Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Time – 0500
He had heard the cry of the ever-hawk. He had watched it burst into existence, and shed its down in a shower of spark and flame, taking flight and laying waste to their enemies. It had lit a fire in his heart when it did, one he never realized had grown cold. But now that it again burned, his joy warred with his despair. To not be truly alive for all that time, a shadow of his true self. What a waste. But no longer.
So he had followed it without question, the blazing trail of the ever-hawk, as it seared a path into the north. A course set for the undead lands. A realm of perpetual darkness and gloom, where no life flourished, and only death took root.
Hel. He had followed the phoenix into Hel.
Vegna watch your back!
Baalor regroup! To me! To me!
We’ve lost Hraada. Gods damned machine scum! I’ll strike-
The chatter coming across his comm relay was endless. More than a hundred voices all at once; ordering, commanding, warning. Dieing.
This was the fever pitch of battle. This was their war.
Eindre extended his arms like a river diver and cut portside thrust to his valareon. One ghostly energy wing winked out and the other blazed bright, launching him into a spiraling dive. He lanced through criss-crossing beams of laser energy, so close that had his helmet’s autosenses not corrected for their brilliance, his retinas would surely have been seared in their sockets and he would never have seen his homeland again.
That voice. It must have been Kaysa’s, calling out for him. Calling out for help. But where was she?
He reengaged both wings and rocketed forward through the air, his polearm extended before him like the hunting stinger of a daggerwasp, scanning the nightmare scene taking place in the air. The spectral flare of his brethren’s valareon jump packs lit the twilight gloom, each casting a ghastly glow that struggled against the darkness. Phantom shapes of Synthien aircraft dove and plunged through the air like hunting bats, laser batteries pulsing red stabs of deadly heat and light. Purple and green lasers arced through the air, coming from anti-air forces amassed on the ground below, peppering the sky with their fire, hoping to find a lucky mark and claim a Jotune life. And some invariably did.
Chaos. It was pure chaos. The world was the whirl of flying bodies, the insane dance of lancing light, the rush of motion, the second by second struggle for life and death. Even to a veteran of countless campaigns, who had earned his scars on his chest like any good warrior, Eindre was lost in the fog of war.
Where were his squadmates? What was his objective now? Where was this Centropolis they had worked so hard to attain? What direction was up, and where was the ground? He couldn’t possibly focus on them all. Maybe none.
Instead he let his thinking mind go numb and his hindbrain rise to the fore. It reacted with the speed of long practice, faster than he could have possibly willed his body with thought.
He turned and rolled, cut and dove through the battle with incredible grace, all the while searching for her and the remnants of his scouting party.
“Kaysa! Kaysa, come in. Are you there?” Eindre shouted into his helmet, hoping against hope to be heard over the din around him.
A red warning indicator flashed brilliantly in the corner of his eye and without thinking he cut thrust to his valareon pack and tucked into a roll.
The curved edge of his polearm blade crackled with renewed energy as it sliced through the air, following the arc of his tumble. He couldn’t see it, but Eindre could feel the specter of the thing that sought to end him as it passed within a hair’s breadth of slicing him in twain. Instead the arc of his blade found home and kissed the smooth metal underbelly of the machine craft as it whined past. It was only a glancing blow that marred the thing with a trail of sparks across into its sleek exterior. Uli must have guided his blade because strike found the lip of the rear thrusters and his hands didn’t lose their grip on his polearm. Trying to slay a machine craft in midair was like trying to cut a hurtling boulder in twain with butcher’s knife. But his blade was much more than that of a cookswain and his strike had found home.
Eindre could feel the slightest shudder in the ship’s course as it blasted past, and he knew he had dealt it a deathblow.
And then it had passed and he was tumbling, tossed violently in its wake, sprawling in one direction as it careened away wildly into another. The machine craft attempted to stabilize, even as fire spilled from its aft section, but the flames intensified and coughed a cloud of oily black smoke before it disappeared into the choke of smog and obliterating against the helscape below. Hopefully it took more of the Synthien bastards with it when it crashed down.
But Eindre had more pressing concerns as he fought to emerge from his tumble. The ceiling of the world spun, melding with the ground into a single gray blur. He twisted his body and splayed himself out, creating the most wind resistance he could and hoping to slow his crazed descent. The trick worked, and as he leveled out his autosenses snapped firmly back into place showing a faint blue line that indicated the horizon. It lay only a few meters below him and Eindre responded immediately by pulling hard as his valareon exploded into life. Both wings flared white-hot in a desperate gamble to regain altitude.
Eindre strained every muscle and pulled until his neck felt as though it might snap under the pressure. A vessel popped somewhere inside him and a thin rivulet of salty blood streamed from his nose. He had no time to pay it heed for what he saw incoming instead of the rushing ground was a sea of metal bodies, each carrying a wicked looking many toothed sword or rifle - or both. He leveled off and they saw him as well, their eyes two hateful red lights glowing within dark sockets. A few dozen turned with chilling precision to meet his descending course and already began snapping of shots of green laser fire in his direction. Eindre swerved hard to starboard with as much thrust as his valareon could handle, banking and jinking desperately. He was already on them, and speed was his best friend now. There was no sense in trying to climb into the sky to avoid the danger on the ground; he would only make himself an easier target.
Instead he kept his course erratic, using each maneuver to swing his polearm at the sea of metal heads that surged below. Most were too wild to find home, but one or two did, and the jarring impact as his blade cleaved metal told him he had ended one of the metal horrors. Still, his room to maneuver was running out, and he was gaining too much attention from the horde only a few meters below. He couldn’t keep this up for long, maybe only a few seconds more.
The faint blue horizon line created by his helmet’s autosenses rocked wildly as he searched frantically for an opening – anything, and that was when he saw it. A distant Jotune signature stood out amongst the sea of Synthien.
It was a gamble, but Eindre knew it was the only chance he had, so he arrowed his body as straight as his screaming muscles would allow and slammed his thrusters to maximum.
The huge backdraft created by his overcharged wing thrusters sent adversaries scattering behind him and turned his form into a silver human missile. He aimed his course straight for the lone Jotune signature and hoped. His path cut through the machine horde as his wake blasted metal soldiers below him from their feet and his speed approached 90 knots. A klaxon sounded and he knew that he was pushing his valareon to the limit, but he held out for a little more, just a little longer. Fractions of seconds passed, and each beat of his racing heart was a lifetime. Each brought him that much closer to his goal and salvation, and he dared to hope, to believe he would make it. Then realization dawned.
It wasn’t a single signature, but many! Eindre knew that it could only be one other. The Wolf. Lord Fenris!
He never thought he would be happier than he was then to know the scion of house Hrothgar was near. The relationship between his Lord Oathki and Fenris Hrothgar had always been a contentious one, just as had relations between their homes Aesir and Bergheim had been. Those of Hrothgar were cut from another, less refined cloth, and all of Aesir couldn’t help but hold their noses in disdain as their cousins feasted raucously, brawled, and belched to the high heavens. They were an embarrassment to the Jotune.
But belching and bad manners aside, Eindre had to admit that no fiercer warriors existed in all of the Empire. Besides, they were his only hope now, so he bared down all the harder, willing each muscle straighter, keeping his course locked, resisting fatigue. He was almost there.
Eindre didn’t feel the blow, he registered it as the ghostline of the horizon began to tilt. A wave of panic washed over him. Oh no, he was losing starboard thrust, and he was veering off course. He wouldn't make it.
Uli grant me the fortune I need, he prayed and threw himself hard to port.
He blacked out upon impact, the countermeasures of his suit straining to mitigate the damage of slamming into the ground at 180 kilometers an hour. For how long he was out, Eindre couldn't possibly know.
The sounds of battle returned as they rose to the surface of his dim consciousness; shouts, curses, roars, the disgusting whine of swords with too many teeth, and the guttural sound they made as they found flesh.
Eindre stared upward at the twilight sky that should have shown mid-morning, and wondered if he was still alive. He had to be. Had he not?
He blinked dully and tried his legs. He could feel them, but they burned like devils. And as he coughed the acrid air, he realized his helmet was lost. His questing hands confirmed this, and that his suit was in tatters. He winced and rocked onto his side, finding slight relief as he rolled away from what was left of his valareon pack. He grimaced against a bright spear of pain as he reached back and pressed the harness release, letting the crumpled metal remains of his wings slough off and fall to the parched ground.
The battle still raged, he could hear it clearly, but it was behind him. Eindre shifted his weight and propped himself on his elbows so he could see the battlefield. The sky was filled with frantic lights tracing wild paths through an ever shifting web of laser fire. Explosions bloomed, big and small; some the unmistakable ignition of failing valareons erupting into blue flame and a few others the larger, fatter fireballs of exploding aircraft.
Eindre winced. His place was up there with his brothers and sisters, fighting and dieing with them. Not down here, wingless, on the ground. He looked to where the battle raged across the plain not a half-kilometer away. The unmistakable form of Lord Fenris was where the fighting was thickest, his twin energy axes rising and falling, cleaving enemies and pitching them like rag dolls. There was hope yet, the Wolf still lived, but what of his lord the Hawk? He looked again to the sky, and couldn't find the familiar glow Oathki’s valareon pack.
Where had he gone? Was he dead? Had he abandoned them?
No. Never. His lord would never abandon his men. But then where was he?
“A bird without its wings. Tsk tsk tsk.”
Eindre rolled, his hand reaching with lightning speed for a polearm that was long gone.
“But alive yet. Good, I want you to see.”
Eindre whipped his head around to find his adversary, so fast that it felt that it would split. There was no one in sight.
“Ha ha ha! Your eyes do not see because you are blind like all of your kind.”
“Show yourself demon!” Eindre shouted at the landscape.
“Very well.” And with that, a devilish amalgamation of half-man and half-machine slowly resolved itself from thin air.
It sat hunched, with its elbows propped on knees and its arms resting easily, palms dangling. It regarded him with a beady red eye that peered from an unmistakably human-like head, but instead of teeth, its muzzle was covered with a metal grate.
Eindre had never seen, much less heard, of a Synthien that could perform such a trick as teleporting or cloaking itself in thin air. Had he his helmet and its suite of autosenses, perhaps he would have been able to see the fiend, but to the eyes he was born with, the monster could easily slip into the unseen.
“Now you see me,” the thing chuckled.
Eindre swallowed and only glared. He wouldn’t beg for his life, and this thing had the air of madness about it. He would die like a warrior, he would die like a Jotune.
It seemed to read his thoughts, for it said next, “never mind all that, fallen angel. Look and see.”
It pointed skyward as red light glowed behind the gloom. It was anathema, whatever it was, and Eindre could feel the light crawling into his skin, sapping his strength, making his body weak.
He could feel his consciousness waning and was horrified to see the unmistakable form of lit valareons plummeting down in death spirals towards the ground. He reached out to them, willing them not to fall, but he was falling too. Out of consciousness, out of mind, out of himself.
As he succumbed to the blackness, he could hear the devil-thing laughing maniacally.