A brutish thumb traced an unrefined caress over his jaw. Eyes, the color of jasper, enigmatic and glowing, sealed off as lips softened under his.
Affection had carved that memory, but it now twisted brutally in John's stomach.
A hand ruffled his hair, an annoying but welcome distraction. Agent Akio strode ahead, calling over his shoulder to John with some playful reprimand for standing around with his head in the clouds. John could not argue; Akio was right. John flattened out his hair as he joined the crew departing their division’s Cessna 172 aircraft, the Antarctic Angel.
The vast, mysterious beauty of the new scenery provided a welcome relief from the persistent memories of Hellboy. Their 'breakup' - for lack of a better word - had been over two years ago, and still he had been unable to fill the void that the loss had left; his loneliness curdled undisturbed for those two years, left in the barren tundra of Antarctica where dating apps like Tinder only made you realize moreso how isolated you were.
The BPRD forensic unit had arrived at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Columns of chiseled rock struck into the air, sizzling beneath the crackle of rain and forming the unique stairway from sky to sea that made the location a natural wonder. The fuzzy pinks and stringy blues of the native flora were striking along the comb-patterned beach, fallen like jewels lost from a broken necklace. There were tendrils of green that curled like disembodied tails in the gray sand and burping frogs that stuttered along the crevices. They appeared eerily bright amidst the faded rocks, giving the scene an unearthly, patchy glow.
They were at the site of the defeat of the Golden Army. Of course, the defeat had happened years ago--the forensics department was just now getting to it, thanks to the typical backlogged nature of the government bureaucracy.
“Check out these frogs,” Agent Nichols said as their unit picked their way through the numerous creatures. “I thought only invertebrates and birds and shit lived on the land here. Swear I read that in one of the debriefing docs.”
“Frogs are the least of what is strange about this place,” Agent Kazah replied.
John had a leather-bound notebook in his hands, much good it did him. There were procedures for these missions, and John was adamant that it would be done properly, all boxes checked. “Lauderman, take the boundary with Nichols - Kazah, you and Akio should lead the SSM"-- Sweep for Salvageable Material--"...Or, you know, just wing it,” John muttered, realizing he might as well have been talking to himself as the others went about the job heedlessly. “As usual.” He flipped the book closed, tucked it under one arm and tailed after the squad, most of whom were chattering about the latest TV shows to hit Antarctic airwaves.
In the usual way of things, John ended up on his own along the pebbly beach, marking off his own boxes. Above, the sky was silver and seemed tired of light, and he found himself squinting despite the lack of sun. He came towards a protruding shape of rock, where the amount of frogs seemed tantamount; it was incredibly strange how little space his feet had to step as he approached the mound. John paused, glanced up to check the proximity of the nearest agents--they seemed to be focused on their own little investigations, but close enough--before proceeding.
There was something unnatural about the mound; it wasn’t even the unusual, tomb- or coffin-like shape, or the way the shallow bits of ocean seemed to carefully float around it without touching. What stuck out the most about the conglomeration of rock and moss was its faded color, grayer than the already dusty sky and beach; it was as if within the mound was the source of the colorlessness. As John stepped gingerly closer, he noticed that the increasing fog in the middle of it was actually a hollowed-out center, reaching back. He held his hand over his weapon as he walked into the cave.
At the back of the cave, with the outside gray-light just barely hanging onto the fog enough to illuminate, was a human-shaped figure, confined in the rock.
Hastily, John dug a flashlight out of his kit belt and clicked it on as he cautiously ventured inwards. Cold moisture glistened on the human-shape, matching the chill on John’s cheeks.
The Unknown Subject looked like something that had been melted outside of the earth, alien. Its body was dark, iron-colored, and specks of reflected light hovered around it as if unable to touch. It was barefoot, frozen fabric hanging loose down his legs, a sash fastened around his waist with a relaxed twist. Long hair fell, looking impossibly like frozen oil, from the man-like figure’s head as it hung from defeated shoulders. John found himself trapped by the specter, his body bringing him closer without conscious thought. He longed to peer into the man's eyes, to discover what might pulse within a body that looked like it had been sculpted after a Greek god. He leaned closer, finally close enough to see a defect in the sculpture. A scar wound across the nose and cheeks, reminding John oddly of the West Side Line train tracks by the apartment he had in New York, disused and broken.
His breath came out as warm vapor, collapsing into tendrils on the Individual’s chest. Curious, wondering if it was merely a stone effigy, John brushed gloved fingers over what turned out to be real hair.
The eyes opened. John gasped, flinching back. The unsub’s eyes were the impossible color of a starlit black hole, solar systems made entirely of still-dying ash and resting in the dark sills of his face as if protected relics.
“Who -” John hesitated, thoughts rippling against each other - he should be putting his weapon between himself and the unsub. “Who are you?”
The unsub tilted his head, and the plates of the brow drew together, perpetuating confusion.
Then, the stone tomb shrieked, severing around the unsub, cracks striking out across the wall with every twitch of muscle. John yelped, boots scraping over rock and then over nothing as he fell.
The unsub’s arm burst from its craggy bindings, knuckles grating as fingers laced into John’s collar, catching him in the air. John flailed, dangling, for only a moment, before there was another wrench of stone; he saw a flash of shock in the unsub’s molten eyes before his arm seemed to give way, allowing John to drop to the ground.
The unsub pried the rest of himself from the wall, shards of stone showering down. John ducked behind his arm, cringing against rolling dust, until the unsub was standing free and he felt the murky gaze crawling over him.
Sense finally seemed to flow through his veins, and John hastily pressed the distress signal on his radio, retrieving his handgun and pointing it up from where he was sloppily seated. “I’m an agent with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense -” John recited confidently. “You will be taken into custody for vetting and evaluation, until such time as..." He stilled as the unsub tilted his head, the effervescent black in his eyes welling to intrigued spheres.
The unsub’s voice wafted through regal lips, like rustling feathers. “Human - " He said it with severe distaste, the offense of the word so strong there was a short pause of recovery before he continued. “How is it that you have brought me here?” Carefully, the unsub looked down at one of his arms, interest piqued by its appearance.
“Myers!” The white beam of a flashlight swung across John before leveling onto his face, and then climbing to the being behind him. “The hell is that thing?” Agent Kazah was already cocking her gun as she marched forward to get a good shot.
John protested as the unsub suddenly grabbed him by the collar, hauling him to his feet. His grip was surprisingly gentle. John was reluctant to fire the gun he had pointed at the creature, but his apprehension was gaining ground. He was the good kind of agent, the kind that de-escalated a situation, not the kind that killed mysterious beings before they displayed murderous intent.
“Do not follow, Human, if you wish to breathe tomorrow.” The unsub spoke to Kazah rigidly; not one muscle in his stone-like body looked gentle now.
John panicked, unwilling to risk Kazah’s life. He also knew she was a shoot-before-you-ask-questions kind of agent. “Agent Kazah, don’t!” he warned as she drew closer.
“Are you crazy? I’m not leaving you,” Kazah said without taking her eye or gun off of the iron man.
The unsub, with seemingly great effort, pitched John to the back of the cave. John's head bounced off of the wall, blaring. As the stars faded in front of his eyes, the unsub bent creaking knees, straining, and then leaped into the air and soared towards Kazah, spraying gravel behind him. “WAIT! STOP!” John yelled, forcing his eyes to open, peering through the blur of pain to aim his own gun at the ground beside Kazah’s feet and fired. Kazah jumped in surprise, falling as the unsub struck down beside her. John spit a sigh, struggling to get to his feet, still reeling.
“It would be too much to ask of a Human, to feel patience... and respect fear." The unsub's voice stuttered like boulders capering down a choppy path. He reached down for Kazah.
"Respect this, creep!" Kazah cried, swung her gun up and pulled the trigger.
With inhuman speed matching the crack of the gun, the unsub dashed out of the way, the bullet shattering the rock wall behind where he had stood. At the other side of Kazah, he towered over her, haughty and menacing.
“Don't hurt her!” John demanded scornfully. "I'll go with you." He stepped carefully forward. John noticed the gun moving in Kazah’s grip as she scrambled to stand--knowing Kazah, she wouldn’t give in, she would keep going until she got the upper hand, or was defeated herself. “Mia, don’t fight him. You won’t win.” He had seen it before--agents hardly stood a chance against unknown creatures of legend like this. She showed no signs of relenting, which John should have expected. Resigned, with one eye shut tight, knowing a massive swelling was forming on the back of his head, John lifted his gun with both hands and pointed it at Kazah. "Play it smart, Agent. You're not going to win this time," John said sternly as his throat clogged.
It seemed to take all of Kazah’s willpower to keep herself from attacking. She was breathing heavily and leaned against the wall with such tension that she seemed to turn into throbbing stone, her eyes quivering on John until she was unable to bear looking at him. “We’ll come after you,” she hissed.
The iron being bowed his head, seemingly satisfied - though it appeared to be more out of a sense of fatigue than mercy. “You have chosen well, Human,” he said vehemently, turning to John. “You have earned another day for your friend.” The unsub then grabbed John once again by his collar, John gasping softly from the fresh smarting of his head. The unsub easily wrenched the gun from John's grip, tossed it to clatter across the ground. He returned with John to the wall where he had been suspended, splaying his hand on the rock face.
Suddenly John was shaking, as though his fear had decided now to show up all at once; what was he doing? John looked back at Kazah with a silent plea that she remain behind. The edges of John’s vision were dissolving to static, the figure of the iron being a surreal nightmare, the world trembling around him - but the trembling felt too real, and then John realized that the world was trembling. He looked frantically around, loosened shards of cave clattering around him, and then saw that there was a door opening in front of them. Tremors of both fear and of the earth rattled through John--although years in the BPRD had exposed him to much more than magically-procured doors--as the iron being turned beckoning eyes onto him.
Voices of more agents filtered in, boots stomping towards the cave. John spun, gaze falling desperately to Agent Kazah. Then there was a clamp on his arm - John gasped, biting off the noise as he was yanked back, and suddenly he was stumbling after as the iron being charged with him into the cold dark of the cave. The last dregs of light were eroded away as the world was closed off behind them.
Scrambling in the iron being’s claw-like grip, John could do nothing but follow blindly, his breath coming quicker and shallow as a result of both panic and fatigue. It could not have been very long that John was following the unsub, but it felt like at least a sluggish hour with the cold that was seeping into his bones. Eventually everything felt numb.
The cavern eventually opened up with light; fuzzy loam spreading from the floor up to where it clung to the ceiling. John looked around with what little awe he could spare; they must have ventured into one of the many pockets of paranormal energy in the world. His appreciation for it was overturned into dread and discomfort as the temperature plummeted.
John panted, voicing the cold realization that gripped his heart with nausea. “Are you going to kill me?" John asked with the stoicism he had learned to meet the idea of death with. Suddenly the iron being came to a dead halt, rounding on John; he felt the rush of air as black hair groped his face like ghostly tentacles.
“Heed my words, Human!” He spoke ‘human’ as if it were a warning, his voice as cold and dark as the cave, high-pitched in its fervor. “I am Prince Nuada Silverlance.”
There was wild suspicion in the way the unsub’s eyes glinted at John from their crevices, as if John had done something of endangering affront. John could hear the anguish in his voice, his shuddering breath; but John was stuck on the name. Prince Nuada Silverlance.
“How did you awaken me?” Prince Nuada Silverlance spat, digging his nails into John’s wrist. “To what end does this benefit you? Why have you torn me from my death?” His voice streamed from his dried lips like tears; he sounded on the edge of choking. After a second’s thought, he continued with renewed obstinacy, “Did I not die?” He stared at John, addled.
John swallowed. He didn’t want to think about what would happen once Prince Nuada realized he could not give him the answers he wanted. He almost felt embarrassed; this creature seemed to think that John knew what he was doing.
“Answer me, Human!” Prince Nuada demanded, desperation constricting his voice. He forced John back against a rocky wall; John flinched as bladed stones dug into his back.
“You died! ” John hollered as he recalled the debrief regarding the defeat of the Golden Army, and of Prince Nuada. “According to the reports, you died! Your body turned to marble, and crumbled--I don’t know how you’re alive - Don’t know how I awakened you…” John forced the words to claw themselves out of his dry throat. “Something happened… When I touched you. It happened when I touched you,” he repeated himself, gaining confidence.
Nuada’s eyes continued frisking John as if a vulture ensuring its carrion was real; his teeth gripped against each other, mouth wrought with disbelieving fury. “You are but a Human, the lowest dreg of the Earth,” Nuada pulled John by the wrist and flung him into the center of the cavern. John stumbled, managing to stay on his feet despite every bone sweating itself dry of blood and marrow. Nuada began to circle John, his blackened eyes rolling beneath the haunted bridge of his brow. “How did you bring me back? What magic have you stolen to accomplish this?” He lunged at John and forced his clawed hand into John’s jacket.
Something flared between them at the contact, some kind of energy that mitigated further protest from John; he gaped, terrified, at Prince Nuada, the skin beneath Nuada’s touch sizzling with something he could only describe as painless electricity. He had thought it was some kind of magical attack, but the squint around Prince Nuada’s eyes, the guarded flicker of confusion, suggested he had felt it too, and was just as surprised. The pain in John's head and back mysteriously seeped away.
“What is this?” John fumbled for an explanation before Nuada roiled forward; “Where is your amulet? What talisman have you rendered to your destructive whim?” Nuada growled as his hand felt its way impatiently over John’s chest. The sensation only grew, and it was not something John could get used to; he felt himself heating up. It was a strange combination: there was critical adrenaline, his life telling him its good-byes, pleading for a delay in fate but seeing no other option just the same. This was Prince Nuada, the Elf who had nearly defeated Hellboy - how did John, even with his extensive combative training, stand a chance? Amidst thoughts of his mortality, there was some surprising, life-sparking thing, the thing that was utterly inexplicable. Then, there was the small, strange nostalgia that seemed to fill his head with a foggy, floral scent and dreams of meticulous moments with school crushes and first loves.
John had to swallow a knot of tension in his throat, the spasm of panic diminishing under the realization that Prince Nuada was not as confident as he professed. John felt himself blushing, his eyes craning from the clouds in his head to reach into Nuada’s. Then Nuada suddenly swept away, having found nothing in the space between his hands and John’s chest. There was a scrape of iron skin over stone, and the next John knew he was flat on his back, blinking up at a severe grey face as his spine smarted. The panic was back, John flinching as he expected a crushing blow; but Prince Nuada only stared at him with that dark, inquisitive look. Reacting on instinct, John flung his body over, swinging a leg into Prince Nuada’s ankles - but connected with nothing.
Prince Nuada landed lightly on the other side of John, his lips curling softly with the most minimal of intrigued, resentful smiles, partially shuttered by long strips of the hair that had fallen against his face.
Something about that smile--smug--and not to mention the lack of choices John had regardless, goaded John to scramble to his feet, working to shed his coat. The cavern was quiet save for the echo of John’s panting and the sounds of his boots scuffing over the uneven ground as he rushed Prince Nuada, fists brandished. He had thought he would face death with quiet resolve--apparently, he would go out fighting. An earnest battle cry pulled free of John’s throat, a release of frustration for his unjust predicament, as he swung for a punch, but John looked hastily up as Prince Nuada flowed, untouched, around him. John spared little delay; he vaulted another punch at Prince Nuada.
He missed every time. The frustration was only augmented, that John was helpless, a hostage, at the disposal of this supernatural being’s whims. But now there was a meager breath of sweat, hot and damp, building under his arms, chasing away the dire cold, and Prince Nuada seemed pleased enough with John’s fruitless efforts.
Prince Nuada was a flickering grey thing, an apparition, appearing in and out of John’s vision. There was an instant John lost all sight of him, even in turning about, and then he felt a gentle, paralyzing touch of breath behind his ear, which preceded the feathery press of hands on his hips. It was too soft and unobtrusive, like the misleadingly silky brush of poison ivy.
“You Humans lack all semblance of balance,” The words coursed around John’s head, voice as nimble as the individual himself standing behind him. Before John could wrench around to show this beguiling fellow a thing or two about balance, Prince Nuada cocked John’s hips into a different alignment. John gasped in a moment of terror, his eyes wide as he found himself still in one piece - John had expected an offensive maneuver of some kind, not helpful correction, and again there was that melted-electric jolt. Nuada leaned his lips against John’s ear and said, thoughtfully, “If you had pilfered any sort of magic, you couldn’t have possibly been stupid enough to overlook this weakness.” John saw the flash of Nuada’s eyes in his peripheral as he looked him up and down. “You would have known to enchant a correction to your equilibrium as a priority.” He scoffed; it sounded like nonsense, but John wondered if Nuada was merely trying to convince himself of John’s innocence.
Regaining himself, John drove his elbow back, but it was as though there was an invisible barrier that kept Prince Nuada an impenetrable few inches away from any attack. Spinning, John fell back into the routine; he punched, Prince Nuada flowed effortlessly just out of reach, as inscrutable as a reflection spread over rippling water.
Compelled by a moment of desperation, beginning to tire, John threw himself bodily at Prince Nuada once he had materialized into a full image. This time, Prince Nuada did not move; he seemed caught in a breath, as if he was actually becoming fatigued, and this seemed to surprise even Nuada. His hands sprung up at the last minute, but it was too late - John's fist caught the Prince's nose, and a spurt of liquid was released from his nostril. Stunned, John stood with his mouth open, knuckles hanging in the ensuing sting of pain. Nuada reached up to touch his nose, exploratory. What leaked from Nuada's nose wasn't blood, and what John had struck was not skin and cartilage - he was indeed made of some kind of stone, although it had felt layered and malleable and shockingly delicate, and his blood simply looked like liquid iron.
A vigorous grin spread itself beneath Nuada's seeping nose. John saw his gaze track slightly down his face, and John impulsively touched the space beneath his own nose; it was bleeding. When he looked beyond his red-tipped finger back to Nuada, it almost looked like he was smiling out of embarrassment, of desperate confusion. Seeming to realize the exposure of his expression, Nuada charged, enveloping John’s fists with his hands. Then he was maneuvering John’s own weight to press him up into the air; John felt the earth slipping out from under his feet, saw Prince Nuada ducking underneath him, a flash as their eyes locked. John flew in an arch over Prince Nuada’s head, floating at the guidance of the hands wrapped around his.
When John came down, unprepared, Prince Nuada tugged him in, spun him until his arms were pinned across his front and his back was pressed against a solid chest. John felt a quickened breath ruffling through his hair, as erratic as his own. Suddenly, the spar had been flipped into an aggressive sort of dance, and as the moment stretched on--enough for John to begin to catch his breath--John found himself sinking from anxious to uncomfortable in the iron arms.
At first, John thought it was his own heartbeat striking so terribly through his body, as if his heart was attempting to abandon ship; then he realized it was Prince Nuada’s chest pulsing against him, his heart beating heavily in rhythm with John’s.
Finally, Prince Nuada relinquished John, and John shuffled, ungainly, turning shakily to face Nuada. The 'blood' from Nuada's nose had already dried. John's knuckles no longer felt as if he had just punched metal. The Prince seemed to steadily pry himself from whatever dismal notion had compelled him to end the spar. It must have had something to do with the phenomenon of their contact, the in-sync beating of their hearts that troubled Nuada so.
“You astound me in a way no Human has," Nuada announced, "though you are unremarkable in every other respect.” John felt a tinge of insult despite the icy stiffening of his body while Nuada closed in on him, his head hanging over John’s face like the sun collapsing over the horizon.
"Gee, thanks," John's voice rose out of him, surprising himself. It felt like he had just had a sportmanly brawl with a schoolmate.
“I see that there is nothing you hide. For now.” A long, pointed nail trailed down John’s cheek. The energy of this mystery, the plunder of the supernatural, was thrilling, although the realness of it still sank John's stomach. He was excited, unbelievably and in spite of the threat that his heart might stop, to be so near this body of perfection, to feel that this extraordinarily-adorned being was drawn to him.
“Ah! ” John gasped; Nuada had nicked his cheek. He felt the cool trickle of blood turn nearly to steam against his hot face, watched the same of Nuada's cheek, as though through a mirror.
“We seem to be brought together by some unwitting parallel of fate. I feel only able to redeem what power I once had when you are near,” Nuada whipped his black hair behind him, a stone-straight column of muscle. “When I drew away from you to attack your friend, I felt weak.” He admitted this as if it were a sword he were tying over John's head, holding it above him like a threat. He was now turned from John, contemplating the circumstances aloud as if to himself. He then fastened his gloaming gaze, solidifying over John’s eyes like a crust. “Be warned, you betray me, and you will die.” Nuada paused. "Tell me your name.”
John was irresistibly drawn in, mind fumbling to understand what this had meant, what kind of contract he was unwittingly signing. “John Myers.”