Nezzar looked up from the defeated Jinn, releasing her throat to brush off the blades. He was knocked back, the mist ripping through his shirt and striking his scaled skin. Much to his shock, this time the vapour hurt.
Aleksei ran forward, leapt over his sister and still kept pounding at his enemy with the blades. He had never done anything like this before, but he felt a strange familiarity with the technique. The giant was pushed back into a wall and Aleksei could see light from the other room shine through as the mist pierced through the plaster. Out of the corner of his eye, Aleksei saw a beautiful woman, dressed in strange garb like Nida, and mirroring his motions. He blinked and she vanished. He looked ahead into the white cloud which now concealed the cowering Nebuchadnezzar3 who Aleksei could sense was trying to protect his face and groin from the scythes.
Before the cloud, a mirage opened and he gazed into the halls where he had met Nida. Now he could see the new woman clearly. She had wavy, reddish brown hair which fell short of her shoulders and turquoise eyes. She wore a neat shirt and close fitting trousers over which draped a knee length skirt. Her clothing was pure white at her collar, but gradually turned to a brilliant indigo at her extremities.
'Who is she?' he wondered, but he already knew the answer, 'So, I have a second repha. Are they all female?'
As quick as she appeared, she vanished. From out of the cloud which Aleksei’s blades continued to cut, a wooden board flew like an arrow at astounding speed. Its pointed end threatened to skewer his skull. If not for one of his pressure blades redirecting the plank a couple degrees, he would have been dead before he could blink. The board passed just over his shoulder and pierced through the wall behind him.
The attack startled him so much he lost his footing and fell to one knee. His halo of blades stopped, he had lost focus, and he could sense that Nezzar had moved. He leapt to his feet, preparing to resume the barrage. The giant was out of sight. The only sign he had once been there was a large portion of the wall not sliced through.
Aleksei looked around frantically, immediately spreading vapour in all directions to sense his enemy. He felt something large move, which was all the prompting he needed. He spun, leapt, and kicked back, forming the largest and sharpest blade he could produce, and launched it towards Nezzar.
The blade’s shriek was brief as it struck the front of the giant’s scaly body, eliminating what was left of his tattered shirt and cutting into his hard scales.
With one hand Nezzar snatched Aleksei’s upraised ankle, then flung him around, smacking him into the floor. Spots exploded in the young man’s vision and his skull reverberated with the impact.
Nezzar raised his fist.
Mashka shook in terror as she looked into the wide eye of the beast. 'This thing… is inside me!'
The monster’s eye narrowed, its lip-less mouth grimaced, and it lashed out with a clawed hand.
Mashka reacted perfectly, stepping back, weaving her body side to side to avoid its grasp. Her eyes and ears detected every motion, making it easy for her to decide her next move. It struck again, but this time its arm bent unnaturally and hit her shoulder. The force of the blow was beyond anything she had felt before. She tumbled metre after metre over the black glass, bruising every part of herself on the way. She struck awkwardly feet first, sending her up into a flip as the world spun about her. Mid-air the monster met her and punched her in the chest. Her rib cage caved in, the bones stabbing her heart. The monster spun laterally, fist within her chest, and cast her into the obsidian again, shards exploding about her body.
Mashka’s eyes were lifeless for a moment before the light returned to them, followed by her injuries repairing themselves with the sounds of crinkling bones and squirming flesh. The thing glared at her.
“You think I’m inside you!?” it spat out, “I AM YOU!!!”
Through all its hideousness and wrath, she heard something in its voice, a shudder which brought tears to her eyes; anguish. She rolled away and rose. Despite being killed twice, she did not feel tired, actually she could feel the rush of life pulling at her bones and rushing through her veins. She analysed what the thing had been saying, and her conclusion caused her to be overwhelmed by the sorrow which radiated from the black form.
“I’m so sorry.”
It opened its jaws wide and screamed, “I can’t hear!”
Mashka gasped as it shambled towards her, flailing its limbs wildly. She let out a scream as she ran then grit her teeth. This was not time for her to break down. If that thing was in fact her, or a part of her, then she was not going to escape. She heard its faint step at her eight o’clock. She stopped, twisted about, and caught the monster’s wrist. With ease she threw it over her body. It struck the obsidian and vanished into the void-like depths.
Mashka looked about, wondering where it would come out next when she thought of something crazy. She raised one foot and stomped with all her might. The surface of the smooth obsidian sea cracked in all directions around her in a three metre radius, destroying the reflected moon and star. She hoped that the beast could not emerge from a broken surface.
She heard its rasping voice call out to her, “What an interesting assumption, but you are correct.”
'It’s my inverse, so shouldn’t it make sense to me.' she replied in thoughts.
“Finally willing to claim some ownership of this nightmare!?” it screamed. The beast leaned back, preparing to charge.
Mashka allowed her claws to grow and felt her canines follow suit. Normally she would be fighting for control of her body, but instead she remained fully conscious and the pain was at a level she could easily tolerate.
It sped forward, and she moved as well. Each of them took an indirect route, trying to throw one another off-kilter before they met. Once they came in reach of one another, their limbs became a blur of motion. Mashka parried each strike, side stepping swipes, retreating, and knocking aside blows. There were several opportunities for her to attack back but she neglected them. She was laying the bait, waiting for the beast to over extend itself.
She almost did not see the opening when it happened. Black talons grazed by her neck as she stepped inwards. The beast’s eye widened as it realised its mistake. Her claws jabbed its throat causing it to gasp. However, Mashka put far more force than she intended, and the oily membrane which held the beast together tore and black fluid exploded from its body as she ripped off most of its neck. The body remained standing as the golden eye slid down what was left of the neck and stopped at the middle of his chest. With gross ease, the eye rose again, a new head growing with it.
“I can sense your disgust, but you made me this way. I was once a beautiful Repha, but you destroyed me with your secrets, and your bitter heart!”
Mashka retreated as fast as she could, fending of blows, leaping over kicks, and striking back. Suddenly she gave an opening, and the beast took it. She gasped as it pierced her abdomen up to its elbow. Fighting against the pain, she grasped its arm and wrapped her free arm around its shoulders, pulling the creature closer, in a deathly embrace.
The beast’s eye roved about its head and saw that it could no longer escape, because Mashka had lured it onto the shattered surface she had made earlier.
“Thank you,” Mashka said weakly.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
“Thank you for protecting me, for hiding my sinful heart. My hate, my unwillingness to forgive, you held on to it. But it’s time for us to let it all go.” She rested her head on its shoulder as she wheezed for breath.
“You’re speaking… I can hear. I can hear!” it growled excitedly.
“I’ve closed you off for so long, and I’m sorry. I’m letting you out.” Tears ran down her face. “I’m not going to trap you in this horrible place anymore. I need your power to protect my brother. I’m letting go of my anger which has seen too many sunsets.” She gasped in pain as the beast removed its arm and embraced her. The hole through her abdomen began knitting itself back together. "I have a great life, it's time for you to take part in it the happy moments."
“At last,” the repha cried, its voice cracking with emotion, “We can protect us!”
Mashka almost chuckled at its elation. “What’s your name?"
“Ages ago I did have a name, given to me by a radiant one. But the man-made prison, the chrysalis trapped me from the others, and I have long forgotten.”
Finally they broke their embrace, and Mashka, “I’ll give you a name, but I’ll have to think about it.”
“First, we defeat Nebuchadnezzar.” The repha’s body split apart into smaller pieces to fit through the cracks and vanished into the obsidian. “Now,” its voice echoed with relief through the darkness, “we fight as one.”
Mashka gasped as the inky sky filled with stars and nebulae and the grinning moon brightened, bringing a light onto a world locked in millennial darkness.
Aleksei felt his life draining away, as all energy was drawn from his body. An immense weariness overcame him as Nezzar made for his killing blow. In the microseconds left, a dozen things happened at once: a white tempest appeared between his body and the giant’s fist, the mist’s desperate attempt to protect its master; from the corner of his vision, a shadow rose from the floor; the storm compressed to a wailing blade; black blood sprayed in his eyes; the floor shook; and the world fell dark.
Stumbling back with a cry of terror amidst reverberating crashes, Aleksei composed himself enough to rub his eyes. Through the blood, he saw that Nebuchadnezzar3 was gone, light streamed through two giant sized holes in the ceiling, and a row of destroyed walls stretched out before him to the outside.
Nezzar laughed inwardly at his triumph. Not one, but two aberrations would fall by his hands today, never to threaten the world again. The so-called “Sixth Advent” would never happen, and the careful balance the world was in today would not be disturbed. His fist collapsing this Jinn’s chest would bring humanity one step closer to self-determination. So was his goal, his driving force, his single minded patriotism.
He remembered the day he volunteered to be the third Nezzar, how he had been warned of the risks, but he never looked back. He had spent his life longing to be of use to his country, but at every turn, before that fateful evening in the parking garage, he was only rejected. Now, here he was, a stepping stone to man’s ultimate ascent over nature’s scorn. He was not just a monster-slayer, he was destroying God itself, liberating his fellow man from this soviet-hijacked supernatural power.
Despite his patriotic thrill, he sensed a strange energy infuse everything around him. Suddenly, his eyes, mouth, and nose felt bone dry as moisture was drawn from them. Before him white fog materialised in an instant then shrunk into a razor thin, vertical line, just in time to stop his fist from his mark. The air filled with a disembodied wail as he felt his hand be sliced to the wrist and searing heat sprayed across the right side of his body. The stench of burnt flesh and blood saturated his nostrils.
He did not have any time to comprehend what happened. His right knee was knocked out of its socket and he tumbled sideways. Beneath him, a very alive Mariya Sharova lay on her back after disjointing his knee. As he fell he caught sight of her determined eyes as she brought her feet in and kicked him upwards. The force was like an artillery shell.
He smashed through the ceiling into the fifth floor. The next moment, the young woman appeared beside him and raised her leg. She kicked down on his shoulder, adding her force to gravity’s pull causing him to smash through the floor, and crashing a few metres away from where he had once been.
He rose on one leg, while supporting himself against the wall. His head felt rattled and his whole body ached from the superhuman onslaught.
The woman dropped through the ceiling, and stood a moment. Her eyes blazed with a fire he had never seen before. They were bright green now.
He lunged at her, but she gracefully brushed off his attack and punched him in his diaphragm, his scales cracking from the force. He torpedoed through the wall and did not come to a stop until he hit another wall.
Mariya chased after him, spinning around before striking him in the chest as she screamed. “Never touch my brother!!!"
Again he burst through the wall, tumbling over the floor, knocking aside copy machines and desks like matchsticks, and slamming into the next wall.
His chest gurgled, he could tell his heart was failing, but his attacker was both unaware and unconcerned. She ran towards him and threw all her strength into a kick to his gut. He rocketed through two final walls before flying outside and smashing into the bricks of the building across the alley. Finally, he fell three stories to the weathered cobblestone. The last thing he saw were two men staring in disbelief at his demise.
“What is that?!” the younger one exclaimed.
The older of one looked up and saw her. “Mariya! Thank God you’re alright!”
Her face changed from a mixture of terror and ferocity to relief and worry. “Evan! SICA found us again!” she let out a long contained breath and finished, “Bruno and Aleksei need help, quickly. I can feel the building starting to collapse.”
“Jack is here too!” Evan replied.
“Nice to see you again, love!"
She nodded stiffly at Evan’s son then disappeared behind the breached wall.
Once Aleksei regained a reasonable state of sanity, his first thought was about his sister. He looked to where she had been struck down and found she was gone. In the distance he clearly heard her voice calling to someone. She did not sound scared or in distress, which put his heart at ease. He was in the midst of a brief prayer of thanks when the memory of The Messenger shooting Nebuchadnezzar3’s fist, rescuing him from death, interrupted him.
He exhaled and called the surrounding water to him so he could re-establish his sensory field. Nothing happened. He could immediately sense the feeling of emptiness he had the day after his escape from Russia. He did not even attempt to manipulate the water in the air; he knew his power was gone, again. 'Nida is going to be furious.' He was not looking forward to a future reunion. But at the moment he did not have time to dwell on it. He hurried to where he thought The Messenger would still be.
He found the rubble, but no Messenger. “Ahoy!” he called quietly, “Where are you?”
“Over here,” came a weary, wheezing reply.
Aleksei walked the direction of the voice in a dark corner. “Are you injured?”
Aleksei came even closer.
“Stay back!” it cried, and for the first time Aleksei heard a fear in its voice which was almost human.
“Why?” Aleksei asked as he squinted, allowing his eyes to adjust. In the dimness he started to make out a form, and he soon realised by the shape of it, that the hood was off. He moved to allow more light and revealed a leg with a blood-soaked hoodie tied around the shin.
“You have to get out of here!” The youth exclaimed as the floor lurched beneath him. Dust and rubble fell down from the ceiling and the walls cried out in despaired creaks, groans, and rumbles.
Once the movement stopped, he stepped forward until in a panic the thing shrieked at him, “No closer! Don’t look at me!”
It tried to hide its face with an arm. But Aleksei crouched beside it, looking at its injured leg and arm, both of which were bent out of shape. “Let me help, please,” he urged.
With a shame laden sigh, The Messenger lowered its arm.
Aleksei retrieved a few straight cabinet parts for a makeshift splint on The Messenger’s leg. He looked up and froze. For the first time The Messenger’s face was in view. Its skin was a sickly pale colour, and its surface resembled that of lumpy clay, as if the potter tried to make something resembling a human face, but failed due to a lack of skill, and rested it atop a skinny neck which looked as if it could break at any moment. There was no symmetry, no beauty, nothing to merit the thing as being human. Except the eyes that looked out from the malformed face, right where they were supposed to be, soft graphite-grey eyes.
The Messenger, though shamed of its appearance was puzzled by the young man’s expressionless face. Where was the grimace, the disgust that it remembered from all those years ago? Why was he just staring, right into its eyes, as if he was reading its thoughts, seeing its pain?
Agony, loneliness, sorrow, hatred, hopelessness, the five miseries which cried out to Aleksei’s heart from those dark eyes. He finally understood something he always knew. This thing, was not some creature, but a person, a person trapped inside a body so repulsive and untouchable. The pain it felt he could not even imagine. His heart wept for this man, woman, person in a way he never had for someone before. He came closer, and even as he moved, even before he got a chance to ask, 'God, what can I do?'
The Messenger hissed in shock but did not have the slightest idea what to do. Gentle hands cradled its face, and despite the scabby, revolting texture, they did not pull back. Instead the expressionless brown eyes came nearer and filled with sadness, and the gentle hands pulled its head closer. To The Messenger’s complete astonishment, a comforting, chaste kiss pressed the skin at the corner of its mouth, and the hands on its head fell down its back in a warm embrace.
A brief image of the last tender touch it could remember flashed through its mind, a long vanished mother embracing her once beautiful child. A tear from each eye rolled down the cracks and lumps of its face.
Aleksei rested his cheek against the side of The Messenger’s head and held its jagged, almost skeletal body against his own.
It was too overwhelmed to react. The hug and kiss were such foreign sensations, and along with them The Messenger felt invisible arms embracing its heart, telling it that there was some other being which was touching its very soul. Something sacred had touched it.
Aleksei stood up, trying to not feel too flabbergasted at what he had done. He quickly finished the splints and sling then said, “Let’s get out of here. Put your right arm around my shoulder and hop on one leg.”
After a brief moment of coordination, the two of them began to hobble. The Messenger’s chest ached from the coldness it felt after the embrace ended, but something like a tiny ember had been left behind, and slowly began to melt the stony shell around its heart.
Rain sprinkled down the alleyway where Nebuchadnezzar3 lay, his black blood slowly rinsed by the sky’s gentle tears. A door slammed open, dust billowed out of it as the building buckled beneath its own weight. Nyra limped out of the door and hobbled on her way towards her partner.
“Hey, Nezzar!” she called weakly, between gasps of pain. She squeezed the stub of her arm. “Nezzar, get up. There’s more we have to do. We didn’t become what we are--," she coughed, "--for nothing.”
She stumbled and fell, scraping her arm and cheek on the cobblestone. She turned her eyes up at his scaly face. 'So much suffering, we can’t stop here. We were made for this life, to preserve the world. Why, Nezzar? Why aren’t you moving? We can’t end here.'
She released her arm stub, allowing blood to seep out onto the ground, as she reached for his face. 'I’ve never seen you sleep before. You look so peaceful.' Drowsiness began to overcome her as she bled out. She remembered every test, every stage it took to change the once normal man into the perfect warrior. The pain, the power, the many months in the laboratory, at last produced a near perfect result, to protect the interests of the powerful. 'Very well, Nezzar, let me rest with you…' Her dark skin took on a sickly pallor as she shut her eyes, bringing an end to her long hunt.
Hours later in a hospital room, far away from the alley, Nyra’s heart monitor let out a single long tone. The doctor and nurses tried one more time to revive her, but at last they admitted defeat. The woman had sustained too much injury. A worried man wilted at the sight of their despair.
He would have to report this, the hunters were gone.