Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Sector J19 – the Algol Plain
The soldiers around him ducked their heads instinctively. This drill had long become a dull routine; taking snap-shots from cover, hiding from incoming fire, then doing it all over again. It was as monotonous and automatic as taking a breath of air. It was for all of them except Fenris.
The Wolf Lord wouldn’t hide, and he refused to cower behind cover in the trenches that surrounded them. Instead he threw himself at each Synthien assault force that advanced in a bid to overrun the Jotune survivors. His twin war-axes fell, hewing foe after foe into an unending pile of ravaged metal scrap. A great wall of fallen Synthien warriors ringed the network of trenches they had dug, a testament to his fury and the failed attempts to snuff them from the face of Sularia. Now the metal corpses made a perfect scrapyard bulwark to bolster their defenses.
But the machines learned. It had been two days since their last assault on Fenris’s strongpoint, and it seemed they had grown weary of spending their troops on failed attempts to best the defenders in close combat. Instead they had withdrawn to a safe distance and ringed them on all sides. And that’s when the shelling began.
Fenris gripped the shaft of his axes all the tighter and gritted his teeth in a bitter sneer. Cowards, he thought. The high pitched shriek of the mortar round pierced the air and did as he had since the shelling began. Fenris turned towards the distant artillery, held his head high, and welcomed what came next it. He was a warrior and would die on his feet, even if his adversaries did not have the courage to face him.
The shriek reached a crescendo and the ground twenty meters to his right erupted into a fireball. Mud and half a dozen bodies were thrown into the air. He knew this without looking, this too had become part of the routine. A wave of heat washed over him and a shower of red-brown gore pelted him like a summer storm in Hel.
The explosion rained debris down on him, but he didn’t so much as move a muscle, nor did he wipe away the dirt and blood from arms and face. He wouldn’t. He would wear the grit and gore like a badge. These were his men that he had lead into battle on the Algol plain and sealed their fates, and he would not flinch from a single ounce of unpleasantness for their sake. If Malack had not deemed it his time to fall in battle, then fine. But until then, he would stand and he would fight, and with his last breath his axe’s smile would take the light from one of those damned machines’ eyes.
Fenris felt bile rise in his throat. These were his men, his warriors that were dying, pinned down to be slaughtered like cattle; denied a glorious death in battle. Things had gone so wrong. But how?
As they launched their initial assault on Centropolis everything had gone according to plan; his warriors had pushed into the heart of the Synthien line and were on the brink of breaking through to the machine capitol city when a strange red light drenched the sky above. Many of the winged troops of his cousin, the Hawk, had fallen from the sky only seconds after, plummeting like disgusting meteors as their vaelerons still blazed, but the pilots were long dead. Soon the effect was felt by him, and his troops. The red light sapped the strength from their arms and left his forces vulnerable to attack. Never before had he or any other Jotune faced such a weapon, and what had looked like victory only moments before quickly turned into a rout. Before his eyes, the tide turned and it was his men that were cut down, and though Fenris fought with all his strength, the machines surged and overwhelmed his forces on every front. After that they had fought a running battle in retreat, losing men with each step, and pushed further to the brink of annihilation.
But they had made their way out and a dozen dozen of his warriors had survived, and had even been joined by some of the survivors from Oathki’s flying infantry, still wearing their spent vaelerons and equipped with long swords and lances more suited for aerial combat. Unfortunately, most of the fliers’ jump packs were useless, but the few that had fuel left to fly were sent into the east in a desperate gamble to bring back reinforcements.
That had been days ago, however, and help should had arrived by now. But still, nothing.
Krionos are you punishing me for my hubris? Fenris thought. Maybe he was. The Emperor was crafty and hadn’t ascended to the throne by mere chance. Perhaps he thought he could be rid of the elder Hrothgar and bring Worgana to heel. And then there was his son, still a few years from the Wolf’s Mantle, but…
The image of Emperor Krionos with the younger Fenris, tutoring him - influencing him, twisted in his gut. Did he believe he could make House Hrothgar his unswerving servants if he were to be rid of him? That would put him at the head of two royal houses, Hrothgar and Vanir, and with the emperorship, Krionos would wield more power than any Jotune emperor had done so before. But why? The wolves of Hrothar were loyal, but they didn’t come to heel with the snap of anyone’s fingers, emperor or no. Were Krionos to get his hands on his son, that could all change. The revelation was as sickening as it was vivid, and that made up Fenris’s mind.
His thain strode to him with an axe in each hand. Looking at his lieutenant, who fashioned himself in his lord’s image, filled Fenris with pride. Yggnar was one of his best warriors; he had fought at the fore of the assault on Centropolis and then again as they launched counter-assault after counter-assault to buy their brothers enough time needed to secure their present position.
And he doesn’t slink through the trenches like a whipped dog. Fenris smiled inside himself, there were wolves alive yet.
A grin split Yggnar’s handsome face and his clear blue eyes shimmered with deadly intelligence.
“Yes, lord. I’ll rouse the Wolf’s Own.”
“Rouse them all.”
A flicker of surprise lighted in Yggnar’s eyes, but was soon replaced by determination. He knew what this order meant. An all-out offensive – and certain death.
“Yes, lord,” he said pounding one massive fist against his left breast in salute.
“I’ll try to leave a few of the tin-men standing for you.”
“Hah! And here I was afraid I would be ‘rescued’ before I could fell another jaw or two of those bucket heads.”
“I plan on taking another eight, you better keep up, pup.” Fenris smiled all the wider and Yggnar returned the grin.
“Aye, put seventy-four on my death debt, then. I wouldn’t want a grayhair like you to show me up before I take the long sleep.”
The two laughed and Fenris clapped his lieutenant on the back before his thain trotted off to give the order to move out. Fenris never felt more alive than before a battle, and he could feel his blood rise in anticipation as shouts rang across the Jotune line. All around him men stumbled to their feet and scrambled to ready their kit. His force was ragged, as he watched them he hated to admit it, but they were. Some had gone days without rations, and most wore armor and wielded weapons that were in bitter disrepair. As he took in the scene he knew this would be their last hunt.
So be it, he thought, a warrior dies on their feet so they may feast forever after.
A clap of thunder rolled across the landscape, coming from the west. Fenris turned to face the direction from which it came, but couldn’t see anything other than a gulf of metal bodies and lumbering warhulks that strode behind the lines.
Odd, he thought, I don’t see any lightning flashes in the distance.
Another peal of thunder rolled across the plain and he knew now for a certainty it was not storm-born.
“What is going on over there?” He wondered aloud.
As soon as the last boom subsided, he felt a lightness, unknown to him in almost a week, wash over his body. His chest swelled and felt as though it burst under its armor plate, and his arms coursed with a reservoir of strength he had almost forgotten. He glanced about him and saw that the soldiers readying for battle seemed to be doing so now with renewed vigor, like a great burden had been lifted from their shoulders. This was no mere coincidence.
Confirming his suspicions, Fenris looked to the sky, and sure enough, the red light that had bled through the clouds had vanished. Whatever those explosions had been they were a godsend, ridding them of the strange technology the Synthien had employed to bled across the sky and take the strength from their arms.
For a moment, Fenris thought of altering his former plan and instead dive for the heart of the machine army’s front line, pressing for the capitol city once again. Why not? He felt he could do anything again.
But no, that foolishness would see a heroic end to both him and his men. Though they would follow him gladly, the price was too steep to pay, and their forces were now a fraction of what it would take to break through the machine line, let alone sac the city itself.
The image of Krionos and his son under his arm, looking ever the kindly grandfather flashed in his mind, and set an acrid taste in his mouth. No. It risked an price he wasn’t prepared to pay for, for all Hrothgars to come. He must survive not only for himself, but for all of his House.
“Wolves of Hrothgar!” Fenris yelled, raising a glowing axe above his head. His men cheered in response, brandishing broadswords and axes of their own. “I’ve kept you too long from your homes and your wives, and I’m sure I’ll have Hel to pay from them for that.” A chuckle rippled across the crowd. “Those metal bastards want to keep you from a good night’s rest in the comfort of your own bed,” he said pointing an axe head to the Synthien encircling them in the east. “Such hospitality should be returned in kind,” he reached down and picked up a metal skull from a felled machine warrior. “An eye for an eye,” he said with a smirk and yanked its long dead optic from the hollow socket in which it was buried. He regarded it and flicked it away with the skull to be discarded on the scrap heap. Yggnar bellowed in response and his warriors followed suit.
“To Bergheim,” Fenris howled and charged.
A horde of metal warriors were waiting for them with their baleful red eyes as they charged into the east. They stood in ordered ranks, unmoving, waiting for the optimal moment to open with their first salvo of gunfire. Fenris ran at the head of his force, bellowing his battle cry, and envisioning the crackling blue arc of his axes cleaving into the Synthien ahead. He was already there, he had only to let his body catch up.
They were within one-hundred meters now, and the metal skeleton warriors moved to train their weapons on the oncoming Jotune warriors as one. But something was wrong.
Metal bodies were thrown into the air from the rear ranks of the machine army’s line. Synthien were turning and falling out of rank to face the direction opposite of the oncoming Jotune warriors. A few shots were being fired in their direction, but nothing like it would have been without the distraction.
What’s this? Fenris thought. By the gods, there better be a machine left standing when I get there.
The ordered ranks of the Synthien line had dissolved into a writhing mass of churning metal and green laser fire as a piercing howl broke through the din of battle, and then, Fenris knew.
As if on command, the machine line split and Worgana Hrothgar whirled into view, her bola blazing with orange fire as its three energized balls spun and cleaved the heads from a half-dozen metal soldiers around her. An honor guard of dual blade wielding battle maidens flowed behind her, their blue armor cut with gold and silver filigree in the tradition of the Wolf’s Own, each sword slashed out and cleaved arms and weapons from metal bodies.
“Death to the machine scum!” Worgana yelled, before she whipped her bola around and let it crash into a line of Synthien warriors. One fell immediately as its face was pulverized. It flew backwards taking another three with it to the ground, and another two had their chest caved in and torso cleaved in half respectively.
Fenris saw this and felt energy anew course through his veins.
“Onward, if you don’t want to be left without blood on your axe!” Fenris bellowed and charged ahead.
His twin energized axes met the Synthien line and claimed two robotic warriors that wielded whirring chain swords. They raised them to parry his blades, but the blue fire of his weapons cut through them with the ease of a dinner knife through lard, and split their wielders in twain from crown to groin. To his left Yggnar bellowed his own battle cry and hewed the heads from two metal bodies.
“For Hrothgar. Four our kinsmen! For the Jotune!” Rang out the call from one and all.
There wasn’t much time for a reunion in the aftermath of the battle, but Fenris and Worgana found each other amongst the fallen.
“I told you to stay in the Wolf’s Den,” Fenris said embracing his sister.
“I thought about it – for a moment,” she said smiling. “Besides a little bird told me you might need a bit of help.”
“Pah! I was merely waiting for the opportune moment to strike.”
They both laughed as a squad of winged soldiers flew overhead, slashing their weapons down to claim the lives of as many shambling metal warriors.
“We make for Bergheim,” Fenris said, “but first I need to claim another dozen of these tin-men or a young pup will be get a big head.”
Worgana smiled and the wolves of Hrothgar waded back into battle.