The sun hadn't quite risen yet. Mist clogged the savannah like a tattered blanket, with frigid blasts of air to go with it. Cyril shivered, but they were close now, and he was determined to make the last leg of the journey.
There were no words among the warriors. The naked savagery of battling a foe that could not be pleased had a way of changing a man. Wetting your feet in blood as thick as caramel; the deafening blasts of gunfire; the stink of running gore, and the sight of flesh whipped from bone.
And so the silence went. Moving quietly did not help. The plague didn't have to hear you. For it to see you, all you had to do was be alive.
Life has a force to it, Eurydice once told him. It has a rhythm. It can be watched and measured, and you must protect it. Know that as tenacious as life is, an antithesis just as strong exists.
In boyhood, when he was so blind and his world view so misguided, he once thought her an immortal. He quickly learned that the immortals of his world do bleed, and that they die.
In his thoughts, he couldn't help but look at Roth. She had the bulletproof suit normally worn beneath combat suits, a patterned robe worn like a skirt from the waist down, and a jacket to keep warm.
During the skirmishes across the savannah, he never quite saw her in battle. Was she anything like Eurydice? An immortal? What kind of power did she have? His answers came sooner than he wished.
A frigid breeze whispered across the savannah. An intense cold light emerged on the horizon ahead like a luminous blue star. A score of long shadows peeled away from the harsh light and moved toward them.
It was always that first blow you had to save your energy for. It was the hardest one, for it marked the end of a lull and the beginning of a battle. The plague always charged, and the humans always saved their energy.
Inwardly, though, Cyril worried exactly why the plague always charged. Did the hive mind regard humans so low that it felt employing tactics against them was a pointless investment? Cyril didn't believe that.
The plague charged nonetheless. The weaker Acolytes were always in the front line to wear down the enemy, and the more powerful Cyclopes in the back to crush the fatigued survivors.
When the charging plague neared too close, Cyril drew the sword Tyrfing in a cleaving lateral slash. The odd mineral blade was a terrific wedge of crystal, as dark as midnight.
The first blow has to be wide to break the plague's leading ranks and create an opening. He lacked the strength to hold the heavy crystal like any normal sword, so he spun with Tyrfing's prodigious momentum.
His first pass cut through the Acolytes; his second pass smashed them with the momentum and the flat of the blade. Two, maybe three kills, but he'd done his job well enough.
The warriors behind him piled into the small opening he created and tore it wide. In moments they broke the solid wall of charging Acolytes into small groups and individuals.
The scene became a blur of chaos; Acolytes mixed with humans, and humans mixed with Acolytes. The deafening blast of gunfire and the clash of sword and spear against flesh drowned the thunder of his racing heart.
The sun was rising, but its daylight never reached the ground. Before long, the frigid breeze caught to a gale, and dark clouds churned over the savannah. The warriors pushed through the plague toward another light.
Cyril and Chitra both forged forward. The harsh blue light was closer now. A hundred meters a head, a sudden ridge rose and blocked the harsh fluorescent glow. The two warriors emerged past the ridgeline. An unspeakable cold gripped the savannah beyond like a malignant disease. Not a blade of grass remained, and in the distance, open-palmed acacia twisted into grotesque, crackling-dry husks.
Centered deep within this arctic nightmare was a lone warrior who was the center of the luminescent glow. Acolytes and Cyclopes flew in by the hundreds to extinguish the intense cold-blue light.
The warrior reminded Cyril of Eurydice, but he knew it wasn't her. He couldn't quite follow the warrior's brutal, precise movements from one spot to the next. More than anything, what confirmed it wasn't Eurydice was the fact she never used ice-elemental witchcraft.
The Sword of Mercy's left hand stretched out in a flash. Cold flame ignited at her fingertips, extending into a razor thin thread that slashed across the sky and descended upon the land. A brilliant flash made Cyril cover his eyes. The difference in temperature between the thread's cold flame and the plague was equivalent to starship grade plasma.
The sinuous ribbon's cold flame ran through the plague as though it were part laser and part whip. TheSword of Mercy's deft flick of the wrist brought the sinuous ribbon to a deadly rippling arc; rock, metal and flesh ignited beneath the ribbon's cold flame.
The spewing smoke settled, and a quiet lull came about the scene. Across the savannah, blackened skeletons continued to smolder in an electric-blue haze. Not even a shred of freeze-burned flesh remained.
It was then when the Sword of Mercy turned to regard Cyril, Chitra and the warriors gathering on the ridge. For a length they remained silent, spellbound by its gaze.
Cyril remembered his first encounter with the Sword of Mercy, how quickly it killed him and Eurydice without remorse. He tried to look past those cold blue eyes to find any redeeming qualities, and he was revolted by what he saw.
He felt he had to say something, but it was Roth who made the first move. She emerged from the midst of warriors and gingerly made her way down the icy ridgeline to the Sword of Mercy.
They met near a rocky outcropping. They stood at an arm's length, and no words passed between them. TheSword of Mercy, at no more than five feet tall, was considerably shorter than Roth at near six feet tall. The tomblike silence remained. Did they hate each other?
"I'd point those pretty eyes elsewhere," the Sword of Mercy said.
"And I'd point that malice elsewhere," Roth replied.
Something else dragged Cyril and the warrior's sights. In the distance, the rising sun shone upon a horde of callused, corpselike yellow skin that swam in from the horizon. The warriors gathered below the ridgeline.
"What do you see?" Chitra said.
Roth squinted at the distant horizon. Her yellow-gold eyes seemed to grow dull as she sensed the life force of each creature. "Acolytes and Cyclopes. Beware of a Silver King."
Cyril's heart raced as he braced himself for battle, his fingers tight upon Tyrfing's hilt, but something was wrong. He first noticed the psychic effects when his racing heart slowed.
Even as the plague neared, an eerie calm took his body. His vision became clear, his mind even sharper, and vigor poured into his veins unlike any he'd ever experienced.
Cyril cast a sideward glance and saw the rest of the warriors also held their peace. Even the Sword of Mercyappeared tame and patiently waited. He focused on the impending plague.
A whole brood of them surged across the savannah. Hundreds of them. They charged with such ferocity that the trees swayed at their passage...then again, why?
Even if the hive mind was not involved here, Cyril knew for a fact that no strain of the plague was completely mindless. Even the smaller, human sized Acolytes were capable of simple battlefield tactics. He'd seen them outmaneuver, flank, and surround careless soldiers before.
The warriors, bound together by an unseen force, took action. They quietly reloaded their artillery, grenade launchers and guns and prepared themselves for battle.
In moments, the last mortar shells took to the air with a piercing screech and struck the charging horde with pin-point precision. Scores fell kilometers before they reached the warriors.
Those that managed to limp away met a salvo of ATLAS-1 rocket fire--missiles designed to take out main battle tanks. Those that still survived met the warriors armed for close combat, cleaved by machetes.
The humans fought with coordinated attack and defense the plague could not follow. Not a single warrior fought with his or her will alone, for centered deep within this chaos was humanity's aspiration to become a god.
Unit 01 Thor was driven by the self-preservation measure and channeled it to those in her care. Over a thousand eyes served as Roth's vision, and nine hundred bodies served as the instruments of her might.
At the fore front, Unit 02 Sword of Mercy held the plague's front line, shrouded beneath a cloak of ice-elemental witchcraft. Corpses, rend in twine by the thread of cold flame, smoldered beneath her.
Cyril, rampant with a savage instinct not his own, defended Roth along with Chitra. He launched at a lone Cyclops, boots sloshing ankle deep in blood not his own. Within Roth's psychic hold, he moved with agility unlike that for his age.
He carried the crystalline blade's momentum in a cleaving lateral slash. Tyrfing slit the lumbering giant's abdomen agape like a fat purse and spilled bowels past the knocking knees down to its feet.
He let the blade's tip impale the ground, halting its momentum and his spin. More Acolytes surged after him. He brought Tyrfing forth, interposing the blade between himself and the oncoming horde.
The viscid black gel within the sword shifted with purpose. It beaded through the forged crystal like sweat. Exposed to the ambient oxygen, the alien fluid boiled and fizzled, and exploded off the blade.
Blistering hot rivulets shot microscopic holes through the Acolytes. To him, they appeared to simply dissolve and crumble, toppling to the ground as their porous legs collapsed beneath them. At his will, the droplets shifted from the remains and coalesced into a floating pool of midnight oil.
Under Roth's psychic hold, the warriors' senses were heightened, and they fought with untold ferocity. Across the battlefield, dozens of men and women tore through the plague. They were winning.
Cyril, however, felt the exact opposite. He still had his wits about him. Why would the plague's near-omnipresent hive mind, imbued with all its ageless wisdom, stoop its intellect to such simple savagery as a suicidal charge?
Something was here. It was watching them, amused, studying their vain tactics, gauging their power. This jarring realization came to him the instant he carelessly used the black oil.
He caught sight of it at the corner of his eye before it took flight. A silver flash; a ghost amidst the clash of sword and spear against callused flesh and bone.
Cyril lost his wits then; he took flight in pursuit. Whatever this creature was, it now held useful knowledge against them, and it had to be silenced.
It disappeared amidst the charging horde, and he pursued it there. He held Tyrfing at the fore, and the Acolytes and Cyclopes that stood in his way dissolved in a flurry of boiling rivulets.
The creature broke to a sudden turn and sprung toward him, clawed hand sweeping wide. He saw the Silver King then. It had silver skin and the shape of a formidable man, with an oxen head, fanged teeth, and a long tail.
Its movements were as quick as the Sword of Mercy's, but Cyril was driven by Roth's self-preservation measure. He reacted in an instant, and the Gate of Eden intercepted the sweeping claw at the speed of his thoughts.
The monster was stronger than a Cyclops. Terrible sparks flew from the alien artifact in a blinding flash and set the dry grass in embers. Cyril dove aside as the creature swatted the Gate of Eden clear across the savannah.
He rolled a distance and sprung to his feet, his sword before him. The creature's iron tail split a narrow gorge onto the ground he'd been on and set a churning dust cloud around both combatants. The creature took advantage of the maledicting situation and charged for the kill on all fours.
The dust spilled into Cyril's lungs and filled his eyes. A raucous cough took his ribs with a terrible violence, but he held his balance. His sword arm--sudden and at its own will-- swung a cleaving lateral blow.
The Maledict, which this creature could only be, slammed to a halt in mid charge and dropped to the ground.Tyrfing split the air above its head and sent a slicing draft that cut the dust cloud in half.
As The Maledict ducked, the temperature took a sudden plunge. The Sword of Mercy's leaping arc end between him and The Maledict. Set equally in speed, their fight was over in two seconds.
The Maledict lunged with a sweeping claw.
The Sword of Mercy parried, driving the attack and opponent off balance, and lashed out with a rising open-handed strike into the free-floating ribs. There was a dull pop as The Maledict's entire side surrendered to the quick, smart blow.
The Maledict took the hit but then swatted at the recovering opponent's striking hand with its iron tail, crushing the crystalline ice armor and breaking the hand.
The Sword of Mercy winced from the pain, and The Maledict arrested her arms and legs before she moved. The iron tail's tip then flew for her head like a spear.
Cyril, bidden by Roth's psychic hold, aimed to cut the tail, but he then realized in mid-attack that it was all a ruse. The Maledict flung the Sword of Mercy aside and sped for him, clawed hand slashing wide.
Cyril raised his sword to shield himself against the blow. The blade flew across the savannah a second later, spinning flat like a boomerang into the horizon. The Maledict advanced on him.
Cyril had no means to defend himself, and he could not outrun the beast. Instead of taking flight, he lashed out with a straight boot to the chin. Under Roth's psychic hold, Cyril struck with strength to shatter a wooden door to splinters.
The Maledict, however, remained still like an iron forge.
For a brief instant, Cyril might've thought himself victorious were it not for the unusually hard collision between his boot and the chin.
Blood, Cyril's blood, dripped to the ground.
His ankle lay twisted against silver skin as tough as steel; grotesque, splinters of white bone standing stark against lacerated flesh. Cyril fell backwards, but he never made it to the ground.
The Maledict was upon him in a flash, shedding portions of its skin as the Sword of Mercy's ice-elemental magicks consumed the infected metal. Cyril always held his pain well, but this time he never quite had the chance to scream.
The Maledict caught him before he struck the ground--wrapped an arm about his waist like a lover and poised an open palm over his face.
He still had his heightened senses. He saw the lightning leap across The Maledict's fingers, caught the coppery tinge of dried air, and saw the budding spark that detonated his salvation.
The Sword of Mercy burst free from a tangle of smoldering corpses to re-engage the new threat, but by thenThe Maledict was long gone. Elsewhere, a parasite that fancied it self a god rejoiced.
The thief was dead, his stolen powers removed from the playing field. The hive mind kept its caution, however. Only one final effort remained before it claimed everlasting victory.