[The following document is classified above top-secret. Any unauthorized persons found to possess it must be executed immediately.]

-[This is a transcript of a transmission from one Corporal Alexander Fenix, location unknown.]

-[Most of the message is garbled, but it was relayed on the frequency reserved for "mission-critical" communications.]


[static] -it! Holy shit! It got Wilson too! Re- [static] -ing immediate assistance! I have never - Oh god, my hand! The skin's falling off my ha- [static] -ck, oh fuck, I can see the bone! It's spr- [prolonged static]

This is Cor- [static] -nix. I'm currently sitting behind the - shit, my arm! My arm just fell off! This infection, whatever that thing gave me, it's making me rot! I don't think I'm gonna live much long- [static] -ing came out of nowhere. It just sort of touched down and - [silence]

[Whispered] Okay, I don't think it heard me. [Exhales] I've been fighting for my life since about three minutes ago, ever since that thing appeared. It sort of touched down, a few feet from Cole. Before we even knew what happened, Cole was coughing up blood, and his skin was falling off. We opened fire on the thing, but the bullets that didn't disintegrate instantly didn't seem to faze it. We- oh, fuck. Shit, I can see my own ribs. Oh, god, are those my lungs? They're turning all black- [coughing] The thing- fuck it. [Coughing and wheezing, followed by vomiting] I'm s- [static] -tching to visual.

[Roughly ten seconds of video follows. The camera moves until a humanoid shape comes into view. Its features are obscured by the sun behind it, but two wing-like protrusions from its back can be seen. The creature looks toward the camera, and two horns can be seen jutting forward from either side of its head. The camera loses focus due to the speed at which the creature moves. When it refocuses, the creature is standing over the camera. The light is such that the eyes cannot be seen. Screams can be heard, presumably from Corporal Fenix. The screams stop abruptly with a wet crunching sound. For reasons unknown, the lens of the camera cracks. Eventually, it shatters completely.]


[End Transmission.]

Triumvirate.

We are standing in the realm of The Holder of Forever.

"Do We have a deal?" I inquire of Essum.

"Will you join us?" Edo Edi Essum answers to the affirmative.

As Its cold blackness stares into me, and I into It, I become more and more sure. I know, deep inside myself, that this being is the key. With Edo Edi Essum by our side, I know that we would at last be able to rule. We would rule reality Itself. the Objects. The Holders. Balance. Them. "Legion", and perhaps even He Himself would be forced to bend a knee to our power. I would have my revenge, after centuries of waiting.

I shift my gaze briefly to Pessum Ire. In Ire's many eyes, I can see that he knows what I do. Essum would complete our Alliance, and existence would fall by our command. However, this silent exchange is interrupted by this realm dissolving as our presence unmakes it completely. I open the Void and the three of us enter.

As we float through Void, Pessum Ire slowly turns to me. "Infectus Essum, my Master," **It says, "Have you felt what I have felt? Have you seen in Essum the Darkness that will lead us to victory?"

"Yes," I reply, "Essum was born from the Objects. It shall help us control Them, and through Them, the one who must fall. None will be able to stop us with Essum by our side."

"But there is danger there, is there not, my Master? When I attempt to read Essum, all I can feel is darkness. That one is truly empty, and only hunger pervades Its being. I feel as if -"

"Be silent," I command sharply of Pessum Ire. The force of My annoyance causes cracks to bloom across Pessum Ire's carapace. He cries in pain, a sound that has turned many a mortal being to dust. "Do not question my word, apprentice. You still have much to learn. Darkness is thy life -"

"And my life is thy will, my Master," Pessum Ire completes, "Forgive me."

Ignoring him, I turn toward Essum. Essum floats silently by my side, Its tattered black cloak flowing gracefully behind it. It looks onward, either ignoring or not hearing the exchange that just took place. As I regard Essum, I can feel Its hunger, Its power. I can feel Its willingness to destroy. My consciousness gazes at It, and something stirs within me. I can only equate the feeling to what mortals call "triumph". With this one's power under my command, all of existence and nonexistence will bow before my might. I will at last rise again, and take what is mine. We will not float in the Void, no, not any longer.

Our time has come.

Pessum Ire.

I do not know how long I have been what I am. I do not know how long it has been since I became Infectus Essum, the Corruptor. I am beginning to forget where I came from, or who I was. But the more I think about my past, the less it matters to me. I begin to realize that there is only now. The present is fueled by the past, as the future is fueled by the present. And I know what my past fuels.

Revenge.

I fly through the Void, following the anomaly I felt on the human world. More and more am I finding the cold, black, empty nothingness comforting. Perhaps the isolation helps me heal in some intangible way, perhaps it makes me whole again. Perhaps it is the darkness that pleases me. These thoughts, however, are ephemeral in my consciousness. I realize that I have arrived at my destination.

I am spit out into the verdant forest, with great trees rising from the ground on all sides of me. I care not for the towering majesty of these huge trees. At my presence, they become sick and rotten, disintegrating as if they are being set upon by an insatiable pestilence. The leaves turn black and fall, and eventually, the trees crash down as well, no longer able to support themselves. That was how I enter the village: with a swath of black, infected trees at my back.

The villagers must have somehow gotten word of my existence because horns start blowing as soon as I emerge from the forest. The village itself seems to be completely ready for battle. Arrows fly toward me as villagers charge with wooden clubs and spears. Of course, none of these weapons have any effect. The wooden weaponry decays quickly in proximity to me. The wielders soon follow suit. Some of them begin to vomit out all the substances in their bodies. Others rot so much that they simply turn to dust within seconds. The effects vary from person to person, but soon enough, all of the village's militia lay in various states of disease and decay. I walk past their corpses and enter the village.

Walking past the cordon of bodies, I am greeted by an odd sight: All that remains of the village's inhabitants is a man, with his young son of perhaps eleven or twelve cowering behind him. As I study the man's weapon, I realize that he must be the anomaly I felt. He carries a sword. An actual sword, made of metal. What kind, I cannot tell. I do know, however, that it takes a very unique kind of person to acquire such a weapon in places as remote as this. Which isn't to say that it gives him any advantage against me. The pathetic weaponry of humans cannot leave so much as a scratch upon me. The man raises his sword -

- and slices a diagonal gash across my midsection. I reel back in shock, amazed that this human was able to wound me. My tainted blood pours from the wound, and I realize my mistake. That was no ordinary sword. It could only have been the Blade of Thunder, Object 270. The Objects despise me, and I know only They would have the power to wound me the way that man did. Angry at my own oversight, I shift my gaze to the man's eyes. Upon seeing into my own, he begins to shake and convulse violently. I calmly walk up to him and wrap one of my hands around his throat. Lifting him up into the air, I squeeze tighter and tighter. The man's throat becomes gangrenous, and the disease spreads through his body quickly. He perishes within moments, and I toss his corpse aside. My wound begins to heal slowly as I face the boy. I am startled to realize that I can still feel the disturbance that I did before. It is obvious to me that the man was not the source of it.

It was the boy all along. As I walk toward him, I register that he is unaffected by my corruption. He stares up at me, shaking in fear. But his fear comes from my appearance. My gaze is not destroying his mind, not driving him mad. At that moment, I know what I must do. I extend a hand to the boy, in my best impression of a fatherly figure. Tears roll down the child's face as I speak.

"Come with me," **I say. The child recoils at the sound of my voice, shivering even more vigorously. But after a few moments, the child takes my hand. Upon touching me, the boy's skin begins to harden, and his hands start to sharpen into claws. The boy looks up at me in horror, but the look of fear is soon replaced by one of acceptance and understanding.

"Your new name shall be Pessum Ire, the Destroyer," I speak commandingly, "and together we shall bend existence to our will."

"Yes, my Master."

Infectus Essum.

I cannot see, yet I can watch my form unravel. I cannot feel, yet I can sense the pain in my body disintegrating, atom by agonizing atom, to join with the Void. I float, shapeless and formless, through the endless darkness that is the Void. My prison.

I should be dead. My physical form has been destroyed, any "soul" I could by some mistake have had has been rent apart into nothing. And yet, here I am. I suppose my form of existence cannot exactly be called "living". There is only pain. Only time. Only eternity. Minutes pass like hours, like weeks, like years, like seconds. Time slows down and speeds up until it seems like it should be torn asunder. Perhaps it already has been. I am alone, utterly alone, to contemplate. But I cannot think. I cannot imagine. And yet my consciousness persists somehow. I scream and beg for death with the mouth I no longer have.

Every second, every year, is shrieking agony, and nothing at all. My mind (the one that doesn't exist) breaks slowly over an ephemeral eternity. Fragments of myself float away, chipped apart until only a solid core of hate remains. My nonexistent cries of pain turn to screams of impotent rage as I struggle in the abyss. Can you hear me, you bastard? I cry. It should have been me! I should have been the one! You just used Yochanan's power! My screams echo throughout the Void, which is to say that they never existed. The body I don't have writhes in sheer black hatred at the thought of him. The one who did this to me. That one will suffer. He will suffer like I do. I vow that I shall one day watch him float through the Void just as I am doing now. I vow that I will laugh as he screams in agony. And yet, these futile thoughts of revenge only serve to drag me deeper into despair. After all, I do not even exist. I have no body, no mind, no consciousness.

That is when it dawns on me. My existence is an impossibility. This place is an impossibility. What could one more possibly hurt? I ask myself. What does it matter if I have no body? I'll simply create one! I concentrate on my nonexistent self, and with my nonexistent will, I grip the Void itself. I begin to drag away parts of the nothingness, and contort it into what I desire. I scream in pain and delight as a chitinous finger, ending in a wicked talon-like point, slowly forms. I make another. And another. I become more adept with the Void, bending it, mastering it. Years pass as I form the Void into a new self. One with wings, with claws, with eyes that can tear apart minds. In the crucible of the Void, I set about forging the body that will bring the vile usurper to his knees. The process is agonizing, more painful than the time I've spent with any Holder. More painful than the time I have spent in the Void. I laugh in pain and pleasure as I enter into my new body, and feel a feeling that is like being born into the fires of Hell itself. I move my fingers, and flex my arms. I can feel strength flowing into my body, the strength of the Void filling me to the brim and above. I overflow with power, only to gather it up and savor it like a sweet nectar. I open my eyes for the first time, and see like I have never seen before. I practically weep as I behold for the first time the true beauty of my prison, of the Void. I am in awe of the emptiness, the blackness that gave birth to me. And now, I wait.

I wait within the Void, and throughout the shadows of the world. I am nurtured by the blackness, sustained by the darkness, and I become strong in my isolation. And when the time is right, I shall rise again.

I am Infectus Essum.

And "Legion" will pay.

Paratus.

Essum, Pessum Ire, and I drift through the Void as I outline the invasion of "Legion's" realm. The plan is quite simple, really. We must gain access, and defeat whatever Objects "Legion" may have.

"What of Legion?" inquires Pessum Ira.

"'Legion' is mine," I reply. "Leave that one to me. Like it was so many centuries ago, 'Legion' and I shall face each other alone. But this time, it is he who will fall."

"Please excuse my impudence, my Master, but can you really face Legion alone? Aside from being the most powerful entity on the mortal plane, Legion has the power of the Objects on his side, all 2538 of which wish to see you dead. And even if you could best him, you could not kill him. He is immortal."

I hold out my hand. I gesture into the Void, and my Secret floats toward me. It is over a meter long, and wrapped in a white cloth, tied near the top with a thick gold tassel. I grasp my Secret as it drifts into my hand and hold It in front of me, between myself and Pessum Ire.

"'Legion' is indeed more powerful than I am, especially now that he has the power of the Objects on his side, all of which despise me. However, Essum's presence should weaken the Objects. It was born from Them, and should be able to drain Their power at a relatively close proximity. Also," **I hold my Secret up demonstratively, "there are some things that 'Legion' cannot begin to fathom. Things to which the Objects simply cannot compare."

"And what of Legion's immortality?"

A cold, dry excuse for a chuckle escapes me.

"Our good friend Balance has seen to that for us."

Essum pays no attention to us, lost in Its equivalent of thought. I observe It, briefly, before calling out, "Are You prepared?" Essum's hood inclines in what I can only assume to be a nod.

The three of us arrive at an old subway station. Standing in front of the gate are several homeless men, all huddled in front of a warm fire. They regard us three not with terror and despair, but simple animosity. I walk up to the nearest man.

"I have come for 'Legion'."

The men produce weapons, and attempt to attack me. But, before they get the chance, they begin to vomit blood. They soon fall to the ground, dead from suffocation or internal exsanguinations or both. They stand back up again, making ready for another attack.

"Aren't you supposed to bow and open the gate?"

"Not for you, Infectus Essum."

"Unfortunate." I turn around and walk away from the men. I glance at Pessum Ire. "Deal with them."

Pessum Ire steps forward, takes the man's head in his hand, and crushes his skull into a bleeding red pulp. Another man lands a blow on Pessum Ire with his crowbar, only to find that it has not made the slightest dent in Pessum Ire's carapace. Pessum Ire shoves his hand into the man's chest, pulling out a bloody red lump that I would guess was once the man's heart. He crumples to the ground with his companion as Pessum Ire continues to dispatch all of the guardians in a similar fashion.

"There is not much time," I say as I hear the distant sound of running feet.

Pessum Ire nods and turns his attention to the gate. He grasps it with all four of his arms and pulls, slowly prying it loose.

More men arrive. Before I can move, Essum turns toward them. Before I can realize what happened, the men are screaming as they disintegrate into bones and dust. Pessum Ire, loosing an earth-shaking roar of exertion, manages to rip the gate from its hinges and toss it aside. We enter Legion's domain.

Inside is an ornate hall, with only one set of monstrous double doors at the end of it. The hallway itself is clad in unthinkable opulence. There are no guardians in our path, but a mixture of demons and men pour through the now wide-open gate. As Pessum Ire and Edo Edi Essum engage them, I run toward the end of the hall, clasping my Secret tight in my hand. For the first time in centuries, a feeling of anxiety builds deep inside me. I know that no matter what happens, the fate of myself, the usurper, and the Objects will be decided beyond those double doors. I will either exit them vindicated, or not at all. This is the culmination of all my work, all my planning, all of my waiting. I push them open.

I am greeted by a massive chamber, made of a pure crystal. There are no walls, save for the one that the door I just entered through is attached to. Instead, this platform appears to be suspended above a gigantic, black abyss. At the center of the crystal floor, a figure sits with its back turned. It stands up and faces me for a few long seconds. Memories flood me as I see the face again. The white-blond hair. The straight features. The look of utter, dark hatred.

"Legion."

Fatalis Incursium.

"Infectus Essum, right? You look different than I remember! Did you lose weight? Do something with your hair?" "Legion" attempts to joke. When I do not respond, his voice soon grows level. "So you want a rematch, is that it? Do you really think you can win this time? I'm immortal!"

"No you're not," I reply, "Balance undid the curse for me, and I didn't even have to ask. No, you're very able to die, 'Legion'. I'll make that fact painfully clear to you soon enough."

"I'm mortal. So what? Let me show you something." "Legion" opens his shirt enough to show the diamond to me. "See this? This is a symbol of my complete command of the Objects. All 2538 of them are under my sway. I was chosen over you to command Them, remember? Of course, you do. And speaking of curses, how about yours? I know all about the one She placed on you. The one that makes you abhorrent to the Objects. They all want to kill you. I want to kill you. The Objects are the most powerful things on this plane of existence, and I am its most powerful being. How do you propose to win? With that thing in the white cloth that you're holding?"

"Yes, actually."

"Wow me, Essum. The anticipation is killing me." Legion waves his hand, and a pure white sword, beautifully crafted, yet somehow stained with an unthinkable evil, flies into his grasp.

"The White King's Sword. How poetically just."

"Why's that?"

"That's your favorite Object, isn't it? I hear you crippled Doom with it."

"So what?"

"You can sense it, can't you? The White King's Sword is special. Unique. No other Object is like it."

"Your point?"

I pause for a few seconds before continuing. I want to savor the moment. "Do you know how the White King's Sword came to be an Object?"

"I couldn't care less."

"Oh, I think you will. You see, the White King's Sword isn't an 'original' Object."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"When the original Object 45 was created, it was... disproportionate to the others. Its power dwarfed that of all the other Objects combined. The sheer dark energy of the Object scared Them, so when this never-to-be Object came in contact with a suitably powerful item, a small portion of the original Object's power was transferred to it. The original was banished and forgotten, its location lost to time. The item that became Object 45 is still among the most powerful Objects of them all. It's the White King's Sword that you hold in your hand. So -"

"Enough of this!" "Legion" shouts. He draws the White King's Sword from its scabbard. "I thought you came here for revenge, not to give me a history lesson!"

"Legion!" I shout back. I pull the gold tassel from my Secret, and the wrapping falls to the ground. I register shock on "Legion's" face. "The White King's Sword longs to avenge the murder of the White King. So if the White King was defeated, whose sword must have been more powerful? That of the White King, or that -" I hold up in front of me a pure black sword, beautifully crafted yet somehow stained with an unthinkable evil, "- of the Black King?"

"Legion's" eyes widen as I slowly draw the Black King's Sword from its scabbard. For the first time in centuries, I smirk - I have been waiting for ages to see the look on "Legion's" face as I show him my ace in the hole. It is worth the wait. "Do you understand now, 'Legion'? You're without Yochanan's curse. I have the most powerful 'Object' ever created. That's how the stakes really are. And besides, you're not so tough anyway. I hear you fought Balance and he left nearly unscathed -"

"Shut up."

"Come to think of it, I noticed that there seemed to be less darkness in you. Did Balance -" I adopt a shocked expression, and pause for a moment, "- defeat you? How could that be? The great Holder of Legion, bested by a teenager -"

"Shut up!" roars "Legion". He charges straight at me, blinded by rage. He runs as fast as he can at me, channeling all of his strength into the blow. He knows I won't be quick enough to dodge.

That's why I don't.

I meet him head-on, our two swords clashing with a massive clang. A powerful wind blows outward as the air is forced out from the spot at which our swords met. "Legion" and I remain there, swords locked against each other. Black and white electricity dances along the blades. "Legion" funnels more and more power into his arms in the hopes of overpowering me. We both know he won't be able to. I can feel the Black King's Sword giving me strength, an unholy dark energy coursing through me. "Legion", sensing this, breaks the lock and attacks again. Clang. I shunt, forcing "Legion's" sword wide, and it throws him off guard. I take advantage of the opportunity and make a thrust at "Legion's" face. He barely dodges, and I score a deep gash in his cheekbone. "Legion" jumps back in surprise, feeling the deep laceration in his cheek.

"Bastard."

"You haven't seen anything yet."

Talius.

Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang. Our swords clash over and over again, each strike ringing in the dark abyss, dying out in time for the next clang to take its place. The force of our swords colliding causes small shards of crystal to become dislodged from the ground, and a particularly sharp piece flies up and scrapes across my shoulder. It is the only wound I've sustained in this battle. "Legion" isn't so lucky. Blood runs in a small rivulet from the corner of his mouth where I landed a kick to his face. One of his cheeks has a deep gash in it. I also managed to score a wound to his shoulder. He is breathing hard, attacking quickly and furiously in the hopes of catching me off guard. As I parry his strikes, I feel memories surging inside of me. My mind occupies that time, centuries ago, when I fought "Legion" for the first time -


We fight savagely, viciously. I grip the spear in my hand as if it is all I love in the world. The one who will become "Legion" makes a thrust at my ribcage. I move to get out of the way, but I am too slow. The blade makes a neat incision across my upper arm. I try to use the butt of my spear to attack his face, but he deflects it with his forearm. No human should be able to do this, but I know his secret. Yochanan has strengthened him, made him more powerful. His spear comes near to my face. I bat it away with mine. "Legion's" kick lands squarely on my sternum.


"Legion" dodges my sword by a hair's breadth, and it crashes into the ground, sending crystal shards flying in all directions "Legion" hopes to surprise me, making a thrust directly at me. Anticipating the attack, I sidestep and swing up, trying to sever his hand. He dodges, but not before I've laid open a fair portion of his forearm. He moves out of range of my blade. After a few moments, "Legion's" execrations fill the air.

"Can't heal yourself, can you? The Black King's Sword is too powerful. You can't reject its energy. I've already won, 'Legion'. It's just a matter of accepting it."

"Fuck you."


I can feel the spear slide sickeningly through my left hand. I grit my teeth in pain as it spreads apart my metacarpal bones. I try to kick at "Legion's" head. He catches my leg and throws me into a stone wall. As I slump down, I feel his knee impact my stomach. He grabs my face and smashes my head into the wall. I feel the stone crack under the force of the impact. I cannot force my eyes to focus. I duck "Legion's" punch. A second kick sends me straight through the wall. I stand up again. I aim a punch at his face, I then grimace in pain as "Legion" catches my fist and completely macerates every bone in it. He twists my arm. I hear one, two, three, four, five cracks as his augmented strength snaps my arm in five places. He smashes my head into the ground. He raises his spear -


Clang. I deflect "Legion's" sword. As he drops his guard briefly, I thrust my sword into his shoulder. It slides smoothly under his collarbone. I hear and feel a small snap as the Black King's Sword splits his scapula in two, the blade coming out his back. "Legion" howls in pain as a burst of energy builds up around him.

"Bastard... you're going to pay for this..."

"I'm trembling."

A large amount of energy flows into "Legion", and I realize that he is putting all of his strength into his blow. He moves faster than he ever has before. I don't have time to move my sword. I can just see the afterimage as his blade arcs toward me -


- I can feel the spear going through me. "Legion" pushes it through me slowly in order to maximize the pain.


I catch the White King's Sword with my bare hands.


He pulls out the spear, and stabs me again. And again. And again. I hear Her voice in my head, in rhythm with "Legion's" spear - "It has ended. You have been defeated. You have proven yourself unworthy of becoming the Holder of Legion. For your failure, you will be banished to the Void for eternity. In addition, you will be struck with the highest of curses: all 2538 Objects will despise you for the rest of time."

"No -"


"Legion's" mouth opens as if to say something. It closes. He is able to barely step back as the Black King's Sword scores a massive slanting gash from the top of his pelvis on his right side up to his left shoulder. If he had not stepped back as he did, he would have been cut in two by my strike. "Legion" gasps, coughs up blood, and falls to his knees.


That curse really is the worst a Seeker can be stricken with. The Objects are a Seeker's all, their existence. Life without the Objects never crosses most Seekers' minds. I feel the full weight of the curse and the scream of hatred from the Objects upon me. My body disintegrates into the Void.


I stand over him, thoughts rushing in my mind. The time of my retribution is at hand, I think to myself. "Legion" is defeated in front of me; I have proven that I am the rightful Holder of Legion. And yet, is this what I really desire? Do I really want to coldly murder "Legion" the same way he did me so many ages ago?

Yes, I do.

I kick viciously, catching "Legion's" face right above his upper teeth. With a gargling, yelling sort of sound, he flies backward onto his back. The blood streaming from his nose and mouth traces his trajectory through the air, making a sort of shining red arc to where he lies. I feel as if time stands still, and I can see the arc of blood suspended for but a moment before it falls to the ground. It is almost graceful. I walk up to where "Legion" lies. Standing right beside him, I point the Black King's Sword at him so that the tip of the blade touches his throat.

"It's over, 'Legion'."

I plunge the Black King's Sword through his ribs.

Immortalis.

The shock of the impact runs up my arm. Legion screams. It is not his roar of anger, but a scream of agony. An unearthly feeling of peace, a feeling unlike any other, settles over me. My eyes close as I let it wash over me, and my body relaxes as my revenge is sated after all these long centuries of waiting.

"Legion!"

I turn my head to see three figures watching. I see there Balance, Yochanan, and an individual I don't recognize. Anger boils inside me at the site of these interlopers intruding upon my vindication. Balance and the one I do not recognize appear next to "Legion's" corpse. I see Yochanan rush Pessum Ire and Essum. It's his funeral. I raise the Black King's Sword and make a decapitating swing at the one closest to me. "Devaide!" Balance shouts. Devaide turns his head to see the Black King's Sword inches from his face. Balance appears in front of him. He holds up some kind of robe in the hopes of blocking my sword. My sword hits the robe -

- and bounces off. "What the -" I rage, before I realize. That robe must have been the Toga of the Gods, one of the Objects that hates me most. Rage builds in me at this man, who intruded upon my retribution. The toga disintegrates and becomes absorbed into Balance's cloak, which glows a brilliant white. Balance shoves me in the chest, and I fly back, into Pessum Ire. As I struggle to stand, what I see causes me to lose myself. Devaide's hand touches "Legion's", and "Legion" stands back up.

"No!" I shout. "Legion" roars, the diamond in his chest flaring with new light. He charges at me, sheathing the White King's Sword. "No, no, no, no, no, no!" "Legion" tackles me to the ground. His fists crash into my face, one after another. I hear him shrieking in rage at me as he pummels my face over and over again. Summoning what is left of my strength, I kick him off of me. "Legion" flies back some distance before coming to rest. He roars again, and stands back up.

Before he can attack me again, Edo Edi Essum turns toward him. "Legion" screams and falls to his knees, his nose and ears bleeding. With "Legion" momentarily incapacitated, I turn my attention to Balance. He catches my eye as I charge straight toward him. The Black King's Sword whistles through the air before impacting some kind of magical shield Balance erected. However, his look of relief is soon shattered when he sees that my sword is cracking and giving away at the barrier. In a few seconds, I will have destroyed the shield. "Is that it?" Balance taunts, "all of this hard work, and Edo Edi Essum is going to get your revenge for you? Pathetic!" I laugh.

I jump away, disengaging myself from Balance.

I nod to Edo Edi Essum.

A monstrous flash of light envelops both of us. I can hear the interlopers cry out in shock as Essum and I escape. It occurs to me briefly that we have abandoned Pessum Ire. I realize I no longer care. Searing pain envelops me as I am transported to the Void.

Battered and beaten, I drift once again through the Void. Essum floats silently beside me as I absently study the Black King's Sword. I had won, I think to myself, I had won. I had bested "Legion". I, Infectus Essum, had bested the most powerful being on the planet. And then, it was all taken from me. Taken by that meddling bastard Balance!

Do you want revenge?

Essum's words surprise me. I convulse in agony as they reach me. I feel them crawling across my skin, taste them like fouled blood on my tongue. "Y-yes..." **I manage to choke out.

Do you want power?

"Yes."

I can give it all to you. I can give you the power to destroy Legion, to annihilate Balance. But, you must swear your fealty to me.

I feel Edo Edi Essum's words constricting me.

Well?

The words are worming around inside of my head. I feel as if my head is being torn apart. Power flows around me. It is heavier, more intense than anything I have ever felt before. I feel my bones cracking under the weight of it. I can feel my body breaking, giving way.

"Yes," I manage to gasp, "I... want power. I want revenge. I want to destroy all those that stand... in my way. Edo Edi Essum, I swear... my loyalty to you. My life... is yours."

Good. Now, there is one last task you must complete. One more, and I shall give you the power to crush Legion, to crush Balance, to crush Yochanan. One more and you shall become my champion, my servant. You must tell me your name.

My name. I must tell Edo Edi Essum my name. What is my name? I cast about in my enfeebled mind. I cannot think of it. All I feel is pain and fatigue. Terror grips me. I must find my name! I must tell Edo Edi Essum my name! I must! Suddenly, a feeling of peace sweeps over me. I remember my name. It has always been my name, although I never knew it. I feel foolish for never realizing it.

"My name... is Edo Infectus."

Yes. Say it again.

"My name is Edo Infectus."

It feels strange, saying that, like it isn't actually my name, it can't be my name. What? Of course, it is!

What is your name?

"My name... My name is Essu Edo Infectus..."

Is it?

"I... I'm not entirely sure... if I have a name... anymore... I am so confused... Essum."

You do not know your name?

My name is Edo Infectus!

Venaliter.

"No! Please! I'll do anything! Here, take my Object, I don't want it anymore! Just don't -" The Holder of the Harvest's plea is cut off as the Black King's Sword slides through his throat. He gurgles, staring downward as his blood runs down the blade. I pause for a moment before whipping the blade sharply to the side, decapitating the Holder. As the body slumps to the ground, I reach for the scythe clasped in its hand. The hand is stiff, possessive of the Object even in death. I slice it off with the Black King's Sword in annoyance. Picking up the scythe, I sheath my sword and make my egress of the institution.

"Freeze! Hands up in the air! Don't move or we will be compelled to use deadly force!" The human's voice sounds loudly, obviously amplified. His jacket has the letters FBI emblazoned upon it. I am surrounded by perhaps fifty men in similar jackets, all pointing various automatic and semi-automatic firearms in my direction. One man is standing a few meters in front of the others, and I can see that he is the one telling me to put my hands in the air. I can sense the unease in him and all of the agents. Most of my form is covered by my cloak, and my face is downcast, making it impossible for them to see that I am conspicuously not human. However, like timid animals, they can still sense the danger.

I am standing outside of a tall mental institution in a city called Los Angeles, and the agents of the FBI are shouting threats that they will never be able to make good on as two human aircrafts hover above. I can tell instinctively that the aircrafts also have weapons trained upon me. "I will count to three!" The amplified voice is growing tiresome. I begin to walk toward the man. "Stop right there!" he shouts nervously. I pull up my hood, exposing my face to him. The man's face goes pale before he falls to the ground, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. I grab his throat with my right hand and lift him in the air. The man struggles - my hands no longer have skin, having long since become bone, chitin, and a sort of ceramic; an exoskeleton - there is to hope for him. My hand closes tighter, tighter, tighter, tighter - the man's neck breaks with a resounding snap. The sound seems to wake the rest of the squad from their daze.

"Open fire!" someone yells. Almost instantaneously, the various firearms are discharging at a furious rate, small projectiles streaking toward me. Time around me slows down. I can see and hear the projectiles flying, cutting through the air to reach me. I close my eyes and feel my feet lift off the ground. I draw my arms toward me, and then spread them out. A wave of energy is released from me. The agents nearest to me are vaporized completely, while the bullets flying toward me are caught in the wave and fly back into their owners. The glass in the building behind me, as well as the aircrafts, blows out. The shards almost float to the ground like a lethal snowfall, its pulchritude lost to all who stand below save for myself. In one of the glass shards, I catch a glimpse of my own face.

There is no skin, only a skull that has been covered and fleshed with a sort of white ceramic substance, and black lines and marking run down the front. My teeth have sharpened into fangs. Two horns, like that of a bull, extend forward, starting where my temples would be and pointing ahead of me. The ceramic extends off of and behind my skull, under which my pitch-black hair (which I obviously have not trimmed) falls to my back. I can see my own eyes in the shard, see the horrific emptiness inside of them. I can almost see my master. The thought brings me joy, being so close to Edo Edi Essum. The shard falls to the ground and shatters into even smaller pieces. I look up in time to see a large projectile arcing from one of the helicopters, a trail of smoke behind it.

I flex my wings, tearing away most of the back of my cloak, before snapping them sharply down. The speed at which I am propelled upward elicits a gasp from the other agents as I stretch my hand out, catching the missile in midair. I wind up my arm and extend it again as I release the missile, and I register shock in the pilot's face as the missile flies toward him. A spectacular explosion follows as shrapnel rains down upon the agents below me. I touch down in their midst as the other helicopter opens fire, the projectiles chipping off small flakes of ceramic as they bounce off of me. I grab a nearby agent by the face and bodily throw him upward, into the aircraft. I hear the glass shatter as the body lands on the pilot. The helicopter spirals down, the explosion immolating what few of the agents are left. As the light does down, I pull my hood up enough so that my horns are only barely visible and my face is obscured again. My wings fold back against me as I begin to walk briskly away from the scene of the carnage -

Bang. Bang. I turn to see one lone agent, firing at me with a small handheld weapon. Bang-ping. The shot ricochets off my shoulder, small chips of ceramic bone flying outward. I turn toward him.

Leave this place at once.

The man, previously trembling, goes still. After a moment of contemplation, he inserts his firearm in his mouth. He pulls the trigger.

I step into the Void, and am greeted by Edo Edi Essum. I bow, presenting in front of me the Object I acquired from my excursion. I can feel the familiar, colossal energy bearing down upon me. The horrific sibilance and susurrus of its voice assaults my mind and body; I see and hear and feel the speech and words encroaching upon me, constricting me.

The scythe. Excellent. And what of its Holder?

Dead, my Master, as you commanded.

Good. You have done well, Edo Infectus. And now, I shall reward you.

Thank you, my Master.

I feel familiar agony as Edo Edi Essum imparts a little more of its power to me. I can feel the pain building, building, building to a crescendo inside of me. I feel as if the pain and energy are tearing me apart from the inside. My mouth opens in a silent scream.

Blackness.

Mortuus Monumentum.

I touch down amidst the corpses strewn about the ancient ruins. One man crawls toward me, pulling himself along on his remaining arm. He sputters something I cannot make out before I bring the Black King's Sword down, silencing him permanently. I take a step forward; the energy I feel here is unlike any other. I tracked it from the Void, entranced by its power and its... familiarity. Something about it warned me that I should not inform Edo Edi Essum of my excursion. Eventually, the protesting of my better judgment was struck down by my sense of curiosity, as well as something else I still cannot place, and I came to these ruins.

I keep walking, eventually coming to the source of what I felt. It is just a pulse, just a small ripple in the energy of this place, but it is there. And its presence, for reasons I do not know of, fascinates me. I walk toward it, and I feel as if it is reaching out to touch me. I make contact with it, and a scene, a vision, thoughts, flood my mind -


The moonlight dances off the Spike of Enervation. I stroke it idly, the tips of my fingers brushing across it just enough to feel the energy, like caged fire and lightning, coursing inside of it. No matter how many Objects I obtain, I am always shocked by the power inside of them. My mind returns to this Object's Holder, to the Holder of Enervation, of the answer when I asked it, "What can weaken Them?" My mind wanders, and I think about all I have done in my twisted, abnormally long life. My eyes return to the spike, and they stay there for a moment, losing themselves in it, losing themselves in this, my thousandth Object.

A soft sound shatters my reverie, and I look up. A cat is standing on the stone wall by my home, watching me. It is graceful as it regards me for a moment before jumping down, landing next to me. I reach out to it, but it shies away. For a reason I do not know, I feel a twinge of sadness, and I realize that I had used the hand that was made of mercury. I reach out with my other hand, and it tentatively takes a few steps toward me. For a moment, I am tempted to speak to it in the language of cats, for I have the Secret, but something tells me to think better of it. I feel as if it would shatter this moment, which for some reason seems so fragile.

Gaining confidence, the cat moves closer to me. Now that I can see it clearly, I can make out the gray stripes that run across it. I can see a few flecks of blood upon its fur. I close my marked eye, not wanting to see anything but the cat itself, not wanting to taint this experience with the Objects. The cat moves past my outstretched arm, brushing against my side. It circles around, and I put up my normal hand to stroke it. It purrs as my fingers run through its soft fur, and I feel a spark of happiness inside of me. Not the depraved joy that comes with acquiring an Object, the feeling that has been the engine of my mad quest, but true, genuine happiness. The cat meows softly, and I feel myself smile. It has been so long that the muscles of my face ache and protest. As the cat winds around me, I start to shed the horrors that had previously pervaded my mind. How twisted I've become, how I can feel the Objects taking over my life, the Seeker I must soon face - the only one to rival me in the amount of Objects he's collected - and many other things. That cat's tail brushes the side of my arm, bringing me back to the present. I -


- snap from the scene suddenly, shocked. I take a few steps back, attempting to comprehend what has just happened. It seems as if an experience, a memory, was somehow preserved in these ruins, probably due to the power of the one who brought it about. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling of familiarity with this individual. The experience is so vivid, so intense, so familiar, I cannot help but feel taken aback. And deeper within my initial shock... something I cannot remember having felt before. I can feel a spark of warmth inside me, although I did not realize I was cold. Relief, yet I did not know I was in agony. I feel a light, although I was unaware that I am consumed with darkness. I can feel the corruption of Edo Edi Essum inside of me, and I can feel something else... something fighting back. I can feel a spark of light, of happiness, fighting against the darkness and agony. This memory, this experience that feels so familiar in a way I cannot place, it has awakened me. I feel as if my eyes have been opened -

A surge of darkness courses through me. I extinguish the spark, the joy, the light. It will only weaken me. There is only darkness. There is only Edo Edi Essum. I can feel the darkness deepen, and I grow happy. Light is pitiful. Pathetic. And now, I feel something else - Yochanan, and another I cannot recognize. Instinctively, I can tell what they are coming for.

I extend the fingers of my right hand, and wave it to the side. Cracks blossom across the stone ruins. A remaining wall of the house explodes. Soon, the rest of the structure follows suit, destroying itself until only dust remains. Satisfied that I have completely razed this place, I turn away.

I take my leave.

Cassus Phasmatis.

Darkness surges through me, the power flaring inside me, a flame once lambent in its glow now filling my being to the brim. The dust that was once the monument settles slowly at my feet, the disgusting, decadent thoughts crumbling along with it. I feel chastised as the dust mixes in with the sand and dirt of the ground, and my thoughts drift to the approaching presence of Yochanan. I clench the Black King's Sword in my hand in anticipation.

"I see we haven't caught you at a disadvantage. How sad."

I whirl around, but meet only open space. I am not surprised; Yochanan is a master of deception and concealment.

"Oh, how mighty you stand; wings spread wide, horns shining like a black lacquer... and those eyes... I shall have to take those from you when we're done." As the words exit Yochanan's gray, dead lips, the ground below me begins to shake. It splits apart in front of me as if eviscerated by some massive, invisible blade, rupturing and shifting until a large ape-like creature rears its head at the epicenter of the split. It pulls itself from the titanic crack in the earth, its huge fists making small craters in the ground. Once it finally emerges completely, its shadow totally covering me, I make out the object it holds in its hand. I stifle a laugh, the sound not unlike a dry, hacking cough.

The White King's Sword.

That will do you no good against me.

Yochanan is next to the beast, his smile drawn back farther than human muscles should be able to allow, his teeth unnaturally clean and white. "Oh yes, and that most damned Black King's Sword. It shall look wonderful in my trophy room! My guest will marvel at it and ask 'Is it true? Is that the blade that killed Legion?' and I will say, 'No, Mr. Filth, the blade that once so easily dispatched the White King failed to gut the inebriated swine; Legion,' and my guest will say, 'Was the wielder flawed? Or the weapon?' and I will say, 'Perhaps both.'"

The beast charges, the impacts of its huge feet causing the earth below my feet to vibrate ever so slightly. I can see the muscles in its arms rippling as it brings the White King's Sword to bear. I can also see how very little substance there is behind the swing. The beast, while fearsome and powerful, lacks finesse. Parrying the strike is hardly a test of strength or skill for me.

Is that thing your best fighter, Yochanan? I inquire of Yochanan, who does not seem to be surprised by the ease at which I am able to fend off his cohort. Suddenly, Yochanan vanishes from view and I feel an impact to the back of my head. I fly forward, shoving the Black King's Sword into the ground to slow myself. I about-face as I come to rest, just in time to see Yochanan charging and feel the lumbering footsteps of the beast behind me.

"Tell me," Yochanan begins, the words seeming to be said slowly but within an instant, "did those memories make your skin crawl at what you've become? Did they burn you and torture you? No? Then why did you send them away? Did you ever think, even for a moment, that you could have used that spark, that hope, to become more than your master? Because you and I both know you could surpass It, but you need an advantage... a certain Je ne sais pas. Or a knife to the head. That works too." In response, I pivot my torso at the waist, making a horizontal decapitating swing at Yochanan's head. He ducks, and the beast behind me senses the opening and makes a thrust. To its obvious surprise, I continue my pivot, spinning further than a normal human would be able to. Blood and a roar of pain both fly into the air as the Black King's Sword opens a gash in the beast's shoulder. I finish my turn, moving my legs with my body to end in a sort of crouch facing Yochanan. His weapon glances off the Black King's Sword, and I answer,

I will not fall for your tricks, Yochanan. Master, help me.

Edo Edi Essum hears my call, and soon a space in the fabric of reality tears open, my master emerging as though from the surface of water. The beast roars, and I cannot hear the words that Yochanan and my master exchange as I parry the beast's attacks. I am not interested in it, but I continue to fight out of necessity, not really paying attention. Suddenly, I see something that catches my eye: Yochanan shoves a silver box into my master.

Edo Edi Essum stops for a moment, freezing in place. Suddenly, my limbs feel heavy, far too heavy to move. They drop to my sides against my will, and shudders run through my body. My mouth opens, and a thick black substance I can identify as blood floods through onto the ground in front of me. I fall to my knees, feeling as if I am in the body of someone else. My vision grows hazy, and my eyes cannot focus. I feel as if all my power, all my energy, is drained from me, leaving me nothing but a tattered and broken husk. My eyes close.

"Shit..."

Ressurectium.

I awaken gradually, my consciousness alive like the faint light of a dying ember. My eyes open slowly. After a few minutes of prolonged effort, my eyes are focused enough to tell me that I am in a hospital, one that seems an anachronism in the 21st century, with old-fashioned beds and tables with restraints. All around me, milling around me, appearing to be doctors, all of them a sort of gray color that matches the rest of the hospital. Their eyes, or lack thereof, are all focused intently upon me above their surgical masks, even as they go about other chores and duties. After a few minutes, one of them walks over to where I lay. I try to speak, but find I cannot, and I also discover that I am restrained, strapped down to the bed. The attendant wordlessly grabs a bloodstained hypodermic needle from a tray on the table next to me. I feel an irrational fear at the implement as the nameless attendant drives the needle through my skin... my skin... skin! A wordless moan escapes me as I see that my armored ceramic carapace has disintegrated, only a pathetic coat of skin left over my bones. I moan again in despair as the doctor draws blood from me, the liquid filling the syringe all the way. I lose consciousness again to the sound of my own inarticulate cries.

I wake up again after an indeterminate amount of time to see a few of the ghoulish, eyeless doctors standing over my bed, staring at me. They are all silent, save for one that is drawing blood from me with an ancient-looking needle. All I can manage is a weak gurgle. The doctor puts aside the syringe and picks up another, drawing more blood from me. She picks up another, and repeats the process. And another. And another. She stops after the sixth needle, simply setting it down with the others and walking away. Without warning, my eyes suddenly focus again, and I can see the figure that now stands at the foot of my bed.

Edo Edi Essum.

"Where..."

This is my sanctuary. It is neither in this world or another, it simply is. Its location is never constant, always shifting, safe from any interlopers. I brought you here, to be rebuilt.

"What... happened...? Rebuilt...?

Yes. Yochanan, one I thought could be used to my advantage, has outlived his usefulness. He sealed most of my energy away, stripping you of your power entirely. You are now as you were: a weak, pathetic human. I shall rebuilt you as a vessel for my power.

"Vessel..."

My vessel. It had been my plan to transfer my power to you someday, but Yochanan's meddling has pushed it forward. With a vessel, a focus to my power, I will at last be able to reign as I rightfully should, and all will be in my grasp. Do you want your power back, pathetic weakling? Do you want all of it and more? More than you can possibly imagine?

My answer scarcely takes a second' thought. "Please, master..."

My master turns around, exiting the room. Before he leaves, he leans over to one of the doctors, one of his thralls, and whispers something. The thrall nods, and walks over to my bed. Others gather around. Fear mounts inside me as they begin tightening the restraints. I struggle and kick, but either I am too weak or the restraints are too strong. I am held fast.

"What..."

The fear surges inside me as one of them selects a scalpel from the tray next to the bed. The scalpel slowly descends to my chest.

"Please..."

The scalpel sinks into my flesh, and I grit my teeth as it slices a slow, agonizing, perfect circle around my sternum. The doctor grabs the circular flap of flesh. He pulls it away with a sickening rip, the sound causing bile to build inside my throat.

"Don't..."

The doctor continues cutting, occasionally pulling away chunks of red that must be muscle. I moan in agony. After a few moments' time, I feel the scalpel cut into my sternum.

"No..." I plead one last time, but I know it is no use. The pain is unbearable, but my consciousness is now razor-sharp, feeling the scalpel split my sternum in two. I struggle vainly as the doctor tries to use the scalpel to cut away one of my ribs, making the cut at the edge of the circle of my exposed bone. I lie there in horror and my attempts to escape intensify as the doctor sets aside the scalpel and I realize his intentions. He puts one hand on my rib at the sternum, and the other on it where it is at the edge of the circle. He begins to bend my rib back, toward himself. I feel pain. Pressure. I scream. Snap goes my rib as it splinters and breaks in two. I scream louder, the sound coupling with the agony and horror, making my mind crawl with revulsion. Tears roll down my face. The doctor does not care. He snaps another one of my ribs. And then another, and another, until they have all been snapped off, exposing my organs. My screams die down to soft whimpers as the doctor tears forth a mass that must be my heart. For some twisted, damnable reason, I retain my consciousness as he pulls forth other organs, eventually completely hollowing out this circular hole in my chest. I give up on making sound, my head lolling to the side as I weep in futility.

After a few moments, the doctor takes from the table a blade with wickedly serrated edges. I made no reaction to the implement; I no longer care. I stiffen as the blade cuts into, and through, my spine, continuing on to saw through the ribs connected to it. I am wracked with agony, but my eyes remain half-open, tears falling from them. The doctor puts down the saw, taking the scalpel in hand once again. I feel him cut through the flesh in my back. Eventually he removes the circular flap of flesh before stepping back to inspect his handiwork: a perfect, circular hole all the way through my body, with the organs and bones around it completely untouched. Finally, I sink into unconsciousness.

I awaken later, hoping against hope that it was all a nightmare. I try to move and struggle, but I quickly realize it is futile. As I move, I see my master walk into the room, accompanied by the doctor who performed this sick surgery on me. Edo Edi Essum regards me for a moment before speaking.

The preparations are complete. It is time.

There is a blinding light. I scream in pain before blacking out.

When I regain consciousness, I feel something surging through me, something I have never felt before. It makes me feel almost... incomplete. Empty. I shift my arm, and the leather restraint snaps instantly. Looking at it, I can see that my arm has changed, becoming once again the white ceramic, almost insect-like in its appearance, my fingers ending in wicked, sharp points. Pleased, I eagerly snap the other restraint, flexing my arms, admiring them. I look down at the foot of my bed, only to see Edo Edi Essum's cloak on the floor, as if it had been vacated suddenly. I look down at the hole in my chest, and at its center I can see a perfect orb of a sort of black flame raging silently. I snap more of the restraints, becoming acquainted with my new, powerful body. An eyeless attendant comes in, evidently to check up on me. I touch him, and he is obliterated instantly, not even having time to register surprise. As he dies, I feel full, complete for a brief moment before the surging, empty feeling comes back, stronger than before. I stand, picking up Edo Edi Essum's cloak, my cloak, and wrapping it around me. Suddenly, it dawns on me: I know what this feeling that pervades me is. I know this sensation that coalesces within my being, permeates all that I am.

Hunger.

Velitatio.

Another of Essum's servants - another of my servants - falls to its knees, its mouth opening in a soundless scream. Its skin wrinkles and falls away, until only a skeleton remains. I savor the moment as I siphon its life, the energy filling me, erasing the awful sensation that pervades me. Suddenly, painfully, the hunger strikes me again, the agony and emptiness shooting through me. I double over, falling to my knees myself. My palm strikes the ground to keep myself from falling to the ground, my vision growing hazy for a moment as the hunger, my new twisted addiction, courses through me. I manage to orient myself after a moment, shambling into another room of the asylum, my new home, finding and consuming another attendant. I breathe a contented sigh before the hunger comes back, even stronger yet. I am ready for the onset, however, and I manage to stay standing despite my swimming head. Over time, my stagger becomes a walk, the hunger no less painful, but somehow manageable as I begin to become familiar with it. And yet, this crippling, agonizing hunger is nothing compared to what I feel behind it: pure, dark energy, more intense, more great, and more terrible than anything I have ever felt in my life, as black and fearsome as the very Void itself. I can almost taste it, the weight of it so great that I feel as if I should have been smothered by it. I can feel it inside me, sharpening my perceptions, my senses, my thoughts. It rises up through me, and I laugh, the walls of the hospital cracking, chunks of wall falling away. My slaves come to fix it, but as I reach out to devour another, an idea strikes me. Why content myself with such a meager snack, I muse, when I could treat myself to a banquet?

It's time to pay Balance a visit.

I can find him, even if he cannot find me. I turn the gigantic bolt on the massive door to Balance's meditation chamber. The sound causes him to open his eyes, slowly at first, before he sees me. He gets to his feet quickly, a look of surprise followed by a look of contempt flashing across his eyes. When he takes a second look at me, however, his eyes widen in surprise.

"Who dares?"

How rude. I would have at least hoped for a "hello". Is that really so much to ask?

"Salutations are reserved for those who are welcome, and I welcome those in whom I sense good. I see no good in you, beast, and thus I offer no greeting, humble or otherwise to... whatever you are now."

I'm shocked, Balance. Eve you could not have anticipated this? This was my intention from the start. I have transferred my power into this body. Edo Edi Essum has transferred his power into my body. Essum, Praetorious, there is no longer any delineation between the two. I am one. Complete.

"Indeed, the outcome was not as clear as I had hoped, but I had anticipated Edo Edi Essum would try something like this. Even so, if it is an ending you seek, You will know that my power far surpasses your, for I am the Balance, and I balance anything. That includes you, Essum."

Of course I know that! That is why I do not want to finish you now, Balance. I believe I'll wait.

"... For what?"

For you to reach your full potential, of course! That's when I'll devour you, piece by piece, bit by bit. This hunger, Balance, you could not possibly understand. It is far worse than the pain you must feel for the loss of... I pause for a moment, as if trying to remember, Shelby, is it?

"You bastard!" Balance shouts at me. His foot plants firmly on the ground, clenching his fists that are almost hidden by his almost pure-white cloak. What a wonderful cloak it is, I think to myself, symbolizing the power he needs to equalize things, like a thermometer of a sort. An overlay of a white light surrounds his hands, as he makes ready to attack, the hate blazing in his eyes.

It is moments like these that make me wish that my white, armored skull of a face permitted me to smile. Balance attempts to strike me and I snatch his wrist from the air, his once-human flesh burning within my grasp, although Balance seems largely unfazed.

The light begins to bleed from Balance's cloak, becoming a dark black. It wraps around Balance, constricting him, forcing the air from his lungs. He falls to the ground as a sort of human cocoon, the sight almost comical.

"What... have you done?" Balance wheezes.

Nothing extraordinary, **I say nonchalantly, your cloak is part of your power. I simply twisted it to my advantage, used it. My influence will wear off in time. As I said, I wish to only talk.

Again Balance takes in a sharp breath. "Acceptable... so long as... She is left out... of our exchange."

If you'll respect my candor, Balance, you're not in much of a position to make demands at the moment. You seem to be rather wrapped up in your own affairs, so to speak. Just take a moment to think about it, Balance - if I wanted to have the love of your life as a tasty snack, could you stop me? What will you be able to do if I decide to devour her little by little, and make you watch?

"She... is not... a toy... for your amusement... you demented freak!" The last few words drain Balance of breath, and he pauses before continuing. "If you... harm one hair... one cell... on her body... If she even so much... as gets frightened... by a nightmare... that you caused... I'll kill you... I swear by all that is balanced... I'll kill you."

Think hard, Balance. What would happen if you were to kill me? Light, happiness, and peace would reign supreme. And that means there wouldn't be balance. And that means that you would be left to do my work. You would be forced to become the villain, the darkness, the corrupter. And we both know that you are not capable of killing and destroying for all eternity. You need me, Balance. Don't you see? I can do all the things that you cannot. Without me, Balance, you could not keep the balance. The irony is so sweet, is it not? I am far more capable than you of keeping order, I'm far more the "Balance" than you are.

"All... you are capable of... is death... and destruction. I will... defeat you... you will not... prevail... You will not... cause chaos."

Perhaps not, "Balance". But I would thank you not to insult my intelligence by assuming I haven't any sort of contingency.

"What... contingency... do you speak of?"

Why, you, of course! If you kill me, that leaves only you. You, Balance, are too weak*. You are too* weak to maim, murder, exterminate, and torture. Even if it means preserving that one thing that you hold so dear. Balance. Without me, you cannot do it. And so there will be chaos. And in the chaos, They will come together again. And I will be reborn. And so it will begin again. And again. And again. Do you understand? One could liken your endeavor to trying to keep an ice sculpture from melting. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, eternity lies ahead of you. An eternity, its jaws open wide, waiting for one mistake to make them snap shut. One mistake to make the sculpture melt. One mistake to make order melt into chaos.

"Why is it... that you care... Why can't the world... be balanced... why must... there be chaos?"

Because, I plant a foot upon Balance's chest, eliciting a weak groan from him as I lean forward so that our faces are only inches apart. I'm hungry.

I can see that the lack of air is causing Balance to lose consciousness, and I stand back up. I turn my back to him, and the Void opens before me. I hear a weak gasp from Balance.

"I will fulfill... my purpose. I will balance... everything. You of anyone... knows that a man... with a purpose... is a force unstoppable. You know... that your merging act... is all in futility... and I will balance you. I will end you... The Objects created you, the multiverse houses you... you are part of the realms... and therefore you too must have balance."

Goodbye for now, Balance. Know that I am watching everything you hold dear. And know, in your human heart, that all things slip back into chaos.

"I won't... let that happen..."

Good luck.

I wave before stepping through into the Void.

Initium.

Coughing blood and aching from dozens, perhaps hundreds, of bruises and cuts across my body, I stumble into the main room of the pantheon. My hands claw at my back, trying to reach the wicked, serrated blade embedded in my spine. Not fully in control of my legs, I complete a drunken half-circle before collapsing near the center of the vast antechamber, the force of my impact against the ground driving the blade even deeper. I gasp and cry out, the blade grating against my ribs. The wound is not fatal - although it seems like it should be - but the pain is agonizing.

After several minutes, I feel the blade cut into one of my fingers. I grasp it, the sharp metal scoring through my flesh and hitting bone. I grit my teeth and pull. Pain flares up in my back and I cry out again, but I continue. Eventually, I feel another stab of pain that makes my eyes lose focus for a moment and hear a wet sucking sound. It takes me a moment to realize that I have finally wrenched it free. Exhaling in relief, I slowly manage to roll to the other side to look at the bloodstained blade. It has no hilt or handle, but it is as long as my forearm and wickedly barbed. Air comes to me in ragged breaths as I examine it. A strange rush overtakes me for a moment as I eye the weapon. A sort of high that I have never felt before, an exhilaration unlike any other. It feels so perfect. So wonderful. So real. The Blade of Supremacy. Object 1921. My vision grows hazy. My eyelids suddenly feel far too heavy, and they close before I know what happened.

Darkness.

Praetorious.

Who... what is this? Are you... the Object?

Ha! You truly know nothing, do you? A fool who has read of the Objects and fancied himself a Seeker. You are pitiful. Nothing.

Who are you?

My name would mean nothing to you.

Why are you here?

It would not help you to know.

Then what do you want from me?

Everything.

I awake with a start, laughter ringing in my ears. There is a warm sensation on my back, and I realize after touching it that it comes from the blood flowing from the blade's entry. Nausea and lightheadedness overcome me as I try to stand, and I collapse again, my head swimming and aching. Gasping for air, I try again, my endeavor far more successful as I shamble outside, the full moon's light seeming to grate against my eyes, and the unforgiving stone steps cold against my feet. Clutching the blade, I take my first tentative steps into the night, managing to walk with some semblance of a normal gait. I begin the mile-long walk back to my own home under stars that seem practically nonexistent in their dimness.

My town is scattered and disorganized - distance from the Emperor's seat of power and civilization has that effect - and I pass no other houses before reaching my own. Pushing the wooden door open, I need to take only a couple steps into my home before I can see her lying against the wall, her knees pulled close to her and her head slumped forward.

Asleep.

I close the door softly and kneel down in front of her, so that I can see her eyes behind the hair that has fallen in her face. See the faint lines that the tears have left down her face. It occurs to me that I have no idea how long the Holder's trial took. It could easily have been days, perhaps longer. Guilt strikes me for how I must have made her feel, and I brush a newly fallen tear away with my finger.

"Angela?" I whisper softly. Her eyes flutter for a moment before they open, a few more tears falling. She takes my hand in her own.

"Praetorious..." she says, her speech slurred by fatigue and sleep, "What happened? It's been three days... I was so worried..." She stops for a moment before continuing, fighting off the desire to sleep. "Where... were you?" She begins to notice my cuts and bruises. "What... happened to you?"

I pause for a moment, and I cannot think of what to say. Should I tell her the truth? About the rumor I followed out of curiosity and what it led me to? The horrors I experienced throughout the Holder's trial? The awful truth I learned at the end of it all, that I somehow managed to retain without taking my own life? "I did something insane. Something I shouldn't have done. I -"

She kisses me for a long moment, interrupting me. "Forget it... I don't care... what it was..." she says to me. "Just promise... that you'll never do it again... that you won't get hurt like this again..."

I pause for a moment. At once, the feeling comes back to me. The euphoria of acquiring an Object. The sense of fulfillment, something so great and powerful that I felt as if I was soaring through the heavens. I can feel the high that I felt, even while pulling the razor-sharp blade out of my body.

And then I see Angela's face, the tear streaks across it. "I won't do it again," I promise her, but I can see that she already fell back asleep. I can feel myself smile as I pull myself up next to her by the wall. In her sleep, she nestles against me, her head on my shoulder. Slowly, my eyes close, too.

What do you want from me?

Everything.

What do you want from me?

Everything.

What do you want from me?

Everything.

What do you want from me?

Everything.

What do you want from me?

Everything.

Luminis.

Time passes. Days grow into weeks and months. Gradually I forget about that night, when I found an Object, and my world was torn apart by the words the Holder of Supremacy spoke to me. I can sort of compartmentalize it now; I've gotten better at keeping it deep in my mind, where I do not think about it often. It still creeps back on me sometimes, like disgusting tentacles digging into my subconscious, boring inside and infecting it. It used to be worse.

For months after it happened, I had nightmares. I still do, although not as frequently. I dreamt, over and over again, about the Holder. I dream about what it told me. I can see myself facing the thing as it spoke of Their superiority. It told me of the futility of my life personally, and began to expand to the futility of the entire world, and how easily it would be razed and annihilated by Them. I can see the swirling shards and fragments of weapons I cannot imagine slicing into my flesh as it speaks, and I can feel the pain even though I do not seem to be in my own body. The end of its disquisition is punctuated by something unseen shoving a blade into my back, the pain burning and searing inside me. The dream ends as soon as the blade, which I know now to be the Object, slides into my back. I wake up, sweating and breathing heavily. And sometimes... strange things would happen. I woke once to find that I could not move, as if I were physically bound cell by cell in position. I found once that I had carved runes into my fingers, one on every fingertip, that bled profusely for hours. Looking at them made my eyes lose focus and sting.

Throughout those torturous and interminable months, Angela never wavered by my side. She always helped me bandage my fingers, or staunch the flow of blood from whatever excoriations I had inflicted upon myself in the night. She never asked me what happened, what brought on my nightmares. Perhaps she thought that I could eventually internalize it, and forget about my ordeal. But I think the real reason is that, deep inside her, she could sense that I had tampered with things humans were not meant to meddle in. On some level, I think her instincts compelled her to avoid it. Whatever her reasons, I can never thank her enough. She helped me escape from my own memories. Even when she was deathly afraid - of me, of what I'd done - she did everything she could for me. She has helped me forget.

And forget I did. At least, mostly.

I keep the blade in a locked box, away from any outside intrusions. Away from myself. I threw away the key, making sure I would never touch it again. Sometimes I still miss the feeling of it, even as it slices through my flesh - I miss the feeling of satisfaction, of fulfillment, that it brought. Sometimes, at random moments, while I think or ponder on something, a sort of drive will seize me. A burning desire. A desire to have another. It takes all of my resolve to fight it down again.

Time passes.

I journey now to the Emperor's city - a trek not terribly long, but at least a day's walk - in order to pick up more supplies. It is truly a humbling sight - obelisks from forgotten civilizations stand in the squares, vast pantheons and chapels tower over one, seeming to show all who regard them their true significance. Eventually, I make it to a marketplace. After buying food, I stay to admire the artwork for sale. Paintings lie out to dry in the sun, while vases and other pottery are arranged, inscriptions emblazoned upon them, polished and bright enough that I can see my own reflection. And the reflection of all that is behind me.

Including a tall figure in a black cloak.

My heartbeat speeds up. I turn in slow motion. Everything around it seems hazy and indistinct, as if the figure were not entirely corporeal. Irrational terror fills me, along with a feeling like despair. The light and color in everything surrounding the figure seems to bleed away, beginning to look dead and gray. My heart continues to speed up, throwing itself against my ribs like a deranged man trying to escape from his prison. And then... it slows. It continues to slow until I can barely hear it, when I suddenly realize - I'm dying. I fall to my knees, trying to stand but finding it harder to do so than ever in my life as the thing walks slowly toward me, its cloak flowing to its left, although I can feel no wind. I can see the gray deadness advancing, people screaming as their very life seems to be leeched from them. I summon all of my strength, and in a feat of will I can myself scarcely believe, I stand.

I run.

I tear through the woods with reckless abandon, the trees and branches tearing at my flesh as if some malevolent force possessed them. I pay no heed. I keep running until I am no longer conscious that I am, as if I am a dead man, an automaton. And still I continue. The screaming of my lungs for air becomes white noise as I run still faster, the miles passing without me fully being aware of them, looking back as much as I can to see if the thing is behind me.

I break out into a clearing, seeing my home in the distance. The thing does not seem to be following. Without warning, my legs give out, and I collapse on the ground, shaking. I manage to pick myself up into a crawl, eventually able to stand up as I enter my house. I quickly find Angela, holding her in an embrace for a long moment, trying to make sense of and rationalize what just happened. Tears flow down my cheeks as I feel her warmth. Eventually I pull away -

And stumble back. I back into the wall, sinking to the floor, horror consuming me in a way it never has before.

Her skin is gray, dead.

Her eyes are missing.

Calamitas.

I stare in horror at Angela's gray, eyeless face. It is expressionless as she slowly advances upon me. I duck her arms and scramble to my feet, backing away from her. But, I realize too late, she is now between me and the door.

"Angela!" I shout to her in vain, her expression never changing as she turns toward me.

Wake up, I tell myself, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up!

This cannot be happening. My mind goes into overdrive, trying to reject what I see before me as Angela - or the thing that was Angela - grabs me by the shoulder. My mouth opens in shock; the crushing grip is more powerful than any vice. I hear a crack and yell in pain as I feel the bones in my shoulder giving way.

Angela's expression remains unchanged.

Before I can fully process it, I'm body slammed into the wall into the wall, my head striking it sickeningly. I manage to tear her hand from my shoulder and stumble back.

She's already there. Her palm slams into my chest, forcing me into another wall. I can hear cracks - not from my body, but from the stone wall - and I cough, tasting blood in my mouth.

Wake up!

I slump to the ground, trying to crawl to the door. For once I am thankful for the size of my house - I crawl only a few feet before I am at the door. My hands fumble at it, trying to reach the knob.

Almost.

Almost.

I reach the handle. I pull -

Crack.

Pain shoots through my leg. I cry out in my agony, and manage to twist around to look behind me. Angela has her foot planted upon my leg, her face disgustingly vacant.

Crack.

I grit my teeth as Angela exerts even more of her inhuman strength, crushing my leg.

Crack.

Wake up.

Crack.

Wake up!

Snap.

I scream. My lower leg bends to the side in a sickening fashion as the bone breaks completely in half. Tears course from my eyes, horror and agony mixing inside me. Angela's expression remains the same. She reaches forward, and I feel her fingers lace around my throat. I can feel myself being pulled upward, upward still, until my feet only brush on the ground and I dangle from her vice-like grip. I can feel it tightening. I gasp and wheeze for air that will not come as she crushes my windpipe, my vision blurring. This is it, I think to myself, this is how it ends - dying by the hand of the only person I've ever truly loved. I suppose... I suppose there are worse ways to die. I gradually lose consciousness. I begin to feel numb, first in my limbs, the feeling working through me until it permeates my body. I gradually stop trying to breathe. My eyes close. I feel a sort of calm, and then...

Pain. Intense pain. Something is slicing into the palm of my hand. I can barely move it but I can feel it cutting into my flesh, hitting bone. It hits me in a flash.

The blade!

I manage to open my eyes. Through foggy and hazy vision, I can see Angela's gray, dead, eyeless face staring back at me. The expression doesn't change.

Even as I slash the blade across her throat, it doesn't change.

There is no blood. Ash flows from the gash in her neck, her face not showing any sign of registering the injury. Her grip loosens, slowly at first, but her hand goes slack. My broken leg hits the floor, and I yell in agony as I collapse on the ground.

Angela just stands there. After a moment, her body seems to lose all composure, and she falls limp to the ground, like a ragdoll. Her facial expression still remains unchanged as she slumps down, her dead, eyeless face inches from my own.

A few minutes pass before the enormity of what I've just done hits me, its strength and force no less massive than that of the monster Angela had become.

I killed her.

She's dead now.

I killed her.

I attempt to rationalize it, saying to myself that she was already dead, that she'd already become... whatever hideous monster she'd become. Ultimately, thought, I feel no better. I killed the only person I'd ever loved.

I weep. For hours, days, perhaps - I lose track of time. And somewhere in my despair, I notice something. The blade is still in my hand. A sizeable puddle of blood has formed on the floor around it. I examine the blade, examine the blood flowing from the gashes in my hand. Suddenly, the pain seems to no longer bother me. In that instant, the world somehow changes. The forest that I can see seems somehow less vibrant, the grass more sickly and gray. Everything around me seems more lifeless. The blade, though - the gleaming metal seems more beautiful than anything I've ever seen. I see the blood congealed around it, flowing from my wounds like the last of my humanity. My resolve builds.

I know, deep down, that the thing I saw in the market was responsible for what happened to Angela. I know that it caused her to die, even before I killed her. And I know that I will make it pay.

I don't care if it's real, or something beyond my comprehension. I don't care at all, because I know what I have to do. I will gather all of Them, all of the 2538. I will bring Them together, and use them to destroy the thing that took Angela from me... that made me kill her. It does not matter what I will have to do. I will torture, burn, maim, and kill. I will annihilate all who stand in my way. Nothing will stop me from having my revenge, and bringing Angela back.

This I swear.

Extricum.

The ground splits and cracks in front of me, a schism starting inches from my feet and moving outward. It widens, becoming a small chasm in the earth. The cloud of dust settles after a few moments.

Silence.

Suddenly, the dirt and sand start to move again. The particles begin to coordinate, moving in sinuous patterns toward the chasm. It trickles inside, becoming a torrent as more and more particulates make their way inside. Defying gravity, the dirt and sand rise up, gradually knitting themselves together into a skeletal hand. It rises slowly, gripping the edge of the fissure and pushing. More soil forms around it, adding to the arm and fleshing it out. It extends further, until an entire upper torso protrudes from the crevice in the ground, the top of its head at equal height with my chest. Sand creeps up it, forming into a jawbone as it fits into the skull of the figure. The sand begins to harden, turning into a solid stone.

The monster rears its head, the exposed "bone" of its face the same gray as the rest of its form. Its outer layer has been flayed away in many places, revealing cords of stone that act as sarcomeres, sinew, and tendons within it. Its powerful arms are planted firmly into the earth, fingers and hands supporting its stark body. It looks up at me, stone eyelids opening to reveal two empty sockets. It's mouth, the lower mandible little more than a skeletal jaw made of stone, moves as a grating, rasping voice escapes it.

"Master."

What do you have to tell me?

"Yochanan has remained dormant, master. He will not interfere with your plans."

And Balance?

"Master, there is nothing of him. I have searched acr-"

My fist crashes into its face. It gives a grating, screeching cry as part of its face shatters, exposing more of the mineral "bone". The creature coughs and sputters, clutching its face in agony. Silence! I command my servant. You will locate him immediately.

"Yes, my master."

You will make him aware that I seek him. Make him aware that I want him to be aware that I seek him. Tell him that it it time. Tell him that my hunger waxes. Tell him that... I wish to see who the true Balance is.

"It will be done, my master."

Then leave me. And do not come back until you have completed my order. If you fail again, I will not be so lenient with you.

The monster recoils in horror. "Yes, master," it intones as it cracks, crumbling into rubble and refiling the fissure in the earth from whence it rose. In minutes, the ground shows no evidence of any activity having transpire there. I take my leave.

After a few minutes of walking, I find a house, appearing quite abandoned, judging by its dilapidated state. Slightly disappointed that I will not be having a snack before I depart, I put my hand on the knob. Black tendrils creep through the wood of the door, radiating from my hand, looking like twisted arteries. They spread, until the door seems to pulse with life. Indeed, it shrieks in pain as I twist the knob, walking not into the house, but into my asylum.

My eyeless slaves mill about the long entrance chamber, fetching supplies and treating patients, whose screams can be heard in other rooms. One catches sight of me. It walks briskly toward me, standing to my right, facing me. Another follows suit, standing to my left, across from the first drone. Soon others gather, until they have formed a long corridor that extends halfway through the vast entrance room, standing at attention. As one, they kneel, left knees touching the ground in unison, right palms planted in front of you. I walk through the center of this aisle. I feel the familiar sensation of desolation and emptiness in my sanctuary, and -

I stumble, my hand flattening over my abdomen in pain. The hunger flares up, my vision going hazy for a moment. I manage to right my gait, my hand falling to my side again. The faces, all covered by surgical masks, look up to me in tacit concern. I gesture to one that looks as if it used to be a middle-aged man. Another that looks like it was barely twenty. I point to what was a woman in her twenties. Wordlessly, expressionlessly, the three stand, forming a single-file line behind me as I walk. The growing aisle of my slaves curves, creating a path to a set of massive double doors. They open as I approach them, and close after my chosen thralls and I have entered. The room is completely dark, save for one circle of a sickly white light at its center. I walk to it, sitting at the center of the circle and beckoning my thralls. They kneel in a horizontal phalanx before me. They do not move, their expressions do not change as they die, their vestigial life force exiting their bodies and filling me, for a time. Their forms quickly disintegrate, being held together only by an energy that now resides within me. Hunger sated temporarily, I focus my mind. Runes covering the room begin to fill with light that radiates from me, until the whole room is lit with a dim white light. I close my eyes.

My mind expands beyond myself, filling the sanctuary. I can feel all my servants, all compelled by my thoughts, moving, working, serving me as one. They think and feel like a single living organism, a smoothly and perfectly functioning hive of concerted activity. I marvel briefly at its beauty.

My mind expands still further, filling the very Void, filling the universe itself. My hunger leaves me for the moment as I cast about existence itself.

Balance... where are you? Eight years it's been since our exchange... do you truly fear me so? Why? Do you fear my power? Then contest it. Do you fear the futility of your situation? Then succumb to your fate and my hunger. Do you fear what I will do? Then let us end this. It is [Praetorious?] time -

I snap out of my concentration. That voice... it was not my own. What happened? Is some soul I've absorbed rebelling against me? Is it something about [Praetorious?] this body> [Who -] What is this voice? [You- ] I must find Balance. I must crush him, consume him, quell [It was -] this voice inside me. I will end it, no matter what the cost.

Balance.

I am hunting you now.

Prolusio ut Terminus.

My stone servant's head breaks apart as my foot collides with it, shards disintegrating into sand as they fly in all directions. The body crumbles apart into dust, no evidence of my thrall's existence left. He had failed me for the last time.

I step over the rubble, pulling my hood over my face as I step out of the alley. I restrain myself as best I can as I walk amidst the throngs of humans, trying to ignore my hunger. Unconsciously, the masses split into an aisle as I pass through, their animal instincts telling them to avoid me even as their conscious minds are none the wiser. I close my eyes, suppressing the hunger and the new voice inside me. It speaks only fragments, never forming anything recognizable, but somehow I know that it [Engineered -]

My concentration breaks, and a human beside me is instantly obliterated, screaming as I consume them. Suddenly, pandemonium breaks loose. All the humans begin running and screaming, their irrational fear getting the better of them as they trample each other. I watch the spectacle for a few moments before slipping into the the Void.

I recline in the cold nothingness, contemplating. Balance has proved far more elusive [You did -] Far more elusive than I expected. I can sense instinctively that this voice, if I do not end the battle before it takes hold, will be my undoing. I must find him. And find him now. His presence, normally so laughably easy to detect, has gone silent. Dark. [Praetorious -] Shut up! I yell, as much as anyone can yell inside the Void. What is happening to me? Why [Revenge -] damn it!

Suddenly, I feel a presence. A familiar one. And though it should have every reason to, it does not hide, or attempt to cover itself. It is completely open. Exposed. Beckoning me. I open a window into the human world instantly [Defeat -] and, ignoring the voice, I step through.

I find myself atop a massive skyscraper, towering above all the others in a sprawling city. Scarcely impressed as I am, I can imagine how dizzying the heights would be to a normal human. Looking under my feet, I can see a large yellow marking that I recognize as a landing zone for aircraft. Then, the presence comes back, right in front of me. Anger and annoyance build up in me at the sight.

"Long time no see," says Yochanan.

Your actions, Yochanan, seem to have gone beyond the realm of reckless annd into that of the idiotic. I have every reason to destroy you.

"Actually, I disagree," he says, perching himself upon an air conditioning structure, "you have every reason to keep me alive."

Enlighten me.

His face contorts into a gleeful smile. "I know where Balance is. I can tell you, too, but you'll have to do something for me."

Do not toy with me, Yochanan. You will tell me where Balance is, now.

"Ooh! Scary. Someone's in a bad mood. I'll tell you what: I'll tell you where he is if you make me your next vessel."

You are not in a position to make demands, Yochanan.

"Yes, actually, I think I am. Or would you rather cast about meaningless for him until you tear yourself apart?"

What -

"I know a lot of things, you see. I get around. So, what'll it be? Do we have a deal?"

I pause for a moment. Loathe as I am to become indebted to Yochanan, all of my methods have failed me in locating him and [Praetorious -]

Fine. We have a deal. Where can I find Balance? Where does our struggle end?

Yochanan cackles, taking his time before responding. He grins wickedly. "The same place where you began."

And with that, he drops dead. For now, at least.

I jump down the building, cursing my stupidity [Engineered -] and ignorance. It is so obvious. How could I have missed it? All this time, the answer was right before my eyes. How could I have expected Balance to go anywhere else?

The city I am in is called New York. Yochanan's choice of a meeting place was unintentionally convenient for me. Making my way through the throngs of humans, I begin my journey. Of course, I could have simply flown right to my destination, but I feel as if I could use a walk.

A few hours pass before I reach my destination - a giant pile of rubble that was once two large buildings. The construction workers, all my servants, pay no attention to me as I walk among the ruins, surveying them. At last, I come to a small opening, and slip inside.

Few humans realize how massive the catacombs and networks underneath New York really are. The cavern stretches in all directions, a perfect nesting place for vermin that plague the city above. A perfect place for disease to form. A perfect place to set in motion the end of the human world. Calling to the energy in this place, I place my palm on the ground. A soft humming sound permeates the cavern. It builds, becoming in minutes, a deafening crescendo, until a huge boulder rises up. It shatters, revealing a gigantic black stone encased within, perfectly round and smooth. The Conduit. I had spent many years tracking down an object powerful enough to serve my purpose, and left it here for when the time comes. And come it has.

All around me, cracks begin to form in midair, the wall between my sanctuary and this world fracturing. Suddenly, from one of the cracks, a hand shoots forth, gray and dead. It claws at the barrier as more emerge, tearing it away. Eventually, a great rift is left, and one by one my eyeless servants emerge, forming themselves into phalanges at my back. Soon, there are hundreds of my slaves filling the catacombs. Then thousands. And still they emerge. They silently form up, walking as one with me, emerging into the light. So begins the march of death. The end of mankind. So begins my journey to where everything began, and were it all will end.

The tower.

Pondera.

Phalanx upon phalanx of my slaves pours from the ruins, splitting from one another and spreading out. They radiate outward, their numbers ever expanding, all marching in perfect rhythm. The ground begins to shake under their footsteps, their collective volume becoming so great that vibrations can be felt through the ground. The sky begins to darken as my legion is unleashed, their dark energy tainting the air itself, the sun turning blood red.

My slaves spread through the streets, marching between buildings and through alleys like blood running through veins. Human run and scream, the slow one caught and dismembered by my soldiers, who never break step even as they tear the people limb from limb. It warms whatever I have that would qualify as a heart as the lives of the humans being slaughtered fills me. More of my eyeless slaves emerge from the hole in the rubble, this time marching not between the buildings, but through them. Soon the sound of supports cracking and breaking becomes audible, and soon the buildings themselves begin to fall, their foundations destroyed. The hulking wrecks crush all underneath, destroying thousands of my slaves at a time but not even making a dent in their numbers.

Phalanges of them march at my back, wordlessly and instantly obeying my silent commands. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a lone human charges at me. I can see that she has a dagger in her hand, raised in a combative position. It takes me a moment, but I suddenly realize: she is holding the Dagger of Galaxies. Before she reaches me, I extend a hand. She stops abruptly, slowly rising in the air. Her face contorts with agony, her mouth opening in a scream of agony as her skin turns gray, her eyes turning to ash and pouring from her sockets, her energy flowing into me. I set her down gently, and she joins the ranks of my legion, falling in step instantly with the rhythm of their march, still clutching the Object. My legion advances ever onward, radiating from the rubble as more emerge, their numbers ever swelling. Buildings everywhere go down in flames as they advance, spreading through the city and beyond.

[Engineered me -] I shake my head, trying to clear the voice from my mind. Suddenly, more cracks appear in the air, and hordes of foul monsters pour through. They clash with my legion, which remains marching even as they battle the invading army. Legion's. My detachment leaves me, moving to the outward edges of the advance to help. Powerful and disturbing as Their armies are, they are no match for any legion. Slowly but surely, the monsters are torn apart, demonic blood and viscera coating the hands of my thralls. More pour in, but my legion does too, and Their armies do not so much as slow their advance.

After a few moments, I feel as if I have watched enough of the spectacle. I feel ready to destroy Balance. Ready to end it all. I snap my fingers, and more cracks appear in front of me. It's time to bring out the Experiments.

A massive gauntleted hand crashes through, the palm area alone the size of a human head. Another one emerges, and they tear at the opening, widening it, until the first of my Experiments steps through. Its skin is gray and dead, its eyes missing as with all of my slaves, but I have spent many decades modifying this one and its kind. It is nearly seven feet tall, almost reaching my height, its forearms and hands unnaturally huge, built like clubs. Various tattoos cover its body, denoting areas for injections and other such procedures. Another pair of arms unsheathe themselves from its torso, tapering at the wrists into long, chitinous, scythe-like blades. The Experiment surveys the battlefield silently and emotionlessly as more step through into the human world, until a total of fifty stand with me. One takes the front of the formation, this one with a large squirming cloth sack tied to a rope slung over its back.

A winged monster manages to get past the outer perimeter, swooping down at me. Before it can land or attack, one of the Experiments' blade-arms lash out, decapitating the beast in one clean sweep. Head and body hit the ground with a wet smacking noise.

I gesture to them, and they know without me telling them that it is time for us to depart. As one, they slump over, as if they had lost control of their torsos. The skin and bone of their backs twists and contorts, extending outward, cracking and snapping sounds crescendoing. Eventually, bony wings form from their backs, and they stand at attention synchronously, staring blankly at me. My own wings unfurl, tearing away the back of the top portion of my cloak. I lower my hood, and after a moment's thought, rip it off, tossing it aside. I nod to the Experiments, and they and I take off as one, climbing at extremely high speeds. I open the Void before us, and we fly through, coming out again at a vast wasteland, a gigantic desert. After covering a few miles, we can see it at last - the tower. From outside, it seems to be just that: an unassuming stone tower. It appears far too small to house the 2538 floors it actually has, but, of course, appearances are deceiving. [Angela -] My Experiments advance.

Suddenly, the ground begins to shake. My Experiments hold their ground, shifting into defensive stances. Before our eyes, the sand begins to rise from the ground, knitting itself into humanoid shapes. It coalesces, forming swords and spears in the hands of the figures before hardening into stone. The figures turn to stone as well, moving slowly at first, but gaining speed as they charge. My Experiments meet them head-on, fists crushing and blades slashing away. In a matter of moments, the creatures have all been annihilated. We take a few more steps, but the ground begins to shake again. And the creatures reform. More keep forming as my Experiments, the stone warriors swelling in numbers by the second. The Experiments keep fighting, not sustaining so much as an injury as they destroy every creature in arm's reach, but I can see that the fight is hopeless. Whenever one falls, it simply reforms from the sand. I raise a hand, and my Experiments form a ring around me, facing the horde. An idea comes to me. If they form from sand, then all one would need to do to defeat them would be to...

Turn the sand to glass.

My Experiments pause their fighting for a moment. In each of their eyes, a small point of white light appears, growing in heat and intensity by the second. And then, as one, they combust. Twin jets of black flame erupt from their sockets, the scorching heat enveloping the stone warriors. They begin to turn a white-orange color as they melt, sinking back into the sand. My Experiments turn their heads downward, causing the flames to lick at the sand below our feet, turning it to glass in seconds. I suppose they're a success, I think to myself, the double doors of the tower swinging open as I approach.

I find myself in a massive antechamber, the room easily miles in diameter. Bookshelves line the walls, detailing every aspect of existence, every existence of every aspect. I can feel Balance above, standing at what I would [Killed her -] guess to be the six-hundredth floor. [Destroy you -] I shake my head again, trying to rid myself of the voice. It's time to end the conflict once and for all.

Flexing my wings, I snap them down, sending me crashing through the ceiling. I build my speed and momentum, smashing through floors and furniture as I accelerate. I see Balance only as a blur as I fly through the floor, and I grab him by the throat as I continue upward. I will remember the surprise and shock on his face for centuries to come. Gradually, I slow down, reaching, by my rough estimate, the 1500th floor. I bodily throw Balance against the wall, cracks blossoming across it at his impact. He stands up, cracking his neck into place.

"Essum."

Hello, Balance.

"I see that you discovered my location. Yochanan no doubt had a hand in this."

About that you would be correct, Balance, but that is neither here nor there.

"And where, pray tell, is 'there', beast?"

The top floor, if you'd care to join me. The view is wonderful. And it will be most excellent for settling our differences.

"Very well," says Balance, and in an instant we are on the 2538th floor. It has no roof - a red sky with black clouds and a sickly white sun are displayed in open view. Crescent-shaped columns stand at regular intervals around the circular platform, intricate carvings inlaid upon them. My Experiments fly up as one, landing at the edges of the platform and standing between the columns, making a ring.

"Do you not have enough freaks already, Essum?"

Were I you, Balance, I would not be so rude. The love of your life is in their custody.

With that, my Experiment roughly throws the sack to the ground, withdrawing two lengths of chain from it, holding both in its huge hand. It gives them a rough pull, dragging out two unconscious figures. Shock and anger cross his face as he recognizes the faces of his love, Shelby, and her nephew, hands bound behind their backs, chain around their throats.

"How dare you -"

I'm "evil", remember? These things happen. And besides, how else can I motivate you enough?

"If you've hurt so much as a cell on their bodies, the perdition of the Objects will be nothing compared to what you will suffer!" Balance shouts, shaking with rage.

See, that is what I wanted to hear! The answer is no, I haven't, other than incidental trauma. If you want them back, you will have to go through me.

Hate burns [Your fault -] in Balance's glare as white light surrounds his hands. "So be it."

He launches himself at me with a roar of anger. I hold my hand out, and black begins to creep into Balance's cloak, my corruption spreading. The black moves quickly -

- and then dissipates. His fist crashes into my face, chips of ceramic bone flying outward, the force knocking me backward. I fly a few feet before my hand touches the floor, my fingers digging in to slow myself. Eventually I skid to a stop. I feel my face, the chipped crevices evident to my fingers. Black flame forms around them, filling in the cracks, fixing my face. I stand, laughing, the sound making Balance cringe ever so slightly.

At last, I can see the true Dallas coming through.

Incompositus.

"Come, Essum. It's time to end this."

Music to my ears.

Bolts of white light arc from Balance's outstretched fingers, scoring grooves in the stone floor. One tendril whips out at me, and I catch it with my left hand, applying pressure until the ethereal but somehow substantial light [Kill -] shatters. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I push off with my right foot, propelling myself through the shards at Balance. He grabs my arm, aiming a kick at my head. Ducking, I avoid the kick before breaking his hold and making another attack. Our fists hit each other dead-on, the reaction force causing us both to skid backward.

Pity. I expected so much more.

"I'm not finished!"

Balance charges at me -

- and stops. He looks away from me, eyes fixed to something to my right. Following his gaze, I see what it is. His former paramour is attempting to stand, surprise and fear on his face.

"...Dallas?"

"Shelby!" Balance shouts, rushing toward her. Using the Void to bend the distance, I appear almost instantly in front of him. I grab him by the face, using his own momentum against him to launch him backward. He skids across the ground before standing up again.

You really can be a pest sometimes, Balance. Rescuing the damsel in distress means going through me. I told you this already.

"Stand aside, Essum!"

Kill me first.

Balance launches himself at me again. I shunt his attack, forcing him away.

You still aren't taking this seriously.

"Give way, Essum."

It's hurtful, you know, that you're ignoring me like this. I spent decades, centuries, even, amassing my army, finding the Conduit. My legion is marching across the world as we speak, razing and destroying it. And still, you care more about the girl. It is rather irritating. I suppose I'll have to force your interest.

I hold out my hand, and his love's nephew's eyes snap open. He stands, staring blankly ahead of him. His head turns slowly, stare connecting with Balance's. His mouth curls into a Cheshire smile.

"What are you doing?"

I'm making you interested.

Without warning, Shelby's nephew begins to laugh. He begins slowly, softly, crescendoing into a loud, grating, screeching sound. Balance cringes, disturbed by the sight. The nephew rises into the air, the laugh growing louder all the while as he gravitates slowly toward the edge.

I flick my wrist.

The nephew flies from the edge. The laugh slowly grows more distant as he falls, eventually petering into nothing.

Balance stares at me in shock and horror. Slowly, his features harden into anger and hatred.

"Alright, Essum. You have my interest. I will focus all of my energy upon destroying you. When I finish, not a single atom of you will be bonded to another."

Suddenly, light surrounds Balance, a deafening roaring sound following it. He is saying something, but I cannot make it out. Another robe materializes around him, one I recognize to be the Toga of the Gods. The Brace of Submission forms around his right wrist, clamping on. At the end of the chain, a shaft of the white light begins to grow, lengthening into a sort of halberd with an elongated blade. The light dissipates, revealing a purely white blade, that of the White King's Sword, the chain of the brace fused to the weapon about half a foot from the white blade. Balance levels it at me, the hate in his eyes shining with a mad energy.

Interesting. You've fused the Objects together with your own power.

"Stand aside now."

Make me.

I hold out my hand, and the Black King's Sword materializes, the blade longer than before, and ground infinitely sharper by my power. The hilt is no longer elegant and ornate, the once cross-shaped guard now a wicked, claw-like curve toward the blade. It ignites, the blade becoming wreathed in black flames, leaving a trail through the air as it moves.

Balance charges, and I meet him, the force of our blades' contact sending a powerful gust of air in all directions. Balance's former lover is thrown back into my Experiments, who dig into the ground to keep from falling from the edge. Balance swings again, sparks flying from our clashing blades, the impacts so fast that they seem to almost blur into one sound. [Praetorious -] Our weapons become locked against each other for a moment, our faces less than a foot apart. The Objects Balance has begin to glow as he draws more energy from them, trying to overpower me. I myself begin to struggle, drawing out more of my strength, the force of our blades roughly equal. I break the lock, causing Balance to stumble back. I whirl the Black King's Sword, making my moves [Destroy -] unpredictable, moving it faster and faster until it is scarcely a blur, dancing around me. Balance's eyes follow it intently, trying to read me. A few moments pass as I speed up, occasionally scoring small gashes in the floor. Suddenly, Balance looks directly at me. He's predicted where I'll swing from.

Which causes my kick to his face to come as a surprise to him.

The angle of the attack causes him to fly upward, slamming into a stone column. Shards of it rain down from where he impacted it, the force making a sizeable impression in the stone. Balance dislodges himself, landing on his feet, spitting out blood and cracking his nose back into place.

In an instant he is in front of me, making a slash at my neck. I duck, but not in time, as his weapon slices one of my horns off. I cannot feel pain in the traditional sense, but I can feel the injury, and it annoys me. I retaliate, swatting Balance's right arm aside with my left and lunging. He jumps backward, but not before I've scored a shallow wound across his chest. He touches it with his left hand, and the wound knits itself back together.

We charge at each other again, swords clashing, tongues of white light and black fire scorching and slicing at both of us. We both skid backward, breaking the trance. Looking down at myself, [You -] I can see that part of my cloak is gone, revealing the black flame in my chest. Balance and I both are covered in superficial wounds, but he has a rather deep cut midway between his shoulder and clavicle. He glares at me, panting, the hate in his eyes palpable. Suddenly, his eyes narrow, and I realize that he has spotted the hole in my chest that contains the black flame. The source of my power. White light surrounds him, and the chain of the brace somehow extends. Grabbing it, he tosses his weapon in the air, whirling it in a perfect circle at blinding speed.

"It's time to end this, Essum." I realize his intention too late.

The halberd goes speeding toward me. I have no time to react as the blade slides into the hole, penetrating the flame perfectly as it passes through. I stumble back, grasping the shaft to prevent the blade from passing farther into me. I take a deep, rasping breath.

"Do you see now, beast? You cannot hope to compare to me. I am the Balance, and you are an agent of chaos, a slave to disorder. To balance you, my power will swell to become greater than yours, a thousand times yours." He grips the shaft of his weapon. "Die now, and sink back into the void of nonexistence you arose from."

My head inclines, and I allow my grip on his weapon to slacken. I stumble backward slightly, falling to my knees. My eyes close.

And open again.

You poor deluded fool.

Spidery veins creep through the blade of Balance's weapon. I rise and take a step toward him, the motion driving his weapon deeper into my chest. Shock and disbelief cross his face.

"How -"

Did you really think killing me would be so easy, Balance? Really think that after all these years, with all my planning, and all my power, that I would have some sort of "weak spot" that was unaccounted for? You fool.

The veins creep further, moving up the shaft of his weapon, and moving into his hand. He gasps in pain as they move further under his skin, traveling up his arm.

You may be able to resist my corruption, but I've yet to see anyone who can resist it when they touch its source.

He gasps, trying to breathe as the veins crawl up his neck and to his face. He stumbles back, pulling his blade from me, but it is too late. The corruption continues to move through him.

The hilt of the Black King's Sword collides with his forehead, knocking him to the ground.

You are right about one thing, however. I grab the front of his tunic, lifting him up in the air and throwing him down again. It is time to end this.

Balance tries to stand, and I kick him hard in the face, sending him flying into a stone column. Cracks bloom across it, and it crumbles, coming crashing to the ground. I jump onto the wreck, dragging Balance from the rubble. I grab him by the throat, lifting him off his feet. He gasps and claws at my hand, but to no avail.

You know, Balance, there is something I want to tell you before I kill you.

"What... do you want..." he rasps, voice hoarse and strained.

I was created when the Reunion failed. I'm sure you know this. But do you know why? I'll tell you. The man who tried to bring Them together was stopped by the Balance. The Balance that came before you.

Balance makes a weak choking sound in response.

Do you know why you're needed, Balance?

"Why..."

I release my grip on his throat, and he falls to the ground, coughing, the spidery veins covering his face.

I killed him.

"You -"

Balance stands, something [Essum -] I did not expect him to be able to do in his state. He makes an attack with his weapon, at a surprising speed. Nonetheless, I avoid it easily enough. I make a riposte, and he blocks the blow with the staff part of his weapon, straining in his weakness. Suddenly, and without waring, the Black King's Sword shears entirely through Balance's weapon, slicing a deep path in his torso. I reverse the Black King's Sword in my hand, using the [Destroy -] leverage and momentum to make a powerful thrust. A wet, almost grating sound ensues as the Black King's Sword slides into Balance's stomach. A cracking sound follows as it parts his ribs, exiting through his back. He gasps in pain, bloody vomitus exiting his mouth. He falls to [Engineered -] his knees, and then to all fours, coughing and hacking. I bring the blade of the Black King's Sword to Balance's neck, drawing blood. I draw it back.

Goodbye, Balance. Die with the knowledge, deep in your soul, that your role was always futile. And know, completely and utterly, that you have failed to play it even more bitterly than your predecessor.

I swing down.

Consilium.

The Black King's Sword arcs downward [Essum -] at a furious rate of speed, but I still feel as if I am caught in slow motion. Dark flames [No -] trail the blade as it travels, seeming to split the air itself as it glides to Balance's jugular. Anticipation and triumph build up in me as it reaches his neck -

- and stops. What - Balance's hand loses around the blade. But that is not what stopped it. My eyes travel farther, and I see what did. My other hand is clamped in a vice grip around my wrist. What is [Engineered -] happening? The [Revenge -] voice builds, growing to a shrill and painful [Defeat -] cacophony in my mind. Balance attempts to stand, wrenching the Black King's Sword from my grasp as I stumble backward, clutching my head. [What -] The voice begins to [End -] drown out my own [Praetorious -] thoughts, and I feel it [Destroy] overtaking me furiously, drowning [You did this -] me. My vision [Angela -] grows hazy - [Get out of my head, Essum!]

My vision focuses sharply again. I see Balance holding the Black King's Sword, looking somewhat dumbfounded. I can feel Essum inside me, squirming in rage and confusion [How -]. I look at my hands, the ceramic fingers ending in wicked points. So this is what I've become. They fill me with revulsion. Looking down, I can see that my body is covered in the horrific material. I am suddenly aware of it, the cold evil boring into me, consuming me. Without being fully conscious of what I am doing, I dig into my ceramic face with my fingers. I can feel the injury without feeling pain as I attempt to rip it away. Shards of ceramic fall to the ground as my hands search or other cracks and recesses, digging into and tearing away the ceramic where I find it. I realize, suddenly, that my throat is on fire from the scream I didn't know was exiting my mouth. I tear still at my face, and then begin ramming my clawed fingers into my shoulders and neck, trying to scrape loose the material. I look down, and what I see makes me cringe with disgust.

A hole in my chest, with a small orb of black flame burning grotesquely at its center. I touch it gingerly, and pain, real pain, shoots through my hand, searing into my brain so deeply that I cry out. In that instant, however, I realize what I must do. I plunge my left hand into my chest, grasping it in sudden agony. My hand closes around the flame, and it sears into it, the pain more than anything I have ever imagined. I watch as the ceramic of my hand is atomized, followed by my skin. My flesh is flayed away slowly as I try to pull away the accursed flame. My eyes lose focus, and I feel as if I am weakening. Dying. I feel like I am ripping out my own heart. I am aware of my vocal chords, or whatever serves their purpose, burning and stinging, my cry of agony growing louder. Suddenly, something seems to give way, and the flame tears free from my chest. A roaring, screeching ensues as it expands, coalescing in the air. My limbs suddenly seem to go limp, as if my bones had disappeared with the flame. Looking at my left hand, however, I can see that the opposite is true. Only bones remain of it and half of my left forearm. I slump over, rolling painfully onto my back.

Through half-opened eyes, I can see Balance walking toward me, his weapon pointed at my throat. "Who are you?" he demands of me, the blade pressing into my neck.

"I... am not... your primary concern..." I manage to rasp out. Balance turns around, seeing what I see. The black flame has formed into a shape, purely black and radiating hatred. I watch Essum reform, this time having no cloak to cover his appearance. Essum has no legs, a torso seemingly made of a deep black smoke hovering in the air. Skeletal arms form, longer than they should be, from the shoulder sockets, hands flexing grotesquely. I see his face. Or rather, their faces. It changes constantly, twisting and contorting disgustingly into various features, some human and some not. I can tell instinctively that they are the faces of all the beings he's consumed. All of the beings I've consumed. I see Angela's face, black and smoky, atop Essum's neck. I see my own. My eyes close.

I awake vividly aware of being slammed into a wall. I open my eyes as Balance slams me again into the stone column. "Who are you?" he demands of me. I cough and sputter at first, disoriented.

"My name... is Praetorious..." I manage to say, the words beginning to come more easily. "A very long time ago, Essum robbed me of the person I love the most. I became a monster to get revenge, the Objects consuming me until I forgot why I was a Seeker in the first place..." I blink, memories coming back to me. "I killed and destroyed indiscriminately to get the Objects, to try to have my revenge, but I didn't know who I was avenging or who I was revenging against. And then Essum found me again. Used me as his vessel. I was engineered."

Balance raises his weapon, pointing it at my chest. "That won't do you much good," I tell him, pointing to the hole that remains there. "You could try decapitating me, if you really wanted to." He considers it briefly before lowering his weapon. "What happened to Essum?" I ask of him.

"Essum is gone," Balance says as his glance wanders briefly to two halves of the Black King's Sword, "I banished him back in time, to grapple with my predecessor for eternity. He will never emerge again."

"That's good to hear," I say as I manage to stand upright, swaying slightly. I look at the Black King's Sword, and reflected in the blade, I can see my own face. The irises are a bright gold, the sclera deep black. Looking down at my left hand, I see that the flesh is gone, only the bone remaining, somehow still held together. Balance looks at me, asking me what both of us are thinking.

"What are you?"

I try to think for a moment, but eventually give up. "I have no idea."

"Are we allies?"

I pause to consider that question, trying to focus my swimming thoughts. "No, I don't think we are. There was some merit in what Essum thought. Your role is to temporarily impose order upon chaos. It is futile. But Essum's was wrong, too. He wanted to bring about the chaos, try to force it. I don't think it works that way."

"Then what is the answer?" Balance asks me.

"Do what you're doing," I tell Balance, "and I won't stand in your way. I have my own answers to find. My own crimes to deal with. As for you, Essum's legion have surely killed millions. I'm sure you'll have plenty to balance in the years to come. But know this: some day, the world will crumble. The universe will burn, and existence will unravel. And even you won't be able to stop it."

I walk to the edge of the tower, gazing down at the massive drop. Essum's freakish creatures are gone, piles of ash left where they once were. I have no doubt that his legions met a similar fate. I turn toward Balance.

"Cherish her," I tell him, gesturing to his unconscious former paramour, "I don't know when the end will come, but it will be soon."

I hold my arms out slightly, my heels at the edge. "Wait!" Balance yells to me, "will we ever meet again?"

"I doubt it."

I close my eyes, and feel the tug of gravity, slowly at first, then increasingly strong as I lean back. Eventually, I feel my feet leave the platform, and I fall backward. I feel the wind rushing past my face as I plummet, and I relax. I can almost hear Angela's voice in my mind, whispering things I cannot make out. I can almost see her face. For the first time in decades, I feel content, happy. I smile.

I fall forever.