Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
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He entered the monorail car with a calmness about him that I could only imagine possessing, sliding smoothly into the red-cushioned booth where I sat and criss-crossing his arms upon the polished oak table.
“I believe we’ve been long overdue for a short conversation,” He said, scarlet orbs locked onto me like those of a hawk on its prey. At first his mouth was a straight line, firm and uninviting, then the edges of his lips curved upwards. This action didn’t help reassure me. “So how long has it been now? Three? Four years?”
“Two.” I corrected.
“Yes yes, two years,” Cyrus said flatly. “Certainly rather odd how far apart these occurrences have been. You would have thought we would have seen the consequences of that night earlier than now, but it appears this is far more complicated than I initially thought.” The Vampire maneuvered the slender bottle he had brought with him to the edge of his crystal clear glass, carefully pouring out its contents.
“Is that Neverium wine, sir?” I asked, trying to make my grin appear as confident as possible. He looked up briefly from the glass, unimpressed.
“This is cream soda.”
“I see. Sorry, then.” The bubbling liquid in his glass reached a peak about three quarters full and Cyrus set the bottle aside.
“Don’t apologize for such trivial things, Mercer, doing so can be attributed to a certain lack of self esteem.”
“Oh, sorry.” I wanted to slap myself now. Cyrus looked at me as if I already did, taking a deep breath and leaning back into his seat.
“Onto less complicated things, then. First off, the appearance of that suitcase on our previous mission makes me wonder if it could hold some importance in our upcoming hunt. It has all but been confirmed that the Shapeshifters have made a reappearance, and after sifting through a few materials related to the monorail schedule I have deduced that the ‘mayor’ of that town is heading towards Nation 2.”
I remember thinking about what Nation 2 must be like. Of course, at this stage in my life I have already been there, but to that other me it was an enigma. What I did know was that half of that country was tropical and the other grasslands. The Commander of its Regiment was also supposed to be ‘not all there’ in the head.
“So our next mission will be tracking him down, correct?”
Cyrus nodded. “It down, but you’re starting to catch on. It’s the biggest lead we have right now concerning how deep the rabbit hole goes. Once we arrive in Nation 2 I imagine we’ll have to do some detective work in order to find this thing, and I also imagine it won’t be too keen on letting us do that.”
“Then why would it leave the monorail logs intact?”
Cyrus took a brief sip of his drink. “Either it was strapped for time or wants us to find it at some point. I’m hoping for the former to be true.”
“As am I,” I said, nodding my head. “But why did you want to talk to me in particular? What makes me so special?”
Cyrus chuckled to himself a little.
“Not much. You seem a little socially inept, but a capable soldier nonetheless. No, the reason I’m talking to you right now is because, if you recall two years ago, you were one of the only people who survived the Shapeshifter. Or perhaps I should say, Shapeshifters.”
“That was more luck than anything.” I said in a half mumble. That night had gone down in Mire history as one of the only times the BlackGuard was nearly wiped out. Just thinking about it made my heart skip a beat, knowing that I should have died that night. It was a miracle we weren’t made victims as well.
“To a degree,” Cyrus said. “But it is my personal theory that you were not, in fact, spared death solely by chance that night, but instead by deliberation. I believe that the Shapeshifters had a plan in mind that only you and your partner could forward.”
“What kind of plan?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. In the end it’s simply a theory, but it seems likely enough that I should involve you in it. As we delve deeper into this mystery I will tell you more. For now, we prepare.”
“So is that it?” I said with a raised brow. Cyrus removed himself from the booth, taking his soda with him.
“I said it would be short, didn’t I? Get some rest Mercer, it’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.” And with that he slid open the door to the next car and was gone, leaving me with just my thoughts and a bottle of cream soda sitting on the opposite end of the table.
The whir of the monorail flying past the environment acted as a soothing background noise, I had noticed. Indeed, sleep did seem like a most valid way to spend my time after I processed just what Cyrus actually meant with his little speech, but just as I was about to get up and return to my assigned car, a noise struck at my ears from behind me. I looked back to see a man stepping through the car door, appearing about six feet tall and a tad thinner than the average person. He wore a red suit, red dress pants and black dress shoes: the uniform of a monorail operator. What struck me about his appearance most was his blonde hair, which was a difficult shade to find in the Mire, especially with the two piercing blue eyes he had to match. The man approached me with a mischievous grin on his face, holding a dinner platter with a lid atop it at waist level. Before I had a chance to really react he had set it on the table and removed the lid. Inside were three cups and a little yellow plastic ball.
“What is this?” I asked, confused. He took a slight bow and continued his grin.
“The meal you ordered.” His voice was low toned and accented German, to relate it to a country on Earth. We didn’t have this accent anywhere in the Mire so I was immediately suspicious as to the identity of this man.
“Am I supposed to eat the sodding cups then?”
“Of course not, good sir, this is a meal for the mind,” The cups were arranged in a line, three in all. He picked up the one to my left and placed the plastic ball within. “You are familiar with this game, no?”
“Sounds like you’re going to make it into a magic trick. The game’s always rigged.”
The man shook his head and placed one hand on the rightmost cup and the other on the left. “Not magic. Not an illusion.”
He began to switch around the cups at a very slow speed, most likely a deliberately slow speed. First he swapped the right cup with the left and then the middle and finally ended by putting the cup with the ball within on the right where it started.
“Choose.” He said. I unenthusiastically picked up the cup the ball was undoubtedly in to find nothing. I was not the least bit surprised upon lifting the rest and also coming up empty.
“So how’d you do it? Satisfy my intense curiosity.” I said, applying appropriate sarcasm. He reached under the table and produced the yellow ball when his hand came back out.
“Played around with a few things, that is all.”
“For example,” he picked up each cup and put them together, placing one hand at the rim area and the other on the bottom of this stack. He presumably pressed the two ends together and the cups obeyed as if they were made of wet clay. Soon, both of his hands were clasped together. “Everything we perceive in our universe has something in common. Not the atom, nor matter,” He lifted one hand and in his other was another plastic ball, this time colored black like the cups were. “But energy.” He set the ball on the table and it lazily rolled towards me, forcing me to catch it. It felt unnaturally heavy.
As dumbfounded as I was by this, I was more perplexed at just who this man was and what he wanted from me.
“Who are you?” I asked, lowering my brows. He looked a little surprised.
“Odd. Usually you ask how I did that little stunt.”
“What?” The man bowed again in an exaggerated fashion and began walking back towards where he entered the car from. At first I was too confused to even tell my body to move, but just as he reached the door I threw myself out of my booth and started walking towards him briskly. “Wait! Just a second now!”
“I thought you would remember me, Mercer.” Were his final words as the door closed behind him. I tossed it aside seconds after to find the entirety of the next car as empty as a desert, one of the overhead lights flickering a little and giving the atmosphere an almost eery feeling. For the first time in awhile my blood ran cold.
That night gave me a large amount of different things to think over and sleep evaded me for hours. When I arose the next morning I felt as if I had just been run over by a bus. I didn’t know whether or not to tell Cyrus about the whole incident with the monorail operator from Hell, but as I lifted a heaping spoonful of oatmeal to my mouth in the dining car I decided it would probably be for the better to tell him after all. We tended to come across things similar on the weird scale all the time in the Guard and to someone as experienced as Cyrus, this might not come as a surprise. What did come as a surprise was when somebody took a seat next to me as I ate. I half expected it to be the strange man from yesterday, but instead it was a young woman in loose fitting black robe. Her was long and curly, a fiery orange and she bore into me with one of the most probing stairs I had ever seen. I was immediately reminded of Cyrus.
“Mercer Cedric, am I correct?” Her words just felt like they belonged to someone who knew how to use their authority.
“That would be me.” I put my attention back to my meal, if only to avoid her gaze, but her face remained on the edge of my peripheral.
“You were easier to find than I thought, which is a problem in itself. Anyways, my name is Ariana and I am to be your bodyguard for the following expedition.”
“So I need a bodyguard now?” I grumbled, putting another spoonful of the hot, bittersweet food into my mouth. To be honest I anticipated Cyrus doing something along these lines, just not appointing someone like this ‘Ariana’ to do the job. Her skin looked pale, like she only went outdoors a couple of times a week at most. Not the most encouraging sight.
“It would seem so. If what we will be going up against is anything as effective as the Shapeshifters, we’re going to be taking a lot of casualties. You should consider yourself fortunate to have a bodyguard.”
“Manage pretty fine on my own.”
Ariana removed a chocolate bar from one of the pockets of her robe and began unwrapping it. “Oh, I’m sure you do. I’ll try not to get in your way, m’lord.”
Somehow I thought she was being a little disingenuous.
“And just who are you? Who could be strong enough to serve as a bodyguard to a member of the Guard?”
“Here, I’ll elaborate on what I said,” She almost growled. “My name is Ariana Arinjii, apprentice to Cyrus Fiendel of Regiment 9.”
The silver spoon froze halfway to my mouth, which remained open now for a different reason. It felt like she somehow found a way to verbally punch me in the face.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-.” I soon found my head facing slightly more left than it had been as the palm of her hand collided with the side of my face. It felt like I had stung by twenty bees.
“Cyrus said to slap you every time you apologized without due reason.” She said with a happy grin and a twinkle in her olive eyes. I pressed my hand against the point of impact and hissed from the pain.
“How is it even possible to slap someone that bloody hard?” I said this more to myself than her, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“I could demonstrate how.”
“Please don’t demonstrate how, thank you.”
Ariana took a bite of her chocolate bar and didn’t bother swallowing before speaking. “There you go, learning how to stand up for yourself already! We just love learning new things in the Guard, now don’t we?” She chuckled, clearly satisfied with herself.
“Monorail 115 will be arriving in Lankerton N2 in five minutes. Please remain seated for the full duration of the braking process. Thank you for using Tinkerson Monorail Systems and have a great: morning.” A cool and noticeably robotic feminine voice spoke from one of the ceiling-mounted loudspeakers, a sharp beep following it.
“I’ll be meeting you on the ground, buddy.” Ariana said, removing herself from her seat with a brief grin and a sarcastic wave, continuing to whittle down on her chocolate as she walked down the center of the car, clearly disobeying what the loudspeaker just said. I sighed and shook my head, trying to finish what remained of my breakfast before we arrived.
If you’ve never been on a monorail before, I’ll try and describe what the ending stretch is like. You essentially feel like you’re being pushed or pulled forwards even though everything around you remains static, including your body. The entire sensation of stopping is eliminated by means of an artificial gravity system that increases it so much that anyone standing up would be brought to their knees by the force, while ensuring that no objects or people will slide around. What struck me as the most defining giveaway of Ariana’s strength was how she was able to continue walking upright without a single change in pace. That would require massive amounts of strength to accomplish.
I was still mainly focusing on both my food and my burning cheek as we came to a halt, however. The apprentice of a Regimental Commander should always be considered extremely powerful, so I was pretty unsurprised by Ariana’s display.
“Monorail 115 has now arrived at Lankerton N2. You may now disembark. Thank you again for choosing Tinkerson Monorail Systems.” The voice spoke again. Other members of the Guard emerged from their seats, crowding the center stretch of the car so much I had no room to get out. When I eventually did, my first stop was the car where we had placed the majority of our weapons. Other Guardsmen had a similar idea, sifting through the barrels of different antimatter muskets and flintlocks or even some automatics and explosives. There were containers housing the various rounds available for the muskets and flintlocks and I took a variety of them to go with my own trusty gun. I also took a few Stims with me, syringes filled with normally illegal chemicals that could massively enhance the abilities of users. You were only allowed to take a maximum of three in any combination, as they were highly toxic when used in excess in addition to being absurdly difficult to produce.
After preparing my arsenal I stepped onto the cold grey cobblestone of the monorail station to find a vast urban jungle surrounding me, created primarily from the same stone used to pave the roads. The buildings ranged from ancient to old to brand new, all adding up to that rustic seatown feel, complete with the repetitious calls of the seagulls exploring the baby blue skies above. There was hardly a cloud in sight here, a giant shift in atmosphere from the depressing town we had visited before, and also a welcome one. Carriages pulled by giant brass, steampunk horses lugged various goods across the nearby streets, with men in fine attire guiding them. A great mix of people also covered the street, heading in both directions. It amazed me that each of these people had somewhere to go at the same time, all adding up to create the great cityscape that lay before my eyes. Most were wearing little more than rags, with thick layers of soot and coal dust covering their faces, indicative of the failing economy of the Mire.
The station looked like it had been hardly touched for decades, with ancient whale-oil fueled lampposts surrounding the warmth sucking cobbled ticket houses and customs building like how a cornfield would surround a farm. I could hear the garbled din of the crowds through the hissing of the monorail behind me. Steam billowed into the air around us in thin, yet covering, sheets, and I wanted nothing more than to dive in and explore the city. I only got the opportunity to do so some time later in my life, unfortunately.
People passed us interested, sometimes cold glances from the roads as we all gathered into a formation comprised of three giant lines, each containing some fifteen men, arms at our sides and heads facing forwards as we awaited Cyrus. Doing so in the confines of the monorail station made it a little cramped, but in the end we managed to play the role of toy soldiers quite well. Both Cyrus and Ariana at last emerged from the monorail after a grueling three minutes of standing as stiff as a board, making their way to the front of the out-of-place looking gathering and standing similarly. I frowned as Ariana picked me out of the crowd after a few seconds of standing still, her eyes widening and an exaggerated grin spreading across her freckled face. I had the nagging assumption that this was going to be a long day.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Guard, I would like to congratulate you all for your performance during the previous mission,” Cyrus called over the swathes of noises that permeated the city, voice loud enough to be heard from the streets nearby. “As usual, I’m sure you’ll find your pay most satisfactory, but our operation in not yet concluded. Today we will be searching for the supposed ‘mayor’ of Hallow Oaks; Harvey Green, and I have reason to believe that he is still within the walls of this particular city. And as per usual, this will be a largely independent operation, and you are authorized to use any force you deem necessary as long as it does not result in too much, errm, collateral damage. In case you were wondering, the reason I’m saying this is because one of us ended up more or less murdering someone during our previous outing in an interrogation.”
The Vampire commander took a moment to glare at someone in the crowd. I didn’t actually see this person, but Cyrus did. Rest assured he wasn’t very happy. Cyrus said, “Once we manage to locate this mayor, bring him to me and we can all head home. Happy ending. Oh, and I have already spoken with Zane Morgan and his associate has agreed to allow us control over the local Enforcers in case that is necessary, and please keep in mind that the city is in lockdown and not everyone will be in a happy mood. And with that, I wish you all happy hunting. Let’s get this done and head home.”
The man nodded and began speaking to Ariana as the Guard dispersed, most splitting into separate groups that generally consisted of people who knew each other well. And since I was a person who didn’t exactly know anyone too well at all, I just awkwardly wandered towards Cyrus and Ariana, my mind wondering how Cyrus knew that this ‘mayor’ was still in the city, and just how we would find him amongst all these people. There was also the matter of the person who had killed somebody, which was unfortunately a fairly common occurrence. Many in the Guard, despite having the physical and Cambrian skills to fulfill their duties, lacked the mental fortitude to stay stable after seeing such grotesque creatures and the constant killing that came with membership. I had struggled with it before, but most eventually grew used to it somehow. Killing somehow came naturally, and I never really knew what kind of person that made me into by extension. I still don’t know now.
Cyrus turned from his assistant to face me. “So glad you could join us, Mercer,” He extended one of the pale hands protruding from the navy cufflink of his waistcoat and I shook it. It felt as if I had dipped my hand into arctic water, something so cold it could end up giving you frostbite with prolonged exposure. They said you could judge the Cambrian strength of a Vampire based on how low the temperature of their skin was, and this became the moment in my life when I observed this rumour as gospel. I didn’t let my discomfort show physically, or at least I tried not to, but when he finally let go of my hand I felt more relief than I had in awhile as the warmth of the midday tropic sun began to spread throughout my now cherry red palm. “Now there are no guarantees, but I’ve uncovered a lead that would be most fitting for the strongest members of the Guard to tackle. That means you and I will get to spend some quality bonding time together, eh?”
“You’re not getting better at that.” Ariana said flatly.
“At what?” Cyrus asked in the higher pitched tone someone would use to counter an accusation… Well, I suppose this was an accusation to some degree.
“Oh please Ari, I’ll have you know that I have plenty of fine and respectable gentleman who are overjoyed to partake in many-.”
“Drinking buddies don’t count. You gotta see the world, watch a ball game or have an adventure with your friends! Don’t just sit around and get drunk with them all the time.”
In case this wasn’t evident already, I was beginning to feel a little out of place standing there, being what seemed the very definition of a third wheel. Cyrus’ eyes fell a little and a sobering expression came over him. One I never expected to see from a man as stoic as he.
“You and I both know I need to forget.”
“And you and I also know that there are better ways of doing that.”
“Hey, am I getting in the way of you two?” I cut in, hoping not to sound rude. Cyrus looked happy that I had done this. Apparently he was a little apprehensive about sharing his off-work life.
“Not at all, not at all,” He said, clearing his throat and folding his hands behind his back. “One of the cities’ Enforcers reported seeing some shady people hanging around in the Industrial district, near the Java Coffee warehouse. Now ordinarily this wouldn’t be all that important, but apparently they only started showing up after the Shapeshifter’s monorail arrived. I want you two to investigate the area and try and catch them in the act tonight. I will be speaking with Zane and trying to get some more information that could be of use to us.”
I nodded, understanding what I should do but still eager to tell Cyrus about the strange German-sounding man from the previous night. Unfortunately for me, Ariana spoke first.
“How do you know it’s not a coincidence?”
“I don’t,” Admitted Cyrus. “But we’re short on leads. I think the sooner we manage to bring this whole thing down the better, so I expect you two will get along and come up with something.”
“Well if it means anything, I’ve already found something a little suspicious going on,” I managed to squeeze in. “There was this man, a monorail worker, who confronted me last night. He did things I never thought possible, like turning cups into a ball by just squeezing his palms, or having a similar ball fall straight through a table.”
Both Cyrus and Ari appeared unconvinced by my testimony so far.
“So a magician? Like a magic trick? Or did he use some kind of Cambrian spell?” Cyrus questioned me, one sharp brow raised. I shook my head.
“No, this was no ordinary feat. It looked physically impossible, like some kind of illusion, but I could feel the object he had transformed within my two hands. He said something about energy, and that I should remember him.” For the briefest of moments I could have sworn that I saw a very slight hint of worry, of bewilderment, on Cyrus’ face. It was there for less than a second, but I still caught it.
“And are there any other defining attributes this fellow possessed?” He tried his best to sound skeptical, but I could just about tell that he already knew what I was talking about.
“He seemed to disappear into thin air as soon as he stepped through a door, and his voice sounded like how a German Humana would speak.”
“Do you think that could b-.” Cyrus put up a hand, signalling Ariana to stop speaking, while keeping his eyes locked firmly on mine. They had never looked more cold, more deathly serious than they did now. There were few things that could unnerve a member of the Guard, but a gaze such as this was one of them.
“You will not say a thing about what you saw to anyone else, am I clear?”
Cyrus turned to Ariana. “And you will not say another word about this to him, am I clear?” He hissed.
“Yes sir.” She kept a cooler face than me, that much I knew. Cyrus breathed a heavy sigh and relaxed his facial muscles. I think the whole atmosphere, even the air around us, seemed to relax.
“Listen, I’m in the dark as much as you are right now. People are disappearing in the north and-,” He took a deep breath, placing his hands on his hips and turning aside, “We’ll figure it out. For now, let’s finish this.”
After our conversation with the Commander, Ariana and I went our separate ways, promising to meet by the warehouse that night. For the most part, things were uneventful and I had the rest of the day to do what I pleased. For the first time in awhile I felt a sense of genuine freedom as I walked through the city streets, observing the great wooden galleons with gleaming new steam powered motors docked in the bay, even getting a chance to see some of the powerful new Ironclads with their devastating cannons resting like bears in dens. The food in Nation 2 was truly something to behold, based upon what I assumed to be American ones like hamburgers and pizza. Pizza was American, right? Either way I’m sure I gained a few pounds that day, but in the end it was totally worth it.
In the waning hours of that day I watched as the sun began to sink below the ocean waves, salt-laced air licking at my nostrils as I stood upon the waterlogged oak of the boardwalk. It felt different, truly different. I felt at long last like I was going on an adventure. Our previous missions had never been so close together or taken us to the different ends of the globe like this one had so far, and this was a change that made me happy, boosting my morale. I feared for the ones up north, I feared for the Empire, the economy and even the fate of the world itself. But now there was only the shrill cries of gulls and the gentle lapping of the waves. Peace.
Cyrus, of course, had given us plenty of information on when and where we should be at the Java warehouse that night. There was a curfew in place that night early, allowing me to get to my destination through the empty streets all the easier as other Guardsmen patrolled the area. I could tell where the warehouse was based solely on the mural on its side, portraying a smiling, colorfully painted blonde woman holding a bottle of the odd Earthly beverage known as ‘coffee’ and showing a thumbs up. It had been a huge success all throughout the world as beans were important from the far off world and cultivated, allowing for two great corporations to arise: Java and Darke. This building housed a good deal of the beverage from what I was told, and as I approached it I couldn’t help but think how little it would matter if a bottle or two were to, say, disappear.
I could just barely make out the slim figure Ariana presented standing at the edge of one of the streets leading into the square the building was situated within. For my own sake I prayed I wasn’t late. The tall, primarily old, buildings cast long shadows on the cobbles from what little remained of the dying sun, painting a picturesque image out of the various novelty shops, the hay-covered pavement and the emptiness around us. I walked to the side of Cyrus’ apprentice but she continued staring at the warehouse.
“Good, you’re here,” she said, only now turning to face me with considerable weight in her pupils. “Cyrus looked into the notes your recovered from that forsaken, blood-bathed city and must have related the men the mayor was talking to to the ones showing up here. I’m pretty certain this is a viable lead, and that whatever we meet tonight will be dangerous. Even for me, even for you.”
I made sure to look as understanding as possible. “Think I caught that from when we were almost all wiped out by a Shapeshifter.”
She took a few steps forward and a gathering of crows fled into the air, feathers falling to the ground like snow. The building looked more foreboding at night-like anything could be lurking within.
“Lucky for us, we’ll be getting some help.” Ariana said. Then, from right in front of me, the air started to shimmer and distort, like somebody was holding a transparent sheet of plastic before me. I stepped back, instinctively letting my hand fall to my flintlock despite my associate’s previous sentence. A rather tall man began to appear in front of me, dressed in a tattered, cream colored trench coat, khakis, a white business suit and a scarlet colored tie. A brown trilby was atop his head, poorly managing to conceal the tell tale traces of grey hair leaking down from it and onto his chiseled, tan face.
“I’m a bit shy.” He spoke in a gruff monotone, mouth a straight line. The look was immediately familiar to me, event though my knowledge of the other world was minimal: He was dressed like a member of the mob, from head to toe. He even spoke like one, like he was trying to intentionally mimic them.
“How did he do that?” I asked Ariana, still suspicious of this stranger.
“It’s the hat, pal,” The mysterious man answered for her. “Beckett made it for me; a true worka’ art.”
“It can turn you invisible?”
“Can do a whole lot more’n that. But for now, let’s cut to the chase,” He took a cigar from his pocket and a lighter from the other, nonchalantly striking it up and exhaling a cloud of acrid smoke towards me and Ariana. “My name’s Gavin Arno, Commander of Regiment 5. Let me tell ya, there’s never a dull moment in this here city. and the streets are abuzz about some new group in from outta town. They call em The Broken Circle, some kind of cult that worships that thing up there.” He gestured with his cigar to one of the two moons; the one that had been broken in two for as long as anyone could remember. “Now I’ve got a talent for sneaking around, but what I want you two to do is investigate what they’re doing in that building. I’m guessin’ it’s nothing good.”
The appearance of another Commander would have ordinarily overwhelmed me, but the occurrences of the past few days had drastically reduced my reaction.
“And just what are you doing here? This is Nation 2.”
He gave an amused grunt. “C’mon, you know Zane. Not exactly the, errm, sneaky type with that freakin’ axe of his. This is a sensitive operation here, you all know it.
Somehow, Ariana’s look made me feel more at ease. “Gavin will be helping us just in case we run into trouble. For whatever reason, Cyrus really really wants you alive.”
“Alright.” I said, willing to get along with the man as long as he proved trustworthy. He was a Commander, after all, but in the past Commanders had still done some very shady things in spite of their positions. Beckett in particular was rumored to conduct experiments using living subjects- something forbidden strictly by Imperial law. Gavin smiled, chomping down a little on his cigar and producing a pack of cards.
“Ever heard of Blackjack?”
The hours seemed to fly by in his company, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by his outgoing, purposefully overconfident personality. He showed both me and Ariana how to play within the shadowy confines of an alleyway as we awaited some sign of activity near the warehouse. If no one appeared, we agreed to investigate the place anyways, so time was of little importance. Out of the three I was by far the worst, but Gavin was a seasoned professional and Ariana, while not quite as skilled, must have played a few games in the past herself.
As fate would have it, just as I was almost certain to win a game, a group of figures dressed in black suits and shades emerged from multiple roads all at once, as if purposefully timed. They walked almost in unison, stiff and jerky, meeting in the front of the warehouse in a big circle. It amazed me that they would even show up during a lockdown like this. I felt the nagging suspicion they wanted to be observed.
“What do we do now?” I whispered, Gavin picking up the cards and arranging them into a neat deck.
“We wait, then follow,” The commander said. “Ya gotta have patience. Patience is the key.” And we indeed waited as they spoke for what seemed like a half hour. At long last, the group somehow managed to break open the locked door and enter the building single file. As soon as they had done this, Gavin motioned for us to move and we advanced towards where the strangers were standing.
They had closed the door, that much was for certain. Even though it looked old and worn, what struck me as odd was that there was no lock on the front. It must have been locked from the inside.
“Now be quiet. Once inside I’ll be off doing my own thing, you two find out what they’re up to.” Said Gavin.
“Got it.” Ariana answered with obedience that seemed foreign to somebody like her. Gavin approached the door and placed his palm to it, uttering a few short words in the Cambrian language. Perhaps the most strange and fascinating thing about what occurred next was how noiseless it was as the hinge shook and gave way, causing the door to lazily swing open to reveal a dark interior. Gavin then removed something strapped to his back: what looked to be a modified Thompson machine gun, complete with drum and all. There was a reason these weapons were less commonly used in the Mire. A reason I will explain in a moment, but these kinds of guns were typically used by mercenaries with a low budget. A modified human weapon, however, could perhaps prove more effective than a musket or flintlock. To Gavin’s credit he had officially nailed that authentic gangster look.
“Good luck you two.” With that, he touched the top of his hat and vanished right before us. It was like nothing was there at all, in fact, but upon listening closely I could still hear his dress shoes hitting the ground and disappearing farther within the building.
Ariana looked to me sternly.
“I’ve heard you’re stronger than the average Guardsman. Maybe even a little smarter. Prove it.”
“Well you better get a new informant cause that’s a load of crap.”
“Funny. Well, better kill you off quickly, then. You go first.”
I internally sighed, knowing right away protesting would be a poor idea. I stepped into the warehouse cautiously, trying as hard as I could to make as little noise as possible, but there was only so much you could do in a pair of worn combat boots and a waistcoat. Ariana, on the other hand, was basically wearing a black dress and sandals and had probably trained a good portion of her life in order to just walk correctly. The interior of the building immediately revealed multiple rows of different crates, likely brought in by trade ships from across the world. They were stacked on top of each other nearly halfway to the ceiling that must have easily been a hundred feet above us. It sported fans that lazily rotated on little poles. It stumped me how they even managed to install them so high up.
The ivory sheen of moonlight shone from the glass windows above, serving as the only illumination and creating an appropriately eerie atmosphere as we progressed further, unsure of where the gang had gone.
“Any idea what to do now?” I hissed to Ariana.
“Not a clue. Didn’t expect this.” She answered nonchalantly.
“You know, if we would have looked over the place earlier we could have anticipated this.”
“Well maybe I’m a bit lazy.” She huffed indignantly, earning a laboured groan from me.
“Sein-Tei-Futpruull.” I uttered, and just like that the outlines of footprints before me began glowing a bright yellow. There were obviously many from workers and the like, but this combination of Words allowed me to only see the recent ones clearest. It appeared Gavin wandered off towards the rightmost rows of crates while about ten pairs wandered off towards the second row from where they started. “This way.” I motioned for the apprentice to follow me towards where the prints led, hoping to locate where they ended as quickly as possible, as I could feel my energy being consumed every second I kept the spell up.
“Impressive. Can’t say I know how to use those Words.” She seemed more to admit this than anything, but I took the compliment anyways, as it was probably the most I’d ever get out of the young woman.
The prints led to a gap within the row to our left that, on first inspection, appeared to be empty. I ended the spell and fell to my hands and knees, placing the side of my head against the cold concrete and seeing a very small height difference ahead of me.
“Look what we have here.” I said, removing my serrated combat knife from my side and wedging it between the miniscule gap. Upon applying enough leverage, what looked to be a trapdoor opened to reveal a flight of stairs leading into total darkness. I flipped the trapdoor on itself with my hands and returned my knife to its leather sheath. “Alright, your turn. Ladies first.” I was surprised to hear nervous laughter coming from Ariana, turning to see a halfhearted smile as an addition.
“Nice try, Mercer, you can go in first… Again.”
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark.”
“I’m not afraid of it!” She protested. “Just… Cautious.”
“How the hell did you become Cyrus’ apprentice with such a childish fear as that?” I was more than a little bothered that the person in charge of watching my back was afraid of something so common as the dark. Especially since she was a member of the Guard.
“Because I fight well, that’s how. Look, can we just get this over with?”
I shook my head and stepped into the murky abyss, foot making a creaking sound as it hit the first step. These stairs must have been ancient, perhaps as old as the building itself. Descending them took a fair amount of time, as we couldn’t afford to make much noise, and they led very far underground, to the point the temperature was noticeably cooler.
Soon there was no light at all. Ariana fixed that.
“Pir.” She said, and shadows began dancing on the cold stone, past the tendrils of warm orange originating from what I discovered was a small flame resting on Ari’s finger. Normally I would have condemned this action, but that light was the only thing allowing any kind of vision at all now. The ‘ceiling’ turned out to be very low, to the point where my hair was just about touching it, and the stairs ended in a small room cut haphazardly from the stone, with a closed door made of rotting wood and secured by an iron padlock. It was then, in the murky darkness of this odd subterranean dungeon, that I felt something terrible was behind that door. Something that shouldn’t be allowed to see the light of day. Something horrifying. Ariana looked like she felt it to. I could tell by the suddenly concerned look in her eyes as I glanced back.
“So what do we do now?” I asked her, not expecting a good answer. I wasn’t disappointed.
“I guess we go through that door.” She seemed hesitant to say this.
“Or we could just blow up the whole passage and bury whoever those guys are inside here. We could always do that.”
“The problem is that we don’t know whether these weirdos are innocent or not, plus there could be other ways out. What then?”
I sighed. “Yeah, good point.”
“I’ll get the door.”
She pressed the hand not currently producing a flame to the lock and it lit up a cherry red, soon hissing in protest before falling apart into molten goo and forming a glowing white puddle on the ground, which started to cool quickly and become a pitch black color. This was my first clue as to her power. And from it I could tell I wouldn’t want her palm touching me in a fight. She looked about ready to open the door herself, but instead I stepped up and did it for her. What awaited us in that room was something straight out of a horror movie.
This time, there were lightbulbs illuminating the cool, dingy room from the wooden ceiling. This time, the same ten men who had entered the building were arranged in a neat row, all facing towards us as still as toy soldiers. From here they all looked identical, with no differentiating features whatsoever. It sent a chill down my spine as I observed them, a perfectly timed flickering of the lights serving to further amplify the fear factor. There were tables and chairs arranged across the room in a disorderly way, like this was once a storage room for odds and ends. In fact, this was definitely the case. There was no other reasonable explanation to why this kind of hidden room even existed. Was there? It was so big, after all, big enough to have a large door in the back. A very large door, and a roof big enough to allow its presence.
“Hello, Mercer Cedric and Ariana Arinjii,” One of the men spoke. The voice didn’t fit in any way, however, the singsong and mocking tone of a small child rather than a full grown adult. “Two years ago we met one of you. We have kept a wary eye ever since. We are The Broken Circle.”
“The Broken Circle.”
They all said in unison, not moving anything but their mouths. I took out my flintlock and aimed it at the nearest one, one eye closed, alert.
“What do you want from me?” I barked, trying to let anger replace the adrenaline now coursing through my veins. “Who are you people?”
“We follow the Broken Man and await his coming. We are here to prepare his servants for the arrival.”
“What we want from you,” Another spoke. “Is your sight.”
I cocked back the hammer of my weapon, ensuring a shot would hit its mark. “Start making some sense.”
One of them started to convulse, different parts of his skin bulging and rippling in a grotesque manner as he transformed into a stout man in a suit and tie bearing the glimmering sterling silver star of a mayor. I knew which particular mayor he was supposed to be without even seeing him before.
“You know what we want as well as I.” The mayor spoke, tone far more fitting for one. Another began convulsing, this time becoming someone I remembered from the night of my first Shapeshifter encounter: The boy who met us at the end of the night.
“You could see them. You could see the eyes.”
“The eyes in the suitcase.”
“Everybody could see them.” I said, starting to panic as they began walking towards us. Ariana watched, seemingly ready to attack at a moment’s notice.
“No no, you could see the eyes, Mercer. By sight the curse is given…”
“…By blindness removed.”
“We knew you would come here. We made sure of it. For you will be the one to give it sight.”
Ariana looked at me through lowered brows.
“Is there something you haven’t been telling us? How could you see these eyes?”
“I-I didn’t think it would matter,” I made sure not to turn my attention away from the horrific figures standing before us. “It was never supposed to matter. It’s simply a genetic defe-.”
I jumped as their sudden, deafening scream assaulted my eardrums. I felt sweat beginning to form on me, overwhelming the cool surroundings.
“It is not a defect,” Spoke the mayor, face contorted in rage to the degree it looked inhuman, with a comically stretched mouth and leathery, wrinkled skin. “Your eyes, your sight is perfection. A rare perfection. One that must be harvested.”
“What are they talking about?” Ariana demanded this more than asked.
“Dammit… There’s no time to explain, these freaks must be killed.”
“I need to know.”
My conscience was forcing me to make a decision, prodding me like a farmer to his cattle. I felt indecisive, confused, maybe even afraid. This was a secret that I was not to tell. Not under any circumstances. My right pointer finger felt the grooved trigger of the flintlock, arched and feeling right at home. That trigger was screaming at me to pull it, to opt out of this situation. I obeyed.
A blinding flash lit up the room as an antimatter round flew from the gun’s barrel. These creatures were sure to have Fields, protective shields made from Cambria focused around the user. I put mine up as I fired, ready for an intense fight. Flintlock weapons were specially made to cut through this field, and in nearly all cases succeeded unless the target managed to focus enough energy in a single place to protect from the attack. There was a sharp hiss as my bullet hit mark on the boy, no, the Shapeshifter imitating the boy. For a brief moment a yellow, glass-like coating was visible as the projectile reached it, cutting right through and diving into the creature’s flesh with an impactful thud. Hot black blood sprayed outwards, as if a water balloon full of the stuff had exploded from within its chest.
It hissed in anguish, stumbling backwards and clutching the wound.
“YOU WILL SEE. THERE IS NO SANCTUARY.” It wretched as its allies began to charge my way, each transforming into the same horrible figure I had seen in the Ferego hotel: the true from of the Shapeshifter. Their claws were sharp, but the compounded, titanium-forged steel of the BlackGuard cutlass was sharper. This I knew for a fact.
I hurriedly returned my flintlock to its holster and drew my blade, the curved end a crescent moon of deadly metal, singing as it was drawn, longing to taste the blood of my foes. I readied it before me as they descended upon us, knowing there was no time to run back from where we had entered. There were so many, fangs long needles, skin deathly white. For the first time since I could remember I felt fear for my life.
“Pir-Blaen-Magnus!” Ariana shouted. For a second I couldn’t feel the searing heat licking my flesh, the cinders batting my eyes, but as spears of searing red fire flew through the air, just being in the vicinity stung. It hurt. It was so incredibly bright that my eyes were strained to see a thing as the creature’s skin began melting from their bones. As they were engulfed within an ocean of crimson flame, originating past the apprentices palm. There was a similar fire in her eyes as she watched them burn, as she watched the room char and blister in protest. It was as truly awe inspiring sight to behold, yet the kept coming. Their cries were of every tone, every wretched screech your mind could comprehend. Even through the tendrils of fire pushing them back they continued clawing their way forwards, like the demons of hell they were. I remember vividly the exposed bone and purple tissue I could see as a part of one of their faces turned to a gooey resin, melting and forming a pool on the ground near the feet. The exposed innards were charred black yet the creature continued onwards.
It had been over thirty seconds straight before Ariana stumbled forwards, the jets of fire at last ceasing to emerge from her hand. She breathed heavily, clearly exhausted from the amount of energy the spell had claimed from her. Smoke had enveloped the entirety of the room now, my lungs straining for air as I inhaled the smell of ash, wood, and seared flesh on my way to help her to her feet. To my amazement and horror, only five of the creatures were felled by the attack, the rest, while blistered from claw to skull, lazily crept forwards, hissing weakly but angrily. Somehow their eyes hadn’t been incinerated, but I attributed this to them focusing their energy to protect that sensitive part of their ‘bodies’.
“Come on, we need to finish the rest of these bastards off.” I said, coughing as I breathed in more smoke. She rose back to her feet without my assistance, looking as strong as ever.
“That was just a little welcoming present.” She sounded weaker than she looked, however.
There were still five of them walking towards us. Walking, not running. But the primary cause for concern was the concentration of smoke in the air.
“Whik-Bli-Fung!” I pushed forward with my palm and a shockwave of wind flew through the innards of the room, powerful enough to divert a majority of the smoke to the back in a surreal and pitch black concentration. It seemed to stall the Shifters too, but that was not my primary intention. At least now we would have some time before the smoke began spreading outwards again. From my coat I removed a syringe filled with a glowing red liquid and relaxed the flow of Cambrian energy to my left arm, plunging the sharp needle through my skin and pressing the liquid into my body. It took a few seconds, but I felt weightless now, gifted with strength and speed normally unnatural to a mere man. I ran at the encroaching terrors, blade at my side, zigzagging to prove a more difficult target to hit. It was so easy now, my stamina was without end.
With ease I leapt two full meters into the air and spun my body with my blade, striking the side of one of the creature’s necks and taking the head clean off with ease before it could even react. The Fields surrounding them had been weakened immensely by Ariana’s fire and now was the opportunity to strike, before they had an opportunity to regain their energy. By the looks of it, they regained their energy quickly, as one was already upon me as I landed, its claw hissing as it grazed my own Field. If it wasn’t there it would have been a very deep wound. More speed. I needed more.
“Fli!” There was nothing heavier than a feather in my hand now. I brought my blade to bear with the Shapeshifter’s exposed torso once, twice, thrice all within a single second. The skin was brittle from the heat, crunching under the force of each swing and sending flakes of reddened flesh flying. By the time it brought its claw down again, three more hits had all but cut it in half and I had leapt away with the speed of a swallow. I was a machine, a dynamo of unstoppable power. I felt that power flow through me as I moved behind the Shifter in a blur, driving the tip of my sword through the nape of my opponent’s neck and out its mouth, partially shattering the skull.
Three more were upon me. I didn’t care. Another claw struck my field hard. I didn’t care, even as I felt my Cambrian energy fading each second. Only three remained now. I dodged left as one delivered a diagonal strike my way, two others flanking it. The claw missed and I took the opportunity to sever the arm from the attacker with a well placed hit to the joint. Another claw, going for my neck. I ducked underneath and gutted the thing, only to see no blood leaking from the wound.
And then weight returned to me, hitting me like a sack of bricks. I was slow, unresponsive. They seized my moment of weakness, cutting the last of my Field away, fragments of blue energy dispersing into the air as I was thrown aside like a ragdoll. Panicked, I rolled away as one pounced, looking to impale me with its devastating forked blades attached to its hand by what I presumed to be evolution. It just barely missed, wasting no time in cutting open the right side of me and bathing me in my own blood. Just one cut from the thing was absolutely devastating, and these creatures had almost managed to keep up with me while I was using Stims. I was in trouble and I knew it.
Luckily, just as the demon was about to eviscerate me, a glowing knife of some kind struck near its head, throwing it aside but seemingly only scratching its Field. I rose to my feet and looked over the torn sinew on my side. I could still fight, but it didn’t stop me from taking out another syringe, this time containing Revitalizer, and sticking it where the wound was to stop the bleeding. If I were to actually look, my flesh would be growing back almost instantly, but I was too busy readying my weapon for further attacks. Ariana, on the other hand, was conducting a strange and exotic dance allowing her to throw gruesome looking daggers at startling speeds, each time cloaking them in some kind of elemental energy. She pirouetted away from an enemy strike and used the speed to propel a blade through the weak eye socket of her opponent, slicing through the Field. She wasted no time in barraging the two that remained with more of them, but their Fields held strong.
One of the Shapeshifters began charging me, despite being struck by at least three of the razors, which were each travelling at some hundred miles and hour no doubt. Not even my sword could stop the sheer force as it threw me to the ground and positioned one of its talons near my eye.
“Now we take your sight. We take it.” Hissed the Shifter, plunging the appendage into my socket. Everything went black.
There was pain, that much I knew. A harsh and stinging pain that wished for me to not wake up again if it depended on it. I wanted to listen, to stay asleep without the pain. But there was something in the background calling to me.
“Maybe…. You’ll think… of me…
When you are all alone….
Maybe… the one who is waiting for you…
…Will prove… untrue… Then what will you do?”
Garbled. Distorted. I heard the beep of a heart monitor somewhere, but even as the noises grew louder I couldn’t make sense of it all. I couldn’t see a thing, but I heard muffled shouts in the distance and what sounded like the pops of fires.
“Maybe… You’ll sit and sigh…
Wishing… That I were near…”
There was a brief crackling static noise and the music ended abruptly.
“You just have to respect the classics, isn’t that right Mercer?” The voice was familiar. I knew who it belonged to but the haze was too strong. “Eighty four out of every hundred times that claw not only cuts out both your eyes, but hits your brain and kills you. Eighty four. You’re certainly a lucky Mercer, aren’t you?”
“Wait… My eyes? What happened to me? Who are you?”
“You don’t recognize me?” I heard the sound of some kind of liquid being poured. “Shame that is. Usually you recognize me immediately. Well I’ll be seeing you again, should fate still prove… Accommodating. It seems you have some very special eyes.” Footsteps began walking away from me into the unknown, leaving me with only the beep of the heart monitor, and the horrible screams of the people dying in the nearby streets, belonging to people dying because of something I wish I never saw. A horrible thing.