Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 10

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Chapter 10 - Reason To Be

The streets lay emptier than usual.

Though it was nighttime, the orange glow of the distant other sun in the Logres binary star system lit the clear night skies. It was a dim, shadowy hue; yet combined with the reflected light from a ring of icy asteroids orbiting Broceliande, it allowed the eyes to see even in the depth of night. Not that a metropolis ever went dark with all the brightness pouring off its skyscrapers, building complexes, roaming vehicles, and projection displays.

Even though it was two after midnight, this was still central Rennes, the Capital City of the 2nd District and Broceliande's largest metropolis. Returning late night workers and executives would normally dot the streets and its airways with vehicles.

But the moment news of a terrorist attack broke over the open channels, everyone had ducked back inside. Modern construction could withstand phenomenal amounts of damage, and only those panicked beyond reason would leave for the open roads rather than head down to the basement shelters built into every high-occupancy structure in the Republic.

Yet one individual hurried through the open streets. Instead of running away from the attack, she sped towards it. Not that anyone noticed her presence, thanks to the situation and some stealth magic.

Shirayuki had realized who the culprit was within seconds after the news exploded over the social networking media.

Kayeten Hans-Rudel may have a reputation for being charismatic, but it would never extend to diplomacy; his personal aversion to politicians forbade it. Meeting him in the Brest Gateport meant only one thing -- that a 3rd District emissary of the highest ranking required the Lancet Centurion to serve as bodyguard in person. Destruction of the Ambassador Towers, where the dignitaries were likely residing, would spark tensions between the 2nd and the 3rd Districts that neither would want. Combine all this with the Black Prince's presence here on Broceliande, and only one answer remained feasible to Shirayuki's trusted intuition:

The Black Prince was provoking a diplomatic fallout.

It wasn't really her business to interfere, but she had teleported into the city and made haste towards Ambassador Towers within the minute. She reasoned to her comrades that despite occasional conflicts like that of two days prior, the 3rd District was the ally of an ally, and therefore a friendly side that should be kept from falling into chaos.

Excuses excuses.

Shirayuki never did manage to lie to herself.

She knew that her real reason for coming was to take this chance, any chance, to settle her score with the unforgivable Black Prince. It was another reason why she came alone -- if things went awry, then at least she could rely on the magic of Aura Dominion to make her escape...

The redhead suddenly froze as she sensed a nearby aura. With it came the familiar, nostalgic feeling that she had felt in the gateport, one she hadn't truly understood until just before Kayeten's interference.

Aura Dominion Shirayuki could recognize any magical individual by their aura from up to a hundred meters away. Unlike appearances, heat, and other signatures, magical auras were remarkably difficult to disguise, and only a static area Sanctum ward could hide it. Only once in her life had Shirayuki met someone personally and failed to identify them on their next meeting.

What's the Eternal Chronicle doing here? Why--

Dozens of questions flooded through her mind as recognition struck, before she realized that none of them mattered at the moment. This was an opportunity gifted by the grace of the spirits, and she would be a fool not to seize it...


----- * * * -----


"Squad Cyrille, prepare Fog Bank. Do anything you can to impeded their vision and movement."

Kannon heard her own voice resound over the channel. She didn't know many spells for that order yet, but she would bet there were more than a few options out there. It was the logical action for those already near the target to take in support of the attack.

A corner of her mind couldn't help but wonder if this really was the answer, but she crushed the thought mercilessly. She would follow through her decisions or not at all; there would be no acceptance for half-hearted attempts in the middle of it.

"No shadow effects, the Bulwark's light will suppress that!" Arkadi followed up.

"Affirmed!"

Two IFVs maneuvered into flanking positions, readying themselves for the pincer attack while their weapons belched continuous fire into the enemies' ranks. Nearly two-third of the beams were being blocked by the Bulwark wards, although here and there a beam would reach through the gaps and wear down the opposition's vector barriers. Their weapons responded in kind, but their fire was far less accurate against the evading IFVs above them. Even the computer-assisted targeting of those powered armor weren't helping thanks to the IFVs' electronic warfare suites.

Two of the vector barriers shattered as electrolaser beams burnt through the last of its ether, only to crash into overlapping electromagnetic shields underneath. There was no doubt that given the overwhelming tactical advantage, Arkadi's three remaining vehicles would break through the enemy defense given enough time. Unfortunately, time wasn't an available commodity. Every minute that passed brought the 2nd District's security forces closer.

We need to pin them down somehow...

Kannon stared at the pile of rubble before an idea responded to her thoughts:

"Haidar, Animate Entangle; shut down their movement!"

"You got it. Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Animate Reshape Entangle!" Haidar took her recommendation with enthusiasm, appending it with an effect word that she had yet to learn. Magic arrays projected and spun themselves beneath his feet and around his weapon's rotating tri-'barrel'. His cannonstaff spoke seconds later, shooting out a pillar of burgundy-red light that split into two dozen beams just after leaving the barrel before raining down upon the enemies below.

The vector barriers batted several of them aside, but the rest struck ground just outside their circular formation and worked its magic on the wreckage below. Pipes and rebars from the collapsed building reached upwards like vines through the cracks, seeking to wrap themselves around anything that moved even the slightest.

"Now! Charge in!"

Fog and smoke suddenly engulfed the entire enemy formation, just as two IFVs accelerated into a dive straight into them. Between the visibility impairment and the continued energy fire from the electrolasers, both their sight and their sensors were completely blinded and unaware of the incoming attack. Yet seconds later, just after the two strike teams ejected from their vehicles, eight enemies leaped out of the area at once. They scattered across the area with their boosters while two more lagged a second behind them.

Kayeten must have realized it...

The only reason the attackers would obscure the battleground for, which would only make both sides' fire less accurate and drag the engagement even longer, was to screen the approach of an all-out attack. But three of his troopers still failed to punch out in time, possibly due to entanglement.

Kannon felt a momentary surge of pride before she realized how disgusting it was: joy of success received from the deaths of others.

The ground shook once again as two IFVs simultaneously crashed into the remains of Ambassador Towers at half the speed of sound, rocking the entire area like a millennial earthquake as the powerful shockwave blew outwards from the blinding explosion. Yet the fresh cloud of dust kicked up went mostly ignored as the Black Hand commandos wasted no time before charging down upon their dazed foes, spraying them with electrolaser fire while pulling out massive claymores and swordstaves with heated chainsaw edges.

"Select Arms Emanate, Resistance Field!" The echoed chants of this wordspell, the bread and butter of any spellsword, filled the communication channel as each attacker blessed their blades with the ability to ignore vector shields just long enough to break through. "For our glory as the 1st!!!"

One of the Cross Knights launched himself off the ground to meet the attackers, and Ersilia's squad took no chances against the martial renown of the knights. All six squad members boosted towards him, seeking a convergent strike from multiple directions. The knight extended the length of his golden blade to cut down one before his opponent could even reach him, then blocked off two more with his shield and dodged a fourth. But there were simply too many attackers, and the last two chainblades pierced through his right shoulder and cleaved into his waist. The heated chains tore out his innards within a second, raining blood and gore down upon the ground below.

Kannon felt like she was going to throw up...

A wave of intense nausea had just risen up her throat when the knight's body flashed and detonated. Golden flames poured out into a thick column of holy fire that formed a gigantic upright crucifix, washing over both electromagnetic and vector shields as though they weren't even there. The magic immolated metal, electronics, and flesh alike as it burnt through entire suits of powered armor like plasma through paper.

In an instant, an entire squad of six living beings turned into nothing more than falling embers. Kannon's nausea laid forgotten as shock gripped control of her senses... Moments passed before she managed to shove everything aside and regain control of her dazed mind.

She returned her focus to the sensors. The count was now down to nine, not including Arkadi's team still in the IFV, versus seven. Apart from the loss of Ersilia's entire squad, two more fell under the enemies' blades, while a third was picked off by a single bullet from Kayeten's long rifle -- a starmetal slug that triggered neither EM nor vector shields and landed a perfect bullseye on the helmet of its victim.

Yet despite the altitude advantage and the coordinated attack, the Black Hand commandos managed to kill 'only' two other elites of the 3rd District. It proved once again that undercover operatives, even combat specialists, were poorly matched against battle-hardened army elites on the open field.

"Take them out! And leave the white powered armor to me!" Arkadi's declaration was icy enough to freeze the air itself.

The fighting quickly dissolved into a chaotic melee; yet the last remaining IFV continued to hover above the battlefield, where Haidar and its pilot Lysette rained shots down upon targets of opportunity. The Captain however, boosted off the vehicle before hurling himself straight at the enemy commander. Meanwhile Kaplan took off after one of the knights, his image multiplying as he charged in.

Kayeten intercepted Arkadi with another shot of his rifle. But even though the starmetal shell didn't bounce off the shield, it had been deflected enough to completely miss him.

Captain Arkadi's trump card, the Aegis Shield, was active once again.

Be it surprise or unpreparedness, Kayeten hesitated for a split second before he evaded, allowing Arkadi's massive swordstaff to score a 'glancing' hit as it sliced off the upper half of Kayeten's left pauldron. Although the heated blade only singed Kayeten's shoulder as it brushed by, it had destroyed the foundations to the left arm's servo-muscles on his armored suit, effectively crippling the entire limb.

Arkadi backed off, and for a moment the two simply stood off against one another even as precious seconds ticked by.

They're both delaying...

Kannon found it very unlike the Captain, not when there was a job to be done. Perhaps he simply hoped to occupy the opposition's best while his men finished the task...

Or... perhaps he just can't bring himself to...

She took the nearest surveillance drone in to observe their fight. Now that the main battle devolved into a chaotic melee, she doubted she could help much. But her feelings were set on watching his back and helping Arkadi return from this most undesirable confrontation in one piece.


----- * * * -----


Contrary to mission objectives, Kaplan's first set of spells were all defensive. The enemy's qualitative superiority was evident. The Black Hand was losing men too quickly for too little. His Mirror Images weren't realistic enough to fool the full scanning spectrum of active sensors, but some diversion was better than none.

The Captain has pulled the famed Lancet Centurion into a duel, freeing up everyone else on the strike force to take down their real objective: Marshal Sidika, protected by one of the four powered armors and shielded by two Cross Knights.

"Jay, take out those armors one by one with your squad; concentrate attacks," Kaplan ordered, his voice calm but unable to project the confidence that Arkadi so easily managed. "Haidar, cover fire for Jay, shower them with incendiary or plasma. Rest, keep the others occupied."

"Affirmed!"

"Boys, helix spiral on my mark!"

Five members of Jay's squad arced in from three directions on the target he highlighted, their armored foe fighting behind a knight's shield and aided by another suit. Twenty-four rays of incandescent fury rained down upon them, disrupting sensors and forcing shields to flare with the evoked plasma bombardment. The defenders' coordination faltered for precious seconds as three swordstaves and two claymores rushed in to meet two swordstaves and a knight's saber in golden smite mode. Heated chains met metal with thunderous flashes that discharged a deluge of sparks.

But instead of trading lives with all-out attacks, Jay's squad scored only three hits with no kills in return for one injury and two images. His men were well-trained; they charged into danger without hesitance, but they split their focus between attack and defense; memories of Squad Ersilia's instantaneous immolation were still fresh on their minds.

It was an issue of morale that would slow or even cost them this battle.

Then, nine of the illusory soldiers Kaplan forged suddenly changed signatures and switched sides.

"Spell seizure... Metamage!"

"Target: alpha three! Take him down!"

...And the battle just grew even longer.


----- * * * -----


"So this is your response, Kadi?" A bitter voice emerged from the speakers built into Kayeten's armor as he retracted the black visor under his helmet's transparent diamondweave-glass, revealing a pair of infuriated green eyes that burnt with emerald flames. "Your parents' memory, your sister, your upbringing, and now your sworn brother. Is there any you would not cast aside? Are we all that meaningless to you?"

"On the contrary, Kayeten," responded Arkadi as he lifted his own visor, his steely face completely devoid of emotions. "It is because of my family and upbringing that I am doing this. Besides, does my dearest friend who voluntarily became a dog of the 3rd District really have any right to judge my choices!?" He finished by charging forth once again with his blade raised high.

Kayeten deflected the blow by sacrificing his rifle and pulled out his own, albeit smaller chainblade with one fluid motion.

"Don't confuse me or Sidika with your master and yourself, Kernow!" his voice filled Arkadi's adoptive surname with contempt as he parried strike after strike, using the agility of his chainblade shortsword to skillfully redirect the power behind Arkadi's two-handed attacks. Kayeten then followed it up with two quick counterattacks, but his thrusts glanced off Arkadi's shield without even touching armor.

It was clear whose martial prowess triumphed over the other, and Arkadi's only saving grace was his Aegis Shield. Kannon struggled to come up with some spell that would assist the Captain, but none came. The two of them were simply too close, too engaged, and not breaking off enough to launch a spell salvo like Haidar's covering fire without striking them both. It would be meaningless for vector shields to flare equally for both sides, while their powered armor made most environmental hazards useless.

"I've not done a thing I'd be ashamed to tell my parents in the afterlife," continued Kayeten, finally stopping as both sides regained their stances. "But you? The Black Prince? Was bombing convention centers and nerve-gassing political rallies not enough? Thousands of innocents died by your hands alone!"

"And millions will follow, so long as the end served its means."

Arkadi's thin grin was every bit as frightening as his words. The man was absolutely serious. No atrocity was above what he prepared himself for.

Even Kayeten was speechless as his eyes widened in shock.

"I will do whatever it takes, Kayeten. I will take the seat of the 1st Marshal, and I shall purge this rotten system from the world."

"Are you serious?"

Kayeten's eyes were shaking, as if his very soul doubted the sanity of his once closest friend. Yet his instinctive reflexes parried off yet another onslaught from Arkadi's blade.

The Captain was coordinating his blade with his words, launching every assault the moment he finished each disturbing declaration. It was possible that he was provoking Kayeten... Except unlike his words to Shirayuki at the gateport, Kannon did not doubt his seriousness for a second.

The battle continued to rage behind them as the sound of diamondsteel clashing and soldiers screaming drowned out everything else. Arkadi's men were taking heavy casualties against the better-trained 3rd District elites, but they still outnumbered their foes.

"Our parents' death doesn't even compare with what I've seen, Kayeten... This abominable system that treats its lower classes no better than Arvitors, its people no more than tools and numbers--"

Kannon knew he spoke of Lysette and others alike... But a sinking feeling told her that was just one of many problems. One instance was the supply of Arvitor Crystals -- were they making more, perhaps out of other magically affluent humans due to the demand?

"--And that's just the tip of the iceberg. With even the supervisory bodies under the their control, the military aristocracy and the legislaturist families can indulge in even their most sinful desires, without any regard for society."

A red dot soaring in from behind Arkadi on the sensors seized Kannon's attention. The 3rd District powered armor rocketed towards him, its massive chainblade readied for an overhand swing. However... the sensors marking was faded, and a spin of the camera confirmed the translucent attacker.

"Captain that's--!"

Arkadi had already reacted by the time Kannon's delayed reaction kicked in. His blade carved around in a wide arc, with boosters on his swordstaff blade igniting for an extra push as it smashed into the attacker... and cut cleanly through without the slightest resistance.

It was an illusion; one that emanated enough thermal, electromagnetic, and other signatures to fool unfocused sensors.

Not forfeiting the opportunity, Kayeten thrusted his sword towards Arkadi's back. But even though he slowed the attack down prior to striking the shield, his blade was still pushed back out, albeit only barely. It seemed that despite Arkadi's goading, Kayeten had discovered a way that may just break through Arkadi's defenses.

Captain Arkadi then swung back around, forcing Kayeten to rush two steps back.

"So what? Would you destroy the world to rebuild it in your own vision?" Kayeten mocked, seeking precious few seconds to reorient his balance and regain his stance.

"Destroy? Of course not. Pressing reset merely covers up the rot. Humanity will merely repeat it years later. Society must be taught a lesson, one carved in blood so they may never forget."

A sinister yet melancholic smirk twitched across Arkadi's expression as he continued:

"Have you heard of a man on Old Terra named Adolf Hitler, Kayeten? An elected dictator, aggressor of the Second World War, but most importantly, a genocidal killer of Judaism. Before he came to power, fascism and antisemitism -- totalitarian dictatorship and violent racism, had been popular. But so atrocious were his actions that the terrifying result of absolute authoritarianism and racial hatred be engraved in the minds of men for centuries to come. After his crimes, no act of massed racial or religious murder was ever tolerated by the international community again, nor would the widespread political indifference that allowed him power ever be reborn in old Europe."

"That's why I will take the Marshal of the 1st. I will seize the throne of the demon king and bring holocaust upon this irreparable system! I will use every medium of power to prove just how intolerable this structure is! Only then would humanity finally wake up and realize what kind of cancer their still electoral society have allowed to fester amongst them for over a century! I will give them a thousand years of notoriety, to ensure responsibility by fear, to force the return of true representatives that shall stand for the masses, as our parents once did!"

Kannon knew that Arkadi was completely serious. Those violet eyes that burnt with icy flames weren't something that could be faked. His cynicism and loathing towards the current world order was real in every sense.

Korey had been right. Just as he did, Captain Arkadi also took upon this sinful role for a greater purpose. But whether his intentions were heinously outrageous or pessimistically realistic was beyond her judgment. She knew through history that governments sometimes dug itself into a pit that they could not recover from without a true revolution. It had happened to the Monarchies before the Spring of Nations; it had happened to the 'Democracies' turned Corporate Republics prior to the Third Great War. Maybe the Stratocracy that seized Avalon's true power could only be overturned in the same fashion.

Yet even as the shock wound down, Arkadi's words brought another idea to her mind:

"Korey, can napalm stick to vector shields?"

"Sort of, like mud dripping off glass; maybe ionized helps."

"Are you completely retarded!?!" Kayeten retorted, any remaining composure tossed aside as simmering fury enshrouded his expression. "...No matter what your reasons, it does not give you the right to play god, to deny the world, to deny the faith of all others and turn the existing reality upside down. No matter what ultimate justice you seek, there are billions of better ways. Pick one, any! Why do you think I'm--"

"Shall I remind you that the Marshals are the heads! The ones who have guided the world into its current decay! The purge must begin with those self-serving bastards, every one of them!"

"Do you seriously believe that I, or your sister, would follow someone like that?"

Arkadi froze for a moment as the declaration unnerved him.

"Haidar, Hellfire Creation Adhesion, rain it onto the Captain's duel!"

"Wouldn't that--?

"Trust me!" Kannon cut his tired objection off.

A bitter smile returned to Arkadi's pitying expression as he pressed onward:

"People change, Kayeten. History has proven it over and over. Even if the officer who adopted you over a decade ago was a promising individual, there was no way she would have been named successor had she not supported the current system! Funds channeled from system revenues by the billions, clans vanished over one outspoken member -- her deeds of governance did not change the slightest from her predecessors!"

If Arkadi's words were news to Kayeten, not an ounce of surprise worked into the latter's expression. At the same time, it was obvious to Kannon that Arkadi wasn't going to heed Kayeten's words no matter how he explained. The Captain was so entrenched in his beliefs, backed by his own information, that he simply refused to accept even the faith and judgment of his once best friend.

"So your unending delusion sees only what excuses you wish for now!?"

Kayeten's flaring anger finally pushed him to making another counterattack. Except this time, instead of swinging his sword in, he allowed Arkadi to close the distance for another strike before piercing the Aegis Shield at minimum speed and pressing in at full strength. The chainblade was pushed back a bit, but its reflected low velocity was not enough to send it back out of the shield altogether before he pressed it in and cut into Arkadi's powered armor from the right ribcage.

Although unlikely to have penetrated enough to inflict significant damage, Kayeten had proven that Arkadi's shield was not infallible.

"Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Hellfire Creation Adhesion!"

The storm of rays that erupted from Haidar's cannonstaff shot above the commanders' duel, where they converted to a pool of Greek Fire that poured down, bouncing off Arkadi's reflective Aegis Shield but smothering Kayeten's Vector Negation Shield as though it was a glass orb. With the delay after Kayeten's attack, this left him exposed within reach for one second too long. His leap back came too late as Arkadi's chainblade sliced straight into the power packs and boosters behind him, crippling the mobility of his armored suit.

His suit was grounded, and Kannon saw another opportunity: Kayeten's advantage over Arkadi laid in his reflex and precision; but without maneuverability, he could easily be bogged down on the rough terrain they fought on...

"Haidar, Animate Transmogrify Accel, ceramicrete to magma, scatter around Kayeten."

"Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Animate Transmogrify Accel," Haidar skipped straight to chanting with his labored voice, fatigued under the strain of continuous high-powered spellcasting. Two dozen beams unraveled from one and rained down upon Kayeten and Arkadi's position as a single salvo, some deflecting off shields before meeting the ground. They transformed the rubble into shallow pools of magma that reached upwards like molten zombie hands instead of seeping down.

Kayeten staggered back several steps through an animated lava patch, trying to maintain balance while electricity crackled and surged from the back of his powered armor. The magma was nowhere hot enough to breach armor designed to defend against direct laser and superheated plasma hits. But the shallow patches quickly solidified around any intrusion, miring his movement like glue and binding on more debris.

"Haidar on your six!"

Korey's frantic shout pulled Kannon's focus across the battlefield, just in time to see a bolt of lightning from the ground strike the shields of Haidar and Lysette's IFV. But instead of being deflected, it curved its way around the flaring shield bubble to behind Haidar's turning back, where the crackling electricity reformed into a physical entity -- a dame of the Cross Knights. A golden blade expanded to thrice its normal length before chopping down, cutting through Haidar's shields and armor alike, slicing him apart for a second before his entire armored body disintegrated into dust.

"HAIDAR!!!"

Korey's desperate scream over both the airways and the telepathic channel struck Kannon like a sledgehammer, forcing in the inescapable reality.

Haidar just... died, like that?

One second he was still there, in a perfectly defensible position; the next moment his remnants were scattering in the night winds.

Kannon had seen Edmund killed before her very eyes back on the Hadrian. She had witnessed Ersilia's entire squad destroyed within the blink of an eye. Every instance of death had elicited its own moment of shock, cringing, and urging to scream. But this time it was on a whole different level...

Even if they had known each other for only a few days, Haidar had been a comrade, a teammate, one whom she had worked and lived and ate and laughed together with.

It was all so sudden, all too sudden.

A part of her had finally understood: this... was the true battlefield, the arena that Arkadi and his men lived in. It was a war zone where anyone could die at any moment, where a split-second spelled the difference between accomplishment and slaughter.

...And if I don't snap out of it, I'll be next!

Kannon took a deep breath and pulled together all her available mental strength to bulldoze her shock and grievances into an isolated corner. It was only delaying the inevitable, but she had to concentrate right now.

The Captain still needs me to keep an eye on the field, on their backs.

The IFV that Haidar once stood on plummeted towards a nearby apartment building as smoke trailed behind it. The Cross Knight that reaped his death also severed one armored hatch and one turbofan wing, crippling the vehicle. Thankfully, Lysette had ejected safely, and her flurry of desperate attacks with her twin chainblade shortswords had managed to score a glancing hit on the knight's right arm, disarming the target's sword.

Other than Haidar's killer and Kayeten, only two others of the 3rd District still stood: another Cross Knight, whose entire right arm was missing but managed to protect himself with his Bulwark shield in full projection size, stood back to back with an elite auxilia in a suit of powered armor that bore the damage of at least three hits.

But even counting Arkadi, Lysette, and Kaplan's suit which was missing a right forearm, only six of the Black Hand remained.

Worst of all, proximity sensors on Kannon's readout alerted of incoming hostiles, and she patched the info through:

"2nd District forces closing. First wave, four Peltast recons, ETA 50sec. Second wave, five Principes IFVs, six Langskip AT/AAS, three Signifier command, ETA 120sec."

There's no time left...

No, possibly worse.

Kannon assumed Kayeten had drawn Arkadi into an one-on-one duel to help protect Marshal Sidika. His lack of reaction so far meant that she was most likely still alive. But there was only one unknown suit of powered armor left standing and... other than the crippled knight, they weren't even attempting to protect it. Unless Sidika was playing some suicidal bluff, there was no way that she was within that last armor.

It was possible she disguised herself as one of the knights, but nothing in her record mentioned learning the faith magic of the Cross Order. Nor was she known for any prowess in swordsmanship which all the survivors have displayed in abundance. This meant that Marshal Sidika could be still amongst the debris with some means of surviving both the hotel's collapse and the IFVs' crash. But far more likely, given Kayeten's preparedness, that she somehow anticipated this and wasn't inside the hotel at the start of the mission to begin with!

"Captain, we have to pull out! The 3rd Marshal isn't here! None of those remaining should be Sidika!"

Arkadi didn't respond at all, and for a second Kannon wondered if he even heard her. A wave of red sensor blips emerged from the Peltast recon vehicles, and the miniature laser point-defense turret on his left shoulder went into full-auto. Only then did Arkadi's bitterly forced orders finally pass over the channel:

"All units, withdraw! Teleport out now!"

Activating his boosters, Arkadi leaped away from Kayeten's crippled suit, ignoring his final shouts.

Kannon withdrew her attention from the sensors and camera feeds. She unbuckled her seatbelt and looked over to Korey, whose eyes were still shaking.

"Korey, we should depart as well."

He slowly turned towards her with a dazed expression before shaking it off.

"R-right... we do... s-setting vehicle for self-destruct. Countdown sixty seconds. Confirm."

Even though his longtime friend had just been killed before his eyes, Korey's training quickly kicked him back into gear once he snapped out of his daze. He unbuckled himself and stood up from the seat, then moved over to the door of their warded utility aircar and grasped the handle before turning back towards Kannon. Tears glazed his emerald-green eyes as he forced a lonely smile and extended his other hand towards her.

"Let's get going."

As Kannon shut down her implant's connection with the vehicle and took his hand, Korey opened the door and pulled her outside. But the instant her feet hit the hard pavement, his body froze stiff in front of her and his left shoulder sprayed blood into the air. A split second passed before he disintegrated into dust within the mist of blood just as something hard smashed straight into her lungs, knocking the air out of her.

The last thing Kannon recognized before blacking out was a head of apple-red hair.



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