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Obsidian Series by Grislysilence

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  10:31:08  25 November 2006
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Siro
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On forum: 03/02/2005
 

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11/26/2006 10:02:57
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Obsidian Series

What is it that makes a survivor?
What characteristics define this trait?
Why does one live and another die?
Strength of will, body, and mind; these things a survivor make.
This seems straightforward, but what happens when two such survivors meet?
What happens when they both have strength of will, body, and mind?
But of course, there is only one solution, one possible outcome.
In this game, there can be no tie, no draw, and no second place.
Only one of the two could possibly survive the encounter.
Which one?
The one with the most of each, of course.



Day 1


“There is something strange on the north side.”

“ Strange how?” A lot of things could be called strange. Most of it was to be avoided.

“Earlier this morning I found a Stalker coming from up there. He was bleeding badly. Said I should stay away from the north side. After that I hid. A big pack of blind dogs was following the scent of his blood.”

“What’s so strange about that? Stalkers die every day. Blind dogs are everywhere.”

The Stalker looked at Mihail intensely. “It’s not that he died, it’s how,” he paused. “He was bleeding from gunshot wounds.”

Mihail’s eyebrows rose. Now that was interesting. Very interesting indeed. “Sounds like greed to me. Either military or another Stalker.” He thought a moment. “Only one thing could cause that kind of greed.”

“Artifacts,” the man said almost reverently. He smiled eagerly

Mihail gave him a sideways glance. He was a little too excited. That made Mihail suspicious. He had survived on being so. “Why did you decide to tell me, then? Why not go and get it yourself, not risk getting shot in the back?”

“Because if the military or other Stalkers are up there, I doubt either one of us would be able to…obtain it by ourselves.”

Mihail considered. It made sense. Two Stalkers would be better able to handle a threat than one. But threats from without weren’t the only threats. This man could just be trying to have him help get the artifact, but was planning on shooting him in the back. It was a big risk. An artifact weighed against the possibility of his demise. He thought about it only for a moment. If one didn’t take risks one would never get anywhere. Besides, just being in this place was a risk. Even if this man was going to betray him, Mihail had lived a long time watching his back, and he wasn’t going to give the Stalker a chance to stab him in it. Besides, that wouldn’t happen until they had gotten to the artifact, after Mihail’s usefulness had been expended. When that happened, Mihail would be ready. He suppressed a grim smile. Perhaps this Stalker would have to watch his own back.

Mihail nodded, almost to himself. “Sounds like a good idea.” He thought a moment. “Did the other Stalker give you any idea on what type of artifact it would be?”

The man shook his head. “No. Just what I’ve told you.”

Damn. The artifact was just a question mark, and Mihail didn’t know what type of measures he would have to take to contain and transport it. Artifacts could sometimes be more dangerous than the Zone’s more permanent residents. That could cause problems later.

Mihail suddenly noticed the light was fading. The night was stealing away the sun’s brightness, shading it red and purple. The air was taking on an unpleasant chill. There would probably be a freeze that night. “Let’s get into one of these buildings. No sense getting caught out in the open by something.” He reached his hand forward. “They call me Mihail.”

The other Stalker hesitated at the strange way he phrased it, then extended his own and shook Mihail’s firmly. “ Svyatoslav.”

Mihail nodded. “Good. Now that the pleasantries have been dealt with, let us go inside before it gets any colder.”

Mihail directed him to the doorway of a building he had already pre-selected on his initial survey of the area hours earlier. It was a run-down old restaurant with a second story that seemed to have been dropped on top of the first as an afterthought and was only precariously perched atop it. It was a wood and stone affair, with paint peeling and mortar crumbled away and wood eaten by mold and insects. It was dark inside; the rays of the dying sun barely penetrating the single dirty—but intact—window, lending a vague crimson glow to the area as if they were seeing it through a filter. It was a little warmer inside, but not by much. Debris crunched underfoot as they entered the main room, shattered plates and silverware, crushed glass and the forgotten refuse of years of habitation. There were partially burned clothes piled inside a stone fireplace, and all the chairs and tables looked to have been rolled over by something heavy. The stairway creaked badly when Svyatoslav tried it, and looked to be about to crumble away, so he retreated. A candelabrum had fallen from the high, ribbed ceiling and lay crashed to the floor. A bar to the side once serviced patrons of liquor. All of the alcohol was gone, but Mihail wouldn’t have drunk it anyway. Svyatoslav sneezed as dust drifted into the air from their movements.

Mihail locked the door behind him with the heavy dead-bolt, one of the reasons he chose the building. Crossing the room, kicking aside a large chunk of wood, he found the back door and checked to see if it opened. It did, if with a little effort. He locked that too. It was the second reason he chose the building. He never went into a place that didn’t have more than one exit.

Svyatoslav watched him without comment as he went about the room, checking this and that, making sure there weren’t any weak points in the walls, a potential entrance for something nasty. There wasn’t a basement, so he didn’t have to worry about the floor giving way or something unpleasant coming up while they were sleeping. He eyed the ceiling. He would have to hope the second story would stay situated above their heads for the duration of the night.

He found a mostly stable chair from within all of the garbage and pulled it up to the bar. A table that was missing a leg would have to serve as another. He propped it up against the bar as well. Svyatoslav had already seated himself on the chair, so Mihail took the table. He unslung his AK-74 from over his shoulder and placed it on the bar, then dropped his pack onto the ground next to his makeshift chair. He searched it for his lantern, set it on the bar, and wound the dynamo handle. Feeble light streamed from within the dirty glass, casting long shadows of the two against the aging, decayed walls. He started disassembling his gun for cleaning. He didn’t want it to jam at an inopportune moment. Svyatoslav dropped his own AKS onto the bar but made no move to start any sort of maintenance. Mihail could tell Svyatoslav wanted to say something, but he didn’t ask; he didn’t need to. Svyatoslav would eventually get to it.

While he worked, he listened for stray sounds, things that shouldn’t belong. He heard nothing but for the wind, though that didn’t necessarily mean anything. The wind had never comforted him as it did others. Others said it brought in fresh air, cooled them down, and reminded them of better days. They liked the sound of the wind.

He hated the wind. It masked the sound of things sneaking up on you. Things that were hungry. It swirled dust around, obscuring trails and making it harder to see. To him, it brought the smell of something other than freshness. On the wind he could always smell the bitter scent of death.

When he first came to the zone, he had been given to flights of fantasy. That had long since been ground out of him by the overwhelming, crushing presence of the zone and its inhabitants. He used to say that the day the wind was loudest and most furious was the day you died. He used to say that on that day you could smell the scent of your own death in the wind. He realized it was just superstitious nonsense, but belief in something, no matter how incredible, gave many people a measure of comfort. Though he didn’t admit it, perhaps it gave him a measure of comfort as well, or at least a sort of resolve. All those others that liked the wind were dead as far as he knew, unless one could rise up and live from being torn to shreds by dwarves or blind dogs. But then again, you never knew with the Zone. He liked it best when it was dead quiet. You stood a better chance of living.

Svyatoslav cleared his throat. Mihail gave up on ignoring him and looked over questioningly. “Something on your mind?”

“I was just wondering…” He trailed off.

Mihail almost shook his head. They always started that way. I was just wondering…and then they deluged you with questions about your childhood, your family, your old life. Mihail’s old life was dead. So was everyone else’s. Even if it wasn’t private business—which was reason enough for Mihail to refuse answering—it was long gone, too far away to be of any use in the here and now. People who dwelled on the past ended up not thinking enough on the present and they died. That was how it was. Mihail didn’t dwell on the past, nor did he dwell on the future. What was happening right at that moment was what was important, was what could kill you. What was in the past was unchangeable, and the future was so vague and uncertain there was no way to predict or influence it; if you tried you’d end up with the same problem as if you were dwelling on the past and you’d end up feeding the worms, or something else.

Svyatoslav started again. “I was just wondering why you said they call you Mihail? Why not say that that was your name?”

Mihail looked up again. An actual intelligent question. “It’s not my name. I had another once, before all this. It died along with everything else. Now I am Mihail. That is all that matters.” He looked away and returned to cleaning the gun. It had gotten very grimy from some constant use only a few days before.

“It’s getting worse out there,” Svyatoslav offered after a moment.

Mihail didn’t look up. “The weather or the Zone?” He stopped to look at the wood surface of the bar. Round stains from mugs and steins turned the rough grain dark in places, memories of more jubilant times. That was all gone now.

“Both. Have you noticed?”

Mihail had noticed. As blowout after blowout occurred, and more anomalies and strange things started appearing, and more and more Stalkers died, the weather got stranger and stranger. One day it would be as hot as hell’s forge, and the next it would be a winter’s night in Siberia. It would snow and then melt an hour later. Lakes froze or dried up, becoming huge salt beds. In other places, new lakes emerged from contaminated water and the vegetation all around died. You couldn’t help but notice it. It was another unanswerable question about this godforsaken place.

“Everything’s going to die sooner or later, you know? Us, the plants and animals, eventually everybody else. Makes me want to leave.”

“Then leave.” Mihail had no time for the future. If he died, it would happen. He wouldn’t die easy, but everyone had a time. Mihail’s wasn’t up yet, because he was still alive. Any other thoughts on the matter were irrelevant.

Svyatoslav’s brow creased. “Well, why…”

Mihail stopped him with a hand. He thought he had heard something outside…

Getting a little angry, Svyatoslav started to his feet. “Look here, you can’t just…”

Mihail fixed him with a glare so hellish that the man stopped in his tracks and quit breathing. He continued to fix his gaze on the man until he was sure he would stay quiet. Then Mihail listened. His eyes gathered in the walls of the room. Suddenly it seemed very small. He quietly turned the lantern off. Everything went dark. As his eyes adjusted, he realized that the sun had set. There was no moon out. The entire area was covered in clouds, so there were no stars either. He could barely make out the outline of Svyatoslav’s form or the dimensions of the room. But he didn’t move from his spot to try different angles. He didn’t want to make any sounds. There was a tiny scratching sound from outside. His heart skipped a beat. He saw Svyatoslav’s eyes go wide. He turned his head to the window. That was the part he was worried about. He couldn’t see through it, and anything that wanted in could easily break it. It could be standing just outside the window and he wouldn’t know. His eyes strained in the dark to make something out. Illusions flickered at the edges of his visions, whispers of movement. He ignored them, concentrating on the window. A small scrape against the wood of the wall outside, mere feet from the window. He heard a heavy breath. God only knows, but it could be smelling them. He stopped breathing. His blood thundered through his ears. He feared the sound of his heart would alert the thing outside to his presence.

All was silence. It had to be out there somewhere. It couldn’t have gotten very… gravel crunched right underneath the window. Adrenaline pumped through Mihail’s veins like fire, grinding its way through him, instilling him with its harsh need, its power. His hand edged towards the Stechkin he kept at his belt. His AK-74 was in no state to be used. Something was right outside the window, but he couldn’t see it. A thousand possibilities rushed through his mind. What was out there? What was out there? A little voice teased him. He couldn’t answer it. He feared the thing would hear the sound of his reply.

Something heavy hammered against the wall. The entire building shuddered, the glass of the window rattling. Mihail’s hand shot to his gun. Svyatoslav jerked backward and fell off his chair, crashing into the debris in the middle of the floor. They both froze, staring at the window. Had it heard? Nothing moved. Mihail leaned forward ever so slightly, silently withdrawing his gun from its holster. He was on the edge of the table he sat on, ready to bolt or attack at an instant’s notice. Whatever was out there could easily kill them. He knew that. He couldn’t hear if there was any wind through the rush of blood in his ears. Today could be the day the wind became loud for him. But what would the thing outside do?

There was a heavy huffing sound from outside. A deep, angry growl reverberated through the building. The huffing increased. Then it rammed into the side of the building with tremendous force. The entire west wall splintered and cracked, scattering dust and wood chips through the air. The window shattered, sharp chunks of glass clinking to the floor. The stairs behind Mihail finally gave way and crashed to the floor. More dust rose into the air, turning into a thick, grimy morass. Cold air streamed in through the broken boards of the walls. A huge black shape passed in front of the window. He swore viciously, then started for the rear door as quietly as he could. If the thing outside wasn’t entirely where they were in the building, maybe it wouldn’t be able to get him before he got out. He would have to leave his AK-74 for later. He passed Svyatoslav trying to get to his feet without disturbing the debris around him. Suddenly, the thing roared with fury and slammed into the wall again. This time it smashed through, breaking apart the wood beams as if they were toothpicks, sending the thick boards flying through the air. The splintered ends shattered against the far wall as Mihail dove behind the bar. Its heavy footsteps thudded against the floor. Whatever it was, it was big.

He heard Svyatoslav scrambling to get away. He heard the thing turn and start toward the struggling Stalker. Glass and wood were crushed alike beneath its feet. Mihail slowed his breath. His heartbeat raged uncontrolled. Blood pounded through his veins. The heady mix of adrenaline and fear surged and flowed. Fire burned in his eyes.

With a feral roar Mihail leaped out from behind the bar and fired at the dark shape clouded by swirling dust. He held down the trigger of his Stechkin machine pistol. Twenty rounds of hot lead stitched into the thing’s flesh. He slammed into the wall with a painful thud and rolled free. The thing roared again, but this time in pain, and turned on him. Its movements were jerky and fast, but no less powerful. Its footsteps thundered in his ears. It was too close. He couldn’t tell how much he had injured it. He dove behind the bar again and ejected the clip to his Stechkin. With shaking fingers, he found the second clip at his belt and quickly shoved it home.

Before he could prepare for the thing, it had already crossed the room. Without warning the whole left side of the bar exploded into dust and splinters as the thing crashed into it in its frenzied search for Mihail. He fell back as shards of wood cut into him with slivers of pain. He fired blindly at the thing, bullets shrieking through the air and thudding into its meaty flesh. It roared again, stepping back as the hot pieces of shaped metal tore through it. But it shrugged them aside in its fury and slammed its massive fists against the wall. Bricks and mortar tumbled down onto Mihail, plaster choking the air, turning it into a thick white morass. Barely having enough time, Mihail leaped over the remains of the bar just as the thing crashed into the corner where he had been. Unsteady as he landed, he slipped on a board and fell heavily to the floor. The Stechkin slipped from his fingers. White lights flashed in his eyes as he compressed his chest against the floor. His breath wheezed out. Where was Svyatoslav?

Already the thing realized it hadn’t crushed Mihail in its attack. It lunged forward, breaking the bar in half, and stomped toward him. He scrambled forward, his numb fingers fumbling at his belt for his machete. The thing was gaining on him in the close quarters of the restaurant. He wouldn’t be able to run forever. Everything was too damn close together. Sweat and dust stung his eyes and blurred his vision as he tried to find a way out. His breath came in ragged pulls. He could barely breathe through the thick dust clogging the air. He could barely see anything. He stumbled forward, looking for the door. He heard the thing roar in frustration and pound after him in anger.

He hurtled into something and fell to the floor, stunned. What had he hit? He hadn’t seen anything. For a moment he was confused. Then he saw the vague form standing above him. It was Svyatoslav. With his AKS.

Mihail tried to stand, but a sharp pain in his side brought him back down to a crouch. He tore the machete from his belt, despite how ineffective it was bound to be. Svyatoslav yelled something, but Mihail couldn’t hear it over the noise the thing was making. And then it suddenly appeared through the dust and slammed into them, tossing them both aside before they could react. Its gigantic fist jack-hammered into his stomach, crushing the breath from his lungs with a pain that felt like it had torn him in two, throwing him across the breadth of the room. He skidded across the wood scattered over the floor, hit something with his shoulder and tumbled through the hole in the wall the thing made.

He fell heavily onto the dirt. Bitter cold air washed over him, but he couldn’t breathe it. Pain seared through his lungs like acid. Even the thought of taking a breath brought the pain to full force. Gripping his stomach with his hands, he forced himself to take that breath. Agony ripped through his chest like a thousand shards stabbing into his lungs. He screamed and choked on vomit. He took another shuddering breath. Pure, biting air flowed into his lungs like liquor that burned all the way down. He forced himself to take another, wincing against the pain. Tears dripped from the corners of his eyes. He spit the bitter liquid of his vomit from his mouth.

He heard Svyatoslav yelling. He heard the thing thundering across the floor with steps that caused the building to shake. He heard wood and glass breaking. He heard the stuttering report of Svyatoslav’s AKS. He heard the thing roaring. He heard all this in a split second’s time. He listened for one sound in particular. But he couldn’t hear it. The wind was still and dead. Renewed determination brought him to his feet. He didn’t believe in such things, and yet it still held meaning for him. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he stepped back into the dust pouring from the restaurant.

He saw everything through a haze other than the cloud kicked up by their fierce battle. Calm swept through him, steadying him. The fear that had gripped his heart like a vise fled before the onslaught of cold hard resolve. He would not die. Not before he killed this thing. Not before he brought it to the ground and crushed the life from its inhuman body. Not before.

Almost immediately his eyes found the long black shape of his machete. It was only feet from him. He grabbed it by its leather handle, lifting the deadly sharp blade up from the floor. Fury raged in his eyes. He looked up and saw Svyatoslav firing several rounds into the thing. Each harsh flash lit the cloud of dust, turning everything white. The thing roared in pain and anger as the rounds tore into its flesh. Mihail saw chunks of its flesh flying off and blood spurting as each bullet burrowed in. But it seemed to make no difference to it. It was so big that he doubted the bullets were even harming it very badly. They went in, but they didn’t hit anything important, didn’t do any damage. Its vague man-shape made it that much more horrifying, reminiscent of a more homogenous past. If they didn’t kill it soon, it would win simply because it could survive much more than they. But everything had a weakness. Finding this thing’s weakness using trial-and-error would take too long. They would be dead before they found out, and there was no way to test different theories while it tried to grind them into bloody sacs beneath its feet. They would have to do something that would definitely hurt it instead of just putting useless holes in it. He looked down at his machete and hefted it. What he needed to do was cut something off.

He stormed across the room to the giant thing; hate, anger, disgust and terror all gripping him by turns as he in turn gripped the machete in both hands. It was stopped for a moment, shuddering as Svyatoslav poured more bullets into its belly. It was time to end it. It was time for it to die. He came up behind it. He twisted to the right, then brought the machete around with as much force and fury as he could possibly bring to bear, putting his entire body, his entire being into ramming the blade directly into the thing. The steel blade glinted dully in the murky air to the cadence of Svyatoslav’s gun. The edge sliced through the dust and gloom with razor-sharp efficiency, exactly how Mihail kept it. He experienced a measure of satisfaction as he noted it, but it was gone in a flash.

The machete slammed into the side of the creature’s neck with such jarring force that it knocked the creature to its knees. Gushes of dark red blood splashed against the walls and ceiling. Mihail lost his grip on the weapon as his hands went numb from the vibration of hitting the thing’s spine. Breathing raggedly, he quickly regained the machete, and again hacked sharply into the thing’s neck. The machete stuck in its thick spine, so he released it again. He pulled his bayonet from his belt and reached around the thing while it was still stunned, reeking blood pouring from its half-severed neck and pooling against the wood floor. With a sudden jerk of his powerful muscles, he severed it part of the way, cutting through layers of flesh and blood. He felt the warmth of its life flow out over his hands, staining them red. With a final grimace, he bunched up his muscles and tore the bayonet through the thing’s spine, snapping it in half. He let the body slam to the floor with enough force to cause the restaurant to shudder, bringing down more clouds of plaster and wood. The machete clattered down on top of the debris. He held the thing’s gigantic head in his left hand for a moment, long strings of blood leaking from its severed bottom. It was the twisted visage of a once-human. What had been done to it, Mihail didn’t know. Whatever it was, he didn’t want it to happen to him.

He tossed the severed head away from himself in disgust. He was covered in blood, some of it his, some of it the creature’s. His clothing was in tatters, torn up from the ferocious battle. He let his breath out slowly, relief flooding through him. He replaced the bayonet in its sheath, then gestured to Svyatoslav.

“Help me find my guns.”

Part 2

The next day dawned bright and cold. The sun rose above the horizon like some burning sentinel of doom, searing the land with intense white light. And yet, it was still cold. Breath clouded, skin prickled, liquids froze. Bleak thunderheads gathered on the opposite horizon, as if driven away by the light of the sun. But appearances are not everything, and as the sun rose, they came closer and closer, shadowing the land, concealing it from the sun’s harsh light.

Mihail and Svyatoslav moved out immediately, having collected the pieces of Mihail’s gun and transferring to a different building. They passed the restaurant where they had fought the monstrosity. Great splashes of blood were frozen on the walls and floor, but the body was gone. Scavengers had eaten it during the night.

They didn’t speak as they walked out of the nameless city; yet another crushed achievement of humankind in a long line of such crushed achievements. They were all the same to Mihail. They all blurred together. He couldn’t care less what the name was. They kept a sharp eye out for any sign of anomalies. Often these were more dangerous than the creatures that lived within the Zone.

They moved slowly at first, Mihail favoring his stomach for a good while. The thing’s fist had been like an iron bar slammed into his midsection. He began to feel better, though, and they were able to pick up the pace. They caught sight of a host of rats near the northern outskirts. They scurried around as if mad, swarming over bulky objects in the middle of a broad square. One or two larger ones seemed to be watching for something, standing up on their haunches occasionally and looking suspiciously around with beady black eyes. Mihail and Svyatoslav watched this from across the square, beyond the poor vision of the rats. Normally Mihail might be inclined to devise a way to draw the rats off or kill them so he could get a look at what they were gathered around, but he had more interesting prospects farther off, and it was entirely possible the rats were merely feeding on the bodies of someone hapless enough to get trapped in the square. Besides, Mihail could taste a peculiar tang in the air, similar to the coppery taste of blood. It was the sign of Fog. The rats would be dead soon enough anyway.

Mihail noticed Svyatoslav pull an antique pocket watch from one of his pockets and open the face, studying the movement. Mihail looked at him curiously. Svyatoslav smiled grimly.

“A mechanical watch will stop in a high magnetic field.” He said simply.

Mihail nodded. That was very interesting. He would have to see about obtaining one from the Dealer. High magnetic fields were very dangerous.

After that they skirted the square, still heading north through the buildings. They didn’t see anything alive. The wind had died, but the clouds had made it overhead, lending everything a dull, leaden cast.

Then they stepped from the cover of the last of the buildings and saw the bodies. This was what they were looking for. Bright red splashes of blood glistened on the broken concrete. Viscera were strewn from long gashes in the bellies of bodies. Eyes stared in horror at whatever they had last seen. Faces were locked in terrible grimaces of pain. Flies gathered around the eviscerated bodies, swarming around the mouths, eyes, and the extensive wounds. The smell of rotting meat hung in the air like a hideous funeral pall. One never got used to that smell.

Svyatoslav wandered through the carnage a few feet ahead of Mihail. Six Stalkers brutally killed, all ripped open, the trademark of Dwarves. But didn’t Dwarves usually stay underground? And some even had bullet wounds. It must have happened within the last few hours, not long before dawn, or they would already have been eaten by scavengers by now. Mihail checked the line of trees some hundred yards distant for movement. They would have to leave soon.

He bent to one of the bodies, searching for anything useful. The pockets were empty but for some crumbs of food in his pack and bullets in a mag pouch at his belt. He kept the bullets but left the food. It was too easily poisoned. He stopped by another body. Nothing. He looked up and scanned the horizon again. He didn’t like lingering in one place if he didn’t have to. Especially with the attractive smell of all this dead drawing predators. He glanced at the overall scene. Where were all the guns?

His companion continued walking to a small outcropping of buildings just past the site. Mihail searched another corpse. Something caught his eyes as he rummaged through the body’s pockets. The man had burns on his hands and face. Bad burns. Mihail recognized those burns. He’d seen them before. He swore under his breath and conducted a thorough search of all the bodies, then the area around them. He swore again when he found nothing.

There was a yell. He looked to see Svyatoslav waving him over. His eyes passed over the bodies one more time. He couldn’t help swearing again.

Mihail trotted over to where Svyatoslav stood. The man pointed to the wall before them. It was riddled with bullet holes. Svyatoslav nodded wordlessly at the ground. Mihail followed the line of his gaze. Another body, red, burned and deformed, leaking blood and other fluids through a multitude of sores and bullet holes. It wasn’t human. Not any more. But it wasn’t a Dwarf, either. It looked a lot like a zombie. That might explain some things. Controllers were more intelligent than most everything else in the zone. More human. It might have noticed something about the artifact and taken it.

He squatted, analyzing the ground, letting his fingers brush the grass. There were tracks leading away from the area, farther north. He considered. The Stalkers must have come upon an artifact, probably the one Svyatoslav had found out about, and fought over it. Some of them were killed. Maybe they stumbled onto the Controller and its minions, or the Controller stumbled on them, and killed the remaining Stalkers, except for the one that managed to escape.

He wasn’t afraid of much. He had a lot of respect for many of the Zone’s inhabitants. But Controllers were another matter. He was afraid of them. Another time, another place, he might have had a hard time admitting it. But if he deluded himself in the Zone, he’d end up dead. A Controller could do things to a man nothing else could. It was nauseating. But what worried him even more were the burns on the one man’s face.

Radiation burns.

“We go north.” He said simply. Svyatoslav nodded. If he was going to die, then that was his fate.

They left the outskirts of the city ruins, walking through the forest for several hours. They kept a sharp eye for anything trailing them or telltales of an ambush. Svyatoslav checked his watch often. The trail was easy to follow; their quarry wasn’t making an effort to conceal the signs of their passing. The terrain grew rougher and more difficult to traverse. The day wore on until the sun was directly over their heads, though they could only see it as a vague brightening of the clouds above them. They ate a quick lunch of MRE’s, which preserved well, didn’t take up much space, and tasted vaguely of cardboard and salt.

It was about an hour after noon, according to Svyatoslav’s watch, that they came upon an anomaly.

The trees stopped. There was no reason for it. They were there, and then the two suddenly stepped onto hard earth. There were no trees, no scrub brush, no grass struggling to reach the light of the sun from under a rock. Nothing. Nothing but an expanse of dirt and gravel. It went on and on until the far edge of the clearing was but a vague blur. A slight wind shifted dust here and there along the length and breadth of the area.

“I don't like it.” Mihail said to himself.

Svyatoslav seemed to have heard. “At least nothing will sneak up on us. We will be able to see for miles all around.”

That was true, Mihail thought. But anyone coming would also see them for miles. Being out in the open like that was as bad as being in a tight, enclosed space. It was easy to get trapped. But that wasn’t the reason he was uneasy. There was something about this unnatural wasteland that unnerved him. It was too perfectly scoured of life. In the Zone, there were very few places where there was no life, or sign of it of some kind.

Dust swirled up by the wind blew all around, obscuring the wasteland. The grains of sand got in their eyes and mouths. Coughing, they turned their backs on the empty place, retreating into the cover of the trees, rubbing their eyes. Svyatoslav checked his watch. Mihail donned his gas mask, making sure the filters were tight and in place. He looked back at the area through the round lenses. The tracks stopped at the edge of the trees, leading straight in. The dust had blown over the rest. He looked over at Svyatoslav, putting on his own gas mask. The man checked his watch again, then nodded. They would have to travel with their guns inside their coats. Even the trusty Kalashnikovs were susceptible to grit. They would have to be careful when using them; if they jammed, they would be in trouble until they could get them cleaned out. Checking behind for a moment, Mihail considered the effort required to get the artifact. He noted the radiation burns and possible presence of a Controller and zombies. He also noted the Stalkers fighting and killing each other over it, and the fact that it had disappeared, possibly taken by that very Controller. There was something very desirable about it. At this point, it was still worth it.

The instant they stepped into the desolation, dust whirled up around them, encasing them in a gritty shell. It seemed that they would be able to see no one, no matter how close they got. Even the fact that anything would also not see them failed to make him feel any better. He looked around the dust as the wind tugged at his clothes. He was rapidly being coated in the stuff, turning his black outfit tan. Despite the roaring outside his mask, his own breath was loud in his ears. He started walking.

The walking seemed endless. At times the wind dissipated a little and the dust would settle to the ground, leaving in its place a thick haze in the air, still preventing them from seeing very far. But even these thin spells lasted for no longer than a moment. For all they knew, whoever, or whatever had that artifact could have died somewhere in the vast expanse and they could pass within feet of it without noticing. In this mess, they would have to trip over whatever they were looking for. He just hoped the artifact made it to the edge where they could look for it. Everything would have been a waste of time if a sorry chance of fate hid it under an inch of silt.

But there was nothing they could possibly do about that, so they kept walking, not speaking for that was not possible over the thundering of the wind. The incessant droning eventually faded into a distant buzzing in his ears as they trudged through the rocks and dust. Mihail had lost all track of time. The dust was the same in every direction, just a wall of whirling tan particles. He supposed he could have asked Svyatoslav to check his watch, but felt no particular need to know. Just as long as they got to the end, that was good enough for him. But he still didn’t like the place. He could feel…eyes on him at all times. Watching.
--------------

He remembered a similar time, years before, when he had felt eyes on him. It was just before the second blowout. He felt as if something had been looking on him from some hidden vantage point. There was a bright light that lit all the clouds in every direction orange. Night was made day. The shockwave knocked him down. He was unconscious for hours. When he awoke, the sky was still bright orange, but everything around him was still standing. The trees hadn’t even dropped any leaves. Why had the wave only hit him? His gaze turned to the power plant.

Then he was running through the forest back to his home. The dark specter of the plant’s towers loomed starkly against the sky. He ran toward them. Fear gripped him. He had only been out to gather some firewood. His wife had been baking bread at the house. It was too close. He ran harder, ripping through the forest. They were all right. They were all right.

He was too late. He flew into the clearing where their house sat. It was too quiet. He didn’t hear the clatter of pans or the crackling of the baking fire or the crying of the baby. But he wouldn’t let himself believe it. He tore open the door and stumbled over her body. His heart stopped. Blood ran from a gaping wound in her throat. Her hand clutched a knife coated in blood. He crawled over to her and cried, tenderly stroking her face. He didn’t even ask what had happened. It was too horrible for him to bear thinking of.

Finally, he rose weakly, staring at his beloved wife. Then he looked away. He couldn’t bear to look any more. Stumbling through the hall, he made his unsteady way to the bedroom. His knees were weak. He was afraid to look in. Steeling himself, he stepped into the doorway, bracing himself against the frame. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. Falling to his knees, he vomited, pressing his fists against his stomach. Tears dripped endlessly from his eyes. Crawling away from the room, choking on fear and agony, he wept.

He didn’t even register the sounds for almost an hour. He just lay on the floor gasping for breath. His life was over. His only two reasons for living were gone. Finally he had no more tears left, no strength left for crying. As he went quiet, he heard rustling sounds outside. Someone was outside. Shock flooded through him. He couldn’t fit his mind around what was happening. Images of his wife paraded themselves in front of him. He couldn’t stop them. Who else would be in his home? Who had done this? Answers wouldn’t come.

Something strange came over him. He found himself able to stand. A single word flared to life. MURDER. Making his way into the kitchen, he kept his eyes on the walls, not daring to look down. The knife rack stared at him. He stared back. He found himself taking a knife. He wasn’t entirely sure why. He felt as if he had lost his mind, like someone else was pulling his strings, like a puppet.

Shuffling through the door, he found himself outside. It was still night, but the light had faded from the clouds. He went around the back of the house. Someone was crouching by the side of his house, scratching at the dirt. He came closer. The person was naked, covered in white skin that looked like it had been through a furnace and left horribly scarred. Blood was spattered on its back. His mind started working again. He made the connection. The knife rose. He wasn’t even seeing anything around him. The deep, bloody slash in his wife’s throat refused to leave his vision. The knife plunged into the bumpy white skin.

He buried his wife and what was left of his child. It was only much later that he learned that it had been a controller. Oleesya had killed herself when she felt what was happening. The child had not been so lucky. The controller had been hungry.
------------

After what felt like days of weary walking but was more likely a few hours, Svyatoslav shouted. Mihail had hung his head, staring at the ground, watching his legs disappear into the sand storm, almost dead asleep as he walked. He would have to take off his mask to wipe away the tears, so he let them dry against his skin. He felt dead. Even Svyatoslav’s yell sounded like a lover’s whisper to him. But it was enough to rouse him from his stupor. He looked up. The dust abated suddenly, clearing away and dropping flat to the ground. Nothing moved again. It was like the blowing sand had never been. Here and there some wind moved loose dust a few meters, but nothing like what they had experienced a mere meter behind. Without knowing how, or why, Mihail knew that if he stepped back in, the sand would rush up all about him, but did nothing to test his theory. He was too tired for that. And he could see the edge of the forest, the evening sun falling slowly behind the crests of the far gray mountains, preparing to disappear under the onslaught of nightfall. The tracks in the sand they were following started up not a few meters to their left, headed directly for the trees.

Part 3

The sun burned down despite the trees. Sweat rolled down Mihail’s back in cool rivulets. He was wet everywhere, his clothes soaked through. His eyes hurt from squinting, and all he saw were waves of heat in the burned, dead trees. He could barely stand touching his AK. Through it all, the trail continued through the deadwood, disappearing over hill a few hundred meters off. It was bad weather for anything, let alone following something potentially dangerous. Next to him, Svyatoslav stumbled on a hidden branch, struggling to his feet before again trudging forward. He looked as uncomfortable as Mihail. They would have to stop soon, find some shade to protect themselves from the heat. If they fell to heat exhaustion they would be easy prey. His muscles burned from walking and his stomach twisted with nausea from the heat. They were in no condition to take the artifact from whatever had it.

He spotted something white in the trees several meters ahead and to the left. He slowed, drifting off the trail. Svyatoslav continued walking, then stopped when he noticed Mihail wasn’t following. He looked over at Mihail, who continued to approach the object, with his gun warily in hand, eyes roaming for signs of a trap. Mihail vaguely heard Svyatoslav moving through the brush behind him, following. There was an unpleasant odor in the air, filling his nose with its noxious stench. Svyatoslav coughed and choked, and Mihail switched to breathing through his mouth, though that did little to ease the smell.

He pushed through the last thicket of brush before the white object. The smell was concentrated there. He gagged. Tears came to his eyes as he tried to suppress his nausea. Laying there, glistening brightly in the sun, spread-eagled and naked before them, was a body. Only nearly human. Mihail coughed against his arm, keeping it pressed against his mouth to ward off the smell. He opened his eyes to look at the body. Pale flesh hung on the corpse like drapery, spreading out, almost pooling off the body in the sun. All of it was burned and bubbled, like it had been dipped in a vat of boiling oil. Its pseudo-human face was twisted in a grimace, fat lips pulled over protruding crooked teeth. Its eyes were pure white and almost bursting from their sockets, swelling disproportionately large. Its hands clenched against its belly, in such torment when it had died that its fingers had gouged deep holes into its stomach. Thick red blood streamed from the finger holes like honey. It had died recently.

Mihail quickly dropped back, retreating to the trail. He spit the bitter taste from his mouth and wiped his lips against his sleeve. Svyatoslav hacked. The main group couldn’t be too far ahead. Spitting distastefully again, he left the site, following the trail once more. He wondered if Svyatoslav had understood what the burns meant. He certainly did. But it wasn’t wise to divulge all of the knowledge he possessed. He wouldn’t want Svyatoslav to get the idea that he didn’t need him anymore. He looked back at the body, retreating steadily into the forest behind him. They would have to stop somewhere else.

After they had made a good distance down the trail and away from the body, they stopped in the shade of a tree stubbornly holding onto the last of its burned leaves. The MREs were quickly downed for need of food if not want of it. They sipped their water to keep it from running out. They said nothing, whether to conserve energy or for lack of anything to say, neither knew. When Mihail stood, Svyatoslav knew it was time to go. They started back on the trail of their quarry.

Thick brush began to creep in on the trail as they climbed the slope of a thickly forested hill. The trail was clearly evident now; broken twigs, footprints and fresh scrapes on tree bark all pointing to the presence of something having passed that way. The trees grew closer together and the light was screened away by branches reaching overhead, creating a tunnel around them that held the heat in, threatening to suffocate them. Eventually the undergrowth became so bad that both he and Svyatoslav had to hack away at it with machetes to make any sort of time. The bushes would have significantly slowed their prey.

They came upon a tree that had fallen across a cluster of rocks that went back several hundred meters. The rocks were close together and formed a sort of tunnel through the forest. It was very dark inside. The trail led directly into it.

“It would not be wise to go in there.” Mihail said immediately. It would be too easy to be trapped or ambushed once inside.

“We have lanterns and flashlights.” Svyatoslav responded.

Mihail gave him an unreadable look. “Then you can go in first.”

Svyatoslav didn’t say anything. Mihail nodded. “Then we go around.”

It was slow going. The trees grew close together so when the path was blocked they had to go around, for they were too thick to be chopped apart with their machetes. But Mihail was able to guide by sighting down three trees in a row to act as a straight line, and using the position of the sun as backup. He had once owned a compass, but it had been smashed into uselessness in a gravity anomaly. He mourned its loss, but was grateful he had survived.

They finally came out near the trail and forged through the brush and trees until they reached it. The tracks continued on ahead of them as if nothing had happened. It was irritating after all that effort to find that their quarry had gone the easy route without problems. But there was no helping it, so they continued on.

The light began to fade and the heat to dissipate. The sun passed overhead and settled comfortably behind them, streaking the sky with red and casting their shadows out before them. Mihail began to wonder where they were heading. They had started going due north, but now had switched almost without him noticing it, and were heading east and slightly south. He shook his head. He’d follow the artifact to the edge of the Zone if necessary. Clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped even more. Still they forged through the forest, and still their prey eluded them. Mihail didn’t understand. They should have caught up with them before now. It was like they were…driven by something, running away perhaps. But from what? They surely didn’t know they were being followed. Or did they? It was a disturbing prospect. One that gnawed constantly at him and refused to let go.

Finally, Mihail stopped. The sun hovered just above the horizon behind them, oddly flattened and colored orange rather than white hot yellow. He could see his breath fogging in the stiff chill. Svyatoslav looked at him questioningly, as if asking why they had stopped.

“We’re not going to catch them tonight. I don't know how they’re keeping ahead of us, but whatever they are, we won’t catch them before dark, or likely even by tomorrow. I don't much like walking blind in this place in the dark. Even with lanterns and flashlights. Besides, even if they don't have to sleep, I’d rather not catch up to them while we’re this tired.”

Svyatoslav nodded. “I think if we follow that ridge up there,” he pointed to the right, “We should come to a more protected spot.”

It was a logical assumption, so Mihail didn’t challenge it. He merely nodded and indicated that Svyatoslav lead. He liked watching his own back. He didn’t trust anyone else enough to let them watch his.

Rocks quickly began to form. Large boulders jumbled together, fallen from the edge of the ridge above them. They had to carefully pick their way through the jagged stone, for fear of slipping and breaking a bone. Mihail spotted an overhang of the ridge ahead, a well-protected spot. He started for it, drawing abreast to Svyatoslav and pointing to it. It was growing darker and more difficult to see, so Svyatoslav had missed it. The sun was now no more than a glow on the horizon behind them. Stars began to pierce through the black sky before them.

Svyatoslav suddenly swore. Mihail froze, twisting his head to see. Svyatoslav was holding his pocket watch and staring around with a wild look in his eyes. Mihail felt a tingle of apprehension shoot through him. He whispered a curse under his breath, the fine hairs on the back of his neck rising. Something was in the rocks. He looked around very carefully, searching for an indication of what sort of trouble they were in. A droplet of sweat fell into his eye. He blinked it away. He couldn’t see any telltale depressions in the ground, for the rocks distorted the look of the land. He couldn’t tell what sort of anomaly it was, but he knew they were very close to something very dangerous. If he moved forward an inch it could be too far. He strained his eyes but didn’t see anything out of place. Night was descending rapidly on them, and they were stuck in a field of rock. And something was with them.

A terrible headache emerged from deep within his skull, pounding in sympathy with the uncontrolled beating of his heart. He gritted his teeth against it, trying to concentrate. He sidled backward. His fingertips and toes tingled. There was a bitter metallic taste in the back of his throat and under his tongue. Trying to move backward as slowly as possible, he saw something move. It darted through the rocks in front of him. He caught a glimpse of a brown, humped form, and then it was gone. Svyatoslav swore the curse that was lurking on Mihail’s tongue. But Mihail was closer to the thing than he, and in substantially more danger. He craned his neck back, stepping back through the rocks. The muscles in his neck strained and cramped, but there was nothing he could do about it. He risked a glance forward again. Movement. Frantic skittering all around. Fear came down on him, wrapping him in its paralyzing embrace. He blinked away more sweat. His muscles shook. He could not see what Svyatoslav was doing. Nor did he care. He kept his eyes riveted forward. Shapes rushed through the rocks and then hid. A lantern lit beside him, shining on the rocks. Nothing moved. Something glittered in the dark. He turned, and it was gone.

Then something tore from the rocks with such speed and ferocity that he didn’t have time to react. It slammed into him from the side and threw him into Svyatoslav. He fell heavily into the rocks. The sharp points dug into his flesh. There was a crash, and the sound of broken glass. The light disappeared.

He leapt to his feet, heedless of the danger, giving no heed to his cautions and simply ran as fast as he could. He heard things moving in the dark behind him. Many things. Rock scraped all over. He tripped and went down, slamming his knee painfully against the rocks. But he was up again in an instant, pangs of fear shuddering through his body. Something black darted straight for his face. Pure twitch reaction saved him. His finger convulsed on the trigger of his AK-74. The shadow spun away with a shriek as bullets buried themselves in its flesh. The sharp report shattered the night silence. Shells clanged as they fell to the rocks below.

Then Svyatoslav was firing as well, and the harsh flashes of light revealed more black shapes. Many more.

His blood thundered in his veins. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. He twisted about, seeing Svyatoslav firing madly into a mass of the shadows. Bullets exploded into the shapes and they fell to the rocks in broken heaps. Screams pierced his ears as they died. Shells ejected from the chamber shot out in an endless stream, gleaming with the flash of gunfire. He turned back around. Something slammed into him from the side. Pain flared in his abdomen as it thrashed at him with hooked claws. He rammed the butt of his AK into its dark head. It tore from his side with a shocking spray of blood. Ignoring the pain, he hammered it again and again until he felt the bone crack under the heavy metal of his gun.

Another one came at him and he gave it nine grams of death. Sweat and blood mixed and coated his body as he fired again and again into the shapes. He held the trigger down, his body recoiling with each burst. They were everywhere. Running had just put him in the thick of them.

He charged ahead anyway, firing left and right at anything that moved. The staccato bursts ripped through the strange shadows as if they were paper. He stumbled, weak from his injury. Blood ran freely from his torn flesh. Forcing himself to his feet, he fired the last rounds in his clip at the dark shapes. He beat back a rush of them, using the weapon as a club. Pain cut through him as they opened new wounds. He couldn’t defend himself well when he was unable to see clearly.

He ejected the clip and reached for another in his mag pouch. He quickly rammed it home. Svyatoslav drew next to him as he began firing again into the black creatures. The sound was deafening as each man emptied round after round into the mass. Each died with a single, painful screech. It was as if the god of thunder had descended onto the rock field and was proceeding to annihilate everything in sight.

Svyatoslav stopped to reload, yelling for Mihail to cover him. He whirled and fired at the rapidly advancing line of creatures. The front rank fell apart as he blasted them apart. But there were more behind them. Every flash from the heated muzzles of their machine guns revealed the extent of them. He couldn’t see the end of them. There were too many. Fear threatened to rise up and choke him, but he forced it back down. He would not die in this place.

Screaming in fury, he resolved to go down only after slaughtering every last one of the things. The sharp crack of Svyatoslav’s AK joined the piercing cry of his. Fire erupted from the machine guns, tearing into the creatures and ripping them apart. Blood pooled in the rocks and slickened the ground. Mihail fired his last round and a creature flew back into its comrades. He reloaded, letting the empty clip fall to the rocks. Something cold hit his face. He looked up. The clouds roiled ominously above them. Lightning lit the land and peals of true thunder rolled forth. Rain fell in increasing amounts. It soaked the ground and turned it into mud. Slogging through the morass with a grim look on his face, Mihail advanced on the creatures. He gritted his teeth, pouring his heart and soul into killing. Every bullet found its target. Every bullet dealt a killing blow. He was slogging through bodies as well as mud, adding more and more of the former while the rain added more of the latter.

The creatures began to fall back. He charged into them, emptying his weapon and then slamming his way through them with it as a club. He rammed the gun into them left and right, feeling it crush bone and rip open flesh. Blood splashed onto him as he advanced through them, but was quickly washed off by the rain. The creatures bit and clawed, but he ignored the pain and took down every one near him with lethal blows. Cold and wet settled in as well, and while he could do nothing to fend them off, he ignored them by killing more of the little monsters.

Slinging the gun around his shoulders, he drew his machete and bayonet and roared at the creatures. Fire burning in his eyes, he charged through them, screaming. They flew at him from all sides, but he ripped them open with cold steel. Then Svyatoslav joined him, killing more of them. The things had to scramble over the bodies of their fallen kin to get to the two men. Claws glittered and gleamed in the white flashes of lightning. Eyes narrowed and teeth bared.

Then suddenly the things broke and ran, flitting back through the rocks that were their home. Mihail and Svyatoslav were left standing in the rain, clothes soaked through and tattered, wounds bleeding, breathing heavily. Lightning cracked and thundered and the rain drummed steadily against the rocks. Mihail stiffly sheathed his bayonet and machete, exhaustion flooding his body like concrete in his veins. He blinked the rain from his eyes and wiped his face of blood and sweat and water. He turned back around to retrieve the empty clips. They could be refilled. He realized his headache was gone.

“Let’s get out of here.”
  09:50:39  26 November 2006
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Part 4

Silence. He awoke to silence. No trees creaked against the pull of the wind. The grass was still. No sounds came from afar. A hush had settled over everything, as if nothing dared to break the silence. He listened intently. Still nothing. He settled back. It was almost peaceful. It was as if everything had signed a peace treaty. A cease fire.

Mihail frowned. He didn’t like it.

Svyatoslav had the morning watch. Mihail should hear him breathing, or moving. Worry overrode his initial pleasure at the silence, the absence of wind. He lay still, staring up at the clear blue sky. Sometime during the night the clouds had cleared off. Keeping his breathing as low as possible, he checked around himself as much as he could while only moving his eyes. The barren tips of trees loomed upward to his left, and a rocky formation split the ground to his right. More rocks hovered above him, part of the crag they had decided to camp in. He didn’t see anything move. But that didn’t necessarily matter.

He felt the heavy weight of a funeral pall settle over him.

What had happened to Svyatoslav?

This was not good. He grimaced. If something had come upon Svyatoslav during the night, it would have woken him…wouldn’t it? But if he had wandered off…No. Svyatoslav wouldn’t just “wander off.” Either something had happened to him, or he had disappeared on purpose. He imagined all sorts of scenarios. He saw dwarfs somehow ripping him apart without a sound, controllers taking him while his back was turned, perhaps not noticing Mihail because he was asleep, and on and on, seeing things he had never seen nor heard of.

Or maybe Svyatoslav had noticed some danger and had left to get out of its way, “forgetting” to tell Mihail. Or not forgetting. What were they in this for after all? Profit. They were together only until they got the artifact. And Mihail wasn’t sure their truce would even last that long. He had been suspicious of the man when he had first met him. He knew nothing of him or his character, except for his skill at fighting. His mind turned to the sinister. What if Svyatoslav had decided the artifact was no longer worth the journey? What if he had decided he still needed to get something out of this wasted time? What if he had decided to get rid of his traveling companion?

Somewhere nearby a twig snapped. The silence shattered. It was like a cannon going off in his ear. He flinched. His heart jumped to his throat. His clothes rustled as his back scraped against the ground. Swearing, he jumped to his feet, knowing that anything nearby couldn’t have failed to notice the sound. His Stechkin was out of its holster before he landed. A large dark form leaned casually against the rocks.

It was Svyatoslav.

He almost shot him. The adrenaline searing through his veins pulsed in time with his heart. Chest heaving, Mihail glared at him. His gun wasn’t out. He let the Stechkin down a little. Unlike before, Svyatoslav didn’t back down at his look. Sometime during the night, he had grown a spine. Back in the house where the goliath attacked them, Mihail’s glare had stopped him in his tracks. From what Mihail knew, that didn’t change spontaneously without good reason.

“Where were you?” He ground out. His ire grew at the way Svyatoslav leaned oh-so-casually against the rock.

Svyatoslav shrugged. “I thought I heard a noise. I went to check it out.”

Mihail almost shot him. Again. Keeping his wrath under control was becoming more and more difficult. “Really.” He spit out.

Svyatoslav didn’t seem to notice his anger. “Really.” He said matter-of-factly. A smirk stretched across his face. “You going to shoot me?”

Mihail looked down at the gun. He realized his gun was out. Svyatoslav's wasn’t. He rammed it into his holster. His gaze came back up, and caught on Svyatoslav’s back as he was turning. He had his pack on. He hadn’t had it on when he began his watch. Suspicion flared in his mind. Mihail’s eyes narrowed, but he kept his thoughts to himself.

Keeping his eyes on Svyatoslav, he slowly settled down to a sitting position, pulling an MRE from his own pack. There was plenty left for the long walk back to his dealer. He glanced at Svyatoslav, tearing the plastic off his own meal. He felt like a tightly wound spring about to explode. His whole body was tense, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. He forced the tasteless food into his mouth, pangs of hunger reminding him of survival. He spoke around a mouthful of tepid beans.

“What was it?”

Svyatoslav’s eyes came up with a confused look. His plastic fork hovered over the food. “What?”

Mihail’s gaze grew piercing. “The noise.”

Svyatoslav stared at him. “I am still alive aren’t I? I would not be if it was important.”

It was a perfectly reasonable response. Mihail grunted noncommittally and returned to his food. His thoughts remained his own.

After they packed everything up—or rather, after Mihail packed his stuff up, since Svyatoslav seemed already prepared for a journey—Mihail wondered if he was being irrational. Putting it bluntly, there were easier ways to kill him. If Svyatoslav really wanted to be rid of him, he could have just put a bullet in his head while he slept. Even a coward would see the value in that. But Svyatoslav was no coward. He seemed more confident than the night before, after the attack. Something had changed during the night.

Mihail’s side ached in sympathy with his thoughts. Wrapping it in bandages, he had stopped the bleeding, if not the pain. The rest of the wounds were not worth bothering over, except for a nasty cut on his arm that he hadn’t felt until afterwards, which was also bandaged. Svyatoslav had fared no better.

They began passing through more rocky formations. The trees thinned and the ground became less fertile. The air seemed colder, not as a result of the strange weather conditions, but as a general climate change in the area.

His thoughts returned to Svyatoslav. He couldn’t condemn a man simply by his smirk. His newfound confidence could merely be realization that he had triumphed when he should have fallen. While it was stupid to go off alone to check a noise out without waking Mihail, it also was not enough to damn him. It was probably just an innocent mistake. But he still didn’t like it. It was something he couldn’t put his finger on, but it was there, teasing him with its presence.

Paranoia. He was succumbing to paranoia. They couldn’t be very far behind the artifact. Even if Svyatoslav was the type to stab him in the back, this was not the time that he would do it. It just didn’t make any sense. He was making blind conclusions from ephemeral evidence. And he was beginning to believe it.

He tried to put it from his mind, but it hung on tenaciously. He found himself analyzing Svyatoslav’s movements for anything that might be suspicious. Meanwhile, the trail led steadily onward, growing fresher and fresher. They couldn’t be more than a few hours behind the artifact and its captors.

The sun began to grow hotter as midday approached. The relative coolness of the higher elevation began to dissipate. The trees actually had small green leaves on them. The strange weather changes were less frequent the farther from ground zero it was. The place was almost pleasant. He expected he should hear birds singing in the trees, but of course, he did not. But Mihail kept his eyes constantly scanning around him. This place was too good to be true. There was always a catch.

When he glanced down at the trail out of habit, he found it.

Clearly defined in the soft dirt was the outline of a boot heel.

The print was laid over the trail he was following.

Someone was ahead of them.

Mihail instantly checked the area. Nothing moved. He looked at Svyatoslav, thinking to tell him. But he didn’t. At first, he didn’t know why. But realization swept over him. He had awoken to find Svyatoslav missing, gone with the excuse of checking out a noise, with his pack already on. And now, a bootprint on the trail they were following. If someone had gotten ahead of them to leave the bootprint, they would either have had to detour around Mihail and Svyatoslav, meaning they knew that they were there, or they had followed the trail straight through. Mihail surely hadn’t seen anything on his watch. But what about Svyatoslav? Where had he gone? And, he wondered darkly, where did he find his new spine? He was afraid he wouldn’t like the answer.

He watched how Svyatoslav stayed in the lead. In the front he would be less suspicious. Mihail wouldn’t have to worry about being shot in the back. He checked behind him, but he saw nothing. This was all too convenient.

The trail rose to the crest of a hill. Dense trees stood to either side, shielding his view. He reached the apex and stopped. The trail left the trees and descended into a large bowl-shaped clearing. Svyatoslav immediately stepped out of the cover of the trees. Mihails suspicion flared anew. It was an easy place for an ambush. And Svyatoslav stepped out into it like he was walking in the park. This wasn’t right.

Mihail looked around him. He still couldn’t see anything. Svyatoslav turned when he realized Mihail had stopped. He smiled at him.

“What’s wrong Mihail, afraid?”

Mihail just looked at him. “Where is your friend?”

Svyatoslav looked surprised. “What?”

“He’s clumsy. Left a footprint.”

Svyatoslav shrugged. “Well that could just have—“

Mihail cut him off. “No. It could not. He would not have been able to get ahead of us unless you let him.”

Svyatoslav grimaced. “This artifact is not worth the trouble. I almost died yesterday, and two days ago as well. I don't fucking care about the damn artifact any more. But I’m not going back without something.” He pointed at Mihail. “That means you.”

Mihail darted to the left, slipping between the trees at the side of the trail. He heard Svyatoslav curse behind him. Tearing through the brush, the sharp retort of Svyatoslav’s rifle followed him. Bullets ripped past, drilling into the trunks of trees. He ducked, weaving in and out of the trees and bushes. He had lived in the woods all his life.

Crashing sounds behind him signaled Svyatoslav’s pursuit. Staccato bursts of machine gun fire accompanied it. He was wasting bullets as Mihail steadily gained the lead. Adrenaline spurred him on, making him ignore the burning in his legs and lungs. His heart beat faster than his legs. But he didn’t want to stop yet. He was searching for something in particular.

He kept running, knowing that he might stumble on Svyatoslav’s friend. He just had to hope that his friend was on the other side of the clearing. Looking left and right, he scanned the forest for movement and a place to hide.

His stamina draining, he stumbled over a log and slammed into the dirt. Leaping to his feet, he glanced around wildly for signs of someone else’s presence. A low wind rustled the small leaves in the trees around him. Svyatoslav had slowed down his pursuit somewhat, probably hoping to drive him into his friend while conserving his own energy. But Mihail could still hear him breaking branches and brushing past bushes. He looked down at the offending obstacle.

The log lay over a small hollow filled with dead leaves. He wouldn’t even have seen it if he hadn’t tripped over the log.

Perfect.



Svyatoslav stopped when he reached the log. He crouched down behind it, lifting his AKS to his should and looking down the barrel as he sighted in a 360 degree circle. Nothing moved.

“Shit.” He whispered to himself. This was where he had last heard Mihail. He looked around again. No telling where he had gone off to. He swore again. He hadn’t thought the stalker had been able to move that fast. One second he was there, and the next he was gone.

Shaking his head, he started back to the clearing to find his friend. The whole journey had gone to hell.

When he was out of sight a dark form rose up from under the log, dead leaves cascading from it like dead flesh. Mihail’s eyes burned as he stalked his traitorous companion.



Svyatoslav walked into the center of the clearing and held up his hands, waving them in a big circle around him. He waited.

Movement at the edge of the dark forest heralded the coming of his friend.

Mihail crouched down, laying his Ak-74 down before him. His eyes were riveted on the dark form emerging from the forest as he slid the pack off his shoulder. He felt around in it, not wanting to take his eyes off the scene below. Finally, his hands found what he was looking for. He pulled the tripod out and spread its legs, setting it in front of him. He slid his weapon into the locking mechanism. It closed with a distinct click. The two Stalkers below were too far away to notice it.

Laying flat out, he braced the AK against his shoulder as he peered down the barrel through the sight. He planted it on target. Gauging the distance, he raised the point a little. The wind wasn’t very strong, but he made a minute adjustment anyway. His finger tightened on the trigger.

Svyatoslav’s friend was waving his arms around madly, apparently getting angry. Svyatoslav retaliated with his own gestures. From this distance, Mihail could only just hear their raised voices; the wind carried away the words and their meanings.

Taking a deep breath, he braced himself. His gaze intensified. He pulled the trigger.

Harsh light exploded from the barrel. The sound of the bullet exceeding the speed of sound shrieked in his ears.

The hand of god reached out and touched its disciple.

Svyatoslav’s friend fell backward with a sharp cry even Mihail could hear. He writhed on the ground in agony, his hands clutching his stomach. His hoarse screams were chilling.

Mihail quickly adjusted his sight to find Svyatoslav. But the Stalker ducked and dove into the tall grass before he could fire. Mihail couldn’t see him in the ocean of yellow. Rather than wasting more bullets, he quickly unlatched the gun and stuffed the tripod back in his pack. Slinging the pack around his shoulders he leaped through the cover of the trees into the clearing.

Rolling into a clump of the tall yellow grass, he sprang forward, crawling on his hands and knees into the large field of grass. Keeping low to the ground, he crawled slowly, deliberately, careful not to make any noise.

Svyatoslav’s friend screamed on.

When Mihail was about halfway to the middle, he stopped, setting his pack on the ground. He lay on his stomach and waited for Svyatoslav. He would eventually have to move.

Then he would kill him. He would kill that son of a bitch. The only reason he wasn’t dead already was because his friend was an unknown factor. Mihail couldn’t predict what he would do, and didn’t know what sort of weapons he had. He had to die first. Svyatoslav, on the other hand, was the weak link. Mihail knew what weapons he had, and could make an educated guess as to what he would do.

They had probably planned on getting Mihail into the clearing, where the friend would take him out from afar. Cowards. It was worse than shooting him in the back. Gritting his teeth, he tried to keep his anger from growing. He was unsuccessful. It grew into towering rage.

With rage came impatience. He began crawling forward toward the center of the clearing. He was tired of waiting. Svyatoslav would lie cold and dead on the ground before long, food for the creatures that undoubtedly lived in the surrounding forest. The cloying scent of blood and death and rotting meat would bring them down like a cloud of flies.

Every few meters he stopped and listened for any sign of Svyatoslav. The grass moved in waves as the slight wind wafted over it, brushing the thin stalks against Mihail’s face. He ignored it and continued forward.

Finally, he heard what he was looking for. A cautious scraping sound, hesitant and broken by frequent pauses. Svyatoslav was trying to creep through the field, probably to try to get to the edge of the forest before Mihail could shoot him. He wasn’t going to get that far. He heard the man’s heavy breathing. He was nervous. He had a right to be.

Mihail waited. The sounds drew nearer. He waited until they were only feet from him and he could tell which direction they were coming from. Then he abruptly stood. He could see Svyatoslav flat on his belly inching forward. He raised the gun to his shoulder and shot him. The bullet slammed into the Stalker’s arm. Svyatoslav grunted and gasped, then turned on his back, raising his gun in his good hand. Mihail kicked it away. Svyatoslav kicked his feet, pushing himself away from the grim figure before him, desperately trying to get away. Mihail stomped on his chest. Something gave way with an audible crack. Svyatoslav cried out pitiably, sobbing.

Mihail strode to his side. He looked down at the man who tried to murder him. He felt no pity. “How long were you planning this?” He whispered.

Svyatoslav struggled for a breath. Tears ran down his face as he clutched his chest, gasping. Blood ran freely from his arm. “Please don't kill me! Please…” He coughed, blood flecking his lips.

Mihail kneeled down and leaned his face close to Svyatoslav’s. “How long!” He shouted.

Svyatoslav shuddered. “From the beginning! I was going to kill you after we got the artifact!” He hacked violently. Bright red blood spilled from his lips. “But…but I almost died twice already. I decided the artifact wasn’t worth it! I saw the radiation burns! So last night I had Iashka camp ahead in the clearing with his Dragunov. I was going to step out first so he would know you were behind me.”

Mihail shook him. “Why didn’t you kill me in my sleep?”

“I was too…afraid. I thought you might hear me. This way was safest.” Svyatoslav choked. Blood frothed at his mouth. Each breath was a painful wheeze. “Please…shoot me. I don't want to die like this.”

Mihail stood and looked down at the Stalker. He wouldn’t last long. Mihail shook his head. “Changed your mind already? You are not worth the cost of a single bullet. Die like a dog.” He strode away, ignoring Svyatoslav’s pleas.

When he found Iashka, he was still laying on the ground, moaning painfully. He probably couldn’t scream any more. His Dragunov SVD was lying on the ground next to him, dropped in his fall. Mihail crouched down and picked it up. It was in good condition. He glanced at the Stalker next to him.

“Any more bullets for this?”

Iashka nodded. He gasped as the pain wracked his body. “In my…my ammo pouch.” The man collapsed, exhausted. Gut wounds were a painful way to die.

Mihail reached for the ammo pouch at the man’s waist. Iashka’s hand grabbed his, surprisingly strong. His eyes burned into Mihail’s. “Kill me. I didn’t know you. Kill me.”

He looked into the man’s eyes, measuring him. He nodded. He was just the gunman. Iashka sighed with relief and fell back. Mihail walked back to Svyatoslav. His eyes were glazed over, in the last throes of death. He turned him to the side and grabbed his Nagant pistol.

He walked back to Iashka. The man looked into his eyes. Mihail raised the gun to his head.

“Thank you.” Iashka managed.

Mihail nodded and shot him.

Part 5

He looked down at them with trepidation. They milled about in the dark, silent, staring blankly at the trees or ground or sky. All were covered in hideous oozing burns. One clutched possessively at something in its hands, trembling violently, blood dripping from its eyes.

Where was it?

Mihail cast his eyes about nervously, wiping his sweaty palms against his knees. After he had killed Svyatoslav and Iashka the day before, he had buried their equipment, except for the Dragunov and Svyatoslav’s watch. With time wasted but no one to slow him, he had pushed on hard until the trail was so fresh he could smell it. He didn’t stop when darkness descended over the nameless forest. Daylight was now only a few hours away.

At first, he had thought that he should return to the Dealer with the extra equipment and make a fair profit out of it. But the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to continue. Svyatoslav wasn’t lying about the artifact. The dead Stalkers and zombies proved that. No, the artifact was real; he had just used it as a way to come out on top no matter which way events turned. But it wasn’t just the lure of the artifact that drew him doggedly onward. It was the big question hanging over it. What would a controller want with an artifact? What possible use could it be? His curiosity drove him on when prudence may have turned him back.

And now he had his answer. Maybe.

There wasn’t a controller in sight.

The more he looked down at the zombies—the zombies that need a controller to keep them on a leash—the more he didn’t like it. It was crazy. They were zombies. That meant there was a controller. There were radiation burns, a fight over something valuable, and now this zombie was clutching at something. It could only be an artifact. The controller had taken the artifact. So why didn’t the controller have the artifact? If it was important enough for the controller to take from a group of Stalkers, why would it leave it in the hands of a zombie?

There was something going on here that was beyond him. He was missing an important piece of the puzzle. Without it, he had only his imagination, and that yielded nothing that would hold up under scrutiny. He checked the Molniya watch, making sure the movement hadn’t stopped.

He continued to stare down at them. Another question. What were they doing? The six of them just stood there in the trees, staring at nothing. Why did they stop? Why there? Why, when they seemed to have been driven by the devil himself for the first few days?

This was the perfect opportunity to attack. He could see that. They seemed unaware of anything around them. If the controller was gone, then this could be his only chance to get the artifact.

He mulled over all the information, weighing one thing against another, what he knew against what he feared. Finally, he came to a decision. He would take the artifact. He had gone through a lot of shit on the way here, and he wasn’t going to be deterred by one odd thing. Everything in the Zone was odd. He would just have to keep a careful eye out for the controller, and that was about the extent of what he could do. Besides, an artifact with something odd about it might yield more rubles than any normal artifact.

Feeling better moment by moment about his decision, Mihail backed carefully off the dark ridge above the group of zombies. He supposed he could use the SVD to pick them off at a longer, and safer, range, but he didn’t feel that the quantity of bullets for the weapon warranted such an action when he could just as easily kill them closer up with the AK-74.

He crept down the ridge, picking his way cautiously in the dark among the rocks and sticks, careful not to step on something that would alert the six zombies to his presence.

Approaching the white forms, he made sure he stayed within the cover of brush and boulders. The darkness of the early hour would help conceal him, but he didn’t know how well such creatures could see in the dark. They still stared with the blank expression of a lobotomy patient, but who knew if they would suddenly turn and see him.

Reaching what he figured was an appropriate distance, Mihail unslung the AK-47 and brought it to his shoulder, bracing himself against a tree to steady his aim. He had decided not to use the tripod so that if he needed to make a quick escape he wouldn’t have it dragging down his gun. Taking a deep breath, he aimed down the length of the barrel and through the sight.

He pulled the trigger.

Hellish light glared harshly from the barrel with a thunder crack of sound as the left side of a zombie’s head exploded in a shower of blood and bone and brain, the gore splashing against the forms behind it.

Mihail whipped the barrel around and fired again, bullets ripping through two more, shredding flesh and shattering bone. The recoil of each bullet drove the rifle butt into his shoulder. The two zombies tumbled limply to the ground in a pool of torn viscera. He brought the gun around again to fire at another, but stopped suddenly. He stared at them.

None of the zombies had moved from their places. Despite that half their number lay dead at their feet and that they were splattered with their blood, they stood as if nothing had happened.

He felt himself almost willing one of them to move. To shout, scream, growl or attack. Something.

Despite the utter absurdity of the situation, he sat tight for a few minutes to make sure nothing was going to happen. Maybe because the controller was gone, they had no direction, nothing to tell them what to do. Maybe without the controller they were essentially just empty husks, mere vessels for the controller’s power. That just made his question even more glaringly strange. Why would the controller not be there?

Slinging the AK-74 back around his shoulder, he pulled the machete from his belt as he warily approached the three remaining zombies. He wanted to see if he could do this without wasting any bullets.

He walked cautiously next to one, and none of them made any attempts to maim or eat him. He turned his attention to the one next to him. It was repulsively decayed, yet oddly emanated a slightly sweet smell. Considering how they smelled once dead, he thought the sweet was strange.

Gripping the machete in both hands, he unleashed a powerful strike against the zombie. Cutting through air and flesh with the same lethal efficiency, the gleaming blade razored through the thing’s neck. The head spun away, spraying blood around it as the headless corpse collapsed like a boneless bag of flesh.

Mihail turned to the still-stupefied remaining zombies, grunting in disgust when they made no move to attack. He decapitated both in quick succession.

Wiping the blade clean on some grass, he slipped it back into his belt. Searching the corpses, he found the one with its grossly distended hand gripping something tightly. Mihail pried at it, but couldn’t get the fingers to open. Cursing, he grabbed his bayonet and tried to wedge it under the fingers. He stared in disbelief when he couldn’t for the life of him get the sharp point wedged under the tightly clutched digits. He looked up at the thing’s face, or what was left of it, half-expecting to see a mocking grin. It only stared slackjawed and lifeless up at the stars, the tears of blood no longer seeping from its remaining eye. Mihail shuddered a little, then looked back down at the offending hand to keep his eyes off of the disturbing image of its face.

Swallowing in distaste, he decided he would have to cut his way through. Taking a firm grip on its slick hand, he laid the bayonet over the knuckles and bore down. At first, the bone resisted, but it abruptly gave way with a pop and the sharp blade sprang through. He released his grip on the hand. Four fingers tumbled off and left him staring at the object held in the zombie’s hand.

It appeared to be a jagged shard of obsidian. Black and depthless, the glistening stone seemed to look into his soul. He felt like he was falling into it, a black hole sucking him in. He couldn’t look away. It drew him in and refused to let go.

He gasped in a deep breath, struggling to pull away, to look away. But he couldn’t. For some reason he couldn’t. He was in an invisible prison.

Suddenly it seemed as if some grip on him tightened. His back arched. Hot claws of agony raked through his mind. Panicking, he fought it, fought it with all his might. Gritting his teeth, he struggled to get his limbs back under control. Staggering to his feet required a feat of supreme strength. He stumbled back, trying to get away from the thing, twisting this way and that as he fought it. But his eyes never left it. He couldn’t move his eyes away. Pounding his head with his hands, he tried to drive the will that was not his own away from him. He backpedaled, managing to get back behind the ridge. But he could still see it. He saw it behind his eyelids. He saw it floating in front of him, taunting him. He saw it through the rock and the dirt, saw it lying there. A wave of shrieking pain ripped through him. It felt like he was being torn limb from limb.

A scream tore from his throat. The grip tightened inexorably, crushing his mind. Slowly, he was losing ground. Even as he moved away, it was gaining on him. Each second that passed the grip gained a new foothold somewhere deep inside and used it to attack another part. He felt pieces of himself lost and scattered, devoured by the hungry thing in his mind. It ate and ate, consuming more and more of him, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He watched shreds of memory drift away into the darkness and into the gaping jaws of the thing in his mind. The jaws shut with the pain and finality of a steel trap. It ripped through his mind and burned everything in sight to ashes.

His will broke apart under the strain of fighting. It was an acid that corroded and dissolved his identity. Before everything was gone, he realized he had the answer to his question. But he didn’t know the question anymore.

He could no longer remember his name.

He ran shrieking into the darkness.



Mihail.

Who? Who was this Mihail?

Mihail.

Who was saying that?

Mihail.

A form appeared before him. He felt he should know who it was.

Mihail.

The form drifted closer. A woman, bathed in white light. He felt awed by her presence.

Mihail.

Her arms reached out for him. His reached for hers. He struggled for her name, but couldn’t find it. Despair washed over him.

Mihail. Come to me.

Tears dripped from his face. Who is this Mihail? He tried to scream. But he found that he had no voice. She must think that he was this Mihail. He tried to tell her it wasn’t so, that he was…His thoughts scattered. He didn’t know who he was. He looked back up at her, beseeching. Who am I!

Come to me, Mihail. You must.

He tried to move towards her. His limbs refused to respond. Try as he might, nothing would obey him. Even his arms remained reaching for her, unbending.

Come to me, Mihail. You will be with me soon, I promise. But first you must come. Please, Mihail.

He cried in agony, torn apart by the realization that he could not come.



He couldn’t see. His eyes must have been seared out. Oddly, he didn’t care. It felt like he must be dead.

Suddenly, he realized why he couldn’t see. Opening his eyes, color came to his world. Daylight seemed to burn into his eyes, but the pain didn’t seem to reach him. It was lost in the storm of ripping agony deep inside. A throbbing, visceral pain doubled him over, gasping for breath.

Moaning, he was inundated with an overwhelming urge to move. Obeying the hissing voice deep inside, he crawled to the edge of the ridge he saw next to him. Down below was a strange sight. There were people. Some were dead, some alive. The dead ones looked to have been viciously slain, and oddly seemed naked. The others were different. Some wore green clothes that blended into the forest and carried big guns. Military Stalkers, said some part of himself buried deep inside. He ducked back when they looked in his direction. The voice whispered sweetly that this was good to do. Cautiously peering back over the edge, he examined the people again. The rest of them wore white coats. Scientists of some sort. They were all bent over something, astonished whispers drifting among them. One moved in the direction of their vehicles. Then he saw it.

His eyes riveted on it. He saw only its long shape gleaming blackly in the muted light of the sun. Calling to him. It wanted him. He needed it. It wanted him to rescue it, to cherish it always. He couldn’t resist its unearthly pull. It was all he could think about. All he wanted to think about. The painfully hissing voice called him. It belonged to him. He wanted it. It wanted him.

Blind rage seared through Mihail as the scientists placed the artifact into a heavy container and loaded it up on one of the trucks. They were taking it away! It beckoned him, calling. He had to retrieve it, make it his. He already belonged to it. They did not deserve it. He would have to follow them.

Eyes tinged with madness watched the scientists and military Stalkers pile into their vehicles. The tires kicked up dirt and grass as they sped away to the south-west. He watched until he could see no more. Fury still burning through him and the voice in his head driving him on, he once more descended the slope of the ridge
  09:52:38  26 November 2006
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Part 6

Mihail slid between the trees, the thick underbrush snagging his trousers. Everything was silent. He heard no animals moving. No hurried movements or heavy breathing but for his own. He was alone. Or so one would think looking on him from a distance. But in his mind he was far from alone. The artifact caressed his mind, telling him it was all right, that it would all be made right when he rescued it. It called him by name, drawing him on with a summons sliding sensuously around his thoughts. His eyes were locked forward, and he marched purposefully toward his destination. He knew where the scientists were taking it. He knew shortcuts they wouldn’t be able to navigate with their heavy vehicles.

He didn’t know what he would do without the voice in his head, without the artifact. It had told him his name, and allowed him to utilize information from some unknown and mysterious past. At first, the voice had been painful, but it told him that was because he had still been resisting it. He wept, not knowing why he would ever do something so cruel.

Periodically he checked the watch in his pocket, analyzing the movement, making sure it was still working. The artifact assured him it was good that he did this, though he no longer knew why. All that mattered was that the artifact approved. He checked it every moment it wasn’t telling him to hurry on. He hadn’t eaten or slept or even stopped since the morning before. When the wretched scientists had stolen the artifact from him. The anger came boiling to the surface again.

The voice came again, soothing him, telling him that he was special. He would be able to retrieve it. That was why it had wanted him. He was better than the others. Better than the ones who had had the artifact before him. Once the artifact had discovered him, it was overjoyed, knowing that he was better. So it had them stop so that he could come. It even protected him when the military Stalkers would otherwise have seen him. It was unable to control so many, so it had to let them take it. But Mihail would rescue it.

A head suddenly appeared from the bushes ahead of him. Mihail jerked to a halt. Panic raced through him. He vaguely remembered that this was a thing that had caused him great terror and pain in the past. He should recognize it. He struggled to think, but the artifact’s crushing hold on his mind stopped him. But it told him what it was. A controller. Something inside screamed at him to run from the thing with the scarred face. But the artifact calmed his fear, saying it would be all right. It would help him. It knew what to do. He held still, like it told him.

He felt a probing at the edges of his thoughts. He gritted his teeth. That was the artifact’s domain. It admonished him to be still. His cheeks burned at the reprimand. The probing plunged deeper. The artifact gave way, not letting the probe know it was there. Pain stiffened Mihail’s spine as the probe took hold of him. Why was the artifact letting this happen? He wouldn’t be able to retrieve it if he was dead.

As if in answer, the artifact’s own tendrils launched out from their deep anchor in his mind and seized the probe. The head in front of him suddenly rose up. Mihail could see the thing’s grotesque body. It was vaguely human, but its skin was scarred like it had been engulfed in flames and left to heal on its own. It writhed in pain as the artifact’s tendrils steadily, greedily pulled it in, devouring it as it had him. Then suddenly it went still, staring straight ahead with a glazed look in its eyes. The artifact settled back in Mihail’s mind, sated. A gift, it whispered suggestively. He smiled crookedly. It had given him a controller. He controlled the controller.


The outpost was heavily patrolled. Soldiers armored in bullet-proof vests and carrying automatic weapons patrolled the walls. Vague black shapes stood in the guard towers, probably equipped with sniper rifles and binoculars. The walls themselves were a good twelve feet high, and who knew how thick. Mihail couldn’t see over them even from his high vantage point. Trees had been cleared away from the entire compound for several hundred meters so that it couldn’t be snuck up on. A dirt road leading from the gate branched off in different directions, disappearing into the forest.

Mihail and the controller crouched at the edge of the trees leading into the depression where the base lay. After a few minutes of observation, he decided there were about twenty men outside the walls. There were at least eight scientists and ten military Stalkers on the inside. They would all have to go. He would need to get rid of at least thirty-eight men before he could get the artifact back. He basked in the glow of the knowledge the artifact allowed him to access. It was so generous.

He looked over at the grotesque face of the controller. It was naked, though no sex could be determined. It looked down at the base intensely, leaning forward on its hands and knees, breathing shallowly. Sweat dripped off its greasy flesh. He looked away.

Mihail felt the artifact speaking, not to him, but through him to the controller. He felt the sharp pang of jealousy for a moment before the artifact rushed to soothe his fears. It would be all right. He breathed a sigh of relief. It needed the controller to leave on a brief mission. He nodded, listening to the whispering. That was wise. They would need a distraction before they could get in close enough to release the artifact. He couldn’t wait to hold it in his hands, to feel its cold black weight resting in his palms, soaking up its energy, its love. To hear it whispering forever in his ear, telling him of what it needed. He imagined what it would be like, and smiled.

A sharp peal of thunder echoed through the trees. Lightning flashed spider-like in the distance. Black clouds had moved overhead without him noticing it. He glanced over at the controller. It was gone. He looked around wildly but found no trace of it. He hadn’t even been aware of it leaving. He had been so engrossed in thought that he hadn’t noticed. Even the approach of the clouds had escaped him. Before he had found the artifact, that would have been a fatal mistake. Not any more. The artifact would have warned him of danger. He felt safe in its warm embrace. If only he could get closer to it! His eyes drifted back to the compound.

Without warning Mihail’s vision went black. He fell back onto the soft forest litter with a cry, trying to blink away the darkness. Reaching up to rub his eyes, his arms froze. His muscles wouldn’t respond. He couldn’t move. He was paralyzed. Blinding agony stabbed into his brain, turning his vision white with pain. He couldn’t scream.

Then the pain eased a little. The artifact whispered something to him. He couldn’t hear it. It said it again. Then he started seeing things. Vague shapes hovered in his vision, passing before him and disappearing. Sharp lines appeared, outlines of something he couldn’t make out. He squinted, or tried to. The image resolved itself. He saw walls all around with metal edges and clear sides. He was in a box. Beyond, men in white coats walked about or sat at stations. There was machinery everywhere. Everything was made from cold, emotionless steel. Two of the men came nearby and stared down at him. They were whispering.

“I can’t believe we found it!”

“Where was it?”

“North-east of here. There were a bunch of dead men, some killed by guns and some hacked apart. There was no one around. They even found the guns.”

“Who were they?”

“The ones it took when it-“

Then the vision stopped. He blinked in confusion. It started playing before him backwards. The white-coated men began walking again, but in reverse. Then everything jerked. The men receded into the distance. He saw doors closing, grim men with guns standing in long, brightly lit halls. More doors. A large room filled with row upon row of vehicles sped by. Then came a small room where everything stopped. Men milled about the box. Then suddenly he was outside. He saw the compound walls up close, saw the positioning of the guards inside. Hands gripped the edges of the box, obscuring his vision, then they fell away. Darkness shrouded all sides except in front where there was a rectangle he could see through. Then the outpost began receding.

The vision stopped again and disappeared. Mihail looked around. The canopy of trees hung above him. Something cold hit his face. He flinched. Rain. He scooted himself back until he was against the trunk of a tree, safe from the wetness. The artifact spoke. He stopped moving and listened. A slow smile spread across his face. It had shown him the way to where it was being held in the compound.


The way a controller killed was the most coldly efficient thing he had ever seen. What was left of his beleaguered mind shuddered at what was happening. The rest of him cheered. The artifact watched restlessly through his unwavering eyes.

Its pale form stalked swiftly through the men, distracted by the commotion on the opposite side of the compound. A distraction the controller had created. It drifted through them like death itself, touching them and then passing swiftly on. No one could stand before it. Before long the entire south side of the facility was populated only with men it had already taken. Men who moved about with jerky, robotic movements.

The ponderous metal doors sealing the walls opened slowly with a grinding and screeching of metal on metal. A truck full of soldiers—probably to put down the creatures on the other side, the creatures under the controller’s influence—sped out. It was swarmed before it could make it onto the road. A hail of bullets ripped through it, tearing through metal and flesh alike. The screams of agony of the dying mixed with the stutter of machine guns to become an unholy cacophony that reached piercing levels. A few fired back but were quickly cut down. The gas tank was hit.

The ground lit with a bright flash of red.

Everything within ten meters of the truck was incinerated in the fireball. Flames rocketed skyward, burning the air, raining down liquid metal death to the ground. The walls burst into flames. Men hit with fire fell to the ground screaming, charring into coal. Streaks of red exploded out, hot metal shards launching away on trailers of black smoke, cutting and burning through everything they touched. A wave of heat blasted outward, warming Mihail’s face. Fire was everywhere. Most of the compound was obscured by the oily black smoke expanding upward from the inferno burning on the ground and wall. It was time.

Mihail stood from his hiding place and charged down the hill into hell.

The fire cloaked him in flickering red light and intense heat. Smoke billowed up on all sides. He knelt by a charred body and tore the machine gun from the fingers clenched gruesomely solid in rigor mortis. The fingers, turned brittle by the heat, broke off and turned to dust. He had lost his own weapons back at the place where he had found the artifact. Everything about the time before then was only a vague mass of half-forgotten memories. He couldn’t identify much from them. Occasionally, he grasped something he didn’t think the artifact wanted him to know. But the artifact never said anything about it, so he let it be, hoping for more of the memories to come to him.

He returned to moving through the mess at the artifact’s impatient prodding. Flames licked the sky from the burning hulk of the truck. Mihail passed it without a second glance. He stepped through a wall of smoke that stung his eyes, but he didn’t feel it. The doors were a wreck, barely holding onto the wall, half-melted and scorched back. He passed between them and into the expansive yard beyond, stepping over bodies. He saw the controller’s minions firing at the soldiers, but paid them no heed. They had already cleared the way ahead of him. One raced ahead and tossed something at the compound door.

The small object detonated, ripping the doors and part of the walls off. Flame seared the ground all around. The wave of air from the explosion blasted dirt away from the doors. Mihail walked through the storm of dust and into the compound interior.

He strode across the small room he remembered from the vision and shoved the doors open.

Vehicles were lined up in the next room. Scattered across the floor were stains from oil spills, gasoline canisters, and various tools. Nothing moved. He passed them without pausing and entered the door at the end. He heard the echoing footsteps of his mindless army following. His eyes burned bright with the driving insanity of the artifact’s influence. Bright white lights shone from the low ceiling, giving the white walls of the hall a sterilized feel. Blood splashed up on those walls as he mowed down several military Stalkers in green. Their screams failed to penetrate him. His army fell upon the dying men and tore them to pieces. The screams rose to a fever pitch, then died. He started grinning suddenly, uncontrollably, ignoring the massacre. He was getting closer.

Mihail came upon a thick metal door. A window to the right revealed a brightly lit control room with a man in black clothing reclining in a chair. He didn’t know what was happening because no one had had a chance to pull an alarm. He saw Mihail and started, then yelled something at him, but Mihail couldn’t hear it through the glass. Mihail raised his gun as the man hit a button. The lights went red, flashing. An alarm. He fired.

The bullet shattered the glass, sending a shower of shards ripping through the air. The bullet slammed into the man’s temple above his right eye. His skull shattered and a brief spurt of blood escaped the entry hole. The bullet broke up on impact and tore through his brain like a shotgun. The hot pieces of metal exploded out the back of his head with a gout of bright red blood and hair and brains that splashed against the wall behind him. The man fell backward to the floor, tumbling over his chair, his eyes rolling up into what was left of his head. Mihail reached through, pressing the button the artifact told him to.

He continued on, walking through an unremarkable series of rooms, none with anybody in them. They were probably all gathering around the artifact with their covetous eyes and hands. He couldn’t bear to think of someone else touching it. His eyes burned with hate at the thought.

Then he saw the door. He could feel the artifact through it. Its presence was palpable. It knifed through him, searing a single thought into his mind.

I am yours. Come and claim me.

He pressed up against the door, his hot flesh sticking to metal surface. The presence of the artifact descended upon him in waves, engulfing, enfolding him. It was ecstasy.

Behind, he heard the sound of boots clacking on the floor. A vicious firefight erupted. Screams arose from the throats of dying men. He heard it, and yet did not hear it. It reached him and yet he did not perceive it. All he experienced was the overwhelming, almost suffocating presence of the artifact.

He heard the voice whispering to him. But it also whispered to the controller, and thus, to the ones behind him. They heard its call. They heard its need. Mihail stepped back, retreating down the hall though he did not want to, stepping over bullet-riddled bodies and across the blood-streaked floor. The minions of the controller threw grenades at the last obstacle in their way.

It sounded like a thump deep in his chest, and then there was a shriek of protesting metal. The shockwave blew them all back around him as roaring flames annihilated the door. Mihail dropped to a knee just as a corner of door shot past above him, spinning so fast it blurred. It embedded itself in the wall behind him.

Mihail was already moving past the zombies sprawled across the corpses of the soldiers. He reached the door first, charging through the smoke and twisted metal and hanging cables into the spacious room beyond. Scientists cowered in a corner. His gaze flicked up and dismissed them as unimportant. The zombies came pouring in behind him and immediately noticed the scientists. They descended upon them with a howl.

But Mihail only saw the lit box with the fragment inside.

At last.

Last Day

Obsidian Series, Last day
By: Grisly silence





He ran, maniacal laughter spilling from his throat. It was his! Babbling incoherently, he ran, talking to himself, the stone in his hand, and to no on in particular. He raved about at last being happy. The voice said he must be happy. So he was happy.

He stumbled through the brush, tripping over rocks and branches. But he was always up again almost before he hit the ground. He was infected with an insane glee.

Somehow he knew he had been here before, a long time ago. In that desolate time in which he did not have the artifact. He didn’t know how he had survived without the love it gave him.

He hadn’t stopped running since the compound. The artifact had left the controller there. It said that that way, if any people came and discovered what had happened, they would think that the controller had done it. No one would come after them and try to separate them. They would be together. Forever.

He burst from the trees in a flurry of leaves and twigs. Before him was a wide desolate region where nothing lived. The voice whispered in his ear. It wanted him to avoid this place. It wasn’t safe here. It said that it was passable if one had numbers on one’s side, but that alone, it was suicide. He would die and never again see or love the artifact again. The horrible creatures would eat him and the artifact would not be able to stop them. It would lay there forever, lost, alone. He wept at the thought. He turned to go back into the trees.

Mihail.

He whirled. Standing a little bit off into the wasteland ahead was the woman.

Mihail, please come to me.

He took a step toward her. The voice screamed at him, but it was drowned out by a strange roaring sound deep inside him.

Mihail, I love you. If you don't come, it will be too late.

The sadness in the woman’s voice brought a sob that was more real than the weeping he had done for the artifact. He took another step.

Mihail, you must come. I know you are confused right now. You must listen, or you will lose everything.

He hung on her every word. Her name was on the tip of his tongue, her face so familiar and yet so strange. He should know her.

You are lost within yourself, Mihail. The thing you hold in your hands wants you to stay that way. If you come with me, I will show you the way.

He stared down at the black stone in horror. The voice was silent in a way that was more disturbing than what the woman was saying about it. He felt dazed. He felt like he was stranded on some boat in the middle of the ocean, alone and with no way to control his direction.

Mihail, please. I love you so much. I know you love me too, if you will only let yourself remember. Please remember, Mihail. Remember who I am. Remember who you are.

He shook his head, trying to clear it. His thinking felt so fuzzy. He couldn’t seem to form anything approaching coherent thought. Something stirred inside him. It was a pleasant feeling that rose up through his whole body. It felt like he had been under some huge weight, and that the weight had been lifted. He looked around again. He looked around and began to remember.

Mihail, I know you will come. When you are ready. You must come. Follow me. When you are ready, you will know why. Remember, I love you.

Mihail felt like he was waking from some long, horrible nightmare. He was kneeling in the sand at the edge of the barren waste Svyatoslav and he had crossed what seemed like so long ago. He stiffened with realization. Svyatoslav…betrayed him…he remembered. There was a hard weight in his hands. He looked down. The artifact. Gasping in horror, he dropped it and stood, backpedaling. He stared at it. Nothing happened. It lay gleaming dully, inert, unmoving.

Mihail glanced at the wasteland. He couldn’t see the woman. The woman…he still didn’t know her name. Too much was gone, irretrievable lost. It felt like half of his body had been cut off. He stared down at the artifact.

“You must come,” he whispered. “When you are ready, you will know why.” He suddenly recalled the conversation of the two scientists in the compound.

“I can’t believe we found it!”

“Where was it?”

“North-east of here. There were a bunch of dead men, some killed by guns and some hacked apart. There was no one around. They even found the guns.”

“Who were they?”

“The ones it took when it-“

They knew about it. How? How could they possibly have known? And that last part implied more, “The ones it took when it-“ Only one word seemed to fit. The ones it took when it escaped. They knew about it because it had come from that compound. They must have created it. And they found it again. But they underestimated its power. It could even subvert the mighty will of a controller.

He looked down at the evil thing with mounting dismay. How could man create something like that? For what purpose? As a weapon? An uncontrollable weapon was not a weapon at all, but a means of extinction.

But how…how had he been able to escape from its grasp at the last possible moment? Who was the woman? He struggled for her name, for who she was, but it wouldn’t come. Frustration overcame him. He wanted to scream. What was the point of surviving if he no longer remembered who he was? She was a part of his past, a past that was as blank as a clean sheet of slate. He could remember only a little of events from before when he met Svyatoslav. But it was different than before, when little pieces of memories would float away from the artifact’s grasp. This time, there was nothing. Past a certain point it was just black. Despair took him. Who was he? The woman knew.

Tears running from his eyes, he looked back up at the expanse of dead ground ahead, but his eyes caught on the stone. It began to draw him in. His eyes widened as its grip tightened once more. He fought back, screaming, and tore his gaze from the stone. Gasping for breath, he fell to the ground, sobbing. It was happening again. He couldn’t escape. Not only had the stone taken away his past, but also his future. And when he rotted away like the men from the compound, it would find someone else, someone else to keep it alive, to keep it moving to some unknown goal. How many lives would it ruin? How many men would die in its cold embrace? It would jump from person to person, systematically destroying those that created it.

When you are ready, you will know why. The woman’s voice seemed to echo inside his head. He was the only one here. The only one with a chance to stop the artifact. The only one with a precious hour, maybe less, in which to find away to get rid of it. He was the only one who could do anything about it. He could run and hide and try to get away, but when its grip closed around him in full force again, he would come back. He might never get this chance again. He could keep this from happening again, to someone else. He could try to erase man’s mistake.

He ignored the whispers in the back of his mind. They bore the hissing pain of the voice.

You must come. Follow me. When you are ready. He heard the words again. She had said those words before disappearing into the sands. The voice did not want him to go in there. It had said that to go in there was suicide. That it would be left alone after the beasts inside ate him. It would be left all alone. All alone with no one to control. Forever.

Mihail lurched to his feet. He was dead anyway. Perhaps something good could come out of his death. He stumbled forward and grabbed the stone. Touching it sent searing pain through his nerve endings. Moaning and twitching, he set his gaze forward, forcing himself not to look at it. Dust swirled up all around him, and took the option from him anyway.

All he could hope for was that the monsters inside wouldn’t kill him until he got to the middle. It would be harder to find in the middle. Just wait, he prayed. Wait until I get to the middle. Then you can have me.

He walked on and on, mumbling the woman’s words to himself to keep from listening to the rising torrent of screaming in the back of his mind. The artifact was getting desperate.

He closed his eyes since he couldn’t see anything anyway, and imagined the woman’s face. He tried to remember her name. When he still couldn’t, he just concentrated on tracing the contours of her face.

He didn’t know how long he walked. It was a long time. The roaring of the wind and the voice had reached such a fever pitch that they almost drowned each other out. It made it easier to ignore both. He remembered that he had once had a superstition that the place you died was where the wind was loudest and most furious. He thought it ironic that he had been right all along, even though he had later dismissed the superstition as stupid.

Suddenly, he stopped. He didn’t know why, but it felt right to stop there. He opened his eyes. The sound of the wind died, and the dust cleared a little. Dark shapes surrounded him. In place of the wind was a deep baritone growling. Even the voice was silent. It had given up. Just as he had. The stone tumbled from his fingers.

The woman appeared in front of him. She spoke, but he couldn’t hear her words. It didn’t matter, though. He knew what she was saying. As the beasts came to kill him and let the sands bury him and the artifact forever, he spoke the words back to her.

It was then that he remembered her name.
  09:53:57  26 November 2006
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Siro
Local Law-Enforcement
(Moderator)

 

 
On forum: 03/02/2005
Messages: 7378

---QUOTATION---
Yeah, so it won't let me login.. Odd.

Anyway, the forum didn't like how long the story was.. it cut it off about halfway through Part 3.
---END QUOTATION---



Hm...you're right. I'll make multiple posts.

Post again after that if you're satisfied so I can finalize it.
  23:37:21  30 November 2006
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GrislySilence
(Guest)
Looks good! Thanks!
  16:54:14  1 December 2006
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Siro
Local Law-Enforcement
(Moderator)

 

 
On forum: 03/02/2005
Messages: 7378
Good, going into the contest...now.
 
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