Six figures moved lazily through the night. The torches attached to their Las guns sweeping back and forth in lazy arcs across the battered landscape, the ruins of what was once a city. They wore battered flak armour roughly painted a light purple.
There was undisciplined laughing and joking amongst them as they seemingly savoured the surrounding destruction with almost sickening glee.
The patrol stopped, looking over their shoulders as a massive explosion rocked the horizon; the result of some battle miles away. Then that was followed by another and another in quick succession.
The explosions suddenly stopped, and the six purple armoured figures stayed still for a few seconds more, standing in eager anticipation for another, but another never came. They turned, walking away in distinct disappointment even though for all they could know, it may have been their allies killed in those explosions.
One of them stopped, reaching down and began to fumble with one of the pockets on his belt, the rest walked on, but another turned and said something which made them both laugh out loud.
But one was cut short, his once hearty laughing interrupted by a horrific wet gurgling.
Before the other could even react, a knife flew past the first soldier's shoulder glinting in the moonlight as it sped through the air then the tip stuck fast into the second soldier's throat.
The remaining four stopped and turned; they saw one of their comrades lying face down in a slowly expanding pool of blood while the other was on his knees with a short shadowy figure standing behind him. The figure held a knife, a knife buried to the hilt in the base of the soldier's skull while in the other it held a laspistol a laspistol which flashed four times.
The killer tore out his knife and swiftly descended on the six corpses like a desperate vulture.
The moonlight revealed that it was a young boy, no older than seventeen. A scruffy, dirty beaten and bloody teenager with long messy hair and wearing a damaged old flak jacket.
With speed only a seasoned scavenger could be capable of, the boy retrieved what he needed. Ammo, rations amongst many other things then he was gone, disappearing back into the night as though never there.
It took three hours for another patrol to stumble over the long before looted corpses of their comrades. But by then the boy was a mile away, walking almost casually through the ruins, his hands in the pockets of his flak jacket and a smoking Lho stick hanging from the corner of his mouth.
Attelus Kaltos suddenly awoke, sitting bolt upright, his mind snapping into the abrupt clarity which was forced on him right from day one of the war. His Laspistol raised to cover the entrance of his makeshift living space but found no one was there.
This didn't appease his suspicious instinct, so he swept his pistol to cover the entirety of the small space. Sweeping it back and forth for a good minute before finally deciding he was alone.
He relaxed, slightly, and that was when he realised his hands were shaking like all hell.
Attelus ignored it; his hands always seemed to shake. At first, he had worried about it; it had even initially affected his aim. But now he had grown used to it, to compensate instinctively when lining up a shot.
He slid out from under his sleeping bag and glanced at his battered wrist chron seeing it be midday then slowly approached the entrance of his hideout, his gun again ready. He had holed up in a basement which had survived despite the hab unit collapsing over it during the initial bombardment; this was his tenth hiding place now. The first three the enemy had forced him out. They attempted to smoke him out like a rat, but after that, he had learnt his lesson. Everyone he had left within a day, now he was always on the move.
But he had stayed here for two days now, far too long he decided while walking up the stairs. But this place was warm, well sheltered from the harsh Varanderian winter as constant cold southerlies and powerful northerly winds buffeted the city day and night. That was why the rest of Velrosia during peacetime had nicknamed the capital city of Velrosia "Ventilated Varander." A terrible, horrifically cheesy name but one that Attelus couldn't help but agree with.
With a grunt Attelus forced open the door slowly and slightly, peering out at the ruins outside.
The general area was free of anything but rubble and the wind, the frigging wind.
He dropped the door and walked back down the stairs. It was daytime so he would be still stuck indoors. It was better to move at night, sure there were more enemy patrols, but he could cling to the shadows. Going out during the day was almost suicide.
Attelus couldn't comprehend why the enemy still insisted on holding the ruins of Varander. There was very little left standing; hardly anyone left to subjugate, so why didn't they leave? Use the reinforcements garrisoned here to take part in the war taking place in southern Velrosia (Attelus knew of the war down south due to the almost constant explosions from that direction.) Perhaps it was the symbolism, that the city which had stood for a thousand years, surviving invasion after invasion as an embodiment of Velrosia as a country. Perhaps they wanted to show that now it was theirs forever; to rub salt into the horrific wound caused to the people of Velrosia from its destruction.
On second thought, why did he still insist on staying in Varander? He could be a lot safer if he fled into the thick endless bush to the north, or perhaps even find sanctity in the south.
He shook away such thoughts. He didn't have the necessary supplies to flee so far. That wasn't something to dwell on; he needed to know was the enemy was here and needed to think about how to dodge their patrols.
How to survive.
Attelus began to pack up his supplies methodically. He wasn't leaving for a good nine hours, but it didn't hurt to be prepared, just in case.
He paused as he finished with his sleeping roll, seeing his sheathed sword lying on the floor at the end of his bed.
Ever since the start of the war, Attelus refused to use the monomolecular enhanced blade. Instead, using his stolen Laspistol, throwing knives and the knife he had taken from his first kill. It was idiotic perhaps, but just looking at that sword brought back memories. His father, Serghar Kaltos, had given it to him when Attelus was a child, and he had trained with it for years. It was ironic really, the weapon he had learnt to kill with so effectively and finally when he had the opportunity to use it he didn't, he couldn't. It caused him to remember all that he had lost, and he couldn't afford to remember, and remembering was the worst thing to do when in such a fight for survival.
Attelus turned away from the sword. But still, he insisted on carrying it. It was a dead weight as long as he so resolutely refused to use it.
Perhaps it was because one day maybe he could bring himself to wield it.
It was then he heard the yell, a huge bark in the harsh language of the invaders — the sound penetrating through the ceiling of the basement with ease.
Attelus almost jumped out of his skin, his pistol suddenly ready, his leaping heart lodged in his throat. Have they found him? He heard the all too familiar sound of Las fire followed by a piercing scream that sent shivers up his spine.
Someone ran straight over his basement, their feet lightly shaking the ceiling and he could hear the gasping of what sounded like a woman.
He stood frozen, unsure of what to do.
A second later, her pursuers ran over the basement, reverberating the entire room with their horrifically heavy footfalls.
They weren't after him, that he was sure, but who was it they were chasing? Someone like him?
Should I go out there? He thought, should I try to help her? No, let her handle it, she was stupid enough to allow herself to get caught. Why should I go and risk myself to save her stupid skin?
He suppressed a sigh; in all honesty, the only reason he lived so long was because of the training. Serghar had taught him in the necessary skills for survival; not many people could claim such aid. He had been alone for so long now; he was always a recluse, always a loner.
But now he realised with a start, he was lonely actually, truly lonely and suddenly a fear fell over him, a fear like he had never felt before.
Attelus immediately snatched up his flak jacket, slipping it on with one swift motion. Then made for the door throwing away pretence of precaution as he bashed them open and emerged into the sunlight. Immediately, he fell into a desperate reckless sprint, so much so, that he almost tripped and fell.
He was now a creature of instinct; a creature completely attuned for survival, so running out so recklessly into the middle of the day seemed anathema to his very being. But something was overriding it. This fear, something deep down in him knew if he didn't at least attempt to save this girl, this person, that all this scavenging and killing and desperation would be for nothing.
Then to the east, he heard it, more Las fire and from the sound of it was an intense exchange indeed.
Attelus slid to a halt and for a few seconds was at war with himself. Every ounce of him seemed to scream for him to turn, run back to the relative safety of his basement, but the fear was still there. The fear made his chest tight made it hard to draw breath; he had no idea why it made him run right into danger; usually, the fear made him stay away.
But this was not fear for his life but something more. Something that Attelus couldn't quite understand in his instinctive state, but he knew it was important, beyond important.
Without any further hesitation, Attelus ran on sprinting over the rubble right toward the guns.
As he came closer, and the sound of gunfire became more intense, Attelus slowed his pace; starting to sneak through the ruins moving quickly but cautiously.
He came to the ruins of what looked like an old store that utterly caved in by an artillery shell; the gunfire came from the opposite side of the ruins.
Pushing his back against the remains of the wall, Attelus cautiously approached the corner and peered around it. What he saw made a cruel smile spread over his slender face, a corpse laid in the curb near the next corner, the body wearing the purple flak armour of the invaders.
Attelus slid out from cover, his Laspistol raised and approached the body. It looked like someone had unloaded an entire clip of las rounds point black into his torso as evident from the scorching, gaping hole in his chest.
The teenager bent down and took the Laspistol from the corpse's holster. All the while, intentionally ignoring the man's face, a face which was mutated, changed into something almost unrecognisable as human — changed by whatever foul god that the invaders worshipped.
Quickly he checked that the pistol's charge was full and moved onto the next corner with both pistols held tightly in his quivering hands, then he looked.
About twelve metres down the alleyway were nine purple armoured figures. Their backs to Attelus as they hugged cover behind a broken mound of rockcrete, and exchanged fire with someone at the alley's end, which was a dead end.
Attelus smiled again and shook his head in complete contempt. The idiots were so intent on their prey that they had forgotten to cover their backs. A mistake that they wouldn't live to make again.
He swiftly stepped out from the corner, with both Las pistols raised to cover the attackers as he almost casually approached them.
They never noticed him until he opened fire; shooting the furthest two attackers simultaneously. As the rest turned to face this new threat, he shot the next most distant pair.
The one in the middle of the line as he turned, his raised Las gun was abruptly kicked from his grasp then his teeth knocked in with the butt of a Las pistol. Without hesitation, Attelus lunged forward, so now to be standing between the two comrades, who were at once on the unconscious soldier's flanks.
Attelus' sidekick connected with the left side soldier's guts; hitting so hard the enemy flew into the man behind him, and they both collapsed into a hefty heap of limbs. The next on Attelus' right attempted to face Attelus, but the teenager's pistol-whipped him in the back of his neck. Stunning the man and forcing him to bend double forwards with the impact, allowing Attelus a clear shot at the next Invader.
The teenager's pistol spat twice caving in the soldier's mutated face. Then he kneed the last stunned soldier straight in the throat the blow threw the Invader onto his back, gasping on the ground and clutching his neck.
Without hesitation, Attelus finished them all off with four point-blank blasts of his Las pistol.
Killing like this was what his father taught him to do to, use surprise to it's fullest, to be efficient, merciless. Attelus couldn't help but feel his father would be proud.
"Hello?" the voice cut through the quiet, bringing Attelus back into reality, and he ducked swiftly to hide behind the debris.
"Hello?" the woman called again, and he could hear her careful footsteps on the beaten ground, "hello? I'm not going to hurt you."
Attelus couldn't respond, as pain suddenly shot through his chest and his hands began to shake worse than usual. He had no idea what to say, what to do after so long being alone, after only ever encountering humans who were trying to kill him. Finally meeting someone who meant him no harm, that terrified the young survivor more than he cared to admit.
"Hello," the woman said softly as if to a child, "you can come out; I mean you no harm."
She was getting closer to Attelus, and if he didn't act soon, she would be right on top of him.
He swallowed back his fear, clenched his teeth and in a split second, stood up with both pistols raised to cover her.
"Whoa!" the woman cried out, her hands quickly rose in supplication. She wore the familiar black with white trim flak armour that belonged to the Velrosian attachment of the planetary defence force. She was also stunning with a heart-shaped face and noble, elfin features. Her large eyes widened with fright, a piercing blue, her long deep black hair pulled back into a ponytail.
Her Las gun hung loosely from her shoulder, but Attelus took special note of a long sword sheathed behind her back.
"I am not here to hurt you," she said again slowly. Her eyes attached firmly to Attelus', "I am sergeant Estella Erith, of the Velrosian P.D.F. I am here to help you. Now please put the guns down-"
As she said this, Estella had attempted to take a slow step closer, but the sudden violent gesture from Attelus' guns made her go no further.
"Alright," she said with a smile, "alright. I don't know how long you have been alone in these ruins for, but it is obviously long enough that you now find it hard to tell friend from foe. But, I can tell you, I can swear on my mother's grave that we are on the same side. I am not your enemy, now please lower your guns."
The boy clenched his jaw even tighter, and the guns didn't move even an inch. Something within him genuinely wanted to do it, but the rest of him wouldn't let him. He couldn't begin to believe that now, finally, he had found a friend; it just seemed just too good to be true.
A slight impatient frown creased her attractive face. "Okay, now I am going to reach for my gun, and I swear I am not going to try to shoot you with it. I am going to place it on the ground so that I can't attack you. If you drop your pistols, you can kill me if you see me do anything even slightly suspicious, okay?"
Despite himself, he answered her with a slight nod.
"Okay," and slowly Estella reached for her Lasgun, slowly she slid it off her shoulder, slowly she placed it on the ground, and she kicked it away and well out of reach all the while keeping her gaze locked onto his, then she got back to full height.
For what felt like hours, the pair just stood silent facing each other while Attelus fought a desperate war within himself, but finally with a painful gasp, he lowered his guns.
Estella let out a sigh of relief, "now can I approach you without you shooting me?" she asked lightly.
He managed another nod, as suddenly he felt incredibly weary, wearier than he had ever felt before.
She smiled, nodding pleasantly back and walked to him, but halfway there she suddenly stopped in her tracks, an expression of severe shock on her face but it was gone as quickly as it came.
"So," she said when she approached but still keeping a respectful distance, "can I ask what your name is then?"
Attelus nodded again, finding himself already warming to her infectious smile.
Estella's eyes widened in an almost comical fashion, "so what is your name then?"
They came out almost immediately, the first words he had spoken since the start of the war: "My name... My name is Attelus. Attelus Kaltos," his once soft voice, now harsh and gravelly from a long time of disuse.
"Well I am pleased to meet you Attelus Kaltos," she said, holding out her hand to him.
He hesitated, immediately feeling the fear begin to creep back again.
"Don't be afraid Attelus," she assured him softly, and something in her eyes immediately made it disappear.
For the first time in a long time, a genuine smile split across his dirty bruised face, and he took her hand in his, his calm no longer shaking, hand.
"Pleased to meet you too, Estella Erith," he replied. Standing on the ruins of what was once the greatest cities in Velrosia, and perhaps even the most magnificent city on the entire planet of Elbyra, they shook hands in the ancient Terran way.
Attelus led Estella back to his hideout, holding her hand, only briefly letting go earlier so she could retrieve her Lasgun.
In all honesty, he never wanted ever to let go of her hand ever again. His heart jumped with so much joy it felt close to bursting out his chest and the grin on his face, so big it felt close to tearing his dirty cheeks.
Finally, he had someone to talk to; he had someone to be with! Now, just suddenly, seemed to fill a massive gap in Attelus. He couldn't describe it; he still couldn't completely understand it; Attelus just knew he wasn't lonely anymore.
They came to the entrance of his hideout, and he tore the doors open and walked inside, unaware of Estella's grimace at the smell wafting from its depths.
He turned to her almost smiling from ear to ear then went back to his pack opened it and began to rummage through it.
"D-do you want something to eat?" he asked.
"Sure, thank you Attelus, I have been on the run for hours and haven't had any time to eat, that would indeed be very appreciated," she said, "but it might be a bit easier for you if you let go of my hand."
Attelus immediately stopped his search and turned to her with wide eyes.
"Oh!" he said, distinctly blushing, "sorry," and hesitantly let go.
Estella smiled and began to wander around, looking around the small basement.
Finally, Attelus found what he was looking for, tugging from his battered backpack the dried field rations he had lived on for the past few months when she asked.
"Is that your sword over there?"
He froze and turned back to her. "Y-yes."
"You don't mind if I have a look, do you?"
After a few seconds thought he shook his head. "N-no, go ahead."
She smiled and picked up the sword, then slid it slightly from its sheath.
"It's a good sword, Attelus," she said, "but..."
"It's monomolecular?" he finished; before the war mono enhancements were illegal for blades in Elbyra for the reason that Attelus didn't care for and his father didn't care for as well.
Estella nodded and abruptly slid the sword out, stepping into an impressive but fanciful flourish and returned it into its sheath.
"It is a very, very good blade," she said as she sat across from him, "the balance is perfect, and it was masterfully made, it must have cost a fortune. You don't mind if I ask, who gave it to you?"
Attelus handed her one of the ration cans and began to tear into his food with a plasteek utensil.
"Thanks," she said.
"It was my dad he..." Attelus managed through a mouthful, "he gave it to me."
Despite going so long without food, Estella ate with an almost ingrained refined grace.
"Thank you again Attelus; I have more rations in my pack to reimburse you for these."
Attelus paused briefly in his ravenous eating, treating her with a happy, broad smile that said; "don't worry about it."
"So who gave you, your sword?" he asked.
The teenager swallowed his mouthful with a substantial animated gulp and asked, "who gave you yours?"
"Oh, this?" Estella looked down at the sheathed blade at her hip, "my father gave me mine to, funny that."
"Your good with it too," he commented, "did your father train you?"
"No," she said, looking back to him, "it was our family's master of the blade who taught me."
Attelus paused before biting his next mouthful and raised his eyebrows in distinct bemusement, "family's master of the blade...are you?"
"Yes, I am," she paused, "or I...was a noble."
"That explains it then."
It was Estella's turn to be bemused, "explains what then?"
"It explains the way you used my sword," he stated, "your technique looked very familiar, looked a lot like the sword style which Velrosian nobles are taught it in, Valisuth."
"You could tell that from just one move?"
"Yep, sometimes I would watch the tournaments you nobles take part in, before the war I mean, to learn the way you fight, that flourish you used was a Tsured am I right?"
"Yes, yes, it was."
"It's an advanced move. Not taught until the fifth stage of Falisuth, and you did it almost instinctively, which shows you're very skilled."
Estella smiled, "I appreciate the compliment Attelus, but actually, Tsured is not taught until the sixth level of Falisuth."
Attelus shrugged and began to chew on another mouthful. "Which just further emphasises my statement, you're good. I like Falisuth, it's a good style, even if it's a bit too fanciful for my taste."
"It is the style that king Royd Antares himself created after he returned from Despasia and liberated Velrosia from under the rule of the tyrant of Maranger, Voltarin," said Estella with no small amount of pride.
Attelus shrugged, "yes, but it's a style meant for someone with almost superhuman agility and speed. According to the legends Royd had each in such quantity, he may as well have been one of the Emperor's Primarchs."
Estella smiled widely at that. "He may well have been, you never know Attelus, you never know. Anyway speaking of superhuman speed and agility how did you learn to fight? I saw you kill all those..." she paused as a grimace of disgust came across her attractive face, "...traitor guardsmen I was very much impressed."
Attelus turned away, trying to hide the sudden flush to his cheeks at the compliment, "I-I caught them by surprise that was the only reason why I took them down."
"It was still an impressive feat Attelus; I don't think that many of the scouts of the Velrosian 1st could perform such a feat."
He reddened even worse, "th-thanks."
"W-what happened to your parents?" Attelus blurted out.
Estella raised an eyebrow, not in annoyance but curiosity. "Why do you ask?"
"Y-you said that you were no longer a noble, what did you mean by that?"
"Oh," she said, and Attelus immediately regretted asking the question as a look of extreme sadness appeared on her face, "I did? Alright, but first can I ask you a question?"
Tears appeared in her blue eyes. "What happened to you, Attelus? Where are your parents? Why are you in these ruins alone? You should not worry about me; I am not the one who has fought such a desperate fight in these ruins for so long."
Attelus stared at her, feeling tears well in his own eyes, "I-I don't know, it j-just happened, one second I'm walking home from my scholam and then the bombs came, and, and..."
He whipped away his tears with his sleeve, "then everything went to hell I don't know I-"
She suddenly took Attelus into her arms, embracing the boy tightly as he cried ragged sobs into her chest.
"It's okay," she cooed. "It's okay."
When Attelus finally pulled away, his large hazel eyes were red with tears. In all honesty, he felt guilty as well. Estella had seemingly confused his questions as a legitimate concern, but actually, he asked them more from his suspicion than much else.
"Thank you," he managed.
She smiled and nodded back. "It's no problem Attelus," then she sighed. "Alright, the reason why I am no longer a noble is-."
"You don't need to tell me," he interrupted, "if you don't want to."
"No it's okay Attelus, I want to tell you, you see I am," she paused, 'or I was the youngest daughter of Lord Isaac Erith he was the lord of the small northeastern province of Tasilin, I don't know if you have heard of it."
Attelus nodded confirmation.
"When the bombs struck Attelus, they didn't just ravage Varander but most of north Velrosia including my brother's city..."
"Your brother's city?" asked Attelus.
"Yes my father died a few years ago, so my brother had taken Lordship," she paused, "the city of Foruthian was where my brother sat in power it was also the city the hardest hit, nothing was left standing from what I have heard."
Attelus looked to the floor, unsure exactly what to say, "I'm sorry...where were you when the bombardment began?"
She smiled, "I was south, serving with the P.D.F. in Hyrition..."
Her words trailed away as she stared blankly at the wall in what seemed to be reverie.
"A-Are you okay?"
His words brought her abruptly back into reality, "yes, yes, I'm okay."
"I'm sorry, Estella."
"It's okay, Attelus," she smiled sadly and patted him on the thigh, "it's okay."
"I uhm can I can ask you another question?"
He sighed it was the most obvious question of all, the one which he really should have asked right from the start but hadn't been able to build up the courage until now. "How did you get here?"
Estella grinned and shook her head in amusement, "I knew you would ask this sooner or later and fair enough."
She swallowed before continuing. "My squad and I were sent to scout the ruins of Varander. Our forces had managed to fight a small gap in the enemy line which allowed for my squad and I to sneak through without detection. Everything was going well until we were..."
"Ambushed?" Attelus asked with wide eyes; he could see where this was going from a mile away.
"We were," she said with a nod, "but don't get me wrong, the foolish ill-disciplined soldiers did not ambush my squad that you have seen, no these, these attackers they were different."
"For starters Attelus, they did not wear purple flak armour like the rest of the invaders, no they wore red, and..." she paused shivering despite the warmth, " and they wore iron masks with grotesque, horrific visages emblazoned like, like-like snarling daemons and they were good, very, very good disciplined and brutal."
Her tone and body language welled with pride. "There were eighty of them Attelus, eighty! And even though they had the surprise and we were only twenty, by the time we were two, they were reduced to twenty. Trooper Herst Vanti and I were the only ones remaining he was badly injured I tried to carry him with me as we ran but..."
She paused, her pride replaced by a sudden sadness, "at his insistence he stayed and gave me cover fire while I ran, it was thanks to him I managed to escape."
Estella must have seen the shock in Attelus' eyes, "I did not want to leave him Attelus, but we still had to complete our mission, I still had to complete our mission to scout the ruins of Varander, so here I am with you, my friend."
Suddenly Attelus sighed.
"What's wrong?" she asked, concerned.
"You've lost so much," he said shaking his head, "so much more than I have, your brother, your city, your squad and here you are comforting me, I-I..."
Estella's expression turned hard, "Attelus Xanthis Kaltos, how old are you?"
He looked at her, incredulous, "what?"
"How old are you?" she demanded again, this time with much more force.
"I don't know; I don't know, I'm sixteen- seventeen maybe, I think."
Estella hugged him tightly again and said in his ear, "Attelus I am thirty-five years old, I have served in the military for seventeen years. It's hard for me, but you have to remember that you are still a child, you are skilled at fighting and you have killed, but you are still young and nothing, nothing could have prepared you for this hell. So do not think for one second, that I am any worse off than you. Nobody your age should be forced through this, absolutely no one."
Attelus hugged her back but thought as he did, how the hell did she know my middle name?
They talked for another hour or so, but it was soon evident to Attelus just how exhausted Estella was despite her putting on a face.
Finally, he asked, "how long were you on the run?"
She looked at him with weary eyes before replying. "Two days, Attelus. The patrol was chasing me earlier I stumbled upon when I entered the Varanderian outskirts, just my frigging luck. I was foolish. I didn't think the enemy still patrolled the ruins."
Attelus frowned. "Yeah, I was recently wondering along the same lines. But enough about that I can see that you're exhausted take some rest."
She nodded a slow, tired movement. "Are you sure? Will you be alright?"
He smiled, shaking his head in amusement. "Yeah, I think I'll be alright. I've lived alone for this long I think I can cope now, perhaps. Get some rest, Estella. We're going to move at dark. I've been in the place for too long now, and after that battle, we might attract more unwanted attention."
"M-kay," Estella said softly as she began to slip onto her side, her eyes slowly shutting simultaneously, "wake me when it is time."
Attelus nodded although he knew she wouldn't be able to see it.
He sat and watched Estella sleep, trying to remember whether or not he had told her his middle name. But after a while he shook away such thoughts, now wasn't the time to dwell on that.
With a sigh, Attelus slowly got to his feet again and started up the stairs to look outside.
He now had a guard duty to perform.