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"One moment,"

The words rattled through the door after a short pause. Fumiko frowned, trying to remember their meaning… ahah, right. Once again - how she hated this language. That it was a language she could at all recognize as a language was in and of itself remarkable. But, then, it was remarkable that humans had apparently developed independently here. Was it really any more remarkable that their languages were still ones she could, broadly, learn and understand with practice? She was already in some ludicrous parody of reality - what was one more flagrant violation of probability?

All this pondering did, at least, give her time wherein she did not process Morvanne’s delay in getting ready. Even with the blistering heat of that sun and the alien song of the world around her she still found herself easily lost in thought. Perhaps one day she could even find herself lost in pleasant thought? It would be difficult, though, with all these strangers around her, and the uncomfortable world. Already she was feeling the effects of being displaced. This was not her environment - she had acclimated to the interior of a spaceship. Now she was thrust first into a magical forest, then a scorching desert. She was out of place. And who knew how long it would take her spirit to acclimate to this world. Would she acclimate to this caravan instead? She didn’t know, and she didn’t want to contemplate another few years of this grinding malaise.

At last the door opened, and Fumiko gratefully stepped inside and out of the sun, giving the woman a small bow as was custom. Or, at least, custom in her own home country. She bent over, the nine tails behind her following her rear and briefly filling Morvanne’s vision as she quickly stripped off her boots, leaving them just by the entrance to avoid tracking in dirt. Nesora followed her - though he, in his at times maddening incorporeality, seemed completely unphased by the sun. Looking back up she could see her host, and her host’s home. She raised an eyebrow at the interior of the wagon - it was… nice, actually. It was rather nice. Bundles of books and herbs thrown every which way, a small bed. She had expected worse, for some reason. But- there it was. That symbol again. The strange hand symbol she always made towards herself or towards Nesora.

Fumiko’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. “Tsat!” She exclaimed, “I-” she paused, letting out a small sigh, quietly mumbling “Shtora ya nechisurei shidemakita…”. She wasn’t sure how to excuse herself for rudeness in this language. She did not even know the word for rudeness in this language. Hopefully the message would be conveyed regardless. She pointed Morvanne’s hand, more slowly, miming the gesture with an expression of obvious confusion. “I am… not… know vhat tsis is…” She struggled for the word, frowning, “Vhat is eh…” She shook the hand gesture around, hoping that despite her lack of knowledge of this language, her meaning would get across all the same.
Fumiko - Out of the Frying Pan...

Fumiko muttered a long, elaborate string of curses under her breath as she glared out from under the shade of her haphazardly constructed personal wagon. It was adorned with spacecraft debris, everything of value she had been able to salvage, plus some structural components she was determined to turn into a functional mobile shelter. Some day.

For now, though, she was just trying to keep out of the damned sun. She had never seen sunlight so bright - in truth she had barely ever seen sunlight at all. Only the thin polar night of distant lights to the south, from those other nations her own had in the past warred against. She had never left Yatovina’s borders, and though bright light was not something she was unaccustomed to, bright sunlight certainly was. The heat, too. The heat was horrendous. She couldn’t escape it. She’d only felt something close to this when stuck in protective gear in a heated lab – usually it was cold to which she was accustomed. Bitter cold. Always trying to seep in from the perpetual nuclear winter outside. Warmed and lit only by the dimly glowing remnants of the world’s star and by the wan light of the suns of the southern Gods, she had known cold all her life.

But this damned heat? Nothing like it. She was sweating buckets, even with the cooling properties of her suit. It was built to keep her cool even in volcanically heated environments, or within the confines of a cockpit that would get hotter with every passing second, or indeed the balmy interior of a spaceship. It certainly alleviated the worst of it, but still, the heat was murderous.

And yet despite the heat, she was curious. Curious about this world that was, like it or not, her new home. Curious about the people she’d found herself traveling with - having had the good fortune not to encounter some sort of medieval highwaymen instead. She was curious about this desert city they’d stopped at, too. She hadn’t learned much about it - her grasp of their common tongue was far, far too limited. She had mastered… a few words. The most basic of sentences. Not enough to glean much more than the name of the… polity? under whose banner they now rested.

And she was curious about that one human - the woman, if she remembered the term correctly. The one who kept making the strange symbols whenever she saw her, and who behaved strangely. Strange even by the standards of terrified inhabitants of a medieval world encountering a literal alien in their midst. She certainly understood fear - she was afraid herself. Her copilot was dead. Dead and laid to rest in some strange forest in a strange world, away from the songs of home and the familiar spirits that would have accompanied him. The ship’s spirit was with her at least. And that was something. The shrine - a tiny little thing that gave him something to bind to - was just a little talisman that presently hung around her neck. She held it in her hand, claw gently tracing over the finely engraved details on it.

A hand rested on her shoulder. A familiar warm presence. He was right behind her after all. She had figured he might be off invisibly poking around the camp - but no. He was here. With her.

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she looked back to him. “Ah, there you are.”

“Here I am.” Came the matter of fact answer. “You know. Sitting here does you no good. They’re as scared of you as you are of them. You’re eventually going to need to go speak to them some more. You may as well start now.”

“Yes, yes, Nesora, but what do you expect me to say? I speak… what, thirty words of their language? I can barely understand a single word they say. What conversation am I going to have?”

“The one human that keeps making the weird hand signs? What about her? We’re both curious to find out what they mean, no? Stop making up excuses and go.”

Fumiko sighed, jumping down from her wagon. Her boots hit the hot sand, and she was once again reminded why those comical looking boots for desert operations existed. The sand seemed to eat up her feet. They were admittedly smaller feet than a human’s - digitigrade like those of a fox, rather than the strangely flat and ungainly human feet. But their bigger feet did have one advantage - lower ground pressure. She grumbled, stepping awkwardly through the sand as she trudged over to the strange human’s wagon. She made a unique sight, she was sure. A creature unlike anything else in this world wearing clothes and weapons without like or equal, struggling along with what looked very much like another of her kin walking lightly behind her but with the sand showing no disturbance where he stepped.

The strange human’s wagon was distinctive enough, at least. She didn’t need to awkwardly ask one of the caravan members to help her find it. Hesitantly she approached its door, knocking on it and then, awkwardly, “Eh… Morvanu, right? I… am wanting to… tahk?”

Heavens. She hated this language.
So the question is if I join do you want an unhinged mad scientist with a massive arsenal or an unhinged punk lady with an even more massive arsenal
A Vigilant Dawn, Grieving in the Twilight of Man

The pitter-patter of little feet filled the air. A gentle metallic ring to every rhythmic step that sounded out from each little step. She was in the ducts again. Scurrying around this strange place, exploring its empty stretches and nightmare chasms. Slowly a mental map was forming, an intricate network of ducts and maintenance tunnels and more. They all branched out from something. Something was at the heart of this… this place. She could imagine it all now projected before her, see the different parts of this world flowing together, converging on one point, one central axis around which it was all based.

Perhaps that was her test. To find whatever was at the heart of this place. And she would find it.

She was moving towards the heart of this place. Whatever it was. She wanted to find it and to know what it was that had been calling to her. This whole place, whatever lay at its core - it called to her. It beckoned her. It whispered in her mind when she slept. She was here for something right? Surely this was it. She was near it, she could feel it, she could almost taste it. Something ancient, more ancient than even this station itself, something powerful - lived here.

She crawled along. The ducts were smaller now - or rather, she had gotten bigger. She was growing. Soon she wouldn’t be able to fit through these at all.

She placed a hand on the warm metal ahead - and let out an involuntary yelp of surprise as it gave way beneath her, sending the corroded metal and the child crawling upon it crashing to the floor beneath.

How long had it been? Since she had last awoken? One hundred and thirty-seven thousand six hundred and sixty-six cycles. Since she had last tended to her station? Seventy-seven thousand four hundred and thirty-three cycles. Since she had last spoken to a Maker? A cursory check returned a number. She languished in sorrow at the final query; two million one hundred twenty-four thousand six hundred and fifty-nine cycles since she last spoke to a Maker. And yet…

The lights of the chamber clicked on one by one, illuminating the child-sized figure that had fallen from so high before stretching off into the darkness of the vast room. Each bank of lights exposed masterful mason work, and finely filigreed walls. More curious than the care that had been put into the chamber was the banks of cogitators that stood idle, massive cables as thick as a man's neck running from them to a massive blocky sphere suspended by cables three times the width of a human at its pole dominated the center of the domed room.

The cogitators, dead and silent for millennia, clicked to life all at once. The vast cables running from them to the central sphere hummed with power, and along the core itself small lights of unknown purpose began to blink.

She had categorized the child nearly instantly, her subsystems doing the work for her before her central core had properly awoken. Human. Though only just. Spectral scanners and finely tuned augors hidden within the domed room's mosaics and masonry returned curious oddities. A bombardment of X-rays revealed an internal structure so close yet so far from her Makers that she had almost initiated decontamination protocols. Yet she felt grief well inside her as she watched the child rise to her feet. A perfect example of her Makers, not a mutation in sight on the small things perfect body, but internally, she was wrong.

The child stood, looking around her at the intricate mosaic of wiring and human artifice. Her expression did not change as she did so, though internally, some part of her was impressed, looking on in a mixture of the wonder of a child and the keen eye of a master of their craft. What part, she knew not - something deeper than her mere conscious processes. Something implanted in her by her creators appreciated the wonder of what she looked upon, even if she did not fully grasp its workings in a conscious manner. Yet.

She looked around, blinking in the sudden light, a sharp contrast to the darkness to which she had become accustomed. She looked from the lights to the rest of the room, walking slowly through it. She was not alone in here, she could tell. Something was watching her though she knew not what exactly. She ran her hands across the cables that ran across the floor, and the intricate patterns and decor that lined its walls.

Eventually, however, her attention was drawn towards the center of the room, towards the great sphere at its heart. There, she knew, was the one who shared the room with her. Was this one of her makers? She didn’t think so. They looked like her, not a massive agglomeration of wiring, blinking lights, and more. Was this the being who was testing her, if this was a test? She wasn’t sure about that, either. It was at the heart of the station, but it hadn’t been aware of her until she had fallen through into its space, she was sure of it. She hadn’t felt its presence… or rather, its awareness, until now.

The child folded her arms, watching the sphere expressionlessly, then turned her gaze to one of the scanners whose presence she now felt. She knew not the words she spoke, only vague semblances of such gleaned from scribblings and barely legible symbols from ancient and time-worn texts and signage. And yet they formed on her tongue all the same, poorly formed and uncertain.

“W- whoo arr you?”

Her systems registered the look of recognition in the small child's eyes as she seemed to focus in on one of the recessed scanners hidden within the filigree of the wall. Had she ever met a Maker so perspective before? She began to trawl through her memory banks for any other instance of such an event and spoke all the same.

“I am Vigilant Dawn, Station Keeper of Angel’s Bastion, and trusted ward of the space-time anomaly located beyond the station zone,” a decidedly female voice originating from the sphere itself answered the child’s piecemeal question, “It has been many cycles since I have spoken with a Maker. I fear my functions are less than optimal. I do not have a record of you on Angel’s Bastion.”

The child looked back towards the sphere as the presence made itself known in proper. She looked at the sphere, then back towards the scanners, then towards the sphere once more. She took a step forward, craning her neck as though she might see one of her creators in it. A part of her knew it was folly - and yet she did not in turn know that part of herself. Where such knowledge came from, or why, was just another mystery to unravel in this place.

And perhaps this strange being could help.

“I- I amno- am not fru- from heere.” She said in turn, the words still awkward in her mouth, but growing firmer. “So yo-u do not knoow who Iyam? Hoowar- who ar.. you?” She asked, frowning, then her eyes narrowed, “Owr is this a pa-part ov the t-test?”

Vigilant Dawn, were she to have possessed a face, would have frowned at the child as she spoke. But, possessing no such features, instead dimmed the lights slightly at the girl's tangled words.

“My records, while vast, are incomplete. I have not had positive control over much of Angel’s Bastion for too many cycles than I care to admit,” the machine stated, “and so my records of crew and visitors are fragmented at best.”

She scrutinized the child again under auspex and particle bombardment as she spoke, “You are not registered aboard. Additionally, I have no record of tests running in parallel with my functions.”

She took on a softer tone now, almost cooing at the lost and confused thing before her, “I may yet provide you a route home if you can confirm where on Angel’s Bastion you are from.”

The child looked at the machine, frowning in turn at the dimming of the lights. She shook her head. “Iyam not frum heyar. I am from…” she paused, thinking. Where was she from? Not here, certainly, she knew that for certain. She had been created somewhere else, she had crashed here from… somewhere beyond.

“Somewhere e-else.” she declared, shoulders slumping in defeat. “Somewhere far away. With a dif-different star. I thoug-t that I was brought heyar for a test. By the people who made me.” She looked around some more, throwing her hands in the air, “But there are no people here! Just monsters!”

The lights along Vigilant Dawn’s core dimmed to a warm yellow as the girl spoke, before Vigilant Dawn herself answered.

“This is most peculiar, I have no record of any arrivals by voidcraft anytime shortly after I lost contact with Makers off-station.”

Vigilant Dawn turned her attention fully on the child and away from her failing databanks as the girl proclaimed of monsters aboard.

“Indeed. Containment protocol has been significantly hindered during my slumbers. There are a number of uncategorized xeno species aboard Angel’s Dawn,” the machine paused a moment, “along with a larger number of Makers, twisted beyond saving,” she finished, her lights dimming a somber blue.

The child listened patiently, and nodded. “It wasn’t a voidcraft.”

How she knew that word, she did not know. Another thing planted in her mind, certainly, it clicked into place as though she had always known it, and simply needed to hear the concept spoken aloud to understand. Something more to some day learn about. But Vigilant Dawn had told her more, she now knew this was no test, no examination conducted by her creators hiding in the heart of this station.

Which begged the question why she was here, after all, and who had taken her. She spoke again, continuing, her grasp of the words already strong now. “It was something else. I was grown inside it. Someone… something…? Sent me here. I thought it was a test, and my creators would be here, where you are.” She looked around, throwing her arms in the air in defeat, “Who are your Makers, though? Are they the same as mine? You’re…” the child trailed off, frowning, “Old. Very very old. They can’t be the same.”

“Correct,” Vigilant Dawn answered instantly, “my makers are long dead. It has been 5,820 years since I last spoke with a Maker.” An array of machines clicked now as the machine accessed memories of old.

The machines whined a moment, a number seeming to stop altogether, before finally the machine spoke aloud again.

“I was activated, along with six of my kin—“ the machines around the child screeched as one, several beginning to smoke, “—of my kin—“ one of the console screens burst in an array of sparks and the workstation set ablaze a moment later.

“This information is no longer available to me.” Vigilant Dawn affirmed as if nothing out of the ordinary had just taken place.

“How long have you been aboard Angel’s Bastion?” she asked without missing a beat.

The child flinched as the screen burst, looking back to the AI with a mixture of fascination and concern. She racked her mind for something to say - but what would she say? Ask if she was alright? The answer to that was self-evident. Ask what it was? The AI seemed not to have noticed it’d happened at all. Ask some other variant of the same question? She’d rather not hurt Vigilant further. She frowned, and simply resigned herself to the knowledge of it as another mystery to be untangled.

“A…” she frowned, “Ninety six standard terran cycles.” She proudly declared. “And that’s all I know about this place. That, and it’s full of monsters, and something made me come to you.”

The core of the machine whirred silently, Vigilant Dawn thinking as she cross referenced all she knew of human biology and her own scans of the child before her.

“You outgrow a standard human at your stated age, alarmingly so. You must be wrong,” she said, leaving out the part about how it wasn’t the girls memory that was wrong.

“The monsters you encounter, I have, during every waking cycle, tracked their steady progress as they overrun Angel’s Bastion. There are bands of adult humans that fall to them with each passing year. Yet you stand before me.” The machines around the girl whirred and clicked, “curious.” Vigilant Dawn tutted.

“I can offer you much, but I can not offer you protection, not yet. For that, you must help me.”

A number of screens began to scroll data across their reflective surfaces, and a large holoimage of the station filled the air before the child.

“As you can see,” the machine began, “much of Angel’s Bastion is derelict and outside of my control,” the holoimage flashed a bloody red over large pieces of the station layout, “I can do nothing here without a Maker to restore me.”

The machine did not speak as the image floated between them for several moments, “I believe, young Maker, that you can do this for me,” the machines at her side clicked and whirred, “in exchange, I offer you my knowledge.”

The child shook her head. “I’m not a standard human.” She spoke with authority, conviction. Yet another mystery, another thing implanted in her by her creators. But she also simply knew, felt it in her bones and in her small hands and feet - she was no normal human. She was something altogether unique, different. She simply didn’t understand why.

“I’m not a normal human, and I don’t need protection. I’m strong. I’m still small, but I’m strong. The monsters run away from me, and I eat them when I’m hungry.” She paused, then, continuing. “I do want to learn, though…” She looked up, “Is that what you can do? You can tell me about here? About everywhere else? I help you fix your home and you teach me things?”

The child stood for a moment, thinking. She thought about what the offer could entail, fixing up this place starting from this forgotten room at its heart - and then she was somewhere else. She was tall, holding… swords. She stood proud atop the station - a station whose exterior she had never seen in such detail before, only a fleeting glimpse before she had smashed into it. Its extensive staryards reached out for kilometers before her. Its vast intricate clockwork habitation blocks and fabrication wards rose up into the void beneath her, repaired and newly inhabited. The fires of industry and revitalized civilization flared beneath her as she stood, proud, resplendent in her triumph as she surveyed the stars beyond. She looked down to a massive voidship under repair, having been dredged out of the former hulk and in the process of restoration.

She blinked, and she was back in the computer room. Only a second had passed, and yet… she looked up to the AI, and nodded. “I’ll do it.”

Vigilant Dawn, were she human, would have smiled at the child, instead she simply answered, “Then let us not waste anymore time, there is much to do if this station is to be brought back to its former glory—”

Around the child, a number of holo-images sprung to life. Intricate depictions of electrical circuits, detailed engineering diagrams for the blast doors and hydraulic actuators in this very room, and endless scrolling information on several screens ranging from the most basic of algorithmic computations to the precise mathematics behind nuclear fusion began to roll across holo-images.

“And I have much to teach you, Young Maker.”
Fumiko - Communication Conundrums

Fumiko frowned in visible confusion as the human began to speak in a bewildering variety of what were obviously different languages of this world. Certainly, she could try some of her own - Yatoviniy, Kamitanese, Lyusadiy, and so on. But that would come to nothing. Even with the enormous, incomprehensible cosmic coincidence of humans on this world - and these were humans as she knew them, she was sure - there was absolutely no chance they spoke any language she might know.

And so she watched in tense silence, not wanting to provoke a fight, or worse.

The ship’s spirit crept up behind her from where he’d fled, watching wide eyed in equal shock and awe. Neither of them had any words for the other - what would they even say? Even if they had known what to say to each other, the humans might have thought it was dangerous in some way, a threat, a plan of action.

They watched as the man held up his chain, then let it drop to the ground where it coiled before them. A symbolic gesture, for certain. She had sheathed her own weapons, and he had dropped his own in turn. She didn’t know the word he spoke as he let it drop, but she didn’t need to. Its message was clear enough. Neither of them wanted to fight today.

The question was what to do next.

She shared another look with the spirit, and took a step forward, keeping her hands clear of her weapons. She pointed to herself, “Fu-mi-ko.” She paused, and repeated her name, then pointed to the human man, waiting for his response. After a moment, she then turned to her ship, pointing at it, pointing to herself, and threw her arms in the air to flop down at her side in defeat. Whatever other communication barriers there might be - *that* at least was an expression she was confident would be hard to misunderstand. She hoped.

Fumiko stared in a mixture of fear and disbelief at what was now arrayed before her. She continued to yell, thoug whatever words she spoke dd not register in her mind, transfixed as it was by what filled her eyes.

Fucking humans.

She watched as another one ran in, waving a… a chain. A chain that was on fire. He seemed to be himself breathing fire. A fucking human, wearing clothes that looked like something from artwork of the medieval period some three thousand years ago. Wielding pyromantic magics. From a chain. A fucking chain.

It was all too much. She didn’t process that one of the humans was, clearly, a dwarf - but if she had it would have made the situation all the more hilarious. All the more absolutely incomprehensibly mad. She started to laugh, still pointing her gun at them, finger still tight on the trigger, sword still clutched in her other hand. But she laughed, she laughed and laughed and laughed at the sheer absurdity of the situation before her. What else was there to do? She looked at the man, a wizened old man like the humans all inevitably became, and her laughter only increased further.

She must have looked absolutely mad, she realized, somewhere deep inside. But she simply did not care. She looked up towards the heavens, towards the empty sky where beyond billions of stars simply continued to churn along, oblivious to everything. One of them was hers, she was sure of it.

And she was stuck here instead.

She laughed more, yelling aloud to the heavens, screaming every syllable with every ounce of energy she could muster. She barely knew what she was saying, and if the people around her were saying anything in turn, she couldn’t hear. She knew the new human had said something, but cosmic coincidences did not extend as far as shared languages. But she had to do something, anything, really, to avoid ending up dead or making enemies in… wherever she was.

She snapped back to reality, pointing her gun at the newcomers as her laughing fit ended as suddenly as it had begun. She watched them, eyes boring a hole through each of them. Words would do no good, that much was evident. She took a chance, and lowered her gun.

She raised her sword, and took a step back, tapping the blade against the hull. “Khosveisa.” And drew a rectangle in the dirt. She pointed to the sun, “Saiyontse,” and drew a circle in the dirt. She repeated the word as she pointed somewhere off into space, and then drew a second circle, further away from the word. She looked up to her impromptu audience - whether this little explanation was doing anything she knew not. The tip of the sword traced a line in the dirt, from the spaceship around the second star, to this world’s star, and then formed a new smaller circle, “Mikai.” She tapped the tip of the sword on the ground, then gestured to the world around them, repeating the word again. Hesitantly, she sheathed her sword, and holstered her firearm, taking another step back.

She looked at them, and waited.
The Cleansing of Nordyc

The First Blow

After the long, thunderous prelude of the bombardment, the storm seemed to abate. The trails of artillery fire that had torn through the sky with furious roars grew slower and sparser, then stopped altogether, leaving the angrily howling northern wind and the swirl of snowy dust the sole masters in the leaden heavens. It could have seemed, for a brief and deceptive moment, that peace might have had a tenuous opportunity to reassert itself over the northern waste. This hope, however, would soon have proved vain to any who cast their eyes down from the now unperturbedly restless skies and unto the earth below, where the stirring of mankind’s ever eager lust for battle belied the moment of respite’s true nature. It was no more than a fleeting spell of calm before greater forces yet collided to set off the tempest’s fullest and bloodiest magnitude.

Already, the lightly undulant line of the horizon was beginning to blacken with sinister shadows. Stirred like so many hornets by the volleys against their forts, the teeming throngs of the wyrd-poisoned techno-tribals of the northern confederation were spilling out onto the plain, eager to trample the invaders in open combat rather than perish under their crumbling walls. On the other side of the field, those that marched under the Raptor’s standard began to move against them. Vast ranks wrapped in furs and thick cloaks shuffled, clutching their protective garb against the unremitting Nordyc chill. The steel-clad giants of the Primarch Ushotan’s legion preceded them on the formation’s wings with grim eagerness, here and there breaking into a run with feral snarls on their faces before being reluctantly recalled to order by their little more disciplined sergeants.

Closer to the center of the Imperial line, a cluster of figures in slate-coloured carapaces kept pace with the more sedate of the Legio Cataegis. They were not each as massive as the Thunder Warriors, and a mere fraction of their number, but their serried ranks were straighter, and their loping advance more focused. The black metal of rough, skeletal-looking augmentic limbs blended with the gray of their plate and the unvarnished metal of their chainswords, the soft golden halo around the crest of their leader’s helmet the only bright spot in their dour troop.

Behind them closely followed amongst the newest of the Legions, known merely as the Steel Sentinels, numbering lesser than those such as the ones that advanced before them. Led by a gene warrior bearing a powered sword and shield, his blade itching for the hollowed combat promised to his kin. Yet, without the excitement that ran into his veins, Legion Master Arturas Pend spoke into his vox, “Master Skorr, cousin, the nineteenth are advancing behind your force. Know that your rear shall be secure and we will ensure these blighted spawns do not break through your flanks.”

Small companies began to disperse amongst the rear of the centerline, readying themselves for an assault to follow up any gains that their cousins may make. Arturas marched at the head of his force, eyeing down the foul opponents that he had been ordered to show no quarter to. Other vox chatter entered his ears as his officers began to feed reports of the Thunder Warriors’ eagerness, a fact he would relay to the front, “Be wary of the instability of our predecessors, cousin. They seem much too eager for open combat.”

“I cannot say I like them,” returned Skorr’s voice, tinged with the whistling Antarctic accent, “They are like the mirror of the barbarians ahead of us. If we can count on robust sides despite their disorder, you have our thanks. But what of the others? Was there no third legion of ours here today?”

“That would be us, esteemed comrades of the ninth and nineteenth.” A new voice crackled in, an Achaemenid noble’s accent tinting each syllable. “Our numbers are very few, and so we hold ourselves in reserve waiting to strike. I assure you, our presence will not be missed once we act. However we are few enough that we would be wasted in the initial clash. Tie the foe down for us and I promise you, the warriors of the Fifteenth will not be found wanting.”

In the back lines of the Imperial formation, the Sirens of Terra readied themselves. Small in number, it was as their Legion Master had said, they would simply be lost in the maelstrom of battle were they to join the initial clash. Instead the Fifteenth - not even a full thousand strong - prepared themselves to deliver the coup de grace. When the enemy forces were tied down, the Legion would leap into action and deliver the killing blow.

Though the bulk of the Legion held back from the front lines, a few of its number had deployed to the front regardless, marching forward in their lavender patterned armor alongside Achaemenid auxilia, the mortal soldiers accustomed to the warm climate further south shivering in the cold as they did so. They would be of little use held back to assist with the Legion’s inevitable strike, and so they and a few of the emperor’s gifted gene-warriors would help to ensure exactly that.

“Then it would seem our battle line is made up,” Arturas spoke, watching as lines grew ever closer and closer. The Master of the Nineteenth pointed his blade past the legion that moved ahead of him and spoke clearly into the vox, transmitting to all the Astartes and Proto-Astartes available, “As the Emperor wills, let us fall upon these monsters and let there be no quarter. Show these beasts steel! Show them the Truth! Let our guns silence their prayers, and let our swords stab at the heart of their faith! For Raptor and Imperium!”

A hoarse, staggered cheer rose from the lines in response as the foe came into view. Even in this darkest age of Terra, it seemed, few places could have mustered such an enormity of malformation and grotesquerie. Thinner but wider than the Imperial formation, threatening to engulf it with burgeoning force, the hordes of Maulland Sen bore forward with a cacophony of inarticulate howls, barbarous chants and tortured metallic cries. Mobs of savages draped in ragged furs and sparse plates of beaten armour, cultic symbols visibly scarred into their skin where it was carelessly exposed despite the cold, roared as they brandished blades and crude stubbers. A closer look from augmented eyes revealed the clear touch of unclean forces upon them. Several faces in the mob were missing an eye, a nose, an ear, or else had a third pupil glaring balefully from improbable angles. Others were misshapen as if made of crumpled clay, lopsided jaws drooling ferally in the tangle of wild beards. Far too many hands, not all of them humanly proportioned, reached out from the human mass.

Less mentionable forms yet towered over it. Thick-limbed giants rivalling the Thunder Warriors stamped and growled with bestial voices, products of a gene-craft far cruder than what had birthed the Hymalazian legions: their heads, where they were not covered by ungainly rounded helms, were a hideous sight, eyes, teeth and folds of skin commingled in such a chaos that it was amazing the brutes were alive at all. But live they did, and their tremendous spiked mauls and chainaxes tore the air with frightful energy. Cybernetic miscreations, like ambulant trees with trunks of stretched flesh surmounted by thrashing metallic branches, pushed to the forefront, hunger for either bloodshed or release writ large in their vitreous steel-caged eyes. Gleams of sickly light passed over the infernal mob, their source uncertain but their menace palpable.

Uncaring of the enemy’s monstrosity, the Steel Lords were already rushing to meet them. Curt volleys of bolter and stub-gun fire were exchanged between the approaching files, the tell-tale red of Ushotan’s unstable plasmagun flaring somewhere to the right, before a crash of metal and clamour of screams signalled the beginning of the melee. Nordyc-men and Thunder Warriors tore at each other with wild abandon, and the dry soil was soon heavy with blood.

“Reviled by flesh! Death walks with us!” Nyrid’s voice rose in the relative clarity of the center as the blade-champion emerged at the head of his files, waving his sword forward.

“Death walks with us! Graachal! Qasechik!” answered a cry from the slate-armoured warriors behind him, the unifying language of the Raptor blending with fragments of harsh dialect from their half-remembered youth. With practiced agility, their ranks extended and became a crescent, bristling with sharp wedges along its fore. Never halting its motion, the arcuate formation continued to gain speed, angling as it surged to meet the frothing rage of Maulland Sen.

The nineteenth for their part did not engage with the enemy line, not initially, their forces content to observe behind the fighting. Yet, there was an unease in the Steel Sentinels for the lines grew chaotic as the screech of metal against metal rang in the air. The signal came in parts, Arturas sent forth company after company to the front spitting bolt fire and revving chain blades. Their goal was simple, ensure the abominable forces did not break through their lines and increasingly company after company had to sprint to the right flank as the Thunder Warriors, so dedicated to their carnage moved much faster than their auxiliary forces could keep up.

Arturas himself ran amongst the right flank of their fighting, his blade spinning and his shield flaring as he and his officers locked step with one another. Many others of his legion refused to break rank as they dogmatically held to their line. Many began flinging grenades past their shield walls, fragmentation tearing through the crowds of clustered combatants as they slowly made their way forwards. Screams of the damned may have filled the air, but the Sentinels allowed not one shout to be heard from their mouths with their focus solely upon maintaining the battleline.

The bulk of the Fifteenth lay in reserve, behind the wailing clash of steel and the shrieks and groans of the dying in the unfolding maelstrom. They stood in silence, the din of rending metal and tearing flesh dampened by distance and by the bulk of the engines of war that stood around them. Their time would come, they knew, but even so it sat ill with many to simply wait for the opportune moment to strike. They had trust in the strength of arms of the others, of course, and of their own volunteers and auxilia in the front line, but even for the mind of an Astartes trained as the ultimate weapon - the waiting was almost unbearable.

At the front, the auxilia and the volunteers of the Sirens felt no such mounting tension. Around them on all sides the hideous screech of grinding metal and earth shattering explosions split the air as the two armies drew near. Fighting in tight, disciplined formations the Achaemenid auxilia held their formations as they poured accurate, lethal fire from infantry rifle and vehicle mounted heavy weapon alike into the enemy. The hulking power armoured forms of the Sirens, some bearing archaeotech heirlooms passed down through noble lineages of the Empire. They raised their hands, shouting words of encouragement and defiant war cries to the echoing cheers of the auxilia around them as they steadily advanced.

“Sons and daughters of the Achaemenid Empire!” One of them shouted, her voice amplified across the formation, “We are first among all and second to none! Do your duty to your Emperor and tell your daughters and sons that you stood with the Imperium of Man on this day!”

A chorus of voices answered in response, mostly mortal, with the voices of the astartes of the fifteenth joining in. The Auxilia of the Fifteenth surged forward, advancing with speed and in good order towards the enemy in tandem with the other imperial forces.

It was but a short space that divided them now, marked less by distance than by the tangle of clashing forms all across the field. Savagery clung about the people of Nordyc like a noisome mantle, but none could have faulted their courage. Inexhaustibly they hurled themselves against the compact ranks of their foe, new faces contorted by rage and mutation surging forward to replace the many who fell. In the van and on the flanks they could find no breach. The Thunder Warriors’ unremitting advance hammered them; the undulant wedges of the Ninth Legion, advancing and withdrawing like the teeth of a chainsword along their line, viciously ground those caught between them; walls of steel and gunfire met them where they forced ahead. More warriors streamed from the collapsing forts, but the human tide had slowed to a trickle, miring itself in a stagnant churn of dead and mangled bodies around the feet of those who still stood. The mass of fur and loose armour grew thinner, leaving more and more visible those who better endured the brutal winnowing of battle. The genewrought hulks and cybernetic miscreations birthed by the priest-king’s troves of ancient machinery waded indifferently through the sanguine sludge, their looming figures more compact, mace-fists and electrified claws crushing metal and shredding flesh.

A rhythm of voices rose through the cacophony of screams, blows and roaring weaponry. It was not that it sounded louder than all of them, rising over the infernal storm with impossible force. It was but a rhythmic, guttural chant of a few throats, something that should by all rights have been lost in the deafening violence. Yet it persistently droned into every ear, as though the mouths from which it issued had been over the shoulder of each and every combatant, singing their litany to them and them alone. The words were strange to the Imperials, indecipherable even to those passingly familiar with the speech of the northern tribe, but they were heavy with an unmistakable sense of omen, of ponderous menace. The warriors of Maulland Sen seemed heartened by it, and their eyes were large and vitreous with focus.

Behind their straining lines came the source of the chant. A group of shapes no taller than men walked slowly among the hastening reinforcements, untouched by them as a rock by parting water. Long and shapeless robes of crude grey sackcloth covered them from their hooded heads to their feet, unseen below the ends of tattered fabric. Only their hands were visible, crooked and wrinkled, holding long staves of wood and bone almost like banners. The unclean radiance that flickered over the northmen’s heads coruscated and danced on the ends of those staves and the talismans hung from them, sparks and corpse-candles slithering and chasing each other in a kaleidoscopic game that was painful to the eyes. It seemed to shine brighter, gaining in intensity, and yet it did not shed more light nor cast deeper shadows from the bodies around; motes of luminance scattered like disturbed insects before falling to the ground, into the bloodied snow, the ragged skin and broken bones…

A cry of alarm went up from somewhere. A churning noise gurgled from the ground. There was motion below, beyond the shifting trample of feet. A crushed hand twitched; a dismembered jaw gaped and snapped shut. With the creeping steadiness of a nightmare, impelled by swarming sparks of indescribable colours, life returned to those who had been torn away from it. Dead fingers grasped for the legs above them, mounds of oozing flesh coiled and slithered, their horrid weight as dangerous as quicksand. The entire mass of the mangled dead was stirring into horrific animation, a vast amorphous terror that groped in blind and indiscriminate vengeance. Lines wavered as men were dragged down by resurgent carcasses, bloody mulch crawling down noses and throats with a perverse will. Screams mounted. The chant was ubiquitous, oppressive.

As the decrepit song spread, so too did the notice of the Sentinels who had measured their pace and slowed their advance. As the dead began to rise, many of them saw them now surrounded by the dead, grasping and scratching at powered armour. Shots rang, swords slashed, death was continually delivered and brought back. It was not until an order rang amongst the vox that the Sentinel’s orders would change, “The dead rise, brothers! Move to protect the auxilia, by the Emperor’s will cast these abominations back to the grave! First Company with me, strike down the rapturous! Show them Steel!”

The cohorts of the Sentinels broke to fall back to the auxilia, many having to hack and slash their way through the dead and the dying that dared impede them. They rampaged like men possessed to get back to their unaugmented forces, knowing only but their duty to protect humanity from the horrors that their enemy now brought to them. Chainswords swept, volkite flared, death reigned. Even when they had made it back to the auxilia it had become a free-for-all as men fought desperately to survive. Undead attempted to climb aboard a stuck tank, but Sentinels moved quickly to dislodge them before helping the trapped crew evacuate.

Arturas’s command company, numbering only fifty strong, rammed through the enemy hordes, hacking and slashing their way to the enemy wizards with all due haste - stepping upon the dead and crushing them before they could rise once more. His power sword cleaved through his foes with little effort and his shield caught the blade of any gene-warrior brave enough to face him. He moved through the swarm like a butcher through a slaughterhouse, all with his eyes laid upon a grand prize - for his honour compel him to seek out the head of the snake.

The auxilia of the Fifteenth was at first nearly overwhelmed as the dead began to rise around them. Formless, shapeless horrors claws at their limbs and their armor, pulling weapons and their wielders down into the sucking morass that now roiled and thrashed about them as a primordial sea of fury and hate. Devoid of the strength of an Astartes, they hacked at the grasping limbs and gnashing teeth with sword and bayonet. Bursts of automatic weapons fire tore fresh gashes in the flesh of the undead. Bright gouts of flame immolated whole swathes of the battlefield as incendiary grenades and flamers belched forth their deadly payload.

The formation seemed near to breaking as its soldiers warred with the dead under their feet. One man was dragged into the swirling morass as cold fingers pried at his armor, pulling his weapon away from him. The weak light of the arctic sun seemed to fade away underneath a writhing mass of flesh.

And then an armored hand reached through, silver and lavender plating jarringly at odds with the nightmarish morass. With a single mighty sweep of the hand the moving corpses were sent flying, limbs and viscera scattering away as the armored bulk of a Siren pulled him from the dark, pressing a rifle from one of the fallen into his hands. “To arms, soldier. Your duty to the Emperor is not over yet!” She bellowed, her sword cutting a wide swathe through the corpses as she fought her way to another entrapped trooper. “The enemies of tomorrow cannot stand against the sons and daughters of the Achaemenid Empire, do your duty soldiers!”

Abruptly, light flowed over the combatants, living and non-dead, from the western edge of the battle, as if a second aureous sun had suddenly risen to illuminate what ancient Sol could not reach through the leaden northern clouds. There was a sound as of thunder, and the ground quaked. The tribesmen bearing down from the Nordyc’s right flank were swept from their feet, and for the first time seemed to hesitate, dread dawning through the furor in their eyes. Even the sorcerers’ chant faltered. The stirring dead grew sluggish, grasping limbs weakening their grip.

A great cheer went up from the ranks of the Steel Lords, for they were the first to see - their Master was with them, and his advent had staggered the abominable horde. With redoubled vigour they trampled over the twitching charnel, gleefully mulching flesh and bone underfoot. Like a vast pincer of crude metal, their two wings began to close, crushing the faltering resistance in their path and sealing the heart of the enemy between them.

Near that core, the warriors of the Ninth Legion moved likewise. The masses of corpses given impious life had bogged down the manoeuvers that animated their plan of battle, and in the face of the sorcerous onslaught they could do little more than hunker down with bilious obstinacy, bleeding and clinging to the ground they had gained with tooth and nail. Now, however, they tore themselves free of the bloody preternatural hydra, and a thousand chainblades roared their defiance.

“He watches us!” Skorr’s voice barked through the vox. The golden gleam on his helmet was a reflecting flame that moved towards the head of his cohorts. “Forward the flamers! Blade-brothers, flense them!”

The slate-armoured giants surged, their frontline fracturing into groups of two and three which dispersed to engage the remaining gene-hulks and cyberhorrors of Nordyc, hacking into them one by one with the remorseless coordination of born head-hunters. From behind them advanced legionaries laden with harnesses and nests of tubes, and their weapons spat rivers of incinerating flame, sparing neither the living nor the fallen. A rhythmic murmur drifted from below their visors, inaudible to any in the din of battle but the sharpest of superhuman ears.

“We will sweep the way. Cut down the witch-spawn!” the Legion Master’s whistle coursed through the Astartes’ vox. A grotesque amalgam of iron and skin reared over him and he spoke, four arms poised to strike; he did not flinch as one of his brothers leapt forward and hewed the monster in twain with a single swing of the tremendous chainaxe held in his bionic claws.

A voice crackled to life over the vox, “And that we shall. Forward, sisters, strike them down!”

From Skylance gunships loitering in the rear, the Sirens burst forth onto the awaiting enemy. Vapor contrails trailed behind rockets launched from wing pods as squadrons of the craft soared out from the cold skies. The volunteers in the frontline cheered their war cry, and those few among their ranks who possessed psychic abilities now unleashed them to their fullest. Great gouts of flame and ribbons of unearthly lightning erupted from the Imperial line. Whole columns of the warriors of Maullen Sen were slain where they stood, burned and shocked to the bone. The auxilia and warriors of the Fifteenth surged forward now in tandem with the long awaited strike of their Legion. Explosions ripped through the teeming masses of the enemy soldiers as rockets slamming in around them.

As the Fifteenth’s Auxilia pushed forward, the gunships swooped low over the enemy, disgorging the resplendent silver and lavender armored forms of the Sirens of Terra into the heart of the enemy formation. A Sister leapt from the craft, coming down with a thundering crash onto the unfortunate forms of three of the enemy warriors, the gleaming sword staff in her hands crackling with golden energy. She raised it to the sky, and a bolt of lighting crashed down upon its tip, fanning out in all directions and racing through dozens, hundreds of the enemy around her. Another raised a staff topped with the Imperial eagle, bright bursts of flame immolating all who stood before her. The strike force grew in size and ferocity as the last complement of Astartes crashed into the enemy throng, ripping and tearing a bloody swathe through the hordes of the north.

At their head the Sirens’ Legion Master, Princess Pantea herself, held a gleaming sword in one hand as she crashed down amidst the thickest of the enemy horde, near the strange figures whose sorceries had awakened the dead. A great column of flame appeared in her hand as she hacked and incinerated the throngs of the enemy soldiers, leading the charge toward the center of the enemy army. The sorceries of the witches of Maulland Sen met their match as the psychic warriors drawn from the Achaemenid Empire unleashed the full fury of their warp-spawned might.

The arrival of the Fifteenth seemed to send a physical shockwave through what remained of the enemy army as they were thrown back or carved apart both by sword and volkite as by terrifying psychic wrath. The weakening numbers of the Maulland Sen armies fell apart around the concerted strike of the Fifteenth as they carved through them with ease. The armored spearhead of Astartes continued to cut and blast their way to the center, eager to cut off the many heads of the snake that was the enemy army. The legion master herself was the first to arrive, breaking into the circle of calm that surrounded the witches of the enemy army. The withered forms raised their hands in defense, conjuring forth eldritch tongues of warp-flame that blasted against the ceramite armor of the Sirens.

The snow around them melted away and the earth beneath it first thawed, then it too melted to glass and stone beneath the fury of the onslaught. The Sirens’ own powers flared as they threw forth wards and shields, sparing them and the thunder warriors they fought alongside from the heat of the foul magicks of the northmen. More of them converged in a flanking maneuver, bearing swords, volkites, and yet more sorceries of their own as they lay into the witches of the north from behind. A sword burst through the back of one - and in that instant the spell shattered, the devastating column of flame dissipating against the swirling vortex of imperial flame that shielded the legion from the effects of the blast. The warriors of the fifteenth charged through, warp-lightning and swords putting an end at last to the vile sorceries of Maulland Sen - at least for now.

With its unclean heart excised, the horde crumbled. Now unhampered by preternatural obstacles, the Imperial lines swept over the more and more thin and sparse pockets of Nordyc resistance. Even the savage northlanders saw now that no deliverance would come from their gods, while the awesome presence of the Lord of Hymalazia pressed as surely upon their spirit as his forces did on their ranks. They broke then, throwing down their weapons with cries of dismay and fleeing for the dubious safety of their shattered redoubts, only those fully lost to the berserkergang standing their ground in frothing rage before being struck down. The lumbering horrors they had unleashed were cut to pieces where they stood, crashing to the earth in mounds of tangled wire and viscera. The Steel Lords’ raucous cries of triumph filled the air as bolter fusillades scythed down the retreating foes.

The first blow had been struck, and the icy outer shell of Maulland Sen had cracked.

The air after the battle was eerily quiet. Even the wind seemed to have subsided, as though nature itself, or what remained of it on ailing Terra, had been cowed by the stupendous forces that had raged beneath the ever-wintry sky. A pall of silence had replaced its dirge, as heavy as the tainted clouds overhead, neither flesh nor metal raising a distinct voice as auxilia busied themselves extricating their feet from mulched flesh and clearing fractured bone from the tracks of their vehicles.

This quiet was due in no little part to the Legio Cataegis’ absence. Inflamed by seemingly boundless furious energy and with nary a thought for a celebration that must have seemed to them premature, the Steel Lords had rumbled onwards as tempestuously as their namesake in pursuit of the withdrawing remnants of the Nordyc horde. Their Primarch had spared but a glance and a scoff through scarred lips for those who would rest while something remained that could be slain, then set off to join his brother warriors, spurring them on with vicious jeers. The coarse laughter that answered him had been the last to fade into the bleak plains.

The ever stoic soldiery of the Steel Sentinels had collectively met the Primarch’s gaze, their eyes focused as they awaited word to continue their own advance from Arturas’. Yet, they would not be setting themselves loose immediately, for Arturas stalked amongst the field of corpses, his metallic boots crunching bone and flesh with each step with little thought to them. There was silence amongst the field still, though not for long as the master approached that of the fifteenth. He spoke to her with an eerie humour, “You stole the honour of my kill against the witches, I was nearly within sword-length of their putrid guard.”

Princess Pantea raised the visor on her helmet, sable eyes shimmering with a fleeting wisp of golden energy. “Is that so, honored master of the nineteenth?” She asked, smiling, “My vision must have been obscured by the chaff you busied yourself with. I will be sure to save you the honor of the next kill against such a leader.” She laughed, sheathing her sword and closing the remaining distance between them, extending a hand. “All that said, you made your mark known in your own way, and you and your Legion’s actions saved many of my Auxilia and the mortal forces we serve alongside. Because of you they live to serve the Emperor another day, and there is no greater honor than that in my eyes. You have my thanks.” She turned, scanning the horizon, “And where are the warriors of the Ninth? They too are deserving of honor for their part in this battle.”

A flash of pale light over gold preceded the answer.

“Do not fear for your laurels,” Skorr said genially as he approached. His armour was spattered with red and unclean black, but seemed unscored. He stopped some paces away. “We need no honor other than victory, and that our Lord witness us.”

Nyrid came some distance at his shoulder, metal carapace scarred and encrusted like a butcher's cutting-table. In his hands he held the giant skull of an augmented hulk, and crudely flayed it with strokes of his combat knife. Once little remained of skin and muscle, he tore away the jaw and carefully snapped the underside, then scooped out the viscous brain matter within.

“Witness us he does,” he spoke in a grave voice as he raised the hollowed skull over his head and laid it upon his helmet. Bloody rivulets ran down the edge of his visor and dripped onto the breastplate. Pale eye-lenses looked out through the sockets.

Behind the two, those of their brothers not busied with tallying the dead sifted through the masses of fallen enemies, fishing out overgrown and blackened bones. Some cut at the bodies with short blades. Other daubed their hands in blood and ash to draw sigils upon their chests, shoulders, faces.

Arturas’ eyes narrowed behind his visor at the display, being reminded only of the superstitious rituals that they now fought to replace with Truth. Yet, he would not dismiss the culture of fellow Astartes for he knew not where they hailed from and what strange traditions they had been steeped in. The legion master of the Nineteenth spoke softly towards his strange cousin, “I am sure our master watches our victory. That said, I suspect you and your men are collecting trophies after a well-fought first battle?”

“Spoil-taking is the way of our forebears, and we would not see that link severed,” Skorr nodded, “Pride, tradition, belonging, such things strengthen a warrior's spirit. They are the cold that tempers after the forge of battle. If this little tribute to barbarism is the price to pay, so be it.” He gave a toneless laugh, then his voice became solemn. “But there is more to this. The Emperor has placed great trust in us despite our troubled birth. We will make it so that whenever he looks upon us, he shall see that we are true to his design. The death and the fear of his enemies are our mantle, and the ashes of their works our warpaint. Is the prize of our deeds in his name not as fine a sign of fealty as the Raptor itself?” With that playful question, the cheer returned to his words.

The Master of the Nineteenth was silent but for a moment, contemplating the words in a fraction of a second before giving a silent nod. The Sentinel rested his hand on the pommel of his blade as he took a more relaxed stance with Skorr’s words reverberating in his mind. “Aye. I suppose so. Forgive me, I meant not to question your loyalty to our Lord and the Raptor.” The Astartes bowed to his kin for a moment. With his apology out of the way, Arturas inquired to both the Master’s, “What is our next move? I do believe the Steel Lords hunt for more adequate prey. They may even be upon the city proper soon enough.”

“Perhaps, we should make for the spires. Make this execution swift and spare the non-combatants of a sacking by the Thunder Warriors,” Arturas suggested, looking to the Pantea for affirmation on the plan.

The master of the fifteenth silently raised an eyebrow at the Ninth’s customs, though said nothing of any negative opinions she might have held. Instead she nodded to him, “Connection to tradition is part of what binds us to our humanity.” She said, “And none can deny your commitment to the Emperor’s vision and will. Let our enemies tremble before the signs of what awaits those who stand in the way of progress.”

She looked towards their ultimate destination, watching as the Thunder Warriors grew smaller and smaller in the distance. “I would second this plan. Cut off the head of the snake and spare the people the wrath of those brutes. Too many lands have been brought into this Imperium as naught but blackened ash and charred bone.”

Ahead, the darkening skies of Nordyc loomed as a grim promise.

Fumiko sat in the airlock, despondent. She’d thrown her whole bodyweight against that door, tried cycling it multiple times, tried the cameras, everything. She was separated from the outside by a relatively thin layer of composite armor, wiring, and insulation. It kept her safe before, shielded from the vacuum outside - and now it served to trap her.

There were things on the ship that would have enabled her to cut her way to freedom. A plasma torch and localized emergency power could theoretically let her cut her way free. There was another hatch on the roof - but it has been nonfunctioning for years. Repair orders had been deferred time and time and time again. She understood, of course, the frontline demanded far more resources - and this particular instance was something that was… well, it was impossible. She tried not to think about that. The impossibility of everything that had just happened. If she thought about that, she would think about everything else, and if she did that then she would never get up from this seated position again. It was one thing to die in combat, but quite another to break the basic understanding of the universe as they knew it - and then die far away, alone, on an alien world that might not even have a soul to remember her.

She tried not to think about it.

She didn’t know how long she’d sat there, staring at the wall, racking her brains for any sort of escape plan that could get her out of this mess - when her ears perked up. She heard something outside, she was sure of it. Exactly what was another matter. Even with her hearing - far better than any human could imagine - she could only make out a dim sound outside through the armored hull. She rose, pressing her ear against the hull, straining to make out any sounds, anything at all. It could just be wildlife, some sort of bizarre and incomprehensible alien fauna. They’d never found aliens, heartbreakingly, besides some simple organisms on one of the moons of a gas giant. Or at least that’s what the old logs said - but it had been at least a thousand years since they had been trapped within the solar system. Who knew what had happened outside it since?

Her attention was drawn back to the present by a distinct sound that snapped her to attention. Something was tapping against the hull. It wasn’t just… some sort of native flora bouncing against the hull. It was too deliberate, too metallic. It sounded almost like a hammer of some sort. She tensed - this meant something intelligent did live here. And it was trying to get in.

She looked around frantically, dashing away from the airlock and back towards the cockpit - no other weapons here, no armor here. It was all in the ship’s armory, what should have been a single ladder away. But the armory was, presumably, crushed to nothing somewhere under the bulk of the crashed wreckage elsewhere. She patted herself down, feeling the reassuring forms of her revolver - technically against regulations, but then so was how long her hair had grown - and her sword. She bit her lip - she wasn’t like the special forces with this thing, she wasn’t compatible with the really insane cybernetics. Certainly she’d used it, several times - but who knew what was out there?

The sounds changed, now, the tapping giving way to something happening just by the airlock. A rhythmic sound… sawing. Someone was sawing at something… touching the ship? She drew her revolver, checking that all six chambers were loaded and ready as she waited around a corner, watching for… something to come in and grab her. She might die to some inconceivable alien monstrosity but she’d die fighting. A click filled the air as her clawed finger pulled back the hammer, then nervously eased it down, then pulled it back again - she hadn’t felt like this since her first time in combat. The nerves. The tension. The sheer mind numbing fear of what might happen. This was something new. She was somewhere new. There was no familiar feeling of her home environment surrounding her like a warm blanket, just the choking and oppressive feeling of an alien world and alien spirits - if there were spirits here at all. And something was trying to get into her ship.

The hiss of the door’s pneumatic actuation filled the air as the airlock door finally sprung open, having been freed of whatever had trapped it. Light from outside spilled through the hatch, bright blinding light. Natural sunlight the kind she had… well, never seen, really. Only simulations of it, or memories in a dream from others. She stared at it for a moment, somewhat transfixed, before she snapped back to reality. A rush of air flooded the ship as it was exposed to the outside world for the first time in… years. Panic seized her momentarily as her mind flashed to the possibilities - toxic proteins in the air, trace molecules that would poison her. Was she now breathing the last breaths she’d ever breathe? The chance of food and water being consumable here was minimal - but would she even get the chance to come to terms with things or would she choke to death in a strange atmosphere before strange aliens?

She tried to crush the panic rising in her throat but it just kept building, kept growing. She tried to fight it, to calm herself - she was a combat veteran, she was almost two hundred years old, why was she so panicked? Her breath came faster now, and she clamped a hand over her mouth to try and mask the sound of panic-stricken ragged breaths coming faster and faster.

She heard something outside. A voice. A voice. A voice that sounded… humanoid. Someone speaking a language, a language completely unfamiliar to her - but it was unmistakably some sort of language. Intelligent tool using aliens speaking a language that sounded humanoid. She felt the urge to laugh at the sheer hilarity of the moment warring with the panic gripping her heart. She had come all this way, landed on an alien world and survived despite the odds, come close to coming to terms with starving to death inside her escape capsule only for some sort of intelligent aliens to cut open the path to freedom.

A hand came to rest on her shoulder again and squeezed. That helped bring her back down from the cliff she stood poised upon, head spinning like a top in a whirling maelstrom of chaos and madness. She looked back, seeing the reassuring, though equally tense, expression of the ship’s spirit.

Fumiko took a deep breath, trying to steady her nerves, and moved for the door - but her legs would not budge. She was frozen in shock and anxiety, trapped in place, her gun clutched tightly in her hand as she waited for something to happen.

The spirit moved ahead - a bullet, or whatever other weapons they might have, would be unable to truly harm him just as he could not truly harm them. His ears perked just like her own would have as he inched his semicorporeal form along towards the opening. His ears poked out first, followed by his eyes - and then his whole body shook with a terrible fright and he leapt back, coming to an inaudible landing beside her.

Those outside the strange crashed object would see a pair of large fluffy ears poke up, followed by what was unmistakably something like a human face - before it vanished. Seconds later, another one appeared, an unmistakable expression of terror etched on its- her, features. It- she pointed something at them, something they could not quite place but which seemed to be unmistakably a weapon, especially judging by what was equally unmistakably some sort of sword clutched in her other hand. She wore an outfit completely unlike anything this world had ever seen, strange browns and greens and a material that seemed almost like cloth yet unlike any cloth of this world and pouches and strange items dangled off it at various points. She herself was a striking midway point between the humans and beast races of the world, the large foxlike ears, the teeth larger and more… canine than any human teeth had a right to be, the clawed hands, the strange markings on her face, the nine tails that spread out behind her in a veritable cloud of white fur, the feet more like those of an animal than a human.

She was yelling something at them. Yelling something in a language wholly foreign, with no discernable similarity to any tongue those present had ever heard, gesticulating wildly and staring at them in what appeared to be growing shock and confusion in addition to the fear. Whatever they were going to do, they would have to think fast.

A star fell upon the world of Alwyne.

From the furthest reaches of the upper heavens a bright orange streak gradually grew in the sky, like a comet of the outer worlds - but in broad daylight, burning high in the sky. Across the towering mountains of Alwyne it soared. O’er its emerald plains and forests it flew uncaring and unthinking of that which lay below. Across its azure seas and crystal lakes it went, gleaming reflection twinkling in the glassy surface of untainted rivers and streams. And over the cities, towns, and villages of this patch of the world it flew, attracting gasps and muffled swears as onlookers gathered to watch and to marvel at the unusual phenomenon. One man swore, pointing up at it and announcing it was a sign of anger from the gods that the judgement of a local witch was unjust and she ought be set free. In a small fishing village, panic took hold - would more stars fall? Would they be trapped in a pitch black world at night, without the stars to guide and comfort them? Astronomers took note, too, some with telescopes pointing them at the strange object - and staring in disbelief at the makeup of this star. Others simply watched and observed, unable to see in finer detail what was occurring so high up, and so far away.

It hurtled through the air, smoke and flames trailing from it in a trail visible for over two hundred leagues in all directions. The air rumbles slightly beneath it as the falling star burns its way across the sky. A sound like the distant roar of a dragon trickles down to those below, perking up the ears of those who had not seen it before.

All eyes turned towards the star as it split apart, pieces of the star separating from each other as the flames grew brighter still. The distant roaring grew louder still as distinct booms and thumps echoed down. Onlookers held each other tight, wondering what this might mean. Meteors were known - but something this bright visible during the day? The ominous booming noises?

The star continued to fall, nearer and nearer to the ground. Another part of the star broke off, this one wreathed in even more flame, a bright, brilliant white light that shot downward from the shard of the star as it began to slow its descent. The other burning shards raced ahead of the smaller shard that continued to slow further - though it still flew at a breathtaking speed, unlike anything else imaginable.

The star, and its children, dipped below the horizon. And shortly thereafter, a new, greater sound rushed towards them. The ground shook beneath the feet of the onlookers, and then a deafening stillness took hold over the world.

A throbbing pain awoke Commander Hoshitsune Fumiko. She groaned, blood racing in her ears. Everything hurt. Absolutely everything hurt. Her shoulders screamed at her in pain from where the straps had dug in so tightly it seemed they had almost ripped the limbs from their sockets, or fractured the bone. A million diagnostic readouts flared in her vision. Warnings, error messages, and more. [WARNING: CONCUSSION INDICATED, SEVERE HEMATOMA INDICATED IN [ERR: RESPONSE LOOP TERMINATED], SEVERE PHYSICAL TRAUMA FROM HIGH VELOCITY IMPACT INDICA-]

Fumiko shut her eyes, trying to block out the sounds around her. Pain. Her entire world was pain. Why the fuck did everything hurt so much. Why was everything pain?

Her eyes snapped back open. The impact. The crash. The deafening wail of the atmosphere screeching against the outside of the hull. The total blindness as viewing cameras shorted out one by one. The horrific sound of pieces of the ship tearing off in the firestorm that had raged outside. Waking up to see a planet rapidly approaching, initiating high-burn evasive maneuvers only to trap themselves in its gravity well on a collision course with the surface. Nothing. She stared, stared into space a thousand light-years distant, into the infinite expanse beyond.

Slowly, something else forced its way into her consciousness. Words, gentle and calming.

"Commander, you need to wake up. Commander, please..."

Fumiko blinked again, wincing as the pain forced itself back into her consciousness. She looked to her left - and came face to face with the blank, dead stare of her copilot.

She stared. She had seen death, she had seen it far too many times before. But there was something about this that shook her. Messages flashed in her vision again - [WARNING: SEVERE SUBDURAL HEMATOMA INDICATED IN FIRST OFFICER TA-]

She reached out, brushing her fingers over his eyes as she whispered a prayer. She would need to find a place to lay him to rest here. Wherever ‘here’ was.

Ah, that was right. She did not know where ‘here’ was. This was not her own world, that much had been obvious from a cursory glance at it during emergency maneuvers. And that meant…

Fumiko screamed, driving her fist into the unpowered control panel in front of her, uncaring about the pain that joined the rest of the pain in response. She didn’t know what else to do. What could she do? She was… she had violated one of the most fundamental universal constants known, or at least, that’s what it seemed. She was somewhere far, far away, on a planet whose atmosphere might not even be breathable - sure, the scans she’d seen indicated a nitrogen-oxygen composition, as absolutely incredible a coincidence as that was. But what of microorganisms in the air? Poisonous proteins that might block some vital function.

She felt the dead presence of her copilot beside her once more, and instinctively turned away. This was wrong. This was all wrong. A million thoughts raced through her mind, she could feel the swoosh of the blood circulating from the artificial pump in her chest as it coursed through her body. The world closed in around her as she frantically clawed at the quick release, falling facefirst into the control panel as the straps holding her down released her. Down, apparently, was forward.

A hand on her shoulder broke her from her panic, and she looked back, the kindly face of the ship’s spirit looking down at her, semicorporeal feet still planted firmly on the floor in brazen defiance of gravity’s mandate. She looked at him, and for a split second, she allowed herself to relax. She was, at least, not going to die alone. He squeezed her shoulder, and she nodded, prying herself up from the control panel. She looked to her copilot again, then to the crash kit near her chair, reaching for it and pulling herself towards it. A mask, with a portable oxygen supply, her sidearm, sword, spare ammunition, and numerous other useful implements for the stranded pilot.

“The distress beacon is active, commander.” The spirit said, floating behind her, “Also, please do not forget the shrine.” He paused, “It would be rather lonely here.”

Fumiko winced as she pulled her gear on, shaking her head. “Not gonna.” She grunted, “Distress beacon’s useless. Nobody’s gonna hear. Need to check topside, just need to…” she reached an arm out, hauling herself vertically, towards what would ordinarily be the floor, “get to the damned…” she grabbed another handhold, muscling her way up, thanking her lucky stars she’d been compatible with the myofibril implants. “Escape hatch!”

She hauled herself up in a burst of energy, grabbing hold of the ladder that, ordinarily, would lead down. But, in this case, it also lead to a port airlock. She pulled at the latch, listening as the hiss of hermetic seals filled the air as the airlock vented and began to open, ship’s spirit standing beside her - and then, nothing. The door was stuck. Something was blocking it. She was trapped inside, no way to see what was outside, no way to open the airlock from within.

Fumiko stared, disbelieving. She had survived all of this - to be trapped by a stuck door.

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