The Sounds of Silence
As I stalk down these halls of cold stone, I think back to when I was a child, years ago. I remember my father saying that the Empire's actions were madness. I asked him what madness was, and only got a noncommittal response. I spent the rest of that day wondering what that word meant. Now I know the answer.
I pass by a window, and cannot but look out to see the moonlit courtyard, where I lost my soul. I don't have any true memories of slaughtering my friends in that courtyard, but fuzzy recollections of it haunt my nightmares. Reminiscences of the overwhelming presence of that demon machine Zulwarn controlling my mind still hover at the edge of my conscious, feeling like the fingers of that foul ATAC trying to usurp my mind again.
Passing by the throne room, I glance in through the open doors. When I awoke after that terrible time, I found myself standing in the presence the man I loathed previously, and now curse with my every waking thought. He stood before a crowd of mindless puppets that were once my enemies and his allies, announcing his ultimate victory. I still remember the cold dread I experienced as he spoke, and the terrible gut-wrenching agony I felt as realized that I had killed everyone I loved, all in the name of that bastard Faulkner! I wanted to murder him at that moment, but I would have just thrown my life away.
I had no choice but to pretend that I was still his slave, and wait. Faulkner reveled in his newfound power, and set his puppets to work at menial tasks. Once, those puppets were my enemies. I once fought bitterly against them, but I have come to pity them and see them as fellow prisoners, if not friends. As I worked along side of Faulkner's slaves in humiliating drudgery, I have come to see the true cruelty of the control Zulwarn holds over them. They cannot think by themselves, but they can still feel. They feel every ounce of shame, humiliation, and agony that Faulkner heaps upon them, but they cannot understand why. Speech of any kind is denied to them, so they cannot even begin to truly express their pain and shame, yet they feel it every bit as much as I do.
My steps carry me past places where, one by one, they were whittled away by Faulkner's sadistic cruelty. I look out another window to see where Faulkner set Duyere, a boy who once stood to inherit the vast Empire of Junaris, to work repairing the walls of the imperial palace, alone. The prince soon perished in an avalanche of broken masonry.
I walk past one of the many servants' quarters, empty since the general seized control of the Continent. In there, Halak, an old woman who should have been enjoying her golden years at home with her grandchildren, died of exhaustion. She was ordered to keep the imperial palace clean, and Faulkner denied her sleep until she had swept and dusted the entire palace.
I come to a dark blot on the stones of the palace floor, in the middle of an unassuming corridor. There, Shion, a man whose agile mind was almost legendary, was slain by Faulkner's blade. After being reduced to the level of the lowest scullery maid, he was killed to feed the insatiable appetite of Faulkner's demonic ATAC. Never had I seen such a terrible waste of a promising life.
I pass a sparring chamber, where Duke Logan may have received the noblest end of them all. Faulkner used the old warrior in daily sparring practice, sating his own sadistic desires without depriving his demon machine of its sacrifices. The duke held out against Faulkner for days, but finally he fell to the general's blade.
My steps carry me past an another servant's chambers. Here, I sleep, as do the only slaves that remain: imperial aide named Franco and Duke Logan's daughter, Claire. Franco and I do scullery work, enduring whatever torments Faulkner decides to heap upon us. Eventually, the general will tire of Franco and find some way to kill him. He has told me on several occasions that he intends to save me for last. Claire also labors with us, but her suffering does not end there...
I have not spoken in over six weeks; a single sound could reach Faulkner's ears and give me away. Every pain I feel must be kept silent, as must every feeling I have. I cannot even weep for my fallen friends. Sleep is hardest of all, for I cannot control myself as I slumber. Even a slight snore could expose me. It is nearly impossible to keep from screaming in horror when I wake from my nightmares, in which I relive the vague memories of my atrocities, or not cry when the faces of my friends appear in my dreams. I have to wear a gag whenever I rest for any length of time, and pray to what gods that might listen to let me remain undiscovered.
For nearly a month and a half, I have labored under Faulkner, waiting for the right time to strike. I cannot face the general directly, for Zulwarn has granted him immortality, and may have granted him more than that. He is too skilled a warrior to dispatch with a simple backstab. The only hope I have is to kill him as he sleeps.
Before, I would have balked at such an honorless tactic, decrying such methods as too underhanded to even consider. I know better now. Faulkner is too strong to destroy in any other way. Unfortunately, he seldom slumbers in his bed, preferring the cockpit of Zulwarn to any mattress. It is impossible to tell where he will sleep, until tonight.
My duties this evening took me by the docking bay where the demon ATAC rests, and I found it empty. He sleeps in the imperial bedchambers this night. Now I walk over to it with a covered tray in hand. Under the cover is a light snack, should any of the very few remaining guards examine it. An innocuous carving knife rests with it.
Luck smiles upon me tonight, for the guards are not active. The candlelit halls of the imperial palace are as silent as a crypt. I am not surprised. The guards remain with Faulkner because they are afraid to defect. Only a few survived my assault of the capital, and fewer still have survived Zulwarn's vile appetite. I cannot count on them as allies, despite their fear of Faulkner, as they might give me away to save themselves. Worse yet, I might be discovered if I spoke to one.
The path I have taken I took for a reason. I passed each those places, and invoked my darkest memories, to remind myself what I must do. I took that path to remember why I must do it, and to see the price of failure. Reaching the simple paneled doors of the imperial bedchamber, I place my ear against the portal. It is nearly four in the morning, so Faulkner is almost certainly asleep. Still, my heart races as strain my ears and listen for any sounds of activity. Cold sweat begins to bead on my forehead as I pray that no guards walk down the hall.
Nothing comes to my ears, so I take a steadying breath and prepare myself. I let my heart calm down, then quietly draw out the carving knife and set the tray aside. The doors open silently, for I oiled their hinges not long ago. Then, as quiet as the breeze, I step into the chamber.
I am familiar with the room, for it is my job to make Faulkner's bed whenever he uses it. I have studied the paintings of famous battles on the walls, and appreciated the simple Dionne tapestries as I did my drudgery. Now, the plush Muspell carpets mask my footfalls, and the light of the single low-burning candle is not enough to reveal my presence. The huge, canopied bed dominates the room, looming shapeless in the darkness.
I see Faulkner lying there, sound asleep in the weak candlelight. I can also see the shadowy outline of Claire, but I try to ignore her. I have no desire to contemplate what Faulkner made her do. An opened, half-empty bottle of wine rests atop the liquor cabinet beside the bed.
It is almost too easy to slip to the general's side and raise the humble knife above him. In theatre, the hero often hesitates at this moment; I do not. As soon as I reach Faulkner's side, I bring the blade down on him. I do not pause to consider how his face seems completely untroubled by his atrocities, nor do I look upon my hated enemy one last time. I have no dramatic final words; I just do what I can to do.
Faulkner's scream of agony is startling and deafening as the blade slips between his ribs without the least resistance! His eyes snap open, and his month opens so wide that it seems dislocated! A fountain of blood wells under my fingers, but I hardly consider it as I draw out the knife and stab him again, then once more. Again and again my knife rained down upon him, as I speak for the first time in weeks!
"What's your power gotten you now, you bastard?!" I shout at the top of my lungs, "How did your precious Zulwarn protect you from this?! Did killing my father, did butchering thousands of innocents save you from this?! Huh?! Did it?! Why don't you answer me you bastard!?"
My words give way to an inarticulate scream as I rain slashes upon Faulkner! The dying, wailing general feebly tries to ward them off. Claire has awakened, but her enslaved mind has no idea what to make of the situation. Faulkner's cries die out as I stab him in the throat, but his pathetic attempts to fend me off do not. What semblance to humanity he once bore is gone, washed away in a tide of freely flowing blood and lacerated flesh. He suddenly rolls off the bed and flops feebly on the floor.
It is now that I realize something is terribly wrong. Faulkner is still conscious, still alive. Any normal man would have blacked out from the pain and blood loss some time ago, but still he moves and breathes feebly through his perforated lungs! Faulkner tries to roll onto his knees, but I give him a swift kick to his lacerated face, knocking him off balance.
Then understanding comes to me. Faulkner boasted that the demon ATAC bequeathed enough of its unholy power to make him immortal. Now, Faulkner cannot die, no matter how badly hurt he is. Well, let us test this. I grab the bottle of wine and smash its neck off against the liquor cabinet. Then I pour the liquid over the bloody mess that was Faulkner. Smiling grimly as the alcohol seeps into his wounds, I grab the candle from it sconce. Then, I let it drop.
The liquor ignites with a satisfying noise, but a huge explosion drowns the sound out! It came from the northern wing of the palace, near the ATAC hangar! "Zulwarn comes," I say to myself. Faulkner starts rolling on the ground with a feeble strength born of desperation, frantically trying to put out the flames. But he only manages to ignite the carpet.
If Zulwarn reaches Faulkner, it might very well be in the power of the demonic machine to restore him completely. I throw open the liquor cabinet, heedless of the flames, and start to pull out bottles of fine alcohol. I smash them open against the side of the cupboard, then splash their contents onto the flaming mess that was Faulkner, stoking the flames ever higher and spreading them through the chamber. I have time to spread four bottles of the flammable liquid before the sounds of huge crashing footsteps reach my ears. I look out the window to see, on the other side of the palace grounds, a black shape against the darkness.
Faulkner is hardly moving now, and the flames are too thick to let me see how badly burned he is. His flailing, combined with the liquor I carelessly splashed across the floor, has spread the fire to a good portion of the chamber. Claire still sits on the bed, completely oblivious to the flames climbing up the sheets, watching the chaos without comprehension.
Some mysterious impulse compels me to race to the woman's side, grab her arm, and drag her off the bed. She lands on her feet, and does not resist as I half lead, half drag her across the chamber. I look back while we scurry away, and see the shadowy bulk of Zulwarn approaching. As we pass through the doors, I toss Claire against the far wall, and look back in time to see the massive glaive the demon ATAC wields explode through the wall with a deafening crash!
The huge weapon cuts down through the wall, scattering huge chucks of debris in all directions! The yard-long blade disappears for a moment, and then the entire wall explodes inward as it cuts through with a massive horizontal slash! Through the gaping hole, where the west wall once stood, sheathed in a cloud of dust and illuminated by flames looms the demonic machine called Zulwarn.
The shadow-colored ATAC towers over me, drawing back its huge glaive from the strike that demolished the wall. It gleams evilly in the light of the flames, as it looks down upon me. Its head is designed to look like the hood of an assassin or an executioner. All that can be seen are its eyes, which glow a poisonous green. Emblazoned upon its chest is a face made of platinum. That face, impassive and vaguely inhuman, possessing only the hints of eyes, looks like nothing more than the visage of some blasphemous deity. That face seems to bore into my soul, seeking all the dark secrets within.
The black machine extends a hand, it palm turned downward, as if invoking powers best left unknown to mortals. I stand paralyzed in its presence, knowing that nothing I can do will prevent it from destroying me. All that is left for me is to meet death bravely, as my father did only a short time ago, as my friends did on that terrible day when the world was shattered.
Zulwarn continues to hold out its massive hand, as if it were daring me to act. Its twin metallic visages glare at me like venomous serpents preparing to strike. I know not how long it bears down upon me with its hateful gaze, but its spell is pierced by the sound of a groan behind me!
What? Is it...? No, it couldn't be... I finally tear my eyes from the motionless Zulwarn, and look back to see Claire wrapping herself in one of the tapestries that hung opposite of the imperial bedchamber.
"Like, what happened?" she asks, her face blank and confused. Then, comprehension dawns upon her as she whispers, "Oh... my... god..."
I sympathize with her, for the acute memories of my own awakening still haunt me. But, another realization more powerful than sympathy comes to me. If Claire has regained control of her mind, then Faulkner must be dead! I look back to the ruined bedchamber, and see a motionless charred lump bearing a vaguely humanoid shape. It rests not to far from the bed, its stench overwhelmed by the heat and the smells of dust and blood. A huge piece of debris has crushed Faulkner's legs, while what is left is little more than charcoal. Zulwarn's hand hangs motionless over his remains.
If Faulkner is dead, then there is nothing to animate the demon ATAC. That means I can finish what I have started, and truly end this! "I'll be back soon enough," I tell Claire. I doubt she heard me, but I cannot bother with her right now...
I run to the gear hangar as fast as my legs can carry me. Never do I contemplate the thought of stopping for breath, as Zulwarn may revive if I delay! I don't even stop when I reach the hangar; instead I leap into the cockpit of a huge ATAC colored bright red and run the pre-ignition programs by instinct. Ony after I have done all that I can, and wait for the machine t power up, do I stop and look around. The ATAC I have claimed is in the stall beside Zulwarn's bay. Little remains of the area immediate to the demon machine's bay, just broken stone and twisted steel. A gaping hole has been knocked through the west wall of the hangar. That hole proves to be a convenient exit for the crimson ATAC.
I urge Crimson to move across the palace grounds at full speed until it reaches the motionless Zulwarn. I pause for a moment to let the machine cool down, then manipulate the ATAC into drawing its massive talwar. Without prelude, I set into hacking apart the demon machine. When Zulwarn was operational, only the Ultragunner could destroy it. Now, it is dormant, and Crimson's talwar is more than sufficient to rip the vile machine to pieces.
I rain numberless blows upon the blasphemous ATAC, stopping only to vent flames from Crimson into Zulwarn's open wounds! Soon, the talwar can inflict no more damage upon the twisted shadowy wreck, so I begin to pick up debris from the ruined bedchamber and use it to pulverize the remains even further. There is no outburst of rage this time. I destroy Zulwarn with cold precision, calculating each blow to inflict maximum damage upon it.
I pay no attention to time as I scientifically destroy everything I possibly can of the demon machine. When I finish, there is not a single unshattered circuit board, not a solitary working hydraulic pump, not a single piece of unruined armor. To finish the job, I use Crimson's flames to fuse as much of the wreckage as possible into a single lump of twisted steel.
The eastern horizon is just beginning to show the first signs of dawn as I disembark from Crimson. The fires in the imperial bedchamber have burnt out, for the fallen rubble prevented them from spreading. Thus, I can easily step through the missing wall and return to the hall where I left Claire. She is still sitting against the wall, wrapped in a priceless Hibernian wall hanging.
Her normally proud face has fallen into absolute despair. Her eyes are red with tears, which have cut rivers into her dusty face. She looks up at me, renewed tears preparing to rain down her cheeks. Softly, Claire says, "Thanks, Bastion."
Of all the things she could have said, this I did not expect! "Why?" I ask as I take a seat next to her, suddenly weary from something more powerful than a missed night of sleep.
"Thanks for killing Faulkner," she answers, looking toward the ruined bedchamber. "Thanks for making his death really painful. He killed Daddy and Shion, and thinking what he did to me makes me want to throw up. Thanks for saving me from the fire and stuff."
"I did nothing special," I tell her, "I killed Faulkner because the bastard deserved it. If he hadn't done anything to you, Shion, or Duke Logan, I still would have killed him. Faulkner had compounded his sins too far long before he found Zulwarn."
We both fall silent for a long time. I watch dawn's light slowly illuminate the palace grounds beyond the ruins. Claire's voice breaks the silence when she asks, "Like, what're we going to do now?"
"I don't know," I answer, "With Faulkner dead, the last real vestige of authority over the continent is gone. Logan's dead, Alden's dead, Zeira's dead..."
"So's Marquis Dionne, Duyere and Sadira, and Daddy," Claire continues.
"I know Faulkner's army killed most of the regents my friends left behind," I reply. "Without Faulkner to bind them together, his lieutenants will probably fall into petty squabbling and intriguing to expand their own little holdings. And, the people will be the victims, just like before."
"I should go back to Nordilain and try to become the Duchess," Claire muses, "but I don't know if I can. I don't know what I'll do without Shion and Daddy to help me out." She finally turns to look at me and says, "Why don't you come with me, Bastion? You're really smart; you could help me."
"I should get back to Pharastia and try to wrest it from whatever dictator that holds it," I answer. "But, it wouldn't hurt to have the backing of a recently liberated Nordilain in that struggle. So, I guess I'll help you for awhile, if only to smooth a future peace between our two nations."
"That's so sweet of you, Bastion," Claire replies, "By the way, where's that guy who was always hanging around Sadira?"
"Franco?" I ask.
"Yeah, that guy," Claire replies.
"I think he would have come to see what happened by now," I say, "Even in a palace this large, its hard to miss the damage that Zulwarn did. Franco might have ran off as soon as he realized what happened. Otherwise, it's likely that he died in Zulwarn's final charge."
"That's sad," Claire says, "He could have been, like, really helpful. Who's going to take over the Empire if Franco's gone?"
"Whoever's strong enough to claim the crown and keep everyone else from knocking it off his head," I answer, "Like I said, the people will be the ones to truly suffer. I hope Franco did survive. He might be able to claim enough legitimacy to stop a lot of the bloodshed.
"Let's get out of here. I know that some of the guards will come snooping soon enough, and I'm in no mood to deal with them right now. If we're going to Nordilain, it won't hurt for us to get an early start. Crimson is yours now. If you give me a minute, I'll go take Duyere's Sarbelas, and we can be on our way. I want to get out of the Empire as soon as possible..."