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The Alpha and the Phish

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The would-be Kane grasped the scaled back of the bright orange alien dolphin tightly, turning his eyes away from the cyborg and into the river ahead. Well, except the trouble was, it wasn’t really a dolphin but a giant Cheep Cheep who hated the touch of land-crawlers (but loved the taste of them very much so). And thus, with a quick twist of its body in a particularly leafy part of the river, the unsuspecting bounty hunter found himself visor-to-eyeball with a rather large - and angry - goldfish.

 

“Um...?†said the space hunter.

 

“Glomp†said the Cheep Cheep.

 

Because it was dark inside the Cheep Cheep (not to mention quite opaque), Kane couldn’t see where the Cheep Cheep was going, so he didn’t know the Cheep Cheep had dived several hundred fathoms into the deceptively narrow river. Because there wasn’t enough water in its belly to totally submerse him underwater while standing, Kane had to crouch in order to try his hand at underwater basketweaving in this new venue, a cramped position that made it more difficult to tackle those particularly tricky weaves - you know, the ones near the handles - a task made particularly more difficult by the Cheep Cheep’s constant twisting.

 

“Hey, will you quit that! I’m trying to do something very important here!â€

 

“Glomp†said the Cheep Cheep, and it dived still further, through an underwater tunnel.

 

Being a cyborg, Kane didn’t have fluid in his ears with which to tell what was up and down and when he was accelerated or slowing (a task that would have been made even more difficult for the submersed organ of his fleshy counterparts), but he did have a precision-tooled gyroscope, so he could sense where the Cheep Cheep was moving as it Glomped through the ocean depths. As he deftly wove his basket, he could feel the Cheep Cheep gliding over pale, scuttling crab-like thingies that brutally fought all things armored and fleshy in the murky bottom - including themselves - cutting through chitin and tearing off jagged bits of gory sweetmeats which disappeared into their chattering maws throughout the turquoise depths (a sight which Kane was obviously not privy to, but which this audience has the benefit of seeing through the magic of descriptive writing and the prompting of the imagination).

 

Unfortunately, because Kane has not been blessed with the gift of omniscience ((*Sure as shootin’!*) and neither was the Cheep Cheep, for that matter, dumb fish that it was (*Glomp!*)), no one but this narrator; You, our Dear Reader; and a certain heavily armored fish of the Dunkleostes variety could see that the Cheep Cheep was being stalked by said Dunkleostes, which quickly GLOMPED the Cheep Cheep whole, pitiful goby eyes and all. Unfortunately, the Dunkleostes itself was not omniscient and so it in turn was consumed by a rather large cephalopod whose adamantine beak cut through the fish’s considerable armor to better ease its passage down the leviathan’s gullet. And all the while Kane struggled with his basket, which had been very difficult to weave in the pitch darkness (Kane disdained using any kind of artificial lighting for this task), and so when his chamber became slightly misshapen and a poorly timed bounce knocked Kane out of the goop and into the ceiling of the Cheep Cheep’s stomach, ultimately clicking on his helmet’s flashlight to reveal a rather odd looking basket that certainly had not shown the least bit of shamelessness in its execution (meaning its ghastly shape would have been enough to give his ex-Underwater Basketweaving 2 instructor Miss Jane McPennywinkle III, etc. such a heart attack that would have sent her pushing up the daisies in no time flat), well...well, the sight of that poor basket was just far too much for the cold-hearted mercenary to handle.

 

That does it!

 

And he drew forth his Duranium Tachi, slicing the Cheep Cheep from dorsum to ventrum and stem to stern in one fell swoop, and the Dunkleostes likewise, only in reverse order, in two fell snicker-snacks, before radially carving himself some calamari, leaving them dead and with their heads to the surface a-glomping back.

 

The crimson bounty hunter burst from the briny deep in a black and crimson pool, the severed tentacles of the leviathan swishing on the surface like pale electric worms and the two halves of the two fish bobbing about like some oddly shaped coconuts.

 

â€Hmm,†Kane declared, approving of his bloody soup. “I guess I always did want a thing called ‘tuna sashimi!’â€

 

Glancing about, he quickly spied upon the bank a shiny-armored man with an odd-looking yo-yo and a balding man, tall and thin and with a liver complexion, swordless but with a rather striking man-purse of pure chinchilla strapped over his shoulder like some panzy bandolier.

 

â€My God! Though I hide from the presence of such warriors in the ends of the earth, still YOU’VE found me! Now what are you two looking at!?â€

 

The liver-spotted man could not stifle a grin.

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"Find something funny, old timer?" Kane said, nonchalantly flicking off a piece of tentacle that writhed on his shoulder. "I have a right mind to add you to that stew back there if you think you can make a joke of me."

 

"No need for such hostilities," The Architect said, still with his slight grin. "Just wasn't expecting this is all."

 

"Seriously, we come over to take a look at this pool and it suddenly turns red, then you pop up with all these... entrails," Max said, gesturing towards the twitching tentacle Kane had flicked away. "I'm pretty sure any normal person would be blowing chunks right now. Good thing I'm a man of the world. I can only assume my friend here is, too."

 

"Right, the one who thinks something is funny," Kane said. "Care sharing your name, old man?"

 

"Now that you mention it, I never did get his name," Max thought aloud, rubbing the back of his head.

 

"Is it not common courtesy for the one requesting another's name to give their own, first?" The Architect asked, though, as with Max, he already knew; both instances as well.

 

"Not when the one being asked is being a smart aleck about it," Kane said, reaching for his plasma gun. Max's shriek buzzed in his hand.

 

"Short-tempered, are you?" he asked. Kane uttered a guttural growl, though something about this armored sort was strikingly familiar.

 

"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

 

"Might have. You look kind of familiar yourself."

 

"Your name?"

 

"I think my friend here already made clear the terms of asking that," Max said with a touch of sarcasm.

 

"Fine, if that's the way you want it," Kane said, putting a grip on his plasma gun. The Architect hummed to himself, too low a pitch for the others to hear.

 

This one is becoming an obstacle, he thought. Perhaps I can use this opportunity to gauge the reaction of one of these mortal beings witnessing another spontaneously melting down.

 

The Architect didn't need to motion or wink or make any kind of gesture. He was a god of universe creating status, after all. The Architect only needed to think of it to make Kane's blood literally boil, and so it was done... or at least The Architect had full expectations before Kane dropped to a knee and grasped his head, choking out a very small puff of steam. This was contrary to the puddle of liquefied meat he was aiming for, although the sudden change in pose did get Max to take a step forward out of a mixture of curiosity and concern. Dissatisfied, The Architect tried again. Kane winced this time, but started shaking it off, getting back up on both feet.

 

"What's going on?" Max said, at a loss to what was going on.

 

"Someone messing with me is what," Kane growled, his eyes red from The Architect's attempts. The old man now had a rather disconcerting look on his face, his eyes wide with surprise and mouth frowning with frustration. While already realizing how this expression could cause problems, The Architect was struggling to do something about it. Max was quick to catch another sudden change.

 

"Hey, are you all right?" he asked, now stepping towards The Architect.

 

"Fine..." The Architect replied, going through what he saw as an unnecessary amount of effort to fake a calm tone. "I suppose the trek here was more exhausting to me then I realized. I am fairly old, as I'm sure you both can see."

 

"I'm going to run a scan for pathogens in the air, just in case..."

 

Why was this happening? How was this happening? Though he could feel this body's vitality returning, that shouldn't have interfered with his absolute control over it, nor should it have resulted from his trying to boil down Kane. It was as if his being was now anchored to this avatar and feeling the consequences of using, or trying to use, such powers.

 

This is the doing of The Object, I am sure, he thought to himself. If only I could unmake this dreaded thing, I would have not needed expose myself to its influence. It seems intent on making me adhere to whatever rules it might have of its own.

 

"Kane," the Psychopathic Space Hunter said somewhat abruptly as the red drained from his eyes. "My name is Kane. Satisfied?"

 

"Scan isn't showing anything," Max said, his hand motioning away from his helmet as the visor dimmed. "Kane, you said? All right, then. Name's Max."

 

If he was the good ol' hunter of insanity as he usually was, Kane would have let out a giddy squeal and give one of his old buddies one of his lesser mentioned Whimsically Ridiculous Unrelenting Bear Hugs Of Friendliness That Ensures Back Pain, but since he was trying to keep better with the façade he had no choice but to show no recognition since the real Kane never met Max and didn't know of him either since the real Kane didn't give a rat's ass about any stories phony Kane may have tried to tell him. Oh, what a tremendous feeling to try to suppress!

 

"Never heard of you," Kane said, then turned to The Architect. "And you, gramps?"

 

The Architect didn't say anything, still caught in an inward struggle he kept telling himself was undeniably impossible. This would have led to greater suspicions, though the sound of very distracting frothing from behind Kane soon distracted both him and Max from present distraction that may have not been a distraction at all unless one could view it as distracting from a possible battle that in itself is a distraction for the mind. How distracting.

 

"Weird," Max said, his visor lighting up again as he noticed the frothing (in case the previous paragraph didn't make his and Kane's noticing of it clear enough). "Now my scanner is telling me that a massive bio-form is approaching, but it can't be right. The scanner is showing something way too big to be a realistic organism."

 

"And you call yourself a man of the world," Kane muttered, his back now turned to the two as he stepped away from the pool, watching as the remains of the aquatic life he sliced and diced bobbed up and down before plummeting with the bubbles as the water appeared to drain away, a rumbling identical to an avalanche now quaking up from the depleting pool. "Huh... likes my soup."

 

"Guess my experiences could use some expanding, then?" Max said, just in time for the water to suddenly rush back up and spout out of the pool, the geyser thickening as the surrounding ground was broken away and thrown up in massive chunks of soil and rock that fell away from the group. The tower of foaming water subsided to be replaced by an unspeakably massive worm, clad in diamond-hard scales and bearing a craggy set of fangs situated along the rim of a mouth big enough to eat the barnyard AND cornfield. It had no eyes, a good sign that it used that big mouth of its for getting to know (and eat) other people. It started rearing back, radiant green slime dripping from betwixt its fangs as the room shook from its presence. Then came a recurring gag. "OH MY GO-"

 

A stream of acid so thick was spewed from the creature that it could have been mistaken for one of those planet-destroying lasers. You know the lasers I'm talkin' bout. The green radiance shot out in entangled streams and ate through the ground as if it was never there, water flooding into the newly forming trench as it was made deeper and deeper, eventually hitting the real floor of the room, made of a metal so indescribably tough that not even the planet-laser-glowing-worm-puke could eat through it, though it did form into puddles that would prove an unpleasant end for anyone who would fall in. The three battlers yet to be mentioned in this paragraph were spared the fate of being lingering molecules in the acid, The Architect, once again the hellish warrior with blazing eyes, having lunged to the side and grabbing hold of Kane and Max as he went.

 

"It is best we not fight amongst ourselves in the presence of this beast," The Architect said, having composed himself and standing before the creature as Kane and Max got to their feet to do the same. I may need to think like a mortal fighter if I wish to continue my investigation of the object...

 

"Yeah, I can soil myself some other time," Max said, swinging his shriek to his side and letting the blades hiss through the air. "Now is business!"

 

"Suppose I have no choice," Kane grumbled to himself, readying his assault rifle. "Neither of you'd make good chew toys, so I doubt I'd be able to get away in time." Then, with cartoonish stealth, did Kane lean towards The Architect and whisper something to him as he really was. "And go easy with that omnipotent mumbo jumbo, will ya? That stuff ain't cool in this party."

 

The Architect would've shown surprise if he wasn't wearing a mask. And if his face wasn't presently a blazing mass of super bright energy concealed by said mask. Instead he drew his starsteel sword and readied as the other two had, the gargantuan worm blasting out a roar that made the twin suns above flicker.

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The Architect was uncertain if the man who called himself The Insane Space Hunter who called himself Kane had somehow become privy to his attempts to boil his flesh or perhaps had even resolved that he was indeed some sort of shape-shifting god, but he was all too certain that the life-form need not worry as it was The Plan that guided his actions. The Plan was the only thing that mattered… it was the only thing that had ever mattered. He forgave the organism’s misinterpretation of his intentions as, like all other creatures, his mind - however twisted - worked in linear order and was thus incapable of comprehending the grand design of the universe.

 

The Architect’s attention quickly returned to the battle at hand, a battle which he would fight as a warrior in the company of warriors.

 

"YYYAAAAAAHHHH!" Max shouted as he side-armed the Shriek at the drooling sky-scraping beast, the rotary blades hissing as they cleaved the very air molecules as they spun through the ether. The yoyo-boomerang hybrid caught the beast under one of its diamond scales (which actually WERE made out of diamond, the trio would find out later) and lodged there as one might get a small bit of sand lodged underneath a toenail.

 

"Oh crap…" the bounty hunter said as he realized the radical difference in scale between the beast and his size-deprived party.

 

"Stand aside, humble hero, this may require something that packs a bit more punch," The Architect explained as he readied the Lightning Gauntlet, pointing his fist directly at the head of the snarling lumbricus terrestris as sparks of energy fanned out from the metal glove, electrons coalescing from the ether as the gauntlet built electric potential. Max could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand up as the static built until an assault-tank-sized ball of fire and energy erupted from the glove, impacting the segmented abomination mere milliseconds later.

 

The creature writhed and howled as electric arcs crawled up the length of its hideous exterior working their way into its gaping maw and down into its toothed gullet.

 

The worm spasmed with seizure, its miserable carapace shuddering violently and causing the very earth to quake beneath the armored trio’s boots. The searing screams were so unsettling that they caused a small tear of pity to fall from the Hunter’s cheek, his suit’s internal moisture recovery system quickly wisping it away for recycling.

 

After a few more moments of sun-shuddering cries, the massive beast threw its head high into the air and belched a slurry of gelatinous acidic vomit into the artificial atmosphere above, the blob of caustic goo quickly forming into droplets of deadly acid rain which showered the armored fighters with a storm of searing slime.

 

“Ahhh! It burns! Ohh, how it burns!!†the distracted hunter cried before realizing that he was grossly out of character. “Er, ehm, I mean, that was your last mistake, you lumbering earthworm! No one, not even an extraterrestrial sky-scraper-sized acid-spewing subterranean carnivore, messes up Kane’s armor and gets away with it,†he said as he jumped into a near-by pool to cleanse the acid from his exoskeleton.

 

Meanwhile, Max was rolling around in the dirt trying to keep the acidic goo from burning through his Grabeth Armor.

 

The Architect focused on Max as the acid worked its way through the plating on his face shield, plumes of green smoke billowing from its surface as it penetrated deeper into the armor. Max panicked as he realized mere seconds remained before the burning gel would soon consume him, turning his suit into a coffin. Just as his face shield was breached, a sticky droplet of goo dripped onto his face but it was not the torrent of searing pain Max had imagined. Licking his lips, he detected a familiar flavor. “Strawberry pudding!†he exclaimed, simultaneously relieved and confused by the obvious transmutation that had occurred in his midst.

 

As this transpired, the goliath worm reared high into the air and then dove deep into the ground, tunneling beneath the three warrior’s feet as tremors from the worm’s seemingly effortless subterranean ingress shuddered the ground they stood on - except for “Kane†who was still wading in the pool, taking the opportunity to add a few more weaves to his oddly-shaped basket.

 

Moments later, the worm erupted from the soil, mere feet in front of The Architect knocking him to the ground and burying him in mounds of dirt and soil, which are actually the same thing but were added here for extra redundancy.

 

The worm arched high into the air before reversing its ascent, diving straight for Kane, its chasmal aperture of a mouth fit to consume the valiant fighter.

 

“Kane!†Max shouted as the pony-tailed administer of death finished off one last weave on his basket before springing from the pool and brandishing the BFG.

 

“Don’t worry about me, Maxie,†said Kane in a cool, collected, and astonishingly badass tone that even the Psychopath himself would be pleased with, “I got this…â€

 

He spotted the weapon directly into the descending cave of the monster’s gullet, his thumb trained on the push-button trigger in anticipation of the exact right moment to release the weapon’s fury.

 

“Now!" Kane exclaimed as he allowed his thumb to close the last millimeter of space between the trigger button and the contact point.

 

A second passed. Nothing.

 

Kane pressed the trigger thrice more, this time in panicked haste.

 

Nothing.

 

And then, a computerized voice announced, “Fire sequence denied. DNA unknown.â€

 

“Oh, shit…†The Insane Space Hunter said as the falling cavern of fangs blotted out the light above.

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Kane gave the BFG's trigger one more push for good measure, but expected that wouldn't work, which it did (not work, that is). Now the worm's massive shadow was blotting out the pool and several other unmentioned features of the scenery in relatively close proximity to Kane, such as an angry tree stump and a rock that had alien markings on it in very small graffiti. Kane cursed again, telling himself to kick the BFG a good few times when it would be more convenient (and possible).

 

"How about this, then?" Kane said, now drawing his assault rifle and, without hesitation, firing a round into the worm's humungous maw. The tank-piercing shell easily cut through the more tender flesh inside the worm, though it was unable to get past the scales that guarded the creature from the outside. Still, it was able to bring about a small splatter of gelatinous blood from underneath the scale it hit which, by some unspeakably convenient coincidence, was the same scale Max's Shriek was lodged under, knocking it away and in a possible act of counter-convenience fell to the side of the worm Max was opposite on. The bounty hunter had a good eye, so he spotted this occurrence and was glad he'd have a better chance of retrieving his weapon without a premature burial.

 

Shifting focus back to the giant worm, the creature let out a tremendous yowl as the pain from the assault rifle shot stung every chunk of meat close to the interior wound, speeding up its return to the ground with a sharp enough change in its downward curve to spare Kane from being swallowed whole. It still landed very close to him, however, the upheavals surrounding its reentry into the earth knocking Kane into the air and back into the pool he had cleansed himself in. He used the opportunity to apply some corrections to his malformed basket.

 

"No time like the present!" Max shouted, mostly to himself and referring to his chance to reclaim his Shriek as the tail-end of the worm emerged from the ground and swung into the air to follow the rest of the worm's path back into said ground. Boosted by his speed-enhancing, if not somewhat now swiss-cheese-esque, Grabeth Armor, Max sped towards the landing site of his Shriek while dodging large rocks that fell from the worm's hide, also making sure to pay attention to any indications towards the worm's next surfacing. It would suck if he grabbed his Shriek right on the spot the worm's giant mouth was about to come out of. "Aha, got it!"

 

An armored hand exploded from a mound of dirt in a display that would've merited the awe and applause of any zombie audience watching, the rest of The Architect following as he pulled himself free from the deliciously redundant dirt and soil. He caught sight of Max, happily waving his Shriek in the air from his triumphant reclamation, and then Kane, who was pulling himself out of the pool while putting his now more acceptable but still rather mutanty basket into whatever storage apparatus he had on him. The Architect gave an approving nod to the survivability of his two present allies.

 

The room quaked once more, the three heroic figures turning their heads in unison to watch as the worm resurfaced in the distance, letting out a roar as it flailed about in pain and anger. Its body was soon unearthed in its entirety, the lumbricus terrestris, previously noted title that weirdo scientists would later identify it by, now coiling its tail-end about and swung its head-end into the air, slamming a good deal of its bulk into the incredibly high-placed ceiling and shattering one of the artificial suns, significantly darkening the room as the remaining sun labored to stay lit. The distant ends of the massive room were now indistinguishable in the growing darkness, the worm itself becoming difficult to see as it writhed about in an attempt to circle around the trio of fighters.

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Without stopping to think, Kane pulled his rifle from his belt and began firing from the hip in such a rapid seccession that it sounded like one continuous laser blast, each shot hitting the worm in exactly the same place: right below the chin. The Architect smiled and seeing what Kane was doing, charged up his Lightning Gauntlet and pitched out a dozen bolts of ball lightning, the eerie balls dancing over the savannah, glancing arcs of weird light over the tall grasses. The bolts struck the beast at just the right time and just the right angle, shattering the diamond carapace around the worm’s weakest point, revealing pale white flesh beneath.

 

Seeing an opening, Max threw his shriek with all his might and at just the right angle, sending the razor-sharp yo-yo out at an almost impossible angle where it struck the worm cleanly in the hole. He tugged the shriek like a kite string, and the blades danced about in the wound, carving great chunks of flesh from its body.

 

The worm howled and, unable to maintain its onward-rushing charge, wavered and fell into the dirt, its momentum carrying it towards their feet as it gnawed a long furrow across the grassland with the roar of some insane subway train. When the dust and roar finally settled, three stoic silhouettes stood in a perfect row, their boots at the noze of the behemoth.

 

â€YAHOO! Scratch one snake!â€

 

â€Never had worm this big.†Kane drew his wicked Tachi, savoring the sound it made as it withdrew from the scabbard. “Bet you taste like chicken.â€

 

The worm let out a long ear-piercing shriek that sent cracks through the ceiling of the room, bright multi-colored tiles crashing to the floor.

 

“Wait!†Cried The Architect, his voice booming over the savannah.

 

â€Old man, the Universe will be a better place without this monstrosity.â€

 

“I said HOLD IT. She’s trying to tell us something!â€

 

â€Whaddya mean, SHE?†It was surprisingly easy for Kane to feel annoyed at The Architect. â€No, wait, wait, wait. Whadday mean, YOU CAN TALK TO IT!?â€

 

“Not it. She.†Actually, The Architect could talk the language of all kinds of animals, by virtue of having created them all.

 

â€Oooh boy.†Max flicked his shriek nervously. â€Now we’ve got a loony tree hugger on our team.â€

 

Fire flared through The Architect’s eyeholes.

 

“SKUR-REEEEEAAACH!!â€

 

â€Okay, okay...†He turned away from the metal warrior and back to his weapon. â€But if this thing moves only a liiitle...â€

 

“She says she’s sorry.â€

 

â€Oh yeah, tell that to swiss cheese over here.†Kane gestured to Max, whose Grabeth armor was still steaming in places. Kane wondered if it was the kind that regenerated over time.

 

“Mistook us for something called ‘The Triad’.â€

 

His companions frowned skeptically. â€That’s a lot of bull if I ever I heard it.â€

 

“Skur-squawk!â€

 

“She’s actually a pet. Named... Sally.†The Architect’s voice was visibly disappointed through his stoic mask.

 

â€Why that dumbass- Hey! Hey! Listen to ME, you stupid annelidic cretin! You almost turned us to paste!â€

 

“Skur-reeek!†Sally squawked sheepishly, if multi-fathom-long worms could look like a sheep, this one kind of did.

 

“She says she’s really sorry,†The Architect boomed. “She’s been a bad girl and left her keeper.â€

 

Her WHAT!? You mean this thing’s a PET??

 

“Well, not exactly. More like a zoo animal.â€

 

â€I say we kill it anyway.†Because that’s what Kane would have done, after all.

 

“SKREE!â€

 

â€She could feed the starving children of Africa!â€

 

“SKREE-SKREE!â€

 

“Now you listen to me, Sally. You beat up these nice bounty hunters here pretty bad. ‘Thou shalt not harm thy neighbor,’ and all that. Even I know that ‘sorry’ won’t make up for that. How will you help them in return?â€

 

“Skree skWAAAK!â€

 

“She says she knows of a secret. It lies through many a maze of twisty passages, all alike, that not even Will Crowther could find his way through.â€

 

â€You want us to trust a worm?â€

 

â€I say, worm juice...â€

 

“SKREEEE!â€

 

The Architect laid his hand on Kane’s hand, lowering his blaster.

 

“Now Sally, listen to me veeery carefully. Good. Now,†and he leaned in front of the worm’s giant eyeball, a white and red orb the size of a very large pumpkin. “LOOK AT ME.â€

 

Max and Kane could see nothing as The Architect’s back was turned to them, but they would always remember what they did see. Lights brighter than the fire of a white dwarf reflecting off Sally’s diamond scales, the light refracting off the gems to light the chamber in a glimmering kaleidoscope of lights, like seeing into the heart of creation. And the worm - Sally’s face went rigid, her eye transfixed on The Architect in deep fear, then her tail began to lash about wildly, shattering the shore of the lake and almost knocking Max and Kane off their feet.

 

“ENOUGH!â€

 

Sally fell silent and the room went dark.

 

“...Sally will take us where we wish to go.†The Architect strode atop the worm’s back, his boots clinking on the diamonds. Sally lowered her head obediently.

 

“We cannot kill her so easily because it cannot be allowed. She is Our servant now and will do us no harm. And besides - we must find out who this ‘zookeeper’ of hers is.†What The Architect didn’t tell them was that Sally actually had a part to play in The Plan.

 

That so? Well, if it’s all the same with you...†Kane pulled something from his suit. It was a spool of thread, shiny and so thin you almost couldn’t see it. He grabbed one end and thrust his metal hand into the worm’s neck. Sally shrieked for a few seconds, then abruptly halted as Kane returned his hand, flicking off flecks of gore.

 

Sally glared at him, but did nothing to stop him.

 

Without looking at her, Kane leapt onto the worm’s back.

 

â€What was that all about?â€

 

“Insurance. I don’t exactly trust this tin can.â€

 

Max shook his head, then landed on Sally’s back after a running leap. He turned to face The Architect, who looked nonchalantly across the savannah. He turned and Max was startled to see a small spot of rust on the back of his armor. Before he could say anything, The Architect gave Sally’s neck a whack with the flat end of his sword and with a screach, she flew off into the sky.

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"It's like one of those carnival rides I heard of," Max thought aloud, looking about in awe as the darkened scenery rushed by them, the ceiling fast approaching. "I need to take a vacation some time. Less bounties have been coming up and it's not like I'm pressed for cash..."

 

"You're having warm, fuzzy thoughts, aren't you?" Kane said, glancing back at the fellow hunter.

 

"It's nice, you should give it a shot," Max said with a wry smile. He didn't know the half of it.

 

"Hang on," The Architect said, giving Sally another whack of his blade, the giant worm emitting a less piercing screech as it climbed towards the artificial sun it had shattered during the skirmish. "It might get a little steep."

 

The three held close to Sally as she passed into the fake sun, thick shards of orange-colored glass passing by before terminating into a maze of countless wires and spikes that composed the walls of the massive tube they were now inside. Max, still observant, caught sight of a swarm of airborne robots passing by.

 

"Wonder what they're for?" he said, though the others could hardly hear him over Sally's churning. The answer to his question would've put more haste in their climb.

 

"How much longer, mystery man?" Kane said, looking towards The Architect. "Or do you need to consult with 'Sally' first?"

 

"Be patient, it is not much farther," The Architect replied, giving a short glimpse back to the hunter.

 

Man, with this kind of attitude there must be a LOT of people who want Kane shot... assuming he hasn't shot them first, 'Kane' thought to himself. I just want to be looooooooved...

 

Meanwhile, as Sally continued to slither through the massive tube, the swarm of robots Max spotted were now positioned within the spot the broken glass of the artificial sun had been. Each machine held out four arms with two fingers, the tips of which sparked brightly, the group dispersing equally along the perimeter of glass shards and quickly began repairing the damage at a miraculous rate. It was only a few moments later that the mechanisms of the huge device began to hum.

 

"Something isn't right," Kane mumbled, glancing about in suspicion. "I can feel my hairs standing on end."

 

"You need to relax," Max said casually. "Forgive and forget I say. She may have caused us some grief, but so far this new 'Sally' is proving to be pretty handy!"

 

Kane was about to give his objection to this statement when a bolt of lightning suddenly flew from one side of the tube to the other, piercing through Sally and causing her to screech as bolts flew about her innards. The flailing that followed slammed her sides against the tube and prompted the trio to grasp tightly at the scales they held on to.

 

"What just happened?" Max said, clutching the scale under him while looking up to see more bolts flashing about in Sally's path.

 

"No idea, but don't look behind you!" Kane shouted back. Of course, this wasn't the best thing to say seeing as how the person, unless very keen on heeding the words of others, would wind up looking out of overwhelming curiosity anyway, Max proving to be such a person. The tunnel behind them was now ablaze with a massive wall of fire that approached rapidly, rings of light emerging from the walls around it and flying up pass Sally, the walls beginning to glow and flicker as bolts randomly came from them. The giant worm groaned, her body still aching from the fight and now being in even more pain from the recent electrical zap. Bolts kept flying by, The Architect struggling to keep Sally on course. He may have created her species, but controlling her in the Garden was proving to be a difficult task.

 

"Don't let go!" he called back to the other three, trying to prevent any more bolts from hitting Sally. The walls gave a violent flash, a second bolt flying through the worm and stunning her, her body grinding against the walls as The Architect began devoting more concentration to keeping her coordinated. Her body straightened some, but her eyes were glazing over, the repeated shocks wearing away at her consciousness. A third strike was made and Sally shrieked, throwing herself against the opposing wall and knocking off several of her own scales. Max choked as the force of the collision went through him, looking up to watch as one of Sally's scales came barreling towards him. There was nothing he could do but get hit and thrown off Sally.

 

"Max!!" Kane cried out, his sight wrenching back to see the bounty hunter falling towards the approaching inferno.

 

"We can't stop!" The Architect yelled. Kane gritted his teeth, well aware of the reasons why. The Architect kept his vision forward, intent on keeping Sally alive. She had importance in The Plan, an honor Max unfortunately lacked.

 

Max plummeted downwards, caught between watching the rushing fire below and the flashing walls he drew near in his fall. There was a chance these walls were electrified, but there was no ratio to refute about the flames: he'd be incinerated if he fell in. Deciding to take his chance, Max grabbed hold of the wall, not yet feeling any sign of electrocution. Still, he had only succeeded in prolonging his destruction by fire. It couldn't be hopeless, though. He survived one hopeless situation already; he was confident he could survive another.

 

His eyes darted about, time running out. A vent cover of some kind was off to his side. The chasing flames were starting to light up the surrounding walls, the heat making his face burn. Max dug his fingers into the metal he held on to, swinging his body towards the vent and wedging his feet into it. His ankles ached at what he attempted to do, but he ignored the pain and pried the cover off, his body swinging back and dropping the cover. It fell a distressingly short distance before vanishing into the flames. Using the gathered momentum, Max swung back towards the open vent and threw his legs in, half his body sticking out and falling forward. His eyes stung as he stared down into the fire, legs and arms now scrambling, grasping at whatever wires and indents available in order to pull his body in. Slowly he was able to bring the rest of his body in, the fire rushing by a fraction of a second later and igniting some of his hairs. Max let out a yelp at both this and the hellish heat that was now beating in front of him. He pressed his arms against the sides of the vent and proceeded to fling himself backwards, the vent curving downwards and sending Max down to whatever else the Unknown Garden had in store.

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