The First Age

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It was clear Marcus was a new handler. The pretty politician had powerful friends, masterfully shielded a darkness inside, or both. Probably both. Defiance was thinly veiled when Ryker communicated. He yielded as requested. Waited on patience shorn to spikes, but his teeth were clamped shut as observed.

Then the darkness showed itself. A menace that crawled across his senses that spoke of power unleashed. Ryker had to assume it was the handler. The guard was ignorant of the change. Ryker’s secret was already out among the Custody. He fucking registered. There were a handful of individuals with the authority to give Marcus reign over one such as him. That pyramid led all the way to the top. Therefore, it was a fair assumption Marcus knew all about Ryker’s skill set in return. He would know he knew. What was Marcus going to do with it?

Whatever genius swirled behind the globes of Marcus’ eyes finally spat out a question. An unexpected one. Ryker shifted in his seat. The weight of his gaze lifted to the guard.

The man straightened. The set of his jaw locked. He was spooked.
“No sir,” he replied.

Ublyudok! Tell him the truth, motherfucker” Ryker’s voice was dry as dirt as he defended his handler. The guard held his ground, but the grip on his rifle tightened across his chest under Ryker’s stare.

Eventually, he came to nod. “Some trouble with the power. The lights,” he shot a worried look at the ceiling. “And a few deaths.”

The chair made a painful screech on the floor as Ryker shifted back toward Marcus. There was a satisfied flicker of pride tugging Ryker’s lip. Behind him, the guard was relieved to no longer be their target.
“The boys are afraid of the dark,” he explained. “The lights go out and—“ he put his hands toward his throat in a mockery of choking.

“You decide if it’s odd. Pretty normal for 45 Novoslobodskaya Street if you ask me,” he wasn’t smirking then.
Marcus ignored Ryker's bravado. It didn't really matter if it was feigned or not. At least not for the moment. Something else was going on, something more important.

Deaths at the prison weren't, strictly speaking, unknown. Instead it was the guard's reaction- his refusal to say more of what was going on- that confirmed the feeling of danger. The man was not green. He'd seen- and partaken- in many of the darker activities of this place.

The projection in the back of his mind resolved itself. Whatever was happening was not the normal run of the mill by product of this prison.

Marcus added Ryker's words- the information they contained- to his consideration, but other than then quested with the Force. 

It was one of the more interesting discoveries he'd made over the last year. Of all the varieties of the Force, spirit was the most malleable and mimetic. It seemed to take on the characteristics of what it touched, somehow absorbing information into the vibration of its threads. It was how he'd learned to attune spirit weaves to specific people, for example. Or how he'd been able to use it to embed the tau vector into the matrix to encode weaves.

It was his first tool to examine anything he didn't know and wanted to understand, and so he spun a network of spirit outward in such a way so as to make them open, an information web sensitive to the slightest vibration of anything- any form of matter or energy, with him attuned at the center.

He could "taste" the room- not literally, of course. But the avalanche of data pouring him was interpreted as physical sensation, a synethsesia of sorts-  and stifled the bile the burned at his throat. The echoes of past emotion in this room were not pleasant. 

But he did catch a faint whiff of...rot, was the word he finally set on. It seemed to permeate the air of the place, a background noise more than anything else. It might have been something he could ignore, except there was a slight sharpness to it. A tang that felt potent.

He stood, the web firmly held. His voice was cold. To the guard,  "Take us to where the last death occurred.". The man opened his mouth but the protest died on his lips and he nodded.

Marcus motioned for the man to lead and Ryker to follow. They began walking down corridors and rooms, his web billowing around him and noting no changes, until they reached  a stairwell. The lights were covered with metal wire and were dim or flickering as they made their way down, darkness and shadow above and below them. 

Just as they started down the stairs Marcus ordered them to stop. "What is it-" The guard said cautiously before Marcus' hiss cut him off. He was silent as he felt at those threads, the ones vanishing off down into the darkness. The rot was there, but the sharpness was stronger. It was more pungent.

Marcus pushed to the front and looked down the center, seeing the stairs beneath them only dimly, even with the Force enhancement. There was a flicker of movement in the shadows below- the rot sharp like the smell of putrid aged pus- and his nostrils flaired.

It was nothing alive. Living people stood out in this web. But it was there all the same. His jaw set. He looked at Ryker and the guard. "Come with me." and then he started down, trying to feel was was down there.
Ryker stifled a groan of annoyance and climbed to his feet. On one hand, getting the chance to see a different hallway than the same old four walls was a nice change of scenery. On the other, his legs were lead and fuck whatever Marcus wanted. Yet Ryker followed along, daring the guards they passed to question the politician pulling the lead of this invisible leash. None did. The pussies. But it told him more about Marcus’ standing in things. They knew something about the politician Ryker didn't, and it fucking irritated him.

The operator showed them to a stairwell. Rumors and whispers spread like horror stories through the block. Not even the most stalwart of gulag guards would take it anymore, opting for other passageways. Ryker swept the view up and down with a studious gaze, curious as much as wary, but his attention wasn't on ghost stories. He craned his neck upward. If he could get to the roof, he had a chance. The ground level was worthless. Not at 45 Novoslobodskaya Street. He’d be shot before getting across the yard. Their perimeter was too perfect. Impenetrable. Up, out and over was his only chance, but Marcus was a channeler and Ryker’s power was under lock and key. He had nothing on his person to cut himself, but he could pick a fight with the guard. One smack of the baton would probably do it. But Ryker was barely upright. His chances were slim, and the baton might actually knock him out. Besides, it seemed Marcus was about to pull him out of the detention center. He just needed to play the good, pliant operator a little longer.

He sighed when Marcus beckoned them to descend. For one, it was the wrong fucking direction than Ryker wanted to go, and for another, he had little desire to confront whatever was gobbling up the guards every time the lights went out.
The web of spirit Marcus held billowed out in front of him as he led the way down the stair well, tendrils skittering, questing out in the direction of the movement, bringing a host of information his brain tried to categorize, a synesthetic Kaleidescape of scents and tastes and tactile sensation.

The taste of rotting meat, squishy, sour, the feel of maggots squirming and firm, the scent of putrefaction overwhelmed him and he paused, trying to get his body to understand this was just an information interpretation problem. His stomach heaved and he tightened his control, forcing it down.

A thread of fire lit up brightly, flooding the area until it shone as if noon and the sensation disappeared. The stuffy, institutional air, with its underlying bleach and ammonia and grime was sweet and wonderful and pure, enough that he let himself enjoy it for a moment.

He looked back to the guard and then Ryker. He wasn't afraid. Not really. But he was glad they were with him, if for no other reason that one of them, the guard probably, would serve as a good distraction while he decided on how to proceed. 

"How long ago did this start?" The guard's lips compressed but he flicked a look at Ryker and then back at him before seeming to relent. 

"Two- three weeks. It just... The fear was evident. He collected himself under their stare. "Shadows...they sometimes move. It feels like we are being watched."

Marcus thought about this. The well was clean now. "Take me to the last place someone died."
The stairwell proved anti-climatic. Marcus channeled something, threads of power radiating strings around the space. Even if Ryker was awake and himself, he still wouldn’t care what he was trying to do. Suddenly a light blazed, and Ryker threw an arm over his eyes to shield himself from the sudden change. After a month in Butryka, even a flashlight would stun.

He mumbled curses in his native tongue, but they fell away shortly after. The jailor was practically shaking in his boots. Shadow monsters and now a channeler. If only he knew he was with a far scarier demon, he’d piss his pants, but even if Ryker could cut the kind of pain that he needed to access the power, Oriena’s block was still walled up around his head.

The Jailor squared his jaw and beckoned them back the other direction. Soon, they were in the underbelly of Butryka. Part of the prison where the blood was washed down drains and actual ghosts probably haunted. The prison was hundreds of years old, after all. Saw the worst of Soviet torture chambers and sadistic Tsars.

Ryker found himself led into what he assumed to be a boiler room. If Butryka had any heat, it shocked the hell out of him.

Basically, a concrete room. Pipes ran overhead. Broken florescent lighting flickered. Enormous boilers sat rusted. There were dead rats in the corner. The jailor pointed, but clearly didn’t want to enter.

“Arkady. A big man. He was found in the corner. All of his fingers were black like frostbite,” he shuddered.

Ryker snorted. “Nice.” He was leaning against the wall and picking at his nails at the moment.

He flicked away a bit of skin and looked at Marcus. ”Consul, what are you looking for?”
Marcus yawned to pop his ears as they descended into the depths. With the web of spirit extending his senses, he could feel the air compress, could sense they had gone deeper into the bowels of the prison. The motes and flickers of energy those threads picked up triggered what he interpreted as scents, which, after a surprisingly short period of time, somehow became associated with feelings: terror, despair and pain. It felt heavy and oppressive, clouding his mind. It was hot, down here, too, strangely. At least, he was aware of heat even if it somehow didn't touch his flesh.

The guard's leaden steps finally stopped when they were in the boiler room. There was heat here- real heat- along with the sounds of metal creaking and of natural gas burners, the smell of rust and must, of oil and dirt. The ground was dirty, oil stains on the concrete puddled near some of the machines. The two fluorescent lights gave off a sickly flickering buzzing light that made shadows jump about. The guard had stopped, pointing to a corner. Marcus focused sent his threads into that corner, probing, looking for whatever had been there, whatever had killed the man, leaving his fingers black.

Ryker's words cut into his concentration and he spoke absently in response. "I don't know. I just..." He frowned to himself as he tried to answer the question to his own satisfaction. "There are things out in the world. What we might call monsters or whatever." He paused, remembering his time in the tunnels, the swarm of creatures like a colony of ants or cockroaches rushing at him. This wasn't the same. And yet..."Something has changed at this place. I felt it as soon as I entered the building. And now...." With the Force web before him, he could sense it. A wrongness that bothered him at a level he couldn't explain. "It feels like....a rent in the fabric of reality. Like something- or more than one something- is coming or has come through."

When he was a child- maybe eight or nine- after he and Andre had been shuffled between more than a few foster homes, he had start having nightmares. Books or plates on tables and chairs, pilling precariously higher and higher and higher, and somehow he was going to get into trouble if they fell to the ground. It wasn't something he thought about often. It was just a dream. But even so, he distinctly remembered the feeling of panic and fear he felt. The imagery was incongruous with the terror. It was like the number of items kept multiplying, growing faster than anything he could imagine, and each moment his panic grew as did his certainty that he wouldn't be able to keep the collapse from coming. It was chaos- and not the beautiful and fascinating chaos theory of mathematics, of Wolfram metamathematics and automata, the ruliad from which the computational multiverse emerged. 

No it was terrifying and overwhelming and destructive, a swarm of malevolence that grew out of control. He remembered waking with tears in his eyes, heart pounding and fists clenched, desperate for relief.

And now, here, as a grown man, in the flesh, he felt the same kind of panic, the same kind of fear. It was as though there was a tear through which disorder and unmaking poured through. It gnawed at him. All he wanted to do- needed to do l. Had to do!- was stop it, to restore order to the world.

He probed deeper, shaving his threads finer and finer until he felt with a myriad of microscopic "fingers" over the air and surface of ground and wall, feeling for something, anything, to indicate what was going on. The quiet- the sounds of shuffling feet and the boilers seeping distantly into the background- seemed to grow, larger and deeper, and he felt that warmth expand around him, as if he was sinking into his blankets back in his bed. The room seemed to have dimmed as well. It was like a cocoon. He felt muffled, He turned his head- or at least tried to turn his head- it felt like he was moving through honey or something- and opened his mouth to speak.

[[**a fearsome and foreboding shadow of black mist is coalescing around Marcus. He is unmoving for at least a minute.**]]

He felt...something, try to slither down his throat. He bit down, clenching his teeth, pressing his lips together, but it felt like whatever it was had becoming microscopically thin and somehow was able to squeeze through them.

In desperation, he pulled at the Force- which had become a trickle, he realized, the web having dissipated away. It was like holding on to a slippery thread and he held on as tightly as possible, careful not to let it loose. Slowly, concentrating, he pulled in, one small bit at a time, hand over hand. The thread thickened into a rope and it became a bit easier. He kept going, the Force slowly filling him, growing. His pulling sped up, the thread becoming a cord becoming a rope that turned into a torrent, enough that he had to let it out. With no energy for intricacy, a single flame of file bloomed and grew with each draw, brighter and brighter. This time, he did feel the heat, real heat, not the stiffling muffled blanket from before.

Whatever it was had let go, the air- real air, he realized, gasping- flooded his lungs. A shadow lurched toward the guard and an unnatural scream tore through the room. The man jerk and then ran, disappearing down through one of the doors. Marcus breathed in the sweet wonderful air of the dank dirty boiler room, as his thinking finally returned to him. With a shake to clear his head, he looked at Ryker, trying to understand. "What...?" He looked down the door. His mind was his own but he still had to focus on words. "We need to get that...thing."
’Things changed,’ Marcus’ words. Fucking right. Not just talking about Butryka. It wasn't Ryker's first time. On the other side of the bars, doors, fence and guns. He’d put shit-stains for men in here. Dragged their asses out of vans and tossed them to the brutality of guards and walked back out again.

Never thought he’d be a guest himself. Talk about things changing.

And he wasn’t even sure how long he’d been inside. The last month, maybe more, was a goddamn blur. He’d be bitter over the lapse of memory but he didn’t want to fucking remember. The last clear memory was waking up less than compromised and shitting bloody toilet paper for two days. Not the kind of thing you wanted to remember. If he was pissed over being bagged, tagged and locked up in America without so much as a goddamn file with his name inside, then he sure as shit was pissed about being tossed in prison in his own motherfucking motherland. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. God fucking dammit.

So, the grumble to himself was more than justified, but not exactly helpful. His stare was flat. Yet he was used to listening to seniors and politicians and asshat commanders who thought they knew best. Could drone them out just as easily. After the tangent faded a little, he focused on Marcus again. The man’s channeling was steady and probing. Boring. If there was something different about Butryka it was dead fucking lost on Ryker. They could paint the walls black and pipe Agent Orange through the ventilation and he’d not notice. Or more likely, not give a rat’s ass.

The guard lingered outside. Shifting his stance nervously. The grip on his rifle tightened. It was a close-quarters weapon. Stock collapsable. Lightweight, rail operated. Standard issue for this sort of thing. Ryker rolled his eyes. “Don’t put your fucking finger anywhere near that trigger unless you intend to pull it,” he said while Marcus worked. The guard’s eyes tightened like he thought about aiming it on Ryker, but the ZARS agent simply went back to picking at his nails. Probably pissed off the guy, but that was the point.

When he looked up again, Marcus seemed to be standing in a shadow. Like one of the lights went out. Except, as Ryker studied the ceiling, nothing had changed. Then he saw it out the corner of his eye. The darkness rolled like smoke a shade darker than the surroundings. He moved to his own two feet then, frowning. Marcus’ power pulled heavy. Nothing like when the Ijiraq sucked them all dry, but the sudden appreciation of Marcus’ strength in the power couldn’t be ignored. Particularly compared to his own.

The longer he watched, the darker the mass bloomed around Marcus head. Until the Consul fell unnaturally still. The flows of his channeling settled to nothingness. Then the man’s mouth parted and the ominous fog began to pour itself into the gaping maw between his teeth. Ryker backed slowly away from the other man lest the poisonous fume creep toward him next.

Suddenly, the power surged and a flame spun itself into being. The smoke retracted from Marcus’ tender throat. A nasty ass vomiting. It balled itself up and Ryker was glad to be against the wall at that point. The hell did you defend yourself against evil fog?

Luckily, it eyed its next target and flew toward the guard swifter than it first appeared.

It gripped the man by the throat, and he went running away. His scream of terror echoed through the basement halls, chilling even Ryker’s heart.

Then it stopped. Ryker imagined why.

He looked back to Marcus. The man was bent over. Compromised. Unsettled. Not that Ryker would feel much different in that moment, but he knew if there was ever an opportunity to strike his captor, it was then.

But the power was blocked to him. Even if he could slice his skin on jagged metal and bloom the pain required, Oriena's shield was still in place. And Marcus was twice as strong as him. Maybe close to the Ascendancy himself.

He grit his teeth, knowing this wasn’t the moment.

Ryker crept toward the door. Far down the hall, the lights flickered. The flashes illuminated the shape of a man on his knees. Rifle fallen limp. He clawed at his throat like he might pull out the stuffing from the outside.

Then the lights went out.

Ryker grit his teeth, goddammit, and ran after the guard. The shadow was occupied, eating the man from the inside out. Fucking gross. The short assault rifle was plucked from the floor by Ryker's expert fingers. He threw the strap over his own shoulder, swung it around and rounded the guard from behind in less than three seconds. The guard’s neck snapped under his palms and he crumpled quite normally. Probably pissed off the fog, but at least it was absent a host.

Focused and intent, Ryker stocked the rifle to his shoulder like bullets might actually do something against a monster made of shadow and backed off. If he didn’t have the Power, at least he had a weapon.

“The fuck do you kill a shadow?” he asked, but he didn’t expect an answer.
Marcus wanted to move, needed to move. The thing was gone down a hall. Escaped after what it did to him- had almost done to him. And he struggled to move. The words had come to his lips, but that seemed the extent to which he had control of himself. His energy had seemed to evaporate.

The paralysis strengthened, as if his body seized up. He dimly remembered this once before. The first time he felt the Force, had used it to bring order to the universe. Such a wonderful beautiful moment, only to he marred by the reaction that he'd since then learned was common to all Force users. The shakes and then the strained muscles tensing up until he couldn't move. 

No. No. It was worse. The blackness, the suffocation. He remembered the closet. Mrs Swerlin. The small pet carrier, still smelling of fluffy's last trip to the vet. Tight and the hard plastic against his small frame that was too big for it, his tear stained cheeks pressed to metal mesh , as her sock covered feet spun around and marched to the door, black suddenly replacing light, and then the sound of the slam and quiet.

He thought he heard Andre somewhere crying. But he could do nothing for his brother. He was in the dark, in the kennel, punishment for spilling milk on the carpet, her deceptively soft and kind voice reciting those words still echoing in his ear. He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

That fear and anger and terror that had brought him his friend, the one he later named Malik. The one  who told him what they deserved. The one with whom he confided his fear and his plans for revenge. 

He felt all that again, now, staring off, watching Ryker disappear down the hall after the guard. Felt it and reached for Malik. Reach Malik, his friend, his truest brother, his other self. Found Malik and pulled him around him, a cloak, tight against the strain.

And the rage birthed life and Malik stood, feeling alive. The Force spun about him, a web of spirit and fire, tasting the air and walls and floors. It boiled and swirled and he walked- slow at first- each step feeding him strength until he strode out into hall. He'd heard noises in one direction and followed.

He found Ryker, gun in hand, the guard on the ground, neck at an unnatural angle. The look on his face- and the way he held the gun- betrayed the panic the man felt.

Maybe. His eyes narrowed. Had the thing gone into Ryker? Could he know? The webs coalesced, sinking into him. What he was searching for, he wasn't sure. It was mostly spirit so there would be no real damage as he probed his body and mind. 

It might not feel great, but Malik had no intention of letting that thing get away.
The gun was stocked tight to his shoulder as he backed away from the body. He was purposeful in his steps. Any hint of fatigue was chased away like a bad dream. The fucking glorious adrenaline coursed his veins instead. His gaze darted from the body to the corners of the ceiling. Down the walls. Back across the floor. Studying the body. The thing hadn’t yet left it. Or if it had, it must have been invisible. The lights were low. Could he have missed it? He blinked a few extra times. The blur across that left-half of the hall was still fucking annoying. His marksmanship would never be the same. But he could still shoot a fucking fog monster.

By then he’d taken up a position best angled to take advantage of the exit, on the other side of the dead guy and nasty-ass fog unfortunately, and the boiler room behind him just in case anymore decided to blow in.

He only noticed Marcus as he emerged from the boiler room because that stank menace preceding him.
"See you found your balls and decided to join the guns,” he said without so much as looking at the other man. He was dead square aimed on the already dead guy. Weird thing to think but sometimes weird shit happens.

Then the power swarmed around his head and Ryker pivoted like a smooth fucking ice-dancing skater, aiming the barrel up Marcus's forehead instead. “Get that shit off of me,” he might have swat at the threads like buzzing flies but like hell was he lowering the rifle.

“If you really want me to be useful, show me how to break that bitch's shield. You and I both know a gun won’t do shit here.” The silence stretched tense between them. Then he added something else just in case the Consul decided to get creative.

"Just don’t use me as bait. I already tried it. Killing him did no good." He paused a second, then added, "Nah, I'm lying... I hated that guy.”
An electric thrill coursed through Malik at the feel of cold steel at his forehead. He didn't let the webs go, though one tendril snaked away, threads of air writhing around it as it worked its way into the barrel, creating a solid plug of air.

Ryker wouldn't shoot him, he was sure. But accidents could happen. He had no plans of dying because of a sneeze.

A ghost of smile touched his lips as he studied the man's reaction. He did admire the balsy stand. And of course, the bravado and conciliation, a curious contradictory mix, was enough to tell him he hadn't been...possessed.

It also told him that this place hadn't broken him. And that he was willing to work with him. That had been what he was looking for.

Malik waited a moment longer and then let the probing webs dissipate. He was still alert- to Ryker, to the prison, to whatever that thing was. But they appeared safe for a moment.

Something the man said gave him pause. His shield. Marcus hadnt investigated it before. But now....A finger of spirit formed and he tried to touch Ryker's core, that place that was somehow surrounding him and was the center of him at the same time. Marcus had imagined it as a Klein Bottle. Malik didn't really care.

His finger slid along something that felt smooth, smooth enough to make glass feel rough. A nothingness that formed a shell. He'd mentioned that bitch. His focus returned to Ryker's face. "A woman did this to you?"

The forgotten metal was no longer cold against his head. He turned, looking about the room, sending his webs out again, trying to feel what he had before. He thought he might have a better idea of what it tasted like.

Absently, as he searched, he said "I could try to break it for you. With enough power I could. It wouldnt be hard to fracture it, I think." A cruel smile appeared as he looked back at the man, peering into him "You might not like it though." And then he moved to stand near the guard, sending his tendrils into the body.

There was a...rottenness to his flesh. It felt pulpy and tasted spoiled. The tips of his gnarled fingers appeared black. Not a burn. He'd seen what those looked like. More than seen. It wasn't like anything he'd ever observed or done.

He continued. "I will take you to the Academy." The official name was the Academy of Channeling Research. In his mind, Malik called it the Jedi Academy. It amused him. "There are one or two women who I think could break it for you without hurting you."

Finished looking at the body, he looked at Ryker, appraising. He would be useful, he decided. "It's your choice. If you choose to wait, then let's continue."
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