It was Christmas of 2006. Grey looked around him, taking in the blighted look of the surroundings for what seemed to be the millionth time. Cracked, dry land was everywhere, not a single plant in sight. How long had he been wandering around now? Six hours? Seven? That's what the time on his watch told him, but in his mind, he knew it had been an eternity.
"Finally found you," whispered a deep, coarse voice from behind.
"...Wh-who are you? Wh-why do you keep doing this?" asked Grey shakily, unable to force his body to turn around.
"Who I am is unimportant. Why I'm doing this is unimportant. All that matters is that you give me that Nexus," answered the voice simply.
Grey started to run forward, hoping to escape from the nightmare, but it was no use. In a flash, a cold hand with spindly figures had gripped his right wrist and raised his entire body into the air using inhuman strength. The shear amount of force being applied to his wrist at that point in time made it clear to Grey that he was going to die right there and then.
At this point, Grey was looking straight into the face of his capturer. Well, not quite. More accurately, at this point, Grey was looking straight into his capturer's mask: a plain crimson thing clearly not designed to make the bearer look any more fashionable but instead to hide his true face. Of course, none of this really mattered to Grey who had already wet his pants from pure fear. Of course, that didn't really matter either. Grey only had one thought.
At the measly age of sixteen, he was far too young to die.
The pain exploding from his wrist caused Grey to close his eyes, but he still felt a hand go rummaging through the right pocket of his pants and pull out the stone he'd received earlier that day. Curse that stone! If it hadn't been for that, he'd still be at home, probably enjoying a nice Sunday morning messing around on his brand new Nintendo Wii. Instead, he was trapped here in some strange fantasy land, the stone refusing to teleport him back the way he came--that and he was about to die.
"So this is it huh? The Nexus that connects Earth and Fire? Excellent! Pangaea's revival is one step closer to completion," chuckled the masked man merrily in a voice that sent shivers up Grey's spine, "As for you, I can't well let you live, now can I?" The cold hand gripped Grey tighter and tighter, causing him to feel as though his hand was about to pop off.
At this point, Grey's instincts to survive kicked in. Summoning all his power, he threw his leg forward and caught his opponent by surprise. It was an underhanded move, but it was effective, and Grey sighed in relief as his opponent fell to the ground, dropping the Nexus as his hands guarded his groin from further attack.
Now Grey's mind began thinking fast. He couldn't run away quickly enough, nor did he have the strength to down his current opponent. This morning, he'd somehow used that...Nexus...to teleport himself to where he was now, so maybe if he used it again...This time, it would work for sure!
When in a life threatening situation, animals tend to achieve power beyond their limits in a response known as the fight or flight response, and human beings are no exception. Mustering energy beyond his limits, Grey dashed forward and attempted to grab the stone from the ground before his opponent, but he was still too slow. As he rushed forward, his opponent grabbed the stone with one hand and backhanded the back of his head with the other all in one swift motion. The immense pain that Grey felt caused him to fall over, blackness consuming his line of sight. In this state, he saw the fuzzy outline of a pair of metal boots, and he could've sworn that the man with the red mask had definitely not been metal boots.
"The Nexus that connects Fire and Air?" gasped the voice of the masked man. This was the last thing that Grey heard before the darkness consumed him completely.
When he awakened, he was staring up into the face of a bearded man with heavyset eyes and a very, very angry expression. Slowly, Grey sat up and took a look at his surroundings. He was in a jail cell, reminiscent of those found in medieval times. The man sitting next to him was fully armored--Grey recognized the metal boots he was wearing as the same pair he'd seen just before he'd blanked out. What interested him most, however, was not the boots, but the glowing, rainbow colored stone that the man held in his hands. That stone looked almost exactly like the stone he'd used to go from his home to the blighted realm where he'd almost been killed, only the pattern inscribed in it was a little bit different.
"What were you doing in our Forbidden Lands? Only criminals are allowed there," grunted the man.
"I...I don't know," responded Grey truthfully.
"Hmph," grunted the man contemptuously, "Well, whatever. The captain of the guard herself wishes to have a word with you. You should clean yourself up before that." His eyes settled disturbingly on Grey's groin area. Grey, not sure what to make of this, looked at his pants himself and blushed when he saw the a circle of dampness that had yet to completely dry.
"I'll get right on that," said Grey, laughing at himself. To be honest, he was simply happy to be alive
Grey slid into a dirtied pair of brown trousers made of a frayed, thin cloth that the guard had tossed in his cell. The loose leggings undoubtedly came from a past prisoner. The blood stains told the boy that they would not be missed. The change of pants were not much of an improvement, but they would at least provide some dignity when confronting the captain of the guard. Time passed as he waited for his interrogation. He could hear two men speaking outside the prison door, and their conversation seemed centered on him. Their words could not be understood, so he did not bother with trying and invested the effort instead to figuring out where he was.
The scene seemed familiar enough. The stone walls and floor were made of rough blocks of granite, and warped steel bars separated the cells and the rest of the room. However, things were off. The narrow slit that passed as a window revealed an ominous sky, not like the one he remembered from where he came from or where he went. He had not noticed it before, but the cell next to his housed an inmate as well. Although "he" was turned on his side, sleeping, Grey could tell that he was not human. This should not have surprised him, after all, with the way his day was going so far.
His inspection of his neighbor was disturbed as footfall sounded down the hallway, almost. The pace was set different than normal walking. Thud. Clang. Thud. Clang. The heavy sounds came closer. Grey was almost afraid to look out from the bars and patiently waited on the wooden slab offered in his confines. He then realized it was not two men talking outside.
"Are you the... the captain of the guard?" meekly squeaked the boy beneath the shadow of the giant. He almost needed a third pair of pants. Broad shoulders carried a heavy suit of armor, or what was left of it. Years of conflict had razed the mail, and it only stayed together from staples, nails, and bolts. The wearer had fared no better over time as she showed the consequences all over her body. Aside from the numerous nicks and cuts, a large, red patch wrapped over her hairless head, covering her wounded right eye. The cause was obvious as the scar emerged from the covering. It was not a simple gash or straight cut but a wide spread of seared flesh, even consuming that side's ear, that could not be contained by the patch. More casualties were plainly seen as she only had one of either limb. Her arm was replaced with a long steel shaft topped with a spiked ball, stained with the blood of fallen adversaries. Her leg narrowed down to a jutting point, a single, metal spire. Leather straps held knives of various sizes to several locations across her body so that one would always be within reach. Grey quickly understood that she was someone who could never have enough weapons at her disposal, a fact supported more by the shield latched to her full arm being rimmed in razors.
"My-my name is Grey," nervously started the lad, "and-"
"Silence," ordered the woman in a booming voice. "I have no concerns to who you are or why you are here. I only require two pieces of information from you. Why did you have the Nexus of Earth and Fire? What were you doing in the Forbidden Land?" As fear struck as Grey was to not respond, he was equally afraid of what would happen if he spoke out of line. "Answer." With the clear direction, he began telling the story from earlier that day...
"Wow, a Wii!" exclaimed Grey as he joyously tore away the seasonal wrapping paper from his cherished gift. "I can't believe you were able to get one! Thanks, mom and dad!" Contrary to his words, it was the console he hugged in appreciation.
"You think that gift is something, kid?" smirked his uncle.
"Oh, Red, you didn't, did you?" asked Grey's father with a hint of worry in his voice. Redley smiled and winked to his brother as he pulled an old, small box from behind himself. The aged leather binding paled in comparison to other festive wrappings and possessed worn engravings where markings had once been.
"Now, it may not be some fancy new gaming thing, but it's pretty important," Red explained as he tumbled the box in his hand. "It's an old family heirloom, and it's all yours, kid," he told his nephew, passing the box. "Enjoy.
Grey took the box and looked a bit dismayed at its size. He wasn't really sure what to expect from a family heirloom--he didn't really know anything about his father's side of the family after all--but anything that size and that old had to be lame. Of course, not wanting to disappoint his uncle, Grey put on his best fake smile and quickly opened the lid of the box. Even his fake smile wavered a bit when he saw what was inside.
It was simply a rainbow colored rock with some sort of symbol inscribed in its surface.
"Thanks, Uncle..." said Grey, his attempt at sounding the least bit excited failing miserably.
In response, his uncle simply smiled and said, "You know, it's very important that you keep this stone with you at all times. I'm entrusting a great responsibility to you." Of course, Grey barely heard this as he gathered his Wii and his rock and ran over to the television to try out the new console.
"I'm sorry about Grey," apologized Grey's mom to Redley, "He's just so excited about his new Nintendo that he didn't realize how important your gift was. I swear, kids these days..."
"Don't apologize," interrupted Grey's father sternly before turning to his brother, "If anything, we should be angry at Red here for giving such a thing to our son."
But of course, Grey was too busy setting up his Wii to hear the rest of the conversation. It took him only a couple minutes to figure out all the wires, plug them in where they went, and start running over to grab the T.V. remote, only for his left foot to step on something very, very hard. Looking down, he saw that it was his uncle's gift. Grumbling, he bent down, picked up the stone, and was about to go put it somewhere out of the way when suddenly the symbol on the stone began to glow. Sensing something was wrong, Grey attempted to drop the stone right then and there, but his fingers simply refused to move. On the contrary, he swore he could feel his fingers getting sucked into the stone themselves!
"You don't understand!" yelled his dad's voice, "Grey might have enough power to activate it!" But it was a bit too late for such warnings. A blinding light emanated from the stone, and Grey could do naught but close his eyes. When he opened them, he realized he was most definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Grey finished up by telling the captain about how he'd wandered around for some hours before being attacked by the masked man.
"Do you think I'm some sort of fool?" roared the woman, a flame of anger igniting in her one remaining eye. No longer able to maintain eye contact with the giant out of pure fear, Grey could only stare at the ground and shake his head slowly.
"Fool!" she boomed, "If a man was trying to kill you, why would he grab you by the wrist?!"
"Are you alright, my lady?" asked a man's voice from outside the cell. Grey looked over and recognized him as the guard from earlier.
Ignoring the question completely, the captain of the guard turned to face her subordinate, "You there! You were the one who apprehended this boy! Tell me, did you see a man in a red mask take the Nexus of Earth and Fire?"
"Yes, I did, my lady," responded the guard, his knees visibly shaking, "I'm sorry. I couldn't stop him."
"Fool!" roared the giant, "We needed that to regain the Nexus of Earth and Air!"
"I'm sorry," squeaked the guard, seeming almost as intimidated by his master as Grey was.
"I suppose there's no use yelling at you," sighed the woman, "I have urgent matters to attend to now. Leave the boy here for now. We might need him again in a second." And with that she stood and headed out the door of the jail cell, the ground shaking with each movement she made. She had already disappeared from Grey's field of view when the guard called out, "Wait, my lady! Shouldn't we take the boy to the Forbidden Lands? He seems to have some degree of magical ability."
"It's nothing substantial," came the woman's voice loudly in response, causing the guard to flinch. It wasn't until Grey could no longer hear her footsteps that the guard began to relax.
"Well, you heard what she said," smirked the guard turning towards Grey, "Hmph." And with that, he closed the door to cell, locked it, and wandered off to go do whatever guards did in this strange new place.
Grey sighed and started to lie down on the wooden slab, hoping to go to sleep and wake up again only to find that this was all some crazy dream, when all of a sudden a hoarse voice called to him from the neighboring cell.
"Redley, eh? Your father's name wouldn't happen to be Greene, would it?
"Wh-what?" stuttered Grey, amazed by the speech which came from the thing in the neighboring cell, curled in a feigned sleep on its bench of a bed. To fit itself on what little of a resting place was offered, its long limbs were woven among one another, clad in loose, shapeless rags that made the prisoner's true form all the more mysterious to the visitor.
"Greene's yer father, right?" gurgled the voice from the other room. "Or did li'l Redley get another baby brother?"
Grey pressed against the far caged wall, futilely trying to put as much distance between himself and the creature as possible. The boy didn't know exactly what it was he feared; cold, hard iron kept that oddity from hurting him, and it hadn't done anything to indicate it wished to do so. Too many thoughts filled his head to think reasonably. His biggest concern at the moment should have been whether or not his ceiling fan could fall victim to a wild swing of the Wiimote, not how this monster knew his family.
The youth was startled back into unfortunate reality when his other neighbor rattled the bars, beating them with its wide, clubby limbs. Grey tried to recompose himself. Nothing he had done in this strange place had helped himself thus far. He told himself that he couldn't be afraid anymore, although deep down he knew he wouldn't be able to follow through. Regardless, the visitor approached the stranger with a newfound resolve, a firm stance, and a determined look. His face was expressionless but oh so pale, and his lips could not help but to shake as he parted them. "H-how do you know m-my father?" he finally managed to squeak in a cracking pitch contrary to his appearance.
"Well, can't say I actually know 'im," the gruff sounding thing explained, shifting itself slightly from its uncomfortable-looking coil. "Heard lots of stories, though. Last I was told, Greene was still in diapers."
"Wait, you..." Grey began before his thoughts had fully formed, "you knew my Papa?"
"What? No!" the inhuman mess burst out. "The Nexus was passed down through what'd be your grandmother's family," stated the stranger in a slightly irritated tone, almost scolding the youth. "Didn't you pay any attention?"
"Attention?" repeated Grey. "Attention to what?"
"The guards are gone now. You don't need to act dumb, and I don't need to act as though I didn't hear that entire interrogation." Long, slender limbs began to untie, bowing outward from the central tangle. Grey could not tell if an arm or a leg or something else had unraveled first. The three even digits at the end of the stalk grappled a seam in the brick, steadying the confusing creature as another similar appendage found the filthied floor. A narrow, elongated head rose from its tiny torso, covered in cloths as dreary as their surroundings. Its unsullied skin was powdery and light, like the sky of the home Grey remembered, but most of the thing was far more dingy from an extended stay in the wretched cell. "It's okay if you talk to me. I am a Keeper, too," the monster gurgled from its smooth face. "Or rather, I used to be."
"What is a Keeper?" Grey questioned. "What are you?"
"You aren't pretending, huh? You really don't know anything, do you?" the strange being responded, stroking the smooth underside of its neck which roughly correlated to a human chin. Grey only answered with a vacant stare. "Well, you've heard enough from your parents and captors, haven't you? I don't have to explain it all. I mean, you could just figure it out for yourself, right?" Still, Grey only answered with a vacant stare. His mother didn't trust him to figure out the oven let alone what Keepers and Nexus and masked men had to do with him.
After letting out a disappointed sigh, the thing raised its long neck and began. "The Nexus, those specials stones like the one you lost, are magical bridges between two of the Higher Worlds. Your family protected the portal between Earth and Fire; I protect- once protected the portal between Air and Water."
"What happened?" Grey interrupted.
"I'm here, aren't I?" It then continued, "These Nexus are the only means to travel between the Higher Worlds; this alone gives its Keeper, the owner of a Nexus, great power."
"Then how did I wind up here?" once again spoke up the youth. "I went from my house to some... Forbidden Land."
"Yes, the Lower Worlds," the former Keeper acknowledged in its deep voice. "The Forbidden Land is the void that exists between the Higher Worlds, a wasteland good for nothing but disposing of our most dangerous criminals."
"So, that masked guy was..." spoke Grey, even though he fully realized the true nature of the masked man before his new friend nodded in confirmation.
"Your magic is still weak. You were able to activate the Nexus of Fire and Earth but unable to control it. Ol' Peg Leg doesn't seem to think you have any potential, but that's only because she doesn't think you have anyone to teach you." Grey became slightly disturbed and a little frightened until he recognized the contortions of the creature's face as a smile.
"Oh, where are my manners?" rhetorically asked the freak. "I have not formally introduced myself yet. My name is Perry," it stated with a low sweeping bow of its jointless, boneless body.
"Perry?" The name struck some memory of the youth. "Mr. Winkler? You're real?!" This comment piqued the thing's interest. "I remember the bedtime stories my Nana used to tell me whenever I spent the summer with her. I thought they were just, well, stories! Are you trying to tell me all those fantastic things actually happened to you?"
Perry rubbed its lower head. "Depends. What kind of stories did she tell you?"
After a moment of recollection, one particular memory came to mind. "Did you... really fight a giant snail?"
"What? Giant snail?" Perry protested. "Hmm, I guess it would be hard to describe if you didn't see it. It was really more of a slug...-tortoise," it searched for the words. "I guess you'd have to see it to get it..."
Grey felt a little foolish. The outrageous stories he hadn't believed since he was a small child, he now knew to be true. "Nana never mentioned that you weren't human, Mr. Winkler."
"What are you talking about? I'm from Tellus, like you -- of course I'm human." Grey's expression went blank, followed by horror. What could only be assumed to be anger swept over his odd friend's face. "Spend enough time here, and you'll start to look a li'l different, too."
Grey just shook off Perry's unusual appearance; far stranger had already happened since his arrival here, including the arrival itself. "So, this magic. How are you supposed to teach me? If you could use magic, wouldn't you be in that Forbidden Zone?"
"Opening a portal to the Forbidden Land," corrected the family friend, "is only an option for the most dangerous of criminals. I have not had contact with my Nexus in so many years; I have not been a threat for quite some time. I do not even know if they remember why they keep me here." His clear eyes lifted to the youth. "But just because I cannot use my magic anymore doesn't mean I don't remember how..."
[The plural of the word "nexus" can be either "nexuses" or "nexus". I'm going with "Nexus" since it is more faithful to the original Latin roots.
Also, Tellus is the astrological name for our planet, which is used to distinguish from the Earth world, which I am assuming are not the same.
"But how could I use magic?" questioned the lad. A perplexing stare came from Perry, difficult to interpret. Upon realizing what it was, the answer came to him. "Oh, right. It's my heritage and all."
"Smart boy," muttered the mutant. "I can't believe we're all depending on you. Now, quickly, come here before the cap'n returns. Unlike others, she's prompt to her word." A shapeless, tentacle-like limb stretched out from his cell to Grey's, easily slithering between the bars.
"We?" the youth asked as he was reluctant to take the foreign appendage.
"Hurry, there isn't much time!" implored the pasty oddity. Loath to take hold, the boy closed his eyes and touched the wiggling extremity. Snared in its tight grip, he found himself pressed flat against the dividing bars. The dripping mouth of the placid freak savored at the sight of the succulent meal. "And now I shall devour your soul and gain all of your power!" Grey was petrified as the drooling orifice neared. Almost upon its prey, it spurted out a hideous noise. Too consumed in fear, the kid didn't recognize it as laughter for some time.
"Ha-hah! Hey, sorry 'bout that, buddy. I couldn't resist," bubbled the family friend. "I just couldn't help myself. Boy, I bet I gave you quite a scare." After laughing over his prank a while longer, he assumed the mocking stance of a monster and grunted, "Oo, me ugly beast. Me eat you. Grr. Ha!"
"Yeah, real funny," cut in Grey to Perry's amusement, rubbing his now more sore wrist. "I really need to soil another pair of pan- er... be... scared... again. I don't think my heart can handle much more for today."
"Hey, I recognize those," the deformity stated once distracted from his merriment. "Man, I haven't seen those pants since, well..." His long neck arched downward to what could have been his abdomen. "... since I could wear them."
"... Eeew, Winkler pants," groaned the youth in slight disgust. If it wasn't blood on his borrowed pants, he really didn't "Hey, why are we discussing your old threads? Didn't you say there wasn't much time? The captain said she would be back-"
"Hah!" interrupted the former keeper. "Please. The longer you sit here in fear, the more likely you are to talk. They want you to stew in your own sweat until you give up every detail you know." Flexing his rubbery arms behind himself, he leaned back into a relaxed position. "Besides, she's probably off hunting some other poor soul who might know about the Nexus."
"You mean, like that red masked guy?" Perry sprung from his ease.
"The Crimson Masque?" the inhumanoid gasped in terror. "You've met and lived?"
"You... know him?" inferred the kid.
"Not 'him'," corrected the delaying tutor, "them."
"There's more than one?" the boy repeated with a quiver, horrified by the very thought.
"There have been." Grey was puzzled by words that he wasn't even sure Winkler fully understood. "I've met three in my days," he explained, entering a somber state. "Two I killed. They're a crazy cult or something; I've never really been able to figure it out. Best I can tell, they're like the Keepers but evil, passing down a twisted legacy and a mission. And the one I didn't kill," Perry told, bending his head to gaze directly at his student, "took my job."
A floppy arm smashed against the floor as the miscreation changed to a more pleasing tone.
"But that's the past, and you're the future. What our captors don't know is that you, kid, are brimming with magical potential. Even without contact with a Nexus, you'll manage; you haven't been drained by time or this dreadful land. Your young body is a powder keg of energy just waiting for a spark to ignite it, and I happen to be a match. Now, let's see, you were entrusted with Earth and Fire..." Looking about the cell, the mentor pointed to the stone wall lining the back of the jail. "Place your hands there. Okay, now focus. The wall is within your control. It should melt before you. Just pass on through. Don't look at me! Keep at that wall. It's no different than moving your leg or blinking. You just do it."
After standing around and watching the lad strain himself at the surface, Winkler whipped an arm through the bars. Honing skills long since neglected, he laid his deviation of a hand upon the youth's shoulder and channeled through him. There was a quick yelp, and the boy was gone, sunken through the stone floor. A deformed ripple marked the point of his passing.
"Well... close enough.
Gravity pulled Grey through several feet of stone before he even began to comprehend what was going on. Realization caught up with him, just as his body fell to the floor below. Or at least, it tried. Unfortunately, shock somehow broke whatever focus the youth was unconsciously applying and the stone ceiling had regained it's solidity firmly around his forehead. Panicking at the uncomfortable sensation, which brought back grade-school memories of a particularly tough bully, Grey pushed and strained against his entrapment, but it was as though the stone were a part of his scalp. He frantically thought back to mere moments ago, trying to resummon whatever enabled him to get in this position. But the more he thought, the more he realized he didn't recall doing anything. It just sort of happened. The youth sighed dejectedly. He was stuck. And judging from his experience in prison so far, it wouldn't be good for him to be caught like this.
At that moment, almost as though his thoughts summoned them, voices began echoing their way down the corridor toward the room Grey was trapped in. Although shadowed in the corner, the boy was sure that the owners of these voices would never miss a sixteen-year-old suspended from the ceiling. Thinking fast, he groped around until he found a crack near his head. Getting a firm hold on it, he managed to hoist his body up, resting his feet in an indent toward the top of the nearest wall, pulling himself as close to the ceiling as he could. Praying to any god willing to listen that he remain hidden, Grey watched as two young men walked into the room.
"Are you sure we should be discussing this, Roald?" the first, clad in a charcoal-gray uniform with dark red armor, asked nervously.
"Relax, these aren't command secrets," the one called Roald affirmed, "only rumors passed around the higher ranks. They aren't gonna kill you for being privy to officers' gossip." Apparently the higher ranking of the two, this second man wore a gray uniform similar to the first's, but his armor and helmet were hunter green.
Sensing that his companion was placated, Roald went on. "It seems the boy we brought in earlier is very important to the Conglomerate. You brought him in, you saw what he had with him."
"The Nexus of Fire and Earth..."
Roald nodded. "Supposedly it's the only nexus yet unaccounted for. With it, we would be able to recover the two that were stolen. The others, many believe, are already in the possession of members of the Conglomerate on the other two of the United Worlds."
"If we controlled all the nexus-" the younger soldier realized.
"-the Conglomerate would hold sway over all the Higher Worlds. Earth would no longer maintain it's solitude from the rest of the Higher Worlds." finished the elder. He said it haltingly, as if conflicted over his feelings on the matter. "Weíve been expanding our influence for years. Weíve got members in every major government across the three United Worlds, but apparently thatís not enough. Youíve heard the rumors that the powers of the nexus, when properly combined, can become unimaginable, but no one really knows, since no one has ever held them all. Personally, I think itís nothing more than stories, but I guess there are some who take it more seriously."
"Like the captain?"
"For one. But whether or not the stories are true doesnít really matter. The conglomerate want the nexus. All of them. I donít know why, or how far theyíre willing to go to get them. All Iím sure of is that the boy is somehow key to it all. Some are even saying he came from the Fourth World."
This speculation was heralded by a set of footsteps echoing down the corridor. The red-clad man turned around. "I should go. Iím on patrol." Roald nodded in acknowledgment.
Greyís mind whirled as he tried to process this new information, but he understood very little of it. Obviously he was "the boy" but he knew nothing about the nexus. What were this "Conglomerate" going to do with him when they discovered they could get nothing from him? For a moment he completely forgot his predicament, and in that moment of relaxed concentration, his unconscious reached out to his newly awakened skill and let gravity take him.
Picking himself off the floor, his gaze met an astonished Roald standing in front of him, mouth agape. Recognition came a second later, as did his red-clad friend.
"The boy, heís escaped!"
He instinctively turned his head toward the voice, and Grey took his chance, darting past both soldiers and taking off blindly down the corridor.