“This isn’t B’lur.” An angry looking commander says as the messenger and N’yur approach.

“B’lur is dead. Alloys took his head clean off. I’m his replacement.” N’yur informs.

“You got the wrong Praetor, boy.” The same Praetor booms with a darkening stare.

“Zip it W’sur, the briefings about to start.” Another commander barks. W’sur gives this Praetor a snarling glare but says nothing as Centralist H’ror steps out in front of them.

N’yur knows H’ror as the former head of the military. But there isn’t a military anymore. Nor is there anyone left from the government. H’ror is all that remains. He is the entire hierarchy and his long fading chin spines and shorter darker upper lip spines ruffle casually as he clears his throat.

N’yur knows of the man, but has never met him and has no opinion on him. Yet, he is impressed by the fact that he is the sole remaining member of the Praetor leadership.

“Commanders, you are gathered for a mission. It is the single most important quest that any Praetor will have ever undertaken, and you will be going to a place no other of our species has ever gone. Our enemies think themselves infallible, but we will show them the truth of their arrogance and bring them low. This will be the first day of many victories to come. What say you?” H’ror delivers his words with authority and conviction. He believes what he is saying even if what he is saying gives no data about how exactly they will achieve this lofty goal.

H’ror removes his helmet which was balanced casually atop his head. The under jaw strap having never been fastened, he reveals a full head of long black spines which snake down the backside of his otherwise leathery brownish neck. H’ror is one of the darker toned Praetor, like R’liss, whose physical stature is less muscular. Though to initiate him in open combat would still be foolish for what H’ror lacks in mass he makes up for in ferocity. He’s proved as such a thousand times before, but wishes he still had old allies at his sides. He turns left and right expecting to find them standing shoulder to shoulder with him, but they aren’t. He is alone in his address of the three commanders. There should have been four, but J’pol stationed on the West of the Chalice had been claimed minutes ago by a volley of energy bolts to his gut before the killing blow was delivered to his throat. It was a great loss; H’ror had hoped to appoint J’pol as the lead in this mission. Now he is at a loss. He knows two of the remaining faces, W’sur, a bullish Praetor, and K’fir, an intellectual. Neither would be his choice, which is why he is looking to the last of the commanders. He doesn’t know this Praetor by look or name. It saddens him to be able to say that. At one time he knew each and every man and woman under his command.

“The eggheads tell me that there is an opening that will grant you three fine men entry to their ship. The window is brief, maybe a few micro cycles, and we don’t know what you’ll face inside. But this is our only chance. This is the weak link in their otherwise impenetrable wall of death.” H’ror says before sighing. He doesn’t like how thin the data he is giving the three commanders is, but it is all he has to give. Even from the confines of the core, the bunker in which what remains of the Praetor are stationed ready for the final stage of the battle, he can hear the sound of weapons fire. He knows their position will be overrun soon. He just hopes that enough of the Praetor will survive to rebuild. This is unlike the war he fought in when Praetor fought Praetor. This is something else, something more. He doesn’t care for the reasons for the Alloys appearance, cause for war, or anything else. H’ror simply wants to see his planet and people at peace again. He wishes he could be out there on the frontlines, but those that administer him refuse. Once the commanders are on their way he’ll join what remains of his fighting people to face their enemies. At that point the necessity of his survival will be moot, he knows it and so will they.

“You will each be armed with Trianne explosives large enough to put a sizable hole in whatever their ship is constructed from. This funnel spire will take you where you need to go. Good luck and may your hunt be fruitful.” H’ror concludes using the ancient words of the Praetor to wish them well. It stems from a time when Praetor had needed to hunt with weapons forged from wood and stone. Those days were long gone, but H’ror hopes the Praetor will not be.

The three commanders know the brief is over. N’yur notes that it is far lighter on data than he would like, but from the look in the eyes of Centralist H’ror he guesses that the military genius feels much the same. W’sur and the other commander approach the bench with neatly lined weapons, they analyse each and every one in turn. They start from opposite ends of the bench, at the centre of which are the Trianne explosives. N’yur realises he will have to pick weapons of his own now that he is devoid of his PPR-42B. He doesn’t miss the weapon, but he had become acquainted with it.

H’ror approaches N’yur much to the younger Praetor’s surprise. He wonders if H’ror is going to query where B’lur is. N’yur hadn’t known his own commanders name, but he has taken his place and in his place appointed R’liss as his replacement. Replacement for what? You weren’t a commander! A voice in his head declares as H’ror stares at him. It dawns on N’yur that the military man has spoken to him and that he has been so lost in thought that he hasn’t heard the older man’s words.

“I take it command was thrust unto you?” H’ror repeats before offering a forced half smile. His black acute triangular shaped eyes are low. He knew B’lur a little, but not much. He’d only himself become a commander in the last few days replacing an old friend of H’ror’s called D’atu. H’ror still regrets having not done more to shield his friend from the frontline, but he knows D’atu would have had it no other way. Not that such a thing makes him feel any less guilty. Especially, considering as he is stood in the core of the Chalice. The bunker is a lavish vast cuboid box buried several hundred feet under the surface of Vello. Directly above it are the remains of the Praetorian Chalice building. H’ror had never liked the look of the building, but upon seeing its upper fifth melted he had felt a void in his gut that has only gotten bigger. Each humiliating loss had only widened the void further and further wide; no matter the intricate polysynth furniture will its steel shell fixings and VI assistants.

This is not how a military man used to battle should live, H’ror had often told himself. This is how politicians and their ilk whittled away their days without a care in all of Vello for who and how their people were dying. The Long War, as it was named upon its ultimate conclusion, had been waged by politicians and their ideals. Those same political animals had then hidden within their bunkers and fortresses while the normal Praetor killed and died among one another for a cause that had long since lost all meaning. H’ror doesn’t recall what had sparked the initial conflict, but he knows that in its latter decades it had been maintained by the greed of the elite. Had he possessed the powers he would have brought it to an end, but he’d been a Lowist then, only able to give orders to the grunts. That was when there had been clear ranks and hierarchical structure, all of which is now lost. H’ror thinks about the lives taken during The Long War and this one. He wonders what this war will be called when it is over. Will it have a name? He doesn’t know.

“It was.” N’yur answers before bowing his head. It’s a sign of respect for the dead man whose position he now fills.

N’yur’s response pulls H’ror back from his own internal meanderings. He is grateful for it as he focuses on the here and now again. The task at hand. The mission. The final quest. The last hope for the Praetor. No matter its moniker its purpose is still the same.

“I appoint you, commander….” H’ror begins before realising that he doesn’t know this Praetor’s name.

“…the mission lead.” H’ror concludes. The Praetor before him having never given his name. H’ror doesn’t know if the prompt was not clear or whether the male simply saw no reason to announce himself. Either way, the mantle is given.

“Centralist, this Praetor is undeserving of the mantle.” W’sur roars with irritation. W’sur is sure he should be the one to take charge of this most imperative of quests. Not some new addition to their ranks of commander.

“I am the authority here and my order stands above all else. Now hurry, time is short.” H’ror says quickly chastising and then urging his commanders on their way.

N’yur quickly takes his Trianne explosives, as well as a weapon. He doesn’t recognise the model, but it takes the same calibre rounds as his PPR-42B would. Seeing as N’yur still has the magazines on his person he sees no reason not to claim this as his principle firearm. He checks the magazine and, unsurprisingly, finds it full before replacing it and then checking the sights of the weapon. It’s a little uncomfortable to wield for his liking, but it’ll suffice.

As N’yur steps into the funnel spire he hears H’ror mutter something. N’yur can’t make out the elder Praetor’s words as the orange specked black canvas of the circular shaped funnel spire wraps itself around N’yur. He has never before been in a funnel spire, but he’s heard of the technology. It had been deemed unfit for transportation purposes until the Alloys arrived, at which point it became unusable. It was like the funnel spire operated on an identical wavelength to that of the blue columns of light that the Praetor’s enemies use to beam themselves down to the surface of Vello.

H’ror, having wished his commanders well and seen them depart, turns just in time for the heavy armoured doors of the core to implode. Shrapnel rains down in response to the detonation as furniture is turned into shredded shards because of the percussive wave that originated from where the heavy twin steel shell doors had been.

H’ror pulls his handgun, a HHSA-1, from his hip. The calibre of this weapon is far smaller than that of the now standard HHSA-4 variant, but the barrel is twice the length and the magazine holds twenty six rounds and fires in two round bursts. H’ror knows that it lacks the stopping power. But nothing the Praetor wield stop Alloys, he thinks, while mechs pour into the open space of the chamber.

Red energy bolts soon begin to burst forth from the ruins of the doorway cutting down some of the Praetor assigned for protection of this very space of the core bunker.

H’ror leaps the bench, awkwardly, upon which his commanders’ gear had been laid before flipping it onto its longest edge. It will serve as his cover. He knows it won’t stop even a single bolt of the Alloys weapons, but it’s better than nothing.

Other Praetor in the space do much the same as they duck behind wide columns carved from emerald stone that extend up to the ceiling a metre above their heads, or crouch behind the remnants of the lavish furniture which is little more than splinters now. But the cover serves little purpose as the Alloys themselves explode into the room. H’ror has never seen the lumbering enemies move as quickly as they are now and it catches him off guard. In fact, it catches all the Praetor in the room, forty seven of them, off guard.

In the first few moments nearly half the Praetor have their lives extinguished before they can so much as fire. The remaining Praetor manage to fire off their weapons a handful of times before their positions are incinerated by the Alloys weapons fire.

H’ror notes that the Alloys refuse to take cover as the rounds from the inferior ballistic weapons ricochet off the hard metallic surface of their enemies’ skins. H’ror growls as he rises up from behind cover. He refuses to do anything but face these invaders on even ground. If they seek no cover then nor shall he. He knows it’s a death sentence but he has survived long enough. Now is his time to die and he will die on his terms, in a manner that he sees as befitting of his personality.

It isn’t long before an energy bolt lances into his gut, knocking him off his feet and to the cold polished multi-coloured stone floor of the open space he is in.

The polished floor had once been pristine, but now it is scorched, stained and ruined. While Praetor in this room of the bunker fight and die those in the next room, the last room, prepare for the inevitable battle that will soon be upon them.

H’ror stares up at the murals on the ceiling that depict great and fantastical battles between the old nations of the Praetor. Those had been the ones that had started The Long War, but those same nations and borders had ceased to exist upon its conclusion. H’ror wonders if the same will happen here as he studies the winged effigies and armoured monsters atop which ride Praetor proud and ready for battle. The warriors are adorned in vibrant armour with primitive weapons in their hands, while small war beasts race toward one another to clash and die.

N’yur opens his eyes. He’d screwed them shut for the journey through the funnel spire. His stomach is still spiralling end over end wildly and he feels the need to vomit. He refuses too, but it does nothing to quell the need he feels. He was the last to venture through the funnel spire, through which no noise journeys. It had been eerie to hear nothing, but now that he can hear again the sense seems to have intensified.

He can hear a constant low hum as well as feel pressure acting upon his body. How can that be? N’yur asks himself. He knows he is on a ship in the deep heavens, but only planets produce gravity. He knows this as truth. He’d been taught as much as a young Praetor in school. So why is it he can feel pressure akin to that of Vello on his mass? In addition to the firm plating he can sense beneath his booted feet.

He realises to learn the full reality he will have to open his eyes. Part of him is sure that he will be faced with horrors. What horrors he doesn’t know, but horrors nonetheless.

Curiously he has heard nothing from W’sur or the other commander. N’yur doesn’t know his name, not that it matters. Maybe it does, or maybe it simply should. So many customs and pleasantries had been abandoned in the wake of the Alloys arrival and it had only taken such a short time for the Praetor to arrive at such a point, as well.

Finally N’yur dares to open his eyes. He finds himself alone in a long brightly lit narrow space, which is little bigger than the Alloys themselves. N’yur looks behind him just in time to see the funnel spire disappear. He wonders if such a thing is supposed to happen. H’ror had said the window had been brief but at no point did he say the aperture of the funnel spire would close. More concerning however, is the absence of the other two commanders.

N’yur has no reason for their absence. He can take guesses as to the reason, but assumptions are of little use to him he knows. Maybe they have simply gone on ahead, the voice in his head offers suddenly. He passes no comment either way as he brandishes his hefty new weapon, which he checks the magazine of again. Still fully loaded he takes note before replacing it and then raising it ready to fire. He doesn’t expect Alloys or mechs but he can’t be sure.

He scans ahead of him and then behind. Both seem like they have an equal chance of bringing him both success and failure, but otherwise there is nothing to distinguish one from the other.

Ahead it is, N’yur settles after a few short moments. He takes a single step at first, as though he expected such a move might raise some form of alert. It does not and with that ascertained N’yur continues to move forward, weapon levelled.

N’yur is thankful that the space is so brightly lit, for it means there are no shadows within the length of this otherwise unremarkable silver coloured metal tube for Alloys to dwell. Though, he realises that he is passing door after uniformed door. There are symbols and characters scrawled upon the surfaces, but he can’t read them. The letters still look alien to him, which they indeed are.

In another world maybe the Praetor could have joined with the Alloys. He doubts it. The Alloys are cold and violent and seemingly use their technology for nothing but victory and death. N’yur notes that in some ways that makes them similar to the Praetor, perhaps even less advanced, if the technological differences were removed that is. But alas N’yur cannot truly say, as the Praetor know little about the Alloys in truth, apart from the fact that they clearly want Vello for themselves.

N’yur hates to think what the Alloys would use their world for as he continues to creep down the length of the corridor. As he breathes N’yur notes that the air here is richer and that he can taste less of the carbon dioxide than he would on Vello. Does that mean the Alloys breathe a similar atmosphere to their own? N’yur doesn’t know, but part of him would like to find out. Unless they know I and the other commanders are aboard and this is all part of some elaborate plot. N’yur chuckles to himself as the notion lingers in his mind. What a pointless way to remove your adversary, N’yur thinks as he turns right. The corridor having a single right angled bend. But as soon as he does he regrets it as ahead of him is the body of W’sur. His blue blood spilt on the solid grey deck beneath N’yur’s feet. The gash at his throat is deep and runs almost from ear hole to ear hole. N’yur gags at the smell. He soon raises his arm to cover his flat nose, at the edges of which sit four nostrils, two on either side. The act is enough to stem the flow of the smell that threatens to make him heave as he shakes his head. N’yur might not have liked or really known the Praetor, but he’d never wish such a fate upon one of his own.

N’yur steps over the body while making sure to stay alert and vigilant. One more commander missing and N’yur honestly fears the worst. Plus it means that Alloys are still on this ship. The revelation isn’t a surprise, though he wonders what the size of this ship is as a set of double doors opens. N’yur leaps backward in shock expecting to find himself face to face with Alloys or mechs. The reality is he finds himself faced with neither. Instead, he finds the other missing commander, the one he doesn’t know the name of, staring back at him.

“You’re alive.” The commander announces with more than a little shock in his tone.

“What happened?” N’yur queries while ignoring the outburst from the other Praetor who has a thick bristle of black spines above his top lip. His almost white tongue flicks at the spines nervously, while his black eyes dart left and right. The space behind the Praetor is small and from the looks of things uninteresting.

“A being like I have never seen before killed W’sur.” The commander, K’fir, explains.

“An Alloy.” N’yur assures.

“No. This creature had no metal skin. It was flesh, with small coloured eyes set as a pair at the centre of its head.” K’fir informs.

“Where is W’sur’s Trianne?” N’yur asks having noted that the explosives were missing when he discovered the body.

“I have it here, but…” K’fir starts but never finishes as the space around them flickers. N’yur catches it too. His eyes go probing at their surroundings moments before they disappear and the two Praetor find they are now stood in a wide open space.

N’yur doesn’t understand. Moments ago they had been in a corridor, but the space they are now in is four times the height of the one they had been in previously. The walls are still silvery and metallic, as is the floor, but the grate beneath their feet is gone. In its place is a single unbroken expanse of metal and they are surrounded by mechs, but no Alloys. N’yur contemplates whether to attempt an attack, but as he whips his head round concludes that he is so vastly outnumbered that it will only end in both the Praetor’s deaths.

“Welcome.” A loud booming voice announces as one of the Alloys steps forward.

N’yur is shocked that the Alloy can speak the tongue of his people. It’s an emotion that is written on his face for the Alloys, eighteen of them, to see in the moments after they step forward between the mechs gathered around him and K’fir, who drops to his knees quivering.

“Get up.” N’yur spits through gritted teeth before he takes note that his compatriots cowering is, in fact a ruse to distract the Alloys while he arms the Trianne explosives for detonation.

N’yur resists the urge to nod as he turns his black eyes back toward the Alloys.

“You speak our tongue?” N’yur queries.

“No. We simply have the capacity to translate our own speech.” The Alloy announces.

“But still you hide your faces, like cowards.” N’yur snarls as K’fir blinks to indicate that the Trianne are ready for detonation. N’yur has no idea what damage the explosives will do to the ship from the wide cavernous space they are stood in, but it will at the very least vaporise this gathering of enemies.

However, N’yur is shocked when the Alloys remove their heads, which fold away to reveal soft looking faces. K’fir is right, the Alloys have small coloured eyes at the centre of their faces. Their noses are protruding but elegant while their lips are more vibrant and shaped than their own. But it is the coverings atop their heads that confuse N’yur the most. They are not formed from spines but instead thin strands overlapping to create a mass of flimsy looking weaves fashioned into an array of styles, lengths and coloured in widely varying shades, much like their circular eyes. Only the very centre of which is a black disc, while the main outer edge beyond the coloured circle is a skin crawling white.

“What are you?” N’yur growls sickened to finally see the faces of his enemies.

“Human.” A towering male with tanned skin, ice blue eyes and thick closely cropped blonde hair replies in English before the word is converted into the overcomplicated tongue of the Praetor and then delivered.

The male human feels nothing for the aliens stood, well one stood while the other pretends to cower, before him and his detachment. His pristine straight white teeth show as he speaks. The sight of the humans white teeth disgusts N’yur as he prepares to accept his fate and blinks slowly the confirmation for K’fir to detonate to Trianne.

Before K’fir can do a thing a huge blade is pulled across his throat by a scar faced human. K’fir manages only a gurgle before his eyes glaze over and his body topples to the floor dead. Blue blood squirts from the wound.

The human male, the one who had conversed with N’yur smiles a wide toothy grin that N’yur snarls in response to, while Kaitlin cleans the blade of her sword which is coated in thin blue blood. She passes no comment as she stares at the last Praetor. News from the surface of the planet these aliens call, Vello, is that the last of the species are dead now. They put up little resistance, as expected.

Blake, the man that is smiling widely, who is leading this excursion into uncharted space knows the Verity Corporation will be pleased that this newly discovered garden world will be ready for colonisation ahead of schedule.

“You are honourless.” N’yur roars before turning to fire on Blake, the human he had been conversing with. However, before he manages a second step N’yur is blasted in the gut by Blake’s sidearm. The single bolt of red energy rips a hole in the Praetor’s gut. But not before he manages to discharge his weapon. Blake’s helmet materialises from thin air to cover his face a split second before the rounds impact.

N’yur knows he has failed as he lies on his back, his four digited hands holding his shredded gut while he stares up at the blank grey ceiling of metal above him. Harsh white lights shine down as Blake’s helmet collapses back into the neck guard of his fifth generation battle suit. He isn’t smiling now, but he still feels nothing for the dying Praetor. They were a primitive species, whose existence will never see the light of day. Their name, their history, their bloodlines will be forgotten, while their world will join a myriad of others to become part of the ever expanding human territory as it stretches out across the galaxy, uncontested.

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