They say there's a man who walked the earth today, a man who's thousands of years old. He's been through things we humans can't imagine, they say. He's still nothing more than a piece of detritus, bit of debris, tossed and blown about in a raging storm of life and existence. No one knows who he is. What he does. Why he continues to exist. Continues to labor in futility.

Is ingredior inter nos, tamen non est unus nostrum.

He walks among us, but he is not one of us.

His work is never done.

Work

I open my eyes, rolling out of my bed, feet touching the ground. The springs of the mattress groan and screech as I take my weight off of it, the sound as close to the ringing of morning bells as I'll ever get. I cross the living room of my apartment to the bathroom, where I splash water on my face to wake myself up. Studying my reflection, I allow myself an inward smirk - many have said I don't look a day over twenty-three. They're off by a couple powers of ten. I briefly consider putting in my contact lenses and gloving my left hand, but think better of it. I'd rather not have to disguise myself until I go out.

After showering, I pull on my regular clothes - a pair of dark jeans and a metallic gray button-up shirt. Fastening the second-to-last button, I give it a tug downward before smoothing out the sleeves, leaving the cuffs unbuttoned. After a moment's thought, however, I unbutton five buttons of my shirt, letting some air pass through my chest. Wet hair hanging in my face, I hunt for the remote, circling my somewhat spacious living area for it. My income isn't great - much too small for a regular person to finance an apartment of this size - but it's amazing what you can buy when you don't need to pay for food. Eventually, I find it under a couch cushion, and I point it at the television, pressing the power button. I don't use much human technology, but the television is an exception. I lie down, stretching myself out as my moderately-sized television flickers to life. I click though the channels, stopping only long enough to determine that I am not interested in what the channel has to offer.


"- partly cloudy, with -"

"- and it's out of the park! -"

"- you'll never need another -"

"- Senate is still -"

"- buy now and -"

"- delivers -"


I glance at the clock. 7:34. I still have a couple hours before I have to leave for work. Perfect. 7:35. Another minute. Another minute that pushes forward not just that clock, but another clock, one set to a different time. One whose relentless ticking resonates only within the confines of my own skull.


Five months, one week, three days, seven hours, and thirty-five minutes since I was reborn.

I step off the edge.

The wind rushes past me.

Hours go by.

Days.

Weeks.

Months.

Years.


Setting down the remote, I roll off the couch and walk into the kitchenette. Without really paying attention, I gingerly place the filter in the coffee machine, pouring in the necessary water and coffee grounds. I lean against the counter, listening to the machine's percolation.


The ground meets me in a flash.

Bone shatters.

Flesh tears.

There's no pain.

There's nothing.

Nothing at all.


The pot fills, and I pour myself a mug of the steaming black liquid. I press it to my mouth, tipping the cup. The steaming liquid flows past my lips, but I can't feel the heat. Can't taste the bitterness.


All is futile, I realize.

Holders.

Seekers.

Objects.

Balance.

Essum.

Me.


I swallow, feeling my nose wrinkle as the stuff turns to ash. It always happens. I don't know why I keep drinking it, why I make it every morning without fail. It's just another ritual, I guess. Another litany to keep my sanity intact.


What am I? I think to myself.

Nothing like Essum.

Nothing like Balance.

Nothing like the person I used to be.

And certainly not human.

Although...


I glance back at the television, sipping my coffee and feeling it turn to ash, leaking like a black waterfall out of the -

"- hole in his chest." I snap back into the present to see a news anchor fixing a small sheaf of papers in her hands. "To repeat, the next victim in a string of grisly murders all across the state has been found. The man, as of yet unidentified, was found lying on his kitchen table, with a perfectly circular hole cut all the way through his chest. Viewer discretion is advised as -"

I flick off the television, feeling a small spark of contentment. The most important ritual of all. James Reynolds was the man's name, a white male in his 30s. He had three Objects, all scattered around his living room. He'd never expected to be found. Of course, none of them did. I can still faintly hear his death rattle.

I look back up at the clock.


Five months, one week, three days, seven hours, and fifty minutes since I was reborn.


I push the hair out of my face, buttoning my shirt the rest of the way up. It's been three days, and it's time to begin the Ritual again. I walk to the bathroom, staring at the mirror. Two placid, dead eyes stare back at me, their sclera black and their irises gold. I take out my contact lens solution from the medicine cabinet. In no time at all, my eyes look just as any other person's, minus the cold stare. But I've learned to fix that too.

The finishing touch is the glove. My left hand is nothing but bleached bone, bare and white. I can still move it, but I don't know how or why. It slides right into the glove, fitting snugly. I look back in the mirror, pushing my hair out of my face again.

I go back to the kitchenette and open a drawer, rummaging through until I find a glass syringe, as well as a capped needle. I screw needle into syringe, and grab a small vial of clear fluid from the kitchen counter. As I walk out the door, I grab my duffel bag of tools.

8:45. I'd better hurry.

After all, work sooner begun is work sooner done.

Ritual

Johnny Stokes.

21 years old, 5'11", white.

Drug dealer.


The words are scribbled on the back of a Polaroid photo in my compact, angular handwriting, the three terse lines diagonal across the square material. The photo itself is of a man with short brown hair and a beard, obviously unaware of the camera.

His name, age, height, ethnicity, and occupation shouldn't be hard to guess.

I'm sitting in a Starbucks near the outskirts of town, a steaming cup of coffee sitting on the table next to me, untouched. I would drink it ordinarily, but leaving a trail of ash behind oneself is rather suspicious. And considering the fact that Stokes is just at the other end of the shop, suspicious is something I don't want to be.

I don't know how I manage to find them. All the Seekers. I always seem to be around them at the right place, at the right time. Always seem to be able to spot them. I saw Stokes a few days ago, and broke into his house, finding the Pocket Watch of the Tower and the False Gem of Structure. I couldn't take them, of course - not then. That's not how the Ritual works. I waited. Waited to fulfill the Ritual, take his Objects. And now the Ritual is coming to fruition.

I check my watch.


Five months, one week, three days, sixteen hours, and one minute since I was reborn.


Tonight's the night, but it's still light outside.

What is the Ritual? I've never known how it came into being. I never sat down and thought it out, never consciously decided that I wanted to kill, to take Seekers' Objects - not to keep them, but to return them to their original Holders. I never came up with any sort of modus operandi. It all just... happened. Like someone had already come up with it, and had just given it to me to execute.

Am I insane? Certainly. I accepted that long ago. No one can live for as long as I have and go through as many metamorphoses as I have and expect to have their sanity intact. But where does the Ritual come from? What drives my desire to kill? Why must taking life give me the only happiness I ever feel?

I observe Stokes moving, getting up from his chair. He begins to walk briskly to the door. Waiting a moment, I stand up too, picking up the tepid cup of coffee. I circle around the table before -

- a woman runs head-on into me, splashing half of my cup of coffee down the front of my shirt. She backs away instantly, gasping in embarrassment.

"I'm so sorry," she stammers. "Let me get some napkins..."

"No, that's all right," I reply quickly. The last thing I'd want is for someone to swab my shirt with a napkin and notice the gaping hole in my chest. "I was just leaving anyway."

It isn't until then that I get a real look at her. She's somewhat short, with light skin and blonde hair, an embarrassed look on her face.

"Really," she persists. "I really managed to get it all over you... um..."

Stokes is out of sight, but I know which alley he uses as a venue, and that he'll be there for another few hours. So, I take the cue, wanting to practice interacting with another person.

"Jack," I reply, forcing a slight smile. I've gotten rather good at smiling. "Jack Hawkins." The real Jack Hawkins died ten years ago, so he probably doesn't mind that I've assumed his identity.

"Well, Jack," she says, returning my smile with a coy one of her own. "Maybe I can at least buy you a coffee to replace the one I spilled."

I blink for a few moments. "No," I finally reply, rather unsure of what to say. "There's still some left in this." I hold up the still half-full coffee cup.

The woman looks put out, like I've said something wrong. After a moment, I awkwardly reach for my duffel bag, picking it up by the handle. I walk past her, exiting the coffee shop. What was I supposed to say? Acquiesce, even though my coffee was half full? Why? Humans are so perplexing.

And yet, I feel a faint spark of what could only be called regret. There's no question that I'm an outsider in this world. I walk among these people, but I'm not one of them. And yet...

I can't deny that there's a part of me that wants to be.

Shaking the thoughts from my head, I find myself at Stokes' alley. I finger the syringe in my pocket, going over once again the route I've planned to take, the room I intend to use. I have the entire operation down to the smallest detail. Nothing will go wrong.

As the sun begins to set, I check my watch.


Five months, one week, three days, seventeen hours, and twenty-five minutes since I was reborn.


Tonight's the night.

And night is falling.

Hunt

The sun sinks into the horizon, like two lovers embracing. A part of me reflects that I once knew what that felt like. Another, stronger part quashes the thought, driving me toward the chase.

My duffel bag of tools bounces lightly against my hip, the mental implements clicking together softly. Stokes is just around the corner at his usual venue, no doubt setting up shop. He has no way of knowing that he won't live to see dawn's light. The half-mud-half-water under my feet squelches as I walk, and my right hand lingers by my pocket, fingers playing on the syringe's plunger.


Tonight's the night.


I round the corner, marking my prey instantly. Stokes is leaning against the wall ten or so meters ahead, smoking a cigarette, a hat tilted over his face. The alley's abandoned, with no a soul in sight. Perfect.

I have no heart, but I can nonetheless feel a thrumming throughout my body. The anticipation. The tension. The - dare I say it? - excitement. It courses through my veins, replaces the emptiness with substance, the blankness with feeling. The metaphorical and literal hole in me is filled for a moment. When nothing else can, this makes me feel truly alive.

It's time.

I slip the syringe out of my pocket, concealing it in my hand. I advance slowly on him, in plain sight. Stokes looks on obliviously. I'm so close.

I walk straight up to him. The anticipation rings in my ears. It's the sound of inevitability. The sound of fulfillment. The sound of Johnny Stokes' death knell.

I'm just two steps away.

"Johnny Stokes," I hiss, the sound just barely scratching the alley's desolate silence.

Stokes snaps his fingers.

Two powerful, unseen hands, clamp down onto my shoulders, forcing me to my knees.


Shit.


The cylindrical barrel of a handgun is jammed forcefully into the base of my neck.


Shit!


Stokes just laughs. "Guess you weren't expecting that, hu?" he spits the words at the street in front of me. "Nice coffee stain, by the way."

I reply with a placid stare.

"I've been watching you, Mr. Kills-Off-Seekers. Watching you kill all your targets. Well, I've got news for you." Stokes pushes off the wall, pacing in front of me. "I'm smarter than them. Smarter than you are. Who do you think you are, stalking around alleys and killing Seekers? Who do you think I am?"

"Jonathan Peter Stokes, Jr.," I reply. "Age twenty-one, five feet and eleven inches tall. Born to Jonathan and Elizabeth Stokes. You possess the Pocket Watch of the Tower and the False Gem of Str-"

"Shut up." Stokes takes a few more steps, and stops right in front of me. "Do it, Pete," he snaps.

Evidently, Pete is the large man to my left with the gun, because I hear the click of the slide racking.

It's then that I decide to act.

The gun discharges, sending the bullet down into my shoulder. I don't feel a thing. Pete does, however, as I jackknife upward, the edge of my hand colliding with his Adam's apple. He falls to the ground choking, windpipe severed.

The other henchman unsheathes a switchblade, taking a swing at me. I catch his wrist and squeeze. I don't look it, but I seem to be stronger than most humans. Stokes' cohort yelps as his wrist fractures, and he drops the knife into my waiting hand. As soon as I catch it, I bury it in his chest, slicing through his aorta. He'll bleed out in seconds. Kicking him aside, I pick up my duffel bag, charging after Stokes, who at this point has taken off down the alley.

His gait is panicked, and it's not long before I've caught up. I lunge at him, tackling him to the ground.

"Let me ask you something," I hiss into his ear. "Who do you think I am?

My needle slides effortlessly into his neck, flooding Stokes' system with M99, a potent animal tranquilizer.

Funny, I think to myself, I don't think it was ever intended to be used on animals like these.

I set down my duffel bag by the door, making sure all of my kill tools are intact. I methodically clean my scalpel before moving on to the electric bone saw, and then washing out the empty syringe. My mind drifts. It's all so methodical. Ritualistic.

I flop down onto my stomach, having laid a towel over it to prevent bloodstains. I sigh in contentment, thumbing the larger flecks of blood from my face and picking fragments of bone from my hair. The corners of my mouth bend into a small smile. Nothing rivals the cathartic rush of the Ritual, the feelings of peace as I complete it. It's so... beautiful.

I turn over the Gem of Structure in my hand, watching how the light plays off of it. I plan on returning it tomorrow, along with the Watch of the Tower. But now, I'm exhausted. I sigh again.

My eyes close, the calm peace of the Ritual's aftermath weighing me down.


Nothing like a hard day's work.

Anniversary

Five.

The nightclub's pulsing beats seem to rattle my bones, the subwoofers somewhat disorienting. The cacophony of voices, music, and laughter is almost deafening. The place's aura of drugs, sex, and alcohol is palpable in the air.

Four.

I absentmindedly fix the sleeves of my shirt, tugging at the unbuttoned cuffs. The stool beneath me vibrates, as does the drink in front of me. I haven't touched it - I only bought it in the first place to fit in.

Three.

I tilt my head up toward the ceiling, where lights of various colors flash at a furious rate down at me. Something that could loosely be called music rings in my ears.

Two.

I take a deep breath in. I can feel the smoke in the air across the back of my throat.

One.

I close my eyes.

Zero.

A sort of calm washes over me, the blaring sounds of this place unattended, the smells less invasive.

One year.

Exactly one year since I crawled out from the tower's miles-long shadow, since I was reborn from the ashes of Edo Edi Essum. One year since I came to my revelation, since my life began anew. Another second ticks by, and I open my eyes. The crowds of people are there again, pressing around me. I can feel the air they've breathed floating around me like a halo. I sigh. I'm not one of them, however much I might look like one. I'm not human, no matter how much I'd like to be.

But I suppose there's no time to dawdle and dwell on negatives. After all, there's work to do. I inhale deeply, and exhale again.

Tonight's the night. The night a primal, sacred need is satisfied. The night my humanity is stamped out and obliterated to make room for a far more vicious part of me. The night the Ritual is fulfilled yet again. The night Anthony Thompson, aged 31, draws his last breath. I can feel the glass syringe in my pocket as I stand up from the stool, scanning the club and marking my target. The hunter inside me thrills to see the top of Thomson's head slightly above the rest of the crowd as he makes his way through it, heading toward the exit.

I make my way after Thompson, following him surreptitiously. He doesn't notice as I begin to close in on him, only a few meters away by the time he reaches the door. Outside, I make sure to follow at a safe distance, careful not to arouse Thompson's suspicion. The cool night air plays at my clothing, and although I can't actually feel the cold, I know it's there.

I've already put my kill equipment in the trunk of Thompson's car, and I begin to close in again as he nears it. Reaching into my pocket, I slowly withdraw my syringe, taking the plastic sheath off the needle. It's almost time. My shadow-self quivers in anticipation. If I had a pulse, I imagine it would be speeding up. I'm only a few feet away from him now, and I can feel my anticipation building. What better way to celebrate my first birthday?

He's reached his car. I take in a breath and exhale. It's time. Thompson sees my shadow on his car, his whole body tensing in surprise. He whirls around. "Who the f-"

My needle is in his neck before he can finish his sentence. I press the plunger, sending a sizeable amount of M99 into his system, the fast-acting tranquilizer doing its work. Thompson slumps back against his car, unconscious in seconds.

Thompson's barely conscious form lies supine on his kitchen table, which I've wrapped with sheet plastic to prevent blood from getting on it. Thompson himself is bound immobile by five layers of cellophane wrap. The anticipation wells in me as I take scalpel in hand, slicing a circle in his chest, perfected by dozens of kills. I can feel the corners of my mouth curling into a smile as Thompson screams.

I don't answer his pleas for mercy, picking up my handheld saw next. It whirs to life as I flip the switch. I lower it to the circle on his chest. Blood and bone particles spray across my face as Thompson's screams play harmonic counterpoint to the scream of bone against metal.

Back at my apartment, I languish on my couch, plunged in total darkness save for the glow of my television. Thompson's cartridge sits on the coffee table as I flip through channels, paying special attention to news channels. I called 911 as I left Thompson's home; the breaking news should be on soon. Infomercials... reality TV... infomercials... sitcom... Ah, here it is.

"- Thompson was found dead in his home just an hour ago. The killer's method was nothing short of macabre, removing a large portion of the victim's chest until he died of blood and oxygen loss. Anthony Thompson is believed to be the latest victim of the infamous serial killer known as the King of Hearts -"

I can't help but grin a little. King of Hearts? I've never heard that one before. It seems I'm making a name for myself as a serial killer. Somewhere inside there's a twinge of sadness, a twinge of guilt. But there's also peace, peace and calm at the completion of the Ritual. I pick a small piece of organ tissue out of my hair.

"... Body of a young woman was found today in her home near the downtown area. The murderer apparently slit her throat, draining her of all her blood. More disturbing, however, was the fact that her eyes had been gouged out -"

Suddenly, I'm back in reality.

"- And the skin appears to have been flayed from her left hand."

I blink, staring at the bleached remains of my own fleshless left hand.

"The victim has been tentatively identified as one Angela Sm-"

The room goes dark, and it takes me a moment to realize that I've turned off the television, and am now sitting bolt upright. What is happening? A woman named Angela, with her eyes gouged out and her throat slit, the skin flayed from her left hand...

Someone knows.

Someone knows about me. About who and what I am. About Angela.

And they've just sent me a message.

Scrutiny

I turn the knob, and cool water sprays down on me. I can't feel that it's cold, but I know it is because the knob is all the way to the blue side. Standing there for a moment, I let the water rain down on me, closing my eyes for a few moments. I hold my hands up in the stream, making sure to wash the bones of my left hand. Another moment passes, and I turn the knob all the way to red. After another few minutes, steam begins to rise, the water reaching scalding temperatures. I still can't feel it.

Sighing, I step out of the shower, letting my hair hang down into my face. After brushing my teeth, I wearily put on some clothing and step out of the bathroom. Water drips from my air, making a trail from the bathroom to my couch as I walk to it, sitting down and turning on the television. I flip to the news channel, where the story that has become all too familiar is already showing.

A woman with her eyes cut out, her throat slit, and the skin flayed from her hand, drained of every drop of blood. The killings have happened every other day for the past two weeks. Seven victims in all. Regular as clockwork.

This time, however, something is different. I can't tell what it is at first, as there isn't much footage of the body. Standing up from the couch, I move closer to the television, hoping for another shot of it.

Yes.

There it is.

Indeed, something is different. Tattooed on the woman's forehead is a single word: ATREUS.

Suddenly, I feel something in my head, something sharp and burning. It's been happening to me since the killings started. I can hear voices, too, distorted and strange. Fragmented and disjointed. And with it comes pain. Not something physical - I'm not sure I have the capacity to feel physical pain anymore. No, this is mental pain, something grating and harsh. With the voices come pictures, still moments that are totally incomprehensible to me.

The pain is stronger now, and it flares without warning. I gasp, my fingers reflexively going to my temples. What is happening to me? The pain builds, a pressure behind my eyes that grows more intense by the second. I press my palms to my eyes to no avail. It only becomes worse. What is going on? The voices ad pictures become more vivid, the sounds more insistent, the colors more vibrant. The pain intensifies tenfold. Atreus - what does it mean? Who or what is it? Will it make the pain go away?

Without warning, it stops, the voices and images ceasing their assaults on my mind. I stand back up, taking a moment to get my bearings. Stumbling slightly, I make my way to the wall, and lean against it. That's better. I take a breath -

- and the visions come back worse than before. A muted gasp escapes me, and my hands fly to my head again, massaging my temples. None of them make any sense, the images and voices so disorienting as to be totally indecipherable.

Just as quickly as they came, they stop again, and I relax. How do I make them go away? A few days ago, I had to abort the Ritual because of them. the visions attacked me, and my target left the area. I lost sight of them. An hour's search got me nowhere. It was the first time I failed to kill a Seeker.

I'm still itching to kill, but I can't bring about the will to do so. The voices continue to assault me. I've been so long now without killing that I'm beginning to feel wrong, out of sorts. My limbs have grown sluggish, my normal steady hands shaking. I feel like an addict going through withdrawal. Which, I suppose, is exactly what I am.

However, I'm not going to sit idly by. Pushing off from the wall, I walk over to the coffee table, picking up the Cartridge of Reality I took from Thompson two weeks ago. Two weeks. Excepting for the first month or so of my new life, two weeks is the longest I've ever been without killing. I feel a slight tremor through my body as I set it down.

I don't know why the visions started. Was it because of Angela being brought up in such a stark way? Was it the shock of knowing that someone knew about me? Or was it something deeper, something far more insidious? I can't remember anything about myself before I was Infectos, save for the night Angela died. Could it be something from my past? Whatever the case, only one thing is absolutely certain to me.

If this murderer is causing these visions, then I need to find him, and kill him. It's that simple.

Suddenly, a ringing snaps me out of my reverie. I look over, and see my iPhone vibrating across the coffee table. A call? I took that phone from James Reynolds, a man I killed more than six months ago. In the weeks after I killed him, I did receive a few calls from his friends and family, but who would call now?

Nonetheless, something compels me to answer it. I don't know why, but I feel as if I need to take the call, as if it's extremely important. As I press the talk button, I'm not disappointed.

"Hello, Praetorious," says a voice that seems drenched in static and distortion, "I've got a present for you."

Bleeding Out

"I've got a present for you."

"Are you Atreus?" I ask the voice on the other end of the line. My question is only met with laughter.

"Forty-three fifty-two, East Washington Boulevard." I don't have time to answer before the line goes dead.

What choice do I have? I need to find out who called me. Is it Atreus? Will it lead me to who or whatever Atreus is? Will it lead me closer to killing him or it?

I can recognize that there's no time to pack a bag of kill tools. It's too late for that. If I want to meet Atreus, or uncover the next step in this mystery, or find whatever waits at 4352 East Washington Boulevard, I need to move now.

It's with those thoughts that I rush out the door with only my cell phone, running down the apartment building stairs two at a time into the parking lot and finding my car. I peel out of the parking lot, slamming my foot down on the gas.

********

I don't know this city well, and as such it takes perhaps an hour of driving to find the address. I pull up to the building, and as I see it I can only think one thing.

What the hell?

It's part of a dingy strip mall, a building situated between a low-rent nail salon and a take-out Chinese restaurant. The tiny establishment is scarcely wider than the door that opens to it.

What could possibly be in here? Is Atreus leading me on some wild goose chase? It doesn't make any sense. I can't fathom how anything of importance could be inside.

Without warning, my phone rings again. I've pressed the talk button before the ringtone's first iteration is finished. It's at my ear a second later.

"Yes, you are in the right place."

My head whips around. Is he watching me? Have I been followed this whole way? And how? This all reeks of foul play. But, it's grown increasingly obvious that I have no chance.

The door is unlocked, squealing and creaking from disuse as I open it. The room is pitch-black, but I can instinctively tell that it's very small. I walk in, shoes splashing through a pool perhaps an inch deep. I hit my head on a hanging lightbulb after three steps, and feel a switch on the wall.

I flick it on.

The room lights up.

My eyes widen.

Blood is splattered by the gallon all over the room, covering the walls and pooling on the floor. The sheer amount is staggering, bizarre. And at the center of it all is a large stone slab pushed against the wall, the focal point of the... whatever this is supposed to be. It occurs to me that this was why the murdered women were drained of blood.

Suddenly, without warning, the visions rise up like a horrific tidal wave, images superimposed infinitely upon one another. I feel as if I need to breathe, but can't. My head sears with pain. The visions begin to converge, morphing and changing into one twisted scene.

A woman bound to a stone slab, just like the one in this room, crying out to a screaming child sitting a few feet away.

A man slashes a knife across the woman's neck.

Blood fountains from her throat, coating the room just the way it is now. The boy stops screaming. The man turns, and I can see his face.

It's my own.

Suddenly, my whole body goes limp. My senses fail. Shadows fall over my mind.

The last thing I hear before losing consciousness is the splashing of my own body in the inch-deep pool of blood.

********

I awake some time later to the sound of footsteps, shouting, and the click of handcuffs fastening around my wrists.

Trapped

I awaken sharply and suddenly, to the smell of metal and body odor. I open my eyes, and wish I hadn't. The sight is far from pleasant.

I'm in a large, communal prison cell, handcuffed to the bottom bunk of a Spartan bed. My vision is still hazy, and I can only barely make out the desks and cubicles on the other side of the bars. I try to sit up, but pain suddenly flares inside my skull, forcing me back down. The visions come back.

And then I remember.

A man - me - cuts a woman's throat while a small child screams in terror, sitting helplessly in the middle of the floor.

Why do I feel such revulsion at it? Why such aversion, such utter loathing? I can barely remember anything of my life as a human, but surely I did worse things than that. I certainly do now, after all. So why does my skin crawl at the very thought of it? Why is it so important to me? And perhaps most importantly of all - why does Atreus want me to know about it? I press my eyes shut in thought. After a few moments, I conclude that I can't figure it out. All this does is further confirm that Atreus needs to die. I need to kill him, and make the visions cease. Right now, that's all that matters.

Of course, that means I'll have to escape from prison.

I open my eyes again. The light is less painful, my eyes more adjusted. There are a few policemen sitting at the desk surrounding the large cell, but they only look briefly at me before looking away in disgust. It takes me a minute to see why: I'm still wearing my same clothes, which are caked with the blood of the woman Atreus killed. As far as I can tell, the police simply dumped me in this cell after they found me. Perhaps they didn't want to risk compromising any evidence. A dry, harsh exhale that no one but me could accuse of being a chuckle escapes my mouth as I contemplate my situation. A serial killer getting caught for a string of murders he didn't commit. How ironic.

So how do I get out? I'd never anticipated being caught - I never leave behind evidence, and I have no fingerprints. I took few precautions. My fake ID will only get me so far - "Jack Hawkins" doesn't have a social security number, after all.

I sight as the visions come crashing down on me again, and my eyes close.

Consciousness.

It cuts through my thoughts, forcing me back into real life. I'm excreted from my womb of half-formed memories into the glaring lights of the prison cell. Nothing's changed.

I don't know what to do. I've got no options left. There's no talking my way out of this. No disguises. No plans, no kill zones, no strategies. I take the only course of action that I have.

"Hello?" I call out to a rather large man reading at his desk who looks to be the warden. "Excuse me?"

Disinterestedly, the warden casts a glance in my direction. "Could I call my lawyer?" I ask, trying to be ingratiating. It's the most difficult mannerism for me to fake.

He lets out a dark chuckle. "This oughta be good," he mutters as he walks over, inserting his key in the door of my cell. I just stand up, letting the officer handcuff me, registering a stiffness in my joints as I do. It's impossible to tell how long I've been unconscious. The warden leads the way as I contemplate.

Who should I call? I think to myself as I pass a jail cell, a scrawny figure huddled in the corner. Jude and Harley are the only two names that come to mind, and neither would be of much help. Jude would just laugh, and Harley never liked me in the first place. It would appear that -

- a hand latches onto my wrist through the bars of the cell. The warden keeps walking, having not noticed. Before I can even turn my head, the scrawny man is talking.

"You're him!"

My eyebrow raises. I remain silent.

"Oh god, oh god, you're him! Look, take it! I don't want it anymore!" the figure hisses at me. "I'll never look for another... Just let me live!" The man's voice cracks as I feel something being shoved into my hand. The scrawny figure releases me, and I keep walking, trying not to attract any attention. What was that? What just happened?

"Hurry up!" the warden shouts back at me, and I shuffle awkwardly forward. We reach the phone after a few minutes, but I just stand there in front of it. What can I do? What is there to do? I -

- Suddenly, the phone rings.

I ignore the strange look the warden gives me as I hastily snatch it off the hook and press it to my ear. I know who it is without even having to think.

"Atreus."

All I can hear is a cold laugh on the other end, drenched in static. As unobtrusively as I can, I shift the object in my hand around. It's smooth and metal, thin and small. Flat. I turn it over, and a pin jabs into my thumb. It's a badge, I realize.

"What do you want from me, Atreus?"

More laughter. Suddenly, my mind clicks, and I realize what's in my hand. Your time is running out; you'll need all the help you can get. The Badge of Observation. I focus back on Atreus.

"Why do you want me to remember all of th-"

"Stop blathering. Do you want to escape or not?"

Hunter

"Tony Leonetti. He's a war veteran and a Seeker, a successful one, who serves Atreus as a second-in-command. There's a bar a few blocks from here you can find him at."

"Thank you."

"Think nothing of it, Observer."

The shabbily-dressed man seems to melt back into the crowd, disappearing as if he were never there. I run my thumb over the smooth surface of the Observer's Badge. It's been a month since Atreus told me how to escape from prison, and at last I've found a lead on him. Not even the Observers know where he resides, and it's taken me this long to find one that knows someone who may know Atreus.

A month.

I managed to break into my apartment a couple weeks ago and take some contacts, money, and a change of clothes, but that's all I have. Objects, equipment, kill tools, all of them have no doubt been confiscated by the police. I have nothing but the clothes I'm wearing, the badge, and two-hundred-and-fifty dollars.

Tugging at the collar of my jacket, I step back into the alley, deciding on my next move. Before I can process anything, though, the visions return, even more vicious than ever, descending on me. A harsh moan escapes my mouth as I feel my body collapse against the wall of a building, the images pounding at the inside of my skull. The woman. The boy. Me. The pain flares again.

Shit.

********

By the time I've reached Leonetti's bar, I have a plan. Much as I want - much as I need - to kill right now, I can't take him, now now. Not yet. Now will be the time to exercise my people skills.

I hang outside the bar until I see Leonetti get up to go to the bathroom before making my move. Making sure to limp noticeably, I make my way to his seat. The rest of the bar is full, so he doesn't have anywhere else to go. Perfect.

In no time at all, he's back, obviously annoyed the moment he sees me.

"Hey," he speaks up, "that's my fuckin' stool."

It's all according to plan. After all, Leonetti certainly doesn't look like the subtle type - broad and muscular, covered with scars, sporting a military cut and dog tags, one couldn't mistake him for anything other than a seasoned veteran.

I turn around and look at him, feigning a nervous laugh. I've gotten a lot better at faking things, as of late.

"Sorry," I reply, "I just got back from a tour in the Middle East, and my leg's all screwed up." I pause, as if I've just come up with an idea. "Say," I begin, grinning a little, "you look like you've seen some action yourself. Tell you what - As long as you're keeping a fellow vet off his gimpy leg, drinks are on me."

Leonetti's hard-set features soften a bit. He lets out a chuckle. "Maybe you're not so bad after all." He yells to the bartender, ordering a gin and tonic. I call after him, asking for the same. "Smart man," says Leonetti, grinning as the bartender comes back with our orders.

We raise our glasses, and drink.

********

A couple hours and far more than a couple drinks later, Leonetti is red in the face, laughing uproariously. I'm just trying to hide the thin stream of ash coming from under my shirt. Leonetti continues to go on with jokes, war stories, and laughter, all three blurring into one cascade of random thoughts and ideas. Eventually, I shift the subject.

"So, know of any decent work around here?" It's a tricky question - I don't know how loyal Leonetti is to his master. Or how much he knows. But he's inebriated enough that I have a chance.

"Well," he says, "I've got a pretty nice gig. Th- there's this guy I work for, real myst-mysterious."

Atreus.

It's a good thing I hadn't decided to torture Leonetti for information. Even as a cohort, he doesn't even seem to know anything about my quarry. But I can't give up yet.

"They pay good?" I ask back, trying to mirror his drunken speech patterns.

"Awesome," he replies. "The stuff I do ain't always strictly legal, but the money's real good. I'm liv-livin' large."

"Hey," I shoot back, swaying a little, "I'm down with it if I can get some dough. Any chance you could hook me up?"

"Sure," says Leonetti, "I'm just about the only guy who knows where the boss is. I bet I could -"

I don't hear the rest of what he says, because the visions come back, surging inside my head and blotting out my thoughts. I topple off the barstool, letting out a choked moan.

Damn it!

"You alright there, buddy?" Leonetti asks, looking concerned. "You sure you wanna go?"

"Yeah," I say as I clumsily get to my feet. I shouldn't be going after him like this, not in my impaired state, but it's now or never. And now the hunt is culminating. Atreus is so close I can almost touch him. This time, my grin is more real than fake. "I'd like nothing better."

Phantasm

Leonetti's neck snaps easily, his lifeless corpse crumpling to the ground in seconds. I step over the body, feeling the rush of killing. The feeling isn't nearly as strong as when I perform the Ritual, but the high is still dizzying after a month. I close my eyes for a moment, taking in the feeling, reveling in it. Eventually, I push past it, knowing that the time is now.

What stands before me is a dingy shack at the outskirts of town, made of rotting wood and barely standing. At first glance, it would see that Leonetti lied to me, but something tells me that Atreus resides here. The aura of the place, the energy... it's palpable. And what's more, it's familiar. I can't wait any longer.

It's time.

I can hear an electric crackling as my fingers touch the dilapidated wood door, feel a tingle up my spine as I push gently on it. The door gives easily, not offering any resistance. Considering the state of the shack, this isn't surprising.

What's inside, however, is.

A massive hallway stretches before me, so long I can't see the end. It's pitch-black, but I can see the mirrors that line the walls, gleaming in the nonexistent light. No sooner have I stepped through the door's threshold than the visions assault me again, crashing down on me. I fight to keep my knees from buckling, leaning against a mirror for support. I continue to stumble on, noticing my reflection in the mirrors. They are all of me, to be sure, but they are missing the contact lenses, as well as the gloves. And they all have perfectly circular holes through their shirts.

The visions continue to rush at me, blinding me in a frenzy as I continue to shamble onward, hand trailing on the mirrors for support. My visions seem to be reflected in them, a backdrop to my own altered reflection.

Through my haze, I can see glass cases high above me, attached to the ceiling - Objects in all of them. Here the Gauntlet of Honor, there the Needle of the Ego. I start counting them, trying to ward off the visions. One, two, three, four, five... there's so many. To think that I'll be able to return them all once I kill Atr-

The visions attack once more. I feel my knee jerk spasmodically, and my head crashes into a mirror, shattering it.

I can't move my body.

My limbs have become immobile, as if cast in a concrete slab. The visions smother me under their weight, and I'm barely aware of how awkwardly I'm slumped against the shattered mirror. I barely feel the glass shards in my hands and forearms, the ones that are driven into my face as I hit the ground.

The visions begin to coalesce, churning and morphing into something altogether. Another half-formed, yet shockingly vivid memory.

I can see myself. A much older version of myself, with a lined face and gray hair. He sits in a small shack, writing something I can't see. For some reason, he gets up, going to answer the door.

The next thing I see is a sword exiting his back.

I'm snapped back into reality, lying among the shards of glass. What in hell? How is this possible?

How do I remember being killed?

There's no time. No time to think. Only time to act. Deep down, this knowledge springs forth, the knowledge that I can't stop for a moment. Gasping, I claw my way to my feet, focusing all the energy I have on taking one step at a time. The visions assault me, this new memory pounding at my brain, but I pay no heed, trudging onward. My head throbs, the place behind my eyes searing with pain. I keep going. Some terrible power inside me rises up, and I take hold of it, willing my body to continue, ignoring the pain, the disorientation, the confusion. I glance over to a mirror, leaning against it.

My reflection smiles back at me.

Before I realize what's happened, my fist crashes into it, shattering the mirror. Shards embed themselves in my hand, but I don't feel it. I don't care. I just push off, staggering drunkenly onward, mind in turmoil, body moving indefatigably forward. With the willpower I didn't know I had, I shove the visions away, painfully forcing myself into lucidity as I collide headfirst with a door. I shake my head to clear it as I grab the knob.

This is it.

My hand turns.

The door opens.

I can see a massive room, one that looks like a living room, the walls of which are lined with books. A fireplace crackles to my left, and across from it is a tall, overstuffed chair.

And in that chair is the figure of a man.

He rises as I walk inside, cold eyes seeming to pierce my being.

"Atreus."

Atreus

Atreus. At long last, my search is over. The man I've spent months hunting down, tracking, trying to trap, is before me. The new vision - the one that shows me dying - pummels against the inside of my skull as if it's trying to escape. I don't care anymore. I'm beyond it.

"Well," says Atreus after a minute of silence. His voice echoes strangely off the walls, the sound lingering for far longer than it should. "I can't say I was expecting you so soon, Praetorious."

The man standing before me is not at all what I expected. Atreus is tall and somewhat thin, his slightly wrinkled face and gray hair making him look like he's in his fifties. He wears a black suit and a top hat, the anachronistic style appearing to predate the twentieth century.

A minute goes by. My head's pounding. I can't think.

"Who... are you?"

Atreus motions. "Sit." I look behind me. The door's gone, and there's no a cushioned chair identical to Atreus's directly behind my legs. Without a word, I sit down.

Silence prevails as a small inkling of lucidity returns to me. I ask again, "Who are you?"

Atreus sighs. "You really don't remember anything, do you? Know anything?" He sits down himself. "Two thousand years can do a lot to a person, I suppose." Atreus waves his hand, and a glass flies into his hand. A few cubes of ice appear in it before the glass fills itself partially with a brown liquid that looks like scotch. Atreus takes a sip.

"We used to be allies, you know," he begins. "All that time ago. I won't bore you with the details, because I somehow think that's not..." Atreus trails off, appearing distracted. He squints at me, pointing to his cheekbone just below his eye. Feeling that same spot below my own eye, I discover a sizable shard of mirror lodged in my face, and pull it out. "...what you're here for," he continues.

I should be figuring out how to kill him. Should be coming up with a plan. Hell, I should be leaping across the room and snapping his neck. But I can't. I don't have the will to. It's as if all of my anger and frustration, all my lust for vengeance and death, have vacated me on the spot. I can't do anything but sit supine, desperately trying not to betray how weak I am.

Kittens don't feel this helpless.

"Although, I must ask," said Atreus, "What are you here for?"

"Answers," I manage to spit out, the words seeming to land somewhere between me and him. And to kill you.

I don't know if that second part was out loud or inside my head.

If it was out loud, Atreus doesn't seem to acknowledge it.

"Memory is a funny thing. In some ways, our memories define who we are. They're our experiences, our loss, our happiness, the sum total of our existence." He stands, circling around behind his chair and sipping his drink. "But memory can also be manipulated. It can be fabricated, altered, even destroyed. Or maybe..."

The visions attack. Now I'm slitting the woman's throat. Now the shadowy figure is impaling me on his sword. My hands clench around the chair's armrests. I can feel the wood groaning under the pressure.

"Make... it... stop..."

"I've been watching you for a long time, now. I wanted to see what you'd become. To be honest..." Atreus begins to pace, "I'm a little disappointed. To see what might have been Edo Edi Essum's masterpiece in this state... he wouldn't be pleased to see this."

"Why... are you doing this... to me?" I manage to sputter, rising uneasily.

"Lost but found, shattered yet whole. Alpha and Omega, split at the soul."

"What does that mean?"

"Whatever you want it to."

Something is building up inside me. Is it... anger? Perhaps. It clouds my vision and forces me to my feet. I sway uneasily as I face Atreus. "You're serving... Essum..."

"No," replies Atreus. "I serve myself. But Essum has certain things I need. And thanks to the Balance, you are the closest thing to Edo Edi Essum that exists. So now, Praetorious..." The drink in his hand begins to twist and change. The glass seems to melt and reform in his hand, becoming longer and thinner. A blade.

"...It's time to give me what I want."

Neither of us have moved, but all at once Atreus is inches in front of me. I can't react before I feel the blade transpierce my stomach. Nor can I react afterward. Searing pain emanates from the blade; it feels as if it's taking root in my body, tendrils of mind-numbing white heat spreading throughout me.

"I don't know how or why you came to find me, but it doesn't matter. It's over for you, Praetorious. Just try to relax; it will be easier."

This is it? I think to myself. This is the end?

All these years?

All this time?

I'm getting weaker. A wound like this shouldn't slow me down, but I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that it's killing me.

All these questions?

These visions?

This anguish?

Is this how it ends? Pointless and unresolved, like everything else? Futile from the outset, and ending in the same abrupt manner in which it began?

This is how I die?

My vision fades. The blade is siphoning away what little life I have left. Draining me.

It's no longer a question in my mind.

This is how it ends.

But just before everything finally goes dark, another voice answer.

No it isn't.

All at once, strength begins to return to me. I'm no longer being drained of energy - now I feel as if I'm absorbing it. It courses through my veins, permeating my very being. My mind, so lost amidst the sea of visions, is now sharp. The pain, the visions, the weakness, all are being crushed out, extinguished.

I can hear an electric crackling about me, a snapping in the air. Before I realize what I'm doing, the palm of my hand has connected with Atreus's face. He flies back like a ragdoll, impacting a bookshelf forcefully, a myriad of ancient tomes cascading around him. The massive library of a room seems to become less distinct as Atreus crumples to the floor, his control over the space seeming to weaken. I'm in front of him now, and I forcefully drag him to his feet, slamming him against the shelf, pinning him by the throat with my forearm. I can hear wood splintering.

"Why?!" I shout at him. My voice sounds different now, too. It echoes like Atreus's. A wind seems to emanate from me, and I can hear the rustling of pages as books are thrown about. "Why go through all of this? Why kill those women? Why force me to remember?"

"What..." is all Atreus can manage to choke out.

"Why?!" I shout again in his face, even louder. The books swirl around me in a whirlwind.

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

Suddenly, something inside me boils over. The thrumming of energy in my ears intensifies, like a subwoofer right next to my ear. It's time to end it.

As if of its own volition, my arm cocks back like a spring, fingers pressing together like a spear. It's over.

My hand pierces straight through Atreus's chest, as if it were paper. He gasps. A single rivulet of blood dribbles from the corner of his mouth. His eyes close.

Without warning, the wind intensifies, the very foundations of the room shaking. Everything begins to disintegrate - books, tables, chairs - all turn to dust, joining the gigantic maelstrom that whirls around me. The noise crescendos still, louder and louder, louder and louder, the sound seeming to reverberate in my skull. It's deafening.

And then, there's nothing.

I'm standing amidst the ruins of a rotting wooden shack, with only the night sky above me. The hallway is gone. The library room is gone.

All that remains is a skeleton where Atreus once was.

I can feel the power high dying down, the terrible energy that permeated my body exiting me. And with it goes my weakness, my visions... everything. I am pure. Whole. I wrench my hand from the broken and twisted remains of Atreus's ribcage and, without really thinking about it, pull his skull from his spine with ease. I look up. There's no moon. No stars. Just darkness. A perfect, silent abyss. There's just me and the skull of my adversary. What better company could there be for my redemption? The pain is gone. The visions are gone. And... my addiction is gone. My desire to kill. It's left me, finally gone from my body and mind. The lust for death has been purged from me.

Suddenly, I feel something on my cheek. A drop of water. Is it... a tear? All at once, I feel emotion coursing through me, more powerful than anything I've ever felt, filling me to the brim.

I'm free.

A sort of rasping escapes my throat, one that must be a laugh. It sounds harsh and alien to me, strange, and yet I continue laughing. Laughing for joy, for freedom, for everything. I'm free.

I'm free.

And then, I hear a ringing by my feet.

Suddenly, everything stops. The joy, the happiness, the emotion, it all leaves me as air from a balloon. My phone. I pick it up, a sense of monolithic dread washing over me.

I put it to my ear.

All I can hear is laughter.

Revelation

My vision blurs. The feeling leaves my limbs. I can't tell if I'm still standing, or if my muscles have simply quit functioning.

And still the laughter continues.

My body feels as if at any moment it's going to silently and painlessly implode, reducing me to an infinitesimal, insignificant point. I feel fragile and frail and dead in a way I never have before.

Laughter.

It wasn't Atreus. He didn't do anything. He didn't kill the women. He didn't create the IT. Didn't force me to remember. I was played. Played like an utter fool. And I fell for it. Grasping at straws, desperate and blind, I played precisely into their plans. And why?

Why? (Laughter)

Idiot. Why? What why? Why a why? There's no why. There never was a why. That's the joke, you fool. Did you think you were a why?

Laughter.

I'm dimly aware of my legs gradually grinding into action, moving me... somewhere. I'm only aware that I'm walking by looking at the ground and seeing that it's moving under me. My mind is somewhere else, the perforated pile of dead flesh that is my body trudging onward. Where is my mind? Don't ask me. I don't know anything. I don't even know that I don't know anything. I don't know...

Thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud thud

That's the sound of my feet on the ground. They're taking me... I don't know where they're taking me. My will is not my own. My body is not my own. Not anymore. I don't know anything.

Oh, wait.

Yes I do.

Because I'm there.

My hand turns the knob.

My arm pushes the door open.

My feet move me inside.

Slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh slosh

That's the sound of my feet in the blood. The pool of sloshing blood that covers the floor of the room.

It occurs to me vaguely that it's been months since I was here last. Wasn't it?

So how could the blood not be gone?

Because someone kept refilling it. Someone kept killing them. As if this were some temple, some sacrificial altar to me. Someone took care of it. Someone kept it alive.

And then my feet stop. I can't walk anymore. I try taking a step, but evidently I've forgotten how to; I just fall to my knees. I splash in the blood. There's something to think about, something to rememb-

Ah, there they are.

The visions begin to trickle back, out through the cracks in my mind, from under and around and between and through everything around me. The panorama stretches out before me. Sharp and clear and poignant, like vibrant colors against black and white. Now there's a woman at the slab. Now she's screaming. Now the blood is cascading forth. Now her neck's whole. Now it's not. Now she's screaming. I can't hear her. And there's the boy. He cries and screams. I can't hear him either. I pitch forward, catching myself with one hand. I stretch out the other to the slab. Why? There is none. We went over this already.

There's something there.

Something I need.

And then something clicks. Shifts. Changes. Everything snaps into focus, a missing cog restored to a partially functioning machine. I can hear them.

The woman's screams of anguish are in focus now, grating and piercing my eardrums. She reaches out to the boy.

The boy/me reaches back. I can hear them/him/us/me now, too.

"Mommy..."

Schism

Mommy.

Mommy.

Mommy.

Mommy!


Blood everywhere.


No.

Get a grip.

Get a grip.

Get a grip.

Hold yourself together, damn you!


Mommy.


There are tears in the blood now. Little raining droplets falling, falling from the boy's/Praetorious' face. Can't function. Everything stalled. There's no up or down. No north or south or east or west or left or right or wrong. No substance and no void. There's just me and the floor and the ceiling and the blood.

And Mommy.

Bye, Mommy.

Mommy has to go away now.


ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring ring

That's the sound of my phone. Ringing. It's in my pocket and then in my head and then at my ear.

"Remember now?"

"Mommy mommy mommy mommy mommy (Who are you? Why are you doing this to me? Why do I have to remember? (No why))"

"Don't you realize? This is where it all started! This is where it began. This is your moment, Praetorious, this is your genesis! (Laughter (so much laughter))"

"Mommy mommy (How do you know about this? How do you know so much about me?)"

"The same way I know, say, about your father*, Praetorious!*"

Father? What? Oh.

Slashing throat. Mommy's throat. Why (No why. Never was one.)?

Anger. Rage. Revenge.

Sword in hand. Cool metal on hot flesh. Smooth hilt. Fourteen years old. Retribution at hand.

Door swings open. Murderer/Mommy-killer/Father standing there. Mouth agape. Scream. Hatred. Retribution. Sword through chest. Through ribs. Through Mommy-killing heart. Out through other side. He crumples to knees. Death. Peace.

"Ah, now you remember. I wonder if you remember me now. I who was there for you. Who helped you do what you had to do. What needed to be done. Remember it, Praetorious. REMEMBER ME!"

Father kills Mommy. Praetorious kills Father. Who kills Praetorious?

Nothing else. There's nothing. Black. Null.

"Mommy (Nothing.)"

"Mommy mommy mommy mommy father mommy father (TELL ME WHO YOU ARE!)"

Laughing, laughing, laughing.

Laughter.

"Why don't you check the caller ID?"

Phone at ear's in front of face now. Have to look at the screen. Find out. Find him. Find him. Find h-

Everything snaps back into focus. Everything stops. Now I understand.

The screen's black.

Because my phone's been out of battery for months.

"Finally," says the voice in my head, "It looks like we understand each other."

Downfall

Click.

That's the sound of everything clicking into place in my mind.

The phone falls from my suddenly limp fingers, splashing into the pool of blood and disappearing beneath its surface. I feel as if I can sympathize with its predicament. He's - no, I'm talking again. Talking to myself. The way I have been for months on end.

"Now do you understand?"

I feel empty. It's not like in Atreus's mansion, where the visions were crushing out my consciousness and annihilating my thoughts, no; this feeling is far more implacable and inscrutable and utterly all-consuming. The darkness is clawing at the fringes of my fractured mine and settling around me like a blanket. It doesn't swirl or undulate or billow - it simply settles around me, calm and silent and utterly suffocating. The corners of my vision go dark, tendrils of pure stygian blackness lapping at the edges. It's like shadows are falling every which way over every-which-thing.

And out of those shadows steps me.

"What... in hell..."

I try to stand. First one foot, planted in the sea of blood. The other foot. Stand up!

"Try to stand if you want to," me-but-not-me says, "it won't really change anything."

"Why..." I ask, my voice sounding ragged and frayed. "Why all this? Why are you making me remember? Why did you kill them?

Not-me smiles. Except it's not a smile, not a smile at all - more like an upward-sloping wound in his face. Something that could loosely be called a laugh seethes from between clenched teeth.

"Well, to be more accurate, you killed them. Remember? Remember how it felt to flay their skin and drain their blood and gouge their eyes out? Remember?"

"No..."

My hands are on my head, pressed against my skull. Maybe trying to squeeze the thoughts back into wherever they came from. It's not working.

"Why..."

The smile disappears.

"Why?" not-me asks, shaking his head with a bemused grin. "Why? What gives you the right to ask me questions? I'm the reason you're alive today!"

I don't understand.

"When you were crying and cowering in your mother's blood, who was there for you? When you sat there bawling, who told you to stand up? Who told you to find your way out of that room? Throughout all those long years as you stumbled about your life, directionless and rudderless, who was there with you? Who comforted you?"

The room grows hazy and indistinct, but not-me is still sharply in focus. I can't focus my eyes.

"Remember now, Praetorious? Who helped you survive? And after all those long years, who let you know what had to be done? Who helped you do it?"

The blood at my feet is gone now. It's vanished. The walls have as well. In their place is simply a vast expanse, an alien desert stretching on as far as I can see. The floor is simply an island in the endless sea of sand. The sky above me is blood-red, the sun sickly white. Lightning roars and crackles through the roiling clouds. It resonates within my skull, the booms resonating nigh-endlessly in my brain.

Not-me continues speaking, his (my) words piercing even the huge crescendo of the lightning.

"Me*!* I was there! I'm the reason that the pathetic small child crying in that blood-filled room all those years ago is here today! I was born in your mother's blood and fed with your father's and everything that you are, everything that you've done, you owe it to me*!*"

Pillars grow like trees from the edges of the island, like giant stone talons rising from the earth.

What's happening?

"I'm happening, Praetorious. I've had enough of you. I've watched over the years. I watched you bend like a wet reed around the little finger of that bitch Angela. I watched you sulk and mope like a baby at her death. I saw how twisted and broken it made you, until you became nothing more than a regular Seeker, when you could have been so much more. I watched you challenge Legion and fail miserably. I pitied you then, Praetorious, and I helped you put yourself back together in the Void."

The island begins to rise from the ground, shooting skyward at a furious rate.

"And after I saved you, after I helped you gain even greater power, you challenged Legion."

The island continues to rise.

"And you failed yet again! I watched you get beaten by the pathetic glimmer of an entity that is Legion. And afterward, I saw how laughably easy it was for Edo Edi Essum to corrupt you, enslave you! How easy it was for him to subvert your weak, pathetic mind to his will! And even with the power he gave you, even with the power of the Devourer himself, you were still cast down by the Balance! By a child!"

The island ceases rising, coming to an abrupt halt. Except it's not the island anymore, it's not the floor of the room. The floor is stone now, ancient and timeless and monolithic. The pillars curve upward, grasping and clawing at the incarnadine sky. And all at once I know exactly where this place is.

The Tower.

No sooner do I realize this than do I realize that not-me is now inches in front of me. His (my) hand closes around my face. With unnatural speed, I feel myself being thrown backward, head colliding with a pillar. Cracks spiderweb across the stone surface, the rock splintering from the force. My body won't move. I feel myself slumping to the floor.

"You're pathetic*, Praetorious!"*

Everything is spinning out of control. Everything is become dissociated. How is this even possible?

"For two thousand years, I've helped you through everything. I've held your hand through every adversity and brought you kicking and screaming through it."

He grabs the front of my shirt in one hand. I can feel my feet leaving the ground as he (I) hoists me bodily into the air. There's a wind rushing past my face for a brief moment before crashing hard into the ground.

Stop. Stop stop stop stop stop! This is all in my head!

"You're not real!" I shout, the words seeming to tear through my throat and out my mouth.

The grin returns. The seething laughter resumes.

"Aren't I?" A kick to my stomach. Rolling across the floor. Smashing into a pillar. "Maybe it's you who isn't real!"

My whole body feels worn out, crushed, ruined. I wipe at my mouth, and my hand comes away streaked with some kind of black fluid.

Not-me plants a foot on my throat, forcing my head into the ground.

"Look at you," he (I) says. "Look what's become of you. After everything I've done for you, this is what you've amounted to. I'm disappointed."

All I can do is lie there.

"I used to not mind, really. Long ago, it didn't really occur to me that we might have different goals. I just wanted to help you. Because I believed that helping you would help me, too. I was," A harsh, dry chuckle. Seething laughter. "I am your one and only friend. But then I began to see, Praetorious. I began to see how you squandered everything I did for you, every gift I gave you. And it sickened me."

Without warning, not-me's face contorts into a mask of black, hateful rage.

"You sicken me, Praetorious!" not-me shouts, "Every success, every triumph, every victory, all of it was my doing! I own you, Praetorious! And I've had enough of your failures!"

His (my (his? (his.))) expression returns to one of amusement as his foot is replaced by his hand at my throat. I'm suddenly aware that my feet are scraping barely at the ground. Dragged along. And now nothing. I'm dimly aware of the vast drop below me, dangling by the throat at the edge.

"And now," not-me says, his grin returning wider than ever, "I'm taking back what's mine."

The slow suffocating darkness falls around me. I grip his wrist with all my strength.

Can't let go. Must hold on. Vision foggy. Must hold on. Dark. Hold on. Hold on!

This is the end.

And then the same voice as before answers, the same one I heard at Atreus's mansion. His voice.

"Yes, it is."

No! Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. You have to hold on. You have to.

And then another thought occurs to me.

Why?

Because.

Oh.

Right.

Why?

Stupid.

Of course.

I understand now.

I understand. I understand. The eyes of me lock with those of not-me. And in that moment, understanding flashes between us. Between me and myself. In that moment, I understand everything. We understand each other. There's peace in the understanding. Resignation. Finality. Certainty.

He lets go.

As I let go.

We let go.

And I fall and fall.

And fall.

And fall.

The end.

Epilogue

Apotheosis

Ink and needle sang across the man's flesh, leaving in its wake a thin trail of deep black. His hand, steady as that of a surgeon, guided the needle deftly down his arm, angular designs that made sense only in his mind flowing from the tip like water.

Four hours he sat cross-legged on the floor, mind focused solely on this one-single task. The small chamber had very little light, and the man concentrated intently. The needle painted the sharp, crisp, black lines starting just below his eyes, down his neck to where more tenebrous lines radiated from the hole in his chest, the intricate, angular patterns finding their way down to his wrists, lines tracing the tendons of his fingers. Over and over again the needle pierced his flesh, and every time it did the man's smile grew just a little bit wider.

********

Finished, the man stood in front of a mirror, studying his new body. He turned around slowly, admiring the way the muscle flexed and writhed beneath his skin, how fluidly his limbs moved. It was like a work of art. Now he stood still, observing his reflection. His thin but powerful frame, his long black hair. The gaping hole in his chest. He studied his eyes, two blood-red orbs with dark black irises and pupils staring back at him. The man smiled. The corners of his mouth seemed to reach so far up his face that his whole face looked as if it would rip itself apart. He studied his tattoos, marveling at the subtle way in which they moved as he did. It was his body now. His mind.

His.

The man raised his hand directly in front of his face, closing it into a fist. He frowned. Something was still missing. Something was still wrong. It was only shortly before he'd gotten rid of the Other that he'd been thinking things like this. That he'd been fully aware of himself. He looked through his mind like a library, at all the things the Other had known. What was wrong? What was he missing? Then, suddenly, he found it.

A name.

What should it be? All of the man's knowledge was based on what the Other knew, and the Other knew that names were important. So what should his name be?

The man thought. Words and phrases pinged and ricocheted against the inside of his skull. So many words. So many names. So many. Finally, the man hit upon one. The sound of the word resonated deep inside him, seemed to fill him in some way. Make him more whole.

Carnifex.

Carnifex. Executioner. The man smiled again. He liked the name. It spoke to him. It was him.

Satisfied, Carnifex turned once again to introspection. Purpose. This one he was sure he knew already, somewhere inside. He thought again. What did he want? What was that desire nestled so deeply inside him, that thing that had caused him to recognize the weakness of the Other?

Of course.

How did he recognize that weakness? It was because he was strong. He had strength. He had power. Power and strength unlike any other. And he thought the time had come for the world to see it, to tremble, to fall to its knees begging for mercy before it. Yes. That was his purpose.

He would surpass Thanatos, Anubis, Shiva, Ereshkigal, and all his failed precursors. Yes, he thought. Carnifex decided that he would be a god. He would crush and mold and twist the world into any shape he pleased.

But he still didn't quite know what to do. Carnifex was bored. He needed a way to occupy himself.

First, he decided that he would resurrect Edo Edi Essum. Then, afterward, perhaps, he would bring Them together, just for good measure.

Carnifex smiled again, the grin splitting open his face. That's the joy of the executioner, he thought to himself.

His work is never done.