Raven of the Slain
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His stomach ached and groaned due to the days-long hunger, his legs were wobbly, and his body was shivering and felt cold despite of the inches-thick gear that covered him entirely; its weight and encumberance slowed him down but he would need its protection to stay alive. Bashkim Krasniqi wanted to scream in desperation, but that would only betray his position to his pursuers. His lungs craved for air and his muscles burned with lactic acid due to prolonged usage.

His surroundings were a sight of ruination; the low-lying buildings on either side of the road were stripped bare to the foundation; lampposts were bent on awkward angles, tell-tale signs of blunt force impact by heavy vehicles; constructional debris were strewn about; and corpses of Kosovo Liberation Army fighters and civilians alike were a common sight. He still pressed on and fought his degrading will and spinning vision brought by starvation and exhaustion. Tears began to form in the corners of his eyes, but he reminded himself that he was a soldier.

And soldiers never cry.

A quick glance behind made him increase his pace. Green beams of light danced from afar and the mechanical barks of his pursuers' cyborg dogs could be heard. The footfalls of the military contractors from the Doomed Brigade were increasing in volume, accompanied by bursts of inhuman laughter, distorted by their helmet's voice disguise device. He heard from the "Ravens" that the troops of the Doomed Brigade used the device as some form of psychological warfare; memetic in nature, whatever the hell that meant.

It worked, alright.

Upon arriving at an intersection, he glanced at the windows of the buildings around him to see if there were any KLA marksmen present, but apparently, misfortune seemed to be on his side and found none. He cursed as he chose the road to his left and continued his run.

His pursuers have probably grown tired of playing with him and started to be serious by increasing their pace. Their sudden speed surprised him because their shadows have finally materialized a few meters behind. He caught impressions of men in bulky powered suits and green glowing visors. Even their dogs wore the same headwear. Upon spotting him, the green visors turned red and they started issuing orders at him to stop. He pressed on.

"Fuck," he whispered with dried lips, his throat was thristing for water.

His surroundings grew dark. He did not know if that was the enemy playing their magick tricks on him or if it was the exhaustion taking its toll. His legs refused to take another step and he ended up stumbling to the ground. His vision spun wildly due to the impact of the fall but his equilibrium was slowly returning. His stomach roared and twisted, the hunger pangs were worsening but he ignored it as best as he could. He tried raising his arms but they failed to respond him, the most he can do was to twitch a finger. The pursuers behind him laughed as they slowly approached, their weapons powering up. The cybernetically enhanced dogs were still leashed but he could hear their metallic growls close to him. He shut his eyes and made peace with his fate…

Gunfire erupted, followed by a mechanized shriek. Bashkim opened his eyes and saw a lone figure in the dark beyond. Their eye lenses glowed in red, revealing a slightly beaked faceplate. Runic symbols were carved on the surface of their armor; its left shoulder was decorated with a stylized "V" and the number "22" beneath it. The bullet holes and scratches were obvious signs that they were a sole survivor of an ambush. They fired their rifle, which blazed with blue muzzle fire, and the mercenaries behind him yelled in pain. The enigmatic soldier began to approach, immediately switching to their sidearm. The loosed dogs began to close in on Bashkim, eager to finish the job, but were terminated by sporadic gunfire.

At the sight of the soldier, the Bashkim already knew that he, she or it was a Raven. He haven't met one up close and only heard of them through radio transmissions or telegram messages, but he wished he hadn't. The soldier stood above him, their red eye lenses were fixated at him. He does not know if the Raven brought salvation or demise as he heard rumors that they euthanize their own. Perhaps he would confirm that rumor tonight. To his surprise, the Raven grabbed him by one of the loose straps of his vest and began to drag him to safety. He tried to flail his arms as a protest but the strength of the Raven outmatched him, that and his ever growing weakness.

"Where are you taking me?" He asked weakly. Bashkim knew that the Raven would probably not hear it or simply ignore his question, but to his surprise, the Raven answered.

"You are already dead." The Raven's voice was also mechanized by their helmet. "Don't fear. Our destinies had already been dictated a long time ago. Our fates are linked together, you were meant to become the offering at my Utiseta."

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"A quest from the Allfather. I had to travel through no-man's land until I found the dying one. Then I must eat their heart to bring out the Raven of the Slain. Feel proud, fallen warrior, for there is no higher honor than to be a sacrifice for the Gods!"

Upon hearing this, he began to struggle, trying to get far away as possible from the madman. He beat his fists against their gauntlet and forearm but the resistance was futile and the Raven simply ignored his efforts.

"They got Sergov's team and they're running away!" He heard a mechanical voice yell from afar. The Raven released him from their vice-like grip when they noticed the interlopers. He wanted to grab the opportunity to run, but his legs were too weak to respond to him. They raised their rifle; he managed to get a clear glimpse of it and noticed that it bore an alien design, a common sight for the demonic weapons used by APMC groups.

The Raven fired a couple of shots, which earned a few screams of pain before resuming their task of dragging Bashkim towards what appeared to be a dark alley. At this point, he just let them drag him in fear that the Raven might change their mind and leave him to die at the mercy of the contractors. Strangely, he had made peace with it. Being devoured "with honor" as a sacrifice was still preferable to whatever the Doomed will do to him. It was a known fact among the KLA that the screams of their prisoners can be heard miles away. Nobody knew what their "enhanced interrogation techniques" were like and he would prefer not be the one to find it.

As they reached the entrance of the alley, the Raven halted and resumed firing at the Doomed Brigade troops. The muzzle fire dimly illuminated the gloomy surroundings. One of the Doomed Brigade mercenaries broke rank from his team after activating his suit's built-in cloak device. Provided with limited stealth capabilities, only his faint outline could be seen by the naked eye.

He hid behind a flipped family van and moved around it where he gained a clear shot of the Raven and its quarry by the alley, aiming at a known weak spot of a Valravn armor: the neck. It was lightly armored, just like the joint areas, to allow the user complete mobility and articulation. Behind his wide-visored faceplate, he grinned. He opened fire at the black-clad soldier.

"Goodbye, you Valravn fuck!" He whispered.

As the neck of the Raven bursts in a red fountain, everything suddenly slowed down. The fall of the Raven took a few seconds rather than instant. In that moment, Bashkim knew he was fucked. Beyond, the Doomed Brigade contractors cheered and began to move in towards their position. He muttered a string of curses as he forced himself up, using a nearby garbage bin as support. He was uninjured anyway, only tired but yet, this Raven treated him like he had lost a limb.

He decided pull the Valravn soldier into the alley out of both pity and gratitude for prolonging his life, even if only to kill him. He would just leave them behind after hiding them from view. He felt a painful clap on his leg as the Raven tried to catch his attention. He ignored him but the Raven suddenly pinched him.

"What the fuck do you want?!" He asked, surprised at his tone. He never meant to scream but the stressful situation was overwhelming him. The Raven was gesticulating at him to remove their helmet. The last breath of fresh air for a dying man, Bashkim thought.

He bent down; the Raven pointed at certain parts of its neck. The KLA fighter noticed the buttons they were pointing at. He pressed them simultaneously and the helmet fell free, revealing a young woman with porcelain complexion, black hair, and a pair of eyes with purple-colored pupils. The corner of her red lips were dripping with blood.

She struggled to speak, and he waved it away dismissively.

"Save your strength, I'm pulling you to safety."

"N-no, listen!" She coughed a lungful of blood, which she spat aside. "M-my life support s-system is failing, it's a miracle I made it t-this far. The k-knife in my thigh, draw it."

"What? What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Just do a-as I say dammit! If you want to live."

The pursuers are approaching based on the increasing noise outside. He frisked her thigh for the knife she was talking about.

"M-my other thigh, you idiot!"

"How the fuck would I know." He pulled out a dagger with a curved blade, which was inscribed with runic symbols. It glinted under the moonlight of the full moon. "What am I going to do with this?"

"Cut my h-heart open."

"Are you fucking serious?"

"YES, just do it."

He looked at her with a horrified expression; her face was serious and she even cursed at him for wasting another second.

"What the fuck are you waiting for?! Do i-it now!" She gagged.

"I-I can't!"

"Perhaps that would motivate you!" She pointed at the green beams of light in the distance and the mechanized barks of cybernetically enhanced dogs.

"Fuck," he muttered as he removed her chestplate and ripped the fabric beneath with a slice of the knife. He noticed that her ribcage bore circular ports where numerous wires are connected to. He realized that the wires originated from the chestplate, which he just discarded without care.

He began to plunge the tip of the knife beneath the skin. He drove it deeper and deeper, the Raven let out a whimpering scream. She clenched her teeth as the KLA fighter lacerated her skin open.

"Now, you eat it." She said in a whisper before she draw her final breaths. "It was never me. The Utiseta was never meant for me, it seems." She coughed a few more times; the life support system within the backplate of her armor was audibly beeping as it strained its limits. "It was you all along. The one Chosen by Fate. Don't fear your fate. Eat it, and become one of us. Óðinn á yðr alla!" She finally became motionless.

"What?!" The fighter glanced at the approaching contractors. He felt like he never had any choice, but in the end, he wanted to live; hopefully to fight another day. His stomach was in need of something, anyways. Anything to satisfy his hunger, even a still beating heart. He had heard some of the foreign volunteers recruited by the Kosovo Liberation Army bragging about having cannibalized their enemies during their military careers, long before entering the contractor industry. He always thought those stories were definitely complete bullshit just to impress the young recruits. And now he was the one living the story.

He cursed at the absurdity of fate as he cut the nerves and the arteries of the heart free. The heart dripped wet in blood, it didn't make for an appetizing meal.

"Look at this sick fuck, he's eating his own comrade!" The Doomed Brigade soldiers finally caught up with him. "And they call us monsters?"

"Fuck this." He shut his eyes close and sunk his teeth into the heart. At first, it tasted like corroded metal. He forced the meat down his throat with great effort. As the meat travelled down his stomach, it stopped aching. The taste in his mouth suddenly became sweet, like an aftertaste one would get when eating a fruit. His pallate craved for more and his appetite agreed.

He devoured the heart in its entirety.

The contractors simply watched Bashkim out of morbid curiosity. They could just kill him whenever they wanted. The KLA fighter finally stood up, covered in blood. He appeared to have gained height. His eyes suddenly glowed red and his back began to grow protrusions. They watched in awe and disgust as the muscular growth grew black feathers. Bashkim's skin lost color and the nails at the end of his fingers grew long and sharp.

He attacked the nearest Doomed Brigade mercenary; his hand went through the armor and bones of the contractor. He felt the beating heart of the dying man in his fingertips. His hand squeezed the organ with little effort.

"Fuck, we have a Threat One! Open fire!" The contractors yelled as they started to retreat back the way they came.

Feathers began to grow on the Bashkim's skin until he was covered in it that only his red glowing eyes were visible. The feathers suddenly hardened, its surface glistened as if it was made out of steel. Bullets ricocheted away from Bashkim's feathers upon contact, earning a guttural laugh from him.

"Óðinn á yðr alla!" He yelled as he swept horizontally and beheaded three men at once. He grabbed one of the dogs by the tail and used it to smash another one. The last dog attempted to flee; he swung his hand towards it and sent sharp feathers at its direction. The dog whimpered as the feathers impaled it.

He caught sight of the last two fleeing mercenaries; one of them held a radio in hand. He rushed in their direction, attacking the radio operator first. His sharp claw ripped the back of the contractor, removing both gear and flesh alike. With his spinal column ripped away, the body of the man limped forward.

His companion turned to him and fired at full auto. Bashkim thrust his claw at his enemy's face and clenched it. The contractor's arms fell limp, his weapon dropped to the ground. He tossed the cadaver aside, which landed with a wet crunch.

Silence soon ensued; serenity replaced chaos. Calmness flooded through his veins renewing him with vigor. He inhaled the cool air that stenched of stale sweat, death, burnt rubber, gunpowder and dried blood, and exhaled it slowly, relaxing him more. From afar, he could hear a thousand boots marching; the prospect of slaughter and consumption enticed him.

He turned and faced the cadavers of his foes fallen by his claws and approached them with a look of hunger in his eyes, claws flexed, ready to flay and cut.

He will feast upon the battlefield; the oppressors are his prey and the warzone is his hunting ground.

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