Anno Peractio: Age of Conclusion
Altair stood silently, mesmerized at the events that have unfolded before his eyes. The hulking jet-black figure of the Marduk Armor floated in the air above him, roaring ominously at the sky.
“What sorcery is this?!” he said. He could feel hunks of flesh and fiery debris crumble beneath the feet of his own mechanical armor, Gilgamesh, as he began navigating across the blood-strewn plaza.
What he saw was akin to a demon from hell. He could still hear the agonized shouts of the dragon ringing in his ears as Marduk toyed with it before splattering its limbs all over the place. This was the same dragon that lay waste to the Upper District and nearly annihilated them just minutes ago.
He had heard about Marduk, about its strange abilities; fascinating to the scientific mind, but terrifying to the human heart. They had called it the “Ultimate Quantum Magician”; and he had just witnessed its first act.
He was woken from his daze by a familiar voice over the communications link. “Iohan to Altair! Is everyone all right? We lost you for a moment!”
“I’m fine; Her highness as well,” said Altair. He had just spotted princess Malak's Esthar Armor hovering above at a safe distance among the citadel’s towers. “I cannot say the same about the Dragon, though.”
“What of the Marduk Armor? We’re getting conflicted readings from its Gestalt system.” said Iohan.
“It’s–I don’t know–acting like some manner of monster!” said Altair.
“–Is it damaged?”
Altair surveyed the mechanical beast once more, he could not see a single scratch upon it–which struck him as odd; he remembered both of them getting battered savagely by the dragon. It reflected clearly upon his own armor.
But not Marduk.
“No. No damage, but it looks quite eager to deal plenty of that soon!” said Altair. Marduk’s roars have become more intense, more primal.
“Curses..! Listen carefully; Marduk’s crux is in overdrive and its wearer is not in control right now. It must be restrained!”
“Easier said than done,” said Altair. "Did you see how swift that thing is?"
"I know. I only need you to distract it for a short while." said Iohan. "Her highness will take it from there."
"Hold; you aren't going to let her fight, are you?!" said Altair. "She isn't trained for direct combat!"
"That is the course of action Lady Sherif advised just now. We will have to trust her judgment on this matter."
Just then, the roaring beast turned its attention towards the nearest of the two.
No sooner did Altair utter the words that Marduk had already closed the distance at lightning speed. Barely dodging Marduk’s charge, Malak managed to maneuver out of the reach of its arm, letting it collide with the walls of the tower behind her with a force so great it became embedded shoulder-deep into the rubble. She shrieked when she felt a sudden wave of heat upon her face in spite of her helm’s protection, but not from the pain.
“Please don’t let it be...” She said, distraught, as if a great fear from the deepest reaches of her heart had been realized, “Please don’t bring him forth!”
Her eyes widened when the reinforced wall melted around Marduk’s arm, freeing it. Then she saw -amidst the fumes- something that made her heart drop; a halo of fire, blazing above Marduk’s head.
“No! Please, no!” Malak cried. She tried to escape, flying as fast as her armor could. But she found Marduk blocking her way. She fled yet again, this time into the rubble below, and again the dark beast was there. It stood in her path wherever she turned as if mocking her feeble attempts. She had nowhere to run.
Slowly but firmly, the Marduk Armor approached the princess. Every step, every movement it made thundered her to her core. Soon, the beast towered above her, its fiery gaze staring through her visor and into her very soul.
“I.. I’m so very sorry...” She said, the words barley escaping her lips as she stared back into Marduk’s monstrous visage. Transfixed, the world seemed to melt into Marduk's imposing form as a thousand agonized wails rang in her ears. Her head was on the verge of exploding.
At that moment, a red blur crashed from above at Malak’s feet, striking down with earth-splitting force.
“Apologies, m’lady.” said Altair. With little effort he pulled his giant sword, Gram, out from the small crater it left in the ground. Though he hit nothing, his assault was enough to force Marduk to keep its distance. “Are you hurt?”
Malak simply shook her head.
“That’s good to see.” he said, taking on a defensive stance. “Stay behind me.”
As to acknowledge its new challenger, Marduk manifested a great obsidian blade and took on a fighting stance of its own.
Altair tightened his grip upon Gram’s hilt. “So, that’s how it will be...”
The air was heavy. Time came to a crawl as the two warriors regarded one another in quietude. Altair felt his heart racing; he had fought many a battle under the banner of Babilon and cut down countless men in its name; he had risen to knighthood at the tender age of sixteen during the seven-year-war and gained the title of ‘Blood Knight’ for his fearlessness and might, facing down entire platoons on his own. It was he who was deemed worthy of donning the Gilgamesh Armor, for it was believed that he had no equal among men.
This is no Man. A demon, rather.
“Pray! Don’t fight him!” cried Malak. Then -unexpectedly- her pleas were answered, for Marduk was struck from behind by a hail of plasma bullets; two-dozen turrets had sprung out of the citadel’s walls and begun laying heavy fire upon the dark armor.
Startled by the surprise attack, Marduk briefly turned away from its original challenger.
“Now, your highness!” cried Iohan.
Malak wasted no time; her fears be damned, she seized Marduk in the blink of an eye, her armor's angelic form clasping the demon in a tight embrace.
“Altair, best to take cover–” said Malak. Marduk flailed and thrashed furiously, attempting to free itself from the white armor’s grasp–to no avail; Esthar would no let go, despite the immense strength of the dark one, and the intensity of its flames. “–Now! It’s going berserk!”
Marduk then let out a mighty roar as its crux burned brightly not unlike a tiny sun. Altair could no longer see either of them amidst the blaze.
And the beast fell silent.
“I have regained control. You can release me now.” said a voice from within Marduk. “Let us head back to base. I’m tired.”
Chapter 1: Advent
Seven hours earlier...
Thousands of fathoms below Babilon, a young lady stood at a terminal near the bottom of a vast chamber at the ocean floor, dwarfed by the sheer size of the darkened enclave. Suspended amid massive pillars of black stone which spanned the entire height of the chamber was a dark sphere that rippled ominously, not unlike a ball of water would without gravity, yet gently and with a barely-appreciable pulse to the keen eye–a stellar pulse.
She scrolled carefully along screens of light floating in front of her. There was naught a sound save for the constant hum of the sphere, rivaled by her own anxious palpitations. And her fears were absolutely justified; only she could fathom the sort of catastrophe that could have unfolded a few minutes ago. The screens shimmered and glowed as readings and charts flew by, and it becomes apparent that the lady is none other than Sarah Sherif—the authority on the enigmatic Crux technology, her features just visible in what light emitted from the screens.
Sarah was young—too young in the eyes of some. She was twenty-two when she was appointed head of the Royal Scientific Institution ten years ago, and even back then she was widely known in scientific circles; she was a contributing member of the legendary Eckart-Sherif research team even as a child of no more than twelve.
As she was brilliant, Sarah was also beautiful—exotically so, one might add. She wore a dark sea of flowing ebony hair and had eyes to match; wide, deep as the night sky, and just as enthralling. Her skin a light shade of tan, easy on the eyes, and her pleasant features crowned by a string of pearls, resting behind rosy lips. Men of the court have long vied for her companionship.
But she did not enjoy the company of men—or anyone; she was one with knowledge of matters that would turn one’s hair grey; matters that took away countless hours of sleep; matters that brought her to this place at such an early hour, before even the first Bright.
Despite her best efforts, her thoughts took her to where she would rather not be. Before realizing it, she found her younger self tightly strapped into a rigid seat in an old escape vessel. It shook violently as she clutched an airtight casing, pounding mercilessly against her small frame. Amidst the noise, flames and the blinding light, She heard the voice of her father.
"I'm truly sorry; sorry I could not teach you everything. Sorry I could not prepare you for the days to come. But, most of all, I'm sorry I could never be a "father" to you. Sarah, It pains me to burden you with such a great task, but the fate of Man now lies in your hands. Uncle Sinn would come for you; of that I am certain. You will be safe with him. So please... look forward, and live... Sarah."
"Sarah? Did you hear me?"
She was released from her lucid nightmare by the voice of Regent Sinn Asarai, who, in her daze, she did not hear entering the chamber.
It was difficult not to notice a man such as the Regent. He was a man of tall stature, as were many of House Asarai, and like them, he shared their sleek white hair and pale skin—a trait which ran in those descended from the Dragon Queen of Babil. But unlike her pure seed—the Parthenoi—he did not have their crimson eyes, but a pale shade of silver instead. This, eerily combined with his sharp features, made him a terrifying man.
But appearances would only take a man thus far. As Regent South of the Waters, Sinn ruled over Babilon in the Dragon Queen’s name, fiercely guarding the doorstep to her realm in the north, beyond the sea. Even after the Cataclysm, he continued to defend the mist-veiled ruins of Babil, that one day the Dragon Queen’s only living heir, Princess Malak, might ascend the Dragon’s Seat as Ruler of the Realm.
"Lord Regent–" Sarah said, there was a hint of sadness in her voice. Before she knew it, she found the slender fingers of the regent's hand wiping tears she did not realize she shed from her wide, dark eyes. Severe as he was upon the enemies of the realm, Sinn was not without compassion to his subjects, especially those who are close to him.
"Perhaps you should leave this to your staff." he said. "They can handle such situations on their own."
"–they can’t handle Marduk." she retorted, embarrassed and slightly angry at herself. "it's my duty to—"
"This isn't your personal crusade." Sinn said, "Focus, Sarah. I know, Marduk is–our entire operation is as a sacred legacy to you, but you can't shoulder the burden on your own. We have all lost loved ones in the Cataclysm, yet none of us has the luxury to allow our emotions to run rampant; the future hinges upon us."
Sarah heaved a sigh. She had always found solace in the mere presence of the man before her. It was Sinn who took her under his wing after her father perished—along with millions others—in the Eckart Cataclysm twenty years ago. It was Sinn who first embraced her tiny trembling form when she -the sole survivor- was rescued from the ocean. And it was Sinn who lent her his ears when she wanted to talk, and his shoulder when she just wanted to cry. To him, Sarah was as a daughter he never had, as he was as a father to her.
"The worst is over, for now." She said. "Marduk's crux index suddenly spiked beyond stable levels even with the artificial heat-death systems running at maximum output. This happened forty minutes ago, lasting only a few seconds—"
"—that is too much..." Sinn remarked.
"It is—furthermore, it coincided with unusually strong pulse readings from the Uruk facility at Old Babil beyond the mist."
"I see, but it shall trouble us no longer; we have a pilot." Said Sinn, gazing at the faint silhouette of the demonic figure suspended inside the sphere. "It is Bel. He is already on his way, along with the rest of the Lancer Brigade."
"We leave the north unguarded?"
"The north is the least of our concerns, which is why I have come to you." Sinn said. He rested an arm upon the rails. "I've received reports of a dragon in the south. Survivors say it appeared suddenly–"
"Yes. Apparently, it would destroy any village, town or citadel to come in its path, and all attempts to stop it have met little success, only managing to provoke it further. It seems to be headed towards us."
"It is that powerful... Still I do not see why we would need to recall the Lancers," said Sarah. "I'd fathom the citadel's defenses would hold against one dragon."
"It did not come from the Rift." Sinn paused, he waited for the words to sink in.
Sarah looked at the aging Regent, silently at first. She ran the words through her mind for a few moments, then repeated them aloud. "Not from the Rift?"
Sinn knew she did not want to believe those words, nor would she want to hear what he had to say next. "I am certain. If it had happened twenty years ago, we could accept that some may have escaped beyond the Great Mist. Since then, the Lancer Brigade had kept a fierce vigil upon the Rift, and they have become increasingly efficient at it over the years."
"My lord, surely one may have slipped past–"
"Each and every dragon that had ever emerged from the Rift had been captured and beheaded, their cruces ripped out, and their bodies cast into the Endless Abyss. Why, thousands of their wretched skulls lay upon Babil's walls for all to see—dated and numbered."
Sarah opened her mouth. She wanted to shout Nay! She wanted to deny. To argue. But the words did not come, as if they, too, shared her fear. A mask of horror fell upon her face when the regent gripped her shoulder tenderly. Don't say it! She thought, her eyes locked with his. Pray, don't say it!
There was such finality in the regent's voice when he finally spake, "Sarah... The Hour is come."