"Ugh, not again," the old gentleman sighed in dismay as he bent down to retrieve the tattered notebook from the floor. Pages ripped and tattered, notes scribbled over with spite drawn out in each line.
"Master? Are you alright?" he cautiously questioned the dimly lit hall, moving through the mahogany walls lined with family heirlooms, old discoveries and memories of a man who had been on the verge of greatness. A painting of the Baron Delgado of Argenstrath from just two years prior, 1886, hung in the center, giving the butler a feeling of sadness each time he passed it.
"I'm fine!" called the hash voice from within the blackened study.
"Sir, you've been at this all of three days! Your body can't take it anymore. You need your rest. Look what you're doing! You're struggling to go forward only to throw yourself back again!" Standing there in the doorway, the butler thrust the notebook forward in the air in protest and scorn. "You can't squander what time you have left like this! I won't let you!"
"Claremont!" barked the baron, turning about in his chair of cherry stain. "You have no right to protest against my research! You do not know what it is like to know you're own fate, and be helpless to do anything about it!"
The books and papers went flying through the air from the desk and tumbled lifelessly to the rug before two fists landed powerfully against the dust covered surface.
"AGHH!" came the scream that followed, the baron gripping his left wrist in agony as he hissed with pain.
"Sir!" came Claremont rushing over. He reached out and cradled the fractured limb and helped his master to his feet. "Come on sir," he sighed. "Let's get you some ice and then into bed. The baron nodded in defeat.
"I just...I'm so close Claremont. Greskin has nearly completed the third division of the cells and Thyous' data has shown we are close to the breakthrough we've been looking for. I just need to find the missing component and we can proceed. Claremont, I might live!"
"Sir, you will survive until morning unless you start punching the Kuu pottery, in which case I'll kill you myself."
As they ascended the stairs towards the baron's chambers, Delgado looked about at the decor, the rugs, artwork and artifacts. He couldn't help but feel it was all done in vain. That these tokens of discovery would be gone in a month’s time. Sold to the highest bidder and scattered once again throughout the world. His name and his legacy would remain but a footnote, soon to be forgotten in time.
"I don't want to die just yet Claremont, not like this. Not when there is so much left to be done."
"Like you said master, there is still hope. But you aren't doing yourself any good like this. Get some rest. Tomorrow Greskin and Thyous will be in the lab, you can work with them then."
"You're right Claremont. Just...just don't let me sleep in," Delgado replied. His tired, bloodshot eyes begging his servant for more time.
"You need your sleep, but I'll see what I can do."
The moment he closed his eyes, the baron's mind was taken away from the world and transported into a universe of memory. He walked with those who had stood beside him over the years. Soldiers, scientists, madmen and heroes, many faces he'd never see again. He witnessed his triumphs all over again and the pinnacle of his achievements built in memory of all that was lost. As he stood upon a hill looking down at all that he'd done, we could see there was room for so much more and the mountains he had yet to climb. He reached towards them, but upon the first step his leg began to stiffen and gradually crumbled into dust. He reached out to catch his fall, but his hands cracked and shattered.
Nester Delgado thrust what remained of his arms into the open air. Though he could not see anything, he could feel there was something there for him, something that would fix his broken body and restore his place upon that hill, but the harder he reached, the more his arms turned to ash until they were no more. His eyes now fading, it was getting harder to see the base of the hill until he realized he was sitting there on a small patch of ash covered grass, all alone. Then in a flash, it was gone.
The baron bolted awake. His face covered in sweat. He grasped for his hands and immediately cried out as the sharp pain sung loudly in his wrist. He winced and cradled it for a moment as the memory of his dream left his mind. That's when he noticed the afternoon sun pouring in through the drawn curtains. "Damn it!"
The doors to the baron's chambers burst open and the half-dressed man flew from them and hurried down the stairs while hastily attempting to dress himself in the effort. Buttoning this, tucking that. Rushing down the long corridor leading towards the labs.
"Ah! Mr. Delgado!" jolted Dr. Greskin with a quick smile as the baron entered the lab's main research room. Liquids flowing from one end of the room to the other in an array of colors, steam and the inner-workings of scientific achievement with a short, elderly man bouncing about hurriedly among it all. A delicate balance of engineering and experimentation. The energetic scientist gave his benefactor a gentlemanly nod. The baron quickly returned the gesture and immediately took hold of the scientist’s notes while his chest heaved to catch its breath.
"Where are we on this? Have we found the missing component?"
"Almost. The cells I have here are bonding nicely like good little cells. But the compounds Thyous has been developing have had mixed results sadly, though I believe Thyous is still making progress!”
“Good,” replied Nester as he rifled through clinical note. “Where is he today?”
“He's in the new clinical components lab."
“We have a clinical component lab?”
“Ai! You signed off on it weeks ago. It was part of a larger expansion measure we wanted, but I’m not sure what Thyous does in there. He does his work, I do mine.”
Nester didn’t hear much of it as he had already turned from Greskin, tossing the papers to the table and, snatching his lab coat from the wall hook, headed out the other door into the long corridor. His shoes clacking against the hard stone floor as he came upon the door freshly marked "CC." He grasped the handle and slipped inside.
"What...what's going on here!?" Nester gasped in surprise. Stopping in his tracks just a few short feet from the door as he stood mouth agape in shock at what he was seeing.
In front of him was a series of connected cages, each containing different animals from his estate. His cherished pets, the famous menagerie known throughout Argenstrath, now confined to small cages as they yelped and whimpered. So many of them were dying, so many already gone. The baron felt nauseous, his legs nearly buckling beneath him as he reached out to catch hold of a lab table.
"Th..Thyous! What's going on here!?" he exclaimed again. His shock quickly turning into furious anger fueled with betrayal.
"Ah, Baron Delgado! How are you feeling?" asked the thin, sickly man known as Dr. Thyous as he stood over his lab equipment with his back to the open door. His skin nearly as white as his lab coat and would be if not for a slightly green touch. His features tortured through age with sunken cheeks and a pronounced forehead.
"Why are my animals here? What are you doing to them!?" Delgado barked as he moved further into the room, taking closer inspection of the cages. His heart sinking at the sight of it all. He reached out to one of his beloved dogs only to pull back in terror upon seeing legions of decaying flesh upon its side and ash around its mouth, a sign of late stage cascade infection.
"You want you're life back, yes? Well, this is how you'll get it. I've been conducting some experiments on them and drawing tissues. It will speed the process up greatly, I assure you." His words felt cold and emotionless to Nester's ears. He could feel each syllable dripping down his neck.
"But we don't need to go about it like this! You have lab animals bred for this sort of thing. Why are you killing mine!?"
"The lab animals are all dead. I needed new ones," shrugged Thyous. From his expression it was clear he couldn't understand why anyone would care, especially when their life was at stake. “Besides, the lab animals can only respond one way to the tests. I need a wider array of subjects before I begin testing on bipeds.”
“You’re going to infect people with the cascade!?” gasped the baron.
“Indeed! We can’t afford the risk if our solution doesn’t work. We’ll have to test it first. Your time is running out my baron. You’ll be no better than they are soon and without...”
"No! Nothing deserves this. I'm freeing them now!" Nester moved towards the controls and began to pull and push at anything he could. Few of the cages began to open, but only a handful of the animals were strong enough to stand.
“Wait! You can’t! They can infect us with the cascade! Stop!” Thyous dove upon the baron and grappled him from behind in his bone thin arms.
“You’d deserve it!” cried Nester breaking free. His body hurtling forward into a control panel, crashing against it and sending steam out in a loud burst towards the ceiling as pipes and canisters ruptured and burst. The sound of gears grinding and metal snapping from within caught his attention, but then a fist came flying towards his face to take advantage of the distraction.
“Look what you’ve done!” screamed the enraged Thyous. Nester felt like his nose was likely broken as he found himself now seated at the base of the control panel. He could taste the blood dripping through his lips as he saw the two green fists balled up tightly around the collar of his lab coat. Greskin soon coming into view out of the corner of his eye, pushing his way blindly through the cloud of steam escaping from nearly every instrument in the room.
“We need to get out of here!” Claremont following him in, grasped Greskin by the shoulders and forcibly pulled him back out.
“No! We have to save the baron!” Nester heard the old man cry.
Thyous then threw the baron to the floor. Weak and disoriented made worse by the disease within his blood, Nester could barely move. Thyous saw an opportunity and moved towards a lab table. He pulled open a small drawer and retrieved a single shot pistol.
“You shouldn’t try to stop progress,” Thyous warned as he drew the barrel upon the baron. “I will complete my work on the cascade. I will kill anything I like to find a cure and you, my unknowing test subject, you fail.”
“You...you bastard!” coughed Nester.
“Yes, a pity you only recognize it now. I knew you’d fund my research without question if you had something personal at stake.”
“I would have funded it anyway you sick son of a bitch!” Nester coughed and a chill ran down his spine as his mouth filled with ash. The final stages of the cascade had begun early.
“Yes, but I had to make sure you wouldn’t stop me. I couldn’t take the risk. I was wrong though. Pity. You were one of few nobles I actually liked. I am eager to watch you die though. You’ll make a great autopsy specimen.”
The room was getting dark as Nester’s sight began to fail him. His right hand reaching up for something to grab hold of found purchase on a brass handle. He gripped it with all he had left and began to rise only to fall back to the floor as the lever dropped and sent the final set of cages flying open. The animals within them had only recently been infected it seemed. They flew from the cages in fear and dove out in all directions. Knocking things over and putting the steam-filled room into a greater stage of chaos.
“No! Stop you stupid things! You’ll kill us all!” cried Thyous, waving his frail arms about in a panic. A fox with a red scarf upon its neck, jumped upon his chest with a vicious growl and sent Thyous tumbling backwards through the thick cloud into a series of wildly spinning gears.
Blood sprayed in an arc through across the room. The gun went off and a fox yelped in pain.
Nester opened his eyes again as the very foundation began to shudder and saw the fox laying there beside him. Unable to move, the baron just smiled at the fox who seemed to be smiling back. “At least I’m not alone,” was all The Baron Delgado could think of before the blast.
Everything went black.
The baron bolted awake. His face covered in sweat. He grasped for his hands and immediately cried out upon finding wires streaming from both his arms. He tried to talk, but voice made no sound. He paused and listened to make sure he wasn’t deaf and then began to softly whimper.
“The cascade!” he thought and swiftly pulled the sheets from his body. His arms, his chest, the legions of ashen flesh were all gone, but the fact he could not speak and something was making it difficult to breathe had him sweating all over again.
“Ah! You’re awake! Excellent! Excellent! shouted a familiar voice. Greskin hobbled in with a bright smile lighting up his aged face. “You had us worried! We weren’t sure what was going to happen to be honest.”
Nester tried to speak, coughed and then pointed to his throat.
“Right. The cascade did a number on your throat and lungs in the final stages. I’m afraid you won’t be able to speak.”
Nester sighed and then pointed at himself, the sun and the healed patches of flesh.
“Oh yes! Yes, you’re cured! As far as we can tell there are now remaining signs of the cascade in your system. Thyous was closer to a cure than he thought. When the lab exploded…”
Geskin was interrupted by the hands grabbing at his coat and pulling him closer to those eyes filled with shock and worry.
“Uh, yes, I’m sorry the lab is gone. There’s nothing left really. The animals that survived the blast died a few days ago from the cascade I’m afraid.”
Nester sighed and relaxed. He sat back against the bed and closed his eyes for a moment as a tear ran down his cheek.
Greskin jumped, surprising himself. “Ah right! Here!” He pulled a notepad and pen from his lab coat and handed it to the baron. Nester blinked and looked it over briefly. He then scribbled out a few words.
“How did I survive?”
Greskin stared at those words for a moment and contemplated how to explain it.
“I must tell you the truth my baron,” the old man nodded. “When we found you, due to the destruction, it was hard to distinguish what was you and what was, we believe, a fox. We didn’t dare separate the parts because we thought you’d die immediately if we did. When we noticed your body fighting off the cascade, we discovered that the combined infected tissues somehow countered each other!”
Nester rubbed his face as he tried his best not to faint while a cold chill ran down his back. He thought silently for a moment and then scribbled something else down.
“Will I live?”
“Ah! That’s just it! You’re perfectly healthy!” shouted Greskin in a dry chuckle of words. “We still have yet to see the long term effects though. You might need a breathing apparatus for starters. I’ve already begun to work on something you might like. In the meantime, I suggest you get rest. The science community will be thrilled to see you!”
Nester thought to himself then he quickly wrote down a name.
“Ah! Dr. Thyous! I’m so sorry to see him go. He was so brilliant in his research and…”
“I’d hold that sentence if I were you doctor,” interrupted Claremont from the door, a full metal serving tray held carefully in his sturdy arms. He set it down gently at his master’s lap and prepared the delicate meal made specially not to irritate the damaged throat. “Thyous was discharged from Argenstrath Medical for, questionable practices. We only hired him because we felt it was the best chance we had. That he’d curb his practices enough to be agreeable. We were wrong.”
“Hmm…” Greskin began to think as he wandered towards the other end of the room in contemplation.
“I’m sorry my baron. It was my fault. I should never have trusted him. I should have brought the disappearance of your animals to your attention sooner,” pleaded the butler in a respectful whisper.
Nester began scribbling something down in a hurry as he saw the tears coming to the eyes of his faithful friend. Once he was done, he looked over it and then handed it over with a smile. His eyes beaming with excitement. Claremont read it and began to shed a tear through a smile.