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apathy

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15-08-2008
200km E of Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo


Thin fingers drummed along as the crackle of static cut across the cheerful rhythm of afrobeat that buzzed from the jeep's sound system. The vehicle had come with her father's acceptance of a position along with a new house far away from all that was home. A deep stream of sorrow flowed through Ayanda's core as she thought of the last time she'd seen her friends; of the tears shed and the promises made to keep in touch. She looked through the window as her head rested against the glass, her eyes vacantly following the Congo's waters as they neared Kisangani.

Through the speakers the shrill sound of feedback cut through the fog of her thoughts. Her father fumbled with the controls for a moment before trying several stations, all of which were suffering from the same interference as the klaxon of an emergency broadcast bled through the noise. Nyerere brought the vehicle to a stop on the side of the road, leaving the engine running as he moved to the rear and opened the tailgate.

"Stay calm, Ayanda. Keep scanning for a clear broadcast." She watched through the rearview mirror as he retrieved a small case which housed a satellite phone. Putting the receiver to his ear, his attempt to dial for help was cut short as the connection was immediately severed. His pulse began to rise as several scenarios ran through his mind as he tried to rationalize his present circumstances. War was the only conclusion he could come to. But on what scale? He tried to keep a brave face for his daughter as he sat back behind the steering wheel, the phone case set on the dashboard.

"At least we have the Congo to sing to us for the rest of the drive." He smiled bravely at his daughter, the last thing she'd see before darkness descended upon her.

18-08-2008
Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo


A dull awareness crept into Nyerere's mind as he tried his best to stretch out in the cramped driver's seat. His eyes focused on his daughter's fidgeting form in his rearview and inhaled deeply. He'd pushed himself to the point of exhaustion, driving continuously for the past two days through the madness that had gripped the city; he couldn't recall when he'd fallen asleep but was thankful he was still cognizant enough to have taken shelter.

The first rays of sunlight pierced the cloud cover, refracted through the shattered glass of the warehouse lot he'd chosen. A few more breaths and he shifted the shotgun from his lap to the jeep's dashboard. Scanning his surroundings, he exited the vehicle and spread a map across its hood. He gave it a few glances as he continued to stretch in a vain attempt to rid himself of his fatigue. Retrieving a half-empty thermos, Nyerere oriented himself with the map and made note of a few routes to the nearest hospital before draining the container with a few much-needed gulps.

Folding and pocketing the map, he peered through the windshield at Ayanda who'd begun to thrash about in the back seat. The glare of the sun reflecting off the Congo as it settled in the morning sky blinded Nyerere momentarily as a shot rang out, richocheting off a nearby vehicle. Within moments he was back behind the wheel, driving through the chain link fence of a shipping yard into relative safety as more shots echoed in the distance.

22-08-2008
100km N of Kindu, Democratic Republic of Congo


The murmur of hushed voices was the first sound she remembered hearing when she awoke to a world of darkness. Ayanda's breaths came in short, ragged gasps as fear and confusion gripped her. It was then that she felt a cool hand press against her feverish forehead while a familiar voice called out her name.

"Ayanda... My precious, I am so relieved that you're awake. You are safe," her father said, a tinge of something unfamiliar in his voice.

"M-my head.." she struggled to speak, her head filling with the muffled drone of her surroundings.

"It makes my heart lighter to hear you speak. It's been three days since you were last conscious, and that was for a brief moment. Tell me, my moonlight, what is the last thing you remember?"

Silence was her response as she sought to piece together the tattered memories of the week prior. The sensation of the room around her faded away and she found herself in the passenger's seat. Her ears focused on the sound of the river that had begun to flow furiously as gales swept through the dense treeline. Ayanda saw her father, his smile umbrage for something he sought to hide from her. Her thoughts moved past him and she sat up with a bolt. Struck by the sudden and horrible recollection, she instinctively clutched at her eyes. She screamed in shock as her hands pressed against several layers of bandages.

The words that followed came through tears that were choked back. "I am sorry, my love. All of the hospitals are... Finding a doctor is difficult right now. I brought you to someone who will help. That's all that matters. They have done the best they can for us and are hopeful your sight will return. You should rest, we can talk about what you remember later."

"B-behind you..." she began as she lowered her arms, "there was a storm cloud. No.. I thought it was a cloud... the kind that would send me running to the windows to watch while Mama sang..." Another bolt; they hadn't spoken much about her mother in the past several years. She continued as tears stung her enveloped eyes. "It moved in the most terrible manner. Like a beheaded snake thrashing about. It.. it was so large... and a storm raged behind it."

Raindrops drummed against the metallic roof of the clinic with a metallic pang as she found herself returned to the bed, her father shifting uncomfortably at her bedside. Her voice had dropped to just above a whisper. "Then there was a flash... and everything went black." She felt the weight of her words trickle into the room as heavy drops fell from the eaves of the rooftop onto the thirsty undergrowth.

10-10-2008
70km NE of Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of Congo


The warmth of the fire Ayanda sat before danced across her skin and she swore she could see the ever-shifting shades of reds with a level of vibrance she had never felt before. She traced a mindless pattern in the surrounding ash with the end of the staff her father had carved for her while she recovered enough to continue moving south towards home. The voices in the camp were defeated, having spent the past two months trekking through the rainforest in search of the Zambian border. If her condition had given her anything, it was time to listen. She heard much along the way and most of it was unpleasant.

The first days of their journey had seen them evacuating the families of several villages between the small mission that Father Jefferson oversaw and Kindu. A corruption had spread across the land; one that ate at the flesh and soul of those that had always known struggle but now were met with existential contempt. Many of the roads had been taken over by gangs of soldiers that quickly began to tear at each other's throats for whatever they could.

It had cost the lives of many to learn this lesson. Jefferson and a group of young hunters along with her father had been ambushed while attempting to scout ahead, taking Nyerere's jeep. Much of their party were injured or infirm and the roads would have been a small mercy. None of the youths returned from this. She felt the grief of their blood. She wept for them and it still stung.

Her skin crawled with the sudden apprehension that she was being watched. Ayanda rose to her feet, steadying herself with the staff. "Who is there?" The sounds of soft rainfall in the bush flushed her senses. She was aware of each individual drop that sputtered against the smoldering logs; of each muffled cough and sniffling nose. Further off she heard, or rather felt, Nyerere as he and the elders convened.

"You are sharp."

Ayanda and the flames reacted uncomfortably at the sound of the voice. It seemed to come from a deep cavern, disconnected from the surrounding jungle. A presence emerged into the shifting light of the fire. "Something flows around you; a great potential. It frightens me." Sudden recognition dawned upon Ayanda as she identified the voice as that of the woman that assisted Father Jefferson in her recovery. Ayanda had taken the woman's apprehension as an indication of the severity of her wounds. She stood silently, leaning heavily upon her staff.

Soft foot-falls grew nearer as the voice continued to speak. "Your father came to us in great disarray. We had yet to learn of the incident when he came rushing down the road in his jeep, honking his horn like a madman. You were left with me in the clinic as Father Jefferson took your father outside and tried to calm him down enough to explain your injuries. Your fever was in its third day; and you had been ranting whenever you weren't unconscious. You spoke of death and demons."

A hand gently pressed against her shoulders and the two sat side-by-side and the world around her was no longer a void. She found herself once more in the small clinic, astounded by the simulacra of sight she experienced. A passive and ghostly observer, Ayanda watched as a seated figure tended to her past-self. As she neared, she realized it was her present companion. She was heavy-set and radiated strength; her steady hands surprisingly gentle as she daubed at Ayanda's damaged eyes as she thrashed in agitated sleep.

Suddenly the supine form bolted upright as shoulders rose and fell in ragged breaths. The older woman, Faizah, tried to comfort the girl and return her to a restful position but found she could not budge the petite form who began to mutter snippets of the conversation Father Jefferson and Faizah had earlier that morning. A bowl filled with warm water and rags crashed to the ground and with it Ayanda was returned to the bush.

"What happened? Can you describe it?"

Ayanda's knees shook violently as she fought to make sense of what transpired. Since she'd lost her sight she had began to experience moments when an awareness she could barely fathom would come upon her. She sought to put into the words how vivid everything seemed at those moments and how rooted she was each time it happened. Faizah listened intently as the young girl described the strange turn her life had taken and knew of the importance of the role she'd one day play. Faizah would personally ensure that this girl be taken to those who could cultivate her gift.

The screams erupted from the other side of the camp; where most of the refugees had gathered to offer a semblance of normalcy in the dark days they dwelt in. Both women rose and turned to the source of the sound, and before Ayanda could react she already heard Faizah cutting through the dense foliage.

Steeling herself, she extended her free arm and began to move. Trying to flee would do her no good; she would have been lost even with her eyesight. Ayanda's senses were overwhelmed as she grew closer to the chaos; bestial snarling underscoring the panicked shrieks of children as the few defenders they had yelled commands to the group.

"To the Lualaba! To the river!"

The demand was followed by three blasts in rapid succession, accompanied by a vicious and pained bellow. She fell to her knees, the staff held tight against her chest. The rains intensified as her body wracked with sobs. Incapable of acting amidst the din of confusion she became a snack amongst delicacies. Undergrowth rustled as Nyerere ran and slid across the jungle floor, pleading with Ayanda to rise. He cradled her crumpled form while shakily loading shells into a shotgun.

"You have to get up! Ayanda!"

The sensation of her father's presence broke through the dissonance and she followed his command and stood, a hand upon Nyerere's shoulder as he assumed a kneeling position. Chambering a shell into a late-model Remington 1100, Nyerere scanned the tree-line as it violently shook with the movement of trampling beasts. They began to fall back to rejoin the others by the river as savage chuckles intermingled with the sound of snapping bones and tearing flesh.

The rush of the Lualaba and the splashing of survivors crossing it provided false confidence and Nyerere noticed just how much his daughter had grown in the past months. Her mother's strength lived on in Ayanda, and he knew she would need it in the days to come. "Go!" he yelled, pushing her towards the water and he turned; the searing pain he felt registering for an infinitesimal moment before he was reduced to spasming motor functions.

As her consciousness plunged beneath the Lualaba, it underwent a complete shift in criterion. She surfaced, and although her sight had not been restored she still emptied the contents of her stomach at what she saw. Her father's headless body convulsed as it was circled by what resembled a hyena as massive as her father's jeep. Its hide was mottled and matted. Viscous saliva fell from churning jaws that made quick work of its meal. Nyerere's remains were immediately pounced upon by similar yet smaller beasts that expelled a pungent secretion from engorged and prolapsed anuses.

Ayanda wiped the bile from her mouth with trembling hand. Once more she felt herself being consumed, not with sorrow but fury. It was the first time she had allowed herself to feel any anger since she'd lost her sight. She struggled to keep a brave face for Baba, even though she blamed him. It was his fault for accepting the job. It was his fault she was blind. It was his fault mo-- jagged shards of perse and peridot penetrated the river basin as it was torn apart; an extension of her rage. Tendrils of solid kolwezite churned through the muddied and bloodied waters as a platform began to rise, separating Ayanda and the remaining survivors from their pursuers. Rich deposits of the chromatic mineral began to layer over one another into a latticework that made an impromptu tomb for her father and a prison for his killers.

Retreating into the water, Ayanda retrieved her staff and with a gesture began to unconsciously carve a path through river and jungle. Her breaths again came in short and ragged gasps, the exertion overtaking her. Her steps faltered and before she could finish stumbling, Faizah appeared at her side, a bundle swaddled in one arm. A warm palm was pressed against Ayanda's forehead and the three of them were gone.

***

6-3-2022
800m SW of Marange, Free Territories (formerly Zimbabwe)


I'm counting three.. four groups of ilaalada, heavily armed with rotating patrol routes. There's a cluster of shacks to the west bordering fields of razertsanga.

Beads of sweat rolled down scarred cheeks as a set of binoculars was lowered; its worn leather straps dripping with collected perspiration. Taking up an elevated position south of the mining complex, Assad had scrambled up a tree to perform reconnaissance. Drying his hands on the cloth of a satchel on his hip, he produced a small notebook and quickly sketched a crude diagram of the site, marking down what he'd observed over the past several hours. Satisfied with its accuracy after taking one last glance, Assad pocketed the book and adjusted the AKs-74u slung over his back before descending.

The small camp he returned to had not existed hours before and would be gone within minutes of their passing. With him, their squad was composed of six fighters; six against an armed and experienced force of at least sixty. Even with the commander and her bodyguard, he did not see how they would take the mine.

His training and instinct told him this was suicide; he swallowed his insecurity and strode past the others to the lean-to that served as their FOB. Inside, the commander sat as she spoke with Tatonga and Takunda; brothers gifted with more bravery than the lion whose name Assad bore. All three turned as he approached, producing the notebook and extending it to his comrades.

After an awkward beat, the commander extended an arm and took the book with a smile. Heat rose from the back of his neck in embarrassment as he recalled her blindness. Assad hadn't been with the movement long, though he had heard much of the NYUNDO and their commander. Rumors said she was a powerful sorceress; he was more skeptical. In the months since he'd joined his time had been split between small incursions against Mbavha and passing along what he'd learned during his time with the Ciidanka Danab to the recruits.

"Many thanks, Assad. Not just for this, but for all you've done for the survival of our movement. These two were just commending you," she gestured to the brothers, "and if truth be told, would not have approved of this operation without your participation. It seems that even the mighty Gwinyai brothers know when to temper bravery with wisdom."

He gave a quick salute at her words before stammering, "The.. I.. There's a map in there of the mine, commander."
"Please, we are all soldiers here. My name is Ayanda."
"Yes, com- Ayanda."

With another gesture from her, Tatonga took the book from Assad and began to commit it to memory as Takunda crossed the cramped quarters, giving up his seat next to the commander.
"Come, sit and tell me- given what you've observed, what do you think?"

He began as his back pressed uncomfortably against a thatch wall, "The complex is heavily fortified. The only entrance is from the south, on an old bridge flanked by guard towers. I marked the two sharpshooters I spotted on the map, armed with Dragunovs."

Dabbing sweat off himself, he continued with his report as the commander sat quietly, an eerie calm radiating outwards from her. "There's a gunner's nest overlooking the razertsanga fields to the west, while the north and east are inaccessible given our equipment. There is no viable entrance for us, commander. Forgive me- Ayanda. But this is suicide given our limited numbers and no viable point of entrance."

The humidity in the hut was becoming unbearable; he was a soldier, not a martyr. The NYUNDO prided themselves on open and direct communication amongst its members, but he felt he had over-stepped his bounds and insulted his superior. She continued to sit in silence as she measured her response.

"Your honesty is what I asked for, and it is what I have been given. Feel no shame in what you've said, for I wouldn't ask the impossible of you. I reserve that for myself."

The soil at their feet began to churn as several roots rose, their tendrils coiling over one another until they had formed an ersatz table, upon which a miniature survey of the mine took shape, down to the position of personnel. A wave of concentration passed over her face as the minute forms of soldiers began to move.

"You missed a few."

Assad gave a stunned chuckle as he began to see why Tatonga and Takunda so fervently believed in the commander. She continued, the actions of her words being played out before them as the walls of the hut unfurled like a blossoming flower, the other fighters save one gathering 'round to see the plan of attack. They would strike in a few hours' time, as darkness descended.

Assad looked over to the boy who sat alone as the others listened; he stared fixedly at the ground as he absent-mindedly loaded .45 rounds into spare magazines. Could this boy, no older than sixteen truly be the commander's bodyguard? Did she require one? The two of them were unknown variables to Assad, but the others were convinced. Even Khethiwe, who took every assignment with the utmost gravity seemed to be put at ease. Insh'Allah they were right.

That night...

Tall stalks of razerstanga swayed to the whims of breezes that swept through the field; the six of them kept low to the ground as they moved towards the shacks at the field's edge. Mshale led the squad while Ayanda brought up the rear; exerting her willpower to keep the serrated edges of the mutated grain from rending their group asunder. The rustling of their gear was masked by the deep rumble of the generators used to power Marange and its industrial mining equipment.

Approaching the end of their cover, the group came to a stop as Mshale gave the command to halt. Weapons were quickly readied as all listened intently. The acrid smell of tumbaku rose in spindly plumes. Two voices were in a heated discussion over rations, angered over the end of most foreign aid to the continent. The guards paced the length of the field, unknowingly passing their location.

"What if we kill some miners? We say to big boss there was kumukira and we had to. More food for us. Maybe more tumbaku." The two shook free hands as they chuckled at their brilliance. "Big boss won't like there was kumukira," the other added, "means fun for us too."

The laughter in their throats turned to confused gasps as the microscopic particulates of tobacco they'd inhaled began to violently amalgamate within their lungs, suffocating them as Takunda and Tatonga emerged from the fields in a crouched run, relieving the guards of their firearms as their convulsing forms were left to asphyxiate hidden from view.

Emerging in unison, the squad quickly made their way towards the bridge to secure it for when reinforcements arrived. The route Ayanda had chosen wove through a congregation of shacks and shipping containers that had once stored aid that these fulayos hoarded. They began advancing, methodically securing each building as they progressed.

The first few stored harvested razertsanga and the tools necessary to perform such a dangerous task. It was halfway through when the stench began. Assad had grown accustomed to it in 30 years of bloodshed; horror had become routine. Grim looks were exchanged as the Gwinyai brothers took point and entered the darkened doorway.

The two returned with ashen faces; no more had to be said. Razertsanga requires a steady supply of meat to maintain it and miners too broken to work were the ideal source once they could no longer be worked. Huddled together, the dead and dying miners could do little to offer any support, but those strong enough spoke of others deeper into the facility. Khethiwe and the Gwinyai brothers went to work moving the living into an adjacent building as Assad approached the commander and her guard.

"Orders, commander?" he asked, adjusting his grip on the weapon's receiver.
"Mshale and I will continue with the assault while Khethiwe and the Gwinyais guard the survivors. I am trusting you to secure the bridge and watch tower once we begin and signal the secondary unit."

He hesitated then gave a brief nod before breaking into a silent sprint towards a deep channel the commander had created, giving him ample cover to get into position at the foot of the bridge. Assad thumbed the safety off of his AKs-74u and whispered a prayer as motes of dust hung in the air. Checking his watch, Assad finished his prayer as the moment drew near. He steadied his weapon as the first rapports began, followed by heavy boots across the bridge's wooden planks as the mine's guards moved to engage the commander.

She knew how to keep the enemy's attention, Assad admitted as he clambered up the bridge's supports. Coming over the top, he immediately assumed a prone firing position and tore through the two remaining guardsmen with quick bursts of gunfire. He rose to one knee, and replaced the half-empty magazine with a fresh one.

Satisfied that there were no more visible threats, Assad continued to the end of the bridge and up the small watch tower. He pushed the still gurgling body of a guard aside and fired a flare into the night sky. Retrieving the fallen guard's Dragunov, he took up an overwatch position and awaited the others.

Meanwhile...

Ayanda felt the hushed foot falls retreating away from her as Assad followed her commands. He was a good soldier, and a much needed addition to NYUNDO. She'd felt overwhelmed ever since committing herself to bringing peace to the Free Territories. Early ties with what had remained of the Comte Foundation and other humanitarian organizations did much when the quarantine began, but those resources dwindled years ago. Liberating Marange would do much for security amongst the neighboring peoples.

The polished bands of Mpingo that adorned Ayanda's neck, wrists and shins pulsed with life as luminous patches of moss swelled within unfurling wooden strands. The growth continued, a thick resin bubbling forth that formed layer upon layer of protective armor. A smooth and featureless casque turned towards Mshale, and her voice echoed strangely inside it as she gave an arduous grunt, propelling Mshale and herself forward upon a throbbing wave of upturned earth.

The shrill buzz of passing rounds was a minor agitation as most of them were far off the mark; fired in desperation as crystalline thorns erupted from the soil before shattering in volleys of piercing shrapnel. Mshale took the lead, a concussive wave of telepathic might tearing through several firing positions. He landed deftly, firing a M1911 pistol while projecting a field to protect his exposed flank.

The flare round fizzled high into the air in a twisting parabola, casting an ominous red tinge as small fires began to break out in the barracks on the far side of the mining complex. A steady trickle of blood began to pour from Mshale's nose as rounds flattened against his barrier; and with a surge of willpower he launched an onslaught outwards that caused flesh to tear and bone to splinter within its radius. Pushing the opposition's forces back into the excavated caverns, Ayanda gave her guard the command to rest as she pushed on.

Her consciousness extended throughout the network of tunnels and shafts that had been dug through years of suffering. Her abilities weren't necessary to feel the overbearing sense of misery that permeated the air. Her heart raced as she felt each atrocity come down upon her like a lash. Phantasms of memory acted out before her in awful repetition, and in this ghastly stupor she stumbled deeper into the mine until she came to a wide chamber, illuminated with hundreds of candles.

"You come, muroyi!" a voice reverberated through the room; it was slick with malice and felt as ancient as their surroundings. A deep pool of fetid water had flooded the lower half of the cavern and in it danced the gaunt speaker.

Her senses were overcome by a palpable manifestation of the corruption that had spread since long before the Val'Gara had arrived. A flurry of flames shot towards her form as she leapt backwards defensively. Summoning her strength and focusing through the haze of haunted recollections, she created a stannic spire that erupted with the exposed flames and came down upon the grotesque leader of Marange.

Thick clouds of smoke and dust rose from an exposed hole in the ceiling of the cavernous chamber. Moonlight rushed to reach earth that had not seen light of its kind in ages. Ayanda gave an exhausted shrug as her armor fell away; a dulled clatter on the rubble. She stepped forward into the pool and as her arms opened to bask in the cool air, the water began to return to its pristine state.

***

20-7-2039
XSF Delta Station, Karoo, South Africa


Drumming the end of a pen against the lip of his mug, Pt. Mikalson looked wistfully as the clock ticked on. It was almost lunch time and they were serving roasted sonderhond that Keller had managed to track his last time into the bush. He'd been stationed here two months ago, having graduated from the Cape Town Academy with less than stellar marks. The occasional bushmeat had been his only real pleasure in what seemed like endless stretches of mindless minutiae. He didn't really see the point of having operational stations within Xanathan lands.

A chime from a small speaker on his desk went off as a notification blipped on the screen. He gave the keyboard a dissatisfied prod with his makeshift drumstick, his eyes poring over one of several daily reports from low-flying drones. Much of the troposphere had been heavily irradiated during the creation of the Glasveld and all but their most advanced aircraft could navigate the skies without disruption. It was usually nothing but grainy images of skirmishes amongst the "free peoples" or packs of Valdieren . He knocked over the mug with a crash as he reached for radio's transmitter.

"Kry my die generaal!"

1-8-2039
Mt. Cameroon


The interference seemed unavoidable, Lt. Smit observed as he completed a third round of calibrations on the recording equipment each XSF operator was outfitted with. He gave the monitor displaying the feed one last exasperated smack before taking a seat. Smit watched on in detached appraisal as he relayed the order to commence. Distortion filtered through the feed as each operator began to move in on the coordinates the drone had provided a week earlier. His attention focused on that of the lead field agent who raised the barrel of his H&K G36, nodding curtly as two other agents breeched the thatch door of a dilapidated shack.

The three entered, clearing their sectors. A halo briefly appeared on screen as the agent switched on their PR-3 G2 rail flashlight. Automatically adjusting for the new light source, the video feed clearly revelealed the contents of the cramped quarters. The other two operators exited, providing the lead ample room to perform his investigation.

He began overturning the room's limited furniture, scouring for any sign of its inhabitant. Flipping over a cot, he discovered a collection of singed notes bundled in the coarse tatters of a field bag.

A shadow shifted overhead as the gaunt form of a hirsute man dropped from the ceiling's arches. He crashed against the operator's tactical vest and clawed frantically at the man's prostrate form.

A horrendeous and guttural bellow came from the rabid being as he successfully took back his belongings, as well as some of the man's ear he'd managed to bite off in the fray. His animalistic celebration was cut short as the fiberglass buttstock of a rifle slammed against a wagging mane.

5-8-2039
300km W of Xanathan Outpost Lamda-5 (Somewhere in former Angola)


"How'd you let this doos get the drop on you, eh?" a voice guffawed as he struck the safety glass of the containment cell. "Fucking hell, he stinks worse than your mother's poes! At least the fucker's stopped yelling, eh? Or could you not hear him, Danse?"
Another guffaw as the hunched form within the cell gave the man a contemptuous glare from sunken, sallow eyes. It had taken him two days to cease yelling since separated from the bag, whose contents were currently being analyzed in the research vehicle that was part of their caravan. Primary analyses revealed high levels of radiation, along with various dormant strains of unknown pathogens.

Danse leaned over and peered out from beneath the guaze that covered his wound. With a grimace he spat on the prisoner and audibly complained, "Why do we have to keep it alive? It's obviously another mutie and should be put down." Danse unholstered his service pistol and rapped it impatiently against the plexiglass pane in an attempt to gesture towards the research vehicle. "Once they figure out you're useless, I'll be glad to kill you myself. I know how to make it-"

His words hung in the air as the armored personnel carrier was explosively launched upwards, its passengers rattling around its cabin with bone-breaking force.
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Bharata stood at the forefront of the table, his palms resting flat on the mahogany surface. His eyes looked up over the rims of his glasses, searching the faces of each and every person at the table. He stood silently, questioningly. His fingers rapped softly, and as he stood there - scanning their faces for any sign of treachery, he began to question their motives entirely. Why were they here? Had they any intention of taking this seriously, or did they simply show up to appease the boss man? The members of the board weren't quite the smartest of the lot, chosen instead for their inability to disobey the boss, than their ability to actually run Xanathan. That was up to him, he'd taken it from a single country to a worldwide supplier of goods. They grew more and more as the years passed, and their foothold over Africa was only the beginning. So, he looked at them and wondered if they even cared about that - or if they simply wanted to ride on his coattails. They'd certainly done that, no one in the room was worth near what he was - but considerly more than the average person in a company such as this one.

"All in," he said suddenly, pushing a fair amount of chips to the center of the table before settling back into his chair. He knew he had them beaten, his hand was a good one. Two pairs. He just knew they couldn't beat that. None of them were that lucky, surely. So, as he sat back down he watched the table. Each man, in turn, laid down their cards into the discard pile. Folding their hands, and conceding defeat to their boss. His laughter rang out, and he pulled back twice the amount of chips he'd pushed into it. "I knew I had you guys beat, you're all so easy to read."

They chuckled nervously, and the deck passed on to the next man, to be doled out in kind again. As the man began dealing, the double-doors leading out of the conference room busted open. There stood the bald-headed man with an eye tattooed in the center of his forehead. Markus walked across the room, and shifted to sit on the table next to Bharata's growing chip pile. He didn't speak, in fact he couldn't speak. His tongue was cut out long ago by people who didn't enjoy hearing their own thoughts spoken aloud, or their futures told in the voice of a child.

"We have a problem, boss," the other transmitted into his brain, his psychic power overruling Bharata's intense focus and defenses. It became something of a game to them, to see whose mind was the strongest - though Markus always won," our convoy heading out of Lamda-5 was hit. We're not entirely sure by what, or who, but they took him."

The him Markus referred to was well known to Bharata, they'd sought him out for years now. Out in the Glasslands, where nothing could survive for long on its own - especially not without the proper defenses against the environment. Finally, they found him and now Markus was here telling him that the man was gone? They needed him. He was essential to their plans, to their studies. Bharata slapped the table with enough force to knock over everyones pile of chips.

"Goddammit, Markus." He spoke back into the other's head. Even his mental voice seethed with anger, with frustration. But, not at the loss of the man. "You interrupted the game, I was winning - there was no way they could have beaten me. I bluffed them out easy the last hand, and now you're here interrupting when I could take them for everything they have."

"Sir," Markus began, a slight chuckle to his mind-voice, "the man to your right folded a Royal Flush. Of course you were going to win, they knew you would win before they ever showed up here. They always let you win, because a happy boss means a happy workplace."

Bharata slammed his hand down on the table again, this time with his anger seething out in his real voice. "Johnson, are you letting me win? Are all of you letting me win?" He bellowed, his eyes dark and cold. No sign of human emotion, of empathy, within them. The people gathered around the table nodded their heads, each slightly but enough to notice. Nerves filled the room, and their hands shook.

They knew what was coming.

Bharata whipped out his personal firearm, a Beretta .45. Firing one shot a piece, he put a bullet between the eyes of every single person sitting at the table. 'Was that really necessary, sir? Now I have to find and vett you another board of directors, and you know how time-consuming that can be.'

'Shut up, Markus. Meet me in my office in ten minutes, and we'll discuss what we're going to be doing about this situation.'

Five minutes later

Standing in the middle of his office, an array of televisions lined up on the far wall and his eyes focused on them entirely. He watched the footage of XSF Delta, taken from their security feeds and stored wirelessly in their satellites. Then, he watched the footage from Mt. Cameron, and on another screen the footage of his convoy violently exploding upwards, into the sky. He watched silently, as Markus prepared to speak. They'd made haste here, especially after learning of two other attacks on their people in the field.

"What could be causing this, Markus? Who could be doing this? Have we not done right by the people of Africa, who would seek to turn against us?"

"Probably the people living in the wildlands, sir. They tend to not like the oversight, or the good lives we've offered. Their families eat because of us, survive because of us. The diamond mines are a great source of work, and they are paid fairly for their tasks."

Of course, in a civilized world their pay would be considered very subpar, almost insulting. But, for the jobs they had available, they made a wage that could at least allow a person in their household to survive. Probably not the whole household though, and definitely not in anything considered a house.

Bharata nodded, and walked over to his phone. Pressing the one button, and the intercom button he immediately rang up his secretary's office. "Martha, connect me with Operations."

"Immediately, sir," her soft british accent always got him. That's why he hired the woman, not for her ability to do the job - but for her ability to suck a dick.

A bit later, one of the screens on the wall shifted - and the face of a hard, violent woman stared back at him from somewhere near the Glasslands. "Colonel, you wanna tell me what the hell is going on out there?" Bharata demanded, his voice laced with the hint that if she didn't, there would be hell to pay. "You've been attacked three times in one night, and I'm not sure by who or what. Care to explain?"

"Sir, from what we've gathered from...information obtaining techniques....it's a group of militant radicals. We're unsure of their motives, their means, or what they hope to accomplish. In fact, we don't even know the names of their leaders, or how many of them there are. It's like, before last night, none of them even existed."

"Well you better damn well find out something we can use to stop them, Colonel, or I might be looking into replacing you along with the rest of the board."

In the background, a man stopped moving. On her screen, he turned and looked - but didn't truly see. Without thinking, he spoke; "HOW DARE YOU TALK TO MY WIFE LIKE THAT, WHO IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU A-"

Before he could even finish his insulting words, Bharata's hand snapped to his left. It shifted as if through a pool of nothing, and came out on the other side. His hand grabbed the others jaw and pulled him through, all the way from the Glasslands to Johannesburg HQ. His nose touched the others, and his eyes were cold and dead inside.

"I think I am Bharata Rendenvauld, your boss. The boss of your wife, and the man who will happily spit-roast you and watch as your skin melts away and your meat cooks, before I enjoy you with my evening tea. Now, I think it best if you hush your insolent mouth and return to your post, do your job, and I might find it in my heart to let you live long enough to see me fuck your wife, are we clear?"

The other man nodded, fear prevalent above all else. Bharata releasted him with a shove, sending him back through the opening in space/time and letting him fall on his ass behind his wife. He immediately stood up, steadied himself, and then rushed off-screen. Presumably to return to his assigned tasks.

'You shouldn't be so rude with them, sir. What if they turn on you, because of the way you treat them?'

'Ah, Markus. They don't have the balls to turn on me, they know what would happen. They can't run, they can't hide. They can only cower in fear of my strength, before I remove them from this life. They are unimportant anyway, mercenaries hired and trained to act as Xanathan Security Forces. There's a million more where they come from. No, the important ones are gone - they had custody of our charge and they failed in their task. Hopefully a survivor comes forward to tell us what happened, but even he will be put down for his failures.'

Bharata turned back to the colonel, and he gave her a look of pure hatred before shutting off the screens. He immediately returned to his desk, and began sifting through the days paperwork and preparing things in case he had to get out in the field himself and handle the situation. Something he was not fond of doing, but knew might become necessary soon.
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As the laminated cardboard door creaked wide, Ndakala Blayhi glanced up from the plywood slab and plastic crates that composed his desk. With a gesture, he lifted cheap horn-rimmed glasses off the bridge of his nose; not prescription, but adequate to read words on a page. Expressions were another matter. Still on his desk, atop a stack of papers, was his new identification card. On it was printed and embossed his third name, same as his first and inherited from his grandfather, an Efé village shaman. He was proud to reclaim it, but likewise ashamed the journey took so long. While his former and second name, Joshua, availed him security and opportunity, he now recognized it came at the cost of identity. ‘Joshua’ was a symbolic rejection of his past—an ingratiation to those in power over his world. This was something he could not comprehend as a young boy, but now, much later in life, recognized the subtext.

Fortunately, he outlived the west's cultural war. They lost. Not to his people, who were too disorganized and fraught with internal strife to ever stand up to the west; rather, unable to cope with the fallout of the Val’Gara attack, the west abandoned him, his kinsmen, his country, and the whole African continent. In their place reigned chaos and an alien business—Xanathan Enterprises. Still, the quarantine was the direct cause that yielded a new era of violent cultural revitalization, even as new powers sought to impose their will on the cradle of humankind.

‘Joshua’ was now a liability. Were it not for that, apathy would have hewn it on his tombstone.

“How may I help you, Digbo?” he asked.

The stock clerk’s attention drifted to the single personal item in the makeshift office tucked behind pallets of melons, paper towels, and water. It was his first day on the job, but Ndakala thought he would do well as a member of the Aldi famiy.

“Ah,” Ndakala carefully lifted the bibelot and looked at it the way he always did, as though it was his first time. “My grandfather, my mother, and myself. One of few photos taken of the Efé village in the Ituri. Yes, yes, that young man was me. Now I am old and my hair—I use to have some, as you can see—what little is left is white.”

He laughed and carefully set it back down on his desk.

“But what interest does a young man with his life in front of him have in an old man? No doubt you are anxious to leave and celebrate life.”

Digbo, a dark rhino of a youth from Kraaifontein district, just shrugged his heavy round shoulders and vaguely smiled. A former rugby player and, at six foot five inches, over two feet taller than Ndakala, Digbo wasn’t much of a talker. Most of those who worked in the back were quiet. The cashiers were the ones who loved to socialize.

Ndakala stood up, went back to the safe, keyed in the combination, and found the company checkbook. He removed just one check, secured the safe, turned around, sat down at his desk, and filled it out. Done, he stood up, handed it to Digbo, and shook his hand.

“What better way to celebrate than with your first paycheck, yes?”

That got a much larger smile. Toothy white, a handsome contrast.

Ndakala nodded and smiled back, “Good, good. Be well. I hope to see you still here after I return in a few days.”

“Yes, sir, Mister Blahyi. You will.”

Digbo turned and left, leaving Ndakala once more alone. Not a nosy one, that, he thought as he brushed a fly off a patch of melanoma-poisoned skin on his bald head. No doubt he was more interested in checking in on his friends or a special someone than the sojourns of an old man. Still, Digbo appeared trustworthy, strong, and showed consideration for his fellow Aldi employs. Eventually, Ndakala might recruit him to a broader humanitarian interest.

Eventually, everyone was gone and he, as manager, was left to turn off the lights and lock up the store. His assistant manager would unlock it in the morning. Aldi—indeed, most of Cape Town—didn’t operate on the 24/7 immediate gratification work cycle of the west. He was glad of that.
Hidden 1 yr ago 2 mos ago Post by apathy
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5-8-2039
288km W of Xanathan Outpost Lamda-5 (Somewhere in former Angola)


"Danse!"

The image; a singeing cascade of sparks that swam to him through the stupor of trauma. There was a sound, layered deep beneath the muted thumping of his own erratic heartbeat. The form of Corporal Danse struggled as he attempted to rise, his movements impeded by an unknown weight. His gaze scanned down, past the tactical rig and plate carrier from which protruded the better half of a five-inch long steel projectile. Bloodied and unsteady hands tried to free it from the armor, but it would not yield. The adrenaline that surged through his body was beginning to falter, and with its ebb came pain's flow.

"Danse!"

Bile rose in his throat as his eyes fixed on the exposed tissue and bone of his legs. The splintered end of his right fibula was barely held in place by the straps of the kevlar panels that had failed to protect him. He fought the urge to vomit into his own wounds, even as the pain began to peak. Using one of his arms as a fulchrum, Danse strove to pull himself upwards enough to free the drop pouch secured to his war belt. Successfully retrieving an autoinjector, Danse immediately pressed it against his jugular and bellowed as a cocktail of combat enhancers and receptor-inhibitors flooded his system.

With the sudden flush of chemicals pumping through him, recognition gripped Danse as he yelled in response, "What the fuck was that?" He tightened the straps on his damaged leg's armor, fashioning a makeshift torniquet and splint. It was then that he realized his orientation wasn't quite what it had been before he awoke in this condition. Danse found himself with his back propped up by the vehicle's ceiling; the dust within the cabin was beginning to settle as he hobbled towards the voice.

Passing the containment cell that housed that mutant bastard, Danse peered inside but was unable to make out much through haze. There was a large crater directly across from him, something having torn through the APC's foot-thick composite armor with relative ease. Reaching the control console, he began hailing all XSF frequencies only to be met with static on each channel.

"Danse..."

The voice called out to him, hardly above a whisper, but he was relatively sure he was alone. He peered down the cabin's length, searching for any sign of his squad. It was then that he noticed the cell's door was cracked open. Danse drew his service pistol and approached it cautiously; he pulled the door open and waited for the air to clear somewhat before looking in.

"D-"

He looked down at the crumpled form of Specialist Wyckers struggling to hold closed the split across his abdomen. Thick blood oozed between the folds of his arms and his chest rose and fell in a crude imitation of breathing. A gurgle rose from Wyckers as he attempted to call out once more, only for the resounding echo of a gunshot to reverberate throughout the compartment.

Keeping his weapon drawn, Danse attempted to leave through the rear door but was unable to force them open. He turned and exited through the blast point, gritting his teeth as he slowly shifted weight onto his injured leg. The rest of his squad were laid out in the road in several stages of dismemberment, some still deluding themselves into thinking they were counted amongst the living.

The rest of the convoy was nowhere to be seen, he noted. Glancing at the state of his leg and weighing the odds of survival alone; Danse injected himself with a second and most likely lethal dose and pulled himself onto the top, or bottom, of the vehicle to gain some height. In the wake of hyper-awareness, he could hear a battle raging in the distance. Against the night sky he saw several pillars of smoke rising; and there close-by... Movement!

Earlier that night...

Reclined against the massive bole of a baobab, Mshale carefully studied the path Aya had spent much of her concentration creating since old Assad had come up with this plan months ago. It was devious of the old lion, creating the most efficient and therefore cheap route for Xanathan and their dogs to take. So pleased was the commander with the plan that, for the fist time in months, Mshale saw her smile and completely break away from looking into the Kichaka Siri.

Peering through the baobab's boughs at the moon, Mshale inhaled the sweet perfume of its fruit. Tempted, he gave in and with the flicker of a thought one of the fruits flew into an outstretched palm. A crack appeared across its shell and half of it was flung away.

Mshale tossed a pulp-covered seed into his mouth and adopted a meditative pose. He began to concentrate and collect his might into precise points along the road; an intense application of his willpower over the next hours would yield blasts far beyond what Xanathan was prepared for. He smiled, savoring the flavor. Mshale would enjoy tonight very much.
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An old woman sat in the back of Ndakala’s rented bush jeep. She looked far less than her years, but wealth, whiteness, and access to good food and better doctors were larger factors in that than personal genetics. Most hated her ilk. He was not most. Motives, however racially-underpinned or subliminated with guilt, were what earned his respect. Misguided though she was, he understood that she wanted to be of service to his people. Most outsiders, like her, couldn’t help but be fools, and behind him she sat in an immaculate white pantsuit with a floral-print silk scarf flung around her long neck with precision sufficient to make it appear an afterthought. Atop her head was a woven grass hat, which shielded her sweat-flecked brow from the subtropic sun. Barely an hour into the day and the humidity sweltered such that it compelled a paper fan from her satchel.

Her name was Lydia Benson, but to him she was the rich American woman who wanted to visit the place where such a pittance of her wealth was philanthropically invested.

“We are almost to the village, Lady. Maybe another hour, maybe two,” he said as the road turned east, away from the open highveld and into bush forest. The night before, his friend and pilot brought them by propeller plane from Cape Town to Johannesburg, still a bustling city, but also the last bastion of relative safety and civilization under Xanathan rule before wilderness and lawlessness took over. It was a perilous journey given the restrictions imposed on flights in the wake of the Iberian Incident—that being the reason his client remained still in South Africa and why he was making another trip up into the jungle. The details were still sparse, but from what he understood an alien city appeared and buried tens of millions of Earth’s citizens.

He refocused his thoughts back on the journey and their destination. Already, they had spent three hours driving along abandoned roads and over open fields. Now they were in the former Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve, just south of the Olifantsrivier, and close to where she wanted to be taken—the village of Phalaborwa.

Suddenly, she screamed; more of a stifled rasp, as he heard the sound of her palm fold over her mouth.

Evidently her eyes were far better than his, for it was a moment or two later before he saw what provoked such a reaction. Half a mile up the road, an overturned personnel carrier smoked. Around it were jeeps upended and on fire. Bodies were strewn all over. One was impaled on the stump of a dead tree, aloft like a macabre scarecrow. Instinctively, he stopped, snatched up his binoculars, and took in the details. The carnage appeared recent, maybe a few hours old. Blood still pooled from the wounds of what might be unconscious survivors. The vehicles were Xanathan, no doubt about it. He knew not what crazy guirellas dared venture so deep into the corporation’s territory, but they must not have accounted for the consequences that would befall the entire region. The riposte would be horrible and it would go worse for anyone found in this area.

“We have to leave right away. We can’t go this way, Lady. We have to go around. North. Off-road. It will add another two hours on to our trip, but I know a way. Through a canyon. Very dangerous, but it is either that or turn around.”

She nodded.

“Keep going?”

She nodded again.

He started the jeep, backtracked two miles, and turned up a game path that led down a steep embankment. It was mere minutes after his jeep was safe beneath the cover of the brush that he heard the choppers. It wasn’t the time to keep moving, it was the time to wait. He stopped, motioned for Lydia to get out, and they both crawled underneath the vehicle in the hopes of evading any thermal scans—if it wasn’t already too late.

“Just keep calm and quiet and nobody will know we’re here,” Ndakala whispered.
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Danse’s vision pulsed as his eyes darted around, his peripherals hyper-aware to threats and movement. His breath came ragged as his heart pounded in his chest, verging on cardiac arrest. Against the evening backdrop he noticed something shifting in the shrubbery, and with a swiftness that indicated second-nature he trained his firearm on the perceived threat. Even though the weather had cooled dramatically from the african day temperature, sweat beaded down the Corporal’s temple.

A blank-faced south-african man stumbled out of the bush. Danse recognized the close-cropped hair, the young face (though devoid of the enthusiasm it once carried), and the slight build of Private Bekkers. All things considered he was a newbie, who just graduated basic training. The Corporal lowered the sights of his pistol, and considered for only a moment the disappointment of finding such hopes for a promising new recruit dashed by cowardice.

That moment was far too long.

Bekkers took two drunken steps forward, the first revealing his ruined left leg, the second revealing the charred and missing sections of his back where the uniform burned away. Then something leaped over his shoulders with a snarl, pouncing the distance like a hunting lion out of savannah grass. Danse’s shoulder jerked as he rattled off two shots, the first of which was wide, wild, and fled into the bush. For the second shot his combat enhancers and sensory focusers kicked in, and with a form that indicated a maneuver that was second-nature to him, delivered a round into the shoulder of the creature formerly known as Arentino Swain. It wasn’t enough, and Danse quickly became the sundered gazelle, as the creature jammed his fingers into the soldiers stomach, lifted him off his feet, and tore him apart.

The creature, a pale-skinned emaciated humanoid, crept away from Danse’s corpse in its preferred posture of toes and palms. Each arm feeling out ahead of the main body like the willowy limbs of a spider. Through ragged breaths and patchy hair that strung down his face, the creature formerly known Arentino glared at the distant firefight. He squinted his eyes, to view the plume of smoke in the distance, and scampered towards it.

Supernatural bound telepathy comforted the creature with ancient Khoisan click-consonants beckoning him forth. ”The story of the columns is close.“

Creeping forward, the escorting ATVs to the caravan lay in a disheveled wreck, strewn about blasted cape figs and shattered african junipers. The acrid smell of oxidized oil amalgamated with the smoky scent of burning wood. The creature kept low, and snuck about, making his way to the first of the vans: a hunk of metal that had been corkscrewed by some unseen force. He silently made his way to the unhinged rear doors and could see the upper half of one of the security details that had been sheared in two in the confrontation.

He hunched over the corpse, glancing over his shoulder before dabbing his thumb in the pool of blood and anointed the bisected body. With his thumb, his brush, and his nails, his scarifiers, he created his sigilry on the carcass’s forehead and imparted what little magic the bokor had at his disposal. “The body of flesh is empty. Where is my treasure?” He hissed through rotted, black teeth. A moment passed before the remains gasped, as if it had been drowning only a moment earlier. The corpse looked at him with frosted eyes and its jaw worked as if it had not been used in years.

“The first vehicle, fifty meters west,” it gurgled, “center console.”

Growing more and more suspicious of his surroundings the creature snuck forward to the foremost vehicle and, surprisingly, among the least damaged of the vehicles, even though its wheels popped off and its windows were all shattered. It was not merely mangled enough to not be recognized as the armored vehicle that it used to be. Its insides glowed a faint orange, but fire was never one to keep him from his prize. Swain snuck forwards clambering up the passenger side door and felt inside for the glove compartment.
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6-8-2039
Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve, Xanathan Territories


"Just keep calm and quiet and nobody will know we're here," the voice spoke from beneath the vehicle that had been hastily covered in whatever brush was available. Its source was an older gentleman, much smaller in stature than his companion; a garishly attired mzungu. The scent alone of her perfume had ridden the evening breeze for miles and had been one of many variables of the past several hours she could not have possibly accounted for. All her planning; ruined in moments. But how could she rush the separation of a family; if even for just days?

The Lioness slipped out from her perch amongst the boughs and landed inaudibly behind the vehicle. She paused and cocked her head towards the distant chop of helicopter rotors. She had little time to act before the opposition's forces swelled and began its onslaught against anyone within 100km of her mistake. But she could fix it; even as she saw the old Lion, stone-faced but eyes gleaming with laughter. Father always said plans were just a list of things that never came together. He was right; most of the time.

Clenching the edge of the jeep's rear chassis, she lifted the vehicle with ease and smiled down at the supine pair. "Not quiet enough, but do keep calm," she chuckled self-consciously at her use of English before continuing, "Now come on out from there. We don't have much time." Lowering the jeep, the Lioness quickly took in what little details she had missed while observing them previously. The man was old but seemed in good health; the older woman reeked of perfume and plastics.

The Lioness turned to the old man and she quickly riffed through a few languages until they settled on Xhosa.

"Now, the following is going to be very confusing but if we are to survive you're going to have to trust me. An easy request of me to make; far easier than the reality of what is going to happen. In minutes more of Xanathan's wasps will be in the air and boots will be quick to follow. They won't care how rich this one is," she gestured to the older woman who had just noticed the smear of mud down the center of her pristine suit, "and they definitely won't care about us. Odds are they pinged this jeep when they passed. I'm sorry, but there might not be anything for you to return to." The Lioness laid a heavy hand on the diminutive man's shoulder. "But I have a way out. You're just going to have to do something for me."

Ndakala was not one to refuse help when offered, although this one came with an extraordinarily ominous tone. In Xhosa, he replied, "We are grateful for any help you have to offer. Our destination is the village of Phalaborwa. Can you help us get there?"

The Lioness shook her head gravely in response. "Very well. The old woman will be a problem at some point, but for now I think she'll cooperate. Once the danger has passed and the shock wanes, she'll try to assert her privilege."

She chuckled at the old man's honesty and gave him a second, more genial pat on the shoulder. "That is their way."

Moving away from the group, she strode over to some brush nestled beneath a fever tree and knelt. After a few hushed words she returned leading a small child by the hand, covered in grime. The girl shivered with cold and exhaustion as she was set in the rear of the jeep.

The Lioness removed the remains of her dress; tattered and singed from earlier in the night; and did her best to warm the child. Removing the crystal that hung from her neck, she whispered to it in a language unfamiliar to the others then proceeded to plunge it into the soil with a burying blow. Almost immediately the earth began to churn and a crude tunnel took form in front of the vehicle.

"Don't stop driving, just follow the tunnel until someone meets you. No harm will come to you this or any other night. But you must be quick."

The jeep's engine silently turned over and began to crawl forward as its headlights struggled to illuminate the tunnel's depths. The Lioness stood silhouetted against the night sky as she called out to the group; the echo of her voice quickly fading. "Thank you for this. I, Najwa Moghadani, am in your debt."

Najwa turned and sprinted down a second opening that had appeared as the first began to crumble, leaving nothing but loose soil seconds after their disappearing underground.

5-8-2039
300km W of Xanathan Outpost Lamda-5 (Somewhere in former Angola)


<< Lamda-5, Lamda-5, do you copy?! This is Jagter-Actual! We are under attack! Jagter-0 is down! The fucking tank is down! Is anyone fucking listening? >>

Lt. Smit slammed the receiver into its cradle as static was the only response to his increasing panic. The lieutenant struggled to make sense of the carnage that surrounded him. He knelt behind the hard cover of the command vehicle as a gunner fired the coaxial MG into the treeline, doing his best imitation of a chainsaw. This wasn't the fighting he'd grown used to. Even the most organized of the rebels he'd encountered in his ten years of service had never brought a full convoy to an explosive halt.

Smit had watched with mouth agape as the main gun of Jagter-O erupted as an unspent HE shell traveled down its length; the rippling vapor of the heat from the blast had destroyed most of the tank after it withstood whatever initial blasts had crippled nearly every vehicle and sent an armored personnel carrier skyward. He peered at the monitor embedded into the forearm of his prosthetic but whatever was disrupting his communications was also interfering with much of their equipment.

Fitting a 40mm grenade into the tube mounted beneath the barrel of his weapon; Smit fired the projectile in a deadly parabolic arc into the treeline where the gunner was focused. Turning to give his man a reassuring thumbs up, the lieutenant felt the warmth drain from his being as the gunner's body twisted crudely; a broken marionette in the hands of a sadistic puppeteer. Blood flowed from the man's mouth as his brain struggled to process its new reality...

6-8-2039
Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve, Xanathan Territories


There was little sound in the tunnel beyond the rapid patter of sprinting feet and the Lioness' breaths; deep and even inhalations of a highly-tuned machine which moved towards the small village that bordered the larger town of Phalaborwa. If she'd acted with enough time, she might be able to evacuate the village before the onslaught started. If she hadn't, well- she would deal with what would come when it did.

6-8-2039
300km W of Xanathan Outpost Lamda-5 (Somewhere in former Angola)


A heavy cloud of dust hung over the remains of the convoy, obscuring the devastation that had taken little more than a quarter of an hour to create. With a simple gesture, Mshale cleared the battlefield as he hovered high above, embraced by the moonlight's glow. He took in the carnage with a degree of pleasure he seldom felt during his recent years of peacekeeping. These wazungu were demons and would soon learn there time on this soil was coming to an end. He had begun his descent when he saw movement once more amongst the wreckage and readied to exterminate one more Xanathan wardog when curiosity stayed his hand.

The scrambling and emaciated form had finished its perverted rites on one of the recent corpses and scuttled over to the mobile laboratory in desparate search of something. Mshale landed where the creature had entered and extended his will inwards as a cocoon of telepathic pressure enveloped the hobbled form and withdrew it from the laboratory like a snail plucked from its shell.

Mshale spat as he took in the full extent of the creature's corruption and kept it steady in his grasp. "What have you become, mzungu?"
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6-8-2039
Ndlovumzi Nature Reserve, Xanathan Territories


<< Atlas, Atlas this is Hornet-Actual. Standby for report 2-2. Over.>>
<< Hornet-Actual, this is Atlas. Send your traffic, over. >>
<< Atlas, this is Hornet 2-2. We are in Sector 3755. Gunner up and scanning with thermals. >>


The data being fed into the gunner's visual cortex from the cameras affixed to 2-2's hull was an achromatic panorama. White flames rose from an overturned jeep and danced against an atramentous backdrop. A sickening gradient of grays trickled through the carnage and thickened as blood mixed with soil loosened by the helicopter's blades.

<< Line Eduard, line Dirk showing Hond squad's immobilized ground vehicles. Biometrics register heavy casualties; requesting evac for wounded. Negative visual on enemy element. Requesting further orders; how copy? >>

The squadron of four heavily-modified helicopters that made up Xanathan's elite Hornets circled high above the smoking husks of the convoy below. Each manned by a pair of cybernetically-enhanced soldiers integrated into the Hornet's operations and weapons systems. Through an infrared haze their sensors continued to search for further signs of the perpetrators. Silence overtook their comms awaiting a response from XSF military command.

<< Roger 2-2, Atlas copies all. Proceed to Sector 3700. Rules of engagement have been modified. Support local detachment in suppressing hostile element. Atlas out >>

With a thought, the Hornets broke formation and veered off towards the neighboring village of Phalaborwa; a half-hour away by air. Its population had swelled since the diaspora and the town proper now found itself encroached upon on all sides by a mass of corrugated sheet-metal in the form of shanties and impromptu markets. Orchards of orange trees on Phalaborwa's outskirts shuddered at the Hornets passing. They approached the small detachment of XSF guards at the relay tower that dwarfed all around it. An array of advanced sensors kept the populace under constant surveillance, monitoring their whereabouts amongst other nefarious criterion. The leader of the squadron, designated Hornet-Actual, attempted to establish a link with the tower's local biometric monitoring system as they were hailed on communications.

<< Tower Pieter-0, this is Hornet 1-2. Requesting sitrep. We have orders to engage enemy foot mobiles in area. >>

Hornet-Actual felt a tension rising behind the cold implants embedded into his eye-sockets as the network was as slow to respond as the ground force. The sudden writhing of crimson plasma against a greyscale world sent Hornet-Actual and his aircraft into paroxysms as the panicked cries of an altitude alarm fell on deaf ears.

**Remote access to the local network denied**
**System override.**

<< Atlas, tower Pieter-0 is compromised. I repeat, tower is compromised. >>

Caught in the throes of a violent stroke, Hornet-Actual felt his consciousness drowning in the onslaught of information relayed as sensory input. It would have taken weeks to process a modicum of the torrent; but only seconds to impact against the tower. The three remaining Hornets tore away from the explosion and lunged headlong in opposing directions. They traversed in wide arcs above Phalaborwa as the concussive percussion of 30mm chainguns firing 650 rounds per minute pierced the sky. The township quavered in the wake of the sudden destruction; memories buried beneath smoldering rubble in an instant.

From a distance Najwa peered through the latticed prisms that shielded the town hall's interior. In her perch she saw heat trails with absolute clarity as each round tore through the air in an outraged buzz. The rounds had a secondary incendiary element and within minutes only the district of Old Phalaborwa remained relatively untouched. She adjusted the straps of a pilfered ballistics vest, amazed at the composure with which the few operatives they'd embedded had mobilized the citizenry. At least half the town was now being evacuated through tunnels that had appeared while Najwa neutralized the small contingent that guarded the relay tower.

A voice, soft against the garbled interference of encrypted channels, rose from a bloodied handheld transceiver that lay propped up against an H&K G36 beside her (all graciously provided by Xanathan).

<< Kengue, incoming. >>

Najwa switched the transceiver off and shouldered the rifle as the familiar rasp of Kengue greeted her from behind.

"Sis, this.. is bad. Boss says.. we have to go.. before they kill us.. for being madzviti." Kengue spoke through labored breaths, the rattle of his respirator heard with each pause.

Najwa knew that if Ayanda had sent him to the frontlines, things were not well. He was barely into his sixteenth summer; gaunt features hidden beneath a hodgepodge of foreign clothing. She gave him a quick hug before looking gravely into his obscured eyes.

"I can't just leave them to be slaughtered," she gestured to the huddled group of townsfolk, "and she knows that. It's my duty to protect them. Those madhimoni are here because of me."

Kengue laughed and playfully pushed Najwa away. He looked up at her and removed his sunglasses, doing his best to imitate the look she just gave.

"Boss.. figured.. you'd say that," he paused to regulate his breaths before continuing, "and wants you.. all... back at base."

Najwa smirked at Kengue before she gave a sharp whistle and a rallying yell. "Everyone, we're leaving!"

She then turned to her young companion and inquired if he'd made contact with the pair she'd entrusted with the child.

"Of.. course," he smiled mischievously, "can't.. wait for.. the Lion.. to meet.. the american."

***

31-7-2039
80km W of Saudade, Glasslands (formerly Tripoli, Libya)


Nuberu sat at the precipice of a brobdingnagian chasm; one of legion created in the aftermath of nuclear holocaust. Within its abyssal depths bubbled malice and sorrow ineffable. He felt an atomic patina spread over the exposed flesh of his face and forearms; it renewed him. Weeks since his last meal, life was nearly impossible to find in the wastes. The land sustained him, but peeled away his humanity with each passing hour.

A plume of noxious fumes and scouring detritus erupted before Nuberu as violent gales tore through the gulch.The brief respite in the nigh-perpetual tempest that had swept across the region for thirty years had ended. Covering himself once more in thick hides, he set out for the remnants of an old Ottoman fort across the expanse. A flash of lightning in the distance and once more did Nuberu set eyes upon the phantasmagoric vista of Saudade eerily framed by preternatural effulgence.
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6-8-2039
New Xanathan City (formerly Cape Town, South Africa)


Dark clouds roiled high above the Stormkaap, obscuring the early morning's sun. Markus observed a heavy mist accumulating on the elevator's paned walls, and as he stepped out of the building he was met with an oppressive discomfort. For him, the torrent had already arrived.

His driver, Jakob, opened the rear passenger door of the Mercedes AMG G 63. Markus paused and peered over his shoulder at but a fraction of one man's insecurities; Xanathan Tower gleamed against blackened skies with each flash of lightning. No refuge to be found here.

The drive would take the better part of an hour as Jakob began the long descent down winding roads and through tunnels carved deep into Tafelberg. Their destination was the Kluis, and perhaps an answer to what eluded Markus.

Almost no light filtered into the cabin as Markus sat with his thoughts. Gravel softly popped beneath heavy tires; all sounds took on a muted aspect through the armored jeep's reinforced frame and inch-thick ballistics glass.

He shot a glance at the stack of field reports, intelligence dossiers and tablet settled in the seat beside him. Exhilaration and apprehension stirred within Markus as he reflected on the scope of the previous night's attacks. This was resistance unlike any met since the arrival of Xanathan. How could such a powerful foe remain hidden for so long? What was their goal? Were there other threats to Xanathan's sovereignty, accruing strength in putrescent wilds?

Emotion usurps willpower.

Markus closed his eyes and focused on his breathing; dispelling all doubt as he withdrew into the depths of his consciousness. He sank past the constraints of perception and into a realm of intuition.

Gruesome images fluttered across the nebulous haze of his mindscape; bodies twisted and charred by an enemy unknown. Ferocity. Could vengeance be their cause?

Evidence of the evacuation of nearly 10,000 dissidents as a town burned. Compassion. An obvious weakness.

The infiltration of a highly-guarded research facility. Ingenuity; or treachery. The truth would be revealed in due time.

"Five minutes, sir."

Heavy lids separated as his gaze fixed on the driver through his reflection in the rearview mirror. Markus gave the driver a curt nod before turning his attention to a locus of Xanathan's cutting-edge research.

Die Kluis, or the Vault, sat in the shadow of Devil's Peak. They drove past heavily guarded gates into an open courtyard that bustled with commotion. A group of hooded prisoners, chained together, were corralled into a transport vehicle. Researchers in pristine coats took inventory of chattel and equipment as rain swept in from the bay.

The jeep turned and continued uphill, driving further into the compound until stopping before an austere building adorned with marble pillars. He recalled this had been a university prior to Xanathan's arrival.

Markus stepped out of the jeep and was immediately met by a squat man in an XSF uniform. He gave a brief salute before extending a hand, the other bearing an umbrella that struggled in its purpose.

"General, I'm Sgt. Theron. I've been assigned to lead the response team you've assembled."

Thank you, Sgt Have they arrived? the response echoed in Theron's mind.

"Not yet, sir. Delayed by the storm. We expect them within the hour."

I see. Notify me when they arrive. Dismissed.

The exchange lasted their ascent up the steps and past the rain-streaked columns of the command center.
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Shock gripped Ndakala and, to a far greater extent, the delicate sensibilities of the lady in white, although her pristine linen garments were now an ochre-tinged memory. He, meanwhile, found respite, briefly, in his ancestors’ native tongue. How the determined young woman knew it—amongst an abundance of other languages that dripped from her tongue as drops off a boaboa tree after a monsoon, several of which he was certain died with their last speakers a generation ago—was, to him, a riddle not well-suited to a solution. Najwa Moghadani’s linguistic artistry aside, he was not prepared for what followed whence he sat in the driver’s seat of the jeep, started the engine, and pressed down on the accelerator—neither was his captive, Lydia Benson. No, we are both refugees of fate, he justified as guilt hung in his chest, its intensity inflected more sharply in recognition of the deception he undertook.

This is necessary to our survival.

Was it, really, though? Half-thought, the malformed question cast a shadow on the wall of his mind. Why should he believe anything the wild girl—a stranger—said? Because she put him at ease by speaking Xhosa? Xanathan would have to conclude they were harmless passersby,; Lydia Benson alone on her name recognition as an interfering philanthropist.

Still, there were the rumors. No, not just rumors. Reports from those he trusted. Images seen by his own eyes.

When they felt the situation called for it, Xanathan were brutal.

Ndakala’s mind drifted a moment to the XSF convoy and he knew, without a doubt, that whoever did it were just as brutal; moreover, he sensed this young woman was somehow involved.

“Fate guide us safely on our journey,” he recited, decision made.

The jeep lurched forward and, inexplicably, downward. The ground gave way beneath them, not with violence, but as easily as one succumbs to water having given up their last breath. Darkness enveloped them, and he clicked on the lights. They were filthy, coated in dust from the hours driving across sun-hardened savanna and rocky terrain, but nevertheless served their purpose. The tunnel around him illuminated, he drove in grim silence without taking even a moment to glance at his passenger—still in shock, although her breathing was less frenetic as time went on—lest some momentary lapse in attention result in his personal peril.

An hour later, the harsh glint of the afternoon sun stung his eyes as jeep emerged from the unnatural tunnel and into the midst of a strange compound. Armed guards were standing at the ready, waiting for him. Young men with eyes that were older than they ought. The eyes of those who were prepared to kill. The only reasonable thing to do was cut the engine.

“Miss Benson, this is the end of the road for now.”

“This isn’t Phalaborwa,” she protested, but it was a defeated type of whine, a sighed exclamation wherein she recognized she would not make it to where she wanted to go, at least, not on a timeline of her choosing.
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6-8-2039
Free Territories (formerly Mozambique)


خفض أسلحتك

The command belched from behind the armed youth, followed by a hacking cough. Their weapons lowered as an elderly man passed between their ranks and stopped in front of the jeep. He was dressed in worn fatigues; drab ochre saturated in mid-day sweat. A shock of gray peeked out from beneath his cap contrasted starkly against his skin.

The old face cracked into a smile as scars carved deep channels into the weathered fields of his cheeks. He turned back to his armed guards and made a waving gesture with a wood-carved prosthetic.

الشباب ، تعال هنا

A girl, no older than 16, joined the old man's side. She laid her AK-M on the vehicle's hood, casting a curious glance in her periphery at Ndakala while rapidly exchanging words like gunfire in Arabic. Ndakala noted a wave of ease pass over the group as shoulders relaxed and sharp eyes softened. The girl addressed the pygmy in Xhosa, occasionally pausing as she struggled to translate her commander's message. 

"Our general is most.. a-apologetic for this introduction. There is no place for.. violence amongst friends." The old man gave her a reassuring pat and she continued. "We would have you join us as guests."

At this the old man circled the jeep as he  spoke through his companion. He stopped at the child caught in fitful sleep, clutching charred rags. He extended the cool wood of his prosthetic, soothing her slumber with a comforting touch.

"Has the child spoken?"

Ndakala peered over his shoulder at the child, eyes widening at the sudden recollection of her presence. The silence of their journey coupled with the recent carnage fresh in his mind had left him deeply troubled, but his wits quickly returned. "She has not. None of us have."

"And the one who charged you with this responsibility. Were they injured?" He opened the driver side door before politely stepping aside for Ndakala to exit.

The pygmy dismounted the vehicle cautiously, unsure of the old man's intentions. "Not that I noticed. Everything happened so quickly."

Satisfied, the old man extended his prosthetic to the pygmy in a gesture of good faith. The wood flushed with warmth; the digits animate with life firmly gripping flesh. He grinned broadly, addressing Ndakala and the elderly foreigner in English.

"Welcome, welcome. I am General Assad. We have quite the drive ahead of us, so let's make haste. My soldiers will confiscate your electronics. No need to leave those wardogs a trail." His soldiers spurred to action, they began the task of loading equipment while one scurried beneath the jeep. He emerged with the components of a GPS in his hands.

Assad sat behind the wheel of the jeep, looking back at Ndakala until he too entered the vehicle. They exited the compound, an abandoned military blockade, and turned on to a wide road hidden beneath thick canopy. The roar of a diesel engine surprised Ndakala; he hadn't heard one since childhood. An antiquated military transport rumbled behind the silent jeep. Their path followed a river southwards; the occasional thinning of the trees bathing them in shimmering brilliance.

After nearly an hour, Assad began to speak once more. His passengers were unsure if it was to them or himself. They had just crossed the river on an unusual stone bridge; it seemed to have risen from the very soil. The river's rushing echoed through a bizzare congregation of overgrown boulders.

"Some thousand years ago, this was the site of a great community. Khoikhoi and Sān tribes found themselves pushed to the south by drought and Bantu expansion. The former brought their mighty herds to graze these fertile lands; the latter using their advanced foraging and survival skills to supplement the livestock."

Assad turned away from the river, driving further into the jungle. He checked his watch, a pre-war novelty.

"They were the foundation of mighty kingdoms, all born from this great land. My friends, we wish to do the same."

Before them appeared a distortion in the road; a rippling haze that obscured what lay beyond. They continued through, much to the old american's chagrin. The rumble of the diesel engine echoed in a vast chamber before being cut off. Sunlight filtered through countless prisms in the cavernous ceiling, illuminating an expansive garage and loading bay underground.

"Welcome to Marange."
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While not the strangest African settlement known to Ndakala, Marange certainly struck him as the most spiritual. There was a oneness with the land here that tightened the bond of his soul to the blood of his ancestors. Perhaps it was some ambient psychic resonance of the crystals in the cavern ceiling, but he certainly felt more belonging here in a place hitherto unknown than in the monotonously familiar Aldi at Cape Town.

In addition to his connection to the soil, there was an abundance of individuals whose possessed, in his view, capabilities beyond those belied by a casual glance. How else would dirt and stone deftly morph into tunnels before his very eyes? Certainly, given what was before him, they lacked technological means to do so, thus their capabilities emerged from elsewhere. Moreover, the array of stone, metal, and fiber structures that loomed around him were clearly the product of imagination, not tools, not efficiency. That unsettled him far more than the vast amount of weaponry, most of it, he deduced by a brief survey of what was on proud display round about, pilfered from Xanathan, but some acquired through illicit trade.

“Thank you for your hospitality, General Assad,” Ndakala said with deferential caution.

His pretense of respect was dispelled by an acerbic chirp from the American woman, “A hot meal would be hospitable.”

Appalled, particularly by how unimpressed she seemed by the environ, he was nevertheless use to such behavior from foreigners, and interjected, “Miss Benson means she is grateful for the safety you provided. Were it not for you, Xanathan soldiers would have filled our bodies with bullets.”

Assad nodded sympathetically then frowned. It seemed as if guilt momentarily etched finely into the lines around his eyes. In a measured voice, he replied in Xhosa, “I fear that, were it not for us, there would not have been danger for you to be in.” That said, his eased the jeep to a stop in front of a large structure built into the cavern wall, a protrusion of metal sculpted in the likeness of a close forest path comfortably illuminated by celadon photoluminescence. There, he switched to English, “You will be well looked after, I assure you, but for the moment I must leave you two here in the care of another.”

He pointed to the opening.

Ndakala helped himself and the lady out of their transportation, which by then they were weary of. It felt good to stretch again. Miraculously, despite the many hours between here and Johannesburg, the lady’s parcel remained with her and undamaged—it was, after all, the same jeep in which they initially departed. On it was a cross that indicated medical supplies. What did she say it contained—vaccines? No doubt useful.

“Makemba!” shouted Assad, then drove away without waiting for a response. He took their vehicle with him, but without opportunity or will to complain, Ndakala merely sighed while Lydia clutched wrapped her arms around herself in fearful irritation. Soon, a woman materialized in the archway and gestured with flour-covered hands for them to come inside.

“Welcome,” Makemba warmly brought them into a room with a cozy fireplace girded by several chairs. “What brings you to Marange?”

Lydia sat down and moaned, “Fate! Terrible fate! I was at the seaport in Cape Town awaiting my journey home when all world travel was suddenly suspended. I heard over the radio in the executive lounge that Spain was gone—how does a country go missing? With no way off this accursed continent until God knows when, I decided to extend my trip and visit the children in Phalaborwa my charity provides for when we came across the most dreadful carnage on the road. I don’t want to think about the rest—it is all so horrid.”
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1-8-2039
58km W of Saudade (formerly Tripoli, Libya)


Dusk has settled when the Qandiisa makes its way to the pond. It cautiously moves towards the water's edge, surveying its surroundings before mandibles separate, revealing an extending proboscis. Hungry after a day's foraging only reaped a few seeds, it drinks deeply from the murk. Dorsal quills bristled subtly, from annoyance or at the cold was unknown. Demonstrably cunning, their intelligence was an indeterminate factor. Nuberu watched silently from atop the remnants of a nearby petrol station as the Qandiisa scraped its forehooves into the loam, searching for nutrient-rich utsi larva.

With bated breath, Nuberu took up the length of rebar he'd crafted into a spear with the majority of his strength. He coiled filament around its end several times before fusing the two together with a tightened grasp. Rising, he steadies himself as eyes zero in on the six-limbed ungulate.

Now!

Nuberu shifts his weight forward, hips turning with his motion and increasing the amount of force generated as his shoulder and arm extend. The ersatz spear sailed through the air and pierced concrete several feet to the right of his intended target. Showered in dust and debris, the Qandiisa bolts up the slope of the drainage canal and into the night.

2-8-2039
50km W of Saudade


All around Nuberu the early morning clicks and calls of new creatures are drowned out by growing winds. The air heavy with geosmin and decay, he continues in an exhausted fugue.

He shuffles between spires of prismatic glass, outspread stalks heavy with pulsating bulbs of luminous lichen. Certain the sound of laughter is carried on the creeping storm's headwind, Nuberu's steps falter and he tumbles. Laughter distorts into taunts and in his stupor his wounds go unnoticed. Momentarily.

Supine on the slope of a sandy pit, the heavy hides he wears cling to a deep gash in his abdomen. With a grimace he separates the furs, slick with sickly chartreuse from ashen flesh. The culprit, a chitinous barb nearly 30cm in length. Trembling hands grip bone and his world spins. With a wrench it's dislodged. Bile splatters to the ground. He refuses to make this his grave.

Nuberu presses a palm against his side and thrashes in agony as a throbbing glow cauterizes the wound. He begins his ascent when a furrow forms in the grimhollow's depths, and in the displaced sediment rows of chiming chelicerae are revealed. A pellucid arthropod erupts with the sound of faint music, roused by anguished thrashing. Crystal cracks as it clambers upwards, intent on making Nuberu its next meal.

Leaden limbs struggle in vain to raise him out of the pit while he slides further towards death. Time slows to a crawl. Nuberu closes his eyes and ceases attempting to escape, resigned to his fate. Fingers clench in frustration when he feels it; the calming nostalgia of his previous life manifest in an unadorned tantalum ring. With strengthened resolve, Nuberu musters every iota of vigor left to him. He envisions strength draining from every cell, pooling in a deep crater within.

A shrill hum rattles his core as Nuberu is overshadowed; the grimhollow is upon him when it is unexpectedly and explosively repelled. Nuberu's left eye is scorched to the bone, and from its hollow came a fading green glow. He is covered in pungent ichor and tarry debris when darkness descends.

6-8-2039
Saudade


Nuberu looks out as thick fog crept inland, preceding coastal storms. It blankets the graveyard Tripoli has become, obscuring its dangers from his vision. He adjusts the bandage covering his left eye and ruminates; all-in-all an eye in exchange for his life isn't the worst outcome.

When he awoke days ago he'd found most of the grimhollow to be inedible, but stomached what little he could. With renewed vigor, Nuberu completed his trek and established himself in the gutted remains of an air traffic tower.

Turning away from the observation deck, he lifts a broad blade and returns to the task of butchering the pair of large lizards he'd ensnared the night before. Nuberu ignites a small fire, fanning the flames absently as he admires the makeshift grill his meal laid upon.

Satisfied, he reclines on his furs with a wince. The pain from his side had dulled to a manageable level within the last day. Inspecting the wound, he is alarmed at the change in his physiology. The skin around the puncture has darkened to a matte obsidian and began to show signs of calcification. If he strained his good eye, Nuberu swore he could see the start of striations. He dozes while fat spills from the roasting carcass with a sizzle.

Nuberu awakens with an oppressive sensation of apprehension. With a grunt he pushes himself up and looks out over the necropolis for the source of his foreboding. He sees nothing but the same; remnants of a rich history buried beneath maleficent miasma.

All seems calm, he thinks to himself. Yet why is this feeling growing?

Nuberu looks past the city and into the Mediterranean. It was then that he saw the root of his concern; a beam composed of energies terrifying in frequency. He was frozen in awe at the whorl of particles left in the beam's wake as it descended beyond the horizon. And for the first time in over three decades, a blast of air from across the sea flowed inland.

Nuberu watched on as coastal waters began to churn in ever-growing fury. The mists that had clung to Saudade for so long began to dissipate, pulled out to sea. His mind reeled at the horrors slowly revealed. They slithered and shambled and crept towards freedom.

He scrambles to gather his things, stuffing as much food into his mouth as he can. Nuberu is in the process of pulling on his furs when the earth cracks with ire unimaginable. He struggles to maintain balance while the tower groans.

What is that roar...?

He feels the answer before it dawns on him. Nuberu reaches the air traffic tower's stairs as the tsunami becomes visible. A few seconds more and it's greedily devouring the shattered skyline. Crashing through an exit, he removes a small crystal located deep within his satchel and hastily buries it.

Nuberu hopes she hears his message.
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“I’ve heard rumors of places beyond the safety zone—unlikely settlements in the sea of glass, villages in the jungle canopy beyond reach of mutant beasts, even a city within a mountain, but always of thought such things as fairy tales, so this,” Ndakala extended his arm to embrace the unbelievable subterranean crystal cityscape, if such was an apt description of the perfect congruence of nature and commerce. “—this must be a fevered dream. I will wake to find I fell from my jeep after a nasty bump. There is no secret so well kept as Marange for there not to be whispers of it elsewhere.”

“I assure you, Marange is no fantasy,” Makemba insisted, “neither are rumors of such places as you’ve described quite as bountiful as you suggest.”

“I hear many things in my work, much of it embellished,” Ndakala consented.

“What work is that?”

“Westerners call it eco-tourism. I help people like Miss Benson go to where they want to go. Places Xanathan prevents ordinary people from going, poor places, sites in the militarized zone. I meet many strange folk with stranger stories along the way. It is good money. Before we were taken here, I was on my way with this lady”—he gestured to Lydia Benson who, for the moment, sipped docilely from a stone carafe filled with tea—“to Phalaborwa so she could meet the children her philanthropy has benefited. Now I hear Phalaborwa is engulfed in flames. A sad story, very sad, but one of the many I have seen on my journey.”

Lydia opined solemnly from her tea, “Such pointless tragedy, these tribal conflicts!”

They both ignored Lydia’s uninformed commentary. Instead, Makemba, who noted how transparently Ndakala performed for his client, narrowed her eyes and countered, “Not everything you say is true. I can tell by just looking at you, here and alive, that you are an honest man in principle, if not in fact, but also of humble means. Whatever money you make is not equal to the risk. You provide ‘tourist services’”—at this she held up her hand in quotes to emphasize her sarcasm—“as a front for other reasons.”

Lydia was obviously offended at the insinuation.

Ndakala shrugged dismissively.

“How is it you know of Mount Diaba?” Makemba demanded, clasped her hands tightly around one of Ndakala’s wrists, which lay on the table before her, and peered intently into his eyes.

. . .


Nine months prior. An eco-tourist wanted an extended leisure stay on the Etosha Pan. The Abditory wanted rumors of a settlement near the Ogooue River investigated. They said it was along the way. It was almost a week further north by jeep, assuming all went well. The cover was adequate, but the journey went far beyond his comfort zone. Still, his contacts were insistent. If he could get them in touch with a safe haven deep in the quarantine zone, they would have a mechanism to provide aid to much of Africa.

It was night, at least twenty hours since he last rested, and his fuel reserves were nearly halved. When they reached that point, he would be forced to turn back. The rough terrain alternated between dense jungle and marsh as the dirt road skirted the rim of the Nkomi lagoon. Once again, it all began to blur. It was the third time he stopped himself from passing out. Unable to safely continue, he pulled over. In the distance, to the north, he thought he saw a large dark silhouette; the shape of a mountain where no mountain ought to be. It was a vague thought as he drifted off, too exhausted to ruminate over the perils that milled around him in the nearby overgrowth.

With a jolt, he awoke. Still belted into the driver seat of his jeep, he and it bounced along a declination that appeared to be a former rail transport shaft. It reached the end, a pair of large blast doors, and the jeep dropped a good five feet. It sounded awful as the vehicle’s groan reverberated in the tunnel. Then a long-armed sinuous shadow gripped at a slid between the blast doors and pried them open enough to drag the jeep through. Inside was what appeared to be a bazaar, where people, many disfigured, engaged in some transactional exchange or another.

<< What did you find today, Dussan? >> chimed in an electronic voice from a speaker.

An unnaturally long-limbed and powerful nubian stepped into Ndakala’s field of view, looked into a security camera, and said, “Jeep with tiny dead man.”

<< He looks alive to me, Dussan. Bring him to the elders so we can find out who he is. >>

Dussan grunted, picked up the jeep, then—

<< No, Dussan. Leave the jeep there. We just need the man inside of it for now. >>

Ndakala hastily unbuckled himself before being torn from his vehicle. Carried along like a terrified sack of grain, and too afraid of speak lest he startle his captor, he was eventually taken down a hall and into a chamber where an assortment of individuals hastily assembled. Placed down, his legs trembled to where he could barely stand, but he managed.

Then, it seemed all at once, everyone, himself included, asked, “What’s this?”

<< A stranger was snooping around outside the Arcelisk. Dussan was on patrol, found him snoozing in his jeep, and brought him in. >>

“Arcelisk? What’s that?” Ndakala blurted out.

<< A self-contained sustainable society enclosed a single structure with limited exposure to or interaction with the outside world. >>

A woman with a forceful voice wearing robes that matched her red and orange silk turban stood at the head of the table and said, “Enough. The Council is in session. Sit down and answer our questions calmly and concisely. First, what is your name?”

“Ndakala Blayhi,” he sputtered.

“Very well, Ndakala. Who sent you?”

“A humanitarian aid organization that opposes the quarantine of the African continent and—,” he started, but was interrupted:

“I asked, ‘who sent you here?’ not, ‘what do they do?’”

“My contact? I don’t know. The organization reaches out in different ways to avoid being compromised to Xanathan and Earth Federation authorities. It is run by a bunch of rich business owners with more money than sense, useful in getting food and medicine to places like—” he was about to say ‘like this,’ thought better of it, and finished weakly—“to places that need help.”

After a protracted and wearisome interrogation, they unearthed all they desired of him and his motives. Meanwhile, he learned a little about his whereabouts. This was Mount Diaba, once a mountainous landfill erected from the discarded refuse of nearby coastal cities, abandoned, repurposed as a nuclear test site, crystallized in a series of internal nuclear explosions triggered by seismic activity, and finally an underground city. The place, once under martial law, was led by those ascertained by an artificial intelligence to be the best and most popular amongst the city’s inhabitants. A meritocracy of sorts. Proud of their mode of government, they explained it willingly, perhaps in the hope the experiment would blossom elsewhere.

Unexplained were key facts, such as the lack of radiation that would ordinarily still be present in lethal quantities, how the mutants all got here, and how the inside of the mountain was hallowed out. These were questions he asked, but not questions they answered.

Eventually, he inferred Mount Diaba was the settlement to which he was sent by the organization. He also found they did not desire assistance and instead opted to minimize their exposure to the outside world. They kept the transponder—not that they ever activated it—and other supplies, but left him his jeep and enough fuel to make it back to the nearest town. Left him unconscious in the same place they found him in order to conceal the entrance of their city. He was alone, as they felt it wouldn’t be safe to send him away with the ‘volatile ones,’ which was evidently a euphemism for mutants whose awakened powers were too dangerous for a close society.

A month after his departure, he returned to Etosha Pan and an infuriated client.

. . .


Ndakala recoiled from Makemba’s grasp as once scalded by hot water, but held her gaze. He felt violated, and his expression said as much, although he wasn’t certain what just transpired. He kept silent and waited for an explanation.

“I am an empath. If I touch another person while a memory is triggered, I will experience it with them.”

“Then now you must know we are not foes,” he said, his tone angry, but measured.

“Yes.”

“Then out of respect for me and my client ...” his words trailed off, his mind unable to articulate further what he wanted to say, but his meaning was clear as the waters fresh from an underground spring.
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Markus’ awkward dress stood out amongst the other members of the XSF walking the halls of the Vault. It had a name, rough sounding in the tongue Bharata seemed so fond of using. He didn’t use those names, his mind could easily dissect and repeat the words – but he spoke more often of places in images, familiarities. Not words. His mind-to-mind communication wasn’t quite what most psychics would consider the norm of operations. They spoke with words, formulated sentences and thoughts. He conveyed emotions, imagery, things that got his point across without the need for actual words. So, when he requested to be brought here, he only showed the driver a mental picture of the building – and the roadways between here and there. His driver, well trained in dealing with Markus, chronicled the path in his mind’s eye, and followed it to the letter. Markus smiled; the man was a good driver. A shame, really, to leave him behind.

Markus sighed, thinking about leaving. Ever since they arrived here, it was the main thing he sought to do. To curb Bharata’s curiosity enough to bore him, to get Xanathan extracted not just from Africa, but from this whole world. He wanted nothing but to get back to his home, his family. His people weren’t from Earth F67-X, in fact he wasn’t even human in the conventional sense. He’d managed to fake it, at least enough to not be questioned much in the streets. Though, the third eye tattooed on his face managed to draw some weird attention. Mostly, they thought it a weird novelty of a man who lived a troubled past. In some ways, it evidenced exactly that. Markus wasn’t exactly welcomed at home.

He stopped, his footsteps echoing behind him as he turned to one of the windows on the upper levels of the Vault – lining the office-ways, where the scientists stored their research notes and papers. He looked out over the well protected fortress around him, past the walls extending like great monoliths to the sky, reaching for a freedom they could never gather. Inside the Vault, their most powerful weapons and artifacts were stored. Things deemed too dangerous to be allowed into the hands of the people of Earth F57X, technologies far beyond their current capabilities. This place felt more like a home to him than anywhere else on this ball of dirt.

His hand touched the glass, and it flexed under the pressure of his palm. He looked down, his frowning face taking in the people bustling around in the courtyard. One day, Bharata would finally grow bored with this plaything of his. Then, perhaps, they could return to the stars from where they came – and continue their business elsewhere. The money here, at least brought in by their current dealings, afforded them a lavish lifestyle – but it was nothing when compared to what they’d earned on the Multiversal scale.

His sigh frosted the glass, and he lay his head against it. Closing his eyes, remembering the days of travel and the family he left behind to join Bharata. Back then, he’d felt full confidence in the man. He’d shown up, spoken a big game and promised grandeur. He provided that for years, but now they were marooned here on this rock of dirt and dust because of Bharata’s hubris. The Hydra couldn’t fly, even if they wanted to leave right now, they couldn’t. They didn’t have the power cells, Bharata claimed anyway. Markus believed he hid them, had them buried deep in the Glasslands where no one could find them.

Of course, that was why Markus had his own secrets. Expeditions into the unknown, hazardous as they might be, were necessary. Certain members agreed with his reasoning, and the Board allowed for the travel into the Glasslands with express safety precautions that afforded them time to search for what Rendenvauld hid from them. A single tear exerted on his cheek from his closed eyes, and he shifted his weight. And then something caught his mental attention, the ravaging screaming sounds of a beast unleashing pure, unadulterated rage.

<Ah, Vanguard is back I see.>

Markus channeled the words into the open air, not expecting a response. He got one, either way.

<”Yeah, I am you stupid fucking cunt. Why the fuck am I locked up? What the fuck is going on here?”?

Markus shook his head, for others being called such things might be insulting – might even get a rise from them. He was beyond emotional responses to antagonizations, however. Especially from the like of The Vanguard Beast. He wasn’t even trying to be insulting, it was his natural demeanor for interaction with people. Markus turned from the window, turned from his hope of freedom and escape – at least for now.

<I’ll be with you shortly, Frank. I have more urgent matters to deal with.> Markus’ mental tone was soothing, calming. Laced with the psychedelics his mind produced, inducing a calmness to the rampaging beast. Markus finally continued to the command center, what in older days was called the Bridge. The main head of the Hydra. The magnetically sealed doors slid open at this approach, and Xanathan Command Forces, commonly referred to as the worker bees amongst themselves, saluted his coming. He waved them down, and immediately walked to the sensor arrays.

<Corporal Freutz, give me an update.> Markus tone brooked no question, no allowance of time to get thoughts in order. He demanded an immediate response.

“Well, sir. From what we can tell, there’s quite a bit going on out there. We’re not really sure, honestly, what’s going on. We’ve been attacked several times on several fronts. We lost the Hornet squads in Phalaborwa, we’re not exactly sure what happened there – the city is burning now, and the choppers are on the ground. Their recordings fade out, as if someone interfered with them. We’ve got the techhies in the basement working on a fix, but we’re not sure if they’ll be able to come up with anything.”

<And?>

“Well..sir...they’ve taken...” his eyes shifted back and forth, as if searching for a monster lurking in the shadows. “..him.”

Markus immediately slammed his hand onto the console in rage, his anger flooded through him. Beyond emotional reactions to instigation and insults, he held little control over it in detrimental situations.

<What do you fucking mean they took him? Who took him? What took him? Where is he? YOU WILL FIND HIM NOW!>

“Sir, we’ve been looking. We have drones scouring the continent, we have doubled forces in the rural areas and further North. We’re searching for him, but so far, we’ve not found a trace of what’s going on. All we know is we’re under attack, reports indicate a group of mutants have attacked in each place – but I doubt it could have been the same group. Unless they’ve learned to teleport, which I highly doubt. There are no recorded traces of human teleportation without some device on this planet.”

<Hmph. Keep me updated, I’ll train a portion of my mind on this bridge. If you need to speak with me, just think my name and I’ll answer.>

With that said, Markus turned on his heel and walked back the way he’d come. Reaching the central hall, he turned toward the walls – trying to remember which one held the panel. He ran his hand along the south wall, until a metallic click echoed in the emptiness. A square of wall slid away, just big enough to fit his hand into. The biometric readers confirmed his identity, and the elevator shaft in the center of the emblazoned sun painted on the floor opened. Stepping onto it, he again got lost in his own thoughts.

For three stories it descended, to a part of the Vault that not many people knew even existed. The security here was far, far tighter. Each floor contained science and research, things far beyond the scope of humanity. It also housed other...things...far too dangerous to be allowed out into normal society. He walked the metal hallways, his mind reaching out to figure out exactly where his target rested. It wasn’t hard. The sounds of screaming and pain alerted him before his mental faculties even found the room.

Pushing open the door, Markus’ smile immediately disappeared. He detested dealing with these...things. You couldn’t call them people; they were far too different from the surface dwellers to be called that. Markus’ smile returned quickly though, and his mind sent images of himself as one of him. The other immediately fell at ease, his malnourished face brightening for a moment. Then the mistrust came back.

<What’s the matter, Der’kin, are you not happy to see me?>

“I am not happy to see anyone these days, Farval. I begin to trust you as much as I trust the uniformed men that guard my door.”

<Those men are there for your safety, my friend. I have told you that, and you believe me when I tell you things.>

“I believed you...but sometimes...I can...I can’t trust my own mind sometimes.”

<I understand your mistrust, friend. Perhaps, as we continue our conversations from yesterday, you’ll learn to trust me again.> His eyes held the others, and his mind touched the man’s. Not roughly, but gently. Caressing it, putting him further at ease as he spoke.

“Fine...where was I? Oh, right. So, outside of Xanathan’s main source of influence there is only chaos. Those who seek to obtain, and keep power for themselves. Many of them aren’t friends, they aren’t even friendly. They fight one another as much as they fight against your people. They want only to see Africa returned to chaos, to the old times. They want tribal leadership; they want the power for themselves. They use anything they can find; they recruit children and brainwash them. They use whatever weapons they can get their hands on, without regard to the safety of after effects.

I’m not sure how to say it, but things are bad outside of your main area of control. There are not just the warlords in the militant zone, there’s other people. Other things. At least, rumors of them. They’re like me, but far more powerful. They’re out there, and they have information about you that even you don’t know. They can do things you couldn’t dream of. They’re going to win, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

The mutant laughed, an otherworldly sound. Laughed in his face, belittled his culture and then laughed at him. Markus could tell from his influence on his mind, though, that he held no more information than what he gave. Nodding, Markus stood up and dropped the facade he implanted on the other’s mind.

<It was a pleasure, Der’kin. I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine.>

Tapping on the door, one soldier opened it and then stepped aside. A behemoth of a man stepped through the door, ducking to fit through the frame. His body was taut with muscle, and as he flexed it was like the whole room warped around him.

<He’s all yours, Frank.>

As the door shut behind them, Markus continued speaking through the wall.

<When you’re done here, Vanguard. There’s a mission for you, come see me.>

For now, though, Markus wanted to get some information – and he knew just where to find it. The full weight of Xanathan’s wrath was going to be felt. By every single living creature outside the walls.
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apathy

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6-8-2039
Marange, NYUNDO Headquarters


"Then out of respect for me and my client..."
"We extend all courtesy and are most gracious to have you as guests." The response came from behind the trio. Startled, they turned to face the broad figure that dominated a kolwezite archway fashioned into the image of a baobab's bole.

Makemba rose from beside Ndakala and stormed across the room towards the new arrival and began to beat them mercilessly with a sullied rag. "Khethiwe! You hyena's ass!"

Khethiwe laughed and gave old Makemba a playful wail in response to the beating as Ndakala and Miss Benson exchanged surprised glances over the stone carafes they sipped from. Surprise soon faded to apprehension as the two whispered quickly in a tongue unfamiliar to Ndakala.

Khethiwe gestured toward the pygmy with a beckoning wave as Makemba took Miss Benson by the arm and gently led her towards an adjoining chamber that rich aromas wafted from. "There is one who would speak with you, my friend. Come."

Ndakala accompanied the large figure of Khethiwe past the arch that shimmered brilliantly in the firelight and down a dark corridor that branched off intermittently until reaching a sight that made the pygmy's steps falter.

The pair had come to something so fantastic Ndakala's mind struggled to process; beyond them was a kaleidoscopic tunnel that wound its way past his sightline. Scurrying to match his guide's gait, he marveled at the tessellated walls that recounted a history he had no time to string together. “Unbelievable, isn't it?" Khethiwe peered over his shoulder and gave an understanding wink, fingertips dancing along a mosaic-- viridian and teal patchwork depicting surging waters.

A muted grunt of acknowledgement was all Ndakala could muster as the two walked in retrospective silence. After some time, the visitor became aware of a distant drone and in stunned realization blurted "Is.. is that water?" A small chuckle was all that came in response as they came to a fork in the path. They continued on the right-hand path when Khethiwe began.

"Makemba tells me you spoke of Phalaborwa and were saddened to hear of it burning. You would be pleased to know that much of its people were saved from such a terrible fate and you personally played a hand in their survival. Most have been relocated further north, while those that wish to fight will call Marange home from here forward. The one you met- the one that charged you with bringing the child to us; she is their champion and would have been able to do little for them had she been focused on protecting the little one."

They paused, and for the first time did Ndakala note that his guide's pace had slowed. Only when abreast with Khethiwe did he observe how haggard, almost shrunken, they were when compared to less than an hour ago. Deep channels had appeared beneath round, cheerful eyes and their skin seemed to have taken on an ashened hue.

"As such, our leader would be very pleased to speak with you." They extended a hand forward and pulled open a pellucid hatch that served as a barrier to the humidity that crept into the tunnel. What had once been a muted drone grew to a roar as Ndakala entered an expansive chamber that once more left him speechless. They stood at a precipice overlooking a worn path that meandered through a forest of towering fungi pocked with spires of crystal, neatly divided by a rushing river.

Their descent was slow going, Khethiwe growing more tired with each shaded crevice or panoramic gulch, and having reached the path's ingress into the mycological marvel they asked for a moment's rest. Ndakala nodded and made his way towards the fungal brake's brink, slightly intoxicated with the surrealness of his environs. As he grew closer he felt a strange quality in the air, his skin tingling in response. In the distance the river's surging was a pleasant backdrop to the retreat at his presence of fat salamanders between gregarious stalks that loomed overhead. Bejeweled beetles fluttered upon diaphanous wings as they sprauchled from bulbs swollen with fluorescent sap, and somewhere far-off he could hear the playful baying of unknown beasts.

Moved beyond the limitations of language, Ndakala lost himself in the primal orchestra that permeated throughout. Wishing to express the gratitude he felt at being shown this place, he turned back to check on his guide. "What miracle created such an environment?"

His words caught in his throat as Khethiwe's form slumped forward from its seated position atop a rock. Ndakala recoiled in horror upon turning the guide's form over with a sickening squelch. A viscous and malodorous fluid poured from several cracks that had appeared along Khethiwe's torso, and with one last shuddering breath their form collapsed in upon itself. Within the cavity that had moments prior been Khethiwe, lay a shriveled figure, slick with putrescence.

"Sorry you had to see that. Thought I'd get here before he ran out of time." Khethiwe stepped down the forest path, offering a hand to the kneeled pygmy.

“Ran out of -- what in the name of Khonvoum? What did I just witness?"

“Not all of our gifts are as wonderful as Najwa’s or Kengue’s,” Khethiwe approached the withering remains of its Helmasi and gave a brief nod in respect of its passing, “but we use what we are capable of to help. Now, unless you’d like to witness how I give the Helmasi form, I suggest you follow the trail until you reach the vitreous lagoons of the Kichaka Siri.” Khethiwe gave Ndakala an encouraging wave of dismissal and as the pygmy began their unaccompanied trek he could hear uncomfortable dry heaving from his former guide’s location.

Meanwhile in the NYUNDO Barracks...

“I should have been more aware of how emotionally compromising the mission was for you. I can only blame myself for your hesitation in separating a child from their family, habibi.” The old man sat absentmindedly picking at a cuticle of his wooden prosthesis. A heavy sigh gave way to a soft chuckle before he continued. “We may come to regret the boldness of our activities, but for now let us celebrate our victories. You make us all proud, Najwa.”

Back turned to Assad, Najwa stood at a basalt basin fed from the grinning maw of a lion and washed away the blood and ash of the previous 24 hours. The majority of the XSF uniform she’d expropriated earlier lay in a huddled mass at her feet. She paused to observe her countenance reflected in the algid pool, droplets running down taut bronze flesh. She stepped away from the basin and entered a chamber adjoining her quarters, its threshold artfully hewn in prismatic dolomite. “Has Kengue returned,” she inquired from the other room as her father gave an aged groan, stooping to collect the uniform.

“I insisted he remain at Malawi and rest. He pushes himself too far, just like you.” The old man deposited the clothes into a narrow chute and stretched, muscles trembling upon full extension.

“You’re one to talk, or do you think we can’t see just how old the Lion has become?” Najwa shot back puckishly. She stepped back into the anteroom, now comfortable in her NYUNDO fatigues. “And Mshale? I heard he too came across the unexpected during his operation.”

“As for that,” Assad began…

NYUNDO Stockades

Mshale held fast to the thrashing ghoul he'd taken from Xanathan’s talons, its gaunt form writhing against telekinetic might, suspended several feet off the mottled cave floor. Guttural curses were locked away as its frame was forcefully flung against a cell carved into the porous wall. Through the application of his willpower, Mshale slid a dense and translucent slab of quartz over the cell’s only opening.

He spat in disgust at the distorted image of his cadaverous captive as it scuttled about its new quarters in bestial fashion. “I should kill you now and be done with this uroyi.” He began to apply more pressure, agonizing rivulets gouging into the creature’s splintering mandible.

A soothing palm pressed against the center of Mshale’s broad back and he turned, immediately relinquishing his psionic grasp. “Release your anger, and focus that ever so dreadful mind on me.” Her voice, sweeter than passion fruit, ushered him out of the stockades and into the warmth of her embrace.

13-8-2039
Rendenvauld (formerly Johannesburg, South Africa)


“Tonight marks the third night of skirmishes between Pro-Human forces and dissident elements. The protests are in response to unsubstantiated reports of lethal repression and have once again sparked controversy amongst Xanathan intelligentsia, with some being so bold as to claim that even if the reports were true…” the announcer’s audio was lost within the stochastic *THUNK* of 40mm canisters showering chemical irritants over a roaring multitude of clashing protesters.

Tear gas rose in billowing plumes, choking gasps lost in the throng’s tumult as Jean-Yves Mbappé broke through the mob; his grip a vice around his wife’s hand. They had the misfortune of being caught in a dissident demonstration after the Maglev rails were blocked with overturned construction equipment. Their footsteps retreated down an alleyway as the rapport of several minor explosions shook them to their knees; vivid orange and crimson flames reached for the partially-obscured full moon as he paused to peer back at the thoroughfare. Jean-Yves’ ears rang with the unmistakable staccato of gunfire as he wrapped his arms protectively around Delphine’s shoulders, shuffling onward in a panic. An agitated buzz reverberated through their skulls as they were unexpectedly blinded by the sudden discharge of an immobilizing arclight and they stumbled blindly into the adroitly manicured courtyard of Hyŏng Cybernetics.

“손 들어! 손 들어!” The couple were swiftly encircled by a force of armored individuals moving in unison, K7 submachine guns at the ready.

“S’il vous plait! On ne comprend pas!” Jean-Yves pleaded, eyes flushed with tears. A piercing ring accompanied each interrogatory wave of their barrel-mounted flashlights as his sight struggled to return. Scrabbling in search of Delphine, his world reeled with the impact of a reinforced boot across his cheek. “Je.. je prie…,” he muttered through a swelling jaw as more blows landed. A crumpled mass on the courtyard’s cobblestone, Delphine stared vacantly as her young husband was brutally beaten.

“중지!” An authoritative voice undercut the clattering of ceralloy armor plates, putting an immediate end to the assault. Panting heavily, the detachment stood at attention as the man groaned at their feet. The air grew still with the audible deactivation of the arclamps. A slender figure approaches Jean-Yves, swimming through the haze of pain from his left eye being swollen shut, and stoops to inspect a deep laceration. “C'est une mauvaise lésion,” the figure knelt and assisted Jean-Yves to a seated position, “Devons ralentir le saignement.”

The cool silk of the man’s handkerchief pressed against the wound and without lifting his gaze he commanded, “내 차, 당장!” One of the armored individuals gave a salute in response and withdrew with a hurried jog.

“Mademoiselle, votre mari a besoin d'un hôpital. Es-tu blessé aussi?” No response came from Delphine other than shuddering sighs. “Mademoiselle?”

With a surge of resolve Jean-Yves lifted himself enough to turn towards his wife and shakily rasp, “D-Delphine…” Recognition washed over her features with an audible whimper and she scrambled over to her husband. “J-Jean.. Jean, qu'ont-ils fait? Qu’ont-ils fait..”

“Calme, Delphine.. Calme.” Finally aware of the man assisting Jean-Yves, she bawled while pointing angrily at the remaining armored guards, “Qu’ont-ils fait! Bâtards! Lâches! Mon pauvre mari.. Mon mari..”

“해산!” The detachment departed at the command, leaving the the couple and their unknown protector to be illuminated by the headlights of a sleek luxury sedan. “Aidez-moi à le soulever, Delphine. Allons à l'hôpital.”

A few hours later…

Sudwala Caves, Xanathan Territories


"Ptah درخواست RA،’ چطور باید محدود شوند؟ ‘
'در غیاب من'، اعلام کرد RA
و به Ptah داده شده است
ممتاز."

The eldritch invocation echoed through each cavernous chamber of the cave system, its cadence growing in fervor with each repetition. Its source was a hooded figure, clad in cobalt vestments whose utterances were produced behind a mask in the graven image of an ibis. Arms slick with viscera, the figure scrawls an elaborate series of sanguineous runes upon a length of papyrus soaked in the urine of a jackal. Setting the scroll aside, they bent over the lifeless bodies of Jean-Yves and Delphine before straightening with a lock of each’s hair. The papyrus and hair were deposited into a canopic jar, sealed with a lid depicting a crocodile.

"دانتوں اور دانشوں کے گرین کا تیز،
وہ جو بخار میں خوش ہے. "

The robed personage’s chant eerily layered itself upon the initial antediluvian syllables, feeding into one another through an occult ouroboros of octaves. Their footsteps traced a pattern in entrails strewn across the cave floor, the canopic jar held aloft. At the end of the pattern upon a dais of Precambrian design stood a scale that dwarfed its acolyte. Fashioned by no mortal hand, the scale’s fulchrum was carved into the oblong likeness of a six-eared kudu, aureate helixed-horns lined with bands of lapis lazuli and turquoise. A basalt beam was thrust through its eyes, ending in fine chains of silver from which hung deep bowls. Suspended between its cervid antlers was a true microcosm, perceived as a prismatic, pulsating mass; and where they met upon its brow was a glaring third eye, cast in diamonds. Setting the canopic jar within one of the scale’s bowls, the figure was lost in zealous fervor as he began the final invocation.

"היא חיפשה אותו ללא הרף, היא הסתובבה סביב כדור הארץ הזה בצער, והיא לא נרתעה ולא מצאה אותו".

The fabric of reality churned as spacetime was rent asunder, and above the scale’s empty bowl appeared a desiccated heart that undulated sickeningly with its manifestation. It collapsed with a clatter, plunging the cave into a Stygian darkness.




END OF ACT I
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