HOUSE OMEGA PROLOGUE

Ω           Χ           Θ           Σ            Λ

I took a deep breath, leveled my sword and lunged, the eight-foot blade crushing my foe’s violet carapace and penetrating deep into his charger’s torso. Oil sprayed from severed hydraulic hoses and the generator screeched in protest as the charger staggered, its pilot overcome by the excruciating sting of empathic feedback.

With a grunt of effort, I tore my weapon free and brought my shield to bear—golden yellow and proudly bearing the Ε symbol of House Epsilon—just in time to deflect my opponent’s final, feeble attack. I knocked his battleaxe aside and swung my sword into his unprotected cockpit, shattering the glass canopy and eliciting a scream of pain as razor-edged shards rained down upon him. Before he could recover his wits, I braced Exemplar’s hooves and drove my shield into his violet charger, sending it stumbling back. It overbalanced, teetered for a moment—and crashed to the hard ground, sending tremors up through Exemplar’s legs and into my saddle. The dark smoke spewing from the enemy’s crumpled smokestacks thinned to a wisp, and with a final defiant cough, its generator fell silent. I turned away, not caring if the pilot lived or died; his charger had fallen, and would take no further part in the fighting.

My heart was pounding, and empathic energy coursed through my fingertips where they gripped the control handles. I swallowed, forcing my humors back into balance as I took stock of my surroundings. From the vantage point of Exemplar’s cockpit, sixteen feet above the ground, I cast my gaze over the battlefield—at least, the portion of it that I could see. The dirty smoke of charger exhaust enveloped the terrain like a toxic soup, limiting visibility to forty feet or so in every direction.

Telmin Ridge. Not my preferred location for a battle, but Marshal Gretta and her allies had given us no choice; House Rho’s aggression—and ruthless ambition—could no longer go unchallenged.

<Hooke!> came Marshal Julio’s voice, crackling and imperfect over the hailer link. <Where are you, man?>

 “I’m coming, Marshal!” I cried, willing empathic energy to Exemplar’s legs as I strode toward the top of the ridge. The going was slow, however, and my breath became increasingly ragged as the physical and empathic strains of battle started to take their toll. I glanced at my instrument panels, noting that the empathic energy dials had dipped to dangerously low levels, while the leg hydraulics were beginning to lose pressure. I frowned; Exemplar must have suffered more damage than I had realized.

The distant cacophony of combat pierced the smoke, and dozens of wrecked chargers littered the rocky ground before me. The colors of their shattered carapaces proclaimed their allegiance: violet for Rho, ash grey for Omega, ebony for Chi—and of course, golden yellow for my own House Epsilon. It saddened me to see so much wasteful destruction, friend or foe, and I sighed wearily.

“So few of us remain,” I muttered to myself, pulling my gaze from the ground and focusing ahead, trying to peer through the dirty haze for any sign of movement.

“Marshal, where are you?” I called—but then the smoke cleared, and I saw him. High up on the ridge, facing off against Marshal Gretta herself. His charger was more brown than yellow, smeared with dust and ash, while Gretta’s appeared little better. Large portions of her violet carapace were worn down to bare, gray ceramic, and her generator growled unhealthily as smoke belched from her rear-mounted smokestacks. I drew upon my charger’s energy reserves and quickened my pace up the slope, practically wading through the wreckage and loose rocks at my hooves.

I detected movement to my left; a violet House Rho charger, armed with a mace and a hydraulic gauntlet, appeared out of the smoke and strode to block my path. I recognized it as belonging to Constable Mina, Gretta’s ill-tempered bodyguard, and I growled in frustration as I turned to face her. I had no choice but to confront the more immediate threat, leaving Julio to face Gretta alone. It was only fitting, I supposed, that the High Marshals themselves would be the ones to decide the fate of this conflict.

Mina’s gauntlet clenched into a fist and swung toward me. I wove aside from the blow, but she followed up with her mace, driving the studded sphere into my pauldron. I grunted and staggered back, risking a glance toward the High Marshals dueling at the top of the ridge. Gretta commanded the high ground, but Julio was holding his own, deflecting her attacks with precise swings of his shield. But then Julio stumbled, his charger’s hoof slipping on a loose scrap of metallic debris. I inhaled sharply as Gretta’s lance shot forward… but at the last moment Julio parried the blow, saw his opening—and struck.