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trollthumper

But Maybe Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back (IC)

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The last time Eric had been to the Boardwalk was the summer after high school. It was a few days before the accident -- he'd been hanging out with Terry, Lisa, and Patrick. Mallory had even tagged along, somehow managing to play the little sister card successfully. That was one of the great nights -- sneaking beers at the Golden Calf with fake IDs, riding the roller coaster, and splashing around in the surf. It was a great time to be alive, and a great place to soak up the atmosphere.

But that was before the accident. Before he got in touch with death. Eric had come home to Freedom often -- for summer break, for Thanksgiving, for Christmas -- but never once after getting his powers did he set foot on the Boardwalk. Because he could no longer deny what it was. Sure, everyone knew what was happening on the Boardwalk, but that's what made it fun for most of the citizens. If you were here for the casinos, odds were you knew the connections. The Drioganos held the Palace, and if a casino wasn't held by a family, it at least paid in to them. It had been that way for ages, and it just kind of soaked into the character of the city. It gave the Boardwalk an air of danger and glamour, like walking into the Flamingo when Siegel held it.

It also generated a long history of death and bloodshed. As far as Eric knew, it was probably the biggest killing grounds for organized crime in Jersey outside of the Pine Barrens. And it wasn't just the Mob and its hangers-on; junkies who didn't measure their dosages the right way, working girls who'd chosen the wrong john, drunks who drowned in the surf... Walking into the Boardwalk meant walking into a repository for unexpected and often violent deaths, the sort of things that bred resentment and hostility in sentient ghosts, and repetitive patterns of destruction in the "echoes" left behind by other deaths. For an untrained necromancer, walking into the Boardwalk would be like being compelled to assemble the world's largest jigsaw puzzle... or forced to disarm a bomb with a set of nosehair trimmers.

But he was no longer untrained. He'd been getting the feel of the city under his feet for days now -- walking first the boneyards, then the back alleys, then the crime scenes of the Fens. And now he was here. Not as Nick Cimitiere, but as Eric LaCroix, a normal citizen just out to walk the beach and maybe get some fried dough at one of the stands. As he felt the tread of the boards under his boots, he tried to enjoy the summer night for what it was -- while also keeping his eyes and ears open for the lost souls of the Boardwalk.

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A swooping noise could be heard, followed by cheers. The Boy Eldritch Wonder had arrived. KC landed on the ground, and stood up, his hands raised dramatically.

"Hellooo Freedom City!" he said above the noise of the crowd. Excited from the crowd he drew, he raised his hands above his head, and summoned a fifty foot Elder Sign in the air made of green mystic fire. KC had never been happier. Now that he was fighting crime in the public eye, he was no longer feared. He no longer felt afraid of ridicule, and his self-esteem was improving. He felt on top of the world.

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Eric was already beginning to see another side to the boardwalk -- and not even the kind of side he was expecting. [bg=#000000]Down in the surf, he saw two children -- one a young girl dressed in the full body bathing suit of the 19th century, another a young boy in what look like He-Man board shorts. The two of them are playing in the surf, splashing up water and giggling.[/bg]

I guess if you cross over at that age, this place must seem like summer forever...

His reverie was interrupted by a green flash behind him. For a second, he thought it was fireworks... until he saw the green fire, and the shape it was forming in the air. Eric followed the points of the Elder Sign down to the ground, where he saw Kid Cthulhu, in all his squamous glory, talking up a crowd. He smiled, and worked his way over to the audience.

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As he began handing out autographs to the children, he felt a presence. Woah, wicked headache. Wonder what's up... He scanned through the crowd, but only saw average Freedonians. Regardless of his headache, he was enjoying the fun.

As the crowds began to disperse, his thoughts went back to his date with Rycon. It was the first he had ever been on, and the last with her. He tried to block that out as quickly as possible.

Now was the time for cotton candy. KC began to make his way over to the booth, his cape flowing behind him. He felt cooler than the Fonz.

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Eric watched as Kid Cthulhu stepped through the crowds to the refreshment stands. Soon after, he was treated to the sight of tentacles working on cotton candy, something he would not be destined to forget any time soon. Well, at least now I've got a solid deterrent if anyone tries to read my mind...

Between the general carnival atmosphere and the spectacle of Kid Cthulhu's arrival, the side of Eric that went for subtlety was starting to lose out. Just as he'd gotten the scent of the ghosts here, there was no doubt they'd gotten his in return. And if a superhero landed on the docks, odds were the bosses in the casinos had been informed. At this point, what was one more costumed freak in the procession?

With that, Eric stepped into a dark alley and called forth his costume from the vault in Hades' great palace where it spent its free time. In the space of seconds -- he'd gotten very good at slipping a shirt on while applying make-up -- he was done, and Nick Cimitiere made his way to the carnival.

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KC's headache increased, and he turned around. The somberly dressed Nick Cimitiere was walking among the crowd. He grinned in delight, and his tentacles engulfed the last of the cotton candy into his mouth.

"Hey Nick! What's up, dude?" KC shouted, as he made his way towards him.

KC held out his hand for a handshake, and smiled at the crypt-keeper."Thought I smelled some magic around here. How you been, man? The graveyard shift keepin' you busy?"

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Nick gripped Kid Cthulhu's hand, shaking off the feeling of tiny suckers, slime, and witchfire. "Not too busy to get out for the night," he said. "Well, I'm still kinda on duty, but hey, it comes with the territory. Who says you can't have fun on the beat?"

He slid over to a nearby booth and plunked down the cash for a Freedom Dog (a chili dog with crumbled bacon and onions). Making a ridiculously precise show of eating it in a way that didn't smear the makeup or stain his shirt, he made his way back to his squamous friend. "I see you've got an adoring fan club already," Nick said. "I thought Al-Hazred was a lightweight. Then again, that's sometimes what happens when you poke the eldritch with a stick."

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"Oh, Abdul? Never much of a party guy, that one." KC said, buying a Freedom for himself, and sat down next to Nick. He picked it up with one scaly hand, and held it for a moment with his face tentacles, and gobbled it down like Dr. Zoidberg.

"Yummy. I agree with you though, Nick. A little fun never hurt anyone. I'll tell you though, the one thing that's bad about my appearance is the lack of adoring ladies. Most girls aren't into tentacles, at least the ones from America anyway. What about you, man? Any lady-friends?"

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Nick shook his head. "Give me a little time, will ya?" he said. "Haven't really had the chance yet. I mean, I've met a few good women, in and out of costume -- a few good men, too -- but it's not like I've had the time to work anything out yet."

Nick finished up his hot dog and slid the napkin into a nearby waste bin. "You come down to the Boardwalk often?" he asked. "Looks like you know how to get folks' attention here..."

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"I stopped trying to avoid it. It seems I'm just made to get it. But yeah, you liking Freedom City so far? I guess it's got a little of something for everyone..." Although KC was listening to Nick, his eyes were downcast. This was the bench him and Rycon shared on their date. He would never admit it, but missed her a lot.

"Also, rollercoasters. We must go on them, and vomit copiously." KC said suddenly, a big smile lighting his squiddy face.

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"I stopped trying to avoid it. It seems I'm just made to get it. But yeah, you liking Freedom City so far? I guess it's got a little of something for everyone..."

"Definitely," Nick said. "The clubs in the West End, the cafes in Riverside, Pyramid Plaza... it's one hell of a place to be."

"Also, rollercoasters. We must go on them, and vomit copiously." KC said suddenly, a big smile lighting his squiddy face.

Nick took a look up at the rickety wooden coaster, the kind of thing that had made him quiver in fright as a little kid. Now, it just looked like a challenge.

"Yeah, why not?" he said. "Let's hit the rails."

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KC leapt up and made his way to the wooden coaster. Nick followed, and within a few minutes the two were in the cars, KC practically going supernova with excitement.

The restraint bars over their shoulders locked, and the coaster started up the first hill. "Hey! You know what's awesome? I don't vomit in this form. Yeah, I figured that out after I was tricked into drinking ipecac."

The roller coaster reached the peak of the climb, and raced downwards. KC raised his hands and shouted in glee. The roller coaster went up another steep cliff, and came back down. As soon as it started, it was already over, and the the restraint bars opened.

"I think...that was kind of awesome."

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Nick nodded his head; it was a testament to the industrial strength of pomade that his hairstyle remained untouched. "Yeah," he said. "Been a while since I've been on a coaster. At least they still make them like they used to."

He spots something down at the corner of the pier that catches his fancy. "Y'know," Nick said, "it's been a while since I've been in a haunted house..."

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KC looked at Nick. "But, Nick, there are monsters in there!" KC said with a look of clearly sarcastic horror. "But probably none worse than us. Let's go, dude."

KC and Nick, both attracting their fair share of stares, walked towards the haunted house. It stood out, and had architecture apparently designed by Stephen King. A sign stood in front of it, written in spooky red letters, "Haunted House". KC stared at it for a moment, admiring.

"Well, at least we know we're in the right place. Let's go for it. Maybe we'll see something we don't encounter already."

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Nick walked forward to the barker manning the house. "Hey," he said, ""I'm going to need two tickets for --"

"You're kidding me, right?" said the barker, smiling wildly. "Heroes are on the house! Come on in, sirs, and see what awaits!"

"Hey, thanks!" Nick said. The barker scrambled down from his stand, pulled back the velvet cordon -- a strange touch for a haunted house -- and ushered Nick and Kid Cthulhu inside. The house had pretty good production values for what it was -- the blood dripping on the walls had a consistency that outmatched the usual corn syrup, and some of the paintings made it clear that one of the designers had at least done their research. Some of the gimmicks, though, were a bit tame -- the usual mishmash of low-paid carnival workers rushing through behind stage, slamming doors and leaping out.

Not bad for what it is, thought Nick, but I bet people had seen a lot scarier in this town. Unless they managed to get a zombie on a leash from the last rise... nah, I'm sure Dead Head would wreck the place in the name of solidarity if that happened.

At the center of the house was a giant maze. Nick could feel a breeze passing through; he looked up through a gap in the walls to see the night sky above them. He let Kid Cthulhu take the lead as they walked through the passages. Here, he could hear the usual tricks -- the banging, the shuffling, the moaning -- but whoever was behind it, they definitely had the intonation down. The place was actually starting to get to Nick...

No. No it wasn't the place. There was something else -- this slow, building dread that was crawling up around him. This sense of being pushed along, like a cattle entering a slaughterhouse. He hadn't felt like this since...

...since the Winchester House.

With that, there was a sudden sliding under Nick's feet, like the ground was rolling away beneath him. The writing on the walls seemed to shift -- no, the walls themselves were shifting, unfolding like an origami crane. It was hard to focus, hard to --

Stop.

Nick drew upon his will and attempted to drown out whatever death magic was doing this. Slowly, the disorientation faded away. He couldn't feel the effect break, however; either he'd managed to demolish it without effort, or whatever was going down had finished up. Catching his bearings, Nick took a look up and saw the night sky.

Under red stars.

"Yeah," Nick said, "definitely asking for a refund."

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KC walked with Nick to the haunted house, and was quite pleased when the barker let them in for free. As the two entered the house, KC said "Pretty sweet deal, this heroing stuff. This actually looks like it might scare us."

KC was rather unimpressed by the actors jumping out. He had seen worse things recently. "What's wrong Nick, you scared?" said KC, noticing his lead. "I'll admit it looks good enough, but this house is kind of lame." KC didn't notice the overwhelming presence of death magic. He was content with exploring the house, making sure to scare every actor in the house right back. He was having a right good time doing so.

He saw Nick slow down and look up. "Hey buddy, what's...oh." That was definitely not normal.

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"Yeah," Nick said. "Oh." He walked the path backwards through the haunted house -- not just because he didn't want to know what was at the end, but because he suspected that if there was a way out, it wasn't through there. As he suspected, the house was now empty -- whatever barkers had haunted the halls had either cleared out while the clearing was good, or...

...or they weren't in on it, Nick thought. If people randomly went missing in the haunted house, someone would put it together eventually. This has to be fresh, whatever it is.

In time, Nick found the entrance to the haunted house, and what he found pretty much confirmed everything. The boardwalk had been left behind for what looked like a twisted reflection. The wood was rotting and splintering under his feet, and it was only by some strange fortitude that it didn't break and send him plummeting into the black surf below. The roller coaster was a fine piece of wreckage, a train resting on its side under a pile of bare and rusted pipes. And he couldn't tell at this distance, but he swore the horses on the carousel were rearing and frozen in slient snarls.

"Okay, then," Nick said. "We're still on the boardwalk. It's just... different."

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KC followed Nick back through the haunted house, his heartrate increasing. "Nick, what the hell's going on? This is freaking me out." KC's head began to ache, and he felt his mind go to dark places. What if this is my fault? What if The Unspeakable One followed us here? KC kept close to Nick, half frightened out of his mind.

As he emerged from the haunted house with Nick, everything seemed off. The signs of decay were evident. Everything seemed to have a sinister twist. "Nick? Do we need to call the Ghostbusters?"

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Nick took a look over the wreckage of the boardwalk. "Looks like," he said. "Now, I'll admit... I'm not entirely sure what this is... but I've got a pretty good idea."

Nick walked out onto the boardwalk and looked back to the casinos. They looked like the wrecks of decayed temples, guarded by alabaster idols and strewn with strange offerings. "Most religions with an underworld in them believe there's an entrance somewhere on Earth. The Romans had the crater of Avernus, the Mayans had the cenotes... even Dante spoke of a vestibule at the end of a dark forest, and no, I have no idea if he actually went downstairs, so don't ask. There's more than resonance there. There are... low places to the earth. Places that act as tuning forks, forming gateways to the various Underworlds. Sometimes through geography, sometimes through reputation, and sometimes... through action. Sometimes, a place gets so dipped in blood and death that it forms... an addition to the Underworld. Somewhere not quite there, but not quite here, usually just outside of human perception."

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KC listened, trying to understand. "So this is a section of the Underworld. I guess that makes sense, I'm sure a lot of bodies are around here."

KC looked around the area, feeling his happiness deflate. "God, it's so depressing here. Makes me feel all melancholy inside. I guess the real question is, do you know how to get out of here, Nick?" He felt his heart rate increase again. What if they never got out?

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KC listened, trying to understand. "So this is a section of the Underworld. I guess that makes sense, I'm sure a lot of bodies are around here."

"I suppose so," Nick said, "but... well, it doesn't seem right. This may be a killing field for the mob, but... everything here's got this twisted, mythic quality. Like it's not just a dark mirror; it's like it's actually becoming part of the Underworld. Usually that requires a lot more death."

KC looked around the area, feeling his happiness deflate. "God, it's so depressing here. Makes me feel all melancholy inside. I guess the real question is, do you know how to get out of here, Nick?" He felt his heart rate increase again. What if they never got out?

"There's got to be," Nick said. "Underworlds usually aren't self-sealing. There's got to be some sort of exit..."

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"Right, I'm sure." KC said, adjusting his cape.

Nick could hear wings flapping, and KC was hovering a few feet in the air. "I can fly a lot faster than I can walk. Is there anything I'm supposed to be looking for?"

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"Well, it's definitely not going to hurt," said Nick. "Keep your eyes out for sound, movement, and strange patterns -- first thing we need to do is figure out if we're alone here."

As Kid Cthulhu took off to the sky, Nick kneeled down at put his fingers to the rotted wood. He let his mind go slack, and opened himself to the flow of memories.

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KC took to the skies, looking everywhere for a possible exit. He scanned the area of the park, and observed how ruined the park looked. "Sound or movement? I'm looking. I don't know about you, Nick, but I'm kind of freaked out right now."

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The further Kid Cthulhu got from the shore, the more the strange static of the dead surf faded. Other things started to play on his senses up in the sky -- the strange half-light of the burned-out stars, and the weird howling of the wind. But above all that, he could hear something else: the clinking of slot machines, down in one of the ruined casinos.

------

Down on the docks, Nick felt the grip of dead memories flowing through him. It wasn't as tight as it could be, but it would have to make do...

"He wears judgment like a vestment," the strange voice of ages spoke. "From pits ill-chained... the kings denied... roll out the lead carpet... the right hand broken, the left hand cutting... he builds a rotted throne of old driftwood."

With that, the strange susurrus cut out, and Nick looked up as Kid Cthulhu touched down. "Well, it looks like there's someone here," he said. "Bad news is, he seems to have something of an ego."

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