[Side Story: Weave Point Null! (Coming Soon)]
[Coordinates: ███████, █████████; Time: December 3rd, 2063.]
The radioactive snowdrifts come up to your knees. That’s how it always is in these arctic wasteland hell-scapes. You’ve never noticed the cold, but it slows you down once it eases its way into your joints. You brace against a nearby tree, briefly noting the scars etched into its gnarled black bark. It’s going to be another long night.
The operation area, sector Z-92, is far in enemy territory. ‘Expect enemy resistance,’ HQ said. You’re already down to your last magazine. Underneath the pale-red moon, you’ve taken part in only one planned battle. The rest was a fight for survival.
The sun hasn’t shown itself in forty-eight, and you haven’t seen the rest of your unit in two hundred and ninety-four. Probably. Your gloved hand fumbles for your radio receiver.
“This is Pangolin from Team Chordata, reporting in.” you breathe, keeping a firm eye on the surrounding darkness. “Calling any UCAS units in the area. Black on everything, including MREs. Black Bird down, situation AWOL, requesting rendezvous point. Running low on reserve energy. Over.”
You switch modes, listening into the incoming static for any signs of life. There’s no response on the tenth breath. Nor on the hundredth. You stare at the blinking lights on the piece of metal, waiting for that red signal to flash green.
There wasn’t any response to your twenty other broadcasts, either.
This thing is useless. It flies from your fingertips in a flash of unbridled rage. You watch it fly into the darkness, twisting and turning in a three hundred sixty degree arc, landing with a hard knock somewhere out of your line of sight. You know what you have to do, instructions or not.
There’s a single star that will guide you home — Polaris. The north star. As long as you keep moving north, you should eventually return to UCAS-controlled territory.
You keep walking until your legs finally give out. Your watch tells you that it’s 8 pm, but you haven’t seen the sun in days. Your Geiger counter is going haywire when you check the area. You decide to put it away for a while. The survival tent you carry deploys itself with a press of a button, still powered by a compact Ignium-powered generator — a hundred times more convenient than solar panels.
Your last trioxane fuel bar creates a miniature bonfire, assembled from freshly hacked frozen wood and bioluminescent blue leaves. You’re not sure if the leaves do anything besides dye the flames in a faint blue hue, but it’s a personal discovery. It’s something to be proud of in this disaster of an operation.
There are only two MREs left in your dwindling pack of supplies. You weigh them in each hand, considering your options: Veggie Fettuccine and an energy bar combined with assorted crackers, or Menu 14. Neither is particularly appealing, but the number 14 is a cursed thing.
It’s taken on a legend of its own in your company — the dreaded number 14; the only unlabeled MRE in the selection of twenty available to infantry soldiers. Nobody knows what’s in the 14. Nobody dares discover what horrors lie within the 14. Because of this self-perpetuating legend, the 14 is almost guaranteed to be a few years past its expiration date. You haven’t checked yours yet, half out of fear, and half out of reverence. You put aside the damned ration for later.
The sound of firewood crackling and the scent of almost-genuine food soothe your frayed nerves. Wisps of steam rise into the air from a dented cooking tin, only to be blown away by a brisk wind. You’ll have to finish your Ersatz coffee and energy drink quickly.
Flimsy noodles disappear as soon as they’re finished cooking, tasting of overcooked carrots and too-salty cream sauce. It hits the spot just right. You sit by the fire and hurriedly sip at two cups of watery soy ersatz and fake cream. It may all be irradiated, but it doesn’t bother you a single bit.
The blue flames from your bonfire are a strange thing to behold. The lashing warmth barely provides any light or smoke, but the heat is genuine. It’s the perfect fire for a survival situation. Its azure hue glints off the polished rails of your battle rifle. A trusty old VZ-58, chambered in 7.62×51mm and outfitted with a bayonet, thermal scope and red dot side mount, and flash hider. Fire helped humanity survive in the early days, and firearms help humanity survive today — a fitting name.
Then, you spot something. Two pairs of ruby-red eyes, staring at you from the darkness. Barely larger than pinpricks, but your senses are sharper than needles.
Your rifle locks onto them in a blink of an eye, the coffee spilling into the snow. It solidifies into a brown crystal in your peripheral vision.
There’s nothing in the scene of your rifle’s main scope. You tilt your gun and watch the approaching eyes from your rifle’s other scope, finger steady on the trigger.
You can faintly make out their silhouette in the shadows. A woman draped in a black one-piece dress, red spectral gauntlets in the form of claws openly bared. They’re held up in a shrug, almost mockingly.
“Dear me, I do believe you dropped an object of some importance.”
Her voice is proud yet undeniably hoarse. She sounds sick. She holds up your radio in her hand, waving it like a trophy of battle.
“You again,” you mutter. Your finger tightens on the trigger.
“You thought you could escape?” the Wight asks. She steps into view at the border of your feeble campfire, her sharp smile promising things worse than death. Her blood-red hair sways in the polar winds.
Her expression falters. “Wh-“
“I said, go away.”
“I will not leave h—”
“Keep quiet. I don’t want to give away my location.”
You lower your rifle and turn your attention back to more important matters. The coffee may still be salvageable. You scoop up the snow-infused coffee in your old drinking tin, making sure to collect as much as you can.
“Don’t ignore me.”
The woman is a metahuman known as a ‘Wight’, known for manifesting claws of red prana. This one, in particular, is mostly harmless. You figured that out several days prior. She slaps the snowcone out of your hands.
“I was going to drink that,” you sigh.
“Don’t you know who I am?” she asks indignantly. You can faintly make out her lip quivering in the shadows.
You reach towards the first thing you can think of to throw at her.
She catches the dreaded number 14.
“It’s food,” you explain. “Human food. According to the records, you’re an undead type. That stuff might be slightly tastier than whatever you usually eat.”
The Wight staggers back, as though the words physically struck her. She looks down at the brown striped packet in her hands.
“Why did you follow me?” you ask, taking advantage of the momentary distraction.
She regards you with a haughty air. “A Duchess of Grithune not need to explain herself to a soldier.”
She looks at you triumphantly, expecting some form of recognition. Her expression wavers ever so slightly when you don’t say anything. She hangs her shoulders in defeat when she seems to realize you have no idea what she’s talking about. After a long pause, she looks at an empty spot near you. “Are thou not going to offer a seat? After I went out of my way to grace you with my presence…?”
“Sure,” you reply. “Free seat.” Your coffee begins boiling again, the bubbles soon simmering in its blackened surface. Coffee is nice.
She takes a seat beside you with a ‘hmph.’ After a few moments, she begins to stare intently at you, obviously wishing to converse. You only stare at her out of the corner of your eye. She seems to carry herself with a shaken dignity, obviously fearing you for some reason. After some silence, she turns her attention to the packet and begins fiddling with it. She looks somewhat surprised at all the contents that spill into the snow.
“You were at the crossfire,” you mention. You can still remember the moment the bombs fell. They were Ignium-Fusion warheads, a variant of a thermonuclear weapon crossed with a dirty bomb. The result was a mile radius of sun-like heat and an endless region of fallout. A combination of radiation that would destroy every last living creature, and an overload prana wave that instantly obliterated any metahuman with mana in their systems. The very last resort of humanity.
You can still hear the screams.
The warhead detonated in a desperate crossfire between Grithune, UCAS, and Nirmathsi forces. You don’t know why they pulled the trigger, and you doubt you’ll ever know now. They probably already wrote you off as killed in action, blown away to smithereens, another casualty of the Great War. There’s only one reason why you’re still alive.
“I was,” she admits. Her eyes grow dim as she turns her attention to the fire. “I… did not know such destruction was possible in this world.”
“‘Only the dead have seen the end of war,'” you reply.
“How so?” she questions.
“A quote,” you explain. “Somebody who lived a long time ago said that. It just so happens that it doesn’t apply to either of us.”
“I completely understand,” she proclaims.
She does not understand. You can see it in her face. The daemon running in the back of your mind tells you so. She seems happy enough to fiddle with the labelled packets in the MRE, separating them in the snow.
“The main dish is in there,” you note, pointing at the auspicious packet labelled 14.
Anything could be inside. Maybe even a dragon. You smirk to yourself at the thought — one whole dragon, stuffed by magic into a little bag. Then, like a magician, the Wight slices open the bag. A brass tin and several loaves of rock-hard bread fall into her spectral claws. You can hear the metallic impact of the tin bouncing off the roll. Horrifying.
“Why did you follow me?” you ask again, carefully inspecting the Wight’s body language. She’s acting strangely submissive for an enemy general. “Couldn’t you have gone back to your people?”
“The king said that failure wouldn’t be tolerated. I was created for this role, yet…” The Wight turns away, staring listlessly into the shadows. The firelight stains her face in a melancholy blue. “There aren’t many places to return to in the empire, either. My fledgeling duchy is gone.”
“Ah.” Your senses detect that the can she’s holding is a can of Pâté — a particular type of meat paste consumed by the french in the old world. Meat paste does not sound particularly appealing. There’s an inescapable mote of disappointment that comes with the realization that the number 14 isn’t as exciting as you thought it was. “My condolences.”
“It was razed to the ground, not by you humans, but by one of our allies…” She hugs her knees, shivering. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”
“If you’re going to start rambling about your life,” you grumble, “at least tell me your name first.” You poke the campfire with a stick, but it catches fire. This night might be longer than expected.
“Dutchess of Grandeu,” she states, miming a wiggly sigh with her prana claws. “Lylia la Hélène de Galarneau. I may not be one for long, not on this darkest night. My life may already be forfeit, so I thought I’d go for one last…” Her voice trails off, leaving her unsaid conclusion in the air.
“Nice,” you reply. “I’m Pangolin.”
“Pangolin, hmm…? A beautiful name from another tongue, I presume.” She offers a warm, practiced smile. “May you indulge me in a final whim?”
Lylia’s charm is undeniable. Even you can see that. She has supple curves of marble grey skin and boundless feminine beauty. Her eyes are like distant gems, a prize that can inspire any man — no, any living creature to pursue them. There lies a paradox in that conclusion, though.
This battlefield is a land of the dead, and the unliving. The only thing left in this place are monsters, and the creatures the monsters cower from. She’s no exception.
“I can hear you out,” you decide.
“We undead survive by nicking minute amounts of life energy from the living,” Lylia says. A tiny smile pulls up at the corners of her mouth. She leans forward, her eyes a pair of hypnotizing red stones. “If I may, as a final meal of sorts, I would merely like a taste of you…”
“I wouldn’t recommend it.”
She’s close. You can’t hear her breath or her heartbeat, but she exudes a certain level of presence. It’s the way she carries herself, her alluring smile, the scent of silky-smooth perfume mixing with the winter winds. Notes of mistletoe, honey, and warm milk. Memories of somewhere far away.
“I’ll give you pleasure you could never imagine dear. Just a taste.” Lylia offers her hand, as though inviting you to dance. Her smile grows coy. “You wouldn’t reject a lady’s final request, would you?”
You know better. The woman in front of you is a Wight. Code name: Monarch. A high-ranking undead, identified by their ability to reanimate and control a large amount of undead through some undiscovered means. Drone intel suggests that their founded kingdoms are realms of everlasting night. Their profile details their ability to control mana, and flood corrupting energy into metahumans and humans with a single touch. Analyzed parameters are many times beyond human limits.
“No, thanks,” you conclude. “Not interested.”
“I insist,” she states. Her eyes flicker in a dark purple hue.
“Don’t try it.”
Your gazes lock together, steely and firm. You know what Lylia will do. Your radio lies in the snow beside her; its indicator light still blinking. There isn’t anybody left to respond to the message.
She lunges towards you, swiftly, suddenly, the desperation more than evident in her eyes. You don’t blame her. She must be on her very last reserves of mana. For her, this is an act of survival.
You stumble backwards, trying to roll away from her touch. Her prana-based claws slice through your winter coat as you react. And then, her icy fingers dig into your skin.
“Together, we’ll build a new kingdom of undeath. If I’m in charge, then nobody has to suffer anymore…!” Lylia proudly proclaims. The look on her face mirrors the first time you saw her.
You saved her back then.
You were covering the retreat of UCAS forces before the execution of the last resort. She was begging for her unlife before a Nirmathsi battalion. Their commander was a dark-scaled lamia of unknown classification, fit with equally unfitting attire for the weather. Her skin was a royal purple shade, crowned with long black hair, a cobra-like hood, and golden-slitted eyes that dripped with ambition. You don’t think you’ll be forgetting her any time soon, either.
The thought of intervening didn’t occur to you until you heard Lylia’s pleas, echoing over the silence of a finished battle. She was a cowering mess before the serpentine commander, her forces destroyed by overwhelming numbers. You listened to her pitiful begging from a nearby vantage point, a tear-filled babble filled with empty promises allegiances of loyalty towards the smiling serpent. Lylia said she’d do anything to avoid the ‘poison of the soul.’
Her whimpering grew unbearable when the Lamia began to toy with her, whispering sweet nothings in her ear, dribbling a noxious concoction on exposed grey skin.
So you decided to poke your head where it didn’t belong.
Your network of synchronized tactical spectres was already in position when you decided to intervene. They may be faceless humanoid drones with rudimentary combat modules, but their combat utility is undeniable. Tactical Spectres are relatively cheap to manufacture, so you didn’t mind sending them in as shock troops.
You started with the Lamia commander first. Regular FMJ rounds couldn’t put a single scratch on her, but they shredded through her thralls. Then you swapped to your high payload rounds.
Both metahumans stared at you in shock when you entered close-range combat. You didn’t give the Dark Lamia any time to voice her distaste; instead, a full barrage of high explosive 7.62x51mm rounds did the talking for you. She retreated after an explosion tore out one of her pretty little snake-eyes, swearing vengeance on you. Or something. You didn’t stay around to find out.
At the time, Lylia was a shellshocked mess, shouting something towards you over the sounds of active gunfire. You caught a single glimpse of her tearful, desperate smile during your retreat.
And now —
“What…. is this…?”
Lylia’s demeanour cracks. Her eyes widen in shock, her gaze rising towards you.
Your pistol rests against her forehead.
Your sidearm, a SIG P320, is loaded with Ignium hollow tip cartridges. Designed after pilfered prototypes from a long-destroyed organization named “The Order.” They’re mana-laced rounds designed to fragment and destroy metahumans from the inside out. Highly effective compared to copper and lead FMJs. Lylia seems to realize what lies in wait for her.
“Curses,” she laments, the hope quickly fading from her eyes. She lets go of your arm, traces a line along your bare skin, and gently takes hold of your hand. She smiles, holding the pistol in place with a grim smile. “I suppose I shouldn’t have expected another result. Take me. Before the venom or hunger destroy me.”
You can see the fear in her body. Trembling and fragile, she’s clutching to you, hoping that you’re the kind reaper that can ease all the pain away.
“Please,” Lylia adds. She looks up at you, tears glimmering at the edge of her eyes. “I thank you, kind stranger. I always expected to die alone, but this, this is fine too. It’s like a dream…”
“Quit being melodramatic,” you respond, flatly.
You flick her in the forehead with all the power stored in your middle finger. She reels back, clutching her forehead with a look of utter shock. The prana claws she manifested disappear into red shards of light.
“T-That hurts! That really hurts! What was that for?”
“Let me introduce myself properly,” you state. “I am an Avigeist; A modified version of the ZKB-C model. I have several modules installed to enhance my field and electronic battle ability. Although my emotions module is fully functional, I am not currently willing to engage in psychotherapy with you.”
The Wight stares back at you with a renewed vigour, still nursing her forehead. It doesn’t seem like she’s satisfied with your explanation. You shove your pistol back in its holster and collect your coffee.
“How are you living without any mana?” she asks. “That’s impossible. Every living creature has some amount of mana, even humans…”
You sigh. At times like this, emotions like annoyance are quite an annoyance. Ironic.
“Try not to think about it. You’re only going to hurt yourself,” you groan. “Just think of me like a rock that happens to be sentient. And if a rock like me can make her own decisions, I don’t see why you can’t forge ahead too.”
“Ah…” Lylia nods, half-heartedly.
She doesn’t understand, reports your sensors. You order your emotional analysis daemon to swap to empathy mode. It obliges, running scans with the visual data from your eyes.
“Hold on. I have something that can help.”
Lylia watches you march into your tent and retrieve the Ignium core powering its bit-sized generator. The black crystal, faintly pulsing with orange light, is only the size of your fist. Reportedly, it’s a form of metahuman ‘mana’ crystallized into a solidified form. It could potentially give you enough power to operate for a month straight, but you have other ideas.
She involuntarily sucks in a breath as you hold the crystal up in the air. Her expression twists in disbelief as she looks at you. For a moment, she reaches towards it, before shoving her arms into her lap.
“Where did you get that?” she gasps. “A mana crystal! In such a pure state, too…”
“That’s a state secret,” you reply. Your emotion module forces you to smile. You hide it by pulling up your scarf, but you can’t help but feel happy. Damn it.
“If you wish for my body, I will happily trade it.” Lylia looks pleadingly at you, eyes fixated on the prize. “For as long as I am myself, I will give you my soul. A crystal of that quality can stem the Apophis’ corrupting venom for a week. I’ll do anything for you if you can grant me that mercy…” The look in her eye becomes increasingly desperate with each word she says. “I’ll become nothing more than your servant, your playthin—”
“Nah,” you interrupt. “Trade you for that can, though.”
“C-Can?” she stutters, wildly looking around. She eventually follows your finger to where the can of number 14 pâté fell in the snow. She delicately scoops it up in two hands and offers it to you. “Do you mean this?”
You march over and replace the can with the crystal, unceremoniously. It’s an action dictated by the personality of your neural mesh, but you don’t mind. Even if it’s hardcoded, you know that a random act of kindness like this is the only thing you can do in this chaotic world — happiness, in a form.
Lylia stands there, stunned, frantically looking between you and the black crystal in her hands. You pop open the can of pâté and note that it doesn’t smell as bad as you thought it would. The pink meat paste is extremely calorie dense and an optimal type of food for your bioreactor, but you can’t help but wonder if it could taste better. Especially after the first few bites. She’s still inspecting the crystal after you’re halfway done with the second dish of the night.
“You have some serious trust issues,” you observe, with a mouth full of meat paste.
Lylia seems to be spurred on by your words. She nods, slowly crushing the crystal in her hands. As a dim orange light flows into her fingertips, she heaves a sigh of relief. You wouldn’t call her complexion healthy in the first place, but the dark purple veins underneath her skin recede back to her fingertips.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” she admits. She turns to you, utterly bewildered.
“You don’t have to. I almost killed you just now, so we can call it even.”
“I think you’re a good person.” You raise your tattered sleeve up for her to see. “If you were a smart hunter, you would’ve just cut off my arm. Or just attacked me without revealing yourself. Somebody like you shouldn’t be on the battlefield.” You nod to the discarded radio receiver lying in the snow. “You seemed desperate. So I figured, might as well do what I can. Follow my dreams and stuff.”
Lylia begins to make some noises of protest, but she buries her face in her knees after a long series of mutterings.
“Do you have anything to return to?” you ask, prodding her in the shoulder.
“The only thing that awaits me is death or mindless thrall-dom to some snake wench,” she murmurs, still hiding her face.
You prod the campfire once more, turning over burnt twigs and branches. There isn’t much fuel left in the artificial bonfire. Your gaze eventually drifts to the Wight, watching for any signs of life. Or movement.
She’s frozen like a statue.
After staring at her for some time, your analysis daemon suggests that you offer some form of emotional comfort. You halfway oblige.
“You could journey with me back to UCAS territory,” you offer. “I think they developed serums for those ‘Apophis’ toxins a few months ago, but haven’t been standardized yet. If you turn yourself in as a prisoner of war, I can make sure you’re treated kindly. You could get a new life somewhere else.”
“That’s impossible,” she quietly states. “Alchemists have been attempting to create a cure for hundreds of years.”
“Up to you. It’s an offer.” You shrug. “You’ve got seven days to live, and I’ve got six days of operational power left. I wouldn’t mind a bit of company before I die out here.”
Lylia pauses. “How far away is your destination?”
“We’re a few hundred kilometres south of Outpost Zeta-9. The territory we’ll have to cover is mostly disputed territory, but if we’re very fortunate, we’ll be able to catch up to the UCAS retreat. If not, well… it’s going to be a tough walk.”
“I see.” Lylia looks to the side, wistfully. “It’s like chasing the memory of a fleeting dream, then…”
The campfire begins to die down, lashing long shadows across the ground. There’s a long journey ahead of you. You dust yourself off and prepare a mental checklist of what to pack up. There’s one thing you have to take care of first.
“Well, you coming?” you ask inquisitively. You preemptively offer a hand to Lylia.
She reaches out, hesitantly. “Can I?”
“Dunno. Can you?”
She stares at you for what seems like the longest time. And then, something clicks. She breaks into a mirthful laugh, as though she never considered the question before.