~~The strong survive, the weak do not. This law rules above all other. On one side there appears to be order within this law, the weak suffer in the lowest ranks of society, while the strong rise. On the other side chaos ensues, resources used up, the air polluted, the law above all others: kill or be killed, though still with integrity, those from the Overworld are not to be harmed. Both sides ruled by one man, the one stronger than all, proven in battle sits upon the throne of Nike.
But even in a society like this there remain those who desire to change the world, those who would see true peace return to a world long lost in War.
Battalions of soldiers patrol the streets, keeping the fragile order that exists within the realm. I’ve only come to pass through to the Shadows, but I can feel the anger well up inside of me. Anger that HE has allowed the disease that slowly engulfs this land to continue. “Phantom!” The one word echoes through the streets, and the world goes silent. My body tenses, ready for battle. “You are the one they call Phantom, right?”
“Who's asking?” I can hear the tension in my own voice, but that does not stop his advance. He is two heads taller than I am, scars cover his arms and his eyes look like those that I saw during the War, the ones who enjoyed the senseless violence, who killed simply for the sake of killing. But, I have to remind myself that no matter his ruthlessness, he remains an Overworlder.
“Appraising me?” There is a mocking laugh in his voice.
“Sorry, an old habit from the War. Old habits die hard I guess.” I look into his eyes, “You seem to be at an advantage, would you care to level the playing field?”
“You know my name, but I’m afraid I don't know yours.”
“Lieutenant Colonel Breda, at your service.” He bows to me mockingly follows the customs of Nike.
“Chris Phantom at yours." I bow politely, still smiling that damn diplomatic smile, but the tension won't release, I know his plans, even if he does not. “Might I ask why you're looking for me?”
“General Crom, an old friend of yours, is looking for you.”
“And your orders?”
“Take you to him by any means necessary.”
Without a thought my body tenses as my right foot slides back, balancing my weight. I count his weapons, six standard issue hidden knives, and two standard issue firearms. “Go ahead and try, are you going to pull one of your knives?”
With a laugh he removes the knife strapped to his left arm. “You asked for it.” He attacks without hesitation, aiming for the quickest way to incapacitate me. His movements are quick for his size, but he attacks in a predictable pattern, always aiming for the same spot. I kick the knife from his hand, catching it in midair, then throw it into the ground up to its hilt. He pulls his gun and points it at me, signaling for his soldiers to surround me.
“Your intel was wrong if you think that will frighten me. He laughs and turns the gun to face a young soldier beside him. My smile disappears as I realize the length to which he would go. The soldiers around him continue to laugh, not understanding the gravity of Breda's actions.
Above the noise of the crowd a familiar voice echoes in my ears, “That's enough!” The crowd parts slowly and a young woman appears. “You have disobeyed your orders. You were told not to engage him in battle.”
“I don't take orders from you, despite your relations.”
“Those orders come directly from General Crum, now lower the gun.” Reluctantly Breda lowers the gun, his face a mask of fury. I can feel my throat close, and my brain seems to shut down, focusing on her small frame. Images from the past come to mind as I stare at her. "Lord Phantom, I apologize for the rough treatment, shall I take you to see the General?”
“Liz." I finally find my voice. “Is it really you?” I recover and turn to Breda. "I will come with you willingly if your men walk ten feet in front of us, no guards, just me and her.” I look back at Liz and see the small child I knew before. I feel my heart pound and guilt fills me.
He grunts and motions for his soldiers to follow him, leaving me to gather my thoughts. "Welcome back.” The words bring me back to the present and I study her. She has the same golden hair and green eyes, her smile is beautiful, reminding me of the little baby that I had held in my arms. But, though she's smiling her voice is as cold as ice.
“So they know about your lineage?" The words slip out of my mouth before I can think clearly.
She laughs, it is as contagious as I remember it to be. “No, they only know of my husband. I am not so proud to be his bastard child, brother.”
“General Crom's son Arthur. But that is beside the point. You broke your promise.”
“I did no such thing!”
“No?” She looks up into my eyes and puts a hand onto her swollen belly. “You swore to me that when I had my first child you would have made this a world worth bringing my child into. Look around you, the world has still not changed, and a child grows within me.”
“I swear to you, I will change this world.”
“You swear to me? Have you forgotten, you have already failed me. Promise them, those people that you are really fighting for. They are your people, do not fail them.”
I open my mouth to speak, but close it again as we enter the military camp. Night is falling and small fires begin to dot the landscape in between tents. Hoarse laughter fills the air. A memory begins to form in my mind of a camp much like this one.
That camp had been filled with the stink of blood and the sound of injured, exhausted soldiers. The War had taken its toll, hundreds dead, and even more dead.
I shake off the images of death and focus on the present. “I will leave you here.”
She turns away, and puts her hand on my arm briefly before walking away, leaving me in front of the General’s tent. The tent is familiar, I spent hours inside of this tent during the War. I must admit the inside has changed much during the eight years after the War. One map adorns the table in the center of the room, as it always has, but the map is empty. No enemies to track. "Phantom, I see you have arrived, I will leave you to your guest." Crom's voice sounds nervous and I only see him briefly before he rushes out of the tent. I step inside slowly and carefully.
A voice comes from a dark corner of the room. “Good to see your instincts have not left you completely during your absence, Phantom.”
“And you haven’t stopped using that title of yours to frighten Crom, Pierce.” He continues to frown at me, and puts a hand through his greying hair.
“You sound like her.” I gesture towards the door, though he already knows who I’m talking about.
“Who do you think had to tell her that her precious brother had left her, like her father and her mother before him? Who do you think walked her down the aisle to the political marriage you promised to protect her from?” He rushes to his feet, anger flaming in his eyes.
The pain in my chest grows, as does the anger. I can feel myself losing control. “You knew where I was going and the reason, you could have postponed the wedding.” My teeth are clenched and the words come out as a nearly inaudible hiss.
“And you know the rules, you have to stay in contact with the Council, through me. If you do not your place is forfeit. By marrying she managed to buy you some time. She married to protect you, now you had best return the favor.” Both of us take time to calm down, though the anger only recedes slightly, ready to reappear at any moment. He turns away from me and puts on the air of a Duke. “A place for you to stay has been prepared, and a guard has been arranged for.”
The anger rises once more, “Guard?”
He responds robotically, “For someone of your station to wander around without a guard is unsightly.”
“Tell the truth, Pierce! We both know that you have done and said anything that you can to keep me from disappearing again. Do you honestly think I would return to this god-forsaken place had I meant to leave? We both know that time is running out, I have to return to the Shadows to begin training my pieces.”
“Have you forgotten that you are missing pieces?”
“I have no time to find any others.”
“I have found three candidates that are worth looking into.”
“Are they up to my standards?”
“Even I could not pass your standards, you can at least give them a chance.”
“Once I enter into the Arena I cannot worry about protecting anyone, they have to be able to survive on their own.”
“I will send the other two to meet you tomorrow morning, and a doctor.” He laughs slightly at me and I look down at my stomach, blood is slowly staining my white shirt and I laugh with him. “Use my coat for now to cover that up.” It’s funny that after years of bleeding the thought of my own blood soaking through my shirt does not frighten me. I seem to have become immune to the pain and the fear of it. He lightens slightly, as though laughing had cleansed the air. He hands me his coat and ushers me outside into the night. A young woman greets me. She is a head shorter than I, too young to have been a part of the war, but old enough to have known the effects of it. I must admit, though, that despite my having served in the War and her absence from it, I believe she is older than I am. Her auburn hair is pulled into a bun atop her head, and her brown eyes stare at me intently.
“1st lieutenant Jo Andrews.” She salutes me and turns East, back towards the town. “I will be your guard for the night, Lord Phantom.”
“I apologize for inconveniencing you. Pierce does not understand the concept of humility, nor does he seem to understand that I don’t actually need a guard.” I laugh at her look, a comic combination of shock and anger.
“You surely think highly of yourself, for one of the nobility.”
“Have you never met a noble that can hold his own in a fight? Or do you choose to think highly of yourself? Besides, I am no noble. Pierce simply believes that I can be more than I am.” I can’t help but laugh bitterly.
“And what is it that you are? What does he desire to change?”
“I am a nobody who has potential, nothing more. Pierce seems to think that he has to micromanage everything because I was placed under his care. And what about you, why’s a pretty girl like you in the army?”
“My father fought in the War, he told my brother and I of the pain and violence he saw during that time. He said that it was difficult to see so many families broken up and destroyed simply for the advantage of those above them. He told us of a young man, a man of rank who did all that he could to protect and cherish every life he could. He did not hesitate to do his duty and take life, but when the battle was over he would personally dig graves for those who had lost their lives. Covered in blood and sweat he would take the time to bury each body, showing no bias. Both my brother and I decided that we would join the army and fight nobly as that man did.”
“Ah, that is where I recognized the name. Your father had the same rank as you have now. He was a good man, marked by his noble heart and his gentle manner. He was placed in charge of taking care of the prisoners of war.” I smile and laugh at the memories of him. He looked much like his daughter. They have the same eyes, I am struck by the thought, they both have eyes that are unusually lit up with joy. He saw hardship, war and death, yet he was always able to create a mood that was not overrun by the feeling of death and destruction. It was as though he could not smell the blood that soaked my hands, a smell I could not forget, even once the blood had been washed away. I turn back to her, pulling myself from my thoughts. “He once chastised me for the way I interrogated the prisoners. My sister, Liz, agreed with him and refused to speak to me until I changed my methods.”
“You can’t have joined the War, you can’t be more than 20.”
I can’t help but laugh at her surprise. “I am only 19, actually. But that is a long story.”
“Why don’t you try to tell me.”
“It starts at the beginning of the War. It was…”
“It was a revolution. We both know that, you and my father both fought under a prince of the realm.”
“Yes, it was the first War in hundreds of years. Only a select few of the nobles know why there hasn’t been any war up until then, those nobles are called the Council.”
“Then how do you know about them?”
“Prince Christopher informed us of that at the beginning of the War.”
“Is that why you are called Phantom, because of the prince?”
“That’s part of it, I will tell you the rest of the reason tomorrow if you promise to quietly listen to the rest of my tale.” She laughs and looks at me with a promise in her bright eyes. “I was eleven when I entered the War. The part of the world where I am from accepts anyone to volunteer. I fought for two years before I was found by Pierce at the end of one of the bloodiest battles. I then fought in the same platoon as your father. But now, tell me about you, who is your commanding officer?”
“Until a month ago my commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Breda, but a month ago Pierce came and took control of my brother and I’s training. He said that someone would come to test our strength.” While we had been talking we had entered the city, it is silent. She turns toward a pure white door and I smile at the irony. “We’re here. I will stand watch out here.” She sounds reluctant to come inside with me.
“As I said before, I have no need of a guard. And in case it worries you, I have no intention of doing anything crass to you. Come inside, I need you well rested tomorrow so that I can test your true abilities.” I beckon to her and she follows tentatively. The room is decorated in black and white, a beautiful hand carved chess set sits on the coffee table. The white king is missing from its place and my hand goes to the pack strung across my back. I throw it onto the couch and dig through it, panic filling my chest. There it sits on top of my clothing where I had left it, a pristine white king piece.
She follows me to the couch and picks it up. “What’s this?”
“The king piece to a chess set.”
“I know, but why do you only have the white king? It’s kind of an odd thing to be carrying with you, especially when the only other things you have with you appear to be weapons and clothing.” She has begun to pull things out of my pack and lay them carefully on the table in front of us.
“It’s both a reminder and a promise.” I smile and continue, “My brother and I used to play against each other, we have a final match coming up. The winner of that final match becomes the ‘king’” She laughs and smiles as though I am being childish, and I allow her to think it. “But for now you and I must rest. You can take the bedroom and I will sleep on the couch.” I smile at her, “The door has a lock, just so you can feel more comfortable.”
Before she argues I push her gently into the room and lie down on the couch, admiring the chess piece as I lie on my back thinking about the past and hoping for the future.