The Eighth

A phone is ringing.

Aaron Siegel stands outside of a church. Its walls, rotted and crumbling, strain to hold up the towering, pockmarked roof above it. One of the doors hangs loose on a single hinge, swaying softly in the wind. The windows, long since stripped of their panes and frames, whistle an eerie song as the wind slices through them. The entire structure creaks and groans.

A phone is ringing.

Aaron looks behind him. He can see Arians standing next to their car, watching him. Between the haze of the dust and the setting sun, he almost looks like a mirage. He’s too far away, and Aaron can’t make out his features. All he sees is his friend’s coat, whipping in the wind, and the dark glasses on his face.

A phone is ringing.

Aaron looks off in the distance, and sees fire. He hears the moaning and screeching of metal on metal, and sees smoke rising over the mountains. Every so often he hears the thunderous cacophony of an explosion rip across the badlands and sees lights flashing across the horizon. He sees, very briefly, a clockwork mountain, illuminated by an inferno. A dark star hangs low in the sky.

A phone is ringing.

Aaron hears voices. Nine voices, calling to him from the earth. They know. They know he carries the trigger, and they ache for its release. They cry out to him, begging him for the elation of their own torment. They cannot hear each other, but they can hear him. Each footstep sends their tiny bodies writhing in their concrete tombs, their broken arms outstretched, grasping towards a god they cannot see. “Come back,” they say. “Make us whole again.”

A phone is ringing.

Aaron steps towards the church, but his gait is unsure and his pace waver. Inside the church, he will find truth. The sky burns bright in the light of a blighted god. Horror seeps through the soil, wrapping tiny, shredded fingers around his shoes. He pulls away, and struggles towards the church. The sun sinks below the mountains, and as it does he sees a Red Right Hand hanging in the heavens. The wind knocks the doors of the church wide, and from within its ruined hall he hears the sound of a man laughing.

Inside the church, a phone is ringing.

“This is it?” Vanessa said.

Bramimond consulted the journal. The location was right, so far as he could tell, but the smoking ruin they had come upon was not the fortress described in the text. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he tried to make out some features noted by the author, but was unable to. As a whole, it was an unrecognizable mess.

“Yeah,” Bramimond said slowly, “this is it.”

Ivan squinted through the smoke that drifted towards them. “You think somebody else got here first?”

Arians grunted. “Likely not. I can’t imagine the Overseers have been letting all sorts of people know that their contract is broken.”

“One of ours, then?” the young man inquired.

Bramimond shook his head. “Delta was very specific. Nobody but us.”

“Well shit then, kids,” Vanessa said, taking off down the rocky hill. “Let’s go have a look.”

The four of them followed the road down towards a gatehouse that set nearly a half mile off of the destroyed fortress on the mountain. Aside from the drifting smoke and debris being kicked up in the wind, there was no other movement in the entire complex. The gate stood open, and they passed through. The gatehouse sat unoccupied.

“Little on the nose, don’t you think?” Ivan said, examining the structure as they walked up the long drive towards it. “Evil organization boss has an evil fortress in the mountains?”

Arians barked out a laugh. “You haven’t met Walter Scott, then.”

“Walter Scott?” Vanessa asked.

“O5-8,” Arians replied. “He didn’t build this fortress because he wanted to intimidate people. He built it because he’s a coward.”

“You knew him?” Ivan asked.

Arians hesitated for a moment. “Knew of him, sure. I’ve never met him. A reputation can follow you, though, regardless of what circles you run in.”

They carried on, though Vanessa studied Arians closely as they did.

The damage to the exterior of the mountain fortress was only an appetizer compared to the feast of destruction within. Staircases were broken and inaccessible, the floor beneath them creaked and groaned and in some places gave way entirely to soot and ash. Long steel beams across the ceiling sagged from the heat, and the entire estate stunk of fire and flesh. Every so often they would pass by a corpse of some man, likely a personal guard of the Overseer, their bodies charred and their faces mutilated. Several of them were piled against the inside of a locked door. More lay flat on the ground, running from something in the rear of the building.

They descended the levels they could, until they reached a large room whose walls seemed to no longer exist. The roof above it had long since collapsed and smoke still floated out into the evening sky. There were guards in this room, too, though most of them were now superimposed against the walls, nothing more than the absence of a man where the heat couldn’t reach. They crossed the chamber, careful to avoid the corpses, and found a point from which the devastation seemed to have burst forth from.

It was the corpse of a man, his body flayed open and his skin blackened. Something dull and metallic was anchored onto his exposed spine, and as they approached they could hear a gentle whirring of spinning gears. From within his chest grew a massive, scorched, flesh covered spire that branched out in all directions towards the ceiling. Large chunks of burnt meat sat rotting around the room. Arians stooped down to study the figure.

“Yep,” he said, “that’s definitely the Overseer.”

“What the fuck happened here, then?” Ivan said, incredulous.

“If I had to take a guess,” Arians said, standing back up, “I would think that Walter had enjoyed the benefits of some sort of… augmentations, or magic, or… something unnatural, which were kept in check because he couldn’t die.” He glanced around the room. “Judging by how far down the fires have burned, I’d guess that a few weeks ago he suddenly found himself very mortal, and his augmentations didn’t agree with each other.” He poked the spinning gear mechanism with his foot, causing it to spin a little faster. “Yeah, definitely didn’t agree with each other.”

Vanessa peered down at the corpse. “That’s it, then? One more down?”

Bramimond nodded as he surveyed the scene. “Everything here looks more or less self-contained. I guess… yeah, I mean, I guess we’re finished here.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s going to be late soon. Let’s find somewhere to bunk down, and we’ll leave in the morning.”

“So we’re standing alone on a beach, and our evac is five minutes away,” Bramimond growled, his voice hushed as he gestured a spinning helicopter. “We’ve got Peacekeepers on the other side of this hill, and the rabid occultists sprinting down the beach. There’s a Foundation destroyer parked three miles off of the beach, you can barely see it, but we know that at any moment they could open up a railgun and turn us into a red smear on the sand.”

Ivan rocked back and forth with giddy excitement. “So what did you do?”

Bramimond made another grand gesture. “What do you think? I unclipped my rifle and mowed them down, every last one! All fire and hot lead and fury, until the beach was empty and our evac arrived.”

The young man’s eyes were nearly bright enough to illuminate the dark room. “Holy shit dude. Why haven’t you told me this before?”

“Because it’s bullshit,” Vanessa said, walking into the room and setting down scavenged food from the kitchens. “What our glorious leader has failed to mention is that he had lost his gun before we ever got on the beach. He dropped it when one of the native kids threw a rock at him while we were riding down the main road about three towns away. In lieu of a Rambo-style shootout,” she said, smiling at Bramimond as he simmered across the room, “I glamoured us up a big sea turtle and we hid underneath it until the Peacekeepers had moved on and the occultists got bored. Then we swam out to the sandbar where our rendezvous was waiting, in a fishing boat.” She poked a finger towards Bramimond. “And I wouldn’t call that glorified dingy a Foundation destroyer. It was barely more than a patrol ship.”

“You know,” he said, glowering, “there’s something to be said about the victors getting to write history.”

“I know,” she said, grinning. “I just did.”

Ivan laughed. “I didn’t realize you two had known each other so long. Have you worked together for a while?”

“A while!” Vanessa spat. “How old do you think I am?”

Ivan’s foot promptly ran itself a mile down his throat, and Vanessa laughed again. “Yes,” she said, “it’s been a while. We first met… when? In Budapest? That would’ve been in ‘94?”

“Too long,” Bramimond squawked, taking a drink from a metal flask. “Ever since I had to pull her ass off the street when she was running with that group of art monkeys.”

“Excuse me,” she said, smacking the back of his hand with a wooden spoon. “Those ‘art monkeys’ were how I got my foot in the door here. The great Bramimond St. Armand would’ve had no interest in me if I couldn’t do magic.”

“I don’t have any interest in you now,” he said, earning himself another smack.

“Hang on, magic? Like, you’re a wizard?” Ivan said with renewed awe. “How do I not know this?”

“I don’t make a habit out of talking about it in public,” Vanessa said, stirring her soup, “but yes. Once upon a time I was The Incredible Ivory, an anartist of some renown. I worked a couple of shows in Paris and Munich before our cell got busted by Foundation thugs. We got scattered, and the Insurgency moved in to pick up the pieces.” She eyed Bramimond again. “In Budapest.”

He shrugged. “I’ve cleaned up plenty of the Foundation’s messes in my day. They all sort of run together after a while.”

As another deft smack rang through the ruined hall they had made their camp in, Arians shuffled around a corner holding a stack of books. He grunted as he tossed them to the ground in front of the group, and gave them a nudge with his foot.

“Alright. Homework time.”

Vanessa scowled. “We haven’t even finished dinner yet. You don’t think we have time for a single night off? We haven’t stopped in weeks.”

Arians grabbed a book off the top of the pile and settled into a large chair. “Suit yourself. But remember that the Overseers aren’t taking the night off.”

They each grudgingly picked up a book and began to flip through them. After quickly skimming a couple of pages, Ivan paused.

“Arians,” he said, “what about you? You’ve been around for a while, right?”

Arians grunted a response.

“How long is that exactly?” Ivan inquired.

Arians sighed and sat the book down on the table next to his chair. “I have the distinct benefit of being the elder member of this group, by far. That’s all you need to know.”

Ivan scowled. “Come on, man. We’ve been working together for months now and I feel like I don’t know anything about you.”

Bramimond coughed. “He’s just mad because he doesn’t want to tell you how old he is.” He flipped a page. “Here’s a hint: it’s pretty old.”

Arians glared at him. “At my age, kid, you don’t think so much about the things you’ve done, and start thinking more about the things you could’ve done.” He grunted. “That list is pretty long.”

“I mean, we all knew what we signed up for, right?” Ivan said in between bites of a sandwich. “Our lives in service to a better world? Our lives as sacrifice in order to create a future for the rest of mankind?” He swallowed. “That doesn’t sound too bad.”

Arians stared into his book. “You say that now. You’re young. The goal isn’t too far away from where you’re at now. When it’s done, you get to go back. But me, and some of the others… this is all it’s ever been. I knew what I signed up for, aye. You’re right in thinking we all did. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just a bittersweet satisfaction you get from it.”

Bramimond elbowed Ivan. “Listen kid, don’t let him get you down. We’ll probably all be curmudgeons when we get to be as old as he is. But carrying on the Engineer’s legacy, standing in opposition to-”

Arians snorted. “The Engineer. I’m sure.”

They all stopped and looked at the old man, who shook his head slowly. “Feel free to call it whatever you want, but don’t call it carrying on The Engineer’s legacy.

Bramimond raised a single eyebrow. “You have a better way to describe keeping the torch of our founder?”

Arians put the book down again and closed his eyes. “The Engineer is a lie that Delta Command tells the Insurgency to keep everyone in line. ‘Do it for His Legacy,’ they say. No. Do it for your friends and family. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. But don’t do it for some asinine notion that you’re keeping up a man’s legacy.”

“What are you talking about?” Vanessa said.

Arians leaned back in his chair. “They’ll tell you a lot of things about The Engineer. Some of them are true. He certainly did build the Insurgency from almost nothing. He set forth many of its tenants. But he also turned traitor the moment he had a chance to grab power.”

Ivan sat up quickly, and Bramimond glared at the old man. “You need to watch your words,” he barked. “You act like you knew the man.”

“I did know him,” Arians growled back. “I followed him during The Defection. I carried the weight of our young Insurgency right beside him. I stood next to him when we called the first Delta Command to order, and I was there when he stabbed us in the back and bolted for the Foundation the moment he got a better deal.”

“That’s impossible,” Ivan said slowly. “If you knew the Engineer, you would have to be… god, a hundred years old. Older even than that.”

Arians didn’t move. “Yes,” he said, his voice a low rumble. “Older even than that.”

Bramimond stood up. “It doesn’t matter. This is still nonsense. Everything we have here is owed to the Engineer, and the sacrifices he made. Everything we have is-”

“Sacrifices?!” Arians was standing now, as well. “You think he made sacrifices? He let others do the sacrificing for him. He lost nothing and gained everything he ever wanted, and we all fell for it.” He sunk back into his chair. “The Delta Command doesn’t even know. It wouldn’t matter; even if they did, it benefits them to maintain the cult of personality based around him. He’s a mascot at this point, and one our organization needs desperately.”

“If what you’re saying is true,” Bramimond said with measured words, “then why haven’t you said anything sooner?”

Arians shrugged. “To what end? A chance that people believe me and lose faith in the Insurgency, or a greater chance they don’t believe me at all, like what you’re doing now. What difference would it make?” He paused. “Our goal is still the most important thing. Anything that would distract from that goal cannot be allowed.”

“So why are you telling us now?” Vanessa said softly.

Arians didn’t speak right away. He brought a single finger up to his temple and began to rub it slowly, closing one eye and looking off somewhere in the distance. “I’m telling you now, because it matters that you know. We have been incredibly fortunate thus far, but our enemy is godlike, and we are still mortals. It would be nothing short of a miracle for us all to make it through this.” He paused again. “It doesn’t seem right to let somebody die without knowing the truth of what they’re dying for. We do what we do because the natural order demands it, not because of what some traitor said to do seventy years ago.”

He stood, book in hand, and began to walk away. “Find whatever peace you can in that. It’s all you have, now.”

Later, after Vanessa and Ivan had fallen asleep by their stack of burning furniture, Bramimond sat awake. He rolled a vial of liquid back and forth in his hand, his eyes fixed on it. The light of the fire danced across its surface, reds and yellows scattered across i

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