Archon's Awakening

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Chapter 5: Branson

5

AI 9171:55 Umbral

“How are you so good at this?” Branson wondered. He had studied old manuscripts and memoirs written by past and present magisters on the operation of Saviors, yet he didn’t have the control over it that Thole did. When she was linked with a Savior she was unstoppable. Even the older Magisters at the Buried Temple had never seen anyone command one like her. She was incredible.

“Just practice, I guess. I’ve been looking forward to this Pursuit since I was chosen.” Branson, Gray, Thole and a few others were standing out in the howling desert in their Saviors. These were not like the regular Saviors that they used for traveling. These Saviors had been modified for battle in response to the appearance of the Ravagers.

The Saviors, Semi-Autonomous Virtual Inference Oracles, were fifteen foot tall biomechanical exoskeletons used by apprentices and Magisters for travel across the continent. The Archons commissioned the brightest engineers to design and construct the Saviors. Their original purpose was to aide in the development of Darmycia. The harsh environments there made the extra protection necessary to facilitate the completion of the dome surrounding the city. Then, many years later, some of them were repurposed in response to the appearance of the Ravagers. The Archons, dormant for hundreds of years, awoke long enough to perform the modifications themselves before retreating once again to dormancy. Cannons were installed on each arm that could fire a miniscule amount of the fluid that was flowing through them. The fluid would expand, encase and harden around whatever it struck. Since most people considered this fluid to be the Saviors’ blood they were commonly referred to as “blood cannons,” though they would not be referred to by this in polite company.

Branson stood alongside his comrades in the desert, each one of them concealed and protected inside a modified Savior, shooting at targets two hundred yards away. Branson could hit one with every fifth shot. Gray could do it with every third shot. But Thole, she was like a woman possessed. Every shot fired struck its target without fail. She was masterful to watch in her Savior. The ease with which she moved, how effortless she made the link seem, she was extraordinary.

Branson stood watching Thole decimate her target, envy and admiration flowing equally through his body. “You are amazing, Thole.”

“You’re not so bad yourself, Branson. A little more field practice and you’ll be ready for some Ravager hunting.” The Magisters determined at what point an apprentice was ready to venture out further into the desert. They wanted to be sure the apprentices were competent enough to handle a group of Ravagers if they happened upon one. They generally wanted to see you hit your target with every second shot at the least. Branson wasn’t ready yet, and neither was Gray, but Thole could probably take on a group of ten by herself. She was masterful.

One of the Magisters walked towards them. “Apprentices! Well done. Those of you who have had your fill will accompany us back to the temple. Anyone who would like to have a little more practice will be permitted to do so. Magister Laner will remain here with any who wish to continue training. You will all be expected back at the temple for dinner. Do not be late.” With that he turned away and started towards the temple with most of the apprentices.

Thole, Branson and Gray stayed behind. Gray turned towards the other two. “I’d love to stay with you guys out here but this desert gets to me. Too much sand everywhere. I’ll catch up with you guys someplace less windy.” With that he turned to catch up with the larger group that was already on their way back. Branson looked back at Thole. “Hey, do you think you could give me some pointers? I need to get better. I want to be able to go further in to the desert with the rest of you.”

“Sure, I’ll try to help. Just remember though, ultimately it’s about what you can do, and how strong your link is with the Savior. If your link is weak, you can aim at a target dead center, but your thoughts won’t translate to the Savior’s inference module precisely and you’ll miss.”

Branson and Thole remained at the target range for a few more cracks at the targets. With Thole’s help Branson was noticing an improvement already. There was still something that wasn’t quite right yet, and Thole had noticed. “Here, look at how I’m standing. My feet are planted about shoulder length apart. I’m supporting my firing arm with the other. No, not like that, let me help.” Thole came around behind Branson and helped him adjust his stance. “Yeah, like that, that’s better. Now hold your arm out in front of you so the tip of the cannon lines up with the center of your chest. Good, now support with your other arm, aim, and fire.”

Branson was tingling all over having Thole this close to him, touching him. If the Saviors could get goosebumps they would cover its entire body. He tried to keep focused on his target to take a shot. He looked straight ahead, fine tuning the cannon towards the target. Just as he was about to shoot he caught a glimpse of something farther out in the desert. “Thole, there’s something out there.”

“What is it?” Thole stepped forward, looking out past the targets where Branson had seen the shape. She stood perfectly still for a long moment, straining her eyes to see through the unceasing sandstorm to the north.

“Ravagers….” Thole exclaimed. “It looks like there are six of them.

Six!? Are you sure? What are they doing so close to the temple?Branson could feel his goosebumps retreating, replaced by a different sensation. “What do we do?”

“We stay quiet. As long as they don’t see us here we have nothing to fear.” Magister Laner had stepped in front of them to see for himself. He was one of the younger Magisters at the temple with them, only just being selected after one of the older Magisters had been killed by Ravager when their numbers had first started to multiply about three years ago.

They watched the pack of Ravagers continue on in the direction they were traveling. By the time they were out of sight, the small group that remained at the target range was ready to head back to the Buried Temple. They looked around the area once more, making sure the Ravagers had gone on their way, then turned back to return to the temple.

“What were they doing so close to the temple?” Branson asked again, hoping for an answer this time.

“I don’t know. I will need to confer with the other Magisters on what we have seen. This is the closest I’ve ever seen them, but perhaps some of the older Magisters who have been here longer have.”

Branson would have to content himself with that answer for now. They walked in silence for a while. Saviors lost a lot of their agility in the desert. The loose sand that swirled around made the terrain treacherous, and the Saviors have been known to lose their balance and fall over. It was easier and safer to walk here.

They were about half way to the temple when they spied another shape in front of them. They continued on a few more steps until two more figures appeared next to the first. The small group stopped where they were. Branson could feel the fear rising in his gut. “Are those the same ones? What are we going to do?”

Magister Laner once again stepped in front of them. “I will handle these three. You two just stay here and be ready in case things don’t go well.” Magister Laner started moving towards the Ravagers in front of them, cannon at the ready. The Ravagers stood still, waiting for the Magister to make his move. Once he was in range, Magister Laner fired his cannon at the Ravager in the center and scored a direct hit. The Ravager fell backwards, writhing in the sand as the strange droplet started expanding around it. The other two Ravagers charged forward in a direct line towards the Magister. They ran unbelievably fast for their size, closing the distance between them with every leaping stride.

“We should help him.” Thole said as she started walking forward, preparing her cannon for a kill shot.

“But he told us to wait here as backup,” Branson wasn’t a coward, but he wasn’t stupid either. He knew he wasn’t a good enough shot to be a reliable help to anyone.

Thole continued forward, zeroing in on the Ravager that had gained a stride on the other. She fired at it, the small ball of fluid slammed into its target, sending the Ravager flying off to the side. The Magister looked back towards them and gave a quick nod and then quickly shouted “BEHIND YOU!”

Before they could turn they were already on them. One Ravager jumped onto Branson’s back and he fell forward. Another had tried to jump onto Thole as well, but she ducked deftly and just as the Ravager was above her she shot up and broke the Ravager’s ribs in half with her shoulder. Magister Laner was wrestling with one on the ground, having been distracted by the three Ravagers that had flanked the apprentices.

Branson was struggling to stand up as the Ravager sat on him, biting and clawing at the Savior’s back. Thole ran over and gave it a swift kick in the side of the head just as another Ravager tackled her from the side, sending her reeling. She managed to keep her feet, but the Ravager continued its relentless assault. She swiped at it with her cannon arm and missed, the Ravager skirting to the side and ramming into her leg. The Savior dropped to a knee, disoriented as she wheeled around to try and catch sight of her attacker. Her eyes caught it just as it was turning around to come back for another charge. She lifted her cannon as quickly as she could and fired almost blindly. The shot caught the Ravager in the front leg. The Ravager dropped and slid towards her. It howled and raged in anger and helplessness as the projectile slowly worked its way up its legs. It crawled up towards its chest, growing and growing as it spread out around to its back and eventually onto its head and covering its face.

Thole stood and surveyed the situation. Magister Laner and Branson were each starting to get the upper hand on their adversaries, and the Ravager she drove her shoulder into was lying still on the ground, its body broken. She headed towards Branson to help him, but as she watched he managed to grab part of the ravager’s scraggly mane and throw it off his back. He stood quickly and fired, catching the ravager square in the face.

She then turned to Magister Laner. The Ravager had gotten the upper hand on him. He was lying face down as the Ravager was tearing at his calf. Magister Laner was struggling to stand when the Ravager tore out some of the hoses in the Savior’s leg and spat them out. Magister Laner had managed to get to a knee before the Ravager’s muzzle returned to his leg.

Branson and Thole watched in horror as the Savior’s chest opened, spilling the Magister out onto the ground, just a few yards away from the ravenous beast. The apprentices started sprinting towards the Magister who was lying prone in the sand, still partially in stasis. Thole was trying to get a clear shot at the Ravager but it was safely covered behind the kneeling Savior. There was nothing else for them to do but to get to the Magister as quickly as possible and get him out of harm’s way.

The Magister lay in the sand defenseless as the Ravager approached. He looked towards the Saviors running towards him, fast but not fast enough, and started to back away from the Ravager. It was looking at him with hunger in its eyes as it slowly stepped towards him. Magister Laner retreated backwards as quickly as he could but the Ravager leapt forward and landed on top of him. He felt his leg break as the Ravager let its weight press down on the bone. He screamed in agony, unable to move away or do anything. Saliva was spilling from the Ravager’s half-decayed mouth onto his face as it leaned in closer, its jaws opening unnaturally wide to reveal the inner workings of its mouth. There were small tubes running along the roof of its mouth as well as beneath its tongue. The skin around them was torn, as if it had been stretched taut over the tubes and finally ripped apart from the strain. Its breath emitted no odor, only a wretched heat that blasted him full in the face as its jagged teeth closed in on his head.

Suddenly, the Ravager flew off of him, yelping in surprise as the droplet spread around it, leaving nothing but a black shell on the ground beside him. Thole and Branson ran up to him after the Ravager was still.

“Magister Laner, are you ok?” Branson asked with a shaky voice.

“My leg is broken. I don’t think I can move.” He tried to sit up but cried out and fell back to the ground.

“Just lay still, Magister. Thole, stay here with him. I’ll run back to the temple and get help.”

“Alright, hurry!”

Branson turned and ran, heedless of the terrain giving way beneath the Savior’s feet, thinking that he had never been that scared in his life.

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