An Origin of the Ringbearers tale by Brother Grimace
I want to be with you and make believe with you
And live in harmony, harmony
- from 'Always', by Erasure
Michael didn't even bother to turn the lights on in the basement-conversion apartment that had been his home for the past three years. He opened door of the closet several paces away from the 1930's-era elevator that was the main entrance to the apartment, kicked his shoes off and then slid out of his overcoat.
A shower of sprinkles fell away from the fabric as he used his Vengeance Ring to transmute the aqua vitae the coat was soaked with into gold dust, and then scooped every bit of it up with his telekinesis. The idiots at Drennel's A-to-Z pay top price – and I'll just slip the cash into the first red kettle I see. The gold coin gimmick's old and silver coins aren't worth as much – Euros. I'll shadow 'port up to San Francisco, exchange a few pounds of gold with the pawn shops there, and hit several of the foreign banks up there for Euros. A few thousand of them in the kettles will be a nice change of pace, and the publicity will cause more people to donate. I hate the Christmas season.
Reaching for a one-pint Mason jar that was half-full with gold dust, Michael let his TK power funnel the dust into the jar, then placed it back besides the seven others on the shelf. My version of the change jar. Anytime I get filthy out in the street, I strip the gunk out of my clothes with my TK, transmute it into gold, and toss one of those jars to the landlord every six months or so. Between that, the occasional healing that I do around here with my 'special healing teas' and dropping cash anonymously on bills for people here when they run short – and they know it's me - the people in the area keep their mouths shut.
A feeling of total exhaustion pushed through Michael, and he dragged himself to the couch. "There's no reason why you should be so damned tired," a voice spoke from the darkness, and Michael's eyes snapped open. "I understand self-abuse – but you know that the Ring isn't going to allow you to kill yourself, and if you push, you know it's going to force you."
Michael lifted his head, and his eyes narrowed as he saw an attractive thirty-something woman with brown hair, sheathed in a gleaming-white power suit that accentuated her shapely figure. "Every once in a great while, you need to go out into the sunlight and recharge your Ring. A meager meal of your favorite comfort foods and enough coffee to flood out the greater Los Angeles Metro area isn't going to power that piece of jewelry, and we can't have you doing anything untoward – can we?"
"Who the hell are you?"
The woman walked out of the shadows. "My name's Helen Barksdale. I'm a senior associate for the law firm of Wolfram and Hart."
"Really? Then I'm sure that you understand the meaning of terms like 'criminal trespass', 'breaking and entering', and my personal favorite –'defenestration."
Helen shook her head and sighed dismissal of his threat. "That's not possible, sir – you live in a basement."
"I didn't say that you'd enjoy the procedure. Leaving an apartment is much more painful if you're making the window instead of simply leaving through one."
Blatantly ignoring Michael, Helen slipped out of her jacket as she looked around the apartment. "Hmm. For the appearance you favor on the streets, you keep your home surprisingly clean. Spartan, but clean – bordering on antiseptic."
"I'll give you a referral to the girl that comes in and dusts. Her name's Jenny. Her number's 867-5309."
Helen gave Michael a glance that could cut glass, and then peeked inside the refrigerator. "Oh, look at this – blueberry Jell-O."
Before Michael could rise from the couch, Helen pinched a marble-sized chunk from the large brick of a gelatinous blue substance that sat on a plate, alone inside the refrigerator. "I'm actually more of a dairy girl, though."
The chunk immediately transformed into a waffle cone with a scoop of strawberry ice cream. "Just like they used to make back at the commune, just after I got out of college," she said, tasting the dessert. "You can taste just how fresh the strawberries are..."
"All right," Michael conceded, rising from the couch. "You know about the Ring and the sunlight limitation, and you know about ambrosia. What do you want?"
Annoyance began to build as Helen walked back and sat down on the couch, crossing a pair of spectacular legs as she lounged back. "I'd like to tell you a story," she said, smiling as she took another lick from the cone.
"If you're going to put me to bed – I'm a bit old for stories. How about a warm glass of milk – or you could just get rid of that outfit. Oh, and go slow, so I can enjoy the view."
"All in good time," Helen said. "As I was saying – I wanted to tell you a story. A long time ago, in another place and time, there was another Earth."
"Shouldn't you be trying to sell this to Lucas? After the Star Wars prequels, I'd say he could use some new ideas."
The beautiful lawyer sighed. "As I was saying, there was another Earth – an Earth that was at least a millennium ahead of our world in every way. Scientifically, culturally, academically – they had colonized their solar system, with several cities of over a million beings on the moon and not just undersea cities, but undersea nations. Greater Macronesia, the Federated Republic of Atlantis, New Argentina – about forty undersea nations, with just over a billion citizens who live under the Earth's seas. They've also got colonies throughout the Milky Way Galaxy – and they've made friends with so many other races."
"Yeah, you're going to need a twist to that story," Michael said, leaning against a wall. "Already seen enough Star Trek to know that they'd come looking for you. Paramount's got some evil lawyers."
"As I was saying," Helen continued. "The reason for all of this was because of 'the Age of Illumination'. On this world, there were no 'Dark Ages' – no Black Plague, no Inquisition, no crazed churches declaring knowledge evil and burning libraries – mankind basically as a race decided that learning was a good thing. Trust me – they don't have folks like George Bush in charge there."
She enjoyed another bite of her cone. "Of course, in any story like this, there has to be something bad that happens. Nothing that good and that nice can move along before something just as bad comes along to balance out the equation..."
As Helen spoke, Michael felt his memory wind back, to a time long, long since past...
He recalled the waves of bodies, moving across the countryside like a matted, disease-laden carpet of slowly animated, decomposing flesh, a singularly horrific communal moan coming from the mass that terrified everything living before it and drove them ahead... continuously ahead, moving on until there was nowhere left to run...
"Zombies. A few meteors dropped on the planet one day – and soon enough, you had hundreds of thousands of the undead carousing about as they will, making life quite unpleasant for everyone. Fortunately, a world that was a millennium more advanced than ours had ways of defending itself from the hordes of the undead... "
Michael recalled the memories of others, taken forcefully; memories of a city built into the base of a mountain under siege, with a barrier wall forty feet high surrounding the entire city a half-mile away from its borders – a barrier wall of tempered glass fifteen feet thick. He watched as thousands of men and women, safely behind the wall, adjusted mortar-like devices they had set up and began to rapid-fire projectiles over the wall in a carpet-volley formation... the canisters struck over a mile away, deep within the overwhelming mass of undead, implanted themselves deep into the ground and opened to send ten-foot-tall spikes of energy skyward.
Blood and gore began to spew about the area as intense gravity fields emitted by the thick columns pulled zombies by the tens of thousands inside the artificial solar constructs – shaped energy weapons that were active for only six seconds, and could devastate armies within that time. In seconds, tens of thousands of the undead were erased from existence.
On an overgrown expanse of grass and weeds that was once a beautiful park, a single massive armored vehicle sat alone, blaring noise from a pair of speakers bolted to the immense turret that drew the undead in from all corners of an empty urban area that once housed millions. The untold numbers of undead grew closer, and closer...
A dome of burning, solid light shimmered into existence over the vehicle, and like lemmings over a cliff's edge, zombies unknowingly walked into oblivion by the thousands as they incinerated themselves upon the plasma shell; eleven hours later, the crew of the vehicle would shut the energy field off, and set off for another location to destroy more of the undead.
Crowds of terrified people watched from every vantage point as hundreds of soldiers fired at will upon the slowly advancing hordes of the undead; even with the hideously effective vibratory-shock weapons they used – weapons that blew apart everything within a one-meter radius of where the discharge struck – the creatures were still moving forward...
"Despite all of their technology, they were barely holding their own – but then, the tide turned." Helen smiled at Michael. "That's when another group of people entered the scene."
As Helen continued to speak, Michael continued to travel back through his stolen memories...
"There was a group of big brained-types on this Earth," Helen said, as Michael saw twin towers of gleaming material that dominated the skyline upon what, on most other Earths, was Manhattan Island. "They specialized in what was called 'Alchemic Technologies.' You know the old saying, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?'
In his mind's eye, Michael saw what looked like a Level Four biological warfare laboratory, with men and women in containment suits, air and cooling hoses connecting them to the walls of the lab, as they worked with a miniature smelter held aloft by antigravity fields as tiny streams of metal were poured into waiting molds and kept liquid by arcane energies generated through the series of runes that continually floated through the air and passed down through the molds...
"That's the basis behind alchemy. It's a field of scientific endeavor that circumvents the laws of traditional sciences in order to achieve effects that, to a lesser mind, would be called 'Magic'.
As Michael watched, a group of men and women wearing snug blue uniforms with black leather gloves stood in a large room and waited as a group of twelve men and women in like-colored uniforms with white left sleeves entered.
"This group was willing to watch and wait, to study the threat, and to think of not only the immediate tactical situation, but of the overall strategic threat not only to themselves, but to other worlds as well. They also realized that the damage that this war against the zombies would cause would be catastrophic for this world and its people, possibly taking decades to repair- and if it would be this bad for them, other worlds might never recover from similar circumstances."
A woman with striking Latin features was the first to approach the tray; a Ring in the middle of the tray seemed to vibrate and fade away. The woman removed her right glove to reveal the Ring that had appeared upon her hand.
"They recruited a thousand people. These men and women would not only fight against the zombies, but also help the people afterwards – both in rebuilding, and with the unique problems that are found after any war or disaster. These people would become known as the Ringbearers – and with their Defender Rings, they turned the tide of the war."
The soldiers looked up as they saw a cadre of seven Ringbearers. led by the Latina, who swooped down upon the oncoming creatures – and with blue flashes from their Rings, eradicated the mass of zombies in seconds!
"The group of people who created the Rings was referred to by the survivors as the Ringbearers. They managed to find out where the meteors came from, and that this wasn't a natural occurrence – so after they had helped to rebuild their own, world they sent the Ringbearers off to find the source of their problems. That was the beginning of their mandate – to locate and eliminate supernatural threats, to keep constant watch for them, and to recruit new members to the Corps of Ringbearers wherever they could find them."
Still awash in him memories, Michael watched several instances where the Latina and several other Ringbearers presented new Rings to other humans and alien creatures. "This is where the problem began – you see, only a certain kind of person can wear the Ring. Now, some people will try and argue college freshman-level ethics and morality with you on how greater levels of power can cause greater levels of corruption, or on the mature of morality and how each person views and enacts the concept differently – but the gist of the matter is, all civilized individuals have a common bond of mores and values. We don't kill unless absolutely necessary. We don't enslave others. We recognize our primal, innate natures, but don't allow ourselves to be driven by them - in other words, we recognize that we all have a dark side, but that it is wrong to allow that part of ourselves to determine how we live."
Michael watched as a Ring sat on a stump in the middle of a beautiful forest, surrounded by a huge crowd of onlookers whose attire, both of the poor and wealthy, suggested that this was during the medieval era. All who came forth tried and failed to even pick the Ring from its place on the stump...
A haughty woman in clothes that proclaimed her wealth stepped from her carriage and removed the rings on her fingers. The young woman beside her, whose similar appearance marked them as mother and daughter, placed the jewelry in a small silk bag; as everyone else watched the woman struggle, the daughter's eyes were on a boy her age, wearing ragged clothes but with a proud bearing that shone through as he looked back at her. Frustrated, the woman turned and struck her daughter as she saw how the girl was staring at the boy – and the girl knocked the Ring away from its resting place as she stumbled!
The woman immediately dived for the ring, throwing decorum to the winds – and was blown thirty feet away to land in a shallow pond! Sputtering and stunned, the woman rose from the water to see the assembled crowds all kneeling before her daughter, the Ring now on her finger...
"That's what the Ring does. It has a function called a 'morality interlock'; it acts as a mirror upon one's own self, giving the only person who has the knowledge and the right to judge the final decision as to whether or not you deserve to wear the Ring – you." Helen smiled a mirthless smile. "Most people – many, many good, upstanding, kind and giving people – could not wear a Ring, and for the simple fact that they know, deep inside themselves, what they would do or allow to be done if they had the power of a Ring. They know that they have no right to wear the Ring – and they reject it themselves."
Helen leaned forward. "And that is where the real trouble began."
Michael went to the mini-fridge that sat on the counter in the kitchen area, and pulled out a bottle of beer. "You know, maybe should be a novel – or maybe a miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel. They'd love an idea like this – maybe even make it into a series."
The female lawyer was silent as she spent several moments concentrating on the ice-cream cone; as she did, Michael pushed away the fact that it had been a very long time since he had spent any time alone with a woman. "Look, I understand enough about women to know that you're not going anywhere until you say everything you have to say – could you hurry it along?"
"Of course. Speeding things along – somebody found a way to, well, corrupt is probably the right term. They found out how to take these Defender Rings and rescind the morality interlock. Now, not only could anyone wear them, unlike the Defender Rings, but also, the endowments place upon the Rings meant that they actively sought out specific people to wear them. Not petty criminals, not people of small desires and immature dreams, but people who have a... special potential. Defender Rings seek out people who have the potential to save worlds, while Vengeance Rings would now..." Helen took a breath. "With a Vengeance Ring, a man – the right man – could become a new Julius Caesar, a new Genghis Khan – or a Caligula reborn."
Helen crunched at the top of her cone. "Now, here's where the story gets interesting. One of those guys – you know, the ones that never made a real attempt at anything, or circumstances kept him below the radar, but when you look at them close, you know that this one could have been great? Destiny or fate or the universe kept them from realizing their potential, but still, when they pass by, you feel that sensation, like Death blowing you a kiss as it passes by? That's what the Vengeance Ring searches out – it's a quality as rare as the morality the Defender Ring seeks out - and somewhere far away... one of the Rings found it."
Michael let his memories flow...
Michael remembered the day it happened; his unit had been activated, and he leaving the armory with the other members of his squad when the Great Tribulation began – the last words he heard from one of his fellow Rocketeers as the sun seemed to go out, along with every other source of light everywhere, just before the man seemed to break apart in a swirling line of blue-white flame.
Without hesitation, he unslung the Yellowjacket cluster rocket from his back and targeted on the source of the flamethrower (that's the only thing it could be, he thought), and a female scream split the air as several nasty explosions momentarily bloomed – Michael thought he could see a leg spiral through the air before the darkness swallowed the light – and he grunted in pain as something heavy dropped down upon him, pressing him to the asphalt!
The sun came out once again, and Michael winced at the sight of ten men and women in black uniforms – each wearing a copper-like band on their right hand. "This is the one," a short man with white hair and an Australian accent said to the sleek, twenty-something Latina who seemed to be their leader. "Adriana-"
The woman held her hand up for silence, and knelt down besides Michael as she held up a Ring like her own. "We had a ring for you – but this one... you earned it. You took it, and it was glad to be free, to come to you as it's rightful wearer."
"You're crazy, girl!" he shouted, as he realized that he was laying besides several piles of salt that were beginning to blow away in the brisk morning winds. "What the hell – where's the rest of my men?"
Still pinned down securely by an unseen force, Michael tried to struggle as Adriana kissed him roughly, and then slid the ring down upon his right ring finger. "This is your time. Join us, Michael. Be one of us."
His struggling ceased as a brilliant copper light exploded out from his pupils; Adriana reached down to kiss him again, and found a willing participant as he reached up to pull her in close. "If it pleases you to watch a man enjoy the pleasures of life, then stay, watch and learn," Michael said, rising up on one knee as he pulled his uniform shirt open, then turned his Ring towards Adriana. "If not, then I'm sure you have other things to do."
Adriana gasped as Michael pulled her in again, kissing her hard; the skies overhead began to darken with storm clouds, and as lightning bolts began to rain down across the area, the screams and shouts of people mingling with the sounds of explosions, the roaring of fires and thunder exploding overhead, the young woman felt herself being lifted into the sky. She felt her skin cool as her uniform was transmuted into water, and cried out sharply as Michael began to make love to her in midair, while the violent storm he created and the Ringwraiths he now commanded began to devastate the city far below...
"Our hero becomes a Ringwraith – someone who wears a Vengeance Ring, and a cross between a 1980's primetime soap opera baddie and the guy who sublets a Lemarchand Box for a vacation time-share. Definitely not someone you'd invite over for coffee, cake and an evening of spirited conversation."
Helen finished her cone. "And oh, was he a bastard. Truly fit to wear the Ring. In two centuries and across God knows how many dimensions, he was so violent and capricious, it got to the point that even the other Ringwraiths were terrified of him, because he enjoyed playing with his food. Oh, and that's another thing I forgot to mention about the Ringwraiths..."
The images of the people, the creatures, the innocents and the deserving that he had killed over the centuries flashed before his eyes. Some he killed easily – cremation. Transmutation, snapping their necks, shearing their heads off, incinerating them with bolts of lightning, that one never got old – while with some, he got creative.
He remembered the Forest that he planted on one world: he came upon the city in the night and covered it in Darkness; a day later, as the eyes of the world were focused upon the city covered in darkness, he let the dark fade away – and the world recoiled in horror as they found the city razed to the ground, but the 100,000-plus population horribly transfigured into living aware composite creatures of human flesh and plant growths, now in a psychotic forest that covered the area where the city once stood...
Then there were the times when he needed to recharge his Ring or he simply needed to feed... he could create food, of course, and find a way to the sunlight, but when he could not or chose not to, the life-forces of other living beings was a heady rush that satisfied both body and spirit. They always whimpered or screamed – he used his glamours to induce the fears that drove them the hardest, and made their energies more invigorating...
"Soon enough, someone comes looking for him – and it's the Ringmasters themselves. They've become more than a little annoyed about the whole Ringwraith business, how they've been out there for centuries – not that the Ringbearers haven't been planting them whenever they get a chance – but this one, they felt they had to deal with on their own."
They had brought him to what, on an occupied Earth, was Montana – to the mesa known as the Devil's Tower. There, the Ringmasters bound the Ringwraith known as Michael... and began his punishment.
"Saying that they 'cursed' him wouldn't be accurate," Helen said. "What they did –besides removing the Ring's ability to traverse dimensions; no more running amuck for this guy - was to put what they called 'the Compulsion' upon him. They restored the morality interlock in part – the Ring recognized the person that he was, and allows him to see just what horrors he's perpetrated across the universes. It restored his sense of morality that the Vengeance Ring suppresses in its wearers, and refuses to allow him to remove it – a constant punishment for the crimes he's committed."
The lawyer stood up. "But that wasn't enough for the Ringmasters. In their eyes, he's the symbol for all of the evil that's been done with the weapons they created to save the universe. The Compulsion has a second part – a nasty part."
"I'm really bored. I'd like to go to bed now," Michael growled. "Are you done yet?"
"I can understand the boredom. This story has all death, violence, planets going 'boom' and godlike figures going 'I smite thee for your impudence!'" Helen smiled at him. "Needs a little romance, if you ask me, and a bit of the bodice-ripping. That comes along in the form of a petite, spirited little number. Auburn hair, cute pair of glasses, intelligence operative by trade – name of Amy. Our hero – anti-hero, so to speak- gets dropped face-first on yet another Earth, and after a century or so of walking about aimlessly from life to life, meets up with little Miss Likes-To-Shoot. Instant connection, and it's more than sparks flying and Fourth of July fireworks. For the first time in centuries, our guy feels something more than anger, the desire to wreak havoc, or even the remorse that's been eating him alive. Our boy's falling in love."
He recalled the warmth of Amy's touch, how soft her hands were as she held his face, her brown eyes holding him firm even though that part of him that the Ring kept awake screamed that he had no right to have anyone look at him in that way...
"What you did in the past is the past. That person wasn't you. That's not who you are now. I couldn't go near that person, or touch him, or love him – and I love you. I love you, Michael."
In the four hundred and forty-six years that he had lived, no moment could have meant as much as the way Amy Barksdale kissed him, or the way it felt to make love to her.
"You see, the Ringmasters are also master bastards. You remember that second part of the Compulsion that I mentioned earlier – the really nasty part? Well, the thing is that if our hero ever experiences – well, the technical term used for curses of this sort is 'perfect happiness', and believe me, it's been used before – the Compulsion on the Ring that keeps the Ring from bringing out his evil side? That goes away."
The screaming of dozens of men and women inside the American Security Agency's Langley campus main building rang out through the rising roaring of the flames; without stopping, Michael walked away from the main entrance as a massive explosion ripped through the front of the building, a serene smile on his face.
"I've always admired the women in your life, Andrew," Michael said, his expression neutral as he walked over to the huge fireplace in the castle he used as his personal retreat while a trio of vampires restrained a struggling Andrew Landon "They're all very beautiful."
With a casual wave of his hand, three charred, writhing bodies leaped from the blazing fire within the fireplace, landing in front of Landon. "You see? Your wife and daughters are smoking hot."
Michael healed the three dying Landon women, and then, looked back up to Landon. "And I can do this all night. Are you sure you don't know where Amy is?"
"With the Compulsion gone, our hero goes back to his old ways faster than a group of frat boys emptying a keg. Mayhem, killing, general destruction – just another day back on the job for him." Helen glanced over to where Michel stood silently, his face lined with pain. "So, once the Compulsion is placed back upon him, he doesn't feel that he has any right to be around her any more – that it wouldn't be safe for either of them if they were together, or for anyone else Amy cares about.
As support personnel and other ASA operatives helped to clear the area, Amy watched as Michael stepped up to the Architect's Gateway, lying down on the ground. He looked at the doorway-shaped device, then at her, staring for a long moment.
As Amy watched, Michael turned away from her and stepped into the Gateway; he disappeared as if he were walking down a flight of stairs, out of sight.
"He goes away and appears upon another Earth – no second thoughts about seeing the girl again. He uses his Ring's ability to track pain and suffering of all kinds to the strongest concentration of pain and suffering on the planet."
Helen held her arms out. "Los Angeles, California. The home of the Dream Factory. The location of the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Eight million stories in the Naked City, and they're all about people who came here to find a new life – problem is, no matter where you go, there you are. A perfect place for someone to go who wants to fight the forces of evil, great and small; to save lives, help the helpless, and try to begin to atone for what he's done."
She walked around the apartment, and raised an eyebrow at the lead statue of a masked man with a gun that stood off in a corner. "A world in and of itself, where he can be nothing but a shadow – a faceless champion of the people he's now dedicated himself to protect." Helen turned around to face him. "Hey, could you whip up a glass of that nectar you Ring-types make? I could really use a good Italian white – or a dry martini."
Michael walked past her, his Ring flashing blue, and he handed her the beer can. "Not bad," she said, nodding her head in appreciation as she sipped the contents and tasted a wonderful Italian white wine she'd always enjoyed. "If you opened a restaurant and served this – minus the lovely can with the charming pop-top – you could afford to live somewhere decent."
"Look, that was an interesting tale, and since it's my bio, I already knew it," he said, walking towards the bathroom. "What – you want to watch?"
The sound of running water ceased a moment before the door opened, and Michael walked back to see Helen lounging on the couch as she finished off her drink. "You know, the wonderful thing abut nectar is that, if you realize its true properties, is that it allows you an effectively bottomless drink," she commented, shaking the can to show that it was almost empty. "As long as you can envision the container being full, and as long as there any traces of nectar left-"
She shook the can again; it was full. "A nice party trick – and now, back to business. You're here in the shadows, beneath the dregs of humanity, depriving yourself of even the simplest of pleasures for the most part and keeping yourself apart from the people that you're supposed to be protecting."
"Besides the nice view, why haven't I shown you the opposite side of the door?"
"Because now, I'm going to tell you what happens next." Helen looked in his direction "You're out there, fighting supernatural creatures and keeping yourself apart from people as an eternal penance – let me ask you something. What's keeping you going? You were somehow able to work yourself past the guilt to find a connection with that girl. You managed to find it in yourself to be able to love, but now, you're denying yourself a connection to those people you're trying to save. If you're not careful, one day you're going to go out, fail to save someone and you'll go, 'Oh, well. I didn't save one. If you look at all of the ones I've saved, I'm allowed to miss every once in a while.'
She sat up. "You'll start becoming more and more indifferent, and the day will come when you won't even care any more."
Michael walked over to the elevator door and opened it. "I am now officially tired of you, Miss Barksdale. If I'm out trying to good in the world, I don't need anyone to come along and tell me exactly how I need to do it, or how I need to stop and hug the people afterwards."
Helen slid off the couch, and reached for her jacket. "My card," she said, placing her business card on the coffee table "In case you decide that you do need someone."
The scent of her perfume lingered in the apartment long after Helen had left.
It was the same brand of perfume, Michael noticed, that Amy had always worn.