The Unbearable Mirror
The lone figure pulled the dark blue plastic slicker he had donned tightly around himself as he ran through the rain. A short man, he moved a rapid pace across the muddy ground. As he made his way towards his destination, hoping to be inside before the storm broke in full, Billy Lee Black thought about the events that had brought him here.
Things had moved quickly after the fall of Deus. The refugees, the handful of survivors that had not been mutated into Reapers (he still thought of them by the Ethos's term) or been slaughtered in the following purge by the lethal Seraphs had hailed him and the rest of the Yggdrasil's crew as heroes. The remnant, a rag-tag assortment from Aveh, Kislev, Nisan, Shevat, even Solaris, had come together for the first time in peace. After the horror that was Deus, their once bitter hatreds towards one another had seemed meaningless. Ironically, the schemes of the Ethos and their Solarian masters, which had intended nothing less then the extermination of every human being on the planet, had in the end actually brought about true peace.
Deep down, Billy was both comforted and disgusted by that knowledge.
That peace, that unprecedented sense of brotherhood and cooperation had promised the dawn of a new age, free from the conflicts and errors of the past. It seemed that the ancient cycle of war and violence had finally come to an end. Billy had actually begun to believe that he would never have to lift his revolvers in battle again.
Of course, it didn't work out that way.
Fortunately for him and a great many other people, Billy had put off the urge to beat his guns into plowshares. What had not occurred to him, had not occurred to anyone at first, was soon brutally revealed. The Reapers, Krelian's bastard children, were still alive and hungry for blood.
It was not as bad as it might have been. Most of the people who had been transformed when Gasper's nanomachines had removed the limiters of the long manipulated populace of the world had either been successfully treated or had rejoined with Deus, dying along with him. The Seraph angels, nightmares even to an army of Gears, had been annihilated along with their master. Only the smaller ones remained, the ones that had not been able to act as parts for Deus's rebirth. And there were many of them.
The survivors had scattered. They were few enough as it was; they did not dare allow the Wels to trap them in one group. The Titans, as Fei, Billy, Bart, and all the rest had come to be known, were pressed into service once more, acting as leaders, planners, fighters. Citan and Maria had hurled themselves into rebuilding whatever they could of the old technology. Between Citan's brilliance and Maria's engineering skills, they had been able to begin a technological Renaissance, gradually building the framework for a world without Ether power.
And that was why Billy was here, running through the mud, trying to outrace a storm. A particularly dangerous group of Reapers had been reported in the area, raiding the settlement that was being raised nearby. Nearly two dozen had been slain by the ravening creatures thus far, and the raids had shown no sign of slowing. They had all but thrown themselves at his feet when they had learned that he, the famous Reaper slayer, the great Etone, had come to the region.
Billy had felt like throwing up.
Finally, the building he was looking for appeared up ahead. Putting on a last burst of speed, Billy reached the doors of the abandoned ruin and forced the heavy double doors open. Throwing off the rain cloak and revealing the Etone robes beneath, he walked in and looked around the old Ethos church where the pack was believed to be hiding.
He immediately recognized the familiar layout of an Ethos chapel. The confessional stall would be to the side, the living and office area to the back. He saw no bodies; either the Brothers who had watched over this place had escaped the Solarian and Deusian purges or they had been killed elsewhere. The sight of the chapel, the same layout as in every Etone church, brought memories back to the surface.
He remembered the day he had first entered one of them, remembered how awed he had been at the sight of the stained glass windows and high, painted ceiling. He remembered the sight of the ranks of the clergy, all dressed in identical robes, the entire congregation echoing the presiding Bishop Stone's words in perfect unison. It had seemed the most holy place in the entire world to young Billy, the home of the people that served the will of God.
How bitter that thought seemed now!
He remembered the day he completed his training, when he had taken on the garments and vows of an Etone, to defend the lambs of God against the Reaper wolves, to save precious lives and more precious souls. He remembered the smile on Stone's face as he personally anointed him with the holy oils, sealing him as one of God's Chosen. He remembered, most bitterly of all, how proud he was to have pleased Bishop Stone, the old man whom he secretly thought of as his true father.
And then he remembered the rest. The meeting with Elly and the others, the revelations, the discovery of the true nature of the Ethos, the massacre of the unsuspecting brethren by Solarian assassins, and the horrifying truth of the Reapers he had butchered so zealously.
"Humans," Stone had said. "Just like you!"
In a selfish part of himself, Billy wished he had never agreed to accompany her, never agreed to help them save the injured Fei.
He remembered the shock of Stone's betrayal most keenly of all, the manipulations, the lies, and the truth of his mother's death. Those Reapers that had ripped her apart before the tender young eyes of him and his sister, the Reapers Stone had shot to death seconds too late, they.
And so he had left, his faith in the Ethos destroyed. And with the others, he had embarked on a new quest, to slay the God he had once loved so dearly.
He was amazed at times that he had been able to go on, to keep fighting.
To think that the Sisters of Nisan, Nisan of all places, had been right in the end! His mind flashed back to the Ethos' teaching on the rival religion, the dogmatic apologetics manuals that had been part of his education. He remembered the Etones that had lectured on them, remembered their strident, fervent words. "They are idolaters!" his teachers had cried, always insisting that they said these things only for the good of the Sister's souls. "They pray to themselves, seeking to be as gods themselves, as all heretical groups have done in one way or another, as Satan, the Father of Heresies spoke to our first parents!" How was it that one of those writers had put it? Ah yes, "Throughout history, the same heresy has been arisen, like noxious smoke out of Hell, the idea that humans can be gods!"
Billy's mind, even after the truth of the Ethos had been made plain, had still clung to those teachings, closing his ears to the Sisters' words. He felt ashamed as he thought back to the suspicion he had viewed Margie with then.
The sisters of Nisan did not think themselves gods; far from it. Every time they knelt in prayer, every time they spoke to their innermost feelings, they looked into a mirror of themselves, a perfect reflection that forced them to see themselves for what they were, to face their flaws each and every day. Who could think themselves a god after that ordeal? Billy wished he had their courage, wished he had the strength to face that unbearable mirror that was his soul.
The flash of lightning outside cast the only real illumination in the ruined chapel. Under its wild, furious light, he saw them. The Reapers. They came from every possible shadow and entrance; from behind the altar, dropping from the rafters, from the rooms in back, and even one stumbling out of the confessional stall (did some part of it still hunger for redemption?). As they formed a semi-circle around him, a brief lull came over the storm. The chapel was almost pitch-black, but that posed no real impediment to Billy. Their eyes, glowing red with a light of insane rage, of creatures tortured until only blood could comfort them, marked them clearly, even in the darkness.
Calmly, without a hint of anger, he met their feral gazes one by one. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, his voice almost a whisper. "I'm sorry you had to endure this nightmare, I'm sorry you lost your lives, and I'm sorry we weren't able to save you." Slowly, Billy reached to the holsters in his robes and drew two revolvers. "And I'm sorry that this is the only thing I can do to help you."
A particularly loud clap of thunder broke the silence. The elemental flash of electricity lit the entire room, revealing the scene. That apparently broke the Wels out of their inactivity. Snarling with rage, they leapt at Billy, twisted appendages raking for his flesh.
Billy stood like a statue, guns still by his side. At the last moment before they had him, he snapped into action. He whirled, guns firing. They hesitated for a moment, and Billy took full advantage of it. He charged straight at one of them, firing two quick shots into its midsection and placing the final one right between its eyes. He threw himself into a forward somersault, right past the still standing corpse. He spun and began firing shot after shot, each bullet killing or wounding a Reaper.
Something, a tongue, a tail, a tentacle, Billy couldn't say, whipped across his legs, knocking him to the ground. In an instant, a bipedal creature stood over him, blood covering its face, claws and fangs bared. He slammed the revolvers into its belly and fired, over and over, nearly lifting the massive thing off the ground. He rolled to the side as it collapsed towards him, barely avoiding being trapped.
The storm built, lightning flashing every few seconds. The familiar stench of gunpowder filled the air, assaulting his lungs. He moved like a whirlwind, years of intensive training and fighting experience eliminating the need for conscious thought. He simply moved and reacted by instinct. And he killed.
Finally, it was done. Billy, his clothes soaked with gore, gasped, staggering as he tried to stay on his feet. He looked at the roomful of bodies.
Once, he would have been proud of this.
He fell to one knee, gasping from exhaustion and raw emotions. Eyes blurring with sweat and blood (he tried to convince himself they weren't tears) he raised his head and gazed at the altar.
Another Reaper stood there. It was a horrific thing, easily seven feet tall and hunched over, eyes wild with an unholy rage. Its body seemed stripped of its skin, laying bare thick cords of muscles across the creature's huge form. Massive claws protruded from its bloated right arm, while the almost human left appendage hung useless at its side. It opened its jaw, revealing row upon row of razor-sharp teeth, bits of flesh from its last meal still clinging to them. But the most horrible thing of all, to Billy's eyes, was the pendant that encircled its bulky neck like a noose.
It was an Ethos ankh. This creature, this nightmare, had once been an Etone.
Trembling, Billy forced his right arm up, taking aim at the creature. He fired, striking it dead-on in the forehead. The creature, made of pain and muscle and bone, jerked back, then straightened, apparently unharmed.
Billy fired again, and again, both revolvers firing a fusillade of bullets. Finally, he heard a dry click.
They were empty.
Billy threw the now useless weapons to the ground, and walked forward. Standing mere feet away from the monstrous creature, he craned his neck, looking up into its pain-filled eyes.
"Is it blood?" he asked quietly. "Is it my blood you want, my blood that can end your pain?"
The creature seemed to listen to his words, to calm a bit as if some part of its forgotten humanity was touched by Billy's words. Billy spread his arms wide.
"Come," he said.
The Etone-turned-Reaper almost seemed to smile at that. For just a moment, it almost seemed human.
Then the pain flashed through its mind once more, and it knew only the desire for blood. It lashed out, seizing the helpless Billy by the neck. Raising him up, it lifted him towards its salivating mouth like a mouse to a cat's jaws.
Billy reached beneath his robes, producing a small combat shotgun, perfectly crafted to his slight frame. In one quick movement, he shoved it into the creature's mouth.
"Forgive me!" he cried as he slowly pulled the trigger.
A lightning bolt struck not twenty feet from the church, shaking the earth beneath their feet.
They fell to the ground, the Reaper in a crumpled ball, Billy into a cat-like crouch. Falling to his knees beside the dying creature, he reached out and gently grasped its left arm, the one un-mutated part of its body. Forcing his voice into a peaceful tone, he spoke to it.
"Rest in peace, child of the Lord."
The creature grew still as he spoke, seeming to take comfort in his words. The hand tightened in Billy's grasp, whether in a last reflex or in a message of thanks, Billy could not say. The hand fell limp, all tension leaving the Reaper's muscles.
A tear began to fall from Billy's eye as he looked tenderly at the flaccid hand. For a moment, he closed his eyes, then threw his head back.
"Damn you Krelian, and all of you works! Damn you Stone, and your promises of salvation!" he screamed at the top of his lungs. He dropped his head back down, his voice falling to a whisper. "And damn me for being a part of it all," he finished quietly.
A bolt of lightning hit somewhere far off, eerily silent. As it did, Billy saw a face on the ground before him. It was gone in an instant, leaving a confused Billy in the dark. Rising to his feet, he stumbled towards the altar. Grabbing one of the candles that remained there, he reached into his robes, fishing for a certain device. Pulling the small electric fire-starter out, he held it to the end of the blessed candle and lit it. It cast little light, barely a flicker, but it was enough. He returned to the spot where he had seen the reflection and knelt down, holding the candle above him.
It was blood. A puddle had formed from the gaping wound in the head of the last Reaper. In it, he saw a reflection, a tear-filled, despairing face that could only be his own. He drew back, afraid of the sight, then forced himself to look back. Setting the candle by the puddle, he looked at it, an expression of mingled fear and hope fighting across his features. Bringing his hands together, he began to pray, never closing his eyes, never turning his face away from that mirror.
The doors swung open, and Billy walked through, his body cleaned and his garments washed. The storm had broken during the night, and the birds were beginning to sing. He looked up at the sun, beginning to rise above the horizon. Smiling, he began to walk back to the settlement, back to the children of God.