After the Parade
“Hush,” he says.
Above them, Cabal ships drag thick black smoke across the flickering twilight, and flames rise from the Tower. Legionnaires scour the streets, seeking out the cries of the wounded and afraid.
“Hush,” he says again, as the child starts to sniffle, and he pulls her into the shadows cast by an apartment block as a patrol makes its laborious way past. He was made to protect, made to serve, but he feels clumsy now; the hand on her shoulder is almost larger than her head and she has no armor to protect her bruised and burned skin from his rough gauntlets. When he tries to wipe the tears from her face he worries that he will be the one to break her.
He followed her screams, just as the Cabal did. He had no rifle to kill the Legionnaires that would have silenced her; dispatched the first one with his boot-knife but was not quick enough to catch the second unaware. It is dead, but his chest-plate is cracked and burned and the thing that eats the Traveler has also eaten his Light.
She is wearing yellow. A summer dress, for a celebration. When he offered her his gore-spattered hand she took it at once, and did not look back at the splayed and broken limbs visible beneath the rubble around her as though she knew there was no one left to wait for. He brushed dust and chips of concrete from the tight black curls on her head, and when she tried to smile her gap-toothed smile at him despite it all he knew that he would die the second death to save her.
They pick their way through dust-covered streets and alleys, one grimy hand holding his armored fingers, the other wrapped around the silent shell of his Ghost. He told her to keep it safe, and she clutches it to her chest with an intensity that would do any Titan proud.
To those behind the Wall, love and service. To those outside it, fury and fire. He is young: the Order’s maxim has never meant much to him, but here at the end of an Age he feels each word burning in his chest and he wraps his Mark around her shoulders like a cloak, like a little Hunter, to keep the nearness of the night from her as best he can.
When they hear the distant bursts of gunfire he waits until the chatter fades, then leads them in a different direction even though it gives him hope to know the City is still fighting. Perhaps if he ran to the violence he would find weapons or more Guardians, but he will not risk it. And so hours pass as they slink across the city, and as slowly as his wounds force him to move she still takes ten strides for every one of his. She has only one sandal, silver leather wrapped around a tiny leg, but he thinks that a single piece of armor is better than no armor at all.
He finds a battered pulse rifle in a street that leads to a square, tries not to wonder where its owner went. The magazine is full, but it is all he has and there is no Ghost at his shoulder to synthesize ammo. He bends to pick it up, never letting go of the hand that holds his own, just as a troop of Legionnaires turn the corner in front of them.
He pulls the child behind a crumbled wall. Waits one heartbeat, two; no slug throwers roar in response. Even so, they are between him and the direction he has lead, and he doubts he has the strength to cross the City again.
Love and service to those within. Fire and fury to those without.
The Legionnaires do not notice, but neither do they move on. More join them, and they begin to spiral out in all directions, continuing their search. It will not be long before they find him and the child. A narrow street, once hung with banners but now collapsing from the rooftops down, will lead her west, to the walls, away from Cabal patrols - as long as there is a distraction.
He lifts her chin as gently as he can.
“You have to run,” he whispers. He is bad at whispering. “I’ll keep you safe.”
“That way,” he says when she stares at him in silence, pointing with his outsized hand down the shadowed street.
He gives her a delicate push, points again. She blinks, once, then toddles into the dark, Ghost held close as though it will protect her. Perhaps, if there is a way to undo this disaster, it someday will.
He props the rifle atop the ledge, lifts his visor and sights with naked eye. There are so many, he thinks, and then bites back a laugh - there are only eight.
Love within. Fury without.
The rifle barks. One Legionnaire dies and the others spin in confusion, firing in the direction of his cover. He ignores them, squeezes the trigger again. And again. And again.
Love within. Fury without. Love within. Fury without. Love within. Fury without. Love within -
Something tugs his arm. He looks down into the eyes of the little girl, and pure terror finds him.
“I said run,” he growls, but she does not, her face set in a scowl. He shakes his arm and she does not let go.
A micro-rocket bursts against the barricade and he ducks, throws his body over her, sprays the rest of his bullets in response. The child buries her head in his cracked armor, her frail body shaking.
Never has he been so afraid to die.
He feels a fool. He tosses the rifle down, wraps one arm around the child and pulls her close. With the other he slams his visor shut. He takes a deep breath, and then another, and when at last there is a break in the constant fire he lurches to his feet, lifts the child to his chest, and runs.
It is hard, so hard, to move full Titan-plate without his Light to drive it. His body aches. Something inside is probably broken, and he does not know how long it takes a body to heal without a Ghost.
A slug hits him in the back and he stumbles but his armor holds, and he sprints down the street where he tried to send the child, the sound of jump-packs following behind. He ducks his head and cups himself around his charge, makes himself as big as he can, plows across the debris-choked pavement. The girl begins to cry again, though to his ears it is not the sound of fear but of fury, and before long he is roaring with it, and the two of them roar together down the long, narrow street as explosions scatter bits of ruins that once were homes. He does not know where he is going, knows only that he must go somewhere, that he will not stop until the child is safe or his legs no longer work; that when he has nothing left he will throw her from him and tear the Cabal apart with fists alone, Light or no.
He has stopped counting the impacts. Every step is a knife in his chest. The Legionnaires must be close but he does not turn, lest the shield that is his body fail. He can feel himself slowing, a sensation that fills him both with wonder and despair, but he cannot force himself to let her go despite his promise. Something cracks against the back of his leg, and he is too tired and too hurt to correct. He lands heavily on one shoulder, slides ten grinding yards, arms still wrapped around the child. At the very least, they will have to rip him apart to get to her. Maybe, if he dies quickly, they will not notice her at all.
Gunfire interrupts his thoughts, along with the sound of footsteps and the roar of Cabal. Hands grab him, drag him out of the street, but still he does not uncurl. He sees Hunter cloaks, Warlock robes, a Titan mark.
“Hush,” he tells the child, head still tucked close, while they cower in a doorway and around them Guardians fight.
“Hush,” he tells her, over their surprised cries of pain.
“Hush,” he tells her, over and over, until at last all is silent and he dares to lift his head and stand.
He helps the child to her feet, and though he leans against the doorway it is her tiny hand in his that keeps him upright. He looks around at their saviors: most are near as bruised as he is. They nod their heads, pat him on the back, and he opens his mouth to ask for forgiveness, for leading the Legionnaires here, but a Hunter shakes her head as though she knows what he will say.
Two Guardians lie dead. Truly dead. One Hunter, one Titan wearing the Mark of the Gatewatch. He waits the half-second for their Ghosts to revive them, feels sick when they do not rise. He swears that he will learn their names and add them to the Order of the Pilgrim Guard.
Someone makes cooing sounds and tries to take the child, tries to give her water, but she refuses to let go of his hand, refuses to surrender his Ghost. For a moment they stand there, all seven of them in a circle around her, and it is as though a different light has risen to bond them all.
They need ships. Weapons. Food, maybe. The child, at least, must eat. The Hunter offers water again, and he wonders how many new scraps of fabric she has taken for her cloak. A different Titan, this one wearing the Mark of the Six Fronts, hands him the dead Hunter’s rifle - then looks down at the child, still clinging to his hand, and passes him a sidearm instead.
They turn their backs to the Tower, and continue their slow march to the western wall. Perhaps they will find supplies along the way. If not, so be it - they are still Guardians, and they will save what light they can.
Love within. Fury without.
The Cabal have no word for ‘retreat.’ Soon, they will learn that the Guardians have none for ‘mercy.’