(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
The bowels of the Smithsonian were growing darker. The crimson lights of the computer banks were dimming and the endless streams of codes that had previously lit up the terminals had gradually trickled away. In his corner of the room, Private Vonz was shaking and hugging onto his knees as though doing so might grant him a reprieve from the doom he knew was coming for him. He could hear the fighting outside, the desperate struggles of his former comrades in arms. He should have been out there, with them, fighting, dying, but he was afraid.
He had stared into the glistening skulls that the aliens wore upon their helms. He had seen inside the abyss of those empty sockets, and knew they stared right back. He always known that the life of a soldier would be difficult and that there would be challenges he needed to face. He had trained for every eventuality, but this… how could you prepare a man for this?
His breathing was growing erratic, and through the corner of his eye he saw the room fall into darkness. The only light now came from the open hatch, high above, and even that was barely enough to see by.
The data banks were still purring, but their soft hum was gradually receding. For a moment there was nothing at all but silence, then a new sound seemingly coming from nowhere, pulled him from his stupor. It was a long, deep, metallic note that froze him in place and sent a cold wave through his body. There was something else in here with him. He could hear it breathing.
His first instinct was to run, but where would he go? Out the hatch? That would be trading one death for another. Weakly, he slid himself along the floor, hoping whatever it was had not seen him.
‘You flee.’ The words echoed in the confined space, the quiet power behind them stopped him dead.
In the shadows something moved. Something massive. A giant with a nightmare’s form, glaring down at him as though he were a child. In that moment, he might well have been, for all the good it would do him.
‘I… I…’ he pleaded with the terrible thing.
‘You fled,’ came the voice again. ‘You left your comrades to die.’
‘There are… aliens… things…’ Private Vonz found the strength to pull himself up. His arms stretched out to beg. ‘We can’t… please… I don’t want to die!’
The monstrous figure regarded him for a moment, and as it did so two red slits lit up where its eyes should have been. They bore into him, seemingly penetrating his weak flesh and scouring his primitive mind. He realised to his terror, that they stared into his very soul.
‘You are weak and a coward,’ said the voice, without malice or anger. It was a statement and nothing more.
‘Please…’ said Vonz. In the corner of his eye he could see the spit-gun laying on the ground. If he could just stall for a moment longer it would be within his grasp.
Still the figure stood there, enshrouded by darkness, save for those two slits that glared at him. It observed him, but it did not move.
He took the chance. Without even thinking about it he rolled aside, pulled the weapon up in front of him as he had practiced a hundred times over during the course of his training and fired point-blank. Nothing happened.
He fired again, and again, but the weapon merely spluttered and clicked. He swore loudly as he realised his stupidity, remembering then that the captain had taken away the weapon’s ammunition. Then he cursed Captain Thrace and Sergeant Grundig, and doubly cursed himself for ever signing up for a term of service. Lastly he cursed the Protectorate, and it was only as he uttered the words that the figure moved towards him.
It moved impossibly fast for something so big, and before he even knew what was happening he was launched from the ground and held aloft by a metal gauntlet gripped around his throat. He tried to cry out, but the sound caught in his throat and only a pained coughing sound emerged as he choked under the intense pressure.
Still shrouded in shadow, the gleaming red eyes considered the fragile form it held before it.
‘P-please…’ spluttered Vonz.
‘I am doom and I am wrath,’ said the figure. ‘Do you not recognise me when you see me?’
The figure stepped forward, loosening its grip on the private and allowing him to tumble to the ground where he lay in a pitiful heap. He backed away as quickly as he could, but there was no place to hide, and he had no hope of outrunning the being that loomed before him.
‘I… yes…’ said Vonz as he stared up into the full might of his assailant. His voice was delirious as he spoke. ‘I didn’t know you were real… I thought… I thought there was no such thing as an angel of death.’
‘You thought wrong,’ said the angel of death. ‘And now, Private Vonz, you will pay the traitor’s price.’
More than a dozen shots exploded across the battlefield at once. They were all of them unloading their weapons, and Thrace knew that their ammunition supplies would pay dearly for this wasteful act but there was nothing for it. Better to go down fighting than watch his soldiers die one by one over the course of hours. He knew that either way they stood no chance, but at least if nothing else, they could take a few of the bastards with them.
‘What was that?’ mouthed Grundig.
Thrace turned to him, the sudden silence dissipating as the deafening weapon fire began to fade. ‘What?’ he yelled.
Then Thrace heard it too. A loud thudding sound coming from behind them. Coming, it seemed, from the escape hatch of the Smithsonian.
In spite of the danger he stood up, turning to face the hatch. He caught the first hints of heavy aegis battle-plate armour as a giant form emerged from the vessel’s depths. It righted itself, climbing to its full height, it was easily three heads taller than any of the human soldiers. Thrace stared at the being, his mouth slowly opening in disbelief.
The being’s head, hidden beneath a cowl of chainmail scanned the battlefield slowly, two red eyes blazing as they swept across foe and ally alike. Its form was lithe, and it held by its side a mighty sword that burned with furious energy. On its back, the giant wore a strange device that burst into life, and Thrace could not help but stare in wonderment as a set of long steel wings emerged from within.
‘Wrathangel,’ he muttered silently.
By then all weapons fire had stopped entirely, even those of the hostiles who were looking at one another and then back at the towering figure as though unsure how to proceed. Most of Thrace’s soldiers were dead, but those that remained stood, like him, entranced by the magnificence of the giant’s form. A few were visibly shaking, while others had fallen to their knees in recognition of the power that the figure represented. That power held a name within the Protectorate, a name revered above all others, a name that evoked feelings of fear and dread, but also great pride and courage: Prefect.
The figure did not utter a word, nor did it seem to regard the men and women that knelt before its might. Instead it turned its attention to the aliens, all of whom had stopped in their tracks, perhaps unsure how to deal with the new threat, or perhaps just as enraptured by the terrible vision that had risen from the depths of the ship.
‘Svartalfar,’ bellowed the Prefect, its terrible voice betraying no hint of gender. ‘I am Xorya Nurielle, Fist of the Council, and member of the Founding Prefecture. You stand in the presence of your damnation. Prepare your wicked souls, for soon they will be judged by the immolating fires of the angel of wrath!’
A roaring inferno erupted from behind the Prefect’s steel wings and it was carried, with a grace that far belied its size, high above the gawping soldiers and aliens. For the briefest of moments it hung in the sky, its burning weapon lighting it up like a star, or a single raging beacon of hope, and then it plunged like a meteor into the lines of the enemy. An explosion of dirt and water followed the angel’s descent. The ensuing maelstrom hid the aliens from vision, but Thrace could hear their terrible screams.
In that moment, Thrace felt his wits return to him and he raised his gun above his head. ‘For the Protectorate!’ he cried, and every man and woman that yet survived lent their voice to his.
Like the warriors of the classical myths they leapt over the wall and sprinted forward, stopping only to pick off stragglers attempting to flee the carnage. Their weapon fire was like a heavenly chorus, each shot bringing an alien hostile to the ground. They fought with a ferocity that Thrace had not felt in many years, and before too long the battle was won, and all that remained were the smouldering remains of alien corpses.
In spite of his injury, Sergeant Grundig had managed to keep pace with him, fighting harder than ever in stark defiance of the pain searing through his leg. He seemed to be completely oblivious to it as he shrieked a war cry and lay waste to any alien foolish enough to remain in his path. He had single-handedly felled over a dozen of their number, and by the battle’s end, not a single one had made it back to the safety of the tree line.
Thrace was panting as the burst of energy took its toll. By his side, Sergeant Grundig had collapsed in the water, though more from exhaustion than genuine pain. All around them were the bodies of the dead, aliens mostly, though Thrace noted with some bitterness that Private Nagra, and a few other soldiers had also fallen in the charge. The centre of the battlefield more resembled a charnel house, with piles of aliens body parts spread around the statuesque figure of the Prefect, blood seeping into the water and turning it a sickly shade of purple.
Wrathangel, or Nurielle to use the Prefect’s given name, had fought more valiantly than any of them. Its sword had become a whirling maelstrom of death as it cut through aliens without pause. A wall of flames had engulfed those that sought to flank the giant, searing through armour and the vulnerable flesh beneath with ease. Thrace had never seen such grace in action, nor had he seen the fable viciousness of the Prefect’s up close. It was as terrifying as it was inspiring. The sheer volume of alien dead was a testament to the Prefect’s awesome powers.
It stood for a moment as though gathering its thoughts, so still that might as well have been carved from stone. Then it turned to face the captain, its bright crimson eyes boring into him. It had not even needed to look for him. It knew exactly where he was.
‘Captain Thrace,’ it said, its voice disarmingly calm.
The realisation that it knew his name caused Thrace to start, though he quickly regained his composure.
‘My lord,’ he said, bowing slightly. ‘It is an honour. You could not have awoken at a more opportune time. Had it not been for you, we would all have perished.’
Nurielle nodded, though Thrace had the distinct impression it was merely acknowledging the truth of their predicament. ‘You were not expecting the Harvesters?’
‘Harvesters?’ asked Thrace. ‘The… aliens?’
‘The aliens, yes.’
Thrace shook his head. ‘I’m confused, my lord. Before today we did not even know such things existed.’
Upon hearing this the Prefect cocked its head slightly as though uncertain of how to continue. Then it straightened itself at such a speed that Thrace was unsure he had even seen its moment of confusion.
‘Is there a problem?’ he asked.
‘I believe so,’ said Nurielle. Thrace noticed the Prefect’s grip tighten on its flaming sword, and he recoiled hastily as the massive blade was raised and pointed at his head. ‘I believe you were sent to kill me.’