Such a Fine Line

I hate that song.

With a sigh, I changed the radio station away from Megadeth’s “Sweating Bullets” as I kept my eyes on the road ahead. It’s easy for people to say they hate themselves. It’s harder to point out a very good reason as to why. For me, it was the fact that I was pretty sure I was losing my mind.

I wouldn’t say you’ve lost it. I’d say you’re just coming to accept that I exist.

The voice in my head had slowly grown more and more annoying over the years, but it wasn’t until six months ago that it finally went from being something like my conscience to something far more terrifying. I went from listening to its advice to arguing with it, and then things only escalated from there.

Why couldn’t we stay later? I want enjoying that game. You had a nice hand, but not a good bluffing face. Maybe you should’ve let me play?

At first I just noticed things moved around in my room after a night of sleep, but after a while I began to have memory lapses that spanned anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours every day. The last time that had occurred was yesterday, and I went from sitting in my third period history class to standing before the bruised figure of Josh Andrews in the parking lot as he kept his back to his truck, astounded at the sight of me standing before him in a fighting stance. Josh was the guy who had bullied me since middle school, and made my life a living hell before my new tenant took up occupancy in my thoughts. I hadn’t done anything to Josh to leave him like that. I know I didn’t. I didn’t even know how to fight.

So you say.

Laughter followed that in my head as I felt a chill crawl over my body. I shook my head and focused on getting home. Today it had gone too far, spewing threats and demanding that I assault my friends around me during our card game. I was tired of this life, always fearing the other me.

I don’t like you referring to me as an it. It’s insulting, honestly.

“Then what the hell do I call you?” I asked in frustration as I pulled into my driveway. It was late, and I knew my dad would be asleep and my mom would be working at the hospital, so I slipped upstairs like a ghost and into bed.

Sleep well.

There was something unnerving about receiving a goodnight from yourself.

 

***

 

“Caleb?” the voice asked in concern. I snapped my head around and saw my friend Lauren staring at me in bewilderment. There’s something painful about seeing someone so close to you look so mortified. I was about to ask why when I looked at what was in my hands. I was holding a handgun, and I had no idea where it had come from. My immediate reaction was to drop it to the floor of the hallway, and that’s when I noticed that I was in school. Glancing about in alarm I realized I was standing next to Josh’s locker, a dent very obvious in the center. The knuckles of my left hand were aching, and when I looked at them I saw blood leaking out of the skin.

“Caleb,” Lauren began, “what are you doing with that gun?”

The better question is why you dropped it? It could’ve gone off, you know?

“I…I don’t know,” I answered in all honesty. Lauren was clutching her books tightly to her chest as she backed away down the hall.

“Caleb, I don’t want to say anything, but I have to know.”

Want me to tell her?

“I want you to keep quiet!” I hissed.

“What?” Lauren asked, her head cocked to the side, terror more evident on her face.

“Not you!” I tried to assure her. “I’m just…I don’t even-”

“Don’t.” she managed to say. “Just…don’t.”

“Lauren,” I said as I fought back tears, “it’s going to be okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I swear!”

Seriously, let me handle this.

“Stop talking!” I shouted. Lauren turned her back and hurried down the hall as I ran after her. “Lauren!”

“Stay away from me, Caleb!” she called back. I slowed to a stop as the weight of guilt pressed me to the floor. I was on my knees, alone and confused.

You’re never alone, Caleb.

Yet here I was, alone and afraid in the hallway of my high school.

Speaking of which, I’d suggest hiding that gun, because classes should be letting out at any moment now.

Rational thought seized me, and I backtracked down the hall and retrieved the weapon before heading out of the exit as the sound of a bell’s ringing haunted my steps.

 

***

 

A brick wall. That’s what I came to next after leaving the school. The transition happened in a literal blink, and here I was in an unknown place yet again. I tried to recall something, anything that would enlighten me as to how I’d gotten here.

You’re back! Good, I was worried I’d be handling this myself. I’ve got a surprise for you!

I never knew that death had a smell, but maybe that was just my brain trying to rationalize my nausea. I hadn’t seen any bodies, but I knew they were on the other side of the brick wall leading into the alley. The trail of blood leading back there was evidence enough for me.

You’ve really got to stop dropping out on me. You might miss something important.

“Mocking bastard,” I grunted. My head felt like railroad spikes had been run through it. The throbbing wouldn’t stop, and my vision started to blur as the voice in my head continued to bark orders.

Get yourself together, because we’ve got work to do. You’ll find some aspirin in your left pocket.

“Where am I?” I asked.

Well, I’d love to say you had a fun night drinking and blacked out, but that would be a lie. I’d never lie to a friend.

“Where the hell am I?!” I demanded. There was silence, followed by humming. I was so confused and scared, but couldn’t decide which was more prominent.

I don’t care what you feel right now. Soon, you’re going to feel good.

“Why? What the hell did you do?” I asked meekly. I didn’t want to try and imagine what horrors awaited around the corner.

You couldn’t picture it if you tried, but I’ll tell you that it’s one of your wildest fantasies.

That got it roaring with laughter. How the hell was it possible for it to sound like it was everywhere at once?

Ready?

“No.”

Too bad. Now go around the corner and take your prize!

I couldn’t deny the curiosity within. I wanted to know what the hell this thing had brought me here for. Besides, if someone was still alive then I could do something.

Well the baseball bat will be useful in that something.

My foot kicked something as I rounded the corner, and I looked down to see exactly what he’d just mentioned. The bat rolled across the ground, and blood covered one side of it. This was beyond what I thought it could do. I had to get help. I had to stop it.

Help? To stop what? The voice in your head?

It laughed again as I closed my eyes and ran down the alley. I nearly tripped over something and finally opened my eyes to see a disfigured Josh broken and beaten on the ground, next to some pallets and trash cans. My heart skipped a few beats as I looked him over, praying to God that he was still alive.

That’s useless. Besides, he’s alive. I made sure to save you the final blow. This is what you wanted, right?

It finally hit me. This was my fault. All of that teasing, all of those assaults this guy had put me through, and everything thing else he did to me had caused me to break. I had always wanted to be better than him. I wanted to be stronger. I wanted to take my life back from the bullies that had tormented me for years.

Hey, do you think his family is smarter than he is?

“What?” I asked, not really caring to hear what absurd statement the monster in me had to say next.

I was just wondering if they’re even literate, because I have something in the works for them to read. It’s called Josh’s obituary.

I cried out in frustration as the sickening laughter flooded my mind. This had to end. I had to get the police, or someone.

What are you going to tell them? That the person living in your head is trying to kill someone? While you’re at it why don’t you tell them about the fat man at the North Pole that’s breaking into houses? I’m sure they’ll believe it all.

“You’re a monster.”

I’m what you made! You wanted your life to get better, and I’m taking the necessary steps that you were too scared to even consider! Man up! Take what I’m offering, and we’ll be unstoppable! Josh is just the first! We have a list of these asses to take down!

I glanced down at Josh’s form. He was barely breathing, but he was definitely still alive. “I’m leaving, and I’m taking him with me.”

Where will you go? The hospital? The second he’s conscious again he’ll tell the authorities that you were the one who beat him within an inch of his life.

He was right. I couldn’t fix this easily.

You can’t fix this. Just end it here. It’s easier to dispose of a lifeless corpse anyway. Less blabbing, and more being quiet six feet under.

“Screw you!” I shouted.

You’re making this difficult. I like it when things are easy, like beating the piss out of Josh here. He just begged and begged. I’m actually sad that you missed it. You would’ve loved it.

“Enough!” I cried. I was done with all of this. Somehow I’d stop this bastard from taking my life from me.

I’m not taking it from you. I’m taking it from the ones who stole it in the first place!

“Stop trying to justify this crap!” Silence followed, and I took that time to attempt to lift Josh up and drag him out of the alley.

You asked for this.

“I didn’t,” I heaved as I struggled with Josh’s form.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

 

***

 

I was driving my car through the city streets, and had just sped through a red light before I caught myself again and snatched the wheel, almost flipping the car as I went on two wheels to try and bring it to a stop. It was night now, and I wasn’t even sure if it was the same day or not. Where did he have me driving to?

Well I can catch you up on that. Josh is unconscious in the trunk, and your good pal Lauren reported you for that weapon on school grounds. Now there’s a warrant for your arrest, and we’re playing hide and seek.

“What the hell have you done?” I asked, completely lost in this situation.

So maybe I made a mistake. I’m not too worried about it. It can be fixed, now do me a favor and give me control again.

“Like hell I will!”

I misspoke. See, that was a formality. I can just easily take this body as I please.

“No, you can’t.”

Oh, but I can.

For a moment, my vision went hazy and a strange noise overtook my hearing. I was about to slip away again, but then I saw Lauren’s upset expression. I saw my parents and the concern in their face when I kept popping Tylenol like it was my life source. I saw the bloody bat, and finally, I saw Josh. This wasn’t me. I never intended for things to go this way, and I would be damned if I let it continue. My vision began to clear.

Well shit. You grew a pair.

Ignoring the voice, I put the car back into drive and started down the road again.

Where do you think you’re going now?

It was too fitting that “Sweating Bullets” was playing on the radio again tonight. You’ve got to love repeats on radio stations.

I hate that song.

“Bite me.”

If I could, I would.

I got onto the interstate highway and focused on finding the right exit. It’s hard to find a place that you’ve never really been to before, but I knew it was close enough by.

Wait, you’re going there?

It was a tough call, but if I wanted to keep from hurting anyone else then it was my best bet.

This is getting interesting. Between the police, your deteriorating mental state, and your desperate idea, I’m curious as to who will win.

I wasn’t going to entertain the sick bastard with anymore words. Still, that didn’t stop it.

I’m in your head, genius. I know what you’re thinking.

The Maia Institute wasn’t too far away. I just had to get there before I lost control again.

The most that they’ll do is sedate you. Guess what? The second you wake up I’ll be here again.

I turned the music up, hoping it would drown the voice out.

I’m still here. I don’t have to shout. I’m in your head. What part of that aren’t you getting?

Traffic was slow ahead, and I could see flashing blue and red lights. It would be my luck that a wreck happened now of all times.

You lose. That officer directing traffic might be in on the hunt. Oh, I hope so.

There was no turning around. Traffic was beginning to build up behind me, and I could just get out and go on foot. This was it for me. Swearing, I slammed my fist on the steering wheel repeatedly as the other half of me continued to mock me.

You should’ve known you’d lose in the end. All you had to do was cooperate and we could’ve set you up for life. Hell, you even lost Lauren, and you had a thing for her, right? Why the hell am I asking; you secretly loved that girl.

“Fuck you!”

I’m not the one who’s about to be screwed in a few minutes. I hope he shoots you with a stun gun. I bet that’ll suck.

It hit me. Desperation was all I had left, and the ambulance wasn’t too far away. I vaguely remembered my mom letting me see inside one a few years back while she was on break. I’d probably take a bullet before I got there if the officer got suspicious, but even that was better than nothing.

What the hell are you doing?

I opened the door and charged through the line of cars. The officer noticed me and pointed a flashlight in my direction, nearly blinding me for a second before I threw my left arm up to block the beam.

“Hey! Stop!”

I ignored him and made for the open back doors of the ambulance. I honestly wouldn’t be mad if he shot me.

Wait. You’re going to…no! You’re insane!

“Yep!” I panted as I reached the vehicle. Only the driver was still inside, but even he couldn’t do anything in time as I began to rummage through the equipment. I had no idea where they would be, but I wasn’t giving up.

On second thought, I’ll stop! Don’t do this! You’ll kill yourself! It doesn’t work like that!

“Oh, so you’re scared now?”

I’m not this stupid! You’re not this stupid!

“Well, we’ll find out,” I shot back as my hands found the satchel. Inside was what I’d been praying for. I didn’t know how to work a defibrillator, so I set everything as high as it would go and accepted that I might die. Grabbing the paddles, I rubbed them together like I’d seen it done on TV, and held them inches from each side of my head.

You’re going to kill us! Stop!

“It’d be better than me hurting anyone else.”

The driver appeared at the back door, red with rage as he began to climb inside. The officer was right behind him, gun drawn and trained on me. Once they realized what I was doing they both backed off, but the gun never dropped.

“Put them down, kid,” the officer said calmly, “I’m only going to ask you once.”

Listen to the officer. Put them down.

“Fuck you.” I wasn’t even sure who I’d said that too. I noticed the officer hit the safety, and realized that it was now or never.

I hope it hurts.

“Same to you, asshole.” Then I slammed the paddles against my head.

 

***

 

The hospital room was white, black, and gray. In fact, everything was. It didn’t really bother me though. Even the bandages over my head weren’t a problem, and the absence of the monster in me didn’t really register. I didn’t care anymore. The doctor asked me questions, but I just didn’t feel like answering him. The police came by and said something about a young man they found nearly dead in the trunk of the car I was driving, yet I wasn’t bothered by their threats of imprisonment. My parents cried next to me, but I didn’t understand why. All of the words they said to each other didn’t draw anything from me, but when my dad finally gave me my MP3 player in the hopes of getting me back to myself, I put the earphones in and played the first song that came to mind. The doctor explained my current state in the background as I stared at the light on the ceiling while listening to “Sweating Bullets.”

Book One is out now!

The day has finally come that I can proudly announce I’ve published my first book. It’s available on Amazon right now for Kindle devices and apps. Read and enjoy!

http://www.amazon.com/Second-Fall-Daniel-Byrd-ebook/dp/B013FOT0FS/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Where Angels Dare to Tread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mar! What the hell-”

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

“Can you hear me, spawn of Styx?”

Lethe was petrified. The creature was in its head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so hungry!”

“Maybe that one tastes better than them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: “The Fury” by Alexander Gordon Smith

For one of my education courses we were required to pick a young adult novel and plan a lesson around it. There were no limitations, so I was free to choose whatever I wanted, so when I noticed a thick hardback book on my advisor’s shelf of young adult books months before the assignment was given, I was curious as to if I’d ever get around to asking her if I could borrow it. With the assignment, I was finally given the chance, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel follows a group of teens (plus one younger girl) in the UK as their world falls apart…and I mean that literally in some instances. Their friends and loved ones are trying to kill them, and they don’t understand why. When I mention “kill,” I don’t mean they’ve turned into mindless zombies. Rather, anyone these individuals come into contact with instantly lose their humanity and become monsters hellbent on destroying the characters. The interesting note is that, assuming people succeed in killing one of the individuals, they return to normal as if nothing ever happened. Through a tale that invokes pity, anger, and a few laughs from time to time when the world isn’t trying to kill the protagonists, Smith’s thriller story of supernatural and fantasy horror combines characters of innocence with a dark setting that only explodes into something more than the reader expects as the plot expands from beginning to end.

 

The Good: The Fury has a nice opening that has you questioning just what the hell is going on immediately, and it’s a hook that kept me reading. The characters are easy for teens to relate to, and their reactions understandable considering the events that transpire. I’m a huge fan of books that follow a story from multiple perspectives, and this one was a job well done.

 

The Bad: I only wish more details were given about a particular character, whom I can’t really go into detail about myself since it would involve spoilers. Let’s just say that te story becomes so much more than a tale of teens trying to survive an apocalypse meant for them, and some of it can really have you wanting more of an explanation as to why events are happening.

 

Short things to love:

-Excessive violence (if you like that)

-Characters you’ll come to love.

-Awkward situations.

-Noble acts of heroism that you’ll probably feel depressed over for a few days following.

-Screwing over Newton’s Laws of Physics.

Short things to hate:

-Characters you’ll come to hate.

-Black holes.

-Emotions.

-More emotions.

-The feels.

The book was not what I expected, and that’s because I honestly judged it by the cover (the image had me thinking something else entirely). Of course, that’s not to say it’s bad. In fact, I enjoyed it. It took a few days to get over the ending, but I liked it nonetheless. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys dark fantasy with plot twists you’d never actually guess at.

Beheading the Dragon (Tiamat Unbound #6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Belmont!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunnel 135

Toby Petry stared into the gaping mouth of the tunnel, hands tight on his rifle as he nervously watched Craig Kent step into the darkness. Armed with only an LED flashlight that barely revealed anything that the mysterious void concealed within, Craig looked back and, with a shrug that seemed to speak of his apathy towards dangers, entered the realm of the unknown. Toby had to wonder if it was due to the ominous nature of the cave itself that the light seemed to just bend and fade into the black hole rather than illuminate the abyss. Just standing before it seemed to drain any optimistic thoughts of success from him, but he kept his pessimism to himself. He thought that Craig was a brave man for being the first to step into the gates of Hell, but Craig was also curious. Curiosity could get a man killed. Being the engineer, it was kind of a given for Craig to have that mindset, and Toby felt sorry for the ambitious young man.

The tunnel was carved out in such a way that a downward incline led farther beneath the crust of the planet, and underneath the entire mountain itself. The recovery team knew they were flirting with death by agreeing to descend into the depths, but the contract stated that the drilling company’s boss demanded an answer as to why the crew of his revolutionary drilling machine had suddenly ceased radio transmission somewhere below, even as it continued burrowing into the abyss. The four mercenaries were to escort the engineer to the mechanism safely so that he could diagnose the issue and, if necessary, pilot the thing back to the surface. Everyone knew that there was a strong chance that the crew was dead, and it would take more than an engineer to determine the cause if that was indeed the scenario. Toby was no expert on geothermal energy, or earth sciences in general for that matter, but something told him that drilling near a known volcanic site, dormant as it was, was probably not the best idea.

Seismograph readings from that morning suggested that the machine had finally stopped functioning, but much farther than the intended length of the tunnel. For fear of volcanic activity triggered by the unsupervised drilling, each member of the recovery team donned fire-retardant flight suits with their gear in harnesses worn over them, and gas masks just in case of a chance encounter with any of the numerous gases associated with volcanic activity. Underneath their masks were their radio earpieces so that they could communicate even at a distance. Each of their primary firearms were fitted with flashlights on the Picatinny rails, each powerful enough to light up a small room if placed in the middle with the beam positioned straight up at the ceiling. They also carried oxygen tanks on their backs, much to Toby’s concern. Not rebreathers to filter the carbon dioxide, but pressurized oxygen tanks. He felt he was probably the only one who actually thought about the risks of carrying pressurized oxygen to deep depths with the risks of toxicity and the presence of weapons, not to mention the unknown volcanic variables, but then again he was always running negative scenarios through his head. His argument was that someone had to consider the worst cases to keep hesitant enough to stay alive, but that was back when he was a solider in the British Armed Forces. It had kept him alive during the invasion of Iraq, and it would hopefully prevail here too.

The other three men of the expedition to retrieve the tunneling machine were all former soldiers as well. Former Indonesian Army soldier Nurul Amir was standing with his Pindad SS2 cradled in his arms before him as he curiously watched after Craig, who was still taking small cautious steps forward into the cavern. The man had joined up with Tiamat Unbound after witnessing the conflicting ideals of his religion wage war with one another for far too long. He sought to fight in a way that didn’t shine a villainous light on Muslims, and hoped to do so under the contracts of the PMC that gave aid to all who were in need. After the invasion of Fallujah last month, he wanted to prove that not all who shared his beliefs were extremists who bathed in Western blood. Then there was Brock Silverstein, the large, proud and exuberant young man who always donned the Star of David, even if it was underneath a vest or his uniform. Silverstein came from a wealthy family in London who wished to see him prevail in college and business rather than on the battlefield, but he sought glory much like any ambitious young man with a strong will. He relished in the freedom of being able to explore the world and become a hero in his own mind. Silverstein always tried to look calm and collected with his MP5 slung under his right arm. Right now he was gazing off at the nearby coast as Nurul was commenting on the naïve nature of the engineer now out of sight, checking the first few yards of the interior. Toby found it ironic that Nurul and Brock were such good friends given that their two religions had a long hate-filled history involving one another, but he wasn’t complaining. There was something inspiring about such a relationship considering what was going on in the Middle East at the moment. Finally there was the squad leader, James Noble, standing off to the side and staring up at the summit of the mountain. James was an interesting man, at least to Toby. Like him, James was a careful individual who analyzed everything before taking action, and respected the unknown as forces not to be underestimated. He was also a pagan, further completing their little group of cultural diversity. Toby had met many people who took their faith seriously, but James truly believed that the gods of ancient Rome still played their roles in the modern world. Since most of the Roman beliefs were taken from Greece, Toby didn’t really see why he had to pick one over the other.

“Any predictions?” James asked Toby. Toby shook his head in the negative, never taking his eyes off of the mouth of the cave.

“I know that look,” Nurul remarked as he looked at the fixated man, “that’s the look you always have before something bad happens. No offense, but you’re a walking bad omen.”

Toby shrugged at the comment, “Call me superstitious.”

“Rather funny,” Brock said with a grin, “coming from the atheist.”

“I’d prefer agnostic,” Toby replied as he returned the look, “I believe in a higher power, I just don’t necessarily agree with you knobheads.”

“Well what do you believe caused a giant drill to suddenly plunge deeper into the earth?” Nurul asked. Toby shook his head.

“Human error?”

“Almost a kilometer below sea level?” Brock challenged, “Bollocks. That’s a lot of human error.”

“A kilometer below and even more off course,” James reminded them, “that tunnel is longer than it is deep.”

Brock was about to reply with a rude statement when Craig called out to them from the entrance. All four men approached the engineer who appeared a little too excited to begin. He was pointing into the cave like a child, “It’s magnificent! I can’t believe it worked as well as the models indicated! The Mjölnir truly did a fine job! It’s a perfect circle carved through the very earth itself! It truly is a revolutionary machine!”

“I think this is your joy to be had,” Toby remarked, “since none of us are enthusiastic about delving into a hole drilled near if not into pockets of lava.”

“The correct term is ‘magma,’ as it is still-”

“I don’t really care for the specifics of a molten substance that can kill me,” Brock chastised, “Hot is hot, and death is death. What I care about is getting in and out of that tunnel and getting my pay. What in the bloody hell were you oafs working on here anyway?”

Craig scratched the back of his neck, “I’m…not allowed to disclose that.”

“Hell,” James said in exasperation, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t even know. You’re just a giddy tunnel digger, after all.”

Craig’s spirit was crushed by that statement, “Sorry, it’s just that my job is to operate the machinery, and that job is my passion. I wanted to be placed on the team that participated in this endeavor, but my spot was given to that righteous bastard Hoffman instead,” he said in spite. Toby wished that his conflicts between coworkers were that simple. His usually consisted of keeping his squad members from going on blood-rages after botched operations, and death was a consequence. Craig was still ranting as Toby thought on that one, “This was supposed to be a monumental moment for the company,” he continued, “the one hundred and thirty-fifth tunnel we have been tasked to create, carved out by the most advanced machine in the world on its first ‘voyage’ into earth,” his excitement died as he turned back to the opening of the mountain, “and now it’s lost in the throat of the planet,” he snorted, “I’ll wager that Hoffman really cocked this one up.”

“We do not much care for your passion or your petty trifles,” Nurul remarked, “and I would say that you won by losing out.” He walked past the engineer and turned his weapon-mounted flashlight on, stabbing the beam into the entrance, “I cannot make out anything.”

“We need to get a move on,” James said, shouldering his rifle and advancing towards Nurul’s position, “Everyone move together and proceed with caution. Mr. Kent, you’re at our center at all times.”

“Understood,” the engineer replied, falling in line behind Nurul and James. Toby and Brock brought up the rear as the group moved forward and stepped into the shadows of the tunnel. Flashlights were turned on, and their beams filled in lines of the absence of light. The first few steps alone were enough to cause discomfort. It was times like this that Toby hated the conditions of taking up missions under Tiamat Unbound; you didn’t get to choose them, you were assigned to what the higher ups thought best suited you. That sucked, because Toby really hated this one for a very crippling and embarrassing reason; he was afraid of the dark. It was hard enough being a grown man with such a debilitating phobia, but to actually have to be surrounded by others who expected no expressions of weakness from him only complicated the matter, and he had never had to really face his fear under such circumstances. He would gladly trade this assignment to be back near a battlefield, and considering the last field-op this squad had participated in resulted in the deaths of two other Tiamat members, that was saying a lot.

All was quiet for the first few yards into the tunnel, and Toby kept glancing behind him every now and then to see the daylight that seemed to cease at the mouth of the entrance. At least there was some comfort to be found knowing that the light was still behind him, and that allowed him to move forward. The rest of the group didn’t seem too distracted by such foolish things, as they were all trekking with caution in every step, lights constantly shifting to unveil the unknown. The farther they went, the smaller the source of light became behind them, and Toby’s breathing became heavier. They weren’t using the oxygen yet, and that was a good thing considering he would have probably been taking in way too much.

Lights from each of their weapons tried in vain to pierce the black veil of darkness surrounding them, but to no avail. The ceiling was high above them, but they couldn’t make it out even though they all knew it was there. The darkness simply wouldn’t allow their illuminating beacons to cut through the Stygian shaft. All was silent for the next five minutes until a loud impact stole everyone’s attention, and guns were trained on a spot behind the group. Toby had tripped over a dislodged rock.

“Dammit, Petry!” James hissed, “Get yourself together!”

“S-sorry,” Toby stammered, scrambling to his feet. Nurul wheezed a laugh.

“Petry, you’ve seen the horrors of war, but I wonder, are you scared?” he asked the youngest member of the squad. Toby was turning red, but he hoped none of them could make that out as they moved forward with their lights fixed on the path up ahead…the long, pitch black path that only led to more unknown territory. Toby really hated overthinking things.

“Petry,” James started, almost as if hesitant to ask, “Are…are you afraid of the dark?”

Everyone was looking over their shoulders at the youngest member, whose face was masked in the shadows since all lights remained forward. Nurul was enjoying the awkward moment, “Is your silence confirmation that-”

“Just keep going,” Toby grunted.

Nurul snorted, “then I guess-”

“It’s a threat if you keep pushing it, you damn wanker,” Toby interrupted sternly. Nurul laughed aloud.

“There is quite some spirit in this one today!”

James shook his head with a grin. Toby caught him snickering and muttering something to Nurul as the beam from his own flashlight happened to graze their faces, and that only served to infuriate him more. James had let the comments slide, fully aware (and used to) the fact that his men were going to rile each other up during uncomfortable situations. He had learned from his former lieutenant that a little horseplay never hurt as long as it was utilized effectively. If anything, it was something he encouraged. If soldiers were going to be nervous, they needed to get it out of their systems before trouble rather than during the direst of circumstances, “Hey, Petry?”

“Sir?”

“Want Silverstein to hold your hand?”

Toby muttered something under his breath as the others minus Craig failed to stifle laughs. To Toby, it was one thing to have the two jerks poking fun at him, but for their leader…

James stopped abruptly and put his right hand up to signal for the others to halt. Only Craig failed to notice, and ended up walking right into James.

“Idiot!” James hissed at the engineer, “Be still!”

“What is it?” Toby asked in alarm, eyes scanning the nothingness for any hidden dangers. James didn’t answer, but instead pointed his rifle at the ceiling where his light revealed something dripping from the black. It was faint, but the glowing red substance could be followed with the naked eye as it fell to the floor of the cavern. Brock gasped.

“Is that-”

“Magma,” Craig answered for him, “there must be a pocket right above us.”

“Oh, great!” Brock exclaimed at the vexation, “It’s not enough to have to trek through this damned treacherous-”

“Silverstein!” James barked over his shoulder, “If you want to go back, don’t let us stop you, but don’t expect any of the pay!”

Brock grunted before shouldering his submachine gun and following the others as they advanced, careful not to walk directly underneath the dripping magma.

“This wasn’t part of the initial plans for the tunnel,” Craig informed them, “They would have known not to drill near this spot. The tunnel was supposed to cut to the right…”

“Why?” Nurul asked.

“It was meant to go out onto the shore for an effective naval base.”

That got James’ attention, “You mean you were preparing the layout for a naval base here? Underneath a volcano?”

Craig shook his head, “Forget I said that.”

“No,” Brock chimed in, “No pissing around. What is this place supposed to be?”

Craig looked back and forth from each man, outnumbered and no in a position to argue against the armed mercs, “Fine…but this stays in the tunnel…”

“You say that like you don’t expect us to get out,” Toby remarked, a slight hint of fear present in his tone. Everyone was too focused on whatever secrets Craig was hiding to care at the moment.

“Fine,” James agreed, “Now talk.”

Craig sighed and shrugged, “Our company was contracted by the U.S. military to drill through this mountainside so that they could establish a new naval base here,” he told them reluctantly, “That’s all we were supposed to do.”

“So that is why we are here,” Nurul said, “You would have had the Americans breathing down your necks, so you want us to help solve the problem as quickly as possible before they start asking questions.”

Craig nodded, “That’s right.”

“That explains the high payout,” Toby remarked. James growled under his breath. Being discharged from the U.S. Army for a disagreement over the conflicts in Iraq, he didn’t really want to have much to do with America anymore. That was why he had joined Tiamat Unbound.

“So we are to get no recognition for this from them when the assignment is completed?” Nurul asked. Craig kicked at a spot on the ground.

“Sorry, but this is confidential. It’s a hush-hush job to be completed swiftly and quietly.”

“That is a shame,” Nurul commented solemnly. It was in his best interests that the Americans knew of his aid.

“In any case, we need to get a move on,” James announced from the front, “We need to get this over with before Petry chickens out on us.”

Toby growled as the others carried on down the tunnel with their amusement. He was forced to catch up once he realized they had left him alone in the dark. As he got back into position he noted that their descent steepened. They had to be away from the mountain by now.

“Should we use our oxygen yet?” Brock asked their leader, “I’ve never had experience with one of these, so I’m not sure when the appropriate time would be.”

“Yeah, go ahead and turn them on,” James informed them, “Everyone help each other out. It’s kind of a reach to get back there,” he added as he fumbled for his valve.

Seconds after Toby’s valve was opened up by Brock, he started to relax. The pure oxygen that he was breathing in was calming him down, and suddenly he wasn’t so worried about the dark confines of the cave…until he realized he was thinking about it again. Everyone could hear him breathing heavily through their earpieces, and they all kept their heads forward while faces split into broad grins.

“You know, Petry,” James started, “My dad once got me over my fear of water by throwing me into the deep end of the local swimming pool. Maybe when we’re done here we could see about throwing you into a pit?”

“With all due respect, sir,” Toby replied quickly, “piss off.”

Even Craig shared the laughter, and that really served to agitate Toby even more. He could feel himself growing hotter by the second… that wasn’t right. Why was it so hot? Looking down, he could see the rocks beneath his feet beginning to emit an ominous red glow. Faint heat waves were visible where he shined his light.

“Um…” he started nervously, “Gentlemen?”

“What is it now, Petry?” Nurul inquired, not bothering to turn around to see what was disturbing the man in the rear. Toby was watching the glow stretch out farther towards the rest of the group, a creeping danger that now was brushing the ground beneath Nurul’s feet.

“Nurul!”

The man looked back in frustration at the coward behind them, but when he saw Toby’s weapon-mounted light aimed at his feet, he stared down at the source of the panic. The rock beneath his feet was scorching, and steam began to seep through the forming cracks. Lifting his foot, he noted that some of the material on the bottom of his boot had stuck to the rocks, “Noble?”

“What is it, Amir?”

“Petry’s right to be afraid,” Nurul replied.

James looked back and at that point the heated rock was quite easy to make out in the darkness. The glow was still dim, but the danger was eminent, “Everyone hurry up.”

The group’s advance into the tunnel picked up in speed with the threat of the ground melting away at any second. There was no telling just how many pockets of the melted rock were surrounding them at any given moment, but James wasn’t letting that concern bother him as he began to gain some distance between the others. Craig was keeping up, eager to fulfill the task his boss had assigned him with while the other three members of the party were cautiously sweeping their lights along the floors of the cave, not wanting to get surprised by a pool of magma that would sweep them off of their feet…or as Toby was thinking, burn them off. Pessimistic thoughts aside, he just really wanted to get the hell out of the tunnel. The deeper they went, the more frantic he was becoming. They couldn’t even see James’ light ahead of them anymore. Toby feared he had been swallowed by the endless gloom, when Craig’s voice sounded in his earpiece.

“That’s odd…” he said through his panting.

“What is it?” James’ voice replied. He too was audibly breathing hard. Toby wondered just how far ahead of them the two were.

“We should be hearing something by now,” Craig answered, “A grinding sound of steel on rock or something with the machinery.”

“Are you sure?” Nurul inquired. Toby was quiet, still worried about the fact that they couldn’t even see the two men in front of them.

“A tunnel boring machine of that size isn’t going to be very quiet,” Craig assured him, “We should have heard something from where it’s at by now.”

“How deep is it?” Brock asked rhetorically, “I can’t imagine something that slow going that far.”

All Craig did was pant as he kept running ahead. After another minute he spoke again, “We should have found it by now.”

“Craig,” Nurul spoke sternly, “We can’t see you or Noble anymore. Where are you?”

“We’re down here,” James responded, “But…wouldn’t…to…”

“Repeat that, Noble,” Nurul spoke into the mic, “That transmission wasn’t clear…” he trailed off and stopped running. Brock and Toby stopped next to him, both looking around for anything that might have gotten Nurul’s attention. Finally Brock shook the man by the shoulder.

“Amir!” he shouted. It was in Toby’s ear too, and caused him to jump at the furious voice, “What’s…” Toby could hear him through the visor, but the sound didn’t repeat through his earpiece. Brock tried again, “What’s wrong?”

“There’s interference in the transmission,” Nurul said calmly.

“And?” Brock pushed on, “We’re…” his voice cut out again, and that frustrated him as he shouted to be heard through the mask, “We’re in a mountain!”

“Silverstein,” Turul said dully, turning to the large man, “Do you know how radio transmission works?”

“Do you?” Brock challenge. Nurul glared at him.

“This tunnel is clear between us and them, and you’re right beside me. Tell me,” he said intimidatingly, “what could cause interference in such a transmission?”

Brock just stared at him, clueless as to the point of what this all meant. Nurul shook his head before running off farther into the tunnel, leaving Brock and Toby to hesitate before following.

“What are you getting at?” Brock asked.

“Electromagnetic interference,” Nurul heaved, “It’s not normally strong enough to actually cause a disturbance, but if there’s volcanic activity-”

“But this mountain is dormant, right?” Toby asked. Neither man answered him, so Toby went back to anxiously scanning for anything hidden around them, “Sod’s Law be damned.”

“Noble!” Nurul shouted, “Where are you?!”

“We’ve…it…here…now,” was all that came through.

“Crap,” Toby muttered. The only thing that terrified him more than the dark at the moment was the idea of the volcano somehow erupting while they were still in it. He shined his light ahead with the others and was mortified by the fact that the beams weren’t even visible. How was that possible? Was he imagining it? He flipped his gun in his arms and saw that the LED light was still on, but why wasn’t it projecting anything? Fear swept through him, and his feet grew heavier with each step. He stopped running and fell on his hands and knees as the others carried on. Brock finally looked back and realized he was still up the tunnel.

“Petry!” he shouted, “Stop being duff and hurry up!”

“I can’t!” he yelled back, “I…I just can’t!”

Nurul turned back, angry at the hindrance, “We can get him on the way back, just come on!”

Toby caught that through the earpiece, “NO!!! Don’t leave me here!”

“Then come on!” Brock commanded. Toby mustered everything he had to rise to his feet. Slowly, he took one step, and that alone made him feel more confident in himself. He could see after his light again, and with that his nerves began to build up into a force once more.

“Come on, you pansy,” Brock ordered. Toby swallowed hard and took off after them as the trio continued down the vast passage. Finally, a source of light emerged from the darkness ahead of them, followed by another. James and Craig had their lights on them as they approached.

“Sir!” Nurul wheezed, “There’s a problem.”

“You’re right,” James agreed, turning around and pointing his weapon at what appeared to finally be an end to the tunnel. The light reflected off of some parts of the surface, and it took the others a few seconds to realize that they had found the Mjölnir. All of their flashlights were scanning different parts of the monstrosity before they all converged on the open latch into the back of the machine. James dipped his light lower and revealed the body on the ground.

“Damn,” Brock hissed.

Toby’s heart sank along with his gut, “What happened?”

“We’re not sure,” James explained, “but judging from the radio interference, I’d say this place isn’t exactly dormant like you guys thought,” he said, pointing the weapon at Craig to illuminate his face. Craig held his hands up.

“I didn’t know!”

“Well it does not matter now,” Turul stated, “Can you get this machinery running?”

“I can try, but we’d have to go in there, and judging from the body…” Craig was kneeling down over the corpse with a lamentable expression, “Hoffman, what did you do?”

“What could have caused that?” Brock asked.

“Assuming that the volcano is more active than we had originally anticipated,” Craig started, “More than likely toxic gases.”

“Toxic gas?” Toby repeated in horror.

“Yes,” Craig stated, “That is why we supplied you with the clothing appropriate for the assignment.”

“Let’s just get this over with,” James said as he approached the opening of the machine, “We don’t want to wait around and see if this place is going to be filled with hellfire.”

Together, James, Craig, and Brock climbed into the giant contraption, with Craig leading the way. Toby and Nurul stayed behind to keep an eye out in the tunnel. Toby felt more comfortable standing in a place that he had already been through rather than going into unfamiliar territory.

Turul shined the light back up the tunnel and swept the floor and ceiling, “So Toby, do you not like the darkness?”

“I’m not a fan of it,” Toby answered, nervously glancing around after his light.

“In my faith, black is sometimes associated with mourning.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Toby asked. Nurul lowered his weapon, and Toby had to point his light at him to see that he was staring at the body of the crew member nearby.

“It is supposed to make you be more respectful.”

Toby lowered his head. This place may not have been his grave, but to someone else it was where they met their demise. He didn’t want to imagine the terror of dying so far away from the sun.

Suddenly the interior of the tunnel began to rock violently. Toby stumbled and fell to his knees as Nurul stepped back and braced himself on the backside of the Mjölnir. The tremors dislodged a few spots from the ceiling that came crashing to the bottom of the tunnel.

“What the hell?!” Toby exclaimed, curled up on the ground to make himself as small of a target as possible against the debris.

“We need to depart soon,” Nurul replied, light flashing across the ceiling of the cave in search of any incoming threats, “The cavern is unstable.”

A spine-numbing scream cut into both men’s ears by a decibel that far outmatched the sounds of the tunnel’s violent rumblings.

“James!” Toby shouted into his mic, “Forget the machine! Forget the money! We need to leave!”

There was no reply. Toby leapt to his feet and ran to join Nurul beside the machine, where he was leaning into the hatch and shouting for their teammates, hoping that either their radios or his voice would get his cries through. His pleas carried into the interior of the tunnel borrower, but nothing else was heard. The shocks continued as they awaited some sign of life from the darkness. Finally, a narrow stream of light fired off horizontally somewhere deep inside of the belly of the beast before turning on them. Nurul and Toby backed away as the source of light became more and more intense as it approached. It shifted up as a figure leapt through the hatch and landed in a mess on the ground between the two men. Toby and Nurul crossed their beams over the man and illuminated James and the mangled mess of a person slung over his left shoulder. The individual’s fire-retardant suit was black and melted at spots under the waist, but that wasn’t what had Toby gagging. Half of the individual’s left leg was missing at the knee, and his right foot was gone, but there was no blood spilling from the grievous wounds. Upon closer inspection, they looked as if they’d been burned closed; cauterized.

“James!” Nurul cried, “What is going on?!”

“Who the hell is that?!” Toby added, still tracing his weapon over the unknown body.

“There’s no time!” James yelled as he stood shakily. His voice was overwhelmed with pure terror, “We need to go!”

Nurul too was attempting to identify the figure in James’ possession, “Who is-”

“Craig?!” Toby exclaimed from James’ other side. He had a better view of the face of the engineer who was out cold…at least Toby hoped.

“Where is Silverstein?!” Nurul demanded. James shook his head.

“Dead.”

Nurul swore as the tremors increased in magnitude, “What happened?!” James hoisted Craig into a better position over his back and began to sprint as the other two followed behind. Nurul wanted an answer, “Noble!”

Before James could even attempt to answer, a gut-churning crack sounded off behind them. Toby dared to look back as the machine was made visible at the base by a brilliant yellow glow that became more prominent with every passing second as flames licked through the gap between metal and rock.

“What is that?!” Nurul shouted.

“Vulcan,” James panted, “calm your hammer, and…” the rest of his utterance was interrupted by static. Toby swore that his leader was praying as another crack filled the tunnel, followed by a series of crumbling sounds. Toby looked back once more to see the end of the tunnel bathed in a radiant red and yellow as the Mjölnir sank into the pit forming beneath. It disappeared in a great splash of magma that was underneath their view.

“Masya Allah!” Nurul cried. The sight actually brought out the man’s native tongue.

“Keep running!” James ordered, “Keep running!”

Not one of them dared to look back and see if the disturbance was isolated to the end of the tunnel. For them, looking back meant the risk of seeing molten rock spewing after them, and sometimes not knowing the risks was a good thing. Ignorance of dangers tends to keep people moving forward, like rushing headfirst into a jungle without knowledge of the guerilla combatants waiting to strike, or not knowing if it was futile to attempt to run away from a flow of magma that may or may not have been at their heels. Then Toby noticed the absence of light all around once more. Not counting their flashlights, the ego-crushing darkness had returned to create a void of unknown dangers around them, and once again Toby swore that their lights were doing nothing to perforate the vacuity. His eyes followed his light as he looked for anything waiting to take his life in the darkness. They found it; from the ceiling he could make out dripping red fluids much like from before, only now it was seeping through whatever crack existed up there in a gooey drip that was more like mucus dripping from a nose. Toby stopped and tried to call for Nurul’s attention before he walked right under it, but the drop of fatal high-temperature fluid substance finally broke loose from the source and fell right onto Nurul’s right shoulder as the words came out. Sound might travel fast, but human reaction time trailed behind as Nurul spun around and aimed his weapon in alarm as the beginnings of the sizzling sensation tore into his nerves.

“GAAAAAAHHH!!!” he cried out, the pain and terror enough to pull James back from the front of the trio. He turned around to see a flashlight’s beam swinging about as its weapon dangled on its sling. It wasn’t until Nurul spun around in his pain and confusion that James’ eyes found the source of the trouble. The magma was eating right through Nurul’s suit and into his skin as the unfortunate soul tried in vain to wipe the substance away, severely burning his left hand in the process as the solidus matter clung to his suit. Toby ran to him and attempted to scrub the hot substance off with his weapon, but was horrified at the sight of skin and muscle exposed past Nurul’s suit. The magma had broken through his skin and was burning away at his insides now even as the rest of it that had dropped from the ceiling continued to ooze down his arm and wreak havoc on him. Nurul collapsed from the immense pain and cried incoherently as his arm was devastated by the volcanic matter. When it didn’t seem like his anguish could get much worse, the oxygen tank on his back suddenly ignited from the magma that had flowed down onto it. His only fortune was that the straps managed to burn off and let the ruptured tank fall aside as he rolled away, but the damage had already been done. Nurul stopped on his stomach, his back exposed and the burns gruesome.

“What do we do?!” Toby demanded of his commander. James stared on, his very will melting away faster than Nurul’s arm. Toby snarled in anger and reached down to grab Nurul under his left shoulder and hoisted the croaking man to his feet. After a few more seconds of noise, Nurul fell silent. Toby panicked and looked into the man’s face through his visor, and felt just the slightest bit of relief when he saw the moisture appear before Nurul’s mouth from a breath. Toby positioned him to carry the weight and slowly set off to join James a few yards away. His leader was still grounded, unable to move from the shock of such a horrendous event.

“James,” Toby grunted, “move! Please!”

James looked to Toby and only nodded as his composure remained the same. Both men carried their maimed colleagues only a few feet when the tunnel’s fury hit a boiling point. Crackling was audible overhead, and Toby’s head snapped back on his neck so fast he pulled a muscle, but that pain was nothing compared to the mental shock that hit when he saw the vibrant red tracking across the ceiling. He couldn’t bring himself to move as a chunk of the rock above him gave way to the weight of the magma that burst through. Hell was here, in this tunnel. Toby’s mind was screaming for action, but his body refused. There was no escaping, not with…

“PETRY!!!”

Toby blinked as the flow came within feet of him, and instinct kicked in, leaving his conscience behind as he leapt forward and let Nurul fall from his shoulder. A feeling of warmth stuck his right foot as he hit the ground and rolled, but halfway through the curl it was gone. When his feet hit the ground before him, the magma hit it behind. Toby was on his feet and running before he realized how much easier it was, and then he realized what he had done. Guilt tearing through him, he turned around to see the mixture of black, red and yellow pool out as the source flowed down from the hole in the ceiling. Nurul was gone, and it was his fault.

“AAAAAARRRRGGGGGHHH!!!”

Toby’s attention was drawn to the man over James’ back, now awake and aware of the pain that had been constantly trying to break into his unconscious mind. He writhed until James let him fall to the floor of the tunnel, where he squirmed and screamed aloud in a mixture of agony and panic. His microphone was still on, and the shrill screams were eating away at Toby’s ears. He couldn’t take it anymore, and while the man continued to terrorize them with his wails Toby ripped his helmet off and tore the radio away from his face. Now he could hear the cries echo into the darkness surrounding them, and that only escalated his fears as the sounds seemed to amplify even without electronic aid. Toby had seen many men lose their lives, and had witnessed many terrible things during his service under the British Armed Forces, but nothing compared to feeling trapped within the dark crevices of the planet with no idea if he’d make it out of his worst nightmares come true. His greatest fear was that he would die alone in the dark, and though he wasn’t alone, he welcomed solitude over the pandemonium. Craig’s despair was driving him insane.

“Toby!” James shouted, “Grab him low and help me carry him!”

Though James’ directions were quite clear, Toby displayed no indication that he had heard him. He was too busy trying to mentally block out the sound of Craig’s anguish. The man was still emptying his lungs faster than he could inhale. He had to pass out eventually. Toby just knew he had to. Craig would eventually be rendered unconscious again, and Toby didn’t even feel selfish in hoping for that. James was still desperately trying to get his attention.

“Toby! We don’t have time for you to be afraid! Get your ass together and help me carry him!”

Toby took a deep breath and nodded, stepping over to Craig and leaning down. James lifted the injured man up as he continued to sob between the wails, but Toby had another idea to help the distraught man. James lifted his head, wondering what was taking Toby so long to help him. The glow of the flowing magma behind him illuminated Toby’s silhouette enough from James to see him thrust the butt of his rifle into Craig’s face with a loud crack that turned the engineer into dead weight in James’ arms. James looked from the engineer to Toby, mouth agape in shock.

“PETRY!!!” he shouted, letting go of Craig to stand and shout into his subordinate’s face. His own visor was filling with spit from his barking, “YOU’D BETTER HAVE A DAMNED GOOD EXPLANATION FOR-”

A blinding light struck his retinas, and James backed away with a hand to cover his face as he realized that Toby had just trained his weapon on him. With the only sounds now the sizzling of the molten rock spreading out in a pool a few yards away, James could actually hear Toby’s hastened breaths.

“I just wanted him quiet, sir,” Toby stated calmly, “I couldn’t take the screaming…I couldn’t handle hearing his torment.”

James was still worked up, but turned his back and exerted his rage into the darkness up the tunnel. When he turned back Toby had the light on Craig’s body, and was in a stance to take a shot.

“TOBY!!! DON’T!!!”

James couldn’t reach him in time, and the entire tunnel was filled with the rapid sounds of automatic gunfire. Toby’s body was alight for a few seconds as he ripped bullets into Craig’s body, the recoil causing a few shots to impact the ground and send bits of rock flying. The last brass casing hit the ground with a ping that joined the echoing gunshots still reverberating throughout the tunnel in the distance, and Toby’s eyes were fixated on the body on the ground before him. His hands wouldn’t stop shaking as he let rifle hang from its sling around his torso, the bolt locked back from his refusal to release the trigger.

James slammed the rifle into Toby’s chest and shoved him back with as much force as he could muster, sending the man on a collision course with the earth. Toby’s head hit the ground only inches away from the magma that was still pooling out, and he wasn’t moving to get up very fast. James ran to Craig’s side and put his light on him, but his body was riddled with gunshot wounds. One had gone right through his visor, which was splashed with blood from the inside. His crew dead and their mission an absolute loss, James stood up and contemplated his next plan of action as Toby recovered. Both men stood in silence until James heard the sound of a magazine hitting the ground. He spun around and saw Toby raising his weapon, and brought his up in turn, both of their sights obscured by bright LEDs that pierced their eyes.

“What are you doing?!” James demanded, “TOBY!!!”

Toby took two more steps, and then turned his back on James and dropped to his knees, sobbing. James kept his rifle on him as he backed away, deciding that carrying the traumatized man with him would spell his own doom before they ever say the light of day again.

“It was too much,” Toby whimpered, “It was too much, and he was suffering.”

“Toby, he could have made it!”

“No…” Toby replied under his breath, “No, he was going to die down here. We’ll all die down here.”

James lowered his gun, “Toby! Stay with me man! Toby!”

Toby could hear his leader, but the voice seemed too distant to make out. He was slowly being enveloped by his nightmarish surroundings, and it was stripping his humanity like peeling skin.

“Toby! Snap out of it! Don’t go crazy on me down here! We need to get out, and I need your help! Toby!”

Toby felt the hand shaking his arm as James stepped closer to tug him back into the horrid reality that was the tunnel, but the pleas couldn’t reach his mind. He had killed a man because of his overwhelming fear, and it was just too much. There was no going back, be it the surface or his former self. He too had just died.

“Toby, if we’re getting out of here, we have to do it now! I’m not leaving you!”

Toby’s mind was lost in the world this tunnel conceived for him. Hands darted out of the abyss and grabbed for his neck, ready to drag him into the Hell he had already damned Nurul and Craig to. His air was constricted, and it was beginning to kill his sanity…no, there was no sanity anymore. To be sane meant to accept what he had done. He could still see the faces of the others that had joined him on this investigation. They were appearing and then fading back into the shadows over and over again as the hands strangled him. His teammates were gone now; lost to this forgotten crevice of the Earth. The hands finally relinquished their grasps after they’d drained enough. Toby was frozen in place, and his very will broken. He didn’t want to accept this world, but he didn’t want to die down here either, so he mustered up what little strength he could and reached up to grab the knife from his vest. James backed away and raised his gun again, now disturbed that he hadn’t mistaken the knife for something else.

“Toby, what are you doing?” he asked hesitantly.

Toby didn’t answer. He stared at the blade, and broke out into a cold sweat amongst the climbing heat as he gripped the handle with both hands. They trembled violently as he raised the knife above his head, and James’ gloved finger was wrapped around the trigger as the tension rose as high as the temperatures.

“Toby, listen!” James hissed, “You took your helmet off, and there’s not much oxygen to breathe down here. What you’re taking in is toxic, and it’s messing with you! Put your helmet back on!”

Toby was breathing heavily now. Where was the helmet? It was gone; the darkness had taken it, and he was next! Gritting his teeth, he closed his eyes as James called out to him again. He didn’t listen; he was too busy trying to come to grips with the reality of their situation. Fear had taken control, and it was ravaging his very mind with each passing second.

“I won’t die here…I won’t die here,” he kept repeating. James didn’t want to risk being stabbed by the man who had already killed another, and was mentally prepared to defend against him, when Toby suddenly plunged the knife into his own leg. James’ confusion and befuddlement drowned out Toby’s cry of pain, and he slowly lowered the gun, backing away from the scene as Toby flopped backwards onto the ground. The blade embedded into his flesh was painful, but it served as a reminder. Toby was still connected to his body and his senses. He was still alive.

“Toby, are you still there? James asked, terrified for the man who had stabbed himself. Toby’s breathing had slowed, and the shadows fleeted back into the darkness around him.

“I’m…I’m fine,” Toby said, grabbing the handle of the knife and, after greatly inhaling, ripping it out. The blade took a chunk of flesh with it, and Toby wailed again as the blood spurted and flowed. He could fix that on the surface. He just had to make it that far.

“I’m not so sure you are,” James commented, staring at the grotesque wound on Toby’s left leg that had given his suit a red sheen as he pointed his light at it.

“I’ll live,” Toby said through a wince, “let’s go.”

James looked at Craig’s body, and Toby could see the grim expression there on his face. The next words out of his leader’s mouth betrayed his appearance.

“You did the right thing.”

“What?” Toby inquired, unsure if he’d heard him right. What was right about what he’d done?

“You were right; he wouldn’t have made it,” James continued, “he’d lost a lot of blood and was in complete shock. His heart would’ve given out eventually.”

Toby didn’t want to accept that assumption, “I…”

“You’ll have time to regret it later,” James stated as he reached down and grabbed Toby’s helmet off of the ground before handing it to him, “for now, we need to run.”

Toby looked at the crumpled material in his hands as James turned away and began to move on, and fit it back over his suit before running to join him. The oxygen was flowing again, and his nerves relaxed as best they could in this hell, which wasn’t much considering his accelerated heart rate from running for his life and his elevated blood pressure from everything else. His leg was killing him, but the pain was a good reminder that he wasn’t dead yet.

Then fear struck again, because his light wasn’t able to cut a way through the black in front of him. The panic began to stab sharp fingers into his mind again, and he shouted for James. There was no response. Somewhere in the hysteria he remembered that he didn’t recover his radio ear piece after discarding it. There was no way to directly communicate with James, even if he was out of sight. He couldn’t be that far away…could he?

The rumbling picked up again and swept through the tunnel, almost as if it was emitting a roar of anger at the prospect of them escaping. There was no way Toby was considering stopping again.

“SOD OFF!!!” he roared at the void and null. His fear of death overruled his fear of the dark for once, and the fear of what resided within it. Of course, he knew what was in it; a death so terrible. He was more afraid of something so natural rather than the seemingly unnatural absence of all that gave color to the world. He just had to make it through that void to find the light again. It was up there, and he was damned determined to reach it. Flicking his light to his left and right as he ran, his imagination ran wild with tormenting images. Was that Craig’s body? No, he was farther down the tunnel opposite of the direction he was running. What about Nurul’s incinerated and liquefied remains? Was that what he’d seen out of the corner of his eye to his left? Or was it Brock? Where was Brock? James hadn’t told him what had happened, so was he lost to the boiling stomach acids of the planet? While the thoughts and visions mounted up, his feet carried him faster and faster. When the images became too much he closed his eyes with the hope that the darkness inside would be less haunting than the prancing shadows that appeared to move just outside of the area his light covered. They were not.

Craig’s contorted face that wailed in excruciating pain, Nurul walking beneath his utter demise, and the menacing red glow awaited him, and each one he pushed out dragged another sight with it. Soon he was seeing the war in Iraq; the bodies of his close friends who had fallen during the opening days of the invasion and the innocent who were mistakenly gunned down in the most brutal cases of misunderstandings.

“Leave me alone,” he spat through breaths, “Leave me alone!”

Then Toby tripped. He hit the ground with enough momentum to slide a few feet as his suit stretched and threatened to rip against the rough surface. Wincing in pain, he dared to open his eyes and look back at what had obstructed his path. There was light in this part of the tunnel, and it took him a few seconds to register that it had come from the molten substance spewing from the wall. He felt like such an idiot; he could have stepped right into it and it would have all been over. With protest from his body, Toby got to his feet and backed away from the scene, when his eyes fell upon radius of light that lit up the wall. Toby followed the beam back to the source, and seconds later he was running again. It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. James wasn’t that weak! He wouldn’t have died!

He finally hit the incline. His hopes began to soar as he gained altitude. He didn’t want to leave James behind if there was even the slightest chance that he was alive, but there was no evidence of death or life. Toby kept running until his legs threatened to buckle under the sharp pain in his leg, but his mind kept telling him to run. Then another voice accompanied his own, much more sinister in sound.

You should just give up and die.

Toby felt his legs getting heavier and heavier. He slowed to a halt just as the tinniest glimpse of daylight became visible. His flashlight seemed to dim as a cold chill swept over him. It was as if another presence was surrounding him.

He spun around and shined the dying light behind him, but there was nothing there. He began to back towards the exit when a hand grabbed his shoulder. He shrugged it off and pointed the light back to the front of the tunnel. Before him stood Nurul’s grotesque body. It was melted in places, and his skin was dangling loose from the muscle. He went to speak, but his jaw fell off. Toby screamed and leapt backwards into another object shrouded in the shadows, and he turned to face another person. James was standing in the dark, staring blankly at Craig.

“James?”

“You weren’t fast enough, Petry.”

“What?!”

“You weren’t fast enough to save me, and you won’t win against Vulcan. There’s no point in running anymore, Petry,” James spoke lifelessly, “Sorry.”

“Vulcan?! What are you on about?!” Toby shouted at him, “No! I’m not staying here! How can you…forget you both!”

Toby ran past the horror that was Nurul’s body and made a break for the exit that just had to be near. It was before him now. There was a hope in the shadows; a light in the dark. The flashlight died as the light at the end of the tunnel became more and more visible. It grew from a speck to an aura that was close to filling the surroundings. Craig was nearly within feet of the exit, when it remained fixed in place as he continued to run. Slowly, it began to slip away. The light shrank further and further away from his vision. Craig could feel his body growing cold. The light was eclipsed by the darkness surrounding him, and all hope of escape was drifting from his mind.

You deserve this for what you’ve done. You will die here just like the rest.

Suddenly, his vision became blurry. The sight of the end of the tunnel was replaced with the pool of magma and James’ gun next to it. Toby was on the ground where he had fallen, and his leg was killing him. Somewhere in the depths below, another groan evolved into a roar as the minacious red created light from the dark ends of the cave. He was delusional, and he knew it. Between the horrors below and the blood loss, he had lost his mind. Toby Petry had died in the tunnel, and his shell didn’t feel worthy of carrying itself out. Rolling onto his back, he reached a shaking hand to his waist and withdrew his sidearm from its holster and worked the slide. Torn between which death would prove more painful in the end, Toby stared into the red glow as the magma exploded into view. He beheld the sight as images of his unit stood in its wake. All were staring at him, and all appeared unfazed by the imminent doom that was fast approaching. One by one they were consumed by the fires. First went Silverstein, then Nurul. Next was Craig, and finally James, who only shook his head as the harbinger of hell struck him from behind and stole him from view.

Safety off, Toby held the gun underneath his chin and closed his eyes, “The power of Vulcan is an incredible one.”

Compromise is a funny term when associated with death, because Toby didn’t die completely in the dark, but he was indeed alone.

Of Blood and Man (Tiamat Unbound #5)

I present part 5 of the Tiamat Unbound series. This was a really out of my comfort zone style, so I hope it pays off. Enjoy!

 

A blank canvas of white. That was the only fitting description for the scene now covered in feet of snow. It reminded me of an old haiku from my youth, but I was not able to recall most of the lines under such pressure. The lack of oxygen at this altitude was probably a formidable factor in that. The heavy snowfall created the perfect whiteout between sky and horizon, almost like the pureness left in the world had all gathered in one place at this altitude to escape the despair brought forth by the hatred of man. The howling winds concealed every other noise within the raging storm; the sounds of brave birds scavenging for food, the clawing of a squirrel as he climbed to his sanctuary in a single tree in the vicinity where he had prepped for such an occasion, and even the cry of pain from a man cut down in the prime of his youth for interrupting my train of thought as cold steel painted the canvas a dark shade of red with a swift stroke. If life was art, death was a masterpiece, I thought, disappointed with the irony along with the fact that such a work of nature’s beauty was now tainted from my abstract brush of metal. So much for the peace.

These pawns had been hunting me down since I had deserted the ‘mission’ in Iran, and now being near the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range into Russia, it would seem as though I can’t escape the eyes of the dragon even in the heights of the snow-capped mountains where most men dare not tread. I had hoped that no one would be foolish enough to come after me after what I did to the first retrieval unit. It pained me to have to slay the men I once called companions, but I made sure to leave their bodies in such a way as to warn others. Apparently, even that didn’t thwart the paid guns of my former employers. Who were these daft imbeciles that approached me now?

Even before I had joined the ranks of Tiamat Unbound, I was hailed as a great swordsman. Every day as a child I sparred against my younger brother while my elders watched with ambition in their eyes. I trained hard under their tutelage, and after many years honed my combat skills to satisfactory levels in my father’s eyes. My grandfather had passed away during the course of my training, but even he was proud of my progress in the end. It filled me with a pride beyond words. I wish I could have said the same for my brother. Toya was conceited, and believed that he was far too superior for such ritual training. He did not take after his elders.

My father and grandfather before me were austere men who believed in the ancient teachings of Bushidō. Even after my father brought my brother and I to America when I was only fourteen, he focused on instilling the code into us much like his father did for him. Though the samurai is, as the West has worded it alongside their cowboys, “the last of a dying breed,” that is not to say that we cannot learn from the legendary entities of our past cultures.  The virtues of Bushidō dictate my life, as my father and his wanted. Even up to his death many years ago, he stressed their importance in the modern world where lack of such qualities has made men into tyrants. Men like my brother tossed these virtues aside in their quest for greater power. Men like that will only create more complications in this world.

The first virtue, rectitude, was implied to be the most important, surpassing all else. In every action, we must believe that what we do is of good moral. Without that, we lack the backbone to support our body and guide it forward. I knew not in the beginning that my masters were in such a wrong, but after the bravery of the one called Westbrook when he executed the American CEO and exposed the company’s true plans in sabotaging the global economy, eyes began to open, including my own. By standing up to the injustice of the dragon’s might, he drew attention to the malevolence brought forth by Tiamat’s ‘missions’ when others took up arms against them and destroyed a device meant to bring about a great halt to Wall Street. The rumors were vague, but there was no doubt in my mind at the time of learning of the events that Tiamat Unbound was up to no good. The second virtue, courage, nearly goes hand-in-hand with the first. One must have the courage to do what is right. Mine was belated by a blind eye, but no longer.

The third virtue taught is benevolence. One with the power to kill must also be able to show mercy. I…I attempted to when I simply left my unit behind as I fled the control of the company. When they scouted after me, I warned them of the consequences and implored them to respect my wishes, but when they brought arms against me, I could not simply abandon my will. I gave them a quick death, for they were once fellow brothers in arms, and I felt it was the honorable thing to do.

The fourth virtue is politeness, or more socially accepted as ‘respect.’ It is a trait that one must show to all enemies, equals, superiors and underlings. I didn’t see bowing to people that wished to take my carcass back to their master for a bone as fitting to that one, so severing heads from spines wasn’t completely beneath me at this time, especially considering the circumstances of my departure.

The fifth virtue taught to me by my father was honesty. As a samurai, it should be the only excuse ever given for actions. Sincerity came before material wealth, and to dismiss that belief is to accept that one values the reward over the true nature of a pursuit. Wisdom from trials was more valuable than anything else that could be obtained.

The highest regarded trait of a samurai, at least to me, is honor. The samurai must take pride in their duties, as long as it is what they believe is right. Finally, loyalty to one’s beliefs must drive the samurai forward. Loyalty to the mission, a superior, and to oneself was the utmost important virtue that kept a warrior in line. The problem is determining where one’s loyalty truly lies. This was the very aspect I was struggling with, and breaking it was the cause for these mercenaries to hunt me.

Noticing the surrounding sentries, I gave my sword a quick swing to toss the blood to the snow and sheathed it as I awaited the newcomers. There was no telling what Tiamat Unbound had sent after me, but knowing them it could have been Dragon’s Talon, their special force unit. It would be understandable, since those four men had been the ones to test my merit and nearly defeated me when I was recruited. Perhaps had they not been issued rubber bullets for the competition they might have succeeded, but the goal was not to kill me. It was to break me, and they had failed. Right now they would prove quite the challenge nonetheless, especially if Doberman was still among their ranks. I feared no man, but I respected him. Doberman was a strong adversary, but a respectable force. Three times during my bout with his team during my recruitment training I had disarmed him with my wooden sword alone, and three times he had surprised me by improvising and adapting to the situation at hand. The man was resourceful, and admired talent rather than being cut down by pride in defeat. He even smiled when he offered me a position on his team. I politely declined the offer, though was glad to meet a man who showed respect to any adversary. He even bowed to me, and chastised the other three for neglecting to follow his example. I couldn’t forget the one called Jackson Lewis. Lewis was a stubborn man with a hot temper. The defeat did not sit well for him, and it took physical discipline from Doberman to tame the underling when words failed to pierce his pride. He possessed a desire for power not unlike my brother’s, and that made him dangerous. Doberman reminded me of my father in the ways he taught his men. Humble in defeat is a man who finds peace in all. I found irony in the fact that a man trained for combat was a Buddhist.

The figures approaching me were more visible now, and none resembled the men I had sparred with in the Tiamat Unbound training room, even in their thicker winter apparel. More grunts to slow me down. I had thought the company respected my skills. This was actually starting to insult me. Then a command was shouted that could be heard over the winds, and it ordered the men to stand down. A newcomer slowly faded in past the snow as it let up, and advanced between two of his men in front of me. I didn’t expect him of all people. I hadn’t seen the man in nearly ten years. Standing before me in the midst of the blizzard, he slowly unsheathed one of his two swords and made a show of slicing through the air a few times before pointing the blade at me in his left hand. He addressed me in my native tongue.

“It’s been a while, big brother!” my younger sibling, Toya Nagase shouted over the howling winds. He looked a lot rougher than the last time I had seen him, but there was no mistaking the face, even if it now donned dozens of scars. His skin was darker as a result of numerous missions in the direct sunlight, and his sun-bleached hair was long and tied into a ponytail while two narrow bangs hung past both of his eyes. Those gray eyes that always appeared to mimic his lack of compassion were prominent against his darkened skin. Rather proudly, he donned his black uniform with red trim. A sword sheath was on each hip, one still housing a weapon. A Belgium FN P90 was attached to his left hip so that it was under the sheath, which seemed a bit of an odd placement if he needed it in a hurry, but that thought wasn’t one to ponder on for long. The time for the reunion of blood had come at last.

“So, the rumors were true!” I yelled back. I had heard that an unmatched samurai had been made the head of the CEO’s personal guard, Dragon’s Scales. I didn’t want to assume it was Toya, but I had my suspicions as much as I feared them to be true.

“Makoto, I’ve been waiting for this day!” he announced, holding his sword in the air and marveling at the weapon. It appeared to be a fine piece. A katana by appearance, if the light hit it right, it actually appeared to hold an eerie blood-red hue on the steel. Toya crunched through the snow around me during his pace. He stopped in front of me and held the blade in front of my face, back edge toward me. The blade was like a mirror. I could actually see myself in the tiny sliver of metal now inches from my nose. His gray eyes were narrowed on the metal between them.

“Isn’t it a work of art?” he asked with pride, “The finest of engineering efforts went into this blade. Tempered high carbon spring steel. It’s an enhanced replica of a Muramasa blade, and a worthy weapon for the mighty. Next week it’s being remodeled into a high-frequency blade that can cut through steel. An experimental process, but great endeavors lead to great results.”

“It’s not the weapon that makes the warrior,” I replied, reciting the very words my father had spoken to us years before, “I thought you had learned that over the countless hours father made you wipe camellia over the blades we sparred with as punishment for believing in such nonsense.”

“The weapon doesn’t make the warrior, but it defines us,” Toya explained as he walked around me in a circle with the blade tracing the air, “My blade defines my abilities as a master swordsman who was in need of a worthy symbol. Yours…” he stopped once he was in front of me once more, “I am safe in assuming you still possess the sword bestowed upon you by father?”

I nodded, and unsheathed the weapon. Not a traditional samurai sword by any means, the refurbished Shin Guntō had belonged to my grandfather during his service with the Imperial Japanese Army. The hilt still retained his brown tassel from his service. Everything but the blade was original. I had it replaced to better serve me in my trials. Toya sneered as he gazed at the sword.

“Yours is a symbol of the past; full of antiques, both in material and in wisdom. You foolishly follow the ideas fed to us by our elders. Do you not see the futility in them now? A new world order will arise following the emergence of the dragon as a supreme power. We have even secured a nuclear weapon! We are no longer a private military organization. We are a world power! Why would you choose to separate yourself from something you were a part of creating? You’ve performed hundreds of special ops in the Middle East under command of Tiamat Unbound. You’ve assassinated countless people without question! What makes you think you’re above us now?”

I wasn’t above them. I too had put my loyalty into something far more than what I had understood. Now I was paying the price, “I did serve the same master as you, but I am my own master now. Like you, I felt that my abilities would serve a better purpose amongst these people. The contrast resides in my realization that there is no honor to be found in the tasks given to me. Do you want to know why I left Iran and cut down the people that were allies to me? I saw what was to become of us. We were to be scapegoats in an attempt to draw ire to America. The men I killed were going to dispatch of the few of us left out of the circle of knowledge and leave our bodies to be found by Iranian forces. The discovery would have drawn backlash-”

“I’m well aware of what would have happened,” Toya interjected, “and it would have been the most honorable accomplishment you could have obtained with your pathetic life, to die for such a cause.”

“Brother, you know nothing of what you say. You’ve become clouded-”

“Enough!” Toya bellowed. He continued to stare me down as he cocked his neck to the side and barked an order to his men in English, demanding one to his side. One of the mercs rushed to him as fast as he could through the snow, where upon Toya undid the P90 on his left hip and handed it to the man. “This battle will be settled with honor. Do not interfere!” Toya commanded to all as the man retreated. The mercs formed a barely visible circle around us, an arena of witnesses to the battle between blood. Toya took the taito stance taught to the both of us by our father and grandfather. I responded by doing the same. I was surprised that he retained some of his original teachings after all of these years, having renounced everything else.

It was the most intense standoff I had ever experienced. Even in the freezing cold I could feel sweat pouring down my back. Toya smirked before rushing forward. The final battle between us had begun. Countless times before I had bested him in sparring. We hadn’t crossed blades since we were both sixteen, but I knew he was much stronger than he was at that age. I was not the same person either. With a quick swing he brought the blade mere inches from my nose as I leaned back and braced for a counter-strike. I cleaved for his torso, but he was too fast. Bringing his sword back to him he stopped my strike and forced my arms back when he shoved against it. I stumbled a few steps while he followed up by charging forward and swiping at my head, but I ducked under the horizontal slice at the air and attempted to run my blade forward through his left leg. Again, he brought his blade back in time to defend, swinging from my left and knocking my lunge aside. I fell forward into the snow to his left, and he laughed.

“I was always second to you! In father’s eyes, in grandfather’s eyes, and even in yours! No longer!” he cried as he stomped on my back, “I’ll show you that power triumphs over morals!”

I looked over my shoulder to see him raise the Muramasa in both hands to plunge into my back. It wouldn’t be that easy. Rolling over, I swiped at him and nicked his hip. He grunted in pain as I jumped to my feet and readied my stance. A few droplets of blood had stained the snow at his feet, and he was angry. No…he was pissed.

“I’ll have your head, brother!” His next swing was fueled by hate. I brought the Guntō up in time to block the cutting edge, but what happened as a result was unprecedented by anything I was trying to calculate as we fought. His Muramasa snapped my Guntō in half and still had plenty of momentum to dig into my cheek, cutting to the bone. I spun around and clasped a hand to the wound that burned from the cold air stinging it. Holding the broken sword before my eyes, I realized I was out of my league. Toya was indeed no longer the little brother that I had grown up with. His desire to finally stand above me, even if it meant discarding the lessons our elders had passed on to us, had finally manifested into a personality that drove him to become a killing machine. He didn’t see me as his blood. He saw me as another target meant to be killed in the name of Tiamat Unbound.

“What a fitting symbol of how things are, isn’t it?” Toya taunted, pointing to the remainder of the weapon in my grasp, “Everything you know is weakness! I have become strong though strife! You have become weak through remorse!”

I disregarded him and reached for my other sheath that crossed below the first. Grabbing the hilt of my second blade, I glared at my brother as I drew the sword that would bring about his ruin. He regarded the weapon with interest.

“That sword…”

It seemed as though he had never faltered in his studies of the very weapons our ancestors utilized in combat, “Much as yours is a replica of one of Muramasa’s legendary designs, this is of Masamune’s.”

For a brief moment, Toya appeared perturbed by the development, but his frown turned into a wicked smile as he reached across and unsheathed his other blade with his right hand. This strange katana had no curvature, and resembled an 8th century blade I had seen in my studies. I had no idea as to what it was actually based off of, but it looked like something a ninja would be more accustomed to.

My brother always did have one advantage over me; he is ambidextrous. Though he had never displayed the ability to utilize that skill during our bouts, he seemed determined to exploit it to the fullest extent this time as he wielded both blades and stood before me.

“That was a fun warmup, but now we dance for real!”

He came at me full force, slashing with both swords overhead. Spinning to the side I hashed at his head only to be blocked when he swung the second sword upwards and knocked my blade away from the target. The flurry of jabs and cuts he threw following that were almost inhuman. Block, block, step, block, step, parry, step, block. He gave me no chance to counter. Hoping he would eventually tire himself out, I opted to just keep up the defense, but then one of his jabs that I had tried to deflect with my sword was instead redirected into my right bicep. Though glancing, it still cut deep into muscle. I cried out in pain as he retracted his arm that was at length with the Muramasa through my bicep, and cackled. I blinked the tears away and attacked. Toya stepped aside again and again as I missed slash after jab after swipe. Enraged, I roared as I cut a line through the air directly for his face. In a flash he had my blade directly between both of his, and we pushed in close so that our faces were only separated by the swords. The rattling of the hilts together under the force of our might almost made the blades seem as if they were trembling at the brutality of the duel. Toya still wore a smile as he watched me struggle. The more I strained, the more my right arm hurt, but the moment I submitted to it would be the moment Toya would go through the opening and kill me. I could feel tears building up in my eyes and freezing to my skin. Never before had I been this scared for my life.

“Worthless!” Toya remarked as he twisted his blades in a fashion that wrenched mine from my hands and sent it spinning into the snow blade-first feet away. I had been disarmed. It was over, and Toya knew it. Readying to sever my head from my body, he brought both arms wide and prepared to slash the swords at my neck. I closed my eyes and listened. The wind. The excited chatter of the mercs watching and awaiting the bloodbath. The swishing sound of the blades converging. My hand darted for the sheath behind my waist and grabbed the hilt of the dagger I always carried. I snatched it out and ducked at the last second, and while both blades passed overhead I sent mine into Toya’s abdomen. I left it implanted as he dropped the ninja sword and tried to remove the blade with his right hand. I took the chance to hurry off and retrieve my Masamune from the snow, turning back and taking a stance as I observed Toya removing the blade and tossing it aside, allowing blood to flow from the wound and down his uniform. At first he appeared rather collected, but then a trickle of blood began to protrude from his mouth. Spitting a glob onto the surface of the snow, he smiled with stained teeth. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t showing any submission to the pain. He wasn’t a monster…was he? An internal organ being penetrated should have had him crippled. I shivered from a combination of the chilling sight as well as the cold, and then the winds picked up. Toya faded back into the whiteout that had formed as the storm grew violent, leaving the ninja sword behind. The winds thrashed and threw the white everywhere, obscuring everything from view. No longer could I see the gathered audience, or even my opponent for that matter. I remained still, watching, listening, and waiting. Finally, a crunch in the snow behind me outdid the wind, and I turned in time to parry an assault from Toya. I held my blade across my face as I forced him back. The wound I had dealt him had succeeded in impeding his strength. He relented and quickly faded into the snow again, leaving only a faded blood trail behind that was quickly concealed by the amount of snow blowing past.

I had never thought that Toya would be one to fight smart, but he was utilizing the weather like a genius tactician. The bleeding gash that should have served as a hindrance to him wasn’t posing as much of a problem as I had hoped. I attributed that to his rage that I had performed so desperate an attempt to stop him.

I didn’t hear the footfalls in the snow this time, and when the blade erupted from my left shoulder in a spray of blood, I was more surprised than pained. That changed when he ripped it back out. I screamed as my arm went limp. There was no doubt he had severed some very important nerves with that one, and I wasn’t even sure if he’d missed anything vital or not. I clutched the hilt of the Masamune in my right hand and spun around with a swipe, but nothing was there. I looked down to see the blood trail left behind. It trailed off into the storm, but I knew chasing Toya was suicide. My only option was to remain and counter, and with one arm that would prove to be near impossible. I tried to will my other to move, but the surge of pain that shot through nearly had me vomiting. I breathed deeply, trying to remain calm, but the truth was I probably was not going to escape this encounter with my life. The swish of a blade just missing my head was loud in my right ear, but it still carved through the top layer of the skin on my right arm and left me further injured. It was like peeling an onion. He was systematically weakening me with each guerilla strike. I had to try something new if I was to stop this onslaught.

I looked down at his blood and was stricken with an idea. Dropping down I quickly rolled into the snow, trying desperately to dig myself in as much as I could before Toya returned. I finally settled on my back and readied the sword in my right hand, holding it down and against my right leg. The snow was blowing past my face at an incredible rate of speed, and I was mostly buried under an inch within half a minute. I was careful to use only my eyes to scan the scene above me as I awaited Toya’s next move. I began to worry that the blood from my shoulder would give me away. It stung as the snow covered it.

Finally, he emerged from the storm once more, but appeared confused when I was not there to serve as his cadaver. He crept slowly towards me, cautiously keeping tabs of the environment except for anything below him. When his foot landed next to mine, I acted. Exploding from the snow, I thrust the tip of the sword through his left leg and forced half of the blade’s length through. The feeling of metal scraping bone was unpleasant for me, and I wasn’t even the one who suffered the horrible injury. Toya expressed the agony in a very unorthodox way; he pushed through what should have been a crippling injury and hobbled over to me with his sword grasped firmly in both hands. I had to admire his tenacity, which is why I felt a bit guiltier when I raised my boot and kicked the hilt of my Masamune embedded into his thigh, pushing it further through him. That one did it. Letting out a howl of agony, he dropped to his knees and began cursing in many languages as I backed away.  My foot sank into the snow and met something solid. Reaching down, I wiped away enough to reveal the black hilt of the other sword my brother had used against me, the straight-edged katana. I pulled it out of the snow and held it in my right hand towards my brother, who was attempting to rise to his feet. Hunched over, he held his Muramasa in both hands towards me in return.

“Brother, it doesn’t have to end this way!” I shouted.

“It’s already over,” he heaved, “you are the victor today, Makoto.”

I didn’t understand. The man had a sword through his leg, a punctured organ that was obviously causing internal bleeding, and yet he was still able to stand on his two feet and hold a weapon to me. I was honestly afraid he’d still manage to kill me in his current state. Suddenly he dropped to his left knee.

“You’ve pierced my femoral artery!” he shouted over the wind, “I won’t live to see you fail, but fail you shall!”

Even in defeat, Toya was delusional, “Enough! Let me help you! Your men-”

“My men cannot help me, nor would I want it,” he shouted back, cackling aloud, “You’ve defeated me once again.”

“Toya!”

“Silence! Tradition won here today. Perhaps if I had paid heed to the lessons our elders tried feverishly to teach me as well, I would have stood a chance. Instead, my soul will be the one to part ways and meet them again in the afterlife. I’ll be sure to tell father what a success you turned out to be.”

I lowered my blade, “Toya…”

“Makoto, your legacy shall live on. It is one of rectitude and honesty, just as your were raised to believe,” Toya then did something I never would have expected; he stood up on his injured leg and bowed to me. The storm began to die down, and his men were visible once more. All were astounded to see their commander lowering his head to the enemy. He raised his head and smiled at me. I knew his leg was killing him, but Toya never knew how to show any emotions besides pride and anger, and I would like to believe that it was pride in another that was keeping the beam about his face, “I dishonored father, and grandfather. I dishonored our family, our heritage, but most importantly I dishonored myself,” he looked around us at his men, “This man is free to go!” he shouted in English, “That is my final order to you.”

“S-sir!?” the one who had taken his P90 objected.

“Silence! That is my command. You shall follow it!” he bellowed as he raised the Muramasa and turned the hilt around in his hand so that the blade was pointed toward his stomach.

“TOYA!!! STOP!!!” I cried, dropping my sword and running through the snow to grab the weapon. He smiled at me as he drove the blade through his flesh and out the other side. The snowflakes appeared to be falling slow enough that I probably could have made out their details had I not been watching the life drain from my brother. He closed his eyes and brought his hands to his face, and then slumped over onto his side before I could reach him. By the time I was kneeling down beside him and shaking him by the shoulder, he was already gone. The snow was dark red underneath my knees, and my trembling right hand was warm with blood in the frigid air, even through the glove. I didn’t even remember the other mercenaries. I could only see my brother’s corpse. It was all I knew at the moment. My little brother was dead by his own hands because he could not accept defeat by mine. I roared into the storm as it built up in presence again, as if nature were reacting to his death too.

I felt like I was in the final circle of Hell in the Inferno of the Divine Comedy. I had only skimmed the literature in my free time, curious as to how man envisioned an afterlife of punishment, but it was enough to make me respect those that chose to live lives of peace. I no longer had to wonder. This was it. This was what man called Hell. All of the wounds on my body could not hurt more than my heart as I placed a foot on my brother’s torso to support myself and wrenched the Muramasa from his abdomen. I threw the blade aside in disgust, not wanting to touch the weapon that had ended him. Next came the Masamune from his leg. The spurting blood was a reminder that he would have indeed died anyway, but it was no comfort. His men gathered around and brought the circle inward. No one dared speak.

In all of my years, I had never found it harder to obey the virtues of Bushidō than that moment. I wanted to lift the Muramasa and kill everyone there in a bloody massacre that would be the only fitting representation of my anger, of my very soul as I looked at my brother’s corpse.

I stayed my hand, and instead swung the Masamune to cleanse it of my brother’s blood. After sheathing the weapon I collected the Muramasa and undid the holster on Toya’s left hip that had contained the blood sword. I then did the same to the other and, with assistance from one of the mercenaries who had picked up the sword from where I had left it, placed the ninja sword into it. He handed the sheath to me, and I tossed it and the Murasama over my right shoulder, surveying the men before me.

“Kitsune,” the young man who had assisted me spoke. I was surprised. A Japanese utterance from what appeared to be a Frenchman.

“Fox?” I inquired in English, “What about a fox?”

“Kitsune is what your brother called that straight sword. He treasured it; something about receiving it from a great warrior he admired that once bested him.”

I hadn’t known my brother to admire anyone, just the idea of physical strength. The thought had captivated me, and I only grunted in acknowledgment before I looked to the mercenaries all congregated around my brother’s corpse.

“You are all my enemies, but you served next to my brother and obeyed him without question. Your loyalty rested solely with him, and for that, you have my thanks.”

The men all exchanged awkward glances. One even bowed hesitantly, unsure if that was the right thing to do. Imbeciles though they were, I could not harm them and do dishonor to my brother’s dying wish.

“We will give him a proper burial,” one of the men announced. I nodded. If there was any lingering thought of murdering these men, he had just saved their lives. I carried my brother’s swords in their sheaths over my right shoulder and began to walk away. One of his men shouted after me, and I turned back to see the one my brother had entrusted with his weapon. He was a small one of German descent, and I could see the fear in his eyes shrouded in winter apparel as he looked up into mine.

“What do you want, pawn?” I asked him. He shrunk at those words, but spoke anyway.

“What will you do now? I know that we’re not supposed to do anything to you, but they’ll probably send others. I’d hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but you’re dead if you just keep running.”

“Then I will not run,” I replied. That statement made the little man shake his head.

“What does that mean?”

“It means I have a final obligation to fulfill,” I answered, turning to leave.

“That injury won’t let you go far,” he remarked.

He was right. Medical attention came first. Toppling an empire like Tiamat Unbound would require two arms, “That is not of your concern. I do ask that you do me one more favor.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I died here today alongside my brother. We both suffered wounds that brought about our demise. My body was lost to the blizzard, and you failed to recover it from winter’s grasp.”

The man nodded, “That will prove difficult, but very well. For what it’s worth, I’m terribly sorry about your brother.”

My brother succumbed to his own pride in the end, and Tiamat Unbound had not endowed that personality into him to begin with, but I disliked the company nonetheless. My brother had only stood before me because he was ordered to, and in that aspect, he was loyal. The dragon played with our loyalty and manipulated us. I was to die today in the cold reaches of the mountains, not him. Now, I would make amends. I would personally drive the Muramasa through the CEO myself before this was over. I turned my back on the mercenaries and headed west, my resolve the only guidance I needed.