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A barrier rose from the ground. Layers upon layers of ice Altera had created until it reached 13 centimeters in diameter, stopping any bullet trying to penetrate the barrier.

“Fire.” One of the soldiers raised their fist in the air. Their gas mask muffled their voice enough that discerning their gender was impossible. A blue cross covered their costume from head to toe, identifying them as the commander.

The soldiers aimed their guns anew. They fired, and the bullets failed to penetrate the ice again.

“So, the ice remains strong,” the commander said. “Lock into position.”

The muzzles of the soldier's rifles stared at the party behind the ice barrier, just waiting to gun them down the second the wall disappeared. Or when a reckless idiot stormed forth. They knew once Altera’s Mana ran out, the barrier crumble. The commander pulled out a metal disk from their breast pocket.

“Come forth,” they put the disk on the ground. “AG Marchosias.”

Six mosquito-like legs grew out of the disk, and a ridged tube shot out of its top. Laser light manifested atop the newly-erected cylinder, forming into a crystal icosahedron. Six stubs sprouted under the machine’s head, and inside the crystal, a plasma worm winded and coiled.

“How long can you hold this up?” Grendel asked.

Altera folded her arms and lowered her voice. “If I stand still and do nothing? At least an hour. I’ve become stronger since I last tested my stamina.”

"In front of us is a firing squad." Grendel turned back and faced the stone wall that had closed the way to the outside. "And behind us…”

60 minutes. That was enough time to defeat the soldiers. But without a bullet hitting them?

Puck hammered against the wall. “Unlike the corridor, this is stone infused with Mana. Nothing short of a Mana bomb could destroy this door.”

“I could teleport us,” said Eric. “I've marked the area outside the tomb."

Altera frowned. “But there's a catch, right?”

“For all five of us, I'd need to concentrate for at least thirty minutes.”

“Doesn’t sound bad,” Ragna said.

“Problem is, I can teleport only one person at a time. We need your barrier all the time. If I remain last, then the barrier will fall apart, and I'm dead. If I leave you here, then you’re trapped.”

“In other words, we have to deal with them anyway.” Altera pointed at the soldiers who waited for any movement they would make. Then, she faced the rest of her team. Even if she didn’t voice it out loud, the way she looked at them revealed that she had made her decision. If the enemies were still standing, she would be the last to remain.

“Eric and I are out. Can you do something?”

“I could fight them. But if they all fire at me at once …” Grendel took a step forward, and a rough chuckle escaped his mouth. “Yeah, I would look like a piece of cheese. And…” He looked at the robot the commander had summoned. Just like the soldiers, it had yet to move. The machine loomed over the battlefield like a weapon about to discharge. “That thing worries me. What is that even?”

“The commander called it the AG Machorsia,” Altera said. “That means it’s part of the Ars Goetia series.”

“The what series?” Ragna looked at her in confusion.

“AG – Ars Goetia. I don’t know much about them, but they are hailed as the hallmarks of Vaixian technology. A series of robots capable of reproducing the effects of a Fylgja. The machine you fought in the simulation was also part of the series – the AG Haborym.”

“So, this thing could do anything.” Grendel glanced at the robot.

Whatever it was capable of, the commander believed it would allow them to win. But for whatever reason, it didn’t attack right away.

None of the soldiers moved.

Were they hoping to wear Altera out and waiting for the barrier to disappear? Had the soldiers of Vaix become this incompetent? No, there had to be a plan that was more complex than that. The machine was an unknown factor.

“It resembles a bacteriophage,” Altera said. “So, it may have infectious properties.”

“Even Vaix wouldn’t be crazy enough to unleash a Draugr apocalypse,” said Ragna. “They didn’t bring this thing to fight enemies but to help with the ruins. It can’t be that strong. Grendel, I will give you that distraction and deal with the tin can.”

“How?” asked Altera. “No offense, but your runes aren’t nearly good enough.”

“With the right equipment, they are. Just trust me on this one.” Ragna grinned and faced Grendel. “When you hear the signal, go.”

Grendel raised his thumb. His pupils turned to slits, and the scales of his armor expanded.

From her backpack, Ragna pulled out a one-liter plastic bottle full of water. On the outer shell, she had drawn the Hagal rune. It started to glow. Clumps of dry ice formed inside the bottle, and bubbles rose to the top.

What the Hel is that?

For a second, Altera dematerialized the barrier, and Ragna threw the bottle. The soldiers jumped out of range, and light manifested as a crystal dome around the machine. The bottle plumed into the ground. And nothing happened.

That's the signal? A fake grenade?

Grendel hesitated. Most soldiers had broken the formation, but those in the last row had yet to move, their rifles pointed at them. They would riddle him with bullets the moment he stepped out of the barrier. The machine had likewise not attempted to leave its position. There was no way in Hel that Ragna thought this would work.

The soldiers seemed to have realized that the plastic bottle was a distraction. While their comrades in the back row had their rifles ready, the others crawled back into position.

Just what is Ragna thinking?

Grendel glanced at her. Neither her confidence nor her devilish smile had disappeared from her face.

One soldier neared towards the bottle and picked it up from the ground. He held it close to him and inspected it. Suddenly, his body started to jerk, and he let out a shriek.

He dropped the bottle and waved his hand around like a fan. Bubbles covered every inch of the container, concealing any view of the water. The bottle hissed. Too low for the soldiers to hear, but his enhanced senses picked up the sound.

Don’t tell me…Ragna, you brilliant imp. I think I love you.

Trying to maintain a poker face, Grendel shifted his body weight. Just a little bit, so they wouldn’t notice, and the bottle exploded. It popped with a boom and blasted the soldiers in its vicinity away.

That was his cue.

Grendel’s scales had extended enough to reach his face, and he and Ragna stormed out of the barrier. A vizor covered his eyes as they focused on his first enemy. He slammed them to the ground. The soldiers fired at him, but his skin repelled all bullets. He swiped his tail, the shooters lost their foot and fell. Another swing from his body part whipped their weapons out of their reach. Grendel docked his skull, and each of his claws grabbed the soldiers by their heads. Carrying his two victims, he rammed another with his shoulder into the wall. The stone façade cracked, and the soldier slit to the ground. Grendel threw the two he was holding against them.

Ah, the emotions were boiling. They wanted to erupt out of this body and burn the environment to the ground.

He couldn’t let them. As easy it was to give in to the lust and blood, he had to remember he fought for Ragna’s justice. This was a fight to better the world, even if it was just the universe of a single girl he had grown fond of. Step by step, he would improve the world and the lives of those around him. And what better way than to bring down those who had created the injustice in the first place?

He glanced at Ragna. The machine had started to move, hopping around from the wall. Ice spikes shot from both the ground and the walls, trying to impale the robot. It blasted a laser beam out of its head. Ragna rolled on the floor, and the light smoldered the ground. The worm inside the machine started to glow.

Still, he should be careful. He was not a monster, no matter his appearance. This was for a worthy cause, and those soldiers were just ignorant puppets controlled by the guilty party. He could not kill them. Just break them enough that they stopped posing a threat.

With his elbow, he hit another enemy at the head. He heard an unpleasant sound, and the soldier lost consciousness, dropping to their knees. Ragna’s bomb and his onslaught had halved the enemies’ numbers.

“Sss…uuu…rend…rrrr…” His snout growled, echoing one final warning, one final hope they would realize the futility of their actions and run away with their lives.

But the soldiers didn’t give up and continued to fight. Why wouldn't they? They had trained to fight for their justice and defend their ideals, for they were no cowards. From their perspective, he was the monster wreaking havoc. They were wrong and didn’t know the whole truth, but could he blame them for this assumption?

Grendel roared. His vizor had covered his snout, and his teeth had sharpened to saws.

Few enemies remained.

Grendel grabbed his next victim and threw her against the wall.

It would be easy. So easy to extinguish all the enemies. But he wouldn’t do that. No. He wouldn’t do that. There was nothing good about murder. He was a noble hero, not a monster. No matter what he looked like or the lack of grace and elegance in this fighting style.

The commander charged at him. In their hand was an extended baton. Electricity sparked out of it.

You think that will help? Grendel’s tail swiped over the ground, the commander jumped into the air and shot the baton at him. At high speed, it flew at him and hit his head. The electricity inside the weapon discharged. Countless watts traveled through his scales yet never reached past them. Like insect stings, it prickled on his skin.

Grendel chuckled. His new form multiplied its sound, creating a burst of laughter like a boom.

Puny, puny, puny. All you humans are puny. Thinking you can fight justice.

Nothing they could throw at him could ever penetrate his scales, let alone reach his organs. And yet, the commander pulled out another baton and attacked.

Grendel reached out with his claws, and they ducked. The commander swung his weapon, Grendel blocked with his arm. In the same instance, the commander pulled out a grenade. Pulling out the pin with the same hand, they threw it on Grendel’s face.

The grenade exploded, and nothing happened. Grendel's visage had taken no damage. He took a swing with his right hook, hit the commander’s stomach, and propelled them against the wall. They fell to the ground alongside the debris.

Groaning, the commander forced themselves to stand up. Their legs shook, their hands wrapped around their stomach, and every second was a cry of pain. But the commander marched towards him.

Grendel roared. His tail swung two more soldiers around.

The brutality was necessary. Hopefully, the team understood this and didn’t shun him as a beast. He was fighting for their sake. All of this was for them. Was it wrong to fight for a better world because it made him happy if everyone attained happiness?

At least Ragna would understand. Given their similarities, she would share his view.

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YAK Edge

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