Roscoe looked around in shock. He blinked his eyes to make sure this was real. It seemed to be. Nothing changed in the scenery, even after pinching himself several times.
He knew there were places like this. He had heard of them. He had even wanted to visit them. But now that Roscoe was actually here, he wasn’t so sure this was a good idea.
As far as he knew, things didn’t happen quite like this. Normally, travelers were given a choice. They opted to visit of their own free choosing. Not just thrown here without advance warning.
It looked like a mashup between Chinatown and New Dehli. Roscoe knew what they were like because he had actually been to both of those places more than once.
He had lived in a slew of countries and learned over a dozen different languages before his eighteenth birthday.
His father had been an American ex-pat who moved from country to almost every six months on business. He had met Roscoe’s mother while in Iceland. Two countries later, they were in Australia when their first child was born.
With three citizenships, the polyglot was a prime candidate for anyone needing a spy.
Roscoe felt no loyalty to any single country or organization. He would spy on anyone or anything for the highest bidder. Sometimes spying for both sides at the same time. It didn’t matter to him as long as he got paid, and didn’t get caught in the crossfire.
The longest he had ever stayed in one place was eight months. That was only because of a woman. It was the first time he had fallen in love. He tried to convince her to go with him. But her loyalty to her family was stronger than love at first sight.
He had almost been willing to settle down for her. But she took a bullet for him. The woman jumped in front of a motorcyclist with a gun. Roscoe left the country and took on a new mission.
He beat himself up every day for a few weeks, thinking he had been the target. Thinking it was his fault that she had died. Wishing he had done something differently that day.
Then, on the last day of his mission, someone spilled the beans. They let it slip, that his woman had been the target the whole time. His current employer didn’t want him settling down.
After that, Roscoe went on a killing spree. Doing all of their enemies a favor. For free. No charge. He had never killed before. Had never had to because he was so good at getting the information he needed covertly.
But after that, he took on any job. Even those that didn’t require spying or collecting information. Roscoe actually preferred being a hitman to a spy. It was easier and mentally less taxing.
Roscoe had no idea how he had ended up here in this surreal place though. He had never seen anything like it before. It looked like a normal city with normal people. But there were strange, round ships in the sky that looked like UFOs.
Nor did he understand any of the letters and symbols written on the signs. Even though some of them looked familiar, it was like no language he had ever seen before.
“Papa. What’s wrong?” he heard a child ask.
He was lost in thought and didn’t look down until he felt someone tugging on his coat. Roscoe jerked back a step. He hadn’t heard anyone come up.
A young girl stood there looking up at him with a bright smile as if everything here were completely normal. She wore a matching coat that was the same color as his.
“Who are you? Where am I?” Roscoe asked.
The child cocked her head to the side and looked at him quizzically.
“Is everything ok, Papa?” she asked still looking at him.
There was no one else nearby. Roscoe shook his head and took another step back. Putting distance between them.
“No, everything is not okay. And I’m not your Papa. I’m not anybody’s, Papa. How did I get here?” he shouted angrily.
A small group of people walking by scowled at him menacingly. They placed their fingers over their lips as if shushing him and raised their eyebrows up and to the side toward the floating ships overhead.
Roscoe didn’t look up at them directly, but from his peripheral vision noticed one of the larger ships moving in his direction.
He smiled and tipped his head in acknowledgment to the person going by. Then Roscoe looked back at the child and smiled.
“Sorry, honey. Papa got distracted for a minute. I was thinking about something else.”
The child slipped her hand into his but, didn’t wipe the suspicious look off her face. She kept her eye on him as they walked down the street.
Roscoe had no idea where they were going, but assumed she was taking him to wherever his new home was.
He scanned everything around him, looking for clues to figure out what going on in this place till he could get out of here. He smiled and nodded to everyone who went by. Most smiled and nodded back.
But it was obvious to his trained, watchful eye who belonged here and who, like him, did not.
Roscoe didn’t really care though. This was just one more place to live. New experiences to enjoy. And like everything else in life, just a game to win. He walked along, confident that eventually, he’d figure out what was going on.
Lucine Voski sat in the cockpit of her YJ-0 Blizzard that she had affectionately named SkyEater. This was her baby. She had been offered a newer model of the same aircraft upon her promotion, but she had turned it down. One of the first to come out. But that was years ago. Now, everyone flew the newer models except her. She still had her first plane. And she would fly it as long as she could.
She glanced out to her right to make sure the trainees were still with her. They were flying newer models. Their Blizzards were sleeker and much more modern. But Lucine knew she could outfly and outmaneuver them any day of the week.
“Stay alert, boys. We’re only five clicks out. Prepare for a flyover in 60 seconds.”
“Roger that,” the familiar voice of Grigor Khazhak, one of the trainees cackled over her headset.
Lucine grinned. Everyone else used Romeo now instead of Roger. She liked the kid’s spunkiness and sense of humor. She knew that using older terminology was his way of poking fun of her taste for older aircraft and vintage headsets.
No one else used the large, bulky headset she had salvaged for her own use. They all used the sleek, modern earpieces just released in the latest model. But it didn’t bother her. She liked her antiques.
“You ready, Vahan?” she asked the trainee sitting behind her.
He didn’t say anything. The tall, dark-haired trainee behind her just raised one hand and gave her a thumbs up. Lucine turned her head so he wouldn’t see her smile.
It was always like this with them on their first trip out in her old clunker. She could outfly any of the other boys. By time the flight was over and they got back, Lucine knew that Vahan would be singing a different tune.
She saw the outline of the city approaching quickly. It was a familiar sight. She came almost once a month on these training missions. Bringing the new trainees out for a spin and showing them the ropes.
It worked out well because the entire city was completely off-limits to civilians. One because it was a military zone and forbidden for the general population. But really, because no one wanted to come out here.
The area had been quarantined off over twenty years ago. There had been a breakout of some sort. It never really had been explained to anyone. At least not that Lucine was aware of even at her level of classification. And she was pretty high up there.
But regardless of the reason, she and the trainees could fly around between the buildings to hone their chops and run their drills. Any stray bullets were absorbed by the city skyscrapers without the risk of hurting someone.
“Ok, kids! Everyone get into formation at 150 meters. Look alive, and I’ll see you on the other side.” Lucine ordered.
“Last one there is the rotten egg,” Grigor shouted over the headset, making Lucine wince. Hers didn’t adjust volume automatically like theirs did.
“No, this isn’t a race,” she barked. “It’s just a drill. Practice the sharp turns needed between buildings. Remain in control at all times. No speeding for now. We’ll get there eventually, but not today. I have to get you babies all back home to your mommas alive.”
Lucine could hear their collective sighs over the headsets. They were all anxious to show off and do something fun on their first day out.
“You ready to take over the controls, Vahan?”
She glanced back in time to see his nod and passed the controls over to him.
“It’s all yours,” she said and looked out over the city just in time to see a streak of white light coming out of one of the skyscrapers in their direction.
There was nothing she could do to get out of the way in time. There was a loud blast and the shock from a direct hit. She felt the plane going down, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
She let it down as best she could among the skyscrapers. They went down hard. Skyeater would never fly again. Lucine climbed out and looked up. She couldn’t see a thing through the thick smog. There was no way any of the other ships would be able to see them down here under the smog.
Not that they would even come looking. The whole place was still under quarantine. Even if she and Vahan could find their way out of the city eventually, they wouldn’t be let out alive. She knew that much for the level of clearance that she did have.
The woman screamed in frustration. Vahan just watched her with that same scared look on his face. She smiled. “Don’t worry, we just gotta find a way back home.” But she knew he didn’t believe her.
Lucine wondered if they would be able to live in the city somehow. Who had shot at them? Were people still living here?
“Well, c’mon, son. What are you waiting for? We got a long way to walk before supper.”
In the end, we all die, Simona” the shrill voice, still laughing hysterically, echoed off the sides of the rubble and ruins that surrounded her. “Even you. You won’t live forever, you know. You may as well give up now. There is no hope left for the world.”
Simona scanned the buildings that surrounded her, trying to locate where the voice was coming from. But she couldn’t place it. She wanted to scream in frustration. This was the third city he had destroyed this week. There hadn’t been enough time to save the other two. She had arrived too late.
This time it was different though. Even though the city had already been destroyed, this was the first time that the Destroyer was still here. Well, that was what everyone else called him. But she knew him as Blazej. Somehow, deep down, she had known it was him all along.
She mentally patted herself on the back for such highly honed intuition.
“That’s where you are wrong, Blazej. I am going to live forever. The only one dying today is you.”
Simona clapped her hand over her mouth. She had never spoken like that to anyone. She never had too. At least not as far back as she could remember, which wasn’t very far. She lost all her memories in the accident.
And Blazej had been the one to put her back together. Minus a few parts. Adding a few parts. She was different but alive. And for that, she had been grateful.
He had made her much more powerful. Stronger. Faster. Better. In so many ways. And for the last few months, she had never resorted to using her gun. She had always been able to handle violent situations without depending on her weapon. Simona had consistently found creative ways to resolve escalating situations before they got out of hand.
But now, for the first time in months, she felt immense anger rising up within her. For the first time, she wanted to use the gun she was carrying.
Simona had only brought it in case of any extreme situation where she had to take a long-distance shot where she couldn’t resolve things directly. But this was different.
At first, she tried to rationalize it by telling herself that she was doing it to save other cities. But Simona knew that wasn’t true. She was just angry at having been used by Blazej. She felt guilty as if she were responsible for helping him get this far.
Because she had been his bodyguard for the past few months. Protecting him from danger. Preventing attempts on his life. And only now she found out that he had been using her to cover up all of his shenanigans.
Now, it had all started to make sense. She hadn’t understood at the time why the attacks on Blazej and his company had increased so intensely. But now she felt like kicking herself for not having caught on sooner.
Her fury condensed in the pit of her stomach and Simona became laser-focused on finding him. She had had enough of this nonsense. It was time to put an end to his charades and expose him for what he had done to these cities.
She had stopped running. The sound of smaller explosions still going off in the burning buildings no longer frightened her. She had only one mission now. And that was to find the man responsible for all of this destruction.
Simona put her head down and headed in the direction she thought Blazej’s voice had come from. There was only one building still standing that was near enough for her to have heard his voice. There could only be one reason that it hadn’t been destroyed. And that was because the culprit was still in there.
Her early arrival had most likely put a stop to his escape. She felt pleased with herself for having figured out what city he would target next. He most likely hadn’t expected that at all.
The gun was now finally in her hands for the first time after all these months. But she didn’t need to use it to break into the building. The long-legged, bionic woman kicked the doors in like they had been made of cardboard. She moved swiftly, from one room to another, until she came to a large, open conference room.
She saw Blazej through a glass pane, sitting at the far end of the table. Simona didn’t bother knocking or even trying to open the doors normally. She tore them off the hinges with a single, solid kick.
Simona screamed and tried to pull the trigger. All her anger and rage at the destruction he had caused came to a boiling point. But moral pacifist that she was, Simona wasn’t able to bring herself to shoot him.
She spun his chair away from the computer so he was facing her. He smiled wanly and whispered softly, “I knew you wouldn’t shoot me. They set me up and said you would. He wanted to frame me.”
“Who?” Simona asked.
But it was too late. Blazej had already taken his final breath. She looked over at the computer. It was still set to play random clips of Blazej saying random phrases meant to irk her. Then Simona looked down and saw a bomb under the desk. Triggered by when she had turned the chair around. Counting down. Two minutes left.
Just enough time for her to have shot Blazej and reported him to the authorities before the building went down. Now she had to find out who set them up. But first, she had to get out. She stretched her long legs as fast as they would go to get her out of this building before it went up in flames.
Simona didn’t bother trying to go back out through the doors. The main entrance was too far down. She pulled the trigger on her gun for the first time in months. The thick glass windows shattered from the impact. Weakening them enough for her to break through with little effort.
The woman covered her face when she leaped through the shattered glass. The drop to the ground below wasn’t easy on her, but the titanium that supported her body withstood the impact. And then Simona was back up on her feet and running down the street before the building went up in flames.
Simona knew what her mission was now. Forget the burning cities. Nothing was going to stop her until she found the person behind this fiasco, and make him pay for what had been done to Blazej.
The fury she had felt earlier was nothing compared to the burning rage inside her now. Hot tears of anger and sadness evaporated into the wind as she raced back to the waiting chopper.
Halfway there, Simona paused and turned to bid farewell to her friend before the building went up in flames.
“Yes, my friend. We all die in the end. Even I. But I will never go down without a fight. I will find out who did this to you. I promise you that. I will never give up.”
Maxamed stepped slowly into the room. His jaw dropped and his mouth fell open at the scene before him. The door started to slide closed behind him. He twisted his body around and shoved his foot in the crack before it could close. The clipboard he had been carrying in his hand clattered to the floor.
The door slid open again, and the scientist could barely leap back into the hall fast enough. After the door had closed, Maxamed leaned up against it, still panting. He finally caught his breath and turned back around to peek through the window.
The scientist blinked several times and rubbed his eyes to see if what he was seeing was really real. He finally opened the door again slowly. Watching to see how the thing would react.
Maxamed finally took a tentative step back inside. He picked up his clipboard again and walked forward slowly. Placing one foot carefully and silently in front of the other.
The great beast finally stirred. It turned its head slowly in his direction. Its eyes widened when they saw him. They glowed white.
The scientist took a step back in the direction of the door. Ready to flee if necessary.
The large, slimy creature focused its eyes on the scientist standing before it. It opened its mouth and hissed loudly. The same white glow in its eyes also filled its mouth. A bit of it drooled out of its mouth and hit the floor. Maxamed half expected the saliva to burn through the ground like acid. But it didn’t and he breathed a sigh of relief.
Maxamed must have stood there between the green-glowing screens that monitored the beasts vital sight for at least two solid minutes before he thought to check them. His fingers flew rapidly across the controls as he tried to analyze what had happened to the creature during the night.
How did it grow so rapidly during the night without anything to eat?
Yesterday, when they had brought it into the lab, it hadn’t been much bigger than a large dog. And now its legs spread out across the entire room. The same legs with sharp-pointed ends that were tapping slowly across the room in his direction.
Maxamed pulled out his phone and called Dr. Chisomo. He let the phone ring several times, but became impatient and hung up. Next, he tried dialing his lovely assistant, Ogechi. But she didn’t answer either. The scientist sighed in frustration and went back to analyzing the data on his screen.
There was so much strange data running through the system that didn’t make sense. Maxamed couldn’t make heads or tails of all the information.
Based on what he could gather from the data, it seemed like Dr. Chisomo had come in about midnight. There was a huge surge of info coming in around that time. And then later around six in the morning, Ogechi should have comen in as well. There seemed to be another huge surge of data right around that time.
Maxamed glanced over briefly at the wires connecting the creature to the system. Everything seemed to be hooked up correctly in spite of its enormous growth. They had managed to stretch enough not to break. But by the looks of things, they wouldn’t last much longer if the monster kept growing at this rate.
The scientist pondered it thoughtfully. At the rate it was growing, it would soon be too small for this room. He wondered what they would do then. Bringing it in yesterday had been a piece of cake. But now, there wasn’t an easy way to move this beast somewhere else.
The creature struggled to move around and pulled itself up onto its long, pointy tipped claws. But it wasn’t able to get a grip on the hard floor. It wobbled around before settling back down.
Maxamed sidled away from it a bit back toward the consoles to see what he could figure out. He was still there busily tapping away at the screen. The scientist didn’t see the creature’s neck stretching out slowly and silently in his direction. Nor did he see one of the long claws coming up from behind him toward his feet.
When he did notice them, it was already too late. The creature’s claw was pulling him into its waiting outstretched jaw. And only then did Maxamed have his epiphany and realize what had happened to Dr. Chisomo and Ogechi.
Why they hadn’t answered their phones. And why the data registered so much strange activity at the times they had arrived. Now, the creature’s rapid growth made sense. But for Maxamed and his colleagues, it was already too late.
Jie crouched behind a rock. He peered into the darkness. Watching the magnificent creature before him. His heart beat faster as it came closer. The boy tried to calm himself down. But it was almost impossible.
The darkness in the cave was oppressive. He was already having trouble breathing, and the hot, heavy air made it even more difficult. Jie wanted to stand up and stretch. But that was out of the question right now unless he wanted to be seen.
The scaly creature moved silently across the rocky surface. Choosing its path carefully. It never made a sound. Jie wondered how such a large, bulky creature could move so quietly through the darkness over the broken surface.
Jie gripped the staff in his hand more tightly. He waited silently as the beast moved steadily toward him. He was amazed that up until now, the animal had made no sound at all.
In a large chamber like this, the slightest scrape of a rock would have echoed loudly, breaking the thick silence that permeated the air.
Jie slowed even his breathing. Afraid that the faintest sniffle might alert the scaly creature to this presence. The beast stopped and craned its neck forward. It lowered its back and stretched out its large, leathery wings.
The immense range awed the young human watching it. Jie could barely believe what he was seeing. He wanted to reach out and touch them. To actually feel the leathery scales for himself.
The fabled beast was so close. Just a few steps away from him.
Jie knew that it was searching for him. He could sense it straining in the darkness. Trying to figure out what was going on.
He gripped the staff in his hands more tightly. It was the only thing that kept him from being discovered. Or so he thought.
“Step forward. I have been waiting for you. Why do you hide behind a rock like a frog?” the great beast hissed.
Jie’s heart skipped a beat. He lowered his head and tried to make himself smaller. Wondering if he had heard correctly. Did it really know he was here? Or was it talking to someone else?
No one else answered. The silence in the air thickened.
The only part of the creature that Jie could still see was its tail sticking out from behind the rock that he was crouched behind.
The tail swayed slowly from side to side.
Jie raised his head a little. Following the rough outline of the creature’s back and wings. He couldn’t quite tell if it was looking in his direction. He half-hoped that someone else had followed him in here.
Maybe the monster was referring to another person. And yet it was here, just on the other side of the rock that he had chosen to hide behind. It would be too much of a coincidence.
Still, the creature waited on the other side of the boulder that stood between them.
“Are you talking to me?” Jie whispered softly.
“Of course, silly. Who else would I be talking to in here? It’s not like a get many visitors down here.”
Jie stood slowly to his feet. He grasped the staff more tightly and held it out in front of himself for protection. He couldn’t help but notice that the glow from the tip of his staff matched the bluish-white glow in the dragon’s eyes.
A low, throaty rumble came from the creature’s chest. Almost as if the beast were laughing at him. Jie felt slightly miffed and frowned.
“Did you really think you could control me with that thing?” the dragon asked.
Jie shrugged. His face burned with shame. The question made him feel stupid. However, in his defense, the old man that told Jie about the staff had made it sound like this was a powerful magical item that could control magical creatures like dragons.
“Dragons are too powerful to be controlled by such puny devices,” the beast rumbled. “We control everything and everyone around us.”
Jie didn’t like the arrogance in its tone of voice. He wanted to do something to put the creature in its place. But, he didn’t feel comfortable correcting a giant monster in a dark cave. So, Jie kept his mouth shut. He simply bowed his head and apologized.
“Come, Jie. I brought you here for a reason.”
The man jerked his head back upright. How did the creature know his name? And why had it brought him here?
Jie followed the dragon back across the rocks until they came to an abyss. A great, dark chasm that yawned out into the blackness. He couldn’t see where it ended or how deep it went. He looked over at the dragon beside him that was now leaning back on its haunches.
“You have done well, little one.”
The words irked Jie to no end. He was getting fed up with this dumb dragon and its patronizing lines.
“What have I done well?”
“Completing the missions that I assigned you.”
Jie looked at him blankly. His mind whirling. Trying to process the information.
“What, silly human. Did you really think that staff would control me? I had you bring it because I needed it. I need it. We need it.”
Suddenly, everything fell into place and began to come together for him. The old man that told him about the staff. Everything Jie had been through to find it. This creature here had orchestrated it all.
Now, Jie only had one burning question.
The dragon turned and smiled in a dragon kind of way.
“This is only the beginning. There is so much yet to come.”
Jie hated these stupid responses to his questions that never provided any real answers. He wanted to throw the silly staff over the edge of the abyss and walk away. But he really did want to know. And he had already invested so much time into getting here.
Meeting the dragon who had orchestrated it all, seemed to be a nice reward for his effort. So, he decided to play along.
Jie sat down and threw his legs over the edge of the chasm. He let them swing there over the darkness.
As much as he didn’t like some of the events, it wasn’t so bad Jie figured. Meeting a dragon was a nice reward for his effort. Even if he didn’t like the dragon’s personality.
“It’s okay. I don’t like you much either,” the dragon said.
Jie blushed in the darkness. No one had told him that dragons’ could read minds. He swung his legs nervously over the abyss and tried to keep a blank mind. But it wasn’t working very well. A million thoughts flitted through his head.
“Relax, human. Enjoy the moment. Soon, you will know more than you wished you did.”
Jie wondered what that meant. But realized that like all of his adventures thus far, he would just have to take it one step at a time and wait for all the pieces of the puzzle to fall together.
Spartak floated slowly over the ruined buildings of the city below him. He drifted in the direction of the giant monster. Careful not to make any sudden movements that might set the creature off. He tried to keep his nerves under control.
The man knew that he could fly off quickly in retreat if needed at any second, which was a relief and temptation at the same time. He desperately wished he could. Every fiber of self-preservation in his body screamed for him to get to safety before it was too late.
But Spartak knew that was out of the question for now. The fate of the human race depended on him and how he handled himself now.
The great, hairy beast continued to forage through the rubble below. Searching for its next victim to eat. BowelTeeth was what the news reporters had named it when it first appeared because of the innumerous fangs that protruded from its mouth and covered its enormous underbelly.
Although most people were pretty sure that those weren’t real teeth on the outside of its body, no one had actually gotten close enough to confirm what those things were. He just hoped that they weren’t eggs that the monster was carrying around until they hatched.
Spartak could hear the screams of those who hadn’t managed to get out of the building before it was knocked down by the horrid creature. He tried not to look down at the tragic sight below him.
His instincts as a former firefighter to try to rescue someone was intense. However, there was nothing he could do to save them by going down to their rescue. He needed to keep his focus on the task at hand. Killing this monster.
BowelTeeth suddenly stopped foraging for food and shifted its attention in Spartak’s direction. Twelve pairs of eyes turned to gaze at the strange sight of a human floating towards it.
Spartak slowed his forward momentum. The creature had stopped foraging for humans in the wreckage below. Its eyes focused on the human before it. The man came to a complete stop. He floated silently in the air. Unsure of what to do.
The giant monster lifted up one of its long, scrawny legs and poked a tendril out in his direction. As it moved toward him, Spartak backed away as quickly as he could. The man swung the massive weapon in his arms toward the creature’s leg.
Spartak continued to wait though. He managed to keep his nerves still enough to keep from pulling the trigger. The leg stopped before it actually touched Spartak. It held its leg still as if waiting for him to do respond or do something. Almost as if it were testing him.
The human finally reached out a hand. He pulled off his glove and stretched it toward the hairy tip of its leg. The stiff bristles wavered in the air. Pulsing and wafting gently, even though there was no wind. Almost as if it were analyzing him.
He waited quietly to see how it would react. Never moving the barrel of the gun away from it. Spartak kept the gun pointed at it the entire time.
Finally, the floating tendril moved forward a few inches. Then it stopped as if waiting for him to take the next step. Spartak waited quietly. He didn’t pull away. But he didn’t move forward either.
BowelTeeth pushed its tendril forward another half inch. The hairy bristles continued to pulse and wave in a back and forth pattern as if it were sniffing him. It moved forward a bit more with each pass until Spartak felt them tickling lightly across his palm.
Spartak pointed the gun a few feet up the leg. Just in case it did try something and he had to shoot, Spartak didn’t want to shoot himself accidentally. He was ready to blow off its leg and then turn the plasma blaster up into its face.
Dr. Garen had given him the weapon earlier that day. Spartak had never seen anything like. But Dr. Garen had assured him that it would blow the creature apart if needed. All Spartak had to do was get close enough to do some real damage.
Spartak figured this was close enough to do whatever damage Dr. Garen intended. But he still couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He felt a strange sort of bond to the monster. A sense of camaraderie and kinship. He continued to wait to see what the beast would do.
The human waited silently for the monster to make the next move. He was ready for it. But in the end, BowelTooth drew its long, wriggly tendril back away from him. Then the monster turned and began to walk away in the direction it had come from.
Spartak followed it as it made its way back to the hole from where it had come from. Then it wriggled its way back in and disappeared from sight.
Dr. Garen and General Rouben were not happy when he returned to the base. They demanded to know why he hadn’t taken a shot at the creature, but Spartak just shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t explain it.
He knew there was more to this than met the eye. There were things going on that he was not yet classified to know about. Like how they had given him the ability to float. Or where they had gotten the plasma gun with the strange symbols all over it.
But for now, he didn’t care. He had done what they sent him out to do. Stop the carnage and destruction. The monster had left the city for now. And the most important thing to Spartak was that he was still alive.
Mamuka surveyed what was left of the city around him. He scanned the area from side to side. Looking for any sign of movement, but saw nothing. He listened for any sounds but heard nothing. Only the continuous whistle and low moans of the wind blowing around him.
He clicked his tongue and flicked the horse’s reigns. The large, grey mare lurched forward with a quick start. But Mamuka knew that her pace wouldn’t last long. The beast would quickly slow down, and he would have to flick the reigns again and kick her in the sides to keep her going.
The horse wound through a yard and followed a broken fence up between two burnt-out houses. Smoke still wafted from the larger home to their left. Mamuka continued to scan the area. Watching for any sign of movement. But there was nothing.
They rounded the house and came out behind two other houses. Strangely enough, one of the houses farther on had not caught fire. Mamuka pulled back on the reins and brought the horse to a stop.
Seeing an unburned house like this in the city was a first. Every other home that they had passed since coming into the town had either already burnt to the ground or was still burning.
The man wanted to take off his gas mask to take a closer look but resisted the urge. He knew the stench would be unbearable. Mamuka had waited as long as he could before putting it on, but they had been almost five miles away when he could no longer take it.
None of his colleagues had been able to make it as close as he had, even with their gas masks on. He knew they were weak, but he didn’t despise them. Let them wait another day for the wretched fires and smoke to die down before they came in with their equipment.
Mamuka refused to wait. He knew time was of essence. They needed to get in as soon as possible if they wanted to find clues that would lead to the source of the burning cities. This had been the fifth in the past month.
Fires like this had started sporadically just over a year ago. Initially, they only took out a few houses. But as time went on, they began to burn stronger and longer. Now, the flames were taking out entire cities with populations of 50,000 people at a time.
The strangest part of it all was that none of the inhabitants were ever found. Not so much as a single corpse had ever been found. It was almost as if the entire population had been abducted before the town got leveled by fire.
He swung the barrel of the gun down in the direction of the house and dug his heels into the horse’s side for it to move forward. But the creature refused to budge. Mamuka flicked the reins harder, urging the beast with another click of the tongue.
Mamuka sighed in exasperation and swung his leg over the saddle to get to the ground. This had happened once before. Two cities back. Mamuka had tried everything he knew to get the horse to move forward to now avail.
The brute beast was as stubborn as a mule. He knew it would do no good to insist now though. He wondered what it was that the horse was so terrified of.
The man felt no fear himself. Only a strange sense of curiosity. He really wanted to know what it was that caused entire cities to burn down and huge populations to go missing.
The news reporters had been calling them Apocalypse Fires ever since the beginning because of the horrible smell of sulfur. Sharp, coking, and this particular variation left a bitter taste in the back of one’s throat.
Mamuka looped the reins around a bush so the mare wouldn’t wander off until he got back. Then he strode around the house, looking for any sign of life. The house was closed up tight as a drum.
After circling it warily a few times, he finally made his way up to the front door. Mamuka tested the knob and was surprised that it opened easily. The man had almost gone straight for kicking the door in since he had expected it to be locked.
He pushed his way inside, pointing the gun in front of him. Mamuka went through each of the rooms one by one but found nothing. Strange that this house hadn’t burned along with the others.
It reminded him of the first burning cities he had visited. There had often been unburned houses. But each time, larger and larger percentages of the towns had burned. After a while, the cities all burned completely.
This was the first time in months that he had found an unburned house. Mamuka felt excited. Maybe they would find something in the house that could give them a clue as to what was causing these cities to catch fire.
He went back outside to get the equipment in his saddlebags. But to his surprise, the horse was no longer there. Strange, since Mamuka had taken the time to tie it up.
The man walked around the house looking for it. But it was gone. Mamuka kicked at a rock furiously. Stupid horse. He never should have brought it in the first place. The only reason he had brought her was because his regular ride had gotten ill. Mamuka had to leave it behind and ride this lazy animal he was now on.
He looked for tracks to see if he could tell what direction it had gone in, but the only horse tracks he saw were those he had made riding in. And there weren’t any fresh tracks leading back out that same way.
Suddenly, he became aware of something different. They weren’t horse tracks, but something else had been walking around out here since the time he had left his horse.
Mamuka’s eyes followed the direction that it had moved in or come from. He wasn’t sure yet, which it was. His eyes sensed a movement in the shadows of the bushes beside the burning house that they had come past earlier.
He looked closer and saw the outline of a crouching figure. Mamuka began running toward it as silently as he could. It moved away from the bushes and around the side of the house.
When Mamuka came around the side of the house, he saw the creature loping across the far end of the yard. Since the homes had burned down here, It didn’t have anywhere yet to hide. The man broke into a dead run and began gaining on it.
It ran funny. He noticed that it moved like an ape bent over on all fours, but at the same time, hopped a bit like a frog before disappearing behind a small bush.
He came panting around from behind the shrubs only to see nothing there. As if the ground had opened up its mouth and swallowed the thing up.
Mamuka walked slowly now, looking for its tracks. He trailed along, looking for signs of broken leaves or bent grass. The led him onward a few feet and disappeared into a hole that seemed too small for the animal to have vanished into.
Two beady eyes glared up at him. Mamuka took a step backward and swung his gun up and around to his side.
The creature leaped up and out at him. The gun went off in his hands. It was pure instinct. His fingers pulling the trigger smoothly and fluid motion.
The creature fell to the ground at his feet. Gasping for air. Looking up at him in surprise and shock. It reached out a finger to his boot and poked at them gently before breathing its last. Its eyes closed, and its head lolled to the side.
“Doggone it, you foul creature. What did you do with my horse?”
But it was too late. This thing, whatever it was, would no longer tell anyone its secrets.
“Hercule?” Jeannine asked tentatively.
The short, petite woman blinked and shook her head. Her breathing quickened. She felt her heart palpitate. Jeannine brushed her reddish-brown hair back from her face.
The huge man took a step closer in her direction. She could feel a wave of heat emanating from him. She stepped back and squinted for a better look because she couldn’t put her glasses on under the helmet. Jeannine was pretty sure that this was Hercule though. It looked like him, at least.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
The man took another step closer. Close enough for her to see the whites of his eyes. But there was something wrong with him. His entire eyeball was white. He had no pupil. No iris.
“Hercule?” she whispered. Her voice quivering. “What did they do to you? Where have you been these past six months?”
The man cocked his head to the side and looked at her for a long moment through hollow eyes. There was no glimpse of recognition in his face.
“It’s me, Hercule. Don’t you remember us? I came here to find out what happened to you. I thought you had,” she paused. Her voice lowering to a whisper before completing her phrase. “I thought you had died.”
Jeannine reached out her right hand and touched his arm gently. The tattered sleeve of his uniform flaked and drifted to the ground like ashes crumbling from paper.
She gasped and pulled back in horror. The flesh on his arms lay shredded on open layers. A glowing orange and yellow tattoo with three half-circles surrounded by a larger red one etched into his flesh.
Jeannine gasped and stepped back in horror. Her hand covering her mouth. Her eyes flickering back and forth from the tattooed symbol on his arm to his white eyes. And then back again to the strange formation of curves and circles.
“What does that mean, Hercule?” she asked when he glanced down toward his shoulder.
The man shrugged. He looked back up at her. It gave her a strange feeling to be looking into his eyes. It was like she knew him, and at the same time like she was looking into the eyes of a total stranger.
And she didn’t even know if he could see her really. The weird blank look on his face. The completely white eyeballs. Like the eyes of a blind man, she had seen once in India.
Yet, she knew Hercule, or whoever this was, could see her. Or at least sense her. She raised her arm out to the side to test him. His white eyeballs looked out toward her outstretched hand and then back again.
“You do see me,” she said. “But you don’t recognize me. Do you, Hercule? You don’t recognize your Sweet Baby?”
She caught what seemed to be a flicker of recognition in his pale, white eyes. He cocked his head to the side. Just like he always did while pondering a new idea or which course of action to take.
“Hercule is no longer here,” he said bluntly. “You are mistaken. You should leave.”
“No, that’s not true. I don’t believe it. I know you, Hercule. I would recognize you anywhere.”
Jeannine reached out a hand to touch him, but he twisted away from her and held out his hands.
“Do not touch me. It would not be good for you. You should leave. Now!”
“No, I won’t leave you. Now that I’ve found you, I will stay with you if I must. But I won’t leave you.”
She took a step closer, but he reached out a hand to block her.
“Stop. Don’t come any closer. You are too close already. You will be contaminated. Then it will be too late.”
“Contaminated with what, Hercule?”
“Do not call me that. Hercule is no more. I am only a weapon that was created to unleash destruction. But I do not wish you harm. You were special to the one you call Hercule. I can sense your bond.”
“Who are you? And what have you done to my Hercule?”
“I have done nothing to him. I am only a copy of the one you call Hercule. Others created me to be a weapon. It is not my will, yet I have no choice.”
“What happened to Hercule?” Jeannine asked.
She felt her voice quaver at the end even though she tried not to let it show. The man had once loved simply shrugged.
“I remember him vaguely. Remember being him. Retain some of his memories. But they faded long ago. Memories they tried to scrub from my mind. But I still feel them. I feel you in my bones. But that is all it is. Only a memory. You were special. You must leave before it is too late. I can no longer protect you.”
“Protect me from what, Hercule?” she pleaded.
“From fire and from death. The destruction that is to come. This is the apocalypse. And I am only one of many. I am only the beginning.”
The man Jeannine had once known as Hercule turned and walked away. She looked down and noticed that her hands looked strange. There was something off about them. She turned her palms face up.
The skin around her arms and hands seemed loose. Like it was coming off of her flesh. Her arms beginning to tear and shred like Hercule’s arms had been.
Jeannine looked over at him. He didn’t look back at her. She couldn’t see his mouth or jawline through the helmet, but the eyes and forehead were the same as the man she had once loved.
She had no idea what had happened to him, but it was enough that she was here with him in the end. The last six months without him had been miserable.
Jeannine took a step forward and smiled at him. He still didn’t look over at her. The sound of an intercom crackled.
“Test subjects 239,” a voice said. “Proceed.”
Jeannine saw flames building up around them. Explosions and fireballs erupting violently. This wasn’t at all what she had expected. How had she ended up here? Was she a clone too?
She shook the thoughts away and stepped forward. Closer to Hercule. She reached out and took his hand. Slipped her fingers between his. He didn’t pull away.
Hercule turned to look at her. She saw the reflection of her face growing brighter with rising flames. Her eyes stared back at her from the reflection. Pure white. Just like Hercule. She smiled at him and squeezed his hand once more before they were both completely engulfed by the flames.
Nina laughed and hooted raucously along with the frenzied crowd as the flames licked up higher and higher over. She raised her pitchfork and let out a long, loud whoop. A burst of hot, dry wind cycloned out from the flames and whipped her long, blond hair into her mouth just as she caught her breath. Nina choked and bent over to cough them out.
She looked up to see Vitek laughing at her. Another gust of wind blew sparks and smoke into his face, cutting his laughter short. Now it was Nina’s turn to laugh, although she was careful to turn away from the blazing flames and protect her face with her arms.
“She who laughs last laughs best,” Nina giggled.
Vitek scowled at her with an adorable pout that let her know he wasn’t really angry at her. She knew he wouldn’t be able to fake being mad at her for long. He was too easy going.
Nina scrunched up her face and shuffled toward him slowly with her arms outstretched. Imitating the foul creatures that they had come out to burn up and eliminate.
Her new boyfriend backed away from and pushed her arms to the side.
“C’mon, Nina. That’s not funny. You shouldn’t even be joking around like that. Someone might see you like that and run you through with a pitchfork.”
She just giggled again and turned to watch the flames blazing higher and cackling louder. Nina thought she could hear a faint scream coming from inside the hut over the snapping of burning wood.
“I’m sorry about your auntie, poor thing,” Nina murmured in a more serious tone.
Vitek shrugged. “She’s gone, but at least we got the whole nest of them, so they won’t be back to bother anyone else.”
Nina shivered at the callousness in his voice. She wondered if he would have done the same had she been chosen to be the sacrificial victim to lead them to the Shuffler nest. She looked up to study his face. He didn’t look back at her but continued to watch the flames intently.
“Where do you think they came from?” she finally asked quietly.
At first, she didn’t think he had heard her. But then Vitek finally shrugged his shoulders.
“The same place from which all evil comes. Out of the darkness.”
Nina mulled that thought over for a second. It seemed like such a trite phrase. It was what her people always said about evil, but she had never given it much thought before. At least not until the recent outbreak that led to them searching for this nest of evil that had corrupted three members of her town. People she knew. Friends and relatives swallowed up by it.
She was sad to know that they were inside the burning hut. Going up in flames. But at the same time, it was a relief to know that they would no longer be able to harm anyone else she knew and loved.
Nina thought of her parents. Thought of her twelve younger brothers and sisters. Her grandparents. Uncles and aunts and cousins. All would be able to sleep better and safer at night now that they had purged the forest of this contamination.
“That was a brilliant plan you came up with,” Vitek said.
He stepped closer and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. Nina shrugged as she leaned into his comforting embrace.
“Anyone could have come up with that idea. Everyone knew it needed to be done. Nobody wanted to actually say it out loud though.”
Vitek shook his head. “Not anyone. Most of us were in shock and couldn’t think straight after the horrors we witnessed first with Theodor and then with Apolena. You kept your wits about you and thought straight when no one else could.”
Nina blushed and buried her face against his chest so he wouldn’t see. Although it felt good to hear him say those words, it felt wrong to enjoy this moment like this.
She had long had a crush on Vitek and had spoken to him once or twice before. But using a situation like this to finally catch his attention over the last few days felt wrong.
“I should be getting back to the village to check up on my siblings,” Nina finally said when she finally pulled away from him.
Vitek pouted at first. She waited for him to smile. It didn’t take long.
Nina turned to walk back down the trail toward her home.
“Wait,” Vitek said. “You shouldn’t be walking home alone in the dark.”
The young woman smiled at the concern in his voice, but took a few more steps to wait for it to leave before turning to say, “Why not? There is nothing to be afraid of now that we set the evil on fire.”
But Vitek was gone. He was no longer standing there behind her.
“Vitek!” she called out.
She took a few steps forward. Looking around.
“Where are you, Vitek. This isn’t funny.”
There was nothing. Only the sound of crackling flames. Suddenly it hit her that none of the other villagers who had joined their expedition were around either.
“Bonifac! Silvie! Where are you?” she cried into the darkness.
Nina circled the burning house. Most of it had burned up already. The weakened structure was caving in on itself.
“Sarlota! Where did you go? Libor. This isn’t funny, you all.” Nina shrieked shrilly into the chill night air wafting in off the forest surrounding the burning home.
The dying flames were no longer strong enough to push back the cold, night air. She shivered and backed away from the hut. Pressing deeper into the darkness. Hoping that somehow it would hide her from whatever was out there.
Nina knew it was silly though. Especially if what she had said was true. Evil came from the darkness. Running into the night would not save her.
She stood there. Torn between running deeper into the darkness down the path to her home, or staying close to the light of the flames.
Nina knew that it was pointless to stay here. The flames were dying slowly, and the little light that remained would soon disappear along with them. Even the more robust fires of a little bit ago hadn’t been enough to keep her friends from disappearing.
She turned away from the dying flames. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Scanning the edges of the forest for any sign of movement. She backed closer to the warmth of the fire. It wouldn’t last long, but for now, it felt safer than running into the darkness.
Nina had seen her friends that had been turned into mindless, shuffling monsters burst into flames. So, anything out there trying to get her wouldn’t want to get close to the burning hut.
She heard burning wood snapping in the fire. A stream of sparks shot up into the starry night to her right. Nina looked up to watch the sparks blending in with the stars before dimming as they wafted up into the night air.
When she turned, Nina was utterly unprepared for the skeletal form standing in the midst of the flames and fire. She stumbled backward.
A ring of fire surrounded its head. Flames licking off of its bones, but without consuming it. As if somehow, it produced the fire from within itself. The skeleton’s sockets glowed brightly as it stood there. As if watching her to see how she would react to its presence.
“No,” Nina whispered to herself. Shaking her head. “Evil comes from the darkness. Not from the light and not from the flames.
The small, light form floated in front of my eyes. Silently hovering. It was too close to focus on. I squinted for a better look. A butterfly? A dragonfly? I couldn’t quite make out what it was. I scanned through all the words I knew, but couldn’t come up with anything to describe this strange form.
I pulled my head back to give my eyes room to focus. I gasped. Pulled my hand up over my mouth and giggled. It looked like a small woman. With wings. What was this strange thing?
“Hello! Who are you? Or better yet, what are you?” I asked.
The small creature tweeted brightly and floated in closer to my face again. She went out of focus. She tweeted a few more times.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you are saying. Are you trying to tell me something?” I continued pulling my head back to get her back into focus. She wasn’t much more than an inch away.
I held up a finger to push her back. She buzzed right around and flew back in closer. Tweeting wildly now. She was starting to get irritating. She sounded like a mosquito. I wanted to squash her like one too.
“Hey, back off. You’re too close. I can’t see you correctly.”
I put my whole hand up in front of my face and pushed her back. She was light. Like a feather. Floating around before me.
She came back around, but this time she floated past my eyes to the side of my head. It felt like she was blowing down my ear. It tickled. Like when your nose tickles, and you want to sneeze. Only I couldn’t sneeze through my ear, of course. I just shook my head and tried to get her out.
Suddenly, her tweeting stopped and became words that I could understand.
“Hello, Montana. I’m Cedarmist.”
I felt the flutter of breeze again in my ear as she flitted her way out. I shook my head again. Rubbed my ear and wiggled my jaw around to get the itchy feeling out.
Cedarmist floated back around the side of my head and into view.
“Uh, you talk,” I said.
I could have slapped myself. That was a goofy thing to say. It was impolite and probably offended her.
“Of course, I can talk,” she replied. “You’re the one that couldn’t talk with me before. I had to make you understand me.”
I frowned at that. She wasn’t making sense.
“What do you mean?” I asked bluntly. “I’ve always talked.”
Cedarmist giggled, “No, you haven’t. I just created you.”
“Yes, I have,” I retorted. “I’ve spoken all my life.”
The little ball of light in front of me shimmered and shined.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.”Do you have any memories before this?”
I paused and cocked my head to the side. I tried to remember something before just now. Anything at all. But no memories came.
I couldn’t remember who I was. Or where I was. Or what had happened before this.
I started to breathe heavily. I felt like walls were closing in on me.
“What’s going on?” I demanded angrily, trying to control the panic that started to well up inside of me.
“I just told you. I created you. This is your beginning.”
“My beginning,” I heard myself mumble.
I looked down at my hands. They were hard. Plastic-like. But the tips of my fingers were soft. I could feel my hard forearms as I ran my fingers up them.
The dark seams where my joints should have been seemed strange. Like they didn’t belong to me. They looked like something that belonged on a robot.
Robot. That was a word I had been searching for. But this was weird. I wasn’t a robot. I was a human.
“What happened to my body?” I demanded.
She shrugged. “This is your body. I gave you this body.”
“What are you?” I asked.
“What do you think, silly?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t remember a word that describes you.”
“What?” Cedarmist gasped as if the very idea that I didn’t know what she was offended her. But I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely offended or just being ironic.
I shook my head.
“Oh, c’mon. I’m a fairy, silly. I created you with a mix of my magic and my technical know-how.”
The word fairy didn’t ring a bell. But I did understand the word robot. I knew how they were created. And I knew they weren’t created by strange creatures that floated around glowing in the dark.
“I know what a robot is, fairy,” I growled. “And I know robots aren’t created by fairies because they are built in factories.”
Cedarmist rolled her eyes and flicked her tiny wrist. “That’s just semantics, little lady. But, yes. For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t create you. However, I did find you in this junkyard. And I did bring you back to life.”
“But I’m not a robot.” I shrieked.
“Well, you sure look like one to me,” Cedarmist said with a fake pout to act like she was offended.
“Why did you do this too me?”
“Because I wanted to create something great. Together we are going to take over the world.” she gloated.
I rolled my eyes.
“Whatever,” I said with a puff. “Like you could take over the world,”
She scowled and waved her fingers. Suddenly, I couldn’t move. I started to panic and tried to wiggle my way out. But nothing happened. I was frozen.
“That’s not magic. That’s just something you programmed into my system.”
“Ha! Then you admit that you are run by a program. Therefore you are a robot.”
“Fine, I’ll play along. I’m a robot, and you created me. Now can you let me go?” Please.” I scowled back at her while continuing to try to move.
“Not till you apologize,” she said.
“For what?” I replied in exasperation.
“For not believing me,” she said with a flick of her tiny head of hair.
“Fine, I believe you are a fairy. I believe I am a robot. I believe you created me. I’ll believe whatever else you tell me. Now, can you let me go.”
Cedarmist waved her fingers, and I could move again. It felt so good. Like a relief from something terrible.
“So, what? Now, I’m your slave. If I don’t do what you want, you’ll freeze me.”
“Oh, no, honey. I don’t want to freeze you. I want us to be friends. I want you to help us.”
“And what are we going to be doing?” I asked warily.
“I told you already. We are going to take over the world. I’m going to create an army of robots. Together we are going to rule the world. I’m gonna teach all those other fairies that I’m not to be trifled with. And I’m going to teach those humans who didn’t believe in me.”
“You’re crazy, fairy.”
“Oops! Tut tut! Don’t say a thing like that. Shhhh! Or I’ll have to freeze you again.”
And she did for a brief second. Cedarmist wiggled her fingers to pause me for a minute just to show me she could. Then wiggled them again to let me go.
“Fine. I’ll do what you want. What choice do I have?”
“Oh, you have a choice. You can choose not to help me and stay frozen if you want,” she said with a big, fake smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
I wanted to reach out and slap her but immediately felt my body locking up again.
“It’s okay, sweetie. You’ll learn fast. You’re a fast learner. Much faster than the others,” she whispered almost sadly.
I looked around the vast junkyard. I didn’t see any other robots. I didn’t see any other humans. We were in the middle of an overgrown junkyard that looked like it had been abandoned over a hundred years ago.
“Come,” she said, leading me across the grass almost against my will. “Let me introduce you to the others.”
I stood there under the dark sky, lit only by the stars. There was a large hole in the ground. I looked like an old cave entrance. At first, I thought stars were floating up from the ground. But then as they came closer, I could see they were other little fairies just like Cedarmist.
They all floated up and around me. Oohing and ahhing. I wanted to punch them. Slap them. Squash them all. But couldn’t lift a finger. I stood there in silence as they flitted around me. But I swore I would find a way to break their spell over me even if it killed me.
Magic or programming, whatever this was, I wanted to be free from it. I just needed to bide my time. Figure out what they had done to me. And then find a way to stop them.
“So. How are we going to take over the world?” I asked as innocently as I could.