TOME IX - CRESCENDO
Terra Arachna. Day 987.
Terra Arachna. Day 987. Terra Arachna. Day 992. Terra Arachna. Day 998. Chamber of Blood. The Tale that Follows. Arcus 2921. Memory 435 Memory 436 Memory 437 Memory 438 Memory 439 Memory 440 Memory 441 Memory 442 Memory 443 Memory 444 Memory 445 Memory 446 Memory 447 Memory 448 Memory 449 Memory 450

Close call today. Came in contact with the arachnas while testing multiple versions of the toxin. The doctor saw them coming through the window and ordered me to leave everything behind. She said we would return to the lab when the arachnas were gone and it was safe again. We still haven’t found a toxin deadly enough to eliminate these horrible creatures, but I feel we’re close. Very close. If we had a sense of their origins, it would help. As it stands, we still don’t know where they came from or what they want. All we know is the attacks started at the same time. What makes our investigation more challenging is the fact that their DNA is unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. It’s as though… it’s as though they came from another place… ?

Returned to the make-shift lab today and found dozens of people wrapped in silk hanging from the ceiling. Blood dripped in sticky pools right under them. I tried to look away as I grabbed the crate of toxins that we had left behind. But as I carried the crate into the corridor, I couldn’t help but notice in the corner of my eye that one of those pods started to move. I forced myself to look and very quickly realized that these pods weren’t filled with food but with something else. It was clear that something was moving and growing inside the cocoon. Something was feeding off the dripping body parts that had been wrapped with it. The groaning creature inside the cocoon struggled to break free, and I instantly rushed out of the lab as fast as my trembling legs could take me. The last thing I wanted was to confront the latest arachna evolution. The arachnas mutate faster than we kill them, and finding the right toxin is our only chance at survival. Let’s hope the doctor and I do so before it’s too late. ?

Dr. Morell and I worked tirelessly for three days and found a candidate for mass production. Toxin HJ7 killed 100 percent of arachna specimens in less than a minute. One dose and the creatures disintegrated into a thick puddle of bubbling, black tar which very quickly evaporated into a poisonous mist that killed the other arachnas we held in captivity for our experiments. I think both the doctor and I were shocked and amazed at the result. While it is true that we might not know where these monsters came from, we now have a way to eliminate them. The doctor and I are currently looking for ways to get samples of the toxin to other survivors. The office worker turned cook volunteered, but Dr. Morell chose a few other unlikely candidates. She says it’s because he has a track record of messing up his assignments. Personally, I think that’s just an excuse, and the truth is… she’ll miss his cooking… his pizza. Helps her remember better days before the invasion. Helps us all remember better days, I suppose.?

Constable Duncan J. Smith said thousands of dogs haunted him wherever he went, but no one else saw them. To get away from the dogs he would hide in the crawl space underneath his cabin, or he would hide in the shed where he kept his snowmobile, or sometimes he would escape to the glaciers and hide in the ice caves where he prayed for the howling and the yelping and the whimpering to stop. But the howling and the yelping and the whimpering never stopped, and no matter where he hid, the dogs always found him.

The first day Duncan saw the dogs was the day he started questioning his job. Or rather, it was the day he started questioning the law and what he was doing with the law. There was something about legally destroying dogs that felt off… that felt… wrong… something that tugged at his heart and wouldn’t let go… something telling him that he needed to get out of the cold, lonely Arctic Archipelago before it was too late—if it wasn’t already too late.

For Duncan, it was the first time in his career as a police officer that he realized that the law wasn’t always the glorified tool for civilization he had imagined it to be. Sometimes the law was something else. Something blunt. Something hard. Something almost like a gavel… a gavel of destruction or oppression or perhaps both—destruction and oppression.

Truth is, Duncan wasn’t sure what he was thinking anymore. He was exhausted, and the dogs… well… the dogs just wouldn’t leave him be, and all he wanted to do was return home and farm. He liked working on the farm. Things were simpler on the farm. But here, up north, things were more complicated, and Duncan couldn’t help but think about the law.

About the gavel.

And the last thing Duncan wanted to do was wield that gavel against anyone. And yet—to his everlasting regret—he had used it against the dogs.

And though he had done everything by the book… and though the law said he had committed no crime… his heart continually testified to the opposite.

To be sure, Duncan had led countless dogs to the bay, where he had shot them like vermin in front of their owners. And it was only when he was alone and surrounded by their ghosts that he would admit to himself that what he had done didn’t feel so right and that maybe... just maybe... these dogs weren’t the dangerous beasts or the diseased rats his captain had made them out to be. They were… well… they were something else.

They were friends.

They were family members.

They played with children, entertained them and kept them safe. They warned against approaching wolves and polar bears, and even snowstorms. And more than anything they made sure no hunter ever got lost in a blizzard unlike those unreliable ‘iron dogs’ or snowmobiles that broke down in the middle of nowhere and left a trail of black smoke across the cold, white, endless expanse. No ‘iron dog’ ever led someone out of a blizzard. The same... well... the same could not be said of the dogs…

…the dogs he had so heartlessly destroyed.

But in those days—when the production of the first commercial ‘iron dog’ commenced—there weren’t many challenges to the law, and so Duncan certainly tried to convince himself that he was doing the good and lawful thing for everyone.

And while it’s true that the mind might not make the difference between what is right and what is lawful, the heart certainly does.

The heart—it is often said—doesn’t lie.

Nonetheless, Duncan found ways to trick himself and ignore the appeals of his heart. He told himself these dogs weren’t like other dogs, and he actually believed his lie for a few months. But as time wore on, he very quickly realized that these dogs were… well… like the dogs he had known back home.

Knowing this made it harder and harder for him to fall asleep, and soon he started to hallucinate and see all the dogs he had shot.

At first it was just one. Then it was two. Then a dozen. Then a dozen became a hundred. And a hundred became a thousand. A thousand dead dogs howled and stared at Duncan every night, preventing him from sleeping, from dreaming, from thinking—preventing him from living the life he had once known.

Everywhere Duncan went, there they were, the dogs, looking at him with those eyes—those pleading, confused eyes, wondering what they had done wrong, or how they had failed their family and friends to deserve such a cold and indifferent end.

Truth is, Duncan couldn’t escape those ghosts any more than a dog could escape its own tail. Wherever he went, there they were, following him, reminding him of all the lives he had disrupted and destroyed with… well… with that gavel.

One evening, Duncan sat in bed, holding his aching head in his hands, staring at the decaying dogs sitting all around him. They watched him closely as he tried to fall asleep and howled or barked every time his eyelids began to slip. Trembling with fear and exhaustion, Duncan murmured he had done nothing wrong and that he had acted in accordance with the law and that they should just leave him alone. But—

The dogs wouldn’t leave him alone. They just stared at him in silence with those eyes—eyes that reminded him of his own dog.

Anguished, Duncan lurched from his bed, screaming at the dogs, telling them he needed to sleep and that he wasn’t going to feel guilty for doing his damn job! He outright refused to apologize or feel guilty for doing what the law required him to do. What the law said he had to do!

The dogs suddenly stirred anxiously about the cabin with their heads down and tails between their legs. Duncan’s screams grew louder and louder, and one by one, the dogs whimpered and whined for their lives like they had done when they had been destroyed. Then—just like that—they vanished into thin air as though Duncan had finally scared them away.

When Duncan realized the dogs were gone, he collapsed into his bed and prayed that they should finally leave him alone. He just wanted his life back, for the dogs had robbed him of his strength and freedom and even his sense of identity as a morally upright officer of the law.

That night, a storm picked up and blew all around his small cabin. Feeling a chill seep through his bones, Duncan rose from the bed, and he made a small fire in the iron stove as he remembered his first and only dog, Buster, a plump Yellow Labrador Retriever with a black snout.

Smartest, kindest and warmest dog he had ever known.

To Duncan, Buster was more than just a dog. He was his guardian, his confidant, his best friend. He was the brother he never had. He caught rodents, guarded against coyotes and drove cattle on the farm. His father used to say a good dog was worth two or three farm-hands, and Buster was certainly worth four. Thinking about it now, he was glad that no one ever used the law against Buster, or any other dog in his town for that matter.

To be sure, Buster wasn’t as big or strong as these Arctic dogs, but he was quite the hunter and had once even saved him from a wolverine. But what Duncan remembered most was that Buster used to curl up in bed with him to calm his anxious heart and help him drift away to sleep.

And now Duncan longed for nothing more than the undisturbed, soundless sleep of youth. And as he longed for sleep, the wind blew harder and fiercer through the cracks of his cabin. The fire flared, flickered and snapped, casting violent shadows that seemed to tell stories.

Duncan rubbed his eyes to make the hallucinations go away. But wherever he looked the shadows took the form of officers and hunters shooting at confused and frightened dogs as a thick and unnatural black smoke began to fill the cabin.

Duncan tried to pinch himself awake. But when he realized he wasn’t asleep, he quickly shut his eyes and once again begged for the dogs to just leave him alone.

He wanted one night of rest. Just one night! His brain reeled with despair, and he began to hear the warped voice of his captain laughing at him, shouting at him, tormenting him, telling him the dogs were dangerous… aggressive… a definite blight on their future plans.

Duncan felt madness clutching at the seams of his soul. He screamed that these were lies! All of them! And when he opened his eyes again, the black smoke was gone, and the shadows were once again meaningless shapes flickering about the cabin.

But just as Duncan sighed his relief, he heard a sound.

A gentle, scratching sound. At the door. Then he heard a bark that sounded vaguely familiar. The bark came again and again and it sounded like—

Buster.

Duncan narrowed his gaze and cautiously approached the thick, wooden door. The scratching stopped just as he placed his hand on the doorknob. He stood in silence for a long, tense moment. When the scratching came again, he quickly opened the door and caught a fleeting glimpse of yellow fur disappearing beyond thick sheets of falling snow.

Exhausted and confused, Duncan rushed into the churning storm in his undergarments and slippers, yelling for Buster to wait for him. Then he stopped suddenly when he realized he was being irrational. His tired mind was playing tricks on him.

Buster had been dead for over twenty years. He had been hit by a car. And for a fleeting moment, Duncan remembered holding his paw on the side of the road, calming him down as his life slowly seeped away. He had never cried so much in his life. There was no possible way Buster could still be with him.

Covered in snow, Duncan told himself the solitude was getting to him and that he just needed one night of undisturbed sleep. He turned back toward the cabin. But as he turned, he realized…

…he was lost.

He couldn’t see an inch in front of him in any direction. Cold and panic swept over him at once. He turned and turned as the wind howled and shrieked and whimpered. In the raging blizzard, he could only make out—

Dogs.

Ghostly dogs. Dead and decaying dogs. Thousands of them. Running around him. Growling. Howling. Barking. Confusing him.

Duncan shouted for them to stop, and he tried to scare them off as he had done before. But the dogs grew faster and fiercer as though they were one with the storm.

Duncan fell to his knees and felt the cold bite all over his trembling body. His face twisted in terror as each dog seemed to pounce out of the storm to take its turn chomping down on him with cold, indifferent teeth. He collapsed to his side in agony. A terrible numbness crept over him, not so much from the cold but the memory of hurting all those poor dogs. He begged for them to stop, and then he did what he had never done before.

He confessed his shame and begged for forgiveness.

At once, the dogs froze and stared at him with eyes that seemed to look straight into his heart.

Duncan choked out that he was sorry, that he was truly sorry, and that even though he had done everything by the book, he had done everything wrong. He had done them wrong. He had done their families wrong. And he had done himself wrong.

And as he emptied his heart, he heard a familiar bark as Buster suddenly emerged from the ghostly pack and stood before him.

The dogs looked at Buster, then Duncan, then Buster again. A wave of peace seemed to wash over them as they disappeared one by one and left Duncan with his guardian… his friend… his brother. And Buster curled down beside Duncan as his heart slowed to a stop, and the blinding, white storm swept his life away as it had done so many others.



When Constable Duncan J. Smith didn’t show up at the station the next day, his fellow officers searched for him and found his frozen corpse not ten feet from his cabin. He was lying on his side with a peaceful expression on his face. One officer noticed that he had been running around in circles, while the others questioned why he had been foolish enough to leave his cabin in his undergarments in the middle of a snowstorm.

The captain kneeled by Duncan’s frozen black and blue face and sighed. Just as he ordered someone to cover the body, another officer panicked and rubbed his eyes, claiming he saw dogs all around him. He stumbled back and screamed for the dogs to stay away from him. No one saw what he was seeing, and the captain told him to stop making jokes at Duncan’s expense. But the frantic officer shrieked in terror and swore that the dogs were real and that they were following him. ?

Some civilizations collapse because they discover knowledge they aren’t mature enough to understand. Other civilizations collapse because of natural disasters. And yet other civilizations get a little push… a little nudge… over the cliff. I have studied the final days of countless worlds… been through the memories of so many survivors… and I can say that The Entity doesn’t just corrupt and consume a world… it somehow taps into our collective fears and has a little fun. From what I’ve observed The Entity seems to take its time cherry-picking souls from a buffet of misery while contemplating a perfect design of destruction as though… as though an apocalypse was a kind of work of art… a kind of masterpiece. This I realize goes against everything I’ve learned about Ancients back home. But I cannot deny that all the stories and memories I’ve been examining suggest a voluntary and not involuntary will to create and destroy on the part of this Ancient. It’s all speculation at this point but the last realm that opened up in the basement allowed me to venture into Terra Arachna where I witnessed the fall of a world to massive, spider-like creatures—monsters that could have only come from The Entity. Not wanting any of those monsters escaping into the tower, I quickly etched a symbol into the basement door to make the realm disappear. Then, just to be certain, I opened the door and all that was left of the apocalypse was a small, empty room covered in dust. But, as I examined the room, I thought I heard a kind of chittering sound in the corridors. I swallowed a growing lump in my throat and cautiously searched the tower to make sure nothing had escaped. I didn’t find anything inside, but noises outside continue to disturb my sleep, and I’m sure I’ve seen things moving in the fog.?

Ji-Woon lives within the sounds of Rio de Janeiro. Water splashes into a basin; a skateboard’s wheels grind over asphalt; a rufous-bellied thrush chirps, and... the voice. The angelic, ethereal sound of a young Brazilian man singing floats from an open window. Ji-Woon knows the man. Lucas.

He’s good. Nowhere near my level, but a diamond, nonetheless.

His voice is the brush stroke Ji-Woon has been searching for. To think, Lucas practically fell into his lap, the Brazilian man having sung at a recording studio Ji-Woon visited.

With Lucas' voice, Ji-Woon can create art. Genuine, agonizing art. Silky, bloodcurdling terror.

Ji-Woon has already prepared a warehouse at an abandoned harbor for tomorrow’s act. Even the most mundane detail required his attention. In the past week he’s transitioned between concert rehearsals to disguising his celebrity visage, staking out his victim, assuming alternate identities, purchasing supplies, and stealing recording equipment—all while paying off his security detail to leave him be. The mundane details are what elevate the splendor of his artwork.

Lucas will be dead in a day. And it will be beautiful. ?

Ji-Woon freezes as he reaches his hotel room, the door opened a crack. He faintly hears someone rummaging inside. So be it. He knew a crazed fan would take things too far someday. How could they resist him? But he's ready. He'll defend himself, test the invader for operatic sounds, like an impromptu aria, as he surprises them with a blade in their gut.

He pats the knife concealed above his ankle. Ready. Pushes the door open, steps softly on plush carpet, hears the invader around the corner, sees... Yun-Jin? His manager.

Fury meets fury.

How dare you step foot in here!

Where the hell have you been?

She's paranoid about death threats they've been getting from a fan. When security couldn't locate Ji-Woon, she came snooping. It's laughable, the threats were nothing but a ploy, a boogeyman he created to throw Yun off his trail if she ever got too close. But he should have expected this. Yun's on top of everything—it's what he respects in her, what makes them a great team. He brings the million-dollar voice and she smashes through any problem in their way. Usually, it works in his favor.

In her hand she holds... no, damnit! His sampler. It contains his personal project, the screams of his murder victims layered into songs. It's an early draft lacking subtlety, the violence and horror a bit too blatant for the faint of heart. She's disgusted. Couldn't hear beyond the terrorized voices to understand the beauty inherent in human suffering. The hairs on Ji-Woon's neck stand on end. He sees the moment with clear eyes: they're dancing on a razor's edge, with Yun dangerously close to discovering who he truly is. ?

Yun holds the sampler as if it's dripping blood. The only solace in Ji-Woon's mind is that she doesn't understand what it really is. He knows her. If she thought the sounds were actual murders, she'd have tried to knee him in the crotch and run. But the anger still rattles through her, as she moves up to his face.

What is this twisted horror bullshit? What if this leaked? You're already attracting crazed, violent fans, how would it look if the media heard the demented sounds you're working on? Mightee One would drop you. Your career would be dead.

Ji-Woon knows what she really fears: her career would be dead. For as tall as she stands, as strong as she swings, she's nothing but a scared girl afraid of failure. He knows how to play her. Drops his head, breathes deeply, wipes the back of his hand over his eyes.

Yun... Ever since the death of No Spin... the fire... I'm riddled with horrid thoughts. I lost my friends and... I fear I'm losing my mind. I see awful things behind closed eyes. All that guides me through the dark fog is turning my pain into sound... pouring the throes of death from my heart to a song.

Yun's face softens. She sits. Commiserates with him. Inside, he's reliving the divine screams of his bandmates as they burned, his swelling heart as they screamed his name, but on his face he shows nothing but contortions of tragedy.

She excuses his error in judgment. Confiscates the sampler. Requests he stay on hotel grounds until the concert is over. It's for his own good. His safety. She tells him to get a drink from the mini-bar and cool down.

He quietly nods and complies, reminding himself to steal back the sampler in a few days. He lets her pretend she has what he's holding: control.

Despite the stifling humidity, Ji-Woon hides under a hoodie, large sunglasses concealing his face. Now's not the time to attract attention from rabid fans. He waits till Yun is in a meeting and strolls out of the hotel, a bag of necessities in hand. It's his show now.

He pulls earbuds from his pocket, allows the music to envelope him. The song: How I Became, recorded six months ago in Seoul. It stands as a metaphor for his childhood, written one drunken night while looking over old photographs.

He is seven years old. He sits at the back of the class. He's uncomfortable being seen and speaking. But today is different. In a few minutes he's presenting on his favorite thing. A young boy shows the class his hamster, but Ji-Woon doesn't care. He holds his flute, going over the notes to the song he wrote.

He shuffles to the front of the class, places his sweaty fingers on the instrument. Following a deep, unsteady breath, he gently blows out a wisp of air, creating a light, whimsical sound. He closes his eyes, moves his fingers precisely, playfully dancing over each note. He ignores the squeaks of the hamster. The flute's sound carries like chimes in the wind. With one final soul-piercing note, he smiles and opens his eyes. His classmates are huddled around the rodent, laughing with its every move. His teacher too.

He walks to the group. Students pass the hamster around as it squeaks incessantly. It finds itself directed into Ji-Woon's palm. He takes it in both hands. With one steady movement, he squeezes. A squeal. A slight crunch. No more sound. The children scream. Ji-Woon feels nothing.

Storm clouds overtake the sky as the first drops of rain spatter onto Ji-Woon's sunglasses. He breathes deeply, prepares for what he's played over in his mind. The anticipation nearly brings him to his knees. The joy of the artistic process.

He strides to the rear door of a cheap 1980's sedan, glances both ways and appraises the few locals walking the street. Certain no one's watching, he jams a straightened coat hanger around the top of the window, pushing it through the other side. His thin fingers work quickly. Prior experience in breaking and entry pays off. He hooks the wire around the door lock and flicks it up. Without missing a beat, he slides inside, closes the door, and flattens himself along the backseat. He takes off his hoodie and sunglasses.

From his bag he pulls out rope, a blade, a dusty rag, and a bottle of chloroform. He waits. Takes out his earbuds. Listens to a song that's not his own. One he heard long ago.

He is eight years old. He sits on his father's shoulders, looking over a sea of human bodies. An elaborate stage is ahead, illuminated by colored spotlights. A man in gaudy, audacious clothing stands in front of a microphone. On each side is a guitarist, behind him, a drummer. A crash of sound. Beautiful, rhythmic music. A voice that twists delicately through the melody.

His father shouts something but he can't hear. Shouts again.

This is what you'll do. This is where your talent will take you.

He feels a tingle through his spine, and sees something incredible: everyone enraptured, focused intently on the sound of a single man. The emotion of thousands is guided by his voice. He is seen by all, he is loved, and he is wonderous.

Ji-Woon never played his flute again. He reveled in sounds that reached global audiences, attracted screaming fans, turned men and women into idols. His childhood fear vanished as he learned to divulge himself through the intricacy and pliability of pop, his inner thoughts riding atop soundwaves, fusing together with other genres—rock, hip hop, jazz, punk. It was the music that could deliver him the explosive fame he deserved, a promise that he would never be upstaged. He was no longer confined to his timid shell; he revealed himself through his mastery of music, poured his heart into sound. He became envied, lusted over, and respected for the hits that spilled from his lungs.

He takes the earbuds in his hands and smiles. How miraculous that a boy became a god. ?

Rain hammers down on the car's roof. Ji-Woon checks the time. On any other day, Lucas would be in his car already. He knows this, he's done his homework. But Lucas is late, and Ji-Woon wonders if the storm has altered plans.

He feels control slipping away, replaced by something else. It pushes against his chest. Forces him to gasp for air, heavy and sticky in his lungs. Everything's ruined. He claws his nails into the car seat, forces his mouth shut to keep himself from screaming. All the planning for nothing. He doesn't have time before leaving Brazil to find another beautiful voice. Quickly... he needs music, fumbles for his earbuds, drops them to the floor, frantically scours. The only song playing is his teeth audibly grinding. As he prepares to spill into the street, he sees him. Lucas, drenched under the deluge, walks to the driver's side door.

Get your shit together. The show's about to begin.

***

Ji-Woon grabs Lucas' neck in a chokehold, shoves the chloroform-soaked cloth into his face. The two struggle in a frenzied dance. Lucas twists from side to side, reaching his arms back, grabbing for anything. Ji-Woon resists the movement, holding the man in place with all his might. Rain smashes down, muting the battle under the pattering of a hundred drops, concealing the outside behind a windshield of streaming water. Lucas grabs a handful of hair and pulls Ji-Woon forward, breaking the chokehold. He bites deep into Ji-Woon's wrist, drawing blood. Ji-Woon screams through gritted teeth, pushing the cloth harder into Lucas' face until he's beating him with it. Lucas flails his other arm in a desperate bid, searching for a solution with no plan. His hand relaxes, releasing Ji-Woon's hair. He slumps forward, head hitting the steering wheel, blasting the horn.

Ji-Woon scurries over the seat, pushes Lucas' limp body to the passenger side. He leans back, takes a moment to catch his breath. Looks in the rearview mirror, inspects his face, hair, and, through a sheet of rain, sees a sight he never expected: Yun's car pulling up behind him.

He grabs the keys from Lucas' pocket, jams them in the ignition and slams the accelerator down.

Lucas' limp body jostles back and forth in the passenger seat. Streetside shops and graffitied walls are a blur as Ji-Woon veers around a corner. Wind and rain lash at the city as if dead-set on blowing it apart. Ji-Woon loses track of his plan. Usually, he would have Yun fix his problems, but now—it's all wrong. He doesn't recognize the streets he's speeding down, only has a vague idea of the direction. Yun remains on his tail. She doesn't know when to quit. The tenacity and courage that proved useful when negotiating his record deal is infuriating now. He's losing control of his artistic process. Hands squeeze the wheel. He'd rip it from the steering column if he could.

No... no! You're not going down like this. You have art to make, damnit.

He flicks on the radio. Two men talking about... something. He doesn't know. Searches the channels—a commercial for a fast-food restaurant. Recognizes the jingle. Keeps going, lands on—there it is, Brazilian dance music. Rapid tempo, heavy bass line, percussive guitar notes, and a smooth voice.

He pushes the pedal to the floor, dodges a few kids playing in the storm. Bolts past an old pickup truck, praying no one comes the other way. Swings the wheel hard to the left, nearly loses control in deep water but recovers to find himself in a perfect turn. Guns it as the song hits the chorus. Trusts in the music. Shifts with the tempo. Slides with the riffs. Feels the beauty in everything he does. Music courses through him. He is living art. He is the crescendo.

Behind him, Yun's car comes to a crashing halt.

It doesn't matter. The music goes on. ?

Ji-Woon pulls into the harbor he'd staked out days ago. He reluctantly turns off the radio and scans the area. No sign of Yun behind him but he's on his guard. Somehow she knew how to find him. He pulls out his phone... his Mightee One company phone.

She's tracking me like an overzealous babysitter. Should have expected this from her... always a micromanager.

But she couldn't have known he was driving the car—only that he was in it.

Ji-Woon drags out Lucas, barely conscious, and pushes a blade into this back. Before shutting the door, he takes his phone and texts a simple message to Yun: HELP. He tosses the device on the car seat along with the rag of chloroform and rope. Hm, needs more evidence. He cuts his palm and presses a bloody hand to the window. That'll do.

With a thrust of his blade, he pushes Lucas forward.

***

Thunder shakes the frame of the abandoned warehouse. Lucas sits in front of Ji-Woon, bound to a chair, ready to be slaughtered, to sing, to create beauty. Ji-Woon pulls out his blade but... hesitates. Something's wrong. He was too messy getting here. He wants to dive into his art, let the blood spill, but Yun threw him off his game. He can't shake the feeling; he knows she doesn't give up easily... or at all. Walks over to a window and looks out. Endless rain. Lightning. And there, like a drowned rat skulking through sewage—Yun. So damn persistent. And further back... the flashing lights of a police car. Yun's stumbled into a bloody game and has the power to end him in one move.

He rummages through his pockets for his earbuds. Can't find them. Can't focus. Feels the plan slipping away. Sees an end to his art. The music cut short. His vision incomplete.

No... he can't let it end. He hears the music. It's always been there. Sitting on his father's shoulders, washing over him. He inhales it. It circulates through his veins. Becomes him. He'll never go back to being the boy he once was. He's an idol. He's a god. He's The Trickster. And he has one last trick to play...?

Fatigued from the long flight, Yun-Jin yawns as she turns on her laptop. She landed in Rio De Janeiro just two hours ago, but her work cannot wait. Looking through her mailbox, she spots a dozen unread emails from an unknown user addressing her by name. Few know her as Yun-Jin. Most only know her as Magnum Opus. She clicks on an email.

A graphic, detailed description of someone's plan to murder her and the Trickster. Signed, the Trickster's number one fan. Death threat. An abnormally specific one with a picture of her in the hotel lobby.

Before the death of NO SPIN, she ignored such threats. But now… her manicured hand shake as she reaches for her phone.

The threat is too serious to be taken lightly. She calls her security crew for an emergency meeting. Outings are restricted to recording sessions and concert rehearsals only. A bodyguard is assigned to the Trickster and herself.

Everyone complies with the new rules except for the Trickster, who argues against staying on the hotel premises. No surprises there. Her relationship with the Trickster has been on the rocks for months now. He challenges every decision she makes, his ego pushing her patience to its limit. Because of their frequent creative disagreements, their next album is behind schedule, forcing her to produce three new songs while overseeing his tour.

Her security expert confirms that the phones are ready. At her request, a tracking GPS application was installed on all company phones. No one else knows about this. If the Trickster keeps testing her patience, this app will come in handy. It's for his own good. And hers. ?

Yun-Jin pours herself a cup of coffee at the recording studio, stifling another yawn. Her temples are throbbing. The jet lag is hitting her hard. Plus the constant threat of a crazed fan prevents her from getting any sleep at night.

On her way back to the booth, she notices that the studio next to theirs is occupied. She peeks inside. A young man is laughing in the recording booth. He has an easy-going smile that could sell thousands of magazines. She recognizes the man at the mix table: Allano Muse, a semi-famous producer from San Diego.

What is he doing in Rio? Some bits of fresh gossip could help reenergize her. She taps on the door's window.

The door creaks open.

He remembers her of course. Who could forget the Magnum Opus?

She invites herself in as he plays the track he is working on. A slow, predictable build for the baseline. Formulaic. Too safe to be of any interest. Then, an ethereal voice fills the room. Yun-Jin almost spills her coffee. The artist's voice is crystalline. His range is powerful yet nuanced.

Who is that?

Allano tells Lucas, the young artist, to drop down his pitch a notch. Bad call. The track should be building up to push Lucas' range instead of confining it to a boring, generic sound. She walks up to Lucas and hands him her business card.

Contact me when you're ready to become a serious artist.

A pang of regret hits her on her way out. She said those exact words to the Trickster, many years ago. Back then, she looked forward to working with him.

Those days are long gone.

At the hotel bar, Yun-Jin takes a sip of her cold Caipirinha, the sugarcane liquor smoothening the sour burst of lime.

Why did she give that young artist, Lucas, her business card? It's not like she can produce him. Another pang of nostalgia. Another sip of Caipirinha. She misses it. Hunting new talents. The raw creative chaos of designing a bold sound. The adrenaline rush of the first album. Things are different now. Her time is split between handling the Trickster's growing ego, and following a generic, endless production cycle.

Is this the cost of success? Producing music that makes her cringe? Not to mention handling arguments about bodyguards and curfews while being threatened by a crazed, psychotic fan.

Her life is so different from what she imagined as a little girl. Back then, music was the only good thing she had. She created tracks in her bedroom, imagining a stage of bright lights where she was safe, loud, and free. That is what Pop music is to her: a vital dose of unapologetic release. But now, thanks to her success, she lives in a golden cage.

Down goes the Caipirinha.

The bartender gives her a glance and she nods. Keep them coming.

She calls Mightee One executives for a virtual meeting and gives them the news. Once she finishes the three tracks in Rio, she is done with the Trickster. She will move on to producing the launch of trainees.

A Mightee One executive cuts her off. They have more urgent business to discuss. Damaging rumors are trending online. A disturbed, delusional fan claims to have murdered someone at a Trickster concert. Yun-Jin closes her fists, her long manicured nails digging into her palms. Anything to keep her hands from shaking again.

She will handle this mediatic storm—for her brand's sake. But after Rio, she is done with the Trickster. Whether Mightee One is willing or not. ?

Online, rumors about the murder are trending. An anonymous post claims that the victim was last seen alive at the Trickster's VIP meet-up after his concert in New York early this year. Yun-Jin remembers that night. Not because of the concert, but because of a detail that has been replaying in her mind ever since. Bleeding scratch marks on the Trickster's forearms when he showed up at the concert’s afterparty. The rumors online were rekindling the suspicion she silenced before.

Years ago, the Trickster and she arrived in Miami several days earlier than planned. Yun-Jin attended networking events while the Trickster rehearsed. Three days following their arrival, a folksinger was found dead downtown, near the bar where he performed. A security footage was released to the public showing a man dressed in black with his face covered, leading the singer down an alley. The dark, blurry footage revealed little about the suspect. But Yun-Jin noticed a detail that twisted her stomach in knots. She recognized the gold rimmed headphones around the suspect’s neck with two large “Xs”, one for each ear. It was the brand-new model of the Xerxes 1050x headphones, which few audiophiles knew about and even fewer could afford. She recognized the model right away because the Trickster favored their equipment over other expensive models. He wore a similar pair on the plane to Miami, but then switched to a lesser model for the rest of the tour, which only fueled her doubts.

Back then, however, she was not in a good place. The death of NO SPIN was still fresh. Acute insomnia kept her mind in a haze and the jet lag of the tour only worsened her state. In the end, she decided to let the police do their job and focus on hers; producing music. But now someone else was dead, someone whom the Trickster might have been the last one to see alive. The headphones, the scratch marks, and the late-night outs were details, but they added up.

How many coincidences does it take to know?

A knock on the door makes her jump. The head of security is here. Yun-Jin follows her gut. She confronts him. She bluffs about firing the whole security crew if he does not come clean. It pays off. She learns that the Trickster left the hotel premises last night. His bodyguard tried to follow but lost him on the way.

Yun-Jin pounds her fist on the table.

Why would he leave the hotel? To go where? And… to do what?

Despite working with the Trickster for years, he is still no more than a stranger. While he generates incredible profit, it comes at a cost. If the Trickster is linked to a murder, so is she. Even if there is no evidence. Even if it’s just rumors. It’s her life on the line. Her entire career. She could never produce music again. And the worst part is… it's her own fault. She knows better than to trust someone in this industry.

She needs to get answers, before it is too late. Whatever the Trickster is doing at night, she must find out. Her doubts won’t be quieted until she knows for certain. ?

Yun-Jin leaves her security detail behind during the Trickster's rehearsal. What she is up to is not strictly legal, after all.

She shows her VIP badge at the doorman and enters the Trickster's changing room. Perhaps she could find something in here that could be a clue as to what the Trickster is up to. Amidst the flamboyant costumes, she looks for a clue: receipts, notes, pictures. All she finds is a gym bag.

Inside lies a water bottle, a few t-shirts, and his wallet. No bills or anything of interest in his wallet… except for his hotel room keycard. Perhaps she is looking in the wrong place. Someone chatting loudly on the side of the door alerts her. She snatches the hotel keycard and zips up the bag just as the Trickster's assistant walks in.

Yun-Jin quells her thudding heart and keeps her expression impassive as she walks out. Whatever the assistant saw, she will not dare mention it, at least not to anyone who matters.

Yun-Jin only pauses when she reaches the Trickster's hotel room, keycard in hand. If she does this, there is no turning back. Yet if the Trickster is hiding something, she needs to know what it is, before everyone else does. Before it ruins her life. There can be no doubts. Yun-Jin pushes the door open.

***

The Trickster's room is tidy. Almost as if he barely spends time here. She goes through his luggage. A pile of odd clothes. All-black hoodies and sweatpants. A black facemask. Clothes she's never seen him wear on tour.

A tap on the door.

Room service. Yun-Jin drops the facemask. Come back later.

She finds nothing odd in the room, except for a rare, top-of-the-line sampler on his bedside table. Intrigued, she presses play. A series of loud, violent screams fill the room. The screeches sound… genuine. Samples from a horror film?

Yet she cannot fully shake her initial, disturbing thought. What if it is… genuine?

What she finds next only enhances her discomfort. A sharpening kit for knives. Wet stones and cleaning products. A whole collection of sharpeners.

A past conversation overheard at the recording studio replays in her mind. Lucas, the young artist, introducing himself to the Trickster, asking about the flamboyant knife in his hands. The Trickster replying that he always keeps a blade on him.

Yun-Jin picks up a wet stone. Why sharpen a stage prop? Sure, the Trickster used real knives to do stunt work as a kid, but it is no longer necessary. This obsession with knives is not just for show. And what is the point of sharpening a knife if it's not to use it? She shudders.

Another noise at the door. Yun-Jin puts down the wet stone.

I said come back la--

Trickster walks into the room, catching her off guard. Her eyes meet his.

He is just the awkward kid I signed years ago. I will not let him drag me down.

His outrage meets her fury. Yun-Jin picks up the sampler.

Where the hell do you wander off at night? And what is this twisted horror bullshit? What if the media got ahold of it? Your career would be over.

Trickster sighs and admits that after the death of NO SPIN, his mind drifted to a dark place. He rarely talks about their death, and she can tell why. That day still haunts her dreams. Time passes, but guilt remains.

Yun-Jin spots his phone on the table.

Grab a drink from the mini bar, Trickster. Today's rehearsal is canceled.

She keeps the sampler and reminds him to stay on hotel grounds until the concert. He nods in agreement.

Good. For her ploy to work, he must think she trusts him. ?

Yun-Jin looks out from her hotel room. Outside the downpour is relentless, causing flash floods in parts of the city. She calls her staff. No matter how bad the storm is, the show must go on.

Yet the weather is not to blame for the growing apprehension in the pit of her stomach. There is something off about the Trickster, a hunch she can no longer ignore, no matter how profitable he is. While he might seem sincere, years in the business have taught her that she cannot trust anyone.

Yun-Jin grabs her phone and activates the GPS tracker on the Trickster's company phone. His location appears as a blue dot on the huge map of Rio. Her gut feeling is right. He is no longer on the hotel premises.

The chase is on. Time to teach the Trickster a new trick.

Yun-Jin slows down near Trickster's location. As she approaches, a grey sedan suddenly speeds off. She checks her phone. The blue dot is getting farther away on the map. Trickster must be in the car that just took off.

Yun-Jin stomps on the accelerator and speeds off. After a few turns she catches up with the sedan, which makes a sharp right. Yun-Jin follows, yanking the steering wheel while stomping on the breaks. Her car drifts into the turn, gliding towards a wretched, narrow alley.

The sedan accelerates and swerves left, entering a narrow street. Yun-Jin repeats her maneuver and drifts left, but the wheels hydroplane on the puddled asphalt, and the car spirals out of control.

A thundering crash. Yun-Jin's head is propelled onto the steering wheel. A flash of white light. Then a burning pain follows, coursing down her body from her neck to her lower back.

***

Yun-Jin coughs and gasps at the pain. For a moment, all she can do is breathe. When she exhales, the pain lessens slightly. Loud rock is blaring on the radio. It’s so loud. She reaches forward and turns it off absentmindedly. A spot above her left brow is burning. She touches her forehead softly and winces. A drop of blood drips down her finger.

The windshield is cracked on the passenger side. Yun-Jin moves slowly, carefully leaning over.

It's OK. Everything is OK. I'm OK.

She looks out. The car crashed into a streetlamp on the passenger side. This could have been much worse.

A familiar ding interrupts her thoughts. Her phone. Yun-Jin slowly leans forward, her hand searching under her seat. She grabs her phone and unlocks the screen. A text message from the Trickster: "HELP".

Why would he ask for her help… unless she missed something? Unless… the Trickster is not the one she is chasing.

Yun-Jin's heart skips a beat. The death threat. The Trickster's number one fan. Perhaps the crazed fan found out about the Trickster's nightly escapades and decided to strike. Kidnappings go hand-in-hand with death threats after all.

She lets out a curse. In her rush to chase the Trickster, she left her bodyguard behind. If anything happens to the Trickster, Ji-Woon, and she was too blind to stop it… No. She has enough guilt on her conscience already.

Yun-Jin re-adjusts her seatbelt. She turns on the ignition and the engine coughs in response. She grits her teeth and tries again.

It won't be like the fire… I won't give up on him.

She turns on the ignition again. And again. On the third try, the engine revs back to life. She puts her phone back on the dashboard and follows the blue dot. ?

Yun-Jin follows the GPS until she reaches a desolate parking lot facing several abandoned warehouses. The blue dot is remains immobile.

This is it. Ji-Woon should be here somewhere, but where?

As Yun-Jin steps out of the car, a heavy curtain of rain falls on her sore, shivering body. Daylight is cloaked by dark storm clouds. The parking lot is filled with broken-down cars. Yun-Jin uses her cell phone's flashlight to find the grey sedan. As thunder rumbles, her phone illuminates a bloodied handprint on a car window. She rushes to the door and peeks inside. A sudden blur of motion. She pulls the door open.

A rat skitters out of the car. Some items lie on the backseat: Ji-Woon's phone, a rag, and some rope…

Yun-Jin closes her prickling eyes. She might be too late.

There's no time to waste crying. If Ji-Woon is still alive, he needs all the help he can get.

Yun-Jin grabs her phone and calls the police, then her security crew. Whatever this crazed fan has planned, it ends now. ?

Rumbling thunder. Yun-Jin is staggering through the rain, looking for a clue—a trail. An icy gust lashes her drenched body. But she cannot stop. Not until Ji-Woon is safe.

A rat skitters over a puddle upon which lies a white business card. Yun-Jin picks up the blood-stained card and reads: MAGNUM OPUS, MUSIC PRODUCER. It’s hers. With a shudder, she realizes she might know the person who kidnapped Ji-Woon.

Police sirens are blaring in the distance, but she cannot tell if they are coming for her or the several people caught in the storm. Yun-Jin shouts Ji-Woon's name, yelling in despair over sirens and thunder. Then she hears a scream coming from across the parking lot, where stands an abandoned warehouse.

She rushes to the warehouse, reaching its wide doors. A chain is wrapped around the handles, padlocked into place. Meanwhile, police are arriving on the scene.

A brutal scream emerges from the warehouse.

She cannot afford to wait. What happened to NO SPIN cannot happen again. Never again.

Picking up a lead pipe from the ground, she strikes the padlock, again and again.

JI-WOON! JI-WOON!!

The padlock breaks open. ?