Dehumanization

"When I learned of Mithos' plan to create an Age of Lifeless Beings, I turned against him and descended upon this land, where I met Anna." –Kratos Aurion

Anna Irving felt unclean, though in reality, the opposite was true; her hair was still damp from being washed, and her body smelled of soap. Dressed in a plain grey, freshly laundered shift, Anna was perhaps the most sanitary human being to ever set foot inside the Asgard Human Ranch. Compared to the other prisoners, she hardly looked like a prisoner at all, her face clear and unblemished, her nails kept short and well-trimmed. But it was the washing itself that made her uneasy; the the memory of cold water and rough cloth clung to her skin in a way that the sweat and grime from the prison yard never had.

Only a few months had passed since Anna had been selected for a special research project, confined to the inside of the facility while the others slaved away outside, sweating and bleeding over the construction of their own prison. Anna's new life was safe, in contrast; she was under the protection of Grand Cardinal Kvar. After nearly a year of experimentation and study, he took great pain to ensure that his most valuable research subject never came to harm – not even for what he considered to be legitimate disciplinary purposes.

Anna was needed. For the time being.

The isolation had been difficult at first, more difficult, somehow, than being put to work with the other humans, sweating and bleeding over the construction of her own prison. Alone, in the quiet, time passed slowly. When she wasn't pacing the floor she spent most of her time in an unfocused, almost dreamlike state, interrupted only when the door to her solitary prison opened and the guards came to escort her to her daily exercises and appointments.

The Desian foot soldier that came for her this time wore a visor down over his eyes, but Anna recognized him by his stature and his habits. He was shorter than she was by half an inch and she imagined that it irked him, for he always seemed to be in some sort of a snit when he came to fetch her.

"On your feet, human scum!" he snapped; a typical greeting for him.

When they walked down the hallway, he always kept a tight grip on her arm, tugging her this way and that as they made their way through the steel maze of the Desian fortress. His leather gloves were plated in steel that pinched her arms. Simply being touched after so much time alone was enough to make every sensation seem suddenly amplified, each tiny prick sharp in her mind.

Their destination was a small laboratory, one of many similar facilities that populated the west wing of the building. While most of these rooms contained heavy equipment, this one was mostly empty. Harshly sterile, it only contained a few meager pieces of furniture; a desk, chair and filing cabinet in one corner of the room, a counter and sink with locked cabinets in another, and a padded examination table in the middle, where her escort instructed her to wait.

At long last, the Desian released her arm. Anna felt his black leather glove peel away from her skin. That feeling, she knew, would linger for a long time afterwards. Trying to will her racing heartbeat to be steady, Anna moved to the padded examination table and sat down. She refused to look at the cloth restraints on either side of the bed frame.

Anna took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and counted her numbers.

One… three… eight… nine… thirteen…

She opened her eyes. Something was different; her escort lingered in the doorway for a few moments longer than usual. Although his eyes were invisible behind his visor, Anna could sense the way that his attention swept the room, searching. Listening. After a few moments, he shook his head. Then he left, sealing the entrance behind him.

Anna folded her hands in her lap. There was nothing to do now but wait. She had explored this laboratory before, hoping that something she could use – a scalpel, a heavy microscope, anything – would be left out in the open where she could get at it. She would likely try again. Now, though, the feeling of being watched made her skin prickle, made her turn around.

There was a man there - one she hadn't seen when she entered the room. She knew immediately that her escort hadn't noticed him either. Had he been hiding behind the desk? The counter?

He didn't look like the type to hide.

Anna didn't know what to make of the stranger standing before her. He was a tall man, military in appearance, and he carried a stack of file folders under one arm, but she doubted that he was there to conduct experiments. Kvar's researchers were all as fastidious as the Grand Cardinal himself; trim and neat and well dressed. This man's clothes were frayed around the edges. He had a bad haircut, too long, a scarlet red. It framed a grim expression and he wore dreary, dark colours to match. Anna could see a canteen and a somewhat tattered-looking leather pouch at his waist. He bristled with weaponry: a sword on his belt, a shield on his arm, and the hilt of a knife peeking out from the upper of his boot. Most prominent of all was the exsphere mounted on the back of his hand. It marked him clearly as a Desian soldier.

"Are you part of the Angelus Project?" he asked her.

Anna couldn't imagine why he was asking, but she had no reason to lie.

"Yes," she said.

"Then come with me," he ordered, moving past her the laboratory door. He didn't watch to see if she followed.

Anna hesitated. Her escort had ordered her to stay put. Those orders had been handed down from Grand Cardinal Kvar, himself.

"I was told..."

"Plans have changed," the man answered, without turning.

Anna stepped forward, ignoring the hard pit of dread slowly building at the base of her stomach. Somehow, she knew Kvar was not going to be happy about this. She would pay for his displeasure one way or another. But it was not her place to argue. And it would be even more foolish to ignore a direct command.

Coming up alongside the stranger, Anna could see that he was struggling with the door handle. Unlike Anna, he obviously had not expected it to lock behind him when he entered. Curiously, the man did not seem to possess one of the key cards that Kvar and his men used to bypass the ranch's security systems.

Anna was... relieved. If the man could not leave the labratory, then the situation would resolve itself.

Or so she thought.

"Very well then," the man muttered, more to himself than anything. Then, to Anna: "Take these," He handed her the stack of file folders he had been carrying. "Get behind the counter."

The order was an odd one, but Anna didn't dare question it. She scurried behind the long lab bench that the man had indicated, watching him warily.

"Not like that," he sounded annoyed. "Get down!"

Anna did as she was told, although she could not fathom his motives. Perhaps he meant to attack the next man to walk through the door. Or perhaps... perhaps this was some sort of drill. The latter seemed far more plausible than her first idea.

When nothing happened for a long moment, she looked down at the files in her arms. Each one was marked with the label "A012". Curious now, she opened the file at the top of the pile as silently as she could, just a crack, and peeked inside. On the first page there was a glossy image of her, from the neck up, and underneath that there were a few, notes written in small, uniform handwriting. Only her first name had been printed down, and she noticed that her birth date was incorrect; just over a month off. She wondered how Kvar had determined her age in the first place. The Desians had never asked her questions, of course. To them, the word of a human was useless.

Anna scanned down the page. Most of the words seemed like nonsense to her, but she paused when she reached one of the passages at the bottom.

Projected duration of parasitic process: 46 months, minimum.*

*With consistent exposure to high levels of physical and mental stress, the Angelus project is expected to mature at an accelerated rate, equal to that of a standard subject. To increase the scope of current data, it is advisable that measures be taken to extend the parasitic process and preserve the sample.

Her hand instinctively moved to the center of her collarbone, where a smooth, dark stone had been lodged in her skin.

"Ready?" she heard the man say, from somewhere on the other side of her makeshift hiding place. Anna hastily snapped the folder shut, half-expecting him to appear at her side and catch her in the act. He didn't. A moment later she heard him utter an incantation from where he stood on the other side of the counter.

There was no time to brace herself.

There was an explosive roar and the floor shook beneath Anna's feet and the palms of her hands. A wave of hot air rushed over the counter top, ruffling her hair as it passed overhead. Her breath caught. Her heart started pounding. And the exsphere lodged in her chest trembled, as if it were alive inside.

Anna sat, frozen in place. She had known that the Desian militia was composed mainly of half-elves, but she had only seen true magic – raw, unfettered by machinery – used once before. The smell of heated steel was thick in the air. It made Anna's chest feel tight, and she suddenly became very conscious of her breathing. She closed her eyes, and forced herself to inhale slowly and deeply.

One, three, eight-

"Get up," said the man.

Anna looked up at him from her position on the floor. The warrior was leaning over her with an expectant expression, one hand extended towards her, palm open. For a moment, she was confused by the gesture. She almost reached out to him. Then she remembered the files she was holding and quickly handed them over. The red-haired man accepted them from her and moved back, allowing her enough room to stand on her own.

"Follow me," he instructed.

Anna could only comply.

The laboratory door had been completely decimated by the man's spell, along with a great deal of the surrounding wall. Stepping through its twisted metal remains, Anna wondered who she was taking orders from. If he was a Desian, as she'd first assumed, he certainly wasn't any friend of Kvar's.

Then again, listening to the researchers during her appointments, Anna had come to understand that there was some sort of rebel faction causing trouble for her captors. If he was one of them, it might explain how he had obtained an exsphere.

At one time, she'd been hopeful that the Renegades intended to help humans. Later, she had learned that the so-called rebels were attacking human settlements with almost as much vengeance as the Desians themselves. They were doing their own exsphere research, too.

Anna looked at Kratos. If this man managed to escape the facility without getting her killed in the process, his motive was probably to turn her over to the Renegades' own researchers.

The passageway was suddenly filled with the wail of... some foreign sound, high pitched and loud. Anna's hands flew to her ears.

"What is that?"

"Alarms." The stranger was clearly unperturbed. "I was wondering how long it would take. We need to move quickly."

He began to pick up the pace, trotting ahead.

"Wait," said Anna, forced to raise her voice to be heard above the blaring sirens.

The red haired man paused and looked back at her. He seemed irritated.

"Th-the stairs to the ground floor are the other way," she told him, gesturing towards an intersection in the corridor, "I know how to reach the entrance."

It had been nearly a year, but Anna could still remember the route she had been taken when she had first been brought inside the ranch's high-security area. Even though the hallways were nearly indistinguishable from one another, the young woman had been able to keep track of where she was by reading the numbers on the facility doors. She had taken note of the ones where she had been forced to turn.

"You'll never manage to escape through the main entrance," he told her shortly. "Forget about that. Trust me, Anna."

"Hah," Anna barely managed to contain the laugh that threatened, then. "I don't even know your name."

The stranger turned away and began to walk. When she didn't move to follow him, he slowed, glancing over his shoulder, and sighed.

"You can call me Kratos Aurion."

And then he was walking again, as if he didn't care at all if she followed. It had to be a bluff. Anna was a valuable research subject.

One, three, eight, nine, thirteen. Those numbers, reversed, would take Anna straight to the prison yard. Even if she didn't make it to the front gate, she couldn't help but think longingly of the sun on her face, the smell of fresh air. She could go, if she wanted to. It didn't look like this "Kratos Aurion" was going to force her to stay with him.

But there was no chance of escape that way. Not really. She didn't know what her odds were of escaping from Kratos, but unknown odds were better than the certainty of capture.

Anna gave the other passage one last, long look before scurrying to catch up with the intruder.

The hallway was dotted with heavy, double doors that slid open and closed, driven by magi-technology. That meant there was almost no sound when they opened, as one of them did then. Two Desians emerged, shouting in surprise when they spotted the escaped captive and the man guiding her.

It was over before either of them could call for reinforcements.

Kratos felled the first with a sweep of his sword before the unfortunate half-elf had even bared his weapon, and the second only managed to parry once before Kratos had disarmed him with a fluid twist of his wrist, mercilessly plunging his weapon through his gut. Quick and efficient. Anna felt strangely numb watching their blood spill out onto the floor.

The Desians did not die quickly. Anna looked away from them, trying to ignore the sounds they made. It wasn't difficult. Their pain seemed unreal, somehow, to her. She shut them out of her mind and focused instead on what she needed to do.

Eyes ahead, human scum, she thought grimly.

Kratos led her on. At the end of the corridor, there was a large, steel set of double doors. "This is the hangar," he said. Anna didn't recognize the term.

The room was enormous, and the ceiling reached three times as high as it had out in the hallway. Anna had been expecting to find a dead end, but on the opposite side there was a long round tunnel with a metal walkway running down the center of it. Her breath caught at the sight of blue sky, waiting at the end.

Part of her longed to run towards the exit, but something gave her pause; a bizarre contraption that appeared to be levitating in the center of the hangar. It reminded Anna of a winged sea hog, with immense, sweeping fins on either side of it and a curved tail emerging from the back. Where the she imagined the creature's feelers would be there was instead a pair of handlebars, set in front of a cushioned seat. The underside of it – or the belly – appeared to be a hollow cylinder with some sort of propeller inside. Unable to help herself, Anna moved in for a closer look.

"What…" Anna began, but then she trailed off when she noticed that Kratos was facing away from her. His eyes were fixed on a set of viewing screens mounted on the wall, all of which displayed characters that Anna didn't recognize.

"That is a Rheaird," Kratos told her. She was surprised that he had been able to hear her over the sirens in the hall. "More specifically, you are looking at a turbine engine. It propels the machine through the air."

"You mean… this is a flying machine?!"

"Indeed. Kvar's personal vehicle, I would assume. It's an older model, but everything seems to be in order,"

Kratos moved to join her, and mounted the Rheaird with sure steps, gesturing for her to climb up behind him.

Anna had her doubts. She had been working in the prison yard for months before she had been removed for experimentation purposes, but she had never seen any flying machines depart from the ranch. It didn't seem like the sort of thing that she would miss. There was nothing for it though, so she clambered up behind him and sat down, leaving some space between herself and the self-appointed pilot.

Kratos busied himself with prying open a metal panel located underneath the seat, and then proceeded to stuff the files he had been carrying inside the compartment for safekeeping. Once he had forced the panel closed again, he twisted around to face Anna.

"Alright. Hold on."

Anna didn't move, misunderstanding Kratos' instructions. Growing impatient, reached around behind him to grip her wrist, hauling her forward to fasten her arm around his waist.

"I mean it," he said firmly, "I need both hands to steer. If you fall I won't be able to help you."

Back rigid, she scooted forward on the seat and wrapped her other arm about his middle. The man's heavy cape relieved some of the awkwardness of their proximity, but she couldn't help but feel uncomfortably aware of his warmth under her hands, radiating through the thin material of his shirt. With her face close enough to bury in the crook of his neck, she could smell him. He carried the scent the world outdoors, of cedar trees, smoke from wood fires. And there was the barest hint of something else, sharp and clean, like shaving soap... but underneath all of that, there was something about him that smelled wrong. Something missing.

Anna realized that she was short of breath from running down the corridor and turned her head to the side, to avoid puffing air in Kratos's ear. If he noticed, he focused instead on manipulating the Rheaird's controls. He adjusted the angle of the machine's wings slightly, centering them.

The doors behind them hissed open.

"There they are!"

In her peripheral vision, Anna could see Desian soldiers piling into the room, weapons bared. One aimed his weapon at her, but another put a hand out to stop him.

"Don't!" The objecting Desian told his comrades, "If anything happens to the Angelus project-"

Anything else the soldier had to say was drowned as the engine under Anna's seat fired up with a roar, and, with no further warning, the Rheaird surged forward. Anna shrieked, caught off guard. Her frail hands clutched at Kratos's cape desperately as the vehicle sprang forward and rocketed down the tunnel. All at once, they burst into the sky, and for one dizzying moment, Anna looked down, and saw the prison yard beneath them.

Below, prisoners and guards alike craned their necks to stare up at her in amazement. Vaguely, it occurred to Anna that she should feel guilty for leaving them behind, but the feeling that she was in a dream was stronger than ever. As the Rheaird sailed over the compound fence, her heart was swept up and away with it.

I made it out alive, she realized.

Kratos leaned back into her, pulling the handlebars down gently. The Rheaird began to gain altitude, climbing through the sky in a smooth, languid arch. Shifting in order to get a better view of the ground, Anna saw that they were now flying above the woods that surrounded the Desian compound. When she glanced back, the Human Ranch already seemed distant and far away.

The climb made her feel nauseous at first. Anna felt a sharp pain in her ears, too, but it faded quickly. Growing more confident, she eased her grip on the pilot, freeing one of her hands to rub at her eyes. They were wet with tears, but it was just from the wind.

She could sense Kratos' tension flowing away as well, as his shoulders drooped slightly and the muscles of his stomach relaxed under her other palm. He was warm, a shield from the wind. She wondered what he was thinking. She wondered where he had learned to fly.

A sudden, loud noise, like a thunderclap, rumbled behind them, and Kratos swore. The Rheaird swerved sharply. Anna felt herself slipping and tried to regain her hold on Kratos, but before she could a bright, white streak of light ripped through the air to collide with one of the Rheaird's wings, shredding it like parchment. There was a deafening explosion, and the whole craft jerked violently. If not for Kratos, who had somehow managed to turn in his seat and grip onto her in the confusion, Anna certainly would have been thrown clear of the vehicle. There was no time for relief, however, for he had snared her to his chest, pinning both of her arms to her sides. He tilted towards her, forcing her to bend back - he'd been thrown off balance by the impact. Anna was pushed all the way back, to the very edge of the seat. With alarm, she realized that Kratos was about to go overboard, and with his arms around her, he was going to take her with him.

Anna struggled against his grip, trying to free her arms, trying to grab onto something, anything, before it was too late. Before she could break his grip, she caught a glimpse of something flashing in the sunlight, over his shoulder. Debris from the from of their vessel. Coming closer. It struck her across the forehead.

This is when I wake up, she thought.

That was when everything went black.

There was an instant after that in which she could still hear, still feel. The howling wind faded into silence. The last thing Anna would remembered was falling, and Kratos's arms closing around her, pinning her to him. But if these were to be her final moments, she wanted to feel the wind.