Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 10
Chapter 11 - Reason To Be
The streets laid 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 it allowed the eyes to see even in the depth of night; not that a metropolis ever went dark with all the light pouring off 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 Brocéliande'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 heading down to the basement shelters built into every building complex 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 be known as a lady-killer, but his charisma 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 undoubtedly 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 Brocéliande, 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 herself that despite occasional conflicts like that of yesterday, the 3rd District was the ally of an ally, and therefore a semi-friendly side that should be kept from falling into chaos.
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 (328ft) away. Unlike appearances, heat, and other signatures, magical auras were remarkably difficult to disguise or hide, especially the aura of any decent mage like this one. Only once in her life had Shirayuki met someone personally and failed to identify them on their next meeting.
(What was 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, Fog Bank. Do anything you can to impeded their vision and movement."
My own voice resounded over the channel. I didn't know many spells for that yet, but I bet there were more than a few options out there, and it was the logical action for those already near the target to take in support of the attack.
A corner of my mind couldn't help but wonder if this really was the answer, but I crushed the thought mercilessly. I would follow through my 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.
Two IFVs maneuvered into flanking position, 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...)
"Haidar, Animate Entangle; shut down their movement!"
"You got it, Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Animate Reshape Entangle!" Haidar took my recommendation with enthusiasm, appending it with an effect word that I had yet to learn while 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 soon reached upwards through the cracks like vines, 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, scattering across the area using their boosters while two more lagged a second behind them.
(Kayeten must have realized it---)
The only reason we could be obscuring 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, whether it was delayed by reactions or due to entanglement.
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 high-magnitude 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 and pulling out massive blades with heated chainsaw edges.
"Select Arms Aura 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 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 as all six squad members boosted towards him, seeking a convergent strike from multiple vectors. The knight extended the length of his golden blade to cut down one before his opponent could even reach him, then block off two more with his shield and deflected another with his pauldron. 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.
...I felt like I was going to throw up...
A wave of intense nausea had just risen up my throat when the knight's body flashed and literally detonated. Golden flames poured out into a thick column of holy fire that formed a gigantic upright crucifix, washing over both electromagnetic (EM) and vector shield as though they weren't even there, immolating 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 was turned to nothing more than falling embers. My nausea laid forgotten as shock gripped control of my senses... and moments passed before I managed to shove everything aside and regain control of my dazed mind.
I returned my 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, proving once again that undercover operatives, even combat specialists, were poorly matched against battle-hardened army elites on the open field.
"---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 took shots at targets of opportunity. The Captain however, boosted off the vehicle before hurling himself straight at the enemy commander, while Kaplan took off after one of the knights.
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.
Arkadi's trumph 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 blade 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.
It was unlike him, 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...)
I took the nearest surveillance drone in to observe their fight. I doubted I could help much in such a chaotic situation, but my heart was set on watching his back and helping him return from this most undesirable confrontation in one piece.
"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 embers. "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 at Kayeten once again.
"Don't compare Marshal Sidika with that monster of the 1st!" Fresh anger flowed through Kayeten’s retort as he deflected the blow by sacrificing his rifle and pulling out his own, albeit smaller chainblade with one fluid motion.
"My, my, enchanted, aren't you?" A leery smirk spread across Arkadi's mouth. "I heard you even became her adoptive son. What a remarkable turn of events worthy of congratulations! Your parents must be rolling in their graves even as we speak!"
"Don't confuse me with yourself, Kernow!" Kayeten filled Arkadi's adoptive surname with contempt as he parried another attack from Arkadi, using the agility of his chainblade shortsword to skillfully redirect the power behind Arkadi's two-handed swings. He followed it up with two quick counterattacks, but his thrusts glanced off Arkadi's shield without even touching the target.
"I have not done a thing I would be ashamed to tell my parents in the afterlife. 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. This 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?"
Although his eyes were shaking, as if his very soul doubted the sanity of his once closest friend, Kayeten's instinctive reflexes parried off yet another onslaught from Arkadi's sword.
The battle continued to rage behind them as the sound of diamondsteel clashing and soldiers screaming drowned out almost everything else. Arkadi's men had taken heavy casualties against the better-trained 3rd district elites, but they still outnumbered their foes. Although the remaining enemies had formed two knight-auxilia pairs, fighting back to back to protect their flanks against superior numbers.
"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---"
I knew he spoke of Lysette and others alike... but was that just an extension of the Arvitor system? Were they making crystals even out of other magically affluent humans due to the demand?
A sinking feeling told me that was part of it, but hardly everything.
Arkadi seemed to be 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, I did not doubt his seriousness for a second.
"---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 my attention as a 3rd District powered armor rocketed towards him, with its massive chainblade readied for an overhand swing.
"Arkadi behind you!" I called out in a rush, before noting that the image and sensor marking were also semi-transparent.
Either Arkadi had already seen it coming or he reacted to my words instantly, carving around his blade in a wide arc, with boosters on his sword 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 and electromagnetic signature to fool passive 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 take two steps back before readying his stance once again.
The tables were already beginning to turn, and unless Arkadi scored a decisive hit he would need support soon. Yet try as I might, I could not grasp any spell that would prove an immediate effect on a foe both fully shielded and armored. Haidar and Lysette continued to support other squads by saturating targets with covering fire in hope of providing a window of opportunity, but Arkadi wasn't breaking away far enough for that...
"Have you heard of a man on Old Terra named Adolf Hitler, Kayeten? An elected dictator, aggressor of the Second Great War, but most importantly, a genocidal killer of Judaism. So atrocious were his actions that the terrifying result of racial hatred would forever be engraved onto the hearts of man, such that 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 rebirth 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! 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!"
Arkadi was completely serious. Those purple eyes that burnt with icy flames wasn'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 my judgment. It was true that governments sometimes dug itself into a pit that they could not recover from without a true revolution. It had happened to the Monarchies during the Spring of Nations, it had happened to the 'Democracies' turned Corporate Republics prior to the Third Great War, and maybe the Stratocracy that seized Avalon's true power could only be overturned in the same fashion.
"And what other idiocy, pray tell, brought you to this path of madness?" Kayeten retorted, any remaining composure tossed aside as simmering fury enshrouded his expression. "There are billions of better ways, pick one, any of them! 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 Aleksandra, would follow someone like that?"
Arkadi froze for a moment as the declaration unnerved him. But a bitter smile soon returned to his face as he pressed onward.
"People change, Kayeten. History has proven it over and over again: we're easily influenced, easily corrupted. Even if the officer who adopted you over a decade ago was a promising individual, she---"
"I'm telling you now, mother--- Marshal Sidika is---!"
"Ha! You were always so gullible, Kayeten. There was no way she would have been named successor for Marshal four years ago had she not supported the current system! Funds channeled from system revenues by the billions, entire clans vanished over a single outspoken member --- her deeds of governance did not change the slightest from her predecessors!"
If Arkadi's words were of news to Kayeten, not an ounce of surprise worked into the latter's expression. At the same time, it was obvious 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.
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.
It was unlikely that the shallow cut could have penetrated the armor deep enough to inflict any significant injury, but Kayeten had proven that Arkadi's shield was not infallible. However, his attack had left himself open for a split second too long, and he dodged too late as Arkadi's chainblade sliced straight into the power packs and boosters behind him, crippling the mobility of his armored suit.
His suite was grounded, and within that laid an opportunity.
"Haidar, Transmute, concrete to magma, scatter around Kayeten."
"Burst Radial Multiply Twenty-Four, Concrete Transmute Magma" Haidar skipped straight to casting 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, transfiguring the rubble they stood on into shallow pools of magma.
"There's a difference between gullibility and a willingness to place faith in others, even if they are still politicians!" Retorted Kayeten as he staggered back several steps through a lava puddle, trying to maintain balance while electricity crackled and surged from the back of his powered armor.
Magma was nowhere hot enough to breach powered armor designed to defend against direct laser and superheated plasma hits, but the shallow puddles quickly solidified around any intrusion, miring his movement like glue.
"Haidar on your six!"
Korey's frantic shout pulled my 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 --- one 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.
Korey's scream over both the airways and the telepathic channel struck my mind like a sledgehammer, forcing in the inescapable reality.
(Haidar just... died, like that?)
One second he was still there, in a perfectly defensible position, and the next his remnants were scattering in the night winds.
I had seen Edmund killed before my very eyes back on the Hadrian. I 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 we had only known each other for a few days, Haidar had been a comrade, a teammate, one whom I had worked and lived and ate and laughed together with.
It was all so sudden, all too sudden.
A part of me had finally understood: this... was the true battlefield, the arena that Arkadi and his men lived in, a war zone where anyone could die at any moment, where a split-second spelled the difference between accomplishment and slaughter.
...And if I didn't snap out of it, I could be next...
I took a deep breath and pulled together all my available mental strength to bulldoze my shock and grievances into an isolated corner. It was only delaying the inevitable, but I had to concentrate right now.
Arkadi still needed 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 had 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 him of his 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, standing back to back with an elite auxilia in a suit of powered armor that bore the damage of at least three minor hits.
But... even counting Arkadi, Lysette, and Kaplan's suit which was missing a right forearm, only seven of the Black Hand remained.
Worst of all, proximity sensors detected at least a dozen units from the 2nd District forces fast approaching, the nearest two marked as Peltast armored reconnaissance vehicles and would be arriving in less than a minute...
(There's also something else wrong...)
I had 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.
With all that put together, it meant that Marshal Sidika was either still amongst the debris with some means of surviving both the hotel's collapse and the IFVs' crash, or, far more likely, she wasn't inside the hotel at the start of the mission to begin with!
After all, Kayeten might have been expecting an attack, given how quickly his team assembled in powered armor.
(...Maybe his goal from the start was to confront Arkadi!?)
"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 I wondered if he even heard me. Then, as a wave of red sensor blips emerged from the Peltast armored recons and the miniature laser point-defense turret on his left shoulder went into full-auto, Arkadi's bitterly forced orders passed over the channel:
"All units, withdraw! Teleport out now!"
Activating his boosters, Arkadi leapt away from Kayeten's damaged suit, who was still shouting at him.
(This is no time to be distracted!)
I unbuckled my seatbelt and looked over to Korey, whose eyes were still shaking.
"Korey, we should depart as well."
He slowly turned towards me 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 our warded utility aircar and grasped the handle before turning back towards me. Tears filled his emerald-green eyes as he forced a lonely smile onto his face and extended his other hand towards me.
"Let's get going."
As I shut down my implant's connection with the vehicle and took his hand, Korey opened the door and pulled me outside. But the instant my feet hit the hard pavement, his body froze stiff in front of me and his left shoulder began spraying 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 my lungs, knocking the air out of me.
The last thing I recognized before my mind blacked out was a head of apple-red hair.
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