“The Lady fell for another
To the Beast she was a mother
Dragons talk and Dragons mock
But the Beast begins his stalk
They stand! They fall! Then they flee!
How many of them will he reave?
– Child's skipping rhyme on Scylla, origins unknown
There were many firsts during this trip for the teenager. While he had been on shuttles before, this was the first actual ship he had been on. This was the first time he had slept alone, technically speaking, in a room. The death cultists handlers that never seemed to be more than a raised voice away were gone, replaced by League of Silence personnel in their severe black uniforms with the arrows and moon over their hearts. They had the same wary fear they tried to mask with dispassion as the Harvester Suicide Commandos though, but without the benefit of iron masks to hide their faces behind and iron discipline from harsh training.
That was nothing new to him though – as long as he could remember he had been raised in controlled settings by people who thought negatively of him. First it had been contempt, and then as he grew into his strength and the terrible training worked its wonders on his body, contempt turned into fear. After they had taken him and his dog into the room –
Red flashed in his mind as he sat up in the cot that was provided him in the small room, his mind instantly blanking out and knocking him out of the dreamy reverie he had been. He would not allow himself to relive that moment that had changed him.
“You were thinking of it again, weren't you?” a woman's voice asked from the shadows, cultured and yet slightly rough.
He nodded in the bed, sitting up and pushing down a sheet that covered a muscular torso. Some scars were here and there, mostly on his back from beatings, and he didn't feel the pain from the tattoo along his ribs, the one that read CLAY-FOSsil-S/N 003R. He also didn't want to tell her the truth, but he wouldn't lie to her either. “I was,” he admitted after a moment, with a voice just starting to deepen.
Claws clicked on the bare tile as the female rose up and came into the light, her tail flicking out behind her. She was a beauty, as far as Scytheclaws went. Nearly the size of a horse, her eyes shown with fierce intelligence. Bright blue and glossy black feathers colored what scales did not in the same configuration, and on each clawed foot was the large talon that gave the utahraptors their distinctive name. In every muscle that flexed under her scales and every cant of her head it was proclaimed that she was a predator in the truest sense of the term.
His companion, his partner in war, his best friend approached his bed, and she leaned in so he could look into her orange, slitted eye. “You didn't want to admit it, Clay. Why?” she asked him, her voice soft now.
Clay looked at his hands for a moment – big hands he had not grown into yet, even though he was already over six feet tall and not seventeen yet. The dinosaur nudged him for a response. “It still hurts, Ale'mah,” he told the scytheclaw.
She nodded at his statement. “I'm sure it does. I will not claim to know what you are feeling, but burying it will not help it. No fear grows smaller when you lock it away. So tell me what happened again,” she demanded of him.
Clay glanced up at her, knowing she had no mercy for human luxuries such as weakness, and began to speak mechanically. “The Harvesters took me and Bandit into-” he began, and then stopped as Ale'mah tapped a claw on his thigh. The slight pain was only designed to get his attention, and he was far too well trained to cry out because he hurt physically.
“No, do not disassociate yourself from the event, Clay. Remember what happened and begin again,” she said.
Sitting on the edge of his cot while the scytheclaw loomed over him, Clay did as he was told. “They told me I had one last test to pass, and had me bring Bandit into the room with them. I sat down in the chair, and they took him away from me. When I went to sit up, I was forced back down, and the chair locked me into place with steel bands around my arms, legs and chest,” he said. He stared at the corner Ale'mah had come from, the muscles of his jaw jumping as he forced out the words. “They tortured him in front of me, and told me if I wanted to save him all I had to do was break free of the chair.” His voice was very tight now.
“And then?” demanded Ale'mah.
“I broke free,” he said, his voice quiet. There was nothing of the blind panic, consuming rage, and crushing hopelessness in the statement. No indication of how the emotions had built up in him as the three Harvesters kicked and beat his dog, even letting it lick at his feet before they dragged it away from him. There was not a word of how instead of ripping open his chest, something in his head switched and those emotions flowed through him.
There had been no sound in his young life more gratifying than when steel gave way with a shriek, no look more rewarding than the utter fear that shined through the eye holes of the masks the Harvesters wore, staring in horror at him shaking off the ruins of the binding chair like a tyrannosaurus rex sloughing off mud.
In the fourteen seconds before they had sucked the oxygen out of the room to incapacitate him, he had ripped the arm from the socket of one of the Terran Protectorate's finest warriors and had used it to aid him in battering the other two to death.
“See? You're smiling,” said Ale'mah.
Clay shook himself from the memory, not realizing how completely he was living it. “Why did you do that?” he asked of the scytheclaw, coming off the cot to stand next to her.
“Foulness grow in the darkness – this is true for many things, including the mind. Expose those seeds to sunlight, and who knows what may bloom?” she advised him.
Clay tried to comprehend what Ale'mah had told him. “You mean, good can come from it?” he managed to squeak out. The thought was incomprehensible to him.
“To forget Bandit's sacrifice is to forget what was given up so you could be what you are, Clay. Always remember there was a price for the power you have, for the bond we share, and it will be the shining star that will guide you,” Ale'mah lectured.
This was more accessible to Clay, and he nodded at her wisdom. “I will Ale'mah. I promise,” he told her.
She ran a claw affectionately through his short blonde hair. “I believe you. Now get dressed – it is almost time to put that power to work,” she said.
Clay allowed himself a single, small smile at her display of fondness, and then did as he was bid while checking the time display on the desk in the austere room. The time the ship ran on was displayed as 0430, but the on the planet he would be deployed to – Hydra VI – it was a little after noon.
He opened the duffle bag that carried his clothes, and withdrew the uniform that served as his everyday wear. It was cut like that of the line Janissaries, with the the same high mandarin collar and epaulets on the shoulders. Yet it was black, not the distinctive feldgrau of those Terrans who fought for the Illurian Dominion. The most telling difference was the badge stitched over the heart – not the Rose of Terra, wreathed in laurels for victories across the stars, but the skull of a scytheclaw, with the motto “Born to Serve, Fated for Glory” beneath it. On his left shoulder was the patch of the League of Silence, the Terran intelligence service, with its three golden arrows drawn across a crescent moon and the motto “Silence is Golden” below it.
Ale'mah made a murmur in her throat as he buttoned up his uniform tunic. “You'll need a bigger size soon. I'll mention it to Fletcher,” she said, noting how the seams stretched across his shoulders.
Clay turned towards her at the name. “You mean the next time you talk to him on the Network,” he said, his voice carefully flat.
“No,” said Ale'mah, moving towards the door, “he's here. On this ship. And likely to be monitoring your battle.” Clay had said nothing, only dropped to one knee to lace up his boots. “Do not do anything so foolish as to try and attack him, Clay. If not for your own life, think of Kipling, Donovan, Kyra, and the others. Imagine what happens to them,” she finished.
The tension in his shoulders did not fade, and he finished tying up his boots with more force than what was needed, but the scytheclaw was relieved, even when he walked past her to open the door and head into the dimmed hallway without waiting on her. A bit of anger was acceptable – it meant he recognized his limits and chafed against them. She could deal with that.
They walked silently down the passage, Clay's boots and her talons making a staccato on the decking. Janissaries and sailors stood to one side as the two passed, walking two abreast. Clay wondered to himself if it was the embroidery on his arm and chest that gave them space, or the scytheclaw walking next to him. He had been raised in military life and knew it's unwritten protocol ; while the Old Blood served in a combat capacity, to see them actually walking the ship was a rarity, and indicative of Something Special that was better to not be involved with.
Ale'mah broke the silence between then since she had warned him off from attacking Fletcher. “They have a special docking bay for us, so you can get ready for deployment,” she told them as the doors to the lift opened up and they stepped inside.
“How much like training is it?” he asked her, and instantly regretted it based off how typical it sounded. He knew that Ale'mah was a blooded veteran in her own right, even though she didn't talk about it. The other scytheclaws, like her friends Lona'mah and Kail'mah, were more than happy to fill him in. He was sure she had heard this question before.
“It is and it isn't, which isn't the best answer, I know,” she said, and made the distinctive rattle in her throat that was what passed for scytheclaw laughter. “I don't even know what we're dropping into but keep this in mind,” she said, and her head swiveled to look at him full on. He turned when she reached out with her claw and squeezed his bicep. “You are well trained beyond my wildest dreams, and if you were not ready we would not be here. Not only for my sake, but because it would make Fletcher look bad. If he thinks you can handle whatever odds are on the planet, than you can handle them.”
Clay reached up and squeezed her claw as the lift came to a stop. “Thank you for the encouragement,” he told her, and the doors opened with a pneumatic hiss. The space before them was brightly lit, outfitted as an armory. Against one wall was a casket shaped container, set upright. Next to it was a rifle locker, and against the other wall were two high partitions that ran parallel to the walls.
There were people present as well. Many were League of Silence techs, there to immediately troubleshoot any issues. Others were Janissaries clad in full gray battle armor, mirrored visors hiding their faces while displaying information on their heads up displays. They too were there to shoot any problems that may arise.
A tall, bald human stood next to an Illurian. The pale man was in deep discussion with the blue tinted alien, who had pulled the thin neural strands that appeared to be a thicker variant of hair into a braid that distinguished his caste, along with the neuronium band that he wore on his forehead.
Clay was familiar with Illurians, even though there were relatively few of them as they bred slowly. He knew it was these numbers that were the reason the Illurians had approached the Terrans, busy tearing themselves apart in the ruins of a nuclear apocalypse, with a deal. Fight with us, and we will give you the stars.
It was not altruism that drove the Illurians, but they were preferable in all ways to their enemy, the cannibalistic and fanatical Naith, who demanded the submission of all intelligent life to their religion of feasting and purging.
Clay wondered idly how Ale'mah felt, knowing that the Illurians had brought the dinosaurs back to life and given them intelligence when humans were still killing each other with sharp sticks and rocks. They had avoided the fate of the poor alien in the corner, but still – the Illurians were fond of long leashes with sharp collars.
The ursine humanoid towered over all the others in the room, and its sand colored fur was clean. While the corded muscles, massive claws, and powerful jaws shouted predator in the same way Ale'mah did, there was only a dimness in the eyes. Clay could smell the cinnamon like fragrance that the Bhae Chaw gave off naturally, and he was glad that this one's Illurian master had the good grace to keep it well taken care of. He had known other Illurians who treated their one time allies much worst, and it made his heart ache.
Clay calmed himself with a series of meditations, knowing Fletcher was testing his patience purposefully by engaging in what seemed like idle chit chat while he waited to be acknowledged. All the same he paid attention to what was said, so that when Fletcher asked his opinion about a new type of battle rifle the Janissaries were fielding, he had an answer for him.
“Slightly heavier, likes to pull a little to the left, but the round it fires does the job and it very reliable,” he told Fletcher, making eye contact with the man.
“I told you he was listening,” Fletcher told the Illurian. He was dressed in severe black, with high riding boots and silver thread along the collar and wrists of his uniform. On his collar were silver knight's heads, the mark of an Intelligence Executive Operative, or a Silencer as they were informally known.
The Illurian inclined his head. “I've seen the recordings you've sent me of the prowess of these…what do you call them again?” he asked, his voice affecting the musical lilting that was common to the Illurians when they spoke Terran Common.
“Forward Operation Specialists, but someone used the appellation FOSsil in a report and it stuck,” Fletcher explained, waving Clay and Ale'mah over and turning to them. “Clay, Ale'mah, this is D'hedra Arun Mai'kesh. He's the liason with the forces in this sector.”
Ale'mah's feathers rippled up and down her spine at the mention of the title. “You're a Neural,” she observed.
Arun crossed his arm over his chest, Illurian body language that could mean any number of things from Honored you Notice to Please Forgive Me, depending on the context. Clay thought that for a race which made a religion out of Truth, they were quite vague on details.
“And you are the hope to win the war,” Arun said, looking between Clay and Ale'mah.
“I wouldn't say that,” said Ale'mah. “I would say to buy us enough time so that the Dominion can organize an effective drive to shove the Peace Federation out of the Core and beyond the colonies once and for all.” The lift doors opened as she riposted, and Arun opened his mouth to say something as his skin flushed a darker blue.
“Let's hope,” said another Illurian male's voice, wearing worn dark blue body armor with gold stripes on the deltoid protectors that indicated his rank as a D'hondt, a high level troop commander.
“You think that the Dominion is not doing everything it can D'hondt Irbul?” asked Arun, his composure instantly regained.
“I think parts of the Dominion are,” Irbul responded, giving an individual nod to Ale'mah and Clay.
“And those parts that aren't?” said Arun.
“As the Janissaries like to say, its above my pay grade, and irrelevant to boot,” said Irbul, and the Janissaries in the room smiled at the comment. This was not lost on Arun, and he stopped the line of questioning.
“You've done well for yourself Sail'esh,” said Fletcher, offering his hand to the Illurian.
“So have you. Its been quite a while since I saw you around,” admitted Irbul, gripping the hand and squeezing it.
“I've been busy with…him and others like him,” said Fletcher, waving a hand at Clay.
“I've heard, but wanted to see for myself,” said Irbul, and without warning launched a backhand at Clay.
The blow never came close to landing home, the young human moving too quickly to follow and catching the Illurian's arm at the wrist and elbow before sliding a hand closer to the alien's shoulder, maintaining leverage. Clay bent him over and held him there, his face dispassionately blank. There was no visible sign of him maintaining control, but whenever the D'hondt moved he hissed in pain. The janissaries in the room began to raise their rifles but stopped at a hand gesture and glare from Fletcher.
“That is an Illurian officer! Release him at once!” snapped Arun.
Clay turned his head slowly to look at Arun, but maintained his hold. From below him, the Irbul grunted. “Hold that order,” he hissed, and turned his head to look at Clay the best he could. “Young man, you've made your point to me. May I have my arm back?”
Clay kept the eye contact for a moment, and then released it, just as he thought he heard something, only for everyone to snap their heads over to where Arun cried out, his eyes slammed shut and his arms shaking. Dark blood flowed from his nose, and he pulled out a cloth from his pocket to staunch the bleeding.
“What happened?” asked Irbul to his fellow Illurian, while Fletcher's eyes widened eagerly before he commanded his emotions to stillness once more.
“Nothing, nothing. A… wild effect of my mental talents, D'hondt. Nothing you should concern yourself with,” he said quickly.
Fletcher spoke up. “Would you like me to call a medic?” he asked of the Illurian.
“No, no…I will go see them. Yes, I will go see them, and we will talk later,” said the D'hedra, giving Clay a wide birth as he hastily entered the lift. Wordlessly, his Bhae Chaw slave shambled after him, also giving the duo the same latitude his master had.
“What was that about?” asked Clay, catching the glance that the Illurian had given him as he left. It was full of fear, but the terror that radiated off the alien from the time his nose began to bleed had pounded his empathic senses. He knew that Arun was playing with the truth when called the nose bleed a 'wild effect', but didn't quite know how.
“Some Thought Police nonsense I'm sure,” said Irbul, and then pounded his breastplate, thumb towards the chest, at Clay, saluting him. “My apologies for that, FOSsil. I had seen the vids, but needed to see experience it myself. You're fast and strong, by all the stars.”
“Actually its more my fault,” admitted Fletcher. “I told him to give it his best when he met you.”
“I thought we were done with tests, Fletcher,” hissed Ale'mah, and Fletcher bowed his head, his body language instantly apologetic to the scytheclaw.
“So we are. I apologize,” he told Ale'mah. Clay was always confused when he tried to 'read' Fletcher with his empathic sense. The man layered deception and truth like a cloak of many swirling colors, and it was hard to tell what was what. Instead he looked to Ale'mah, who seemed mollified by the comment. Her feathers had had relaxed along her spine.
While his physical capabilities had been drastically enhanced beyond human norms by what he had heard called “Manifestation”, the Empathic Sense of the FOSsils had been one that denied being categorized. Clay had talked to the other FOSsils and they had described it as many things – an intuition, a tingling, even a smell in John's case. For Clay, it was the impression of colors out of the corner of his eyes that his body processed as a reflex. Whatever it really was, it made it nearly impossible for anyone but another FOSsil to lie to him, among other things.
In Fletcher's case though, the way he blended truth and deception made him near impossible to read.
“Time for your big day,” said Fletcher, who Clay noted stayed at least two arm length's away from him.
“Let's see if it's all been worth it,” Clay said to Fletcher, who's face remained blank at the comment. Instead the bald man walked over to the coffin shaped locker, pressed his hand up to a space and held it there, followed by pushing his face up to a near invisible hole. He stepped back, and the locker began to open with a hiss.
The doors slid open laterally, blossoming like a deadly flower, and a soft, dim light illuminated the contents within. It was his armor, made of a neuronium composite that made the black alloy look like the ocean on some dark planet that had never known a sunrise. Clay had worn it before in training, training that had been carefully monitored by heavily armed Janissaries – it was nigh indestructible to make up for the fact that neuronium negated shields, disrupting them and wrecking any protective properties they may have had.
Clay noted that the janissaries in the room who had relaxed at Fletcher's bidding when he had Irbul in the armbar had raised their rifles to shoulder ready, and he didn't need his Empathic Sense to feel the tension in the room. These janissaries had not been told that this was how he had always suited up. Or they had been told, but his display with Irbul had put them on edge.
It surprised him with Ale'mah spoke up. “Really Fletcher? D'hondt, he goes to fight for the Dominion today. I doubt this is necessary,” she said, her voice cool as ever.
Clay was surprised again in short order when Fletcher made a gesture with his hand. “Janissaries, please do as the Old Blood bids and leave the room, unless D'hondt Irbul has an objection.”
Perhaps the D'hondt knew more than he had let on of their training, as he looked sideways at Fletcher before mastering his face once again. “I put my life in your hands with full trust, Silencer Fletcher,” he said.
Mollified, Ale'mah walked around the group and allowed Clay full access to his armor, for the first time not under the threat of arms. She walked towards the stanchion like contraption and stood between the two walls as it came to life, the outside layer peeling back to reveal a series of armor pieces made of the same neuronium composite, but colored a dull grey.
Clay ignored it, and went to his armor, one of three things that had given him much joy since Bandit had been killed. The boots went on first, blossoming at his touch and allowing him to slide into them easily before sealing themselves shut. They came up to his knees and were capped with short, sharp spikes. The greaves were two parts, and cradled his crotch before wrapping around his waist, sealing to the boots. The breastplate slid over his head, and locked it self to his waist even as it extended sleeves down his arms that became gauntlets. Beneath each forearm was a blade that ran parallel to each arm. As his deltoid protectors extended from the breastplate, he reached for his helmet. It was a self contained unit, with the many horizontal slashes across the front making one think of a knight's visor. Two short triangles, over each ear and jutting backwards, were hornlike in appearance.
He put it on as his armor whirred and buzzed beneath him, coming to life. There were no limits on what he could with it unlike in training, even if Clay suspected that there was a possible self destruct mechanism in there in case he “misbehaved”. As the code flashed in front of his eyes on his HUD, he grit his teeth for what came next.
Spikes jabbed into his arms and along his spine, and for a moment the intensity of his world increased as colors became brighter and he felt the surge of ultra-adrenergics that his body created versus the adrenaline that was thin gruel by comparison. The scientists had noted early on how physically hurting him only made him stronger, and incorporated this hateful fact into his armor. As he shook off the pain when the spikes retracted, he noticed something new.
“What is this?” Clay asked, his voice heavily mechanized to be deeper and rougher. The FOSsil badge in white over his heart he knew, but the R-1 stencils on each shoulder had not been there in training.
“Think of it as your field promotion,” said Fletcher, and Clay wondered if the hesitation was real or feigned as he stepped towards Clay. “It stands for Reaver 1, your call sign now. You are the first generation of Reaver, you and Sam.”
“And what does that mean exactly?” Clay asked.
Fletcher's lips twitched. “We noted that you each developed – Manifested – in certain areas. Certainly you have noticed you are stronger, faster, and regenerate unlike Kipling, who's a master of illusions and stealth. Kyra's talents lie in the esoteric, while everyone who's not careful would follow your friend Donovan into Hell if he asked it. Your powers developed in broad yet definable spectrums, so for propaganda purposes both foreign and domestic we gave them nom de guerres that we thought were appropriate.
“One who reaves. Reaves, an archaic term meaning to plunder, despoil, pirate, pillage, or slaughter,” said Ale'mah, reciting the definition precisely as she came around the corner, armored for war. Her armor was a dull grey that seemed to absorb light, sweeping around her belly, over her back, and down her thighs. Curved spikes protruded at her shoulders and withers, and a helmet protected her head, eyes covered by an opaque lens before they rose up into the helmet.
On each of Ale'mah's hips rested small grenade launchers, while attached under each of her arms was a stubby rifle barrel. Tucked against each shoulder were odd looking appendages: what seemed like a series of folded rods built into the armor. Clay's eyes widen at the sight of them even as he chided himself. This was war – of course she'd bring her knitting needles.
Ale'mah cocked her head at Clay, looking him over. She snapped her mouth shut with a clack in approval, and walked towards him, running a claw over each pauldron. “This is what you want him to be, Fletcher? A plunderer? A pillager? A slaughterer?”
“This is what he is, Ale'mah. He is a weapon,” Fletcher began, and stopped at Ale'mah's sharp turn of the head towards him.
“He is a person,” she corrected softly, the warning in the sibilant tone only audible to Fletcher and Clay.
Fletcher stared back at Ale'mah, not accepting the rebuke this time, until Irbul walked up next to the utahraptor. “May I?” he asked, reaching a hand out towards her armor. She nodded her approval, and he ran his hand over the runes carved in Illurian script on the flank of her armor. “This one says 'Cacophony',” Irbul said, and then he leaned over to see its pair on her other side. “Terror,” he announced, and leaned down to read the one inscribed across her chest. “Ruin,” he finished, and something in his demeanor had changed enough for Fletcher to remark on it.
“It seems to trouble you, Irbul.”
Irbul nodded after a moment, and then shook his head. “Yes… No. These are Truth runes. They supposedly make things 'true', no matter what that thing was. It was always considered dangerous to engrave them on things that one was to wear, since it could be a very literal Truth interpretation,” the Illurian said, and then gave a wan smile and shook his head. “Listen to me, rambling on like some d'heb that's taken too many head wounds. Someone is running a hell of a psy ops job on us, too.”
“We only commissioned the armor to specifications. You know we don't work neuronium,” said Fletcher.
“Right you are. It's superstition and cultural taboo on my part, nothing more,” said Irbul, waving his hand in dismissal. Clay noted he used the human gesture versus the Illurian 'looking to one side', and figured Irbul for the kind of Illurian commander who fought from the front, with his janissaries.
“Sending me unarmed then?” he asked Fletcher, who walked back over to where his armor had been stored. The Silencer repeated the ritual with the biometrics, and an inner compartment came forward with a hiss. With a sound of pressurized air being released, the top unsealed itself, revealing a sword of sorts.
It was a rectangle of black metal, not unlike the armor, attached to a hilt and crossguard. Clay looked down at the weapon, his hands curling and uncurling in anticipation.
“You may take it,” said Fletcher, and Clay could pick up on the thread of concern that was in the man's voice. Looking over, he saw the single bead of sweat on the man's forehead. Despite how he felt about the Silencer, he found himself impressed by Fletcher's self control. It only underlined the man's competence, and Clay put aside any intentions of attacking him – recognizing there was a fatal riposte in store. Now was not the time for that reckoning.
Instead Clay reached in the container and retrieved the weapon. His will focused, and the blade flowed into a new shape. A tip appeared, and then the blade blossomed outwards slightly before curving back in, gaining an edge as the transformation slid down towards the hilt.
Irbul had swore under his breath when he saw the neuronium manipulated so neatly. “You made dreamblades. By all the stars, I thought they were just myths,” he whispered.
Fletcher nodded, never taking his eyes off Clay. “Your fables are interesting. The one about the smith who forges the stuff of dreams into weapons was the inspiration. We just put it into practice,” he told Irbul, relaxing a notch as Clay drug out the scabbard from the container and let it attach itself to him. He de-edged the dreamblade and slid it home.
“Your ride is this way,” said Fletcher, as Clay walked over to Ale'mah and ran his hand along the nasal ridge of her helmet.
“I'm very proud of you,” she told Clay in a soft whisper as they walked to a modified hangar nearby and the thing that would take them to battle. Clay did not acknowledge the compliment, but their bond was such that she could feel the pride welling off of him.
It was a large wedge that looked like, in effect, an oversized sled. Kipling had thought of it as a coffin, and after he spoke the thought out loud one night in the dorms, the appellation had stuck. Not so much for the fact that it was a deadly ride – expensive shield projectors that avoided much of the neuronium feed back protected them, to say nothing of the thick aegium that the device was made of.
Clay mounted Ale'mah, sliding easily into her saddle, and the two walked into the dark depths of the thing. She lowered herself to its deck, and Clay leaned forward, waiting for the coffin to seal itself and then press itself close to them to limit their motion in case of evasive manuevers.
“Good luck, you two,” said Irbul, but it was Fletcher's blessing that surprised Clay.
“Take care of each other. I have faith in you, boy. You'll do it right,” Fletcher told them, and his sincerity flashed for a fleeting moment in front of Clay's empathic sense, and then it was gone as the hatch sealed itself and the interior began to close in on them.
“What was that about?” asked Clay.
“They wanted to wish you good luck. Even Fletcher wants you to succeed at this for his own sake,” Ale'mah said.
Clay remembered she didn't have his senses and explained. “No, he actually meant it, beyond it being something for him to gain from it,” said Clay.
Ale'mah, intimately familiar with the skills of her young charge, knew instantly what he meant. Displays came alive inside their container, showing feeds from outside the coffin as it began to come to life and the doors on the ship opened. Slowly, the vacuum of space was exposed and the coffin slid that way. When it edged pass the lip of the hangar and the gravity of the ship, rockets on the back of it came to life and hurled the two FOSsils down towards Hydra VI below.
The displays on the interior of the coffin and inside the two's HUDs came to life with data. Troop positions, missions targets, and enemy forces all scrolled past their screens, as well as the location of where they were to be dropped.
“We're being inserted right behind the front lines of that Peace Federation engagement right there. They're dropping us right in the middle of the enemy command post,” said Clay, his eyes focusing on the spot in his HUD and pinging the it for Ale'mah with a double blink.
“It seems to be the largest conflict on this planet. Those Janissaries have their backs up against the orbital defense and industrial facilities there,” noted Ale'mah. “If my feeds are correct, the Federation has thrown most of its forces at that target, and the numbers are staggering.”
Clay smiled tightly beneath his armor. “Fletcher was kind enough to send me to a target rich environment. Do you think we'll meet a Khajal?”
Underneath him, Ale'mah shook in revulsion. “If we are truly unfortunate, yes. Especially if word gets out about some new foe that the Dominion has deployed,” she said.
Clay had been briefed many times about the Khajal, the three plus meter tall saurian aliens. Even naked they were a horror to fight, with scales that could turn bullets, claws that would easily rend armor, and an intelligence matched only by their strength. However, the wore armor made of a metal called thrombium that was as indestructible as neuronium. Finally, their ritual weapons were known as rai'lith, and were a combination spear that packed a powerful energy beam below it.
To fight these embodiments of war, Clay knew, was the highest goal of Project: Dragoon and the creation of the FOSsils. Even with how he personally felt towards those responsible, he looked forward to meeting one of the Khajal in battle if only to put himself to the ultimate test, and make sure that all the pain and loss had meant something, in the end.
“One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity,” said Clay, and he could feel the sour humor that rose off her at his quotation. Their ride shuddered as they entered atmosphere, but that was all he felt as the coffin flew towards the planet, descending at incredible speeds. To the fighters below, it was a burning star that boomed as it entered atmosphere, breaking the sound barrier and screaming towards the ground. He heard the soft clicks as bombs were released from the vehicle, prepping his landing zone with explosive ordnance before he arrived.
Clay controlled his breathing, but his eyes were wide as the battlefield grew closer, and the battle lines became individuals fighting below him. There was a sharp firing of retro rockets, but the coffin still slammed into the ground hard enough to make him grunt. A second later, the top flew open, and literally launched the FOSsil and his companion into the thick of things.
As he charged out of the rubble zone the coffin's bombardment had made, he encountered the green skinned Naith , who stared at him with incomprehension, not sure what to make of the the armored dervish in their midst. He could feel their sudden shock as Ale'mah's tail swung wide and her rifles cut down more. He did not need to see the faces behind the masks they wore to know that they were dying trying to figure out what killed them.
Ale'mah moved towards the command post, a scabbard on her side released a rifle as she began her charge. Clay grabbed the assault rifle and began to fire, his instincts taking over as he killed the most dangerous threats for them. He guided Ale'mah with the slightest of touches with his thighs, never where the incoming gunfire was. Clay barely registered the soft whump whump whump of her grenade launchers, fireballs blooming ahead of them at the hard structures.
Clay slid the rifle back into the scabbard, slapping Ale'mah's other flank. A long tube exited her armor, and he reached for it. Two quick motions of his hands extended the tube and deployed a holographic sight.
The duo flew past the hard structures, and the powerful shields that had protected them vanished in a display of blue static, the generators inside frying themselves at the feedback. As Ale'mah swung wide, Clay turned and fired the missile launcher three times, each round making a screech as it deployed.
The guided missiles screamed before slamming into the command post of the Naith. Clay swore he saw one of the Naith females stand in the silhouette of one of the buildings before she vanished in fire, secondary explosions ripping apart what was once the center of Naith resistance.
“Dominion forces, the CP is down!” shouted Clay into the Dominion's communal network. He was listening to his allies, and the crack Terran troops were taking advantage of the confusion in the Naith lines, but the numbers were still great.
“We need to cut down a few more Naith matriarchs,” Clay told Ale'mah, tossing the missile launcher aside and grabbing his rifle again.
“Where are they?” asked Ale'mah. Clay focused his talents, and reached out with his empathic senses, looking for where the foes were thickest.
“That way!” he exclaimed to Ale'mah, nodding to the west and killing a few more Naith as they continued their blitz. It was apparent to Clay in short order that the Naith's advantage lay in their numbers, as they continued to die en masse as the due encountered them.
“Stop a second,” Clay commanded Ale'mah, and he dismounted to grab a hold of one of the Naith's crew served shredder rifles. Their doctrine favored a multitude of small projectiles to wear down shields, even if they were easily turned by armor. The shredder rifle was this concept upscaled, a jagged wedge of metal and living crystal that gleamed with an internal purple light.
“What do you plan on doing with that thing?” asked Ale'mah. She could see where the Naith had bolted the weapon to a platform. This combined with the corpses of the two Naith chained to the weapon mount spoke volumes about Naith doctrine.
“Doing my part to conserve ammo for the war effort,” said Clay, and he reached under the shredder rifle and lifted. There was a shriek of bolts as the FOSsil's strength overcame the metal, and he hefted the weapon, giving it a test fire. Purple shards left trails of the same light in the smoky air of the battlefield, and he mounted Ale'mah with a single leap.
“Eat something,” she said to Clay, knowing his abilities would tax his calorie reserves. He complied, sucking a rich gruel from a straw in his armor, alighting on a group of Naith with the shredder rifle and slicing them down in short order.
“Ah, there's the bitch queen,” said Ale'mah, nodding towards a figure that stood head and shoulders around the Naith that surrounded her. Those Naith were different looking creatures as well, hulking with muscle and low to the ground, heavily armed and armored. These were Naith Defenders, the elite guard of the Naith that had been heavily modified through drugs and other unknown regimes to lay down their lives for any Matriarchs.
Clay considered for a split second, and then told the scytheclaw “Battle Drill 2.1,” curtly. He didn't wait for acknowledgment, instead feeling her peel in a wide loop around the knot of Naith while her grenade launchers lobbed explosives skywards. He began firing the heavy weapon into their flanks, several short bursts fired by a long sweep, designed to wear down their shields.
He knew that the Defenders had advanced shields that would reactivate in short order, so his timing had to be perfect. Considering the circumstances, he was pleased as Ale'mah's salvo air burst above the Defenders, and more than a few fell to the ground and didn't rise again.
The shredder rifle had served him well, but its use was at an end. He pounded an armored fist into the weapon twice, large chunks of crystal and metal dislodging and the light fading from the weapon. As the Naith attempted to pin down him and Ale'mah he drew his dreamblade. “Going in,” he told Ale'mah.
Clay leaped from her back and hit the ground with a roll, coming to his feet close to the Defenders. One called him out with a grunt in that guttural language, only to cry out as the Reaver was upon him in a heartbeat. His dreamblade had eagerly assumed its sword shape, and cleaved through the Defender's torso easily.
Clay spun around the gunfire that raged around him, driving his fingers through the visor of another Defender that had entered his melee range, and hurling the body into another trio. As they tried to recover their feet, he kicked a missile launcher out of one Defender's hands, followed by a hook punch to the head that crushed the polymer helmet and dropped the Defender to all fours. Clay grabbed the back of the head and drove his knee through the face of his fallen foe, shoving bone fragments into the thing's brain and killing him.
The young FOSsil turned to deal with the three Defenders who had struggled to rise from under the heavy body of their dead comrade, his blade dipping down into two struggling bodies while he stomped the head of a third, and then stabbed the body just to be sure.
Even while his battle fury raged, he looked towards where he felt Ale'mah to see the disposition of the Matriarch. The scytheclaw's great head shook back and forth as something detached from the body of the female Naith and flew off into the distance.
Ale'mah's body language changed suddenly as Clay's battle sense screamed at him and he turned raising his dreamblade in a parry as a large blade was turned by it at the last instance with a blue spark.
The holographic models, simulations, and study had done nothing to prepare him for the sheer presence that radiated off the hulking, reptilian Khajal knight that stood before him. His training only barely prepared him for the speed of the follow up attacks, each blow parried out of reflex with an answering blue spark and his own strength keeping his weapon from flying out of his hands. High and then low strikes from a broad bladed rai'lith were answered by the protean dreamblade before Clay could leap backwards.
“Smaug!” Clay shouted into the communal radio channel for the area, letting nearby forces know that there was a Khajal on the field. A series of blinks activated cameras behind him, and he saw Ale'mah was backing towards him slowly, away from another massive silhouette in the smoke.
The old adage 'Be careful what you wish for' rang in his ears as he thought of his brave words to Ale'mah in the casket and looked over the enemy before him. Greaves, breastplate, bracers, and a helm of the dull gray thrombium metal that the Khajal were imfamous for. Muscles bulged under vibrant purple scales. From a head that looked like a pit viper crossed with a crocodile, a deep series of croaks rumbled, and the Khajal pointed at him with one long, sharp talon, sweeping his rai'lith in the air and causing the charms on the end to rattle.
His armor translated for him, telling him what the Khajal said: “Rillik, what have they offered you to debase yourself by taking meat from the prey?”
It took Clay a second to understand what the Khajal was saying, but he understood the Khajal was paying him a compliment indirectly by comparing him to the half breeds that the Khajal created from their pheromones. His armor translated his reply for him: “Not one of your bastard spawn, but a Terran,” Clay spat back, and he lunged forward. So fast, he thought as each blow was expertly parried by the polearm, and he rolled under the tail sweep that his Reaver talents told him was coming, coming to his feet and striking the Khajal in an exposed nerve cluster under the arm with his closed gauntlet.
It hissed in pain, the widening of the viper eyes in surprise a reward to the young FOSsil, and he leapt back from the reflexive swing of the rai'lith, keeping Clay from pushing his attack. Instead a pained squeal caught their attention, and they both jerked their heads towards where the second Khajal, who Clay had forgotten about in his battle with the first, had sent Ale'mah sprawling with the flat of his rai'lith. He approached the fallen Scytheclaw, he tail thrashing in the bloody mud of the battlefield as she attempted to stand, and raised it high for the coup de grace.
Too far to run, thought Clay's mind even as it worked towards a solution. The young man's will focused into a point and his dreamblade shot out in a thin cable, looping itself around the weapon. The Khajal wasn't prepared to fight against the strain, and turned to see the heavily armored FOSsil flying towards him as the dreamblade retracted into itself.
Clay's momentum gave his punch much more force as he screamed in with a fury, the blow staggering the enemy Khajal as the Reaver swung himself onto the alien's armored shoulders, raining blows onto the head of the beast below him. Trying to dislodge him by striking at his legs, the Khajal wondered at how the assault became stronger as he struck at the hateful thing beating at his skull, making him fight for consciousness.
“On your feet, Ale'mah!” Clay roared, the throbbing in his legs a distant pulse that wasn't worth his attention as the fear of losing Ale'mah and the hatred of the thing that nearly caused it pushed his emotions to new heights. His armor flexed with the bulge created by his muscles as they filled with blood pulsating with ultra adrenergics and other substances unique to FOSsils.
Ale'mah got her claws beneath her, and her “knitting needles” raised out of the mud. They were long, linked rods that hovered in the air in front of her, charged with electromagnetic energy and ending in a long neuronium tipped aegium needle. With a high pitched squeal she turned towards the first Khajal, the twin stilettos lashing in high and low and aborting the knight's charge as it stopped to deal with the frightful weapons.
Dazed from the blows, the Khajal beneath Clay staggered under the avalanche of strikes he was delivering. Dropping to one knee, the alien warrior attempted to hurl Clay from him. Instead, Clay used the leverage to bring his dreamblade around and sink it into his foe's back, sending tendrils of neuronium ripping through flesh. The monster roared once before it's neck vanished in a nest of neuronium spines, and it crumpled to the ground.
Clay untangled himself from the meat that had been a foe, once, and then dropped to a knee himself. While his battle frenzy had dulled the majority of the pain, his body now paid the toll. He could feel the flesh attempting to heal itself, sucking on his food straw to try and force the process along.
The last Khajal, bleeding from a number of wounds caused by Ale'mah, was watching him. Clay forced himself to stand, and slapped his breastplate with an open hand and then took a step forward. He could feel his muscles trembling, but forced himself to turn his crippled walk into a stalk.
Instead of leaping towards him, his foe pointed the end of the rai'lith at him. Only his enhanced reflexes saved him as he threw himself to one side, and a beam of dazzling energy passed where he had been.
Clay heard another scream, and thought the worst as he raised himself up on his elbows, his legs useless for the moment. In the moment it took the Khajal to aim his rai'lith, Ale'mah had driven her needles into the chinks of the warrior's armor with alacrity, piercing the foe several times. With a final twist, she sent a stiletto through the joint of the jaw and upwards into the brain. The Khajal fell to its knees, lifeless, and then slumped into the filth of the battlefield.
Pulling her spines out, she turned to run to Clay, who was wavering somewhat, but standing under his own power. The pain in his legs was a dull throb now, and he was too well trained to rest against her.
“Thank you,” she told him, both knowing he had saved her life.
“Thank Bandit,” he told her as he mounted her, and she was never sure if that was a rebuke or to be taken at face value.
It caused her to pause, turning her armored head to look back at Clay. “Are you fit to fight?” she asked.
Clay looked over his shoulder at the two dead Khajal, the and the dismembered bodies of the Naith elite before him. He had been able to do this because of a tortured dog and the wreck of his own childhood in his first battle. What would the future hold for him?
“Clay?” Ale'mah asked again.
He shook his head. “I've never felt better,” he told her, and it was true – perhaps it had all been worth it. He looked at the display in his helmet, and saw several more objectives had been added. “Let's go win this battle,” he said, deciding to join an action to break a line of enemy bunkers.
Ale'mah complied, running towards the indicated grids.
Hours later, Fletcher sat in a darkened room, multiple displays showing armored human and scytheclaw duos fighting in various battles. With a soft hiss the door behind him slid open, and the rhythmic taptap-TAP footstep that was distinctive to a scytheclaw echoed in the room. He did not turn as she entered, instead letting her walk next to him and view the displays in silence.
“Is it true? No one died?” she asked Fletcher.
“It is. The FOSsils performed beyond all expectations. You and Clay weren't the only two who battled against the Khajal, but you were the only pair to face down two without support. Kipling and Donovan both faced a pair, but a squad of Assault Janissaries was nearby to aid them.”
Ale'mah was silent, and Fletcher could feel her cocking her head down at him. “Then your promotion was well earned, Strategos,” she told him, looking at the crescent moon rank with a single arrow across the bow shaped insignia marking him.
“Tradition is that the first person to recognize a newly made strategos by his rank is owed a minor favor of some sort,” Fletcher told her. “Unfortunately you're several hours too late for that.” The man pointed at a particular image, her rolling in the mud after being knocked aside by the Khajal. “That was a clever gamble. I didn't know he had that kind of mastery with his dreamblade,” Fletcher admitted, allowing some unease to slip into his voice.
“That was no gamble. The monster struck me a blow that I'm still feeling. Clay's emotions for me saved my life,” she said.
“So, the emotions heighten the ability, as we thought,” Fletcher said, satisfied.
“It seems so. And what was that incident with the Neural before the mission?” Ale'mah asked Fletcher, her tone on the edge of making it a demand.
“I put the key to the freedom of our people in the lock and gave it a jiggle to test the fit. The tumblers turned smoothly,” Fletcher said, pleasure radiating from every word. “If the Illurians find out this…unintended side effect, they may purge the FOSsils,” he began.
“A human teaching a scytheclaw to be discrete!” the Old Blood rattled deep in her throat.
“No, I mean that you will have to deny knowing anything about their training, about how they were created, and watch them die. I've made back ups of all the data, but we will need the experience of you and the other scytheclaws to create the next generation should this one be deemed too dangerous,” he told her.
Ale'mah was quiet for a moment. “How many other bodies have been left in our wake for this cause? What are a few more?”
Fletcher sounded amused when he responded. “I thought we taught you to lie better than that.”
“And you tell me that you don't care what happens to your 'pupils'?” she demanded of him.
“I don't care,” he responded, turning to look her in the eye.
They locked gazes for a moment, and she rattled her throat again. “'Physician, heal thyself'”, she quoted at him, her feathers rising and falling along her back as she turned from the strategos and left the room.
Fletcher watched her go, and then turned back to the projections. He spent the next hour trying to convince himself the scytheclaw was wrong while the images of his masterworks played before him.