“Try not to die, Huntress,” she says as the Harvesters roar in over the dunes.
Imperious, Eris thinks - if ever there were a woman born to be a Queen, this is she. No wonder she is the source of so many legends - one glimpse of her bright armor, gleaming in the ruddy light of Martian noon, and Eris believes them all.
Beside glorious Wei Ning, the wall of shield-sisters holds firm, unconcerned with the ineffective Harvester-fire, hardly blinking as the troops drop.
There are more than Eris expected. More than any of them expected - far more. None seem concerned. Behind the line of Titans, countless Ghosts work through the wreckage of the Collapse to recover…something. Something they feel is important - important enough to make a stand.
She pulls the rifle from her back. It has been her crutch for the last month, the tool she uses to navigate the endless sight-lines of the wide open sands, and the legion that has hosted her these past few months has not stopped needling her over it.
A greenhorn’s weapon, they used to tell her. A coward’s weapon. The whispers faded when they heard her name, when they saw the overlapping tally marks etched the full length of the long, worn barrel - when they heard what she had done at the Gap. Now she recognizes the gentle ribbing for what it is; some sort of Titan bonding behavior.
And they call the Hunters strange.
“Shields!” Wei Ning yells, as barrages from the distant Colossi rain down upon the Wards that blossom at her call. Dull explosions, visible through purple voidlight, shatter atop their heads, but their leader stares through it all, toward the lines of Phalanxes that march over blood-red dunes.
“Hold, Sisters,” she says, arms clasped behind her back, “Until you can smell them.”
Two Titans to a Ward. One carrying the Blessing, one the Fist. It is a mark of respect that Eris shares the Ward of Wei Ning and her shield-sister; the Ward of the commander of the Martian Shield-Lines - not just in name, but in the heart of every Titan on the planet.
Either that, or it means Wei Ning thinks she cannot take care of herself.
Not a Queen, Eris thinks, an Empress.
Psions open fire from a distance, and Eris wonders again why they cannot understand that their bullets will never penetrate the Ward. Something very much like fear drives the legions here, some sick desperation that Eris can sense in every ambush, every assault. Not for the first time she wonders what forced the Cabal to Mars.
The Phalanxes grow larger, Ghosts still buzzing frantically through half-alive computing systems.
“Hold,” Wei Ning says again, this time a whisper that only Eris can hear, and she is certain the Titan is talking to herself. “Huntress, I’m afraid your long rifle may be useless when the fighting grows close. There’s still time to trade it out for a real weapon.”
Eris hears the laughter on her voice, as the huge woman pulls the sleek shotgun from the holster on her back, leans it back against her shoulder. The words on her right gauntlet glint purple-red; words that any Guardian stationed on Mars for more than a week can recite by heart.
“I’ll try to leave some for you,” Eris says, checking her magazine, and beside her Wei Ning’s shield-sister chuckles.
She has seen Wei Ning’s Lines fight before, has watched them fall upon unsuspecting legions like the eagles from the old books, and she has learned enough about their kind that she knows it must kill their leader to stand and wait and defend, rather than take the fight to the Cabal. And yet that is what they do, and the muffled explosions beyond the Wards do not shake the grim calm of the Titans.
It is Wei Ning who leads the charge at last, as she always does, tearing from the Ward like a bolt of lightning, her fist shattering the skull of a legionnaire, two quick coughs from her shotgun felling the closest of the Phalanxes.
Eris has danced this dance before, and by the time the Titan whose Ward she shares has reached the battle line, Eris has neatly sidestepped from the bubble, lifted her rifle, and removed the head of a Centurion.
One, she thinks, and then the fight is on.
Wei Ning, to Eris’ dismay, is right. Landing shots grows more and more difficult as the lines blur, as Titans and Phalanxes crash together and the lone Huntress is buffeted by the changing tides of battle. Still, she is quick and sharp enough to find a line, here and there, and when she does she does not miss.
The Cabal do not stop. At first, they fall like the cannon fodder they are, but slowly - so slowly Eris is not certain that the Titans see it, close as they are - the sheer numbers begin to overwhelm the lines of gleaming plate. They are being pushed back; herded, almost. But wherever the Cabal begin to gain the upper hand, Wei Ning crashes through them, dragging her Shield-Sisters behind her, leaving corpses in her wake.
Eris knows that it will not be enough.
She has abandoned her rifle, and now it is her cannon that does her bloody work. Before long her arms ache from its tireless kick, but still the Cabal come in an unending wave, their fear of death outweighed by their fear of whatever waits behind them. And die they do, in droves; they fall to Wei Ning’s fist, they fall to Eris’ cannon, they fall to callous lines of barking shotguns.
Then a Titan falls. A Defender, caught off guard when her Ward finally shatters. And then another. The purple blisters on the dust begin to drop, and no new Wards blossom to take their place. The Lines shift, to shield the fallen, to allow for Ghost revival. And still the Ghosts ask for time.
Across the dunes, Wei Ning, indomitable, drives her knee into the face of a Colossus, takes its head with her, but around her the Lines have begun to falter. Eris pulls her rifle from its sling again, yells into the screaming wind and sand, yells to call for a retreat; but this is not her Line, this is not her planet, and these are not Hunters.
It is not until Wei Ning, standing strong atop a dune, makes a motion with her hand that the Lines begin to fall back toward lonely Eris Morn, auto rifles keeping the ever-advancing wall of Cabal shields at bay as best they can, Eris’ own scope preying on those stupid enough to show their ugly faces.
The Ghosts are slow, so slow, but whatever they want from this dead place will have to be taken soon or be lost to the relentless march of the Cabal. Eris hopes that it is worth the ammunition, because their re-grouping has become a full-blown retreat, has become the desperate, crouching, backwards shuffle that Eris remembers from the Gap, and Traveler take her if she will watch another Guardian die.
The Light finds her knives, and the Trance consumes her. She runs through lines of retreating Titans, skips through rows of bulky armor now dulled by sand and munitions-fire, and she carves a hungry path through the advancing Cabal towards Wei Ning, towards the woman who will - who must - pull them from this disaster.
She reaches the vanguard at last, crackling Light dripping from her armor, and with a final spinning lunge she breaks through to Wei Ning and her shield-sister, her commander’s shotgun still couched in tireless arms, hands still clenched into unbreakable fists.
“Wei Ning! We must leave!” she yells, but Wei Ning does not turn to acknowledge her.
“Now!” she continues, “Before the Ghosts are taken!”
“Go!” Wei Ning screams, fury in her voice, and she thrusts her shield-sister towards the last defensible position in front of the Ghosts, to where they will make their final stand. And then she turns the full weight of her gaze upon Eris.
“Get behind me,” she growls, and Eris learns what it is like to fight back-to-back with her Empress of Fist and Thunder.
Together they hold the line, buying time for the scattered lines of Titans to retreat. Eris’ rifle may be slow but she is faster than any Titan, and with Wei Ning beside her there is nothing she cannot kill. They kill and kill and kill, with fist and knife and rifle, until Wei Ning grabs Eris and forces her to run, the massive Titan shielding her with nothing but her own bulk.
Eris sprints after the commander, breathing hard, diving in and out of the limited cover, and she is certain that the last sound she hears will be the hiss of Cabal artillery.
Wei Ning does not see the motion, far to their right, that pulls Eris to a stop. She skates ahead, and before long Eris is alone, sheltering behind the ruins of an ancient something. Eris has always seen more than most, and what she sees now makes her blood run cold. In the hollow of a dune, a Titan - her own Titan, the same Defender whose ward she shares - is pinned between two advancing lines of Phalanxes. As she watches, one of them raises a shield to block a shotgun’s shell, and with the same motion it smashes the Titan to the ground.
Eris runs. She runs over the sand that does its best to trip her, runs through the hail of bullets and rocket-fire, runs toward the tiny purple shape in the distance, not noticing when her shields begin to chatter static.
She is not fast enough. The Phalanx lifts its shield again, slamming the edge into the chest-plate of the fallen Titan; once, twice, three times, and as Eris leaps from the edge of the dune she reaches forward through that endless distance and she pulls - and then she is there, and her long rifle does a shotgun’s work, hitting the Phalanx center-mass before her knife finds the beast’s throat, purple ichor blooming in the sky, and then she is in the dirt, leaning her full weight against the immovable mass of full Titan-plate, struggling even to shift it, as her shields fail and a bullet strikes her arm.
She screams, drops her rifle. Another hits her leg, and she falls to the ground. Around her, the ring of Phalanxes closes. She stares down the barrels of a dozen slug throwers, stares at them and snarls, but before she can lift her cannon something howls out of the sky and the ground shatters in blue arc-light, hurling Cabal soldiers away as though they are children’s toys. Then Wei Ning is beside her, auto rifle laughing at the Darkness, and before long there are no enemies left. With one hand she lifts her fallen squad-mate and hefts her over the shoulders of another Titan who skates away.
She pulls Eris to her feet as well, and her Ghost finally recalibrates and catches up with the damage she’s taken. The pain lingers, and Wei Ning lets Eris lean on a shoulder as they retreat.
“Ghosts have what they came for!” she yells, and Eris nods, trying to catch her breath.
“What do they want here?” She yells back, as distant Harvesters disgorge yet more troops onto sand burned to glass. She reaches for her long rifle out of habit.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. They can have the place, and may they choke on the dust. Let’s go.”
“Wait. My gun.”
“My shield-sisters have already retreated. We’re not staying. You can get a new one.”
“I’m not leaving my gun!” Eris says, pulling away from Wei Ning.
“Hunters,” the Titan mutters, but she accompanies Eris back to the crater she made herself, and stands guard as Eris retrieves her worn rifle.
The Titans are waiting for them when they return at last, over dunes and away from the ruins the Cabal seem to want so badly, inside a claustrophobic bunker open to the Martian air. Wei Ning passes her helm to a Titan, then kneels in front of her battered comrade. Eris slumps to the ground, pulls her own helmet from her head, and leans against the comfortable weight of her rifle.
“Good eyes, Huntress,” Wei Ning says, not looking as she lightly slaps the Titan’s cheeks. “I should have noticed.”
“How is she?”
“She’ll live. Thanks to you. I suppose that’s what they call - ” her mouth curls into a grin - “‘Fine shootin’.”
Eris smiles a tired half-smile. Her whole body aches. She does not understand how this human wrecking ball appears none the worse for wear, but Wei Ning stands and offers her a hand. Eris takes it, and lets the woman pull her to her feet for the second time.
“You’re no Titan,” says Wei Ning, “But I name you shield-sister nonetheless. You can fight at my back any day, Eris Morn.”
Aside from a handful of appreciative grunts, no one seems to notice. The Titans are already intent on their next objective, but it is enough for Eris that a few nod in her direction. She cannot help the grin that spreads across her face then, as she returns her long rifle to its holster and trails her Empress back out into the alien light.
Once, she had thought that Twilight Gap would break them. Perhaps not. Perhaps it has made them stronger.
Perhaps this is what Pack feels like.