28 Jun A Story From the BlackGuard
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"A Story From the BlackGuard"Written by Justin Reinarz
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Estimated reading time — 139 minutes
The story I am about to tell you is rather confidential. Amongst the Mire, we are known as Regiment 9. Throughout Regiment 9, we are known as the ‘BlackGuards’, But in the small circle of men and women who actually make up the organization, we call ourselves ‘the exterminators’. Led by the infamous Commander, Cyrus Fiendel, we were essentially tasked with getting rid of all the pests that Emperor Dravis didn’t want to deal with.
Throughout all of training, I was told it was a most important task, keeping these beasts and terrible creatures contained to Ares and not to touch the enigmatic and far away planet known as ‘Earth’. This account will detail my experiences in this organization and how I eventually came to be the man you know me as today.
It was but two short months after I had joined the Guard and situated in the capital of Nation 9, it was a rather high class of living compared to the peasants below that Emperor Dravis had played a role in creating. Not to speak of politics, because I tend to ramble, but our new Emperor was hardly an apt ruler by most standards. Many were dissatisfied with the state the Mire, our continent, was in, and I have the distinct feeling Cyrus was one of them, as the first words he spoke to us that day were…
“Gentlemen and women, the Emperor once again requires us to take out his trash.”
We all stood in an orderly line within the hotel lobby, which had been cleared of all other people not too long ago. Our obsidian uniforms must have looked quite intimidating, covering our bodies from head to toe and being lined with all manner of different pockets, many of which contained a vast assortment of weaponry. These uniforms were fashioned primarily from hardened leather, strong enough to block shrapnel and perhaps a glancing blow from a blade while still allowing us the mobility that was so desperately needed when fighting monsters. A little uncomfortable to be worn at first, but you grew used to them with time.
Cyrus wore much different attire. He had a particular fondness for dark clothing, bearing an aged looking inky black cloak with odd brownish stripes up and down the torn up thing. Many of us theorized they were from the blood of his enemies, victory marks if you will. Indeed, it sounded a most sound assumption based on his reputation and appearance.
Our commander was immortal, you see. Not unkillable, no, but if he was let be for long enough, age could never claim him. For years and years, he had the same dark red eyes and needly black hair that covered his head. The eyes tended to bore into you even with a passing glance and there was most definitely a difference between standard red pupils and those Cyrus had, but none of us could really explain it. Besides this, the man had a flair for the formal. Black dress pants, black dress shoes, and pale white skin to conflict it all. Quite an eccentric looking person and to top it all off he was just shy of six-foot-one, perhaps twenty-five years of age being visible on him.
His tone was a harsh and authoritative one, fitting for someone in his position. None of us dared to disobey him or get on his notorious bad side.
“Right here in our capital lurks what is known as a ‘shapeshifter.’ We assume that it intends to reach the Scrye and your duty and mine is to find and stop it before it escapes the Ferego hotel.”
The Scrye, if you were unaware, was the entrance to Earth. An odd rift in time and space that had created a link between our worlds. There were many Scrye on Ares, and perhaps more on Earth, but cities tended to be built around them in order to make the implementation of Earthly technology a smoother process.
“Your mission will be to observe the scene and track down the creature. I advise you all keep on your toes, as intel suggests it is very capable of taking different forms,” he continued, pacing up and down the polished marble below. “I will also warn you that the scene in question is quite disturbing, but I trust you are prepared to see such a thing. With that in mind, you are now free to operate within proper protocol limits. If you wish to speak with me, I will be having a chat with the owner of the Ferego. Dismissed.”
We all raised an obedient salute and scattered after this. My hand immediately fell to my flintlock to calm my nerves. Not just an ordinary Anti-Cambria flintlock, but an exquisite work of Imperial craftsmanship. It was furnished a dull grey from polished Golenwood, and bore golden steel at the muzzle, trigger and hammer areas. The weapon fired silver ammunition, as opposed to the standard ice, fire, acid and regular shot of Regimental flintlocks. Quite effective against monsters. We were also issued brilliant sabres which bore a thin coating of silver above the steel. The handle of mine had a spiraling golden grip and rounded handguard. Both of these weapons were designed more to fell creatures as opposed to a fellow man, but we were also issued a selection of grenades and knives just in case we ran into some pesky humans on the way.
In our missions, we most often utilized our knowledge of the Cambrian language to win the day. Enlisting in the BlackGuard meant going through extensive courses to learn the essential words, but they ended up being about as helpful as advertised. A burst of speed, a blast of fire, or a protective barrier were often far more useful than the pistol or sabre. But even with all this in our arsenal, what we faced that night was far more terrifying and dangerous than we could ever have imagined. While most monsters were primal and animalistic, shapeshifters were one of the most intelligent… And deadly.
People soon began making their way out the automatic doors at the entrance. This also included me, of course, reassured by the flintlock my left hand grasped. It was quite muggy that evening. Nation 9 is a semi-tropical one, you see, and this kind of weather I had come to expect from the outdoors. Palmettos and palm trees had been planted outside to provide a greater sense of that slight tropical atmosphere to those who vacationed here in their spare time, coming from rich brown soil. I always thought that many places on Earth looked quite the same, but we have our differences, of course.
I had gotten to know a few people on the BlackGuard well, and one of these included a rather chubby fellow with a bald head named ‘Sledge’. Or at least nicknamed that, since nobody actually knew his real name. Sledge was a blunt person in a conversation, but had a sort of charisma about him that made his rashness bearable. I had originally met the man during training, and we became fast friends after, me and him, and I soon discerned that he was from a family of bakers in the countryside who had sent him to the BlackGuard in order to rake in the extra money needed to survive out there.
He never really complained about it, and from what I saw he enjoyed killing monsters. It may sound quite sadistic, but I assure you that there is a sort of primitive joy to destroying the things you had nightmares of. The BlackGuard tended to thrive on this joy as a means of moral and it worked, for the most part. Sledge began walking in sync with me on the pavement, keeping his face in front of him as he spoke.
“I’d say it’s best to stay together,” he said in his deep voice. “Shapeshifters are not to be trifled with one by one.”
I nodded in agreement, eyes gazing past the small street and taking in a most marvelous looking establishment.
A warm glow came from within the multitude of windows and the building itself had been made from a mixture of golden decorations and marble. A lavish hotel, especially compared to the one we had stayed in. The Regimental army lurked on the outside, having set up a sort of blockade around all corners of the building. They held muskets, flintlocks, and sabres and seemed to be on edge for whatever reason. I suppose their bright blue uniforms would make them easier targets to prey upon, though. Cyrus seemed to be lingering back for now, but he was known to get wherever he wanted to quite quickly, so I did not fret.
“It’s a real mess in there, folks,” a man in a black cap told us, scratching behind his neck uncomfortably. He was the unit leader, so both me and Sledge thought it appropriate to begin our investigation with him.
“Who was the one who was murdered?” I asked, trying to sound as official as possible.
“A politician named Lauren Welsche. She had been traveling about the Nation for some time now, campaigning for a tax reduction for the lower class.”
I had pulled out a small notebook and clicked my pen open. Once the information had been recorded, I moved on.
“Cause of death?”
“Probably either from being torn apart or impalement through the left eye. Take your pick.”
A little fear arose in me as I jotted this down. I thanked the man and walked past the barricade of soldiers who were present, along with Sledge, who had remained silent during the previous conversation.
From my previous briefing, I knew that everyone staying in the inn was forced to stay there for the investigation. A smart move in most cases, but with a shapeshifter on the loose? A little dangerous. I drew my sword with a metallic ring, and kept it at my side close at hand, just in case. The doors were rotating ones this time and not like the electric ones in the other hotel. They were coated in golden metal that I’m quite certain was not actual gold and had a window-like portion on them as well. As the two of us passed through them, we both stopped to take in the beauty of the lobby before us. The carpet was a crimson red, and the walls made from the finest lavender materials I had seen in a long time. A miniature waterfall was mounted a little further in, and poured an endless supply of the liquid while being attached to what I now refer to as the ‘east wall’. There was plenty of black leather furniture, such as couches and seats that sat towards the west hall, opposite a small fireplace.
Directly in front of us was the booking section, complete with a dark marble bar table and wooden key slots. A paranoid-looking man with sweat running down his face stood behind this, and seemed to be infinitely more comfortable when he saw us walking towards him. Other members of the Guard were also questioning people outside or spreading out through the lobby, but Sledge and I were the first ones to reach the man at the counter.
“Thank the Lord and Lady!” he exclaimed in what a resident of Earth may call a ‘French’ accent.
“You’re safe now, my good man. I will need you to answer a few questions, however,” I responded casually, to be met by vigorous nods.
“Yes, sir. Whatever it is you want to ask me?”
“First off, where did the killing take place?”
“Room 135,” he responded in a suddenly subdued manner, “I saw the thing…”
“What did it look like?”
The worker looked from left to right quickly, as if he was afraid of being watched, but soon spoke.
“It is a horrible creature… White skin. Very white. But paler than normal white. Its eyes were massive and completely black.”
He nodded again.
“More than six feet tall. Thin. It had a backbone that acted as a tail, and three taloned claws. The teeth were needles, sirs, but drenched in blood. You must kill it!”
He plead desperately. Sledge and I looked at each other briefly, and I’m quite sure we both had the same look of slight worry on our faces. Regardless, we had both fought other creatures and for all we knew, this one was just another target.
“Trust me,” Sledge started. “We’ll kill it dead.”
The trip to room 135 was an uneventful one. The hallways had the same red velvet carpet and lavender walls, with lamps lighting the way through them. Oddly enough, the air had quite a musty smell to it that made me cringe in displeasure.
“How could such a well kept place smell so vile?” I thought out loud.
“I’d say because someone was murdered, but yeah. It has a pretty ‘oldish’ scent to it,” Sledge agreed in a monotone. Thankfully, the death had occurred upon the first floor, so we were able to steer clear of the elevator. When dealing with a shapeshifter, they would probably be quite dangerous locations.
The room was appropriately marked by a dark red splatter of crimson that had bled into the similar colored carpet. No pun intended there. A mahogany door was ajar, and the trail of blood led into the room in question. The two of us only hesitated long enough to ready our weapons, and entered the room using our training methods.
One of us stayed towards the back with a drawn flintlock, while the other either bashed down the door or simply entered, a sabre in hand. This all was done smoothly, and with two people was easy to execute. The blood continued for some distance, and led to the sprawled out corpse of a middle-aged woman. A look of terror was across her face and blood took up a good portion of it now… leaking from her left eye. The room around her looked pretty standard and as lavish as one could imagine a lavish room to appear. Blood had been thrown everywhere, so clearly this beast didn’t mind making messy kills.
“Multiple chest punctures. She probably was still alive when the eye was hit, though.”
Sledge said, coming from behind me and stooping over the lifeless body. I quickly prepared my Cambrian knowledge and uttered a spell to aid the investigation.
Those two words were strong enough a combination to get the job done. ‘Spei’ meaning ‘see’ and ‘Luk’ meaning ‘all’. I put my palm out before me, and a yellow tinted dusty wave fell across the body like fog from a fog machine rolling over terrain. As the dust cleared, a few choice bits glowed a bright red. I felt a little chill as some of my life energy left me in exchange for the spell, but two words was a trifling matter.
The first thing I noticed was a silver locket that was being clutched in the woman’s right hand. I removed it and opened it up, knowing fingerprints of a shapeshifter were hardly useful.
“Seems like she was a married woman,” I said with a frown upon my face, “why would a shapeshifter be after her?”
“Its goal is to reach the Scrye,” replied Sledge. “At least that was what we were told. This woman must have been preventing it from getting there.”
The picture of her husband was a little blurry, and in black and white. I put the locket in my pocket and moved to the next glowing object, which was a piece of paper a few feet away. I began reading it and quickly found the ink was faded and paper even more so. Astonishingly, it appeared about a hundred years old.
“By sight the curse is given. By blindness removed.”
Cryptic to say the least and neither Sledge nor I knew quite what to think of it.
“Keep searching for clues, I’ll take these two to the investigator in the meantime and see if we can get some more info,” he said.
“That would be a most terrible idea,” I started, shaking my head. “We need to be together at all times when dealing with something like this.”
“Before I enter, the first thing I’ll say will be ‘Mayflower.’ That way you’ll know it’s me.”
Looking back, I should have stopped him. But at the time, I felt that his plan was simple and effective. There are things you just can’t account for, I suppose. I handed over the two artifacts and resumed my search. My eyes fell upon a purse, also glowing red and upon opening it up I found there was only one item inside: a flintlock pistol of poor design, with wood that was rough to the touch and partially rusted metal components. I turned the weapon over in my hands and looked through the purse again only to find nothing. Was the gun loaded? I pulled back the metal slider on the side and found an odd bullet lodged within the chamber. Most flintlock bullets were color-coded, red being incendiary, whitish blue being ice, green being acid, and black a regular bullet. This one was a transparent yellow color in everywhere but the rear, which was still yellow but not see-through. Upon closer inspection, an orange tinted liquid bubbled within the upper end incessantly. What could that possibly be?
Needless to say, I also pocketed this and just as I was about to do likewise with the pistol I heard the familiar voice of Sledge just outside.
I opened the door, half expecting to see some kind of beast, but to my relief, all I saw was the face of my comrade. “Find anything else?”
“Yes. This sorry pistol and a-”
“Say no more, I’ll take this back to the investigator and you can tell me the rest when I get back.”
He snatched the weapon from my hands quite quickly and I couldn’t help but think it rude that he would do such a thing. I made my displeasure known with a sour face, but Sledge tended to do these kinds of things regularly so it was hardly an unnatural occurrence.
As Sledge left, the door slammed shut behind him rather violently. Was he angry at me or something? I sure hoped not and tried thinking of what I could have possibly done in order to upset him like this. But no sooner had these thoughts entered my head, when I heard his voice once again just thirty seconds later.
I opened the door and allowed him in again. Sledge sighed, leaning against the wall beside the door frame.
“They’re analyzing the locket and note. It’ll be about half an hour. People are splitting into groups now, and we’re in charge of collecting clues, I guess.”
He didn’t sound put off at all and I raised a suspicious eyebrow.
“You forgot to take this bullet with you,” I said, holding it out to him between my thumb and pointer finger.
“Where did you find that?”
My look of bewilderment only increased.
A chill ran down my spine.
Needless to say, we both were quite rattled by what had happened. My blood ran cold and I fished for any excuse possible to get out of the room.
“Let’s uh… Let us talk to the man in the lobby again.”
Sledge readily agreed, and we departed within the minute. We both had weapons drawn as we made our way through the hallway and only relaxed when we re-entered it and found Cyrus speaking with a thin man in a suit and tie towards the center area. We were unsure of whether or not to interrupt their conversation, but eventually decided to do so upon finding an opportunity.
“And they expect me to give them money for a murder?! It is preposterous!” the hotel manager said, his voice tinged with annoyance.
“Shouldn’t be necessary. If our investigation doesn’t turn anything else up, no payment will be required,” Cyrus replied formally. I chose the brief pause after this to speak.
“We have investigated the murder, sir.”
The commander turned his whole body to look at us, face looking quite unamused.
Those two ruby orbs were like lasers. I quickly evaded making eye contact and replied, “Well… I believe we found the shapeshifter, sir.”
“He took something. A flintlock, sir.”
“Well, Sledge here was bringing some evidence in, and…”
“Very well. Resume your investigation, Mr. Cedric,” he interrupted, face briefly lightening up and turning back to the manager to resume his talk. Both Sledge and I slowly turned to look at each other and we both must have appeared terrified to be going back in so soon.
Cyrus clearly knew what was going on and since this was a training mission, he wouldn’t provide assistance unless absolutely necessary… Even if it meant our lives. A few other members of the Guard were skulking about the lobby and I began wondering if I should just try and do as they were without attempting to find the shapeshifter that had so recently paid me a visit.
“So what now?” asked Sledge, face returning to its normally firm and tough looking one. I rightly didn’t know, but decided to talk with the worker from before would be a decent idea.
I stated my plan to my companion, and we were off. But when we approached the counter, we found nobody there. Leaving where you were told to be during a BlackGuard investigation is a most terrible offense, and it also raised the question of how the good commander had not noticed his departure.
“Our options appear to be quite limited,” I began with concern probably written upon my countenance. “From now on we mustn’t leave each other.”
Perhaps I was stating the obvious, but I didn’t want to risk having another encounter with the creature again while it posed as my friend. That was for certain. At least we knew the general area the thing was in, and that was close by.
“How about we search for that guy? I think he knows more than he told us,” Sledge suggested with a shrug. Not having any other ideas in mind, I obliged and soon we were skulking through the hallways once again. I found it a little odd that out of the twenty Guardsmen who had been on this mission, I hadn’t been seeing too many of them around, but I assumed that was because they were searching through other floors. In about a half hour I was also thinking of seeing the results of the testing on the items I had found previously, hoping they would give us some more valuable hints later down the road.
As Sledge and I approached a staircase that led to the second floor, both of us stopped upon hearing an odd noise… A hollow noise that seemed to be coming from the very walls themselves. It was a rough scratching sound that paused every couple of seconds and then resumed in an almost methodical way. It only took place for about twenty seconds before ceasing permanently.
“What the devil…?”
I muttered. The two of us quickly turned our attention to this new development and began looking into finding a way to where the sound was coming from. From what I gathered, it was a little way into the wall and perhaps occurring from below… The basement. That was it.
Our short trip took us down a hallway opposite the staircase and soon we came upon a thin wooden door with a plaque reading ‘basement’ next to it. The door was locked, but I soon fixed this with a quick uttering.
I said, hand upon the doorknob. There was a click and the knob turned without protest afterwards. Out of the two of us, Sledge was stronger in a physical sense, but I was more able to use Cambria. Another chill ran down me upon the use of the spell, but I ignored it and began walking down a flight of stairs. Our weapons were drawn similarly to how they were before as we descended into a murky abyss and I couldn’t spy a light nearby. This forced me to utter yet another two words.
There was a brief flash, and the room was lit as it would be if proper lights had been installed apart from the solitary bulb that hung towards the center. I stumbled a little, the chill growing greater. My palms were beginning to get that feeling one experiences when awaking after sleeping on their arm.
I answered, adjusting myself and hoping I wouldn’t have to utilize any more Words tonight.
Our surroundings were all comprised of thick concrete. They were a dull grey, including the debris-laden ground beneath me. It was far colder down here as well and I’m quite sure it wasn’t because I had used three spells tonight. To our surprise, we weren’t alone here either.
“Hello!” the voice of an old woman rang out. Sledge and I traced the source to a figure standing stiffly just below the light bulb at the room’s center.
“Hello. We are looking for the source of a scratching noise, madam,” I replied before Sledge had his opportunity to make an insult in the form of a question. She looked us over, an unsettling grin on her wrinkly, warty face.
“Scratching? Back room. Is in back room hehe.”
Her hand pointed to her right and another door located there. We were both quite suspicious of this seemingly random old lady as we approached the door she told us of.
“Maintenance room. No touch.”
We nodded, keeping our eyes on her as Sledge opened the door. The old woman grunted and walked towards one on the opposite wall as if nothing happened.
The first thing I remember from entering this room was the unholy smell. It was vile, rank and frankly disgusting. In fact, it had a similar odor to the musty smell from before. Except stronger…
Mused Sledge, staring at something on the floor with wide eyes. I hesitated to gaze at whatever it was, but curiosity got the better of me. My eyes also widened as the corpse of the accented man from before appeared on the ground. A similar look of surprise was on his face, left eye once again being punctured and bearing nearly identical wounds when compared to the previous victim. So that explained where he had gone off to, at least, but the small amount of fear inside me was beginning to build upon itself.
The kill looked fresh, probably occurring just ten minutes prior to our arrival and it was likely that the scratching noise was his body being dragged there by someone… Or something. I was about to begin searching the room for further clues, when a deafening crack sounded from above. It was followed by muffled screams and the shuffling of feet.
More shots rang out and before I knew it, Sledge and I were sprinting towards the staircase and past the oblivious old woman who was still fumbling at the door. We both flew out the door and down the hallway, turning left to find a most terrible sight before us. Bodies had been thrown across the ground haphazardly. All impaled in the chest multiple times and all bearing a puncture through their left eyes. Blood stained the floor and walls and it appeared nobody was alive within the area. We both cringed upon looking at the scene, quickly coming to the conclusion that a patrol had encountered the beast… And ended up being dispatched. Their flintlocks were either scattered around or still in their crimson stained hands. More fear on their faces.
But I suppose the most frightening detail there was amongst this carnage was the fact both of our names had been scrawled messily upon the floor in a dark red.
Both Sledge and I knew that we had a lot to deduce if we were to make it through this alive.
First, and perhaps most obvious, was that we had to watch our backs to stop from being ambushed by this creature… Which was probably keeping us alive either for its amusement or some other reason that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. A few other members of the Guard arrived about a minute later and looked upon the scene with the same fear we had upon our faces when we discovered it. Cyrus was called in and he showed no signs of realizing that three people had just been brutally killed, walking past them and standing before me with crossed arms.
“Your names are on the ground,” he stated plainly. Everyone around us was watching in anticipation of what would happen next. I nodded at the commander.
“We don’t know why, sir. We were in the basement when we heard this terrible ruckus, and ran upstairs to investigate.”
“Yes, and I was in the lobby having a lovely conversation about fine wine when I heard the terrible ruckus. I want to know why you think your names are on the ground right now in blood.”
“Like I said, sir,” I started with a lost shake of my head, “we do not know.”
Cyrus scoffed and turned around, hands upon his hips and face awash with frustration.
“Someone get the bodies outside, we’ll have to make the arrangements concerning the burial after this mission concludes. And you two wait for the evidence you found to be analyzed outside. Hopefully this thing will stop killing my men if you aren’t near it.”
A bit too much to expect, but we didn’t complain. As we walked back towards the lobby, faces presumably both ghostly white, I pondered that this shapeshifter was moving and attacking with frightening speed, as if it had something planned out ahead of time. Adding to our apprehension was the fact it could take the form of anyone and impersonate them with ease. That woman in the basement was suspicious, but must not have been the monster if she was trying to open a door as we went to investigate. We could never know for sure where it was.
Outside, more and more soldiers were beginning to show up. It was as if an army was inside that building we had just been in. The man with the black cap from before was the one Sledge had gone too, according to what he told me on the way out and we approached him without hesitation.
“Have you found out anything else about the items?” Sledge asked.
“As a matter of fact, yes. There was a note inside the locket and that old piece of paper actually originated from Nation 4.”
I asked to see the note they had found, and was led to a small plastic table that a young looking woman sat behind, staring through a microscope and observing the ancient paper with the cryptic message. Beside the scope was a thin bit of parchment near the locket and I promptly picked it up. The writing was messy, but I was able to tell what the words said.
“Bullet to break the curse. If I fail, shoot it with a bullet. It watches from the dark. Good luck.”
With this new information, I removed the yellow projectile from my pocket and looked it over again. I knew what had to be done and took out my flintlock.
“What are you doing?!” asked Sledge. I could tell he knew what I was doing, but was just surprised that I was willing to believe what was on the note.
“Getting ready to close this case, good sir.”
It had been afraid of the bullet it had forgotten to take with the gun. This was why it had not killed us. Why it had not killed me in the room of the crime scene was still unknown to me, but I now knew that I had a huge advantage. My hand removed the whitish blue ice bullet from the chamber and replaced it with the yellow one, closing the hatch and cocking the hammer. “Let’s go, before someone else dies.”
We walked into that hotel again feeling much more confident and I had to refrain from leaking a smile as my boots took root on the scarlet carpet below the revolving doors again. I had deduced something else from the note we had found and I think it answered the question regarding how it could get around so fast. It was the vents. The scratching noise we had heard from within the walls was from the vents and not the basement all along. It lurked in the shadows, watching and waiting for an opportunity to strike. Just thinking about it made me feel uncomfortable, as it was probably watching our every move from within the vents ever since we had arrived.
The manager was standing towards the center of the room, back to us. We approached him and spoke out without any delay.
He jerked, and turned to face us with a sour expression.
“What do you want?”
“I would greatly appreciate it if you could turn up the heat in the ventilation system… By a lot.”
We quickly explained our reasons and watched as he moved to a panel on the western lobby wall. He quickly input a combination and tapped a small screen a few times and soon the whole building rumbled for a moment as the heating systems came to life. My nerves returned to me upon realizing that the shapeshifter would be forced to leave its home and wander the hallways in just minutes. When that happened one of two things would take place.
Either it took on the form of someone else and kept to the shadows, or it went in guns blazing… at us.
We spent the time making sure all are weapons and gear were ready, and I removed a test tube filled with blue liquid from a coat pocket and downed it. The substance tasted foul, but I felt an invigorating surge of strength just a minute later. This state-of-the-art liquid could restore one’s Cambria in seconds and I wanted to be ready if push came to shove, which I knew it would.
The manager began walking towards the doorway after a while, stating that he wasn’t about to die in his own establishment. I couldn’t blame him for doing so and I just hoped my plan would be enough to kill the monster.
The five minutes after that were excruciatingly long, but soon there was an unearthly roar from the distance and a fearsome thumping taking place from inside the walls. We readied our weapons, but that was when the worst possible thing happened.
Every light in the entire building went out, and we became engulfed in pitch black.
Cyrus would probably be quite angry at us for causing this to happen so suddenly, but it was a gambit we were willing to take to make sure this nightmare was ended before it began. Little did we know, we were in the epicenter of it already.
There was a faint shuffling in the west hall and I knew it would be best to start our hunt there.
An orb of orange light shone above our heads when I cast the spell. It may have made us a more noticeable target, but we would need visibility to be good if we were to stand a chance of killing the creature. We pressed on, beginning to sweat both from nerves and the heat beginning to spill into the area from the ventilation. My eyes darted all around me as we walked and every shadow no matter how big or small looked like a figure at first glance. Nothing really happened until we reached the staircase and heard heavy footfalls from just above us on the second floor… Thump… Thump… Thump… And they stopped. The stairs went up aways and then turned so that they continued facing the opposite direction. For all we knew, the shapeshifter would be awaiting us as soon as we turned to reach the second floor.
“We should have brought some Regimentals in,” whispered Sledge. “They’d make good distractions.”
“I don’t want any more people to die. And if we wait any longer, it will adjust.”
Sledge sighed, shaking his head.
“Let’s go. Put a bullet in that thing, and I’ll distract it.”
I took a deep breath, closing my eyes and clearing my mind of fear. To kill the beast now would leave a lot of unanswered questions, but I didn’t care. It was time to press what little advantage we had.
“You go first. I’ll be right behind you.”
Sledge nodded and with little hesitation dashed up the stairs, sabre drawn. As promised, I followed behind him with my flintlock and as soon as we crested the second flight of stairs we saw someone standing there completely motionless. It was the woman from the basement, dressed in tattered rags and bearing a look of surprise on her face.
“Shoot her!” demanded Sledge, but I did no such thing.
My ally came to a halt, blade just about to dig into the woman’s flesh. To his surprise, she seemed more frightened than anything.
“How did you get here? Why are you here?” I asked, keeping my gun aimed at her all the while. My blood was pumping fiercely now as I stared her down, watching for the slightest movement.
“I am the janitor,” she replied nervously. “What is it you want?”
“Why should I believe you?”
“What do you mean?”
I didn’t know what to do. Judging by the ruse the shapeshifter pulled before, it was safe to assume it could emulate natural activity very well. But if I killed this woman and she wasn’t the creature I’d have innocent blood on my hands. It wasn’t a risk I was willing to take.
“We’re looking for a shapeshifter,” I started, voice calming a little. “Have you seen anything or anyone suspicious lately?”
“The nice man who works the front desk just came by and said hello. But apart from that, nothing.”
“Where did he go?!”
She appeared flustered, but pointed to a room just a little ways ahead. My heart rate increased as we approached the door, hoping against hope she wasn’t the Shapeshifter. If she was, there would be no surviving this…
I suppose the fact I’m writing this account is proof enough she was not the creature. But when we kicked the door in, what we saw in the room confirmed what the old woman said.
“Sirs, what are you doing here?” spoke the accented man we had met within the very same hour. He was standing there as if it was completely normal, not a scratch on him. Both Sledge and I were terrified at how… human it looked. Every single detail, from the trim suit to his olive green eyes, were the exact same.
“Shoot it,” whispered Sledge, who stood in front of me with a drawn sabre. Hands shaking, I slowly raised my pistol and took aim. The thing must have known we had discovered the body, because its expression became a look of unspeakable malice and evil. A frown stretched across its face, mouth stretched to impossible proportions. The eyes faded to ones that were completely black, reflecting the light of the orb above us within them. It was hellish and terrible to look at, but before I pulled the trigger I noticed what it was standing in front of.
Behind it was an open suitcase. Within it was the flintlock it had taken from earlier, and what appeared to be some kind of official paper. To my horror, there were also eyes… more than I could count without having to sift through them. They were bloody, and some looked fresher than others.
I couldn’t get a good look at it, because the creature suddenly threw itself towards Sledge at impossible speeds. Incredibly, my friend managed to bring his blade to bear upon its torso sideways on. An odd sort of steam flew out from the cut and the thing let out a terrible screech as the area was enveloped by the gas. I couldn’t see anything and I was hardly prepared to waste my shot now.
We needed to get to a better position. Fighting this monster here would be suicide. I bolted out of the room, and was thankfully followed by my comrade. Both of us began sprinting down the hallway and past the now quite horrified old woman. There was a roar from the room we fled from and when I looked behind me I could see it flying towards us. It looked much more different than the thing we had seen in the last room. It was just like the man at the front desk said it looked like, standing far taller than either Sledge or I. Its body was thin, with the ribs sticking out of its completely pale flesh and its eyes huge voids that invoked some sort of primitive fear within my very being.
It was more a mess of bones and skin than anything, with a head that reminded me of an oversized lizard, and needles protruding from both the top and bottom portions of its mouth. Not even its hands or feet were normal and took the form of claws and talons: savage things that looked to be capable of shredding humans like paper.
It was pursuing us and being sure to make itself a much more difficult target to hit, leaping from wall to ceiling and back to the floor again, hardly ever stopping to maneuver like a human would. It hit the floor with a resounding thump, the walls with a hollow crash and the ceiling with a twang, all the while deftly maneuvering to each with sporadic leaps and bounds. I kept my pistol facing in its direction and I’m quite sure it knew I had the special round loaded. Even so, it didn’t show the slightest sign of relenting in its pursuit. Sledge reached an elevator and started hitting the down button as hard as he could over and over again, occasionally glancing back to see the thing almost upon us. I stopped along with him and drew my sabre, an idea coming to me.
As soon as I brought up my weapon, the thing attacked with a pounce, swatting my sword aside with just one of its claws and forcing me to use all the strength I could muster to keep its teeth from tearing into my face. I dodged back and regained a defensive stance, while Sledge took note of this and came at it from the side with his own blade. This probably saved my life, as the Shapeshifter was forced to divert its attention in order to shift its whole body in an instant to knock the weapon away with its claw. And as soon as my comrade was unable to guard his midsection, it lunged in and delivered a slash with its exposed talons that was enough to tear clean through the hardened leather of his uniform and open three jagged cuts across his torso.
Thankfully they weren’t too deep, as the armor at least padded him from the blow. Even so, Sledge was thrown against a nearby wall, bleeding profusely. All of this had taken place as I raised my pistol to bear and took aim. I wasn’t lucky enough to have a clean shot, however, as the beast was sure to see me coming. It leapt into the air before I could fire and used the ceiling itself as a bounce pad to propel itself towards me at a seemingly impossible angle. Both its claws flashed in what light was present, and I did the only thing I could think of doing and threw my palm in its direction.
“Glaun-Siek-Ki!” I shouted, calling upon a condensed bolt of lightning that instantaneously struck the shapeshifter in its mouth with a sound of thunder appropriate to its small size. This bolt shone with a brilliant blue, with miniature threads of energy coursing around it. My opponent was thrown off guard by the flash and I was able to jump back as it hit the ground, steam filling the air once again. Its scream was even louder this time, ringing throughout my very being in an unearthly and hellish manner. I resisted the urge to cover my ears, and slowly backed away down the hall with my pistol drawn. But knowing my plan would fail if I fled, my decision quickly shifted to a more aggressive one as I threw out my palm once again.
A gigantic blast of focused air dispersed all the steam and threw the shapeshifter a good distance down the hall before it could even recover. Wisps of grey still hung about, but were also starting to fade. The sound of the spell was similar to what could be heard if a hundred whips were cracked at once and the area was shaken with their raw power.
But there was no time to waste, and I hastily grabbed Sledge and threw both myself and he into the elevator, which had opened a few seconds prior. I am happy to say that the face of the monster didn’t appear before us as the doors closed. I found it a little ironic that the thing Sledge said would be dangerous to enter ended up saving our lives that night, as we heard footsteps running towards us as we descended.
I removed another tube containing the Cambria revitalization substance and poured it down my throat, nearly gagging on it in my struggle to breathe after my brief fight. I also removed a tube containing red liquid and poured it over my friend’s wound. The substance hissed when it made contact with his blood, but the torn sinews and flesh began mending themselves at an alarming rate. This was a regenerator, which could repair damaged tissue with incredible speed.
The elevator halted, and sweaty and tired, we both stumbled into the hallway on the first floor. The heat from the ventilation was beginning to become more curse than blessing, and slowed our pace to a walk. A fellow member of the Blackguard saw us as we entered the lobby and looked as if he was looking upon ghosts.
“I didn’t think anyone survived!” he exclaimed. I raised an eyebrow and halted.
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, from what I heard the Shapeshifter killed just about everybody when we first spread out. Cyrus is pretty upset.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
The boy looked to be more afraid than we were.
“I’m lookin’ for survivors.”
I nodded and turned my attention to a weary Sledge, whose face was covered in his own blood. He was in no condition to fight, and I told him to go with the young soldier. The man reluctantly agreed, but I wasn’t about to let the shapeshifter off so easily.
“What are you doing?!” the boy called out to me as I walked back into the hallway I had just emerged from.
“My job,” I replied nonchalantly.
Everything around me sounded like the creature, from the sounds of the air conditioning system to the creaking of the floor underneath my feet. I turned down another shadowy corner and towards the staircase I had ascended just a few minutes ago. I hadn’t felt so afraid in a long time, being completely alone and knowing that thing could pounce on me at any second. I knew my two spells from earlier hadn’t killed it, that was for sure. The only reassuring thing to make me feel even a little bit safe was my flintlock loaded with the enigmatic bullet, which I pointed around in sporadic motions as to be ready for an attack.
I began walking up the stairs to get to where I had last seen the thing, and began thinking of a spell powerful enough to make it hold still. Most likely a combination of four words, and a four-word spell was often enough to knock people out cold from their usage. I had trained heavily with the Language, however, and was confident in my ability to hang on long enough to squeeze off a shot.
My footsteps sounded louder than ever, making a clunking noise as my boots hit the ground. Upon reaching the second floor once again, the heating was worse than ever. Even so, I had an orb of orange illumination still overhead. I could see into the darkness well enough.
In the distant recesses of the hall, where this light didn’t reach, I heard a screech that was followed by thumping. It was coming right towards me, but at a pace that was horrifyingly quick. Thump thump thump thump thump, all in rapid succession until, at the very edge of my light, I saw it again. It was clawing itself towards me on all fours with a savage look on what I suppose could be called its face. The thing was running so fast that I barely had time to even say my spell.
It was similar to what I had used before, but with ‘zah’ which meant ‘amplified,’ the pure power was enough to engulf the entire area in an incredible surge of electricity that coursed through the entire building from a huge stream of energy that struck my target in the torso area, and continued coursing through its body in a brilliant blue. The blast was so powerful that the hall lights began flickering overhead at random intervals, and all the while the Shapeshifter slowly continued stomping forward with lightning flowing through it. Its abnormal skeleton flashed when the lights were out as it continued its gradual pace towards me with bared teeth. I was still directing lightning in its direction with my palm, knowing it was the only thing preventing it from closing the last few feet and tearing me apart.
My body began growing numb as I continued the spell for longer and longer, the deafening crackle of it making my ears ring. The lights overhead shattered, throwing shards of glass all over the area from being overloaded, and even so the shapeshifter stomped forwards with pure rage in its eyes. At last, I poured almost all of my life energy into one final burst of electricity that flew down the entire length of the corridor and scorched the walls and floor a pitch black. The building shuddered in protest, but with the last of my strength I raised my pistol to face the creature and fired.
By now all the lights, including the one from my spell, had been cut. And the little spark from the hammer igniting the flintlock charge was the only thing that allowed me to see the momentary look of defeat in the monster’s eyes as a streak of orange plunged directly into its head. The bullet hit with a ‘thwip’ and was followed by a hiss as the wound glowed a cherry red within my opponent’s skull. At first I recoiled in horror as it clutched its face, alive but in agony. But then it let out a cry of pain as something within the bullet ignited and embers began spreading around its face in odd, diagonal patterns. They appeared a dark orange and bits of burned flesh were gently floating to the ground from its face as the fire spread more and more, until the entire head of the creature was burning.
It began speaking in a number of tongues, all different voices. All shouting screams of agony and pain in a horrible mixture. Some sounded accented, and I even recognized one as the voice of the worker who greeted us at the desk. The creature was clutching its whole face with both talons and stumbled into a wall with a thud, still screaming louder and louder. Numb all over, I used the opposite wall as a support and removed an ice bullet from my coat, and loaded my flintlock again. I let loose another shot, which was tinted a light blue, and struck the torso. Since its Cambrian energy had been diminished so much, it couldn’t stop the spread of icy crystals that began to form around its body as it retched. They began forming in chunks, and within a period of five seconds, they had spread across the entire body like a contagious disease, freezing the thing solid.
The mystery bullet had drained its Cambrian energy, making it open to attack. The edges of my vision were blurring, but I managed to load a standard high impact round and raise my gun once again, closing my right eye and aiming the little sights at the neck. I squeezed the trigger and what followed was what one would hear if a window had shattered, as the bullet hit the ice and caused the entire neck area to fracture. What remained of the beast now were hundreds of chunks of partially frozen flesh upon the ground.
Not feeling too keen on blacking out, I drank my last Cambria restorative and nearly vomited from the buildup of the liquid. The reason we were limited to three was to prevent an overdose, which could be deadly. The numbness subsided and, marveling at the completely obliterated hallway in front of me for a moment, I turned around and made my way downstairs.
I slept well that night, waking the following morning to a slew of different information that changed my perspective on my escapade greatly.
From what investigators had deduced, the creature had indeed been using the vents to pick off members of the Guard one by one. Its talons apparently could extend long enough to the length of blades, which allowed it to cut apart people with ease and explained the gouged out eyes. The woman who claimed to be the manager had been innocent after all, and I breathed a sigh of relief upon being told this. But what began making the whole situation make sense was that the woman who had been murdered that night was carrying access papers to the Scrye. Clearly, the creature had been stalking her for some time and just as she was about to escape she was killed.
Oddly enough, the suitcase we claimed to have seen on the second floor was never recovered, leading to an investigation that essentially turned up nothing. Out of the many who had entered the building that night, just five emerged. Including me, Cyrus, Sledge and the boy who we met in the lobby after our brief fight. I am happy to inform you that Sledge and I were given promotions for our work, and that we continue to serve in the Guard to this day.
But as I walk through the Imperial courts amongst the lavish surroundings of a party, I can’t help but feel disturbed at how, according to a Scrye guard, a Mrs. Lauren Welsche was seen entering the rift the same night, only after stating both of our names with a sly smile on her face.
This next tale took 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 traveling 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 traveled 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 sunset 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 reminded me of the old Ferego back in Nation 9, to make a comparison. I’m sure the train would ordinarily cost 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 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 cast 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 off-put 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 of 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 caused 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 lamppost 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 fallen 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 of 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 number 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 with deathly pale skin and eyes as wide as saucers staring at me from behind the bough of trees. 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 of 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 the 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 train station. The scientist was at least easy to spot as he wore a white lab coat 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 crept 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.”
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 traveled at once. Cyrus looked at me in a bland manner as I cleared my eyes of dust and saluted him.
“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.
“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 they were 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 number 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 a while, but just ignored it and clutched my forehead in pain.
After about a minute I received an incredibly strong kick to the ribs, 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 of 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 a while 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 limply. 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.
“Pir!” 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 fewer 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, 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 terrifying, 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 doubts ended that night, as I thought back on why I joined the Guard in the first place. Not to make money, and not simply to serve my Nation or Emperor. It was far more simple than either. Even so, the look of odd confidence in the creatures’ bulbous 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.”
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 crisscrossing 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 inquired 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 grinning. “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, and found 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 said as 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 a while, my blood ran cold.
That night gave me a large number 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 a loose-fitting black robe. Her fiery orange hair was long and curly, 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 sea-town 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, erm, 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 rumor 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 a while 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, signaling 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 stopped himself and took a deep breath, placing his hands on his hips before turning aside and continuing. “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 a while, 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 were 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 you recovered from that forsaken, blood-bathed city and must have related the men the mayor was talking 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 telltale 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, even 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, erm, 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, as Gavin picked up the cards and arranged 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, because 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 labored 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 said it as more of an admission than anything, but I took the compliment anyway, 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, upon 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 too. 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 fashion, 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, and 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 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 the 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 retched as its allies began to charge my way, each transforming into the same horrible figure I had seen in the Ferego hotel: the true form 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 apprentice’s 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 a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold, yet the kept coming. Their cries were of every tone, every wretched screech your mind could comprehend. In spite of 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 traveling at some hundred miles an 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… where I can see…
Away from… The meadow…”
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.
I came to on what I assumed to be a hospital bed feeling as if my lungs had been burst. A sharp cut of pain clung hot to my abdomen, and my hand instinctively moved to clutch it. Amidst this pain, I almost forgot why all I could see was black.
A smooth voice—robotic with a sort of gentlemanlike sophistication to it—droned to me from the void, “Ah, it seems the anesthetic has worn off. You should be most happy to know the operation was a success.”
I hissed, contorting as another jolt of suffering ran through me, “what fucking operation?”
The chuckle that followed was a rough synthetic bassline, “you wouldn’t want to be running about without eyes, would you? I would use a more respectful tone—the operation costed more than most people make in ten years of their meaningless lives.”
My vision lit up in blue. The brightness of it was so jarring I almost yelped, but my surprise shifted to curiosity as ‘Miretech Systems’ appeared atop the sapphire ocean in neat Arial font, “What…what is this?” I asked, the pain replaced now by confusion.
“They are prototype cybernetic eyes capable of producing nearly lossless vision, applying a magnification level of ten on command, and a host of other features I’m certain a man of your, erm, ‘persuasion,’ will find useful,” said the voice.
My middle and index fingers met with the bristles of my brows. I hesitated before dipping them towards my right eye. Cold metal was all I felt within the socket—cold metal and a rush of adrenaline,.“Lord and Lady…” I muttered.
“The loading process should be complete within a minute or so. In the meantime, I can tell you what has been happening during the past few days,” said the voice.
I grunted and said, “This’ll be rich.”
“It’s actually quite horrible. Not like you would care. Personally, I don’t like to affiliate myself with you mucous-lipped upright-walking sacks of meat, but master Beckett insisted.”
“Beckett? As in, the Commander?”
“No, as in the drunken bar roach who wears a chicken costume and believes he’s a cyclops from Earth.” There was a barely-noticeable hint of sarcasm in the voice. I was hardly able to pick up on it. “You want to know the reason he even bothered to give you this surgery in the first place? He knows of your lineage. He knows that you’re related to this ‘Ice.’”
More pain. I groaned. “So what’s going to happen to me out of this whole mess, eh? Will I be hanged like the rest of the Iceblood? I’d prefer to be shot. Quicker that way.”
“Well, that could be arranged,” the voice replied, the ‘could’ emphasized in a way I found slightly worrying, “but Beckett needs you for research purposes. He’s willing to make you a deal: help him, and your secret will be safe.”
“Help him with what?” my sight went black again momentarily. Then there was a flash, and a hospital room revealed itself to me in stunning definition.
The vision I had before would eventually blur the farther I looked—same for everyone’s vision—but it seemed that these eyes could somehow show even the sign reading ‘admission’ at the far end of a sterile white hallway in front of me, crystal clear. I actually felt sorry for anyone unable to experience sight this way.
“He wants to know how an Ice would react to a bastar—I mean, a ‘hybrid’ between its species and a human. You know, just three days ago everyone but visionaries and lunatics thought Ice didn’t even exist. It’s rather interesting to see how far we’ve come in just a few short days, hmm?”
My eyes searched for the voice, and there—at the right side of my bed—stood a creature the likes of which I had never seen before. How best to describe it? Well, to begin with, it looked as if a skeleton had been spraypainted chrome and then a mess of spiderwebs had been stretched across all the empty areas like some kind of strange mock skin. Those had been spraypainted a dark chrome as well. The hands held five fingers which each ended in fine metallic points that resembled talons.
The creature cast two glowing blue dots towards me from sunken black sockets. Its face was a skull made of fine meshy wires that shifted in order to display a mannequin’s equivalent of emotion. It was eerie—yet strangely intriguing.
“Like what you see?” it asked, regarding me with a face as unimpressed as any humans could get. It was almost comical, and an amused smile came upon me through the pain. “Oh, please, I’m a horrific, skeletal monster, not a comedian,” the creature continued.
“Just what are you, anyways? Never seen anything like you in my whole life, and I’ve seen quite a few bloody things.”
“I am EDEN—the world’s first Synthetic life form. If you want to hear how I came into existence, I could always tell you…”
“I imagine there’s a catch,” I grumbled, another throbbing sting reverberating through my body.
“How perceptive of you,” said EDEN. “As cliche as it sounds, I’d have to kill you. Already had to do something like that a few times, actually. Very enjoyable.”
I sat up from my bed and scanned the rest of the room. Two curtains on either side of my bed veiled most of the surroundings from view, but I could see a hallway, the foot of another bed, and a sink mounted into a counter. It was a hospital alright. Then it all came back to me: the Shapeshifters, the mission, Ariana, everything came back. Soon my bare feet were pressed cool against the tile floor and I was walking towards the hallway.
“What are you doing?” EDEN asked.
I stopped, realizing I had no idea what I was doing either. “Where’s Ariana?” I looked at the blue gown hanging from my battle-scarred body. “Where’s my uniform? My weapons?” I turned back to the synthetic.
The being shrugged, the tattered brown cloak wrapped near his neck rippling from the movement. “A man with a foreign accent apparently brought you and some red-haired woman here a couple of days back. I suppose he left a black bag at the reception office, though. Perhaps that’s what you’re looking for?”
“Wait, Ariana’s here? Where is she?”
EDEN pulled back the curtain to the right of my bed and revealed another cot with the instantly recognizable Ari laying on it, a respiratory mask over her mouth and a sheet over her chest. I felt as if my heart had stopped as I walked closer. She looked like a corpse—face as pale as the linen covering her.
“Ari?” I half-whispered. She stirred, eyes slitting open and meeting mine.
“Mercer?” Her voice was weak.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Each breath she took was followed by a hiss from her respirator. “What did they do to you?” she asked.
“What was necessary,” EDEN answered for me. “Your recovery will take longer, Ariana, but Mercer is needed now. In order for that requirement to be met, reconstructive surgery was a necessity.”
I held an arm before me and touched it. My flesh felt the same as usual, but when my finger reached what should have been bone, something felt different.
“Wait, you just operated on my eyes, right?” I asked. I knew the answer before it came.
“Your skeleton has been refined with Tizantium ore. You should feel no real difference… in a year or so. I’ve heard the procedure causes brief back pain when you first adjust to it,” EDEN said.
“There anything else you’ve done to me? What the hell am I now? Should I even be alive?”
“You were already dead. We simply installed a few artificial organs, introduced a clotting agent to your blood to stifle wounds that get past your sub-dermal armor, and replaced your eyes with better ones. It’s like nothing’s changed at all!”
Realizing you should be dead—that you were dead—is not a particularly happy experience. My hands looked the same as they always were, but they felt as if they belonged to someone else. I didn’t know what other horrors could have been done to me without my consent, and it immediately began to gnaw at the back of what I loosely called my mind.
“Mercer, the city is a wreck,” Ariana said. “It looks like hell burst forth from the ground and—” Her eyes widened. “Find Cyrus. Now.”
I almost didn’t hear her over my own thoughts. My eyes were anchored to one of the white tiles on the ground. “You think my power even qualifies as a fraction of his? How could I help such a man?”
“Well, that’s strictly not true,” EDEN cut in. “This surgery has made you into a much more effective weapon. In combat, you should find your abilities far surpass your previous ones.”
“I’m not a… not a ‘weapon.’”
EDEN shook his head lightly, “from the very moment each of you joined the Guard you became weapons for the Emperor: for Cyrus. Most men cower in fear when faced with the darkest abominations of this world, but you—the Blackguards—meet such horrors without question or fear. Just look at me, for example. I’m a high-functioning sociopath in robot form and even I look upon you Guardsmen as shining examples of what humanity can achieve.”
“You’re just another experiment by Beckett,” I countered, “and high-functioning is debatable.”
EDEN’s gray lips curled upwards. “So are you. Perhaps we have more in common than you would like to admit, Mercer.”
“Be a weapon,” commanded Ariana, sitting up on her bed. “I’m in no shape to help my Commander, and the strongest person in this city’s you. Go find Cyrus, and do your duty to the crown. That’s an order.”
I let my eyes drop and I bowed. “Then I’ll be your sword.”
“Do better than that. Be Mercer.”
For once, EDEN’s smile looked genuine.
My armor had been shredded and beaten by the Shapeshifters, so I had little choice but to don the lighthouse-crested scarlet gambeson of the Regiment 2 guard and a pair of simple trousers. It was a light outfit, but I didn’t need the armor. A sturdy plate seemed to lurk just above my ribs—what EDEN referred to as ‘sub-dermal armor’. The very concept was foreign to me, but in a sense, I couldn’t help but be interested in my new abilities. Thankfully, my sword and my flintlock were just the same as always and I lashed them to my waist securely before exiting the main entrance and stepping onto the streets.
The destroyed husks of buildings flanked me on either side of the cobbled road the hospital led to—hands of flame waving their orange fingers from shattered windows and piles of debris. I stopped a moment to take it all in. Smoke was choking in the air, but for some reason my lungs didn’t reject it. They must have been ‘modified’ during the procedure as well. I didn’t find out the full extent of what had happened to me as a result of the operation until years later.
What unnerved me most was how people still walked the streets. They weren’t people though, but walking corpses with peeled leather skin appearing as if they had been flayed. Some were more intact than others, but a few had to crawl along the ground due to lack of body parts. At first I expected them to lock their milky voids I supposed were eyes onto me and charge, but instead, a lanky figure with a twisted arm and a bent nose approached. The way he—it—approached remains with me even now: as if he was taking a stroll through the park on a Sunday.
He said, “You know why I’m back?” His voice was course as it was gravelly—a withered rasp from a withered man. Perhaps others would have drawn a blade or took off running in this situation, but I knew better.
“Afraid not,” I said back.
“Want to go back,” said the corpse. “My family and I were happy together. I want to go back.”
“Know what’s keeping you here, or?”
It shrugged, “Like, no. I wish I did, though. I remember waking up in the morgue, if that helps. I hope it helps. I can’t find my family, you know? Want to be back.”
I nodded and, after a bout of hesitation, clapped him on the shoulder. What skin I felt was squishy and loose—like gristle on a chicken bone. I quickly pulled my hand back.
“Hey, look over there.” The corpse pointed towards the sky with his shredded right arm, and I found a great beam of golden light cutting through the ashen clouds at a downward angle where he indicated. “Maybe there’s what’s causing all this, huh? Like—is it the apocalypse or something? Is this the end of the world? Wow, that must be bad for people like you. Very bad.” He yawned through a mutilated mouth and began walking away. “I’ll be looking for my family. I miss my family, you know?”
“Yeah…” I whispered, more to myself than it.
As I walked through the desolate streets I passed more walking bodies and more signs of destruction. My mind couldn’t imagine what sort of force caused this, but I knew it wasn’t of this world. And regarding the rest of the world, was it like this everywhere or just the city? Was the world really coming to an end because of some prophecy from a rundown hotel?
The ships had been burned in the harbors. Landmarks I remembered seeing what felt like mere hours ago had been shattered into pieces or set afire by some unseen force. I watched as what remained of a galleons’ sail was devoured by flames, the waters around its great wooden form hissing and throwing up steam which appeared like fog in the waning auburn light soaking the streets. How hot was it? Was the atmosphere scorching and I couldn’t feel it because of my new body? The last thing I expected to hear as I stood there overlooking the devastated bay was the high-pitched sting of a fiddle or a violin, but that’s what I heard from behind me. No particular tune was attached to it, but it made me whirl to locate the source all the same.
There, leaning against the brick wall of what used to be a bank, stood a man who must have been six foot three at the least. His hair was a messy chestnut and he was clothed in a simple brown tunic and muddy cargo pants. He held a fiddle in his hands and a sly grin on his bristly, rogue-like, face. “On Earth, they say Emperor Nero watched his city burn while playing the fiddle. You know where I got this one?”
I shot him a look that wouldn’t hide my suspicions. “No.”
“I shoplifted it,” the man said, casually taking it in both hands by the slender end and bashing it against a stone pillar. It splintered into dozens of pieces with an off-pitch crash and the man laughed. “And that was before all of… well, this.”
“Who are you?”
“I would tell you,” he said, putting his arms at his sides and swaying like a drunk as he walked towards me, “but I forgot.”
“No—like, seriously—I forgot.”
Now I lowered my brows. For some inexplicable reason, it didn’t look like this person was trying to joke around, even though forgetting your name in the first place is a bit of a joke in itself.
The stranger stopped on his way towards me, realization running across his visage. “Wait—Zane. That’s it. Zane Morgan. Yeah, that’s me. I—I remember now.”
If there was another person standing beside me I would have given them a confused stare. “Okay… Well, can I help you?”
“Well, I’m Commander of Regiment 2, so, like…”
“Oh.” I had honestly forgotten.
“Yeah—like, I got caught up in the whole sort of ‘dramatic slash mysterious entrance’ thing, and so—so yeah, I like, forgot my name for a second there. That’s not even me being ironic. That actually sort of just happened… y’know?” He chuckled nervously and scratched the back of his head. I never expected the Commander of Regiment 2 to be anywhere near as ridiculous as I had heard from rumors. Since there seemed to be Commanders crawling from the woodwork as of late, though, I couldn’t say I was surprised to find another, even in a hellscape like this.
Squinting my eyes a certain degree applied a variable zoom to my vision. I turned around and magnified what was once a food stall and found a large splatter of brownish blood coating it.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“The news is claiming that it’s hell,” Zane said, his towering form pulling to a halt beside me. “As in—literally hell. The day the incident occurred people claimed to have seen the dead rise from their graves. Oh, and by ‘people’ I mean the ones who weren’t caught within the fires raining from the sky on day one. Day two, a plague set in—a plague that we’ve never seen before, which killed nearly everyone infected within the timespan of one hour. There were no viruses and no bacteria. Crazy stuff, huh?”
“They evacuated this place, right?”
“Yeah,” Zane nodded. “Cyrus and a small group of the Guard are over there.” He pointed to the golden light in the distance. “He said to look around for some guy with flat, greying hair, a cute little mustache, and an overly serious expression on his face. Heh, wasn’t hard.”
“So, on day one, those…” I motioned towards a skeletal creature on one of the docks, “things appeared. Then there was a plague. What happens on day three?”
Zane shrugged, put out his palm towards the spindly zombie I had indicated, and said, “Pir,” as casually as one would say ‘hello.’ A bolt of crimson fire rocketed forth from it, hitting the creature square in the head from what must have been a hundred yards out. From what I could see only ashes remained of the skull and the corpse fell limp into the water below with a muffled ‘splash.’ The Commander roared with laughter and slapped his knee. “H—Holy shit! Like, I wasn’t actually expecting to hit that!” I exhaled as his fit continued. “Did—Did you see that?! Right in the freakin’ head, and its body just gave up and…” His laughter faded to a chuckle and then an amused grunt quickly. “Should have ragdolled it. That would have—that would have been ideal. Ideal scenario right there.”
“You know they aren’t hurting anyone, right?”
“Neither are chickens. Do you get all pissy when you eat your chicken nuggets with ranch dressing, Mercer? No? Then shut the hell up. Now, if you’ll excuse me—I have some more target practice to engage in.”
I could scarcely believe it as he began sauntering off with a carefree whistle and a swaying step. “What are you doing?”
“I just told you what I was doing.”
“This is your city. It’s been besieged by forces we don’t even understand, and here you are using the dead as target practice!”
Zane spun on his heel and shot me an annoyed look, “Last time I checked it wasn’t my job to get rid of evil monsters from hell. That’s your duty. Cyrus said I could do whatever I wanted soon as I found you, and now I’ve found you. See—everyone wins!” he turned back around following a sarcastic smile and whistled an indistinguishable tune on his way towards an adjacent street. I knew there was no arguing with people such as him. Now that I’d actually met Zane it confirmed all my greatest fears about our system of government. It was frightening that some of our Nations were under the protection of his sort, but at the very least I knew where I was going now.
There was a haunting silence to the streets if you were to listen past the faint groans of the dead or the cracks of fires. I remembered a family of three ordering ice cream at a roadside parlor that was now covered in chunks of rubble and how a drunken harlequin had paraded himself down a familiar lane with a bottle of booze in one hand, only for him to be replaced by a throng of ghastly demons who just stood and stared at me as I walked by. Come to think of it, they hadn’t been doing that before, but whenever I came within close proximity to them now they stopped whatever they were doing, locked eyes with mine, and traced my position until I could no longer see their gruesome forms. I had the queerest feeling that they were being controlled like puppets by some horrid demon or another—cursed to spend days in a world that had long since forsaken them.
As I grew closer to the light they became more and more agitated, their groans increasing in volume until they mutated into anguished screams. Some clutched their heads with whatever rotted appendages they had while others scraped the brick sides of buildings or forced themselves onto shattered glass. Even though they were monsters I felt regret with every step I took. The light looked just a block or two away when the first one threw itself at me from a small crowd. It screamed, “I’m sorry!” at the top of its lungs as it did so, trying to use the exposed points of bone where its fingers had been as weapons. I had been ready to defend myself soon as I saw the first of these creatures and I made quick work of the poor wight with the same Word Zane had used at the docks—engulfing it in cleansing flame.
More followed in this one’s footsteps as I grew ventured further, but the attack that stood out to me most as I walked was when a twig-thin rotted husk lobbed itself my way while a group of three other corpses grabbed onto it and dragged it to the ground, preventing the attack from even happening. For a moment I just stared in disbelief as they tore the thing limb from limb and then looked back towards me and stared. I couldn’t help but express my thanks with a reverent nod, even if they were unaware of what they were doing.
The path to the light took me past an old library, what seemed to have once been a brothel, and even a self-defense class. As it turned out, the cutting beam of gold illumination anchored itself within the town square—a sprawling courtyard flanked by palms grown from rings of soil and a great circular marble wall with grapevines snaking through it. The metal gates granting passage through this wall were wide open, revealing a field of lush grass wherein raspberry bushes, trees, and a swathe of different flowers had sprouted. It was an oasis in these horrid surroundings and a welcome relief from all the death and chaos.
The gardens were empty of people, the only thing of note lying within them being a large white rotunda standing as a sentry to the vines and tulips and burning orchids. The inside of this building held a simple front desk with a computer terminal propped upon it, a ceiling depicting a blue sky pocked with swirling cotton ball clouds and what appeared to be angels—beings with proud eagle wings, grinning faces, and nigh unattainable bodies in regards to both genders. A sign above the front desk read ‘Welcome to the Lankerton Memorial Statehouse Building’ in a swirling cursive on glassy marble.
“Mercer?” I heard an accented voice say from the flight of stairs in the left corner of the room. A man in Blackguard uniform stood there, his eyes wide as saucers and his feet rooted in place. “Cyrus said you’d died. What the blazes are you doing here? And what’s with your eyes? They look like blue glass!”
I walked across the polished cream floor, my footfalls echoing the unseen halls times over, “Yeah, you’d think I’d know, wouldn’t you?” I responded with a sigh. “Where’s Cyrus? There’s a lot that needs to be said to that man.”
My comrade motioned to the long flight of stairs behind him with his head and folded his arms over a thin chest. “Quarter of us died fighting it.”
“It’s an Ice. Never got to see it myself, but the Commander was very clear that no more of us were to engage it, save…”
In an instant, I realized that Cyrus already knew about my status as a half-Ice. Just that thought sent a shiver down my spine as I pondered how long he had known for and why he decided not to tell anyone. Did he tell anyone? I certainly hoped not, or I’d hang after this whole ordeal—not an optimal way to end an adventure.
“My name’s Sam, by the way,” said Sam. “Actually kind of admire you. They’ve been calling you the Shapeshifter Slayer in the magazines, not like those are the most reliable sources of information or nothing.” He chuckled awkwardly and I fell into pace beside him as he began descending the stairs.
“Where are those magazines? Never quite found any of them.”
“Oh, well, the one I tend to read’s called ‘The Patriot.’ The one who authors it—his name’s Charles Becker. He’s done movies, right? He directed The Voyage and Fall Samurai.”
“What Nation’s he from?”
“Six, just like me. Joined the Guard from Six.”
“Load of bullocks when the only coverage you get for your actions comes from another Nation. I’ve been reading the Nation 9 news and haven’t heard a thing about that night.”
Sam shrugged, trying to hide his obvious enjoyment of the conversation. “I guess the government might have covered it up for just Nation 9. Other Nations wouldn’t panic if they found out another was attacked by Shifters, but panic spreads fast when there’s a reason to be panicked, right?”
“So, are you a film buff, then? Quite an interesting medium, but I haven’t had much time to appreciate it as of late for—obvious reasons.”
Sam pounced on the question, his stormy eyes glimmering in the warm sheen the chandeliers cast through the hall we had stepped into. It was a lavish looking locale—sporting framed oil-painted depictions of town Cardinals who had looked after this city in previous years, tall lined pillars ascending all the way to a rough, cold, ceiling, and giant archways leading to rooms decorated in rustic antiquities and boasting purposes that I couldn’t quite discern. For all I knew, the rooms were just there to look pretty and house city council meetings when things weren’t as awful as they were currently. At the very least there were no rotting corpses traversing the hall. I hadn’t seen a single one since I reached the light, and believe me, that was a good thing.
“My personal favorite from last year was Rosethorn.” In my haste to look about my surroundings, I had completely ignored Sam’s reply, but I nodded in acknowledgment before he could realize this. “They’re taking more and more inspiration from Earth movies, and while you’ll get a bunch of old coots saying it’s ‘destroying our identity,’ I personally think that refining a tried and true method is just as good as it being your own, right?”
Not wanting to offend the young man, I relinquished a, “Yeah.”
“Hah! Now I can tell them that Mercer Cedric agrees with me!”
“I, uh, don’t think they’ll care all that much about my opinion, kid.”
“Come visit Nation 6 some time, and you’ll see how much they idolize the BlackGuard. That’s why I joined! They’ve made movies about us, written novels. Heck—I bet someone on Earth’s writing about us right now!”
“Not sure who would enjoy a story about a bunch of pricks running around, killing monsters. The author would have to be mad to write about such nonsense.”
“Well, I think it’s plenty interesting, but I might be biased. Am I biased, Mercer?”
“Considering you’re living out the very story you praise—and worse—you’re optimistic about it,” I spoke in a half-mumble, “I’d have to say yes.”
As we continued down the seemingly endless corridor, I had a sinking feeling that neither of us knew where we were going. I hesitated to ask Sam the inevitable question. “Uh… Where is Cyrus, Sam?”
“Oh, I forgot what we were doing. I have such a bad memory, right?” We ended up having to head back all the way towards the bottom of the stairs. The first archway on the left led to a paneled iron door sequestered behind a dusty old library. “Cyrus said that Cardinal Mordain Glaz had a secret network of tunnels and chambers constructed during his command of the city two hundred years back. The door you’re seeing now can only be opened by a specific key that went mis—”
“Then why is there a slash mark where the lock should be?” I asked. Where the two halves of dark metal met, there was a giant scar cutting lengthwise across both—deep and long.
“Oh, that was Commander Cyrus. The other way to open the door, of course, is to break it in half through the middle.” He laughed a little.
A massive circular chamber revealed itself as I parted the door. Soldiers sporting black scaled leather of the Guard sat around scattered tents they had erected. A group of three were playing a game of cards while others just sat around drinking or talking.
“What is this?” I asked, straining to believe how our organization was just sitting around and doing nothing in the midst of unimaginable danger.
“Oh, the Commander ordered us to stay out of it?”
“Well, stay out of bloody what?”
“He’s fighting the Ice.”
I shook my head. “Just because you’re ordered to do something doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t do it. We have a duty to our country—our Nation—to uphold, and even if all of us die in the process of fighting this thing, we could at least say we tried. I’m assuming these folks haven’t done that.”
I could see the seeds of doubt rooting themselves into Sam. His eyes evaded mine. “But Cyrus said he could handle it…” His voice was just shy of a mutter.
“That doesn’t mean he can. Where is he anyway? Where is this fight occurring?”
Sam motioned to the end of the room and a door of a similar nature to the one in the library, except on a far larger scale. The chamber we were standing in now fit the door regarding size, and the jagged stone comprising the ground seemed to suck the very warmth from my body as I walked towards this door.
“You don’t mean to fight it, do you?” Sam asked.
“I do. I am a weapon of the Emperor and a servant to the Mire. My life is an afterthought.”
Sam shot out an arm to impede my progress but I brushed it aside. “Listen, I don’t know you very well, but I never really thought you cared this little about your life, right? It’s fine to put all that stuff first, but I don’t think you should just treat your existence like it’s disposable. That’s no way to live.”
“I don’t think my life is disposable. I just believe that the lives of thousands take precedence over my own.”
His steps were close by my side, and I could tell he was thinking up some way to dissuade me. Truth be told, it brought me a little hope seeing a young man who cared enough about some guy he just met to try talking him off the ledge… even if his efforts would be in vain. There were about thirty people in the room. How none of them had gone in to assist their leader was beyond me. Hell, maybe a few already had, but judging from his tone, this Sam fellow was giving me it didn’t seem that way. Cyrus wasn’t the friendliest person by any means, but he was fair and always fulfilled his duty to the best of his abilities. In a sense I admired him, but perhaps that feeling wasn’t mutual throughout the Guard.
Sam threw himself in front of me. I could have pushed straight through him but I decided to at least hear the boy out. “Listen to me, right! Cyrus is the most powerful combatant in all of Nation 9.” I folded my arms before me and perked a brow. “He’s been on the opposite side of those blasted doors for just over an hour now, and we’re still hearing noises. If he hasn’t been able to kill this Ice in all that time, then what good can any of us do, right?”
“Don’t know until you try.”
He didn’t attempt to stop me as I walked past him, but still followed wordlessly. I received a few confused or peculiar glances from Guardsmen as I walked them by. A few descended into conversation likely regarding me soon as I passed them by, while others kept their eyes glued to me all the way as if I was one of the cadavers that had swarmed the aboveground.
The doors were even larger as I came within a stone’s throw of them—grand monoliths of heavy iron which had been cast into the exact frame of what must have been a giant’s doorway. I stopped a moment just to look at them, and no sooner had I done that when one of the panels began to rumble open, tailed by a stony roar which echoed through the entire room. In all honesty, it took me off guard, and I relinquished a single step backwards as I watched with baited breath to see who would emerge from behind. My hand was on my sword. What scarce conversation that was present swiftly perished, and I could tell without looking that every last person’s eyes were rooted on the doors.
A large gap sat between the metal tower and the concrete wall as Cyrus stepped out from behind. At first I breathed a sigh of relief, but all breath soon fled me as I saw what remained of his body. His left arm had been bent until half of it was facing towards where your elbow’s supposed to point and his night sky trench coat was covered in holes and liberal amounts of blood, which still dripped to the ground below the Commander—leaving a trail of bright crimson and a pool of it when he stopped to look at us with a face I could barely even recognize.
The bone of his jaw was exposed, flanked by bloodied and scorched black flesh and contrasted by the left part of his face—which was still intact. Needles of black hair choked his crimson eyes, the order that usually described that hair absent now and replaced with an oily, bloody, mat. His left leg had a grisly gash near its kneecap, and multiple gashes dotted his chest. I could scarcely believe the man was still alive after incurring such wounds.
“Commander?” an incredulous Sam said.
Cyrus hobbled over until he stood before us—hardly more intact than one of the ghouls roaming the streets. “Mercer,” he gurgled.
“You need medical attention,” I said.
He shook his head and looked over his shoulder briefly. “I don’t need shit,” he sighed, “except wine. Now.”
“Thought you drank cream soda.”
He wasn’t amused. “Wine.” Sam hurried off towards the tents, leaving me alone with the Commander, who let out a long grunt and slid his back down the side of a door until he crumpled to the ground, blood smearing the metal behind. “Killed the Shapeshifters.”
“And what of the Ice?” I asked.
“Damn the Ice—damn this city,” he coughed. “I think I weakened it. Could have kept going if you’d arrived later.”
“And why do you want me here, sir?”
He shot me a look that was more intimidating than any Ice could possibly be. “You know damn well. Bet you thought you were clever, trying to hide that little secret from your comrades. I put up with it for the longest time—you’ve served me well—and I reward good service,” he said as he turned his gaze away, “but I’ve had enough. I want that thing dead. Kill it.”
I had never seen Cyrus this tired before—if tired was how I could describe it. I said, “If you don’t mind me asking, how are you still alive, sir?”
“Don’t call me sir. We’ve been over this,” he grumbled. “I’ve been alive for centuries, Mercer, and I’ve had worse wounds. You don’t see many hybrids between human and Vampire, nor do you see many of Ice and man. When I was in my developing years, some sap in the capital found out I was a Vampire. They sent half the guards in the city after me, and I killed every one of them until Edmonton Blacke himself came down from his palace and offered me my position. That’s been my life—killing. Might as well lead an organization that does it, right?”
“You’ve done that organization proud.”
“Killed more than anyone else. Sure makes me ‘proud.’” He looked behind me and bellowed, “Where the hell’s my wine?!” Sam dashed towards us from one of the tents carrying a green bottle with a slender neck in his hands, and a comically frightened expression on his face.
“Here you are, sir!” Sam handed him the bottle with a shaky hand and Cyrus snatched it with a poisonous glare.
“If someone calls me ‘sir’ one more time, I’ll gut them! I’ll throw them to the bloody floor and tear apart their body while they watch!” he roared, ripping the cork from the bottle and guzzling the liquid within. Sam was almost trembling as the scene unfolded.
“What happened to you?! Why are you like this?!” Sam trembled.
Cyrus finished half the contents of the bottle and lobbed it into the distance, a shatter marking where it landed. “I’m a Commander to do one thing: kill. That thing lurking behind this bloody door’s still alive, and what good am I—what use am I, if I can’t do the one thing I was ordered to do correctly?!” The Commander let his eyes fall to the ground before him, the fire fading from his face. “You’re the one to do it, Mercer. You’ll be immune to most of its abilities. Go now.”
My inner voice screamed that talking more would just make things worse. With a deep breath and a hand upon my blade, I walked towards the opening Cyrus had made in the door.
“Mercer, what are you doing?” Sam asked.
A dark presence pervaded the very air once I stepped through that barrier. It was as if I had crossed between worlds with a single step, and I knew at that moment that no matter the outcome of the battle awaiting me—my journey in the Blackguard was about to reach its conclusion.
Training for the Blackguard had robbed me of many things I thought made me human. In truth there was some sort of strange disconnect; a divide that made it so I couldn’t separate my humanity from what my profession had made me into. I didn’t know if I was even human now. Even past this point my mind became wracked with questions. Questions of just where the threshold between man and machine was drawn.
I didn’t know what I was. And as I entered the darkness those gigantic doors veiled, I felt my future was as murky as the surroundings.
My eyes sliced through this haze like a razor to a sheet of paper, however, distinguishing a tubular cavern and its bizarre fittings. My boots carried me past a maze of glimmering brass pipework and nozzles spewing steam into the chill air. Gears and cogs spun within the walls, clicking together to form an odd mechanical symphony. As I progressed further, the steampunk around me had almost overtaken the natural stone of the cave altogether. I was stepping over thick pipes and brushing past messes of valves and clouds of hot moisture.
I clenched my fist, mind flashing back to the scene of Cyrus. His fury at his perceived failure. I’d looked up to him for a long time as a beacon of what I should become. I thought Cyrus invincible: an unstoppable, if prickly, force of good. Seeing him bloody and broken changed me. Those words that weren’t of comfort but of defeat and anger. What chance did I have against this abomination?
Visions of it spun in my head. Of wretched, hairy, beings craving flesh, Of monsters of metal or some bizarre, nondescript, supernatural entity. I asked myself what I could possibly hope to do against something like that, even if I was of its own kin.
‘You can try,’ I heard Sam’s voice echo through me. I stopped a moment, feeling a spark of drive ignite in the void of my spirit. ‘Succeed where I have failed,’ Cyrus ordered gruffly. ‘Do better than that. Be Mercer.’ Ariana. Her parting words.
My fists clenched. They clenched until I almost drew my own blood. I inhaled deeply and let it all out. Worry left my mind. All that remained now was a strange sense of determination. Foolish, misguided, determination.
I drew my flintlock, tracing its bore with my right hand near the hold, fingers naturally finding themselves into the grooves of the design and angular brass fixings. Mine was a long one: just under a foot long. It thusly packed more power than was generally used by the Blackguard, allowing for effective engagements at up to medium battle standard range. With these new eyes perhaps my accuracy would improve even more. My finger cocked back the hammer and I slid a fresh new canister into its chamber, sliding it into the firing mechanism. The flap that had previously been open to allow for such an exchange clicked shut, signaling my shredder round was now ready to fire.
Shredder rounds were on the borders of what was legal, truly. Back in the Raymerian wars of yore, where the Mire’s Empire did battle with the Raymerian isles and their Vampiric inhabitants, shredder rounds were very nearly prohibited from use in future conflicts due to the intense loss of life and extremely painful deaths they tended to cause. The Mire had long been at war with Raymere, and as such, a treatise had been formed which dictated the rules of engagement. Weaponry such as toxic fumes, high powered smoothbore muskets, and land ships had all been prohibited under it in order to ‘preserve honor on the field of battle’.
Luckily for me, even if shredders had been banned, the Regiment 9 Blackguard was given special permission by the high council to use unconventional munitions and weaponry. We weren’t really meant to be fighting enemy nations, just eliminating supernatural threats, but I distinctly remember a course during my training specifically concerning guerilla warfare and room clearing techniques. I suppose you’d have to be another sort of naive to imagine the Empire would go down without resorting to its more unsavory weapons. It seemed in the event of an emergency the Blackguard would be repurposed as a special forces unit.
Anyhow, regardless of why I had those shredder rounds, I had them. It gave me some level of reassurance to know that with the pull of a trigger I could unleash more firepower than a batch of linemen, but apprehension still nagged away as the tunnel became more and more mechanical.
Soon it was as if there had never been a cave at all, and I was walking through something reminiscent to the hallways of a battleship. After a while I found a door: its circular window had been shattered to bits, and a corpse lay crumpled on the ground before it, painting the thick metal frame in blood. There was a heavy mechanism similar to the wheel of a ship on this door, but it refused to budge. It seemed this unlucky guardsman had tried escaping inside only to be slaughtered.
As I continued forwards, more bodies lined the halls. Their faces were expressionless, mainly. Our lack of emotions resulted typically in a strange sense of calm when meeting with death. It was as if the hall had been lined with a host of lifesize dolls…bloodied and battered. Gore littered the ground as well. Entire arms and heads had been severed with surgical precision. No jagged edges in the flesh or bone, just a perfect cut. There were certainly swords capable of producing such cuts, but to do so this many times without leaving a messy cleave? I ruled that out quickly. This was no mere man.
Come to think of it, I had seen a similar display of corpses before, but far more battered. That was back in Nation two. I remembered the suitcase I’d recovered there. The one which had been holding the eyes. Just what was so important about eyes to these forces? First it was a curse, and now it was some kind of way to summon an Ice. Perhaps that was the curse?
Neither my mother or father had believed in things such as ‘curses’ or the supernatural. I remember my parents tearing me away from the books of the paranormal. Of alien visitors and spirits. They’d said no good could come of such things, but in my opinion, knowledge was one of the greatest goods that existed. I’d read about Ice too. Of knights consisting of clockwork with bizarre abilities and weaponry. Neither man nor machine. Father took particular offense to these tomes, and used to toss them straight into the fireplace.
So why did I join the guard? I still don’t really know the exact reason, but I imagine it had something to do with my interest in the supernatural. And to think my parents probably still believe I’m some average businessman in Nation nine. No, that was never my destiny no matter how much they wanted it to be. I was first a soldier, then an elite, and finally a Guardsman. That was my identity. That was why I was continuing down this damned hallway, to a fate uncertain.
The air became a cold finger through my uniform, carrying with it a dampness that spread fast through my body. I halted a moment, realizing I’d been going down a gradual decline after looking behind me. That explained the temperature, as I was heading deeper and deeper into the depths. The corpses had grown less now, as there weren’t too many remaining in the Guard anyways considering our previous losses. I found it rather worrying the majority of the bodies were concentrated towards the beginning of this strange tunnel network. Those people died running.
Up ahead was even more tunnel, but a steam borne from the hiss of many valves obscured what was up ahead. Thick and billowing. Even my eyes couldn’t seem to make out what was past it, considering thermal vision only showed deep tints of red near this stream and a bluish outline. Sure enough, as I entered the moist clouds they were warm. Hot, even. For whatever reason I found them rather refreshing, taking a long breath of the stuff and feeling my lungs loosen. It was a welcome break from the horrid stench of decay and smoke from before.
“Turn…back…” I heard to my right. Someone had only just managed to sputter these words. I turned to find a female guardsman lying against the wall with a dullness through his eyes. A vacancy. His midsection had been rendered to the point a thick pool of blood had escaped him, drizzling lazily downwards into the veil of mist. I could see organs exposed.
Quickly, I reached into the pocket of my gambeson…to find nothing. I cursed, realizing I’d forgotten my revitalizers within my old uniform. “Hold on,” I said. “I think I know a Word that’ll stabilize you, but I am hardly proficient at the healing arts.”
“I…thought healing Words are forbidden,” the woman mumbled.
“Indeed, they are. Luckily I put my country and people above any nonsensical rules.” I pressed a hand to the wound and spoke. “Meijo.” (Mend). Sharp strands of flesh sprouted from both ends of the cut, beginning to twist around each other until patches of skin were afloat in a sea of gore. The skin grew in strange pulses, until it had bridged the gap altogether, leaving only the deep crimson that had soaked into the nearby fibers of this woman’s armor.
I shuddered. Such a Word was taxing, but it seemed she’d been stabilized for the time being. That vacant expression still remained, though. It looked as if she was asleep while her ocean eyes remained starkly open, staring blank towards the ground behind a needled curtain of brown hair. I pressed two fingers to her neck, feeling a pulse. The skin was cold, but soft. Slightly tan, but certainly pale before it had been applied.
“You there?” I asked.
“Alright.” I looked briefly down the hall, as far as my vision would allow. I saw what seemed to be an inactive alarm node affixed to the ceiling. It was of old make, with a singular light bulb covered by a scarlet, cup-shaped shell. “I don’t have time to get you out now, but I shall come back for you once I’ve dealt with this beast.”
“Beast?” She grinned weakly. “That’s just it. It isn’t one.”
I bored into her urgently. “What do you mean?”
“It’s beautiful… so beautiful.”
Her eyes fell shut. A shot of adrenaline burst through me as I aligned my fingers back to her neck. Still a pulse. I breathed a sigh of relief and stood back to my feet, continuing forwards once more whilst pondering her words. It was only natural to assume she was speaking in a state of delirium, but something struck me as strangely sincere about the way those words crawled from her mouth.
Soon, the hallway spread out as the steam faded. I found myself in a room containing three blast doors. One was ajar. Two brutalized ends of what was once a person had been thrown to either side of that door, coating it in a most lovely, and in no way revolting, display of gore.
‘I suppose that’s the way forward then.’ I thought, gently pushing my way into the hall the door guarded.
This one was darker, basking beneath the glow of many of those red-tinted alarms. They flashed off and on, lending an eerie atmosphere to the grated ground and pipework walls and ceiling. It begged the question of where all of those valves led to, and just what they could be powering.
The hall was cold. The atmosphere was cold. I felt as if something would leap out from the shadows as the alarms alternated between dark and their ghostly crimson.
I raised my flintlock and kept it steady as I proceeded, halting momentarily as I heard a faint echo of something. I couldn’t quite make out just what that something was. My finger caressed the trigger, ready to let the hammer loose on the shot capsule and send a shredder round towards whatever unlucky bastard dared step before me.
The incline became more pronounced, until the hallway ended at what appeared to be an elevator: a platform taking up the end of the line with a simple lever affixed to a tower in the center with two labels. One read ‘up’, and the other ‘down’. Easy enough.
My hand felt a lack of cold on the lever, meaning it had been used recently. But how, then, were there so many corpses on this level if the beast was yet further within the facility?
I then felt every last one of the hairs on my neck stand on end. It soon registered that a hoarse, raspy, breathing was emanating from directly behind me.
Unable to be paralyzed by the fear due to my training, I immediately whirled and let fly my shredder round into the adjacent hall. A brilliant flash scorched the dark of the tunnel into just about daylight as ten individual razorblades traveling at the speed of bullets flew true, embedding themselves into a hulking figure that threatened to stand taller than the ceiling. These blades would hardly stop by just entering flesh, however. From there they would burrow through the victim until they either burst out the other end, leaving a jagged gash, or ripped apart a vital organ. These blades were capable of burrowing through up to class two armor, but to my astonishment, it seemed that whatever this thing was, itg exceeded that class.
As the roar of the gun faded, and the lights above allowed me another burst of light, I made out the shape of what seemed to be…a knight.
It looked more a robot than anything, a thick silver breastplate turned red with blood just the beginning of this creature’s carapace. A helmet rested atop the head, casting two searing ruby eyes my way past a seemingly glass visor and a ridged, paneled, design. Where the mouth should be supported thin strips where metal was absent. It was as if there was somebody underneath that helm, but they would have to be gigantic to fit into the suit, what with the extremely thick plates comprising the armor about both the legs, arms, and chest. They were like slabs of concrete, but instead some kind of hyper-resilient steel.
I had little time to think before the gauntlet: a savage, scaled, thing from which three talons each as long as rapiers emerged, was sent flying my way. I caught burn and scorch marks and bullet dents all across the make of this thing as I stumbled backwards. The claws ripped open a pipe like it was made of cardboard, spewing vapor into the air as I threw myself towards the elevator controls and set them to ‘down’.
I wasted no time in extending an arm.“ELN-WHIK!” I shouted, unleashing a concentrated blast of empowered air that threw the machine away from me, sending it to the ground with the mighty cacophony of metal meeting metal.
Two thick gold doors folded around me from the walls, like the arms of my bloody mother. As the elevator descended I heard a terrible roar from above, muffled under the layer of steel. Another of the red alarms was my only source of light within the cramped device, but it was more than enough for me to gather some of my thoughts, and perhaps sort out what the gameplan was.
I knew the creature possessed heavy armor, and that it was both fast and deadly. Thankfully, it didn’t seem to be able to resist my Cambrian Words so I at least had that method of dealing with it.
Adrenaline and instinct had completely engulfed me. A fire ignited within my veins as the body alterations they gave me during training kicked in. My mind felt faster, my limbs lighter, and my muscles stronger. I reached towards the pocket of my uniform again only to remember I was wearing the wrong one. I cursed, knowing I’d be fighting without combat stimulants or revitalizers.
I felt the elevator pick up in speed, to the degree it was very noticeable. Metal grinding against metal, until the contraption hissed to a halt and the doors began to part. As soon as there was room I took off sprinting, into a hallway identical to the one above. This one did have on major difference, however: the light of an end.
My boots clapped the grating beneath me hard and I pulled back the hammer of my flintlock, allowing the cartridge in the chamber to hiss its way into the air and clatter to the ground behind me. I replaced the shredder with an armor piercing rounds: one capable of piercing up to class three armor, which was the second strongest documented. These rounds were modeled off HEAT shells on earth, which were made to destroy tanks. While smaller in nature, these operated in a similar fashion and could scorch their way straight through most composite metals with ease.
Above me, I heard a hollow thumping. Deep, heavy, footsteps seeming to originate from directly overhead. I knew what this thing was planning and began running as fast as my legs could carry me. At this point I was sprinting faster than I’d ever sprinted in my life, likely due to the implants received from that EDEN unit. There was hardly a space between my footfalls, the clatter of my boots melding together into a metallic string of pure noise. Wind burned past my face. By then I was somehow running faster than a horse. Faster than perhaps some of the early cars on Earth, yet somehow the thumping from above seemed just on my tail regardless.
Then, with a horrid twisting of steel and a spraying of yet more steam, the knight burst straight through the ceiling, landing mere meters behind me and beginning to throw itself forwards whilst pumping its gigantic gauntlets: an unstoppable juggernaut.
I couldn’t force myself to go faster, but let off a shot towards the creature that burned itself into a miniature gap in the armor situated near the shoulder area. Here, in between two slabs of silvery plate, was a dark, rectangular, line seemingly devoid of much protection. An audible growl followed me down the tunnel as I ran now. I’d clearly wounded the creature somehow, and it was becoming certain this was no mere automaton.
Returning my eyes to my front, I realized I’d almost reached the searing light of whatever lay past this hall. With a hearty battle cry, I leapt forwards with all my might into where this hall terminated. Into that light: the only beacon that was there to be my guide.
I halted and took a deep breath, allowing a second to take in the room as I spun to meet the approaching threat, holstering my flintlock and drawing my crescent blade.
The room was circular in nature. Like an arena, with a green-tinted glass chamber in the center that had been shattered. Ice clung diamond to the walls, glimmering in the illumination the panels above allowed. It was cold. My breath was visible in it, light the exhale of a smoker.
I’d little time to survey more as the armored creature plowed its way through the top of the archway leading to the room, scattering the mangled scraps of steel across the floor around me. It fell to a jog, and then slowed to a walk as it approached me. I began to take steps backwards as the creature brought itself to bear: dwarfing me in size. Its massive feet echoed through the chamber, reverberating many times over. I heard breathing. Raspy, yet audible, breathing.
“I…was kept here…for five thousand years…” a voice, tinged English and sparkling with an eerie youth rang brass from out of the knight, “Long before humans came to Ares, when what you call ‘Vampires’ froze me in ice and constructed a tomb.” It grunted, the swords about its gauntlets hissing away and leaving only three dark holes on each. “A secret I’ve been kept by your government. But now I am free, as the sun nears its final days.”
Astounded and panting, I managed to ask, “What do you mean?”
“That is information I cannot disclose, I’m afraid. I operate now under protocol C-51. I must eradicate all forces who stand in opposition…”
First the eyes lost their searing red glow, then the armor began to unfold itself; like some elaborate work of paper mache. Cogs and gears clicked together as the plates folded aside, revealing the body of a man: muscular and broad shouldered. White in complexion. This man looked young, perhaps in his late teens, even, with burning blue eyes that seemed like gateways into some kind of alternate dimension as I peered into them. Mesmerizing. The hair was long, falling past his shoulders and appropriately disheveled, whilst a strange tattoo had been imprinted on his chest… that of a sun.
It looked to have been chiseled haphazardly into the flesh and hummed a cherry tint. The light within the cuts of the sun rose and fell in some kind of unknown rhythm, melding with the crude swirls to create an etching not unlike what one could expect from some ancient artifact.
Beneath the sun, thankfully, was a pair of simple, tattered, brown trousers and simple bare feet. Aside from the pants, this fellow wore no clothing at all, making him a most bizarre sight. Was this truly the one who’d slaughtered so many? In spite of my doubts, I readied my blade and prepared to take the man’s head if need be.
The man smiled a jagged smile and took a step forwards. “Do you really think you’ll stand a chance against me when clearly none of your silly comrades could? Ah, perhaps you hold yourself in such a manner because you’re not unlike a cornered hound, ready to strike out in pure desperation. Instinct.”
“What are you?” I asked, adrenaline blasting through me. My heart threatened to fly straight out of my ribcage. “I… was told I’m not unlike you.”
At this, the being’s brows furrowed a little. “Like me? A sad little human such as yourself, clutching no more than a sharpened stick?” He seemed to study me for a few seconds, folding his arms and frowning. “Oh… how unexpected. But it matters not.”
I took a step backward as his eyes began to sear even brighter, the strange being slowly walking forward as a crushing energy began to pulse out from him. My grip tightened on the handle of my sabre, and my mind began racing for ways to somehow sneak an attack in past his guard. For whatever reason, though, I felt that if I lashed out unprepared I’d be dead immediately. That feeling resonated within the deepest depths of my soul. One wrong move and I was as good as dead.
“Since you are of my kind, however vaguely, I shall smite you with my full power,” said the being, curling his fingers inwards and raising an empty palm towards me. Air hissed and sizzled as a ball of some kind of red energy began to grow within it, miniature bolts of lightning somehow pouring through the mass and growing with it. I was frozen as it went from being the size of a baseball, to that of a softball, and soon nearly as large as a basketball. The entire room had taken on a bloody hue and I felt like I was being crushed by this power.
‘I have to wait for the exact moment,’ I thought, lowering my sabre and focusing only on my inner energies. That is known as ‘cambria.’ It had been long since I had used such energy in its raw form. The reason I hadn’t tried doing so earlier was because I thought it’d be weaker than a simple barrier Word, but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt a mere barrier would do nothing against this. I had to match wills with this thing. Beat it at its own game, or die trying.
“Yah!” my foe shouted, the orb of energy blasting forwards at blinding speed. My now superhuman eyes registered it, however. I had time to create the barrier.
Drawing all the power of my spirit forth, I focused all my mental fortitude on enhancing the protective field around me. The room echoed with immense power as I stood my ground, red energy rippling just above my skin like some kind of balloon. I braced for impact. For death.
The entire world lit up a blinding white as I felt myself being thrown backwards at great speeds. Air fled my lungs as my back hit something hard, crashing straight through it and going further. I finally came to a rest after striking yet another barrier I couldn’t even see. There was no pain. Only a ringing. Blindness.
I groaned as the world faded back in. As soon as I felt in control of myself I threw myself back to my feet, breathing frantically. The white haze faded like a fine mist, and as I looked towards my chest I saw massive fragments of glass jutting forth from it. Exactly eight of them, each long as knives. Was I going to die? I saw blood, but not near as much as I thought there would be. I must have been thrown straight through the strange glass chamber, destroying it.
My hand yanked one of the glass shards out, and life spilled across the floor below me. I grimaced and felt where the object had been. Metal? I tapped it. It was hard, but hardly bone. Then I remembered. Subdermal armor. So that must mean I had an armored plate under my flesh? What was more: my internal organs didn’t seem to have been damaged by the shockwave. Perhaps I had a chance.
Even with the glass sticking out of me I stepped forward towards my foe. He looked like he’d just been robbed. Bewilderment. Frustration.
“How could a thing like you share the same abilities as me? What have your perverted scientists created in order to emulate me so?”
“At this point, it seems I am equal parts man and machine. No matter.” As pain began to sear through me, so too did anger. A massive, red rage. “If that was you at your best, then you stand no chance of defeating me,” I bluffed.
“We shall see,” the brown-haired one hissed.
I knew not exactly how much time it took for him to appear directly in front of me, but what I did know was that he managed it in the time I used to blink. On opposite sides of his shoulders, I could have sworn I had seen wings: beautiful, massive, feathery wings that arched forth menacingly. Like those of an eagle about to make a kill. Then they were gone.
Something as sharp and daringly blue as a polished sapphire blazed towards me at an angle, but I’d still held onto my weapon. I raised it to block, and my foes’ ethereal blade glanced off the edge. That was when I got a look at it: a simple longsword comprised of wavering blue energy. What amazed me most was how fast he’d materialized it, but I’d little time to think before another blow assaulted me from the opposite side.
I faded back, using the momentum along with a turn of my sabre to redirect the blow towards the ground. Tiling and soil burst into the air as it landed, shattering the very foundations of the room. My weapon was made from tougher material, though, and as long as it stayed intact I was confident in my ability to deal with this threat. Now it was my turn.
I lunged in striking up to down from right to left, hoping to cleave him diagonally. I saw the wings flicker before me once again as the enemy dodged backwards, somehow evading the blow altogether. He was fast. Very fast.
“Eln-Sen!” I commanded, focusing the Words’ power on the glass in my chest. The seven remaining shards flew out of their resting places nearly as fast as bullets, hurtling towards the angel-winged monstrosity. I caught a look of surprise on its face as it faded sideways, fast as ever. Even so, one had caught him just below the shoulder on my left.
As it turned out, Ice bled just the same as humans.
The man stumbled to a knee, gasping and clutching the jagged green spear now embedded in his chest through clenched teeth, “How… DARE YOU!” he spat, breathing heavily before rising shakily back to his feet and stumbling backwards.
Blood seeped from where the glass had been in my chest, but I could see red-tinted metal in the holes. I felt the blood already begin to clot, however. Likely another addition to my new body. Perhaps as long as my armor wasn’t breached I’d stand little to no chance of death from my chest or gut. I felt like a monster now, but I loved it deep down. I had the power to stand up to what was essentially a demigod.
I focused, then Vaulted forward, the crack of wind sounding a full second after I was at my enemy’s’ side.
A Vault was a high-speed movement technique that needed to be mastered to the degree you needn’t speak the word to use it. Vault was an additional usage of the Cambrian word for wind: ‘Whik.’ It allowed one to blast forwards at the speed of a tempest nearly instantaneously, but misuse could end with you being a red splat on a wall afterwards. Of course, I already went over this before, but it never does hurt to have more
My sabre howled for blood as I sent it towards the angel thing’s neck, and I caught a glimpse of panic in one of those blue eyes before the Ice vanished with a ‘fwip.’ My eyes traced the movement back towards where the being had left its armor.
“I don’t see how you’ll be able to enter that armor with that thing stuck in your shoulder,” I said, pointing towards the angel, who was now holding his ethereal weapon only loosely. He flicked his wrist, seemingly dispelling said blade with a ‘zip.’
“You… would be unwise… to doubt me.” With the hand formerly swinging his weapon, the angel took hold of the glass and growled as he yanked it free, a flow of blood beginning to spatter onto the ground before him from the gash.
However, in the time it had taken him to do so, I’d already unholstered my flintlock and loaded a cryo round: a bullet capable of encasing limbs in exceptionally hard crystalline formations. These were among the most expensive available to the Guard. Each of us only had one or maybe two depending on our rank. I, unfortunately, only had one.
Even so, as the angel walked backwards, spreading his arms out and letting the suit begin to fold over him, I unleashed my ordinance: aiming for the midsection. The bullet left its chamber with a low ‘kachung,’ like a ball rapidly being launched from a long tube. My aim was true, and before I knew it a transparent mass of crystals had sprouted just above my foe’s chest, effectively freezing open the armor and trapping the angel within it.
The armor groaned and stuttered against the jagged formation of mock ice, but the cluster didn’t budge. While cryo rounds didn’t last for more than a few minutes, they were exceptionally strong. One had to know the best methods of destroying the crystals, or else they’d be severely handicapped if hit.
“Looks like you never should have left that armor,” I said, walking past the remains of the glass canister and kicking aside a few stray pieces of it, “If you’d have done that I might have been able to freeze a leg or an arm, but as long as your armor held you could have just waited it out. Now you’re wide open. All because of your pride.” His arms, legs, and body were covered only partially by the suit. Not enough to move, and certainly not enough to protect them from further damage.
Then I heard something I thought I’d never hear from someone in such a situation: laughter. Raucous, uproarious laughter. “Do you know just how much power it takes to lay siege to a city like this?!” the voice of the Ice echoed. “You really thought you won? Hah! Allow me to show you what happens when I take all the energy I used to destroy this disgusting city back.”
The lights began to flicker, and the earth beneath my feet trembled. It was as if an earthquake had just occurred directly beneath me, and I stumbled to the ground, watching an outline of blue begin to burn around the Ice as the lights continued to sputter and fail.
The sheer amount of energy floored me, bringing me to the ground until all I could do was fruitlessly attempt to rise back to my feet. I remembered thinking it was impossible for such power to exist. For a man so close to defeat to suddenly turn everything around so quickly. At that moment I felt like an ant compared to this thing.
I wrenched my eyes upwards in time to see the crystals start to groan from the pressure being suddenly applied to them. In training, I’d been told it would take thousands of pounds of pressure to shatter them. You weren’t supposed to try shattering them through brute force under any circumstance, but here I was watching it happen right before me.
Then I saw a man appear behind the armor, blonde-haired and distinctly blue-eyed, with a grim expression written across his face. He was dressed in close to all grey, from his black-rimmed military hat to his waistcoat and slacks, but I remembered this man. It was the one from the train. The one who’d shown me the strange ‘magic trick.’
“You rarely get this far, Mercer!” he shouted, frantic. “You need to touch him. You’re a half-breed! You can contest his energy!”
“The hell do you mean?!” I called back, gritting my teeth and wrenching myself off the ground, wondering how this man could stand in the midst of such insane power. Wondering how this man got down here, and why he seemed to know exactly what I should be doing.
“Just get to your feet and touch him! Hurry, Mercer!”
At that moment, I was at my last reserves of strength, but I had no idea what else I’d use it on if not for this. If not for this final shred of hope I had of maybe, possibly, overcoming this threat.
Rising to my feet was like having to carry a three hundred pound weight on my shoulders, but somehow I managed it. With each step towards the burning blue outline of my enemy, it felt as if I was being dragged down by some kind of magnetism. My legs were made of lead, or it sure as hell felt as such.
I focused my energy, priming for another Vault. My Cambrian energy succeeded where my body hadn’t, propelling me directly in front of my foe. In that moment I’d concentrated just about more than I’d ever concentrated in my life. It was almost easy to bridge the distance so precisely.
This thing was like some kind of black hole, exerting more gravity the closer you got. My bones threatened to shatter at the unseen force attempting to bring me to my knees, but with the last vestiges of strength I had, I grabbed hold of the Ice’s right arm, praying the armor wouldn’t slam shut and cut it clean off.
“Ice generate the energy, humans direct it!” I heard the strange blue-eyed man shout. “Absorb the power and repurpose it, Mercer. Feel his energy as if it is yours!”
“That sounds like cultist bullocks!” I called back. I looked into the apparent Ice’s cool pupils and saw what seemed to be panic within them.
“Uh, it is cultist bollocks,” he said, suddenly not so confident in himself. This assclown wasn’t even hiding it anymore.
“Very well then.” I focused my power, and felt all the crushing strength around me. Suddenly, as my concentration peaked, that power felt bearable. In fact, it felt as if it had been mine. Was mine. In all my years I never knew I even had such an ability, but as I used it, it felt natural. Like an old pair of shoes you fit back into after months of neglect. “I don’t know why you killed those people. But I do know that the law cannot serve you justice, nor its servants. Therefore…” I moved my other palm towards the face of the angel, fuming upon remembering the faces of those slain by this monster. “… I will pass your sentence.”
I channeled all the might this thing was exerting into a single Word: Whik. I wanted a gale so concentrated and strong it could blow apart his armor and incapacitate or kill him simultaneously.
That was exactly what I got.
There was a symphony of roars, like a pride of angry lions, from the storm that followed. I felt, for only a moment, that I’d unleashed the equivalent of a hurricane from my palm before everything faded into a dreamlike state of darkness and unfeeling.
I beheld the man I’d met ever so briefly on the train when my vision returned. A booth was behind me, a table before me. The ground shook and trembled, my body jostling ever so slightly every few seconds. I looked out the window to my side, seeing a nightscape of ocean and a burning city in the distance. Embers flickered towards the sky, but the fires seemed to have quelled. Oh, yes. This was where I’d been.
“My name is Eckels Ezekiel,” the man’s voice broke the silence, and the train’s hum. “You are the first version of Mercer Cedric to defeat that Ice.”
Still woozy, I replied in what I imagined was a monotone. “So I won?”
“For the time being.”
More silence. It all felt like a dream. Like a distant reality, and yet here I was with my same combat scars. My same afflictions. “Cyrus and the others… are they okay?”
“Yes. For the time being.” ‘Eckels’ took a drink of some clear liquid sitting before him. “You have no idea just how excited I am, Mercer. I’ve been living a life of misery, trapped in an endless cycle of hope being crushed. You, Mercer, are now my hope. The world’s hope, as we move into this next age.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, my mind an utter mess.
Eckels grinned, looking out the window with a wistful look in those cool blue eyes. “In time we’ll see.”
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🔔 More stories from author: Justin Reinarz
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