Juvenalia

Summary: Two decades after graduating high school, Benny Bear is a toy collector still living in his parents' house. When an old comrade contacts him again, he finds the children's shows he idolizes were directly inspired by the supernatural horrors that ruined his life. With old and new friends, he confronts the conspiracy behind the monsters.

The Englewood Imposter

A Palette of Green and Gray

The west coast of New Zealand's South Island was the edge of the world in Alexandra Chase's book. It was a book that started idyllically and grew progressively cynical as her travels around the world raked her being with scars physical and mental. The discordant sensations jostling for dominance in her own mind were a testament she felt to her unceremonious return to the land she loved. The love of her life, Jay Chew, occupied her mind as well as the macabre mission that brought her comrades here.

Had she been in a clearer mental state, Alex would have recognized the true majesty of the drive through Arthur's Pass. While Jay and her undertook it several times, it nevertheless stole her breath like a necromantic spell when she undertook it. The caravan her comrades and her rented chugged slowly along those precarious mountain roads, with only the narrowest of guiderails separating them from sheer cliffs in certain locations. Had she desired to play the tour guide, she nevertheless would have stopped for pictures every few minutes.

Alex and the others flew into Christchurch from Auckland before setting out. Due to the dearth of time, they were unable to tour the city. The curious Benny obviously wanted to explore the town, but Dexter Danforth sternly reminded them of the limited window they had to accomplish their mission. The oppressive weight of the grim task before her prematurely snuffed any chance at watching the grand scenery roll past, no more than she could enjoy being interred alive. The vehicle drove onwards, with the four travelers uneager to speak.

Alex recalled the pattern in which the sights rolled by with a jaded triteness. First came the flat Canterbury plains, where paddocks of grazing sheep and cows would have been trivial to mistake for the agricultural portions of her Pennsylvanian home. Gradually, the hills on the horizon grew into looming monstrosities that obscured the true behemoths beyond. The towns grew sparser, until the jokull-clad mountains beyond the hills appeared. After passing of the largest peak, Aoraki, they drove through the single-street village named for the mountain pass it was located. Beyond, they cleared the viaduct, before driving on road beneath a waterfall and into the lush greenbelt of the West Coast forest. Streams of glacial meltwater trickled from either side, like lace curtains on either side of an enormous gateway.

Alex recalled the road sank into that endless sea of green, with only the blue ribbon of the distant ocean breaking up the monotony. A thousand shadows fell upon them as the sun peaked through the clouds, only to be smothered by another wave of advancing rainclouds. They briefly stopped in Greymouth, the west coast's largest town, before turning south on a long and lonely coastal highway. She wondered how long had elapsed as morning turned to noon. She wondered if Jay would be angry for her unannounced arrival, but she trusted her judgment in the omission of specific details.

Through the forest, Alex looked upon the distant peaks and wondered about the distant past, when the mountains were naught but mounds and more of New Zealand rested above the waves. She wondered if the pre-human entities in the dreaded al-Azif and Pnakotic Manuscripts touched this land, and if that taint still lingered about it. She wondered if the Maori or their Polynesian forebears faced antehuman races born of antiquity, if the British explorers likewise faced their share of antediluvian horrors, or if squamous things still swam through the sea and soil of her adopted homeland. Against a muted palette of gray and green, her mind wandered back towards comfortable, familiar shores.

The Elf from Englewood

Alex recalled the briefing they received in a Japanese hotel before their departure. Dexter called the others up to his laptop computer and displayed the payments to Kea Workshop, the New Zealand special effects studio she once worked for. She saw the named Bartholomew Bones III, and tried to recall anyone she knew of bearing that name. Coming up empty in her mental register, she listened intently to what the former sailor said.

"Based on information from Alex's boyfriend and my own research, the man we're after is Bart Bones, the primary actor in a self-funded production," Dex said. "He's rich, strapped with cash, and is the richest man in the Attic."

"But why's he doing a movie of that stupid elf show?" Jack Yeager asked. "I mean, I can understand the Attic funding all these weird experiments and power plays, but why's he sinking so much dough into it? Eh, no offense, Ben."

Benny Bear, the group's nominal leader, former toy-broker, and beleaguered fan of Elves of Englewood, said nothing in protest. Jack was wise enough not to mistake silence for apathy, but Alex did not care. She had another concern in the matter, unrelated to an obscure fantasy cartoon about an elven monster hunter. Dexter mentioned that Bones would be shooting part of his vanity project with a skeleton crew on the West Coast, attended by a handful of propmakers and a unit of Orochi mercenaries. She remembered her last talk with Jay, where he mentioned he'd been offered overtime pay to attend to a special project on the South Island. Now, she realized this was no coincidence.

"Dex, it's a blatant trap," Alex said. "They're using Jay to draw us out. They know it's us now, don't they?"

"Most likely," Dex said. "But knowing there's a trap is key to avoiding it. Bones is typically risk averse in business, with the exception of his media empire and Attic endeavors. He looks like a pretty boy, but he's a lot older than he looks."

"How old?"

"Old enough to have commissioned Eibon Animation to produce that damn cartoon," Dex replied. "He's the one that funded the Crawler cover-up, Tillinghast Beacon, the Scotland facility, constructed the St. Dismas school, the Orochi mercenaries, their money-laundering network, and recently attempted to re-activate them. And those are just the ones I know of."

"So he's the source of all evil? All our woes?" Benny asked skeptically. "Look, Dex, I know he's bad, but is he the single person behind it all?"

"Probably not. But he still needs to die. Without him keeping that empire together, it'll collapse like a heap of garbage."

"And we can't just intimidate him or convince him it's not worth his while?"

"No more than we could with our yakuza friend. The Attic draws visionaries, architects with sick designs. That's why they stay covert," Dex said. "And I imagine if you don't want to kill him, Alex wants to now."

"Yeah, well," Benny said, carefully choosing his words. "Do we know anything about the movie? Cast? Plot?"

"Bones is starring as Toriel, but I'd have thought you'd be all over that movie."

"I wanted to, but I haven't had the time. I've got a backlog of orders I need to mail, and that's before dealing with the pile of packages the post office's got waiting for me."

Dex opened a web browser, and he brought up a quick search of the movie's details. Benny leaned in like a child stealing illicit glances at Christmas gifts in the basements. His eyes drank down details of the film adaptation, filtering them through an obscure canon he knew with an overly zealous devotion. Alex wondered just how many years he spent on it, but recognized on her own fixation on Psychoshell. He pulled himself away from the computer with a snarl on his face.

"The plot is the Draco arc," Benny said with a furious look that half-suggested fumes would pour from every orifice on his face. "The Draco arc. The Draco arc."

"Um. Excuse me, but what is the Draco arc?" Alex asked meekly. "I've never seen the show."

"Something Ben hates," Jack said. "I remember he'd never shut up about that once he got started on it."

"It's universally regarded as one of the show's…poorer arcs," Dex said. "The nadir of the first season, as Ben hammered into my head."

"It was a travesty to all Toriel stood for!" Benny raged. "Eibon Animation's biggest betrayal of their fans!"

"Yeah, it was so unpopular, the writers immediately retconned those episodes out of existence," Dex said. "The scripts were reportedly given to them by some executive."

Alex would have inquired as to the specifics, given the curiosity resultant from Benny's evinced outrage. During the entirety of knowing him, he was amicable no matter what was thrown at him. Ben's sudden outburst caught her with the surprise of a monster leaping from behind her. She never thought him incapable of such puerile outbursts, but she had not known him long enough to understand his true devotion to a show that was off the air before she was even born. While it was poorly animated and acted, she nevertheless saw certain episodes bore the merit to attempt touching on mature themes, like drug addiction, racism, sexism, and mental disease. However, the Draco arc was not one of those.

Nevertheless curious to know more, Alex looked it up on the barely-sufficient connection. What little she saw was enough to get her turning her nose up. The formulaic template of each episode was a monster-of-the-week invading the mystic Englewood, and Toriel and his friends defeating them. Other episodes had Toriel traveling on some quest, and a few longer arcs depicted recurring characters and plot elements. The Draco arc was so different from this, she found little wonder why fans quarantined it as though it was a diseased animal.

Alex saw the premise started off misleadingly innocent enough, but the inanity began within the first ten minutes of the show. One of Toriel's recurring foes was General Steele, a warlord from the distant Ironheart Empire, an aggressive polity in the early upheavals of a fantasy industrial revolution. General Steele came seeking Toriel's help deposing a usurper to the Imperial throne, and it went downhill from there. The usurper, Draco, was taxing the nobility in the name of helping the poor, and he was chasing down those that resisted his movement.

While the initial premise seemed interesting, the following episodes were just as bad as Alex feared they might be. They consisted of a few recycled fight scenes against the same soldiers and guards, interspersed with ten-minute rants decrying Draco's stated, altruistic motivation. In between the rants, Toriel helped General Steele murder Draco's supporters, torture recalcitrant peasants, and retrieve the taxed gold from starving paupers. The ending of the arc's terminal episode was simply a rant interspersed with a recycled fight scene, before directly cutting to credits. She could empathize with Benny's furor.

"Benny, it had to be an executive with a lot of pull to order that seen put in there," Alex said. "Don't you think?"

"What are you saying?"

"Well, we know that Bones directly oversaw all of Eibon Animation's activities and messages."

"So you're saying he's responsible for the Draco arc?"

"Ben, he's personally funding a movie, starring himself as Toriel, specifically about the one plot arc everyone hates. I think it's obvious what he thinks of fan opinion, or even writing consistency."

"That does it. He dies," Benny said as a leering, demoniac grin crossed his face. "What a bastard."

"Glad we agree on that, then," Dex said. "So, Jack, any thoughts?"

"Just that this whole thing's gone from hunting monsters to murdering rich scumbags."

"As you know, humans can be the worst monsters."

"Look, Dex, I'm not crying any tears for this scumbag, but I'm out after we get him. Miranda's gone, and no amount of dead monsters and people is going to bring her back."

"I know," Dex said. "But it could prevent another. Shame, too, because you're pretty good at this."

"I know, Dex," Jack said with a wry grin. "But hunting regular monsters is more calming than chasing maniacs across the world. I don't want to spend what's left of my life, however short it is, chasing bad memories."

"Shame, because most people spend their whole life atoning without realizing it."

"That sounds deep, Dex. Who said that?"

"Eh, just made it up," Dex said. "But seriously, Jack, I'm glad you're back. Good to run with the Jackhammer one more time."

Jack and Dex shared a transient and knowing grin as they prepared to head out. Dex turned to his computer and opened up a picture of their quarry. Alex looked closer, as if disbelieving what she saw. The man that was the source of their woes looked no older than twenty. Part of his long, golden hair was pulled back into a ponytail, while the rest was immaculately combed and extended down to his shoulders. He bore blue eyes and a piercing gaze that stared right out of the laptop screen. He was clad in a convincing Toriel costume, with an ornately carved longbow, studded leather lined with jewels, and brace of curved daggers identical to Benny's.

"The scumbag can't even get Toriel right," Benny said. "He'd never wear armor that impractical."

"He owns the rights to the franchise, so he can do what he wants," Dex said. "At least until we resolve this for good."

When Benny nodded in agreement with the former sailor, Alex wondered just how intensely he liked that show. She made a note to avoid bringing up the Draco arc once the mission was all over.

The Last Candle

The mission seemed too straightforward to Alex as they planned their deployment. The movie was being filmed in a wooded area beside a desolate road, with the nearest town an hour away. There was no cell phone coverage, no internet connection, and no stores around. She presumed that there would be non-combatants present, given the support crew required for movies. One of them would be the love of her life, whom she hoped to spare the worst of what was to come.

Alex wondered if he might face unemployment if her mission succeeded. As New Zealand was a favorite place to make fantasy films, it was not as though demand for Kea Workshop's talent would drop. Even if that occurred, Jay had a record as a successful mechanical engineer. Either way, he'd be alright, so long as the coming assassination was as unrealistically as quick and clean as she hoped it would be. Inside, she knew it would not be so easy. Otherwise, someone else would have already done it.

As the caravan pulled off the deserted road and onto a dirty patch, Alex steeled her reflexes. The others would be deploying into the field, but she'd be commanding a flock of drones to surveil and locate their target. She readied her three drones as the others suited up for field deployment. She checked her own pistols and other gear, to ensure that she was ready in case Orochi tried to assault her position directly. While she wished she'd had a self-driving vehicle, she had to make due with a stationary position for the mission. The others left the caravan, and she launched her drones into the sky to survey their position.

Alex saw the Orochi mercenaries lurked on the perimeter, armed with gear illegal in New Zealand. Given the otherworldly perils they and the mercenaries dealt with, she would not fault them on that particular decision. A half-dozen patrolled around either side, while two remaining troops stood watch outside Bones' gaudy celebrity trailer. An augmented reality map appeared in the air before her, denoting the entirety of the site. She presumed the staff and actors lived in the trailers on the southern part of the site, while the northern half was surrounded by cameras and recording gear. In the top of the northern portion was a stone arc of recent construction, denoted with a cuneiformic script of mystic symbols. Red circles denoted the enemy patrols, and blue circles denoted the non-combatants. The sole method of wireless communication was a trailer located by the temporary staff accommodations, which had to be neutralized to prevent calls to the police. While the total absence of police was uncharacteristic of New Zealand cinematographic logistics, she presumed Bones wanted to avoid unwanted attention and pulled strings to ensure his own security detail was instead present.

"Okay, so we've got two important steps here," Benny said. "We need to find Bones and kill him, while avoiding harm to Jay or any other noncombatants. Dex, you know what we're up against?"

"We've got less than twenty Orochi troopers, but don't get cocky," he said. "These guys are Adders, their elite. They'll probably have orders to fall back and guard Bones if they make contact with anyone."

"So I'll jam coms and you mop 'em up," Alex said. "But I'm going to be searching for Jay. If Bones knows enough about me to bring him along, then he might have something sick planned."

"Which is why we shut 'em down," Dex said. "No coms, no reinforcements. We'll take the squad in the west, your drones take the squad on the east. We meet in the center."

Alex nodded in agreement. She wondered if Bones had some truly devious contingency, such as implicating them in false crimes in the event of their success or sending some mystic or mundane reprisal against their loved ones. She never met the man personally, and she bore neither the urge or desire to. With any luck, they'd be driving down to Queenstown with Jay in hand, and the world would be one bastard less. Inside, she knew it would not be so easy, as snuffing the last candle could easily plunge the unwary into abject blackness.

Irregular Warfare

Dex took an odd solace in the idea of a conventional firefight. While he had little doubt the mercenaries had superior numbers and equipment, it was a mundane threat that his training dealt with. He ensured his M-14 EBR rifle and Jack's shotgun bore the best suppressors he could acquire. He reminded himself to try out an SMLE at a local firing range before he left the country. In the meantime, Benny was content to follow his lead when getting involved in another gunfight. Jack racked his pump before they filed out of the recreational vehicle and into the New Zealand brush. Behind them, he saw Alex reposition their ride across the road, as to hinder any unwanted guests or escape attempts.

Dexter wondered how the first European explorers would've reacted to such peculiar foliage. Thick ferns and harakeke flax occupied the forest floor, with cabbage trees flaunting their spiderly leaves like lush hair. The European plants and scrub brush crawled along the undergrowth like a commando unit, greedily seeking out the sunbeams that filtered through the branches above. The unfamiliar bird calls and whisper of the leaves in the wind were the environmental details he forced himself to familiarize. Their absence would have frightened him more than an artillery strike.

Dexter directed the others to move behind thick trees with gnarled roots, gliding between cover like an army of arboreal wraiths. Before each move, he scanned the woods through his rifle scope, search for signs of movement. He felt tension build in him as an unoiled spring, stretching further with each step into the unknown. From the way the others walked behind them, he could tell they'd lightened their heavy footfalls. He wondered whether his own movements were contagious or they'd independently arrived at the same approach he did. Nevertheless, they now moved with the discipline of a military unit, a beast with one mind and six legs. He was proud.

When he saw the first blue uniform through his scope, Dexter ignited his first impulse to pull the trigger immediately. Instead, he noted the direction the armored mercenaries were heading, down towards him in a horizontal line formation. One of them had a light machinegun, another had a grenade launcher, and the rest had assault rifles. He decided to prioritize their heavy weapons, so he directed Jack and Benny to take position on trees beside his. He knew they'd only have a few seconds to act, and a half-second once the firing started. He'd gone over the ambush tactics, as he used something similar on a Salafist militia in his military years. A literal wall of enemies descended on them when he sprung his trap.

Much to his relief, Benny opened as beautifully as Dex hoped he would. An explosive arrow arched through the air like a capering swan, before coming in for a landing on the machine-gunner's faceplate. The explosion blossomed into an anarchy of shouting and gunfire, a man-made hell that was his natural habitat. He popped up and fired at the grenadier, while Jack unloaded buckshot at the nearest rifleman. The staccato echoed through the ancient woods, causing scared birds to fly like Valkyries above the battlefield.

A burst of rifle fire resounded by Dex's head, only to be met by the curt, loud report of his rifle. Another rifleman went down, but did not immediately die. He instead clutched his bloodied chest and broken armor, which Dex's shot had grazed. His two comrades hoisted him up, in an uncharacteristic display of heroism by the Orochi mercs. Dex might have even let them live, had they not waivered upon saving him, and unceremoniously dumped him while they turned to run like cowards. Despite the bullets buzzing like angry bees, an antique projectile once more took flight.

Dex saw the explosive arrow hit one of the mercenaries, but the blast left little of him standing. The wounded man clutched his chest motionlessly, never to move again. He almost felt remorse for his actions, had the man not wanted to murder him and his friends earlier. The last mercenary laid, badly burnt, with melted strands of his uniform singed into burnt, bloodied flesh like a tapestry of torment. Jack mercifully put him out of his inevitably slow, agonizing end with a bullet to the head.

Dex spun the rifle around, expecting more mercenaries to leap out at any second. He wondered if a horde of oversized insects would descend from the canopies and digest him from inside out. He wondered if a demoniac portal would open and reveal a fiend from forgotten hells. He wondered if a fey glamour would conceal another ambush waiting for them. He wondered if the very trees themselves would come to life and smite him. Instead, he waited behind that bullet-riddled tree with nothing but his companions for company. He gave the hand-signal for clear.

Dexter felt an immense sigh of relief as he picked over the mercenaries' remains. His paucity of ammunition was unsolved by rifling over their bodies, as they used a lighter 5.56mm cartridge than his heavy M-14's own 7.62mm NATO. He distributed bullets, side-arms, and grenades to his comrades, noting even Benny accepted the pistol offered to him this time. He wondered if they had become more lethal or gotten lucky, and he settled on the latter. He turned his attentions back towards the movie set, and the screaming that was coming from there. Echoes of fresh gunfire caused him to sprint like a bounding deer through the brush, with the others keeping up easily beside him.

Blackout

After repositioning the caravan, Alex turned her attention back towards her mission. While she did not have a military grade communications jammer, Dexter demonstrated how to disable communications with a common backdoor in units like the one on the movie set. Without wires or cell coverage, all communication was routed through a single trailer. She'd heard of movie production companies using similar devices, as to minimize leaks and information getting out. It was nevertheless a single point of failure that need to be removed.

Alex shut it down the moment after she got her drones into position. The forests of New Zealand's West Coast were rainforests in the technical sense of the term, as the frequent rainfalls made for consistent greenery and thick canopies. Despite the higher-end infrared cameras and laser microphones on her drones, she saw the branches afforded the squad too much cover. Therefore, she resolved to make her attack from a narrow gap between branches. She ordered her pair of armed drones into position, and directed them to open fire once the marching mercenaries reached a clean line of fire between both of them.

Alex saw the mercenaries walk right into the gunsights of her drones. Prioritizing the ones with the biggest guns first, she mowed them down with reprisal born of confusion. She did not think of the pandemonium that was unfolding on the ground as she controlled one of the drones with a videogame controller. Dark silhouettes on the night-vision ceased squirming after an agonized ride to oblivion, which was all they ever were to her. She thoughtlessly terminated with the same instrument she regularly used for amusement.

Alex's fun almost ended when a lucky burst of (undoubtedly panicked) gunfire damaged the first drone's main weapon. Her camera feed jumped to the second drone, just in time to see the special contingency she prepared. The mortally wounded drone descended towards the "lucky" marksman, just in time for the onboard grenade to detonate and paint the forest red with his entrails. With the remaining mercenaries scattering, she easily picked them off with what remained of the second drone's ammunition supply.

Despite having just killed a half-dozen trained mercenaries, Alex found neither serenity or remorse. She turned her attentions towards the display to see the last two mercenaries left Bones' trailer to head towards the opposite side of the movie set. While she did not know the exact detonation, she realized the lack of communications and any reverberating sound from the gunfight might have tipped off Bones to their presence. As the other drone would not arrive in time, she took her last charged drone and weapons and raced towards the panicked multitudes of people separating Jay from her.

The Eternal Child

Bartholomew Bones III wore many names in his tenure on Earth, which, like his current alias, was longer than others. He combed his flowing, golden locks as though they mattered like nothing else in the world to him, which they did. He once more admired his soft sapphire-blue eyes, and the way they sparkled like a translucent stream. He unsheathed the daggers in his hands, twirled around the curved daggers he'd commissioned specifically for this movie, and slipped them back in with a single movement of inhuman alacrity. He held himself to a higher standard than others, and he never let them forget it.

Bones recalled his life in greater, more lucid detail than others. He remembered his awkward fumbling in the primeval wilderness, back in those days when fire was an uncontrollable monster. He remembered how much he savored a return to his harem of odalisques after a busy day of conquest upon the sands, with his bronze sword in hand. He remembered the way the Roman armor resisted the cuts of his crude iron sword, necessitating he use other methods to slay the man beneath. He remembered the way the Vikings, Mongols, Spaniards, and Cossacks all died by his hand, whether blade or bow. He savored each of their deaths, as he spared them from the ennui that befell the others of his kind.

Bones, to his own knowledge, was blessed with supernatural longevity and the resultant skill honed over a hundred lifetimes. He bore the secret conceit of having witnessed more suns than the vast majority of humans that ever lived, and he knew more than any human would ever dream. He beheld the final, vindictive skirmishes between humankind and its alien forebears. He beheld civilizations eradicated from history for tampering with that diseased lore. He saw the naked wilderness, the first cities, and the last days of uncounted eons. Civilizations passed as sand in a simoom, but he endured with the permanence of granite.

Bones sometimes found others like him, entities and people that were similarly ageless. The others often found causes and reasons to live, even when all around them turned dust with a relative celerity to them. Some were protectors of people, nations, lore, or relics. Some were sages, seeking to perpetually expand the boundaries of knowledge for its own sake. Some were hunters, forever seeking a righteous cause or good fight to carry on. Some were lovers and poets, becoming aesthetic paragons that later eons worshiped as muses and gods of poetry. Some merely sought pleasure for its own sake, wallowing in decadent pleasures to test the limits of their existence. He tried each of those, but his sybaritic desires drew him to settle on the last.

Bones was a prelate among the sensates, owing to his insatiable hedonism. He found and lost his identity within drugs more intense than mundane hashish or opium. He sampled men and women of every size and color. He drank vintages that were ancient when Atlantis and Mu were young. He traveled to realms of supernal ecstasy and to abysses of infernal depravity. When intimacy and revelry grew tedious once more, his jaded palette hungered for darker urges.

Before completely succumbing, Bones followed the suggestions of a fellow immortal to try his hand in glorious battle. Together, they faced monsters human and inhuman across a forgotten eon, their deeds remembered only as the inspiration for epics, like Gilgamesh. While the clangor of swords clashing and din of crashing phalanxes sated his curiosity for a time, his darker inclinations once more manifested. In the midst of a battle against overwhelming odds, he decided to sate his curiosity to see what feelings would transpire from slaying a fellow immortal.

With neither warning nor reason, Bones stabbed his best, and only, friend and adopted brother through the neck. He found that immortals could die, by means of enough violence or physical damage, but could not aver himself of the emotional nullity he felt from such a deed. Those on the field that day were so shocked by what they saw that day, they each told their own version with a thousand exaggerations, one of which became the forerunner of the story of Cain and Abel.

Bones might have been a hero, had he learned the virtue of temperance. He experimented with all manner of ways to break men and women, and occasionally, to be broken by men and women. He toyed with destroying and rebuilding people for callow and capricious urges, with the emotional reaction akin to cutting up a doll collection. He brought empires low, changed sides on the slightest of whimsy in battle, and haunted the halls of power with malign machinations that brought great amusement no matter if they failed. He dispensed weal and woe erratically, although the latter was far more prevalent. Like a poisoned draught of hemlock, he endured through the ages as a consistent source of turpitudes.

Bones thought nothing of the externalities of his iniquity, but he recognized the necessity for some form of civilization to survive as to preserve the continuance of his sadistic schemes. As civilizations rose and fall, he aligned himself with the powers in which he could achieve the highest stations and sought-after impunity for his deeds. In time, he learned to conceal his excesses, such that his gluttonous depravity should be revealed to none but the dead and powerless. Thus, he plagued human civilization like an unceasingly gnawing botfly maggot.

Bones found himself fleeing Europe after the Napoleonic wars ravaged many of the polities and networks that protected him in prior centuries. He found himself in the New World, and he was immediately mesmerized by new ways and new places to inflict his caprice. Trying his hand as a slave plantation owner and factory overseer, he mesmerizingly beheld the new changes made possible by industrialization. Thus, he realized, the new corporate nobility would be a suitable place for himself.

As American power rose in following centuries, Bones found himself entertained by the inanities of his adopted culture. His supply of victims was unceasing, but the World Wars reminded him of how precarious his latest playground could be. While advanced technologically, the current world order was nescient of the magical arts, beyond the sciolic and incomplete lore of bored deviants. Thus, he reasoned what he knew of the occult would need to be disseminated to the wider world. He gathered his inner circle of confidantes and captains, and organized what would become the Attic.

It was not altruism that drove Bones to push forwards with his plans. He feared old rivals emerging with new occult threats, as he had made many enemies through the ages. Having experienced the travails of immortal foes holding grudges, he set about organizing a number of experiments combining mad science with black magic, in a perfectly amoral symbiosis. As such, he knew the current narratives of the civilization would be unable to accept the supernatural, even as they were vulnerable to such attacks. Thus, he set about research into methods to generate hunters of such creatures, and examining the social effects of such things released into population centers. In the midst of the Cold War, he found the perfect environment to conduct his pet projects.

After a few decades, Bones' endeavors were snuffed by a foe more personal than public disclosure, catastrophic failure, or deliberate sabotage: his own waning interest. While intrigued by the potential of television, his passion for it waned as though it had for the magic lantern before it. His attempt at writing for a show that specifically was designed as a vehicle for his lore drew a backlash from his studio, annoying him to no ends. As he withdrew his support shortly thereafter, he turned towards finance as his media investments faltered.

Yet after the financial crash of 2008 and over a decade and a half of the War on Terror, Bones was once more inexplicably drawn towards his media. As the internet changed the presentation of media, he was pleasantly surprised to find an enduring community of fans of his old franchises. Thus, his interest in media renewed once more, he once more directly tried his hand in writing. While the fan outcry regarding his decisions was substantial, he nevertheless pressed onwards. After all, his decisions were principally made to benefit himself first. Any benefit to the rest of the world was strictly circumstantial and cursory.

Despite seeing sanity-shattering horrors and mind-bending wonders alike, Bones never expanded his vision beyond his own solipsism. Other beings of similar longevity did so, wearing their experiences like the press of tectonic plates upon them or reveling in the joys of adventure. Yet such sublime insights rarely crossed his mind, for his mindset began and ended with his momentary desires. Despite being older than recorded history, he was still a selfish child. Thus, when the communications stopped and shooting started, he sent his bodyguards to kill the prop-maker he'd used to bait his current enemies here. One set of toys had outlived their usefulness, and now was time to clean up.

Racing Time

Alex's lungs screamed for air as she sprinted down the dirt road. While she exercised on a regular basis, she realized how much endurance mattered. While she was winded, the drone hovering in front of her like a guardian angel was not. She raced through what she'd have to say to Jay, or if she should just grab him and run. She knew he'd probably have a lot of questions and be terrified. She knew she'd be, should the circumstances be reversed.

Alex wondered what Jay thought of the Orochi mercenaries' presence, or if he simply put them out of mind as a way to deter paparazzi. If she did not make it on time, then she knew it would be for naught. Her last drone was strictly an observation unit, with no weapons beyond its cameras and sensors. Its buzz was as reassuring as the two derringers concealed in the spring-loaded holsters up her sleeve. The hammers on both were cocked and ready to go. She hoped she wouldn't have to use them, but hope was not sufficient to stay her wrath if something happened to Jay.

Alex arrived at the set, clad in a gray hoodie, to find a panicked mob of people frantically and futilely trying to call for help. She saw a middle aged man trying to hot-wire a sedan that stubbornly refused to start. She saw two young women trying to smash their way into an SUV, in hopes of making an escape by road. She realized that while she'd blocked the road, she still had a very limited window to find her boyfriend and exfiltrate. She realized that the local police would likely respond in force once the staff escaped back to civilization, so she sprinted towards the trailer with the green parrot log of Kea Workshop.

Alex saw she was not alone in descending on that trailer. Two mercenaries, rifles raised and ready to go, moved towards it with a comfortable gait. She ran towards the trailer and tried opening the door, wondering if Jay would mistakenly ambush her with the improvised weapons he'd often designed. She shook on the doorway and waited, seeing the blue uniformed enemies with big guns approaching. She saw Jay's face cautiously appear from the window as the mercenaries arrived. They swung their guns towards him and Alex, ready to end them in one salvo.

With her honed reflexes, Alex shot one in the neck while sending the drone into the other's face. The quadcopter buzzed like a maddened bird as it smashed itself against the man's helmet, and the mercenary's fire went wild. The mercenary's last act was to smash away the drone with his rifle butt, only for his target to respond like a killer automaton. She took the opportunity to shoot him in the groin, and once more in the face. His bloodied body slumped to the ground, and Jay stared at her with frightful, wide-opened eyes.

"A-alex?" he asked cautiously. "What are you doing here?"

"They were trying to kill you," she said. "Come with me if you want to live."

Jay's raised brows hinted at a barrage of coming questions, but he wisely withheld the quizzical torrent to leave the trailer with a backpack. Alex grabbed his hand, and they sprinted back down the road they came in on. She saw that the panicked staff were now battling each other for cars, and some clear victors were emerging in the scuffle. She was thankful to whatever gods watched over her for providing her both with extra time to escape and more time to spend with Jay. Behind her, she thought she saw the others emerge from the woods, but she focused on her own top priority. Together, they climbed into the caravan, and she drove to the rendezvous point while explaining everything to Jay.

Laying Bones

Benny emerged from the woods to find a riotous scene in the staff trailers. Two dead mercenaries outside the Kea Workshop trailer, as well as the lack of forced entry or familiar bodies, were all he need to know to intuit that Alex and Jay were safe. Behind him, Jack and Dexter came out and searched for the gaudiest trailer in the park. With a captured grenade launcher in hand, Dex directed Jack's aim towards it. Before continuing, they ensured their baklavas and protective goggles were on tight, such as their features would be harder to discern.

Ben covered his ears as the explosion sent a fresh wave of panic through the set. The trailer of the man behind the Attic vanished in a gray cloud of roiling smoke and scattered dirt. The shockwave knocked the vehicle on its side, but Jack moved in quickly with his shotgun and Dex followed him. Dex fired a few rounds into the trailer, but shook his head. A feeling of failure crested in his mind, as though the man they'd come to slay had evaded them once more. Any of the convoy of leaving vehicles could have him inside it, he feared.

Dex gestured to the others, and he directed Benny to hang north of the park while he and Jack headed into the raucous mass of people. While Benny did not see what transpired, he easily guessed from the sounds and shouting he heard. He heard the discharge of Dex's rifle into the air, likely his last rounds, and the shouting that came afterwards. Dex barked like a drill sergeant to the crowd, talking in a passible Australian accent. "Where's Bones? He stiffed us at Orochi!" he shouted, getting into character. "Give us to him, and you'll all go free!"

There was a silence for a moment before a single voice in the crowd replied. The voice was feeble, as if fearing reprisal by unseen karmic agents. "He's by the arch."

The rancor started once more, but the exchange gave Benny bearing to search for the object of his enmity. Jack and Dex would be occupied with crowd control, so he knew the pursuit would lie upon him. He turned towards the stone arch, a prop made in imitation of the similar landmark in the fictional Englewood. He remembered expressing curiosity about the proportions and size of a real-life Gate of Anuriel, only to find the question answered while he searched their target.

Ben saw a familiar figure moving under the garage door-sized Gate. He saw the ornate, gold-leafed leather armor. He saw the longbow, a weapon covered with overly expensive carvings. He saw the brace of curved daggers, each bearing an jewel in the hilt. He saw the actor's hair reflecting in the sun. He saw the smug grin that marched across Bart Bones' face like a hungry shark. Rage surged through his mind as he recognized his target. With the zeal of a betrayed fan, he drew the pistol and emptied the magazine under duress, but hit only air. He discarded the useless weapon and charged forward with his longbow, opting to use the most familiar tools to him.

Benny sprinted towards his quarry under a line of trees whose branches were reminiscent of an arboreal cathedral. His first arrow was turned aside by the false Toriel's the deftly wielded blades. Cursing, he loosed another arrow, only for it to meet the same fate as the first. Having depleted his most powerful custom arrows in the exchange with the mercenaries, he unleashed what little remained in his arsenal, only for the Bones' flashing steel to divert them like so many cinematic special effects. He aimed at the heart, head, chest, knees, and groin, but to no avail. Bones bounded forwards with each step, nonchalantly cutting down the arrows Ben threw at him.

Benny guessed why Bones was charging him instead of retreating deeper into the woods. He guessed the costume offered no protection against his arrows, but the blades did. Thus, it was logical that Bones planned to cut him down and then fall back, as to preclude himself from being felled by an arrow to the back. Likewise, if he was killed quickly, then his friends would be unable to join him and provide support fire. Guessing his enemy's strategy, he pulled out his own daggers. Given what Bones was capable of, his own blades were plenty lethal.

"Ah, the one with the bow. You must be Benjamin Bear," said Bones in an accent Benny couldn't place, one with slowly enunciated consonants and elongated vowels that brought to mind detached utterance. "My sources tell me you were a fan of the show."

"Not of you," he said as he circled back, looking for a non-existent opening in Bones' stance. "Give up. We've got you."

"There would be no show if not for me," Bones said, grinning slyly. "You know, I based Toriel's adventures on my own hunting experiences, and I based his appearance upon my own."

Benny flailed wildly with his two blades, only for Bones to catch each of them without effort. He felt minor cuts on his hands and wrist, jerking backwards from the pain. He realized why Bones was so confident, as the actor was playing with him like a cat with a wounded mouse. While Ben took pride in his archery skills, he understood that melee combat was something he was largely unfamiliar with. While the actor's bow was quite useless for real archery, the blades were more than sufficient to kill him. From the deftness of each of his strikes, there was no reason he could not skip them under his armor whenever he felt like it.

"You know what's ironic?" Bones asked, before answering his own question. "You patterned your worthless life around me, buying and acquiring plastic baubles of your superior. You hunted creatures far more docile than I did. You wasted your life in the house you grew up in. I am Toriel, as far as an insect like you is concerned."

"No, you're not," Benny said, a defiant smirk on his face. "You're a just a bad cosplayer, and an even more awful writer."

Bones smashed the handle of his left-handed dagger into Benny's helmet too fast to react. He felt his consciousness and sense of balance betrayed him, while his eyes were blinded by a strobe of impossible colors. Another blow came down on him, this one making him taste warm blood on his tongue. He staggered about for a moment, slashing wildly in hopes of striking something. He saw Bones drive his foot into his chest, sending him sprawling on the ground. He loomed high over him, like a victorious titan looming above the parapets of a fallen keep.

"I wish I could take longer, but I must depart," Bones said, as he raised his dagger for the final blow.

Benny forced himself up, only to be battered down by a knee to the jaw. Bones leapt on him, pressing the dagger to his exposed neck. The edge of the blade drew a thin crimson line in his flesh. Remembering how Toriel faced death, Ben spit in his face as Bones prepared to cut his throat. While tempted to give up and close his eyes, he stared at the looming terminus of his own life and struggled with all his might against the descending blade. It did not help him.

Benny kept his eyes opened during the whole spectacle, but he almost flinched. A gunshot resounded through the forest, and a red-stain appeared on Bones' chest. Seizing the opportunity, Benny rolled around on top of his nemesis and drew the dagger above his head. He saw Dex's smoking revolver out of the corner of his eye, and he knew he was in good hands.

"You know why you're never going to be Toriel?" Benny asked. "Because Toriel has friends."

Ben plunged the dagger into Bones' eye once. He did it again to the other eye, and then repeated it until nothing remained of his gaze but sanguine pulp mixed with the remnants of his eyeball. He did not stop stabbing until Dex pulled him off the corpse. He knew it was time to go. He saw Jack grab his discarded weapons, and he joined them as they ran into the brush.

Behind them, Benny left the demon that haunted his childhood in a pool of his own blood. As they ran through the West Coast rainforest, he failed to prevent himself from considering Bones' words. He wondered if he was a failure at life, reliving the muted shadow of his childhood rather than growing up. He settled on an answer of how to spend the rest of his life that he thought Toriel would approve of. His doubts vanished when the trio joined Jay and Alex in the caravan.

Closing the Attic

The braying of seagulls awoke Alex as she emerged from a bed that gently rocked back and forth like an idyllic lullaby. Jay was still asleep, and he undoubtedly was still struggling to understand what transpired in the two months since the movie set incident. She could scarcely believe it herself at times, although she was grateful she escaped with her life and Jay's. Had it gone just a little different, they'd be dead.

Alex had to give Dex massive credit for how he handled it, given the nearly flawless cover-up about some disgruntled Orochi veterans chasing down a major shareholder on-set. The New Zealand Prime Minister faced a scandal about illegal mercenaries and weapons trafficking, but it vanished amidst the fallout from a more trite, trivial affair involving pandering to dairy industry investors. She wondered what the cost was to Dex, and she decided not to think about it. She'd had enough cleaning other people's messes.

Alex was not ungrateful, though. After Bones' death, his empire was broken up by the other faceless conspirators in the Attic. Dex managed to secure an undisclosed sum for their actions, and he gave each of them a substantial amount. With her share, she cleared her student loans, purchased the catamaran of her dreams, and relocated to Wellington, New Zealand with enough money to become self-employed. Jay and her now worked as armorers and weapons designers under contract to Kea Workshop, and her own arsenal was donated to the cause.

Alex knew she had a busy day ahead of her. There was a massive new order she had to fill, on account of a short film she'd be contracted to supply props for. She knew that Benny was directly at fault for it, as the toy-broker used his share to establish a formal business, travel to conventions around the world, and launch a successful crowd-funding campaign to reboot the Elves of Englewood movie and screenplay. She and Jay would have to spend time designing fantasy swords and armor for the revised script, and she was confident she could capture the necessary aesthetics from the series. If she ever had any questions, Ben would excitedly answer them.

Alex had not heard much from Dex and Jack since their rapid departure from New Zealand. She'd heard through the grapevine that Dexter was reorganizing the Attic's archives into a research group for the supernatural, under the guise of a private defense contractor. He was collaborating with Risona Research, which was certainly going to produce some interesting results. He'd requested her assessment of a few things, which she ensured were limited to writing and editorial feedback. He had the resources, training, and connections to operate in that murky ecosystem, which she had no desire to return to, despite the curiosity that incessantly gnawed at her mind when she ruminated too much about it.

Lastly, Alex was aware that Jack Yeager had truly cleaned up his act. He'd paid off his debts, settled any legal issues against him, and then made plans to move across country. Jack had requested her help starting an online series about the secret history of sports and famous athletes, but he'd required time to gather his preliminary material. While the premise was interesting, she'd be the first to admit her own lack of knowledge on the subject manner. Given the natural overlap between athletic prowess and martial enhancement, she wondered if the Attic explored such things in a similarly insidious manner to how they dealt with children's entertainment.

Alex sometimes found herself wondering about her departed sister, Miranda, and her friend Hope. Both had fallen to the first creature she'd helped kill, and it ended when the monster behind the creature fell. She recalled reading about how military veterans and disaster survivors struggled to readjust to normal life afterwards, from the lack of familiarity to post-traumatic stress disorder. She sometimes wondered if she had those, but Jay anchored her to the present. With a certain wistfulness, she mused that the excitement of her past life could be recaptured. Considering the price paid, she decided against it. While melancholic reminiscence could not restore lost time, people still demanded them. She then looked forward to new memories and new friends, and hoped her work would inspire both in those that would see the film. She stepped out of the cabin and into the rising sun.

The Man in the Attic

Director Dexter Danforth looked out the window at the setting sun. The celestial orb sank below the horizon like an overripe fruit plummeting into a yawning abyss. Golden rays filtered into the room like the brush-strokes of a master painter. He folded his hands behind his body, as he saw his suited reflection in the mirror. He wondered if he was growing a much-feared paunch, and he decided to adjust his diet accordingly.

Dexter was not alone in the room. Swaddled in shadow was a figure best left in darkness. The desk before him was rich mahogany, yet well-preserved for its age. He saw the polished brass nameplate on it, reading the name of man at the desk, "Ambrose James, PhD." Dex looked away from making eye-contact, as though fearing to see a face the crypt should have concealed. His words echoed in the room like a tomb-borne echo. "Director Danforth, I approve of your plans for Hodgson Strategic Consulting," James said. "The company is entirely yours."

"I thank you for your understanding, Doctor," Dex said, bowing his head. "Dr. Risona and his ilk have their eccentricities, but they're treasure troves of information regarding the supernatural and strange."

"From what I believe, their knowledge is well beyond our own in certain areas."

"Yes, considering the near total loss of the assets the Juvenalia Task Force dealt with, much basic research remains to be recovered," Dex said, pausing. "But this time, we're not going to sink to their level."

"I applaud your optimism, Director," James said before a nervous chuckle. "But many in the Attic started off with the best intentions."

"But they didn't know when to quit. I believe we have a stronger sense of conscience and better sense of risk management than those scumbags."

"Ah, yes, sometimes we must know when to fold. But what assurance do I have that you won't do the same?"

Dex checked a message on his phone and grinned. "Because, Dr. James, you work for me now."

James said nothing.

"I work with you because you've got a soul, even if you don't have the looks," Dex said. "On the plus side, I'm not as afraid of aging as I used to be."

"Growing old is mandatory, Director. Growing up is optional."

Dex chuckled. "Yeah, I know some people like that."

"Like you?"

"Especially me. Now the Task Force's disbanded, we're going to need a new team," Dex said. "I'd rather stay out of the field this time."

"Understandable. Do you have any suggestions for that?"

"Risona's recommended a few people. There's our expat friend in Central America, for instance," he said. "Of course, there's always the Locust, if we contact the right channels. Then there's the Singaporean team and our Miskatonic collaborators. And that's before getting into the ones that FitzClews is recommending."

"I'll look over the full list later," James said. "But are none of the original Task Force interested?"

"Nope. Shame, too, because they were good at it," Dex said. "But people change."

"Sometimes not for the better."

"Hell, I'll be the first to admit that," Dex said. "I'm not what I used to be. I'm better."

He smiled as he beheld the sunset.