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The trees around their hilltop had seemed so calm, even during the bombardment. Now, they were alive with sound and motion. Anna could not tell if it was real or imagined. She did not rise from her prone position, and when she reached for her rifle, she noticed her hands trembled.

Direct engagements were not her strong point.

“They probably won’t come up here, right?” Her voice trembled, too.

“Humans would not,” Charles said. “Priests are different.”

Anna peered down the sights of her rifle. The flashing in the sky conjured a veritable dance of shadows among the trees and shrubs below; it was impossible to see if anything was out there, watching them.

“Humans,” Charles said, “would flee, regroup, and look for a place from which to safely fire their artillery and unleash their hordes of combat AI. Their flesh is weak, and they fear death.”

Anna chanced a quick look at Charles; he was still in that same, uncomfortable position.

“Priests, however, are made of other stuff.” Charles looked back at Anna. The single sensor eye glowed soft blue. In a moment of silence in the storm, she heard the lenses whir softly as the eye focused on her. “To them, the body is a shell: they do not die when they lose it. As with my kind, if you seek to kill them permanently, you must kill their minds. . .”

In an instant, Charles was up from his prone position and shot past her.

Anna blinked twice before she rolled onto her back. In a single motion, she pulled the buttstock of her rifle against her shoulder and curled her finger around the trigger.

When her eyes found Charles, he stood between three shapes, each easily three feet higher than he. Yet for all their size, the shapes were not real; they shone with a light that was not of this world, a light Anna had not seen before and that was of no single color she knew. The shapes were almost upon her, but she had neither seen nor heard them come.

Years of training took over; she squeezed the trigger and was almost caught off-guard by the rifle’s recoil. Her aim was true, yet the salvo of kinetic projectiles passed through the glowing shapes and tore to splinters a tree not far behind them.

Her second and third volleys suffered the same fate; but still she fired, until one of the glowing shapes tore itself free of the fighting mass and raced at her with incredible speed. The four-fingered hands held no weapon of any kind but shone with a light that seemed malicious, hurtful. The dread light drew Anna in until she nearly drowned in it; it stole all light, life, and energy around it, and she could do nothing but freeze. . .

But no pain came.

Instead, darkness returned: a nothingness that felt a blessing after the otherworldly, mad glow she had witnessed.

The darkness was broken by a flash of light as the orbital bombardment resumed. In the flash, Anna saw only Charles, his frame suffused by tendrils of black energy that drank the very light around them: a psionic power that Anna felt would be able to sap her strength and eat away at her mind, until her body was nothing but an empty husk. Charles focused the blue sensor eye on her.

“They. . . they surprised me,” she said.

Had Charles been physically able, he would probably have smiled.

“I told you to keep your eyes peeled.”

[End]

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