Replaceable

“A tune-up before you start, ma’am?”

I nearly jumped at the frail voice of the man by the door to the locker room. He’d poked his head through to get my attention, and I could see the cart he was pushing through the crack of the door. He seemed genuine enough.

“No, thank you,” I said as politely as I could, but I knew it came out weighed by trepidation.

“Are you sure, ma’am? The service is free for-”

“I’m fine,” I replied, knowing it sounded curt, “and I’d like the time to think, please.”

The older man squinted at me, but left with a shrug as his hand snatched the door and pulled. I noted the light reflecting off of the metallic fingers that disappeared as it closed. I sighed and looked to my shaking hands I’d concealed between my legs. Why did I agree to this?

“That’s it for the final match of the night, folks!” an energetic man’s voice announced over the intercom. “I know, I know, you want more! Well do I have news for you! We’re not done yet! We have one more exhibition not on the schedule, and it’s bound to make that main event look like…oh hell, it’s going to be a slaughter!”

I could hear the cheers and thundering stomps, and I was two levels below the arena. I had to wonder how many of those were from bionic legs?

“The reigning champion has been challenged by a complete outsider. That’s right folks, someone not even on the circuit! If the brave soul survives four minutes against the undefeated champ, then a prize of a million dollars awaits! Now, everyone give the newcomer a warm welcome, and…I’m just messing, scare the shit out of ‘em!”

A subtle knock came from the door, and a man in a black suit stepped halfway inside. Judging from the heavy footsteps, his legs weren’t natural. I guessed titanium framing rather than a normal calcium-based structure. Even his eyes didn’t look natural in the light.

“Ms. Halls? I’m the coordinator, Hank Redfield. It’s time.”

“Okay.” I stood up from the bench and took a deep breath.

“Please, follow me,” the Hank said dully. I walked through the door and into the dimly lit hallway. The announcer’s voice over the intercoms was just a buzz in my ears as we got onto the elevator and rode it up to the arena floor. The doors split open, and I was staring down a hallway of brutality. Men were on gurneys being tended to by hired surgeons who had probably lost their medical licenses doing God-knows-what. One had a man’s chest peeled open and was using a power drill to undo screws to get to his innards. Another was trying to reattach wiring on a severed arm that rested next to a young man who kept a hand over one eye. The fingers on the arm were twitching, with sparks shooting out between the torn skin of the knuckles.

“Be still,” the doctor instructed, inserting a scalpel between the knuckles to open the wound for a better look.

“I don’t get it!” the teen whined. “My dad paid for the best augmentations! I downloaded the best martial arts styles into my-”

“That is the difference between explicit memory and implicit,” the doctor explained in a condescending manner, “you know these things, but have no practice in the arts. You could download the entirety of The Art of War into your brain and still not be a great conquerer.”

“Hey, you’re a repairman. You’re paid to fix me, not teach.”

“Fixing you will require more than rewiring and a replaced free-rotating shoulder socket, child.”

The humor was a nice thing to focus on, but the words of the repairman were really quite wise. Society was spoiled by the works of Copper Veins Inc. Their grand technological revolution had erased the days of human limitations and forced evolution through artificial means. Soldiers were literal war machines, and even construction workers were overpowered brutes who could sling a girder like a baseball bat. I didn’t even want to think about baseball. That sport was ruled obsolete decades ago thanks to the hypersensitive responses of all of the players. Most players opted against using bats versus their own arms when they could calculate a precise hit with everything from wind variables to spin. It was a sport of who could put the best money into cybernetics, and in the end it fell victim to the times.

“You seem distracted,” Hank noted. I shook my head and realized we were standing at the end of the hallway, right before the doors to the arena.

“I’ll be fine.”

“What kind of enhancements do you have, anyway?” Hank asked, looking me up and down. “Whoever did the skin work did it well. No signs of surgical scars or anything. You must’ve paid top-dollar for that. Of course, if that were the case, I’d have to ask why you’re even doing this?”

“I have my reasons.”

Hank seemed unsatisfied with that reply, but gave up and opened the door for me. The sounds of excitement and blood lust slammed into me. The roar of the crowd was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life, and as I took one careful step after another into the circular ring I was overwhelmed by the attention. Apparently, no one had expected a woman. The ground was nerve-wrecking. Craters pocketed the concrete, and scorch marks were visible in a few spots. Dried blood and even oil stains were abundant. A true place where even angels would dare to tread.

“Okay, folks, settle down!” the announcer’s voice boomed over the speakers. “Now, this will be a single one-on-one round between the lovely Ms. Brenda Halls and our very own Trevor “Headcrusher” Marx!”

On that note, the doors opposite me opened to reveal a shady figure who slowly walked into the light. The whitish-blue flooded over him and revealed the abomination of a man who would be my opponent. Tall, covered in scars, and equipped with visible robotic legs and arms, the man’s eyes flared even from a distance. There was no telling what he was scanning for. X-ray views of my innards to determine what he was up against? Probability computations? There were plenty of ocular amplifications that could do everything from give the blind the ability to see again to eliminating the need for viewing instruments.

The crowd was going crazy over the champion’s appearance, and the announcer let the air fill with energy to feed off of. “I don’t even have to ask how excited you all are, do I? Well, I would say that our champion needs no introductions, but you all want to hear it! He wants to hear it! Let’s get this show started!”

The strange glow to the champion’s eyes stopped, and I found myself more nervous than relieved. Feet apart, I stood my ground and focused on breathing. I had to stay calm.

“With 315 pounds of flesh and metal, he’s broken and beaten everything in his path to the top to keep the champion title for three years straight! That metallic, flat mohawk isn’t just for style, because he keeps the advanced processor that keeps him a step ahead of his opponents and his pain inhibitors in there. The man is a walking weapon who was turned away by the Army for his brutal tendencies! Give it up for Trevor, the “Headcrusher,” Marx!”

I closed my eyes as the audience went insane with their cheers. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

“The challenger, well that’s another story. She opted out of the questionnaire before the match, but little does she know that we have guys for that reason!”

My eyelids split open. What did he mean?

“Get this! Her late husband was a mechanical engineer who worked for Copper Veins Inc.! He was one of the guys who designed the very augmentations we use! Don’t let her feeble arms fool you, because she could be packing Mk-3 Hammer Arms under lovely synthetic skin!”

He was trying to rattle me. I couldn’t lose focus. My target was the thing that resembled a man before me. Survive. I just had to survive for four minutes. I could do this.

“We also have information that suggests she’s actually a doctor who specializes in tending to artificial organ repairs! Now, I have to wonder what a doctor would be doing trying to earn money in a place like this?! What does everyone else think?!”

The crowd began to throw around speculations, and the murmurings weren’t exactly private. They didn’t need to know why I was here. They just needed to know that I wasn’t here to be scared away.

“Well, Mr. Halls did leave quite a bit of debts in his wake with all of his research, so I suppose she’s not in the best financial state with his passing. If it’s any condolences, Ms. Halls, he was a brilliant man to give us a reason to be entertained every single night. Am I right folks?!”

The murmurs became cheers, but I wasn’t swept with a feeling of pride. My husband’s work was to benefit humanity, not to turn us all into the weapons that these people thrived on watching. It was a dishonor to his name.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any medical records to hint at what possible enhancements she might have, and since there’s no rule against hiding personal augmentations from your opponent, we have to let her fight, folks! Desperate for money, or to join her late husband?! You decide! Let’s hear it for the brave soul down there! Ms. Brenda Halls!”

The cheers transformed into boos in an instant. If it weren’t for the cage surrounding the arena, I would have expected food to be thrown at me. Mr. “Headcrusher” took a fighting stance of some kind, and I did the same, drawing laughter from the spectators. A display above Trevor showed the time. The number four was never going to be just a numerical value to me ever again.

“Let’s get this party started!” the announcer shouted. “Let the match begin…now!”

Trevor stood his ground, motionless and cold. I shifted my footing and waited, wondering just what the monster had planned. The excitement that had taken the crowd began to soften and die as the time ticked away. Trevor showed no signs of aggression, and the onlookers weren’t happy. They cried for blood, but he remained still.

“Well…this is an odd start,” the announcer said, the disappointment evident in his tone. Trevor’s eyes flared a brief flash barely visible by me before going dark again. What was he doing? “Hey, are you two going to stand there?!”

I didn’t have to fight him, so wasting time like this wasn’t really a bad thing in my mind, but with every passing second I could only feel the tension escalating. Maybe he was just enjoying my discomfort? What if he was playing a mind game with me?

“Come on, you two! These people want a match! I know you’ve fought women before, Trevor! One actually gave you a scare last year!”

Trevor’s head shifted on his neck, facing upwards towards the commentator’s box. An audible gulp was heard over the speakers before the announcer spoke again. “N-never mind. You just have fun down there, okay big guy?”

I couldn’t take it anymore. I braced myself and charged forward, screaming all the while as Trevor’s visage grew larger and larger with the distance becoming smaller and smaller. I stopped right before his figure, scared by the actual size of the cyborg. Trevor Marx emanated intimidation. His eyes were emotionless, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he really was a machine somewhere in there.

“Ms. Halls looked to be ready to strike, but has stopped short just at Trevor’s feet! I can’t say I blame her, but she’s going to have to do something soon if she wants to win! Personally, I suggest running!”

Trevor’s chin drooped downward, and I realized he was staring at me. My chest tightened, and my heart missed a few beats.

“Two minutes and thirty seconds,” Trevor said plainly. His voice even sounded mechanical. I could see the scars across his throat. His vocal cords had probably been replaced some time ago.

“What?” I asked, scared and confused.

“I will give you one minute to do whatever you would like. Pray, find peace, think of your loved ones, flee, or attack. Try to hack into my processor. Short my eyes. Stop my heart pump. Your choice. After that, I will not stop beating you until time is up.”

The words took a moment to register. In that time, ten more seconds passed, and I could see the screen up on the cage behind him. I was down to two minutes.

“My husband created technology like those things you call your arms to help people. They weren’t meant to hinder the world, but to lift people up in it.” I looked him square in the eye. “If you don’t agree with that, then at least don’t be so condescending just because I’m a woman.”

Trevor’s eyebrows raised up, but from the rest of his plain face I could tell he really didn’t care what I did with my time left.

“I think those two are having a heart-to-heart, folks!” the announcer stated. “I hope she doesn’t think that will work!”

“Why are you here?” Trevor asked me. It was funny; I think he was serious.

“I want to win that money,” I answered, watching him closely for any sign of a surprise attack.

“If what the loud one says is true, then you should not be in financial trouble, no?”

“My husband used his savings to fund his research, and my earnings and his insurance are paying that off.”

He chuckled. “Then why are you throwing your life away?”

His question sank into me like a stone to water. Unfortunately for him, I was a lake of faith. “To save another one.”

Trevor nodded, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I looked past his head to the display. One minute was left.

“Terminating limbic system responses. Engage all other systems. Overriding directive: eliminate Brenda Halls.”

The voice was so mechanical in tone that I almost missed the actual content of his words. “What?”

I didn’t even see what had happened. One second I was staring at Trevor, and the next I was staring at the concrete floor, chest aching and senses disoriented.

“Trevor knocks his opponent feet away with one swift punch! This is it, folks! The end of Ms. Halls!”

I hadn’t even pushed myself up yet when I felt the ground shaking from each powerful step Trevor took towards me. Something hard connected with my right arm and snapped the elbow like it was nothing. I went tumbling away, my forearm uselessly flailing about with me.

“Did you see that?! It snapped like a twig! I guess she doesn’t have bionic arms after all! I hope something she has will be useful!”

I managed to roll over onto my chest and force myself up on my remaining arm. Trevor was standing over me, his right hand outstretched and inches from my face. In the center of the palm was a green dot that was beginning to glow with an intense shine. A bright flash overtook my vision, and then it was gone. What was that?

“Trevor uses an electromagnetic pulse against Ms. Halls! When did he have that installed?!”

We stared each other down for a few seconds, confused by one anothers’ reactions. The hand became a fist and cocked back before coming at me fast. A few inches saved me from becoming mush in a crater as I rolled aside. Trevor was struggling to pull his arm out of the floor as I scurried to my feet and went on the offensive. I threw one foot at his metal elbow to no avail, so I resorted to punching him in the face. Each strike did nothing but reaffirm that even his skull was plated. He didn’t even react to my hits as he tore his arm free from the concrete in a cloud of dust. A hand plunged through it and seized me by the neck.

“Ms. Halls shows no sign of stopping! She must have copper plating over her organs, because I can’t imagine what would keep her going like this after Trevor’s surprise attack! Now she finds herself in his merciless grasp! What will he do?! Focus your telescopic eyes if you have ‘em, people! You don’t want to miss this!”

I began to hammer his arm with my fist and kick at his chest, but Trevor threw me to the floor, where my head bounced off of the cold concrete. I felt like I was already dead. I could see why Trevor was the thing he had become. Bones are brittle, and break. That’s why we replaced them. Hearts are dying powerhouses we replaced with mechanisms that pump tirelessly. Our brains were only steps from being supercomputers, and we perfected that. We inhibited our nerves, and can turn off our emotions. Our eyes can see more than there is. Humans have evolved to surpass our barriers to divinity.

Another kick connected with my chest and sent me sprawling across the floor. I came to rest next to a puddle of oil, and some of my hair was soaking in it.

“It’s time, Ms. Halls!” the announcer yelled. “I’d suggest doing something now!”

Mustering all of my strength, I pushed myself back up again and stood in front of the “Headcrusher.” I looked to the screen again. Ten seconds left. I just had to make it ten more seconds. Trevor threw another punch, and then everything went blurry. I had lost all sense of time along with everything else. By the time everything came back into focus and the ringing stopped there was a man leaning over me and staring closely at my chest. It was the worker who had tried to offer me maintenance before the match started. I could see his pupils flickering as I listened to the crowd applauding.

“Her heart’s beating again. She’s not dead, but she’s unable to fight.”

Trevor spoke from somewhere out of sight. “She’s lucky my systems accounted for it. By that logic, since it registered to me, she still loses.”

“She may lose more than the match,” the repairman said.

“Everything we are is replaceable,” Trevor said coldly.

“True, but her left forearm is snapped off at the elbow. A few toes are broken, numerous ribs are cracked, and her right hand is fractured in…my god…”

Trevor came into view, towering over me as I lay on my back. “Explain.”

“She…she’s human!”

“Aren’t we all?” Trevor inquired.

“No, she’s completely human! She has nothing inside of her! Everything is natural!”

Trevor crouched down and squinted at me. “In this day and age? She must have something artificial. Who would live like that with all we have?” I tried to smile, but could feel where a few teeth were missing. Trevor leaned forward. “You said you were throwing your life away to save another. What did you mean by that?”

It hurt to move my jaw, but I answered him. “My daughter has osteogenesis imperfecta.”

Trevor looked to the repairman, apparently expecting a translation. The repairman rolled his eyes. “Brittle bone disease. Does that processor of yours only work in physical combat?”

Trevor examined me, no evident portrayal of peaked curiosity, but still he asked questions. “You speak of your husband’s legacy with pride, yet you refuse his gifts?”

“I told you, they weren’t meant to take lives, but to help them. I need the money for my daughter’s surgeries. She has a long road to replace her skeletal structure with something stronger.”

Trevor studied me carefully, apparently ignorant to what compassion looked like. He was just a machine, after all.

“You would make your daughter into something like me?”

I couldn’t shake my head, but I tried. “No. I’m lifting her up in the world.”

The machine grunted, and then pointed at the repairman and spoke in a commanding tone, “Take her into the surgical room and fix her. Don’t worry about the expenses.”

“A-are you sure?” the repairman asked.

“Yes. I’m going to speak to the coordinator.”

“About what?” I asked him. Trevor shifted his attention back to me.

“Giving you the money you earned.”

I felt a lot of pain, but the shock overtook all of that. “What?”

“Though you were rendered incapable of combat for the remainder of the match, you technically survived. I believe that constitutes a victory.”

I was astounded. I came here with a purpose, and it began to look like my goal was further and further from my reach; impossible by human standards. The machine stood up, still looking down on me, and cracked a smile. Odd; maybe I missed something while I was halfway dead for a moment there, but did he even reengage his normal brain functions?

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A Journey’s Sudden End: Part Two

It’s been four months since the battle with Sam in Dimshore. In that time, a lot has changed. Lethe’s religious cults have surfaced in settlements across the lands and recruited more to their numbers, some by force, and others through desperation. Everyone fears the beginning of the Second Great Calamity, and rightfully so close considering the very being that created the first event was at the helm. Still, one question persists through the impending doom creeping upon the land; where are the heroes that had fought against the villainous masses throughout the past year? Hell, even I wanted answers to that, but for now I was forced to take up arms in their absence. A lot of us were.

I stood in the ruins of Gravesend, the place where this all began a year ago, or so I’m told. Not far to the north was the Tomb of the Necromancer, the very place where Lethe’s body had been sealed a thousand years before. I’ve never actually been here before, but heard a lot of tales from my two previous partners. Apparently they were tied to this place too. Maybe I’m an idiot for still holding onto hope that they’ll be here now, but it’s the only thing pushing me forward.

“You okay?”

I snapped back to reality and looked over at one of my allies. His name was too difficult to pronounce, so we called him “Hope.” A half-human, half-devilish lineage being, his red skin and short horns may have intimidated some, but he was a good guy. He hailed from Ardglass, a city on the eastern continent of Iavros, and home to an academy that trained warriors of magic and might. A top student among the academy, he worked with Phyra and Tallara in their trials in Minoldur against the Lethesar Four. He was kind of flamboyant at times, but who was I to judge? I’m the monster. He was just a guy who keep justice in his convictions, and swords to anyone who stood against that. His name was fitting for a time like this.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied nonchalantly, readying my staff and marching forward through the ruined village.

“Henry, you need to keep your head in this. We all need a leader.”

I scoffed. “Who the hell elected my ass the leader of this band of misfits?”

Hope walked beside me, torso shifted so he was facing me and arms crossed. “You did when you gathered us.”

“I gathered you all because Phyra and Tallara spoke highly of you in their adventures, and anyone willing to put up with them and their circumstances had to be tough. That, or stupid.”

Hope shook his head and walked straight, muttering underneath his breath every now and again. I wasn’t lying. Those were the reasons I had selected this group to aid me in going against Sam and Lethe. Hope was the one with his head on right. Next was Samwise Shadelz, the master thief who mentored Phyra and served as her foster father. He wasn’t a fan of me, and treated me like a bad influence, but I couldn’t deny his tenacity. That, and his desire to find his adopted daughter made it easy to convince him to come along. Even now he still wore his old, faded green cloak over his heavily armed clothing. He hadn’t shaved in months, and his green eyes were jaded by desperation. Though we didn’t get along, I was actually happy he was here. Behind him was the towering hulk of a half-giant, Vatham Rocksmasher. His gray skin and blue tribal tattoos were only two of his odd features. The guy was a machine, undaunted by even the mightiest foe, and loyal only to Samwise as his bodyguard. I had to admit that even I wanted to see the extent of his strength versus my other half, but Vatham had survived far worse near-death experiences. Even now his axe over his shoulder was stained with the blood of those creatures dumb enough to get in out way. Life must be easy when everything is kill and wait to kill again.

Hanging off to the right was the draconic humanoid, Sirath. There was another oddity. The black-scaled being was still donning his pirate garbs, a flintlock pistol hanging from his belt on one side and a cutlass on the other. I always assumed that Sirath was a delusional bastard, but he’d proven himself helpful time and time again in the past. His flying ship and the crew were dependable, but were now busy helping Lanerscost fend off the unrelenting hordes of undead striving to topple the walls of the capital. I wouldn’t have minded using the ship to smash through the temple, especially if that killed Sam and Lethe instantly. Next to Sirath at waist-height was Kroznir Cragguard, the pint-sized inventor and heat-packing member of the group. Kroznir came from a lineage of royalty, and that lineage was so old it served as the name for the entire race. Cragguards are small and stout, but their ingenious minds kept them ahead of the game as far as war goes. His home city of Minoldur was currently battling against eldritch horrors that had been buried underneath the mountain they’d built their city into the side of. Nice foresight for such smart people. I’m not racist. Kroznir looked as ready as ever, and had finally started to regrow his orange beard after it had burned off during a bout with a clockwork dragon the Brain Trust had constructed ran amok. Kroznir may be the brother of a king, but he was a king in my eyes; king of heavy armaments. There was no telling what weapons he had beneath that old duster. He’d pulled his goggles down over his eyes to keep the dust of the dead lands out, but it still collected in his unkept hair. Tallara’s disappearance took its toll on him too, and being the person that took care of her when she came to this world out of the blue, she meant a lot to him. These guys were brave enough to stand with Phyra and Tallara when they fought against Lethe’s forces before, and I was thankful they were here now. Those two left a legacy in their deeds, and we’d take that torch right to Lethe and burn his corpse from the face of the planet.

“Right into his eye socket,” I uttered.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Hope asked.

“Nothing.” I put my nose to the wind. No Phyra or Tallara. Only burnt cinders and dead vegetation. There was something else to the air, but I had nothing to put it to. If I had to name it, it would be evil. This entire area was tainted with necromancy, and the spiraling black clouds that had expanded miles out over the past few months were practically pulsating with power. I took a moment to slow down and let the others pass so I could focus on the magical aura that pervaded the area. All dark, but it didn’t feel like Sam’s presence.

“Henry, not scared, are you?” Kroznir called back in his thick accent that emphasized the ‘r’ in every word. I picked up the pace and caught up with the group.

“No, I was trying to figure out what kind of magic is at play here.”

“And?”

“Let me put it to you his way,” I explained, “my other half is getting excited.”

Sirath stepped closer as we walked, and spoke in what I referred to as his stupid pirate accent. “Is that a bad thing?”

“If the other me is excited, it’s always a bad thing.”

His scaly tail came up and wrapped around his waist. I didn’t know pirates got nervous on land. From what I’d heard he’d fought against a giant whale-like beast that spewed fire from its mouth, so what the hell could scare him?

“Not much further now, I think,” Samwise spoke from the front. Being the leader of a band of thieves, he had enough of a network to know the land better than the rest of us, so I took his word for it.

“I don’t smell them,” I replied.

“I wasn’t going to ask for fear of that,” he said with a sigh.

I had another thought. Phyra really cared for her foster father, and our enemy had a very specific goal in mind. “Samwise, a word?”

Everyone else looked to the old thief. He stopped in his tracks and slowly turned around. “Yes?”

“You and I are humans…well, I’m close enough.”

He nodded, his expression only slightly confused. “Your point?”

“We’d be the prime targets for them. The Lethesar want to eradicate humans from the planet and enslave the rest. Maybe…”

I knew he wasn’t stupid, and he picked up on what I was suggesting quickly. “I’m not going to sit out on this.”

“Look, I’m not saying you’re not up for this, I’m trying-”

Samwise walked towards me and motioned to the others. “Go on ahead. We’ll catch up.”

No one questioned it, but Vatham stood still as the others marched on through the dead woods.

“Vatham?”

“I’m here to protect you,” Vatham stated dully.

“And I respect that, but we need a moment,” Samwise retorted. Vatham didn’t move, and it wasn’t like we were going to tell him he had to. He just stood there as stiff as a tree stump.

“Okay then.” Samwise directed his attention to me. “You’ve been different.”

“I know,” I said with a chuckle, “sometimes I have a lot more hair and muscles, and sometimes I’m like I am right now.”

“Smartass,” Samwise snarled, “I mean you’re not the selfish dick that only looked at others as things to be disassembled and examined. What’s wrong? Why are you worried about you and me? You, I understand, but why me? You know I don’t like you.”

He was blunt, but at least he was still himself at a time like this. “I…look, Phyra once told me before you and I met that if I did something that brought harm to you that she’d kill me herself.”

“You were an ass,” Samwise reminded me.

“I know. I was a dick to you and your guild, but right now I’m trying to do the right thing and-”

“Why?” he interrupted. I struggled with the words, and for some reason looked to Vatham for help. Vatham only gave me a cold stare. He didn’t give a damn about this conversation, and probably just thought we were wasting time. My eyes met Samwise’s, and I knew I couldn’t bullshit my way through him.

“You’re important to Phyra, so I’d rather you didn’t die so she doesn’t do something stupid.”

Samwise glared at me. “Why do you…wait…”

I pointed to Vatham. “Right, let’s go!” I started off for the rest of the group. I glanced back, but Samwise and Vatham weren’t coming after me. Good, maybe he’d stay there.

The others hadn’t gotten too far ahead, but far enough that by the time I reached them they had stopped themselves. The massive ziggurat was visible over the dead trees, and from the top a thick plume of black, Cloud-like gas was rising into the spiraling darkness above, serving as the source of the blackened skies. Kroznir was complaining that he couldn’t see anything, so when Vatham arrived his lifted the Cragguard up by his duster and held him up high.

“Put me down, you barbarian!”

Vatham dropped him from that height and left Kroznir complaining as the rest of us approached with caution. Weapons were drawn, and eyes were peeled. I didn’t smell anything else new in the area, but I did start to hear an annoying voice in my head that wasn’t my own, let alone the other half of me. It was a woman’s, and it took a moment to properly register.

“Can you hear me, Henry?”

“Margarine? Is that you?” I asked. The others looked bewildered at my apparent insanity. I thought they knew that already. “How is Lanerscost?”

“Duke Kamil has all forces battling the creatures coming from the ruins beneath. They’re unlike anything we’ve ever seen, but manageable. The odd part is, they’re not undead, otherwise my barrier would obliterate them on the spot.”

That was concerning. “Demons?”

“No, the magic would affect them too, though not as much. They’re not showing any signs of weakness against the army, so I can only imagine what they are.”

“I didn’t ask for a status update from there, so why are you talking to me?” I asked, trying hard not to sound irritated. Margarine was a nice woman, and I had some respect for her since she gave me a place to stay in Lanerscost. That, and she wasn’t scared of me. On the contrary, I feared the extent of her magic. We practiced different schools, but she could see anything she wanted, and her vision almost covered the planet. Then I realized the only reason she’d be contacting me.

“What do you see?” I asked, and the others took note of my stance and backed together as well.

“Creatures everywhere. They’re horrible, Henry. They’re gathering around the tomb. Please, be careful.”

I swore and motioned for the others to follow me as I snuck around the trees and stepped over the dried and dying vines and roots. “No promises.”

It didn’t take long to reach a small patch of clearing before the tomb itself. Most of the structure had been covered by vines and other foliage, but a lot of that was practically dust now and barely clinging to the ziggurat. We all stood in the tree line, except for Vatham. He just marched out towards the steps that led up the side of the structure and stopped ten feet from them, his head twisting on his neck as he examined the area.

“Vatham!” Samwise hissed, “Get back here!”

Vatham refused to heed his words, and it was no surprise to any of us that the half-giant was intercepted by an enemy for his blunt action. What shouldn’t have surprised me was what transpired next. The being seemingly materialized out of nowhere and swung a clawed hand at Vatham’s neck. The barbaric man snatched the hand before it made contact and lifted his heavy axe over his head. In a powerful swing that defied even my quick senses he cleaved the hand off at the wrist and the creature recoiled, now completely visible to us. It looked like a brown snake with black patterns across its scales…no, it didn’t have scales. Its skin was like that of burnt flesh. That’s what the black marks were. It had a man-like torso, with gangly arms that ended in hands with razor claws. Well, a hand with razor claws. The face was the worst part; toothy maws were sporadically placed all about it, with tiny, white beady eyes in the spaces between them all. The snout at the center reminded me of a bat in an odd way. Whatever the hell had created this thing was on something. Still, why couldn’t I smell it before?

“Vatham, be careful!” Samwise commanded. Vatham studied the creature as it slithered away, watching and waiting for his next action. The big guy was patient, but the monster wasn’t. It moved with a speed far exceeding anything I’d ever dealt with, and as it swiped at Vatham’s chest he stopped the claws with the hilt of his axe. Not to be deterred, it lunged its face at him and tried to sink as many teeth into his chest as it could. We could hear the maws snapping and emitting horrible noises as they dug into Vatham’s gray flesh, but the big guy didn’t seem too bothered by it. He’d grabbed the remaining hand and was in the process of twisting it into a shape that made me cringe, and my bones broke every single time I transformed! The cracking was loud, but the maws that had relinquished him and were now screaming in pain drowned that out. Something about seeing this abomination now struggling to flee from Vatham was actually more terrifying than good. It was trying to stab the stump of its other arm into him repeatedly, but his skin was too tough. Vatham lifted the monster and snatched the tail end that had come around to push him away. We all watched in awe and horror as Vatham grabbed the tail in both hands and whipped. The creature moved like a wave, and then its neck snapped, blood spurting from its many mouth. Vatham held his prize up high by the tail as it continued to drizzle blood to the dead ground at his feet, and I quickly changed my mind about the former tribal barbarian. I never wanted to go one-on-one against Vatham Rocksmasher. The smell of the singed flesh of the serpent was strong, and it only got stronger as we inspected it from a distance. A lot stronger. It made more sense when I had a clawed hand ran through my chest a few seconds later.

“Henry!” Hope cried out, his sword out in a flash and swinging at something behind me. The claws were withdrawn, and I hit my knees as blood pooled out in front of me. The pain was unbelievable, yet inviting. I shuddered as the twisted thoughts that plagued my nightmares surfaced, and begged me to be released. I dropped my staff and covered the gaping wound with my arms, not sure if I was sneering at the pain or grinning at the thought of the transformation coming. I started to welcome it, but the pain in my chest intensified. The wound was festering already. Poison?

“Henry, get away!”

I raised my head to see something that resembled a hunched humanoid with a snakelike face lacking all features, minus eye sockets with sparks of red light burning within. It had rotting, mummified flesh along the torso and head with insects crawling in and out of festering wounds. The limbs were comprised of writhing worms with too many ends for feet and hands. On its back were wings of fleshy hands, stretched and spindly. I couldn’t create that in my makeshift workshop back home if I wanted to, and I really didn’t. Through the pain and bewilderment, I wondered if the thing actually had arms underneath the worm appendages that were coming right for me. I was nearly deafened as gunshot after gunshot rang out, and flesh and insects were blown out of the back of the creature. Kroznir stepped between us and holstered his empty revolvers. I grimaced as I tried to stand.

“I can’t get away with a fucking hole in my chest, you ass!”

Kroznir whipped out another gun from beneath his duster. “Then cover your ears.”

“I can’t do that either! Bleeding out here!”

The gun looked like a rifle, but the part you load with bullets (the receiver? I don’t know guns like the guy who builds them) was kind of big for one of those. How the hell did he even conceal that under there? I didn’t get to think on that long before he pointed it at the monster and fired. The concussive blast actually hurt my head, like a sudden, vast pressure change. An arc of blue light erupted from the end of the gun and tore the head of the horror into shreds before slamming into the stone of the tomb and blowing a section into chunks. If I wasn’t on the verge of dying I’d have admired that power a lot more. An odd-looking piece of metal was ejected from the gun as Kroznir messed with it, and then he stuck another bit of the same metal inside, only it glowed blue.

“Any chance you’ll recover from that?” he asked me over his shoulder. Had he asked that to any other man, he’d be deranged. I was an odd exception, thanks to the curse that was my other half. I wasn’t sure how much the poison would affect it, but my healing factor would take care of the wound eventually. I knew changing would speed up the process, but I hadn’t voluntarily transformed since Dimshore. Tallara’s words stuck to me, so I kept my other half caged most of the time.

“I’ll manage. Don’t let the snake ones cut you.”

“I’d like to see them try,” he said, shouldering the rifle and aiming off to the left. I was practically blinded by the flash of blue as he fired at whatever the hell was over there. My senses started to come back, and I saw the bottom-half of another one of the rotting humanoids slump to the ground. Kroznir was a crazy bastard to make such a personal weapon. Samwise appeared in my field of vision in the background, backing away from one of the serpent things and flashing daggers to stop strikes from the creature. He was fast for a guy in is fifties. Leaping over the creature, he stepped on its head and came down on its back, driving the daggers into its shoulders and working them down its back as the tail came up and smacked him to the ground. My staff was still on the ground, and Kroznir was busy lining up another target somewhere in the woods. Samwise was a dead man.

The snake’s head snapped back as the contents of its skull rained down upon the dirt. The shot had come from my right, and I looked over to see Sirath standing in dramatic fashion with his smoking pistol. It was odd to see a long, dragon-like face like his smiling.

“I’m still better, you damned thief!” he boasted. Samwise gathered his daggers and quickly got to his feet, pointing a finger at his old foe.

“I had him!”

“You had your back to the ground and your life flashing in your eyes!” Sirath jabbed. I was sure the two would fight each other before the abominable creatures that were ambushing us.

“Guys, not now!” Hope yelled behind me. I looked back to see him clutching the hilt of his sword in his right hand, the blade impaled through the head of one of the burnt serpents. His other was preparing what I recognized as a fire spell. Adding insult to injury was a nice touch. I admired his skill, even as he held the thing in place with his sword while he torched it alive. I glanced down at my chest. It wasn’t healing. I was probably going to pass out pretty soon.

“Hold on!”

A hand landed on my right shoulder and emitted a bright glow. My chest was warm, but not burning like it had been. Hope was doing his best to heal me, but it wasn’t his strong suit.

“You’re wasting your magic, Hope,” I uttered, my vision hazy.

“I’m not wasting an ally,” he argued back. You couldn’t win with the guy, so I just shut my mouth and let him do his work.

“Oh, hell no.”

His hand left my shoulder, and I glanced over to see him lop a rotting fuck’s head off with his sword. He then tossed the blade into the air, where it began to spin and fly around, seeking out targets. I needed to study more.

“That’ll buy us some time,” he said as he went back to casting his meager healing spell, “so hurry up and get yourself together.”

I wanted to hit him for that joke, but I didn’t have the energy. Apparently I’d lost a lot more blood than I thought, because my robes were soaked.

“Henry, I have a question.”

“Not a good time, Hope.”

“No, it’s a good time. Listen to me dammit.”

I was honestly trying to grasp everything going on around me with great difficulty. I heard Vatham roaring somewhere to my right, and plenty of gunshots to my left. Sirath and Samwise were arguing while fighting, and Hope wanted to have a serious conversation. I think I had it all right. “What?”

“You gave up your curse twice, right?”

How did he know that? “No, I accepted it twice. It was taken from me twice as well. What of it?”

“If I could get rid of my devilish lineage, I’d want it back, because it’s a part of me. It led to a rough life growing up and a lot of judgement, but it’s me. Is it the same for you?”

I was more surprised that he didn’t give me shit for taking it back to begin with. “Yeah. I couldn’t get used to the silence of just me. I missed the thrill of being a beast, and the power it gave me when I was weak. I’ve had it since I was just a child.”

Hope took his hand away, and stepped in front of me, twirling his finger in a playful motion as I heard the dying cries of beings somewhere behind me in the woods. He spoke as he worked death into his enemies. “Then why deny what you are? It’s okay to embrace it if you fought so hard to accept it. I know what I am. What about you?”

I got to my feet, hole in my chest now just a dent of missing flesh that would heal up on its own eventually. “I’m a crazy wizard who is self-taught, and everything I know is putting things together in ways they shouldn’t be. I’m not great at combat, and when I fall, I fall hard.”

Hope swished the blade past my head and stuck it in the forehead of a rotter. The bland slipped out with ease and came back to his hand, where he grimaced at the blood before swinging it clean. “What about the other you that you refused to get rid of?”

I grabbed my staff from the ground and readied a fireball on the tip before launching it past Vatham and striking a rotter in the chest. It went up in flames, and Vatham glared at me for taking his kill. “Well, then I’m a fucking monster who knows only kill, feed, and kill some more on a bad day. On a good one then it’s kill until I’ve decided I’ve had my fill.”

“I think we need the other you right now,” Hope admitted, raising a hand that radiated with freezing air before an ice spike was ejected from it that flew over my left shoulder. I heard a sickening impact behind me and a thud, and realized Hope was sweating profusely. I didn’t have time to be hurt or careful.

“Don’t make me regret this,” I spat. The painful, infuriating thoughts were scooped up into the forefront of my mind, where I focused on them and nothing else. The change started to come at full force, and soon I was overtaken by cracking bones and splitting skin as my body took on a shape far beyond humanity. I could only smile as my senses and nerves were overwhelmed by the process. The pain registered in every single nerve, and I could smell and hear everything happening around me. An explosion from Sirath’s gunpowder bomb bombarded my eardrums, and my fingernails became claws. Vatham grunted as his axe met squishy flesh, and my muscles expanded as they devoured excess chemicals in my body. Samwise’s daggers clanged against what had to be the blade-like claws of one of the burnt serpents, and my teeth ached as they sharpened and swelled. Kroznir’s modified pistol that fed more gunpowder and projectiles with every shot belched a series of death notes that cracked the air apart with their speed, and my eyes strained in their sockets to see the world in a new way. Hope shattered the space in front of us with a thunderous shockwave that ripped two of the totters apart, and my ankles and feet cracked into new anatomical shapes. I was a monster anew, and howled my excitement into the air. The creatures took that as a challenge, and began to swarm in my direction. I kept Phyra in my mind as I rushed the first one to the ground, trying my best to smile with my beastly jowls.

“Give them hell, Henry!” Hope shouted.

My fangs tore into the rotting atrocity’s throat and ripped out everything they could. It was still churning on the ground as I swung a hand out and tore four claws through a serpent’s horrible face, trailing a black ichor behind them. Vatham jumped into the fray and began to hack his way towards me while Sirath chucked satchels of gunpowder and scrap metal with lit fuses. Some were a little close for comfort, but I’d just scare him up a tree after I dealt with the real threats. I lost count of the bodies we were leaving, but they were definitely stacking up underneath my feet. Samwise tripped over one on his way to stab one of the snake things, and Sirath stumbled over him as he took a few steps back to lob another bomb. Just like that, they were back to arguing in the middle of a battle. I seized them both by the backs of their clothing and heaved them up in front of me. Speaking was hard when everything was a guttural growl, so I settled for roaring in each of their faces. That shut them up before I dropped them on their asses and went back to tearing into the horde of monsters. Hope was nearby, hellfire erupting from points on the ground he willed them from. The guy’s control over his devilish powers was incredible. That left Kroznir. I found him nearly submerged amongst a group of the rotting corpses with wing-hand-things. If it wasn’t for the gunshots and angry, foreign accent cursing everything around him I probably would’ve stepped on him myself. He was on the verge of being mauled by a newcomer to the enemy ranks when I ripped my way to him. This thing was huge, even compared to Vatham and myself. It was some kind of giant crab, made of what looked like congealed blood. Underneath that was some kind of skeletal structure, but odd bits protruded from the body at random points, giving it a spiky defense. The face would’ve been scary, if I wasn’t worse. It was that of a bloated infant’s exasperated demeanor, with skin stretched over the teeth. The mandibles of the thing were nothing but bone that was free of the substance coating the rest of it, and Kroznir had been seized by one. I watched, unsure of what to do as Kroznir was brought towards the thing’s baby face, one hand free and emptying a revolver into the solid bone to no avail. Vatham had carved a path towards him and was trying to put an axe in the claw of the creature, only to get slapped aside by the other appendage. His entire body was sent tumbling and rolling through a crowd of monsters where he disappeared. There went our strong arm. He’d be back in a moment, angrier and deadlier. Until then, Kroznir was my issue. I readied for a long jump and nearly snapped my ligaments from the force of the leap. With the force of my jump I threw my legs forward and kicked the mutated face as hard as I could, and was rewarded with a shriek that caused Kroznir to swear aloud nearby. My claws dug into the flesh, and I went to work swiping at the eyes. The other mandible came at me full force, and I kicked off of the face before it impacted, impaling boney protrusions into itself. Kroznir was released, where he plummeted straight into my waiting arm. The guy was fucking heavy.

“Too many guns,” I snarled, beastly sounds emanating from me.

“Too much bad breath,” Kroznir replied, holding his nose with one hand and wiping the air with the other. I flung him over my shoulder where he grabbed onto my mane and started to work on reloading his gun. Samwise danced a deadly movement through the beings and came to a stop before me, blades and cloaked bathed in the ichor. An explosion not far behind tossed gore everywhere, and when the smoke cleared Sirath emerged, hunched and fatigued. We could all hear Vatham roaring in the distance, and I could even make out limbs flying with every strike. From the other side of the ziggurat emerged another massive, horrible crustacean. Kroznir opened fire right next to my ear, and probably uttered sorry somewhere between my back and the ground I threw him on. We were in over our heads. I tried clawing and biting my way out, only to have poison injected by the serpents and weapons stuck into me by the flying ones. I wasn’t healing faster than I was taking damage, and the poison from before only served to bring me down faster. It’s an odd sensation to feel your organs struggling to not stop, but mine were losing that fight. Hope’s sword spun through the air and took down a few of the monsters, but more just kept showing up. Some came from the ground, and others just appeared. The massive crab abomination was joined by another that erupted from the ground and tossed countless other creatures aside along with Vatham and Kroznir. Hope went airborne, but was nimbler on his feet and landed on it. Unfortunately, he landed on the boney mandible and was forced on the defense immediately. One of the legs of the other came up before coming down with the force of a steam-powered piston on me. For a second I had it and managed to squat the weight up, but the poison was winning that fight. The next thing I knew, I was knocked backwards by the shockwave and pounced on by the flying idiots. I didn’t have the strength to fight back, so they managed three good hits on me. I mean strong hits, with heavy clubs of some kind. Shit, they hurt like hell. Samwise sent arrows whistling overhead, taking some of the bastards down with silent headshots. That worked for all of five seconds for him, because the majority perceived him as a threat now. I snagged the tail of one serpent and wrenched it back, but it tried so hard to claw away. Poor bastard. I felt a little bad as I shoved three claws into its neck from behind and tore upward. Only a little.

“Sirath!”

I glanced up as two more flying assholes beat my back, and to my surprise I noticed Sirath being carried away by two of them over the woods. They had him by his arms in an effort to keep him from harming them, but that wasn’t enough. I grinned a toothy smile as Sirath let loose with his acid breath and forced the monsters to release him…from above the trees. I didn’t see where he landed, but I heard it. That didn’t bode well. Neither did the giant crab claw made of bone that was digging through the ground in my direction. I couldn’t move my body. This was going to hurt.

Flying through the air was one thing, but doing that while your insides threatened to spill out was another entirely. The pain racked my body, and that was multiplied when I collided with a tree with roots so weak I took it down with me. The black skies overhead were hazy, and that wasn’t because they were clouds. I was losing everything. Pain subsiding, I knew I was in trouble when I tried to push myself up with my right arm and only the parts down to my elbow worked. My forearm was dangling past that. Not good. Two of the snake creatures appeared in front of me, claws at the ready. I looked at my elbow and noticed the thick bone punching through the skin. Work with what you’ve got. The first serpent got a nice stab through the snout, and the second ate jabs as I kept sticking the bone into every part of the face I could reach. With those taken care of I set off back for the battlefield. An arc tore through a crowd of monsters and practically vaporized them. That blast was stronger than the firsts, so I could only assume Kroznir was pulling out all the stops. The massive congealed crustaceans were still a huge threat, but I wasn’t about to hurt them anytime soon. My legs started to give, and soon I was greeting the dirt with my snout. So, this is how it ends. We came this far just to die at the hands of these freaks. Phyra and Tallara weren’t here to save me this time. I could feel my form shrinking down, but my bones weren’t breaking back into human form. Instead, they remained fractured and useless as my body deflated, and soon I was a dying human instead of a wounded beast.

“Sorry dad…guess I’m not the monster you made.”

A chorus of loud booms filled the air, followed by a series of explosions on the massive crab things. One toppled onto the ziggurat in a lifeless heap of bone and ooze while the other struggled to stand when a part of a leg shattered. My remaining eye glanced right to see Sirath’s flying ship approaching, cannons giving Hell to the horde below. Clouds of dirt and body parts erupted all over the place. The others might have a chance after all. Sirath’s crew repelled down ropes and joined the fighting, forcing the monsters to flee with what numbers they had up the stairs of the tomb. Cannonballs blew whole chunks of the structure apart into dust along with the retreating creatures, and eventually all was quiet again. The place was littered with bodies, limbs and insides. It smelled horrible, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that much longer. I started to close my eye, when I noticed a familiar figure standing at the foot of the stairs. Short, with a black cloak and daggers in each hand, with white hair hanging out of the hood. It couldn’t be.

“Phyra…no…you’re not.”

I was too fixated on the figure to notice the others were surrounding me. Vatham lifted my broken body in one hand and carried me to Hope, who was against a tree and struggling with a chest wound. Vatham barked orders to him, and arguing ensued, but the entire time I watched the figure ascend the steps and disappear into the tomb. A few minutes later I was being force-fed a horrible tasting concoction that forced my joints back together in the most painful way imaginable. I almost blacked out, but my curiosity kept me holding on.

“I saw her,” I croaked.

Samwise knelt down, his face bearing a new slash across his nose. “What?”

“Phyra,” I uttered, “I saw her just now.”

Samwise squeezed his eyes closed and stood up, crossing his arms and walking over to Kroznir.

“We should say something,” I heard Kroznir mutter.

“What?” I asked. “Say what?”

“I forgot about your damned hearing,” Kroznir grunted. “I think it’s best if Samwise tells you.”

I glared at the back of the thief’s head, waiting for him to turn around.

“Sirath is dead,” Vatham interrupted. We all looked at the body in his hands. I hadn’t even noticed he’d left.

“Fuck!” Samwise shouted, pulling a dagger out and launching it at a nearby tree. It buried itself to the hilt inside the trunk. I knew the two didn’t like each other, but there was an odd respect between the two. They went back a ways in their careers. Samwise stomped around, cursing at everything.

“He was at his life’s end as it was,” Kroznir said, “and he died fighting.”

“He died too soon,” Samwise spat, “before we could settle things!”

I got myself to my aching feet, mind still focused. “What did you say before, Kroznir?”

The Cragguard motioned with his fingers at Samwise, who swore again before speaking.

“Henry, you didn’t see Phyra.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” I demanded.

“She’s not here anymore,” he said, and it pained him. I didn’t understand.

“Is she…no…she can’t be.”

Kroznir took a step forward. “Tallara is gone too. She went home, back to her world. Phyra went with her.”

A lot of things didn’t make sense today, and this somehow took the cake. “What the hell do you mean? They’re missing! How the hell do you know that?!”

“Tallara found a way home through the dark magic of that woman from Diremaw,” Samwise explained, “and Phyra went with her to make sure she’d get there okay.”

I was so lost, and infuriated. “You knew this?! You didn’t tell me?!”

Samwise nodded. “They didn’t want you to know.”

“Why?! They were my friends. They…Phyra, she-”

“Not another word,” Samwise warned me. “I don’t want to hear another word. Phyra was still hurt over your betrayal.”

Fuck the restraints I had, I could feel the change coming hard. “Fuck you!”

“You weren’t there in Diremaw,” Samwise said calmly, “so you don’t know what happened. We killed that bitch, and used her weird book of otherworldly magic to undo the essential lock on Tallara that kept her on this plane of existence. She was free to go home, and even Kroznir accepted that. I knew Phyra wanted to go with her, and gave her my blessing. You didn’t deserve a say.”

“I was with them for months!” I growled. “We traveled together and fought those assholes!”

“And you were a burning fuse of a monster that was going to hurt them,” Kroznir argued, “and you did.”

“I didn’t try to!” I yelled. “I didn’t want to!”

Samwise approached, and I as I stared down at him I finally realized I had changed again. I stood two feet over the thief, who was fearless of my power. “You did, and Phyra didn’t want to talk to you again. I didn’t tell you because you need to focus on this fight, not on something you should be an idiot to think about.”

I felt a strong urge to tear his throat out, but then I thought of Phyra. This hurt all over again. They all lied to me. Phyra wasn’t even here anymore. She was never coming back. My skin beneath the hair burned as the glyphs started to emerge. Everyone stood back as I stomped past Samwise and made my way for the tomb.

“Henry, come back,” Samwise ordered.

“If they’re not here, then I’ll finish what they started,” I growled, “and you all will stay here, or die.”

I kept any happy memory of Phyra in my mind as I marched up the steps. I warned them. I warned her. I can be a monster. It’s what I’ve always been deep inside, and it hurts everyone.

A Journey’s Sudden End

A lot of good stories start with a nice and detailed description of what someone sees when they first wake up, so I’ll try that with how my morning started. I woke up to blood. A lot of blood. That and two young women standing over me with their arms crossed and shaking their heads in shame. Apparently not knowing how you got into a barn yard and ate most of the livestock didn’t matter when the group’s savings went into paying the owner back for damages. It also didn’t help that it happened a lot more often than it should. I never asked to be a shapeshifter, especially one who had little control over what I called the other half of me. I also never asked for its opinion, but I got it anyway all of the time. My name is Henry, and contrary to what I said in the beginning, this is not a good story. This is the story of how I threw my chance at happiness away.

“Henry!”

Tallara was glaring at me over her shoulder as we walked. I could only shrug in response. I didn’t know what I’d done this time.

“Are you listening?” she asked sternly. Good, I hadn’t done anything except ignore her, so the usual in my book.

“No? The question you should ask is if I ever listen?”

She rolled her eyes and went back to focusing on the road ahead. Tallara was a very determined woman. She claimed to be some kind of alien being not from this world. She found it hard to believe that not many people were surprised by her blue skin, but considering that people came in all kinds of colors and shapes in this world it shouldn’t have been too tough to understand. I’d once met a guy with illuminated veins that traveled up the length of his left arm and threatened to spread and shorten his life, but that’s another story. Even her antennae weren’t that exotic, but her white hair was strange to me. Don’t most old people have hair like that? She was only in her thirties.

“You two stop fighting,” Phyra said dully from the front, “and besides, Henry’s going to do what he wants. We’ve never stopped him before.”

Phyra. Now there was an oddball, but she wasn’t that bad at all, really. The Under Elves of her kind weren’t usually seen mingling with society, but she’d gotten some practice as a former thief from a guild on the surface after she was abandoned by her kind. For someone who was supposed to specialize in silence, she voiced her opinions a lot. She had her cloak pulled tightly around her today, covering her bluish-purple skin and white hair. She couldn’t stand the sunlight, and since the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly, its rays brushing over everything it could touch, she was miserable. I always wondered what it was about her kind that hated the sun. Living underground, sure, but did her skin attribute to it in a way as well? It had me wondering if I could test the theory at some point, but she was quick with a blade when she needed to be. There was no experimenting on her. Between the two, I was always being watched by four very strict eyes that didn’t want me to drag them into trouble too. Too bad for them. It wasn’t my choice to go along. They had to be the nice ones and take me with them after I’d been kicked out of my hometown in the frozen tundras of the north, but that was an even longer story. I’m kind of full of those, if you haven’t gotten the point by now. The short version would be it involved a lot of murders and a very persuasive, sentient amulet. Granted, I was only responsible for three of those deaths, and those were intentional. On that note, I reached out and tugged on Phyra’s long hair through a tear in her cloak. That drew a very irritated look, but I didn’t care. It was fun to mess with the one who could kill me in my sleep without the other knowing. I always wondered who would win; creature of the night or creature inside of me?

“How much further?” I asked her.

“Henry, we don’t want to be out here either, but it’s the only lead we have on the Lethesar Four.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I still wasn’t happy they dragged me into this mess. Some long-dead asshole necromancer had a group of other assholes trying to bring about his rebirth, and these two were fixated on stopping him. I’d nearly died in our last encounter with one of them. The bastard had turned an entire fortified city into zombies, and we found ourselves trapped atop the roof of a castle fighting off the waves of the undead. It didn’t help that the jackass claimed to be related to me. My family was dead to me as far as I was concerned. I never met my mother, and my father was the asshole who made me what I am.

“The message said Dimshore was in dire need of help.”

“Yet Lanerscost only sent the three of us,” I whined, “Can the next place that needs help not be a week’s journey out?”

“Henry, you’re being a child,” Phyra jested.

I sighed and looked to the sky. “Ah, my childhood. I didn’t have much of one. Sadly, the clearest memory I have is of my father performing procedures on me, and then him leaving. He said he was going to buy tobacco from the place next to the inn, and…and.” I mockingly sobbed, which only angered the two more.

“Henry, stop lying,” Tallara spat.

“Your past is more convoluted than the history of this land together,” Phyra added.

“We have an alien as a friend,” I pointed out.

“And her story makes more sense than yours.”

She wasn’t entirely wrong. It was hard to call anything memories of the past when a third of it was just full of either blank spots or images of bodies. The obvious murder scenes didn’t bother me. The emptiness got to me. That was how I’d stumbled into a barn earlier and woke up with a full belly and sore limbs. The transformations always took a toll, and nothing short of devouring everything in the way seemed to stave the pain off.

“Do you have the map?” Tallara asked her friend. Phyra reached into her sack and pulled out a rolled parchment. The two examined it together as they walked, muttering to one another while I gazed out over the open field to our left. It was a beautiful afternoon, that was for sure. The mountain range to the west gave a nice backdrop to the rolling plains before it, all full of strange, massive animals the likes of which I’d had never seen in the north. I’m a basket-case, sure, but even I can see the little things in life sometimes. It was the same when I looked forward and placed my staff over my shoulders, arms draped over it as I walked. The two women in front of me were the best thing that had come into my life. I’d always believed that friends were an impossibility with my condition, but they put up with me, and had even put their lives on the line for me on several occasions. I couldn’t say the same, yet they still brought me along.

“We’re a long way from Ultria,” Tallara complained.

“I like that,” I replied honestly, “I’m wanted in at least two holds there.”

Tallara looked back at me in scorn. “Maybe if you didn’t pick fights with everyone.”

“Hey, the Duke of Lanerscost is a nineteen year-old wuss ruling over the capital of a country who needs someone to shape him into a man. He needs an adversary.”

“Adversaries don’t constantly hide vague threats in every sentence they say to someone and count the increasing number of guards each time they visit,” Phrya chided, “a bully does.”

“It’s those guards and you two that make him soft. He can’t keep relying on others to keep him safe. He’s a leader, yet he’s comfortable sitting behind walls of bodies while bad things transpire.”

“You were one of those bad things,” Tallara reminded me. She wasn’t wrong, but to be fair I only went on that rampage because that devilish being promised me he’d help me control my other half. How was I supposed to know it was a monkey’s palm deal that would actually make me more monstrous at the time? Okay, maybe it was more obvious than I gave it credit for…

“Fair enough.”

“You’ve got a knack for making things harder than they should be,” Tallara pressed on. I swear she loved to argue with me.

“Look, if this is about how I got into your house while you were gone, the locks and seals over the windows were too complicated, so I had to teleport inside. Maybe I messed up a bit and took a tree with me, but I didn’t mess up the security.”

Phyra giggled. “The tree went through her room.”

“It’s not funny, Phyra!”

“It’s kind of funny,” I said, trying as hard as I could not to laugh less Tallara whip out a six-shooter and leave me for the wolves. Then again, I got along with wolves…

“You still have to pay me back for the repairs,” Tallara griped.

“I told you I could fix it myself, but no, you don’t trust my magic even though I’ve put things back together before.”

Tallara shot me a look of disgust. “You put together body parts into flesh golems and attached metal to them to make war machines.”

“Hey, Theo got a good stab on me when I was done. I call that a success.”

Phyra suddenly grew solemn. Theo was an odd flesh golem, in that he actually had some cognitive thought. He had the mental capacity of a three year-old, but he was her friend. She took that loss hard, like it was her fault. I actually refrained from joking about that often, as I didn’t like to see her sad. It wasn’t natural on her face. Murderous intent, sure, but sorrow was unbecoming of her.

“The sun will be down soon,” she said quietly.

“Which takes me back to the question. How far?”

“Henry, be quiet,” Tallara pleaded.

“When I’m quiet all I hear is the other me, and he tells me to kill things.”

“Then explain to him why that’s wrong,” Tallara argued.

“Tried that once. Didn’t help the body count.” I reflected on that group of bandits outside of my hometown of Menardi. “I really hope I killed them quickly. Their asshole archer shouldn’t have shot me to begin with, but I was trying to be nice.”

“It should be around the hill here,” Phyra commented, looking up from the map as they came around the bend. Sure enough, there was a village…what was left of it anyway.

“Well, shit,” was all I could think to say as looked at the scene. Some structures still stood, but they’d been badly damaged by something. Houses had entire walls torn out and roofs collapsed, and what looked like a church had a carriage impaled through the front door. Some of the ash piles of what were probably other buildings were still smoldering. Tallara approached a horse that had been eviscerated and knelt down.

“Oh my god…”

Phyra entered the nearest house, and I decided to stand where I was. I couldn’t be in trouble if I didn’t do anything. “I’m starting to see why the message was urgent.”

“Henry, check the church,” Tallara ordered, drawing her gun and approaching the front of what had to be a store judging from the goods strewed about out front.

“I don’t get along well with religion,” I said with a sigh, taking my staff and marching forward, “if it sets fire it was probably one of the gods angry with my presence.”

Something was off. All of this destruction, and no bodies in the streets? Then again, they could have hulled up in the buildings, so maybe I was just too curious. The door was out of the question since it was obstructed, so I just made an orb of pure force energy with my staff and blew a hole in the wall next to it. I hadn’t even stepped one foot inside when I could hear Phyra’s voice.

“Henry! What happened?!”

I sighed and turned back to her. “Tallara told me to check it! I assumed that meant get inside!”

Even from a distance I could tell she was defeated with a response, so she just stomped back into the house. I couldn’t do anything right. Whatever. I crept inside to find the place littered with debris from broken pews and shattered windows. Oddly enough, no bodies. Now I was curious. I couldn’t even smell blood. That was a unique benefit from my other half.

“Henry?” Tallara’s voice called out from my makeshift entrance.

“Look, you wanted me to check the place out. I’m here, aren’t I?”

“That’s not it,” she said, stepping into the chapel and taking in the mess, “I didn’t see anything in the store.”

“No bodies? No blood?” She shook her head. Maybe I was right to be curious. “I’m not a fan of mysteries…”

“Henry, this isn’t a game! People are missing!”

“Yeah, I can tell,” I uttered, catching the scents of many that still resided here among the seats. There must’ve been a lot of devotion to the deity in this town. I scoffed at the symbol over the altar. No god cares to interfere and save even their most loyal.

“Anything?” Tallara asked.

“No.”

“You’re no help,” she said in anger, storming off to check another room. Philosophical thoughts on the useless gods aside, I decided to check on Phyra’s findings. I stepped out into the town barely lit by the setting sun. I loved the night, but even I didn’t want to be here with no light. Someone grabbed my shoulder, and I spun around with fire wrapping around the end of my staff as it was pointed into Phyra’s face. She didn’t even flinch.

“I thought you could smell things sneaking up on you?” she asked innocently. I lowered the staff and sighed.

“I never take into account you.”

She beamed, but whatever was bothering her quickly erased that. “I didn’t find anyone in the house.”

“Seems like something I would do.”

Phyra cocked an eye. “Taking the bodies with you to turn into monsters?”

She understood me well. “Yeah, but they didn’t take bodies. Whatever happened here, no one was hurt. Not even a drop of blood…unless they cleaned well before they left.”

Phyra looked to the ruined buildings. “This couldn’t have happened too long ago.”

“Embers are still warm?” Phyra nodded. I didn’t come here to play detective, so this was just plain annoying.

“Guys?!” Tallara shouted from the church, “I found something!”

Phyra was already a blur. The rogue was faster than my senses. I always needed a reminder of how they’d beaten me when I was transformed and tearing through Lanerscost.

I was close behind, but not enough so that I could see what stole their attention before coming to a stop next to the pair in the chapel. A vortex of magical energy was spiraling into shape and growing near the altar. The black and red colors were between alluring and downright disturbing.

“I didn’t do that,” I said defensively. Phyra drew her daggers while Tallara aimed her gun. Guess they didn’t care. Whatever works? I pointed my staff at the anomaly and focused.

“What is it, Henry?” Tallara asked in alarm.

“Well, I’m getting a strong teleportation vibe, but that might be gas.”

“Henry, I will shoot you,” she warned.

“It’s alteration of the physical plane. A rift, so teleportation. Something is creating mass on this side.”

Phyra tilted her head to me. “Meaning?”

“Something is about to come through.”

I wasn’t wrong, unfortunately. The vortex stopped expanding, and a humanoid figure began to take shape inside of it. I began the incantation for a firestorm to sweep the area, but then the figure stepped through with a familiar looking staff. It was long and metallic, with a golden gleam to it that all came to an odd shape at the top that I hadn’t identified the last time I saw it. The figure itself was in a long black robe that covered its hands and face. Phyra and Tallara must’ve assumed the same thing, because Phyra was in denial.

“You’re dead.”

The figure raised its free hand and pulled back the hood. The bald head and absence of eyes identified the man immediately.

“Sam?” Tallara asked, disbelief evident in her tone.

“In the flesh, my failed disciples,” the man said in a very polite tone. It hit me. The smell was the same. This wasn’t a fake.

“You died!” I snarled. I wasn’t there, but I believed Phyra and Tallara. They’d captured him in the cathedral of Castle Altarwood back in Ultria, and he was brought back to Lanerscost and imprisoned. A few weeks later a group we now called the Lethesar Four broke into the prison and assassinated him in his cell.

“I did, honestly.” He began to pace back and forth along the front of the chapel. “However, it’s hard to destroy someone who had command over life and death.”

I wasn’t going to give him the benefit of a monologue. “Let’s see how exceptional to that you are.”

The firestorm erupted from my staff and engulfed the chapel in front of us. All was ablaze, and soon obscured by the flames. We made a run for the front and escaped through the hole I’d made as the church went up in the blaze. We backed away from the building, weapons still ready. That didn’t help when something struck Phyra from behind. She went down hard, and I spun to see Sam unscathed and actively conjuring up more spells next to a ravaged house.

“Shit! Tallara, get him!”

Tallara opened fire, emptying the revolver in a few seconds. They punctured Sam, and his visage shifted and dispersed.

“An image?! Fuck!”

Phyra shifted on the ground and faced me. “Henry!”

I didn’t react fast enough. The next thing I knew I was tumbling through the grass and dirt before I collided with the wall of a shack. The air was knocked out of me, but as I fought to fill my lungs I saw Tallara taking the chance to strike back. She’d discarded the revolver and had a pistol out. One concussive blast from that and Sam stumbled backwards before falling to a knee.

“Nice shot, Tallara,” I cheered, scurrying forward and snatching up my staff from the ground. Phyra was back up and had her daggers in a defensive stance. We were ready. Surely this wasn’t going to be that easy.

“You’ve all gotten better,” Sam said, his head low as he kept a hand to his chest, “but you’re still predictable.”

“We beat you before,” Phyra challenged.

“Because I saw it necessary. I gathered the souls I needed that day, and Lord Lethe will soon arise anew. I just needed the final pieces, and that’s where you two come in.”

I knew Phyra and Tallara were special in all of this, but not all of the details. Something about a failed sacrifice that tied them to this Lethe guy.

“How can you see us?” Tallara demanded. “You don’t have your special cloak this time!”

“My lord gives me sight, and power,” he replied, forcing himself on his feet and raising the staff.

“That staff was protected by the Brain Trust Seven of Minoldur,” Phyra said, taking a step closer, “how did you get it back?”

“Their defenses were beneath the Lethesar Four,” Sam answered, a wicked smile creeping across his lips, “and I have yet to fail my lord.”

“Did you hurt them?!” Tallara cried, her gun aimed right at him. Sam wagged a finger.

“I didn’t do anything. I’m sure they’re…incapacitated in some sense.”

Tallara fired again, and Sam recoiled from the impact. Still, he wouldn’t go down.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be fun if you didn’t go down fighting,” Sam said, growing excited.

“You came back to life just to die again?” I asked. “Sadist.”

“I came back to bring my promise of a new hope for the masses!” Sam announced proudly. “The humans that plague this planet are unlike the other races that have long existed here! Those in this town have been taken to his realm for the cleansing!” He pointed the staff at me. “You were not originally from here, and you killed off the greatest race in your fear of the unknown! Now, you will all pay the price through the plan orchestrated by my lord for two thousand years!”

I really hated church. Sermons counted. “Aren’t you a human, dumbass?”

Sam pointed his staff at me, and I could feel my muscles tense and lock up. “Not anymore! As all are born from dust, my body was recreated from the dust of the planet and my soul given a new vessel to will Lethe’s will!”

Phyra rushed forward and went to drive her daggers into his chest, but Sam sidestepped her attack and tripped her. Tallara had finished reloading and fired another shot, but it something illuminated in front of him and stopped the impact. I knew a barrier when I saw one. I still couldn’t move. Time for drastic measures.

“Other me, come out and play, please…”

Phyra was back up and swiping in a whirlwind of steel, but Sam was moving in the most fluid ways possible to dodge each blade. Tallara had drawn a rifle from her back and was charging forward with the bayonet aimed at the necromancer. I couldn’t let them fight him alone. Granted, I always ended up hurt somehow, but watching Phyra get dropped by a blow to the head pushed my selfish thoughts aside for a moment.

“Just die!” Tallara screamed, plunging the bayonet into Sam’s back Phyra sprung up and ran a dagger through his chest, but Sam uttered something and the duo was blown back. His staff was pointed at Phyra. I don’t know what hurt worse; my bones were cracking, bending and reforming in rapid succession, but Phyra wasn’t moving fast enough to escape whatever Sam was about to do. The ground beneath her turned into a dark ichor, but I didn’t get to see what was happening. My other half definitely showed itself as I closed the distance to Sam and wrenched his left hand off in a bloody mess. I still had control, but things tended to be more violent when I was like this. I now towered over the necromancer, the monster my father had made me. It was hard to vocalize anything other than snarls like this, but words came out in a guttural growl.

“Now for the other one.”

Sam struck me with the staff and I was forced back, my feet digging into the ground to keep me upright. Apparently he didn’t expect that, because he was already working on another spell to hit me with. Tallara fired a bullet that went clean through him, and that threw off his counter as I pounced forward and took him to the ground. I readied my claws and drove them deep into his ribs and beyond on both sides. It filled me with joy to hear him scream.

“We aren’t brothers,” I snarled, “you’re too weak!”

Something wrapped around my neck and left arm and tore me away from the necromancer. The blackened ground before had sprouted tendrils that were now struggling to hold me in the air. Phyra was on the move and attacking Sam before he could rise, but I couldn’t get out of this trap. I howled and raked at the tendrils, but for everyone I sliced through more took hold. In my struggle I saw Phyra and Tallara fighting Sam. They just couldn’t beat him, and they were doing everything they could. Tallara had ditched her rifle and was striking with a katana that kicked up gusts of wind with each swipe. Phyra was hurt. I could smell the blood. Still, she kept attacking relentlessly as Sam summoned forth spectral entities to defend himself. Not like this. I had one more thing to try, but it was way too risky. Coming from me that meant something. The last time I’d let myself be taken by the binding spells placed upon me to keep the evolution in check, Phyra and Tallara had stopped me with help. They’d be too weak after this fight, and I wasn’t sure I could come back on my own. I promised Phyra I’d have it purged from me, but I was too me to listen at the time. Still, I didn’t want to see them die. I couldn’t afford to not try. Even in my monstrous form, I forced myself to relax and focus on the incantation in my head. The glyphs shined a crimson red, spreading from my chest to my limbs. This was going to hurt like hell. I could feel my consciousness fading fast as my arms and expanded in mass. I grabbed a handful of tendrils and roared a demonic tone as I tried them from the abyss below. Others sprouted and tried to restrain me, but with an air-shattering roar they dissolved into nothingness. My power was now that of something beyond a monster. I was a god compared to the necromancer. The last thing I saw was Sam’s face snickering as he readied himself for my assault. At least I wasn’t going to be the only one enjoying this bloodshed.

 

It was dark. I was on my side on what smelled like burnt wood, aching in every bone. It took some coaxing, but I managed to sit up and look around. I was in the church…or what was left of it. Smoldering ruins rested around me, and the floor beneath me was blackened and bloodstained. Two nights in a row. Not good. Then it hit me.

“Phyra?! Tallara?!”

No response. I shakily got to my feet and began to wander back to the area I’d last seen them. They weren’t there, but the ground was torn up in a lot of places. Craters now existed sporadically, and I could see spots where extreme heat had scorched the ground. What the hell had happened? I stumbled about for ten minutes, my head pounding. I was starving. Blood. I could smell blood leading to a ruined house. I found my way inside to see Tallara sitting on a chair next to a smashed table. When she saw me, her brows furrowed.

“Tallara, what happened? Are you okay? Where’s Phyra.”

“She’s resting,” she said grumpily. That was cold.

“What about Sam? Where’s Sam?”

“Gone,” she said sharply. “He escaped.”

“Fuck…is Phyra okay?”

“She’s resting,” she repeated sternly. I didn’t understand.

“Is she hurt? I smell blood.”

“Henry, enough!” She stood up and approached me, the look on her face making me wonder if I was about to get slapped. I was naked from the transformation, but she was too angry to care.

“What’s wrong?”

“You promised her you wouldn’t do that again,” she fired off, “that you wouldn’t become that horrible thing! You’re still obsessed with power! When Sam fled through his portal you started to harass her. At first we thought it was because you had control and were worried, but you wouldn’t leave her alone and tried to attack her!”

That stung. I shouldn’t have done that, but I couldn’t risk letting them get killed. “I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I…you know how I…I’d never-”

“Henry, she tried to help you. You stayed with us because she trusted you. You broke that tonight.”

“I didn’t!” I argued. This was pointless. “Let me speak to her.”

“She obviously doesn’t want to talk to you.”

That hurt more than the time Theo nearly gutted me. ”

“She was trying to help you!” Tallara yelled. “All you had to do was accept that! Instead you stuck to your instinct! You always think you’re doing right, but you’re not! She was your friend!”

I was already beating myself up, and I didn’t need this. I walked over to a wall and snatched a knitted blanket that was hung up, dropping it over myself. My staff was resting against the wall nearby. I guess they felt I’d need it. Defeated, I tapped the floor with it and uttered the words necessary to open a gate home to Menardi. Facing my trial there for crimes would be easier than facing the fact that I’d hurt Phyra. These two were my friends, and she…it didn’t matter anymore. I approached the portal and stopped just before entering, turning back to Tallara. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the past year, and I’m sorry I’ve hurt you and your friend. I warned you a long time ago that I’m not a good person, and I guess I’ve proven that. You two made a dark life nice again, and I can’t repay that. You came to me at a rough time, and I’ll miss the good ones we made.”

Tallara kept her glare fixed on me. Not another word. I sighed. “If you ever forgive me, we still have to stop Lethe. I know you two will go it alone, but I’ll be where I can be reached if needed. Tallara…she’s…I…”

Tallara returned to her seat, and I brushed a tear away with the blanket as I stepped through the portal.

A Glint of Yellow

As the others backed away in terror, I stood on the edge of the black mouth of the cavern, eager to see what lay hidden in the abyss.

“Phyra, this is stupid.”

I looked over to my friend and companion, Tallara. She knew better than anyone else that there was no talking me out of something once I had my mind set. I just smiled at her from beneath my hood.

“Haven’t you seen me survive things like this before? I’ll be fine!”

Tallara didn’t buy my cheery nature, but surrendered the argument anyway. She knew better, after all. I felt a little bad for scaring my friend, but I wanted to see what was down there. The rope was fastened to my waist, and the harness was trustworthy enough for my standards. Since our good pal Theo the mute flesh golem was the anchor, I felt safe in knowing I wouldn’t fall to my death. The hot and painful feeling of the sun on my sensitive skin seemed to push me forward towards my goal as I could only imagine the treasures below, and I smiled at the thought of it all being for me now. These two behind me would let the fear take them, but I gladly shoved it aside at the prospect of glory as I jumped into the shadows below. The rope hit the tension point close to the bottom, and I saw the glint of yellow reflected in the sunlight from above, almost as if it was beckoning me forward. My mind was too fixated on the idea of treasures to immediately note that the glint was that of a giant eye, staring into my being with the same intent that I possessed, and suddenly the others didn’t seem like such cowards as the great green beast was illuminated before me. Blade ready, I wanted what was now mine. Whatever this monster protected was now forfeit as I cut the rope and dropped down to the being’s eye and drove the dagger deep into the pupil, and a torrent of red was my reward as a deafening howl erupted from somewhere in the black. Opting to play it safe, I released my grip on the hilt and dropped to the ground, flashing another dagger before me as I uttered the words that light the blade up and cast a blue aura into the Stygian world around me. The injury the monster had sustained didn’t seem to deter it as a massive claw stretched out towards me. The ground was scarred behind me as my dagger sank into flesh and tore a line down the arm of the beast, bathing me in the life force of the creature. The cry of agony shook the foundations of the cavern around me as I found my way to the belly and began stabbing into the skin like lightning. A failed attempt to drop its weight on top of me left the monster prone and weakened as I emerged from the back end and broke away for the far wall. The ground shook as the being crushed the rock beneath its feet, fury evident in its haste. My nimble traits found me well as I kicked off of the wall and landed on the creature’s head to retrieve my primary weapon from its eye, only mere seconds before its head slammed into the wall and dislodged most of the rocks. The scene was unknown to me as I left the creature to be buried beneath the rubble, its shrieks of confusion and pain tearing the air of the cavern apart between us. I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, I was vicious when it came to getting what I wanted, but that was what I was known for.

I came upon the mountain of bones that resided near the opposite wall, curious as to how many others had ventured in here with the same mindset as myself. Sheathing my daggers, I began digging through the mass grave until I happened upon something that satisfied my needs. A dagger engraved with words of power was now mine…but it didn’t stop there. Soon after I found a pouch of gold coins, and after that an untarnished robe, and after that more and more things that I wanted. No…I needed them.

“Phyra!” a voice shouted from above. I ignored my friend and kept searching. There was more. There had to be.

“Phyra, come on! It’s dangerous down there!”

I didn’t care. I had all of this. All of it was mine now, and anyone who came to take it would die. This place was mine now, and I had dominion over the treasures here. No one would take that from me.

The thud of a heavy weight hitting the ground behind me almost went unnoticed.

Where Angels Dare to Tread

This short story was actually based off of an RPG my friends and I never got to finish. It needed a conclusion, so I made one. This is my first true attempt at fantasy, so I was a bit nervous of the undertaking. Enjoy!

The colossal hallway leading towards the entrance to the dungeon appeared just as dark and menacing as when they had first entered the dominion of perpetual atrocity merely an hour before. Blue flames from the torches connected to each pillar that lined both sides of their walkway gave the passage just enough light to see, but it was still eerie enough to have everyone constantly scanning their surroundings. Considering the difficulty the party had just faced and triumphed over, there wasn’t much light to be seen at the end of the passageway in spite of the fact that most had made it out with their lives. There was one casualty; Jaeger, the fallen immortal, was lost to the tyrant in the depths below. Even a fallen angel could meet death once more in such a place. The vicious behemoth of a serpent had squeezed his body in its clutches until his bones shattered, and there was nothing his partner could do to save him, despite all of her witchery. Engel was a powerful fey mage, but even her arsenal of healing spells weren’t sufficient to keep her loved one alive. She was still silently mourning his loss at the tail end of the rest of the group, trailing behind and staring at the marble floor beneath her feet as she stumbled along with an air of misery. She may have survived, but her spirit was broken and gone with Jaeger. Kanye was the only member of the group with any sense of satisfaction still evident as they departed from the hell they had traversed. The greedy little thief had nabbed himself quite the load of treasure to pawn off once they were back in New Vale while everyone strived to leave with their lives. An opportunist such as himself didn’t need to waste the chance to obtain treasures by aiding in what had inevitably become a treacherous battle with a monster that was in the depths of the crust for a reason; a reason it made clear by nearly killing everyone but the thief himself. Mar, the half-serpent, kept to the side close to the columns they passed by, refusing to make any comments about the botched descent into what was obviously dangerous and unknown territory. He kept his mind occupied tending to the wound on his right hand as he slithered on, just happy to be alive after the encounter. In truth, he felt no sympathy for Jaeger; the once divine being knew what it was getting into when it tried to face off with the gargantuan snake alone. Mar had no pity for foolishness.

The only sounds that were noticeable in the somber silence were the heavy footsteps of the crystal golem, Idgaf, and the tapping of the staff belonging to the twisted but somewhat neutral being shrouded in rags that only answered to the name Lethe. Lethe carried on ahead of the group, unfazed by the death of one of their own. There was that sinister aura about the entity that struck the rest of the group as odd, but no one wanted to speak up against the vile being that had set fire to a tavern only days before with people still trapped inside, and blew up a family of dwarves right before their child’s eyes not long prior. Menacing as it was, the group needed the awful individual’s aid, as any was more useful than not, though in truth, Lethe only saw the party as a means to an end.

Kanye, never afraid to get anyone riled up, decided that the absence of conversation had lingered too long, “You know, bag of bones, you could’ve just unrobed yourself in front of that thing. Your black bones might’ve actually scared that damned thing long enough for me to sneak atop it and run a blade through its eye. That or the fact that you’re a genderless abomination to nature.  Might’ve saved Jaeger the trouble of getting himself killed.”

Lethe stopped, and the rest of the party followed suit. It wasn’t entirely a secret to most in the party that Lethe wasn’t human…at least not anymore. Underneath the robes it donned were literally dark bones that framed the body of the being. It turned to face the short thief and made an audible hissing noise under its hood before speaking. That raspy voice always sent chills up everyone’s spine, no matter how brave they tried to appear.

“Says the ruffian who sought treasure in objects rather than a sentient being during the strife. You dare to question my concerns? If you’re trying to blame me for the fool’s death, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed to discover that I simply don’t care. He tried to be a hero, and he failed. It’s not really my problem if we lose a person or two once in a while. As long as we accomplish the goal, I don’t see the issues presented by you as crippling. We have to make sacrifices. If I should perish, others will be sent in my place to ensure all I’ve worked for will not be in vain.”

Zack couldn’t believe his ears. He practically snarled at Lethe as he stomped towards the being, teeth bared and eyes glowing their yellow tint. Lethe watched his every movement. It may have been a powerful necromancer, but it was hard to keep a beast man down when it was pissed, and Zack was a useful ally for what it believed awaited ahead.

“What the hell are you talking about?! You keep mentioning this ‘goal,’ these ‘others.’ Who the hell do you think you are?!” Zack demanded, “You claim that the thief values objects, yet you yourself see us as expendable! We’re not pawns for you! Someone just lost a life, and in turn, someone else lost someone dear to them! I’d ask if you have a soul, but according to you, you have many! Aren’t any of them registering some form of sympathy for someone who’s been with us since the beginning?”

Lethe knew it wasn’t trusted amongst all of the party, but it understood human emotion, even if it couldn’t necessarily channel and radiate any one in particular. Things like being an emotional character weren’t really easy when you were comprised of countless souls that were all competing for control in your shell. Underneath its robe was a stirring of fabric, and out popped the tiny, purple book imp that served as the creature’s trusted servant.

“Pipe down, wretched dog!” It spoke in its squeaky voice, “If you truly understood the forces at play, you’d know he will be spared from the hell to come!”

Zack emitted a low growl before speaking, “Foul darklings such as yourself had best keep to the shadows, least you find yourself devoured by a larger, more menacing creature of the night.”

The imp began to rant off in a demonic tongue, but Lethe cut it off as it spoke calmly in the same language. The imp surrendered the fight and disappeared back into the necromancer’s robes. Lethe then directed its attention to the near-animalistic Zack once more.

“If I said I sympathize with the woman, I’d be lying. Is that the answer you seek?”

Zack could feel his change coming on, which in turn led to Lethe raising its staff, but Mar was quick to interfere with the quarrel between the two. The poison tipped tail of the serpent man was right at the beast man’s throat, and its dagger pointed in the direction of the dark one. Zack was too surprised by the apathetic member of the group’s apparent interest in someone else’s affairs for once to focus on the argument. Idgaf was uneasy about the threat against its master, and stepped forward as the corridor shook underneath its weight.

“I don’t care if you two rip each other apart by spell or claw,” Mar spoke, “but if you’re going to do it, wait until we’re back in town. At least then you’ll put on a good show while we all have a drink to Jaeger’s memory.”

Lethe said no more as it lowered its staff and turned away to continue the march out of the dungeon, but something stopped it from getting too far away. In front of the party was the lone figure of Jaeger, standing whole and alive before them. Lethe stood its ground as Zack and Mar cautiously approached, perplexed by the sight.

“J-Jaeger? Is that you?” Zack asked. The figure tilted its head as if it only heard him, but didn’t understand what he was saying.

“Hey, bones,” Mar asked over his shoulder, “This some of your mess?”

Lethe made a sound of disgust underneath its hood, “You insinuate that just because I’m a necromancer that I’m responsible?”

“Let me reiterate,” Mar protested, “You blew up a dwarf and reanimated him for his daughter. Then you blew him up again anyway just for the laughs, and let me tell you, there were none.”

Lethe couldn’t argue that one. It knew its reputation amongst the others was…well, its presence was baneful to them. Still, it wanted to understand why the dead angel was standing before them as if nothing had transpired. Lethe tried to get a feel for any arcane energy in the surrounding area, but there was none other than its own and a faint hint of Engel’s. There was nothing binding the soul before them to this world other than natural life. That was saying a lot for a person who had been crushed and devoured by the biggest cobra in the known world just a short while before. Lethe was going through the conjoined thoughts of every soul in its melded mind to seek an answer as to how Jaeger was before them, and only one made any sense. Engel was already approaching him with sheer joy expressed openly as she extended her arms for him. Lethe decided that losing her to test a hypothesis wasn’t an option, as she was too valuable, even if she did know spells to down him in an instant. As much as he hated to admit it, her role as the deterrent in the party was one of the things that kept the others from turning against him.

“Fool!” Lethe snapped, “He’s a doppelgänger!”

Though Engel knew Lethe to be of a minor threat to her, it was still a terrifying presence to be reckoned with, and that voice was downright bloodcurdling. She stopped in her tracks as Jaeger seemed to express disappointment. Mar and Zack looked to Lethe.

“How can you tell?” Zack asked. Lethe mulled the thought over as it examined the man before them.

“You may call it a hunch, but even you saw the fool die before your own eyes, did you not?”

Zack actually agreed with the dark one for once. He looked to Jaeger and began to smell the air. It hit him, “His scent isn’t right. It’s definitely not him.”

“Hey!” Mar shouted to Engel, “Get back here, you idiot!”

Engel had started to walk toward him again, but no one anticipated the wicked smile that tore over Jaeger’s normally composed face. The fey had no time to react as his right hand suddenly morphed into a long blade that he plunged through her chest. It erupted from her back in a mist of blood that collected on the marble behind her in spray and droplets. Everyone watched in horror as Jaeger ripped the blade back out of her in a violent fashion that tossed her behind him towards the entrance. Lethe raised its staff to him and bellowed in a dark voice, “Wretched monster! You had best bow before I make you! I need that creature alive!”

Jaeger smiled and pointed the bloodied blade at the new challenger. Zack and Mar flanked him on both sides while Lethe began to channel energy. It hated a challenge, but wasn’t against killing something that had probably just cost him a powerful ally. If anyone was going to kill the fey, it would, but only after she had outlived her usefulness.

“Hey, Jaeger!” Kanye called out from the sideline, “We all want a piece of the bastard, but why the hell did you do that?! That was Engel!”

“It’s not him, you imbecile!” Zack snapped.

“If you worms don’t stop arguing,” Lethe muttered as it continued to manifest magic into its staff, “I’m going to make you all kill yourselves when this is over.”

“I’ve had enough of this,” Zack argued back as it looked to the crystal golem, “Idgaf! Restrain the one that looks like Jaeger!”

The nine-foot tall golem looked to Zack, but nothing more. It was hard to make a golem with the mental capacity of a seven year-old do anything without dumbing down steps.

“Grab Jaeger!” Zack demanded. Idgaf understood that one. The crystallized automaton stomped its way to the mimic Jaeger and reached out for him like a clumsy child, when Jaeger suddenly leapt from the ground up to the golem’s head and brought his left hand across his chest. The hand took on the form of a mallet-looking instrument before Jaeger whipped his arm out and beheaded the golem with a mighty strike. Idgaf’s severed head crashed through a pillar and brought a small portion of the ceiling down next to Kanye, who was quick to evade. The rest of Idgaf collapsed to the floor before Jaeger even descended from the assault. He landed perched atop the golem’s back and took a fighting stance as the party dealt with the disbelief that the mighty golem had been felled by a single blow.

“Bastard!” Zack snarled mid-transformation, “You’ll pay for that!”

His bones began to break apart and reform in an audible manner, causing Mar to twitch at the sounds. Fully formed once more, the hairy, monstrous wolf form of Zack howled with an intensity that surely reached every corridor of the dungeon. Kanye was actually interested to see how this would play out. He and the beast man may not have gotten along all that well, but it was always a sight to watch him tear his opponents limb from limb. Zack crouched low to the ground, and then pounced on Jaeger. The doppelgänger braced himself, but stopping a living anger machine wasn’t something anyone was really capable of. The duo went through a pillar and into the wall behind it. Zack had buried the mimic into the foundation, and was striking it repeatedly with blow after blow. It was too dark to make out anything other than the sounds, but everyone felt safe in assuming that Zack was winning the fight. Zack backed off into the light and howled, making Kanye back off. He was more interested in living, so he only hesitated for a few seconds from the terrible sounds before bolting up the hallway. Lethe could see into the low-light area, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Jaeger had been beaten into a bloody mess, but his face was still intact, and the smile was unnerving. Lethe pointed the staff and waited, but he couldn’t get a clear shot past Zack. The beast rushed forward and began tearing into the mangled bits of flesh stuck into the wall, ripping away all kinds of anatomical parts. There were no cries of pain, and no howls of agony. There was only the smug face of the man who was dying a death far worse than even Prometheus. Lethe couldn’t wait any longer. With its left hand, it waved, and a great force struck the beast aside with a yelp to allow the impatient necromancer a direct line of fire. Some of the souls within Lethe’s life force were laughing at the idea as Lethe finished his incantation. Fire erupted from the tip of its staff and swooned over the area directly in front of it. It raged on as it engulfed the mimic and continued to blaze away for a full minute. The extreme heat was felt by everyone in the vicinity, but no one wanted to look away from the mortifying sight of the robes around Lethe flailing about and revealing its skeletal frame. Its hood was blown back, and the flames protruding from its eye sockets were fierce as it gazed upon the hungry inferno. When the fires finally subsided, the wall was left blackened and misshapen along with the pillars. One gave way and crumbled, bringing down yet another part of the ceiling above. The sound of rocks hitting the floor echoed down the hallway continuously as everyone waited for any signs of life from the pit in the wall. Lethe’s eyes could see into the darkness, and nothing was about to emerge from it. The necromancer shook its head and looked to Zack, who had reverted to his human form. He was barely clothed, but fully conscious.

“Damn shame,” he spoke, “you could’ve left some part of him for me to claim for my necklace.”

Lethe made a grunting sound and pulled its hood back over its skull. The battle was over, and the doppelgänger gone.

“So,” Mar said finally, having been astounded by the action, “is that freak of nature dead?”

“Yes,” Lethe spoke in a dull tone, “It’s gone. Damned things aren’t that powerful.”

“No, I meant you,” Mar corrected, pointing to Lethe, “I was asking Zack. Seriously, what the hell are you?!”

Lethe’s true form had been unveiled in the bout, and it neglected the thought of the half-serpent not knowing the truth. Mar was the newest member of the party, after all.

“So, are you going to tell me, or…” Mar’s voice trailed off.

“Or what?” Zack asked. Mar had fallen silent. It took a moment for Zack to realize that something was protruding from his chest. Blood began to trickle down the front of the serpent man from where the object was implanted.

“Mar! What the hell-”

Mar tried to speak, but blood came out instead of words. His body fell forward to reveal the figure of Jaeger standing behind him, clutching the serpent man’s tail. Zack’s eyes followed the tail, and he realized that the pointed tip was what had been driven through Mar’s chest. Zack prepared to retaliate, but an odd sound drew his attention to Lethe. A round orb burst from its staff and covered the distance between it and Jaeger in a second. Jaeger tried to avoid it, but his right arm was severed by the impact. Jaeger took a knee and lowered his head. Lethe felt a bit of satisfaction as it watched its enemy finally take a position it saw fit, but the doppelgänger raised his head. He simply spat blood onto the ground and then sneered as the arm began to regenerate, paralyzing Zack with trepidation. The cocky wolf man had finally been silenced by a sight that even his brain managed to process as fearsome. The fiend stood up from his place on the ground. Lethe backed away and readied itself. Every soul in its composition knew that this thing was a major threat to its mission. Anything that could reform after a concentrated ray of fire and an impact strong enough to sever limbs was not to be underestimated. Lethe just wanted the smug freak gone. It wanted to erase the monstrous humanoid from existence, and the next attack it had ready would surely get the job done. Suicide wasn’t really enjoyable for Lethe to watch, as it basked in the destruction of its foes by its own doing, but forcing a fiend such as this to kill itself against its own will would be just as rewarding if it could compel the bastard to experience fear as it ended its own life. Lethe prepared to take over the creature’s mind and raised its staff at the being as it began to chant, but the outcome wasn’t what it expected.

“Can you hear me, spawn of Styx?”

Lethe was petrified. The creature was in its head.

“That’s right. I know what you are. I wonder if a vessel such as yourself is capable of experiencing fear?”

Lethe said nothing. It was too busy regretting the decision to use the staff’s power to try and enter the mind of the being. Now it had an advantage if it could see all of Lethe’s abilities.

“Interesting. I believe you are already experiencing it. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Fear is such a powerful tool. It keeps those smart enough to respect it alive, while killing those foolish enough to attempt to overcome it. Tell me, soul-filled bone house of the damned, which would you prefer? Living, or dying the death of countless souls, all at once? I’m sure that will be a sound worth hearing. Silencing every single one in an instant. Probably deafening. That’s actually a challenge I’d like to partake upon.”

Zack had noticed the necromancer fall to its knees. If anything could bring down moral, it was watching one of the most fearsome entities he knew practically bowing to the monster’s might. Lethe wasn’t going down on its knees. It hissed and pointed its staff to the wolf man. Before Zack could react, he was stricken with agonizing pain that pulsated throughout his body. The sensation triggered his transformation, but something more was buried within. Zack hit the point of anatomical shape shifting, but his body mutated beyond the normal transformation. His features were more monstrous and bulbous in appearance. When the horrible grinding sounds of bones reconnecting stopped he resembled a horrendous wolf that had been possessed by something far more bloodthirsty than his animal spirit. Jaeger’s smile vanished as the monster stomped towards it with one marble-smashing step. The normal restrictions that kept the shape shifter in check with his humanity were no longer present, and only the murderous intent remained in the shell.

“You know, mimic,” Lethe spoke in a raspy voice, “You may resemble a monster in any form you take, but let me ask you; when you remove everything that keeps a wild beast’s instinct inhibited, who is the real monster?”

Zack snarled and began to crush the ground between himself and the doppelgänger. Jaeger prepared itself. The beast didn’t even take the time for a dramatic stare-down. One second it was throwing debris through the air with just its footsteps, and the next it had sent the doppelgänger airborne with a swipe. Jaeger smashed through yet another pillar with enough force to be embedded into the wall behind it. Before he could attempt to push himself out, the monstrous Zack snatched Jaeger from the rubble by the throat and was squeezing tight. Zack was forfeit to Lethe’s will, and its will was the utter destruction of the shape shifting demon in the monster’s deformed hand. Jaeger didn’t appear aghast. Lethe didn’t like that. There was no way Jaeger was still in control, so why was he so calm?

The abomination that was Zack raised its right hand and brought it down with a godly force, slicing clean through Jaeger’s torso. Blood splattered onto the floor beneath them, but Jaeger still stared absolute death in the face with no hint of fear. Lethe’s rage was beginning to boil over as thousands of voices filled its head at once, all trying to command the vessel. The staff was raised, and Zack tossed the cadaver in Lethe’s direction. The mimic hit the floor hard, and before he could get to his knees, Lethe commanded gravity to crush its foe into the marble, creating a crater where the being was suddenly hit with multiples of the planet’s gravitational pull that would have killed even Zack’s present form with ease. Lethe was forced to release the spell early as its power began to burn out. Endurance was not in its favor.

A hand emerged from the crater and grabbed ahold of the floor, hoisting up the figure of Jaeger from the depths.

Lethe snarled, “Wretched, relentless bastard. Zack! Break him!”

The monster roared and leapt over the pit, taking Jaeger to the ground as it began tearing into his chest with its barbed fangs. Lethe used the time to prepare another spell, and when the monster finally stood up to swallow the feast of flesh within its mouth Lethe pointed its staff to the ground next to it and summoned a spiraling black vortex. From its depths emerged a being of nightmares that only possessed one characteristic that wasn’t abnormal to its wriggling appearance; a gaping mouth lined with three rows of razor teeth. Tentacles lashed out in every direction from the being as it screeched its desire to fill its mouth with flesh. The horror that Lethe had deemed the Maw of the Void months before extended a tentacle and ensnared Jaeger’s legs before dragging him from the floor where Zack had left his mangled body. The maw raised him over its mouth and released the being. Just as the maw’s teeth began to contract and encircle Jaeger, he sprang to life and sank his feet into teeth on both sides of the maw’s mouth. Zack readied for a swipe, but Zack’s arm mutated into a muscular, malformed limb resembling the monster’s own, and grabbed Zack’s wrist. With a twist, the monster yelped and sank to a knee as Jaeger’s left arm took on a bladed form once again. He brought it up and down in a flash, severing the wolf-monster’s forearm. While the beast grasped its spraying wound, tentacles wrapped around Jaeger and attempted to force him into the mouth once again. Jaeger did something that finally put an idea of mortality into Lethe; he looked to it and smiled.

Lethe pointed to the death machine with its bony left hand and struck it with a green bolt of lightning that erupted from its fingertip. The skin on Jaeger’s body began to melt away, but he still managed to grow in size, taking on the shape of a deformed being that almost resembled…

“Impossible,” Lethe spat as it watched Jaeger take on Zack’s appearance. The mimic tore through the tentacles and began to rip the maw apart, sending writhing bits of black mass everywhere that quickly disintegrated into black smoke. Zack had managed to seal his wounds through his regenerative properties and was about to deliver a death blow when Jaeger spun around and turned the aggression on him. Both went tumbling into the darkness, but Lethe could still see the action. Both monsters dealt hellacious strikes to one another, but it was obvious to Lethe that the mimic was the imminent victor. Opposed to the impending outcome, Lethe readied another necrotic spell when a figure emerged from beyond the darkness and pounced on Jaeger’s back. Kanye had returned from his previous retreat and was on the attack. Swiping quickly, he made clean incisions all over the doppelgänger’s neck and tendons as the beast swiped immaculately, rendering it combat ineffective. Dropping to its chest, the monster was at the mercy of the three remaining members of the party.

“I applaud your work, thief,” Lethe praised, “but I’ll finish the nuisance.”

“Nope,” Kanye rebutted as he drew a short blade from the hilt behind his waist, “I’m calling this kill.”

“Aside!” Lethe barked as it smacked the thief aside with an invisible force. Kanye hit the far wall and was knocked unconscious. Lethe was free to finish the weakened animal that lay at its mercy. Lethe hissed laughter as it raised the staff for one final damning act. What a trivial concept for the being that had sold a soul or two to the devil. It wished it had the muscle and skin tissue around its mouth to form a smile.

It hit the monster with a spell that boiled the blood inside with intense pain as veins burst open from the sheer heat of the super-heated liquid inside. It could make out the sight in the darkness, and the joy that swept over as it watched the being shape shift uncontrollably under the pressure of the pain that it couldn’t even imagine the mimic must have been experiencing was immeasurable. Lethe didn’t care. It just wanted to bask in the moment of its enemy’s torment. The mimic’s features all converged in on itself, and the black mass swelled to a new shape. The featureless humanoid began to walk forward as it took on a new appearance. It was shorter than before, but when it finally emerged from the liquids coating its body as it transformed, Lethe began to step backwards. The persistent mimic had taken on the form of Engel, the fey that actually knew holy magic that could potentially harm Lethe. Desperate times called for a Hell-spawn. It commanded the demonic Zack to return to scrap with the fake fey, but Engel simply waved her right hand in his direction and a white light radiated from her, hitting the beast with a force that tore the mutated body away in a black silhouette that evaporated in the light and left Zack’s human form to fall on his face. Waving her hand, she caused the body to spontaneously combust. Zack perished without feeling anything. Engel then turned her attention to Lethe and winked at it, actually unnerving the necromancer.

“What dark magic is this, doppelgänger? I sense the fey’s arcane forces within you, yet you’re nothing more than a shape shifter. How can you possibly possess her powers?”

Engel threw her head back and cackled, something the necromancer wasn’t used to her doing. It was unnatural. It was wrong. She looked at the necromancer again with a ravenous stare, “You know not what I am, slave to the dark,” the doppelgänger spoke in her voice, “be gone from this world, and never return.”

With that, Engel lifted her left hand and the remains of Idgaf began to levitate feet off of the ground. Lethe braced itself, and Engel’s eyes squinted in concentration. She flicked her wrist forward and sent the crystallized body of rocks soaring towards the undead being. Lethe brought its left arm back and quickly threw it forward, raising a green aura in front of itself that the golem’s body smashed into, shattering into hundreds of pieces. The sounds of crumbling and rolling stones filled the corridor for the longest time before the remnants settled. Lethe dropped the barrier to save what stores of magic it had left, but the fake Engel took the opportunity to launch another attack, and with the flick of her left wrist she sent a frosty white ball through the air in its direction. Lethe couldn’t get the barrier back up in time, and the ball smashed into its center of mass and sent it to the floor. It looked down at the gaping hole in the robes it donned and saw the vapors from the ice coming out of the chasm in its body. Lethe forced itself off of the floor and managed to gain footing, but when it looked to Engel it knew something was wrong. Engel was smiling again. A few seconds later icy spikes exploded from within Lethe. The icicles were protruding from the center of its ribcage where the ball had embedded itself. A mortal would have died. Lethe didn’t know death. It had control over the state. The attempt was nothing more than an inconvenience, albeit a crippling one, as moving his arms around the spikes would prove a challenge.

A string of profanity broke out to the left, and Lethe turned its head just in time to see a blur run past its field of vision, followed by a battle cry and thud. It was hard to keep up, but it looked as if Kanye had reentered the fight. Sure enough, the short thief had taken Engel by surprise and was going stab-happy on her. Her appendages constantly manifested into various weapons as she swung wildly at the swift little annoyance, but Kanye was too fast. Her left hand became an oversized flesh mallet, and he ran a blade through her wrist severing the nerves. Her other became a club barbed with bone spikes, and he drove a longer sword through her elbow to keep it from bending. Engel just couldn’t get a fix on him as he cut her down from one vital point to the next. Lethe was impressed; the pint-sized mortal was even deadlier than it had ever anticipated. It would have to remember that after the mimic was dealt with.

Kanye dashed away as the mimic Engel began to regenerate from the onslaught of blades. Lethe didn’t want to give the horrible thing time to recover, so it began to channel energy for a final death-dealing blow that would ensure the absolute destruction of the doppelgänger. The soul of a powerful wizard was trapped within the confines of the embodiment of damnation that was Lethe. His knowledge of powerful elemental magic would prove useful right now. Lethe prepared the spell, knowing full well that there was a great risk involved, but at the same time it was too curious as to just how much destruction it could really wreak. A combination fire and lighting spell, the wizard had deemed this one “Absolution.” Imagination from the wizard’s thoughts weren’t enough to satisfy Lethe’s desire. It had to use the spell that the wizard had killed itself with. “Damnation” seemed more fitting.

Several shuriken came spinning from the shadows and struck Engel, sending her stumbling backwards. Lethe pointed the staff and focused. A miniscule ball of fire with sparks around it appeared at the tip. It was taking a lot of will to keep it together, but Lethe had it, and it was all to kill the bastard that had set its plans back an unprecedented amount of time.

“Hey, bones!” Kanye shouted from beside one of the few remaining pillars to the right, “If you’re going to do something, do it fast! That bitch is pissed, and I’m out of weapons!”

Lethe wanted to scold the thief, but any stray thought would ruin the spell. It had to succeed where one of its former lives failed. Engel regained her footing and started to march towards the thief. Kanye would be collateral damage for this cause.

“Die, monster! You don’t belong in this world!” A bolt of lightning was chased by flames from the staff. The bolt struck Engel and wrapped around her like a binding before the flames engulfed the doppelgänger once again, only this time the fires were living shapes that were peeling away the flesh. Limbs were ripped off as skin melted away. The mimic was trapped in a horrible fate that even Lethe thought fitting for someone trapped in the circles of Hell. Kanye was actually safe from the concentrated attack, which led Lethe to wonder how the wizard had died from such a marvelous display of power. When the fires finished literally devouring the mimic, the lightning darted in the direction of the thief. Lethe didn’t see it ensnare Kanye, but it watched the fires chase after the bolt. It understood; the flames actually fed. They were the souls of the damned, pulled from the depths of Hell much like itself. It was actual hellfire. Kanye cried out in despair as he died a brutal death far worse than what the others had suffered. When he was finished, the bolt of lightning made for Lethe. The necromancer was trapped by the electric bindings as the flames swept the distance to it. As they neared it, strange voices were audible over the roaring.

“I’m so hungry!”

“Maybe that one tastes better than them!”

“I’ll feast upon its bones if it’ll quell my appetite!”

Lethe understood the language. It eyed the approaching firestorm and bellowed, “Insubstantial souls! Would you dare attack one of your own?! I am composed of many things far greater than your useless lives now exist as! We are brethren, nonetheless! The enemy is not what you see before you! The enemy is that wretched wench that is rising now as I speak!”

The flames actually halted and seemed to change wind as a silhouette rose from the ashes where the imposter Engel had fallen. The flames jumped to the occasion and burned a path between Lethe and the figure that was taking shape, but stopped once again once the shape manifested into Lethe.

“Sorcery!” Lethe hissed, “Destroy the fraud!”

The impostor’s left hand came up from under the robes, covered in flesh. Lethe couldn’t connect the pieces in its mind fast enough as a blinding light tore through the flames and struck the necromancer with a force that destroyed the lightning bonds, shattered the icicles in its frame, and sent it far back into the corridor. That hurt.

Lethe understood holy magic. After all, it was one of the few nuisances that existed in the world that could harm it. The doppelgänger had used magic from Engel’s arsenal. It was only a matter of time now; Lethe couldn’t win. It rose to its feet, but grabbed its staff with both hands as it dropped to a knee. There wasn’t much more to be done. It had expended enough power for a day between the serpent and this fiend. Its tattered robes clung to its skeletal frame, which was cracked and damaged in multiple areas. Zack lay dead against the wall, body charred, and contorted from the ungodly possession that hadn’t worn off before his time came. Kanye’s ashes lay in a pile near the right wall. Engel was no longer visible in the darkness created from the bout, and Idgaf’s remains were now scattered in front of Lethe. Mar’s body was buried under rubble from the ceiling.

“Necromancer,” the entity spoke, “there is no hope here for you. Return to your world and dwell waywardly in the Styx once more.”

“What are you?” Lethe demanded. The mimic hissed laughter in Lethe’s voice.

“I am but a lonely mirror that has resided in this corridor for many, many years awaiting the arrival of new toys. You have all served well as means for my entertainment, but now I must bring the performance to its finale. As for what I am…well, that is a more complicated question. I am quite literally,” the mimic began to demonstrate features from everyone in the party, and its voice carried the presence of them all, “what you’ve all made me.”

The horrendous thing had the serpent body of Mar, crystal left arm of Idgaf, right arm of Engel, torso of Jaeger, and the head of Kanye. Lethe couldn’t fight any longer in its state, but it could make minions to fight the battle for it. Still on its knees, the necromancer raised the staff in both hands and slammed the bottom on the floor as it began chanting in the demonic tongue. The doppelgänger began to approach, features taking on the bulging appearance of the frenzied werewolf. Lethe had to concentrate. It failed to drag the creature to Hell, but it could still bring Hell to it.

The remains of the party began to emit an ominous green aura. Slowly, one by one they began to rise to their feet. The ashes of Kanye became whole and recreated Kanye’s appearance with the inclusion of bright green eyes that lacked pupils. Idgaf followed suit, then Zack, and even Mar. Finally, Engel’s body reappeared from farther down the corridor. Lethe’s newly formed army of the damned would prove the most formidable against the mimic. Immortal and incapable of feeling the petty emotions that dragged mortals behind the superior, Lethe finally found itself sided with adequate allies. Holy magic no longer posed a threat thanks to the mimic’s mistake of killing Engel. Now Lethe could utilize her powers to shield the party from the justified side of magic.

The mimic looked around in a circle as the undead surrounded it. They kept their distance, but only because of Lethe’s will.

“How ironic,” Lethe boasted, “you don’t need life to take it. I must thank you, creature. Your actions may have actually served a beneficial purpose, despite what I initially believed. Maybe I’m just being optimistic,” it finished with a hoarse chuckle.

“You do not value the lives of your comrades?” the mimic asked. Lethe laughed again. It felt a lot more in control of the situation than it did three minutes before.

“On the contrary, I value them without life. Now they’re so much easier to lead. They were merely pawns before, but now,” it shook its head as Zack began to transform to the right of the scene. Kanye grabbed a small dagger Mar tossed to it, and Engel’s hands began to glow white. Idgaf stood its ground, waiting for an order. Lethe backed away from the imminent warzone and stumbled to the ground, still weak, “Now, they’re mere puppets. Now watch, watch as I pull the strings!”

Kanye and the transformed Zack pounced. The quick duo began to tear into the creature at breakneck speeds, which many of the morbid souls within Lethe found humorous as the mimic spun around in circles trying to apprehend the aggressors. The hammer-hand made another appearance as the doppelgänger swung for Zack, the bigger of the two targets. Zack’s body was stricken in the head and sent flailing through the air as it tried to regain footing to continue the assault. Lethe smiled at its perfected zombie as it ordered Mar into the fray. It was time for him to redeem himself. The half-snake slithered to the mimic’s back and drove two daggers through the back of its deformed legs and through its knees. The mimic was brought down as Mar sank his tail into its back. The venom from the tip was injected, and if this thing was susceptible to damage of the central nervous system, it wouldn’t be long before the paralysis would set in. Lethe wasn’t relying on it too much, so having the golem hold it steady while the others beat it into a bloody smear on the golem’s chest would have to do. Idgaf stepped forward and picked the creature up off of the ground to give it the worst bear hug imaginable. The mimic took on Mar’s form and slipped out of the clutches of the golem before becoming the crystalized automaton. Its right arm became a heavy blade that it swung wide and bisected Kanye with. Idgaf grabbed the weaponized arm, but the mimic was already swinging at its head with the hammer tipped left arm again, only it was much larger than the one the mimic had used as Jaeger, and for the second time Idgaf was beheaded. Lethe sighed.

“A useless boulder with rocks for brains after all. Then again, I guess I’m your brains…oh well, it can’t be helped.”

Kanye’s upper body got up on its arms after placing the hilt of a blade in its mouth, and hurried along after the enemy. Idgaf’s body continued to swing at the mimic as the enemy took on Mar’s form and slithered around the blows that tore the marble apart. The intensity hit a climax when the zombified party attacked as a whole. Jaeger made precise slashes that the doppelgänger couldn’t avoid to the fullest extent. It took on Idgaf’s form and withstood the blows before the original golem’s headless body delivered a punch that sent it stumbling. It recovered and took on Jaeger’s shape, but Kanye’s upper body darted between its legs and slashed at the tendons that kept it standing. Kanye’s body then moved away as Engel’s hit the mimic with holy magic that set it afire. The flaming mass of constantly morphing tissue treaded onward in Lethe’s direction. A hand rose with a pale white light beginning to take form. A flash of a sword later and the hand hit the floor and disintegrated. Lethe’s zombies were too much for the creature. The fight had finally become completely one-sides in Lethe’s favor. It was time to end it.

“You’ve proven the most dangerous foe I’ve encountered, mimic, but I can’t fall to the likes of you before rising to power,” Lethe got to its feet and waved the staff grasped in its right hand, “Hell is indeed my home, but I’ll not return until I’m ready to claim the throne,” Lethe channeled what was left of its magic, “You are but another obstacle I’ve had to overcome, and a worthy one you have been. Perhaps I’ll find use for your abilities once I’ve studied your original body, but that’s assuming there’s something left. If your regenerative properties are anything like most creatures that possess such a trait, you won’t be able to keep it up forever. I’ll just hold you still while you’re ripped apart. Maybe then I’ll get an idea as to how you’ve persisted in this battle for so long.”

The burning being suddenly drew the flames within itself and emerged from the pyro a new being. Lethe was looking at itself.

“Do you really think you can copy me, you insignificant worm?” Lethe asked the reflection of itself. The copy simply raised the staff that had formed in its left hand. The zombified party that had been acting against the doppelgänger now turned their attention to Lethe. The necromancer looked from one of its servants to the next, dithering on what to do. It could feel the shift in magic, and knew the undead were no longer bound to its will.

“Tell me, necromancer,” the copy spoke, “when you delved into my mind, did it affect you?”

Lethe didn’t understand, “What are you driveling about, scum?”

“Name calling won’t get you out of here alive…or at least with any of your souls to inhabit that shell. Are you aware of what consequence fell upon you when you tried to take me? You found something you didn’t want to find.”

Lethe backed away as the zombies marched to him. Surviving against these odds would be a miracle, and Lethe didn’t believe in miracles, only deals offered by the gods that ruled over these mortals, much like the deal the countless souls within itself had made to return to the world.

“That’s right,” the copy continued, “you found fear, something you had long sought to rid yourself of. You silenced the weak-hearted souls within to keep yourself strong, but when you saw everything laid bare within my head, you were stricken with a feeling so powerful that those souls were awoken, am I right?” The mimic followed suit behind the zombies. Lethe pointed its staff at them and chanted something in the demonic tongue, but they refused to cease their advance. “You know what I am. You cannot win this fight, servant of the underworld. I’ve killed countless beings, holy, powerful, and naught alike. You are nothing different.”

Lethe was powerless over them. It was time to implement something risky. Lethe dropped the staff and pulled its hood back before grabbing at its robes, pulling them open to reveal the skeletal frame of its body concealed beneath. Its eyes burned a crimson red as the souls that encompassed the being began erupting from the green orb that was centered between its ribs. The souls took on ghostly apparitions of their former lives and swirled about the zombies, striking out and attacking the undead. In turn, the zombified party swung futilely at the violent spirits. Lethe collapsed to the marble floor from the loss of so much of itself at once. The thoughts rushing through the collective minds were all jumbled and abrupt. Using Lineage of Souls was drastic, but desperate actions were required. The spirits now had a handle on the zombies and were restraining them by gripping every part of their bodies, fastening them to the floor. A few spares dove for the mimic, but it simply waved a hand and blew them away with a blinding light. Lethe had grown tired of holy magic. The copy then summoned a series of ice spikes from the air above the path between itself and Lethe. The copy’s hand came down, and the spikes plunged to the floor one by one. Lethe attempted to summon a barrier as the path before it was impaled by the icy spikes, but when its hand swung before itself, nothing happened.

“Damn!”

The spike directly above it struck Lethe through the chest and pierced the marble beneath the necromancer. Lethe was pinned to the floor and helpless. A few of the lingering souls surrounded it to protect their vessel, but Engel’s corpse blasted them away with holy light once more. The mimic Lethe commanded the zombies that had managed to free themselves from their ghostly bondings to halt nonverbally, and then spoke to the pinned skeleton.

“You are powerful, necromancer, but you rely on that too much. You wish to overtake the hell below, but you cannot defeat the hell before you.”

Lethe struggled to break the ice, but its skeletal hand couldn’t damage the object stuck through its chest. It tilted it’s torso around it to lay eyes on the doppelgänger, “I am not finished yet, mimic.”

The fake Lethe cackled, “You are forfeit to my mercy, much like the innocent you have slain. Now, I will give you a fitting end. You wish to know what I am? I am no vigilante, not a hired killer. I am simply your unfortunate obstacle that you failed to overcome. I am a death machine to the likes of travelers such as you and your party,” the fake raised its staff and a glowing white orb emerged from the tip, “I am your premature ending to the quest you undertook.”

Lethe strained, but the ice wouldn’t budge. The undead menace had no magic left, and was weakened from the lack of souls to compose it. Lethe was about to finally know death as an immortal. It looked at what served as its death-angel reflection and the realization hit. It didn’t want to die.

“Be gone, monster,” its own voice spoke. Lethe covered its eye sockets as a blinding light hit it and tore the skeletal remains apart with a force that shattered the ice. The remaining souls of the ribcage were released and howled in agony as they were purged from the corridor and out of existence, and the final one that remained attempted to reestablish a connection between itself and the mortal world through Kanye’s body, but the effort was wasted. The wizard’s soul shrieked as it deteriorated and faded from reality, and was expunged from the world indefinitely. The party had fallen, and the quest was lost to one single entity that should never have existed.

Embers (Tiamat Unbound Finale)

It’s a bit late, but here’s the conclusion to Tiamat Unbound. I hope it’s been/will provide entertainment, and I look forward to working on bigger projects in the future. Let’s just say this might not be the last you ever read of the men and women of Tiamat Unbound and the associates. Enjoy!

Metal clashed in a symphony of cringe-inducing scrapes with enough friction to generate sparks with each blow. The intensity of the contest kept our eyes going back and forth like we were witnessing a tennis match from hell, and both players were going all out, neither willing to relent to the strength of the other. One contestant pushed back the other until the other returned the favor. In relation to their contrasting sizes, it was the battle of David and Goliath…if that story involved sword duels between a modern-day samurai and a very prideful grappler. Finally, the smaller man dropped to the ground and swung his right leg out, knocking the larger off of his feet and sending him crashing onto his back. Silence gripped us. Before the big guy could recover, his aggressor put the tip of his blade to the giant’s chest, causing both women on each side of me to gasp as the tension hit the high point. Then the samurai on the ground smiled as he pushed the blade away with the palm of his right hand. He stood to his feet with some help from his opponent, and that took a lot of strength. Both men bowed to each other before sheathing their swords, and then the larger spoke.

“You have improved,” Makoto Nagase told his new pupil sincerely, “I am impressed.”

His opponent, Jackson Lewis, smiled at his rival-turned-teacher in earnest, “I picked that sweep up from the last person to beat me. Years ago when you handed me my ass with just a wooden sword, I just couldn’t stand the humiliation. A rematch is all I’ve ever wanted,” he handed the sheathed replica sword to Makoto as he spoke, “Though I wish the fight would’ve been even,” he commented as he nodded towards Makoto’s dead left arm. Makoto had mentioned before that he was still able to operate it at random times, but for the rest it just teetered between numb and stinging. I’m no expert, but that sounded like some of the symptoms of radial nerve dysfunction.

Makoto bellowed a laugh, “If I had the use of both arms, you would not be so grateful.”

Lewis shrugged, “I’d rather fight you at your peak; I trained hard for the day I’d get another shot at you.”

“I wonder,” I said from the sidelines close by, “did you mean today, or four months ago when you both squared off over your petty rivalry while the three of us here were handling business?”

Lewis snorted a laugh and flipped me off instead of using any of his usual choice words. I was speaking, of course, about the day we three men as well as our two lovely yet gun-savvy assistants stormed the headquarters of the world’s most powerful private military company and killed the CEO before she had the chance to launch a nuclear weapon. We didn’t even know of that last bit of information until Lewis found out from one of his sources who’d managed to obtain that classified intelligence from the UN documents following their own raid. Luckily for us, they came in moments after we’d already fled using the CEO’s personal chopper.

To be completely honest, the past six months had been hell for all of us now situated here in my mountainside retreat in Obersalzberg, and that wasn’t just because we were situated only a few miles from where Hitler’s residence was. I was glad that I took all of my money out of savings before splitting with Kriegspartai, because without those years of profit we’d be in a royal pile of shit. Now, where to begin?

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…and at some point a pink-haired nuisance named Lydia Dedov to interfere with my plans. One lovely afternoon in Italy I was tending to some business that one could argue crossed into the shady side, when my client’s head…well there’s no nice way to say he was shot in the head. I then spent the next fifteen minutes held up by a mysterious assailant who was concealed in one of the many buildings that surrounded me in the town square. To this day, I’ve never been able to pinpoint just where she was, and she still holds it over my head, just like the scope of her rifle that day. Luckily for me, she was willing to give me a shot at redemption for selling weapons to the company that had gotten her father killed, and thus began our great endeavor to topple an empire.

The young woman to my left, Alexis, had killed her own father under orders from the American branch of Tiamat Unbound. Fearing for her life otherwise as well as those of the people she cared for, she complied, with remorse to follow in her trail. After that traumatic event she split from the company and went on the run, and the higher-ups just couldn’t have that. In response they sent countless mercenaries after her, and one by one she cut them down. It wasn’t until they sent Terry Shields-her former trainer and at the time current affection-that she finally gave up on running, but not without a fight. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Shields had begun to question his superiors himself, so when the two finally were able to speak once more following an encounter that left Shields with a lot of lead in his left shoulder, they were glad to be on the same side. That happy reunion was cut short four months ago, however, when all of us minus the samurai engaged in combat within the subway system of New York. Tiamat Unbound had planned on activating an EMP device underneath Wall Street, and Shields spearheaded our undertaking to stop them. Jackson Lewis was on opposite terms with us at the time, what with being the leader of Tiamat Unbound’s Special Force Group Dragon’s Talon after their former leader decided he liked our resolve much more. In the end, both Lewis and Shields spared each other’s lives, but Shields lost his in a sacrifice to stop the downfall of the economy, and Alexis had lost yet another important person in her life. All of us liked Shields; he was a mentor to us all, and a valuable asset in bringing down the dragon. In death he became a martyr to these people.

“Lewis!”

My attention was drawn to the big guy, Makoto, who was approaching Lewis as he departed from the patch of grass between gardens of flowers that served as the arena for the two men. Lewis turned back and awaited what the samurai had in store him. None of us were prepared to see Makoto holding out one of his extra sheathed swords to the former Dragon’s Talon leader. Both were bitter rivals just a few months back, and now Lewis was being given a high honor in regards to a samurai.

“What is this?” Lewis asked, staring at the present as if it were going to spring from the sheath on its own accord and run through his chest.

Makoto shoved the weapon into Lewis’ arms with enough force to push the man back before replying, “Yours.”

Lewis held the object in his hands and turned it around and around, like a gunsmith inspecting his weapon for any abrasions. With an inquisitive eye, he grabbed the hilt and slowly withdrew the blade from the sheath. As the daylight stroked the metal, a red hue was visible to us all. The blood-red color sent involuntary chills down my spine, like I was looking at death itself. What the hell was that thing?

Lewis held the blade upright as he admired the craftsmanship, “This is the sword you tossed to me four months ago, when we dueled during the raid on Tiamat Unbound.”

Makoto grunted in agreement. I had never had the chance to see it that day, mainly because their duel happened in the hallway behind me while I was busy trying to keep my colleague, Lydia (or “Wrench,” as I often called her), from blowing the brains out of the leader of the mercenary company before we could get more information out of her. Lewis placed the weapon back into its sheath, and then bowed to Makoto.

“Raise your head, Lewis,” Makoto spoke, “That blade belonged to my brother, Toya. It is a replica of the legendary Muramasa. He used it in hatred, but I expect you to use it in justice.”

We’d managed to coax a bit about his brother out of him one night over drinks. For a big guy, Makoto couldn’t handle a lot of alcohol. I guess that growing up under such a strict system as the Bushido didn’t allow much in the way of hindering judgment. I admired the fact that he respected the true aspects of the term, and not the ‘purification through war’ crap. Apparently Makoto’s brother hadn’t developed the same mindset when they were growing up. Lewis had worked with him before, but I didn’t know Toya Nagase. All I knew was that Makoto slew his own brother in a snowstorm somewhere on a mountain range in Russia. Toya was the head of Dragon’s Scales, and a fierce warrior who obeyed his orders to the detail. Makoto spoke of him with disappointment clinging to his words, but somewhere beneath that was a dash of regret. I don’t know what brings a man to kill his own sibling, but I’d never ask the big guy up front. War is hell when it forces flesh and blood to stand on opposite sides.

“Why give me a token of your brother?” Lewis asked. Makoto’s eyes seemed to gravitate towards the sword, and his demeanor took a sudden shift for the grim.

“Toya used that blade to commit countless atrocities. Personally,” he grunted in disgust and glared at the blade, “I could not stand to wield the weapon, but since Toya did not survive to atone for his sins I thought it best for someone who has a lot to repent for to carry on in his wake.”

Lewis looked offended, “What exactly are you saying?” he asked in scrutiny.

Makoto grinned, “To Toya, that sword was a tool of destruction. To you, Lewis, I hope that it is a tool meant for whatever new path you have chosen after Tiamat Unbound.”

Lewis nodded, “And what do you know of my future?”

“I know that there will come a day when we will be forced to face our decisions,” he stated, “I know that we must be prepared for that moment.”

The man was a philosopher. I leaned up in the chair and called out to him, “Mr. Nagase, I’d love to pick your brain for a few hours someday soon, if you wouldn’t mind?”

Makoto approached with Lewis in tow, but both were making a beeline for the patio door. Makoto slid the door open and looked back over his shoulder, “As long as you do not mind if I pick the contents of your refrigerator.”

Who the hell was I to say no? Not big enough, for one. Both men disappeared into the two-story structure as Lydia and Alexis rose from their seats and approached the settlement that had served as the sparring grounds for the past three months. I had planned on expanding the surrounding gardens, but not with these people trampling the ground…they’d already crushed a bed of roses. My hand tightened around my glass of rum. I liked my roses.

“Let’s see how you’ve improved!” Alexis shouted at Lydia from across the lawn.

“It doesn’t take accuracy to hit you in the face!” Lydia retorted. I placed my head in the palm of my hand and grunted. She was such an amateur. Both contestants paced in a circle as they finished tightening their gloves, eyes locked onto each other in a heated stare down. Finally, Lydia charged at Alexis…and was met with a foot to her chest. I had to give her credit; she knew how to take a hit and get right back at it. I wondered how long it would take for them to start to pull hair and verbally insult each other…

“That’s pretty tame,” a voice said behind me. I leaned my head back to see Lewis, upside down in my view and standing over me with a beer in his right hand. Something was tucked underneath his left shoulder.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Considering what they’ve been through I assumed they’d use this as an excuse to vent a lot of-”

He was cut off by Lydia screaming in frustration as she swung for Alexis’ head, only for her to duck underneath the assault and jab her in the stomach. It was sad.

“Never mind…” Lewis finished. He took the seat to my left and leaned back until he was in a nice and comfortable position to spectate the one-sided bout.

“I guess she’s not making any progress,” I remarked before downing the rest of my rum. Should I have been drinking on such a beautiful day? Probably not, but I wanted to relax, unlike the rest of them.

“How much are you paying that specialist to come out here in private?”

“Not enough, apparently,” I grunted, fumbling with my glass as the ice rattled inside. I was having a therapist come and see Lydia and Alexis once a week. Killing a lot of people in a span of two months could do a lot to a person, and I saw that for myself the day Lydia killed the CEO of Tiamat Unbound. The poor thing broke down on the spot, and I had to carry her up to the helipad so we could escape before the UN arrived. It took two weeks to even get a word out of her. The sorrow may have finally subsided, but she still hated herself. That was evident enough in her frantic attempts to land a blow on Alexis, and with the latter being a trained former mercenary, there was no taking it easy. Alexis herself was fighting inside too, but she’d never speak of it. I did speak to the therapist once about their progress, and that was enough for me to learn that she didn’t regret killing her father. I can only assume it had something to do with her not being who she wants to be. If anything, she missed Shields much more than she missed him.

Something landed in my lap and broke my concentration. Lewis had thrown me a manila folder that was stuffed full, some of the pages inside sticking out of the corners.

“What’s this?” I asked, examining the exterior for any indication of just what the hell it was.

“Files on Tiamat Unbound’s cancelled projects,” Lewis answered. He chugged most of his beer as he observed the beat down Alexis was now administering. Without guns, Lydia was in a jam. I was betting on Alexis; even if she had developed some hand-to-hand tactics, Lydia was an amateur after all.

“You said cancelled?” I asked. Lewis was shaking his head at the two feuding women in disappointment.

“Cancelled now,” he stated. I had to snicker at that one. He leaned back in the chair and sipped from his beer, “Makoto got me thinking about the future, so I figured I should share this with you.”

“Okay, so what’s in it?” I asked. Lewis looked away from the scene to eye me and raise a brow.

“Look for yourself.”

I complied and flipped the cover open, and the very first file inside took me by surprise. It was information about utilizing methods of psychological warfare, but it didn’t stop there. Tiamat Unbound had been planning on…

“Child soldiers?!”

Lewis nodded, “That’s right. It gets more and more bizarre the deeper you get into it. Aaron,” he said sternly, “we stopped a lot of things from happening. Some within the bounds of completely insane. They wanted to make biological weapons to instigate incidents where America would be framed. I was…well, you’ll see,” he said awkwardly before downing the rest of his beer and excusing himself to get another.

I could only imagine would he meant by that. What was worse than child soldiers or biological warfare? I continued to skim through the documents until I came upon one that called for experimentation on certain members to enhance their abilities beyond human limitations. It was something straight out of a science fiction story, and the two personal files attached to the document were those of Toya Nagase and Jackson Lewis; the former top-ranking mercenaries of the company.

“Holy shit…” was all I could actually utter. This was inhumane. This was wrong. This was-

“Found it, I see,” Lewis’ voice announced from beside me. I didn’t even hear him return as my mind struggled to come to terms with this. I dropped the folder in my lap and stared absentmindedly at the fight before me.

“How could she even consider this?” I asked, “When I met her to sign the contract between our companies, I didn’t even suspect that she could be so twisted.”

“They’re not necessarily her ideas,” Lewis told me, “she just insisted on keeping them safe from prying eyes like ours or anyone else who was looking to shut them down. They’re the products of the R&D team, and they were dead set on insuring that they could keep conflicts going to fill their own pockets.”

“That’s a war economy for you,” I muttered, “Did she expect you both to consent to such a thing?”

“She was probably going to try and sell it to us,” Lewis explained, “She knew how to make even the most horrid of things sound appealing, and someone like Toya would have been happy to hear her out,” he said, grimacing at the sight of Alexis upper cutting Lydia so hard she actually got some hang time for a brief second.

“Wouldn’t you have been inclined just as well just six months back?” I inquired. Lewis grunted and crushed the beer can in his hand before tossing it aside.

“Look, I was willing to do things to get ahead, but that’s a bit beyond my ego.”

“Fair enough,” I replied. I just still couldn’t grasp the fact that Elizabeth Belmont’s empire was going to implement such horrors. I have no idea what drives a woman to those extremes, but I have to admit that I feel a bit sorry for her. I hadn’t even intended on her getting killed that day. It would have gone much smoother if she just could have answered for her actions.

“You know,” Lewis commented from my side, “I guess you and Lydia could consider yourself heroes after all of that. It was because of you two that everything worked out.”

I flipped through the pages, skimming some of the outrageous experiments and proposals by the coordinators of Tiamat Unbound, “I don’t feel like a hero.”

“Well if you did,” Lewis remarked with a laugh, “I’d be worried. Killing isn’t supposed to make you feel great. It takes its toll, and I’m pretty sure you had never killed many people before that day in the subway, not even counting the tower just a few weeks later?”

I nodded, the images still clear in my head as if someone had cut open my skull and infused the very sights into my memories with vivid clarity. I don’t know why it didn’t bother me as much as it did the women. Maybe it was because I didn’t work for Tiamat Unbound to begin with. Maybe it was because I had accepted the fact that the weapons I sold were used in horrible acts. Maybe I was a bit sociopathic before having death held over my head in the form of a scope by Lydia. Either way, I imagined the guilt didn’t grip me as tightly as it did the others. Lewis may have been the only other one who understood that, but I honestly wished he was a bit more burdened.

“There’s another thing,” Lewis said, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing something that was concealed in the palm of his hand, like a dark secret he didn’t want the world to know of. I had to suffocate my curiosity, but all of this new information had my mind going like a factory trying to process so much at one time. The alcohol wasn’t helping, so there was no point in a refill. Something was bound to give in, and of course, it was curiosity.

“What’s that?” I finally asked.

Lewis regarded his fisted hand with a grin, “Well, let’s just say that the dragon was sitting atop a mountain of gold all along that it was very protective of.”

“What?”

Lewis opened his fingers and revealed a black flash drive, “This contains the records of all of Tiamat Unbound’s assets. All of the money and what banks it can be found in, from Switzerland to Australia, and any other economic stronghold you can name. All of it is on this.”

“Wait!” I sat upright and eyed the device, “That contains the sources of money for them? How…why do you have that?”

Lewis smirked, “I nicked this along with those files from a safe on the wall right after Lydia shot the bitch,” he pocketed the drive and leaned back once more, “The door on it was ajar, so I figured it was free game. You have to know how to pay attention to detail when dealing with life-threatening situations every day.”

“I wouldn’t know, I guess,” I replied, my attention back to the ladies.

“Well, I know a lot of people who do, and they’ll need some help.”

“What do you mean?” I asked off-handed.

“The drive also contains the records of all of the personnel that were a part of the company at the time before we set up for the UN to come in and clean house,” Lewis explained.

“Meaning?” I had no idea what he was getting at.

“Aaron,” he turned to me, “a lot of people were left with nothing after that. Many were arrested for war crimes, and the rest are in hiding with no way of supporting themselves. Haven’t you ever seen the stories of the soldiers who come home from war and are unable to cope with the reality of a normal life again?”

I nodded, “Yeah. Countless times, actually. Hell, they used to run commercials about that stuff all of the time.”

Lewis was a lot more serious than he was moments before, “Those people are going to need a place to go, now that the world has been violently thrust upon them,” Lewis explained, “Most aren’t ready to handle that.”

“Yeah…” I replied, watching Alexis toss Lydia over her shoulder like she weighed nothing before spinning around to deliver a kick to her chest. I wasn’t really enjoying the match, my mind on the matter of coping with everything that had transpired over the past six months. These people as well as myself had gone from serving under or being oppressed by the might of Tiamat Unbound to bringing the dragon down and all that followed it, including ourselves. The majority of us were wanted criminals for connections with the PMC, and I myself was a wanted man since my old company Kriegspartai Industries threw me under the bus after Lydia’s interference drew attention to the fact that I was selling company weapons illegally on the side. Lydia herself had managed some lists as our ‘pink-haired accomplice,’ which I found highly amusing. I reflected on that day and looked to the bubblegum-haired young woman, who was busy getting to her feet while Alexis taunted her. Lydia was the sole reason we had even managed to do all of this. She was why we were here today.

“I have a plan,” Lewis announced, “but I need some input.”

“On?”

“Well, to put it simply,” he began slowly, as if he were bracing for incoming insults that I hadn’t even began to compile, “I’d like to set up an organization.”

That one got me, “Wait, an organization? For what?”

“For all of those who have nowhere else to go,” he continued, “They’re set to battle.”

“Hold on,” I held a hand up and picked my next words carefully, “Are you saying you want to establish another PMC?”

“No, no,” he argued, “nothing like that. I mean…” he trailed off, like another thought was creeping around his mind and just striving to get his attention, “If I ever considered doing something like that, I’d definitely take the steps to avoid something like Belmont’s mistakes all over again.” He mustn’t have liked the look I was giving him, because he was quick to retract, “Of course, I’m not saying I would, you know? I just want to construct a place where they’ll be welcome with open arms, unlike they would be to the rest of the world. Think about it,” he held up a finger, “most of them will go to straight onto other battlefields, because that’s all they know. What if we gave them another option?”

I decided against talking against it, “I’m listening.”

“We could use the funds that turned them into what they are and rehabilitate them. Who better to help out those men and women than us? Besides,” he stood up and went to pick up his can, which I was grateful for. I had planned on chewing him out later over his messy habits, “we owe it to them.”

“Because we’ve pretty much doomed them to that kind of life?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he replied, examining the crushed aluminum in his hand as if it held the answers he sought as to what to do next, “So? What do you think?”

“As long as it’s fixated on rehabilitating them and not preparing them for more battle, I think it’s a fine idea,” I stressed, “but how do you intend on getting something done when something like that would obviously draw a lot of attention to you? Remember,” I pointed to him, “just like us, you’re a wanted criminal according to the rest of the world. Besides, you’d draw a lot of the people you want to help out of hiding who could end up being arrested.”

“I’ll work something out,” Lewis said with confidence as he sat back down, “Besides, the rehabilitation could potentially serve as part of their sentence. You never know.”

“I think that alcohol is stronger than you think it is.”

Lewis laughed, “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

It was hard to be honest, especially to a man who could kill you in your sleep, but sometimes you just have to speak it, “I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think it’s risky, and although it’s admirable for someone with a past like yours, I just don’t see it working out like you say.”

“Won’t know ’till we try,” Lewis replied with a smirk. I couldn’t argue with the confidence, but I wasn’t keen on the idea of what could potentially turn into another PMC funded by the dragon’s blood money. The pane door behind us slid open with a thud as Makoto rejoined us on the patio with a right arm full of random packages of junk food. The big guy really packed away on the calories, but I wasn’t going to tell him to slow it down. Maybe the fats were just as terrified of him as I was, because he shoveled food with no signs of weight gain. The three of us observed the fight as it seemed to be reaching its conclusion. Lydia stood on her feet, heaving every breath as she glared at her opponent. Alexis maintained her cool and awaited the next attack, preferring to play the counter role.

Lydia was going in for the kill, head down low and lungs exhaling all air as she roared a battle cry and cocked her right hand back for a full-force punch. I heard Lewis comment on how wasteful she was being right before Alexis stepped aside and let Lydia hit the ground. She was up again and spinning around to find her target, who was braced for another artful dodge.

“I don’t think the poor girl needs this right now,” Lewis said with a sigh. Lydia jabbed and swept, but Alexis just kept gracefully evading the onslaught of violence. Lydia was a pouting child who just wanted to exert pain on someone, and it had driven her blind with rage. I couldn’t take it anymore.

“We need to stop them,” I said, standing up and preparing to interfere. Makoto stepped to the right to block my path.

“No,” he stated calmly, “leave them be.”

I looked to Lewis, who was potentially the only person capable of getting past the brute samurai. He remained seated, seemingly uninterested in what was transpiring. I couldn’t just let Lydia have a meltdown, so I did the only thing I could think of. I pushed past Makoto, only to have a hand land on my shoulder and tug me backwards with enough force to send me crashing into Lewis, who immediately shoved me off. I was dumbfounded. Sitting back up, I saw that Makoto’s right hand was still cradling the food, but that meant…

“Makoto, that left arm of yours may be faulty,” Lewis grunted to my right, rubbing his chest from where I had impacted, “but damn if it isn’t still strong.”

Makoto moved his left wrist a bit to indicate that it was still functioning despite the damage from having a blade shoved through his shoulder four months ago. Then something happened that had Makoto drop the food on the ground at his feet. Lydia made a last effort in exhaustion to swing at Alexis. Her hand was within inches of her opponent’s face, when Alexis tilted to the side so that Lydia’s arm crossed over her left shoulder. Alexis capitalized, reaching up with both hands and grabbing Lydia, whose head fell against her opponent’s chin as her body gave out.

Alexis embraced her.

Not one of us dared to speak as Lydia began screaming, her emotions finally breaking free of the dam she had fortified for the past four months. Her knees buckled and she began to slip away as Alexis followed her to the ground. Both were on their knees while Lydia cried into her shoulder. Alexis soon accompanied her wails of anguish with her own. The two strongest women I knew were vulnerable and broken before us.

“That’s something you can’t get through therapy,” Lewis remarked with a grin.

“Should…” I began, “Should we do something?”

“No,” Makoto replied, strongly opposed to the idea, “I think that we should let them settle their grievances in their own way. Let them drown in the emotions for now. It may just wash out their sorrows.”

I got to my feet and looked on with the other two men, and not one of us spoke another word. Lewis and I had it easy. We were able to cut ties and just leave our past to die, but Makoto, Lydia and Alexis had left important people behind. None of us were really the same person anymore; replicas had taken over our lives and left our old spirits to wither in the back of our minds. I had a bit of a limp from a bullet wound I suffered during the invasion, Makoto had lost most of the use of his left arm, and everyone else had lost a mentor in Terry Shields. We survived here today, a ragtag group of rebels who had set out with a purpose fueled by a hotheaded woman with a trigger-finger. In the end, we were alive, and we were together. Come what may, we were facing a future together where we were all finally free of the ties that bound us to manipulative masters. I can honestly say I’m a bit grateful for the young woman who pinned me down under her scope in Italy. Of course, there were the downsides to all of this. We wouldn’t be hailed as heroes, but remembered as villains to all who relied on Tiamat Unbound for their income. We wouldn’t be able to show our faces in many places without a chance of being arrested, considering the FBI and most other organizations around the world had us on their ‘wanted’ lists. With retribution came consequences, and we’d live with them until the day we died.

After several minutes Makoto took his leave of the area. I assumed that he had seen enough of the emotional scene, but maybe a part of him even felt moved by the display. I’d never know, and asking him would probably lead to my utter demise, so I’d just have to be content with his absence. Alexis stood to her feet and pulled Lydia up by the arm, both clinging to each other like they were each other’s last hopes in the world.

“Hey, Aaron,” Lewis said to my right, nudging me in the ribs.

“What?” Something was troubling him, and it wasn’t the awkward situation now approaching.

“Think on my idea, won’t you?”

I hated to tell him that I wasn’t as interested as he was, as thoughtful a concept as it was from the man who took pride in his style of murder. Honestly, I couldn’t see anyone here wanting to be involved in the past. Sure, he was right about us owing it to the countless we had left alone and abandoned in the world, but I wasn’t willing to do something that would probably have them back on the battlefield. Rehabilitation is meant to end violence, not give it another outlet that could potentially relapse into the same problem. Lewis grunted and stood up, standing to my right and facing the house as I faced opposite.

“If worse comes to worse, I’ll do it on my own,” he uttered as the women drew closer, “It’s the least I can do to try and absolve all of these mistakes. If none of you want to come along, I’ll take the money and do this alone.”

I said nothing more, and he only let the silence persist for a few seconds before entering the house and sliding the door closed behind him. Alexis and Lydia had finished drying their tears and approached as I let lingering thoughts die.

“You look troubled,” Lydia commented. That was coming from the women who had a red face, mangled hair, and visible bruising.

“You uh…” I fumbled with words, “You two going to be okay?”

Alexis smiled, “We’ll be fine. I think that fight alone did more for us than the therapist visits.”

I noted that with a grain of salt, “That’s good. Do…you two need some time?”

“No,” Alexis said, letting go of Lydia and walking around me to the door, “I think everything’s going to be fine.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. I wasn’t sure what to say. Makoto and Lewis had left me to handle a delicate situation alone. Such men they were.

“I’m getting a shower,” Alexis called back, “Aaron, if you want, I’ll help you replant the rose garden tomorrow.”

I wanted to point out that she was the one who landed in it yesterday when Lewis booted her backwards, but I refrained and instead gave a thumbs up in reply. She slid the door closed behind her and left Lydia and myself alone on the patio.

“What were you and Lewis talking about?” she asked.

“Nothing to be concerned with.” I had no intentions of letting her know that he was looking to step back into the conflict. Of course, I had to remember that she was good at seeing through bullshit.

“Aaron, I still don’t trust him.”

“I never said I did either, but he helped us in the end, and that matters.”

The uneasiness in her expression overshadowed what I’d normally consider her cute characteristics, “Aaron, I’m serious. Unlike the rest of us, he didn’t lose anything other than free reign to kill, and now he’s free of the consequences. How do we know that I didn’t just set up for him to swoop in and take charge of something even worse than Tiamat Unbound?”

My heart skipped a beat, “What makes you say that?”

She began to involuntarily play with her hair, “I just have this bad feeling…”

“Is that your father in you?” I asked, remembering that her father was Spetsnaz.

With a disgruntled sound she turned away and spat, “You say that like you knew him, but you didn’t.”

“I know he’d be proud of you. You’re not the one-track-mind amateur that I met six months ago.”

She silently fumed and crossed her arms before turning back to me, “Why do you always know what to say?”

I laughed and clapped a hand on her shoulder, “I’m just optimistic. I didn’t trust you at first either, remember? Besides, he hasn’t tried to shoot me personally yet. I can’t say the same for you, Wrench.”

That got a smile, “I guess. Okay, I’ll behave, but if he steps out of line, I will kill him.”

“Noted,” I replied with a sigh, “Just learn to give people chances, okay? I did it for you.”

“Yeah, and look where it got you,” she pointed out. I shrugged.

“If I had a choice between my old weapons dealers and you crazy people,” I punched her in the arm, “I’d pick you crazy bastards any day.”

She smiled and leaned in close, “I’m flattered, but there’s something else I need to tell you.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Call me that name one more time,” Lydia uttered with a smirk, “and I’ll do what I planned on doing six months ago.”

“Think you can?” I asked. She laughed and brushed her hair from her left eye.

“I know you won’t do a damn thing about it,” she replied in a deadpan tone of voice.

“Oh yeah?” I challenged. She reached the door and slid it open, taking a step inside before looking over her shoulder and smiling flirtatiously.

“Of course. You can’t shoot, remember?”

With that she closed the door and left me alone on the patio as the sun was setting. She was right. There are two things I’ve learned over the past six months; first impressions aren’t everything, and challenging women is a bad idea unless you have a lot of support behind you. I would remember both of those lessons. Both would be my saving grace in life.

Beheading the Dragon (Tiamat Unbound #6)

My coffee mug spilled its contents onto the stapled documents in front of me as another rumble from below shook the entire structure. With a sigh, I sat the mug upright before picking the forms up and waving them in the air in an absent-minded attempt to dry them. My attention was more focused on the laptop monitor in front of me that currently displayed the wreckage of a helicopter embedded into the front entrance of the tower my employees and I currently occupied. To say it had been a bad morning would be an understatement. I ran my free left hand through my messy red hair and suspired my annoyance. This was going to cost a lot in repairs. Another booming sound came from below as I pushed up from the desk and noted the falling dust from the ceiling. Someone had done a terrible job cleaning yesterday. I’d be sure to mention that in the next bill. Grumbling under my breath, I made my way to the table in the corner of my large and dim office where the coffee pot was. I poured another cup, mixed in some creamer, and then proceeded to top it off with fine Russian vodka. After stirring the mixture I returned to my desk and fell back into the seat before taking a sip. That was better.

“Um…Mrs. Belmont?” one of the guards by the doors voiced. I placed the mug down and gave a half-hearted smile. I had almost forgotten about Fredrick Monroe and Ricardo Pierre standing in the darkness by the large oak doors. Two of my elite guards, they had volunteered to stay and defend me with their lives as members of Dragon’s Scales. Fred was a polite young Brit who would probably drop a thousand apologies as he’d drop countless empty bullet casings from his FN Minimi. The Frenchman, Ricardo, was much more serious than the polite young man next to him, and expressed that through long periods of silence during the tensest of moments. He had earned the name “Silencieux mais Mortel” for a reason. The FAMAS in his hands was ready, and his finger was on the trigger guard. His gaze remained fixated on a spot in the back corner of the room as he was no doubt listening for updates through his earpiece. Brave men. I liked them. Handsome too.

“Would you like one too, Fred?” I asked, smiling seductively, “Normally, I’d prohibit drinking on the job, but I can make an exception.”

Fred appeared rather unsettled as he cleared his throat before addressing me, “Ma’am, not to insult you, but we’re under attack and you’re downing spiked beverages.”

I chuckled and waved my mug, “Fred, Fred, my dear, its fine! My people will have them disposed of within the next ten minutes, and following that we’ll have the area cleaned up before the UN investigators arrive at three. You and the rest of Dragon’s Scales won’t have to put a finger on a trigger.” As I said that, the video feed I had been observing was cut off as a woman with pink hair shot the camera with what looked like a small-caliber Russian pistol. Maybe I should dye my hair like that…

“Ma’am,” Fred responded in a pressing tone of voice. I knew it was all he could do to not yell at his employer, “We just received word that an attack chopper crashed into the front entrance! We can’t hide that!”

I had another swig of my concoction as I changed the feed to another camera a floor above the previous, “Is that so? Well, that could pose a problem…” I replied as my gaze shifted to the stained documents that were still damp in front of the laptop. Most of it was nonsense from the UN on the botched attempt by a terrorist group to detonate an EMP device underneath the stock market in New York two weeks prior, and the discovery of evidence that linked my company to the incident, including numerous bodies, each donning my company’s uniform. Of course, they were right to be suspicious about the likelihood of our involvement, but I was more concerned with the bodies themselves. Enclosed in the packet were pictures of them, and I was easily able to identify the members of my elite field group, Dragon’s Talon. Marcus Ward, Patrick Morrison, and Christopher Williams were among the dead, along with more members of Tiamat Unbound that I could not individually identify. What irked me was the absence of one particular person among them; Dragon’s Talon leader, Jackson Lewis. Lewis had taken control of the unit after the desertion of Terry Shields a.k.a. Doberman, and he carried the determination to follow through with an assignment, unlike Doberman during the last few months of his employment. Terry was such an obedient dog at one point, and I thought it was such a shame that he had turned his back on me. I treated the man like a son, after all.

The pressing question in my head was where had Lewis disappeared to? He did not return with the other surviving units, and I would have found out had he been captured. Plus, it was Lewis. Captured and his name didn’t belong in the same sentence. For two weeks I had pondered what could have become of one of my top men, but as I happened to look up at the video footage of him bashing a man’s head in with the butt of a Kreigspartei rifle before emptying the magazine at unseen responders to the threat he posed, I became more concerned with the fact that he was indeed alive and well. Between this discovery and yesterday’s account from the team sent to the Caucasus Mountain range to hunt down and dispatch of deserter samurai Makoto Nagase that my head guard Toya (Makoto’s brother and leader of Dragon’s Scales) had perished during the bout, I felt justified in downing the rest of my coffee with legarthic melancholy.

I looked to the flag pinned to the wall on my left that depicted a black dragon’s silhouette with broken chains attached to its legs as it spread its wings. Many people tended to overlook the fact that Tiamat was a female. No one ever expects women to hold such a fearsome power, and that is why I chose her as the mascot for the company. When it was founded in 1994, I had so much ambition for the company. I had a vision for an army that would fight where no one else wanted to stick their noses in, be them political or moral reasons. We would take up arms against those no one else would. Where others wanted to avoid chaos, we took it to those who deserved it. Now my dream had become a nightmare beyond redemption. How had it all come unraveled so?

Before our reputation had plummeted to that of ‘terrorists’ just months ago, Tiamat Unbound was a revered private military company that basked in the chance to fight where no country wanted to be involved themselves. That was the philosophy; the motivation behind everything I had created. I welcomed those that had been discharged for disobeying their superiors, and even the greedy who sought money in exchange for blood, as long as they spilled the blood of the ones deserving. Those people became my children, and I made sure that they were treated well. We had to start somewhere, and with the results of the Rwandan Civil War spiraling into genocidal chaos with little intervention from the UN, I saw opportunity to put my resolve to the test. It was a complex plan, but I felt it was worth it. The Geneva Conventions prohibited our direct involvement in the conflict, but should we take up a contract to defend a business from the Hutu murderers fed propaganda by the Akazu, we could justify the shutdown of the extremists. It beat what the UN was doing; sitting on their asses and waving their fingers from a distance or even up in the faces of the Hutu in disapproval. They even took up that habit with my company as the death toll of the murderers grew higher. Doberman and his first unit had led that endeavor back when he was still a rookie who just wanted to see some action without the restrictions of an organized military. The result was a pile of dead bodies composed of the vilest of human beings, a cheering crowd of the helpless who had been spared the wrath of what had begun as another attempt at apartheid-turned-mass murder, and a series of charges of war crimes brought upon us that forced us to pull out. We were unlawful combatants according to the Geneva Conventions, and punishment must be dealt. Our increased support from nations had actually gotten the charges dismissed, and we were hailed as heroes rather than money-grubbing guns for hire. Though the genocide was not stopped, our intentions had been made clear, and that was enough to draw attention to my organization.

With recruits coming in by the hundreds, we began operations in Afghanistan during their civil war with the Taliban in 1996, as well as participating in the First Congo War, and even the Six-Day War of Abkhazia to defend innocent Georgian homes and businesses from being set ablaze by Abkhaz forces. We were even hired to protect businesses from the drug cartels of Latin America, and honestly, I would’ve accepted some of those contracts for free. Many companies around the world thrive with drug money. I find the offenders to be as despicable as rapists, and personally enjoyed hearing of the fates of the dumb gangbangers of the cartel messing with areas protected by my employees. The only reason officials got involved was because we were tampering with their income, and though I despised the outcome that resulted in us having to withdraw, I was still happy we got to wipe many of those bastards from the face of the planet. America claims they are waging a war on drugs now, but we were attempting that back in the nineties.

The company was a military that answered to the call for need. Those that frowned upon our actions were just furious that we could interfere in global conflicts without concern for our image. Our image was clearly painted across the battlefields; it was an image of an army with the force of a raging dragon. It was an image of a group of people that sought a solution when no one was willing to do anything for fear of getting the wrath of the UN on their asses. Of course, we were not exempt, as made evident by the browned and wrinkled papers on my desk before me, but at the time we truly sought to shut down evil when everyone else was afraid to.

I picked up my mug for another drink, only to realize I had forgotten I had already finished it. I sighed and went to stand up, but when I placed my hand down for support I ended up knocking over the single picture frame on my desk. Angered with myself I quickly went to scoop it back up and place it back in its place on the right corner of my workstation. I found myself staring at the picture of the young man in United States Army apparel for quite a while. For all I knew, it would be the last time I got to see all I had left to remind me of my son. This picture, and my company I had built up with him in mind were all I had, and all I knew.

When my son died during his deployment to Kuwait as part of Operation Desert Storm, he was branded AWOL for his pursuit of Iraqi soldiers who had slaughtered innocent Kuwaiti civilians. He had asked for assistance, but was told by his superiors that the zone was off limits and that it wasn’t their problem. Without consent from the Army, he went in alone with the hope that he could right a wrong. They found his body amongst those of the perpetrators before the area was bombed. I was never able to bury my own child.

I stood up and approached the coffee pot once more. As I prepared another cup, I couldn’t help but notice the questioning looks Fred and Ricardo were shooting each other. I didn’t need their judgment. I just needed them there to keep the hounds at bay while I planned, or in this case thought. I had established the company with the philosophy my late son had inspired in me in mind. We were doing the right thing throughout the years, and for the nineties we were a small army built upon men and women who wanted to make a difference, or for some, at least to make money for a cause.

Then came the rekindling of the fires in the Middle East at the turn of the century. I have no issues with the Islamic community, but when people bastardize the ideas and justify their actions in the name of religion, I’m not against shutting down homicidal ‘Sons of Allah,’ just because they want everyone to conform to the their image of the ‘orthodox’ standard. A modern day Dark Ages, only this time the dragon would crush the oppression. After the attacks on America, we were contracted amongst others to aid in the effort where their government was otherwise afraid that involvement would incite criticism. Spineless bastards, I thought to myself as I shifted around in my seat. We even stood in for police during the division of ideals in Egypt when the constitution was suspended. That was a tense situation, and many of my soldiers found themselves staring down military tanks. We also accepted contracts for defense during periods of the still ongoing insurgency in Thailand to keep areas safe from the harm of war.

Now that the U.S. Military has mostly withdrawn from Iraq, we’ve handled contracts under them to defend civilian areas from the uprising terrorist wannabes. I could respect that decision, as there was the beginning of an effort to get US troops home and away from a war they could not win. I wouldn’t want to see any other mother face the hell I had experienced. Of course, when the men and women in black and red armor with big guns were brought to question by NATO, the U.S. was quick to deny our agreements. We’ve seen the atrocities done by those no one will step up to face. We’ve combated them. Now we’re the enemies because of claims that we’ve harmed innocent lives, and engaged in illegal actions involving taking payments to assassinate figureheads of drug trades, shifty businesses, and groups conspiring against governments. Doberman and that young woman he had recruited were the perfect team of stealth assassins, but questions were posed, and our answers apparently too vague. While I haven’t argued that some of our employees had rather poor judgment when situations heated up, their actions don’t reflect what my vision for the company was to begin with. Then came the knife in the back; America pushed for our disbandment after hiring us, trying so hard to cover their own damn tracks, and right after we were given the charter to build a site right in the country. Of course, following the incident a month ago in Pittsburg, that building is now abandoned. That incident was the first to truly incur the scrutiny and distrust of the world upon us.

“Mrs. Belmont!”

Fred’s voice pulled me from drowning in my thoughts, “Hm? What is it?”

“Ma’am, apparently there is another intruder besides the four initially reported.”

“…I see,” I muttered, knocking my empty mug off of the desk and sending it crashing to the floor. I waved a hand at the mess and scowled before sighing and propping my chin up with my hand, “What threat does this one pose?”

“Unknown,” Ricardo answered, “but according to one of our employees, he is a swordsman. He appears to have an injured left arm.”

That instilled a little hope inside of me. Had my best line of defense actually managed to survive and return? Surely he could deal with these invaders to my fortress. I began flipping through channels on the security system in an effort to find video evidence of the man.

“Ma’am, there’s an issue,” Ricardo announced.

“There are a lot of issues, dear,” I mumbled, knowing I must’ve been wearing a stupid grin as my eyes stayed locked to the screen, “What is it?”

“He’s already killed three people,” Ricardo replied with a hint of trepidation in his voice.

“Only three?” I inquired. Ricardo didn’t seem to share the optimism, and it took a bit longer than it should have for me to realize what that meant. I stopped keying away for a minute. It wasn’t Toya.

“Ma’am…” Fred said hesitantly, “you don’t think…”

I didn’t want to. I don’t believe in ghosts, and the report from the encounter in the Caucasus Mountains stated that Makoto Nagase had died alongside my right-hand man after a heated duel. Who was this phantom? Had Toya betrayed me as well? I began going through the camera feeds for any evidence of the mystery infiltrator, “Where was he last spotted?”

Fred nodded as he held two fingers to his ear piece, “Apparently he’s on floor ten now.” I fumbled with the keys and switched the display to one of the few remaining functioning cameras on floor ten to see the shady silhouette of a man disappearing into smoke.

“I don’t suppose anyone wants to get close enough to positively ID the man?” I jested. Fred just looked sick from restraining himself to keep from telling me off. I had to wait until I turned the chair’s back to him to chuckle as I stared at the window that would have given me a beautiful view of the Italian coastline. Instead, I was staring at metal shutters that were meant to keep my office safe from outside threats. They blanketed the room in darkness save for the few lights given off by my desk lamp and the two wall-mounted lights on the walls to my right and left. As much as I so badly wanted to see the setting sun, my security team didn’t want me to take a sniper’s bullet to my head during times like these, so I had to settle for staring off into space once more in this depressing atmosphere. I needed another drink.

As I made my way (with great difficulty thanks to a mixture of alcohol and heels) back to the coffee pot, I could hear Fred and Ricardo having a heated discussion by the door.

“What is it?” I asked, as I poured coffee into the new mug I had grabbed…and on the table…and the floor.

“They’re only five floors beneath us now,” Fred informed me with great difficulty

“Really? Well, that’s a shame,” I responded, smiling at the bottle of vodka as I spilled a great deal of it on the counter, “Are you both sure you don’t want to partake?” I couldn’t make out the words, but I knew Ricardo was mouthing off under his breath to Fred. I didn’t care; more for me then.

“Mrs. Belmont, we’re going to defend this position from outside in the hallway,” Fred announced to me, “Do you have a weapon on your person?”

I responded without turning around by patting my left breast, indicating the presence of my personal 1911 in its bra holster underneath my red dress. I wasn’t necessarily dressed for combat, but I always had a weapon on me. In case of a demand for more firepower, I made a habit of keeping a loaded Mossberg 590A1 under my desk. The preference comes from the fact that I used to hunt with a civilian model when my son was alive. Was it safe to keep it beside my legs at all times? No, but did I care? Absolutely not, for when you’re the CEO of the most powerful private military company in the world, the paranoia is what keeps you alive.

“Okay, please wait here. Do no open that door under any circumstances,” Ricardo lectured me.

“Yes, yes,” I murmured. I could hear the oak doors opening on their hinges before closing once more as I stirred my messy drink. I was fairly certain there was more vodka than coffee this time. I was alone now. Deciding to bask in the solitude, I downed my drink and walked over to a portrait next to the company flag depicting the early stages of this tower’s construction back in 1997. It seemed so long ago, but when you tried to distance yourself from certain thoughts, they all seemed to fade, no matter how much they resided in your mind. I lifted the portrait and tossed it aside with a clatter of wood on wood as the frame broke, but I was more interested in the vault door embedded into the wall that was now unveiled. I grabbed the combination lock and began to spin it. What were the numbers again? 1…15…35? That was it. I grabbed the handle and turned it before pulling open the heavy door. The contents inside were still the same as they had been when I had opened the door two weeks ago to deposit the very item I now desired. I reached inside of the vault and grabbed the small, gray metal lock box that contained the means to my utter downfall should the UN inspectors not be dismayed by the destruction the intruders were causing. I left the vault door open as I returned to my desk and dropped the box with a loud clatter on the surface. The key was in one of these drawers…not that one, I thought as I pulled the center one open. Could it be? Yes, I had taken extra precautions and had hidden it. Where was that? I didn’t remember.

Swearing, I pushed the box aside and went back to monitoring the video feed from five floors below. Three bodies lay on the floor, motionless and puckered with gunshot wounds. I shook my head and rested it in my left hand while I continued to search for the invaders. I caught a glimpse of the pink-haired woman firing from behind cover…blindly. Three of my own were advancing towards her position at the entrance to an office as she continued to lay down suppressing fire with a submachine gun. I couldn’t understand her tactic; until I saw Lewis and another man emerge from the door to the same office behind the Tiamat gunmen. I was about to key the microphone to alert them to the danger, but Lewis was too fast. Before I could reach the button he had already maneuvered up to the nearest gunman and kicked his leg out, dropping him back into Lewis’s awaiting arm that wrapped around his neck as he put the muzzle of a pistol to his head with his other hand. The other two men were torn between the threats, and that would cost them. The intruders were quick to work. While the two were distracted, the pink-haired woman left her cover and stitched one man in the back with a burst from her weapon. While the other hesitated, Lewis’s assistant put a series of bullets into him from his rifle before Lewis popped his hostage in the head. I was terrified at the professionalism of the group, minus the woman. She could have missed and hit one of her allies, proving that she was a bit of an amateur in her actions. It actually appeared as if Lewis was chastising her. I noticed another Tiamat gunman who was about to get Lewis by surprise, when his head suddenly rocked back and the contents of his skull rained out on the floor. I finally discerned the figure of the fourth member of Lewis’s party, the blonde, in the top left portion of the screen within an office surrounded by glass pane windows. She had fired through one of them to get the man in the head. Her accuracy and timing were spot on, and her stance was reminiscent of someone’s that I just knew I recognized…she looked like that woman from the photo Doberman had sent me of his recruit who had saved his life. No…Doberman had killed her…right?

I had only four more floors separating me from them. The remaining three members of Dragon’s Scales were now outside of my door and ready to throw down their lives. I switched the feed to the camera down the hallway from my door and zoomed in to see all three prepared for battle. In the back was the big guy, Jason Sapani. The Samoan brute was wearing a thick layer of black and red body armor and wielding an outdated Vietnam era flamethrower with the napalm canister on his back. His face was concealed by the helmet that accompanied the armor, and behind the red visor I imagined his black eyes were fixated down the hallway, ready to torch anything that came into view not donning the black and red colors of Tiamat Unbound. In front of him, but out of the line of fire (I chuckled stupidly at that) were Fred Monroe and Ricardo Pierre, both with their weapons at the ready and just as determined as Jason was. I had no doubts that they would succeed in besting the pests. They were my pride and joy.

Knowing the general location of the initial interlopers, I decided to check on the lone samurai. I was disappointed, or should I rather say disturbed by the lack of his presence in any of the footage. Since the others had cleared a path up to me, I felt safe…or more appropriately endangered in assuming that he wasn’t too far behind them. With nothing else to do other than wait, I decided to return to the task of finding the key to the box that sat eerily on my desk. After several minutes of disappointing results that left my office in wreckage that resembled the aftermath of a grenade going off, I was in my chair again and irritated with myself. Bottles lay broken near the personal bar where I had spent half of my morning making my tonics. Books were strewn about the opposite side of the room from my hopes that I had hidden the key in their pages of knowledge. A potted plant was uprooted and tossed to the center rug, and the container shattered and spilling the earth it once housed. I had no clue as to where the hell I had stowed the thing.

Discouraged and disoriented, I returned to my chair and swiveled back and forth as I stared at the picture of my son, propped up and protected by the black wood picture frame. That picture frame was the one thing even the help knew not to touch, much like an unspoken rule. It was more precious to me than the company. Then it hit me. I grabbed the frame and flipped it around in my hands. Undoing the clips on the back that held the picture in place, I pulled the back cover off and was rewarded with a silver key that fell to the surface of my desk with a metallic clank. Of course.

After fixing the frame and returning it to its rightful place on the desk, I held the key in my right hand, heavily weighing the consequences of what I was about to do, immediately disregarded those thoughts, and proceeded to open Pandora’s Box. Flipping the lid back on its hinges, I removed the two items from inside; a slip of paper and another key very unlike the former.

Two months prior to this moment, I received word that an old R-36 that had gone missing following the Cold War had popped up in transit to Iraq. I had no idea how a bunch of insurgents had gotten ahold of the thing, but there wasn’t any doubt that leaving that alone would come to haunt me later. With no way to legally pursue the transport, I formed a small task force made up of Dragon’s Talon and Dragon’s Scales to retrieve the weapon in seclusion. Doberman and Toya would be leading the unit to take out the members of the transport and bring the weapon here. Better in our hands than theirs, I had figured. The transport was slow, moving from town to town until they reached their destination somewhere east of Baghdad. I had no idea how it had slipped past the eyes of NATO let alone the American troops, but I wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass us by. On the second night following our discovery of the weapon, the task force struck hard under what we had deemed Operation Dragon Flame. It was by the chance of a miracle that they had managed to secure the weapon and bring it back to headquarters, where I decided to keep the monstrosity in a silo I had already commissioned two miles away. With an ICMB, Tiamat Unbound would exist as a small nuclear state among the world’s nations, but in secrecy. It took a lot of black hand work, but I was now in possession of the means to launch an ICBM at any target I pleased from right here near Venice within the nearly 16,000 kilometer range.

The control panel for the weapon had been ever so secretly installed within the main drawer of my desk after a part of it was hollowed out for the computer. I pulled out the drawer and removed the false panel of wood over it to reveal the keypad and key slot. The numbers were encrypted on the slip, but I knew how to solve that. The question was, did I want to? I had no real target to strike at. In fact, I wasn’t really sure why I’d ever need a nuclear weapon in the first place. If anything, the ICBM would be my ignition switch to burn away any evidence of my business’s existence. When the payload hit then everything would be obliterated. The UN wouldn’t be very happy with that, but I wasn’t going to leave my legacy here for others to plunder through. If I was going to leave the world, then I’d leave no trace of myself behind. It wasn’t quite as simple as putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger, but they always say “go out with a bang.” I’m not so sure that they meant a three stage system of nuclear fusion and fission, but I was free to interpret.

While my intoxicated mind fumbled with the idea of launching an actual nuclear weapon at the very building I was occupying, I looked to the laptop monitor and became much more interested in the development outside. A figure had appeared at the end of the hallway and taken shots at Jason Sapani. The brute simply took the hits as they struck his body armor, and when the figure dared to show itself again, Jason released Hell. The ignited napalm streamed down the hallway and struck the back wall, setting it ablaze instantly. Realizing that another camera was mounted facing my office doors, I switched to it in time to see the Jason’s figure taking a few steps back and bracing himself, but the camera lens began to melt from the extreme heat rising from the flames below it. I berated myself for approving the use of that thing in my building, but I couldn’t remember if Jason had made a compelling argument or if I was simply already too far gone when he had addressed the issue of heavily armed trespassers. Either way, I regretted the decision. If those bastards didn’t get in here and kill me, then Jason would raze the building to the ground. Either way, we lost. That nuclear option wasn’t looking so bad at the moment…

A brave soul emerged from the end of the hallway long enough to toss a grenade at my guards, but Jason acted fast and incinerated it before it even reached the halfway point. These men were my personal guard for a reason. Then I was surprised when Jason’s head suddenly lurched violently backwards on his neck before he dropped to his knees and released his grip on the flamethrower before collapsing to the floor. In the top right corner of the video I could see pink hair whipping back into the safety behind the corner of the hallway and blonde on the opposite side as the flames raged behind them. The bitches had used the grenade as a diversion to take a shot at Jason as he swept the flamethrower up towards the ceiling for it and away from their position. No wonder they had made it this far…I had to take back what I said about the pink-haired one; she was better than I had originally given her credit for. Ricardo and Fred were my last line of defense. Following the collapse of the brute, Lewis appeared at the end of the hallway, the fires at his back. It was a hellish sight in my monitor; an omen of what was to come. Fred and Ricardo responded by firing burst shots from behind cover, careful to avoid the return fire from Lewis and the other man who was assisting him. My door was puckered with spots of splintered wood every now and then. It was a deadlock.

Ricardo stepped out and let loose with the belt fed Minimi, lining the walls and floor with bullet holes as the four remained behind cover. When he stopped to step back to safety, Lewis poked his upper body out and tossed a grenade before Fred had a chance to shoot him. The grenade impacted the floor and bounced a bit before rolling down the hallway towards my men. Ricardo retreated off screen as Fred darted for the thing and tossed it back up the hall before it blew up. The sound wasn’t that muffled in my office, and everything quaked for a brief moment. Fragments impacted him hard and sent him falling backwards to the floor. Even when faced with death, he put someone else’s life before his own. I could actually make out the blood pouring out of him on the screen. Ricardo returned to his spot on the left side and tried to speak to Fred. When his head slumped over, Ricardo stepped out from his cover and emptied the rest of his ammunition at the bastards, striking one; the other man besides Lewis. Gun empty, Ricardo fell back to the corner and withdrew his Beretta Px4 Storm from the holster on his left hip, unwilling to surrender the fight. He occasionally stuck the gun out and fired a few shots to keep the enemy at bay, but there was nothing he could do against them that wouldn’t ultimately just hinder their advance. After expending two more magazines of 9mm ammunition, he tried something a bit ballsier and rolled across the gap between walls to snatch Fred’s FAMAS. I applauded Ricardo for his efforts. As he left safety to return fire, a bullet struck him in the left leg, sending him to the floor. He didn’t let it stop him as he emptied the rest of his magazine at the four occasionally sticking their heads out from the end of the hall. Ricardo tossed the empty weapon aside and started hobbling over to Jason’s body. He had only managed to wrap his hands around the flamethrower when a bullet struck him in the back and sent him toppling over Jason’s corpse. I cringed at the sight. Ricardo Pierre was willing to try anything to keep them from getting to this room. I saw now that I had made a mistake in making Jason the interim captain of Dragon’s Scales.

I was out of options. Inserting the key into its slot beside the panel, I turned it clockwise and was rewarded with a lit up panel of numbers. I then began to hastily study the paper, decoding the numbers while glancing up every few seconds at the monitor. The victors walked down the hallway with caution in their every movement. The man Ricardo had managed to hit was lagging behind with a limp, back to the rest of the group as he covered their tracks in case of a surprise attack. It was because of this that he saw the samurai first. I could hear him from outside shouting for Lewis’ attention, and that drew my mine. On the screen Lewis turned back to see the man who was now making his way towards them. There was no mistaking it; it wasn’t Toya at all, but his brother. He walked forward with resolve in every step, his left arm tucked into the blue traditional samurai kimono that he was wearing over his Tiamat Unbound armor. I had just realized the issue; Neither Makoto nor Lewis knew that the other no longer served under me. This would prove interesting. If I was lucky, they’d kill each other. Makoto finally halted when all guns were trained on him, but even still I was willing to bet he was considering just running through the bullets and killing them. Makoto and his brother were unlike the rest of my employees. They were trained to fight from a young age, raised like warriors by their superiors. I could respect carrying on the family tradition. It was a difficult task in the modern world. They were good kids.

Lewis stepped forward and ordered his own to avert their weapons. He and Makoto exchanged words, and then Lewis said something to his party. There wasn’t much hesitation as they turned away from the development and proceeded up the hallway towards my office. While they became clearer in the lens of my camera, I was still watching the other two in the background. Lewis had put down his weapon, and the two exchanged dialogue before Makoto ripped one of his sword sheaths from underneath his kimono and tossed it to him. Lewis caught it and unsheathed the sword as Makoto did the same to one still concealed on his person. They were actually going to have an honorable duel. I was far too intrigued, remembering Makoto’s fight with Dragon’s Talon years before. Lewis had tried every trick in the book to overcome his opponent, but Makoto beat him with little effort compared to their leader. Only Doberman had even come close to hitting him. I wondered if Makoto knew that Lewis had taken that defeat pretty hard; hard enough that he’d taken private lessons in sword fighting, believing that if he could become like the man that had defeated him then he would become stronger. Though I knew Lewis wouldn’t rival a Nagase, it would still make for a great show of swordsmanship…that I would have probably enjoyed if my office wasn’t currently being broken into by the three remaining members of Lewis’ party. I hesitated with what to do about the launch codes as the right door of the double set to my office suddenly burst from its hinges accompanying the booming sound of a shotgun blast. The left one was simply pushed open as the three assassins entered with guns trained on me, minus the man in the middle who was busy reloading the Kriegspartei Kniebrecher in his possession as he limped along behind them. It was then that I recognized the man whose contract I had signed for that company’s weapons. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew the charming face.

The pink-haired woman looked to him while keeping the barrel of her MP5 on me, “Aaron, did you really have to use a breaching round on a wooden door?”

“Hey!” the man named Aaron responded as he loaded a standard magazine into the shotgun, struggling due to an apparent wound, “It’s called that for a fucking reason! The door needed breaching, so I breached it!”

“Jesus, Aaron,” the woman sighed, shaking her head before focusing on me, her intended target. I stole a glance at the panel behind their field of vision. The launch switch now had a bright red ring of LEDs around it, indicating that I was now in complete control of the missile that resided in a silo only two miles from here.

“Elizabeth Belmont, we felt you should know who we are and why we’re here before we kill you,” Aaron gestured with his head towards the blonde girl, “That’s-”

“I’m Alexis Hawkins,” she spoke in a determined voice, “and because of you, my father is dead…by my hands. If I didn’t kill him, you would have had Terry Shields, or as you refer to him, Doberman, kill me. He didn’t want that, but you forced him to hunt me down after I left. You sent man after woman after man to find me, and the more I killed the more you sent, until you made the mistake of sending him. My father and Terry were good men, and now…” she began to sob, her hands trembling as the rifle began to rock from her spasms, “now they’re dead. They’re dead! They’re dead because of me, and because of you, you bitch!” she cried.

I said nothing as she continued to weep behind the rifle. I knew nothing of what she spoke of. I wasn’t even aware that Shields had actually died, and as for the other man she spoke of, I could only assume that my American counterpart had a hand in that. I wanted to believe that whatever reason he had for having this young woman’s father killed was justified, but as of lately I didn’t really know. I did send Doberman after this woman after hearing of her continuous evasion and execution of some of our top American employees, but that was only after it was requested of me. In truth, I didn’t even know who the target was until after Doberman’s departure from this country. The pink-haired woman finally broke the awkward silence.

“My name isn’t important,” she said, the Russian accent unmistakable, “but what you did to me is. Your fucking mercs killed my father for defending what they called terrorists! They were innocent people who were at the mercy of your damn goons! They executed him before murdering the others! Your company is full of shit, full of violent intent!”

Again, I had nothing to say. An apology would do me no good. They had already made their minds up. They wouldn’t have fought their way up here to spare me.

“My name…” she muttered, “my name is Lydia Dedov, but these people have called me Wrench, because I’m going to throw one in your fucking plans by ending you and bringing down your goddamned company!” she declared, steadying her aim and placing her finger on the trigger of her Vintorez. The subsonic rifle was unwavering as she kept it pointed at my head.

“Lydia, breathe,” Aaron spoke to her. The gun began to shake in her hands as she struggled to calm down. I could see it in her, the desire for vengeance. Was that not what drove me to engage in the activities in Manhattan two weeks ago? Was that not what drove me to build a company rooted in the disposal of the vilest of humans like those who had killed my son? Was all of this not the result of my desire to give my son’s death meaning? I looked at the three before me, and felt sorry for them. They were here, had come through all of this, and had lost their former lives because of me. To them, my death would be the answer to all of their problems. Despite the fact that they would all be tried for possession of illegal firearms, war crimes, conspiracy and every other possible charge the UN could bring upon them following the discovery of their presence by the investigators that would be here soon, they still felt that ending me would make all of the wrongs right. I sighed and closed the drawer. These people had already lost so much because of me. There was no reason to take their lives. They were not responsible for what had transpired; I was.

“Why?” the one named Alexis asked me, “Why have you twisted so many lives. Why have you kept these conflicts going; kept these imbeciles under your command? Why are you such a monster?”

My head sank low. I had twisted the lives to get my way when things started to fall apart. I hadn’t kept any conflicts going other than the one between my company and the States. I had brought people to the company to give them a purpose. Many couldn’t go back to a normal life, nor could they fit in with people in the first place. I gave them the opportunity to exist outside of society. I gave them a job, an identity they could live with, and a home. I wasn’t a monster…at least I wasn’t always.

“Mrs. Belmont,” Aaron said gently, “You may not remember me, but I was the man who drew up the contract between our companies.”

I nodded, “I remember you…Craven,” I slurred.

“Are you…are you drunk?” Lydia challenged. I was afraid to answer for fear that it would bring upon my impending death much sooner than I wanted.

“Lydia, it doesn’t matter if she is or isn’t,” Aaron continued, “what matters is what I want to say next.”

“It does matter!” she argued, “I want her to be able to process what we’re telling her, otherwise I’m going to put a bullet through her head so we can finish this!”

Aaron was relatively calm for having to work with a woman such as this Wrench, “Lydia,” he replied, “let me say my part first, and then we’ll decide how we’re going to handle this.”

“Hurry up,” Alexis commented with concern, distracted by the action out in the hallway, “because Lewis is getting his ass handed to him by that swordsman.”

“Mr. Craven,” I spoke up, “forgive me for-”

“Oh, I’ll forgive you all right,” Lydia cut in, “right between your fucking eyes-”

Aaron held up a hand and motioned for me to continue. I had to regain my train of thought, and Lydia appeared rather furious by my obvious intoxication, “Why are you here? You had no…obligation to join these people and attempt to bring ruin to my company. All we did was sign a paper together, so what is your reason for being here at this moment with a personal…vendetta?” I said, struggling with the bigger words.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve asked myself that a lot over the past few months, and,” he glanced towards Lydia for a brief few seconds, “though I may not have a personal reason myself, I’ve learned of the crimes your company has committed, and knowing that I was the one who gave you the line to our weapons, I just couldn’t sleep at night with the fact that you’re using the weapons I allowed you to continue such injustice. Quite frankly,” he said with a scowl upon his face, “it pisses me off. In the past few months alone I’ve almost been shot more times than I can count, have been today, had my life threatened on multiple occasions, including once from the woman who is ready to take your head off much like she was mine, and watched good people die because of your decisions. Honestly, I’m sick of this shit. I’m here because I want to make amends.”

“Amends?” I laughed and leaned back in my chair. I could hear Lydia swearing under her breath, and knew I was only a few more comments away from having that entire magazine emptied into me. I collected myself and sat upright, “Mr. Craven, I envy you. To be able to actually find… salvation in this world in this line of work, now that is something I cannot put a price on.”

Aaron smirked, “We may not forgive you, but you can try your luck with God. Lydia’s just itching to introduce you two.”

I slammed my fist on the table and held my hands up in surrender, “Then go ahead!”

“That’s it?” Aaron inquired, “No great speech? No challenge? You’re just done?”

I cackled, “I am but a broken woman now. There is nothing left for me here. Do as you will, but I hope you find more…fulfillment than I did in my…” what was that word? Ah, “endeavors. Besides, your friend appears at the end of her tether.”

“One more question,” Alexis pressed on, “do you feel any remorse? Would you do it again?”

Remorse? Of course I felt remorse. Countless lives were gone below me because I had created the vengeance-seekers before me. I was in this situation because I wanted to get back at America for what they did to my son, and what they had done to me. Would I do it again? Absolutely, but with a better game plan. My empire was now burning around me, and there was nothing I could do. Though I had an endgame button, I lacked the restart one I so desired. I looked to the picture of my son and smiled. Where I was going, I wouldn’t be reunited with him, but I could no longer do harm here. Then I looked to the trio, and had no time to react as Lydia fired a bullet right through my chest cavity. My heart burst open, and the pain was unlike anything I had ever felt. I slumped onto my desk, staring at the woman who had just shot me. There was no triumph in her face. She was crying.

“NOOO!!!” A great voice boomed. Makoto entered my sight and appeared very enraged with the fact that he had been denied his purpose of coming here. Why else would he have come back to the company that was trying to kill him? Lewis was right behind him. He too looked disappointed that he had missed his chance to quit his job in such a way that Westbrook had in America. I was more amazed by the fact that neither man was dead.

Even my death brought out hatred in everyone. I grimaced as my vision began to fade. It couldn’t really be helped. The final thought that went through my head was rather interesting to me, and could keep philosophers such as the greatest minds in humanity’s history as well as a woman like myself pondering the answer for endless nights. Who won today?