Emet sat, or rather, stood, in his suit. Darkness covered his sensations, with only the gentle shake of the outside world to remind him of his existence. Calm before the storm. His closed breathing loop gave him clean, sterile air to breathe in and out. This would be another drop into war, may as well make the most of it.

A dull tone alerted him, and one by one every camera along his suit switched to life, bringing him a complete view of his surroundings. Not much to see in the bay of a utilitarian ship, other than his fellow troops. They were lined wall to wall, precariously hanging over doors that would have opened at any moment. All were clad in the same blue power armor that he was. Knights were what Emet liked to call himself and his ilk, but the official term was “shock trooper.” They were to deliver shock and awe upon their enemies. Though, he was certain they felt neither.

“Haddomai armor is powered and ready for drop. Prepare yourself, warrior,” a voice said.

“Striker, greetings. You will be joining me on this drop?” Emet asked.

“When have I not, user? AI companionship has been integral to every mission,” Striker replied.

“Indeed, it has.”

Haddomai was the name of their proud armor. Emet never really knew why that was. It wasn’t a word he recognized, and only one other soldier-in-arms had ever given him a hint of what it meant. A dead language was its origin. Perhaps something to revive one day. Rifles nearly as big as their pilots were seated firmly in their hands, with a large rifled cannon folded and tucked behind each right shoulder. The left shoulder bore a large shielded pauldron, with a bright red number emblazoned on it. Emet was number fourteen, but he had always felt like seventeen suited him more.

A map display interrupted Emet’s musings. A three dimensional representation of where they were currently, where they would land, and the flickering of red dots noting every hostile combatant waiting to die.

A different, calming voice spoke, “Cherished body, Emet, your assault on the ground is represented. Fight in concurrence with your fellow man. Succeed. Return home.”

“I will, commander. You have my word,” he said.

“Good. Godspeed.”

“Suit activation confirmed,” Striker said. “Connection to BaseNet established. Connection to friendlies established.”

All of the technical displays brimmed to life on Emet’s vision. His body was alive again. The suit was by no means connected to him physically, yet Emet felt every part of it all the same. The gloves his hands were snugly fit into were a one to one feedback to the suit’s hands. He ran a finger around the trigger guard of his weapon, feeling the little imperfections on its metallic surface.

“Will you be wishing me luck on my drop, Striker?”

“Strategy first. Luck second.”

“Perhaps once, luck could come first.”

A shrill klaxon sounded as the ship lurched, a loud bang following it. Rattling and groaning replaced quiet. The atmosphere had been breached, and there would only be precious more seconds of calm. Emet took a moment to breathe, enjoying the cool air. A new alert joined the first, as the maws below them opened, revealing a dead, grey landscape. The nearby sun had nearly set on the world, bathing it in a deathly purple.

“Drop commencing, warrior. Prepare yourself,” Striker said.

Emet nodded, as did some of the other soldiers around him. One by one his fellow knights descended below until he, too, was dropped into the plane beneath. That weightlessness worked its way into his body, settling into his gut. Rushing wind roared by him. Artillery crashed into the airspace around him. Explosions rang out below. Emet kept himself static, bracing for the impact. That was all on the outside. He needn’t fear a thing.

“Controlled rocket burn commencing.”

The thrusters on Emet’s suit sparked to life, soon roaring at full power. His descent hitched, then slowed, with a final bang as he hit the ground. All at once, he stopped, with his body briefly faltering under the momentum of the fall. An enemy fortification lie in front of him, with its inhabitants scrambling into position.

“Begin assault.”

Emet hefted his rifle and zeroed in on the first target. The ammunition inside rattled as it pulled itself into position, feeding cartridge after cartridge into the massive weapon. Emet pulled the trigger, thunderous bangs precipitated every shot of lead, eviscerating the first alien creature. Other knights touched down soon after, beginning their own ritual of violence, easing Emet’s nerves. They all tore through what little resistance their foes could muster. Shock and awe. A fitting title, he figured.

After the first wave of targets was down, Emet strode forth, feeling every stomp and sway of his suit. He made certain to crush whatever corpses were in his path. Those spindly, four-legged things with skull-like heads and small manipulators that hung underneath. They were weak, but they were many.

“Incoming. North. Impact in two seconds.”

Emet turned on his heel and raised his shoulder toward the blast, shielding his head. The explosion struck him, sending him back only a few feet. Armor took most of the bang, while a minute amount stung at him. He heaved and kept himself steady.

“No further artillery detected. Continue.”

“Gladly, Striker,” Emet replied.

The assault slouched on, with nary a worthy foe for Emet to indulge. Each one that came his way was felled with a few simple pulls of the trigger. As he marched, he noticed familiar ruined buildings amid the enemy encampments. Human, certainly, with brick and mortar design. Destroyed not by the assault here, but long ago. Retribution must have been this mission’s objective, and Emet would deliver it. Trekking onward, the path toward Emet’s objective led him further into the graveyard of buildings, toward a metallic spire. Emet found his gaze catching on every tattered building, mind picturing what each one might have been decades or perhaps even centuries prior. This is where his progenitors lived and worked and played. All the more reason to exterminate the enemy laid out before him. His pace picked up as he headed forward, stomps resounding through the battlefield.

Blips were picked up on Emet’s radar. Similar power suits to his were bounding through the ruins, in tattered gray colorations. They were humanoid as well. Emet couldn’t help but smirk at the idea that they had to resort to using bipedal form like him. He fired off at the first two targets he could see. They spun out into a building to take cover, while a third bearing a large shoulder mounted cannon stomped into view. That wasn’t a ballistic weapon.

“Unknown make and model of firearm. Take cover,” Striker said.

Emet grunted and slipped behind a ruined brick wall. Three hostiles at minimum. The large cannon-bearing one was clearly still approaching. Close quarters like that would no doubt deal some amount of damage to him. He tightened his grip on his weapon.

“Vent right on my mark,” Emet said. He swung out into view. “Mark!” His suit was flung to the left, drifting across the ground. One shrug of his shoulder slammed his cannon into position. “Fire.” A heavy shell launched and crashed into the distant building, a deafening explosion atomizing it a split second later. He shifted his body again, and the weight of his suit swayed toward the main enemy, peppering it with rifle fire as its cannon hummed with a bright white energy. “Vent forward!” Another burst of speed closed the gap, crashing into the thing, sending them both back a ways. In an instant he was grappling with the thing, struggling to bend its barrel upward. He dumped all the ammunition he could into its midsection.

Not once had he ever gotten so close to one of these creatures. It was a disgrace to misuse his armor in this way. The beast grabbed at his collar, slamming its fist into his head. Emet pushed forward, forcing it onto its back. He holstered his weapon and grabbed at its head. The creature was rooted in deep, but the crack and whine of metal showed he was making good progress ripping it free. Soon, its screams could be heard below the hiss of its sizzling weapon. Panicked graspers wildly flailed at the air, its legs quickly following. The suit fell limp.

All at once, the beast stopped its panicking and dribbled out something in its pained tongue. A clunk emanated from the suit below. Emet flung it at a wall, where it dropped to the ground and fell limp.

“Power is still building within--”

A flash tunneled through Emet’s eyes, followed by a searing pain rebounding inside of him. _

“What is it? A cyclops? Do they make armor?”

“I’ve never heard of a cyclops making armor.”

“Well, is it dead?”

“How am I supposed to know? Do you see any way to tell? It’s not breathing, I don’t think.”

“What do you mean? Just open up the armor.”

“OK, magician at arms, just tell me how.”

“Kick it?”

“You do it.”

“I’m not doing it.”

“Then shut up.”

Emet blinked. Was he dead? Did people argue in the after life? He didn’t have much to complain about, being strangely at ease. All of his senses returned nothing, save for the chattering going on outside his head.

“Status report,” Striker said.

He wasn’t dead, then. There was a lingering sting that seemed to pulse inside his body, however. “I am fine, Striker. Are you endangered?” Emet said.

“I am unharmed.”

“Good.”

“Did it just talk?” one of the outside voices asked.

“I didn’t hear anything,” the other replied.

It took a few moments for Emet to realize his suit was on the ground. He hefted himself up, much to the displeasure of whoever was outside, as a unison of screams pierced the air. Vision flickered back in moments later, feeding him an odd sight. Two humans stood in front of him. Or, no, humans didn’t have ears that long. Whatever they were, their attire seemed cluttered. Fabrics and straps overlapping one another, vaguely reminding him of old stories. A far cry from his jumpsuit, in any case.

“Unknown designation. Checking basenet.” There was a pause. “Unable to connect to basenet. Safeties disengaged.”

Emet frowned. That wasn’t possible.

“May I speak to them, Striker?” Emet asked.

“Not recommended.”

“That isn’t what I asked.”

“You may.”

A soft click directed his voice outward. “What are you?” Emet asked. “Both of you. What designation of creature are you?”

The pair flinched, sidling up to one another for comfort. Emet was inspiring fear in them, he knew that much. Normally a positive to strike fear into the unknown, yet, their closeness to humanity made it saddening instead. He trained his weapon on them all the same.

“I will not hurt you. I ask again. What manner of creature are you?”

“Elves?” the taller one said.

Elves. Emet was unfamiliar with the term. Perhaps some distant relative to humans. They did bear the same features. Certainly, it would be a strange coincidence for alien creatures to so closely resemble humans by accident. Emet lowered his weapon and looked to the ground. Gray, chalky dirt lie beneath him, as well as blackened scraps of the creature’s suit. Teleportation, then? A strange offensive.

“What of the alien incursion? The enemy?” Emet asked.

“What enemy?” the smaller one replied.

Emet took a step forward, crushing more of the wreck under his heavy heel. “This enemy.”

The two flinched again. “We don’t know of any enemy!”

Odd. So this planet was far from their grasp? Teleportation of that magnitude must have required a large amount of power. Indeed, it must have been far out of BaseNet’s sweeping gaze as well to be unable to connect to it. Emet glanced around at the hovel he was in. Old construction. Far older than the brickwork he had been stomping around in. Some of it was constructed out of wood and thatching. Some stonework gave it a vague semblance of strength. Nevertheless, escaping its confines would have to be a slow process, lest he bring down the whole thing and crush… Emet looked back at the two. What were they called? Elves?

A door at the far side of the room seemed like the best candidate for approach, so Emet approached it. A panicked gasp erupted from behind him, and one of the smaller elves tottered into view, arms raised, feebly blocking the door.

“Laila!” the other one called out.

“You can’t go out there!” Laila said. “I won’t let you.”

“Why not?” Emet asked. “Is there a threat? I will deal with any threat.”

“You are the threat.” She grit her teeth. There was a tremble to her balance. Heroics? Admirable.

“Certainly, to any enemies. Are you an enemy?”

Laila seemed confused by the question. Likely she had never been asked such a thing, and no doubt the awe that Emet conveyed added more intimidation to it. The other one scampered into view, just in front of her smaller sister. She said nothing, her eyes burning with determination.

“They are not human,” Striker said.

Indeed, they were not. They were also not the creatures he needed to destroy. In fact, they seemed relatively harmless, even by human standards. The taller one’s features were harder, the smaller being more rounded and cute. Both had brown hair that stood out against their stark white cloaks. In a different context, Emet might have wondered if they were medical personnel.

“I mean you no harm, but I must re-establish contact with BaseNet and continue my mission. I will not allow you to stand in my path.” He took a step forward. The sisters did not budge.

“We can send you back,” the taller one said suddenly.

“Orla, we can’t,” Laila hissed.

“We can. We just need time and materials!” Orla said.

“I have neither the time nor the materials,” Emet replied.

With that, he strode forward. The sisters dodged out of the way, just in time for him to burst through the door, out into the world. A miasma of new sights and sounds filtered through his suit. Below, a stony road that led to several more shabby buildings and wooden carts with new peoples bobbing and weaving through crowds. Large walls and a citadel loomed in the distance, contrasting starkly with the bright blue sky up above. Greenery dotted the landscape, bursting forth wherever the stony facade would allow.

“Air unpolluted, opening breathing loop,” Striker said.

Scents of all kinds wormed their way into Emet’s suit. Some bad, some enticing, others curious. He took a few deep breaths, indulging in the… Freshness. Air had never felt so free. Emet then noticed all of the details of the people before him. Many had stopped in their tracks to gawk at him, a few already began to scramble away. All had similarly antiquated garbs to the elves, though these people were human. Strange. Humans and no BaseNet. At least, he assumed they were humans. Perhaps, like the elves, they had some strange defect that precluded them from that designation.

“We must find a clearing and send an emergency signal to BaseNet,” Emet said.

“Correct,” Striker replied. “Suggest that you depart this tribe.”

Emet traced the tall walls and headed for the closest one. As he moved, he realized his footsteps echoed loudly through the streets. Not a single explosive was ringing in his ear, nor a thunderclap of cannon fire. Only the murmur of confused peoples as he marched by them. Emet kept his eyes forward. Why did they keep staring at him? Was he so odd? Did he not inspire hope in them?

“Can you perhaps dictate our position in space via the stars above?”

“I cannot.”

“Surely the cameras can break mere sunlight.”

“They do. I have not found a correlation between them and those stars within memory.”

“I suppose you’ll keep trying, then?”

“I will.”

A crawling sense of isolation began to settle on Emet. This was, in essence, the farthest he had ever been from a watchful gaze. Certainly, Striker was here, but Striker was not the full might of humanity, nor BaseNet. These people before him were practically alien, plodding about in an alien world. Fear now permeated this pretty existence.

“This must be the entrance,” Emet said, as he came upon a large gate. It was a portcullis that allowed a peek into an untamed world in the distance. No buildings, no people, just grass and trees and a long, long road.

As Emet approached, smaller armored creatures stood their ground in front of him. Knights? They were knights. Truly. Down to the swords they wielded, glimmering in the sun.

“Halt!” one said.

Emet obeyed, mostly out of awe.

“Surrender yourself or be slain, beast!”

Beast? Emet was a beast? Certainly not. He was a human, a warrior, a knight. It was his duty to protect humanity. His brow furrowed. They were misguided, and only another obstacle in his way.

“Are they human, Striker?” he asked.

“They are. Safeties engaged.”

A human raising a weapon to another human. Despicable. Emet merely walked by them. They yelled their warcries and brought their swords down upon him, only for them to glance harmlessly off of his armored hide. They seemed to get the idea quickly and stopped their assault, but continued to fling their demands. Finally, another human ran into view. He was younger, perhaps around Emet’s age, and wielded another sword, yet lacked the ornate armor of the others. A cape hung loosely from his back, and a bandana wrapped tightly around his head.

“Draw your weapon, demon,” this man said.

“I cannot raise my weapon to a human,” Emet replied. “Step aside.”

“Then die!”

This new warrior attempted another round of assaults on Emet’s armor, deflecting each and every time. His movements were intense and swift. A lesser man would have been cut down in mere seconds. Impressive, despite the blatant pointlessness of his task, he continued on, trying every point on Emet. What was the term for that? Insanity?

The warrior rolled back into view, huffing and puffing, sword raised.

“Fall back, Hallur, weapons will not pierce it!” a knight said.

The other warriors ran off, likely searching for more help, or a weapon to try and dent Emet’s armor.

“Hallur!” a familiar voice called.

Emet looked back to see the elves in a panic, running toward them. Just then, the warrior behind leapt.

“Incoming,” Striker said.

Emet caught his assailant. That didn’t slow the warrior down one bit, slamming his sword into Emet’s arm.

“Please, set down Hallur! I told you, we’ll get you back,” Orla said.

“Orla, get away! You aren’t prepared for this fight!” Hallur said.

“And you aren’t either,” Laila said. Those words seemed to drag all of the wind out of Hallur’s attacks. “You aren’t going to find your home out there, creature.”

“I will, given time,” Emet said.

“No, you won’t,” Orla chimed in. “You were dragged from an alternate plane. You will never get back.”

Emet swallowed.

“Not unless you help us. So set down our friend and we’ll fix this.” She raised her hands, trying for some amicable form. “You won’t hurt us? We won’t hurt you.”

They couldn’t hurt him, he quietly added.

“I do not recommend this,” Striker said. “Follow procedure.”

“We cannot follow procedure, Striker. It would not yield results.”

“You believe its words?”

“Surely, even if her theory is false, we are far off from BaseNet that it does not make a difference.” He looked up to the bright sky again. “We may as well follow their lead.”

“Exercise caution.”

The elves and several bystanders stared, clearly hanging on his next words. Emet didn’t need to make more enemies, nor did he want to scare his kin further. That was not what he was made to do.

“So be it. I will follow your instructions.” Emet set Hallur down and placed a hand on his chest. “I am Emet, shock trooper of humanity.” _

Emet was brought to what was charitably called a “dungeon” which was kept under the large citadel. He was accompanied by the elves and Hallur, along with a troop of knights standing just outside. The only flickering of light down there were torches hung on walls, illuminating aged stonework and arches that made up the ceiling. Not even electricity to their name. Perhaps that was a simpler existence for them. There was something to be envied in that. Though it did leave them open to conquering from any number of threats.

Laila and Orla had brought their paperwork and a variety of assumed research materials to test and poke at Emet. Hallur, meanwhile, eyed him from a distance, arms crossed.

“What if we just left him here?” Hallur asked.

“He burst through our door. Do you think some iron bars are going to stop him?” Orla said.

Hallur clicked his teeth. It was disappointing to be so helpless against an overwhelming enemy, Emet knew.

“What are you? Orc? Ogre?” Hallur asked. “Some armored spawn of a demonic lord?”

“Human,” Emet replied.

“At your size?”

“The armor is larger than I am.”

“You would be crushed. Unable to move.”

“Perhaps best they remain ignorant of your inner-workings,” Striker said. “You do not know their allegiance.”

Orla raised a flask, swilling around a blue liquid. “Perhaps a golem?”

“If he were a golem, you would have felt some amount of magic from him, dolt,” Laila said.

“Don’t insult me. His armor may be resistant to magic, hiding it away.”

“Then go ahead, test it.” Laila gestured to Emet. “See how well it turns out for you.”

“This is your fault, you don’t need to be snappy with me over it.”

“My fault?! You’re the one who insisted we visit the magician in the first place. You were certain it would bring great profits. Look, now! Where is the profit in this?!” Laila pointed at Emet.

“Well, you were the one who was certain that the object would bring in valuables from other realms.” Orla brushed aside a blonde hair, and shrugged.

It was a wonder they managed such a feat in this state, Emet thought. Elves certainly had a propensity to argue. Could have been why they were not present in his reality, wiped away for their inability to perform work without issue. Despite the obvious outbreak of hostilities, Hallur kept his eye on the two of them, staring not out of malice, but something else. They knew one another, so it couldn’t have been a matter of curiosity.

“We will need to return to the mantid,” Laila said.

“We can’t,” Orla replied.

“You mean you don’t want to.”

“Yes, I would say not dying is a good reason.”

“Fine. Then I’ll fix my supposed mess and go alone.”

Hallur immediately rushed to Laila’s side. “I’ll join you. You can’t venture like that on your own.”

“Oh, please, you don’t have an ounce of magic to your body,” Laila said with a scowl.

“A blade will fell most enemies.”

“With a pinch of wishful thinking, perhaps.”

Emet furrowed his brow. Did they always have to argue?

“Fine, I’ll join you,” Orla said.

“You want to join now that the human enters the fray? Ridiculous.”

“It’s our shared problem, right? We’ll solve it.”

“Ah, I see, now you want to make sure the local guard doesn’t behead you for summoning a demon.”

Orla rubbed her eyes. Emet wanted to do much of the same.

“I will lead the charge to this mantid creature,” Emet said.

The group snapped to look at him, worry already plaguing their features. They shared those worried looks between themselves.

“You’ll have to remain here,” Orla said.

“Why is that?”

“Because we don’t trust the literal spawn of another plane,” Hallur said. Much vigor to his words, as always. “Neither does anyone up above.”

“Trust or not, I will not sit idly by waiting on fragile things to save my body. Will you be able to stop me?”

Orla suddenly picked up the flask and tossed it at him. It shattered against his armor, and the contents spilled to the ground, letting out a sad sizzle.

“No, we cannot, I suppose,” she said. “He’s not a golem, I can tell you that much.”

“Lead the way, proud demonic warrior. We’ll furnish you with directions,” Laila said.

Hallur stepped in front of them. “Hold on, we’re not going to let this creature lead us into a trap!”

“Are you not tired of bickering? You have no recourse,” Emet said. “I would enjoy greatly to have these directions, Laila.”

“Odd how the demon is most polite of the three beasts here,” Laila replied. _

Leaving the city, or kingdom, as they called it, was less of a taxing process. Indeed, most people seemed happy to have Emet leave, accompanied by a troop of knights. That joy stopped once he left the gate and the knights filed back inside, the portcullis slamming down behind him and his new band of strange compatriots.

The outside world absolutely burst forth with colors. Greens and browns and reds and yellows and blues. Emet had seen plants before, but not to this degree. For a moment, he wanted to chance leaving his suit. Later. Once his situation had been dealt with.

“Well? Move,” Hallur said. A kick came to Emet’s leg. “Guide the way.”

“Is it wise to assault the thing that can strike you down?” Orla said.

Hallur scoffed.

“Directions have been given. Suggest you move forward without their distraction,” Striker said.

“I do not know the mechanics of what they seek, Striker,” Emet replied.

Striker did not reply, almost seeming like his own scoff.

They began their quest, as it were, toward the mantid. Emet took in every sight and sound he could on the way. It was relatively easy as the band seemed to silence themselves for this task. Hallur keep one hand on his weapon at all times, threatening to strike. Emet would have done the same if it didn’t cause undue panic.

Wildlife was one thing Emet was quick to notice. Every so often glimmers of life would rustle in-between bushes and across trees. Some he vaguely knew of, others completely alien. His suit would automatically lock onto them and just as quickly disregard it once recognized as random fauna. There would likely be something deadly at some point. Hallur did imply this would be a dangerous task, but as to the degree, that was uncertain.

“Are you truly a human?” Laila asked, striding up alongside Emet.

“I am. What reason would there be for me to lie?” he replied.

“As the empty bottle of a knight over there would insist, you could be a demon.”

“Surely a demon would have struck you down where you stand.”

“Perhaps. A demon could also tempt one into doing something far worse.”

“A dialogue may only increase those chances.”

“I’m not entirely convinced you’re a demon.”

“And the others?”

“They don’t view you as human and think you’ll kill them.”

Upon saying that, Orla yanked Laila back and they threw hissing whispers at one another. Laila lightly elbowed Orla and returned to Emet’s side.

“If you’re not a demon, where do you come from?” Laila asked.

“Earth.”

“So you are a golem after all?”

“That is the name of my planet. I assume yours has a name as well?”

“Certainly, Illusia.”

“Illusia. Mystical, certainly. And does Illusia have many allies in its space?”

“The stars above?” Fear lessened in her posture. “We don’t have any allies in the stars. Some may say that the heavens hold deities, but other, more intelligent theories place them on alternate planes. Such as yourself.”

“He’s not a deity, if that’s what you’re implying,” Orla said.

“Do you have to insult my intelligence?”

“Only fair.”

“You’ve been among the stars, then?”

“Several times,” Emet said. “My armor is designed for it.”

Laila sized Emet up. Her keen eyes were quickly darting over his form. She must have been slowly dismantling his armor in her head.

“What level of magic allows you to survive up above?”

“Magic? You believe in such a thing?” Emet smiled.

Laila snapped her fingers, causing to emanate a flicker of glow. “Believe? I perform it. Very well, I may add.”

Emet’s smile dropped. Striker was already quick at work trying to scan the creature for any mechanisms, but turned up nothing. Whatever she sparked, that came from herself.

“A chemical reaction? A mixture it might exude from its palms,” Striker said.

Or an advanced technology that blended into her very form. Something she could produce with just a thought. Magic was indistinguishable from powerful advancement, surely. She thought his suit was magical.

“User. Potential hostile,” Striker said. A camera feed popped up on Emet’s display, zeroed in on a small figure balancing in the trees. A small blade was clutched in a green hand. It blended into the foliage well. Deploy firearm? No. That threat was definitely unarmored, and the cartridges might rupture his companions’ eardrums. A waste of ammunition. There was a chance it wasn’t an enemy. The forms of this world were odd. This may have been another curious passerby, intimidated by Emet and his traveling band. Unlikely. They would have ran off in that case, surely.

Emet picked up a hefty rock from the side of the road and spun around, flinging the projectile directly at the hidden assailant. It struck the beast and sent it crashing to the ground in a limp, bloody mess. The elves flinched.

Hallur drew his sword. “What is your intent, beast?!”

“Assaulting an unknown enemy,” Emet said, pointing at the crumpled creature.

The group looked back.

“Goblins?” Orla said.

“Goblins,” Laila replied.

Hallur ran over to the body and drove his sword through it. Overkill. Actually, Emet might have done the same, were he not so curious of the green diminutive thing. He approached and examined it closely. It was green and bore long ears like the elves. Though, instead of a more human set of features, this one had more exaggeratedly crude details. Jagged teeth, a long nose, flatter skull. Did this one descend from humans as well? Terrifying to think the human form could be corrupted in such a way. The clothes it wore at least implied some intelligence, as well as its reconnaissance.

“There are likely additional hostiles,” Striker said.

“Ready yourself, Hallur. There may yet be more of these creatures,” Emet said.

“I’m well aware of that. Ready yourself.”

“Indeed.”

“Consider saving ammunition. Close quarters,” Striker said.

“My fists? A curious proposition, Striker.”

“We are unable to resupply. Ammunition must be preserved for serious threats.”

“Logical. I understand.”

Emet looked to Hallur’s sword. A shame he had no such cutting implement himself. A large one, geared solely for his holy armor’s hands. That would complete his knightly creed, wouldn’t it? Something to suggest to the commander once he returned. For now, Emet raised his fists and scanned the area for additional enemies. It was a new experience! All the other enemies he faced usually had to be whittled down with weapons fire first.

“More! From the east!” Laila cried out.

Cameras locked onto a horde of the things emerging from the bushes, all brandishing their variety of no doubt scavenged weapons. He faced toward them and ran at them, a smile spreading across his face. Laila and Hallur moved to assault. The elf began waving her hands about and doing odd poses, producing blasts of fire. The human cut them down, cleanly and without so much as a gurgle from the enemies. Orla, however, merely stood there, anxiously looking on.

The first strike on a larger of the horde produced a satisfying crack, sending the troglodyte skidding into a nearby tree. Emet swung and struck another with glee. The thing wobbled for a moment, as if trying to steady itself before promptly falling over. Others began noticing his assault and turned their focus to him, babbling in a nonsensical language. All the better. Every blade that came his way bounced cleanly off. Indeed, he would wait a moment for his enemies to make their fatal realization and crush them.

Body after body fell to the ground, pouring their dark reddish blood. Each death only seemed to inspire more hatred in the others. Their language seemed to have scraps of an intelligible language, buried in mad ramblings. Laila and Hallur cut down whatever stragglers decided Emet wasn’t worth the effort.

“Hostiles, west,” Striker said. An image of goblins bounding upon Orla popped into view. She threw a flask, causing a few of the creatures to begin coughing violently and collapse, but soon enough more continued on the approach.

“Vent according my movements on my mark.” Emet spun on the spot to face Orla. “Mark.” Emet leaned forward, letting the thrust of his suit launch him forward. He leaned right, skating around Orla and smashing into the horde of beasts. “Halt vent.” His suit dropped to the ground, sliding far enough to slam the last one, causing it to crumple under-fist. Striker briefly displayed Orla, showing her to be safe.

“Magician!” she yelled.

Another of the diminutive folk emerged. This one was fashioned with a cloak and a stick with a gem jammed into its gnarled end. What a ridiculous creature. A couple more took guard in front of him. They were more heavily armored with crude plates strapped to them. Marginally better challenges. Emet took a step toward them. The cloaked individual began waving his arms about, much like Laila did.

“Warning, temperature dropping. Warning, joints locking,” Striker said.

A chill permeated his suit, alarming Emet. His armor came to a slow halt with ice crystals creeping up the side of him. Darkness soon clouded nearly all of his artificial eyes. Now, all he could see was the sniveling beast in front of him with his disgusting guard. Crystals turned to chunks. He was nearly encased. No matter what movements he made, his suit would not yield. Emet grunted, still pushing with all his might. That so-called magician continued to wave his arms about, glimmering in a blue. Crush him.

“Hallur!” Orla cried.

“Vent,” Emet said. His suit burned with thruster power. Not enough. “More!” A sizzling pierced the air. “More!” Cracking. His arm broke loose, forming his hand into a fist.

Hallur sprung into action, coming down upon one of the guard’s neck. The other slashed at Hallur, narrowly missing him and receiving a stab to the sternum. The knight pulled his sword free and looked to Emet and the magician, keeping his position. Of course. He was a perceived enemy. He would receive no assistance in this moment. The magician took a few wary steps back, but kept up his supernatural assault on Emet.

“Maximum,” Emet said.

Haddomai broke free. Emet sped forward, grabbing at the creature and crushing its skull with barely a whimper from it. His suit continued to speed forward, where he slammed the goblin into a tree. The bark splintered and the tree faltered. Emet ground his quarry into the bark before letting it drop. He raised a foot with a grunt.

“Emet,” Striker said.

Emet took a deep breath and eased his foot back down. He rubbed his sole into the dirt and looked back to the group. Hallur’s sword remained raised. Laila and Orla stared, faces sealed behind a stony facade. Emet walked back to them.

“I apologize for not responding sooner to your endangerment, Orla,” he said.

“That’s more than alright.” She offered a small nod. “We’re fine now, so I suppose that’s all that matters.” Orla adjusted her cape.

“This is why I insist on learning magic,” Laila said.

“Not the time for your lectures.”

Emet looked to Hallur. Unbecoming of a human, yet an intelligent strategy. What would you have done, fellow human, had you succeeded in your plan? Emet kept his lips sealed. He turned away and began on the path again, noting the number of casualties before them. Over 15 of the creatures had assaulted them, perhaps more. Some had definitely scrambled back into the safety of the woods. The rest he had not touched were cut to ribbons or suffered severe burns.

“What manner of technology did the creature use, Striker?” Emet asked.

“Unknown. It bore no visual mechanisms nor released any recognizable source of energy.”

“Magic, then.”

No response. Magic was not in the realm of Striker’s understanding, though Emet supposed it wasn’t in his, either. The biological side of the equation was becoming less and less likely. One would hardly have to “learn” magic if it were a physical reaction drawn from within an organic factor, unless it were something of an unused muscle, like learning to walk when young. To think something like a goblin being able to flex such a powerful ability. This world was able to chip at his hide, and it would not happen again. _

The forest had given way to a wider plain. Rocks seemed to replace trees, with an odd scattering of them about the grassy field. The road was merely a sandy path now, worn down by many years of travel. Footsteps, hoofprints, and wheel tracks marked the way forward. Emet was surprised to see that the walk had not yet taken its toll on his weaker compatriots. They only managed idle chatter, which was some step up from the total silence from beforehand. Striker had no observations at-hand, so he remained silent.

Emet had not remained in his suit for this long. At first, he had expected that it would soon wear on his body, but it only relaxed into it, furthering his connection to it. Power should have been no issue, either, meaning he could remain indefinitely inside. Or it would have, had he a way to eat. Not to mention the possible medical conditions that would arise. For a moment, he envied the machines that led the war effort. No, he was human, and that was good. So he was told.

“We’re approaching the mantid’s hold,” Orla said. “Watch your step.”

“Maybe the demon can go ahead and rid us of the creature,” Hallur said.

“You know, I hear the mantid employs little spies invisible to the eye. Watch your mouth, hm?” Laila replied.

“No, you definitely would have bartered for it if she did,” Orla said.

“Invisibility magic is only used by thieves and tricksters.”

“Which one is the mantid?” Emet asked.

“Both,” Hallur replied.

Striker had already begun searching for any sign of a structure, returning no results. If this mantid were crafty, then…

“We have to turn here, to the right,” Orla said.

“Are you sure?” Hallur asked. “There’s nothing here.”

Indeed, there was nary a landmark. Only road.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t feel it,” Laila replied.

“It’s a magical marker, in the ground. Simple way to direct those who know about it.” Orla looked to the side of the road, off into the distance.

“Do you feel it, demon?” Hallur asked.

“I do not,” Emet replied. Though he wondered what that sensation might be like. A wavering across the body, perhaps? A ringing in the head?

“And we do, so now we take the lead,” Laila said.

Laila and Orla took point, side by side, leaving Hallur and Emet at an awkward coupling. The two sisters whispered to one another while taking the briefest of glances backward. Striker easily picked up the noises, but they were speaking in some unknown tongue. Emet realized then, that all the people he had met here simply spoke the shared human language he did. Odd. A magical property? Perhaps something more sinister?

The group navigated around several rocks before stopping in front of one in particular. Nothing seemed off about it, but Emet wasn’t about to assume anything with the volatile element that was magic.

“Under here,” Orla said. “Now, Laila has to--”

Emet grabbed at the thing and lifted up one end to reveal a staircase downward. Each step seemed strangely large, but worked well for his suit.

“I’m thinking we should keep the demon around,” Laila said.

“I would suggest that I approach first, however, I have to keep it lifted,” Emet said.

“And so polite, too!” Laila descended down.

“Right behind you, Orla,” Hallur said.

Orla nodded and headed down, with Hallur following. He did, of course, give Emet a cock-eyed look first. Emet headed in, growing curious with every step downward. Much like the town, this tunnel used torches for lighting, though far more sparse and dark. Striker enhanced the image, allowing for a far clearer picture.

“Low visibility may imply an ambush,” Striker said.

Possible, but with the way the others spoke of the magician, it seemed unlikely they would need to stoop to the level of an ambush. Intimidation was the more plausible of the two. Entering in the depths below certainly had a way of putting the more vulnerable on edge. Emet, however, was more bothered by the tight space of the entrance. He was designed for close quarters, not restricting quarters.

“Be on your best behavior,” Laila said. Her voice echoed down the passage, almost as if the tunnel itself was telling them the same.

The claustrophobic passageway slowly opened more and more, leading to a grand set of doors with intricate carved stone. Was the mantid that large? Orla glanced at Laila worriedly and gave her a nudge of the arm. Hallur lessened his grip on his sword. Wasn’t confident against the enemy, was he? Laila approached the entrance and drew a finger down where the two doors met, leaving a blue hue in her wake. The masonry groaned and pushed open, revealing a wider space.

The lair of the mantid was large and circular. A large glowing orb hung from the center of the ceiling, suspended in a net. Smaller orbs were peppered around the walls and ceiling, bathing the area in a similar orange glow to the torches outside. Tiling made up the floor, while the walls seemed to be some sort of clay smoothed to form a dome shape that curved into a ceiling. An array of tables with all sorts of oddities dotted the floor.

“Relsamba, we’ve come again!” Laila said.

There was a hissing, then, from behind the light above, came an insectoid creature. It was a stark white that glistened in the dirty orange of the room. Touches of pink accentuated where every limb joined together. A triangular head looked back with many eyes, white just like the rest of it. It rode in on an ornate seat designed to have serpent heads on the end of each arm. Gently, it settled in front of them.

“Laila, the elf, what brings you back to my wonderful abode, hm?” it said. The feminine touch to its cutting tone suggested it was indeed female.

Hallur straightened up.

“We’ve come to ask for some assistance,” Laila replied.

“As you can see, it’s serious,” Orla said.

“Assistance, yes. In truth, you mean, you need me to undo all of your petty troubles, hm?” Relsamba floated closer. “This must be the Hallur. Orla tells me much about you, even though she tries not to.”

Hallur relaxed upon hearing those words.

“And you, you must be the issue, yes? The large one. Electrical beast that you are,” Relsamba said.

“I am human,” Emet said. An odd creature. Relsamba seemed designed for war herself. The armored chitin, the bladed hands, the many eyes and protruding antennae. Yet her diction was elegant and a touch cocky. “And you are the mantid.”

“Clever boy. Clever indeed. What do you suggest as part of our trade to fix this one, Laila? I assume you want to send him back. Can’t have him mingling in our world, can we? Not proper. Or, you assume as much.”

“The citizens of our kingdom are in some uproar over our bringing him here,” Orla said. “We believe him to be a demon.”

“Oh? A demon. Did you ask him what he was? Clearly he’s a human.”

“How is he supposed be a human with that stature? He’s already performed feats of magic neither of us can detect.”

“His own flavor of magic. Let me demonstrate.”

Relsamba stood up, approaching Emet. A cold sensation trickled upon Emet’s neck. Fear? He remained still. The mantid placed the tip of her bladed appendage on his chest. She mouthed something, and soon, white tendrils spread out from where she touched.

“Warning, power fluctuations detected,” Striker said.

Emet’s vision was clouded with red alarms, noting every part of his suit was failing to receive power. His eyes flicked every which way. The subtle hum of his suit slowly came to a stop, along with a buzz of all of his senses turning off. Darkness. His breathing picked up. Limbs were inert. He was stuck. There was nothing he could do in his degrading coffin.

“Any moment now,” Relsamba said. Her voice was a distant droning.

“Striker?” Emet said. “Striker, please respond.”

Silence. Striker was nowhere to be found. He was alone.

It became harder to breathe as the loop of fresh air cut off. Precaution in the off chance that he was stuck in a dangerous environment. Emet took a few deep breaths and pushed backward. There were a series of clunks and whirs. A final push from Emet yanked him free. Fresh air rushed in as he stumbled back onto a cold tiled floor, now heaving and taking in as much air as he could.

“He is a human,” Orla said, a hand over her mouth.

“I’m slightly disappointed,” Laila said.

Hallur had no words, though he did furrow his brow in surprise.

Relsamba stepped around the suit and looked down at Emet. That chill returned to his senses full force. He glared back at her, scraping together what dignity he had left.

“What did you to my armor?” he asked, fists clenching.

“Oh, nothing, only putting the human on display. Fresh air does wonders for the body,” Relsamba said. “Were you truly a demon, I’m guessing your compatriots would have asked to put you to death.”

“Only if you were a demon, that is,” Orla said.

Hallur stuck out a hand toward Emet. He gladly took it up, steadying himself upright again. The knight’s hand was rough and callused, likely from years of fighting, but most importantly it felt closer to the senses than his suit. Hallur sized Emet up, then returned back to Relsamba.

The mantid stepped closer to Emet. She was a shred taller than him in this weaker form, and all the more imposing. She brushed aside a strand of blond hair with her knife-like appendages. It was difficult to note where exactly she was looking, or what she might’ve been thinking. Not a far cry off from the creatures he killed routinely, yet she maintained a human touch to her all the same with her bodyplan. Her armored hide was lithe, feminine. Perhaps intriguing, were he in a better situation. His heart started to thump faster, he could feel it pounding in his head.

“What is your name, human?” Relsamba asked.

“Emet,” he replied.

“I like it.” Every word she spoke was accompanied by a shifting of her powerful snapping jaws. “Well, Emet, would you like to return home?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good enough for me. Let me see what deal I can work out with your friends.”

“It was your item that brought him here in the first place. One you absolutely insisted would bring powerful artifacts from a higher plane,” Laila said. “It should be your problem to fix.”

“Is he not a powerful artifact? You simply don’t want him.”

“Not one we can use!”

“Of course you can. I’m certain he impressed you with the ferocity at which he slayed those goblins.”

“You’ve been watching us all this time?”

“Please, I am far too busy to indulge in the comedic life of you two. I can smell their blood on his suit.” Relsamba looked to Hallur, who raised to attention. “And that one, as well.”

“Never mind that,” Orla said. “We can’t keep him, we’ve already been instructed to send him back, lest we lose everything we’ve worked for.”

“Not much, hm?”

Orla huffed and crossed her arms.

“I tease, little elf, calm yourself.”

Emet found it hard to focus on the conversation at hand, instead looking to his vacant suit. His body felt burning hot, yet cold at the same time. Exposed was a more proper descriptor. He was exposed in dangerous territory, and nothing could save him now. And what of Striker? He must’ve been fine. He had to have been. Emet’s partner weathered far worse, hadn’t he?

“Come, follow me. We’ll think of something for this little quest of yours,” Relsamba said.

The mantis walked around the suit once more, allowing Emet to leap back inside and sealing him in hardened comfort.

“Striker? Respond, Striker.” Emet yanked on the arms. “Striker?”

“Striker online,” he replied.

Emet sighed. “Welcome back, Striker.”

“Hello, warrior. Performing diagnostics.”

“No need, Striker, the issue was external. The mantis.”

The creature was bathed in red as his visuals came back online.

“Cancel target acquisition, we can’t kill her yet if we hope to reestablish BaseNet connection.”

The red dropped.

“Care to follow, Emet?” Relsamba said, looking back.

Emet nodded and began moving again, indulging in every hefty step he could. Artificial air flowed through him, settling the unease that wracked his body. Everything was right again.

The group maneuvered around the many tables that littered the place. It slowly occurred to Emet these were essentially products on display that no doubt had dangerous properties to all of them. Everything ranging from organs, to rocks, to skeletons, to bubbling beakers. Relsamba likely had some sort of panacea for every known issue one could be plagued with, all that she required was some sort of barter.

Laila and Orla kept their focus relatively straight, while Hallur obviously seemed to show some distaste at all the objects presented. Relsamba would occasionally nudge one into a more proper position as she moved past, likely just to look nicer. She led them into a room at the far end of the dome. A much smaller abode, filled with crates and a more ornate table lit by a brighter, clearer light from above that looked to be the abdomen of a large insect.

Relsamba stood on the other side of the table, opposite to the group.

“Now, what is it that you have to offer for the large one’s return?” she asked.

“We have money, that’s all,” Orla said.

“Coin? Nothing more interesting on display for your powerful magician?”

“We buy everything from you. There is nothing you wouldn’t already have,” Laila said.

“Thank you so very much, loyal customer.” Relsamba mock bowed. “Perhaps something the human has?”

“Me?” Hallur asked. “I won’t be giving anything to you.”

“And I wouldn’t dare ask for whatever scraps you have. I am referring to Emet.”

Before Emet could speak, Striker chimed in, “You may not barter with issued equipment. Tantamount to betrayal of your species, warrior.”

“I wasn’t going to do that.” Emet shook his head. “I have nothing to give.”

“Truly? No bycatch from your dimensional net?” Relsamba asked.

“None.”

Relsamba clacked her large knives together and chittered something. From behind, a box shifted and out came floating a helmet and gently lay itself on the table. The enemy. It was battered and scorched, but no doubt it was the very same armor he had fought against not so long ago. Striker confirmed it was dead, not emitting any sort of signal or even a shred of energy.

“A fascinating thing, isn’t it? It’s crafted with such fine precision the likes of which I’ve never seen.”

“What is it?” Orla asked.

“A helmet,” Laila replied. “Looks like our golem’s helmet.”

“The enemy,” Emet said.

“Oh, well, then! Surely you wouldn’t mind trading the enemy’s goods?” Relsamba asked.

“I do not hold onto their equipment. It’s all mere mockery of our own in any case. Worthless.”

“You say worthless, but this is a world of creation as of yet untapped in Illusia.”

“You have your magic to do all that you require, do you not?”

The elves looked at the scrap, no doubt their imaginations running wild with what Relsamba had to say.

“What manner of enemy is this? Worse than you?” Hallur asked.

“They would have killed everyone in your civilization were they here,” Emet replied. “Fortunately, this one is dead.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain, dear Emet. I found no corpse near this curiosity,” Relsamba said. Her mouthpieces flexed and her head tilted up. Smiling? “I think this one is very much alive, and I want it.”

Emet frowned. “Never mind returning. It must be killed now. Tell me where you found it.”

“Another bargain! Excellent.”

“No bargaining. You will direct me to its whereabouts.”

“It can’t be all that scary without its armor, can it? You definitely aren’t,” Laila said.

“You are mistaken if you do not think it will attempt to learn this world and bend it to its will. You’ve already summoned me. It will learn to do the same. Accurately, precisely. A pristine world such as this? To think of all the untapped resources you have ignored due to your reliance on this mysterious magic. It will conquer that strange phenomenon, too, in time.”

Laila eased back up against Orla, the latter of which was already frowning.

“Then I’ll kill it before it manages such a thing. Do not worry,” Hallur said.

“Humans have a way with heroics and theater, wouldn’t you agree?” Relsamba said.

“Very much so,” Orla replied.

“You were stopped by some amount of magic, weren’t you?” Laila asked, a smile growing on her face. “We’ll simply do the same to all of them.”

“They number more than your entire country, likely,” Emet replied. “Should you even manage to stave them off, the casualties would be devastating.”

“Then we’ll go with your plan,” Orla said.

Relsamba picked up the helmet and held it in front of her head. “Here, I’ve thought of a bargain we’ll all enjoy. I’ll join you on your expedition and keep whatever scraps I find. We’ll send Emet home once he completes his holy mission.”

Judging on the expressions of his partners, none of them thought of that as an enjoyable trade. It was one Emet was wary about himself. Relsamba could kill him with little effort with her abilities. Sure, he could put up a fight outside of his suit, but magic eviscerated what little chances he had against that. How did Hallur survive in a world such as this? Were the humans here simply far more resistant against magical attacks? A byproduct of their life without electricity. The comfort of a militaristic suit had made Emet weak. These peoples were living in a society that could kill them at any moment.

“What do you intend to do with these pieces?” Emet asked.

“Learn, as I do with magic, I intend to strip it to its barest pieces and learn,” Relsamba replied, setting the helmet down.

“And turn a profit,” Laila said.

“What is work without some profit?”

Laila reached out to touch the helmet, only for Relsamba to place a scythe-like arm in her way.

“Now, are we in agreement? I’m certain every minute spent away from home is another minute that your kingdom seeks to tear down your home. Think of it as protection from the demon.”

Orla opened her mouth to say something, but quickly shut it. Her arms crossed.

“No objections? Wonderful. Wonderful indeed.” Relsamba touched the helmet, causing it to float away. A map quickly replaced it, along with a cup of a red fluid. The map was an ornate thing with large swooping letters and simplified versions of landmarks. “Look here, Emet. You started here, in Gallas.” She dipped her claw in the fluid and drew a circle around a little picture of a castle. “Wound your way through its nearby forest.” The trail of red continued. “Into the field of stones, where my lovely abode resides. Now, you must head north, past jagged hills, up the cracked mountain, and into the heart of a volcano.”

“Are you enjoying this?” Hallur asked.

“You humans get to be so theatrical, why can’t I? It will be a fun trek, surely.”

“Will we have the resources for such a journey, Striker?” Emet asked.

“Suit power should hold for several more weeks,” Striker replied.

“Perhaps if it doesn’t, we may ask the mantis for charge.”

“I would not recommend it.” The heads-up display flashed a red reticule around Relsamba. “It remains a target.”

A reasonable assumption. Striker may have also been bitter about being deprived of power, Emet thought. Relsamba may have been a powerful ally if he could remain on her good side, whatever that may be. At this point, it seemed as though everyone here were merely a puppet in a play she was indulging in.

Relsamba’s attire also betrayed her devious attitude, with a one-piece suit made out of a bright red, velvet fabric. A loincloth draped over her armored legs, while scarlet ribbons hung from the back of her head, almost mocking hair. The white of her chitin made the suit pop from her figure. Emet found him staring more than he intended to. Curiosity, of course. She was a strange beast. Violent, cunning, alien, and yet grabbing more human features every time Emet looked.

Relsamba turned her head to Emet. He could feel every eye of hers locked onto him, and his many artificial eyes did the same to her.

“Shall we?” she said. _

“I do not recommend this positioning, warrior,” Striker said.

“It is not of my own decision, Striker,” Emet replied.

Relsamba sat on Emet’s left shoulder, snuggled against the armored pauldron, with one arm draped across it. The others followed closely behind Emet, whispering among themselves. No doubt they were worried about the deadly duo that was demon and mantis. Emet only hoped he did not frighten any further humans with his presence. He must have seemed like some sort of marching beast, driven by an uncaring master. Not far from the truth, he had to admit.

“You have an excellent stride, Emet. Your training must have been impeccable,” Relsamba said. “I should have brought a more entertaining refreshment with the pack.”

Indeed, his other shoulder was burdened by a large pack filled with supploes. Other troops in humanity’s forces made use of them regularly, but Emet couldn’t help but feel as though it was ridiculous on his large, armored frame. Striker likely had the same reservations. Emet knew he had some sense of pride, even if he would never admit such a thing.

“Should we be aware of any combatants on the path?” Emet asked.

“I didn’t make note of them, did I?”

“Theatrics, as you said. You might be indulging in more of them.”

“I would never withhold information that would be deadly-- Well, I might, but you, Emet dear, are different.”

“How so?”

“You are polite. A tad handsome, too.”

Humor was another one of her callous features. Emet had never been called handsome. Or had he? Perhaps in one of the many dealings with the robotic wardens, they had given him a trite compliment like that.

No need to focus on that. Emet stared hard at the road ahead of them. The stark white stones of before slowly changed to more jagged shapes as they passed. The area felt as though it were being corrupted with every step. Normally a ridiculous thought to entertain. Now? It could very well be genuine. Some level of evil intermingling with magical forces.

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Pub: 22 Feb 2023 05:29 UTC
Views: 1258