Imagine, if you will, a large grove of trees about the size of a standard city block. It wasn’t tangled and thick, nor was it open and unorganized; it was a grove, a forest; tall trees with darkened tops rose into the sky, blotting out the sunlight in most areas and turning what little sunlight there was just barely green.
Kayle loved places like these. No people around for miles; just soft green, and quiet. Noise and people, Kayle’s two least favorite things. He stopped at the stream he knew was there, moving with only a soft trickle through the brush; this was the only place it looked nice. Normally, it was an irrigation ditch. They hadn’t ‘fixed it’ here yet.
“Here again?” A gray figure appeared on his shoulder.
“Yes, here again,” Kayle said, sitting on a log next to the stream, watching it absentmindedly.
“I don’t see what you like about it so much.”
“I could say the same for you and the Undernet, CommandoMan,” Kayle countered.
The Navi was silent for several moments. Peacefulness was nice, he supposed. “I’m still surprised that we’ve seen no trouble on the net since the DragoCaster incident…”
Kayle sat back a little against a tree. “Yes. That is surprising. But if you’re bored, I’m sure something will happen soon enough.”
CM shrugged and vanished, allowing Kayle some time to himself. After several minutes Kayle stood and jumped across the stream over some rocks, and continued through the thicket until he arrived where he’d come from, on his way home.
Kayle probably wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that when he’d said something will happen soon enough, he’d been absolutely correct. Even as he spoke a new force was gaining power the Undernet, waiting for their chance to strike.
Kayle awoke the next morning and got ready for whatever might happen that day, as was normal. “Good morning, CommandoMan,” he said, first thing.
“Good morning,” the Navi replied, but said nothing further. This struck Kayle as unusual, because usually CommandoMan asked Kayle what the plan was. Or something of that sort, at least.
“Something up?” he asked, putting on his black hoody instead of his gray one for a change.
“It’s been a while since the DragoCaster incident,” CommandoMan said. He appeared as a hologram on the PET, which was sitting Kayle’s desk. “And we still haven’t done any training – to handle Serpenterous, or to learn how to use Hurricane.”
“That’s true,” Kayle said. “Getting antsy?”
Kayle sat down at the desk. “That’s as noble a cause as any, I guess.”
“The earlier we start, the better,” The Navi said, disappearing. Kayle nodded and picked up the PET, and jacked CM in silently.
CM knew his way to the Undernet in about six paces. Getting further in than the surface took considerably longer, but he didn’t mind the long jog. Viruses avoided him at first, then couldn’t see him after a couple of SneakRun subchips were used. Before long he was at one of the least used and traversed Undernet areas. CM found a large open platform space and stood at one end.
“Here looks good,” he said.
“All right. I’ll be watching, as usual. Serpenterous, or…?”
“I’ll start with that,” CM said. “Learning to control him is something that can’t be done in the middle of a battle.”
Kayle sent a couple of programs to CM that should help him lower Serpenterous’ power level and keep it steady, so he could control it. CM activated them.
“Here goes nothing,” he said quietly, taking a deep breath. “Serpenterous, beast out!”
Kayle set the programs to 30% to begin with. The actual readout showed 34-36%.
Dang, he’s strong, he thought. Pushing the programs beyond their set limits like that… it’d be dangerous to go too near 100%, because he might push it there on his own.
In the meanwhile, CM’s body had started to glow; when it returned to normal lighting he was in the beast-out form, for the second time since the incident he’d actually obtained the ability in.
“How is it?” Kayle asked.
“It’s a bit like trying to stay on the ground in extremely low gravity,” CM said. He had a way of coming up with strange analogies, but they were always dead on.
“You’re succeeding, though.”
“Barely. We probably shouldn’t turn it up more than this for a while. Heck, I don’t know if I could even fight like this.”
Kayle sighed and adjusted the levels. The programs turned down to 20%, but the readout remained in the mid thirties for a while. Serpenterous was really fighting these.
“That’s better,” CM said, when the readout became steady at around 23%. “Much better.”
He started out by walking around. Kayle turned up the readout sensitivity, and he found that whenever CM moved, more power was released. In this case only by a few hundredths of a percent, but it was probably true for all actions. Fighting too hard could be dangerous, too. He explained this to CM.
“I can tell,” he replied, still walking. “I feel weightless as I walk. This guy could pick me up and hurl me into the stratosphere.”
“Try jumping,” Kayle said.
CM looked around for a moment. There was a large pillar nearby, glowing with odd green light, and up its length at several points there were platforms. Normally, he wouldn’t have made it halfway up to the lowest one. He knelt down, ready to jump up and see how high he could get.
The readout turned up to 29%. “Careful,” Kayle said quickly.
CM jumped; the readout shot up to 33% as soon as he left the ground, then returned to 23%. These programs were doing their job, but not as well as Kayle had hoped. But they worked, and that’s all that he needed.
CM, meanwhile, made it about three quarters of the height up to the platform – which was maybe forty feet up. “This is pretty impressive. Although it’s hard to multitask. The power level shoots up whenever I do something, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Makes it harder for you to control yourself. If we turned this way down to maybe something like 5%, you might be able to fight at full capacity…”
“I’ll just exert myself,” CM said nonchalantly, and turned around. “Aqua Sword Tail!” Only now did Kayle notice a slight hiss on the S’s.
CM sliced, but it was nothing like the powerful water wave Serpenterous had made (although the power level shot up to 39%). Instead, it merely made a wave that might have knocked a normal Navi over.
“Hmm,” he said. “I’ll have to work on that…” He sliced several more times, first slowly and deliberately, pausing in between to try and let the power level go down. But then he sped up, not quite letting it get back to normal.
“Forty percent,” Kayle said. “Forty five. Fifty. Slow down, man! Sixty – ”
At sixty percent, a real wave shot out, causing a minor abrasion to the platform’s pavement. CM stood for a moment, catching his breath. “That’s kinda difficult.”
“The base power level’s dropped to about twenty one percent. You’re kinda tiring him out.”
“He’s probably tiring himself out, more like,” CM muttered. “More. Turn it up a little. Twenty five, maybe.”
Kayle did so. “It’s resting at twenty seven.”
CM sliced a couple more times, making waves with enough power to knock over a group of Navis, but not damage them. “This is going to take a lot of practice…”
He raised his arm to cut again, vertically, and started the slice –
A clash rang out, echoing through the area. CM’s eyes locked on a black blade that had appeared under his own, then moved up to the arm that held that blade.
“Not bad,” said the voice that owned that arm.
|Ch. 3 – First Encounter – the Dark Beasts|
CommandoMan acted on impulse, immediately, without thinking. He sidestepped, and twirled, turning his arm so that both their blades revolved in a lazy circle, then tried to hurl his enemy’s sword aside. The Navi allowed him to, looking at him with a bemused expression.
For the everyday viewer this Navi was indistinguishable from a pitch-black HeelNavi, but CommandoMan dealt with HeelNavis on a daily basis – many of them up close and personal. And this one was very, very odd. Its programming was so horribly outdated that CommandoMan thought it was a wonder it was even still functioning in the new server tech – it should have degraded into bugs years ago. The body itself, however, was untouched. Clean, smooth… good as new – even though the Navi was ancient.
The Navi brought the sword down and it vanished, turning into a hand as HeelNavis usually have. CommandoMan noticed immediately that rather than glowing when it changed form, it darkened to invisible blackness, a total absence of light.
“Who are you?” he asked, blade half-raised. He dispelled his beast out as he spoke. He didn’t like the idea that this Navi would know about it, and he even less liked the idea that he might have to fight seriously with it.
“No one of importance,” the Navi said, adapting a somewhat humble air. “I was simply attracted by the power you were putting out and felt content to watch.”
“Spying on me?”
“Oh, of course not.” Now he looked affronted. “Merely interested. I’ve been watching for a while… and I have to say, I rather like what I see.”
CommandoMan’s eyes narrowed under his visor. “Oh? What puts you at rights to say something like that?”
“Well… you see…” The Navi gave a HeelNavi equivalent to a smile. “I’m a member of a… club. A group of Navis working towards a common goal, persay. And we have need of powerful members, like yourself…”
“Powerful?” CommandoMan laughed. “You must be pretty pathetic if you thought what I was doing down there was special.”
“I can feel the beast,” the Navi said casually. “It’s not easy to hold down a program of that caliber, even if you are assisted by technology.”
CommandoMan started. Serpenterous cast out a ghastly aura, yes, but to feel it was a different matter entirely. To feel it and tell what it was, at least. And aside from that, how did this guy know he was using programs to hold it down?
“Surprised?” the Navi asked, still very casual in tone and stance.
“You wish to extend me membership, huh? What about Kayle?”
“Your operator?” The Navi sighed and looked impatient. “Please. When was the last time your operator did anything that helped your existence?”
“I can’t move through the real world on my own, for one…”
“Oh, we have our ways of doing that.”
They looked at each other silently for a moment, then CommandoMan shrugged noncommitally. “I’m not good in groups.”
The Navi laughed. “Don’t worry about that!”
“Not interested,” CommandoMan repeated firmly.
“I’ll make you interested,” the Navi said, and laughed – and his entire body became the lightless amorphous mass his arm had been for a moment earlier. CommandoMan jumped back several feet, in a ready defensive stance, able to move or attack if neccesary. The mass lowered to the ground and shifted around incoherently before taking on the form of… a quadruped, then something like a canine… then a black-furred, red-eyed wolf. It howled, and in its howl echoed the Navi’s laughter.
“What the hell is that?” Kayle asked; his arm swept down from seemingly nowhere and snatched the PET off of the desk, in his hand held stiff and tense, ready for anything.
“I’ve no idea,” CommandoMan said, “and I’ve no intent to find out.”
The wolf lunged at him, and out of impulse CommandoMan fired a shockwave at it, splitting it down the middle. The two halves turned into amorphous mass and flowed around him, reforming behind him as he whirled – and lunging again, with a similar result.
“It shrugged off my Variable,” CommandoMan said darkly as it reformed further away, growling.
“Use something with a little more umph,” Kayle replied, sending him a Neo-Variable sword. CommandoMan activated it; the wolf lunged again, and CommandoMan hit it hard with a cross-slice. The result was something like an explosion of the dark mass.
CommandoMan stood straight, looking around. “He couldn’t have been deleted like that, could he?”
The wolf fell on him from above; he tucked in and rolled, getting out of the way barely before it hit him, and launching another shockwave. “I’m obviously quicker than him,” CommandoMan noted as it reformed, panting, some distance away, “but I can’t hurt him with these attacks…”
“He can’t hurt you with those, either,” Kayle said.
The wolf whined… and seemed to simply vanish from sight. CommandoMan looked around, expecting an attack, but none came – for several minutes.
“He ran,” CommandoMan muttered.
“Smart,” Kayle said amusedly. “That was pretty quick.”
“Back to training, then,” CommandoMan said casually, as though nothing had happened. He turned around, facing the platform he’d been on.
“No you don’t,” Kayle said. “That’s enough for one day. Back to the PET with you.”
CommandoMan grumbled mildly, but obeyed. Red eyes flashed somewhere in the distance.
|Ch. 4 – SZ – Riddles in the dark|
Kayle woke up a little later than usual that morning; the sun was actually in his face when he opened his eyes, which was annoying and a rarity. He turned and lay there for a moment longer. He’d been having rather pleasant dreams. Involving himself and a guitar. And an unbelievably awesome guitar solo.
Eventually he forced himself out of bed and dressed. He noticed immediately that CommandoMan wasn’t there, and thought nothing of it. He knew exactly where the Navi would be. Soon as he was dressed, he checked the PC, and sure enough CommandoMan was practicing with Serpenterous beast out. The levels were set to 30% this time.
“Don’t overwork yourself,” Kayle said drowsily.
“Good morning, sir,” CommandoMan, turning a little stiffly and bowing. “I apologize for going without leave, but I wanted to get started early.”
“That’s all right. You’ll be fine here, right?”
“I assume so.”
“Okay.” Kayle yawned, just a little one. “I’m gonna go for a walk, in that case.”
“Be careful, sir. And call me if you’ll be gone longer than about noon.”
“I will…” He pocketed the PET and shut off the computer’s monitor before getting ready for a short motorcycle ride.
He only rode out of his local neighborhood and into the downtown area before parking the bike and locking it up. He took two steps out of the parking lot and his PET beeped three times, indicating an email.
“Sheesh, what does he want?” Kayle muttered, looking at the PET screen – but the address wasn’t one the PET knew.
He checked the email. All it said was:
"If you had the chance to fight to bring balance, would you, at any risk do so?"
Not really knowing who sent it, and not really caring, Kayle typed out a quick reply.
“In my own way, I already do. And I am obviously willing to continue to do so. Why?”
Then he sent it. He waited for several minutes, but no response came.
“Weird,” he muttered, and continued on his way.
Downtown Electown. Hoo, the place was busy. There were signs and tickers and all sorts of such things everywhere. Normally Kayle ignored these, but all there was else to see was people – lots of people. And Kayle didn’t like people.
So instead he glanced at the signs. And as he did, he started noticing something odd – it appeared, but then vanished from his vision before he could really tell what it was. It bugged him, but it refused to reveal itself.
At one point he became aware that if he was going to go through the subway – that was his usual route – he’d missed his turn. He sighed and entered a back alley, heading towards another entrance and away from those creepy, annoying signs. But the feeling didn’t escape him; a large grafitti scrawl on the brick wall caught his attention just as the signs had. This time he stopped and took some time to study it.
There was a letter there that he wasn’t exactly familiar with. It looked a bit like an S, but it was jagged and angled – more like a Z. Right next to it was a normal Z. If you read the Z as an S, you would get “SZ”. A contraction, maybe?
“Probably something just gang-related,” he muttered, and continued on.
But even in the subway tunnels the feeling persisted. He stopped to read some of the signs, and he could swear he kept seeing that same odd thing every once in a while. He tossed off the feeling and walked on, down the platform, towards another sign – this one whose text was constantly changing as it hung from the ceiling. His eyes stuck to it, and started to narrow.
Every few seconds, “SZ” would flash across it in random places. Here, in the corner. There, just barely visible against the background. There, in the train number. Now it was gone entirely; then it was back, etched into the train number again as if it belonged.
This peculiar occurrence absorbed him so that he didn’t even realize someone was running towards him until they hit each other’s shoulders.
Kayle was knocked back a few steps; he blinked, stunned for a moment. The sign - !
The SZ’s had stopped…
He turned, looking for what had hit him. It was a girl, about his age, maybe a touch younger, wearing black jeans and a deep red sweater; she was searching for a pair of glasses somewhat blindly on the ground, making cute pitiable sounds, parting her long black hair from her eyes as she searched. Kayle saw the glasses – crimson-rimmed – knocked some distance away; he picked them up and put them in her hand, completely ignoring the way hers brushed on his. She put then on, and they locked eyes for a moment; the girl blushed and suddenly began spouting a stream of apologies.
“Ay, ay, ay,” Kayle said quietly, “no need to make a scene. I was the one not paying attention. Here.” He offered a hand, which she took rather slowly, and he pulled her up. “You okay?”
“Um… yes. Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry, I must be going.”
With that, she dashed off down the platform again. Kayle watched her for a moment, one eyebrow raised in a bemused expression. Funny girl. Kinda cute, too.
He looked back up at the sign. No more of those creepy “SZs” appeared.
“Too strange,” he muttered under his breath. He walked a couple of strides over to the ticket booth, his eyes lingering on the sign a moment longer, and purchased a ticket back to the lot he’d parked at. Normally he’d have kept going, but…
Something about today felt weird. Some kind of disturbance in the air, almost. As if something bad was going to happen… or was happening already.
He considered this on the ride back, in his usual solemn silence. CommandoMan would have emailed him if anything was wrong, or even if he thought something might be happening. That’s just the way he worked. The further he got from the platform, the less worried he felt; so perhaps the feeling was just a temporary thing.
He blinked, and thought back to her face, her eyes. It wasn’t exactly fear; more of a sense of forboding was etched into them, forboding and determination. It looked a bit like – Kayle wasn’t a master of expressions; he was just guessing – but it looked a bit like she had felt the same dark disturbance Kayle had.
Very, very strange…
Ch. 5 – Darkness, stage two!
The voices rang out in the empty darkness, speaking without mouths; one form among them stepped forth, humanoid in stature, and the dark voids all took on their normal forms.
“Order, now,” the first spoke, soft but clear. “We’ve business to discuss.”
“Yes,” another growled impatiently, “so let’s!”
“Wolf,” the first voice said. “Your encounter, I trust, was not a success.”
“You knew it wouldn’t be,” the one called Wolf growled.
“Nor did I tell you to expect success,” the leader said indifferently.
“Well?” a fourth asked. “How’s he fight?”
“He’s quick and experienced,” Wolf said thoughtfully. “There’s no way I could have beat him.”
“That’s nothing new to us,” the second voice growled.
“Quiet,” the leader said softly. “His combat abilities… are they useful to us?”
“Well, sure,” Wolf said, now a little nervous. “He fights kinda like you.”
“Of course he does,” the leader said indifferently. “How po-”
“Keeps an eye out, slices with his sword if he sees you; if he can’t get to you, rifle. If you won’t be hit with the sword, spear. He’s pretty much got it down.”
“How powerful,” the leader restated patiently, “is the serpent?”
One of the forms squirmed, delighted, which only made Wolf even more nervous. “Eh… powerful. Much more powerful than him. He’s… still learning to control it.”
“We should act before he can master it,” still another voice spoke. His was the proudest of all of them. “Leader. We cannot recruit him, by sermon or force, if we send our weaklings. Let me go.”
“Fine!” The leader chuckled. “I was gonna send you next anyway. Go on.”
“Thank you. I’ll bring him back, be it on my back or in my talons.” The void faded away.
“That is all,” the leader said quietly. “Dismissed.”