The man calling himself, for the time being, Nicodemus Tsanthos sat back in his chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose in an attempt to clear his thoughts and regain his footing on the progress report he was toiling over. It never stopped. The voices. Always talking; gibbering inconsistencies, babbling lies, whispering promises, murmuring riddles and mysteries in his ear. He could tune them out, concentrate on specific words or ideas, but he could never completely shut them away. It was enough to drive a man to madness. Madness. Perhaps I have taken leave of my senses. Hmm. It has been so long since I had considered this possibility that I am no longer certain.

Sanity is the refuge for the unenlightened… for they know not how to look upon Truth and see it for what it is; unfettered and without adjustment

…but with Truth, comes knowledge. With knowledge; understanding. And with understanding there is clarity.

Nicodemus set the pen down and dug into the confines of his cloak, and withdrew his pocket watch. He watched the seconds on the elegant face tick by, his mind hopelessly reaching out for respite from the voices.

The voices….

One voice, amongst the sea of infinite gibbering was suddenly absent. The constant cacophonic madness was endless. It was nearly impossible to know one voice from another, just like it was almost impossible to pick out a specific, lone individual in a crowded city. And yet each voice was different, an individual and Nicodemus knew each one intimately. While looking at a surging sea of people, it would be impossible to realize when a handful—much less one individual—was missing. Yet he did just that. One voice from the sea of millions was not present.

Nicodemus closed the pocket watch with a sigh as he felt the first pangs of the distortion in his gut. He knew this feeling all too well, and he had long ago learned how to ignore the inimical presence that slowly oozed from the shadows. “Your… presence was missed. Although everything worked out as anticipated, there were certain events that certainly could have gone better.”

A pearly white Cheshire Cat-like grin peeled away from the inky blackness, violating the shadows with its presence. “… my apologies. I had… other matters to attend to that required my… undivided attention… ”

“I’m sure” Nicodemus returned, steepling his fingers. “Your… associate has been returned to where it belongs.”

“…I am aware. Pa’Nax Ed-Ta was most appreciative to be returned home… regardless of the violence incurred by the transition…” The Thing replied, the grin widening slowly, to inhuman proportions.

“It should not have lashed out the way it did. Had it remained nascent, the transition would have transpired with no undue harm.”

“Pa’Nax Ed-Ta was both disturbed and frightened. The given circumstances were of no help in the matter either. Regardless, the transaction is complete and our business is concluded Atlantean.” The broad toothy grin broadened again, the little light in the room glistening wetly off of the numerous needle-like teeth in that inhuman maw.

Nicodemus’ brow twitched as he regarded the Thing in the shadows. “Quite the contrary. Your part of the bargain stated that you would be present to ensure that things would transpire according to your own self-described desires. You were not present, so I find your portion of the pact yet unfulfilled.”

“Events transpired as I wished them to. My presence was not necessary; merely a formality. I had faith in your ability to uphold your end of the bargain Atlantean.” The grinning maw, though unmoving, seemed less friendly seethed with growing malevolence.

“Perhaps. However, had my initial attempt failed, Pa’Nax Ed-Ta would have been at the mercy of XSWAT, and it is unlikely that I would have gotten another attempt before it was slain. What then?” Nicodemus replied with casual emotionlessness.

“But that did not occur, and you were successful on your first attempt.” The Thing retorted with irritation.

“Yes I was, but there was the real possibility that everything could have unraveled in a painfully horrible manner for all of us. Fortunately that is not the case in this instance, although it was a very real possibility. But that is not the issue at this juncture.” Nicodemus replied, his voice dropping several degrees. “Your delinquency on your end of the bargain, however, is.”

“You presumptuous, insignificant gnat!” the toothy maw growled. The shadows themselves seemed to coalesce then into dark tendrils that slithered just outside of Nicodemus’ field of vision. “You dare dictate to me the terms of our agreement?”

“I dictate the terms of our agreement on the grounds that you have not upheld your end of the bargain Shadow Walker. Had you been present, as per the terms of the agreement, this conversation would not be occurring and you would be unbound from my services and free to return to your own realm.”

“I will eviscerate you for your treachery!” The shadows pulled themselves from the walls and lanced towards Nicodemus. In the same instant the grinning maw lunged forth, open and drooling thick ropes of black ichor threatening to devour the ostentatious human. Nicodemus barely seemed to take notice, uttering a single Word of power as he sat at that desk.

That Word turned into a terse rebuttal that caused the scything shadows to glance off and away. The angry maw recoiled silently with both rage and fear just before it was thrust painfully back into the shadows.

“Are you quite through? I would genuinely prefer to not have this encounter end in violence.” Nicodemus stated matter-of-factly.

“No. I will see the flesh flayed from your body and the marrow sucked from your bones for this!” The maw still grinned, but the dark intentions were still palpable.

“Then by all means, strike at me again. It would take no effort on my part to bind you in place and simply leave you to the mercy of XSWAT, who undoubtedly will ensure your utter extermination.” Nicodemus replied, his voice returning to the neutral tone he was most comfortable with. “Let me put this another way; your continued belligerence in this matter will gain you absolutely nothing but your own destruction Shadow Walker. Now, I highly encourage you to consider my terms before behaving rashly and in a manner where the results will not only see you destroyed, but likely stranded here permanently. I am your only way home.”

The grinning maw remained motionless amidst the inky blackness of the seething shadows surrounding it. “Very well. What are your terms Atlantean?” The Thing growled, breaking the tense silence.

Nicodemus sat back with a barely concealed sense of relief. Once more his fingers steepled as he formulated his thoughts. “While we were fighting the Yakuza, we found ourselves first at a warehouse of some manner. From there, we went via an express freight mag-train to a cargo depot. The reasons for this are irrelevant to what I request of you.

“Given the Yakuza’s penchant for criminal activity and ensuring things remain in their favor, I have reason to believe that any attempts to divine what they were up to by conventional means are slim at best and what can be ascertained will most likely be too little too late to be of any use.

“I want you to look into the following; the warehouse district where we first encountered the Yakuza this night. A local YMCA building where a cargo container had been detached from the train and had landed, the seaboard near the YMCA, where a second cargo container was detached and allowed to fall into the sea. Lastly, cargo depot itself where the train ended its journey.”

The Thing in the shadows absorbed the request and remained sitting there, grinning cruelly. “And what can I expect to receive in return?”

Nicodemus lifted both brows. “If you are able to give me information that I can use, that I can corroborate with the investigations that will be underway in a matter of hours, if they are not underway already, I will consider your part of tonight’s bargain as well as the penalty incurred by defaulting on that agreement both met in full.”

“Is that a fact?” The Thing carried an incredulous tone. This task being set forth was painfully simple, and one that would require almost no effort at all.

“It is.” Nicodemus replied. “But be cognizant to the fact that any and all factual and pertinent information is desired. Information that I and others can use. I am aware of your abilities and some of the resources you have at your disposal. This task is almost beneath those abilities and resources. However, note that I and others will be forming our own investigations, and anything you pull together must match my own findings. I am only one man Shadow Walker. I cannot investigate all of these sites before they are corrupted by outside forces, and one I cannot investigate at all. That is what I am most interested in, but anything of use will go far in paying your debt to me.”

“Is that all? When can I expect you to fulfill your part of the bargain Atlantean?”

“When I am satisfied that the information you have provided to me is true and can be put to use in resolving this matter. Once that has occurred, I will release you from my service and return you to your realm In Between. That said Shadow Walker; it is in your best interests to ensure that you do the utmost to fulfill my request.”

“We are in agreement Atlantean.” The grinning maw expanded; the cruel malevolence that was present before all but nonexistent now.

“Excellent. I look forward to your successful return.” Nicodemus replied.

After the inhuman, impossibly shaped mouth closed and was devoured by the darkness, Nicodemus found he was alone once more. No. Not alone. He was never alone, for there were the voices. Always talking; gibbering inconsistencies, babbling lies, whispering promises, murmuring riddles and mysteries in his ear....