Earth-Bound Angels volume 1 - The Destruction

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Chapter 11: Cry Soldier Cry

9 July 2015

45 years, 11 months and 16 days prior to the Destruction

Mixed martial arts tournament Blood Bath earned its infamy through numerous deaths and severe injuries, and had almost not been held again. In 2006 it had been underground cage fights and abandoned warehouses. Contestants proved themselves against homeless people with nothing to lose. In 2015 it was televised sports arenas and packed stadiums. Contestants proved themselves against death row inmates and other prisoners with no hope of ever seeing the light of day. One party could earn a decent meal or their freedom. The other sought glory, money or power.

That such a tournament could even come to existence puzzled and shook many, while others revelled in the gore. A peaceful land sought outlets for inherent violence. The civil wars flaring up all over Europe were worlds apart. Senators, lawyers, laymen; all enjoyed Blood Bath. Only legal issues had held it up for so long. Blood Bath trod a tenuous line between gladiator fights and human rights violations.

The roster had also expanded, sporting more than twice the number of participants of the first tournament. One among them was a fighter named Bulldozer. Contestants were asked to adopt stage names for various legal and private reasons, but behind this moniker hid a nervous Lawrence Summers. He didn’t know it, having never competed in the first tournament, but his locker room was a considerable step up. He had heat and showers and privacy.

“I almost can’t believe this is happening.” Lawrence sat on the bench, waiting for his name to get called out. “Ha! This is a dream come true.”

A man stepped forward and took a jar from his coat, painkillers, for himself. “You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me, kiddo. I hope you don’t forget that when you’re a star.” A few white pills fell into the aged man’s lined hand and quickly went inside his mouth.

“I owe you everything, Mr Wednesday. It’s because of you that I’m here now and not wasting my time with books or studying.”

“You have talent. Well, you have strength, but talent will come with experience. And you have potential. Keep your head level and your nose clean, and you will go far.”

Lawrence smirked as he rose from the bench, punching into the air. “Go far? Coach, I’m headed for the top. I’m going to win the second Blood Bath Brawl.”

Mr Wednesday snorted. “You’re good, kid, you’re really good, perhaps among the best. But the top? Not on your first try,” he replied and patted Lawrence’s shoulder. “I know you’ve been getting some attention for your performance in the elimination rounds. Getting a sponsor would be good for us, but you’re not thinking of getting a new manager?”

Lawrence shirked off Mr Wednesday. “So what if I am? You just discovered me, coach, it’s not like you own me. If I decide to further my career, I’d expect you to respect that,” he said with the cocky attitude of a brat. Mr Wednesday retracted his hand.

“You disappoint me, Lawrence. After all this time, I thought I had knocked some sense into you.”

“Sorry, coach, but you didn’t really think I’d stay in your small time dojo forever, did you? Not when I have the whole world before me!”

Mr Wednesday shook his head but a voice interrupted them. “The Bulldozer!”

Lawrence mockingly saluted. “Sorry, Mr Wednesday. Sounds like they need me.”

The audience seats rose in steps all around him. A small area was cleared at the bottom for cameras and a few seats for trainers, family and friends. Lawrence’s half was empty except for Mr Wednesday, who took his place at the foot of the stands.

In the middle stood the cage, metallic and imposing. The scent of blood could never be washed out. It came to Lawrence’s nostrils like a fighting aphrodisiac. His inner glow became a roaring flame. He flexed his strong muscles to the flash of cameras all around him, flinging off his coat to reveal boxers and a jacket over his naked breast, both blue with red stripes down the sides. The audience went wild as he pushed the gate open and entered the cage.

The omnipresent voice again called out again. “Having barrelled his way through the elimination rounds, The Bulldozer is ready and itching for his first real match. And fighting him tonight is…” The voice went quiet as the spotlight highlighted the other side. A short and unassuming person emerged from the lockers before a name could be called out. The pallid skin was almost like a mirror, and the person lacked any muscles or any visibly gender-defining features. “Vig-Iften-Dun-Dingly, who just yesterday paid handsomely to be here today against Bulldozer. A man wrought of mystery, just what kind of fighter hides behind his… uh, hers… their unassuming features?”

The crowd was dumbfounded. There were no cheers for Vigiften, only low murmuring. Lawrence, however, couldn’t help himself and laughed from deep down in his belly. From the long blonde hair, deep-set amber eyes, clumsy dressing with black sandals and shorts and a top; Vigiften was not only unimpressive to look at, they were downright comical.

Mr Wednesday did not laugh. He massaged his legs with a bitter grimace. “Be careful of this one,” he said. Lawrence looked back, almost ready to split with laughter. Mr Wednesday shook his head. “If he’s just what he looks like, then he’s a rich kid with a death wish. Does he look in any way suicidal to you?”

Lawrence waved his hand dismissively. “Come off it, coach.” Vigiften stood inside the ring, a small smile on his gaunt face cheeks. “This guy would topple over if I blew too hard on him.”

The audience shrugged it off. They had come for a fight, and they were hoping to get one. On Lawrence’s egging, the people in the stands went wild with hooting and sarcastic remarks aimed at Vigiften. The person in question remained unfazed. “Now if both participants are ready, will you please go to your corners and wait for the bell,” the voice said. Vigiften nodded calmly. Lawrence finally began to feel his coach’s nervousness. “The doors of the cage will be locked when the bell rings in twenty seconds. If anyone has any objections or questions, let them be heard now.”

“You still have a chance to go home. I don’t have to hurt you.”

Vigiften simply closed his sunken eyes. Despite looking ready to collapse from fatigue at any moment, the person exuded an unnatural air of confidence. Mr Wednesday stood behind Lawrence, outside the cage. “I don’t know what his secret is. He’s not Asian, so it’s probably not crazy kung fu powers. Just dance a bit with him in the ring. I’ll keep my peepers open for any weaknesses.”

The bell called out for the fight to start. Vigiften walked into the middle, no stance, completely open. Lawrence gritted his teeth. His clenched fist launched a little harder than he had intended. Vigiften vanished for a split second and Lawrence’s fist slammed into the floor. His hand went through the soft covering and cracked the cement below. Vigiften smiled serenely.

“I heard many great things about you, Lawrence Summers. You certainly are strong, but maybe you should use your talents more wisely?” they asked with an indistinct European accent.

“H-how the fuck do you know my name?” Lawrence stumbled back. “You’ve been checking up on me?”

“I know a lot of things about you, mein Señor. In fact, I have come a long way just to defeat you.”

“Yeah well… good luck with that.” Lawrence dusted off his knuckles and gave them a smooch. “One lucky dodge won’t determine the fight.”

Lawrence punched and jabbed and kicked, but Vigiften gracefully swayed out of the way. The androgynous fighter swerved, but never attempted to strike back. Lawrence released a little more strength with each failed attempt. All he managed to hit was the fluttering of Vigiften’s blonde hair. The crowd was breathless, and then they laughed. At him! Lawrence roared but he could not connect.

Vigiften stepped on light toes. Their face became serious. “Such a bright mind,” they chided. “Why do you waste your time on meaningless fighting?”

Lawrence’s elbow whooshed into the cage wall as Vigiften leapt into the air. “Just shut up! Who the fuck are you anyway?” The steel mesh ripped with a drawn out sound.

“Did you not hear?” Vigiften reappeared on top of Lawrence’s head, light as the air itself. “I am Vigiftendundingly.”

“That’s not even a name!”

“It was given to me in love by my parents. Isn’t that more than can be said about yours, ami?”

“I am not your friend, buddy.” Lawrence clapped his hands together, intending to grab Vigiften, but got only a fistful of air. The stands exploded with laughter. Lawrence entered his Bulldozer mode and charged at Vigiften. Again he disappeared. Lawrence smashed into his own corner just as the bell sounded. “No, not yet, I can still fight!”

“Are you blind as well as stupid?”

Lawrence slowly forced his neck to turn and look at his trainer. “What did you just say to me?” he exploded. Mr Wednesday only stared at him with disapproving eyes.

“He’s tiring your out, you dumb turd. It won’t be long before you’re too exhausted to move, the way you batter the cage, and then he’ll swoop in and claim his victory. You’ll be the laughing stock of the tournament.”

Lawrence looked away. His temper had gotten the better of him again. Mr Wednesday reached in a hand through the fence and put it on Lawrence’s shoulder. “I always knew you were strong, kiddo, but you’re downright inhuman. You’ll end up destroying the ring or yourself before you ever get to your opponent. That’s not what I taught you.”

Vigiften rocked back and forth on his heels, looking bored at the holes in floor and walls. Lawrence took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. That guy just gets on my nerves.”

“I know. There’s something unnatural about the way he just disappears… it can’t simply be speed alone.” Cold sweat ran down the greying fighter’s thinning brow. Lawrence saw for the first time how old his coach really was. “I don’t recognise his technique, so just play it cool, all right? I can’t give you any more pauses without hurting your score, so remember what you’ve learnt and keep your head cool. You’re the Bulldozer, a cold, calculating machine, not some wild, savage bull. You got that?”

Lawrence banged his knuckles together and went back towards the middle. With a deep breath, his flexed his taped hands. Vigiften leisurely made the distance. “All right, I’m not letting you under my skin again,” he said. Vigiften’s uncommitted humph made Lawrence’s eyes tic erratically. The bell chimed. “Here we go.”

“Are you having trouble already with your first contestant?” Vigiften bent backwards and dodged Lawrence’s flying foot. “You know, if you let go of your pride, you could be truer to yourself. Is fighting really all that you want to be doing?”

“You seem to know a lot about me. You even know my name.” The two fighters circled around, Lawrence hesitating to strike. “Come to think of it, the announcer said you paid specifically to be my opponent. What do you want from me?”

Vigiften smiled weakly. “I just want you to be all that you can be. You’ve spent your life focusing only on your brain, but now you’re just focusing on your brawn. Nothing good will come out of this imbalance.”

A fist blew past them. “I’m sorry, am I supposed to know you? Are you a fan that I ignored or something? If you are, get over it. You can’t expect me to remember every snot-nosed kid I meet.”

The audience was not laughing anymore. They picked up on the serious mood and sat enraptured. “Don’t delude yourself. If you do nothing to change, you will just be reviled for your brutality. The end of the world would come as a shock to you, but by then, it would be too late to do anything. The world would be broken down to two warring factions always fearing the next attack from the other. Fame? You’re a disgrace.” A flicker of fire burned in Vigiften’s eyes.

“W-what do you mean? Are you on something?” Lawrence’s hands sank, and his defence opened.

Vigiften shook their head. “Forget I said anything. Violence seems to be all that you understand, so give me your best. Punch me as hard as you can.” They lifted their chin.

“You must be absolutely out of your mind. No wonder you’re so fast if you’re on drugs.” But Vigiften’s eyes were clear, and that more than anything else made Lawrence shake. “I don’t believe you. You’ll just swerve again.”

Still Lawrence threw his fist. The force and speed was intended for a moving target. Vigiften did not even flinch as the clenched hand smashed into his cheek at maximum power. The cage rattled, and the ceiling shook. Plaster rained down from above. The audience screamed, thinking it an earthquake. Vigiften simply stood with their emaciated face, staring holes into Lawrence. There was not a scratch to be seen on the androgynous person.

The audience went silent in confusion. Lawrence fell on his behind. All strength had left his body. Above him stood Vigiften like an imposing tower. A hand reached out for Lawrence’s neck. It could not possibly belong to the spindly person before him, but the hand had a grip like steel. Vigiften’s head smashed into Lawrence’s, and the proud Bulldozer tumbled back.

On his stomach, Lawrence could see nothing. The countdown started somewhere miles away, ten, nine, eight. The only distinct sound was Vigiften’s footsteps. Seven, six, five. Lawrence rolled on his back, embracing for the next hit. Vigiften stood still, ready to continue beating Lawrence, but their movements were jerky, twitchy. Their black shirt darkened even further, first around his armpits and legs. Four, three, two, splish-splash. Blood dripped from Vigiften, down fingers and nose and chin and into their sandals.

Vigiften disappeared out of sight. “Time’s up,” they said with a calm voice.

Lawrence lay on his back, waiting for the end of the countdown. It never came. New noises materialised through the clouds in his head. It sounded like cheering. Powerful arms lifted him up on his feet. One belonged to the referee, a short skinhead in the medieval tunic uniform of Blood Bath. The other was his coach’s.

“Mr Evil! Mr Evil! Mr Evil!” the crowd chanted over and over again. They spoke as with one voice, and it was impossible to hear his coach. Instead Lawrence looked for Vigiften. He had only to follow the blood trail. It thickened quickly as it slithered past a lost finger.

“I don’t know what you did to that poof, but you fucking destroyed him, son! You did it. Your first match of Blood Bath and listen to the crowd!” Mr Wednesday could not stop whooping. Lawrence couldn’t get his mind off Vigiften. He had socked the guy in the face. That couldn’t possibly account for the bubbling, seething mess outside of the ring.

Vigiften had beelined for their locker room. They had covered half the distance, too far away for people to get a good look. All they saw was the blood, and the cameras saw only Lawrence. Again and again they chanted that nickname. Before the match, a moniker like Mr Evil would have excited Lawrence. After, it could only horrify him. There was nothing human left of Vigiften. Great locks of hair joined the blood pool as they dislodged from the whitening scalp. It looked like a mistreated doll, an absurd and bloody Humpty Dumpty.

“That was pretty much the most revolting and disgusting day of my life. I don’t know how much the audience saw, but they thought me the Devil himself. I had several contestants forfeiting after that rather than wanting to fight me. Everyone thought they would suffer a gruesome death if they went up against Mr Evil.” The last embers of the fire danced in Lawrence’s eyes as he put a new bottle to his lips.

Maxwell tapped his chin in pondering. “Vigiften, you said his name was? Feels like I’ve heard the name before somewhere.” He rustled his hair in frustration. Lohengrinn appeared behind Lawrence momentarily to shrug.

“They ran some tests on him, but never made much sense of what happened.” Lawrence continued regardless of Maxwell. “They found his body had been mechanically enhanced and pumped full of chemicals. And not just that, he had suffered normally lethal doses of radioactivity. When I came to Mattlock Industries many years later, I had hoped to know more about my mysterious opponent, but all traces of him are gone. Even the money he had paid to fight me with. I try not to think about that too much. It’s not my proudest memory, and quite frankly, it makes me shiver.”

“But there must have been a fight that you were really proud of? I mean, I was in Blood Bath for a spell, maybe we met?”

“Oh no, I would have remembered you for sure.” Lawrence broke his stupor with a short laugh and swigged the last of his beer. His face quickly grew serious. “I’m probably just being overprotective here, but there’s something I got to know, Maxwell. You and Amber didn’t happen to have been, uh… intimate, would you?”

“No, you’re right to be suspicious,” Maxwell said. Lohengrinn’s zipping motion across his mouth went unnoticed. “I shagged her.”

“You what?” Lawrence bellowed and shot up on his feet. Lohengrinn sighed deeply. “You son of a bitch!”

Lawrence’s knock blew Maxwell out of the deck chair. Maxwell rubbed the fat lip forming. Lohengrinn twirled his hand, and the wound disappeared.

“Don’t be upset, big bear. She was lonely and vulnerable and just needed someone to make the world go away. It’s your own fault for leaving her alone. If I didn’t tap that, someone else was bound to.”

The following kick was blocked. Maxwell had the advantage of having fought his opponent before. Lawrence hesitated, surprised, having his move seen through so easily. Maxwell slithered inside Lawrence’s safe zone with all the power he could muster. His fist drove into Lawrence’s abdomen. The Bulldozer staggered back.

Lawrence took a moment to assess the power he had been dealt. It made him smile wickedly. He pounced at Maxwell and the two fighters locked hands, pushing and shoving the other. A sharp voice cut through the air. “Just what are you two doing?” Amber was up with hands on her hips and a cold stare in her eyes. “You aren’t fighting, are you?”

Lawrence pushed Maxwell away and straightened his jacket. “Of course not. Maxwell just wanted some tips about my style,” he explained.

Maxwell grinned. “Yeah, but I ended up showing him a thing or two myself.”

Her brow furrowed. For a long time, she said nothing, looking both men up and down. “All right then, but don’t let me catch you fighting for real. We should direct our energy on bringing down Thorne.” Her tone left no room for interpretation.

Lawrence nodded and went back around to his tent. “We should get going if we are all ready,” he said amidst clattering. “Pack what you got and let’s go.”

Amber sighed and turned to Maxwell. “Don’t you need sleep too?”

“Yes, normally, but I’m too pumped with blood right now.” Maxwell pounded his chest proudly. “I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to. In a few days I’ll crash and probably snooze for a week, but until then, don’t worry.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “I’ll see if Lawrence needs my help with anything. Just leave your motorcycle here, all right? I don’t think you’re going to need it.”

Amber scurried away, passing right through Lohengrinn. “Maxwell, you absolutely horrible man,” the spirit said.

“What’d I do?” Maxwell replied innocently as he picked up his backpack from the ground.

The disapproving look on Lohengrinn’s face deepened. “You know what you did, Emmerich Maxwell. You provoked that poor man to fight you just because he can’t remember your last one. Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself!”

“First and last name… come on, Grinny, he would have found out Amber and me anyway. And besides, neither of them will remember me.” Maxwell put on his backpack nonchalantly, only to fall to the ground, the backpack like a heavy boulder on his shoulders. He spluttered and gurgled like a landed fish.

Lohengrinn turned his back with upturned nose. “Hmph. All you ever care about is yourself. Don’t you realise those two lovers are star-crossed enough without you meddling?” he asked sternly.

Maxwell desperately clapped his hand on his burden. “Oh my god, are you all right? What the hell do you even have in that backpack?” Amber once again rushed through Lohengrinn. He disappeared like smoke, and the weight of the bag lifted. Maxwell flipped over in one fluid motion. Upside down, he looked into her eyes. He smiled sheepishly.

“I have a confession to make. I told Lawrence about us.”

“You did what?!”

Fire replaced Amber’s hair. She stomped one foot to the ground and Maxwell’s hair caught on fire as well. One part of her ached to burn Maxwell to a fine slag, the other wanted to run after Lawrence. After much swaying back and forth, Amber finally chose the latter.

Maxwell relaxed on the ground, the fire crackling softly on his head. He wetted two of his fingers and put himself out again.

Though awake, John could not focus his sight, and all was darkness. There was little power left in him so John rested on with consciousness open but vision closed. Little by little, light penetrated into the darkness. Windows high on the wall allowed in sunlight. He was in a warehouse. Rows of shelves stretched out in front of him. Crates were packed in each with black letters burnt into the wood, though not many remained. Most were cracked on the floor, and their content of technical parts spilled into the sand. A hole far away into the darkness shone like a lighthouse in fog.

John tried to stand but fell back again. He was sitting on a chair up and his hands were tied behind him with heavy chains. The last link had been pounded into the concrete wall. It had to be a new addition as they still gleamed in the light from above, not a speck of rust or sand upon them.

Metal stairs led up to a walkway where a small office was located. The door creaked open and bottles rattled out. One fell from the top and shattered on the hard floor below. “I can’t tell you how long I have waited for this moment, and then you sleep through it. It’s already morning.” A man emerged out of the door. A can clattered down the stairs and reached the bottom before him.

John could not even stand. His leash was too short for him to move other than a small wriggle. “Thorne, do you mind releasing me? I cannot very well shake your hand otherwise.”

A hideously obese man melted out of the shadows. He was greasy and sweaty, wearing grimy boots, green tracksuit bottoms and a white sleeveless shirt stained with beer and food and a dozen other things. “This is hardly the time for your jokes. You have caused me all manners of trouble over the last twenty-five years. Imagine my surprise when I picked you up in a shelter in LA. I thought for sure your base of operations would have been on the east coast.”

His fluent speech betrayed the thick Spanish accent, despite looking like a typical American thug. John relaxed in his chair and shirked away from the foul stench surrounding Thorne. “What can I say, I am just full of surprises. And may I just add, you look every bit as unpleasant as on camera.”

“You are a funny man, señor Kilburne. Yet you will find me to be quite serious. I did not bring you here for ulterior purposes. I will kill you here, slowly, and maybe you will tell me where you’re really from. Where your actual basement is. I might kill you quickly if you spit it out right now.”

Not a single emotion disturbed the fat folds of Thorne’s face, so John took his time to evaluate his opponent. “And what makes you certain I will sit here and take it? I have no intention of dying yet,” John replied.

Thorne’s only weapon was a cattle prod. Extra batteries were attached to the bottom, and metal coiled up around the shaft. The test spark roared angrily through the quiet room and illuminated the entire warehouse for an instant. A robot stood in the shadows off to the side. “I know the strengths and weaknesses of your powers. You need that gun by your hip to shoot a beam of energy, so I constricted your wrists. You are no longer a threat to me.”

The cattle prod stroked John’s chin without being turned on. “We are practically old pen pals meeting for the first time,” John said. “I showed you my face, how about you show me yours? That meat shell around you reeks.”

“My real face?” Though Thorne’s face remained impassive, the cattle prod stopped and was then retracted. “So you know as much. What gave me away?”

John was quiet for a moment. “Well for starters, you have not aged a day since your first video. I thought at first that you might have been invented by P-I-M, but here you are. Secondly, I am a man who sees everything. Even your innermost thoughts would not be a mystery to me, if I laid my hands on you.” John’s head slowly went up and down as he studied Thorne.

The overweight man came closer so that his belly, sticking out from under his shirt, rested on John’s knees. “Yes, that was another point I noticed. Your eyes are augmented, are they not?” Thorne yanked off John’s shades before the latter could protest. For a moment, the two simply stared at each other.

“Well. I must admit, I had not expected that.” Gently Thorne put the sunglasses back.

He lowered his head and clenched his eyes shut. All the weight melted from his frame while he sprouted a few centimetres into the air. His face contorted and writhed. Black hair sprouted from his naked scalp all the way down to his waist. The shirt fit him like a tent and covered him where his trousers had given up and lay in a puddle around his ankles. The middle of his face was dark, however. Thorne did not have a nose, only a trapezoid hole.

The robot entered the circle of light with Thorne’s clothes over its arm.

“I will just be a minute,” Thorne said. There was nothing of the fat skinhead in the new man. Only the greasiness and filth. It clung to the skin and in hair. No, there was one thing unchanged. The eyes devoid of emotion. And yes, the voice as well, that spoke neither hotly nor warmly.

John perked his ears where his tired sight could not even penetrate the darkness. It sounded like there was a scuffle outside, but it was too distant. John looked up as the clanking of metal feet returned.

Thorne’s choice of clothing for a slimmer body consisted of dusty sneakers, faded jeans, a stained white shirt and a frayed, green vest full of pockets. The mass of black hair was gelled and tied into a cone at the back of his head. The missing nose was covered with a green bandana. “Thorne was just a disguise I used. My real name is Overkill.”

John’s mouth twitched. “Your name is Overkill? For real? Who came up with that, a five year old?” John leant his head back and laughed.

“I’ll have you know, I was feared and respected throughout Spain where they knew me as ‘Amo La Muerte.’ I thought Overkill would be an appropriate transition.” John only laughed harder so Overkill grabbed his chin and stared down into John’s shades. Overkill’s eyes momentarily flashed, and John fell quiet. “I told you, I’m a serious man. I chose a name appropriate to my position, and clothing of the common people.”

Overkill took away his hand again from John’s cheeks. “They are common all right. Common of a backstreet robber with a knife and track marks on his arms. But your body looks fine, though. Pristine, even. Is that really your own?” John asked with rising dread.

Overkill tapped a finger to his own cheek. “You’re sharp. Yes, my own vessel drowned a long time ago. It’s really funny how life is. One moment you have a family, the next you don’t. One moment you’re torturing and executing heretics for the Inquisition, the next you are being accused yourself of witchcraft. One moment you’re in Hell, the next a powerful hand throws you to the earth.” He shrugged nonchalantly, as if telling someone else’s story. John tried to rise from his chair.

“Then, whose body do you possess?”

The noise of the outside was muffled like Overkill’s words. The first was due to a sandstorm lashing against the warehouse; the other was the rag across his mouth. “I really wouldn’t know. Demons do not tend to ask questions when offered a second chance on earth.” The cattle prod was out again. “But enough about me. I’m sure you wouldn’t like to hear the tragic story of a Spanish landowner who lost his family to illness. Numbing him to the point where he would try anything to feel something again. Even killing off every last man, woman and child on the planet.”

“And yet I cannot seem to make you shut up about it. What do you want from me? Pity?” John shirked his neck away from the cattle prod, but it always found him again.

“Pity? Al contrario, señor John, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” The cattle prod lifted John’s chin. “It is I who pity you. Why would a man who can smile never do so unless to mock others?”

“I have had enough of your drivel, Overkill. Get out of my brother’s body.”

“Your brother’s..? Hmm. I must say, if that is the case, then Diablo certainly has a sense of humour.” The cattle prod lightly tapped John’s chest where it was exposed between his shirt and neck. “I truly am sorry, but I like this body too much. It is amazing. I can shapeshift with it, and when I have someone else’s skin, I can almost feel something again. And if I kill it, I simply revert back to your brother.”

“If you do not want to give it back, then I will take it back.” John’s hand glowed with warm, yellow light, jumping to the chains around his wrist. With the crack of a whip, his restraints exploded.

“Interesting. So the gun is merely the medium through which you channel the energy. You don’t really need it at all.” Overkill flicked the cattle prod on for a short demonstration. The blue arcs illuminated Ronnie Kilburne’s face.

“Sort of, but it helps me to refine the energy. I would drain myself too quickly if I just let it all loose at once.” John took the gun he was speaking of into his left hand and aimed it at Overkill. “Last chance before I rip out your soul. Give back my brother’s body… now.”

The robot behind Overkill stirred, but he held up a hand. “No, I will do this alone. Maybe watching señor John hurting his own brother will make me feel something.” A noise of shaking a bucket full of a rusty nails followed. “Yes, yes, I know it’s risky, but he will not kill me. Not while I’m wearing his brother. You just make sure he doesn’t escape.”

John smirked. “You have a cattle prod and I have a gun. Do you honestly believe yourself to have a chance?”

“Don’t consider yourself better off. How many shots can you pull off? You’re already worn out, si?” Silence. John had no reply to something he knew perfectly well himself. Still his revolver hovered unchangingly in the air.

The sandstorm lifted and a strip of sunlight fell into the room. The outside was quiet. Neither fighter moved, both waiting for the other or for some signal. Time had ceased to exist in that dusty, sandy warehouse.

John fired his gun first. The yellow orb smashed into Overkill’s chest, lifted him into the air and exploded. The shelves flattened. Overkill twisted to avoid the next shots and landed unseen.

John pursued into the darkness, jumping over obstacles as if he could see them. Overkill pounced from the side. He was light and barely made any sound on the muffling sand. The cattle prod shot forward but caught only the hem of John’s coat. John retaliated with a few blasts. Overkill backflipped and disappeared again.

“You ought to be more careful. Jose has some interesting clips of your brother Lawrence trying out electricity on his own body. I don’t think you could take much more than one hit from my prod.” Overkill’s voice echoed around the warehouse. John turned again and again to follow it, but Overkill bounced all over the place. John fired his gun, trying to anticipate his opponent’s movement, but had to realise Overkill had chosen the location carefully.

John lowered the gun again, panting. Would he have the energy to fire a big burst? It would have to be soon, but first he had to find the springy Overkill. With the exhaustion came renewed energy, like heartburn. There would be no restraining it if he didn’t end the fight. With his thumb, John rolled the drum of his revolver. He kept it within his coat so that the light building up would not be visible.

Overkill silently rushed forward, keeping the prod off. He would wait until the very last moment when it sank into John’s pale neck. Then the last thing he would hear would be the crackle of his death. He poised the prod for deadly intent.

Yes! John suspected nothing. The prod was so close. The blue arcs played with errant strands of John’s ponytail. But his coat glowed. It was too late. A large hole blasted through the swaying fabric. A beam of energy poured from John’s barrel, no wider than a sapling, but hit Overkill wide as a hundred year old oak trunk.

Light filled out the warehouse. It was a miracle the walls held even as the roof vanished. Thick chunks of concrete rained down. Beneath them, the metal shelves were a child’s project with glue and popsicle sticks.

P-I-M saw everything. It went forward resolutely. It knew where John was. The game had gone too far. In its hands, it had a net launching gun. Four pillars would dig into the ground or wall and keep the target pinned down while an electric current would pulsate through the strands.

John stood in the midst of the destruction, his coat half burned off and grey with dust. No, not stood. He was floating with boot tips just barely touching the ground. Red light flashed from behind his shades like a heartbeat. What light it must be, as no natural sunshine or manmade projector could penetrate the blackness of his sunglasses.

The robot fired its gun. ‘John’ lifted a hand, and the web crumbled in the air. P-I-M reached for its belt for another canister, but a human hand put itself on its arm. “John is mine. I mean it, Jose.”

Overkill was as dusty as John. His torso was naked from where John had hit him. Even the bandana around his face was gone. He took a new one from the pouch around P-I-M’s waist.

“You… you are not John, are you?”

‘John’ slowly lowered his head to look at Overkill. Without moving his lips, speaking neither in language nor voice, he said, “I am I.” ‘John’ floated closer, always bobbing up and down to keep a constant distance from the ground. “John must live to see the end of the world. For this, I will protect him from danger.”

Overkill backed away from ‘John.’ A trail of blood followed the hovering body. The cattle prod had made contact. Blood dripped down the coat and ponytail, and trickled from his orifices.

“A being with such tremendous power… you could do with John as you’d like. Why not possess him completely, like I do with my vessel?” Overkill asked, clutching the cattle prod like a ward charm.

They could hear gunfire outside, faintly. Overkill remained firm. P-I-M aimed the net launcher. ‘John’ flicked his wrist, and the robot fell lifeless to the ground. “I will play my own part when the time comes, and John his. It is paramount that he remains himself and grows to the task.” The gunfire was coming closer. Explosions whirled up sand that flittered across the high window.

Overkill looked down at the stricken robot. Something akin to nervousness or fear or sorrow or anger flashed across his face for a moment, but there was nothing to sustain it. He looked back up at ‘John’ and found him to be standing dangerously closer. Overkill did not move and simply pulled his head back. “Is this part of Diablo’s plans? Because I was not informed of this.”

‘John’ observed Overkill a head below with his red glowing eyes. “You heed the wrong god; this world belongs only to me. You humans struggle with your concepts of life and death, thinking that you act according to your fate, when fate is nothing but another word for my will.” ‘John’ raised a hand to the unmoving Overkill.

“I am not human, not any longer,” Overkill replied. He thrust the cattle prod up to ‘John’s’ exposed neck, but an invisible barrier prevented contact. Overkill pushed behind. The sparks angrily licked up against the thick air. “I am a demon.”

A hand rose listlessly to slap the prod away. “Have you so forgotten your humanity that you would deny it? Why do you think the demons of Hell crave the Earth, when it is so tiresomely restrictive with its rules of nature and physics,” ‘John’ asked.

Overkill looked away, and then back again. “Well. Hell is not exactly fun either, you know. There is nothing to eat but rocks, we don’t have our junk and we cannot kill each other. You either become a demon, or you let the demons rape you or kill you or eat you, day after day, until you go insane or join them.”

‘John’ reared his head though no laughter came from his lips. Instead the chilling chortle went directly into Overkill’s mind like a bucket of ice water. “Hell was invented by those humans foolish enough to cling to their emotions. Gluttons have to realise they don’t need hunger in the afterlife. Paedophiles can be free of their lust.”

Overkill finally removed himself from under ‘John,’ just enough to give some space between the two. “You should try it yourself, what it is like to wake up in a land of rocks. Even some fire would have been nice, like in the usual stories, but it’s nothing more than a cave. No one ever ascends. They either acknowledge their vices and become monsters, or let their vices consume them and become beasts.”

“You tire me with your ignorance. Release your burden, be free, and Devil cannot touch you. Work for me, I, the patriarch of man. It was I that led the Jews out of Egypt, it was I that twisted the words of Jesus and it was I that whispered into the ears of Muhammad.” ‘John’ extended a hand. Overkill slowly raised his own.

Stench of sulphur filled the warehouse. Purple smoke announced the arrival of a leaping Viking warrior. Sword and axe were in his hands. ‘John’ turned to see the newcomer. The axe head sank through the barrier and entered ‘John’s’ chest, but there was no blood, no wound. ‘John’ groaned in frustration.

“So this is all I could do while possessing this Nephilim body. But this is far from the end. I will not allow my brother’s plan to come to fruition, mark my words.” The red light died in John’s eyes, and his body fell into a heap. Overkill relaxed and nearly drooped to the floor.

Lord Phantom returned his weapons to their sheaths. “You were ordered to let John and his group succeed. You would defy your master’s will?” he said, as if chiding a child.

“Your master is not my master. You obey him, I tolerate him. I didn’t ask for this body or anything else. How would he take this away from me?” Overkill clasped a hand to his naked chest. Unfeeling, there still remained possessiveness in his soul.

“He may not be able to, but I can, just as easily as I put you in it. You best remember your place, lowly demon, before you lose even that.”

Overkill said nothing and stared impassive ahead. The sound of a plastic container being discarded brought their attention back to John. He was standing up, with his hands in the shreds of coat. Lined along the right hip height was a row of containers with a viscous fluid the same colour as his energy attacks. John downed another vial and flicked it sideways.

“Serena told me she had seen you in Eden.” He licked his lips to get the last of the fluid into his gullet. The blood flow had staunched, though his shirt was still soaked. Trails of blood clung to his cheeks. “It’s been a while, Lord Phantom.”

“Eden? Yes, I was trying to get back the woman you mentioned. I determined it would be safe enough to let her go her own way for now, though,” Lord Phantom said with a cool, superior voice. John and Overkill were ants to him, and at least Overkill felt it and shied away.

John, who ordinarily could not be seen breathing, steadily heaved up and down, his shoulders flexing with each exhale and inhale. “I knew there was something fishy going on here. Not just Serena, but Luciano too mentioned meeting a Lord. And when we went to rescue Adlai and Julia, we met one as well.”

“You’re observant, but you’re missing one. Marte. Lord Arcana was supposed to have grabbed her for safekeeping, but he proves as unreliable as a demon.” Lord Phantom’s eyes, blue as the expansive ocean, fixed on Overkill.

“What do you want with them?” John commanded and drew closer. He was either a fool or ignorant. “Why them? Why any of this?”

“It doesn’t matter now. They should already have fulfilled their role.”

The gun in John’s hand cracked. He had rolled the drum to lessen the output, and consequently the strain on himself. Lord Phantom disappeared in a cloud of smoke nonetheless. John then pointed the gun at Overkill.

“You can’t kill a Lord with just that.” Overkill stole a glance to P-I-M. The robot remained unresponsive. “Diablo gave them a share of his power, from what I hear.”

The gun bobbed up and down with John’s rhythmic panting, but stayed trained on Overkill. “You’re going to tell me why you did this. Did your orders come from Devil himself?”

Overkill shrugged. “Eh, sort of. He thought he could need an agent on the Earth since He’s trapped in that mirror dimension, so He told me I could do whatever I wanted. Then He had the nerve to tell me I went too far with the Destruction and sealed me in here so I couldn’t kill any more people. Can you believe Him?”

John was quiet for a long time. He lowered his hand and leant back his hand. Something between laughter and crying flowed despairingly from his lips. “You killed six billion people on a whim?” he asked incredulously. “Good God in Heaven. Humanity’s worst enemy turned out to be a diagnosed psychopath with a Sunday off.”

Overkill scooped up the cattle prod as John was looking away, though John did not seem perturbed by his slip-up. The tip flickered on with blue light. “Diablo may want you alive, señor, but I don’t really care about Him or His plans. I feel no gratitude or allegiance.” He stalked closer, but the gun was quick to readjust its aim. Overkill stopped again. “I mean, I’m grateful for your brother’s body and all, but I was getting used to Hell. I was almost starting to feel fear. Or perhaps joy. I’ve forgotten which is which, but I’m certain it was one of them.”

“Do you ever shut up?” John asked. Overkill attempted a smile. The corners of his mouth twitched unsynchronised. His lips peeled back, but one would not come to him. “And stop that too. Are we doing this or what?”

Overkill put up an offensive pose. “I should think we are about equals now with all the abuse we’ve each taken. What were those little things you drank earlier?” He pointed with the cattle prod to the remnants of John’s jacket.

John patted the pocket still dangling from a thin slice of fabric. “Some spare ichor I keep around for emergencies.”

“Ichor? Oh, the matter that our bodies are made of. But I didn’t think it could be extracted?”

John looked away. “Well, there is only one way to do it, really. It feels good but it is not something a man of God should do.”

Overkill took the second lapse in attention and pounced with cattle prod held high. John’s revolver gave a crack. Overkill blasted into the air but twisted himself to land on his feet.

“Fighting you, John, brings up some emotions. I can almost feel them. Fight me a little more and I’ll tell you something good.”

John twisted the drum a few notches. The gun spewed out hundreds of little energy balls. They hit the floor and walls and fizzled out, unable to hit Overkill. He sprang and leapt agilely through the first dozen. It only took one to throw him off-balance, however. The next barrage all landed on him and hurled him back. “You’re looking for a way to end the war, yeah?” Overkill asked, stumbling and twirling back. “So you came here for the console to control all IMs. Or did you come just to get revenge on me for all the dead?”

“Bit of both, honestly.” John let up. Though less powerful, each pellet still chipped away at his endurance, and with each chip he could feel the monster coming closer to the surface.

The fighting was still going on outside. Overkill took a moment to admire it. The sound of gunfire was also much closer. “Well, I hate to disappoint you, but it’s a lie. There is no way I could have ever stormed this base if I did not already control the IMs.” One eyebrow rose on John’s face. Overkill nodded. “It’s true. I wouldn’t lie.”

John pointed his gun back at Overkill. “That is the very definition of a psychopath,” he groaned.

“All right, yeah, I’ll give you that. Let me try to persuade you then. Do you know the origin of Jose?” At John’s puzzled face, Overkill swept a hand to P-I-M.

It took John a moment to realise what he referred to. “P-I-M? Of course, Primary Intelligent Machine. He was designed to be the queen bee. But I thought all that stuff was partitioned off?” John looked towards the downed robot. It showed no signs of doing anything anymore.

“Well, I liberated Jose from a Mattlock facility some time before the Destruction. Seems his internals were jostled around a bit from passing through a magnetic field. But he can never be turned off. His body may be dormant, but his consciousness wanders. If you want to get to him, you will have to go through me first, but I don’t expect him to obey you even if you defeat me.”

Again both fighters stared each other down. John prepared for a long break, but Overkill charged with an insane howling, jerking in a confusing dance. The cattle prod was overhand and ready to strike. John whipped his gun into position.

A roiling cloud of purple smoke spewed up from the floor between them. Overkill slipped in his attempt to stop and rolled through Lord Phantom, falling flat to the ground before John.

“I told you that we are done here.” Lord Phantom dissolved into smoke and collected himself again facing Overkill. “The Master orders you to stand down.”

“I’m not following His orders anymore. What does He care about me? This body is fine and all, but He only gave it to me because it benefits Him.”

“You best learn your place, demon. I’d rather go back to tell Him I destroyed you than telling Him I failed.”

Overkill, as always, remained impassive though his silence spoke of the gears turning in his head. “He needs me,” was his simple answer.

Lord Phantom slowly grew. He was not a waft of smoke, but a thundercloud with lightning flashing inside him. His eyes burned as coal. The choking stench of sulphur filled the warehouse as Lord Phantom expanded. “You are conceiting yourself, whelp. The Master has plenty of other demons to stand in your place. He needs you no more than I need to deal with you.” The gruff voice shook the walls. What little remained of the roof stirred ominously. “The war is over, and your role has been played. Both you and your little toy are no longer needed. You are free to leave this facility. In fact, I insist.”

He stretched out a hand that could easily have snatched up Overkill and P-I-M. Instead, the hand dissolved and surrounded Overkill and he was gone. The hand reformed on Lord Phantom, and he made the same procedure on P-I-M. Lord Phantom then turned his eyes on John Kilburne. “The IMs have stopped functioning. You’ve won.”

John did not move from his spot, but raised the gun up in front of him in case his turn was next, and yelled. “Then why do I feel like I have lost?” John looked up at the shrinking gas cloud. “Devil took my brother when He could not have me, is that not it?”

“Aye,” Lord Phantom said calmly, still standing aloof to John and his problems. “You were given a choice, and now it’s too late. Unleashing Overkill on the world must, ultimately, be considered a bad choice, but Devil is vengeful. He has your brother now.”

“I was eighteen!” John yelled louder than before with the growing frustration inside him. “You never told me of the alternatives!”

Lord Phantom was almost gone. Only a waft of brimstone remained. “I only speak for Devil. I seldom understand him.” The interior of the gas flashed in rhythm to the words. “Go, rest. You have earned a reprieve.”

John fell to his knees, face turned to the sky, not a cloud to be seen on the blue canvas. The sun warmed his pale face. Outside, the gunfire stopped.

“We tell of this to no one.”

Five young people came walking up the grass-covered slope. None of them could be more than thirty years of age. In their lead was a man in a brown jacket and with the Star of David in a necklace. His expression was resolute with a touch of anger or self-reproach.

“But what are we going to tell John about where we went? It’s been almost a week, Adlai!” The woman by his side, trying to disappear behind his right arm, was a chubby, ebony-skinned woman.

“What would it matter to him where we went? We drove around the countryside like beheaded chickens, how about you tell him that? It’s the truth, after all.”

Another of the five was a tall woman with hair dyed blue, walking behind Adlai. She had constant red in her cheeks as she tried to make her tank top cover more of her skin.

“I knew we should have just gone back to the shelter. We don’t belong out here. We just made a big mess of everything.”

“The shelter does sound like a good idea right about now. I didn’t fight my way through Canada and most of the United States to be dragged into this,” Marte sobbed.

A third woman, with purple hair, walked on Adlai’s other side. The skin on her arm was exposed and revealed metal. She kicked over a small pebble, hands in her pockets and eyes cast down. “I’m not so sure. The war could have lasted another quarter of a millennium, and how many people would have survived that long?”

Adlai stopped on top of a knoll to scratch his leg. The world was laid out before them, an endless expanse of short grass in all directions circled by mountains so distant that they were irrelevant. Little tufts of white covered a deep blue sky, and light breezes made waves on the meadow. A marsh could be seen far off straight ahead of them, some kind of structure to their left, and behind them a lake. The water was crystal clear and did not ripple in the slightest from the comforting wind.

“We will rule the new world, and our city will stand as a beacon of hope to all humanity. How can such a dream possibly be wrong? Newsflash, ladies and gentlemen, the end justifies the means.”

“But this isn’t… it isn’t the end!” Marte was more and more afraid of speaking, even more so with Adlai’s smouldering eyes looking at her. The itch in his left leg made him grind his teeth, giving his youthful face frightening characteristics. Still Marte spoke though she shook. “He told us to break the ice on the lake, but who knows what that really accomplished?”

Adlai forced himself to walk again though his gait was awkward, as if each step caused his leg to rebel more and more. Serena crossed her arms and sneered. “Hmpf. This entire valley became much more pleasant; I’d say that’s an improvement.” There were still no sign of life, though. Not a single call of a bird or the pitter-patter of field mice. “He was bluffing. No one could possibly see a thousand years into the future and know what will happen then.”

“But…” Marte tried. The words just wouldn’t come to her anymore, so Adlai cut in front of her.

“Then we are agreed, and we will speak not a word of this to anyone. No one could understand the sacrifice we made to end this war. How much longer would humanity have lasted if we hadn’t done what we did?”

The last of the group was a quiet man who was only half into the conversation. Instead he spent his time looking around and enjoying the weather with a daydreamer’s air about him. His arms were shaggy and a little line of hair sat on his upper lip. Julia stayed by his side with hands folded over her exposed abdomen. “Looks like we finally got back to the car. Getting back felt a lot shorter, huh, guys?”

She pointed ahead, and the squabbling group looked up from their arguments. The car was no longer immersed into the ground but stood spotless inside a bed of flowers all the colours of the rainbow. Awe flashed over Julia’s face until Serena kicked up a blue patch with intent.

“Let’s just blow this joint. I’m seriously starting to get crept out.” Serena trampled with her heavy boots and made sure there was a new flower under her feet with each step. Julia looked away. It did not go past Serena’s attention, and she smiled triumphantly as she peered over her shoulder. “We even got ourselves a way home. It’s like this place doesn’t even want us anymore.”

A large ramp of earth led from the front end of the car up to the hole in the rock wall. Luciano hurried to the front and knelt by the ramp, appraising it by touch. Marte parked herself in the front passenger seat. There was no sand to be found inside or out of the vehicle. “Lucy, I would also like to get out of here! This place… there’s something off about it.”

“Hmm?” Luciano looked up and pointed at himself questioningly. “S-sure, the ramp looks sturdy enough. I doubt it will give way.”

Only Julia lingered by the left back door. “Will you just get in already?” Adlai barked. Julia yelped and almost fell into the car. Adlai sighed, absent-mindedly rubbing his calf. “I just hope we can get out of here quick. We need to rebuild society practically from scratch.”

“Y-yeah, but… we will have the best emergency response,” Marte added with the beginning of a smile. “Automatic firefighting systems in all the homes, friendly police officers and free hospitals.”

The car started smoothly. If there had been any sand in the mechanics, it was gone. Serena cast one last contemning look at the weird world as the wheels easily gripped the ramp.

“That’s nothing; we also need good internal communications. Some sort of improved internet with intelligent search machines, and phones that can be computers and faxes.”

The hole opened up before them, and Julia took one last look outside as well. Gripped by the good mood, she smiled. “It will be a beautiful city of order! A true beacon of hope for all of mankind.” It was not the tunnel she saw out of the window. Her mind had disappeared into their dream. Even Luciano joined them, drumming on the steering wheel to an unheard song.

“And the city will float in the sky, so we can produce food below it,” he said. Quiet lowered on the car’s occupants. They looked from one another, and broke out in laughter. Their trials were forgotten.

Crystals in the wall bathed the car in blue and green light. They barely had a chance to admire it. The darkness came quick and unexpected. Luciano slammed the brakes, and everyone jerked forward.

They were outside again, right next to a motorcycle. An old air force base stretched out in front of them, dilapidated and drowning in sand. The cheer was left behind in the tunnel. With a sombre mien, Luciano took them down the hill and drove towards the gate.

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