Harold’s eyes shot open, and he clawed upwards, screaming in terror. Sunlight was illuminating the east, setting the mountain peaks ablaze with orange. It was peaceful, in an utterly devastated way.
Looking around, Harold blinked. He was sitting in a - bed? The sheets pulled around his waist as he slid off of the side.
His feet squished in a pool of blood, congealed thick and splattered all over the cliff.
“YAAAAAAAAGHH!” Harold stumbled backwards, falling back onto the bed. He whipped his head around, and only now did he discover the true extent of the horror surrounding him.
The outpost had been completely destroyed, reduced to a broken skeleton of cement and metal. Where buildings should have been were flattened land, and the blood was everywhere, strewn across the mountain like magma.
Turning, Harold saw that the mountain’s peak had been sheared through, a perfect cone sliced into the rock. “What...what the hell is this!”
Looking down, he realized that his clothes had been replaced, too. His ruined uniform had been exchanged for a black, hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans. He looked almost normal, like a college student awoken in the apocalypse.
Utter destruction, and that was what happened. Harold hunched over as the memories flashed through his head. That man...that kid...that overpowered special move! And…
His eyes dilated white, shaking as he reached the ending. It came back to him then: cold metal bursting through his chest, the fear he felt as his legs gave way and collapsed, and the sheer helplessness he felt as his life seeped away in a pool of blood.
The blood splattered all over the cliff was his own. The pain he had felt was so unbearable, and that darkness leeching into his vision made it seem as if he were human, as if he would die. Harold couldn’t explain it, but even now, the fear hung over his head like a guillotine, except the executioner was Director Wolfram, laughing as he swung his blade down to take the Pawn.
Fighting another scream, Harold ripped the hoodie over his head, flinging it to the side and staring down at his chest. It was unharmed, normal as always, unimpressive, but intact. Running his fingers over it, he couldn’t even feel a seam of flesh.
Part of him dared to believe it had all been a dream, but what else could have done this to the outpost? No, it had been real. The outpost had been attacked, Wolfram had sacrificed him, and he’d nearly bled out on the edge of a cliff.
Harold shivered. What was that? That sensation in the director’s blade, that cold that seemed to make his essence paper, crushed and withering as darkness fell. It sent chills up his spine, daggering into the stem of his brain.
He shivered again. Grabbing his hoodie, he pulled it back on. That’s better.
He stood up, accepting the scene of destruction. It didn’t matter what he was thinking, he needed to find his squad. The hurricane should have scattered them across the mountainside, but they should have been fine, if a little mangled by the fall.
He’d only walked a few paces before something caught his eye. A length of teal cloth, crudely severed at one end, lay half-submerged in a pool of blood. Such an odd color couldn’t have belonged to anyone at the facility. “It must have come from that invader’s scarf.”
He sighed, absentmindedly pocketing the cloth as he walked. It was a flimsy lead at best, but he needed to figure out who those people were. People that had so much destructive power in their hands were nothing short of monsters.
This resolve kept his expression calm as he made his way around the cliff, the crimson tide pools in the divots of stone, the overwhelming metallic stench, and the sheer terror of his isolation.
“I’m going to eliminate them,” he said. “But first, I’m going to find everyone else. Shinji and Fenrir and Hunter and Alice...and Alice….”
And it was this thought that finally set him to tears. Harold dashed down the mountainside, with no regard to balance, gravity, or his broken heart. “Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid!”
By the time Harold reached the city, he had calmed down considerably. “I mean, it’s not as if she’ll like Hunter forever,” he rationalized, walking in the middle of the street. “And I haven’t ruined everything yet, I’ve still got a chance! The only problem is my- my-”
His head drooped, arms hanging low. “My personality, huh?” His mind was overcome with melancholy as the horns honked angrily from the cars stuck behind him.
He shook his head. Anyway, he hadn’t seen anyone else on his mad dash down from the peak. But judging from the dull beat of the sun overhead, it was midday. They could have gotten to shelter already, leaving him behind all alone.
Though, Harold reasoned, the nearest outpost was at least two days away through the mountains, so it’d be easiest if they just found a public phone here in the city. Siegfried owned the world, after all. Humans were nothing to be afraid of.
“Yeah. That’s right! That’s right!” Harold grinned, marching onward, leading a parade of furious drivers. He had nothing to be afraid of, absolutely nothing.
The city of Corona certainly didn’t look intimidating. Instead of the metal and glass pillars that humans seemed so fond of, most of the buildings here were a solid, suntanned brick. The stores were quaint and humble, and squat warehouses lined the waterfront where the waves rocked back and forth in the harbor. Harold stood at the dock, admiring the ships that coasted serenely through the bay waters. Corona was rooted in its past, and in that manner, it was paradise.
Sounds of laughter caused Harold to turn, looking at the street behind him. Children were racing each other down the sidewalk, running backwards and smiling at one another. A shipbuilder looked up from his polished hull, shaking his head and smiling.
Harold grinned. With all of this levity, you nearly forgot that the world was ruled by a Deathbound dictator who could melt your face with a single glare. Humans were nice, even if they didn’t show it to the Deathbound.
He shook his head. Deathbound and humans shared a great deal of features, downloaded into them by the Gate. He sort of understood the whole embittered enslavement thing, but it got rather lonely when the humans outnumbered them a thousand to one. What made them so different, anyway?
But no trait, he reminded himself, could account for what had happened last night. From inside the outpost, it had looked like the world was tearing itself asunder, Harold’s neatly stacked propaganda bursting up and blinding him, until the ceiling had collapsed on his back.
Whatever that power was, it posed a threat to everyone. Harold drew out the bloodstained cloth, closing his fist around it. He would be the one to save the world.
It was at that moment that he heard a voice shouting through the streets. “Deathbound! Bound for death! Execution in the town square!”
His knees knocked like icicles, and his blood drained into his boots.
For the executioner, it was nothing personal. He stood upon the platform, watching the crowd clamor exuberantly in the town square. Beside him, thirty Deathbound swayed from the ropes, unmoving. They hung like rain dolls in the gallows, white cloths drawn over their heads to cut them off completely from life.
“Dammit, this noose chafes my neck,” one complained, struggling in his bindings. He bumped into the person beside him, and was promptly shoved back the way he came. This set off a giant Newton’s cradle of bodies knocking into each other, ending with the girl at the back of the line flying outwards with a squeal.
The executioner planted his axe in the ground, rubbing his chin philosophically. Death really was an evolving art.
The axe was just for show, anyway. Though he missed the pure fineries of old, he couldn’t argue that the method was rather unsightly. Besides, an axe wouldn’t do much to a Deathbound.
No, this way was much more efficient. The executioner grinned. It was an adage to a time-honored execution method, brought into the new age by the power of electricity.
He turned to the machine behind him. A conveyor belt fumed along, chained plates of metal being moved down the gear track. Empty restraints were dragged along with the belt, moving towards the end where a steel frame rose high above. Five sets of blades hung from the frame, rising and falling to an unearthly rhythm. The crowd cheered as they sliced through the air, the Deathbound flinching at each fatal chop. One could have argued that it resembled a giant meat chopper, but for the executioner, it was much more poetic: Before him was an engine of judgment, the first electric guillotine.
In a way, he envied the Deathbound for getting such an extraordinary demise. Sure, it wasn’t death, but it was close. Beneath the blades, metal containers were trundling along on another belt, dropping into a pit at the end. There, the pieces of the Deathbound would be separated so that they could never regenerate. Their overlords reduced to scraps of meat in containers...what poetic justice.
The crowd was beginning to stir again, erupting into a cheer as a woman stepped out onto the platform. She raised a hand, giving them a smile. As the crowd quieted down, she spoke.
“People of Corona,” she said, her voice carrying on the bated air, “what we have here today is proof. It is proof of victory by the Regicide. It is proof of the Deathbound’s vulnerability. And it is proof that we will not be beaten so easily!”
The people roared with rebellion, raising their fists in triumph. Eyes shining, the woman continued, “When the Deathbound first came to this world, they drove us into despair. They eradicated us, and reduced our greatest wonders to ash beneath their feet. But now, we have hope. We are Regicide! Before the Deathbound, this is our answer!” She threw her arm out, and on cue, the executioner pulled the lever.
With a thunderous whir, the guillotine shuddered to life. The blades chomped down on the track with an echoing clang, only outdone by the audience’s cheer. The executioner gave a genial smile, strolling over to the gallows. He swung the axe in a neat arc over his head, nicking a rope in half and dropping a Deathbound to the ground. He dragged it by the noose back to the podium, whistling as he went.
The woman reached down and pulled the bag off of the Deathbound’s head, revealing her face for all to see. The executioner was raised an eyebrow in mild surprise; it was a girl, barely a woman, with blond hair coiffed strangely into horns. She could have been his daughter for all that she looked.
If the woman was as surprised as he was, she didn’t show it, flinging her arm out to the crowd, who responded with the usual rabble-cry for blood. The girl cowered before the storm of noise, as if trying to shrink through the ground and disappear.
The woman looked down at her, her face a midday shadow. “Are you ready to become mortal?”
Silently, the girl began to cry.
The executioner’s arm tightened around her waist, hauling her upward. The girl kicked desperately in the air, writhing, choking against him. All the while the crowd jeered, throwing their best insults into the mix as well. The executioner chuckled as he walked, deciding that he’d remember “zombie pissmonger” for the next one.
Laughter, that was it. Laughter, levity, and happiness in the arms of death. That was immortality. The executioner slammed the girl down on the track, his fingers slipping around metal and sealing her deftly to the clasps.
He’d just tightened the final cuff when a cry broke through the square.
“It’s a Deathbound!”