Jack Empty

One day you might meet a man. He'll have gray hair, gray skin, and a gray suit. He'll be smiling a little too wide, just enough to make you think something's wrong. Then you'll see the eyes: the cold, dead, hollow eyes, and you'll know you're damned.

They've called him many things. Mr. Deadeyes, The Hollow Man, Leg Breaker, The Devil's Grin, and he's come to answer to asshole, but Jack Empty's his favorite name.

There are stories about him; you'll hear them if you're a Seeker long enough. They say he's older than Legion, kept alive by profane deals and unholy pacts. They say most of Them have passed through his hands at least once. They say he's not exactly a Seeker and not really a Holder, but something in between. They say he's been to the center of Hell and back.

Many people have wondered how a man can have seen so much and still be human. They say he's not. They say that the horror of his life destroyed his humanity, his very soul, and the void created a black hole. They say if you ripped off his skin you'd find nothing underneath 'cause he's got jack inside him. He's empty. Get it?

They don't know why he still seeks. The cynical ones think it's a game to him. The sympathetic ones say that it's because he can only feel something when he gets an Object, like how a drug addict always needs another dose. All I know is that when you meet him... run.

Jack was running. He'd been running for two weeks now, since the seventh. Jack really wished he'd kept Self-Control; now he was almost out of juice. Jack was still laughing, though; he really wanted to piss them off before They got him.

Jack had ticked off The End, figured that if he could get out of the room in time he would win the Object. Jack figured wrong, and now Jack was in America with nothing the The Eyes, all of them, and the Liar's Note. Sure, the Note would work on a person, but what good was it against Him?

So Jack laughed and ran and waited to die, but whatever hell-spun creatures commissioned Jack's creation weren't done with him. And so Jack found a Haven.

Havens are this grand idea. Probably a vain hope someone conjured up while their buddy was being chased down by one of Them. A Haven, supposedly, will keep Their Forces at bay for twenty hours, forty-eight on the solstice. Just enough time for you to remember what living without Them after you was like. If you - shall we say - overstay your welcome, then They will take all life in a twenty-mile radius, forty-eight on the solstice, as recompense. The main problem with overstaying your welcome is that these are happy places, places most people would be willing to trade themselves for: playgrounds, old hometowns, grammy's houses, places we remember from our childhood or places that remind us of when we were happy. They change for each person.

What do I think a bastard like Jack Empty'd do? I think he'd tick a Holder off right before a solstice, just to watch the people burn.

Jack awoke in a warm bed. The place was happy; it radiated from the walls. Jack was disturbed by this, although he wasn't sure why; he held no grudge against joy. Jack laughed through his discomfort and did a quick check of his surroundings. His bag was in a corner and since he wasn't waked in the night whoever owned the house didn't know what was in it. Jack got up and looked in the mirror. He was dirty and unshaven and his suit was torn but other than that Jack was fine.

Jack, although empty, had his manners. He did his best to narrow his smile and warm his eyes so that he only looked to be a haunted man and not a mad one. Next, Jack headed downstairs.

"Thank you," Jack said in his best impression of humanity. "I assume it was you who helped me; I'm Jack."

The woman favored her left hand and the kid wasn't a threat, playing with his coloring book. The house was idyllic, like out of a fifties TV show. Jack took stock of the room. He noticed all of the ways he could kill them, if necessary. He noticed all the ways they could try to harm him and how to prevent them.

"Nice to meet you, Jack. I'm Sandra, now mind explaining why I had to give a stranger a room in my house?"

Jack took out the Note and handed it to her. She stared at the thing for a while longer than it should take to read a sheet of paper and finally handed it back to him.

"So how long will you need to stay here, Jack?" Her voice was dead, mechanical. The Note was still in her head, rooting its way through her.

Jack smiled. "Two days. That'll be enough."

My favorite Jack story? Well, there's this one; Jack's been wanderin' around in this dirt poor town, no one knows why he's there, just been walking around. So one day the villagers get together, they're gonna kick Jack out, 'cause he's been here for weeks.

So they meet Jack and say, "You've been here for more than a month now, haven't contributed anything. We want you out."

Jack smiles and says he hasn't begged for food either, has harmed no one, and asks them to leave him alone.

The villagers just get riled, threaten to hurt him if he doesn't get out. Jack's eyes narrow and he tells them how They were created.

Next thing you know most of the villagers are dead or crazy. Except one. This little kid: not old enough to know what Jack's talking about, parents too selfish to save it from the misery of existence. Jack takes it and trains it like an apprentice or pet, then years later after caring for this thing and raising it, Jack just abandons it in an alley. That one always cracks me up.

Jack had it nice in the Haven. He wasn't sure what The Note had said about him, but it must've been pretty good. The kid was bothering him though, it was... familiar. Jack only ever knew one other kid, it made a good pet. Scared the crap out of him one day; called him "Dad". There was just something wrong about that.

But the woman was leaving him alone with the kid. The Note had him come across as trustworthy. Jack wouldn't go out of his way to hurt the kid, but if it came down to it, at least in Jack's mind, who was more important than Mr. Deadeyes?

"So, kid, what is it you're drawing?" Jack tried to be nice, he was tired and didn't want to have to kill something today.

"My name's John, not Kid. I'm drawing my family."

Jack looked at the drawing. It was crappy, but Jack could still count the figures in it. "Is that your dad? Where is he?" Jack pronounced dad with two syllables.

"Daddy left last summer. He and Mommy had been fighting a lot. Wanna play hide-and-go-seek?"

Jack was good at hiding. He could slide between the cracks in the walls, merge with shadows, and rest between ticks of the clock. It took the kid five minutes to find him.

Have I ever seen Jack? I think I did once. I was going after Peace when I saw him. He was asking to see "The Holder of the Cost". I practically screamed when I saw him. The way he moved, it just wasn't human. He'd be perfectly still until he moved then he'd go so fast you could still see him where he used to be.

A friend of mine, Charlie, said that he had Fame, and I'd believe it, he hadn't found an item until then and your first changes you. Charlie didn't brag about it to no one other than me, and I didn't tell a soul, but two weeks after he found it Jack shows up at his door. All he'd say before I killed him. Poor guy. Jack's a rat bastard. Jack could have just killed Charlie, but instead he did... that.

Jack grinned his too-wide grin when he found John. John didn't notice. The children never notice.

"Boy," said Jack. "You sure are good at this.

"Thanks, me and my friends play it every day at lunchtime. You have much better hiding places than them, though."

"I probably do," he grinned. "But they do not always work."

"What d'ya mean?" asked John, confused. Why would a grown-up need to hide?

"Well, there is a mean man after me and I can't hide from him. But if you were to... no," smiled Jack, a plan in mind...

"What is it? Can I help?" John was eager to help. Jack seemed like such a nice grown-up and John could never help mommy on those nights when she'd cry herself to sleep.

"Well, I need something you have; it's called a Ba. If you give that to me, I promise that once I talk to the mean old man we'll play again."

"Well, what's a Ba? I've never seen it."

Jack grinned. "Of course not, it's invisible."

"Oh. Okay then, you can have it."

Jack's grin receded a bit. "Well, this isn't the kind of thing you can give away. There needs to be a... tell you what; I have a special hiding place; if you can't find me there I'll get your Ba. If you can, I'll give you these." Jack showed John his diamond cufflinks. Kids liked shiny things and they were, in fact, valuable so it was a fair game. Almost.

"Alright," smiled John, it was a win-win in John's mind. If he lost he helped out Jack, if he won he got those neat things.

"Good," and with that Jack slipped into The Yellow Road.

Y'sometimes hear, instead of the old story of Jack besting The Devil and winning some soul he was interested in, a story about Jack going to a place called The Yellow Road. They say that it's the place between nightmares and death.

An old, rotten place filled with despair and hate. They say that Jack walked along The Yellow Road, which isn't really yellow, or if it is it's not a road, and came to this giant Emerald. In the Emerald was, well, there were things outside the Emerald which gave Jack a run for his money and this thing was ten million times worse. I heard that... that He was in there.

They had a conversation of things dark and inhuman. About the ends of worlds and of places where despair loses value and suicide loses point. They say that a dark, evil deal was made.

What was that deal? God doesn't even know and we better hope it's never made good.

But Jack always makes good on his deals.

The game went on after the challenge had finished because Jack was having fun. He remembered what it was like before he'd been Jack Empty. He remembered hunting down rodents and breaking their necks. And something else clicked.

"John," Jack called. "I want to ask you a question."

"What is it?" John yelled from his hiding place.

"What's your last name?"


Jack felt the gun against his head. Jack was calm.

"John, go to your room!" Sandy Empty called.

"But me and Jack -"


"I'm already there."

"Jack smiled, "You named him after me."

"You're an egotistical bastard."

"So it was an accident that my pet's child has the same name as her master?"

"Shut up. Why are you really here?"

"Why did you leave me alone with your spawn?"

"I needed to buy the gun."

"You could have sent him to a friend's house last night." Jack smiled, the conversation brought him back to happier times. It reminded him of pulling the limbs off his first Holder.

"Why. Are. You. Here." Sandy hated Jack, she had dreamed of gutting him for the last ten years of her life. She wanted to repay him for all the canings, the false smiles, the looks he would give her which she would pretend she never saw. The looks that would make her know he would never love her. She was a pet, not a child.

"Why did you bring me into your hovel? Why aren't I dead yet? Put the gun down, Sandy. I own you today just as much as the day I found you."

Jack stood up. And Jack smiled. It was a human smile, not the bland mockery he normally plasters across his face. That did nothing to brighten it. If anything it made him all the more horrible. "Take care of the boy. I believe he will be very important one day."

And Jack stepped out of the house and onto the street. The End was waiting.

"Well, Yochanan, We thought you would stay in your Haven 'til your time was up and let these people pay for your misdeeds. Yet you shield them from Us and sacrifice yourself. Why?"

Jack smiled, "I had a deal. It needs to be done. I hope the boy is happy with himself." Jack laughed; cruel, long, and horrible. "I thought you didn't talk."

"This vessel is not talking, We are. You have done nothing but shuffle the deck. You don't work out of greed. You don't work to destroy the world. You don't even work to kill Us. We are tired of you," the man smiled, its approximation was worse than Jack's. "But we will take great pleasure from your screams." Then The End grabbed Jack.

"No. You won't," and Jack laughed. He laughed as he was dragged back to that room in the asylum. He laughed the whole time.

They say if you had sought The End during the nineties instead of the usual man talking to himself you'd have heard laughter. Nobody knows why. Some also say that if you had heard Jack's laugh before, you'd have noticed a remarkable similarity.

Do I think Jack's dead? I'm not sure. If he is though, I thank god the guy's got no soul.

'Cause they say he's older than Legion, kept alive by profane deals and unholy pacts. They say most of Them have passed through his hands at least once. They say he's not exactly a Seeker and not really a Holder, but something in between.

They say he's been to the center of Hell and back.

Jack Returns

It's been a long day at the office. You're tired, you want to go home and put your feet up; get a little rest. See how the kids are doing, maybe ask your wife about her day. You go home, open the door; there's blood everywhere. It runs out, down the steps, into the street. The wife's been gutted, eyes cut out, and her face is contorted into something raw and animalistic. The kids are hanging from the roof, throats slit, left to bleed out like pigs.

The shock hits you like a brick wall: who did this? Then you see it, teeth bared in something almost mistakable for a smile.

It's you.

It's nothing like you, but it's you. One heart-wrenching moment away, if those kids do that one more time, if the wife doesn't get off your back...

The room I enter is almost completely bare: there is a table that's seen better days, a rug even older than the table, a wooden crate clearly for me to sit on, and a strange man in a suit sitting on a stranger, metal crate. He's shuffling a deck of cards. "Step into my parlor," he says. He laughs at his own joke. His grin is slightly disconcerting.

"Who are you?" I ask, moving near the corner. I keep my eyes trained on the man, trying not to blink. Something scares me, about the way his arms move while he shuffles the deck. There isn't any- I don't know what to call it - residual movement? His arms are moving, but it stops there: there's no shoulder motion and he's not looking at his hands.

"Call me Old John. I assume my letter found you well? No confusion about the purpose of our meeting, no questions about what exactly will occur?" He won't stop smiling. It's... weird. I'm not sure if he's a ventriloquist or if I'm just having a hard time making things out in the dim light. I'm pretty sure his lips aren't moving enough, or in time with his speech. "The girl lives, you live, everybody lives - happily ever after, too. Isn't that great?"

"What do you want exactly, John? You don't seem the kind of man predisposed to charity work." He's stopped shuffling at some point and the deck is resting on the little table. Odd, I could have sworn it was in his hands a moment, less than a second, ago.

His grin widens. I think the skin on his face might snap, like elastic stretched too thin, revealing something vast and ticking beneath the surface. "Really? How odd. I like to think of myself as quite the humanitarian. Have a seat, my boy."

I think his nose must have been broken at some point in the past, maybe several times; it's very crooked. I look him over for other signs of battle, other scars, other nuisances; I want to know what kind of fight he'd be. His hair is clipped very short, maybe a half-inch at its longest and is fairly uneven and patches of scalp are occasionally visible. I note a few scars on his head, they look to be, in my opinion, teeth marks. As he draws a card from the deck I see a large, thick, ropey scar winding its way up his arm, disappearing beneath his sleeve. His cufflinks are silver, with diamonds carved to look like beetles adorning them. They look familiar.

I take my seat, the box substantially less comfortable than standing. He's placed the card on the table, face down. I think it's a tarot deck, I don't know why I think that.

"Glad to see you taking a load off; you do so much work, try so hard. 'A man can surpass the standards of his peers and superiors, but should never surpass his own'," he looks at me knowingly, like some private exchange has passed between us. He draws another card, placing it face down next to the first.

"How do I know she's alive?" In the movies and television shows they yell it, or say it with force. I say it barely as a whisper. It's not accusatory; it is a question one poses to themselves, late at night. Hypothetical.

"You know; to put it bluntly, because certain things drive us, move us. If she is dead, part of you will never recover, it will destroy so much of you that you might as well be dead; something else will move about, wearing your skin, but it won't be you. If she is here, you have won, if she isn't... well..." His voice is calm, terrifying. I try not to look at his face. He is wearing a very nice pinstripe suit. It is a smoky gray. I realize that this is washing the color out of his skin; he's not an albino he's... I draw my focus away from that too. There's another card on the table. No, two more now. Four total. I think I'm going to be sick.

"Why is there a skyscraper in the middle of the north Canadian wilderness?" Change the subject. Change is good. Keep moving. Five cards.

"You want to see her so badly. I can feel it, in my dusty bones and in my secret heart. I frighten you. She's very frightened. So frightened... so lonely... You're sick, you know that? Disgusting creature."

The cards are face up now, the four Pages: Cups, then Coins, then Wands, and Swords; then the last card: The Devil. I want to scream. Hate boils up in me. But I don't yell my next words; I hiss them. "Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do?"

My vision is drawn to his rictus. "I know many things, Jonathan Ian Dempty. I know your madness, the taste of your mind; I know what things stir where your soul belongs. I know the drugs you take to keep the nightmares at bay, I know the drugs drop in their drinks or press against their face. I know the curves your knife carves, together, in the dark. I know how it feels to take a life. I know where you hide the bodies."

Throughout his rant, his expression doesn't change once. He sounds intrigued, excited, maybe even concerned, I am sick. Not violently. Just on the inside. The idea hangs there for a moment before dispersing. I think that that must be what insanity's like. Thinking you're flawed. Knowing you're flawed.

"I'm leaving; I don't know what you're talking about."

"We can run some tests," he says as I leave the room. "We can find out what makes you the way you are."

I ignore him, descending the darkened stairwell. Again the question wells up inside. Who built this place? Why? It doesn't matter, though. Ignore. Ignorance.

I reach the ground floor, thirty-one stories beneath the room that I met him. I kept track because this place descends farther down, without winding or changes in the stairwell. Just a constant wind downward, doors on your left and right. The thought occurs; where do the doors on the left go, the ones pointing outside? There were no balconies, no breaks in the - ignore. Ignorance is bliss.

I open the door out, readying to go to my stolen car. When the door opens it's not the same forest I came here in, not even a forest: it's the Arctic or Antarctic, a frozen desert.

"Perhaps you'd best stay inside? It's cold out and you don't look prepared."

I turn around, startled, wondering how he snuck up on me, but there isn't anyone there. I tell myself it must be strange acoustics, allowing him to call down the stairs and still be heard clearly. "What the hell do you want?" I yell, even though I just told myself I shouldn't need to.

"Wasn't it obvious?" his voice whispers. I pretend it's not coming from the wastes to my back. "I want to make you a god."

He sends me into one of the subbasements. I don't fight it; I'm universal flotsam, pushed about by the seas of reality. Poseidon, fish-god, blind as all creatures of the deep, Earthshaker, horse-father, cyclopean deity, is it you who rules the depths below the frozen lands? Or is it your wealthy brother, Hades, forgotten god of fearsome death? Oblivion patron, does ice freeze at your word? Do the stars go blind at the wave of your hand? Whose is it, to rule over cold and destruction?

When I reach the room he directed me to I open the door to my left, the ones leading "outside" (But didn't the tower curve the other way when I ascended? Why is the path out always at my left? What would happen should I change my course, now? Ignorance. Forget your questions, they hurt too much.) and I find myself in a sort of theatre. It is made out of stone, but not the strange, black stone of the tower; this is natural, gray stone. I call it a theatre for its shape: the walls form a trapezoid while the floor and ceiling turn downward at about a thirty-degree angle, before evening out fifteen or sixteen feet from the far wall. In the level area, John is setting up some sort of film.

"Glad to see you found your way back," he says without looking up. He's changed his outfit, thrown a lab coat over his suit.

"Back?" I ask. "I've never been here before."

He looks at me, still smiling. "You never left."

He takes out a screwdriver, fiddling with the old projector; one of the old ones, using actual film reels. Something about it makes me want to say it's from the period before color, after sound. I notice he's set up an old wooden table and chair a little ahead of the projector, to the right.

"So. What did your mother say when you announced you were going off to war?"

He's fiddling with the machine, making small talk. It's like this is just another day for him, natural that he should be doing this. I'm reminded of a cat playing with its food.

"Why don't you ask her yourself?" I say it impetuously, like a child's accusatory word at their parent.

"Jonathan, at this point do you still believe I have her?"

"I suppose not," I sigh, giving in to his game. "She was... disappointed, I suppose. Heartbroken, maybe. It's hard to describe." I trail off for a moment, remembering. "She accused me of giving in, I don't know to what."

"Yes, you do."

I nod.

"It's ready, Jon. Take a seat."

The film starts abruptly; there is no countdown, immediately I'm treated to a view of a chair, almost indistinguishable from the one I'm sitting in. It is directly parallel to my own and I do not take notice - and if I would not be disturbed by - how incongruous this is to the positioning of the camera. It is like a mirror, reflecting back a grainy world of black and white (and gray).

There is no action for a few seconds and then my captor, John, walks across the screen. It is quick, but I am sure I see him and momentarily I wonder if it was, in fact, an aspect of the project or if he really moved here and now. It is confirmed to be an aspect of the film when he walks across again, this time from the opposite direction. He enters view a final time, this time dragging a young girl with him.

He sits her down in the chair, the one identical to my own, like a reflection of my own, and she stares, mouth agape, right into my eyes. I am horribly unsettled. John crouches down with his knees bent awkwardly and begins to whisper in her ear. Twice he quickly points directly at me. After a minute or so of this, he steps behind her and again crouches down, stroking her hair like a parent. He draws a knife and carefully, slowly, begins to bring it up to her neck. He has it pressed against the far side of her neck but she doesn't seem frightened of him, she simply stares at me with awful horror. Suddenly, John presses down and pulls -

The scene cuts.

Sound begins to fill the room from what I hope are microphones behind the makeshift screen, it is a droning monologue and it sounds like we have picked up partway through.

"- properly preserved we reach what the lessons of Ienpw and Ausare could only attempt to teach their people. The possibilities are endless! We can reach new heights in the sciences of biology and zoology, preserving animal carcasses for millennia; imagine if the cavemen had the foresight and ability to suspend all the animals of their day."

As he says this, the camera pans over a shelf filled with various preserved animals and their body parts. All are held in strange orbs that appear to be empty save for the creatures inside them. Wires do, however, run from the base.

"Or perhaps we could consider medicine, the preservation of origins for as long as we desire, or the holding of blood at any desired temperature without interference of strange herbs and potions."

We continue panning, revealing a similar shelf containing, as the narrator said, various human origins. Or they appear to be human; I see several I do not recognize. All are held in the same contraptions as before.

"And down this train, we reach the root of my endeavors, what I set out to do all those years ago." We appear to be zooming in on most of a human head with part of the lower jaw and one of its eyes missing. "Immortality."

The lone eye opens. Scene cuts.

We are now looking at a blurry, shaking figure. I believe I have heard of how they set these up on film: an actor sitting still while moving one part of his body in a set of movements, usually his head. After that, the film is sped up resulting in an indistinct shaking figure. The actor here appears to have been rapidly moving his whole body. Audio starts.

"Hello, child. Here is news: dominion, destruction. What do you dream of? I dream of you. I dreamed of you to life. I dreamed your world, your universe. Can you hear us? Can you hear me? I see you. I smell your dreams. Help us... Dream the world, child. Help me dream you. Do you want your mommy, Jon?"

I look at the table, and see a group of photos and drawings and pictures all laid out in front of me. Lazily, drowsily, I pursue them. Seeing a picture of Old John, I pick it up and carefully set it aside, in a little area cleared out along the side. I can fit four more. I pick up the next one that takes my fancy, Leonardo's Vitruvian man. There appears to have been a hole burnt into the drawing, over the heart. I set it aside. Next, I pick out a picture of a large ruby, strange shapes swirling at its core. Now I examine a photo of a large tapeworm, set it aside. Finally, a pair of broken glasses.

Almost immediately I snap out of it looking about me, heavily confused. Was that some sort of hypnotism? I suddenly have an intense urge to know the time.

"Five thirty-eight," remarks John, seeming to read my mind. "It's very common for participants in the Totenberg Series to experience a passionate desire to know the time. For some reason, they never ask about the date."

My worry lifts. This, at least, doesn't seem too paradoxical. John is examining the cards I have set aside. Ignoring how the other cards have been cleared away in the few seconds my eyes were off them, "You like what you see?"

"It is... surprising. Why did you select this one?" he asks as he taps his finger on the photo of him.

"It was the only thing that was really, I don't know, familiar out of the bunch."

John nods at this. "How about the ruby?"

"It reminds me of a recurring dream I used to have when I was a kid." I feel like I'm under a psychological examination. I wonder why I'm being so cooperative; could he have drugged me?

"And the glasses?"

"I'm not sure."

"What about the other two?"

I shake my head. "Still, no." John begins pacing about the room. I grow very uncomfortable when he's behind me, when I can't see him - I keep imagining a knife. The details of the last segment start slipping away. I remember the audio clearly, except for the last word. It started with a J; Jon or John or Jack or Legion... What remains crystal unclear are the actions of the Figure beyond the first few seconds. Did he get up? Did he stay still? I know whatever he did frightens me, like so many other things today. What am I afraid of? What commonality is there between the things that scare me today, like a small child?

It occurs to me that I should get up. When I do so, I find myself inches away from John's face. "I've made a decision. Come with me." John walks to the door, taking far fewer steps than he should be able to.

Courage returns to me. Stupid, idiotic courage. "No, I'm not going with you until I get some answers." It sounds cliched, but what else fits the bill? "What is this place? And who are you?"

John is suddenly only a foot or two away, the change is startling. A wave of nausea hits me; I focus on the A.G. logo on his lab coat.

"You brought it with you, right?" For the first time he doesn't sound bemused or intrigued, but a little... sad.

"I don-"

"You know full well! What else could I be talking about? What else could even remotely explain it all?" His smile has contorted into a sneer of disgust, the first facial change I've seen in him since I arrived.

Almost guiltily, I take it out of my coat pocket. He looks at it for a while, shaking his head. It seems like the dementia has left him along with that strange power, now he just seems a sad, old man.

"You know that these were once part of a whole. You know certain of their secrets, as a Seeker must, but you fear the unknown. Did you fare better with what little description the tales offer? Don't answer that, it doesn't matter."

He pauses, thinking, before starting up once more. "They were once whole, but were scattered like a herd of sheep or other cattle. Some put it to the metaphor "like the bones of a dead man", but I do not appreciate the comparison. They did not die, besides. This tower is a... construct. A memory, if you will, formed out of a dream. It was given steel by lifeless things much like gods so that They could be... lured here. It confined them and allowed certain measures to take place. The cycle starts here and so it must end. I have made it my domicile for the protection it provides; it can withstand the cycle, for it is not wholly real."

He looks at me, and something in the look tells me that that is supposed to answer my first question. He moves on to my second.

"Me? I have many names, but they don't matter. What you need to know is that I'm older than Legion, kept alive by profane deals and unholy pacts. Most of Them have passed through my hands at least once. I'm not exactly a Seeker and not really a Holder, but something else. If you ripped off my skin you'd find nothing underneath, 'cause I've got jack inside me. I'm empty." Jack looked me in the eye. "And you know who I am now, don't you?"

His grin was horrible. Any humanity I thought I saw slipped away, like a loose-fitting mask. I could feel pressure on my brain - no, on my mind. The idea drips through my head on spider webs: I should be screaming. My jaw is locked in place, I'm paralyzed.

"Now, pet," says Empty, "We don't want you running away, now do we?" His hand jerks in the air, as though it is holding a leash. It occurs to me how terrifyingly massive he is, as my legs follow him of their own will.

We exit through a door I had not seen before, one located along what I'll call the east wall, if we assume that I entered from the north. Jack is still talking.

"Has it occurred to you, Jon, that there are no lights in my tower? Has it occurred to you that you should not be able to see? Has it? Of course, you can't answer me. I am humoring myself with rhetorical questions, and what else can they be when I parlay with insects? What are they but questions posed to myself?"

He chuckles; his laugh is reminiscent of the bays of hyenas or the rustling of metallic feathers. "You see, because I wish it; you see only what I want you to see. Jon, can you imagine how I feel amongst creatures that I can only see as insects, as pets, as amusements? Can you imagine the crushing loneliness that it is to be a god amongst the beetles? Of course, you can, you're a megalomaniac!"

He laughs again, louder, the glass on the containers I am pretending not to see shakes. I pray with every fiber of my being they don't break. "The Totenberg Series confirmed what you were suspicious of: you are special. You have... potential. Potential for a great many things; you have destiny. You could be the next "Chosen Seeker" as the gnats elevate those amongst them that exhibit some excellence - in the old usage, of course, "to excel in a field" not synonymous with 'perfection'. You could be the one destined to keep them apart. You could be a messiah or a great many other things, but I have selected for you."

We enter a new area that appears to be composed entirely of metal grating, suspended in a void by long chains, dripping with unknown substance. Then I notice, to my unending relief, that there are lights placed along the roof of the corridor. I will be able to truly see once more!

"You do not seem overly concerned with this development but, I suppose, you have taken it all in stride. Except for what you don't understand. Ylao Herself, how you fear the unknown! There is the normal discomfort of humans, but you have true and violent dread of it. Here we are."

The passage seems to have simply hit a dead-end but then I notice: a table and two crates. Could this have been the room I first met Jack in; perverted through the lens of his mind?

There is a cup, on the table. I can hear his words echoing in my mind, "Drink up, Johnny Boy..." That's not my name, I want to say, but once more he choruses, "Drink up, Johnny's Boy... Drink from your Grail... Taste of the 49..." Yeah, shut up, old man.

For a moment, I consider my other options. Only a moment, because then I realize I have no other options. "Johnny's Boy, Johnny's Boy, Johnny's Pet's Son... Your Grail... Your Grail..."

Picking up the grail, holding it up to the light, I consider the words of its story, one of the few I've examined thus far; "If you drink His blood, you'll either go mad or become the Antichrist. Only your fate can decide." DRINK, YOU LITTLE FUCK! Christ, alright, calm down.

I keep my hand steady as I raise the cup to my lips: it doesn't take a genius to think that hell on earth might be bad. I press it to my lips, tilt my head back, downing as little as -

The pain sears through me, I vomit onto the grate. I'm distantly aware that I'm on my hands and knees; that Jack is laughing, looking at the cup. I vomit again. My mind's on fire. I see the space around me warp and twist. Jack's everywhere. He's between the atoms, between the stars. He's in my shadow, in my head. The skin's a mask: sheep's clothing for the wolf to hide in. I can see my mother; she's bawling, shouting at Jack. He doesn't even look at her, it's like he's not aware she exists. I realize I can't hear anything but distant static.

I giggle as I become acutely aware of someone screaming and assume it's me. I guess I wasn't fated, you asshole.

Sound pops back into clarity. "I'll kill you for this, you fucking asshole!"

"Pet, not now; not on Antichristmas. Antichrist, what an adorable term; might as well call you 'Nero' - old six sixty-six. The term's usage in the original story comes from a mistranslation of a description of one of the earlier entities to hold your seat, Jon. He was called 'The Enemy of the Church', church became Christ, etc. The actual position is somewhat foggy, a figure that embodies power and its corruptive influence. You will shortly know it better than I could ever explain it, Jon."

He's right. I can feel my bones changing... my mind expanding... my sinews twisting... my organs melding and separating. My skin is just a mask, who's wearing my skin?

With unnatural energy, I lift myself to a standing position. Everything has changed so much, I could never explain it. I take a step toward Jonathan's mother.

"What are you going to do now, creature?" says the little shadow. "What will you do now?"

I focus on him. "Little shadow; you created me, little shadow; you tormented me. The Dying Ones have stories of djinn and golems and warn each other of what it is to tamper out of their breadth and keen. Did you think yourself above their law?"

"I am not of their law," says the little shadow as he puts the cup on the cable.

"Little shadow, do you fear the fire? Does it burn your legs, your thighs? Does it burn you ch-" Little shadow charges me with strange power, I am thrown back against a wall of our little corridor. I hiss at him, returning the attack. I remove a gun from one of Jonathan's pockets, letting off a burst of ammunition to the little shadow's face. Little shadow screams raw fury, a massive hand grabbing me by the face, beating my head against the wall with force enough to crush bone. My head deforms momentarily before beginning to reassemble. Nonetheless, I am jarred.

Little shadow prepares to redouble his assault when the variable he foolishly ignored begins to act as I expected it to. The woman picks up the cup.

"You two are going to get off of each other, now." Little shadow goes rigid, terrified. I smirk.

"You are both going to stand with your backs to the wall. You will then, very calmly, tell me how the hell I get out of here."

"Pet, you don't want to do this -" begins Jack, but the woman cuts him off. Is that a hint of dismay in his cock-sure smile?

"You don't tell me what I do and don't want, Jack. Fuck you, after what you did to my son." I smile at the old broad. She's clueless, but she's on my side.

"You don't understand human interaction, Nero," says the little shadow. "If she was on your side, she would have let you go free. Now, Samantha -"

"Shut. Up." As the woman says this, she tips the cup dangerously. "How do I get out of here? Any takers?" I consider the nature of the question. If memory serves it should appear, at this point a straightaway. I risk a glance around the little shadow to where the way had been. It is gone. This comes as a surprise. Much knowledge is open to me now; I ponder the nature of the building.

"You have five seconds," says the woman. I can feel in the back of my mind that little shadow is about to say something.

"He never loved you, you know. He was like me, as incapable of that as you are of killing us. You're a child, Samantha. You always will be."

I look at the little shadow. "Was that about Jonathan?"

"No," whispers the woman. She's crying, actually crying! "He's talking about Jon's father." For a moment, she stands there. I feel little motion to my left. Little shadow is about to take action. "Eat fire, asshole."

The stupid girl throws the blood in the shadow's face and the whole place erupts in flame. I stand there, basking momentarily in how easy it was to kill them both when the fire suddenly gutters out. I look about, confused, seeing the two ruined corpses lying on the ground, one on top of the other, and... no cup.

I shake my head, realizing what occurred. The little shadow smothered the flames with his own void! Clever ghoul! I grab the shoulder of the corpse I take to be the little shadow's and flip it over to access my prize. I admire the grail, temporarily empty though it is, before setting it on the ground. I must, after all, find my door.

As I begin branching out with my newfound senses, something spears through my back, on the left side, puncturing through where my kidney once was. I look down.

"You're supposed to die by fire!" I almost whine.

"You were close. There's more to it than that." The corpse does something I take to be smiling. "But that did hurt like all hell. I've lost a lot of skin." His other hand shoots up to my chest and begins tearing away strips.

It hurts as he skins me. The pain is almost indescribable. It's like walking through a forest fire. Or eating knives. After a while, I stop struggling against him, letting it occur. He seems to eat more than just my skin... he eats my memories... he eats my power. I persevere. I hide away as much of myself as I can here, in this place. You touch my mind here, and I touch yours. He has me caged, but not imprisoned. I am the king of this world and you shall bow.

I am you, one heart-wrenching moment away.

Do it.

Jack's Hunt

Jack pulled a lump of meat out; it was spongy, possibly a tumor. He decided it used to be a heart, misshapen and undone by Infectus, a name he read from the man-thing's intestines. Tasting the morsel, he felt the raw strength of the dead thing wash over him; yes, indeed it was a heart.

He picked onward through the body 'til it was rendered hollow. A portrait of self, almost. He then took notice of something grasped tightly in its hands and stifled his animalistic joy; he hadn't thought this thing had managed to touch Balance, let alone do this. Jack knew of the strength required to rend this loose and he knew the strength he would need to make use of it. Smile wider than ever, he pocketed it and headed over to Balance. Mr. For-the-Good-of-Mankind had been too squeamish to watch the feeding.

His loss.

I am a Seer. I See the Truth.

I have met this man, this husk of a man. Just the bones he was, the minimum. A crown rested upon his head and thirty-one rings upon his fingers.

He rode a pale horse.

Jack stood on top of a tower. He cut his mind off from the skin he wore and expanded through the cracks between atoms and stretched across the gulf of space. He became emptiness. He became all that wasn't. He was a god again! He was Ginnungagap, Kaos, and Void! He was...

His name escaped him again. A brief spurt of rage racked through him, and across the cosmos, two hundred died for the loss of a name.

He calmed himself. He knew that the name would return in time. All the things the bitch took returned with time.

He scanned minds, taking stock of his friends and foes. He noted the state of the Objects, any Seekers who might be problematic, and through his trail, Jack encountered something new: a great darkness, his kindred. Jack focused on this and for a moment did not recognize the power, but then a scream of grief and agony.

Jack decided that something had to be done about this thing. Infectus. A curse on him.

He was too large, too focused; he was not human. Not even a god of humans.

His bones were hell condensed on earth and his breath was death. The end of the world was in his mind and his gut and his pack and he stood like a signal to the Dark. A great unholy lighthouse.

Jack knew he could not fight Infectus, the Sack of Dung, for soon Essum would come and He of The Most Detested Name would hide behind his master.

What infuriated Jack most was how this Infectus easily followed orders, like a dog. The stupid thing never questioned his master. Neither of them truly thought anymore.

Jack's grin returned. That was how he would murder the rat.

The thing next to him was fake, an illusion creating a mound of symbolic flesh and plastic.

It changed easily and freely, as though it were fluid. One moment it appeared small and rat-like, scampering after its master, another it dwarfed the skeletal thing it followed.

I don't think it was quite sure who or what it was; it seemed to form its identity around its master's mood.

And the master's moods were dark indeed.

"Boy, have The Thirty-One informed you of the... situation with Dallas?"

"Yes," said the Specter, eager to please. "I am not to harm or maim the man called 'Balance' lest his wrath shine down upon me and, in turn, you." the Specter paused. "I don't like it."

"No one does. We cannot worry about him for now, though, as 'Infectus' has risen again and has something I am in desperate need of. You will be helping me get it, boy."

Specter, although elated, wondered why he was needed.

"Because," Jack answered the boy's thoughts, "I doubt you're edible."

Thirty-one rings were on his fingers. That is of great important, although I don't know why.

Do they represent wealth? Did some minute detail upon them spell our, or his, downfall? Do they showcase a lost kingdom? Or was I wrong and those rings are his godly symbol?

I do not know. But remember that number: thirty-one.

Jack ran his fingers across the three blades. Two shook with joy at his touch and the other brooded. It was bored.

"The boning knife and the ax," said the boy. "Two of the Thi-"

"Yes," said Jack. "I know the stories better than anyone; you needn't tell them again."

"So what will we be doing to the White King's Sword? I know the boning knife exposes the magic and the ax is for cutting off from sources but I don't see how they will be useful now."

"They are not just for Objects, boy," Jack removed a silver box from his coat. "They work on all sorts of things," Jack smiled.

"You will be using the White King's Sword in the battle; have the boning knife and ax on hand, though. We might need to twist the odds in our favor."

Edo Infectus? N-no! You can't make me! I-I...

It is still. A twitch, a gasp, a whisper in its ear and it springs to life. The same way a puppet has life.

It thinks it sees the strings. It thought it pulled the strings, once. Even in its stint as puppeteer, it knew not all the ways to make one move. Or all the ways one can move, for that matter.

It is all hate and darkness, vengeance and death. Like a ball of fire and smoke.

The fire rages in three parts: The first is for Legion and kingdoms lost. A battle eons ago but that he believes still rages to this day.

The second is for a woman and a love that is now a curse. He blames the woman but I don't believe the love was hers. Or anyone's, for that matter.

The last is toward someone long forgotten and for reasons lost to time.

Balance would be the last of the runes around the gate, sealing it shut for another millennium.

"That the last of them?" asked Devaide. "Course it is. Eighteen gates you said we'd close and eighteen it is. But there might be one last one we didn't account for. Or maybe we lost track."

"It's closed. We're done," Balance cringed slightly, as though at an unpleasant reminder of past offense. "Or maybe not."

"Hello, Dallas."

"I am Balance. I was when we met, I am today, and I will be when your bones have been eaten away by the desert sands."

"A little late for that, Dallas. And besides, there will one time come a day when you will regret having taken up this position of power and will wish to once again be Dallas. Mark my words, for I swear on the good name Jack that they will come to pass."

Balance sighed and closed his eyes. "I see for you... that all wounds can be mended, all paths rediscovered, and all losses gained. That is what I see for you." Balance opened his eyes. "Now what do you want?"

"Something in both our interests; Infectus Essum, positively a Beelzebub in training, has recently become a thorn in my side. I am confident in my abilities to kill him but finding him might prove... difficult. I simply ask you to bring me and an ally of mine to his location and I will ensure his untimely death," Jack smiled. "An excellent deal, if you ask me."

"No," said Balance. "I don't know what you're planning but it won't be good."

Jack wore no smile. "Dallas, people often die because they shunned what little help I offer. Know this, when I swear that if you don't aid me Infectus will live for another eight years after I take what I need from him."


Jack looked at Balance for a few moments; he wasn't sure that this man was the Balance he had known anymore. "Would you consider a deal that would save your friends' sanity? Grant them both a body? You -"

"No, Yochanan. No."

As he looked at Balance and Devaide, Jack began to laugh.

"A familiar scene," said Jack through his glee. "Obsession makes terrible things of mortal men. Worse things of our kind."

Hope is seldom seen among those who Seek, but I have seen hope.

He stood there bright, like a light, and opposed everything that the Hollow Man stands for.

He stood strong, ready to strike down evil wherever he met it! He was Ra and Apollo! Heracles and Sigurd! The port in the storm for all mankind!

Then he met Jack.

I hear they call him Legion now.

Jack walked across the plaza. The great space seemed to draw the world toward him, as if it were his kingdom and all the people who were not there led a great parade with him at the head.

"Hello," Jack's voice was false, charming. "I am Mister J. Totenaugen, here to see Dr. Wes Trouver." He smiled, again, a falsity.

The secretary smiled back; Jack could never be attractive but at least he seemed... pleasant. "Yes, Jack, they've been ready since you met Balance."

"Trust the boys upstairs to know where their allies are; that's the way to Keep Us Better."

Once Jack was loaded into the elevator, his face contorted back into its usual rictus. He liked to make sure he could still remember how to look human.

There as no Dr. Trouver but there was a Wes. He had done the dealings with Jack for over twenty years. You'd be surprised by what they received as payment, even if you had begun to know what work they did.

"Hello, Leg Breaker," he said; he knew Jack did not enjoy the name but his disgust toward Jack outweighed the danger. He did not know that his death would come immediately upon the start of his retirement, both legs broken and his throat ripped out.

"Worm," said Jack.

What do I see in The Devourer? The same thing you see when you stare into the night sky, so clouded you could believe for all the world that there never was a universe.

I see the same thing you see when you look into the mouth of a hungry beast.

Jack looked down at the machine's monitor, if you could call it that. It was a pane of glass carefully and proportionately mapping out the contents of the earth and several other places. Below that, partially visible through the glass, was something glowing and red, about the size of a human skull.

Jack ran his fingers over the screen. "I think I prefer my knives; they work on a wider variety of things. Besides, they have that homemade feel."

"Just use the thing and get out," said Wes. "I don't like letting you down here longer than necessary."

Jack placed his hands over the north and south poles and willed the contraption to life. A buzz of electricity filled the air as the light from the Object grew to that of a small sun until it focused on a location in the middle of the Atlantic.

"Either your 'friend' is scuba diving or someone got to him before you," Wes sighed. "Lucky bastard."

"No. He's alive."

Wes would have explained to Jack that the map was flawless, detailing every island of every world, but Jack was already gone.

How do you See these things? That is not a question.

A better question would be, "How does the world not See?"

It is not hard; you only need to truly want to. To say, "I wonder if that man is really a murderer" and mean it. Not be satisfied with what you are told the truth is but need to know for yourself.

And then it comes. And then it never goes away; no matter how much you don't want to anymore, no matter how hard you pray, no matter what pills they put you on, no matter if you tear out your eyes. It won't go away.

Edo Infectus faced south, where he had felt Jack coming from; his sword was ready, eager to strike Jack down; his power gathered around him like a thick fog. Bloodlust was in the air.

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

Edo Infectus spun and tried to find his adversary but found he was alone. Jack was good at hiding.

"Oh, how mighty you stand, wings spread wide, horns shining like a black lacquer... those eyes..." Jack paused briefly. "I shall have to take those from you when we're done."

The floor beneath Infectus split like a gutted fish. Dirt, stone, old bones were all churned from the earth in a sudden thrust and a mammoth creature, more ape than man, was at its center.

It clutched the White Knight's Sword.

Edo Infectus made a hacking sound in the back of its throat.

That will do you no good against me, Edo.

Jack was suddenly next to The Beast, smile bright like the fires at Auschwitz. "Oh, and yes, 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 welder flawed? Or the weapon?' and I will say, 'Perhaps both.'"

Suddenly The Beast charged Edo Infectus, brandishing the White King's Sword to cut him in two, but Infectus parried it expertly.

Is that thing your best fighter, Youchanan, Edi?

Jack bashed Edo Infectus in the back of the head with a hammer. "He's more than a match for you."

"Tell me," Jack said as he and Specter attacked from two sides. "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," Jack smiled. "Or a knife to the head. That works too."

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

And Edo Edi Essum heard his Thrall's plea and opened a path to the battle.

"And the pieces fall into place," said Jack with a Cheshire grin.

Edo reared his ugly head, if you could call it that, and was momentarily confused. It sensed (for it could not see) the bland mockeries of life that were Jack and Edo Infectus but there was another life, or life-like thing. Edo Edi Essum tried to drain it as he would any other creature, but when he "tasted" of it he was repulsed. Something about it was... wrong.

"I didn't think you'd like my friend," said Jack. "Wouldn't get too close; that bitter taste could ruin your appetite."

Suddenly Jack was in the hole between the battle and Edo Edi Essum.

"Veni, vidi, edo edi essum?" said Jack. "I think not."

Jack removed a small silver box from his breast pocket. "Edo Edi Essum, do you know what this is? A single thread from Dallas's cloak, torn free by Pessum Ire while the boy defended himself using the Toga of the Gods. By the twisting of my magics I have accessed the whole of Dallas's strength; let me tell you, the boy is stronger than he knows. He has the very powers of Creation! But..." Jack cackled with delight, "I doubt he'll be able to do it twice."

Jack stuck the box where Edo Edi Essum's ribs would have been.

"Forgive me, Master."

Thunder shook the island.

In you I see...

Murder, grime, wailing. I smell the sea.

You are a plaything to the tempest, sea and time, a sailing ship, Pride of Mariah, is not a ship. But you are its plaything, cast from storm to beast and back again.

How are you, Mr. Filth?

No, I believe I'm quite ready to die. Send Jack my regards, for you are his only guest, the only man that can come and go.

But you are still a plaything.

Jack staggered over to where Edo Infectus had collapsed. Specter looked confused and disappointed. "I thought we were going to fight him."

Jack stifled a laugh. "Even with the better blade he still would have gutted us. Now what are you waiting for? Stab him with the damn knife then hack at him with the ax."

The boning knife made a sizzling sound when it cut Edo Infectus. The ax sounded like an old cough.

Specter shivered, "Those tools. They made me feel... empty."

"I do that to people, when they let me in. Come now, we have work to do." The nail shined brightly in the dying light. "Would you like to nail his hands together, or shall I?"

I think I would have liked to see the stars, one last time. Too late for that though. Tell me, do monsters still look to the sky and think about what could have been?

Jack pulled Infectus to its feet.

"See," Jack beamed like a man admiring his fine work, "you take away the horns, and the wings, and the eyes, and what do you get? Something very nearly human."

A short distance away, something stirred.

"Specter, get the boy to his feet. Wait 'til the Master sees what I could do to his pet in a few short minutes."

Specter dragged the wretched, naked thing that had once been Edo Infectus to its feet.

Edo Edi Essum heard Jack say, "Come and see," and rose like a great black wave, ready to drown and crush and destroy.

The Thing looked at Jack. Jack smiled.

It moved to Infectus and something not unlike a pair of hands reached from the robe and lifted Infectus away.

If Jack wasn't expecting it, it did not show on his face.

"You'll regret that," he said, his smile more a cruel sneer than ever before.

The gate shut behind Essum.

"What now?" said Specter.

Jack smiled. "We wait. He'll come crawling back. They all do."

But in the meantime, in a dark place, Jack would scream. In Hell, they would mock him for his error, the first in years unnumbered. And the voices did not stop until the day Jack planted a heel in Infectus's head.