Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Time – 1400
Oathki pivoted in mid-air, contorting his body into a tight spiral. The fiery wings of his valareon flared, spilling a brilliant spiral of flame into the unnatural dusk. The maneuver brought him up short, just as a lance of purple energy roared past. So close he could feel the heat singe his cheek.
Everything had been, since taking to the sky and pushing into the heart of the machine lands… how long ago now? Had it been three days, four days – a week?
He tucked into a dive, the trail of fire behind him extinguished, falling from the sky like a hawk of old hunting its prey. He knew without a strong heat signature the Synthiens’ targeting systems would struggle to pick him up in the gloom.
A group of ambling metal skeletons with the look of grotesquely flayed corpses took a few desperate crack shots at him, but their shots were wild and wide. Oathki saw them with cold clarity and maintained his dive without so much as a flinch. He knew them for what they were, shots of desperation.
The world blurred as he plummeted, and gone were the inky clouds around him and the din of battle. All of Sularia condensed down to a tunnel of motion, collapsing into a single point in time and space. The world was only as big as his target and nothing else mattered. Not the frenzied shots from the ground, not the battle raging around him, not his wayward cousin the Wolf, or the gods-forsaken so-called “machine empire” of the Synthien.
His arms clenched at his side, he sped faster and faster. Time slowed, crawled, and then altogether ceased to exist. His vision stretched out with the lengthening tunnel and then contracted in nauseating gut-wrench. Oathki felt his feet distantly, like they floated kilometers away from his head. The sensation surreal, and oddly appealing. He could feel the corners of his consciousness being tugged by an unseen force and the edges of his vision dimmed in shades. Oathki knew it for what it was, he had pushed himself to the ragged edge. He gritted his teeth and clenched every muscle in his body, driving - willing the blood back into his head.
Not a terribly devout man, in that moment Oathki recited the closest thing he ever would to a prayer.
My sword, your heart, my heart, the wind. From this duty I will not shirk, today I make your end.
His eyes sprang wide and the ground erupted into his vision.
Later, those who were there would claim they heard the cry of the ever-hawk, and that they saw its fiery ascension as it took wing, wreaking vengeance on the wretched and unworthy; for no man could have wrought what came next.
A meteor traced the ground, scorching it with its passage through criss-crossing lances of laser fire and the fat blooms of explosions which marked its passage. The trail it cut was an unerring path, rising as it went to meet the metal hulk lumbering at the heart of the battle. It held four appendages poised above its blue-green carapace like the ready arms of a mantis and an underslung battery of lasers stuttered off salvos of violet lances at the incoming fireball. It recognized the threat before it and made an attempt at evading, first raising one, then another massive clawed leg. It shimmied a meter to the right, but the meteor marked its movement and twisted back into its path, showering the ground with flame and the intensity of a launch thruster. And then it found its mark.
Thunder clapped as a shower of molten sparks spewed from beneath the underbelly of the four-legged carapace. The hulk shuddered, took a step, and then looked as if it had forgotten where it was, reaching out with one languid claw it held tantalizing in mid-air. A horrific sound of grinding was followed by a peal of tearing metal as the behemoth collapsed in on itself and split in two.
A cry flew up from the Jotune troops as the hulk met its demise, and new vigor filled war-weary limbs once again. Silver clad valkyries with crackling energy blades whirled in a storm of flying hair and blinding angels’ wings, severing the heads from robotic skeletons as explosions ripped through faceless turrets held aloft on motorized track cars. A flock of red armored warriors swooped down to land where the fighting was thickest, brandishing maces that glowed with an incandescent heat. They strode into the enemy troops, to fight shoulder to shoulder, felling combatants with each stroke.
Oathki hovered over the battlefield, taking in the scene. He saw the ravaged blue-green husk of the hulk he had slain, and the scattered remains of hundreds of machine carcasses; their humanoid shapes splayed out in a parody of death.
He panned his gaze across the plain below and saw amongst the scraps of shorn metal the mingled bright red armor of his red condors, and the sleek silver plates of sky hawks and cloud falcons.
His stomach turned at the sight. He knew there would be casualties, but not like this.
How many had given their lives needlessly, in the mad dash for the machine capitol? In less than four days they had accomplished what was supposed to take weeks - months even. And for that, they had paid the price in blood.
A snarl so unlike him marred Oathki’s face. It had appeared there more and more often these days, when he considered his cousin the Wolf. The two of them had always been rivals; their temperaments and viewpoints ever at odds. But now…
The blood of his warriors was on his cousin’s hands. The Wolf had defied their Emperor and left Bergheim on an insane warpath, helbent to reach the goal Oathki have maneuvered to gain for months before in, in spite of him.
Months of planning, months of maneuvering, months of campaigning, all wasted. Each piece had been meticulously laid out; enemy supply routes had been cut and harassed, defenses raided and weakened, attention diverted; all to preserve precious Jotune lives.
His people were strong, true, and none feared to die gloriously in battle. But needlessly throwing away lives to achieve what could have been accomplished with a fraction of the bloodshed was utter madness. Had Fenris already forgotten the trials of the cataclysm, the very same that had been the death knell of an entire world? Life had ever been precious, then and now.
Yet Fenris had defied their sovereign lord, added even more names to the shroud-maker’s growing list, and jeopardized all he had worked so hard to accomplish.
Oathki felt the bile rise in his throat. He saw a red condor rain its energy mace high to strike down a foe, but another machine snuck behind him and ran him through even as he held his arm aloft to strike. The whirring teeth of the thing’s blade spit and jerked horrifically as the soldier struggled weakly and then fell away in an explosion of gore. The machine-thing that had slain him moved on to its next adversary, cold-hearted, emotionless, unfeeling.
It could have been the days he had gone without sleep or the strain of constant battle, but at that moment something snapped inside of Oathki. Gone were thoughts of strategy, of tactical maneuvers, preserving lives. All he could see was the enemy towards which he plunged, his sword aloft, his valareon blazing like an avenging angel.
The assault squads that accompanied Lord Oathki Vassad on the path to Centropolis would later claim that they battled their foes from that moment on, following not their battle commander, but the flaming trail of the ever-hawk; the fiery deii of redemption and vengeance as it traced a path into the north and the heart of the machine lands.
“For the gods. And glory!”
Fenris held a massive one-handed battle axe aloft as he stood triumphant on a heap of eviscerated machine foes.
His men cheered in the raucous tradition of house Hrothgar, spitting and beating their chests, their eyes lit with bloodshot, fetishes clattering on leather thongs around their necks.
Looking at the spectacle in front of him, Fenris knew Krionos had been wrong to choose the preening hawk Oathki to lead the assault on Centropolis.
Assault. Pah, he thought. That peacock has made a nearly year long blunder of what has taken me – what, three weeks?
The truth of the matter was that he had lost track of time. Fenris never felt more alive than when in battle.
He reached down and snatched up a battered machine skull, tearing it from its metal corpse in a massive paw, raising it above his head for all his men to see, its dead eye sockets staring out blankly. It was almost comical really.
“On to that stinking dung-heap!”
He punctuated his speech by crushing the tin-man’s skull in one meaty fist as easily as a poet crumples a parchment of dreadful prose.
The head clanked unceremoniously as it clattered onto the scrap heap, and already Fenris was running to crest the rise that lead to the basin of the Algol Plain. Not far beyond that, opened the great crack in the world’s arse and the hovel the pathetic machines called home.
As Fenris topped the rise, he was not disappointed by the sight that greeted him.
The plain emptied into a shallow valley that stretched wide and featureless for kilometers to the north and south. Neither rock nor shrub marred the blank landscape, and other than the myriad ordered ranks of metal skeleton warriors, massive blue-green armored insect-like warmachines, and the towering forms of gigantic bulbous four legged behemoths, it was a clear and easy path to the machine capitol.
Fenris smirked as he viewed his good fortune.
The gods were good to give me so many enemies to slay today.
He roared, brandishing glowing energized axes in each hand, as he and a hundred wolf warriors crested the hill and plunged into the ravine to meet their enemies. Undeterred, the machine horde moved as one, raising their firearms in a deafening roar of lancing laser energy. His warriors sprinted ahead heedless, kilometers stood between them and there was no turning back now.
Green pricks of light rained amongst his troops. Warriors raised their plas-shields and deflected most of the lances that would have found home, but some of his stoutest warriors waded into battle without any protection. They styled themselves the true warriors of Hrothgar and sought to imitate their lord by wielding dual energy axes and broadswords. He saw one of his finest thains, Yggnar, who carried a massive energy flail take a glancing blow and then continue on unfazed, howling a fresh battle cry.
Fenris’s heart swelled with pride to see such a sight.
If we die, we die gloriously, he thought, and looking at the army arrayed against him, he believed it.
Suddenly the skeleton-things fell silent, and that was when the largest of the assembled hulks rumbled to life. Two stubby arms on either side of each gray-brown shell rotated to face skyward. There was a moment’s pause, before a cacophony of concussive thuds rippled across the wastes as man-sized mortars were hurled into the air on a collision course with the charging Jotune. Others braced themselves as they were rocked by spasms, emptying nests of hissing rockets that spiraled off into the sky. A whistle rose behind him in response to the incoming missile fire, coming from behind the ridge he and his troops had just crested.
Fenris saw and heard all of this with gritted his teeth, for he knew what was to come next.
Explosions ripped apart the dank gloom above and lit the nightmarish un-night sky. The light the explosions created didn’t cast clarity in the darkness, instead it illuminated grotesque images of demons and dragons amongst the banks of smog before a shower of heat and vaporized metal rained down on him and his troops from the heavens.
The trick had worked. Only a handful of mortars and rockets made it past the blanket of counter-measures his reserve units had launched from their hidden position behind the ridge, sheltering the advance of their Jotune brethren from bombardment and certain annihilation.
But the protection was not perfect, and here and there amongst his racing warriors a plume of fire would mark where an enemy missile had snuck through to find its mark. Bodies were incinerated upon impact and others were thrown into the air like a gilja’s linen doll at the end of playtime.
The losses stung, but they would have been worse - catastrophic even, if not for the support units in his train. Fenris gave a thought to whether the tin-cans running the army before him were foolish enough to believe he would be vanquished by simple mortar fire. If they were, he thought with a smirk, then their pathetic little “empire” was doomed.
Emboldened, Fenris reached even deeper into his considerable stores of energy and willed his legs to carry him faster. They were less than a half-kilometer away from the Synthien front line, and almost within reach.
And that was when the sky to the south broke.
What began as a glow behind the darkness exploded as hundreds of blazing trails cut through the banks of smog. One of the fiery meteors burned brightest, taking the lead in front of the others. Fenris saw and knew it had to be his rival Oathki.
So the peacock decided to fight, he thought, watching the tracers of fire intercept a squadron of never before seen Synthien flyers.
Soon the southern sky was peppered with flowering explosions and twisting braids of flame as air-infantry units skirmished with the nimble Synthien jets.There must have been even more to Oathki’s vanguard than even Fenris could see. For in deep gloom of the Fracture, ghost light flared with the stuttering salvos of anti-air fire coming from some unknown source.
The sky was a dazzling display of colored beams of energy, contrails of fire, and the flashing afterglows that lingered like specters in the smog. Blue fire rained down into the Synthien line, splashing and spilling like liquid through the assembled ranks of machine warriors. The fire burned so hot that those caught at its center, simply melted as lard melts over a cook pit. A portion of the robotic ground units responded to the danger and turned their attention to the incoming fire above, returning their own crack shots. Two of the smaller blue-green hulks and one of the brown titans pivoted slowly and reared back to regard the harriers above, sending searing lances of purple light to stem the tide of fire coming from the sky.
The whole spectacle was proving to be a tremendous distraction.
With chaos raining down, Fenris didn’t falter in his charge, he bared his teeth and pressed on. The bulk of the metal skeletons seemed to take notice and were once again firing at his troops. Now that he was close enough to see the dull red glow in the hollow sockets of their eyes, he felt his hatred and malice towards them kindle in his gut into a bloodlust that overwhelmed his mind.
The wolf lord screamed one final battle cry before blade met bone and metal crashed against steel. The assault on Centropolis had begun.