Double Elimination: Razrushenie

He reaches into his coat pocket and places his hand on the gun. Even in the warmth of August, the metal of the gun is ice cold. He takes a deep breath. He knows what he has to do. With a silent prayer, he pulls the gun from his pocket and fires.

+++

Let’s back up. It’s January. A man named Max scrubs down the counter of the bar he works at. Max has been working for hours and is ready to go home. Last call was ten minutes ago and all of the drunks have stumbled out of the bar and into the cold. All but one.

A chubby man in his thirties is slouched over on the bar. The man has long hair, dyed purple and pulled into a braid. He has an unkempt black goatee and a silver nose ring. Max slams his fist on the counter and the man wakes up. “What time is it?” the man groggily mumbles.

“Time to leave,” Max says. “Bar’s closed.”

The man stands up from his stool and wanders over to the door, before tripping and falling face first onto the floor. Max sighs and walks over to the drunk man. He helps the man to his feet. “Let me get you a cab,” Max says.

“Sorry,” the man says. “I must’ve overdid it tonight.”

“Yeah, you could say that,” Max says as he sits the man down in a booth.

Max leaves the man and grabs a phone hanging by the bar. “I got a big promotion today,” the man says.

“That’s nice,” Max says as he dials.

“I’m Felix, by the way.”

“Honestly, I don’t care.”

“I figured I’d celebrate a little ‘cause of the new job. You know, order some champagne, get a little tipsy. But, I’m not allowed to tell anyone about my new job, so I guess I just got drunk alone.”

Max hangs up the phone. “Cab’ll be here in ten minutes,” he says. “Next time, don’t drink so much, okay?”

“You’re a godsend,” Felix says.

Max goes back to cleaning the bar. “So, what kind of job do you have where you can’t tell anyone about a promotion?” he asks.

“I’m not supposed to tell anyone.”

“Come on, I can keep a secret.”

Felix looks around the bar, making sure that he and Max are the only ones there. “I got a job recruiting people for Ragnarok,” he whispers.

Max raises his eyebrows. “Ragnarok?”

“You don’t believe me.”

“As a rule, I take the things my customers say with a grain of salt. Especially when they’re crazy things said by people who can’t even walk in a straight line.”

“It’s probably for the best that you don’t believe me. I probably shouldn’t have told you in the first place.”

“Mind if I give you a word of advice, Felix?”

“What?”

“Don’t say you’re part of Ragnarok. Even as a joke. The Coalition’ll lock you up and throw away the key.”

Felix frowns. “The Coalition. Don’t even get me started on those guys,” he says. “I can’t wait for the day we…”

Before Felix can finish his rant, his face turns green. He runs for the bathroom. Unfortunately, due to his inebriated state, he trips and hits his head on the bar. He then vomits on said bar, much to Max’s dismay.

+++

The next morning, Max is awakened by the ringing of his cell phone. He groans and puts his hands on his ears. Felix’s little mishap the night before took hours to clean up. Max grabs the phone and reluctantly answers. “What?” he shouts.

“Don’t take that tone with me!” the voice on the other end of the line shouts.

Max sits up and rubs his eyes. “Ma?” he asks.

“Acting like a hooligan and yelling at your mother. I raised you better than this, Maximiano!” his mother yells through her phone.

“What’s the matter, Ma? It’s six in the morning.”

Max’s mother goes silent for a moment. “There are men here Max,” she says. “They’re trying to kick me out of my home. I’m scared.”

“What do you mean, kick you out of your home? Who are these men?”

Before his mother can answer, Max hears a click and the line goes dead. “Ma?” he says, confused.

Max mutters a handful of curse words and grabs his keys. He drives to his mother’s house, a few towns over, speeding like a maniac. When he exits his car, he is shocked by the spectacle that lies before him.

Dozens of pieces of construction equipment are scattered around the small village. The neighborhood where Max’s mother lives has been torn apart; piles of brick and wood lie where houses once stood. Bunches of people stand around clutching possessions, staring at the ruins of their homes.

A single home stands among the rubble: a small cottage owned by an easily annoyed old lady. She stands on her porch, refusing to leave. Three soldiers, dressed in blue and gold riot gear and holding large rifles, attempt to talk her into leaving. “I have lived in this house for thirty years,” the old woman says. “You can’t just make me leave.”

“Ma’am, I know that your situation is less than ideal, but I have my orders,” one of the soldiers says. “We need you to leave the premises at once.”

“Less than ideal?” the woman shouts. “You call this less than ideal? This is my home!”

Max runs over to the woman. “Ma!” he shouts.

Max hugs the woman. The woman, Max’s mother, turns to the soldiers and smirks. “This is my son,” she says. “He’s going to beat the shit out of the three of you!”

The soldiers point their rifles at Max. “Ma, don’t say things like that,” he says. “You’re going to get me killed.”

“What seems to be the holdup?” a muffled voice says.

Max turns his head to see a tall man wearing gold and blue armor. The man wears a white long coat, a white gas mask, and a gold helmet with a blue mohawk. The man carries a pair of axes and has a large gun slung over his shoulder.

“Ma, head into the house,” Max says.

The soldiers salute the man wearing the white coat as Max’s mother backs away. “There’s something strange about this house. What could it be?” the man in the white coat says with his hand on his chin. “Maybe it’s the fact that it’s still standing despite the fact that I told you cretins to have this neighborhood demolished an hour ago?”

“We’re sorry, sir,” one of the soldiers sheepishly mutters. “We tried to tear it down, but the old woman who lives here won’t leave.”

The man wearing the white coat raises his hand into the air and the soldier stops talking. “You,” the man says while pointing at Max. “Have a name?”

“Max,” Max mutters.

“Hello Max,” the man in the white coat says. “I’m Colonel Zeegers of the SPARTAN Squadron. Do you live here, Max?”

“My mother does.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Max. This neighborhood is within the construction zone of City 174. Are you saying that your mother lives in a construction zone, Max?”

“City 174?”

“Oh, forgive me. I forgot that I was talking to one of you heathens. Last week, Chancellor Babineaux and General Rompaye announced plans to build another Great City in the middle of this godforsaken country. The 174th City, in case that wasn’t clear.”

“What are the people who live here supposed to do?”

Colonel Zeegers laughs. “I suppose they should leave,” he says. “I mean, if they want to get run over by construction equipment, I guess they can. Still, I’d advise against that. It’s such a pain to clean the blood off our tires.”

Max clenches his fists. “You have no right to take-”

Colonel Zeegers strikes Max with the blunt side of one of his axes. Max falls to the ground and Zeegers kicks him in the stomach. Max feels warm blood drip down his face and into the dirt below him. His vision blurs and a throbbing headache begins to form.

“Max, right now you have two options,” Zeegers says. “You can grab your mother and walk away, or you can die. What’s it going to be?”

Max crawls to his feet. He and his mother walk away from the house as Colonel Zeegers burns it to the ground

+++

Max tosses and turns on his couch, unable to fall asleep. His mother is in his bedroom sleeping in his bed; Max told her she could stay with him until they figured out a more permanent solution.

In truth, the old couch filled with holes and covered with stains isn’t the only thing keeping Max up. The rage from his encounter with Colonel Zeegers still burns within his heart. Max could barely focus during his shift at the bar and spilled three different drinks, much to the displeasure of his customers.

Max groans and sits up. He checks the time on his phone: 4:16. Max sighs. At this point, the prospect of him getting any sleep seems unlikely. Max opens a browser on his phone and types in a name: SPARTAN Squadron.

The top search result is a government webpage about an organization called the SPARTAN Squadron. Max clicks on the link and starts reading. The Specialized Personal Agency: Reconnaissance and Tactical Adversary Neutralization Squadron, also known as the SPARTAN Squadron or the SPARTANS is an elite squad of the Coalition’s finest warriors, the website says.

Members of the SPARTAN Squadron are handpicked from promising candidates serving within the Coalition armed forces. Candidates with advanced magical skills, years of combat experience, and specialized abilities are trained to reach their maximum potential to better serve their country. The SPARTAN Squadron has faithfully served our nation since its creation following the Great Invasion. Two champions of the Golden Valhalla Tournament, Colonel Kulap “Quicksand” Trueman and General Arastoo “Legion” Rompaye, were once members of this glorious group.

The website goes on for several more paragraphs, giving out compliment after compliment to Zeegers’s group. Max closes the page; the page is clearly nothing more than bullshit propaganda.

Max looks up City 174 and stumbles across a news story published shortly after its announcement. During the yearly State of the Nation address, Chancellor Babineaux announced plans to create a new great city within northern Asia, the article states. According to General Rompaye, this city will help assist in the ongoing war against the terrorist organization Ragnarok. Critics have accused this plan as being an attempt to subjugate the citizens of NOU. Babineaux responded to these treasonous claims by assuring reporters that no harm will come to the people of NOU.

Max groans and closes the web page. Lie after lie, Max thinks, “They take our homes, burn our possessions, assault our people, and have the gall to say that no harm will come to us?” At this moment, an angry and sleep-deprived Max makes the biggest mistake of his life. He looks up Ragnarok.

Max has heard of the organization before. He knows that Ragnarok is a loosely organized group of anarchists trying to overthrow the Coalition through acts of violence. Max knows that there are recruiters for the group scattered throughout the world, seeking out new pawns in their never-ending war against the Coalition.

Max spends hours researching Ragnarok. Eventually, he discovers a shady website filled with videos created by the group. Max clicks on one labeled Ragnarok Manifesto. The video shows a figure wearing black armor standing in front of a grey flag with a red ouroboros painted on it. “This world is ruled by the corrupt,” the armored figure says. “Marilyn Maia and the World Government Coalition have but one desire: the accumulation of power.”

The armored figure’s voice is distorted and deep, presumably to help hide their identity. “They will stop at nothing to accomplish these goals,” the armored figure says. “They slaughter mutants, they crush Outlanders, they execute those who have the courage to speak out against the cruelty of this world! They sit atop their ivory towers, staring down upon us peasants and laughing as we struggle to survive.”

“We are Ragnarok! We are this world’s reckoning! We will bring about the death of the gods! And we, will never, ever stop, until all who profit from the suffering of others pay for their sins!”

The video ends. Max clicks on another one, titled The Execution of Governor Duval. A picture of an old woman with red hair appears on the screen. “Governor Kamila Duval of the Duval crime family was given control of City 117 through a rigged election,” a distorted voice says. “She has used her power for her own benefit while leaving her people to suffer in squalor. Today is her day of reckoning.”

The video cuts to a dark room. Governor Duval is chained to a table. A man wearing grey and purple armor with a helmet shaped like an insect head stands behind her. A rifle is slung over his shoulder. “During the Twelfth Tournament, your family profited off gambling related to the death of Swiss, a 15-year-old fighter,” the man says. “Is this true?”

 “No,” the governor says. The man smacks her with the butt of his rifle and repeats the question. She begrudgingly says yes.

“Three years ago, a reporter discovered that you used your city’s public transit system to launder money acquired through your family’s drug business,” the man says. “The reporter was found dead three hours after publishing the story. Is this true?”

 Governor Duval doesn’t respond. The man smacks her with his rifle. “Yes!” she shouts.

“During the Invasion, you evacuated to a government bunker while leaving your people to perish,” the man says. “Is this true?”

 Governor Duval starts crying. “Please,” she says. “Don’t kill me. I have a family!”

The man smacks her again. “For your sins, you will burn,” he says.

The video cuts to Duval running through a forest. A series of bullets strike her and she falls to the ground. The man with the rifle walks up to her and lifts her head by her hair. He pulls a knife from his belt. “Death to the Gods,” he says as he slits Governor Duval’s throat.

Max closes the video. He sits in the dark and thinks. He imagines slitting Zegeers’s throat and making him confess for his crimes. Max remembers the conversation he had the other night with Felix, about Felix’s new job recruiting people for Ragnarok. Max still thinks that Felix was full of shit, but what if he wasn’t? What if Felix could help Max make a difference?

+++

Max is awakened by a knocking on his door. He opens it to discover a man standing in front of his apartment. “Colonel Zeegers,” Max says. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Have you come to burn this place to the ground too?”

“Still quick-witted, it seems,” Zeegers says. “Someone ought to teach you to watch your tongue.”

“Is that why you’re here? To beat me up for talking back?”

“You’ve been visiting some interesting sites recently, haven’t you?”

Max’s heart skips a beat. “Is that a crime?” he asks.

“The Coalition monitors people who are interested in Ragnarok’s Manifesto. It’s a good way of identifying potential threats,” Zeegers says. “Normally, a low-level grunt would have been sent to investigate you. But, when I found out that the obstinate shithead I beat the crap out of yesterday was looking up Ragnarok, I couldn’t resist checking you out for myself.”

“Is that so? After our talk yesterday, I decided to look up Ragnarok. Find out more about the horrible people that you guys are trying to stop. Is there anything wrong with that?”

“No, but-”

“In that case, I see no reason to continue this conversation, Colonel,” Max says as he slams the door on Zeegers.

Max smiles. Then a hand bursts through the door and grabs Max by the throat. The hand rips him into the door and squeezes his windpipe. As Max struggles to breathe he hears the familiar voice of Colonel Zeegers. “Max, if you ever try to pull something, I will personally kill you,” Zeegers says. “Have I made myself clear?”

“Crystal,” Max says, barely audible.

+++

Max struggles to contain his rage as he serves drinks to his customers. Then, close to last call, he notices a man with turquoise hair pulled in a braid, a black goatee, and a silver nose ring. The man sits down at the bar. “Vodka, on the rocks,” he says.

Max pours the drink and hands it to the man. “I see you dyed your hair,” Max says.

 The man takes a sip of his drink and sets it down on the bar. He stares into Max’s eyes. “Do I know you?” he says.

“We met two nights ago,” Max says. “You got hammered and I called a cab for you. It’s Felix, right?”

The man, Felix, stares at Max for a few more seconds before smiling. “Right,” he says. “Sorry, I don’t remember that night very well.”

“You talked about some interesting things that night,” Max says.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You mentioned a new job. A recruiting job.”

Felix tenses up and knocks over his glass. “Oh, I’m so sorry about that,” he says.

Max grabs a towel and starts to clean it up. Felix leans in close and whispers into Max’s ear. “If you tell anyone anything I will make you suffer,” he says.

A smile covers Felix’s face, but hate fills his eyes. “I want in,” Max whispers.

Felix raises his eyebrows. Max finishes cleaning up the drink. “I got a job working for a militia group called ARC,” Felix says while winking.

“Are you talking in code?” Max asks. “Because the only other person in here is that old man passed out on the pool table.”

“I’d love for you to check us out,” Felix says. “Can you meet me at this address?”

Felix scrawls out a note and hands it to Max. The note says: 593 Horrea Ave. Wednesday, 16:23.

“I’ll be there,” Max says.

+++

The burnt remains of a warehouse sit at 593 Horrea Ave. Max walks through a broken doorway and into a large room illuminated only by the light of the sun. Within the room stands a man in a dark grey suit and a purple tie. A helmet shaped like an insect head covers the man’s face.

Max stops in his tracks. He recognizes the man as the one from the execution video. Max hears the sound of a gun cocking and feels something poke him in the back. Max slowly raises his hands in the air. A hand belonging to a man standing behind Max begins to pat Max down, searching for weapons or recording devices.

Max slowly turns his neck to look at the man and catches a glimpse of turquoise hair. “Felix?” Max says.

Felix moves his gun away from Max. “He’s clean,” he says. “Sorry, Max, had to be sure you weren’t up to something fishy.”

Felix walks over to the man wearing the helmet, allowing Max to get a better look at the gun. The gun is a black pump shotgun, made out of shiny metal. Although Max doesn’t know it, Felix will eventually use this gun to murder two innocent people and create a nihilistic madman who eventually rips Felix’s head of. It isn’t terribly important that Max doesn’t know this fact; said fact is only tangentially related to Max. Besides, knowledge of the future is extremely rare and usually unavailable to 23-year-old bartenders.

“This is the guy who I was telling you about,” Felix says. “The bartender.”

With that, Felix walks out of the warehouse, leaving Max alone with the masked man. The masked man stares at Max. After twenty seconds of silence, he speaks. “What is your name?” he asks.

The masked man’s voice is distorted, sounding like what a beautiful flute serenade would sound like if someone tried to recreate it using a garbage disposal. “Maximiano Mikaelsson,” Max says.

“Do you know who I am?”

Max nods. “You’re the Woodsman,” he says. “You’re a serial killer who works for Ragnarok.”

The Woodsman tilts his head. “What do you think of my killings?” he asks.

Max clenches his fist. “You’re a violent and sadistic madman,” he says.

“I see.”

“But, the people you kill have it coming. There are people out there who steal, and kill, and rape, and do whatever the hell they want. These people deserve to rot in a cell for the rest of their lives. But, because of their money, or their fame, or their connections, they get to walk free. That pisses me off. Look, I don’t like your methods, but I like that there’s someone out there willing to kill the scum.”

“Why are you here, Mr., Mikaelsson?” the Woodsman asks.

“Excuse me?”

“According to Felix Ares, you want to join our organization. Joining a terrorist organization is grounds for execution. You don’t seem to be a fanatic, Maximiano. So why do you want to throw your lot in with violent and sadistic madmen?”

Max sighs. “Look, I don’t care about overthrowing the government, or killing gods, or any of that crazy shit. But, this new city they’re building, I hate it. A man came to my ma’s house, beat me to a bloody pulp, and burned the place down right in front of us. That isn’t right.”

“I see. You are far from alone in these thoughts. Many of Ragnarok’s members have expressed distaste towards City 174. For example, an associate of mine, who will remain anonymous, asked me for help in destroying a fleet of construction equipment.”

Max bites his lip. “The thing is, I want to stop these guys, but I don’t want to hurt anyone. Or, at the very least, not anyone innocent,” Max says. “You guys have done some good things over the years, but you’ve also caused plenty of pain and suffering.

“We will not force you to do anything you don’t wish to do,” the Woodsman replies. “Contrary to popular opinion, Ragnarok isn’t an army of maniacs. We are a loose association of outcasts who share common goals and ideals. We lend each other resources and information, but we do not have a formal leadership structure. Some of our members are more…radical, and have resorted to killing innocents in the past. Although I find their goals admirable, their methods leave much to be desired. If you wish to avoid killing civilians, I will not stand in your way.”

A wave of relief surrounds Max. “So what do I do now?” he asks.

“Now, you return to your home and pretend this meeting never happened,” Woodsman says. “If you wish to stage an attack against the Coalition, contact Felix and we’ll send all the support you need. If you need weapons, we can arm you. If you need men, we can find them. If you need power, we can give you strength beyond your wildest dreams. Just keep in mind that there may come a day when another member of Ragnarok needs your help.”

“My help?”

“Someday, we may need a meeting place and request to use your bar. Someday, we may need a getaway vehicle and ask to use your truck. Someday, we may need someone beneath suspicion to acquire information and will ask for your assistance. Of course, you will be free to turn down any requests that you find abhorrent.”

Max grabs the Woodsman’s hand to shake it. Oddly, Max’s hand goes through the Woodsman’s, confusing him. The Woodsman chuckles. “I’m not actually here, Maximiano,” he says. “We at Ragnarok prefer to communicate using magical projections. Magic, unlike electronic communication, is completely untraceable. I’d recommend studying a few spells to help protect yourself. In the meantime, Mr. Ares will assist you in communicating with other members of our organization.”

“If you aren’t here, then where are you?” Max asks.

“I’m afraid I can’t share that information with you,” the Woodsman says. “The Coalition has called for the deaths of every Ragnarok member. As one of our most prominent and influential members, I am forced to take extra precautions to hide my identity. I mean no offense.”

“It’s fine,” Max says.

In truth, it isn’t fine. In fact, it is the exact opposite of fine. Not because the Woodsman doesn’t trust Max, Max doesn’t give a shit about that part. No, Max knows that it isn’t fine because he just realized the danger that joining Ragnarok poses for him.

“Maximiano, I cannot promise that you will not die because you joined this organization,” the Woodsman says. “In truth, I have lost many friends over the years in pursuit of freedom. If the thought of death scares you, feel free to leave this warehouse and forget about our conversation. If you stay, I cannot promise you that you will live. But, I can promise you this: if you die, your death will have meaning.”

+++

Weeks go by. Max’s mother continues living with him, unable to find a new home. She is but one of the thousands displaced by City 174, which grows bigger and bigger each day. Max works night after night at the bar, making just enough to pay his rent. Still, Ragnarok consumes his thoughts. He wants to do something, to make a difference. He just doesn’t know how.

One night, while Max is working at the bar, Felix walks in holding a briefcase. Max’s heart skips a beat. “Felix,” he says, confused.

“Water, on the rocks,” Felix whispers.

Max serves him his drink and Felix takes a sip. “We’ll talk later,” Felix mutters.

Hours later, only Felix and Max remain in the bar. Felix picks up the briefcase and sets it on top of the bar. “We have a mission for you,” he says.

“What is it?” Max asks.

“A few hundred people are planning a protest at the City 174 construction site at Razrushenie on the tenth. The Coalition caught wind of this and is planning to send their army to slaughter the protesters. We’re going to stop that.”

“How?”

“The Coalition aren’t expecting any resistance. If we can stealthily take out their chain of command, they’ll retreat without firing a single shot. We think you’re perfect to shut them down before they hurt anyone. Are you in?”

Max thinks for a moment. He smiles. “I’m in,” he says.

“Good, there’s just one hitch, Max.”

“What?”

“We kinda need you to kill someone.”

The words hang heavy in the air. “No,” Max says.

“Come on, Max, hear me out-”

“No. I’m not a hitman.”

“Then why did you join Ragnarok? We’re terrorists, Max. We kill people.”

“I know, but-”

“But what? How many people are you going to let suffer because you’re too afraid to do what has to be done?”

Max can’t think of a response. “Besides, you only have to kill one man,” Felix says. “And believe me, he’s an asshole.”

“Who?”

“His name is Zabulon Zeegers. He’s a member of the SPARTANS sent here to order around the grunts.”

“I’ve met him.”

“Then you know he’s a piece of shit! Last week, he burned a family alive because they refused to leave their home. He’s the type of man who deserves to die.”

Max mulls over Felix’s words. “How would I get to him?” he asks.

  “Zeegers is a showboat. We’re betting on him going up to the crowd and insulting it before ordering his men to open fire. That’s where you come in. Kill him when he’s giving the speech and his men won’t know what to do. Then, you’ll be able to escape safely into the crowd and make your way to a getaway car. Sound good?”

“Sounds dangerous.”

“Max, look at me. What do you see?”

“A nose ring?”

“Exactly. I’m noticeable. But you, you can blend into a crowd. No one will notice you until it’s too late. Me, Woody, Trojan, we all stand out. But you, you can stop Zeegers. You’re our only hope.”

Felix opens the briefcase for Max. Within it lies a shiny silver revolver. “Take it,” Felix says. “Even if you don’t want to kill Zeegers, it’s good to have a gun to defend yourself. These are dangerous times.”

+++

Early in the morning, on August Tenth, 2232, Max crawls off his makeshift couch bed and makes himself a cup of coffee. He sips it in silence, contemplating his options. The protest is set to start in three hours. Colonel Zeegers and an army of angry people make for a bad combination. As the bitter roast pours down Max’s throat, he hears footsteps behind him.

“What are you doing up so early, Max?” his mother says.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he replies.

“Max, you need to get sleep when you can. You keep staying up late and getting up early, you’re gonna start looking like me.”

“I look that bad?”

“What do you mean, look bad? Your mother is a very beautiful woman, Max!”

Max smiles. He drinks the rest of his coffee, his mind made up. “Ma, there’s something I have to go do,” he says.

“What is it?” she replies.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“When will you be back?”

“As soon as I can. Don’t worry, Ma, I’ll be fine.”

Max walks over to his couch and reaches underneath. He pulls out the briefcase and walks to the door. “I love you, Ma,” he says before leaving to face his destiny.

+++

Max and Felix drive to the protest. Even though it’s nine AM, a huge crowd of people is gathered in front of a neighborhood set for demolition. Angry protesters hold signs and banners. They shout insults at the armed soldiers approaching the neighborhood.

Without a word, Max leaves the car and walks into the crowd. Felix watches Max leave, with his foot on the peddle. As soon as Max is out of eyeshot, Felix slams his foot on the gas and leaves the rally.

Max slips through to the front of the rally, keeping his head down and trying to avoid attention. Colonel Zeegers stands in front of his men. “Disperse at once!” he shouts over the screaming crowd. “Although we would like to avoid it, we are fully prepared to use violent means to secure the safety of the workers!”

Max reaches the front of the crowd and closes his eyes. He reaches into his coat pocket and places his hand on the gun. Even in the warmth of August, the metal of the gun is ice cold. He takes a deep breath. He knows what he has to do. With a silent prayer, he pulls the gun from his pocket and fires.

Although Max will never know this, his shot strikes Colonel Zeegers in the eye, killing him instantly. As Zeegers collapses to the ground, screams erupt from the crowd. Terrified soldiers raise their weapons and open fire on the fleeing civilians.

Max knows that it is pointless to run. But, at this point, he doesn’t care. The sound of the gunshot rings in his ears. The guilt of his crime builds in his stomach like vomit. Max doesn’t react as the bullets blast through his chest and tear his body to ribbons. He knows that there is nothing he can do. As the screams of the dying and the sound of gunfire consume Max’s mind, he collapses to the ground and follows Zeegers into the land of the dead.

+++

“Shame about what happened to Max,” Felix says.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Ares, his death served a greater purpose,” the Woodsman says. “Because of his actions, 323 innocent civilians were gunned down by the military. Already, stories of this massacre are spreading throughout the internet. The Coalition will try to hide this event from the world, as they always do, but something of this scale cannot be silenced.”

The two stand in the warehouse where Max met the Woodsman. “A good man is driven to his breaking point by the Coalition,” the Woodsman says. “When he finally reaches his limit, he attacks a man infamous for killing innocents. The Coalition responds by slaughtering civilians like vermin. It’s a wonderful story, one that will lodge in people’s minds. The type of story that makes people mad. Mad enough to revolt. In life, Maximiano Mikaelsson was irrelevant. But, in dying, he has given us the spark that will burn the Coalition to the ground.”

“Yeah, but I don’t get why Max had to die. Didn’t you say that Zeegers was already planning to kill the protesters?” Felix asks.

“Kill the protesters? Don’t be absurd. Zabulon Zeegers was a cruel man, but he wasn’t an idiot. Odds are, he would have shot some random person in the head to disperse the crowd. But, his men lack his training. Once Zeegers was out of the way, the grunts were forced to act on instinct. And, most men, when faced with fear, tend to act like fools. Don’t cry over dead pawns, Felix. Dying is all they’re good for.”

“I imagine you fancy yourself to be our king?”

“No. This organization existed before I joined and will exist after my death. I consider myself to be a bishop; a vital piece who moves in unorthodox ways.”

“What am I, then? Another pawn?”

“Felix, you are far more valuable to Ragnarok than Mikaelsson. After all, you’re the one who brought him to me. I’d consider you to be a knight.”

“Speaking of bringing you men, there’s this scientist I’m thinking of bringing in. He’s married to this chick I’m banging and-”

“Felix, skip the crude details.”

“Right. When he was in college, he was working on these super steroids. I think he could be useful for us.”

“Interesting. Keep me posted.”

The Woodsman dispels his illusion, leaving Felix alone in the warehouse. The Woodsman’s mind returns to his body. He sits at a desk in a dark office. A woman with red hair sits in the corner, reading a magazine. He removes his helmet and locks it in a desk drawer.

“I find the idea of Ares being a knight surprising,” the woman says. “He always struck me as more of a pawn.”

“I’ve found that men work best when they think their contributions are important,” the Woodsman says. “Felix Ares may be an idiot, but, if he thinks he’s important, he’ll work harder towards our goals.”

“Perhaps. Or, he’ll get drunk off his ass because he thinks he’s important, tell someone less friendly than Max about working for Ragnarok, and get himself killed.”

“I’ll admit, Felix getting himself killed does seem likely.

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