By Erico


7:24 P.M. Citadel of the late Dr. Sergei Cossack

July 1st, 2131

            From a distance, the structure looked small and unimportant. Surrounded by miles of wilderness and unpopulated land, it also seemed incredibly out of place. The design was outdated, and the external technology was undeniably obsolete. Or, at least, what could be seen on the outside.

            To avoid the slightest chance of detection on any nation or organization's warp logs, which Willow and Bristol both assumed to be active and ready by whatever MI9 agents that remained, they had come here on an old fashioned hovertransport. Slow, but it got the job done and kept their relocation secret.

            Wycost stepped on the fragile grass and rocky soil of the Siberian wilderness, staring towards the Citadel with an emotionless gaze. "So this is home." He turned to look at Willow, noting her similarly blank face. "Looks lived in." He finished with a shrug.

            Allegro snorted from his position, five steps from the hovertransport. "Looks run down to me."

            "Hey, don't insult the place." Pharaoh Man growled, staring beyond the partly cloudy horizon. "Cossack's Citadel is a great place, and it and I and the rest of the guys in there have been around longer than your combined aged. Plus, you get a great view out here." He motioned towards the skyline, and the pink and purple sunset that ran over them. As some stood by the deactivated hovertransport and others from the "Scion's Zenith" continued to pile out, they all looked at the sunset, quietly absorbing the surroundings.

            "A storm's coming." Bastion said quietly, pulling closer to Bristol and resting an arm on her shoulder. Horn cleared his throat over by the passenger side door with a smile.

            "That's a rather lame quote to borrow." Bastion looked over at his former nemesis with a half smile.

            "What, you think you can do better?"

            "I can." Willow finally spoke up. Everyone turned to look at her. "It's said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place. MI9 is alive and well, despite our victories. We're not safe, and the world's not safe until we've done away with them. It's only begun. Now the true storm can arrive."

            "You always did spoil the mood at the Christmas Party." Bristol chirped, bobbing her hair out of her face. Willow folded her arms.

            "You can remember that much now?" In response, Bristol only smiled.

            "I swear, we all have to be crazy for doing this." Hazil growled. "Old coots like us, trying to save the world. It's almost…" He shook his head. "Forget it. But nobody dies in the first month, all right?"

            "Oh, you know you'd never let us croak." Wycost heckled his doctor. "Hell, you never let me stay infected."

            Willow looked at Wycost, lifting an eyebrow. "You were a Maverick?" She grunted in surprise.

            Bastion laughed. "That's right, you're the new face here. Give it time, you'll get used to us."

            Horn shrugged at that. "I'm not sure if I'm used to all of you yet." He turned towards Willow, keeping his good humor. "But I agree…this is a good bunch of people you've landed in, ma'am. Your mission is ours as well now."

            Willow smirked, shaking her head. "I don't think I could ever ask for a better team…More and more, you all prove my theories about this world wrong."

            "That's refreshing to hear." Allegro mused, stepping up to the front of the pack and beginning to walk towards the Citadel, some ways distant still. "A person who doesn't mind having their world perspective messed with."

            "Some perspectives need to be, I would think." Pharaoh Man said, taking up stride with the energetic reploid. "I'm glad that mine has changed…Life was boring before this world came knocking."

            Hazil frowned for a moment, then lifted an eyebrow before running towards Pharaoh Man. "Hold on a second!!" He cried out after the robot, who stopped and turned to look at him oddly. "X…Zero…They know where this place is, right?"

            Pharaoh Man nodded his head coldly. "Yes they do. Your point?"

            "What if they discover us?"

            "Oh, I don't believe they will." Pharaoh Man said amiably. "Cossack's Citadel saw many renovations over the years, and the core schematics that Wily used were nothing, if not paranoid. Only select parts of the facility are open for public examination…And X and Zero only know about the depths of the Fourth Ring, otherwise. Trust me; since the 29th of June, my brothers have been hard at work renovating the unused sectors for use by the Zenith. It will all be ready for us. And as long as you all are willing to have some modicum of caution in the aforementioned areas…then we should have no problems at all."

            "Just like you to think of everything." Horn said appreciatively, running up to join them. Wycost and Willow continued along at their leisurely pace, and Bastion and Bristol lagged along with the other couple.

            Pharaoh Man smiled. "I was, after all, a robot once."

            Horn lifted an eyebrow before recognition set in. "Of course…I'd forgotten about that."

            Hazil patted Pharaoh Man on the back, smiling at him. "Will there be a welcoming committee when we finally get there?"

            "Oh, yes." Phare replied drily. "Kalinka has been hard at work making welcome baskets for all of you."


            "No." Phare answered back. "But she did make sure you all have your own room…save Bristol and Bastion, who share one."

            "That was thoughtful of her." Bastion complimented his new teammate. Pharaoh nodded.

            "What can I say? She's taken a liking to you all." The former Robot Master said matter-of factly.

            Wycost looked up at the horizon above the Citadel, blinking through his sunglare goggles at the sky that bled purple and pink. The faded rays of sunlight came down on the majestic metallic spires of the castle, making the legacy of Cossack glitter in the twilight.

            "We'd better get inside soon, guys. It looks like the sun's going to set a little faster than we'd like."

            "The weather here operates on its own principles." Pharaoh Man shot back. "Right now, it may be teasing us…But you are right about one thing. Eventually it will set, and temperatures here in Siberia, even in summer, take a noticeable dip come nightfall."

            "You know, it's funny." Allegro said thoughtfully. "In a way, you could compare the weather here to the world in relation to us."

            "Oh, I doubt that we're being left out in the cold, if that's what you're aiming at." Horn joked. "And if you're going to use the horizon as a metaphor for our condition…I'd say that our nightfall is far from imminent."

            "You're such an optimist." Willow said sarcastically.

            Hazil shrugged. "Hey, let the man be. In my experience, I've tried everything else. Maybe optimism is just the trick we need anymore."

            Wycost gently squeezed Willow's arm, and her stern frown softened into resignation. "I suppose…Hell, I'll try anything once."

            Pharaoh Man exhaled a long breath. "Coming back here, breathing this air…for as cold as it is, it's also invigorating. It renews me. Perhaps it will do the same for all of you."

            In the back, Bastion and Bristol watched the others' conversations with mild interest and knowing smiles.

            "You couldn't have asked for a better crew to walk with you on this mission, you know that." Bastion said quietly.

            Bristol giggled a bit. "No, I couldn't. But do you want to know what makes me the happiest about them?"

            Bastion shrugged his shoulders.

            "It's not that they're all capable in their fields…be they warrior, designer, or doctor, although that certainly helps." She said. "What fills me with hope is the fact that they care. They came of their own volition to do this. If we had wanted to, we could have just decided to leave MI9 as it was after Ice Beacon…and to return to some semblance of a former life. But we didn't. Somehow, we all decided to do this."

            "Mmmhmm." Bastion mumbled, squeezing her hand, and the ring that she now wore on it. "So let me ask you; is this the right thing?"

            "It's the necessary thing." Bristol said quietly. "Right or wrong…those are principles decided on by society. If the world knew what we were doing, if the Maverick Hunters knew what we intended to do, they might consider our actions wrong. Some would qualify them as right. In my mind, what we are intending to do…the purpose for the Zenith's creation, that's right. And I consider it necessary. If MI9 had succeeded, what they would have accomplished would have been, at the first, a direct attack on every last reploid on Earth. But after that, they would have caused a collapse of the world as we know it. What we did was for everyone. And I pray that the day never comes that the world ever has to know what we did."

            "If we do this right, kiddo…" Bastion mused, "It'll never have to come to that."

            Bristol smiled. "My optimism must be infectious."

            "Good moods usually are." Bastion replied.

            He swept her up into his arms again, prompting a surprised yelp from her. "What are you doing?" She asked him quickly, even as he activated his wings and shot off over their teammates' heads towards the Citadel.

            Bastion smiled even wider as he approached the base, pulling her closer against him. "Well, I believe there's a tradition where the groom carries his bride over the threshold…"

            Below, Horn laughed as they shot overhead, slapping his knee as he continued to walk. "I swear, those two…Don't drop her now, you hear me, Bastion?"

            Hazil smirked, placing an arm on the other old reploid's shoulder. "Somehow, I doubt that he could ever do that."

            "Their heads are way too far in the clouds to plummet now, I'm afraid." Willow agreed. Wycost chuckled in agreement, even as Allegro scratched at his head.

            "So what are we gonna do first when we get there? I say we make ourselves a hero sandwich or two…"

            Slowly, Pharaoh Man began to lag behind the rest of them, watching with smiling eyes as the members of the Scion's Zenith forged on ahead towards their new home. He watched them walk hand in hand and with smiles and laughs all around. In their circle stood love and hope and faith. In each other, and if not for their cause, for the good that cause did.

            A part of him still wondered just how useful, how integral he was to the Zenith, to the rest of them. He wasn't a reploid, and for as powerful as his weaponry was, he still had a long way to go before he could call himself anywhere near as reliable a warrior as Bastion or Wycost or even Willow. He had no past lives with them, and aside from Hazil, his knowledge of them and vice versa didn't extend nearly far enough.

            But then, that part of him wasn't the spark of spirit that had allowed him to overcome Mind Freeze…to survive his transformation beyond his former pure robotic self. He looked down at his hand, flexed his digits and stared at the white gloves.

            Underneath those gloves was a soft layer of neurosensitive rubber, and a harder metal alloy underneath that protected the vital sensory relays and power feeds to his plasmic Pharaoh Shot generators in his hands and wrists. His hands were cold in the Siberian wilderness, as they always were, incapable of producing heat that a human did just to maintain homeostasis. They were metallic…robotic…inhuman.

            But his hand was only a part of him, Pharaoh Man reminded himself. And it wasn't the part that made him the proudest of what he was, and who he was.

            He could call himself simply Pharaoh Man, a Robot Master, a relic of the 21st Century.

            But he did not want to. No. Now…now, and perhaps forever, there was another part to him.

            The part who went by the name Phare…Phare Cossack.

            Pharaoh Man would have hidden away in the Citadel until the end of his days, quietly running routines and mindless maintenance.

            But Phare had fought a battle for all reploidkind. Phare had kept the world safe.

            For all the doubts he had about his new teammates, about the validity of the Zenith, and whether or not they would succeed…

            Pharaoh Man knew that he had fulfilled his father's legacy. Even now, as the final rays of sunlight came down and lit up the metallic spires and walls, he could imagine his creator's spirit still inhabiting this place. And if Sergei Cossack was indeed here, watching him still…

            He was smiling.

            So Pharaoh Man smiled back, holding a fist to his metallic heart for a long moment and looking towards the spires of his home.

            "This place, like myself…still has some use to it." He said quietly, beginning to walk faster again to catch up to the excitable reploid companions he had gained. "The dream hasn't yet truly begun."

            Eight figures went towards Cossack's Citadel in that wilderness. Two flew, and the other six walked. And even as they walked towards nightfall, and towards the coming darkness…

            They still went closer and closer to the home of dreams.

2:24 A.M. MHHQ Memorial Park

July 2nd, 2131 A.D.

            Cain's grave in the memorial park was hallowed ground. An honor guard still stood by it, but a respectable enough distance away to allow visitors some measure of privacy. Even this late at night, a vigilant Maverick Hunter, Guernica waited by it, drinking a thermos of black coffee to keep himself awake. Guernica took one look at the late night visitor to the grave and nodded in salute as the figure passed him, then smiled before taking another sip of his beverage.

            Zero brushed his ponytail back before reaching into his coat and pulling out an aged bottle of fine brandy, setting it down by the countless wilted roses that were strewn around the deceased's headstone.

            "I thought you might prefer something a little more tangible than weeds." Zero mumbled, smiling a bit as he stood back up and placed his hands into the pockets of his black trenchcoat. "As I recall, you had a liking to this stuff…Hell, you had a liking to anything with an alcoholic content higher than 80 proof." He added with a chuckle. "So wherever ya are, padre, I want you to take this shit and slug back a few rounds for me and the boys here."

            Cain's grave, predictably enough, said nothing. Zero sighed and leaned against the headstone, finally collapsing on the ground with his back pressed up on Cain's monument. "I swear, some days I need a shrink, and not because of my job. It's because I talk to tombstones now."

            "X has probably already talked to you about what's gone on recently…Hell, remember what he was like early on before the First Uprising?? He'd run to ya for the damndest things. 'Oh, Cain, my bunny slippers' ear fell off!' or some other thing like that." Zero mimicked the Blue Bomber of 21XX. "So I imagine that you already know that I kicked the unholy bejeezus outta Sigma." Zero rubbed at his eyes. "Not one of my prouder moments in life, I'm sorry to say. I suppose I kind of lost it."

            "For a while…nothing mattered. I lost myself. You were gone. Iris was dead because of Sigma…again. And Hazil, Hell, he up and retired from this place."

            The Crimson Hunter sighed. "Although I can understand Hazil. This place can get to you after a while. And he dealt with success and defeat on a level that's far less ambiguous than X and I do out on the fields."

            "But it figures he'd have something to say to me before he went. And I guess he had something to say to X as well." Zero tilted his head over his shoulder and clicked his tongue. "X and I…for a while, things were weird. But he came back to me, and showed me something. As long as we've got each other, we can get through anything. That's what friends are for, right?"

            The monument remained stonily silent. Zero thinned his eyes and smirked a bit. "Aaw, Hell. I don't even know what I'm talking about anymore, Cain. I never was much of a conversationalist. X was a damn lawyer for a brief span of time. All I really know how to do on any tangible level is kill things. And even though I can't change that, I have enough faith in my friends, and myself, and their faith in me to make sure that those abilities of mine are never used wrongly."

            Zero stared at his hand. "Some days, Cain, I know you had your suspicions about me…and about my origins. Sigma never did tell you that I was the crazy red Maverick, did he? No, he just let you assume I was one of the survivors from the town that incident took place by. And even if you did know…you kept it to yourself. I was glad to call you my father, and you still are. You had faith in me. Faith that no matter what, I would do the right thing."

            "Signas isn't you, and you aren't Signas. We've all had to come to terms with that, but I think we have. He's not as bad as I once thought he would be…I just had to yell at him enough to wise up, was all. Once he figured out that how we do things works…for better or worse…he let go. I haven't asked him yet, but I have the feeling that if the GDC ever tries to harp on us, they'll find him glaring right back at them. After you passed on, we thought that the Hunters had lost their only advocate capable of protecting us from the bureaucrats." Zero smirked. "Leave it to Signas to prove us all wrong."

            A low breeze pushed by, and threatened to blow the Hunter's hair up into his eyes. He batted it aside carefully before smiling again.

            "Frankly, Cain, I really don't know which way things will go from here. Sigma…well, he'll be around for a while still. But I think his operations will be more low key from now on. After all, he may have a lot of those small bases, but they're still small. The GDC?? If Signas does his job right, they'll keep doing what they need to, and doing to us what you made sure they could accomplish; Absolutely dick."

            Zero picked himself up. "Yes, some things have changed around here since you left." He checked his collar and smiled. "But you know what, Cain? Some things never change."

            And X and I…are two of those things.

            "Feeling better now?" Guernica said calmly, leaning on the stock of his magrifle as Zero approached him. The Crimson Hunter paused by the sniper specialist and lifted an eyebrow before Guernica smiled a bit again. "Hey, I think at some point we'll all go to talk to him. I was just asking ya if you were doing better than you were."

            Zero's expression softened. "Yeah, I am. And what about you?? You made the kill on Cumulus Bull, as I recall."

            "Not one of my cleaner ones, but yeah." Guernica nodded. "I just wish I'd gotten to him sooner, and saved some of the others."

            "Hell, we all have those kind of doubts from time to time."

            "Yup. The trick is to keep moving. Guilt only gets you one place, and I don't intend on going there." Guernica agreed. He looked down at his magrifle before shaking his head. "My shift still has another three or so hours on it. You have a good night, Commander."

            "You too, sureshot." Zero replied quietly, turning about and walking back towards the central building of the MHHQ.

            Zero didn't look back as he walked, for he no longer saw a reason to. He had made his peace with the world and with himself, and had remained intact.

            Perhaps the Virus would never truly leave him. Perhaps the temptation to slip into madness would always be there.

            But that didn't bother him then, as he left Cain's grave and prepared to enter the building he had called home for many years. He did not walk alone. He still had X…his best friend, his equal.

            And Hazil had been right, the Crimson Hunter surmised. Cain had been right.

            They had each other. And they always would.

            And as long as they had that…

            He could still sleep at night without ever having to worry about losing himself.

            In the quiet outskirts of New Tokyo, Zero stopped short of the hydraulic doors to the interior of the MHHQ's main building. He stared up to the sky above and to the twinkling stars, glimmering with atmospheric interference and the promise of hope.

            The Crimson Hunter smiled, letting his right arm hang free at his side as he walked into the building.

            Three hours later…

            The morning came.

            As it always would.

            As it always must.

            The sun remained, a symbol of hope and tranquility to restive souls. It brought tomorrow with it.

            And tomorrow…

            Hadn't been written yet.

            We fear shadows. They exist where light is present, reminding us that darkness is a part of life. From a certain perspective…it is as though the shadows come not from our bodies blocking the sun, but rather the darkness within us all being displayed.

            Yet there is nothing tangible to shadows. Shadows cannot harm us, they cannot strike us. No, at their best, shadows are only our inner demons, coaxing, taunting, and seeking to coerce ourselves towards self destruction.

            The shadows in Bristol's life were marked indeed…memories of a past that she and Willow had sought to forget, to protect themselves and the world. But they could not run from those shadows. Zero had his own demons as well…and to a smaller extent, every other spirit on Earth carried their burdens.

            In the end, their shadows, their demons, would not let them escape. After all, one cannot run from their shadow. It's always right behind them.

            Demons rise up from our own fears and weaknesses. And try as we might, we can never outrun them. Certainly, the world of Mega Man X found that their demons could not be forgotten.

            They would return, always. And there is the secret.

            You do not run from your demons. You turn around and you face them.

            So what then, of the future? It is an intangible thing, predictable only to a degree. It is the land of hopes and dreams and promises. Live in the present, look to the future…and remember the past.

            But do not fear it.

            The world would go on, knowing no other way to exist. Old soldiers and allies had been lost. Others had moved on to other venues…

            Some more dangerous, and more discreet.

            The core remained. And despite what some might say…

            Some things in life never change. We still live, and we still die. Existence has not changed much in a thousand years, in even two thousand years. Minor details at best.

            Somewhere in the world, someone smiles.

            Somewhere, someone cries.

            Somewhere, two lovers fall from climax into the afterglow of a bittersweet moment.

            Those things remain.

            The world went on, and the players of 21XX went with it.

            Only now, they marched forth, doubts waylaid and eyes fresh with hopes anew.

            Now, there was no fear of demons.

            For, truly…

            Who would ever need fear…

            The Demons of the Past?