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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“Second Fall” in Paperback, and More.

My first book is finally available in paperback on Amazon in addition to the eBook format. I took forever on that, huh? You can find it at the link here.

“World to Come,” the second book of the trilogy, will be available next month, so I’ll be sure to make a post about that as the time draws near. For now, enjoy, and if you like the first, spread the word!

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.

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.

Review: “Monster Hunter International”

I’ve never done a book review to post for all to see before, but I figured doing one for a book that I thoroughly enjoyed is worth it. That’s why today I wanted to actually post a review for Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia.

While I was in high school, I actually fell out of reading for a while. I blame the forced reading of “great classics” that didn’t live up to my expectations, but overall I had developed a disinterest that was beginning to take its toll. My older brother started mentioning a book he was reading that he had emailed excerpts to me about. All I knew was that the author had been self-published at the time, and that the material seemed interesting enough. When I thought “Monster Hunter,” I thought of a video game, but when he let me borrow it to read, I was back into books. The story follows Owen Zastava Pitt after he quits his job in the most formal manner possible, but I’ll leave that for the reader to decide. He is recruited by Monster Hunter International, an organization that hunts monsters and gets paid for it. It’s a nice gig, until all of the weird things start to happen. What’s stranger than monsters existing in the world? My retort would be read Lovecraft’s works sometime. I won’t get into too much detail for risk of spoiling anything, but let’s just say that Owen’s life gets a bit more complicated than just completing contracts to kill monsters that are terrorizing civilians and businesses.

The Good: Monster Hunter International has a very diverse and lovable cast of characters, from human, to lycanthrope, to other otherworldly beings. The very first chapter itself tosses you right into the action, and if there’s ever a break throughout the story for the characters to stop and breathe, you can bet it’s still serving a purpose towards the main plot. The character development is strong, and the plot is always thickening, even at the end. I don’t think there were many times where I found myself wanting to hurry to the next chapter or for the dialogue to be over.

The Bad: It’s hard for me to pick out anything bad, but if I had to say, I’d pick the cliché parts of the protagonist, such as the ‘having to overcome the odds no matter what’ gig, but I still prefer him over most main characters from other stories.

Short things to love:

-Well-executed action.

-Earl Harbinger.

-Agent Franks, and the fun he brings.

-Milo Anderson. Just Milo Anderson. Seriously, find a page where he’s not making you laugh or worry.

-Wondering what the PUFF bounty on some of your favorite fictional monsters would be.

-Vampires that don’t sparkle.

Short things to hate:

-MCB (Until…you know what? No spoilers).

-Vampires.

-More vampires.

-Stone automatons.

-Great Old Ones.

-Shady conquistadors.

In the end, it’s not often (if at all) I give books a second read, but this one earned it as I picked it up once again a few months back just as the new installment in the series was close to publication. I highly recommend Monster Hunter International to anyone who enjoys a great read with a balanced focus on characters and plot, along with an action movie style.