Cavalier stood on the balcony of his crumbling castle. Down below, a city, not one that could be called “thriving”, but still populous enough to qualify as a city, bustled with makeshift carriages and people trying to carve a living out of the ruined landscape. In the seven years since the world had ended, he had watched the small community spring up practically on his doorstep. They had come to him for protection from the elements. He had done some work to that end, but over time, he spent more and more of it in his castle, with Crater.
He was lost, ineffectual. At times, he proved to be more of a hinderance that a boon to the people around him. Eventually, he began demanding taxes, a delivery of food and supplies to keep him and Crater comfortable in return for dubious protection. In time he had gone from a beacon of hope for the people to a belligerent bully who occasionally stopped robots or zombies from overrunning the town.
He found himself sneering at the people below. The next delivery better contain more beer. He and Crater had been spending more and more time swilling the local microbrew, a high alcohol content hoppy beer the locals called Destructive Duo, a parody of the name sometimes used to describe Cavalier and Crater when they had been heroes, in another life.
He looked up from the city below to the old city beyond. The part of him that missed being a hero, that missed protecting the innocent out of a sense of duty and that rush he got from being on the evening news, cried inside every time he saw the broken ruined hulk of what had once been a thriving metropolis. It remained much as it had been back when it was alive and well. The buildings were crumbling now. Years of neglect had caused the concrete to crumble, and all of the steel was rusting. In the center, the skeletons of buildings, bent outward by the nuclear blast that flattened the city still reached up, as if in pain, to the sky.
He rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb and downed a large glass of Duo. Crater sat on the couch, staring at the blank television screen he used to love so much. Outside of hunting the hills for a zombie or robot to crush, that’s what he spent most of his time doing.
Cavalier felt a sudden urge. He realized it had been months, at least six, since he had been with a woman. Once again he felt the need to be with a woman for an hour or so. He had one in particular in mind, a still young woman who had been working in a tight-shirt themed restaurant to put herself through college in the old world. Nicole, he could finally remember her name after all of these years. She was nice, thoughtful, and beautiful. Smart girl, too. had circumstances been different, she likely would have made a great physicist, now she farmed herbs.
He glanced over at Crater, who was quickly draining a gallon sized mug of Duo. “I’ll be back. I’m going to go see Nicky.” Crater laughed and lifted his mug in a toast. “To good times! Hahaha!” Cavalier laughed. Crater was drunk, again. They both were increasingly these days. Cavalier half saluted his friend and then lept off the balcony and flew down over the city below.
Nicole kneeled in a field below the castle, trimming huge bushes of rosemary that she had raised from seeds. In the world before, she had been struggling to put herself through college to get a degree in physics. She had dreamed of working at the Large Hadron Collider one day, but those dreams had been crushed years before in the heat of a nuclear explosion. In the years following, she had made her way toward the new city, located at the foothills below Cavalier’s castle.
She had admired him, as did most people in the city. They didn’t blame him for not being able to stop an atomic bomb, who could? And with the following cataclysms, they had all been beyond one person in scope. So when he had taken a liking to her those years before, she happily joined him for conjugal visits. He was tall, strong, good looking, and he said the right things.
At least, he had. Over time, it became more and more clear that she was little more than a release for him, like a burger or a large glass of beer. It had been months since she had seen him, and that was fine for her. She’d never considered him anything more than a fling anyway, someone to pass the time and have fun with. Recently, however, she’d met another.
A nice young man named William had wandered into town a few months prior. He was well spoken and thoughtful, and had lived on a farm his whole life, so he’d come with skills useful to everyone. The two had grown very close, and now he was living in her home and sharing her bed. He helped her with her herb garden and also volunteered on the militia that kept the city outskirts clean of zombies.
Right now he was bundling fresh sprigs of mint and sage for the market. Nicole stopped and looked up at the sky, wishing she could see the blue again. The clouds were always thick, the air always cold. It was not a nuclear winter, per se, however there was so much debris from the hypercane that still, years after it had died out, particles of sand and ice clogged the stratosphere, keeping the world colder than it should be.
She had hope, however. Some of the residents of the new city were honest to God physicist and climatologists, and their observations had shown a steady increase in overall temperature over the past two years, which likely meant the debris was finally falling. Things would get better.
Her musing was cut short by a growing spot in the sky. “Oh shit…” She mumbled. Cavalier was coming for a visit, and he never visited just to talk. She tried to hurry up and pack up her herbs to get back into the house, but Cavalier landed between her and the back door.
“Hey sweetie! Long time no see.” He said with a bit too much enthusiasm. Nicole nodded hello. “Cav. What brings you into town?” She pretended not to know what he had in mind. He staggered slightly. Great, she thought, Superman is drunk. “I think you know why I’m here.” He slurred. She smiled at him. “I do. Don’t you think maybe you should sleep that off? Maybe we can have lunch later…”
“I’m not interested in lunch…”
“Then what are you interested in, pal?” Came a man’s voice. Cavalier turned to see a tall young man with broad shoulders and a double barreled shotgun resting casually on his shoulder. He turned to look back at Nicole. “A friend of yours?”
Nicole nodded. “Yes, a good friend. I think maybe you should go home, Cav. I’ve moved on.” Cavalier smiled. “Oh, okay, I can see that. What if he was gone suddenly? How about then?”
She was more than a little alarmed by the obvious threat, and William had not missed it either. “Sir, I think you should do what the lady says. We’ll make sure you get your booze and food, but do all of us a favor and stay there.” Cavalier turned to face the young man and found the gun pointed right at him. “I’m not going to ask you again, sir.”
Cavalier reacted fast, in a fraction of s second, he landed a powerful punch on the young man. He threw years of frustration and angst into that punch. It was enough to send William through the house and the one across the street. Cavalier and Nicole were both shocked to see that William had not even moved an inch. The roar of the shotgun echoed through the streets. Cavalier stared in blank amazement, his eyes crossed and a stupid look on his face.
William reloaded the shotgun and placed the barrels against Cavalier’s nose. He was now gleaming silvery metal. “I asked nicely because I know that you’ve done much to help this city and my good friend there, but you’re pissing me off, sir. Nicole has moved on. it’s best that you do, too.”
Cavalier looked back and forth stupidly between the two of them for a moment, then scoffed and flew off. Nicole looked at William in disbelief. The silvery steel color of William’s skin faded to it’s normal peachy tone. He smiled sheepishly. “How else do you think I survived seven years of this crap on my own?”
Nicole just shook her head, dropped her basket and wrapped him in the biggest hug she could muster.
Cavalier landed back in his castle moments later. A little voice, almost insignificant in the back of his mind, was screaming “What the hell were you thinking?!” So he hunted down a cast of Duo to drown the voice. He’d fallen so far, he couldn’t imagine coming back up. He’d just tried to force a woman to have sex with him… At that moment, the hero, the little bit of Cavalier that had always held up ideals and fought for good, died.
It had been seven years, and he had to demand payment for his services. Why then shouldn’t he lead them? Why should they not treat him like a king? He’d heard that other powerful beings in other parts of what remained of the world had become monarchs, why shouldn’t he? after all, many of these people had benefitted from his help back when the world made sense.
He poured himself large mug of strong ale and began drinking heavily. When he woke from his bender, he would hunt down his old uniform and teach the people down below that he was their king.
William sat on a chair near the kitchen table while Nicole stalked back and forth shouting at him. “How in the hell could you not tell me about this?! Three months. Three months! And you didn’t think this was important?!”
William held his hands up defensively. “Honey..”
“Don’t you honey me!” Nicole screamed at him. He stood up and grabbed her hands. “Honey, listen. I wasn’t keeping it from you, but I have scared people in the past with it and didn’t want to scare you or any of our friends. I guess the cat’s out of the bag now though, huh?”
She pulled away, but not out of anger. She was trying to assimilate everything that had just happened. Cavalier, the hero of the city, had pushed things too far. And now her new boyfriend was a superpowered man made out of unmoveable metal, when he needed to be. All she could think was, what made her so special?
As if to answer her unanswered question, William stood up. He immediately shifted into shining, silvery metal. “Nicole, I want to be straight with you. I can turn into pure steel. I can root myself to the ground and not even a tractor trailer can move me. I’ve been shot, blown up and attacked by armies of undead, and don’t have a scratch to show for it. I found this place and thought I had finally found a home, some place where the life expectancy for everyone was longer than a few months. And I didn’t want anything to interfere with that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“Would it matter?” He asked back.
She stared at him hard for a moment, then ran over and wrapped him in her arms and kissed him long and hard. “Don’t keep anything else from me, you asshole.” she said. William laughed and switched back to flesh. “Count on it.” He smiled.
Crater wandered the halls of the castle drunk and stumbling. He had seen Cavalier return a while back, but had been too far gone to bother asking him how his “meeting” with Nicole had gone. he needed a release of his own, and he knew where to get it.
He donned his costume from years before, the bright white and blue uniform he had worn so proudly in the dead city from another existence. Now it merely served as moderate armor when he went out for a fight. he clumsily ran out the front door of the castle, smashing into trees which shuddered and dropped leaves at his passing.
After a half hour of running, his buzz still firmly in place, Crater found what he was looking for. A starving, haggard looking group of zombies wandered in the general direction of the city. There were at least thirty of them, but he considered them a minor threat. He dropped right into the middle of the group, punching, kicking and stomping the group. He picked one up and flung her at a cliff face. She crumpled against the stone, her head crushed.
Two more approached, moaning. Crater balled up his fists and smashed the dead people down into the ground. two more punches sent two more flying away, dead or broken. The battle continued on for several more minutes, Crater crushing and throwing zombies before they could even land a blow on him.
Then he lifted a zombie that was wearing a fireman’s gear, ready to throw him. Another bumped into his leg, and when his attention was broken for that split second, the fireman bit down, deep and hard on Crater’s forearm. He screamed in rage and pain and slammed the zombie down onto the ground as hard as he could and stomped on its head until it was flat..
He stared at the bite on his arm in horror. He knew that for most people that was a death sentence. Perhaps he would be okay if his arm was amputated above the bite, but he had no means to do so. Maybe it wouldn’t affect him the same way? He had no idea.
Crater had suddenly lost his taste for the fight. He wished he had just stayed home and stared at the dead TV like he’d done for years, simply wishing it would just work. Why couldn’t he just be content with his life as it was? Crater decided to cut his losses and run back to the citadel. Maybe the bite was not as bad as it seemed. Maybe his unique metabolism would protect him from the contagion that was spread to so many people worldwide.
For the first time in his life, he was terrified that he’d made a decision that would cost him everything.
A thousand miles to the East, near the zombie-infested ruins of what had been New York city, a lone figure walked down a crumbling freeway. The husk of the city had stopped smoking years before, and all that was left was a shattered landscape of burned out buildings, and the tall, glassy pillars of Manhattan that had somehow escaped fire damage.
But the walker knew entering the city was suicide; much of the enormous population had been infected in the early days of the apocalypse, mostly due to the blackouts and confusion that followed the massive storms that spun off of Hurricane Medea and tidal damage caused by the shift of the moon, which hung, oversized in the sky in the growing daylight.
She was on her way to a small fiefdom located not far from the main city of New York, based in the estate of an old friend, Deadshot. Rumor had it that someone with knowledge of who caused the end of the world was living and working with the lord of this land, and she had some questions for him. She and her cohorts knew of the many kingdoms that sprang up shortly after the end times, and they had deep suspicions of who was behind them. This man could be the key to confirming their suspicions. The world had had its share of super villains before the cataclysmic events of almost a decade before, but they had determined that this had required the coordinated efforts of several intelligent and motivated individuals working together, and this man was supposedly a part of those plans.
She had been travelling at a brisk pace for days, pausing only to eat and very occasionally rest. She hadn’t bothered using a car since the roads were either dilapidated or choked with dead vehicles, but it didn’t matter anyway, she was plenty fast on foot. On a high overpass littered with decaying semi trucks and cars, she leapt from roof to hood to roof, keeping a watchful eye out for movement, particularly any that foretold of the highway’s impending collapse.
On the roof of a rotted Escalade, she paused. Nothing obvious was wrong, but her limited prescience told her danger was near. She quietly drew her sword with her right hand and placed her left on the handle of a Sig pistol on her hip, a leftover from her days as a detective. Moments later, a low moaning came from behind an overturned bus less than a hundred feet away. She readied herself, prepared to dispatch the approaching zombies, hoping it was only a small group.
To her surprise, three emerged from behind the bus, all with metal collars attached to thick chains. Behind them was a man carrying a shotgun. “Lower your weapons, trespasser. We have you surrounded. If you fail to comply, you will not leave this road alive.” She surveyed the area and could just make out movement of perhaps a dozen of the walking dead, likely also accompanied by armed men.
She grinned. “Back away and let me through. I wish to speak to the lord of the land near the city. I have no fight with you.” The man laughed, and the other three, three zombies a piece, emerged from behind other vehicles. “You are not in a position to negotiate. If Lord Ward wanted company, he’d ask for it. Now get off his overpass and leave your weapons. We won’t ask again.” Now Carbon was smirking openly. “You didn’t ask. You ordered.”
“And I’m ordering you to get down and leave your weapons.”
“Not a very welcome reception for an old friend of your lord.” She retorted. “Lord Ward” was it? So clearly Deadshot was no longer alive, and his protege had, setting himself up as the ruler of the area around NYC. Maybe her gut had been right about him being less than noble; Deadshot would not have labeled himself “lord” of anyone.
“Lady, I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re his mother. We have orders, and now so do you.” Carbon shook her head. “I will speak to him, and there is nothing you can do to stop me. If you continue to slow me down, however, I will have to remove you from my way.”
The man smiled. Dirty teeth showed from cracked lips. “Sounds like a threat boys! That’s an executable offense!” All four men loosened their grips on the chains and the zombies moved closer. “It doesn’t have to be like this, just let me pass.” She said one last time. The man laughed again. “Of course it does, it always does!” As the walking corpses advanced, he levelled his shotgun one handed, likely hoping to force her down from the SUV into biting distance of the zombies.
“The dead slaves are so much easier to control than the live ones!” He laughed as he pulled the trigger. Or started to, anyway; the shot that rang out was not from his gun but Carbon’s drawn pistol. In the blink of an eye she’d pulled the weapon and fired a shot, hitting the man’s gun hand. He shrieked in surprise and pain as one of his fingers was blasted from his hand and the gun fell to the ground. She knew she didn’t have time to get off any more aimed shots at the rest of the crew, so she fired blindly in their general directions, hoping to hit one, but not expecting to score any.
The other men ducked, surprised at how fast the woman was, but all easily avoiding taking any damage, although one missed being hit by less than an inch. They freed their undead slaves, expecting that a dozen would be plenty to finish her off. Little did they know that even twice the number would have been inadequate. Carbon holstered her gun and gripped her sword with both hands. The three released by the still screaming leader of the group were close enough for her to smell, and they reached out hungrily to grab her.
Upon closer inspection, she could see where their teeth had been filed down to points, and their fingernails had been augmented with dirty metal claws. The chains appeared to have wires running their lengths, looped in and out of the links, and ran up into the back of the zombies’ skulls; that was probably why they did not attack their handlers, she thought. One was closer than the rest, a man in what appeared to have once been a policeman’s uniform.
She waited until he was in reaching distance and thrust forward, her blade biting into the skin just below his jaw. She angled the handle down and drove straight up, through the chin, up into its brain and out the top of his head. She retracted her sword, and the zombie fell dead. She used the momentum of pulling the sword out of bone to spin around, delivering a powerful strike at the head of the next in line, cutting the front third of its head off. As the third one closed in, she kicked it in the side of the knee. Although they didn’t feel pain, they still needed functioning body parts; the zombie collapsed under its own weight as its knee ligaments tore under the force of the kick. Carbon almost casually drove her blade into its forehead as she stalked the injured handler.
She could hear the others approaching, slowly, from behind. She guessed the handlers were keeping low and letting their minions do their dirty work, so she was not terribly worried about being shot at. She could see the injured handler frantically looking for his finger while trying to hoist his shotgun with his left hand. “So, tell me, when your slaves aren’t in hand, do they still not eat you? Because I’m thinking I might ask you to lay down your weapons and just leave. How do you think that will work out for you? I’m thinking badly.”
He tried to lift the gun to fire at her, but before he could react, Carbon had already closed their distance and grabbed the barrel, pointing it straight up. The man found himself staring into the pale blue eyes of a woman appropriately named after the personification of death. She’d not worn her mask in years, so he could see the unflinching resolve on her face; she’d just given him another chance to cooperate; the other option being a gruesome death that he likely deserved for all the others he’d condemned to it.
His grip on the shotgun relaxed, and he let his hand drop. “Wise move.” She said. “Can your friends call the others off, or am I going to have to kill them all?” He glanced up incredulously at first, but in light of what he’d just seen her do, and the alternative, he decided she was to be believed. “Guys! Call off your walkers! I’m Down!” There were three clicking sounds in the distance, followed by a low buzz, and all but one of the zombies stopped in their tracks.
However, one that had been a woman in a bus driver uniform kept approaching. “Hank! Lucinda won’t stop!” A voice began swearing in the distance and the injured man started to back away in a panic as the woman go closer. None of this seemed to bother Carbon in the slightest. When it seemed clear that whatever device each of them carried to control the undead was not working, she flipped the shotgun in the air, sheathed her sword, then caught the gun by the handle and fired it into the zombie’s forehead.
Seconds passed after the echo of the gunshot and the subsequent “thud” of Lucinda hitting the ground before the rest of the group emerged to collect their slaves. Carbon stood over the man who was quickly getting sick and going into shock. She pumped the shotgun until no more shells ejected and dropped it in front of him. “Get your finger and your gun. You guys will be my escort to your ‘lord’ so I can speak to him. Don’t doubt for a second that I can take all of you and would walk away without a scratch.”
The three armed men hardly seemed cowed at first, and once she handed the gun back to their injured partner, seemed to be entertaining thoughts of overwhelming her. But then one spoke up. “She ain’t kidding. She was that hero from the city out west… what’s the name? Grim something.” He snapped his fingers. “Carbon! That’s you, ain’t it?” She nodded slightly. “God damn. God DAMN. I thought you all were dead. Guys she’s a real life hero, like Ward.” One of the others elbowed him in the ribs. “Lord Ward.” he said. The man who’d spoken first nodded. “Yeah, him. I heard she heals super-fast, too.”
She was a little taken aback, the man was talking about her like she was a comic book hero come to life. “Good thing we stopped. She’d ‘of stomped a mudhole in us all. What? I’m serious. My cousin lived there and talked ‘bout her all the time. Was her hero.” He looked at Carbon who was teetering between amused and feeling a little exposed. “Pardon, ma’am. You can imagine this area’s not too friendly these days.”
She nodded sharply. “Good. Now that the introductions are out of the way, can we be going? I would recommend patching up your friend, first. If you have doctors, maybe they can reattach his finger.” The group was surprisingly well supplied; they bandaged up the man’s hand, administered painkillers and even had cold packs to preserve his finger. She had the impression that injuries were pretty common on these patrols.
They started off as a group, the zombies leading the way. The man that recognized her kept pace with Carbon. “Sorry about the show, ma’am. We get a lot of crazies around here, although I’d be lyin’ if I said we never hurt nobody that didn’t deserve it. I’m guessin’ Lord Ward might be happy to see you, he talks about his time with the heroes back in the day from time to time.”
She nodded, understanding, but was apprehensive about how happy Ward would be to see her. From what she’d seen so far, he appeared to have elevated himself in his stories and might not take too kindly to someone who could shatter the facade he’d built. She kept her thoughts to herself as they walked down the highway ramp to the “kingdom” beyond.