Raelin crouched against the wall, eyes watering, breath coming in gasps, her blood pounding in her ears. She could see nothing. Hearing had long since faded into a continuous scream of jumbled sounds. Feeling had descended into numbness. All sense of reality had crashed to pieces long ago.
An Omnicron soulborg materialized from the smoke before her. The black gun it held leaked smoke, and its blue and white armor was dented and scratched. It held out a hand to help her up. “Raelin,” it said tonelessly, “are you injured?”
Raelin coughed on the thick gray smoke as she took the Omnicron’s metallic hand. “No,” she gasped, eyes watering. “Is Drake back yet?”
The Omnicron stared at her unblinkingly for a split second. “No,” it replied. “Drake has gone beyond our sensor range. His last contact was twenty-three minutes forty—”
The Omnicron abruptly swiveled to the right, raised its gun, and fired three shots in quick succession. A red kyrie fell from the smoke, three holes situated perfectly over his heart. He came to rest at Raelin’s feet, his eyes glazed and staring at her with the uncaring gaze of death. Raelin turned her head away.
“—Forty-three seconds ago,” the Omnicron concluded, as if nothing had happened.
Raelin coughed feebly on the smoke. It stung her eyes horribly. “Where am I needed?” she asked, the familiar words flowing from her with no conscious thought. She had been saying them ever since the battle started, three long hours ago.
The Omnicron paused, staring into space. “Zetacron requires your presence forty-seven meters to the right. I will lead the way.”
Forty-seven. It sounded so short. Keeping her eyes averted from the dead minion, and unfurling her wings halfway, in case she had to take to the air, Raelin stepped out from behind the wall.
Sound returned in a consuming blast of violence. Omnicron blasters fired from every point imaginable. Metal screamed against axes. Warriors unleashed terrible yells as they ripped through each other, killing indiscriminately.
Raelin stumbled. The ground was littered with swords, guns, axes… all manner of weaponry. But most of all, it held corpses. Minions lay tangled with Vikings. Vipers – gigantic snakes recruited by Ullar – were strewn across orcs. Blood ran everywhere, carving rivulets in the already sodden ground. Wherever Raelin stepped, blood pooled into her footprint. Raelin felt an unpleasant sensation in her stomach, and forced herself to focus on the Omnicron leading her.
All the while she walked, Raelin’s staff shuddered and jerked in her hands. She could see nothing, due to the thick smoke about her, but she knew that somewhere, not far away, a soldier of Jandar was being saved. The Spear of Gerda flamed with a blue light that neither flickered nor dimmed. It simply shone, a constant force in the chaos about it.
With no warning, a high-pitched whistle sounded in Raelin’s ears. The Omnicron leading her was knocked to the side as a bullet exploded on its armor. One of its arms flew apart. The Omnicron scrambled to its feet, supporting itself with its remaining arm. “Deathwalker,” it said blankly. “Eight meters to the wind.”
Raelin had quickly agreed that soulborgs were not robots. They were the feelings of a human with the calculation of a machine. The Omnicron knew that direction would have no meaning to Raelin, as she could see nothing. Therefore, it based its information on the only thing she could see, the direction the smoke was being blown.
An explosion threw Raelin to the ground.
“Its targeting system has been compromised,” the Omnicron remarked. “It is reloading. Raelin, fly perpendicular to the wind in the direction we were going. Maintain altitude for five seconds, and then drop. I am relaying your situation to Zetacron.”
“What about you?” Raelin asked.
The Omnicron’s blue eyes flicked to hers. “I will be fine,” it said in a surprisingly soft voice. “Now go. The Deathwalker will reload in six seconds.”
Raelin hesitated no longer, but leapt to the air. She turned until the smoke was being blown against her left side, and then thrust her wings behind her, shooting forward with all the speed she could muster. It wasn’t much.
Smoke clung to her. Thick clouds loomed before her, choking her when she flew through them. All she could see beyond the smoke was a terrible red blur beneath her: the blood of the battlefield.
She had once thought flight was the most precious gift in the world. It had once stripped away her fears and worries. When she had flown, she had known everything would be all right. Now, smoke surrounded her, and all that Raelin knew was fear. Senseless fear, but fear all the same.
Raelin counted to five in her head, and then dropped. She could not see the ground. It appeared before her suddenly, and she slammed into it, splashing into the wet earth and spraying blood and dark mud all over herself.
Instantly, a gigantic metal foot sank into the ground directly before her. Looking up, she saw Zetacron towering through the smoke, his massive blue metal plates gleaming in the eerie light of a thousand soulborg blasters.
“Unit M55/987.3 has been terminated,” he said by way of greeting. His voice conveyed nothing.
Raelin assumed that meant the Omnicron had died. He had been the last of her guards. It now fell to Zetacron to make sure no enemies found her.
Since Zetacron lacked arms, Raelin took advantage of his sturdy metal frame and hauled herself up out of the mud. Somehow, her spear still stood upright, glowing despite the darkness. She rested for a moment against Zetacron. “Is… Is Drake back yet?” she gasped.
“No,” replied Zetacron. “I am monitoring all Omnicron wave—”
Zetacron turned abruptly and shot down a trio of red kyrie.
“—Omnicron wavelengths. I will alert you when he makes contact.”
Raelin shuttered at the smoking corpses of the minions. “Please do,” she said. One of the minions had been shot squarely through the center of his head, leaving a gaping hole. “He needs to make it back,” she whispered, half to herself.
“He will,” said Zetacron softly. “Do not worry, Raelin. Hope.”
Raelin glanced up. Zetacron was looking down at her, all metal and circuits, but there was something in his eyes, something besides the steady blue light that made them up.
“Thank you, Zetacron,” Raelin said.
Zetacron suddenly looked up, leveled both blasters just above Raelin’s head, and fired. The dual cannons roared, and all sound ceased for Raelin. She dropped instinctively, and a moment later the ground beneath her jolted as something heavy struck it. Squirming around and glancing behind her, she saw the smoking hulk of a massive Deathwalker burning barely three meters from her.
“Registration: unit 9000/M4.” Zetacron paused, staring at the smoking remain. “Another of my kin falls.” He detached one of his gun barrels, releasing his arm, and helped Raelin to her feet.
Raelin sagged against Zetacron as he reattached his cannon. Her legs felt unsteady.
“Keep the spear up, Raelin,” Zetacron murmured, still watching Deathwalker 9000’s shell.
Raelin glanced to her right and saw that she had let her spear dip. She thrust it back upwards, and the blue light flared to life once again, forcing the darkness of the smoke back.
Zetacron fired in a seemingly random direction. A minion fell dead. A Viking appeared briefly in the smoke, and then charged back out of sight. The chaotic noise of the battle lessened for a moment.
“What’s going on?” Raelin asked in the comparable stillness.
Zetacron looked to the right. “The Vipers have decimated Utgar’s right flank. They have reached the mountain pass. I am redirecting all Omnicron units to advance at forty-five degrees right.” There was a pause. “The enemy is being routed.”
“Drake?” asked Raelin hopefully.
Zetacron only shook his head, keeping his gaze fixed on the swirling smoke.
“How long has he been gone?” Raelin whispered.
“Twenty-five minutes six seconds,” replied Zetacron promptly.
“He should have made contact by now,” Raelin whispered to herself. “He would if he was all right. Something must have gone wrong.”
“Killing Utgar may take longer than originally anticipated,” said Zetacron logically. “There is no reason to assume—”
“I don’t need a reason,” Raelin said briefly. “Utgar’s force has been routed. If Drake is in trouble, I need to help him.”
“Your orders are to stay here and protect the soldiers.”
Raelin wavered on indecision for only a moment. “Then I’m disobeying orders,” she said.
“Noted,” replied Zetacron placidly. “My duty is to protect you. I will take you to Drake’s last known position. Follow me.” Soulborgs were logical soldiers. Perhaps a bit too logical.
They weaved their way through isolated battles, Zetacron’s double cannons turning the tide wherever he looked. The number of bodies on the battlefield was almost beyond comprehension. Blood was everywhere. Death festered in the shadows.
Before long, they came upon a more chaotic scene. A tide of Templar knights, mostly on foot, was pressing valiantly against an unyielding horde of red kyrie. While the knights fought with valor, the kyrie were simply too many. They cut down the knights as fast as they approached.
Zetacron planted his feet, leveled his blasters, and obliterated the first minion that saw him. Raelin raised her spear above her head, and a shimmering blue force field enveloped the knights nearest her. A cheer went up from them, and they surged forwards, hacking apart kyrie with renewed vigor.
Raelin’s grip on her staff slackened at what she saw. Was she enabling the very pain which she fought? The tip of her spear fell, and the magical shield evaporated. The knights instantly fell back as the minions decimated them.
Almost without thinking, Raelin jerked her spear back into place. Maybe, she thought. Maybe I am enabling pain. But Drake was right. I don’t have a choice. It’s either them or me. She gripped her spear harder. But I will not, cannot, let that mean there is no other way to end this war. Never.
It didn’t take long for Zetacron to annihilate the kyrie. The Templars charged forwards, making for the mountain pass that Raelin could now see through the fading smoke. She could see a host of Utgar’s forces there, but they seemed to be in full retreat, perused relentlessly by a tide of Ullar’s Vipers.
“I have located Drake,” Zetacron announced unexpectedly. Before Raelin could say a word, he continued. “My scanners are picking up him and Sullivan on the other side of the pass, both injured. Sullivan appears to be unconscious. Drake is moving quickly – possibly caught in a duel—”
Raelin waited to hear no more. Her wings plunged downwards of their own accord, and she rocketed for the mountain pass, ignoring the blur of soldiers below her. She heard pounding footsteps, but was only barely aware of Zetacron racing along the ground behind her, nearly matching her pace.
Once she crested the pass, it didn’t take long for Raelin to find Drake. He was in front of the largest tent, beating back the ferocious attacks of his opponent. At first Raelin thought it was Utgar he fought. But the figure had no wings, and attacked with two swords, not an axe. Was Utgar already dead then? Or had he escaped?
Raelin plummeted to the ground and landed crouched, her spear upright. It exploded into a shower of blue light, enveloping Drake instantly. Drake’s enemy let out a hiss of surprise as his blades glanced off of the shield, and leapt away from Drake’s counter-attack, giving Raelin a good view of his face. She felt her blood run cold.
It was not Utgar. The creature seemed human, except for the fact that his face was so pallid that it was nearly white. In contrast, his eyes were vividly red, almost shining with a light of their own. Raelin instantly knew this creature was no natural warrior. He was a fiend of the otherworld, some demon recruited by Utgar. She realized that Utgar must have known their plans somehow, and left this creature behind to deal with Drake.
“Raelin!” Drake yelled, glancing back and seeing her, “get back!”
There was something in his voice that frightened Raelin, something she had not heard before. It took her a moment to realize that it was fear. No, that couldn’t be right. Drake was never afraid. He always had a plan. He always knew what to do.
The fiend glanced between the two of them, and then did something Raelin could never have expected. Leaping to the air, the creature flew, literally flew, right at her.
She stumbled backwards as he closed in, her mind not quite processing what she saw. The fiend had no wings. How could he fly? Before she could do a thing, the creature landed, and smote her on the arm with the back of his hand.
The blow was disproportionately powerful. Raelin was flung to the ground. She struggled to get up, but her arm felt oddly heavy. Tremendous cold suddenly overpowered her nerves, causing her to gasp in pain. She curled up as the cold intensified, the rest of the world being slowly blotted out. Her muscles tensed. Her chest constricted. Air halted in her lungs. She struggled for breath, but nothing worked. Her ribcage was locked, her stomach clenched painfully. She needed air. She tried to calm herself, but she couldn’t. The cold remained, slowly freezing her to death.
And then the ground shook, and something tremendously hot washed over Raelin. Her head hit the ground, her vision flickered, and she finally drew a single deep breath. Her muscles all relaxed at once, leaving her feeling weak.
It took Raelin a few moments to realize what had happened. Zetacron had arrived, and had emptied the exhaust port from his guns over her. While not the cleanest of remedies, the exhaust had been extremely hot, and had so counteracted the cold.
Meanwhile, Drake had tackled the fiend to the ground. They were now rolling about a little ways from Raelin, doing everything they could to get the upper hand. Neither seemed to be prevailing.
Zetacron took careful aim. Before Raelin could stop him, he fired twice, landing two precise shots into the fiend. The creature recoiled in pain, disengaging from Drake, and took to the sky again. Drake seemed slow to get up, and Raelin realized that he must be experiencing the same cold she had.
The fiend, apparently realizing the same thing, dropped towards Drake like three anvils. He landed with his blades outstretched, and plunged them into Drake’s shoulder, running them all the way down his arm, tearing the flesh away and opening a terrible wound. The flesh separated, and nearly a third of Drake’s arm lay on the ground.
Raelin screamed. Blood jetted upwards. Drake fell to the ground, where he was quickly covered with his own blood. Zetacron fired rapidly. The fiend hissed, and rocketed skywards, quickly flying out of Zetacron’s range.
Raelin ran forward and slumped to her knees in Drake’s blood. Her mind saw nothing but red. She knelt, feeling for the wound, recoiling when she found it. Drake cried out in pain. Something else Raelin had never known of him. She didn’t know what to do. A small part of her mind knew he had lost far too much blood, that he had barely a minute to live, but she shoved that piece of her mind far away. Drake wouldn’t die. He wouldn’t, because… because… he couldn’t. He just… couldn’t.
Rough hands tore Raelin from Drake. She landed on the ground hard, already struggling to get back, but found her way blocked by Zetacron. Not thinking, she blindly pounded on the soulborg’s back, trying to get back to Drake. Didn’t Zetacron understand? She had to be there!
“Still.” Zetacron’s single command cut through the scene like an inescapably large boulder. Raelin fell limply to the ground. Drake’s legs, the only part of him she could see, stopped twitching. She felt the tears coming. But then Zetacron stood.
Drake lay before them, covered in blood, shivering with cold, gasping for breath… but somehow still alive. Raelin hardly processed the fact that his arm seemed to be encased in metal. She lurched towards him at once, only to be stopped in midair by the barrel of one of Zetacron’s cannons.
“Stay still,” the soulborg repeated, forcing her back to a sitting position. Something of the tone penetrated into Raelin’s mind. She needed to remain where she was. Zetacron knelt before Drake again, attaching something to his arm. There was a click, then the whir of something being withdrawn. Drake gave a small cry of pain, and then Zetacron stood once more.
This time he did not stop Raelin as she knelt beside Drake. Instead he took a step back, and assumed the stance Raelin had come to associate with wavelength communication.
Raelin gingerly touched Drake’s arm. Metal braces surrounded it, connected to a metallic replica of the arm, stretching from Drake’s shoulder to his hand. The metal entirely covered the wound the fiend had created, though the flesh about it still looked a bit red.
Raelin looked closer. Something was different about the metal. It wasn’t the cold lifeless stuff swords were made of. It was… alive.
“Soulborg armor,” Zetacron said, having approached from behind her. “Many of his nerves were severed. It will reestablish the connections and learn his neural patterns. It may take a week, but in time, that metal arm will be a part of him. He will be able to use it as if it was not even there.”
Compassion towards Zetacron welled up inside of Raelin, but it found a second place as Drake breathed deeply and opened his eyes.
“Are you all right?” Raelin asked, hardly daring to hope.
Drake blinked and felt himself, as if checking his pockets. He looked at the metal arm, and felt it tentatively. After a moment, he glanced up at Raelin. “It appears that I will live,” he said, a trace of surprise in his voice.
Something inside of Raelin seemed to explode. All of her emotions came rushing out in one uncontrolled impulse, and holding Drake’s head in her hands, she kissed him.
It took her a few seconds to recall herself. She forced herself back into a more proper kneeling position, wiping tears from her eyes. She knew they were from the smoke that still hung over the area, but they were also tears of happiness.