Chapter 1: Resurrection
Part 1: Star Child
The ghost fled from a gang of Fallen through the ruins of Bismark, North Dakota. He ducked behind standing walls and piles of rubble, flew through culverts and up fire escapes. The aliens followed him, tracking him by his movement and the glint of his blue eye.
The tiny robot was about the size of a softball, with a geometric outer shell shaped roughly like a star. The core, where his brain and soul were, was a small globe in the shell's center, and his glowing blue eye blinked from the core's front.
But half the shell was missing, the core exposed to the dangerous world. The ghost fled its pursuers, listing to one side, limping in the air. Had he been human, he would have been gasping for breath. Being a ghost, he simply flew in desperate silence.
The Fallen had deeply entrenched themselves in the old city, excavating burrows and passages beneath the ruins, using old sewer mains as tunnels. The ghost had found this out as he'd explored, ever hunting for his soul-partner, as he'd done for the last five hundred years. He'd watched the aliens and followed them around, his curiosity and gnawing loneliness driving him. There were certainly no humans for miles - nothing for the aliens to threaten but the ghost, himself.
Until they spotted him and began hunting him.
The ghost had narrowly escaped a sweeping arc blade, the electrified metal shearing off part of his shell. Now he fled, winding through the ruins, trying to reach the nearest stand of woods, where he could hide.
But no - he didn't want to hide. Anger flared in his core. He wanted to fight.
The ghost identified two pikes with his scanner. Pikes were hovering motorcycles favored by the Eliksni race, and were armed with arc cannons. The ghost had spent much time studying abandoned pikes, learning how their engines and electrical systems worked.
When he reached the pikes, he disappeared in a flash of particles, accelerating himself into pure energy, and entered the pike's systems. His soul burning as an angry spark of Light, he assumed control of the pike's steering, engine, and weapons. He charged back at the aliens pursuing him.
The aliens received a nasty shock as one of their own pikes, apparently unmanned, came flying down the street at them, firing as it came. There was no rider to pick off. No visible sign of the ghost controlling it. So they did what any self-respecting rational beings would do - they panicked and focused fire on the vehicle.
The pike still managed to kill at least fifteen Fallen before they destroyed it. The engine ruptured and exploded, sending the pike rolling sideways into a rotten brick wall. Half the wall collapsed on the pike, burying it in bricks and powdery mortar.
The Fallen examined the pike from a safe distance, as if checking to make sure that it was dead. Then, with guttural growls and gestures of their four arms, they moved off, back to hunting the lone ghost.
The street was left to the silence of the wilderness once more. A few fragments of brick settled and rolled down the pile of rubble. The pike's engine fire burned itself out, only a little smoke and heat continuing to rise from it.
The ghost had abandoned the pike and returned to physical form, only to be crushed under the falling brick. He awoke beneath the rubble, aware that he was being slowly pressed out of shape by the weight above him.
He phased into energy and flowed out of the rubble, reassembling himself just above. His whole core ached. His shell wouldn't spin right, no matter how much he opened and closed it. And part was still missing.
Slowly he flew inside the damaged building and landed on an old fireplace mantle, built of the same brick that had nearly killed him. He rested there for several hours, his blue eye irised shut, letting his self-repair mechanisms address the damage inside him.
He dreamed about finding his partner - his Chosen. In the dream, he found a patch of glorious Light, and within that Light was the soul of his best friend, dead and waiting for the ghost. He never could see their face, or tell if they were male or female - all he knew was the shape of their personality, rich with humor and generosity, deep with confidence and strength.
He'd dreamed of his Chosen for five hundred years. It kept him searching and searching, day after day. But when he awoke that night, and he still ached, he was suddenly afraid that his search might end in failure.
"You can't die," he told himself fiercely. "Your Chosen needs you. You have to find them." He floated into the air, sluggishly, then dropped back onto the mantle. His Light was weak, his repulsors damaged.
Three times, the ghost tried to fly. On the third try, he stayed airborne, but a slow, wavering flight it was. If any Fallen happened upon him at that point, they could have plucked him out of the air like a wounded pigeon.
He picked his way out of the building and resumed trying to reach the safety of the woods. It was full dark by this time, with clouds covering the stars. The ghost activated his night vision and flew slowly along, peeking around corners for enemies. His scanner didn't work very well, damaged and full of static.
He might try hijacking another pike. It would be a relief to phase into a larger machine, make it do the work instead. But he happened across none.
Several times he stopped and hid to avoid Fallen patrols. He was growing deadly tired, his crushed core paining him more and more. Just get to the woods, he thought over and over. Hide in a tree. Rest for a few days. Gather enough Light to rebuild yourself. You can't meet your Chosen all busted up.
By the time he reached the edge of the trees, he wanted to cry with exhaustion. He flew slowly up into the branches of a huge pine, settled himself in a spot where falling pine needles had made a thick nest in the fork of two limbs, and went to sleep.
He dreamed that his Chosen was nearby, the Light casting long shadows among the trees. He kept trying to turn and look for it, but he couldn't move. Why was the Light behind him? Why couldn't he move to find it? He felt his Chosen sleeping, waiting for him to awaken them, clothe them in flesh and blood once more.
The ghost awoke at dawn. His Light was still weaker, the pain still there. He lay in his pine needle nest and gazed at bits of sky through the branches.
Face it. You won't make it.
Yes, I will.
No, you won't. Your Light is failing. You're damaged beyond self-repair. Another ghost could mend you, maybe. But there's no other ghosts here. It's time you gave up.
The ghost gathered his tattered courage. No, I won't give up. My Chosen needs me. They might be close. Right behind me. Here, in the trees.
He tried multiple times before he was able to remain airborne. Flying was even slower than before. He limped along a few feet from the ground, playing his faint scan beam along the forest floor.
Light. Bones. Tattered bits of cloth. The ghost halted, scanning it again, then again. Could it be? Had he found his Chosen at last?
He circled the spot, examining it from all angles. Yes, there was Light here - such beautiful, warm, welcoming Light. And a spark - the funny, generous, courageous person he'd sought for so long. His own spark resonated with this one, sending thrills through him.
It might take every last iota of Light he possessed to raise them. But this was his purpose, the end of his centuries-long search. He couldn't find his Chosen and not resurrect them. Elation grew within him - elation and shrieking, euphoric excitement. His Chosen - his friend!
"I'll raise you, friend," he whispered, and opened his shell.
One pulse of Light to build the body - smaller than he had expected. Another pulse to clothe it in the gear he had manufactured from scavenged materials through the years. A final pulse to pull the Light, spark, and body together into a living being once more.
He closed his shell and fell to the forest floor, spent. His consciousness spiraled and dimmed, even as he fought to stay awake. Joy beat within him. His Chosen was alive - a female, he heard her gasp as she awoke and sat up. But his weak, injured core was forcing him under.
Light, he thought. Her Light is helping me. The self repairs might work ... now ...
Chapter 2: Silvan
The ghost snapped wide awake. It was hours later, and he still lay in the leaves on the forest floor. His dreams of awakening in his Chosen's arms died away in disappointment.
The sun was directly overhead, the ground dappled with leaf shadow. The ghost struggled to float and made it on his second try. With the added Light of his counterpart, his self repairs had mended him, if not entirely, then enough for him to fly and move without pain. His shell was still missing pieces and wouldn't turn properly.
But the bad part was that his Chosen was missing. There was still a depression in the leaves where her body had been, but she had left him hours ago. Possibly, she hadn't even noticed him in the dim twilight of early morning.
He flew in a circle, scanning in growing anxiety. His Chosen, his Guardian, had wandered off without him. He hadn't had a chance to introduce himself, or tell her that she was beginning a new life, or about the Traveler, or anything. And Bismark was crawling with Fallen. They'd kill her again. She'd be so terrified. And the ghost had never even seen her face.
The shame of it! He was a bonded ghost, now, and he didn't even know what his Chosen looked like.
Now that he had found her, the neural symbiosis had begun - the process that would bind his mind to hers so closely that eventually they would share thoughts. It had enabled a whole new set of tools and settings in his data banks. Everything he'd ever need to support his guardian: scanning, healing, tracking. Tracking, that was what he needed. All ghosts could detect their Chosen, right?
He loaded his new tracking programs and instantly knew that his Chosen was half a mile away, that her heart rate was elevated, and that she was running from Fallen.
"Hold on, I'm coming!" he called across their bond, and shot through the trees as fast as he could manage. The neural link wasn't strong yet, and he called again before she responded.
"Who is that?" came her voice faintly through their bond. "Somebody is talking in my head."
"It's me!" the ghost exclaimed, weaving through the trees. "Your Ghost."
"A ghost?" her mental voice squeaked in terror. "I'm haunted? Go away! I don't want to hear you!"
"Not that kind of ghost," he laughed. "A robot called a Ghost. I'm your friend."
"I don't like robots, either!" she cried. "Or aliens! Why are they chasing me? Ow, ow! They shot me!"
His Chosen was hurt, and he wasn't there to heal her. The ghost flew faster, sudden anger igniting inside him. He was a fighting ghost, one who used the machines of the enemy against them. He'd spent years studying and practicing with various tanks and vehicles. Now that he'd found his partner, he suddenly wanted to find the biggest walker or tank in the area and take it to her rescue. He'd wipe out everything that dared hurt his newfound friend.
The ghost emerged from the trees and entered the ruins of a suburb. Houses and cracked streets, rotted cars, trees struggling to reclaim the landscape. His tracker lit up with hostiles, all milling about, disturbed. He wasn't yet close enough to his Chosen to detect her position, but he was getting close.
"Almost there," he told her. "What's happening?"
She answered with a wordless cry of fear and pain.
The ghost's eye turned red as his protective anger flared into rage. They were killing her and she was new and had no weapons, she didn't even have him and she'd be dead before he even knew what she looked like.
He rounded a corner and saw what was happening.
A gang of aliens milled around a house with a collapsed roof. His Chosen was inside that ruin, probably hiding, and the Fallen couldn't reach her. But they were lighting torches and snickering to each other, preparing to set the rotted roof on fire.
The ghost looked around for a weapon. There were no pikes nearby, but a Servitor floated near the Fallen. And it had just set down an ether tank.
A Servitor was a huge metal ball with an eye in it, like a primitive ghost. They created a gaseous substance called ether that the Fallen consumed in order to grow larger and stronger. The ghost had tried and failed to hack Servitors - their intelligence and defenses were too fierce for him to overcome. But ether was notoriously explosive.
The ghost flew in front of the ether tank and hit the Servitor with a hacking beam. While he couldn't break through its firewalls, his attempts would be seen as a huge threat.
The giant ball spun to face the ghost, the purple mechanical eye focusing on him. He flashed his beam straight into its eye.
The Servitor spoke in its own language, cursing him. The ghost jeered at it. Just before the Servitor opened fire, he vanished.
The enemy machine fired a huge bolt of energy from its eye. It would have annihilated a ghost and badly hurt a human. The ether tank was no match for it.
The explosion cracked the Servitor's shell, killed several Fallen, and injured the rest. For a moment all was confusion as the aliens tried to figure out who had attacked them. Then they realized that their own Servitor had done a stupid. While they dared not attack it - Servitors were sacred to the Fallen - several of them shoved it and cursed at it before helping up their injured comrades. The whole party limped away together, growling and hissing to each other.
The ghost reappeared behind a section of leaning wall, triumphantly watching the aliens depart. Then he crept into the collapsed house in search of his Chosen.
The walls and roof had folded together and created a triangular tunnel that stretched back about thirty feet. At the back of this tunnel, huddled against the wall, was a girl. A distressingly young girl.
As the ghost approached, she saw his glowing blue eye and tried to scramble away, climbing a rotted rafter. But the roof and brick wall formed a cage, trapping her inside the ruin. As she slid back to the ground, a splinter pierced her left hand. She screamed with her mouth closed.
"It's all right!" the ghost exclaimed. "It's all right, it's just me. I'm your Ghost."
"Go away," she whispered, pulling out the splinter with her teeth. "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me!"
"I'm here to help you," he said as gently as he could. "I would never hurt you. Show me your hand."
She hesitated, then held it out. As she did, he finally looked her full in the face. She was an Awoken with glowing silver eyes. Light sprinkled her cheeks in glowing freckles beneath the blue skin. But she was young, her face still round with baby fat. She couldn't be older than eleven.
Dismay filled him. A child! His Chosen was a child? He had thought she was small when he resurrected her, but - a child! Would she grow to maturity, or would she be locked in an immortal childhood? How did he handle this? Had any other ghost ever resurrected a child Chosen before?
He played his healing beam over her grimy hand, repairing the damage done by the splinter. At once, she snatched her hand away and examined it in a patch of light that fell through the broken roof.
"Did you just heal me? I think you just healed me."
"I did," he said, unable to take his eye off her. "I can heal you and resurrect you if you die. Are you hurt anywhere else?"
He knew she'd been shot in the back. He felt the throbbing burn through the neural link as if the wound was his own. But he wanted her to tell him, to trust him enough to ask for help.
The girl studied her hand for a long moment, looking at him, then her hand, then him again. After a while, she said, "Are you an alien?"
"No, I'm a Ghost. I already explained this."
"Yeah, but I couldn't see you, then." The girl stared at him for a long moment. "Turn around. Let me look at you."
The ghost turned in a slow circle, letting her see him from all angles, including the gaps in his shell that left his core exposed. Unreasoning embarrassment burned within him. Here he was, meeting his Chosen for the first time, and he was damaged and ugly. He'd have to fabricate a new shell as soon as they found some fiberglass and aluminum to break down.
But the girl said nothing about the unsightly gap. She rubbed her healed hand and studied him. Then she said, "Could you heal my back?"
Ah, that was what he'd wanted - to be asked. It was a deep arc bolt burn, third degree, and painful as a knife slash. Yet she had tolerated the pain long enough to make certain he was no threat. Her pain tolerance must be crazy strong, for a child. His respect for her climbed higher.
"Do you remember your name?" he asked her as the burn smoothed over. "You were dead for a long while before I resurrected you. You may not have many memories."
She didn't answer for a while. Then she muttered, "No." She straightened and glared at him, her silver eyes bright in the dimness. "But I had a family. I remember my dad. I want to find him. Resurrect him, too."
The ghost was taken aback. "I ... I can't. A Ghost can only resurrect their Chosen. One person."
"Then find another Ghost to do it!" the girl exclaimed. "I can't be alive while he's dead. I'd be an orphan."
The ghost hung in the air, speechless. An orphan! What Chosen or Guardian ever worried about that? But then, they usually resurrected as adults. Not children. And not with memories of family.
"What was your father's name?" he asked.
The girl's mouth twisted. "I don't remember. I can picture his face perfectly. That's all I have. A picture."
The ghost didn't know what to do. He floated there, watching her, all ghost protocol fleeing his mind.
She gave him a pleading look. "What do you think my name is? I've got to be called something."
The ghost watched the Light-freckles sparkle on her cheeks. "Star-child," he said slowly. "But that can't be your name. I found you in the forest, so ... may I call you Silvan?"
"Silvan Star-child?" she said, with a sudden grin. "I like that name. Like a fairy in a book."
The ghost wouldn't say how fairy-like she looked right now, her eyes glowing as brightly as his.
"So," Silvan said, "do I call you Ghost? Or robot twenty-one or something?"
"You can name me," he said, opening his shell a little to glow with Light and pleasure. He had looked forward to being named for so many years.
"Any name I want?"
"Yes, as long as it's not embarrassing."
"So I can't call you Buttcheeks?"
"No!" The ghost tried to spin his shell in outrage, but it grated and stuck. "Nothing embarrassing!"
"Oh Traveler," the ghost lamented, "what am I going to do with her?"
Silvan laughed. "I'm only teasing. How about ... something naturey. Like Pine. Or Juniper."
He shook himself back and forth like a human shaking their head. "A little too naturey."
"Maybe if I was a girl," he said scornfully.
Silvan leaned toward him, her eyes brightening in interest. "Ghosts are boys and girls?"
"Yes," the ghost replied. "I don't know how it works. The Traveler created all of us at the same moment."
"What's the Traveler?"
"Give me an actual good name and I'll tell you the story."
Silvan thought for a moment. "How about ... Bramble? You're kind of spiky-looking."
"I could be Bramble," he replied eagerly. "Better than those ... other names."
"Do you feel spiky?" Silvan said, holding out a hand. "Come here."
Bramble flew closer and hovered over her outstretched hand. As Silvan carefully closed her fingers around him and lifted him out of the air, he said, "Be careful. My shell is damaged."
She tilted him this way and that, holding him in the light. "You're such a weird shape. What are these funny orange triangles on the ends of the pointy bits? Buttons?"
"They're ornamental," Bramble replied. "If you must know, we ghosts call them our freckles."
Silvan laughed in delight. "That's so cute! I'm liking you better all the time. So this part is your shell, you said?"
"Yes, and it opens. The part with my eye is my core."
She pried apart the segments of his shell, which he held in place with Light. He relaxed his hold a bit and let his shell open, letting her see his silvery core.
"So, you're basically a robot," Silvan said, letting him slide back together. "But you don't sound like one. I mean, you beep a little when you talk, but you act like a person."
"I am a person," Bramble replied. "I have a soul just like you do. My body just happens to be made of metal and stuff."
Silvan stroked his shell, especially the parts that were missing. "You're broken, aren't you?"
"Yes," he said, ashamed once more.
"Does it hurt?"
"It did. Before I found you, I could barely fly. That's why I wasn't there when you woke up ... resurrecting you made me faint." His shame only grew deeper, having to admit this. He was a fighting ghost, and he had already let his Chosen down. He gazed into her face. "But that won't happen again. Your Light is helping me heal. I'm already much stronger than I was."
Silvan said nothing for a moment, just held him and continued to stroke his shell, especially his freckles. Then she said, "Take me back to where you found me. And tell me about the Traveler."
Chapter 3: Around the bonfire
They crept out of the ruined house together. Then Bramble guided Silvan on a winding route among the ruined houses and cars to avoid the Fallen. They didn't talk much until they gained the cover of the woods, a quarter of a mile away, and Bramble's scans were clear of hostiles.
Then he told her about the Traveler, the huge moon-like construct being that journeyed from star to star, terraforming planets and blessing the inhabitants with a mysterious power called the Light. But it had an enemy known only as the Darkness. Whether the Darkness was a collection of malevolent alien races, or whether it was a force of evil, itself, no one knew. But the Darkness hunted the Traveler and destroyed the worlds it had blessed.
"Until the Traveler arrived here," Bramble said. "Something about humans. Anyway, it fought the Darkness for the first time. It drove it back, but the Traveler took a grievous wound and fell into a coma. With its dying breath, it created the ghosts - that's me - to find powerful warriors - that's you."
"I'm a warrior?" Silvan said doubtfully, scratching her short hair. It was cherry red and stood out brightly against her blue skin. "I don't feel very brave. Those aliens are a lot bigger and stronger than me."
"You'll grow, I hope," Bramble reassured her. "And you don't have to be strong enough to brawl with aliens. You only have to be strong enough to use a gun."
Silvan laughed. "Now, that I can do. I'll bet aliens don't like being blown full of holes any more than I do."
They reached the spot where Bramble had first detected his Chosen's Light. He flew around a faint dip in the pine needles. "This is where I found you. Right at dawn."
Silvan hugged herself and turned in a slow circle, gazing around. It was chilly under the trees. It was late August, and already the beginnings of autumn were approaching, although the trees were still green.
Silvan circled the depression in the ground, stopping every so often to kick leaves aside and look at the earth. She found a strip of tattered cloth, but when she picked it up, it crumbled in her fingers. She stood there, watching the pieces flutter to the ground. The stars on her cheeks dimmed a little. "I wonder why I died here. It's not a grave. It just looks like I dropped dead."
"The Fallen probably got you," Bramble said gently. "They killed a lot of humans. A lot a lot."
"My dad's not here," Silvan murmured. "I wonder what happened to him."
Bramble scanned the ground here and there for more remains. He located some deer bones a little way off, but that was all.
"Unless your dad had hooves and antlers," he said, shining his beam on a femur, "this isn't him."
Silvan smiled weakly. "He would be pretty weird, then." Her spirits were sinking rapidly.
Bramble didn't want to see her cry. "Maybe he made it to the Last City. It's beneath the Traveler and it's only a few hundred miles from here."
Silvan sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. "You - you think he might be there?" She sounded desperate for hope - any hope.
Bramble hated to promise her something so uncertain. The odds of any one person being resurrected were a billion to one. Her father may have made it to the City, but Bramble doubted it. A father would have buried his dead daughter, not left her corpse on the forest floor. He'd probably died first. But explaining this would make bring back those tears to his young Chosen's eyes. He wanted her to laugh, not cry.
"There's always hope," he told her. "I haven't been to the City in years, so I have no idea who's there."
Silvan drew a deep breath and let it out. "Okay. He's just ... at the Last City. How do we get there?"
"A ship, ideally," Bramble replied, looking around at the trees and thinking of Bismark's layout. "But we could steal a pike. And food. You're going to need food."
Silvan nodded and held her stomach. "I'm already pretty hungry. What's a pike? A fish?"
"No, it's a hovering motorcycle thing the Fallen use. Ready to do some more sneaking around?"
She gave him a thumbs up. "You got it, Buttcheeks."
"Hey! Don't call me that!"
The two made their covert way back into the overgrown ruins of Bismark. They skulked down narrow avenues and cut through buildings that were still standing. Bramble couldn't help but think of how different this journey was from his previous one. He was a bonded ghost, now. His Chosen was at his side, and he was responsible for keeping her safe, arming her, and educating her. No more risking himself in combat. If he died, Silvan would lose her limited immortality, as well as her connection to the Light.
The Light! How would it manifest in her? Would she wield the mighty hammer of a warrior Titan? Seek knowledge and mystery like a warlock? Or learn to survive and disappear in the wilderness like a Hunter? So far, she had exhibited no Light leanings at all. Maybe she was too young. Still, he was bursting with pride, both in finding his Chosen, and in the person she was, so little and yet so spunky.
They found a cache of Fallen supplies and raided their food stores. It was mostly dried meat, fish, and piles of a particular beetle from around the area that the aliens evidently found tasty. Silvan crammed the pockets of her pants with dried meat. When she ran out of pockets, Bramble manufactured one in the front of her shirt, like a kangaroo pouch.
"I look stupid, but I won't starve," she whispered as they slipped out.
Bramble held back a giggle. Having a companion made everything ten times more fun.
They explored until they found an unattended pike. Silvan got on, and Bramble phased into the machinery and took over driving.
"I could drive it!" Silvan argued.
"Let's get away from the city, first," Bramble replied. He drove the pike up the street and around a corner, straight into a pack of Fallen.
The aliens bellowed in fury at the sight of a human stealing one of their vehicles. They opened fire just as Bramble hit the accelerator. Silvan lay flat behind the handlebars and hung on as the pike seemingly steered itself through the aliens and out of the ruins on a cracked road. For a while, the aliens chased after on several more pikes. But after a few miles, they gave up and turned back.
"We did it!" Silvan cheered. "We're on our way!"
"As long as the fuel holds out," Bramble replied through their bond. "These things run on ether. Unless we can rob an ether cache, this pike will only be good for another day or two. They're not meant for long distance travel."
"Then we'd better go as far as we can," Silvan replied.
They drove the rest of that day. Bramble let Silvan take over driving and taught her the controls. After lurching and swerving all over the road, she got the hang of it and drove on at a steady pace.
As evening drew in, the road climbed a series of hills, then dropped into a little valley with a long, shining lake.
"Water!" Silvan exclaimed. "Can we camp here tonight?"
"We might as well," Bramble replied. "Watch out for enemies. They tend to congregate at water sources."
Silvan ran the pike into a thicket and hid it. Then she walked down to the water's edge for a drink. As she scooped up the muddy, fish-smelling water, she said, "Will this make me sick?"
"If it does, I'll heal you," Bramble replied, floating at her shoulder and watching for trouble. "That's one advantage to being one of the Traveler's Chosen. You don't have to be quite so careful to not die."
Silvan drank without fear and washed her face and hands. Then she explored the shoreline, looking for a sheltered place to spend the night.
That was how they found the bonfire ring.
It was a ring of logs around a large fire pit, currently filled with ashes and burned logs. The soft earth inside the ring was pitted with footprints. Bramble flew around and studied them.
"These aren't the tracks of Fallen," he told Silvan, who sat on a log and watched him. "These people were wearing boots. Humans, I think." He tried to spin his shell anxiously. "Humans scare me worse than aliens."
"Why?" Silvan asked. "Shouldn't we be glad we found people?"
Bramble flew in a circle, gazing at the trees and the lake. The setting sun was reflected in its glassy surface, all fiery colors and deep violets. "Well, see, you're Chosen. And other humans are scared of Chosen. I'm afraid they might try to kill you. And me."
He flew back to Silvan and resumed his spot at her shoulder. She pulled out some of her dried meat and chewed it, watching the sun set over the rippling water. Birds sang their evening songs. High overhead, geese flew over in a long V.
"I like it here," Silvan said. "It's so peaceful."
"Not for long," Bramble whispered. "Look."
A boat had just launched from the opposite shore, black against the sunset. Another boat followed. Then another.
"They're coming here," Bramble whispered. "Hide!"
Silvan darted across the shore and into the cover of the trees. There she found a hollow under some tree roots and crouched there, peering back at the bonfire ring.
It took a while for the boats to cross the lake. Each held two or three people who rowed with the steady ease of men accustomed to such work. They dropped off their passengers and returned across the lake for more.
The men - there were no women - wore faded, patched clothing, most of it leather or fur. They all had beards and carried rifles slung across their backs. But their voices were jovial as they collected firewood and built a fresh bonfire. Soon it was blazing merrily, lighting up the deepening twilight.
"What if I go out there and say hi?" Silvan whispered.
"Don't," Bramble whispered. "Let's wait and see what they're doing."
"They sound so friendly!"
"And ten to one they'd shoot you. Just wait a while."
Silvan made an annoyed sound and adjusted her position, settling little deeper in the leaves.
The evening grew cooler, and a chilly breeze rose from the lake. The men set about cooking venison that smelled wonderful. Silvan gnawed some dried meat and wished she could join them. There were about fifty people so far, including one man who carried a lime-green banner wrapped around one arm. The other men deferred to him and gave him the best seat on the smoothest log. He didn't say much, seemingly lost in thought, ignoring the activity around him.
The last light faded from the sky. The bonfire cast a dancing orange light on the group seated on the logs, passing food and drink around and talking. Once the meal was over, the man with the green banner around his arm stood and gazed around the circle. The crowd fell quiet.
"Friends and followers," said the man in a clear, quiet voice. "Thank you for coming to this meeting. I know we are a far-flung tribe, but we remember our roots. We remember from whence we came." He faced north and bowed. The others looked in the same direction and nodded, or touched the brims of their hats. Silvan tried to see what they were looking at, but could see nothing in the darkness.
"Now," said the man, "I told you that we would not convene again until I'd had a new vision. My friends, the gracious Traveler has blessed me with new guidance."
The group shifted in excitement.
The man drew himself up and unfurled his green banner. It had no markings - only a strip of green cloth. But it was somehow significant.
"We have lived a hard life, these last thirty years," said the leader. "The winters have been harsh and the summers short. But by the strength of the Light within us, we've survived. We've learned to build the things we need, to hunt and farm, to gather and preserve. I've collected you from among the City's exiled. All of us here today are the unwanted, the misunderstood, those denied justice. The Vanguard may have cast us out, but the Light has not forgotten us. Last night, the Traveler sent me a vision of the Light, itself."
He paused to let the suspense stretch. The men leaned forward eagerly.
"I, Lysander of the Concordat," said the man, "will speak to the Kell of the House of Kings."
The men muttered in dismay. One of them said, "But they'll kill you, chief."
"The vision has showed me that they will be willing to parley," Lysander said. "It will end in success. The House of Kings will influence the House of Winter, who will sway the House of Devils and the House of Wolves. Together, we will return to the Last City. We will succeed where the Faction Wars failed. We will overthrow the Speaker and his false teachings."
A long silence met these words. After a while, one man stood and bowed. "Chief Lysander, I respect you and your visions. But you're talking about attacking our own people."
"Are they our own anymore?" Lysander said, his voice growing even softer. "They cast us adrift. Sent us out to suffer and starve in the wilds. They keep the Traveler and its riches to themselves - and we have whatever is left."
The man nodded. "All true, but ... sir, allying with the Fallen?"
"I have foreseen it," Lysander replied. "It is my duty to see. Your duty is to follow."
The man hesitated. He was Awoken, with glowing blue eyes and a short black beard. He looked around at his companions and said, "Sir, we've worked hard to make a new life for ourselves. If we provoke the Fallen, they may attack us instead. They need so little encouragement these days. Why must we return to the City and reopen those wounds? We should stay here, in peace. This is a good land."
The other men murmured in agreement.
Lysander looked around at them, sensing he was losing their support. "The Traveler gave me a vision. I saw four crowns, each crown bearing a House sigil. And those crowns were placed upon my own head. The Fallen will agree to help. We will fall upon the Last City, take it by storm, and overthrow the Vanguard. The Traveler has proclaimed it, and I will obey."
The Awoken man opened his mouth, as if preparing to argue further, but thought better of it and sat back down.
There was much more talk after this, but Silvan had stopped listening. "Bramble!" she said inside her head. "That man who stood up. That's my Dad!"
"Is he?" Bramble said doubtfully. The conversation distressed him - humans allying with Fallen? They must be Chosen, although he detected no ghosts with them. Their tags must be masked. He wanted his little innocent Silvan nowhere near these men and their schemes. Attacking the Last City? Who knew what they might do if they knew a little spy had overheard them. He checked to make sure that his tag was masked - the identifier that ghosts used to find each other and their partners - and ducked a little lower in the hollow. To phase now would send off a flash of Light, and they couldn't risk being noticed.
"Can I go talk to my Dad?" Silvan thought.
"Wait," Bramble said, unwilling. If she must do this, he could at least make sure she wouldn't be hurt. "When the meeting breaks up, we'll follow him. If you want to sleep, I'll keep watch. They may talk for hours."
Silvan crossed her arms grumpily, but she stayed hidden. After a long while, she dozed off, worn out by the events of the first day of her new life.
Bramble stood guard and listened to the meeting. The other men argued with Lysander, who answered every question without ever raising his voice. They argued with each other, debating the Fallen houses, the wisdom of attacking the City - or not attacking the City. Arguing that the Vanguard had exiled them, not the Traveler.
Bramble had heard of the Faction Wars from other ghosts, always vaguely mentioned, as if nobody liked to talk about it. It had been a bloody three-way political schism that divided the people of the City until the Vanguard had to intervene to end the fighting. The Concordat and its leader, Lysander, had been exiled. Now, listening to the earnest voices of the crowd at the fire, Bramble wished fervently for more details.
The man that Silvan had picked out as her father talked to several people, but when he failed to win any arguments, he retreated to the edge of the firelight, where he sat on the end of a log and carved a stick with a short knife. He kept a wary eye on the others, especially Lysander.
Hours passed, and the fire burned down into a pile of coals. The men produced bedrolls from the boats and bedded down around the fire. Many ghosts appeared at this point, keeping watch as their guardians slept. Silvan's so-called father didn't sleep, but sat up to keep watch.
This added another worry to Bramble's growing collection. If that man was a Chosen, too, then death would have erased his memory. Even if Silvan was his daughter, he'd have no idea who she was. He'd likely run them off, breaking Silvan's heart in the process.
And then there was the threat against the Last City. Shouldn't they be trying to get there and warn the Vanguard? But they had no proof. Lysander's plan was to negotiate with the Fallen, and the aliens would probably rather cut him to pieces than form any sort of alliance. It was so far fetched, the Vanguard would laugh ... especially if the messenger was a child.
Chapter 4: Ivaran Nerisis
The night grew old and dawn crept into the eastern sky, silvering the lake. Bramble landed on Silvan's shoulder as the dawn chill deepened, snuggling against her hair. If he'd had a blanket in his memory storage, he'd have covered her with it. He'd have to find or manufacture one as soon as he could. Woven cloth wasn't hard to create - he'd made her clothes from patterns and materials he had broken down into basic elements and stored in his Light memory. But he had to have textiles to work with.
The men awakened and rebuilt the fire, producing more food and pots for heating drinks. Soon a spiced, herbal tea smell awakened Silvan.
She was cold and stiff, hungry and thirsty. The men were still there, and so was her father. Reassured, she ate some of her scavenged food, stroked Bramble's broken shell, and watched.
She wouldn't admit to herself how frightened she was, deep down. She may not remember much, but she had a sense that roaming around in the wild and eating what she could find was not right for her. She wanted a home and family and safety. As she remembered the pike hidden in the brush, shivers prickled through her. Had she really stolen that thing and learned to drive it? And this robot floating beside her. He said he was her friend, but she didn't know him. She knew so little about this world and what was happening. She needed to be somewhere safe. She felt like her brain wouldn't even think right until that happened. She was locked in an anxious survival mode.
All her hopes were pinned on that vague figure in the distance, the blue-skinned man who looked more gray in the morning light than he did last night. She remembered his face, his smile, the little line that formed between his eyebrows when he frowned. His beard wasn't familiar, but he'd worn it in a different style when she'd known him. He was frowning this morning, seeming to brood over the previous night's debate.
After the morning meal, half the group began to depart in the boats, but some stayed behind to talk to Lysander. Silvan's father was one of the ones who left.
She rose to her feet, planning to bolt after him, but Bramble whispered in her head, "Wait. I know how we can follow him. Can you get back to the pike without making too much noise?"
Silvan nodded and crept deeper into the trees, placing each foot on grass or rocks, avoiding leaves that would rustle and crunch. She still made some noise, but the group on the beach didn't seem to notice.
After half an hour's sneaking along, Silvan reached her pike. Bramble started it for her at very low power, so as not to attract attention.
"Follow the lake's curve to the north," he told her. "I've marked your dad on my scans. He'll reach the far shore about the time we get there. Remember, slow and quiet."
Silvan obeyed, but she wanted to squeeze the accelerator and scream around the lake until she found her father. Then everything would be all right. She'd be safe. Instead, she crept along the lake on the cumbersome pike, afraid to rev the engines. Tiredness made the backs of her eyes itch. She hadn't slept well on the ground in the cold woods. The chirping and singing birds seemed too loud. When a dove flew by her head, she flinched as if from a bullet.
After a while she circled the narrower, northern end of the lake and reached the western side. There the forest was thinner and less tangled, and she threaded the pike between the trees.
"Stop for a minute," Bramble said.
Silvan did so, the pike's engine idling beneath her. Up ahead, movement flickered through the trees, the barest hint of a shift in light and shadow. Someone was walking.
"That's him," Bramble said. "Keep your distance. You don't want him to mistake you for an alien and shoot you."
Silvan feathered the throttle and crept after her father, hope and desperation beating in her heart.
"There's a lone pike following us," Ivaran's ghost said.
Ivaran Nerisis didn't stop or look back, but his senses snapped to high alert. "A Fallen spy?"
"No," his ghost replied. "A Guardian, like us. I can't identify them."
Ivaran walked on, knowing there was no point in trying to spot his tail in the woods, especially another Guardian who knew their business. Well, in another quarter mile they'd run out of woods, and he'd have a good look at whoever it was.
Did Lysander distrust him so much that he sent someone after him? Surely it wasn't an assassin - not on a pike. Besides, Ivaran knew the only assassin in the band, and he had stayed behind to talk to Lysander.
"It must be trouble to make you say anything," Ivaran thought to his ghost, Sunrise.
She didn't respond. She'd hardly spoken to him for thirty years, only breaking her silence to warn him of danger. Sometimes he forgot she was there. She never emerged from phase, and he hadn't actually seen her since his exile order took effect.
Now Lysander had had another vision, and he was going to destroy everything they'd worked for. Allying with the Fallen against the Vanguard? Would the Traveler really tell him to do that? Maybe. The sleeping machine might say any fool thing. Or maybe Lysander had interpreted it wrong. Either way, it gave Ivaran an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, the way he felt halfway up a cliff when a rock unexpectedly shifted underfoot.
Many times over the last three decades, he had questioned his loyalty to Lysander and the Concordat. He had believed in their platform at one time - that the Traveler's Light was meant for all humanity, not just the Vanguard. That Guardians like himself and Lysander were meant as mediators between the Traveler and humanity. That New Monarchy and Dead Orbit were lunatics in their separate ways, to say nothing of the grassroots political party Future War Cult. He'd fought in the Faction Wars and followed Lysander into exile, turning his back on the war-torn City and the Vanguard who had sided with their enemies.
But thirty years was a long time to think about politics. Out in the wilderness, alone with his thoughts because of his ghost's long silence, he chewed on the Faction Wars from fresh angles. During the long, freezing winter nights, he recalled Yuna's smile, her bright yellow eyes, every detail of the flowing Light patterns beneath her skin. The last he had seen of her, she had been clad in New Monarchy scarlet and gold, toppling Lysander's banner in the final, awful fight in the City streets. Yuna's gaze had met Ivaran's from across the bloodstained square, and he had felt her utter scorn like a blast of heat.
She had probably moved on by now. He hoped she had. She deserved better than to pledge a lifetime of loyalty to an exiled rebel.
And now, someone was following him on a Fallen pike. If he wasn't careful, they'd pound him with arc bolts the second he broke cover. None of the guys at the meeting had arrived on a pike - not to mention, the nearest Fallen were a day's drive up the road, in Bismark. Who was this guardian, and why had they singled him out?
Nervous, he halted at the edge of the woods. Here the trees ended and the broad slopes of the foothills began. Half a mile up the hills was his tiny shack and farm. He'd spent a long time working the soil into a state fit for crops, and rigging irrigation, and raising a few goats scrounged from feral animals left behind by people headed to the Last City. Losing it all to the Fallen galled him. What was Lysander thinking? But one did not voice such questions within hearing of the chief.
The pike had halted when he did, waiting for him to keep moving. After a moment, he lifted his rifle from its shoulder strap. If they thought they could take him out, he'd make them pay for it. He was a Guardian, after all. His ghost may not be on speaking terms with him, but she'd resurrect him.
Ivaran drew a deep breath and walked out of the trees, up the grassy slope of the first hill. When he was near the crest, the pike broke cover, too, creeping after him.
A little girl was riding it. When she saw him looking, she halted the vehicle and sat gazing at him.
Ivaran stared in astonishment. No female guardians had gone into exile with Lysander. None of the men had sought out wives, and neither had Ivaran. Maybe it was the wistful thought that Yuna had waited for him all these years, foolish though it may be. So, where had a child come from?
"You said she was a guardian?" he thought to his ghost.
His ghost didn't answer. She never did, anymore.
A child guardian? How could that be? They were always raised as adults, right? Of course, there was no rule about what age a person had to be when a ghost raised them. The Traveler's reasons were mysterious. Lysander would say something about the will of the Light.
Still gripping his rifle, Ivaran beckoned to the girl. She slowly eased the pike up the hill until she was a few feet away from him. She was Awoken, too. Her blue skin, glowing freckles, and red hair shocked Ivaran's brain. He was the only Awoken among Lysander's band, and he hadn't realized how homesick he was for someone who looked like him.
"Hello," Ivaran said gruffly.
"Hi," said the girl.
They stared at each other in awkward silence. Ivaran didn't know what to say. How did one speak to a child? Should he use simple words? He was aware that he was glaring at the girl, and tried to soften his expression.
The girl suddenly smiled, her silver eyes sparkling. "I'm Silvan. My ghost's name is Bramble." She held out a hand.
Ivaran slowly shook her hand, still half-expecting a trap. "Ivaran Nerisis. Why are you here?"
"My ghost resurrected me yesterday," Silvan replied, beaming into his face. "I found that bonfire place last night and hid while you all had your party."
"You did?" Ivaran said, aghast. "You listened?"
"Yeah," she said with a shrug. "Then I saw you, and I know who you are. You're my dad."
This claim was so preposterous that Ivaran rejected it at once. "No, I'm not. And if anyone finds out you eavesdropped on a secret meeting, you and your ghost will be executed."
"That's why I hid," she replied, as if this were the most logical thing in the world. "The only thing I remember from my old life is your face. And you're my dad. I wish I could remember your name, but I guess Ivaran is good enough."
Ivaran shifted his weight uneasily. She couldn't be his daughter from his old life ... could she? He certainly had no memories of her, but he'd also been a Guardian a long time, and Pilgrim Guard before that. One tended to forget that one had lived a lifetime before this one, in a very different world.
"Who was your mother, then?" he challenged.
Silvan's face fell. "I've been trying to remember her, actually. I know I had a family. And a home. But I can't remember Mom. Only you. From what Bramble says, I'm lucky to have that much."
Suddenly, Ivaran was aware of how exposed they were on that hilltop. Any of the others might see them and report him to Lysander for fraternizing with enemy Guardians.
"Tell you what," he said. "Let's continue this conversation at my house. Mind giving me a ride?"
Silvan beamed and slid forward on the seat to make room. Ivaran climbed on behind her, took the handlebars, and squeezed the accelerator. The pike shot over the hilltop, down its back, and up the next hill. Silvan cheered.
They reached his cabin a few minutes later. It was only ten feet square, made of logs he had felled in the forest and dragged here himself. Over the years, he had added a lean-to for extra storage, figured out how to build a fireplace without burning the place down, and had added a small barn where he shut up his goats at night to protect them from predators. The goats watched them from their pen as they approached.
They went into his cabin. It had a wood plank floor, one window, a single table recovered from Bismark's ruins, and a chair made from the cross section of a tree stump. His bed took up one corner, piled with tangled blankets. His old armor hung on the walls, dusty and meaningless.
Silvan stood in the middle of the room, gazing around. Ivaran followed her gaze, seeing everything from the perspective of a guest, and his face grew warm. "It's not much, but it keeps the rain off. Can I offer you some water?"
"Yes, please," Silvan said, sitting on the stump chair.
Ivaran filled his only cup from the rain barrel outside and offered it to her. Silvan sipped it and watched him, nervous, but adoring, too.
Her ghost appeared in a swirl of Light, bright in the dim room. Ivaran jumped. It had been so long since a ghost had appeared in his house - he never had visitors.
"Hello," he said to it.
"Look," said Bramble. "We don't know you, and you don't know us. But my Chosen needs a father. You can either be that for her, or kick us out. But don't keep us in suspense. I need to know what you plan to do, because I've been taking care of her, and if you won't, then that's still on me."
Ivaran grinned and sat on the end of his bed. It had been years since he had been sassed by a ghost. Nobody else's ghosts spoke to anyone but their guardians.
"Well, I don't know," he replied, meeting the ghost's fierce gaze. "If you listened at the meeting last night, you'll know that our leader, Lysander, is planning to speak to the Kell of the House of Kings."
"And you objected," Silvan replied. "That's how I recognized you. Do you think the Fallen will listen to him?"
Ivaran shook his head. "I'm not sure. What will probably happen is that the Fallen will kill him, and then hunt us down and try to kill us, too. You've come at a bad time, I'm afraid."
"It's always a bad time," said Bramble. "The Chosen were created because the Darkness brought the worst time of all. Now your crazy leader is doing something certifiably insane."
"Shh," Ivaran whispered. "That kind of talk isn't allowed. Men and ghosts have been killed for less."
Bramble shrank close to Silvan until his shell bumped her shoulder.
Silvan looked confused. "Lysander doesn't let you talk about him?"
Ivaran glanced at the door and window, thinking of spies. "No. I was walking a thin line, questioning him as much as I did last night."
"Does the Traveler really speak to him?"
"I couldn't say."
"Does it speak to you?"
Ivaran looked into the silent place in his mind where his ghost's friendly voice used to be. "No."
Silvan folded her hands and looked at them. "I want to see the Traveler. May we visit the Last Safe City?"
Cold washed through Ivaran at this thought. Blood running in the gutters. The crack of gunfire. Screams of the dying. The angry faces of the Consensus as his exile sentence was passed. If he returned, he would forfeit his ghost and his life.
"I've been exiled," he said. "I can't go back. I could take you, though. The Vanguard would look after you."
Silvan gazed at him. "But ... I don't want to live there without you."
This staggered him like a physical blow. He wasn't sure she was his daughter, had never set eyes on her before. And already she was loyal to him, forming an attachment after barely knowing him an hour.
She did resemble him, a little. He had glowing freckles like hers, and his hair had once been bright red before it faded to a dull brown. His beard had always been dark, for some reason. There was no way to be certain without a blood test, and only the City had the equipment for that.
She was still a child, and yet she had been chosen as a Guardian. That thought staggered him, too, the more he thought about it. She needed someone to look after her, and it had to be either him or the Vanguard. He didn't trust the rest of Lysander's followers - or cultists, as he had come to call them in the privacy of his mind. They had by and large abandoned the principles of the Light and lived however they wanted, with a bent toward cruelty. There was a reason Ivaran lived alone out in the hills, rather than in the tiny village the others had built.
"You can stay with me, for now," he said at last. "We'll see how Lysander's mission plays out. If he fails, I'll likely have to abandon my farmstead. If he succeeds ... we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"Oh good!" Silvan jumped off her seat, ran up and threw her arms around Ivaran. "Thanks so much, Dad!"
He sat there, stunned, unsure how to react. "Uh ... you're welcome."
Chapter 5: Selected
Silvan followed Ivaran around his farmstead for the next several weeks. She thought to herself that she was taming him. She helped drive the goats to pasture in the mornings and back to the barn in the evenings. She helped haul water from a spring between the hills back to the cabin to water the garden. She helped Ivaran gather enough food for both of them, since he wasn't prepared to support a second person. It was berry season, and the oak trees were dropping piles of acorns. Ivaran was busy collecting and preserving as much food as he could for the winter.
"And we may need it if we make the trip to the City," Ivaran added. "It's a long way in foot."
Ivaran didn't say much, at first. Silvan chatted to him to fill the long silences, asking questions, sharing observations, or making wisecracks with Bramble. Bramble followed them everywhere, just as interested in these activities as she was. When they picked blackberries and he got caught in the vines, Silvan laughed and laughed. "Bramble got caught in the brambles!"
"It's not funny!" he bleated, struggling to free himself from the thorny vines. He finally had to dematerialize in order to escape.
Ivaran actually smiled for the first time.
After that, he smiled more and more often, as if Silvan had taught him how.
Even though many things happened afterward, Silvan always remembered that golden season in the hills and woods, just herself and the father she barely remembered, slowly becoming friends.
He taught her many things without seeming to. He taught her to handle his rifle, to aim and shoot at a bundle of grass nailed to a tree trunk. At first she could barely lift the heavy weapon, but gradually her arms and shoulders grew stronger.
He taught her to be aware of her surroundings. He played memory games with her - what is that tree called? How many oak trees in this grove? Count them without looking. What bird was that? Why do you think this grass is bent? Can you tell me where the goats are without seeing them?
One day, she asked Ivaran if he had a ghost.
"Yes," he replied, without looking up. They were grinding acorns to meal with rocks as mortars and pestles, and it was hard work.
"What's his name?"
"Her name is Sunrise."
"Your ghost is a girl? Ooo, can I meet her?"
Ivaran didn't speak for a long time, just kept adding acorns to the mortar and grinding them with quick thrusts of the pestle. Then he said, "She doesn't speak to me anymore."
Silvan gaped at him. "What? Why?"
Silvan looked at Bramble, who always floated at her left shoulder. "I can't imagine you not speaking to me."
"Maybe if I was really mad at you," Bramble said. He shifted uneasily in the air, as if this conversation unsettled him. "But I wouldn't give you the silent treatment. I'd just hijack a pike and shoot you a few times."
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Don't make me mad, then."
"I make you mad all the time."
Bramble tried to spin his shell, but it grated and stuck. "There's mad and there's mad." He gazed thoughtfully at Ivaran and said nothing else.
After a long silence broken only by the grinding of nuts under stone, Silvan ventured, "Would Sunrise talk to me?"
"If she had to," Ivaran replied. "Ghosts don't usually talk to anyone aside from their guardian. Your ghost is a chatty one."
Silvan looked at Bramble, especially at the broken places in his shell. "Bramble's still smashed up and I can't fix him. Is Sunrise smashed?"
"She'd better not be," Ivaran said with such vehemence that Silvan cringed. He saw her and softened his tone. "I don't want my ghost hurt any more than you do. She's my friend."
"Even though she doesn't talk to you?"
Ivaran poured acorn flour into a half a gourd they were using as a container. He gazed at his empty mortar for a long moment before adding another handful of acorns. His shoulders slumped and his head hung a little. Then he shook himself, straightened, and returned to grinding acorns. "Even though she doesn't talk to me."
Silvan caught that dejected moment and resolved to do something about it. Inside her head, she said, "Bramble?"
"Yell at Dad's ghost for me. He needs her to be his friend again."
Bramble laughed nervously. "Uh, she's my senior here, has had her guardian way longer than I have, knows the Light better, and you want me to yell at her?"
"She's being mean. I don't care how smart she is. Tell her I said that."
Bramble hesitantly opened a connection to Sunrise, who was always with Ivaran, even though she stayed invisible. "Silvan says you're to stop being mean to your guardian at once."
Her only response was a low laugh.
He reported this to Silvan. "She laughed."
Silvan snorted. "Brat."
As the days passed, Silvan and Bramble tried over and over to coax Sunrise out of hiding. But the ghost was wise to them and refused to be baited. They didn't stop until Ivaran told them off for it. "This is between her and me, all right? Mind your own business."
He didn't know what to think of Silvan for the longest time. She was so cheerful, so full of life and curiosity. On his own, Ivaran didn't talk much. Now he had this small person who never stopped talking to him. It was exasperating and tiring and wonderful.
And she was convinced that she was his daughter. He dithered about it for weeks, wishing he could have talked it over with his ghost. Had his past self had a wife and child, only to lose everything at some point? Who had he been before his ghost had found him? He had been resurrected far from here, in the ruins of a crashed jet. He had opened his eyes to see the little drone's star-shape silhouetted against a glorious pink and gold sunrise, which was why he had named her after it. She had named him Ivaran, which she said was a good name for an Awoken.
His wife must have been Awoken, too, because Silvan was certainly pure blood - always assuming she was actually his daughter. After two solid weeks of thinking about it, he reached a simple conclusion. Either Silvan was crazy, or a liar, or she was telling the truth. He was fairly certain she wasn't crazy. And after watching and listening to her for days and days, he was pretty sure she wasn't a liar, either.
That left only the possibility that she was telling the truth - that she actually did remember his face.
If she was his daughter from another life, that made him responsible for her. She had certainly attached herself to him quickly enough.
Could he care for a daughter? He'd made so many bad choices. He was an exiled Guardian, for the Traveler's sake. Of all the Guardians he knew and respected - Saint-14, Commander Osiris, Saladin Forge - he was the least worthy to have the responsibility to care for a young girl.
At first, he kept her at arm's length because he simply didn't know how to interact with her. Did he talk to her like another adult? Did he hide his life from her?
Slowly, he began teaching her how to feed the animals, how to gather and prepare food, and basic hygiene. It dawned on him, too, that she was a Guardian with no idea how to fight. So he began teaching her situational awareness, as well as how to handle weapons.
As he did, his awkwardness eased. Silvan was young, but she was also a human being, and mentally the equal of most adults he knew. Talking to her became easier the more he tried it.
Besides, there was an odd kinship between them. Their personalities were similar, and their minds worked the same way. Often he caught her using one of his own mannerisms, tilting her head a certain way, or making a certain expression. That, more than anything else, began to convince him that she was his flesh and blood.
He often watched her, trying to see her mother in her. Who had she been? Another Awoken redhead? Silvan seemed to take after him, but surely she'd inherited something from her mother. It gave him an empty, lost feeling, knowing that he and his family had died. His wife had perished. What if she was a Guardian and he had no idea? He thought fleetingly of Yuna and dismissed her out of hand. Yuna looked nothing like this child, and her disposition was too different.
Having someone to look after softened a place inside him that had become cold and hard. His thoughts became less grim. Instead of bare survival, he began looking for things to teach Silvan, animals to call her attention to, wonders among the stars and hidden among the trees of the forest. He grieved, a little, for the wife he didn't remember. Ivaran didn't know it, but he was becoming a nicer person.
His ghost watched this change in silence, but she approved. Her Guardian had slid so far down the road toward darkness during the Faction Wars, she had regretted ever choosing him. Sometimes she had debated just leaving him dead and refusing to resurrect him.
His exile had been the last straw. Sunrise has watched the Warlords during the Dark Ages, how ruthless and bloodthirsty they were, simply because they had power and nobody else did. She saw that same tendency in Lysander, and watched it develop in Ivaran. The ghost of a Warlord also became ruthless and cold, their Light burning chill.
Sunrise couldn't face becoming like that - not when Ivaran had once been sweet and kind, a Titan who fought with his hands, but came home and read books, learning to build things. He'd worked part-time in the City as a carpenter, designing and building furniture, and Sunrise had helped with measurements and blueprints. But all that fell by the wayside when he became enamored with Lysander, following him down a questionable path into bloody civil war.
Sunrise had distanced herself from her Chosen, ashamed of who he had become. Despite not wanting to share in his change, she, too, had become hard and cold. Loneliness was a terrible thing.
Then Silvan and Bramble bombed into their sad, useless lives, and everything changed. Ivaran seemed to wake from his miserable stupor. Sunrise watched as he began a gradual climb back to the kindly man he used to be. And she watched Bramble enviously, so in love with his young Chosen. It reminded her of how she used to love Ivaran, and couldn't wait for him to wake up every morning so they could talk and work together. Lately, she hadn't cared whether he lived or died. But now, she had glimpses of their old life, before the exile order. And she found herself growing fond of Ivaran again. Maybe, soon, she would break her long silence.
One afternoon, Ivaran was teaching Silvan how to break down and reassemble his rifle. All the parts were spread out on the table, and Ivaran was explaining how they fit together, when someone called in the distance, "Hello the house!"
"Stay here," Ivaran said in a low voice, rising to his feet. "I don't want them to know about you." He stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
Silvan raced to a chink between the logs where she could see out. Another man was climbing the hill toward the cabin, carrying a rifle and accompanied by two wild-looking dogs. They bristled and growled at Ivaran until their master called them off.
"Another Chosen?" she thought to Bramble.
"Yes," the ghost replied, peering through the chink alongside her. "Neil Samson, and his ghost is Flyboy. Not bothering to mask their tag. I wonder what's up?"
"Dad's not happy," Silvan thought.
Ivaran had turned away from the visitor, gesturing sharply at the barn and animals. He pointed at himself and shook his head no. Neil stepped toward him and jabbed a finger at Ivaran's chest. The dogs growled.
"Think they'll fight?" Silvan thought, eyes widening.
Bramble didn't answer, but he watched the men's exchange intently.
Now the two men were talking, Neil earnestly, Ivaran with his head bent. They talked for a long while. The dogs sniffed around in the grass. Silvan's legs grew tired and she sat on the floor, watching from a smaller chink that didn't have as good of a view.
Finally, Neil walked off, whistling for his dogs, which bounded after him. Ivaran stood gazing after him for some time. Finally he walked back to the house, dragging his feet, obviously lugging a burden of bad news.
Silvan jumped up and was waiting by the table when he entered the cabin. "What did that guy want?"
Ivaran sat down on the tree stump chair. He rubbed his temples for a moment, as if fending off a headache, then pinched the bridge of his nose. "Do you remember that meeting at the fire pit?"
"Yeah. With Lysander?"
Ivaran nodded. "Do you remember what he intended to do?"
"Yes," Silvan said. "He was going to try to talk to the Fallen."
Ivaran gazed at the disassembled rifle on the table. "He managed to set up a meeting with the Kell of the House of Kings. I've been chosen to accompany him as an honor guard."
Silvan took in the slump of his shoulders, the lack of Light beneath his skin, the way his glowing blue eyes had faded. "Do you think they'll kill you?"
"They might. But why would Lysander pick me, out of all the men?"
"Is it because you questioned him?" Silvan asked. "Maybe he plans for you to die."
Ivaran gave her a piercing look. "You said it, not me."
Silvan suddenly found that her mouth was very dry. She tried to gulp the dryness down. "But ... your ghost can resurrect you ... right?"
"If the Fallen don't kill her, too." Ivaran rubbed his face. "Why me? Why does he want me?"
Silvan picked up the gun parts and began reassembling them, as he'd been teaching her, just to give her hands something to do. "Do the Fallen speak English? I thought they only made sounds."
"The House of Kings have Servitors who know our languages," Ivaran replied. "That's not the issue. The real issue is whether Kell Craask is a treacherous double-crosser." He sat there for a while, staring into space, until Silvan made a mistake in the assembly and he had to pay attention again.
"I have to leave for the journey tomorrow morning," he said dully. "I don't dare refuse. Lysander is testing my loyalty, I think. I need you to stay here and take care of the goats and the garden for me. It may be a few days before I return."
"What if ... what if you don't come back?" Silvan said. She could barely force the words out. Sudden sick fear choked her - her father might die and leave her alone in this savage world.
"Then I want you to go to the Last City," Ivaran said. "Take all the supplies you can carry. Let the goats go, they'll fend for themselves. Your ghost will guide you. But give me at least two weeks before you give up on me. We may have quite a hike ahead of us. I don't know where the seat of the Kell of Kings is located."
Silvan nodded, trying to focus on the rifle through the tears in her eyes. Suddenly she set it down, turned to her father and put her arms around his neck, sobbing into his shoulder. Ivaran held her and rocked back and forth, stroking her hair. "Shh. It's all right. I'll wear my armor again. Your old dad is more than a match for a bunch of aliens."
Silvan cried for a few minutes. But curiosity began to win out over fear. She pulled away, sniffing and wiping her eyes. "You have armor?"
Ivaran rose and began collecting the pieces from where he'd mounted them on the walls. He set them on the table and gazed at them. "I think we need to clean these. Come on, I'll show you how."
The rest of the afternoon was spent in scrubbing the old chest plate, gauntlets, and greaves. Ivaran explained about his service as a Titan. "For some reason, when my ghost resurrected me, my Light manifested as superhuman strength. You saw me tear down that dead tree with my bare hands the other day. That's why. Back at the City, people with that type of power are called Titans and wear this kind of armor."
Silvan's eyes grew round as she turned the heavy chest piece around in both hands. "Will my Light make me super strong?"
"It should have taken a certain direction from the moment of resurrection," Ivaran replied, squinting at her. "But so far, I haven't been able to detect it. Your strength seems normal. You're not exceptionally quick, like a hunter. But you are very bright and curious, so maybe you're a warlock."
"Am I?" Silvan said. "What's a warlock?"
"A scholar warrior. Some might call them wizards. They tend to value books more than swords, and they use Light to do things out of fantasy stories - like cast lightning from their fingertips."
Silvan considered this. She did like to learn things, but the idea of throwing lightning around scared her a little. "How would I know?"
Ivaran sighed and fingered a worn strap on the left greave. "You should have manifested some Light by now. I'm worried because you haven't. Bramble, what do you think?"
The ghost looked up. "She ... well ... she has Light, it's just ... unfocused. She's young, yet."
Silvan looked at her ghost, then at her father. "So ... I'll get powers as I get older?"
"I hope so." Ivaran changed the subject. "The sun's getting low. Time to feed the goats. We can finish this later."
Silvan accompanied him to do the evening chores. Ivaran gave her last-minute instructions on what to do while he was away ... and what to do if he never returned. She listened soberly, and had Bramble take recordings. Not so she wouldn't forget - Silvan rarely forgot anything - but so she would have records of his voice if anything bad happened.
"Bramble," she said as she climbed into her bed that night - a small bed, built hastily by her father in her first week.
"Ask Dad's ghost to please take care of him."
Bramble nestled beside her in the blankets and opened a channel to Sunrise, nearby. "Silvan says ..."
"I heard," Sunrise interrupted. After a moment, she said in a gentler tone, "I'll watch over Ivaran. I'll send you updates so you'll know how we're doing. There's no need to keep your Chosen in suspense."
"Thanks," Bramble replied. "Sorry. I don't mean to be rude."
"I understand," Sunrise replied, and said nothing else.
Chapter 6: Kell Craask
Lysander waited on the lake shore the next morning, surrounded by early morning fog. It was chilly and damp, a pleasant change from summer's heat. It also meant that autumn was passing swiftly.
But Lysander wasn't concerned about the seasons. He was waiting to see if Ivaran Nerisis would show his face.
Ivaran had once been loyal, fighting at Lysander's side in the Faction Wars. He'd given up the Vanguard and his girlfriend to follow Lysander into exile. But now he dared ask questions. He dared argue and create arguments. Now the others were questioning Lysander's visions and leadership, all because of Ivaran's discontent. Unless Lysander acted quickly, he would lose his supporters. Exile would be very ugly if he had to face it alone.
No, today, he would fulfill the vision granted by the Traveler. The House of Kings would agree to his plan, and Ivaran would have nothing left to say. Especially if Lysander put a bullet in his ghost.
The fog was beginning to lift when Ivaran walked out of the trees, actually wearing his Titan armor for once. Lysander sized him up as he approached. Acting the part of a Titan to cow the Fallen? Or had he truly taken up the mantle of the Vanguard again? The man's shifting loyalties could doom Lysander, and Lysander wasn't about to let that happen.
He nodded as Ivaran approached. "Nerisis."
"Chief," Ivaran replied with a nod. "Anyone else coming?"
"They allowed me one honor guard. Come along. My jumpship is ready."
"Your jumpship?" Ivaran raised an eyebrow. "You have fuel?"
Lysander's loyalists had captured fuel tanks from a Fallen airfield. But a disloyal Titan didn't need to know that. Lysander only nodded and set out toward the road. He silently instructed his ghost to bring the ship in. He complied.
The jumpship was a Bray-class cruiser, painted green with the Concordat logo. It had spent years in an old barn under piles of tarps, and still looked like new. Ivaran said nothing, only transmatted into the ship with Lysander. He took the copilot seat.
Lysander strapped himself into the pilot seat and sent out his ghost, who communicated with the ship's AI. The ghost had no name, but wore a shell in Concordat green. He served Lysander as his men did -but unlike them, Lysander never doubted his ghost's loyalty.
The ship lifted into the sky with a smooth surge of thrust. The landscape fell away beneath them, spread out in brown and green forest with blue mountains in the distance. The sky was clear and cloudless.
Lysander set a course toward the location given him by a House of Kings Servitor. It had taken many tries to speak to any Fallen of that house - they were secretive and reclusive, and had no interest in communicating with a Guardian. But eventually his persistence had paid off. Once he convinced the Kings that he had information to both their advantage - this took two months of sending messages back and forth - they agreed to meet with him at a location of their choosing. According to what his ghost could figure out from the coordinates, they were meeting the Kings in the remains of Rio de Janeiro, which the Fallen had apparently turned into a stronghold.
It took a few hours to fly from North America to Brazil - the near light speed drive couldn't be used within a planet's gravity well. Ivaran Nerisis remained silent for most of the flight, inscrutable behind his helmet's face plate. This suited Lysander, but annoyed him, too. He couldn't sound out Ivaran's reasoning for questioning him. All in good time, however.
They flew over a series of jagged granite mountains and swooped down to the coast, where Rio de Janeiro had once stood. While many skyscrapers had collapsed due to the tropical climate rusting away the supports, the statue of Christ the Redeemer still stood, hands outstretched. For whatever reason, the Collapse had left it unharmed, and the Fallen hadn't touched it.
Lysander jeered at it silently as they swooped in to land at the place directed. We don't need you. We have the Traveler, now.
Ivaran noticed it, too, and broke his long silence. "Odd that's still standing. The Statue of Liberty was harvested by the Fallen for the metal."
Lysander smiled. "Are you saying that liberty is dead, but redemption still stands?"
Ivaran glanced at him, then looked away. "I don't know."
As the ship set down in an old parking lot now overgrown with weeds, Ivaran added, "Why did they send us to Rio de Janeiro?"
"I assume because they have good beaches," Lysander said dryly.
Ivaran glanced at him sharply, as if checking to see if Lysander had actually made a joke. Lysander met his look with a thin-lipped smile.
In silence the two men transmatted out of the ship. Three Fallen Vandals waited for them in the shade of a nearby magnolia tree. They wore the scarlet colors of the House of Kings, and carried weapons of better quality than their North American counterparts. Apparently, the aliens had thrived in the warm climate.
Lysander faced them and bowed, as he'd been instructed, with both arms behind him. One Vandal inclined its head. The three moved forward and pointed at the Guardians' weapons, making negative sounds. Lysander carefully set down his rifle and sidearm. After a moment's hesitation, Ivaran did the same.
The three aliens took up formation around the humans, one ahead and two behind, and marched them into what remained of the great city.
"I don't like that they disarmed us," Ivaran muttered.
"We have our Light," Lysander replied in an undertone. "But we're here to parley, not fight."
"You think they'll honor that?"
"I have no doubt."
And Lysander didn't. If things turned sour, he intended to escape while Ivaran held off the aliens. And if Ivaran fell and his ghost was killed, well, he would have died a hero, serving the Concordat. Lysander would give him a truly resounding eulogy.
If things went well and Ivaran survived ... well, there were many more negotiations to go. Plenty of opportunities for one Titan to fall prey to an Eliksni Kell.
The aliens led them up a hill to where the mansions of the rich had once been. While most had been destroyed by termites, one great house was still standing and well-maintained. Eliksni guards stood at intervals along the outer stucco fence, armed with wire rifles and arc blades. They eyed the Guardians and muttered to each other. But one opened the gates for them - heavy steel gates that could repel a speeding truck.
Lysander kept his awareness open, tracking each alien around him. Tension radiated from them. They feared him and Ivaran. Good. Fear might become respect, in time. But it could easily turn into hate, so he must be cautious.
The guards escorted the Guardians into the mansion, their feet and boots echoing on the tile floors. It was surprisingly clean, for an Eliksni lair, and there had even been furniture brought in and arranged to accommodate the aliens' longer limbs. Clearly, the House of Kings liked to impress their clan.
Kell Craask awaited them in a back room with shaded windows and a red rug to soften the floor. A heavy wooden table occupied the center of this room, covered in instruments and maps. A Servitor floated nearby, and Craask himself stood behind the table.
He was a huge Eliksni, at least seven feet tall. His four-armed body was clad in gleaming steel armor with a red robe draped over it. Like all Eliksni, his face was more animal than human, with four green eyes and jaws lined with sharp teeth.
Lysander stepped forward and bowed with his arms behind him - the way a Dreg showed respect to a member of a higher caste. The aliens considered Guardians lower than Dregs, so it was appropriate that he communicate like one.
Kell Craask gazed at the Guardians for a long moment. His four hands were empty, but a wicked-looking serrated sword hung at his hip. His lower right hand rested on its hilt. After the silence had stretched on for several minutes, and Lysander had time to begin to sweat under his armor in the warm room, the alien turned his head. He barked at the Servitor.
The sphere-like machine trained its huge purple optic on the Guardians. "Kell Craask of the House of Kings bids you speak. He does not welcome you, for we are enemies."
The machine's voice was modulated and accented, but quite understandable.
"I am Lysander, Kell of House Concordat," Lysander replied. "Our people are enemies, but my House seeks no enmity with yours. We share a goal."
The Servitor translated this. Craask spoke, and the Servitor translated it.
"What goal could our noble House possibly share with rats and thieves?"
"Your people once possessed the Great Machine," Lysander said. Despite his confidence in his vision, a little uneasiness stirred inside him. This was the delicate part. "Even though my race was Chosen, I and my House have been cast out from our people. We are denied the Great Machine, as you are."
Craask made a hideous coughing sound that passed as laughter among the Eliksni. "They could not dock your arms, so they docked your pride. Now you crawl to us. Tell me, Human Dreg. What do you hope to accomplish with this meeting?"
Lysander drew a deep breath, aware of Ivaran at his side, tense as a drawn bow. "Both our Houses desire the Great Machine. But you do not possess the means to defeat the Vanguard. I, however, know of a weakness in the wall of the Last City. An army could breach the wall, flood into the City, and seize control of the Great Machine."
Craask did not answer immediately. He gazed at the Guardians for some time in silence. Then he turned and made sign language to his smaller Eliksni attendants. They signed back, using a complex combination of movements with all four arms. It was strange and incomprehensible. Lysander wished he understood this particular language - what secrets might he learn?
Craask turned back to him and spoke again, the Servitor translating. "Could be a filthy Guardian ploy to exterminate my people. We do not trust your kind. Human Dregs might say anything to save themselves. Give me the information on the walls and I will consider whether you speak truth."
"Ah, but Kell Craask," Lysander said with a smile, "then you would have no need of me and my House. Why should I help you if you do not help me?"
Craask drew his serrated sword and pointed it across the table at Lysander's throat. "I could kill you now, Guardian."
Lysander gazed into the green eyes, keeping his own fear firmly masked. "Guardians do not truly die. You know this, Kell Craask. But an attack will end our negotiation. No secrets."
For a long moment the Eliksni stood there, the blade rock-steady in his grip. He could cut off Lysander's head with a flick of his wrist. Ivaran's only movement was to clench his fists, which began to spark with Arc Light.
At last, Kell Craask withdrew his sword and returned it to its place at his side. "We will not end you today, Human Dreg. Withdraw from my home. We must consider the meaning of your words. Messengers will be sent to your dwelling in the north."
Lysander bowed again, nudged Ivaran, and allowed the guards to escort them back outside, to the ship, where they retrieved their weapons.
Neither of them spoke until they were safely in the air. Then Ivaran said, "You're selling them the Last City?"
"It's not a sale," Lysander said. "I lack the resources to overthrow the Vanguard and slay the Speaker. But why not let the Fallen do my work for me? As the Vanguard is occupied with defending the City, I will transmat in and eliminate the Speaker. Then the Concordat will mysteriously appear and aid in repelling the attack. We'll be hailed as heroes and be welcomed back to the City with open arms. I will take my place at the head of the Consensus."
Ivaran looked at him and said nothing. He said nothing all the way back to North Dakota territory, and Lysander liked it that way.
Silvan did her chores that morning, but afterward, the day stretched before her, bleak and endless. A week. Two weeks. Worry lay that way, gnawing worry that would paralyze her thoughts and drag her into gloom.
Instead, she walked across the hills toward the biggest oak grove. "Bramble, tell me how to use the Light."
The ghost opened his shell, emoting a smile. "With pleasure! First off, this is Light. This blue glow around my core."
Silvan experimentally put her hand into his Light field. It felt warm and made the hairs on the back of her hand stand up. She stroked Bramble's core, and he chirped happily.
She withdrew her hand and he closed his shell. "All right," he said, flying around her as she walked on. "You have the Light inside you. It chose you and let me resurrect you. When you draw on it, it will take one of three forms - fire, lightning, or plasma. They're called Solar, Arc, and Void."
"Oh, I get it," Silvan replied. "Those are all forms of Light."
She reached the oak grove and walked into the cool shade beneath the huge trees. Acorns and caps crunched underfoot. Squirrels scattered at her approach and ran up the trees, scolding.
Silvan sat on a huge root that she often used as a bench. Then she concentrated on digging around inside herself, hunting for that warm, electrical sensation. Bramble floated nearby, watching.
Inside herself, Silvan found intense worry about her father that she didn't want to think about. It was mixed up with a dreadful fear of being alone and abandoned. As she tried to push this aside and find her Light, she realized that this fear had come with her from her previous life. Had she been abandoned before her death? Maybe that was why she seemed to have died alone in the forest.
Had her father left her? Or her mother? They both died at some point, so maybe that was what had happened.
Speculating about her tragic past life only made her sadder than she already was. She stared at the ground as a lump grew in her throat. You're supposed to find your Light, not mope. Silvan mentally slapped herself. Stop it. You have Bramble, now. And he's waiting for you to be a magical fairy child.
At this thought, she found her Light. She felt stupid for missing it, actually - it was a comfortable, warm feeling inside her, like her heartbeat. She had felt it for so long, she had stopped noticing it.
"I think I found it, Bram," Silvan said. "What do I do now?"
"Call it to your hands," her ghost replied. "Light is a tool and a weapon. It can manifest as a sword, or a gun, or a staff, or anything you want, really. You just have to picture it clearly in your mind."
Silvan looked at the acorns on the ground and thought about a rake. She mentally sketched the handle, then the head with all the branching teeth. Then she held out both hands and drew that warmth inside her toward her palms.
A rake made of blue Light appeared in her hands. She grasped the handle and found it quite solid. "Hey, I did it!"
Bramble stared at the Light rake. He stared as she got up and began to rake acorns into a pile with it. "You ... you used your Light ... to make a rake."
"Well, I wanted one."
Bramble scanned the tool as she worked. "It's well done, at least. You designed it perfectly. I just ... never heard of that. Chosen usually make weapons for fighting."
"I don't need a weapon right now." Silvan set the rake against a tree trunk. It vanished as soon as she let go. "Now, I need a bucket." She held out her hands and concentrated. After a moment, a large bucket made of Light appeared.
Bramble began to laugh. He laughed the whole time she was filling the bucket with her pile of acorns. As she carried it back toward the farmstead, he flew beside her, chuckling. "My Star-Child, you really do amaze me. Why not use the Light to make your work easier? But I still don't know how you'll fight."
"Who would I fight, anyway?" Silvan asked. "There's nobody out here. We haven't even seen any wild animals."
She reached the cabin, dumped her acorns into the big gourd where they stored them for grinding, and went back for more. As she walked, she built herself a staff out of Light and swung it around her. "There. If something attacks us, I can hit it with this."
"Good," Bramble said. "How about your dad's rifle? Could you make a Light version of that?"
Silvan let the staff disappear. She thought about the rifle, its inner workings, the slide, and safety, and trigger, and magazine. She was careful to load the magazine with bullets. When she held out her hands, a rifle appeared, sketched in blue Light and fully functional. She fired at a distant tree. The rifle kicked - sort of - and made a sound like a gunshot mixed with an electrical crackle. It fired a projectile that slashed through the air and exploded against the tree trunk in a flash of white light, like lightning.
Silvan let the rifle disappear. "I think I made it too real."
"No, that's good, that's good!" Bramble cheered, flying around her head in circles. "You made a functioning weapon! But you used Arc Light! Oh, I wish there were other ghosts around. I don't have anyone to brag to."
"You can brag to me."
"It's not good to brag about someone in front of them. Makes them proud."
Silvan laughed and summoned her rake again. It was easier the second time. "Well, I don't need a gun right now, anyway."
She was going to say more, but Bramble halted in midair and said, "Stop." His tone was suddenly sharp, the type of voice one never disobeys. Silvan halted in the dry grass on the hillside. "What?"
Bramble stared toward the oak grove. "There's two men down there. Chosen. They're watching us."
Silvan squinted toward the trees. Nothing moved. But now that she was paying attention, she heard the squirrels scolding, as they did whenever she went down there. The wildlife knew there were humans about. But, no matter how she strained her eyes, she saw no one.
"Where are they?"
"Behind that tree on the left. Turn around and go home, Silvan."
She obeyed, her back prickling with sweat. "Would they attack me?"
"Their guns are drawn." Bramble disappeared, but still spoke in her head. "They're waiting to ambush you, I think. Your lightning bullet must have made them think you were attacking them."
"But I wasn't! I can explain!" She half-turned, ready to go back to the grove.
"Silvan." Bramble was deadly serious. "I've seen Chosen do horrible things to each other out of fear. Please do as I say. Go into the cabin, bar the door, and summon your Light rifle. They may follow us."
Bramble had never spoken to her like that before. Silvan broke into a run, faster than she'd ever run in her life, and reached the cabin in another minute. She burst inside, and barred the door with a thick log her father kept for that purpose. Then she sat on her bed, summoned her rifle, and sat against the wall, listening. Bramble appeared beside her.
They waited in silence for an hour, listening for approaching footsteps in the crunchy grass. Crickets chirped. Birds flew over. Goats bleated in the distance. All sounded normal and peaceful. No one had followed them.
"They know you exist, now," Bramble said, very softly. "Lysander will find out. They know you live here. I don't know what will happen."
"I hope Dad comes home," Silvan whispered.
"Me too." Bramble nestled close to her, perching himself on her shoulder with his shell touching her cheek protectively. "If not, we'll have to leave. No one will harm my Star-Child."
"Why would they hurt me? We're all Chosen, aren't we?"
Bramble didn't reply for a long moment. "These were once Guardians. They were exiled for criminal behavior. From things your father has said, that criminal behavior has only gotten worse over the years. They wouldn't see you as a fellow Chosen. They would see you as a weak female to be tortured at their leisure. And I will not let that happen."
Chapter 7: Discovery
They were still sitting there, watching the door, when Bramble received a message from Ivaran's ghost, Sunrise. "We're on our way back. Expect us about seven PM."
Bramble relayed this. Silvan scrambled to her feet in joy. "Oh good! He was only gone a day? I thought it would be forever! I'd better get my chores done before he gets here."
The rest of the day passed in a flurry of work. Bramble kept an anxious eye out for unwelcome visitors, but nobody appeared.
As the sun was setting in a bank of red clouds, Ivaran appeared over the hill, walking in a tired sort of way, as if his armor weighed on him. He carried his helmet under one arm, letting the breeze ruffle his red-brown hair. His eyes brightened as Silvan ran to him and threw her arms around him.
"You thought I'd be gone a lot longer, didn't you?" he said, hugging her. "Nope, just flew down to Brazil, had a chat with the Fallen, and flew back."
"They didn't attack you?"
"Naw. Just talk. Boring stuff. How was your day?"
Silvan proudly pointed out all the work she had done by herself, how the goats were already penned with fresh water and hay. But once they were in the cabin, she explained about using her Light and being noticed by the two men.
Ivaran's cheerful mood evaporated instantly. "They saw you? They know where you live?"
"I think so. They didn't follow me."
"They wouldn't have to." Ivaran's blue cheeks were pale. "Bramble, did you identify them?"
"Yes sir," Bramble replied. "Lyson Bannister and Jonesy Mattock."
Ivaran stared at the wall, thinking. One hand rubbed up and down his other gauntlet, as if subliminally thinking of punching someone very hard. Silvan waited, knotting her fingers in her lap.
"Jonesy will keep his mouth shut if I ask," Ivaran said at last. "But Lyson is one of Lysander's toadies. Always sucking up to the Chief. If he hasn't told Lysander already, then he will."
He drew a deep breath, as if steeling himself for a difficult task. Then he held out one hand, palm upward. "Sunrise. I need you."
Nothing happened. No ghost appeared. Silvan's heart hurt. She had to look away.
"Sun, please," Ivaran said to the empty air. "This isn't about me. This is to protect Silvan."
To everyone's surprise, Sunrise appeared for the first time in decades. She wore a bright red shell with silver trim, which astonished Silvan. She had no idea ghosts could wear different styles of shell. The ghost gave Silvan a long look. Then she turned to her Chosen and studied him, her blue eye flicking over his face, reading him.
"I'll do it for Silvan," Sunrise said, her voice cold. "Not for you."
"Fair enough," Ivaran said, although there was sadness in his eyes and the set of his mouth. "Contact Lyson and Jonesy's ghosts. I need private communication lines to both of them. Lyson, first."
"Working." Sunrise vanished.
Ivaran got up. "Stay here, Silvan. I'm going out to the goat pen for this. I don't want you listening in." He went outside, closing the door behind him.
Silvan sat on her bed a moment, feeling small and scared. After a moment, her stomach growled. "I'm going to cook dinner."
"Might as well stay busy," Bramble agreed. "Ivaran will work things out, you'll see."
Silvan got out the acorn flour and goat butter from a crock in its cool place beneath the floorboards. "Does his ghost hate him? She was sure pretty."
"Hate him?" Bramble said thoughtfully, watching as Silvan began making flatbread. "No, she doesn't hate him. I don't think a ghost can truly hate their Chosen. But there's some kind of hurt between them. Maybe it's because he was exiled."
Silvan thought about this as she mixed dough and lit the fire. "I wish I could help, somehow."
"You have helped," Bramble said softly. "Didn't you see? She came out to help him because of you."
"But she was mean about it."
"Doesn't matter," Bramble said, gazing thoughtfully at the door. "I think you've helped both of them in ways we don't understand."
Silvan didn't know what to say to this.
She was busy frying flatbread in a pan over the fire when Ivaran returned. He didn't say anything, only pulled on a glove and took over frying the flatbread. Silvan checked his face, saw the grimness of his expression, and didn't ask how the conversation had gone. Instead, she retrieved the blackberries she had picked that morning and set them on the table.
They had a silent dinner of acorn flatbread with butter, milk, and blackberries. Ivaran ate without seeming to notice. He stared into space, lost in thought. It wasn't until the meal was nearly gone that he seemed to wake up and take notice of his surroundings. "Oh. Silvan. Thanks for cooking."
"You did most of it," she said.
He grunted and slathered more butter on his last piece of flatbread.
"Did they tell Lysander?" she ventured.
"They both did," Ivaran said.
When he added nothing else, Silvan said, "What will they do to me?"
"Maybe nothing." Ivaran met her eyes. "Maybe kill you, or worse." He looked around the cabin, thinking. "Tomorrow we'll pack this place and let the goats loose. We're headed for the Last City."
"We are?" Silvan stared at him blankly. "But ... you said they'd kill you if you went back."
"It's a risk I'm willing to take," Ivaran replied. "I have to keep you safe, and it's not safe out here. The Vanguard will give you a home, make sure you're trained."
"But ... It won't be home without you."
Ivaran smiled - a bitter smile she didn't like. "I'll be around. Come on, let's clean up."
They didn't discuss it any more that night. They went to bed when the sun went down. Silvan lay awake long after her father was asleep in the other bed, snoring like a chainsaw.
"Bramble," she thought, "can we make it to the Last City?"
"Maybe," he replied through their bond. "Winter comes awfully fast in these latitudes. I'll work on fabricating some heavier clothes for you. It'll be a long hike. I hope you like camping."
Silvan didn't know much about it. As long as she and her father were together, she was certain she could handle any difficulty in the wilds. But breaking their little family apart - that was something she couldn't face.
Kell Craask stood at his balcony in Rio de Janeiro, watching the sun cast long beams through the clouds on the horizon. He had sent away his servants, and only he and his Servitor remained in his command room.
The Servitor was named Bravicks-3, and had been his companion for many years. It supplied him with ether, and what was more, it was wise and gave good counsel. Craask's mind was troubled, what with the meeting with the Dreg Guardians. It had been unexpected and strange, and he still didn't know how to react. He spoke quietly to the holy machine at his side.
"What is your opinion of the humans and their entreaty?"
The Servitor didn't answer at once. Its purple eye studied the sky, the ruins of the city below their hilltop, and the statue of the ancient god in the distance.
"A cornered animal will bite," Bravicks-3 said, finally. "A Dreg Guardian has nowhere else to run. Rejected by its people, it has lost the Great Machine, as have we. Lies fill its belly."
"You believe it spoke untruth, then?" Craask said, two of his four hands curling into fists.
Bravicks gazed at him with its deep violet eye. "It spoke half-truths. Much was held back. I believe it does know a way to breach the walls of their City, else it would not have bargained so desperately."
Craask thought about this, watching the clouds turn orange, then blood-red, the shadows as blue as ether.
"It was a disloyal beast, offering to hand us its own people. I have no love for humans, but I love traitors even less. And yet."
Craask bared his teeth at the sky. "If there was some way to keep this Dreg Guardian in line, I would take its information. I would gather the Wolves, the Devils, and Winter. We would fall upon the Human City and take it by storm." He paused and gestured with one arm. "Look - an omen. Blood upon the clouds."
Bravicks studied the red-washed sky. "An omen of battle and death, my Kell."
Craask watched the colors fade in silence. After the last tinge of red had gone, he said, "What might I do to make this Dreg Guardian bow to me? I have no wish to feel its knife in my back."
Bravicks said, "Propose a hostage exchange. They take one of our vandals. We take one of their humans. As long as both hostages are alive, there will be cooperation between us."
"Hostages," Craask mused. "Yes. The Dreg Guardian will certainly agree to this. It serves no one but itself. My vandal will act as a spy among them. I will choose someone carefully." The Kell turned to his Servitor. "Transmit word to the House Kings in the north. Contact the Dreg Guardian with this agreement. If it disagrees, our negotiations are ended."
"Yes, my Kell," the machine replied.
As word was moving between the Fallen that night, Lysander sat up in his own cabin, busy with his thoughts.
A single candle burned on a mahogany table they had found in a Fallen stash. Now it graced Lysander's room, along with other bits of furniture of surprisingly good quality. The walls of his cabin didn't even have gaps in them.
But Lysander wasn't looking at his belongings. He gazed across the candle at his ghost, instead.
"This girl they saw. She used Light?"
"Yes," his ghost replied. "She created both a staff and a rifle. Both seemed to be made of Arc Light."
"And they said she attacked them?"
"I've analyzed their ghosts' footage. It seems to me that she was testing her weapon. Had she aimed at them, they'd be dead."
Lysander sat back in his chair, fingering his upper lip. A little girl with Light powers and a ghost. How could that be? Ghosts were resurrecting children, now? Where had she come from?
She had run away from his men in the direction of Ivaran Nerisis's farmstead. His thoughts continually looped back to that knowledge. Ivaran had been hiding this girl for the Traveler only knew how long. Had that been the beginning of his disloyalty? He has certainly never questioned Lysander until the past few months. Something had changed. The man was protecting a child.
Lysander chewed on this knowledge like a dog worrying a bone. His ghost floated nearby, passive, waiting for him to speak.
"This means," Lysander said finally, "I know Ivaran's weakness."
His ghost tilted to one side like a curious puppy.
"He's destabilizing my power base," Lysander said. "Neil and Jonesy and some others respect him greatly. I don't know why - he keeps to himself up there in the hills. But now, he's training this young Guardian. And Ghost, now I know how to break him."
"You would destroy a young Guardian?" his ghost said, bewildered.
"No," Lysander said. "The only one I want destroyed is Ivaran."
While Ivaran made it sound like they'd be taking off the next morning, in reality, it took the better part of two days to prepare for their long journey.
Ivaran and Silvan had no packs for carrying gear, so Bramble offered to try to fabricate some out of goat hair. The ghost's first few attempts resulted in a couple of lumpy bags that nobody could use. Finally, Sunrise appeared, every inch of her red shell radiating annoyance. She broke down Bramble's first attempts and fabricated two flawlessly-made travel packs.
Bramble sneaked away and hid in Silvan's pocket in embarrassment.
Food preparation took the longest amount of time. Some of their stored flour they made into bread, but acorn flatbread didn't keep long. They packed the flour into containers fabricated by the ghosts - Ivaran's clay pots were too heavy. They harvested all the vegetables in the garden, mostly squash and beans, and wrapped them carefully to prevent bruising. They milked the goats a final time and churned as much cream as they could into butter. Their supper that night was mostly the rest of the milk and the vegetables they couldn't carry.
Silvan was too tired to worry about their journey, or being caught. She dropped into bed as soon as it was dark.
Ivaran sat up for a while and put on his helmet. Inside, the heads-up display lit up, powered by his innate Light.
"Sunrise," he thought, "display local map data."
The screen inside his helmet changed to show a map of the area. Ivaran studied it, planning their route. "If we follow the Missouri River, it will take us north to Lake Audubon. We can branch off from there and head straight into Manitoba. The Last City is north from there."
"They'll expect you to follow the river," Sunrise said in his head. "My advice is to set off across country and hit these other little lakes as you go. Less predictable. You'll also be traveling due north. The river angles northwest and adds distance to the trip."
Ivaran studied both routes, weighing their need for speed and secrecy against his estimate of Silvan's strength. "Do you think Silvan can manage?"
"She's a big girl," Sunrise said. "She's stronger than you think she is, and she has the Light."
Ivaran tried to remind himself of this. She was just so innocent, it made her seem about five years old to him. But she was closer to twelve, and surely she was capable of walking all day. She walked all over the farmstead with him every day. Food would be their greatest problem, not water. But there was plenty of game, and Ivaran was a decent hunter when he had to be. He also had some fishing tackle that had served him well over the years.
"I hope we can carry everything," he muttered.
Sunrise made an annoyed sound. "Bramble and I can carry things in our memory storage, you know. All matter breaks down into data."
"That would be very helpful," Ivaran said. "And ... Sun ... thanks for helping me."
She was quiet for a long moment, as if deciding whether to answer. Finally, she murmured, "This is the first decent thing you've done since we left the City. I thought you'd become just like the rest of them."
Ivaran nodded and rested his helmeted head in one hand. "I very nearly was, Sun. But I never really forgot my roots. Lysander's goals sounded so good. I still agree with some of them - that we should share the Light and such. But now the Concordat has left a foul taste in my mouth. I'm just ... done."
"I'm glad," Sunrise said softly.
After a moment, Ivaran pulled off his helmet, the electronics going dark. He set it on the floor beside his bed and lay down, checking to make sure Silvan was safe and asleep.
As he began to doze, Sunrise appeared in a swirl of blue particles. She hovered next to the bed for a moment, then landed on the pillow beside his head. It was the first time she'd done that since they'd gone into exile.
Ivaran curled an arm around her and fell asleep, comforted.
Chapter 8: Shadows gather
Silvan awoke the next morning, bubbling with excitement about setting out on a journey into the unknown. She jumped out of bed to find her father preparing breakfast and rolling blankets into the smallest bundles he could manage.
Together they stripped the cabin of everything they could carry. Ivaran had his ghost store his armor and tools. Bramble carried whatever was left once Sunrise's memory storage was full.
They were putting the finishing touches on their packs when someone called from outside, "Hello the house!"
Father and daughter froze and stared at each other.
"It's Lysander," Bramble whispered, shrinking close to Silvan. "And five other men. They're all armed."
"We're too late," Ivaran whispered.
Silvan grabbed her pack and slung it onto her back. "My pike still has fuel. Let's run for it!"
They had planned to travel by pike until its fuel ran out, but now it seemed they'd be making a quick getaway.
"I'll stall them," Ivaran said in an undertone. "Take our packs to the pike. Take it up the hill and over to the river. I'll meet you there. Stay hidden." He opened the door and slipped out.
Silvan grasped his pack and found she couldn't even lift it. She tugged at the straps in sudden alarm. When he had said he had supernatural strength, he wasn't kidding. He'd already lifted this pack and put it on several times, checking the weight and straps.
"Bramble, what do I do?" she whispered.
"Drag it," he whispered back. "I have to stay invisible so I don't get shot. Hurry!"
The cabin had only one door. Silvan dragged the heavy pack outside and had a good look at their visitors.
Ivaran was talking to them a little way down the hill, trying to keep them away from the cabin. But as she stepped outside, the group of men straightened and gripped their weapons. One of them pointed at her.
"Hurry," Bramble whispered in her head.
Silvan dragged the pack around the side of the cabin and somehow heaved it onto the back of the pike. She strapped it down with the ropes the ghosts had fabricated. All the time, the voices of the men grew louder and more distinct. They were headed toward her, despite her father's protests.
Silvan found that she would rather face her enemies than let them catch her. She summoned her Light rifle and stepped around the cabin's corner.
She recognized Lysander at once. He wore armor and a green cloak, but his haughty, arrogant face was the same as that first night at the bonfire. He studied her, his gaze as cold and inhuman as any Fallen's.
The rest of the men had their rifles trained on her father. Ivaran stood with his fists clenched, fury and desperation evident in his widely-planted feet and tense shoulders. For some reason, Silvan was struck by his blue skin in contrast to the brown shades of the others. The two of them were different. For the first time, she wondered why.
"There she is," Lysander said. "Little girl, put down your weapon."
"Why?" she retorted.
"So my men don't shoot you," Lysander said with a smile that only stretched his mouth. "You are to be part of a hostage exchange with the Fallen. They assure me that they'll treat you fairly."
A hostage of the Fallen! Silvan remembered being chased by the aliens after her resurrection, how it felt to be shot in the back, the sounds they had made, and the smell of them. Living as their prisoner? Eating their gross dried fish? Listening to the sounds they made? She shook her head violently.
"You don't have a choice," said Lysander. "You have until the count of three to drop your weapon, or we shoot you and your so-called father."
"Our ghosts will resurrect us," Silvan said, her voice trembling.
Lysander's smile widened. "I know." He held up a finger. "One."
"Don't surrender," Bramble whispered in her head. "I've got this."
"You're a ghost!" she thought. "What can you do?"
"Two," said Lysander.
Lightning crackled around Ivaran's fists.
"You forget," Bramble said. "I'm a fighting ghost."
"Three," said Lysander, and chaos erupted.
The pike's engine revved. It burst around the corner by itself, riderless, and pelted the men with arc bolts.
Ivaran sprang forward and punched Lysander with a Light-charged fist, sending him flying down the hill.
The men fired at the pike, at Silvan, and at Ivaran, confused and not sure who to aim at.
Silvan shot the man farthest from her father, dropping him with a scream. He was only injured, judging by the way he writhed on the ground in pain.
The rest of the men scattered, seeking cover.
The pike halted beside Ivaran, who was doubled over, holding his side. "Get on!" Bramble yelled in Silvan's head.
Silvan ran to the pike and got on, still wearing her pack. Ivaran did, too, groaning a little. They had scarcely grabbed on when the pike took off by itself, rocketing up the hill behind the farmstead and shooting northwestward, toward the river.
"Have to throw them off," Bramble said in Silvan's head. "Let them think we're following the river. They'll be after us in a minute."
Silvan clung to her father's belt as wave after wave of horror and exhilaration swept through her. She had shot a man with her Light. Just struck him down with an object she had created with her mind. His ghost would heal him, wouldn't it?
Then she felt something wet run across her hand. Blood was seeping through Ivaran's shirt and running across her right hand on his belt. She gasped and pulled her hand away. They had shot him.
Suddenly she wasn't sorry for the man she had felled. In fact, she wished she had killed him dead. Dad was hurt, and they couldn't stop and give his ghost a chance to heal him.
The pike rocketed across the hills, dipping into hollows, taking a path that hid them from view as much as possible. Bramble was a careful driver, aware of Ivaran's wound. Silvan hung on, a part of her enjoying the ride. She had never been all the way out to the river, and despite their danger, the experience excited her.
Trees lined the river, filling the floodplain. The pike swooped down a hill and entered the trees, where it slowed to a halt. Bramble popped into being beside Silvan. "Sunrise is demanding that she has a chance to heal you," he told Ivaran.
Ivaran nodded. His teeth were clenched, his eyes gone bloodshot. He simply sat there on the pike, gripping the handlebars, as Sunrise appeared in her red shell. She opened her shell and expanded into a sphere of blue Light. She pulsed it at her partner, rebuilding his insides by stages, replenishing his blood, making him whole again.
As Ivaran drew deep breaths, eyes closed in bliss at the cessation of the pain, Sunrise said, "Drink water. I can mend you, but this kind of injury depletes your body's reserves."
Ivaran took over driving the sparrow, their ghosts flying beside them. He drove slowly toward the riverbank. "Nice work," he said over his shoulder to his daughter. "You loaded the pike and then armed yourself. You have a cool head in combat."
"I didn't know what else to do," Silvan replied. "I could barely move your pack. Do you feel better?"
"Only thirsty, now. Ghosts, any sign of pursuit?"
"None yet," Bramble reported. "We have a few minutes."
Father and daughter dismounted from the pike and scooped up river water to drink. It tasted exactly like the reeds a short distance upriver - a sharp, green flavor.
Ivaran pulled off his shirt and washed the bloodstain out in the cold water. He put the shirt back on, still wet. "The pike's got a little fuel left," he told Silvan. "We're going to travel slow and steady, make it last as long as possible. Then we walk."
"I hope we can get away," Silvan said, looking over her shoulder. The ridge they had come down was outlined against the sky, currently empty of pursuit.
"Believe me," Ivaran said, resting a hand on her shoulder. "You will never be a hostage of the Fallen. Understand? Lysander can take his political alliances and shove them." His blue eyes searched her silver ones, conveying his earnest promise.
Silvan beamed at him. "Thanks, Dad."
He pulled her into a hug and held her for a moment. Then he released her and said, "Let's move."
The pike carried them across the floodplain and northward, into a flat, brushy, wooded country that had once been farmland. Little roads appeared and disappeared, ruined by the harsh winters. The remains of little villages and towns clustered together in the thickest trees. They had to travel slowly, threading the pike through trees and thickets, avoiding windfalls and drainage ditches now full of chest-high brush.
The pike's fuel ran out shortly before sunset. They hid it in a ditch, shouldered their packs, and set out on foot.
"From now on," Ivaran said, "neither ghost comes out of phase except to heal. We don't want either of you sniped, either by the exiles or the Fallen. Plenty of Fallen around."
"No problem," Sunrise replied.
Bramble whined a little. He loved flying along with Silvan, brushing against her hair, or hiding in her pockets. But he saw the sense in staying safe, so at last he agreed.
As they walked, Ivaran said, "Bramble, did you drive that pike?"
"Yes sir," Bramble said proudly, phasing into being close to Silvan. "I'm a fighting ghost."
"So you've said," Ivaran replied. "What does that mean, exactly?"
"It means that I've had centuries to study Fallen tech," Bramble replied. "I can hack all their computer systems, their vehicles, everything but Servitors. I'm not so great with Vex tech, but I can open and close gates if I have to."
Ivaran stared at the ghost, wide-eyed.
Silvan patted Bramble. "He's super talented."
"Talented nothing," Bramble corrected. "Years and years of hard work." He looked at Ivaran. "I can pilot a ketch, or a skiff, if we find one."
"I might hold you to it," Ivaran said. "Disappear, now."
Bramble obeyed with a sigh.
As they walked, Ivaran kept an eye on the reddening sunset. He guided them towards the ruins of a farmhouse overgrown with cedar and boxwood. "We'll camp under cover tonight. I'm hoping they'll give up chasing us if our head start was long enough. Men on foot can't compete with a pike."
He didn't add his growing worry about Lysander's alliance with the Fallen. The exiled Guardians lacked resources, but the Fallen had them in plenty. A team of Vandals on pikes would give them a fairly alarming chase through the wilderness. And if the exiled Guardians helped themselves to Fallen tech?
He didn't allow his thoughts to venture further in that direction. No, they'd stay under cover, that was all. Silvan had to reach the safety of the Last City.
The welcome that awaited him there didn't bear thinking about.
Lysander faced his men around the bonfire that night. He hadn't dispatched any of them on the trail of the traitorous Ivaran Nerisis - he had bigger matters at hand. Let the fool and his child lose themselves in the wilderness. Winter was fast approaching, and their journey to the Last City would take weeks, at best.
No, Lysander had other things on his mind. His men were unsettled by Ivaran's flight, and by the Chosen-child he had been sheltering. As he gazed around at their faces in the firelight, he saw fear, anger, and confusion. They needed a word from their leader that all was still under control, than the plan was still moving.
"My friends," Lysander said, raising both hands.
They fell silent at once and gave him their attention.
"Ivaran's flight means nothing in the grand scheme of things. He will not be accepted into the Last City. Put him out of your minds for now. What I need from you is your trust. One of you must be a willing volunteer for the task I now set before you. A Guardian will go live among the House of Kings as a political prisoner. Because of the way our ghosts use Light to communicate, you can spy on them and pass the Concordat information in secret. But I do not ask this lightly of any of you. It will not be easy, living among the Fallen. I will take only one who offers. Think about it tonight. In the morning, we will discuss it further."
To his surprise, Neil Samson stood up. "Don't have to wait that long. I'll do it."
The other men cheered him unexpectedly. Lysander let their jubilation die down. He had underestimated how relieved they were not to be asked.
"You're sure?" Lysander asked.
Neil nodded. He was a tall, thin man, a good Hunter who had never given up his warm cloak with its coiled snake logo. "I've always been interested in the Fallen. Might be neat to see what makes them tick. Things go south, you say the word, those bugs will never see me leave."
"Deal," Lysander said, clasping Neil's hand. "Then tomorrow, we will begin the exchange."
And give Kell Craask instructions on how to take the Last City and the Traveler. But Lysander didn't mention that.
Kell Solkis of the House of Devils looked up from equipping an arc spear to the barrel of his wire rifle. His personal Servitor floated nearby, its purple eye shedding a bright glow in the dimness of the cave. It was a good, large, dry cave, perfect for building weapons and machines. All the better to strike at the humans harder and faster.
"What is it?" Solkis asked.
"A message," his Servitor replied. "From the House of Kings."
"What have they to do with the House of Devils?" Solkis snorted. "Share message."
The Servitor played a clip of Kell Craask's voice.
"Respected Kell Solkis, greetings from my southern seat on this fair planet of Earth. May this message find your people thriving and the ether plentiful. Recently, an opportunity has come to hand which concerns all of us Kells very closely. I have learned of a way in which we might retake the Great Machine."
Kell Solkis sat up straighter, laying aside his weapon.
The message went on, "A Dreg Guardian came to me, an outcast among its kind. While treacherous and full of deception, it exchanged hostages with my House as a sign of good faith. In two day's time, it will come to my seat and share its knowledge of the human city's weak points. I wish for the Kells of each noble house to be present. The reclaiming of the Great Machine concerns us all. I hope we can set our differences aside in the face of this last great hope."
"I am Kell Craask of the House of Kings. I record this with my own voice."
The Servitor fell silent. Solkis stared at it for a long moment, thinking and thinking. The Great Machine might be theirs at last! The Eliksni had once possessed it back on their homeworld, before the Machine abandoned them, and the Whirlwind had scattered the now-Fallen Eliksni throughout the stars. Now the Eliksni had nearly conquered this good planet with its plentiful resources. All that remained was one human city, defended by undead creatures of the Light. They believed the Great Machine was theirs, and would fight to the last breath to defend it.
The House of Devils lived for war and bloodshed. They had staged many strikes against the Last City and its surrounding lands, slaughtering the humans trying to reach it. With the combined strength of all four Eliksni houses, they would fall upon the humans and inflict the Whirlwind upon them. They would be broken and scattered. Once more, the Eliksni people would possess the Light of the Great Machine.
Solkis grinned, baring his sharp teeth. "Send a response to Kell Craask. House of Devils desires more than to join this war. We wish to lead it."
The Servitor made a guttural chuckling sound.
The meeting took place in a large empty room on the ground floor of Kell Craask's mansion. Lysander carried no weapons, while the Eliksni remained armed. They all knew that he was the most dangerous creature in the room, with his Light powers and ability to revive after being killed.
But he needed their help, and they needed his. So Lysander kept his movements slow and nonthreatening and his ghost hidden.
Two Dregs carried in a large wooden table and set it in the middle of the room. Another brought in a large sheet of paper and writing implements. Lysander selected a pencil and began to draw. The four Kells watched in silence.
Each alien stood well over seven feet tall, owing to their constant access to a Servitor's ether that made them grow. Each had four arms and wore distinctly different armor. While Craask, of House Kings, wore steel armor with a red cloak, Draksis, the Kell of House Winter, was dressed in heavy armor with a horned helmet. Virixas, the Kell of the House of Wolves, wore a thick pelt of the animal's fur around his neck and shoulders to prove his ferocity in battle. Solkis, of the House of Devils, wore maroon wraps with black armor. All of them carried spears or knives, with rifles slung across their backs. If they had decided to kill Lysander, he wouldn't have stood a chance against them, even armed and wielding his full Light.
He hid his apprehension deep, where his allies wouldn't smell it. With a steady hand, he sketched a diagram of the Last City. It was laid out in a ring, divided into districts like the spokes of a wheel. The city walls had two layers-inner and outer, each wall seventy stories high and a hundred and forty feet wide at the top. The base was four hundred and twenty feet thick. He marked the measurements. The Kells watched, only the flicker of their eyes betraying their interest.
"There are six Towers on the outer walls," Lysander said, his voice breaking the heavy silence. "Guardians man only Tower North. They patrol these sections of the walls."
Craask's Servitor translated his words. The aliens swayed closer to the table, peering at the drawing.
"Now," Lysander went on, "this area on the northwest side was intended to be a seventh gate. However, it was closed up at the last minute. You can see the outline of the gateway still there, even though they plastered over it. Concentrated fire from your walkers wound punch straight through."
The Kells exchanged eager looks. None of them had known of this glaring flaw in the Last City's defenses.
"Opposition will be fierce," Lysander went on. "The City has fortifications here and here, outside the walls. Your best bet is to assemble your armies here on the mountain pass of Twilight Gap, to the west. At the foot of the pass is the Twilight Gap fortification. Capture that, first, then you can turn its guns on the defenders. That will give you cover fire as you advance your artillery to the wall's weak point."
"What about inside the City?" said Solkis, licking his teeth. The House of Devils had been trying to get inside those walls for centuries: inside, with the defenseless females and young. His troops could decimate an entire generation of humans in minutes.
Lysander drew a series of wavy lines that converged on the City's center. "These are the highways. Your swiftest pike gangs could ride them all the way to the Core District. There, beneath the Great Machine, is enough ambient Light to empower armies."
"How do we know he speaks truth?" growled Virixas, sounding like the wolf whose pelt he wore. "This could be an elaborate ruse to destroy our armies."
"Yes," said Draksis, pushing back his horned helmet. "We cannot verify the weakened wall until we have committed our forces to battle. What do you stand to gain from this, Dreg Guardian?"
"I, too, ask that within myself," said Solkis, fingering his dagger. "What advantage does the Dreg hope to gain from us destroying his people?"
The Servitor translated this. Lysander smiled at the Kells, showing his teeth. "Vengeance, O Kells. I was cast out by the Guardians, driven away to suffer in the wilderness. I have had much time to think of what I would do. And I want the City destroyed. Give the Great Machine back to its people. Our world would be intact had not the Machine come to us."
Although Lysander personally disagreed with the heresies of Osiris, they made a convincing argument. He also made no mention of his vendetta against the Speaker.
The aliens muttered to each other, adding gestures for emphasis or additional phrases. The Servitor did not translate this. Lysander kept drawing, playing it cool, trying not to look like he cared about their opinions. He didn't even look up when Solkis and Draksis exchanged blows and Craask intervened. Snarling, the Kells retreated to opposite ends of the room.
"Very well," Kell Craask said to Lysander. "We accept your words. The truth of them will bear out in time. We shall gather our troops and set many scouts around the Last City to verify your information. Now. Which house will you accompany into battle?"
All four Kells watched the human for his answer. Perhaps they expected him to show his true colors by refusing.
But Lysander wanted inside those walls as badly as they did. "The House of Devils," he said. "When the wall is breached, I want to be the first inside."
Solkis hissed with pleasure. "Then ready your followers. We will begin mobilizing. We will send a ketch for you when it is time."
Lysander bowed to the Kells. "My thanks for your fellowship in this matter."
They each gestured with their lower left hands. "And to you," they muttered in response.
When Lysander departed, it was with the support of all four Houses, just as his vision had showed him. Now it was time for more prayer and fasting to learn the Traveler's will for the battle, itself. He only hoped a vision wouldn't take as long to happen as the last one had - four months was a long time to fast.
Chapter 9: Part 2: The Battle of Twilight Gap: Chapter 9: Siege
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Part 2: The Battle of Twilight Gap
"Guardian, report," said Saladin Forge.
Saint-14 approached along the top of the wall, snapped to attention and saluted. "Sir! The Fallen activity around the outer walls has increased exponentially. My team personally destroyed a squadron of twenty-two vandals, one captain, and two Servitors."
Saladin nodded to Saint-14, then turned and gazed over the wall's parapet. "What are they playing at, I wonder?"
Saladin Forge was a big man with dark skin and features that spoke of African ancestors. He wore silver armor painted with the emblem of a tree with spreading branches - the symbol of the Iron Lords.
Saint-14 stepped up beside him and removed his helmet. He was a burly Exo in white armor with a purple Titan mark. His robotic face was painted a sky blue, the color of the Light that flowed from the sleeping Traveler at their backs. His eyes glowed pure white.
Now that his report had been given, he dropped some of the formality of manner and leaned against the parapet, too. "I'm not sure what's happening out there. The Fallen have suddenly grown bolder. They're challenging the territory around the walls that we won during Six Fronts."
"A new generation, perhaps," Saladin murmured. "Hungry for battle and a glimpse of their Great Machine."
Saladin and Saint-14 gazed at the fields and hills beyond the wall of the Last City. They faced east, where the farmland lay, now open and bare after the fall's harvest. Winter was fast approaching, and the wind in their faces was chilly.
"Can we take them again, I wonder," Saint murmured.
Saladin nodded. "If they attack, we will defend. We have no other choice. This is the Last Safe City." He gestured to the huge AA gun emplacement on the wall a hundred feet from them. The dual barrels of the cannon were the length of a jumpship, capable of firing explosive projectiles that would destroy enemy infantry, support vehicles, or aircraft. The City's defenses had been improved since the Battle of Six Fronts, when the Fallen had encircled the City and attacked on all sides. But since the Great Disaster, when so many Guardians had been permanently killed by the Hive God Crota on the moon, they had lacked the forces to fill the six Towers. Only Tower North still operated as the Vanguard command post.
Saladin's ghost appeared in her golden wolf-themed shell. "Andal Brask would like a word."
"Give him my location," Saladin replied. He and Saint-14 straightened and put on their best serious Titan manner.
After a moment, Andal Brask stepped out of the doorway at their backs, his ghost floating over his palm. "Hey, I found you guys." He let his ghost disappear and shook Saladin's hand instead of saluting. Andal Brask was a thin, rangy man whose face was tanned and leathery from years in the wilds. His Hunter armor was mostly leather, and he wore a heavy black cloak over it to keep out the wind.
Another Hunter followed him outside, an Exo in similar clothing named Cayde-6. Saladin mentally braced himself. Whenever Andal and Cayde were together, trouble followed - the sort of trouble where one discovered a Kick Me sign taped to the back of their breastplate.
"Scouting team just got back," Andal said, jerking a thumb at his companion. "Hit it, Cayde."
"Right." Cayde summoned his ghost. "Hip-hop or a little rave, do you think?"
Saladin and Saint-14 exchanged dismayed glances.
But instead of music, Cayde's ghost only displayed a holographic map. "Just thought you should know," Cayde said, "we found a lot of Fallen troops up in Twilight Gap. Like, a lot a lot. At least a couple thousand dudes, and that was all I could get close enough to see."
"A couple thousand?" Saladin said, stepping forward, eyes widening. "What House?"
"Devils." Cayde reached inside his cloak and pulled out a rolled piece of cloth. He let it fall open to reveal a tattered Fallen standard. It clearly showed the circles and lines of the House of Devils sigil. "Saw a few Winter and Kings signs, too, but I couldn't tell how many there were. Probably Wolves in there, too. Point is, they're building up a full-scale invasion force up in the mountains. I recommend bombs. A lot of bombs."
Saladin drew a deep, steadying breath. His heart had begun to pound against his ribs. An invasion force, built up in secret, now poised to attack the City itself. The full might of the Guardians had barely repelled the Fallen at Six Fronts. Now, with their numbers depleted by two-thirds, how could they face a similar attack?
"How did they move such a large force in without us noticing?"
"They've got a transmat station back there," Cayde said. "A big one. I couldn't see the whole thing, but they're bringing through about fifty dudes every minute or so. If they do that night and day for a few days? Yeah, they could have the whole damn race camped out there."
"Did you alert the Vanguard Commanders?"
Cayde punched Andal Brask's shoulder. "This guy. I just got back, see. Didn't even have time to scrape the mud off my boots." He lifted one dirt-encrusted boot as evidence.
Saladin nodded at Saint-14. "Come along, all of you. Commander Zavala and Ikora Rey need to know this immediately."
Word spread through the Vanguard, passed from ghost to ghost and Guardian to Guardian. By the time Tower North sent out an official message, the Vanguard was already half mobilized.
The word went out to the Stoneborn, the Titans whose job was City defense. They alerted the Hunters in the field, who had been tracking the movements of the Fallen for weeks and feared something of the sort was coming. They called in the Warlocks, skilled in using the Light to wield pure elemental power against their foes. The Praxic Order promised fire, while the Stormcallers looked to the weather. The Voidwalkers planned explosions.
The Pilgrim Guard was alerted, hundreds of miles from the City. When Titan Claney Beamard heard the message, he stopped walking in line with his companions and stood stock still, one hand pressed to the earpiece in his helmet.
"By the Light," he breathed aloud. "The Fallen are attacking the City."
The Hunter ahead of him raised a hand to signal a halt. She, too, turned her head as she listened to the message. Their third, an Exo Titan, stood stock still.
There in the woods, amid curtains of falling yellow leaves, the Pilgrim Guard team consulted their ghosts. They confirmed the message - official Vanguard memo. All forces were under orders to withdraw to the City as quickly as possible to aid in City defense. Guardians with air combat training were to report to the Vanguard Air Force division for further orders.
"Blast it all," said the Hunter, Yuna. "The Fallen have been busy for weeks, but I didn't expect a full-scale invasion force."
"We'd better find these people, quick," said the Exo, Caelan-5. "Before the Fallen pick them off."
Their mission, as Pilgrim Guard, was to escort wandering people through the wilderness to the Last City. They had received a faint Ghost-created call for help the night before, and were closing in on the source.
But now they had new orders, which had never happened before. Claney and Caelan-5 looked at Yuna. She was an Awoken with jet black hair tied back in a bun to fit under her helmet. As the leader of their team, she had the final say in what they did next. She exhaled and tucked a strand of hair behind one ear, gazing around at the trees and their curtains of yellow leaves.
"We finish our mission, first," she said finally. "The people out here need help. If we abandon them now, they may be dead by the time we look for them again. No more dawdling. Double-time, fireteam."
The group fell into step once more, hustling through the woods with Yuna in the lead. Claney brought up the rear, watching their trail for pursuit. Ever since he'd lost most of his original fireteam in the Great Disaster, he'd become paranoid about something creeping up on him from behind.
"Elgan," he said to his ghost, "are those pilgrims on scan yet?"
"Not yet," his ghost's smug voice replied. "And no Fallen or Hive or bears or wolves, either. And no hornets. I promised you after last time that I'd learn to track hornets' nests, and I can."
"Thank the Traveler for that," Claney muttered. Bullets were no use against enraged insects. "But where are these people?"
"Last detected signal was a few miles thataway."
"What direction is that?"
"East. Thataway." A navigation marker appeared on Claney's helmet HUD. "There's been no signals since. Either they're keeping under cover, or they're dead. Seeing as it was a Ghost signal, I think they're only hiding."
"Since there's nothing else out here? I'd say us."
"They called us for help. Why would they hide?"
Elgan's voice became, if possible, more smug. "That was a general band distress call. Probably hoping to reach a radio. These might be the type who are terrified of Guardians, thinking we're Risen out to murder them and take their stuff. And ten glimmer says the ghost with them is unattached and just helping out."
Claney snorted. "You're on."
"You'll lose," Elgan said. "I'm always right."
"Except when you're wrong," Claney replied.
The ghost fell silent. The fireteam hurried onward, watching their HUDs for any trace of the people they'd come to rescue.
The aspen forest gave way to more somber pine woods, dark green in defiance of the seasons. The ground was thick with pine needles that silenced their footsteps.
They were deep in this silent, dim grove when a Ghost's voice broadcast to all their headset. "Stop where you are."
Yuna raised a hand and the group halted.
"Who are you and what do you want?" said the strange ghost.
"We are Guardians with the Pilgrim Guard," Yuna replied. "We detected a distress signal out this way and we're trying to locate the source."
The strange ghost was silent. Claney gripped his rifle uneasily. "This is weird," he breathed over a private channel to Elgan.
"Agreed," his ghost responded. "Look, someone's moving toward us. Two more Guardians, I think."
The trees blocked Claney's view, but he glimpsed movement through the trunks and branches. Definitely something human.
A new voice spoke - a man's voice. "Do you swear that you're only Pilgrim Guard?"
"I swear," Yuna replied. "Do you need help? We're not used to having to rescue other Guardians."
"Dear Traveler, yes," said the stranger. "We've run out of supplies and the Fallen have cut us off from the City."
A branch lifted aside, and a man and a young girl stepped into view. Both were Awoken, with blue skin and similar red hair. Both wore travel-stained Ghost-manufactured clothing, and carried travel packs. The girl held the man's hand, and faced the Guardians with a fierce glare.
"What is this?" Claney muttered.
Caelan-5, the other young Titan, looked over his shoulder at Claney. "Now, this looks like a story and a half."
Yuna pushed back her hood, showing the two pilgrims that she shared their race. She and the Awoken man stared at each other. The silence stretched so long that Claney scrutinized their faces for some hint as to what was going on. Yuna's face had blushed violet, but the man had gone blue-gray.
"Hello, Yuna," the man said at last.
"Hello, Ivaran," said the Hunter. "It's been a while."
"You could say that."
When silence descended again, Claney stepped forward and cleared his throat. "You two know each other?"
Yuna turned quickly, her yellow eyes so bright, they seemed on fire. "No. Not anymore." She pulled her hood over her head, turned and walked away into the woods.
Nonplussed, Claney said to the newcomers, "Uh, sorry about that. Are either of you injured?"
"No," said the little girl proudly. "Our ghosts kept us healed." She held out a hand and summoned her ghost in a flash of blue.
Claney blinked. A child Guardian? How could that be? A dozen questions filled his mind. Caelan-5 gaped.
The Awoken man looked weary, as if sensing their curiosity. "I'd better introduce us properly. I'm Ivaran Nerisis, and this is Silvan, my daughter." He stuttered a little bit at daughter, as if he wasn't used to the term. "She's eleven or twelve, and was only resurrected a few months ago."
"Why is that such a big deal?" Silvan demanded. "Everyone wants to know how old I am. I'm Chosen. Isn't that enough?"
Claney met Ivaran's gaze and saw the protectiveness there. It resonated with his own defender instincts. He gave the child a smile and said, "It's uncommon, is all. Don't worry about it." Never mind that she might never grow up, locked into an immortal childhood. Now was not the time or place to discuss it.
"Look," Ivaran said. "We ran out of food three days ago, and we can't get to the City because the pass is blocked. Can you fly her in for me?"
Silvan grabbed his hand with both of hers. "Dad, no, please. Don't leave me."
Ivaran looked pained. "Please, Silvan, we talked about this." He looked at the other Guardians. "Do you happen to have any extra supplies?"
Claney pulled off his pack. "What a coincidence. They always make me carry the food. How about lunch?"
They all sat on the pine needles and shared supplies. Ivaran and Silvan devoured everything the Pilgrim Guard gave them, which was common enough for people who had been in the wilds a long time. What was unusual was the argument the two carried on in whispers the whole time. Claney tried not to listen in, but his ghost had no such manners.
"The dad's trying to ditch his daughter and she's not having it," Elgan reported through their bond, where nobody else would hear. "I wonder why?"
"It's none of our business," Claney told him. "Also, it's rude to eavesdrop."
"I'm not eavesdropping," Elgan replied loftily. "I'm gathering intelligence."
Caelan-5 said, "Say, why are you two running around out here with no jumpship, anyway? Seems awfully strange for a Guardian."
Silvan looked at her father. Ivaran gazed around at the fireteam, his blue eyes fading a little. "Well. I guess I should have mentioned it from the start."
"He's exiled," said a voice. Yuna stepped out of the trees, her yellow eyes glowing like a cat's in the shadows. "For helping that traitor Lysander try to destabilize the Consensus." She put her hands on her hips and faced Ivaran. "He should have never come back."
Ivaran glared at her. "I may be exiled, but Silvan's not. She remembers me as her father from her past life."
Yuna flinched, looking from father, to daughter, and back again. "It's not possible. You're making this up."
"He's my dad," Silvan assured her. "He didn't used to have a beard before he got Chosen. I remember."
There was a long silence as everyone studied everyone else. Claney knew the laws about exiled Guardians - if they tried to return, they and their ghosts would be executed. Ivaran didn't look particularly dangerous, but the last thing the City needed was political trouble in the face of an invasion force.
"You still loyal to Lysander?" Claney asked.
"No sir," Ivaran replied, meeting his gaze. "I've been questioning him for a while now. And then-"
"Lysander was going to use me as a hostage!" Silvan burst out. "Just because he doesn't like Dad!"
"A hostage to the Fallen," Ivaran corrected grimly. "I'm afraid that I come bearing extremely bad news. Lysander is behind this attack. He hopes to use the Fallen to make one more attack by the Concordat."
Heavy silence met these words. Yuna's right hand dropped to the sidearm at her hip. "Are you telling the truth?" she breathed.
Ivaran gave her a weary look that said he was familiar with her and her doubt. "I don't bother with lies, Yuna. You remember that."
"I remember a lot of things about you that I wish I didn't." Yuna's attention shifted to Silvan. "But for her sake, we'll make an exception. Ivaran, come talk to me alone for a moment."
The two Awoken walked a short distance off into the trees, where they stood talking in low voices, their stances tense. Silvan watched them anxiously.
Claney took the opportunity to poke his ghost. "You owe me ten glimmer."
"For what?" Elgan snapped.
"The ghost who spoke to us was bonded to one of those guardians. You bet it was an unattached ghost."
Elgan muttered something that sounded like Fallen swear words. "Fine, I've transferred ten glimmer to your account. Happy now?"
"Very." Claney grinned.
Nearby, Caelan-5 noticed. "Something funny?"
"Just won a bet against my ghost."
Caelan's mouth lights lit yellow as he chuckled. "I always lose to mine, so I stopped betting. Anyway. Since we're going into combat, what do you say to me trying out my bombers?"
Claney gave the Exo an uneasy look. Caelan's passion was building robots. He constantly scavenged parts from broken shanks and other machines. His creations were monstrous Frankensteins of Vex and Fallen tech, brass and tin welded together into flying instruments of death. His last creation, a drone that spun a pair of blades like helicopter rotors, had killed him twice during testing. Claney wasn't eager to see what bomber robots might be like.
Caelan-5 noticed his expression. "Oh, come on, they're not that bad. I didn't die once while I was building them. They're ready for field testing, and I'd love to try them on the Fallen."
"As long as you keep them far away from the kid," Claney said.
"Sure, definitely," Caelan-5 agreed.
Silvan listened to this, her silver eyes bright with interest. "I definitely want to watch."
At this point, Yuna and Ivaran returned. Yuna positioned herself to face her team as well as the two outsiders. "It's against Vanguard law to bring an exiled Guardian back into the City. However, in light of the current situation, I vote that we take Ivaran back with us, as well. He has valuable intelligence about the coming conflict. I take full responsibility for this decision."
The team murmured their agreement.
Ivaran bowed his head and didn't move for a long moment, as if struggling to overcome a weight of shame. When he looked up a moment later, he'd composed himself. He even smiled as Silvan jumped to her feet beside him and gave him a hug. But Claney noticed a slump in the Awoken's posture, and a slowness to his movements that hadn't been there before.
Claney Beamerd belongs to jsmulligan and is used with permission.
Chapter 10: Stranded
The mountain pass of Twilight Gap teemed with Fallen. Everywhere were banners, weapon caches, aliens cleaning armor, sparring, or tapping Servitors for a burst of ether. Ketches and skiffs hung in the sky like huge wingless dragonflies, ready to be boarded at a moment's notice.
Kell Craask of the House of Kings surveyed his handiwork from the top of a crag. It was a fine army, seven hundred thousand strong. House of Wolves was still mobilizing in the asteroid belt, but promised to arrive in another day's time. They had nearly a billion fighters in their fleet at Ceres. Together, they would fall upon the human city and destroy it.
Craask faced east, breathing the chilly air. The white dome of the Great Machine was just visible from here, like a huge egg - sleeping, waiting. He would pluck that egg from its nest and give it to his people. Together, they would rise from the ashes of their own civilization. No longer would they be called Fallen, but Blessed.
But first - the traitor.
Craask descended from the crag he had climbed and returned to his tent. The Kells had pitched their tents together on a high ledge where they could confer together without interruption. In Kell Craask's tent was Lysander, the Dreg Guardian.
Craask looked into the tent to assure himself that the traitor had not escaped. Lysander sat where Craask had left him, on a mat on the floor, cross-legged, hands resting on knees, eyes closed. It seemed that meditation was as common among humans as it was the Eliksni people.
Solkis, Kell of Devils, approached and stood beside Craask, carrying a spear casually in his left hands. "The creature is attempting to commune with the Great Machine?"
"So it says," Craask replied. "It claims that its visions directed it to us. It's belly is full of lies. Who can tell when it speaks truth?"
"A quick poke with a spear might do it good," Solkis muttered.
Craask made a warning sign with a lower hand. "It would only revive angry. Not here. But during the battle, were an accident to happen ..."
Solkis grinned, baring his needle-like teeth. "So much chaos in battle. Much death and confusion. Who can say how the dead fall?"
Lysander was aware of the Kells talking, but he couldn't understand them. He maintained his trance state, reaching and reaching for that sense of Light that connected him to the Traveler. He had not eaten in a week. Hunger had left him in a floating, rarefied state, open to the delicate traces of Light upon his consciousness.
A vision would come. He was sure of it. Even now, with the battle about to be joined, he had faith that the Traveler would answer. It would show him how the battle would happen, what he must do to locate the Speaker and strike him down. Because if anyone deserved to speak for the Traveler, it was Lysander, and not some phony in a mask.
He was not aware of his ghost, although it floated close by.
Lysander's ghost watched his Guardian in growing agony. He hated seeing his Guardian put himself through endless suffering in the hopes of hearing from the silent Traveler. And the ghost hated himself for enabling Lysander's continued obsessions.
But something must be done. His Guardian was in a weakened state, and before a battle, too. Lysander would lift a rifle and faint, and the Fallen would attack him for showing weakness.
So the ghost broke one of the rules that all ghosts lived by. He shone the thinnest of beams of Light at his Guardian's head and tampered with his brain. Hardly enough to be noticeable. Only tweaking a few neurons in the prefrontal cortex to trigger a vision.
Lysander saw a vision of himself, but with ram's horns on his helmet. He charged into the ranks of Guardians and sent them flying. He burst through the wall himself, and found the Speaker waiting for him. Lysander hit him with his horns, and the Speaker fell to dust.
The vision ended. Lysander inhaled and straightened, smiling. His ghost spun its shell. "Did the Traveler answer?"
"Yes," Lysander said, rising to his feet. "Praise the Light, this venture will succeed. Now I must take a meal or I won't be worth a damn out there."
His ghost followed him, racked by guilt, but hiding it.
The Pilgrim Guard escorted Ivaran and Silvan back to their ships, which was a long hike through woods and hills. Fallen were everywhere - they had to stop and fight over and over.
Nobody expected Silvan to fight, so she hung back, mentally holding her Light rifle ready to summon. She watched Ivaran take down aliens with electrified fists, a little scared, but very proud of him, too. She also fervently admired the other Titans, Claney and Caelan-5. Then there was Yuna.
Silvan hadn't seen any female Lightbearers before. She watched in awe as Yuna disappeared into a shimmer of active camouflage and stabbed aliens from behind with knives of Light. She was so quick and so strong!
"I want to be a hunter when I grow up," Silvan thought to her ghost.
"It's a fighting class, not a job," Bramble replied. "We'll see what direction your Light takes. Once we're in the City, they can test you and find out where your aptitude lies."
"I wish we were there now. I want to sleep in a bed again."
They fought their way to an open field where three jumpships sat on their landing gear. Unfortunately, the Fallen had found them, too. They'd torn apart the engine of one ship, and were working on the other two with cutting torches when the Guardians arrived.
"My ship!" Yuna exclaimed. "Oh, they are going down for this."
The team attacked the aliens in rage. Silvan hung back in the shelter of the trees, watching them go about their grim business.
"Maybe you shouldn't look," Bramble said in her head. "Death isn't pretty."
"No," Silvan agreed, watching as Claney broke the neck of a vandal. "But don't I need to know how to kill aliens? They're trying to kill me."
Bramble groaned. "Just ... don't be psychologically damaged, okay? I couldn't live with myself."
The aliens were killed or driven off within a few minutes. Then the Guardians inspected the damage.
"They're still airworthy, I think," Claney said, fingering a smoldering slice in the underbelly of his ship. "They'd only started on mine."
"Mine, too," Caelan-5 called from where he was looking at his own ship.
"Mine is wrecked," Yuna said, kicking a sliced sheet of metal. "And mine was the only one with passenger seats. How do we want to do this?"
"Double up, I guess," Claney said. "Or have someone ride in the cargo compartment."
"Me! Me!" Silvan exclaimed, darting forward. "I can fit in a cargo compartment! I can curl up real small." She caught Ivaran's hand and gave him a pleading look.
He looked at her, then at the damaged ships, and sighed. "All right. We're not breaking orbit, so you won't have to worry about depressurization. Who has room?"
It took a little time to figure out seating. Eventually, it fell out that Silvan would ride in Claney's ship. Caelan-5 would fly with Ivaran wedged in the cockpit and Yuna riding cargo.
"Make it a quick flight," she snapped as she folded herself into the tiny compartment under the left wing. "This won't be comfortable."
Silvan was giggling in excitement as Ivaran checked on her. He and Claney both made sure she was wedged securely into the space.
"It's about half an hour from here to the Last City," Claney told Silvan. "Can you last that long?"
"No problem," Silvan replied, beaming.
"Take care of her," Ivaran told Claney. "I know nothing will happen, but ..."
"I understand," Claney told him.
The Titans bumped fists. Then Ivaran closed the cargo door. It sealed shut with a hiss. Silvan was locked in a dark, narrow space that smelled of rubber and rocket fuel.
"This is so exciting!" she said to Bramble.
"If you say so," the ghost replied. He kept himself phased, hidden, as if this ride frightened him. But that made no sense, because he liked machines.
As the ship's engine roared to life, Silvan thought, "Why are you scared!"
"I'm not scared," Bramble retorted. "At least, not for myself."
Before she could press him further, the ship took off with a lurch that made Silvan's stomach swoop. She gasped and laughed. "I wish I could see out."
They flew steadily for a while. Silvan's excitement began to turn to boredom. She couldn't see anything in the dark compartment, and she began to be uncomfortable where her hip was pressed against the metal floor. She twisted about, trying to find a more comfortable position.
The ship lurched without warning. Silvan's head smacked the roof. "Ow!"
Through the engine noise, other sounds filtered in - a staccato booming noise.
"No," Bramble whispered in her head. "Please tell me we did not just fly over a Fallen artillery placement ..."
Scarcely had he said the words than something struck the ship. Bullets tore a line of holes across the cargo door, suddenly admitting light where there shouldn't have been any. The engine's roar rose to a shriek. The ship spun in midair, the G-forces pinning Silvan to the floor. She thought she was screaming - at least, her throat hurt.
Impact. Heat. Light and fire.
Claney awoke as his ghost resurrected him. He'd been thrown through the cockpit canopy glass as his ship crashed, and awakened on the ground a short distance away. The Fallen had hidden artillery in a stand of trees. They'd blown off his left wing as he flew over. His ship was a smoldering wreck, the engine smoking dangerously.
"You can thank me later," Elgan said in his head. "The little girl is still in the ship, and the ship's about to burn itself up."
Still disoriented from the suddenness of the crash and his resurrection, Claney staggered around the ship to the cargo door. It had been punctured by bullets, but it still opened when he twisted the latch.
Inside, Silvan lay still, unmoving, a huge dark bruise across half her face. Claney lifted her out and slung her small body over his shoulder.
Her ghost appeared, his blue pupil contracted to a terrified dot. "She's dead and the ship's about to explode. Run! I'll resurrect her in a minute!"
Claney ran for the shelter of a rock outcropping a short distance away. He dove behind it just as his ship's fuel ignited with a boom that shook the ground. Debris pelted his hiding place. He slid Silvan down into his arms and bent over her, shielding her with his armored body.
"Light!" Elgan said in his head. "There's Fallen all around us. A squad is headed this way to check out the crash site. Get your guardian up, Bramble!"
"Just a danged minute," Bramble replied, materializing and opening his shell. "I've never resurrected her before, okay?"
"Didn't you do it when you first found her?" Claney said.
"Yes," said the ghost from the middle of his Light field. "But that was different, and I fainted afterward. This is a battle rez. I've never done one before."
Elgan laughed. "You fainted? What, was finding your guardian just too exciting?"
"I was hurt," Bramble snapped. "Shut up and let me concentrate."
Claney held out the limp Silvan so her ghost could see her properly. Bramble pulsed his Light at her, healing her injuries, before calling her back to life. Silvan drew a deep breath and opened her eyes. "What-what happened? Where are we?"
Claney set her on her feet. "The Fallen shot us down. Feel okay?"
Silvan nodded, rubbing her head. "Where's Dad?"
"I think his ship got through. Come on, we need to get out of here. Stay behind me."
"And for the Traveler's sake," Elgan added, "get some armor on the kid, Bramble. She'll get blasted full of holes."
Claney checked his helmet HUD to get his bearings. They had crashed about eight miles from the Last City. He could just see the Traveler in the distance, over the treetops. But his scans showed that the fields between him and the City were crawling with aliens. They were pouring out of the mountain pass. Their ships were leapfrogging their forces forward, creating safe zones to land troops and surround the City. He'd had the bad luck to fly over one of those zones.
Now he was stranded with a young girl and no ship in the middle of an alien army. Silently he apologized to Ivaran for screwing up so badly. For a second, he almost thought he was on the moon again, surrounded by Hive, watching his fireteam die one by one.
Not again. Not while he still had Light. He'd lived by the Firebreak Protocol ever since - to do good by fighting until he died his final death. But that didn't work when he had a child to protect. The only thing he could think to do was to retreat to the hills and try to circle the Fallen army cells, find an opening, and run for the City.
"All safe in memory storage," his ghost replied. "As soon as we took the hit, I transmatted everything for safe keeping. I have a load of ammo synths, too."
"Great. Shotgun, please."
The weapon appeared in his hands in a shimmer of blue. It was an old SUROS MKB 51, with a modified grip for hip fire.
Another shimmer made him turn. Silvan held a rifle made of blue Light in both hands. Like a Hunter's golden gun, it was immaterial and yet appeared fully functional. Unlike a Hunter's gun, it gave no sign of disappearing.
"How'd you do that?" Claney asked, loading the MKB.
"I invented it a while ago," Silvan replied, her gaze and voice steady. "It's an Arc weapon, Bramble says."
Her ghost popped into existence. "Hey Mr. Beamard, do you mind shooting a couple of Vandals? I need their armor to break down so I can fabricate some for Silvan."
"That's the plan," Claney replied, ratcheting a round into the chamber. "Stay close. This is about to get hairy."
The other jumpship landed safely in the hanger in Tower North. Ivaran transmatted out of the cockpit in relief, followed by Caelan-5, and went to free Yuna from the cargo storage.
As she wriggled out of the compartment, growling and cursing, Ivaran stepped aside and gazed at the hanger entrance. The other ship was right behind theirs. Silvan should be arriving any minute.
Yuna crawled free and stretched her left leg, then her right. "Next time, you ride in there."
"I'm too big," Ivaran said absently. No ships were arriving. The sky was empty of all but a couple of skiffs in the distance.
Caelan-5 walked up and pulled a heavy bag out of the cargo compartment, slinging its strap over his shoulder. "We heading straight to Command?"
"Wait," Ivaran said. "Where's the other ship?"
The three of them gazed at the empty hanger doors in silence. Another minute ticked by. No ship.
Ivaran's back began to sweat. Something had happened. He held out a hand to summon his ghost, forgetting that she didn't usually respond to his call anymore. This time, however, she appeared at once.
"Contact their ghosts," he told her in a low, tense voice. "Maybe they had to circle, or ..."
Now Yuna and Caelan were consulting their ghosts, too. The sky remained empty. The hanger was disturbingly quiet. Any second, they'd fly in, right? And Ivaran would laugh at himself for panicking. Because that's what this was - prickling, icy panic that was stealing his ability to reason.
"I can't reach them," Sunrise said in a small voice.
Caelan-5 made a modulated groaning sound. "They were shot down."
Ivaran whirled to him, snarling. "What?"
"Ghost telemetry data. I didn't even see the alert because your elbow was in my face."
Ivaran could have responded to that in all kinds of nasty ways, but he bit his tongue. Shot down! Poor Silvan! For a second, he nearly climbed straight back into the jumpship, and damn the Fallen or flight clearance.
"I'll go back," Caelan-5 said, setting down his duffel bag. "I have enough fuel for a short flight. Besides, that's Claney out there. He's all that's left -" The Exo shut his mouth with a snap, biting off the words.
"All that's left?" Ivaran exclaimed, whirling to Yuna as Caelan transmatted into his ship. "Does he mean Silvan's dead?"
The roar of the jumpship's engine drowned them out. Ivaran and Yuna stood there as the ship launched into the air on repulsor jets, rotated to face the hanger entrance, and flew out under low power.
As soon as the noise faded, Yuna said, "Claney and Caelan-5 are the only two surviving members of Fireteam Bierchart. They died in the Great Disaster on the moon."
Ivaran could think of no reply to this. He folded his arms and watched the sky through the hanger entrance. Yuna did the same, summoning her ghost and stroking him. A nervous habit of hers, Ivaran remembered.
He tried to calm himself, to think things through. Silvan would survive a crash, thanks to her ghost. She was with a veteran Guardian who had survived a massacre. The Fallen were vicious fighters, but they lacked the supernatural weapons of the Hive. Claney and Silvan would probably go to ground somewhere and wait out the battle. It was the smartest thing to do.
If only his heart wasn't pounding so hard. If only he hadn't accepted the role of Silvan's father, whether he was or not. He'd grown to love the little squirt, and now he was sick with fear for her. He'd trained her a little, but she was far from combat ready. The idea of the Fallen eviscerating her made him both sick and furious. Lightning tingled in his fingertips, his fists itching for the feeling of alien skulls cracking against his knuckles.
Caelan-5's ship reappeared, swooping in to land at the same hanger entrance. The ship nosed in at the same dock, the engines powering down with a tired whine. Caelan transmatted out of the cockpit in a white fizzle of light.
"Well?" Ivaran barked.
Caelan shook his head. "They went down about eight miles out. I couldn't get near the wreck because of alien artillery, but my ghost detected both their ghost tags. They're up in the hills out that way." The Exo swept an arm at the mountains in the distance. "Nothing more we can do for them until we take care of the Fallen. We'd better report in."
Yuna gave Ivaran an unreadable look. If he hadn't known how much she despised him, he might have thought she felt sorry for him for a moment. Then she jerked her head at them and led them across the hanger.
Ivaran gave the mountains a last, anguished look, and followed.
Chapter 11: Fall of the fort
The command center in Tower North was holding a council of war when the three Guardians entered. Titans in armor, wearing the insignia of various orders. Warlocks in robes of office. Hunters fresh from the field, bristling with knives. Ivaran scanned the faces, surprised to see many he recognized: Lord Saladin, Ikora Rey, Andal Brask, Lord Shaxx, Zavala, and the heads of the Consensus. The Speaker was there, talking earnestly from behind his white mask. Where was Osiris? Ivaran searched the crowd for the Vanguard Commander, but Osiris was not present.
Ivaran nudged Yuna. "Why isn't Osiris here?"
She gave him a look that questioned both his sanity and his worth as a person. "He was exiled. Zavala is Vanguard Commander, now."
Ivaran felt his face grow hot. Exiled! What had happened? He'd served under Osiris for years, always admiring the warlock's foresight, his wisdom in preparing both defenses and attacks against their enemies. True, Osiris had signed Ivaran's exile order, but he hadn't been happy about it. Nobody had been.
Now Zavala was Commander. Ivaran had been on fire teams with him, and had helped build the City with him years and years ago. Zavala had a very defensive, isolationist mindset, lacking Osiris's foresight. Of all the people to be facing a battle like this one - Zavala would probably rather turtle from the walls than carry the fight to the enemy.
Yuna nudged Ivaran forward. Several faces turned in their direction. The rest of them were too busy studying a holographic map of the City and surrounding lands, peppered heavily with red dots.
"The fort at Twilight Gap is already beset," one Titan was saying. "We need reinforcements or we won't be able to hold it." He pointed to a swarm of red around a small square at the foot of the mountain pass.
"You'll get your men," Saladin Forge replied. "We must not waste time here. Every minute, the Fallen forces become more entrenched."
Yuna stepped forward. "News from the front, commanders."
Now everyone looked up, scrutinizing Ivaran's travel-worn, outdated armor for the first time.
Ivaran saluted, wondering if they'd shoot him where he stood, or make him face a firing squad. "I am Ivaran Nerisis, exiled Titan."
"An exile!" someone exclaimed. "A traitor, more like."
Zavala raised a hand, his blue skin swirling with Light, showing his elevated blood pressure. "We need every Guardian on our side right now. Ivaran Nerisis, what intelligence do you bring?"
Ivaran held himself steady, thinking of Silvan out there in the wild. "I was exiled for siding with Lysander of the Concordat in the Faction Wars. Over the years, I've watched Lysander gnaw himself with schemes of revenge. He went to the House of Kings to arrange this attack."
The gathering exploded with exclamations and flickers of Light as the Guardians bristled.
"Lysander's behind this?"
"He should have been executed!"
"Lysander always was bad for this City!"
"How do we know this Ivaran is trustworthy?"
"Never trust an exile!"
"Silence!" Lord Shaxx bellowed, his trained voice rising above the rest. Once the room had hushed, Shaxx nodded to Zavala.
"Thank you," Zavala said, returning his attention to Ivaran. "Now, you're certain of this? Lysander is directing this attack?"
"I doubt he's directing it," Ivaran replied. "But he's working with the Fallen as some kind of prophet. He claims to receive visions from the Traveler saying that the City will fall and the Fallen will retake their Great Machine."
The group muttered, some in anger, others nervous. The warlocks, in particular, were outraged.
"We have specialists who study the Traveler constantly," said Ikora Rey, eyes burning in her dark-skinned face. "It does not communicate in its current state. We would be the first to know, if it tried. Whatever source Lysander is tapped into, it's not the Traveler."
The crowd seemed to sigh with relief.
"So," Zavala said, "the Fallen are led by a madman with visions of power. We may be able to use that to our advantage. In the meantime, we must fight this battle that has appeared on our doorstep. The Traveler came to us. Not the Fallen. It created Ghosts and Guardians as its defenders. And we will defend it as long as we have Light." He turned to the map. "I need every Titan on wall defense. Warlocks, prepare your strongest Light attacks - we will rain down fire upon their heads. Hunters, I need your eyes and ears to track enemy movements. All of us must fight side by side. We defeated the Fallen at Six Fronts. We will defeat them now."
Ivaran was shuffled to one side as the military heads focused on the map again. He wanted to warn the Speaker about Lysander's vendetta, but the man was in the thickest part of the crowd.
"Sunrise," he thought to his ghost, "send the Speaker's ghost a message that Lysander is after him, personally."
"Done," she replied.
The Speaker lifted his head and turned toward Ivaran. After a long look from behind his mask, he nodded and returned his attention to the map.
"He acknowledged," Sunrise reported. "He thanks you for the warning."
"That's as much as I can do," Ivaran thought. "Now, I wonder if they'd give me better armor."
"You're going to fight?"
"I may be an exiled Titan, but I'm still a Titan. There's going to be a City at the end of this for Silvan to come home to."
His ghost was quiet a moment, but for a second, he sensed her thinking, the way he had before she'd closed herself off from him. Very softly, she said, "That's the Ivaran I once knew." Louder, she added, "The Tower armory is open and dispensing gear. Better get suited up, Guardian."
Ivaran nodded once and strode out of the command hall. Yuna stayed behind, but her gaze followed him out the door.
The first real opposition the Fallen met was the fortification at Twilight Gap.
The fort guarded the foot of the pass, surrounded by thick walls, and with four gun towers that could mow down foot soldiers by the hundreds.
If the Fallen could capture the Twilight Gap fort, they could move the bulk of their army against the weak point in the City's wall. As yet, the City defenders had no idea that that was their target. They had spread their defenses evenly along the City's entire circumference.
Kell Craask of the House of Kings studied the Twilight Gap fort from a peak above the pass. He used a device attached to his Servitor, which zoomed in on the fort with its superior optic.
"They man all four gun towers," Bravicks-3 rumbled. "But I see fewer Guardians on the walls themselves. They were not expecting the first blow of battle to fall here."
"I cannot expose my troops to those guns," Kell Craask mused, studying the fort. "However, they cannot shoot what they cannot see. Send word to Kell Solkis to send in his marauders. Their camouflage will conceal them as they climb the walls from behind. Then they must target the Guardians on the gun towers. Distract them long enough for us to move our forces down the pass. Guardians are fierce fighters, but they are not invulnerable."
"What of their ghosts?" Bravicks-3 inquired. "Our arc weapons do not affect ghosts while their Light field is active."
"A blade is always effective," Craask replied. "Pass the word. We must take this fort or retreat now."
Kari Winters was a support warlock posted to Twilight Gap that week. Usually, manning a gun tower at the fort was a good time to play cards with whoever was on duty, or catch up on a favorite TV show, or play video games over her helmet HUD with her ghost. If she was lucky, she'd be there on a live fire exercise day and actually get to shoot the huge machine guns in the towers.
But today had proved to be far more exciting than she'd anticipated. The Fallen were invading from the mountain pass. In fact, sporadic gunfire from the fort was the only thing keeping them from sweeping in and engulfing the City. The fort had not halted their aircraft from moving troops into position all around the City, but for some reason, the bulk of their army waited up in the pass.
Kari had been in the gun's fighting chair all afternoon, and her back ached. She had finally been relieved by the other Guardian in the tower with her, a Titan named Rem Callahan. The size of his ego was only matched by the size of his mouth.
"Thank you, little lady," he smirked, sliding into the chair in her place. "Better leave the real fighting to us Titans, eh?"
"I swear, Rem," Kari said, pulling off her helmet and drinking water from a canteen, "if you don't shut up, I will nova bomb you in the face."
"Is that any way to treat your favorite Titan?" he said, pretending to be hurt. "I have the highest recorded accuracy score on these guns. You're lucky I'm up here with you today. When those bugs come down here - and believe me, they will - I'll melt their faces."
Kari gritted her teeth and didn't answer. He'd either been talking down to her or hitting on her all day, and she wanted nothing more than to blow him up. Or maybe toss him over the fort's wall for the Fallen to deal with.
She stood with her back to him, gazing across the fort to the City in the distance. How she wished she was back there, with all the comforts of home, instead of stuck out here in this crapsack of a fort. The beds in the barracks were so hard, she might as well have been bunking on the concrete. And the food was nothing but MREs for no reason she could see.
As she stood there, her back to the enemy, she noticed movement along the top of the fort's rear wall. Something moved and glinted. Frowning, she pulled on her helmet. "Neko, analyze that motion on the fort wall."
A section of her HUD zoomed in, tracing an enhancement line around the flicker. Possible match: Fallen marauders. As she blinked at this, her ghost flagged twenty-three more nearly-invisible figures she hadn't seen, already on the ground inside the wall.
"Marauders!" Kari yelled, snatching her scout rifle off the tower's weapon rack. "Captain Hardt, we have at least twenty-four Fallen Marauders inside the fort at the back wall!" She fired at one of the shimmers. It rippled into being as a crouching alien assassin with wicked-looking knives. It darted to one side, seeking cover, until Kari felled it with a shot to the head.
Behind her, Rem started to get up and help, but Kari said, "Stay on the gun! This is probably a distraction!" She couldn't see the other assassins now - they'd taken cover behind buildings and parked vehicles. Guardians ran about, shouting to each other. It was like a deadly game of hide and seek. Gunfire crackled.
Suddenly, shouting broke out in the gun tower opposite Kari's. The Guardians there were fighting hand to hand with aliens who had leaped all the way up without touching the ladder. Kari watched through her rifle sights, hoping for a glimpse of something to shoot.
Suddenly her ghost cried, "Incoming!"
Kari looked up in time to see a huge alien leap into her gun tower, barely a foot away. With no time to bring her rifle to bear, she thrust the heel of her hand into its chest plate. Void Light exploded from her palm in a purple blast, tearing the alien in two.
As it whirled and fell out of the tower, a second alien leaped in, slashing with daggers in all four hands. Kari tried to punch this one, too, and instead took several deep slashes to her forearms and shoulders. Her armored robe did almost nothing to repel the blows.
Rem leaped out of the machine gun seat and head-butted the alien. As it reeled and slashed at him, its blades glancing off his armor, Rem landed an uppercut that crushed its jaw. He kicked it out of the tower and watched the body hit the ground twenty feet below. Then he turned to Kari. "Are you all right?"
Her ghost was already out, healing her wounds with pulses of Light.
"I'm fine," she panted. "They're hitting all the gun towers-" Then she looked toward the pass. "And that's why! Get back on the gun!"
The alien army was streaming down out of the pass, thousands strong. They covered the ground from cliff to cliff, a seething, glittering sea of savage fighters. Behind them crawled huge, spider-like walkers, each equipped with a Shank forge, building the gun-turret robots and dispatching them with every step.
Rem's machine gun was the only one that spoke against the oncoming tide. Kari added her own rifle to the big gun's strength, but the handful of aliens they killed were barely noticed by their comrades. The other three gun towers were too busy fighting Marauders to attack the army until it was too late.
As the Fallen reached the fort walls and vaulted over, Kari leaped out of the tower, floated in midair with her warlock power, and hurled a Nova Bomb into the thickest mass of aliens. She had the pleasure of seeing the bomb, a huge ball of purple and black fire, sail into their ranks and blast a huge hole in it, punching a crater in the ground. Bodies sailed in all directions. Aliens screamed and died.
Then the hole in their ranks closed. A hail of arc bolts tore into Kari from a forest of rifles. She darted back into the gun tower and prepared to fight to the end.
Reinforcements raced from the City toward the Twilight Gap fort. There was no time for an air drop - Guardians simply rode there on sparrows, hoping to get there before it was too late.
Among these was a group of Hunters. Leading them was the Exo Cayde-6, flanked by a younger Exo in a yellow cloak, Shiro-4. An Awoken named Madrid rode with them.
"Looks like some crazy fighting," Cayde said over his helmet radio. "I'll take point, you guys mop up."
"Heavy weapons?" Shiro asked. "Or Light?"
"Whatever works for you," Cayde replied. "Look, it's a battle. Fight as dirty as you want. The Fallen sure will."
"I don't like the odds, here," Madrid remarked. "Their entire main force is hitting the fort. They have it surrounded."
"Then we'll punch straight through," Cayde replied. "Hey Madrid, is it true you haven't died since you were resurrected?"
"It's true," Madrid replied.
Cayde laughed. "Think you can keep that record?"
"I have no plans otherwise," Madrid replied. "I prefer to engage the enemy at long range, through a scope, but there's no sniping vantage points here."
"You'll be getting your hands dirty today," Cayde replied. "Form up, fireteam, here we go!"
The Fallen turned from climbing walls and firing at the defending Guardians to see a pack of reinforcements arriving, Cayde-6 in the lead. The Guardians pushed their sparrows to top speed, then leaped off and hit the ground running. A hundred riderless sparrows crashed into the ranks of aliens, crushing bones, bursting ether tanks, and in one case, impaling a Servitor, which exploded.
The aliens roared and hissed in dismay, firing at the Guardians and racing to meet them with electrified knives and spears.
"House of Devils!" Madrid exclaimed to his teammates, observing the colors the aliens wore. "Watch yourself, they always go for the gut." He whirled into the aliens with a sword in one hand and a sidearm in the other.
Cayde and Shiro each summoned their Golden Guns and unloaded into the aliens, burning their bodies to ash in seconds. When the power was spent, they spun in back to back, Cayde with an auto rifle, Shiro with a machine gun.
All around the fort, guns barked and Light flashed as Guardians engaged the enemy. All of them had fought Fallen before, but there were simply so many of them this time. And the Fallen supported each other, Vandals sniping from the walls, Dregs fighting back to back or in circles, Captains pounding the Guardians with rockets.
Madrid slashed an arm off a Vandal. It followed up with a stab to the stomach, just below his breastplate, trying to stab upward and reach his heart. Madrid wrenched away and emptied his sidearm into the Vandal's face. He turned to look for his next target, only to catch a rocket that blew him into several pieces.
As Madrid's ghost appeared, her shell open and Light field active, Cayde and Shiro leaped over to fight on either side of her. "Welp," Cayde said, "I guess Madrid's perfect no-death record is gone, huh?"
"Wish mine was that good!" Shiro panted, reloading his machine gun.
Madrid's ghost repaired and resurrected him in a sparkle of blue Light. He scrambled to his feet, rubbing his arms and legs. "There goes my record. Thanks for the cover, guys."
"Stick close!" Cayde said. "We're jumping into the fort to clear out the baddies inside. Let's go!"
The three Hunters leaped ten feet in the air, powered by the Light. They cleared the wall and landed inside, where the defenders were still battling marauders and new invaders.
Madrid drew on the power of the Traveler to supercharge his Light. An electrified staff appeared in his hands. He ran at the aliens with devastating speed, spinning the staff. Whatever the staff touched, it incinerated with enough electricity to power a thunderstorm. He killed Fallen that were battling the fort's defenders. The Guardians raised a weary cheer as he whipped by, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
As his supercharge burned out and the arc staff vanished, Madrid met a warlock carrying a scout rifle. Her ghost tag identified her as Kari Winters, one of the warlocks he routinely worked with on fire teams.
"Madrid!" she exclaimed. "Thank the Traveler. We're barely holding on." She pointed to the gun towers. All four had smoke trailing from the silent machine guns. "They wrecked our turrets. We can't stop their advance."
"A hundred more Guardians ought to help," Madrid said, reloading his sidearm. "Time to clean house on these idiots." As he spoke, he happened to look toward the front wall. A wave of Fallen leaped over it - fifty? A hundred? He couldn't count them. "Let's start over there."
Kari raised her rifle. "Right behind you."
As they advanced on the aliens, firing as they went, Light flashed in the evening sky. A Titan, wreathed in lightning, sailed across the fort's inner yard. He plunged into the midst of the aliens and hit the ground like a missile. An electrical shockwave sent the enemy flying, colliding with obstacles and dying instantly.
"Oh," Madrid said. "Rem Callahan's here."
"At least he's making himself useful," Kari muttered.
The aliens scattered for cover, but it wasn't long before they popped up from behind the barracks and the base of the gun towers, pouring arc bolts into the Guardians. Kari threw down a healing rift - a pool of Light on the ground that refreshed and revived. She and Madrid returned fire from inside the rift. Rem ran up, too, packing a fusion rifle in either hand.
"You can't possibly use those like that," Kari said.
Rem fired first one rifle, then the other. The energy beams vaporized two different aliens.
"I really am that good," Rem bragged. "Also, nice rift. Looks like warlocks are good for something after all."
Kari summoned a void grenade and threw it at the aliens, rather than at Rem's head, like she wanted.
Several aliens threw their own grenades into the healing circle. Madrid kicked two of them away. Rem picked up the third and threw it back, detonating in its owner's face.
Cayde and Shiro arrived, both wielding golden guns. "Just got the word," Cayde said, blasting a Vandal that got too close. "Word is to fall back to the City walls. Clean the ammo out of the gun turrets so they don't use them on us."
"Fall back!" Kari exclaimed.
Rem shared her dismay. "We're holding the fort just fine! Look at us!"
As he spoke, more aliens poured over the west and south walls. The Guardians retreated, sheltering behind buildings and vehicles where they could.
"Don't shoot the messenger," Cayde said, taking two arc bolts to the side. "The Devils are already doing a fine job."
Kari ran for the nearest gun turret, meaning to disable it completely, but was shot down by three simultaneous blasts from wire rifles. Rem ran to her corpse as her ghost appeared. He summoned a shield made of Light and protected the ghost until he managed to get Kari back on her feet.
As she stood, groping for her rifle, Rem said, "That's why they're giving the retreat order."
Kari didn't know what he meant. She was dazed from being killed and revived so rapidly, and it was all she could do to walk in a straight line.
Madrid dashed up. "Hurry! Don't you feel it? They're bringing in something with a Darkness zone!" He took Kari's arm and tugged her along.
Kari felt it - an oppressive sense of weight and stifling, stale air - the taste of the Darkness, itself. Her Light flickered within her, her connection with the Traveler weakening.
"An Archon," she said, recognizing it. "A Fallen high priest. Pass the word! Nobody fights alone! Pairs! Stay in pairs!"
Cayde said into his radio, "Ah, warlock says stay in pairs, guys. Archon coming with enough Darkness to give little kids nightmares. Big kids, too. In fact, the other night, I had one-"
"Too much information!" Shiro yelled, smacking Cayde on the back of the head.
"Right," Cayde said into his radio. "Stick together, Guardians! We are gone!" He pulled a smoke grenade off his belt and threw it at the ground. A cloud of dense black smoke erupted into the air, hiding their retreat from their enemies.
Kari hated leaving the fort for their enemies to capture. But the sun had set, and the late autumn dusk had already faded. The Fallen were pressing forward under cover of darkness, and bringing deeper Darkness with them.
"Wait until dawn, bastards," Kari muttered. "We'll make you sorry you ever landed on this planet." She summoned her sparrow and rode away with the rest of the Guardians, seething with battle rage.
Chapter 12: First salvo
As full night set in, the Guardians withdrew to the Last City. There were not enough lights to illuminate the entire plain around the City, and the Fallen had natural night vision. While the Guardians had artificial night vision, the enemy forces were simply too massive for Command to risk the lives of Guardians. Not after the Great Disaster had claimed so many.
Ivaran Nerisis stood on the wall's battlements, straining his eyes to pierce the darkness and find his missing daughter. He wore new Titan gear and had a good square meal inside him. But his heart remained sick. Silvan was out there, cut off from him by a huge army. Dead Orbit reported that the House of Wolves was gathering in the asteroid belt, preparing to swell the invasion force.
What chance did a little girl and a single Titan have against thousands upon thousands of Fallen? Ivaran looked up at the nearest AA gun emplacement on the wall. These massive weapons made the Twilight Gap machine guns look like pop guns. And yet the army facing them was so huge.
Commander Zavala had voiced the concern at that evening's briefing that as soon as dawn broke, Fallen skiffs would begin dropping fighters behind the wall, inside the City. There were certainly plenty of them out there.
Ivaran's ghost, Sunrise, appeared beside him. She, too, gazed out at the darkness that shrouded the plain and the enemy.
"I don't know how to do this," Ivaran said, very softly. "Nobody will take me on a fire team because of being an exile. Silvan's out there somewhere. They've stuck me on guard duty to get me out of the way. What do I do, Sun?"
"You do your duty," the ghost replied. "The Traveler chose you to defend it, and that you must do."
Ivaran nodded. Plenty of Guardians disliked that little clause. After a moment, he looked at the glowing blue eye beside him. "What about you? Why did you choose me?"
The ghost blinked several times, as if the question had caught her off guard. Then she said, "When the Traveler sent us out ... the first ghosts to pick Chosen took the first sparks they found. We didn't know any better, you see. And a lot of them wound up with powerful fighters who used their strength to benefit only themselves."
"The warlords," Ivaran said.
"Yes," his ghost replied. "The rest of us ghosts watched this in horror. We became much more selective. We thought carefully about the shape of the person we had been sent to find. We decided that there might be several people who fit that shape. That's how we found Felwinter and the others who became Iron Lords. We looked for good people, not just powerful people."
"And you thought I was good?" Ivaran said.
Sunrise didn't answer for a while. She gazed into the darkness and ticked her shell segments back and forth.
"I saw it in you," she said at last. "And you were good until Lysander came."
That old, sore subject still lay between them, the reason for his ghost's long silence.
"For the record," Ivaran said, "I'm sorry."
She didn't look at him.
He went on, "I should never have taken up with him. I regret every life lost in the Faction Wars. I've had plenty of time to think about it out in the woods. And Sun, I want to go back to being the good man you saw in me at the first. No matter if we die in battle tomorrow, or if they throw me back into exile once we've won ... I'm done with Lysander."
Sunrise slowly turned and studied him, her eye flicking back and forth. She was analyzing his thoughts through their neural symbiosis bond, searching his intent. "You mean it," she murmured. "You actually mean it this time. It's because of Silvan, isn't it?"
He nodded and drew a deep breath. "She was the last thing I ever expected. A daughter from my previous life. And she ... she made me want to strive to be a good role model. You know what I mean?"
"Yes," Sunrise replied. "I watched the change take place in you these past few months. She reminded you of all the good things you used to have, and say, and do."
"All the things I lost," Ivaran muttered, pressing a hand against the wall's parapet until his glove creaked. "Or gave up. And how did Lysander repay me? With this. A full-scale invasion against the City. Thousands will die, all because of his petty revenge."
Sunrise said nothing, only looked at him thoughtfully.
"What?" Ivaran muttered.
"That's my Guardian," she murmured. She flew up and bumped her shell against his cheek in a Ghost kiss, something she hadn't done in thirty years. A long-held tension eased within Ivaran's heart. His Ghost was back. She didn't resent him anymore.
He clasped a hand around her shell and held her against his cheek for a moment. "Are we good, again?"
"We're good," she whispered in his mind. "I wanted to make up before ... before tomorrow."
"Because we might die?"
For the first time, he realized that his ghost was afraid. And Ivaran was, too, but not for himself.
He was afraid of failing Silvan, of leaving her behind one final time.
"I'm hungry," said Silvan.
She and Claney had spent the day working their way up into the hills, hiding from aliens. When they had been discovered, which happened several times, Claney took the aliens down with a fist, rather than risk the noise of a gunshot.
As the sun went down, Silvan began to miss her father more and more. The more her stomach growled, the more homesick she grew. It was as if he represented safety, and food, and shelter, and everything good. Being separated from him was a long, fearful agony.
As the sun sank behind the mountains, Claney picked out a brushy place near a dry stream bed. He had his ghost transmat a tiny rolled-up tent from memory storage. Claney pitched it with the swift efficiency of long practice.
"Gather branches and leaves and stuff," Claney told Silvan. "We're going to sleep camouflaged."
Puzzled, but interested, Silvan set about gathering armfuls of broken branches. Beside her, Bramble flew about, scanning odd things like cobwebs and thistles that were releasing piles of fluff.
"That stuff won't work, you know," she told the ghost. "We're trying to blend in."
"Fat lot you know," he said, and went on working.
Silvan watched him break down a scattering of feathers into particles and store them inside his core. "You're weird."
"So are you," he said. "Stop distracting me."
Mystified, Silvan carried her bundle of materials back to Claney. The Titan accepted them without a word and arranged them until the tent resembled one more bush half-buried in drifts of dead leaves.
"It'll be like a cave inside!" Silvan said, watching.
Claney nodded. "We'll be hard to find."
"How'd you learn to do that?"
Claney smiled sadly. "A hunter taught me."
"I might be a hunter," Silvan said. "But my ghost thinks I might be a warlock. Dad says I'm not strong enough to be a Titan."
"Or big enough," Claney added. He crawled into the tent and entirely vanished. Silvan crawled in after him.
It was a two-man tent, which only meant that Claney in his armor took up two-thirds of it and Silvan filled the rest. To Claney's dismay, she snuggled up beside him and rested her head on his arm. "Your armor is hard. So is Dad's. You remind me of him."
"Oh?" Claney said, keeping perfectly still.
"Yeah," Silvan said. "I hope he's all right. Do you sleep in your armor? Dad only did because we were traveling."
"Tonight, yes," Claney replied. "At home, no."
"Because the aliens might ambush us?"
They lay there in silence a moment. It was already nearly dark, and the air was growing chilly.
"I'm hungry," said Silvan.
"Me too," said Claney. "I lost everything I was carrying in the crash. We'll get to the City tomorrow and you can eat then."
Silvan didn't know if she could last that long. But she didn't want to sound whiny, so she bit her tongue and tried to think about anything but her empty stomach.
Bramble materialized overhead in the tent, looking somehow triumphant. He shone a wide ray of Light across them. The Light left behind a blanket made of all the soft, fluffy things he had been gathering. Silvan couldn't tell the color in the darkness, but it was soft and warm, if slightly scratchy.
"A blanket!" she exclaimed. "And here I was teasing you about the stuff you were picking up."
Bramble dropped onto the blanket and let himself bounce. "I've been working on it for days, trying to gather enough material. Sorry, Mr. Beamard, I didn't make it long enough for you."
Claney's feet stuck out at the bottom.
"Any blanket's better than none," Claney said with a tired grin.
His ghost, Elgan, appeared and gave Bramble an envious stare. "Well ... I had the tent in storage, so I think I deserve some thanks."
"That you do," Claney replied. "Thanks."
Elgan made a grumpy clicking sound.
Silvan grew warm, sort of - the ground radiated cold upward, but the blanket reflected warmth downward. She was so tired, she simply scooped Bramble up, tucked him under her chin, and fell asleep holding him.
Claney lay awake for another hour, listening to the distant rumble of skiffs and ketches, the growl of walkers, and the voices of aliens calling to each other. Nearer were the slow, peaceful chirping of crickets who hadn't quite been overcome by the cold.
"I'll keep watch," Elgan told him softly. "Get some rest."
"Wake me if anything comes near."
"I will. Just don't snore."
Claney rolled his eyes.
"Star-child," Bramble said in Silvan's mind. "Wake up, Star-Child. There might be trouble."
Silvan opened her eyes. Beside her, Claney also awakened and lifted his head. It was cold and damp inside the tent. A layer of dew had covered the blanket. Outside, not far away, were the low voices of several humans.
Silvan and Claney lay perfectly still, listening. They couldn't distinguish individual words, but the people were trying to keep quiet.
"It's the exiles," Bramble said in Silvan's head. "Lysander's men. But only five of them. What happened to the rest?"
Silvan whispered this to Claney. "They were going to give me to the Fallen. They're bad."
Claney looked at her for a long moment. Then he rolled into his side and pushed off the blanket. "Elgan," he whispered.
His ghost appeared, fiddling his shell nervously.
"See if you can reach their ghosts. Find out what they want. Don't give away our position."
"I'll make them think you're a sniper," Elgan said, and vanished.
The voices of the strangers fell silent. Not a leaf stirred outside. Silvan and Claney waited, Silvan still holding Bramble in both hands. She wasn't afraid, exactly, not while Claney was there. But she was tired of hiding and being always outdoors, and wished this whole mess was over with.
Elgan reappeared, looking smug. "I scared them good. They're some of Lysander's men, but they deserted when they saw the Fallen planning to wipe out the City. They want to fight for the Vanguard, but they're not sure how. They assure you they mean us no harm."
Claney thought about this a moment. Then he crawled out of the tent, beckoning for Silvan to follow. She obeyed.
Outside, the woods were full of blue shadows, the rising sun not yet high enough to shine over the mountain tops. The damp cold bit through Silvan's clothes and light armor her ghost had made for her.
A short distance downhill stood five men, all wearing old, battered armor and carrying weapons. They carried helmets but didn't wear them, their beards hacked short in order to fit inside.
"This is unusual," Claney said, carrying his shotgun in the crook of one arm. "Seems all the exiles are returning at once."
"We may be exiled," said one, "but we don't want to see the City destroyed any more than you do. The others are having second thoughts, too. Lysander's all buddy-buddy with the Fallen, now. He doesn't need us. Hell, he hasn't spoken to any of us since the House of Kings picked him up."
"Yeah," another added. "He thinks we'll just follow him like a pack of dogs."
"Well," Claney said, surveying them. "That makes six of us and a young girl against ten thousand Fallen. Think we can take them?"
The exiles brightened. "You bet we can," said one Titan, slamming his fist into his palm. "But it'll take some strategy. My advice? Let's capture vehicles."
Claney looked at Silvan, who beamed. "I like that idea."
As morning spread across the valley, Ivaran gazed over the wall in dismay.
During the night, the aliens had arrayed their forces around the City. The valley floor was black with them, milling, teeming like insects. Thousands of spider-like walkers stood among them, like a parking lot bristling with weapons. Each machine had spent the night building armies of shanks, little floating turret-robots. Clouds of them swarmed around the armies.
Ivaran strode along the wall, his blue eyes bright in the morning light, his Vanguard armor gleaming. Inside, he was both anxious about the size of the enemy forces, and fiercely eager to fight them head-on. The City walls were so huge and broad - the Fallen would break against them like water. As long as Guardians defended the City, no foe would ever capture it.
Ivaran met Saladin Forge and Saint-14 walking toward him along the wall, pointing and gesturing. Like him, the Titans were studying the foe and estimating where their heaviest attacks would fall. Ivaran fell into step beside them. They didn't give him a second look. His identity didn't matter - he was another Titan, and he was on their side.
"The weakest point is the gates," Saladin was saying, his brown face flushed with pre-battle excitement. "They'll bring their strongest blows against those, just like at Six Fronts."
"But their arrangement makes no sense," Saint-14 replied. The Exo wore his helmet with its distinctive plume of red feathers, his face hidden behind an opaque glass shield. "Look at their forces - arrayed here, north and west, with only a light scattering to the south and east. They have the numbers to attack all six gates at once. Why focus here?"
"Maybe they hope to batter down these gates by sheer force," Saladin replied. Abruptly he turned to Ivaran. "What do you think, Guardian?"
Ivaran had been thinking uneasily of Lysander's words to Kell Craask. Their conversation had haunted his thoughts throughout the long journey to the City. He drew a deep breath. "Lysander claimed to know of a weak point in the walls, themselves. He bought the cooperation of the Fallen with that information."
Saladin and Saint-14 seemed to suddenly realize who he was. They both halted and faced him, intent.
"What did he tell them?" Saladin said in a low voice.
Ivaran shook his head. "I wasn't present at subsequent meetings, so I don't know. But I helped build the walls. Do you think he told them about the seventh gate?"
"What seventh gate?" Saint-14 said. "Forge, what's he on about?"
Saladin had gone very still. He gazed along the length of the wall, calculating the distance.
"Traveler's shards," he whispered. "It's here, on the northwest side, right against the Ridgeback District."
"There is no gate here," Saint-14 insisted. "Blast it, Forge, what are you talking about?"
Saladin turned to his friend. "When we were planning the City, we intended for there to be seven gates. But eventually we wound up with the two layers of wall. The math didn't work out, and we closed up one of the gates. You can't see it at all, but ... yes, the wall is weaker there." He clenched his fists. "Curse Lysander to the Deeps. He helped build the walls, too."
"What do we do?" Ivaran said.
Saladin looked out at the alien armies, which were already closing in toward the walls. "I want the northwest wall to have our toughest defenders." He pulled out his ghost. "Relay this to Commander Zavala. The heaviest blow will fall here, and it's already coming." He turned to Ivaran. "I want you on the AA gun, there." He pointed to the huge wall turret. "Destroy their walkers and ships. We'll deploy the Redjacks. Eyes up, Guardian!"
Ivaran saluted. "Yes sir!" He ran for the ladder under the gun, while Saladin and Saint-14 hurried on, shouting orders to other Guardians.
The AA gun was so huge, it had two seats, one for aiming, and one for firing. Ivaran was still trying to figure out the firing controls when a human soldier climbed the ladder and took the seat beside him. "Guardian," he said with a quick salute. "I'm trained on targeting, so if you'd like to fire ..." He quickly showed Ivaran how it worked.
Meanwhile, the armies were advancing on the City walls. Already, the nearest walkers had begun firing salvos of solar missiles. These were high-density, high-velocity rounds that could destroy vehicles, buildings, or one-shot a Guardian. These devastating weapons were aimed at the wall. As each round hit, Ivaran felt the vibration ripple upward, into his bones.
"Target the lead walkers," he said, pointing.
"On it," said the navigator. The huge AA gun slowly swiveled on its mount, servos whining. The muzzle lowered until it was aimed slightly above the nearest walker. Ivaran was able to make some hair-trigger adjustments, then squeezed the four triggers.
The big gun compressed, then fired with a thundering boom that stunned the ears of everyone in the vicinity. The walker disappeared in a plume of smoke, flame, and debris.
Ivaran cheered, even though he couldn't hear himself. His navigator grinned. He worked the controls to open the cannon's chamber, big enough to fit a man inside, and began struggling to lift a huge, heavy missile into it. Ivaran helped him. Even with Titan strength, the missile weighed five hundred pounds, and they struggled to load the gun.
Further down the wall, another AA cannon roared. Then another. Walkers disintegrated. The foremost ranks of aliens began to fall apart in disorder, terrified.
"We've routed them already!" Ivaran cheered. They slid the missile into the magazine, then worked the mechanism to close the weapon and ready it for firing.
Down on the battlefield, the aliens shouted to one another. Their other walkers halted, each generating a bubble energy shield over itself. The foot soldiers retreated to hide behind them.
One of the wall guns fired at a shielded walker. The missile exploded over the shield in a cloud of fire and debris, and when it cleared, the walker was unharmed, its shield flickering.
"Hold fire," Ivaran said, watching through the little window in front of him that looked down the cannon's muzzle. "Those shields withstand these cannons?"
"Arc energy, sir," said his companion. "We're firing pure kinetic rounds, and the Arc shields-"
He was drowned out as all the walkers fired their cannons at once. The battlefield blazed with orange light, like fireworks that blasted at the wall in a brilliant cloud. They struck the wall so hard that Ivaran was pitched from his seat. The whole wall trembled and swayed. Several Guardians rushed to the parapet and looked over, pointing and exclaiming. The salvo had blown a huge hole in the hitherto-impenetrable wall.
"Are they through?" Ivaran called.
"No!" another Titan called back. "But it's a hell of a crater!"
Chapter 13: The breach
There was no time for further talk. The walkers launched another volley. This time, instead of their solar cannons, the walkers fired smaller arc missiles that blazed blue. They sailed upward in a high trajectory, aiming for the defenders on the wall.
"Wards up!" Titans called up and down the wall. Every Titan who could used their Void Light to create a Ward of Dawn, a bubble shield like the one the walkers had created. Other Guardians and human soldiers ran to shelter inside.
Ivaran was a striker Titan and specialized in Arc Light. But he'd once been familiar enough with Void to put up a Ward. "Sunrise, help me!"
His ghost passed him the Light he needed. Ivaran managed to raise a thin, flickering shield over himself and his human companion just as the arc missiles came down on their heads. They detonated with a crack and flash of fire that rattled his shield and his body with it. The navigator covered his head with both arms.
All along the wall, the arc missiles exploded. Anything not protected by a Ward of Dawn was punched full of craters, but the overlapping shields protected most things on the wall.
As the flames and smoke cleared, Commander Zavala's voice spoke over their ghosts' radio connection. "Gunners, continue support. Coordinate with the warlocks and Redjacks."
Ivaran looked around. While he had been busy with the AA gun, the top of the wall had filled with an army of Redjacks. These were humanoid robots in armor, programmed to load and shoot various weapons with deadly accuracy. They made up for the numbers of soldiers the City lacked, and spared valuable human lives.
Besides the robots, the wall was crowded with warlocks in robes, clustered together as they pooled their powers. Hunters stood in rows, wielding their fiery golden guns. Titans planted themselves in between, carrying rocket launchers, machine guns, and fusion rifles.
Lord Shaxx strode by, his orange and white armor gleaming. "Guardians, fire at will!"
Redjacks fired in volleys. Hunters fired their golden guns together. Warlocks poured waves of burning Praxic fire on the heads of their enemies, or sent out shockwaves of arc energy, or hurled enormous Nova bombs.
Below, wave upon wave of aliens reached the walls and began scaling them, equipped with climbing claws and natural dexterity. The defenders killed hundreds of them, but for every one that died, two more seemed to leap forward to take their place. Alien bodies grew in piles at the base of the wall, steaming out clouds of blue ether. Flying shanks, little robots equipped with arc cannons, flew up in clouds to harass and kill the defenders.
As this was going on, Commander Zavala's voice rang out again. "I need defenders to the southern districts! Air support, converge at gates southwest and southeast!"
Ivaran peered across the City at their backs. The southern side was blue with hazy distance, under the Traveler's white globe. Far away, he glimpsed the dragonfly shapes of skiffs - hundreds of them. They were dropping Fallen troops inside the City walls, just as Zavala had feared they would. But this was clearly a diversion to divide the Guardian forces, pulling their attention away from the assault at the north wall.
And it was working. Everywhere, defenders disappeared in transmat shimmers. While the fight in the north was bad, the House of Devils could not be allowed inside the City. The southern districts were weapon foundries and greenhouses, industries that were the City's lifeblood. The Fallen could cripple them in a matter of minutes. If they pushed toward the Core district, they'd butcher their way through neighborhoods and schools, hospitals and shops. It turned Ivaran sick inside just thinking about it.
But he stuck to his post on the AA cannon, waiting for the fighters to open the shields around the walkers, and destroying shanks with his firearms.
Time wore on. The Guardians fought on two fronts, inside and outside the City. Walkers lost their shields and were annihilated by the wall cannons. Thousands more remained. Guardians fell and were revived. Redjacks took bullets for their companions.
The alien army continued to attack the wall, providing cover fire as their brethren climbed the wall. Hundreds reached the top and fought hand to hand with the Guardians there, who killed them and threw them down. Shielded walkers pounded the wall's weak point with salvo after salvo, deepening the huge crater, tearing through the space where the seventh gate had been.
Guardian jumpships with modified Gatling guns began sweeping over the battlefield, raining death on alien and machine alike. This worked until the Fallen ketches swooped in and engaged them. Furious dogfights broke out above the battlefield. Whenever a ketch took a fatal blow, the pilot tried to crash behind the wall, into buildings and houses. Many of them did, killing civilians and starting fires.
The sun climbed toward noon. The Vanguard's optimism for a quick victory began to fade. The Fallen were too well organized, their communication too good, their numbers too great. The Guardians began looking for the Kells, who were directing the battle from concealed positions in the rear. If they could eliminate the Kells, then the offense would fall apart. But the Kells were crafty, always moving, and the Vanguard couldn't pin them down.
Runners began bringing sandwiches and bottles of water to the Guardians and human soldiers on the wall. Ivaran devoured a sandwich in between keeping up a Ward of Dawn for shelter from the shanks. No matter how many aliens he killed, it wasn't enough. Food raised his flagging spirits, but many Guardians around him went without, especially the warlocks.
"The Light will sustain them," his ghost said, reading his thoughts. "Just like how it would sustain you, if you let it."
"I don't have the faith to skip meals," Ivaran replied, cramming the rest of his sandwich in his mouth, then digging into the box of ammo beside him.
Sunrise made a sound like a sigh. "Lysander does. It's why he can fast for months and look no worse for wear."
"I figured his ghost resurrected him every time he starved to death."
"That can happen," Sunrise replied. "But when your Light is strong, the rules change."
"I'll stick to food, thanks." Ivaran peered through his sights at the battle below, adding more suppression fire. "Wait ... something's happening. Who's that group flanking from the east?"
Ivaran squinted through his scope. It looked like a gang of Titans, but all of them wielded flaming weapons, like warlocks. Titans used Void and Arc Light-not Solar.
"Sunrise, did I miss something, or are Sunbreakers normal, now?"
"Sunbreakers continue to be an exiled faction, Ivaran."
"Well, I think they just showed up."
The Titans punched through the alien army in a wedge, swinging their fiery hammers and singing in time with the blows. Their voices carried on the wind. The Guardians on the wall gave a cheer as they saw their brethren pushing toward them.
The Fallen, taking an unexpected flank attack, lessened their assault on the walls and turned to deal with this new threat. They could not allow these new Guardians to reach the walls and swell the defense.
The Sunbreakers tore into them, some wielding hammers in both hands, others swinging mauls, all made of blazing orange Light that burned and melted and exploded in clouds of sparks. Watching them, Ivaran had a passing wish to learn to work Solar Light that way.
The Sunbreakers reached a group of spider-like walkers and attacked the legs. The walkers trained their guns on them, but the Titans kept circling, avoiding fire, smashing shanks and killing Fallen as they went. One by one, the walkers collapsed, crippled. The Titans tore into the cores when they opened to vent heat. Each walker exploded and fell in a pile of scrap.
Furious, the Fallen closed in on the Sunbreakers, darkening the Light with their sheer numbers.
"Transmat those Guardians!" Lord Shaxx boomed. "We will not let our comrades die upon the spears of the enemy!"
The Sunbreakers vanished in a series of transmat flashes. The aliens roared in rage and redoubled their assault on the wall.
"Wish I could play fly on the wall at that meeting," Ivaran thought to Sunrise. "Commander Zavala will flip his lid when he finds out the Sunbreakers showed up." They were a super-aggressive Titan faction who used Solar Light in a way first pioneered by the Warlords. They believed in carrying the fight to the enemy, and lived in self-imposed exile, where they fought humanity's enemies with impunity.
Ivaran gazed along the wall, trying to spot the newcomers. "Sun, any sign of Silvan and Bramble?"
"I'm afraid not," she replied in a small voice. "Claney Beamard isn't with the Sunbreakers, either."
"I thought they might have followed them in." Ivaran scanned the hills with his scope, hopes flagging. "They've got to be hidden out there, somewhere." And surely they were still alive. They'd be smart enough to hide from an army this huge and vicious. It was too easy to imagine Silvan dead and her ghost Bramble taking an arc blade to the core.
Ivaran's scope came to rest on a knot of Fallen, far to the rear of the battle, clustered together around a single green banner. He squinted. "Sun ... I think I found Lysander."
"Right where I'm looking."
Sunrise analyzed the view from his helmet. "That's certainly his colors ... what do you think they're doing?"
"Arguing strategy, probably. Send a message to Lord Saladin that Lysander is on the field. Send coordinates."
As Ivaran watched, the group of aliens with the green banner moved out of sight behind a clump of trees. But he doubted they went far.
"We've been fighting House of Devils," Ivaran muttered, watching this. "I'm seeing House of Winter banners out there, now. Those guys specialize in stealth. Just what we need-camouflaged aliens climbing the walls." He whipped his rifle to his shoulder and shot several that had reached the top of the wall.
"I'll flag them for you," Sunrise replied. "We'll fight them together."
Ivaran glanced at the sun, high overhead. Solar Light tended to be strongest at noon, or in bright daylight. Void Light was strongest at night, while Arc Light was heavily influenced by weather conditions. Storms and rain were its strength. However, the previous evening, the enemy had captured Twilight Gap using a Darkness field that shut out the Light and limited resurrections. No Archons had been seen on the battlefield yet, but Ivaran had a sneaking suspicion that they would appear at dusk, as they had before. Powers of Darkness operated best at night, or underground, where the sun couldn't reach. It also functioned well where there was much death, like graveyards and ruined cities. There was a reason the Hive operated as one giant death cult. A battlefield like this one, with aliens and Guardians alike losing their lives, would feed into a Darkness aura in frightening ways.
The defenders cast down a troop of aliens, and for a moment, there was a breath of calm. Ivaran allowed himself to rest, taking advantage of the moment while they had it. As he sat there against the parapet, his ghost said, "Would you like to hear the Sunbreakers and the Vanguard?"
"A ghost is relaying a bootleg feed. I can tap it, if you like."
Ivaran smiled inside his helmet. "Hit me."
A tiny window opened in the corner of his HUD. It showed a view of the inside of the Vanguard command room. From the angle, the ghost capturing the video was Andal Brask's.
Two Sunbreakers stood at the far end of the command table, their bronze-colored armor making them stand out. The man was a towering bulwark of metal and muscle, his face ruggedly handsome. He was flagged as Ouros, Empyreal Magistrate of the Sunbreakers.
Beside him, presenting a slimmer profile, wiry rather than burly, stood a woman with short black hair and startlingly black eyes. She was flagged as Liu Feng.
"I sent no such transmission," Commander Zavala was saying. "However, we are grateful for your presence, Magistrate."
"I should say you are," boomed Ouros. He had a trained, clear voice like Lord Shaxx's, as if he shouted at recruits on a battlefield all day. "Already have your backs to the wall and you haven't faced their full strength yet. Never fear, Vanguard. The Sunbreakers will make sure the City will stand. We may defend her from a distance, but she is never far from our hearts."
Ivaran held back an urge to cheer.
"Very good," said Zavala, who seemed relieved. "Even now, the enemy rallies. Pick your battlefront, Sunbreakers. You are needed on all of them."
Ouros stepped forward and looked at the holographic battle map floating above the table. "Looks like the main body of their forces is here, trying to punch through the wall. We'll add our strength to your defense. You need a strong offense to drive them back. What's the plan?"
They talked strategies and weapons for a while. Ivaran reloaded his rifle and kept an eye on the battlefield. The aliens were retreating from the area in front of the damaged wall while redoubling their attack elsewhere. Ivaran scanned them through his scope. The aliens were talking, gesturing, lining up like people on the front row of a Crucible match.
What were they waiting for? An uncomfortable foreboding began to nag at him. Leaving the bootleg feed running, Ivaran climbed back up to the AA gun. His navigator had been nearby, shooting down shanks with a shotgun. As Ivaran climbed the ladder, the human joined him.
"Orders, sir?" the navigator asked.
"Not really," Ivaran said, "just a feeling. Look at them standing there, waiting. What are they waiting for?"
"Maybe they're spooked by the Sunbreakers showing up," said the navigator, powering up the gun's systems. "You have to admit, that was impressive. If I was Eliksni, I'd be crapping my pants right now."
The nearby warlocks unleashed a nova blast that shook the wall underfoot and filled the air with tingling energy. Ivaran watched as the waiting aliens were blown to smoldering pieces. Yet their surviving companions didn't retaliate. Instead, they only scurried further away.
"I don't like this," Ivaran muttered.
Two ketches flew over the Twilight Gap pass and curved toward the City. They were big transport craft, short-winged and long-bodied, several times larger than a skiff. These carried bundles of explosives along the bellies and under the wings.
"Target those ketches," Ivaran said, pointing. "They're bombers."
The navigator obeyed. The gun slowly angled upward, aiming into the path of the oncoming ships.
"Locked on," the navigator replied. "Sir, they don't look like bombers to me."
Ivaran squeezed the triggers. The gun boomed. One of the ships exploded in an orange fireball.
"What do they look like?" Ivaran asked, when he could hear again.
"Kamakazie," the navigator replied. "It's too close now, I can't target that second one."
The incoming ship's nose angled downward. Ivaran saw its course in a split second. "Hang on to something!" He cycled to the open frequency. "Alert! We have incoming kamakazie ketch against the damaged northwest wall! All Guardians heads up!"
The Guardians scrambled for rifts and wards, but it was already too late.
The ketch and its deadly payload struck the damaged wall traveling at just over five hundred miles per hour. The ship disappeared into the wall's breadth before the explosions went off.
Ivaran clung to the gun as the ketch hit the wall. He felt the ship passing through the wall beneath him like a huge metal dart.
Then the explosives destroyed the wall's structural integrity. The wall shuddered, bending back and forth as if it had suddenly turned to putty. Concrete cracked and metal groaned. Guardians leaped into the air, using their powers to flee down the wall in either direction. Redjacks stood their ground.
With a terrible cracking and grinding, the AA gun and its tower fell straight down - down through what had once been the top of the wall, down into the fiery hole beneath, down into dust and metal and heat and terror.
Ivaran died trying to throw his navigator clear.
Hours later, Ivaran opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was his ghost hovering above him, her shell open, surrounded by an aura of blue Light. Her eye was fixed on him, and she looked desperate. All around were points of flickering fire in the darkness.
Ivaran scrambled to his feet, his armor clanging against broken concrete and twisted metal. "Sunrise, what happened? Where are we?"
The ghost closed her shell and disappeared. Her voice said in his head, "That ketch blasted through the whole damn wall, Iv. We fell into the breach. It's been on fire for hours, and it only just cooled off enough for me to revive you." The slight tremor in her voice told him how frantic she had been.
He looked around wildly. His body had been smashed under the remains of the AA gun and the tower that had supported it. The young man who had been his navigator lay a few yards away, half-buried in the rubble. Ivaran hurried to him and dug away the concrete. The young man's eyes stared up at him, empty and lifeless, his body crushed by the falling debris.
"I never even asked his name," Ivaran muttered, closing the sightless eyes. "May the Light enfold you, soldier." He rose to his feet, fists clenched. "Transmat him to the morgue, Sunrise. He deserves a Guardian's honors. I let him die."
His ghost appeared in her red shell, now coated in dust, and sent away the body in a flash of blue particles. "It wasn't your fault," she said softly. "The wall caved in beneath you."
"I'm a Guardian," Ivaran replied through his teeth. "I should have - should have jumped to safety with him or something." He drew a deep breath, trying to calm the rage and grief rising in him. "Who else fell down here?"
"Other Guardians," Sunrise replied. "They're buried and need help. And the aliens are fighting their way in. Traveler's Light, they're coming fast, killing ghosts as they go. I was afraid they'd get here before I could get you up. Hurry."
Now that he knew this, Ivaran noticed the clamor of gunfire, the thud-boom of mortars, the high-energy screech of solar rockets. The battle was just on the other side of the ruined wall. He could see the movements of aliens and Redjacks, barely fifty feet away.
Ivaran ran to a spot indicated by his ghost. He tore chunks of ship and wall aside to reveal another Titan, crushed and dead. But his ghost appeared with a cry of relief. "Thank you!"
Light pulsed from the ghost's core. The Titan stirred and sat up. "Man, what happened?"
"They breached the wall right under us," Ivaran replied. "Help me rescue the others."
The other Titan climbed groggily to his feet, groping for his dropped rifle. Together they dug through the rubble to unearth eleven other Guardians, mostly Titans, but also several hunters and a warlock. All the while, the fight outside the breach grew louder and closer. Flashes of orange began to illuminate the canyon carved through the wall.
"Stand and fight, Guardians!" boomed a voice.
Ivaran and his companions turned. Picking his way through the rubble toward them was Lord Shaxx. His orange and white armor was grimed with dust and blood, but the single horn on his helmet stood undaunted. Behind him walked an army of Redjacks, picking their way through the rubble with mechanical care.
"Sir!" Ivaran exclaimed, hurrying up. "The wall is cut straight through!"
"I know that, Guardian," Shaxx replied. "You see those houses back there? The Ridgeback district lies exposed. But when the wall fails, we Titans must fill the gap. We shall be the wall, and we shall not fall!"
A surge of courage filled Ivaran's heart. He saluted. "Yes sir!"
"Fight beside me, Titan," Shaxx said, drawing a sword in one hand and gripping a SMG in the other. "Together, we shall teach them to fear the Light."
Chapter 14: Espionage
"That's not good," Claney said.
Silvan sat beside him, shading her eyes against the afternoon sun. The aliens had blown a huge V in the City's outer wall. The battlefield was black with them, all crowding toward that hole, trying to get in. Light flashed and burned as Guardians defended it.
"Dad's there, somewhere," Silvan whispered. Her blue skin was pale, and her legs were weak and shaky from not having eaten since the day before. They had spent the day walking and hiding from aliens, accompanied by the five exiled Guardians who had deserted Lysander. They had destroyed several squadrons of aliens who had been waiting in reserve, but word traveled fast. Now the aliens were hunting them, trying to drive them into places where other Fallen waited in ambush. It had been an exhausting day.
"Chin up, my Star-Child," Bramble said in her head. "Your dad's tougher than you know."
Silvan hugged herself and wished she could hug her ghost. It was too dangerous for him to appear right now, so he stayed invisible, audible only through their neural bond.
They had halted atop a wooded hill where they could watch the battle without being seen. Claney and the other Guardians had rifles with scopes, and used them to see better. Silvan had nothing like that, although her Light-made rifle worked wonderfully in combat. She sat in the crunchy, dead grass and watched a swarm of shanks fly by.
"Bramble," she thought, "could you hijack another pike?"
"I can hijack any of the hardware on the field right now," the ghost replied proudly. "I spent years studying Eliksni tech." His voice dropped to a murmur. "But where would that leave you? I can't abandon you. And if I got killed, you'd be left alone."
"I could ride in a walker," she thought. "You could drive."
"Walkers don't have drivers," Bramble replied. "They're piloted remotely by a Servitor's signal. You'd have to hide behind it or something. And look at this battle. You think one walker would make a difference?"
Silvan gazed at the aliens on every side-clumps of fifties, hundreds, thousands. So many of them. So many walkers, pike gangs, shank clusters. So many ships in the sky. It made her feel small and weak.
"What if the aliens get into the City?" she blurted aloud to Claney. "Will they kill everyone?"
The Titan lowered his scope and looked at her, running a hand over his short red hair. "That's assuming the aliens get in. The Guardians are fighting from inside that hole. It'll be a while before any aliens get through." But he gave the sinking sun an anxious look.
Silvan touched his hand. "My ghost says he can hijack a walker."
Claney raised an eyebrow. "Oh really."
Silvan nodded. "He's a fighting ghost. He can hack any Fallen tech. Maybe he could teach your ghosts, and then we could all have walkers."
The exiled Guardians looked up at this, eyes brightening. "Do you think that would work?" one said.
Silvan thought, "Bram, could you teach them?"
"I can try," he replied, sounding cheerful.
"He says he'll try," she said.
Everyone stared into space for a moment, the look a Guardian wore when communicating with their ghost. Then everyone smiled or nodded. Their ghosts began communicating with each other through their Light network. Bramble gave them copies of his files, and launched into a lecture on the technical details of a walker's systems.
"Your ghost is smart," Claney said quietly. "I've never heard of one being able to do this."
Silvan glowed a little with pride. "I love him so much. Do you love your ghost?"
Claney slowly smiled, a little sheepishly. "Yeah."
Silvan sighed. "Dad's ghost doesn't like him. Bramble thinks it's because Dad was exiled."
Claney nodded and didn't answer.
Silvan found that she didn't want to talk about Ivaran and his ghost right now. It was too easy to picture him lying dead, his ghost trying to revive him, and being murdered by a Fallen with a knife. It made her insides twist. He'd always planned to send her to the City alone, but neither of them had expected it to happen this way.
Instead, she watched a spider walker crawl out of the trees to the left. It was several hundred yards away, its bronze-colored armor reflecting a dull orange in the slanting light. Fallen dregs and Vandals walked behind it, carrying weapons and gazing around. Silvan dropped to her belly in the brush. Claney did the same.
"There's one problem with your ghost's plan," Claney said in a low voice.
"What?" Silvan whispered.
"How long has it been since he resurrected you?"
"Almost three months."
Claney winced. "Yeah, that's a problem."
He tapped his temple. "His link with you isn't strong yet. If he's busy running a walker, and you go down, he may not notice."
Silvan blinked her silver eyes at him, then studied the distant walker with new attention. "You think he'd go off and leave me?"
"Yes, I do. And if the rest of us are defending our ghost-walkers, we may not notice you were down until we'd left you miles behind."
Silvan bit her lip. She watched the walker and the Fallen around it, her back itching with the memory of being shot by an arc bolt. Then her gaze shifted to the distant city beneath the Traveler, and the gap torn in its wall.
"We have to try," she whispered. "I can be resurrected, even if I do get left behind." Even saying the words brought a lump into her throat and set her limbs quivering. Being left alone - abandoned - was the one thing she couldn't face. And she was going to have to face it.
"You have your Light," Claney muttered. "What discipline have you taken?"
"I don't know," she whispered back. "Dad thinks I might be a warlock, but I can't do anything with Light except make my gun."
Claney gave her a horrified stare.
Silvan felt the urge to cry again. "I was supposed to learn from the Vanguard."
Claney patted her shoulder. "We'll get there, kiddo. Don't worry about that." But his jaw was clenched as he gazed out at the battlefield.
In Silvan's head, Bramble said, "All right, everybody's as educated as I can make them. Ready to hijack some hardware?"
Silvan swallowed. "I hope so."
"Hey." Bramble's voice turned gentle. "It's all right. I won't let anything happen to either of us. Once I've captured a walker, nothing will ever get close to you."
"Claney says that our bond isn't strong yet, and if I get killed, you won't notice."
Bramble didn't answer for a long moment. When he finally spoke, his voice was thin with dismay. "Well, I ... I wouldn't ... Silvan, I ... Just stay close, all right? Something goes wrong, yell at me until I do notice. Don't let me ... Traveler's Light, I'd never forgive myself."
Silvan wished she could stroke his broken shell. "I'll stay close," she thought. "Let's hijack some hardware."
Like a pack of hunting wolves, the Guardians crept out of hiding and stalked the walker and its escort from behind.
The aliens didn't expect an ambush, particularly one that didn't target the walker. They went down fighting and confused. As the walker halted and swiveled its gun toward the Guardians, Bramble phased into its core. The walker froze in place and didn't move for several minutes. The Guardians used it as cover as more aliens fired at them. Just as the aliens began to surround them, the walker woke up. It swept a targeting laser around at their attackers, then launched a volley of arc missiles. Each missile found its target. The guardians cheered.
"This walker is mine," Bramble proclaimed. "Let's get one for each of you!"
The team moved deeper into the battlefield, trying to skirt the densest gatherings of aliens, making for the next closest walker as fast as they could.
Silvan kept close to Claney, who kept a sharp eye out for her. She carried her arc rifle and used it well. But she was conscious of a silent spot in her mind where Bramble had been. He had completely withdrawn from her to pour himself into the walker. Claney was right - if she went down, her ghost would never know.
The moment the wall caved in, Lysander's ghost transmatted him into the Tower.
The transmat network had been locked down with battle encryption, and it had taken Lysander's ghost all day to crack it. But now he was in the Tower, and his plan was working.
Lysander wore the gear of a hunter whose body he had found on the battlefield and stripped. Under the helmet, he was anonymous. Nobody gave him a second look as he strode across the Tower courtyard. He was one more Guardian on his way to report to the Vanguard.
Nobody knew the hatred that burned inside him, except maybe his ghost. The one who spoke for the Traveler - ha! The man was a charlatan. Only Lysander had true visions of the Light. Only Lysander was fit to head the Consensus. Once he had destroyed the Speaker and his ghost, then the tide of battle would mysteriously turn, and the Vanguard would crush their foes. Already, the Eliksni were anxious about the House of Wolves, who were late and had sent no messages. Perhaps routing them wouldn't be as difficult as he had thought.
Lysander halted outside the command room and consulted his ghost. "Where is he?"
His ghost checked the tags of everyone in the room. "The Speaker is not present. I'm detecting him ... yes, in his study with the Vitalis."
"Letting his people die as he pursues his studies of a silent god," Lysander thought. Despite having triggered this war himself, despite all the blood on his hands, he focused only on the shortcomings of his enemy, and his hatred flared into irrational rage. As he strode back out into the courtyard, flickers of Solar Light danced around his hands and feet.
"Hey there, Hunter!"
Lysander turned. Andal Brask, Hunter Vanguard, was hurrying after him. Lysander snarled inside his helmet. Brask wasn't dead yet? He'd seen Brask die in visions years ago and gloried in every one. But here Brask stood, in the flesh, very much alive and still a problem. He even still had his ridiculous chin-beard.
"What news?" Brask said, falling into step beside him. "They say the wall is down."
"Yes," Lysander said through his teeth. "The Fallen crashed a ship through it. Fairly effective maneuver."
And suggested by himself. The Kells had been impressed by the scope of his imagination.
Andal Brask whistled through his teeth. "The whole Tower shook. Wish I was out there. What's happening? They say that Winter has been climbing the wall and getting inside?"
Lysander hadn't known about that. "I'm just in from the field ... sir." It galled him to use the honorific for this child of a Guardian. "I'm not up with current developments. My news is for the Speaker."
"I'll go with you," Brask said, falling into step beside him. "I'm expecting Cayde-6 any time. What's the conditions on the front? Are they holding the back line?"
Lysander didn't know a back line existed. Maybe if he told this troublesome boy what he wanted to hear, he'd go away. "Indeed. We're giving them a beating they won't soon forget."
Andal Brask punched a fist into the air. "Excellent! I told Zavala that my hunters would pull it off. We'll split their forces before nightfall."
Lysander kept his shoulder turned toward Brask and his hood up. Surely the brat would get the message and drift off. But no, Andal Brask stuck to him, matching strides. Lysander had wild thoughts of sinking a knife into his throat. But no, he was here to kill only one man today. One man, one ghost.
Having a witness would be troublesome.
Andal Brask accompanied Lysander to the observatory where the Speaker worked. The room was dominated by the Vitalis, a huge, spinning set of rings, like a gyroscope, that continuously monitored the Traveler in the near distance. Many people worked in the room at various stations, but today it was empty and quiet. The Speaker's study was on a second floor platform above the rest, its two walls lined with bookcases and shelves of instruments. The Speaker, himself, stooped over a desk with a series of holograms projected over it. As Lysander and Andal Brask climbed the steps to the study, the Speaker flicked a finger through the holograms, sending them rotating. It was a map of the City and surrounding terrain. The Speaker had covered it with lines and calculations, figuring out battle strategies. He didn't look up until Andal Brask cleared his throat.
The Speaker wore white warlock robes and a mask that entirely obscured his face. The angular design of the eye slits reminded Lysander of the Traveler, as if the man was dressed like the god, itself. At Brask's interruption, he turned sharply, as if startled.
"News from the front, sir," Andal Brask said.
The Speaker gestured impatiently. "Yes, yes, out with it. I'm very busy right now."
Lysander turned to Brask and lowered his voice. "My message is for the Speaker's ears alone."
"Oh, right," said Brask. He jumped over the balcony and landed on the floor below, just out of earshot.
"A message?" the Speaker said, peering at Lysander.
"Yes sir," Lysander replied. Now it had come to the moment he had dreamed of for years. Where to bury the blade? The neck? The stomach? Between the ribs? He had fantasized about each. Hatred burned in his blood, carrying Light to his fingertips, burning red as passion.
"Wait," the Speaker said, peering at him. "I know you."
"Do you?" Lysander said. The knife flashed into being in his hand. He drove it into the Speaker's stomach with a single powerful blow, leaving only a small scorch mark on the white robe as the blade passed through.
The Speaker staggered backward and caught himself against his desk, clutching his stomach. "Lysander," he gasped.
"Yes, it's me," Lysander said, pacing toward him, another knife already smoldering in his hand. "Here to succeed where the Faction Wars failed."
The Speaker raised a hand flickering with Solar Light, but Lysander was faster. He knocked the Speaker's arm aside and went for his throat. But the Speaker twisted away, and the knife only slashed into his shoulder.
Lysander glimpsed Andal Brask as the Hunter leaped onto the platform. Brask drew his golden gun and fired it in the same quick motion.
The burning bullet punched a hole through Lysander's back, just to the left of his spine, below his ribcage. Liquid fire spread through him. He flung himself off the platform with the idea of swinging to the floor on the Vitalis's rings, but the fiery Light ate through him and left him nothing but a pile of greasy ash on the floor.
His ghost appeared, a weary sphere of blue Light, and hovered above the remains, preparing to resurrect him.
Andal Brask trained his golden gun on it, but the Speaker raised a hand. "No. Never the ghost." He coughed and sank to the floor, where his own ghost appeared and began to heal him.
"Was he a Fallen spy?" Andal asked in shock. "Some kind of traitor?"
"That was Lysander of the Concordat," the Speaker said, his voice raspy with pain. "My old rival, exiled for his part in the Faction Wars."
Andal kept his fiery gun trained on the ghost. "Don't let him up until I say."
"Yes sir," said Lysander's ghost, sounding resigned.
Andal Brask shook his head in disbelief. "I talked to him. And he was a killer. What the hell?"
The Speaker slowly climbed to his feet, straightening his robes. "It seems there is more to this battle than we previously thought. Send for Tower security. We will escort Lysander to his old cell. He'll be comfortable there."
Andal Brask snorted.
The sun sank over the beleaguered city, and the shadows grew longer and longer until they merged into night.
Kell Craask anxiously waited for word from the House of Wolves. Kell Virixas had been silent for many hours. Surely it had not taken him so much time to ready his fleet. The Kells had been preparing their people for weeks.
"We need more fighters," Kell Solkis growled, striding up to Craask. "We breached the wall, yes. But the Guardians defend it with ferocity. Where are the Wolves?"
"I have received no word," Craask replied. "Virixas is silent. Even his lieutenant Skolas has said nothing. I fear they have broken our accord."
Solkis hissed bitterly through his teeth.
Draksis of House Winter approached, his horned helmet silhouetted against the glow of the dying sun. "The Wolves have betrayed us?"
"So it seems," Craask replied.
"Where is the Dreg Guardian?"
Craask's hands tightened on his spear. "He entered the city. I fear that he, too, has betrayed us."
The Kells snarled and hissed in outrage and fear. They had committed their forces - all their people - to this battle. Yet the Guardians had slain thousands and thousands. Precious ether hung above the battlefield, bleeding from dead Servitors and dying Eliksni. Despite their craving for the Light, the Darkness was easier to reach - and indeed, was already within their grasp.
Kell Craask thumped the butt of his spear against the ground. "My friends," he said, "the night arises, favoring our folk. Summon the Archons. Prepare the rituals. It is time to smother the Light of the Guardians. They will reach for their precious link to their Great Machine and find nothing."
"Yes," hissed Solkis. "My Devils have been waiting for this moment. We will enter their city and set it ablaze."
The Kells bowed to each other, then summoned their priests. Night was falling. The Darkness would grow until the Guardians perished in the deeps.
Cayde-6, Shiro-4, Madrid, and the other hunters had left the City walls after the breach happened. They had crept out into the ranks of the enemy, hidden under Light-powered camouflage, and formed what Andal Brask called the back line. The hunters struck at the heart of the alien forces, killing Servitors and medics, crippling support vehicles, cutting the fighters off from their supply lines.
But as night fell, the Archons appeared, carrying staves topped with bones and feathers like ancient Earth witch doctors. With them came a creeping aura of Darkness that slowed the hunters and wrecked their camouflage.
"All hunters, fall back!" Cayde-6 ordered. Shiro-4 and Madrid stuck close by him, forming a fighting triangle, protecting each other's backs. The aliens pressed in on every side, heartened by the smothering Darkness and sensing weakness in the Guardians. Cayde was forced to switch from his hand cannon to a pair of knives, fighting the aliens hand to hand.
Beside him, Shiro dropped to one knee, his right leg taking a cut that crippled the electrical components. On his other side, Madrid staggered and clutched his ribs, blood gushing between his fingers. The aliens bellowed in triumph.
Cayde reached for his own Light and found it dim and far away. He cursed under his breath and stuck a blade through a Vandal's eye. "Guys, we need to find this Archon and take him down."
"Easier said than done," Shiro groaned. "My ghost is having a hard time healing me."
"Mine, too," Madrid gasped.
Cayde stepped forward to meet the spinning spear of a captain, who towered over him, all muscle and armor. Cayde grabbed the spear and he and the captain grappled for it, snarling into each other's faces. Cayde tried to headbutt the alien, but missed, the metal horn on his forehead striking its chest plate instead.
Suddenly the alien crumpled and fell to the ground. Ether flowed from its open jaws - sick, greenish ether that glowed in the darkness. It stank of rot. Green lines of corruption spread across the alien's body, blackening the flesh and peeling it from the bones.
Cayde stared at a bone spike protruding from the side of the alien's helmet. "What the-"
Another Hunter strode up, this one swathed in tattered black that flowed around him like part of the night, itself. He carried a hand cannon jagged with bone, the muzzle glowing the same sickly green as the befouled ether. A sense of chill accompanied him, as if a slice of deepest space had opened there on the battlefield.
Cayde, Shiro, and Madrid all stared. This could only be Dredgen Yor, a serial killer of humans and Guardians alike. They knew him and his weapon by reputation, but had never seen him in person. While the Darkness aura had dampened their powers, it had no ill effects on the ex-Guardian. In fact, he appeared to thrive on it, like the Hive whose power he had embraced.
Dredgen Yor held his cursed cannon at the ready in both hands. But instead of attacking the Guardians, he merely nodded. One eye winked above a bandanna concealing his nose and mouth. "Good hunting, gentlemen." He passed them by with a slow, measured tread. He fired into the ranks of aliens, leaving the dregs and Vandals, killing only the captains. Each death fed the sickly power of his weapon.
Cayde helped his companions to their feet as their ghosts finally managed to pull off a healing. "Seems even the bad guys are standing with us tonight."
"Nobody will ever believe it," Madrid muttered.
"I'm not sure I believe it," said Shiro.
Chapter 15: Lost
The Archons advanced across the battlefield, shielded by the soldiers, gathering power as they went. The Hunter back line scattered and retreated to the walls. The Guardians on the walls felt their powers weaken as the Darkness approached. They searched for targets, but the Archons carried no lights and were nearly invisible in the night. Even infrared vision didn't help much, because the aliens clustered around the Archons, hiding them from sight.
Rem Callahan, Titan, stood on the battlements, gazing down at the enemy below, gripping his auto rifle. Nearby were the warlocks he had protected all day, among them Kari Winters. They were muttering and exclaiming in dismay as the nova bomb they were building fizzled and died in their hands.
"What's doing this?" Kari demanded.
"They've sent their Archons," Rem replied grimly, staring into the battlefield. "And the Archons brought Darkness."
"Well, shoot them," Kari huffed at him.
"I can't see them," Rem replied. "But I think I know where they are." He had spotted a tell-tale knot of dregs and vandals, all keeping close together, protecting a tall alien in their midst.
He stepped up on the parapet and summoned his Light. It came sluggishly, trickling into his being from the Traveler at his back. Lightning began to flicker around his fists.
"What are you doing?" Kari exclaimed.
Rem grinned at her through his helmet. "Pushing back the Darkness." And he jumped.
Seventy stories Rem fell, wind whistling over his armor, lightning blazing from his fists. As he neared the ground, he drew on the Light supercharge he had been holding within himself for just such an opportunity. His fists ignited blinding white. Lightning crackled over his body. His course changed, guided by his will and a shift in his position in midair. He dropped into that tell-tale knot of aliens, directly on the head of a chanting Archon.
Arc Light exploded outward from the point of impact, killing and disintegrating hundreds of aliens at once. The Archon died instantly. So did Rem.
Up on the wall, the warlocks felt the Darkness aura lift. They summoned their nova bomb and hurled it down upon their enemies.
Kari jumped up on the parapet now, her red robes swirling around her.
"Not you, too!" groaned one of her collages.
Kari gave him a cold stare. "I'm not killing myself, thank you. I'm going down to make sure Rem's ghost survives. She doesn't deserve to die just because her Guardian is the biggest idiot in the Vanguard." She leaped gracefully off the wall and floated downward in a glide peculiar to warlocks.
The alien forces were still regrouping amid the smoking craters of both a Titan and a nova bomb. The little orb of Light that was Rem's ghost had so far gone unnoticed. Kari landed beside the ghost and drew her Gravitron Lance. "Get him up, Trina. I'll cover for you."
"Thank you, Miss Winters," the ghost replied.
Kari blasted holes in a few dozen dregs who saw the lone Guardian as a juicy target. It gave the ghost a chance to resurrect the Titan, who climbed to his feet, laughing. "Did you see that? I blew them the hell up! One shot!"
"Good for you," Kari said icily. "The transmat network is locked. Run for the hole in the wall."
"Run?" Rem chortled as his ghost gave him his machine gun, Thunderlord. "More of a leisurely stroll, don't you think?"
The Titan and warlock walked to the wall, fighting every step of the way, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. They cut through ranks of aliens scrambling to climb the wall, and had a bad moment when they encountered another Archon that seemed to quench their Light entirely. Kari took a fatal blow and Rem defended her until her ghost could scrape together enough Light to resurrect her.
They arrived at the hole in the wall and had to fight their way through countless aliens all pushing and clawing to climb through. Holding them back was a gang of Guardians, mostly Titans, Lord Shaxx, and an army of Redjacks. Kari and Rem joined them. Kari assisted the single other warlock in throwing down healing rift after healing rift. The other warlock was staggering in weariness from Light overuse, and welcomed Kari's aid.
The aliens pressed forward, their Archons suffocating the Light of the Guardians. The aliens swarmed up the walls, driving spikes and hooks for handholds. Before long, the defenders at the top were heavily beset, worse than they had been all day. Guardians died and had to be protected for fifteen or twenty minutes before their ghosts could revive them. Aliens pushed through the defenders and leaped down inside the wall, storming into the City. Others ran along the wall to capture AA guns, turning them on the Guardians on the wall. Still others ran for the Tower, itself, swarming into the plaza.
Lord Saladin watched this happening as he swung a fiery hammer of his own, killing aliens and driving them shrieking from the Tower. He paused to gaze down the outer wall, which was breached and overrun. Then he gazed toward the inner wall - the City's last line of defense. The neighborhoods that lay between the two walls had been evacuated that morning. The Fallen would find no living thing to butcher. But if they crossed the inner wall, Light help the people who sheltered behind it.
With a sick wrench in his gut, Saladin gave the order: "All Guardians fall back to the inner walls!"
Down in the breach, the defenders exchanged desperate looks. Then they looked to Lord Shaxx, who had been encouraging them to stand and fight, no matter the cost.
For a moment, Shaxx stood frozen, gripping his sword and gun. Then he looked at his wearying companions. "Saladin has given the order," he boomed. "Retreat if you must, Guardians. But I and my Redjacks remain here to hold this breach as long as our Light lasts. Stand with me, if you dare."
The Guardians exchanged glances. As one, they lifted their weapons and kept fighting. None of them retreated. But that night, more than half would meet their final deaths.
Far out on the battlefield, seven captured walkers made their slow, heavy way toward the City. A Guardian attended each one, defending it from attack by confused Fallen. The walkers moved in a V formation, overlapping shields and cover fire, cutting a slow but unstoppable wedge through the alien forces.
A ghost piloted each walker, glorying in the strength of the machine and the power of the weapons. Their Guardians stayed close. Should a walker take a fatal blow, it may also prove fatal to the ghost piloting it.
At first, Claney had worried that the AA guns would fire on them, mistaking them for the enemy. But the guns had been silent for hours now, and many had smoke rising from them. The silhouettes of aliens and humans struggled atop the walls. Eventually, there were no more humans.
"Hurry," he thought to Elgan, nearby, inside a walker.
"These things aren't designed to hurry," Elgan replied. "One leg at a time, that's all I got."
Claney glanced around for Silvan. The little Guardian walked behind the lead walker, carrying her Light rifle, shooting aliens like a pro. Her ghost-crafted armor wasn't the strongest, but it had already protected her from arc bolts and slashing knives. Claney kept track of her as the night grew later and tiredness began to press at the backs of his eyes.
Without warning, the walkers crossed an open space and blundered into the back of another line of walkers. Instant chaos erupted as the walkers fired at each other. Aliens sprang at the Guardians. The ghosts activated shields in tandem, taking turns to shield and shoot. It was nearly impossible to tell what was happening - all was the clatter of gunfire, screams of aliens, explosions, flashes of shields, and muzzle fire.
Suddenly it was over. The Guardian walkers were intact, and the enemy walkers were down. The Guardians cheered and moved forward. Silvan remained with her walker, a small, upright figure, splattered with alien blood, yet not cowed. Claney felt a burst of pride. If her father survived this, he wanted to shake his hand.
The walkers kept crawling forward, the City walls inching closer. Aliens attacked them and were repelled or killed. Midnight came and went. The night grew darker. Claney's sense of the Traveler's Light began to weaken. He had the sensation of walking into a heavy fog, although nothing actually blocked his view.
"Darkness zone," he called to the others. "Stay alert."
They came upon another squadron of walkers, all protecting an Archon. This fight was even more desperate than the last. Two of the Guardian walkers fell, their ghosts abandoning them at the last second.
It wasn't until the Archon finally died under a missile volley that Claney missed Silvan. Although her walker still crawled forward, she was nowhere to be seen in the darkness. Claney's heart clenched into a cold knot. He scanned the ground around them for a body, but there was no sign of one. For a second, he was back in the Hellmouth, surrounded by the hissing and shrieks of the Hive, missing half his fireteam and watching the other half bleed and stagger. The Darkness closed around him, so thick that his ghost could barely heal him ... He shook himself with an effort. Fallen surrounded them, not Hive. This was Earth. The Darkness wasn't that thick. There was still hope.
"Bramble!" he yelled at the walker. But the ghost couldn't hear him.
"Elgan," he thought, "tell Bramble that his Guardian's missing."
After a moment, Elgan replied, "Bramble's not acknowledging my ping. I think he's too focused on the fight."
Claney stood still as the walkers moved further and further away. He shouted Silvan's name, but there was no response but stray arc bolts. How had she gotten lost? Searching for her in the dark - in a Darkness zone - was an exercise in futility, but the panicked part of him wanted to do it anyway. The part that had tried to save his team and succeeded in rescuing only Caelan-5.
Only her ghost will be able to find her, he told himself. Better protect that ghost. He ran to escort the lead walker, and kept a worried eye out for his missing charge. With the fear came bleak memories of Darkness that threatened to cripple the very Light inside him.
Silvan had followed the wrong walker.
In the confusion of the fight around the Archon, she had taken shelter behind a big rock. The walkers and fighters kept moving, leaving her behind. She dashed into the open and ran to shelter behind a walker, only to see its legs blown off by a volley from the other side.
"Bramble!" she cried. Then the walker's engine exploded.
Silvan knew no more for a long while. When she came to, much later, the entire left half of her body throbbed and ached. She slowly sat up, fumbling with her helmet. Her face shield was spiderwebbed with cracks, obscuring her vision. She pulled it off and the air touched wetness in her hair. She was bleeding.
Dazed, Silvan crawled to her feet, her knees shaking. Three walkers lay dead around her, their hulls still radiating heat. It felt good to her chilled, hurting body.
"Bramble?" she called inside her head.
No answer. That spot inside her mind that he usually occupied was still and blank. Had he died when the walker did?
She groped her way around the nearest walker in the darkness, tripping over the sprawled legs, calling and calling for her ghost. He couldn't be dead - he just couldn't. In her daze, she stumbled over a dead Vandal without realizing what it meant.
A live Dreg stepped out around the walker. All Silvan could make out was the four glowing eyes. She gasped and fumbled for her Light rifle, but it refused to spring into being, as it usually did. No comforting Arc Light filled her hands.
The Dreg observed her small size and lack of weapons. It grinned, baring needle-sharp teeth, and drew a knife. It hissed something in its own language that sounded mocking. Silvan backed away, groping at the wrecked machine for a metal bar, a scrap of armor, anything to defend herself. She could barely raise her left arm to chest height - how could she fend off an alien soldier?
Suddenly the alien coughed and staggered sideways. A black spike lodged in its throat. Glowing green lines of corrupted energy crawled across the dreg's neck and face, over its shoulder, and down its chest. It slumped to the ground and died, green, corrupted ether puffing from its jaws.
Silvan stared at this, unable to understand what had just happened. Footsteps crunched on the ground behind her. She turned.
A Guardian stood there - or, at least, a man she took for a Guardian. He was hooded and cloaked like a hunter, but his black clothes made him hard to see in the dim starlight. A cold breeze seemed to breathe off him.
"Oh, thank you!" Silvan gasped. "I can't find my ghost - I think he's dead. Where are the others?"
For a moment, the guardian simply stood there, studying her. His right hand stirred, as if thinking of lifting his weapon. His weapon glowed with green light, which wasn't a color Silvan had ever seen before.
At last the stranger relaxed a little, the green weapon sinking to his side. "Come, child. Your end is not here." He extended his free hand to her.
Silvan took it. He wore fingerless gloves, and his fingers felt rough and grimy. They closed on her hand, cold and hard, with enough strength to break every bone in her arm. But he held her gently enough and led her away from the walker, toward the distant City walls.
"Your companions have moved on," the stranger told her. "I will take you to a place where your paths will cross once more."
They walked along through the dark, hand in hand. Silvan held back tears, fighting pain and the emptiness of her missing ghost.
A squadron of aliens ran by, spotted them, whirled about and opened fire. The stranger lifted his jagged, green-lit hand cannon and shot them, one shot each. Each one collapsed and died with the green corruption crawling over it. Each death made the gun glow brighter.
As they walked on, Silvan blurted, "Are you a Guardian?"
The stranger only chuckled.
"You're fighting the Fallen," Silvan said. "Even if your Light is weird and green. You must be on our side."
"Your side?" said the stranger. "No more so than a tornado that misses the City and wreaks havoc on its attackers, instead."
Silvan tried to grasp this. "You're not a Guardian, then?"
The stranger lifted his jagged, hungry cannon, turning it this way and that. Green light flickered along its barrel like tongues of fire.
"A Guardian?" he chuckled quietly. "Once, maybe. Either way, it doesn't matter."
They walked in silence for a moment. Chills of fear rippled through Silvan and centered in her stomach, making it try to curl up inside her. He wasn't a Guardian - and he was so cold. Maybe she'd been better off with the aliens.
"Listen, child," said the stranger. "To truly grow strong, you must first unmake yourself. Only in the unmaking lies the true shape."
Silvan didn't answer. This man and his words terrified her. She wanted Bramble, she wanted her father, she wanted to be back in the tiny cabin on the hillside.
"Your Light shines bright," the stranger continued. "Reminds me of a little lad I once knew. He, too, had great power. Harness your power, child ... or allow it to harness you."
Silvan wished he would stop talking.
They ran into another clump of aliens. The stranger dropped Silvan's hand to reload his cannon, then steadied it both both hands as he aimed and fired, whirling in a circle, weaving and dodging, landing blows with a knife that appeared in his left hand. Silvan crouched low to present a smaller target. Within minutes, the aliens were down, and the stranger hadn't let a single one close to her.
He reloaded his cannon, sheathed his knife, and held out his hand again. "All lives come to an end, little one, but yours shall not end this night."
Silvan took his hand with a shudder and continued their strange journey.
Bramble didn't realize his Guardian was missing until his walker took fatal damage.
The phalanx of hijacked walkers had fought their way halfway across the battlefield. Bramble reveled in the power of the machine, of the solar cannon and arc missiles, the machine guns, the burning power core in the walker's belly. So different from his tiny ghost self. Silvan would be proud of him.
But they met another walker phalanx that had been deployed against them, and the ghosts were forced to abandon their vessels. Each one materialized outside their walker, found their Guardian, and phased into their armor.
All except Bramble. When he emerged, Silvan was nowhere on scan.
Horror and guilt struck him a heavy blow. Their neural symbiosis wasn't strong - she must have called and he hadn't heard. He located Claney and flew to him. "Where's Silvan?"
"Missing for hours," Claney replied. "Didn't Elgan tell you?"
Bramble checked his log. He had three unread messages from Elgan. The headers read, "Guardian missing. Your Guardian is missing! WAKE UP, STUPID!"
How had he missed that? Bramble flew in a circle, pulling up all his support software. He had found Silvan at long distance before, and he could do it again - even if she was dead. Light, if she was dead, he would regret it for the rest of his life.
But no - she was alive. Her Light registered on his scan. "There she is!" he cried, jumping in midair. "Two miles that way. Closer to the wall than we are."
"Good," Claney said with a breath of relief. "Stay close to me, we'll get through. First order of business - capture more walkers."
Bramble phased into Claney's armor for protection, which felt awkward, being so close to a Guardian who wasn't his. Elgan was there, territorial and irritable.
"You went off and left your Guardian?" Elgan scolded. "Good job, newbie. You're lucky if she ever wants to see you again."
Bramble already felt terrible, and this made it worse. "You think she'll hate me now?"
"Probably," Elgan replied. "If I took off and left Claney, he'd be furious. But I wouldn't do that because I'm not stupid."
Bramble didn't reply. Misery choked him. He'd tried to be heroic and it had backfired, almost costing him his Guardian. He felt through their bond, distantly, that Silvan was in pain and terrified. He would fly to her if he could, but his way was blocked by a thousand Fallen who would do their best to kill him. His shell was still damaged from their last attempt. No, he'd have to wait and so would Silvan.
"I'm here, Star-Child," he called through their bond. But the Darkness aura silenced his voice. He fumed and suffered and fretted, guilt burning in his core like acid.
As the other Guardians fought aliens and hijacked fresh walkers, Bramble logged into the Light network that all ghosts used to communicate. It was slow and fraught with errors because of the Darkness zones, but chatter still slipped through. Bramble searched for Ivaran's ghost, Sunrise.
He found her within a second. "Sunrise!" he exclaimed. "It's me, Bramble. What's happening?"
"Bramble?" came her reply. "Thank the Traveler you're alive. We're fighting in the breach to keep the Fallen out, but it's touch and go. Ivaran's died sixteen times in two hours, and we've lost three other Guardians permanently."
"I'm part of a phalanx of hijacked walkers," Bramble replied. "Here's our position. I've been separated from Silvan, but she's alive and moving toward the wall."
"What!" Sunrise was silent a moment, relaying this to Ivaran. "You'd better find her, Bramble."
"I'm trying!" he replied. Light, he didn't need her judgment right now, on top of everything else.
Sunrise huffed at him. "Newbie. Don't die. You say that phalanx of walkers is friendly? They were shelling us a minute ago."
"Not anymore," Bramble replied, watching as another ghost took control. "We've captured six of them. Pass the word not to attack them. It'll be light in a few more hours and I imagine things will heat up."
"The Vanguard is preparing a counter offensive," Sunrise replied. "You'd better be with Silvan by then, because they're going to wipe out everything on the battlefield."
"With what? Bombs?"
"I don't know, I only overheard the chatter." Sunrise fell silent, having to concentrate on supporting her Guardian.
Bramble watched as the walkers took up new positions to shield each other. But before they could set out, three new Guardians dashed up out of the darkness. Hunters, by the looks of their cloaks and gear - two Exos and an Awoken male.
"Hey Claney!" exclaimed the lead Exo, whose tag identified him as Cayde-6. "Long time no see. What'd you do to those walkers? Did you capture them? How?"
Claney explained about the ghosts learning to hack the machines. The hunters, who had looked rather haggard when they arrived, began to cheer up. By the time Claney finished, all three of them were beaming.
"You hear that, guys?" said Cayde. "Time to play heavy artillery support!" He held up hand cannons in both hands. "Ain't nobody touching my walker!" He charged off into the darkness, his companions following him. As they marched onward, the hunter's shouts of, "No touchie!" rang through the gunfire.
Bramble rode along in silence, occasionally trying to reach out to try to touch Silvan's mind. "I'm here, poor Star-Child. Can you hear me? Can you feel that I'm still alive?"
No response. Her fear and pain continued. If Bramble could have hid his face in his arms, he would have. He'd make this up to her, somehow.
The new walker phalanx drew closer and closer to the City walls, cutting down aliens as they went. The three hunters guided them toward Archons, whose deaths opened gaps in the spread of Darkness. Bramble didn't take another walker for himself. He hid with Claney, instead, too ashamed to face the other ghosts. Elgan didn't speak to him, but Bramble felt his brother ghost's disapproval.
Chapter 16: Last leg
The night seemed years long. But most of it had already passed, and a gray predawn began to glow in the east, behind the mountains.
Ivaran saw it from his position in the wall's breach, but has no time to think about it. He fought until his weapons were empty, then fought with his fists until Sunrise could synthesize more ammunition from scavenged weapons.
Of the thirteen Guardians who had stood with Lord Shaxx, only six remained. As weariness grew on them, they and their ghosts began to make mistakes - costly mistakes. One Titan brought out his ghost to hunt for more ammo, only for both of them to die to knives thrown by a Vandal. Another Titan died amid a swarm of dregs, and when his ghost emerged, she was picked off by a shank before anyone could react. The Redjacks had all been destroyed.
Ivaran teamed up with a newcomer Titan, a fellow striker called Rem, guarding each other's flanks, raising Light barricades to protect their ghosts during resurrections. Lord Shaxx fought alongside them, along with one of the Sunbreakers, Liu Feng. The two warlocks stayed behind them, casting healing rift after healing rift, and occasionally pitching a nova bomb into the hordes of attackers.
When Sunrise told him she had heard from Bramble, Ivaran was almost too busy to notice. Only when the Vandals he had been fighting were dead at his feet did his brain register what his ghost had said. "Silvan's alive?"
"Yes, but she was separated from her ghost, somehow."
Ivaran reloaded his pulse rifle, moving mechanically, long having since ceased to think about the motions. Silvan was separated from her ghost. How had that happened? Where was she? Surely not in the middle of this gruesome, bloody battle. She'd be scarred for life. He could barely spare the attention to worry about her, because a fresh swarm of aliens clawed their way into the breach, firing as they came, supported by more flying shanks than he could count.
"Traveler help us," he whispered.
Liu Feng sprang forward and smashed her flaming hammer into a captain's shield, destroying it. Shaxx finished the captain off with a blow from an armored fist - and that was all Ivaran had time to see. Then he was fighting for his life, as he had all night, taking bullet wounds and knife slashes, his ghost healing and healing, supported by the warlock rifts underfoot.
Above the battle, daylight spread through the sky as the sun rose, illuminating the ruins of war machines, piles of dead bodies, Fallen and Guardians alike. The aliens pressed forward, sensing that victory was near. The defenders were tiring or retreating. Only a tiny group of Guardians held the wall breach, and they couldn't hold out much longer.
The only thing the aliens worried about was a group of Guardians on the battlefield who could somehow capture walkers. But they were few and far from the breach. And their walkers could be destroyed. Eventually, the aliens would exterminate their Guardians, too. The City would fall, and the Traveler would belong to the Eliksni once more.
But the Vanguard had one final move to make.
Saladin, Zavala, Saint-14, Ikora Rey, and Andal Brask had put their heads together with the heads of the city's weapon manufacturers. In one night, they came up with a risky, dangerous plan that might cost them the war - or win a victory so decisive, the Fallen would never again attack the City.
As the defenders held the breach in the wall, they all suddenly received the same transmission: Commander Zavala's voice saying, "Hold your positions, Guardians. Prepare for counter attack on my mark."
Before the defenders could do more than exclaim, "What?" the offensive sprang into action.
The transmat network was unlocked. Instantly it was filled to capacity as thousands of tanks were dropped onto the battlefield at the foot of the wall. Each tank was flanked by squadrons of Redjacks, all carrying machine guns or rocket launchers. Several in each group had been jury-rigged with tall metal poles like lightning rods. Behind them came every Guardian with strength enough to fight.
The tanks charged forward into the ranks of aliens, firing and crushing aliens beneath their treads. The Redjacks and Guardians followed behind, cleaning up anything the tanks missed. The lightning rod Redjacks began to flicker with power, lightning jumping between them, powered by warlocks who walked behind, pouring Arc Light into them. The further they walked, the more power they gained, until an entire web of lightning followed behind the tanks, killing any aliens who escaped the tanks and foremost Redjacks.
The Kells saw this and realized the battle was over. Without the House of Wolves to replenish their numbers, they could not face the might and sheer insanity of the humans. They ordered their forces to retreat.
The battle became a rout, with aliens fleeing before the savage sweep of heavy weapons and devastating Light.
The counter offensive met the phalanx of captured walkers. The Guardians with them signaled to their comrades not to shoot. The spider tanks turned about and joined the offensive line, the hunters, in particular, whooping like cowboys.
Within two hours, the entire battlefield had been swept clean of living Eliksni. The surviving aliens fled in their ketches and skiffs. Silence descended upon the battlefield for the first time since the invasion of Twilight Gap had begun.
Ivaran was so tired, he sat down on a lump of concrete and zoned out. Perhaps he fell asleep. He awakened to Lord Shaxx shaking him. "Transport's here, Guardian," he said. "Last leg."
Ivaran had no idea where the transport carried him and didn't much care. He dozed during the journey, accepted a sandwich, and disembarked in a wide, echoing place filled with beds and medical equipment for treating the wounded. A lot of the beds were occupied. He scanned them for any sign of Silvan, but didn't protest when a warlock led him to an empty bed. He barely had the wits to remove his helmet before collapsing and falling asleep.
Silvan reached the foot of the wall with the strange, dark not-Guardian. He left her there without a word. She hid in an angle of the wall's supports, weary, hurting, and alone. She watched as the sun came up and the counter offensive was launched. She sat there, arms curled around her knees, and hid her face to avoid seeing any more killing.
Silvan was wrung out, hungry, exhausted, and tormented by grief. But she was too tired to shed any tears. All she could do was sit there, favoring her broken ribs and bruised arm, her cut head, and wait for something to happen.
The sun climbed higher, warming her chilled body, easing some of her pain. The roar of battle subsided. The aliens were running away, it looked like. Silvan slowly began to feel safer. She curled up in the angle of the wall's buttress and went to sleep in the warm sun.
That was where Bramble found her.
The ghost came flying over the battlefield, alone, homing in on his young Chosen like a bird returning to its nest. He hunted her in anguished silence, sensing her by her Light, but unable to see where she was hiding.
When he came upon her at the foot of the wall, injured and breathing so shallowly, his heart broke all over again. "Oh," he whispered, taking in her wounds. "Oh, Star-Child." He opened his broken shell and poured Light into her, healing her, mending the damaged bones, the abrasions and bruises. "I'm so sorry," he whispered over and over. "I let this happen. This is my fault."
Once she was healed, he dropped to the ground beside her face and pressed his eye against her cheek. "Silvan," he called softly. "Please forgive your Bramble."
She opened her silver eyes and blinked at him. Then she made a glad cry, half-sobbing, and clutched him close. "Bramble! You're alive! I thought you died when the walker blew up!" She sat up and cuddled him, laughing and hugging him over and over.
When she calmed down a little and was simply holding him, gazing into his blue eye, Bramble said, "I'm so sorry, Silvan. I left you and never realized. I'm a terrible - terrible excuse for a ghost. And you were hurt and I should have known and I didn't. It's inexcusable."
"I thought you were dead," she repeated. "I thought I was alone forever. And then this weird guy rescued me and brought me here, and he was so creepy. I don't know where he went."
"Creepy guy?" Bramble shook himself free of her hands and flew upward a few feet, gazing around. "Did he carry a gun that glowed green when he killed things?"
"Yes," Silvan said. "How'd you know?"
Bramble hung in the air beside her, motionless, staring at nothing. He hung there for so long that Silvan touched him. "Bram? Are you all right?"
The ghost shuddered. He turned his eye on her with a haunted expression. "Why didn't he kill you?"
"He only killed Fallen," Silvan replied. "He said my end was not yet, and that I reminded him of someone else."
"Dear Traveler," Bramble whispered. He flew around Silvan, peering about in all directions. "They said Dredgen Yor was on the field, but I had no idea he'd find you. He's a Guardian killer, Silvan. His gun eats Light. He could have - you could have -" He spun around and made a thin screaming sound. Then he flew to Silvan again and hid his eye against her chest plate. She wrapped her arms around him protectively. His reaction to the dark Guardian was more distressing to her than Yor had been. She stroked his broken shell.
"He didn't hurt me, Bram. He saved me three or four times. Look, let's not talk about it right now. Can I go into the City? I'm so hungry, and I want to find Dad. And Claney. Is Claney okay?"
Bramble floated back into the air, struggling to regain his composure. "Yes-yes, the transmat network is open. I can help you now. I've been such a bad ghost, but not anymore. Hold on."
Silvan felt her herself lifted and warped through space in a dizzying transmat. The world faded to white for a second. Then her feet touched solid floor and the world returned.
Bramble had transmatted her straight to the Tower plaza. Silvan staggered a step and regained her balance, then stood gazing around at the green lawns, the ornamental trees, the shops and doorways and staircases leading up and down. Guardians moved about in a slow, weary way, talking in subdued voices. Nobody gave Silvan a glance.
Bramble appeared beside her, blinking around. "They have a new ghost orientation file. Let me read it real quick." He floated there, his eye flicking back and forth. Silvan began to feel lightheaded. The courtyard was so big and strange, and she was so hungry and thirsty and tired ...
Bramble touched her with a healing beam that cleared away the dizziness. "Don't faint, Star Child. Take the staircase on your right. It leads to the cafeteria. They have a battle buffet going to support the fighters."
Silvan drifted down the stairs and followed Bramble's directions, not really aware of her surroundings - until the aroma of spices and food hit her nose. Then suddenly she was painfully alert, her stomach snarling inside her.
The cafeteria was a big room full of tables and chairs, with a buffet along one end. Silvan approached the nearest counter to pick up a tray. Another ghost floated there, supervising. "Account, please?" he said.
Bramble flew forward and spoke to the ghost in a low voice. The other ghost spun his shell and rolled his eye. "Fine. New Guardian credit it is."
Bramble returned to Silvan. "There. Your first few meals are free, since you're not even registered yet."
Silvan was relieved. She had no glimmer, and being turned away when she hadn't eaten in two days would have been torture. She hit the buffet and heaped her plate with sandwiches, pie, and fruit. Then she sat at a small table nearby and set to work on it.
As she ate, she kept an eye on the other tables, hoping to see Ivaran or Claney. Other Guardians filtered in and out, mostly grabbing sandwiches and eating as they walked. One warlock had fallen asleep at a table with her head pillowed on her arms. A group of hunters sat at another table, eating and staring at tablets, too tired to talk. Ghosts floated beside their Guardians, or rode along in hoods or backpacks. Many of them were dirty and scratched, their pretty shells blackened from fire or gunpowder.
The food revived Silvan wonderfully, but now she began to notice how tired she was. Her body felt energetic enough, but her head felt strange, almost as if her brain had been pressed out of shape. Her eyes felt shrunken. No matter how much she blinked, she couldn't seem to clear away the haze that clouded them.
"I can't heal exhaustion," Bramble said, watching her eat with paternal attention. "I'll find somewhere for you to rest, don't worry."
"Can you find Dad?" Silvan asked.
Bramble blinked around the room, scanning. After a moment, he said, "Ah. I found his ghost. Sunrise says they're in a medical ward down in the City. He's being treated for Light burn."
Silvan straightened. "What's Light burn?"
"It's when you've used so much Light that it starts killing you. I guess all the Guardians have it from fighting so hard. Mostly they just sleep for a few days and drink lots of fluids."
Silvan glanced at the sleeping warlock. "I hope I can sleep for a few days. Do you think Claney has a place to live around here?"
"Probably. Let me find him." Bramble worked for a moment. "He's on his way back from the battlefield. His ghosts says he'll meet us here."
"Oh good." Silvan pushed her tray aside and rested her head and arms on the table. If an adult could sleep at a table without getting in trouble, she could, too.
It seemed only a few seconds later that someone touched her shoulder. "Hey, kiddo."
Silvan opened her eyes. Claney stood there in mud-splattered armor, a tray of food in his other hand. As she looked up, he smiled, pulled out a chair, and sat down. "Glad you made it."
Silvan sat up wearily. Her body cried out for more rest, and her back ached from sleeping while sitting up. "Dad's got Light burn. I don't know where to go."
"You'll go home with me," Claney assured her. "I have a couch where you can crash. I promised Ivaran I'd look after you."
Silvan rested her head on one hand and closed her eyes, dozing. Nearby, Bramble related how she'd been rescued by Dredgen Yor. Claney listened and said nothing, but when Silvan opened one eye, she saw him listening with a slightly sick expression. When Bramble finished, Claney turned to Elgan, who floated at his shoulder. "Notify Malphur and let him know."
"On it," Elgan replied.
"He's here?" Bramble exclaimed.
Claney nodded. "Seems everyone is."
Silvan didn't know who they were talking about and was too tired to ask. When Claney finished his meal, she took his hand and let him lead her out of the cafeteria, up and down stairs, and down long, echoing hallways. Finally, they arrived at a small apartment. Silvan saw nothing but the sofa, where she lay down and curled up on her side. Her last sensation was of Claney draping a blanket over her.
Chapter 17: Trial
Ivaran awoke two days later with a shock of anxiety. Silvan. Where was Silvan?
He sat up and instantly regretted it. An IV was hooked into his left arm, dripping fluids into his veins, and his movement dragged at the needle painfully. Sitting up sent a flash of pain through his head. He wore no shirt, although the medical staff had left him his trousers. His borrowed Vanguard armor was stacked beside his bed.
Sunrise appeared beside him, blinking and spinning her red shell in a slow, sleepy way. "Careful there, blue boy. You've been asleep for twenty-two hours."
Ivaran touched his bare chest. Light swirled beneath his skin, especially in the vicinity of his heart. His bed sat out in the open among a hundred others, and for a second, he was horribly embarrassed. Then he realized that every other bed was occupied by a sleeping Guardian, most hooked to IVs. The men had lost their shirts, and the women wore only their underclothes. Ghosts floated above each one, keeping watch.
"What's wrong with everyone?" he murmured.
"Light Burn," Sunrise replied. "And profound exhaustion. I wasn't doing too hot, myself, but I wasn't as bad as those guys." She nodded across the room. Against the wall stood several clear plastic bassinets, usually used for infants. Ghosts lay inside these, each one hooked to a stack of machines and monitors. All of them had an eye swirling with blank white.
"They think they'll pull through," Sunrise said. She flew up and bumped herself into her Guardian's cheek. "I'm glad you're awake. Bramble has been giving me updates."
"Bramble? Where's Silvan?"
"Claney's watching her, but he had to work today and Silvan's been wandering the Tower by herself. She and Bramble are currently in the hanger, watching the ships land and take off."
Ivaran gazed around until he spotted a nurse. He flagged him down. "Can I get this needle out? I need to go."
"Sure," said the nurse. He removed the needle insert, and Sunrise healed the wound instead of needing a bandage. Then, as Ivaran pulled on his shirt and shoes, the nurse asked him questions off a list - do you feel pain? Can you move your limbs? Can you summon your Light?
Ivaran could do all these things. The nurse had him sign off on a form. "Some of you Guardians are still half-dead. Then you just pop up and go rushing off to work again. Amazing people. Thanks for your service out there."
"You're welcome," Ivaran said with a stab of discomfort. He was still an exile, wasn't he? What would happen to him now? Would they drive him out? Make him stand trial? Or could he re-enroll in the Vanguard?
For the time being, he was still a nameless Titan, and he had a powerful need to see his daughter. So he pulled on his armor, a little haphazardly, and set out for the Tower.
The medical ward was far from the wall, near the Core District. Apparently, the remedy to Light Burn was more Light, because they had taken the injured Guardians to recover beneath the Traveler. Ivaran certainly felt rested. As he caught a monorail back to the Tower District, he ran through the battle's events in his mind. He'd have to give a report. His memory was clear until the standoff in the breach. He had died so many times there, his memory was a bit patchy. The things he did remember were so grim that he intentionally focused on his surroundings.
The other monorail passengers seemed like normal people, but all of them were sneaking glances at him. He supposed it was because he was a Guardian - one of the heroes who had just saved the Last City and all their lives. He put his helmet on to hide the purplish blush creeping into his cheeks. Thirty years of solitude in the hills and woods had not prepared him to socialize with the general public.
He disembarked from the monorail at the Tower North station, then rode a lift up into the plaza. The usually bustling square was empty of all save two hunters, who sat on the steps in the shade, filling out reports on their tablets with drinks beside them.
"What's the news?" Ivaran thought to his ghost as he headed for the hanger.
"All able-bodied Guardians are clearing the battlefield," Sunrise reported. "Alien bodies are being burned to prevent the spread of disease. Slain Guardians are being recovered and sent to the morgue for a proper funeral. All salvaged hardware is the property of the Vanguard, to be sold to the City weapons foundries to raise money for repairs."
"How many Guardians were lost?"
Sunrise didn't answer for a moment, but he sensed her dismay. "You probably don't want to know the answer to that."
Slowly, the ghost replied, "Nearly half."
"Nearly half?" Ivaran exclaimed. "Of all the Guardians?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
Ivaran stopped outside the hanger entrance and had to stand there a moment, trying to grasp this and think it through. Half the Vanguard Guardians were gone. Surely they'd want him back now. And Silvan! Had anyone had time to realize the implications of a Guardian resurrected so young? Had they even noticed her?
Accompanying this came a wave of guilt. He should have protected nearby Guardians more - he should have tried to save his gun navigator - he shouldn't have let his companions die in the breach - should have - should have -
As he stood there, teeth clenched, staring at the hanger door, it opened and Silvan walked through, accompanied by her ghost. Ivaran still had his helmet on, and in the Vanguard-issue armor, he looked like any other Titan.
However, Silvan halted and studied him. Her silver eyes were bright as ever, her red hair clean and neatly brushed, the glowing freckles sparkling on her cheeks. She wore ghost-created clothes that looked like they'd once been an adult-sized tracksuit. "Hi," she said cautiously.
Ivaran pulled off his helmet and grinned. "Hey." He knelt and she flung herself into his arms.
"Dad!" Silvan cried. "I knew it was you from the way you stand. I'm so glad you're here! They said you were hurt!"
"Just tired out," Ivaran replied, kissing her cheek. "What about you?" He studied her face. "You were lost on the battlefield with no ghost! Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Dad," Silvan said, beaming at him. "I got rescued and Bramble found me and it was fine."
"Let's sit down and you can tell me about it," Ivaran said.
They returned to the plaza and sat on a bench in the shade of an ornamental tree. Ivaran told her about defending the wall. Silvan told him about capturing walkers and getting lost in the dark. Ivaran gave Bramble a harsh look.
"I'm sorry, okay?" said the ghost miserably. "I'll never leave her again."
"Darn right you won't," Ivaran replied.
When Silvan described Dredgen Yor, Ivaran felt physically ill. She had held the hand of a Guardian killer, and he had tried to convey his twisted philosophy to her. That was worse than outright murdering her. Who knows what fruit that would bring about down the line? Hopefully, she wouldn't remember, anyway. She already couldn't relate what he said with any clarity.
Still, it was such a comfort to sit there, in the peace and security of the Tower, his daughter at his side at last. He hadn't truly relaxed since her ship had been shot down. She was here, safe, and he could rest.
"Dad," Silvan asked, "are we going to live here, now?"
"I don't know," he replied. "They may not allow me to stay, and you haven't been registered yet. I wonder if those offices are running?" He summoned his ghost. "Sun?"
She blinked up at him from her red and silver shell. "All administrative offices are closed, Ivaran. This is because the Consensus is in session. They are trying Lysander for treason."
Ivaran stood up. "Man. I don't want to miss this. Come on, Silvan."
The Consensus met in a special room further down inside the Tower. It was like a giant courtroom. On one side were the raised seats for the Speaker, the heads of Dead Orbit, New Monarchy, and Future War Cult, and the Vanguard leaders, Zavala, Ikora Rey, and Andal Brask. On the other side of the room sat the City leaders: district governors, senators, regional heads, and managers.
But the Speaker's chair was empty. Instead of his usual place, the Speaker sat in a lower spot, down at the table usually occupied by whoever was on trial. A lawyer sat beside him. Opposite him sat Lysander, handcuffed, attended by another lawyer.
Ivaran and Silvan entered the observation deck, a secondary room glassed off from the Consensus chambers, where the general public could view the proceedings without disrupting anything. This was a large room with rows of chairs, mostly empty at the moment. A single Hunter sat there, slouched in a chair with his cloak wrapped around him. He looked up as they entered - an Exo with a blue face and eyes.
"Hello, Cayde," said Ivaran, as he and Silvan sat in the row behind him.
Cayde peered at him, eyes narrowed. "Nerisis? Haven't seen you in a month of Sundays. I thought they kicked you out?"
"They did. Brought my daughter here for training, got caught up in the battle."
Cayde gave a single laugh, twisted around, and extended a hand over the back of his chair. Ivaran shook it.
"Good to see you again, anyway," Cayde said. "If you ask me, they might rescind that exile order. You're not still following that dude, are you?" He indicated Lysander with a jerk of his head.
"Not anymore," Ivaran said, gazing through the window at the man he had once served. "He only got crazier out in exile. I watched him sell the City to the Fallen, all for a petty revenge plot."
"You must not have heard," Cayde said. "Right when they wrecked the wall, Lysander got in here. Went after the Speaker, messed him up pretty bad. Andal Brask had to golden gun Lysander. So now it's a trial. Big stink. People are mad."
Ivaran whistled through his teeth. "Had no idea."
Silvan gazed at Cayde with interest. She had never seen an Exo up close before. He looked like a robot, but he moved and spoke like a human being. She wanted him to keep talking so she could watch him some more. She held out a hand. "I'm Silvan."
He shook her hand, too. "Charmed. Cayde-6. You a Guardian?" He nodded at the ghost floating at her shoulder.
Silvan grinned. "I sure am."
"Good." But Cayde tilted his head to one side and gave Ivaran a curious look. "How?"
"Daughter from my past life," Ivaran said. "Ghost resurrected her."
"Huh," Cayde said. "What're the odds of that? It'll be nice to have you around, Silvan. We lost a lot of Guardians yesterday. Lot of good hunters. You a hunter?"
"Warlock, I think," Silvan replied.
Cayde shook his head. "Eh, still. Guardian's a Guardian." He gestured at the Consensus chamber. "They're still doing introductions. City people didn't remember Lysander, he was before their time, some of them. They're having to go back through the Faction Wars stuff."
They fell silent and listened to the voices piped in through speakers in the corners of the room. Ikora Rey was relating Lysander's past actions and reason for exile in clear, measured tones.
Silvan listened for a while, but was more interested in watching the people in the Consensus chamber. They took notes, or whispered together. Many looked angry. Down in the witness box sat the five exiled Guardians who had helped her and Claney. Apparently, they were being called to testify against Lysander. Lysander sat at his table, expressionless, but his fingers toyed with his handcuff's chain. He never took his eyes off the Speaker's masked face.
As Ikora went on and on, the door to the observation deck opened. Claney Beamard came in, dressed in casual clothes that couldn't conceal his broad Titan build, his ghost at his shoulder. Behind him came another Exo, Caelan-5.
Silvan jumped to her feet, grinning. "Claney!"
"Hey, kiddo." Claney and Carlan-5 sat in the row behind Ivaran and Silvan. They all shook hands.
"Thanks for looking after Silvan," Ivaran told Claney. "I'm indebted to you for life, I think."
"Above and beyond," Claney said with a grin. "Service charge of a Titan."
"Glad you all made it," Caelan-5 said. "I got dispatched to the south wall when the Fallen invaded down there. Nasty fighting. Got to try out my bomber drones, though."
"Did they work?" asked Silvan, mostly just to keep him talking so his mouth would light up.
"Like a charm," Caelan replied. "Accurate within inches. They helped when the vandals would get up on roofs to snipe at us."
"Shh," said Claney. "I want to listen."
The other five Guardians were called, one by one, to offer testimony against Lysander. They detailed his negotiating with the Fallen, and then abandoning his own men when it suited him. The rest of his loyalists had fallen on the battlefield, killed from behind by the Fallen they had been helping.
When they finished, Ikora Rey addressed Lysander directly. "You are accused of attempted murder of the Speaker, the waging of an unjust war against innocents, and breaking of your exile order. What is your defense?"
Lysander turned and murmured to his lawyer. His lawyer stood and guided Lysander to stand beside him. Lysander threw back his head and faced the Consensus.
"People and Guardians of the City," Lysander said, "you speak of justice and injustice. But is it unjust to desire that all people share in the blessings of the Light? We are Guardians. We are Chosen. It is our sacred duty to teach the rest of humanity about the Light. That was the mission of the Concordat."
Ikora's nostrils flared. She glanced at Zavala, who shook his head slightly. She seemed to swallow whatever heated words were rising to the surface. Across from her, the human City leaders eyed Lysander with distrust.
"And yet," Lysander went on, "despite my own visions bestowed by the Traveler, itself, I and my people are treated with contempt. We are outcasts from the very Light we serve. How is this just?"
Zavala said, "You caused a civil war, Lysander. Many of our citizens lost their lives in a senseless political argument. We cannot afford to lose a single human life, yet you cost us hundreds."
"Hundreds of deceived souls," Lysander agreed. "I regret their deaths, as well." But his eyes strayed to the Speaker, sitting in silence at the other table.
Ikora said, "Then why did you ambush the Speaker in his study and attempt to kill him?"
Lysander's lawyer muttered to him, and Lysander remained silent. His lawyer said for him, "Honorable ladies and gentlemen of the Consensus, my client will not answer these allegations at this time." They sat down.
Ikora inclined her head and turned to the Speaker. "Will you relate what happened, please?"
The Speaker's lawyer nodded as the Speaker rose to his feet. His white robe still had a bloodstain across the front, where he'd been stabbed in the stomach. His shoulder was still slashed and red, as well.
"Honorable Consensus," he said, bowing first to the Vanguard side, then the City side. "It was just after the Fallen had breached the outer wall. I was working through battle strategies, when Lysander and Andal Brask entered the Vitalis room."
The Guardians in the observation room listened intently as the Speaker related the details of the attack. Silvan watched people's body language. Lysander didn't move at all - he might have been carved out of marble. Zavala sat with his fingertips pressed together, as if he knew this information already and was merely waiting for a reaction. Ikora never took her eyes off Lysander, as if waiting for something. Andal Brask fingered his beard, combing it through his fingers and also watching Lysander. His other hand rested on the hilt of a knife at his hip.
The City side of the Consensus reacted with shock and anger, whispering, gesturing, frowning, taking furious notes.
When the Speaker described Lysander's attack, all Silvan could think of was that night on the lake shore, around the bonfire, when Lysander had outlined his plans. Had he foreseen being caught and standing trial? He was awfully calm about the whole thing. As she watched him, a creepy, superstitious shiver crawled through her. What if Lysander really did hear from the Traveler? And what if, no matter what they did to him, he'd still win?
The Speaker finished his account and sat down. There was a moment's silence as people finished their notes and looked up, awaiting a rebuttal. Lysander's lawyer spoke to him and Lysander shook his head.
"The accused has heard the allegations," Ikora said. "What is your defense?"
Lysander stood up once more. "Honorable Consensus. What transpired was given to me by the Traveler in a vision. But last night, while being revived in my cell, I had another vision. Death in the sky. The Traveler captured. The City will burn. And this man," he said, pointing at the Speaker, "will suffer unspeakable torture and die in agony. I have no further need of action. I plead guilty to all charges."
The room broke into an uproar.
In the observation room, everyone drew a stunned breath. Cayde slapped his thigh. "That beats all."
"Does he really have visions?" Claney asked Ivaran.
Ivaran gazed at the courtroom, pulling his lower lip, troubled. "I believe he does. He fasts for months to trigger them. I never thought he'd plead guilty, though."
"Look at him," Silvan said, pointing. "Lysander is smiling. Why is he smiling?"
"Because it's all part of his plan," Cayde said. "The smug bas - I mean idiot. I hope they dump him into Saturn."
"Will they kill him?" Silvan asked. Hard to think that that smiling face down there in the courtroom was responsible for the deaths of so many Guardians and humans and aliens. She couldn't seem to connect the two in her head.
"They should," Ivaran said.
Down in the courtroom, Zavala called to a recess. The Consensus broke up and filed out the doors. Several guards came to escort Lysander out.
"Well, that'll be an hour, at least," Cayde said. "They got donuts out there. Who wants donuts?"
Chapter 18: Conclusion
The level that the courtroom was on housed other administrative offices, but they also had a bustling food court. Humans and Guardians rubbed elbows, drinking different flavors of tea or the more expensive coffee, and devouring donuts by the truckload.
Ivaran, Silvan, Claney, and Caelan-5 grabbed a table, where they sat in relative silence, listening to the crowd's talk around them.
Zavala happened by, dressed in gleaming parade armor, his blue face grim. He halted beside their table and scanned their faces. "Ivaran Nerisis?"
Ivaran's heart sank. He'd been expecting something like this. He rose to his feet. "Yes sir?"
"I need to speak to you. Alone."
Silvan jumped to her feet. "You're not taking Dad to jail, are you? He hasn't done anything wrong!"
Zavala looked down at her and his expression softened somewhat. "Your father will not be harmed, little one. This relates to the trial. I will speak to you later."
Silvan gulped and sat back down.
Ivaran walked with the commander, out of the food court and back to the courtroom. It seemed strange to have to defer to the other Awoken. The last time Ivaran had seen Zavala, he had merely been another Titan being trained under Saladin. Ivaran had run training exercises with Zavala, fought alongside him at Six Fronts, and swung a hammer beside him for hours as they built the City. And now, because of Lysander, Zavala and Ivaran were estranged. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
Zavala said nothing until they entered one of the courtroom's side chambers, where a table and a few chairs were folded against the walls. Both Titans opted to stand.
"Ivaran Nerisis," Zavala said, facing him and lifting his chin. "Its been a long time. Like Lysander, you too have broken an exile order. However, you brought us valuable intelligence and fought for the City, shedding blood in her defense."
Zavala drew a deep breath. "Would you be willing to testify in this Lysander case?"
Ivaran shifted his weight uneasily. "The rest of the exiles could testify just as easily. We all knew his plan."
Zavala studied him, his blue eyes glowing in his stern face. "But you resisted on account of your daughter."
Zavala studied him a moment, then shook his head a little. "I thought you'd changed, Nerisis. I couldn't believe it when you stood with Lysander at Bannerfall. And now, here you are. Do you still support him?"
Ivaran looked away from his old friend for a moment, gathering his thoughts. He met Zavala's gaze again. "I still support some of the Concordat's ideals. But Lysander ... I don't know, sir. Exile hasn't been good for him. I'll testify if I must, but he's already pleaded guilty."
"I need you to testify about why we should spare his life," Zavala said in a low voice.
Zavala raised a hand. "Hear me out. We lost over five thousand Guardians yesterday. Over five thousand. Our numbers were already down after the Great Disaster, and now this. I cannot send one more Guardian to his final death, no matter how dangerous he may be. I am the acting head of the Consensus in this matter, because the Speaker cannot judge with impartiality. Reason with the Consensus. Convince them to spare him."
Ivaran pinched the bridge of his nose. "Zavala, you're giving me the ugly job."
Zavala only gazed at him and said nothing.
Ivaran gathered his scattered thoughts and tried to put them together. "He must be punished. What should I push for? Exile?"
Zavala nodded. "Off-planet, I think. Venus or Mars, where he has a chance to survive. But he won't be able to return to Earth for a while. Perhaps survival will give him other things to think about."
Ivaran considered this. He could argue for a lesser sentence. Plea for a chance for rehabilitation for the Guardian eaten up by jealousy. Personally, he didn't think Lysander would ever change, but he saw Zavala's point of view. He, too, was sick of killing and death. Too many Guardians and Ghosts had died.
But there was another part of him that whispered that Lysander and his ghost deserved to die, crushed by a falling AA gun and buried in the foundation of the shattered wall.
"The Consensus may pass an execution sentence anyway," Ivaran warned.
Zavala nodded. "I am aware. All I'm asking is for you to try."
Ivaran hesitated and turned his mind toward his ghost. "Sunrise?"
He felt her indecision. Then, slowly, she said, "He's asking you to do a decent thing, Ivaran. Lysander is not a good man. But he is a Guardian."
Even though he didn't want to do it, Ivaran focused on Zavala. "I'll try to talk them down. But no guarantees."
"Agreed," Zavala replied.
Silvan studied her father when he returned to the table in the food court. "What did he want?"
Their companions eyed Ivaran curiously, as well.
He smiled briefly. "I'm to testify in this case of Lysander's. Just a few details, before they pass a verdict."
"Details, man, details!" exclaimed Cayde.
Ivaran shook his head and bit into a donut.
Silvan watched him and said nothing. He was steeling his nerve for some unpleasant task, she was sure. Just so long as they hadn't exiled him again - that was what she feared most.
A bell rang to signal the end of court recess. Everyone streamed back toward the courtroom, talking and carrying drinks. Ivaran split off from their little party and went into the courtroom. Silvan reluctantly followed the two Exos and other Titan back to the observation deck.
A single Awoken woman was already sitting there, her Hunters cloak pulled around her. Claney and Caelan-5 greeted her warmly, and so did Cayde-6.
"Yuna!" Silvan exclaimed. "Can I sit by you?"
"Yes, of course," Yuna replied, pushing back her hood. Her jet black hair was freshly combed and pinned back, making a stark contrast with her pale, blue-tinged skin. Her yellow eyes scrutinized Silvan as the girl sat down.
Silvan stared at her for a long moment. "When I grow up, will I be as pretty as you are?"
Claney coughed suddenly.
Yuna glared at him, then smiled at Silvan. "Very likely. We Awoken tend toward the beautiful side. It's in our blood."
"Oh good." Silvan glanced out at the courtroom, looking for her father. "Do you like my dad?"
Yuna's smile vanished. She didn't answer.
Silvan peered at her. "You used to be friends, right? Then he got exiled. But that's a good thing, or I never would have found him."
"It's more about why he was exiled," Yuna said quietly. "He did bad things for Lysander. Things I believed he'd never do."
"He doesn't like Lysander anymore."
"No?" Yuna clenched her jaw. "Then why is he out there talking to him and his lawyer?"
Silvan looked. Sure enough, Ivaran in his Vanguard Titan armor was talking to Lysander and his lawyer. Lysander's face was set in an expression of hate and a sort of savage triumph.
"Lysander doesn't like Dad," Silvan said. "Look at him. If he was a wolf, he'd bite Dad's throat."
"I wonder what's happening," Claney said from the seats in front of them. "Zavala had a private chat with Ivaran a few minutes ago. I thought he wanted Ivaran to give testimony."
Yuna clenched her fists in her lap. "We'll see if the little fanboy has changed his ways."
Silvan gave her a questioning look. "You mean Dad? Lysander tried to take me away. And Dad punched him with lightning. Bam, like that."
Yuna suddenly grinned and bent her head, as if holding back laughter.
Silvan smiled, too, not quite understanding what was so funny.
Down in the courtroom, the Vanguard commanders and Consensus leaders took their seats. Ivaran remained standing beside Lysander and his lawyer, but his stance was angled away from them, as if wishing to put every inch of distance between them that he could.
The lawyer spoke first. "Honorable Consensus. This Titan, Ivaran Nerisis, has come forward to explain more about Lysander's point of view. Before you pass sentence, please hear him out." The lawyer bowed slightly to Ivaran, indicating his turn to speak.
Ivaran bowed to the Consensus in their raised seats. "Uh, hello. I was asked to explain to you why Lysander has acted this way. And ... to tell the truth, I don't know."
Lysander and his lawyer glared at Ivaran.
Ivaran went on, ignoring them. "But what I do know is this. The Concordat was trying to accomplish a good thing. Our vision was to bridge humanity and the Traveler, and bring Light to everyone, not just Guardians. I still believe in that. I still believe that we Guardians were intended as a blessing upon our planet, and not its scourge."
The City leaders gazed at him in silence.
Ivaran drew a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. "This was Lysander's vision. But many others disagreed - not with his vision, but with his methods. That's what sparked the Faction Wars. Espionage became street fighting. Many lives were lost that I regret to this day. I followed Lysander into exile and bear my own burden of guilt. There, I watched his mind begin to turn."
The Consensus stirred and muttered, looking at Lysander. Lysander went pale, then a red flush crept into his cheeks. He clenched both fists.
"This Twilight Gap conflict is a sign of how his mind has decayed," Ivaran went on without looking at him. "I beg you, Consensus, show mercy to a Guardian who once served the Light. Grant him a shot at rehabilitation. Exile him if you must, but spare his life. No more Guardians should die."
Lysander hissed and seemed to swell with rage. His lawyer spoke to him, but Lysander ignored him. Before Ivaran could even turn around, Lysander summoned a handful of fiery knives made of Light and drove them into Ivaran's back.
Silvan screamed. The others on the observation deck yelled and groped for their weapons.
Down in the courtroom, the Vanguard leaders rose from their seats, weapons appearing in their hands. Ivaran staggered and nearly fell, but caught himself. He spun around in time to shield himself from Lysander's fire-charged fist.
Guards converged on the struggle, grabbing Lysander and zapping him with tasers. Lysander left Ivaran and brawled with the guards, throwing fire in their faces and knocking one of them flat. Then they overpowered him and wrestled him to the floor.
Another guard approached Ivaran and escorted him hastily from the courtroom. A moment later, they arrived in the observation deck, Ivaran limping and bleeding from under his armor. The guard helped him to a seat, aided by Cayde and Claney.
"Dad!" Silvan cried, climbing over seats to reach him. "He stabbed you bad!"
"I know," Ivaran gasped. He was breathing heavily, and flecks of blood spattered his lips. "Just a minute."
His ghost appeared and opened her core, bathing him in Light. Ivaran closed his eyes and took in the healing, his breathing growing easier. After a moment, he wiped his mouth and coughed to clear his airways. "Thanks," he whispered hoarsely. "I didn't expect him to jump me."
"You had the gall to call him crazy," Claney said, placing himself between the window and Ivaran. "He's not doing himself any favors. They're dragging him out and he's still fighting."
"Dad," Silvan whispered, afraid to touch him until his healing was done. "He tried to kill you."
Ivaran nodded. "He proved my point, I'm afraid."
The guard retreated from the room. "Stay here, sir," he said as he left. "They'll want to talk to you."
Ivaran nodded and simply concentrated on breathing. His ghost closed her shell and floated close beside him, her shell brushing his left ear.
"What the heck class is Lysander?" Cayde said. "He used Hunter knives and some kind of Titan punch just now."
"He used to be a warlock," Ivaran said. "But while we were in exile, he had his men teach him other Light powers. 'It's all the same source,' he would say. 'Why can't I use the Light for anything?'"
Silvan listened closely. "Anybody can learn all the powers?"
"Sure," Ivaran said. "If you're willing to spend the time. The Vanguard will train you in the discipline where your Light is the strongest, but you can take your training much further. Plenty of Guardians have been what they call multiclass." He caught her smile and pointed a finger at her. "You concentrate on one discipline at a time, young lady. I'm not having any half-warlock half-hunters running around."
"Hey," Cayde said. "I wouldn't mind a half-Hunter."
Down in the courtroom, things had settled down. Zavala smoothed things over and dismissed the Consensus for the day. They would return tomorrow for a verdict. Lysander would be taken back to his cell and placed under guard, his ghost restrained.
Claney, Caelan-5, and Cayde-6 departed, promising to check in with Ivaran and Silvan later. Soon the observation deck was empty, except for them and Yuna.
Yuna moved up to sit in the front row of seats, near Ivaran, but not too near. Ivaran watched her. "When did you get here?"
"A while ago," she replied. "What made you think you could call Lysander insane and get away with it?"
"I was asked to try to soften his sentence," Ivaran confessed. "He's pretty much given himself the death penalty, at this point."
Yuna studied him, her eyes glowing like a cat's. "Was asked, or volunteered?"
"Was asked," Ivaran replied.
A long silence followed. Silvan looked from her father, to Yuna, and back, trying to understand this tension between them. Ivaran put his arm around Silvan and patted her shoulder. "We'll take the afternoon off after this. Maybe go down to the City, do something fun. Show you how to skate at an ice rink, maybe."
"What's that?" Silvan asked, eyes widening.
Ivaran described ice skating. Yuna watched and listened in silence, but her stony expression faded. She began to merely look sad.
The courtroom below slowly emptied. Once everyone was gone, the door to the observation deck opened. In came Commander Zavala, Ikora Rey, Andal Brask, and the Speaker in his bloodied robes.
"Looks like I'm in trouble," Ivaran said, standing up hastily and saluting.
"At ease, Nerisis," Ikora said, pulling out a chair. She sat down facing him. Andal Brask did the same, but Zavala and the Speaker remained standing.
So did Ivaran. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I wanted to apologize," Zavala said in a low voice. "I underestimated Lysander. He's a madman."
"You got that right," Andal Brask said, pulling out a hunting knife, tossing it and catching it. "Should have put a bullet in his ghost a long time ago."
Zavala gave him a sharp look. "No more Guardians will die today, Brask."
"No, but tomorrow is an option," Ikora said with a faint smile. "But that's not what we're here to talk about."
The Speaker cleared his throat. "Ivaran Nerisis, I've taken a look at your file. You fought for Lysander at Bannerfall and were exiled because of it. Correct?"
Ivaran nodded. He had been dreading this conversation.
"It wasn't just the fighting," Zavala said. "You intentionally killed humans and Guardians."
Ivaran nodded again. Silvan gave him a wide-eyed look that hurt him. She'd never see him the same way after this.
Ikora said, "Your exile order was signed by Osiris. But he's been gone for many years, and leadership has changed. The Faction Wars would never happen under current laws. And this battle has changed things, too."
"What we're trying to say is," Andal Brask broke in, "we're willing to lift your order of exile."
Ivaran brightened. "Really?"
The four Vanguard leaders nodded.
"You attempted to warn me of Lysander's intent," the Speaker said. "It's my own fault he caught me off guard. We've analyzed your actions since your arrival. You've done nothing but work against Lysander. Is that correct?"
"Yes," Ivaran replied. "I had begun to doubt him years ago, but when Silvan, here, was resurrected ... I realized that I want a better life for her. I won't find that in the wilds."
"Yes, Silvan," Zavala said, turning his glowing blue eyes on her. "The youngest Guardian I've ever seen."
"Strange that a ghost would choose a child," Ikora said. "Ghost, manifest, please."
Bramble appeared beside Silvan in his broken shell, staying close beside her like a protective bird. "My name is Bramble," he told the Vanguard.
Ikora smiled. "Pleased to meet you, Bramble. Can you explain why your Chosen is so young?"
"She died young," Bramble replied. "I didn't know she was a child when I found her spark. All I knew was that she was mine. Her Light is as strong as any adult Guardian's. She just needs training."
"And Dad thinks I'm going to be a warlock," Silvan burst in. She had been admiring Ikora's robes and stately bearing. "Could you train me? Please? And do I get a robe like that?"
Ikora smiled, and Zavala and Andal chuckled.
"Hold your horses, kid," Andal Brask said. "We'll test your Light in a while. What we're worried about is whether you'll be a kid forever."
Silvan's face fell.
"Bramble," Ikora said, "have you been collecting data on your Guardian's health patterns? We need to know if she's growing."
"Yes," Bramble replied. "Let me assemble the data real quick." He vanished.
"I might be a kid forever?" Silvan said blankly. "Why wouldn't I grow up?"
"Guardians are immortal," Zavala said. "We do not age, owing to a ghost's constant healing. This may be troublesome for a child who is not yet matured."
Silvan groped for her father's hand and clutched it tight. Her glowing freckles faded and her cheeks paled. He stroked her red hair with his other hand.
Bramble reappeared and projected a hologram into the air. "Okay, here's her data. I put it into a nice graph."
The graph only had a few months of data on it, but in that time, Silvan had gained two pounds and grown a quarter of an inch. The lines on the chart trended gently upward.
"Ah," Ikora said. "So she is growing."
"Or getting fat," Bramble said with a laugh. "But she's getting fat in a vertical direction."
Silvan was too scared to laugh, even though his humor touched her reassuringly through their bond.
The Vanguard studied the chart, producing their ghosts to analyze it. At last, Zavala said, "Ivaran Nerisis, we understand your right to raise your daughter. We would prefer that she remain in the Tower, where she can be trained and educated. In light of this, and your actions in service of the City, I hereby lift your exile order." His ghost displayed an image of the order, with null and void stamped across it.
Ivaran's eyes suddenly felt uncomfortably moist. He was no longer exiled. He was being welcomed home. "Thank you," he said, his voice cracking.
Zavala overlooked this. "Now, you and your daughter go down the hall to the housing office. We ... regrettably ... have a large number of apartments coming available. You'll have your pick of locations."
Ivaran nodded. "Thank you, sir."
The Vanguard nodded and filed out. Once they were gone, Ivaran hugged Silvan, pressing his cheek against her hair. "We get to stay here, sweetheart."
"I'm glad," Silvan said, hugging him back. "I want to live here. But I miss our cabin. And the goats. And the woods."
"Plenty of those around," Ivaran said, laughing suddenly. "You'll get your fill on patrols."
Yuna cleared her throat. Ivaran and Silvan turned to her.
Yuna's expression had changed. She leaned toward them, cautious, but hopeful. "Ivaran ... after you're settled ... would you mind having dinner with me sometime?"
Ivaran blushed until he was nearly magenta. He cleared his throat twice before he could speak. "I'd ... I'd like that very much."
Lysander was sentenced to exile on Venus, but first he had to spend three months in rehab under the Praxic Order. He seemed stable enough when he was left on Venus with a generous amount of supplies. But when a Guardian patrol checked on him a few months later, Lysander had disappeared into the jungle ruins and could not be found.
Ivaran and Silvan took a spacious apartment in the Tower living areas and filled it with secondhand furniture. Ivaran planned to find a woodworking shop and build new tables and cabinets. Silvan began warlock training, and on weekdays, a tutor came to catch up her education.
Bramble's shell was finally replaced with a pretty violet shell, all smooth curves, so Silvan could hug him easier. "But I liked being spiky," he said with mock mournfulness. In reality, he'd have traded any number of shells for those hugs from his beloved Chosen.
Ivaran and Yuna had dinner together, not once, but many times as they repaired the tattered remains of their relationship. Silvan was glad of this and secretly hoped to have Yuna as a mother someday.
The City recovered from the Battle of Twilight Gap, as it came to be known. The breach in the wall was repaired and reinforced. The neighborhoods that had been damaged by kamakazie attack were rebuilt. Life resumed, peaceful under the watchful eyes of the Guardians.
Saint-14 hunted down Kell Solkis of the House of Devils a few months later. Deep in the Kell's own lair, Saint-14 fought him hand to hand and killed him with a headbutt to the face. After that, nothing much was heard from the House of Devils for many years.
Kell Craask of the House of Kings went into hiding. Shamed, his power broken, he would later shelter the lost Awoken Prince, two members of disgraced royalty seeking solidarity together.
Humanity had a little more hope for the future.