1st Year of the 12th Turn of the 39th Cycle
K’Saien was aglow with an ominous red light. Almarr-Ka’s greatest empire, with spiraling towers of glinting polished metal – high tech sterilization facilities, along with greatly advanced research labs which were the core of the empire’s wealth and dominion – was on fire. And not just K’Saien. All of Almarr-Ka, from the greatest cities to the lowliest towns, everything was burning.
This wasn’t like a normal fire gone rogue. No natural phenomena had occurred. There had been no accidents in the forges. There had been no short circuits in the heating plantations. The technologies running them were calculated to perfection and regularly maintained. The rich who were lucky enough to call K’Saien home and enjoyed its luxuries made sure of it. Their immense wealth had been put to its greedy use in the building of the city’s great economic status. K’Saien was the pinnacle of life on Almarr-Ka or had been until death began groping its streets.
Not a natural occurrence or a freak accident, no. This wasn’t anything nearly so simple. These were the flames of war, and so brightly they burned that the planet nearly matched the brightness of the yellow sun from which it derived its name.
One man stood atop the tallest of the still-standing metal skyscrapers surveying all around him. Well, could it really be called standing if it was relying heavily on the smaller building it leaned against? Not that it mattered. It would fall soon. He could feel it creaking beneath him as it slid an inch closer toward the molten ground. The stench of smoke had been amplified thanks to the protective dome defending the city from the poisonous world beyond. That wouldn’t last long either. His scientifically enhanced eyesight could see the nearly invisible crack growing high above him in full detail. To him, it looked like the sky itself was breaking. Soon, the toxins from outside would mingle with the smoke and blanket the city, killing all who yet clung to some semblance of life.
He tried to see beyond the carnage to the forested world that he knew stood just beyond the barrier of the dome. Even for his amplified vision, it was getting difficult. That outside world was a dangerous one, probably more so than the devastation caused by war.
The villages and poorest cities of Almarr-Ka, those unfortunate enough not able to afford the protection of the domes, were filled with the diseased and dying. The rich were known to send their sickly family members on what they called Death Parades if they were beyond the help of medicine or experimentation. He wasn’t sure which plague was worse, the toxins, the scientists, or the people who demanded their services.
There were only two types of people in existence: the very rich and the obscenely poor. The poor who lived within the domes did so illegally. They had been quarantined and confined to an area of the city that was a city in its own right with how much junk had piled up there over the years. It was a graveyard of discarded everything. Those who eked out a living among the rusting and deteriorating ruins – there were a surprisingly large number – died young. For them, life was a luxury they could only afford through theft and other petty means. For those among the poor who survived past the age of twelve, they were given two options; hand themselves over to the scientists for experimentation or join the army. Most opted for the latter, but many were abducted by the scientists anyway.
All diseases and ailments were infections from exposure to the poisons beyond the safety of the dome. The plants, the animals, the air, and even the earth itself were diseased. Protocols had been set in place to keep the poisons out, but death was sneaky and often found its way in. It hadn’t always been that way, but no one alive could remember a time when it wasn’t. None remembered when animals could be hunted safely for meat, nor vegetation gathered. Everything that wasn’t grown or bred within the specially designed facilities of a city would kill, or worse. Those facilities were barely operable now. Any food that had been stored away was running low. Much had already either been consumed or destroyed.
Though the fires raged, the fighting had subsided for the day. The screams of the terrified had faded years ago. Even the soldiers walked the streets in a numbed state. Emotion and feeling had been all but drained from the Hy-Mun people. Fear rose to the surface on occasion, and that usually during a raid.
He looked down at his hands. They weren’t coated in blood, but he felt like they should be. No matter how many times he washed, he couldn’t get rid of the death that had been wrought by these hands. In battle, he was a beast. That was how he had been raised and what he had been created to be. Though he had a name, it was never used. In fact, he hardly remembered having a name at all. He was known simply as Kraemaar, the God Killer.
With a sigh, he climbed nimbly down the side of the smooth-surfaced building. He didn’t know how or why the war began, considering it had begun before his birth. He’d heard the circling rumours and theories, but most of them sounded like excuses to cover for the decline of the state of Almarr-Ka. Something about ancient gods of wrath smiting the planet for who-knew-what reason. Hence, his title of God Killer. If the enemy they faced were the gods everyone claimed them to be, he found that they bled and died the same as mortals. Weak gods, perhaps, but powerful beings, nonetheless.
As for the war’s origin, there seemed to be only debate, as if people couldn’t decide which story would be more beneficial to record in the historic files. He didn’t know much about such stuff. After all, he had been raised as a weapon. All he knew was that the war had given him his first view of the world outside the research facility he’d been raised in. That had been a horrifying day, though not the worst he’d ever experienced.
His feet hit the ground, the building husks shadowing him from the firelight. With dragging strides, he made his way back to the bunker that was his prison. He would have run long ago. Once, he’d even tried. Well, he succeeded, but circumstances had brought him back. The scientists had made sure to chain him after that. If he defected, they would find his unconscious form via a tracking implant. That wasn’t something he wanted to go through again. Whether willingly or not, he was their weapon, and they would not voluntarily grant him freedom. To them, he wasn’t even considered a Hy-Mun anymore. He was merely a living machine programmed by them to carry out orders and leave a trail of death in his wake.
“Welcome back, Kraemaar,” the lead scientist said in a monotonic greeting.
He walked past him without responding. Two others blocked his way. They were skinny. Hardly a threat to him if he so chose to defect, and they knew it. They also knew they were safe from him, for they had taken precautions. He was too tired either way.
“The final serum is ready. It is time for you to fulfill your destiny.”
There was no other choice but to follow obediently and allow them to strap him to the sterilized white table. The room was much too stuffy and hot. No sooner had the glass encasement been sealed before he could feel sweat rolling down his flesh.
“The serum should fuse within the next twelve hours.”
“Let’s hope there’s no attack before then.”
“Relax. The next wave won’t hit until dawn, and that’s far enough away that the army will be able to hold until our weapon is ready.”
As though a jinx had been uttered, the lab began to shake, and a roaring siren blared throughout the Experimentation Complex. The scientists screamed in fright and confusion.
“What’s going on!?”
“Never mind. Just GIVE HIM THE SERUM!!”
The scientists were now in a furious hurry. The lab was under attack, though not yet breached, and the white coats of the scientists swirled frantically through the barricaded and sealed room. In their minds, all their planning had come to this moment. Today, they would finally have the completed weapon they had done such despicable things to create. This would be their crowning moment. If they lived to see it.
The needles bit into his neck, arms, and legs, and pain tore through his body as the injection began to fuse not only with the previous enhancements, but with his very DNA. The moment the injection hit his bloodstream, a heat like lava surged through his veins. He couldn’t help the scream that tore from his throat as his body convulsed involuntarily. Something wet trickled from the corner of his mouth down his chin and neck. He wanted to get away, to escape the throbbing of his muscles. Though his arms and legs had been strapped down, he now pulled at his bonds, the veins on his neck, chest, and arms bulging as he strained against the iron bracers.
Then he was free, the glass shattering around him. And the barricades were destroyed.
“Controllers are down! All operations are failing!”
“Well, that’s odd. They’re only BREAKING THROUGH OUR DEFENSES! What are you waiting for? Sick the weapon on them!”
“Everything is a problem. What is it now?”
“He’s not responding!”
“What do you mean he isn’t responding? Is he dead? I want all operations back up and running NOW!”
He heard the voices distantly. They sounded desperate, but he didn’t care. All that his mind could focus on was the invisible chain they used to control and bind him. It was cracked. If he could just concentrate his energies on that spot.
The chain shattered.
From that moment, everything became a blur. All he could remember was a few looks at faces filled with disbelief and terror, and then he was running. Sort of. The serum had scrambled more than just his brain. His limbs didn’t want to work properly, and he felt like it would be faster to make like a barrel and roll. As it was, his arms seemed to want to windmill in opposite directions and his feet couldn’t figure out what direction meant.
His head felt like it was being squeezed; the pressure seemed to be trying its best to push his eyes out of their sockets. Each muscle was burning as though submersed in the river of flame that engulfed the world, and his body was coated in an ever-thickening layer of sweat. A part of him felt nauseous. The rest of him wanted to sleep, to sink into the oblivion that called him so the serum could finish its fusion. But not yet. He couldn’t give in. She needed him. And so, he ran, the screams of the scientists fading behind him as he fumbled his way half blind from the collapsing building.
She had been the reason he’d gone back to the scientists. It had been she who convinced him to take the injection and become . . . what was it again? She had said, but his mind was a soupy mush slopping uselessly around inside his skull. It didn’t help that it had been several months since their chance encounter. Or had it been years? His brain couldn’t seem to focus on anything or define fact from fiction.
A sudden shudder of rolling earth threw him off balance and he toppled face first into wet dirt. He hadn’t even noticed the rain. He could hardly feel anything anymore beyond the paroxysmal shivers that shook and tore at his core. Sleep tried to claim his exhausted limbs, but he pushed himself unstably back onto his feet. It took a tremendous effort to push himself up, but then he was running again.
War. That was one thing he could not forget. The world was being torn apart by it. She’d talked about some sort of plan, and he needed to . . . do what? It had something to do with getting the injection.
He was running, but to where, he couldn’t remember. All he knew was that he needed to get out of the city dome. He needed to escape the confines of society. He’d done it once before. That’s how he’d met her in the first place. Yes, he could remember that much. His feet knew the way, and they took him further into the night one slow, painful step after another.
Fortunately for him, the lab was near the dome’s border. The scientists preferred to conduct their experiments in private. For the safety of the people, or so they brazenly claimed. The outskirts of the city suited them just fine.
A few agonizing strides and he slipped through the cold density that made up the dome. Though the outside world could not penetrate the fibers of the dome itself, it was easy enough for anyone to walk through. Of course, none did, and not just because of the momentary chill that bit down to the bone.
The moment he was through the dome he was surrounded by trees. Immediately, it was quieter. Not that he couldn’t hear the sounds of battle raging within the city, the sickly forest was just eerily still. Tall pines towered above him, like knives reaching out to cut the sky. They were sharp trees, and ugly, their needles brown and fat with stored poison. Touching the trees meant a slow and numbing death.
He ignored them and ran through their shadows which blended hazily into the darkness. He tried to see where he was going but steaming tears and darkening spots marred his vision. He wouldn’t be able to fight the serum for long.
Somewhere in the distance behind him he could hear the muffled screams of dying men and women, along with the cries of desperate soldiers. The sound rang in his ears, nearly as deafening as those that echoed from the explosions of gunfire. Those sounds raged a war of their own with the quiet of the forest. He’d seen the scientists create many of the advanced technologies that were now being used, terrifying creations meant only to bring mass death and destruction. He wasn’t sure who were the real villains of this war, those who’d attacked the Hy-Mun, or the Hy-Mun themselves. Perhaps it was both.
He wanted to stop, to turn back and help whoever he could. That was why he’d trained for years to fight. The scientists may have had their own self-serving intentions, but he had gone along with their experimentation in order to protect people. He had used those skills before, but even that was growing blurry in his memory. The fact that the scientists had done what they did for the sole purpose of making him into their weapon didn’t matter. He was free of them now. All that mattered was getting to her.
Voices in front of him hurried his faltering steps. She was close by and she was in trouble. He needed to get to her. He needed her right now as much as she needed him. He couldn’t remember why, but he knew both their lives depended on it.
“You will never find it!” Her voice. It filled him with energy and spurred him forward.
“You’ve hidden it!” another voice screeched in fury. “Where? You cannot keep such a power from me. You know it will be mine.”
“It can never be yours. Do you not remember? It chooses its own host, and neither of us received that honour. I wanted it as much as you do. It will never be yours just as it will never be mine. We have no claim to it, for it has finally chosen. And that choice cannot be undone.”
He was almost there. If only he could stay awake. She was so close.
The clearing opened before him unexpectedly. In that instant their eyes fell upon him, but his were drawn only to her, her face blurred by his hazed vision. The other he couldn’t see either, but he could feel the intense hatred.
“Is this the one?”
Run, she urged in his mind. Run as far and fast as you can. You must get away. It was a desperate plea.
You know I cannot, he thought back sadly. His strength was nearly gone. He had reached his limit. Soon the injection would take over and oblivion would claim him.
“If I cannot have the Tear,” the other spoke in a barely controlled whisper, “then I shall take its host.”
He could do nothing as they both rushed toward him. He could only watch helplessly as she threw herself in front of him, shielding him with her own body. Then there was blood.
He caught her as she fell and heavy tears rolled unheeded down his face. They burned strangely like acid, carving raw scars into his cheeks. But the pain was not near so great as the breaking of his heart as her eyes stared glassily up at him.
A scream broke from his throat, the most agonized sound he’d ever made, echoed by a sudden clap of thunder. He stood with her limply draped in his arms. Something sparked within him and his blood began boiling.
Rain dropped in a heavy continuous sheet of sickly water. It bombarded him like toxic pellets, but they may not have been falling at all, for all he noticed.
Then he was moving. He had no need for his hands as he attacked the one who’d tried to kill him. He could feel power surging within him, aiding his muscles with a strength and speed they should not have had. He fought without any recognition of what he was doing. And then his opponent fell, sprawled unconscious in the mud.
Whatever had possessed him faded and he was suddenly cold as the wind whipped torrents of freezing rain at him. As his anger dissipated, the spark of power disappeared. He protected her as he fell. For a moment, they both lay as the dead, sheets of toxic rain slicking their bodies and plastering their clothing to their skin. Then he blinked and stared at her face though still he could not see it. He thought maybe she blinked, and then a gentle touch stroked his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
He could sense the other being stirring back into consciousness somewhere close by. There was nothing he could do. The spark was gone, and he knew not how to get it back. Plus, there was still the serum at work trying to claim him.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “I tried. I wanted. . .. I only wanted to protect you.” He thought she smiled.
I know. But do not be sad. I’m sure we will meet again, no matter how long it takes. Her voice slurred across his thoughts. Live, but never forget me.
“How could I forget you?”
And then all thought ceased to exist.