Superpowers, technovillains, women in metal masks, electric motorcycles… It’s like he read my mind. If I’m ever in a position to commission a graphic version of THE MINUS FACTION, I’ll have to hire this guy. This is the closest I’ve seen to how I imagined the story.
Text below. More by the artist on his Artstation page.
Oh, and Scarab says hi.
The black lights in the dome bled the color from the room. The once-vibrant Soviet mural that filled the round wall was reduced to ashes and grays while the tiny puddle of blood that gathered on the floor turned black as tar. The dark pool widened slowly under the violet glow, fed from a single trickle that snaked down the leg of an iron chair and fell from a stray screw head. Black pearls dribbled to the ground in time with the music warbling from the horn of an old Victrola record player. A Russian baritone crooned a 1930s love song, barely audible over the crisscrossing scratches in the vinyl.
Как много девушек хороших,
Как много ласковых имён,
Но лишь одна из них тревожит,
Унося покой и сон,
By the second verse, even the cheery orchestra was obscured by the muffled screams of the man in the iron chair.
Любовь нечаянно нагрянет,
Когда её совсем не ждёшь,
И каждый вечер сразу станет
И ты поёшь.
The chair’s high back was made of cross-welded bars, like a narrow cage. Metal arms on hinges swung across the front and latched on the opposite side, holding the single occupant perfectly motionless as he bit a cracked and gouged rubber pad and struggled to free himself. Iron sleeves, worn smooth from centuries of use, kept the man’s limbs fixed while a fat needle punctured his vein near the elbow and bled him in spurts into a glass jar. A bead of runoff gathered at the wound. It grew like a ruby tumor until it was large enough to break free and tumble down the man’s skin.
And still the happy Russian crooned for his young love.
Сердце, тебе не хочется покоя,
Сердце, как хорошо на свете жить.
Сердце, как хорошо, что ты такое!
Спасибо, сердце, что ты умеешь
The song finished as the drops slowed and stopped. A single patch of static repeated over and over as the silent record spun. The metal restraints on the iron chair were loosened and the limp body slumped to the floor.
A pale, red-lipped woman in a form-fitting leather top unscrewed the blood-filled jar from the chair and sniffed it like fine wine. Her nails were manicured. Her bald head was crowned in a twirling, gold-wire headdress. A multitude of pearls swung from small hooks and dangled about as she moved her head in the dim light.
She scowled at the glass. “Needs to breathe.”
She walked past a six-foot candelabra dripping wax to a low cabinet covered in a dozen jars identical to the one in her hand. Four at the front were full. She felt each for warmth before swapping the third for the one in her hand. She swirled it like a rare vintage and watched the viscous fluid run down the side. She took a sip and walked back to the dying man. She moved his face to one side with her bare foot to get a better look at his eyes. The tips of her toes were stained with red dye. The seam at the front of her dark gown was stitched by a line of white animal teeth. An ivory-hilted dagger inside a white leather sheath hung from the sash around her hips.
“Another!” she called before taking another sip.
Metal doors, the only exit, opened with a clang. White stencils on the exterior spelled “Recreation Room” in Russian. A face-painted soldier in pilfered Soviet fatigues stood in the door and bowed silently to his lady. Then he walked to the dead man.
The ancient iron chair was bolted to the floor off-center in the round room. Candles flickered while the black lights hummed overhead and turned the red Soviet star, which filled the inside of the heavy concrete dome, into a black sun. A pair of large carrion birds, bald Asiatic condors, squawked and flapped from a T-shaped perch while water gently lapped in a lounging pool below them. As with the puddle, the violet lights turned the steaming water black. It swirled as if something large swam through it.
The carrion birds watched a smear spread across the smooth concrete floor as the drained man was dragged away. The sound of the sliding body triggered whimpering from the array of green copper cabinets on the far side of the room.
An impressive guard, well over six and a half feet with a face covered in a tanned-skin cowl, appeared in the door. At his feet was a pair of foreigners.
The pale woman raised a thin eyebrow. “Dessert? Already?” She spoke in a formal dialect of her native tongue, a rare Turkic language unknown outside of the deep holes in which her people dwelt.
“Intruders, Lady. They were caught inside the perimeter fence trying to break into our encrypted lines.”
Lady Zoya studied the prisoners as she took another sip of blood from her glass. She squinted in disgust as she swallowed. She was so sick of Chinese.
The newcomers were horribly out of place. Especially their clothes. They looked like tourists rather than mercenaries. There was an old man—European, based on his smell. His eyes were frosted and sightless, his cheeks were speckled in stubby gray, his liver-spotted scalp was bald except for several long, matted wisps that sprouted irregularly from his oblong skull. His casual clothes were simple and just as gray as the rest of him.
The pale lady took a step forward and licked the red from her upper lip. The pearls in her headdress shook and glimmered in the candlelight. The old man’s companion was female. Her head hung low. Her long, wild hair had fallen partially free of her black bandanna. It was matted, but intentionally so, almost like dreadlocks, and it obscured her face. She was also dressed casually—far too casually for the chilly steppe outside—with tight, cut-off jeans and a loose-fitting skull-print top. She looked like she’d just come back from some American mall. She was young, and the deliciously smooth skin of her arms, chest, and right leg were covered in tattoos—repeating bonelike patterns of black and deep blue that looked like they had been frozen in ice and then fractured.
Lady Zoya swirled her glass and took another drink. What to make of such a pair? “Put the woman in the chair.”
The old man would break, she figured, as soon as the girl started to scream. Lady Zoya turned to the dark water. “Grimmúr, darling. Dinner is here.”
A man’s head poked just above the surface. He squinted like an invading soldier surveying a beach. He stood straight and walked out of the pool. He was bald like his wife, and at least as pale, but with a prominent jaw, dark eyes, and bulging muscles.
The young woman’s head stayed limp as the guard fixed her to the cagelike iron chair. The squeaks of the metal restraints echoed off the concrete walls as the cowled guard locked them in place—all except the rubber-coated bite-bar.
The bald man stepped completely out of the dark pool. Water ran off his bulky arms and chest and splattered on the floor. Ritual scarring marred his chest and shoulders. Under the black lights overhead, the blood in his superficial veins and arteries fluoresced a deep violet. The light coursed through his skin like the glowing branches of a river, pulsating slightly in time with his heart. As he reached for the heavy military coat hanging from an unlit candelabra, his eyes shone green like a hunting cat’s.
He draped the dark jacket over his shoulders, leaving the rest of his body exposed. The hood and sleeves were lined with bushy fur. A red Soviet star, identical to the one on the ceiling, was sewn to the fabric just below the shoulders. The coat was too small for him, however, and barely reached the top of his knees. The left sleeve was torn in half at the elbow. Cotton batting, speckled in red, jutted from the fabric as if it had been bitten off with the previous owner still inside.
The lady swapped the records on the old Victrola by the birds’ roost, and they flapped their wings at her.
“Oh, hush,” she chided. “You can have the old one as soon as we’re done.” Then she turned to her husband. “Am I correct, darling, that you will want the woman?”
Iskhan Grimmúr took a drink from the cup his wife offered him, then licked the red from his upper lip. “Who’s the oddly-shaped one?” He motioned with a single large finger to the old man.
The impressive guard forced the intruder to his knees under the scratched and faded mural. Smiling, serene Soviet soldiers marched proudly in unison, having cast off the tyrannies of the czar depicted on the opposite side of the room.
“They were found together,” the guard explained. “Unarmed. But the woman had these in her hair.” He held out a pair of long metal pins, like knitting needles.
Grimmúr walked over and took the pins. Both were identical—three-inch silvered tips filed sharp and bent sideways at a slight angle, ends capped in tiny beetles made of blue enamel. He smiled. “Embalmer’s probes?” He examined one of the beetles closely. “Egyptian. Very expensive.” He switched to Russian and turned to his captive. “Where did you get these?”
The woman in the iron chair kept her head down. Without the pins to keep everything organized, the heavy tangles of her hair dangled loosely.
“I’m not sure she can speak, lord.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because of the mask.”
“Mask?” Grimmúr scowled. He walked to the woman, grabbed a fistful of thick hair, and yanked the woman’s head up.
An angled metal mask covered her mouth and nose and wrapped around the sides of her head. It was dark. Three slatted vents opened on each side.
“You imbecile!” Lady Zoya scolded. Her voice resounded off the round concrete walls. “That should have come off the moment she was taken.”
“We tried, m’lady.” The cowled guard bowed his head. “It appears to be attached.”
“Attached?” Grimmúr scowled. “What do you mean attached? Attached to what?”
“To her insides, lord.”
Grimmúr put the pins in his jacket pocket. He held the woman’s hair with one large hand, wrapped his other around the mask, and tugged. The guard was right. It wasn’t merely fastened around her skull. It extended into her mouth, down her throat, and deep into her chest. It didn’t budge.
The man held the mask with one hand and turned the woman’s head from side to side to examine it. She didn’t resist. He looked in her eyes. They were white-blue, like ice, and shone bright under the black light, like an angel’s. She stared up at her captor without fear. Indeed, she revealed no emotion at all.
Grimmúr thumbed one of the vents. A ridge of polished metal ran along the top. A micro-wire mesh covered the thin opening. “Any idea what it’s for?”
The Iskhan leaned over and looked at her skin. She was white, maybe European. Or American. He switched to a heavily accented English. “What language do you speak, woman?”
The masked prisoner stared up at her captor. Her wild bangs hung in front of her ice-bright eyes.
Grimmúr was close enough to smell her now, but he didn’t want to believe his nose. His nostrils flared as he inhaled again.
Lady Zoya noticed him admiring her scent. “Does she have a pleasing musk, darling?”
Grimmúr scowled and shook his head. “She is crisp, like the great steppe before a winter storm.” He switched to German. “Wer bist du?”
The woman tilted her head slightly to one side. Her breath was barely audible through the mask. She said nothing. Her eyes studied the large man before crimping slightly at the corners as if smiling faintly under her mask.
Back to English. “What are you doing here? Dressed like that.”
“Answer me, woman, or—”
“Oh, just drain her already.” Lady Zoya put a new record in the Victrola as the pearls in her headdress clinked against the metal frame. “Once the needle is in, she’ll tell you everything. And if she can’t stop screaming, then the old man will break.”
Grimmúr turned to the funny-shaped man. He hadn’t moved. He seemed lost. Or insane. His frosted eyes danced over the black star in the ceiling as if reading an invisible book.
Grimmúr scowled and turned back to his wife. “That is your expertise, my darling. And your true calling. I will not rob you of your great and enduring joy.”
“As you wish.” Lady Zoya was coy. She handed her husband the glass again. It was half-empty.
“You may leave us,” Grimmúr said to the guard. “Please see that any damage they have done is repaired. And inform the Supremacy we may have a new threat.”
The cowled guard bowed and left. The metal doors closed with a resounding clang, which startled the people in the copper boxes, who whimpered quietly.
The music from the record player filled the room. It was a cheery 1980s Bollywood song. Amid the scratches and bhangra beat, a woman sang in Hindi about the boy she had met that day.
Lady Zoya moved slightly with the tune. She felt the woman’s mask. She looked in her eyes. She smiled and turned the thin needle in the chair down. It punctured the woman’s elbow.
Grimmúr walked around his wife. As he moved under the black lights overhead, the blood in his superficial veins fluoresced again.
“Drink, darling. You’re glowing like a schoolgirl.” Lady Zoya saw the woman’s eyes study the photoreaction. “Porphyria,” she said in accented English. “A genetic disorder. My people cannot convert porphyrins to hemoglobin. At least, those of us of the original bloodline. So they accumulate. In our skin.” She ran her hand over her arm as the first drop of blood fell into the glass. “Porphyrins absorb light. Like heme. It’s what gives blood its dark majesty.” She took the half-emptied glass from her husband, held it up, and admired the contents—pitch black under the violet glow. Then she took a drink and handed it back. “That means our skin traps harmful rays. Sunlight . . . hurts.
“But then, the world is full of deep holes. Like this.” She motioned to the dome. “And half of every day is night. The real problem is not the sun. No. It’s finding heme.” She leaned again over her tattooed captive. She spoke softly. “Without it, we die. Slowly. Painfully. Of acute anemia.
“Over the years, we’ve tried just about everything. Cattle. Pigs. Sheep. But nothing is quite as effective as the real thing.” She removed the needle and looked for a reaction, but there was none.
“The chair you’re sitting in is over two thousand six hundred years old. It once held a great khan, a ruler of empires who thought he could—”
The old man gasped. The walls of the concrete bunker amplified the sound. He leaned back against the mural-covered wall. His gray, frosted eyes darted over the ceiling as if he were in the middle of a waking dream.
Everyone turned, but after just a moment, he stopped.
“I have it,” he said softly. The sound of his voice echoed in the quiet room. “Can we please go now?”
The muscular man squinted at him, then at the woman in the chair. “You will not go anywhere, old man. Surely you realize this place is your tomb.”
“I know you believe that, sir. I can see it in your mind. And I know to be afraid of you. I can see that as well. But I believe the young lady has other plans.”
“Is that so?” Grimmúr took a step toward the old man, but his wife stopped him with a gentle hand. She had unscrewed the glass from the chair with the first taste of blood inside. She held it by the lip and handed it to her husband. “Tell me what nationality she is. So we know where to find her family. And her friends. And everything she loves and holds dear.” She held up a finger. “But no cheating.”
“I never cheat,” Grimmúr corrected in his native tongue. “You only think I do because you don’t share my refined palate.” He wrapped his finger around the glass, then looked at it in surprise. “It’s cold.”
Zoya squinted. “What?”
Grimmúr peered in. “Her blood. It’s already chilled.”
“Perhaps she’s cold-blooded.” The lord smirked at his wife in the dark light.
Zoya turned to the woman in the chair. Her captive’s eyes were shining with pleasure. “Darling, on second thought, maybe you shouldn’t.” The lady turned back to her husband, but the man had already tilted the glass and swallowed.
He looked at the container again as he cleared his throat. “It’s like ice.” He choked. He dropped the glass, which shattered on the concrete. He clutched at his throat, then his stomach.
“Grimmúr? What’s wrong?” The lady reached for her husband just as he collapsed to the ground, shaking violently.
No, it wasn’t shaking, Zoya realized. It was shivering. Her husband was shivering uncontrollably, as if he’d just been rescued from the wastes of winter. His eyes couldn’t focus. His pale skin turned clammy. He was freezing. From the inside out.
And just like that, he was still.
Lady Zoya pulled her helpless hands back slowly.
“Witch!” She lunged to her feet and her headdress fell to the floor. She stood over the woman, staring down, directly under a violet light. Her eyes reflected green. Her hands quivered like the aftershock of an earthquake. Her accent dripped acid. “Tell me your name, witch, so I may erase all who bear it from the earth.”
The woman in the iron chair spoke for the first time. Her voice was calm but guttural, altered not by the mask but by the mechanism that reached down her throat to her lungs. She said one word.
Lady Zoya’s pulse quickened. Her superficial veins fluoresced in a flash. She drew the serrated stone blade from the sheath at her side and grabbed her captive’s hair. A tiny drop of clear venom dangled from the knife’s tip directly over the woman’s bright-sky eyes.
“This is the venom of the crizth, a creature unknown to the surface. One drop, absorbed through the eyes, will drive you mad. Now. Tell me your real name.”
Scarab didn’t look at the blade in Zoya’s rage-filled hand or the drop of venom that bobbled at its tip. She didn’t move her ice-white eyes from her captor. Her fingers simply clenched the arm of the iron chair. The air grew cold. The little drop of venom grew pale and froze stiff. Lady Zoya saw her own breath.
And still the cold spread. Filaments of ice grew over the metal restraints. The thin puddles of bloody water on the floor turned white and shiny. Lady Zoya felt a chill reach her stained feet and creep up her spine. She shivered as she looked around her.
The entire room had started to freeze.
Then it stopped.
And the woman in the chair whispered a second name.
“Death . . .”
In one long blast from the heat sink in her lungs, she ejected everything she had absorbed. It erupted from the vents on her mask and superheated the air, which shimmered like a desert mirage. Zoya’s eyeballs boiled and popped before she could take a step. She screamed as her scalp melted like wax under a blowtorch. The bones of her cranium turned porous and evaporated, leaving nothing but a hollow, bubbling crater in place of a face.
Lady Zoya fell backward, dead. As her body hit the floor, the slaves whimpered louder in their frosted copper larders.
A warm breeze whipped around the room as hot and cold air fought for control of every open space. It made the carrion birds squawk and tussled the wisps of the old man’s hair, who turned his head to the large doors.