... Bullshit. You're telling me that Golgom, funded by the Neo Human Empire, with loads of money and some of the greatest scientists they could find... made a vampire."
"Oh, they made a lot of things. Humans who could transform into monsters... that was always their plan. Dragons, gorillas, bats, crocodiles... snakes... Kotaro was a grasshopper."
Saburo had no reply to this. "... Whatever. You said we could find him through 'Strange World', right?"
Tatsuo stood up. "I know just how to get them here, too. We're going to bring them to us, and fight Kotaro here."
Saburo crossed his arms. "How do you plan on that?"
"Garo!" Skullman called. It only took a moment before the huge, lumbering man came in, silent. Tatsuo smiled. "Show off your talents to my good friend Sabu here, will you?"
Garo nodded. He began to hunch over, and slowly transformed. His hair receded, and his face stretched outward into a snout. Scales started to replace skin, and he sprouted a tail, becoming a lumpy, misshapen crocodile-man. He opened his mouth a moment, showing off his teeth, before starting to transform once again. Scaled turned to flesh once more, and fur began to grow over him. His ears, which had disappeared while he was a crocodile, reformed themselves, growing enormously. Garo rolled his shoulders back, and there was a cracking of bone as his joints rearranged themselves to accommodate wings, the type of sound that could make you sick. This time, he had become a monstrous bat, huge and hideous. One final time, he leaned forward, his bones continuing to snap and pop as his shoulders came forward once more, and he could rest his hands on the ground. Fingers shrank and fused into paws. He eventually settled into the form of a wolf, and trotted over to Tatsuo, who lovingly patted his head.
Saburo felt ill at what he had just witnessed, but was pulled out of it by Xiao Qin when she suddenly grabbed his wrist. He looked at her to see her eyes pleading, and she quietly asked.
"Please, please don't hurt Kotaro. I love him."
Saburo gently laid his hand over hers. "I'll save him. I promise."
Chapter 8: It's a Strange World After All
"It has to be another lead on Golgom," Sam insisted, "It's got them written all over it."
Kotaro turned over the camera in his hands. It felt as if it had been years since he had held it, back when he traveled the world alongside Sam and Heather. Now he was filming for 'Strange World' again, and on top of it, was traveling back to Japan for the next episode. Sam muttered to himself about Golgom, clearly hoping to find answers to Kotaro's silence, glaring towards the window. They were approaching the airport. Heather pulled out her notes to review. "The guy who called us told us a bunch of small to medium animal cadavers have been showing up in this one mangrove... sounds like there's been sightings of some monster, but there's conflicting accounts of what it looks like. There may be more than one. Getting down to the truth will be hard this time."
"Mm..." Kotaro nodded slightly. His head felt fuzzy, everything seemed fake. Still, he wanted nothing more than for things to go back the way they were. There was something comforting in being able to see his old friends again, to speak to them as if everything was find, to work with them again. He still hadn't told them about Nobuhiko, of course. He still wasn't ready. In fact, he may never be. He knew this.
"Well, that should be fine. I know we can do it as long as you're here, Kotaro!"
He looked up at Heather, just a bit caught off guard. He hadn't been expecting that. She smiled at him. He managed to smile back.
As they walked out into the airport, there was a small group of highschool age kids waiting for them, chatting amongst themselves by their poster reading 'StRANGE WORlD', the lowercase letters just as big as the uppercase, rewritten in katakana in one corner. Sam wasted no time approaching them, waving and calling. "Heeey!" The three highschoolers turned to him, immediately recognizing him, and one walked up, offering his hand.
"You're Sam Spied, right? I'm Saburo."
Sam took his hand, shaking it firmly. "Pleasure meeting you, Saburo. Who are these friends you've got here with you?"
Saburo turned around, pointing them out. "That one's Kong, the other's Kontaibo. They saw the thing at the mangrove, too."
Heather whipped out a notepad, going straight up to Kontaibo and starting to ask questions. Kontaibo responded with elegant, flowing lies of a camping trip with mysterious happenings. Sam listened carefully, but Saburo was uninterested, staring down Kotaro. He recognized his face from the newspaper clippings Skullman had. This man was secretly a monster, secretly holding power strong enough to destroy and rebuild worlds. Unassuming enough, sure, but Saburo could feel his latent power.
Kotaro, lacking any sort of extrasensory abilities, could only glance back at this strange teenager boring holes into him with his eyes. Disconcerting at best, he couldn't help but think that perhaps this young man had been suckered into becoming a part of Golgom. The call he had received raised a few red flags. Why was Golgom still so active? Did they want him back in Japan for a reason? Was this, perhaps, a trap...? Standing here, looking at Saburo, he could only feel unsafe. Something about the kid made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but he didn't really have any reason to be accusing him of anything... yet.
It was quickly decided and communicated between the teenagers and 'Strange World' cast that they would meet tomorrow at the mangrove, allowing Sam, Heather, and Kotaro ample time to visit a hotel room and ensure all their equipment was prepared. They had, after all, brought along camping gear and night cameras, to increase their chances of an encounter with the mysterious mangrove monster. The two parties separated, and at the hotel, Sam began unpacking camouflage tents and ration packs, counting, recounting, and packing once more. Kotaro watched their busy work, about to offer help, when something happened.
"Kotaro, I need you to be quiet and listen to me a moment."
Kotaro swung his head around, trying to pinpoint where the voice had come from, with no success. He opened his mouth to speak, only to be interrupted by the sound of a voice echoing in his head once more.
"Shh. I want to talk to you alone before you head out tomorrow. There's a cafe across the street. I'm there right now. Please come see me."
Kotaro's brow furrowed. He had known there was something wrong here, but this was something he had never experience before. Was Golgom working to make psychics, now...? At least, a cafe was a public space. Golgom stuck to the shadows, he doubted they'd arrange something in a cafe. Wordlessly, he went to the door, opening it.
"Kotaro, where are you going?"
He looked back over his shoulder. Sam and Heather were both staring at him. Sam was clearly concerned, but in Heather's eyes, he saw fear. She didn't want him to leave again, to disappear. He smiled at them, hoping it would reassure them. "Don't worry, I just... want to go out for a minute. I'll pick you guys up something, okay? Some cakes or something. I'll be back."
They nodded, and Kotaro left, slipping downstairs and to the cafe, looking out for anything suspicious. The place was small, quaint, with dark wooden tables and soft music. He looked around, trying to identify who had called him, when the voice sounded once more, this time aloud. "Hey, Kotaro."
Kotaro turned to face one of the youths from the airport, this one being, if he remembered correctly, Saburo. On he table before him were two mugs of black coffee, and a newspaper. He motioned to the chair opposite of him, inviting Kotaro to sit and talk. Kotaro sat down. Saburo took a moody sip of black coffee, and pulled a face at the bitterness, just like a child trying to be an adult. Still reeling from the strong flavor, he pushed the newspaper to Kotaro, who took it, and scanned the front page. The headline announced the death of a serial killer, one Kotaro recognized from the news maybe a year back. He looked to Saburo. "Skullman?"
Saburo nodded, finally composed. "His old hideout is in that bog. He's after you."
"He's dead," Kotaro said firmly, handing the newspaper back over.
"Not anymore. He's alive, and he wants you dead." Saburo played with his mug, clearly procrastinating another sip. "Skullman only sees you as a creation of Golgom, he doesn't think you can be saved. In his eyes, you're nothing more than an instrument for evil."
Kotaro certainly felt like that was all he was himself, lately. "... wait. How do you know all this?"
"'Cuz he and I are working together. We have a common enemy, in the Neo Human Empire. Anyway, I just wanted to give you a heads up." He stood, starting to leave. "I have no intention of hurting you, Kotaro, but betraying Skullman isn't an option for me right now. Remember that when you see me tomorrow."
As the young man left the cafe, Kotaro stared into his dark cup of coffee, now cold in his hands. Despite it all, he knew what he was going to have to do. Both Skullman and Saburo had to be taken care of.