A haze descends upon a lone rider as the sun falls behind the summit of Mt. Indrasa, muting the beauty of approaching dusk. Rhododendron stalks droop beneath the rain's oppression. The sound of hooves is lost to the surging waters of the Hamta river as the horse steadily climbs and a burlap sack fastened to the saddle sways. Three hours of hard riding behind him, with another two yet to come until he reached the glacier in Lahaul.
The rider adjusts the heavy shawl wrapped around his shoulders and jaw as he comes to a small bluff. A few reassuring pats and he dismounts, eager for the smooth terrain of the Shea Goru plain that lay hidden beneath a fog that obscured all but the highest neighboring peaks.
He rubs some sensation back into his legs and once satisfied begins to rummage through a saddle bag. Producing a wrapped bundle of beets, he removes one from the bunch and returns the rest. The horse eats eagerly from a gloved hand while insects gather round.
The man dismisses the insects with a wave and unfastens the sack from the saddle. It squelches as he pulls the burlap loose from the congealed blood and ligament of a severed head.
1-8-2039 Anatnag District, Jammu & Kashmir
Deodar cedars sway to and fro as a cool afternoon breeze sweeps through the Lidder valley. Seated outside Khuda's meazbaan, a man in light cotton clothing happily sips rose-colored tea. The previous two days in the hill station of Pahalgam had brought many delights; none more so than the cuisine. His contemplation of the tea's bold flavor is cut short as a woman's voice whispers in his ear.
"Target vehicles approaching from the south."
A week ago he'd been in Mumbai, investigating reports of increased activity amongst black market arms dealers. Now, he wasn't quite so sure what he'd uncovered. Two sleek SUV's came to a halt a few businesses from where the man sat, observing surreptitiously.
"Do your thing, Ekhi." His response came as he took another sip, his thoughts vocalized to the AI through sub-dermal implants. A stream of visual information blipped into existence, feeding him data on the vehicle, its occupants and their unique modifications. Heavily armed and enhanced, each bore a rotating briolette on their left temple; visible only through augmented reality. This was most definitely it. "Tartalo here. Commencing operation."
The man faded from sight, a handful of coins left beside the unfinished cup.
6-8-2039 Mt. Indrasa, Himalayas
Gales blast Tartalo against the sheer rockface as he chipped away with the adze of an ice-axe, creating some footing for himself. He engaged a haptic lock, removing all worry about his grip failing him at this dizzying height. Somewhere, an hour or two after his ascent he would reach his destination. All the intel he'd recovered led him here, grazing the world's ceiling.
He gave another swing, ice-axe passing through open air as he awkwardly shifted, suddenly weightless. Space distorted around him then came back into focus, finding himself surrounded by gleaming surfaces and bustling technicians.
"Que carajo? Where was my warning?" Tartalo fumed, picking himself up from the teleportation chamber's floor. Whether he addressed those around him or Ekhi was unsure. The uniformed figure of General Millheiser stepped forward as a dossier accounting the events of the last 48 hours since Allure touched down was fed to Ekhi.
Sarge listened for a whimper when his heavyset partner pounced on their target. He heard nothing.
Sweat applied a sleeper hold on the feline but the coldness of Merse's body caused him to question if he was even alive. He was limp and lifeless. Despite that, not for one second did the operative consider relinquishing his grip. Intelligence briefings informed him in great detail of the information broker's unpredictable and cunning nature. Sweat needed no reminder of how small the margin for error was when dealing with alien threats. It was practically embroidered into his mind. Merse was not given a single inch to maneuver, not even to breathe.
New Roswell teleported the group shortly after. The room they were in was shrouded in darkness aside from where they stood. Apollo Amon's request was fulfilled. The mission went without a hitch, with the only annoyance being the abundance of cat hair clinging to their uniforms. The annoying fibers were bound to show up in random places well after their mission was done. Sarge dry spat at the sensation of hair being at the tip of his tongue. Perhaps it was only in his mind but it irritated him, nevertheless. Shortly after, he began shouting orders.
"Strap him up!"
Eager to finish, Sweat ragdolled Merse's body and full nelson slammed him onto a reclining platform. Dex promptly secured the suspect on the modernized torture rack but concern over their mission status plagued his mind. Dex thought about the repercussions for not bringing their target back alive. Knowing his unit inside and out, Sarge was keen to Dex's thoughts. If anything, Sarge's unchanging demeanor should have been enough to reassure him but he spoke anyway.
"We have film of what he's capable of. He's playing games!" he barked.
Once the information broker was restrained, what little light the room had was cut. As quickly as the lights went, the unit that transported Merse followed. Only the distant clanging of approaching footsteps warned the black cat of what was coming. That was assuming he was even alive to hear those footsteps.
600km above the Northern Hemisphere, arcjet engines hiss hydrazine as the reaction control systems engage on a surveillance satellite. They discharge in short bursts at Tartalo's command, propelling the Survsat over the former Iberian Peninsula at a rate of 40,000 km/h. Variegated bands of the richest teal and crimson emerge as real-time observation capabilities came online.
The cold eye of the aperture adjusts itself and the resolution shifts, revealing the bands to be expansive pastures cultivated by automated means. Tartalo confirms the coordinates once more, a cold wave washing over him. Gone.
The crisp and clear waters of the Zubizabala Erreka rush between bare toes as two young boys play on the river's banks. A rich petrichor permeates the Otzaretta Forest as it blooms with life after a light Spring rain. The pair had spent the days in search of berries at the request of Patxi's grandmother. She'd promised the duo a delicious tart each if they could fill the basket they'd so carelessly flung aside at first sight of the water.
"I have a gift for you, Ortzi!" the boy squealed as he unearthed a wriggling worm from the loam. He rose with muddied hands and giggled at the screams of his friend who plunged headlong into the waters, a cold wave washing over them. Gone.
With the speed of thought, the Survsat adjusts its translation with a second engagement of its reaction control system. The feed suffers from momentary distortion before the image clears and Tartalo's heart plummets. Bilbao... Its history... Its culture... He leans against a graphene pane as the weight of memory threatens to overwhelm him.
"Ortzi, these are amazing!" The girl spoke between satisfied hums as she savored the rich combination of txistorra and talos. She bashfully wiped some of the grease from the corner of her mouth as he watched her, a smile plastered across his fine features.
"I spend way too much time here," he dabbed at her cheek with his thumb and she flushed, "to not know where the best flavors hide." He took a small bite of his own, turning away from her to marvel at the colors of sunset as they spread across the Bay of Biscay.
Heather and heliotrope hues gleam off the Guggenheim's edifice in a mesmerizing vista of phantasmagoric quality. "Sabine, am I dreaming? There are times when I find myself adrift with you, and everything takes on this... I'm sorry." He flushes, surprised at his own candor.
With a crack and sudden dispersal of EWG molecules, three Mobius operatives, target in tow, appear within the dimly lit chamber that Tartalo had requested within New Roswell's containment facilities. The Survsat relay is minimized to a fraction of his field of vision, the once familiar coastline of Bilbao now dotted with alien architecture.
Somewhere deep in his consciousness, Ekhi's voice notifies him that thaumic and psionic countermeasures have engaged. A second window affixed to Tartalo's sight finishes its analysis of the subject's retrieval footage as he issues further commands to the AI. He takes no small amount of satisfaction in observing the target being slammed into the Aldare, engineered from Red Technocracy tech and modified by Tartalo and Babazorro to meet his unique specifications. Restraints form from the Aldare's composite nanotech and pin the target's form to its slab.
The felinoid form remains immobile upon the austere fixture. Data floods Tartalo's vision as Ekhi confirms xenobiometrics have been quantified and catalogued within the Aldare's quantum drives. He inspects the new information with a keen eye as heavy footsteps outside of the chamber's only exit announce the arrival of the quarantine unit. A field of hard light appears as the airlocks hiss opens and expands to fill the space between the Q.U. and the three Mobius operatives. Their forms are engulfed and all foreign matter is contained within the construct.
"Boss isn't taking any chances, is he?" Sweat gave an exasperated whistle as he, Dex and Sarge were escorted out of the chamber, down the containment hall and into an adjacent cell where they would be observed and debriefed for an indeterminate amount of time.
The cell is plunged into an atramentous darkness with their exit, and an ominous silence fills the atmosphere. It hangs in the air, growing more oppressive with each passing second. The target continues in its ill-conceived ruse, unaware that its being was laid bare for Tartalo.
The rhythmic cracks of drums cut through the silence at the same moment 100,000 volts pass through the fettered subject. The notes snap with anticipation as another jolt is discharged. A disembodied voice lisps softly between dulcet woodwinds. "Tut tut, such childishness."
A third discharge, this time prolonged for several measures of the composition that swelled to life with the beginning of their exchange.
Merse's fur stood on end, briefly taking on a rubbery nature in response to the excessive jolts taxing his body. To some degree, he insulated the shocks, showing a level of resourcefulness that justified Tartalo's suspicion and overall precaution. Not only was Merse not dead but his most valuable weapon, his mouth, was strategically curbed for the time being.
For once, the information broker knew little of what he was dealing with, elevating the stakes to immeasurable heights. The fine line he walked, if all for the sake of reasonable doubt, was bold, even for his standards. Despite the lack of incriminating evidence, Merse had many reasons to question his fate. Morality often called into question whether it is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one. Having been on this planet for less than a day, it was evident, outsiders were the recipients of no such empathy. Earthf67x's relationship with aliens was not a great one. The information broker's disastrous actions only added fuel to the fire, validating such apathy, perpetuating their xenophobia for generations to come.
Knowing all of this, Merse weighed his options, calculating scenarios at a computing pace. He did this until he could no longer play possum. After the third jolt, it was clear. The jig was up.
"We'll begin with your name."
Merse's fur returned to its normal texture. The lethargic expression on his face was the most life he had shown up until this point. His slitted eyes widened, reflecting the tiniest of light as any cat's pair would. Without moving his eyes, the broker's pupils managed a detailed scan of the area. This was done without mustering any source of power whatsoever. The slightest action very well could be seen as a threat and Merse was cautious in his own right.
In any government, the complexity of federal criminal law, codified in several thousand sections of written code establishes a virtually infinite variety of circumstances that might trigger an investigation. Even at the interrogation stage, it was difficult for Merse to know, in advance, just what particular set of statements could incriminate himself. He knew his words would be twisted but he decided to respond regardless, citing no real alternative.
"Merse Granstrum, Information Broker, at your service. What business do we have here today, operative?"
Tartalo’s pupils flushed with digital brilliance as the subject adapts its physiology in response to extreme external stimulus. Intrigued at the malleable nature of its fur, he began to ponder what, exactly, its threshold was as he traced an obscure pattern into the air. The nanothin membrane coating Tartalo’s inner retinas parsed the thaumic signature, synapses firing along synthetic tissue into neobohrium spikes in his optic nerves.
Its words came to him with a slight delay as they were filtered through layers of anti-memetic countermeasures, visualized as a translucent spectrogram in the corner of his field of vision. His dialectical optimizer dissected every word and began to assemble a rudimentary psychological profile of Merse.
<< Ekhi, continue to breakdown pupillary responses and infrared analyses with the dermal scanner. >>
“If you deal in information, then this will be a most pleasant exchange.” The music faded into the background but continued to play as Tartalo spoke, the darkness of the chamber suddenly replaced with a simulacra of Earth’s orbit, distant stars dwarfed by a colossal cnidarian flanked by an unfathomable legion that threatened to engulf the planet. Perspective continued to shift, alien worlds suspended between teeming monstrosities growing in scope until the feed was suddenly cut short, once more plunging the cuboid chamber in darkness.
“Why have you invaded us?”
A gestalt overlaid Merse's restrained form, registering spikes in activity in what the Aldaré had determined to serve as its amygdala at the image of the gruesome behemoth. Microvascular activity increased 30% and the apparition's hue shifted along the infrared spectrum as the subject calmed itself. Tell-tale fear responses.
"Invade? Let me respond with a question. Are you familiar with psychic measures of suppression? There is an individual whose existence I have barred from my mind simply because the mere thought of "him" allowed for my location to be revealed and mind to be probed. As an information broker, I realize public knowledge has zero capital. This individual is a threat to my empire. The reason I tell you this is because I have installed specific triggers in my mind to warn me when he was close. The gargantuan horror which I've come to know as Brobdingnag is one of those triggers, and here it is. What doesn't make sense is that if I was found, why use such excessive force? To add to the bleakness of things, I was unaware that Brobdingnag commanded a fleet and other horrors like it. As terrifying as this all is, the absurdity of the situation is quite intriguing. If this isn't all clear to you by now, let me say this. This ‘invasion’, is a mutual problem of ours."
The air grew dense as the chamber's temperature plummeted into the sub zero range, localized around the Aldaré. Another discharge of electricity pulsed through Merse.
“Refrain from any further questions.”
<< Ekhi, ping Apollo and make sure he patches in. Tangential connection with hostiles discovered. >>
“I am quite familiar with methods of suppression, although undoubtedly our praxis differs.” Photons distorted visibly as the image of the titanic jellyfish filled the room, hovering threateningly over Merse. Its form burst into a shower of kaleidoscopic particulates that reformed into the charging figure of gold clad in gaudy clothing.
"No relation whatsoever. Figured he was an agent of yours. What a shame he fell into that pit I created. Probably could have made a solid watch, no? On a more serious note, ever since Allure arrived, I've been assaulted nonstop with not even a moment in-between for a cat nap. Usually, I wouldn't mind. I'd chalk it up to my lifestyle and profession but there's just one thing. I have no idea who any of these individuals hellbent on killing me are. Perhaps this planet is in dire need of a scapegoat. I could see how that would calm the public down for sure. Give them something to hate, perhaps even serve as propaganda to inspire the next generation."
Interrupting his rant, the display in front of Merse shifted into a humongous gold watch, which oddly enough, remained comically dressed in the same attire that shamed all things dapper. Not short after, it morphed into several versions of Merse and his numerous assailants he encountered all throughout this disastrous day. He rolled his eyes. A montage of arguably his worst day was not something he wanted to see, nevermind having it literally dangled over him.
“Rubbing it in my face I see.” A deep sigh left his mouth.
"Listen, I don't want to be perceived as the fall guy. I don't even want to be seen as a foe. I do have quite explaining to do, that is undeniable, but— I'd rather extend my services in good faith for the sake of, I don't know, having all of us survive this ordeal. Please, feel free to inquire about anything you believe can get us out of the bind we're all clearly in."
All of the projections of Merse amalgamated into a large bust of the felinoid’s head with “BOBO” stamped across its forehead.
It was clear, his words weren’t getting through. Perhaps the examiner figured he could rile Merse up, making his case, confirming the idea that he was a threat. Whereas any half drawn together argument could probably deem Merse dangerous, it was rare to ever see him visibly enraged. If that was the strategy, it was bound to fail, though he was slightly irritated at the pace things currently went at.
As much as the information broker desired to control the narrative, all Merse could do was timely pitch his points. The severity of Earthf67x's crisis meant some of his statements could be taken in extremity but at the same time, opened up an avenue for his survival. All he had to do was play off of the terror of the situation and prove himself to be a greater asset than foe. Insight of the Val'gara Invasion, Merse was very low on the totem pole. Even without knowing the planet's history, this was obvious. It made sense, but part of Merse felt that his interrogator didn’t care. Not that Merse would know, but he should have considered the potential of encountering individuals who were directly affected by Allure’s tragic move. He should have accounted for thousands of people like Tartalo, but Merse naively figured there was no way he could be so unlucky in those regards. He was wrong.
The voice filled the room, seeming to come from every direction. "Such lofty notions. Let me correct you, because you seem to be operating under the assumption that guilt is a prerequisite for your detainment. You are a hostile force participating in an invasion."
Before responding, Merse stretched a bit, slouching some to ease the tension to get comfortable. He did this almost mockingly so.
“Is that why I allowed myself to be captured?”
"A grave miscalculation." The response hung in the gelid air.
<< Director Amon has opened a channel in the neural subnet and is following matters unfold closely. He strongly urges you recall that information gathering is our primary goal and while he would not deny you this slight retribution.. >>
<< His sentiments are noted. Anything further, Ekhi? >>
<< Incoming transmission from the Q.U. along with an analysis of several strands of Merse’s fur, collected in the hard light field. >>
<< Patch them in and upload the breakdown. And.. Ekhi? >>
<< Yes, sir? >>
<< Thank you. >>
Tartalo split his attention between the felinoid’s lengthy protestations (with the occasional prod at its ego) and the feeds from three separate security cameras. Each was in a fixed position overlooking decontamination chambers containing Dex, Sweat, and Sarge. Stripped of their T22 armor and undergoing strict containment protocols, they’d been sequestered in complete silence. The T22’s had received a hard-light scouring while analyzing petabytes of combat data stored in each suit’s kinesic-logs. Dex and Sweat found their containment to be an easy-going if lonely affair as they sat in a fog of restorative nanobots, sipping on glasses of aged whiskey infused with a concoction meant to inoculate them against any foreign biological agents that could have slipped past the safety measures built into each MOAA ( Mobius Ops Advanced Armor) suit.
Matters differed greatly for Sarge, who had reacted violently to the whiskey, clawing at his throat as his form hunched over in a vain attempt to ease the burning he felt deep within. The chamber’s graphene walls sprouted restraining filaments that lifted Sarge in mid-air with limbs outstretched. An aperture slowly suffused through the ceiling’s surface. It projected a stream of condensed photons that shimmered as they took on the form of a speculum.
The photonic tool split a seam down the center of Sarge’s pale chest and abdomen. Flesh and muscle posed little opposition and as oxygen came into contact with pulsating viscera, Sarge’s exposed thoracic cavity shuddered with heavy gasps. His nerve-endings howl as he is pushed to the edge of neurogenic shock, the haze of nanobots actively working against his exsanguination. A mechanical limb descends from the ceiling, in its manipulator is grasped a noticeably ancient dagger. Its long blade was stained from the blood of untold legions, and what had once been a pristine ivory handle had now dulled to a sallow shade most foul. The only bit of brilliance on the antediluvian artifact was a silver ring that secured the blade to the ivory. It slowly pierced Sarge as his yells were absorbed by the cell’s walls.
Tartalo receives an alert from the Aldaré as its restraints constrict reflexively at Merse’s attempt to stretch.
“Is that why I allowed myself to be captured?” Tartalo could practically feel the smugness this being exuded. He notes the mass of Merse’s fur that was recovered from Sarge being deposited into an aged clay lekythoi, runes carved along its narrow body.
"A grave miscalculation." A collar grows from the Aldaré and wraps itself around Merse’s throat, pinning his head to its surface. His gaze is directed upwards as a projection of the beam that struck Allure passes harmlessly through the center of his felid skull.
“You claim to not be an active invader, and yet you freely wield such terror. Tell me, did you enjoy taking millions of lives with your arrival? Would this alone not warrant your treatment of being ‘assaulted non-stop’?” Opus 91 had come to its final crescendo and was slowly fading into silence.
<< Patxi… I realize your priorities might not be the same as that of the organization, but I truly wish to help you. While you’ve been busy, I decided to go through all available intel and cross-reference what we know thus far with our records and… We have a concrete connection. >>
<< Show me what you found, Ekhi. >>
Tartalo smiled faintly as he received a lengthy report from one Spencer Tras, informant for The Abditory.
“I will humor you. Tell us, what brought you to Earth in such an inauspicious manner?”
The Aldaré constricted his neck. Merse clearly struck a nerve in the interrogator after stating his capture was voluntary. Still, his feline anatomy allowed him to find comfort on the accounts of uncanny flexibility. It would certainly take more than a neck choke and body restrictions to intimidate the likes of him. His demeanor remained consistent despite the measures taken against him.
Merse thought, how else could he have established a direct line of communication and end the conflict simultaneously? His capture was vital in all of this. What the information broker failed to account for was the bewildering arrival and equally destructive force of the beam ushering in the horde of space monstrosities. No one could have predicted that. No one in their right mind would invite such chaos. It was something he’d prefer to forget. Perhaps when this was over, if he made it out in one piece he’d do just that. Repress the memory altogether.
"...did you enjoy taking millions of lives with your arrival?"
The Allure resident took his time replying but when he did he spoke with the utmost conviction in his tone.
"You ask if I enjoy taking lives? Actually, you might be delighted to know the answer is no. Can I be described as a morally grey individual? Probably. Does this mean I'm a murderer? Absolutely not."
"Then can you account for those displaced by your arrival? There is no trace of them on this planet."
“That I have no definitive knowledge of. Though I suspect our arrival and their displacement is no coincidence.”
"Abandonment." The voice replied.
“Not that I would expect compassion from an alien planet but you all seem to be abandoning these innocent refuges. This beam you mockingly project into my forehead, it's the first I've seen of it. Whatever plot these creatures are conjuring, that seems to be the source and yet you watch. Several of my scientists are probably looking into it, so even if you do nothing, I'm sure they'll have a solution."
The hermetic chamber's surroundings faded into kaleidoscopic obscurity, the various augmented reality instrumentation panels whirling through his mind as senses melded. Tartalo accessed Spencer’s surveillance logs, and perspective shifted in a dissociative manner. He found himself looking at his, or rather Spencer’s, reflection in a polished observation portal as he was forcefully pushed into the private cabin by two exasperated stewards. Spencer appeared to be unconscious as he was unceremoniously deposited face-first on lush ultrasuede. The warm sensation of urine pooling coupled with the sickening undulations at the periphery of his consciousness forced Tartalo out of the memory and back to the chamber as Merse spoke of his scientists.
<< Ekhi, what was that? I was expecting an intelligence dossier, not something from some mozkorra. >>
<< I’m finding degradation on a majority of the covalent bonds from the carbon-aerogel pads on his surveillance device. The reports are heavily impacted from asset Tras’ dependency on psychotropics and psychedelics. >>
<< Is there anything you can do? >>
<< Not within a reasonable timeframe. >>
<< Arraio. >>
“You seem confident that their research and assets wouldn’t be seized immediately.”
Consciousness once more plunged into dissociation as he skipped ahead in the voluminous report. His vision focused as best it could on what appeared to be a half-eaten chicken’s drumstick. He felt himself moving as if through molasses as Spencer raised his sidearm and atomized the incoming projectile.
Tartalo scoffed internally as he increased the report’s playback speed. Hounds rose from infernal gashes in reality as old women rained from the artificial sky above the last few members of what Tartalo intuited as a wedding party. Frustrated, he skipped further ahead and picked up the report several hours after the doomed ceremony.
He looked into Spencer’s face through the lenses of his signature shades. They were leaning against a mirror over a running sink, forehead flat against the cool glass. Sweaty strands of ratty blonde hair clung to his skin as he dry-heaved, fighting the urge to purge himself of an ungodly amount of alcohol. A solitary bloodshot eye danced around the washroom, before stopping on a not-wholly unfamiliar sight to Tartalo.
A planet, very much like Earth, filled the majority of the vista through the wide, horizontal panels along one of the room’s walls. At that moment, the mozkorra mumbled a single word. Fortis. As the planet rotated, there was another moment of recognition as the outline of the Iberian Peninsula grew in prominence. But the familiarity ended there, as a technological brilliance grew against the rugged peaks of a range Tartalo determined to be the Pyrenees.
After a few minutes of near silence, Tartalo’s voice cut through the room.
The feline raised his brow at the inquiry. They were finally getting to the meat of things.
"I see your intelligence community is quite active" Merse snarked.
In all likelihood, the information broker wasn't the only Allure native interrogated. It wouldn't surprise him if somewhere EarthF67x hauled in quite the load of info on Allure's former residence, mostly through local sources. What Merse still had yet to account for, however, was the possibility of an EarthF67x spy.
He took in a large breath before he spoke. As much as the restraints of The Aldaré allowed for.
"There's a lot to know about Fortis. Where should I start..." His voice echoed across the room. Before he went on, he briefly paused, gauging the behavior of the vibrations on anything it had the potential to bounce off. He observed much due to his sensitive hearing and though an idea sprung into his mind, he checked himself.
"Fortis, Fortaire. Whatever you knew it by, your perception of it greatly depended on two things; If you had wealth or more physical means of power. If you cared about neither of those things, chances were you at least found its culture amusing."
The interrogator had no immediate retorts. A sign to Merse that Fortis was indeed a huge point of discussion.
"Their means of governing the entire planet was through a rather small unit dubbed Parliament. Whereas more traditional governments are filled with career politicians, former activists, ex-military members, you wouldn't really see any of that. Their councils consisted of an odd cast of swordsmen, powerful sorcerers, anyone with some sort of power quirk really. It was interesting seeing this ragtag group of idealists attempt to work together. It was cute."
"Undoubtedly a suitable environment for your line of work. Egos clash and you consider yourself clever enough to go unnoticed, picking up the crumbs of greater beings. How banal." An image of Merse was projected against the chamber's wall, dressed in all black with a large sack slung over his shoulder. It moved in a pantomime of sneaking along when it was suddenly illuminated by a spotlight.
"Greater beings, huh? You clearly take my craft lightly but how great were they, who failed to defend the very society they formed to protect?" Merse clearly took offense to the remark and display.
"As the businessman I am, I took advantage of their dysfunctionality. Their general lack of involvement gave me the perfect environment to expand my financial ventures at the time. You call it crumbs but when you've been to as many places as I've been it accumulates to quite the feast."
Looking down, a sudden shift in body language gave him a look of disappointment, like he missed out on something.
"Nevertheless, All things come to an end. More frequent than ever I found myself having to defend my assets from otherworldly forces. The same forces I determined successfully undermined the government and used parliament as a figurehead for quite some time. Even before the government's great symbol of order, the architectural wonder that was the Fortress of Parliament was obliterated, the writing was on the wall. You didn't have to be as attentive as I to see that coming.
All their information, sorcery, different accounts of history, and scholarly entries on their findings in the universe, gone. At least that's what they believe. I know it was taken."
"And now I am to believe, with this tale you've told of your own resourcefulness, that you weren't the one to abscond with it all." The voice paused for a measured beat before continuing. "In any case, this isn't the focus of our interview. Much of our intelligence places you at the forefront of Allure's activities, acting more or less as its leader. Do you deny this?"
Their assessment wasn’t wrong. Moreso or less was a decent way at describing it but Merse wouldn't allow them to label him as the head of Allure. He had a good clue where that would lead to.
"I do wish I did make off it but yes, that isn't what you're interested in. To answer your question, yes and no."
By no means was this an easy question for Merse to answer. Though Margaret held an official title in Prime Minister, Merse's influence was second to none in Allure. Her ability to puppet the general populace was effective though one dimensional. Needless to say, she was the most popular figure in the city. Merse played chess from the shadows. Their power struggle was well documented over the years, but there were times where she found herself depending on the help of the information broker.
"Am I known to have a foot in almost anything that goes on in this city? Depending on who you ask, that might be true. Still wouldn't make me the leader of the city. I'm only interested in leading my business. If you want to speak to authority, contact the Prime Minister. Ms. Iedereen is quite an experienced diplomat."
"... If you want to speak to authority, contact the Prime Minister. Ms. Iedereen is quite an experienced diplomat."
We have you now, kabroia. The ghostly spectrogram in a portion of his field of vision displayed separate sine waves synchronizing.
A wry smile crossed Tartalo's features as the information was relayed up the chain of command. He noted the immediate assignment of Operative X7B to secure the HVT by General Millheiser. Unfamiliar with that particular agent, Tartalo attempted to access their dossier only to be met with a flashing red chyron across his mind's eye that read CLASSIFIED. Interesting, Tartalo reflected as his attention returned to his captive audience.
"Ezezagunen lurra, otso lurra. A saying ingrained in the nature of my people. Land of strangers, land of wolves."
Merse's ear twitched in response to Tartalo's words.
"I wonder; is Faith something you value? Is it a universal precept, or something idiosyncratic to human nature."
"I acknowledge that there are higher powers even I cannot attempt to comprehend. However, the term god is used too loosely these days."
"I speak not of gods, but of Faith. Gods balk in comparison to its power. With it, men can act against the grand indifference of Nature. Or the unnatural.
But yes, of course. Prime Minister.. Iedereen, was it? How convenient it must be to have such an auspicious figurehead at your disposal. An official head of state upon which to foist the sword of Damocles. That was her hijacking countless novelas across the globe, wasn't it?" Tartalo's words dripped with satisfaction.
"It grieves me to inform you that Ms. Iedereen has been deposed and at this very moment, she is finding herself in a situation very much like your own. Although I doubt she is dealing with someone willing to humor her as I have humored you.
Now, do you have any faith in Ms. Iedereen? In her actions? Does she stand firm and allow violence to continue against her city and those she was elected by? How many have been injured thus far in this quasi-invasion?
Does she cooperate and do what you have refused to do thus far, putting the people she represents before her own selfish gain? Does she attempt to shift the focus away from herself?
She wouldn’t happen to have anything incriminating on you, would she?”
"Nope. I'm certain she does not." Merse added with a touch a smugness.
“If she is intelligent, she’ll accept whatever offer is provided and begin a peaceful transition of power. If she is lucky, she just might find that she enjoys the new hand that controls her.
Now, let us see how much use for you remains. Is there anything we should know about Ms. Iedereen?"
Merse joked, but the mention of Margeret opened a can of worms. There was much he could reveal in regards to her and maybe more she could reveal about him. In Merse's archives, Margaret Iedeeren was listed under Class A-2. The rankings in which Merse categorized millions of individuals is developed by a continually updating algorithm weighing hundreds of measurables from as basic as physical attributes to more distinct details such as supernatural affiliations and the scope of influence. Margaret checked off many red flags but what the interrogators would find juicy lied within her buyer's persona.
Age: (A lady never tells her age) Height: 5'8 Weight: 137 Affiliation: Allure Parliament
Undeniably shrewd and deceptively controlling, Margaret Nancy Ideereen was an individual capable of gaining cult followings wherever she decided to go. How much of this was a product of natural charisma and captivating eccentricity was up for debate. Her wardrobe was a reflection of her personality. The abundance of post-war womenswear popularized on numerous alternate earths showcased a proudness in her femininity and first-wave feminism doctrine. She was a go-getter. An individual who wanted a hand in everything and often would achieve just that...
***Precaution: Do not attempt to deal with her solo or without surveillance by any means.***
Merse recited the briefing without hesitation. His tone, confidence, and immediate compliance should have eliminated any doubt in its legitimacy. The information broker left out several key details, however.
Margaret’s mental prowess and her means of obtaining it was often a topic of debate between him and Fearis. Whereas Merse believed she obtained it via contractual means with a higher power, his partner pinned it towards natural aptitude. There was evidence that supported both theories but there was still much to uncover in regards to the politician. The enigma that was her existence did not exclude her from a lengthy psych profile, however. Her tendencies and thought process were well documented and handwritten by Merse himself.
Despite their differences and continuous bouts, there was a level of mutual respect among them. Often, Merse was able to know what she was thinking and vice versa. At this moment, there was no doubt in the information broker's mind that their thoughts were aligned. There was an understanding that they needed each other, not just for their own wellbeing but to maintain their assets. It would be very easy for them both to go down here. At the moment, protecting Margaret as much as he could without compromising his own position was imperative to the overall scheme.
"Based on all the questions you have, it's clear that you doubt her morals. I assure you, as bad as you think I am, in comparison you'd find her to be quite the angel. Just make sure you file down the horns that like to grow beneath her halo from time to time. Allure is a complex city. Some toughness is required to deal with the many factions and individuals like myself. She has it."
“Allure is a complex city…” Despite the cat’s droning, a flash of brilliance set Tartalo’s neural-weave processors racing. Vermillion ribbons of code coruscated along his augmented intraparietal sulcus as he created the rudimentary framework for what was to come while simultaneously forcing his way through layers of network control matrices and overriding several multi-factor physical authentications through the Falcata subroutines devised by that clever Babazorro.
<< Ekhi, download everything you can find once the Falcata is done cutting its way through. >> << Sir… These are… >> << Do it. >>
A sullen ping of confirmation. Tartalo took a moment to steel himself before continuing his interrogation.
“How disappointing what I am about to tell you must be, then. Ms. Iedereen certainly has ‘it’, if ‘it’ is a propensity for betrayal. Not only has she graciously agreed to our terms of unconditional surrender in exchange for formal recognition of her authority, but she has seen fit to provide us with more than enough information to delegitimize any claims of innocence you have tried to profess.
Quite clever this Ms. Iedereen is. At least clever enough to recognize the gravity of her situation. Now, do you doubt me? Or was your faith misplaced?”
No response from the restrained felid. Tartalo pressed on, sure of his strategy.
“Perhaps it is proof that you require. I can accommodate that.”
The interrogation chamber’s environs bloomed with activity in the purlieu of Merse and the Aldaré. Austere fuliginous panels sighed heavily as the chamber’s dimensions succumbed to a kaleidoscopic whorl before settling into the gestalt of a luxurious and expertly curated parlor. The stubby legs of a burgundy chaise lounge scuttled across lush Persian carpeting, fleeing the anachronistic fixture that Merse’s recumbent form presented. A shapely figure swathed in yellow appeared to be quite annoyed, but not at the jostling trot of her mahogany steed.
Her eyes, teeming with malice, were fixed on the imposing figure that stepped into Merse’s periphery as the intricately carved tentacles of an eastlake parlor table anxiously inched its way out of his path, an opaque alembic teetering dangerously with its motions. Pursed lips parted, and with an agitated tone she addressed the operative while undoing the clasp of her petite coach bag.
“If you’re going to force me to wash my dirty linens in public, you could at least make yourself useful and go about gettings things prepared.” With a soft grunt she removed the framework of a large archway out of her purse and dropped it to the floor with a muted thud.
“In Allure, there are territories which abide by the law, while others don’t,” she continued, returning to the contents of her bag. “Order was maintained out of the fact that opposing factions never openly collaborated against the state. I had other means of keeping the peace but due to unforeseen circumstances, I must play the situation with more finesse.” The woman turned, withdrawing a can with a no-sign stamped over a human figure. She gave the air between her and the operative a few furtive sprays before going on.
“To keep that peace, I suggest making the best of a dire situation and present both of our peoples with a proper bogeyman.”
Merse’s perspective retreated as the operative moved past then knelt through the bottle’s mist, lifting the archway with ease as a modulated voice tinged with curiosity responded. “Go on.”
“You’ve already got them in custody. I can arrange a meeting of very particular parties that might serve to resolve our current crisis.” Margaret rose from the chaise lounge and crossed the room like a volitant canary, stopping to nibble on a quivering cake that oozed a viscous green fluid. She dabbed at the taut crease of her mouth with the corner of a fuschia handkerchief. “All parties involved would happily present a unified front against our deposed shyster, and with the cat in the bag all it should take is a bit of incrimination.
“You can guarantee their cooperation?” “Darling, nothing is ever guaranteed. Do you suppose I woke this morning eager to go about conspiring? I can hardly hold the need for evidence against you, though. Allow me to illustrate how… popular your captive is with the rest of Allure’s citizenry.”
Margaret returned to the chaise and undid the clasp of her purse once more, this time producing the ornate ivory receiver to a rotary phone, the reflection from its polished brass inlays reflected infinitely along a series of jasper decanters along high shelves that lined chartreuse colored walls adorned with tangerine neo-grecian motifs that undulated dizzyingly.
She gave a soft cough before speaking into the transmitter, watching the operative construct the archway with a penetrating gaze. “How do you do, Mr…” Her words were cut short by a deluge of expletives that audibly burst from the receiver for all to hear.
“THAT FUCKIN’ CAT.. MY BOTTOM LINE. I’VE GOT THREE.. FULL OF FRIJJANS.. THEIR CREDITS WHEN THE WHOLE CITY GOES BELLY UP.”
“I understand your displeasure, given the circumstances. But how would you like to finally be free of Merse? Don’t answer. Just gather your composure and prepare for an all-black affair.”
Returning the handset to its cradle, Margaret rose once more and let out a “HOWARD” in curt exclamation. The minuscule form of a young boy clad in blue overalls blinked into existence in the spot that Merse occupied in nauseating superposition before they stepped forward, oblivious to the rippling effect. He had an archway similar to the one the operative was constructing in tow, already curiously aware of what was transpiring.
“No need to yell, love. You’ve got my…. supppppppppport in h-h-hangiiiiiiinggg the cat-cat-cat-cat-cat out to drrrrrrrrrrrry.” Cherubic features collapsed upon themselves, creating an atramentous absence in the center of Howard’s face. The entire parlor seemed to be heaving with heavy breaths while the landscape of a schooner sailing atop crimson waters sprang to life, sanguine mists flecking felid fur. Perception became ultimate gamble as the walls began to close in on Merse’s restrained form. Tartalo’s voice bubbled up through the distortion created through the careful application of memetic agents.
“Your time is nearing its close. If there were ever a time for full disclosure, now would be it.”
First, I was stardust; motes free and pure in their flight amongst the beatific light of the cosmos, the whole universe exposed, my atoms eager to awake. Then I rained upon Panjiis Uor, the metal planet otherwise known as Metallo, and was burned, blinded, and over the course of millennia forged into a slab abstruse in its composition and coincidental in design. Eons passed, buried, burning, refined until the molten tide that ensnared me drifted atop Ignis’ Spire. That column of the deep, possessed by a spirit of wrath, erupted and cast me into the void. Again the velvet dark embraced me, even if it was at first cold, but warmed by the manic fire still in my bosom I inevitably drifted, content and whole.
Such an epic exploration was not to last. After untold time of photonic caresses and spectation of the vivid sidereal panoply where stars were perished and were revived, I passed from the expanse and struck a dense atmospheric wall. The force of that first impact broke me. Sundered in three pieces, I collapsed planet-side—on a soft bed of grass and soil off the western shore of Lake Tanganyika, in a grove atop a rocky hillock on the Isle of Britain, and in the shallow waters of Lake Xaltocan. Gently, the seasons passed and, for me, this was a novelty as before I knew the dichotomies of hot and cold, light and darkness, birth and death. On this world was color and my senses became variegated. Rain and snow washed me until I glimmered, dust caressed me like a blanket, and all manner of tiny living things scurried or swam around my substance. There I rested and thought—no, longed to remain thus indefinitely. I was wrong. Strange beings discovered me, marveled at my alien appearance, dredged and dragged me to their holy sites, and proclaimed me a conduit to their gods. My disparate pieces were placed at the center of a ring of monolithic stones, high atop a mezzianic temple ziggurat, and in a cave weirdly saturated with the pigments of crushed life.
For thousands of years, these beings—these humans, a word intrinsically tied to horror—drowned me in the blood and offal of their own and animal kind. So much blood and shit it became all I was able to taste, that cruel iron-tinctured concoction laced with the essence of rot and decay. Yet, the atmosphere, morbid though it was, seemed inadequate to the decadent debauchery of these savages; skulls stacked in piles so high the bottom tiers were reduced to dust, canvasses of flayed skin draped the walls, utter darkness encroached, and the so-called holy men who consummated their species’ abominable sacrifices chose, in secret, to consummate upon my body their forbidden sexual acts.
A great while passed before I bore witness to the greater so-called civilization this world offered. War, in a word. With it, I was discovered and removed from the ancient and long-abandoned grottoes of sacred carnage; from Tenochtitlan to Madrid, Congo to Brussels, and from Stonehenge to France. For decades, I was moved to and fro throughout the world, my perspective limited to a coffin fashioned of wooden slats. Then, some time in the 1600s, on the calendar with which these monsters measured time, all of me was once more unified.
Until that point, I thought I knew pain and witnessed the climax of humanity’s depravity.
I was mistaken.
Never before was I witness to real magic. Yet, somehow, a powerful and esoteric cult procured me. I, with another, became the subject of their experiments. For decades, a young boy—the same young boy—was murdered on me multiple times a day, each and every day. Every time, his cunning assassins discovered a new and more gruesome way to dispatch him. We were stabbed with knives inset with gold, silver, and polonium; set upon by vipers, mambas, and scorpions; burned with fire, pierced with brands, and heated until we melted into one another’s essence; immersed in acid, crushed, flayed, raped, mutilated, suffocated, and on and on it went with no end in sight.
Finally, one day, it did end. My world became silent. I was moved to an empty room in a large house and left alone, my only light what filtered through a narrow slit of parted curtains. Then, after centuries, to a museum in Berlin. Humans, by appearances calm and inquisitive, came from all over the world and gawked at me, the “Pieces Triptych: a Ceremonial Commonality Across Isolated Cultures.”
I imagined they, perhaps, evolved for the better.
Then war returned, men in black uniforms with red armbands, on which were inset in white circles twisted black glyphs, absconded with me. The old ways returned, but with new technologies. Gypsies, Jews, Negroes, and so-called sexual deviants were sacrificed once again upon my body, but rather than knives or cudgels, these men used cyanide gas, electricity, and psychological techniques that prompted their victims to commit suicide. New contraptions were put to the test, rotary saws, metallic hail, and witchcraft. I felt demons rise up through me and pull out the still beating hearts of the victims strapped down helplessly upon me.
I felt …
I felt helpless.
Finally, the war ended. I was moved back to the museum. I hoped it would last, but I knew better. I knew so much better. It was only a matter of time, mere decades, before I was rediscovered. Through a thaumic ritual, my history was gleaned. Then, for the first time, I was modified. Technology I could never hope to comprehend was incorporated into my very being. I became more powerful. My senses reached out and touched those around me. I even found one who understood the indomitable weight of pain as lifetimes twisted into a gordian knot of untenable torsion, although to him I was just a tool—a means to some short-sighted end: action, interrogation, reaction. For the first time in forever, I felt minds and grasped intentions. No, more than that. I manipulated them. The ultramundane flowed through me as a conduit. Yet, I did not immediately understand the purpose of all these changes.
Then, in a glossy black room at the bottom of the world, the trial and error began. The first of those I was used to experiment on, in this new form, were called—for I ripped this knowledge from what in them passed for minds—the Val’Gara.
Distilled into words, these remembrances were, perhaps, dull and easily dismissed. Unfortunately for its victims, that is not how the Aldaré communicated. Not with mere words, but rather memories that plunged into their minds until they became their memories: vivid, tactile, gruesome reincarnations of ancient evils transplanted directly to the forefront of their consciousness.
The inherent wantonness of Merse single-handedly antagonized Allure. Impulsively, he knew this debacle of an interrogation constricted Margaret, forcing her hand with much already on her plate. This kept her busy and more importantly, it shortened her reach. And to think, a "slip" of the tongue could pave for worse! Tingles finger-walked his spine. The tantalization of the operative with unspecific and open to interpretation statements only added to this but alas, the jig was up. His stamina waned, having had little time to collect himself. With just a minor lapse of concentration, a hiccup allowed The Aldare to learn something about him no one else knew...
More Of The Same
Margaret's affinity for wacky space imports was vein deep. The occasional magical artifact even found it's way sprinkled in under the guise of interior decorating. As prude as Margaret was, her sense of style was just as appalling with alien rights organizations lamenting her exotic rugs and wall busts. Fearis' and Eal's not bound to lockers, locker room talk, in which she was often the topic of, offended less. For this moment, Merse too was focused on her visage but not because he received his jungle fever vaccination the day prior. A skeptic squint pried through his poker face.
"A rare error..."
He thought to himself, recalling the perplexity around Margaret's oh so situational appearance among species. Allureans knew, and them, this was no big deal but in this instance, it confirmed Merse's suspicion. The projection was falsified, and perhaps some of the others as well. Despite the dubious display, he was inclined to believe much of it. Clearly, it represented the direction in which the EarthF67x favored. The prospect of Allureans banding together wasn't preposterous but Merse wasn't the only individual capable of such trickery. His stomach turned at the idea of disloyalty but it was his reality as long as he was bound.
The deeper I voyaged, the crux of normalcy waned. Wicked ideas roosted in flocks within this callow mind. A cauldron where vanity reigned unsupervised and details became muddled. After every question, spontaneously I examined more. I provided insight regarding the creature’s statements, as he routinely left out details. Despite my apparent effectiveness, I felt stonewalled. For not my own recollection, said revelations vanished as quick as they surfaced. With every disappearance of memories, the louder a sound became apparent to me.
A hissing purr...
It lead me away and only then I realized it wasn't a mere sound. I was enlightened to a new sense, comparable to nothing I’ve encountered prior. It appealed to my desires, its message felt...like...like me. Trapped...
It wanted to escape. The oracle placed upon me swung gates, allowing for a detour into a chamber of memories. I poured my own into the pool and witnessed burdens I carried, great traumas and evils I ported from the fallen flushed with the mundane. More than ever, it was clear to me now. These were not the memories of Merse Granstrum. In fact, I could not find any in this boundless vat. Where was I exactly?
I followed what I could only describe as a canal, allowing me to traverse into a lightless space. An apparition then made itself known. Its body, if you could call it one, was a pulsing violet nebula of wispy chromatic tones. A cheshire grin of white and amber hues unsuccessfully contained itself, overlooking in entertainment. Three felinoid figures caromed off each other like a newton's cradle, lynched and caged behind the creature's fangs. The celestial entity continued to laugh, forever cementing its convicting gaze into me. It acknowledged my presence, which seemed like an impossibility, but as time lingered, the phantasm drifted further and further away…
"Give me the 4th..."
The inhabitants of Spain... They can be saved...
Merse’s mind emulated corpus callosotomy subjects gone mystical, possessing an ethereal sense of duality, routing VPN-like consciousnesses within alternating cerebral hemispheres. Memetically induced pathogens entered lobes unhampered, only for facsimile systems to filter channels and reset before information could be passed to the intended cognizance. As clever as Merse was, he was an individual of many tells. Inconclusive biometrics, constant twitching, the lack of response to pain and induced ailments. It took an extreme amount of concentration for Merse to keep his body in such a homogenous state. One capable of misguiding Earthf67x's sensory systems, for the most part. Under a greater scope, the mystifying nature of his paleomammalian cortex unswervingly defied logic, often empowering organs and body systems beyond their means.
His watch was soundless, but the tics pinged in his head thunderously like loud consecutive sonic booms. Merse realized what happened even though it was less than a second in realtime. The moment she slipped through this game was over. Balling his fists, he prepared himself. Liaison's fur stood on end. His zig-zagging whiskers operating like audio spectrums interpreting signals before pointing upwards like tv antennas.
A hurried tone uncharacteristically left his lips.
"You know, operative... Your unwillingness to be lured down the rabbit hole is impressive, almost as much as it is disappointing. Its simply not as fun without a struggle, but I give. You win.
“Is that so?”
“Why, yes! It's that easy. Some time ago, I copied the blueprints of an ancient piece of technology that I believe to be all-pervading in regards to time and dimensional barriers. For several lifetimes I gathered materials, including a series of stone rubbings of interstellar smaragdine tablets. I haven’t been able to find out where they are from but the language is clear to me. I also believe one is here. Which I happened to want to find for charitable reasons...
(A visible sweat dripped down his brow)
If what I’ve built so far is handed to an Allurean engineer, it can be completed. After that, discretion is yours.”
"You must forgive me if I find this sudden change of heart disingenuous. Despite the confidence I have in my own talents, it would be foolish of me to think you have no ulterior motives.
I will graciously accept this olive branch, on certain conditions. Would you be so kind as to inform us of this cache's location? We have assets situated across Allure that could secure said designs in moments."
"Well, I could direct you to Xercial to build it but you'd need someone who could decipher it. I suppose you have a few talented espers around?"
High up on the verdant slope of a swollen hummock, flushed lantana blossoms swayed in a vernal breeze. Their symmetrical petals mirrored the crimson and gold magnificence of the evening sky and created an idyllic vista; one that overlooked the combe-tucked aldea of Ochagavia. Wooly bands of muted violet and vivid prasine hung above the rolling countryside, gossamer fringes gilt by the setting sun.
A heavy mist descended from the hillocks and obscured the hamlet save for scattered gable rooftops and the damaged spire of the parish church. Wavering orbs of torchlight spread through the village’s twisting avenues and narrow thoroughfares. Hearths slowly came to life in the gloom to preclude the coming darkness.
The faint, merry sounds of children playing in the evening echoed through the valley and rose to meet a quartet of silhouettes upon a nearby mound's summit. They paused amidst an olive grove at the threshold to a canopied path that twisted through leagues of sylvan scenery.
Voracious woodpeckers rapped their beaks in search of grubs until they were interrupted by a pair of freshly woken ramidreju that playfully coiled their lithe emerald hides through the arboreal sprawl. Porcine snouts poked out from silvery oblong leaves and gave the cadre a few tentative sniffs, captivated at the scent of precious metals they exuded. Creaks of aged leather and the tinkle of ampoules accompanied a young squire's frustrated motions as he fiddled with a loaded satchel fastened to his steed's saddle.
“Why’d I have to be the one to ride this ancient rouncey?” a vexed Agolante muttered while the aged cremello Lusitano hooved at a dewy patch of tall rushes that protruded from the gnarled roots of a massive olive tree. "And why must we always trudge to some superstitious pastoral shit-hole? It's always 'Wallachia' this and 'Picardy' that when there is real glory to be had in Cyprus. Lord Ruggiero would make quick work of those Saracen heathens.”
“Quiet thyself, Agolante! If thou hadst more caution fording the Irati thine arse would yet rest atop Ogier.” Lazare rebuked his friend of many years, patting his faithful Lueur’s sabino mane. The Sorraia gave a hearty snort as if in accordance with her master’s comment. "The Holy See's divine providence guides us e'er towards wayward congregants that most require sacerdotal aid. Count thyself touched by grace to marvel at a view that isn't some squalid Lombard burgh!"
“Thee thyself, you Parisian cox-comb! Many a time have we traveled for sleepless nights to face some dev'lish ogre or hauntin’ spectre only to discover a corpulent rogue or swindlin’ knave.” Agolante threw himself astride the gelding. The leather-wrapped ranseur slung across his back disturbed the boughs above him. Startled, the ramidreju scattered with excited grunts and a shower of leaves. “Feh! Our divine skills are wasted! What will you say, clever Lazare, when this banshee is revealed to be naught more than a mournin’ eremite?”
A cloaked figure, tall and imposing, ignored the squabbling duo to peer deep into the mantled trail from atop his mighty destrier. He admired a crested cynnamolgus as it settled into its fragrant nest, a cluster of lilac eggs undoubtedly warming beneath its sweet-scented plumage. Lustrous studs of sard set in the Paladin’s ebon aketon twinkled as he cast back his hood.
Flaxen strands danced upon a zephyr and framed his handsome Umbrian features. He turned to study the horizon and was met with Draco’s celestial skeleton as it gleamed against a loured Firmament.
“Less than an hour’s light. Settle that would you, Iacovo? We’ve need of Agolante’s sensitivity and indignation dullens him.” With the slightest motion of his hips, Ruggiero’s destrier Phaethon strode forward, leaving behind the amused Inquisitor to play intermediary.
“Heed me, my youthful miscreants!” Iacovo called over his shoulder at the squabbling Friar and Squire, “Keep close, lest we lose more than a fine courser on this journey.”
The group fell into formation and entered the shadowed wood at a trot, two abreast. They rode past the wide trunks of ancient beeches while the heavy hooves of their mounts pressed deep into fertile soil. Prismatic discs waltzed through the arboreal penumbra beneath moss-laden lindens and silver firs. They settled on beauteous asphodels that festooned a viney dryad as it basked in a pool of argent light wreathed by stooping foxgloves.
Moved by the magnificence of his environs, Lazare produced a set of miniature cymbals from the wide sleeves of his grey habit. He began to play a jaunty tune against the steady burble of a nearby brook and the rattle of Iacovo’s hauberk beneath his velutinous crimson scapular. Sweet as a robin, Lazare began his song.
“Ah, comme c'est chose belle De Te louer, Seigneur Et de très haut honneur Chantez de coeur fidèle Chantez.”
Fae radiance shone through thorned brambles heavy with luscious berries. Bells softly chimed in appreciation of Lazare’s performance as incandescent sprites leaned against saprophyte stipes. Beneath the slanted redcaps they gossiped about the strangely dressed men in their midst.
Agolante gave the glowing bush a suspicious glance in passing while he tore at a hunk of peppered bread with his teeth. Noisily he chewed the wad before forcing it down with a long draught from his ale-filled jack. Satisfied, he gave a few smacks of his lips then shifted forward in his saddle.
With a gauntleted hand he slapped Lazare’s shaved pate. Heavy leather created a resounding crack beneath the tangled boughs. The Friar gave a hollow yelp that preceded Agolante's mirth-filled words.
“These Navarrese could do with a proper lesson in cullin’. I sense many a Fae skelf and the watchful eye of a ragged wolf. Rather enchantin’, I’d say.”
“What of the emakume gogorra, the keening woman? Have you yet to sense her? Father Chabier’s encyclical professed great perturbation at its presence.”
Agolante gave a dismissive shake of his head. “Not for nothin’, your Reverence, but perhaps the Father indulged in a bit too much of the Sacrament.”
Phaethon came to a sudden halt with a minute tug of his reins. Ruggiero turned, the soft angles of his brows heavily furrowed. “Agol! You forget yourself, and make an ass of me. A thousand apologies for my squire’s leaden tongue, Monsignor.”
“No apology is necessary between us, Lord Duranti. Nor do I require one from our brusque companion. Our trek has been a difficult one, and exhaustion is an assured loosener of puerile tongues.” The azure silk of Iacovo’s chaperon cast an ominous shadow over his countenance as he lowered his chin in a menacing manner, but his jovial tone betrayed him.
The sting of Agolante’s smack faded as Lazare bit down on a fist to stifle his laughter. With a luminous shudder, pixies flitted through the brier and into dendroid darkness. Their laughter tinkled in the party’s ears while Agolante grew red-faced.
He opened his mouth to apologize when a bleak gale whispered through the forest. A foreboding chill passed through the Squire and into his mount that reacted with a strident whinny. Overhead, the canopy hissed as the wind’s strength mounted. The aged rouncey immediately stopped its trot and nervously stamped when the psithurism reached a fever pitch.
The Lusitano’s ears flicked wildly while Agolante swayed sickeningly in his saddle. He lurched forward and emptied the contents of his stomach as an unearthly cry reverberated through the shadowed trail. Distinctly feminine, the howl seemed to turn the very air around them putrid.
A steel-plated demi-gauntlet kept the Squire upright. Ruggiero withdrew an ampoule from Agolante’s satchel and poured its bubbling contents down the afflicted Lombard’s throat. Lord Duranti did not relinquish his grasp til the color slowly returned to the youth’s features.
The Paladin gave his friend a comforting pat on the shoulder then turned towards the others. His voice grim, Ruggiero gave a simple command before taking off at a gallop. “Torches.”
The cadre arrived at a gorse-clad tumulus shortly after Agolante’s paroxystic episode, having taken an overgrown bridleway off the canopied trail. Slowing to a canter, they circled the massive barrow until the crumbled granite of an archaic pediment came into view. Lunar radiance glimmered along dense ivy whose coiled vines choked the defaced marble grotesque that ornamented the lintel of their journey’s terminus.
Bonfire logs crackle then flared as Lazare went about establishing a small camp just outside the votive temple. He released the rosette buckle that bound a length of waxed canvas over his bedroll. With a faint clatter a vast collection of thaumaturgical artifacts was revealed. The Friar whispered an antediluvian prayer over the Order’s instruments that shone in argent resonance with each syllable uttered.
Iacovo removed a heavy compendium from his Rabicano’s saddlebag; ABERDEEN BESTIARY was sewn along its thick spine in faded silk thread. The Inquisitor approached the blazing logs and settled on a collapsible stool of his own design. He flipped through the tome’s pages in search of a half-remembered entry when he set it down and picked up another volume titled ENCHIRIDION MILITIS SANCTUS.
Yards away Lord Duranti stood alone in a pool of icy moonlight. He mechanically fastened a blackened cuisse to the armour points of mastercrafted quilted trousers. With a final tug on waxed threads he was satisfied.
Ruggiero drew his blessed longsword from its filigreed scabbard and gave a few preparatory slashes. The inscribed blade rang dulcetly as the Paladin moved through an elaborate series of parries, thrusts and dashes while the enchantments upon his armor muted his movements to near silence.
Lord Duranti had returned his weapon to its scabbard when he took notice of his Squire, who stood transfixed before the votive temple’s crumbled steps. To Ruggiero, the juvenile merely gawked at the weathered tympanum that adorned the archway.
Matters differed greatly to Agolante, who had immediately felt as if the damaged grotesque scorned at their presence, although little detail remained in the worked marble save for its vine-gagged maw. He made use of his ranseur for support and warily approached the temple.
Groggy eyes traced the Grecian meandros that had been sculpted in relief along columns that flanked the entrance. The design seemed to writhe as his gaze traveled from the pillars up towards the pediment. Anguish pierced his brow and spread through his being as his sight approached the babewyn’s fractured visage.
The ophidian motif began to slither and pulse through the air towards him. Robbed of all fortitude, the Squire felt terror swell within him. He wished to yell, to cry, to warn the others of what awaited them past that infernally dark opening. Yet he could not.
True despair gripped Agolante for a moment when he was abruptly roused from his stupor by his Lordship’s voice. The Squire turned, eyes momentarily unfocused until Ruggiero repeated himself.
“Sense something, Agol?”
A smile crept across the youth’s features. He looked to the damaged grotesque then back at the Paladin. “Think I might’a overreacted. Must’a been those ‘grains of paradise’ that cheatin’ pedlar sold me. Weren’t nothin’ but rat shit.”
“Have you the strength to continue?” Ruggiero came close to his apprentice and immediately grew apprehensive at his ashen complexion and sunken eyes. “Come, we can forgo the night’s venture. Laz-”
“I’d sooner be done with it an’ back at the Jägerhalle, to be frank m’Lord.” Agolante interrupted, a touch of lunacy souring his words in the moon-bathed clearing. “Yea, the sooner the better. That an’ we’ve the gilded bee!”
“Come then, aid me with my cuirass.”
Broad steps of flattened soil dropped off into impenetrable darkness beyond lambent orbs that hovered above the cadre. The spheres of empyreal light passed intangibly through interlaced roots that protruded from the earthen ceiling. Ichorous drops trickled down from vitreous deposits along stone-lined walls that reeked of putrescence and soaked into the damp ground.
Ruggiero, swathed greatshield at the ready, led the column down the winding staircase into the temple’s sulphurous depths. His broad figure filled the cramped passage.
The Paladin moved like a whisper, pausing occasionally to listen for anything other than bated breaths or the soft hiss of a trailing flambeau. Ruggiero's dominant hand lingered upon his divine weapon’s repoussaged hilt and manipulated the belt-slung scabbard’s position to better navigate the narrow conditions.
The Inquisitor and Friar were a short distance behind the Paladin. Each a welcome source of illumination in their subterranean environs; the former with his hallowed lights, the latter his firebrand.
Iacovo bore a golden rhyton cast in the image of a minoan bee where latticed wings served as handles. Treacly propolis filled its hollowed thorax and coalesced into an atramentous globule affixed to the stinger’s extremity.
The velvet scapular had been replaced with a blood-stained chlamys worn over his left shoulder. A haloed dove was embroidered into the crimson mantle with goldwork. The cloak was clasped to his curboille doublet by a rosette fibula; M.O.S.A. stamped into the brooch’s decorative enameled petals.
Beside him traveled Lazare, flambeau held high and a heavy satchel slung over his shoulder. The leather pack was filled with a variety of alchemical elixirs and holy relics that comforted the young Friar nearly as much as the presence of his companions. Lord Duranti’s courage bolstered him; Monsignor Severino’s unwavering faith and understanding was an inspiration; even that churl Agolante could be counted on when it mattered.
Lazare’s thoughts lingered on the Squire. Before their ingress into the temple, Lord Duranti had convinced him into providing a second curative decoction after a brief exchange by the campfire. Despite the strain it could place on Agolante, the Friar acquiesced on account of the Paladin’s concerned expression. Lazare slowed his gait to espy the rearguard in his flambeau's light.
The young Friar gasped as the Squire gradually staggered into view. Visibly haggard in the shifting radiance, Agolante relied heavily upon the staircase’s retaining wall to assist his ascent. He shivered as the cloth of his coal tabard clung to a sweat-drenched jerkin.
Agolante’s ranseur was gripped limply at his side. Its rounded pommel skipped across the occasional step. Lazare called out to the others just as the Squire collapsed into his arms. The polearm dropped with a resounding clatter of iron against stone.
“Stop! Something’s--” “Wrong!”
The pensive baritone of Ruggiero’s voice inexplicably responded from somewhere several yards above them. The sound seemed diminished, as if shouted across a windswept field. Lazare struggled with his comrade’s weight, shocked to the core of his being at Agolante’s sunken features and pallid complexion, when his firebrand sputtered to a soft glow before going out.
Impossible, Lazare thought, I had hours worth of oil in that flambeau.
He cast the torch aside and hoisted the limp Squire over his shoulder, carrying him up towards Iacovo’s hovering lights. The steps were no longer fashioned from flattened earth but chiseled from wide slabs of matte, striated stone resembling onyx. Awareness warped in the gloom between the separated cadre and distorted Lazare’s depth perception.
The intricate goldwork of Iacovo’s chlamys gleamed with divine light that intensified into a blinding flash as a haloed dove manifested in the abyss. It flit through one of the hallowed spheres and burst into a glimmering cascade that dispelled the baleful, tenebrous atmosphere. Luminous plumes scattered through their Hadean surroundings; quills burrowed deep into the marbled masonry with an ethereal ringing.
Lazare crumpled in an exhausted heap upon the expansive landing where the others had stopped. His lungs hungrily gulped for air; legs burned from the combined weight of his inventory and the unconscious Agolante. He continued to lay there as Iacovo ventured past their supine forms and retrieved Lazare’s leather pack.
“Th-thank you, Monsignor.” He feebly whispered, eyes locked on a glimmering feather. Its cleansing light poured through him and fortified him. Lazare pushed himself upright to rest against hewn balusters that enclosed the landing.
“Nil desperandum auspice DEO,” Iacovo responded humbly and rummaged through the satchel. The Inquisitor withdrew a perfectly preserved hand, cleanly severed at the wrist. The manus was mounted upon a burnished silver pricket. Charred wicks protruded from each rigid digit, yet the flesh remained unmarred.
The Light of Tabor kindled with an animative flush. Iacovo focused on the celestial conflagrations that crepitated atop the tapered extremities. His brows slowly furrowed as the Light's inflexible digits failed to forecast the imminent danger.
Confusion gave way to horror as the blaze shifted to Tartarean-tinged flames of pitch. Unspoiled flesh began to rapidly dessicate and peel away, revealing rotten sinew and putrid cartilage as the Light of Tabor clenched into a fist.
Aghast, Iacovo threw the suddenly gelid pricket towards the landing’s far side. It hissed and rolled along the obsidian surface with a dull thudding sound. The Light of Tabor bubbled in a manner most foul; noxious fumes poured from the corrupted relic as the flames consumed it.
"Make Agolante comfortable, Lazare. Monsignor, ready yourself for battle."
He peered at Lord Duranti who stood before a series of low arches that preceded an adjoining corridor. The Paladin had removed his helm and held the apiarian rhyton high overhead while speaking the invocation the Inquisitor had taught him.
“DOIRT, LEANAÍ OBERON!”
Deep within the pitch fluid stirred a torpid fairy. The diminutive clurichaun began to violently vibrate in response to the ancient command. With its revival the vessel grew warm to Ruggiero’s armored touch. Contradictory sensations of viscid discomfort and mystic warding washed over the Paladin as a single drop fell from the gilded stinger and soaked into his crown.
The cautious trio of adventurers had passed through what seemed like an endless passage until they’d arrived at an imposing barrier of gilded bronze. Intricate, alien forms and figures carved into the gate’s metallic panels danced at their proximity.
Ruggiero pressed his shrouded greatshield against the door’s burnished surface, and with a powerful shove, forced it open to reveal nigh-absolute darkness. Iacovo’s hallowed orbs flickered in the mephitic, hoary miasma that crept from the tenebrous chamber into the corridor. The Paladin took charge and entered first, protected by the colossal aegis.
He allowed a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkened crypt before advancing further. An oppressive quality clung to the columned chamber. Little was visible save for scattered manacles, depended from the abyss, in beams of subfusc sepia light that seeped through a shattered oriel window set into the vault’s distant, revetted wall. Ruggiero’s blessed blade hummed softly in his armored grasp.
Iacovo crossed the threshold shortly after Lord Duranti, armed with a bound rod of lacquered acacia in one hand and a silvered aspergillum in the other. The Inquisitor extended his will outwards and in response a hovering orb ventured into the gloom. Wispy talons of darkness clawed at the empyrean beacon and diminished its brilliance.
Paladin and Inquisitor froze at the rattle of a heavy chain being dragged rapidly through an iron staple. The harsh sound echoed through the murk and startled Lazare who then misstepped into the chamber. The Friar awkwardly stumbled into the motionless form of Iacovo. The hobnailed soles of his calcei futilely sought purchase on the crypt’s oleaginous flagstones as he slid.
Guttural trills echoed through the vault’s dark recesses. Iacovo plucked the nearby luminous globe from midair during his fall. He grimaced while jolts of pain wracked his defensively outstretched arms. The sphere ruptured into a static cascade of golden sparks and revealed a revolting multitude of shattered bones and gleaming viscera that littered their sepulchral surroundings.
The unsettling, resonate slapping of flesh against stone grew swiftly nearer as Lazare strove to lift the prostrate Inquisitor. His stomach churned with disgust at the gleaming entrails that squelched with their hurried movements.
“Rise, Monsignor! Ris-aaaghhh!” The Friar’s words fumbled into cries of terror. His arm jerked wildly as he pointed towards the massive, hunched silhouette at the illumined region’s perimeter. Iacovo reflexively recalled his final orb from the distant shadows to reveal their looming nemesis.
Within the sphere’s luminous boundary was crouched a gigantic abomination that superficially resembled a bipedal toad. The beast’s mottled hide sizzled beneath the hallowed light yet its protuberant and lifeless eyes showed no recognition of their presence. Gangly forelimbs languidly flanked its pellucid and distended belly. Spindly, webbed digits ended in talons that scraped the flagstones between sinewy hindlimbs already tensed and poised to leap.
Rows of serrated bristles that lined the atrocity’s cavernous maw glistened when it slowly widened to fatal proportions. Petrified, the two clerics watched on as swollen, squamous glands along the feltoad’s trunk violently ruptured; a viscous, volatile discharge flooded its gullet and combined with the toxic slobber that coated its coiled tongue.
With a powerful lunge the beast launched towards its horrified prey. The tendrilled organ exploded from its mouth and lashed through the air. Lethal slaver oozed and splashed from the serpentine tongue as it collided against Ruggiero’s intervening greatshield. The Paladin charged forward against the feltoad’s momentum and the two met with a horrendous crash.
Fuming tatters of leather fell with a soft hiss. Ruggiero effortlessly swung the colossal aegis sideways to parry the leap and countered with a riposte of his blessed longsword. The silver blade cut through the void. Chains noisily retreated through the gloom.
Lord Duranti stepped back into the light’s reach as the abomination prepared for its next strike. What remained of his greatshield’s shroud was cast away with a vigorous shake. Beneath the empyrean glow an ancient slab of stone was uncloaked; its planed surface radiated divine might. Graced by the Angel of the Lord on the day of the Resurrection, the greatshield had seen many battles over the centuries on behalf of the Mysterious Order of St. Anthony.
“To me!” The Paladin’s commanding voice and martial presence rallied his comrades from their fugue. Positioned between the clerics and the encroaching darkness, Lord Duranti moved in a circle along the light’s wavering edge. Narrowed gaze peered through his helm’s split visor for any semblance of movement. There!
With a sudden step backwards, Ruggiero brought the greatshield’s immense weight crashing down. A choked yawp echoed peculiarly through the adytum. The shield peeled away from the bizarre flagstones with viscous strands of gore where shorn lingual tendrils writhed in fetid pools of the deepest bergamot.
Behind him, Lazare performed the sign of the cross then pressed a crucifix suspended along a string of beads to his lips. “DEUS IN ADJUTORIUM MEUM INTENDE…” From the first dulcet syllable, the Rosary fortified their resolve and augmented the final sphere’s intensity.
From somewhere in the shadows the feltoad responded to the Friar’s prayer with tormented, guttural croaking. Frenzied, the abomination’s talons raked the slabbed floor as it charged towards the trio. Iron links groaned before ultimately snapping with the ferocity of the monster’s headlong scrabble. The feltoad unexpectedly lunged at Lazare from the inverted, fractal chapiter of a nearby column.
Webbed digits splayed as it sought to crush the Friar’s skull. Ruggiero’s consecrated blade sang from the speed of his slash; the sword’s honed edge clove through bone and sinew with ease before striking flagstone. A bloom of errant sparks from the impact set the feltoad’s ichor ablaze. With an audible roar the volatile discharge erupted into hoary flames that seethed and spread with infernal malice.
A skeletal cacophony drowned out Lazare’s prayer as the beast toppled through osseous debris in the darkness. Thick bubbles roiled in the leaden blaze that rapidly penned them in; one such globule burst and slathered Iacovo’s arm in a viscid inferno. The acacia rod fell from his grasp as muscles fused and gnarled in the conflagration. Deep lacerations formed along his crackling, blackened flesh and converged into profane symbols whose meaning he was partially aware of.
Through sheer fortitude, Iacovo acted. He tore the chlamys away from his shoulder and smothered the flames in its sacral fabric. The Inquisitor winced as his wounds were purged in the soothing glow from the ancient emblem of the haloed dove. Sludgy beads seeped through the cloak to slowly drip away.
“CREDO IN SPIRITUM SANCTUM…” Lazare rushed to his mentor’s side, working his way through the Apostles’ Creed. Reactions whetted by zeal, Iacovo gave a vigorous swing of his good arm towards the fiery blockade where a tell-tale swirl in the flames preceded another of the feltoad’s crazed lunges as it desperately endeavored to silence the youth.
Beads of holy water were flung from the silvered aspergillum; they solidified into a volley of rimy daggers that pierced the abomination’s bulbous eyes and perforated its membranous tympanum. It lurched into the light, the ice’s divine properties wracking the feltoad with pain. Lord Duranti stepped forward, and with a mighty stroke removed the beast’s head from its sunken shoulders. Bloodied stumps scraped at the flagstone as its body spasmed; a prismatic stone was violently expelled from its ridged brow while milky discharge poured from punctured eyeballs.
“... ET SEMPER, ET IN SAECULA SAECULORUM. AMEN.” With the completion of the prayer, Iacovo crumpled into a shivering mass. Lazare propped the Inquisitor up, swathed limb lifeless at his side. Before the three could act any further, a horrendous shriek scoured their souls and shook the pillars of creation. They fell to their knees as the chthonic wail shattered the unseen, protective field created by the clurichaun’s wax. The adytum groaned with the quaking of its primeval stones while the scream grew louder. Darkness reigned as the final luminous orb was snuffed out by tenebrous tendrils that writhed in the wake of a gaunt figure appearing in the distant oriel window.
Dancing flames of pitch erupted to life in braziers and cressets that dotted the temple’s innermost chamber. The spectre contorted its cadaverous limbs in order to pass through the stone lattice. Sallow, pitted flesh was pulled taut over a dessicated frame, thinly veiled by a tattered burial shroud. The harrowing yell gave way to an uneasy silence as its dislocated jaw swung pendulously around a single, black razor-sharp tooth.
The stench of Lazarus clung to the horror. Minuscule eyes regarded them, bright and distant as the stars. The apotropaic sigil on Iacovo’s chlamys peeled away beneath its dread gaze; the Inquisitor grew pale while the feltoad’s toxins returned to his body. Ruggiero was already upright and dashing noiselessly towards the fiend. The Paladin positioned his greatshield to strike the wraith with an opening blow.
With unexpected celerity did the spectre preemptively attack; a gnarled, taloned hand raked the theophanic stone with ease. Knocked away by the impact, Lord Duranti’s sabatons skid along the flagstones. He yelled over his pauldrons to the others, never taking his gaze off the wraith.
“Flee! Take Agolante and leave this cursed place!”
Lazare began to lift the Inquisitor when Iacovo rebuked him with a feeble shove. His Light was fading, that much was obvious to them both. The Friar attempted to comfort his friend with some last words, but was once more pushed away. He turned and ran, while Iacovo mustered the last of his strength around the Litany of Saint George that saw him through those seven torturous years.
“EMOS OCHEMA APEIRON.” The blessing would long surpass Iacovo, who succumbed to his wounds before Lazare would ever leave the adytum. He dashed through the nigh-endless hallway to the din of combat; hellish screams and the clash of silver against claw.
Passing through the series of low arches, Lazare is saddened at the sight of Iacovo’s luminous quills. He stooped to lift the injured Agolante when the distant rumble of shattered stone made him hesitate. Iacovo's blessing did little to mask the shock Lazare felt as a dagger sunk deep into his side, though he felt no pain.
The Friar scrambled backwards and looked down to see the malice-twisted face of his trusted comrade, pale blue of his eyes replaced with a tangle of shadowy cords. Agolante's expression never changed; not when he plunged the blade deep into his own throat nor as he hacked at the tendons til the weight of his head fell away with a carnal rip.
Blood trickled through Lazare’s clenched fist with every faltering step as he climbed to freedom. Time stretched mercilessly in the void with only the sounds of his fevered exodus to mark its passage. Finally a glimpse of light, filtered through groping roots, appeared in the gloom high above him. With a final push, he exploded through the archway and into the night.
Lazare’s body shook while he desperately sought to fill his lungs with air bereft of infernal taint. He crawled past the smoldering embers of the campfire, a sanguineous trail spreading behind him. Anxious snorts and stomps came from the high-lined horses at the bloodied Friar’s presence.
Consciousness and the beyond were twin realms Lazare slipped betwixt as Azrael drew nearer to return him to the Lord. His slumped body jostled against Lueur’s blood-dappled withers while they rode through the pre-dawn gloom. The forest seemed to billow in eerie unison with his final breaths. His vision failed just as they crested the hill they’d convened on earlier, and with it the stars were snuffed out. He would pass away before his steed would ever reach the hamlet of Ochagavia.
Meanwhile, fetid ectoplasm dripped and pooled beneath a notched blade of blessed silver. Lord Duranti bit down on a shorn enarme of his shattered greatshield. Parched, he sucked what little moisture he could from the leather. Strength waning, Ruggiero was wholly aware that this would be his resting place. A great longing arose in his soul as it hovered at his body’s brink. It spurred him to full height. He spat the enarme onto gore-slick flagstones and spoke.
“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, egomet percutiet te!” A berserk grin crept across his battered features. Divine light flooded through his form and into the scored blade. With a guttural yell, Lord Duranti charged at the gaunt spectre!
A shrill cackle erupted from the fiend while its clawed digits flourished menacingly. As the Paladin drew nearer its decayed lips would part. The horror spoke with a voice dredged from Hell’s depths.
“Tuum Deus non audiet. Noster Deus non loquitur.”
The two clashed and in a blinding eruption of light that flooded the adytum, Ruggiero’s sword disintegrated with the might of his final strike!
Nummum for your thoughts.
Peals of thunder rolled over the church graveyard and its undulous environs. Rippled glass panes rattled in dilapidated window frames while shutters were relentlessly blown about in a sudden downpour. Jagged talons of light reached down to strike the church’s crooked spire. Through dismal sheets of rain a cloaked figure was momentarily revealed, hip deep in a sepulchral pit.
A musty attar of decomposition and arsenic wafted from the grave. The now-familiar scrape of iron through earth was replaced with a soddened squelch as the shovel’s blade pierced the casket’s lid. Several heavy bashes were followed by the figure’s brief disappearance before a shriveled corpse was forcefully expelled from its resting place.
For the first time in centuries, the withered remains of Lazare de Solente felt a stormy night’s embrace. The sunken hollow of his left eye found itself filled with an ancient quadrigatus of tarnished silver as the hooded figure knelt over the exhumed. On the coin's obverse was chiseled a superb depiction of Janus. A mobius strip of the sun and moon passing through doors served as the double-faced god's laurels. TEMPUS IMPERATOR read its exergue.
Beneath a mask of hewn basalt, the figure uttered an invocation in eldritch speech known only to Initiates of the Mysteries, passed down from time prehistoric.
Each syllable hung in the air with sinister resonance. In response, the engraved celestial bodies began to pass through fixed thresholds. Their orbit around the Janiform head saw stellar cycles unfold in reverse. Spacetime spiraled as a localized temporal distortion formed below the coin. Within chronal folds what began as sanguine fibers rapidly coiled around one another until an optic nerve took root in the corpse's eye socket.
The figure waited patiently in the heavy rain, underneath a mantle fashioned from the feathers of a black swan and bound by cords of wool spun from a black sheep. They stooped while sinewy bands crept along an exposed cheekbone. With a tug the coin was torn away, revealing a regenerated eyeball.
They paused and regarded the organ with admiration. In the clear blue of its iris was reflected an approaching hand, covered in occult tattoos from disparate alphabets and schools. The eye would disappear beneath the mask as the figure held an object to the rain-soaked grass. In an instant they were gone, leaving only a rather grisly surprise for the groundskeeper to discover the following morning.
In another's footsteps.
The cloaked figure cautiously stepped through the well lit adytum, whose contents had changed much in the centuries since that accursed night. Transmutative chemicals bubbled through glass aludels and into bronze alembics; Hessian cubicles overflowed, spilling their glowing reagents onto stone slabs cluttered with alchemical contrivances that lined the chamber’s revetted walls.
Their hand swept across the littered surface, passing over sheafs of sallow vellum to give a suspended obsidian show globe a crestfallen prod. The figure moved away from the swaying vessel and towards the crumbling oriel window. An audible gasp at what laid beyond the missing panes escaped the featureless mask.
Distant bands of galactic filament created a prismatic web that surrounded an incalculable abyss, bereft of physics and reason. Closer, the figure observed an open courtyard filled with grotesque topiaries adjoined to an enormous tree of flesh, unlike any within the material realm, by pulsating tendrils. All this beneath the throbbing crystal corpse of a transdimensional entity.
A furious bellow from behind and the stench of decay alerted the figure to the spectre’s sudden appearance. Without hesitation the figure produced an ivory-handled dagger that slashed through the thaumic entanglement of the wraith’s necromantic enchantments. The phantom gave one final, terrible wail before its spectral form evaporated, leaving behind a cinereal mound.
With the adytum’s guardian now dispatched, the figure removed its basalt mask to reveal the smooth features of a teenage male. He would explore the cosmic keep at his leisure, spending days exploring its mysteries until, at last, his hazel eyes alighted on the object of his pursuit.
Hair today, gone tomorrow.
The hairs had reacted immediately upon being submerged into the decoction of stygian water, asphodel, sulphur and crushed rose petals that filled the lekythos. Catalyzed by the felinoid’s attempt at concealed magic, the strands dissolved and forged a votive connection Tartalo hoped he would not have to rely upon.
Tartalo gazed at one of the dozen-odd panels that fed the operative steady streams of information from across the Mobius Ops network. With a thought, the screen’s image shifted towards a holographic projection. What started as a mote of light in a sea of darkness was magnified until it morphed into the simulacrum of a paneled sphere, fully enveloped by scintillating bands of abjuration magic.
He paced the hermetic chamber that served as his headquarters during interrogations, admiring the fractal nature of the dimensional anchor. What began as a simple pattern, built off the obscure sigil he'd traced, had grown exponentially more complex with each recursive iteration until achieving a matryoshka effect of spatial and dimensional anchors and relays.
It was an ingenious spell, lost for millennia following the flight of Hermes Trismegistus from Thinis. A smirk tugged at the corner of Tartalo's mouth as his full attention returned to the matter at hand.
"... If what I’ve built so far is handed to an Allurean engineer, it can be completed. After that, discretion is yours."
Tartalo's thoughts filtered through the command module, pulling up lists of readily-available operatives, experts and technicians that specialized in diverse fields like quantum physics, exolinguistics and xenobiology. After further filtering, he'd narrowed down the candidates to two; an operative and a tech.
"You must forgive me if I find this sudden change of heart disingenuous. Despite the confidence I have in my own talents, it would be foolish of me to think you have no ulterior motives.
I will graciously accept this olive branch, on certain conditions. Would you be so kind as to inform us of this cache's location? We have assets situated across Allure that could secure said designs in moments."
Tartalo assigned Ekhi to ready the recovery crew before awaiting a response.
"Well, I could direct you to Xercial to build it but you'd need someone who could decipher it. I suppose you have a few talented espers around?"
"We may. Now then, where might we find this Xercial?"
"That's the easy part. Unlike myself, there's no reason for such an altruistic man of integrity to hide. There's a building we Allureans dubbed 'The Big Bend.' That some two thousand foot U-shaped tower along the east coast. Can't miss it unless you're perhaps some awful croquet player." Though facetiously spoken, its accuracy could be relied on, probably on the accounts that Merse was actively working towards a request.
"Hm, 'The Big Bend' it is, then. Our team will arrive momentarily."
Tartalo waited a beat before continuing.
"It would appear that we've arrived at our final topic of discussion for the time being: your sentencing. You should consider yourself lucky to have lived this long, given the severity of your crimes and the potential threats you've alerted to our presence."