Mickey leaned over the table for a strategic appreciation of the situation. It was grim- not that he had expected anything better. Numbers had a way of winning that countered valor and skill. And Sora, Riku, and Kairi were very low on numbers. The battle was only thirteen of them, including their Space Marine allies, against an innumerable horde that just kept coming. He rubbed his eyes, remembering the crazed sigil engraved on the back of the game box. It had stung his eyes bad when he looked at it.
"Anythin' in particular you think we should do?"
Mickey didn't answer Cid right away. He didn't have an answer. Scratching his chin delayed time though, and he used it to think fast and look smart. "Aerith and Leon aren't moving anymore?"
They weren't. Aerith, who had volunteered to play on the side of Humanity, was pushing a killer look across the table to Leon, who seemed less human the longer he played. The game had come to a pause at the end of the campaign codex's outline for battles, leaving the two strategists waiting.
"So the game has been altered by the Heartless," Mickey mused.
"And someone else," Yuffie corrected.
Everyone winced in memory of the Chaos rune covering the trademark on the box.
"And someone else," Mickey mimicked. "So no one can leave the game until it's done, and the game does not work the way it used to. And, presumably, the game is fatal."
Merlin's house was getting uncomfortably stuffy with so many people inside crammed so close together. Mickey continued scratching his chin. "So why aren't they moving anymore? How do we advance the game?"
"What?" Cloud broke his silent nature again and leaned over the opposite end of the table. "Why would we want to advance it? Someone could die."
Mickey nodded. "And if the game doesn't advance, they die, too. They aren't eating. Advancing is the only path to victory."
Merlin stepped forward into the light, which was now only coming from the table in the center of the room. All other light was dimmed to nothingness by some unseen magical force. "Which begs the question again, your majesty. How do we advance?"
Cid chewed his cigar thoughtfully and mumbled something about inserting tokens. Glancing his way in annoyance gave Mickey an idea. "Cid."
"What was it the campaign book said about continuing?"
Cid glanced down at the manual he'd been rummaging through and read aloud while his cigar did a jig. "Get your friends together and choose larger, more diverse armies to compete in any struggle you can imagine. The diversity of Warhammer 40K allows for a never ending game play experience in which wars can reach apocalyptic sizes."
He slapped the book in his palm. "Why? Is that important?"
King Mickey nodded. "Does it say anything else?"
Cid looked down at the book again. "Try adding a new faction to the struggle on Macragge on either side, or even a third! But remember that armies stay balanced by points, so adding to one side means adding to another."
With a shrug, Mickey gestured at Cloud. "And that's how we advance."
"Transport almost here, sir."
Kairi tugged on Sora's shoulder, drawing his horrified gaze away from the massive Tyranids stalking the horizon. Behind him, the Space Marines were watching the opposite direction as a shuttlecraft skimmed to their rescue at full speed. The voxcaster one of the Marines was carrying came to life.
"Brother-Captain Octavian, this is Fulcrum. We're coming in low from the south. Check your targets."
The Squad captain, Octavian, pushed a bead in his ear to respond. He still wasn't wearing a helmet. "Acknowledged, Fulcrum. We're watching for you."
Sora looked back at the Tyranid horizon. More Genestealers were closing fast, along with Hormogaunts that seemed to be carrying rifles instead of scythes.
He pointed with his keyblade, to show the Astartes. One of them nodded slightly.
"Is there a problem, juvie?" He rumbled, annoyed.
Sora shrugged. "Aren't you out of ammo?"
"The Emperor will provide," they answered in unison.
Sora nodded, defeated, and tried to judge the size of their rescue vessel. Unless it had a Dash Drive, or some amazing weapon, it wasn't going to be helpful. "Are you guys sure?"
The vox screamed to life again. "Octavian, Fulcrum. We're taking fire. You've got AA on your flank. Biovores and-" The message cut short with a bang and the shuttle exploded in mid air. It plummeted to the ground like a gutted rock, landing where Octavian and the Keybladers had first met. The Gods of Irony were surely high-fiving. The Captain raised his chainsword in the general direction.
"To the crash site! Before those swine catch up to us!"
Sora's groan was trampled under the sound of sprinting, metal power-armor. He caught up as fast as he could, which wasn't as fast as usual considering the superior genes of the Emperor's finest. Riku and Kairi, at his side, were even outrun by the Marine with one leg. They decided to let it go. These guys could be better than them.
"Do you guys know what a Biovore is?" Sora asked.
Riku shook his head and Kairi gasped something about eating Latin plant roots between breaths. They'd find out soon enough anyway.
"You mean another one of us has to play?"
Merlin shrugged his innocence at Yuffie. "I didn't make the rules and-"
"-and there's nothing you can do to change them." She dropped a sigh. "Fine. Who should play?"
Donald and Goofy tried to stay unnoticed in the corner of the room, meaning Donald tried to hide behind Goofy while Goofy tried to hide behind Donald. Their efforts toppled a pile of books, drawing everyone's attention. Mickey faced them squarely and drew up his height.
Donald chuckled nervously. "I'm not a very good leader, your majesty. That's why Goofy is captain of the guard."
"Sure is right!" Goofy beamed. "Uhhh, wait." The implications of the compliment suddenly caught up with him.
Cloud, still leaning over the table, caught Mickey's attention discretely and nodded suggestively toward Leon's end of the table at the Tyranid team. Mickey glared at the lack of faith, and then shifted his gaze to Goofy. "Feeling up to it?"
Goofy fumbled his hands within each other contemplatively. "Gawrsh, your majesty. Are you sure I'm the guy for the job? It seems kinda' brainy if ya' know what I mean."
"Have you ever lost a game of chess?"
Everyone in the room perked up at that- except for Goofy. Goofy scratched his chin in thought. "Well I… I beat you… I beat… uh… I beat Sora… I beat Donald-"
"I beat Ansem the Wise… uhhhhh… I beat Yensid…"
"Have you ever lost?" The king repeated.
Goofy thought his way to the conclusion, "nope! Oh Gawrsh. When you put it that way you make me sound smart!"
Mickey nodded. "You're the captain of the guard. It's a game of strategy. And I'm giving you an order anyway."
Goofy nodded with some trepidation. "Alrighty then." He looked to Cid. "What does that book say about what kind of choices I can make?"
Cid tossed him an army codex. "Take your pick."
Cloud, meanwhile, nearly jumped at the realization that Yuffie was suddenly next to him, whispering in his ear, "Are we seriously sending him to the rescue?"
Cloud shrugged. "If the king trusts him…"
Goofy hmmed obnoxiously, cutting Cloud off. Cid was showing him several armies and their descriptions, which were conveniently organized by allegiance. "But only these three are on Aerith's team?" Goofy asked in his usual… goofy… accent.
Cid shrugged. "That's what it says here."
"Oi! Is there a Squad Octavian on this channel?"
Sora looked up from the ground he was sprinting across and glanced at the vox operating Astartes. Octavian pushed his comm bead without breaking stride. "Identify yourself in the name of the Emperor!"
A brief pause punctuated the response. "Valhallan 12th and a frak load of artillery in need of firing solutions. You got some 'nid targets for us?"
Kairi nudged Sora. "What's going on?"
The group came over the lip of a bloody talc dune and came down over the lip into Fulcrum's crater. Another Astartes Squad was waiting for them, guns strafing over the corpses of five or so girthy quadrupeds.
"I guess those are biovores then," Riku remarked. Kairi lifted her foot at the realization that she was standing in a piece of one of them.
"Octavian of Ultramar?" They all looked up at the sound of one of the new Marine's voice. The squad in the crater below them was uniform; the captain was wearing his helmet, so they couldn't tell who had spoken. It was of interesting note to them however that this squad's armor was grey with snakes emblazoned on the shoulders rather than blue with the letter U, like Octavian.
"Damocles of Ithica?" Captain Octavian responded.
One of the other marines nodded. "Indeed we are. We are honored to be rescued by you, Octavian of Octavian, notable."
Octavian returned the comment with a nod. "As we are honored to be rescued by you, Priad of Damocles, notable." A screech on the horizon cut their greetings short, and Priad, the apparent new squad leader, tossed his ammo clip up to Octavian.
"We've got plenty! Use it up!"
Octavian loaded his weapon, spun, and fired in a graceful motion despite his size. Several Hormogaunts turned to shredded meat about a hundred meters away. The rest of Damocles tossed up their clips and reloaded themselves from the ship's stores before joining squad octavian on the lip of the dune. Priad and Octavian ended up side by side with the Pilot and his metal Gene Seed case ducking behind the dune. Sora, Riku, and Kairi ended up behind the captains, listening in and feeling useless, even rather stupid next to a perfectly oiled military machine. Kairi brushed some hair behind her ear instinctively, only to discover that it wasn't there. She remembered how her hair had burned away in the beginning of her terrible ordeal, taking most of what made her feel beautiful. She bit back some humiliated tears and reached out to squeeze Sora's hand. He squeezed back with his three remaining fingers. Riku didn't say anything. , mostly because he couldn't hear. They were a miserable bunch.
Priad split a distant skull with a well placed round and noticed Octavian at his side.
"So what's this I hear on the vox, Brother-Captain? Artillery?"
Octavian Nodded through a burst of fire. "I almost forgot." He tripped his comm. Bead. "Valhallan 12th, are you still there?"
His voice probably boomed over the radio too, judging by the Valhallan's reaction. "No need to shout, buddy. The magic box carries your voice the whole way. Feed us some auspex coordinates and we'll drop the God-Emperor's will."
Octavian pointed to the marine with the voxcaster, who nodded and dropped behind the line to send the data. Sora, Riku and Kairi only watched, idle, unneeded, feeling like frogs being crushed in a swamp full of battling elephants. The shrieks of dying Tyranids and cracks of tiny explosions only added to their feeling of impending doom.
"Maybe Phil was right," Sora mused.
Kairi squeezed his hand gently.
"Maybe we aren't heroes."
Riku socked him lightly on the arm. It wasn't playful. He was staring through the armored bodies into the slaughter.
Sora's next query was drowned by several hundred rapid crumps of the artillery over the horizon behind them.
"Look," Riku repeated with a strange voice.
The trio caught glimpses between the shifting blue armor of the Ultramarines and the shifting Grey of the Iron Snakes. They saw blood, chunks, and bloody chunks. And gold. Sora rubbed his eyes and took another peek. There was red blood, from aliens; there was white bone, from aliens; there was black bile and green puke from punctured stomachs, again belonging to aliens; and there was a flash of gold, a flash of darkness.
And then there was a column of dirt almost fifty meters high. If the artillery was the 'God-Emperor's will,' the God-Emperor was not a man to be trifled with, or perhaps even a man. The shells landed progressively farther away in a wider and wider ark, showering the talc sand high into the air, the dirt below it a little lower, and the rocks below that just far enough that the keybladers were glad for the armored bodies in front of them. The barrage continued without ceasing, blocking out Sora's attempt at screaming for Riku to confirm what he'd seen. It wasn't too loud for other voices. The Astartes could bellow over the moaning of ten thousand tortured souls. And that had been field tested in Hell.
"Captain! Target right!"
"What warp-spawned, whoresome creature is this?"
As far as Sora knew, it was a heartless hormagaunt. Another horror for the universe to bear.
Sora saw it then, unmistakably. Bullets were flying through it harmlessly, churning up the dust beneath and around it to no effect. It smiled a mouthless, soulless, Heartless grin, and locked onto the nearest Astartes with its golden eyes, sprinting and grinding its scything claws together. Sora, Riku, and Kairi pushed their way up to the captains, keyblades ready, just in time for it to carve into the marine and sunder his body like firewood. Sora swung hard and cracked the horror across its head, knocking it back.
"We can handle this, Octavian!" Riku shouted as he joined in with a swipe at its legs. "Just keep the rest off of us!"
Sora managed to stun it with another strike on the face and move fast enough to not meet the fate of the marine while Riku took out its legs. He dodged to his own safety and Sora stepped in to take the coup de grace.
Priad and Octavian spotted something ant-like around their legs. Kairi had made her way forward now and was shouting something.
"What?" Priad roared.
"There's more!" Her voice barely made it over the gunfire and artillery.
"They're Heartless!" Sora gestured at his keyblade, used to other people knowing more about it than he did.
"Of course they are! They're from the Warp! What's your point? And what the frak is that?" He gestured at the key.
The trio ran to intercept the new wave of Heartless Hormagaunts coming safely from under the explosive barrage, yelling over their shoulders, "Just watch!"
They met the wave head-on, like any other heartless battle. Claws swiped, keys blocked, they covered for each other, hitting until death. Meanwhile, Squads Octavian and Damocles kept their backs clear of the real Hormogaunts while the Valhallan shelling played the sub-sonic bass of a hymnal, praising the Emperor. More Heartless came in, like the black void of space, punctuated by chaotic, golden stars and scything claws. The trio of keys stayed close to their Marine escort throughout the battle, and the Marines stayed close to their keyblade escort. For the first time since their arrival, Sora, Riku, and Kairi were starting to feel important. After all, where would the mighty Space Marines and their Gene Seed be without them?
It wasn't long until the Heartless wave dried up. Tyranids were still on the horizon, separated by more kilometers than anyone cared to guess. The ones they could see were bigger, like tanks and short buildings, but they were slower, too. And the Astartes had all the ammo they needed now. The voxcaster- radio, Sora reminded himself- crackled to life again.
"Valhalla to Astartes, you have a callsign?"
The vox operator turned to his captain. Octavian shrugged and beaded back, "use callsign Octavian for us and Damocles for the Brother-Captain Priad, here."
"Roger that, Octavian, Damocles, how's that artillery?"
Everyone admired the newly formed indentation that extended into the distance; and they noted with some alarm that the tryanids were starting to reach the edge of it, where the fewest shells were landing.
Octavian chewed the inside of his mouth in thought before replying. "Back it up a bit from where you are now to the original coordinates and then drop it randomly in the spread, Valhalla. Are there any infantry with you?"
"One moment, over."
They waited. The artillery continued to fall where it was. It took about a minute to arrive from over the horizon, so that didn't surprise anyone.
"Instructions relayed, Octavian. Infantry hasn't landed yet. Commissar says we have Valhallan 597th, Cadian 8th and Tanith 1st coming down. Is that all?"
"Tell your commissar we have the Emperor's Gene Seed with us. It needs immediate evacuation, but we'll be overrun if we fall back without cover."
"Will do. Valhalla out."
As if on cue, the artillery strikes started to retreat, and just in time with the arrival of the Tyranids, which were hard do identify due to their being savagely torn apart by the concussive blasts. Only the Heartless were getting through the wall of fire, still the regular Hormagaunt varieties. Gathering into defensive semi-cirles, the Astartes let Sora and friends work their blades. It was a good deal all around.
"Airborne incoming, flank, low."
And the radio operator had only made it sound better. Sora knocked his last victim's scythes aside and sundered its face. It cracked, twitched, and then slumped to the ground, the last of the wave for as far as he could see. One of squad Octavian was digging through the remains of the fallen soldier, doing what Sora couldn't tell.
A heart escaped into the air, dancing and twirling around, up, up, up, drawing Sora's eyes with it like a milestone in his life until it finally reached its destination somewhere among the stars. Sora wondered briefly where Destiny Islands was relative to them. How could one move from a world in a book or a game to reality? By going Betwixt and Between?
It made his head hurt, so he wiped some blood off of his nose and turned to look at the aircraft coming from the allied horizon. Low was an understatement. It was another shuttle, kicking up rocks in the vacuum it left behind as it skimmed along Macragge's talc skin. In less than a minute it stopped next to them and dropped their rescue. Sora's hope dropped away completely. Four men came out of the shuttle, toting military equipment.
"Octavian? Damocles?" One of the men gestured over his shoulder into the craft. "'ere's for you. We're your replacement."
Sora beamed again. Kairi was at his side in an instant. "We're getting on the shuttle? We're leaving?"
The four men, not Marines, not clad in any incredible armor or amazing by any standard, scowled idly at the keybearers as they passed and began digging a foxhole and unraveling grey cloth to camouflage themselves. The Marines were already piling into the craft, but Sora, Kairi, and Riku, almost about to board themselves, suddenly stopped as if thinking the same thought at once. They turned, slowly, reluctantly, to face their morals and watch the four men who would surely not last without their help. Sora looked to his friends for their thoughts, and it was silently agreed, everyone has to die sometime. They piled on without looking back, for fear that their former selves would see them leave.
The pilot at the front of the craft turned around and yelled at them all, somehow getting his words past the cigar in his mouth. "Ya Frakkers listen good here, right? I ain't getting part a this crap today, so we're flyin' this down low where ain't frakkin' AA gonna shit us outta the sky. Hang on tight."
Sora frowned. He didn't remember cid having such a large scar on his face or speaking as crassly around him before. The ramp closed on the craft and it lifted slightly. Sora didn't like the future so far. He could only hope, like everyone he shared the galaxy with, that it would get better.