“We’re moving,” Jace said. He turned to face the small camp. Lines of sweat rolled down his flushed face. His actions against the Eliksni had worn him down more than he let on. Typical. I was just glad to see a reminder that he wasn’t as unbreakable as he’d always tried to show. “Tsuni, find whoever is in charge with the refugees and give them directions to the city. I’ll signal the Tower for an escort as soon as-“
“You know our orders,” Tsuni interrupted. “No communication and no deviation until we’ve learned the reason for their movements. If we call in early or give away our intentions, it could wipe out all the work we’ve done so far.”
“It’s past that now,” Jace growled through clenched teeth. “I won’t stand by while the rest of them are slaughtered. Together, before, they had a small chance. Now they have nothing.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I tell them. Both of them turn to me, surprise clear on their face. I’m surprised Tsuni didn’t see it first but we were all under an enormous amount of stress and unleashing the Light as we had is incredibly draining. Another wave of nausea rushed through my core and bright spikes of pain flared behind my eyes. “Our Ghosts are down, remember?”
Tsuni frowned, looking down at the small purple shelled Ghost in his arms. Jace stared at the milling crowd of people. Most were on their knees, crying over a dead friend or loved one. Others just sat, their faces slack.
“I’ll speak to them,” Jace said. If I hadn’t been with him for so long, I would’ve missed the emotions that flickered through him before grim determination replaced them. Pain. Concern. Fear. Not for himself. “Gather your gear. Meet me back here in fifteen minutes.”
We walked together for a moment but Jace broke off to crouch beside an elderly woman. He reached for her, speaking quietly yet firmly. I sometimes forgot how gentle he could be. I’d seen him face a wave of Hive, roaring a challenge as they screeched their battle cries. I’d held him against me as he died again and again and each time, he remained focused, issuing orders despite the pain. I’d even once seen him argue with Lord Shaxx. It didn’t go his way, obviously, and he never spoke of what happened but for a few moments, he stood his ground. And now here he was, carefully gathering the refugees. There’s a reason I follow him.
I walk through, stepping over corpses and smoldering ruins until I find my rifle and pack. Tsuni is waiting at the checkpoint. I can see him sitting with his Ghost, a gloved hand carefully moving over the small shell. His lips are moving but I can’t hear anything. Testing it, I’m sure. I have no idea what exactly he’s doing but, then, I often don’t know. He struggles to explain on the few times I’ve asked him. He’s not condescending or arrogant; he just works at a completely different level and I think he can’t remember the way back to our level.
The little girl from earlier watches me as I field strip my rifle. She’s sniffling but her tears have stopped. She’ll survive. She’ll have nightmares but I’ve seen that particular way people look when they’ve had enough. When they’ve seen the worst of it and finally realize that either they can lie down and die or they can take a stand against the Darkness. Her small eyes are watching as I clean and reassemble my rifle. I’d purchased it off of a Dead Orbit member. Twitchy, dirty little guy with darting eyes. I had to sit through a long speech about the need to run from Earth before the Darkness swallowed us whole. I bit my tongue throughout it all. I’d just wanted the damn gun. I may not agree with their politics but they have a direct line to Omolon and the rifle was a special, limited order.
I held the scout rifle to my shoulder, glancing down scope, sweeping left and right to make sure the telemetry was accurate. As soon as I’d paid the man, I’d headed over to Banshee to have him look at the rifle. It’d taken a week before he had the time but it was always worth it. I sat with him while he cursed and grumbled and insulted the Dead Orbit technicians with a few choice words thrown in for Omolon. Still, when all was said and done and he’d handed me back the rifle, he’d told me it was a damn fine gun. After he’d fixed it up, of course. The shiny white frame was deep black now, with flecks of gray and brown to break up the pattern of it. He’d done amazing work with it and I babied it.
Laying the rifle down on the fiber cloth I used while cleaning the rifle, I traced my finger over the symbol I’d carved into the side of it: a small star with a circle inside. For luck. It stood for the Traveler for me. Nobody asked me why I added the mark to my rifles and I never bothered to explain it. When you’ve been out enough, it was easy to pick up little habits. Little good luck charms.
Stowing my gear, I sling my rifle and make my way over to Tsuni. Jace was designating leaders and handing out duties to everyone. If everyone had a purpose, they were more likely to stick with the group and survive. Even if it was nothing other than keeping an eye out.
“Any luck?” I ask.
“No, nothing,” Tsuni replies. “I’ve never seen this before. It’s completely unresponsive to stimuli. No movement, no communication and I can barely detect the amount of energy it’s using. Whatever that signal was, it completely shut them down. I didn’t even know that was possible beyond destroying them.”
My own Ghost is stored in my pack. He hates that but I expect he isn’t even aware of it right now. I rub my temples; the headache is still there.
“We’re leaving,” Jace says from behind us. I look around him to see the refugees gathering all of the supplies that are still left. Jace looks at me and hesitates. “A girl asked after you.”
“I saw her,” I tell him, hefting my pack. We’re making our way along an old road. My eyes are flicking around at everything but there’s nothing. No sounds beyond the cry of some bird far overhead. Metal clinks rhythmically against metal and, occasionally, the wing of a huge ancient aircraft moves, groaning against the wind.
“You made an impression,” he continues. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she enrolls herself in the Academy. If they make it.”
“Good,” I answer, barely listening. “They could use more people.”
“She said she didn’t know women could be Guard-“
“Why are you telling me this?” I snap, turning to face the man.
Jace shrugs, spreading his fingers. “I just thought you’d like to know. You’ve inspired them. And saved them. If they survive, most of it will be because of you.”
“They were stupid for being in the open in the first place,” I tell him. “We had scouts everywhere. Have them everywhere. We’ve passed the word to everyone in this mess. ‘Go to the city, you’ll be safe there.’ They’d all be alive if they’d listened the first time.”
We continue in silence for a while. I take the lead, moving from cover to cover as we make our way to the coast. I almost signal clear but something makes me stop. I give the signal to hold and then crouch, scanning the horizon. I’ve learned to trust my instincts even when I can’t hear or see what’s-
There. A hunting party. A Captain, three Vandals and twelve Dregs. Roughly a kilometer away. I signal contact and Jace and Tsuni silent spread out behind me into cover. The Eliksni are moving slowly but openly. Far too sure of their superiority in the area. I look to Jace but he shakes his head slightly. We watch them move. The Dregs are fanned out, moving back and forth. The Vandals are behind; masters pulling on their dogs’ chains.
I hate waiting. The memory of the refugees being cut down is still entirely fresh in my mind. My hand tightens around my rifle. I want to push forward and slaughter every single one of the filthy creatures.
Suddenly, the temperature drops. The air shrieks, screaming around me. My cloak whips around my legs until I pull it close, shivering in the freezing air. I glance around my cover to see the Eliksni arraying themselves, glancing around nervously. The tall grass between us is swirling in a vortex, pulled and pushed by the unnatural wind.
A small black orb forms a meter above the grass. It bulges and expands and the grass below withers, rotting away. It’s hard to look at. My eyes keep sliding away from it and, when I force myself to focus on it, I feel the urge to vomit. It grows further, pressing against the ground until, with a bright bang, it vanishes.
Dark shapes stand in place of the sphere. They step and jerk, disappearing and reappearing meters away. Something tickles the back of my mind. Some piece of-
“Taken,” a voice whispers directly in my ear. I turn to look at Tsuni (his hand on his internal throat mic) but I suddenly recall a mission briefing. When the Dreadnaught appeared in our solar system, we found a new enemy to face. Intel at the time was sparse and nobody had clear vids. We’d been in the field too long to know more, especially since they weren’t expected to make landfall here. I make a note for at least the hundredth time to pay more attention to briefings.
“Wait and see,” Jace says. His voice is low and clear, as if he’s standing directly behind me. We watch the two forces engage. The erratic movement of the Taken seem to confuse the Eliskni. Several Dreg break and run but are quickly killed by the dark shapes. The air smells wrong with them around and my stomach twists.
Several dark shapes rush forward to the lone Captain. It roars, firing its rifle through the mass. A single Taken just… evaporates into the air but the Captain is overwhelmed. He falls beneath of pile of twisted Thralls, his screams turning to gurgles as he thrashes.
A single bead of sweat slips from my hairline, coursing down into my eye. I blink it away and keep watch. There are less Taken now than when they appeared. Perhaps twenty of them but they keep shifting, making it hard to count. They don’t seem to be moving anywhere. Just waiting. Moving within an invisible circular barrier. Shifting and feeding on their prey.
I press my hand against my throat to ask Jace what we should do when I gasp. I feel cold, hard fingers on the back of my neck. Old childhood fears surge to the surface of my mind and my heart races.
A… form… steps between dimensions. Huge. Less solid than the Taken surrounding it. It’s cloaked in a long, flowing black and red robe. It’s floating above the ground and every single Taken drops to their knees, facing the figure. Their hands are raised and they’re chanting in a hissing tongue.
It turns to us and chaos erupts.
“MOVE!” Jace yells. He’s suffused with Light and a glowing blue dome surrounds us, shutting out the horrid smell and chanting from the Taken. The Light within Jace’s bubble caresses us. I feel energy flow back into me and I breathe again.
Tsuni has his rifle raised and it roars in his grasp. The bullets pierce the bubble and are sheathed in an aura of Light. A Taken Thrall screams and dies under the spray. Tsuni shifts his rifle towards the massive figure standing in the middle. With adrenaline and Light flowing through my body, I watch as each bullet nearly reaches the figure before they just disintegrate into nothing.
I breathe once, twice and then touch my right hand against my left. I pull my right hand back and a glowing white arrow pulls back with it. The image of a simple, old recurve bow flashes in and out of existence. I concentrate, trying to hold it in place. My heart is racing and the pain between my temples is nearly unbearable. I release. The arrow screams forward, arching towards the tall figure.
I know it won’t work. I can handle the Gun and the Knife but the Bow is new to me. I have to try, though. If Light infused bullets won’t touch it… the arrow flickers and vanishes. I reach for my rifle, moving behind cover as the Taken begin firing. Three shots take out an advancing Thrall.
The figure moves its hands and then pushes outward. Another orb screams towards us. Jace yells something and I see flames envelope Tsuni but, then, Darkness.
I don’t know if I passed out or if the Darkness that surrounded me has done something to me. Taken me somewhere.
I can’t see. I can’t hear. Only my own racing heartbeat is audible to my ears. I can still feel my rifle in my hands and my pack against my back. I move and feel the ground beneath me but there doesn’t seem to be any walls.
“You’ve died here before,” a voice says. My rifle is up in an instant, aiming towards the unseen voice. “I’ve seen it many times. Many times. And sometimes you live. It seems me being here has no direct influence on the events. But, it is an important moment. I’d rather be here than not.”
“Who are you?!” I yell out, hating the panic I hear in my voice. I can’t help it. I can’t stop the sense of dread that’s nearly crippling me.
A pale, faint light blooms in front of me. My hands shake on my rifle and my teeth chatter. I want to crawl under something and hide. The Darkness is too much. Too much for me.
“A friend,” the voice continues. Feminine, I think. I try to focus on anything other than the urge to just roll over and die. The voice sounds feminine. And old. Beyond old. “Perhaps.”
“I have little time,” she continues. I can make her out now. An Exo. Her silver and blue frame is marred by an occasional dent or gash. “Your friends will die if we take too long. There’s a war coming. Oryx was the fuse and, with his death, it is lit. You have their attention now. The false king may be down but, false or not, you’ve made yourselves into a threat and that can not be allowed. Not by them. Not by their Logic.”
“Who?” I ask, shivering.
“His sisters,” the Exo answers. The light has grown. She sitting on a rock with a rifle across her knees. We’re inside of a cavern that slopes upwards. I can hear faint gunfire above. Jace. Tsuni. How can they still fight while I’m trembling down here?
“I have to help them,” I tell the stranger.
“I know,” she says. Her voice is almost sad and I wonder if she means my friends or someone else. She picks up the rifle on her lap, holding it almost gently. The Exo stares at it for a moment and then, as if making a decision, offers it up to me. “You’ll need this.”
“It’s just a- what is it?” I ask. I feel slow and stupid. So many questions.
“The answer to a question I asked a long, long time ago,” she says.
She watches me take it from her. The rifle is heavy but feels almost warm in my hands. It seems to be a standard pulse rifle with an assortment of pieces and parts bolted onto it. Some of the parts are gleaming white while others look almost like flesh and bones. I feel a surge of Light just by holding it. My finger traces the gleaming silver barrel, so out of place next to the flat gray of the surrounding metal.
A single word is scratched into the barrel: Praedyth.
“What’s a Praedyth?” I ask, looking up. The Exo is gone. “Dammit!”
The sounds of gunfire draw me back. The Darkness seems to recede around me and I scramble up the rough path, falling and stumbling until I break through. Tsuni is down, breathing but badly injured. A single thought echoes through my mind: Can we be brought back with our ghosts as they are now? Jace’s bubble is gone.
Only five Taken are left. Four now, as Jace fires a round directly into the head of another. The huge figure is lazily lobbing flaming globs of unnatural space magic at us. I plan to have words with Tsuni when this is all done. If we survive. I raise the rifle and it feels oddly familiar to me. Comfortable. Another Taken staggers but I aim for the shade.
My finger touches the trigger.
I breathe again.
My finger tightens on the trigger and it bucks, three rounds bursting forth, surrounded in pure Light. The creature laughs at me. Until the first round pierces its chest. Black ooze mists out from the thing’s body as all three rounds strike true. I fire again but the thing just shifts and is gone. One round from my second burst vanishes with it but the other two embed themselves deep into a boulder on the far side.
Dropping the gun, I scramble over to Tsuni. He’s still alive and I talk to him as I strip and dress his wounds. He hisses when I inject the blue medigel into the bullet holes but he slowly relaxes as it seals the wound.
“We may have to leave him behind,” I tell Jace. “You know how loud ‘locks get when they stub their toe.” Jace is holding my new weapon, turning it over and over in his hands. I don’t think he even heard me.
“Hah,” Tsuni gasps, propping himself up. “Give me five minutes and I’ll be leaving you behind. What is that thing?”
I explain my brief encounter with the strange Exo. Tsuni asks a million questions. What she looked like. What color were her eyes. How exactly she spoke. What she smelled like. I’d rather be back facing that shade, honestly.
“What’s Praedyth?” I ask them. “Have either of you heard of it? I don’t think it’s a manufacturer. It’s not stamped. It looks like someone scratched it in there with a file or something. Maybe the place it was found?”
“I don’t know,” Tsuni said. He was standing now, adjusting his pack while taking a turn with the weapon. “I’ve never heard of it and it’s not in any of the records I have access to. I-” The man stops and looks at me.
“What?” I ask. He pushes the rifle towards me and taps the side of the stock. A single image is carved into it by a careful, steady hand: a star with a circle inside. My mouth hangs open. I’ve only put that on three weapons before. I’ve never seen it anywhere else. It’s not an emblem for anything else. As far as I know, I’m the only one that has ever used it before. “I’m not- I don’t-“
“You’ve never seen this before?” Jace asks.
“No, never!” I exclaim. “What the hell is this?”
“We can figure it out later,” Jace says. “After we track down Rasputin and see what’s happened to our Ghosts. When that’s finished, we head straight back to the Tower. The technicians can analyze it. Are you both good to move?”
“Yeah,” Tsuni grunts. “What about you, though?”
“I’m a Titan. We’re always ready,” he says, grinning.
I stare at him. No doubt he won’t stop to take care of himself until we break for camp. Probably has ten holes, bleeding him out and he’s just too damn stubborn to die. We continue moving. I can hear the water lapping from the coast. We’re near now. To wherever we’re supposed to be.
“Any thoughts on the Taken, Tsuni?” Jace asked.
“Nothing beyond the briefings,” he answered. “You heard the chanting?” Jace nodded.
“Assume,” I say carefully, clearing my throat. “Assume some of us were asleep during one of the briefings. Assume I couldn’t understand a damn thing those creatures were shouting.”
Tsuni looked over at me from the corner of his eyes. Jace sighed heavily without taking his eyes from his watch while we moved.
“Savathûn,” Tsuni said. “They were chanting and praying for their ‘mother’, Savathûn.”