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@Doc Doctor

The pneumatic hiss of a pedal compressing stirred the strangest recollections in Najwa’s subconscious. She was reminded of the whoosh of automatic doors; a novelty she’d forged negative associations with, given her childhood experience with Xanathan, until her arrival to Tamarin. She’d been so amused at the locals aversion to opening their own doors, instead relying on sensors. There was another sound beneath the hiss she did not recognize; it was like a shrill whisper from miles away that became a discordant chorus as thousands of microfibers cried out before being summarily executed. A shiver traced along her spine at the subsequent frequency of a metal rod being sliced into.

The Lioness assessed everything she’d learned about the assassin in their brief exchange, processing scenario along scenario and reaching her conclusion between the first touch of the pedal and its compression. The level of weaponry she’d gleaned through her enhanced senses, paired with the deadly efficiency the westerner operated with, had Najwa reach the same outcome with each concurrent scenario. Failure was not an option for this one, and retreat seemed unlikely.

Her preternatural strength, dexterity and coordination came together in awesome concert. Before the gear shift began to slide back into reverse, Najwa’s left boot had already created a deep furrow in the narrow thoroughfare’s cobbled surface, exposing the photosynthetic fiber optics housed within. Stress cracks formed along the solar collection panel beneath her rooted right boot.

In tandem, Najwa’s upper body adapted with a celerity no human could hope to attain. The awesome force she’d generated flowed from the Lioness’ hips into her right shoulder as it braced along the luxury coupe’s grille and bumper, before her lift had reached its apex (with negligible loss to her overall output). Her left hand tore through the composite metal foam frame at that same moment, with the shifting of her grip. The gloved expanse of her palm came to a stop against what she presumed to be the coupe’s axle.

The end result of her blink-and-you-miss-it adjustion was the creation of a reinforced bulwark the 420z crashed against. The acute-angled luxury coupe’s trunk crumpled. On her end, the shockwave’s majority traveled through the improvised barricade and into the road as the Nissan immediately bucked backwards through the smoke and into the reversing-sedan with a horrendous bang.

To the Lioness, it was like taking a charging elephant head on. The channel created by her left foot expanded. She fought through the devastating vibrations, muscles aflame. The dull groan of metal grew silent. A soft ocean breeze swept across the thoroughfare, stinging the superficial lacerations Najwa received from vehicular shrapnel along her chin and exposed forearms. With a heavy sigh the Lioness released the now-lodged coupe’s warped frame and stepped back.

Behind the relative safety of the rooted coupe, Najwa went against her evaluation of the assassin and would attempt something unexpected. Negotiations. Given the hitman’s position in the driver’s seat, he would be in extreme distress following the collision. Even the most advanced suspension system would have seen his body ragdoll against the sedan’s interior, therefore making it highly unlikely he would have found an opportunity to discharge his high-caliber weapon.

“Representative Ngele is beyond your reach! Think this through; you’re in the middle of the ocean and we know what you look like! How much longer do you think this fight will stay contained? If you value your life, throw down your weapons and exit the vehicle.”
@Doc Doctor

Through the vaporous heat trail of the return shot, Najwa espied the westerner nearly fold from the impact of her round before ducking into the relative safety of his sedan, by way of the transluminum pole. A pungent amalgam wafted from the vehicle’s open door; new scents came into play with the man’s concealed rummaging and betrayed a portion of what his mobile armory contained. What she did smell informed her course of action. With the realization that lethal force was vital in the prevention of civilian casualties, she adopted a more aggressive attitude. Hopefully she wouldn’t cause too much property damage.

The Lioness holstered her pistol, freeing her to grip the front end of the luxury coupe she took cover behind, while she demanded the assassin’s surrender. The composite metal foam of its frame warped within her grasp as she adopted a stance reminiscent of a deadlift. The faint plink of a grenade’s pin being pulled coincided with a wave of tension washing over her thewed physique.

His response began in conjunction with Najwa pushing down through her heels while her hips were propelled up and forward. Sweat trailed the nape of her neck and soaked into the reinforced fabric of her uniform’s olive drab jacket. The faint hiss of the assassin’s grenade underscored her silent resolve. The rising cloud of billowing smoke became an asset, obscuring her actions from the killer-for-hire. She’d grow to her full height just before his question concluded, driving the inhuman amount of force Najwa generated into the vehicle.

Her arms curled up and out in tandem with the extension of her form. The luxury coupe exploded from its parking spot. Tires spun futilely during its airborne journey as the vehicle was flung in a terrifying feat of strength. In her heightened state of awareness, Najwa marveled at the luxury coupe’s split-second inverted reflection in the chrome accents of the Nissan 420z that remained between Najwa and her attacker. Debris from the shot-out windshield penetrated the mass of smoke; hazy tendrils collapsing to fill minuscule voids. It was beautiful, as far as impromptu car tosses went.

The faint popping of the westerner’s trunk occurred just as the luxury coupe’s front end smashed through the assassin’s rear windshield and trunk, partially crushing the recipient roof in the collision. The vehicle-turned-weapon’s front tires were shorn by the impact against the windshield’s frame. A deadly volley of pistons, connecting rods and a crankshaft tore through the sedan’s interior, caused by the coupe’s engine block being knocked loose.

Shards of glass, metal and carbon fiber showered the area immediately surrounding the carnage she’d just created. Najwa breathed deeply to settle the slight shake in her limbs. She was grateful that in the time following the quarantining of her homeland, auto manufacturers had adopted using lighter, more durable materials. No way she could have done that as easily with the steel behemoths that NYUNDO operated.

“You don’t.”

Najwa’s response was a simple one, spoken with no levity. Weapon up and at the ready, she waited for any signs of movement from within the demolished sedan.
@Doc Doctor

To an outside observer not currently engaged in fleeing for their life, the sequence of events they witnessed could only be described as cinematic. It all happened with such precision and grace that the security cam footage would go viral within minutes of being uploaded.

At the sound of the westerner's pistol being drawn from its hidden holster, Najwa would lean into her initial step. Muscles grew taut along her calves and thighs while her 5.7 was pulled from its place at her side. Her thumb would disengage the safety mechanism on the firearm as her arm bent slightly, taking aim.

As the first scrape of fabric along the weapon's frame lit up her ears, Najwa was already airborne, if only for a moment. Propelled by the sudden surge in speed, she would fire her first shot through the passenger side window of the closest vehicle, out its rear windshield. The round would crash through the second vehicle's windshield at 2,050 ft/s, zip through its interior and blow the rear windshield out in hopes of striking the man in the abdomen, given the sidelong stance he was in the process of adopting near his vehicle. The sequence of leaning, drawing, aiming and firing all occurred in the single fluid motion of her partial leap.

Whether or not the man was able to fire his initial shot she'd never know; perhaps he had inhuman reflexes like her own. Momentum carried her into the front end of a luxury coupe. The vehicle lurched backwards. Its tires skid along the mauve cobblestones. Several flavors of car alarm blared as she fired two more rounds over the coupe's glass-strewn hood. The shots were meant to keep him suppressed as she relayed further information to the SWAG security detail over the throat mic.

"We've got an armed hostile outside the Lotus Incarnate! Engaging now. Double security on the delegation!"

Behind decent cover and with the element of concealment, Najwa's gaze turned to a nearby transluminum pole. Struck by inspiration at its reflective surface, she kept her head down and peered through the coupe's windshield at the pole nearest the assassin. With luck she'd use it to follow his movements in spite of the occasional prismatic hexagon.

Najwa kept calm and composed, making a mental note of her remaining 17 rounds. She called out to the man, ready for whatever he would respond with.

"STEP AWAY FROM THE VEHICLE. IF YOU ARE INJURED, WE WILL PROVIDE MEDICAL ASSISTANCE.

THINK THIS THROUGH, YOU'RE SURROUNDED!"
@Doc Doctor

For the briefest of moments, Najwa could not believe what she witnessed. In what had to be a prime example of western bravado, out of a still-running black sedan came a charismatic sideshow worthy of the finest circus. The pungent stench of nicotine and spent ammunition accosted her keen nose. A flash of gold was enough to raise her curiosity.

What would a US DEA agent be doing on a floating arcology, miles off the former Indian coast? Why does he look like a third-rate Jason Statham? He moves like he's sick, but there's a certain urgency.. Doesn't add up.

She took three side-steps to the left, eliminating the hard cover of the cars parked between herself and the loud American. With rote efficiency Najwa drew her pistol, flicked off the safety, and raised the muzzle to lock in at the center of the man's torso.

Her gaze moved past the tritium iron-sights on her weapon. Any sign of movement that didn't comply with her demands would be met with disabling force.

"HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD! SLOWLY!" Najwa spoke with a soft South African accent. While not the most comfortable anglophone, her voice commanded the area.

"LE JAEN! NAKARVU! NAQL!" The crowd within their proximity looked around for a moment, unsure of what was about to transpire. Once they noticed the gun, things changed. She could hear the rapid shuffle of sandaled feet beneath alarmed screams.

With the immediate distraction of possible civilian casualties taken care of, Najwa waited to see what the suspicious westerner would do.
"... ago, I had just finished a double-shift at ALDI. My manager, Mr. Blayhi, had gone missing a week before clashes between the heg- hegemonic pro-human protesters and the dispossessed masses. I returned home to Magogoe and found it ablaze. The ash was suffocating..."

Najwa stood at the back of the grandiose central hall, behind rows of photojournalists. Camdrones flitted around the vaulted ceiling, and tickled her ears with the steady hum of their turbines. Chrome hulls reflected the auditorium's vedic frescoes of polychromatic Vimanas, creating a series of dependent reflections. Her discerning eyes swam through the hyper-detailed textures and forms, real and reflected.

"... and since then, we have seen unprecedented economic growth since the establishment of a Pan-African Union."

That's the cue.

Pulled from her reverie, Najwa walked through the auditorium's palatial doors with a faint smile. This assignment had seen many firsts for her; first time off-continent, first time on an aircraft that didn't immediately go down, first time on a boat- even if the boat was a city, one bigger than any she'd seen before.

These thoughts carried her out into the open air, beneath one of the Lotus Incarnate's "petals", where the midday sun's heated embrace lingered on what little skin she exposed; face, neck and forearms. The olive drab of her attire, while well-suited for her usual operations, woefully clashed with the immaculate whites and resplendent blues of her surroundings. Colorful throngs passed her as she waited for the end of Representative Ngele's speech (which she could still hear) atop a set of stairs that overlooked a mauve-hued avenue of solar collection cobblestones. Vegetation-clad terraced towers seemed to drop off into infinity beyond the aerogel balustrade.

Nostrils flared as Najwa took a deep breath. She immediately began to drool at the distant aromas of dishes she couldn't wait to devour. A tell-tale grumble confirmed it- she'd have to eat even if she dragged the representative to lunch with her. With a sudden twinge, all thoughts of hunger were banished. Beneath the fragrant tang of simmering tamarind sauce and coconut milk, she detected the faint, familiar scent of nitrocellulose, bismuth trioxide and brass.

Hmm...

"Something's up. Escort Mr. Ngele and the SWAG delegates out of the Lotus through the suboceanic tunnels. We'll rendezvous at the safe room." Najwa issued the commands via adhesive throat-mic given to her by SWAG's security detail for the conference.

Confidently, she descended the stairs and stopped a full yard away from the curve. Her eyes swept from parked car to parked car, right hand resting on the FN 5.7's grip. Hopefully, it was nothing and she'd get to enjoy the rest of their visit to Tamarin.
What’s in a memory?


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.

“FIAT LUX!”

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.

“Ignire.”

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.

CH'MPSK NK

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."


Adrift in undisclosed circuits round Oceania's seas are the cities of Colobus, Vervet, Rhesus, Tamarin, and Mandrill, mighty constructs of metal atop concrete discs. Among these cycles the seat of power for the South-West Asia Group. Hundreds-of-millions of souls dwell on each but, while nigh identical in function and scale, the five boast distinct and vibrant cultures.

Take Tamarin, a metropolis reflective of the mystique that predated the Indian subcontinent's flooded coastlines and deluged river valleys. From its perimeter of marinas and artificial beaches, a scallop-paved avenue, flecked with rich ultramarine and blotched with crimson, spirals dozens of kilometers round the city to a climatic apex where, a kilometer-and-a-third above the waterline, the Lotus Incarnate meditates, a masterful and enormous recreation of Delhi's long abandoned Lotus Temple. That magnum opus, bedecked in pristine alabaster and highlighted with lapis lazuli, instructs the towers and condos that whorl outward from its lofty dais.

To combat the relentless equatorial sun, vast cerulean awnings extend from transluminum poles angled like entrenched pikes over the numerous and interwoven alleys and thoroughfares.

However, no depressing unlit nether city taints Tamarin's core; rather, chasms delve into the cityscape in bridge-stitched crescents, the canyonesque walls scaled in diffusive mirror-glass that gently guides natural light down to the city's submerged bowels. Eventually, the layers terminate beyond the concrete buoy on which the whole rests afloat, pierced by clear crystal columns encrusted in trillions of dinoflagellates, microorganisms with radiant auras that exposed the sprawl of life attracted to the behemoth structure's underbelly.

As with architecture, so too has culture been preserved in the city's caste system, yet without the ugliness of poverty and want. Instead, the city is kept immaculate and crime averted through the meticulous and practically omniscient efforts of the drone surveillance and compliance apparatus. Order and hierarchy mandates a strict code of behavior, idleness is frowned upon, and very rarely will one see vagabonds at idle in the streets.
@apathy

I reckon these guys might stand a chance. Take your pick!

roleplayerguild.com/topics/181203-blo…

roleplayerguild.com/topics/174296-fdd…


bloodbath would stand a better chance but if you wanna go full on narrative shenanigans i think we could figure out something fun with donny.
Who shall challenge the Lioness?

It was drizzling all over the city. Tributaries of light flow like a river of luminescence before me. Early morning commuters cross the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge in a predawn haze. The constant hum of the engine throttles up as I override the Cadillac’s auto-drive function. I take the exit towards Bay Street where the silhouettes of pedestrians pass me by, flat as three dimensions allow, before blurring to obscurity in the rain.

Down by a portside warehouse I park and wait for the Egregor. Past the armored windshield I peer at the squat skyline of North Capital City; brownstones skulking like jilted lovers behind a fog-wreathed Statue of Liberty. Bad joke with a worse punchline.

High above, the Canopy looms; an obscure spectre with holographic advertisements dancing dreamily through the mist along its sub basements. Nearby arc lamps lazily bumble like pale blue insects along the shoreline in search of contraband drone shipments.

Acoustic sensors light up and I squeeze my Tawiskaron's grip when from the darkness steps out the Egregor. Neon cyan plasma writhed against an ever-shifting chromorphous bomber jacket. Hanzi script trickles down in columns along the Egregor’s torso as they come to a silent stop, the light reflecting off them dancing across the Cadillac’s tinted windows.

I step out and try not to be intimidating. Hard to do when you’re a few inches shy of 7’. My relationship with the Egregor was always a shaky one. Never knew what would set them off. The fickleness of a collective thought form I suppose.

I hand them the wetware data drive and watch as they load the vial into a biojector. The holographic projection of its face flickers, cycling through billions of permutations to obscure the Egregor’s identity. A moment of confirmation after injection and it hands me a folded napkin. I open it up to reveal an address and time.

The rising sun is punctuated by the nimble whines of high-end racing cycles. With daylight comes the illusion of order as gangsters relinquish the streets to criminals with appetites they could never match. I shut down olfactory input as a garbage barge trudges by. Another wonderful morning in New York City.

Hours later…


Fluorescent lights in the hall grow dim as I stand in the doorway. Stifled coughs fill the cramped backroom of Luca’s Delicatessen. A crowd of nearly a dozen men surround a small table laden with cold cuts and carafes filled with coffee. A damp smell permeates the room. Small puddles from rain-heavy wool coats collect on grey linoleum tiles scuffed by generations of wear and tear.

The group turns, watching behind half-eaten sandwiches as electro-active myomers silently come to life. I make a show of navigating through the crowd towards the ring of folding chairs. My retinal prostheses emit frequency-modulated carrier waves as they cycle through a few presets. A high-res gestalt of shadowy figures beyond the walls fills my field of vision. They’re armed. A second later and their registrations show up in my visual display. Surgically-inset lenses retract into their zygomatic recesses.

I leave my coat on and take a seat nearest the spread. Cochlear implants pick up a nervous looking rail of a man mumbling under his breath to the Holy Knights of Terra representative near a side door. They whisper beneath a banner that reads STRONGER TOGETHER. The platinum brocade of knights surrounding the Earth on the translucent knot of his jade arboform ascot is a dead giveaway. Tacky. Probability says it's a gift from his doting wife.

“... used to be a cop…”

I purposefully ignore the words and wait for the meeting to begin. Leaning back, I pull a slice of bruschetta piled high with prosciutto and capicola from a tray with an audible groan from the chair. A minute passes and all seats fill except for one. The group noisily chew their food and slurp their coffee as they awkwardly eyeball the cybernetic giant in their midst.

Someone comes up from behind and places a hand on my shoulder. It’s Ascot. We meet eye to prosthetic implant. Pale blue stare, like bleached denim. Not sure which one of us is more lifeless.

Handsome, inscrutable features smile at me. Lips thinner than the ham caught between my teeth. He extends his free hand and I see the flash of a flex circuit embed in the shape of crown-topped shield. Albion Defense Group. My OPHIUCUS practically yelps at the sight. I take his hand in mine, dwarfing it.

“Good evening, fellas. Sorry I haven’t been by for the last couple meetings. Been working downtown on upgrading the Mainline Defensive Array. You know the life. But I’m here now and I’m seeing a few new faces. None as surprising as this one here. I’m mighty honored to meet you, Sergeant Oakes. Let’s get some support going for our guest. He’s a real war hero, y’all!” Ascot gives me a firm handshake then crosses the gap in the circle to his empty seat. Didn't take long for them to pull my dossier.

"Now, y'all are welcome to talk if that's what you want. If not, you can listen. No judgements here. Like the motto goes, we're all-" Ascot looked around the group that begrudgingly joined him, "stronger together. That's right."

In the lion's den, I decide to improvise. I lean forward in my seat and start talking.

***


“March 5th, 2008. I was nineteen. Finished basic a few months before it all went to shit. My battalion was stationed outta Colorado Springs. Got planted in a combat outpost 16 klicks away from Fort Carson.

California and Nevada were gone in under 48 hours. Wouldn’t know the full casualty count 'til weeks later. Lots of fine men and women were lost to give us the time and intel we needed to put up a fightin' chance. Mission command was simple: hold the line.

Nearly 8,000 of us were spread throughout the town and surrounding countryside. We'd set up our crew-serves on the roof of a Days Inn and split our platoon between there and the third story. We were overlooking I-25. I remember it was brick out. One of the last real sensations I had.

Salt Lake City and Denver had gone dark within the last two hours. Best estimates were we'd make contact with the enemy by day break. They weren't wrong.

It'd been a quiet winter night. I was watching the SE sector from my corner of the roof, manning my SAW. Loads of hand-warmers down my ACU jacket and I still couldn't get warm. Scanning across a strip mall's parking lot to the Loaf 'N Jug on the corner, I was just starting to think maybe our intel was wrong. Maybe whatever was coming for us had gone elsewhere.

A stillness had fallen over the town while a storm brewed on the horizon. I looked to the interstate and could see another platoon set up behind some jersey barriers. They were flanked by JLTVs and Bradleys mounted with M2's and Mk 19 belt-fed grenade launchers.

Wind started to pick up somethin' fierce. Drowned out the chatter from the SINCGARS Jimenez carried. Felt like my face was being cut by a thousand knives through my neck gaiter. Then five flavors of Hell broke loose.

Defense sirens started that long, awful wail that echoed through the abandoned town. Overhead, the sky-shattering roars of F22 squadrons mobilize to meet a threat we couldn't see. I watched them fade into the darkness headed North towards Pike's Peak. That's when I saw it. Or part of it.

It came looming from behind the mountain range, a tempest in its wake. It was massive. Through freezing rain and cloud cover I could see it had these… fintacles. Scores of them like puppet strings swaying in the storm.

Distant pinpoints of light were quickly followed by the muted impact of JDAMs. The fintacles lashed violently and took the pinnacle of Pike's Peak clean off. The jets were coming around for another pass when the sky lit up, clear as day, with a sick green tinge.

Someone in the platoon cursed. Might have been me. Nothing was audible over wailing winds and an unearthly drone that shook the hotel to its foundation. No amount of training prepares you for the feeling of being prey.

Modern life is so far removed from the caves and woods we were molded by millennia ago. But the fear? The fear that kept us awake and alive through the darkness? It's still hiding in the back of our minds. Where instincts dwell, ready to sound the alarm.

Right then it was howling. At Leviathan. At Ahab's beast. Yet so much more. It looked like a whale's image twisted by a malicious mind. It's body wriggled through the air as enormous leathery wings furiously worked to keep it aloft. It swam through the twilit sky as bolts of green lightning arced from its hide. Then everything went dark as it sucked the lightning inside itself…"

***


Bio-force helixes upwards through the mass of ventral barbels in a surge of power. Thousands of apertures bleeding emerald light appear along its callous exterior. The atmosphere takes on an oppressive quality as the dreadnaught shudders violently.

From freshly excised flesh a scintillating volley of shimmering motes is launched; trails of burning viridian betraying their trajectory. They scream across the sky in terrific splendor, tearing through the fuselages of several F22's in explosive blooms of saffron and crimson.

The spheres burst through the wreckage unphased, completing their destructive course by crashing through the front line and pocking the battlefield with deep craters. The MBIT radio in Pvt. Oakes' pouch explodes in urgent exchanges of information across the CombatNet.

-eared hot. All forces: cleared hot…
Need immediate cas-evac at…
… Grid Yankee Delta 76502102…
Message to observer…
…-questing close air support…
Seven-Three-Bravo to One-Zero-Alpha… Fire for effect…
… How copy?...
Position overrun…
… Birds are outbound…


"CLEAR!"

Oakes tucks his chin in reflexively as a 60mm mortar cartridge arcs skyward from the other end of the rooftop. Within seconds dozens more fill the air. They explode at the zenith of their parabola into miniature lambent suns suspended in darkness. The gaseous discharge from their launches spiral into coiling tunnels as a trio of AH-64 Apaches chuf past at 200 mph.

The shrill whirr of their M230 chainguns rattles his skull. A deluge of smoking brass sizzles as each spent cartridge lands on snow-flecked streets and rooves. Errant rounds are deflected by something impervious and careen off into the distance; phantasmic comets lost to the void. The scent of cordite burns into his nostrils. It all overwhelms Oakes.

His weapon swings upward on its bipod as he scrambles in terror, pressing his back flat against a sandbag reinforced outcropping. His breaths come short and ragged. Oakes struggles with the collar of his IOTV, fingers growing numb as the temperature continued to plummet.

Illuminated by the erratic strobe of gunfire, he sees SPC Chandresh approaching in a crouched run. The combat medic grabs Oakes by the shoulders and leans forward. Words crash against Oakes but their meaning is lost to him. On the third repetition understanding sinks in.

“ARE YOU HIT?!”

The combat medic inspects Oakes for a moment when he recognizes the glazed look in the grunt’s eyes. He reaches back and strikes the young soldier across the face. Brocken spectres flicker against starshell glory that fizzle into sudden- and momentary- darkness.

In a celadon flash the combat outpost’s vicinity floods with blinding light. Several troopers rush to the Northern gabion wall of HESCO blocks. Gas pumps across the plaza erupt at the Loaf ‘N Jug. A concussive wave shatters the hotel’s windows. It knocks the platoon off their feet.

Hellish plumes struggle to rise against sleeted gales. SSG Rondeaux is the first to recover. Glare colder than the winds, he yanks PFC Eastman upright and barks inaudible orders. The stocky ginger nods and loads a 40mm HE round into the M320 grenade launcher attached to his carbine. Eastman shoots up with a rallying yell. He slams the M4’s buttstock against his shoulder in preparation to fire when he freezes.

“What the Hell you waitin’ for, Private!”

Rondeaux roars, rising to follow his soldier’s line of sight. His face hardens into a grim mask, jaw clenched tight. Soldiers rise behind him and watch on in horror as a theropodian monstrosity thrashes violently, consumed by voracious flames.

A mournful, hollow note escapes its crumbling osseous snout. The bulbous end of its rigid tail swells as venom-filled osteoderms boil then burst in a shower of hypodermic spines. Large and twisted horns emit steam as deep cracks form along them; thin layers of scute curl off and become embers lost to a rising gust of superheated air.

Gnarled and gurgling silhouettes convulse beside the burning saurian. Their distorted shadows dance amid the conflagration's ever-shifting flamelight. Elongated caricatures are projected across the plaza's parking lot in a Faustian performance. The paroxysmal denouement comes to an anticlimactic and merciful end as ligaments and tendons fuse together.

Mortal terror becomes much more immediate as a chorus of shrieks pierce the oppressive winter environs. Through the confusion of explosions and burning monsters, the plaza was overrun; the invading horde poured out from damaged store fronts. Fleshy apertures contract rhythmically as air passes through chambers that hum with murderous intent only to escape flaring nostrils as the harrowing howls of damned souls. The soprano of reptilian fiends is joined by the guttural timbre from hundreds of avian abominations.

DDDDDAAAAAAHHHHHHHHLLLLLLLLLL

Heavy skulls swung pendulously atop spindly necks as anisodactyl talons dug furiously into the wreckage from their crash landings. Vestigial arms flail lifelessly from their sides as they bristle visibly at their alien surroundings. Oversized beaks snap menacingly with the sound of grinding stone. Furious spats break out amongst their ranks, sending the rest into a frenzy as viscous blood splatters against densely-packed feathers.

“WE GOT MULTIPLE HOSTILES!"
"THEY'RE COMING OUTTA THE WALLS!"
"SECURE THE PERIMETER!"
"SEND THAT 40 MIKE-MIKE NOW, EASTMAN!”

*THUNK*

The High Explosive grenade spirals through the air in a graceful arc towards a cluster surrounding one of the larger reptiles when it explodes upon contact with a mysterious, opaque emerald barrier. Watching through his ACOG scope as the smoke clears and the barrier flickered out of existence, Rondeaux observes a glowing and partially open frill forming a fading corona around the saurian and its brood.

Cartilaginous folds wrap themselves around the shattered remnants of a massive horn that now resembled a gnarled cornulum. The SSG yelled over his shoulder at his men as he opens fire with his Mk 14 EBR. 7.62 rounds tear through the advancing ornithological infantry that continue undeterred, scrambling over their fallen brethren.

"LIGHT 'EM UP!"

Twin M242 chain-guns create a sustained wall of fire from LAV-25's parked in the courtyard leading to the Days Inn. Pavement spalls into lacerating flechettes as 25mm rounds skip then tumble through xenotissue while gunners on co-ax mounted M240's fire in short bursts across the approaching horde.

The larger saurians sprint through teeming multitudes of gnashing beaks, tactically deploying their protective barrier when directly fired upon. Spent brass tinks softly as the pile of spent cartridges around the vehicles steadily grows.

SPC Chandresh gives a few supportive smacks to the kevlar helmet atop Oakes head while holding his right hand thumb up. The Private mimics the medic's gesture, takes up his SAW once more and tries his best to swallow the bile rising in his throat. Before him Colorado Springs unfolds into a subnivean hellscape.

The cold, white spectre of winter descends from the mountainside; one by one city blocks are lost to an invading wave of fog. Macabre smoke rises from death-pyres that rage across the city, dropping visibility to a scant few yards at street level.

A series of crimson blooms cut through the mist as a quartet of M1A2 Abrams fire their 120mm tank guns; a dismal sheen and distant rumble the only evidence of their violence.

A chitinous javelin pierces the vaporous veil and embeds itself between two platoons stationed along an overpass of I-25 with a resounding crack. The lance throbs with an emerald brilliance that begins to furiously strobe in response to the humans in its proximity. The light bursts into a wide pulse before explosively collapsing into the spike. The overpass goes silent as soldiers collapse into snow-drifts; bodies devoid of all life before they reach the ground.

A Bradley crashes its way through a row of jersey barriers, burying itself into a deep trench along the interstate. It explodes into a magnificent column of white phosphorus as HEI rounds perforate the fighting vehicle’s laminate armor with the familiar buzzing hum from an A-10’s autocannons. A squadron of them swiftly traverse the battlefield, twin chasms of 30mm death in their wake.

Overhead the titanic abomination’s tusked silhouette writhes against churning storm clouds. Within minutes it was nearly to the high plains east of the city. Flitting bands of chiropteran-winged wraiths defensively circle the leviathan. Rays of jade arc and crackle along their insectoid thoraxes.

Higher still twin AC-130 gunships bank into enantiomorphic pylon turns, training their weapons systems on the dreadnaught. Charred and grisly remnants plummet from the sky as 30mm autocannons and M102 howitzers puncture the fluttering, raptorial bulwark, creating an opening for the gunships' cache of Hellfire missiles and small-diameter bombs.

Viridian bolts flash along the gaps and overload the projectiles' internal circuitry. They penetrate deep into the dreadnaught's hide yet fail to detonate until a stray 40mm from a radome Bofors L/60 strikes true. Leaden tissue scorches and collapses into a charnel crater along the monstrosity's right flank. Excess hide sloughs over the smoking lesion, leaving nothing behind save a gore-slathered scar.

An earth-shattering howl escapes it's cavernous maw and splits the surrounding icefields with a thunderous crack. Cheyenne mountain's triple peaks give a resounding groan before erupting in a cascade of free-falling snow, ice and rock. Miniature crustaceous figures leap in a futile race against the hibernal deluge. Diaphanous wings are violently crushed under bulky sclerites punctured by rimy shrapnel.

Meanwhile massive quadrupeds blindly grabble in their descent, spatulate talons fragmenting from the force of their tumble. Inviscid ichor spills from squamous pustules as they feebly cry out. The fossorial aberrations are engulfed until only bulbous eimer organs protrude from the icewave’s aftermath. The avalanche spills across Fountain Creek and the Palmer Divide, cutting the city off from Denver to the North.

The spiralling ribbon of wraiths disperse, blanketing the sky in shrieking forms. The steady rasp of static begins to drown out radio chatter as their coruscating carapaces become blinding motes interwoven by bands of emerald, creating a latticework across the firmament. The web bursts into an effulgent haze that decimates communications and electronic systems across Colorado Springs and Fort Carson.

Complete engine failure causes the aircraft nearest the dreadnaught to hover lifeless for a moment before careening towards the earth. Crew members desperately eject only to be viciously rived and consumed in mid-air. Luminous hemispheres bleed through the gloomy horizon as the cityscape before Pvt. Oakes is wracked with explosions.

Numbed, the Private's shock is momentarily usurped by curiosity. He wipes frost off his ballistic goggles and gapes at kaleidoscopic, undulating buds. Thick actinomorphic petals unfurl, revealing hundreds of lotuses that languidly drift against powerful, wintry gales. His nostrils flare at the heady scent that coils around the foundation of his willpower.

Oakes thoughts drift away and for a moment he is lost to the past; flashes of lures bobbing along the banks of the Kaniatarakwà:ronte and running from rez dogs with Tawit. Tawit… The sudden recollection that his brother was somewhere in the city, fighting monsters worse than any Niagwaihegowa or Ohnyare their grandfather told them of during cold nights under starlit skies, bolsters his spirit.

A hypnic jerk releases Oakes from his fugue. As his head clears he sees the lotuses suspended within a nebulous miasma of semi-translucent spores that scatter over the frontline. A sudden chinook wind from the demolished Pike's Peak pushes the spore cloud in his platoon's direction.

"GAS! GAS!" Oakes yells as his hands fumble to remove a C2 canister from a MOLLE pouch attached to his vest. "PUT YA DAMN MASKS ON!"

SPC Chandresh glances at Pvt Oakes slipping an M40 field protective mask over his broad features. For a brief moment the Specialist considers doing the same when his mind goes blank. In his final moments he evokes the warming aroma of his mother's vindaloo as a barbed tendril lashes itself around his throat. Arterial mist stains the snow-strewn rooftop with an abstract expressionist's hand. Necrotic nectar pumps through hypodermic thorns creating spasms that race up and down Chandresh's body as a manhole-sized lotus wraps its symmetrical, spotted petals around his head and torso.

Steam rises from seven .45 caliber sized perforations. Thick indigo mesophyll spurts from the ruptures then foams as it combines with Chandresh's blood. SSG Rondeaux loads a fresh magazine into his service pistol, DMR swinging from its sling. He steps over the convulsing medic's body, yelling "OFF THE ROOF!" through his mask’s voicemitter at the top of his lungs. Eastman, Jimenez, Frankfurter and Wilkes crouch as they sprint under Oakes’ skyward covering fire towards the rooftop access enclosure.

The SAW’s buttstock digs deep into the Private’s shoulder as he fires from a standing position. He adjusts his grip on the weapon’s folded bipod between controlled bursts. Airborne lotuses ignite into orange blossoms at the pyrotechnic qualities of Oakes’ M196 tracer rounds. Wilkes reaches for the door when he stumbles and slumps against the enclosure’s corner.

“FUCK! I’M HIT!”

Wilkes rolls over to reveal a cluster of spines embedded deep into his armor’s front SAPI plate. With shaking hands he tries to remove a spine from center mass when he harshly coughs blood. PFC Frankfurter grabs the drag handle on Wilkes’ IOTV and begins pulling him to safety.

"FRIENDLY COMI-"

Kicking the access door open, Frankfurter looks up to see a groping mass of mottled, spindly arms reach out from the darkened stairwell. Purulence seeps from viscera-covered claws that cut through muscle and bone with ease.

Frankfurter struggles to yell as a score of limbs fill his mouth and tear at his jaw until the flesh splits open. Blindly firing into the grotesque horde, the PFC’s eyes go wild with agony and he is pulled into the stairwell.

Blood pouring from his mouth, Wilkes shakily removes an MG7 grenade from his chest rig as he is dragged through the threshold. He exchanges a solemn look with Eastman and Jimenez. Summoning the last of his strength, Wilkes pushes the rooftop door shut with his boot.

“FRAG OUT!” Jimenez yells, turning away from the door as it is partially blown off its hinges. A thin column of smoke trickles out from the demolished threshold. Before they could begin to process or mourn the death of two comrades, Rondeaux steps past the two stunned soldiers with Oakes and CPL Nguyen in tow. He throws two more primed grenades down the stairwell, turns and points towards the rooftop fire escape. “MOVE! MOVE! DON’T YOU DARE STOP SHOOTIN’, OAKES!”

Metal grating clangs under heavy footfalls as the remaining soldiers stack up then descend the fire escape. Oakes shudders with adrenaline, waiting for the tap on his shoulder to break contact. His gaze travels past the M249's smoking barrel and across the wide steppe. The gargantuan cetacean continues on its eastward bound journey, winding its way through the squall that accompanies it.

A colossal cauda splits open at its extremity, revealing endless rows of towering, serrated teeth that jut out of its pulsating interior. Wispy strands of emerald condense, drawn into the beast’s puckering fluke. Oakes hairs stand on end, turning away as its caudal sphincter widens threateningly. A pulpous teal globule, violently gnashed by internal teeth, shifts anomalously through equiangular rotations; appearing as a shrinking sphere one moment, a widening paraboloid the next until collapsing into a beam, obliterating the heart of the city.

Oakes descends into the hiemal murk. The sounds of the battlefield muffle as he joins the remaining soldiers. Backs against the wall, they line up behind SSG Rondeaux. Diffuse haloes sweep their surroundings as they move towards the building’s edge. Inspecting his compass, Rondeaux curses at the wildly spinning needle.

“LAV’s are gone. Intastate’s too exposed. We’ll follow it best we can ‘til we hit open terrain.” Rondeaux replaces the magazine in his rifle. He peeks around the corner then turns back to the group. “Can’t see shit,” the SSG comments, removing the scope from his Mk 14. “Stay close. Don’t get each otha killed. Nguyen, you’re on point.”

The eerie tranquility that gripped the streets obscures the squad’s retreat. Oppressive silence distorts their sense of direction. On edge, they meet no resistance for blocks until muted bursts of gunfire boom to thunderous levels as they approach a fireteam dug in at an intersection.

"Forty meters! Up the road!"

Two grunts armed with M4 carbines fire into the mist from behind an overturned LMTV. Rounds snap at an advancing horde of swaying shadows in the fog. Behind them, a third soldier desperately tends to a wounded comrade face down on a stretcher. Panicked cries of teeth in the dark and eyes rising from the shadows fade to incoherent whispers with the hiss of a morphine auto-injector. Hands slick with blood fumble inside his trauma kit as the combat medic yells for aid into the gloom.

Haloes bob across shattered storefronts from rifle-mounted flashlights while Rondeaux and his men sprint to a covered bus stop. Oakes and Eastman provide covering fire for CPL Nguyen as he rushes into the crossing. He slides to a stop beside the medic and helps apply trauma pads to deep lacerations that run from shoulders to hips. The medic notes the chevrons on Nguyen’s sleeve, leans forward and struggles to be heard over the gunfire.

"SPC Borges with the 41st! Sir, we've got to get the fuck out of here!" Borges tears into an israeli bandage and motions for Nguyen to help with the mangled remains of the wounded soldier's left arm.

"Where's your CO?" Nguyen pulls the combat tourniquet's drawstring taut with a sympathetic wince. He holds the limb up while the medic unfurls a ribbon of flensed flesh, gristle smearing his sterile gloves. Borges quickly wraps the bandage around exposed bone and sinew, holding it in place as coagulants begin to stem the blood loss.

"LT Roberts is right here. We got to move him.” Borges removes the gloves and grabs one end of the stretcher. Just as Nguyen takes hold of the other end, one of the soldiers by the overturned truck is dragged away by an unseen force.

"CAMPBELL!" The remaining soldier struggles to fire his stovepiped carbine while Campbell's agonized yells bubble to a choked silence. He pulls back on the M4's charging handle as a flanged beak collides against his right leg. The femur splinters from the impact and he topples over into a ravenous horde of nightmarish avifauna.

"FALL BACK!"

The incapacitated form of Lt Roberts jostles as he's carried to the bus stop turned defensive fighting position. Nguyen leaves Borges to tend to the Lieutenant. He passes Eastman while the PFC loads his last High Explosive 40mm grenade and sends it towards the LMTV. Visceral shrapnel coats the street in the aftermath of the transport vehicle's explosion. Dozens of guttural bellows erupt in voracious rapture before gnashing and tearing at charred tissue.

C-... South… O… -tel… FRV…

The Corporal takes position between Rondeaux and Jimenez, readying his M16. The latter presses the receiver of his radio flat against his ear, straining to make sense of the garbled communications. Jimenez yells into the transmitter, watching Oakes drop to one knee as he feeds a fresh belt of black-tipped 5.56 ammunition into his M249. “THIS IS RED WARRIORS DELTA 7, SAY AGAIN ALL AFTER “SOUTH” OVER!”

Fits of static interrupt dead air. Jimenez looks up at Rondeaux and gives a frustrated shake of his head, pushing the SINCGARS backpack away. Determined not to suffer further casualties, Rondeaux motions for Oakes to follow him across the road. They form a defensive line, weapons trained and ready for whatever comes through the burning wreckage up the street.

SSG Rondeaux’s gaze sharpens as shimmering emerald specks bleed through the conflagration’s haze. He raises his fist, signalling the others to freeze while turning to Oakes. Side by side, Rondeaux speaks into the Private’s ear. “I want you to pin that bouzen down as soon as that fucka’s exposed.”

Motes swell, luminous panels curving into the flame-licked spheroid of another light-projecting saurian. Falling snow sizzles within the orb’s proximity, creating an impenetrable patch of fog. The theropod’s barrier dissipates with a series of intense flickers, forcing the wintry brume to rush into the lacuna created by the shield’s dispersion.

A soul-piercing screech rings from deep within the murk. The hellish tone sends a chill wave of terror over the troops. Rondeaux does not waver. He moves to the brick entrance of a bank, waiting to give the command to fire. Oakes marvels at the SSG’s courage while leaping into the bed of a Dodge RAM. Bracing his weapon’s bipod with the open tailgate, he scans the street in anticipation from a prone firing position.

The shriek drops in pitch until it's nothing more than a croaky hiss, tingling the back of the Private’s skull. Charging, the theropod’s hooked talons skate along verglas; ice yelps at its flaying by honed edges. It dashes through the misty veil’s border, broad barbed tail swaying to maintain balance. The beast cranes its muscular neck forward, frills flattened backwards to reveal a jagged, osseous spearhead. Through the lens of his scope, Oakes stares deep into it’s saurian eyes and is confronted with an overwhelming, bottomless malice.

Rondeaux sweeps his arm in a wide, low arc several times from behind cover. Squeezing the trigger, Oakes watches his rounds ricochet off mottled anterior scales. Focusing on breathing evenly, he keeps his bursts to two second intervals. Adapting to the theropod’s defenses, Oakes shifts his aim towards its outstretched skull. The monstrosity weaves its tapered reptilian head through the hail of M995. His vision narrows to a point; fleshy apertures contract along the abomination’s muzzle as the reticle of his scope sways in unison with its movements.

Oakes exhales and takes his shot. Dozens of rounds speed through the air at 3,000 feet per second. Tungsten penetrating cores fragment on impact against the saurian’s cornulum. White hot shrapnel pierces deep into the soft tissue of its eyes, frill and snout. Viridian gore splatters across the road, glowing dreamily through the creeping gloom.

It topples over blindly, a fine web of cracks forming under its jaw that smashes into the verglas. Thick gushes of emerald blood pour from its ruined muzzle as it struggles to upright itself. Violent strokes of its thrashing tail crush the frame of a parked sedan. Oakes clambers to his feet, spent cases tinkling against the truck bed. He hops off the tailgate, zeroed in on the theropodian nightmare. The Private leans forward to compensate for recoil, ice crunching underfoot as he advances on the intersection.

Impact after impact strike the saurian, keeping it off-balance. Stray armor piercing rounds perforate the scaled seam along the center of its underbelly. A yowl of agony wells up from the panting beast, cornulum digging into a crumpled car door as its haunches splay out pitifully on icy asphalt.

Dry clicks from an empty weapon snap Oakes out of his battle trance. With a clatter, the spent box magazine falls at his feet. He drops to one knee, retrieving his final box of M995 from a side pouch. The compensator on his M249’s barrel sizzles on contact with the frost laden curbside.

Oakes shifts his gaze away from the theropod’s death spasms, oblivious to grimalkin pawprints approaching along snow-capped car roofs. Hands shaking with adrenaline, he struggles to feed the fresh belt into his weapon’s chamber. Harsh, bestial snuffling sends a wave of terror through him. Hammering the round in place with a fist, Oakes slams the feed tray shut, pulls back on the SAW’s cocking handle and turns towards the sound’s source.

Brows furrow in confusion at the sight of a gently rocking Jeep Cherokee across the intersection. Oakes gasps, taking a step back when a column of shifting flames from the nearby LMTV reveals the tessellated contours of a massive, pouncing feline. Light passes uneasily through its spectral frame, reflecting the surrounding wintry cityspace like endless broken mirrors. Twin jewels of gleaming amethyst spring into existence, staring deep into Oakes’ soul. Only the slavering fangs that lined its gaping maw seemed real, although a strange smoky patina clung to them.

Prepared for death, Oakes is stunned at the unexpected sensation of being pulled from behind. Stumbling backwards, he is yanked to safety by Rondeaux just as a Cougar 6x6 MRAP barrels through the intersection with an audible thump. It skids to a halt. The gunner on its tower-mounted M2 whoops with manic laughter; .50 cal rounds trail a filmy emerald coma through the gloom. Rear double doors swing open as the vehicle reverses. Inside a heavily bandaged trooper waves them in with the bloody stump of an arm. Voice hoarse from smoke inhalation, he yells at the gawking pair.

“C’MON! IN! IN!”

Ordering the Private to protect the troop compartment, Rondeaux departs into the fog only to return within seconds with the last of the platoon in tow. Eastman and Jimenez file past the towering Oakes, visibly relieved at the compartment’s protection. They quickly move towards the front of the cabin, making room for Nguyen and Borges as they pile in with the stretcher bearing the injured Lieutenant.

“AY! WE GOT COMPANY! HURRY THE FUCK UP!” Oakes freezes, looking towards the familiar voice as the M2 gunner pivots to face him. The soldier’s eyes grow wide beneath his ballistic goggles. Pulling his neck gaiter down, the smooth, handsome features of Tawit Oakes beam down at his fraternal twin.

“SÓSE, I LOVE YA BUT GET. THE FUCK. IN!”

***


A cocktail of glutamates and monoamines flood the neural-weave of my amygdala. Subroutines initiate and I’m grateful. Who knows how far back I’d set aug rights if I have a traumatic episode and tear through the vets in the room like a box of fried bread.

Thinking about Tawit always does this to me. No amount of therapy can fix that wound. Good thing the techies figured a way around my emotions early on. Dissociating at will has gotten me through more than one hell.

Cursor hovering over the weeping emote that appears, I play the odds and bank on vulnerability being key. Thick synthetic tears trickle down ceramsteel protrusions along my cheekbones, salting the mycofabric of my gunmetal vest.

With a dramatic sob, I look around the room at solemn faces nodding with understanding. The Rail from earlier wipes away snot with the sleeve of his Mets sweater. Ascot is nowhere to be seen.

Too distracted by the past. Sloppy. The room's activity replays itself at double-speed in the periphery of my awareness. I see him slip through the side door with a flash of his flex circuit in the middle of my monologue. What an asshole.

I prod the door's security console with tight-band microwave signals from my OPHIUCUS. Monitoring network activity transmissions, the hacking implant picks up on dormant intrusion detection systems. Better to back off before anything notices me snooping around. The warm static of neuroinhibitors keep me speaking.

"Tawit… Tawit was a wild son of a bitch, but he was my brother. Always had my back, especially after talkin' me into trouble.

A measly five minutes older but by the way he acted, you'd think otherwise. Tawit, always tryin' to slay giants. He was like that with everyone growin' up. I.. I miss him."

Another dose of chems and my consciousness sinks into dissociative tranquility.

"Movin' up to the crew cabin, Rondeaux pulls rank and has Eastman relieve Tawit from the gunner's tower and gives me the briefest of nods. Hell of a Staff Sergeant, no two ways about it. We never woulda made it off that hotel roof without him. I keep in touch with his family; least I could do after everything that happened.

Anyway, Tawit takes a seat next to me and is… Buzzin'. Like we were kids eatin’ fry bread with berries and honey, y'know? Just fuckin' giddy, even though he fought through the same Hell we did. I thought he mighta been in shock at first but the more we talked, the more questions I had."

***


Tawit pulls off his neck gaiter and stuffs it into his sweat-lined high cut ballistic helmet. Emptying a canteen with eager gulps, he turns in his seat to face Sóse. Flashing a toothy grin, he begins to excitedly ramble. The babel of radio chatter and impromptu surgery fades into the background.

"Holy shit Só, can you fuckin’ believe what’s out there? Stryker Brigade I was with was gettin’ it when shit popped off. You remember when Rakshótha would take us to the beach? When we were little? You’d cry when he’d chase you with horseshoe crabs in both hands? Imagine one seven fuckin’ feet tall turning your CO to jelly. Shit, with that sour-ass look on your face you already know what it is.

Yo, swear to Sky-Holder that avalanche was gonna be it. We tried buggin’ out then that fuckin’ spacewhale shit out a laser?! You see what that shit did? Whole damn blocks was gone. Poof. Nothin’. Fuck outta here! Whole damn blocks, Só!?” Tawit pokes his chin at the silent figure nearest the door. Expressionless, the soldier’s sunken eyes watch as Borges struggles to keep Lt. Roberts alive.

“We picked up the one-armed jarhead fightin’ one of those creepy-ass dodos. Beat the brakes off the damn thing with his e-tool. He was at ground zero when the laser hit.

Not sure how much of him is left in there. There uh… ain’t too many of us left out there... But I got somethin’ for that alien ass.”

Sóse pauses for the briefest of moments, then fits the rest of a fresh belt of linked ammunition into the box magazine on his lap. Staring deep into his brother’s eyes, He turns away in recognition of the tell-tale emerald simmering beneath Tawit’s gaze. “You-uh, you okay?”

“I’m good. I mean… Yeah, I’m good. I just… I feel like I’m thriving out here. It’s fucked up. But ever since the shit started I could… I could just feel this raw energy buzzin’ in the air. I never felt nothin’ like it.

So warm and… shit had me geekin’. Felt like I was about to explode. Then this piece of shit velociraptor comes at me and I unload my whole mag except my fuckin’ hands start glowin’ and I turned that Jurassic Park bitch into spaghetti sauce.

Straight up, thought I was trippin’. But then my CO asks me if I’m Hal fuckin’ Jordan and well, I been fuckin’ them up ever since. Thought it was just me, but I feel better knowin’ you feel somethin’ too.”

Finding no comfort in watching Borges deal with a collapsed lung, Sóse looks back at his twin with a curious expression. “Fuck you mean?”

“You serious? Bein’ next to you feels like I’m standin’ on the sun. You tellin’ me you haven’t felt different? Nothin’?”

Before Sóse could reflect on the sensation he'd considered an adrenaline rush up to that moment, Eastman began to holler from his position at the gunner’s tower as their vehicle swerves to dodge a runaway HMMWV. “MOTHERFUCKER! THERE’S A GOD DAMNED HULK! DRIVER SIDE! 75 METERS! ENGAGING!”

The Oakes brothers lean across the center platform to peek out of the compartment’s bullet-proof windows as the gnarled, osseous pauldron of an enormous, leaden behemoth smashes through the slatted rear armor of an M1 Abrams with a horrendous crash. Nearly tipping over from the impact, its tracks futilely dig into montane shrubland as the massive brute positions itself beneath the tank.

.50 cal rounds harmlessly bounce off sallow plates of dense bone that run along its immense torso. With a guttural bellow the Abrams flips through the air before striking the ground with an eruption of ice, soil and metal. Turning in the direction of it’s latest annoyance, the Oakes twins shudder in unison at its savage, twisted countenance.

Cloudy, malicious beads suspended in atramentous pools glare at them from sockets sunken deep into its grotesque and cadaverous skull. Respiratory slits flare above a mouth full of crooked, shattered teeth as it takes in their scent with ravenous gulps. Thews grow visibly taut beneath waxen flesh as it begins to slowly squat.

Oh shit.

In an eerie display of fraternal telepathy, the Oakes brothers rush to secure the restraints on their seats as they warn the others to do the same. “SEATBELTS! NOW!” With a forceful swing of its brawny limbs, the hulking abomination vaults into the mist. Incredible momentum causes its massive frame to burst through the exploding fuselage of a Kiowa providing close air support to the decimated tank platoon.

The colossus comes to a deafening halt as it collides with a 300 foot spire of snow-capped sienna. Sandstone shrapnel pelts the armored glass windshield as the Cougar's diesel engine revs up to a roar, steadily lurching towards it max speed of 65 mph.

Eastman ducks back down into the troop compartment, eyes wide with fear. That look remains on his face as the soldiers’ bodies hover weightlessly for the briefest of moments. He disappears through the gunner tower’s aperture as the MRAP’s crew cabin is crushed beneath adamantine kneecaps.

Broad, serrated bones protrude from dessicated fingers and mangle armor plates into composite metal ribbons as the enraged behemoth lifts the remaining portion of the vehicle high above the misshapen slab of its head. Rondeaux’s body jostles then snaps at grotesque angles as the Cougar tumbles through rows of juniper shrubs. A white fir splinters with a resounding crack, showering the MRAP in a cascade of pine needles and bark.

Having lost consciousness at some point after the fourth roll over, Sóse awakens with a jolt as the dust inside the compartment begins to settle. His vision swims in and out of focus as he searches for Tawit. Head ringing, he tries to yell when coughs thick with blood cause his agonized body to clench.

Freeing himself from the seat with a struggle, Sóse crumples to the floor with a fractured femur. He crawls along the blood-slick interior, fighting the urge to retch as he passes the shattered heap of SSG Guiscard Rondeaux. Fingers tear at sparse grass and with a desperate tug he pulls himself out of the jagged remnants of the troop compartment.

Sóse props himself up against one of the Cougar's tires shorn off during the crash. His chest shudders with ragged gasps and with a choked yell he straightens his damaged leg.

"FUCK!"

He nearly swoons. Scanning the immediate proximity for anything he might use to fashion a splint, Sóse is shocked into momentary catatonia. Frozen, he looks upon the slowly brightening horizon and two disparate figures locked in battle.

Tawit, wreathed in the emerald flames of vitality, dances around the behemoth's flailing limbs. Each missed attempt by the abomination is met with the resounding smack of a bio-force enriched crankshaft bouncing against the hulking monstrosity's skull. Bone spalls upon contact with the steel rod that bends with each strike and yet the juggernaut mindlessly persisted.

A well-timed parrying blow sends Tawit flying through a thicket of pines while the crankshaft penetrates inches deep into a sandstone formation in the other direction. The emerald flames momentarily flicker as the older Oakes brother picks himself up out of the crushed front end of a Stryker. Tawit smiles, spitting out fragments of several teeth before charging at the behemoth.

Watching his brother fight alone and injured, Sóse feels something terrifying in its scope awaken inside of him. His eyes grow wide with a surge of power that envelops him in neon jade light. Bellowing coughs clear airways full of blood. Dislocated ribs snap into place. His femoral bone grinds as it resets itself. Tissue mends with a deep burning sensation while Tawit is once more knocked away.

Sóse’s body lurches as he unsteadily pushes himself upright. He bounds into an uneven sprint, shedding his ruined IOTV with a shrug. Each muscle of his herculean shoulders and back swell with emerald vigor, bracing for impact. He throws himself at full-force against the titan as it leaps for a second, murderous pounce.

Propelled off course, the behemoth’s interrupted lunge instead sees it’s mandible furrow through yards of rocky terrain. It grinds to a sudden stop, slamming into a sandstone monolith. Plumes of dust rise from the impact crater. With a telluric groan the rock formation collapses.

Tawit hobbles over to Sóse, removing a dagger of twisted metal from his side with an emphatic grunt. Crimson and steam gush from the puncture, marring what little snow remained in their presence. The shrapnel falls with a heavy thud. Leaning on his crouched younger brother for support, Tawit bursts into excited laughter as a positive feedback loop forms between the two.

“Feels good to be you, doesn’t it?” Tawit exclaims, the wound in his side sealing with no residual scar tissue. A jade patina envelops them, turning the air electric. Rising in unison, the brothers take in their surroundings.

In a small clearing oriented towards the East, they see the first rays of sunlight framed through the hogback ridges of the Lyons Sandstone. Beams peek through the thinning blanket of arcus clouds at the retreating storm’s outskirts. Reflecting off snow-capped sandstone, the area is slowly bathed in a crimson tinge.

To the West, through dense clusters of towering Ponderosa pines and Gambel oak shrubs they see the smoking wreckage of the devastated tank platoon. Engines of war turned to visceral fodder for the juggernaut’s rage. Broad strokes of gore and entrails ooze to the ground from the rent composite armor.

Wedged in a copse of white firs to the South is the ruined hull of the Cougar 6x6. The massacre within thankfully obscured by a mantle of fallen snow and mist. Through the fog they observe the faint outline of a mostly unscathed HMMWV along the treeline. The faint clatter of crumbling stone steers them North to the collapsed monolith.

“We can’t fight that thing forever,” Sóse shouts over the coarse sound of grinding stones, “Shit, I'm not sure we can even take it head on!”

“I got a plan,” Tawit yells back as terrestrial shrapnel explodes from the sandstone mound. He points to the damaged vehicle, “First we need to get me to that Stryker I smashed into. GL looked like it’s still operational.” He then gestures towards the Humvee with a nod.

“After that you gotta get on that TOW. Put everything you got into it, Só! You hear me?” His question is punctuated by a second earthen eruption that showers the area in craggy debris.

Spindly pennons of dust momentarily enspiral the hulking outline before dispersing in a revealing gust. Viridian ichor dribbles from jagged lacerations that converge across the behemoth’s seething frame. Its jaw hangs in horrid display from tattered strands of ligament.

Its throat swells with guttural utterances, an inarticulate expression of its rage. Massive fists grasp its fragmented mandible and pendulously swaying tongue. With a frenzied yank the juggernaut removes them.

Lost in its lust for battle, the berserker lunges for the Oakes brothers. The two leap away as it bounds through the air. Missing its mark, the titan careens into the wrecked 6x6. Tawit turns to sprint towards the Stryker when he is knocked off-balance by the dismembered torso of CPL Nguyen. The carcass ruptures upon contact.

Rolling forward with the impact, Tawit narrowly ducks beneath a gargantuan paw. He scrambles to his feet when the brute slams both fists into the ground. The terrain warps, unable to withstand the blow’s might. Tawit claws at crumbling soil, sinking further into a widening crater.

Focused on the struggling form at the hollow’s edge, the behemoth is caught unaware when Sóse locks his wrists around its abdomen. The patina that surrounds him scintillates, magnifying his strength. He lifts the fiend high above, rolling their combined weight backwards until momentum takes over and Sóse relinquishes his grip.

Snow cascades from quaking boughs as a horrific shockwave ripples through the clearing. Deep fissures gouge the nivean landscape. Jagged karsts rise from crevasses, tearing at the sunrise.

Sliding down the crater’s slope, Tawit skids to a stop at his brother’s side. Borrowing from Sóse’s fount, the older Oakes brother’s aura begins to crackle. They leer at the juggernaut’s rising form, tumbling clods of marl scattering in the aftermath. Its right arm hangs limp at its side, thews pierced by the fractured end of a monstrous humerus.

The abomination rams through towers of shattering limestone as it lurches forward, rushing across the meters-wide crater at the Oakes brothers. Its charge comes to an abrupt stop when it stumbles into a foiba midway. Sóse turns to his twin as the beast partially disappears into the chasmic void.

“GO!” He yells, sprinting towards the hamstrung goliath. Tawit abides, streams of emerald trailing him as he leaps out of the crater. Sóse bounds along a toppled karst, gaining momentum. He propels himself into the air. With a brutal crack a winding trench splinters the limestone platform.
A viridian column engulfs man and monster when Sóse’s knee strikes at the heart of the behemoth’s plated chest. Scree caught within the luminous pillar begins to slowly ascend. Time slows to a crawl for the suspended combatants until a nexus of gossamer fractures spread along the osseous bulwark.

Immeasurable pain elicits a hoarse howl from Sóse as he pushes himself beyond the brink. His knee sinks further, cracks forming into craggy ridges along the juggernaut’s reinforced chest. The emerald column collapses into a coruscating point before erupting in a devastating display of power.

Sanguine mist fills the air. In a flash the flesh of Sóse’s leg strips away. Bones and nerves atomize into a fine slurry that obliviates in the ambient energy. Tawit observes Sóse’s unconscious form careen towards the South from his position atop the Stryker. He falls in a smoking, crumpled heap yards away from the Humvee.

“Só!”

A sonorous rumbling intensifies Tawit’s concern. The grisly visage of the juggernaut shambles out of the pit. A faint, flickering glow emerges from the gaping cavity in its chest from Sóse’s final blow. A gore-slick scar snakes away from the wound, revealing dangling knots of viscera.

“YOU. PIECE. OF. SHIT.”

The goliath turns towards its remaining target when a triplet of jade-wreathed 40mm grenades rain down on it. Cadaverous flesh ripples sickeningly before mangling from the augmented explosives as it hobbles towards Tawit’s blazing silhouette.

Volley after volley detonate against the monstrosity. A well-aimed series of grenades flense its mighty legs, stopping its advance entirely. Tawit leans heavily against the Mk 19 grenade launcher, struggling to catch his breath. Currents of blood trickle from half-healed wounds. An incredulous laugh escapes him as the broken behemoth crawls towards him with its final working limb.

The older Oakes brother’s vision swims in and out of focus. He pauses, reflecting on the surrealness of his last moments as his gaze ambles over to Sóse’s stirring form. Steeling himself, Tawit steadies his aim while pouring the last of his reserves into the Mk 19.

“Konnorónhkhwa, Ri’ken:’a.”

The words rouse Sóse to consciousness. Luminous motes hover around his injured form as one final explosion rattles the landscape. His mind wades through the mire of trauma, struggling to correlate all he’d lost that fateful morning. Watching the sun settle high above the Garden of the Gods, tears begin to stream down Sóse’s cheeks.

***


Sun’s already setting by the time I leave Luca’s. Slow as apology I part seas of twisting human trees, walking the couple of blocks to my parked Cadillac. Thoughts lost to the past. To synthesized emotions.

Stopping at a bodega on the corner, I ignore drifting hologram advertisements for MÜD and go straight for the liquor. Browsing nearly empty shelves flanking empty aisles I pick up a few things for the office. The holo-projector at the register was a higher-end model, easily capable of showing disappointment at my scant purchases.

“That all?” The ‘cashier’ asked, already over my presence. I swipe my hand over the scanner and wait for payment confirmation. The words INSUFFICIENT FUNDS manifest in mid-air as a crimson chyron scrolling in front of me. Running a quick scan of my accounts, I find them frozen.

“That bacon-lipped son of a bitch!”

The projector’s LCD’s flash rapidly at my comment. I don’t presume to understand its body language, but I suspect it found that pretty funny.
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