A bit further out, but still in Manila – I know, bear with us, folks
"Hey what's up Luiz?" Rey snapped, one hand clamping his new phone to his ear and his other hand elbow-deep in monster ichor. "Yeah, I got a bit caught up in punching all these monsters that were running around. They're everywhere! It's like a whole goddamn safari out here, you know? Like that time in Cebu, except less disgusting." He hopped over the slicing talons of a scytheowl and kicked it in the face so hard that its face flew off. "I didn't hear your call! Must be problems with the reception, you know? What? It might be all the chaos! It might be interference from all the magic floating around, like in that movie. All I'm suggesting is that it's not my fault." He caught a lunging brass centipede by the mandibles and crushed its head, scattering crystalline eye-facets everywhere. "Yeah, I heard about Camp Crame from a policeman! Leaves me as the final line of defence eh? That's the way I like it! Say what? A dragon has appeared at Rizal Park? That's obviously the boss monster! Leave it to me!" He picked up a thrashing hellhound one-handed and threw it through a gelatinous shadow giant, which exploded into a mass of goo. "Wait, which way is Rizal Park again? Never mind, I've saved a couple of people who are still around and I can always ask..."
Suddenly he felt it again, a pulse of that unpleasant black magic that he was getting more and more sensitive for. At the same time, every shadow monster in the vicinity perked up in unison and started skittering, loping, striding and otherwise heading towards the same direction.
Rey looked in that direction. Further north along the waterfront, the metropolitan skyline was aglow with fire, and a great unfurling column of magic had started to stain the sky with cinder and smoke. He tilted his head back against the phone. "Okay, don't tell me. I think I can figure this one out myself."
He hung up the call, shouted "I'll be back, good citizens! REY AWAY!" into the general vicinity and super-ran away.
This immediately brought to his attention one drawback of running with his super-speed instead of jumping around with his super-strength, even though it was technically faster – he had to follow the layout of the streets. And doing that meant not travelling in the direction he wanted to go most of the time. Now Rey knew he wasn't the best at directions. He didn't have the kind of super-memory to go with his super-senses that let him memorize a whole city like an inner atlas, unlike some of those fancy foreign superheroes. He wasn't sure if he could do that with a city as haphazardly planned as Manila even if he did. But Rey was a new man, a man on a mission, and he wasn't about to be deterred by such a conundrum. He was going to do something totally drastic and brilliant, like Alexander the Great on the Kobayashi Maru.
He tried chasing down a shadow monster, jumping onto its back and let it take him to his destination. But all they did was to buck and thrash and try to turn around and fight him, and after a few failed attempts his sense of direction just grew even more messed up. It was also kind of stupid-looking with all those civilians still around. This solution was definitely ingenious and masculine, but it was simply not the right occasion and regrettably had to be filed away for now, Rey reflected.
Hot damn, he was reflecting stuff now, Rey thought. He was just rising and rising to meet this crisis, wasn't he?
Riding the revelatory high, Rey came up with an even more brilliant solution to his navigation problem. With his invulnerability, he could just fix his direction and run straight through anything that got in his way! Yeah!
"Gangway! Excuse me!" He crowed as he crashed through the glass wall of a fashion boutique. Attempting to punch a rack of women's clothes aside was a slightly suboptimal solution, but he rallied by snagging a well-dressed dummy as he sped past and throwing it through a door in front of him so he didn't have to open it. Time saved!
As he overtook the falling splinters of the door, Rey realized too late that it led into the store's merchandise-stuffed backroom! Roaring a swearword, he lowered his head and ploughed into the mass of shelves and bagged clothing. At the back of the store, the wall exploded outwards in a storm of crumpled fabric as Rey powered through it.
Now he was inside a shopping mall, huddled pedestrians staring at him with wild eyes. "Excuse me! Superhero coming through!" He shouted at them, shooing them aside far too slowly with frantic gestures even as he tried to say the right lines he vaguely remembered from American TV shows that made this kind of thing okay. But he couldn't slow down, he knew. Slowing down in an indoor space would risk him losing his bearings even more. And a few people getting trampled with super-speed was a price worth paying for saving his country in time. So that was what he did.
As they crunched under him, Rey finally understood what it meant to be a hard man making hard decisions.
Nevertheless, he was secretly relieved that the mall had an exit in the right direction, which he smashed through chin-first before the automatic doors could fully open.
Back into the streets again, and Rey accelerated. It was all suburbia as far as the eye could see, a dusty expanse of squat, square houses broken by the occasional snaggled utility pole. Rey leapt lightly onto the first house, ran across the roof and easily hopped the gap to the next. He made good time as he jumped over walls festooned with barbed wire and broken glass, avoided pits of snapping crocodiles (cool idea, he thought, he ought to get one himself) smashed through racks of drying laundry, and dodged tangled power lines he could see coming from a mile away (except the first ones he tried to flying karate-chop thorough, which wasn't the best idea).
Past the suburb the terrain grew higher, genteel houses giving way to grimy industrial buildings. Rey was feeling more confident with his moves now, and instead of leaping from roof to roof he started bounding from wall to wall between the buildings, which he found was plenty possible as long as he used a bit of force to hammer footholds into said walls. This approach meant he sometimes accidentally kicked through a window and crashed into the building (and had to waste valuable time giving autographs to the people inside), but such opportunities to reinforce his fanclub paid well by raising his morale for the upcoming fight. It reminded him that he was fighting for the people.
A few more jumps and he was in downtown Manila, which Rey could tell because the buildings he was kicking holes in looked flashier and more expensive. Rey looked down and could see a distressing concentration of monsters in the street, chasing people in the same direction he was going. That crazy demon guy was obviously trying to concentrate lots of people in one place, where he could do whatever nefarious shit he was going to do to them.
Except he knew exactly what kind of nefarious shit the crazy demon guy was going to do.
A flash of burning skies and melting trees, and Rey's eyes narrowed. He could already pick up the roars and the wingbeats with his super-hearing, and the first tendrils of a new smell over the city was already horribly familiar to him. He wasn't about to let that happen again, and this time he wasn't going to be too late to put a stop to it. The boss monster was a dragon, Luiz had said. Well Rey was a super-fucking-hero.
Vaulting past the last skyscraper, Rey super-leapt into view of Rizal Park.
The glow and the blast of heat hit his face at once, and the smell was like someone was having the world's biggest barbecue party. Except the guests were also the barbecue.
Suppressing the urge to gag, Rey beheld the massive, winged form that roosted over the semi-molten ruins of one of the many monuments Rizal Park had. Rey couldn't recognize it amidst the flames, but it looked like one of the more important ones. But that really wasn't the point right now. The dragon – and Rey got the uncanny impression that it was the most dragon-y dragon that he had ever seen, even including from movies – was busy spitting fire at the people in the plaza herded there by the other monsters.
There was no sign of Darkness, but that wasn't what mattered either. Rey didn't know why the demon sent a dragon to carry out its mass murder ritual, but he guessed he could always find out after he took his new set of priorities out for a drive.
Espying movement in the smoke, Firewing the Destructor raised its massive, spiked head only for Rey Quirino to fall like a meteorite and elbow-drop it right between the eyes. The dragon's sinuous neck snapped downwards, and sheer surprise made it lose its grip on the Rizal Monument, scrabbling obsidian claws leaving glowing gashes on its sides. Then, with awful majesty, man and creature crashed to the ground in a wave of billowing flame.
Rey got up faster than his ponderous opponent. Screaming incoherently, he ran over to the supine dragon and interrupted its recovery with a kick in the neck, sending its head crashing back into the bulk of the monument. Chunks of hot stone showered from above, dislodged by the dragon's horns.
Ash of an origin that didn't bear thinking about tumbling from his costume, Rey scrambled up the side of Firewing's jaw. He gripped a fistful of the monster's upper lip with all his might and slammed his foot into its fearsome array of fangs.
The crash was even louder as the ground stove inwards into a massive crater, half of Firewing's head embedded into its epicentre. The Rizal Monument wobbled drunkenly and settled into a tilt, and the dragon's tail thrashed madly.
Rey stomped again, driving his opponent's head against the crush-packed and fire-baked ground with seismic force. Statues across Rizal Park wobbled and shed rust. A mammoth fang came loose, caving from its gum-socket with a squirt of tarry blood.
Firewing's head jerked up despite the immense pressure, almost wrenching itself free of the crater. Wingbeat after titanic wingbeat slammed against the ground for purchase in the heat-thinned air. Then its jaws parted beneath Rey's dangling feet, and a deafening shriek issued from between its teeth. The heat of it scorched Rey, and the shock of it nearly dislodged him.
For the first time since its spirit was awoken from the sleep of aeons, Firewing the Destructor knew injury. It did not relish this knowledge.
The dragon's body thrashed and jerked as Rey renewed his buffet of indiscriminate blows against its trapped head. Sparks flew. Scales cracked under bleeding knuckles. The thumping rhythm of a massive skull rebounding again and again against the broken concrete rang across the plaza.
Rey was rapt in his violence, his heady triumph-
Great talons closed around him from behind.
Rey was flung off his exalted perch, hands trailing steam and blood. He flopped end over end into the burnt-out trees next to the plaza as Firewing yanked itself from the ground in a shower of concrete shards. The ancient monster shook its head and powered into the air, every movement rippling in heat-haze after-images. Its cabochon eyes blazed with wrathful light, and like twin beacons they roved.
It felt a mighty yank on its tail as Rey rushed behind it with super-speed and tried to drag it back to the ground.
Firewing's ascent faltered, as muscles that still ached with newfound vitality found themselves lock in battle with the metahuman strength and leverage of the superhero. The dragon's head turned to glare at the tiny figure who was heaving away at its tail with all his worth.
Then the apparition seemed to draw back for an instant, and issued forth a torrent of white fire. The bodies, trees and earth that were caught in its path turned to vapour in an instant, brief black streaks in the incandescent stream. The screaming torrent did not slow until it carved its way through the park and slammed against a skyscraper in a boiling explosion, leaving naught but a gaping hole from which stubs of girder protruded.
Firewing felt the pressure on its tail fade. Satisfied, it boosted higher into the air, even as around it streams of smoke and cinder whipped like ghosts...
"Missed!" Rey couldn't resist shouting in the middle for a stealthy leap for Firewing's back.
Firewing's spiked tail arced like a morningstar and smacked Rey out of the air.
He smacked into what was left of the Rizal Monument, knocking half of it off.
"I'll give you that one." Rey managed as the airborne dragon slowly wheeled to face him. He got up painfully, and finally noticed that his hands were bleeding.
He was bleeding, what the hell. Superheroes didn't bleed. Not unless they were having the serious hurt put on them by the ultimate big bad guy in a really dramatic final battle. But Rey hadn't even gotten started on the stupid dragon yet. The dragon wasn't even the final boss.
But his hands were hurting. Now that he had finally slowed down to notice, all the dragon fire and shit around him was hot in a way he didn't remember fire being since he was a kid. The dragon could hurt him, just like Darkness, and without needing any fancy magic shit either.
Suddenly, there was a dry lump in Rey's throat. His legs didn't seem to want to move any more. And from the inferno, his ears seemed to catch the mocking laugher of his demonic adversary.
Rey went still, even as shadow monsters emerged from the roiling flames and clambered up the broken monolith to interdict him, even as two monstrous eyes fixed him with a gaze of infinite enmity.
The fucker was watching him, wasn't he. Putting some stupidly deadly dragon in his way so Rey couldn't even get to him. So Rey would have to waste all his blood bleeding all over some fucking extinct animal instead of saving the day and the country like he's supposed to. It wasn't fair. Darkness wasn't supposed to pull another shittingly gigantic obstacle out of his grotesquely overmuscled behind instead of showing his face so it Rey could punch it up some.
"What happened to 'nemesis', huh?" Rey shouted out loud as white fire welled between the dragon's jaws. Hellhounds leapt over the top of the rubble to pounce upon him, and he swatted them aside. Shadow giants reached up with the long arms to grasp him, and he shook them off. More of them came to hold him down, to immobilize him.
Was this all the bravado amounted to? Was this it for the Hero of the Philippines? Did he fight all the way to a recognizable landmark right at the heart of Rizal Park – which was a perfect final showdown location, by the way – just to be turned into crispy metahuman barbecue? Did all his personal growth give him nothing but a pair of fists that couldn't even punch a magical dragon without bleeding? Was Darkness going to watch the whole thing from on high without showing his face even once to the one guy he had always wanted dead? The bits of Rey Quirino's brain that were still coherent (and still working at super-speed) contemplated his mortality.
No, he wasn't going to die here. Bless his limited imagination, but if he couldn't come up with an end that sounded good, then it simply wasn't happening.
"Is this all you got?" Shadow monsters scattered before his outpouring of fury, tumbling down in an avalanche of black bodies. Rey stood his ground atop the half-wrecked monument, raised his fists and stared down Firewing. Yeah, let's get outraged. He was good at that, if nothing else.
"Sige! Subukin n'yo kung kaya n'yo ba ko!" He screamed into the scalding air of the burning plaza, as the dragon's flame-filled mouth started to widen.
A trail of smoke whistled over his shoulder. The rocket-propelled grenade sailed into Firewing's mouth and struck the building gout of flame in its gullet, blowing it asunder.
Rey shielded his eyes from the explosion that erupted from the dragon's maw, blasting the gargantuan beast backwards and knocking him off the broken monument as well. He landed on his back, his head hitting the stone of the plaza mere feet away from the bumper of an idling jeepney.
"<He's blinking! Told you he'll be okay.>" A voice was saying, somewhere outside his field of vision.
Rey rolled himself over and looked up at the two men in the jeepney. The one in the driver's seat was a dark-skinned fellow in khaki fatigues and a tactical vest with a rifle slung over his shoulder. The one standing in the back seat and gesticulating wildly with an unloaded RPG launcher looked American...
...but was neither tall nor athletic. A Hawaiian shirt poorly concealed a growing gut. Messy brown hair and stubble did not help the picture. Oddly, Rey felt an instant camaraderie for that man, if only because of how his last few encounters with Americans who were tall and athletic had turned out.
"<Right in the kisser, Akinwale!>" He told the black man.
"<Indeed, Mister Baylor.>" The driver replied.
"<I feel that you are making a completely mockery of my epic battle here.>" Rey muttered.
"<Don't worry man, we don't mean to.>" The slobbish American said extravagantly as he turned his attention on Rey. "<It's simply not often that a roving arms dealer and his trusty bodyguard hop into a conveniently parked Jeep, drive through a city full of monsters, and run into a superhero fighting a dragon. I believe it's normal to want to help out a bit when you just happen to bring a lot of firepower with you.>" He tossed aside the spent launcher and lifted a pre-loaded one from somewhere under the back seat of the jeepney. "<I'm John Baylor, by the by. And this is my bodyguard, Akinwale Mango.>"
"<At your service.>" The driver nodded his head.
Rey sprang to his feet, energized by indignation. "<I didn't need any help, thank you very much.>"
Footfalls and wingbeats echoed behind him. He turned and saw that Firewing getting its head blown off in a really ironic fashion by that last explosion would have been far too much to hope for. Rather, it just looked a bit more singed and a lot more angry as it clambered upright.
Rey turned back to the two newcomers. "<I have always appreciated all the assistance I receive from concerned citizens.>" He said thoughtfully. "<Just don't come suing if you get incinerated or something.>"
"<We'll keep that in mind.>" John Baylor set the launcher on his shoulder with practiced ease, aimed through the sight and fired. The RPG sped outwards with a flash of propellant, corkscrewed drunkenly through the air and exploded against one of the dragon's wings, tearing a small hole in it. Firewing roared in response.
"<The dragon can be hurt in the wings! Why didn't I think of that?>" Rey exclaimed.
"<I was aiming for the head, though.>" Baylor replied. "<Good thing I didn't sell this round off before I test-fired it! How 'bout yours, Akinwale?>"
A crack rang out from the front seat of the jeepney and Firewing flinched minutely, and one of its glowing red eyes flickered briefly. "<Can't complain, Mister Baylor.>" Akinwale Mango said, working the bolt on his scoped rifle.
"<Look guys, I appreciate the help. I really do.>" Rey said. A strange feeling was blooming in his chest as he watched the two shoot off some of the inexplicably large amount of munitions they had in their jeepney. "<But I don't think your guns will work quickly enough on that thing.>"
"<I've noticed! Shit!>" Baylor shouted as Firewing advanced through the paltry curtain of firepower to breathe fire at the three of them. Rey threw himself from its path with his super-speed. Mango put his foot down on the accelerator, making the jeepney shoot forward with unexpected grace even as he calmly slung his rifle over his back with his hands. Baylor hunkered down as the jet of flame narrowly missed the speeding vehicle.
Mango put his hands back on the steering wheel and started to navigate the jeepney through the ruined, flame-strewn plaza. "<I don't think we thought this through, Mister Baylor!>"
"<Just shut up and drive.>" Baylor hissed. "<And what happened to the superhero guy? Face on posters everywhere, but where's his face now?>"
Mango pointed. "<He's gone back to fight the dragon.>"
Baylor shaded his eyes and peered through the smoke and the flames. "<Well, braver man than I.>" He turned an eyed an unfired SAW resting in the back seat with a tinge of regret. "<Meanwhile, let's focus on the driving!>"
"<Right you are!>" Mango spun the steering wheel like a man possessed. The jeepney rounded a burning tree on two wheels and sideswiped a scythe-owl which crunched under its tires. "<But this national park, I don't think it's good Jeep country!>"
"<It would be more car-friendly if it weren't for all the monsters and fire and debris!>" Baylor agreed. "<Look out for that...oomph! Nice swerve. I do feel kind of bad about ditching that superhero though. Say, is that him being repeatedly stepped on?>"
"<Can't say, Mister Baylor. My eyes are on the road, metaphorically speaking.>" Mango replied tersely. "<On the other hand, this Jeep does handle better than any Jeep I've ever driven! Even this brutal obstacle course is proving pretty easy to cross. I suggest we take full advantage of this.>"
"<No.>" Baylor said. "<Let's go back and help him.>"
The jeepney swerved to a stop. "<Mister Baylor?>" Mango inquired in the tired tone of a man who knows his employer all too well.
"<You know how back on the dark continent we'd agree not to meddle in a lot of things where two people with an airship and a lot of guns might have done some good? And how we'd agree that we would meddle if the whole thing smelled bad enough, just so we could sleep at night? Well, the stink I have in my nose right now is goddamn unbelievable. Besides, think of the rep if our guns do take that dragon down.>"
Mango sighed. "<Very well, Mister Baylor. You always had a better sense of smell about these things...Whoa!>" He exclaimed as a small, human-like blur bounced off the jeepney's hood.
Meanwhile, it was Rey Quirino's turn to be driven repeatedly into the fire-baked ground. The crashing, reverberating waves of teeth-rattling pain grew bearable as his back started to go numb from the impacts, but the humiliation didn't. Really, to start off curbstomping by a dragon and ending up being the one getting curbstomped. And the dragon wasn't even doing it properly.
Every impact also sent a skein of light flashing behind Rey's eyelids, as though something was being shaken loose from somewhere deep inside his brain. Odd, these mad scribbles. They felt like a hint of something he should remember, a memory of another, equally painful experience...
A curious sound cut through his plight.
A crack rang out somewhere above him, clear and musical over the burning confusion. The pressure of the dragon's claw around Rey's midsection slackened.
Another crack rang out, this time accompanied by the sound of splintering wood, and the claws loosened further. Rey found his vision returning to him.
His super-vision saw what John Baylor and Akinwale Mango saw only as a moving blur: a human shape that leapt and darted about Firewing's head like a stinging insect.
Then as he watched, the phantom produced an aluminium baseball bat – a baseball bat! – out of nowhere, took a huge wind-up and smacked the dragon in the snout with an enormous clang. And as he watched, the dragon reeled as though he himself had punched it.
The bat-wielding figure took the opportunity to swoop down and land another ringing blow against the scales near Firewing's front foot. The claw holding Rey Quirino twitched; with a timely wriggle he slipped out from underneath it.
The first thing Rey did after getting back up was to kick Firewing in the shin. Petty, he knew, but it put him back on the right mental equilibrium to face the mysterious fighter who landed lightly beside him.
To Rey's pleasant surprise, it wasn't some brand-new superhero the corps sprang on him to steal his spotlight. It had a childlike face and a distinctly un-photogenic build, concealed under layers of second-hand clothing, hobo bricolage and general ragamuffinry. Even if the newcomer did save him, there was no way it would hog the spotlight from him.
It tossed aside the badly bent baseball bat in its hand and turned to Rey, eyes glittering.
"You are Rey Quirino." It said, It was half accusation, half confirmation.
Rey nodded mutely. It seemed safe to acknowledge so basic and fundamental a truth.
The stranger – a girl of some sort – produced yet another baseball bat out of nowhere, and raised her free hand. It took a split second for Rey to recognize that she was making a thumbs up.
Then she was flying again, and the whisper of a thousand small voices seemed to follow her.
Rey changed his mind. Even if there were no TV crews around, he still wasn't going to let some crazy flying street kid show him up.
"<Hey!>" Baylor the American shouted as his jeepney pulled up next to him. He was busily reloading all those RPG launchers he fired off earlier. "<Is that someone you know?>"
Rey waved vaguely at the tiny figure who had resumed whacking inconclusively at Firewing. "<Well you know, there are lots of us superheroes in the Philippines. Can't keep track of them all. All doing our part and so on. Who knows when they will just show up and stuff! I have no idea who she is.>"
"<She doesn't look like she is doing much to the monster either.>" Mango observed, as the crack of baseball bats breaking rang across the plaza. "<The young lady looks like she might run out of weapons.>"
"<Let's see if I can interest her in some of ours.>" Baylor hefted his RPG.
"<Like your guns did much before.>" Rey retorted, still rying to work the pain from his back.
"<I didn't see you doing much either, Mr. Superhero!>"
"<It's Rey Quirino.>" Rey said in a tone somewhere between irritation and condescension, the one he always used whenever someone didn't know his name. "<Hero of the Philippines.>"
The nuance of it must have been lost in the general context, because the American just shrugged. "<Haven't heard of you.>" He spotted a shadow giant that looked if it had noticed them through the smoke and blew it into black sludge.
Rey's hackles rose, but then he remembered that his personal growth was supposed to make him the bigger man than everybody else, so he forced his hackles back down. "<Just don't get in the way of my epic battle here, okay? Right now I'm saving a country.>"
"<Whatever chief, it's your country.>" Baylor lowered the smoking launcher and peered at his handiwork. "<Akinwale, do you see anything less magic for us to shoot at? It would be a shame to have lugged all these guns here for nothing...wait, what was that?>"
Rey didn't need to look, because he felt the brief flicker of nausea that surged through him as bolts of orange light started exploding against Firewing's scales, cracking them asunder.
The other flying figure peeled away from the newcomer so quickly that it almost smacked into a tree. Like a shooting star, it arced over the horizon and was gone.
"<It appears like you have everything in hand.>" Deadlight Hollow commented as he fluttered to the ground in his colourless cloak. He gestured, and a glittering aurora of cold light swept out from his hand, reducing the dragon-lit fires around Rey and the jeepney to embers. Firewing itself recoiled indignantly from the sudden manifestation, but seemed hesitant to approach
John Baylor waved at him. "<Deadlight Hollow! Didn't expect to see you here! Now is this a coincidence or what?>"
"<Likewise.>' Deadlight Hollow replied with a sideways glance.
"<Hang on. You know this gay?>" Rey exclaimed at Baylor.
Baylor turned to Deadlight Hollow incredulously. "<You're gay? You never told me!>"
"<An increasingly common misapprehension.>" Deadlight Hollow said flatly. "<And a distraction that never stops reoccurring at the most inappropriate times.>"
"<It's okay, man. I accept you for what you are.>' Baylor consoled. "<Or okay, at least there's finally someone here who might know what the hell is going on. So what the hell is going on here?>"
"<Crazy demon is going around and killing people for ultimate power.>" Rey sniffed. "<Anyone here could have told you that.>"
"<Wait, so the demon is the dragon?>"
"<What? No. The demon is different from the dragon. The dragon's just a boss monster. The demon is like an even more final boss who you haven't even fought yet. And there's also two...>"
"<Rey Quirino is basically correct on this particular level.>" Deadlight Hollow interrupted. "<There are important metaphysical details, but for now they don't matter.>"
The dragon's claw slammed into the shimmering nimbus put up by the demon hunter and tore it open. Deadlight Hollow spun and blasted the offending claw with a barrage of scintillating bolts from his mystically-empowered handguns until it drew back.
"<This semblance is Firewing the Destructor, the last dragon lord to remain on this plane.>" Deadlight Hollow explained hastily as he renewed his ward. "<Fortunately for us, the demon Darkness only succeeded in summoning a small part of its raging essence. This is only a lesser manifestation of the whole creature.>"
"<You don't say.>" Rey said mournfully.
"<In other words, it is so magical that shooting it is not going to work very well?>" Mango asked.
"<The man has it.>" Deadlight Hollow said, straining to keep the dragon off their backs as he exposited. "<I can enchant conventional firearms to be able to harm the beast, and your fists have already proven able to break through its defences. However, I don't think we have the power to strike a fatal blow against unless we can attack the very connection that keeps it material. That part is up to you, Rey.>"
"<Me?>" Rey demanded. "<I've already had a hell of a time punching that thing! What more do you want me to do?>"
"<I don't know.>" Deadlight Hollow admitted. He leapt aside as the dragon hammered a claw into where he was, nearly flipping the jeepney. Mango barked out a curse and gunned the vehicle away from the rampaging dragon. "<You're the magic man! Think of something!>" Baylor shouted.
Deadlight Hollow muttered a short incantation and gestured at the guns in the jeepney – they started to emit a soft, pearly glow.
"<Magic lights! Neat.>" Baylor said.
"<Rey!>" Deadlight Hollow swooped up alongside the superhero, who was getting really tired of legging it across burning terrain. "<Remember what you are to Darkness! If there's anyone holds the key to unravelling this whole madness, it's you!>"
"<But what do I do?>" Rey shouted back. "<It's one thing to get like, proper heroic resolve when things were still sorta in the air, but it's another thing to figure out how to actually kill a dragon with my bare hands!>" He held up said hands. "<Look! My hands are bleeding!>"
"<There should be a way.>" Deadlight Hollow insisted. "<Darkness may have called up obstacles beyond your imagining, but this is not solely Darkness' quest! This is also your country's story, and it has given you real power to succeed! Tap into your heritage! Your pride!>"
"<So you expect me to have retroactively paid attention at school now?>" Rey demanded.
"<You are Filipino! It should be a part of you whether you are aware of it or not.>" Deadlight Hollow insisted. "<I try not to convince people with pure speculation, but I have little else to go on.>"
He turned his head at some variation in the staccato of roars and explosions. "<I need to go back to help Baylor.>" The flying gunslinger summoned his cloak and broke off from Rey.
"<Wait!>" Rey shouted. He suddenly realized that Firewing wasn't paying attention to him any more now that he had almost sprinted the length of the park, and slowed down to a jog.
A solemn bronze figure appeared before him, looming out of the smoke.
"Oh, it's just the Statue of the Sentinel of Freedom." Rey said aloud. He'd done enough photo ops around Metro Manila to recognize this one. The statue was of some tribal guy with a sword who was renowned as the first Hero of the Philippines. Luiz liked to point that out every time they saw it, presumably for his edification. Rey never understood why he did it. It's not like he didn't have people to have book smarts instead of him.
Hang on, there was also a statue like that in Cebu City. The senator mentioned that on the chopper ride. Both were statues of the same guy. Lapu-Lapu.
And as soon as Rey made that connection, another connection sprang forth in his mind and touched home. All those strange branching lights he had seen between bouts of wakefulness finally coalesced into an image. He suddenly knew what he had been gifted.
He heard the sound of something landing lightly behind him. "<Hey Deadlight, I think I know...> Oh, you're the flying kid from earlier."
The flying kid from earlier walked up to him silently and pressed a small plastic bottle into his hands. "Here. So the O.K. Kid gifts you for your spirit quest."
"I don't think this is what I had in mind...wait, who are you? How come I've never heard of you?"
The fey girl-child looked up at him with something like reproach in her eyes. "Guards those not seen, not those not deserving."
"Uh, okay. I'll pretend you said something meaningful." Rey looked at the bottle, unscrewed it and took a sniff. "This is cough syrup!"
"It is cough syrup." The O.K. Kid stated, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Rey looked at her and then back at the statue. "Wait, are you meaning that I need to get high to do this?"
"Yes. You need to." She replied, as one would when explaining basic things to a child. "<There are worse things than demons here. I go, but for the smiles of children.>" She gave Rey another thumbs-up and flew back into the fray, leaving him alone with the bottle.
"Oh whatever, it's not like I have a better idea." Rey muttered as soon as he felt that the weird druggie kid was out of earshot. He lifted his head and knocked back the bottle, quickly inhaling its syrupy contents with his super-breath. The sickly sweet taste made him feel briefly nostalgic.
It kicked in immediately. This definitely wasn't regular cough syrup, Rey thought light-headedly. The ground seemed to drift away and the fire became a rustling tableau of flat shapes. The sky warped, distances shrunk and his consciousness expanded. The very air crackled.
Rey perceived them then, the invisible threads of power that permeated his motherland. It was a bolt of lightning connecting his feet to the earth. It was everything thrumming with the same energetic vibration. It was the web of consequence, the beat of a million hearts. It had nursed him all along, and he knew it not.
It was People Power.
Before him, the solemn statue of Lapu-Lapu came alive, the power of the country igniting a spark of awareness in its blank metal eyes. It raised a sculpted arm and pointed at the direction of its distant brother.
Rey started walking. The leagues opened beneath every step. Buildings rushed by, then whole towns and forests. The clouds stretched into thin lines in the sky.
Very soon, Rey hit the sea. With the ineffable certainty of dream-logic, he knew he didn't have to stop at all. Because a line of grey dugong bobbed up from the water like stepping stones, and he crossed the inland seas on their bellies, past islands big and small until he set foot on the fair isle of Cebu again.
Rey pushed on, high on drugs and duty.
The grey streets of Cebu City went past in a blur, its urban blight blessedly indistinct on the spiritual plane. He was getting close now. All around him, the vibrating pulses of power grew brighter and denser to they too converged on his destination.
And there it was, on a plinth overlooking the sea. While the statue in Manila rested in stately repose, the pose of Lapu-Lapu here was alert, ever ready to face any perfidious foreigners who sought to dirty the country's shores. Yes, this statue was the one Rey needed.
Fog rolled away from the statue as Rey approached it. The power to save his country hinged on the First Hero of the Philippines. But how?
Did the spirit of the nation expect him to beat the dragon to death with the statue? It had to be more than that. The collective unconsciousness of the whole country couldn't have gone to so much trouble guiding him though the spirit plane just so he could beat Firewing to death with a more authentic statue.
The naked chieftain dude is supposed to be his predecessor, isn't he? Maybe he has waited for however many centuries to pass some kind of legacy to the current Hero of the Philippines. An extra special magical gift that would finally make Rey awesome enough to handle to crisis at hand. Rey nodded at this train of thought. Yes, this seemed believable enough. He'd seen those movies.
But it wasn't like the statue was animating itself to give him anything. The threads of power swirled expectantly all around them, but none of them were leading into the statue itself. Maybe it was the final test. Rey had to make sure.
"Hey, Cory." The words left his lips. "Are you still with me?"
"I'm around." An insubstantial voice answered. "Here, I have more strength to converse."
Rey nodded towards the statue. "That guy. Is he...you know, still around? Like you?"
There was a slight pause before the holy ghost gave her answer. "I don't think so."
Somehow, he perceived the invisible shrug. "Because he was a pagan, I guess."
More gears clicked together in Rey's mind. "Good. Don't need some savage in a grass skirt showing me up." Rey clambered up the pedestal of the stature, which remained inanimate. He reached up and grabbed the wickedly curved, split-hilted sword that the bronze chieftain held in readiness, and snapped it off. "And I definite don't need another invisible voice bitching at me for doing this, no offence meant."
"Rey?" Cory's voice asked.
Rey shushed the invisible voice. "I'm concentrating."
It was like playing a Rubik's Cube, except the rotating bits were all complicated and invisible and he had to work them with fingers he never knew he had before, but he could do it. He had been staring at the instructions all along.
A soft shimmer enveloped the bronze replica of the sword with bits of severed hand still attached to it. Then, the bronze slid off it like snowflakes. What was left was a long, rectangular object in Rey's hands.
Rey opened his hand and flicked. The object split along its length, one half-handle swinging around a perfectly oiled hinge, and Rey caught it with his thumb as his hand closed again. A three-foot blade clicked into place.
"And Bob's your viola." Rey whispered.
It was a supersized butterfly knife. A butterfly sword. The perfect thing to slay a dragon with.
It was a rousing success, this spirit quest. Rey ought to be heading back to Manila right now to finish the fight, but he simply had to pause for a bit to admire the beauty of his handiwork.
In his hand he held eternal glory. It was the mark of heroes, manifest in the form of the king of all Philippine weapons. It was the First Balisong, the very instrument with which Lapu-Lapu personally struck the head off the shoulders of Ferdinand Magellan, that perfidious Spaniard.
Sure, historians would dispute the veracity of such a feat, but what do historians know of the deeper truths beneath the shape of things? Rey felt the truth of it in his heart, and that was what really mattered.
Prize in hand, Rey sprang back on the path of leagues, and dashed across the bridge of dugongs.
To meet his destiny.
He woke up draped across the back of Baylor's jeepney as it sped precariously through the burning plaza. "Whuh-"
“<What the hell, man!>” Baylor in his lurid, ash-streaked Hawaiian shirt demanded as Rey jerked spasmodically. “<I thought you had gone off to fight the dragon until Deadlight Hollow sent us to fetch you. We didn’t expect to find you drooling in front of a statue in the middle of nowhere!>”
“<I was...spirit questing! Yeah!>” Rey protested.
Baylor raised an eyebrow.
“<Really! The kid made me drink some cough syrup and then I went back to Cebu for...>” Rey felt the weight in his hand and brought it up, almost whacking Baylor in the face. “<...This!>”
“<Assuming that you did get that...thing out of your dream quest thingie, I still don’t see how it would help.>” The arms dealer did not look like he recognized the deadly potential within the folded form of the legendary First Balisong. How ignorant, Rey thought.
He flicked out the gleaming blade as though it was second nature. Baylor flinched aside as it opened a gash into the bodywork. “<Careful, man! The Jeep isn’t even mine!>”
“<So-rry.>” Rey said, all high ground lost.
“<Save your bickering for later, gentlemen!>” Mango shouted. “<We’re approaching the dragon!>”
Baylor still looked distinctly unimpressed as he screwed a glowing warhead onto his trusty launcher. “<I'll admit, I’m no stranger to magic. I’ve seen great spiders battle demon elephants. I’ve seen men end famines by feasting on the brains of psychic albinos. Still, let’s hope whatever magic in that gussied-up switchblade of yours works on a dragon, eh?>”
The three men and the jeepney hurtled into the battlefield.
Firewing was wounded. This was obvious enough. Once-symmetrical arrangements of scales were chipped and shattered, and glowing, lava-like blood trickled between them in places. The dragon flapped erratically from direction to direction, seemingly no longer interested in giving battle to the two flying figures who circled around it. Still, it noticed the oncoming vehicle and started to flap its wings even more rapidly.
“<See that crater near the eye? I shot that one...hey, it’s flying away! Akinwale! Gun the thing!>”
“<You mean my rifle, or the gas?>” Mango asked calmly.
“<How about both?!>”
“<I’ll try, Mister Baylor. But I owe you nothing if the Jeep flips over and we all die embarrassingly, okay?>”
“<Enough talk! I’ll send it to hell right now!>” Rey cried. “<Rarrgghhh!>” He stood up and super-leapt upwards right off the jeepney, lifting its front wheels off the ground with the enormous reaction force and almost catapulting Akinwale Mango out of the driver's seat.
But Firewing was gaining altitude rapidly. Rey's great arcing jump couldn't get him close enough to even nicking range with his wildly flailing sword before gravity dashed him to the ground.
Deadlight Hollow landed next to the new crater. "<Points for intimidation, I guess.>"
"<I can't jump high enough!>" Rey cried, sitting up in the bottom of the crater.
"<Wait, Firewing is not retreating.>" Deadlight Hollow said, looking up at the star-like spark that was building deep inside the dragon's throat. "<I think it has finally tired of us.>"
"<How big is the blast radius gonna be?>" Baylor asked, pulling up.
"<My estimate is 'huge'.>"
"<Ah. You see, I was wondering whether to bother getting out of the way. Or if I should just tell Mr. Superhero here get off his ass here and do something!>"
"<It's Rey Quirino, Hero of the Philippines!>" Rey insisted, getting up. "<And I can't jump that high! It's->"
At that very instant, the O.K. Kid appeared behind Rey and swung her last baseball bat into Rey's buttocks. "Just do it."
Rey shrieked an unmanly cry of pain and surprise as the stroke propelled him upwards like a prospective home run.
"<Good thinking, mysterious kid!>" Baylor grinned. He aimed his RPG at Rey's shrinking figure and fired.
Rey screamed as the enchanted warhead detonated against his ribcage, accelerating him even further upwards.
Once the tears had cleared from his eyes somewhat, Rey saw the blurred shape of Deadlight Hollow flying upwards beside him. "<And what are you going to do?>"
"<A simple spell of momentum transfer. It does hurt a bit though...>" His outstretched finger touched Rey's flailing hand.
Rey felt like his body was being torn apart even as the flying gunslinger was suddenly torn from his sight by a further burst of speed.
Still, he was closing the distance with Firewing, whose jaws were barely containing the building flare of blinding white energy. The smoke columns thinned out and disappeared as he went up and up, and suddenly it was only the two of them about to collide in the clear grey sky.
But all too quickly Rey's momentum started to bleed off, and his adversary was still high above him. Group effort or not, he wasn't going to reach it.
The roar of a motor engine underneath him made him curious enough to twist his body and look.
With all the ease of driving on flat ground, the jeepney that the American was in was flying up at him. In the driver's seat was the translucent outline of Cory's ghost.
At the sight of Rey's open mouth, Cory just called, "Hop on!"
He managed to land both feet on the jeepney's oncoming hood, awkwardly. His knees bent instinctively as the fresh source of acceleration bore him upwards.
"What the hell?" Rey managed.
"Ang Diwata ng Dyipni." Cory said by way of explanation, spectral fingers curled around the steering wheel. "An orphan spirit dwells within this jeepney, granting it supernatural power. More importantly, the spirit is a charitable soul and wants the Philippines to fall under Darkness' sway as much as you do."
"B-but you're like a Catholic force ghost and you're driving it. Aren't diwatas and stuff what priests exorcize?" Rey protested.
"This shows the severity of the situation, Rey. The godly and the pagan have come together to fight the decidedly unholy. Also, don't begrudge that girl-child. She's one of them too, and she's just a bit blunter."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Welcome her assistance when you need it, Rey. You still...oh dear." Cory looked up as the light from above built to eye-searing levels.
Firewing exhaled, a white jet of pure annihilation.
"Use the First Balisong!" Cory urged as the cascade of energy took up more and more of their field of vision. "Believe in yourself! Ultimately, the dragon is no match for you!"
"Only because I trust you!" Rey shouted back. "Unlike everybody else."
He positioned himself at the front of the flying jeepney and readied the massive butterfly knife before him, point-first.
The greater-than-fire was upon him. He slashed.
The white jet parted like the Red Sea.
For an instant a moving blue line seemed to bisect the entire sky, and Firewing was caught right in the middle of it. The line passed through the dragon, leaving a glowing and perfectly straight scar behind. Firewing's entire body roiled in pain.
"This is it! Jump!" Cory shouted.
Rey super-jumped off the hood of the magic jeepney, which vanished beneath him as it fell.
With a scream, he collided with the iron-hard scales of the dragon blade-first.
With a sure bloodlust, the First Balisong slipped between Firewing's scales and bit flesh.
Still screaming, Rey planted his feet on Firewing's body and started running, dragging his sunken sword with a trail of sparks.
The long wound opened by Rey's run spewed lava-blood and unravelled magic. Firewing the Destructor writhed in its final death-throes, and exploded.
The roof, Manila Hotel
The explosion rattled Fidel Ramos' wheelchair even as it repainted the sky.
"What?" was the only thing that tumbled out of Darkness' mouth. He was a still monolith, his trenchcoat graven, his face petrified. "What?"
Across the inner city, shadow monsters disintegrated. Their mournful baying, humming and clicking faded as the sustaining will of their master faltered.
Ramos chuckled painfully, then went into a fit of coughs. "It seems like the tide has turned against you, Darkness."
Darkness' eyes were still fixed on the dissipating cloud of mana in the sky. "It cannot be. Defeat is impossible. I had written it out of my laws. Yet at this critical juncture..." Came the dazed voice. "When did I sanction this unseemly reverse to take place? The sigil of my ascension was as perfect as could be, moulded from the base material of this country transmuted to significance by mine own desecrations. My destiny is chained and locked, my higher souls crippled and hobbled, and I have made myself made a fugitive to the higher and lower laws both. By my own hand! Yes."
Darkness's words grew in confidence and volume. "I have dedicated all of my being to this grand undertaking. The seals of passage leave me even as I tear out my very bones. The subtleties of the unpainted realm fade from my sight. There is no defeat that can occur without my destiny permitting it to occur. Therefore I must have embarked on a false path that was truncated by its own foolishness. Therefore I must have been corrected. Therefore..."
Darkness' head whipped around so suddenly that the crack of breaking bone was audible in his neck. Yet he didn't seem to notice at all as he fixed Ramos with blazing eyes. "You have deceived me."
"I think you must realize that we have struggled for far longer than the swiftness of your assault suggests." Ramos leaned back into his wheelchair. "At the very moment the desire to possess the Heart of Darkness came into your deranged mind by whatever inexplicable means, our wills have met across the void. We have contended for very long indeed, circling the weighty singularity that is the dark power of the Heart."
"You have deceived me!" Darkness's form boiled upwards. Muscles writhed and groaned to fill in the extra height.
"And perhaps even before that, when I first came into stewardship over the accursed thing." Ramos mused. "You have made yourself the agent of the Heart, and in doing so you have inherited the decades of antagonism I have already expended. Even now, at the eclipse of sanity, every feverish stratagem I have dreamed up during restless nights are manifesting against you. Now isn't that an interesting thought?"
"You have deceived me!" Darkness's shadow lengthened and grew jagged, rearing up like a hydra to violate all perspective.
"Ah, you must have let your excitement gotten the better of you." Ramos explained patiently. "After all, you seek this end, do you not? It has become your sole passion. And at the very end of your path, you grew so impatient that your were tempted to take a short-cut. You decided to reach out of the echo chamber of your own soul and trust the words of another. That was your misstep."
"YOU HAVE DECEIVED ME!" A fell gale streamed from the demon's mouth to dash the words against Ramos' face, part revelation, part accusation.
"You have finally tasted doubt, Darkness. You victory is no longer certain." Ramos' body shifted under his shawl, as though ready to produce something from underneath it.
"Dramatic frisson. I see." Darkness was suddenly icy calm. "A final play from a powerless foe. A false path that leads to the true ladder. This changes nothing."
"On the contrary, did you not say whoever held the Heart held the real power?" Ramos retorted. "For all your power in conflict...a real soldier would have known."
Darkness' eyes widened then.
The demon's hand shot up, just as Ramos gave his withered body a desperate twist. The darkbolt slammed into his empty wheelchair and sent it flying even as he pitched himself over the edge of the roof.
Ramos fell off the Manila Hotel with barely a sound.
As he fell, something worked itself loose from inside of his crumpled suit and tumbled free, obeying forces far greater than mere gravity or aerodynamics. A small metal box.
With an absolute steady hand, Ramos took a detonator from his pocket and pressed it.
The C4 lining in the box completely failed to explode. Instead, a black aura shimmered into life around the object, and its fall began to slow.
Gritting his teeth, Ramos drew his old service revolver, twisted about until he was facing upwards, and took aim at the box.
In his heart, he hoped that the first few shots which did nothing to the box was simply a result of him missing rather than the work of some aura of invulnerability; it soared when he saw it spin suddenly, a dent gouged onto its side.
Then a great black shadow fell over his face. Darkness was swooping down from the edge of the roof himself, his trenchcoat flapping like wings, his arm outstretched.
Ramos tried to ignore both him and the rapidly approaching ground, taking more shots at the falling box. Finally there was a dull 'pok', and a clear bullet hole appeared, leaking fluid. Darkness emitted a howl of anguish, and accelerated.
Ramos wasn't sure if he had any bullets left – he had lost count of the number of cracks that faded from his ears. But he kept aiming with his bad eyes and wasted hands and-
-fell into a net of elastic, not too far from the ground.
He peered upwards at the open window that framed the man with a cowboy hat on his head and a net gun in each hand. "Well shot, Senator Lapid."
"Still got it." The senator tipped his hat and vanished into the building.
There was a rush of footsteps from below. The net dipped and came down, and Ramos found himself bundled up by a rush of harried ex-mil types. "Sir, did you manage to keep it?" Came the urgent voice of Gringo Honasan.
Ramos peered with aching eyes until he found the ex-soldier's moustachioed face. "Alas, we fought a good fight."
Honasan's face hardened, that was all he had time for until a black feather grazed past on his face. He recoiled as though stung.
He turned and looked. Everyone turned and looked at Darkness who had touched down lightly, buoyed by a pair of black-feathered wings that sprouted from his shoulders. He bore the metal box in his hands, reverently. His smile was tranquil.
"Shoot the box!" Ramos croaked out.
The bodyguards levelled their guns and fired. Darkness' smile grew wider as a halo of light sprang from from his brow, wrapping him in eldritch radiance. The bullets pattered and splashed like hot rain before they could get within a meter of him.
One of his wings drew back and issued a single, monstrous beat. The first rank of bodyguards were swept off their feet, their bodies pierced by numerous black feathers. As the rest of Honasan's company recovered from the shockwave, the feathers ignited in black fire which spread along the bodies of the fallen men, and agonizingly they got back to their feet and started shambling towards other bodyguards.
"Suppressive fire! Get FVR out of here!" Honasan shouted. They obeyed the best they could, a backpedalling rearguard opening fire on the reanimated bodies of their former comrades as the survivors formed a phalanx to bundle the former president away. But the bullets were doing little to slow down the burning bodies of Darkness' thralls; one by one, the bodyguards were dragged down.
But then, a human bowling ball smashed into the growing horde, knocking them over like tenpins. Grasping arms fell short as the remaining members of Honasan's retinue finally got clear.
Naked Zuma unfolded himself wordlessly from the pile of pulverized corpses, his body already inflating with venom, and threw himself bodily at the box in Darkness' hands.
Darkness laughed, and gestured.
The dwarf-giant exploded like a water balloon. Hissing venom-blood splattered over the pavement and started to eat into it.
Darkness laughed again, and raised his eyes to see the last of Honasan's band vanish into the trees that formed the border of the still-burning Rizal Park. He tucked his rightful prize under his arm and, wings extended, hovered after them like a phantom.
As he approached the paltry treeline, a long-limbed apparition clambered down from one of them. It wore a wide-brimmed hat with a gash but into it. In its mouth was a smoking cigar.
Darkness glided luxuriantly to a stop. "Another of his little creatures? By what leave do you bar my circle of triumph?"
"By the steel in my bones and the fire in my blood. What more?" Jungle Agta said, and puffed. Bitter billowing smoke enveloped Darkness in an instant. Jungle Agta puffed until his voluminous lungs were pressed flat against his ribcage and his smoke smothered the entire stretch of roads and trees around him and Darkness, but he did not stop puffing. He channelled the entirety of his being through his cigar and into the air. His cheeks sunk. His flesh shrivelled.
Darkness fanned his wings. A gale rose from the ether, whipping the smoke cloud into a caustic storm that swept back into Jungle Agta's face, and then into tattered shreds that dissipated into the oppressive atmosphere.
What was left of Jungle Agta was a bleached skeleton, which toppled and fell apart. A cigar dislodged itself from between hollow jaws and rolled.
However, Ramos and Honasan were gone.
"It is no matter." Darkness said, looking at the box in his hands. "The Heart of Darkness is mine. I have what I had come for. Would it matter if a few mortals are poorly positioned upon the grand stage of my final ascension? Their time will come for them all the same." He pulled open the box, breaking the clasp with a metallic snap, and peered as one would a guilty pleasure. "Yessssssss."
"Yo! Derplord!" He heard a voice call.
"Rey Quirino. You are in time." Darkness turned to meet the jeepney that was thundering towards him. "My time, that is! All your pathetic mortal efforts have been in vain, just as I prophesized! Have you not finally exhausted that mortal tantrum that your kind calls valiance? Have you not seen how little it avails you when you raise your feeble arms against the wheel of destiny? Are you finally ready to lay down and die?"
The jeepney slid gracelessly to a stop. "<Your delusions are persistent, Darkness. You have won nothing yet.>" Deadlight Hollow retorted from the side of the vehicle.
"You are blind to the glory of my triumph! My trail of victories thread the universe itself! They crowd the air like hasty vultures! Why, I can sense that even the bones in your body yearn to be crushed under my feet! But I expect you to be blind, anathema. This stage was never yours."
"Dude, it's mine!" Rey shouted. "Aren't you going to throw down with me?"
"Raise not your blood above your station, Rey Quirino." Darkness sneered. The box in his hands hummed a dark song. "Do not presume that gaining the slimmest awareness of your part in my grand quest entitles you to make assumptions of any importance. Yes, your blood would have smoothed the passage. The sight of your broken body would have cowed the spirit of your servile kind. But what does that matter? The dark heart of your nation is already in my hands! Your people will have no choice to bow before its power! Your part in this play has been made irrelevant!"
Rey cocked his head. "So, you're not going to fight me?"
"I am going to show you the truth!" Darkness crowed. He held the box aloft.
"<What are the chances of me 'n' Mango shooting it right out of his hands?>" John Baylor whispered at Deadlight Hollow.
"<You're just full of good news.>"
"Behold!" Darkness' voice seemed to reverberate from the sky itself. "The true form of the Dark Heart of the Philippines!" He tore the box in half.
There was a splash of clear yellowish fluid, and the air was filled with the smell of sulphur. Hovering between Darkness' hands was a small, round object. His myriad teeth gleamed.
Rey's super-vision focused. "It can't be." He gasped.
It was a balut.
But it was no ordinary balut, or even a particularly savoury balut, preserved as it was against the ages by no force natural. Half of its mottled eggshell had been peeled off by some prior hand in some grotesque parody of vendor-ready freshness. But it was the foetal contents of the shell that threatened to turn Rey's stomach. From the broken, incomplete shell reared a tiny, bulbous head, and curled beside it were the limb-stubs of the never-will-be-born. But there was no chicken-beak, no unformed wingtips. The clenched things at the end of its forelegs could only be called fists, and the minute, tangled patches of down on its skull could not be mistaken for anything else. And instead of a boil-blinded cataract where its eye should be, what stared back at Rey was fully-formed, twitching minutely in beady spite. It was a blasphemous synthesis of reptilian and mammalian, the distillation of ten thousand lessers.
It was a balut of man.
Giggling faintly, Darkness took the balut in his hands and removed the rest of the shell with spidery fingers. Denuded, its shape was even more obvious and even more revolting. "Do you see now? This is the shape of your sins! This is the fetish of your kingdom come! All your possibilities are contained within this fragile shape. None of your fates can escape its consequence! Yes."
Darkness' aura exploded into a tornado. A column of force twisted into the sky, with him at the eye – his quivering wings, open to their full extent, slowly bore him upwards. Far above him, at the terminus of the tornado, a thundercloud was being poured across the sky.
Deadlight Hollow raised his guns and shot futilely at the spectacle, but even his glowing spell-bullets twisted and were extinguished by the rising gale before they even reached the demon's aura-wall. The his body lurched and he had to hang on as the jeepney started to slide backwards under the assault of the unnatural demon-wind. In the driver's seat, Mango stomped on the accelerator. Four wisps of white smoke formed as the jeepney's wheels spun for traction against the ground.
"<We can't hold out!>" Baylor shouted into the wind.
"Trust in the spirit." The O.K. Kid replied from somewhere in the back.
"<The spirit is willing, but the tires are weak.>" Mango said, leaning over the side of the driver's seat.
"<This is the least of our worries.>" Deadlight Hollow interjected. "<Look!>"
All of them heard the crunch of delicate bones, unnaturally loud even in the storm.
Darkness had taken a bite out of the Heart. His uncountable teeth was reddened by a glaze of blood.
Then he tossed the rest of it into his voluminous mouth, chewed and swallowed.
The tornado erupted into a hurricane, and the spinning wheels of the jeepney left the ground. Rey screamed as he and his party were blown into the air like a gum wrapper.
Two more sets of black-feathered wings erupted from behind Darkness' trenchcoat in a blizzard of feathers. "Yes." Darkness said, spitting bloody saliva. "The power is mine! The power to bend destiny! The power to level the fallen world! The power! THE POWER!"
Thunder rumbled from the inky clouds that was spreading over the sky of Manila. From the gaps in those clouds came glimpses of an alien sky – a starless night darker than space. Beams of darkness shone down from these gaps, bathing Darkness' ascending shape in anti-radiance. And between the new sky and the earth, an unimaginably vast shape was writhing into existence, a thing of many branches and roots.
"Pathetic mortals!" Darkness roared downwards, his voice a city-shaking clarion. Upon his brow, a crown of diamonds sparked. "I hold all your lives in my hands! Be afeared! Be...hmm?"
Strange shapes were cockscrewing at him from the tops of buildings, trailing smoke and rocket flames. They were Morlocks. Morlock missiles on jetpacks.
Darkness caught sight of the old man who was clinging to one of the roofs, wearing nothing but a tactical harness over a loincloth, barking commands into his radio. He clicked his tongues in annoyance. "Mortals!"
He waved his arms. The Morlocks started exploding in mid-air, their explosive vests detonating prematurely. Very soon, the first wave was dead. Then so was the second wave. There was no third wave.
Finally, Darkness turned his attention to their controller and pointed a single finger. Manong Morlock slumped over, his soul deflating like a punctured balloon. "Mortals." Darkness sighed. "Always providing reliable entertainment, but never having a sense of timing themselves. Now, where was I? Ah-"
"Pathetic mortals!" Darkness roared downwards, his voice a city-shaking clarion. Upon his brow, a crown of diamonds sparked. "Be afeared! Be afeared and bow down before the god of death! My final ascension begins!"
To be continued...
Last edited by Invictus
on Thu Aug 09, 2012 7:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.