The light was so very bright.
It was cold, so very cold.
A hand went up to shield my eyes.
It was my own hand.
A voice spoke in my ear, it's words harsh and metallic.
"Hello," it said quickly. "I'm your Ghost. I've been searching a long time for you, Guardian."
Guardian? What's a guardian? What is that thing?
A strange device, like a fist-sized star floated before me, it's blue eye bright and searching. A voice replied to the Ghost. It took me a moment to realize it came from my (very dry) throat.
"W-who am I?"
"You have been dead a long time," it said. It sounded hurried, flustered. "Somethings will not make sense yet. We need to move away from here."
I stood slowly, like a child learning to walk for the first time. The Ghost flitted around me, like a worried mother bird around her chick.
"That's it," it said, the calm veneer cracking beneath the strain of some danger unknown to me. "Come on now, we need to hurry."
The basics of movement came back to me quickly, and I took a deep breath of the icy Russian wind. It stretched my tight lungs, lungs that were that floating thing to be believed, have not been used for a very long time. All around me lay a wasteland of rusted vehicles and snow-blasted tundra. Occasionally, a sun-bleached skeleton peered out from beneath the shadows of vehicle wreckage. I looked down at my hands and flexed my fingers. Not but a moment before, I had been one of those empty skulls.
An eerie howl echoed across the tundra, accompanied by a cacophony of shrieks.
A new emotion seized me, squeezing my lungs until I gasped for breath. My newly formed heart hammered as though it would leap from my chest. The blood sang in my ears, pounding out a word that was echoed by my Ghost.
A crackling bolt of blue energy zipped past me, burning a hole through the door of the vehicle beside me. In the distance, I could see a group of ungainly figures hurtling toward me, leaping across the roofs of the sea of vehicles toward me. One of them paused long enough to bring a long rifle to his shoulder and fire another bolt of arc energy at me.
"Run!" my Ghost yelled, slamming into me, knocking me aside and saving my life from the energy bolt. "It's too open out here! Run for the wall!"
Ahead of me loomed a massive structure of rust and old metal. It groaned with the constant press of the wind, but it still stood, as it had for ages. I ran, my booted feet kicking up dirt and snow behind me. Another bolt of energy zipped past me, scorching a line in the dirt. The shrieks were closer now, almost at my heels. I saw an open door in the wall, an access ramp of some kind. Frantic, I scrambled up the concrete steps and into the dark hallway.
The silence was deafening. Without the rush of the wind, the air felt close and stale. Crimson light streamed in through cracks and struggled past old, clouded window panes, giving the interior a hellish glow. My lungs burned with need for more air, but I pressed forward. Above me, I could hear the scuttle of clawed feet, the hiss of breathing.
"They're all around us," Ghost said. "We need to find you a weapon."
The passageway ended in a black doorway. Whatever lay beyond was a void to me, total darkness. I froze.
"Hold on a second," my Ghost said, materializing before me and floating into the darkness. White light, pure and strong, shone from its eye, making clear the path before me. Even as I stepped out onto the lit portion of the catwalk, it groaned under my weight. Through the grate beneath me was blackness.
"These old military systems," my Ghost was saying. "Stubborn as the rest."
Some old generator whirred to life with a dull roar and a dozen lights flared to life, revealing the enormous scope of the wall's interior.
It also revealed an army.
They crawled along the rafters, stood on perches on the far walls. This was their kingdom, and I was their enemy.
"The Fallen!" Ghost cried. He darted to an old crate and shone his light on something half-buried in the rubble. "Take this, quickly!"
One of the Fallen climbed up onto the catwalk where I stood, it's four glowing eyes shining brightly in the dim light. It hiss and gurgled something like a curse and brandished a knife that sparked with energy. I rushed to my Ghost, diving and sliding through the rubble and snatching up the battered old rifle. The Fallen leapt at me, howling and swinging the blade.
Instinctively, I squeezed the trigger.
The old weapon came back from the dead with a bellow, spew bullets and old grease into the thin Fallen. That old Khostov bucked like a raging bull, and the initial chatter almost jerked it from my hands. Before I realized it I had spent the whole clip in the unfortunate Dreg. I fumbled with the reload, grabbing one of the clips that had lain next to the gun, but two other Dregs were rushing toward me.
"Your knife!" my Ghost shouted.
I snatched the blade off my belt and slammed it into one Dreg's face, the creature's mask venting ether with an explosive hiss. The second Dreg stabbed its blades into my ribs, but they glanced harmlessly off my shields. A flick of my wrist sent the second Dreg the way of the first.
"Hurry! We need to get out of here!"
I scrambled to my feet, clawing my way up past the rubble and sprinting after my Ghost. The ungodly shrieks and howls of the Fallen surrounded me, echoing in the darkness, adding wings to my feet.
I stumbled into a room littered with Fallen. With the aid of the flickering pale lights, I could see they were just as surprised as I was. My first volley took off a Vandal's head. Bolts of arc energy stung my shields, sending me sliding for cover. A dull hum and a buzz caught my ear, and I saw a faint shimmer flank me on the left.
A Fallen Vandal suddenly materialized, decloaking mid strike, howling and swinging two vicious humming swords. The first blade drained my shields, and the second went through my shoulder. The shock of the arc charged blade shooting electricity into my nervous system sent me to my knees.
The Vandal drew back for the killing blow.
"Hey, ugly! Over here!"
My Ghost strobed a dazzling light in the Vandal's face, startling it and giving me enough time to stab my knife into its neck. The creature staggered backward and I finished it with a burst from the Khostov.
More bolts of blue energy arced around my cover, and I managed to prop myself up, my left arm still twitching from the arc blade through my shoulder.
"Let me get that," my Ghost said, hover close beside me.
The sword vanished, only to reappear a few feet away, clattering harmlessly to the ground. My shields replenished quickly once the weapon was clear. My lungs ached and my shoulder felt as though a hot poker had been shoved through it. Luckily the energy blade had cauterized the wound. My throat was rough and dry. The Fallen all around me screamed for my blood.
"You have to fight," my Ghost said earnestly. "The City needs you."
I had no idea what the City was, and at that point, I didn't care. I just wanted to live. I cocked the rifle.
That meant the Fallen had to die.
I burst out of my cover like a cornered animal, fire blazing from the barrel like a torch. One down. A Dreg reeled backwards, ether venting from the four holes in its chest. A Vandal's head exploded in a puff of smoke and ether. My shields were red-lining, the arc bolts searing my armor and skin.
I wanted to live!
Suddenly I was alone among a pile of scattered corpses.
The air was dank and hazy with expired ether, and in the silence I could hear water dripping. I dropped the empty clip from the old gun, letting it splash into a murky puddle at my feet. The last of the ammo I had managed to scrounge went in with the last clip.
"Uh-oh," Ghost whispered. "Something's coming."
I turned, facing the dark hole in the opposite wall, an ancient drain pipe of some kind. From within the darkness, six red eyes glared back at me.
Out crawled the biggest Fallen I had seen yet. He towered over me, his helmet and tattered armor far more ornate than any of the others. Two of his four arms carried a spiky rifle with flames spurting from the barrels.
"It's a Fallen Archon!" Ghost cried. "Take cover!"
The Archon creature bellowed in the Fallen tongue, probably a curse on my mother's mother. I managed to get off a quick burst before ducking behind a doorway. The flaming bolts from the Archon's weapon peppered the far wall, melting the metal and filling the air with the acrid stench. As much as I dared, I leaned out and stole a few potshots, but I was getting nowhere.
"What is this guy?" I asked.
"An Archon of the House of Devils, one of the most powerful Fallen in the Cosmodrome."
"Great," I muttered, firing off a few more rounds and ducking back as the fire fell. "Got any ideas?"
"I've been able to manufacture a grenade," Ghost said simply.
It was heavier than it looked, but it fit nicely in the palm of my hand. The Archon's fire had slowed and he was cussing out my grandmother again. I leaned out and hurled the grenade at the Fallen's feet.
The Archon howled as the incendiary grenade showered him with flames, wreathing his four arms in bright fire. I ducked back behind cover and managed a grin at my ghost.
"Well, that works."
Suddenly the Archon was there, grabbing my arm and jerking me out of hiding, hoisting me into the air like a child's toy. My Ghost tried to distract him, but he swatted the little robot aside with ease. The Archon roared in my face, his body still smoldering and covered in burns. I reacted instantly, and plunged my knife into one of his red eyes. He howled and slung me across the room. I slammed into the far wall with enough force to strip my shields and shatter what was left of my injured arm. I couldn't catch a breath even though my lungs screamed for air. I watched him pull the knife out of his eye through a haze of red. He leveled the shotgun at me and I felt my life ending.
And then a violet wall of light went up between me and death.
A huge man loomed over me, his arms stretched out as though he were the only thing keeping the wall from fading. He glanced down at me, his face hidden behind a battered, plumed helmet. I felt a cool, refreshing surge of energy that could have only come from being within this lighted sanctuary.
"Looks like we found ourselves a kinderguardian."
A second figure stepped into the bubble, his helmet in the form of a ram's skull. His voice was light and carefree, as though they were just about to have a picnic in the park, not as though there was a raging Fallen Archon outside hurling fire and curses on our safe zone.
"Don't sweat it, kid," the Ram said cheerfully. He hefted a rifle mounted with a bird's skull. My eyes seemed drawn to those empty sockets and the black smoke pouring out them. Something about it turned my stomach. "We'll take it from here."
Without a further word, the two rushed into the battle. Seeing he was outnumbered, the Archon howled for reinforcements, drawing six Vandals from the holes in the wall. The Vandals hissed and rushed to encircle the two strangers, trying to drive them toward the giant Archon.
But that was where their plan failed.
Two Vandals rushed the burly armored man. He stepped in and grabbed a Vandal by the collar and slammed his head into the other, shattering the Fallen's skull. The Vandal vanished in a purple afterimage of Void light, light that now encased the man's body like armor. The other Vandals rained arc bolts on him, but he shrugged them off as nothing. A burst from his rifle dropped one Vandal where he stood. A third lunged at him, swinging a pair of swords, but the mad holstered his rifle and whipped out a shotgun, slamming the Vandal back as though hit by a truck.
The other, with the Ram helm, fared just as well. All three of his Vandals went down without him ever reloading. He jumped into the air, far higher than I thought possible, and a ball of Void light gathered in his palm, swirling and pulsing. With a cackle, he unleashed the vortex of light on the Archon. The orb exploded on impact, launching the huge Fallen back like a rag doll. He slammed into a concrete wall, and it shattered behind him.
Still the Archon got up.
The beast shook the bits of dust and concrete from his head and growled a warning. He leaned on his gun like a crutch, ether hissing from his wounds, but his eyes blazed with pure hatred.
The shield covering me vanished, but I no longer needed it.
Watching these two fight triggered something inside me. I felt a warmth rush over me, filling my fractured body with light. A weapon formed in my hand, a gun of golden-hued fire. It weighed nothing, but I felt like I would burst with the sheer power. Pulling myself up onto one elbow, I fired.
The Archon lurched backwards beneath each hit, the final round from my golden gun hit him right between the eyes. The Archon vaporized in a howling cloud of ether.
The big guy gave me a respectful nod.
The Ram neared, boots crunching over the rubble. "That's high praise coming from him."
"You just killed an Archon," my Ghost said, returning to my side.
"Come on, kid," the Ram said, taking one arm and helping me up. I forced down a hiss, pushing down the pain in my other arm. "I'm Prax. The stoic one is Heracles-44. What's your name?"
It was only then that I noticed that both of them had a Ghost, like mine, hovering over their shoulder.
My name? My mind rushed back to everything I remembered, but the bright light of Ghost was the earlist thing I could recall. He said I had been dead. What was my name before? Did I ever have a name?
"I-I don't know," I replied shakily.
"Well, since you pretty much took down Goliath over there on your own, we'll call you David. So, we'll start again. I'm Prax, and he's Heracles-44. What's your name?"
"I-I guess I'm David."
Prax laughed. "Well met, David. How about we get you cleaned up?"