Chapter 24: The Red Moon of Doomsday

Stephen knew it. It was so hilariously obvious what would have stemmed the moment the steady counter of the hovering clock hit [00.00]. Yes, he had enough sense of awareness to perceive the ensuing issues. Just an instant more and his cognition, followed by logic and rationality would have dipped down the sewers of his consciousness, leaving behind a shell with the mission to fill up the hunger he was ever so slowly drowning in.

He unceremoniously stumbled, falling head-on against the mud. No harm was done, thankfully, but it was a short-lived distraction that stripped him off of his last shreds of sanity. Stephen gasped, his eyes splaying wide as his back uncharacteristically arched inward. His fingers dug slits in the ooze, clutching a handful of pebbles and sludge within. Magma seemed to flow through his veins, its source wallopping against his ribcage; the sound echoing off in his ears.

“STEPHEN!” Natasha’s voice drifted through the thunders, “STEP– No! John, let me–” she whipped around, her eyes blazing upon the oldest Predator in an alchemy of indignant fury and concern, “WHY!?” she rasped out, her voice a clear hint that she was breaking down.

Only allowed on

John tightened his grip in reply, “Get back inside, now!” he yanked her back in, allowing no room for arguments before he tucked himself inside the cave as well, stealing a last fleeting glance at Stephen who had eerily stopped his struggles to crawl forward, and had instead culled to lay there. Quiet. Under the cold touch of the rain.

“Frank! Help me seal the entrance off!” he shouted an order straight away, prompting Frank to rally up boulders and assemble them one upon the other to staunch the entranceway gap, “Yes, like this.” he grunted out, settling another slab of stone on their makeshift wedge.

John wrinkled his nose, making a shush sign with his finger to Frank before peering out of a tiny crack. His breath hitched. Stephen’s head had leisurely spun rearward, his eyes staring back at John right through the very same hole he was being spied on, “Oh s***!”

“John?” Sarah gulped, feeling a tad bit of trepidation mixing in with her voice, “What’s going on? Stephen… is he–“

“Back out and don’t make noise!” he shushed her, “Pick up your weapons, I don’t know if he’ll attack us…” he buzzed, carefully balancing his tone to a low level.

Natasha scowled, but opted to stay in silence and obey. The situation had taken a grim turn, and she was not as emotionally driven as she had been before. It was just the spur of the moment, she quietly mused to herself, her hands unconsciously clenching. There was nothing to it more than a friendly worry. Yes. Nothing.

“Relax Natasha… he’s going to be fine, yes…” she chanted to herself, “He’ll survive… he’ll be okay…” her fingers brushed up against her ring, “Dammit…” she chewed her bottom lip, her face scrunching up as a blend of different emotions played out.

John waved his hand, motioning them to stay close to each other.

Silence ensued, broken only by their breathing and the slight rustling of clothes. They were prepared, geared up and ready fend off the upcoming problem, yet it was nothing but a false sense of security, for the clear-cut divergence in strength they had previously witnessed had already stamped its mark on their memories, the flourish demonstration rolling back afore their eyes.

“He won’t really attack us, will he?” Apolline muttered, “I mean, he–“

John cut her off, “I don’t know for sure, but his expression was worrying. I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he frowned, “Furthermore, I didn’t like the vibes I was getting from him… in the state he’s in right now, I don’t doubt he’ll think twice before turning us into his meal.”

“Eat us!?” Natasha was appalled by his assertion, “You can’t be serious…”

“I wish I wasn’t… but I’m afraid we can’t know if Predators – under some unknown circumstance – would actually devour each other…”

“That’d be… cannibalism…” Frank chimed in, his grip on his weapon wavering, “Surely he wouldn’t do that.”

“You’re free to go out and ask him yourself.”

“I’ll pass…”

“So… we wait until he makes a move or something?” Sarah wondered, her feet unconsciously paddling over John as her free hand slathered her other arm to provide a smidge of warmth in the otherwise dank and cold cave.

“For now? Yes. We wait,” he replied with a nod, “If he shows the tiniest traces of hostility against us then don’t hold back from attacking him, should he actually come back inside, that is.”

Natasha didn’t sit well with the idea, but she knew better than to voice her troubles out. The rest of the group shared her sentiment, she quietly noted. Finding yourself suddenly pointing your weapon towards someone you’ve shared quite a bit of hardship with, however short that time might have been, was not something they took delight in.

But if it had to be done to ensure their survival, nobody would have raised a complaint. And despite a sliver of hesitation, Natasha would not have backed down either. But was it really true? She could hardly tell. Heaving a drawn-out breath, she fixed her eyes ahead, hoping against hope that at the end of the day, everything would turn out as it was before.

Stephen dumbly looked around himself, taking in the utter lack of… anything. No trees, no clouds, no rain and certainly not his friends who had scrambled back inside the cave to avoid him. They were all replaced by a sheet of darkness that stretched to– well he couldn’t really tell, there was nothing, only him and his thoughts. It was hard to say whether he had gone blind or if the light had suddenly ebbed away from his surroundings.

Then realization dawned upon him, like a bomb going off in his mind. There was no hunger plaguing him, no anger to speak of. He felt oddly calm, as if he had been brought back to his natal world and all of the memories about Relictus he could still recall so vividly were nothing but a nightmare, an incredibly long one.

Yes, time to go back to sleep, tomorrow he had work to do…

“NO!” Stephen shouted, clambering back to his feet, “What the f***!” his voice traveled off in the depths of nothingness, backpacking with an annoying echo that didn’t seem to end.

He turned his hands around and raised them up to eye-level, but no matter how much he squeezed his eyes, he couldn’t even make out their outline. His heart started beating faster, going in sync with his breathing which had gradually picked up speed, begetting a rhapsody of fear that clutched his stomach in its freezing grip.

Stephen had no idea where he was, or how to even get out of it, and that scared him.

Just the thought of squandering an unknown amount of time in there, alone, like a prisoner drifting endlessly in the void with no way out, was the bedrock of a psychological torture that he knew would have broken him in less time than the lack of nutrients would have killed him.

“F***!” he cursed, tapping into his Encore Power to lash out and maybe, just maybe, find a way to open the door out of that spooky place through sheer strength, “What…?” the truth, however, bitch-slapped him when the sudden awareness of his Encore Power, or better, the lack thereof, poured down on him like an unexpected bucket of cold water.

There was nothing. Empty. Not even a shred, nor the slimmest of shadows of it ever being there in the first place was found. He was back to the start, weak and frail like he had been when he had just gotten in that forest.

He took a shaky step forward, the discrepancy of strength he had been used to, coupled with terror coursing through his veins, almost made him stumble down from the tangle of sensations sailing up to his brain.

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Stephen steeled himself, finding no solution amidst his panic. He got ahold of his trembling emotions and kept moving forth, the sound of his soles whacking against a solid foundation reverberated throughout the dark space he was trapped in.

Time was seamless in that expanse of emptiness, and he couldn’t discern how long he had been trudging on. It could have been a scant few minutes or a couple of hours. Hell, he could have been marching on for days already, and he would have been none the wiser. Of course, that notion was discarded as quickly as it sprung up in his mind. The growing fatigue told him enough, and with his old body put to the test, there was no way he could have gone on for even half a day.

He scruffed a hand through his messy mop of hair, desperation clawing his insides, and before long, he found himself on all fours against the ground, floor, or whatever he was leaning onto. There was no temperature belching out of the smooth surface. He quietly laid down, his arms stretching out as he took deep mouthfuls of air.

“F***!” he yelled, bursting out in a fit of cackles, “Haha, f***! f***! f***! Haha… ha…” Stephen couldn’t squelch it back anymore. He hated darkness, and it was not because of nyctophobia. Unwanted memories tended to crawl out when there was nothing distracting his eyes, no matter how much he tried locking them away.

Anxiety knocked, and he let it enter. There was no door to block it anyway.

He gritted his teeth, swatting away the cobwebs of memories in his brain. Now that no ounce of power streamed through him, now that his familiar Predator’s instincts didn’t kick in, he was on the other end of the full-blown strike of his nightmares. Helpless.

Stephen frowned, however, when he was made aware of an intruding hue cloaking his eyelids. He quickly barged his eyes wide open, his pupils coming face to face with a red sphere of light floating overhead. It looked unreal, and not quite a sphere of light as he had deduced. More like a planet.

“What the–“

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

He snapped his head to the side, where the source of the voice had strayed from. There, under the gentle crimson halo of the celestial body, stood a figure. Head held up high, hands encased behind her back, the newcomer’s eyes dripped sadness as she stared at the moon, the hintest of smiles crinkling her lips upward.

Stephen blinked away his surprise, slowly sliding himself back up. The woman turned her head around with the elegance only a noblewoman could have mustered after strenuous years of training.

“Truly dazzling… you know…” her voice danced in his ears, the melodic undertones almost a guilty pleasure sending shudders down his spine, and for the briefest of moments, he wished she would never stop speaking, “This moon used to represent us… our kind, our history, our glory…”

He didn’t interrupt, his eyes had already left their sockets to swoop around the woman, taking in every detail, each one more astounding than the other. Her red hair swayed down her back in an ignited waterfall of fire, a lone black horn jutting out of the fiery tresses on her left temple.

Her body was partially hugged by a veil of darkness, with only her flawless features shining underneath the moonlight. She seemed to be in two different realities; one where the shadows lorded over, and the other where the moon rested. Stephen furrowed his brow, tearing himself off her beauty.

“The Red Moon of Doomsday…” the woman concluded, “… where everything began.”

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