The buzz of a hair trimmer filled the grungy hotel bathroom. Cyrus ran the silver and blue handheld shaver over his face, cutting down his distinctive beard. A pair of moths banged their heads on the dim fluorescent light overhead, wings fluttering and beating against the clear plastic as they circled. He set the trimmer aside and ran his hand along his now much shorter beard. After three centuries of being stuck as a pimply youth, he refused to give up any sign of maturity even now, even if various world authorities would be looking for a bearded man of his exact description. Consistency, even with small things, kept him grounded.
He cleaned off his face with a damp towel and returned to the main room. The local news station on the TV in his room burbled out background noise. The ruffled bed in the center of the room served as an impromptu table for Cyrus’ things. He stuffed the corner of the loud Hawaiian shirt he’d picked up from a dollar store into an old backpack and flipped it over. After a moment of rummaging through a pocket on the front of the pack, he found a slip of paper with an address written on it.
He slipped it into his pocket and walked out of the room, the hotel door clicking shut behind him. The moment he stepped out of the building a faceful of northern Florida humidity hit him. The late June sun beamed down as the people around him went about their days. The taxi he’d ordered pulled up not long after, a standard yellow cab plastered with advertisements.
The drive didn’t take long, no more than fifteen minutes. Cyrus stared out the window the whole time, taking in the novel sights of the modern world for the umpteenth time. In the first two millennia he’d lived, not much changed. A horse and cart on a dirt road wouldn’t be out of place in a Persian bazaar or the capital of the great Khans. Now cars, paved roads, and concrete dominated cities teeming with people. Though for all the world had changed, the taxi came to a stop in front of one of the oldest of buildings Cyrus could remember: a bar.
He paid the taxi driver and climbed out, taking a moment to examine the bar Thomas had told him to go to. The small, one story building stood alone, back to a green wall of a Floridan forest. Kudzu vines had enveloped one of the walls of the building, and the neon Open sign flickered alongside a faded banner that read Support our Troops.
Cyrus headed inside. The cramped interior only sported a few tables and booths beyond the bar itself. Plenty of light beamed in through the windows. The bartender glanced away from a TV on the wall for a moment to give him a nod. Towards the back of the room sat the man Cyrus was looking for.
“Thanks for meeting me,” said Cyrus as he took a seat across from him.
Thomas raised a half empty bottle of beer in greeting. He leaned forward in his battered wooden seat, elbows resting on the table. A somewhat stocky Native American man, most people only knew him as X. Then again, most people only saw a massive suit of power armor with an equally massive gun that Thomas just happened to be inside. “I would have been here later anyway, my military ID gets me nice a discount.”
“Does that apply to friends?” asked Cyrus, craning his neck to get a look at the alcohol behind the bar.
“Isn’t that against your religion?”
“I’m older than Islam, remember?”
“Shit, sorry, forgot.” At Cyrus’s raised eyebrow, he added, “Don’t give me that look, there’s not a lot of cultural contact between the tribes and Iran of all places. You probably think we all live in teepees.”
“You mean you don’t?” asked Cyrus, the corners of his mouth flickering upwards in the beginnings of a smile.
Thomas snorted and said, “Those are only our summer homes. Speaking of which, do you have a place to stay?”
“I’m fine. I’ve had contingencies in place. It’s a little shack up in Montana. My neighbor, Ted, is a nice guy, always talking about packages, but it’s been about twenty years since I last saw him.”
“Ted?” Recognition flashed in his eyes a moment later. Thomas chuckled as he ran a hand through his black hair, now greying at the temples, and said, “Oh god, the Unabomber. That can’t have been twenty years ago. Quit making me feel old.”
Cyrus smiled and said, “Please, do tell me about feeling old.”
“Yeah, yeah,” grumbled Thomas. “I should have known. You didn’t age a day the twenty-five years I’ve known you. Lucky bastard.”
“I wouldn’t call it luck,” said Cyrus, smile slipping from his face.
“What?” asked Thomas, a slight frown on his face. “You’ll never die. You get to do whatever you want, time isn’t in your way. Hell, I thought you’d be ruling the world, like one of those shadowy guys from the movies. You’ve had two, three thousand years to do it.”
“If I could remember everything, I probably could. But my memory is only accurate for maybe a century. I know I was born on a farm in Persia. I couldn’t tell you where, I couldn’t tell you when, I couldn’t tell you what my old name or speak a word of my old language. It just slips away.”
Thomas didn’t respond for a moment, instead taking a quick drink of his beer. “Shit, after I found out you were the Haboob I was wondering how Overlord kept himself hidden away in Westward for so long.”
“I wasn’t looking for him. Especially not right under my nose,” said Cyrus with a shake of his head.
“How did he do that? Do you have any idea?”
“I don’t know. I’m not exactly in the loop anymore, but most of the data from his bunker was lost. Deliberately destroyed, actually. I’m sure not a single person thought that he would be hidden under the MHU headquarters in Westward of all places. I sure didn’t.”
“Yeah, I thought he’d have some sort of doom fortress in Central Asia. Somewhere insane.”
Thomas leaned back, taking another sip from his beer. Cyrus took the time to look around the bar. With the exception of the bartender, now cleaning glasses, he and Thomas were alone. Plenty of sunlight shone into the building from the large windows out front.
“So what brings you to my neck of the woods?” asked Thomas.
“I need your help with something.”
Thomas snorted and said, “Define something.”
“I need help bringing down the tyrannical dictator taking over the Middle East,” replied Cyrus as Thomas took another drink.
Thomas coughed on his drink. He regained his breath and said, “Oh, is that all?” Cyrus simply nodded. “And hold on. You need help? Didn’t you kill Overlord?”
Thomas took another drink instead of responding, studying Cyrus’ neutral face for a moment. He held up a hand and said, “Alright, a couple things. This guy… what’s his name? Taba? Tatha?”
“Yeah, him. Why this interest in him? He’s a dime-a-dozen tinpot dictator.”
“He is not. I know him. He’s an ancient Babylonian king with powers similar to my own.”
Thomas stared, face expressionless and beer forgotten by his hand. “What?”
“My memory of those times is extremely fragmented to be sure. But he can wield magic, any kind of magic, the same way I can wield the air. In essence, there’s very little limit to his power. I managed to kill him when the first Persian empire rose, but he has somehow returned. He can’t be killed by normal means, either, same as myself. I was merely an escort for my king’s mages.”
“That doesn’t sound good, but for the sake of argument what makes you think he’s evil?” asked Thomas. “Not just the average jackass, you’re trying to say he’s absolutely evil. You have way more power than most other people, but that doesn’t make you more or less evil than the average person.”
“He is cruel. He cares nothing for the lives of others,” said Cyrus, leaving no room in his voice for misinterpretation. “He disguises his own arrogance as populist speeches, and make people think building his vanity projects is in their own best interest. He will try to conquer all he can. The only reason he stopped at Babylon millennia ago is because he deemed the rest of the world not worth conquering. Ants to be exterminated when they got annoying.”
Thomas leaned forward and massaged his forehead. “Alright. That’s not the weirdest thing I’ve heard of, but it’s up there. He’s a mage, right?”
“In a sense, yes.”
“And he’s like you, right?”
“How does he remember all the spells and shit?” asked Thomas. “It takes a lifetime for the average mage to get really, truly good at what they do. And that’s for just one type of magic. You said he can do nearly anything. How does he remember it all? You can’t remember the specifics of more than one lifetime. I’d assume he can’t either.”
“I don’t know, though I wish I did. I’d never thought of it like that before.”
Thomas nodded, lost in thought. His fingers tapped on the tabletop. Cyrus leaned back in his seat and folded one leg his knee, awaiting his response.
Finally, Thomas said, “To be perfectly clear, you’re looking for help to stop this ancient Babylonian guy?”
“I’ll take all the help I can get,” replied Cyrus. “We’ve worked together for decades, and you’re a member of the Koitsenko. Even if you yourself are not interested, I was hoping you could point me in the right direction of people who might be.”
Thomas drummed his fingers on the tabletop again for a moment. “Off the top of my head, Cricket and Hammer might be interested. And myself, of course.”
Cyrus blinked. “You didn’t sound so eager five seconds ago.”
“I’m not a soldier because I want to sit on the sidelines. If Taauth is bad as you say, he needs to be stopped,” said Thomas, his expression dead serious.
Cyrus pursed his lips. He’d expected Thomas to take a bit more convincing. “If that’s the case there is a bit of a caveat. I have two people more or less onboard already. One of them is someone you won’t care for.”
“Slim Jim,” said Cyrus.
Thomas set aside his beer and stared hard at Cyrus. “
Cyrus nodded. “You can’t deny he’s good at what he does.”
“What he does is murder. No morals, no humanity, just killing.”
“Sometimes people need killing.”
“That doesn’t justify harboring a notorious criminal,” said Thomas, anger in his eyes. His free hand rested on the table in a fist.
“I’m not harboring him, I’m using him,” replied Cyrus, injecting steel into his voice. “He attacks my targets now, not Overlord’s. I’m not going to wildly shoot a gun in the middle of a crowded mall.”
“You say that. It sounds so neat and nice right now. But he’s not a mindless tool. He’s a man, barely. He can make his own decisions, and when he does this is going to backfire, and people will die.”
“I could have simply not told you about him. In fact, there would have been a good chance you would never have found out. I’m trusting you to not report me to the police. I’m asking you to trust me that I know what I’m doing.
Thomas sighed and shook his head. “You mentioned two people working with you. Who’s the other one? Pol Pot?”
“No, nothing like that. When you were deployed to Westward a couple months ago, do you remember the feral that was there.?”
Thomas leaned back in his seat, waiting to see where Cyrus was going. “Of course. Big girl, smarter than the average bear, right?”
Cyrus nodded. “Overlord had experiments with powers and magic in that bunker of his. Somehow, he managed to find a way to give other people powers. Some of his subjects were released.
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“He was one. He has the same powers as that feral.”
“He isn’t psychotic, is he?” asked Thomas.
“Not that I’ve seen. He has some anger management issues, but that could just be chalked up to being an angry teenage boy. If he’s anything like Olivia, he can take a hit.”
“Sorry. Olivia is the original feral.”
Thomas nodded, then said, “Define tough.”
“I punched her through an apartment building. She got back up and charged me again,” said Cyrus.
Thomas nodded. “And this guy’s the same?”
“I believe so.”
Thomas gave a mirthless chuckle. “What do you need me for? Hell, you alone could probably kill Taauth. Slim Jim and this dragon guy just sound like overkill.”
“He knows me, and he’s a mage. You can’t stop magic with a gust of wind.”
“You want a techie, don’t you?” said Thomas.
“Having options couldn’t hurt,” replied Cyrus.
“You know I’m just the pilot for my suit. I know enough to keep it maintained. The egghead who built it comes in once a year to bitch at me and tell me what I’ve fucked up. If you want me to invent some bullshit new device that solves all of your problems, you’re going to be very disappointed.”
“I know. But the X suit brings a completely different set of skills to a fight than I do,” said Cyrus.
“True, but I don’t think I’m exactly what you’re looking for.”
Cyrus nodded and said, “What about Pathfinder?”
“Him?” scoffed Thomas. “He’s got a self righteous stick lodged so far up his ass I don’t think it’s ever coming loose.” He set his beer down and leaned forward. “Members of the Koitsenko can’t just fuck off for their own assignments. We’re in a weird middle ground between the tribes and the US military, but we ultimately respond to Uncle Sam. We can’t just do whatever we feel like.”
Cyrus frowned. “You and I both know that’s not strictly true.”
Thomas sighed. “The upper brass and the Tribal Congress both give us a lot of leeway. But that could end if we push it. And abandoning our posts to keep Confederate uprisings down to go halfway across the world counts as pushing it.”
“I’m not asking you to drop everything for the next five years. I’m asking that, if I should call, you will respond.”
Thomas nodded. “I can do that.” He picked up his beer and took a drink. “So you got yourself, a ruthless mercenary, and a near unstoppable force. And me now, for what that’s worth. If you get rid of Slim Jim, you’ll have another couple members of the Koitsenko, because I know for a fact the rest of them won’t stand to be anywhere near the same side as him.”
Cyrus shook his head. He’d expected resistance when it came to Slim Jim. “He knows more about Overlord than anyone else still living.”
“Overlord still had operations in Iraq, even today. According to Slim Jim, he knew about Taauth. He was trying to find anything about him, where he was buried, artifacts, anything. That’s why Overlord was suddenly so interested in magic in the past couple years. But Slim Jim isn’t stupid. He knows I don’t trust him fully. I can guarantee he’s holding information back.”
“Fine.” Thomas pointed to Cyrus and looked him dead in the eye. “Look. I trust you. I trust that Taauth is as bad as you say, I trust that you need Slim Jim, and I trust you still have a good head on those shoulders. That’s the only reason I’m going along with this. Make sure I don’t regret it. You’re walking a fine line here.”
Cyrus nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”
A few hours later, Cyrus landed in Mexico, on roof of Chapultepec, the Royal Palace. Dust and dirt settled down as he released control of the air around him. He leaned on the railing, taking in the sight of Mexico City laid out before him, and waited. Within moments, several doors burst open. Heavily armed guards poured onto the roof, rifles aimed at his chest.
Just behind them strode the man Cyrus was there for. Cuauhtémoc, in a simple cotton tunic. Cyrus raised an eyebrow. Modern Mexicans didn’t wear that. Four jagged lumps of obsidian flanked Cuauhtémoc, floating to either side at head level. Cuauhtémoc narrowed his eyes. He towered over Cyrus, as people so often did nowadays. Finally, Cyrus spotted recognition. Cuauhtémoc barked an order over his shoulder, and a guard began speaking into a radio on his shoulder.
They waited. The guards didn’t aim their rifles at Cyrus, though he never saw less than five pairs of eyes on him at any time. Cuauhtémoc studied him, arms folded. Finally a translator came. So far as Cyrus knew, Cuauhtémoc staunchly refused to learn any language beyond Nahuatl. Two men and two women accompanied the translator, their long, uncut hair marking them as priests.
Cuauhtémoc spoke immediately. Through the translator, he demanded, “What are you doing here?”
From what Cyrus knew, the man was traditionalist warrior, not a politician. Cyrus spoke directly, “I come with a warning. Have you heard of a man named Taauth?”
“He is a threat to us all.” Cyrus kept his sentences short and simple for translation’s sake. “I need your help to stop him.”
Cuauhtémoc’s expression didn’t so much as flicker. Without hesitation, he said, “No.”
Cyrus kept the grimace from his face. He’d been afraid of this. “He is a threat.”
“He is none of our concern.” One of the priestesses, a young woman with long black hair and a scar across her lips spoke up.
“He will be. If you will let me explain, I will. We need to help each other.”
Cuauhtémoc refused to budge. “No.”
“This isn’t someone you can fight alone,” said Cyrus.
The priestess from before spoke up again. Before she could get far, Cuauhtémoc roared at her in in Nahuatl. He stared her down, until she broke her gaze and fixed her eyes on the floor. To Cyrus, through the translator, he said, “The empire has stood for six centuries without your help. If you are right, we will be prepared. You may go now.”
Cyrus frowned. Pushing the matter would make another enemy, yet anger rose up as Cuauhtémoc turned his back, not giving him the chance to respond, to try to change his mind. The guards watched them warily. “Very well,” managed Cyrus through clenched teeth. He took to the air on a small tornado, leaving the guards choking on dust.