Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash
I woke to the intense silence of snowfall, absorbing the sound which magnified the rasp of my breath and the pounding in my head. As my eyes peeled open, grit and debris dislodged from the desiccated cracks in my skin and a desolate scene confronted me. It was not snow that absorbed the sound, but ash. It fell from the shattered sky in thick, grey chunks and littered a ridge, forming unnatural mounds . . . the ash was piling up around the dead.
What happened? I tried to spit the taste of rust and putrescent bile from my mouth, but my tongue crumbled into dirt.
A robed figure stood over me, behind it a sickly yellow river wound through the desolation. Upon the rocky shores there was an overturned boat by a pontoon, and a second robed figure that was nailed—crucified—to the upturned bow. It gazed around at the destruction along the shoreline, more agitated than horrified. Its focus ran upstream, to a bridge.
I blinked in disbelief, but my eyelids crumpled like my tongue, stinging my eyes. The bridge was made of pulsing teal glass, guarded by sentinel wraiths of translucent grey fire, and hordes of the damned surged over the span. Their wailing was only a whisper over the absorbing ash.
I brought my attention back to the figure closest to me.
What happened? Memories flooded back like great waves breaking on rock. We stormed the Cybermancer’s stronghold and did what was ordered. There was a titanic flash, there was the skull splitting sound that caused the whole platoon to scream and falter . . . and now we were here. I was sure the bodies that littered the ridge and shoreline were that of my platoon. But this wasn’t the stronghold, this was . . . somewhere else. I reversed the ion flow of the weapon, while the battle raged around me . . . What happened?
I struggled to stand but my arm crumbled into gravel and I fell back onto the cursed ground.
“Why?” I said, but spat ash and bile in place of words. The figure now crouched over me, placing its hands on my shoulders. “What?” I attempted a second time.
“You were betrayed,” it said. I could not hear its voice, the words were simply in my mind. “I have captured your soul, here on the shores of the River Styx. I will not allow the ferry man to take you,” it gestured to the figure crucified to its own boat, “While your body is being repurposed. I cannot yet allow you to join those who now flee to salvation.”
“Who?” Another attempt at words, the soft wailing of the distant souls filled the silence in place of my absent voice.
“You would know me as Death.” It said gently. “Others will know me as Hades.”
“Am I dead?”
Even though I could not see its face, I felt it smile, the unseen gesture was warm but full of sorrow. “Not for long.”
Foul tendrils shot from its arms and from the broken ground. They embedded into my charred body—into my charred soul—which crumbled and pulsed with the power of Cybermancy.
I think I screamed.
Then the body—no longer mine—was restored, the soul sequestered, packaged and installed into an enhanced cybernetic husk. Programming streamed across my vision, explaining—to my horror—what I now was.
Orientation protocol.exe . . .
Configuring identity . . .
Hades: god of the underworld, caretaker of the dead.
Principes: experienced soldiers in the Roman legion, sent into battle once the front lines were exhausted.
Integration successful . . . Welcome Princep!
Uploading data package . . .
Standing R.O.E acknowledged . . .
Uploading orders: Confront Pateras, General Howell . . .
Mission parameters accepted . . .
. . .
. . . User response required . . .
. . .
“. . . Yes.”
Initiating . . .
I waited in the shadow of General Howell’s office, a bare but spacious affair, his name plate reflected brightly in my enhanced vision. He entered, leaving the ceiling lights off—too bright for those burdened with guilt at such a late hour—and sat behind his desk, reaching for the gentler lamp.
“General.” My voice warbled artificially through my face plate; it coerced the sound of my wailing soul into something a living being could stomach.
He froze before turning on the light, scanning the room for the voice, homing in on the dark corner where I stood. I allowed the green eyes of my face plate to flash n the darkness, letting him know what I was. His skin went pale. Black tactical gear, dark hood and gun metal grey face plate designed like a skull to intimidate. It always frightened me . . . back when I could be frightened.
“Hmph,” he shook his head, “We thought all the Principes were killed.”
“That is how we are made, Sir.” I moved before the desk, warp pistol in hand.
“Well,” he leaned back, resignation overcoming dread, “Finish your mission.”
“I want information.”
He laughed, “I would die before I give away sensitive information to the likes of you!”
“Sensitive yes, but not for your people. I want to know about the assault on the Cybermancer’s stronghold. You sent in third platoon, there were no survivors.”
Howell stiffened, “Yes,” he said taughtly, “A heavy loss for more reasons than one.”
“You advised your soldiers to reverse the ion flow of the warp cannon. Did you know this would trigger a cataclysmic failure, destroying the stronghold and all in it . . . including third platoon?”
Howell sighed, “Yes.”
“But third platoon did not?”
“The Captain did not?”
Howell’s eyes narrowed, “No.” He said with venom.
“Why?” I asked again, hoping the desperation in my voice was muffled by the warbler.
“The weapon was going to wipe out our way of life,” Howell said, “Tear the nerve centre from our leadership!”
“But the people would have been safe; the enemy only took issue with the leadership. You needed only surrender.” I countered. “The Cybermancer was very specific about that.”
“We had to protect our power!” Howell slammed his fist on the table.
“And you sacrificed third platoon?” my finger twitched along the trigger, “Just to protect the status quo?”
“They were the only force that could get it done! Trained to be ruthless, to shoot first, before you undead bastards could demand they surrender!”
“You sacrificed your soldiers, people who trusted you . . .” my voice rose as his did, our yelling overlapped one another, venting feelings as well as facts—like we always did in the past.
“We had no choice . . .”
“Men and women who relied on you, and for what?”
“. . . protect our way of life!’
“YOU SACRIFICED YOUR OWN SON!” I tore the face plate off and stared down the general—my father—who had sacrificed me to protect himself.
He blanched and recoiled in his chair, “B-Ben?”
I let him squirm at the sight of my cracked, ashen face. I allowed the orange cybermancy to crackle within my eyes, under-worldly power within abhorrent circuits highlighting just what he led his son into. Then, after I let him writhe, I aimed the warp pistol at him.
“I . . . I . . .” he was actually weeping, “It was for the greater good of all.”
“Not for all.” I said. Without the face plate, my voice came out as an echo—a tortured keening—it made him shiver.
“I . . .” he sobbed, “I always loved you.”
I paused, raising the pistol slightly to see him clearly, one last time, “I know.” I took aim, “And that made your betrayal all the worse.” I fired.
As a soldier I was trained for precision—only expending what I needed to get the job done. As a principe I was programmed for proficiency—no mess, no undue suffering. Yet I unloaded the whole charge of the warp pistol into my father’s body. Each violet bolt of energy rang out ethereally like a bell muffled beneath the sea and sent shudders through his dying body.
Within the base, the alarm sounded. I reloaded the charge to my pistol and donned my face plate once more while the other figure in the room—seen only by me—stepped forward.
“Now do you see why I brought you back?” It said without words.
“Yes,” I faced the door as the footsteps of guards thundered closer.
“When those with strength disregard life and decency for their own gain, it is the duty of the meek to find their power. I grew weary of the destitute, tortured souls that washed up upon my shores, knowing that many more still waded the Styx, and many more had not the will to cross it without the ferry man’s guidance. Zues would not intervene in the senseless killings. So I rebelled against the gods. I helped you fight back until this frightful mess was turned around.”
I aimed my pistol at the door as the forces stacked up beyond it, ready to breach.
“I understand.” I said.
“Your next mission will be to survive this encounter, seek out the Cybermancer as he repairs our forces . . . the gods will not take this final intervention lightly. Olympus put this regime in charge, now we must defend this plane from further influence. I allowed you this catharsis,” it gestured to the General, “But from now on, always allow the living a chance to surrender.”
A guard on the other side inhaled to bark the order . . .
I cocked the charge port of my pistol, “Yes, master.”
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