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I came to on what I assumed to be a hospital bed feeling as if my lungs had been burst. A sharp cut of pain clung hot to my abdomen, and my hand instinctively moved to clutch it. Amidst this pain I almost forgot why all I could see was black.
A smooth voice—robotic with a sort of gentlemanlike sophistication to it—droned to me from the void, “Ah, it seems the anesthetic has worn off. You should be most happy to know the operation was a success.”
I hissed, contorting as another jolt of suffering ran through me, “what bloody operation?”
The chuckle that followed was a rough synthetic bassline, “you wouldn’t want to be running about without eyes, would you? I would use a more respectful tone—the operation costed more than most people make in ten years of their meaningless lives.”
My vision lit up in blue. The brightness of it was so jarring I almost yelped, but my surprise shifted to curiosity as ‘Miretech Systems’ appeared atop the sapphire ocean in neat arial font, “What…what is this?” I asked, the pain replaced now by confusion.
“They are prototype cybernetic eyes capable of producing nearly lossless vision, applying a magnification level of ten on command, and a host of other features I’m certain a man of your errm, ‘persuasion,’ will find useful,” said the voice.
My middle and index fingers met with the bristles of my brows. I hesitated before dipping them towards my right eye. Cold metal was all I felt within the socket—cold metal and a rush of adrenaline, “Lord and Lady…” I muttered.
“The loading process should be complete within a minute or so. In the meantime, I can tell you what has been happening during the past few days,” Said the voice.
I grunted and said, “This’ll be rich.”
“It’s actually quite horrible, not like you would care. Personally I don’t like to affiliate myself with you mucous-lipped upright-walking sacks of meat but master Beckett insisted.”
“Beckett? As in the Commander?”
“No, as in the drunken bar roach who wears a chicken costume and believes he’s a cyclops from Earth,” there was a barely noticeable hint of sarcasm in the voice. I was hardly able to pick up on it, “you want to know the reason he even bothered to give you this surgery in the first place? He knows of your lineage. He knows that you’re related to this ‘Ice’.”
More pain. I groaned, “So what’s going to happen to me out of this whole mess, eh? Will I be hanged like the rest of the Iceblood? I’d prefer to be shot. Quicker that way.”
“Well, that could be arranged,” the ‘could’ was emphasized in a way I found slightly worrying, “but Beckett needs you for research purposes. He’s willing to make you a deal: help him and your secret will be safe.”
“Help him with what?” my sight went black again momentarily—then there was a flash, and a hospital room revealed itself to me in stunning definition.
The vision I had before would eventually blur the farther I looked—same for everyone’s vision—but it seemed that these eyes could somehow show even the sign reading ‘admission’ at the far end of a sterile white hallway in front of me crystal clear. I actually felt sorry for anyone unable to experience sight this way.
“He wants to know how an Ice would react to a bastar—I mean, a ‘hybrid’ between its species and a human. You know, just three days ago everyone but visionaries and lunatics thought Ice didn’t even exist. It’s rather interesting to see how far we’ve come in just a few short days, hmm?”
My eyes searched for the voice, and there—at the right side of my bed—stood a creature the likes of which I had never seen before. How best to describe it? Well, to begin with, it looked as if a skeleton had been spraypainted chrome and then a mess of spiderwebs had been stretched across all the empty areas like some kind of strange mock skin. Those had been spraypainted a dark chrome as well. The hands held five fingers which each ended in fine metallic points that resembled talons.
The creature cast two glowing blue dots towards me from sunken black sockets. Its face was a skull made of fine meshy wires that shifted in order to display a mannequin’s equivalent of emotion. It was eerie—yet strangely intriguing.
“Like what you see?” it asked, regarding me with a face as unimpressed as any humans could get. It was almost comical, and an amused smile came upon me through the pain, “oh please, I’m a horrific skeleton monster not a comedian,” the creature continued.
“Just what are you anyways? Never seen anything like you in my whole life and I’ve seen quite a few bloody things.”
“I am EDEN—the world’s first Synthetic life form. If you want to hear how I came into existence I could always tell you…”
“Imagine there’s a catch,” I grumbled, another throbbing sting reverberating through my body.
“How perceptive of you,” said EDEN, “as cliche as it sounds: I’d have to kill you. Already had to do something like that a few times, actually. Very enjoyable.”
I sat up from my bed and scanned the rest of the room. Two curtains on either side of my bed veiled most of the surroundings from view, but I could see a hallway, the foot of another bed, and a sink mounted into a counter. It was a hospital alright. Then it all came back to me: the Shapeshifters, the mission, Ariana, everything came back. Soon my bare feet were pressed cool against the tile floor and I was walking towards the hallway.
“What are you doing?” EDEN asked.
I stopped, realizing I had no idea what I was doing either, “where’s Ariana?” I looked at the blue gown hanging from my battle-scarred body, “where’s my uniform? My weapons?” I turned back to the synthetic.
The being shrugged, the tattered brown cloak wrapped near his neck rippling from the movement, “A man with a foreign accent apparently brought you and some red haired woman here a couple days back. I suppose he left a black bag at the reception office, though. Perhaps that’s what you’re looking for?”
“Wait? Ariana’s here? Where is she?”
EDEN pulled back the curtain to the right of my bed and revealed another cot with the instantly recognizable Ari laying on it, a respiratory mask over her mouth and a sheet over her chest. I felt as if my heart had stopped as I walked closer. She looked like a corpse—face pale as as the linen covering her.
“Ari?” I half whispered. She stirred, eyes slitting open and meeting mine.
“Mercer?” her voice was weak.
“Yeah; it’s me.”
Each breath she took was followed by a hiss from her respirator, “What did they do to you?” she asked.
“What was necessary,” EDEN answered for me, “your recovery will take longer, Ariana, but Mercer is needed now. In order for that requirement to be met, reconstructive surgery was a necessity.”
I held an arm before me and touched it. My flesh felt the same as usual, but when my finger reached what should have been bone something felt different.
“Wait, you just operated on my eyes, right?” I asked. I knew the answer before it came.
“Your skeleton has been refined with Tizantium ore. You should feel no real difference… in a year or so. I’ve heard the procedure causes brief back pain when you first adjust to it.” EDEN said.
“There anything else you’ve done to me? What the hell am I now? Should I even be alive?”
“You were already dead. We simply installed a few artificial organs, introduced a clotting agent to your blood to stifle wounds that get past your sub-dermal armor, and replaced your eyes with better ones. It’s like nothing’s changed at all!”
Realizing you should be dead—that you were dead—is not a particularly happy experience. My hands looked the same as they always were, but they felt as if they belonged to someone else. I didn’t know what other horrors could have been done to me without my consent, and it immediately began to gnaw at the back of what I loosely called my mind.
“Mercer, the city is a wreck,” Ariana said, “it looks like hell burst forth from the ground and—,” her eyes widened, “find Cyrus. Now.”
I almost didn’t hear her over my own thoughts. My eyes were anchored to one of the white tiles on the ground, “You think my power even qualifies as a fraction of his? How could I help such a man?”
“Well, that’s strictly not true,” EDEN cut in, “this surgery has made you into a much more effective weapon. In combat you should find your abilities far surpass your previous ones.”
“I’m not a… not a ‘weapon’.”
EDEN shook his head lightly, “from the very moment each of you joined the Guard you became weapons for the Emperor: for Cyrus. Most men cower in fear when faced with the darkest abominations of this world, but you—the Blackguards—meet such horrors without question or fear. Just look at me for example: I’m a high functioning sociopath in robot form and even I look upon you Guardsmen as shining examples of what humanity can achieve.”
“You’re just another experiment by Beckett,” I countered, “and high functioning is debatable.”
EDEN’s gray lips curled upwards, “so are you. Perhaps we have more in common than you would like to admit, Mercer.”
“Be a weapon,” commanded Ariana, sitting up on her bed, “I’m in no shape to help my Commander, and the strongest person in this city’s you. Go find Cyrus and do your duty to the crown. That’s an order.”
I let my eyes drop and I bowed, “then I’ll be your sword.”
“Do better than that: be Mercer.”
For once, EDEN’s smile looked genuine.
My armor had been shredded and beaten by the Shapeshifters, so I had little choice but to don the lighthouse-crested scarlet gambeson of the Regiment 2 guard and a pair of simple trousers. It was a light outfit, but I didn’t need the armor. A sturdy plate seemed to lurk just above my ribs—what EDEN referred to as ‘sub dermal armor’. The very concept was foreign to me, but in a sense I couldn’t help but be interested in my new abilities. Thankfully, my sword and my flintlock were just the same as always and I lashed them to my waist securely before exiting the main entrance and stepping onto the streets.
The destroyed husks of buildings flanked me on either side of the cobble road the hospital led to—hands of flame waving their orange fingers from shattered windows and piles of debris. I stopped a moment to take it all in. Smoke was choking in the air, but for some reason my lungs didn’t reject it. They must have been ‘modified’ during the procedure as well. I didn’t find out the full extent of what had happened to me as a result of the operation until years later.
What unnerved me most was how people still walked the streets. They weren’t people though, but walking corpses with peeled leather skin appearing as if they had been flayed. Some were more intact than others, but a few had to crawl along the ground due to lack of body parts. At first I expected them to lock their milky voids I supposed were eyes onto me and charge, but instead a lanky figure with a twisted arm and a bent nose approached. The way he—it—approached remains with me even now: as if he was taking a stroll through the park on a Sunday.
He said, “you know why I’m back?” his voice was course as it was gravelly—a withered rasp from a withered man. Perhaps others would have drawn a blade or took off running in this situation, but I knew better.
“Afraid not.” I said back.
“Want to go back,” said the corpse, “my family and I were happy together. I want to go back.”
“Know what’s keeping you here, or?”
It shrugged, “Like, no, I wish I did though. Remember waking up in the morgue if that helps. I hope it helps. I can’t find my family, you know? Want to be back.”
I nodded and, after a bout of hesitation, clapped him on the shoulder. What skin I felt was squishy and loose—like gristle on a chicken bone. I quickly pulled my hand back.
“Hey, look over there,” the corpse pointed towards the sky with his shredded right arm and I found a great beam of golden light cutting through the ashen clouds at a downward angle where he indicated, “maybe there’s what’s causing all this, huh? Like—is it the apocalypse or something? Is this the end of the world? Wow, that must be bad for people like you. Very bad.” He yawned through a mutilated mouth and began walking away. “I’ll be looking for my family. I miss my family, you know?”
“Yeah…” I whispered, more to myself than it.
As I walked through the desolate streets I passed more walking bodies and more signs of destruction. My mind couldn’t imagine what sort of force caused this, but I knew it wasn’t of this world. And regarding the rest of the world, was it like this everywhere or just the city? Was the world really coming to an end because of some prophecy from a rundown hotel?
The ships had been burned in the harbors. Landmarks I remembered seeing what felt like mere hours ago had been shattered into pieces or set afire by some unseen force. I watched a what remained of a galleons’ sail be devoured by flames, the waters around it’s great wooden form hissing and throwing up a steam which appeared like fog in the waning auburn light soaking the streets. How hot was it? Was the atmosphere scorching and I couldn’t feel it because of my new body? The last thing I expected to hear as I stood there overlooking the devastated bay was the high-pitched sting of a fiddle or a violin, but that’s what I heard from behind me. No particular tune was attached to it, but it made me whirl to locate the source all the same.
There, leaning against the brick wall of what used to be a bank, stood a man who must have been six foot three at the least. His hair was a messy chestnut and he was clothed in a simple brown tunic and muddy cargo pants. He held a fiddle in his hands and a sly grin on his bristly, rogue-like, face. “On Earth they say Emperor Nero watched his city burn while playing the fiddle. You know where I got this one?”
I shot him a look that wouldn’t hide my suspicions. “No.”
“I shoplifted it,” the man said, casually taking it in both hands by the slender end and bashing it against a stone pillar. It splintered into dozens of pieces with an off pitch crash and the man laughed. “And that was before all of; well, this.”
“Who are you?”
“I would tell you,” he put his arms at his sides, swaying like a drunk as he walked towards me, “but I forgot.”
“No—like seriously—I forgot.”
Now I lowered my brows. For some inexplicable reason it didn’t look like this person was trying to joke around, even though forgetting your name in the first place is a bit of a joke in itself.
The stranger stopped on his way towards me, realization running across his visage, “wait—Zane. That’s it: Zane Morgan. Yeah, that’s me. I—I remember now.”
If there was another person standing beside me I would have given them a confused stare, “Okay… well, can I help you?”
“Well I’m Commander of Regiment 2, so like…”
“Oh.” I had honestly forgot.
“Yeah—like I got caught up in the whole sort of ‘dramatic slash mysterious entrance’ thing and so—so yeah, I like forgot my name for a second there. That’s not even me being ironic, that actually sort of just happened… y’know?” he chuckled nervously and scratched the back of his head. I never expected the Commander of Regiment 2 to be anywhere near as ridiculous as I had heard from rumors. Since there seemed to be Commanders crawling from the woodwork as of late though, I couldn’t say I was surprised to find another, even in a hellscape like this.
Squinting my eyes a certain degree applied a variable zoom to my vision. I turned around and magnified what was once a food stall and found a large splatter of brownish blood coating it.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“The news is claiming that it’s hell,” Zane said, his towering form pulling to a halt beside me, “as in—literally hell. The day the incident occurred people claimed to have seen the dead rise from their graves. Oh, and by ‘people’ I mean the ones who weren’t caught within the fires raining from the sky on day one. Day two a plague set in—a plague that we’ve never seen before which killed nearly everyone infected within the timespan of one hour. There were no viruses and no bacteria. Crazy stuff, huh?”
“They evacuated this place, right?”
“Yeah,” Zane nodded, “Cyrus and a small group of the Guard are over there,” he pointed to the golden light in the distance, “he said to look around for some guy with flat greying hair, a cute little mustache, and an overly serious expression on his face. Heh, wasn’t hard.”
“So on day one those…” I motioned towards a skeletal creature on one of the docks, “things appeared. Then there was a plague. What happens on day three?”
Zane shrugged, put out his palm towards the spindly zombie I had indicated, and said, “Pir,” as casually as one would say ‘hello’. A bolt of crimson fire rocketed forth from it, hitting the creature square in the head from what must have been a hundred yards out. From what I could see only ashes remained of the skull and the corpse fell limp into the water below with a muffled ‘splash’. The Commander roared with laughter and slapped his knee. “H—Holy shit, like, I wasn’t actually expecting to hit that!” I exhaled as his fit continued. “Did—Did you see that?! Right in the freakin’ head and its body just gave up and…” his laughter faded to a chuckle and then an amused grunt quickly. “Should have ragdolled it. That would have—that would have been ideal. Ideal scenario right there.”
“You know they aren’t hurting anyone, right?”
“Neither are chickens. Do you get all pissy when you eat your chicken nuggets with ranch dressing, Mercer? No? Then shut the hell up. Now if you’ll excuse me—I have some more target practice to engage in.”
I could scarcely believe it as he began sauntering off with a carefree whistle and a swaying step, “What are you doing?”
“I just told you what I was doing.”
“This is your city. It’s been besieged by forces we don’t even understand and here you are using the dead as target practice!”
Zane spun on his heel and shot me an annoyed look, “Last time I checked it wasn’t my job to get rid of evil monsters from hell. That’s your duty. Cyrus said I could do whatever I wanted soon as I found you, and now I’ve found you. See—everyone wins!” he turned back around following a sarcastic smile and whistled an indistinguishable tune on his way towards an adjacent street. I knew there was no arguing with people such as him. Now that I’d actually met Zane it confirmed all my greatest fears about our system of government. It was frightening that some of our Nations were under the protection of his sort, but at the very least I knew where I was going now.
There was an haunting silence to the streets if you were to listen past the faint groans of the dead or the cracks of fires. I remembered a family of three ordering ice cream at a roadside parlor that was now covered in chunks of rubble and how a drunken harlequin had paraded himself down a familiar lane with a bottle of booze in one hand, only for him to be replaced by a throng of ghastly demons who just stood and stared at me as I walked by. Come to think of it, they hadn’t been doing that before, but whenever I came within close proximity to them now they stopped whatever they were doing, locked eyes with mine, and traced my position until I could no longer see their gruesome forms. I had the queerest feeling that they were being controlled like puppets by some horrid demon or another—cursed to spend days in a world that had long since forsaken them.
As I grew closer to the light they became more and more agitated, their groans increasing in volume until they mutated into anguished screams. Some clutched their heads with whatever rotted appendages they had while others scraped the brick sides of buildings or forced themselves onto shattered glass. Even though they were monsters I felt regret with every step I took. The light looked just a block or two away when the first one threw itself at me from a small crowd. It screamed, “I’m sorry!” at the top of its lungs as it did so, trying to use the exposed points of bone where its fingers had been as weapons. I had been ready to defend myself soon as I saw the first of these creatures and I made quick work of the poor wight with the same Word Zane had used at the docks—engulfing it in cleansing flame.
More followed in this one’s footsteps as I grew ventured further, but the attack that stood out to me most as I walked was when a twig thin rotted husk lobbed itself my way while a group of three other corpses grabbed onto it and dragged it to the ground, preventing the attack from even happening. For a moment I just stared in disbelief as they tore the thing limb from limb and then looked back towards me and stared. I couldn’t help but express my thanks with a reverent nod, even if they were unaware of what they were doing.
The path to the light took me past an old library, what seemed to have once been a brothel, and even a self defense class. As it turned out, the cutting beam of gold illumination anchored itself within the town square—a sprawling courtyard flanked by palms grown from rings of soil and a great circular marble wall with grapevines snaking through it. The metal gates granting passage through this wall were wide open, revealing a field of lush grass within where raspberry bushes, trees, and a swathe of different flowers had sprouted. It was an oasis in these horrid surroundings and a welcome relief from all the death and chaos.
The gardens were empty of people, the only thing of note lying within them being a large white rotunda standing as a sentry to the vines and tulips and burning orchids. The inside of this building held a simple front desk with a computer terminal propped upon it, a ceiling depicting a blue sky pocked with swirling cottonball clouds and what appeared to be angels—beings with proud eagle wings, grinning faces, and nigh unattainable bodies in regards to both genders. A sign above the front desk read ‘Welcome to the Lankerton Memorial Statehouse Building’ in a swirling cursive on glassy marble.
“Mercer?” I heard an accented voice say from the flight of stairs in the left corner of the room. A man in Blackguard uniform stood there, his eyes wide as saucers and his feet rooted in place. “Cyrus said you’d died. What the blazes are you doing here? And what’s with your eyes, they look like blue glass!”
I walked across the polished cream floor, my footfalls echoing the unseen halls times over, “Yeah, you’d think I’d know, wouldn’t you?” I said with a sigh. “Where’s Cyrus? There’s a lot that needs to be said to that man.”
My comrade motioned to the long flight of stairs behind him with his head and folded his arms over a thin chest, “Quarter of us died fighting it.”
“It’s an Ice. Never got to see it myself but the Commander was very clear that no more of us were to engage it save…”
In an instant I realized that Cyrus already knew about my status as a half Ice. Just that thought sent a shiver down my spine as I pondered how long he had known for and why he decided not to tell anyone. Did he tell anyone? I certainly hoped not, or I’d hang after this whole ordeal—not an optimal way to end an adventure.
“My name’s Sam by the way,” said Sam, “actually kind of admire you. They’ve been calling you the Shapeshifter Slayer in the magazines, not like those are the most reliable sources of information or nothing.” He chuckled awkwardly and I fell into pace beside him as he began descending the stairs.
“Where are those magazines? Never quite found any of them.”
“Oh, well the one I tend to read’s called ‘The Patriot’. The one who authors it—his name’s Charles Becker. He’s done movies, right? He directed The Voyage and Fall Samurai.”
“What Nation’s he from?”
“Six, just like me. Joined the Guard from Six.”
“Load of bullocks when the only coverage you get for your actions comes from another Nation. I’ve been reading the Nation 9 news and haven’t heard a thing about that night.”
Sam shrugged, trying to hide his obvious enjoyment of the conversation, “I guess the government might have covered it up for just Nation 9. Other Nations wouldn’t panic if they found out another was attacked by Shifters, but panic spreads fast when there’s a reason to be panicked, right?”
“So are you a film buff, then? Quite an interesting medium but I haven’t had much time to appreciate it as of late for—obvious reasons.”
Sam pounced on the question, his stormy eyes glimmering in the warm sheen the chandeliers cast through the hall we had stepped into. It was a lavish looking locale—sporting framed oil-painted depictions of town Cardinals who had looked after this city in previous years, tall lined pillars ascending all the way to a rough, cold, ceiling, and giant archways leading to rooms decorated in rustic antiquities and boasting purposes that I couldn’t quite discern. For all I knew the rooms were just there to look pretty and house city council meetings when things weren’t as awful as they were currently. At the very least there were no rotting corpses traversing the hall. I hadn’t seen a single one since I reached the light, and believe me, that was a good thing. “—My personal favorite from last year was Rosethorn,” in my haste to look about my surroundings I had completely ignored Sam’s reply, but I nodded in acknowledgement before he could realize this, “they’re taking more and more inspiration from Earth movies, and while you’ll get a bunch of old coots saying it’s ‘destroying our identity,’ I personally think that refining a tried and true method is just as good as it being your own, right?”
Not wanting to offend the young man, I relinquished a, “Yeah.”
“Hah! Now I can tell them that Mercer Cedric agrees with me!”
“I, uh, don’t think they’ll care all that much about my opinion, kid.”
“Come visit Nation 6 some time and you’ll see how much they idolize the Blackguard. That’s why I joined! They’ve made movies about us, wrote novels, heck—I bet someone on Earth’s writing about us right now!”
“Not sure who would enjoy a story about a bunch of pricks running around killing monsters. Author would have to be mad to write about such nonsense.”
“Well I think it’s plenty interesting, but I might be biased. Am I biased, Mercer?”
“Considering you’re living out the very story you praise—and worse—you’re optimistic about it,” I spoke in a half-mumble, “I’d have to say yes.”
As we continued down the seemingly endless corridor I had a sinking feeling that neither of us knew where we were going. I hesitated to ask Sam the inevitable question. “Uh… where is Cyrus, Sam?”
“Oh, I forgot what we were doing. I have such a bad memory, right?” We ended up having to head back all the way towards the bottom of the stairs. The first archway on the left led to a paneled iron door sequestered behind a dusty old library. “Cyrus said that Cardinal Mordain Glaz had a secret network of tunnels and chambers constructed during his command of the city two hundred years back. The door you’re seeing now can only be opened by a specific key that went mis—.”
“Then why there a slash mark where the lock should be?” I asked. Where the two halves of dark metal met there was a giant scar cutting lengthwise across both—deep and long.
“Oh, that was Commander Cyrus. The other way to open the door, of course, is to break it in half through the middle.” He laughed a little.
A massive circular chamber revealed itself as I parted the door. Soldiers sporting black scaled leather of the Guard sat around scattered tents they had erected. A group of three were playing a game of cards while others just sat around drinking or talking.
“What is this?” I asked, straining to believe how our organization was just sitting around and doing nothing in the midst of an unimaginable danger.
“Oh, the Commander ordered us to stay out of it?”
“Well, stay out of bloody what?”
“He’s fighting the Ice.”
I shook my head, “Just because you’re ordered to do something doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t do it. We have a duty to our country—our Nation—to uphold, and even if all of us die in the process of fighting this thing we could at least say we tried. I’m assuming these folks haven’t done that.”
I could see the seeds of doubt rooting themselves into Sam. His eyes evaded mine. “But Cyrus said he could handle it…” His voice was just shy a mutter.
“That doesn’t mean he can. Where is he anyways? Where is this fight occurring?”
Sam motioned to the end of the room and a door of a similar nature to the one in the library, except on a far larger scale. The chamber we were standing in now fit the door regarding size, and the jagged stone comprising the ground seemed to suck the very warmth from my body as I walked towards this door.
“You don’t mean to fight it, do you?” Sam asked.
“I do. I am a weapon of the Emperor and a servant to the Mire. My life is an afterthought.”
Sam shot out an arm to impede my progress but I brushed it aside, “Listen, I don’t know you very well, but I never really thought you cared this little about your life, right? It’s fine to put all that stuff first, but I don’t think you should just treat your existence like it’s disposable. That’s no way to live.”
“I don’t think my life is disposable. I just believe that the lives of thousands take precedence over my own.”
His steps were close by my side, and I could tell he was thinking up some way to dissuade me. Truth be told, it brought me a little hope seeing a young man who cared enough about some guy he just met to try talking him off the ledge… even if his efforts would be in vain. There were about thirty people in the room. How none of them had went in to assist their leader was beyond me. Hell, maybe a few already had, but by the tone this Sam fellow was giving me it didn’t seem that way. Cyrus wasn’t the friendliest person by any means, but he was fair and always fulfilled his duty to the best of his abilities. In a sense I admired him, but perhaps that feeling wasn’t mutual throughout the Guard.
Sam threw himself in front of me. I could have pushed straight through him but I decided to at least hear the boy out. “Listen to me, right: Cyrus is the most powerful combatant in all of Nation 9,” I folded my arms before me and perked a brow, “he’s been on the off side of those blasted doors for just over an hour now, and we’re still hearing noises. If he hasn’t been able to kill this Ice in all that time, then what good can any of us do, right?”
“Don’t know until you try.”
He didn’t attempt to stop me as I walked past him, but still followed wordlessly. I received a few confused or peculiar glances from Guardsmen as I walked them by. A few descended into conversation likely regarding me soon as I passed them by, while others kept their eyes glued to me all the way as if I was one of the cadavers that had swarmed the aboveground.
The doors were even larger as I came within a stone’s throw of them—grand monoliths of heavy iron which had been cast into the exact frame of what must have been a giant’s doorway. I stopped a moment just to look at them, and no sooner had I done that when one of the panels began to rumble open, tailed by a stony roar which echoed through the entire room. In all honesty it took me off guard, and I relinquished a single step backwards as I watched with baited breath to see who would emerge from behind. My hand was on my sword. What scarce conversation that was present swiftly perished, and I could tell without looking that every last person’s eyes were rooted on the doors.
A large gap sat between the metal tower and the concrete wall as Cyrus stepped out from behind. At first I breathed a sigh of relief, but all breath soon fled me as I saw what remained of his body. His left arm had been bent until half of it was facing towards where your elbow’s supposed to point and his night sky trench coat was covered in holes and liberal amounts of blood, which still dripped to the ground below the Commander—leaving a trail of bright crimson and a pool of it when he stopped to look at us with a face I could barely even recognize.
The bone of his jaw was exposed, flanked by bloodied and scorched black flesh and contrasted by the left part of his face—which was still intact. Needles of black hair choked his crimson eyes, the order that usually described that hair absent now and replaced with an oily, bloody, mat. His left leg had a grisly gash near its kneecap, and multiple gashes dotted his chest. I could scarcely believe the man was still alive after incurring such wounds.
“C-Commander?” an incredulous Sam said.
Cyrus hobbled over until he stood before us—hardly more intact than one of the ghouls roaming the streets, “Mercer.” he stated. It came out as a gurgle.
“You need medical attention.” I said.
He shook his head and looked over his shoulder briefly, “I don’t need shit,” he sighed, “except wine. Now.”
“Thought you drank cream soda.”
Cyrus didn’t look amused, “Wine.” Sam hurried off towards the tents, leaving me alone with the Vampire Commander, who let out a long grunt and sat down against the side of one of the doors, blood smearing the metal his back touched. “Shapeshifters are dead. Ripped their heads off for what they did to you two.”
“And what of the Ice?” I asked.
“Damn the Ice—damn this city,” he coughed, “think I weakened it. Could have kept going if you had arrived later.”
“And why do you want me here, sir?”
He shot me a look with his cutting eyes that was more intimidating than any Ice could possibly be, “You know damn well. Bet you thought you were clever, trying to hide that little secret from your comrades. I put up with it for the longest time—you’ve served me well—and I reward good service,” he turned his gaze away, “but I’ve had enough. I want that monstrosity dead. More dead than I should be right now.”
I had never seen Cyrus this tired before—if tired was how I could describe it. I said, “if you don’t mind me asking, how are you still alive, sir?”
“Don’t call me sir. We’ve been over this.” he grumbled. “I’ve been alive for centuries, Mercer, and I’ve had worse wounds. You don’t see many hybrids between human and Vampire, nor do you see many of Ice and man. When I was in my developing years some sap in the capital found out I was a Vampire. They sent half the guards in the city after me and I killed every one of them until Edmonton Blacke himself came down from his palace and offered me my position. That’s been my life—killing. Might as well lead an organization that does it, right?”
“You’ve done that organization proud.”
“Killed more than anyone else. Sure makes everyone ‘proud’.” He looked behind me and bellowed: “Where the hell’s my wine?!” I looked back to see Sam dashing towards us from one of the tents carrying a green bottle with a slender neck in his hands and a comically frightened expression on his face.
“Here you are, sir!” Sam handed him the bottle with a shaky hand and Cyrus snatched it with a poisonous glare.
“If someone calls me ‘sir’ one more time I’ll gut them! I’ll throw them to the bloody floor and tear apart their body while they watch!” he roared, ripping the cork from the bottle and guzzling the liquid within. Sam was almost trembling as the scene unfolded.
“What happened to you?! Why are you like this?!” Sam quailed.
Cyrus finished half the contents of the bottle and lobbed it into the distance, a shatter marking where it landed, “I’m a Commander to do one thing: kill. That thing lurking behind this bloody door’s still alive, and what good am I—what USE am I if I can’t do the one thing I was ordered to do correctly?!” the Commander let his eyes fall to the ground before him, the fire fading from his face. “You’re the one to do it, Mercer. You’ll be immune to most its abilities. Go now.”
My inner voice screamed that talking more would just make things worse. With a deep breath and a hand to my blade I walked towards the opening Cyrus had made in the door.
“Mercer, what are you doing?” Sam asked.
A dark presence pervaded the very air once I stepped through that barrier. It was as if I had crossed between worlds with a single step, and I knew in that moment that no matter the outcome of the battle awaiting me—my journey in the Blackguard was about to reach its conclusion.