Ryu’s blade nearly decapitated me as his backswing hummed over the top of my ducking head. I wasn’t able to see what the edge of his Dragon Sword had just fed on, but the sound it made on contact was easily recognizable; even more so when it was followed by a spray of red. I reached across my back and unsheathed my two Damascus blades and spun to face my companions.
Undead creatures, vagrant monsters, and malevolent beings rushed the five of us. The others had already claimed victims with their weapons before I could gather what was happening. Understanding the precariousness of our situation, I gathered my composure and swung my katana through the head of a running zombie.
Five zombies surrounded Ryu, and he sheathed his Dragon Sword and began attacking with his Vigoorian Flail… which is essentially two bladed sickles tied together. The spins and flips of the flail unleashed a bloody mess of appendages, entrails, and heads. Hulk duel-wielded the maul and axe with ease and was making quick work of some of the larger creatures, while Eli sliced his way through the horde. Lawrence was ripping and wreaking havoc on the would-be assailants, and I repelled the onslaught as best as I could.
After several minutes of constant battle, Lawrence ripped the last zombie of the ambush in half. I looked around at my companions, and we were all covered in blood and our clothes were washed a dark red. Eli looked around and asked, “Everybody okay?”
We all nodded and whispered a few “yeahs”.
Eli motioned to all of us and looked at Ryu and said, “Ryu, can you cleanse us?”
Ryu nodded and said, “Form a circle around me.”
Eli could see the confusion in my eyes and said, “This blood is dangerous. It’s damned blood. It acts like a parasite… it will overrun its host… and turn you into a monster. We have to act quickly.” Eli looked at Ryu and continued, “All you.”
We were circled around Ryu and he started to whisper in a weird language. Strange yellowish lights began to dance and swirl around us. The blood began to pull itself from our bodies and clothes, from the ground and dead bodies, and into the strange light. The light grew red and began to form a liquid-like form. The gallivanting lights came together and melded into a reddish mass. Ryu began to move his arms and torso in fluid motions, while the red ball followed his dance. Ryu stopped and pulled his hands apart and the ball rested itself between his palms. Ryu began to push his open hands together and there was a blinding red light followed by a sizzling sound. Ryu’s palms met and the light was extinguished. When he turned his hand over he was holding a ruby about the size of a quarter. He held the ruby between his pointer and thumb and dropped it in a small satchel that hung from his belt.
“Thanks, Ryu.” Lawrence said.
“Of course.” Ryu said with a smile.
Eli began to look around at the massacre that had just taken place and asked, “How many did we kill?”
Hulk scratched his head and said, “I think I killed seven.”
“Thirteen for me.” Lawrence said.
“Three here.” I said.
Eli said, “Eight, I think. One… two… three… umm, yeah, eight.”
“And seventeen for me.” Ryu said.
Eli said, “All right. So, that’s 48 in all… so… ummm, 195 left.”
I turned around and looked at my surroundings for the first time since I walked through the door. We were in open grassland near a road that led into a village. I felt panic slip its way into my mind as I noticed the open land went as far as I could see behind me.
“Where’s… where’s the door? What happened to the door?” I asked.
“Door’s gone.” Eli said.
Ryu looked at me and said, “Only two ways out once you enter.”
Ryu didn’t finish his statement, and I stared at him blankly and said, “Which are?”
Ryu shrugged and said, “Get killed or complete the ‘ritus transitionis’.”
I stared blankly at Ryu again.
“It’s Latin for ‘rite of passage’.” Lawrence said and continued, “In order to reach a guardian, you have to fight demiguardians. See… the guardians’ realms are sealed and protected by their demiguardians. Once the demiguardians’ power has been relinquished, the guardian’s realm is weak enough to gain passage. Sometimes the demiguardian’s realms are staggered, such as this.”
“So who is the demiguardian?’ I asked.
Lawrence said, “Here? Well, the 243 souls seal the rooms to the demiguardians which seal the room to the guardian. So, I guess all 243 souls are the demiguardians.”
“This is crazy.” I said.
I scoffed, looked at the others, and said, “So, there are actually rules on how to kill and what you can kill and how to get out?”
Eli said, “Marcus, there are a lot of rules here. Keep in mind, this place has been created by Watcher and everything you see is under his jurisdiction.” He paused for a moment. He looked at me and then at Ryu and said, “We’re allowed to fight demiguardians and enter their realms, but we’re not allowed to fight guardians or even enter their realms. It’s like a cruel joke.”
Still confused I said, “So… what is the point of a guardian? What do they guard if no one can get to them? And… and… who’s to say that they have anything to do with killing Watcher?”
Ryu eyed Eli, and Eli motioned for him to speak, “You. Apparently, their existence is because of you.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
Ryu continued, “We wondered the same thing… for the longest time. When you killed Conan… well, you can imagine what a stir it caused. They seem to be a test of some sort… something that you and you alone need to complete. We can help get you there, but we can’t do it. You’re our hope. We’ve waited a long time for someone like you to come along.”
“Okay, that’s fine, I can accept that, but how do we know we need to kill them?”
“You didn’t let me finish. When I followed Watcher though his maze and into his tower, I saw the way to get out. It was a door… at the top of the tower. Sealed. Watcher’s spirit seals the door, and the guardians’ spirits seal Watcher. They protect him, much like the demiguardians protect the guardians. If you kill a guardian, their spirit is trapped in a relic, and they are unable to protect Watcher as long as they are sealed.”
I started to speak, paused, and then said, “So, what about Conan? Where is his relic?”
Ryu shrugged and said, “I assume that’s why Watcher wanted you to come to the Hospital and into the Welcome Center. I’m assuming Conan’s body is at the top.”
Hulk interrupted, “Dude, that doesn’t make any sense. Why would Watcher give Marcus a way to kill him?”
Eli said, “No one understands Watcher. But, I can assure you, everything he does is to benefit himself.”
Ryu was staring at me and said, “I guess the bigger question is why Watcher would want his creation to kill him.”
I yelled at Ryu, “OH COME ON! Seriously, man. Get over it. Watcher didn’t create me. I remember parts of my life before I woke up.”
I pointed at Ryu and said, “Like you. You are the main character in a series of video games. I used to play as you all the time as a kid.”
I pointed to the others and said, “Yeah, and Lawrence and Eli are from movies and Hulk is a professional wrestler.”
Ryu continued to stare at me and said, “Your reality is separate from ours…”
Hulk interrupted, “Dudes, c’mon. We’ve got a lot things to kill and not a lot of time. I don’t even think if I Hulked-out on a guardian I could beat it. Not really in the mood to have Rye-yoo kill me.”
Ryu glared at Hulk and said in an annoyed tone, “Did you really just call me that?”
Lawrence started laughing, “Well… it DOES look like it’s pronounced that way.”
Ryu looked at Lawrence and said, “Okay, Larry.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at Lawrence and at the fact that Ryu made a joke. Eli started laughing as well, and then we made haste to the village. We followed the dirt road and a dilapidated barbed wire fence into the old village. The road opened into a central forum with a tattered well in the center. The village looked like time had done its eternal damage: boards were rotted and broken, roofs were missing, and parts of the houses had collapsed. Houses lined each side and there was a stable behind the houses on the right. At the end of the houses, there was a giant cathedral that sat perched on a hill. Behind it, there was what looked like an amphitheater.
As we walked into the first part of the town, Lawrence said, “All of you know this is a trap, right? I mean… it can’t be more obvious.”
Without looking at Lawrence, Eli said, “Yep.”
Ryu pointed to the cathedral and said, “That looks ominous.”
Eli said, “I bet Maximus is in the amphitheater. C’mon, let’s go.”
We heard wailing and groaning and undead creatures began to rush towards the courtyard where we had ambled. Some were large; nearly ten feet, and others were normal sized. They carried a variety of weapons that ranged from swinging chains to battle axes. We readied our weapons and ran forward to meet them.
Eli ducked under a swinging axe and removed the arm that the axe was attached to with a quick flick of his sword. It was followed by several slashes and flying chunks of flesh. Hulk embedded the axe into the skull of one of the larger zombies and left it in place. He spun with all his force and smashed another zombie in the forehead with the maul. He flipped it back around and crushed another one into the ground. I was doing my best to keep up with Ryu, but he was just too deadly. Like before, he was ripping monsters apart with his flail. I heard a high pitch sound and looked into the air. Rotting human-like bat creatures were flying towards us, and then they began to spit fiery stomach bile. As it rained down, we were narrowly able to escape the small explosions as they splattered on the ground.
I heard that familiar howl again and saw Lawrence running towards Hulk. He used Hulk as a platform and leaped through the air at one of the fire-pukers. He landed on the back of one of them; still in mid air, grabbed its head, and leaped off; taking its head with him. He leaped with such force and agility that he landed on another one of the flying vermin. Like before, he ripped its head from its body, but this time he nimbly jumped to the ground. While the two decapitated fire-pukers fell to the ground, Lawrence hurled the heads at a third one. The heads connected with such a great force that it sent it crashing into the dirt. Lawrence was there to greet it by ripping it in half.
Near the stables, I heard another sound I had never heard before. It was a low grumbling chortle and then I felt the ground begin rumble. Several large, rotting, horned beasts came stampeding towards my friends and me. They were massive and reminded me of a decaying armored rhinoceros with spines and more horns. I managed to leap and roll out of the way only to find two chains whipping down on my back. I felt the jagged links cut through my clothes and into my skin as they crashed down and then ripped out. I stabbed upwardly and caught the monster through the heart. I then remembered what was behind me and dodged to the left as the horn-tank crashed through a house.
More zombies had surrounded me. I swung with a downward slice with my katana and cut the arm and half the torso of a zombie while stabbing my wakisashi through the eye socket of a zombie on my right. I slid my katana out of the zombie and caught another one in the heart as it lunged for me. I pulled out my wakisashi and flipped it from the reverse grip and hurled it at another running monster. It connected in its gut and caused it to flop to the ground.
I saw Ryu jumping in the air with his Dragon Sword. He landed on one of the horn-tanks and drove the blade through the back of its neck and into its throat. It stumbled for a second and fell to the ground dead. He looked at me and yelled, “DUCK!”
I learned from my battle with the vampires that when someone tells you to “duck” you had better hit the ground. I did as I was instructed, and I saw Ryu throw his left arm in an exaggerated hook. From a plate on his forearm, a bladed, spinning disc cut through the air. Sailing over me, I heard it sing a high pitched tune. I spun around to see its destination and saw one of the large zombies about to drive its battle axe into my head. Ryu’s weapon cut straight through the thick body of the creature and continued to sever through the zombie behind it. It went through another zombie before it circled back around towards Ryu. On the weapon’s return trip, it disemboweled two more zombies before Ryu caught it on his armplate.
I gave Ryu a “thanks” look and quickly grabbed my wakisashi from the corpse. One of the horn-tanks almost crushed Eli, but Eli was able to use his agility to evade the creature. Lawrence growl at this sight, and quickly climbed on the monster’s back. He began to savagely hack, claw, and rip the back of its neck. Slash after slash, Lawrence finally reached the monster’s think spine. Lawrence wrapped both of his claws around it and flipped forward. The spine snapped in two at the neck, and the force of Lawrence’s jump caused the skull to tear away from the bottom jaw. Lawrence began to swing the horn-tank’s head around by its spine. Lawrence’s new weapon connected with a zombie, and he splattered it against the house. He spun it back around, and the horns impaled a large zombie and pinned it to the wall.
Hulk was face-to-face with another one of the horn-tanks. The monster was lunging and trying to stab Hulk with its horns. I was surprised at Hulk’s agility as he was able to avoid the attacks. Hulk’s maul smashed in the creature’s skull. The horn-tank stumbled backwards, shook its head, and with more anger and fervor, tried to gut Hulk with its long horns. Hulk continued to move out of the way and repeatedly pounded the maul into its head. The sixth blow caused the horn-tank to stagger, and the muddled creature bent its front legs into the ground. Hulk lined his swing perfectly, and the next devastating whack split the creature’s skull in half and caused its brains to pour into the dirt.
The five of us continued to fight wave after wave of the atrocities. Finally, the assault stopped. Eli had caught the last zombie in the head with his sword and it had embedded itself into the skull. Eli placed a foot on the zombie’s shoulder and with a “schling” followed by a steam of blood, he wrenched it free.
Like before, Ryu did the strange dance and removed all the blood from the battlefield and created several rubies that he placed in his satchel.
We counted all the bodies. Eli said, “That’s 194; 242 in all. We’re missing one.” He paused for only a second and said, “Amphitheater… we gotta get there. Let’s go.”
We hurried to the amphitheater which was in a valley behind the cathedral. When we got to the area, there was an eerie silence that accompanied it. Eli looked at us and said, “Split up. Yell when you find him.”
We did as Eli suggested. Ryu and Lawrence checked the upper levels, Eli and Hulk searched the ground levels, and I looked in the area below the arena known as the “Bloodworks”. It was incredibly dark down there, and the only light I had was the random stray beam that found its way past the ground level.
The smell of death saturated the Bloodworks, and dried blood, old bones, and severed body parts littered the area. I came upon a narrow hall that had cells on both sides. This appeared to be a jail or some other type of holding place for victims. The air was stagnant and putrid, and when I got closer, a sudden wave of nausea caused me to vomit in the dirt. After I finished gagging, I heard a clicking noise followed by a strange growl. I moved my eyes from the floor into the dark cell that was in front of me. I stared deeper into the darkness to try and see what was looking at me. Then, there was an indescribable high-pitched screaming growl, and claws and teeth came lunging toward me.
I threw myself backwards as the creature slammed itself against the sturdy bars. It screamed, kicked, bit, and clawed at me. The creature was about six feet tall, walked on two legs with a giant sickle claw on each of its feet, had two clawed arms, a long tail, and a powerful lizard-like head. When the velociraptor caught a glimpse of me in the light, its demeanor changed. It snorted and tilted its head to the side and made a noise that sounded like a purr and a dolphin call. I looked in its eyes, and it almost seemed as if it was saying “sorry.”
“Huh… hey… hey… who’s there?”
The voice came from the cell in the back.
“Maximus?” I asked.
With shock in his voice he said, “Yeah… yeah… it’s me. Who are you?”
“I’m Marcus. I’m here with Eli, Hulk, Ryu, and Lawrence. We’re here to get you out.”
I could tell he was weak and could barely talk. He said, “Tha… thank you.”
“HEY! GUYS! DOWN HERE! FOUND HIM!” I yelled.
The others rushed to meet me. Hulk busted the lock with his maul and carried Maximus out. They noticed the raptor and Lawrence said, “What is that?”
“Another one of Watcher’s victims.” I said.
“Whatever. Leave it. We’ve got to get going.” Ryu said.
“I say we kill it. I don’t want to turn my back on a monster like that.” Lawrence said.
I looked again into the velociraptor’s eyes. It looked down and slowly paced back into the dark corner of its cell.
“No.” I said.
“What do you mean ‘no’?”
“Hulk, give me your maul. Everyone else get Maximus upstairs.” I said.
“Marcus, don’t be a stupid…”
“Ryu… just get upstairs.”
“Fool.” Ryu said as he and the others brought Maximus to the ground level.
I looked at the cell’s lock and then at the maul. I turned my vision to the dark corner of the cell, and I saw the raptor with its back turned towards me curled on the floor. The first hit on the lock caused the raptor to snap its head around to look at me. The second hit caused it to stand. The third hit shattered the lock, and in a matter of seconds, the door flung open and I found myself face-to-face with this ferocious animal.
It stared at me and narrowed its eyes. My heart had stopped. I was beyond fear, and I could hear the steady breathing of the animal. It opened its mouth, and I saw the rows of sharp, dagger-like teeth. I braced myself and readied the maul. As soon as it got close enough, I was going to send the maul upwards and hit the raptor under its jaw. This was my only defense.
As I was about to smash the raptor, it reached over and licked me. I was stunned and stared into its eyes once more. It made the purring sound again, and I reached with my hand and rubbed the side of its face. The raptor made another sound that I had not heard which resembled a guttural bark.
I smiled at the raptor and said, “Hey girl. C’mon, we gotta go.”
The velociraptor and I ran to the ground level and were greeted by the others. At the sight of the raptor, the others drew their weapons and yelled for me to look out. I told them to stop and that it was all right.
“She’s a friend.” I said.
Everyone paused and looked at me strangely.
“Seriously. She’s a velociraptor and more intelligent than a chimpanzee. She’s going to help us.”
“Brother, I think you’ve lost it.” Hulk said.
I shook my head and handed Hulk the hammer, “No, really. You can trust her.”
Eli’s confused look turned into a smile and he said, “All right. She got a name?”
I was caught off guard by the question; however, I answered, “Yeah. Amber. Her name’s Amber. That’s where she came from.”
Eli nodded and said, “All right. Amber it is.”
Eli walked to Amber and rubbed the side of her head. Amber responded with a purr.
Hulk was holding Maximus upright with his arm stretched across Hulk’s shoulder. Maximus said, “I need my weapons and armor.” He pointed to a chest that was a few feet from us and said, “They’re in there. Hurry. It’s coming.”
“Max, dude, you’re in no shape to fight.” Hulk said.
“I’m all right. Trust me. Just get my stuff.”
We retrieved Maximus’ armament, and he equipped it. Eli looked at Maximus and asked, “Oh… and who is coming?”
“Number 243.” Maximus said.
All of our heads quickly turned towards the arena gates at the opposite end of the amphitheater. There was a loud banging and then a crunching. The cross beams of the gate began to splinter and the iron began to bend. There was another series of loud, low resonating “dhrings” followed by more cracking. A monstrous fist burst through the wooden gate. The hand was huge, and it could easily pick one of us up and crush us in its palm.
The fist opened its palm. The fingers grew into sharp barbs, and then, while the palm was still facing us, the fingers turned backwards. The giant monster pulled his hand back and drove the barbed fingers into the wooden gate. The monster jerked its hand and growled. It did it again and again. The fourth pull yanked the entire gate from the arena wall, and the monster hurled it toward the center of the arena’s floor.
It leaped from its chamber, and it was a towering 35 feet. It was bipedal and had human like characteristics; however, it acted like a mindless monster. It roared and flashed it mouth filled with jagged teeth. It walked awkwardly, and its long arms touched the ground. The monster was covered in random spots with broken armor and spines while half its face was wrapped in rusty chain mail. Its disgusting, clammy skin was white and soggy and parts of the monster seemed to be rotting.
It roared again and cracked its arms forward. The monster’s fingers formed sharp points and stretched all the way across the arena and tried to impale us. Fortunately, the spears missed us and the fingers snapped back into place. Next, the monster drove its fingers into the ground. They burrowed through the dirt and burst through the ground pointing upward. We scattered to avoid being stabbed and Eli yelled, “Spread out. We’re going to have to attack it from as many directions as we can. Try to get close!”
The monster’s right arm formed into one single tentacle. It swung it over its head and crashed it down towards Lawrence. The monster then swung the tentacle across its body. The massive arm ripped through a section of the arena’s seating in an attempt to crush Lawrence. Lawrence leaped over the arm and rolled to face it. The tentacle made a slimy ripping sound as it separated itself into dozens of smaller tentacles that fashioned themselves into points. They wriggled in all directions and launched themselves toward Lawrence. They darted and stung the ground around Lawrence. He leaped and flipped while slicing and biting the barrage of tentacles. The severed pieces fell to the ground and sizzled and melted into greenish-yellow ooze. Despite his ability, Lawrence was stabbed in the leg and in the shoulder. He howled in pain and stumbled to the ground. Ryu saw Lawrence’s plight and threw his windmill shuriken at the tentacled mass. A dozen or so tentacles plopped to the ground and dissolved as Ryu caught his shuriken on its return trip.
The monster snarled at Ryu, and Lawrence limped away to try to find cover. The giant creature aimed both hands at Ryu and darting fingers sailed through the air seeking the ninja. Ryu successfully thwarted the attack with his flail. Like before, it was difficult for anything to get close to Ryu when the flail was flipping through the air. Large pieces and chunks of the monster fell to the ground and sizzled.
The monster focused solely on Ryu and formed its right arm back into a single tentacle. It tried to mash Ryu with a downward crush, but Ryu nimbly moved to the side causing it to miss. Ryu drove his Dragon Sword into the tentacle which pinned it to the ground. However, to the surprise of Ryu, the tentacle bifurcated, and the two arms came together against Ryu. The blow was fierce, and it pounded the breath out of the ninja. He was lying helplessly on the ground at the monster’s feet. The creature raised its foot to squash Ryu like an insect. The monster was knocked off balance as Amber had leaped and climbed the monster’s back and was shredding the back of its neck. Maximus assisted the raptor by repeatedly stabbing the monster’s leg. Eli, Hulk, and I followed their cue, and with all of our attacks, we eventually brought it to its knees.
The ground around the creature was being littered with pieces of its melting flesh. The creature tried to swat us away, but it was becoming overwhelmed and weak. Eli, Maximus, Hulk, and I managed to remove one of the creature’s leg as Amber continued her unrelenting assault to the back of its neck. Within a few minutes, Amber had cut through the spine, and the head flopped forward and only stayed attached because of the jugular.
The same green-yellow liquid oozed from the creature’s neck and wounds. The monster began to sizzle and melted into a large puddle.
We were all quiet and were unsure what to say. We helped Lawrence and Ryu to their feet, and we gathered closely together. Ryu looked at Amber and said, “Thank you.” Amber purred.
Eli looked around and said, “Well, that’s all of them. What now?”
Before Eli could finished his sentence the world grew black. Everything around us faded, and we were standing on nothing. Nothing surrounded us except blackness. We could see each other perfectly as if there was light; however, there was emptiness. Double doors materialized in front of us, and without any hesitation, we opened them, walked through, and crashed to the ground of the Welcome Center’s lobby.