Marcus cursed as he stumbled to his feet, using the flashlight on his gun to reveal the source of his fall. It was a corpse; to be precise, it was a pile of corpse-shaped parts. The organic flesh had long since decayed and disappeared; what remained were the titanium alloy skeleton and mechanical parts. More corpses lay scattered in the same direction.
"It looks like they all died here in the end," Marcus said despairingly to the Hector knight beside him. "It's our turn next."
"Don't give up, soldier, we still have a chance."Lusia's helmet had been damaged when they fell, and other parts of her armor were also reaching their limit.
The only thing that still shone stubbornly with a yellow shimmer was her heavy sword, its light coming from the hot plasma on the blade. She and Marcus had been trapped in this vast underground space for over an hour, surrounded by darkness and the enemy, who lurked in the shadows.
A few hours earlier, Marcus's drop ship had been hovering over an open field, preparing to touch down at its final destination. From the porthole of the aircraft, Marcus watched as the red halo on the horizon gradually rose in the dawn sky, bringing a hint of warmth to the endless graveyard of gray and white ruins below. A massive column of smoke rose from the landing site, surrounded by swarms of suicide drones that circled like vultures waiting to scavenge. Marcus followed the smoke to the hunting grounds, where soldiers gathered around a giant corpse, the remains of a monster that seemed to have exploded from within.
"Five minutes! Everyone stay alert!" Sergeant Scipio's loud voice boomed through the ship.
Marcus clutched his gun nervously; he had only joined the army a month ago and this was his first time taking part in a combat mission.
"Remember your mission, boys," Scipio said. "Find your coordinates, locate the target, don't fire, and leave the rest to the knight ladies on that ship." He gestured to another landing craft flying nearby.
"Hey, want to see some hot pictures of those armored bitches?" That was Gaius, a veteran seated next to him, who came from the same town as Marcus. He leaned over and pulled out a small monitor.
"You mean the Hector knights?" Marcus asked, glancing at the images of large, muscular buttocks. "I heard all the knights who join Hector guards undergo body modifications, including strengthened hips and legs."
"Yeah, but imagine what else these bitches can do with those enhanced butts," Gaius said with a lecherous smile.
Marcus ignored him, so nervous that he had no desire to fantasize.
The hydraulic lever buzzed as the gate of the drop ship opened and the soldiers filed out. Marcus followed Gaius as they joined the line, but the soldiers in front suddenly stopped and snapped to attention, saluting. Marcus looked in the direction of their salute and saw many soldiers carrying black bags in pairs, heading towards the drop ship. These were the bodies of the dead, the cargo for the return journey.
As another landing craft touched down, all eyes turned toward the opening hatch. Three heavily armed women emerged. They each wore a different color: black, white and grey, and each was brandishing a massive sword. One of the women, clad in white armor was carrying a sword taller than herself, but seemed to have no difficulty handling the oversized weapon. An officer rushed over to salute the knights, and Sergeant Scipio approached as well.
"Wonder what they're talking about?" Gaius whispered to Marcus.
Marcus shrugged in response.
"Looks like the previous team screwed up and we're their replacements, "Gaius said.
"What's the real purpose of this mission? Scipio said it’s classified."
"Don't you know? We're losing the war. The Achilles and Hector knights have almost depleted their manpower and resources. If they fall, the kingdom falls. What are they thinking, to send elite knights to this remote part of the world at this critical time? I bet there's something in that AI bastard that could turn the tide of the battle," Gaius speculated.
"I saw the corpse of that thing earlier. Do you think they failed?"
"Obviously, it exploded. And whatever they were after probably didn't survive."
"But this time, we got Hector guards, so we should succeed."
"My advice to you is to stay away from those knights as much as possible. No matter how many lives you’ve got, it won't be enough. Just look at the photos and jerk off," Gaius said coldly, his eyes on the armored women's crotches.
"Attention!" Sergeant Scipio had finished his meeting and now turned back to the soldiers, accompanied by the armored women. "Boys, we have a change in plan. The Hector knights will be briefing us now. Remember, this is a mission initiated by the Hector Guards and they are our direct superiors."
"My name is Victricia Lepidus. You can call me Knight Lepidus." The knight in black armor spoke." These are my colleagues, Desticia Antonius and Lusia Quinta. The success or failure of this mission depends on the joint efforts of knights and civilian soldiers..."
"Suicide drones can't be used, so they're using us instead?" Marcus asked Gaius quietly.
"Do you see those bags being carried onto the drop ship?" Gaius glanced at the black bags holding the corpses. "They’re probably trying to use us as bait to lure the target out. Our weapons are useless against that thing. It's a death sentence."
"But we can't defy orders."
"Don't be an idiot, who told you to go against orders? Just shoot a little later than the others and find a position at the back."
A few hours later, they arrived at the designated coordinates. The soldiers got into a formation a few hundred meters wide and cautiously advanced through the ruins of the city. Amidst the shadows of the towering buildings, they must have looked like ants crawling on the ground, as they slowly made their way through the gaps in the rubble. Their goal was to locate an AI war machine left over from the great war that had destroyed the old civilization.
Marcus struggled to pick his way through the rubble-strewn streets. The thrusters of the Hector knights overhead made a "swish" sound as they flew through the air, using the roofs of buildings as springboards to easily navigate the debris that was slowing Marcus down.
As they climbed over the barriers in the street, the soldiers reached the edge of a relatively open area, where they took cover behind the wreckage of abandoned vehicles. Marcus could hear a dull thumping sound in the distance.
"Contact!" The sergeant's deep voice came over the communication channel.
"Hold your fire until we get into position." Victricia's voice was full of excitement.
"Hold your guns and hold on, lads. This is a big fish," Scipio added.
Marcus placed his automatic rifle on a section of concrete barrier and nervously looked through the scope. Suddenly, he heard an eerie sound - more like static than a true sound - that made the hairs on his neck stand up. No one's voice could be heard on the communication channel, only intermittent rustling now. Scipio gestured for them to stand by.
A towering figure, standing around 3-4 meters tall, appeared at the fork in the road. It had four legs and a tail-like structure sticking up from its back. Its surface was covered in layered textures, resembling more a natural rock formation or barnacles than a machine. Suddenly, a rocket was fired from the formation of the soldiers. A red light shot out from the beast's tail, intercepting the rocket mid-air and causing a huge explosion.
"Who the hell shot that? Fire! Fire!" Scipio yelled in frustration as their cover was blown.
More soldiers joined in the attack on the target, but the rockets were split in two by the red light again, and bullets were deflected in all directions by an invisible barrier in front of the target. Rainbow-like ripples appeared in the air. The red light came on once more, piercing through the wreckage of several vehicles and the soldiers hiding behind them with precise, short bursts. Marcus noticed that Gaius, standing next to him, was just holding his gun and not firing at all. He remembered what Gaius had said earlier. Just as he was hesitating, the red light struck, the vibration of the air making a strong buzzing sound in Marcus's ears.
The beam had not been aimed at him, but it cut Gaius in two, fear in his eyes as he died. Marcus began firing, knowing it was futile but better than being killed without letting off a shot. The red beam flashed at him, creating bright sparks in front of the concrete barrier he was hiding behind, but the cover was not penetrated. Just as he was rejoicing, a bang-bang sound came from the enemy's direction, followed by explosions behind him. The shockwaves knocked Marcus sideways, out from behind the cover, and he fell to the ground in pain, unable to move and almost losing consciousness. With his blurred vision, he saw the knights finally descending from the sky, and the white knight's heavy sword piercing the body of the giant beast, emitting sun-like light. The monster flipped sideways with uncanny agility, throwing the white knight aside. The black knight rushed forward and severed one of the monster's legs at its joint, but at the same time, its red light hit her. Rainbow-colored ripples appeared in front of her, and the beam was deflected, hitting the facade of the building next to Marcus. The whole surface collapsed toward him.
Time seemed to slow down, and Marcus could clearly see the wall falling toward him. He felt a force pushing him out of the way just before it hit. Marcus thought it was another explosion, but when he turned his head, he saw the knight in gray armor standing behind him, holding him with both hands. Even though the knight was a noble in a mighty armor suit, Marcus still felt embarrassed being held by a woman and was about to thank her, when the ground under their feet suddenly caved in.
An hour later, they were still trying to find their way back up from underground.
"Madam, are you sure that thing fell with us?" Marcus asked, hoping for good news.
"Yes, it was hit three times by Desticia and Victricia, and the last attack cut off its beam weapon. I think it probably wanted to escape and came down from the sunken ground."
"Even without that beam weapon, it could still finish us off easily. That thing must have low-light or infrared vision, and I feel like a blind person in this dungeon. We’re screwed!" Marcus almost collapsed in the ultra-darkness surrounding him.
"Calm down, private! I can't see as much as you can without the helmet of Hector armor, so you need to help me with your flashlight to illuminate the enemy for me when I attack."
"Yes, madam, I'll…..I’ll do my best." Lusia's words boosted Marcus's spirits.
Before they could say any more, they heard a series of sounds of impact getting closer and closer, until the ground began to shake.
"Marcus, hurry up!!" Lusia raised her sword and a yellow shimmer began to float around the edges of the weapon.
Marcus frantically shone his flashlight around, luckily lighting up the enemy, just in time before it attacked them. Lusia ignited the thrusters on her armor and flew toward the enemy. The beast had lost a leg, and was supporting its body with its tail. It raised one of its remaining legs and thrust it at Lusia, but she was able to change direction and dodge it, jumping behind the enemy. Both combatants were turning in circles, and it was clear that Lusia had the advantage. She raised her sword and jumped again, before the enemy could fully turn toward her. The sword connected. Marcus, who was temporarily blinded by the dazzling light of the plasma sword’s blows, didn't know if his flashlight was still shining on the enemy. When he recovered his vision, he saw Lusia lying on the ground with her sword broken. The enemy was about to deliver the final blow.
"NO!!" Marcus shouted, then raised his gun and shot at the enemy.
This time, there was no rainbow ripples, and the bullets definitely hit their mark, causing sparks to fly. However, even without a displacement shield, Marcus's rifle still couldn't penetrate the enemy's thick armor. The giant beast was attracted toward Marcus, though, its remaining two legs dragging its body as it twisted wildly. Marcus hadn’t expected the enemy to be able to move this quickly with its crippled legs. He was hit by the beast's tail and bounced across the ground. It was a fatal blow. He lay on the ground groaning in pain with his mouth full of blood, until he saw the plasma light flash again and the remaining two legs of the giant beast were also cut off. Only the tail was still flicking wildly. The black and white knights had arrived.
"Private, you saved me." Desticia helped Lusia walk over to Marcus, who was on his last breath.
"Madam... I haven't done enough..."
"Yes, Marcus, you have. You did your best and helped us win the day."