He had always hated wearing armor. It was not the protection that he despised. It was the limited mobility that the suit placed on him. He had always liked to move when the battle raged around him, and the armor constrained that movement. So when the machine-smiths had come to him for measurements, he had only asked for a breast plate, forged from steel and strengthened by his own magic. Even then, he had toyed with the idea of abandoning it, leaving it on the field or selling it to the scrappers that hunted the aftermath of every battle.
Now, he was glad he kept it.
His eyes drifted across the field and settled on the lines of red and black. The warriors of Khador were as tough and harsh as the winter that haunted their ice swept lands. He could see regiments of Winter Guard, rigid and unmoving in their seemingly innumerable ranks. He could see the squads of Man-o-Wars in their bulky power armor, halberds held proudly aloft in a forest of spears. Behind them the warjacks prowled, each a picture of Khadorian fury, blood red armor clad on hulking, mechanized frames.
This was no skirmish in the waiting, no lesser fight that plagued all wars. This would be the battle that ended the war.
A small smile crossed his features. Again, he was glad he had kept his armor.
His gaze roamed back to his lines, where men and women of regal blue stood at attention. The Cygnarans had pushed far into Khador territory, smashing aside the hurried resistance that had rushed to waylay them. It was a daring move, orchestrated by a commander that was as shrewd as she was bold. Victoria Haley had led the Cygnaran force in well-coordinated marches that left Khador confused and flummoxed. She had taken three cities and annihilated four defending armies. In a lightning blitzkrieg, she had struck deep at the soft underbelly of Cygnar's rival nation and carved a bloody wound that left Khador howling in pain. But Khador was large and its resources many. Like a wounded bear it had struck back, and the army that faced them now was that strike, primed to deliver a vengeful blow at the enemy that had dared harmed their nation so. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and far from their supply lines. Defeat loomed, its heavy pallor settling on the Cygnaran camp.
And then he had come.
No one had called for him. The Cygnarans were stranded far behind enemy lines and their communications had been almost entirely cut off. The Khadorians had tried to force him to bend knee and when that failed had asked for him to serve. That was years ago, and his reply had made no mistake of what he thought of the men of the North. But now he was here, arrived in the night with his entourage in tow, bypassing the Cygnaran sentries who looked on in awe.
His steps had taken him to the command tent where Haley had been in one last conference with her commanders. The woman had glanced up as he entered, and as her subordinates rose in surprise, her lips had parted in a grim smile.
"Now we can win," was all she had said.
There was no boasting in those words, for they were the truth. He did not know how he came by his power, but was as natural to him as breathing or eating. He could control the elements within him, manipulate them. It was magic, he was sure of it, and though it was a different type of force that bound warjack and warcaster together, his sufficed just as well. Better even. The magic that sang in his blood melded him with the cortexes of the war machines that tread in his wake, making them malleable to control, obedient to his every command. Where his mind directed, warjacks strode fluidly, their motions more man-like than machine. Where his conscience focused, they angled to attack, coordinating with each other in flawless perfection. And where his fury gathered, the warjacks would strike, green fire pooling behind metal visors, their mechanical arms fueled by anger that was not their own.
That had earned him attention, of course. To control a warjack required an innate talent that one had to be born with. Even then, rigorous training was a must. The iron will of a machine was not easily persuaded, and years of dedicated practice was required to conquer its war spirit. Maintaining the link, the connection between man and machine, took longer to learn. And exercising that link in the confusion that was battle, even longer. Those that succeeded became warcasters, the most valuable resource a nation could own.
He could do all of this naturally. Without training. Without practice. And so he had earned their attention.
Khador had been the first. Their pelt clad emissaries reached him on doughty horses whose heavy fur spoke of a lifetime roaming the frozen steppes. They had demanded he bend knee to the Ice Throne, kneel to the queen that was the heart and soul of Khador. He had refused, and they had left, cursing his name. They would return, this time with a contingent of Winter Guard and a squadron of heavy warjacks. If he would not kneel in obedience then they would make him by force. He slew them all with nothing but two light jacks at his command. The infantry were easy prey, but the jacks were not. Clad in thick, riveted plate, they withstood both cannon and blade. He had to maneuver his lighter machines into their flank, stabbing at their unprotected sides and hamstringing them from behind. In the end he had accomplished it, and bodies of steel and oil joined those of flesh and blood. From their mechanized corpses he would salvage his first heavy jack, a Berserker, its hulking form a testament to Khadoran brutality.
Cygnar had been more diplomatic in their approach. They had sent out summons for him to appear in the king's court, and when that failed, offered higher and higher commissions in their army as his fame grew with every deed. And when he was still not persuaded, the Cygnaran envoys, instead of dispatching a war party to attack him, had gifted him a Defender chasis in the hopes he would wear the blue. From that he had created a Cyclone, and while he would never don the colors of Cygnar, he would at least help them in thanks for this gift. Wherever he walked, Cygnar rallied, and his name became a household saying for victory.
Menoth had tried to convert him. A party of Knights Exemplar and scores more of Flameguard approached him while he rested after a lull in the fighting. At their head a Confessor strode, flanked by towering warjacks clad in tabards of white. The Confessor had warned him of his sins and extolled the virtues of the one true faith. He had laughed and they had taken offense. It should have been a lopsided fight. The Flameguard were zealous, and the martial prowess of the Exemplars were near unmatched. The Menonite jacks were sturdy and tenacious. But he had his Berserker, and he had his Cyclone, and while the Berserker tore apart the Protectorate heavies with axe and fist, the Cyclone massacred the Flameguard with hails of lead from its chain cannons. The Exemplars had charged him then, swords held high in righteous anger. His light jacks had sprung forward to defend, and together with the Berserker, cut the knights into pieces. From the bodies of priests and the corpses of machines the Crusader had risen, his third creation, its armored frame a mockery of the faith it once defended.
The Cryx had tried to dissect him. They laid an ambush for him in the swamps, and when he walked by with his jacks in tow, they had emerged from the waterways, their unholy skins streaming rivulets of mud and water. Mechanithralls, their graying, decayed bodies augmented by scavenged machine parts swarmed around them in cackling packs. Helljacks, hunch-backed carapaces resembling that of carnivorous insects, shot at them with needle-like weapons that spewed streams of green acid. And behind all of them, watching from the shadows, the Iron Lich lurked, surveying the scene behind its skull-faced mask. He had flung them back. All of them. And when they chose to retreat, he chose to pursue, littering the marshland with broken bodies and ruptured hulls. The Iron Lich escaped, but missing one of its skeletonized arms, firmly in the grasp of his Berserker, who blared out its victory on top a pile of undead corpses. From the wreckage he had forged his last jack, a chitinous thing of hell-forged steel powered by necromantic energies. This one had been the hardest to conquer, for its very existence was a blasphemy upon creation.
The Berserker was unruly, and always hungry for war. The Cyclone's soul was far less temperamental, but no less hungry for violence. The Crusader held an innate sense of nobleness within it, mixed with a streak of zealotry. The Reaper just reeked of death. Death and decay. And wherever the former Cryx jack walked, all living things recoiled, sickened by the miasma that seemingly permeated from every part of its gunmetal body.
He knew these things because they told him. He knew these things because they replied to him, pulsating their base emotions through the link that was enhanced by his own magic. He knew these things because he was different, and the way these jacks, his jacks, responded to him far outclassed the bond between man and machine.
He was a prodigy at warcasting. His talents had brought him fame and recognition. And yet, as he watched the Khadoran lines start to advance, he still felt as though he didn't belong, shouldn't belong, in this place. It had always been a niggling doubt, a pang of… something… that existed in the back of his mind. It had haunted him when he was young, and still haunted him now, despite how he had aged and matured. He would have dismissed it long ago as sense of déjà vu, but sometimes…
Sometimes he would dream in the thick of night of a beautiful woman with long red hair and a grinning man with flashing green eyes. The woman would coo at him, a soft smile playing on her lips. The man would wink at him, waving over the shoulder of the woman. He would reach for them, longingly, and they, like every time before, would disappear, fading away in haze of lost memories. Then, he would wake, and the only sound that would accompany him would be the rumbling snarl of resting war machines.
Emmeline Vance was dead. Her body had been found in Knockturn Alley, cold to the touch and devoid of life. No evidence of foul play had been discovered. Nor were there any traces of dark spells found within the vicinity. The aurors were classifying it as a natural death, but those gathered around the table knew better. The Dark Lord's followers were many, and as his influence grew, so did those who sought harm to the order.
Lily Potter blinked wearily. They had been discussing the issue at hand since midnight. She was not alone in her weariness. The rest of the order wore equally exhausted expressions. She did not blame them. The news had hit them hard. Emmeline was well respected amongst them and well-liked by the children. Lily remembered how the older witch had always kind words to say towards her children, and Rose had affectionately called her an aunt ever since the day she could speak. And now she was dead, murdered by those that bore the Dark Mark. Angry tears threatened to spill from her eyes at the thought. She curbed it with difficulty. She would not allow the others to see her moment of weakness. Not even her husband, who was staring down at the table as he listened to Dumbledore speak.
They had aged. All of them. From James to Remus, and even Sirius, whose once youthful face now spilled tired lines. Ever since Voldemort had returned, the stress had been too much. The Dark Lord's influence wormed itself into every department of the ministry. His supporters whom the order had thought long dead or disappeared were popping up everywhere. Sightings of the Dark Mark were no longer uncommon. Lily sighed. Their numbers were simply too few to deal with these threats, and with Emmeline's death, had further dwindled. It had been simply too much. McGonagall's hair now carried streaks of grey. Hestia Jones looked like she was twenty years older than her real age. Mad-Eye Moody had grown even more haggard, if that was at all possible. Even Dumbledore did not carry the strain with grace. The old headmaster no longer smiled, preferring instead to frown, and his eyes did not twinkle nearly as much as it did before. In fact, Lily could not recall a time in the past six months when the ancient wizard seemed remotely happy.
Momentum favored Voldemort. Every day the Light grew dimmer and the Darkness spread. Even if they would not admit out loud the Dark Lord was winning, the thought still lurked painfully in the back of their minds, mocking them with the sheer blasphemy of it.
Lily dragged herself from her thoughts as she heard her name being called. She looked up to see Dumbledore staring at her with serious but not unkind eyes.
"I'm sorry, Headmaster," she said softly, "I was thinking about other things."
Dumbledore nodded gravelly.
"Emmeline's death has affected us all," he said mournfully, "Some, more than others."
Lily winced as the old wizard gaze flickered upwards, where Rose had locked herself in her room earlier when she heard the news. She had probably cried herself to sleep since then.
"She still holds herself accountable for Cedric's death," Lily replied with a faint shake of her head, "And now this…"
"Poor child," Molly murmured.
Beside her, James took her hand in his and squeezed. She sent a small smile towards her husband in response.
"Rose is not responsible for Cedric's death," Dumbledore stated firmly, "She displayed great courage when Voldemort sprang his trap, and even more so when she carried Cedric's body back to his parents."
"Yes," Lily nodded, "We have told her that, but she still blames herself."
"She is too honorable," Moody growled out and peered at them with his magical eye, "That will get her killed someday."
James stiffened, and it took a placating hand on his arm from her before he bit back his retort.
"We have already suffered one death today," Dumbledore said warningly, "Let us not speak of another."
The grizzled ex-auror grunted, but remained silent. Turning, the headmaster addressed the sole person that was standing in the room.
"Severus," Snape grimaced as the order's attention shifted to him, and rose from his slouching position against the wall, "what have you learned from Voldemort's camp?"
The spy crossed his arms across his chest and scowled.
"Nothing that is not already known to us, headmaster. The Dark Lord has grown more and more secretive. He has withdrawn to his quarters on multiple occasions, leaving Lucius and Bellatrix to coordinate in his stead. Whatever plans he has, not even the Inner Circle is privy to them. I warn all of you though," Snape's eyes flashed, "he is growing stronger. Every week more and more dark families bow to him, further strengthening his ranks. Nor are the neutral families innocent in all of this. A few days ago, I saw the Davises on their knees in the manor, pledging their loyalty to him."
Mutterings broke out amongst the order. Lily frowned. Adrian Davis had always carefully kept his house from being affiliated to either faction. She did not think he was the type of man to change sides so quickly.
"Traitors!" Moody spat.
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow.
"Need I remind you, Alastor," he said quietly, "that the Davises took no sides in First War? They made no move to help us, that is true, but neither did they aid Voldemort."
"Well, they're aiding him now, aren't they?"
"There must have been a reason," Dumbledore furrowed his brows, "Adrian, I do not think, would tread the dark path if there were alternatives to him. That, or I have gravely misjudged him."
"You're right," Snape issued a short, humorless laugh, "the Dark Lord had their children taken away from them as bargaining chips. Reeducating them, is what Lucius calls it."
Everyone in the room shook their heads in disgust. Dumbledore nodded gravelly.
"It is as I feared," the old wizard murmured, a sad expression crossing his face, "Every day our enemies multiply while our list of allies shortens," his gaze focused back on the spy, "Thank you, Severus. Was there anything else?"
For a moment, the black-haired man hesitated, and his eyes flickered in her direction. There was almost an apologetic look in them.
"I have heard of a rumor," he said slowly, "that the Dark Lord plans a 'celebration' on that day. He wants to celebrate the day he…" Snape swallowed, "…vanquished… one of them."
A surge of rage shot through her, and she stood up, fingers clenching the edges of the table.
"If he wants to spit on the image of Harry," she was surprised at the venom in her own voice, "I will kill him."
They were all staring at her now, expressions of sympathy mixed with those of alarm.
"If Harry wasn't there to protect Rose," she whispered fiercely, "I would have lost two children instead of one."
"Lily…" Molly moved to dab at the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief. Besides the Weasley matriarch, McGonagall sent her a compassionate look.
"We don't know what happened," Moody said gruffly, both his real eye and magical eye careful not to meet her gaze. She rounded on him anyways, "We don't know if he protected her or not."
"Are you saying that Harry just up and left?" she all but hissed.
"Lils," this time it was James that calmed her, rising from his seat and wrapping an arm around his wife's shoulders, "It's alright. Don't think about it too much."
She sat back down, but continued glaring daggers at Moody, who had the grace to look chagrined.
"The mystery of the Girl-Who-Lived," Dumbledore said softly, his tone booking no argument, "and the Boy-Who-Vanished has never been solved. Nor do I think it will be solved, even in the future."
Lily nodded, but her heart had railed against that statement. She knew, just knew that he was out there, somewhere. The dreams that assailed her mind when she was asleep were too common to be a coincidence, and they were always the same. Yet they were vague and fuzzy, and she could not recall all of the details once she awoke. But there were some things about them that were so lifelike, so real, that she just could not discount them. And later that night, when the order finally left and she closed her eyes besides her husband, she would dream of a boy with a lightning shaped scar and the war machines that followed him.