Chapter XVI: Voices in the Shadows
~ 9 Years Ago ~
10 July 1774
Léon was panting as he tried to rest his back against the damp surface of the cold dungeon wall. His legs were burning and he grit his teeth as he tried to rotate his ankle. He tried to adjust his right arm, but all he felt was a stinging sensation rise up through his bicep and into his shoulder. The gloves he had on were making it difficult to grip the handle of his rapier and the heavy metal weapon tried with all its might to slip out of his fingers.
The splash of something made him turn his head to his left, though in the darkness of the insufficient torchlight, he couldn't see a thing. His left hand instinctively went to his neck to try and pull off the helmet that he had on him to see better, but he remembered that he was told he would need it. He cursed to himself silently as he tried desperately to peer at the darkness through the narrow slits of the metal cage which surrounded his head. The soft silk padding lining the inside of his helmet was damp with his sweat. He drew his weapon carefully off the ground and he dulled the pain from his calves with strength as he slowly stood up.
Another splash, this time from behind him made him turn his head for a moment only to be met once again with the darkness of the tunnel. He switched his gaze quickly to the water in front of him which rippled quietly downstream to his left confirming to him that something disturbed it to his right, but the dim lighting interspersed along the stone walls made it impossible to look any deeper into the water. He struggled consciously to get up and his gaze rapidly moved from his right to his left. He thought he would have had an advantage in this tunnel as it limited any approach to him to one side or the other, but somehow he felt more unease now than when he was in the main basin of the cistern. He had to choose, he had to take a risk. Right or left... otherwise he would just make himself disoriented through nausea.
“The splash to the right is a ruse,” he thought to himself, “It has to come from the left...”
A second splash; again from the right side. He didn't move. Instead, he positioned himself to receive anyone approaching from his left. “He'll come from the left,” he reassured himself. He cursed the stupid helmet once again as he tried to discern any figure approaching in the torchlight far off. A third splash... this one coming closer was once again reverberating from the right side of the tunnel. He began to doubt... but it was too obvious. Why a third splash if—
The aqueduct water in front of him exploded and water rained down him in globs. The glint of steel was hidden amongst the shining particles of water and Léon rolled desperately out of the way as a whirring swing nearly caught him in its downward slice. Léon stood up quickly to regain his balance as a helmeted face locked itself onto him. Léon presented his weapon as he backed away carefully. He waited as he examined his attacker. It was impossible to see the face between the bars of the helmet, but the film of water dripped down a mostly nude body which only sported gloves and undergarments. Léon was surprised that he had not thought of the idea himself. It would have been easy to take advantage of all of the water in the area if he was not bogged down by his uniform. His enemy's bare feet stanced themselves for a lunge.
His opponent closed the gap between them quickly and the thrust grazed the clothing on Léon's shoulder as he parried it away. He could not even riposte as the blow was dealt with such force that he needed to take great strides backwards. Despite the trouble, there was something he noticed with his keen eyesight. A possibility. He stood his ground and returned a testing swipe of his rapier which was pushed aside by the assailant before being replied to by a quick lunge forward. Léon was quick to adjust to the side, which his opponent quickly followed only to find that the dampness of the mossy stone made his wet feet slip by just an inch. Léon took the opportunity to land a blow on the opponent's torso, but so quick was the response to it that instead of landing a proper blow, Léon's weapon was embroiled against the other's desperate swing.
Léon did not waste this opportunity of the enemy's gambit and, with a flourish, swung the opponent's weapon from his wrist with such force that it splashed against the aqueduct to his left with a crash. Disarmed, the opponent slid back frantically two paces as Léon positioned himself for a coup de grace. Without hesitation, Léon moved forward hoping that his quick strike would force the opponent to slip once more if he wished to avoid it, but instead, the helmeted one in front of him seemed to roll backward in Léon's sight. No... it wasn't a roll. His opponent was closing the gap between them by using the residual water on his skin to glide across the floor. The man's bare foot caught Léon's boot and Léon tumbled forward and slammed against the stone ground while his rapier swung a few feet away from him.
Wet arms suddenly slid across his throat and began to constrict his breathing while a knee was driving into his lower back as his whole upper body was bending backwards against his will. He felt muscles bulging against his neck constricting his wind pipe. He struggled to breath and it felt as if his outstretched fingers grasping out for something were beginning to feel tingly. Seconds seemed to spread out into minutes as he felt his back aching into an unnatural arc. The heavy knee on his back seemed like it would snap him in two. That's when he heard the voice.
“He's going to win,” he heard in the quiet recesses of his mind.
“I... can't do anything to stop him,” was Léon's silent response.
“No... you can't,” the voice agreed. “You're going to die here, Léon.” The voice chuckled softly in his brain. “But that's alright, isn't it? Because who wants you around anyway? Even Gustave betrayed you... didn't he?”
“He... did...” Léon admitted.
“Do you think he would have betrayed you if you meant something?”
“Why would someone like Gustave care about you anyway? You're nothing special. You can't even win this fight.”
Léon groaned without sound. “But I'm worth something, right?”
“Oh sure... I've shown you before, haven't I? People are impressed when you show them how smart you are, aren't they?”
“You became stronger the past few years, right? I've shown you how to become stronger.”
“Yes... I guess so...”
“You have to stay smart otherwise people will abandon you. Remember Antoine? You weren't what he wanted as a friend.”
“No... I wasn't...”
“You have to be strong otherwise people won't like you anymore. Remember Antoine? He wasn't impressed by you...”
“No... he wasn't...”
“Do you hate him?”
“He hurt you... I hate him, too. Don't you wish he could feel the way you feel? Feel your pain?” the voice feigned some distress at these words.
“Yes... but he doesn't listen to me... He wouldn't want to listen to me...”
“Then he needs to feel it... not just listen to it. I can show you. Let's show him what it means to feel pain.”
“Let me hurt him for you. You'll feel better this way.”
“Let me show you what power is...”
“Do you want him to feel pain?”
“Shall we hurt him?”
“Shall we make him bleed?”
“Do you want him to know what it's like to be abandoned?”
“Yes, I do.”
“To be alone?”
“Like what he's done to you?”
“Because people like him are horrible, aren't they!”
“Yes! The worst!”
“And we hate those people!”
“They should all die, shouldn't they?”
“All of them!”
“Then let me kill them for you. Let me do it for you.”
“Yes! Make them all die!”
Léon opened his eyes and with a gasp of breath that ripped through his windpipe, he lowered his head for just a moment before lunging it backwards against the chest of his assailant. A sickly crack snapped through the tunnel as the metal of the helmet contacted the collarbone. The grip around his neck loosened as an audible grunt accompanied the impact. Léon's hands grabbed at the arms and pulled them away. His whole body twisted as his elbow hooked into the opponent's neck knocking him off of him.
Even before the other could recover, Léon, crawling on all fours, pounced atop his attacker and drove a knee straight between the legs. The cry that came from behind the man's helmet did not stop Léon from kneeing him again. And again. Blood stained the undergarments and soaked the tip of his knee. The man weakly tried to reach for Léon's neck, but an elbow slamming against where he had fractured the collarbone tore the skin and weakened the hands clawing at him helplessly. Léon grabbed one of those limbs and, while sitting on the man's stomach, pulled back the digits until they snapped to the sound of the man's screams.
He was quick to slide off of him and turn his opponent to one side. With his feet planted on the man's bare back and his hands still holding onto the man's arm, he swiftly pulled the man's limb so far backward that his arm snapped until it was limp. He pulled the man onto his back once again. The man was making some kind of noise behind the helmet as if words were attempting to form but were interrupted by hiccups. It almost made Léon laugh, but, instead, he took his head and slammed it into the man's chest which elicited a high pitched gasp.
His helmet came crashing into the man's chest over and over and in the same spot until the metal lines along his helmet began to slice away the skin and blood frothed along the slits of his visor until all Léon could see was a dark red dripping onto the body below. His gloves touched the warm blood seeping out and trailed it slickly past the broken collarbone to the man's neck. He squeezed and his fingers could feel every vein and cavity therein constricting.
Léon could hear the man struggling for air while his one arm was too weak to reach up to stop Léon. Curiously, Léon let go for a moment and the man gasped for air. He watched the helmet sway back and forth weakly as if this man was attempting to shake himself awake. That's when Léon's fingers squeezed again and the struggling began anew. He kept his fingers there longer this time before releasing him again. He pulled the man's head upward and slammed it back down against the stone. He repeated this crashing motion against the stone again and again until the helmet dented and chips of old stone were skipping into the water to his left. His greedy fingers pulled off the man's helmet.
Antoine's disoriented eyes looked up at him and those lips quivered to say a word. Léon stared at him as Antoine's blood dripped from Léon's helmet onto the gasping one's cheek mingling with sweat and tears. Léon's hands found their way to Antoine's cheeks and steadied his head. Slowly, Léon leaned down closely to examine those scared eyes until even Antoine could somewhat see the eyes staring back at him from behind the visor. Only the sound of Léon's long breathing and Antoine's sharp breaths filled the tunnel. Léon reared his head upward and slammed his helmet into Antoine's face. Antoine tried to say something with broken, bleeding lips but the helmet came slamming down again and again. The aqueduct was turning red.
“So this is the power of #356...”
“Just a taste of it. True awakening won't happen for years to come.”
“Somehow I have my doubts about trusting a weapon like that. To do that kind of thing... even a madman could be just as brutal and far less expensive.”
“You must be patient. Right now, this is Destrudo in its most unrefined form. This is why we must pair him with #355 and mix all of this blood in a sea of sleep. Once all of this is processed, then you'll see how effective and precise of a tool a death god really is.”
“Atropos certainly did an excellent job a few years back.”
“Yes... you could really see their work in what happened today.”
“That aside, it would appear that all the candidates survived the trials. A few dented helmets on some of them but most passed perfectly. In almost all circumstances, they dealt with their opponents in the way ways we expected them to.”
“As for replacement students for the ones killed in the trials...”
“Have someone make another round at the villages. It doesn't matter who since we don't have to replace any of the prime candidates.”
“I also wanted to get your opinion on this one.”
“Probably the best of those we're training as soldiers. Received an N Seven combat rating.”
“What about him?”
“I wanted your approval for an experiment I'd like to run on him.”
“What kind of experiment?”
“A new form of indoctrination. I wrote the details down for you this morning.”
“... Hm... this... has high risk.”
“And a high possibility of reward. Don't tell me your sensibilities are offended.”
“If I had sensibilities to offend, it might be an issue. Thankfully, I don't have your human failings, doctor.”
“This new procedure will completely purge him of those 'human failings' you so despise. It will make him something easy to control. A husk to do your work.”
“He's one of our best assets for this upcoming war. I'll leave it up to your judgment, doctor, but I warn you. You will have to reap what you sow.”
“I understand. This will work, I assure you, ma'am.”