duellum – 4.3

Content Warnings

Contemplation of grief

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“Ilyusha! Illy! Illy, respond!”

Elpida shouted across the road, over the sniper’s mocking laugh and the echoes of the explosion. Greasy rain swallowed her words, drumming on her hood, pounding on the asphalt, swirling around her boots as it flowed down the concrete slope, carrying away the deformed bullet which had failed to penetrate her armoured coat.

She coughed and spat blood into the water — bright and fresh: internal bleeding from the massive bullet-impact bruise spreading across her abdomen.


Ilyusha did not respond.

The metallic voice howled through the rain once again, but this time it was muffled behind brick and steel, funnelled in the wrong direction, unfocused: “Your fresh meat was too heavy on her feet! Come pick her up, Necromancer!”

Elpida’s body acted on the available information before her conscious mind caught up.

She slung the rifle over her shoulder, shot to her feet, and sprinted out onto the ancient asphalt of the road. Her bruised stomach muscles and slow-healing chest wounds lit up with agony; painblockers and adrenaline flooded her bloodstream, her gene-tweaked biochemistry doing its best to keep her moving. From behind, back in the bunker, somebody shouted her name: “Elpi!”

Probably Vicky, but there was no time to respond.

Elpida’s boots splashed through dancing puddles of gritty water. Raindrops lashed her face. She vaulted the lane divider in the middle of the road; landing sent a jagged spike of pain up through her guts. She turned a stumble into a lunge, then hauled herself toward the shadow of the ruined buildings.

Compared to Ilyusha, Elpida was a large, slow-moving target, with little protection, and no covering fire.

But the sniper didn’t shoot.

It wasn’t until she slammed into the cover of the ruined buildings that Elpida’s conscious mind caught up with her training: the sniper’s metallic voice had been muffled, wavering, projected the wrong way — in motion. The sniper was either relocating to a new spot, or descending through the structure to deal with Ilyusha. That gave Elpida an opening. A risky one, yes, but one of her comrades was in trouble, perhaps injured, perhaps about to be killed. Her training, even tattered and torn, had handed her the correct response.

A calculated risk. Old Lady Nunnus would have scolded her for this one.

You are the Commander, not a sacrificial pawn. Yes, every one of you girls is more than capable of deciding for herself, I bloody well know that. We all learned that early enough. You’re not raw Legion recruits picking your noses and waiting for the drill sergeant. But if you go down, the others will stop at nothing to recover their leader. If you love your sisters as they love you, do not put yourself at unnecessary risk.

Elpida wasn’t Commander of anything now. And she wasn’t letting any comrade die before she did.

Sprinting across the road had aggravated the massive deep-tissue bruise on her abdomen; painblockers could dull the response, but they couldn’t stop her drooling blood into the puddles of rainwater. Hissing through her teeth with convulsive pain, pressing herself against a filthy concrete wall for cover, raindrops pummelling her hood and shoulders, Elpida had to make a conscious choice: stop breathing. She did not need to breathe, or pant, or wheeze. She was not alive, not really.

She swallowed blood. Tasted petrochemicals and chlorine and acid in the rainwater. After a few seconds, the pain ebbed down to a manageable level.

Elpida pulled her submachine gun up, pressed the stock to her shoulder, and slipped in through an empty doorway of tarnished steel.

The building the sniper had selected as a vantage point was some kind of light commercial or office space: the ground floor was a wide area of once-white tiles, with a reception desk, several banks of empty lockers along one wall, some kind of lathe-like machine along the other, and some fallen concrete at the far end. The ruin was thick with shadows, hissing with rain like sand on a drum. Empty doorways led to open stairwells on both left and right, climbing upward: the stairs on the left were scuffed blue polymer with metal railings, but the steps on the right were made of wood. Elpida allowed herself a single split-second of wonder. Walking on wood? Obscene.

On the left, one flight up on a little corner-landing, a wide area of stairs and wall was blackened with fresh soot: the aftermath of a small explosive device.

A tangle of bionic limbs and armoured coats lay in a heap.

Elpida moved quickly, submachine gun up, watching her feet for tripwires or mines or anything else out of place, eyes on the corners for mounted weapons or cameras or any sign of movement. She did not like stepping into the stairwell; it went up perhaps five or six floors before terminating in a tangle of bent steel and crumbled concrete — a vertical killing ground topped by a sniper’s nest. She kept her armoured hood up, covering the corners with her submachine gun. Her footsteps echoed upward. Rainwater dripped from her coat.

When she reached the corner landing, Elpida tore her eyes away from the vertical shaft of the stairwell and crouched next to the tangle of coats, fearing the worst. She tried to shield Ilyusha’s body with her own, in case the sniper was watching from above.

She hissed: “Ilyusha? Ilyusha, respond. Illy!”

Ilyusha gurgled.

Elpida pulled back a corner of armoured coat: Ilyusha’s face appeared from within the tangle. Dazed, dirty, disoriented, face smeared with blood from a gash on her scalp, but very much alive and conscious. Ilyusha cracked a grin and gurgled again. Elpida realised she was trying to laugh.

Elpida said: “We have to move. Can you stand?”

“Got me with a fucking cunt, bomb shit.” Ilyusha slurred. Her eyes wavered, one pupil larger than the other. Concussion. “Meant to be our thing. Thirteen thing. Fucking reptile. Fuck.”

Ilyusha squirmed beneath the coats. Elpida tried to reach out and hold her still, but Ilyusha shoved and kicked free a large piece of soot-blackened, heat-warped, bulletproof polymer: the ballistic shield. The shield had taken the brunt of the explosion. Ilyusha must have had enough sense to keep the shield to her front. Probably saved her life.

Elpida took all this in with a glance, then hissed: “We need to get out of this stairwell and into cover. The sniper is right above us. Can you stand—”

A metallic screech echoed downward, turning the stairwell into a giant megaphone: “I see you, bone fucker! Come on up!”

Elpida grabbed the ballistic shield just in time.

As she jerked it upward to shelter herself and Ilyusha, a single round ricocheted off the bulletproof surface. The impact juddered down her arm and into her shoulder, vibrating through the wounds in her chest and the bruise on her stomach. Elpida grunted with pain and effort. The sniper howled and cackled, deafening in the echo-filled stairwell. She fired again — and again — and again — slamming the bulletproof shield with small calibre rounds, forcing Elpida down to cover Ilyusha.

“Come on, necrophiliac!” she screamed. “You can do better than that!”

Elpida hissed: “Ilyusha, grab me! Grab on, I can’t do this with one arm.”

Ilyusha obeyed. From inside the tangle of coats she extended all four black-and-red bionic limbs to grip Elpida’s shoulders and wrap around her waist. Sharp red claws dug into Elpida’s flesh; Ilyusha clung to her front like an infant marsupial. Elpida crawled backward down the steps. Ilyusha’s bionic tail dragged behind, limp and loose. The sniper fired again and again, pounding on the shield, howling with laughter. She landed two additional rounds on Ilyusha’s tail, the only unprotected body part. Luckily the bullets bounced off with a resonant ping.

Stomach muscles screaming, drooling blood through gritted teeth, Elpida dragged Ilyusha back out of the stairwell.

She dropped the ballistic shield on the dirty white tiles and collapsed onto her side. Ilyusha remained attached to her front for over a minute, panting softly, chewing on Elpida’s collarbone. Elpida allowed it.

Eventually Ilyusha unclenched her limbs. Elpida propped her up against a wall and examined her for wounds, running her hands over Ilyusha’s non-augmetic flesh, down her torso and up to her throat. Luckily Ilyusha still had her rotary shotgun cradled in her lap, secured around her neck with a canvas strap. Elpida checked her pulse, stared into her flat grey eyes, and took a look at the head wound — shallow, barely a graze, clotting fast. The blood smeared down Ilyusha’s face made it look much worse.

“You’re clear,” Elpida said. She sat back on her haunches and eyed the stairwell.

Ilyusha grunted: “No.” She reached out and grabbed a corner of Elpida’s coat in one limp hand.

“No? No what?”

“No go. Don’t go.” Ilyusha’s eyes were like a dead sky before a storm, leaden and dark.

“Ilyusha — Illy, I’m not going anywhere while you have a concussion. You’ve not got any wounds except that gash on your head, and that’s visibly better already. Nanomachines, I suppose. But you need to sit still.”

Ilyusha grunted and closed her eyes. “Fucked up.”

“We all make mistakes,” Elpida said. “And you did the right thing, you kept the shield up, at your front. Well done. I’m glad you did.”

Ilyusha grumbled. She kept blinking as if trying to clear her vision.

Elpida asked: “What was it? A tripwire? Did you see?”

“Lil’ robot bomb cunt. Creeping around.”

Elpida froze. She turned slowly and looked toward the shadowy reception area, the banks of lockers, the tumbled concrete. Tripwires and traps she could manage with her eyes and ears; she could even disarm several types of anti-personnel mine if she had to. But semi-autonomous mobile robotic explosives were beyond her abilities, not without more equipment. She needed scanner devices, bomb-sniffers, ablative drones — and most of all she needed a hardshell. She stared into every dark corner, one hand on her weapon.

“Ilyusha. What did it look like?”

“Brown spider thingy.”

“How big?”

“Hand? Ish? Little piss head fuck.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

Ilyusha snorted: “Fucked up.”

Elpida turned back to her, but kept her attention on her own peripheral vision. Ilyusha looked sad. Elpida said, “It’s not your fault, it’s mine. I didn’t predict she might have something like this. Drones are difficult to deal with, even with a bomb team and the right tools. You didn’t have either.”

“Fucking bitch.”

Elpida nodded. She didn’t need to ask who Ilyusha was referring to. “She’s playing with us. I don’t know why.”

“Crazy cunt.”

“Maybe. She must know I’m not a Necromancer. It makes no sense. Either she’s trying to wind us up, or … ”

Elpida trailed off; through the wall of rain beyond the building’s entrance she heard a name on the wind. Her name.

She got to her feet. Ilyusha didn’t want to let go of her coat, but Elpida gently peeled her claws open and whispered that she wasn’t going far. Ilyusha didn’t fight. Elpida quickly crossed to the open doorway, staring out into the rain, across the uneven asphalt. The bunker was a low grey hump on the far side.

“—pida! Elpida! Elpi!”

It was Vicky, out of sight.

Elpida cupped her hands around her mouth and called back: “We’re okay! Illy is okay! Don’t expose yourselves! Vicky, stay hidden! Head down!”

Raindrop static filled the silence. Then Vicky shouted back: “Okay!”

A metallic screech rang out from above. The sniper cackled into the rain, then said, “Expose yourself all you like, freshies! Come save your corpse-fucker bitch! Haahaaaa!”

Vicky and Kagami were smart enough not to respond. Elpida hoped they were comforting Amina, too. They really needed long-range comms; even short range would make a difference. She wondered if such things were available in this wasteland.

She turned away from the open doorway and crept back toward the stairwell, bringing her submachine gun up, eyes alert for any sign of skittering motion.

She hissed: “Illy, I’m going to—”

“No!” Ilyusha spat.

The heavily augmented girl lurched to her feet. She staggered and swayed, naked claws scraping across the tile floor. She knocked her revolver-shotgun against the wall so hard that Elpida flinched, anticipating an accidental discharge. But the shotgun was made of sterner stuff; the mechanism didn’t fail. Ilyusha shook her head, blinking her eyes hard as she struggled to focus on Elpida. She wobbled to one side, shotgun pointed at nothing, double layers of coats hanging from her narrow shoulders.

Elpida put out one hand to steady her. “Illy, wait. You need to recover—”

“I can go!” Ilyusha shouted. She reached out and wrapped one hand around Elpida’s wrist, claws going snick-snack as they flicked out and dug into the fabric of Elpida’s coat. She hung on and pulled herself upright, then screwed her eyes shut, panting with effort. “I can!”

Elpida pitched her voice calm but firm; she’d seen this before, on the faces of her clade-sisters: a devotion to others which often defied good sense. “Illy. Illy, open your eyes and look at me.”

Ilyusha shook her head, trying to clear a blockage. “Nuurrrh—”

“Ilyusha,” Elpida ordered. “Look at me.”

Ilyusha looked, molten grey eyes in a face smeared with drying blood.

“Illy, I’m not going up there without you. I’m not taking on a sniper in a prepared position, especially not when she’s got mobile drones with explosives. The more pairs of eyes we have for that task, the better our chances of survival. But you are concussed. I need you, Ilyusha — which means I need you clear and sharp. I am ordering you to sit down and recover.”

Ilyusha squinted, sullen and sulky. Her red-clawed fingers tightened on Elpida’s wrist.

Elpida continued. “I’m not going to expose myself to her line of fire. I’m going to shout up the stairwell, without entering it. She’s playing mind-games with us. I’m answering her move.”

Ilyusha hissed through clenched teeth. She did not let go.

Elpida realised that Ilyusha did not believe her.

Elpida’s heart ached with sudden grief, pinned by those smouldering grey eyes. She had never needed to worry about whether her clade-sisters in the cadre believed her, trusted her, and placed their faith in her decisions. She had been Commander because the cadre had chosen to follow her — but not without question, never without question. Elpida was Commander because she listened to her sisters — to their doubts, their questions, their needs, right back to that very first time they had worked together. The cadre believed in her decisions because she believed in them; she was the cadre, and the cadre was her.

Howl was not always the first to question, nor always the most insistent. But without fail she was always the most personal, the closest up in Elpida’s face, the one who wouldn’t let it drop even in private, even after sex.

Ilyusha did not look like Howl: the only resemblance was physical size, her petite frame.

But this attitude, the look in those eyes — I won’t let you go alone because I don’t believe you — it excavated Elpida’s heart.

Grief was an open wound, bleeding into sodden bandages. Too close, too soon, too raw. But Elpida took a deep breath and packed it away beneath layers of gauze and painblockers and training. They had a task to complete. She was designed for carrying on. She would think about this later.

“Illy,” she said. Some of her grief edged into her voice. “I’m not going up there without you. I would not leave you alone with explosive drones around. Even though I hardly know you.”

Ilyusha’s grip finally slackened. She let go and staggered sideways, then allowed Elpida to help her sit down. Ilyusha clutched her shotgun and let her head roll back against the wall. She hissed a wordless noise of frustration.

Elpida said: “I’m going to shout up to the sniper. I’m going less than a dozen feet away from you. You’ll hear every word. If you see a drone—”

“Shout or shoot, yaaaaah.”

Elpida smiled for her, then reached down and patted Ilyusha on the head, stroking her bloody hair, avoiding the scalp wound. “Good girl. I’ll be right back.”

Ilyusha’s tail flicked back and forth over the dirty tiles. Elpida stood up and stepped away.

The doorway to the stairwell was wide enough for Elpida to project her voice upward without crossing the threshold and into the revenant’s line of fire. She picked up the ballistic shield anyway, in case of scuttling bombs or unexpected surprises. She lifted the shield to cover her front, stepped up to the door, and shouted.

“What do you want, zombie?”

A moment of rain-static against the walls and roof. Echoing silence. Elpida’s heart jerked. She coughed.

Then: “You, Necromancer!” came the screeching reply, echoing down the stairwell, twisting the strange voice.

Elpida shouted back up: “You must know I’m not a Necromancer. You’re goading me. Why bother?”

A single laugh, followed by: “Your freshies don’t know, but I do! I’m gonna eat your guts, bone-fucker! Come on, come get scrambled! You know you gotta try, or I’ll come eat your brains in your sleep!”

Elpida couldn’t decide if the revenant sniper really believed what she was saying. The taunting served little purpose now; they were already inside the building, committed to removing her, perhaps killing her. Bait or not, they had taken the decision. Where did this lead? Elpida couldn’t figure it out, not unless the sniper really believed she was talking to a Necromancer — and had a way to kill a Necromancer.

Elpida called upward again: “What makes you think I’m a Necromancer? Is it the neural lace in my head? I have a cranial implant, from life, metal inside my skull, for communication. Is that it?”

“It’s written on your skiiiiiin!”

Her skin?

The colour of Elpida’s skin — copper-brown — was artificially selected, along with her white hair and the purple tint of her irises. Same as the rest of the cadre. An artificial phenotype found nowhere else in Telokopolis, so they would never be mistaken as natural born human beings.

Elpida shouted up the stairwell: “You’ve seen somebody with my skin and hair colour before? Somebody with my phenotype? You’ve seen a revenant like me?”

“You’re no zombie, corpse-fucker!”

“Please! You’ve seen somebody like me before?”

The sniper just cackled and hurled more howling insults down the stairwell shaft. Elpida realised she’d made a tactical mistake; even if the sniper didn’t mean what Elpida assumed, the change in Elpida’s tone of voice had handed the sniper fresh bait, a new tool with which to goad and irritate. Elpida forced herself to turn away from the stairwell and walk back to Ilyusha, no matter what information the sniper may have.

Ilyusha snorted, “Biiitch.”

“Yes,” Elpida agreed.

She placed the shield on the floor and sat down cross-legged next to Ilyusha, so they could both watch the room for bomb drones. Ilyusha’s eyes were like cold lead — and still uneven. Still concussed. Ilyusha stared back. They were going to have to sit there for a few minutes, at least.

Elpida couldn’t take it, that sullen watching — so very Howl. Post-coital Howl, curled up and sulky, paradoxically grumpy, usually because her mind was working on some special problem, unknotted by the release of sex. Elpida could not endure that look on Ilyusha’s face, even if it had a totally different cause and meaning. She had to look away.

Many of the popular religions in Telokopolis had believed in reincarnation; some of the earliest records in the archives even spoke of a dominant religion during the city’s first thousand years, a religion which preached of the reincarnation and inevitable reunion of lovers separated by death. Elpida had never spent much time thinking about that. The cadre had little in the way of spiritual education, even less in long-dead cults. But as the rain-static drummed and Elpida strained her eyes for motion and Ilyusha sat there, small and sour and in some ways too familiar, Elpida’s mind wandered toward impossible hope.

In a way, were they not all reincarnated?

Training reasserted itself quickly. Elpida needed to keep her mind occupied. Ilyusha was not Howl. Without turning to look at Ilyusha again, she said: “Illy, do you mind if I ask where — or when — you’re—”

Needle points touched Elpida’s cheek. She froze.

Ilyusha pressed a bionic hand to Elpida’s jaw, cheekbone, and nose. Black augmetic, trimmed in red, pressed against coppery skin. Ilyusha’s hand was surprisingly warm.

Elpida moved only her eyes. Ilyusha was staring up at her with a relaxed and dreamlike expression. Her pupils were the same size.

“Illy?” Elpida hissed. Her heart was racing. “Illy?”

Ilyusha said, “You’re being very kind to her. Long time since that. Keep doing that, please.”



She sounded so sad.

Without another word, Ilyusha exploded to her feet. A grin ripped across her face. A clawed foot slammed into the tiles. Her shotgun came up in both hands, went clunk-click, and pointed outward at the room, at—

A spidery brown blob on the ceiling, scuttling silently toward them.

“Fuck you!” Ilyusha yelled.

She pulled the trigger, painting ceiling and spider and half the wall with a wide spread of shot. Elpida scrambled for the ballistic shield, but Ilyusha’s shot landed true. The tiny spider-drone was knocked off the ceiling and blasted toward the rear of the room. It detonated with a low crump. Elpida ducked behind the shield and tried to drag Ilyusha down too, but the heavily augmented girl stood tall, laughing, washed by the back-blast of tiny pieces of concrete debris.

“Got you, bitch! Smart now!” she shouted. “Try again, cunt!”

Elpida stood up, one hand on Ilyusha’s shoulder. “Well done. Well done, Good shot.”

“Good girl,” Ilyusha demanded.

“Good girl, yes. Good eyes, too. Think you can keep spotting them like that?”

Ilyusha nodded, cycling another round into her weapon. Her eyes were clear, her balance was perfect, her tail was wagging.

“Good,” Elpida said. “Then I’ve got a plan. We’re going up.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Ilyusha is a good girl. A good girl with good aim and a shotgun. And she really likes Elpida. Zombies, bonding in combat, whoever would have guessed it? I hope you’re all enjoying this, dear readers, because I am having so much fun with the story. I know these extended fights/action sequences tend to take a while when paced like this, but I hope it’s worth every moment.

If you want more Necroepilogos right away, there is a tier for it on my patreon:


Right now this only offers a single chapter ahead, about 3k words.  Please, do feel free to wait until there’s plenty more to read! I’m still trying to somehow put out more chapters ahead, maybe soon! If I can get to two, or three, that would be great, so I’m trying!

There’s also a TopWebFiction entry, for voting. Voting makes the story go up the rankings, which helps more people see it!

Thank you so much for reading my little story! Next week, it’s the last chapter of arc 4. Let’s hope Elpida’s plan is a good one.

12 thoughts on “duellum – 4.3

  1. Ah hope. Paradoxically both a comforting, driving force and a demoralizing poison. Also, the thirteen, I suppose the question now becomes whether it’s internal or external. In addition, the fights are good, it generally makes sense for them to take as long as they do sometimes do. Anyway, thanks for the chapter.


      • Ilyusha mentioned “Thirteen thing” after getting hit by the bomb. It’s entirely possible that i’m just dumb, but I took that as a reference to some other entity, probably on organization of some kind, but after the seeming personality swap, I started to wonder if it referred to her, hence external or internal.


      • That makes a lot of sense. I wonder if the personality swap was do to all she has been through with the original being buried for safety and Elpida awakening her. Or if she cracked from everything and time and the one we see now is the original with the other being someone she used to know or vice versa.


      • A very good question! Elpida might try asking her, once they’re not right in the middle of a combat situation.


    • Hope! Indeed. Perhaps one of the central themes of the story, creeping into the bottom layers of Elpida’s heart.

      And thank you for complimenting the fights! This is a very action-heavy story, and I don’t really get to write a lot of fight scenes elsewhere, so one of my intentions and plans with Necroepilogos is to do a lot of fight scenes, action stuff, etc, in as many different ways as I can.

      And you are very welcome for the chapter! Glad you enjoyed it!


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