An exercise in how to cure writer's block. It worked. Also, Olivie Segbrecht vs. Signum.
Judgment Day's Not Coming
She could taste ashes and concrete dust. Smell them on the wind, along with blood. She'd always known it would end this way, though that was no great deduction. She was Wolkenritter, Cloud Knight, born to wage war eternal in her the name of her masters. In fire and blood, amid the ruins of a civilization, was the only way it could have ever ended.
Signum lifted her head, her incongruously pink ponytail bobbing behind her, the breeze tugging at her black clothes, and surveyed the horizon. She saw clouds, of smoke and ash and dust. Perhaps natural clouds too, though she couldn't tell at this distance.
The Belkan Empire, that incomparable civilization that had reached the stars and taken them as its own, was dying. Rumors spoke of distant foes, of someone who had finally had both the means and the will to fight back, but from where Signum stood it was very clear what was happening.
The Belkan Empire was killing itself. Not slowly and not quietly. It was tearing itself apart in one final orgiastic display of pyrotechnics and bloodshed. It had begun only three weeks ago and already trillions were dead. Though Belka prided itself on honorable combat, face to face and weapon to weapon, they had conquered the stars. Any society that can build starships can also build very impressive bombs. With the Royal Family dead, there was no control. Anyone who wanted to start dropping antimatter weapons and Reality Distortion Munitions could do so.
The Empire was down from over a hundred thousand inhabited worlds to just under seventy, and getting smaller by the moment. Trillions, quadrillions dead. A civilization that would never recover. It made Signum feel small, insignificant, and she was not accustomed to either.
She was Wolkenritter. The Cloud Knights were rightly regarded as one of the worst things that could happen to a planet of the Empire, until recently. She did not enjoy being one of the greatest demons Belkan society had ever known, did not appreciate it, but it was the nature of her existence. She was a guardian of the Book of Darkness and she went where the Book went and served whom it would serve. That the Book carried with it a penalty that might just accidentally eat a world meant that it would only serve the desperate and the dangerous.
And of course, if it were simple to destroy that would have happened many millenia ago. The Book always came back and could never be contained. Signum had been shot and stabbed. She had been burned alive, crushed, thrown into vacuum unprotected, bombed with weapons conventional, nuclear, and antimatter. She had choked on smoke, dirt, water, and her own blood. But the Cloud Knights never died with permanence. She would be remade good as new to serve once more with each death. And of course some of the people she'd served had found recreational uses for that fact, because such were simply the sort of people who would use the Book of Darkness.
A human would have long since gone insane. That mercy was denied to Wolkenritter. She felt blood running down her left arm from a previous wound. It was an annoyance rather than a worry, since as a construct she would not die of blood loss or get an infection. But her left hand was covered in the stuff and it made her grip less sure. For the tenth time in as many minutes she tried to wipe her left hand off on her clothes and returned both hands to the hilt of her blade.
There was something not quite correct about how she moved, something inhuman. Even at a fast walk she was silent. Her movements were precise and economical, meeting no conventional definition of grace but nonetheless impossibly graceful. It was not merely ten thousand years of experience of combat, but ten thousand years of experience of moving, speaking, breathing. A perfection of many parts towards one perfect whole.
The sound of armored boots on concrete. She raised her head and caught the flash of movement in the corner of her eye. Her sword, a long blade that answered to the name Levantine, came up and around to halt any possible blow, working through a defensive set at a speed that was difficult to track.
Her opponent was female, tall, blonde with mismatched eyes and the black bodysuit and short black jacket with blue trim that belonged to the Belkan Royal Guard. Signum blocked the cut at her shoulder, a blow directed with jarring force even for her. The Royal Guards had access to the same genetic sorcery the Royal Family had. They were walking weapons, stronger, tougher, faster, smarter. No matter. So was she.
They faced each other across crossed swords. Her opponent twisted to one side and relaxed their pressure on the bind, trying to cause her to stumble forward, her blade out of control. Signum was not caught out by it, though she mentally raised her assessment of this opponent by a notch. The move had been executed smoothly and with little warning. They had some skill, even by her exacting standards. She parried deftly and struck with a cut that would have gouged out a sizable chunk of neck and shoulder, but the other warrior stopped it cold with an active defense barrier.
Signum's eyes widened. There was no surprise that her opponent was mage, just like she was. Anyone who was anyone in Belka had the talent to cast. But the level of skill it took to cast something like that, precisely sized and placed, instantly? This was a serious opponent, one posing a serious danger even to her.
She brought Levantine around and fended off a series of strikes at her sides and arms, getting a feel for her opponent's speed and reactions. Sometimes their blades did not even make contact, as her attacker could see the blow would be blocked or deflected and pull it back. Other times it was redirected, forcing Signum to redirect in turn.
A woman of quality, this one. Skilled and talented both. Signum started to smile. There was no greater joy left in her life than an opponent who proved a challenge.
Her opponent leaped back at the same moment Signum registered a low-frequency hum, almost a rumble in fact. She knew that noise and knew what came next, leaping forward to engage her opponent closely again if she could.
The searing brightness and pain didn't come. The thunder did, though, and she felt herself start to fade. Her opponent had been a distraction. The real threat had come from above, a starship that had made a fast run in from elsewhere and found her master with its guns.
She offered a salute to her enemy as she faded from existence, right hand holding Levantine's hilt just below her neck, flat of the blade toward her and towards her opponent as if she meant to kiss the blade in the traditional sword salute. Eternal rest at last, since soon there would be no one left to wake her again.
It was not over. It was never over, and she chided herself for thinking there in that blasted city that it could be. Signum went down upon one knee and made her pledge, as did the others, and awaited the orders she knew must come. Come they did, the usual easing into ownership of the Cloud Knights, minor tasks at first.
Another lunatic. Of course, they were all lunatics on some level, to be handling the Book. It would either eat them or eat a lot of other people and then get them killed one way or another. That was what the Book did. And though it promised ultimate power, none had ever survived to claim that power.
Signum had used to think eventually people would give up on the promise of ultimate power when enough of them died. But they never had. Now she must fight again, as always, against the local representation of authority. It was a task she had always had perform, for where Wolkenritter and the Book went people died and disasters happened, so they were always fought. It was never a welcome thing to kill good men and women, to see them throw down their lives without thought or hesitation to stop her.
These enemies, though, were different. They wore longcoats of navy blue with silver trim, and carried staves rather than bladed weapons so beloved of Belkans. And the most obvious difference presented itself at once. Belkans believed fervently in the primacy of personal combat, reflexes and hand-eye coordination, blade to blade and face to face.
These people thought anything but. They stayed at distance, using beam and packet attacks that no self-respecting Belkan mage would have ever considered. To someone of Signum's power and experience the attacks were no more bothersome than a light rain, but the distance was making them hard to kill. And they had learned not to bunch up, for she could move quickly to get in among them if she tried.
She batted aside several packets with Levantine and simply took the hit from others. Levantine itself spoke a curse in Belkan. Not merely just a sword, but an Intelligent Device controlled by an AI that assisted her in her castings, Levantine too had gone through thousands of years of combat and was finding this one distasteful in the extreme.
More enemies arrived by means of mage-based teleportation. The old black of the Belkan Royal Guard, she thought at first, but the short jacket had silver rather than blue trim, and it was atop a black longcoat that in turn was worn over black pants and jacket. They darted about in flight, not bunching up. Clearly the first group had warned the second. The second group hit harder too, their attacks stinging sharply when they connected. She managed to close and catch one who was unwary, cutting them from hip to opposite shoulder.
Then from behind a ridgeline emerged the ship. Signum swore aloud. These newcomers, the Bureau they called themselves, had a rather different taste in starship design. Not the clean, gothic stylings of Belka with the their solid prows swept back, but two arms thrust forward from a a rounded body and weapons emplacements stacked above and below the arms on either side of the body.
They were already aiming. Searing heat and light. She dodged the first few, but there were too many guns, firing too fast. Signum barely lasted ten seconds.
Once more she rose from blackness, to take her oaths upon bended knee as she always did. It never ended. This, though, this would be a bad one. They served a child, not older than nine or ten, female, brown hair. It was never pretty or clean to serve one so young and yet so desperate or crazy that the Book would choose them.
But when she spoke, it was different. She addressed them with just a little fear, but almost as though family, talked about getting them clothes. Did she not know what they were? Had she not heard their stories as everyone else ever had?
No, Signum realized. This Yagami Hayate hadn't. Signum looked for the edge, the need for power, the desperation or madness that the Book sought in its bearers, and could not find it. She was not inexpert in such things either, and wondered what had happened. She never worked for someone truly sane.
But as time passed it was clear that Hayate was in fact sane. She even forbid them to kill or harm others, an order that no other master or mistress of the Book would have ever considered giving. She did not track their every action, even encouraged them to do things without asking her permission. The impossible had happened.
Offer freedom to a slave and they will follow you through the gates of hell, Signum reflected. But Hayate wasn't canny enough for that. She was just a nine-year-old girl, an orphan apparently. The Book would have none of this, of course. It longed for slaughter and madness as it always had, and without it chose instead to kill Hayate. Slowly, perhaps out of spite.
It had been...nearly two decades, now. Two decades of the same mistress. Never before had such a thing been allowed her. And she could not imagine having spent it with anyone but Hayate and the other Wolkenritter. They had saved Hayate, saved her world. A minor penance, but a start.
They each saw it in their own way of course. Signum didn't think that all four of them considered it an act of penance, but she certainly did. She had but one lifetime to make up for several hundred, so she was always busy. Fortunately, there was no shortage of people who needed saving and no shortage of the criminal or criminally insane in need of her special touch to see the error of her ways.
And for once her reputation as demon and monster worked for her, though the fact she'd killed but one man in the last two decades had diluted it somewhat. Zest had spoken to her as one member of the ancient knightly orders of Belka to another, a request for a last battle and a quick death, rather than slow wasting agony. She had been a Belkan Knight in name for ten thousand years. Zest was the first person to ever address her as such, and for such a gift, such a vindication, she would have granted him much more difficult requests.
Of course many people had tried to kill her. But now that they were the ones on the wrong side of the law now made their efforts much less effective. It was quite a change to be the one with the allies, the support structure, the access to information and equipment. Now she was the one who fought with a starship at her back ready to deal with the heavy lifting.
Though things too heavy to lift had been few and far between until this lunatic, the Huckebein. She clutched her side as blackness nibbled at her vision. She would not die this way. Not without killing at least this one. But Levantine was broken and she swayed once, not able to stand...
It never ended. Not that way and not any way. Not among the grave of the Belkan Empire, not with Hayate, not by some two-bit serial killer who had lucked into superpowers. Signum stepped out from behind the corner and confronted Cypha for the second time.
"I killed you. You're dead." Cypha smiled. "I rarely get the chance to kill someone twice."
"If you bothered to have any conception of my history," Signum blocked a cut at her head, for all Cypha's ability to shatter the defenses of a mage she had never developed much skill, "you would know what it means to be a Wolkenritter." A quick slash at Cypha drew blood, but the wound healed. Still, there were things that could not be fixed so easily, like the loss of a head. A cold smile and a deft parry of Cypha's return blow. "My judgment day's not coming."