He gripped the plasrifle tight. He felt down the barrel up to the handle, counting the number of nicks he'd carved into it when he boarded. It was something to remember them by. He notched fifteen nicks into his rifle. Fifteen from his squad, gone.

They had been stationed at an outpost several kilometers from the main capital. They weren't prepared when Gram's army had reached them. They had expected an allowance of at least two more days. In the skirmish, only ten of his squad were extracted. In several minutes, the survivors' drop pods would land on the outskirts of Kestral, the main capital. Around them, explosions roared, the sound echoing inside their metal coffins. That's what they liked to call the drop pods. They would have been launched from orbit, right onto their target location using the most accurate mag-rail system their army could muster. But those were gone, wiped out by Gram's suborbital railguns, well, Kestrel's suborbital railguns. Gram just commandeered them.

The Gramspeople had hated being forced into subservience. What kingdom would not? The new King had thought that a more personal approach would win the people of Gram over. He was wrong. When Gram launched their offensive, Kestral barely had any time to shore up their defenses. Perhaps their kingdom had been too lax, what with winning the previous war. Perhaps the new King Tullius, too naïve, after his father's death. He was too kind, too trusting for foreign politics. Gramnobles took advantage of that. Tullius enjoyed taking personal trips to the surrounding territories of his Kingdom, and to Gram's as well. His trip just two weeks past was his last. At night, they annihilated his entire retinue. All of Kestral's best Generals, Maester Boris, Maester Sullivan, and the others, serving Kestral for years, serving Tullius' father before him, until now. Now, their heads lay on spikes in a foreign land. Whatever became of King Tullius, no one knew. There were more pressing matters at their gates.

In the first week, they took Kestral's surrounding land, taking villages and plundering their supply depots, their castles and keeps, before they could properly relay the situation to the other outposts, to warn them of the impending army force that marched from Gram onto their sovereign lands. Some managed to, and they rallied their forces to Kestral's gates, to defend against the onslaught. It would not be enough, they knew, but they had to keep them at bay. Kestrelites weren't known for their surrendering qualities. They would die defending their Kingdom, or better, take as many of the incoming Gram forces along with them. In the second week, they had already marched far into Kestral's lands, and nearing the Kingdom itself. Their outpost was ordered to defend their position, that the Gram army would take at least two days' ride further to reach them, and that they would have reinforcements by the morning. They were wrong.

'Ready up, the drop draws close.'

Their commander's voice blared over their comm-links. Their coffins clanked and jingled within their airship. A crude way to drop, but a way to drop nonetheless. He set his plasrifle aside within his cockpit, and flipped several switches. His unit whirred as gears and valves pumped energy into the pipelines that ran all-throughout his machine. His hand twitched on the fire controls as several 'ok's lit up on his HUD. The left arm explosive stake was damaged, but useable. The right arm's howitzer mount only had six shots left in it. There was no more time to resupply. If it came to it, he'd salvage the Gram forces for ammo and supplies.

'Dropping in three,' the commander started. 'Two, one-'

An explosion rocked their airship, the commander's comm-link went dead with static. His squad went into an uproar, several moans and shouts that sounded pained. His pod was thrown immediately into freefall, he could feel it. He managed to stay cognizant enough to click on several switches, before punching a large crimson button at the side of his cockpit. A loud hiss expended some fuel around his coffin, and it righted itself. Immediately, thrusters on the topside flared, and he headed straight for the ground below him. He felt the flak and the anti-air fire clink off the coffin's hull, and he braced himself for impact. The coffin bored into the Earth in an impact that jostled him. But he reacted swiftly and in the span of a moment, the coffin doors blew open, and he and his Machina accelerated forward.

His HUD immediately lit up with enemy IFFs, all Machinas from the Gram army. He scanned the humanoid behemoths, some with bipedal legs while others four, or forgoing that their bottom halves were basically tanks. Standard issue for both Kestral and Gram at this point, since Gram had commandeered some of their forward production bases ever since the first week. They had likely planned all of this for a while now.

He rushed forward and lunged at one Machina, a biped, and sank his left-arm stake, a rod of steel alloy with an explosive, pointed tip, deep into its chest. A piston fired, and an explosion tore through the entire upper body. It fell to the ground, the blown parts clanking onto the ground. The cockpit was blown all the way through. Behind him two other Machinas started to pelt him with return-fire from their machine guns. It clinked off his Machina's armor, but also chipped away at its plating. He quickly took aim with the Howitzer on his right arm and lobbed a shot at the two of them. The molten bullet arced slightly in the air before rushing downwards and exploding near their feet, crippling their legs. An allied Machina appeared, perhaps one from the city guard or the various squads attempting to drop near the gates followed up his assault, finishing both of them off by bringing a large blade to bear and stabbing it into their chests, piercing through both of them. The Machinas twitched sporadically, before settling. If the pilots survived, they'd have one hell of a time making out of the rest of the battlefield alive. He received a communication from the allied Machina.

'Hail, identify yourself,' the other pilot asked.

'Raelius Casval, designation Centurion 2, Squad Canis, outpost of Noire,' he replied.

'Noire?' the other pilot sounded surprised. 'I'll be damned. There were survivors?'

'Aye, but not many,' he checked his systems. So far they read green. 'What's the situation here?'

'Gram ground forces consisting of anti-air battlements to take out our reinforcements and scout troops attempting reconnaissance runs on the walls. The bulk of their forces will soon be upon us. They may very well breach our gates shortly.'

His radar didn't ping any hostile frequencies, so he took a moment and gazed at the battlefield around him. His radar picked up the ID of his dropship a long way away. The sight of fire and smoke over the hills where his radar pinged at was an unfortunate sign.

Raelius inquired again. 'What orders do we have?'

'Defend,' came the grim reply, laughing as he did.

Of course. 'I'll search for any of my surviving squad-mates. I'm sure more help would be appreciated.'

'Roger that. Good Hunting.'

The allied Machina slung the large blade over its shoulder and hovered away swiftly. Raelius opened a frequency and attempted to contact his squad, or whatever was left of them. All around him, the sound of small skirmishes blazed.

'Commander, Centurion 2 reporting in.'

Nothing but static replied. He tried again.

'Squad Canis, Centurion 2, reporting in.'

For a few moments, he thought he was the only one left. Then a voice greeted him. 'Centurion 2, copy. This is Hoplite 3.'

'Alexandra?'

'Raelius,' Alexandra, Hoplite 3, replied. 'Commander Elliot didn't make it. The others, I don't know. Currently engaged in combat, assistance would be appreciated.'

He looked at his radar to track Hoplite 3's movements. She was just over a ridge. He moved swiftly, hovering over the terrain and boosting up to the ridgetop. Hoplite 3 was holding off a spider-leg and a biped. Without saying a word, he dropped and brought his stake down onto the spider-leg. It pierced the upper part of the armor, but the stake jammed. The piston would no longer fire. He cursed and did his best to stay on the spider-leg as it tried to buck him off. The biped attempted to take a shot at him with its lascannon, but Hoplite 3 moved to intercept. With him as a distraction, she unsheathed her Machina's vibro-knives from its waist and plunged them into the biped's torso. The knife snapped off from the blade and a high-pitched whirring could be heard from the inside as the knife shattered while it was embedded inside, no doubt crippling many of the internal systems. The lifeless body of the biped fell backwards, and she turned her attention toward the spider-leg. Hoplite 3 unsheathed its pistols from its waist and started firing rounds into the spider-leg's optic sensors, before Centurion 2 jumped off and fired off its howitzer. The spider-leg's entire upper body crumpled under the bullet, before vaporizing in the explosion.

Centurion 2's sensors blared as another biped emerged from behind them, lashing out at Centurion 2's right arm with a gigantic axe. The blade found its mark between the torso and the shoulder, crashing down with force. Raelius grit his teeth as a sharp pain went up his right arm. Centurion 2 boosted backwards. Its right arm was inert. His HUD filled with warnings as his assailant kept up with the attack, swinging wide with the axe once more. Hoplite 3 dropped its pistols and lunged between them and grabbed onto the axe with one free arm. It grabbed the lascannon of one of the downed Machinas earlier and jammed it right against the torso of the axe-wielder before firing. In a harrowing second the laser melted the first layer of the armor, then the second, then the cockpit. Alexandra could hear the pilot screaming as the laser finally melted through entirely. Silence followed, after which Hoplite 3 pushed the new carcass off of itself. The axe clanked loudly on the ground.

'That's thrice I've saved you by now, isn't it?' she chided.

Raelius could hear her snicker over the comm-link. 'Didn't know we were keeping score.'

'You definitely owe me 3 drinks after we get back.'

He scoffed. 'Might have to take a raincheck on that,' Hoplite 3 helped Centurion 2 get back on its feet. Centurion 2 ejected its arm. It clanked harmlessly on the ground. 'You know the rules, we run it by the squad first before anything's final.'

Alexandra laughed. 'If there's any of the squad left you mean. If it's just the two of us I outrank you regardless.'

'Aye,' they both paused, as if the gravity of their exchange only hitting them now. 'Can't be moping about now can we, or the Commander will let us have it when we meet him on the other side, eh?'

Another small pause from her, before she replied warmly. 'Of course, of course.'

They had to cling onto all of the light hearted moments that they could find. Raelius gazed at his HUD and checked the status on his Machina. All things considered, it shouldn't be running in the state it was in. He stretched his right arm. The phantom pain had disappeared, but it was always a nasty sensation when it happened. They were hard-wired into their Machinas, through Kestral's own blood magic and technological advancements. It gave the Kestrelites the extra edge during battle. It also meant they were much more prone to fatalities. Their comm-links suddenly lit up. Someone from the capital was broadcasting an encoded message, straight from the castle.

All units. Report to the city gates. Repeat, retreat from the battlefield and report to the castle gates. The Ritual is almost complete. All units…

Raelius scrunched his brows. 'What? What ritual?'

Alexandra was silent for a moment. 'We'll find out soon enough. I doubt we're winning the battle today, but maybe the mages have one last trick up their sleeve. Hell if I know.'

The mages… 'What about the others?'

'If they're alive, they'll have heard about the order. All we can do now is follow.'

Hoplite 3 sped off towards the capital. Centurion 2 followed suit as best it could. Luckily, where they'd dropped wasn't far from an entrance into the city. The allied Machina with the large blade stood guard with a squad of around thirty or so. In the distance, he could see several other squads defending other entrance points. Raelius hailed the ones closest to them.

'Ser, what's this operation they're talking about?'

Before they could reply, the ground rumbled. From behind Hoplite 3 and Centurion 2, glowing, purple sigils ran. It ran as far as the eye could see, before it rounded the corner, running parallel to the city walls. Pillars of light shot out from several points, from the distance, around the kingdom's perimeter. Raelius could suddenly hear a loud ringing in his ear, and he clutched his head, but the pain prodded at him, almost making him lose consciousness. When he looked up, the main force of Gram could be seen in the distance. Their airships closed in, as well as their Machinas. There were hundreds that sped towards their position, and hundreds more that were about to make contact with the other squads defending the other entrance ways. The moment the first Machina crossed the purple sigils, it was blown backwards. An airship flew near the sigils, and was immediately blown back. It crashed into the ground a ways away from the city, taking out several of Gram's Machina squads. It burst into a flare of broken metal, taking out another ship with the explosion, and other Machina with it.

Several more moments passed as the perimeter of the 'barrier' around the city grew outward, further and further. Raelius' head rang with a dreadful pain. The light blinded him, and it felt like his entire body was on fire. He heard the screams and the shouts of his fellow soldiers over his comm-link. Before long, the barrier seemed to have reached its maximum range, stopping several kilometers from the city, having almost ravaged most of Gram's advancing force. Then, immediately, it raced back inwards. It stopped right at the city gates behind them, and the pillars of light faded, the purple sigils losing their spark.

Raelius sat in his cockpit, motionless, before he felt something tugging at him. Something he couldn't quite explain. All around him from the comm-links of his allies, he could hear confusion spread throughout their ranks.

'Is this the operation we've been hearing about?' Alexandra asked through gritted teeth.

'I don't know,' Raelius gasped, his lungs felt like they were on fire. 'What did the mages…?'

Before he could finish the thought, he heard activity on the friendly commlinks as he felt a searing pain wrack his head. Screaming, wretching, and what sounded like metal twisting and bending.

'Alex, what's happening out there?' He hissed.

'I'm not sure, gods what in…' her voice faltered. 'What in the hell is this? Rae, you seeing this?'

'Seeing what?' the pain was about to make him black out but he tried to hold on. 'Seeing what, Alex?!'

'Oh… oh gods, it's in the cockpit, Rae, it's-'

Before she could finish her statement, her comms went silent. What felt like an eternity passed as he listened to the other soldiers on the comms crying out. Then, a sickening sound, like metal bending, just like the others, cracking, and twisting. From all of the years he'd been in service, he knew that other sound well, something he only noticed now that were also coming from the other comms. The sound of breaking bones.

'Alex?!' he pleaded. The pain was just about too much to bear. He needed to hear her voice. Anyone's voice.

Then, like she had mentioned, they came into his view. He thought he was hallucinating at first, then it started to sink in. Dark, wispy, shapes from the ceiling of his cockpit. Through the head-splitting migraine he reached out to one of them. Fleshy, and viscous at the same time, it settled on his hand for a moment, before racing up his arm. He had no time to scream or shout, as it entered through his mouth, his nostrils, and it covered his eyes. His entire body went rigid, spasming from the foreign substance. He could no longer see, but he could feel it inside of him. He could feel what was happening. Perhaps it would have been better if he had blacked out.

The substance filled his lungs and even though he tried to scream, instead he could hear the pathetic gurgling of the substance in his throat. He felt his bones expand and contort against his own skin, he felt his organs rip and tear themselves as it expanded into his ribcage, begging to be set free. He felt his extremities reach their breaking point and finally burst forth from, flooding the cockpit with himself, and even more of the black mulch that had invaded his body. Without warning, without understanding, he felt both his own body and his Machina, he felt the pain from his bones breaching his skin, and he felt the ground beneath his Machina's feet, the cold, cruel air that weighed heavily in the atmosphere around them, and the air that whistled through the now empty right-arm socket.

Soon, he knew, that his right arm had started to be replaced, what felt like bone started to take root and grow, expand, through the entire frame, replacing any and all of the lost limbs or damaged sections with organic compound. The mulch soon covered his torso, and then the arms, and the legs. He regained his sight. He couldn't explain it, but he blinked, seeing the world again around him, his eyes darting left and right, witnessing the hellscape that he doubted anyone was prepared for, as hundreds of Machina lay writhing and in the process of conversion. He understood then, what had happened. As soon as he felt like he had control again, he felt his mind begin to slip. His sense of self began to disappear, and in his confusion, he looked around, trying to look at something, anything, that he recognized. He laid his eyes on another Machina. It was on the ground, a dark, writhing mass, before it gained proper shape and form. It stood up, and its head turned to face it. It blinked its two eyes in succession. It looked familiar to it.

It looked like Alexandra.

It tried to think about that name. It felt very familiar.

-0-0-0-0-0-

In the throne room of the castle within Kestral, figures stood in the darkness. The ritual circle glowed in an ominous light, before finally ebbing away. A hooded mage spoke. 'Gods forgive us.'

Another man, dressed in military garb, with the highest ranking insignia pinned to his chest, spoke next. 'Milady, I'm sure you're fully aware that this may very well become your legacy.'

There was a woman that sat on the throne. She flicked a piece of paper from her hand, and it disintegrated as it floated away. 'I am very aware, General. But Kestral will not fall now,' she placed an old, dusty book on the table beside the throne. 'And after today, it never will.'