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Rising Force Online, Stories

[RFO-PhX] The Gift

21 March 2009, 14:41:12

Lebiscuri Continent
Planet Verne
Novus System, NE XX

The sun rarely shines on Lebiscuri.

Overhead, the eternal pall of a storm swirls in what might be described by the Bellato Romantics as “majestic grays and whites.” Accretian scientists would simply say that the freakish weather on Lebiscuri was caused by the badly damaged EM field above this fated continent after the Bellato detonated hundreds of thermonukes and sent their main settlement’s fusion reactor to go nova just to deny the invading Accretians this prize.

Wasteful creatures, Blackdread thought, as he trudged through the broken land at the outskirts of one of Lebiscuri’s dead cities.

The Warlord of the Accretian Empire surveyed the scene with a myriad of sensors. The high radiation count was a bother, but nothing the most top-of-the-line in Imperial sensor technology can compensate for. As it was, most of his optical data was grainy and fuzzy due to the high noise from various sources, and there were areas where thermal sensors are virtually useless as, even today, steel or even soil glowed white-hot with decaying radiation. Ultrawave and Radar served Blackdread well in the wastes of the fields, but in this urban setting they all just bounced back in crazy angles over the twisted wreckage.

Blackdread didn’t care. If something blocked his way, like now with what appeared to be the fallen remains of a Bellato hovertank, he smashed it in half with Devouring Fury.

According to the Imperial Archive, this city was named Serenity (and Liberios, Blackdread’s fellow Emperor’s Arm and the Genekeeper’s Historian General, has a note, too: “perhaps named after Queen Serena?”). It was one of the five cities that ringed the main settlement of Lebiscuri, and therefore was one of those that held back the invading Legions for quite some time. Evidence of the violence of total war was everywhere: walls built to withstand the elements and time either had huge holes on them or, like in the building to his right, collapsed entirely as battle damage weakened its structural supports enough to make it fall. What looked like an Accretian aircraft stuck out of a skyscraper, while two more sat upright on the ferrocrete lanes. Blackdread felt his armored feet crunch on shell casings, and he barely noticed stepping on – and snapping in twain – a fallen sword. Of course, there were no bodies of Accretians lying about, as post-battle sweeper squads would have quickly extracted any unit left behind. Battle vehicles could be discarded, but not the bodies of one’s battle brothers.

Of course, the same could not be said of the Bellato who died here. Skeletons, some in battlearmor, some covered in tatters of clothing, littered the broken city. They shone brilliantly under the perpetual half-light of the Lebiscuri day, Blackdread remembering something Celestial said about the unique properties of Bellato bones. The Warlord casually picked up one, ripped apart the chestplate, and tried to crush the ribcage with his left claw. It took a good few dozens of seconds before the reinforced bones, made by evolution and Alpha Adam science to withstand the stresses of 2.5g, cracked and splintered under the hydraulics of a Mark III (Warrior; enhanced) Accretian Unit Frame. Ordinary steel would have crumbled with nary any resistance.

Dragging the remains of his Bellato guinea pig, the tall, ebon-armored Accretian wandered the dead streets of Serenity aimlessly until he finally stood in what appeared to be a park’s central rotunda. The fountain, which carried a stylized depiction of a tall woman in robes protectively holding what appeared to be the Triad Planets Banner of the Federation, had not seen water spew from its nozzles since the bombs fell.

There were more skeletons here, many wearing the armor of Bellato soldiers. And here and there, a couple of MAUs slumped in various states of destruction. The one that was nearest to Blackdread appeared to have been ripped apart at its chest, as the whole front assembly of the war machine was missing. Blackdread looked inside, and his sensors identified what appeared to be the remains of blood and body parts everywhere (“organic particle count is high”, his sensors projected in his Heads-Up-Display).

Blackdread stopped a moment to take pictures of the downed machine and sent it to Tadao’s Inbox via Command.Net; the Empire’s foremost MAU Hunter would be interested in how this was done. He chuckled internally, remembering how he had viewed the Death Herald as aspiring for his position when Tadao, so it seemed, was only obsessing after the destruction of the MAUs. Before he left Novus again after dealing with the Serial Killers, Blackdread had talked to Tadao and the two had come to an amicable settlement over past differences.

One would wonder, perhaps, what the Warlord of the Empire was doing walking around a radioactive wasteland while the Second Novus War raged across the stars, and the Herodians plotted the destruction of Humanity behind the Gaussian Wall. Kesar had gone around the Empire, his gleaming golden armor as much a banner that spurred his troops to greater martial heights than as the pinnacle of Accretian technological might. Zero and Merciful Dirge had done the same, too: the former to constantly check on his Defenders (“remember, Blackdread: nothing beats a spot check”), while the latter did so to – what was the word Messenger said Dirge used? – intimately coordinate the details of each plot and twist in the Herald’s mad schemes. Even Depths, deep in his insanity as he was, would be seen touring the Genekeeper laboratories, checking up on his men and women and, if Trinary would be believed, making their lives hell by pointing out where problems with the researches were. Blackdread, a third generation Accretian, could never understand why Trinary almost goes into overheat when he remembers those things about his former boss.

But Blackdread found that Command.Net suited his purposes well for coordinating the Empire’s military machine. When Kesar and Zero left, they left specific instructions with the Inner Council as to how the Empire would be governed. And as Adjutant 001-B made painfully (and gleefully) clear to Blackdread, Szantino standing chuckling beside the overgrown carcass of that dancing buffon, Blackdread’s authority was only absolute within the Imperial Army. And was worth a flym’s droppings on Novus.

So, seething as he was, Blackdread decided that if his presence would not be welcome on the one world where he thought he was needed, then he would just direct the Empire’s efforts through its oh-so-magnificent communications network. As Warlord, he had access to every email exchange, every online conference (save for those in Novus). His communiqués could override all of the others (save, again, for those in Novus), and when he set his foot down, so to speak, again, on military matters, no other commander (and, irritatingly again, save for those in Novus) could say nay.

So while his Legions did delicate feints and counter-feints on the border of the Empire with the Bellato, and more Legions, his best, pounded Corite units near the assault corridor of Ihn-Benyakan’s latest Long March Campaign aimed at Niven, he was here, in this radioactive desolation.

Politics. Faugh.

Blackdread looked down on the Bellato carcass he had been dragging for a good thirty minutes or so, the center of its rib cage gone. The back of the armor had made a long, white streak where he had dragged it, and the helmet had come off sometime ago. Looking closely at the skull, Blackdread could swear that, even in death, this midget was smiling and mocking him.

Blackdread casually tossed the remains up in the air. Because of his enhanced hydraulics, it flew high indeed. And using those same hydraulics – this time the ones on his legs – the Warlord of the Empire leapt, and brought Devouring Fury down on the airborne skeleton, right in front and above of the stylized depiction of the Queen of the Bellato.

The body smashed onto the statue as if it were a missile, its armor serving as the source for much of its potential energy, now released by Blackdread’s powerful strike. A huge crater formed on where the three planets were in the center of the statue, followed by a massive puff of white powder. Not content with the damage he had already done, Blackdread landed and then leapt towards Serena’s statue, hitting it again and again with Devouring Fury until it was in pieces. His last blow, just before the whole structure collapsed on itself, was to Serena’s oversized head. One two-handed backhand strike of his massive battleaxe sent the thing flying off to a nearby building. The impact probably disturbed the precarious equilibrium of the damaged structure, and sent the skyscraper crashing down.

Blackdread landed “behind” the collapsing statue, its pieces falling in a white cloud around him. His radar told him a large chunk of the shoulder was falling right on top of him, but instead of dodging Blackdread held his left arm up and caught it. Holding it for a few seconds, the Accretian threw it on a jumbled heap of broken MAUs and tanks.

While appreciating his handiwork, Blackdread realized there was something odd about the proliferation of implements of war on this particular spot. Of course, Serenity was a front in the attempt to take Lebiscuri, and, naturally, broken war machines and dead soldiers would be found everywhere. But… Heaps of broken armor. Bodies of dead soldiers, perhaps a whole company or two of them. All arranged as if they were protecting something. Could it be the midgets were defending the statue of their Queen that he so casually desecrated? If so, that would be sad, because they managed to protect it from the Legions only to die by nuclear fire at the hands of their comrades. And decades later, an Accretian would so casually walk here and tear down, again, casually, the thing they protected.

As he turned to move, Blackdread’s foot caught onto what appeared to be a Master Crafted sword. It was lying on the ground near what appeared to be a warrior, whose body was still holding its shield. In turn, his remains was held by what appeared to be a skeleton in a long dress, and a smaller skeleton was between them, also in a dress. All three bore the telltale signs of death through the effects of a radiological explosion.

Curious, Blackdread knelt down to inspect the odd tableau. The man’s armor bore a faded nameplate with the word, “Kinston”, and there were indications that this belonged to an officer, a high-ranking one. The quality of the remains of his equipment attested to that, although no rank markings would be seen for enemy units to target him specifically. The one holding his remains carried what appeared to be half of a staff, a Black Stick Bead from the looks of it. It too was of high quality make, and even held what appeared to be a Keen talic in one of the “slots” such weapons had for Halostone upgrades.

Blackdread’s casual prodding of the trio moved the warrior a bit so the smaller body got loosened. This one was holding no weapon. Instead, what appeared to be the remains of a Bellato girl was holding a stuffed toy in its arms, which promptly fell on the radioactive ground.

Understand that the concept of “stuffed toy” was strange to Accretians, particularly of Blackdread’s generation. When an Accretian comes into awareness a few years after birthing from the Iron Wombs, it has all been about training for the time when one is to undergo the final test to determine Rebirth into the Worker Caste. The “toys” Accretians had in Crèche and Albarium were small guns that fired real ammunition and swords that could cut ordinary steel. Blackdread had field-stripped and reassembled an ancient rifle in less than ten seconds when he was seven, and lopped off his first arm when he was six. He had made his first kill when he was eight, when another boy, taller and bigger than all of them, had tried to steal his food. Their caretaker had found the kid swimming in his own blood ten minutes after, his face ripped off, arms and a leg broken, the head angled in a way that said the boy was not going to steal food again. His left earlobe was in between Blackdread’s teeth, and forks dripping with blood and stuck with body parts held in both his hands.

That incident, strangely, brought the eight-year old Blackdread, manacled hand-and-foot, in front of Kesar himself, with the three legendary leaders Zero, Merciful Dirge and Infinite Depths behind him as the Emperor sat on his Throne. White Knight was before him, a few feet away from a seething Blackdread, the sword of the Emperor’s protector drawn and his shield at the ready.

Even then, it was said, they feared him.

“The boy is wild, my lord,” Blackdread remembered Zero telling Kesar. “Never has it happened that someone had died so violently in the Crèche.”

“But such a waste of talent, my lord Kesar,” Dirge intoned. “The one who died was a bully, after all, using his bigger size and heavier weight to browbeat his brothers and sister. This one didn’t fear him, it seems, and… I swear, I have never seen forks used as… creatively as he did.”

Kesar sat impassively for a time as Zero and Dirge argued, never taking his eyes off Blackdread, who stared back unflinchingly. After a few minutes of back and forth bickering between his foremost warrior and his chief assassin, Kesar spoke to his lead scientist: “And your opinion, my lord Depths?”

Some said that the brilliant Genekeeper Prime’s mind had begun its unraveling even then. There is something, so the whispers said, about dimensional mechanics and digitalization that unhinged the mind; Hybroer, they said, was the ultimate example of at least the fomer. Depths was still mostly sane that day, though. Yet, his response was chilling: “He… scares me, my lord Emperor. I know not why, but he does.”

Kesar stood then, and unsheathed his legendary greatsword. Elemental fire rippled up and down the halostone blade, and Blackdread could remember even now how its heat burnt him, even as Kesar stood meters above and away from him.

“There are some, your caretaker included, who would wish that I use this sword to cut you in twain and end this discussion here.” Kesar said. “It would be justice, they would say, or mayhap nothing more than when the kennelmaster puts down a rabid dog. But I perceive in you something that stays my hand and tempers my judgment. I too cannot say what it is, but I am one of the few Accretians left that can claim to be able to work on ‘gut feel’. Which is odd, considering we all don’t have guts now, do we?”

The three High Lords of the Empire simulated chuckling behind their Emperor at a joke Blackdread didn’t get at the time. White Knight, he recalled, just stood impassively before his Emperor, right between Blackdread and Kesar. Sword drawn and at the ready.

He recalled the tip of the greatsword’s blade suddenly getting pressed in front of his nose, and knowing for the first time how burnt flesh smelled. He stood his ground, and glared at Kesar. “See how he does not flinch, my lords? And the fire in those eyes! Ah, yes, this one will serve.”

That day, Blackdread started his personal training under Kesar. And when he underwent Rebirth years later, that very same person bid him rise and call him by his new name. “You will be the fear that gnaws at the back of the minds of our enemies,” Kesar had solemnly intoned, appointing him straight from Rebirth as his new Arm.

All this time, Blackdread held the stuffed toy in his left claw. If anyone had been there to see, they would swear that the most feared Accretian in all history lovingly and tenderly held the white, oversized kitten with a pink ribbon and large, dark, eyes.

After a while, Blackdread became aware of what he was doing and proceeded to crush the toy. Made to withstand the abuse of children of a Race designed as the ultimate combat troops, it promptly resisted his feeble attempts at its destruction (Blackdread thought he only needed a small application of his mechanical strength to crush it) and instead activated the toy’s mechanical functions (because it thought the original owner was trying to hug it in a pattern its sensors said was due to “deep sadness”).

Blackdread dropped the toy in surprise as a holo-recording played from the eyes of the oversized white kitten (with a pink ribbon). It was displaying, from the toy’s perspective, a young Bellato girl, all smiles as the point of view came closer. Suddenly, the view was obscured, and all the projection showed for a while were two pink masses of flesh, before showing the girl again and her smile. The projection cut off there.

Curious, Blackdread picked up the toy with his left claw. Devouring Fury disappeared into its containment dimension so Blackdread could tinker with the toy with his right claw. Poking and prodding it (which, to his dismay, produced sounds ranging from a light chuckle to a continuous giggle with a synthesized voice saying, “stop, that tickles!!!”), he discovered that there was a port for I/O devices at its nape. Since the Bellato and Accretia had the same technology base, their ports were universal. A slim, snakelike thing came out of the heel of Blackdread’s right palm and plugged itself into the port.

Blackdread found out that the toy had an internal memory core that stored digital recordings through various simple sensors in the toy. He thumbed through various recordings of the girl playing with the toy, bedtime stories with dad (whom Blackdread found out was the Bellato warrior lying in front of the dead trio), afternoons in a well-appointed kitchen with mom (the female with the broken staff), and lots of birthdays. Even better, this time there was audio, and Blackdread could hear the songs and statements of affection from parents to child and vice versa, and child to toy, vice versa.

But it was the final recording that caught his attention the most. Before it, a series of scenes played out as the family of the Bellato Major (Joshua Kinston, commanding officer, 3rd Battalion, 18th Verne Regiment) went through life in a world slowly being torn apart by war.

There was this one where both parents sat on the child’s bed, who was asleep but forgot to deactivate the recording function of her toy. In it the two older Bellato talked about how the Accretian Legions assaulting Verne were slowly but surely breaching every defense, and that the leaders on Lebiscuri were thinking of an action that would “deny victory to the tin cans.” The two were quiet for a while. Blackdread then heard what would be sniffling from the female, finally becoming full-fledged sobs. The man went to her and held her tightly. He then heard him tell the female that she should join her fellow Recluses in evacuating from Lebiscuri, but the woman insisted that she wanted to stay with him here. The toy realized it was still on and deactivated itself to conserve its batteries at that point.

Then, there was the final video. It started with a nauseating feed, presumably the toy being carried as the child and her mother ran. There were many Bellato there, all running towards what appeared to be waiting transports. Over the din of the evacuation, Blackdread could hear the girl shouting, “where’s daddy?!”, to the not-so-reassuring (or so his voice analysis software told Blackdread) response of the child’s mother that he’ll be at the ships when they get there. A sudden explosion made everyone go down, and the child suddenly took that moment to get free from her mother’s grasp and ran.

Blackdread fast-forwarded until he got to a familiar setting, which was that street where he himself came from to get to the fountain. The toy, obviously clutched to the girl’s chest, showed a Bellato Ranger bring his rifle up only to bring it down, and in utter surprised dismay, at the sight of the girl. An expletive later, the kid was reunited with her father, who worriedly asked what she was doing there. The mother appeared minutes later, having been able to track her child.

“Mich, you have to get out of here! The bombs will be dropping any second!”, the Bellato Major said to his wife.

“I know, Josh! I’m so sorry, but Nina here got away from me after a shell landed near the evac point. But can’t you come with us?”

Gunfire and missile launches erupted suddenly around them, and the warrior protectively huddled his family underneath his armored body and shield. After the sounds of war minimized a bit, the Major sadly told his wife that he and his unit had to hold the Accretians here as long as they can so the nukes would take out many.

“We’ll be on the last transports! But you have to go, now!” the Major said, giving his wife and daughter to a soldier for escort to a nearby floater.

The kid managed to squirm free again in the chaos and hugged her father’s armored legs. “No! I want Daddy to go with us!”

An explosion sounded somewhere near, and Blackdread could hear the monstrous noise from a Catapult MAU’s huge cannons firing, joined by the louder noise from Accretian Launchers. A sound of pure apocalyptic fury went up somewhere to the group’s right, the unmistakable telltale that a MAU had exploded.

“By the Light, they’re breaking through!” the Major said. “Mich! Get Nina on the transport and get out of here, now!”

But as the female moved to take her screaming daughter from her husband, the toy’s camera caught a Desolator decloak and jump inside the waiting transport, Detonating in it and blowing the machine to smithereens. The Major managed to shield himself, but his wife and child were picked up by the explosion and smashed to the fountain’s base.

The curses of the Major were loud and clear over the din. His wife moaned in pain, as she used her own body to shield her daughter from the impact. A medic rushed to her side and applied some painkillers, her face full of concern as the toy’s camera was facing her. Blackdread could hear the mother tell the medic over and over again to check her daughter first.

As the Specialist began checking the back of the injured wife, Blackdread heard the telltale sound of a cloaking field deactivating. The Spec then suddenly bolted upright, and blood coughed out of her mouth, her eyes wide in shock and surprise. The light went out of them, and she slumped forward, a long Throwing Knife sticking out of her back. Screams from the mother and daughter could be heard as the figure of an Accretian Infiltrator came into view, its Vulcan drawn and its barrels spinning, pointed right at the camera.

A shout came from the camera’s left, and the Infiltrator looked to its right and found a Sentinel charging it, forcing the Accretian to turn his gun to this new, bigger threat. The Vulcan spewed fire on the onrushing soldier, but the Bellato’s shield withstood the fury. Then, his sword slammed the Infiltrator mercilessly until it was a broken heap of steel on the ground.

Major Kinston went to his wife and child, asking how they were. The woman responded that she was ok now and cast the Holy Spell Energize on her daughter and Focus on her husband. The visual patterns of the Spells Aegis and Evasion appeared around the Sentinel, who hugged his family amidst the explosions and sounds of gunfire.

The Major cocked his head to his right, obviously listening to the commlink in his helment. “Mich, the boys’ll try to make an escape corridor. There’s a fast APC waiting there that will take you and Nina to the last of the transports. When we start blasting, run as fast as you can, ok?”

“But what about you?”

He gave her a long kiss. “I’ll be fine. We’ll be right behind you. The nukes will launch in minutes, and we have our own exit point. I’ll meet you two at the fleet rendezvous, ok?”

The Major knelt down to his daughter and hugged her tight, “now don’t go running from Mommy again, ok, Kitten? Its dangerous out here, and she’ll bring you where we can all be safe, so just go with Mommy, ok?”

The kid’s crying could be heard as she held the toy to her chest. “I’m sorry I got you and Mommy into trouble, Daddy”

The vid-feed showed the Sentinel smile inside his helmet and look up to his wife. “that’s ok, Kitten. Daddy’s here to protect you and Mommy will keep us both safe with her spells. We’ll be ok. But you have to go with Mommy, ok?”

A tall Bellato with a long rifle who was standing behind the Major said, “boss, we gotta move. McNealy’s squad said there’s a whole unit of tin cans with a really big tin can carrying a really big axe tearing through to this location.”

“Dammit, he’s here already?” the Major said, worry creasing his forehead. “Mich, go. The boys will take care of you. I’ll follow shortly.”

As his family moved, explosions and screams multiplied as the lead elements of the Accretian Legions began their assault in earnest. The vid-feed from the toy jumped up and down, and Blackdread could see from its perspective a Bellato Ranger running alongside what would be the mother and the child. Gunfire erupted constantly, and the sound of blade on blade could be heard nearby.

But before the group could reach the exit to the alley where the transports waited, a huge explosion erupted from where they were going and threw everyone to the ground. A loud, “By the Light! The transports!” came from one of the soldiers as he picked himself up.

The recording moved quickly from a prone position to standing as the Major got to his family. “Oh no, oh no…” Kinston was heard saying. Then, he shouted, “Mich! Fall back to the fountain! He’s here!”

The toy’s cameras caught the sight of a huge Accretian, an axe almost his height held in one hand, walking out of the flaming alley followed by numerous warriors of the Empire. The Accretian pointed the axe head to Kinston, and Blackdread could hear him say, “no one leaves, Major Kinston. You want to deny us Lebiscuri? Then you die with it.”

Major Kinston let out a loud roar and charged the Accretian, the two exchanged blows, but it was clear that the steel warrior had the advantage, casually parrying the blows from the Bellato. His ripostes were few and far in between, but when one landed it staggered Kinston. A large gash was opened on his chest as the Accretian, parrying an attack, violently slashed his axe on the Sentinel. Another Bellato rushed the Accretian, but after parrying that one’s blows for a while, the huge axe fell and cut the Bellato warrior in two.

The recording moved, and Blackdread realized the woman had put the child down. “Honey, stay here! I’m going to help Daddy!” The cameras caught sight of the female running towards the Accretian, staff out. A tangle of green vines formed at the warrior’s feet, followed by a ripple of blue bubbles. Then, a fireball erupted from the tip of her outstretched staff, followed by a glowing square of light. Unprepared for a Force attack, the Accretian momentarily stopped, giving Major Kinston time to recover and push his opponent back with a flurry of blows.

The woman Kinston called Mich stood behind her husband and was casting Heal on him, while the Major stood facing the Accretian, sword and shield held ready. “Get out of our way, tin can! You’ve lost here!”

“Have we, Major? So why are you the ones dying?” the Accretian said before charging. He exchanged blows with Kinston before using his superior strength to slam him aside before turning on the Major’s wife. “I so hate Mystics,” the Accretian as he attacked Mich Kinston.

The woman put up a decent fight, using the Bellato’s innate agility to avoid the blows, and blocking those that she couldn’t dodge with her staff. But she was no warrior, and the Accretian was a powerful adversary. As she was pushed back to the fountain, he released a rapid flurry of blows. Mich Kinston avoided two and blocked another. The fourth blow saw the Accretian spin, hold the axe with two hands, and slam it onto the female Mystic. Her staff broke in two, and the Force of the blow slammed her once again to the fountain.

Joshua Kinston charged from the left of the recording, slamming his shield onto the Accretian at it stood above his wife and child. The massive steel warrior rocked a little, but managed to arrest his move to the right. He swiped his battleaxe in an arc going up forcing Major Kinston to stagger back. And while he was exposed, the Accretian grabbed his neck, and lifted the Bellato off his feet.

Screams of “No! Let him go!” and “Daddy!!!” competed with the moans of the dying and sounds of war as the Accretian choked the Sentinel. Most ominously, Blackdread could hear the screaming of air raid klaxons, the ones you only hear when there were missiles – large, mass-killing ones – descending on your city.

The Accretian casually threw Joshua Kinston to his family, and before he could rise, the steel warrior slammed the butt end of his axe on the Major’s left leg. Blackdread could hear the bones snap even through the recording, matched only by the scream of pain that came from the Bellato soldier.

“Looks like your fate has come, Major. Pardon me if we so casually depart: my doctor told me not to expose myself to too much rads. Bad for the skin, you know,” the Accretian said, and its frame shook in laughter over its joke.

“Monster!”, Mich Kinston said, tears streaming down her face.

“Oh, am I, Mrs. Kinston?” The Accretian said. “I recall that it was your side that decided to nuke this place. If you Bellato had laid your weapons down, we would have probably let the survivors go. Probably, but you’ll never know now, yes?”

The Accretian turned and walked to where assault transports of the cyborgs had already landed. “Goodbye, Major. It was fun fighting you, but you had to cheat. I will leave you to the fate of those who don’t know how to fight fair.”

Before going into his shuttle, the tall Accretian looked back, and said, “You should be thanking me for letting you die with your loved ones. We intercepted all of the transports going out of Lebiscuri. They’ll know how it feels to burn in a nuclear furnace, too.”

The Kinstons could only watch as the Legions lifted off. From far off, the toy’s cameras could see dozens of warheads falling. A tall mushroom cloud had already formed from afar.

“Honey, I’m so sorry,” Major Kinston said, hugging his family tightly.

“Its ok, hon,” Mich Kinston said. “At least we’re together, in the end.”

“Daddy, Mommy, are we going to be ok?” the child asked.

“We will be, soon, honey. We’ll be in a better place than this, soon.” Mich Kinston told her daughter.

“I love you both,” Major Kinston told his wife and child.

“I love you too, honey” Mich Kinston said, kissing her husband and then her daughter’s head. “And you lots, Kitten.”

“Love you, Mom and Dad,” the kid said, muffled, as the elder Kinstons kept her tightly between them. “Kitty said she loves you both, too.”

The camera showed Joshua Kinston look up, and then back down. “Close your eyes, honey. This will be over soon.”

And then there was a flash of light, and the video feed ended.

Blackdread stood there for long hours, replaying that last scene again and again. Deep in his mind, the Warlord of the Empire was doing multiple avenues of analysis. He remembers when, as a young Arm and Overseer, Kesar had brought his entourage here, to this very continent, on the hills overlooking the main city of Lebiscuri. This was the place Kesar had decided to meet Ayzinea Lazerna for a second time, to seal the alliance accords with the Cora that would push the Bellato Union back to their own territories.

“What do you see here, Cardinal Lazerna?” Kesar had casually asked the Grand Duchess.

It took some time before Ayzinea answered the Emperor, looking around the desolation of Lebiscuri. “I see death. The wages of war. Of total, untrammeled war.” She moved slowly to where the outcropping overlooked the dead cities of Lebiscuri. “And I hear the voices of the dead. Their sorrow, their anger.”

“Ah, I see I am not the only one who does,” Kesar strangely said, and walked over to a tall but young Corite warrior who held a gleaming spear, its tip coated with what the sensors of the Accretians present said was a cryogenic film. “And you, my Prince? Do you hear it too? The voices of the unjustly dead?”

Vanderion Ladenus looked unflinchingly at Kesar’s optics, trying to gauge what the Emperor probably wanted with all this questioning. “I am not the Mystic my mother or my sister are, Emperor Kesar, but… yes. I hear them too, if faintly.”

“Faintly he says,” Kesar chuckled. “Yet his knuckles are white as he grips his spear and his pupils are dilated, and not from me being so close to him, too. You are too guarded a person, Vanderion Ladenus. But then, I can’t blame you.”

“What is the point of all this, Emperor Kesar? This place has a psychic wound as big as the continent itself, and I must admit it makes all of us Corites uneasy,” Ayzinea said.

“It is a lesson, Your Eminence. One I wish to impart to you who has never known the true face of war’s horror until recently,” Kesar said. “You know this for the wages of war; you speak truly then. When we sign that alliance accord, we will be waging total war against the Bellato. I hope you understand my concerns.”

The Grand Duchess, who acted as the top diplomat of the Cora (as Jeronal Khan, the High Confessor, was already too old to travel), looked long and hard on the Emperor of the Accretians. “I admit to being… surprised by this, Your Highness. My husband told me you were a… unique creature, and I should know better than not to listen to his analysis. I never expected an Accretian to give me a lesson on how high the butcher’s bill can go when one wages total war.”

“Will Valion Ladenus do something like this, if we go against the Bellato in full?” Kesar asked.

“My husband does not believe in butchery, my lord,” Ayzinea softly intoned. “We will not go this far, I assure you. And the Ladenus are not the Metea, after all. They have a profound distaste for weapons of mass destruction.”

“Yet his loins produce two that are,” Kesar murmured, which only Blackdread, who was standing beside his lord, heard. The tall golden Emperor of the Accretians stepped up to the Grand Duchess of House Lazaerna and representative of the Holy Alliance of Cora. “Then we will go to war together versus the Bellato, to hopefully avoid another Lebiscuri from happening” and extended his armored gauntlet to Ayzinea for a handshake, which she promptly took.

He then turned to Vanderion, who was looking around the desolation. “And do you understand too, Scion of Ladenus?”

“I will do what I must for those I protect,” Vanderion simply said. Blackdread remembered feeling a chill go up his spine when he heard that. He had fought Vanderion that first time when White Knight had killed the boy’s uncle. The then-Overseer knew firsthand the power seething inside the new Spear of Ladenus.

Kesar patted the young Prince’s shoulders and proceeded to his waiting shuttle. “And here I was hoping that stupid Spear has chosen wisely this time around. Oh well, you are young, yet.”

Blackdread had seen that before, many times over in the battlefields of the Novus system. Indeed, Harvey Lunus and Vanderion have shown him time and again what people who have something to protect, something to fight for, could do. Lunus himself had fought him, Blackdread, with unmatched fury in that last battle of the First Novus War, when he stood in Harvey’s path as Phaera Ladenus battled unknown assailants. At the time, they had thought it was a Bellato strike team, and Blackdread intercepted Harvey to prevent help from reaching whoever was attacking the Corite princess. How was he to know it was Hybroer’s Hands? He didn’t even know who or what Hybroer was at the time. And how was he to know that Harvey Lunus, Hero of the Bellato, was Phaera’s lover?

What was he fighting for?

For all his life, Blackdread had thought that his role was nothing more than Kesar’s weapon of fear. Commanding the Legions was Zero’s role. Messenger was the Empire’s silent blade. And Trinary was the one in charge of grand strategy. He, Blackdread, was nothing more than Kesar’s reminder of what the Empire can do to those who stood in its way.

But Kesar’s disappearance, Zero alongside him, had changed all that. Suddenly, he was expected to lead. Suddenly he was expected to care.

He hated that. Does Fear Incarnate care?

Especially when the rest of the Empire didn’t care what he thought. Or felt.

In anger, he threw Devouring Fury to another of the precariously-leaning buildings. It collapsed on itself at this assault, and so did the three or four buildings behind it as the massive battleaxe plowed through. It was designed to chop a battleship in two, after all.

And still his left claw held the white, oversized kitten with a pink ribbon.

Blackdread heard the footsteps of his brother warriors behind him. Members of the Shining Immortals, once the guard of Zero and now his protectors when he assumed command of the Defenders, respectfully kept their distance from him. The familiar whine of White Knight’s servos came to a stop a few feet behind him.

“Greetings, my lord,” White Knight said. “I apologize for the intrusion, but High Adjutant Temujin has called for a Conclave of the Council, and requests your presence in Accretia Prime. It concerns Ihn-Benyakan’s Long March to Niven.”

“Do I scare you still, White Knight?” Blackdread suddenly asked, his back to the chief warden of the leaders of the Defenders of the Word.

White Knight was silent for a while, perhaps thinking about how to answer him. “You are the Warlord of the Empire, the leader of the Defenders of the Word. And I have made it my life’s mission to be the shield of the one who leads Humanity’s armies. What I once thought about you, what I think about you now, is irrelevant. My shield is yours, and my life, if need be.”

“It is what you fight for, yes?” Blackdread intoned. He held out his right hand and Devouring Fury smashed its way back to it. “Perhaps this Conclave will show me what it is I fight for.”

Before they stepped into the shuttle, one of the Immortals noticed the thing clutched in Blackdread’s left claw. “My lord, forgive me for asking but… what is that?”

Blackdread noticed he was still clutching the white, oversized kitten with the pink ribbon. He looked at it for a moment, and then stepped into the craft, still holding the toy.

“It is a gift, brother. A very important gift.”

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