There are places where men dare not tread, dark and forbidden - with the onset of superhuman warfare entire cities have become evacuated and left abandoned, these ruins have become the haunting grounds of criminal gangs and madmen as well as the breeding place of urban legends and ghost stories.
Yet for every one of these "dead" cities there are many new cities being built to replace them, technological wonders that grow ever further - in defiance against the forces that would see them destroyed.
Work has even been done to try and reclaim the "dead" cities from the gangs and madmen, with brave heroes and adventurers alike braving the dangers of these forsaken places - doing battle in the ruins and reclaiming land once though unfit for peaceful life.
Many stories have been told about these "Reclaimers" yet none are as shocking as the tale of the Living City.. a reminder that when wandering into the abyss even the bravest of souls must take care not to plunge into the murky depths and into that inky chasm where the unspeakable do dwell.. dancing in the shadows of oblivion..
Chapter 1 - Walk of Shame
The story began on the edge of a large city known as "Neo-XI" - one of several such cities that existed across the world as a place of relative sanctuary in what was now an almost ceaseless era of conflict: a group of superhumans had gathered to partake in a Reclaiming Mission, a common practice now - in which they would leave the safety of Neo-XI and try to take back a nearby "dead" city from the clutches of what was a modern wasteland.
Leading the Reclaiming Mission was Razorback, a man who was named after his mutant traits - which gave him the appearance of a somewhat humanoid boar, complete with tusks and thick fur: it also gave him the infamous aggression of said animal as he glared at the "recruits" in front of him.
A young man with a shaved head stood amongst the "recruits" - rather skinny and shivering a little, not used to battle and seeming unsually nervous as his eyes darted from side to side.
Razorback began walking back and forth, examining the "recruits" - some had obviously travelled from other cities or worlds but he didn't care as long as they proved helpful to the cause.
A rather thin woman with brown, curly hair stood among the assembled crowd, looking down at her feet and holding her left arm to her side with her right hand.
"Well.. it's better than nothing.. come on "heroes".. we got work to do.. hope you got comfy shoes cause we're going to be walking.. a lot.. the nearest dead city is over the horizon.. we should reach it by nightfall if we keep moving: pick a partner and stay close.. I'm not taking responsibility for your screw-ups.." Razorback declared as he turned away and began walking out into the wilderness, clearly not a man of many words.
The others quickly pair up and follow Razorback, save for the young man with the shaved head - his attempts to pair up failing as he soon stands alone and sighs a little.
The woman looks around, sighing slightly as others find their partners. Reluctant to pair up, she confronts the shaved man wordlessly.
The shaved man looked to the woman and jumps slightly as if expecting her to attack, then looks to her and gives a small nod - watching nervously as the others wander further along the landscape:
"..you coming? ..I.. don't think they like us very much.. but I can't go home.. not like this.." the man remarked.
"Why not?" the woman asked with genuine curiosity.
"..see this?" the man said, pointing to his shaved head "..this is what my dad had me do my whole life.. I can't go back.. until I've proven I'm not like that.." - the man continued to shake a little as he followed the others, as he did so the woman catches a glimpse of a skull etched onto the back of the man's neck (ooc: this is a symbol of the Skulls (used with permission) ).
The woman's eyes seemed to soften a little. "I see. My name is Megan. Megan Ryder."
"Nice to meet you Miss Ryder, my name is Ace.. what brings you to a Reclaiming Mission? you seem different from the others.." the man replies as he continues to follow the others, observing the array of "recruits" - many of which were borderline thugs, opportunists or attention-seekers out for fame or glory.
"I'm looking for someone," Megan said. "One of my two brothers. Alan or Anthony Ryder. I don't suppose you've... heard of them?" she asked, barely even half-hopeful.
Ace shook his head, "..sorry.. if I do.. I'll let you know.. that's if we make it back from this.. never been to a dead city before - have you? they say you're lucky to come out alive.. let alone healthy..".
"I'll manage," Nicole said, with a hint of uncertainty in her voice. "What powers do you have?"
Ace stops for a moment and turns to Nicole, seeming a little nervous - "..you don't want to know..".
"I would like to know our odds of survival," Nicole said.
Ace sighs a little and closes his eyes, shrinking down until he was only about 8-inches tall at best - "..not exactly inspiring, is it?" he said, looking up at Nicole - the others were rapidly getting further away as they continued without the pair, yet Ace didn't seem to notice.
"Is there, um, anything else?" Nicole asked, doing her best to hide her disappointment.
Ace looks uncomfortable "..I have some other.. gifts.. but you don't want to know about them.. trust me.." - he then turns around and notices the others having all but abandoned them.
"Ack! come on!" Ace yelled out as he ran after the group, though he soon tripped and cursed a little as he realized he'd forgotten to grow big again.
Nicole stoops down and picks up Ace, spinning around and hurrying a little to catch up. "We'll talk on the way."
Ace is surprised to be picked up and wiggles a little "Hey! put me down!" - it's then Ace's hidden power activates, a noxious fume begins to emit, much like lifting up a stink bug.. which as can be expected is definitely not the most pleasant of experiences, even for a superhuman.
Nicole nearly drops him in shock, wincing slightly from the stench. "Oh- ew- gross!" Nicole said, holding her nose with her free hand. "Hang on a sec-"
She placed Ace back down on the ground, before holding out her hand, drawing moisture from the soil and air and dowsing him in it.
"As helpful as that could possibly be... ugh, it just stinks!" she said, her voice nasally from her nose still being held.
Ace grows to his normal size and shakes himself wildly as he's drenched, "argh! what the-!? I tried to warn you-!" he began, only to stop as he notices the others pause.
Within moments the reason is clear as Razorback stormed over and glowered at the pair:
"You two quit goofing off and get a move on - we're here on a mission.. not to engage in whatever freaky little game you maybe up to!".
"Sorry! I'm sorry!" Nicole exclaimed.
Razorback simply snorted and turned away, the other recruits doing likewise - though some laughed slightly as Ace frowned and clenched his fists: "..come on you bunch of jokers, we've got a long walk ahead of us..".
Ace continued to frown as he followed the others, soaking wet - not looking to Nicole as he simply kept moving.
A small, warm flurry of wind surrounded Ace, and in moments he was dry. "I'm sorry," Nicole said quietly, looking back down at the ground again as she walked, like an ashamed child.
Ace simply stared ahead and frowned, "..whatever.. let's just keep going.. before we embarass ourselves anymore than we already have..".
Chapter 2 - Dark Skies
After a long and awkward walk the group finally arrive at the outskirts of the dead city - the ruins already looking vast and alien, a grim reminder of the violent past and uncertain future: Razorback orders the recruits to camp out by the outskirts as he does likewise, the entire group exhausted from the journey.
Ace was no exception and he sat down, away from the others and looked up at the sky for a moment - into the vast expanses of space, being so far from Neo-XI the stars were visible now and the dead city barely even flickered in the darkness that now surrounded the area.
"They're pretty, aren't they?" Nicole asked aloud. She was lying down on the ground near Ace, staring up at the night sky.
Ace sighed a little, finally looking to Nicole as he replied "..yeah.. I guess.. my mom took me out once to see the stars when I was young.. dad said she was making me "soft".. so we never got to see the stars again..".
"My brother Alan loved the stars," Nicole said. "He used to be able to name them all, before mom and dad died... then he left. I wonder if he still looks at them on some nights?" she asked herself.
Ace went silent as if thinking on something, looking over to check the others didn't hear he looked back to Nicole "..this is going to sound stupid but.. do you want to hear a story? I think we could both us it about now..".
"Go ahead," Nicole said.
Ace flopped down on the ground, not seeming to even acknowledge the usual awkwardness one would have being close to a relative stranger, especially of the opposite sex - showing surprising maturity despite his somewhat strange nature: "..well.. my mother told me a story about the Hecatonheires - giants that were more powerful that the Titans themselves.. I don't know why but I think about that story even now.. when things seem rough and the world puts you down just imagine you're one of the Hecatonheires.. silly.. I know.. stupid..".
Ace sat up again and frowned as he began to doubt himself again, growing silent.
"...I think I can relate to that... sort of..." Nicole said, after a moment of thought.
Ace got to his feet, "..don't.. it's stupid.." - he then began to wander off into the ruined city, completely against common sense as the other recruits simply slept.
"Wait- where are you going?" Nicole asked.
"..to clear my head.." Ace replied as he took another step into the city, yet as soon as he did so he disappeared as the ground beneath him gave way, sending him tumbling into the darkness below.
"Ace!" Nicole cried out, hurrying over to where he had disappeared.
As Nicole did this the ground beneath her suddenly gave way as well, and she let out a surprised scream as she plunged into the darkness; the other recruits stirring as Razorback looks around and calls out - no one seeming to understand what was going on..
Soon Nicole finds herself landing on a cold surface as Ace stood up, trying to adjust to the darkness as he speaks out "..where the hell are we?".
Nicole groaned slightly as she stood, slightly jarred from the impact. "No idea," she said.
"HEY! Anyone down there!?" came Razorback's voice, from high above - he and the other recruits staring down into the abyss but far from reach.
Ace didn't reply as he continued to look around, "..I can't see shit.. it's too dark.. you alright?".
"A bit shaken, but nothing's broken," Nicole responded, squinting into the darkness.
Ace nods a little, then blinks as the darkness begins to fade - the ground beneath them glowing as a humming sound fills the air, causing the place to shake, the recruits above scattering as bits of debris break and fall, it is apparent now what had caused the ground to give way in the first place.
"...Ace?!" Nicole called out shakily. "What's going on?"
Ace gasps as the ground suddenly gives way again from under his feet, plunging him into a bright light: "..what the-!?".
Nicole edged her way over to where Ace had fallen, doing her best to keep her balance despite the shaking, and trying to squint through the light.
As Nicole approaches the hole spreads out, removing the ground from beneath her feet once more as she too plunges into the bright light - which soon blinds her.. the feeling of hitting something hard following shortly after as everything goes black.. the hole sealing up and trapping the pair.
After the darkness fades both Nicole and Ace awaken to find their movements restricted as they find themselves standing up on what appear to be metal tables, straps on their arms and legs - surrounded by glowing walls that resemble a vast alien space-craft.
"What... happened?" Nicole asked, slightly dazed.
"I don't know.. I.." Ace began, only to go silent as the sound of raspy breathing filled the air and a noxious scent filled the area - the sound of dripping directly Ace's gaze upwards as a puddle of glowing ooze dribbled onto the floor: as soon as he looked up Ace's eyes grow large.
"What- what's wrong?" Nicole asked, her worry only increasing.
Ace trembles as tears begin to fill his eyes, then the dripping stops and he looks away - should Nicole dare to look up there is nothing: yet that puddle of glowing ooze remains on the ground, bubbling slightly as the sounds of footsteps approaching fills the air.
As the footsteps approach Nicole's bindings break quite suddenly, allowing her the chance to escape - the glowing walls now depicting artwork of ancient civilizations and abstract shapes appearing to rain down from the skies.
However, Nicole remained rooted to the spot, unable to move from anxiety- part of her wanting to flee, part of her wanting to try and help Ace, and part of her terrified out of her wits.
The footsteps stop and one of the walls suddenly begins to slide open, Ace looks to Nicole and whispers "..go.. hide.. I.. I'll be okay.. please..".
Not even sure of herself, Nicole's legs spring into action and she flees from the scene.
Unfortunately for Nicole she doesn't have far to flee as the room has no exits, however their are several large blocks where she could hide as large shadows enter the room, heading towards Ace as chittering sounds fill the air.
Doing her best to stifle her breathing, Nicole crouched behind a box, shivering slightly.
Ace closed his eyes as he was held in place, the shadows soon bending in impossible ways as long limbs darted around and sharp talons danced around, the shadows casting over the artwork on the wallls - now showing the abstract shapes trapped beneath the ground as mankind built cities over them.
Nicole was too horrified to even look around the box at what could possibly be casting the shadows.
Ace keeps his eyes closed as he concentrates, shrinking down and escaping his bonds he hurries across the floor and hides next to Nicole - the shadows continuing to cast over the walls as the unseen creatures slowly depart, the shadows growing fainter as the chittering sounds disappear.
The detailed artwork on the wall continues to show the great cities slowly sinking into the earth, becoming covered by a second layer of dirt and rubble - depictions of worm-like creatures burrowing within: atop this lays what looks like modern-day cities and landscape.
"What... happened?" Nicole whispered.
Ace doesn't answer as he sits with his back against the box, placing his head in his knees as he shivers - trying to keep himself from breaking down. "..I.. I.. want.. out..".
Nicole was now even more terrified. Slowly, she peeked around the corner of the box to find a possible way out.
As Nicole does this the sound of dripping returns and glowing ooze began to dribble back onto the floor, this time however the dribbling ooze begins to move as something approaches from above - the sound of raspy breathing returning.
Nicole dared to look up.
As Nicole looks up she sees a coppery mass slide across the roof, continually dripping glowing ooze as it pulsates in and out as if breathing - the ooze hissing as it hits the ground, suggesting it is highly corrosive.
Suddenly the wall next to Nicole and Ace opens and a voice calls them, "hurry.. come.." - Ace doesn't listen but is small enough to easily be picked up should Nicole wish: the raspy breathing getting closer as more glowing ooze drips across the floor and a foul stench fills the area.
Without even a second thought, Nicole snatches up Ace and hurries through the new path.
Ace seems to pass out as he's lifted, abnormally cold to the touch - the wall closing behind Nicole as the approaching creature is sealed off: Nicole finding herself standing in a long corridor with a tall creature standing over her, resembling a pulsating tree-trunk covered in eyes and feathery appendages.
"..do not be afraid.. I will not harm you.. I want to help you.." the creature says.
Nicole barely manages to stifle a scream at the sight of the creature. "W-what is th-this p-place?" she asks fearfully.
"This is one of the vessels of the Meg'ph, buried for centuries it has become a Living City - just one of many hidden worlds beneath your own.. the creature you encountered back there was a Yalaang, it was once a navigator for this vessel but has since gone mad as it festers in this prison.. the Meg'ph themsleves have began to go insane.. taking to experimentation on others for entertainment.. which is why we must get you back to the surface.." the creature replies.
Nicole nods, shivering slightly in fear. This was like a really bad dream... no, more like a nightmare than anything.
Ace stirs as the creature motions Nicole further down the corridor, the walls either side depicting more scenes of buried cities and abstract shapes beneath the Earth's surface - as well as ancient civilizations building large temples and sacrificing birds, animals and even other humans to gigantic beasts that floated in the sky, looking like dark tendrils of swirling shadow with stylized eyes staring out at the world below.
"..Earth has long been visited by alien species as well as those of other realities, many of these visitors were peaceful but others were malicious.. the Watchers.. the Old Ones.. the Meg'ph.. the Tall Man.. these are all but a fraction of the darkness which once roamed this world.." the creature notes as the group approach the end of the corridor.
That thought did not bode well with Nicole's already anxious mind.
When the group finally reach the end of the corridor the creature shows them the final scene depicted on the wall, that of a multi-faced angel with six wings - each wing made of a different element and each face depicting one of four emotions (rage, despair, happiness and fear): this figure is seen to exist, at least within the painting, inside the sun.
"..a change is coming.. now go to the surface and tell your people what you saw.. perhaps with this knowledge they can begin to prepare themselves for the return of the Sleeping Gods.." the creature said, opening a passage which led to the surface.
"..ugh.. what's going on?" Ace muttered, still somewhat out of touch with everything around him as he finally wakes up.
"This is mad," Nicole muttered to herself, shuddering as she escaped.
"Hey! You're Alive!" a familar voice called, the image of Razorback appearing above the pair as they made their way towards the surface.
Nicole swallowed, looking out as they escaped the dark underground, shuddering slightly. "There's s-something down there..." she managed to stutter out.
However as Nicole began to leave she found herself grabbed by Razorback, who attempted to toss her right back down the open shaft leading back to the underground - his eyes narrowing as he said: "..I know..".
"Hey- What are you-?!" Nicole began to shout as she hurtled down the shaft, losing hold of Ace. As she hit the ground, a loud crack was heard and Nicole cried out in pain.
"Nicole!?" Ace yelled out as he too fell into the darkness and Razorback watched - disappearing from view for a moment before returning, rolling a large boulder over the entrance as he spoke: "..every year I have to go out into the wilderness and find hope in this world - yet every damn year people like you screw it up.. I've seen the things that lurk in shadows.. I've seen the future.. and you're not part of it..".
Chapter 3 - The Path of The Sleeping Gods
It took a few minutes for Ace to wake up, when he did he instantly looked around and clambered over to Nicole - ignoring his own pain as he nudged at her "..Nicole? Nicole? Come on.. You're going to be okay.. I promise.. just.. hold on..".
"My leg..." Nicole said through her teeth. "I think it's broken..."
Ace grew to his usual size and tried to help Nicole up, supporting her as best he could - though he rasped somewhat and a tear on his shirt revealed large bruises running along his ribs: suggesting they were broken.. yet he seemed determined not to give in to the pain: "..come on.. we're getting out of here..".
"R-right," Nicole agreed shakily, trembling visibly as she let Ace assist her to her feet. She stumbled once but managed to stand with Ace's support and the pair set off, looking for an exit.
Ace looked up and frowned, "..Razorback.. he's insane.. you heard what he said? I.. I'm sorry.. sounds stupid but you've been my friend through all of this.. I'm going to get you out and I'm going after Razorback.. we got to climb up.. I can get through that boulder but you'll need to trust me, okay?".
Nicole simply nodded.
Ace continued looking around, it was then that he saw an image on the wall that made his blood run cold - an impossible tall and vaguely humanoid figure with multiple eyes and long arms sliding down a hallway, several victims huddling in a room with a ladder and what looked like a small hatch leading to the surface..
"..Nicole.. c-come on.." Ace said, trying not to panic as he aided her as best he could towards the exit, not looking forward to the climb - however the urgency of the situation was dawning fast as the sound of something moving down the hallway made the image on the wall all the more terrifying..
Sure enough from the hallway a distant voice can be heard, speaking in an alien language and seeming to draw nearer by the minute - for now its owner is thankfully hidden from view: "..e'llH wEr.. rAd'e.. riO'a..".
Swallowing the pain, Nicole grit her teeth and limped as quickly as she could while holding Ace for support. Her heart pounded within her chest as she heard the alien whispers grow closer.
A shadow appears on the wall of a tall figure with long arms, bobbing up and down as the alien voice gets nearer: "..e'llH wEr.. rAd'e.. riO'a..".
As Nicole limps she becomes aware of the ground beneath her squirming as if alive, hundreds of worm-like creatures suddenly burrowing up and starting to slide up her foot and leg: which only adds to the already alarming situation.
Nicole screamed; she tried to move faster, but her broken leg refused to move beneath the pain.
Tall Man's Pursuit
Ace grits his teeth and despite the great pain he attempts to lift Nicole over his shoulder, to spare her the effort of walking on that broken leg - he shuddered yet began to form an almost diamond-like surface around himself, "..I'm sorry Nicole.." he says, trying to move as quick as he can.
"Not...your...fault," groaned Nicole through grit teeth. "Just...keep running...I can try holding him off...with my powers..."
The shadow grows closer as the figure stretches its long arms, scraping the adges of long claws against the walls as several glowing eyes appeared from the darkness, the sound of footsteps drawing ever nearer as it hisses:
"..e'llH wEr.. rAd'e.. riO'a..".
As she is lifted from the ground Nicole finds her ankle being occupied by strange worm-like creatures, which begin to form an anklet of sorts - a strange sensation starts to run up and down her leg.. as impossible as it seemed it was as if those things were actually healing her broken leg, slowly but surely.
NIcole didn't have time to dwell on this, however, and silently thanked the strange creatures. Tapping into her power, she caused vines and roots to grow rapidly into the tunnel, forming a thick barrier between them and the pursuing figure.
Suddenly the ground beneath Nicole's feet caves in and sends both her and Ace plummeting down a spiralling tunnel, Ace shrinking down instinctively - the sound of shrieking from above growing more distant as the pair eventually land in a dark room that smells of stagnant water, indeed the first experience they feel is falling into knee-deep, freezing water.