I'd like to thank all of my loyal fans for being so patient with me! You guys are fantastic and I hope you enjoy! But shit, from now on, I finish a series before I start uploading. The stress is a bitch.
Stopping his car at the end of his driveway, Alex got out and checked the mailbox. Inside, he found a heavy cardboard cylinder and a manila envelope. Returning to his car at the end of the long dirt lane, he opened up the packages. Having finally returned home after his trip to Antarctica, he was doing everything he could to buy himself time before he would have to confront his family. He had been gone for two weeks and he didn’t really leave a good reason or excuse. He had just written a note that said that there was something he had to do and he would be gone for a while. He hadn’t answered any of his parents’ calls or told them where he was going.
Inside the manila envelope, he found a book of BSC information and protocols, as well as a smaller envelope containing his BSC credentials. Nineteen years old and he was an intern for a secret international organization with ties to every government, damn. As much as he wished that the Black Stigmata had never found him, looking at the laminated ID and the training manual filled him with a strange sense of pride. Finally he could do something, he could help out and prevent tragedies from occurring. He had already read through a lot of information on BSC rules and tactics when he flew with Nelson to Australia, but the manual was the real solid information he would need in order to do good.
Inside the cylinder, he found a large metal canister. It was somewhat similar to the flare launcher he had seen at the Antarctic base, but with a keypad on the side. Nelson had told him about these things before they parted ways in Antarctica. Canisters like these were used to trap the Black Stigmata, and should he actually get his hands on a nail (and only while wearing gloves), he had to immediately seal the artifact in the canister and call up the BSC superiors in the area. They would take his canister and give him a new one, as well as take the host into protective custody.
“This is real…” He murmured to himself.
He looked back at his house, past a row of trees in the curve of the unpaved driveway, about five hundred meters from the road. Maybe he could rent a motel room for the night until he figured out what he would tell his family… No, no, he had to do this. Damn, this was the real downside of being nineteen: it’s even more unbelievable to say you work for the government than anyone else. If he told his parents what he was doing, what he had done, and what he was going to do, they would think he was pulling a prank on them or had fallen for some spam mail joke and just wasted all of his money on a fake ID card and pimped out soup thermos.
‘Nothing left to do…’ He thought to himself, shifting hid car back into drive and moving up the dirt driveway. It was late in the afternoon on the weekend, so of course his parents were home. Great.
Coming to a stop in front of the house, he got out with his duffle bag over his shoulder and his BSC tools in his hands. Taking one deep breath after another, he moved up the cold stone steps, climbed onto the creaky paint-stripped porch, and pushed open the door.
“Mom, dad, I’m home!”
In a measure of time so small that he could not think up a word for it, his mom appeared before him a like a genie from its lamp and smacked him so hard that he was knocked to the ground.
“WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU BEEN YOU INCONSIDERATE LITTLE SHIT?! TWO WEEKS WITHOUT A SINGLE PHONE CALL! I’VE BEEN WORRIED SICK ABOUT YOU!” She screeched like pterodactyl.
“I’m sorry! There was something I had to do and I couldn’t tell anyone! I didn’t even know how to explain it!” Alex exclaimed, shielding himself from his mother’s smacks.
Like a shark lunging out of the water to catch a seal, his dad’s hair-backed hand came into view and clamped around his collar. He was dragged to his feet and pulled through the house like a bag of garbage. He was then thrown at the kitchen table, banging the side of his stomach on the corner with enough force to leave an immediate bruise. By tomorrow morning, it would be jet-black and stretch up from his hip to his armpit. Head spinning, he looked around and saw his parents standing over him, while behind them, Colleen stood with a pair of crutches under her arms and a look of both concern and anger on her face.
“Start talking.” His dad ordered without his teeth ever separating.
Sighing, Alex placed the containment canister on the dinner table. At the sight of the metal item, Colleen gasped with her face as white as the ground outside.
“Is this about that nail? The one I found in your car?” She murmured, thinking back to when she met Professor Nelson in the hospital. She had been under anesthesia with only one working eye, but she remembered that meeting clearly and what had happened. The canister was exactly like the one Nelson had used to lock up that strange nail. Both teens’ parents shifted their gaze back and forth between them, wondering what Colleen was talking about.
“Colleen, did you know about this?” Her mom asked.
“i… uh… not really. When I was in the hospital, some guy named Nelson came into my room and asked me if I had found a nail since Alex was arrested. He said that it was a matter of life and death and that he was trying to help Alex. I told him the nail was in my bag and he took it and put it in a cylinder like that one.” She shrugged, unsure of what else to say.
“I wish I could have gone without telling all of you, but it seems like that option flew out the window. The man you met was my history teacher, Professor Nelson. He’s also one of the chief consultants for an international organization that operates similar to the UN and Interpol. It’s called the BSC. Colleen, that nail…” Alex trailed off, unable to look at her. Shifting his gaze to the ground with his hands clenched into trembling fists, he resumed speaking.
“It’s because you found that nail that you were attacked. That nail is called the Black Stigmata and there are millions or even billions more out there. They’re cursed, they’re pure fucking evil. Anyone who gets close to one has their life ruined.”
“What is this bullshit?” His father asked impatiently while his mother went to console Colleen, who was beginning to hyperventilate as she thought back to the nail and her rape.
“It’s what drove Tim Jones mad!” Alex shouted, shocking everyone so deeply that Colleen’s panic attack was smothered with fear.
“It was in his house, I found it when I went inside. It twisted my mind as soon as I laid eyes on it and I was compelled to take it! Ever since then, it has tormented me with nightmares and hallucinations. It has been trying to make me commit the same crimes that Tim had; that’s what it does. It latches onto someone like a parasite and makes them suffer or forces them to make others suffer.
That night when I went to Christi’s place, when I was pulled over…. The nail killed that cop because he got in its way and tried to take it from me. Nelson came and helped me, he arranged for me to be kept in solitary confinement because it was the only way to cure me of the nail’s influence. Because I was gone, Colleen found the nail. In that locker room, it stripped those three girls of their inhibitions and their humanity and turned them into sadists.”
“You have got a lot of nerve if you think a story that bad will cover your ass.” His dad growled.
“It was a Black Stigmata nail that triggered the prison riot and brought down that plane, I saw the nail itself and spoke with the man who brought it in. This is why I never told anyone about how I escaped, because I wanted to keep it a secret. That nail drove everyone in the prison insane and caused them to commit the most brutal acts of torture on each other. I’m not talking about just prisoners, guards were going insane and butchering each other. I had to kill almost twenty people in order to escape, using guns I stole from some SWAT officers who slaughtered each other.
Dad… I saw people in the hallways eating each other. I saw guards peel away strips of flesh from corpses and chew on it like a raw steak. I saw men stabbed over and over again so that they could be raped in the stab wounds. I saw lynched bodies burning. I saw guards and prisoners alike holding makeshift spears with corpses skewered on the end, showering blood by the liter with every shake. I saw a man… bury a kitchen knife in his throat, carve open his chest down to his pelvis, pull open the sides, and let his organs spill out onto the floor before dying. I saw over a hundred people chase me like rabid dogs, screaming at the top of their lungs and covered in blood, knowing that they would kill me in the most brutal way possible. I saw a plane fall out of the sky and crash into the prison like salt being poured onto a wound in my very soul.”
The way Alex spoke, with that dry zombie-like tone and dead eyes that stared off into the distance, was unlike anything his parents or his sister had ever seen. Alex had always been a skilled liar, but this… this was real trauma.
“I told Christi all about it and she can back me up. After I escaped, I went to see Christi and Nelson found me, then he let me visit Colleen.” He then added. Their parents’ eyes shifted to her.
“It’s true, he visited me and said he would be gone for a while.” She admitted.
“I asked if I could become a member of the BSC and he said only after I managed to fully break free of the Black Stigmata’s control. I was sent to that rehabilitation clinic, not for PTSD or just to keep me locked up until my fake trial. I was there so that I could undergo a cold-turkey cleansing process to free myself. Using drugs to forever scar my mind, I endured the most brutal 48 hours anyone this side of Purgatory can imagine.
After that, Nelson and I went to Australia, where we found something that told us the whole story of the Black Stigmata. I was there for a week, helping the BSC any way I could. The reason why I left again was because they finally finished decoding it and Nelson wanted me to know the truth. While I was there, I got my picture taken, filled out all the proper paperwork, and became an employee of the BSC. Actually, I’m just an intern…” As he spoke, he handed his laminated ID to his father,
“You want to know why the state is going to Hell? It’s because the Black Stigmata are multiplying like rabbits and driving everyone insane. My job as a BSC employee is to help identify hosts and acquire nails before they can do any harm, using this canister. Think of it as like a miniature nuclear flask. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am SEVERELY jetlagged and I am going to bed.”
“So how did your parents take it?” Christi asked, speaking to Alex through their cell phones. He was sitting in a snowy parking lot in Portland, having just filled out his fifth job application. In front of him now was a McDonalds application. Damn, his parents had always told him to study hard and get into a good college so that he would never have to flip burgers. Thanks a lot Black Stigmata. He had been briefly working before, but he was fired when he left for Antarctica.
“I can’t really say, I went to bed as soon as I got home and left before anyone else got up. Actually, I just hid in my room and read through the manual until I finally fell asleep. You should have seen my mom when I stepped through that door. She was like the old woman from Legion but taller and younger. Luckily, my story was so outlandish and unbelievable that they couldn’t even continue yelling.”
As he spoke, he blew into his hands for the umpteenth time. He would have to start up the engine and turn the heat on for a couple minutes before the car became an icebox. He missed Antarctica…
“I can’t blame them, I still can’t believe it’s all true. So will you please tell me what you found or where you went?”
“Nelson was already pissed off at himself for saying we were leaving for Australia in front of you. I shouldn’t have even told my family about the Black Stigmata and the BSC. If I tell anyone anything, he’ll rip off the top of my cranium and use it as an ashtray. Those were his exact words. Listen, I will tell you someday. Let’s just say that what we found will revolutionize everything. We may finally able to stop the Black Stigmata or at least fight back.”
“I sure hope so, I don’t feel safe leaving the house anymore.”
“I can’t say I blame you. Listen, I’m going to keep looking around for any places hiring then I’ll head over.”
“That might be a bad idea, then you’ll have to explain to MY parents where you were.”
“Well I’ll just tell them that I had a very vivid dream of a music festival somewhere and I felt that I HAD to attend. I’ll say it had something to do with my PTSD.”
“Why didn’t you say that to your parents?”
“Even if I tried to milk the PTSD thing, they still would have beaten the shit out of me. Colleen wouldn’t be the only one in a wheelchair.”
“If you say so. I’ll see you later.”
“Bye.” Alex said with a small smile before hanging up the phone.
After turning on his car for a brief few minutes to enjoy the warmth of the heater, he finished the last of his job applications and put aside his pen with an achy hand. He had been sitting in his car for more than an hour and he wanted to get up and move, even if meant walking through the February weather.
Still bearing some heightened endurance to cold from his coma, he got out of his car and started walking with the job application forms held tightly under his arm. If he remembered correctly, the bookstore was closest to his position. Trekking through the falling snow on the filthy sidewalk, he noted the absence of people out in the streets. It seemed that Christi wasn’t the only person afraid of leaving their home. With all the chaos going on, there were probably more cops and BSC agents than civilians outside at the moment.
But it could also have been the weather keeping everyone inside. It was frigid outside and the snowy wind did not make it any better. So much sand and salt had been laid out to fight the endless layers of snow that the lines on the road and even the bricks in the sidewalk were no longer visible. The snow was certainly beautiful as it fell, but even Mainers get sick of winter.
As he turned his attention away from the first car to drive by in over five minutes, he spotted a piece of paper stuck to the ground with something written on it in pen. Normally not drawn to pieces of garbage, he felt compelled to see the scribbles. It was a receipt, probably dropped earlier that day or the day before, listing for two coffees and a bag of cinnamon rolls from Dunkin Donuts. Drawn on the back in pen was a line of symbols from the Black Stigmata. This was clearly the work of a host. Alex had always felt a nearly overwhelming urge to write down the symbols of the Black Stigmata when he was in his prison cell.
Pulling out his cellphone and his wallet, he checked his BSC ID card and typed in the number on the back.
“Operator.” A woman on the other end of the line announced. He had read this in his instruction manual, BSC receptionists did this to make sure that the person calling was a fellow employee, and not someone who had made a mistake or were just messing around on their phone. Funny, it reminded him of The Matrix.
“This is Alex Stevens, intern in Section 8. My ID number is 6347H2I9Q2.” He read off with a smug sense of professionalism lifting his spirits.
“Welcome to the office of the BSC. How may I direct your call?”
“I’ve identified a possible host in or around the Portland area in Maine. The name is Michele Donovan, that’s all I know. From what I understand, she’s starting to see the symbols.” He answered, squinting at her name on the receipt.
“A search is now underway, thank you for the information.”
“Happy to help.”
Alex then turned off his phone and stowed it, his wallet, and the receipt in his pocket.
‘I wonder how long it will be before I get a promotion…’ He pondered.
“So what would you say are your best qualities?” The man asked, sitting across his desk from Alex in the medium-sized office. Having returned to the bookstore to fill out his application form, he was lucky to be called right in to the manager’s office for an interview. The manager was a scrawny man with pale skin and thinning hair. He seemed very tired and sported distinct bags under his eyes.
“Well I consider myself quite charismatic and I hard worker. I also work fairly well with others.” He replied, being in a good mood after making his first report to the BSC.
“And what kind of position are you looking for?” The manager asked, skimming through Alex’s application while yawning frequently.
“I will take anything you can give me. I’ll work cashier, I’ll stock the shelves, I’ll mop the floors, I’ll clean the toilets, and I’ll even shine your shoes and bring you your coffee. Just sign my paycheck and I’m all yours.”
“And how open is your schedule?”
“I have very little going for me right now but there may be times when I will have to leave for business. Times like those should be rare, so other than that, I can work any possible shift.” As he spoke, he watched the manager roll a pen around in his hand. The tip was poking against his thumb, which already had a blister on it. Alex remembered doing the same thing in jail when he was doing homework. He still had the small round scar on his thumb to prove it. Was this guy…?
“Alright, once I review the other applications I’ve received, I’ll call you if you get the job. But from what I’ve heard, you seem like the best candidate.” The manager said with a yawn as he stood up and extended his arm to shake Alex’s hand. Grasping the manager’s hand Alex decided to test his hypothesis.
“Trouble sleeping?” He asked while he shook the manager’s hand.
“What? Oh… uh, yeah.” The man shrugged.
“Yeah, I had that same problem. Bad dreams?”
“You could say that. They keep waking me up.”
“I know what you mean. I would always be surrounded in darkness with voices screaming in my ears and a bright red light overhead.”
The manager’s hand came to a dead stop and he pulled it free from Alex’s grip.
“Huh… that sounds… pretty creepy.” He muttered, unable to make eye contact with Alex.
“What are your dreams like?” Alex further inquired.
“What? Oh, I never remember them. Now if you would please excuse me, I have work to do.”
“Oh course, of course.” Said Alex, turning to the exit. About to grasp the doorknob, he stopped.
“Oh, before I go, there is something I want to ask you…”
He then reached into his pocket and drew the receipt he had found out in the street.
“This is some kind of puzzle I saw, and supposedly there is a hidden image or message only certain people will see. Can you just take a quick glance at it and tell me if you see anything? I’ve been staring at it all day and can’t figure it out.”
He handed the receipt to the manager, and as soon as his eyes swerved across the scribbled symbols, the paleness in his face became like that of a frozen corpse and he began to tremble. He took a step back, nearly losing his balance as he stared at the symbols. Bingo.
“Do you have it with you?” Alex asked, dropped the façade.
“Have what?” The man asked defensively.
“The nail. Do you have the nail with you?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The man stammered.
‘It’s just like Nelson said; hosts are compelled to lie in order to protect their possession of the nails. I lied because I took the nail as evidence, but he’s lying because it’s twisting his soul like Gollum and the One Ring.’
“Achieve death. Do those words mean anything to you?” The words struck the manager like a slap to the face and he staggered back his face eclipsed with fear.
“Who are you?! Have you been watching me?! Are you some kind of spy?!” He demanded, almost foaming at the mouth.
“No, I haven’t been watching you. Until this meeting, I had no idea you even existed. But I am probably the best person for you to meet today. Listen, you aren’t the only person with a nail like that, but if you hold onto it, you will meet a horrible fate like them! That nail will ruin your life!”
“Stay away form me!” The manager screamed, jumping over the desk and shoving Alex aside. Ripping open the office door, he sprinted down the back corridors with Alex chasing after him. Mentally scolding himself for not yet setting it on speed-dial, Alex typed in the number on the back of his ID card into his cell phone.
“This is Alex Stevens, intern in Section 8. My ID number is 6347H2I9Q2.” He panted, running through the halls and seeing the back door close as he rounded a corner.
“Welcome to the office of the BSC. How may I direct your call?” The receptionist asked as Alex sprinted through the dirty back alley, following the manager’s footprints in the fresh snow.
“I’m in pursuit of a host on Congress Street. He’s a skinny white guy with thinning hair, early to mid forties. His name is Michael Roy.”
“Mr. Stevens, stop what you are doing right now.” The woman said sternly. Alex skidded through the snow with the phone still pressed against his ear.
“What, why?!” He demanded.
“Chasing him down now will only draw attention to the two of you, and unless you have received proper training, you will be unable to defend yourself if he turns violent.”
“But I can catch him! I can stop him!”
“You’ll just get in the way. You’ve identified him and that’s more than enough. It’s time for you to stand down.”
“There has to be something I can do!”
“You’ve already done all you are capable of. We will freeze his assets, put lookouts at his home and friends’ homes, and send his image to the media and local police. Your job is done, now let us do ours.”
As he turned off his phone, a thought entered his mind. Was it possible? Returning to the bookstore, he entered through the front door and walked right past the cashiers, ignoring their questions and he strolled into the back of the building and found the manager’s office. After pulling out and putting on a pair of surgical gloves, he searched through the manager’s desk for the nail. Receiving no promising results, he turned his attention to the manager’s coat, hanging from the back of his chair.
Reaching into the right pocket, his blood became like cold mud in his veins as his fingers brushed up against the solid iron of the Black Stigmata nail. Even with latex separating him from the smooth surface, Alex felt like the nail was fusing to his fingers. He gripped his skull and cursed, feeling the Black Stigmata’s will weighing down on his mind like a lead collar. The Black Stigmata was trying to re-establish its hold on him, but the damage his mind had received in the coma had left him as an unsuitable host and given him some immunity. Regardless, Alex now felt like he had just reached into the den of a Black Mamba and its tail was writhing against his fingers.
Taking a deep breath, he drew the nail from the coat pocket and examined it in the light. Its appearance was exactly like the nail he had found in his neighbor’s home and the nail that had triggered the prison riot. Regardless of age and regardless of their existence as separate objects, these nails shared a hive mind that transcended the logical realm. In his hands, he was holding the very same force that had ruined his life. He was holding the nail that had killed that cop, that had raped his sister, and had forced him to torture and eat an innocent woman. He felt like a child holding the knife used to murder his parents.
Shaking aside these troubling thoughts, he quickly left the bookstore and walked back to his car. Once inside, he opened up his sealing canister, submerged the nail in the interior water-filled capsule, and secured it in a hovering vacuum, thereby locking away its influence. Once again, Alex drew his cellphone and typed in the thirteen digit number,
“This is Alex Stevens, intern in Section 8. My ID number is 6347H2I9Q2.”
“Welcome to the office of the BSC. How may I direct your call?” A woman asked.
“I have found a Black Stigmata nail. I’ve locked it up in my canister and now I just need someone to pick it up.”
Alex arrived home just before midnight, happy with the knowledge that his family had gone to bed. In the fridge, he found a plate of leftovers from dinner, but no note or anything. It seemed like his parents weren’t even comfortable with one-way communication. He ate the food cold and went upstairs. His evening with Christi hadn’t been as restful as he had hoped, he had been unable to take his mind of the escaped bookstore manager. As he entered the bathroom to brush his teeth, the activation of the light shined down the hallway and passed through Colleen’s open door.
Awoken by the fluorescent beam, she rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and checked the time. Alex must have come back. She hadn’t seen him since his arrival home the day before, and he had left her with more questions than answers. Every moment since his arrival had been spent wondering if he was telling the truth. Now was the best time she would have to confront him. Still unable to fully walk on her own, she pulled herself out of bed and balanced herself on her crutches. By the time she was up on her feet, Alex had left the bathroom and gone to his room.
Wanting to avoid waking her parents, Colleen moved down the hall as silently as she could, approaching Alex’s door. It was open just enough for her to poke her head through and see Alex sitting on his bed. His alarm clock and the moonlit window shades were the only sources of illumination. Sitting there, Alex was unable to keep his mind away from that man. What had happened to him? Had he escaped? Had he been found? Was he still trapped in the Black Stigmata’s web? Had he even degenerated into the psychotic stage or possibly begun performing the steps to create new nails? Would Alex have done the same thing if he had possessed his nail any longer? Would he have freaked out when the cop tried to take it from him? He had found a nail and identified two hosts… but he felt hollow.
About to make her presence known, Colleen hesitated when Alex’s phone began to ring. It was Nelson.
“I heard you had a busy first day.”
“It’s not like you to be so concerned.”
“I’m not, I’m calling to scold you. I heard that a receptionist had to talk you down from a Die Hard adrenalin rush? You were supposed to have read that manual front to back more than five times before even SPEAKING to a host.”
“It wasn’t like that! I just didn’t want him to get away! He was in my sight, I could have caught him, I could have stopped him! I was right there! And I did read the manual, I was up all night studying every page over and over again!” Alex shot back as he stood up and turned to the window.
“Well what could you have done then Alex? What could you have done? Would you have taken him down with some fancy martial arts like Jason Bourne? Would you have shot him like Raylan Givens? What could you have possibly done other than get in the way and get yourself hurt or killed?”
“I could have done SOMETHING! I could have actually made a difference! I got his nail but I didn’t get him! For all I know, he could be out there killing people because I couldn’t catch him!” He barked, barely able to contain his voice.
“Learn your place and learn your role. It’s far too early for you to confront hosts, let alone chase them down. Crazed targets have killed better members of the BSC than you, you wouldn’t last a minute if you tried to go out on your own without weapons and training. Give it time, you’ll get the proper training and experience soon enough.”
“Damn it Nelson, there isn’t time! How can you expect me to wait when the people around me are slowly burning in this Hell on earth?! I don’t care if I get hurt, I don’t care if I die! I just want to protect people from the same cursed life you and I have been forced to live, and save them from being victimized like my sister! The people of this state can’t afford to wait for me to slowly figure this out over time! I’ve been selfish and indifferent my whole life, and now I’ve finally found something to give my life for. If I died tomorrow, I would be happy, as long as I died knowing that I had saved someone from this curse instead of just standing on the sidelines as some useless intern.” He said with a strong yet trembling voice.
Colleen watched him standing by the window with her heart racing. Ever since Alex had come back from the rehabilitation center, he had been far quieter and more stoic than his usual self. He never joked, he rarely laughed, and he always seemed like he was skeptical that the world around him was real. When he had first walked towards her on that cold autumn day, she had seen something but never really gave it much thought, even in the months that passed. But now, seeing him with his back to her, she finally realized that his shoulders were much broader than before and his build was like that of an actual man and not some dopey college student.
With a smile, she turned away from his door and slowly and silently made her way back to her room. Her questions could wait, and now she had a new question: when did her big brother suddenly become so grown up?
“Stubborn punk.” Nelson muttered as he jammed his phone back into his coat pocket.
“Ready?” The guard beside him asked.
With another two guards behind him, Nelson walked down the sterile white hallway with a roll of papers under his arm, similar to an architect’s blueprints. The facility he was currently in was one of a BSC jurisdiction and had been established in Siberia. While every surface of the corridor was bleach-white, the guards wore dark-grey uniforms with BSC stitched onto the chest pockets and IDs hanging on their shoulders. Walking past the endless line of heavy locked doors, Nelson strained his ears to hear the prisoners inside. Their mutterings were incessant and consisted of all the world’s languages.
This building was a cross between a mental health facility and a prison. The inmates? Hosts who had undergone the drug treatment but failed to break free of the Black Stigmata’s control. When someone underwent the treatment, those who survived were divided into three categories: successful subjects like Nelson and Alex who now had free minds, brain-dead vegetables who would spend the rest of their lives drooling, and hosts who would forever be slaves to the Black Stigmata. It was a probable ending to the treatment, in which the drugs and the Black Stigmata shatter the will of the recipient, and the Black Stigmata, which would normally be shaken off like a rodeo cowboy, instead secures a hold so deep in the host’s psyche that they will never be free. They could be a thousand miles from the nearest nail but still act as though one were lodged in their frontal lobe.
For hosts that fell into that last category, this building would forever be their home and their grave. Once someone was considered a failure, they were forever locked up in this frozen wasteland, kept away from the general public. Had Nelson or Alex failed, they would have ended up in padded cells with their limbs locked in straightjackets or tied down to their cots. Most of the subjects were forever in the psychotic stage, always gnashing their teeth and cursing, having to be tied down and fed through an IV while catheters took care of their bowls and bladder.
The rest had the tiniest semblance of sanity, but were obsessed with the Black Stigmata. Without their straightjackets, they would scribble the symbols onto the walls of the cell in their own blood, over and over again until every surface was covered in a thick red paste. They weren’t even allowed to use toilets, many inmates had drowned themselves in the water or cracked their skulls open. They just crapped on the floor and the cell would be hosed out with a drain in the corner to channel away the waste. Nelson often wondered why the BSC bothered taking care of these people. They might as well just be put down like sick animals. In the back of his mind, he wondered if the reason why the inmates weren’t allowed to ever use their hands was because it was just easier than having to clean up the blood.
Coming to a stop, the guard leading Nelson unlocked the cell door in front of him. Inside the padded chamber, a bald man sat on the floor with his back to the wall, rocking back and forth while pulling at his straightjacket ceaselessly.
“Antoine Jacques?” Nelson asked.
“Who wants to know?” The Canadian replied, speaking in French.
“Someone who needs your help.” Said Nelson, switching to the same language. Antoine turned back to him.
“I smell death on you. I smell blood.” He giggled.
“No, that’s just the smell of cigarettes.”
“What do you want? What’s in it for me?”
“You want to write, don’t you? You want to write the symbols?”
Antoine looked away.
“They’re screaming at me, begging to be written! I must see them written! I must create them and fulfill them! Just one finger, if I could use a single finger!” He exclaimed, pulling ravenously at his restraints.
“Well then, you will be able to write to your heart’s content. However, only under the condition that you do THIS.”
The professor then unrolled the large modern-day scroll and held it out in front of Antoine. Even with the only light source coming from behind Nelson, Antoine stared at it with wide eyes, as if gazing at the blueprints for a time machine made by both God and the Devil.
“What is this? How can this be possible?!” Antoine stammered, having both no idea what he was looking at but also feeling crushed under the weight of its meaning.
“It’s your instruction manual.”
Alex stared down the barrel of the gun with a straight face, his heart beating not in fear of what was happening, but excitement for what was about to happen. With every muscle in his body acting simultaneously, he ducked his face down as if to bow, reached up and grabbed the woman’s hands, and kicked her just above the kneecap. Trying to stay on her feet, the strength in her arms wavered enough for Alex to force the gun into her stomach and then yank it from her grip. Taking a step back, he aimed the gun at her and smiled as the teacher began to clap.
He was in a Krav Maga class, having signed up for the earliest course from independent teachers and instructors in Portland. In actuality, he was signed up for many self-defense courses throughout the day, all with different teachers and classes. There was one window to the studio and it was open, fighting the radiating heat of all the students. One wall of the room was lined solely with mirrors and the floor was covered with protective mats. Alex was not the only student here, countless people of all ages had come to learn self-defense moves in order to protect themselves in the growing chaos gripping the state.
The gun he was holding was of course fake, as well as the other guns his fellow students were using for practice. As per the teacher’s instructions, he moved over to the woman he was partnered with and held up the gun to her face, as if in the process of mugging her. As he had done, she ducked down out of the line of fire, pushed the gun upwards, and kicked Alex in the thigh. The hard impact to the already bruised muscle nearly made him gag, so the woman had no trouble in prying the weapon from his grip.
The woman had a tight body with black hair tied back into a ponytail. She reminded him of the woman he had killed, and it was this mental torture that was driving him to continue throughout the day.
Keeping his head low, Alex blocked the oncoming swing with his arm, making sure that both his armpit and elbow were bent at 90º angles and his partner’s punch was being blocked with the lower portion of his forearm, in order to preserve his leverage. Knowing that to twist his arm for a counter-punch would take up too much time, he used his free hand to grab his partner’s collar and pull him downwards just enough for him to slam him in the stomach with his shin. His instructor had told him that if he were in a real fight, he would instead finish with a kick to the groin. He could certainly understand why all of his teachers avoided that impact site when practicing. Even though he and all the other men were wearing athletic cups, it would only take a few hits to bring them down and make it a very short class.
Alex reached out and grabbed his teacher’s wrist, watching intently for her reaction. With auburn hair cut short and sporting a pink workout bra, she grabbed his hand and twisted his arm around, bending his wrist in the process. The moment both his wrist and elbow were bent to 90º, she pushed down with elegant force and a bolt of electricity shot through his nerves. Wincing in pain, he was given a second to shake the aches from his joints. Now on the offensive, she reached out and grabbed his wrist. Wanting to match her speed, he grasped her hand, twisted her arm around, and bent her wrist while pushing down until she let go.
‘I can use this…’ He thought to himself.
Three classes were done, and he had three hours until his next lesson. Wanting to give his body a break, he ate lunch and then spent some time at the local gun range to practice his shooting. With a pair of earmuffs to cancel out the sound of gunfire and safety glasses shielding his eyes, he pumped round after round into the paper targets. He used a variety of different firearms; from revolvers, to semiautomatic pistols, to hunting rifles, to shotguns. Half of the time, he aimed for the head and heart, and for the other half, he focused on the limbs. He wanted to be prepared for any situation, whether he was facing a swarm of cannibalistic puppets like in the prison, or simply trying to subdue a crazed host.
This continued on for a weak, with Alex pouring his life savings into his lessons. No matter how bruised or beaten he became, he attended every possible class and worked his body to the limit. He needed to master these tools of information as soon as he could. He didn’t know what it was, but he could sense something on the horizon, something bad. If he was going to survive, he needed to be ready.
Having finished his last class of the day, Alex drove over to the University of Southern Maine to pick up Christi. He had decided against signing up for spring classes, something that his parents didn’t understand at the time and didn’t agree with, but kept their mouths shut about. Anyway, at least now that he was once again spending his days in the city, he and Christi could go back to their usual “routine”.
“Hey, long day?” Christi asked with a smile as she climbed into his car and kissed him on the cheek.
“Eh, it’s been alright. My body is adapting to the stress, but damn, I hit the bed each night like I just worked an 18 hour shift.” He sighed with a smile while pulling out of the campus parking lot. He then raised his eyebrows in surprise as she felt Christi’s hand move onto his thigh.
“What’s the occasion?” He chuckled, trying to keep his focus on the road.
“Oh come on, you should know how a woman’s mind works. You’ve always been neither buff, nor fat, nor scrawny. Always so normal. Well I can really see the muscle you’ve been putting on and I must say, I really want to see them in the bedroom.” She purred as she leaned down while unzipping his pants.
“Right now? Are you sure? I haven’t showered yet and I’m all sweaty.”
“What girl wouldn’t want to jump her man when he’s literally dripping with testosterone?” She purred.
Alex smiled and fought to keep from looking down. Maneuvering the Portland streets, he squirmed in his seat as Christi’s hand drew his manhood from his pants and stroked it into a throbbing tower of muscle. True, Alex had spent the whole day working his body to its limit, but that was one area that would never tire. Giggling, she held it up straight and ran her tongue up the shaft slowly, licking off the salt like it was a giant pretzel.
Coming to a stop at his fourth or fifth stoplight, Alex scanned the area to make sure nobody could see into his car. All the while, Christi moved back and forth across the shaft with her warm wet tongue, teasing him deliberately. Fruitlessly brushing back her long blond hair, she brought her tongue to the mauve head of his “hammer”. Running her tongue through the slit, she took pleasure in the sight and feeling of him jerking in his seat, even though he was driving in a crowded city where pedestrians had the right of way and could jaywalk for some fucking reason. She continued toying with him, trying to push her tongue into the slit as far as she could without using her hands.
When Alex finally turned onto the highway out of the city, she began running her tongue around the head itself, licking it like she was trying to reach the core of a tootsie pop. Once she had licked the head clean, she took the whole mass in her warm mouth and thoroughly soaked it. She didn’t move her head, she simply lowered herself down onto it all the way and held herself with the head pressed against the very back of her throat. She tried to maintain that position as long as she could, but it was agitating her throat and one of his pubes was tickling her nose.
At last she pulled her head back, gasping for air with a thick wet sheen coating Alex’s prick. Once again brushing her hair out of the way, she returned to the grindstone and resumed sucking him off. Deciding to pay her back, Alex risked holding onto the wheel with his left hand and used his right hand to reach over and slip his fingers into Christi’s pants. Knowing what he was going for, she unbuttoned her slim-fit jeans and his fingers found her vertical lips. With his middle finger skimming the very interior, he used his index and ring finger to stroke the luscious plump lips.
With Alex knowing just how to direct his fingers, Christi writhed and squirmed in her seat, trying to find a way to lie on her back in the cramped space. Forcing herself to contend with the parking brake under her back and the gearshift jammed into her shoulder, she curled herself up in her seat so that her head rested on Alex’s lap while her feet were pressed against the ceiling. Damn, it’s a good thing they weren’t doing this in the city…
With her body now curled up like a shrimp and her ass basically sticking up in the air, Alex was able to finally dig deeper into her wetness with his fingers. As his probing became more aggressive, she sucked on his cock harder and harder, working up such a powerful vacuum that it was as if she were trying to draw out his semen like poison from a snakebite. When Alex leaned back in his chair to let her get a better angle, she saw a way to tease him further. Reaching down and around, she jammed her finger into his asshole and nearly made him swerve off the road.
“Damn it Christi, I’m doing 70 right now!” He cursed, jerking as she felt her finger wiggling in his sphincter like a bony eel.
Deciding to pay her back, he replaced his fingers in her slit with his thumb, and forced the wet digits into her own asshole, all three at once. As her finger wiggled in his ass, his fingers plunged back and forth into hers, and the harder she sucked his cock, the harder he worked his thumb in her cunt.
“Oh god Alex, I can’t stand it anymore! I need you to fuck me!” She begged.
“Ok, hold on a minute.”
Getting off at the next exit, Alex drove into the nearest large parking lot and looked for the most obscure and isolated spot. Parking at the very fringe of a Wal Mart lot, he set his seat back in recline while she washed off her finger outside with his water bottle and scrubbed it with some hand sanitizer from her purse. As soon as she was ready to go, her jeans and panties came off in the blink of an eye and she was in his lap, bouncing on his cock like she had just taken a hit of ecstasy.
Having spent all of his energy working out all day, Alex didn’t have the strength to do anything but lie there. Christi didn’t seem to mind, she was slamming her luscious ass down onto his lap without a care in the world, all while sticking her tongue down his throat. Every time her body fully lowered, her thighs would clap against his and the sound of wet flesh rubbing against wet flesh would ring out like gum being chewed.
The longer they fucked, the hotter and wetter Christi’s pussy became. As the minutes passed, her turned into a furnace burning with eroticism while she drowned Alex’s cock in her juices. The windows of the car soon fogged up, and in time, Alex’s strength returned. Once he had a spark of energy, he grabbed Christi’s ass and began slamming her down on his lap with all of his strength, brutally fucking her while she moaned in bliss from the rapid and deep penetrations into the deepest recesses of her body.
“Oh yes, just like that! Harder! Faster!” She begged as her body went limp on top of Alex. Taking over, he began bucking his hips and thrusting up into her with enough strength to almost toss her into the air, only for him to slam her back down as hard as he could. With each impact, her ass jiggled and shook, prompting Alex to resume fingering her tight asshole and using it almost as a handle.
“Oh god, I’m cumming!” Christi screamed.
As her body shook like a vibrator turned inside-out, Alex emptied his reserves into her without hesitation or control, using her womanhood as a blank canvas to wildly splash with his paint. With semen dripping out of her slit and running down her thigh, Christi rolled off him and back into the passenger seat.
“Goddamn, you’re an animal.” Alex panted as she sucked him off.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” She replied once finished.
“Goddamn right it’s a compliment.”
“What are you doing?” She asked as he opened the doorl
“I need to stretch my legs. I feel like my muscles are tied in knots.” He replied while stowing his deflated manhood back in his genes.
With how warm and stuffy the air in the car had become, the chill outside hit him like the paint can trap from Home Alone. He walked around for a minute, letting the cramps in his legs ease themselves out. That was the problem with car sex, he couldn’t move his legs when his muscles started to burn. Goddamn he was tired, he could barely keep his eyes open. Maybe it would be better for Christi to drive… After a quick but thorough stretch, he placed his hand on the handle of the driver-side door, only for his attention to immediately be taken.
A man was shuffling towards him from the edge of the parking lot, pale complexion with an unshaven face and a hood protecting him from the cold. From the moment Alex laid eyes on him, his blood became as frigid as the pavement beneath his feet. He could sense it, that malicious intent.
“Stay where you are.” Alex ordered, getting between approaching man and the car.
Still slowly lurching forward like a zombie, the man cracked a grin of dementia and began to laugh.
“You can’t run from it. You can’t hide. The world will drown in blood and tears and be crushed under the weight of pure sin.” He cackled with his eyes darting from side to side within their sockets.
‘He’s definitely in the psychotic stage, no doubt about it. He’ll murder me and rape Christi without any hesitation.’ Alex thought to himself.
“Alex, what’s going on?” Christi asked, poking her head out of the car.
“Christi, stay in the car and lock the doors. Turn on the engine and shift out of park. If I tell you to, you drive away from here as fast as you can.” Alex instructed with a calm but commanding tone. Reaching into his pocket, the man drew a Black Stigmata nail.
“We’re all going to burn within the horrors of eternal death!” The man laughed, stepping towards Alex.
Reaching into his own pockets, Alex took out a pair of surgical gloves. He always made sure to carry a few pairs with him at all times. Even though he was no longer a viable host, he could still get trapped in a nightmare if he made contact with the nail. Widening his stance, Alex prepared himself for the confrontation. A minute ago, he had been barely able to stand, but now he felt like he had the strength to take down a squad of Spartans. In his mind, he was replaying every lesson on Krav Maga and other forms of martial arts that he had attended. All those hours spent getting pummeled had been leading to this very situation. Watching from the car, Christi stared at Alex intently. Even without being able to see his face or his eyes, she could sense a massive change overtaking him. He looked calm and focused, but also brimming with the will to win.
Laughing like a madman, the possessed host lunged towards Alex with the nail in his hand, aimed for Alex’s face. Raising his hand, he deflected the attack while making sure that his joints were at right angles and the lower part of his forearm was bearing the pressure. Without missing a beat, he grabbed the host’s collar and pulled him down, then finished with a knee to the groin. Such an attack would have brought down any regular person, but just as Alex had seen in the prison, the host only staggered back with some slight decrease in his speed.
He came again with the same bloodlust, trying to deliver another stab but this time towards Alex’s gut. Instead of trying to grab the man’s wrist, Alex jerked his hips back while again deflecting the attack with his forearm. Now with leverage, Alex used the position of his hand to wrap it around the man’s wrist, then use his other hand to pull downwards on the back of the man’s neck and thereby completely twist his arm until it could no longer be used. Before the man could counter with his other arm, Alex slammed his knee into the man’s chest until he finally let go of the nail.
The man pulled free of Alex’s hold and lunged to retrieve the nail, but Alex stopped him with a solid strike to the nose with his palm, shattering the bridge and disoriented him without any harm to Alex’s knuckles. Before he could take a step back, Alex continued with a hard slap to the side of the head, sending a high-pressure burst of air straight into the ear canal and immediately rupturing the eardrum. Barely able to stand up, the man was about to crumble. Wanting to make sure he stayed down, Alex grabbed the man by the collar and pulled him straight into a hard swing against his elbow, succeeding in completely knocking him out.
Once the man fell to the ground, Alex sat on him to make sure he wouldn’t wake up and try anything. His heart beating wildly, he took out his cellphone and dialed the number for their office.
“This is Alex Stevens, intern in Section 8. My ID number is 6347H2I9Q2. I have just apprehended a host and now have him and his nail in my custody. I request immediate pickup. I’m in the Wal Mart parking lot on Forrest Avenue.”
“We’re on our way. Please keep the host restrained and the nail kept in isolation until we arrive.” The receptionist replied.
After hanging up, he checked to make sure the man was still unconscious and looked over to the nail, seeing it right where he had left it on the ground.
“Hey Christi, can you get the canister out of the back seat of my car? Christi?” He looked back at the car and saw Christi staring at him through the driver’s window, her eyes as wide as dinner plates.
“Alex, get back in this car and fuck me! I am so horny right now!”
The sky was burning like a pool of lit gasoline while an acrid breeze blew across the landscape. The crumbling remains of a city lay strewn across the landscape like severed grass blades on a mowed lawn. All color and nutrients had been bleached from the soil, making it look like the surface of Mars. Bodies had bene scattered in all directions like seeds, each one completely untouched by bacteria. Decay did not exist in this world, there wasn’t even enough life to support the recycling of death. These corpses would remain until the sun devoured the planet, forever etched with grins of demented sadism or shrieks of horrific agony.
Alex stood with his whole body trembling, staring at the towering structure before him. Reaching up into the vacuum of space and with a base as wide as a mountain, a spindly tree of black iron dominated the horizon. Its needle-like branches reached out to every spot where the barren landscape met the burning sky, and skewered on the tip of each pike was a human used for the creation of nails.
“What is this? What the fuck is this?! I’m supposed to be free of you!” He swore, feeling more terror at this very moment than at any other time in his life, even all the other times when the Black Stigmata had reared its ugly head. Just as he had heard it time and time again, a crashing sound like the pulverization of a billion skeletons rocked Alex’s ears, seemingly coming from the tree itself.
Alex bolted up in his bed, drenched in sweat. What the fuck had that been? How was it possible for the Black Stigmata to still give him nightmares!? Could it have been the nail from the parking lot? Did he make contact with it without knowing? Had his mind somehow been contaminated? What he didn’t know was that every single host across the planet had just experienced the same vision. Cured, active, or subjugated, they had all just witnessed the same nightmare. Those who had been awake at the time simply passed out where they had been standing or sitting. In Siberia, at the host detention center, the inmates were screaming like wild apes, shouting curses and prayers to the Black Stigmata.
Having just gotten off his flight in Los Angeles, Nelson was approaching his next boarding terminal when he passed out. Once he regained consciousness, he found himself being examined by a medical crew in the terminal. Considering his appearance, they had probably assumed the worse.
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” He grunted, waving them off. Reaching into his coat pocket, he took out a cigarette and cracked a grin.
‘To think that something as pure as the World Tree could be corrupted by a single soul… We really are out of our league.’ He thought to himself just a split second before airport security pulled the cigarette out of his mouth.
“No smoking in the building. And it looks to me that smoking put you in your condition.” The short woman nagged.
The sun reached its highest point in this unusually warm March day, lighting up Portland and beginning the war against the snow that encrusted the hemisphere. After a freezing winter, people were looking for any reason to go outside and enjoy the warm rays like cats in windowsills.
Sitting between a morbidly obese man in what wouldn’t surprise him to be a diabetic coma and teenage girl on her ipad, Nelson stared at his watch intently, counting the seconds. The plane would be landing in Portland in a few hours.
With no classes on Thursday for Christi and Alex deciding to take a break from his self-defense lessons, the two young lovers were roaming the city with nowhere in particular to go but both having a strong desire to get as much sunlight as they could. They were happy, smiling, and glad to have such a beautiful day.
The woman sobbed as she carved the symbols into her neighbor’s flesh. The forty-three year old woman had her unwanted victim tied to her table, trying to scream through the stitches holding his lips together and the layer of duct tape covering his mouth. With a steak knife to cut away at the flesh and a butter knife heated with a candle to cauterize the wounds, she begged for forgiveness as she was forced to turn his body into a canvas for the Black Stigmata.
The sun was halfway to the horizon, but its warmth remained unflinching. Picking the sunniest spot, Alex and Christi were having lunch at a table out front of a popular deli. Christi was nibbling on a ham sandwich on white rye, while Alex was gorging himself on a platter of different animals stuffed between two huge slices of wheat bread. The stack of meat was so large that he felt like his jaw would dislocate every time he tried to bite into it.
Nelson could see the ground below the plane beginning to magnify. The flight had passed the halfway point and now the stuffy vessel was beginning its steady decline. Taking out his phone, he began texting the BSC.
“This is Nelson, fill up a cement truck and have it ready in the city.”
In her apartment building over Congress Street in the center of Portland, the woman continued to sob as she carved symbol after symbol into her neighbor’s flesh. With each completed mark, a slip of skin fell down to the floor like a red slug. She had known this man for years, but now the Black Stigmata was forcing her to torture him. Every scratch and cut with the steak knife was perfect, as if she were a puppet on strings. But while the Black Stigmata steadied her movements to ensure there were no flaws, the exertion and effort were all her own, made in order to avoid the psychological wrath of the nail. She was almost done, soon the incantations would be complete.
The sun was touching the horizon as softly as a balloon sinking to the floor days after its inflation. The warmth was gone and the people of Portland had gotten their fill. Now all that was left to do was finish the work they had procrastinated all day against and go home.
Nelson rushed through the Portland jetport, drawing looks of curiosity and shock from the people he passed by. When he wasn’t looking to the exit, he was looking at his watch. He was running out of time!
Alex and Christi strode out of the movie theater with uncomfortable expressions on their faces. With the warmth of the sun gone in the late afternoon, they had decided to see the new Indiana Jones movie that had just come out, the fifth of the series. (That’s right dear readers, this is still a horror story.) Suffice to say, they should have just quit while they were ahead. It was time for them to go home.
The sun had almost completely sunk below the horizon, with just the thinnest bar of light shining through the apartment window. The woman stood over her creation, trembling and unable to produce any more tears. She had just finished the last symbol and had slit her neighbor’s throat, destroying his Adam’s apple. She had seconds to act until he bled to death, and the Black Stigmata was screaming in her brain to add the last piece of the puzzle. Contemplating her fate in Hell, she raised the steak knife and butter knife she had used earlier and plunged them both into the man’s eyes. The knives disappeared into his head at the exact same moment the sun fully disappeared. The sound of the two blades sliding effortlessly through gelatin and flesh was the last sensation the woman experienced.
In a single instant, a two-dimensional shockwave erupted from the woman’s building like a ripple in a pond. Her apartment was reduced to dust simply through its proximity, but the damage didn’t end there; it couldn’t. Like a samurai’s blade, the shockwave sheered through every building three stories high or above. It spread out across Portland without anything stopping it or holding back, and not a single structure in its path survived without being bifurcated like road-kill. On the ground, every car in the street junction was sent skyward as their gas tanks spontaneously combusted.
Having been driving down Congress Street, Alex crashed into a parked car and dived to protect Christi as the top floor of the nearby building poured down into the street like an avalanche. Throughout the city, buildings were falling apart like houses of cards and filling the street with rubble. At the very epicenter, just down the road, a bright red light was shining within a cloud of dust with the newest incubator of the Black Stigmata hovering in its center. In the sky above, storm clouds as dark as onyx were stirring and expanding, slowly consuming the heavens in a black maelstrom.
“Christi, are you hurt?” Alex asked, coughing through the dust.
“No, I’m fine. Thank you for saving me.” She replied as he looked around. His car was covered in bricks and cinderblocks, but they certainly weren’t buried.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.” He said, pushing open his door and helping her outside. People stood like statues on the road and sidewalk, staring out across the open space of the converging streets. Their eyes were fixated on the crimson light, hypnotized by it.
“What’s going on?” Christi asked, looking around fearfully.
Alex was just about to respond when he felt a drop land on his nose. Wiping it away, he stared at the smear of blood on his fingers.
“Oh my god.” He gasped as more and more drops began to fall, each one a liquid ruby made of human DNA.
“Blood… it’s blood…” Christi murmured, staring up into the sky as drops of red pelted her face.
The rate of the downpour increased by the second, with a thunderous downpour soon washing Portland in liquid horrors. Soaked in gore, the citizens began screaming, but it wasn’t in fear or disgust. All those who had stared at the red light broke out into savage violence, having been twisted by the crimson aura. Screaming without end, men and woman began beating, stabbing, and even shooting each other like it was the end of the world. But in the back of his mind, Alex had a feeling it was.
“Christ, get in the car and lay down on the floor. Keep the doors locked and don’t open them for anyone!” Alex ordered.
“I’m not going anywhere without you!” She argued. Alex took one glimpse into her eyes and decided against trying to change her mind.
“Very well, but stay close and don’t look into the light.”
With their hands locked tightly together, Alex and Christi ran through the street towards the source of the madness. With every stop, hundreds of drops of blood showered upon them, with Christi having to stop more than once to throw up. After everything he had been through, a mouthful of blood didn’t bother Alex in the slightest. But they had to be careful, for the chaos that had been born around the red light was spreading like a wildfire. Those initially infected swarmed outwards in all directions, destroying everything in their path and killing everyone they found. Those who survived the onslaught or simply hid as the mindless lunatics rioted were not immune. By simply being within the general area of those infected, the citizens of Portland became contaminated by the Black Stigmata like a zombie virus spreading telepathically.
Reaching Ground Zero, Alex stood in awe at the flameless bonfire before him. The crimson light shining from the dead incubator wasn’t just radiating like the radiance light bulb, there was an actual atmosphere of bloody plasma around the twisted carcass. A thick membrane of condensed light swirled around the corpse, forming an undulating prism as large as the building it had replaced. Christi did as Alex told her and kept her back turned to the light, but Alex could not take his eyes off it. He would not allow the Black Stigmata to send him into the psychotic stage, but it was certainly trying. The inhuman dementia was weighing on his consciousness like a bloated corpse, pushing his mind and his immunity to their limits. He wanted to join the mindless creatures flooding the city, he wanted to take part in vandalism, arson, rape, and murder. But as long as he was able to control himself and make the choice for himself, he would never fall to that depth ever again.
“What the hell is going on?” Alex cursed. He didn’t know what he should do or what he even could do. Who was he supposed to call? Could the BSC even handle a situation like this?
The roaring of a diesel engine broke him free from the Black Stigmata’s spell. Looking south, he saw a cement truck thundering down the street towards him, knocking aside burning cars and running over rubble without hesitation. Reaching the wide-open heart of the city, the truck finally came to a stop, and out of the cab appeared Professor Nelson. But his appearance was strange, his head and hands were completely wrapped in bandages. From the looks of it, his whole body was bandaged beneath his clothes.
“Professor, care to explain what the fuck is going on?!”
“Quite simply, it is the end of the world.” He replied calmly, leaving the cement truck to continue spinning its mixer while he walked over with a cigarette between his lips.
“What do you mean?” Christi asked.
“I know it was confidential, but Alex, I hope you broke the rules and told your girlfriend about the World Tree, because I do NOT have the patience to retell the story. Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of time, but I hate repeating myself.”
“Yeah, he told me.” She muttered.
“Well then I can skip right ahead. Right now, the World Tree is in the process of recreating itself. When Adam—we call him Adam, it fits and it makes things so much easier—ate the fruit of the World Tree, he forever corrupted it with the darkness in his soul. His malicious will contaminated all the knowledge of the tree and caused it to essentially self-destruct, leaving behind only a single part of it. As you know, that part was the original Black Stigmata nail, which transformed from the core of the fruit Adam ate.
For 65 million years, the World Tree has been trying to reclaim its former strength, feeding on the misery of the world and the souls of people used to create new nails. Every time a nail is created, the Black Stigmata’s power grows. Quite simply, it has now amassed enough energy and created enough nails to begin reconstructing itself. Think of that poor soul up there as like the trillionth customer of a store. In this case, a trillion could actually be an understatement.
When the World Tree originally stood, its root system engrossed the entire planet, from the surface to the core. Those roots may be gone but the cavities remain, and the World Tree is going to use this resurrection to access those cavities and give birth to itself. Think of it as like Jesus Christ using his own corpse as a catalyst to trigger his revival. Once that is done, it will recreate the world in its own image. Originally, the World Tree was the avatar of life for this planet, so it reached out to turn planet earth into an Eden. Now that it has been corrupted into an omen of horror, it will turn this planet into a lifeless husk of bleak destruction.
This is the origin of the phrase “achieve death” and why it was always listed with the steps to create new nails. The Black Stigmata was giving us orders to create new nails and then telling us what would happen afterwards. Achieving death means the extinction of all life on earth.”
“Did you learn this from the cave?” Asked Alex.
“Nah, never believe predictions painted on a cave wall. We figured it out by completely decoding the language of the Black Stigmata. Along with equations for the creation of new nails, this prophecy is written into the bodies of every human incubator. Now watch, the show is about to begin…”
In Antarctica and its northern twin, the polar ice caps erupted like Mt. Vesuvius, hurling millions of tons of ice into the air while whiplashing strands of black lightning sprayed forth from the ancient cavities of the World Tree like geysers of oil. Like the storm over Portland, swirling black clouds spread out from the North and South Pole, powered by the ominous cracks of light shooting endlessly from the depths of the planet.
In repurposed mines and waste toxic waste depositories, vaults and nuclear flasks were ripped open and their cargo set loose. Guarded mountains exploded into mushroom clouds as storms of cursed nails and victims’ bodies flew through the air like possessed comets. Around the globe, Black Stigmata nails up to sixty million years of age were being pulled up from their hiding places, while the quarantined bodies of their victims were set loose from the ancient pits they had been locked away in by early humans. Bodies that had been butchered and unsuccessfully cremated to try and dispel their evil flew across the sky in pieces, reforming and joining together into the original carcasses. Not a single corpse had aged a day, they had all been perfectly preserved by the malicious will of the Black Stigmata forever imprinted into their bodies.
High in the atmosphere above the city of Portland, the nails collided with each other and began to fuse into a solid mass while pushing away the bloody storm that had heralded it. Even after 65 million years, there were not enough nails to fully recreate the World Tree, but there didn’t need to be. As more and more nails joined the morphing metal conglomerate, raw iron was materializing out of the thin air and allowing the mass to grow. It was as if the nails were made of cells, all multiplying to increase their numbers. As the tree began to reach its full size, the bodies of the Black Stigmata’s victims were skewered onto the tips of its branches, decorating it like a Christmas pine without a single branch or corpse left out.
At last, the transformation stopped, with the final touch being the absence of roots. The very bottom of the tree was instead a long four-sided spike, exactly like the original nails but with the very tip missing. The god-like tree hung over the planet, resembling the sword of Damocles but on a cosmic scale. There was only one piece left out: the corpse that had triggered it. The man whose body had been used to trigger the tree’s resurrection hovered still in his womb of red light, the nails in his eyes failing to move even a millimeter.
Slowly, the tree began to descend, and as its tip dropped below the cloud cover, the corpse twisted and jerked. With a disgusting chorus of squishing and crunching, the body was crushed in midair by a physical force. The limbs were crammed into the torso and the head was sucked in with the nails fully absorbed into the skull. With the force of a black hole, the body was compacted into a solid mass of indescribable density, while measuring the size of an apple. Upon its completion, the flesh of the apple was burned away, revealing it’s core: a nail of no material known to man, but one so dark that light could not escape it. The red light that had originally driven the people of Portland insane could no longer exist around it. It hovered directly in the path of the descending tree, about a foot off the ground.
“The nail, the iron tree, and the cavity from the old tree: these three forces form an unholy trinity that will beckon the end of the world. The cavity represents the World Tree’s body; specifically, it’s corpse. The iron tree represents its mind, and all the knowledge its gained since it began its war with mankind. The nail represents its soul, and the unparalleled evil contained within it. In truth, the evil of Adam was nothing compared to this monstrosity. But when he consumed the World Tree’s fruit, he committed the ultimate sin, and the tree transformed to become pure sin. Its reason for existing is simple: to be the horrific end to everything on this planet. It’s like a computer, programmed with an insidious will that knows only its own purpose.
Once that nail joins up with that tree, the only thing stopping it from resurrecting are the layers of earth between us and whatever root cavity lies deep beneath our feet. It will pierce the earth like a nail through an eyeball. You know, in BSC records, you’ll find that at least one host has had a vision of a tree similar to this before each and every tragic event since WWII. At first I thought it was a sign that Black Stigmata was playing a role in these events, but I realized it was something much simpler: it predicted the horrors about to be set loose and became excited. Every nightmare hosts had about trees was simply the Black Stigmata being as giddy as a schoolgirl. Considering the frequency that this tree was envisioned, it’s clear that the Black Stigmata was simply excited about its own resurrection.
It’s fitting that it picks today to recreate itself. This is the Spring Equinox and spring is the time of rebirth,”
“Damn it Nelson, Isn’t there any way to stop this? Anything that can be done to save this world?” Alex demanded angrily, infuriated by how little the professor seemed to care about the situation.
“Anything you can do? Hell no. But there is something I can do…” He hummed as he walked over to the nail hovering over the ground. As he approached it, he pulled away the bandages covering his head and leftg Christi and Alex awestruck. His head had been shaved bare and every square inch of skin had been inscribed with the symbols of the Black Stigmata. But they were… out of order?
“What did you do to yourself?” Alex gasped. With his back to Alex, the professor answered.
“With the language of the Black Stigmata decoded, rewriting the equations for new nails was easy. I rearranged the symbols and had a host cut them into me. The original equations were for replicating the Black Stigmata, but these new equations are for sealing it.”
“You don’t mean…”
“I do. I’ll seal the Black Stigmata within my body, the entire sentience. This is my penitence.” He then turned to Alex and Christi with a sad smile on his face.
“I never told you, did I? When I was a host, I tried to defy the Black Stigmata’s order to create new nails. As punishment, it sent me into the psychotic stage and I ended up butchering my wife and son. I wanted to kill myself as soon I realized what I had done, but the Black Stigmata would not let me end my life until I fulfilled its desire. Every time I sleep, I’m haunted with either the faces of my family or that poor girl.
I know I always told you that what you did while under the nail’s control was not your fault. To be honest, I was saying that more to myself than I was to you. Whether or not I am guilty for my actions, this body of mine was still used to torture and kill my wife and son and an innocent child. I can never forgive myself for the crimes that this body performed. I guess that was the reason why I underwent the procedure without anesthesia.”
With the flat tip of the tree just a hundred feet above his head, Nelson picked up the nail hovering at his feet.
“It’s time for humanity to be freed of this “original sin” and be given a clean slate.” He hummed as he took off his glasses. Before Alex could stop him, the professor swung his arm and buried the nail in his right eye. Immediately he released a cry of agony and blood poured down his face, but he refused to stop and instead pushed it all the way in.
Upon the nail’s insertion, a deafening scream filled the air, forcing Alex and Christi to their knees with their hands over their ears. Throughout the city, every piece of glass was shattered by the ungodly whistle, while in the North and South Poles, the crackling ribbons of black lighting curled back on each other and twisted themselves in loops like snakes being assailed by driver ants. In a thunderous clap, the iron tree overhead exploded like the Death Star and a blinding curtain of light engulfed the entire city, freeing people of their madness. The light eventually faded and Alex looked up at the professor. He stood with five inches of unholy matter piercing his brain, yet he remained on his feet with haggard breathing.
“How ironic. Adam ate the fruit of the World Tree because he wanted immortality, but all he had to do was write sealing incantations on his body. It seems that by trapping my own soul in my body with the Black Stigmata, I’m incapable of dying. No matter how broken an battered my body will become, my soul and the Black Stigmata will never be able to break free of it.” He chuckled.
“So… is it over?” Alex dared to ask.
“No, not yet. I weakened the Black Stigmata but I can feel it regaining its strength and clawing at the inside of my head. I can maybe hold it back for a couple minutes before it completely takes over and my body becomes its newest puppet. That’s why I brought the cement truck, I’ll seal myself up in the mud inside, and once it dries, both it and my body will forever be this curse’s prison. I got the viscosity perfect so it will immediately start to harden as soon as the mixer is deactivated.
After that, the BSC has arranged with the American government to re-open the space program and hurl me out into the cosmic vacuum in the direction of the sun. Hopefully gravity will take affect and I can drag this unholy evil into the nuclear pyre and free mankind forever. Now come over here and help me.” He said with his hand over his face, sounding like he was suffering form a bad hangover.
His whole body shaking, Alex walked alongside the professor to the cement truck and watched as he climbed up onto the back of the cab.
“Turn that lever when I say so.” He instructed, pointing to a control panel. He then gave the order and Alex pulled the designated lever, stopping the mixer when the side hatch was rolled up to the top.
“Ok, be honest. You’ve been using me as a surrogate for your son, haven’t you?” Alex asked, deciding to be a smartass one more time. Crawling across the tank of cement, the professor opened up the hatch and sat down on the edge.
“What are you, high? If my son was even half as stupid and thickheaded as you, I would have disowned him.” Nelson scoffed with complete honesty. But then reached into his pocket and drew a cigarette and his lighter. Lighting the end, he took a long puff and looked up at the sky. When he looked back down at Alex, even with blood running down his face from the huge nail skewering his brain, he had the most authentic smile Alex had ever seen on him.
“But even though you spent half my classes with your head on your desk and a puddle of drool soaking your notebook, I’ll admit… you weren’t a half-bad student.” He chuckled. Nelson and Alex gave each other one final nod of farewell and then the professor dropped himself down into the thick concrete, letting it envelope him and become his tomb and the Black Stigmata’s prison.
One month later:
Alex and Christi were sitting in Alex’s living room, watching the news. It was a live broadcast of the newest shuttle launch for the temporarily-opened space program. As far as the public knew, it was just a quick mission to repair a number of satellites that had supposedly been damaged in the “meteor shower” that bombarded the North and South Poles. A stray rock was even being blamed for the damage to Portland, since nobody at Ground Zero could remember what really happened. What only Alex, Christi, and the BSC knew was that in the back of the shuttle, a car-sized block of concrete sat, waiting for eviction from planet earth.
“Do you think he’s aware of what’s going on?” Christi asked.
“I doubt it. He may be immortal, but oxygen and water deprivation has to have left him in a coma. I just hope his soul isn’t rattling around in his head and serving as the Black Stigmata’s punching bag.” Alex sighed.
They were both silent as the rocket thrusters ignited, sending out thick clouds of smoke moments before the metal craft launched itself into the sky.
“Goodbye.” Alex said under his breath.
“Huh?” Christi asked.
In the next room, he heard the front door open and close and his sister walked into view without the slightest limp.
“Alex, you got mail.” She said, handing him one of many envelopes and moving into the kitchen.
“Thanks.” He said, waiting for her to leave before opening.
“Who is it from?” Asked Christi.
“The BSC. Since the Black Stigmata is no longer a danger, I was told that the remainder of their budget would be divided up into severance payments for all employees. I didn’t do much work for them, but since I was Nelson’s sidekick, they told me I would be paid handsomely.” He said as he pulled out the check. As soon as his eyes fell onto the line of zeros, his jaw hung slack.
“Holy shit! You could pay for the rest of your college education and still come out well set!” Christi exclaimed, reading it over her shoulder.
“Yeah, there’s enough here even for… maybe a wedding?” He shrugged. Christi stared at him with wide eyes, and in a single powerful movement, she pounced on him with enough force to send him tumbling to the floor. Alex tried to laugh, but it was hard with Christi sticking her tongue down his throat. They kissed for several minutes before Christi finally stopped and held herself over him with a tender look on her beautiful face.
“I love you.” She murmured.
“I love you too.” He replied.
They resumed kissing, while up in the sky, Nelson’s shuttle became little more than a fading twinkle of light in the clear blue sky.