Chapter 1 – A Hero Falls

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He had to run. He had to, as fast as his legs could possibly carry him. They were after him. They chased relentlessly, unseen in the darkness but they were there. He could feel their eyes on him, their alien claws raking at his body armor. They slashed his flesh where chunks of his protection were missing. One hand he kept clenched tightly. The other carried a small sidearm, the only functional weapon he had left. It wouldn’t be enough in a firefight. It was low on power to boot. His only option was to flee. The dark alleys twisted and turned, columns of steam rising from loose grates as he darted past. The decaying buildings streaked past–once home to a wealth of manufacturing long since left to rot and collapse–now home to these monsters, creatures of shadow. Hands reached out towards the terrified man, his limited protection falling away with each contact.

“Does anyone copy!? This is Baker-Two-Niner! I need extraction immediately!”

The soldier darted left as he came to a junction, crying out in panic as an inky back shape oozed up out of the ground in front of him.

“Position is two-five-five mark three-four-seven heading south! I have hostiles all around me! Sensors are failing but I’ve got movement everywhere! They’re coming out of the damn walls!”

Just as he spoke, his description came true right before his eyes. Two great clawed hands sliced at him, having come seemingly from a metal bulkhead that had long since rusted shut. He screamed in agony as it gouged into the exposed portion of his right flank.

“Situation is critical! Armor has taken massive damage! Defensive screens and weapons offline! I’ve got maybe twenty rounds left in my side arm! Come in anybody!!” he shouted in panic.

The desperation in his voice was beginning to override his better judgment. The radio crackled fruitlessly for several moments before a voice began to emerge through the static. He was clearing the communications blackout.

“Baker-Two-Niner, we copy. Unable to register your beacon. Be advised springboard extraction will be impossible without a clean fix. Any chance to re-establish?”

“That’s a negative! They smashed it! Send in a recovery team! I have precious cargo! Repeat, precious cargo! Get me the hell out of here!” He slid to a halt as half a dozen more shadows took solid form in front of him, their faces all possessing the same frozen, dead, wide, toothy grin, “Oh god! They’re everywhere!”

“Baker-Two-Niner I need you to calm down. We’re scrambling an extraction team now. Redirect to coordinates: one-nine-three mark five-seven-five less than a quarter of a click from your reported position. Shuttle ETA two minutes.”

The trooper surged forward, barreling past stacks of useless debris, no longer caring about drawing attention to himself. They knew he was there and they were out for blood.

“Copy! Redirecting north-east! That shuttle better not be late!”

He hunkered down and shouldered one of the hauntingly lifeless monsters in the abdomen, knocking it to the ground. A heavy metal-plated boot crunched down hard on its face, making it splinter and shatter as if it was made of wood. The destination seemed so far away, but with the adrenaline surging through him, as well as what was left of the last stimulant he took to block out the pain of his bleeding side, he would fly. He pulled his riot baton and swung wildly at anything in his way. Rarely did it connect with anything. The monsters saw his assaults before they came anywhere near them and they all retreated. At least it fended them off for the time being.

The soot and grime covered buildings eventually gave way to an empty abandoned lot. The soldier slid to a halt as he reached the edge of the open space, scanning it carefully. Of course, with his sensors going down, a cursory glance with his eyes would have to do. The crack in his visor didn’t help matters. When he was satisfied there wasn’t anything overtly visible waiting for him, he lunged out into the center of the lot, weapons drawn and at the ready. The hand wielding the baton was still clenched tight. He carried something of great value pressed into his palm.

The hand holding his side arm was freed for a brief moment, the weapon returned to his holster. He tapped on the control panel on the back of his other forearm, took a knee, then waited. The familiar sensation of a powerful thump pushed down on him from behind his shoulders. A bright light streaked up into the darkened sky. With that handled, he drew his gun again, climbed back to his feet, and readied himself to make his final stand.

“Command! I’ve reached the designated coordinates! Locater flare launched! Hostiles moving in fast! What’s the ETA!?”

“Baker-Two-Niner, shuttle ETA is now one minute! Just hold on a bit longer, Colin! We’ll get you out of there!”

He wouldn’t last a full minute. He knew all too painfully well. Colin returned his riot baton to its holster and peered into his palm at the very thing he had risked his life to obtain. It seemed so insignificant, such a tiny little thing sparkling in his hand. Was it really what they said it was? Could it mean the end of the world if it fell into the wrong hands? There had been legends about it. He had read about them all his life. He had played hero as a child. Now he had been thrown into the legend, and it wasn’t anything like he had imagined. But he would be damned if he didn’t play his part to the bitter end. If he had to give his life to protect it, he wouldn’t hesitate. Not if everything he believed was true. And it had to be true.

“Ash… do you copy?” Colin asked, his voice surprisingly calm at this point.

“I copy. Just hang on, they’re almost there. They’ve spotted your flare and got a visual on the landing site.”

He peered out at the horde of shadowed creatures closing in on him, turning to see them approaching from all sides. This was it. This was the moment to prove he was worthy of the uniform–but more–worthy of the legend. He closed his fist around the tiny gleaming object, somehow feeling stronger in spite of his wounds and exhaustion. In a rush, he felt the power flow into him. It wasn’t just a myth after all. The vindication of all his lifelong beliefs was all he needed. He would make sure the shard reached the right people. The sidearm he had drawn was brought to bear on the closest target.

“Ash. Do me a favor. Tell my brother I’m sorry for me.”

“You’ll tell him yourself! ETA forty-five seconds!”

“Just promise me you’ll tell him.”

The woman on the other end of the comm remained silent for a brief moment. She didn’t want to acknowledge or condone his thought process. Not when there was hope he could survive. When the silence lasted too long, Colin grew angry.

“Ash! Promise me!” He roared into the radio.

He could hear her wince as he screamed in her ear.

“I… I promise.” Ash replied.

“Good. How long do I have?” Colin asked.

“Drop team will be over your position in thirty seconds! Just hold on!” the operator called out, her voice growing frantic again.

She was starting to get data feeds on the situation from the shuttle. It didn’t look good.

“I will. I won’t let go until I’m dead,” he said as he tightened his fist all the harder, “When you pray to the goddesses, maybe save a few words for me.”

Had he not been wearing a glove, he might have cut into the skin with his own fingernails. The little glittering shard in his hand was desperately important. He couldn’t let it land in the hands of evil. He knew all too well what would happen.

The horde closed in, cackling and creaking. He must have been seeing things because it looked as if they were puppets on strings. Their movements were jerky and stiff, as though they weren’t able to move of their own volition. It was unsettling enough that he needed to make it go away.

The first gunshot sounded as a streak of green light rushed from the barrel, blasting a hole roughly the size of grapefruit through the head of one of the deadly marionettes. It fell to the ground, whatever spell commanding it broken. He turned to bring another into his sights and fired again. Another shot followed. He was making each round count, all while screaming a deranged, desperate battle cry. It was his swan song he thought to himself.

Round after round left the gun in his hands, blasting back the creatures creeping towards him. He was doing well until the heart-stopping click of a dead energy pack seeped through his palms into his arms. Instinctively, he pulled the trigger again and again, not realizing he was empty before trying to discharge at least four imaginary rounds.

“Sidearm is down!” he shouted.

He spun the weapon about, gripping the barrel before swinging hard. The grip of his pistol connected with one of the frightening beasts, knocking it aside with disturbing ease. He swung again to hit the same one, releasing the gun so it could fly freely and embed itself in the monster. The blow cracked its supposed skull and it fell to the ground, whatever twisted life it possessed suddenly gone. His riot baton returned and he fought with all his might. His bellows of rage crackled away through the radio. Ash listened in with the same sickening knot in her stomach as always when situations got this dire. The extraction team coming to rescue him could hear him as well, and they didn’t like what they heard.

“Just hang on, we’re almost there.” the sergeant on board the shuttle called out.

His voice offered Colin no solace. He was lost to the fray, his mind locked in on dealing out as much damage as his waning strength could dole out before the monsters brought him down at last. He swung wildly, lashing out not just with the hand holding the metallic rod, but with his free arm, even offering a stout kick when he could manage it.

For a moment, it seemed as though he could stave them off, but then the tides turned. An eerie black hand just like all the others rose up out of the ground and wrapped itself around one of his ankles, squeezing painfully tight. The armor plating around his calf began to crinkle and crack under the mighty pressure. Colin cried out in pain but didn’t give in. The baton struck hard and fast on the restraining hand, forcing it to release him. The wrist snapped like a twig and the hand fell to the ground.

As he lifted his gaze back up to split another wooden head in half, a new hand below gripped him again, this time accompanied by a second one, taking hold of his other ankle. The trooper screamed as he was thrown off balance by his own efforts, falling onto his back. That was the worst possible result. What followed was gruesome. Perhaps it was good no one was there to witness his final moments. It was as if a feeding frenzy had begun.

The shadowy figures were upon him, slashing and clawing, not consuming but simply intent on killing. They rent the last remaining plates of armor protecting the young man’s chest and abdomen. Then they moved on to the soft flesh underneath. Colin’s voice spiked on the radio. His agony was all too recognizable. It made the blood of everyone listening run cold. The pilot pressed on to try and urge the craft just a little faster, careful not to go too fast lest they overshoot the site.

The screams continued for several moments. Then Colin’s voice was silenced. A few weak gurgles were all anyone could hear as he coughed and choked on his own blood. And then even that faded into silence. All that remained were the nightmarish hisses and growls of the demonic puppets.

A sudden surge of light caught their attention, one of the monsters suddenly split in half, each side smoldering just before bursting into flames. A hail of gunfire followed, blasting a dozen or so of the wicked things in a matter of seconds. Four pairs of armored boots landed on the concrete, rifles at the ready. The dark horde hissed and dispersed, fleeing with disturbing speed. Some vanished into the ground, some into the shadows. Others dove into buildings or behind debris. They knew they were out gunned. All they left behind was the motionless figure of the soldier they had felled. The team moved in quickly, three of them turning about to form a perimeter around the downed man. They immediately ran a scan of the surrounding area for possible aggression. They seemed to have frightened them all off for the time being.

“Dammit!” the sergeant swore, “Son of a bitch, dammit! We were here! We had him!”

“Sir, sensors are showing the hostiles are holding at a perimeter of roughly two hundred meters. Recommend we get Colin and get the hell out of here.” reported one of the other troops.

It was clear that all three holding their positions were spooked with what they saw on their sensor feeds. Blotches of white showed motion surrounding them completely at the distance judged.

“Not until we confirm he still has the precious cargo! If he lost it to those freaks then this was all for nothing!” the sergeant barked.

He began looking Colin’s body over, finding the clenched fist. Could it be possible? The sergeant began trying to pry his fingers open, finding them to be especially firmly wrapped around something. With a good deal of effort–and no doubt breaking a few of the fallen soldier’s fingers in the process–the tiny, craggy lump of metal shown brightly.

“He’s got the shard! Let’s get him out of here! Call for extraction!” the sergeant shouted, gesturing for his troops to prepare for departure.

The fist was closed back up around the artifact and the sergeant hoisted Colin up, draping him over one shoulder. The brave soldier might have been lost, but the man lifting him up was going to make damn sure he wouldn’t get left behind.

“Shuttle this is drop team, we need extraction. Five to board.” said one of the troops into her radio.

As if summoned, five cables dropped from the dark, sleek craft above, hovering there. Its engines whined and hummed loudly, no doubt intimidating the spooky figures hiding just out of sight. All five cables were connected and the soldiers were airborne. Once they were secure inside the hold, the shuttle sealed itself up and tilted to one side, turning about and powering forward. Without any ceremony, it launched into a full throttle burn to hasten the trip back to the nearest infirmary. The pilot had not been made aware of the fact that it wasn’t necessary.

“Sergeant! Do you have Colin!? Come in sergeant!” Ash cried, sounding ever so slightly frantic.

“We’ve got him alright… what’s left of him. Those bastards really did a number on him.” the sergeant said quietly.

Silence came across the radio for a moment.

“Roger that. Picking up scans now. Confirmed, Lieutenant Colin, killed in action. Your mission is complete. Come on home.” Ash said in a tone that suggested she was trying to compartmentalize the loss.

The sergeant sat in silence as he stared at his fallen comrade’s lifeless body, focusing on the balled up fist holding that little golden shard.

“Ash.” he said.

“I copy, sergeant.” the lady replied.

“Tell me one thing,” He sounded angry, a bubbling fury kept at bay but only just, “Tell me this little piece of junk is worth it.”

“I don’t follow, sir.” Ash said.

The bitter soldier climbed to his feet, slammed his fist into the wall as he roared over the radio. The rage in his voice practically deafened the woman on the other end.

“Tell me this gods-damned little scrap of gold was worth the life of one of my best men! Tell me he didn’t die for nothing!” the sergeant bellowed.

Silence. Ash could hardly bring herself to say anything for several seconds. When she did, it wasn’t to reiterate the same tired material they had all been fed at the start of the mission.

“They say it’s just one piece of many. That if you put them all together, it makes one of the three balancing forces and gives the user untold power. Now that we have it, we might be able to prevent the reclamation. He didn’t die for nothing. He gave his life to protect us all. He’s a hero.” Ash said with reverence.

She would indeed say a prayer for Colin. She felt he deserved far more than that, but it was all she could offer.

“You’re gods damned right he is.” the sergeant growled.

Ash sighed and slumped in her chair. Losing men was part of the job, she knew that. It didn’t take the sting out of it when it happened, or ease the blow when one of their best fell. Hearing it happen as a blow by blow performance only made things worse.

“Just come on home sergeant. We’ll take care of everything.” she said tiredly.

The shuttle turned and angled to climb into the sky, streaking over the city below. The pilot had been listening in, no longer needing to aim for the nearest medical facility. Instead the course took them back to their base of operations. The mood in the shuttle was dower. No one else spoke. They just sat, strapped in, jostled softly by the brief moments of turbulence.

The darker, ruined district they had left gave way to the neon holo-lights of the more civilized regions. The tri-state was actually kind of beautiful from a high enough vantage. The castle at the center was well off in the distance, too far to see while obscured by all the other brilliant sources of illumination in the way. It would appear on the horizon soon enough though.

The sergeant simply gazed hard in its direction, out through the cockpit’s window. He hoped they were right about the shard. He hoped it had been worth it. Colin never doubted it. Not for an instant. He had been a believer from the minute he joined the defense force all the way to his last breath. And he had died for it. Too many others had died. It made the older, grizzled man question whether or not his faith–in the goddesses, in the legend, in the piece of the great artifact they had recovered–was perhaps misplaced. But if the rumors were true, they were only just getting warmed up. He could only begin to imagine the horrors to come if the reclamation began.

“Colin was a good man. One of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure to serve with. So I say this with the utmost respect. I hope Colin wasn’t the one they were looking for, this legendary warrior they keep talking about. I hope for all our sakes they find that hero of theirs. If they can’t, then Ganondorf is going to burn Hyrule and everyone in it to the ground.”

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