The Beller walked through the Waste, leaving no tracks.
He was a tall, lanky man with black hair and beady eyes. He wore a blue jacket over a red skirt of patches and rags, with a small tongueless bell at his throat, and a ring with the sign of York, the patron saint of thieves and rogues.
Beller wasn't his real name, of course, but he made it a habit never to tell anyone his real name. He said it was because his people were afraid to give out their real names. Most people assumed he was wanted under the name he was born with. He was certainly wanted enough under his new one (and unwanted, in some places).
He knew the Ways, though. If anyone could get you from one city to another, it was him (extra if he'd been outcast by the locals). If you wanted a relic from the old places, he knew where you could buy it, or, if the price was right, he'd fetch you one himself.
The waterskin at his side was empty. Water was plentiful in the Waste, and it was one less thing to weigh him down. The real problem was food. Nothing grew in the waste. There were occasional birds and animals crossing the damp sands, but no trees or grasses of any sort.
The Beller knew the Waste well. He'd used its trackless spaces to escape pursuit many times. Today, however, he was looking for someone else.
In the distance, a rocky promontory poked up over the dunes like the back of a beetle. He'd spotted it the day before, and he would reach it in a few more hours.
"Ho! Beller!" a voice called out.
The Beller tensed, reaching for his sword. He relaxed after he spotted a man atop a dune, wearing thick leather robes. "Benadam! I've come to visit you."
The man began walking down the dune to the Beller. He smiled, his blue eyes almost seeming to shine from under the leather skullcap worn low over his forehead. "I thought as much. I spotted you yesterday. What brings you here?"
"I've found some writings, and I want you to tell me what they mean," the Beller said. He held up the box with the handle he'd found. He'd found it across the world, after he'd tried to rob a wizard's home, and fell victim to an enchanted pool.
"A briefcase full of secrets?" Benadam said. "I'm surprised it's intact. Well, follow me. I've built up a small camp, and we can speak more there."
This was how it always went with Benadam. He always met Beller within a day of the rocks, with a campsite set up. The Beller had never been to the rocks themselves, and he didn't know anyone who had.
Benadam looked to be in his middle years, but he'd been in the Waste as long as the Beller had heard. Some said he was as old as the Waste itself. He certainly knew enough of the lost days.
The hermit led him up the dune and to a small tent, made from leather and with the bones of some great beast for supports. There was a small metal contraption with fire rising from it.
"So, let's look at your case," the hermit said, reaching for the case with his leather gloves. He opened the clasp with hardly a glance, though it had taken the Beller several minutes to figure out. He pulled out the papers, yellow and brittle, and began to read them over. He sucked in his breath, and asked, "Where did you find this?"
"In a fortress built into a mountain, far across the sea," the Beller said. "One of the fortresses of the Old Order." He could hardly keep the excitement from his voice. "There were other relics there, but this was the only thing I could carry easily."
"How did you get across the sea?" Benadam asked. "Never mind. Do you realize what you have?"
"Secrets," the Beller said, smiling. The hermit's reaction told him the papers were important.
"You could say that," Benadam said, slowly nodding. "This is a list of… of Wonders, I suppose you could say, and the locations of the Ceitus."
"Including the home Ceitu?" the Beller asked, hungrily.
Benadam straightened suddenly. "Beller, no! You don't know what's in there. It was abandoned for a reason."
"I'm not afraid. I've been in Ceitus before." The Beller puffed up his narrow chest.
"Not like this one. I won't let you do it," Benadam said.
"Don't try to stop me, old man. Just tell me where the Ceitu is!" The Beller grabbed the hermit's wrist. It felt hard and thin under the sleeve, as though there were nothing there but bone.
Benadam did not move, and his expression never changed, but something changed in him, as though he had suddenly grown larger. The hairs on the back of the Beller's neck rose. There was a sense of power in the air, as though lightning were about to strike. "Will you strike me?" the hermit asked.
The Beller took his hand from Benadam, and he looked away, embarrassed despite himself.
"Now, I'm going to put an end to this nonsense," Benadam said. He put the papers over the fire, and they caught at once. "You should thank me. I've saved you from yourself, you know."
Resentment boiled up inside of the Beller. He hated being made a fool of, and he couldn't resist leaving one last gloating note. "You haven't changed anything," he said.
"What do you mean?" Benadam asked, suspicious.
"Do you think I would make this journey with only the original set of papers? As fragile as they were? I've had time to make a dozen sets, and I've hidden them all." In truth, he'd only taken the time to make one copy, and it was in his bag. But Benadam didn't know that.
"Beller! You can't do this! I won't let you!" Benadam rose, and for a moment, the Beller thought he might attack.
"You won't stop me," the Beller said with a bravado he didn't feel. "You're no murderer."
Benadam stared at him for a long moment, and then, to the Beller's surprise, he burst out laughing. "Oh, Beller, if you only knew. No, I won't kill you, but not for the reasons you think. Go on, then. I cannot stop you. But I don't know how you expect to follow the notes when you cannot read them."
"I'll find another who knows the old language," the Beller said.
"There's no one else," Benadam said. "I'm the only one who still remembers it."
"Not true," the Beller said. "There's one other. And he's not hard to find."
"Who—Oh, Beller. You don't mean to go South, do you?" Benadam's eyes turned to pity.
"If you will not help me, then I have no choice," the Beller said. "I'd go to Abirt himself if he offered me the home Ceitu."
Benadam only shook his head. "It's not death you should be afraid of in the Everman's hands."
Beller kept his fire small, and watched the entrance to the cave. He was a week out of the Waste, and there was something moving outside. It was too big to be a wild dog and didn't move quite right to be a jumper.
It could be another traveller, of course, or a bandit. But he hadn't seen anyone for two days. The South was a cursed land. Everyone knew that.
Twigs cracked near the entrance, and a human shape blocked the light. White, blank eyes stared at him and a low moan spilled out of a slack-jawed mouth.
"Geyre's forge!" he swore, and raised his sword. The walking dead were only a nuisance in the open, where their slow speed and clumsy movements made them easy to kill. In the cramped confines of the cave, however, he was at serious risk of a bite.
It stumbled towards him, inadvertently stepping into the fire. It didn't seem to react as the flame climbed up its leg. It only stepped onward, reaching for him with gray, bloated fingers.
The Beller swung his sword at the hands, taking off the fingers. He tried to step around the dead man and get to the entrance, but it stumbled over and grabbed at his shoulder with its unmaimed hand. He kicked out, trying to keep from catching fire himself, and knocked its leg out from under it. The dead man fell, nearly pulling him down with it. He managed to get free before it could sink its teeth into his leg. He jumped back, and it began to crawl towards him. He jogged out of the cave.
The Beller congratulated himself on another daring escape. Now he merely had to wait until the dead man came out, and it would be easily dispatched.
As he turned, his smile slowly sank. The crawling dead was hoisting itself through the dead leaves that had built up around the cave's entrance, and they began to ignite. Beller looked at the dry chaparral around him, and then back to the cave, where all of his supplies were. "Kalef's balls!" he cried in dismay, and then took off his jacket, trying to use it to beat out the flames.
The dead man continued trying to bite him even as he tried to extinguish it and the brush around it. His jacket caught, and he was forced to drop it. The fire spread quickly, and the Beller realized there was no way he could beat this fire. It was time to retreat.
He jumped over the dead man and ran back into the cave. The smoke was thick and choking. He grabbed his pack, and then turned and ran again, coughing as he went. He jumped over the zombie's last pitiable swipe at his feet and ran, looking for a stream, a river, anything. As he did, he felt an odd warmth at his back. He looked over his shoulder, and saw smoke rising from his pack. Madly, he swung the pack off, and then rifled through its contents, grabbing the papers before they could be harmed, and then threw the pack away with a curse. He started off again, stumbling in the darkness away from the orange glow that was rising behind him.
The Beller waded through waist-deep water, his precious bundle held high over his head. He'd been wandering in this godforsaken swamp for days now. He hadn't seen so many leeches since the jungles in the Northlands.
In the distance, he heard the roar of a bull crocodile. He shivered. He hadn't seen too many of the great reptiles since he'd entered the swamp, but he knew how powerful their jaws were.
He finally made it up onto the next island. He'd been staying on land as much as possible, trying to avoid the water where he could. He wished he'd had his ax and his rope. He could have put together a boat. It would have made this trip much more pleasant.
After drying off his sword and knife, he took his boots off so they'd have a chance to dry at least a little, and began checking himself for leeches. He pulled off the four that had taken hold, cursing them as he cut them up with his knife.
He placed the papers on top of a reasonably dry tree stump, with a rock over them to protect them from being blown away. He didn't want to chance them getting soaked and ruined now.
He checked his waterskin. There was still a little fresh water in it. He considered drinking it, but decided to wait a little longer. He didn't know when he'd find another spring.
No food, no fire, and running out of water… He hoped he'd find the Everman soon, or he'd have to start eating the Abirt-damned leeches. "Worthless bloody place," he said.
"Bloody," someone said behind him in a strangely familiar voice. He turned, and didn't see anyone.
"Place bloody," someone else said. The Beller realized the voice was his own. Am I going mad? he wondered to himself.
"Worthless bloody," another voice said, and this time he spotted movement. A large red crab sidled out from behind a bush. It was perhaps as tall as his knee, and had long, thin arms that seemed to end in spikes rather than claws.
He pulled out his sword and tapped the ground, hoping to scare the creature away. It didn't look dangerous, but he didn't like the way its beady eyes were staring at him.
As he stepped forward, he felt a small pain in his leg. He spun around in time to see another of the crabs sidle away. "Fucking bastard!" he shouted.
"Bastard place worthless," said another of the crabs, scuttling over a rock. He started to run to it when he felt another pain, and his leg collapsed from under him. He lashed out at the crab that cut him with his sword, but he only managed to tap it with the flat of the blade.
He heard others moving around him; how many of them were there? They all began chittering, repeating his words in idiot chorus. He felt more pains. He tried to flail around, but it was getting hard to move. Were they poisonous? What were they doing to him?
He saw one sidle up to his arm. He tried to move it out of the way, but its spike-like claw reached out, and he saw the glittering blade on its underside as it sliced into his elbow, cutting the tendon. It spat a thick, viscous fluid over the wound, sealing it instantly. He couldn't move the arm any further. He began to scream as others swarmed over him, cutting, spitting, and rendering him immobile. One cut the tendons of his jaw, and his jaw slackened. He couldn't move except to arch his back.
They started cutting off bits from his extremities. He felt his fingers and toes get cut off, and then one began to pluck at the soft flesh of his face. The last thing he saw was a pair of sharp claws reaching down to his face.
It went on for some time until he heard an odd, guttural voice. He heard the crabs scuttle away, and then felt a final sting in his arm. He felt himself being lifted and carried as he drifted off to sleep.
When he woke up, he felt stiff, and his head hurt. He rubbed his eyes as he sat up.
Then he stared at his fingers, and the rest of his body. He was whole. Was he in Abirt's land, now? Was he about to be judged?
He looked around, and saw that he was in a white room, lying on a padded platform. It looked like the remains of some of the Ceitus he'd seen, though much better kept up.
Something felt odd with his hands. He looked down at them, and blinked several times. He counted. He counted again. He balled his fists and then opened them again. It was no use. No matter what he did, he still found he had five fingers and two thumbs on each hand.
The door opened. "I see you're awake, sir. Pleased to meet you."
The Beller looked up and nearly fell off the platform as a monster entered the room. There was no other word for it.
It was a man, roughly. It had two arms, two legs, and a head in the right places. But the head was oddly formed, as though someone had grafted on the crowns of other heads on top of it, making it much bigger than any normal man's head. He had four eyes with odd-shaped pupils under his bulbous forehead. A mechanical construct on a headband swiveled a lens over one eye, which blinked monstrously under the magnification. The skin was paler than any man the Beller had seen, almost white and pinkish, with light brown hair. A mustache with an unnatural curve seemed to form a second curly-cue smile under his nose. His arms branched at the elbows, giving him four large hands, with long fingers with too many joints. "I'm sorry if my appearance is… alarming to you. I was working and I didn't… expect company."
"You're the Everman," the Beller said, frightened in spite of himself.
The monster nodded. "Everett Mann, actually. Doctor… Everett Mann. The finest… and the last surgeon this world has seen. And you are… the Beller. You… talk in your sleep, you know. And scream. And beg, a little. I… rescued you from my pets, dear little 098's. They can be… difficult with strangers, I must confess. But no harm done, yes? And… I even gave you a few improvements. I make people better, you know."
"Improvements? The extra fingers?" the Beller said.
"Yes. And, if you… tense your fingers. Just… a little," the Everman said, smiling beatifically.
Confused, the Beller did as the Everman suggested. As his fingers tensed, little glistening hooks sprouted from the tips of his fingers. He bit back a curse.
"They have a… strong soporific. Useful… if you encounter a dingo, or other dangerous wildlife." The Everman turned. "But let's… have some tea, yes? Proper and… civilized."
The Beller followed him down the hallway, glancing around as he did, trying to get his bearings in the strange building. There were many twists and turns, and many closed doors. He heard voices behind some of them, but none in any language he understood. Behind some, he swore he could hear moaning or weeping.
Finally, they came to a large, spacious room, bare but for a small table in the middle of it. There were two chairs. The Everman gestured to one.
After the Beller sat down, another door opened, and a… thing walked in. It was humanlike, but not human. It had four legs, splayed out like an insect's, and it had arms that bent too many times. Its face was perfectly formed, and all the more disturbing for its apparent normality. It carried a silver tray. It approached the table and lifted the lid of the tray, revealing a ceramic pot with flowers painted on the side, two cups, and a bowl.
The Everman took the pot and the cups, and then the bowl, placing them on the table. He poured the steaming tea into both cups. He looked up at the Beller and began to ask, "Would you like… Wait, no. I suppose you… wouldn't know about sugar in your tea. Well, it's like… honey. I'll… add some for you, how's that?" He took small white cubes from the bowl and placed one in each cup.
The Beller sipped his politely, and found it tasted good. Sweeter than he was used to, but good. "Thank you," he said. "It's very good." He wanted to remain on the Everman's good side.
The Everman beamed. "Thank you! The… refined sugar is rather… clever, I think. I… developed a grub that… exudes it as a waste product."
It took all of the Beller's self-control to smile and swallow, rather than spitting out his tea.
"So," he said, a trifle weakly, "when you found me, did you by any chance find some papers?"
"Ah! Yes, I… wanted to discuss that… with you. They are… most interesting." The Everman steepled both sets of hands. "Where did… you find them?"
"In a land far to the north, across half the world," the Beller said. "They were in a Ceitu in a vast desert."
"Ah," the Everman said. "The… Gobi Outpost. That's… interesting. Very interesting. I did not realize that… 120 was still active. We'll… speak of that later. This list will help me… find many things that were lost."
"Like the location of the Home Ceitu?" the Beller asked.
"The home…?" The Everman looked at him strangely for a moment, and then realization dawned in his strange eyes. "Ah. You mean… Site 23. Yes, it's in there, though… I could have told you where that was."
"You… could?" The Beller had been so focused on the papers, it hadn't occured to him that the Everman wouldn't need them. No, he'd come from there too, hadn't he?
"Of course," the Everman said. "It's to… the west of us, and a little north. I… remember it well, though… I try not to visit there often. It's… a dangerous place now. 184's effects are… difficult to predict. Especially after all this time."
"But think of the secrets that it must hold!" the Beller said. "Why, it's the birthplace of humanity, the holding place of so many Wonders, and the grave of Starel himself!"
The Everman stiffened. His eyes narrowed, an eerie effect with all four staring down at the Beller. "Strelnikov," the monster said, "Dmitri Arkadeyevich."
"What?" the Beller said, confused.
"Strelnikov, Dmitri Arkadeyevich," the Everman repeated. "That… is how he introduced himself… to me. When we met. It is how I have always referred to him. It is how you shall refer to him."
"I… yes, all right," the Beller said. "Starelnikoff Damichree Arkadayivitch. No problem."
"…Close enough," the Everman said. "And yes… He is in there. With 682. Grave? Perhaps. A fitting tomb. He was… the best of us, you know. We did so well, when he was with us."
"What happened?" the Beller asked, sensing the Everman wanted an audience.
"Yoric," the Everman said through gritted teeth. "It was all his fault."
The Beller had a moment of panic, thinking to his ring, but realized that it was gone with the finger that had worn it. "He… hurt you?"
"He turned them all against me," the Everman said. "All my friends. Without Strelnikov, Dmitri Arkadeyevich, there was no one to defend me. And after all I did!" He slammed two hands onto the table with enough force to crack the wood and tip over the pot and the cups. "I was the one who solved the D-Class problem! I was the one who suggested we alter their reproductive DNA. Rights may have done the work, but it was my idea! I was the doctor, I kept us all in health! I cured the diseases, I fixed the injuries. But did they remember that? No. They didn't care. They just wanted to stop my work. They said it was wrong, but I know the truth. They were jealous that I could see farther, that my hands grasped the fire.
"Yoric." He spat the name. "He hated me ever since the Raelin incident. He should have been grateful. I was his friend! I helped him! I only ever wanted to make him better, but did he care? He turned everyone against me. Cast out. No friends, no lab. Nothing but my surgeon crabs to care for me. And all I ever wanted was to help people! Well, I'll show them. I'll show everyone. I'll make them better, they'll see. And they'll thank me for it! No one will ever dare throw me out again!" The Everman's eyes were wide and mad, and veins rose from his neck.
Slowly, his eyes focused again on the Beller. "You. You won't… leave me, will you?" he asked, pleading. "You're my friend… yes?"
"Er, yes, of course," the Beller said, terrified. The Everman was mad, clearly. If he hadn't been to start with, the years alone must have done it.
"Good, good," the Everman said. "I knew you were… different, as soon as I saw you. You won't… abandon me. I'll… I'll help you. I'll make you… better! That's what I'll do."
"Oh, that's all right," the Beller said nervously. "I think I'm good enough for now."
"No, I… insist," the Everman said. He gestured to his servant, which grasped the Beller with a strong, vice-like grip. "I understand your reluctance, but you'll see. It's for your own good. I'm your doctor, after all." He stood and walked for one of the doors. The servant followed, forcing Beller along.
Dr. Mann pulled out a small metal object and placed it into a slot on the door, then turned it. The door opened, and then entered. The Beller found himself standing in a vast, brightly lit room, containing hundreds of different relics.
"My… collection," the Everman said proudly. "Various SCPs, ah, 'wonders,' I think you… call them. Many, the… Foundation never even knew. These are just… the ones that… can be stored together, you… understand. Others would be more… problematic." He continued walking down the aisles, past shelves, boxes, and crates. A broad-brimmed hat rested next to a silt-encrusted cup. A picture of a girl waved at him from a picture frame sitting by a ruby medallion. A stone cube twice as tall as a man, cracked in two… He hardly formed more than an impression of any of them as he was dragged past.
They finally came up to a platform, like the one upon which he had woken up. Three arms of metal and plastic rose above it. "212," the Everman said. "I was… lucky to acquire it. The Foundation never… understood it properly. They couldn't… control it. The improvements were random, haphazard. I… have better understanding. It will… help you, my friend. Help you to… see as I do."
The Beller didn't know if he meant eyes or beliefs, and he didn't want to find out. He twisted as much as he could, and delivered a swift kick right between the servant's four legs. It howled and released him. Even as the Everman turned, the Beller grabbed a box off a shelf.
"No, you fool!" the Everman shouted as the Beller threw the box's contents at him. He tried to grab a tiny red object as it bounced away, but it evaded him. The Beller turned and ran.
He heard crashes behind him, and saw the servant running after. It screamed at him, a high-pitched keening that grated at the Beller's ears.
Then something struck the creature, and it stumbled. The Beller thought he saw a tiny red streak, and then a shelf collapsed. He cursed, and added even more speed, looking for shelter.
"Traitor! Quisling!" the Everman's voice echoed through the room. "Yoric!"
The Beller saw an odd wheeled box. He jumped inside of it, on the off chance it might be enchanted to move. He looked around for some sort of control mechanism. There were several levers and a large wheel. He tried them, but got no noticeable response as more objects broke and shattered around him. Something punched through the roof before shattering the front window. The servant, one leg trailing behind it, jumped on the front of the vehicle and reached through the broken window at the Beller. In desperation, he clawed at it, raking at the creature with the hooks the Everman had planted in his fingers. It hissed and drew its arm back, then tensed as if to jump.
Finally, the Beller noticed a small metal object, like the one the Everman used to open the door. He grabbed it, praying to Geyre and Semeril to send him somewhere safe as he twisted it forward.
There was a sudden and complete lack of sensation. For the second time that day, he wondered if he were dead, about to face Abirt's justice. Then, suddenly, he found himself falling. He landed on a sandy dune with a force that knocked the wind from him. In the distance, a building half-buried by the sand stood, and nothing but dunes for miles. He stared, and then laughed, until tears streaked down his face. It was the Ceitu where he'd found the papers, and the whole quest had begun.