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Forest of the Dead

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Tona Baudin awoke with a jerk. She was high up in a tree, nestled in between two branches, and tied to a third by a tough rope. She was dressed in as rough-spun tunic, leather pants, and high boots with pointed toes. There was a recurve bow and a quiver of arrows hanging from a branch. There was no Claremont dorm in sight, no buildings or other people at all in fact, because




she had never been at Claremont in the first place. A world that had wounded, and later destroyed, Omega? And they had wanted her to come and help them? It was a laughable idea, though it had been a good fantasy while it lasted. The Day of Wrath should have clued her in; the sensible side of her had been trying to tell the rest of her that she didn't fit in that world, but like a fool she had resisted. So her dream turned against her and became horrible.

Tona grabbed her bow and quiver and slipped down the tree, crouching in the bracken at the base of it and peering around intently. She was back where she belonged, but where were all the people?

Edited by Raveled
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The forest was quiet and dim, daylight filtered through the canopy many, many feet above Tona's head. This was the world she was used to, twilight and the smell of green, growing things all around her. The tree cover and the strange properties of her homeworld's plant life would shield her from any overflights, and she would pit herself against any foe on foot. Still, the lack of any living thing in sight was setting her on edge.

Some instinct told her to go west, and so she did. The ground started to separate, the south sloping away from the north, and by inclination Tona stayed to higher ground. Before long she began hearing the tell-tale hiss of steam and latter of iron that preceded the Legions of Steel & Steam. She drew and nocked an arrow and crept forward, moving slowly and carefully.

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The ground fell farther away and Tona found herself creeping along the top of a granite outcropping. The trees grew thin, and though she could still hear the Legion's clanking she couldn't see anything, so Tona ended up bellying along the ground up to the cliff-face. Below her was a defile, a narrow cut in the rock. Things that had once been human but were now infested and adulterated with clockwork marched single-file through the pass; some were carrying brass rifles, others had swords and clubs in their hands and many-barreled weapons set in their chest or perched on their shoulder, and one grotesque specimen was a torso sitting on a spider-like walking frame bristling with pointed and serrated edges.

Among the group, shackled and bedraggled, were humans. A few had poorly-bandaged wounds, while others walked with a limp or with the dazed, stumbling gait of someone whose brain was not entirely focused on what the body was doing. They were connected in a line, and they all walked with their heads hanging down. It was obvious they were due for the meat factories in a few days, and what would happen then didn't bear thinking about. There was no one else here to save them, just Tona... but that would be suicide, wouldn't it?

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Tona stood, nocked, and drew almost without thinking. Apparently the dreams of Claremont had affected her more than she had thought, because this wasn't the rational thing to do. Her first arrow spanged off the leg of the spider-soldier, but her second cut the feed line to a quarter of the legs. It turned to bring its bladed weaponry to bear on her, and the third and final shaft went through its eye.

The brass and steel monstrosity fell into the ravine with a clatter, and the rest of the legion turned to check where the attacks were coming from. Tona loosed another few shots, taking out another drone and jamming up the arm cannon that yet another was pointing her direction. And then they all opened fire on her position at once.

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Tone ducked back behind the defilde of the granite outcropping as the fire drove her back behind cover. She turned and moved into the forest, planning to disappear under cover of the trees and come back at the convoy from a different direction.

That plan was scuttled, however, when she caught sight of a dozen drones marching through the brush at her. They started firing pneumatic spears at her, long spars of unworked metal propelled by powerful steam explosions. Jay ducked under the first two, and nearly ducked under the third but it left a long scratch down her back. More critically it hit her quiver, ripping the leather open and sending her arrows everywhere!

The archer felt the first stirrings of panic. She grabbed a few arrows, but pretty soon more metal spears were landing around her and she started running. She ran back to the granite outcropping and, lacking any better option, jumped across the gap.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Tona ran, jumped into the stream of fire coming up from before, and flew. She soared over the gap, bullets and steam-launched javelins missing her by a hair, and for a moment she thought she might make it through unscathed. That her crazy plan would work and she could be able to run off into the forest, and lose her pursuers.


Then a bullet went through the meat of her left leg, and a spike no longer than a finger went through her hand on the same side. She managed to land on the ground on her good leg, but instinct made her take a step with the wounded one and it crumpled in a flare of pain. Her leg twisted and went limp under her, and she tumbled down the side of the escarpment, pain shooting up her side whenever wounded leg or hand hit the ground. By the time she rolled to a stop she was pale and sweating from the experience, but she knew that she didn't have time to lay there and bleed. The Steel Legion hunted with ruthless efficiency, and even now she could hear the front runners crashing through the brush, looking for her.


She struggled to her feet. Miraculously, she'd managed to hold onto her bow and a scant few arrows, though what she was going to do with them with only one good hand was an open question. For now she would simply settle for putting some space between her and her pursuers, and limped deeper into the forest.

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  • 1 month later...

The drones marched into the forest, keeping the sort of straight line that only machines could, at least on rough terrain. Faces that were half covered by metal plates scanned the underbrush, searching for the echos of heat or blood that would indicate a wounded human had come through the area. The search party moved forward relentlessly, motivated by desires built into their brains and the core of whatever had replaced their souls. The track was unmistakably and their victory assured -- until they came to a river.

Not a big one, just a few feet across and barely up to the knees of the smallest drone, but it hid the heat and washed away the blood. The drones ground through their available options, and decided to split up. One crossed, half went upstream, and the remainder traveled downriver. The downriver group soon discovered that the waterway rapidly ramified, becoming any number of meandering streams. The drones split again and again, until they were each following their own trickle of water.

One finally discovered a disturbance in the undergrowth on the riverbank, and warm blood on a tree trunk; good indicators that their wounded target had come this way. It sent off a radio transmission to its fellows and marched off into the forest again. It didn't get far, however, before a thin bow came whipping around at knee-height, knocking the machine over onto its back. While it floundered, Tona burst out of the bushes and straddled it, holding an arrow up high in her good hand.

She aimed for the brute's organic eyes, took a deep breath -- and paused. The face before her was slack and the eyes dull, the skin dirty and pale, but there was a certain resemblance in the jawline, a familiar scar on one cheek, and ears the stood out proud from the cranium. The arrow in Tona's hand wavered as she whispered. "Mon pere?"

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  • 2 weeks later...

Tona's hesitation gave the drone the opening it needed to strike. It hit her square in the jaw, launching the girl off itself and sending her rolling. She came up with a nasty cut over her eye, and blinked away blood as the drone lurched to its feet and closed on her. The slim body, the knotted muscles, the ears sticking out of that sharp face... It was unmistakably her father, though adulterated by the Steam General's mechanistic touch.

She had always known that a fate like this awaited most Resistance fighters, but somehow she had never quite thought that her father of all people would fall victim to it! She backed away, unable and unwilling to fight the thing that had been her parent, almost physically sick just watching it. "You... how. How! You were always so careful, how did they get you?"

"Because you were gone." The drone didn't speak, so much as its jaw flopped open and a grating, electronic voice issued forth from its gullet. "I had nothing to care for. Nothing to return to. I fought until I was overcome... and became this."

Tona continued to back away from her drone-father, but she soon came up against a tree trunk and was trapped. The drone reached out and grabbed her by the neck, lifting her and squeezing. "I... this can't be happening. This can't be you!" she protested, scrabbling at the iron-clad fingers with her good hand.

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The drone squeezed mercilessly, and tossed Tona aside. "It can," the monster with her father's face hissed. "It happened because you weren't good enough. You're a failure, little girl!"

Tona struggled to her feet, swaying slightly. "Maybe. But I know one thing -- drones don't taunt. They came after you, and they kill you, but they don't talk to you and toy with you. Whatever you are you aren't a drone!" The monster paused, and silence filled the forest for a moment. "And maybe that means... this isn't the Terminus."

She closed her eyes and pictured herself in a Claremont jacket, compound bow in hand and mask in place. She opened them and looked down at herself, seeing the familiar blue-and-gold of her jacket and the matte black carbon-carbon weave of her bow. She was still wearing leather breeches, though, and she was only holding a few wooden arrows, but she could feel the tension in the glade changing. She didn't feel desperate and hunted anymore. She was about ready to turn the tables.

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Blue Jay reacted first. She brought her bow up and unloaded on the monstrosity across from her, the air suddenly full of flying shafts of wood. They hit the drone squarely, but most simply shattered or bounced off. It looked up at her, organic eye full of anger. "You stupid girl," it spat. "You can't even imagine the situation you're in!"

It crossed the distance between them in a single leap, a metal fist bearing down on Tona's skull. With her leg good as new, however, it was simplicity itself for her to spring out of the way. "Maybe not," she taunted back, "but at least I can hit you. Let's see you do the same to me!"

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  • 3 weeks later...

Tona bounded away, the metal monster chasing her and trying to land a solid blow. The archer was too swift, however, and avoided the heavy blows deftly. She spun suddenly and unleashed one, two, three arrows directly into the monster's chest; as close as they were, it was impossible to miss, and they buried themselves deeply. Whatever the thing with her father's face was, apparently it felt pain because it stopped the chase and fell to its knees, then to its hands.

Tona was still cautious, but she saw a chance to finish off the monster quickly. She approached it from the side, got a good wind up, and delivered a pitch-perfect kiai as she kicked at its neck. The creature's head dropped off, and for a moment Tona thought she had won that quickly. Except that there was still something growing from the stump of the neck, it just wasn't a head.

Or, it was kind of a head. It wasn't anything firm or substantial. It looked more like the shadow of a head, like if someone's face was barely seen in the deep darkness, and you took away the face but left the impressions and shadows. The shadow-head turned to regard Tona and she backed up slowly, nocking another arrow. Suddenly she felt dizzy, and weak at the knees. Darkness gathered at the edge of her vision, rushed in and --

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