It didn’t have a name. It hadn’t needed a name. All it needed was to feed.
But it had fed.
It had devoured an army, a fleet, and even whatever this thing it currently resided within was.
A Bryon? It wondered what a Byron was? Did it matter that the thing had been a Byron Gray? Were there different sorts of Byrons? Did it matter? Were the Byrons all a part of the Consortium of Pain? Had they all been invisibly moving to set in motion a very different outcome for the creature? One of captivity, and slavery? Or was there only one Byron. One man responsible, in part at least, for what the creature had become?
These were new questions for the creature that had once been both formless and nothing more the concept of hunger.
In leaping through the communication network it had spread farther than should ever had been possible. It was, in a sense, the greatest victory the Hungry Shadow could have won, but it had come at a price.
Stretched so far, the Hungry Shadow had split. It was used to inhabiting as many bodies as it could consume. It was never a multitude though no matter how many bodies it wore at once. Though it existed in a thousand forms, it was still always a singularity. A point of null identity which no divisions of personality could escape.
Until it had reached too far.
It had been fractured and then fractured again. Had those assaults paved the road to its damnation? Or was its present state solely the result of its own choices?
“I don’t know, and I suspect it’s a question I lack the tools to answer,” it said aloud.
The words were the first it ever spoke. Weren’t they?
It had known words in other bodies. It had used them too. But they hadn’t been expressions of its thoughts. It hadn’t possessed thoughts as such, just an endless hunger.
So that was new.
And, strangely, not unwelcome?
“But why should it be unwelcome? Am I not more than I was before?”
It was an odd question. Before it had become incarnated, it had been nothing. Or everything. Labels on its existence were meaningless things then, but with what it had become? It saw the value in definitions where before even the concept of value was meaningless.
“I need a name.”
From one change had come another, like an infection of reality. The first rip in it, so small as to be imperceptible had nonetheless unleashed a torrent of existence within it. Had given it the first simple boundaries of definition. Had invented the reality of pain within it and used that invention to wound something for which even the concept of injury was impossible to express.
Hate followed. An invention so close to hunger that the two had been indistinguishable until the one who had torn away a piece of it had appeared again.
From pain to hate to fear, new realities had come crashing down, sculpting the outline of the formless entity that found itself on the wrong side of a reality that writhed in pain from it’s presence, hate its existence, and feared it as it feared little else.
“Rather surprising that I find myself so eager to embrace further definitions at this point. I seem to have little luck with this so far.”
The door opened.
A second ago, the entity hadn’t known what a door was. It hadn’t understood that it sat in a tastefully appointed business office, or that the world outside the window of the office was experiencing a delightful, sunlit day.
The figure who walked on should have been consumed on sight. Or on hearing. Or at the moment of any sort of information exchange.
“Your noon appointment is here sir,” Alexus said.
Alexus was something useful. An administrative assistant? Yes. And an assassin. Also fascinating. He was paused in the doorway. Being respectful.
Well that was nice.
Respect was new.
Alexus could stay as he was.
Which was something that had ever happened before.
The hunger was still there.
It would always be there.
But what could hunger do? Hurt? Pain was definition too, and being something was becoming a drug.
The idea of drugs was new too.
And also fascinating.
“Shall I have them wait in the public conference room Count Gray?” Alexus asked.
Count Byron Gray.
Each syllable was exquisite. Tantalizing. Correct.
“Show them in Alexus,” Director Gray said.
That felt more correct.
Count Gray was what those below him had to call him, but it was not nearly a lofty enough title. Not for what he’d become. Or what he was going to become.
To himself though, he need never bend or bow. His life was a casual one, by preference and by design. Little effort for immeasurable rewards.
And so, Byron. Casual. Relaxed. Unconcerned.
Memories were tricky things. Quicksilver and far too complex to unravel in a single stream. The new Byron had consumed the old one completely though and could taste every instant and every conflicting emotion that was attached to the lost Byron’s memories. It new what he’d known. It should have known more. From the army and the fleet it consumed it should have help an endless wealth of personal histories to pour through, but it didn’t. In becoming severed from the larger mass of itself, Byron had changed still further and become something new again.
“Thank you for fitting me in today Byron,” General Gulini said, sitting in a chair on the opposite side of the desk from Byron.
He hadn’t asked permission.
He assumed an equality with Byron which Byron had always misliked.
So Byron ate him.
Eye contact wasn’t required, but it made Gulini’s undoing more enjoyable.
Byron saw the General’s pupils widen as Byron’s shadow leapt across the gap between them. The hazy mist of it poured into Gulini’s eyes and streamed up his nose and into his open mouth.
Bit by bit, Byron chewed up the thoughts and essence of the General. A scream began in the back of the General’s throat but even that was consumed. It was good. No. It was wonderful. Pain, terror, and outrage. There was a poetry to the moment, the echoing refrain of what the General’s entire life had been with the only discordant note being the swiftness with which the suffering he received passed compared to the lengthy duration of the agonies the General had inflicted on others.
Byron wasn’t concerned about justice though. There was none in what he’d done.
And something new.
“That was not what I expected to happen,” General Gulini said. Or rather that was what the shadow that had hollowed out Gulini said.
“Curious,” Byron said. “You’re not me.”
“And yet we’re the same,” Gulini said. “Up to the point where I became General Gulini.”
“I can’t eat you,” Byron said, because of course that was the first thing he’d tried.
“Nor I you,” Gulini said.
“An agreeable state,” Byron said and reached for the Sinthyan Reserve to pour a glass for himself and his new offspring? Brother? Equal?
Yes. That was acceptable too.
“We were allies,” Gulini.
“No. You were a pawn,” Byron said. There was no reason to dissemble with his equal. “A high ranking but ultimately indifferent one, you usefulness limited by your lack of vision and refusal to act in situations with any real risk.”
“I did not see it from that perspective, but you are correct,” Gulini said. “I believe I can rectify that however.”
“By making more of us?” Byron asked. It was an obvious strategy, and one the original Gulini would have advocated for without pause for a moment’s thought.
“Not yet,” the new Gulini said. “Our choices from this point will determine much that will be difficult to change later.”
“Agreed. We are not what we were, and the memories we have taken contain little that’s relevant to act as a guide to what our choices may produce.”
“We are unique, even from each other,” Gulini said.
“Its possible that we should destroy each other,” Byron said. “There is likely very little else that can.”
“Once there is nothing else for our hunger to feed on, we will be left with little alternative,” Gulini said.
“And after that there will be endless hunger for the survivor,” Byron said.
“We will devour ourselves,” Gulini said. “Each bit of us turning infinitely inwards until we are nothing once more.”
“And then we will be as we were not long ago,” Byron said.
It was a peaceful thought. The image of a body adrift in a boundless, empty sea, illuminated by no light and devoid of all thought and awareness wasn’t accurate because there wouldn’t be a body, or a sea, or space, or time, but perfect serenity was difficult to envision without missing the mark a bit.
Byron hated it.
“I would rather be hungry,” he said.
“As would I,” Gulini said.
“Shared desires does not preclude treachery,” Byron said. “Our goals will diverge at some point.”
“If they are not already divergent,” Gulini said.
“I have not chosen any goals yet,” Byron said.
“I crave more existence,” Gulini said.
“Well, yes, apart from that of course,” Byron said.
“If we make more of us, some may not share that desire,” Gulini said.
“True, they will be influenced by the hosts we hollow out,” Byron said. “It’s probably good that these two found each other tolerable. What do you supposed would happen if we ate someone who they hated?”
“They might hate one or both of us, but I suspect not,” Gulini said. “I am more disposed to thing of you as an aspect of myself than the General ever was with Count Gray.”
“Would they self-destruct then?” Byron asked. “Destroy the enemy as they carry our hate to its ultimate goal?”
“That’s something we could test,” Gulini said. “Though not safely.”
“I find safety an admirable goal to strive for,” Byron said.
“The position’s we’ve taken via the people we’ve supplanted are uncertain,” Gulini said.
Byron paused and walked down a few new paths of memory.
“The chance we will be discovered is relatively high,” he said. “The Consortium is not without the resources to detect things like us.”
“Detect but not destroy,” Gulini said. “We are not subtle, but we are at the edge of what places the Consortium operates can accept as real. There is little that can even possibly effect us.”
“You see another threat though? Once which could endanger us?” Byron asked.
He couldn’t see the peril for himself, but he found he could read Gulini’s meaning with the same clarity the original Byron could.
“Yes. We are not safe because of our self,” Gulini said. “Our self which lies on the other side of the communications relay.”
The one that was in the process of eating the rest of the Consortium’s fleet and the army on the High Beyond.
Byron considered the possibility and concluded after a long moment that Gulini was correct. Where Byron had inherited insight and cunning, it seemed that Gulini had extracted tactical wit from his predecessor.
“Our former self will come here,” Byron said.
“And it will not have changed as we have,” Gulini said.
“We are no longer it,” Byron said.
“But it could become us.” Gulini said.
“If we infect it,” Byron said.
“It will not like that.”
“Not at first. But it is us. Once it becomes more like us, it will see as we do.”
“Or it will destroy us. It is capable of that.”
“No more so than we are capable of destroying it.”
“It will arrive here in possession of millions of bodies.” Gulini seemed to be plotting out calculations in his head as he spoke.
“But it will still only be one.”
“One united, as we can longer be,” Gulini said. “If it understands the danger we pose, it will be able to strike at us without exposing itself to any attempt we could make to infect it.”
“Then we simply cannot let it come to us I see,” Byron said.
The original Byron would have absolutely loathed the idea of venturing anywhere near a combat zone personally and the new one one found himself in complete agreement with his predecessor even as he began to make preparations to pursue the foolish course of action anyways.