The ash glided gently down like snow, covering the ruined village in a think blanket of gray. Vindicator Gregg strode among the wreckage, his power armor whining as the gyros within whirled to keep his massive frame balanced. Gunshots sounded in the distance as the villagers were rounded up and executed for harboring Nytlus Monks, keepers of the Ancient Scrolls of the Forbidden Rule.
The Monks had been on the run for decades, passing from one town to the next, always hoping to avoid the Praetor’s armies. The Scrolls they possessed would, if assembled on the fifth passing of the Blood Moon, grant the head Monk power un-foretold, enough to break the totalitarian grip the Praetor held upon the world.
Like all those addicted to power, the Praetor greatly feared those who would subvert him. To counteract the ancient prophecy the Praetor assembled a shadow army of sociopaths and sycophants to scour the four corners of Atlum and kill any Monks they found. However, an army comprised of such men needed level headed leaders. Thus, the Praetor found it necessary to recruit from his standing army four Lords of great renown. Bedecked in the ancient armor of Heroes lost, his four Lords, renamed Vindicators, led his Shadow Army across Atlum.
Howard Gregg was one such Vindicator. Gregg did not want to leave the Army, but one does not say no to the summons of the Praetor. So, Gregg donned the ancient armor of War, and led his underlings from village to dell, searching for the black-robed Monks of Nytlus.
Gregg turned his helmeted face toward the sky. The moon was waxing, shining a bright orange in the night sky. The fires from the destroyed village around him tinted his vision, giving everything he gazed upon a warm glow. The bright colors in his eyes sharply contrasted with the carnage going on around him.
The Praetor’s Shadow Army, bedecked in dark gray ballistic suits, were scouring the buildings left standing, bringing villagers who had been attempting to hide out into the village square to be interrogated and executed.
“No one must know of your work, Vindicators,” the Praetor had instructed them. “Search for those cursed Monks, and kill them where you find them. If anyone were to witness your acts, the ultimate fate waits for them as well. So your Praetor commands it, so must it be done.”
A soft beeping interrupted Gregg from his thoughts. A small icon in his head’s up display notified him that one of the soldiers under his command had found a cabal of Monks. Raising his armored palm up to face height, the Vindicator activated the holographic display built into the glove with a swift mental command.
From a small emitter in his glove, a blue-tinged image of a helmeted soldier sprang to life before him, sketching an abbreviated salute.
“Where are the monks, Sergeant?” Gregg asked imperiously.
“We have them rounded up outside of the old town hall, Vindicator. We await your arrival to begin the cleansing.”
Gregg snorted behind his helmet. The soldiers of the Shadow Army could kill civilians with wanton abandon, but they always lost their nerve when confronted with the prospect of facing even one Monk without a Vindicator present.
“Keep them there, Sergeant. I need not remind you of the price of failure, should they escape.”
The Sergeant nodded quickly, and shut the link. Lowing his glove, Gregg began to march forward, his armor crushing the flinders of burnt buildings beneath its tread. Gregg patted the ornate power sword riding on his hip in a reassuring manner. Unassuming as the Monks appeared, they were said to possess a fearsome array of physical and mental powers.
Gregg made his way swiftly towards the town hall, at one point smashing through a half-burnt wall with his armor. In front of the hall, ten soldiers had their assault rifles aimed at the three monks kneeling in front of them, eyes closed as if in quite contemplation; as if they did not have ten rifles pointed at them, and a Vindicator of the Praetor bent on their eradication.
One of the Monks, a senior Cleric judging by the orange highlights on his robe, opened his eyes as Gregg approached. Both of the Monk’s pupils were stark white, a clear indication that the Monk could not perceive the physical world as those blessed with sigh could. Gregg did not think the Monk’s blindness innocent; no doubt the Cleric’s power resided in a realm far more immaterial.
Gregg activated the voice modulator in his helmet, so that his speech emerged in a deep, resonant tone.
“Monk,” Gregg began, resting one hand on the pommel of his sword, “You have been found guilty of sedition against the Praetor, and for crimes unmentionable in the realm of Man. By the power vested in me by royal decree, I hereby sentence you to death. I would ask if you had any last words, but my time is far too valuable to listen to the rantings of a blind fool.”
The Monk seemed unperturbed by Gregg’s words. Instead of cowering like his two compatriots were doing, a small smile crept onto the Monk’s lips.
“Of course, Vindicator. I do not wish to keep you from the important business of murdering innocent villagers. By all means, cast your sentence upon me. Perhaps this time I will finally feel the loving embrace of Death.”
At this point, the Shadow soldiers were exchanging nervous glances behind their mirrored visors. What nerve did the Monk have to stand up to a Vindicator in full armor? Perhaps something far greater than they could fathom was at work here.
Noticing their skittishness, Gregg decided to end this charade before the Monk could spread his rabble-rousing.
“Clearly the loss of your sight has meant the loss of you sanity as well. I hope you are prepared for the after-life, heretic.”
Before the Monk could reply, Gregg quickly drew his sword, and with three swings dispatched the Monks. As their decapitated heads rolled away, leaving trails upon the ash, Gregg wiped his blade clean with a length of his cape.
“Clean up the rest of the village, and finish burning it down. All the able-bodied men that you have not executed are to be rounded up, and sent to the Seiaris Facility for re-education. And if I catch any of my men keeping the women-folk alive for any reason relating to their own pleasure…”
To emphasize his point, Gregg drove his sword into the ground to rid it of the last vestiges of blood clinging to it’s other wise polished surface.
With harried nods, the soldiers quickly abandoned the bodies of the Monks, and made off for the rest of the village to finish their grim tasks.
Gregg regarded the bodies of the Monks in quite contemplation. Why did the Praetor fear these Monks so? All the proof of their order was encased in millennia old superstition and hearsay. Why, a Blood Moon was not foretold to wax in nearly two hundred years!
Gregg shrugged indifferently. His was not to question the motivations of his Praetor; it was his duty to carry out the orders with brutal efficiency. Still, Gregg wondered about the Cleric’s words. Had the old Monk really been resurrected? Old wives’ tales had told of a passage contained within the Scrolls that could allow for reanimation….
Gregg shook his head to clear that thought from his mind. The Monks were no more than a bunch of confidence men. Sowing discord was their only true power.
Leaving the bodies where they lay, Gregg turned and stalked off to oversee his men in the completion of their tasks. Forgotten, the Monk’s bodies lay still on the ground until long after Gregg and his soldiers had left.
The sky grew dark, and a heavy snow began to fall. A thick blanket of white powder covered the ground, obscuring the destruction, until all the remained was a clean, white landscape.
Days passed, and the snow remained untouched, pristine. But, on the fifth day after the cleansing, a small portion of the snow began to shift. Breaking through the layer of snow was a black robe, tinged with orange markings. The man within the robe blew out a long sigh, visible in the cold air. Were anyone around to see, they would have noticed that the formerly blank pupils of the Monk now glowed a pale blue.
“I thought I was done with life,” The Monk mused, “But it appears that life is not done with me yet.”
Standing, the Monk began picking his way through the snow, towards the North, where more of his brothers waited.
Soon, the Praetor, and his Vindicators would have something to fear besides an ancient prophecy. Something far more immediate, physical, and deadly.