Monthly Archives: December 2012

Keri

You look in disbelief at Shilo’s faint smile as the incredible glow she exudes fades to nothing. Your heart sinks as you watch her body fall to the ground with a dead weight that you’ve seen entirely too often in the past few days. Your mind rings with the years of information that have just made their way into a mind far younger than the information itself just as you realize that this was your sister. Instantly, you continue your run to her side, your eyes filling with tears, even as you come into concurrence with reality that Shilo is, in fact, dead. The glow in her eyes is gone as you drop to her side and lift her head, that smile still present on the face which has been emptied of life.

Words fail to reach your lips. You aren’t sure how long it is that you sit there, the smell of blood filling the lobby as the chill sets in. The room had been warmed by the battle, but now, its stagnance returns the former temperature to place as your eyes drain all tears from you. Your breathing becomes erratic as your nose runs with grief. Finally, a flimsy wail begins to make its way out of your throat. Any need for pomp and circumstance has just vanished from your world, which has grown geometrically in the past few days. Tears, snot, and noise emanate from you without apology as your grief and anger at the world are released, your own glow burning brightly. As you approach a brighter glow than you’ve ever released, however, a voice in your mind whispers softly, ‘Stop.’

Your glow fades to its normal level instantly, and you sniffle as you recognize the voice: Shilo. You look down at her body, sniffling again, your eyes searching her own for some sign of life. There is none. Death is your only greeter on the other side of those doors. Nevertheless, you reach out in all directions with your own mind, screaming soundlessly into the void, ‘Shilo?! Are you there?’

For a few moments, you look about yourself, holding Shilo’s empty frame with shielding arms. But then, ‘Of course I’m not here, you silly girl, but did you think I’d leave you all by yourself?’ You can’t make sense of it, but surely there’s some explanation. Shilo is dead, but that voice is Shilo’s, too. How can that be? Then, the voice speaks again from inside your own mind, ‘Look, I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense, but with the amount of my mind I gave you, there’s bound to be a certain residual amount of me left over in it. Now get up. We have to get you off this planet.’

You stand, setting Shilo’s head on the marble floor. She’s right, or you are. You suppose they’re really your own thoughts based on Shilo’s residual personality ingrained into the associated information. Nevertheless, it’s good to hear her voice, at least, and you take the time you need to reach the entrance to your home to sort through some of that information. You realize it’s mostly memories, but some of it is schematics, training, and technical information that would have taken years to learn. There are techniques for breathing, and you think you can catch a passing glimpse at a special type of sleep, but then you reach the room with all the gadgets and gizmos Daddy had left behind.

Looking at the room with new eyes, you see weapons and armors you never would have recognized before. Farther along, toward the back of the room in a more dimly lit section, you see a glint of metal. Moving your way toward the glint, you stop here and there to grab new weapons and refasten better armor. Your healing has almost finished when you reach the back wall. The glint is behind it. How did it–?

‘Bioswitch,’ Shilo’s voice says. At that moment, you notice a small, dusted-over switch in the darkest corner of the room. You brush off the panel, lick your thumb deftly, and press it against the switch until you hear a light beep. A panel lifts slowly, a motor whining weakly as you begin to see a small hole behind the panel. There is no lever to indicate a larger door, but the hole seems small enough that you could squeeze through it. You bring yourself down to all fours and scoot your way through the hole.

Once through, you look up and see an old dipulse: an early form of pulsecar that was designed with two primary pulse engines that rotated freely as opposed to the now-standard eight with up to twenty stabilizers. The skill required to pilot a dipulse was compared with that required to pilot a fighter ship. Well, that’s odd. You didn’t know that at all before. The wonderment at the novelty of such knowledge is soon drowned by a renewed grief over Shilo’s departure, which is followed by Daddy’s, and that by Mommy’s. You’re very nearly overwhelmed by the emotions when you hear Shilo’s voice call out, ‘Not yet, Keri. You can grieve later. You need to get off the planet now.’

She’s right. Or, rather, you are. You decide it’s best just to think of it as Shilo and not yourself for now. It might comfort you enough to make it off this world which has so long been your home. Casting that thought aside, you start looking for a way to exit the room with the dipulse. As you do so, you realize that you do not expect any difficulty piloting the vehicle and that you are quite aware of how to reach the docks from here. Thanking Shilo just as her voice points out a mechanical lever on the opposite end of the room from where you were even looking, you turn about and remind yourself to be more aware of the wider view allotted to you by these helmets.

Jumping up a couple of times, you finally manage to reach the lever with a bit of glow, and your weight pulls it down with a loud clacking sound. A chaotic grind can be heard from inside the wall as, to your surprise, it lowers instead of rising. You blink once or twice before making your way back to the dipulse, noticing that with the lowering outside wall, the wall to the rest of the armory rises, and the wall into the apartment slides back. WIth a sudden realization, you realize that the pictur
es are still inside, and you use a bit of glow to ensure you beat the slow-moving walls in and back out of the apartment, the boxes which have become entirely priceless to you held firmly in your grasp.


You make your way back to the outer room and begin to load up for your trip. The first things you load into the dipulse are the boxes of pictures, followed by the choice weapons and tools Shilo had noticed on her first pass through the armory. You even mount a few specialized weapons onto the dipulse before firing its engines, their familiar, low pulse providing a small comfort as you prepare to make your way to the docks, where Valkyr 2 is awaiting small repairs whose associated damages had resulted in its pilots’ deaths. ‘Let’s go,’ Shilo’s voice echoes into your mind. ‘You’re going to have to drive, though.’ You suppress an urge to roll your eyes and grin. Maybe Shilo isn’t as gone as you thought.

The Picture was of a Young Man

The Picture was of a Young Man

The window faced the Murhan S’Crotia Shipworks and he could see the Linthian military’s latest battleship strapped to the frame of the spaceport by its landing base. The workers scrambled over the ship like so many bugs on food. Swarming up and down in a totally random manner they flowed across the ship components seemingly without purpose and oblivious to the destruction that was threatening the galaxy.

Then he saw it – the pattern of their work. His brain organized the view until it knew which workers were building which component, who was supplying who, and even more. His brain was working automatically all of the time at a rate he never believed possible. His knowledge of ship building from his training merged with the view and he smiled as the whole picture came into a level of focus he never dreamed possible. And then he paused.

The comm was in his hand immediately. He gave his security code and asked for the Guardian on duty at the shipworks. “You have a saboteur on level fourteen in sector seven on ship frame eighty-five” he said. The Guardian replied, “Who is this and how did you get a security code?” He responded, “I am J’Rontia’s Soretto and it is her code. Who are you that you would question a valid code before checking the data?” He felt anger growing and a new feeling flowed through his body as strength surged and his brain spin up to a new level of awareness.

He spoke into the comm, “You were born on Ramodin in the year of the M’Trodes’ birth and trained at the Kuli base of Gruidness on the Outer Edge of Murhan space. Your mother has brown hair and cannot change it due to a genetic defect that the doctors were not able to correct because she had the age sickness when she was young. Your father died in the Religion wars during the KR assault on Kronot while piloting a command ship for the Guardian Kuli D’Repres.” He paused and then continued, “Do I need to say more or are you going to check the construction?” The Guardian responded, “I am going to check immediately.” The connection broke.

The Kuli taught that anger was a good emotion that the body used to increase its efficiency and power. They trained apprentices to control their anger as it also had a dark side when a person let it take over the body and mind. Anger could allow the body to exceed its limits and break. It could speed up the abilities of the advanced portions of the brain or switch control over to the primitive areas. Anger out of control caused disaster and under control it allowed people to be more than they ever believed possible.

Their last mission was almost the death of both of them and yet turned into the best thing that had happened to him since he was accepted as J’Rontia’s Soretto. He did not remember the defining moment when his body repaired the part of his brain that was blocking all access to his higher functioning. He only knew that J’Rontia went into his brain and assisted it in repairing his injuries. During that process some other component was also fixed and, once it was repaired, his brain recognized the danger they were in and accessed every advanced function that it could. This did not come without a price and the pain was excruciating. The forced opening of channels to areas of the brain previously off limits combined with the disorientation he felt as new inputs turned on and fed data to his brain at tremendous speeds, disrupted his balance and his whole metabolism went out of synch. He was sure that he was going to die while it was happening and mere moments felt like days as he adjusted to increased processing speeds. Moments later he was a new person but with a brain that was not able to understand or control his own body.

He took too long to learn and when he stepped outside of the building she had left him to heal in, he saw the devastation around him and the danger J’Rontia was in. He desperately wanted to help but the flood of information that rushed through his head took him to the ground in agony. The world spun and nausea gripped his throat as his brain exploded in blinding white pain. He was crashing into oblivion and he could not stop the flow of data but he had to help J’Rontia. And then he remembered.

He was a very small boy when she dropped him off with his parents. It was a small apartment, far away, on an insignificant Murhan planet, on the poor side of a dying town. The woman who carried him was crying and the tears fell on his face as he looked up into her sad and puffy red eyes. He could see her amber hair and the streaks of sea foam blue that ran through it. Her face was cut badly and blood ran down her checks sticking in clumps of hair and dripping onto her blouse. The blouse was torn and clung to her body in pieces showing the armor wear underneath.

She looked at his parents and held him out as if she feared to let go of him. She told them, “He is the one and they will kill me if they can. I have sent for help but do not believe it will come in time.” She paused to wipe the blood from her eyes and his parents reached out and grabbed him and the package she offered. She continued, “They will not find you and there is another young child who died in the crash that I will make sure they think is mine.”

My parents shook their heads in agreement but could not speak as the presence of this incredible woman left them in awe and fear. My dad finally said, “We will do as we agreed and thank you for this chance to make things right.” The woman had started to turn away and at these comments turned back. She said, “Your debt is paid and I will restore your family’s name if I live.” They smiled and told her, “We will love this child as our own and we will stay here happily knowing our family will return to their homeland. We have no doubt you will be successful.”

The story played out at high speed in his mind and the realization hit him that his parents adopted him. In the midst of the pain the pieces of his life started to fit better as the memory continued.

She bent down and touched him on the forehead with her hand. Her hand was soft and rough at the same time and his head tingled with her touch.  The sparks flew through his whole body as he shook and then relaxed when he heard her voice. “It’s OK my child. I will take the fear and confusion away. You will be safe from the searchers with these people. I am going to program your brain so you will see this couple as your parents and shutdown the advanced parts of your brain, allowing you to hide who and what you are. Someday, you will know your destiny. If you are remembering this then you have experienced an event that threatened your life or the life of one you love.”

The understanding that he was more than he thought gave him hope and his darkness started to leave. He groped through his mind for something that could help him gain control as the memory continued.

Her face was beautiful in spite of the blood and cuts. Her smile brightened his day and he allowed her to change his brain, trusting her as a child trusts their mother. She went on to say, “When you remember this you will be in great trouble and may think you need all of your abilities; however, that requires training. I am placing an emergency program in your brain to handle your combat skills and all you need to do is activate it. Once it is activated, the program will start to run and it will release many other blocks after you are safe again.” He could see her mind and was in wonder at its beauty. The love flowed from her and he could see how hard it was for her to leave him and he could see the logic that made the decision clear. She went on, “When you are ready, you can activate the emergency combat program by saying your family name out loud. All you have to say is …”

He yelled out, “Djike’Straup,” and the pain left as his brain focused all the inputs into multiple receptors in the brain and another part of the brain organized the planned activities into sequences that he immediately put into effect. The battle did not go well for those attacking J’Rontia as he waded into the melee as a banshee of old.

His memory of the battle, while very clear, was nowhere near as clear as his knowledge of whom his mother really was and why he had been hidden for so long. His mind was open now and the parts of his brain that were unblocked worked hard to reorganize all that he had learned over the years. His world had changed and others were just beginning to find out. His comm started to buzz.

The Guardian Kuli N’Yuiret said, “You were correct. We did find a saboteur and due to your help we were able to uncover the explosives he was planning to use before he finished arming them. I have reported the incident to the High Council and the Supreme Guardian of this sector.” He smiled at the Guardian’s tone of surprise and responded, “I appreciate your prompt action and wish the best for you and your family.” The Guardian thanked him and cut the comm.

Moments later, J’Rontia walked into his room with that devious smile on her face that he loved so much. She then turned serious and said, “So, I can’t leave you alone for even a moment without you saving the ambassador to the Council from the Murhan’s?” He looked at her confused and she went on, “The explosion was designed to kill the ambassador and it was made to look as if the Kuli did it. You have uncovered a plot to discredit the Kuli with the Council and now they want to meet with you,” and she smiled that devious smile again.

J’Rontia told him, “The council will meet in seven cycles of Wratqe so we have plenty of time. The Supreme Kuli for this sector has given us a cruiser to use for the trip while our ship is being replenished and we have extra time, so where would you like to go.” He smiled as they both knew where.

 In a small apartment, far away, on an insignificant Murhan planet, on the poor side of a dying town, the doorbell rang. Inside, an old couple looked at each other wondering who would be coming to see them. The apartment was sparse and there was on one couch to sit on. The main room was kitchen, dining room, and living room in one with only one picture on the wall and no other decorations. The walls had chips and the colors were faded almost to nothing, leaving a dull grey finish everywhere. The picture was of a young man with a Soretto banner walking with a beautiful Kuli to a spaceship.

The old couple was both happy and sad. Their lives held great meaning and they never regretted their choices. Both of them had only three cycles left on their retirement funds and then they were on the street. Their medicines had run out two cycles ago and they were not worried about living on the streets because they would not live that long without their medicine. The bell rang again and the man stood up to go answer. His wife said, “Tomli said he would come.” Her husband smiled and responded, “He never left our hearts so he already is here.” She smiled as hope against hope stood in her heart, a lonely vigil for the only other love of her life.

The old man opened the door and his heart stopped. Standing there was their son and the light of their lonely lives. He fell to his knees and called out, “son,” as loud as he was able. His wife screamed and came to her feet as fast as she could, probably straining herself in ways that would cause pain for days. She made it two steps and he was there holding her in his arms. The old man stood up and joined them. Their son had returned as Tomli predicted and now their life was complete.

Then she walked in. J’Rontia entered the room quietly and with the intent of being in the background but it did not work. The old woman walked over and gave her a huge hug and was followed similarly by the old man. The old man said, “Thank you for seeing what he really is.” Behind them J’Rontia’s Soretto smiled as he watched the scene in front of him unfold.

Two days later, an old couple entered a new apartment on the planet Toron in the Linthian system. The apartment was on the best side of town next to one of the best medical centers in the galaxy. The first room they entered was the living room and it was beautiful. They walked to the main wall which was blank and lifted a picture up on the wall. The picture was of a young man with a Soretto banner walking with a beautiful Kuli to a spaceship.  They both smiled.

 

The Beat

‘One.’ Your fist reaches up, pushing away the wyrm’s massive form and snapping its neck with a flick of the wrist. Your hand then grasps the top of its head between its ears and crushes it brains as you use the force of it to pull yourself out from beneath the wyrm, tossing yourself over the beast and hurling yourself toward Keri, who remains unseen behind the swarm of wyrms slashing and gnashing at her. Your heart beats audibly in your ear. ‘Two,’ you think to yourself.
At some point, you appear to have reclaimed your sword. The where and when of it doesn’t really matter as you cleave your way into the nearest wyrm, its skull splitting open in a satisfying but somehow distant, wet, and crunchy sound. Its body slumps down, and you ride it to the next wyrm, which turns its foaming jowls toward you just in time for you to reach out and tear its lower jaw off, sliding your sizzling blade through its brain and pulling it down through its spine. Your heart beats again, the sound of it pounding like a large drum. ‘Three.’
A wyrm bites your empty hand, trying to keep you from reaching her sisters. You turn your helmeted head toward the beast, the black and green tendrils of dark light associated with full glow emanating from the inside of the blast visor, and the wyrm’s eyes go wide as, instead of trying to pull your arm out, you plant your feet and drive it farther in, blowing out the back of the beast’s neck just below its nape. You clench your fist and launch a plasma bolt at the surprised wyrm behind it. At this range, one would be enough. Your world shakes as the sound of another heartbeat echoes in your ear. ‘Four.’
You swing your hand around, firing two more bolts as you go and using your other arm to skewer a wyrm only a hair’s breadth away from your face. The wyrm’s momentum carries it through the motion, slamming its now-dead body into you and knocking you back several steps before you manage to toss it away beside you just in time to be tackled by the white, heavily furred figure of a particularly large wyrm. You grab its head with both hands and twist it viciously, throwing its limp carcass into two of the others. The remaining three wyrms are huddled together facing inward and snapping at something. That must be Keri. You dispose of the two wyrms buried beneath their fallen comrades with a bolt each to the brain as you jump toward the final trio. You plunge your sword into one of the wyrms, and the last two finally turn toward you. You extend an arm to fire a bolt, but your launcher’s overheated. It wasn’t designed to fire so quickly and frequently.
An explosion can be felt in your head as your heart beats again. ‘Five.’ You’re cutting it close, but you have to reach Keri. The nearer of the two wyrms launches itself toward you, its claw slamming directly into your collar, disengaging your helmet and sending you several paces to the side. You managed to right yourself before sliding to a halt. Your helmet’s damage is just sufficient enough that your display has gone black, so you remove it before launching yourself toward the wyrm, throwing your helmet with enough force to slow you down significantly and to crush half of the wyrm’s skull, allowing you to redirect toward the last wyrm, which has started to rear its claws, preparing to swing down. You don’t hesitate as you prepare one last burst of compressed energy behind you, projecting you at a speed nearing that of the sound of your own battle cry as your hair flies about in the wind of your own motion, the dark light of the full glow turning your hair a deep green with tendrils of dark green light emanating from your eyes and hair, even your eyebrows and lashes, almost seeming to absorb the light around rather than emitting it.
Your fist comes into contact with the wyrm, and you flick your wrist down, bringing the sword down and cleaving the wyrm clean in two straight down to its shoulder blades, its spinal cord cut cleanly in two, and its brains draining into the newly formed space between hemispheres. You suppress a gag at the sight as you sheathe the blade, looking to Keri, who is uncurling from the fetal position, your helmet crushed and tossed to the side along with several pieces of her armor. She’s bleeding in several places, but she seems to have sustained no permanent or even overly severe damage. Her mouth moves slowly, her arm seeming to be at a near halt despite its current path toward you. Piecing the expressions together, you realize she’s asking if you’re alright. You blink, the motion taking what feels like an eternity. You look around and see that some of the wyrms are still falling to the ground with a pace like syrup.
You’re forgetting something in the elation of saving Keri. You just know it. At that moment, you recall the words of the Valkyrie who had trained you most closely. “Never stay in full glow more than six heartbeats,” she had said. “The stress of the exertion and friction on your body could take a serious toll on you. It has a nasty habit of killing most Valkyries who don’t spend much time in full glow regularly. I would recommend avoiding full glow entirely, since a lot of us don’t have the discipline to spend only a few moments in a state of such speed and power. If you must, though, Zhilo’di, don’t stay in it too long. You’re powerful, but I’ve only ever known the Matriarch to be that powerful.”
You think to yourself how odd it is that you remember that now, but your thoughts are coming to a halt. You look one more time at Keri, who has started to kick her way into a run toward you, and you smile, the sensation of such love that you hadn’t known for cycles overwhelming you. Using the last power of which you can be certain, you reach out to Keri’s mind and send as much information that she may need as you can. The stress that would take on your brain ceases to bear relevance as the world booms about you a sixth time, and your hair returns to normal, the glow in your eyes fading forever with a single accompanying thought borne upon your lips. “Goodbye.” The world goes cold, and your vision turns black, only the long-past sound of your mother’s voice in your ears, a faint and gentle smile on your lips for eternity.

Battle

Your hand reaches the hilt of your great grandmother’s sword just in time to be absolutely useless. Before you can come into reach of the wyrm in front of you, its great claws slam into you at full force. The momentum from your charge is reduced to nothing as the impulse of the collision takes its full effect on your arm, which had absorbed the brunt of the trauma by snapping like a twig. A part of your mind registers the pain for a single, screaming moment before you disengage from the thought. You don’t have time for pain as you hit the ground, looking up in satisfaction as you see that the wyrm’s nearest limb has been rather badly mangled by the impact, and the wyrm isn’t as determined as you are to ignore pain. Its shrieking scream resonates in your teeth and along your spine as it reels back from the pain.
You take advantage of the moment to grab the sword and draw it as you leap forward again, this time with the sweeping cut already in progress. You barely record the spray of blood in your memory as you make your way straight through the wyrm’s neck. What does stick with you is the ease with which the sword cuts. Naturally, it would immediately after being drawn. The plasma scabbard had a handy side effect of heating up the blade. Nevertheless, the sword feels unnaturally natural in your hand, despite the pain screaming through your arm even as you can feel the bones repairing themselves as you push yourself further into full glow, the hauntingly emotionless harbinger of death that exists there coming nearer and nearer to the surface of your mind as your left foot hits the wall.
At the sensation of the event, your eyes glance out the door lazily while your leg kicks you out of the small passage, your hand grabbing the edge of the doorway as you pass through it, twisting you around the corner and against the wall just to the side, the frame of the door bending outward beneath your fingers as you spin around it with a force well beyond the structure’s design limits. As your legs brace against the wall, you take in the scene before you. It seems that you made a slight miscalculation in the number of wyrms outside your shelter. In addition to the not twelve but instead eighteen wyrms in the main lobby, there are eight more making their ways in and out of rooms in upper floors, their massive bodies squeezing into the doors like rodents.
The wall collapses slowly as your feet plunge into it, and you take one last moment to plan. Then, before the sweeping claws of the nearest wyrm reach you, your legs kick off again, this time compressing the marble wall to at most half of its original thickness, the energy produced through the action sending you tearing toward the top of the lobby at a ridiculous speed.  Utilizing this time, you extend both arms, the microwave beam emitter cooking the brains out of two wyrms in the time it takes you to fire five bolts each at two others’ faces utilizing your armor’s built-in bolt launcher, their heads turning to mush beneath the force of the plasma slugs.
You tuck your body into a ball, kicking your legs out above you to catch the ceiling as you reach the top. Just as you do, one of the ice wyrms that had been crawling about up there took a swipe at you, catching you straight in the chest. Your armor protects you from any damage beyond a few cracked ribs and a loss of breath, but you’re thrown entirely to the far wall. You hit the wall with considerably more speed than really works in that position, so instead of bracing, you roll it out along the wall, catching the lip of a walkway about a floor down with your left hand as your right brings your sword to meet the nearest wyrm’s horrible maw. As the end of the blade emerges from the beast, your feet kick off again, sending you spiraling back down to the ground floor, where you can feel Keri moving toward a wyrm with the same stealth she used to follow you on your first day in the city. You land directly on the head of another wyrm, and you kick its roaring head into a forceful roll with enough of an impact to twist its spinal column out of alignment, its vertebrae snapping with a sound like the crack of a bolt of lightning. The remaining twenty wyrms must hear it, too, because the shriek that follows is too uniform, too simultaneous, and entirely too much like a war cry for your comfort. One of the wyrms is quickly silenced, however, as Keri’s own microwave emitter aims straight up and cooks its brain like steamed korn. You hold out your own and boil the life out of the two that had just turned toward her.
 
‘Seventeen left,’ you hear her say into her own mind. ‘I can get…’ There is a pause as she fires a bolt straight into the eye of an approaching wyrm. ‘Seven.’ She turns to you and calls out over the wireless, “Can you get these ones next, please?” A series of ten target identifiers appear on your screen, each corresponding to a different wyrm.
In response, your hands go out, and two of the designated wyrms die within moments, the work of your emitter and bolt launcher. Before you hit the ground, still riding the head of your earlier kill, the wyrm that struck you earlier drops toward you from the ceiling, sweeping its paw toward you with more foresight than you would normally expect. It screams as you start to dodge, and it swings its tail wide, realigning its motion with your own. You twist about, pressing your hand into the flesh of the dead wyrm beneath you to change your direction again, but you can’t find a good grip, and now it’s too late.
The wyrm’s massive fin strikes you with the force of a high-energy repeater blast straight to the back, breaking the sound blaster sitting there. In response, the other wyrms shriek victoriously and move in, their aggression renewed now that the sound inhibiting them has been eliminated. You can feel their malice as they move toward Keri, who has just taken out another wyrm. You try to move out toward her, but the wyrm has you pinned, its massive jaw trying to close over your head. It’s all you can do to give your neck the strength not to break, the light in your helmet almost obscuring your view of your screen completely. You hear a scream over the wireless that sounds entirely too little like a wyrm as Keri turns toward the approaching thirteen wyrms, who are stampeding toward her with a speed she hadn’t seen before.
“No,” you whisper to yourself, tears trying to force their way out of your eyes. The world turns dark as you pass completely into full glow out of desperation.

Lessons Learned

The high-pitched squeal that cries out beside you reminds you of the first time you ever saw a wyrm. The ice wyrm is, in addition, the largest and most vicious of the wyrms. Seeing an entire pack of the vicious monsters climbing about the walls of the lobby as you gaze carefully through the crack in the doorway is enough to put a deep pit in your own stomach. You place your hand against Keri’s chest, pushing her farther back into the residence as you close the door softly, stepping coolly back. Once you are satisfied the wyrms haven’t detected you, you turn around and look at Keri.
Her eyes are wide with fear as she looks pleadingly up to you. Instead of smiling kindly at her, however, your face turns hard as the shine in your eyes grows brighter. She backs off slightly, letting you think as she tries looking for something useful to do.
There have to be at least twelve wyrms out there, maybe more. You didn’t exactly get a good look at the scene through that tiny slit. Looking about the large apartment which had been so thoroughly designed, you start looking for that which Valkyries so rarely need: a weapon. You go into the bedroom from which Keri had retrieved the pictures. Surely, your father had owned a weapon, despite any memory loss he had suffered from such a total annihilation of his cortexes. He had, after all, maintained his paranoia as a member of the Qzcidell Plant which had been placed on the outer worlds in conjunction with the Valkyries so many ages ago.
You find nothing in the main section of the room, but you should have expected as much. He probably didn’t even trust himself after your mother died. Your mind quivers as the impact of the thought hits you like so many repeater rounds to the chest. Your mother is dead, and so is your father. You’ve known this for a long time, but your father only died a few days ago, really. For some reason, this bothers you more.
The thought comes to a pause as your eyes catch glimpse of a carefully concealed bioswitch on the upper right-hand corner of the far wall. Walking to it, you lick your thumb and place it on the switch deftly, hoping it will recognize the descendant of its proper operator as valid in the genetic coding. The switch lights green, and you grin wryly as the switch slides down the wall to reveal a handle. You pull on it, and your footing is called into question as the room quivers with the opening of a blast door which had been so well hidden as a wall. You turn to see Keri standing at the door, a small Valkyrie fight suit put on half-wrong, the armor connectors misaligned with the proper points on her body. Armor wouldn’t even latch onto it like that. She walks closer to stand behind you as the blast door’s opening reveals a room full of the equipment you had known your parents would have had.
The room was a treasure trove to any warrior, and before extensive brain damage had surely swept away large portions of your parents’ memories, they had been some of the best. Before your eyes lay a horde of weapons, many of which would be unknown to some of the system’s most highly trained special forces, excluding the Valkyries and Qzcidell Plants. You’ll have to be sure to come back and load up before you left the planet, but right now, you have more pressing matters to which you must attend.
From your previous encounter with an ice wyrm, you learned a handful of helpful facts about the massive foes. ‘Lesson One,’ you think to yourself as you reach up to grab a directed sound blaster and set it to its lowest pitch settings, ‘Wyrms communicate with high-frequency sounds but absolutely hate ultra low-pitched sound. That’s why they stay away from cities under most circumstances. The pulse-cars drive them crazy.’
‘Lesson Two,’ you think, grabbing a device that would look remarkably similar to a spotlight to untrained eyes; to yours, however, it’s a focused microwave emitter. ‘That tough hide may be able to withstand projectile blasts, but it cooks easily enough.’ A quick flick of the wrist sends it spinning over your forearm, the notch on its side sliding into an accepting groove in your armor. It slides firmly into place, and it’s controls go dim as they integrate with your armor’s DPU.
‘Lesson Three,’ you think, moving over to the armor rack and grabbing the first of many pieces that will add further plating and shock resistance to your armor. ‘Getting hit by an ice wyrm hurts like an Oa’din, regardless of where or how glancing it may have been.’ As if to emphasize your point, a loud pounding begins against the door into the apartment. You find it simultaneously fascinating and frustrating that they’ve already made enough of a dent in the main door that the vacuum seal preventing such noise from reaching the apartment has been breached.
At the sound, you notice, Keri’s eyes grow hard, as if in memory. You wish for a moment that you could tell her everything will be alright, but you know that it’s already too late for anything to be right. This war had taken its toll. You see that Keri has fixed her clothing and has begun attaching armor in an effort to follow your own actions. ‘How much does this girl already know?’ you wonder. You push the thought aside at the sound of another pounding against the door, this time accompanied by a painfully unpleasant scraping sound.
‘Right,’ you think, ‘Lesson Four.’ You take hold of a sword which was distinguishably crafted for a Valkyrie, the engraved Valkyri’din wings carrying not the star of Linthia but a tesseract whose borders are formed from a single double helix. Above the wings is carved the name of your great grandmother, for whom it had been crafted: Jeron’dia, supposedly named after a Valkyrie-like heroine from a war long ago, before the Ragn’Rouk. ‘Never be too proud to use a weapon again.’
You slide the sword into the open scabbard throat awaiting it which had until now been hidden neatly in the face of the plating from which it emerged. As you slide the blade gently into it, a plasma field is generated over the blade to protect the blade from wear and tear while it sits seemingly exposed to the air. Your thumb reaches the throat, and you press the hilt onto it, hearing that satisfying clack as the blade locks into place.
‘Lesson Five,’ you think, grabbing a heavily armored helmet and lifting it over your head, quite a different experience from the typical piloting helmets which collapse and expand over one’s head of its own intricate devices. ‘I need a better helmet.’ You look down for a moment and see Keri pulling a helmet over her own head. You grin slightly as the pounding and scraping grows louder.
The helmet comes over your face, and your vision turns black as the interior of a heavy helmet with a proper blast visor blocks out any light from your field of view. The bottom of the helmet sits neatly into the receivers at your collar, and you twist it to the right, allowing it to interface with your DPU. Immediately, the screen inside the helmet comes alight, and your display comes into view for the first time in days. The familiar red lines, symbols, and characters make their way into your view, and the world about you is visible in a comfortable, full circle field of vision. You glance slightly to the side to look behind you, where Keri is giving herself a few good shakes to dispel the disorientation caused by such a view when one is unaccustomed to it.
You restrain a giggle at the sight, and your eyes quickly grow hard, the inside of your visor turning a bit green as your eyes light up with new fire. This time, you can feel and almost even see the wyrm’s claws coming against the door before it even makes contact, your attention undivided as the door can be seen flying across the main room through the doorway to your late father’s room. Your grin flashes an unseen white as the
huntress inside you comes to the forefront. A gentle memory of a dead voice you haven’t heard in over twenty cycles reaches into your mind, sending your thoughts to a long-past, failed hunt as a child; but this time, you don’t hesitate to follow your mother’s command as the memory whispers the echoed word, ‘Now!’ Your feet break contact with the ground as a burst of energy compresses behind you, propelling you into the fresh heat of a battle which you can finally fight for all the right reasons.

The Beginning

The Beginning

They were losing the battle. J’Rontia was trapped in the corner of the basement and her Soretto was down. They had only been together a few months and he had very few skills. She was charged with his Kuli training and there had been little time. She was responsible for him and had not planned on taking him into action of any kind for at least a standard year.

J’Rontia surveyed the situation. The basement was dark and damp with green and black mold in the corner where the water was dripping down. She could taste the mold and the stale dust they had kicked up when they came down the stairs. The building was on fire and the top six floors had collapsed. She could smell the smoke drifting down the stairs and heard the noise of their opponents on the floor above. There were no lights in the basement but her training and abilities allowed her to “see” all that she needed to.

Her Soretto was having trouble breathing and he had four deep cuts in his abdomen that were flowing blood. She reached out with her hand to his forehead and concentrated. Her thoughts moved through his to a region of his brain where she found the controls for coagulating blood. She adjusted the chemical outputs in the region bleeding and the blood slowed. She moved to the area controlling the arteries and stimulated the key arteries in the affected area to close them down and the blood flow dropped to almost nothing. He was out of serious danger but still in trouble. She moved to another area and started the healing of the arteries. Now she had to keep their enemies at bay till he healed enough to be moved.

 J’Rontia took a deep breath of the stale air and filled her lungs in preparation for what was to come. There always existed a chance they would use gas in a closed area. She would breathe off of the top of her lungs and initiated rapid breathing to oxygenate her blood. The pulse she sent from her ship had knocked out all of the enemy’s advanced weapons but still left them with plenty of projectile weapons, knives, and hands. She was not worried about hand-to-hand combat as they could not come close to her skills; however, the projectile weapons could pose a serious problem if enough of them went off at once; this, combined with the condition of her Soretto, led to her retreating to the basement.

Normally she would have attacked and moved outside as she was always better on the offense. She could not do that this time because of her Soretto. She had brought him into this situation without proper training and she had to see him out safely. Then the ceiling blew up.

Pressure on the ears from a concussion wave can rupture them and also stun the victim into unconsciousness. Unless you are a Kuli, in which case your training kicks in and you adjust your body responses and are ready for the coming attack. She moved to the stairway and went into fight prep meditation mode. The first three coming down the stairs died before they even knew they were in trouble as pieces of sharp stone flew through their throats ripping every important part to shreds. After that the situation started to become intense.

A few moments later she realized that she was in trouble as Klitrin warriors dropped through the hole in the ceiling. The Klitrin warriors were highly trained in killing and extremely rare in this part of Tyria. Someone was paying a lot of money to stop her and their presence meant she had made a mistake moving to the basement. She summoned the strength known only to a few and increased her metabolism to combat levels as she felt the sadness flow through her as it always did when she turned into a killing machine.  

Moments later, none of the attackers were moving anymore and the smoke was settling, so she stepped back into the corner by her Soretto. He was looking a little better but not much. She was about to speak when the voice boomed into the room. “That was only the small group. Next time I will send twice as many, then three times, and so on. Give up now.” She probed the areas outside the building with her mind checking the signatures for anyone she recognized. She found the speaker’s mind in front of the building, near where the fountain had been before the attack. He spoke again, “Even a Kuli cannot fend off the number of Klitrins that I have here for you.”

She did not know him but could feel the truth in his brain as she retreated from the hate that emanated with his every thought. She had learned what she needed, he worked for the King and clearly the war against the Kuli had begun, even if others did not understand. She had prepared for this since her fourth birthday and her only regret was that she had not had time to train her Soretto. She would have to attack to survive and even then it was doubtful she could be successful. She did not hold any sorrow for her fate. She loved her job even though she hated the killing that came with it. She knew that the fate of all Tyria rested in her ability to stop the destruction coming from the King.

She desperately wanted to win as her personal destruction would greatly reduce the ability of the Kuli to respond to any threats. Hardly any of the candidates who graduated in her class earned senior combat status and the same had been true for many years. The Guardians told her that most of the Guardian Kuli out on patrol had been quietly ambushed over the past 20 standard years and now she understood why none had survived. She bent down and told her Soretto that she was going outside and that he should stay where he was. Perhaps help would come before they found him.

The voice sounded again, “You must make your decision now.” J’Rontia smiled. There was never a decision to make. She climbed the stairway and stepped into the light ready to dodge whatever they sent. She looked out on the scene in front of her and a devious smile spread across her face. There had to be over 5,000 Klitrin warriors in the area that she could see. The speaker stood on a platform across the street where a food stand stood before the attack. He spoke into his megaphone, “I see you have come to your senses. We welcome you to our side, the winning side.”

The smile left his face as the stone shards she threw ripped his throat to pieces. She leapt down the stairs and attacked. Thousands of bodies later her superior strength was fading and the Klitrins’ skills had inflicted so many wounds that her advanced healing was not keeping up. Her thoughts returned to her Soretto and she was sad that she had let him down.

 

Back in the basement he awoke. He heard her thoughts in his brain and realized she was in trouble. He went to rise and found the changes she made in his system. The paths she left were visible in his mind. The arteries were healed and he stood. He ran up the stairs and out what was left of the front door. He saw her there and immediately he knew she was about to die. Her reaction speed was way too slow and her injuries too numerous. He felt fear for her surge in him as he could see he would lose her forever. He stumbled to his knees as waves of nausea racked his body and his brain felt like it was on fire. He loved her and she was going to die. Just when he thought his head was going to explode, the dam in his mind broke! Everything all of the sudden became clear and his brain started processing in a multitude of directions at the same time.

Like a whirlwind he sped down the stairs with bodies flying everywhere. Strength he never knew was possible entered his muscles and his metabolism raced to a level unheard of by all except Supreme Guardians. Everything he ever learned about combat came to the front of his mind and his brain worked as never before. Every move he made was full of purpose and he became deadly like no one he had ever seen. In moments, he arrived at her side and they fought back to back and then side by side. As she weakened he took over until she was only protecting his back.

When the last Klitrin warrior fell she collapsed on the ground. He looked around at the destruction and felt part of his elation at saving her slip away. He sat down beside her as he summoned their ship. Neither one spoke as he carried her aboard and flew the ship up and out of the atmosphere. When they were safely away from the planet and in stealth mode, he went to her in her bunk. She reached out and touched him with her hand on his forehead and they merged for a while. They both smiled and then she went to sleep and he monitored the ship.

Years of darkness and doubt were gone and he now saw that he was worthy for her. He would forever be hers for saving him and helping him to find his true potential. He had a long way to go before he was whole but part of him had shone as brightly as a sun and he had saved the one person who had believed in him. He was happy beyond belief! The realization of what he was came to him as he looked out into space and considered what had happened on this day.

His brain started to organize all that he knew into categories as one part after another part came online. He could see now where the blocks had been removed in his brain and his mind lit up with excitement as he explored knowledge he had stored but could not retrieve. He was thrilled at his real capacity and looked forward to his return to J’Portia to have more blocks removed.

It was a new beginning for him and he spoke to the nothing, “Finally, I am awake!”

 

In her bed, J’Rontia awoke for a moment and heard his thoughts. She smiled and said, “Thanks Grandpa!” Then she rolled over and went back to sleep.

 

Discovery

You open your eyes to a heavy darkness. Your breather just finished up its last viable recirc before waking you. That means you’ve got more than just dark on top of you. You try moving and find it less difficult than you might have expected given the circumstances but substantially more so than it really should have been. Remembering the events of the night previous (or had it been day?), you start swimming your arms cautiously about, bringing yourself slowly to a seated position as an arm’s length of ash moved its way off of your chest. After a milliday or so, your breather puffs out a tiny cloud of ash as it releases its now oxygen-depleted air reserves, allowing new air into your lungs for the first time in several centidays. You smile softly and gulp down the air as if it had been years since you last breathed of your own accord.

Grateful for the unique properties of your plasma-shielded goggles, you look about without having to rub any ash clear of your view, and you see that you were right to insist that Keri actually sleep inside the room whose door you had slept before. Even standing perfectly straight in the ashbed that was like so much filthy snow, she likely would have been enveloped before waking and suffocated without realizing it before it was too late. Looking to the small display on the underside of your left gauntlet, you realize that it’s been at least twenty-five centidays since you went to sleep. Deciding that that was enough time, given the circumstances, you gently push open the door, watching some of the ash pour in and onto the marble floor you had so meticulously cleaned only thirty centidays before.

Before the door is even entirely ajar, the young Keri is at the doorway, looking expectantly to you as she awaits instruction for this new day, her smile slightly wider than her tired eyes. “Is it time to go now?” She asks the question in a way that conveys an understanding that there can be only one answer, but you nod anyway, your lightly armored hand resting on the linen of her nightgown. Her hair is cleaner now than when you met only two days before, and its almost entirely aqua locks fall more neatly about her small face. There are the beginnings of curls, or perhaps they’re the ends of them, but they’re scarce as her hair falls almost perfectly straight in all but her bangs, which seem to have a life of their own.

You had never really thought much about your own hair, but seeing hers falling to such lengths as it did made you a bit sad that a Valkyrie pilot had to keep her hair short to distinguish her from the other sisters. It had been only a few years since that hair had fallen from its long-held position at the terminating points of your head, but you had always been satisfied with the collar-length hair you were permitted until now. Seeing how much this young child had, though…

“Are you ready to go?” The words make it out of your mouth before they register with your own brain. Nevertheless, they are the appropriate words, and Keri nods, her smile fading into a weary grin. You can hardly blame her. It must have been hard enough getting all the way out to the edges of the city by herself, even if she was a Valkyrie, but going back through it all, well… It makes you grateful for her sake that there was so much ash spread around to cover the bodies that still riddled the streets, hands holding one another, arms wrapped around wives and children. In all the marvelous efficiency of the Valkyries, only one person in millions had been spared, despite there being only two attackers and three days for execution, and you still suspect that that fact may have been inadvertent rather than intentional.

After about a centiday, you head out and onto the road, moving once again toward your goal, the large building that now looms close enough that the buildings around you seem to be dwarfed in comparison, their ten- and fifteen-story structures like sandcastles before the massive, 240-floor residential complex in which Keri claims to have lived with her father for the past three years, which happens to be about as far back as she can remember at her age. You wonder, looking at the largely blasted apart structure, if her home is even intact and, assuming it is, if you’ll be able to get to it safely. You may be able to survive a 200-story fall in your armor, but not even a Valkyrie could stick that landing without breaking several bones, and Keri doesn’t have armor designed to assist one in falling-type circumstances.

Keri, however, seems to barely notice the wanton destruction so expertly crafted around her as she counts quietly. It’s a common enough affliction among Valkyries, really. So many of the finest minds and bodies of the Valkyries went nearly to waste due to encroaching madness. You hope that this, instead, is merely a coping mechanism for the vision of death itself laid out so perfectly in front of you. You’ve grown entirely too fond of this child to see her go the route of madness that consumed so many, usually at a much later age, at such an early point in her development. You write a mental note out to yourself and set it among all its brethren, reminding you to get her to a Valkyrie Trauma Counselor as soon as you make it back to Thor. Your face tightens as the girl loses count, stamping her feet in frustration as she begins again, tracing back her steps to the last intersection first.

Eventually, you reach Keri’s complex, and you approach the entrance with some anticipation. She should remember the location well enough, but what if it isn’t there anymore? “What floor did you live on, Keri?” The question makes it out of your throat, but only just. You hope she didn’t notice that you had used the past tense, counting on her age to restrict her knowledge on such matters. The flicker of narrowed eyes that darts toward you for no more than a milliday’s fragment, however, tells you all you need to know.

Keri takes a deep breath before saying, “Keri lives,” Her eyes catch yours, even through the mirrored pseudo-surface of your goggles, as she pushes the word, “on this floor.” She points to a door only just inside the entrance, and your eyes widen as you realize the implications of a ground-floor home in a complex like this. You head into the building and head straight for t
he door, which is reached within a milliday of meandering about distractedly as you look at the wreckage of what had once been a monstrously impressive lobby. The ceiling towers above you at nearly fifty floors, and the ten-story-tall light assembly that is now sprawled on the floor and rests partially in the ornate fountain in broken shambles once clearly levitated at a much higher perch.


After a short trot and look-about, however, Keri makes her way to the door and licks a finger before placing it on the bioswitch that activates the door. Your eyebrow raises at the notion. Bioswitches are fairly commonplace on military ships and facilities, but the technology was expensive enough that very few actually use them in the civilian sector.

The door slides open, revealing a residence that stands in firm contrast to the ornately decorated, stone and glass lobby. The entrance hall, just long enough to keep people outside the door from gazing nonchalantly into the main room, has two pairs of shoes sitting neatly beside each other, one several times larger and less girly than the other. Looking to the walls, you see a few pictures of a mustachioed man with shoulder-length, glossy gray hair and Keri. You conclude reasonably that this must be her father. You also notice that there are no pictures of anyone else even as you make your way into the main room, which holds a wireless and an istringr interface, fairly common for a family room. You work your way quickly to the kitchen, which is gratefully just as clean as the rest of the apartment, which seems to have been magnetically suspended to protect it from seismic disturbances and hermetically sealed to shield it from biological contaminants. Whoever designed this place had either a very paranoid or very wise eye, given the current state of the world you’re on.

Keri sits on the small seat beside the table politely as she waits for you to prepare the food. You notice that she has followed the proper etiquette to a tee, which is remarkable for someone raised on one of the outer worlds. “Do you want Skell eggs, Keri?” You ask tentatively. You would love some Skell eggs right now, and you’re incredibly hungry. Keri nods enthusiastically, and you start cooking, pouring each of you a crystal cup of water from a jar in the chiller while you wait for your pan to warm up. Keri gulps the water down as gratefully as you do, pausing only to thank you for the cup.

After you’ve finished prepping the eggs and a few greens for lunch, you set them out on plates and bring them to the table, turning off the stove and washing the pan before you do. Before eating, you each sign the Sword of Drigan’di and say a quiet prayer to the Great One. After you finish eating, you look beside you at the young lady carefully masticating each tender piece of egg before swallowing gently in a manner almost disturbingly proper. Someone went to great lengths to train this girl to act in a manner that anyone else could deem acceptable, and that’s a dangerous skill at her age.

“Keri,” you begin. Keri’s eyes train steadily on yours as you continue, “You mentioned that your daddy had pictures of a woman, didn’t you?” She nods carefully, choosing not to speak with a filled mouth. “Where are they?”

Keri holds up a tiny hand to tell you to wait a moment while she uses the other to dab her lips clean of any oils from the eggs. Once she’s finished, however, she says simply, “I’ll go get them,” and scampers off into one of the side rooms.

A few millidays later, she returns with a small box and sets it on the table before you before scurrying up onto her chair once more and reaching across to open the box. “Daddy said Keri shouldn’t look in this box, but Keri knows it’s ok, anyway.” For such a well-behaved young girl, Keri’s tone in disregarding such a rule is positively flippant. You blink incredulously once or twice before returning your attention to the inside of the box to see something you never would have expected.

In the box are hundreds of pictures of that same man and a somewhat older Valkyrie woman you seem to recognize faintly. You can’t quite place that face, but you set it aside as you make your way through to the older pictures, the man’s face losing more and more mustache and hair. They all seem to have been taken on Thor. You recognize the city of Qzcivden in the background of a picnic picture, and finally, you see a picture of the woman pregnant with Keri sitting next to what is apparently that same man with no mustache and the clean-cut look of an Armadian in uniform. The man looks familiar now, too, with only streaks of gray in his more softly wrinkled face. This gives you pause. You feel like you’ve seen this man and the woman before, but you aren’t sure where or when.

You work your way through more pictures, hardly noticing the clack of metal on ceramic as Keri eats her eggs. The man and woman get progressively younger and, with it, more familiar. The pictures now have to be almost twenty cycles old. You’re almost certain you’re right about the suspicions sneaking up on you now, your eyes making their way through the next picture set. In these, the couple are in a hospital, holding hands and eating together, their smiles as wide as children’s. Finally, you reach the bottom of the box and see a picture of the two of them in hospital beds beside one another, their heads thoroughly wrapped and their bodies mangled wrecks. Still, you haven’t seen the other woman.

“Keri,” you started, again. “Where are the pictures of the other woman? The one you said wasn’t your mommy…” Keri’s eyes grow wide as she realizes she brought you the wrong box of pictures and scampers off back to the other room. There’s an audible thud as she drops something, but there’s a quick dismissal of the urgency that makes it to you even before you finish standing. Moments later, Keri comes rushing back in and sets a box in front of you with a broken lock on it. It has one word written on it: Goddmunr. Good mind. It’s written in childish block letters, and yet you suspect it wasn’t written by a child. Cautiously, you open the box and pick up the first picture.

The first picture is a wedding picture of the man and woman at a much younger age. His uniform is much less decorated, and her hair is a more vibrant blue tied up in Maerskor. There’s a light in both their eyes that you hadn’t noticed in the other pictures, and you’re fairly certain it’s nothing to do with age. As you pick up the next picture, tears begin welling up in your eyes before you even turn it over. You know who these people are now. When you flip the picture over, the tears make their way down your face. You wish for a moment that you hadn’t taken off your goggles to cook and eat. Then, Keri wouldn’t have seen you cry.

As you pick up the next picture, however, you no longer care. You stifle a heart-wrenching sob as you look at a picture you have used as a bookmark for the past twenty cycles of your life. That same young Valkyrie woman is holding a young baby with glowing green eyes of her own against her hip, smiling joyfully at the man behind the camera. On the bottom of this picture is written, in much neater handwriting than the word on the box but likely by the same hand, “Zhilo’di, half a cycle, Qzcivden Gardens.”

You had been picked up for the Young Girls’ Academy for the Blue at a very early age, shortly after your parents had gotten into a shuttle crash. You had never questioned whether or not they were alive. You had always just known they were dead. Now, though…

A small hand makes its way into the crook of your arm. “Shilo,” the now somehow much more dear voice of your sister says. “What’s wrong? You’re crying.”

Blinking a few times before looking back to her, you wipe your eyes and say truthfully, “Nothing’s wrong, Keri. Nothing’s wrong at all.” The worry written on Keri’s face melts a bit, and she smiles hesitantly. “Now,” you say, your arm opening up so she can climb up. “Would you like to look through these pictures with me?” Her smile grows stronger, and she quickly climbs into your lap, pulling a few pictures out of the box, herself. She starts indicating her favorites, and for a few moments, you both let yourselves forget the fact of the destroyed city all around you on this decimated planet, both exhausted and both very happy to cling to something wonderful for a short while.

A few centidays later, however, that time comes to a close as you hear the cry of a vengeful pack of ice wyrms let out a rallying cry from inside the building’s lobby.

Shilo

The soles of your boots tread silently on the cold, stone floor. Through the darkness, you can see a faint light creeping slowly toward you as you approach an opening. Your soundless breath creates a soft cloud before you as the water molecules escaping from your hot lungs reach the freezing air around you. Your long-empty stomach attempts to groan, but you pay its noiseless motion no heed. There’s no food to be had here, and you’ve kept yourself sufficiently hydrated via the ice formations all around you. The light continues to grow larger, and images begin to come into a colorful clarity for the first time since you entered this tunnel.
Laid out before you is a scene from a nightmare. A city that had been in ruin for aeons like the one you had crashed in was one thing. This city has only just felt the sting of the sword edge. The putrid smell of the dead and dying accents the horrible stench of the smoking city. You had prepared yourself for that when you first smelled it a few days ago, but the unseemly sight of so many grotesque figures splayed out in forms that made their very species seem to come to question wrenches at your gratefully empty stomach. You try to look past the bodies – some still breathing – and search the large, icy dome over the city for that one, small hole that would mean your exit. As you spot it at its greatest feasible distance from your current location, you are reminded of the markets back home, where the things you need always seem to be on the side opposite the entrance you chose.
Wishing you had not lost most of your helmet to that ice wyrm, you pull your breather over your mouth and nose until they form a seal, the metal arm’s motors whining punily in their feeble attempts to do at least that much for you. Gratefully, the smell fades from your nostrils, and you give a silent prayer of thanks for that small blessing, choosing to ignore the pathetic, continuing sighs of the motors. You lift your feet out of the ash which has gathered over them in your moments of respite and begin to tread across the decimated city.
Looking around yourself as you begin to enter the once heavily populated area, you are reminded of the true wages of war. The Monarchy’s purse may be tighter in times such as these, surely, but it was the lives lost that showed the true cost. With the establishment of the Valkyries as an independent organization free from Monarchy control, however, that particular cost could be swept under the rug a bit by the higher-ups. After all, it wasn’t the Armada that had taken out this entire city with one multipurpose ship and two fighters. That, after all, would have been impossible for the Armada, anyway, though the achievement of such razing would certainly be possible with the recent introduction of the Ultracarrier, a ship capable of carrying its own, self-contained fleet. Still, to achieve such widespread violence through a city whose population had numbered in the tens of millions only a handful of days ago would have required almost the entirety of said fleet, and this had only required two Valkyries. It would also have been possible to achieve such an end with a few nuclear devices, but the tunnels leading down the ice and into the city were designed in such a way that in order to be in range to deploy the attack, the attacking force would have to be within blast range. The maze of tunnels in question also happen to be filled to the brim with anti-air platforms, a discovery you had made on your way to your own target. Valkyrs may have been designed to withstand even a nuclear blast once or twice, but very few hulls were capable of holding off high-energy attacks indefinitely. There were plans for a Valkyr with such a hull, but you weren’t entirely sure how one of those rocks would fly.
Recovering from your endless trail of thought, you look about, certain you just saw something move a little too much to be on the verge of death. Perhaps one of your cousins had missed a target, as improbable as that was. You begin looking for a building that isn’t on fire. Maybe you can grab some food and rest before whoever’s been following you decides to attack. Looking about, you see a small house separate from those surrounding it. You head toward it, carefully treading over the bottom half of what had once been a man’s body, its entrails now splayed about in a mess of blood and excrement. You reach the door and start looking for the lock’s manufacturer so you can pick-
The danger of exhaustion, you remind yourself as you turn about once more, certain you saw movement this time, is that you can’t seem to maintain a firm hold on multiple facets of the world around you. Silently, you curse the Oa’din who invented exhaustion, making the sign of Drigan’di’s Sword as you pray to the Great One that your Valkyri’din really is more powerful than you because if she isn’t, she must be having just as hard a time staying awake. The journey through those ice caverns, in particular, had taken more out of you than you had expected. Then again, who expects to be attacked by an ice wyrm?
The door opens, and you push inside, finding yourself looking at the inside of a meat grinder. The walls are sprayed with blood, and you’re able to pinpoint at least five individual organs stuck to the wall and several more spread about the room on the floor. This seemed more toward Sefli’Andi’s handiwork than Pliadrae’s. This is a Valkyrie’s interrogation room, and there’s definitely something lacking for class in Sef’s style. You, for instance, would have left both lungs in your subject instead of throwing it across the room. Sef always does get carried away, though. Maybe the repulsiveness of this room will deter your stalker. You head further into the house, closing each door carefully behind you and heading up the central ladder. When you reach the second floor, you hear the door opening, followed quickly by a stifled gasp. Your stalker’s lunch soon joins the other fluids on the floor of that room. While all that’s taking place, you position yourself inside a doorway behind the door’s opening path. You hear your stalker making her way through each door, taking less and less time to cautiously check behind each one until, as you expected, she doesn’t check the entrance to the ladder well. You listen to her footsteps making their way up the steps, trying to figure out what’s wrong with them. She takes your clue and opens the closed door to the next room over. As you expected, she hasn’t regained much caution, her feet sliding only momentarily to check behind that door to verify that you still have no intention of doing exactly what you plan on doing in three, two, one…
The door opens, and the footsteps pass you, not checking the space behind the door, where you happen this time to be hidden. Holding your breath and moving out from behind the door like the well-trained assassin you are, you get your first look at your stalker trying to figure out which closed door you’ve hidden behind, and you freeze.
Standing opposite you in the room and facing away is a slender figure about half your height in a winter nightgown. Her long hair, once beautiful and silken but now matted with ash, vomit, blood, and dirt, hangs over her back. Her forearms are covered in scabs, burn marks, and fresh scratches. Her feet, bare skin against the ground, are charred and blackened. Despite all that, however, there is a crucial detail that no Valkyrie eyes, even ones as fatigued as your own, could miss.
The white door she currently faces has a very slight green glow at her eye level. This child is a Valkyrie.
Your head reels as you try to comprehend what a Valkyrie child is doing in a Nivlahimi city. You’ve never heard of Valkyries being born on worlds other than Thor before now, though continued thought on that subject causes you to wonder why you had assumed that meant it doesn’t happen. You realize that your
cousins must have been unable to kill one of your own, which made you wonder, “Where’s your mother, little girl?”
The girl jumped at the sound but not in the way a scared little girl jumps at a startling sound. Instead, her motion had a very controlled and conditioned look about it, as if she had simply learned that that was how little girls were supposed to react to sudden, startling sounds behind them; but there was no fear in her voice as she let out an expected yelp. There wasn’t enough stiffness to her body afterwards, either. She was still incredibly relaxed as she turned around, her calm eyes just as wide as they were supposed to be and her shoulders raised perfectly square but with no tension. Her sharp, rapid breaths were metered out perfectly as she waited for you to repeat the question just like you would have to do if she were actually scared.
Instead of repeating yourself, however, you cross your arms and lean to the right a bit, raising one eyebrow expectantly. You’re far too tired for this, and you need to know if there are other Valkyries here. After a few moments, you give her a look that says you’re waiting, and she drops her shoulders, her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing slightly to one side, debating whether she wants to answer, not whether you can hurt her or not. Her eyes are trained on your goggles, which you remove to show her your own eyes despite the protocols against such an action. Her lips return to a neutral position as real emotion crosses her face. Pain is easily read across her eyes as she says, “No mommy. Daddy took care of me, but the other ones… No daddy, either, now. Just Keri.”
Her words betray her age more than anything else, even her size. Her actions may be perfectly conditioned, but a child will speak like a child if she’s raised like a child properly regardless of anything she may learn. That much speaks to the benefit of her father. The understanding she seems to hold over the subject of death, however, saddens you. Not even a Valkyrie should know what death is so early in life, and you know that personally. This girl isn’t the only orphan in the room. You speak again, “Why were you following me?” It crosses your mind that she could want revenge over her father’s death, and you just happen to look close enough to the same as his killers, but she already called  Sef and Pliadrae, “the other ones,” with no ill feeling in her voice. She doesn’t have the necessarily limited intelligence to think that hurting you or anyone else would bring her father back, either, which makes her a bit wiser than a lot of older Valkyries you know.
She lowers her head to face the ground. Then, she raises her eyebrows, her eyes retraining on you but her face remaining down, and says, “You look like Daddy’s pictures.” Your heart sinks. This poor girl thinks you look like her mother? This cannot end well.
Tentatively, you ask, “I look like your daddy’s pictures of your mommy?”
Raising her head, her brow furrows slightly, and she shakes her head fervently. “No. Not like Mommy. Daddy’s other pictures.” This time, it’s your stomach that finds itself pressing toward the ground.
“Where do you live?” For a moment, you’re afraid she’ll say this is her house and that her father is the mess of organs downstairs. Instead however, she looks out the window, raises an arm, and points across the city to one of its taller buildings.
“Keri lives there.”
You expect it’s unlikely to be otherwise, but you ask anyway, “Is that your name? Keri?”
Keri nods. “Keria’Ledrii Khuda’Cronell.”
You smile gently, extending your hand. She takes it. “It’s very nice to meet you, Keria’Ledrii. I’m Zhilo’di Khuda’Cronell. You can call me Shilo.” 
Keri smiles weakly, grasping your hand a bit tighter, clinging to this moment that seems so normal in the midst of this calamity. “It’s nice to meet you, Shilo.”
For the first time in several days, you’re actually glad your ship crashed. Your copilot might be gone, and you may have lost your helmet to an ice wyrm, and you may not have eaten in days but you never wanted to kill anyone in the first place, and this seems a much worthier cause than ensuring the primacy of some Monarch you don’t think should be in power, anyway, when he’s got a perfectly good Armada to do that the hard way himself.
Returning from your revelry to look at Keri, you start walking toward the back exit so you won’t have to pass back through that mess Sef left in the front room. “Are you hungry, Keri?” She nods. You wonder how she wound up so far from her home downtown but don’t ask. You probably couldn’t bear the answer. “Me, too,” you continue. “What do you say we find a place that still has some food?” Keri’s face lights up, and she picks up her step a bit to express her readiness to go. You make your way to the exit together and start on your journey. You still need somewhere to rest.