Kindaichi of the Topaz Gull Clan, formerly 7th Dan of Washi San Academy, in disgrace, had never in her life been so exhausted. Resting against a blood and oil-smeared boulder, inside her mecha, she sobbed, but so dehydrated was she that no tears came. She no longer even had the energy to marvel at the depth of her new bond with her mecha. She could feel the stone she was leaning upon as though it were flesh and not metal which touched it. Hours ago that sensation had been magnificent. Now it was just another factor contributing to her exhaustion.
Eyeless hordes swarmed over the rise barreling her over with their numbers. Their tentacles latched onto her limbs trying to restrain her. In her weakened state, they might have succeeded, but some impossible reserve of determination made her bring her Mochi-Yari to bear. Lancing dead Cheldrun in half, she forced herself to rise out of the mass.
To her left and right other mecha labored, wading through tides of the Enemy, as exhausted as she, perhaps even more bereft of hope and yet they were carried by iron discipline, and absolute confidence in the rightness of their cause. Since this morning dozens of her colleagues had fallen. She watched as Ishikawa of the Jade Falcon Clan was liquefied by some horrible beam from Karaku Oni. The molten ring through the torso of his mecha glowed orange as he fell in a heap and was buried under the advancing army. He fired his bow twice more, annihilating several eyeless with each shot, before dying.
Kindaichi would give no less. At this very moment refugees were fleeing for safety. There was no hope of ultimate victory, but each second she bought would be one more second for the refugees to flee. She told herself this because she could see no redemption for herself in this situation. Every ounce of her body screamed in agony with each movement. Soon, she knew, nothing would keep her in motion and then she would be at the mercy of the eyeless... or she would pass out and her mecha would be dismissed... or an Oni would return... or all of the Oni...
An eyeless was flying through the air, toward her helmet. She recognized him, even without his eyes. It was a high-ranking Hei Shi named Arrow, one who had brought Goshi Directives to Washi San Academy upon occasion. Her Mochi-Yari took his head off in one blow.
Not yet. She would not die, yet.
At best the infirmary could be called an endless triage clinic. Nothing approaching actual medicine was being performed here any longer, the Surgeon lamented. It was impossible to even attempt it with the thousands of casualties being rushed through the doors every minute. The injured and dying spilled out of the walls into the fields beyond, laying on tarps and in the grass, not neatly, but piled up. Those who could pull themselves out of the pile to find a wall to lean against were probably those with the best chance of survival, Surgeon concentrated on them. The rest just moaned and wailed for relief, but there was none to give.
A young man, too young to have any right to be participating in the fighting, sat by himself in a rare clear spot on the ground. Both arms were gone from the shoulders. He rocked back and forth slightly, dizzy from blood loss. He would be dead in moments. The Surgeon laid him back on the ground, whispering in his ear though he doubted anything he said would penetrate the shock. Suddenly the man was quite lucid and he looked the Surgeon in the eyes as he spoke.
"They're coming. More are coming. It's not over."
The Surgeon thought he meant the Goshi army, but moments after he left the man's side to attend the next victim he noticed corpses twitching, going into paroxysms, their limbs quaking. It was happening everywhere. Terry the Canary, covered head to toe in viscera, came running toward him, shouting incomprehensibly through her sobs. The corpses were rising. Coming to their feet, without eyes in their heads, they began to consume the wounded and the dying.
Terry embraced him and he thought he heard her say "we tried," and "die together." He would have shaken her out of her hysteria in different circumstances, but he found he could do nothing but hold her tightly to himself and nod and weep. She was always a flighty little girl. Too fragile for times like these. Everyone is too fragile for times like these. Suffering like this was never meant to be inflicted on any man.
He barely realized it when a barbed tentacle burst through Terry's rib cage. She was quiet now, but he kept holding her. He whispered that it would be okay, though he knew it could never be.
He didn't see or feel the blow that felled him.
Perched on a branch, Sings-Like-Frog, looked out over the frozen surface of Stardown Lake at the stream of refugees running for their lives. In the distance the mountains were on fire. Smoke poured into the air making midday seem gray and dingy like dusk. Only the sun and the fire of the Wandering Star pierced the gloom above. The Star was almost at its peak and it filled the aging Zipsum's heart with forboding.
Below him, interspersed through the trees were the assembled choirs of the Prill. The greatest massed choir in generations. Even in the midst of the devastation it made him glow with pride to have spent his life among the fox-children. In his warbly croaking voice he sang along with a number of the songs which were familiar to him. No mystical power filled him when he did so. He could not so much as turn one drop of water to ice, but he felt as if he were part of something tremendous, something worth doing.
The terror of the refugees who were arriving on the south and eastern shores of the lake was palpable, but there was an undercurrent of gratitude as well. They were rushed under the canopy of the forest and away to safety where whole cities had been sung into existence for them. Most had no way of comprehending what was happening. They had never before seen a Prill or heard of their wonder-working powers. They stumbled, dumb-founded, between paralyzing fear and disbelief.
In time, they would remember this as the beginning of a lasting peace. That was Elder Moon's hope. Saving millions of Cheldrun from destruction would be the seeds of unity for Karians and Cheldrun. These refugee cities will last. They will flourish and they will remind the children of steel of the debt they owe. Sings-Like-Frog was no diplomat, but he believed her when she spoke about it. She was passionate, and convicted. She persuaded every Karian who heard her and they willingly lent their help to the cause. Something good must come from this travesty.
From where Sings-Like-Frog was perched he could count tens of millions of good things running across the ice.
Fighting alongside the Zipsum was good. Fighting with the strength of Karia was even better. Edana Griolsa ripped the tentacles off an eyeless before her and kicked it so hard the rib cage collapsed. Before it hit the ground two Zipsum warriors were on it, plunging poisoned knives over and over again into the flesh. Everywhere she turned her blows were followed by Zipsum knives and arrows. She set them up, and the Zipsum cut them down. It was beautiful to watch.
Overhead a tank whistled through the air. When it plowed into the ranks of the enemy it sent a shockwave of flesh rippling for dozens of meters in every direction. She charged up to it and ripped the cannon free from its moorings. She swung it around her in a great arc, clearing a circle of the dead, breaking backs, crushing skulls. One ducked under her swing and plowed into her at the waist trying to knock her off her feet. She neither braced herself nor avoided the attack. The eyeless merely bounced off her like a granite column. The Zipsum knives silenced him before he could get up.
Deep in her breast a proud Gogajin heart was beating. Decades of rage at the suffering of her people combined with the unbelievable hope that the unification of the clans provided made her and every other Gogajin unstoppable. They would neither tire, nor weaken. They would not surrender or retreat. They would hound the foe across every centimeter and kilometer of the continent if need be. They were Gogajin. Their enemies would die in despair, but they would die with a loud and raucous laugh.
Aimi could get used to this feeling - the feeling of rushing through the clouds at the helm of an airship. For most of her life she never questioned the Cheldrun prohibition against taking to the sky, but now that she knew how seductive it was she began to understand it better. Not as good as sex, but not completely dissimilar.
The one thing she did not like about flying the Sennin is how conspicuous it was. Used to arriving unannounced with a surprise knife to the back, it was against her nature to be so exposed to every eye as she whistled through the air. There was no longer any meaningful surface-to-air threat from the Goshi army... was it really Goshi anymore? But it kept her on edge every second. An Oni, she knew, could obliterate the Sennin without effort. She dare not relax her guard.
To make matters worse, Kiyoshi and Rei and friends were always insisting on being deposited as close to the damn Oni as possible. Not only did she object to exposing herself and the Sennin to such danger, she in no way approved of Kiyoshi's reckless behavior. She had a feeling that her approval meant about as much to him as the opinion of a rock. Then reflecting on the awe these people seemed to have of Karia - even believing that Karia was alive and influencing them by giving them their remarkable powers, she glumly noted that her opinion might matter less than that of a rock.
He'd better survive long enough for me to punish him, she thought to herself.
Zipporah felt something like butterfly wings fluttering in her uterus. Her eyes widened and she clutched her stomach. It was the first sensation of the life within her and she was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. There was a spark of joy, yes, but it seemed so fragile in comparison with the host of fears that pressed in around her. The meaning of this child was yet to be determined. Everything that it could be could so easily be destroyed by the war... by the enemy... if she lost Moses...
Over and over again lately she had forced herself to contemplate his death. It was the last thing she wanted, and yet every second it was a terrible possibility. Now it seemed a near certainty since the hopes of so many were depending on him... depending on his willingness to sacrifice himself.
He would do it, she knew. She couldn't be angry about it either. She would do the same in his place, but knowing this in no way reduced the enormity of her grief. Instead she was angry at the Dusk Sages. Angry at Karia. Angry at the All. It was not right, not fair, not in any sense good or just that so many should have to suffer for others to live. Perhaps, she reflected bitterly, the Question was nothing but a cosmic wager. A callous game of chance with the lives of, well everything, at stake.
Including the life in her uterus. That above all is why she knew she would lose Moses. If he could do something to ensure that life... anything. Could she bear to see this child grow and live, but never rest in Moses' embrace again?
This command center was really no such thing. It was a lost cause. His officers were dead or dying or rising as eyeless. His soldiers were fleeing or cowering or nonresponsive to his commands in any case. The few mecha he still had fighting were beyond his reach and there were no more tanks or artillery and even if there were they wouldn't be of much use. Daitokuji Ichirou, patriarch of the Silver Phoenix Clan and general of the Stardown Defense Force was grudgingly forced to admit that they had indeed arrived at the end of the road.
Despite the unbelievable efforts of the Heroes of Karia Vitalus, there was no stopping this swarm of eyeless which had enveloped them. He urged everyone to standfast, knowing it was pointless. Those who would fight would fight. The rest were already rushing after the refugees for the frozen lake. Dimly he hoped that his wife and child were safe among those escaping. There was nothing he could do about it either way.
Having given his final orders, and knowing there was nothing left that any general could do to reverse this tide, he calmly walked from the bunker into the open. Bullets ricocheted off the cement around him. He ignored their dangerous buzz, and turned to face the oncoming rush of the Enemy. Countless millions had been killed or destroyed, yet millions more were coming. Among them the cruel, but vibrant First Minds walked, propelling the demonic army by their twisted power. They had overcome every obstacle the SDF placed in their way. They were almost through the pass, to pour on the unprotected refugees below.
One obstacle still remained for them to overcome, however. Daitokuji Ichirou, 12th Dan of Washi San Academy, the greatest mecha pilot who ever lived. He crossed his arms in front of him and silver light rippled over the field.
Heaving tanks through the air is hard work. Even Balder had to admit that the Cheldrun know how to make some heavy shit. The heaviest thing in a Gogajin village is a slab of stone, or a plowshare. Nowhere near as heavy as a tank. Not that he was counting, but he was pretty sure he'd hurled about 43 of them so far, and now they were staying away from him or driving for the hills, or unoccupied and lifeless. That was the thing about tanks, without their crew they're just a hunk of metal.
There were less tanks about now, and less artillery, and less Cheldrun actually. The enemies he was wading through now were eyeless, every one of them. The living children of steel had turned on their own army, shooting the eyeless rather than running alongside them. It was one hell of a clusterfuck, because the Goshi soldiers didn't know which side they were on. They were shit-scared of the eyeless, but the Gogajin weren't their friends either. Balder decided to let them shoot first to see if they were an enemy. If they fired on him (to little effect since Karia was blessing him with her strength), then he gave them the tank treatment. If they screamed and ran he let them go.
Over the sounds of the battle he could hear little, but from time to time he heard a Gogajin clan crying their motto and regardless of which clan it was he would shout it along with them and charge with renewed vigor. They were united now, the Gogajin. And Grim, Grim of all fucking people was their leader! Their High-fucking-King! He was doing a good job making a show of it too. He had charged to the top of a rise, near the middle of the enemy army, and planted his standard, waving it for all to see. He taunted the foe to take the hill from him and for hours none had been able to displace him.
Balder made his way that direction, cutting through swaths of eyeless with a torn sheet of metal. From behind Grim he could see a small, unassuming man approaching. Balder recognized him as a First Mind, and he shouted to warn Grim, but his voice was drowned out by the roar of an artillery shell exploding nearby. Rainbow rays burst from the First Mind's fingertips obliterating several of the Gogajin in Grim's entourage. Grim turned around to face his new opponent and Balder could tell he didn't recognize the danger. Grim threw his arms wide, taunting the First Mind, exposing himself. The First Mind smirked and raised his hands...
Then Balder was on him. He had a hand in the First Mind's mouth, and an arm around his chest. Some dark energy tore at Balder, turning his flesh to spaghetti, unraveling him like a wool jumper. It hurt more than Balder cared to admit. He squeezed the First Mind with all of his might, but for his unassuming appearance he was unbelievable strong. The dark energy continued to shred Balder like so much confetti. He lost his balance and tumbled to the ground with the First Mind still in his grasp.
Balder's legs began dissolving. A metal plate burst free from his shoulder when the screws could no longer find purchase in bones quickly turning to gelatin. Balder screamed for Grim to run. Run for his fucking life, but he couldn't see or tell whether Grim had listened. The First Mind continued struggling in his grasp and Balder forced his hand further into its mouth as his vision became blurry, and the world started to fade.
The blackness claimed Balder, but not before he ripped the First Mind's skull, without the jaw, from its moorings and tossed it into the fray.
At the eye of the storm Jin Kalys labored, obsessively, over his newest equations. They made no sense, even to him. Frankly he had given up certainty some time ago. He understood the exigencies of the circumstances. He had no more time to make them right. No more time to be certain, and the math... his dreams weren't coming as they usually did when the equations were close. His subconscious assimilation of nine branch formal logic must not have been as thorough as he'd once imagined, because now... when he most need to be sure.
Some luxuries life does not afford us. This solution would have to do.
The new inertial dampener/difference engine combination artifact was bulky, intricate, and Jin would even venture, aesthetically pleasing. In other times he would have joyfully joined Sousauryoku in an thorough study of the device. It made him feel amateurish to be so hasty with his preparations, but at this very moment the Eyeless were pushing into the streets of Stardown and the Wandering Star was nearly at it's apex. In less than an hour the fate of life would be decided and in some small way he would take part in that decision. Of any debate he had ever waged he most hoped to earn a piercing for this one.
Sousauryoku leaned over his shoulder to read the last page of notation. For once he didn't make a snide comment, but merely gave a weary look that said "I hope you're right."
"There is no other choice," Jin Kalys assured him.
From her birth in fiery glory Karia had been a witness. Only in these last hours was she also an actor. It gave her indescribable pleasure, but also debilitating anxiety to at last be involved in the cosmic drama. For a child whose lifespan is measured in billions of revolutions the span of an hour is the blinking of an eye. She watched, unblinking, as that last hour unfolded and she admitted to herself at last, what she had denied for billions of years - that she was not neutral in this conflict, that her heart sang to her of the beauty of life and could not abide the thought of an eternity without the living. She watched, but not as an enraptured audience, she watched as one who stood much to lose. The living were making their choices. The meaning was being played out. The Question would at last be answered.