?Damn those traitors!? Stryker shouted, slamming his fist into the stone table before him.
Sparks flashed from the warcaster?s armor as the power of the blow shattered the stone, spraying the messenger with shards of jagged stone. Sergeant Joseph Thomas remained kneeling before Stryker, but inside he cursed drawing the short straw for this duty. The Lord Kommandant, as his soldiers mockingly called him behind his back, had grown increasingly erratic and unstable as the war in Sul dragged on, relying more and more on the experimental Stormhammer brigade and it?s strange coterie of scientists instead of good old fashioned Cygnaran military might. Worse yet, Stryker had refused to report in to the regular army or to give his men rest, choosing instead to sweep into supply depots and seize reinforcements and weaponry for his never-ending war and depart before anyone could question him. Dark suspicions had begun to form in his men?s minds, and the latest news had only made the talk of desertion worse.
Another Coleman Stryker had been spotted.
According to reports the ?imposter? wasn?t half as crazy as this one, and if tales were to be believed he?d called a truce with the Menites after they?d managed to assault Caspia herself. It was hard for the grizzled sergeant to believe, but for the last couple of days sniper fire had all but disappeared, and the pockets of Menite resistance they?d been ordered to dig out had been ill-prepared and easily dispatched. The Protectorate soldiers had begged and pleaded, screaming that the war was over.
?How can they possibly believe this other Stryker is me? I would never surrender to the damned Menites,? the Lord Kommandant growled, twitching his head erratically.
Sergeant Thomas looked up, straining to see the warcaster?s eyes behind the alchemical goggles that Stryker insisted on wearing constantly, trying to ignore the smell of burning ozone and the way that Stryker?s head kept twitching. In that instant, facing the cold merciless stare of the man who?d led him for the better part of a year, Sergeant Thomas decided that perhaps it wasn?t such a bad idea after all to take the men and slip away in the night. Desertion or not, he?d be damned if he was going to feed more of his boys to the Lord Kommandant?s battles, especially if there was even the ghost of a chance that the war was really done and that the deranged man in front of him was the real imposter.
Stryker?s tirade was mercifully interrupted by the announcement of visitors, and he dismissed the uneasy soldier. Sergeant Thomas ducked his head in thanks to his two rescuers as he passed them on the way out, but as he looked up a sudden fear gripped his heart.
The female of the two was a beautiful Iosan, her skin an unblemished ivory with full lips that twisted into a wicked grin at the Sergeant?s discomfort. She wore a dress of the blackest night illuminated by coldly glowing azure jewelry. The human male wore a matching coat of coal black, his movements precise and without pause as he drummed his fingers on twin holstered pistols, his gaze roaming everywhere in a protective fashion. But it wasn?t the guns or the air of lethality that followed the pair that frightened Sergeant Thomas.
It was their eyes.
Both of the visitors had featureless steel orbs instead of eyes, the chrome surfaces reflecting the room as they scanned the command tent. Sergeant Thomas abandoned all pretense of subtlety and ran when the woman gazed at him with those unnatural eyes, her hollow snicker chasing him as he fled.
?Who are you?? Stryker demanded, irritated that he?d let them into the tent in the first place. He?d been doing a lot of things lately that had caught him off guard, and it was beginning to get on his nerves, almost as bad as the increasingly violent muscle spasms that plagued him recently. Instead of answering him the male of the pair pulled out a strange handheld device and pointed it at Stryker, frowning as he tapped the faceplate of the instrument.
?You were correct, Preceptor,? he observed in an emotionless voice, ignoring the increasingly angry warcaster. ?The imprint has taken complete control. Yet the Mistress still channels Her power through the vessel. A fascinating development.?
?Isn?t it though?? the woman laughed, oblivious to Stryker?s anger as he raised his fists, energy beginning to crackle over the armor?s relays.
?I am not in the habit of being ignored,? the Lord Kommandant snarled, but before he could release the bolt of energy the woman laughed again and waved her hand at him. Stryker?s magic fled in an instant, and with a heavy thud he fell back into his chair, his muscles paralyzed.
?Ah, much better. I like you ever so much more when you don?t talk. Perhaps we should remove that capability in future models?? she mused, moving close to Stryker and reaching behind his head.
?That would make it impossible for them to infiltrate any facility save for those manned by deaf mutes,? her companion dryly observed.
?Of course, you?re right; it was only a passing fancy. Now then, help me remove the coverplate,? the woman grunted, her fingers pressing into Stryker?s scalp. The warcaster remained completely aware of the pair, but was unable to stop them as the man leaned over out of Stryker?s field of vision and a distinct click sounded.
The Lord Kommandant watched in horror as the back of his head was casually tossed down into his lap. No, he reminded himself, that couldn?t be right, that couldn?t be his scalp. At first glace it certainly looked like a piece of his skull with the distinctive blazing red hair on one side. But the curved interior shone with a metallic glint, and the roots of the hair were attached underneath the false skull in a woven mat.
That?s not mine. I am Coleman Stryker. I am human.
?Ah, here?s the problem!? the woman exclaimed. ?See right there? The imprint relay was merged with the rest of the cortex by a massive power surge. Look at all the crosshatching! How is this automaton even still functioning??
?By Her will the experiment has reached a new level,? the man responded with breathless wonderment.
?But that doesn?t make any sense. Why would the Mistress cause it to blank the substrata orders and spread the imprint?s influence throughout the entire system? It was just supposed to conduct a field test in a limited engagement, not go haring off on its own, stealing an entire army and joining the war. That?s real hatred in the energy lines, true zealotry. This crazy thing actually believes it is Coleman Stryker; look, right there! Even as I said that the energy lines shifted, blanking its short term memory, preserving the delusion it built for itself. Why would the Mistress allow such a thing??
?We might never know. Her plan is infinite; her guile unmatched. This infiltrator continues to channel Her energies to replicate the warcaster?s magic, and there is no doubt that until recently the Cygnaran forces accepted it as their true commander. Our orders are clear in this situation. The automaton still responds to the protocols; therefore it still functions within the holy parameters and is worthy of repair sequences. The Mistress obviously has plans for this particular creation.?
The woman grunted in irritation, pulling a delicate tool out of a hidden pocket of her robe while murmuring incantations under her breath and leaning in closer. Stryker went blind, his sight disappearing in an instant, and as the darkness took him he bitterly wished he could force his paralyzed mouth to scream.
* * *
?Lord Commander, are you awake?? came the woman?s voice.
Stryker grunted and shook his head, dispelling the foggy dreams that haunted him. The familiar sight of the inside of his command tent comforted him, and as the last of the disturbing hallucinations fled he stood up, casting a critical eye at the woman and her companion.
?Who are you? What are you doing here?? he demanded. Somewhere a thought tried to push its way to the surface, but he easily dismissed it. Stryker felt good; better than he had in a long time.
?Merely a humble healer and her guardian,? the woman responded, bowing in an almost mocking fashion.
?Are you responsible for my recovery?? Stryker asked, flexing his fingers and stretching. The war had taken quite a toll on him in the last year, but the healer?s magic had restored his strength, renewed him in a way he hadn?t believed possible. He felt like he could pull down all of Sul with his own hands.
?I am, my Lord.?
?Then you will join my detachment; before this war is done I fear I?ll have more use for your talents.?
?The war? Have you not heard? The king has declared a truce with the Menites.?
?Oh, I heard,? Stryker spat on the ground in disgust. ?He?s making a mistake. Cygnar?s not safe so long as the Menite threat persists. But I?ve been too narrow-minded up until now. Sul isn?t the only threat; Khador pushes on us from the north, and the Cryxians pillage our coastline constantly. As much as it pains me to say it, I know in my heart that Leto has become a fool, seduced by peace and unwilling to pay the blood price that freedom and security demand.?
?What do you propose then, my Lord?? the woman asked, her strange eyes glinting in the shadows of the tent.
?We do what must be done. I will see Cygnar is safe from her enemies.
?Even if I have to exterminate everyone else to ensure it.?