The first thing that penetrated the blackness and the silence was heat. Warmth washed over Raelin. The second thing was sound.
“Raelin?” The voice was soft, quiet. Raelin slowly opened her eyes.
It was dark. She was lying on her side, facing a small fire, and Drake was kneeling over her. “Raelin?” he repeated.
Raelin sat up. She still felt groggy, and she had a terrible headache, but everything seemed a lot clearer. Her mind was her own once more.
“What happened?” she asked, relieved to find that her voice sounded normal once more.
Drake sat back. “Kee-Mo-Shi tried to mindshackle you, and very nearly did.”
“Mindshackle?” repeated Raelin, getting her legs under her and sliding into a more comfortable position.
“She tried to take over your mind,” Drake explained. “I’ve never seen a marro try to mindshackle that fast before, though. She seemed to have a crystal that was helping her.” He sat down next to Raelin. “She’s dead, and I saw the crystal shatter on the ground. You should be fine now.” He looked her up and down. “How do you feel?”
“Weak,” Raelin decided after a minute. “And I have a headache.”
“You haven’t eaten all day,” Drake said. “Zetacron determined you would be all right once you woke up, so we kept moving. You’ve been asleep all day.” Drake got up and returned with some of the army rations that Raelin found so tasteless. She was grateful for anything at the moment, however, and ate them, though Drake warned her to go slowly.
“How do you know about mindshackling?” Raelin asked as she chewed.
Drake waved a hand dismissively. “Utgar summoned a marro warlord about the time Jandar summoned me. We met on the battlefield a few months ago, and he tried to claim my mind. Sullivan saved my life.
“Mindshackling isn’t to be played with. I didn’t black out, but I felt like I was about to. It drains a person. I was tired and weak for three days before the effects finally wore off. You were exposed a lot longer than I was… you should probably take it easy and get some more rest.”
Raelin would have objected – she had been sleeping all day after all – but her head hurt less after the food, and the warmth from the fire was actually making her feel drowsy. She agreed, and folding her wings more properly than they had been, curled up next to Drake. It didn’t take long for sleep to find her.
The next morning found the army hastening towards Stechavan. They were close, but they were later than they should have been. Drake had Raelin ride a horse rather than walk as she had been doing. She felt embarrassed at first (kyrie rarely ride horses), but after the first few miles, decided that she was glad for the break.
As the day progressed, the cold fresh air cleared Raelin’s head. She felt strength return to her, and Kee-Mo-Shi’s attempt at mind control became a thing of the past. She was just thinking that she might try walking for a stretch, when an Omnicron came running back towards them from up ahead.
Soulborgs generally do not run. But this one ran with a calculated grace, and for a moment, Raelin forgot it was mostly a machine. It skidded to a halt in front of Drake.
“Stechavan burns,” it reported tonelessly. “Utgar’s main force is still a day’s journey away, but kyrie scouts are already burning and pillaging.”
Drake swung onto his horse. “Tell Zetacron to set up a perimeter. Don’t let any minions escape, but wait for my command to attack. I’d prefer to catch the minions alive if I can – they could have information that Jandar desperately needs.”
The Omnicron blinked once, and turned, running back up the faint dirt road.
Drake rose up in the saddle and turned to the men behind him. “Stechavan is under attack. Mount your horses and follow my lead.”
Raelin leaned against the ruin of a house, crouching to stay out of sight. A moment later, Sullivan slumped down beside her.
Drake crept past them, legs bent, crouching like the rest. He risked a quick glance around the corner of the house, and pulled back sharply.
“How many?” asked Raelin in a whisper.
“At least twenty,” Drake whispered back. “It looks like they’re collecting everyone and putting them in the center of the village.” He crept back to Raelin and Sullivan. “I’m going to go find Zetacron and make sure everyone is in position. Remember; do not attack until I do. That will be the signal.”
Raelin and Sullivan nodded. Drake crept past them and around the other corner.
Raelin closed her eyes and let herself relax against the rough wall of the house. They had crept into the village silently. Drake had spent the last ten minutes maneuvering the Omnicrons in a wide circle about the village. The plan was that once he gave the signal, they would all close in at once, thus capturing all of the minions. If any tried to escape, they would be shot down instantly by the Omnicrons.
Raelin waited. She had no idea how long it would take Drake to find Zetacron. Beside her, Sullivan silently drew his shotgun from the sling he carried it in. Raelin got a firmer grip on the Spear of Gerda. Drake could attack at any moment.
“Good thing the scouts are kyrie, and not orcs,” Sullivan muttered under his breath, eyes on the corner.
“Orcs?” Raelin repeated. She had heard the name, but was unsure what it meant.
Sullivan spat. “Utgar summoned them. Blue hairless creatures, a bit shorter than a man. For the most part though, they look human. They have a reputation for violence. They don’t care if you’ve surrendered or not, orcs. They’ll torture you anyway, just to see how loud you scream.”
Raelin shuttered and turned away. If Utgar was summoning orcs, who knew what else was passing through his wellspring? Even now, he could be unleashing horrors beyond imagination upon Valhalla.
Raelin was startled by the clang of metal on metal. There was a thud, and a cry of pain. That wasn’t Drake. There was no sound of Omnicrons firing. Raelin silently crept to the edge of the house and peered around it.
The village square was before her. In the center of it, piled up like brushwood, were at least fifty kyrie. Most of them were women, but a good number were children or old men. Raelin could see them shivering with fright and cold. Guards, their red skin gleaming in the weak sunlight, watched them closely, their axes held ready.
As Raelin watched, a pair of minions entered her field of vision, dragging a woman and a small boy. The boy couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve, but he kicked and struggled against the minion holding him. Raelin guessed that the woman must be his mother.
“Cease your pitiful thrashings!” the minion holding the boy snarled as he threw him down with the other prisoners. “Annoy me again and I’ll give you something worth struggling about!”
“Peran!” the boy cried. “Leave my brother alone!”
“Your brother will get what’s coming to him. Now be silent or share his fate.”
The mother cried out. “No! Please! Not Peran! Not my son! Please!”
“Silence, urchin!” The minion kicked the woman back against the other prisoners. The small boy leapt at the minion, but only received a booted foot in his stomach. He fell to the street.
Raelin gripped her spear harder. She couldn’t watch much more of this. It was this, this pain and suffering, that she had sworn to stop. She would not sit idly by. She couldn’t. Wait for Drake, she told herself. Drake will come any moment. If she attacked prematurely, minions could escape the village and warn Utgar.
Two more minions came into view, dragging another kyrie boy. This one was older, and he wore the armor of Jandar. Raelin guessed he was at least seventeen. Blood trickled down from a wound in his head, and he appeared to fading in and out of consciousness. The minions propped him up on his knees in front of the prisoners.
“For any of you who may be thinking of causing a disturbance,” said a large minion, walking towards the boy, “let me give you a little example what we do with those that fight us.” The minion stopped in front of the boy and forced his head up with the point of his axe. “Look at me, dog.”
“Peran!” the mother shrieked. A minion kicked her, and she fell into sobs.
Raelin felt her blood run cold. Hurry up, Drake, she pleaded. Please, please hurry up.
The minion glared at Peran. “You’re a soldier of Jandar, correct?”
Peran turned insolate eyes to the minion. “Yes,” he spat, blood leaking from his mouth.
“And how many of my companions have you killed?”
“When I kill you, I’ll add you to their number.”
The minion laughed. And then he slammed his fist into the side of Peran’s head. “Do not give me trouble, whelp. I asked you a question, and I expect an answer.”
Two guards propped Peran back up. He weaved on the spot, but they held him steady.
The minion took a step closer to Peran. “Since you seem unwilling to answer that question, how about another one? Jandar knows by now we’re coming for him. Tell me, where is his force? With what does he intend to defend himself, and where?”
Peran glared up at the minion. “Fool,” he snarled. “I’ve been on leave for two weeks. I know of no plans.”
The minion hefted his axe and swung the flat of the blade into Peran, knocking him over. “Do not lie to me,” he hissed.”
“Please!” the mother shrieked. “He tells the truth! He’s been with us for two weeks. He knows nothing!”
“I said silence!” one of the guards snarled. He kicked the kyrie woman to the ground again.
The guards propped Peran back up.
“Tell me what you know,” the minion said softly, “and I’ll kill you now. Don’t, and I’ll kill your mother slowly until you do.” He nodded to one of the guards, who yanked Peran’s mother up and held an axe to her throat. He turned back to Peran. “Now talk, or he starts cutting.”
Peran licked his lips. “Please,” he said, “I know nothing. Just… Just let her go. Please.”
The minion cocked his head. “You northern kyrie are so insensitive. You would sacrifice your own mother for a general you hardly know.” He nodded to the guard.
Raelin stood up. She had reached her limit. She was not about to let an innocent kyrie be murdered in cold blood. Before she could step out from behind the house, however, a thunderous blast erupted from behind her.
The minion holding the axe against Peran’s mother was flung backwards. He landed a few feet away, a pool of blood rapidly swelling beneath him. Raelin whirled to look behind her, and found Sullivan lowering the barrel of his shotgun.
“Your time’s up, dogs!” he yelled. And then, before Raelin could stop him, he leapt into the center of the village square and leveled his shotgun at the minion standing over Peran.
The minion leapt to the air, dodging the blast by some stroke of ill fortune. In a moment, he saw Raelin. Figuring out what was happening, he turned and flew for the mountain pass that would lead to Utgar. Raelin watched him go helplessly. She might have been able to overtake him, but she was no match for his skill with the axe. He would kill her, and warn Utgar.
“Hold it!” Drake shouted, springing into view. He leveled his grapple gun at the minion and fired. For a moment Raelin wondered what he was doing. Then the grapple hook sank into the minion’s shoulder, and Drake yanked him back to the ground, where he was immediately secured by two Omnicrons.
More Omnicrons burst from the surrounding buildings, their weapons aimed at the other minions. The accuracy of the Omnicrons was legendary; the minions knew better than to flee. Raelin scanned the sky. Impossible as it seemed, no minions had escaped. Their plan had worked, and Utgar was none the wiser.
Weeping was what drew Raelin’s gaze back to earth.
“Peran… oh Peran…” It seemed that the minion, either in his haste to get away, or simply out of spite, had swung his axe at Peran. The boy had a deep cut from his shoulder all the way across his neck. Raelin had seen enough wounds to know that it was deadly, and from the look on Drake’s face, he knew it too. Blood was spouting from Peran’s throat in sickly amounts.
Peran’s mother was trying to staunch the bleeding. She had her hands pressed to her son’s throat, but the blood continued to come out, spraying from beneath her fingers and covering her face. “No, Peran, please, stay with me, stay with me.”
Peran made a gurgling sound. He struggled, trying to grasp his mother’s shoulder, but he couldn’t quite manage it. He fell to the ground. Raelin knew he was choking on his own blood. Kelda, we need you. Why didn’t Jandar send you too? Kelda may have been able to do something, but Raelin knew that she was powerless to save the boy. Powerless. Because of Utgar, she couldn’t stop this pain.
It didn’t take long. Peran gasped his last, and then lay still. Drake gently forced Peran’s mother from the body, and led her into one of the burned out houses, where she wouldn’t be able to see her dead son. Two Omnicrons covered up the body, and removed it from the village. All that was left was a terrible red stain on the stone of the street.
The young boy, Peran’s brother, still knelt on the road where the minions had left him. He stared at the blood as if incapable of motion. After a moment, Raelin went to him.
She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to comfort the boy, but she didn’t know how. Again, she wished Kelda had been with her. She would have known what to do.
“What’s your name?” she finally asked, crouching beside the boy.
“Ferim,” the boy rasped. He didn’t take his eyes from the blood. “He was my big brother. He always looked out for me, kept me out of trouble. Do you know what he said to me right before he left to join Jandar?”
“What?” asked Raelin.
“He said to never stop fighting. To never lose hope. He said Valhalla was his home, and we were his family, and he would continue defending both for as long as he drew breath. He told me to do the same. I promised I would.”
“There was nothing you could have done,” said Raelin gently. “The guards would have just killed you too.”
“How can you know that?” asked Ferim, turning to her. “Maybe there was something I could do.”
“Maybe there was,” said Raelin after a moment. “But it helps no one to dwell on the past. Your brother promised to defend his family, your family. It was his dying wish. You can honor his memory by staying with your mother. I think he would like that.”
Ferim glared at her. “Stay here? Cower at home while my fate is decided? How will that help anything? How can that help anyone? The ones who did this need to be destroyed! I will hunt them down and kill them all!”
“Look at your mother,” Raelin said firmly. “Look at her grief. Do you see the pain she is in? Do you know why she feels that pain?”
“Because Utgar has taken—”
“No,” said Raelin. “Utgar has nothing to do with her pain. She suffers because she has lost a son. That is why. If you were to kill the ones responsible for this, you would be spreading that pain to others. Is that what you want? Killing can’t end the pain. It can only make more.”
Ferim got up. “But it would end mine,” he said. He turned and left her, heading for the house where his mother was.
They spent the night in Stechavan. Nearly all of the buildings had been burned and ransacked by the minions. The soulborgs didn’t need sleep, so they stood guard in a ring about the village, scanning the night incessantly.
They built several fires in the village square, and crowded the captured minions about them, since there was no remaining house large enough to confine them. Omnicron guards were placed around the square with orders to kill any minion that tried to escape.
Drake found a house nearby that had remained fairly intact, although most of its roof had been burned away. He cleared away most of the rubble that had fallen in the main room, and managed to light a fire in the ruined grate. It was bitterly cold outside, and with no ceiling, the house wasn’t much better, but by the fire it was warm enough. Raelin and Drake settled against the wall as the night descended. Utgar would likely reach the pass in the morning, and they needed to sleep before then.
However, Raelin couldn’t sleep. She watched the stars overhead, listened to the crackling of the fire, and felt a sensation she could almost have described as homesickness. And yet, she had no home anymore. She had lost it to Utgar. What she felt was a deeper hurt, a quiet despair that things would never return to the way they had been. How could they? How could such a terrible thing as this war ever be forgotten? It would forever blight their past, and nothing… nothing would ever be the same again. Her life had been innocence, and that innocence was gone.
“Can’t sleep?” asked Drake from beside her.
Raelin continued to watch the stars. “It’s so quiet,” she said. “So… peaceful.” She remembered another peaceful night, in what seemed another lifetime. “I used to like peaceful nights,” she sighed. “To me, they always meant that everything would be all right. That nothing bad or terrible could shatter them. They meant the war would never reach me. But they were always so quiet… now it seems as if they were holding their breath, waiting for what they knew was to come.”
Drake was silent.
“I could never kill,” whispered Raelin. “Never cause such misery. Each life, be it kyrie, human, even marro, is precious. Someone, somewhere, loves each one of them, and I could never turn that love to pain. Never.”
“I know,” said Drake. “I used to think the same thing. I still do,” he added as Raelin looked at him. “I know perfectly well the worth of a life.” He paused for nearly a minute. “But,” he said at length, “I’ve realized something else, too. When I joined the army, and when I killed my first Nazi, I realized that the only way I would ever be able to protect anyone, was by killing the people trying to hurt them. I enlisted to protect lives, not to end them, but by some form of twisted logic, I end them to save them. It’s a terrible paradox, but I believe it is what must be done. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I do know it is what’s needed.”
Raelin looked back up to the stars. Normally she would have disagreed. But tonight, after what had happened, she didn’t have it in her. “I can’t argue against your logic, Drake,” she said. “But neither can I accept it.”
She rearranged her position against the wall into a semblance of comfort and closed her eyes. “I don’t quite agree with you, Drake,” she murmured as sleep surrounded her. “I can’t. I have to hope that there is a better way. A way without… pain.” The last word slipped from her, even as her mind slipped into that eraser of all worries: sleep.
“Hope, Raelin,” Drake whispered to her as she slept. “Cling to it, for hope is all we have left at times like this. I will not be the one to take it from you in the face of reality.”
It was still night when Raelin was torn from sleep by a bloodcurdling cry. Drake was on his feet and out the ruined door in an instant, and Raelin followed quickly.
The numerous fires lit the village center, and the mass of prisoners. The Omnicron guards were still at their stations, but two had their weapons lowered at what appeared to be a kneeling minion. Raelin recognized him as the minion that had slain Peran. As she and Drake drew closer, Peran’s brother, Ferim, came into view. He was holding a sword to the minion’s throat.
“Lower your weapon,” one of the Omnicrons commanded tonelessly.
Ferim laughed. “You won’t shoot me,” he said. “Your orders are to guard the enemy, not me.”
“We have free wills,” the Omnicron remarked coolly. “I will kill you if you do not com-ply.”
“Stand down,” Drake ordered, striding towards the boy. The soulborgs lowered their weapons. “What is the meaning of this?” Drake commanded.
Ferim looked at the minion. “He killed my brother,” he said quietly. “Now I have killed him.” As he spoke, he lifted the sword to reveal a gash in the minion’s throat, eerily similar to the one Peran had sustained. The minion crumpled to the street. Raelin could tell he had been dead the moment Ferim had struck.
“I needed him alive!” Drake shouted. “He was the commander, he could have known Utgar’s plans!”
Ferim looked up into Drake’s eyes without flinching. “Peran has been avenged,” he said simply.
Raelin laid a hand on Drake’s shoulder as he opened his mouth to speak again. “Let him go,” she said quietly. “He’s not in his right mind.”
“I am very in my right mind,” Ferim said calmly. “You spoke earlier of pain. I have killed the minion, and my pain is gone.”
Raelin looked at Ferim. “That’s not true,” she said. Something in her voice frightened her. It sounded… dangerous. Even Ferim looked wary of her for a moment.
However, as Raelin turned away, she found herself repeating Ferim’s words to herself. My pain is gone. Gone. I’ve killed, and my pain is gone. No, Raelin reprimanded herself, that cannot be true. There has to be another way. Killing only creates pain.
But she couldn’t deny that she herself had such a desire. She too wanted revenge for the deaths of her father and mother. No matter how much she tried to convince herself otherwise, the desire remained. If Ferim had found peace… No. There is another way.
There has to be.