If Raelin had thought Valhalla was a beautiful place, she thought so even more now. She had always thought that beauty had been trees, grass, and running water, all under a clear blue sky. A village had almost always been a scar, a blight upon the land; something that was necessary, yet didn’t belong. That was before she saw Valgrind.
What Raelin had seen in that glorious city had changed her opinion of beauty forever. Art was everywhere; there were no drab colors in Valgrind. Music had permeated the streets, changing mood with every step. Kindness had been in everyone’s hearts. Drake had once told Raelin of a place people went after they died, a place where nothing bad could ever exist. If that place was real, Raelin was sure it would be like Valgrind.
“Raelin,” said Drake, coming up behind her, “don’t go too far off the path.”
Raelin laughed. She had been walking apart from the army, enjoying the smell of trees and the sounds of birds. “We’re not even out of Nastralund, Drake,” she said. “There are no enemies here.”
“You’d be surprised,” Drake muttered, scanning the trees. They had left Valgrind two days earlier, and had covered over half the distance to Stechavan. The entire journey had been through a light forest, where the young trees, nearly bare with the coming winter, let the sun shine down on the hard ground. The air now held a definite hint of frost.
“Wasn’t Valgrind wonderful, Drake?” Raelin asked. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
Drake smiled down at her. He was riding one of the Templar’s horses. “Not quite like it, no. Although, I have seen some sights in my day.”
“Like what?” asked Raelin.
“Well, London for one thing. You probably wouldn’t like it – raining all the time, not the cleanest of places – but some of the buildings… they were—”
“We’re under attack! Help, it’s the— AUGH!”
Drake whirled around. In an instant, the woods came alive. Beasts burst from behind the trees, snarling and snapping, and charged the force. They were skeletal and red, their large black eyes glittering in the bright sunlight. Taller than Raelin’s waist, they charged the men, plunging their teeth into anything they could reach.
“Drake,” Raelin cried, “what are they?”
Drake drew his sword. “Marro,” he shouted back as his horse reared. “Hounds. Get back, Raelin. Don’t let them anywhere near you; they carry a deadly plague!”
“Plague?” Raelin repeated fearfully, but Drake was already gone. She leapt to the air and flew back to the main body of the troops – mostly Vikings and Templars. The soulborgs were up ahead, scouting. Despite Drake’s warning, the men seemed to be defeating the marro easily enough. At least at first.
A moment later, more marro burst from the trees. These marro were humanoid, smaller than kyrie, and they rode atop wolfish mounts as big as horses. Above their heads they whirled what looked horribly like human spinal cords, flailing them like whips. A skull was attached to the end of each.
“Groks!” Drake yelled, riding into view. His sword was dyed green and yellow with blood. “Templars, form up and charge!”
There was confusion for a moment, and then the knights turned their horses into place and lowered their lances. Raelin took to the air again so she wouldn’t be in the way. Drake wheeled his own horse about to face the oncoming Groks.
“Charge!” he bellowed, slashing his sword down.
Raelin flew along above the horses, angling her spear downwards. In her mind, she focused on Drake and the Templars, and a blue field of magic erupted from the tip of the spear, enveloping them.
For a moment, the Groks looked hopelessly outnumbered. They seemed to realize it themselves, because a few broke ranks and ran the opposite way. But then, without warning, ten of the charging knights dropped dead. There was no attack, no movement. They just… died. Looking up, Raelin saw many more men drop to the ground as well. And then a lone figure rose above the trees, an evil smile upon her face, her helmet held in her hands.
“Runa,” Raelin muttered to herself. She had heard of this kyrie from reports, and knew that she was deadly.
Runa rocketed downwards, speeding straight for Drake. Drake saw her a moment too late, and Runa crashed into him, sending them both to the ground. The Templars swerved in their charge to avoid trampling them, and the Groks smashed into them, aided by a new wave of marro hounds that burst from the trees.
Raelin focused with all her might on Drake, willing her spear to keep him protected. Unfortunately, she focused so hard that she didn’t see the Grok directly beneath her until his flail caught her foot.
Raelin slammed into the ground, and her spear flew from her grasp. The Grok above her turned to face her, Raelin rolled away, and then she felt an extremely painful jab in her stomach. Something long, heavy, and extremely sharp was keeping her pinned to the ground.
Raelin’s immediate impression was of tangled hair and the smell of rotting skin. Neither was very pleasant. The creature above her was definitely a marro, though Raelin might have guessed it was a female. She had six legs, sharp like a crab’s, and held a heavy staff in her two hands.
The marro thrust her face into Raelin’s. “Do you know who I am, kyrie?”
Raelin tried to back away, but the marro’s foot held her secure.
“I am Kee-Mo-Shi, and from this point onwards, you will serve me.”
Raelin glanced very briefly into Kee-Mo-Shi’s deep black eyes. That proved to be a mistake.
Sound instantly died. Raelin’s muscles tensed. She realized she couldn’t move. She couldn’t look away. She couldn’t even breathe. She could feel her mind going fuzzy. Her senses became overpowered with the stench of swamp and rot, and Kee-Mo-Shi’s merciless eyes bored deep into her own, penetrating, tearing, revealing all…
Kee-Mo-Shi let loose an earsplitting scream, and Raelin fell back on the ground, gasping for breath. She couldn’t breathe. Sound overwhelmed her. Her eyes couldn’t focus. Everything was shifting between light and dark, clear and blurred. Raelin’s stomach churned, and her mind went black for a moment.
“Raelin! Raelin! Wake up!”
Raelin drew a breath. It hurt terribly. She let it out slowly and drew another one. She wanted to take only small breaths because of the pain, but she needed oxygen. Her mind threatened to slip away again. She forced herself to breathe deeply, gritted her teeth against the pain, and looked up through watering eyes. Drake knelt before her, his sword a mass of green and yellow. Looking beyond him, Raelin saw Kee-Mo-Shi, twitching in her final seconds of life.
“Are you all right?” Drake asked. “Can you focus?”
“No,” answered Raelin. Her speech was slurred, slow. It frightened her. Why couldn’t she talk right? Her concern was mirrored in Drake’s eyes.
“Don’t worry, Raelin,” Drake said. “You’ll be fine. You’ve just—”
Whatever else Drake was about to say was lost to the wind. Something red slammed into him, and Raelin was left blankly staring at where he had been. In her stunned state, it took her a moment to turn her head and see what had happened.
Drake was struggling with Runa on the ground. He appeared to have the upper hand. He was on top of Runa, trying to get his sword pointed at her, but she kept squirming and writhing out of the way. Finally, she kicked him in the side, which caused him to lose his grip on her. She kicked him in the stomach, rolled over, and jetted out from under him, bringing her sword down at his shoulder as she flew upwards. Drake blocked the blow.
A sudden barrage of gunfire overloaded Raelin’s mind again. She watched in a dazed stupor as Omnicrons – soulborg minions of Zetacron – advanced on the remaining marro, annihilating them with their superior firepower. The smoke stung her eyes and filled the air, adding to the confused jumble in Raelin’s mind. After a brief struggle, everything blurred together and Raelin faded into blackness once more.