Lux Locus: The First Awakening

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The Start of Something Old(rewritten)

Killigan and his new counselors discussed everything they had decided upon in their bregu’s absence, such as recruitment procedures, foundry construction or acquisition, and space vessel acquisition. Meanwhile, Killigan had sent the regular pillars around the capital in order to bring awareness of their existence and, remove recruiting posters for other foundations to make way for their own.

“We need to train most of the troops to be regular, frontline soldiers with the ability to adapt to multiple field roles,” Fodr insisted. He stabbed the air with his finger on every word. “Of course, as with any foundation, we need those trained in more specialized tasks. Those that others can’t deal with using their basic equipment,” he added.

The group was still standing within the large chamber introducing Killigan to his foundation. Now that it was even more empty, every word and movement echoed for a minute.

“But we are still a fledgling group.” Killigan rubbed his forehead and stifled a yawn. “We barely have enough troops to defend the Calaghi System, let alone get new ones to train specialists. We can’t negotiate from a position of power here.”

“We have temporary unlimited funds handled by the Imperator Oferwealdend and the Imperator Flaesc until we can start up, but if we take too long or the funds are wasted, they will cut us off and leave us to our fate,” Oodravos explained. He looked partially tired, but he was still smiling and his voice was still soft-spoken.

Killigan held his elbow up and rested his chin upon his palm. “That, and the methods of training of the pillars is inefficient. We would go through thousands of new recruits and only receive a dozen new pillars,” he lamented.

“I agree,” Oodravos plainly added. “The ‘traditions’ that most pillars follow is not a very efficient method of recruiting, and recovering their remains to get the potential mutations during the fights is too dangerous.” He passed a hand through his hair and looked up at the ceiling. “Need better solutions,” he blew.

Fodr shook his head in disapproval and crossed his arms. “Then just send the regimentaries. They’re there for that.”

“NO!” Killigan bellowed. If they had a table, he would have destroyed it with his gauntlets. His anger had no physical outlet and was thus led to his voice. “Regimentaries aren’t some fodder to toss onto the enemy to entangle them. We won’t stomp on both.” His chest heaved with rage. “They are humans of the Terran Expanse, and each life is important and with value. And WE’RE the ones who take the frontlines!”

Fodr uncrossed his arms and stared at ‘his’ bregu with wide eyes and disgust.“Then you would just toss away our traditions?! The way every foundation has functioned since the original twelve?” He walked up to Killigan, leaving but a few centimeters of distance between their faces. “We don’t follow traditions because we don’t want to change. We FOLLOW them because every attempt at change has proven disastrous,” he insisted. Fodr glared at Killigan and poked him several times in the chest with his finger. “What makes you think you would fare better?”

Killigan’s fists tightened. The bregu did not take kindly to the tone with which Fodr spoke to him. He was tempted to grab his military advisor’s wrist and crush it, but his fists loosened nonetheless.

“I am more than aware of methods others have tried to use,” Killigan spoke. He struggled to contain his frustration. “My methods are not like theirs. I do not do this for fame and glory nor for any sort of position.” He pointed to the ground. “I’m exactly where I want and need to be.”

“Please cease these hostilities,” Oodravos pleaded. “We don’t need the foundation to start destroying itself from the inside when it hasn’t even started yet,” he sighed tiredly.

Killigan abided and returned to the discussion. “I already have multiple plans in mind that we can use. I’ll pass them through to-” He caught himself. “I’ll pass all but one of them to you.”

The three councilors looked at each other, and while Fodr was going to confront the bregu once more, Eriee stepped in front of him and pushed him back.

“Why is there only one element you refuse to share with us?” she asked.

Killigan took a moment to think before replying. “It’s an important aspect. Something to make us unique amongst the ‘regular’ foundations, and hopefully bolster our ranks faster and more efficiently.” He stretched his fingers. “I’m likely going to need your help at one point or another with it.”

“Then I will do what I can,” Eriee spoke plainly.

“Good!” Killigan clapped his hands together with joy. “Now, we need a base of operations...” His enthusiasm drooped as fast as his shoulders did. “I don’t know of any location good enough for that, unfortunately."

Fodr rolled his eyes and spoke out. “We can just make a fortress next to or in the city. Just claim the slums and tell the Imperator Oferwealdend to send funds to the Governor to build homes for them.” He shrugged. ’It would be good enough and we could be in close proximity,” he explained haphazardly. “You would be close enough to your little pets.” He wiggled his fingers along with his words.

Killigan ignored the inflaming remark. “That’s...quite thoughtful of you.” He spoke in a sarcastic voice and widened his eyes. “Why, in the ten minutes I’ve known you, I took you for a greater-than-thou type of character.”

Fodr frowned and looked around, his eyes locking onto nothing in particular whilst trying to figure out exactly what Killigan said.

Eriee ignored the exchange once more, interested only in her end goals. “You would need a large amount of things to execute your plans,” Eriee interjected. “We would need to work in coordination with the regimentaries of this system, and for that we would require constant communication with them.” Eriee raised her right hand. It was covered in a blue metal ending in pyramidal shapes at the end of her finger tips. She joined them together to show the entire spire cynesetl. She pointed to the tower the four were currently standing in. “This would require the placement of an interplanetary and interstellar communication satellite on the highest spire of the capital and several communication satellites in orbit to receive and transmit the signals with as little atmospheric interference as possible.”

Killigan nodded. “And that would require the planet’s governing body to agree to our request.”

“They’re more than likely to accept,” Oodravos added with a faint smile. “We’re the brand new foundation of this system; a great honor. They’re most likely to try and appeal to us in every way possible while preventing it from seeming like we have all of the power.” He coughed and rotated his left arm.

“I’m not here to take over,” Killigan stated frankly. “We’re not the ones in power.”

Oodravos grimaced. “Are we not?” He shrugged. “Very well, my bregu. I am pleased to see one that isn’t interested in governing his own system.”

“Only a few bregu have attempted that,” Fodr said angrily. “And they were executed.”

Killigan took a moment to take in what Oodravos had just implied before turning to more pressing matters.

“But the Calaghi System has no native regimentarium. The present soldiers are either loaned by the Imperator Oferwealdend or volunteers. It’s good for small raids, but the system won’t survive if it becomes big and populated enough that it attracts the puwandese.”

“WHAT?!” Fodr bellowed in horror. “This system has been colonized for practically eight decades and it hasn’t been fortified? Why?!”

Fodr’s booming voice nearly deafened Killigan. “I’m not sure. I suppose it was never considered a priority.” He massaged his ears while he continued to speak. “Calagh was colonized because it seemed suitable for a new colony with selective purposes chosen in the future once it stabilized. The nearby planets were also turned into a military arsenal fabrication with shipyards, and a trading hub which gets the most traffic in the system.”

“Then why are we here instead of at the trading hub?” Fodr was livid.

“Because Gorach is not sufficiently developped and has only recently started the transition to a main commercial center for the system. The trading stations, beacons, and communication hubs are not on par with Calagh’s.” Killigan readjusted his armor on his left arm. “Plus, a trading hub means constant activity, which would impede deployment but on land and in space.”

Fodr was going to object, but he shrugged and leaned away with a nod.

“Where would we place our headquarters?” Eriee wondered. “Here in the capital, as I suggested?”

“That seems like the most viable solution,” Killigan acquiesced. “Being the capital, we would be as close as possible to all the important aspects of the system, such as the local governing body and high ranked regimentarium officers.”

“Perhaps we could do like the Magus Imperators?” Oodravos thought aloud. “Make a floating fortress.” He raised his brows and looked up at Killigan with an intrigued smile.

The bregu shook his head. “We would need to build a titan space vessel for that.” Killigan saw Eriee -from the corner of his eye- twitching when he mentioned the titan ship. He didn’t take his eyes off of her for a moment while continuing to speak. “We don’t have the means to maintain one at our current level.”

“And a flying fortress would be...just as difficult to maintain,” Eriee added. “They wouldn’t permit quick deployment.” Eriee displayed the ‘Finger’ via her gauntlet. “And they’re too small to hold any transport craft.”

“How would we deal with interplanetary transportation and rapid deployment?” He started to count off his fingers. “Especially for heavy things, like antiorbital cannons, weaponry from a factory, materials both mineral and food, and so on?” Oodravos asked.

“Then there’s protecting it all,” Fodr added.

“I have a solution to that problem,” Eriee interjected.

“And this idea would be?” Fodr wondered skeptically.

The pillar craeft pulled out a schematic of a circular platform from her gauntlet. “A group of researchers in magitech have developed a form of long-range teleportals.” She flipped the hologram upside down to reveal the nest of wiring and circuitry pathways within it. “If we take them and improve their design further, we would be able to transport pillars and regimentaries across the city at key locations as well as creating interplanetary portals which would have an additional benefit for all people in the Calaghi System.”

“Then we could put our headquarters in a newly built location in the city or use this spire?” Fodr wondered.

Killigan nodded. “Yes. Looks like we’ll be using that first idea for our base after all.”

“And what of the regimentaries? And other necessities, such as warmachines and warships?” Oodravos sighed tiredly.

Fodr deadpanned to Oodravos and stared blankly at him. “What is wrong with you? Why do you always sound so...tired?”

Oodravos waved his hand limply at his interrogator who rolled his eyes and moved on with the discussions.

“Well...There is a nearby planet, namely Tamanach, the sixth in our system, which I have heard was being converted into a specialist manufacturing center, specifically for the larger vehicles and weaponry needed by the regimentarium that the other planets can’t supply.” Killigan said. He rubbed his chin. “They were going to be sold off-planet to other systems for profit, but we could negotiate with the governors into having several sections of the industrial zones for our own regimentarium, and more for pillar equipment. Regular policing would be available to the inhabited planets. It would be a location that would require constant surveillance and protection because of its importance.” He sighed and relaxed his body. “But, I believe that would make it all the more worthwhile until they become self-sufficient.”

“Why self-sufficient?” Eriee asked.

“Because they would be capable of holding out in case of a siege, then we could arrive as reinforcements, destroying whatever enemy came to attack them.” Killigan explained. “We would be the wave to crash them against the wall.” He punched his open palm.

“Then we would have to fortify the manufacturing facilities like this city,” Fodr said.

“Yes, but not to the same extreme. We could install the basics, then they would be able to do the rest themselves as they’re the ones that need to know how to install everything to not impede infrastructure growth.”

“If that is taken care of, I believe I know how to make your regimentaries into strong warriors,” Fodr said.

“Oh?”

The commander modified the hologram of Eriee, using the virtual buttons she supplied to him, to show the Calaghi System in full. Several asteroid belts circled closest around the star, leaving Calagh as the first planet. The hologram had tags floating above the planets and holding their names. These moved in unison with the planets slowly rotating around the local star. Gorach was next, and after that were the Calders: Three planets of barren wastelands that could see no use. Their surfaces were constantly ravaged by skycraper-height sandstorms, bringing a vile brown miasma to coat the atmosphere. Terraforming would be inefficient as it would cost far too much in terms of energy and resource importing, and that tech wasn’t even properly developed, as it stood. After was Tamanach; the aforementioned site of future industry.

Seventh from the sun was Xylon; a jungle canopy.

“We can use this planet,” Fodr suggested with a smile. “A dangerous-but-controlled environment like this would certainly energize the new recruits.”

The other two nodded and looked to Killigan, but all three were taken aback by his horrified stare. “Are you insane?!” the bregu bellowed at the top of his lungs.

Fodr jumped back. “What? What’s wrong with it?!”

Killigan faced the pillar. “That’s not a primitive planet that has yet to stabilize itself. That’s a hellic planet!” The bregu gestured to the planet with both arms sticking out of his side.

The faces of the two uncovered paled, and they slowly looked at the planet again, realizing the horrors present. Eriee did not react, however. This wasn’t related to technology. This wasn’t interesting.

Fodr nodded slowly and zoomed out. “Okay. Not Xylon, then.”

Oodravos started to become skeptical. “Are you sure it’s a hellic planet? I saw no such declarations from the Niethgaest Biologic nor the Aelfyce Cartagrophers.”

“Yes,” Killigan replied dryly. “Expeditions sent there were killed by the plantlife, and footage recovered from their ship showed the static plants still attacking smaller, mobile plants for sustenance. They’re massive and varied, and we’ve found no mammalian or reptilian life there.”

“But that could be--”

“Xylon is a highly unstable, volcanically active planet. Just understanding how ANYTHING could grow there is a mystery.” Killigan spoke loudly.

“And they’re doing what?” Oodravos asked. “Holding the tectonic plates together using their roots?” Killigan nodded, and the cwildeseten stared at the bregu blankly. “But the depth the roots would need to go--”

“They reach below the mantle to get all the heat,” Killigan interrupted. “It’s how they grew so fast.” He was getting weary.

“But there has to be a starting point.”

“We haven’t found them,” Killigan explained. “No drones sent close to the planet survive, and we’re not exactly sure why.” He shrugged. “All we do know is that the planet’s distance from the sun forced the plants to use the extreme heat from the volcanic super activity and the soils to become various shades of red and brown.”

Oodravos held up his right arm by his elbow and leaned his head into the open palm. “I suppose the common parasitic plants are there as well? Those that drain competitors of nutrients to take their territory?” Killigan nodded. “Of course,” the pillar flaesc sighed.

“There,” Fodr pointed proudly. “That planet.” His voice emulated great satisfaction.

He pointed to a planet quite a ways away from the rest, far at the edge of the system. While the others were at an average distance of one-point-twenty-three astronomical units from each other, with Calagh being one-point-zero-two from the central star, this planet was four-point-sixty-five astronomical units from Xylon, meaning it was a sphere of ice. No heat from the sun could reach it. Only a dim, sparkling light from the horizon to light the gloomy surface.

“Aman?! But it’s a frozen ice ball. Why would you use that planet?” Killigan asked. He crossed his arms and lowered his head slightly, curious as to the answer.

Fodr grimaced, rubbed his chin, and leaned in to get a better look at the planet. “Yes, but with such harsh conditions, and with proper resource transportation, those trained there could become some of the fiercest warriors that humans have to offer that aren’t pillars.” He turned his head to face the bregu. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

Killigan was about to argue, but refrained from doing so. “What do you think, Oodravos? You’re the pillar flaesc. What would happen to the humans?”

“Those that are used to regular weather would not be able to adapt to extreme changes that might occur if they are required to go out of the system to conquer or reinforce other systems,” he noted. “By putting them in such extremes, they could be capable of adapting and being grateful of the weather they are in, but they would need custom-built facilities to give them the heat they require to survive.” He shook his head. “That could be costly, but it would be a long-term investment.”

“And it would create new teleportals that could resist the freezing temperatures, “Eriee interjected. “I agree with Oodravos, however. Hardened regimentaries that could efficiently fight alongside pillars instead of one side attacking and the other staying behind for fire support would be a welcome change..”

“It could even encourage them to develop better training regimens,” Fodr surmised.

“Then we’ll need to bring out the old veterans living in the Calaghi system to train them,” Killigan nodded.

“No,” Fodr disagreed immediately.

“What? Why not?”

“They would not be used to such extremes,” the military advisor complained. “No. We would need other veterans from other systems.” He walked around, trying to remember as many regimentarium as he could. “Those that went through icy climates would be the best to start with, considering Aman’s climate.”

Killigan sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “You’re right. I’ll have messengers sent to any regimentarium befitting this criteria.” He turned to face the pillar craeft. “I’ll also need to create simulators for the training of new recruits, Eriee.”

The woman nodded. “And what about a titan vessel?” Her voice had a tang of excitement in it, something Killigan hadn’t heard since he first met her.

“That’s not a priority yet.” He noticed that Eriee wasn’t taking too kindly to this objection, as her fists were clenching and her body was tensing up. Unnoticeable to the common eye, but Killigan had trained under her and made things alongside her. He knew how this pillar worked. “Create blueprints, though. I’ll review those you’ve already made, and when everything has been settled, then we can go over them and make joint progress on the potential construction.” He coughed loudly. “And look for the materials after telling the aelfyce cartographers,” he muttered quickly under his breath.”

“I already have potential designs ready,” Eriee claimed.

“Well, I’m eager to see them and discuss them with you,” Killigan said. He shook his head and looked around. He was starting to get antsy with all this standing around. “I haven’t had a chance to really start designing things in quite a while, but with this new foundation under my command, I will be able to design and forge new equipment and weapons for it.”

“Why not use the three Calders if you’re looking for resources?” Oodravos suggested. “They’re barren balls of rock, so they must have untapped veins of resources.”

Killigan nodded. “A very good idea. They’re right next to us additionally, so we won’t need expeditions.” He put his hand to his chin and started to mutter loudly. “Now all that is left is a color scheme and a symbol. I have an idea that could work. We need to cut the armor in four, the upper-left and lower-right of the armor needs to be Admiral Blue while the remaining ‘squares’ of the armor can be Candy Red.”

“And the armor ridges?” Eriee asked.

“Golden.”

“Not a very efficient camoflauge,” Oodravos teased.

Killigan shrugged the mockery off. “We take the brunt of the fight. The ‘louder’ we are, the easier that goal will be.” He bobbed his head from left to right after a brief debate with himself. “We’ll still need classic camoflauge of course. These will just be our heraldic colors.”

“Should I prepare that color for your own armor?” Eriee asked.

“No,” Killigan refused. He started analyzing his gauntlets. “I will design and color my own armor, preferably to fit with my gauntlets’ color scheme.”

Fodr nodded.“And our symbol?” He crossed his arms.

“The Tripartite Triangle,” the bregu answered instantly.

Killigan used the holograms of Eriee to design the symbol in front of them. The main body was an equilateral triangle whose corners had been cut off and replaced with smaller equilateral triangles. In the middle of the main body was a dot from which three lines ending in a single dot each stood. The lines moved towards the sides of the main body, away from the corners.

“And what does it represent?” Fodr was inquisitive and mocking. “Just because you make fancy shapes doesn’t mean that you can just take haphazardly.”

Killigan pointed to the outer triangles. “The three triangles at the corners of the main are the tertiary defenses that we hold. Our bodies, armor, and weapons. The main triangle is us and our regimentarium allies. The second level of defense. And within both of these is the Terran Expanse and its people. The primary defense.”

“Oooooo,” Oodravos realized. “I see. ‘Defense’.” He nodded then shook his head disapprovingly. “I want to congratulate you but hurt you at the same time.”

While Fodr was reluctant, it wasn’t uncommon for foundations to change later on, so he let chance take the better of him. Eriee thought nothing and saved the information. She only wanted to build a titan.

It was now the year 1119 AmtW upon the human calendars. The Emperor’s Guard had grown tremendously since their founding and had grown ties with the Marma Fissures and Cwildseten foundations. However, their new methods of training recruits were viewed with disdain by other foundations. The Emperor’s Guard were viewed as anomalies amongst the other pillars who did the necessary to prevent the spread of the Emperor’s Guard’s influence and ideas.

The capital of Calagh was also an enormous fortress-city five layers of thirty-meter high walls of armed concrete, titanium, and metal bits mixed into the stone concoction. All five were brimming with anti-infantry, anti-vehicle, and anti-air all within and upon their entities. The buildings within the city were reinforced external walls with thin plates of steel and stronger foundations. The highest spire was now one of two; The first having been left untouched, maintained a great contrast to the newest taking the form of a rounded cylinder with tall transmitters upon its roof and built with new materials.

The transmitters, shaped like simple glass cylinders, emitted a constant flow of blue light into the upper atmosphere while three metal ‘leaves’ floated around the bodies, occasionally bending and twisting to modify the beam.

Killigan was now fully adapted to his role as leader of the Emperor’s Guard. The death of his father around forty-five Earth years ago brought him renewed conviction to make his parents proud as they watched him from the realm of Mana Magis. He couldn’t show the weight of his loss to his foundation. They wouldn’t trust him with the potential losses that would inevitably be incurred on the battlefield. The bregu also did not attend his father’s funeral for the same reason that all pillars still had families. It would be unfair. So, he had to put the needs of his foundation before his.

“How are the regimentaries?” Killigan asked Eriee.

The bregu wore a solid, golden armor that he made to fit with his gauntlets and attract most of the enemy’s attention to him when on the battlefield. It was also an easy method of sticking out within human society. He stood within Eriee’s personal chambers where metal of every shape, mechanisms of even more shapes and sizes, and incomplete machine stood about. Several blow torches, wrenches, and mechanical arms hung via gravity pads on the walls. Many glowed faintly with mana, the light following a large device directly to Killigan’s right. There was no bed that could be seen nor were there any windows. There were only two large fans protected by gratings near the ceiling removing all dust, debris, and smoke created by the pillar craeft’s work. They were almost as loud as the mechanical arm of Eriee pounding intricate patterns on the pillars newest work.

Eriee had reassembled several floating plates of metal of various shapes and sizes into a large, square formation floating above her head. Killigan realized that, whatever she planned for it, the disc was not doing as intended. It was lopsided and doing its best to stay afloat despite being dragged down by the heavy weight of one side.

She spoke without looking away from or ceasing her work. “The new regimentariums have been developing well. New recruits are still flocking to the 82nd and 101st Calagh the governors founded.”

Killigan nodded. “I trust that the new foundries dedicated to them are working well?”

Eriee pulled an ingot from one of the many alcoves in the wall in front of her and peeled of a thin layer of the metal using a sheet made of a large and flat blue laser. She returned the ingot to its home and resumed her work. “I checked with the heads of these new foundries. They have been steadily progressing in productivity, and new colonists have been arriving thanks to the prospect of new jobs and a new life.” She turned her head almost unnoticeably to look over her shoulder. “They should have surplus equipment we can store then sell later on...although our own pillars--”

“Still need to import equipment.” He nodded in disappointment. “I know. Your suggestion for new foundries dedicated to our needs here hasn’t gone unnoticed, Eriee.”

The woman returned her full attention to her craft and left Killigan to lean against the wall with his arms crossed.

“Are you still obsessing over the titan?”

She stopped momentarily then resumed chiseling at the metals in front of her. “No,” she responded flatly.

The bregu continued speaking with a humoristic tone. “And yet we have a scouting team going to the Calders. We’re already getting plenty of materials for its construction.”

Eriee tensed her left hand. “But it’s only thirteen percent completed,” she lamented.

Killigan made a few chuckles. “I knew it. You ARE obsessed with it.” He walked towards the misshapen disc and snatched it from the air to analyze it. “We have all the time we need to make it.” Eriee didn’t respond, and Killigan shook his head at the design of the disc. “I’d need to modify its propulsion system and structure for it to work,” he mumbled to himself. He looked to Eriee and hesitated to speak, but the question was nagging him. “Eriee, why did you join me?”

The working stopped. “Because of a new opportunity,” she said.

Killigan frowned. “You were the head Pillar Craeft of the Marma Fissures. That took centuries of work to achieve, and yet you still came to my foundation.” There was a pause. “You had no guarantee that I would make you the head pillarcraeft. I might’ve found someone else to take your place, and you could’ve gone back to the other foundation. Why did you join?” he asked her.

Eriee move her hands about the edge of her charred metal table in little slides as she thought of a response. “Because I wanted to make a titan. The largest and most powerful anyone has ever conceived.”

The bregu straightened himself up and frowned at the woman. “But what if I didn’t want that? What if I lied about the titan blueprints? You would have been stuck here as someone lower than a pillar craeft if you never decided to go back.”

There was a loud mechanical whirring coming from Eriee’s body, and she resumed her work. “It was a gamble,” she spoke plainly. “As you said: I would have been stuck here as a lower-ranked craeft, or I would have returned to my home foundation as the head pillar craeft.” She projected an orange disc from her right palm and started to compress the materials she was working with. “But I still wouldn’t have gotten my wish.” She looked over her shoulder towards Killigan. “A position means nothing if it cannot bring what you most desire.”

The man nodded. “That is true.” Killigan walked back through the door but yelled through it anyways, creating a resounding echo in the spire. “I’ll tell you when our scouts have found anything new for the titan.”

Killigan used a teleportal to enter the communications room where row upon row of screens lined the walls and projection desks decorated the floor between them. Several people ran back and forth, exchanging information or yelling at each other, and the bregu witnessed a pillar and two regimentary officers arguing at the largest table sitting in the middle of the room. The table they surrounded was capable of seating at least twenty regular sized humans around it. There was only a misshapen amalgamation of lights coming from the table, likely due to the three’s arguing.

“What’s going on here?” Killigan inquired.

Oodravos turned to face his bregu and gave a partial bow. “We are arguing about how to employ the regimentaries and the pillars.”

“That’s not it!” the first regimentary shouted out. “He wants us to storm sieges head-first while the pillars sneak in from the sides.”

The second nodded. The two regimentaries were in stark contrast to each other. The first was a short and stumpy man with a brown mustache almost as big as his belly protruded outwards. Killigan found that he resembled a ball more than a man. His head was devoid of any hair, but that was from him shaving his head and having it polished. Like his colleague, he was dressed in large pants tucked into his boots. However, where his pants were red and his boots brown, his colleague’s were a bright green and his boots a dark, nightly blue. His red coat was much too big for him an dragged along the floor, dirtying the brown trims in black dirt and rendering the rest of the textiles near them of a similar color. Upon his chest ere several medals glittering in the light, but the bregu didn’t have time to look at them in detail and considered himself content to see that three of them bore wings and one was the shape of a pillar’s helmet.

The second regimentary was a stout man following a more conventional appearance with clothes that fit him appropriately. His trench coat was the same deep blue as his boots and were lined with a bright green, lace trim. Since he left it open, Killigan could see metal lining the inside of the clothes as well as a bullet-resistant vest over his shirt.

“One is an armchair general and the other fights on the frontlines,” Killigan thought to himself. “I take it you two are new officers of our two regimentarium?” he asked with a raised brow and a judgmental expression.

The fat one was the first one to speak out. “I’m Lieutenant-Colonel Veruus of the eighty-second Calagh Regimentarium.” He put his arms behind his back. “I’m currently helping supervise the division into different battalions, from armored to medical.”

The bregu nodded and turned to the other who was more formal by standing straight. “I am Major Kellin of the one-hundred-and-first Calagh Regimentarium. I am also helping oversee the same aspects of my own regimentarium.”

Killigan puckered his lips upwards. “I take it things aren’t going that well.” He turned to his fellow pillar. “Oodravos?” he called out. “How are our numbers doing? I hear we’re going to reach six-thousand members?”

The man didn’t take his eyes off of the table. “My own foundation took a hundred and fifty years to reach three thousand members,” he stated begrudgingly. “I must admit that these training scenarios that are actually a threat have indeed been a boon to the Emperor’s Guard, and potentially the rest of the foundations of the Terran Expanse.”

The bregu raised an eyebrow. “But?” he stretched.

“No ‘buts’. I just feel jealousy and contempt that you managed in fifty years what only a few others have managed in the time that we’ve existed.” He pretended to flick a pencil on the table. “And with the pillar flaesc always on standby, the chances of their deaths have practically plummeted and even helped train the flaesc.” He nodded slowly. “It makes my first job easier.” He looked to the side and rubbed his chin. “Although...”

“What is it?”

“I don’t think the Imperator Flaesc will be happy to hear about this in our next report and genetic serum batch. They’re already stressed when a foundation has two thousand members.”

Killigan laughed. “Then it’s a good thing the max number was limited to six thousand!” he bellowed humorously.

“Isn’t that just because they never expected any foundation to even come close to that number?” Veruus interjected.

Oodravos pointed his finger at the man, attempting to rebut, but nothing came, and he dropped his arms in defeat. “I suppose so.” He resumed staring at the table.

“You reminded me,” the bregu said. “How go the regimentariums?”

“We have ten million troops for both regimentarium, sir,” Kellin explained immediately. “The navy is not included.”

“And ours is not yet ready,” Veruus lamented. He groaned loudly. “Our space ports at...what was it, Tamanach?” He turned to his colleague who nodded silently. “Right. The space ports at Tamanach aren’t even ready, let alone the docks at Aman.” He pat his giant belly, causing ripples to permeate through his grayish shirt. “We have a few corvettes and destroyers, but we mostly depend on ships from other reserve regimentariums specifically for newly founded systems.”

“I would suggest, however, that you discuss things with the Grand Begns,” Kellin continued unabated. “They are still deciding on how to divide the regimentarium considering the number of recruits overwhelmed our expectations.”

The bregu leaned against the table. “You think there’s something attracting people to my home system?” he asked with a smile and curiosity in his voice.

Veruus snorted. “They’re just coming for the chance of making a name for themselves,” he scoffed.

“How so?”

“Think about it. The eighty-second and one-’o-first are brand new regimentarium.” He threw his arms into the air, attracting the attention of those working around them. “We have no one with any name! We have no heroes.” He grinned and grabbed the sides of his coat. “Can you imagine what would happen to you if you became the first ‘hero’ of these two?”

“I can imagine,” Killigan sighed. He rubbed his temples and stood upright. “Come to think of it, I need to design the new engines of our titan vessel...” He hit his forehead with his fist. “I forgot to mention it to Eriee.”

“Ah. Right.” Oodravos broke out of his trance of staring at the table. “Our storehouses should be filled to the brim with heranium for the hull and herondium for the mana conduits by now,” he explained. “The supply officers and scouts assigned to the task keep reporting finding large deposits of these metals along with things like tin and quartz.” He laughed through his nose. “We’ve been finding plenty on the first Calder so far.”

Upon Calder One stood several humans covered in cloaks flapping violently in the strong wind. They clenched to them as best as they could despite wearing suits and helmets covered in a leather-like material protecting their bodies and faces. The orange lights coming from the two ‘eyes’ of these helmets were indistinguishable from the orange sands flying by at great speeds and choking out any other features of the dead and dry landscape. Had they and the pillars accompanying them not worn their armor, their skin and muscle would have been gradually stripped from their bones. They were now standing next to metal tents and a long fissure in the ground. Its depth outweighed what little ground it had displaced.

“See?” an explorer shouted through their shared comms. “I told you we found an enormous vein.” He poked the edge of the fissure with his boots. “We’ve been extracting ore from the rim and have found it to be very rich in materials, especially metals.” He stood up and instinctively shielded his face when a particularly strong gust blew into his ‘face’. “We can set up another mining station here.”

Next to the fissure was a massive mountain of a strange shape, being only one of many marking the landscape. Several irregular protrusions both round and angled comprised the surface of the stone, but it made everyone present uneasy, including the pillars.

One of the pillars leaned over the edge of the deep crevice to get a better look at its insides. “This is quite deep.” He nodded. “You were right. This will help contribute to Eriee and Killigan’s little project.”

“And the rest of the Calaghi System,” the human added.

“Yes. After the percentage of resources set by the Aelfyce Cartographers is reached and go to Calder 2.”

There was a moment of silence on the comms channel, leaving way for the loud roaring of the storm outside to break into the suits. The pillar was busy writing a report on a messaging hologram projected from a piece of his chest armor near his neck.

“Exactly how big is the titan that it requires us to go scavenging through three planets?” the human asked.

“Fifteen kilometers,” the pillar replied casually.

The human threw his hands to his head. “FIFTEEN?!” he bellowed. His voice just barely managed to be heard outside his suit. “That’s the biggest size permitted! No foundation or regimentarium fleet has ever made something like that!” He stammered several times before managing words. “How would you even move such a behemoth? Even the amount of mana it would guzzle would be astounding.”

“Considering it’s not meant for agility but to be the epitome of defense and offense,” He turned to the human. “I suppose the tradeoff is acceptable.” He pointed to the metals in the fissure. “Plus, these metals are more than adequate to...experiment...”

The human saw that the pillar’s helmet had retractable visors now that they were extending out of it and glowing a pale yellow. “Is something wrong?” the human wondered.

The pillar broke off a piece of exposed material and brought it closer to be analyzed by his suit. “This is not metal,” he spoke with worry.

“What? But we’ve analyzed samples from even ten-point-seven kilometers of depth!” the human explained nervously. “We found no such traces at the other dig sites.”

“It appears to be fossilized.” The pillar looked around the planet then back to the object in hand. “I’m certain the Niethgaest Biologic would be intrigued to find fossilized matter on this dead planet.” He groaned inaudibly. “I suppose I will be forced to put this in my report, accelerating us ending our excavations here,” he noted angrily.

A beam shot between the two before instantly dissipating. The human yelled angrily at his colleagues for their clumsiness, but he and the pillar realized something was off. The ‘metal’ they extracted had started to melt. The ground all around the camp started cracking and breaking open. Green, pungent gas was being released in great geysers, preceding the appearance of fleshy appendages rising from the cracks. Growling, screeching, and whining accompanied these limbs, prompting the workers in the group to retreat and the few pillars accompanying them to pull out their customized aetgars with underslung fusers. The fusers appeared as a small pin of metal letting out a constant, small stream of white light. They were built directly into the hull of the gun, just to the side of the barrel.

“Get to the ships!” the pillar ordered the humans.

The other pillars slowly approached their comrade, their backs turned to him and some even letting loose rounds into the limbs.

“It seems we have discovered a new type of alien,” one of the pillars noted.

“It seems that way.” The man tensed up and checked the functions of his aetgar. “They’re another clue to the state of these planets, perhaps.” He looked to his comrades. “We need to follow the humans to our own vessel. We can use the onboard communicator there to relay the evacuation order to the other camps.”

The creatures were animated, sagging lumps of rotting skin, be it purple or brown. Bones of various shades of white and brown pushed through the sludge, causing mishapen statures and appearances. They were bending in ways no living creature could be in, such as one whose back was bent around, forming a visible triangle through its pungent flesh and still having the strength to bend their spines even more. They were a mix of bipedal, tripedal, quadrupedal, and multilimbic systems no one present had borne witness to. Their other traits were just as varied, with eye numbers, mouths, arms, heads. Most ranging from many to none, but they all shared the bubbling rot of their flesh and the pungent odor coming from the decay.

Using the fusers underneath the aetgar, the pillars directed long beams of light and heat through the aliens and melted them apart. Two of the pillars let a couple of the aliens approach them. Sparks came from the tip of the fusers then coalesced into a large orange cone of pure heat away from the barrel and melted the creatures that approached.

“Something is wrong,” one of the pillars noted.

“Yes. They don’t approach us all at once.”

“Not only that, but they appear to be holding rifles, now,” another pillar noted.

They were holding weaponry made from bone and rotting flesh. As with their appearance, the way the weapons were used varied from creature to creature. Some had tendrils coming from their bodies fusing into the stock, or the body, or the barrel, or just into the chamber of the long, rifle-like weapon. Said weapon took the shape of a long tube with three, slanted rectangular shapes. The position and order of these tubes depended from creature-to-creature, but the common trait would be an elongated tube widened into a stock. Of course, the weapons of some were parts of their body altogether rather than an object to hold, but they still retained the tube system. Others were holding much larger versions of these items, occupying the whole right side of their body with legs growing from the weaponry to accommodate its heavy weight. These massive beasts possessed organic ventilation shafts along the surface of their bodies made from folds of skin and bone folding open and close to let in air while others let out visible jets of steam and gases.

There was a brief stare down, then the creatures opened fire. Their bullets impacted against the mana shields of the pillars and failed to penetrate. The shattered remains were made from fossilized calcium and a rotten green ooze leaking from within.

“They’re...assessing our abilities,” a pillar noticed.

A creature as tall as the pillars jumped out of the ground and impaled one of them with a spear, lifting them up into the air despite the weight brought on by their body and their armor. It somehow broke through shield and through the dense armor with little-to-no effort. The pillar grabbed hold of the spear to immobilize the wielder, to a degree. He pointed his aetgar at it, and the few seconds between their actions felt like hours.

The creature which impaled him looked nothing like the others. It was still rotting but it had sleeker and more stable aspect. It possessed two eyes which were bleached by time and decay. Long, dirty, matted hair of a brown color clinging to its skull reaching down to the middle of its back. It had very thin armor covering all but its head which had turned black and brown over time with large parts of its flesh starting to grow out of the brown, rusted areas and over the metal. It was difficult to distinguish the details, but the pillar could see some cloth free of the flesh flapping in the storm. The creature’s mouth remained shut, but the chapped and shattered lips exposed gum and teeth beneath.

The pillar shot the creature through its left shoulder. The bullet traveled through their body and exited its left thigh, but it was pointless. Such damage wouldn’t kill the creature. It threw the pillar down and stabbed him again in the shoulder while he continued trying to shoot it, missing but hitting some of the lesser creatures in the process. When the others came to his aid, the abnormal jumped back and let its spear rest upon the ground, displaying craftsmanship that was out-of-place. The spear was made of discolored metals, and runes flickered upon the hilt and crawled along the creatures right hand and wrist before fading out into orange dust. Whereas the runic symbols of Mana Magis were drawn in a very angular, very squarish fashion, these runes were drawn with a supple curve and twist. They were ‘dancing’, for lack of a better term, but the mana within the spear had seen its best days and lost them to time. Whatever it had now was dry and calcified.

It opened its mouth and coughed out sand in a harsh, throat-tearing heaving. Leaning against its spear, its dried and strained voice spoke. “Xxxxxxith...Kai...”

The creatures swarmed the pillar, and while it was not difficult to destroy them, their numbers were overwhelming. The pillar craeft were being taken apart, and swarm only bloated in number. One of them use the holographic display in her armor to send all recordings from her suit to nearby vessels on the planet. It was a safeguard in-case the excavators could not flee. It was a good plan.

Killigan discussed potential deployment strategies with the two regimentary officers as well as the potential applications of the new device he had completed and sent to them.

“It’s kind of bulky,” Verrus hummed pensively. “But we can armor it up and reinforce the joints, allowing it to carry heavier weaponry and sever as a breakthrough vehicle or defensive one.”

“Ranged could also apply,” Kellin added. “We could use the exoskeleton you provided us as a standard model then make modifications based on the needs of that model.”

Killigan rubbed his upper lip. “Like hollowing out the arms for a direct belt feed from a protected storage compartment.” He hummed. “That would require strengthening the external walls and creating supports for that.”

A commotion started developing at one of the stations, but Killigan’s group weren’t concerned. Kellin was more enticed by them and went to the screen to assess the situation. However, the present staff began rushing towards the monitors of the first station affected then returned to their own to start sifting through a plethora of alerts by the Calaghi system’s space vessels.

“What’s going on?” Killigan shouted.

Kellin spoke without taking his eyes off the monitor. “The system is being invaded,” he replied.

“The puwandese? Here?” Verrus shouted.

Kellin shook his head. “Unknown.”

The footage of the deceased pillar was playing on a loop on the monitors, but a second feed was being displayed from an infested and destroyed ship. While the feed was fuzzy and unreliable due to the frequent cuts in images, those watching could fully assess the events being recorded. Rotting monsters walking across the dry lands and towards the misshapen mountain ranges. Giants easily much taller than the ship itself -which could house a dozen regular human plus supplies and mining equipment- burst through the ground, and because of their weight, they had to use whatever served as limbs to move forward. Every minute that passed saw thousands more of these creatures rise from the ground and move towards the mountain ranges.

“Why are these things going to the mountains?” Kellin pondered aloud.

“Where are my pillars?!” Killigan bellowed in pure rage. “Where are the miners?!”

Verrus grabbed Killigan’s arm. He was too short to reach his shoulders, and still couldn’t wrap his grip around the pillar’s bulk. He stared the pillar right in the eyes when he said his next words. “They’re dead, Bregu Killigan,” he explained sternly.

There was a moment where Killigan tried to understand, but...

“No!” he protested. “They wouldn’t be taken down by just a few of these rotting...things!” he spat.

“What in the name of Mana Magis is happening to the mountains?” the operator commented. She moved the screen to the best of her abilities to get a better view.

The mountains were visibly crumbling. However, the rock that was present had only formed over more of these vile creatures. Massive monstrosities wriggling free of their confines and igniting the gases within them to burn away the rock below them, and some of the creatures, too. Their bodies slowly expanded then contracted as they ‘breathed’ in the air they had forsaken so long ago.

“Are those...ships?” Killigan asked aloud.

The monsters vanished into the colossal monstrosities, and the ships did not wait to leave. A greenish fire came from their freed ‘engines’. The shock of the explosions rippled through their bodies, causing ruptures all along the flesh hull.

“Get an alert to all the pillars and the regmentariums,” Killigan ordered the operator. “We need to--”

“Bregu!” Oodravos called out. “There’s more activity from the other two Calders. Civilian ships in the area say that hundreds of the ships are slowly rising from the surface of the planet.”

Killigan’s face became paler, and he needed the continuous dashboard to hold himself up. “There’s no way we can fight against so many...” he mumbled in despair.

Kellin crossed his arms. “We’ll help the regimentarium on Aman prepare for the upcoming battle.” He turned to the whole room and yelled as loud as he could. “Get help from as many foundations and regimentarium as you can! We shall not fall! We will hold strong!”

Killigan internally slapped himself and tensed his body. “I’ll go to Calagh and help out there.” He looked at the operator. “Send a message to Eriee and Fodr there. Tell them prepare defense. We’re going to have a massive battle on our hands. One of attrition.”

The operator nodded. “Should I warn the governors on the other planets as well?

“Of course!” Killigan agreed.

The operator got to work right away.

“What do we do about the planetary teleportals?” Oodravos inquired.

The bregu shook his head. “We’ve barely begun to build them. They’re of no consequence.” He clenched his fists and stormed out of the room.

In mere days, the entire system was filled with the alien creatures. From the news Killigan received, Tamanach and Gorach were currently under siege and the densely inhabited parts of the planets were being bombarded from orbit by corrosive sludge eating through everything. When it would finally settle, toxic gases would waft from the pile and infiltrate everything it could reach. They wouldn’t last long, and everyone knew it. The planets were not fortified to resist lengthy, harsh sieges. They had only received the bare minimum affordable, and the long-term plan was having a large fleet defending both.

Scouting drones had been sent to the Calders to survey the aliens’ activity, but they were consistently destroyed by the ships flying away from the planets. As of now, Killigan stood atop the first row of walls built around the capital. In elevated distances, Killigan could see the massive anti-orbital cannons several blocks wide and high. Their main bodies were a bright blue cube fed by large, ridged pipelines, and the base of the two large cannons were protected by domes. There were multiple smaller cannons, perhaps the side of a regimentary transport vehicle, showing just how powerful these weapons were.

The bregu clicked his tongue angrily. “We weren’t supposed to use those so early,” he lamented. “We were supposed to keep those for dreadnought vessels. Capital ships. Anything larger!” He punched the ramparts with the bottom of his fist. “They’re not even complete yet! They’ll just fire a round every 15 minutes.”

“Sir?” a pillar said.

Killigan looked to him and shook his head. “I’m sorry that you have to experience this when you haven’t finished your training, Gherma,” he apologized.

“There’s no need for that, sir. I became a pillar for things like this!” they cheered.

The bregu scoffed and leaned back against the wall, looking over it to the ground far, far below and beyond. “You certainly won’t be cheering like that afterwards,” he mumbled to himself.

The monotonous silence was broken by a loud humming noise filling everyone’s ears. The wall defenders looked around, some popping out of the pockets below, trying to discover the source, but it made itself known immediately. The tremendous antiorbital cannons let loose the mana they were accumulating, creating blinding beams of blue light that shot straight to the sky. The shockwave knocked the unprepared over and shook loose dust and dirt on the buildings around. A bright green flash appeared as a small dot in the atmosphere, followed by several more. The second giant cannon fired, followed by the smaller ones almost immediately after.

“HERE THEY COME!” Killigan shouted.

The officers relayed their orders through their ‘garrisons’. Debris rained down, crashing into the city and deforming the surrounding landscape before the smaller antiorbital cannons changed their targets to the chunks of burning flesh. Despite their numbers, they weren’t capable of shooting enough down. Eriee looked out from the communications tower windows and contemplated the scene.

“They’re only taking out about twenty-seven to thirty-percent of the debris.” She paused. “Insufficient to protect the city.”

She witnessed two massive ships lower from orbit, slam into the ground just outside the gates, and release tremors that shook even the tower. They slid painfully against the ground, uprooting the brown trees and uncovering stones hidden beneath the sandy landscape. Whatever grass had started to grow there was gone, leaving way to a tsunami of tans and browns to crash against. The defenders observed the burned corpses before them, weapons and nerves at the ready.

“What in the universe are those things?” Gherma stuttered. He clutched his aetgar closer to his chest and tried suppressing his trembling arms.

“I’m not sure...but their presence is...unnerving,” he frowned.

The young pillar chuckled nervously. “I can’t believe my first battle is against a new threat to the Terran Expanse, rather than just the puwandese again.”

When one the large cannons let loose its deafening roar, the ships burst open, letting loose a horde of the rotting creatures.

“Open the hatches!” Killigan bellowed.

Multiple metal plates opened along the surface of the wall. Being a gigantic monstrosity of fifteen stories had its advantages, and it was exactly why Killigan made it that way. Millions of bullets, mana beams, and even explosives were let loose upon the creatures before they could even approach. Two pillars raised a platform next to Gherma and Killigan, and from the round surface of the platform arose several segments of metal interconnected by wild threads of mana. The platform adopted an octagonal shape while the metal pieces colluded together to create dodecahedrons. It was a Dyom Lens, and Killigan was not too happy about seeing it there.

“Looks like someone has been withholding information to me about or imported weaponry,” he thought angrily.

A human wearing greenish leather draped in colorful strips of cloth placed their hands on two dodecahedrons and began chanting under their breath. The wild tendrils fluctuated wildly before shooting into the central tube of dodecs and let loose and spread of blue mana onto the invading creatures below. Several minutes were spent firing at the constant flow of foul, rotting beasts, but regardless of what part of the city they attempted to breach, they couldn’t reach the wall.

“What are they trying to do?” Killigan wondered. He watched them casually throw themselves into the proverbial wall of bullets without a care for their own lives. “There’s no point in this.” He turned to the niwcumen pillar. “How are you doing, Gherma?” he asked in a shout.

The man fired three rounds before answering and lowered his gun. “This is pretty gun,” he laughed. “Kind of like stationary target practice.” His arms drooped slightly and his voice became more tense. “Of course...compared to the training we got...” He shot another round at the aliens, splattering one’s head all over the floor. “Ha ha!” He cheered. “Right in the...What is that?”

“What?”

A mass of bubbling, rotting flesh was grown in the middle of the swarm, grabbing a hold of those passing near it and adding them to its mass. The convulsing mass formed into a giant beast with three legs. One large, over-extended leg arcing on the left and two shorter on the right following the same appearance. A right ‘arm’ ended in three weapons akin to what the smaller creatures were using, yet they were creating much heat. Several flaps of skin peeled off the arm and shoulder to reveal boney vents letting out the excess steam and heat buildup. It developed no head. Instead, ocular organs grew upon what could be considered as a broad chest from which a grinning mouth grew shoulder-to-shoulder. Several spots of its body had no rotting flesh to form over it, leaving bones and shriveled organs exposed to the elements.

It rushed clumsily to the walls, stumbling on itself but still easily having a height to reach the third floor. Regardless of the metal being sent its way, the giant did not stop and slammed against the dense metal. While it pounded away at the walls, the regimentaries there fled from it, terrified. Killigan was about to yell at them, but felt relief when discus flew overhead and dropped magna bombs on the swarms. Violent explosions of blue and white blew cold winds to the defenders and covered the battlefield in a mist. Seeing no activity, some of the defenders, be they pillar or regimentary, cheered.

“It didn’t work!” a regimentary shouted.

“What?!” Killigan shouted in response.

“What’s wrong?” Gherma asked whilst firing a few more slugs into the monsters.

“Those were magna bombs,” Killigan explained. Under his helmet, his pupils had shrunk and he was starting to stress. “They overload the mana in your body and make you explode. Only dead creatures have no mana in their bodies!” he shouted angrily. He started tapping the top of the wall anxiously. “If they have no mana, what other creatures exist like them?”

The bregu was knocked out of his thoughts by something impacting the wall. The giant monster had jammed its right arm into it and caused a breach after several minutes of it and the other creatures punching the surface with sharpened bones fired from their ‘weapons’. The giant had punched through the warped metal and reached a siege ‘window’ that lost its current occupants from the influx of small, crab-like creatures flooding the chamber and chasing away the regimentaries who shook them off. The more unfortunate were ‘eaten’, piece by piece. Several regimentaries were waiting behind the first wall in the streets, holding a transparent, cylindrical tank filled by a vortex of flames spiraling within and beating against its container. They used a long nozzle to shower the crabs in a bright purple flame that quickly ate them the moment it touched them. It was clearly a slapped-together device, but it was still very effective in what it was doing.

“The gates are coming off!” a defender alerted.

“Damnit!” Killigan shouted.

“All pillars and regimentaries, leave the wall and get to the second layer. We cannot hold them back anymore. Leave in groups!” one of the regimentary officers ordered.

Killigan rushed towards the gatehouse, closely followed by Gherma, something he didn’t take kindly to.

“Leave with the next row,” he ordered the new pillar.

Gherma shook his head defiantly. “No. We will leave in groups, and I will follow my bregu!” he spoke sternly.

Killigan shook his head but admired the niwcumen’s stubbornness. During their run, more discus flew overhead to stop just above the swarm and start mowing down the creatures with their heavy machine guns. The creatures had their own solution to this in the form of flying folds of skin as wide as a man was tall. They burst out of the thick tree line surrounding the city and latched onto the aircraft, destabilizing them and causing them to either crash into the horde in a bright explosion of flames and metal shards, or fly off as the pilots tried to get rid of their unwanted passengers.

This left the giant, and three others storming in, to bend a small section of the lower gate as they worked on tearing apart the metal. The smaller creatures that passed through the breach were doused in the famished purple fires of the cylinders, aiding the groups of pillars and regimentaries while they fled the streets and the underground passageways. Only half had pulled back when the doors were broken open violently, causing them to slam backwards with great speed and force against the inner wall with a resounding, metallic echo. One of the doors creaked back from the force then broke off its hinges, destroying two buildings on its way down.

“Xith...Kai...” the swarm hissed in unison. “Xith’Kai, Skraûj!” They chanted as they stormed into the breach.

One of the giants followed its fellows, but Killigan wasn’t going to leave it there. “Gherma, give me fire support!” he ordered.

The man jumped off the wall, equipped his gauntlets, then slammed onto the monster, burying it into the ground and cratering what was left. Recovering from the brutal and sudden impact took Killigan some time, time that was offered thanks to Gherma and the remaining soldiers. Despite a blurry vision, however, he still swung at the incoming monsters; the ’Xith’Kai, evaporating their upper torsos into a gooey mist.

“Bregu Killigan!” a regimentary shouted.

One of the larger xith’kai swiped at the man, scraping the mana shield around his armor but pushing him back a ways. It was enough to shake him awake and realize the blue orbs in his knuckles were now glowing a sickly brown-orange and had enveloped his gauntlets. He took a second to observe the strange effects but had no time to properly comprehend it. A small xith’kai was blown apart by one of Gherma’s shots, leaving Killigan to punch at another. He caused ten in a row to spontaneously explode, scaring him and the humans around. Curious, he slid behind several swarming xith’kai to avoid the shots of those in front of him and punched them again. Ten more exploded, and this time, Killigan witnessed the brown mana surrounded his gauntlets thrust forth and envelope the xith’kai around.

“It hungers for xith’kai,” he realized.

Another giant swiped away its kin in a bid to pepper Killigan up close, but while its firepower was impressive, its speed was not. The man dodged through the crowd, drunk on the new abilities of his weapon, and punched the creature’s left arm. His great smile beneath his black helmet disappeared when he realized that the only damage he had caused was a partially destroyed arm and blisters on the left-side of the giant’s torso.

“We have to leave!” Gherma shouted. He gestured to Killigan to follow him as he made his way down the wall via teleportal. “Come on!”

Cursing under his breath, Killigan obliged, following his subordinate to the next series of defenses in the city. Because of the sudden retreat, thousands of civilians were left behind in the city while the xith’kai roamed through them. Some regimentaries had stayed behind to create safe houses for these unfortunate few who could no longer make it to the second level of walls. Of course, being cut off from the main force and having limited supplies, how long would they last?

The second layer had an easier time picking off the alien creatures thanks to a steep inclination preceding the walls and a large, kilometer-long space distancing them and the buildings. Because the defenders left behind had been left with so much time to fortify, a good dozen kilometers of buildings had been outfitted with teleportals, explosive, and heavy weaponry to mow down any incoming enemies, leaving the main defenders on the walls to prepare themselves as well and tend to the wounded they managed to carry with them.

Many of the survivors were left exhausted, but Killigan and the pillars were not. He was in the gatehouse with Gorach as well as a few pillar and regimentary officers. It offered a great view to the distraught city outside. The sounds of bullets leaving their chambers resonated in the distance, mixed with muffled screams and the raucous voices of the xith’kai filling the street. Sudden loud pops occurred every now and then by explosives and traps, and the bregu saw one building’s high floors get blown out, showering all below with sharp glass and stone fragments. Killigan removed his helmet to have a clearer head despite the built-in ventilation.

“Have we gotten any news on reinforcements yet?” Killigan asked the group while looking through the reinforced windows.

The first regimentary laid against the wall and sighed. “No.” She rubbed her temples. “I don’t even think we can communicate outside our system anymore.”

“Stop being negative,” her colleague complained.

“I have to admit, that I don’t see our prospects of victory any greater than they were before,” one pillar mumbled. “There’s still more of them coming to Calagh.”

Another explosion rocked the room, and one pillar using the large radio communications hub built into the wall turned to Killigan.

“We’ve got a problem,” she said. Killigan looked at her silently with a raised brow. “We couldn’t set up defenses in the lower levels quick enough. They’ve overrun our positions.”

“They what?!” Killigan shouted at the top of his lungs.

“They’re swarming the underground!”

The bregu cursed loudly and punched the wall without his normal fists. His strength still allowed him to slightly dent the metal. “They’ll get behind our defenses if we leave them as is.” His head started rushing with ideas, and he started mumbling rapidly to himself as his eyes darted in every possible direction. Finally, he had one. “Gherma, you’re coming with me underground.”

“Wh-what?!” The pillar took a step back in surprise. “But I’m--”

“A fully trained pillar,” Killigan interjected. “We need to go underground.”

One of the other pillars shot up. “Just you two?! Sir, I must protest--” he attempted to plead.

“No. We need to be as few as possible.” He reequipped his. The man noticed they were still enveloped in the strange color. He felt it to be an ill omen. “I will use my gauntlets to push a way through while Gherma gets rid of any trying to sneak around us.”

“And what will you be doing down there? Sacrificing yourselves?!” They shouted angrily.

Killigan walked out of the gatehouse and hung onto the doorway. “That’s not for you to know,” he said somberly.

Gherma rushed behind his bregu, and the two slid down the wall to reach the closest underground entrance in the middle of the equivalent of a town square, surprising the soldiers and civilians around. Balls of rotting flesh and sharpened bone rained down from the sky shortly afterwards and landed behind the wall. The xith’kai were much closer than anticipated.

Deep underground, the two pillars were greeted by a dark and humid environment warping and changing with every step. Pipes of all shapes, sizes, and colors jutted out from the walls to go higher to the surface or deeper in the crust. The passages the two took to go down were cramped pathways allowing only one pillar at a time to walk through. Gherma found difficulty holding his weapon, let alone pointing it, in these cramped conditions. Being a new pillar, he didn’t want to question the authority or decision making of his bregu, and yet...

Several hours of following later, Killigan disappeared around a corner, leaving Gherma to discover that they had come upon a massive area that might as well have been a city in of itself. A waterfall of waste was immediately to the right of the exit, and the water flowed down a canal leading to another steep drop. Luminescent purple moss grew within the brownish water and the walls, adding even more to the pungent smell. Even larger pipes shot through the ground and towards the stone sky from which beams of light came in rays. Multiple waterfalls, slippery stone pathways, and pipes were the composition of this area, including small whirlpools where the diseased water congested. Murky brown substances waved gently on the surfaces, disgusting the niwcumen pillar. Had the two not been wearing their helmets, they would have been blasted by the thick humidity and atrocious odors wafting about the atmosphere.

Gherma groaned in disgust. “Had we not these helmets, we’d be surely adding to the filth here.” He turned to see Killigan kneeling next to a steep ledge overlooking the city-like labyrinth below. “Sir?

“They haven’t come here yet,” he said. He hummed to himself pensively until a bang echoed through the chambers and quieted gradually. “Rather, they’ve yet to reach this place.” He rubbed the chin of his helmet and grunted.

“What’s wrong?” Gherma asked. “What do we need to do?” Killigan didn’t respond, unnerving the pillar. “Pardon my behavior, but why exactly did we come here on our own?”

Killigan tapped the floor with the tip of his fingers and looked up when a tremor shook the area and knocked loose dust and debris.

“I have a plan that will flush these aliens out of this burrow,” he answered.

“And what is this plan? Rally the defenders? Flood the pathways with water?”

The bregu shook his head. “No. There are pipes holding a toxic compound that is a byproduct of an experiment Eriee and I performed.” He looked around to try and find said pipes.

Eriee looked out of the window in a hall to see the defenders starting to falter from the waves of xith’kai, although the aerial support was frequent enough that the aliens could be pushed back again.

“Killigan went underground,” she thought aloud. “There’s only one way to keep the creatures out from the underground and flank us from behind.”

She saw sawol vice walking through the streets, smashing whatever xith’kai got through with their grinding claws or rapid-firing aetgar. Unfortunately, this is when a new xith’kai appeared. With their arms mutated into gigantic, circular shields of darkened bone, they could deflect the gun fire by piling their shields in front of each other and slowly moving forward. The density of dark color swarming through a large breach of the wall and infesting more streets as they went to the third wall was overwhelming. Several bright orange clouds came from their lines, but nothing stopped them instantly filling in the gap and continue swarming through.

“What do they want?” Eriee wondered.

Two magus were brought to one of the streets, escorted by multiple regimentaries. Although, one was a pillar magus. The pillar craeft used her helmet’s zooming function to get a better view of the two in great detail. They both wore very heavy robes that dragged along the floor, although the pillar’s was cut at the waist, giving their armored legs free movement. The regimentary wore a face-covering helmet, giving the impression that they had no face at all. While the pillar held a simple staff glowing with spiraling veins of mana, the regimentary carried two clawed gauntlets with tubes leading to a square backpack.

“Oh? They finished it?” Eriee mused.

Those on the ground wouldn’t have noticed it, but the two had been channeling mana into a blue ball above the street before they let it drop down peacefully upon the ground like a feather. It erupted in a surge of mana that drained and shriveled all the xith’kai affected by the tsunami of mana enveloping a quarter of the city like a flood.

Below, Killigan and Gherma had to cling into the pipes and instinctively covered their faces when waves of mana flew towards them. It dissipated before reaching them, leaving no trace behind.

“What was...” Gherma turned back to his bregu. “So we evacuate as many people down here as possible,” he said.

Killigan looked at him briefly from over his shoulder then back to the empty city. “No,” he said flatly.

“Wh-what?”

“We can’t afford it...”

Gherma paced back and forth. He wanted to oppose his bregu, but he was still new. He didn’t know how things worked in the pillars. “As a regimentary, I was supposed to help save as many people as possible.”

Killigan chuckled. “Which you will do.” He stood up and wiped off some gunk that had attached to his leg. “I thought of as many different scenarios to save them as possible, but it will not work. They will die either way. The xith’kai will follow us,” he lamented.

The man smashed his gauntlet’s fist into his palm, nearly deafening the niwcumen pillar and shaking some moldy bricks around loose.

“What will the ‘compound’ do?” Gherma asked. “Will it flood everything?”

Killigan nodded. “It’s not a liquid. It’s a gas.”

“A...gas?” Gherma became confused. “Why didn’t you just dispose of it per reg--”

“Because there was no way of disposing of it!” he shouted.

Startled, the niwcumen pillar jumped back. “But then--”

“It will eat away at all the material around here and killed anything wandering within it.” His body made a brief, almost unnoticeable twitch. “I’m putting my hopes in the sturdiness of the supporting walls and pipes,” he said.

Gherma’s eyes widened in sudden realization. “If they don’t hold, the city will collapse?”

“A portion of it,” Killigan said. He pointed into the distance. “There. I found one. I just need to overload the pressure valve throughout the whole system via that one. It should give us enough time to flee behind the third wall.”

“Third?” He looked up, and Killigan sighed internally. He could feel the man’s melancholy. “I see. I hoped they would have held until reinforcements came.”

“Unfortunately, this is the bleak reality,” he regretted.

“Incoming Hellbender!” a regimentary yelled topside.

A flat vehicle charged through the gate of the third wall and slid to a screeching halt, its rear slamming through the wall of a nearby building. The regimentaries and pillars who were already stationed behind the second layer had erected multiple spiked and uneven barricades made from an assortment of furniture, sandbags, and debris gathered from around the streets. It forced the xith’kai to bundle up and create a clog in their swarming, leaving the Hellbender to do what it was made for: Destroying swarms of enemies bunched into small areas.

High as two men and running on tracks cut at the front at sharp angle, the hull itself was just a hair’s width from touching the ground with its angular lower-plating. Because of its angular shape, it created a battering-ram like structure for the ‘nose’ of the vehicle in the shape of a spear. The top surface held a massive black cauldron housing a bubbling, ultra-heated liquid that created a heat faze above it. On the sides within extended sockets were two large cannons with mortar-esque barrels. Although dark inside, they too created a heat faze in the air around them. Because of the sockets, they were capable of rotating in three-hundred and sixty degrees on a vertical axis.

The cannons were raised up, and with a clicking sound, belched vast streams of molten mana over the barricades and onto the streets, melting the xith’kai and anything else around. While the barrels glowed orange from heat, the cauldron, named ‘Red Cauldron’ by the regimentaries, was bubbling louder and louder and more violently. When the metal turned red, a ball of lava shot into the air sporting the appearance of a red giant star. It soared slowly through the sky then landed ajar from the street and hit the third floor of building. The resulting detonation engulfed four blocks of the city and almost cooked the regimentaries alive.

Killigan and Gherma were thrown off the wall they were climbing down and tumbled rapidly down to the ground. Sickened briefly from the dizziness before their improved bodies adapted to the vertigo, the two rushed along the ‘riverbank’ towards a pipeline three times as large as any other around, including the structural support pipes. Thin windows were built into the sides of the metal, allowing Gherma to see an orange-green gas flowing about within its confines. Killigan grabbed the metal plug at the end and pulled out a long cylinder covered in various buttons and a small screen letting him follow whatever it was he was going to be typing. The niwcumen kept a watchful eye around for any potential threats, but nothing came. The bregu continued working diligently, his mind far too focused on the task at hand to give notice to anything around him.

He was brought out of his trance by Gherma firing his aetgar into a group of xith’kai that had snuck out of a tunnel down the canal.

“We need to hurry,” the niwcumen urged. “They’re getting closer.”

Killigan slid the tube back up, locked it in place, then remained silent for a moment. Gherma remained silently as well, looking around for a sign of whatever it was that his bregu was waiting for. A muffled his broke the monotony, prompting Killigan to immediately grab his subordinate’s arm and get him to follow.

“The pipes are overloading,” Killigan said. “We have several minutes to get out of her before the seams burst and the gas leaks out into this under-city.”

Gherma wanted to complain. To express his sentiment for condemning his fellow humans, but it was too late now. They were running through the corridors, dodging pipes and climbing built-in crevices upon the tilted stone walls of the sewers. There were several more of the city-like openings all around, but one area contained more of the large pipes than Killigan had hoped.

“The exit to the third wall is over there!” He pointed to the bright light in the distance coming from a stairwell. “Hurry, before the gas comes out.”

As they rushed across collapsed platforms overseeing the massive sea of sewage below, Gherma spoke up. “My bregu, are you certain that was the only way to save everyone above?”

“Yes,” Killigan responded without hesitation.

The niwcumen saw Killigan’s fists clench and tremble moreso than they were already, but they had more to worry about. The bregu suddenly stopped, surprising Gherma before he could follow, grabbed the niwcumen by the leg, then used his gauntlets to toss him far away into the stairs of the exit. Confused as to what just happened, Gherma got to witness firsthand what the gas could do. Although he narrowly dodged the first pipe rupturing, he was engulfed by the second, and the gas quickly spread across the whole of the area and through the tunnels. The sewage bubble and evaporated and the stone and metal began to melt. The plantlife that had grown in the dam conditions were also affected and burned away as if struck by a sudden flash of extreme heat.

Thanks to the mana shield, the bregu’s armor wasn’t too damaged by the effects of the gas, but the surface had been affected, taking on the appearing of armor covered in wet paint. Killigan’s gauntlets remained unaffected, but he was still affected by the straining effects of the gas and toppled over, requiring Gherma to hoist the man over his shoulders and climb the stairs with very heavy luggage.

“It’s okay, my bregu,” Gherma comforted. He readjusted Killigan’s position. “We’re almost to the exit.”

The two outran the gas and opened up to fresh air, inhabited human lands, towering buildings, and another group of refugees and more wounded soldiers. Everyone stared at them as though ghosts had come from the depths of Mana Magis’ Realm. Finally, with a moment to breathe, Gherma laid Killigan gently upon the ground and removed his damaged helmet. The man looked at the people around him, then at the walls and bared his teeth angrily.

“This is the fourth wall,” he said in a raspy voice.

“Wh-what?!” Gherma shouted. “We were only in there for a few hours!” He grabbed his forehead with one hand and dropped his aetgar. “I thought that...” He stopped talking to regain his composure and picked his gun back up. “Well, it looks like we’re going to have a fight to the death.” Killigan looked straight at him, his eyes tired and weary. “I bet I can kill more than you, sir,” the niwcumen said.

Killigan was about to respond when he saw something in the sky. A glint or a glimmer of sorts. Explosions occurred all around and within the city, bringing up plumes of smoke just as tall as the buildings they had destroyed. With his eyes bright with joy and hope, Killigan pointed up and shouted with all of his might.

“Reinforcements!”

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