As night fell on the fifth day, a thick mist crept over the marsh, the fireflies rose for their nightly dance, and Helvia found the end of her trail. An ancient cemetery, long abandoned, poisoned by the creeping moss of the swamp and the Witch Queen’s corruption.
She clambered up to a suitable nook in the branches overhead and took stock of her situation. In a day’s time, the tracks that led her here would be swallowed up by an indifferent morass of muck and debris. The men who made them would suffer the same fate, should Helvia fail in her mission.
The troop in question had been tracking Damien, son of the Witch Queen and heir to the Plague’s heretical dynasty, when they were ambushed near the ash swamps of the eastern outskirts. They only survivor was a lone scout who stumbled headlong into a Guard outpost, surviving just long enough to recount his terrors before succumbing to some dark corruption.
Helvia was already gearing up when her commands came from headquarters. News of the missing squad had spread like fire through the lower ranks, especially after the survivor’s wild tales of warped creatures and haunted fog had conjured horror stories in their idle minds. Helvia had been there before, swapping ghost stories over a cook fire to stave off boredom, but that was before... Before the stories had been about her.
She was brought out of her absent-minded trance when she tried to scratch an itch in her right arm. Where flesh and bone had once been was now hard carbon steel and intricate machinery, engineered by the greatest minds the Guard had to offer. She ran her fingers over the glass-smooth surface and let herself recall, just for a moment, memories best left in the dark. Grievances gone unanswered. Revenge yet to be taken. And somewhere within, pride at how strong it had all made her.
The feel of the metal brought her back to reality. This prosthetic weapon was more than a replacement. It was a reminder of duty and loss. It was the kind of gift that demanded recompense.
“Somewhere from the deep recesses came a sound like a low murmur that she recognized immediately from the darkest times in her past. It was a sound of misery and desperation. A sound of torment.”
Helvia sat in the crook of the tree, watching the cemetery through the lens of her rifle’s scope. She fought back a yawn and squeezed her eyes tight to shake the blur from her vision. A nonstop three day hike through waist-high bogs, biting flies, and oppressive wet heat had left her drained. Damien’s monstrosities did not stop for rest and she had been forced to go without sleep to keep up, but she knew the prisoners would have it worse. She had seen the imprints in the ground where they had fallen, the smears of black mud when they had been dragged, the spattered blood on the plants when they had been beaten. She took a deep breath to tamp down a sickly fury that was rising in her throat and went back to her careful reconnaissance.
With time, the seemingly peaceful ruin revealed its true form when a skeletal creature crept from the thick foliage, sniffing at the night air for Helvia’s living scent. It patrolled the circular graveyard with a shambling gait, wet skin glistening under the meager moonlight that managed to penetrate this forsaken ground. She watched as the ghoul made its way across the cemetery, stopping outside the only structure still standing. It was a simple crypt built of moss-weathered stone brick with a thick green copper door that may have once shone bright before the years of dilapidation had worn its fine details to a mush of soft edges. Helvia found little interest in the door itself. Instead, she was drawn to the thin line of green light that escaped its edges. Something was inside that crypt.
With a single bound, Helvia flew from the branch and into the open air. Three ghouls sprang from the undergrowth at a dead sprint the moment she moved, gnashing at her heels with maws of rotten fangs cobbled from a lifetime of scavenging the dead. A pair of too long arms clawed at the air below her feet as she passed. The one to her left scrabbled atop a broken gravestone and pushed off to intercept her from the side, but Helvia was ready. Her rifle’s muzzle swung with perfect precision and let loose two times before she touched ground. Its head snapped back hard with the impact, spraying a yellowed dust of old bone as its hulking body hit the earth and rolled to a stop in front of her.
The other three ghouls rushed her at once, two flanking to either side and the other charging head on. The closest of them, a skinny beast with horns like a goat jutting from its skull, took two loping strides and flung its claws at her neck. Helvia rolled back to duck the swing, caught her balance with her back foot, and dove under the horned ghoul. The sound of three bone-laden figures slamming into one another put a smile on her face, as did the sound of her stun grenade going off underneath them. She spun to see the three figures dazed and stumbling, then opened fire. They dropped in place and Helvia turned her attention to the real danger: the crypt door.
She froze there, scope fixed on the door, feeling the reeking groundwater soak into her knee. Yet nothing came.
She crossed the graveyard, stopping only momentarily to finish off one of the still-writhing ghouls. The crypt door gave almost no resistance when she touched it, sliding open on recently-oiled hinges to spill sickly green light over the entryway. Beyond was a stairwell that seemed to wind straight down into the bowels of the earth. Somewhere from the deep recesses came a sound like a low murmur that she recognized immediately from the darkest times in her past. It was a sound of misery and desperation. A sound of torment.
“For the first time in years, Helvia was afraid.”
She slung her rifle onto her back, then tiptoed down the stairs with one hand on her grenade belt and the other on her pistol. She paused briefly in the shadows of the arched stone entryway, allowing her eyes to adjust to the light from within, then burst into the room.
Again, there was no response. The domed chamber was stuffed with tables shoved haphazardly against the walls, all lit by tabletop lanterns flickering with unnatural emerald flames that did little to fight back the oppressive well of shadow suspended above her. Every rough-hewn surface was covered in loose papers and crusty old tomes, tubes and pipes made from every workable metal imaginable, crystals, stones, gems, and all manner of scientific paraphernalia. Why would a spoiled princeling like Damien need a laboratory like this?
A ghostly cry snapped Helvia back to the task at hand. She followed the sound to a bookcase she recognized as too clean for the otherwise chaotic laboratory. She searched the room for a trigger or button, but found nothing, eventually settling on brute force to push the bookshelf aside. It gave way with a sudden loud click, sliding open on hidden tracks in the floor.
Beyond lay an empty room no bigger than a closet with walls made of a strange flat stone she had never seen. The light of the laboratory danced over a pitch black surface that seemed to swirl like smoke and fog. The sound of voices grew louder as Helvia watched the fog pulse and breathe. A bruised purple light poured out from some deep unfathomable abyss within the wall itself and dark figures began to appear beneath its surface. Faces screaming in agony. Members of the scout troop. Her comrades. Her friends.
This was not Damien’s work. This was the work of a devil.
From behind her came a rustling sound like feathers in the wind and a rasping voice that seemed to come from everywhere, “Do you wish to join them?”
Pitch black enveloped all light in the room. Helvia swung her pistol up and fired, a blinding flash in the dark that did little more than ring her ears. She pressed herself back against the doorway, digging into the stone with her mechanical arm just to feel its strength.
Then the bookcase slammed shut. The groaning crunch of her mechanical arm filled her ears and an old fear welled up from the primal reaches of her subconscious. Helvia screamed and writhed against her snare as ancient instinct threatened to overtake her senses. She thrashed and pulled, ignoring the stabbing fire that shot through every movement as grafted wires threatened to pull free of the bones that held them in place.
The air filled with a scent like rotten potpourri and Helvia coughed as it invaded her lungs and mind. She fought to push back a fear that was worse than any pain she could feel, yet those memories in the dark now peered from the shadows with glittering eyes. With them, a new presence. Something old and dark, a curved beak bobbing up and down below two burning green orbs.
For the first time in years, Helvia was afraid. She was trapped in the dark and there was something there with her.
“They were mere tools when they arrived. With my help, they will be something...more.”
The clattering caw of a raven flock startled her from her shaking terror, and within that sound, a rasping whisper, “I knew you would come, First Officer Helvia Virika, third of her name.”
She struggled to sound strong, but her mind would not obey, “How do you know who I am?”
“My children have watched you for some time, from the trees and the shadow, the forgotten places of our world,” the voice said, “The royal children have asked that I destroy you.”
Helvia managed a wry laugh, “Let me out of here and you can try.”
A powerful hand gripped the back of her head and pressed her cheek firmly into the rough stone. Suddenly she was aware of a pressure at her hip. Her grenade belt…
A gnarled claw slid into view, pointing toward the shifting black morass of the wall, “If I had wanted you dead, you would already be in there, with the fools you were sent to save.”
Helvia forced herself to look at the slick black surface of the wall, to take in the feeling of anguish and raw pain that swirled in the unnatural fog. She spat and jerked her head away, scraping her cheek. It felt raw and immediate, steeped in a familiar anger that fueled Helvia in her darkest times.
“They were mere tools when they arrived. With my help, they will be something...more.”
A rasping laugh escaped the creature and Helvia took the distraction to fumble loose what she hoped was a high-explosive, finding comfort in the feel of its weight in her hand.
She slipped a finger under the pin, “You think you can scare me into submission? The Guard will win this war and the brave soldiers you slaughtered will be celebrated as heroes among my people.”
“I have met many of your people,” the voice said, “Warriors and clerics, statesmen and peasants. When threatened, it seems you all have the same reaction. Despair and fear, yes, but a desire for vengeance. A belief that future violence will settle some cosmic equation. You pour yourselves into training or machinations, intent on a singular goal.”
The grip on her head fell away and rested almost gently on the shoulder of her mechanical arm, “You tear away that which is weak and replace it with manufactured strength.”
She slid the pin from its seating and clamped down on the lever, “You can’t scare me. I’m stronger now than I was before the Wild took my arm.”
“You think this thing gives you strength? Or is it just a living reminder of what you lost?” His grip on her arm tightened, “You bind yourself to vengeance when you could be free to explore a world where strength has more meaning than some misguided quest of redemptive butchery.”
The sharp-edge of its bone white beak neared her ear, close enough that she could feel hot breath on her cheek. Her head swam with the rotten scent, “I have great things to show you, Helvia Virika, but you must show me that there is meaning to your power.”
Helvia let the lever drop from her hand and let out a breath, “I’ll show you real power.”
“If you find the will to be more than a slave to the past, ask your leaders about the scientist they once called Doctor C.”
The lights in the laboratory returned as suddenly as they had gone and the grenade in her hand vanished with them. She craned her neck in confusion and caught a glimpse of the figure behind her walking toward the door. It wore thick banded metal armor across a broad back that could have been either male or female, tapering into a swishing skirt of thick raven’s feathers. A wide-brimmed hat cast a dark shadow over what looked to be a bird’s skull, glowing eyes peering out from black hollows above a bone white beak. It held the grenade for her to see.
“Self-sacrifice is a fool’s weapon, Helvia,” its hand clamped down hard and the explosive turned to sand, spilling on to the ground below.
“I see no use for a champion that does not value her own life,” it said.
“Wait,” she said, “Tell me who you are.”
The monster peered back at her with a look between mischief and pity, “If you find the will to be more than a slave to the past, ask your leaders about the scientist they once called Doctor C. I will attempt to leave at least one of them alive when I am done with my work tonight.”
Then it was gone and the only sound left was the moaning of the souls she could no longer save.
A fury overtook Helvia that she had not felt since the night she had learned of her parents demise. She braced herself against the stone and began to push. She strained hard against the heavy wood, planting a foot on the wall to gain leverage, and the first tinge of pain shot through her chest. One of the connecting wires dislodged itself from the grafting in her collar bone. She cried out and felt the blood rush from her face, but she did not stop. She pushed again, this time with everything she had, stars and black dancing at the edges of her vision. The metal creaked and hissed under the tension. Sweat beaded on her forehead and stung her eyes. Pain wracked her body like waves of hot fire. Yet she pushed and fought.
Freedom came to her in a sudden jolt as the ligatures in her artificial bicep snapped with a deafening pop. She screamed in anger as the device that had rescued her from a life of handicap and despair crumbled under the strength of her own resolve. Piece by piece, fasteners, wires, and motors shattered in her mechanical arm, falling away to reveal the stub of soft, bleached flesh they had been built to replace.
Helvia collapsed to her knees and ran her fingers across the skin of her left shoulder for the first time in years. She looked back at the prosthesis and felt...nothing. It dangled there, a rigid and mangled clump of metal forever out of reach of the lives it was supposed to save. It was a broken tool that had served its use. Helvia was not.
She gathered her rifle from the floor and staggered to the stairwell, stopping only to rip the pins from her grenade belt and toss them into the lab before she set out into the night.
By: Will Strode