God, it looks so different now.
The planet before them was muddy brown and smoky grey, a dustball with almost none of the surface visible from orbit. Fallout had created an almost impenetrable curtain around what had once been Zion, blocking out light and life even as it obscured devestation.
Best to numb yourself to it now, Terra. Its not going to be any better on the surface.
Darrell and Terra stood side-by-side in the cockpit of the Starfire as Cynewulf was making his final approach towards the planet. He occasionally spared them a half-concerned glance as he worked, but they were largely oblivious to the attention.
Well make this fast, you guys. In and out, probably wont take more than an hour or so.
Darrell nodded grimly, his face hard as he stared at what had once been his home. That thing is going to pay for this. In spades.
The surface prove even worse than theyd expected. While the many fires dotting the planet had burned themselves out weeks ago, the city of Asgard was an ash-covered rubble; so much so that it made the fallen city on Riven look like a high-end resort in comparison. No building over two stories was left standing, and many of even the squattest buildings had caved in on themselves regardless. Everything was blanketed in a fine coat of ash that made it look as though the city had just seen a snowfall.
And there, near the center of town and on the site of the old Vanhele Complex, a huge and ugly crater stared up at them. It was here that Grendel had made his ascent.
Terra had quietly left the room when it all came into view, so it fell to Darrell to suggest they try the nearby city park as a suitable landing spot. Angry tears in his eyes, he brought a fist down hard against the wall. Meryl, standing nearby, tried to put her hand on his shoulder in sympathy, but he only shrank away from the womans touch.
Alright, the grey-haired man said shakily, its pretty much a straight shot from here to the impact crater. Ill go get the equipment well need to collect a sample. Meet me by the airlock when weve landed.
What do you want to do about Terra and the Hunters? Cynewulf asked, not looking back as he brought the ship down.
Darrell stared out at the barren surface glumly. Let Mathiu and Kayla keep watching the traitors, theyre not much use to us anyway. As for Terra he shook his head. I want to spare her of as much of this as possible. Leave her onboard.
Without another word, he turned and left the cockpit, leaving Meryl and Cynewulf alone.
My, this is a cheery crew we have, isnt it? Two angsty teenagers, two saboteurs, an obsessed woman, and a potential madman. Cynewulf shook his head
Hey, dont forget the sociopath and the manic-depressive, Cyne! a cheerful voice broke in.
Every time I start to miss you, Zohar, you remind me of why I shouldnt. Meryl said, shaking her head in aggravation.
The pleasures mine, dear. The finori grinned. Usually entirely mine, but who am I to complain?
Cynewulf sighed. What do you want this time, Zohar? Do you just make your little appearances to berate us?
Zohar cocked his head at the large man. Usually yes, actually. But today I just wanted to get a glimpse of Zion with my own eyes. Being part of you is relaxing and all, old buddy, but the view is lousy. Oh, and you might want to stop gritting your teeth for a moment and actually lower the landing gear before you damage the ship.
Cynewulf jumped a bit as he realized he had indeed failed to do so, and hastened to correct the problem. You are an absolute bastard, you know that , Zohar?
Why thank you, Cynewulf. Zohar grinned. Ive worked so hard to perfect the technique, and hearing that from an expert such as yourself is really touching.
The first thing he was going to do on landing was kill those two blasted Hunters.
Sion Taggart was not what one would call a hotheaded man; he took great pride in keeping absolute calm as he butchered whatever it was hed set out to butcher. But if there was one thing that could make him see red, it was incompetence in those working either for or against him.
Hed given Slynt and Long a fairly simple job, one even a child could have performed. Yet somehow the Starfire still got off-planet, and furthermore managed to make the jump to hyperspace. And while Taggart was glad to make the little journey, he hadnt intended to do it taking care of old business. He had already tired of this Hunt, and just wanted it finished so he could move on to more interesting ventures.
Now that the playing field had widened so infinitely, the galaxy was full of more interesting Hunts.
Sighing as the ugly planet theyd apparently made for came into view in his long-range screens, he keyed in a sequence to auto-run the landing, then stood up and moved back to a smallish locker in the back of the ships cockpit. He pulled it open gingerly, then began pulling out various weapons and strapping them to a belt around his waist. Grenades, a few pistols, even a slug-thrower; hed be damned if this was going to take more than an hour or two of his time.
He looked out the front viewport at the rapidly-nearing planet again as he pulled on one heavy metal gauntlet, and despite his annoyance allowed himself a vague smile.
Maybe hed just try for a speed record; this didnt have to be a total waste of time. He reached into a small bag sitting beside the pilots seat and pulled out a small watch. He set the timer on it for sixty minutes, then clicked it on.
Let me be the first to say Im not a fan of either of your home planets, Darrell. At least the last one was warm.
The surface of Zion had proven no more inviting close-up. Darrell, Cynewulf, Meryl, and the complaining Zohar trudged through several feet of soot-stained snow, shivering as the wind bit through their clothing. Cynewulf had brought a large flashlight along with him out of the ship, which prove invaluable in the near complete darkness of the planets surface. Stark, angry shadows played off of smashed buildings and twisted roads. Each had the uneasy impression that if that light were to go out, the shadows would come to devour them.
Zohar, has anyone ever told you that you talk entirely too much? Meryl asked, when it became apparent that Darrell was too lost in his own thoughts to pay the finori any mind.
The little alien looked up at Meryl as if shocked. Why, Meryl, I do believe you are the first. Thanks for your input, though, Ill definitely keep that in mind.
Cynewulf sighed. Why dont you just disappear again or something? We have more important things to do than bicker with you, finori.
Because then who else would you have for moral support? Meryls looking rather sick of this whole task, and
Zohars voice cut off with a most incharacteristic squeak as Darrell physically picked him up by the collar of his shirt and held him a few feet off the ground.
Shut up, Zohar. And you two should know better than to let him bait you: how long have we been traveling together now? We do, in fact, have better things to be doing, and if you were paying the slightest bit of attention, youd have noticed were not alone.
He released the little finori, who was still so shocked he fell prone on the ground and stayed there for a few seconds.
Wh-what are you talking about, Dar? Cynewulf asked, looking around. His sensors were still flatline.
About half a mile from here. The point of Grendels ascension. He paused for a moment, his dark eyes flashing angrily. Farilii, from the feel of the energy signature. You cant sense it? Its plain as day.
Zohar rose unsteadily to his feet, and flashed Darrell a hateful glare as he stepped back out of the mans reach. Yeah, well, if youll look around you, Darrell? The days not so plain around here.
The grey-haired man shrugged, and fluidly reached down to unsheathe the Illinumbar, his enchanted daggers. No time for semantics, my dear, dear friend. We have work to do.
Without another word, he broke into a flat run in the direction hed pointed out. His friends stood there for a moment, at a complete loss for words, then began to jog after him.
If I didnt know better, Id say he was glad theres a fight here. Meryl said, shaking her head.
Zohar rubbed at his throat. Id say you dont actually know better, then, Meryl.
The snow crunched loudly beneath Terras feet as she meandered through what she guessed had once been Asgard City Park. A guess was about the best she could manage, as there was no longer a tree in sight, and large hunks of rubble from nearby buildings were the only landmarks to be had.
It was cold, damnably cold, but Terra scarcely noticed. She unconsciously shivered a bit as she walked, arms wrapped around her chest, but she was so lost in her thoughts as to almost be in a waking dream.
If this was, in fact, the park, shed been here at the end of a date with Darrell not too long ago. He hadnt called it that at the time it had only been dinner and a movie with a friend for him but to her it was a very special memory. After the movie was over, theyd gone on a walk through the park and talked for awhile, and Terra had come so close to telling him how she felt. Shed ultimately chickened out, though: the certainty that there would always be another opportunity helped there.
She looked up at the bleak, lightless sky and sighed. Yeah, right. That Darrell was dead and gone for the most part, scrapped along with their home for this newer, colder, stronger version. As time passed, he was only becoming more lost in his obsession, to the point that it was almost all he could talk about, think about. Hed been practicing, too; his skill with his daggers and his magic had improved at a frightening pace, and he was learning new spells all the time thanks to the book Lucia had given him. All for this one goal, this lavoid. Grendel.
There had been a time when the name filled her with a righteous anger, too, she recalled, a time when she too wanted nothing more than to take her revenge on the hateful thing that had so destroyed her life and her people. Looking around her now, back on Zion, she only felt an overwhelming sadness, and a sense of hopelessness.
Killing Grendel wouldnt bring any of this back. From what theyd learned on Riven, it was entirely possible they wouldnt even be able to kill him.
And killing Grendel wasnt going to be enough to satisfy Darrell: that became clearer every day.
These days, Darrell wasnt really talking much about avenging the people of Zion, of taking out Grendel. He was talking more about being strong enough to take on lavoids, about how terrible the entire race was, about how foolish the Hunters were for giving up the fight. Darrells vendetta had spread to the entire race, and Terra wasnt even sure he knew the reason behind it anymore.
She wished she could just run away from it all, find a job on some other Union planet and try to have a normal life again. But he needed her, badly. Cynewulf, Meryl, the Hunters, Zohar they were comrades, but by no stretch of the imagination were they friends. It was a problem theyd had since the very beginning, which had made traveling more of a task to be endured than a thing to be cherished. They bickered, they argued, they were largely incompatible personalities. Terra supposed that was the best that could have been expected, really: Cynewulf was having more and more trouble masking the fact that he was a sociopath these days, Zohar seemed to take pleasure in causing others misery, and Meryl Meryl was extremely weak. It was honestly beyond Terra how Meryl had even stuck with them this far. But Terra and Darrell had been close for years since they were both children, in fact. And while she understood him less and less each day, she still had a deep-seated need to be near him, to be strong for him. Possibly to help him ground himself and come back from this obsession he was so lost in.
She was frightened of him, but she loved him. And if he led her through a thousand more Zions like this shattered wreck, she would stay by his side. Until she could bring him back from the precipice he stood upon, or they both went over the edge.
You could at least speak to me, Kayla. Mathiu said, crossing his arms.
The woman eyed him coolly. What is there to say?
The two sat alone in the dining room directly across from the storage room theyd locked the two traitorous Hunters in. Mathiu was sipping absentmindedly at a glass of beer, while Kayla made it a point not to look in his direction.
Lots. Obviously this hit you hard. You cant just bottle it up forever.
Kaylas eyes, narrowed and angry, flitted briefly in Mathius direction, but she quickly turned her gaze back to the window. Its none of your business, Mathiu. Just leave me alone, alright?
But Mathiu sighed. Look, youre probably right. But I worry about you, you know? Besides all which, its just you and me now. Were strangers in a strange land, and mixed up in something I dont really think either of us really get. And if youre going to be like this forever, well... its a pretty lonely prospect.
Kayla didnt respond for a long moment, and for a little while Mathiu thought perhaps hed managed to draw her out of her shell. But just as he was about to ask her to talk to him again, she was out of her chair and up in his face, angry as hed ever seen her.
You selfish bastard! she screamed. Its all about you, isnt it? Its not that I need to talk about this, its that you need me to talk about this so you can comfort me and have someone to talk to! Did it never occur to you that I might need some time to deal with all of this? By myself? Did it never occur to you that I just needed some fucking time?
I Mathiu stumbled over several words, none of them quite what he wanted to say. Kayla, look
It was then that all attempts at talk failed; there was a resounding crack from outside the room, and Mathius beer glass had exploded.
The two Hunters went behind the table almost immediately, Mathiu cursing himself for not having his weapon handy even as Kayla retrieved her pike from the nearest wall.
Afternoon, Miss Narube, Mister Racnarth. So sorry to interrupt, but theres only forty minutes left on my timepiece and I must confess I am very much a sportsman.
Sion Taggart stepped into the room, a still-smoking slug-thrower held high in one gloved fist. Word of advice, incidentally: the Starfire has door locks, you should probably be using them. Never know who might show up on your doorstep.
He squeezed the trigger of the gun again, and the two Hunters found themselves leaping out of the way as the table theyd been behind broke almost in two. Kayla rolled and came up on her feet, in a low stance with her pike held in front of her. Mathiu slowly pulled himself to his feet, a bit shaky as he called a protective spell to mind.
In the interest of fair play, Ill go ahead and let you know that theres not really much defense from this, magical or otherwise. Its rather heavily enchanted, as you can probably tell from whats left of the table. Observe.
He took aim and fired again, this time at the window just behind Mathiu. The young Hunter managed to leap out of the way once again, but the window enforced to withstand space travel shattered almost completely, with only a few shards clinging to the corners as the bullet made its journey.
Ten shots in the clip thats five wasted, two for my associates, and one left for each for both of you and your friends. Enough play, then?
For sure. Kayla said coldly, and stretched out her left hand. Firaga.
The collected ether energy formed in her palm white-hot, then leapt to consume Taggart. Rather than panicking, though, the old man simply held up the fist covered by the silvery gauntlet and spoke a single word, indecipherable to the young Hunters ears. Almost instantly, the flames receded, doused by an invisible force. Kayla and Mathiu exchanged a worried glance, and the young man nodded.
Cute, old man. Kayla said, taking a few steps forward. Very cute. What do you say we take this to melee combat, then, since I cant hit you with spells and you likely dont want to waste another shot? Spear on whatever of your toys youd care to draw?
Sion actually smiled, and shrugged. Well have to make it quick, little one, time is very short. But your friend seems to be at a bit of a disadvantage, unarmed as he is.
Oh, he wont be fighting. You see, hes run off to warn our comrades about your presence, as per my telepathic instruction.
Taggarts eyes widened, and his gaze shot toward the window, just in time to see Mathiu fading into the darkness, already in magical flight.
But dont worry, Kayla began, cracking her neck, I promise I wont bore you. She broke into a full charge at that, pike at the ready.
Boring. Darrell sighed as an upward slash brought the fariliis head off, spattering him with its black blood as it died. The farilii on Riven were better fighters.
Cynewulf could only shake his head in wonder, wiping sweat from his brow as he prepared another ice spell to hurl at one of the half-dozen farilii still before them. Darrell wasnt even breathing that hard as of yet, and hed already gone through three of the farilii theyd found living in the crater Grendel had left behind near the center of Asgard. His cybernetic eye was also picking up the crackle of magical energy around him, yet hed not heard the man utter a single spell, nor seen anything apparent as that.
As if in response to his accusation, one of the farilii leapt at Darrell, flaming sword at the ready and pointing downward. Even as Darrell sprang to react, Meryl fired her railgun, clipping the beast in the neck and knocking it to the ground. There was another flash of magic on Cynewulfs sensors, and Darrell did a full flip in midair before coming down on the farilii, severing its head with his daggers
Cynewulf released his ice spell on the nearest farilii, then followed up with a thrust of his golden TAG that nearly cut it in half from the waist down. As the thing started to struggle to pull itself off the energy weapon, there was another crackle of magic and Darrell threw one of the Illinumbar at it. It sheared through the things neck like cloth, then almost immediately arced back around into Darrells hand.
Thats it. Cynewulf said, yanking the TAG out of the corpses body and bringing it up in defense from another fariliis burning sword. How are you doing that?
I had what you might call a revelation the other day, Cyne. Darrell began, going into a crouch and crossing his blades in front of his face to block a farilii blade. The spellbook Lucia said to me has this preface, see. He pushed himself to his feet, knocking the farilii off-balance with the quickness of it. It said that the essence of magic has nothing to do with the spells; that the spells were actually just sort of a memory thing. You put certain codewords with things, an exact visualization, it becomes much easier to draw on the right energy source in the right amount, right? he sped up suddenly, briefly, magic exploding again as he broke off with his daggers and did a roundhouse kick almost faster than human eyes could keep up with. He fell back into a regular though quick speed as he followed the farilii down and caught it by the throat. But thats all they are, memory. The energy itself has nothing to do with them. So I thought, whats to stop me from just pulling down the energy itself, and forming it to do exactly what I need it to on the spot? Ice burst from Darrells hands and encircled the fariliis neck, constricting its airflow and holding it in place. I practiced with that in mind for awhile, and, sure enough, Darrell backed up a few steps and snapped his fingers. The ringlet of ice suddenly exploded, cutting into the fariliis throat and severing its head as well. it worked perfectly. A bit of air magic to cut down on wasted energy, a bit of time magic when the wind is in the present, a bit of everything.
Improvisational magic. Cynewulf remarked, slamming the farilii before him in the head with his cybernetic arm, then bringing his TAG down into its throat. Brilliant, honestly, man, though I cant wrap my head around the mechanics involved in the slightest.
Darrell chuckled, rushing one of the last two farilii, who seemed more interested in escape than righteous battle at this point. Well train later. Meryl, go ahead and set up the equipment to get a genetic sample from one of these farilii; I dont anticipate this taking much longer.
It was nearly five minutes later when Mathiu reached the scene with Terra in tow. Meryl had just finished gathering the sample, and there wasnt a living farilii in sight or likely on the planet, according to Darrell. Zohar had reappeared following the battle, to everyones chagrin, and brought up the question of just why there didnt seem to be any of Grendels spawn on the planet.
Guys, big problems. Mathiu gasped as he landed. Terra wasnt even looking at the group, her eyes focused on what of the landscape could be seen behind them.
Darrell stepped forward, his hands on the hilts of his daggers. What? Whats going on?
Taggart somehow managed to track us down. He attacked Kayla and me on the ship, and we have to hurry back.
Darrells eyes went to the dark horizon for a moment, and he sighed. No, we dont. Move!
The instants warning was probably the only thing that saved Mathius life in the end, as he instinctively started to turn around, his arm held up in front of him. A resounding crack sounded, and his whole right side seemed to go ablaze with the pain as one of Taggarts enchanted bullets pierced it, fairly tearing his arm to shreds.
Everyone went immediately to their weapons as Mathiu went to the ground, Zohar vanishing again to be more effective with Cynewulf as the large man flipped on his TAG again. Growling, Darrell fairly tore his daggers from their sheaths and running towards the yet-unseen Taggart.
Good to meet you all, gentleme- Taggart abruptly stop talking as Darrell reached him, holding up his mailed fist to block his first dagger strike, then immediately dropping the gun in favor of his own unadorned foil to parry a second.
Good of you to speed things up, boy. Taggart began, condescension in his voice as he stepped out of the way of another thrust and tried to riposte. He was astonished as Darrell briefly sped up before his eyes and knocked the foil wide so that he almost lost his grip on it.
You talk too much, old man.
Sions eyes widened, and he redoubled his efforts, unsheathing a second, identical foil with his mailed hand.
For several long moments neither could make any headway, trading thrust for thrust and sidestep for magnificent parry. Darrells allies could only stand and watch: the battle was so fast that any action they made would only endanger Darrell.
Seeing hed have to resort to more drastic measures for this opponent, Taggart shut his eyes and concentrated hard, more feeling his actions and Darrells than thinking about them.
Electricity began to crackle at the base of his gauntlet, and with a spoken word shot up into his swords, where it lingered, making them fairly hum with energy. A few well-placed strikes on Sions part, and some of the energy enchanting the swords rushed into Darrell, electrifying him and forcing him to fall back a few steps.
A truly impressive battle, boy. I have not had to take advantage of the abilities of my Null Blades since I last faced a lavoid. But this will end now; I only have about twenty more minutes to beat my personal best, you see.
Darrells eyes narrowed in a hate that almost shocked Taggart with its intensity. You are a waste, Taggart. We should have been on the same side in this battle: the lavoids are the only true enemy. But youre more beast than human, and you have lost sight of the cause.
His eyes glinted with a hint of magic, and his arms became surrounded by flame, spreading from his elbows down to the tips of his blades. My weapons do not have your enchantment, but it is easily enough imitated.
Taggart backed up a step, blinking. Prey was not supposed to speak like this. At their best, prey was supposed to be prideful, or perhaps in a rage. Darrell was none of this in full. He was entirely sincere, and had a certainty about him that Taggart had no chance of victory. It shook the old Hunter enough that it was mostly instinct that brought his blades back up in front of him to parry Darrells next attack.
It was to little avail, though, he soon saw. Regardless of whether or not he stopped the actual fall of the dagger, the flames surrounding it leapt out to lick at his arms, his chest, his face, every time the blades met. Taggart could smell smoke and knew his clothing was smoldering in places. He lost almost all concentration as the flames came at him again and again, his eyes locked on the painful dance of the fire as it reached out and touched his face.
The hilt of Darrells dagger slammed into Taggarts forehead at long last, and the man went down in a heap, mostly unconscious and beaten. Darrell nodded the others over to his prone form, and knelt down on the wet ground; the heat of their battle had melted most of the snow around them down to the charred pavement.
The young man bent down to the old mans ear, and spoke. You are nothing but an animal now, Sion Taggart, but once you were a man. I can respect what I have heard of your past. I am taking your trophies from you. Find sight of the true path again, and perhaps next time we meet it will be on the same side.
With that, he started to relieve Taggart of his various weaponry in an almost ritualistic fashion. Cynewulf, see what you can do for Mathiu here, then lets all get back to the ship. We need to see if Kayla and Taggarts dogs are still alive, and if the ship will run.
Cynewulf nodded and immediately went to Mathius side, mentally preparing the strongest healing spell he knew and cursing himself for not thinking to while the fight was going on.
Youre leaving him alive? Terra asked as Darrell pulled on Taggarts gauntlet and tucked his Null Blades into his belt.
Whatever else he is now, Terra, the man was once a lavoid hunter. Hes killed the things. If hes fallen from grace, he at least deserves the chance to find it again.
Terra gave Darrell a look. He tried to kill us, Darrell. For all we know hes already done for all the other Hunters with us save Mathiu, whos going to be lucky if he keeps that arm. If hes fallen from grace, as you put it, I think he deserves to pay for it so that he cant follow us anymore.
Darrell shrugged. Fortunately, I didnt ask what you think. This is how it is going to be. Now lets get moving.
They found Kayla sore and bleeding, but very much alive, on the dining room floor when they got back. Apparently Taggart had taken a last shot at her, but hed opted to chase after Mathiu rather than pursue the fight with her for long and ended up missing.
The Hunters theyd been holding in the storage room had been less fortunate; apparently Taggart had taken them out first thing. They tossed the two off the ship and buried them in the snow, then set about cleaning up the ship and sealing off the dining room, which was now useless thanks to the ruin Taggart had made of the window.
Mathiu was scarred, weak from blood loss, and bed-ridden, but thanks to Cynewulf and Darrell's combined efforts, it appeared he would at least regain the use of his arm given some time.
Two hours after they arrived, they departed, a homing beacon now locked onto Grendels unique energy signature. He was far off, but still in deep space, and with the Starfire catching up with him would be a simple matter.
It was very nearly time to make the lavoid pay.
The calamity from the skies. The Lavoid. The possessor of power. The creation of chaos, from both within and beyond our bounds of space and time. .... There are rumors that they themselves are the dark Ethereal gods of our universe. -- Deus: Our Beginnings, by Darrell Shanning.