Sette Desert, Planet Novus
These thoughts were all the warrior could muster as he lay face down on the sands of Sette, its dry, rasping wind howling over him while bullets, arrows and missiles flew everywhichway. In fact, even coming up with that thought, the recognition of what he truly felt, was an effort in itself.
The old warrior could feel pain across his chest, where Blackdread’s battleaxe, Devouring Fury, had smashed his armor apart and cut a furrow deep, long and bloody. He knew that if he just lay there, the end would surely come and Blackdread didn’t even need to finish the job. Blood loss or infection would do him in, as even the legendary rapid healing ability of the Bellato physique will not even be enough to deal with the injuries he sustained unless he gets immediate healing.
And where will he get that? The push by the Accretians not only ended the bitter fighting between the Bellato force and the Corite army but pushed both back. Distantly, the warrior could hear the telltale thrum of Winter’s Sharp Kiss the legendary Kingspear of the Cora, as its Bearer, Prince Vanderion Ladenus, struck again and again at the ring of living steel closing around him. It might be over for him, soon, too.
That would be great, the warrior thought. At least it would be an end to all our suffering. All our pain. All our hate. No wars, no fighting, no killing. Nothing but peace and quiet, for all eternity.
That last thought made the cold embrace of death even more compelling to the old warrior. After all, he thought, what else did he live for after she died? Certainly not his kin; they were the first to reject him. The warrior could still remember the sneer on his uncle’s face as he pronounced the warrior disowned. He remembered the disgust on his kin’s faces. In the years after, as he wandered the Bellato worlds as a nigh-penniless Ronin and then as a mercenary, the warrior would often snarl his anger and hate in defiance to what his family had done to him.
But in the cold, loneliness of night, even if a woman had shared his bed, all he wanted to do was cry. In a society and culture like the Bellato, there are few things that hurt more than the rejection of your own bloodkin.
Certainly he did not live for the politicians, the so-called leaders of the Bellato or this postwar invention of convenience and expediency that the Federation was. As a veteran of the Royal Bellato Foreign Legion, he knew that these higborn looked at him and his ilk as nothing but pawns in their games, or resources to be used, abused if possible. Whether they fight for coin or for flag, no matter if the uniform he wears now is that of a regular soldier of the Armed Forces of the Bellato Federation, he knows that his life, like all the other soldiers in the AFBF, are nothing to these politicians.
How many times has he bled and sacrificed for their precious Federation, the warrior thought? How many times has he fought on this misbegotten planet, for a couple of glowing rocks? Lives for baubles. He tried to laugh, this tired old warrior, but the pain on his chest felt horrible and the sand was now getting into his nose and mouth. True, He Who Owns the Halostone Owns the Galaxy, but if the cost of even a ton of the crystals was hundreds, if not thousands of Bellato lives, why bother?
He remembers something his niece (well, technically she was also his cousin, but it’s a bit complicated, these family trees among the fecund Bellato) told him, something her mother said: why can’t we just bombard the Cora and Accretia to dust? Good idea, that. Politician par excellence as the old hag was, she had a good model in that head of hers.
Of course, they all knew the reason. The reminder of it shone above him, visible to his Bellato eyes as Space Station Sanctuary flew in near-Novus orbit. The Guardian Masters and Vanguards would never allow the Bellato fleet, the biggest by far among the Three Races, to bring its entire might against their enemies. In fact, this planet was Bellato by rights. It could not be retaken the way the Bellato wanted because the Hastatum didn’t want a full-on bloodbath. Like this wasn’t?
I’m dying and all I can think about is politics. How sad is that?
Yeah, better stop thinking. I’m getting too tired to think, anyway.
And I’m finally going to see her again. After all these decades, I’m going to be happy again.
The old warrior remembered her as if he just saw her hours ago. Silver-gold hair flying in the wind. A voice that could calm a rampaging beast. Laughter so soft and pure it would put the rain to shame. And that smile, that beautiful smile, more radiant than the sun of this war-torn world.
He used to live for that smile, this old, tired warrior. He fought an entire army, beings of untold power, and that ugly excuse for a tin can that Blackdread is, just to keep that smile from being taken from him.
But he failed.
And since then, this tired, old warrior has been living each day asking why he shouldn’t just put a gun to his forehead and pull the trigger.
I’m tired. I want to rest. I want to be with her again.
Give me one good reason, Lords of the Light, why I shouldn’t just lie here and die?
And just then, his commlink crackled to life. He hears Adolf Meir shouting orders to his men to lay down suppressive fire, for the warriors to engage the Accretians in close-combat. The unmistakable staccato of a Catapult’s heavy cannons added its song to the concerto of death being played on the sands of Sette.
What the f*** are you idiots doing? The warrior thought. You’re all supposed to be back at Brahm City!
He hears the warriors scream their defiance as their charge slams onto the Accretian front line, the sounds of their maces and swords and spears striking cyborg steel a counterpoint to the fury in their voices. He could feel tendrils of heat and electricity as spells from the Archmages went off a few feet away from him. Autofire ripped into the Empire’s ranks as the Rangers used their precision firing training to provide fire support to their comrades.
A shout. He’s here, one of the warriors said, and he’s still alive, but barely, as a strong hand touched his back. The warrior screams for a medic and an evac, leaning down to the old warrior’s ear to whisper to him that everything will be alright now and he’ll soon be safe and sound.
Then a large shadow blocked the Novusian sun out. Through his largely-muted psionics, the old warrior could feel the aura of menace, of fear, in whatever it was that cast this shadow. And before the comm chatter screamed the name of this thing above him, a clawed arm, deceptively fast for its bulk, had reached out and grabbed the warrior by its neck. The warrior could hear the screams from the warrior as Blackdread ate him. Alive.
The warrior felt blood and pieces of his fellow Bellato drop on him. And eventhough Blackdread had already eaten the poor soldier’s voice box, the old warrior could still hear the sounds of his screams.
He feels a body land a ways from him, and he knew Blackdread was done eating that soldier for now. A claw grabs him from the back of his neck and lifts him from the ground. The old warrior found himself face-to-face with the face that has inspired fear in even hardened soldiers but one that he has never stopped hating since that day on Theilanvoss.
“So here was where I dumped you, Harvey,” Blackdread said, his breath foul from the fluids of the man he just ate. “Silly me to forget, but Vanderion was, as usual, being a prick, grabbing my attention and all. I don’t think he liked it too much when I gave him what he wanted.”
“Now where WERE we?” Blackdread said, that horrible snakelike tongue with its secondary mouth slithered in and out, licking the blood from its master’s face. The Avatar of Fear brought Devouring Fury beside Harvey’s face, using its edge sharper than diamonds to trace a bloody line from left temple to left chin. “Oh, yes. I was about to kill you.”
Harvey thought about all the pain and suffering he has gone through. He thought about all the sacrifices he had made for God(s), Queen, Clan and Country. Surely, by now, he has earned the right to finally rest? Surely, by now, he has earned the right to ride off to whatever afterlife there was and be with Phaera once again?
I’m so tired, Harvey thought. And I so miss you, Phaera.
Blackdread raised Devouring Fury for the killing stroke. But Harvey chanced to look down on the inert form of the warrior Blackdread just ate. What’s his story? What stories would this young warrior have made if this Abomination had not ended it so quickly and violently? How many more will this creature and his entire Race kill before their lust for battle and death are sated? How many more stories, like that of Phaera, will this war end?
And then he remembered that one, final night and day he and she spent here in Novus. How beautiful she looked then, more than ever. It was like all that was right and true in the universe had distilled itself into one form and that went by the name of Phaera Victoria Ladenus.
He remembers her lips touch his, those delicate but strong arms embrace him, one last time as she went to rejoin the Third Holy Guard and he the 10th Battalion Combat Team. Harvey remembered little of what he said, but he remembers what she said:
“Live, Harvey. I want you to live. I want you to fight hard for your life, even if I am not with you. And to fight for life. For the life of all those who cannot.”
I’m so tired, Harvey said aloud. And I so miss you, Phaera.
“Oh, don’t worry, Harvey,” Blackdread said, “You’ll be seeing her soon enough.”
The axe fell, a blade that can cleave a mountain in two with nary an effort.
But a hammer met it halfway to Harvey’s face.
If Accretian faces could display emotion, Harvey was sure he’d see Blackdread’s eyes going round and big. Instead, its two blood-red lights flashed angrily, and steam vented from exhausts around his neck.
“You continue to defy me, Harvey Lunus? You’re supposed to be dead.”
Harvey planted his feet on the big cyborg’s armored chest and with all his might pushed back, throwing Blackdread and him away from each other. With the skill of a master warrior, Harvey landed from his somersault on his feet and in a crouch, ready for anything Blackdread would throw.
Harvey searched his armor’s legs and manually reactivated the pump for his medkit. It won’t be as efficient as when its control systems were still whole, but that contraption was destroyed along with his upper armor. At least the throbbing on his chest faded a bit, as the chemicals flooded his body and helped along the natural fast-healing ability of the Bellato.
Blackdread stood a few feet from Harvey, observing. His frame then shook and Harvey knew the Accretian was having their equivalent of a laugh. “Seriously, old man, you’re going to face me like that? Perhaps you want to wait until one of your Chandras can give you some healing?”
Harvey hawked and spit, the gob red with his blood. “Nah, I’m fine just like this, Sharkface. I want to feel your fluids bathe me clean as I hammer them out of your frame.”
Blackdread’s frame shook again, and the Warlord of the Empire, the Avatar of Fear, First of the Defenders since Zero left, adopted the fighting stance of one who has been trained personally by Kesar himself. Then and there, Harvey knew Blackdread was serious. Then and there, Harvey knew only one of them would leave Sette alive.
“Very well, then, if you wish to die so quickly,” Blackdread said. “I am not one to be so… unaccommodating to an… old friend.”
I’m so tired, Harvey thought as Blackdread charged, Devouring Fury cutting the wind itself as he went. And I miss you, Phaera. I miss you so much.
But I can’t rest yet, Harvey thought as he hefted his mace and charged himself. And, my apologies, beloved, but we’ll have to postpone our reunion.