Panic is the gnawing feeling that tears reality apart, casting aside the rational thought of those ensnared to replace it only with sheer instinct.
Panic is the screaming ripple that tears from the cranium to the spine, an invasive realization that removes control from the body and replaces it with a tragic resistance.
Panic is the realization that everything may be over in a single lapsing moment.
Panic haunts my mind as we’re bathed in the blood of the eight civilians directly in front of me, their corpses mutilated, arranged in a mosaic of macabre grace laid beneath the whining behemoth of machinery that is roughly thrust into the massive stone structure around us. We all feel it- a brief moment of unanimous awe as the situation turns from shock to horror. Then the screams. They begin in a scattershot manner, a few here and there, mixed with sobs and gasps. Then the panic leaves our minds and begins to dance around the Chamber of Council as the stampeding community of Ios scrambles to escape as fast as possible.
Aaro can’t even begin to move. She tries to wipe the blood from her face with her shaking hands, the action messy and ineffective. I look over the scene around me. The drills landed in a scattershot manner, hitting various points around the chamber. Three of them have landed in the large central area, their impact miraculously nonlethal. Four were direct hits into the circular layers around us- two on the top layer, another on the bottom, and the one directly in front of us in the middle. One is at an angle, leaning into the wall in front of the bottom layer. Despite its awkward position, it has led to two casualties. Lastly, of course, is the drill in front of my father, his friend Rietus and our Prosper crushed beneath.
The emberstrand below have drawn their weapons, my father’s face grim and staunch. His rookclaws are at the ready as he stands back-to-back with Liet. The two of them circle around, their eyes searching the immediate area for any signs of further projectiles, dust still dancing along the ground from the drill's impact. Sekra launches to his feet. He begins to call out, seeking to help as many as he can. They keep moving, the flow of people unable to slow, let alone stop. I grab Aaro under her arm and yank her to her feet. The shaking has expanded from her hands to her entire body. She's locked in place, frozen. Sekra and I have been exposed to injury and death through our occupations. Aaro, by exchange, has been raised by scholars. She has not experienced death as I have. She is still a child- no, no longer. That innocence is gone.
“Aaro. We have to leave."
She doesn’t respond. Slowly she turns to face me, tears streaming down her face. She slowly extends a hand, her finger pointing to one of the severed arms on the layer below. The arm belonged to the woman Aaro was staring down at before. It’s wearing several copper bangles, a silver one with curved designs in the center. They are untouched, immaculate.
“Ariei. Y- you know who it is, right?” Her voice doesn’t sound sorrowful. It’s simply factual.
My breath catches in my throat. It’s Visia. She was in love with Elias. They’d been friends since childhood, and she'd become something of a surrogate older sister for me. By the time Elias joined the emberstrand at nineteen we were all certain they were going to marry- he’d given her those very same bracelets as a promise. Then, when he died, she simply left. Stopped speaking with the rest of us, with the rest of his family. She hadn't even made it to his burning. I lost my brother and sister then.
And now she is truly gone. It is a cruel joke of fate, to place her before me, to bury her beneath an ocean of metal. She looked so different now. If I had managed to recognize her after all this time, we could have had a final word.
I turn back to my friend. “Aaro, I-”
“I’m sorry. I should have just told you, b-but I was worried you wouldn't want to know. She was- I’m so sorry…”
I grab her arm. “Come on. One foot in front of the other, right?”
She starts to sob. I grip her arm tighter. "Aaro. One foot in front of the other."
She pauses, before nodding. She takes a shaky breath and starts moving slowly with me. I want to console her, but that moment can come later. I look for Sekra. He’s moved towards the back of the middle layer. He’s helping a child, prying sharp stone debris from her fragile arm.
“Sekra! Come on!”
He turns to me. He slowly shakes his head. I decide not to force him, no matter how much I want him in a safer position. I know that this is what he needs to do. I keep dragging Aaro around the ring, colliding and fighting with the stampeding crowd to keep from being shoved over the lip of the structure. Eventually we reach the circular stairwell, the steps winding down towards the floor through the darkness below. Although technically shallow, it seems infinite in the moment, threatening to swallow us and never let go. Still, I cross the barrier. Step by step.
Step by step I circle the area with Liet. Dust and blood mix together into a paste that drives itself into the soles of my boots. Our eyes are ever-aware, our ears combing through the cacophony of screams around us. All I can feel is venom. I'm filled with terror of these machines, with anger towards Liet. And yet, I feel strong standing back-to-back with her. It truly is bizarre how the years can consecrate such comradery even as violence grips your world.
“How much more do you know?”
She sighs, her broadsword held unwavering in her callused hands. The gears along the blade click and hiss as the trigger lies unpressed on the handle.
“Trust me- I don’t know nearly enough.”
I shake my head. “Don’t take me for a fool. You made no effort to explain to us what exactly took the waypoint." Sweat drips down my face. "I was led to believe it was the intelligent eidelion. The surface magnafield reading from the waypoint would’ve illustrated the size of these structures. You hid that from us- now look around. So many people, dead. Our prosper, dead. RIETUS, DEAD!”
In that moment, I want to betray my guild. I start to turn- then, I let it subside. I have a larger duty, I have more people to protect- I have the entire population to protect, vengeance be damned. I ask another question instead.
“Liet, tell me. The other cities. I had started to doubt after so many years without any response, any sign that they truly exist. Are there other humans?”
She stays quiet. Suddenly, a soft whir emits from the massive drills. Air begins to cycle through the machines, whistling softly as it moves through its labyrinthine passages. The remaining audience screams, the sound loud enough to degrade our manufactured level of focus and drag us into the wave of fear with them. Then, right on cue, a sharp crack as bolt-tipped wires shoot upwards from each of the four points on each drill’s base through the rock above, rumbling their way to the surface. I flex my hand. My beloved rookclaws sing their chorus as I sharpen the blades against the flat panel of my forearm armor.
There’s a booming sound- like the firing of a coremag rifle, although much, much grander in scale that leaves my ears ringing. Then a volley of high-pitched, agonizing grinds of steel on steel as large cylinders crash through the earth above, sending rocks and debris into both the audience and the central circle. I roll out of the way as a boulder nearly collides with my skull. Liet is hit on the shoulder, knocking her aside and clearly making a shallow wound under her armor, but she manages to remain relatively safe regardless. I wish I could say the same for everyone else. Twelve more civilians are killed as the friction-heated rock fires over them, despite a large portion of the crowd managing to leave. I’m seething with anger, hoping for anything resembling a normal encounter, despite already knowing that won't be the case.
The cylinders slide down the cables, finally landing on top of each drill’s base. They’re made of a variety of a variety of metals, mostly stark white. A regal blue trim lines the top circle, extending down in thick lines set around rectangular slots in the sides. A shining trim, made of gold, fills in the spaces between these plates that jut out and in around the vessel. Strange sigils- seven in total, made of similar gold- mark themselves along the surface. A hissing steam leaves the base as it settles itself. I can’t begin to comprehend. It is unlike anything else I- or any other human- has ever seen. Its construction is immaculate, its function ingenious. I marvel at the amount of gold- I’ve never seen more of it in my life than here, on these nine vessels. It is such a delicacy that the thought of using it to decorate transport vehicles is an anomaly to me. The sigils are unfamiliar, the shapes unidentifiable, even from our small record of history.
“Liet. Is it them?”
She doesn’t answer. I keep prodding. The doors begin to slide open.
“Please, Liet. You most likely know more than I do.” Despite everything, existential awe drowns out my anger. First the intelligent eidelion, now this- all in one day. “Is it the gods? Are they angry that we still exist?”
The doors fully slide upwards, leaving an opening where a collection of five beings emerge from the closest cylinder. They are clad in a foreign form of armor, a celestial construction that seems to have a mind of its own. Under this uncanny mechanism is a simple fabric suit, the tight material a dark blue with white accents. On top, however, is a shining beacon of vain glory, thick panels of angular, shining steel that coat the body. They flare and move as if having a mind of its own, the surface of each decorated with beautiful artistic flourishes, each one entirely unique. As they walk, it hisses and whirs, moving perfectly in step with them to provide maximum stability and protection at the same time, each plate and surface in a strange dance with each other. Their heads are covered, a tight helmet with two thin glowing white eyes and sharp features moving down into a featureless, unmoving flat plate.
They are angels, towering, graceful beacons of the end. They come to us in the screaming machinery of death.
I will not allow it.
I run forward, screaming, leaping at the first to leave and gripping its head with my rookclaw. He draws his blade, swinging it towards me without the ability to see- a useless attempt. I throw it to the ground, position my fist above its expressionless face, and slam it down, the blades sparking as they collide with the helmet. A dent is made, a low scream echoing from its featureless mouth through to the muffling surface. I bring it down again as the others draw their weapons, thin, graceful white-glowing curved blades that tint blue under the burning esperstone. Liet rushes forward after me, swinging her broadsword at the legs of one of them as it raises its sword to bring it down on me. Her blade collides with one of its leg plates as it slides into position to guard it, but the sheer force still manages to sweep it off of its feet, and it crashes to the ground.
I punch the angel I’ve pinned again, and again, and again. Each time it tries to push me off, but I refuse to allow it. Though they may be ascendants, they forget that I am human. I was born to fight to survive. They may know the universe at large, but I am crafted from its roots. I bring it down one more time, the claws managing to dig beneath the surface of the mask. Blood bubbles up through the cracks, a strained, screaming groan making its way through the tight construction. It tries to push me off, one last time, before finally it goes limp. Despite the intelligent armor, Liet manages to stab one through the stomach by faking and adjusting a swing, squeezing the trigger on the broadsword. The gears accelerate, extending her blade down the middle. The force separates the angel, its insides spilling over the already bloodied floor. Human entrails.
I feel the horror, deep down. It is far worse than I imagined. It is a far harder concept to grasp than the gods sending their angels down to exterminate us once and for all.
I can hear the screams from the civilians above us. I try to climb the balcony, dodging past the third armored human to get there, but a loud roar gives me pause. I turn to see the last voyager emerge from the cylinder. Contrary to the others, he’s not wearing a helmet. He’s in his early thirties, a thick scar lining his face from above the left eye down past the nose. His hair is brown, short. He’s wearing a similar armor to the others, this time with a larger pauldron on his left shoulder, a blue curtain hanging from it, one of the sigils- a circle with three points falling just below it- affixed to the fabric. He has a chain attached to his gauntlet, linked to an attachment hanging from the wrist. What gives me pause, firstly, is Liet putting her sword away. The other is what’s at the end of his leash.
It’s an eidelion.
It’s an unfamiliar, large beast, more intimidating than most we’ve identified- save for the intelligent breed. Its body is pure muscle, hidden under long, beautiful white fur that seems to have a mind of its own It moves on four legs. Large claws protrude from its massive paws. It has a golden mane that flows around its neck, its face young, angry. It's wearing armor, the plates moving on their own in a similar manner to the handler. A thin mask made of steel lines wraps itself around the beast's head, protecting the eyes and neck. When it sees the blood dotting my armor, it snarls, taking a few slow steps forward. The man simply commands it. His voice is firm, but tense.
They speak the common tongue.
“The same for you. Your civilians are safe now.” I look over the structure. The humans who left the pods are standing there, still, their weapons in their holsters. Our people are simply unable to comprehend the sights in front of them. Most lie huddled together in piles of existential terror. They cannot move nor remain- they must simply remain there in an extended moment of gradual shared realization.
I turn to stare at the man in front of me. “W-what is…"
He holds out his hand for me to shake it. I refuse. He nods, unsure of what to do. He takes a moment to gaze around, taking in the ghastly chaos around him. I step back after his military composure starts to break. His forceful expression falls slightly, he starts to breathe in an odd manner.
The anger overtakes me. I grab him by the shoulder, his armor moving towards my arm as I thrust him to the ground.
“WHAT?! WHAT IS THIS?” I raise my fist, just as I did for his friend. "WHY WOULD YOU KILL THE INNOCENTS?"
His eidelion pet growls again. In my anger I completely forgot the existence of such a paradox. My mind is a mess of conflicting thought processes.
He remains unflinching, uncompromising. The voice that whimpers its way out of his mouth is foreign to what came before. “Please. Do it if you must."
I look him in the eyes. I waver slightly, but I remain prepared to strike. He continues.
“W- We’ve been proceeding westwards. Centralis decided to send a scouting crew further than we've ever traveled before. I was ordered to secure a camp underground mid-expedition, as we were caught in the midst of the Highcloud.”
I think for a moment. They must have run into the Maw. I stare at him.
His eyes widen. “What? Wait- you aren’t scouts from one of the Pillars?” Some of the soldiers around us start to look to each other, whispering. I realize now that they didn’t have their weapons drawn to start with- I was the first aggressor. No, I can't let myself fall to that. They struck first. “No… No. It can’t be.” Liet stares at me, her face gaunt, stern. She keeps her hand on the blade.
The man looks to me. “They always told us that no humans lived this far west, that the Highcloud’s influence was too powerful- t-that it was unsustainable! When we saw that thing- that machinery in the ground, we thought it was some sort of Highcloud detection device from another group, that maybe other Pillars had expanded further out. S- so, when we sent the detection waves down, and looked for a large enough pocket to drill, we didn’t know. We didn’t know- we didn't realize that people were down here.”
My blood runs cold. It’s a mockery, a jest, a cruel joke. We are the punchline. My entire dedication, those dead around me as I am carried by the sea of corpses to this very moment, every theory, every discovery, every bit of knowledge I and those around me have gathered. An entire civilization hanging on the word of so very few. The blood shed, the blood I’ve shed myself, the years that have worn on me like an old stone. It’s all led up to this single moment of maddening comedy.
We’ve finally connected with other humans. They are far more advanced than we are. They are using our worst enemy as tools.
They murdered a large portion of our population based on a simple miscalculation.
I begin to laugh, a sickening howl that I want nothing more than to bury within myself. It claws its way up my throat, spewing from my jowls like a bubbling vomit. Then, as I begin to shake, it turns to sobs.
My life is a lie. We were never alone. We were simply forgotten.