Welcome to the secret page. The following is a scene that takes place during the events of The Icons of Man: Book One
Secret Chapter: Thrall
Friday night. The cemetery sat on the western bank of the Kill Van Bay, tucked under a marching column of transmission towers and the gossamer canopy of power lines that they spun in their wake. Webbed shadows threw a cage over the graveyard, casting harsh lines over the group of three that walked along the gravel path running between the halved and shattered headstones. Gusts swept a flood of swamp-colored fog over the ridge. The mist rose up to the trio's knees, caused their coats and scarves to billow at their backs, but they trudged on towards the water's edge.
At first glance they looked like any ordinary Roslynians: a woman and two men, dressed in long coats with no uniform design. The halo on the woman's wrist was the color of hot coals; it burned with a stable gleam inside two rings. Her companions' wrists had a dim, ashen hue within unbound edges. They were from different classes, different affiliates; but this did not stop them from meeting during the attack on Metro Reef. The only thing they had in common were the chain each wore around their neck, from which hung a small chunk of ruby-colored ore.
From the cemetery, they had a panoramic view of the poacher storm. To their left, a suspension bridge spanned over the bay, the easternmost of its rusted towers blurred by the curtain of torrential rain that had fallen halfway across the water. Straight through that curtain, due east, the skyline of Metro Reef could no longer be seen; there was only a shapeless mountain of rainbow colors, occasionally ruptured by a blast of forked lightning. Just as they had arrived, a crescendo of red starbursts erupted in the clouds over the island of Bethpage, southeast, where a new team of Durationists led by Lucas from Slag Falls had just routed a Kappo mob and saved a fan rally at Black Beach. The thunderclouds were no longer so uniform, and the lightning, once a constant strobe, now was more infrequent. Yet a continuous growl rumbled across the harbor, occasionally punctured by a defiant clap of thunder, and a chorus of sirens echoed across the bay without end.
The fan rally rescued by Bedlam Athletic was hardly the only group that had gathered that evening. Hundreds throughout the region had rallied together on street corners and rooftops, all daring to cheer on their favorite teams, desperate to believe that a song in the dark could drive off the storm. Unfortunately, not every crowd had a Durationist squad watching over them, and as the poacher storm intensified, dozens of lives succumbed to violent cascades of madness. If these broken souls ever again had a lucid moment, it might only be in transient flashes of excruciating pain, when the most noxious parts of their minds, ripped from their souls by the Blood Poachers, were cultivated and inflamed in the war factories of the Echomar.
The visitors to the graveyard wore no colors of any Durationist team. They sang no fight songs, nor scooped any thoughts of encouragement to those fighting for the liberty of Metro Reef. After every peel of thunder, they roared with laughter. They stopped and raised cans of beer and bottles of liquor. In slurred cheers they toasted the storm.
“Death to Roslyn!” They shouted. “Mind the Void! Death to Roslyn! Vlaz Echomar! Vlaz Echomar!” The wind seemed to carry their chants across the bay. Thunder crackled in response.
Lightning lashed out over the skyline, its webbed reflection cast over the murky water; and in those pale flashes, an unseen observer could tell that there was something different about this trio after all, something well concealed by earthly light. Their skin was washed of color, save for strange jagged lines that ran up their arms and necks, too rigid to be veins, too deeply etched into their skin to be tattoos, and with a drab color that matched their halo-hands. Their halos too were suspect, for their convexes did not swirl and brim with warmth, as they did on even the lowliest of rabble; instead they were shattered fragments, cold and ossified, the glimmer absent, the gleam counterfeit. Most telling were their eyes, for whenever the three visitors passed through the shadows, or every time that the Blood Poacher's gaze flickered behind the thunderclouds, the circles within the the trio's own eyes seemed to dissolve, and a muddy, murky color took their place. It was the same dead, dry hue that ran through their skin, recast in the red ore that hung from their necks.
Whether these three had been broken during an actual storm, or if instead they had simply given in to the slow drip of dark promises that so many people of Roslyn claim to hear everyday of their New Lives, it did not matter: they were now Thrall to the Echomar.
The path ended at an overlook between two bald knolls. Adorning either mound was a dead tree the color of bone, the chalky bark crumbling away from gusts coming off the bay. The three visitors approached the tree to their right. A noose swayed under a frayed branch, dangling over a blank slab of tombstone.
The larger of the two men wore a long greasy beard, and his eyes were caked in mascara. He flung a can of beer at the headstone impatiently.
“No show. What'd I tell ya?”
“Shut up,” growled the woman who led the group. Bald, stooped and skulking, she crossed her arms and surveyed the waterfront uncertainly. “It's still early. He'll get here when he gets here.”
“I fucking hope so. It's been too long.” The fat man grabbed the noose and jokingly offered it to the smaller man. “Ha! Don't piss yourself, shrimp. You'll have fun, promise. First she'll be crying how she doesn't wanna die. But before you know it, she'll be begging to hang.” He opened another beer, took a long sip, belched, then added: “If we got us a bitch to kill, that is...”
The other man, cringing and shaking, adjusted his absurdly large glasses and looked around worriedly. “Y-you guys sure no one knows about this place? My coworkers keep asking where I'm riding out the storm. I don't know what to say...”
“Ignore them,” the skulking woman snapped. She absently massaged the ruby hanging from her neck. “If they are strong enough, they will Mind the Void.”
“B-but what if they aren't?”
“The Blood Poachers can always build more Kappo. Just what you should have been used for, Mouser...”
The fat man belched. “Dumb to trust Lemmy, if you ask me. Fucker can't even score a good thought-toss. You thought he'd wrangle in that tramp? Ha!”
“At least Lemmy actually found someone worth killing. When's the last time you brought along anyone worth a few cogs, Boulder?”
“I'm just saying, would it really be any shock if the poor fuck got stood up by a woman like that? No reason to be jealous, Ice. Heheh.”
The woman called Ice whirled around. “Careful, fatso. The Fathom likes you, but not as much as they like me. I've earned everything Vlaz Gal has have given me. Can't you tell?”
Another flash of lightning, and you could see that her halo had completely burned out long ago, that her inroad lines wound tightly around and through her skull and right up to her eyes, and that those eyes were nothing but abysmal holes of smoke. The smaller of the two men winced; even Boulder's face blanched. For other Thrall secretly living throughout Roslyn, such complete and willing immersion into the Void was rare. Ice had achieved it, and because of that she was one of Vlaz Gal's most prized operatives.
The thunderbolt echoed across the bay. Ice raised her half-empty bottle of flood rum and shouted: “Vlaz Echomar! Death to Roslyn! Vlaz Echomar!” Her companions joined in, but this time only she was laughing. The fog seemed to be thinning out around them, although a forest-colored haze still tinted the entire ridge.
“Maybe we should mind Lemmy again,” the small man winced as he tentatively poked at his own pendant. “You sure you scooped him the right time?”
“Did he mind you back? Always best to check...”
“The storm is blotting out the codex. It's impossible to tell.”
“B-but if he's one of you—us I mean, one of us!—Shouldn't you be able to mind him just fine?”
“You ask a lot of questions for a Thrall so fresh...”
Boulder laughed and cracked open another can of beer. “Go easy on the shrimp, it's his first cut. Be a little nicer till he gets with the program. You got no patience, Ice. No wonder you never found a loving man. That and your looks. Heh.”
There was another peel of thunder, and the trio hastily turned to toast the storm again. Mouser nursed a flask of wine with trembling hands. “I-I'm all in, Ice. I promise. I'm just wondering, what if someone else was minding Lemmy's thoughts? That's how Bruce from Creole Bay got busted, right?”
“I do not need history lessons from someone still sucking on a Barra's tit!”
Boulder got between them. “Lighten up, will ya? All the shrimp's saying is, Lemmy didn't know much about this girl, other than he met her at U and that he thought he had an in with her. And that she was slammin'.”
“We know plenty. She's Top Star. Brimming with cogs. But she was lonely. Weak. She came to him about her problems. He had her from the start.”
“Maybe she was tougher he thought.”
“If there was a problem, he'd let me know.”
“You sure? Cause I dunno if anyone's told you, but you got a bit of a temper, Ice.”
“Everything is fine.” She looked intently out at the storm. “If he's coming from Radio Row he probably got held up in traffic. No one could have minded our real intentions. The dark thought is so embedded in the people of Roslyn right now, not even a Durationist can easily discern who is still addicted to cogs, and who has Minded the Void.
“So,” a drink of her bottle, “just fucking relax and wait for them to get here. And stick to the plan.”
“Do we kill her right away?” Mouser asked.
“No. First we say the words. The words are important. Her cogsum will plummet. The longer she minds the Void, the greater the damage will be.”
Boulder laughed. “The best part, shrimp, is you gotta keep her from hanging herself as long as you can. Takes a lot of work to keep them from jumping. I had one urchin boy who struggled so hard, ended up kicking me in the face. Broke my nose, the little fucker...”
Ice took a long drink, emptied the bottle, threw it over shoulder. “The last thing that this tramp will hear is the salute. Then... If she has as many cogs to her name as Lemmy claims, her sacrifice should form a crack in this region's affordance. All the Blood Poachers need now is the smallest fracture to penetrate deeper into Roslyn. The storm will roll across the bay and flatten Bedlam county.” She rubbed the red ore and shuddered with pleasure. Her inroad lines glowed like cold lava. “I will be allowed back into the Thunder Nation as a hero. I will be honored in Vlaz Gal. All we have to do is hang this cog-addicted bitch. And remember the salute!”
Thunder clapped again.
“Vlaz Echomar! Vlaz Echomar! Death to Roslyn! Mind the Void! Vlaz Fathom—!”
Green glitter swirled across the graveyard.
“—Vlaz Echomar! Vlaz Fathom! Death to....”
A low, crackling sizzle sounded across the ridge. The chant trailed off, and the trio looked over to the opposite hill.
A wispy, emerald flame materialized out of thin air, floating steadily off the ground. A hand appeared under the spitting orb, followed by a slender arm, concealed by the heavy sleeve of a dark, long sweater. A slim, lithe figure was leaning against the tree, arms and legs crossed as she held the flame in front of her. Her face was unseen beneath a thick shawl that fell over her shoulders, to the small of her back; but the spitting flame allowed the Thrall to see the hint of a pale face, washed in green glow. The flame's light was overpowered by a pair of amethyst eyes flecked with wintry gray.
Ice and her companions exchanged wary glances. “Who the hell are you?”
The answer came in a low purr.
“I'm your tramp...”
She slowly raised her open hand, to the left and over her head, so that her sleeve fell back. The emerald flame reflected off the ribbed coils of a silver-and-black glove.
All three Thrall went rigid. Mouser whimpered; Boulder let out a breathless curse. The wind scoured the reeds in the trough between the two hills. No one bothered to even ask what had happened to Lemmy.
Ice tried to play it cool. She raised her head and narrowed her eyes. Her hand dropped to her side, her fingers taut and inches away from the tin shot holstered under her jacket.
“Only one of you?” She asked mildly.
“Mhm.” The flame spat and writhed over the Durationist's palm.
Ice smiled and reached for the red ore over his neck, and for a bluff she hoped was true.
“To stare down a Thrall is to stare down the Blood Poachers themselves. Sure you want to risk that tonight, without the rest of your team? With the Blood Poachers ruling the skies? ” Thunder rumbled, accenting her voice.
“They won't help you. You don't have a sacrifice to offer them.”
“They'll look past that when they see we can kill a star Durationist instead.”
Boulder laughed. Even Mouser chuckled reassuringly.
“Mm... What about three dead Thrall? Will they care then?”
The laughter died.
Fiery amethyst locked with lifeless gray. Ice's fingers brushed past the edge of her coat and drifted over the butt of her pistol. Her fingers twitched, the tin shot rattled in its holster.
The inroad lines that wound up her arm started to burn and tighten. The pendant around her neck grew heavy, the red rock sizzling and shrinking against her heart. She did not need to mind Boulder or Mouser to know that they too were doing the exact same thing: hastily consuming the rest of their ore, channeling all their dark thought to their weapons. It was a desperate move, one that any Thrall instinctively knew was a last resort, to be used only against a Durationist, and it would likely leave them dead, even if they took their enemy—not to mention the entire graveyard—out with them. They had no choice.
The sky blinked with crimson flashes. The thunder sounded very faint. The Thrall were motionless save for the steam rolling off their arms; they might have been tall headstones beside the barren tree.
The wind picked up. Leaves rattled. The shrouded figure still held the flame over her shoulder, her knees flexing ever so slightly. The hem of the her shawl flowed behind her left arm. She just stared at them with those sharp, purple eyes.
A bolt of lightning tore the air over their heads, striking one of the transmission towers. The ground shook from the deafening blast.
The Durationist shut her outstretched hand, and the spitting flame vanished. She raised her empty palms, as if to inexplicably surrender.
The Thrall did not hesitate. Their tin shots snapped to their hands, arms and weapons pulsing with red heat. With surprising quickness, they aimed—
Three successive beams of ivy-colored light ripped across the waterfront. All three Thrall were thrown backwards. Boulder and Mouser went hurtling down the slope. Ice toppled over the tombstone and slammed into the naked tree, to fall limply between its roots.
Trails of white smoke rose from the Durationist's palms.
The Thrall lay limp, their bodies twisted. Mouser's thick glasses sat next to him, a clean, neat hole smoldering in the right lens. A beer can had fallen out of Boulder's jacket and ended up next to his head, pressed against his face. His mascara-dashed eyes were fixed in a longing stare.
Ice stirred as the shadow of the Durationist fell upon her. Blood trickled from her lips, cinder floated over the hole in her chest. Her pendant was smashed, the red ore wasted. The noose swung like a pendulum over her head.
The Durationist's eyes burned through her like another volley of light. In that glare was a hunger for something long sought.
—You're dying. There's nothing to hide now... She showed the back of her wrist to the Thrall. Sophia knew that the Thrall's murky eyes, their focus fading in death, nevertheless locked upon the one thing it could see: a tiny blemish in the midst of Sophia's halo, an infinitesimal fracture amid her halo's otherwise perfect, vibrant hue, a splinter of darkness that most eyes would miss. But Sophia knew it was there, and the Thrall did too.
—What does it mean? Tell me.
The Thrall let out a strained laugh, which quickly broke into a cough. The abyssal eyes confidently met the penetrating mauve.
—I...I know nothing. Do you really think the Fathom would burden us, Storm Killer?
The violet-gray widened with anticipation, with anger—and with fear. The Durationist clenched her fists.
— You are bound to the Echomar. If you don't know, I can find out through you!
The purple gaze smoldered, and the ghastly eyes of the dying Thrall bulged. She gasped as the Durationist looked through her, through her fading mind, and down the gnarled web of toxic thoughts and feelings that enslaved her to the Echomar. The lavender eyes pierced through the inexpressible sadness, the malignant anger, the pure darkness, scouring for an answer of any sort: a name, a face, the truth. The Durationist stiffened, her fingers splayed at her sides, certain that an answer was at last in reach, and her eyes grew even wider, as if she were staring at something obscene but could not possibly look away—
“I... KNOW...” A grating voice said.
The Durationist took a step backward.
The Thrall's withered hand seemed to raise itself, as if lifted by strings. A clawed finger pointed at the ivy-colored halo on the Durationist's wrist. The Thrall's eyes were vacant, and her jaw moved in contorted bursts.
The echo danced across the graveyard. The Durationist felt an electric chill race down her spine. A pair of white-hot eyes flickered over the skyline. She refused to meet their gaze.
A flame appeared in her palm, and she made a fist. Smoke hissed between her fingers. The Thrall's neck snapped, and so did the unseen wires that tethered her corpse to the Eyes of Thunder. A final gasp. The clawed hand fell limply to the ground.
The Durationist stood very still, and exhaled.
This means nothing Courier. Do you hear me? ...Dammit!
The intrusion of a foreign thought made her lip curl.
It was her captain.
—Sophia, where the hell are you? We're about to begin. Get the hell up here.
—… Relax. I'm on my way.
The Durationist walked away from the waterfront, not once looking back at the brimming sky. Minutes later she was on a silver moped, shooting down the gravely road that weaved around the marching line of transmission towers, and back onto the highway. As Sophia passed by countless drivers who had stopped along the shoulder to behold the first poacher storm to hit a major city in one-hundred fifty years, some recognized the hooded figure who rode past, and they broke out in cheers. By the time Sophia met her teammates on the suspension bridge, a whole throng had assembled to cheer them on, and the codex was alight over her appearance.
—I swear it was her! Sophia from Belmont Chapel!
—She met up with the rest of Old Atlantic! They're staging an offensive!
—Go Old Atlantic! Go Sophia, the greatest player in Roslyn!
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