Avalon:Volume 1 Prologue

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Prologue

18 Terra-years ago...

It was just another small and cramped room in the orphanage, with chipped, creaky furniture and dingy windows. But the boy with pitch black hair and deep-violet eyes didn't care. Arkadi came here a month ago, after the death of his parents and the confiscation of all his family assets. Today, he was certain to leave this ghetto for good.

At an age when most children never spent more than a few minutes thinking ahead, Arkadi had planned it out over a month ago.

he spent a minute rummaging in the huge, messy trunk of miscellaneous goods he had been allowed to bring from the old house, and pulled out the last thing a ten-year-old child should wrap their hands around. As he pulled the black slider all the way back and heard it spring satisfyingly back into place, his best friend entered the room.

Would the other boy understand? They had been neighbors, growing up together as brothers for as long as he remembered. Even their parents were the best of friends who suffered the same fate.

But... even if he could afford to gamble it, he wouldn't. His friend must be kept out of this. It was part of his plan's fallback.

The other boy stood briefly at the door, eyes widened in shock, before running over and trying to wrestle the gun from his hands. But Arkadi proved the stronger of the two. After throwing his friend down to the ground, he stuffed it into his gym bag and bolted out of the orphanage.

"Take care of her." Those were his last words, spoken in nearly a monotone as Arkadi did his best to suppress his emotions. Tearing up with unnecessary drama would not be the way to declare his resolution.

Arkadi took the public transit into the city before stopping at a park to rest, an old place where the three of them once played around in almost every other day: sometimes they would gather friends and schoolmates to play ball there; sometimes they would just goof off by themselves for hours; sometimes they napped together in a huddle under a tree, and the sky would already be dark by the time their parents came to drag them home for dinner. There were even those weekend and summer days when their families simply sat on those lush lawns, basking in the sun while enjoying a nice picnic.

After hiding himself among the bushes, Arkadi submerged his thoughts in the nostalgic memories of that past life. He remembered the smiles and laughter, the grins the other children sported and the merriment their parents showed.

He imprinted all those brilliant, joyful images into his mind. They were exactly what he needed to motivate himself -- the nostalgia, loss, and sorrow pouring off from that seemingly-idealistic past, all fueling the burning fires of hatred.

Arkadi did not emerge until noontime, when he came out to loiter about a government building just five blocks away. The security guards were already tired of chasing him away. After all, he was just some kid whose curiosity drove him here every single afternoon for the past few weeks. No doubt they thought he would get tired of the place sooner or later.

But today was special to him. He knew about the upcoming luncheon from an offhand remark his dad once made. It was monthly.

Soon, seven government and military officials walked out of the building, conversing in casual tones even with the presence of several guards following them. Arkadi began to tail them at a distance, trailing behind until they entered the lobby of a large and fancy Asian restaurant nearby. He then circled around to a back alley behind the restaurant, where he pulled out a set of clean and neatly folded dress shirt and pants. He quickly changed into them, then took out a brand name jacket and slung it over his shoulder. Lastly, he pulled out the black pistol and shoved it into the jacket's inside pocket.

It was an old-fashioned mechanical pistol that once belonged to his father. It was an obsolete model, built to use chemical cartridges of a past era, but it also had no power core to betray its presence. Arkadi knew that from the novels he once enjoyed reading, and the fact he found this among his father's possessions spoke volumes for the work his parents did.

Walking back to the front and into the restaurant, Arkadi happily told the waitress that his father was still upstairs at a business dinner and he left temporarily to check out a nearby store to quench his boredom. He was stopped twice more as he skipped up the stairs, but managed to shrug off the waiters with the same excuse. At the third floor, he also told the waitress that he forgot the room number his father was in and requested to check the guest list. Sure enough, 'Kernow' was on it, and only one level above. The boy thanked the pretty miss and bounced his way up another floor.

As he neared the door, he pulled out the gun from his jacket, held it flatly over his shoulders, and covered it with the apparel. Without bothering to knock, he opened the door and strutted in like he owned the place.

But Arkadi's face quickly turned to feigned surprise as he saw five military officers in uniform and two civilian officials in suits seated around a table. Behind the man with the admiral's insignia and at the two far corners of the room also stood three armed guards, their fingers mere millimeters away from their holsters. Everyone's attention was focused on the kid as he stopped instantly.

"Sorry, wrong room." Arkadi said in a half-apologetic tone before he turned around and began to walk back out. As he reached the doorway, he turned halfway around again and grabbed the handle to close it. A quick glance satisfying noted that the guards' hands began to relax already.

Yet just as the door was about to slam shut, Arkadi suddenly pulled his right hand off the shoulders like he was yanking down his jacket, and pointed the covered gun barrel towards the admiral.

The guards took a second too long to realize what was going on. Before any of them even leveled their pistols' sights towards Arkadi, he had already unloaded half a dozen shots. But although Arkadi had some knowledge in firearms, he never practiced with one and made the most basic mistake known to gunpowder marksmanship -- his grip wasn't firm enough, and the pistol's recoil sent his shots high.

The nearest officer's right shoulder burst with blood as a bullet buried into it and exploded. The guard behind the admiral suffered a worse fate as three bullets pierced his torso, shattering his chest organs milliseconds later. Yet, even though the admiral stared straight at Arkadi and did not move a single muscle, not one of the projectiles managed to hit him.

Unfortunately for Arkadi, seven shots were all he had time for. The wooden door before him shattered as explosive needles -- shot out at hypersonic speeds by electromagnetic accelerators built within pistols -- buried into it and detonated. His cover broke into wooden fragments and pierced him with dozens of splinters. His right arm was reduced to waste within a second as five more shots flew into it and destroyed both his elbow and shoulder.

Arkadi dropped to the ground with an excruciating scream as blood seeped through his white dress shirt. His right arm was bent in grotesque angles, two of which weren't even at joints.

Yet, by some miracle, he was still alive when the admiral held up his hand. Both of the remaining guards instantly stopped their volley. One of the them kept a watch in the room, while the other swiftly moved over the boy's thrashing body to secure the hallway. Everyone else who had been sitting around the table was now either taking cover behind their chairs or cowering in fear on the ground.

"You sure have a lot of guts, boy," the admiral said in a implacable yet mildly impressed tone. "Who sent you?"

"G-ghost of my father, oath to my mother... sworn in god's name!" The boy spat back as he continued to writhe in pain, spraying blood from his mouth with every syllable.

The admiral stood up and stepped over to the boy, then yanked him off the floor by his hair and stared into his eyes. Although Arkadi's expression was distorted by pain, his gaze held firm with overflowing hatred as he stared directly into the pupils of his parents' killer.

"The son of Iseul and Nika Simarshall, I see."

The admiral pulled Arkadi up to face level, lifting his feet off the ground. Arkadi screamed in pain and did his best to kick the admiral, but it didn't seem to inflict even the slightest injury. The same could not be said for the response as the admiral hurled him into the room's eastern wall like a rag doll with but a swing of his arm.

Yet even then, in between coughs that sprayed blood onto the carpet, Arkadi tried to push himself back up with his one intact arm. Death was easy, since life as he knew it already disintegrated into the past. Death he was prepared for. But he refused to give his foe the pleasure of seeing defeat or weakness before then.

"Boy, I am truly intrigued by your courage and tenacity."

"I came here... to send you to hell," Arkadi responded. But his defiance only accentuated the faint smile curling its way into the corner of the admiral's mouth.

"Then how about an offer from the devil himself?" The admiral said as he pulled up a bloody chair and sat down upon it, completely ignoring the other officials still in the room, including the injured one still on the ground. "I will give you a chance for vengeance, for honor, for whatever it is that you wish. I'll provide you the education, the opportunity, the experience. The only thing I require is your servitude."

"Fucking... nonsense."

"On the contrary, I am absolutely serious. After all, I am heir apparent to the position of the 1st District Marshal. Training the next generation of proteges is one of my top priorities, and you, boy, has shown great potential. So here's your offer in full right now: serve me, and you can do whatever your wish entails should you climb to the rank of Marshal... Or, you can die in vain right now, and meet the tortured soul of your sister in hell within the week."

The admiral pulled out his pistol and pointed it at the boy's forehead at point blank range.

"What would it be? Choose... now."

Arkadi's expression and thoughts were almost frozen, stunned in shock by the sheer inconceivability of what he heard and the clear impression that the man before him was utterly insane...

"Shame, it appears decisiveness is not a virtue. Well, it's been an interesting time, boy--"



12 Terra-years ago...

It was a large yet plain basement room: unfurnished, unpainted, with no windows, basic lighting, and a single stainless steel door.

Twelve cadets stood in a line with gaps of three feet. Their bodies were in perfect military posture, chests forward and hands behind.

Arkadi was the seventh in the line, with pitch black hair and deep-violet eyes.

Soon the door opened. Two guards marched in first, armed with polished swordstaves in hand. Yet their presence was nearly inconsequential compared to the third, who wore the insignia of a Marshal -- the highest rank within the Avalonian Republic -- and radiated authority as though he was born a god. Twelve more guardsmen followed, each dragging a frail figure behind them: children around the age of twelve, bruised and whimpering under their black hoods.

The twelve cadets did not make the slightest motion. Their faces did not reveal a shred of emotion. To lose composure was to show weakness -- a lesson that was hammered into their minds through years of brutal training, an experience many of their former comrades did not survive.

As the guardsmen forced the children to kneel, one before each cadet, the Marshal began with his deep, imposing voice that sought to crush any free will which stood before him:

"Today is your graduation ceremony. Once you walk out of that door, you shall be Elite Cadres, officers trainees of the highest caliber who will one day uphold the glory of the 1st District. Only one test remains before you, a simple test that demands no mercy, no uncertainty, no frailty..."

The third cadet sucked in a deep breathe. Too deep, as it was audible.

"To hold the reins of leadership is to seek perfection among men. You must cast off all human weaknesses, to become a refined instrument of cold rationality and unwavering dedication, to reach towards your vision with zero tolerance or deviation. All challenges must be overcome; all obstacles demolished without hesitation..."

"Those before you are the worthless children of sinners, enemies of the state. They stand before you as the final barrier to your success. When I call your name, draw your weapon and end their unnecessary existence."

Arkadi looked down, straight into the black hood where the child's eyes would have been. The kid was a girl in the early stages of puberty. She couldn't have been older than thirteen. Her hands were cuffed behind her and she was shaking all over, clearly terrified...

"BASTILLE!"

*BANG*

He had forgotten that they were given high-caliber mechanical pistols for this exam. The louder noise and heavier recoil of the gun would better carve the moment of the kill into their memories, no doubt.

The lifeless body struck the ground with a thud. The corpse was also headless. The heavy explosive bullet had blown the child's head apart, splattering their blood and brains across the basement floor.

"BRYANT!"

*BANG* and the scene repeated itself, with an even younger kid this time.

The girl before him started sobbing loudly. So did all the other children. Even if their ears were plugged, it would be impossible to keep the noise out entirely.

Arkadi was also the child born to an enemy of the state. Was this a fate that could have fallen upon him? Rather than seeing the girl before him as a nameless, faceless stranger, he couldn't help imagine his very own sister. She had always been a crybaby.

He had no contact for six years. If she was still alive, she would be around the same age.

"EBORIC!"

Another deep breathe, and...

*BANG*

But instead of the child's head exploding, it was the cadet who collapsed, her body now a lifeless sack of meat...

*BANG* the child before her then joined her in death.

Marshal Kernow lowered his pistol, a hint of smoke still trailing from the gun barrel.

"HAMILTON!"

For a moment Arkadi zoned out. His focus completely on the hooded child before him.

Could he do it? Without a moment of hesitation?

He had killed before. His first encounter with Marshal Kernow had claimed the life of a guard. It may not have been his target, but it was not an innocent life.

The same could not be said for the life before him.

She was still a kid. She was no older than his own sister! How could she be blamed, forced to take responsibility for the stupidity of her parents!

He realized, for the first time, that his hands were shaking.

Look at this rationally, his mind argued with himself.

You can kill her, or you can both be killed.

The choice was obvious. But... humans weren't ruled solely by logic.

Arkadi was sure he could do it, eventually. His logic was trained to always win against his emotions. What he wasn't sure was whether he would show weakness, for even a second of indecision constituted failure.

Backup plan then.

It was no obstacle for a determined magician whose specialization laid in enchantment.

Personal Emanate, Imperious Dominate

His mind spoke aloud as he mouthed the same without sound. The words themselves were ultimately unimportant. They merely served as the trigger for patterned actions programmed into his body through countless repetitions in training. Magic-conductive nerves soon opened themselves, forming a magical array within his body that channeled mana one way and ether another.

Control flowed back into himself. Absolute control. Absolute belief. Absolute sense of righteousness.

His mind was relieved once again, everything working in perfect harmony like that of a machine.

"KERNOW!"

It was his surname now. The same surname as the Marshal's. The same surname he used for the past six years.

With one fluid motion, he drew the pistol from its holster, pointed it at the girl's forehead, and pulled the trigger.

There was no hesitation. There was only control. Yet...

The wailing of the children, the feel of the recoil, the explosive spray of blood, they would all be forever engraved into his heart and mind as his first innocent kill.

On that day, Arkadi Kernow crossed the threshold that separated the normal from the elite. At the tender age of sixteen, he now had more power and potential than his parents ever dreamed of. But in exchange, a part of him, a piece of his soul was irretrievably left behind in that bloody room.

He had chosen his life.

There was no turning back.



10 Terra-years ago...

"Are you sure about this, Arkadi?"

The one who spoke over their private telepathic communication channel was his senior by decades, both in life and in career. Yet after merely two years of service, Arkadi Kernow was already his superior. The advantages granted by the Elite Cadre status were apparent.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"Isn't your goal to reform the system as well? Are you sure you want to successfully carry out the bombing of Representative Richter's political rally? He's pledging the same goals as you--"

"Please don't compare me with this bureaucratic fool who tipped his hand too early and marked his own death." Arkadi cut his second-in-command off in the politest way possible. "If we don't do it, another black ops team would be ordered to. Might as well take the glory ourselves then."

"Why destroy the entire convention center instead of just assassinating him then?"

"Because these fools need a serious warning. They need to be driven back underground, completely, and hopefully stay there until they gather enough strength to actually pose a real threat to the current world order."

"Then just what level of strength is enough?"

Arkadi took only two seconds to ponder an appropriate response:

"After they get someone to become a leader for one of the three major parties and gain the support of... two assault legions to take Rennes and five legions to hold it long enough... I guess there is a small possibility those circumstances already exist and simply aren't apparent to us, in which case another ops team may be hunting us down as we speak."

"You think that would be enough to try? Even if you take the Marshal's seat, what's to keep the conservatives from simply assassinating you?"

Lieutenant-Commander Arkadi Kernow briskly stopped in the hallway and turned about, his deep-violet eyes piercing straight into Executive Officer Kaplan's dark-blue pupils from less than an arm's length away.

"It's a shot..." Words that normally required the essence of hope came from Arkadi's thoughts without a shred of emotion. "...You have a better idea?"

"You're familiar with human history. Tell me, what put an end to the popularity of Fascism and Antisemitism so quickly at the end of the Industrial Age? What did it take to wake up that world?"

"...Atrocities of the worst scale, publicized for the first time."

As Arkadi realized what Kaplan was trying to say, he felt the beginning of a bottomless pit opening inside him.

"Exactly. Mankind's conscience doesn't thrive on goodness. It thrives on shock and outrage. Look at all the major revolutions throughout history. How many of them were made through mere appeal to ethics? How many of them were the result of bloody massacres?"

"So you believe we need further escalation?""

"Not this time; I think our plan is already atrocious enough to fan the flames." Kaplan smirked, a faint, evil twist of the mouth on his usually expressionless face. "But for once you seem a bit... reluctant. Someone had to play devil's advocate."

And you took it too far, Arkadi thought. Such ideas are nothing short of demonic...

It took dozens of sleepless nights spent researching and countless more discussions to confirm his thoughts. But within months, Arkadi would begin brainstorming his initial draft of a strategic plan that would likely escalate the current cold war into a hot one, resulting in millions if not billions dead and propelling him straight to the top.

Kaplan's provocations did far more than switch on a light bulb. He had opened Pandora's Box within Arkadi, and out poured a stream of fatalistic beliefs and vile ideas. By the time Arkadi could lock it again, all he could seal was his true, original self, replaced by the evil which now took command of his will.

Vengeance now dominated every action through his very magic. He was a flawless instrument of revenge -- revenge not against one, not against many, but against the fundamental flaws of humanity itself.

It was the last time Arkadi showed any reluctance towards crimes against humanity. Since then, even tactical nuclear warheads detonated in civilian areas that killed thousands did not warrant the blink of an eye.



Present day...

Arkadi didn't believe in god. But if there was an afterlife, he should have woken up in the flames of hell, not on a soft bed in heaven.

He managed to regain consciousness without falling to any impulsive actions like moving or springing his eyes open. That was kind of good news, as his last memory was being defeated in combat. It was unlikely that his side won the battle, so the probable explanation was that the enemy captured him instead of killing him... for whatever reason.

He deserved death. But that thought was nothing new... he realized this over a decade ago.

Yet for the last ten years, he also saw his path as a necessary evil. But now, at this very moment, he was no longer sure of himself. For the first time in ten years, he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, as well as intense self-hatred and disgust.

His mind was no longer compelled by his magic. Dozens of layers of self-enchantments which once governed every ounce of his beliefs and convictions had been dispelled. He had to feel for himself once again. It was not a pleasant experience. His memories did not allow for any pleasantries, only the pain and suffering that he inflicted upon tens of thousands of lives. Every frightened, horrified, hateful, anguished, or despairing expression, every face he remembered before his hands dealt a bloody end to their lives.

This was what he wanted, ten years ago when he first began. He planned to drown himself in blood before casting all the world's sins into it. It had made perfect sense at the time.

"Have you heard of a man on Old Terra named Adolf Hitler, Kayeten? An elected dictator, aggressor of the Second World War, but most importantly, a genocidal killer of Judaism. Before he came to power, fascism and antisemitism -- totalitarian dictatorship and violent racism, had been popular. But so atrocious were his actions that the terrifying result of absolute authoritarianism and racial hatred be engraved in the minds of men for centuries to come. After his crimes, no act of massed racial or religious murder was ever tolerated by the international community again, nor would the widespread political indifference that allowed him power ever be reborn in old Europe."

He remembered speaking these words merely days ago. Justifying his actions in battle against his oldest friend. Yet now, even that felt like a lifetime ago...

"That's why I will take the Marshal of the 1st. I will seize the throne of the demon king and bring holocaust upon this irreparable system! I will use every medium of power to prove just how intolerable this structure is! Only then would humanity finally wake up and realize what kind of cancer their still electoral society have allowed to fester amongst them for over a century! I will give them a thousand years of notoriety, to ensure responsibility by fear, to force the return of true representatives that shall stand for the masses, as our parents once did!"

Now, he was no longer sure. He still believed in the concept -- his research had been solid and his resolution had been firm. But the same goals were no longer clearly in sight whenever he closed his eyes. Thousands of mangled bodies and burning ruins clouded the way, dyeing his subconscious world a smoldering red. Hundreds of slimy, dead limbs wrapped around him, holding him back as the gates of hell bade their welcome from behind.

Planning and execution were entirely different, even more so when countless lives were at stake.

Arkadi opened his eyes by the slightest margin, taking a peek at the sterile white room his bed occupied.

There was only one person in the room: a girl he had saved just over a week ago. She had a petite, frail body and long blossom-pink hair cascading down her back. She sat in a folding chair by the door, leaning against the wall with her head nodding off to the side in shallow sleep. Her face was cute to the point of being nearly childish, which was exactly how most would describe her figure. She also wore the same uniform that his team once gave her, except with its colors flipped from white-trimmed-black to black-trimmed-white, with her left arm wrapped by regenerative bandages and held in a sling...

Memories flashed back to his mind, when his swordstaff cut deep into her arm but failed to severe it. Then, just as he readied himself for a second strike, opposing cavalry arrived to turn the tide.

Her lapis-blue right eye soon opened. Her small right hand went up to rub it like a child just waking from a nap. Her left eye never did open, as that was her... Kannon's habit.

Over the years, Arkadi had relationships with countless women, many of which weren't romantic in any way. But for some he used his charisma and magic as a medium of seducing women for what he wanted, whether it be information or personal support. It was inevitable that some of these women would see through him, even attempted to turn him away from his path of self-destruction.

None of them succeeded, until...

"Captain," the girl's wispy, still-drowsy voice called out. "I know you're awake."

At last, Arkadi fully opened his eyes. There was no point hiding it. In fact, he learned not long after meeting her that there was little point lying to this girl. Somehow, she could always tell.

"Kannon," his cold voice replied. "You've turned traitor."

"...And you're a war criminal," Kannon shrugged. "I guess we're even."

"Last I checked, I saved your life."

"...And I just saved yours," she firmly declared. "You... still owe me a favor though."

Arkadi raised his eyebrows at the implications of her words... at least the former. The latter was a known fact. He remembered offering it just a few days ago.

"What you just failed was an all-or-nothing mission, Captain. If you go back, they'll shoot you. So whether you like it or not, Arkadi Kernow is dead." Kannon stated as a matter-of-fact, as though the decade-younger girl was preaching him on life experiences. "Please, give your real self one more chance at life."



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