Chapter 36: Trail of Blood
Tails jolted awake, the cruel laughter he heard while in the Void still ringing in his ears. Shaking himself awake, he stood up from the floor and stretched his whole body to loosen up. It wasn’t until he arched his head towards the door that he noticed that it was ajar.
“What the?” he exclaimed softly, doing a double take. “The door’s open… when did this happen?’ He poked his head out and peered at his surroundings. ‘No guards… but there’s a smell in the air… Blood?’ He turned quickly towards Cream. To his relief, she still lay on the cot asleep, her breathing light and rhythmic.
The fox then cautiously crept out of the cell and followed the scent of blood. It led him towards the door leading out of the security hold on the 67th floor. Rounding the corner, he came upon the grisly sight of the dead security guard laying on his back. His entrails were spilling out from a large gash crossing from one side of his abdomen to the other. Tails retched at the sight and smell of the body; it appeared that he was dead for less than an hour. He looked around and saw several slash marks gouged into the walls. Mingling with the guard’s blood on the floor was some blackened and rotted-looking organic matter that Tails couldn’t identify. “What the hell happened here?” he muttered out loud. Bending down and holding his breath, he searched the remains until he found the keys to the prison cells. He kept his wits about him as he returned to Cream.
“Cream, hey Cream!” Tails called, rousing her. “Wake up!”
The rabbit sat up, fully alert. “What is it?” she asked, her eyes turning to the open door. “And how’d you get the door open?”
“It wasn’t me,” Tails denied, shaking his head. “Though I wish I could say it was.” He jerked his thumb towards the door. “The guard outside’s dead, but whoever murdered him overdid it. There are gouge marks all over the walls and there was even some sort of biological matter on the floor mixed in with the guard’s blood. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was, pardon the pun.”
Cream threw him a rueful smile. “Attempts at humor aside, we should get the others out,” she said.
Tails handed her a set of keys. “Go get Cosmo, I’ll go help Bark and Green XIII,” he said.
They both left their cell, Cream heading to the left and Tails to the right. The fox opened the door to the cell and saw Bark flat on his back snoring loudly, while Green XIII sat against the wall, her head hung to her chest and lolling to and fro in a state of fitful sleep. Amidst the bear’s wheezing, Tails could hear the golem murmur the word ‘Grandpa’ to herself in her sleep.
“Hey, get up!” Tails called loudly.
Bark spluttered awake while Green XIII’s head jerked upwards. Both of them glared sourly at the fox until Bark eyes widened. “Woah, wait, hold up!” he spluttered. “How’d you get in the door?!”
“Look, there’s no time to explain,” the fox replied, lowering his eyebrows into a glare. He started tapping his foot impatiently. “Just… Come with me. Something’s wrong.” He did an about-face and headed out of the cell door, leaving the bear and golem bewildered. They soon regained their senses and started following behind him.
Making his way back to the dead guard, Tails forced down the uneasy feeling that was rising up to his throat. ‘Is this related to what I saw in the Void?’ he questioned. Cosmo and Cream soon joined the three men. The group looked on at the macabre scene in front of them.
“B-By the Goddess,” the flower girl said, her hands leaping to her mouth and her eyes wide like saucers.
“What. The. Fuck,” Bark exclaimed, his jaw dropping. “That… That is gruesome, yo.”
“There’s no way that a single Human or a Mobian could have done this,” Green XIII commented, peering over the bear’s shoulder. She appeared to be unbothered by the scene. “My guess is that another one of Nagus’ experiments has escaped. Frankly, I’m not surprised; this has happened quite often in the month or so I’ve been here.”
“…Then why didn’t whatever attacked this guard come after us?” Cream asked, her head tilted to the side. She looked away from the eviscerated corpse and towards her childhood friend. “More importantly; why did it open our cell door?”
Tails put a hand under his chin and stroked it. “That’s a good point,” he said, arching an eyebrow at the rabbit. Her questions only intensified his apprehension at the situation, but he forced himself to maintain a measure of calm. “It doesn’t make sense…” His eyes then went to the decaying matter on the floor. “In addition, there’s this stuff on the ground.” He pointed to the putrid mass of matter on the floor near the dead body and then arched his head towards the golem. “You’ve seen this before, Green?” he asked her.
“…It does look familiar,” the golem rasped, tilting her stone-encased head to observe the matter. “But… there’s no way that it could be…” Trailing off, Green XIII stepped over the corpse and opened the door out of the holding cells. She peered down the dimly lit hallway before her eyes settled on the blackish-looking blood on the ground. “…It looks like there’s a trail of it leading away from here,” she commented back to the group. “Let’s grab our stuff and then follow it, see where it leads.”
“Lead on then, Green,” Tails instructed. As the golem headed forward, he turned to the women. “You two stay close to me. Bark, can you hold the rear?”
The bear recovered the dead guard’s spare ammunition clips and inserted them into his weapon. He grinned, bearing his sharp teeth at the fox. “You can count on me,” he said confidently.
“Right then,” Cream said, turning to the fox. “Let’s go Tails.”
There was a heaviness in the air as Cosmo, Cream, Tails and Bark followed Green XIII through the dimly lit 67th floor. While the silence before was oppressive, it now felt stifling and made the fine hairs on her back stand on end. The group made a quick pit stop to retrieve their belongings and then continued to follow the bloodstained path towards the specimen containment area that spanned half of the floor. Despite there being nobody around, the five had their weapons drawn out as though they expected something to jump out at them.
As they turned the corner into the containment area, they saw more human and Mobian bodies lying in heaps, all suffering fatal and messy wounds. One dead owl in particular was sprawled against the tank Green XIII was in. He had a gaping and bloody hole through his chest, his beak was contorted into a frozen expression of horror and his vacant and glazed stare was focused on the now destroyed containment tank that once held Blakdüm.
The door looked to be torn open from the inside. A slick pool of blood and black, decaying matter stood outside the tank. Severed body parts were strewn around the floor near it and the stench of death was cloying.
Cosmo covered her mouth with her jacket to avoid the smell. The more the flower girl saw, the more she had to fight against the overwhelming urge to turn around and run away from it all. She shrunk away from the mess of life fluids dripping off of the twisted metal and her hands were white from holding her staff in a bone-crushing grip.
Green XIII stepped forward and inspected the holding tank, her stony face stark and impassive. Cosmo couldn’t tell if she was alarmed at the sight or not. “…Well, isn’t this interesting?” she commented to the group, her words slow and meticulous. “It seems that the blood originates here. The trail then travels to our cells, returns to this point and then finally goes towards the lift in the back.”
“So, again, WHY did it come to our cells?” Bark asked, tugging on his cap. “And why didn’t it enter? I mean, it’s weird?” Cosmo noticed that his hand was trembling. Whether it was from fright or from adrenaline, she wasn’t sure.
‘You need to tell them what happened…’ her inner voice said.
“… Well, there’s no point in trying to figure this out now,” Tails said after a pause. He turned towards the blood leading to the lift, his brows lowered. “Let’s keep following-“
“I heard something,” Cosmo heard herself say in a tiny voice she knew full well that he would have heard. She drew her staff closer to her body, as though it was a security blanket. “Maybe… Maybe a few minutes before you left your cell, Tails… I’m-I’m not sure.”
The fox stopped mid-step and turned around to face her. Soon three more pairs of eyes were on her. Cosmo wanted nothing more at that moment than to wilt away and dismiss her musings as nonsense. Instead, she continued to speak.
“I… I woke up because of the guard,” she said. She felt her hair blossoms tremble as she recalled the guard’s gurgles and death rattle as he died on the other side of the wall across from her bed. “He sounded like he was trying to scream… but he couldn’t. A-After he fell silent, I started hearing footsteps. They were… Slow and sounded heavy – like-like boots, y’know?” She turned her head away from the group and towards Green’s old containment tank. “I-it passed my cell and then I suddenly… heard a door swish open. Then I heard footsteps again and then… I think it stopped by my door.” She felt her stomach churn as she continued. “I… I felt this… This pressure,” She let out a shaky breath and shook her head. “I-I can’t explain it, it was just… A terrifying and overwhelming power. Like something that’s not of this world… And then it laughed.” Her eyes met Tails’ own as she said this. “It was low… But it was cruel, cold and… Murderous.”
Cream immediately reached out and took the flower girl’s hand, her brows creased and concern flooded her face. Cosmo squeezed back and smiled ruefully at her, grateful for the wordless gesture.
Bark took off his cap and scratched his head. “So… what does this all mean, Tails?” he asked Tails, giving him a sidelong glance.
“…I dunno?” the warrior replied. Cosmo, however, could see that his fur was standing on end and his pupils were dilated – as though he had an idea what was happening. “But… Like I said before, there’s no point in trying to figure this all out right now. Let’s keep going.” He turned around and stalked off towards the elevator.
The polar bear cast a skeptical look at the fox’s back. “‘No point in trying to figure this out’ my ass,” he muttered, replacing the cap and adjusting the fit. He turned to the others. “C’mon, let’s go.”
The five Mobians piled into the lift at the back of the room. As they passed the halfway point to the next floor, they heard a muffled cacophony of violent shrieks, followed by the sounds of men yelling. “Keep your guard up,” Tails said quietly as the lift stopped and the doors opened to the 68th floor. They clambered out quietly and drew out their weapons.
Unlike before, the lighting in the theater was dimmed. The fixtures above them were damaged as a result of an ongoing battle between assailants that Cosmo couldn’t see. She could, however, hear that the battles were on the other side of the floor, well away from their location. The horrible sounds of flesh being severed and the screams from Nagus’ twisted experiments made the flower girl’s skin crawl. She hunkered down with her companions under the shadows of the control room above, one hand gripping her staff, the other hovering over the Fire Emerald in the weapon’s slot.
“Sounds like SOLDIER’s fighting ahead of us… Green, can you see the trail?” she heard the Ex-SOLDIER whisper ahead of her.
“Mmm… Yeah, I do see it,” the golem responded, her rasp coming through as a hiss. “There are multiple trails, all of them the colour of blood… Except for one that is black and rotted. That one-” she stopped and pointed to a trail leading away from the fighting. “-Leads out of the lab and towards the stairwell we took to get back to the 66th.”
“OK then, let’s avoid getting tied up with SOLDIER and get-” Cosmo heard Tails pause for a moment before he raised his voice. “Out of the way!!”
Tails’ warning came just as a large figure dashed clumsily towards them, a large, clawed hand raised. The group spread itself out as the monster slashed at nothing. It soundlessly rose up and Cosmo let out an audible gasp. “Isn’t that the monster from before?!” she cried, her eyes widening.
Standing underneath a flickering light was the body of Subject 512. Its head was still severed and lolling to the side, connected only by a thin strand of muscle. The mouth on its shoulder was shut and downturned, creating a garish looking frown. It rose up and shuffled forward in a hunched position, its only working arm swinging wildly.
“HOLY SHIT!” Bark yelled, pointing his shaking Gun-Arm at the creature. “It-It’s alive?!”
“No,” Tails replied coolly, retaining his calm composure, his sword out in front of him. “It’s definitely dead. My guess is that its body had been reanimated somehow…”
As the fox spoke, the sounds of something being suckled out echoed amidst the fighting on the other side of the floor. Suddenly, the eyes belonging to a pair of smaller, pale-looking creatures peeked out from 512’s back. To their collective horror, the five Mobians watched as the thin, snake-like monsters detached from the felled experiment’s back with a squelch and retracted a set of long, spike-like prehensile tails from its exposed spinal cord. 512 froze in place and then fell forwards to the ground with a loud crash. The monsters then slithered off of the corpse onto the laboratory floor and finally faced the group.
Under the dim, flickering lights, Cosmo shivered at the sight of the grotesque and writhing things in front of her. At roughly a foot shorter than her own height, the pale, flesh coloured creatures stood upright on thin, coiled spike-like tails and had tube-like bodies that flared out towards their heads. A pair of stunted, purple tentacles erupted out of the tops of their heads in a Y-shaped pattern. They each had two pairs of thin and spindly arms that jutted out halfway up their bodies. On its head section were three pairs of angry unblinking red eyes. In its centre, from the top pair of eyes to just below the second pair of arms, were a line of circular mouths for which rasping, sucking sounds came out of each orifice. Each mouth was lined with a set of sharp, pointed teeth and dribbled purplish-red blood.
Tails made the first move. He rushed forward and slashed diagonally at the first flesh-colored mutant, who twisted at an awkward angle to avoid the cut. Circling behind him, the second mutant bent forward and thrust the tip of its tail at the fox, striking the top of his arm. Tails gritted his teeth as the needle-like barb penetrated his skin before he wrenched his arm away.
A low and sickly growl caused Cosmo and Cream to look behind them. They came face to face with an emaciated four-legged creature. It had yellowed eyes and its animal-like snout was gaunt and skeletal. Its nostrils were long and wide and its mouth was wide open, revealing a set of mismatched pointed fangs. It had cropped medium length hair that was a bright, blood red and a discoloured, bluish-white patch on its forehead. Its rail-thin, dirt-coloured body was covered in long, sharp-looking spines. Its front paws weren’t paws at all, but two fanged mouths that snapped as it slinked forward. The rear paws contained eight clawed toes that jutted out in a circular pattern. Its tail stood upright threateningly, revealing the three spiked barbs at the end. It was hunched down, as though it was about to pounce.
It suddenly loped forward towards the two women and jumped at them, the mouths on its front paws opened wide. At the last second, Green XIII intercepted its attack by grabbing both paws in her hands. Grunting, the golem wrestled the beast away from the women, all while the mouths on the end of its forearms snapped repeatedly in her face. As it struggled in the crystal golem’s arresting grip, the patch on the monster’s head started to shine with a dull light. It brought its face up to Green XIII’s chest, opened its mouth and launched a fiery shell into it. It exploded on contact and the impact sent the golem flying. Screaming out in pain, she collided with Bark – whose attention was on the other two mutants Tails was facing – and the two Mobians were sent sprawling across the floor towards where the destroyed supercomputers for the Roboticizer lay.
Realizing that she had little time to lose, Cosmo quick-charged a Fire spell from her weapon and launched it before the monster could regain its bearings. It hit its mark, sending its body ablaze.
“So, that thing’s called a Zenene!” Cream said beside her. Cosmo glanced at her and saw that her irises flashed a bright blue. Her finger was on the Sense Emerald affixed to her armor. “Be careful, it absorbs Poison and Fire isn’t very effective on it!”
True to her word, the Zenene dropped and rolled on the floor to put out the flames. Cream released her hold on the yellow gem, dashed forward and then clocked the beast in its face as it rose up. She then followed up with a side kick which sent it stumbling backwards.
Regaining its footing, the creature sprang forward, its forearms outstretched and jaws gaping. However, the fighter anticipated the lunge and dropped into a low crouch. The Zenene sailed over her, but one of the spikes on its tail managed to graze her cheek. Turning around, the Zenene belched out a smoke-coloured gas from its mouth. The mist, combined with the low lighting, obscured the monster. Cream kept her guard up, her sharp eyes roving around and searching for any signs of movement.
As Cream fought, Cosmo drew blue energy from the Ice Emerald she had equipped onto her Four Slot bangle. Her staff floating in front of her at waist level, she brought the energy between her palms and charged it with Mana. She watched the fight, waiting for the right moment to cast it.
From the corner of her eye, Cream saw the flower girl prepare her spell. However, that split second switch in focus gave the Zenene the opportunity it was looking for. It bounded forward from its smokescreen into Cream’s blindspot and thrusted a jawed hand into her side. The fangs clamped down and tore a chunk out of the fighter’s left oblique. Cream screeched painfully and threw a kick in retaliation before backing away. She hissed as she pressed a hand against the torn flesh to stem the bleeding.
Cosmo looked on, horrified, but maintained her spell charge while keeping her eyes locked onto the monster. From her peripheral vision, she saw Green XIII rise up in the distance. The golem started lumbering towards Cream and Cosmo, her loud steps briefly catching the Zenene’s attention. ‘Now!’ she thought, pushing the spell out of her hands and calling “ICE!”
The magic raced towards the mutant and struck it unawares, causing it’s joints to stiffen up. Capitalizing on the opportunity, Green XIII joined his fists together as she changed direction and bounded towards the Zenene, brought them up and then, with a roar, slammed the mutant’s head with a hammer blow. The force of the attack shattered its skull, killing it instantly.
Not waiting to see if the golem finished off the mutant, Cosmo ran up to Cream, her hand now extracting green healing energy from her Restore Emerald. Reaching the fighter, she placed her hand a few inches over the gushing wound and called “CURE!” The magic traveled out of her hand and seeped into Cream’s wound.
The rabbit watched amazed as the Restore magic halted the bleeding, mended the patch of skin that was ripped out and finally caused fresh cream-coloured fur to sprout out and cover the scar tissue. She threw a grateful look at Cosmo, before it was replaced by one of panicked alarm. “Look out!!” she cried.
Cosmo looked behind, only to be struck face first by a floating, metallic pod. The flower girl skidded and rolled along the floor until she came to a halt by the holding tank. Her face felt like it was on fire and tears formed on the corners of her eyes as she slowly picked herself up from the ground. Getting into a kneeling position, she first prodded her cheek gently to see if anything was broken. ‘OK, good, it’s only swollen…’ she surmised, wincing in pain. She then turned her attention back to Cream. Her eyes went as wide as saucers and she let out a gasp.
Cream’s body was once again enveloped in a golden aura and her normally gentle face was now contorted in a dark scowl. “You’ll pay for that!!” she yelled savagely as the aura now concentrated onto her fists and feet. The fighter then began a relentless assault – first, by throwing the same bone-breaking five hit combo she used on Corneo’s pet back in Sector 6. On the fifth hit, she reared back and somersaulted backwards, both feet striking the pod’s metallic face and causing it to crack. Landing in a crouch, she set her feet, leapt up into the air and descended to deliver a devastating drop kick. The pod creature attempted to back away in an effort to preserve itself as its shell continued to crack open, but Cream wasn’t giving it any relief. With lightning-like feet, she circled around the pod, grabbed it and executed a suplex.
The abuse the enraged fighter laid on the pod caused its shell to shatter, revealing a disfigured, adult human head on the body the size of an infant child’s swimming around in a pinkish substance. Rage still coursing through her, Cream ripped the abomination out of its protective cocoon, slammed it hard onto the ground and then crushed the head with the heel of her boot. She took several deep breaths to calm herself down and then brought a hand to her lips in abject horror on realizing what she had done. She stepped away from the still twitching body, her face sickened.
Cosmo quickly went to the fighter’s side and carefully placed a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, thanks for that,” she said consolingly, her lips crinkling upward.
“Don’t feel bad for it,” came Green XIII’s voice from the rabbit’s left side. The explosion she suffered from the Zenene left a large hole in her crystalline carapace that was slowly closing up. Cosmo could now see wisps of brown and beige fur that were once concealed by the thick crystal. She glanced briefly at the headless mutated human near Cream’s foot. “Nagus’ experiments – like this Brain Pod – would gladly choose death as opposed to living the remainder of their lives as atrocities.” Her lips quirked into a smile of his own at the rabbit. “You did it a favour.”
The fighter’s expression softened, but the remorse in her eyes still remained. Cosmo took her by the hand and shook it. “C’mon, we gotta help out Tails and Mr. Bark!” she said, trying to stir her from her stupor.
At the mention of his name, the three heard gunshots coming out of Bark’s weapon from the far side of the room, next to the doorway that led to the main stairwell. They cut across the floor to see the polar bear and Tails backed into the wall by the two flesh-coloured mutants. A third soon joined them. Bark fired at each of them individually, but the creatures weaved around the erratic shots as they slithered closer. From behind him, Tails struggled to move. His body looked rigid and stiff and his face was contorted in a frozen grimace. The only parts of his body that were still moving freely were his eyes.
Enroute to their friends, Green XIII placed a hand on the Sense Emerald on her armour and activated it. “Vargid Police,” she explained to Cosmo and Cream as they stopped a few feet away, her jade eyes flashing bright blue. “ These creatures can paralyze and even control their prey as they latch on and absorb their victim’s blood. They’re weak on their own, but can be more dangerous when fighting as a group. We gotta help Bark and Tails quickly.”
“No need to tell me twice!” Cosmo stated, preparing a Fire spell in hands. She raised her hands upward to charge the magic and then swept them forward as she called, “FIRE!” A column of flames erupted underneath the middle Vargid Police, burning it to cinders.
The remaining two mutants whirled around to see Cream and Green XIII storm towards them. Cream had a ball of Lightning magic ready; she halted her advance abruptly, pushed her palms out and called “BOLT!” The spell shot towards the Vargid Police on her left and struck it before it could react, electrocuting and stunning the creature long enough for Bark to finish it off with several shots from his Gun-Arm.
Green XIII closed in on the final mutant and grabbed the stunted tentacles on its head. The creature let out a squeal and thrusted its needle-barbed tail into the golem in a fit of desperation, but couldn’t get past her thick, stone armor. Letting out a mighty yell, the golem raised up and started swinging the mutant into the ground repeatedly until its shrieking became silent.
By that point, Tails started regaining movement in his body as the paralysis wore off. He stretched and groaned, massaging his limbs back to life. “Thanks everyone,” he said, a hint of gratefulness etched in his indifferent tone. He stood up and his ears perked amidst the discord on the other side of the room. “Let’s get going,” he said, placing his Buster Sword on his back once more. “The fighting on the other side seems to be ceasing, meaning we’re gonna be next if we don’t hustle!” He turned to the crystal golem. “Green, you said that the trail leads upwards?”
“Yep,” she replied, nodding. She approached and inspected the door leading to the main stairwell. “Looks like the door’s been forced open, so we shouldn’t need a keycard to keep going.”
As the group stepped through the threshold and into brighter lighting, Cream winced at seeing Cosmo’s face. “Ye-ouch Cos,” she said, half-smiling. “That thing got you pretty good, huh?”
“Wha- Oh, this?” the flower girl responded, touching the large welt on her cheek, which stung on touch. “Yeah, it’s not too bad…”
Tails rounded on the two and inspected Cosmo’s face. “Hold on for a moment,” he said, drawing his sword and tapping the Restore Emerald in it. Drawing and shaping the energy with a portion of his Mana, he brought his two fingers to the flower girl’s cheek. Cosmo felt herself flush involuntarily as his gloved fingers hovered above her bruised and swollen cheek. “Cure,” she heard him call softly.
As the magic worked into her face and reduced the swelling, she stared into his piercing electric blue eyes and suddenly felt a tiny spark within herself. A spark that she thought she would never feel again. ‘W-what’s this?’ she found herself thinking as she felt herself diving into the fox’s eyes. ‘What is it… that I’m feeling?’
A second later, the moment ended. Tails abruptly turned around and continued out of the hallway, following the rot-stained trail. “C’mon,” he called to the girls.
“Cosmo?” Cream’s voice broke the flower girl out of her bemusement. She looked at the fighter, who wore an unreadable expression on her face.
“R-right, sorry,” Cosmo replied, clearing the fog out of her head with a shake “Let’s go.”
As they climbed the stairs up to the 69th floor, the Mobians found that the blackened trail became stained with blood once more. The severed bodies of dead humans surrounded them as they followed the path up one of the plum carpeted staircases leading to the President’s office on the 70th floor.
The office was as pristine as ever, save for the bloody trail which ended at the foot of Gerald Kintobor’s desk. The group approached it with trepidation, only to find a stunning sight that took the air right out of the room:
Gerald Kintobor, the president of Kintobor Power Incorporated and the de facto ruler of Megapolis, was slumped forward onto his desk in a pool of his own blood, a six-foot long katana impaled through his back.