Cavalier winced as a loud pained wail echoed off the walls of his home. Crater was deathly ill, the zombie virus slowly killing him as he lay on the couch, and there was nothing he could do to save his friend. He continued to feed him beer, hoping that the alcohol would dull his pain, or knock him out so he wouldn’t have to feel. Cavalier chewed his lip; he’d not suffered any great loss in years, since decades before the cataclysm.
Now he was preparing to lose the closest friend he’d ever had, the man who had been his most reliable ally in his life. The village below seemed to regard him as an annoying semi-duke these days. He hadn’t had any real respect in years. And now that new shiny punk was with Nicky, armed with a shotgun, experience and a power that made the mighty Cavalier powerless to even move him.
He snarled. The village existed because of him. They built it at the foothills of his land, in clear view of his castle, for the protection his existence provided. His fists clenched at his sides as Crater let out a loud gasp, having polished off another gallon of strong beer and passing out. The heavy mug crashed on the floor as the huge man collapsed into unconsciousness. He thought back; hadn’t there been rumors of a thriving kingdom in old Colorado? One with a standing army, robot and human soldiers that had fought back the hordes of undead and mechanical invaders?
The same rumors spoke of it being led by a multi armed woman of unreal beauty; Arachne. Cavalier let out a long, steadying breath. In the world before, they had been diametrically opposed; she ran a criminal underground and he was dedicated to ending crime. But the world had changed. She had led a community to prosperity. Maybe he could enter an alliance with her. Maybe she had the technology to cure Crater, to bring him back from the brink of biological undeath.
Maybe he could grab his village back from the people.
A grim smile creased his lips. He could reach her in a matter of hours. He would compromise any way he needed, but he would reclaim his land, and build a prosperous community with a strong military. He would leverage his old antithesis for new power.
Whatever the cost.
Ward sat on the throne he’d had erected in the early days of confusion, when he lead others in the defense of Deadshot’s land against waves of undead attackers from New York City. It sat on a high dais erected out of mahogany and gold, scavenged from the wreckage of Manhattan penthouses. He always wore a quiver of custom arrows with a high-strength carbon fiber compound bow.
In the weeks following the apocalypse, he’d holed up in Deadshot’s mansion, allowing survivors in for shelter on the condition that they follow his rules. He’d framed it as if adherence to his rules were necessary to live, even though he was really just very forward thinking and setting himself up as the defacto leader once things calmed down. His hasty plan had worked; those that were allowed inside looked to him for decisions and coordination. When things settled more, he lead treks into the woods to clear out walking corpses and coordinated the construction of a walled perimeter around the estate building upon the existing walls of the compound.
His shanty town housed a few thousand people, all of whom were fiercely loyal to the man they attributed their survival to. They accepted his condescension and demands as time wore on because they believed they would have died had it not been for him. Ward knew otherwise. He was a talented archer and a brilliant manipulator. He sent others ahead or lead from the trees or by radio, never truly putting himself in harm’s way. With the exception of doing trick-shots for the people’s amusement (or rather, his own sense of superiority) he had not drawn an arrow in combat since leaving the Red Hook district the day his mentor died during the end of the world.
After a few years had passed, a visitor had arrived from overseas claiming there were thriving kingdoms that had sprouted up from the chaos. He claimed to know who was responsible for the events that had destroyed the world, but would not speak further of it. He quickly proved to be an asset, able to extract information from people with a simple touch. He never revealed his true name, but went by Extractor because of his talent for interrogation, and wore his head wrapped in a thick scarf and goggles. Whoever he was, he wanted to be invisible to the outside world, a fact Ward used to his advantage.
A few years after the End, and emissary from a western kingdom visited saying that they were looking to begin a communication network with the larger colonies they had learned of for the collective good. They wanted to reunite the country, they said. Their claims of advanced technology were true; the emissary had provided them with several zombies retrofitted to be slaves, and showed several doctors how to implant the devices and hook them up to the dead with chains for control. In exchange all they wanted was regular communication and a promise to never act against them.
Ward agreed, and as a result, a trade route was opened to the western kingdom, where information was traded for food and supplies. Ward kept most of the details from his followers, and rationed the supplies claiming a finite supply. Meanwhile, he lived an existence of relative luxury in an opulent mansion surrounded by thousands of loyal citizens. The only people who knew the details of his agreement with the west and his hoarding were his “elite” crew that enjoyed many of the same luxuries he did, so they had no reason to tell anyone.
Some of them would join the patrols that scoured the NYC area for potential invaders or platoons of the robot warriors that devastated so many towns in the early days of armageddon. Hank Rearden, one of the elites, was out on patrol as Ward sat drinking some local white wine. He had been a wealthy businessman in the world before, working in iron. Now he applied his same ruthless philosophy to the new world; “makers” earned his respect while “takers” were to be used and discarded.
Or at least he had been. One of the perimeter guards sent word, and within minutes it had reached Ward, that Hank and his team returned, but that Hank had been injured. Ward was surprised, Hank rarely put himself into dangerous situations; if anyone else in the group had been hurt, it would have been business-as-usual. Surprised changed to shock a while later when Hank and his team arrived with a visitor. Normally anyone requesting an audience would have been made to wait outside and if they were lucky, they would not have to interact only through a liaison. None of the normal protocols were observed, the visitor not only came right in, but was escorted by Hank’s team!
After the initial shock wore off, he understood why. He was still going to punish them for the breach; protocols were protocols after all, and if they got lax, people might just start letting themselves in when they felt like it. But still, the appearance of a woman who had to be Carbon explained their unwillingness to argue with their “guest.” Ward sat up in his throne, then eventually stood, trying to hide his nervousness. He remembered Carbon as a no-BS hero who had a very stark, unforgiving view on personal accountability and right and wrong. He also had no idea how much she might have changed over the past seven years.
Trying to keep the edge out of his voice, he spoke with forced swagger. “As I live and breathe… Is this the great and powerful Carbon?” She cocked an eyebrow and managed a sarcastic smile. Ward was not anyone she’d ever had much interaction with, certainly not enough to warrant such a casual, acquaintance-like demeanor. She gave a small nod. “Doing well for yourself, I see. How long after Deadshot died did you set up shop? He is dead, is he not?”
Ward was put back on his heels by her directness. He found himself telling the truth simply because she had managed to put him off his game by not fooling with small-talk. “He fell the first day of all this.” An obvious shadow crept over his features as he thought back. “We were in Redhook investigating the rumors of a zombie outbreak there. They weren’t rumors. I barely made it out myself, and Deadshot… You knew him. You know how he liked to take risks. He was trapped on the street with an army of those things. He never stood a chance.”
Carbon nodded, digesting his words. Of course, they made sense. Recklessness was one of Deadshot’s defining personality traits. “And you came back here and set all this up?” Ward was regaining his composure. “I don’t need to explain the whole history of how this fiefdom came to be. Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to speak at length later.” He smiled suggestively. Carbon gave him a sour look, and Ward and all of his henchmen shuffled uncomfortably at the flat reply to his advances.
“I came to speak with someone I hear works with you. A man who supposedly knows who created this mess.”
“What mess?” Ward asked. It was a stupid question, he knew, but he was groping for an excuse to deny that Extractor was there, since clearly that was who she was after. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear about this place.” He said with false bravado. “We’ve had refugees arrive expecting luxury apartments and a pool with champagne. People with little hope spin some tall tales.” He smiled inwardly, proud of the lie he had thought up on his feet. He usually enjoyed having the time to craft his lies carefully, coming up with contingencies for potentially unexpected questions, but this one would do, he figured.
“Really? Hmmm….” Responded Carbon. “That’s weird, because I had heard from a source in Europe that this man had been involved and had even lead one of the new kingdoms over there, albeit for only a short period. Rumor has it he’s been working with you as an interrogator.”
Ward swallowed hard. The look on Carbon’s face showed she wasn’t simply making lucky guesses, and that he could continue to bluff if he wanted, but she already knew the truth. He had no way of knowing that she had seen this exact exchange on the way to his estate, her limited clairvoyance letting her know that he would lie and would be easily trapped in it. He was a great shot with a bow, but a terrible liar when put on the spot.
Lying wasn’t working, so he decided to just lay out the facts. “You can’t speak with him. There are others around that would like to see him dead, and I can’t allow that.” Again, Carbon caught him in a lie, but not one he’d made intentionally. “You mean if they found out, they’d kill him and and then cut off your supplies for harboring him and lying to them.” She smirked. “How’s this lying working out for you? If your loyal subjects were to discover what was going on behind the scenes, things could get ugly for you.”
It wasn’t a direct threat; she was more suggesting that his inability to keep a single detail from her implied that his silver tongue was beginning to tarnish. Ward’s eyes narrowed and his hand slowly made its way toward an arrow. “Is this man worth dying for, Ward? Is he worth losing everything? You’ve carved out a nice home here, and despite the fact that you are keeping them hungrier and less comfortable than they should be, you are providing a good haven for these people. Are you really willing to give this up just to keep me from talking to this man?”
“Are you blackmailing me?” He asked threateningly. Carbon shrugged. “Bargaining. I need this man to find the people responsible for destroying our world, and I will stop at nothing to bring them to justice. Your association with an old friend of mine gives you some leeway, but don’t think I will hesitate to treat you like any other criminal if you stand in my way. Just because the world has changed doesn’t mean my views on right and wrong have. Consider your next move carefully.”
Ward chewed his lip, considering what to do. Had he really moved so far to the dark side that he would actually consider what he was thinking? Would he murder a good woman in order to maintain the status quo he’d created? He smirked. The world was different, now. The law was whatever men in power said it was. “I’m sorry, friend of my mentor, but there’s too much at stake.” He spoke as he thought to himself, she knows too much. His elite read the intent in his words and sprang into action. They stepped into special cages built into the walls of the throne room, made of corrugated steel too thick to be bent by normal strength, with gaps too small to reach through. Once locked inside, they pulled levers that simultaneously dropped the dais the led to Ward’s throne and unleashed a pack of what appeared to be thirty zombies into the room. Ward set an arrow and took aim at the woman in black. She didn’t move.
Ward held his shot, figuring he could hit her once she was distracted by the approaching mob. The first several reached out at her, and as Ward let loose the arrow, Carbon moved with almost supernatural speed. She grabbed the nearest undead by the shirt and jerked it to the side. The approaching arrow hit it square in the back of the skull, the tip emerging from its cheek an inch from her face. As she dropped the dead zombie, she drew her sword. The next arrow was picked off by a swipe of her blade.
She was momentarily caught off guard when a loud “clack” sounded from behind. One of the elite had opened a port in the cage and stuck a shotgun barrel through. He fired a shot, the blast echoed off the wall and caught Carbon in the side. The punch of the blast knocked the wind out of her and threw her into the waiting arms of two shambling corpses. As one moved in to bite, she head-butted it in the mouth, breaking several teeth, as she struck the other in the chest to buy herself some breathing room. Up came her elbow into the broken mouth of the first one as she turned her back to it, sending it falling back but not disabled. Her sword impaled the other, but the rest of the crowd was now surrounding her.
She desperately withdrew her blade and chopped down at two advancing undead, severing their legs at the thigh. Another arrow clipped her shoulder and ricocheted off the armor. Carbon body-checked two zombies that strayed close, knocking them over the two she had just taken the legs from. Thinking quickly, she lopped off the second leg of the one closest to her. With an evil grin she hoisted the now legless corpse. It growled and flailed trying to get a hold of her. The next time Ward fired an arrow, she was listening for the twang of his bow. She immediately put the struggling zombie between her and the incoming arrow. Two more buried themselves into its torso before she heard him swear. Using the body as a battering ram, she knocked back several of the advancing undead.
Ward gritted his teeth in frustration. Carbon was keeping her head down so that he could not take a shot at her. It suddenly occurred to him what she was doing, and although he tried shouting, the sound of moaning undead was too loud.
Carbon’s arm burned as she strained to hold the writing torso with her left arm while keeping grip of her sword. Banging it into the others was keeping it distracted as she shouldered through the crowd, stepping over the fallen. She was fast approaching the cage with the man who had shot her. She could hear him begin to panic as she approached. He kept muttering “Shit!” There were a series of shots as he emptied his shotgun into the zombie. When she heard his gun click, she ran full speed at him. The others had no clear shot at here, there were too many corpses shuffling around, and after they began to fire, the zombies seemed attracted to the noise and were thinning out around her. She slammed the body into the cage at a full run, wrenching her shoulder and elbow painfully. She could hear the man inside loading shells into his gun. She drew her right arm back as soon as she heard the pump chamber the first round, and then drove the blade through the zombie’s back with all of her strength. The man inside stared in horrified disbelief as the katana blade burst through the clawing corpse, slid through the gaps in the cage and buried itself into his left pectoral muscle. He tried to gasp, but couldn’t.
Carbon grabbed the sword with both hands and twisted it roughly. The man cried out, but it was a weak sound with his pierced lung. Carbon drew her sword back out. The zombie hit the floor with a sickening wet sound. She began to thrust again when she realized she was once again exposed; she raised her left arm just in time to stop an arrow from piercing her head. She swore loudly. It was a wonderful shot, but it turned out to be bad luck for the man in the cage.
Gunshots rang out as the men in the other cages tried to clear the zombies out; now they were moving to rescue their injured comrade. Carbon looked over the front of the cage to determine where it was locked. Cleverly, the mechanism was entirely inside the cage, protected by corrugated metal and a thick plate. Unfortunately for the man inside, it was not designed to be proof against the black diamond-edged carbon steel of Carbon’s sword. She stabbed at the metal, then kneed up the back end of the hilt. There was a screeching noise as her blade bit through the metal like an old fashioned can-opener. She pulled the sword free then slammed hilt against the outside of the cage. She heard part of the slide-lock fall. The door erupted open as the injured man inside fired the shotgun at the door.
Carbon rolled out of the way of the swinging metal. Grimacing, she grabbed the arrow in her forearm on the side with the head and snapped it in half. Growling like an animal, she spun around the open door, and with stunning speed, drove the arrow-half like a miniature spear into the top of the man’s head. His eyes rolled back and he spasmed, then collapsed to the floor of the cage. She pulled the rest of the arrow out and threw it to the ground, moved her blade to her injured hand, then hefted the man’s shotgun. Several arrows hit the door as Ward desperately tried to slow her down, but Carbon didn’t even flinch. She tossed up the gun, caught it by the pump, pumped it once, then flipped it so that she could hold it by the handle again.
In a single smooth move, she spun out from behind the door and leveled the gun at Ward. he dove to the side as she fired, and as he rolled up onto his feet, he notched an arrow.
Or rather , he tried to. The string of his bow had been severed. Carbon had not shot at him, but at his weapon. She switched hands and almost nonchalantly strolled past several zombies. As they approached, they were met by a speeding blade that removed most of their head in a single stroke. She climbed up over the open cage door and scaled the wall over toward Wards dais. He panicked as he looked futilely for a way out. Several design flaws in his trap were becoming readily apparent. She made it to his level with frightening speed, aided by her boots and gloves. Ward turned to run, he wasn’t sure where, but away. When he realized there was nowhere to go, he hefted the end of his bow like a sword and swung it at the approaching woman.
He knew it was futile, but his desperate mind raced with little success to find a way out. Carbon blocked it with her hand with seemingly no effort, then slapped it out of his hands with her sword. She dropped the shotgun and sheathed her sword in a single fluid move, then grabbed Ward’s shirt with both hands and spun him over the edge of the dais, his feet straddling the edge, the only thing preventing him from falling onto the floor below Carbon’s strong grip on his clothing.
“I tried to be polite, Ward. None of this had to happen, all I wanted was to talk to this Extractor. Now I think maybe I will need to take him with me, to ensure that I get proper, unbiased information from him.” Ward was still trying to think of a way out of giving up the man, and Carbon saw it plain on his face. she loosened her grip for a fraction of a second, but it was enough for Ward to tighten up. The hungry dead people below were starting to gather right where he would land.
“You can give him to me, and we can pretend this little incident didn’t occur, or I can let go, get him anyway, and you won’t be around to know how pissed off everyone is going to be when they discover you’ve been lying to them. make your choice quick. My arm hurts because some idiot decided to argue against reason.”
Ward finally conceded. He couldn’t win against her. Not with a platoon of undead and armed men, all of whom were currently powerless to help him. He held his hands up “Okay! Okay. You can have him.” Carbon smiled at him. “As if there was ever any doubt.” She said flatly as she pulled him back to safety. She turned and fired several shots into the crowd below, killing a zombie with each one. She dropped the empty gun on the ground. “I would get your guys to clean this up. We’ll hang out together while they collect your friend.”
Ward swallowed hard and nodded. He barked orders to the remaining men, who slinked out of their cages and systematically killed all of the remaining undead. Two remained behind to start cleaning out the bodies while the third left to retrieve the Extractor and get a cleaning crew to dispose of the mess in the throne room.
The third man returned a half hour later. The floor was clear of bodies and most of the blood had been washed away. The steps of the dais had been moved out again; the throne room was almost back to normal. While they waited, Ward shared with Carbon what had happened to Deadshot seven years prior, when his mentor had met his death in greater detail. Carbon listened intently. It certainly didn’t excuse his behavior, but she understood the need for survival and that Ward had never quite embraced being a hero. There was also a selfish arrogance about him that reminded her of Cavalier; she couldn’t wait to be on her way.
The man was accompanied by another wearing a faded grey scarf wrapped around his head and a pair of goggles. The rest of his clothing seemed incongruous with the headdress. He was wearing a tailored suit of deep, almost black purple, a white button down shirt and a red necktie. In a surprisingly unmuffled voice he asked “My Lord, what is this about? Your man,” he said with obvious contempt “interrupted me while I was entertaining a young lady. I trust this is pressing.” Ward held up his hand. “I have some bad news. My friend here” he motioned toward Carbon. “Has some questions for you, but also must be on her way, so I am afraid this is where we part company.”
“What?” The Extractor shouted, shocked. The man next to him grabbed his arm, and two of the men cleaning brandished their guns to let him know that flight was not an option. Carbon walked down the stairs toward him. “I have questions for you that are better asked away from prying ears. I think you will find this to both our benefit.” The man known as the Extractor watched how the woman moved with feline grace, a large sword casually slung over her shoulder and a pistol strapped to her hip. Her armor and clothing barely scratched.
His head dropped. He was going, but was terrified of what would meet him once she discovered who he was.