A blue-white ribbon of cold flame slashed through the night sky, arced and descended upon the land. Rock, metal and flesh ignited beneath the energy thread as it rippled through scores upon scores of Acolytes.
The plague came as a tireless deluge—fast, relentless, furious. While the Sword of Mercy and the human forces held the Acolyte strain on the ground, Lord Tyr challenged the Locri strains that took to the air like a spilling sea.
The bioships blotted out the sun by day, and by night blotted out the moons. At the peak of their assault, their intense lightning stretched across the heavens as a sheet of violet and pearl-blue flame.
Lord Tyr appeared before the lightning, the Gate of Eden high in the sky as it absorbed the enemy's obscene magicks. She imprisoned it within the ancient artifact, changed its form, refined it, focused it. The Gate of Eden flared brilliant gold, and then burned white-hot as she unleashed its fury.
All the time-released energy in the cataclysmic lightning returned to the Locri in the span of a heartbeat as a focused beam no wider than a hair's breadth.
The beam slashed a pristine arc into the leading ranks. Those struck by the piercing light instantly flew to ashes, while the rear echelons braved the directed energy attack with their electric shrouds. They spiraled from their flights, trying to climb but petering out and sprawling to the ground.
Their scalded flesh burned, clogging the air with an unwholesome stench, but they all rose and took to the air as a dark wave and stole over the light once more.
And so went the clash of the new gods.
The plague's hive mind did not rest, and neither did Roth. Thirty-six hours into the battle, the Acolytes on the ground showed no discernible cohesion.
They held numerical superiority, and were used as a diversion while both commanders made ruse and sought to impede the other in doing the same.
Acolytes charged in by the thousands, shambling, limbs flailing—and were scorched to frozen ash by theSword of Mercy's ice-elemental witchcraft.
Only the Locri committed to any appreciable pattern, sweeping through the local airspace in waves at periods lasting thirteen hours. Lord Tyr cast them down.
A great number fell, and Roth thought he must withdraw and recover his losses, but she was appalled to see his forces rise to challenge her again.
Appalling as the barbaric charge was, she knew it was only his deceptive façade.
Roth knew she couldn't overcome him with her superior might just as he couldn't overcome her with his superior numbers. So while both threw their forces against one-another, in reality both held the situation tensely in their minds and plotted.
Counting Tellim Keep's warriors and the wounded aboard the NSC Vidar, Roth had exactly seven hundred and twenty-three human forces. The six hundred and ninety-three that could fight helped the Sword of Mercy hold the Acolyte plague.
The human forces had time to prepare during the Sword of Mercy's vicious initial attack against the Acolytes.
They'd organized into an Eastern and Western Force around the starship, each group numbering three hundred, each under experienced command.
They'd then hauled equipment from the starship and set up mines, barbed wire fields and machine guns. In the open launch bay of the vessel was what passed for their field infirmary that was guarded by their single Ravager tank and two assault vehicles.
Chitra Kumar was with the Eastern Theater, and Captain Wilkes with the West. The warriors of Tellim Keep had to trade their traditional weapons for more effective guns, but they were already trained in such arms and fought well.
Roth was there fighting the plague with the Sword of Mercy and Lord Tyr, yet she was also across the battlefield. She experienced the world through the human forces, heard their thoughts, guided their timid spears, allayed their fears.
"Shift fire to the left flank!" She heard Chitra desperately cry to his lieutenants.
The lieutenants in turn barked commands to their units. Ignoring the Cyclopes pair advancing straight toward them, the soldiers opened fire at the stream of Acolytes charging their position from the left.
At their commander's call they turned their fire at the Cyclopes pair. The heavy rounds—designed to gun down assault helicopters—chipped away at their stone hides and then tore down the living organisms to mulch.
Chitra prospected the field from an icy mount, his ceremonial spear firm in his hand. Hot sweat beaded on his brow, his face wracked tight with tension, as his hazel eyes beheld the awful battle before him.
Of the thousands that challenged the Sword of Mercy, barely three scores managed to escape her, and then only to falter beneath a storm of gunfire. Sixty men were in the infirmary for their wounds.
These men broke under the strain. Hoping the terrible scene was a dream, they closed and opened their eyes, only to once more behold the rolling plains of twisted corpses and to see the plague rush for them. They'd froze—either in panicked terror or abjectly refusing the reality—and would not fight.
Roth was held in a contest of wit against the plague's hive mind. She could only help the human forces fight with vigor and calm resolve, but could not write the will to do so in their minds. She could not take the fear from their minds and write courage in its stead.
Chitra Kumar let his gaze sweep across the human forces. Although the rest cycles were as strictly enforced as duty rotations at the front line, not one soldier could see himself asleep.
Most remained awake, rifle huddled close, bloodshot eyes scanning about.
The end of a third day's hard fighting was drawing close, and most soldiers had a strained, haggard look about them. Chitra avoided speculating how long this conflict would last.
This was a blood feud between what he considered to be godlike forces, and mankind had no place here.
The human forces could not fight as long as Roth, the Sword of Mercy, and Lord Tyr, but they were still very useful.
So while Chitra worried about the battle at hand, Roth edged ever closer to a solution for the war and set her plan in motion. Cruel witchcraft, the like unseen for a hundred-thousand millennia, returned that day.
The first sign of the Winter's Blight was the setting sun peeking behind an eerie wash of leaden snow that stirred into cirrus clouds and scattered across the desert.
As the curse strengthened, the human forces took shelter inside the safety of the starship. The Gate of Eden'sradiant heat sheltered the vessel like a private sun held fast above the landing site as it gathered energy from the nearest star.
It wasn't long before the leaden snow sank its teeth into the distant horizons where the plague swam in from, compacted into layers of tough permafrost and then finally crystallized into a glassine prairie upon the stricken land.
On the ground, the Winter's Blight caught Acolytes in their tracks, knit tens of thousands into an ugly quilt of frozen corpses stretching as far as the eye could see. The awful witchcraft sank its frozen fangs into all that took to the air.
Heat bled from the bioships, and although the superior creatures lived, they flew in anguished twists and turns.
For days the spell gripped the plague across the land. Although radically different, the extragalactic life forms were still flesh and blood, whose inner functions were governed by biochemical reactions.
The Winter's Blight took heat from the plague, and either killed at agonizing pace or slowed their bodies such that Acolytes were no longer an active threat, and the evolved bioships fell ill and flew low enough for the Sword of Mercy's reach.
Roth used that time to allow Lord Tyr to rest, and set the Gate of Eden to gather energy from the sun. The hive mind caught to her ruse quickly, however; he would not allow her to bide her might for a powerful blow.
He too set his own strategy in motion.
A score of interstellar subspace ruptures appeared at extreme range, and from them marched his Molocksastride the Lotek, steel-clad kingly beasts that took the form of Dragons, but moved through solid granite as they took to the air.
The Molocks appeared like The Maledict, although they lacked the steel hide and their spell craft was weaker than The Silver King's.
These were Emissaries of the plague, overseers of interstellar hive worlds while the hive mind planned eons into the future. Each carried an imitation of the Gate of Eden—an adamantine stave that culminated into the twist of a thorned crown.
When the Winter's Blight reached for them, the Molocks reigned in their steel-clad beasts with their magnetic puppetry. The Lotek struck the earthly terra, fetching up against the bedrock.
Geothermal heat spared them from the witchcraft, and in turn they drew horrific scars through the ailing planet, triggering quakes in their wake.
Upon drawing close to their mark, the score of Molocks erupted from the planet in a wash of frozen stone and ice.
Hands bolted firmly upon their adamantine staves, they remained aloft upon their Lotek, and their magnetic holds dueled against Lord Tyr's.
Individually they were no match, but combined their spell craft compelled even Lord Tyr to draw upon theGate of Eden's precious energy.
The violent magnetic forces clashed between the two sides, tearing and crushing even stone from the ground.
The hive mind was trying to halt her plans, Roth knew, but he was not merely forcing her to use the Gate of Eden's reserved energy.
He could not overcome her with sheer numbers and would certainly lose in a contest of might, so he sought to deny her ground to stand upon and the air to breathe. He was trying to destroy the world.
The duel of magnetic forces broke even.
The Molocks pushed and pulled, and Lord Tyr drove back and wrenched. Each side pushed and pulled at such frequency that the air between them ignited into a ball of lightning, from which tendrils of plasma lashed out and scorched the surrounding locus into an amber crematorium scored into the planet.
Roth knew she couldn't afford this stalemate. The hive mind was nearly an omnipresent being, and she was not. The whole world could turn inside out, and it would still survive. She had to sacrifice the Winter's Blight and break the stalemate.
Roth set the Sword of Mercy loose from her psychic hold. Although the layer of crystal ice armor weighed her down, her speed was unmatched. Broken slabs of rock stood at perilous heights, upon which she leapt in pursuit of the Molocks.
She was upon them in a heartbeat.
The bare heel hammered squarely across the jaw line, ejecting blood and teeth. The first Molock flew from his mount in a sickening twist. His mangled corpse dashed across a wicked stand of jagged stone. Gracefully landing with both hands upon his Lotek mount, she drove a two-fingered stab into the spine of the beast.
The Lotek was a variant of the Dragon, and it had no regenerative abilities. At first, the creature appeared as though it turned to stone and flew to ashes. The ice-elemental witchcraft that slowly overcame Eurydice took it in an instant.
Now one man weaker, the rest of the Molocks were torn between holding the magnetic duel against Lord Tyr or engaging the new threat, and they hesitated. The Sword of Mercy landed in a broken gulch beneath them and drove both hands into the ground. Perhaps due to the malevolent manner in which the magicks were summoned, the pillars of ice struck up like a thousand spears thrust by the devil himself.
A dozen were impaled with their steely mounts, while the surviving balance encouraged their bleeding and wounded Lotek to the air in a dark explosion of wings. Four Lotek were gutted but tried to fly away, spilling their entrails across the forest of spears, then finally faltered and plummeted to their doom.
The last four succumbed before Lord Tyr. There was no blood. Not even a shred of flesh or a shard of bone remained. The magnetic implosion fused Molock and beast alike to a pinpoint singularity.
Sunrise came as a dreary wash of light across the sky. An eerie calm took the scene. Roth was almost thankful for it, but she knew this was merely the calm before the storm.
Unlike her, the hive mind was much closer a godlike being. It was timeless, it was everywhere, and it did not rest or sleep like all flesh and blood creatures did. Its hordes reproduced at an alarming rate. While the mightier bioships were still breeding, the Acolyte hordes were on the move, infinite.
Roth fell to her knees. Only the Sword of Mercy had learned the Angelic ability of regeneration and could truly fight indefinitely. The rest were still alive because Roth had extended a crude imitation of this to herself, Lord Tyr and the humans.
Many would've said she was beaten. She cupped both hands over her mouth as blood and vomit snaked between her fingers, flaked with white lumps. Her cracked and dry skin had a corpselike ashen pallor. Slowly, but surely, she was dying.
She could not go on like this. No one else but the Sword of Mercy could. This was a battle Roth could not afford to prolong. She similarly could not afford to lose, and the Gate of Eden was the key.
As the plague drew ever closer, Roth continued to refine the healing ability once more. She restored the human forces, struck vigor into their bodies and prepared them for battle. She then set the Sword of Mercy to raise another ice shield while Lord Tyr continued to draw energy from the sun into the Gate of Eden.
The ice shield rose around them like Tellim Keep. First there was an outer wall, followed by a chasm that lengthened to perilous depths, and then an inner wall. Beyond the inner wall were two raised tiers of defense.
The first tier was the elevated ground where the human forces set their traps, barbed wire fields and machine gun turrets. The second tier yielded the starship high into the sky, where it brushed the ceiling.
The plague arrived at the ice shield within minutes. While the hive mind let his more powerful broods grow to adequate numbers, he had no choice but to lay siege to the ice shield with the Acolyte strain.
And so, the clash of the new gods went.
Cyclopes smashed at the shield's wall with titan fists, fissuring portions of the outer wall, while Acolytes flayed the cracks until their limbs went raw, bled, and flayed their skin to the bone. The ice shield, capable of withstanding an ordinary siege for five hundred days, collapsed within thirteen hours. When the plague breached the outer wall, they flew in by the millions.
Obscenities raised from their hatcheries in stillbirth, shreds of skin hanging from their forms. They plunged into the chasm between the outer and inner wall like a great flood. The living trod upon the dead and the wounded till the chasm was filled to the brim, and from thereupon ushered a new wave.
Cyclopes and Acolytes clambered over the inner wall and then spilled into the barbed wire killing fields governed by machine gun turrets. Their limbs were caught, snagged and torn. It was once said that tenacious as life is, an antithesis just as strong exists. Snagged, bleeding, limbs hooked to barbed wire, the Acolytes still thrashed, kicked, tore free and overcame the killing fields...and all for what? Was it for absolute dominion? Was it for land? For sustenance? The plague could not be bought, bullied, killed or reasoned with.
As the ice shield shattered to its foundations, Roth set her gaze at the open sky. The Gate of Eden was nearing completion. It grew brighter at each moment, its prisms drawing farther and farther apart.
Roth then let her gaze slide across those in her care, those whose future she held in her hands. She exchanged a brief glimpse with Chitra, and he tried to smile in approval. Roth could not bring herself to hold his gaze and return his smile.
She saw Captain Wilkes. The hazel of her eyes were once beautiful, but they were now dreary and cold, as if colored by the despair they only saw. She had resigned herself to the fickle hands of fortitude, so the woman did the only thing she could: martial those under her command to hold their posts.
When the plague neared close, Roth loosed the last human forces and the Sword of Mercy upon the Acolyte strain. Within the first hour of the new battle, the extreme conditions, fatigue and lack of nutrition crippled the human forces.
Temperatures ranged from below zero to three digit highs as the Gate of Eden and the ice-elemental witchcraft altered the immediate environment. By the second hour, severe climate change proved hostile to standard terrestrial life.