Sector twisted the small knife about in his hand, his flat demeanor tinged slightly with an air of superiority. He sharpened the blade idly; the light in the moist, deep room was dim, produced by a few candles and an old magicked object or two hidden away behind the stacks of jars and bones. “Only a fool would have fallen for that,” he said to the figure lying behind him.
“Most certainly. You can do much better,” Rinzler said dryly, calmly tied to a table, bereft of cloth and cover.
Sector’s eyes narrowed slightly, but he maintained composure. “You now admit your foolishness?”
“Tch, not at all. If only a fool would fall for your idea, and I’m here, and we both know I’m not a fool, then the reason would be…”
“The reason is your own stupidity, you chattering, obnoxious vermin!” The half-orc’s wrath began to leech out between the cracks of his calm façade.
Rinzler chuckled, “Then, pray tell, oh master of intellect, if I fell so far into your oh-so-cunning plan, then why didn’t I bring my gun? My formulae? I’m fairly certain that I spend more on an average lunch than the amount I spent on the possessions I had with me at the time. Did you plan for me to come with nothing to defend myself with?” A moment of silence met him, and he continued, “I came here because I was bored, and wanted to gamble.” He paused, but got no response, so he added, “I’m sure you’re dying to hear with what.”
“I’m sick of listening to your ignorant babble. I’m going to remove your tongue first.”
The threat didn’t seem to faze him any. “I suppose that’s to be expected, but really, we both know that that won’t benefit you any.”
Sector turned and brandished the scalpel, pleased with its blade. “If only you could now fully realize the extent of the pain I will bring on you, before your mind snaps like dry catgut. I’ll have to make do.”
“Oh, I can make a guess or two. Not particularly relevant. I do have one question though, before we start.” Sector did not dignify him with a response, but he asked anyway: “Do you think you’re going to kill me?”
Sector looked at him disdainfully, “Eventually. When you’re past any point of suffering, and the enjoyment of your pain no longer outweighs the effort of keeping your pulse going.”
Rinzler laughed, staring directly into his eyes, “Eventually? Maybe? But, if, when, later,” he listed off a series of words. “You won’t. You can’t. Because if nothing else, my death means that whatever you’re going to do will stop, and I might go somewhere better. Means you’ll lose control over me. And after the last few years, I would be legitimately surprised if you were that lenient. So I’ve placed my bets on the table. Let’s go then, cut me apart! I would have done it myself a long time ago, but I don’t have a fraction of your skill with a knife.”
With a sneer and a glint, the knife found flesh.
He cut out its tongue, and the mocking stopped. But still it stared. There were screams and tears and moans, like those of the hundreds of bipedal vermin he had dissected before, but there was no bravery, no despair, no pleading. That stare. It wasn’t defiant; Sector knew what that looked like, and this look wasn’t the same. Arrogance. It had to be arrogance; it thought it knew something, thought it could handle the pain. He would have its arrogance before long.
He took its eyes, and the staring stopped. But still it knew. Sector peeled and tweaked and grinded; it was some of his finest work in the finest arts of pain. But whatever that look was, it was still there. Hiding behind the cries. That…that thing, that not-quite-defiant, not-breaking…arrogance! Mocking arrogance! He would destroy it. He would find its source and break it.
He cut its brain. With finesse beyond that of any paltry surgeon, he tweaked and twisted and incised. Eventually, the screams ceased; there was nothing left to control them, but Sector knew the pain was still there. He knew which parts to leave. The arrogance, that was gone, but he had had to remove the rest of it too, the self-important worm’s self. Now it was quite effectively nothing more than a worm shaped like a flayed half-breed elf, twitching with never-ending pain. How long had he been here, doing this? It felt like forever, and his hands hurt. Back hurt. He missed his undead form, the never-sleeping, never-breaking body of a lich. This was boring. Well past the point of boring; any other subject would have been terminated days ago. Weeks? There was no real time down here. Why was he still doing this? It was time to termin…no…no, it was right. As disgusting as it was to admit, the elf was right. Death might bring it peace, and it would gain none of that. Turn the useless flesh undead? No, there was no particular point, no benefit. Sector didn’t want it touching anything of his, even as a zombie, and bringing it out of the lab tempted someone else to free it in death. A weak yet unaging body not worth modifying, not worth splicing, not worth risking. Hook it up to supports. Let the worm twitch forever. Its arrogance is dead, but it will never get rest. Time to attend other matters.
Two hundred and sixteen trials. Dead-end. It should work! Why won’t it work?!
Ignorant filth, sticking their noses where they don’t belong. I need more security…
Foolish, idiotic vermin. All the same. Always the same.
What was that arrogance?
A population of tens of thousands, and not a single one…
…The only way I’ll know is to put it back together again.
Rinzler fell to the floor, coughing, writhing and gasping. Sector watched passively until the half-elf finally managed to regain a steady breath. “You have one minute to explain, then we can start again.”
Rinzler’s eyes darted about, confused and disoriented. His mouth began to twitch, slowly began to form syllables, then words, and eventually his voice caught up as a whisper, ranting brokenly about time, body, mind, space and pain. A minute passed, a few, but who was counting in this underground pit? Sector could be patient. You couldn’t live 300 years and not learn some patience. Weak, writhing worm, I put you back together, now work! Explain, so the thought will bother me no more and I can put you back on my wall. But he knew that even if magic is utilized, it takes some time for the body to recalibrate, especially the brain. Finally, the elf’s eyes focused on the orc. “Oh…OH. Oh yes, that’s what I was doing. Are we still doing that? We’ve been doing this for a while, but I can’t remember when we started or what we’ve finished or what we began, but I do remember that’s what we’re doing, if we haven’t finished.”
“What! What are you doing?!” That must be the look…purpose? No, no that wasn’t it, wasn’t enough on its own. And what purpose could it possibly have…what purpose could it remember after having its skin removed and nerves flayed? Irritating insane insect, why do you still buzz?!
“What am I doing? Doing doing doing I was finding…No!” he giggled madly, “No no, can’t tell you what my hand is until the bet is called! Gambling gambling, betting on something that you can’t know until later or it won’t be a bet anymore.” He rolled over and looked about, still giggling. “Sight is good, it’s one of the better senses, I missed it in the darkness, scent stayed longer and I missed it too I wonder how I can still feel because I had no fingers and they’re back now but they look different, you really are very good at what you do, I couldn’t restring nerves at least not without borrowed magic how much did you use while putting me back together? There must be some magic involved or I’d be more scarred not less but I don’t think this is actually my skin is it?”
“Rrg, shut up you silly fool! Shut up and explain why you’re here!” So much for patience. Maybe if I rip his brain apart again there will be more to find, more than this.
“I can’t shut up and explain at the same time unless I used sign language do you know sign language I don’t particularly think I do but I could fake it and everyone would think I knew since I know more than them already so surely I know that too but anyways I can’t shut up any more than you can stop yelling, stop frothing and hating and raging. You can pretend to stop like I can pretend to stop raving, but you’ll always hate and I’ll always be insane even if we pretend to get allies and money and university grants and licenses and people to dig very deep holes in the ground where we can keep our things without idiots touching them how deep are we now? It must be at least a mile or two but I’ve never been a great judge of that.”
Sector’s jaw ground, and with that he hoisted the elf up by his neck and threw him back on the table. Rinzler coughed, trying to compose himself. “Alright, alright, hee heh, I’ll try, I’ll try it’s just been so long since I could speak that it’s good to let all of the thoughts out and it’s faster than trying to do it quietly and you look like you’re in a rush, though you’re always in a rush, you’d think you’d be slower after being undead but that’s not my place. Explain, explain explain, what did you want me to explain before we start again?”
The half-orc tied him back up without resistance while the elf waited for an explanation, his eyes giddy. They weren’t right; the gaze should be broken, desperate, hollow…certainly mad, but not like that. Not…happy? Sector finished the binds and retrieved his tools; how to start this time? Rinzler waited, watching intently, though his mouth had started moving, making unintelligible words without sounds. The half-orc looked down; pathetic thing. “What do you think you’re gaining?”
“I won’t know all of what I’ve gained until we’re done, will I?” his madness apparent, though its exact manifestation was hard to judge. “On that note, I hope we’re doing something different this time, since it’s so very much a waste to learn the same things twice.”
“Enough.” Sector’s knife found purchase, and the receptacle laughed and screamed anew at some sort of comedic tragedy that the surgeon couldn’t see.
There was nothing special in its brain. Nothing in particular, at any rate, there was obviously some odd neural clusters, but nothing significant, nothing that would suggest why it was so irritating, so…particularly…irritating, more so than any other wretched creature. What gave it the wherewithal to cling to a parody of sanity in madness, that it found its own suffering amusing? Frustrating worthless insect. Put it away, you have better things to do.
Ugh, the humans are spreading everywhere, breeding, building. Obnoxious vermin, learn your place.
I’ve done a project like this before. Why am I doing it again?
Pointless, fruitless research, let it burn and rot. I’ll start something new again.
Why do I still wonder? There’s nothing left to learn from it.
…except perhaps its mind…
“Any…any partic-ular reason…you did…didn’t take my tongue this t-time?”
“You…must have a…reason.” He inhaled sharply as Sector twisted a screw. “…Come on, you can…tell me.”
“How can you possibly still be obnoxious?” he twisted it again.
“Hee…heh...gccck!” Rinzler gasped, “Because…it’s just…another sense…grrckk. You can close…your eyes. And plug…your ears…You can…hrrk…ignore…this…too.” He concentrated on his breath for a while, with only the sounds of his choked pain and Sector’s tools echoing in the lab. “And I’ve…had to…ignore my s-sensesss…for years. This is…more of…the same.”
“That’s what drives you? You hope to survive until it gets better?” Sector sneered.
Rinzler laughed. “No. No. You’ll kill me…eventually.” Sector twisted harder at the sarcasm, his eyes narrowed slits. “Besides…I don’t need…drive,” his voice jumped up and down octaves with the jolts of suffering. “Drive would mean. Boredom! Or bad times. Something. Overcoming something.”
“Then what in all of the hells do you think this is?? A game?!”
“No. Aarg! Maybe. Waiting. Waiting game.”
“Hek…cough…heh. Not…telling. Not…yet.”
“Raaargh!” The orc dropped his implement and slapped the victim’s face with ferocious abandon, nails scoring deep lines through the skin. “TELL ME WHAT YOUR GAME IS?! WHY DO YOU STILL LAUGH?!”
Rinzler coughed up blood, spat it to the side and grinned weakly. His voice whispered, whether from weakness or conspiracy, “You know, I didn’t realize this…at the time. Did you know…you’re the only person…who’s ever made me happy?” He paused, breathing awkwardly. “Actually…happy?” Sector’s face could barely express his confused fury. “Because, it’s funny…no matter, how much…I loathe this…fetid planet…and it’s stupid…lying…worthless…misguided…people…you hate it more. I could hate with…every…bit of my being…and you…will somehow…hate more. Co-“ he paused to let out a hacking cough. “Comforting? Someone…that sees the world the same and…knows. You know. You need to know, knowing…all there is. And you hate it…as much as me. Can’t stop needing knowing…and hating. Hating living hating dying.” His eyes went unfocused, as his thoughts wandered away, disjoined from reality. “Did you have…senses…as a li-lich? I wondered. Touch. Taste.” Sector didn’t reply. “Not much se-arrcck! Sense. Living forever. With-out them. The First...didn’t say.”
“Be silent,” the orc’s voice dripped with livid contempt.
“Heh…heh heh…” His chuckle bled into a throttled cry, and Sector continued.
Its murmuring was annoying, but like most things, not impossible to ignore. If you got its attention, it would fully wake, but otherwise it would just drift in and out of consciousness, mumbling whenever it wasn’t asleep. It almost never held a constant tongue, mashing languages together from races that never meet, from times both past and present, with accents and dialects from places far and wide. If you bothered to listen and translate, most of what it spoke was pointless: unanswered questions, strings of numbers, facts of ancient history, a guest list at a wedding, names of flowers; this imbecile kept everything in its head. Sometimes though, sometimes it would mumble something almost interesting: a formula, a design, an idea, a spell, not that it would do it any good, knowing spells. Unfortunately, sometimes it woke up fully; then it was harder to ignore.
Its eyes lost their glaze, and looked about. It never seemed disappointed or despairing to see its surroundings, infuriatingly calm. Waiting for something, waiting for what? Nothing was coming to get it, the world thought it as dead as myself, and it had certainly left no one who cared. Stupid stupid maddening creature. If only it didn’t sometimes mumble passable ideas, then I’d get rid of it. It looked over. Don’t bother me, insect, I’m working.
“Do you…know what causes…evolution?”
“What causes…species to adapt…strengthen?”
Sometimes not replying made it stop. Sometimes it made it stare longer.
Sector gave in, “Ugh…selection, you fool.”
“Yes. Selection…certain ones do better. But…what selects?”
It smiled. “If things are easy, food and shelter and love, things stay the same. Things have to be difficult to change, strengthen, grow…”
“…Are you growing?”
The pen snapped in Sector’s hand. “What are you suggesting, you broken, wretched husk?! You’re nothing left but a whispering hollow, kept alive by my whim, and you think you can judge MY strength?!”
“Heh, I…just asked. If you were growing…without pressure. Wondering. Idly.”
Sector’s eyes widened, then narrowed just as quickly. “That’s your game? You think this will strengthen you?”
“No. I am weak, and you will kill me. I’m…dying. Very…very…slowly.” He coughed a laugh. “I’m still waiting…for the end of my game. I’ll tell you…when.”
There was silence. Hopefully he was finished; it wouldn’t speak for days afterwards.
“What’s stopping you?”
Again, it stared. Sector growled, but didn’t reply.
It clarified, “From being a god?”
This confused him, and for the first time he turned to look at the broken man he had bound and stowed. Still he said nothing in reply.
“You were…a disciple. What’s stopping you from being a god?”
“That ‘god’ fell. Fell before a band of fools.”
“Heh. It did. But it was a god. Certainly. People worshipped it. Feared it. It could have lived forever, if it was…careful. It was…powerful, beyond what average people could…grasp. It was, in every important way, a god.”
Sector turned slowly away, back to his work.
“What’s stopping you?”
“Pressure.” There was a long silence, then as its voice fell back to its rambles, it whispered in an old dead tongue, “In the search for knowledge, we became gods of slashing and burning.”
“You’re getting old.” The voice was cracked and weak, the chords frayed and breath lacking. It got no response. “I would have thought you would have figured it out, what with all of my blood and all. Do I still have any of my blood? Am I aging too? Or do I count as some sort of golem at this point? You never did put mirrors in.”
He was talking more frequently. The point of torture was long since lost; now it just stood there, sometimes being useful, other times infuriating. The more I spoke to it, the more often it woke up. Should just stop talking to it, keep him silent.
“…Do you want a hint?” At that question, Sector whipped around and hurled a beaker, which connected squarely with the bound man’s face. Man was a loose term; he lacked limbs, and his skin was a poor cover for what remained, hooked as it was to pumps and jars. He coughed and winced as the contents dripped into his exposed nerves, but he was only silenced for a while. “I’m not actually trying to provoke you. Now. But you’re a biologist. Surgeon. I’m a chemist. Maybe, just maybe, I know something you don’t. Not because I’m better, not because you’re worse. Just because you cut, and I burn.”
“I will figure it out without your pathetic assistance.”
“Heh...heh…heh,” it was a noise between a laugh and a cough. “Just make sure you do before you die. It would be…awfully boring. Waiting for someone to find me. Wherever we are.”
The half-orc grunted, but said nothing and continued to write. He had mumbled part of his formulas before; the culmination of my work is at hand. I don’t need your help. I will take what I need from you. Only a few more processes…
It lost focus, and began to babble again. Hours later, it began to mumble compounds, numbers…the solution! Sector wrote furiously, and fled to acquire components.
If he had looked closer, he might have noticed that the half-elf’s eyes weren’t quite unfocused. He half-grinned in the lonely darkness. “Almost…”
Such an interesting concept, for a graft. Might not work, almost definitely won’t work to standard, probably. Still, a shame to waste an intriguing idea on an animal, if it functions. And if it doesn’t work, it could be painful and useless, a malfunctioning, nerveless limb…or a constant searing heavy pain. He’s convenient, wouldn’t need to find another subject. If it worked, it would be far too good for the crawling vermin of the world, and if it failed it would be all the better if it was on him. Hopefully it fails…or works. Either way I win something.
…I shouldn’t sabotage my own designs. At least until I know it succeeded.
Rinzler’s eyes fluttered open, and immediately he was overcome with a sensation he had long, long missed: the absence of pain. He closed his eyes again, exploring every nuance of the sweet relief from an unfathomably long, torturous existence before opening them again. Still the same lab, walls, jars, bones, dust, stone that he had seen for…ever? No, not quite that long. Obviously. Closing his eyes again, he composed himself further; it might be time to put his thoughts in order permanently again. Or at least as permanently as they ever are. A glorious defense, insanity, though mostly detestable at other times when one wasn’t facing endless torture or a boring afternoon. No matter. Looking around, he knew he was on the table, from the position of the shelves and lights. As he blinked and composed and considered, he frowned, then tried something he hadn’t in a very long time: he willed his arm to move, and was entirely shocked when it worked. He stared at his right hand for minutes, slowly opening and closing it, remembering what it was used for. It wasn’t his hand, at least superficially. His old scars were gone, and the skin tone was off. Considering that he knew Sector had taken this hand…three, four times since he had come here, he wasn’t too surprised that it was no longer the same. No matter, as long as it worked. He had stopped pretending to be human long before this gambit, so what was some new skin here or there? He moved his left hand; it…was different, definitely different from the other. Heavier, like it was in a glove, or gauntlet. He lifted it, and a gauntlet was what it appeared to be, covered in overlapping plates of rough, tarnished meal. It was an ugly, rough shape, the rusted armoured fist of an ancient dead general who fancied himself an evil warlord. The oddest part was, it didn’t seem to have an edge at the bottom. Rather, it looked to cut deeply into the flesh of his forearm, despite it not hurting. He felt around for the edge, but as he had come to expect, it was rather solidly embedded; what did intrigue him was that when he touched the metal, he could still feel it. Not as clearly, not like his true arm, but enough. He examined it more closely, probing, questioning. It was metal, but it was no covering; trying to peel back one of the plates felt like pulling out a fingernail (he could say with profound certainty). It could sense touch, but it was lacking for texture; pain was obvious, but he couldn’t test temperature. Strange, to weave nerves and muscle around metal; an experiment, no doubt. Where was he, anyway? With a breath of composure, Rinzler pushed himself upright for the first time in years.
Slowly, and with great care, he moved himself around to sit on the edge of the operating slab. His skin was altogether different, lacking every mark and blemish he once knew, and possessing a fair few less than expected in general. Did he grow this material from scratch? Rinzler took his eyes off of himself and looked about the all-to-familiar laboratory to find it empty. He chuckled, lifting his hand to his face. It felt about the same in shape and age, lacking the scar mind, but something, something was different that took him a minute to place. Hair? It wasn’t full but, a beard? Rinzler considered it for a moment…he knew that Sector combined regenerative magics with grafts and “donor” parts, depending on what struck him; perhaps he shifted his content of human and elven blood. Elves were much harder to come by, after all. His ears were still pointed though. Oh well, as he stroked his face thoughtfully. He’d work out the finer details of his body later, make certain the anti-age formula was still working in his altered blood, and hope that he didn’t contain an explosive in his liver or something equally ridiculous.
Standing up, he stretched, testing and trying his limbs. Considering he hadn’t moved in what could easily be decades, his arms and legs were very responsive. They must be new; Sector does good work. The hand was awkward, but it was serviceable (he would have laughed if it was his right); he couldn’t wait to hear the justification behind it. Sector was obviously nowhere around though, so it would have to wait.
Poking about, the half-elf found some old spare clothes, and taking some spare paper, he inked out a note,
Since you seem to be out, I’m going to take my leave, as I’m sure you intended. Did I overstay my welcome? Perish forbid that I might bore you. It’s a shame, but alas, all good things come to an end. I’m sure we’ll see each other again soon. Don’t worry, I know you’ll still kill me eventually.
I did promise you though, to explain what my game, my bet was. I bet my life and freedom (but not my possessions, go figure) that there was no one in this whole wretched world that was better than me. That you could look and find no one to serve, no one to study, no one to rival, in all of the populations that crawl in idiocy in the dirt. And I bet that you would be dissatisfied (that was the long shot, to be sure). I bet that you would hate me enough to not let me die, and let me live long enough to realize that there was no one else, no other alchemists, wizards or scholars besides you and I worth even mentioning. And eventually, conclude that the only one who could challenge you and force you to perfection was me. Like I decided regarding you years ago (and you got off easy, you only had to burn in hell for a few decades. I’ll bet you don’t even remember any of it.)
So, since you are letting me go, I can assume that I won my bet, and take the pool. We will pressure each other, grow and evolve. The slashing and burning gods of knowledge. And before you start stressing your pretty little head, no, I don’t think you’re my friend. That would be dumb. But I do hope, after all this time, you finally realize I’m not your enemy. I never was. You’re just thick; be glad I like a challenge.
With that, I’m off to discover more than you. Starting with the date.
Ps. I’ll send you performance notes on this design. It’s rather interesting, though your aesthetic tastes leave something to be desired. I hope and trust that it’s waterproof.”
Rinzler left the note lying on the desk where he found the paper, and strode towards the only exit to the dim dungeon where he had paid years of his unaging life.
“Now, to see how well Clippy held down the fort.” He thought of the endless reams of hand-stitched gingham that undoubtedly awaited him, and sighed.
“You can’t deny that you’re the weaker one.”
A slow, steady dripping noise was the only sound in the oppressive silence.
“Not acuity, not cleverness,” he interrupted. “Strength. You are the weak one.”
The blood dripped from an uncountable mess of mangled bodies, fueling rivers that led to the center of the carnage.
“You feel guilt. Remorse.”
The gore soaked the ground, the corpses, and the two who sat in the middle talking.
“No matter what you do, you will still have attachment. You can’t separate yourself. Not like I can.”
“That’s why you need me. I could exist perfectly well without you. I admit...a lack of focus. But I would survive. I can endure eternity.”
Bits of blood and skin caked their hands and arms, clothes and faces. None of it was their own.
“You would suffer. Your guilt and loneliness cling to you. Without me, you would have nothing to distract you, justify you, give you what you need to ignore your weakness another day. You would fade to nothingness.”
They sat back to back, viscera drying to their unaging skin.
The silence was deafening in the wake of their wrath.
“You can pretend that you have power. You are the weaker of us.”
His partner had no response.