Prologue: City of Hell
The air was filthy… just like the rest of the city. A putrid stench of rotting matter, along with choking clouds of smoke that blocked out the sun, was always present in this accursed god-forsaken place. The tall, mile-high buildings cast ominous and overpowering shadows that crushed the spirit of those living below, in the slums that seemed to go on forever.
The entire city was dark, everything in it stained of gray and black from the constant pollution, and corroded by centuries of acid rains.
If Hell had suddenly risen and claimed a piece of the Earth, then it couldn’t possibly have looked as decadent, depraved and vile as this hideous city. The sun hadn’t even set yet, but the usual sounds were already echoing in a demented cacophony. Roaring engines, screeching tires, crashes, the caractheristic noise of glass shattering… and the occasional sirens and gunshots, along with screams, desperate screams, echoing from homes, shady bars and dark alleys.
Nobody actually cared about the unfortunate souls that were caught by the ghouls that prowled the night. Nobody would look twice at the barbaric scenes all around them. The city was ruled by the corporations, whose leaders had the so-called authorities in their hands. Most of the police force was just as corrupt, doing dirty favors to the rich while leaving the population to fend off the criminals by itself. There wasn’t a single day without murder, rape, destruction… The city was worse than a jungle, it was indeed a nightmare of concrete, steel and tin foil. Gangs roamed the streets, violence was rampant, but nobody cared. The rich slum lords and CEOs partied every night in their impregnable towers, built with the wealth they had made from years of exploiting slave labor. Some of them lived like feudal lords, making their own laws in their property, and they even kept private armies ready to slaughter anyone in their way.
In the meantime, pollution was on a constant rise, and disease took its daily toll. The rich people didn’t care, of course, since they owned almost all of the medical facilities and labs, but the general population died by the thousands, some with their lungs completely charred, others poisoned by toxic waste, and a few others abducted and used as experimental subjects in grim secret laboratories. Those who were lucky ended up being used as toys, forced to sate the lust of their captors until they grew tired of them and got a new one. Of course that meant they’d likely get killed, or even sold for body parts.
Everyone would do whatever they could to scrounge up a little more, even if it meant desecrating another man’s corpse. Nobody valued life anymore, and the newspapers were filled with grim tales of mass suicides. Of course the truth about the atrocities commited by the wealthy was carefully hidden, but such acts were also commited by the general population so often, there was still plenty of material to write about. The media, of course, tried to milk every macabre tale to exhaustion, doing absolutely anything to get the ratings up a couple of lousy points.
In the middle of all this, people had no faith, no one to believe. Like a priest had written centuries before their time, in a work titled “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish”, they literally ate each other.
In one of the filthy alleys of this wretched gutter, another caractheristic scream could be heard. Another girl or woman was about to have her intimacy violated by one of the rabid mongrels that prowled the shadows. She was terrified, but did her best to fight back. Her blue eyes were wide open, and her long black hair was a mess. She was wearing an average-looking outfit, with a white shirt and a blue skirt, which she obviously regretted having picked that morning. In desperation, she struggled, and her bravery earned her a violent blow to the face.
The mongrel grinned, droolling in anticipation. His cruel dark eyes were all over her, filled with malice, and he was already moving closer. Strangely enough, he didn’t look like the average street thug. In fact, he was wearing a brand new set of expensive-looking clothes and had a gold watch and a clean haircut. Next to him was a teenager who looked a lot like him, but was wearing ragged jeans and a filthy t-shirt.
“What did I tell you?” the teenager said to the man “There’s so many of them, nobody will give a damn… and you don’t even have to pay them!”
The man grinned, pulling the girl by her hair. She was panicking, without knowing what to do.
Suddenly, the shadows around them stirred, and something even darker appeared to emerge from within. A deep breathing sound chilled the two would-be rapists as they turned around, startled.
“Who’s there?” the man asked.
Then, a pair of dark eyes suddenly appeared, more terrifying than anything they had ever seen. That cold, piercing stare promised nothing but death. The dark eyes were like glowing windows to hell, surrounded by an even thicker shadow. Suddenly, that dark alley was unbearably cold, and an inhuman growl echoed across it, shattering their hearts like cheap glass. Then, without warning, the shadow rushed to meet them, and they were pierced by cold metal. The man was the first to fall, run through the heart, and then cut to ribbons. The shadow kicked him before he could even fall, knocking him into an open trash container on the other side of the alley. The filthy teenager that, like a jackal, had been acting as an accomplice, was next. First, he suddenly noticed that his genitals had been sliced clean off, replaced by gushing blood. Then, cold darkness replaced his arms. Finally, his head flew clean off, leaving a trail of blood as it fell.
The girl looked at the scene in silent terror, as the shadow then moved towards her. She shivered at the sight of those merciless and apparently bodiless eyes, but the shadow seemed to merely examine her.
“You were lucky…” a voice suddenly told her, as if emanating from the darkness itself “Leave this wretched pit, and find a place where you can live in peace. This city is black of heart and soul, but I will paint it red.”
The voice chilled her heart and made her hair stand on itself. She fainted with a weak whimper, collapsing on the ground over a pile of old papers.
Chapter 1: Blind Dawn
Another cold morning came, filled with the stench of rotting corpses from the nocturnal clashes between gangs. The sun was barely seen through the permanent clouds of dust and smoke, as the hellish factories and transports kept going in their metallic rattle. A few sirens were heard as usual, from ambulances carrying a couple of rich people who’d had too much to drink in the latest party, as well as a few police cars that appeared to be escorting them. Typical. Even as packs of vandals ransacked a few stores in the slum areas, the police forces were more concerned with protecting the people who bribed them on a daily basis.
A gust of wind swept the city’s skyline, dragging muffled screams, along with the usual sounds of drivers with massive hangovers, shouting curses as they rammed each other off the hole-filled roads. A few traffic cops desperately tried to bring some order to the colossal chaos, but most of them gave up after five minutes of loud horns and scampered off to the nearest bar to get soaked in alcohol. Their lives were little better than those of the average citizens, despite the rampant corruption. The corporations enforced hundreds of so-called ‘protection taxes’, which were little more than gangster-style extorsion. On top of that, they controlled every fertile plot of land, mine and water source in the area, which enabled them to dictate the prices for practically everything. As a result, most people could barely survive. Some of them managed to find jobs, working for the same corporations that sucked them dry. Slaving away for a handful of bills at the end of the month, which inevitably ended up back in the pockets of the CEOs. Of course, given the situation, there was no way of stopping crime, except exterminating the entire population. Desperate people were capable of commiting the worst atrocities, just to make it through the day. Many people lived like ghouls, hunting helpless people and animals in the dark maze-like streets. They acted like animals, tearing the flesh of their still-living victims and eating it raw. Even the rest of the slum dwellers feared them, with good reason. Occasionally, corporate security forces would storm the slums, looking for these ghouls. They also took the time to knock some doors down and harass the citizenry, confident in their impunity. Many women and even children had been abused or beaten, and it was said that they reveled in strangling men in their own intestines. They were as hated as the ghouls, and even though the corporations tried to keep a tight hold on weapons, contraband guns were commonplace.
Somewhere in the slums area stood what appeared to be an old fallout shelter from imemorial times, made of solid concrete and with a plated door - something quite rare in the slums. Its size was difficult to determine, since the few who had any knowledge of such ancient things believed that it also contained underground chambers. Such a strange edifice was regarded with a mix of fear and reverence. The corporations made sure that only the individuals with any use to them could get an education, condemning all the others to a life of ignorance, making them easier to oppress and manipulate.
The interior of the facility seemed almost pleasant, compared to the hell outside. The thick gray walls and air filters seemed to keep the pestilence at bay, allowing whoever lived there to shut himself away from the world and temporarily forget the horrors that took place at his very doorstep. The place looked sad and cold, despite the relative comfort it offered, but anyone would rather live there instead of enduring the slums, even for a few seconds.
A pair of eyes suddenly opened in a dark bedroom, as a figure awakened from a troubled sleep. Quickly getting up, a skinny young man faced the light of his nightstand and turned off the alarm clock. Seven thirty, not a second more. He cast aside his white sheets and got up in an instant, rubbing his eyes a bit. He was wearing a simple-looking black undersuit, and his hair, although not very long, looked like something wild and unruly. It was darker than ebony, with some spiky areas that made it look like a wolf’s.
The bedroom was plain, with a simple bed, a chair, a desk and a few bookcases, something rare in this area of the accursed city. The closet seemed to have built into the wall to make more free space. He opened its aluminum door and pulled out a black sleeveless jacket with several pockets, along with a holster belt and a pair of kevlar leggings and a large bulky pistol that looked like it could blow an elephant’s head off.
He then reached for an ammunition belt and stuffed it into one of the jacket’s pockets, before taking everything and heading towards one of the metallic doors of the compartment. He went into a small bathroom and, after a few minutes, he walked back out, wearing the jacket and leggings, with the gun in the holster and a dark smile on his face. He then put on a pair of black army boots and black gloves, before heading out of the bedroom.
He then walked into a small corridor with a few more doors, and headed to the first on his left. A small kitchen awaited him, outfitted with a small stove, a microwave and a fridge. He grabbed a few things from the stocked shelves and was soon making some cheese toasts and tea. He decided to eat while watching the latest news on TV, and so he grabbed a tray, where he placed his cup of tea and a plate with the toasts, and headed back to the corridor, taking the door in front of him.
This chamber had a pair of average-sized lamps set on tall supports that hung from the walls, and a few more that seemed to have been built into the structure. He sat on his large dark blue couch with the tray on his lap and looked for the remote control, turning on an old-looking TV set.
As he was about to watch the news, the doorbell rang. Quickly putting the tray down on the floor, he bent over and pulled something from under the couch. His right hand was now holding a sheathed sword that almost felt warm to the touch. Without making a sound, he moved to the entrance hall and looked at the surveilance screen. He saw the familiar figure of an old man in even older brown clothes, who was leaning on a staff. His left ankle was wrapped in bandages, and there were a few scars on his wrinkled face. His deep blue eyes were truly tired, but there was something wise and serene about him. His white beard was long and messy, and there was a look of sadness about him.
The young man walked back into the living room, placed the sword back under the couch and went to the kitchen, returning to the door with several average-sized metal boxes that felt warm to the touch. He opened the door with a smile.
“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Kerath. How are you doing?”
“Can’t complain… things are worse by the day, but at least we’re still alive.” the old man repied with a hint of sadness in his voice.
“Why don’t you come in and relax a bit? You look so tired…” the young man said, inviting him with a gesture.
“Oh, you’re too kind, son. I’d love to stay a little longer and chat, but… well, the kids are sick again, and… I don’t think they’re going to make it this time.”
The young man noticed the elder’s tears and lowered his head in sadness.
“Damn this city…” he cursed under his breath.
His face then lit up in a slight smile, something that seemed quite rare.
“But I was expecting this to happen. It was only a matter of time, and I’m glad I was able to prepare these.” he said, suddenly revealing a few cardboard boxes that were lying right next to him.
The old man was surprised, just as he knew he would, and his tears stopped for a moment.
“You went through the trouble of preparing those… I… I don’t know what to say…” he said with tears threatening to fall again.
“I don’t need to tell you to make good use of them…” the young man said, handing him the boxes with a smile. “And if anyone else falls ill or needs some decent food, don’t be shy. I’m here to help. Don’t waste your sewat and blood with those corporate pigs.”
After making sure the old man was able to carry the boxes by himself, he walked out, locked the door and escorted him down the block. The elder then disappeared into one of the countless slums in the area. Satisfied, the young man returned to his fallout shelter, and to his breakfast.
After making sure that the bulky plated door was securely locked, he divided his attention between the cheese toasts and the news. A familiar alley was now being displayed, as a reporter commented off screen.
“The mutilated bodies of Jonathan Karlyle and his younger brother Derek were found this morning in a macabre crime scene. It appears that they were violently slashed with an extremely sharp object.”
The young man chuckled darkly as his dark eyes watched the rest of the news bulletin. As usual, the media and the authorities only cared about the case because the victim happened to be a businessman. Businessman… the very word made him snort. Likely a slave dealer, an organ smuggler, or perhaps a drug dealer. In such a decadent and depraved city, it didn’t matter what kind of person you were. As long as you had heaps of money, you were treated like a god.
As one of the many incompetent and corrupt police sargents appeared on screen giving his usual ‘we’ll catch whoever is behind this’ speeech, he couldn’t help laughing at such foolishness.
“Idiots… You are nothing but worthless pawns…”
That night, as the same predators prowled the streets, there was another stench in the air, added to the rest. The shadow knew it well. It was the stench of fear. The shadow had killed many times before, and it would do it again until either that corrupt society crumbled or the world ended. Silent and unseen, it almost flew between rooftops, suddenly changing its direction and merging with the other shadows all around it. Suddenly, another scream, this time from an apartment building in the so-called middle class area in the second ring of the city.
In theory, middleclassmen lived better off than the slum dwellers, but in reality, they were still slaves. These were the elite, specialized workers that kept the corporations moving forward, but they were nothing more than leashed dogs. The CEOs handpicked them to carry out precison work in their facilities, and then took all the credit for their scientific breakthroughs. Although some middleclassmen were happy that way, some hated the corporations, and were even rumored to be plotting against them. Corporate security forces sometimes carried out random arrests, to remind the middleclassmen that, despite their relative comfort, they were not truly free. Now, the shadow sensed that one of these slaves was at fault, preying on someone weaker, as always.
In a towering apartment complex, somewhere in the middle floors, the shadow heard unmistakable sounds. Breaking furniture, screams, a falling body and vile insults. And then, clear as daybreak, another scene that inspired the shadow’s indignation.
An office worker, still in his tasteless brown corporate uniform, was savagely beating a woman, while a couple of little children watched on, powerless to do anything. There was blood all over the carpets, and the woman seemed to be seriously hurt, but he wouldn’t stop.
“You bitch!” he shouted, knocking a flowerpot down and breaking it to pieces “You do what I say! If I want it, then you shut up and give it to me!”
The children seemed to be only five or six years old, and there wasn’t much they could do. Still, one of them, a girl with reddish hair, green eyes and freckles stepped between him and the woman. The man looked at her and knocked her aside.
“You little brats! Is this how you repay me? I’m the one who puts food on the table!”
He then turned back to the woman, who was almost unconscious, her silk dress torn and stained.
“This is all your fault! You’re turning them against me!” he yelled even louder.
Then, the little boy, who looked a lot like the girl, stepped forward and looked at him in the eye.
“You bastard! You’re not our dad!” he protested, kicking the man.
Just as he was about to strike the boy down, every lamp in the house suddenly exploded with a loud pop. Darkness quickly crept into the room, making the air suddenly feel unbearably dense. And then, an even darker shadow appeared in front of the window, with its glowing dark eyes filled with rage and death. Then, the voice came, chilling and terrifying, like the devil’s own.
“Let’s see how brave you are… when you’re up against someone who can fight back!”
Shadowy claws gripped the man, piercing his chest on several spots. He then seemed to be hurled through the air, right to the edge of the window. Then, the darkness seemed to trace a crescent along his height, and he fell, vertically cut in two. The children were scared and held on to each other, but the shadow threw the bleeding carcass out the window and just looked at them for an instant.
“He will not hurt you again… ever.” the shadow whispered, somehoe a tiny bit less chilling than before.
The woman managed to get back on her feet, and looked at the shadowy form as it moved towards the window.
“Wh… who… are… you…?” she faintly asked.
The shadow turned around and looked straight into her eyes.
“Nobody…” it replied, before vanishing without a trace.
Two loud crashing sounds echoed in the night a split second later. The woman and the children rushed to the window, and saw a grim scene below. One of the severed halves of the man had flattened itself on the sidewalk, while the other had crashed straight on his car, which he had bought by starving her and the children for years. Maybe the shadow had done more than stare at them, but in that moment, despite what they had just witnessed, they felt happy for the first time in years.
During the rest of the night, several other screams were heard, and the shadow answered their call with merciless haste. Two drug dealers, a gangster and some street thugs would trouble the innocent no longer.
The dealers were caught spreading their poison, and the wrath of the blade was upon them as they fired their guns at random. Guns wouldn’t do any good against the shadow. The gangster, as usual, was trying to extort money from a defenseless family, and practically tearing their house down in the process. The neighbours would probably take days to find all of his pieces. The family he had been threatening also received an unexpected treat to help them stay alive.
In the next morning, the stench of blood on the streets was even stronger, and some people in the corporate towers already shivered at the tales of a vengeful shadow that prowled the night.
Oblivious to all that, the same tired old man made his way to the fallout shelter once again, with a smile in his wrinkled lips. For a moment, the weight of the years didn’t seem to matter, and he felta great tranquility for the first time he could remember.
The young man with the dark eyes was waiting for him, with a sleepy look on his face. The elder walked to him and almost cried again.
“They’re all better now!” he said to him with relief “I don’t know where you learned to prepare those things, but you’re a lifesaver! They look better than ever.”
The young man smiled, and suddenly felt a slight weakness in his legs. He leaned against the side of the doorway, trying to keep his eyes open.
“I’m… glad things turned out so well…” he said, suddenly realizing how tired he was “And how’s everything else?”
“The patrols seem to have lost their interest in this area. No doubt, they must be getting afraid of something. Their loss is our gain though. But I heard rumors about a strange creature… nobody knows what it looks like, but it always finds evil… and cuts it down with no mercy.”
“Reminds me of the superheroes from the old comic books.” the young man thought out loud.
The old man just nodded.
“Well, I hope we can count on your visit a bit later. The kids wanted to thank you themselves.”
“I’ll be there, don’t worry.”
As soon as the elder left, the young man went back inside, locked the door and yawned loudly, dragging himself into the living room. He crashed on the chouch and turned the TV on, but as usual, there was nothing decent to see. He couldn’t help laughing as he came across another news bulletin, this time about the man who had been found cut in half. He was happy to know that no one had dared to accuse his wife of the deed, which was obviously above her strength, but soon his thoughts turned elsewhere. The city around him was oppressive, insidious, and sometimes it almost felt like a giant pit of evil that sought to swallow everything around it. In the old days, if people didn’t like living in a particular city, they had the choice of leaving and trying their luck elsewhere. But now, the monstrous megalopolis seemed to stretch on forever, and its outer perimeter was blocked with mile-high walls. Nobody talked about the outside world, except for a few elders who told tales of monstrous creatures, even worse than the ghouls in the slums.
His thoughts then turned to the endless streams of pollution the factories churned out every single day. He wondered what kind of damage such substances had done to the environment, that would have made the previous generations hole themselves up in massive urban complexes like this one.
“If pollution did ruin the outside, why did they choose to keep making the same mistake?” he thought “Greed, of course… I’ll bet they were too attached to their bloodstained money to spend anything with the environment… and the people they exploited.”
His thoughts were cut short, as sleep finally set in. He closed his eyes and dozed off, without even having time to turn the TV off. He had a long and restful slumber, and in the middle of it, a strange dream took form.
He saw himself standing at the edge of a huge cliff, overlooking a burning city below. The tall skyscrapers collapsed loudly, burying their inhabitants under mountains of rubble as the rest of the population fled. But some did not flee. Instead, they took the chance and started looting the abandoned shops and ruined buildings, murdering whoever got in their way, and often getting into skirmishes among themselves.
Then, the flames rose, swallowing the looters, and there was a loud groan that seemed to come from the ground. Without warning, the dead rose from every crack and hole, every cleft and fissure, and after devouring the last of the living, they threw themselves into the flames.
He suddenly woke up, realizing that he’d almost overslept. Feeling refreshed, he jumped to his feet, mentally reviewing the path he needed to take. He wasn’t expecting any trouble along the way, since the people in that area were mostly peaceful and hard-working families, trying to make an honest living despite the hellish conditions. However, those were troubled times, and he reached for the blade under the couch and strapped it to his back. hoping he wouldn’t need it anytime soon. He turned the TV off, tossed the remote on the couch and walked out, locking the heavy door once again.
The outside air was heavy and hot, even though it was the peak of winter. It didn’t make much of a difference, since the constant pollution on a global scale had completely derailed the weather patterns and the climate as a whole. He kept his sight low as he surveyed the surroundings. Makeshift homes of tin, wood and scavenged bricks were all around him, along with tents made of old cloth and covered with plastic sheets. Ragged people were constantly moving up and down the street, while some of them tended to small sections of earth where whithered vegetables managed to survive.
What got to him the most, however, as he strolled down the unpaved street, was the strength he felt behind each pair of tired eyes that met his own. Unlike most areas of the slums, where people often sank into despair and turned on each other, his neighbours somehow managed to keep going, scavenging what they could from ruined buildings, long abandoned by their original inhabitants. The rest, they tried to grow in the few untainted plots of land they could find, occasionally trading on the black market for much-needed medical supplies. A few of them had managed to gather enough money to buy electrical generators, but most of the area was lit by torches and campfires.
Here and there, he noticed a few small groups, sitting at doorsteps, chatting as if they didn’t have a single worry in the world. He couldn’t help smiling a bit, fascinated by their resilience and their will to live.
Some children ran by, chasing what appeared to be a ball made of rags. Then a handful of men walked by, carrying long metal staves and small helmets that looked like reforged pans with wire straps. They were wearing thick foam pads over their ragged clothing, covering their chest area. This was doubtlessly one of the many citizen militias that had formed over the years, ragtag bands that tried their best to protect their fellow man from the ghouls, criminals and crazed corporate mercenaries that tended to storm through other less defended areas. It was widely known that the strongest men and women from the middle class area were often recruited into corporate security forces or became freelance mercenaries. Even though they were despised by the elites, and treated little better than the rest, they blindly obeyed their every command. When one of the corporations wanted to seize a new plot of land to build more towers, they were sent in to drive the inhabitants out by any means necessary. As if that wasn’t enough, some of them ventured into the slums during their free time, hunting the local inhabitants like wild game.
Frowning at the disgusting images that suddenly popped up in his mind, he moved on, mentally wishing that the militias wouldn’t be pushed into a fight. Foam pads and makeshift weapons would do little against full body armors and automatic weapons, and the corporate mercenaries often used even more inhumane devices. He remembered the time one of their squadrons had thrown a corrosive gas bomb into a heavily populated area. People running and screaming as their skin and lungs liquified, the makeshift homes melting away, the cruel laughs of the armored men, hiding behind their numbers and guns.