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THE JAS SAXUM

Chapter Text

I'M DREAMING WHEN THE CALL COMES IN.

It's not a happy dream.

I won't relay the entire contents at the moment, since this is a record of OPERATION JAS RETRIEVAL and not of OPERATION CHILD PARTY, but I will say that it involved innumerable spikes of frozen oxygen, fire far hotter than that of burning magnesium, and a yawning abyss that wasn't quite meant to be comprehended by human minds, let alone seen by human eyes.

One moment, I'm convulsing in the snow, red hot sparks of acidic electricity rattling my bones and threatening to tear me apart, atom by atom.

The next, my pain is accompanied by Giant Steps, and I bolt upward, my neck and shoulders screaming in protest.

I need to stop using the keyboard as a pillow.

Fumbling around in the darkness, my hand connects with my desk lamp, and I flick the light on. The weak bulb illuminates my pitifully small cubicle, and I’m able to finally find my phone.

How the bloody hell did it get behind the computer?

I tell John Coltrane to shut up - a grave sin of which I’m well aware, trust me - and finally answer the phone, mumbling out something that only vaguely resembles a greeting.

“‘Ello?”

“Good morning, Bannbreker,” a very tired and very thin voice answers. Kara, my ‘boss’ of sorts. “Challenge Code: Robin.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Kara,” I sigh, glancing at my watch. 1:15 am. Aye, ‘good morning’ indeed. “I’m at the Annex - I’m ALWAYS at the bloody Annex. I am two fucking floors below you. Get your arse down here yourself if you want to talk to me, lazy bint.”

“I would say ‘code confirmed’ from that response, but we do things my way when I’m on dispatch duty. Besides, I know you haven’t showered in three days, and I’d rather not burn my sinuses out on your body odor. Challenge Code: Robin.”

I grit my teeth and mime throwing my phone across the cubicle. No use arguing with Kara - not until I’m fully awake, at least.

“Response: Saint-fucking-Christopher.”

“Good enough.” A hollow whine sounds through the receiver. The connection is now secure, and a cone of silence is deployed.

“So, what is it now? Agent Holstein getting on your nerves again so you need someone to vent to?”

“I’m on dispatch duty,” she says flatly. “What do you think I’m calling about?”

Oh.

“I’ve been contracted, haven’t I?” I groan.

“You’ve been contracted.”

“Where and when?”

“Two hours. Heathrow. I’ll send your flight details over in a minute. This is a high-risk operation - Class VI.”

Oh, joy.

“Right, I’m on it.”

“Oh, and Bannbreker?”

“What?”

“Take a shower.”

With that, the line goes dead, and I’m left very much alone in my cubicle, a.k.a my home ever since I was evicted from my flat about a year ago, just after OPERATION WAKING WORLD. I didn’t have much - I never did - so I just crashed here. The coffee’s free, it’s quiet as the dead at night, and I don’t have to waste time commuting between a flat and work when I’m not on a contract. The only problem, I reaffirm as I stretch out and massage muscles in my neck that I didn’t even know I had to begin with, is the sleeping accommodations. I wouldn’t mind so much if my desk chair was actually comfortable and not something yanked out of the ass-end of a garbage dump, but it seems like only the folks up in Mahogany Row get that luxury.

Grumbling incoherently, I start rooting around in my duffle bag - my closet, as it were - for some clean clothes. I pull out a shirt and trousers that, while not entirely clean, have at least been washed recently, and I head to the water closet down the hall.

As I said before, the Annex is quiet as the dead at night, and I mean that very literally. Aside from the z-word security assets downstairs and the occasional dispatcher upstairs, I’m alone, which means, among other things, that I can take a full body sink shower in the water closet without anyone walking in on me.

It’s at the point that I’m scrubbing my hair under the running water that my phone buzzes. Shaking my hands dry, I take a peek at the flight details Kara sent me.

The water closet walls echo stridently with the string of profanity that follows.

San Diego

That’s my destination.

If I’m going there, let alone anywhere in the United-bloody-States, there’s really only one agency that could’ve contracted me.

I’m not looking forward to this operation.

At all.

Chapter Text

I STARTED OFF AS A BLISSFULLY IGNORANT WOODWORKER, HAPPILY TURNING AWAY AT MY LATHE AND UNAWARE OF THE FACELESS HORRORS THAT LURKED JUST BEYOND THE VEIL OF THE FRAGILE REALITY I TOOK FOR GRANTED.

Now, I’m chopping down demons, infovores, and other assorted nasty creatures, desperately trying to keep all of existence from falling apart.

My name is Finley Bannbreker, or CODENAME: WORLD GUARDIAN, if you want to be formal, and I'm from the Laundry.

Sort of. Officially, I'm a field agent for the Laundry. I'm on their payroll, I have my own cubicle at the Annex, I can take advantage of the free coffee any time I want, and my tongue will spontaneously combust and my brains will turn to mush if I divulge secrets to anyone not cleared to hear them. However, I'm more of an agent for hire, lent out to said agencies when they need a little extra help - kind of a field agent/external asset hybrid. A less flattering description would be a rentable dog that some, like the people I'm flying out to meet, get to toss into danger in place of their own agents.

Mercifully, I sleep most of the flight to Newark, happy that I weaseled all of my gear past security at Heathrow. I thank whatever god I believe in at the moment for the false topography insert in my lead-lined duffle bag that dupes the security scanners into thinking that it's full of underwear and toiletries.

Which, technically, it is. I just don't really feel up to explaining the entity-banishing hand axe, the five dozen specially-prepared pigeon feet, a collection of vials each containing a different mixture of ingredients for certain situations, and a pair of reinforced temperature, magic, and entropy-detecting binoculars that are also stuffed in there to the security blokes. Not to mention the currently collapsed stellite weapon with a mind of its own that would immediately get me sent to the gulags if I so much as let it peek out from my bag.

In Newark, I spend an hour and a half lazing about in the terminal before getting on another flight to Los Angeles. Thankfully, the layover there is less than an hour, and I can continue on my way without burning my lungs out on the smog.

Finally, I arrive in San Diego. It's hot, sunny, and dry as a bone – the complete opposite of what I'm used to (and what I prefer). But, I'd rather not waste time griping about the weather when there's work to do. There'll be plenty of chances to gripe once CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN happens – if, that is, it hasn't already begun to happen.

A bit lagged, I wait my turn to deplane and slowly shuffle my way through the commuter terminal, wondering where exactly I'm supposed to go from here.

I get my answer in the form of a rather stately brunette who stares at me intently from next to a soda machine, and I say a quick thank you to the powers that be.

“Moia!” I call out, nearly jogging over to her. “Aye, am I glad to see you.”

I am, really. If my contact is Moia, of all people, this operation might not be so bad after all. She's one of maybe three Black Chamber conscripts that I have no problem trusting, and that's saying something.

And no, my trusting her has absolutely nothing to do with my more personal opinions of her. I already explained that to my superiors. Many times.

As I approach, the ward I wear around my neck wakes up and sparks at me, but I pay it no mind. I already know she's glamoured. The deep peach of her skin and the rich brown of her eyes are just a facade, meant to conceal the red irises and knife-like facial markings indicative of a Child of Mah. Or, in Moia's case, a half-human one.

“I could say the same, Finley,” she says, inclining her head and accepting my offered hand, shaking it firmly. “Are you ready to go?”

I nod and follow her outside, wincing as the dry heat washes over me. Awaiting the two of us is a nondescript, dark red sedan that looks older than I am. It's appearance is likely deceiving, though; under that hood will be a powerful engine, and beneath the scuffed and dented bodywork will be multiple wards and other assorted defense systems. It looks like a scrap heap, but it'll run like a rocket and be as tough as a tank.

Why don't I have one of these, yet?

“After you.”

“Aye.” I open the rear door, sliding onto the duct-taped back seat. Moia does the same on the other side of the car. “So, introductions?”

“This is Bilrach.” She points to the driver, an older bloke in a brown suit. His is a higher level glamour, meant to conceal not just facial markings and blood-red eyes, but facial horns and forehead ridges as well. I can see flickers of them as he glances back at me in the rear-view. He's a Child as well, a full-blood.

“'Hullo Bill.”

“It's Bilrach,” the driver growls. His voice physically stings – that's something to be expected from Children.

Let me explain. The Children of Mah are not of Earth, maybe not even of this particular universe, in fact. They're the creations – playthings – of a comatose Tier 1 Elder Entity, molded out of liquid crystal and imbued with her divine energies, resulting in something that looks only remotely human. Tall, grey-skinned, hot-blooded, and with more thaumaturgical potential in their lower right wisdom teeth than the entire human race has ever had since we evolved from Homo neanderthalensis, you very bloody well don't want to piss them off.

Thankfully, most of them are on our side. And when I say 'our side,' I mean that more than half are conscripts for the Black Chamber, a good chunk of the rest of them work for an Italian agency called the Empty Throne that's markedly more friendly than the Chamber, and one's completely unaffiliated and manages to do his work without getting on anyone's radar.

I envy him.

One of the many things to watch out for when dealing with Children is the unique timbre of their voices. In short, they can manipulate their vocal chords to produce an inaudible frequency that targets nerve tissue, causing radiculopathy. They can, quite literally, pinch your nerves just by speaking.

And aye, in case you're wondering, they can make you involuntarily shit by singing drinking songs, too, if they were so inclined.

A few years back, some of the blokes in the Laundry decided to replicate this effect and weaponize it, similar to how they cooked up SCORPION STARE based on the physiology of basilisks and people suffering from gorgonism. I now have the results of this reverse engineering, codenamed ADOLESCENT TANTRUM, uploaded to my phone disguised as a ringtone maker. It's programmable as well.

And aye, in case you're wondering, I can make you involuntarily shit by pointing my phone at you and tapping the screen a few times. Not that I would want to, though. That's something I'd rather not mention when it comes time to fill out paperwork.

I rub my temple quickly before addressing Moia again.

“My bosses said that you'd brief me when I arrived?”

“I'll give you the short version now.”

“Aye, go ahead.”

Moia nods, all business.

“First of all, I need to know that we, the Black Chamber, can trust you. Zamorak is in his darkest hour at the moment. We need your word that you will assist him in his recovery.”

So that's what this is all about.

Zamorak. An ascended Child, infused with the energies of BIG BOSS from the Empty Throne. Fancies himself a god, now. Maybe he is one. About a year ago, he got in a bit of a tussle with another mortal-turned-slightly-more-powerful-mortal named Saradomin who is the textbook definition of a sanctimonious bastard. Zamorak lost the tussle, losing a fair amount of his power in the process. Now, I suppose, he wants it back.

“Are you asking me to take a swing at Saradomin? 'Cause if you are, then you have my full attention.”

“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Finley, but unfortunately for you, he is not involved in this mission. Can we still rely on you?”

I think for a moment. The Laundry wouldn't have sent me out here to work with the Black Chamber again if it involved anything detrimental to the safety of the world, so I nod.

“Aye. You have my word.”

“Good. Zamorak himself requested you for this mission. He and I both believe you will be instrumental to its success.”

I can't help but feel a bit flattered. My situation may not be ideal, but if it buys me some respect from blokes like the Black Chamber, then I'll gladly live with it.

“I'll do what I can to help.”

Moia nods again, apparently pleased.

“Good. I'll proceed with the briefing. Lately, I've been doing some reconnaissance on the last known whereabouts of a certain individual. I'm sure you know him. Codename: SHADOW SERPENT.”

At the mention of that codename, I taste copper. SHADOW SERPENT is another Child who, up until recently, worked for the Empty Throne. Nowadays, however, he's gone a bit rogue, and it's assumed that he doesn't represent his former co-workers, or BIG BOSS, anymore. He's also the reason I have the job that I do. Long story.

“Aye, I know him,” I say, my voice lowering. “This is about ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM, isn't it?”

“You guessed right. We plan to take back ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM from SHADOW SERPENT. Zamorak will reveal more upon our arrival at headquarters. Until then, we-”

Moia's cut short by a series of small explosions from beneath the car. There's a deafening grinding of metal against asphalt, and the sedan rolls to an unceremonious stop.

“Flat tire,” Bilrach groans from the driver's seat, spitting out a few spine-tingling expletives for good measure. He clamors out of the car, does a quick walk around, then quite literally face-palms and motions for us to get out of the car as well.

All four tires have gone flat.

“Huh. Bit strange, you think?”

“You think...” Bilrach storms around to the rear of the car, throwing open the boot and tossing out some tools and a spare tire with enough force to rattle the sidewalk we're standing on.

“Calm down, Bilrach. She has a point. This car is warded from the outside. Whatever happened was likely mundane.”

Or, it came from inside the car. External wards are useless once whatever's trying to kill you opens the door and takes a seat.

Nevertheless, I watch as Moia and Bilrach start to change a tire, musing at just how odd the whole situation is. I'm standing here watching two of the Black Chamber's more fearsome assets perform roadside maintenance on a car.

Weird.

Then again, I once spent an afternoon teaching Moia how to nalbind in a Grand Forks coffee shop while I was assisting the Black Chamber with a snatch operation involving several thousand trophic parasites being smuggled over the Canadian border, so I probably shouldn’t act like I’m the last authority on what a weird situation actually is.

Suddenly, I feel as though my lungs have been filled with dry ice. A force seems to grab ahold of my spine and yank me backwards, and the world around me goes black for a few moments. As my eyes adjust, I see that I'm still standing on the sidewalk. Moia and Bilrach are still changing the tires. The only difference seems to be the oppressive cold that surrounds me and seems to mute all colors and sounds.

Aye, this would be the Shadow Realm.

The Shadow Realm is just another result of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN approaching; specifically, it's the result of a boundary thinning between our own universe and one that's been in existence far, far longer. That second universe is host to a fair amount of nasty beings that literally eat energy - infovores - which results in the drop in temperature, light, and sound that I'm currently experiencing. I'm pretty much standing in a partial vacuum right now, and the only thing keeping my blood from boiling is the fact that I'm still standing mostly in my own universe.

And, I'm not alone for long.

“Well, well. WORLD GUARDIAN. Fancy seeing you here!”

I turn around to face SHADOW SERPENT himself.

“Sliske.” Standing nearly three heads taller than myself, he's sporting a garish purple zoot suit-looking garment with a stupidly high collar. Clearly, he no longer works for the Empty Throne; they have a dress code.

“Aha! You recognized me!”

“Aye, right. You not even glamoured.”

“Something I think you can appreciate, no?”

“I'd rather have you glamoured, to be honest.”

“Hm. Always the charmer, you are. But, that's why I like you.” He smiles broadly, showing off a set of impossibly sharp teeth. Coupled with his sulfuric eyes, the effect's not dissimilar to staring down a hungry lion at the zoo. Only here, there's no fence between the two of us.

“What do you want, then? I'm working. Don't have much time for your shenanigans, aye?”

“Oh, I know very well that you're on the job,” he says slyly, stepping a bit too close for comfort. “And that your job involves me.”

I try a bluff.

“Does it, now? I've not been briefed, actually – thanks for the heads up...”

“Don't lie to me, Finley.” His smile disappears, though his voice remains upbeat.

Oops. Careful now.

“Well, I'll be sure to never play poker with you in the future,” I say, taking a hearty step backwards.

“Good decision.”

“So, how did you find out?” His smile returns, wider than ever.

“Let's just say I've been hitchhiking. Bill should probably change out the duct tape on his car seats.”

I glance over at the ongoing tire changing not five feet – and half a universe – from where we're standing.

“You were sitting in the passenger seat.” It's not a question. “You're the one who popped the tires.”

“Oh, well done, you!”

“So, you know that the Black Chamber's after ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM?”

“I do. And what a tantalizing proposition you have on your plate, my friend. Helping Zamorak steal ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM. How much is the Laundry paying you for this little job?”

“Not nearly enough.”

His smile's nearly splitting his face, now. I slap myself for not having asking the tech department for any bastard repellent before I left – I'm not quite sure that such a thing even exists, though.

It should.

“So, the cards are on the table,” he continues, casually crossing his arms as if we were having a mundane conversation over a water cooler. “I know of Zamorak's plan to steal that wondrous little hunk of rock, you know that I know, and it's only a matter of time until one of the Chamber's goons finds out where I stashed the thing. And, when they do, I'll be waiting for them.”

“Wha? You want them to find it?!?”

He shrugs, rolling his eyes.

“Let's just say I'm craving some quality entertainment. I need a laugh.”

I stand dumbfounded for a moment. I'm not quite sure how anyone can find anything the Black Chamber does worth anything close to a laugh, let alone someone that's as off the rocker as SHADOW SERPENT is. Then again, I'm standing a few feet away from a couple of Chamber conscripts changing and patching four flats on a P.O.S-mobile, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't find it at least a bit humorous.

“Ha! Well, I must say, your face is doing quite a good job of satiating me at the moment!”

His laugh snaps me back to attention, and I realize that I've just spent the last ten seconds with my face screwed up in an expression likely seen last on a monkey who can't seem to figure out how to peel a banana. I slam my mouth shut and iron my face flat, giving him my best scowl instead.

“Fuck off.”

“Ouch, that one hurt a bit, Finley.” He puts on a fake pout, and I repress the urge to snag his collar and cave his bastard nose in. “Appropriately enough, my craving for quality comedy is where you come in, my little chaos catalyst.”

“I already made a stupid face. What else do you want me to do?”

“Well, the way I see it, you have three options. Option one: you sabotage the whole operation. After all, can the Black Chamber really be trusted with something as powerful as ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM? Your, and the Laundry's, little alliance with them might be over the moment Zamorak touches it. Option 2: you go along with the plan and see what happens along the way; you're already quite good at mixing things up by simply being at the right place at the right time. Or, there's option three: you support the Black Chamber and help them recover ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM. I wonder, though. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?”

“Uh...”

“No, no. Don't you worry about telling me your choice right now. I'll be watching.”

“I'd rather you not.”

“We are past such courtesies, WORLD GUARDIAN. Scurry along now, will you? They're almost done fixing those tires.”

With another sharp grin, he disappears, and the warm, dry air of San Diego floods back into my lungs.

Chapter Text

I DECIDE NOT TO SAY ANYTHING ABOUT SHADOW SERPENT TO THE NAZGUL’S PIT CREW ONCE THEY NOTICE ME AGAIN. A snap decision if I’m being honest with myself. Let’s just say that his codename contains the word ‘serpent’ for a very good reason - I have it in mind that, with only me knowing about his little surveillance schtick, he might be less tempted to go all ‘snakey snake’ on us and change up whatever his game plan is.

With all four tires now either patched or replaced, we load up and continue driving along, Moia asking to blind me with a bright-level visual ward somewhere along the way.

I hate when this happens. I get carsick.

Just when I'm about to give up holding back whatever I ate for breakfast, the car stops, my door opens, and I'm pulled roughly from my seat. There's concrete under my feet, and the air is as hot as ever, so we probably haven't left the city proper.

“Stand up, WORLD GUARDIAN. I'm not going to carry you,” a voice, neither Moia, nor Bilrach's, growls in my ear, its owner grabbing me by the arm and pulling me into what I think is a building. About five minutes later, after stumbling blindly down several flights of stairs, I'm let go and shoved to my knees.

“Careful, Khazard. WORLD GUARDIAN is not a toy that you can toss against the wall.” This other voice, scabrous and grating, is far more familiar to me. And, as the ward around my eyes is released, the impeccably fitted red, black, and gold silk suit, worn without a shirt, I might add, that the ascended Child is wearing confirms his identity.

Zamorak himself is staring down at me. It wouldn't be so awkward if his bare abs weren't doing so as well.

I'm sensing a pattern, here. The two prominent defectors from the Empty Throne are prominent defectors from common fashion sense as well.

“Rise, WORLD GUARDIAN. And welcome. We've been waiting for you.”

I look around the darkened room to see who 'we' are. There's Bilrach and Moia, standing on either side of Zamorak. On one side of room stand two Children; one is a suited beanpole with long, goat-like horns that must be hell to hide with even a level four glamour. I recognize him as Hazeel, known to me and my co-workers as 'the bloke who got his arse cryogenically frozen by a bunch of Saradomin’s boot-kissers.' True story – I'm the one who thawed him out.

The Child next to him is built like a rugby player and wears clothes that I'm guessing he pulled out of a trash bin. Khazard. I amend my original statement from before; Sliske may be the reason my codename got changed from AGENT PATHFINDER to WORLD GUARDIAN, but Khazard, here, is the reason I got recruited (read: strong-armed) into the Laundry in the first place. Back when I was still a freelance woodworker carrying on the family business, I flew across the pond to an international woodworking convention in Portland – that weird city with the unicycling bagpipers – and happened to stumble across a kidnapping in progress. As it turns out, Khazard, in his infinite wisdom befitting a prepubescent teenager, was nabbing people off the streets to use in an underground human cockfighting ring. An underground human cockfighting ring with a couple dashes of necromancy and some eldritch abominations added in for flavoring.

I had seen too much to keep living life as a civilian, so the Laundry handed me a gun filled with demon-killing bullets and told me to fight in a war that the human race is very likely to lose.

This explains why I don't like Khazard very much.

I remove my attention from him before I become too frustrated. The day's not nearly done yet, and I'm not even finished sizing up my temporary teammates.

Two more Children stand on the other side of the room; one's taller than Sliske and twice as broad, while the other would actually be rather elegant looking if it weren’t for the scowl that seems to be permanently seared onto her face. Zemouregal and Enakhra, respectively. A two-person takedown team; Zemouregal's a rather impressive necromancer, and Enakhra is a blindingly fast and precise ritual practitioner specializing in contagion and blood magic. I know both of these things from experience. If working together, they'd be nearly unstoppable, making it hard for me to decide if it's a good or bad thing that they can barely tolerate each other. Zamorak likely partners them together for laughs.

Next to them is a human. Daquarius Rennard. He's the head controller of a fringe agency of the Black Chamber known as the Kinshra. Most of us at the Laundry tread carefully around them; in previous years, they've been little more than a cult, working to further their own agenda. However, Daquarius has brought the agency around since becoming head controller, making them a far more palatable group to work with nowadays. He’s a fairly decent guy, too - we’ve gone out for drinks several times before.

At the moment, though, drinks seem to be the last thing on his mind, scowling and grimacing at something behind me as he is. Wondering what’s got him so up in a stooshie, I turn around and meet a pair of bloodshot red eyes.

Werewolf.

Werewolves, or at least the Hollywood version of them, don't technically exist. The creatures that inspired the Hollywood interpretations, on the other hand, are very much like the thing that's standing in front of me. Here's what happens; a regular old bloke gets a demon stuck in him, and the body responds with a series of biological reactions. Hair grows in places it really shouldn't, blood accumulates in the eyes, adrenaline and testosterone are overproduced, and the posessee becomes oddly sensitive to moonlight. They also tend to attract fleas.

The werewolf looks disinterested in me, thankfully, so I turn back around to face the Dark Lord of the Abs.

“Right,” I say, wringing my hands. “Where are we?”

“I cannot tell you that, WORLD GUARDIAN,” he answers, returning to a high-backed chair at the head of the room. “It will suffice to call this place by its official designation: DEMON HALL.”

I glance around DEMON HALL once again, my eyes having adjusted to the light level slightly. It's a fair amount more opulent than my headquarters with rich, dark wood, stone, and what look to be velvet drapes everywhere. The room is illuminated by mostly red lights, giving it a very, shall I say, hellish aesthetic. It might be my imagination, but I swear I hear the basso thumping of dance music coming from above us.

“Right.”

“I assume you have already made acquaintances with my right and left hands, Bilrach and Moia?”

“Aye, I have. They do a right good job at changing tires, I'll tell you.”

Zamorak looks unamused, but I swear I see a smirk cross Zemouregal's face from across the room.

“I see. You're already familiar with most of my associates, here, but allow me to introduce Jerrod.” Zamorak points to the werewolf. “Hazeel requested his presence, reasoning that a bit more muscle might be needed for this operation.” I turn to look at the werewolf, Jerrod, again. He nods in my direction, his expression unreadable, but thankfully not aggressive.

“So, this's it for the heist, then?” I ask. Zamorak's face twists a bit, and I instantly know that I've said something wrong.

“I would chose your words carefully, WORLD GUARDIAN. We are not going to steal ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM. It was stolen from me, and I simply intend to reclaim it.”

“Aye, alright.” I would argue – ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM was not originally Zamorak's – but I don't feel like getting my face melted off right now.

“As it so happens, however, this is not the entire collection of agents that I wish to help me reclaim ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM. There is one other, and I believe that you may be able to retrieve him as your first task.”

I think for a moment, running through a list of Black Chamber conscripts that would likely be on Zamorak's short list for something like this. I come up with nothing, however. They're all dead or would've already been here by this point.

“Alright. Who is he, then?”

“You should already be acquainted with him. AGENT NOMAD.”

“Oh... Bollocks.” My luck today is very quickly running out. “Aye, I know him.”

“As I thought.”

“Why are ye sending me to do this, of all people?”

“Because he's currently in the custody of one of your External Assets, AGENT DEATH. You are the only one here that the reaper even remotely trusts. I'm allowing you two days to retrieve NOMAD from DEATH and return here.”

“Aye, but DEATH could be anywhere,” I very nearly groan. DEATH's a decent bloke – he works on his own most of the time, but is actually one of the easier External Assets to get along with. Problem is, he's almost never in town when you need him. I also may be scrambling for excuses at this point. “How do you expect me to find him?”

“I don't. He has already been located.” And there goes the rest of my luck. “I have agents – eyes – everywhere. I’ll have Moia relay the coordinates of his location to you. Now, get going, WORLD GUARDIAN. DEATH awaits.”

***

IT TAKE ME THE BETTER PART OF THE REST OF THE DAY TO DRIVE TO DEATH’S COORDINATES, WHICH LEAD ME FAR OUT EAST INTO THE DESERT. The whole way, I'm cursing the car that Zamorak stuck me with. It's hardly the warded tank that picked me up at the airport. Rather, it's a pitiful excuse of a minivan. What am I supposed to be doing? Picking up NOMAD for soccer practice?

At least the air con works. A blessing, considering the temperature steadily rises after I leave the city limits.

I suppose I should explain the situation for those of you who haven't familiarized yourselves with the contents of the OPERATION DRIFTING REQUIEM report. The short version goes something like this:

Shortly after my promotion from PATHFINDER to WORLD GUARDIAN, I decided to track down a rogue Black Chamber conscript, AGENT NOMAD, a rather high-profile target on the Laundry's radar. He got himself there by attempting to turn himself into an Eater of Souls, just like the infamous TEAPOT, may he rest in peace. However, with no way of actually becoming an Eater, short of getting possessed by TEAPOT or a similar entity, NOMAD resorted to a rather convoluted and spine-tingling method of replicating such a state. He kidnapped several people – some of them were my co-workers, I might add – and invoked forced possessions on all of them. Normally, a forced possession results in the invoker's soul possessing the possessee. So when I say that NOMAD found a way to reverse that process, effectively becoming possessed by the souls of 2,000 different people simultaneously, you know that I'm talking about someone who's either insane, dangerous, or insanely dangerous.

My team (read: my brothers-in-law, Marin and Cassius) and I tracked him down and uncovered his reverse forced possession rig: a huge, grotesque machine using a whole grid's worth of electricity codenamed SOUL OBELISK. I still have nightmares about that thing, and for very good reason. Thankfully, we blew it up, mostly by accident, but we only just barely succeeded in taking NOMAD down afterwards.

Each one of us left that operation a little less whole than when we started, and I am not looking forward to bringing all those memories back to the forefront when I find that scunnersome dobber.

Once I arrive at the coordinates, smack dab in the middle of some town called Holtville, I laze around in a local coffee joint for half an hour to try and stave off some of my remaining jet lag. While there, nursing a black cup of liquid caffeine, I run down my possible methods of bringing NOMAD back from the brink of DEATH. It's not a long list.

DEATH owes me one – I could use the fact that I prevented him from being on a long list of SHADOW SERPENT's murder victims as leverage. That might not translate to a fair trade in DEATH's eyes, however.

I could always take the covert route – appearing as a helpful friend might have the advantage of getting NOMAD to cooperate a bit more. Then again, DEATH's a decent enough acquaintance, and I'd rather not betray the little mutual trust that exists between us. That, and I doubt NOMAD will trust me, or my act, at all.

Then, there's always my little trump card: a sliver of BIG BOSS's body, coiled up in silver wire, looped around my left wrist, and insulated from my bare skin by a tasteful leather wrist cuff. It was given to me by BIG BOSS himself after I helped him get the Empty Throne back in business, and it's come in handy a few times. Unlike my phone, however, it's not exactly the most fun to use, so I'd rather keep it off my skin until I need it most.

As I pull up my list of contacts and dial up DEATH himself, I quickly choose the first option.

"Hello?"

“DEATH, hullo. It's WORLD GUARDIAN.”

"Yes?" DEATH's a man of few words, that's for sure.

“Listen, I'm on a job with the Chamber, and I really need to meet you face-to-face. I'm already in town – where's good for you?”

"Who told you I was here?" His tone is dark, warning.

“Ah... Zamorak,” I mumble. There's a low hiss coming from the other end of the line. “Wait – it's about SHADOW SERPENT. We're working together to get ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM out of his hands, that's all.”

"What do you need me for, then?"

“I need someone you currently have in your custody. NOMAD.”

I sit in silence for a moment, waiting for DEATH's reply.

"No."

“You owe me, DEATH. If it weren't for me, SHADOW SERPENT would have burnt you to a crisp.”

Pause.

“Please.”

Pause.

"Half an hour. Corner of 6th and Myrtle."

Chapter Text

HALF AN HOUR LATER, I'M STANDING AT THE CORNER OF 6TH AND MYRTLE. I've been standing here for a good ten minutes, and so far, I've not seen DEATH yet. I check my phone again nervously. No new messages.

For someone whose visits are supposedly inevitable, DEATH can sure take his sweet time when he wants to.

“WORLD GUARDIAN.” I very nearly jump out of my boots at the hollow baritone voice that seems to echo slightly in the evening air. It's owner managed to sneak up on me. Again.

“Hullo, DEATH,” I say as I turn, trying my best smile that I can cook up at the moment. From just how beaten he sounded on the phone, I gather that DEATH's not had the best day so far. His uncombed crop of unnaturally black hair, sallow cast to his already pale face, and his wrinkled blue housecoat, smelling strongly of brimstone and – oh, fuck – burning flesh only support what I've heard from him today.

I test my theory as he leads me around the corner and down the block to what is, I assume, his latest safe-house.

“Tough day?”

“Hmph.” Aye, I'm right.

Without another word, he pushes open the front door and motions me inside. I catch another strong whiff of brimstone as I pass him through the doorway, and then I'm nearly floored by the stench inside the house.

Coughing, I shoot a glance at DEATH, who shrugs and motions me to follow him. I clutch the ward around my neck, repeatedly checking my phone screen as I follow him through the unfurnished house. I've been in DEATH's permanent home before; it's actually quite pleasant, if you don't mind decorative cobwebs and his near-obsessive collection of hourglasses, not to mention the occasional preta that wanders the upstairs halls.

As we approach what I assume is the master bedroom, my ward sears my palm and my phone vibrates loudly, its screen flashing an angry red. The symbol that flickers there tells me all I need to know.

High entropy ahead. Do not approach without Class-5 protective measures.

Swearing, I step back as DEATH simply walks up to the door and grabs hold of the handle.

“What are you doing?!?” I blurt. He must have wards shoved up every orifice to be sure enough to do that.

“Oh, I forgot,” he mumbles, taking his hand off of the handle and instead opening a small hall closet to our right. He pulls out another housecoat, this one black, and hands it to me. I immediately feel the weight of it and notice the tungsten wires running through the fabric, hooking up to a rack of capacitors set into one of the sleeves. It's then that I realize my initial guess of a Class-5 ward shoved up DEATH's arse wasn't quite correct.

His entire coat is a ward. Or, at least, it's amplifying the protective power of the ward he already has on and spreading that effect around his entire body, not unlike wearing a leaded suit before going into a nuclear reactor.

I quickly and gratefully don the coat, feeling a reassuring warmth radiate from my ward in response. Only then does DEATH finally open the door to the bedroom.

The stench of brimstone and ozone only gets worse, and I finally remember why it's so familiar. It's the same smell that destiny entanglement rigs gave off, only stronger and more acrid somehow.

What I'm smelling, however, is of no comparison to what I'm seeing.

There's no bed in this bedroom. What there is, however, is a desk in one corner, on which a laptop sits, providing the computing power needed to handle the entanglement grid laid out on the floor with wires and conductive paste. The grid, however, seems modified. As I look at it, it looks far closer to a de-entanglement grid, though even that wouldn't be an exact description. Usually, an entanglement or de-entanglement involves two parties, so there has to be two grids interconnected with each other. The grid drawn on the floor seems to be a summation of two de-entanglement grids superimposed onto one another, as if DEATH was trying to de-entangle someone from themselves.

Which almost makes sense, considering the unwilling occupant of the hospital gurney that's been hooked up to the self de-entanglement grid.

NOMAD.

He looks worse than when I last saw him. Fucking hell, and I thought DEATH was pale. He's strapped to the gurney, quiescent at the moment, what's left of his clothes torn and dirtied by a dark substance that I would rather not think too hard about at the moment. The darkened capillaries and several bruise-like patches of skin that dot his face suggest blood poisoning, or worse, and he seems to have lost what little hair he had left.

And aye, that includes his eyebrows, from what I can see.

“I don't get it,” I begin, keeping my voice low as to not wake NOMAD. “You're obviously trying to release all the souls that NOMAD's, er, eaten over the years. But why a de-entanglement rig? Forced possession and entanglement are two different states.”

“I know. Unfortunately, his state has progressed to the point where the boundaries between his soul and the thousands he's grafted onto it have become so blurred that the computing power needed to determine who is the possessor and who is the possessee is nearly impossible to attain.”

“Aye, so treating it as a completed entanglement is easier, then.”

“Yes,” DEATH nods, stepping gingerly over to the desk and punching a few keys on the laptop. “Picking apart a two-thousand way hybrid soul is still not that simple, however. I've considered offing him, but it's not his time. Yet.”

Suddenly, DEATH turns to the gurney, which has begun to rattle violently.

“Stand clear.”

There's a bright flash, a wash of ozone, and a horrible scream. When my vision returns to normal, NOMAD is certainly awake - he's pulling at the bindings tethering him to the gurney, as if caught in a fit.

“Release me, reaper!” he howls, clearly in pain. Despite the fact that he shoved the sharp end of a broken pipe through my abdomen the last time we met, the resulting scar from which I still have, by the way, I feel a pang of something resembling sympathy for the old bastard.

“It doesn't seem to be working that well!” I shout over NOMAD's fit. DEATH nods and fiddles with the laptop again, scanning a readout of data on the screen, his expression steadily becoming more and more annoyed.

“That's because it's not,” he growls as NOMAD calms down slightly. “As you said, forced possession is not destiny entanglement. The calculations and superimposed grid I've derived are … not exact. I need more time.”

I quickly remember why exactly I'm here and jump at the small window of opportunity DEATH's offered me, hoping that said window is not laced with chicken wire.

“That's perfect, then, aye? You need more time, so I'll just take NOMAD off your hands for a while. By the time we get ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM away from SHADOW SERPENT and into containment, your rig'll be done. Say, two, three days? No sweat.”

DEATH says nothing at first, but nods slightly.

“Fine – as you said, I owe you for saving me. Give me a moment to shut the rig down, and then you can be on your way with that.” He motions dismissively to the gurney, where NOMAD has finally finished his fit and lays still, but awake. I grit my teeth and walk over.

As I approach, NOMAD's sunken eyes, flickering the characteristic fluorescent blue-green of someone possessed, lock with mine.

“You...” His voice is wary, but not aggressive. “Have you come to finally finish me off?”

“Actually,” I begin, glancing over to make sure DEATH isn't paying too much attention to us at the moment. “I've come to get you out of here.”

His hoarse, barking laugh surprises me. Apparently, it surprises him as well, considering how quickly it devolves into feverish coughing.

“That's unlikely,” he says between laugh-coughs.

“I'm being serious, here,” I begin, starting to undo the straps holding him down. “I'm on a job with the Black Chamber – Zamorak contracted me to help him to, ah, steal ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM from SHADOW SERPENT. He sent me to get you for the heist as well.” At the mention of ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM, NOMAD's eyes narrow slightly. After a moment, he nods.

“Very well. I'll come with you, if only to get away from DEATH.” I try a reassuring smile, which feels more like a grimace considering the situation, and continue to undo the straps. He violently declines my offered hand once he's free from the gurney, slapping it away with enough force to audibly crack my knuckles. Hissing, I jump back, massaging my hand to make sure nothing's broken, and watch him stumble upright.

He may be out of it, but he's still quite dangerous, I remind myself. Glancing over at DEATH, I notice he's not so much dismantled the de-entanglement rig, but has instead re-arranged its components slightly.

“Ah, DEATH? What are you doing?”

“I need insurance,” DEATH answers as he starts to draw a new pattern on the floor with conductive paste. I recognize the pattern, and the resulting nausea makes me nearly collapse.

“Oh, no no no no no no, wait!” Out of the corner of my eye, I see NOMAD take a step back. He, too, knows what DEATH's thinking, and he seems just as keen as I am to avoid it.

“It's not that I don't trust you, Finley,” Death says slowly. Cold sweat beads on my forehead - not so much at the obvious lie, though. More at the overly cautious, almost unsure tone of DEATH's voice. He's not expecting me to come out of this in one piece, let alone alive. “It's NOMAD that I don't particularly trust.”

“Aye, right. Quite talking shite, DE-!”

Suddenly, something winds its way around my neck and pulls me backwards. My hands grapple at what I realize is one of the gurney straps as a singular thought crosses my mind.

With DEATH busy drawing the grid and my protesting him doing so, there have been no eyes on NOMAD for the past few moments.

Spots begin to form at the end of my vision – I can't get a good hold on the strap. It tightens further.

The bastard's trying to kill me...again.

Time to improvise.

Wheezing out a warning to DEATH, I throw my entire weight onto NOMAD and drive us both backwards into the nearby wall.

Dazed after the impact, he loosens his grip on the strap, allowing me a good lungful of air.

With a roar, I seize his arm and haul him over my shoulder. He hits the floor, hard, and I quickly roll him over, pinning his arms behind his back.

I shoot a look at DEATH, who's still on his hands and knees drawing that forsaken grid.

“It's okay,” I cough. “I got him.”

“Good,” he says simply. “Keep him there.

***

“THERE'S GOT TO BE A BETTER WAY THAN THIS.” I roll my wrists against the re-purposed gurney straps tying them to the chair in which I currently sit, knowing very well that I'm not going anywhere until this is done. I look over at DEATH as steps gingerly over the conductive grid and holds a sterile lancet toward the crook of my arm.

“I'm sorry,” he says. “I know I'm putting you at great personal risk by doing this, especially considering NOMAD's condition, but I need to be sure that he is returned to me. And, I think the threat of losing his amalgamated soul will be enough to convince him to come quietly.”

“Aye, I see your point.” But, that doesn't mean I have to like it.

I don't even feel the lancet as it draws blood. I know the true pain is coming soon enough.

“I assume you've been destiny entangled before?”

“Aye.” I have. It wasn't particularly pleasant, considering that the individual in question was on the verge of death, and especially considering that the aftereffects still linger, attached to my soul like choking ivy to a stone wall. “I know how this works.”

“Good.”

As DEATH leaves the conductive grid with a sample of my blood in tow, I grit my teeth and try to focus on the double slit openings carved in the wall before me, in front of which sits a beam splitter and various other whatnots that constitute an entanglement rig. I watch DEATH place a drop of my blood on a heavily-wired black box hooked up to the beam splitter. Next to it, DEATH places a second drop of blood, one that, at first glance, looks more like coagulated oil than anything able to carry oxygen.

That'll be NOMAD's blood.

Feeling queasy, I force myself to focus once again on the double slit. I can see NOMAD on the other side – he looks to be tied down on a toilet, of all things.

I don't feel like laughing.

DEATH steps back from the rig into a grounded pentacle he's drawn off to the side and taps on the laptop a few times.

The drops of blood shiver before slowly creeping toward each other. As they meet, a bright silver flash engulfs my vision, drawing me in.

The feeling is familiar, like cold hands creeping up my spinal column.

I take a deep breath of ozone and drown.

Chapter Text

WHEN I COME BACK TO MY SENSES, EVERYTHING SEEMS WRONG.

I can almost hear my blood running like sludge through my veins.

I'm barely breathing – my lungs feel like concrete blocks in my chest.

I hear voices.

So many voices.

Screaming.

Crying.

Thousands of them.

Then there's the anger.

The rage.

I know my own anger. Like a snake, it stays coiled and quiescent until poked by a big enough stick, and it's gone as soon as it strikes.

What I'm feeling now is not my anger.

It's as raw as a week old festering wound, as vile as stomach acid, and it churns somewhere behind my eyes, looking for a victim.

The first thing it sees is DEATH.

“Finley.” He leaves his grounding pentacle – a bad idea unless you know exactly what you're doing - and peers over me. “Can you hear me?”

For a sickening moment, I want to jump from my chair and rip out his throat. Though, that wouldn't even come remotely close to being fair recompense for what he's done to me.

No, us.

I tamp down NOMAD's rage and nod my head, glad that I'm secured to the chair.

“Can you hear him?”

I turn back to the double slit and focus.

Oi, NOMAD. Say something, I think, sending the thought through the wall.

I’m going to kill you, comes the reply, seasoned with the sound of ghost pepper chili oil.

Synesthesia. A common side effect of a successful destiny entanglement.

Destiny entanglement. The progressive superimposition and eventual mixing of two minds, souls, and existences.

Well, this is just fantastic.

“Aye, he's coming through loud and clear,” I grumble. DEATH nods and begins to untie me from the chair. I try to stand, but end up flopping back down into the chair, feeling as if my bones have been replaced by wet clay.

Oh, for fuck's sake, NOMAD. Pull your weight, will you?

Metabolic carryover is also something one has to deal with when destiny entangled. It doesn't matter so much when both parties are equal in general health, but it's a bloody pain when the person you're entangled to is pushing 80 years old, probably has severe blood poisoning, and is only held together by the resounding energy of all the souls grafted onto his own. The thing is, I know just how strong NOMAD actually is, despite his age and current situation. The man could probably break one of my bones by sneezing if he wanted to.

He's messing with me right now, and it's annoying, to say the least.

I quickly conjure up a memory of how it felt to be stabbed in the stomach and drill it hard into his mind. His recoil and my resulting wash of strength that allows me to finally stand up is immensely satisfying.

Do that again, and I'll put you in respiratory arrest, NOMAD growls.

You do that, and I'll be sure to let you know how it feels to piss a kidney stone the size of the Hope Diamond, dozy nyaff. Try holding your breath while you're screaming.

He clams up after that.

“I presume you two are working things out right now,” DEATH mumbles as he leaves the room. “Hold him down for a minute, will you? I'm going to untie him.”

I move over to the double slit and wait for DEATH to enter the bathroom on the other side. The moment I notice him walk in, I think of the most benign, calming thing that I can and drape it over NOMAD's mind.

Not even NOMAD can be in a killing mood with sleeping kittens on his mind.

***

WHEN WE FINALLY LEAVE DEATH'S HOUSE, IT'S ALREADY WELL INTO THE NIGHT. I'm not complaining, however, since I'd rather avoid having the neighbors see the two of us walking down the block (I use the word 'walking' quite loosely – NOMAD's still a bit limp, so I'm practically carrying him, to both of our distastes, I note) and calling the police.

Finally, we hobble up to my rented child-carrier.

“Alright, throw that in the boot,” I say, pointing to the bladed staff he now carries – one of the many other reasons I'm glad there's no one outside this time of night. I'm downright surprised that DEATH let him take it, and I'm not about to have that thing riding shotgun, especially considering the fact that I still bear the multiple scars I received when I was first introduced to it. The pipe getting shoved through my torso was just the icing on the cake that day.

NOMAD doesn't answer, but I feel sandpaper grating across the inside of my throat.

“You know, I'm sure the heist can get along fine without you,” I begin, fatigue fraying my last nerve. “Perhaps I should just hand you back over to DEATH, then.”

That statement ‘if looks could kill’ certainly applies here - NOMAD’s staring me down as if his eyes are hypodermic needles filled with cyanide and I’m a waiting vein.

After a long, glaring moment, however, he wordlessly throws open the boot and tosses the staff in, making sure to leave a good gash in the floor.

“Wonderful,” I mumble. “That’s a hundred quid out of pocket for me.”

Be glad I didn’t drag it across your face for good measure.

With that, he stumbles over to the passenger door and clamors inside, leaving me to reflect on just how absolutely fucked I am.

Not proper fucked, thankfully, but still. Fucked.

It’s just for a few days or so, I tell myself. Just a few days. Plenty of time. The heist will go off without a hitch and then I can dump this hairless haverer back on DEATH’s doorstep and get de-entangled.

I take a deep breath, refrain from screaming, and get into the car.

***

“FOR FUCK'S SAKE NOMAD. BREATHE.”

I feel like a fish out of water.

More accurately, I feel like someone's holding plastic wrap over my face.

We're barreling west on Interstate 8 towards San Diego, I'm pushing the speed limit, white-knuckling the steering wheel, and I can't bloody breathe.

It's the metabolic carryover between NOMAD and I. Since he's not breathing so well at the moment, I'm not getting the oxygen I need to concentrate on the road in front of me, let alone drive with anything resembling safety.

I glance over at NOMAD, having no indication that he heard me. He seems to be asleep, slumped against the passenger window as he is. I also notice that he's not wearing his seatbelt.

Now that's just annoying.

“Hey, NOMAD.” I try raising my voice, but he still doesn't respond. I look back at the road, shaking my head. I guess I'll just have to try the other route of communication. Wake up, you bloody great pillock who can't be arsed to wear his seatbelt. It takes all of three seconds to put it on, but no. Seems like you want your brains splattered against the dash if I end up ass-ending a lorry...

You do realize that I CAN hear you, right?

Aye.

...

Right. Now that you're awake, can you please put a little more effort into breathing so that I don't crash the car?

NOMAD doesn't answer me after that, but my lungs feel slightly less water-filled.

But only slightly.

It takes me another fifteen minutes to realize that, if I want to get the both of us back to 'the land of what you get if you throw waffles on the beach' in one piece, I'm going to need a break from breathing for two.

***

A TRUCK STOP IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE ISN’T MY FIRST CHOICE FOR PLACES TO CAMP FOR THE NIGHT, BUT IT’LL HAVE TO DO. Pulling into a spot well away from the lorries, I stumble out of the car and make for the convenience store across the parking lot. With each step, I feel my lungs clearing, and I collapse gratefully near the bathrooms curling up as comfortably as I can against the concrete wall. Ready for at least some sleep, I let my eyes close.

An arm winding its way around my shoulders snaps them right back open, however.

I scream, throwing a punch at whoever’s got hold of me, but my fist is caught and my arms are pinned, silk and polyester running against my skin.

“Oh, dear, WORLD GUARDIAN. Still so jumpy, even after your second entanglement?”

I know that voice.

“Let me go, Sliske!” I spit, squirming slightly out of his grasp. As I do, however, his arms constrict, and I’m very much caught like a fly in a spider’s web. Said spider peers down at me, eyes shining under the street lamps, a wicked grin on his face.

“Hm...no. The two of us haven’t had a moment alone in a long time. We have some catching up to do!”

“Aye right!” I cough as I’m pulled into the Shadow Realm again. “You did this to me...what, ten hours ago?”

“Twelve and a half,” he says, finally loosening his grip enough for me to wiggle free. “Anyway, a lot has happened in those twelve and a half hours, wouldn’t you say?”

I can’t exactly argue with that. Sighing, I run a hand through my hair and risk a glance over at the car.

“Ah, yes. The spiritual successor to your little TEAPOT. I must say, you should’ve expected something like this to happen, WORLD GUARDIAN. Dear old Harold - he didn’t exactly trust you with his prize catch, did he?”

Despite what DEATH said earlier, the damn snake is right. Anyone who’s cheated death as many times as I have is bound to garner significantly less trust from the Reaper than one who hasn’t. NOMAD himself is proof of that.

There’s also the small detail that, if not for me, DEATH’s boss would still be alive. I may not have pulled the trigger - the blame for that is squarely on SHADOW SERPENT’S shoulders - but I’m still partially responsible for the whole fecht.

“Alright, cut the shit, Sliske. You have something to say about all this, so get to the point and let me sleep, aye?”

He stands and taps his chin thoughtfully, eyes narrowing.

“Hm. Very well. You’re no fun when you’re sleepy, anyway.” Folding his hands behind his back, he begins to circle me like some overgrown, silk-wearing vulture. “DEATH’s set the precedent for this little mission of yours by not trusting you blindly, and, I’d say, do as he did. I know you love to spread your trust around like butter on toast, but please, for your sake, think twice about it for once?

You’re in a very vulnerable position here, my friend, and, as much as I love to see you squirm in frustration as you try to find a way out, I’d rather you not die this time. No, no, you’re much too interesting for that.”

He’s gone in the next moment, and I’m returned to my own universe, right where I was before, with more thoughts than my fatigued mind can handle at the moment.

Part of me wants to take SHADOW SERPENT’s advice. The other part of me, however, wonders if this is all another one of that snake’s ruses. Heeding his advice might very well be the thing that gets me killed, rather than trusting my temporary teammates - minus the one currently passed out in the passenger seat of my car, of course. Being a rogue agent, he’s not exactly bound by the same code of ‘honor’ that exists between our two agencies that states: ‘please don’t kill each other - we have to save the world first.’

Thinking on it will have to wait until morning, however. I plop myself back down on the concrete and, finally, nod off.

Chapter Text

I WAKE UP TO THE SMELL OF SHITTY COFFEE UNDER MY NOSE.

As I rub the sleep from my eyes, I notice that I'm still right where I sat down earlier by the bathrooms, it's still dark outside, and a thin sheen of dew dampens my clothes and hair. A small, styrofoam cup sits on the concrete next to me, steaming slightly.

After staring at the cup for a moment, gathering my wits about me, I bolt up and jog over to the car, my pace quickening when I see that the passenger door is flung wide open.

NOMAD's there, slumped in the passenger seat and slowly nursing a cup of his own coffee.

He's also wearing a handful of my clothing items.

As if sensing my confusion, he sets down his cup on the dashboard and glances over at me, looking marginally more alive than he did yesterday.

“You got me into this entanglement, so I invaded your luggage. Hardly fair recompense, but it'll have to do.” His mildly threatening tone clashes hard with my shirt that he's currently wearing – an oversized affair I normally use as makeshift pajamas that's probably the only thing besides my...oh God no, he's wearing my old basketball shorts too???...that fits him properly. I absently wonder if he's ever actually seen the Monty Python sketch about the singing lumberjack before gesturing to the cup of coffee I left by the bathrooms.

“So what about that, then? Does your ‘full recompense’ involve slowly poisoning me with truck stop coffee?”

I swear he chuckles at that.

“No.” He heaves himself out of the car and makes for the bathrooms. I follow and watch as he retrieves the cup that was, apparently, meant for me and gingerly pours some of the coffee from it into his own. He doesn’t keel over, disintegrate, or start smoking from the ears after taking a swig, so I take it he hasn’t poisoned the coffee.

He hands the cup to me, and we just stand there in awkward silence. I feel his annoyance needle the back of my mind as I idly pick at the styrofoam cup with my thumbnail.

“Well, aren’t you going to drink it?” I gauge my energy levels - despite SHADOW SERPENT’s visit last night, I’m feeling awake enough to drive. That, coupled with NOMAD’s coffee consumption alleviating some of the drain on my metabolism, and the fact that truck stop coffee is barely even suitable for human consumption, means...

“I don’t really need it at the moment, so no-”

I’m stopped when a hand seizes the front of my shirt and forces me back-first against the concrete wall. The coffee goes flying. I go flying soon after, and I spit out a mouthful of grass as I try to push myself off the ground.

I don’t get the chance.

A foot slams into the small of my back, grinding me into the dirt. My ribs creak as the foot’s owner leans down, snags my hair, and forces my head roughly to one side.

“You...I hope you realize that I got you that cursed coffee for a reason, Bannbreker!”

“Wha?” I wheeze, confused more than anything. NOMAD yanks my hair, and I hiss, my arms flailing in an attempt to get the bastard off of me.

“For better or for worse, I’m dependent on your state for the time being. For me to be awake, I need you to be awake, and I need to be awake! Drinking this bean-water myself will only do so much, so, Zamorak help me, I’ll force caffeine down your throat so that I won’t pass out again!” His cup, which, miraculously, hasn’t spilled in the commotion, is set down inches from my face, and he finally releases me. I roll over just in time to see him enter one of the bathrooms and slam the door. His tirade isn’t over, however, as I hear a hoarse “DRINK THE DAMNED COFFEE, BANNBREKER, OR I’LL MAKE REFUSING IT THE LAST MISTAKE YOU EVER MAKE” echo inside the bathroom.

I take one look at the cup, shake my head, and dump the whole thing in the nearby trash can. Threatening my life is one thing, but I draw the line at drinking NOMAD’s backwash.

Instead, I trek back to the car and dig through my duffle bag until I find a decent-sized fanny pack. Unzipping it, I locate a small, plexiglass vial among about fifty labeled 'Super Fatigue Retardant: drink in case of sleepless nights brought on by the horrors beyond the veil.' It's a proprietary mixture synthesized by the tech blokes that's the equivalent of about ten cups of coffee. If this doesn’t calm NOMAD down (or, to be precise, power him up), nothing will.

After draining the bottle in three good gulps, I sit in the driver’s seat and wait for the almost immediate tachycardia and hyperthermia symptoms to subside.

Once the horror from beyond the water closet door comes back, it'll be time to move.

***

NOMAD'S QUIET FOR THE REST OF THE DRIVE. Though, I can tell from the relatively easy time I have breathing that he's not asleep, unconscious, or on the brink of death.

Which is good, because I need all the oxygen I can get if I'm going to drive and think at the same time.

I thank my lucky stars that destiny entanglement doesn't involve continuous mind-reading. Aye, the two of us can hear each other's thoughts, but only if we don’t keep a tight enough hold on our own. Which is good, considering that the only thing on my mind is whatever the bloody hell just happened at the truck stop. In one moment, NOMAD’s offering me coffee, and in the next, he’s putting a boot to my back and threatening my life if I don’t drink it?

What's he up to?

Considering my previous experience with the bastard, nothing good.

I admit it freely; I'm as naive as a baby's arse on a warm summer morning and too damn trusting for my own good, hence SHADOW SERPENT's warning to me last night. Perhaps it's the idealist in me trying desperately to find something – anything – good in the ever-endangered world around me, but I can never seem to exercise the proper amount of paranoia for any given situation.

Take NOMAD, for example. I mentioned before that, when Marin, his older brother Cassius, and I undertook OPERATION DRIFTING REQUIEM, I had my own reasons for knocking on NOMAD's door. Aye, I knew the risks. Our target was a dangerous and cranky old man, possessed by the souls of about two thousand people, who probably wanted to expand that number by another thousand.

I remember confiding in Marin before the operation was due to begin; he thought it was a stupid idea, but I wanted to believe that approaching NOMAD under the guise of someone curious about the nature of the human soul would be a good way to lower his guard a bit, allowing the rest of my team to slip into his compound unnoticed.

There was just one problem with this.

For me, it wasn't a guise at all. I had just recovered from OPERATION WAKING WORLD, in which I ended up destiny entangled with a dying god. I thought little of the aftereffects of said entanglement, even when BIG BOSS told me to my face – mind? - that something about my soul wasn't quite...human, as he put it.

That was, at least, until things got weird.

It was almost like a part of myself had been carved off and replaced by something different. I noticed that I couldn't recall certain memories from my earlier life, and that those I could recall seemed off. The faces of my brothers and sisters suddenly looked identical: a young child with mint-green fur and bright red hair, two small horns poking out from her cheeks. I became more concerned with whether one thought or action was balanced by another, something that I never remember being so pre-occupied with. I nearly drove myself insane with the recurring vision of a world slowly being consumed by a giant, porcine beast flanked by thousands of identical soldiers.

Adding that on to the nightmares I'd already been having involving my late husband and the countless others that I've seen be torn apart, disintegrated, or eaten alive, and I became afraid.

Afraid enough to make a stupid, selfish decision that jeopardized my asset team during OPERATION DRIFTING REQUIEM.

...

”Hm. From what you’ve described, it seems like something was forcibly implanted into your soul during your entanglement with this god you described. If I’m right, the entanglement partially completed, resulting in your current state.”

”Can you fix it?”

”Be specific.”

”Can you...look, I want whatever was jammed into my soul out of there. I don’t want it. Any of it. Can you remove it?” He stared at me hard from across the table, and I could see the fluorescent possession worms wriggling in his sclerae. My stomach turned at the sight, but I sat tight and waited for his response. For better or worse, this might have been my only chance to fix whatever’s happened to my soul, and I wasn’t about to pass it up.

”I can try.” He stood, motioning for me to follow. Without hesitation, I did.

...

If it hadn't been personal, if I hadn't been so naive, and if I hadn't have had something to gain from picking NOMAD's brain and following him into that cavernous basement that housed SOUL OBELISK, I would've noticed when Marin and Cassius dropped communications. I would've noticed that NOMAD was a bit too interested in what I had to say about my soul, and I would've tried harder to get the hell away from the crazy old bastard when he offered to show me exactly what it was that SOUL OBELISK did.

...

”This is SOUL OBELISK?” I shivered involuntarily, and not just from the cold of the basement. The array laid out on the floor would have been enough - something about the design screamed less ‘soul surgery’ and more ‘soul theft’ to me. I tried to read the High Enochian script tracing the outside, but it made my eyes water to even glance at. In the center of the array was a chair, looking almost like a throne given it’s placement, and I swear I could see...what are those, chains? Restraints?...set into the floor in an injecting node beyond the boundaries of the main array. Wires, thick and thin, ran to and from almost everything in sight, and I felt the electricity sparking in the air.

”Yes. I admit I’ve used it in the past for less...altruistic means. But, for your situation, I promise to use it to do exactly as you said.” A hand on my back pushed me toward the array, and I couldn’t help but plant my feet. I wasn’t so sure about this whole deal anymore. “Well?”

”N...no...you know what? I can deal with it. I can live with it. I’ll just be going now.” I feigned stumbling, jamming my foot into my ankle hard enough to activate the contagion sigil drawn there. I had messed up, and I couldn’t let my team get hurt because of this...

Marin, Cassius, fall back. Now.

No answer. Not even a flicker from either of their minds.

”You’re not going anywhere.”

There was an audible growl in his voice now, and his hand rose, clasping the back of my neck. At the motion, I moved away, ready to defend myself, but he was too fast. His hand tightened, fingers digging into my carotid arteries. Vertigo took over, and I slumped to the ground.

...

I wanted to believe that he could, and would, help me. I trusted him blindly and ignored all the signs pointing to his intentions being half a step short of murderous.

...

I struggled hard against the restraints, but to no avail.

”You...LIAR!” I roared, clawing at the cement floor. A single, hoarse laugh answered me, coming from the man sitting idly in the chair just ten feet away.

”Ha! You said that you didn’t want your soul anymore and then asked if I could remove it. I said yes, and now I’m simply honoring your request. Did I lie?”

”When I said that, I meant the part of my soul that doesn’t belong there, not the whole glackit thing, you bloody bawhead!”

”Oh, I know, I know...” He leaned forward, eyebrows quirking mockingly. “But, I did tell you to be specific, after all.”

He sat back and started to chant in High Enochian. The air buzzed with electricity and thaum energy, and I screamed as a cold, unseeable hand latched around something deep in my chest.

Then, it started to pull.

...

That exercise of naivety and blind trust earned me the pipe scar on my stomach, not to mention many others.

It earned Marin a shattered arm that never really healed.

It earned Cassius an empty eye socket.

Like I said before; we all left the operation a little less whole than when we started.

Which is why I'm now stuck halfway between wanting to afford NOMAD some trust, courtesy of the idealist in me, and wanting to throw him out of the passenger seat and onto the freeway, courtesy of my common sense.

Making that choice, however, will have to wait until after the heist, since I highly doubt that Zamorak would appreciate one of his chosen agents being flattened by a lorry on the interstate.

Chapter Text

IT’S A FEW MORE HOURS BEFORE I PULL UP TO THE RENDEZVOUS POINT IN DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO; an alleyway sandwiched between a dodgy-looking burger shop and a nondescript office building that looks worse for wear.

Lovely.

“We’re here,” I announce, killing the engine. I make no move to leave the car, however - as far as I can see, the alleyway is empty, and it’s setting my hackles on edge.

Are the Nazgul already here?

Is SHADOW SERPENT waiting to spring another impromptu visit?

I have no clue, which is why my arse stays firmly in its seat.

“Are we?” NOMAD groans, loudly cracking his neck. “That's a relief. You drive like reality’s crashing down just behind your rear wheels.”

“Maybe because it is, aye? Now, shush.” I keep peering over the dash, looking for any signs of movement. Still nothing.

After about a minute, I hear NOMAD sigh.

“What are you waiting for, Bannbreker?”

“Who do you think? I just don’t know if they’re here yet...”

“Just get out of the car, then. Find out.”

“Why don’t you, if you’re so anxious?”

“I can’t,” he hisses. “The coffee’s worn off.”

“Ah.” I sit there for a moment, still scanning the area. My binocs are in the trunk - I curse myself for not keeping them with me, seeing as I could sure use them right now.

“Well???”

“Aye, fine! I’m getting out! Fuck’s sake…”

Clutching my ward, I ease open the door and step out of the car. Not a moment after I have both feet on the concrete, however, I'm suddenly yanked away and thrown against the brick wall to my left.

Fucking hell – this would be the second time today that I've been tossed back-first against something hard, and I doubt it will be the last.

Sharp, red eyes, barely concealed by a rudimentary glamour, stare into my own. For a moment, I can see what looks like a swirl of fractals that burns my retinas, and in the next, something is worming its way into my very being and forcibly unraveling my identity for the Child holding me against the wall to see.

FINLEY AIFRIC BANNBREKER
...INITIALIZING FACIAL RECOGNITION...
LAUNDRY: EXTERNAL ASSET
WARNING: ENTANGLEMENT FIELD DETECTED – IDENTITY CONFIRMATION DELAYED
CODENAME: WORLD GUARDIAN (FMR: AGENT PATHFINDER)
CLEARANCE: CLASS-VIII
AGE: 31
ALERT: RSI = 10 - SECONDARY CONFIRMATION ADVISED


...
...

IDENTITY CONFIRMED

After a long, painful moment, Enakhra lets me go, and I push off the wall, rubbing my back gingerly. She turns to look over her shoulder, and I can see Zemouregal fighting to pin NOMAD against the opposite wall, apparently trying to perform the same identity-confirming invocation that Enakhra just subjected me to.

“Are you quite done yet?” she spits. Zemouregal growls, seizing NOMAD's jaw and trying to force their eyes to meet.

“This...this idiot mage won't stop squirming!”

“Well, make him stop.”

“Right!”

With that, Zemouregal draws a fist back and drives it straight into NOMAD's nose.

I double over with a cry, clutching my face.

Aye, I felt that.

My nose isn't broken, but it bloody well feels like it's just been caved in.

Sympathetic contagion.

After a moment, the pain fades slightly, and I straighten. Both Enakhra and Zemouregal have their eyes trained on me, crimson and blue-green, respectively.

“What was that all about?” Zemouregal very nearly chuckles, shifting NOMAD into a headlock. I see oily blood dripping from his nose.

“We're destiny entangled, ye nit!” I hiss, massaging my own nose. “It was the only way I could get him away from DEATH. Now, I can tell ye that he's very much the NOMAD ye think he is, so put him down, aye?”

Zemouregal doesn't answer, but at least releases NOMAD from his chokehold. He stumbles away, wiping his bloodied nose on the shirt he's wearing. My shirt, I might add.

That'll be hard to explain to the blokes at the coin wash once I get back home.

“This complicates things,” Enakhra muses, her gaze shifting between NOMAD and I. “Zamorak will want a full report from the both of you. Especially you, AGENT NOMAD, regarding where you've been these past few years.”

With that, she raises her hands, chants something in a language that makes my eyes water, and all goes black.

***

I WAKE UP WISHING FOR A FEW HOURS OF THIS JOB TO PASS WHERE I’M NOT KNOCKED OUT, THROWN AGAINST A WALL, OR OTHERWISE BANGED UP IN SOME WAY.

My nose still hurts. My shoulder smarts – I must have fallen on it after Enakhra's unconsciousness invocation. And, to top it all off, I can't move my arms or legs.

“You’re finally awake,” a voice sneers to my right.

I finally gauge my surroundings, noticing that I'm once again in DEMON HALL.

I'm also thaum-tied to a chair.

I add that to the list of multiple annoying occurrences to happen on this job.

“You get knocked sleepy too, then?” I ask, glancing over at NOMAD. He's seated in a second chair – not tied down, I note.

“No,” he growls. “There was no need. After you collapsed, I could barely move.”

“Well, then. Maybe you should try using your own metabolism for a while instead of piggy-backing off of mine, aye?”

“Believe me, I want nothing more than to be free of your ‘metabolism,’ seeing as your liver is about to give out from cirrhosis and your kidneys are encrusted with calcium.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“Welcome back, WORLD GUARDIAN.” Zamorak’s voice echoing through the room snaps me, as well as NOMAD, to attention. “I see you’ve succeeded in your errands. A little too well, I might add.” I see him stride casually into view, hands laced behind his back. From the set of his shoulders, however, I can tell that he’s feeling anything but casual.

“So,” he continues, planting himself in front of the both of us. “Tell me. Why did you feel the need to over-complicate an already dicey situation with an accelerated destiny entanglement?”

“Wait - accelerated?” I blurt, stomach rolling.

“Yes, accelerated.” Zamorak’s eyes flicker between the two of us - I didn’t think it was possible for him to look amused and furious at the same time. “Enakhra reported observing a superimposition factor ten times that of a normal destiny entanglement when she was confirming your identity.”

“But...but that means…that-” My stomach rolls and I choke on my words. I know what it means - I just can’t say it.

Thankfully (or unfortunately - I can’t tell which), Zamorak says it for me.

“Your entanglement will progress ten times faster than normal.”

No no nononononono NO! NO!

I try to calm do- nae I cannae feckin’ do it! I’ve gotten myself stuck to a goddamn murderous chamber-pot agent wi’ a right bad grudge up his crease an’ now I’m feckin’ doomed somethin’ went sideways wi’ the entanglement and now I’m doomed I’m doomed I’M GONNAE DIE I’VE BLUNDERED BIGGER THAN A FECKIN’ FISH TRYIN’ TO FOXTROT.

“DEATH wants me back quickly,” NOMAD sighs, whatever cavalier air he’s putting on betrayed by the low rattle of rage that grabs onto my anxiety and holds it close like a starving bloke might do to a juicy breakfast banger. “What better way to ensure that than to purposefully speed up the deadline to metaphysical annihilation?”

“I thought we had a few weeks, at least!” I sputter, finally finding my voice. “Now we only have…”

Say, two, three days? No sweat.

DEATH.

This is all his bloody fault.

My teeth grind together as I claw at the wooden arms of my chair, acid boiling in my throat.

“That goddamn glakit, cludgie-headed bastard! If I ever see him again, I’m drilling my foot so hard up his arse, I’ll be able to clean out his appendix with my big toe!”

“Classy as always, Bannbreker,” NOMAD chuckles.

“Give me some fucking peace, NOMAD!” I spit back. “And while yer at it, ye can fuck right off because this is just as much your fault as it is DEATH’s!” His brow furrows angrily at that last statement, and he scoots his chair around slightly to glare at me.

“How is this MY fault? The reaper was the one who entangled us, not me!”

“Aw, get it right up ye, dozy bawhead! Ye started this with all the killin’ and soul eatin!’”

“And you are entirely innocent in all of this?!? If you hadn’t killed me, my plan would’ve been executed perfectly and none of this would’ve happened in the first place!”

”FUCK OFF RIGHT TO HELL!”

”YOU FIRST!”

“ENOUGH!”

A wash of volcanic heat scrambles my brain for a moment, and I’m torn from the chair and hoisted up by my collar. NOMAD’s subjected to the same fate, and we’re held shoulder to shoulder just inches from Zamorak’s face.

“I have enough to worry about in regards to this operation without you two squealing at each other like children!” With that, he tosses me to the floor, his voice sending stabs of pain up and down my spine. “Now, I’d like to know the details of how this came to pass, NOMAD. How did you end up in DEATH’s custody?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Wrong.”

As I right myself, I see Zamorak shove NOMAD back into his chair, clawed hands latched securely onto his shoulders.

Then, all sound ceases.

I see Zamorak say something, and then I’m writhing on the ground, wheezing. I claw at my chest, throat, and mouth, but I get no purchase against the unseeable hands that forcefully pump my lungs, pluck at my vocal cords, and force my jaws and tongue to dance.

I’m speaking against my will.

I'm no stranger to confession invocations, seeing as I've been subjected to them before. It’s a useful thing if your memory lapses (or, alternatively, if your superiors don’t particularly trust you to give an honest account of transpired events) when it comes time to report in after an operation. What's going on here, however, is completely different; it's less of a subtle compulsion to run my mouth, and more of an annoying office-mate that's rooting through my phone and projecting its contents on the wall for everyone to see.

I squeeze my eyes shut and try to stop the words, but a flash of red, a pair of glinting golden eyes, and a set of needle-like teeth set in a mischievous grin force them right back open.

”Wotcher, Guv! Don’t mind little ol’ me, aye? Just havin’ a butchers in yer brain ‘s all!” a voice, rough and tinny, squeaks in my mind, speaking above my own frantic babbling.

Oh.

I get it now.

”I like it in ‘ere, matey. Much nicer than the ol’ master’s over there, I can tell you that for free.”

The thing forcing me to speak is one of many extra-dimensional entities attached to the back of NOMAD's mind - tiny demons implanted there by the Black Chamber in an attempt to control him better. What better way to rein in one of your less-trustworthy conscripts than to tie imps to his brain that pick through the grey matter and spout whatever they find out of his mouth?

”Oho, this right ‘ere’s nice and juicy! Go on, Guv - tell us all ‘bout the time you...oh, that’s restricted? Ha! Not to me!”

And, because NOMAD and I are entangled, one of them must have latched itself onto my mind, forcing me to bear half the brunt of a Nazgul-style interrogation.

”I’ll say, Guv. You could make a killin’ off the stuff you got stashed in ‘ere!”

Wonderful - another side effect of this now very much doomed entanglement.

”Too bad you’d end up smokin’ from the ears wi’ your tongue stuffed down your throat if you let it all out!”

Eventually - finally - it ends, and the cone of silence is lifted from around me.

”Welp, I’m off! ‘Ave a nice day, Guv!”

Feeling the imp retreat and nestle around my cerebellum, I sit up, out of breath yet grateful that neither Zamorak nor NOMAD heard anything I had said in the past few minutes.

There’s a fair amount of confidential, possibly world-endangering information hidden in my brain that the imp saw and possibly forced me to scream to the high heavens - let’s just leave it at that.

“Stand up, WORLD GUARDIAN. Come here.”

I oblige, shuffling over to Zamorak. As I near, he seizes my shoulder and yanks me into position beside NOMAD, who, I notice, is shaking slightly, his breath uneven.

“What are you do-” Zamorak’s glare shuts me up.

“Listen to me carefully. I have neither the power nor the equipment to break this entanglement without risking irreparable damage to one or both of your souls. For the good of this operation, and for the good of yourselves, I am forced to leave you as you are, so you two are just going to have to cooperate for the time being.”

“And what about afterwards?” I ask, not expecting a positive answer.

“Afterwards? I don’t particularly care. Cut the entanglement, let it complete, tear each other apart - anything goes. But for now, you will work together, and you will make the best of the situation. This operation can accept no less. Am I clear?”

NOMAD nods without hesitation, but I can sense that he very much wants to tear Zamorak apart limb from limb after what just happened.

“Aye, you’re clear,” I say as Zamorak finally releases my shoulder.

“Good. I expect you two to meet the rest us upstairs in an hour for planning. I suggest you come to terms with your predicament and figure out how to work with it before then.”

With that, we’re led to a small office somewhere in the bowels of DEMON HALL and left alone.

Chapter Text

IT’S A COUPLE OF MINUTES BEFORE EITHER OF US SPEAK. A couple of long, painful, awkward minutes of the two of us milling around in the office that reminds me more of a broom closet than anything, pointedly avoiding each other.

It’s hard, given the size of the room, so we end up in opposite corners like a couple of bareknucklers ready to have a go at each other’s faces. I wouldn’t be surprised if it came to that, to be honest.

Eventually, however, anxiety starts to boil over, and I break the silence.

“Right...right...what are we going to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think I mean?” I walk up to NOMAD, my hands shaking involuntarily. “I mean: what are we going to do about this entanglement? We’ve got two, maybe three days before we end up-”

“As one person in two bodies,” he groans, waving dismissively. “Yes, I’m well aware - you don’t have to spell it out for me.”

“Right, so you’re just content to sit back and let it happen, then?!?” I let my voice rise as the shaking spreads to my arms and shoulders.

“I am not. Now shut up - I’m trying to think.”

“THINK OF WHAT?!?”

NOMAD pounds a fist against the nearby wall, the sound jolting me out of my panic.

“I hope you realize that the only thing keeping me from strangling you on the spot is the fact that I, too, would suffocate shortly after,” he snarls, voice low. His words are only bolstered by the mental images he sends me after he falls silent - thoughts flashing like a macabre slideshow.

Aye, he wants to strangle me. And possibly eviscerate me as well. And - oh, GOD, I did not know he could pound a human skull to pieces with his bare fists.

”Right, I’ll just...leave you be, then,” I wheeze, backing away slowly as the slideshow ends on the mental image of me with my neck twisted almost completely off my shoulders and the majority of the rest of my body melted into featureless gore.

Bloody hell, NOMAD’s got some issues stuck up his crease.

I scoot over to the other side of the room and take a seat in an office chair, my hands de-pocketing and busying themselves with my phone to try and take my mind off the waking nightmare I just saw. It’s my second favorite bit of gear that I haul around on contracts, equipped with enough weaponry to rival a small country’s military, and was gifted to me as a wedding present by my brother-in-law…

I freeze, my thumbs poised over my phone screen.

“Marin!”

“What?” NOMAD turns to glare at me - he looks about ready to execute that skull-pounding he was imagining earlier - but I motion for him to calm down.

“Marin. He’s a friend...brother-in-law...well, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he’s just about the smartest bloke I know when it comes to computational invocation - if anyone can help us figure out a way to stop or slow this entanglement, it’s Marin.”

“You’re married?”

I pinch the bridge of my nose, huffing.

“I bring up a possible out to this fecht, and you ask if I’m married - aye, I was married. Can we focus on the problem, here?”

“Fine. Are you sure this Marin can help us?”

“Well, let’s ask him.”

I quickly dial him up, setting the phone on a small side table and turning on the speakerphone so as to include NOMAD in the conversation.

The phone rings twice.

“DeSilva.”

“Hullo, Marin!”

“Finley, hey! What's going on?”

“I'm, ah,” I test the self-censoring spell embedded in my brain; it's quiescent for the moment. “In the United States. Got called on by the Chamber for a job.”

“Ouch. What do you need me for, then?”

“Des-” My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth as if magnetized. Oops, Marin's not exactly cleared for that. He should know what it is I'm talking about, however. Bloke gets around, and knows way more than he's supposed to.

I free my tongue and try a different angle.

“Say you want two people to be, ah, linked. Mentally. Metaphysically. Whatever. To keep one of them from running off. Ye ken?”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. Fate knots, if you will?”

“Aye, that's it.”

“What about it?”

“Well, say that when the, ah, knot was tied,” - I cringe at that imagery, hard - “The person who tied it made it so everything would get right mixed up within two or three days. How could you, theoretically, slow that process down?”

Marin's silent for a handful of seconds, though I can practically hear the gears in his head turning.

“Finley?”

“Aye?”

“You're not saying that you got yourself tied up with someone, are you?”

“No, that's exactly what I'm saying.”

“Dammit. Who?”

“NOMAD.”

“SHIT. That murderous, balding, raisin-head’s still ALIVE?”

I flinch, though not at Marin’s words. NOMAD’s seething - I can feel his fury bubbling like magma at the back of my throat.

“Marin?”

“What?”

“You’re...you’re on speaker. He heard that.”

“Oh... Hello, NOMAD.”

“Hello, Marin DeSilva,” NOMAD hisses. “I think I remember you, now. You were one of the little rats Bannbreker brought with her to apprehend me.” He steps closer to the phone, bending over it like a vulture might do to some roadkill. “Yes, I tore your arm from its socket, as I remember. I’d be happy to do it again!”

“Right, that’s enough!” I swipe the phone from the table before NOMAD can eat it, or something. “The Chamber needed NOMAD for an operation, and the only way DEATH would agree to letting him come with me was if he had a, ah, leash around his neck.”

“That's less of a leash and more of a bomb vest that you've both been strapped into.”

“Aye, it feels that way, considering the fact that DEATH rigged it all to complete ten times faster than normal.”

“Hmph. If I were you, I’d give DEATH a good kick up the ass next time you see him.”

“And there’s the familial resemblance,” NOMAD mumbles, a bit more composed now.

“Shush. Any way we can slow this down?”

Marin's silent again, this time for a good minute and a half.

“Considering this entanglement involves NOMAD, of all people, there might be something you can do.”

“Tell us,” I say without hesitation.

“Alright. Listen carefully, then. Both of you. I don't want my sister-in-law coming home with a thirst for souls and a bad bald spot.”

***

“READY?”

“Am I ready for you to invade my mind and traipse around in my soul? No. Am I ready to have a better chance of coming out of this entanglement in one piece? Yes.”

“So, are you ready, or not?”

“Just do it. Get it over with,” NOMAD sighs, twitching slightly.

Following Marin's instructions, we've drawn an anchoring grid, superimposed with an anima manipulation array, on the carpet and placed a desk chair, on which NOMAD sits, in the center. Conductive circuits (a couple of ethernet cables taped to the floor) run from that grid to a second one, a projection grid with a few de-entanglement circuits plastered on top, which surrounds the desk chair in which I sit. In the absence of a nearby computer to handle the calculations necessary to pull this trick off, I'll have to leech off of NOMAD's ritual practitioner skills to activate and maintain the grids. Neither of us are happy about that, believe me, though I can hear the imp, my new mental roommate, giggling at the idea.

With a deep breath, I close my eyes and open my mind.

"Right, I'm coming over. Ready?"

"What did I say earlier, Bannbreker? Just. Do. It."

"Right, right. Sorry." Gingerly, I start to probe his mind with my own, cringing and shivering as I do so. It's about as awkward as sifting through someone's underwear drawer, and twice as much of a privacy breach. Thankfully, he's taken the initiative and laid out all the knowledge I need to work these grids at the forefront of his mind - the equivalent of washing and neatly folding the pair of underwear I'm looking for on top of the whole mess. It's still an awkward situation, but at least I'm not risking shoving my hand into the bottom of the drawer and coming across something unmentionable.

Alright. Lock the array into place like...this...and then complete the circuit like...this...and-

GAH!

There's a quick tugging sensation in my chest, followed by a very brief but very disconcerting feeling of zero gravity.

When I open my 'eyes' again, I'm looking at, well...

Bloody hell.

The best way I can describe it is the same view I just had, but darkened significantly. Through the walls of DEMON HALL, I can see tiny flecks of light flicker against the almost black background, reminding me of fireflies.

Souls. Human souls.

A flash of raw excitement and hunger hits me in that moment.

Souls.

Find them.

Take them.

Eat them.

My mouth waters, and a yawning abyss opens up deep inside my core. It begs – demands - to be satiated, and those tiny pinpricks of light, those souls, would...

NO!

Wheezing, I yank my mind back from the proverbial underwear drawer it had just taken a nosedive into, and a realization hits me.

I understand now why NOMAD seems so weak - why the metabolic carryover between us is taking its toll on me.

Somewhere along the line, as NOMAD was eating up souls in an attempt to gain power, he must have become addicted to them. And, if I'm guessing correctly, he hasn't 'eaten' in a long while, having been in Death's custody.

He's in withdrawal.

All the more reason to get to work, I think, taking in a deep breath and standing up.

I don't really stand up, though. My physical body stays still and seated in the desk chair. What stands up is an approximation of my five senses, combined together and made sensitive to the unique thaum frequencies given off by human souls.

I'm having a very literal out-of-body experience.

I take a look at myself, as if from afar. I see - just as much as I smell, hear, feel, and taste - my soul. It flickers within a near-invisible outline of my form, a vibrant turquoise that sounds like the taste of fresh forest air, edged with a bit of salty maritime fog, and smells like the feeling of sunshine on bare skin.

Along the outline of my form sparks a bright, verdant energy that reminds me of vines snaking across glass. That would be my built-in entropy scope, courtesy of the dying god I was destiny entangled with. It redirects or scatters divine-generated thaum energies above Tier 6 – something I find to be quite useful, especially in the wake of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. I know it works on energies as strong as Tier 2, which is what ARTIFACT JAS SAXUM generates, but, unfortunately, it starts to break down if bombarded with enough Tier 1 energy. I know this from experience. An experience I’d rather not repeat anytime soon.

Among the sparking vines of my entropy scope, I see what I'm looking for. A dark red string, the color of old blood, winds its way around my form's head, neck, and torso like a macabre spider web. As our destiny entanglement progresses, that blood-red thread will contract, pulling our souls together, just as the two drops of blood did back in DEATH's safe-house. If I can pull a few strings, pardon the pun, I can hopefully influence how long the entanglement will take to complete.

'Hopefully' being the keyword, there.

I follow the thread across the room, tracing it until it reaches the outline of NOMAD's seated form, within which his own soul flickers.

And, it's terrifying to see.

Just before the thread reaches him, it splits into hundreds of smaller threads, each curling around a different piece of a horrible puzzle of colors, sounds, and emotions that make up what, or who, NOMAD is. DEATH wasn’t talking keech when he said that the boundaries between NOMAD's original soul and the ones he's eaten are blurred to the point of incomprehensibility - the whole mess is so blended together it looks more like a pile of compost than anything that should be sitting inside a person.

Taking a deep, nonexistent breath, I stop wasting time and channel a bit more brain power from him, activating the anima manipulation array.

In an instant, my senses are compressed by the array into a tiny, ant-sized creature with too many arms, hands, and fingers, and flung headlong into the puzzle of souls.

Aye, here we go. I grab hold of an entanglement thread with one of my hundreds of hands and pull myself along, remembering Marin's hypothesis as I go.

I'll need to find the main thread first - it should be the one attached to this bastard's original soul.

It’s no easy feat, however.

Picking through NOMAD's amalgamated soul with my hybrid sense is like trying to hike through a thicket of thorns. Each time I brush against something, my physical ears ring with sounds so loud, I'm surprised he doesn't react from the volume. A scream here, a plea for mercy there, a defeated laugh over yonder.

I could get lost in here – the only insurance I have are the red threads that I never stray too far from.

Worse yet, seeing as the threads are all identical, I have no way to find NOMAD's original soul. I didn't know him before he started eating souls, nor do I know anything personal about the man that I could put to use.

All I have is...

My physical hand moves sluggishly to my stomach where the pipe scar resides.

Quickly, I conjure up the memory of being stabbed through once again, sending it along the red thread to each part of NOMAD's soul. Then, I listen.

Voices start to resonate around my sixth sense.

No!

Sorry about that, kid.

Ouch, that looked like it hurt!

Ew, blood!

This is why you're stuck at the pay grade you are, Bannbreker...

Ha! Nice shot!

Oh dear, that's no way to treat a lady.

Congratulations, you just triggered a Vietnam flashback, asshole.

Watch the spleen!

That's going to take a couple months to heal for sure.

I'm hungry.

OOOOOH! Owned!

Well, that was a bust. None of those even remotely sounded like NOMAD, though I certainly heard some of my former coworkers floating around in there...

Pathetic. You aren't nearly as tough as I though.

There he is.

I follow the direction of that final snide through the soul thicket until I reach a large branching structure that, if I'm 'seeing' things correctly, seems to be at the center of everything.

If I'm right, this is NOMAD's original soul.

It’s...well…

It’s very grey. Cloudy. Cracked around the edges. Cold and tarnished like the grimy car-snow on the side of the road in winter. Yet, deep within the rat’s nest of metaphysical scar tissue, I swear I can see something flickering slightly. It’s no brighter than a lit spliff in a dark room, but I can distinctly hear the smell of summer air after a storm coming from it.

Focus. Do what you came to do. The main thread. Find it. Cut it.

Sighing, I trace the red entanglement threads as they wind around the central structure – there's way more than just one. Too many to break them all without risking damage. Yet, I might as well try to break some of them - I snag the largest one I can find with a hand and activate the abbreviated de-entanglement circuits.

owowowowowOWOWOW OW! BLOODY HELL!

That didn't work at all. The thread is far too thick. Too strong to break with the low-level grids we're working with.

Too many. Too strong.

Right. Plan B.

If I can't cut the main thread, I'll have to settle with cutting some of the smaller threads. If Marin's right (and he usually is), it'll be better than doing nothing and will add at least a few hours to the completion process. Right. Find and cut some smaller threads around the foreign parts of NOMAD's soul.

And so, I move away from the central structure and begin doing just that.

It still hurts. It still feels like sticking a knife in a power outlet. But, the smaller threads break, snapping off and subliming into nothingness. As each thread snaps, I get a bit of feeling from each of the foreign souls. A slight sense of who they were before NOMAD got to them. A street performer. A lone man on a bus at night. A mushroom hunter. A lost hiker. A fellow Laundry agent on a class VIII contract, not expected to return.

All of them were alone. Solitary. Nobody would've missed them...

Keep moving. Keep breaking.

I continue to snap threads. It gets more taxing with every break. More painful. I start to lose concentration, but I have to keep going. For both our sakes.

I reach for the next thread.

I miss.

Oh no…

One of my hands phases into a soul. I try to pull it out, try to grab for a thread, but to no avail.

I'm being drawn in. Pulled along somewhere like a leaf on a river.

Memories that aren't my own start flooding my mind.

I'm standing on a docked boat, unloading my day's catch of crabs. A man in a raincoat approaches, asking about my wares.

I'm fumbling with a sudden flat on my car. It’s late, it’s already dark, and I need to get home. Miraculously, even on this empty road in the middle of nowhere, there’s a passerby. I flag him down and ask for help, not even stopping to wonder why he’s wearing a thick wool scarf in the middle of summer.

I'm spotting flocks of wild birds from my hide, making notes on each species. Someone comes up behind me, and a hoarse voice asks if I've seen anything particularly interesting today.

Grey engulfs my vision, and that same summer storm feeling wracks my brain. I hear a child screaming for his parents. I see a teenaged boy, clothes tattered and face grimy, tearing into the half-rotted corpse of a rat, frantically devouring it, fur and all. A shadow appears, looming over him and extending a gnarled, ancient-looking hand.

I see a rather handsome man, looking about my age. He's chanting something in a language that hurts my ears to listen to.

The scene changes: it's the same man, slightly older and sporting a receding hairline. He’s pouring over pages of notes and diagrams, and I swear I smell blood on his clothes.

Another scream. Echoing and anguished. The man’s writhing on the floor, clutching at his chest and throat, the shadow from earlier watching from a distance.

In an instant, the scene’s reversed. The shadow lies sprawled on the ground, very much dead, and the man’s eyes flicker wild with satisfaction and the telltale fluorescence of possession.

He's older now, more hardened-looking, and he boards a plane headed for somewhere in the United States. I can't make out the destination.

He stands, surrounded by figures, each dressed in impeccably tailored suits. Black Chamber Controllers. One starts to speak.

“AGENT NOMAD.” The man - NOMAD - nods, repeating it in his mind. I hear a second name being spoken alongside it. It quickly fades from earshot, but not before I've unintentionally committed it to memory.

The scene changes again. NOMAD's old now, closer to his current age. He's tinkering with a rig, connecting wires to a conductive grid drawn on the ground. It's messy and rudimentary, but I recognize that pattern. It's an early version of SOUL OBELISK.

Behind him is a wall decorated by photographs of different people; many of them have a red 'X' drawn over their faces. Two words, written in High Enochian, litter the spaces in between the photographs, written as if in frustration and obsession.

What do those words say?

I inch closer to the wall – how am I doing this in the middle of a memory? – to try and get a better look. My High Enochian is a bit rusty, but I should at least be able to-

As I near the wall, I spot a small photograph, not yet defaced by red ink. It’s of a woman - a Laundry Agent, I note - standing just outside an ancient-looking mausoleum.

OPERATION SANGUINE OATH.

My first operation.

As I stare at the candid photo of my two-year-younger self, my stomach rolling, comprehension dawns.

Oh. Oh no...

I know.

I think I know what those words say, now.

. . .

Suddenly, the air chills, and ice creeps down my spine.

Suddenly, the wall, the rig, and NOMAD are all gone, and I stand, or float, in a void. I can't tell whether the world around me is impossibly dark or impossibly light, and I have no sense of up or down.

The only thing I'm sure of is the presence that looms over me. Its infinite number of eyes, all of them a fluorescent, sickly green, stare me down, and I feel every single one boring into my mind.

A voice - a hollow, gravelly tenor - whispers in my ear, yet its words echo violently around me.

G E T. O U T.

Acid fills my lungs, and I’m tossed sideways as if hit by a tidal wave.

GET OUT.

I feel my many arms being torn off, one by one, as deafening static fills my ears.

GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!!!

NOMAD's shut his mind. Without his knowledge, I can't maintain the grids. They're breaking, spiraling out of control.

And, I’m still stuck in his soul.

With whatever hands I have left, I reach out, grasping at anything nearby. Finally, my fingers close around what I think is an entanglement thread, and I pull.

It’s like pulling myself out of boiling, caustic molasses with nothing but a stray bit of yarn.

Hand over hand, I drag myself out of the thicket. The moment the last part of my sense is free, I shoot myself back into my body, the residual force enough to flip the chair and throw me arse over tit into the wall.

The world slowly brightens, coming back into focus as I try to stand again.

Unfortunately, I don’t get the chance.

A hand latches around my throat, and I’m slammed sideways against the wall. I grapple at whatever - whoever - has a hold on me, but the hand’s grip only tightens, and black spots start to dot the edge of my vision.

I’ve been waiting for an excuse to do this, you worm.

Through my blurring vision, I see a fist being formed and raised, what looks like semi-solid blue fire flickering around the edges.

DIE.

The fist drills toward my face.

My hand goes to the ward around my neck.

The air thickens. Boils.

My lungs collapse.

There’s, at once, a wash of ozone, a near deafening boom, and a blinding crack of lightning. I’m drilled further into the wall by the force of something coming into existence where I was held moments before.

The drywall cracks against my spine, and I slump to the carpet.

Everything burns.

But, at least I’m still alive.

I unclench my fist and my ward, now shattered and useless, crumbles to dust between my fingers.

A death’s sign invocation. A last ditch effort to preserve one’s life. I was hoping to save it for later, but I-

A pained groan catches my ears from across the room, accompanied by what I can only describe as mental static flavored with the coppery taste of blood.

Looking up, I see NOMAD lying facedown on what used to be the side table, shivering and spasming from having his attack reflected back at him. I watch him push himself haltingly back to his feet, and scramble to my own as he advances on me once again, his face twisted into an almost inhuman rictus.

I try to speak, try to yell at him to STOP, but his rage boils in my sinuses, and his desire to kill pounds in my chest. Any words are squelched before I can say them.

Talking isn’t going to work - I’ll need force to stop him.

With my ward gone, all I have are my fists.

So, I use them.

I parry NOMAD’s first swing, thankful that he’s too tired to thaum-charge his fists again, and follow up with a jab to his nose and a quick cross to his jaw.

I aim true. My fist strikes bone, and he’s sent stumbling back over my fallen chair and to the carpet.

Massaging my hand, I maneuver out of my corner and to the other side of the room.

“Back down, ye great bloody bastard! Yer gonnae get us both killed!”

“Do you think I don’t know that?!?” he growls, his speech slurring slightly. He makes no attempt to stand again, resigning himself to instead lay facedown on the carpet, half of him draped over the now very broken desk chair. When he speaks again, he’s quiet, sounding almost pained if I’m hearing things correctly. “You shouldn’t have seen that. You shouldn’t have seen any of that.”

“I know,” I sigh. “And I’m sorry, that whole fecht was a right fucking misstep on my part. But, the important thing is that Marin’s plan worked. At least a little. I broke some threads, aye? Bought us some more time.”

“It won’t be worth it…”

Sighing, I tramp over to him and yank him upright by his shirt. My shirt...

“Stand up, ye pillock.” I stand him square in front of me, and he snarls mentally at the action. “Remember what Zamorak said, aye? We’ve got to work together now, at least until he can end our entanglement. That means no punching, no strangling, and no killing.”

He’s silent, though I can hear his teeth grinding.

“We’re going to get through this, I promise you that.”

The grinding stops.

Before I can spout out any more pseudo-motivational keech, there’s a sudden knock at the door, and it swings open to reveal Daquarius.

”What exactly went on, here?” he asks, gingerly toeing through the doorway and around one of the broken chairs. A bundle of fabric is held under one arm, which he pushes at NOMAD before glancing over to me, an eyebrow raised.

”Bit of fisticuffs. Not much else,” I answer quickly. His eyes go to the massive crack in the wall, then to the broken furniture, and finally to the smudged grids on the floor before he shrugs and shakes his head.

”Right,” he drawls, backing up. “Brought some new clothes for you, NOMAD, so that you don’t have to wear, ah, Finley’s anymore. Briefing’s in fifteen minutes - get dressed and get upstairs.” He nearly slams the door on his way out.

“Aye, alright…” I turn around and busy myself with flicking paint and drywall dust off my shoulders as NOMAD changes clothes in the corner, tossing my shirt and shorts at my feet along the way.

I don’t move to pick them up, however. The shirt’s covered in nose blood, and I have no idea if NOMAD was wearing anything underneath those shorts.

”You done, yet?” I ask, picking a chunk of drywall out of my braids. I risk a glance over my shoulder. Thankfully, he’s fully dressed and wrapping a scarf around the lower half of his face, just like he had worn when we met during OPERATION DRIFTING REQUIEM. The act seems to calm him down - after the scarf is wrapped, that pervasive, boiling rage of his cools off a bit and his posture relaxes significantly.

”Yes.” He mumbles, straightening a coat sleeve and motioning for me to lead the way. I do so, and we leave the now very destroyed office behind.

As we reach the elevators that will take us to this ‘upstairs’ Zamorak mentioned, a thought crosses my mind, and I quickly tamp it down to keep NOMAD from hearing it.

Had I thought of a mid-30’s NOMAD as handsome?

Awkward.