MEGA MAN ZERO: SHADOWS OF A HUNTER

A Novelette by Eric "Erico" Lawson

Prologue: Strains of Elysium

August 9th, 2164

The Last Skull Fortress

Life was a cruel thing. That much the Crimson Hunter could discern as he lay in the ruins of Sigma's last great stand...it was cruel, and he'd finally gotten his penalty for all those years of cheating the system.
Warriors like him...didn't live forever. Weren't supposed to. And his body, torn in half and slowly dying, was a reminder of that.

At least...it's over this time.
No, this wasn't like all the other times Sigma had gone off on some grand plan to destroy the world as they knew it. He'd thrown in his last desperate bid, and it had failed. Using Dynamo, a mercenary who Sigma had gained in his employ, the persistent and undeniably deranged Maverick had infected the orbiting Space Colony Eurasia...and sent it on a degrading orbit that would have made it hit the earth in only 16 hours.
Aah, Cain...you would've been proud of us.

It got confusing...his mind was beginning to flake out, play tricks on him. But Cain would have been proud of them. Just as Sigma had put in motion Eurasia, he'd also played his hand against the Hunters in New York city...And in the scaffolding surrounding the Statue of Liberty, the Maverick, ever resourceful and with only increased potency over his surroundings from years of being fused inexorably with the Maverick Virus, had appeared as a giant head. Zero had his arm knocked off from the first showdown, but X had arrived in his reconstructed Force Armor and ended it.
But Sigma had wanted to be destroyed. In the explosion that followed, he spread himself all over the world...as tiny particles of what he was, simplified motes of his Viral essence that went worldwide. It had been a trap, and it had been planned. Sigma wanted chaos, and as the world went mad by the Sigma Virus's presence, the Hunters had a twofold threat.
Less than a day...to save this world and to stop Eurasia...But we did it.
X and Zero had never before worked at such a pace, and they'd met up with plenty of old foes and embittered friends alike as they worked to make their plans work. Signas, the resourceful bastard he was, had put Douglas in charge of fixing up the Enigma Cannon, a rustic piece of equipment that had been installed outside of the MHHQ following the Doppler Rebellion...the Third Maverick Uprising. But it was years old, and the years, with budget cuts and no true threat against the HQ itself, had been hard on it. Only with parts had Douglas been able to reinforce the cannon enough to fire again...and that hadn't stopped it.
In our last moments...Sigma sought to remind us of all the pain and suffering our battles caused on this planet. Bastard...
As Zero struggled with Dynamo to defend the HQ, X in his newly acquired Falcon Armor had struck off to regain the parts from more places, in their last ditch plan. To fire off an old space shuttle from the HQ's former Repliforce Air wing trades...and with a kamikaze attack, shatter Eurasia and prevent the Apocalypse.
It had worked. Eurasia's main brunt had been averted...and while it had crashed, the effects were nowhere near as terrible as they could have been. Zero had piloted the shuttle that had taken it down...
Even then, he cheated death.
His only remaining arm twitched for a moment, reached down below his chest and felt the sparking wires and pooled blood where his lower body had once been.
I won't be cheating it again...

The Virus Sigma had sent into the station...and the Sigma Virus on Earth...had combined somehow in Southeast Asia, at coordinates unknown and forgotten by time. But its new form did not take the shape of Sigma's monstrous head...but Zero himself. Alia had called it the Zero Virus at first...but X and Zero, pushing on through the ancient, but somehow still dangerous Fortress, found suspicions. It was uncomfortable...and for Zero, it brought up too many fuzzy memories. Things about his past in spaces long blank...and best left blank.
The Fortress was not Sigma's. It lacked his design, his style...but he'd used it all the same. And as they fought through, as Zero dealt with the reincarnation of Rangda Bangda and X struggled against an amorphous Demon with a stone dead eye and no true shape...A Shadow Devil, X referred to it shakily...
Their doubts, their worry about each other and their paranoia if the other might be infected only grew.

In the Third "Ring" of the facility, as Zero had somehow been inspired to call it, X and Zero had met up again...in a room with an emblem, once fuzzy...but now all too clear, shining in neon purple above them.
A Jagged W...A symbol of an age past, and an age best left forgotten. At last, it became clear to Zero. That he...and this place...were tied. Tied in some way, a deep and distant way. And that the W that shone in the room was also tied to him.
As were its implications.
Child of the Devil.

Zero, stunned but still unwilling to be led into despondency, forced himself to think only of ending Sigma's life...and putting the Maverick's last grand effort to a stop.
X, always concerned for his friend...had asked him to go back. Return to the MHHQ. Report in for testing. He could handle it himself.
But Zero...no, this was Zero's mission. Not X's.
And they fought. Over the stupidest of things...who would destroy Sigma...X and Zero, the oldest of friends fought. Zero had triumphed, barely...only because for a moment, he had listened to a darker impulse from within and overwhelmed X. And with X lying unconscious...recovering, but alive and safe...
Zero had pushed on, to fight Sigma.
He was weakened. His efforts had drained him. And somehow, Zero knew...that this was it. That this was the LAST TIME. And never again.
Sigma. The Virus had deluded him so much through the years...but the one thing that the Maverick had always been insistent about...was that Zero had always denied his true heritage, his true mission. That it should have been Zero standing at Sigma's side as a Maverick, and not against him.
And Sigma had found this place...As he said, "Found an old man..."
Zero wasn't a student of history, but he knew enough. Knew enough to realize, from the blatant symbols, he at last understood what the Maverick meant.
The Child of Wily. The last child of Wily.
And Zero had passed on the mantle of Destroyer to Sigma.
But...I made my own destiny. And I fought you, Sigma...And as for Wily...Damn him to Hell. Damn him for ever making me...but damn him for thinking I would ever...no.

Footsteps approached. Zero was shutting down...for the last time, likely...but he knew that voice.
"...Zero?! Oh God, NO! Zero, don't die!" The footsteps stopped, and strong hands drew his mangled torso up into the embrace of a familiar pair of arms.
"...X..." Zero tried to speak, coughing up a clot of blood that had gotten caught in his windpipe. "Damnit...I didn't want you to see me like this."
The Crimson Hunter opened his eyes...found X looking down at him, misty-eyed and only moments away from crying his heart out. "Conserve your energy..." X pleaded. "We'll get you back to the HQ, we'll fix you up..."
"He got me good, X." Zero wheezed, managing a weak smile. "I...took him down, but...He got me good."
"Stop talking like that." X choked out, shaking his head. "You're not dying on me...I won't let you die on me! I need you!!"

But whatever sorrowful tones the two could have shared were interrupted. X turned about and looked towards a sudden sound, the shifting, groaning presence of metal. And Zero...seeing only the look on X's face, watched as the sadness turned into disbelief and then horror. "Oh...NO..."
He heard a familiar cackle, wheezing and in pain. "...D...Gu...DROP...DEAD..."
And he heard the sound of a blistering and focused beam of piercing plasma laser...and felt it blast through his back and out his front. He saw it pierce through the center of X's chest as well...And whatever damage it did to his friend, it was death for him. No chance of survival.
His Microfusion Tank, the source of his body's power, what kept him alive, had been vaporized before it even had a chance to explode from the destabilization.
X's eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he collapsed backwards onto the floor, the beam's effect cutting clean through his torso and severing away the legs of the greatest Hunter that ever was.
Beside him, the shattered body of Zero collapsed back onto the ground...Jaw clenched in horrific pain as his mind blared out every warning imaginable. No power. No time. No chance.
No hope.

But all the same, with what little dwindling power coursed through him, the Crimson Hunter shakily lifted his head up...formed his only arm into a Buster and aimed at the chuckling mass of wires and the deformed head that had grown from them.
"...Persistent...you are...Sigma..." Zero wheezed, managing a sick grin as his Buster drained even more of his remaining strength away from him. It wasn't much. It was enough. Enough for one shot.
"Die...Sigma..."
The plasma blast blew apart the final incarnation of Sigma.

And the ruins grew quiet for a moment.
Zero's head fell back weakly onto the ground. He didn't even have the energy to transform his hand back, and left his Buster resting against his chest. Eyes blurred, vision and senses failing, Zero felt a certain darkness and weakened state of mind overwhelm him. "X...Do...You hear me?"
But X did not respond.
Zero closed his eyes, lacking even the power to cry. "Your optimism...led to your own demise...But not like this."
Weakly, his chest rose and fell, instinctively trying to draw fresh hydrogen into a Microfusion generator long since gone. "But...you should live..."
His senses died. The world faded into darkness. And the memories came.
Is this...what it's like to die...to have your memories flash before...your eyes?

He remembered everything. Sigma. The Maverick Uprisings.
Cain. Hazil.
X.
...Wily.
Fuck you dad...fuck you to Hell. Even as I die...I refuse to be what you wanted me to.
He remembered Iris...
Her smile.
Her laugh.
And how he had killed her.
Iris...please...forgive me...
In an endless loop, Zero found through the cascade failure of his dying brain nothing but sorrow. Nothing but regret.
Found that in the end...His presence in this world had wrought nothing but shame and grief.
The guilt was too strong. For who he was. What he had done.
The innocents that had died...All along the way. Just to defeat Sigma.
But never again.
Another memory...old, corrupted...but as he died, at last accessible...
It's...it's me. But it isn't me...It's the destroyer of reploids.

Nothing to show for his life but bloodstained hands, a murderous visage.
Nothing to carry on into the next world to change his nature.
Nothing to defend himself with.
He had fought Sigma and the Mavericks.
But it was through him they had been created.

And then, Zero made a decision.

He wanted to die.
It's...it's for the best, X...
I have to die to restore the peace...If I live, only more pain, more suffering will come.
He knew somewhere he was right. And he was tired.
The end...At last, the end. To it all.
Never again. No more sorrow. No more guilt. No reconciliation or salvation.
Just death.
Just the quiet and absolving...smothering...onset of death.
Around him, the ruined final Fortress of Wily shook and crumbled apart...buried the corpses of X and Zero, then bearing them forth in the dying explosions.
Peace would come now. Sigma...and the Mavericks...and the Maverick Virus...
Would never threaten Earth again.
X would live. Resurrected by a miracle, and carrying on Zero's saber and his legacy.
But Zero himself was lost to the past.
As it should be.

But...
Not as it would be forever.


April 8th, 2220

Neo Arcadia

5:47 P.M.

The Tree of Eden was as glorious as ever...Its dense Treeborg foliage stretched up to the top of the mountainous glass topped room, in the deepest heart of Neo Arcadia's inner sanctum. Then again, the Tree was always glorious, Copy X thought calmly. It had a wonderful power source.
Locked into an open coffin, long since dead, but his ancient body still beating out life from the archaic Microfusion Tank that powered him, Mega Man X's corpse hung his head to the ground, the red crystal control chip cover on his helmet flashing a powerful beacon of light every few seconds in synchronization with the cycle of the tree. Copy came here more times than he cared to admit...and every time he did, he found himself mesmerized by the shape, the majesty even the body of his predecessor commanded.
And then he tried hard to ignore the flashing black spherical prison above X's head...The reason for X's sacrifice.
"A century of fighting." Copy began calmly, looking at the body. "And then you decided to end the War with the easy way out."
True, the Elf would have been difficult to destroy...But Copy spat on the floor, his cold red eyes acknowledging that it was more likely the foolish warrior had simply lost the fighting spirit. The four Generals of Neo Arcadia had taken the news the hardest, along with that human scientist...Ciel, as he recalled.
X had always been there to lead them. The Four Generals in particular had pledged to defend the once Maverick Hunter with their very lives, and as if to spite them all, X had ended the Cyber Elf Wars by using his very body to contain the Dark Elf and seal the last of the opposing forces away. But Neo Arcadia...the haven of humanity, the last standing city that could be called Utopia in the wartorn world, could not function without Mega Man X. Its founder. Its savior. Its leader.
And so out of that need, he...Copy...had been born. He was a clone of X.
...No. More than just a simple clone.
He was better than Mega Man X.

A sudden displacement of air from behind him made the leader of Neo Arcadia tense up for a moment, rising on his hackles before shaking his head. "Phantom, there's no need for you to always make such a dramatic entrance."
Behind him, the gray and black ninja reploid Phantom bowed to one knee in reverence to his leader. "My apologies. But you are needed at Central."
Coldly, Copy turned about from the slumbering corpse of Mega Man X, his spark of life forever extinguished, to look at his charge. "What is it this time? Has the Resistance thrown together another pitiful assault force? Surely the Drones can see to it."
Behind his mask, Phantom's eyes narrowed. "Our recon teams have reported a scouting party from the Resistance is on the move into the swamps on the outskirts of old Hong Kong...And she's with them."
Copy frowned. "Ciel?" Phantom nodded. Copy pursed his lips for a moment, then shook his head. "Illogical...Ciel's role in their affairs is best served hiding away in whatever section of the nearby ruins outside of Neo Arcadia, not off wandering."
"That is precisely why I have been sent to bring you back." Phantom explained, nonplussed and droll as ever. "Harpuia would like your input before he acts."
Copy nodded. "Very well...I see he still carries some tones of sympathy for the misguided scientist. You may return back to Central. I'll be along shortly." Phantom bowed in reply, then vanished in a beam of warplight.
Copy X mulled over the thought in his head a few times, then turned to look back at the body of his predecessor. "Well, X...it seems at long last, what you could never finish, I shall at last accomplish. When we have captured Ciel and brought her back to Neo Arcadia and away from her misguided actions, the Resistance will crumble."
X was silent, of course. Copy scowled at that, wishing for a moment to blast away the somehow smug look of him. "You trusted Ciel more than you trusted anyone else, you naive creature. I was made by her hands to take your place...and then she turned on everything we have fought so hard to create and protect. Your legacy...your age...is long dead."
Copy X took a menacing step towards the corpse. "The Mavericks...Sigma...The Virus...Maverick Hunter Headquarters...and the great Mega Man X. You're nothing but ghosts now...Nothing but shadows from a past long buried. And today, the spade shall turn over the last shovelful of dirt on the grave of the 22nd Century."
Copy turned away from X's body, scowling. Today, his legacy, his true reign would begin. The Resistance would be crushed, and Ciel returned to protective custody for her misguided actons. What appealed to him most was how on this day...at long last, Neo Arcadia would have nothing left to fear. The last shadows of 21XX would fade away on this, a day he would ensure would always be remembered. The scowl transformed into a cold smile, and he vanished in a beam of warplight for Central...

There were commands to be issued to Harpuia.

To Copy, April 8th would be a day marked as the point when the Resistance was at last crushed, and his reign over Neo Arcadia...indeed, the world...would finally begin in earnest.
But to others...

To a young woman, brilliant, desperate, and pegging everything on a legend almost forgotten...
April 8th would mark the day when the walls of Neo Arcadia began to crumble...
And the past, in the form of a red Hunter long asleep, would cast an ominous shadow in the new world.
Somewhere in the swamp and ruins...
The remains of the Crimson Hunter waited and slept.
Waiting to be born anew.