Broken Heroes

5/5 (1)

The Dead Head launched itself up the tower wall, powerful front claws ripping at the stone and crumbling masonry as it tried to reach them. The thing was the size of a salvage hauler, its sides covered in the same ugly chitin as its eyeless skull, and every impact of its hammering legs shook the tower. When it was half a dozen feet away, a seam in the featureless face opened, revealing rows of razor teeth, and grasping tendrils dripping with corrosive mucous. As soon as he saw the opening Renn’s fingers tightened on the trigger, and a gleaming, steel spike arced through the air. Moonlight glistened along the shaft for just a moment before it vanished into the beast’s jaws. There was a wet, crunching sound, and for a moment the creature stopped moving. That moment was all gravity needed to curl its grip around the monstrous thing, sending it hurtling down to the shattered ground below.

‘Bringing back any memories, Renn?’ Trys called from the wall to Renn’s left. Despite the lightness of her voice her brown eyes were narrowed, and her jaw clenched so tightly her teeth barely parted. As she spoke she touched her own trigger, her heavy crossbow launching a bolt down at another of the massive things. It cracked off a ridge next to the slavering mouth, but even though it wasn’t a kill shot it was enough to break its momentum, and send the beast sprawling off the side of the tower.

‘Why would it?’ Gareth snarled from behind them. He was leaning against a support column, trying to draw a bead on another of the massive crawlers. Blood glistened along the top of his ruined boot, a slight flow still trickling despite the tourniquet tied just above his knee. He fired, then cursed, snatching at the firing cable even before it had finished vibrating. Next to him Nox grunted as he rammed his spear down with all the force his rippling shoulders could manage. Wood splintered as the weapon broke, but the creature lost its hold and fell back among the rest of its circling brood. ‘The smythe’s apprentice ain’t never been in a scrap like this before. Don’t know if you forgot somehow, but Talon there got cut from the squad when he couldn’t hold his own spear anymore.’

Renn felt the bile rising to his lips. Despite the danger of the situation, and everything they’d survived, he was about to round on Gareth. Before he could, Trys stepped back from the wall, and punched him. It wasn’t a gentle blow, either.

‘We could have left you there to limp through this hell on your own,’ Trys said. ‘If Renn had said that sky spear was too important to risk, I would have. He’s the reason you’re up here fighting, and not ripper bait out in the trees, so why don’t you put a little respect in your mouth?’

Gareth snarled something under his breath, struggling to reload his weapon before another of the things tried to run up the wall to get to them. Trys stepped back into her place, just in time to fire another bolt down at a roaring Dead Head. Despite being on top of a crumbling tower in the middle of a sea of hungry crawlers, Renn couldn’t help but smile just a little. He braced his hook, his ‘talon’ as others called it when they thought he was out of ear shot, on the railing. Renn gripped the lever on the side of his false forearm, and strained his shoulder against the internal spring while he pulled it against the aching stump just below his elbow. When the arbalest was cocked, he snatched another metal shank from the brace of them wrapped around his thigh. He loaded the weapon quickly, feeding the steel into the barrel just above his hook until the notched end slipped into place. He didn’t need to glance down to know that spike didn’t have a lot of friends left in his ammunition strap.

Renn looked over his shoulder. Leaning in the corner of the watch tower was what looked like an ill-sized spear of hardwood, capped with a barbed head. The whole thing was coated with black ichor from tip to butt, and if one didn’t know what to look for, it was easy to miss where the fletching at the rear had snapped off. It didn’t look like anything important, but retrieving that ballista bolt was why they were atop a crumbling rock pile; instead of behind the stout walls of Gilead surrounded by siege weapons, burning oil, and miles of snag wire trenches.

The mission had seemed simple enough in the grey, sober light of dawn. One of the siege engineers had hit a target with the bolt the previous night, and the unique, adamantine alloy of its tip had driven it straight into the massive creature’s guts like its armoured hide had been made of paper. The huge crawler hadn’t died on the field, though. Instead, it had stumbled off into the forest, leaving a wake of blood and destruction behind it. A squad of the city’s guardsmen had been tasked with the hunt, and Renn had volunteered to take charge of the weapon. He knew as much about it, as any of the other acolytes; but he wasn’t so valuable to the great forge, such that his loss would cripple the city’s ability to produce the weapons.

At first everything had gone well. They’d been given mounts, a way was cleared through the destruction of the previous evening’s battle, and they’d made good time following the thing’s trail into the trees. It seemed the still steaming puddles of ichor that marked the creature’s trail had been warding the other, smaller crawlers off the path. If their luck had held, they’d have what they’d come for, and be riding back through the gates before the sun was anywhere near the horizon.

It had started going wrong when they’d found the body. None of them had gotten a good look at the Dead Head during the chaos of the crawlers’ attack on the walls; but now that they were looking at it up close, they could see the corpse was truly colossal. Dead Heads were already massive, but the one the ballista had brought down was easily three times the size of one of its more common brethren. Emboldened by the easy ride, and the silence of the forest all around the body, Waters had advanced on the corpse. Trys had hissed at him to use a little common caution, but Gareth had ignored her warnings and issued no orders to the squad. Waters managed to clamber up the creature to the hole where the butt-end of the shaft was just barely poking out, and without thinking, tried to dig it out with his bare hands.

Then everything happened at once. Waters had his hand around the shaft when something from inside the Dead Head bit him. He screamed, hauling back his arm. The corpse burst open in a shower of clotted blood and snapping, biting rippers. They were small crawlers, barely a threat on their own, but a swarm of them had already burrowed into the gargantuan beast and were doing their best to hollow it out completely. Waters’ cry barely had time to echo, before he went down under the tide of teeth and chitin. The rippers’ serrated mandibles tore flesh, eating him while the hot blood still pumped from his wounds. Renn had snatched the ballista bolt, the ichor smoking where it touched his gauntlet. Gareth tried to back pedal, firing at the fast-moving creatures, then flailing at them with the butt of his weapon, and trying to stamp on them. One got its teeth into his boot, and burrowed through his foot before he managed to get his knife out to hack off its head. The horses were panicking, their fear drawing the attention of the hundreds of fanged maws spilling across the ground. Going after the mounts was probably the one reason the rippers hadn’t gotten all of them.

Trys was the one who had the presence of mind to light one of the burn crocks. As soon as the fuse was hissing, she shouted and threw it above the crawlers. Everything was chaos, but muscle memory ran deep, and Nox put his weapon to his shoulder and fired without thinking. The bolt shattered the crock, and burning oil rained down on the rippers. Their scream changed in pitch from frenzy to fear as they retreated, running over each other. The burning oil had caught enough of them that the whole swarm ignited the bugs popping like pine knots in a watch fire.

They could have made it back if they’d followed the guardsman’s tradition. If they had turned around right then and made for the city, they stood a good chance of success even without the horses. They would have been praised for their courage, and been told they’d made a hard decision leaving the wounded behind. Instead, Renn got a weapon belt around Gareth’s thigh and yanked it tight; because while ripper venom wasn’t deadly, it ensured their bites bled for a long time. Once the tourniquet was in place, he plucked the command badge off Gareth’s chest, and tossed it to Trys. She’d held it for a moment, unsure of what to do; and then she put it on, telling them to get Gareth up and moving. Nox got a shoulder under one side of Gareth, Renn got under the other, and they started back the way they’d come.

The four of them weren’t even halfway back to Gilead by the time red shadows stretched from beneath the trees, and the crawlers started shaking themselves from their day’s slumber. Following old signs left by the city’s warders, they found a mostly-forgotten outpost. There were four stone walls, with a tower at the corner of each. All but one of those towers had collapsed, and if there had once been other structures behind the outpost walls they were little more than tumbledown rubble now. The hand holds in the tower were crumbling, but they were still strong enough for them to haul themselves behind the crenelations.

For an hour or so they thought they’d gotten away. Then the Dead Heads had come sniffing out of the woods. Once one of them threw back its head and let out that piercing, shrieking cry, more had arrived. And no matter what they did, the things just kept coming.

‘Watch it!’ Trys snarled, throwing herself into Renn. The two of them fell to the boards of the tower, just as a jagged set of jaws snapped down on the empty air where Renn had been standing a second before. The Dead Head’s claws scrabbled at the stones, trying to get a stronger hold, when the mortar finally gave way. The crawler screamed as it fell, impacting hard enough to shake the whole structure. Renn’s head was ringing, but as he stared at the ballista bolt, and at the ichor all over his hand and arm from where he’d been carrying it, the gears in his head finally clicked. He knew why the creatures had come for them, and why nothing they did would stop them.

Renn rolled to his feet, snatching the ballista bolt by the shaft. The ichor was tacky now, making his grip more solid than ever. He turned to where Trys was still on one knee. He said only two words to her, but they made her eyes go wide.

‘Hive Prince,’ Renn hissed. He clambered over the side of the turret, and leapt for the wall below. He hit the uneven stone walkway with both feet, tucked, rolled, and kept going, practically throwing himself forward. He swung the over-sized bolt through the air like a banner, getting the scent on the wind. He didn’t look over his shoulder, but Renn didn’t need to. He could feel the pounding in the ground as at least some of the Dead Heads changed targets, chasing the scent of the ichor. That was the scent trail they’d been following the whole time. They weren’t trying to climb that tower just to get a few, tiny morsels in their jaws; they were trying to end the ones responsible for killing their queen’s consort. The ones who smelled like his blood. If Renn ran fast enough, and far enough, the others might stand a chance of surviving the night. They might even get away.

Renn was nearly halfway down the wall when he felt more than heard the crawler coming up behind. He threw himself forward, just as one of the tendrils from the thing’s mouth whipped through the air where his head had been. Burning mucous dripped along Renn’s back, and he gritted his teeth as he tucked his shoulder, and rolled back onto his feet. He swung blindly with the ballista bolt, sweeping it in front of him. He managed to catch one of the Dead Head’s tongues, the sharpened edge of the bolt’s head slicing clean through the rubbery flesh. He missed the second tendril, though, which wrapped itself around his prosthetic and yanked him closer. Renn dropped the bolt, the wooden shaft clattering over the wall and down into the courtyard.

Renn pried at the fleshy, barbed tentacle that had encircled his wooden limb, the mucous eating through his leather gauntlet. He dug in his feet, trying to pull away, but it was no use. He might as well have tried to pull down an elder oak tree with his one, good arm. More of the monsters were raking at the wall below, and Renn knew time was running out. Yanking at the straps, he tried to extricate his arm. Before he could free himself, though, the Dead Head tightened its grip on the prosthetic. There was a thump, and a twang as the arbalest fired directly into the crawler’s yawning mouth.

The Dead Head jerked, yanking Renn up onto the balls of his feet. It looked like a confused dog, its head raised as if it were trying to catch a scent. Rather than falling down limp, though, it tilted to one side. Snarling, trying to get a grip with his bloodied fingertips, Renn pulled at the knotted, tangled belt. Before he could free himself, the crawler went over the wall, and Renn went with it. The two of them tumbled toward the inner courtyard. They hit with a jarring impact, and Renn felt the air whoosh out of his lungs. Before he could find his feet, he felt a tremor shiver through the ground. The Dead Head tried to push its bulk off the ground, and that was when the earth beneath it gave way. Renn pulled harder on his straps, snapping them with a panicked jerk. Renn tried to leap free as the ground opened up beneath him, swallowing the creature. His fingers grazed the edge of the hole, and for just a moment he thought he would be able to pull himself out. Then that edge crumbled away as well, and Renn fell into blackness.

He fell for a small eternity. There was no up or down in the darkness, and though he couldn’t see anything, Renn had a sense that he was in a great, cavernous space. The sounds of the world above, which had seemed so immediate and important seconds ago, dropped away from him. He flailed, grabbing blindly for anything to slow his fall. He clutched at something in the darkness that felt like a mouldering blanket, and it tore in his grip. His back struck something, driving the breath out of him. A moment later he landed on something hard, but oddly yielding. Dimly he realised it was the Dead Head’s body.

The wind whooshed out of Renn’s lungs, and lights bloomed in his head. His shoulder screamed with renewed pain. Then he was rolling free, limbs pin wheeling like he was little more than a cast-off rag doll. Renn finally fetched up against something metallic, his back crashing into a panel with an echoing clang. Off in the distance, a low hum that he hadn’t even been aware of grew louder. Eyes blinked in the darkness; pinpricks of white light that grew brighter. Banks of them buzzed to life, and Renn’s mouth fell open.

He was in a place out of one of his mother’s old bedtime stories. The walls gleamed dully, with taut chains and heavy beams that were dusty, but unblemished by the passage of years. Spark lamps burned along the walls and ceiling, but they were different than any Renn had laid eyes on before. The light inside them was clean and bright, with arcs of current running through the glass, so they looked like tiny jars of lightning. The floor beneath him was made of steel, the metal inset with a great seal bearing the symbol of a helm. Banners hung from the walls and ceiling, most rotten, and at least one torn from where he’d caught it during his fall. Metal podiums covered dials and levers similar to those used in the deeper workshops of the machine smythes jutted up from the ground. Across the seal from him was the Dead Head. It lay on its back, blood pooling beneath its obscene skull. The bloody tip of Renn’s spike was jutting out just behind its jaw, and it still had one of its thorny tongues wrapped around his false arm. The leather belts that had held it in place were torn, hanging limply from the crawler’s jagged teeth. Renn stood slowly, bracing himself with his good arm. He winced, the strain in his shoulder, the pain in his ribs, and a dozen other injuries all trying to yell over one another. Then he turned, and they all fell silent.

A towering figure loomed, illuminated by a halo of lights. It was as tall as the city walls, though its head jutted forward aggressively beneath heavy, armoured shoulders. Its left arm bore a massive, spiked gauntlet that had been blackened as if by fire. Its other arm ended in what looked like a pair of massive cannons that were even bigger than the few artillery pieces left on Gilead’s battlements. Heavy rondels in the shape of shields guarded the joints of its shoulders, but time and ancient battles had robbed them of the heraldry that had once adorned them.

Renn leaned against the steel post that had stopped his roll, and his hand pressed down on a smooth, glassy space. Something stung his hand, and he snatched it away just in time to see a needle withdrawing into a metal tube. Light bloomed from the top of the post, and letters Renn didn’t recognise floated in mid-air above it. A small patch of light moved in a snail-like circle, with numbers above it counting up.

Something scraped across metal, and Renn turned, half falling as his body protested the sudden movement. The Dead Head had rolled onto its side, and was slowly getting back to its feet. It sniffed wetly at the air around it, its mouth tendrils running over the floor as it tried to figure out where it was. It bit down with a crunch, then spat the remains of Renn’s wooden arm onto the floor in a pile of smoking splinters and slagged metal. Renn managed to keep a curse behind his teeth, and looked around for anything he could use as a weapon. Or, failing that, somewhere he could hide that the crawler wouldn’t be able to reach him. Renn hadn’t taken more than a single step, though, when the circle of light closed, and a loud series of beeps issued from the podium. The Dead Head’s attention snapped right to where Renn was standing, and it charged.

‘Shit!’ Renn snarled. He took two involuntary steps back. His vision narrowed until all he could see was the yawning, razor-fanged mouth barrelled closer.

A groaning sound filled the air, like metal giving way. The Dead Head was a dozen feet away when huge, metal fingers clamped down around its skull, and it was lifted from the ground like an angry cat. Renn stared up in disbelief as servos whirled, and the blackened gauntlet of the colossal steel warrior squeezed the Dead Head. The helm turned, red light glowing from within the helmet’s eye slit. Renn watched as blue-white cables of lightning danced over the spikes of the gauntlet. The crawler screamed, smoke rising from its open mouth as its armoured skin ran with jagged cracks. Something burst inside of it, and boiling viscera leaked from its charring face. The muscles spasmed and jerked spasmodically. The storm of power ended as swiftly as it had begun, and the fist opened, dropping the corpse unceremoniously to the ground with a wet splat that echoed through the high-ceilinged room.

Renn stumbled forward, half-blinded by the discharge, his hair standing on end and his lungs filled with the scent of charred flesh and scorched metal. His guts tried to rebel, but the adrenaline pumping through his body kept him from spewing. He skidded to a stop, his feet planted on the great seal on the floor of the chamber as he turned. The metal figure regarded him silently. Renn stared back, terror and awe warring for the seat of his heart. Then he heard the Dead Heads’ cries from the hole above. He jerked his head around, and saw half a dozen of them staring down. Gears turned and hydraulics wheezed as the giant, metal warrior followed Renn’s gaze. A cry went up from somewhere above them; a high-pitched, ululating scream. Renn had read about that sound in books, and been told about it from old timers, but he’d never heard it himself. The Queen had come to seek vengeance for her consort. The colossal machine made a noise; a combination of a snarling engine, grinding chains, and pounding pistons that needed no translation. 

‘My friends are up there,’ Renn called out, trying to get the figure’s attention. Its head turned, focusing on Renn. He took a step closer, glancing back to be sure none of the crawlers were leaping down. ‘Can you help them?’

The machine stepped forward, the ground shuddering beneath its tread. Then it knelt. It placed its gauntleted hand on its bent knee, lowering its head further. Gas vented from above the head, and a hatch opened with a clang. Renn threw himself forward without hesitation, clambering up the huge figure despite his screaming, protesting muscles. He took a deep breath, grabbed a support handle, and lowered himself inside.

Renn felt his way along in the darkness of the machine, his fingers running over unfamiliar contours. He felt thick wires, and moulded steel. Red lights bloomed, revealing a heavy throne connected directly to the machine. The hatch slammed shut less than an inch above his bent head, and Renn flinched back from it. Without any other choice, Renn lowered himself into the seat. His weight had barely settled when heavy bracers lowered from over his shoulders, pinning him to the throne. Renn tried to push up, the muscles in his shoulders and legs trembling, but he couldn’t fight the machine’s iron grip. Something whirred behind his head, and pain exploded behind Renn’s eyes.

He was falling again, but this time it was into light rather than darkness. Renn’s heartbeat thundered in his ears, and lightning poured through every nerve in his body. He thought he was screaming, but he couldn’t be sure. Time lost all meaning. After a silent eternity, something touched Renn’s mind. It was big, and it was old, looking at him the way a man might look at a small, lost animal. It ran its fingers through Renn’s memories, touching the countless, older versions of him. The long days of straining in the forge, sweat dripping from his face as he beat steel into submission on an anvil with his left hand. It examined his agony as he bit through a leather strap, a burning steel saw taking off the rotting lower half of his arm before searing the wound closed. It regarded the wide-eyed wonder he’d felt as a child when his mother told him tales of long ago. The feeling he’d felt when he was told their family were warriors of renown once; knights who protected their city, and their people.

As the presence gazed into him, Renn gazed back into it. He saw great ships of steel soaring through the skies, and an ancient city of glass and iron hung with bright greenery. He knew without question that this place was Gilead as it had been. Towering machines walked around it, their weapons at the ready, on-guard against the dangers of the world. Renn knew these were the great machine’s brothers and sisters; knights who stood as the shield for the people. Then there was fire and blood. The roar of guns shook the night, and huge blades ripped and tore as they stood against the swarm of enemies that had come from somewhere beyond the stars. They were insectoid monsters, and wave after wave of the inhuman hordes fell before their weapons; but there were always more. His brothers and his sisters grew heavy, and many of them fell beneath the scything claws and burning blood of the beasts. In the end, though, the knights pushed them back. The creatures retreated to the forests to regroup, and the people of Gilead built their walls higher.

There were gaps in the machine’s memories as well; large, ragged swaths of darkness where there was no meaning. Not only that, but the memories around those gaps were fractured and fragmented. Trying to gaze into them was like looking through a cracked window slick with rain. The machine winced as Renn tried to touch those places. It was the same way he drew back whenever someone put pressure on the stump of his arm. He relented, withdrawing his mental focus from those empty places.

Once they had measured one another, Renn felt a question hanging over his mind. It was a query that had no words, though it was full of teeth. Somewhere far away Renn smiled, and nodded. He let go of himself, but when he fell, the knight caught him.

They opened their eyes, and glanced round the brightly-lit interior of the hangar in which they had waited for so long. They stood, feeling strength flowing into their limbs as the atomic slugs fired deep in the chambers of their chest. They flexed their fist, and felt the charge of power ready to flow into their grip. They lifted the right arm they now shared, and felt the fire of a small sun burning in the chamber, ready to be unleashed. They raised their head, and man and machine both snarled at the creatures that ringed the opening. They stepped forward, their weight causing the platform’s long-dormant sensors to flicker and register. Chains clanked, wheels turned, and the rusted doors above retracted, spilling earth and stones through the widening hole. Then the elevator began to rise.

The creatures drew back from the moving ground, roaring at one another as they communicated what they smelled and tasted. They sensed something drawing near, and ancient instincts told them to fear it. The platform drew even with the ground, heavy locks crashing into place. For a long moment the knight stared out at the creatures who had brought fear to his people. The ones who had sown death, and led to increasingly desperate schemes of survival among those humans who still lived in the city. These creatures the knight had once driven to the edge of extinction, when their hives in the void had moved on and abandoned them, which had left them mindless in the darkness of the great forests. They were frightened now, unsure what to do. The knight and his rider turned their heads, glancing toward the northern corner. The tower was still there, and the others were still fighting.

Thinking its enemy distracted, one of the creatures charged, its jaws open wide and tendrils ready to grasp. The knight turned to face the attack, and drove its fist forward, hammering into the Dead Head’s skull plate hard enough to splinter it. The force of the blow knocked it back into its fellows, and then through the half-collapsed wall. The creature struggled to rise, then collapsed onto its belly and did not move again.

Silence hung in the air for a moment, and every one of the remaining crawlers turned toward the knight. The ground shook, and something loomed out of the trees. It was long and segmented, rising up like the hideous offspring of a serpent and a millipede. Its head was a horror of thorny growths like some kind of twisted crown, and moonlight reflected off the two dozen sets of red eyes it regarded the figure with. The queen’s maw opened, and she unleashed that same, high-pitched shriek again. As one the Dead Heads turned, and rushed toward the knight.

The iron warrior stepped off the seal, and waded into its ancient foes. Its gauntlet rose and fell, splintering carapace and pulverising bones. Black ichor flew in dark streams, smoking where it spattered against limp grass and broken stones. Lightning flared from that strong left hand, the booming blows creating shock waves that made walls crumble, and which sent other crawlers stumbling. Several of them screamed, deafened by the blows that had slain their brethren.

The Dead Heads kept coming, though. They crawled over the tumbledown walls, and the piles of their own dead, to come to grips with their queen’s foe. And for every one of them the knight smashed to the ground, two more seemed to rear up. The armoured figure gave ground, fending off claws and teeth, when a whining noise filled the courtyard. Shoving a foe away, the knight brought its right arm to bear. The queen shrieked again, but before her command could be followed the weapon fired.

The thermal cannon was ancient, its pattern and design long faded from the memories of this world. But its casement was clean, its seals tight, and when the will of the knight and the pilot commanded, it exploded with hellfire. The blast left behind a dozen corpses, ripping them apart with the fury of a sun, leaving a blackened path nearly to the trees. The queen drew back, chittering and waving her many forelegs. Her cry was shrill, her many legs scissoring and thumping as she retreated. The others barked and roared, following her as swiftly as they were able. There were far fewer of them now than there had been when the night had begun.

The machine strained toward the trees, its engine roaring as it sought to continue its rampage. Renn was grinning, and though he tasted blood between his teeth and felt it dripping down the back of his neck, he felt strong. Stronger than he ever had. They turned toward the woods as one, and that was when Renn felt the fire in his veins turn to ice water. He was staring right at the tower, or more accurately, at what was left of the tower.

The battle had been intense, and Renn had been so consumed with the immediate threat of the crawlers that he hadn’t realised the extent of the damage he was causing to the ruins all around him. He couldn’t tell if a Dead Head had smashed through the tower, if the creatures had torn it down in their attempts to reach him, or if the shock waves from the thunderous blows had merely destroyed what was left of the mortar, but the stones had all come tumbling down in a heap.

The machine was still pulling, still roaring, but its demands were far away. Renn just stared at the rock pile, hoping to see it move and shift, and for the others to pull themselves out of the wreckage. To see Nox, Trys, or even Gareth drag themselves out from under the cairn of rubble. But the stones just stayed there, unmoving in the moonlight.

Renn didn’t know how long the two of them stood there staring at the rock pile, but the machine heard something. They turned, and from around the half-collapsed corner of the wall came Trys. She was covered in dust and dirt, and blood ran down the side of her head from a deep cut on her scalp. She still had her crossbow in hand and pointed up; however, a moment later, Nox peered around the side of the wall. His tunic was torn, and there were what looked like claw marks down his chest. Gareth leaned on him, barely able to stand. All three of them stared.

The machine knelt, leaning forward so the rungs of its access ladder were easier to reach. The three guardsmen took a hesitant step closer, but no more.

‘Climb on,’ knight and pilot said in one voice, the vox grilles booming. ‘We cannot remain here.’

Trys hesitated a moment more. Then she came closer, and peered up at the helmeted head. Finally, she nodded, waving Nox forward. He came, practically carrying Gareth. Gareth pulled himself up onto the rungs, grunting with pain as he found a contour on the knight’s shoulder that allowed him to sit in relative comfort. Nox climbed up after, hanging onto the top rung and pressing himself against the huge gorget. Trys frowned up at the red eye lenses, wincing as she touched her head.

‘Renn?’ she asked. ‘Is that you?’

The machine was old enough it had forgotten its name. So old it had forgotten many of the others it had served alongside. It had forgotten which ship had brought them here, and the leaders who had commanded him and his last rider. Renn touched the machine with his mind, and asked it a question without words. It growled its affirmative, and the vents along the knight’s rear armour released blazing heat. It lowered its gauntleted hand, palm-up to Trys.

‘We are Talon,’ they said.

Trys blinked at that, then smiled. It was a fierce smile that shone in her eyes. Renn felt approval from the machine as she stepped into its open palm, placing one hand on the upturned thumb to balance herself. They stood, rearing back up. Renn got his bearings, searching for the burning lights of Gilead. He saw them, off in the distance. Talon walked back toward the city, ready to continue the fight it had begun so very long ago.

About the Author

Neal Litherland is an author and RPG creator from Northwest Indiana. With novels such as the sci-fi dystopia ‘Old Soldiers’ and the alleycat noir ‘Marked Territory’ to his name, previous Warhammer 40k stories include ‘Field Test’ as well as ‘Waking Dogs: A World Eaters Tale.’