Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Story From the BlackGuard [Part 2]

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Estimated reading time — 32 minutes

Check out the previous entry in this series here!

Ah, so you are back to hear another story, I see? Very well. The BlackGuard is an organization that takes you to many places, and creates many heroes. And even legends, at times.

This next tale had taken place a few years after my promotion, and to my dismay my great friend, Sledge, had retired from the organization with enough money to live a fulfilled life with his baker family in the countryside. I couldn’t really blame him for doing so, and wished him well on one sunny day with a look of sorrow in my eyes as he left.

With him gone, I had lost the last of my friends in the Guard, with the rest being slain by the monstrosity I spoke of last time. The only man I really knew was my Commander, Cyrus. But he was surely too busy to trifle with the likes of me, much less get along with me in the first place. It was during this time I fell into a bout of depression, and moved through the days without much of a care. Amongst my unit I was known as the killer of the Shapeshifter, and despite being decently respected, it didn’t change the fact that nobody wanted to associate with me.

In the North there were rumors of the return of the Iceblood and a doom to befall our planet, and despite them never being confirmed I occasionally overheard some of the higher ups speaking of losing entire garrisons of men who were stationed in Nation 1 during parties in the capital. It made for a foreboding sense of dread at what that could possibly entail.

But that is beside the point of my story, of course. We had been travelling all about the Mire in search of a place to make ourselves useful, and when the good Commander heard word from Dravis himself of a disturbance within the wilderness of Nation 3, we were sent there immediately. From what I heard, an outpost within the wilds had been stripped all but bare of its inhabitants, with corpses strewn about the streets in droves. But the most interesting thing was that nobody knew who or what had caused it to happen.

For this mission Cyrus was taking his elite unit of men, which included me. It was top priority, and had been hyped up for about three days before we finally boarded the train in the monorail station of the capital of Nation 9. I sat alone in a seat towards the rear of the thing, and with a palm on my chin watched the surroundings begin to fly by. The monorail was a bit of technology taken from Earth, if you were unaware. Here on Ares we do not have gasoline, and are forced to use electricity to operate our technology. And since the residents of Earth haven’t quite perfected electric car technology, they are quite scarce here. Trains and feet are the main ways of getting around, and they serve us quite well.

The monorail we travelled on was elevated off the ground about five meters up, and we could soon see the green tufts of bushy trees on our left and right as we moved. The ground was rich and brown, and with no human interaction had caused the semi-tropical forests of our nation to thrive along with all manner of different, and sometimes dangerous wildlife. The Mire itself is just a small portion of Ares, you see, and travel across it by train would take three days at most. Of course, the monorail travels at a blisteringly fast three hundred miles an hour, a machination of Commander Beckett’s scientific prowess.

Cyrus, still wearing his dress attire and black coat, was sitting in one of the front rows with his arms crossed over themselves. Typically, Commanders got to use the first class portion of the train, but Cyrus was an oddity who preferred to always be keeping his eye on his men, for better or worse. Some speculated it was out of suspicion of us, and more thought it was because he just wanted to spend time with his troops. I sometimes worried about him, considering how he never really associated himself personally with anyone and looked on death like it was just another everyday occurrence.

He stayed that way for the entire day, and we got off at Nation 2, home of the infamous Commander, Zane ‘Insane’ Morgan, who I am about a hundred percent sure is only being kept as a Commander because Dravis is afraid of what he would do if demoted. We were at a portion bordering the tropics of Nation 5, and the humidity hit us like a slap in the face. Soon we had adjusted, though, and were lucky enough to make lodging in an old shack at the edge of the ocean. The whole thing had been built upon the stark white sands of the beach, and the sun was beginning to fade into the distance, painting the darkening sky a brilliant orange as it lowered itself below the line of waves.

There was a small village nearby, comprised primarily of thatch houses that were built just a little ways from the shore. The locals were darker skinned and looked on us as if we were men from space. I distinctly remember a child who was hanging the laundry staring at me from behind the clothesline with her two blue eyes in curiosity as I walked through the muddy streets on my way to the shore. Many other soldiers were just lurking about on the beach, three sitting around a thrown together firepit and sharing drinks and some swimming in the water without a care.

I didn’t really do much, other than watch the sun set over the horizon and admire the crystal clear waters from a distance. We were just on the edge of a rainforest, and palm trees stuck out a little while away mixed in with the other plant life of a tropical region. Broken seashells of all shapes and sizes littered the ground as well, carried in by the tide on some unknown day, but the smell of it all was invigoratingly fresh, coupled with the rhythmic crashing of the water upon the shore that would lull me to sleep that night within the rather large shack. I saw Cyrus that night standing apart from even me, staring into the ocean like I had with a distant look upon his countenance. Just a figure in the distance from where I stood.

It had been all but confirmed that he was a mixture of a human and one of the odd immortal men from overseas known as ‘Vampires’. The stereotypical version of a Vampire is far different from what they are in reality, I assure you. In real life they looked just the same as you or I, but with red eyes. From what I had heard of their homeland, Raymere, they were actually a seafaring group who colonized all sorts of different lands across the waters. Cyrus was born in Raymere, and judging by the longing in his eyes he missed that land in some way. I told you they were not fiction once, did I not?

The next morning was rather standard. I awoke from my straw-filled bedding and set out for the nearby train station. The train we had been on previously was heading for the deserts of Nation 4, and we were forced to wait for one heading to Nation 3. We all filed aboard one by one, but before I left I saw the girl from last night staring at me from the edge of the village while I walked. My hand was briefly raised to her, and that was all.

This new train had the memorable scent of freshness to it that filled every corner of the thing. Every seat within was a red velvet, and all metal furnishings made of a dull gold. It quite reminded me of the old Ferego back in Nation 9, to make a comparison. I’m sure the train would ordinarily costed a month’s wages to have the pleasure of riding, but some businessman begrudgingly allowed our use of it on account of Imperial matters.

We soon departed the shores, and after about six hours of travel the tropics had shifted to a forest of pines and spruces that towered above our train. It was said that 75% of the Nation was completely unexplored, and contained ruins of ancient wars, dark magic and untold riches. But Nation 3 was also known for being a very dangerous place. The kind of location where men wandered into the depths of the woods never to be seen again by those that once knew them.

The ground below was composed primarily of pine needles and dense brush. It was great for growing crops, from what I had heard, and this made the place a very desired location for farmers. Some of the men had gotten drunk and were singing some song about the young Emperor in the meantime.
“-When ol’ Atlas Blacke got stabbed in the back, the bastard was given the throne! And from that day forth, for who knows how long more, we all will be his drones!”
Nearly everyone broke into a fit of raucous laughter. I didn’t hear the entire song, but it appeared as if Cyrus did, and while the Commander didn’t join in with his troops, he certainly wasn’t trying to make them stop.

I ended up getting drunk as well as the day continued, and spent most of it in a haze until we reached our destination, at which point I casted a quick spell to clear my mind and rose from my seat to find the whole car a mess, with scraps of food and shattered bottles of wine and ale lying everywhere. Some of the men were still lying about on their seats in stupors and Cyrus gave a brief sigh of disdain as we stepped out into the brisk air of Nation 3.
“Gentlemen! Welcome to frontier country!”
We almost all were at a loss for words as we stepped onto the cracked marble platform. In the distance were trees that stood higher than the tallest buildings, magnificent things which formed a treeline that allowed shining golden light to flow across the air.

From the train platform, much of the surroundings were hidden by the various buildings, but I could already tell they would be as magnificent as I was told in my younger years. The platform in question looked old to the degree of having been constructed thirty years ago, and all of us were a little offput by the lack of people in the area. It appeared almost as if we were the only ones here, and judging by what we had heard it seemed a most accurate assumption.
“Why they callin’ the monster hunters in, eh?” A scrawny man asked another with a skeptical look on his face. “For all we know they coulda just dunnit themselves.”
The other soldier shrugged with a legitimate look of uncertainty on his face, but I had a definite feeling that whatever caused the sudden massacre that had taken place in this sleepy forest town was most certainly a monster of some sort. The reports were unlike anything I had ever heard of, and I had heard many an odd thing in my years of service.

I walked past some of the empty customs buildings and down a set of ancient looking stone stairs that led to the ground beneath. They were few in number, but when my boots hit the ground I knew that we were getting into something very serious.

A thin mist was covering the streets between the old wooden buildings and log cabins, but amongst it were bodies. Hundreds of them just lying there motionless in the entrances of sewers, and hanging off the sidewalk. Some were even sprawled out on the roofs of buildings. Everyone in my unit seemed to stop at around the same spot and looked the scene over with expressions of disgust or surprise, but all of us remained motionless and silent as we watched over the carnage that lay before us. The city itself looked all but untouched, apart from the liberal amounts of garbage and shattered glass littering the streets, which faded into a dull cobblestone towards the buildings themselves.

The sunlight from above seemed to be diminished by the veil of fog to an extent, making the whole place suitably eerie, and the wind rustling in the trees sounded like the most appropriate backdrop possible at the time.
“Bloody hell…” Someone mused, face awash with disbelief. I myself had seen a great many things, but a massacre of this size was still completely unexpected. Sure there was the occasional person shambling through the fog, but for the most part the entire place was completely devoid of life, aside from us.

Cyrus came down the stairs, and walked right past us as if he had seen nothing.
“I will be able to provide assistance, if you deem it worthy of my time. This is no longer a training mission, my friends.”
The majority of us were standing in a big line, and Cyrus turned to face us all with a wry smile on his face. He clapped his hands a couple times, and the high pitched sound was the only real noise in the entire area. We just looked on blankly as he continued for a little while before abruptly stopping. “Now THIS is a mission worthy of the BlackGuard!”
He announced with a chuckle that was tinged with noticeable… Excitement.

Indeed, throughout all the missions we had been on, none could really compare to this kind of scale. Even so, we were trained to be able to handle even these kinds of things, and before I knew it we were spreading out through the nearby village in search of people to question and answers to find. I was among them, of course, and set out to find somebody to talk to in the lonely looking place.

There was dried blood everywhere. On the stone streets, on the walls of buildings, and even on the glass windows. But from reluctantly observing the bodies, I deduced something more confusing than I originally assumed. Every one of the wounds looked to have been cause by human means, such as stabbing shooting and bludgeoning. There were no marks where talons had entered the body, or strange marks of any sort. It looked more like what one could expect to see after a giant battle had taken place. I stooped over the sprawled out corpse of an old man on the curb of the road. His face didn’t look to be at peace, afraid, or even surprised… It looked like it had been contorted in a look of rage and anger as the man died, having his skull bashed against the metal lamp post nearby and creating a grievous wound in the back of his skull.

Some of the faces of those I had encountered were destroyed beyond recognition, but the ones I could get a decent look at all had the same expression of pure anger. For some reason they struck me as even more frightening than the standard fear filled faces of the dead I had seen previously, and a feeling of paranoia crept over me as I traversed the murky streets of the town. The houses looked to be made rather recently, and were quite well designed for where they had been built. There were even a few mansions made from expensive looking marble, standing abandoned at the edges of the town through the mist.

I was unsure of how we were to go about solving a mystery such as this, but the way the BlackGuard worked was that if the case wasn’t closed by day one there would be a meeting in the morning where we shared all of our findings with each other. I had a feeling that was what was going to happen now. Oddly enough, the street lamps were still in working order, casting warm orbs of light in the distance and illuminating the corpses all the more. But why were they on in the day? Did the mist set in before everything went to hell? I was accumulating many questions with little answers to go with them, and so I made the decision to focus my efforts on finding somebody who had survived the strange massacre that had taken place.
My efforts paid off after about an hour of travel through desolate streets in the form of an old man in rags sitting against the side of a metal dumpster in an alleyway. He had started a small fire within a can, and sat beside it in a thick coat, hands glowing as they were set near the flames. There was even more trash in the streets at the moment, and the weather had grown quite chilling. He looked on me at first in a state of shock and fear, but after a few seconds calmed down.
“So you haven’t gone crazy yet, eh?”
He said with dull eyes, watching the fire in the can blankly. I stooped over beside the little source of warmth with a raised brow.
“And why would I be crazy?”
I asked, to be met with no physical reaction from the man apart from his dull reply.
“Everyone else lost their minds. Thinkin’ I’ve lost mine as well.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
The fire dimmed a little, and the man casually picked up a metal rod that had been scorched black at the end and stoked the flames, which grew back to their form once again. It made a rustling noise, and I observed with impatience in my eyes.
“Saw em’ run past. Holdin’ clubs’n torches. Beatin’ old women over the head and fightin’ with the other crazies. I had to kill me one.”
He shifted his head to the dim area beside the dumpster where the crumpled body of a teenager lay, small stab wounds where his heart once was. “Came at me with a mallet, so I put him down with the fire stoker.”
I didn’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted, so I settled on neither.
“Do you know what caused this to happen?”
The man shrugged.
“Mayor kept talkin’ bout his damn mine all day. Said he found a new source of money that’d put our town on the map. Same week this happened.”
“Where could I find this mine?”
“Up north a ways, but don’t go there alone. The crazies have gathered there in a big horde doin’ nothing. They want that mine safe for whatever reason.”

I thanked the man for the information, and jotted what he said down in my notebook. This would likely prove vital to our efforts, but the day was still young. Some other members of the Guard walked by around three in the afternoon, and one approached me with a look of fear in his eyes.
“Stay away from the warehouse in the northwest,” he said urgently, “there’s these red stones inside that turned Mikey into a killer!”
“What happened to him?”
I asked.
“We… We had to put the poor bastard down. Our immobilization spells did nothing.”
His tone sounded sincere and saddened, and I decided to leave them be for the time being and to take their advice about the warehouse. Clearly that would be a task for the good Commander, who was far more powerful than any of us, to take care of. The lower district contained the highest body count from what I had seen, while most of the deaths in the more wealthy upper district had occurred from peasants killing more of the wealthy folk. Was there some kind of uprising? I doubted it, because of what my comrade had just described to me about the red stone. There was something else going on in this town. Something darker.

Before I knew it night had fell and I had discovered a few more things about the city. For one, the mayor’s house was nothing short of a mansion, and made all houses nearby look like rubbish. About thirty bodies were strewn across the well-tended lawn, each bearing wounds from musket shot. Furthermore, I was unable to find any other survivors that day, and from what I overheard from the other men, they had no such luck either. It was likely that the Regimental army would be called in soon, judging by how the situation looked.

I may also add, that while I was exploring the mayor’s lawn I was given quite the fright upon spying two red orbs staring at me atop the roof. The body was a shadow through the mist, and all I could really see of the figure was those two crimson eyes boring into me. You could imagine my embarrassment when they blinked a couple times, and I realized they belonged to Cyrus. That man blended in with the environment as if he was in his element. Hell, he probably was.

That night we made lodging in an old inn at the edge of town which overlooked the forest. Thankfully, it seemed completely abandoned, and the amount of bodies was lessened around its perimeter. Even the beds had been made quite well, and if it weren’t for our miserable surroundings I’m sure I would have been able to spend a good enough night in this place. Unfortunately, I remained awake until 2 A.M. listening to what sounded like hissing coming from the foliage outside the window I lay next to. And I could have sworn I briefly saw a figure staring at me from behind the bough of tree with deathly pale skin and eyes as wide as saucers. My eyes only caught a glimpse of it, though, before it silently ducked back into cover in a fluid motion. The thing I found most frightening about it was how distinctly human in appeared to be, while still remaining unnatural and horrifying.

Cyrus, as a Vampire, didn’t require sleep and must have spent the night scouring the town in search of more information. A Regimental Commander was the strongest user of Cambria in his or her Nation. They didn’t have to fear hardly anything with their kind of capabilities, and Cyrus was rumored to be one of the strongest out of the nine Commanders. Every year an optional tournament was held in the capital that pitted them against each other in friendly duels. Cyrus turned up one time in all the years I had been alive, and defeated every last one of his opponents before vanishing from the competition without a trace. Never to return since.

Many people hated the man because of him being a Vampire. The Mire had a history of war against the seafaring people, and Cyrus was a half breed. This meant that neither side could call him theirs. Even I, who had served under him for a good deal of my life, could really claim to know much about him or what his motivations were.

But moving on with my tale, the next morning was cold. Many people had scavenged coats from around town and were wearing them as if they had owned them their whole lives. Even breakfast was pretty much stolen, consisting of ale, bread and cheeses. This was still superior to what we typically ate in the BlackGuard, so none of us could complain. While eating alone at a wooden table I overheard a group of others talking about a survivor they had found and how he used to work in the mines. According to them, the mine uncovered a red colored material about a week back, which somehow led to the contamination of the water supply. I was beginning to make the conclusion that this odd stone had something to do with what had happened here.

We all gathered in a line outside the inn, and Cyrus paced as he usually did and explained that he would be individually talking with each person about what they had found out, before sharing his own findings with everyone. Many people had nothing to report, but I heard the same thing about the mines and water contamination, as well as a bit about how the mayor had lost it a day or two before the massacre took place. The death of the soldier in the warehouse was brought up, and Cyrus stated that he would investigate the place in person. A couple others had gone off to explore the northern forest and never returned, according to a pair of bleak faced men to my right. I explained my own findings, and aside from that only one other bit of knowledge was revealed to us.

Somebody had interviewed a scientist, who stated that the red stone contained an extremely strong mutagenic property that affected behavior, strength, and in late cases, appearance. It took longer exposure to ‘infect’ somebody from simply holding the stone to one’s skin than it did consuming it, where the effect was almost instantaneous. We were advised to steer very clear of the mineral in the future and not to drink local water. Many of us were afraid about the alcohol and food but since we weren’t trying to kill each other yet, our fear was unfounded.

This was a vital bit of intelligence, and everyone seemed to know it. Cyrus addressed us on the subject in a prompt manner.
“I must admit that you have all done your work quite well. The picture is becoming clearer to me now, and the objective of the mission has now changed,” he began with a firm look in his eyes as he paced back in forth like he usually did when speaking with a group of people, “we will now focus on the curing or elimination of the infected as well as destruction of any and all of this stone. I will be calling in the Regimental army, and initiating a quarantine immediately. Until a potential cure is found, you are authorized to eliminate any infected persons that you encounter. At a later time, I will be gathering volunteers to demolish the mines. Until then, I wish you all best of luck.”
We raised our salutes and scattered. Some of us formed into groups to go out and engage the infected, but I remained alone. There were still unanswered questions about the situation, including why the infected weren’t killing each other and how we would go about finding a cure. But as a morally sound gentlemen, I decided to make finding the scientist and a cure my top priority.

After speaking with a few people, I was directed to the train station. Survivors were being gathered here for questioning in addition to evacuation, but only about seven people stood at the trainstation. The scientist was at least easy to spot as he wore a white labcoat and goggles and stood well over six feet tall. The poor man from before was there too, staring up at the trees in an almost malignant way.
“Hello, sir!”
I called out to the scientist, putting my hand in the air in greeting as I did so. The man in question turned a depressing looking face to me in a delayed manner.
“What is it?”
“Do you believe there could be a cure?”
I pressed, stopping in front of him and awaiting a reply. The scientist sighed deeply and looked off into space, clearly pondering something in his head. I was quite surprised at just how long he did this before actually giving me an answer.
“I assume not. It seems to be more of a mutation than an actual virus, so it would need to be reversed, if anything,” the man rubbed his chin and stared off into space, “I doubt the effects will be reversible.”
With this sobering news I nodded a few times.
“So would it be possible to make an antidote? At all?”
“Sure it’s possible, but it would probably take months or years.”
We certainly didn’t have that kind of time on our hands, that was for sure.
“Could you perhaps tell me the location of your laboratory?”
He nodded briefly and pointed into the distance in a vague and confusing manner.
“A little ways past the warehouse. But do not enter the warehouse or you may become afflicted!”

I thanked the man and began walking away, only to halt my pace upon realizing that these people could still provide a lot of useful information to me. Even so, questioning them all took about an hour, and yielded few results that were of much use to me. Defeated, I finally snuck away from the small group and began making my way back towards the village, unsure of what to do next.

There were certainly some options before me, but none really seemed too appealing. Firstly, I could join the others, who were preparing to kill all those who were affected by the insidious disease. Second, I could take the day off and sign up for the destruction of the mine, or I could investigate these stones that had both I and many others afraid and perplexed.

My eventual decision was to look into the origin of the stones, as I was hardly one to enjoy killing things. Especially things that bore a resemblance to fellow humans. My destination was the laboratory, and the trip to this location took me near the warehouse that I had been warned of now multiple times. The road nearby shifted to a light brown gravel that crunched beneath my feet. A surprisingly dry landscape considering the misty and mildly humid environment nearby. There were actually a multitude of different metal warehouses to the left and right, which smelled faintly of manure. I managed to catch a glimpse through an open doorway to see some hay and various farming equipment within. It caused me to jump slightly upon seeing the blood-stained head peeking out below the doorway, eyes glazed over and soulless. More of the crimson liquid had pooled nearby. I picked up my pace a bit after this, and from then on began seeing dead bodies more and more often.

Eventually, the different farmhouses at my flanks terminated to reveal a giant area of gravel sprawling out before me. The west portion led into the misty forest, while the east creeped back into the town. To the north was a giant warehouse that was colored white and cream and made of rigid metal that stood in the center, more bodies than ever lying about its perimeter. I had not seen another Guardsman in a while now, and was beginning to grow a tad worried about being here alone. But as I gazed through the mist I could see the dark outline of a figure standing motionless in front of the metal building ahead.
“Hello!” I called out, stopping for a moment with a hand on my flintlock. “Are you a member of the Guard?!”
I received no reply, but I knew exactly who it was as the figure turned to face me, with two distorted ruby lights cutting through the veil that separated us. “Oh… I apologize, sir.”
“No need.”

There was a brief crack of wind and before I knew it the figure of Cyrus stood directly in front of me. Wind batted at my face, and the dust that had been kicked up managed to catch my eye. I must have looked like quite the fool while trying to rub it out, but I knew that Cyrus had just utilized a wind spell known as the ‘Vault’. A very popular technique capable of propelling one forward in a straight line almost instantly, while at the same time killing many by having them strike a brick wall or tree at supersonic speeds during training.

I dared not attempt to utilize it unless it was required, considering it took a large amount of mastery in order to dictate how far and how fast you travelled at once. Cyrus looked at me in a bland manner as I cleared my eyes of dust and saluted him.
“Reporting, sir.”
“Please explain to me why you are here, Mr. Cedric.”
He stated in a monotone.
“I heard from a scientist that his laboratory is a ways past the warehouse, sir. My goal is to find a way to stop the mutation.”
“And why is no one else with you?”
I didn’t quite know how to answer that question, looking back, but devised the most suitable reply possible at the time.
“I am not sure, sir.”
Cyrus sighed and shook his head.
“First of all, you have permission to speak freely. Secondly, since you are here, you may as well be of some use to me.”
My expression changed to one of confusion.
“How could I be of any use to you?”
“… Well, I was just about to answer that,” he started, very slight annoyance lacing his words, “I wish for someone to describe what the infection is like. As a Vampire I am immune to such things, so I need somebody to be my guinea pig, so to speak.”

You may imagine my surprise to hear this, but I did not straight up say ‘no’.
“So you want me to commit suicide?!”
Cyrus raised a finger and opened his mouth, but looked to be unable to find the reply he had been looking for. Eventually, he let his arm drop, and with a dull look gave me the most brutally honest response possible.
“Pretty much.”
“With all due respect, I must refuse!”
With a sly grin he threw one of his ice cold arms around my shoulder and began walking towards the nearby building with me in an extremely awkward imitation of what a normal person would do with one of his friends.
“But you did not let me explain! Before you reach the point of no return, I will end the infection. How else would I garner any results?”
A little relieved, but still indecisive, I nodded in an ever so slight fashion.
“But how do you know the infection won’t be irreversible?”
“Heh. You ask too many questions, but for someone who enjoys giving too many answers…” He paused here and let his voice trail off for a bit. “I don’t.”

Honestly, I was in no position to refuse my Commander. And if he really wanted to, he could have simply hexed me and forced me to comply, which I had heard rumors of him doing in the past rather frequently. Perhaps his forced attempt at socialization was him trying to gain obedience using other means, and I most certainly didn’t want to stop him from trying this.
The warehouse already reeked of the dead upon reaching the entrance. It was bigger than all the rest, and more bodies were scattered around it than in its surroundings. There were certainly a good number of people that once lived here if there were this many bodies.

Cyrus took his arm off my shoulder and briefly peered inside one of the gaping metal doors.
“A few were lingering inside. Had to put them down,” he explained casually, “not quite sure when they got there. Heard one of my squads went in, but got out.”
With that he entered, motioning for me to follow. I had my palm clutching the hilt of my sabre all the while as I did so. At first, the inside was completely devoid of all life and only the shadows that swept the edges and parts of the unknown were visible. Cyrus then uttered a few brief words and a pale light shone over the interior like a beacon, making clear to me what was in the distance.

There were more bodies, but disfigured almost beyond the point of being human. But it didn’t look to be caused by the bullet or blade, but… Naturally. There were grotesque mutations all across the body of one man, including bulging eyes and swollen muscles as if he had been on heavy amounts of steroids. Another was all but a skeleton, lying motionless on the ground with drooping skin all around him that looked to have melted off some way.

In the rear were huge piles of a glowing red. And I made these glowing objects out to be stones of some sort, that were being handled like drugs from the looks of it in this musty and decrepit smelling place.
“If Beckett was here, he’d call it a ‘Class A Mutagenic Substance’,” Cyrus said in a mocking tone of a snobbish person, “it appears that small amounts are capable of producing a feeling of intense euphoria. Addiction is immediate and powerful… As is evident by the amount of bodies.”
The Commander stood over the body of the swollen man I described from earlier, rubbing his chin in thought.
“So I wouldn’t immediately turn into one of these… Things?”
I asked, trying to hide my cringe at the ghastly sight.
“No. Likely you will become very addicted, but I can assist with that.”

The good commander walked over to one of the piles of the stuff and removed a shard of the glowing stone from just ahead of a cream colored tarp that had been partially moved. He held it upwards and inspected it thoroughly. “I assume that this was never intended for human consumption. For a Mutagenic it could be rather useful, though.”
In case you are unaware, a Mutagenic is a very rare breed of human that has abilities that evolve depending on different variables. Many have theorized they originated from experimentation and not naturally, as they incorporate many artificial substances and enhancements into them without a hitch.

Society has all but shunned Mutagenics, though. Often times they may have different body features, like incredibly large muscles or lack of different body parts and this can make them appear rather frightening. Different objects can alter their appearance and abilities, and judging by what Cyrus had said, this was one of them.
“So you want me to-”
“Hold it firmly in your hand, yes.”
Cyrus interrupted, walking briskly over to me and shoving the stone he was holding into my palm. Almost instantly the world changed into a haze of rainbow and psychedelic wonder. It built up a little at first, until the feel of the environment faded, following by all senses and ending in me being all but removed from my body.

I wasn’t just a human anymore, I was an entity. A mixture of different emotions wandering the aether as opposed to a bag of flesh maneuvering throughout the world. When I attempted to laugh, there was a distorted echo and colors filled my entire reality in oceans of brilliant colors. The world had faded and I was one with whatever fanciful world I had been brought into. And I didn’t want to leave. On the contrary, I wanted to stay like this forever. My body was nowhere to be found now, and all I could feel was intense satisfaction and peace.

And then everything turned a crimson red. Suddenly I despised everything and everyone. Everyone had to die by my hand, no matter what the cost. It is really hard to describe this feeling, but by the time I was suddenly yanked from my paradise I was about ready to stab something. Anything. The world returned to me, in addition to my lowly body, and I collapsed to the floor with the color still fading from vision. A painful headache had set in and all sound that reached my ears reverberated about five times before finally reaching my ears. I heard somebody shouting at me for awhile, but just ignored it and clutched my forehead in pain.

After about a minute I received an incredibly strong kick to the ribs that was powerful enough to knock me on my back, facing the blurred ceiling. My uniform was fashioned from durable hardened leather, but even so I already knew I had been severely bruised where the kick had landed. My mouth opened and I let out a cry of agony, but reality had set in once more, and I was back in Nation 3 again, with two crimson orbs staring right at me from above.
“Welcome back.”
Cyrus said, grabbing my palm despite it facing downwards and pulling me to my feet with inhuman strength. I stumbled around a little, and my hand felt as if it had been dipped in ice water from just touching the Commander’s flesh. I took a moment to get a grasp on my surroundings, all the while having my left hand pressed to my forehead, which still throbbed in pain.
“Why… Why did you kick me, sir?”
I uttered, turning to face my Vampiric comrade while trying my hardest not to come across as upset.
“We don’t have time for recovery, Mr. Cedric!” Came the reply, as he folded his arms. “Now tell me how you felt.”
My explanation was a lot like it was in this recounting, and the Commander didn’t appear surprised in the least. Then again, he never did appear to be surprised in all my time serving him.

Eventually Cyrus appeared satisfied and nodded briefly.
“So it is also psychological, then,” he mused, pacing back and forth while rubbing his chin, “the Regimental army shall be arriving in a couple days, along with Beckett. With this information, things should go much smoother.”
“Couldn’t you have just waited and used somebody else?”
The Commander chuckled as if I was intending to tell a joke.
“These kind of methods are far too unorthodox for Dravis. Would have never heard the end of it. But on another note, I believe you should investigate the suitcase over there. You may find it most… Intriguing.”
One crack of wind later, the Commander vanished, leaving me completely alone within the warehouse. My eyes scanned the place for awhile despite my headache, and when they caught sight of something in the very corner of the room they widened in disbelief. The white light Cyrus had created had vanished, but even so I knew what I was looking at.

It was the exact same suitcase that had gone missing that fateful night when I encountered the Shapeshifter. Every last detail about it looked the same, from the mahogany brown finish to the shiny handle at the top portion that hung out limpy. The case itself was closed, but was covered by a small coat of dust as if it had been there for a large amount of time. Cyrus must have noticed it before I did, but considering he was a Commander, it wasn’t very surprising. My boots thumped along the concrete floor as I approached the thing, past another limp corpse.

My palm slid over the dry dust, and the upper part of the case was now shining where I touched it. I scanned it over one last time, before unbuckling the two metal flaps at the top and opening it. They had been opened recently, judging by the lack of dust near them. This was certainly Cyrus’ doing. And then I remembered what the contents were.

Eyes fell to the floor from within. Some bloody, some rotted and some looking almost fresh. They hit the ground like oversized marbles but with a fleshy impact that made me grimace. Even so, I didn’t drop the case, I just looked at it in disgust along with its horrid contents as a foul stench filled the air… One more foul than it already smelled in this place. Oddly enough, my next thought was to find the Scrye authorization papers, but I came out empty handed in the end. This confirmed my prior thoughts that somehow, some way either the Shapeshifter from that night survived, or there was a second one. A second Shapeshifter. But why would it come here, of all places? Especially since it must have departed the night it acquired the papers? I felt uneasy after this, having almost put my memories of my first encounter into the back of my mind.

But for now, this was a secondary objective. I needed to figure out how to stop this mutation, if at all possible, and so I hastily left the building only to find something infinitely more terrifying outside.

About fifty feet out from the entrance was a thing that resembled a human being, wearing typical rags of a peasant. But it was almost exactly like the thing I had seen the earlier night, with massive eyes and pale skin. After a minute, it just stopped and turned its gaze in my direction, staring at me completely motionless.

My blood ran cold and I dared not take my eyes off it for even a second. My hand fumbled at my hip for the flintlock I carried, and when it finally grasped it the creature charged me at terrifying speeds on all fours, reminiscent of how the Shapeshifter from before moved. It hissed through a toothless mouth as it approached in an astonishingly loud manner.

Without needing much thought, I raised my gun and took aim through my left eye. Its movements were easy to trace, and a crack ran through the air as a high impact bullet struck it in the torso, causing a thump and a brief spray of blood where it hit. Even so, the monster only jerked back for a second before continuing its assault. Not having time to load another bullet, I put my weapon back in its holster and drew my silver plated sabre, readying it before me in a defensive stance as the abomination closed the distance.

It pounced into the air and raised what I assumed to be its hands They looked human, but bony, and the nails had taken on the form of pure bone and had sharpened enough to each be as sharp as razors. Five of them stretched a full foot long. I was able to swat aside both appendages with my blade and force the thing to jump to the side on all fours once again, hissing for a moment before making another move at me.

This time it made a slashing strike with its right arm, which I was able to parry with a single hand on my blade, while using the other to hopefully cast a few spells to even the fight.
The most simple Word at our disposal, Pir created a weak spray of flames for a second. But a second was all it needed to engulf the monster in a gout of fire, which it did not seem to enjoy judging by its frantic motions as it tried to claw away from the inferno. I gave it no time to recover and lunged in with my sword, catching the side of the neck and decapitating it in one mighty strike. Blood was thrown all across my face and the nearby area, and the charred and bloody corpse fell silent as the last embers of fire died from around it.

I took a few deep breaths and used a cloth from one of my pockets to wipe away the red that occupied my blade. It was a brief but decisive victory, and was to be expected from a member of the Guard. Clearly this was not the only one of these monsters that lurked around the village, and I decided that it would be most advantageous to not postpone my trip to the laboratory any longer.

After loading an incendiary round in my flintlock, I began making my way towards where the scientist directed, leaving the warehouse and strange body behind for the time being. There were less bodies as the gravel continued, but also more ramshackle houses. Some even consisted of tin and cloth furnishings that added to the impoverished look of the area.

I found the building rather easily, a proper white one sticking out like a sore thumb next to the pitiful looking surroundings. The place looked to be in nearly perfect condition, and even the door was unlocked. Inside it was a different story, as papers and various equipment were thrown everywhere. I looked the scene over in search of something that could be of use, and after spending over two hours reading through all the different papers, I managed to find a sheet of paper that cleared a great many things up.

“After years of study, I have deduced that the red stone, ‘Chakarae’, that has been destroying my town and my people has not been only just discovered. Legends of a lost race of people in Nation 3 have detailed the use of the mineral in various rituals to pagan gods. Those that are exposed to it are called ‘demons’ due to their behavior. The behavioral pattern of these creatures suggests something terrifying, in that their only real purpose is to eliminate sentient life of any kind. I have seen them butcher animals, children, and the elderly without cause. The initial stages make humans into crazed killers, while later stages involve mutation to the degree of becoming a completely different species.”

To my knowledge, the effects are irreversible once they have reached stage one. If this mutagenic is allowed to spread, we may be facing a crisis that puts the entire human species at great risk, as the mineral can be spread through simple physical contact, water or a number of other ways.”

I also found a journal entry dating to before the apparent incident took place.

“The mayor’s behavior has become increasingly erratic as of late, as he has focused the entire town on his damnable mine. This week he seemed different from the usual upbeat man he tended to be. More… Unnatural in an inexplicable way. I have seen him visiting the old warehouse by my residence during my midnight strolls, and speaking with men in black suits. I suppose I write this entry because I have had little to do as of late. This lovely town is completely devoid of sickness and disease, and my studies are few but generally successful. I just hope this mine is worth the effort of renovating.”

This led me to believe that he had written all the rest of the papers in a very short timespan. Most likely searching for a way to find a cure, like I was. This mayor character seemed rather suspicious, to say the least, and the occurrences taking place were beginning to make me believe that the Shapeshifter incident was somehow connected to this one. But one thing was for certain: the mine would have to be destroyed.

My next priority, however, was to find Cyrus again. This was a matter that would best be discussed with him before anything else. I felt an odd sense of relief after leaving the laboratory and heading back towards the hotel with suitcase in hand. When I came back, I found a good deal of other Guardsman there. Some sat out at the wooden outdoor tables, while others were lying on the ground with gauze covering bloody wounds on their bodies side to side. It appeared these creatures were already beginning to inflict a few casualties, but compared to the number who weren’t wounded, it didn’t seem like they had inflicted too many.

Cyrus was sitting alone at one of these tables, furiously writing something upon a sheet of paper by the looks of it. As I approached, I saw him occasionally stop as if to ponder something before resuming once again. A scratching sound filled the air from the pencil he held.
“I believe I have found some more items of interest, sir.”
I announced, straightening myself before him and providing a salute.
“Very well, Mr. Cedric…” He spoke, not taking his eyes off the paper he was writing on. “And what are these items?”
“The scientist’s notes, sir.”
“Ah, very well. I shall pass them onto Beckett as soon as possible.”
“But I thought we were to be looking into this matter on our own, sir?”
Cyrus grunted and set his pencil down in an almost frustrated manner, before turning his dull gaze to me.
“Well, I have good news,” he started, obviously not meaning a word he said, “Beckett and his scientists will be handling this case as soon as the mine is destroyed. He apparently thinks these things are ‘fascinating’.”
“More like horrifying, if I may say.”
I replied in almost a mumble.
“You may. But it appears that we are needed for more urgent matters, currently.”
“And those are?”

Cyrus looked as if he was contemplating whether to actually give an answer or not for a moment, but eventually sat back and took a deep breath.
“You have the suitcase, correct? It appears that this whole Shapeshifter debacle isn’t over yet, since the mayor left the town two days before the major outbreak.”
“And what is so important about that?”
I asked with a raised brow.
“We found the corpse of the mayor in the living room of his mansion, Mr. Cedric. His left eye was missing.”
Deep down I knew something like this was afoot, but it still managed to come as a surprise to me somehow. It appeared that the very thing I thought had ended was only just beginning, and for some reason I was at the very center of it all.

The mine was destroyed that night with Cyrus leading the away party. A third of those who had gone to destroy it did not return, and yet more came back wounded grievously. Even so, the operation was a success. I had not been in the raiding party, and instead sat on the upper floor of the hotel, looking out into the forest to see that same creature from last night staring back at me. Except this time, it was just standing there with what I swore to be a thin and malicious grin across its face.
Normally I would have looked away, either in fear or spitefulness but instead I glared right back at it with what must have been a strong determination in my eyes. If I was to fight monsters, I would no longer be apprehensive to doing so. If nobody would be there to watch my back, I would watch it myself. And if a Shapeshifter wanted to play games with me, I would let him go ahead and try.

My depression ended that night, as I thought back on why I joined the Guard in the first place. It was not to make money, and not simply to serve my Nation or Emperor. It was something far more simple than either one of those reasons. Even so, the look of odd confidence in the creatures’ massive eyes was a little disconcerting as it snuck back behind the same tree from before.

The following morning we left on the next train, and I had packed all my belongings in the suitcase I had found. The mystery of what really took place in that town would still remain a mystery for the time being, but I was ready for whatever the future could throw my way… At least that was what I believed.

As we began to climb aboard the train that was leaving, I shot the scientist who was also leaving with us a look that said everything I needed to say. He nodded, and disappeared into the rear portion with the rest of the survivors.

And as the vehicle’s dull horn resounded through the area as we began to pick up speed, and I found myself staring out the window once again as we departed. A town completely devoid of all life, wiped from the face of the planet by an ancient material of unknown origin. It was frightening to think just how much of the Mire was shrouded in mystery to this day.

As Cyrus walked by, one of the men on the row opposite me spoke out.
“May I ask where we will be going next, sir?”
The Commander stopped for a moment and turned to face him.
“You may,” he replied almost exactly how he had done with me, “I just hope you all like the ocean.”

Credit To – hexo67

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