The man sat alone in the night time darkness.
The room was all cold angles, coloured like ice from the silvery moonlight reflecting back up from the clouds. Whispers echoed around the room, the words just on the edge of hearing. Many had heard the gentle static whilst in the man's presence, but only he could feel the words in the hiss. The voice was quiet, reasonable, and comforting. It helped him, gave him calm advice in the midst of his fears.
The man listened for a long time, watching the silver shapes cast by the windows move as the unseen moon crossed the sky.
And then he rose, a tiny flash of moonlight flicking across his polished armour as he moved. It came to rest on the edge of one horn of his helmet, and then flashed once as the man turned and vanished into the shadows around the door.
The door opened, and the man was silhouetted against the grey light of the passage. His cloak billowed, and then he was gone.
Armoured men left the mountain called Baya Malay that morning. They moved strangely, fluidly, with the confidence of dancers, but without the grace. Every movement was smooth, oiled, perfect and artless.
From his vantage point in a tree, Shea saw them walk steadily into the forest, and cursed.
It was two days later, and night time in Scion.
Shea darted from building to building, breathing from exertion and fear. The shadows were no protection against the men from Baya Malay, but instinct kept him in the darkness. It was ironic, he always thought, that darkness was such an ally.
Dust sparkled in a moonbeam as he kicked off to the next pool of shadow. From here, he could see the door, just like a thousand others, set back in the wall. His news was urgent, but first he would have to scout the block for the graceless men from the mountain.
His foot brushed something that scattered slightly.
Shea froze, listening for any reaction, and then bent slowly down to see what he was already suspecting.
It was a stone, a pebble, shattered into fragments. The moonlight cast into black and silver relief the ridges of a boot print around it.
Someone heavy. Someone really heavy.
He looked up at the door and then back down the street. He could see no one, but that meant nothing. They weren't easy to see.
He looked back at the door, indecision in his eyes.
Maybe he would be in time to warn them, but then, maybe the red-eyes were in there already. Maybe they watched him to see which door it would be.
What could he do without endangering his friends?
Shea sat in the dust and the moonlight, thinking.
Then he sprung to his feet and ran.
He reached a door, just like a thousand others, and twisted the handle, throwing himself inside.
"They're coming!" he screamed into the dusty darkness. "Get out!"
Outside, amidst the shadows of the buildings, two red eyes flicked on.
The Robotcop did not pause at the door; it merely grabbed wooden planks with both hands and twisted, and the door fell away as it shouldered through.
Shea needed to delay it. Only a heavy axe had any chance against these things and Shea only had a sword, but he swung it anyway, aiming for the joint of the Robotcop's neck.
Without breaking stride, the ‘cop seized his wrist, levering him into the air and across the room where he landed against the wall in a shower of dust. Shea's arm trailed uselessly, dislocated by the pendulum weight of his body.
The Robotcop completed the turn started by its attack, scanning the room.
The empty room.
It then focused on Shea's limp form and its body rotated, its legs moved.
Shea opened his eyes weakly, feeling its heavy tread shake the boards beneath him and the stop, just before him.
"Where are they?"
Two eyes burned above him, the colour of blood and infra-red.
"If I tell you…will you let me live?"
Pneumatic fingers reached for his twisted shoulder and pressed. Shea screamed.
"If you tell me, I will let you die."
Shea laughed weakly.
"Next building down, Metalhead."
The Robotcop twisted Shea's shoulder out of the socket and flung the arm aside, leaving the screaming man to bleed to death.
It saved the Robotcop the unnecessary time required to move its grip to his neck.
If they did not believe the call, the men next door believed the screams.
The back wall had been deliberately weakened and collapsed into splinters and broken planks as the larger fighters charged through. Their axes were held ready as they formed a semi-circle around the opening on the outside.
Red eyes were in every shadow.
Nero, youngest of the men in the building, had no weapon. Nor would he have wasted time to grab it if he had. Nero had survived an attack by the Robotcops once before and knew that the best way out was the opposite of everyone else. He would hate himself afterwards, but he would be alive.
Nero seized the door handle, swung it open, and ran into the night.
And, across the city, a man named Odin lifted his head at the sound of the distant combat and began to run.
Nero darted from corner to corner, choosing directions at random. He was trying not to double back accidentally, but the Robotcops were everywhere and he often had to veer down the first alley he came to in order to avoid them.
(And Nero never noticed the feather-light footsteps keeping pace with him across the wooden roofs…)
The combat had been distantly to his left when he last heard it, but it had stopped a few corners ago. Nero had no doubt as to the outcome. The Robotcops were too strong, and too fast. Even without their energy guns, they were more than a match for any man.
Nero felt a stray tear on his cheek, but it was quickly dried by the wind of his flight.
After his parents had been killed by the Robotcops, they had taken him in. They would maybe have called themselves the resistance, but they couldn't resist. Lassic was too strong, and they were too few. They were just men brought together by an impotent hatred.
And now, there was nowhere else for him to go. He knew better than to try to flee the city. ‘Cops would be on every gate, and creatures roamed the wildlands.
A distant shadow turned red eyes towards him, and he skidded down a street to the left. The last two had been lefts as well. They had him hemmed in. The entire warehouse district must be sealed off.
Nero felt a surge of panic.
Maybe the roofs. They would never support the Robotcops' weight.
Nero leapt for a protruding crossbeam, and pulled himself half over it. He was hanging there, legs pinwheeling, when the eyes rose over the edge of the roof to look at him.
Nero felt another instant of panic, but they were not ‘cop eyes. They were slitted and glowed a golden colour. Two horn-like shapes rose blackly against the stars behind them.
A monster! From the wildlands!
Nero gasped out a scream.
Myau had to calm the boy down, had to quiet him before Lassic's guards came.
"Shhh!" he said.
The creature hissed at him, and Nero let go of the beam in panic.
Myau didn't understand for a moment. Most people thought he had a very friendly face. Oh, but people can't see very well in the dark, can they? All this boy would be able to see was his reflective eyes.
Nero scrambled to his feet, backing away without taking his eyes from the two golden stars that were now looking over the roof at him. Robotcops to the left of him, monsters to the right. Nero began to fear that he would not survive until morning.
He turned and ran. He managed to see a dark shape and two red eyes before he hit the Robotcop with a hollow sound, knocking himself backwards. He landed in the dust, his nose streaming blood, and saw ceramic fingers reaching down for him.
Myau could fight and his claws were sharp, but he was not large enough to damage a Robotcop. He didn't have the leverage or the weight to bring much force to bear. Sworm flies were fun. You could make one last for ages if you were careful, but there was no way Myau could fight one of Lassic's mechanical henchmen.
And Odin heard, but he was too far away. It's just as well someone else did.
Nero heard a faint hiss from within the ‘cop's arm as he was raised to eye level. Red eyes burned into his.
"Where are they?"
Nero felt hope, quickly crushed. Some of his friends had gotten away from the warehouse! But they would never rescue him. They couldn't if they tried.
Tears came unbidden to his eyes. Desperate tears, from eyes looking at death.
"You killed them at the warehouse. You killed my friends!"
"They were not there."
"What?" His friends were not there? Had they gotten the wrong building? What was going on?
The Robotcop leaned closer, until his eyes filled Nero's world. "Where are they?"
"At the warehouse!"
The Robotcop twisted Nero's arm and held it there, just shy of breaking.
"I don't know who you're talking about!" screamed Nero.
"He means us."
The Robotcop turned, letting Nero fall to the ground.
"Call your friends," said the woman. "I'm here, and you're going to need all the help you can get."
Deep in the castle above Baya Malay, the whispering presence and the man spoke at the same time.
"Yes! It's her! Destroy her. Destroy them all!"
The woman's sword hummed impatiently in her hand. The ‘cop took a step towards her.
"You are under arrest. Do not -"
There was a flash of reflected moonlight, and a line of blue sparks exploded around the ‘cop's middle. Nero hadn't seen the woman move, but now she was in a different position, her sword at the end of an arc he'd never seen.
The ‘cop's torso toppled into the dust. The legs still stood stupidly in the alley. The woman brushed past them both, heedless of the still grasping fingers, and grabbed Nero.
"The roof was a good idea," she said, gripping his arm and pulling him back to the protruding beam. "Now get up there and stay there until I say so."
"But there's a…"
She yanked his arm, turning him to face her. "There are more of those things around, and they're all coming running. Now move. Myau will take care of you."
The woman pointed to the rooftop eyes that were looking down with mild curiosity. One winked. Nero suspected there was a grin beneath them he couldn't see.
Odin slowed to a jog. Every Robotcop he had seen was headed in the same direction. Odds were that they had found one of his companions, so he would stay behind them, follow them in, and engineer a nice little slaughter from two fronts.
His axe gleamed.
Nero lay on the roof next to the warm shape of Myau, both watching.
The woman stood at the mouth of the alley, her sword a thin line of pale starlight. In every direction around her, red eyes moved from the shadows. They weren't attacking yet, they were waiting. Nero wondered how many there were in town. He counted a dozen from his perch, and more were still coming.
How could she, how could anyone fight a dozen Robotcops? Even with her amazing sword, those things had their energy guns. They didn't have to get in close enough to be swung at.
"Are you hurt?"
Nero jumped, before realising the strangely resonant voice came from Myau.
"You can talk?" he whispered.
"I can also heal you, if you're hurt."
Nero noticed that Myau's mouth moved oddly when he talked. Well, he didn't have the same shaped mouth, and probably a different sort of tongue, so maybe he had to do things differently to make the right sounds for speech.
"I'm fine. Can she really take all of them?"
Myau grinned. It was unfortunate, Nero thought, that his teeth showed when he did.
"P'rhaps. It doesn't matter. It's not just me an' her, you know."
"Who else is there?"
Myau shrugged. "A c'ple of others. They'll be here in time, don't worry." The cat then meowed softly, and began washing his paw.
Odin took up position behind a group of three Robotcops, his axe held in the shadows so it wouldn't catch the dim light.
The Robotcops moved, all at once. Each raised their gun in perfect unison, and each weapon was aimed at her.
The woman had unhitched her shield from her back and held it on her left arm. She fell to her knees behind it as they fired, more than a dozen beams of red light lighting up the streets like fire. Nero shielded his eyes from the brilliant flash as the beams intersected on her shield. When he looked again, the street was blacker for the sudden light, but he could see the red-eyes advancing.
And something behind them.
A great shadow loomed behind one small group, and light flashed off an axe blade as it was brought around in an unstoppable sweep. Two ‘cops shrieked in electronic pain, and flailed around, trailing sparks like comets. The third turned, and Nero saw the shadowed man raise something in his left hand to the Robotcop's head. The man's hand jumped as he fired, a beam of blue light slicing a hole in the ‘cops head and punching out the other side in a shower of ceramic shrapnel.
An energy weapon. They had their own…
The woman rose up from behind her shield and ran at the nearest ‘cop. She seemed to change her mind and her direction as she ran, skidding to her knees from her momentum just as red light cut through the air above her.
Her sword sang.
The ‘cop she was aiming for was still standing, but sparks spat from a line around both ankles. Nero knew that it would be standing only as long as it didn't try to move.
The woman effortlessly turned her skid into a roll as red beams punched at the ground around her. She flipped to her feet, bringing her sword around and upwards through another ‘cop. Then she ducked back behind her shield as another volley of light crossed the night.
The big man was staying on the periphery, striking at the ‘cops from behind. He was truly ambidextrous, his gun acting completely independently of his axe. It was a two-handed axe, Nero noted, used in one hand as effortlessly as a sword.
"Good, aren't they?" commented Myau.
"Amazing," Nero breathed.
The woman moved like a dancer, her balance always perfect, her situational awareness uncanny. Red light seared through the air from the clumsy Robotcops, but she was never in its way. Without thinking, operating on some fighter's instinct, she was always twisting aside, or rolling, or her shield was there to block it in a perfectly natural movement that flowed from her last and into her next. The sword she wielded moved in graceful curves, never slashing, or chopping, but hissing through the air with the same effortless grace of a bird in flight. It left lines of random spitting blue on every Robotcop it touched, seemingly without slowing.
The big man stalked the battlefield, sweeping aside any Robotcop that came close to his axe. He seemed almost to ignore the laser light. Sometimes he ducked, or moved aside, but mostly the beams impacted on his armour with no effect. His own gun blazed in response, stabbing three times into every Robotcop. The first would sometimes miss, but he would correct his aim, and the second would hit, but perhaps not in a critical location. The third always shattered the heads of the Robotcops. Often the second did, and sometimes the first, but he always fired three times. He was powerful, but not as fast or instinctive as the woman. He relied on training. Three shots guaranteed a death, so he fired three at each.
It all took less than two minutes, but Nero would remember each second until the day he died.
Scattered pieces of Robotcop littered the street, smoking quietly, with just the occasional fizz or crackle of dying circuitry.
Nero jumped down from the roof as the woman sheathed her sword. It sounded like any metal sword being returned to its scabbard, but sounded somehow more…musical. The big man's axe made a sound like a quiet cymbal as he swung it onto his back.
The woman walked over to him, and squatted so that she could look directly into his eyes. She had a long red welt on her cheek, he noticed. A near miss by an energy weapon.
"You lost some friends tonight, didn't you? Across town?"
Nero just nodded.
"I'm sorry. They were hunting for us, so it is our responsibility."
The earnestness of her sorrow filled eyes was too much, and Nero looked away. "It's not your fault." he muttered.
The woman smiled a sad smile. "I didn't say ‘fault'. There is only one man who carries the blame, one man who can have this laid at his door." Her eyes took on a distant quality.
Then she blinked. "I'm sorry. I hope saving you is some atonement for what we brought down upon you. I'm Alis. What's your name?"
The woman blanched, and would have rose, but for the big man's hand which came down on her shoulder and held her there. Instead, she looked away.
"And I'm Odin," said the man, "and I'd say that saving a young man named Nero is atonement enough even for her."
The woman, Alis, twisted away from him and stalked out into the shadows with her head bowed. Nero heard her take a deep breath, stifling some emotion.
"She's strong," said Odin, "but she's young." Then he sighed.
"What's wrong with her?" asked Nero.
"She had a brother named Nero. Killed two years ago."
Nero closed his eyes against the sudden tears.
"By ‘cops." It wasn't a question.
"Yes," said Odin. "Don't think about it. It's her burden, not yours."
Both Odin and Nero looked up.
He must have been the one to call from the next building! But he was in there with a ‘cop. They'd all heard the screams…
Nero noticed that Shea was with another man before he realised he was missing his arm, but it was the latter which stole his attention.
The skin was healed over, and a healthy colour, but his right arm was missing. There was not even a shoulder to mark where it had been. It must of happened months ago, shortly after he had left for the mountain, but what had the Robotcop done to him to make him scream? Nero couldn't see any other wounds.
The man with him was tall and thin. He wore a white robe, and had blue hair the shade of Nero's own. There was something in his eyes though. Quiet confidence, Nero judged. Strange for someone so thin and, well, weedy.
He carried a staff as tall as he was. It left a faint blue trail in the air behind it.
"Noah!" Odin called with a grin and a wave. "You're late. They're dead already."
"I had a mission of mercy." The newcomer, Noah, had a quiet, penetrating voice. He would never laugh, Nero thought, he would smile, and the smile would be secretive. He knows things he can never tell. If her lost brother was Alis' burden, then secrets were Noah's.
Noah glanced at him sharply and frowned. "You're very perceptive," he said.
Nero stared guiltily, and wondered why. The man couldn't know his thoughts.
The man reached out a long-fingered hand and felt Nero's hair, letting it run between his fingers as he pulled his hand away. Nero didn't breathe until he had.
Then the man whirled, a flame in his hand. He let it go and it arced across the street, exploding against a broken Robotcop with a sharp clap of noise. Nero gaped.
Noah smiled at his expression. "Nero, is it?" he asked. Nero nodded.
Noah turned and gestured to the smoking husk of the ‘cop. "Would you like to be able to do that?"
Nero nodded, swallowing.
"Then you will." And then he was gone, walking past Nero towards Alis.
Shea came up beside him. "He saved my life," he whispered.
Nero believed it.
Odin sat with them, Myau at his side, as Noah and Alis talked. About what, Nero couldn't guess. Eventually, Alis came over to them, leaving Noah as a grey shape in the darkness.
Between the light and the dark, thought Nero, and then wondered why.
Alis stood in front of them, looking imposing and expressionless. She was probably beautiful once, but she had too much muscle now, and her eyes were too old.
"I have a friend in Camineet, named Suelo. She'll look after you," she said shortly.
"We can't cross the wildlands. It's full of monsters!" cried Nero.
"It was." She tossed Shea a sword, which he caught awkwardly. For a moment, Nero thought it might be her magical sword, but it was a ceramic blade. Sharp enough to cleave through a Robotcop for someone like Odin. Even in Shea's clumsy left hand, it would slice easily through any animal they might encounter.
"It's my old sword," Alis said, by way of explanation. "I don't need it."
Shea looked at the sword. "Where are you going?"
Odin grinned. Alis just shifted her gaze upwards slightly.
Nero turned, looking up past the roofs of Scion.
It was a grey shape against the stars, rising above everything, its harsh stone slopes wreathed in permanent cloud.
No one really needed to say it, but Shea obviously couldn't help himself.
Alis watched as the pair walked to the western gate.
"Does he remind you of your brother?" Noah asked in a gentle voice. "Apart from the name."
There was a long pause until the pair vanished around a corner.
"I wish he did," she whispered.
And, above Baya Malay, in the castle of the clouds, the man felt fear.
"They're still coming. What do I do?"