Guerrin of House Raguel, Kraf Dashtariel, Blademaster and Aseth Drakkar, had been warring against the infernal Machines for longer than he had thought possible. The Seth Drakkar who served under him were mere children in his eyes, their armor having been passed through any number of elder brothers in the last campaign. For some, they represented the last of their noble families. Should they die, the armor and weaponry which had been their family name, lacking another to be passed to, might very well be claimed by the Empire out of necessity. Small monetary exchange was no compensation for a family’s pride.
There was a time he believed that his fighting skills had kept him alive to win him the honours that the Kraf had bestowed, but now he began to credit luck in equal parts. The thrill of close combat was beginning to leave him. Thoughts of his wife came unbidden to him with greater frequency. He needed to be there for his young son, Rollo, to instruct him in the arts of combat in service to the Kraf. He feared that this war might not be over by the time the toddler was old enough to don his father’s Rakk armor. He clenched his power-gauntlet clad fist, then relaxed it, seeing the futility of his angst.
Caldwell and Thallantis seemed to sense his mood and the two Seth Drakkar kept a respectful distance from the middle-aged veteran. To them he was the epitome of courage, a fine warrior to be emulated. If they fought with even a fraction of his skill and honour, then they knew that they would win great respect, and avenge the memory of fallen brethren. Should they die in his service, they would be no less honoured, as Aseth Guerrin always brought back word and tribute to the families of those who fought and died alongside him. They were prepared to enter the Machine complex, to journey into hell’s furnace like heroes in their legendary lineage.
The tunnels were unnerving. Aseth Guerrin had ventured into many Machine industrial tunnels before, remembering every experience and wishing he could forget most. Some complexes were merely eerie, dark and labyrinthine, resembling a forgotten mausoleum. That is, until the machines began to lumber out of the darkness, eyes glowing with a malevolent hatred of the living. Others were intentionally wild and sanity-rending. This was beginning to seem like one of the latter.
Reinforced doors opened and closed of their own volition, some tunnels were lit with a strobing light that animated monstrous shadows out of simple fixtures. Vents in the walls emitted random bursts of scalding vapor or noxious chemicals, and everywhere was the feeling of being watched.
Guerrin knew that at least that much was certain. Then the sounds began. It began as metal on metal grinding, accompanied by a hideous screech that repeated itself as if it had been recorded and was being played in a tight loop with ever increasing volume. Then a rasping voice was added. It was almost like musical lyrics, though delivered in a hellish scratchy monotone. Other synthesized sounds began to join the evil cacophony, as the voice bellowed out its twisted chants.
Seth Caldwell kept a standard length behind the Aseth Drakkar, fighting the urge to close up to him. Seth Thallantis was not so disciplined, and often seemed to want to meld his armor with Caldwell’s. Neither of the young lords had seen any others of the raiding force. Since their descent into this pit upon a speedy lift, and their subsequent departure down separate corridors.
Caldwell wondered whether any of the others had seen Machine defenders yet. It would be impossible to hear the sounds of battle over this insane racket. He was eager to meet the Machine threat, and this waiting...wondering, was beginning to grate his nerves. He attempted to filter out the sounds with his aural dampening gear, but with little success. It was being broadcast on a very wide signal spectrum as well. He looked back to assure himself that Thallantis was still there. The young Seth was walking backwards so as to watch the tunnel behind them.
Aseth Guerrin’s sensors detected several Machines ahead. The spatial symmetry suite had provided him a scrolling map of the tunnel system, and registered the enemy as heraldic symbols that seemed to hang before him, superimposed upon his vision, as if he could actually see them through the metallic walls. The symbols were those of a Predator, two Nightmares, and two Gremlins. They were deployed so as to cover each of the three entrances into the chamber. He noticed the flickering golden icon of a sword. That represented his target: the elevation lock. With it disabled, the other assault force could descend further into this den of evil, and if he survived, Guerrin could take the young nobles back to the surface.
The dark industrial-based music raged, and yet another door opened on its own, as if beckoning them forward. The voice was commanding them to scrape the skin off of their bodies...to become like them. Guerrin steeled his psyche against the harmonic compulsions. Could this be a result of the Junction Point Incident? Had the Machines really begun to experiment with primitive mind control based on the studies of the Azaraimian Princess?
Seth Thallantis peered into the dark tunnels as he continued to step backwards. He felt that he was falling back too far, and yet, something was calling to him. His sensors told him that there was nothing back there… and yet the music...no...the noise, told him to beware all shadows. It was all around him. It was going to make him into one of them...he didn’t want to become a Machine! He had slowed to a stand still. Shuddering in the darkness.
“Seth Thallantis, your spacing is to excess. Close your distance lest you become separated. This is my command.” Guerrin’s voice was formal, and yet personal. Thallantis found the strength and focus to turn and advance at a run to the other Drakkar. When he had closed up, they proceeded through the open doorway together. Aseth Guerrin made no further remark about Thallantis’ moment of weakness. Thallantis vowed he’d never embarrass himself again before such a paragon.
“Glory to Tyrienna! Glory to house Raguel, honor of Dashtariel!” “DASHTARIEL!”
The engagement was entered without hesitation. The scatterguns the skeletal robots used were nearly useless against the energy assault shields of the Drakkars. They fell swiftly to Guerrin’s blade.
Disintegrator discharges seemed to be absorbed by the gremlins, as their bodies took in the energy at the molecular level, and then began to glow with heat as the atoms rearranged and repelled each other. The whole effect taking a mere second, reduced the squat machines to baser elements and slag.
The Predator unleashed a disruptor grenade at close range, but the Rakk armor held back the resonant bio energy. Guerrin cut the machine from skull to mid-section as its very molecules fled from the blade’s edge. The cut was one of power and precision just as he had learned from his father. Just as he must one day pass the skill to his own son.
Just as quickly as it had begun, it was ended. The young lords were trembling with adrenalin, the pounding of their hearts in their heads drowning out the thrashing, evil emanations for the moment.
They had barely taken a breath before their sensors made a trumpeting sound, indicating enemy reinforcements arriving. Thallantis lurched around until he could see the icons before his eyes. The representation was a battle standard, a large horned skull, with four bars dexter. It represented an Assault Fiend Mark III. Numerous other icons were in its wake, Predators, Nightmares, Sniperbots, but that one evil beast was leading. And it was coming quickly, a mere two corners of darkened corridor until it would be in sight.
Caldwell lifted his Disintegrator in the direction of the Horde. He clutched a Parralax bomb in anticipation. Before he could realize what was about to happen, the fact that death was coming for him, for all of them, Aseth Guerrin was in front of him. “Both of you remain here. Seth Caldwell, you will guard this entrance, Seth Thallantis, open that locking mechanism.” And then he began to move down the corridor toward those disembodied icons that seemed to crowd into each other, in a sickening tapestry of impending violence.
“But Aseth Drakkar, if we all fight them…,” Caldwell called after him.
“If we all fight them, not one will be left to perform our quest,” he replied calmly. “If it is glory you seek, you have it already. Do as you are told lest the dishonor of failure eclipse it; for us all.”
The last was barely a whisper, but Caldwell received it.
Seth Thallantis knelt before the seated toddler. The boy was quiet, despite his normal restlessness. His mother was standing just behind him, with her hands resting gently on the back of the gilded chair. She was young, younger than he, and yet the years of loneliness had not been kind to her. She seemed tired, and yet not completely worn, not yet. How long before she too was drawn into this seemingly un-winnable war?
The child began to fidget, but was eased by his mother’s reassuring hand smoothing down the raven locks of wavy black hair. His eyes held the steel gray of his father’s. Thallantis suddenly heard a squealing, scraping noise, like metal on metal. He flinched, though no one else did. It seemed to come and go these days. He steeled himself, and continued.
Thallantis held out an intricately folded pennant. They were the house colors of Raguel, and he was passing them to the last male of that family. The cloth was placed onto the child’s lap. His mother put her hands over his, when he began to lift and pull at it. His disrespect for the symbol was of course unintentional. It reinforced the notion this ceremony was never intended for nobles so young. A toddler should not be the eldest male of a noble house.
Too often of late, the Empire would seize the weaponry of a line that was reduced to an infant heir. It was going to be so for the son of Seth Guerrin as well, it had seemed for a time. Honour was not what it had been even a generation ago among the rulers it seemed.
As sole survivor of the encounter that ended Aseth Guerrin’s life, Thallantis had worked incessantly to make sure the warrior’s memory did not die, even in the midst of this continuing war effort. This was the fruit of his struggles. To see that young Rollo would have the opportunity to grow into a nobleman. A Noble Man, as was his father. As he closed the boy’s hand around the handle of the ancient family blade, he thought he heard evil noises, like music, like insane chatter. He trembled ever so slightly. The boy’s mother expressed her concern. When he looked at her he suddenly saw in her nothing but meat-clad skull; the boy, a metallic puppet. He fought the compulsion to raise the blade.
As suddenly as it had come, the feeling and imagery passed. It did indeed seem to come more often of late.
Thallantis stood, the ritual passing complete. The onlookers bowed their heads in respect, and the house trumpeters let loose clarion blasts to mark the event. Thallantis closed his eyes and tried to imagine his fallen comrade. Instead, all he could see were icons hanging before him, telling him that evil beasts were on the way.