"Can you believe this? On today of all days too." Agents Mills shook his head and narrowed his dark eyes at me through the rearview mirror. To him I was little more than a nuisance, and I knew it. Just another rookie brought over to experience the human world before making my decision.
"What?" The question sprayed from Agent Worth's overstuffed mouth, crumbs sprinkling the dashboard to Mills’ disgust.
"I said, can you believe this?" He nodded back towards me.
"Oh right, well we all have to start somewhere. You had a first day too, remember?" Worth twisted as best his bulk would allow, peering at me between the seats, his grin a cream and pastry smear. "Don't worry 'bout him kiddo, he's always like this near the end of a case. Did Nexus tell you what we're doing today?"
I nodded, cleared my throat and offered a weak grin, "Yes sir, they sure did."by
"Good good," he turned back to stare at the taillights of the barely moving traffic, "no need for me to go over it again then. But, out of curiosity, did you ever see a category six rumour at the academy?"
"No sir, only seen three's first hand. Anything above that was purely academic except for some videos and pictures."
"Videos and pictures," Mills scoffed. "In my day if you couldn't handle a fiver, by yourself, by second year, you were out." He punctuated the last with a jerk of his thumb towards the high rise buildings flanking the street.
"Yeah but in your day these humans thought invisible chariots moved the sun and moon across the sky." Worth chortled as if it was the funniest thing ever said, until Mills drove his fist into his arm.
"Listen here rookie," snapped Mills. "When we get to the farm - we find the source, no argument. You stay back. In fact, stay in the car if you want. Or better yet, get out the car and run the opposite direction, cause I don't need some yappy pup at my heels. Not today. You understand?"
"Give over Mills. We have a young able bodied assistant that needs the experience," Worth cracked open a can of some fizzy drink, "I'd rather he carried the equipment than me. Doesn't a guy deserve a break every now and then?" He slurped, gulped, burped, then crushed the can, and threw it amongst the others rattling by his feet.
Mills snorted like an angry bull, "Can you do that rookie? Carry sixty plus kilos of chain and saber?"
"Whatever you need sir?" I answered with zero thought. What was I thinking? A category six rumour… I scratched my neck, pulled on my ears, cracked my knuckles. Running sounded the better option, more my style in truth, but what's a demon rookie of the Validators to do.
The rest of the journey was silent. Well, except the endless crunching of Worth, some enjoyed their skin suits more than others, and the gruff curses of Mills anytime another driver had the audacity to use the road ahead of us. But there were no shared words, no conversation, and that suited me fine.
Staring out the window, it still surprised me to see so many Imps, Ghouls, Goblins and other low level feeders in the wild. Hovering unseen over their human hosts, lurking in their shadows, feeding off their trust, their goodness. Parasites, growing stronger, and more dangerous, until they transform into something deadlier. Some lies just take on a life of their own.
In recent decades things had been getting worse and worse, festering. I always wondered, if humans knew what their lies, rumours, and gossip birthed in our plain, would they change? If they could change that is. The Academy continually preached that ages differ, kings and queens may fall, democracies may rise, technology eventually surpasses magic but humans…humans always stay the same.
Maybe, but what if–
I shook my head, blinking stupidly into Mills' snarl.
"You deaf rookie? I said we're here, get the stuff from the trunk. Now!"
Grunting I hoisted the duffle bag from the jeep, its contents jingling a deadly melody as I lowered it onto the dirt back road. Mills and Worth stood by a wire fence, crowned with barbed wire, staring at a huge building within. The farm. It was almost a city in itself, a boring city that is, just one great rectangular block dropped unceremoniously into the verdant countryside.
They turned to me, Worth smiled, Mills cocked an eyebrow, his hands on his hips pushing back his gray trench coat, “Well get to it then rookie.”
“Get to what?”
“The fence kiddo, it ain't going to cut itself is it?” Worth slapped his impressive gut, “And make it a big hole eh.”
The long grass favoured our approach. Still though we crouched, shuffling towards the looming building.
“Wait.” Mills ordered, his hand stretched out. I was all too thankful to drop the bag for even a moment's rest. To stand upright, crack my spine, knuckle my back would have been too much to ask however. It truly astounded me how humans lived in these things, I longed to be back in my oozing, slivering form. Soon, I told myself. Soon.
“Look, just there,” I followed Mills’ pointed finger towards yellow and back hatching surrounding a large door. “The service entrance. It would seem, for once, that Nexus’ info was correct. Remind me to thank Delores when we get back, Worth. Ok, you two stay here.”
“Mills,” hushed Worth, sidling next to me. He unzipped the bag and proffered a saber. “Just in case.”
Shaking his head, Mills stalked off through the swaying grass.
“Ok, you can go ahead now,” Worth said matter-of-factly.
“Go ahead with what?”
“Your questions. The rookies always have questions, it doesn't matter how good you performed at the Academy, there are always questions. And that open bag of paternal kindness over there seems to scare them into silence. So go, shoot.”
Licking my lips, I wrecked my brain. If he hadn't asked I would have had too many questions, but just being put on the spot like that.
“Ermm…mmmm,” I must have looked an idiot sitting there tapping my chin for what seemed like several minutes. “Why have we never just told the humans?”
Worth laughed, “Have you ever tried telling a human something different from what they already believe in? They’re a stubborn lot, probably part of the reason we are in this mess. Was a lot simpler when all their phones could do was ring another house. I’ll tell you that for sure. And we did you know, try telling them, centuries ago. But as soon as the idea was out there that their rumours birthed demons, well, there was a sharp increase in crispy people on stakes. If you get my meaning.”
Gulping, I checked over my shoulder, no sign of Mills or any guards. “This category six, why has it gotten Mills so…”
“Erm, yeah, bitchy.”
“He’s the only person in the entire Agency that has seen a seven, and survived. Won't talk about it, never has outside his official report. He was just a junior and he never wants to see one again, so we can't let this Sixer feed much longer. That's reason enough for him, it's good enough for me.”
“What's the highest you’ve—”
“Would you two shut up!” Mills hissed, rustling his way towards us. “I could hear your muttering from half way back.” He glanced the way he came, “We have an in, there doesn't seem to be too many workers about, only two guards in a hut by the main gate but several more inside. Place is that big we should be able to avoid them no problem.”
“And the six, it's in there?” Worth asked.
Mills nodded, pulled the saber from the bag, unsheathed it several inches, blade glinting the pink and purples of the dusk sky. Handing Worth a hefty length of blue chain, its links engraved in runes, they locked eyes, and Worth inclined his head to me.
“Ok, ok.” Mills said, rolling his eyes before rummaging inside.
A short sword was pushed against my chest, “For defense, you hear me rookie? Stay out of the fight.”
I swallowed, held the sword outstretched as if checking the balance, hoping I looked like I knew what I was about.
“This is it kiddo,” Worth grinned, throwing the chain over his shoulder. “Time to set the truth free.”
Videos and pictures. Now I understood why Mills scoffed. Nothing could have prepared me less for what lay inside that vast building. Moving amongst the walls of flashing and humming data banks I first noticed a smell, fresh turned soil. Then the odd server dripped black sap, puddling on the smooth concrete floor as we skirted past it. Of course to human eyes, there would be nothing. The joys of obliviousness.
Closer and the sap grew thicker, consuming all, its jagged edges snapping like tendrils trying to grasp anything. Spreading. Infecting.
Mills' sword sung as he drew it. My sweaty palms seemed no place for a blade, but I followed suit regardless.
“Just stay behind me kiddo, I got ya,” Worth's words were too calm, almost devoid of emotion. Hardened by experience I supposed. Damn but I would have liked some of that.
Heart thundering, legs wobbling, I followed them, blade tip quivering before me. Around a corner the stench struck like a shovel to the face, so overpowering, no longer overturned earth but rotting, decaying flesh. The slaughter house on a warm day. I gagged, spit filling my mouth, acid searing my throat, tears flooding my squinted eyes. My footing slipped under what seemed like a tide of writhing, putrid oil. I stumbled, the blackness below washing over my feet, snaking around my ankle.
Don't be afraid. We are kin, we are friend. Join us. Help us…
The voice was shrill and unworldly, yet I was not afraid. It wanted me. Like no one ever wanted me. No, no, it needed me. I could be more than myself, bigger, more powerful, unstoppable. I could be…I would be–
Something cold and heavy wrapped itself around my arm. A chain, Worth's chain, the runes in each link blazing electric blue. My laboured breathing filled my head, blowing away a fuzziness that I could not place.
Mills wiped his blade with a rag, then tossed it away. Staring about my feet, my mouth agog, what looked like chopped up worms melted back into the rancid pool.
"Feelers," Mills forced the words through gritted teeth. "Part of the Sixer, that's its strength rookie. A rumour so powerful it makes you feel powerful just to believe it, like your part of something bigger. Something no one else knows. Makes you feel special, smarter, as if by simply repeating its lies you're doing the world an unknown favour, when the whole time it's just feeding off you."
My vision cleared, and I wished it hadn't. Ahead a wriggling, pulsating, bubbling ooze draped over a multitude of servers, watched us with a hundred yellow eyes
"My kin," the words were drawn out with an icy pitch. "Brothers come to slay brother."
"Don't listen to it!" Mills snapped, advancing forward into an attacking stance.
Air whooshed and whipped as Worth spun the chain, faster and faster.
"Young one, rookie, they have lied to you." The thing stretched itself upwards, impossibly tall, until it towered over us. "We are the same, we are one, be more than this–"
"Enough!" Roared Mills, slashing forward. His blade sank squelching into an eye, green ooze erupting like an over ripe zit.
Tendrils rose slashing, but surprisingly for his bulk, Worth was quicker. The chain sizzled as it struck the vile appendages, wrapping them like a constrictor, smoke billowing high to the ear splitting screams of the beast.
They were an efficient team, slash, burn, parry, whip. I was useless. Less than useless. Nothing more than a nuisance they kept having to look back at. I was frozen, head jerking between floor, colleague, creature, way back.
Run. It seemed the best idea. The only idea.
Something crashed beside me, metal buckling, arms and legs flailing. Worth struggled up from a dented memory bank, practically smiling he burst forward, chain tight around each fist as if he intended to garot the Sixer.
Mills continued his killer dance, stab, spin, thrust, bow, lash. With each wound the thing retreated, the pool by my feet withdrawing as though recalled by a low tide. Its tendrils shrunk, its eyes grew heavy. They were winning.
Yes, they had it all under control. No need for me to be here. I'll just do as Mills said and run the opposite direction.
So one foot moved as if through syrup, the other trudging behind and I was off. But to my surprise, I moved forward. Sword held high and something akin to a battle cry breaking free from my throat.
With a sickly wet piercing I joined the melee, to everyone's surprise, including myself. Together we cut, thudded and bound. Every cut seemed to slice my fear thinner and thinner. I was doing it, I was actually fighting an overgrown, festering rumour. I smiled. It screamed. I smiled wider.
Huffing and puffing the three of us stood slack jawed, weapons falling limp, the creature melting away until all that was left a network of acrid vines. They branched from one place. An origin. The source.
Mills' sword tip soon prised the flashing harddrive free with a kachlunk. Scraping then flicking the remaining crude from it he threw it too Worth.
I looked between them, "Is that it, are we done?"
"Not quite, but for now, yes," Mills slid the saber back into its sheath.
"Do we know what's in there, what started this?" I asked.
"A simple lie no doubt," Worth wiped sweat from his face. "Circulated, added to, blown out of proportion until it took on a life of its own and brought that thing into this world. This here," he held up the drive, "is the last remaining backup. If left unchecked, who knows what could have happened. Kings might have risen, democracies might have fallen, but we –"
"Nobody move!" We all turned to the new authoritative voice. Two grey shirted black trousered guards stood, legs wide, hands near belts were batons dangled.
"Run!" Roared Worth.
A cloud of dust kicked up as the car skidded away and I watched from the rearview window as the guards squeezed through the hole in the fence.
I slumped back into the seat, chest heaving, sweat matting my hair. Worth grinned between the seats, Mills eyed me in the mirror with what some might call a smile.
As if an unknown force gave us the go ahead, we all began to laugh.
"So kiddo, hell of a first day eh?"
"You did good rookie, even if you disobeyed me."
"What do you think then, is a life with the Validators for you?" Worth asked.
The blood hammered too loud in my ears for me to even hear my own thoughts. So I did the most natural thing I could do. I lied.
"Yeah, sure is."