Episode II- Burden of Straws

The last few hours were a blur to him. The last thing Murkis remembered was falling down the cliff, and just as his eyes opened and his head cleared, he found himself wrapped inside something soft and warm. Murkis sat up and rubbed his eyes. "My EXO!" Murkis gasped, suddenly realizing he was rubbing his eyes with his bare hand. He held out his arms, seeing a blanket encasing him instead of his familiar black steetanium EXO. Looking down, he found himself sitting up in a bed- not the crude wire mesh beds he was used to, but a bed with a real mattress and sheets.

Just as Murkis was about to look around the small, bare room he was in, the tarp that hung in front of the doorway was brushed aside, and in poked the brown-haired head of a young lady. Their eyes met for only a moment before she turned back and exclaimed, "Mom! Dad! He's awake!" Her voice was like nothing Murkis had heard before. He was familiar with the southern drawls of South Namerik, but this strange new accent was a jarring experience. As Murkis swung his legs out of the covers and over the edge of the bed, the girl was already at his side. "Careful now," she said, "Are you still hurt?"

Murkis stretched his legs, thankful that at least he still had his clothes on. "I don't think so," He said, flexing his toes.

Her eyes suddenly widened. "Your accent," she said in surprise, "Where are you from?"

Murkis took a deep breath. "Far away from here," he muttered.

"How far?"

"Really far," said Murkis. Then, finally deciding to come clean, he added, "From across the ocean. A place called Ranadiam."

"Ranadiam?" She continued with her barrage of questions, "Are you alone? How long did it take to sail-?"

"Jell! Honestly!" Came another voice from the other room. Its owner, a middle-aged woman with great similarity to the girl sitting on his bed, brushed aside the tarp door and entered. "Give the poor man a chance to clear his head!"

The girl stood up and pouted. "He's fine, mom. He was just going to tell me where he's from."

"Where am I now?" Murkis asked, rubbing his temple with his thumb.

Jell's mother walked to Murkis' side, and placed her hand on his forehead, parting a section of Murkis' short, dark hair. "This is our humble little village of Eyre," she said, looking over Murkis' scalp. "Good, the bleeding's stopped."

Murkis looked sideways to the corner of the room, and spotted a collection of bloodied rags on the floor, sitting at the base of his sheathed sword leaning up against the wall. "Eyre, is it?" Murkis muttered as he arched his back, feeling his spine crack and pop. Standing up, Murkis said, "Look, thanks for your help, but I've really got to go now."

"Go where?" Asked Jell as Murkis headed for his sword.

A hand suddenly gripped Murkis' wrist from behind. Murkis turned his head to see an older man, a stern look on his heavily bearded face. "Yes, where are you off to, now?" he asked. "Wandering the woods with a sword, looking for trouble where none exists?"

"Dad, please!" Jell pleaded quietly, dropping her reddening face into her hands.

"I wasn't-!"

"Wearing strange armour that slithers inside you?"

"...What?" Jell asked, confused. Her mother also looked puzzled.

"When I found him at the bottom of the cliff, he was wearing some kind of armour. I picked up his sword, and it... shrunk inside of him."

Murkis peered down, and noticed the large blade of an axe dangling around the knees of Jell's father, connected to a thick wooden shaft that was tethered around his waist. He had to act carefully. "Just let me get my sword, and I'll show you." Jell's father reluctantly let go of Murkis' wrist. Slowly and deliberately, Murkis picked up his sword, and held the hilt up to show the family. "All we have to is press this," said Murkis, moving his thumb over the small panel on the hilt, "and out it comes."

With that, Murkis pressed his thumb into the panel, and his black EXO came rushing out from the back of his shoulder, encasing his body in a flash. Jell's mother gasped. "What kind of-?" she stammered.

"Technology left over from the war," said Murkis. "We've got lots of it back home." Pressing the panel again, the EXO liquefied and retreated back into his shoulder. "I'm part of an expedition from across the sea, looking for anyone else in the world who survived the war. My party will be looking for me." Looking at Jell's father, Murkis asked, "Am I free to go?"

Jell's father thought for a moment. "Go on then," he said, sighing quietly under his breath, "Get on with ya'."

"I'll show him the way out," said Jell cheerfully, quickly grabbing Murkis' hand and pulling him along.

"Jell! Where do you think you're-"

"Dad, I'll be fine! Come on!"

Jell had tugged Murkis out of the room before her father could open his mouth. "That girl," he muttered.

"So, your name is Jell?" Murkis asked as they walked down the worn path in the middle of the villiage.

"Jell Jenfer," She said with a wide grin, still holding Murkis' hand.

"Murkis Renova. So is everyone in Ireland this friendly?"

Jell laughed nervously. "Just me, maybe," she said. "And it's called Baine now, not Ireland."

"Good to know I'm not the only one to have his country carved up by the war."

"Carved up? You make it sound like a bad thing," Said Jell. "It's like a brand new world to rediscover."

"You're pretty optimistic, huh?" Said Murkis, his hand starting to sweat under Jell's iron grip.

"I guess," She said. "Anyway, there's the forest that Dad found you in." Jell pointed to the thick row of trees at the edge of the village.

"I'm pretty sure I can find my way back from there," said Murkis.

Jell stepped in front of Murkis, and held his hand up. "If you get lost, you can always come back." She said, still wearing a smile.

"Maybe I'll drop in for a visit sometime," said Murkis, returning Jell's smile.

Jell briefly glanced away, her cheeks flushing. "Well... we don't want you to be late now," She said, "Just come back to us sometime, okay?"

"I'll try," Said Murkis, finally slithering his hand out of Jell's. Murkis headed towards the forest, turning around briefly to wave at Jell.

Jell waved back as Murkis vanished into the woods. "I hope he does..."

The sun had just begun to creep below the horizon by the time Murkis slipped into the camp. As soon as he slid into the barracks tent, Relluct came running up to him. "Murkis!" He gasped, "Where the hell have you been?"

"Had an accident," said Murkis, putting his hand on Relluct's shoulder, "I'm okay, tho-"

"You've gotta' get to your company now!" Relluct pleased.

Muris gasped. "Did anyone notice I was gone?"

"No no no, I covered it, but they're assembling now!" Relluct spun Murkis around, and began pushing him out of the tent. "Go! Go! Hurry!"

Murkis dashed out of the tent, and looked around. One loud, piercing cry echoed through the camp- his company's roll call. Following the sound of named being listed off, Murkis finally found his platoon, grouped at the other end of the camp, and slipped in behind another soldier, activating his EXO just as his name was called. "Renova!"

"Present!"

The sergeant continued on with the roll call. Murkis breathed a quiet sigh of relief. "All present," The sergeant declared, "Forward march!"

As his platoon left the gates of the camp, Murkis got in closer to another soldier and quietly asked, "Hey, what's going on?"

"Weren't you listening, buddy?" The soldier hissed back, "Someone got killed yesterday."

Murkis' heart skipped. "Who?"

"Cata- Cate- Cata-something, I didn't get his name. Marplant's patrol found him. Someone in an EXO did him in, some locals."

"Locals? EXO tech?" Murkis gasped, "Here?"

"No mistake, wounds like that can only be caused from an EXO or two."

Murkis glanced at the forest he had first gotten lost in, still in the distance. "Do we know where these guys are?"

"Some settlement not far from here. We're gonna' weed these sons of bitches out."

Murkis' blood rushed, and he had to struggle to hide the weakening in his legs. His hands began to shake inside his EXO as the platoon eventually entered the dead forest. His memory was still a little hazy from the fall, but nothing about their path was familiar. Murkis was relieved. "Maybe it's a different village," he hoped.

"Careful now, boys," Came the sergeant's voice at the front of the company, "steep ground here." As Murkis followed the platoon down the slope, a bird's cry from his left caught his attention, and he turned his head.

Murkis gasped. The same cliff he fell down from was right beside him. Murkis grit his teeth and pressed forward. "Please don't be Eyre," He thought over and over again, "Please don't be Eyre."

The sergeant raised his hand, and the company came to a stop at the edge of the forest. Murkis peered out from the trees, and his jaw dropped. Eyre was before him, exactly as he had remembered it. "Spread out!" The sergeant ordered, "We move in on my go."

As the soldiers disappeared into the rotting trees, Murkis approached his commander. "Sir, are we sure the hostiles are here?"

"We have good intel from our scouts," said the sergeant, "Now shut your God-damned mouth and get in position!"

Murkis grimaced, and slipped in amongst the trees. "There's gotta' be some mistake," He muttered, gripping the handle of his sword tightly.

"Go!" The sergeant ordered. Within moments, a wave of black armour swept out from the trees and into Eyre. Murkis has not even passed the first shanty before screams pierced the air. His comrades were combing the streets, rounding up the villagers by the points of their swords and lances, herding them into whatever houses were nearest.

As he was looking the other way, someone bumped into him. Murkis turned and saw a terrified man, with a few Ranadian soldier behind him. The villager tried to dart around Murkis' left, but Murkis quickly snatched his wrist, pulling him back into the group of soldiers. "Come on, just cooperate," Murkis said, trying his best to sound stern, "It'll be over soon."

Murkis dragged the man into a nearby house, and shoved him to the floor, against a family huddled together on the floor. Two of his comrades slipped in front of him, each blocking the exits. "Hey Murkis," One of them said, "They need some help next door. Thataway." The soldier pointed to the west. Murkis nodded and stepped out onto the street, turning his head to look west.

His heart sank. It was Jell's house, and there was plenty of noise coming from inside.

Taking a deep breath, Murkis steeled himself and brushed open the tarp door. "Hey, in here!" A familiar Ranadian voice called to him from another room. Murkis followed the voice down the short hallway, and stepped into the same room he had woken up in. Jell, her mother, and her father were sitting on the bed, their heads bowed, staring at the floor., with two soldiers guarding them. "Look after these guys for a bit," said one soldier, heading to the exit, "I'm going to take a look around the back."

Murkis shrunk back against the wall, hiding behind the other soldier. He tilted his head down, hoping that all Jell and her parents would see of his face was the top of his black helmet and visor. He shifted his feet uneasily, his EXO's foot clattering against the support beams on the wall.

Jell looked up, and quietly gasped, "You..."

Murkis trembled. He turned his head away quickly.

"It's you," Jell continued to murmur. "It is you..."

"Hey, you!" The other soldier barked, "Keep quiet!" He wound his sword arm back, threatening to swing. Jell yelped, hugging her mother tightly. Murkis hunched over slightly, trying to keep his stomach from churning. The soldier held his sword up, pointing the tip at Jell's cheek. "You stay still, now. I'd hate to have to ruin that pretty face."

"Don't you touch her!" Jell's father roared, suddenly bolting off of the bed, and grabbing the soldier's arm. The soldier easily flung Jell's father off of him, and pulling back his arm, he thrust his sword forward, spearing Jell's father through the chest.

Jell gave a blood-curdling scream. "Dad!" She wailed, leaping off the bed as her father collapsed in her arms. Murkis' feet were frozen in place, unable to believe what he was seeing. As the soldier moved to strike at Jell, her mother sprang from the bed and raised a fist. One quick flash of steel later, and Jell's mother was on the floor in a gushing pool of blood. "Mom!" Jell screamed, covered in her father's blood as she crawled over to her mother's body.

The soldier watched Jell collapse over her mother, screaming and crying. "Ah, fuck," The soldier muttered. "I guess we don't need your help here after all, Murkis."

A deep shade of red was all Murkis could see. Grinding his teeth together, Murkis slowly drew his sword.

"Murkis?" The soldier asked, turning around, "You alright there, bu-?"

With a roar, Murkis gripped his sword with both hands and took a violent slash at the soldier's throat, cutting through it with ease. The soldier gasped and gurgled, a torrent of blood rushing out of his halfway-severed neck, and collapsed to his knees, his EXO armour locking his corpse in place.

A flurry of rushing footsteps came from the hall. "What the hell's going on in here-?" The other soldier yelled, stopping dead in his tracks when he saw the carnage before him. Murkis and the soldier locked eyes for just a moment. Then, the soldier bolted back into the hall. "It's Renova!" Murkis heard the soldier scream, as he darted after him, "He's turned on us! He's-!" Murkis cut the soldier short when he tackled him, slamming him against the wall. The whole house shook, and Murkis struggled to draw his sword up in the tight hallway. The other soldier grabbed Murkis' sword by the hilt, tore it out of his grip, and threw it down the hall. Quickly drawing his own sword, the soldier brought the blade over his head to chop down on Murkis' skull, when Murkis caught the sword by it's hilt as well, pulling the sword down to the side. Back and forth the two wrestled for control over the sword, slowly bringing it between them, the edges only inches away from their faces. Putting all the strength he had in him into his shoulders, Murkis pressed the other soldier into the wall, steadily driving him down towards the floor. Now with all the height advantage he needed, Murkis lurched forward, using his leverage to tilt the sword down, pointing the sharp edge into the soldier's collar. And with a short roar, Murkis jerked his body downward, forcing the blade into the soldier's neck. Murkis stepped backwards, and watched the other soldier collapse onto his knees. "W-why...?" The soldier weakly murmured, as a small fountain of blood squirted from his neck, "Why...?"

As the soldier fell onto his face, Murkis noticed something tumble from his armour. It was a small radio. "Rontim? Rontim!" A voice on the radio said. "Rontim, are you there? Answer me, Rontim! ... Everyone be advised! Murkis Renova's gone rouge, watch out for Murkis R-"

Murkis quickly grabbed his sword, and held the second one in his other hand. With Jell's wailings still filling the house, Murkis darted out the door, quickly slipping behind the row of homes. Murkis had been with the army long enough to know what was going to happen to him if he was caught- being taken prisoner was the least likely outcome. Looking to his right, Murkis spotted a window on the house beside him. He crept up to the window, and peered inside. Two more Ranadian soldiers held another bunch of villagers captive, forcing them to sit on the floor. Murkis took a deep breath. There was only one way he was leaving Baine alive. Murkis reached out to the window, and gave it two quick taps. He heard the soldiers asking what the noise was, then heard one of them approaching the window. He knocked on the side of the house. Fumbling could be heard with the window. As soon as it slid up and open, Murkis bolted forward, grabbing the soldier by the head and slicing through his throat with his sword. Before the other soldier could react, Murkis willed his EXO's helmet module to fire, blasting a beam of energy into the house, frying the face of the other soldier inside.

The villagers inside stared at Murkis in disbelief. "Who are-?" One began, thoroughly confused.

"Who here can fight?" Murkis asked, pulling himself over the dead soldier through the window. All four men inside raised their hands. Murkis tossed one a sword across the floor. "Take the other swords and follow my lead. We're going next door." Murkis willed his EXO's helmet to retreat back into him, showing his face to the villagers.

The villagers stood up. "Why are you doing this?" Another villager asked.

Murkis stood silent for a moment, and then grimaced. "Just follow me." Peeking out of the tarp door and onto the street, Murkis saw no other Ranadians in sight. Murkis looked back at the villagers behind him. "Listen, you guys don't stand a chance against an EXO like mine one-on-one. So all four of you, you hit this house," said Murkis, "I'll take the next one over." Just as the villagers moved ahead, Murkis added, "And try not to kill them."

The villager at the rear shook his head. "No promises."

The black EXO slithered back into the soldier's shoulder, and Murkis forced him to kneel on the floor. The other villagers in the house had long fled, leaving Murkis and his captive all alone. "Jesus Christ, Murkis," the soldier muttered, "Do you have any idea just how much shit you're in now?"

"I've got a good idea," Murkis muttered back, keeping the point of his sword trained on the back of the soldier's neck from behind him.

"What do you think you're going to do, huh?" The soldier continued. "What's all this going to accomplish?"

Murkis shook his head. "Too late," He said. "It's too late for me to go back now."

"Oh, you've got that right."

Noise suddenly erupted from outside on the streets. Grabbing the soldier by the collar, Murkis dragged him to the door, and peeked outside. A flood of villagers rushed past, fighting back his former comrades. "Retreat!" The familiar voice of his sergeant echoed, "All hands retreat!"

Murkis stood the soldier up, and pushed him out of the house. "Go," Murkis ordered. The soldier shot him a dirty glare before grudgingly dashing back towards the forest. Murkis stepped out of the door, listening to the cheering villagers waving their new weapons in the air. As the villagers turned back to their homes, the cheering began to subside. Now standing in the middle of the road, Murkis looked around at the sea of villagers surrounding him. Murkis pressed the panel on his sword, and his EXO shrunk back into his shoulder. As he sheathed his sword, he tried to think of something to say, but the daggers being stared into him held his tongue.

Suddenly, someone burst through the crowd. "You bastard!" The girl screamed, throwing her fists like hammers onto his shoulders. It was Jell, covered head to toe in her parent's blood. A pair of villagers behind her pulled her away gently, Jell's legs still kicking the air in front of Murkis. "I'll kill you!" She screamed, "I'll kill you!"

As Jell was being held still, one of the villagers stepped forward to Murkis. "We see you again, you're dead."

Murkis bit his tongue, turned away slowly, and headed down the road.