The heat of churning bodies and raging fires licked dangerously at my heels as I ran up those spiraling stairs, climbing higher and higher through the madness with only a prayer of reaching the climax holding any of us to reality. I was scared. Terrified. Perhaps more than anyone else in my squadron. Never before had I been exposed to war on such a chaotic and costly scale. Never before had I seen bodies twisted and contorted beyond their capable ranges in the midst of blaster hail and slug choirs. Never had I seen so much red. It coated the duracrete, splattering in untold amounts to trickle into the greater tide that washed away the sins of the denizens of this world. A costly price to pay by all who bled the same color.
And even more so from those who did not.
I swallowed the rampaging heart that had lunged into my throat, wrestling with it as we moved with the bloodied, charred banner of the New Imperial Order heralding our arrival. 'Keep eyes on the flag-' I told myself over and over again, forcing focus where it was all I could do to shut out the fact I was losing men faster than I could have anticipated. I should have planned for it. I should have known this much was coming. I knew what it was I had signed up to do; what all of those men entrusted to me had signed up to do. But that didn't muffle their cries of panic as Sith Knights ripped them from the rail and sent them tail spinning into the flames below us. That didn't silence the ungodly smacks of armored frames broken beyond their confines and smashed repeatedly against the durasteel wall we hugged so desperately. The climb cost us everything to complete.
And as we crested the peak and stormed out onto the precipice of oblivion, I choked down the rising bile eating its way up my throat and resigned my dead scattergun to its holster over my shoulder. Blood oozed from my lower lip and leaked from cuts between betaplast plates I did not even process at the time. The numbness had taken hold and shock became my pilot. Shakily, I squared myself beside Captain Agrippa from Gladius Company, groping after something. Anything, at all, I could feel within myself. Some part of me had to remain in the reality I had agreed to. Some part of me still had to exist somewhere in that proud armor I wore. I opened my mouth to howl a call to what men I had left, yet no sound emerged from me. A twist of my head cast wary gaze through the cracked visor of my helmet, searching between panicked breaths for the soldiers I still had left.
To my left the rattle of metal pike reverberating against the rooftop frightened me into a start, forcing a reflexive jump backward.
Gladius Company was gone. Dorn-2 was gone.
I hastily slid through the growing rain, hoisting the flag up off the steel to hold firmly in my hands with only defiance lending me any strength. I could no longer feel my heart. I could no longer tell I was breathing. A voice echoed beside me, far too close for comfort, and with it came the creeping bloom of razorice through my veins. I couldn't move. Hopelessness coalesced within me, striking at nerve endings and blazing synapses I had lost connection to hours prior. The sweat plastering my bodysuit to my flesh froze me. More indiscernible words. My lips gaped and parted, guppying after breath I could not obtain.
And then before me, a cloaked form plastered in rinsing crimson pivoted, obscuring my view of my destination. I could not see a face and yet I felt the cold disregard of insubordination staring through me. I was powerless. A woman choking alone on a shore she had been cast onto by the blood of those who had carried her this far. They deserved better than they had received.
"You killed them. For what? For this?" The blood-washed figure before me uttered in jeer, rasping voice strummed from mangled cords buried somewhere within its indescribable form, as it tapped a plated finger between my vice-locked hands and against the pike of the banner I clutched. "Would you like me to show you what you traded the lives of those who trusted you for?"
I couldn't answer.
"Very well..." the figure's clawed hands curled around the staff of the pike, wrenching it from my grasp, "this is what you have done. This is what you deserve to pay." It spoke with the roof trembling beneath the conviction of its words. I could only watch as the figure angled the pike parallel with the slope of the steel beneath us and with agonizing speed, it pressed forward, stabbing the flesh-draped spearhead into my chest. No air left me. No sound. Nor cry. I felt nothing. My legs buckled beneath me with the force imposed against my body, and soon, I felt hoisted up. Crimson rushed down the staff of the banner, soaking into the wartorn flag and staining it only more. "This is what you are to them. What you were to your men. Savor this honor, Noel-"
How did it know my name?
"-you've become a martyr."
I snapped awake with a rattled gasp, wheezing with the jolt of my whirring frame upright. In the darkness, I squinted, searching desperately my surroundings to place myself. Each panicked breath fought its way out between my mismatched lips, raking at the air in pitching note with the audible return of my rousing senses. Across my augmented vision, my HUD stirred, flashing in soft warning that I was suffering from tachycardia. I dismissed the needless warning and focused my eyes downward, pressing hands against my metal chest, feverishly patting myself down for fear of finding a stab wound. A hole. A puncture. Anything at all. When I found nothing I heaved a sigh of relief and squeezed my eyes shut, fighting against the burning tears blurring my vision. Metal palms trembled against what little flesh I still had in their press against my eyes.
"It's okay, N-Noel... it's alright..." I stammered into the darkness of my bedroom, barely able to hear myself over the thunderous hum my false heart had assumed in my ears, "you're h-home... you're safe..."