Cerberus-11 rarely stopped to visit the Last City anymore. It was a ragged haven for many, but he had never found his place amongst them. It never wore on his resolve to fight for the citizens, however. But all the same, he felt more comfortable in the tower. It was where guardians belonged, after all. Even there, he was an isolative creature, one exo of many, one guardian, out of many more. But on this day, something called him to the City. He knew better than to ignore that small voice. “What do we need here?” his ghost asked. “I’m not sure yet.” Cerberus replied while removing his helmet. His green-lit eyes glowed, and he rubbed the jagged hole in his head as he always did when removing his helm. It was almost a ritual now, a reminder that he was a dead thing living again.
The pair was positioned on a shallow hill up against the inner wall of the City. He always entered without greeting and retreated to somewhere vacant. He was a private machine. He was young for a guardian, though no guardian was truly young. And any recently reanimated warrior quickly aged and grew hard in the perpetual warring that engulfed the universe. Cerberus and his ghost had just returned from a rather uneventful patrol of the Cosmodrome. A few Fallen shot in the face, a few resources collected for augmenting the treasures in his armory when they returned to the Tower. He sat silently, staring out into the ramshackle alley ways and rundown buildings on this side of the City. He wondered deeply within, what had drawn here this day.
A short time later a frail, blue creature peeped out from behind a shroud hanging in a doorway. It was a young Awoken girl, no older than 12 or 13. She was thin, and her yellow eyes were frightened looking. Cerberus peered intently at her, waiting to see her next move. She darted out and towards a table across the alley. She sifted quickly through the abandoned packs and containers. She was looking for food. “Organics… ugh,” he muttered.
“Hmm?” His ghost sparked up. “Poor thing… don’t we have some glimmer we can give her?” ghost asked.
“We need it for weapons. There’s a war on, remember?”
“We don’t need all of it. And we can always get more. She doesn’t have a ghost to help her out. You do. You’re not just a soldier, Cerberus, you’re a protector of these people, too.”
“For a machine, you’re a real bleeding heart… Fine.” Cerberus sighed loudly and stood up.
He walked slowly towards the scraggly girl. He slowly stretched out his gloved hand to transfer some glimmer into her position. She froze with her back to the strange exo. Before he could speak, she spun around and flung a metal trash can lid at his face. It slammed hard into his forehead and he grunted. No real pain. She bolted. Cerberus watched his trusty ghost whizz after her. “C’mon…” he moaned. And gave chase to them both.
They ran in and out of the tiny walkways between tents, campsites, and broken down, repurposed old buildings. Curious denizens watched the chase. Some grew alarmed at the site of a guardian running past them. The girl ran back towards the edge of town and into small cement shack. She was cornered. Cerberus stalked inside. She was huddled on the floor staring up at his ghost as it uttered assurances to her. “He’s a guardian. One of the good guys. Mostly. It’s okay. We want to help.”
“You want to help. I want to go home.” Cerberus knelt down in front of the frightened Awoken. He opened his empty hands before her as a gesture of harmlessness. In tense situations his hands burned ever so slightly with solar flame. “It’s okay. My chirpy little bird tells the truth.”
“Y-you’re a guardian?”
“Yeah.” Exos weren’t exactly rare, but they were much more common in the Tower. And those guardians that did come to the city, were much less sneaky and suspicious than Cerberus. They were usually on missions of morale boosting to inspire themselves and the citizenry, or boisterously touring the Last City to remind themselves of why they fought. “Here. Have some glimmer, kid. Trade it for food. Okay?”
“O-okay. Okay.” She took the shimmering matter into her hands and watched it dance with light. “Do you have a knife?”
“What? No. I don’t use a knife, that’s a hunter’s tool. I’m no hunter. What do you want with a weapon?”
“To protect myself… the Eliksni. They come sometimes. They kill us. You guardians aren’t always here.”
Cerberus looked sadly at the ground. He knew it was true. The last City was well protected but it wasn’t impenetrable. The citizenry was looked after, but they still got raided or picked off from time to time. The damn Traveler was no help anymore, at least not much help. There were guards on the walls, watchers. But rarely were guardians volunteering to pull city-watch duty. He, and the guardians like him had sacrificed so much to protect these people, spent weeks at war here in on Earth or flung out into the galaxy. But still, they couldn’t protect all of them all the time. He looked at the girl. The little voice inside him began to put the pieces together. She was alone… she was dirty, unprotected, scavenging, underfed. Of course her family had been killed by marauding Fallen some time ago. She had good reason to be wary. He felt his pride sting. He hated to be reminded of the futility of their. He was no pacifist. He needed the war. But he wanted it to be working. Millennia ago the ancestors of the Earth-bound had built his kind to protect them, and he loathed failing at his task. If his weary and relentless killing had failed this one child, how many more had he failed? He shoveled more glimmer onto the pile in her shaking hands.
“This is all I’m going to give you. You need food and clothes and shelter. Not weapons. You’re no guardian.”
“I could be!”
“Not without a ghost… You weren’t chosen. You aren’t even dead, kid.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t fight! We can stand up for ourselves. We have to! You can’t save us all…”
“We can try harder. Now, go away.” He pointed his gently burning hand towards the doorway. The girl choked back a sob and ran outside. Cerberus dropped to his knees and shook gently with anger.
The guardian and his ghost remained still inside the dark shack for a long while. The old exo felt things he didn’t like. He didn’t dislike the feeling of killing when he knew his cause was just. He didn’t hate keeping the peace and protecting the innocent. He almost enjoyed the sensation of fighting and dying and being reconstituted to kill still more. But he hated seeing the evidence that he wasn’t warring enough, wasn’t killing enough, wasn’t successful at his primary mission. Exos were built and designed and made to war as saviors. From the gruesome mystery of the Deep Stone Crypt to this very age, his kind were made for this one purpose. And every failure bit into him.
“You can’t save them all, not alone.” His ghost finally said.
“Then why the hell did you bring me back to life?”
“To try anyway.”
Cerberus began to laugh. His laugh was cold, metallic, hollow. But it was genuine. He slid his helmet back on and prepared for transmat back to his tiny room in the tower.
Over the next few months Cerberus-11 returned to the Last City more often than he ever had before. He checked up the Awoken girl, giving her glimmer and talking with her. He felt like he was making amends through her, for every life this endless war had failed to save. He let her see his wounds when he got injured patrolling, to show her that fighting was no game. He talked to her about the workings of the Tower, and the history of their universe. She told him her name was Allara. She told him of her fights within the walls. Brawls over food and shelter with other orphans. How she and her friends had once found an injured Dreg trying to sneak inside the walls. She said she had punched the creature as hard as she could. The blow had killed him. She said she wanted to do that more often. She didn’t want a knife anymore.
Now that she was no longer starving, she had begun to fill out, her arms were getting muscular. Her eyes looked less afraid and more angry, more determined. Every time Cerberus visited Allara she asked him for a spare weapon. He said there was no such thing as a “spare” weapon, he needed every one. Somehow an odd friendship had formed between the unlikely pair. Her own father had died, her new surrogate father was practically incapable of dying. Cerberus’ ghost was unbelievably pleased with himself. He quietly delighted in the bond. He knew it was good for his guardian, and he was overjoyed with being able to help the little city girl. Though she stopped being little rather quickly. The visits continued as the girl grew into a woman. She began building her own blunt weapons out of scrap and journeying outside the city walls looking for a fight. The ghost worried for her, her recklessness made Cerberus angry. He couldn’t protect out there. She shouldn’t be out there. Out there belonged to the guardians and their ghosts, to the ruthless Fallen armies and the death that watched over them all. It was no place for a girl. Cerberus suggested that he could find an armorer in the Tower that she could work for, a seamstress or some other vendor. She could work for the fight without fighting. He even offered to ask his friend Banshee-44 if perhaps he could put the girl to work cleaning up in his shop. She wanted no part of it. That had been hard for Cerberus to ask Banshee for help like that. He respected the legendary warrior immensely, and his work had saved Cerberus’s life more than once. To ask him for a favor took great humility, which Cerberus did not easily possess. His wounded pride cause him to stay away from the Last City for some weeks.
On a particularly grey day at the Cosmodrome, Cerberus noticed an especially heavy Fallen presence. His ghost reported twice as many Fallen ketches in the area as they had encountered in a very long time. “Something is wrong, Cerberus. I feel it.”
“Me too.” He headed his sparrow towards the City. There they were. Four ketches unloading Dregs and Vandals. No servitors, yet. It was just beginning. As far as he could tell there were no other guardians in the area yet.
“Go. Find the kid.”
“But who will look out for you?”
“Doesn’t matter. Besides, I brought my rocket launcher.”
“Tell them the Truth, then.” And with that his ghost left his side, flying up and over the walls of the City to find Allara.
Cerberus leapt off his sparrow and drew his hand cannon. He bore down on the first Ether-sucking mask he saw and fired. The gun barked, the helmet shattered and hissed, the alien skull beneath whooshed and popped. If they hadn’t noticed him before they knew he was here now. The brawny Fallen screamed in their harsh tongue. The ones closets to him yelled and threw up their arms, waving their blades and rifles. He shrugged back at them, his metal body beginning to dance with fiery solar light. Battle was met. He ran swiftly in his ragged robes, but there was little cover. Every shock rifle bolt chased after him so diligently, it was all he could do to float out of their line, or slide underneath a passing shot. He took his time, making sure to acquire a headshot before firing. He couldn’t waste bullets with this old hand cannon he had. He hadn’t been expecting a big fight, his best scout rifle was safe and sound up in the Tower. He leapt high up in the air, exposing himself to fire, but controlling his fall well enough to take down two Vandals before he landed in the center of one Fallen drop zone. Now he could really fight back, up this close. They converged on him and his gauntlets lit up and the two Vandals nearest him burst him into flames and coiled backwards, disintegrating. Sometimes he thought his favorite part of being a warlock was killing someone with the palm of his hand without ever touching them. He saw four Dregs rushing from his left. With one smooth toss a fusion grenade left his hand and gently curved toward the chest of the lead runner. He shrieked and dropped, cowering. As the other three caught up, the grenade unleashed a massive solar explosion, and killed them all. No, Cerberus thought to himself, sticking a burning grenade to someone’s chest was his favorite part.
He spun around to his right and missed a clean headshot. He hit the Vandal twice in the chest, before a shock blade bit into his arm. He fired again and killed the thing. With his shields recharging he reloaded his weapon. A surprise volley of wire rifle fire pounded his left side. This was not going well. He turned to fire on the snipers, knowing full well they would be out of range. He noticed a fresh wave of a dozen Fallen heading his way from the farthest Ketch. He turned back toward the great wall to his left, almost hoping he would see his ghost bounding over the top. But he knew no help was coming. The Fallen were upon the gates of the Last City and raging against it hard. More Fallen were nearly upon him and firing heavily. He expended one magazine, then another. His shields were blinking low. That’s when he saw the Captain hurtling towards him. Where did he come from? The first blade bit into his chest, the second into his collar. And his light went out.
Inside the City walls, the ghost was relieved to see a handful of guardians hurriedly responding to the threat of Fallen at the gates. A pair of exo guardians, Rose 19-01, a titan, and a hunter named Cyril 43-18 were among them. The ghost was knew of them, Cerberus was always more familiar with exos then any other species. The two were huddling civilians away from the gates, and coaching the preparations of the City’s few defenses. A few other guardians could be seen loading their weapons, checking their gear, and shouting out an occasional order to a few of the citizens looking to join the fight. The ghost searched for Allara first among these battle-hungry citizens, but she was not there. He darted down alleys, and inside darkened doorways. No sign of her. He never liked being away from his guardian this long, it was never a good idea. It wasn’t safe for either of them. Their lives had been irrevocably linked since the moment they had found each other. They were bound, it was a bond of life. And death. On rare occasions a ghost or guardian had survived the loss of the other, but they were never the same afterwards, never whole again. They became shadows of the light, instead of wielders of it.
The ghost began to search more frantically. Then he heard a large explosion, and distinct Eliksni screams from back towards the City’s larger gates. Able to process so very much at once, the ghost still gave little thought as to how wild, and poorly thought out this attack was. There had not been a successful raid on the Last City in a hundreds of years. These Fallen must be Ether-starved, desperate for matter to feed their servitors in exchange for their life-blood.
The four or five guardians, including the pair of familiar exos were preparing for a breach, and the dozen civilians were doing the same. Many more citizens were rushing away from the City walls to seek shelter should their protectors falter. It was in this chaos he finally spotted her. Emerging from a dilapidated concrete building, her light blue skin, burning yellow eyes, and shiny purple hair were unmistakable. He called out to her. She looked up, surprised. As her eyes found him, the ghost felt a kind of terrible pain, as if something horrible had just happened. He felt less than himself suddenly. Something was wrong.
“What are you doing here? Where is he?”
“He’s outside the walls. We have to hurry. I think something is wrong. Very wrong. What are you wearing?” The ghost noticed that she was adorned in scrap metal and wiring. Odd bits and pieces of found metal, strapped and screwed, and wired together in a sort of patchwork homage to titan-style armor.
“I’m ready to fight, my friend,” she said with a slight, scared smile. She produced a large metal pipe that had been sharpened on one end. “Let’s go find your other half, shall we?”
Before the ghost could convince her to seek shelter and safety she bolted towards the gates to join the other warriors. The ghost could only watch, he felt so incredibly awful. He needed to find Cerberus. But Cerberus had told him to protect the girl. Everything was going wrong. He watched as the titan Rose called down a shock of arc energy into her fists, then leapt straight up and over the City gates only to come crashing down on the other side with an unstoppable fist of havoc. He heard many Eliksni fall silent and the guardians cheered. Cyril opened the gate narrow enough to slip through, and ordered the citizens to close it again once the last guardian was through. Allara had made her way to the front. She promised Cyril she would secure the gate. The ghost flitted to her side, terrified that he saw no sign of his guardian anywhere.
The titan’s fist had decimated the marauding party assaulting the gates, and Cyril quickly darted out towards the nearest Fallen and blade-danced with them until all his dancing partners had expired. A prepared guardian fireteam could hold its own against this many Fallen, even desperate ones, but Cerberus had been caught off guard and he had gotten killed. The living guardians who stepped onto the field of battle coordinated their movements, and brutalized the attacking group in slow bursts, creeping from drop zone to zone, leaving only corpses behind them. They were systematically pushing them back from the City gates. At the second drop point, Rose-19 noticed Cerberus’ body. “Damn. What a waste…” she thought to herself as she punched in a Dregs skull.
The team took and cleared the third landing site, then the fourth. No major injuries. A good fight, sure, but not really a close one. As the fireteam steadied to sweep and clear the fifth and final drop site, an exceptionally large servitor blinked out of its invisibility cloak. Several unseen Vandals dropped their cloaking shields, as well. It was nearly an ambush.
“Fall back, the lot of you,’ Cyril called out. As the battel began to turn against them, the guardians felt and heard a rush of solar light burst from behind them.
“That guy was definitely dead,” Rose said to Cyril.
“Things change, I guess?” he offered in response.
They watched as the dead guardian leapt back to life. Again. But this time without his ghost. His corpse returned to battle in a burst of radiant light. Solar flames shot down into his body, and then leapt back up out of him. He ran towards the servitor hurling a whirlwind of flaming grenades, every one of them sticking to its round body, several attaching right to its “eye”. The grenades went off one by one as the resurrected guardian hurled even more. The servitor blinked in pain, staring at the ground and trying to shake them off. The firestorm of explosives continued.
“We better get killing these other guys, eh Rose?” Cyril asked as he unsheathed his arc blade.
“Eh, I guess,” she mumbled as she hoisted her Suros to her shoulder and began railing bullets at the Fallen.
Within minutes the servitor succumbed to massive grenade damage, and the other Fallen lay dead all around it. The guardians turned to look at Cerberus, as the solar light faded off his body and he dropped to his knees in shock. Cyril and Rose approached him.
“Neat trick, warlock.” Rose said.
“It looks like it hurt…” joked Cyril.
Cerberus could only stare up at them, literally burned out, and rather confused. They helped him to his feet, and back inside the City walls.
Once inside the walls, Cerberus sat down on the floor and tried to remember what had happened. He had always explored the limits of sunsinging, he had long heard the rumors that some warlocks could be reborn of fire. He had only recently dug up any information on the actual practice. With enough light and enough will some sunsingers had been able to bring themselves back from the dead without their ghosts. Apparently he had learned how, but that was a hell of a field test.
His ghost came whizzing up to him, with Allara in tow. “You’re alive! Alive! I was afraid you had died out there.”
“But… what? How…?”
“I’m not sure. The light brought me back. I burst into flames, and lived again.”
“We’ve read about that, heard whispers, but we haven’t trained with it…”
“Yeah. I guess I got lucky.”
“Well, still. Don’t go dying without me, anymore, okay?”
Allara walked up and stood next to her guardian. He looked up at her with something like worry or sadness in the green lights of his eyes.
“I don’t want to die here, Cerberus. I don’t want to die and hope for an eternity to wake up again and fight. If we must fight, I want to fight now, with this life.”
“Here,” he whispered, defeat in his voice and surrender in his gesture. There would be no keeping her safe, he could see that now. So he lifted his hand cannon from his belt and laid it on the floor beside himself. “Its name is ‘Heaven Can Wait’. It’s a decent starter pistol, kid. It’ll kill things.”
She picked it up and turned it over in her hands. “Why do they call it ‘Heaven Can Wait’?”
“Because there’s still work for us in Hell.”
“I guess I can get to work, now.”
“If you must, Allara.”
Over the next few weeks and months Cerberus took her out on patrols with him. He taught her the basics of war. Ghost would transmat whatever bits and pieces of discarded armor they came across to her. She took residence in the Tower and began working for various vendors. She missed the Last City, but she knew her new life as a fighter would do more to protect the City then she ever could before. She fell in with the street preachers of the New Monarchy, and began working for them. After a year in the tower, she found and trapped a lost ghost. Its guardian had died. She took it to Cerberus. There was almost no precedent for a dead guardian’s ghost beginning to work with another fighter, let alone one that hadn’t been resurrected as a guardian. Commander Zavala was consulted on the matter. If the ghost could retune itself to her, if it was willing to… he could see nothing wrong with a ghost returning to the fray, nothing wrong with one more warrior on the side of the light. It took her and the ghost a long time to bond, a long time to learn to work in sync. But they learned. And she became a guardian, of sorts, even though she’d only been alive once.
Cerberus was proud of the warrior she’d become, but he felt like a failure for not being able to keep her out of the fight. Perhaps that was an insane wish. Maybe this world they’d inherited wasn’t one where people could avoid the war. One way or the other, war was all around them. War was everything and everywhere. If you didn’t learn to fight, you learned to run or die. And if he couldn’t protect her, at least he had helped her learn how to protect herself. She could meet the darkness head on now. She was no longer one of the helpless, she was a guardian.