FEATURED SUBMISSIONS

To Slay a Myth

Paladin Draco glared up at the southern face of the Triones Mountain range. The mountains were in the northern reaches of the Aurelian Empire, though they were a part of the empire in name only. They lay far beyond the center of Aurelian power, and the population was sparse.

Draco had traveled far to reach this place. His current home was in the Solar Cathedral, the center of worship for the Lord of the Sun. The cathedral was located in the world capitol on an island far to the south of the Aurelian southern coast. The capitol was outside the jurisdiction of the six great empires and served as a neutral location for inter-empire politics to take place.

It had taken Draco a full month just to arrive at his current destination. That had included sailing the fastest ship in possession of the Church of the Sun and a trip on the new rail carriage that had brought him to the northern reaches of the civilized land. Now, here he was in the Aurelian wilds. That was his first irritation.

The second was his apprentice, Paladin Squire Khepri. She was from the southern continent, the Iteru Empire. Her skin was a dark bronze color, hair black and curly. She had a delicate face that seemed at odds with her strong, athletic body. She wore a uniform similar to his own, white with golden-yellow and crimson trim. Over the clothing, both wore a breastplate, gauntlets, and greaves, each lightly enchanted to resist damage. This standard issue gear was kept pristine via the use of magic, one of the first uses of magic any apprentice learned after learning to mask their presence from voidlings.

Khepri, being from the much warmer Iteru Empire, had been whining about the cold since they had departed the rail carriage a week and a half ago. Despite his best efforts to tune her griping out, the incessant buzzing in his ear was grating on his nerves.

And, that brought him to the third annoyance. Arrayed behind him was a century of soldiers. Led by Centurion Otis, they were stationed in the north, and it was clear by their uncouth attitude. They were a foul-mouthed, unsanitary lot, with barely more discipline than an untrained mob. His own days as part of a century in his youth screamed at their lack of order.

His final irritation, and the ultimate reason he was here, was the object of his glare. High in the mountain, above the snowline was a jagged black hole. It appeared to have been formed explosively, in a fiery blast. The rock around the newly formed cave was bare of snow, and appeared to be scorched.

A month ago, before setting out, Draco had been informed of the report leading to his current assignment. Centurion Otis had picked up rumors of a creature that had been raiding farms along the southern border of the Triones Mountains. Intrigued by the rumors, Otis choose to investigate, despite the affected region lying outside the normal patrol of the Aurelian Empire. He had concluded that the creature in question was a drake, a lesser type of dragon, and called for backup from a Paladin.

And so, Paladin Drake had traveled north to this backwater part of his homeland. Despite his irritation at his apprentice's whining, he did agree that it was cold. And it would get colder if he wanted to investigate the blast zone more closely. Sighing, he began calling upon ether, the energy readily available for use in magic, and channeled it to decrease the heat leaving his body for the surrounding environment.

Satisfied with the warmth, he turned to Centurion Otis. Speaking in Low Aurelian, he addressed the man. “I am taking my apprentice to investigate the blast more closely.” Draco scanned the chaotic century arrayed before him. “While I am working, I want you to get these men in shape. This camp is a mess, and if we are to use this location for a base, it needs addressing immediately.”

The centurion cocked an eyebrow, but did not argue. He turned and began summoning his octs, the leaders of the squads of eight. Turning from the centurion, Draco summoned his apprentice with a twitch of his finger.

“Sir!” she rushed to his side, snapping briefly to attention. Her posture was broken before he had a chance to comment, as she huddled back into herself, tucking her hands under her arms.

“We are going up the mountain to investigate the blast. I have not yet shared my opinion with the centurion, but I suspect this was not, in fact, a drake.”

Khepri's eyes widened. “What could have done that then, sir?”

Draco turned to face the jagged hole again. “I fear this may be more than any drake. We could well find ourselves against a true dragon.”

“But...” Khepri began, before shivering harshly. “Sorry...” she said between chattering teeth. “It's so... cold.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “I had thought that perhaps the cold would be a good teacher for you. You are good at using the tools you already possess. However I have yet to see you extrapolate from your tools, or use any of them in any way you haven't been explicitly taught.”

Khepri bowed her head. She had heard this lecture before. “Sorry sir,” she mumbled.

“Read my ether.”

She looked at him, her dark brown eyes lightening in color slightly as she channeled ether to them. “Ohhh!” she cried. “Its so obvious now.”

Draco sighed. His apprentice was quite clever, and had proven adept at learning anything new. But, she was not innovative. She would likely never push the boundaries of magic.

Leaving that thought behind, Draco began channeling a small stream of ether to his legs. When he felt they were sufficiently strengthened, he bounded up the mountainside, each jump calculated to land on a stable position further up.

Behind him, his apprentice followed. One thing Draco did give her credit for was her strength and endurance. She was able to use ether as well as any full fledged paladin, and that was on top of her already tremendous physical ability. She followed Drake exactly, landing in his footsteps a mere moment behind.

Drake landed before the edge of the snow drifts and came to a stop. Khepri stopped beside him, pausing for a moment before leaning down to pick up a scoop of snow. She mashed the handful in her fist before letting it trickle to the ground. “Fascinating,” she whispered, attention fixed on the trailing flakes.

“Yes, the snow is all well and good. We can stop to play after the assignment is complete.”

“Spoilsport,” Khepri moaned in mock sadness.

Draco snorted and began marching through the snow. Fortunately, the hole was only a short distance from the snow line, they wouldn't need to enter deep drifts for this investigation.

Stopping where the snow ended once more, Draco was surprised to find the air temperature had gone up, rising until he no longer required his warming magic. Channeling ether, he began looking upon the scene with his magic sight. His breath stopped when he saw the rocks surrounding the hole. There was a massive amount of ether pooled in them that was slowly bleeding off as heat.

“Master,” Khepri began before her words caught. She took a deep breath. “Are you seeing what I'm seeing?”

“Yes.” Whatever had caused this explosion had enough ether to cause the nearby mountainside to store more energy than Draco could use in a day. And that was after a month of radiating the energy off. “Let's move. We don't have the luxury of time.” Draco strode across the blast zone.

Khepri hurried to catch up to him. “Can we beat this thing?”

Draco stopped, peering into the cave that had been unveiled in the blast. “I told you, there is a chance this is a true dragon. Nobody has seen one, let alone fought one, in generations. We can assume, based on remaining evidence, that it can use powerful fire magic. Other than that, we're in the dark. The myths have enough variety that we should be prepared for a dragon to be capable of literally anything.”

“Light of the Sun protect us...” Khepri breathed.

“Indeed. I fear we have little chance otherwise.” Draco knelt to examine the rock at the edge of the cave. His eyebrows rose involuntarily at what he saw. The rock looked to have been melted near to the cave. “Khepri, look.” He gestured for his apprentice to join him.

Khepri moved to squat next to him. “How...?”

Draco snorted. “Better question. Where did the rest of the rock go?”

“What do you mean?” Khepri cocked her head to one side.

“Did you see any rock that looked melted on the way up? How about rock with more ether than you could channel in a day?”

Khepri's eyes widened. “What did happen to it then?”

“That is the best question. If you were a dragon who had just woken from a long slumber, would you bother tampering with evidence? You're the most powerful being around, you don't care if you are followed, and you likely have better things to do than move rocks.”

“No...” Khepri bit her lower lip. “So, if the dragon didn't move the rock, where is it?”

“Right,” Draco said, standing. “Based on the ether remaining in the surrounding mountain, I suspect that the rock directly in the blast zone was vaporized.”

Khepri's eyes widened further and she fell backwards onto her butt. “What!? Could you vaporize stone? What about one of the Arch Paladins?”

“I cannot. There are some of my status that could probably melt stone. As for the Arch Paladins, I cannot say. They generally stick to political matters. Let's see if we can learn anything else inside the cave.”

Draco moved into the cave, channeling a trickle of ether into his breastplate until it glowed with a soft, white light. The cave itself was fairly small, about the size of a small home. In the back, there was a section of floor that glowed with ether to his magic vision. However, it was not radiating warmth as the rock outside had been.

“Sir, look at this!” Draco turned to see Khepri, breastplate glowing like his own, gazing into a small alcove. He crossed the cave to stand beside her, and saw immediately what she had been looking at. The alcove had several open chests piled with valuables, gold, silver, gemstones, and the like.

“Good find. Seems more and more like that this is, in fact, a dragon. Search through this stash and see if you can find anything that might be useful in a fight.”

Khepri gave Draco a nod and turned to sifting through the chests. Draco crossed back to the spot that glowed with ether and sat on the floor to examine it closer. After several minutes of considering, he decided that the most likely cause was from the dragon itself. Best he could figure, the dragon leaked excess ether as it slept, and enough had built up in the stone floor to be noticeable. That was problematic. Everybody had heard stories about how dragons were unstoppable killing machines, when they wanted to be, but the evidence he was seeing painted a clear picture of just how strong that meant.

“Sir, I think this might be what you are looking for.” Draco wheeled at Khepri's voice. She held an arrow, tipped with a black metal. He had crossed back to his apprentice and taken hold of the arrow before he realized he was in motion.

“Adamantine...” he whispered, examining the arrowhead. “And it's enchanted...” Draco focused closer, trying to discern the magic signature that would tell him what the enchantment was exactly. “Wait, is this a dragon slaying arrow?”

“That was the conclusion I came to!” Khepri said, excitedly. “Why would a dragon keep an arrow designed to do maximal harm to it though?”

“If someone made a weapon that would instantly kill you, where would you want it?”

Khepri considered for a moment. “On my weapon belt, I suppose. I can keep a close eye on it that way.”

“Exactly. Lucky for us, this dragon must have forgotten about this in its haste to do... whatever it decided to do when it woke.”

“What now? We have a chance of killing it, right?”

“Yes, probably. Let's reconvene with Centurion Otis and see if we can put together a plan to hunt this thing down.” Draco crossed back to the mouth of the cave and peered down the mountain to the century camped below. He sighed heavily. “I don't like our odds. If things look iffy, I want you to flee. Someone has to inform The Council that we have a true dragon awake once more.”

Khepri nodded, eyes wide and teary.

“Now now, I'm not dead yet, so don't go killing me off just because.”

“Yes....” Khepri's reply was cut off by a piercing roar that shook the stones near their feet.

Draco realized a moment later that he was on one knee, hands clamped over his ears. He channeled ether to his ears, dampening the sound to free up his hands. He signaled to Khepri who nodded. They both grasped their holy symbol, a stylized sun, in hand and felt the power of the Lord of the Sun fill them. This was a special power granted by the god to those who followed and used the power to advance his aims. In this case, slaying a dragon that threatened one of the empires.

The dragon swooped into sight, a great serpentine beast with dark red scales that darkened to black. It was diving towards the century below. “Khepri, go! Aid the century. I will fire the arrow. If I miss, or if you feel there is no chance, then run!” She nodded, handing Draco the dragon slaying arrow before sprinting down the mountain, the power of the Lord of the Sun causing her to glow brightly and allowing her to plow through the short snow drifts with ease.

Draco drew his bow, and felt the power he was borrowing flood the weapon. He nocked the arrow, and turned his sight to the dragon. It had completed its dive, blasting the men below with a mighty stream of fire. Even from the height, Draco could hear their screams. But not all the men were hit. Most of the men had split, forming groups of eight, their squads. They had pulled bows and were firing arrows even as the dragon was pulling out of its dive. Most glanced off of the dragon's scales, but some managed to find purchase in the gaps.

The dragon flew back up, following the slope of the mountain. As it passed Khepri on her descent, it made to snatch her with a claw. Draco grinned as he watched her quickly slide under the dragon's claw and connect a slash with her sword. Where the mundane arrows of the century had been largely ineffective, a sword backed by the power of the Lord of the Sun managed to slice a serious gash. Khepri recovered from her slide and attempted a second attack, but the dragon had sailed past her before she was able.

And now, the dragon was eye level with Draco. It snarled when it saw him standing in its cave. “You. What are you doing in my home? Why have you stolen one of my possessions?”

“I could ask why you decided the first thing to do upon waking was terrorizing the citizens of my empire.” Draco retorted, watching the dragon warily.

The dragon snorted. “Your pathetic people haven't advanced one iota since I began my hibernation. I have long believed that humans should be culled to a manageable level. You would be better off led by beings truly greater than you, rather than allowed to writhe in your squalor. If you had seen the world as I have, you would beg for our rule.”

“Yet I'm the one holding a weapon of slaying.”

The dragon snorted in laughter, coming to a slow landing on the mountain outside the cave. “So you have one way to kill me. You must think yourself mighty. Know that I have dozens of ways to kill you, each more painful than the last. Shall we see how long you can last under my handiwork, Paladin of the Sun?”

The dragon breathed in and Draco threw himself to the side. A powerful stream of fire blasted through the air where he had been standing. Turning his dive into a roll, Draco landed in a crouch, bow ready. He drew and fired with only a moment to sight. The arrow flew true, on target to strike the dragon under its foreleg. It would certainly hit a lung, if not the heart.

Draco's hopes were dashed as the dragon unleashed another jet of flames. He barely had time to watch the arrow swallowed in the blaze before the flames reached him. The agony! Even through the enchantments from channeling ether, and the power granted him by the Lord of the Sun, the fire seared his flesh. His entire body turned bright red instantly, and his skin began to peel away.

Gritting his teeth, eyes closed, Draco dropped his bow, which turned instantly to ash. He drew his longsword, the might of his god allowing him to wield the sword in one hand, and a shield. With the shield interposed between him and the dragon, and a substantial flow of ether reinforcing it, the stream of flames finally became manageable.

It was not a permanent solution. Draco could already see the edges of the shield start to glow a dull red. His best hope now was that Khepri would be running. He could delay the dragon long enough to make it inconvenient for it to chase her down, giving her an opportunity to report to The Council. He could feel his breaths passing over a dry, ragged throat.

Closing his eyes again, Draco wondered how long the dragon could keep breathing fire, when all of a sudden, the flames ceased. They were replaced with a pained roar. Confused by the turn of events, Draco peered out from behind his shield to see the worst possible sight. Khepri had disobeyed his orders and attacked the dragon from behind, leaving it with another great gash in its hind leg, opposite its already bleeding fore leg.

Before Draco could react, the dragon whirled on Khepri, pinning her down with its uninjured fore leg. Its massive head swiveled to look back at Draco. “Your apprentice? You can watch her die first.”

He began to snort a jet of flame, when he was interrupted by a hail of arrows striking his flank. Like before, most of the arrows skittered off the dragon's scales, but it was enough to distract it. Both the dragon and Draco turned to see the remainder of the century, formed up and advancing. The front ranks held shields to cover the back ranks of archers. Draco noticed that the century mage had erected a spell to protect against fire. It overlapped with the shields, and so would hopefully provide some measure of real defense.

“I see you didn't have enough the first time,” the dragon gloated. You cannot harm me. I on the other hand...” the dragon exhaled a blast of fire that exploded against the shield wall. The center of the front line buckled, and several men were sent flying over the rear ranks. “I can harm you.”

Centurion Otis strode out of the ranks, his century mage at his side, clearly using every bit of ether at his disposal to empower his commander. Shrugging off the shock at seeing the men marching up the mountain, Draco made a coordinated charge with Otis, aiming at the dragon's opposite side.

The dragon did not hesitate, striking Otis with its tail, sending him flying over his men. Draco used the opening to slash at the claw holding down Khepri. The dragon recoiled and sent Khepri rolling out of his grasp. It snarled as it turned, glaring at Draco. As it did, another volley of arrows rained into its backside. Draco found himself feeling both gratitude and awe at the soldiers' bravery.

“Enough distractions. I kill you and this whole charade falls apart,” the dragon said, ignoring the soldiers behind him.

'He's right,' Draco thought. 'What options do I have? If I fall, not only does my apprentice fall behind me, so do several dozen men far braver than I gave them credit for.' Striking on a last, desperate idea, Draco called out, “Lord of the Sun! You who hear all that is spoken by your faithful servants! Give me the strength to overcome this obstacle! I desire only to protect your people, but I cannot do it as I am!”

The dragon gave a roaring laugh. “You think that old fool give one whit what happens to you? I was there when he ascended the throne, and he is as much a pretender today as he was then.”

Draco felt anger begin to boil. The attacks on his comrades, he could understand, but to scorn the Lord of the Sun? Unforgivable. He took a step forward, and as his foot hit the ground, he felt a blaze light within him. The pain! It burned like even the dragon's flames had not. The power was too much for him to contain.

He looked up to see shock in the dragon's eyes. “Yes, that's the sort of face you should be making. You insulted my lord, and he will smite you for it. I am his vessel!” Draco leapt forward, sword held point out in front of him. The dragon swatted at him with a claw, and Draco couldn't dodge. He didn't need to. As he hit the ground, head rebounding from the shock, he saw that his sword had pierced the dragon's claw. It roared in agony, before focusing a narrow beam of fire onto Draco.

Draco felt the fire bathe over him, splashing around his armor, no warmer than ocean water in the summer. The stream of fire cut off, the dragon's face contorted in agony. “It burns!? How do you have a fire that burns me?” It pulled its claw back, letting Draco free.

Draco jumped to his feet, feeling stronger and more awake than he had in years. The heat that suffused him was still a bother, but it was distant. No, the real issue was that this dragon was threatening those under his protection. This ended now.

The dragon struck first, lashing at Draco with its mighty tail. Draco held his ground, meeting the tail with a slash of his own. Several feet of the dragon's tail went flying and it bellowed in agony. Dimly, Draco could see the others around him holding their ears, but he was more focused on the task at hand. He leapt forward again, and this time, the dragon was unable to stop him.

Draco felt his sword plunge into the dragon's neck, and he immediately pulled to the side, leaving the dragon half decapitated. Not one to leave a job unfinished, Draco followed up with another slash, and the dragon's head rolled from its corpse in a tide of crimson blood.

As the head hit the ground, Draco felt the fire leave his body. He slumped to his knees, and only then realized that his sense had tuned out everything in the world apart from the dragon itself. He could now hear Khepri as she called his name.

“Draco! Draco!” She was rushing over to him. “Are you okay?”

Draco took stock of himself. He was exhausted, to a degree he had never felt before. Worse, everything ached, as though he had truly been on fire mere moments ago. He felt as though he had been consumed from the inside, leaving him no more than a husk.

“I... I don't think so,” Draco whispered. He could see the century mage rushing towards him, a couple of soldiers with mundane first aid trailing him.

“You were amazing,” Khepri whispered to him. “You were blazing like the sun itself. White fire everywhere.”

“I think... I think the Lord of the Sun lent me power... It came at a cost though...” Draco murmured, his thoughts beginning to go hazy.

“What! No!” Khepri exclaimed. “You can't mean...”

“I am dying, Khepri. No amount of cajoling will help.” The century mage slid to the ground beside him and began probing with his magic. Draco didn't bother to warn him off. Khepri could explain later. “Listen. You are strong.”

“No, no,” Khepri moaned. “Not without you...”

“Listen girl!” Draco said as forcefully as he could. “You need to learn to be decisive... Don't hold back, pick your path and take it...”

“And be more creative?” Khepri asked, eyes now welling with tears.

Draco smiled. “And be more creative... I believe in you... You have what it takes to go as far as you want...”

Khepri pulled Draco into a hug, tears flowing freely now.

“And Khepri, I loved you as I would a daughter...”

“I love you too!” Khepri wailed. “Watch me, from wherever you are. I will make you proud!”

Draco smiled as he passed. The century mage and soldiers backed off as Khepri sobbed over her master.

Later, after Khepri had cried until she couldn't anymore, she met with Centurion Otis, who had broken both legs in his fall. “Girl, your master is a certified hero, you know it?” Khepri nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Nobody has even seen a dragon in centuries... millennia even, and now he's gone a slain one. You'll have whatever support you need to make it back home.”

“Thank you, centurion,” Khepri whispered.

The man talked a while longer, while Khepri half listened. Soon enough, the time to depart had come. Khepri faced her journey home. She was alone for the first time, but as she looked west, the setting sun just peering over the trees, she could feel Draco there, watching. Just in case, she gave a salute. She would make him proud.

In the Mists, a Hunt Continues

In his dream, he was a Hyena again.

Strange. He hadn't been a Hyena since the servers had gotten shut down.

It felt… good to be back in his old avatar, in the body that he had chosen for himself in the days before everything went wrong.

He looked down at his torso, suddenly glad to see his baseline human anatomy replaced by idealized muscle and digitgrade legs, covered with spotted brown fur.

Perhaps, some part of him dared to hope, this was reality. Maybe it was the other life that had been the nightmare, a reminder of why it was a bad idea to fall asleep while brain-jacked into the Network.

But then… if he was back on the Network, then what in all the worlds was this server?

Thick, impenetrable mists swirled around the Hyena, enveloping the narrow rope-and-plank bridge that creaked and swayed unsteadily beneath his feet.

No other players were in sight, not even an NPC that needed to be beaten in order to progress.

Then suddenly, the bridge began to wobble wildly under his feet, as from behind him there came the rapid-fire rhythmic thunks of something running right for him.

And in his heart, he knew it was the Mantis - the one who had destroyed the only life he'd ever known.

She was coming for him. He had to run.

So he did, galloping away as fast as his clawed legs would carry him.

If he slowed, even for a second, he could hear her chitinous talons clicking on the boards.

Could hear her catching up to him-

-so he kept running.

Already, the Hyena could see the sky and the mists behind him turning a deep, bloody orange, dyed by the flames that he knew were burning his home to the ground.

Ahead of him, there was only the bridge, twisting and forking as it stretched endlessly towards the horizon.

His claws caught in the gap between two planks, tripping him. His sheer speed then sent him sprawling, almost hurtling off the bridge and into the mists below, where a Thing with the voice of a lion continually roared loud enough to shake all of reality.

Desperate to escape his pursuer, the Hyena almost dragged himself off the bridge entirely - but then he remembered:

The Thing Below had sent the Mantis after him.

So he got back up and kept running.

His side ached from the fall, exacerbating the building fatigue from his headlong flight.

But he couldn't stop. Couldn't slow down. Couldn't even look back to see if it was safe to do either.

Because he knew that if he slowed down, then the Mantis would catch him. Knew that if he stopped, she would devour him whole, just like the Cross she bore on her shoulder.

Knew that if he looked back, then he'd see the… Horror that hunted him alongside the Mantis, following after her in slavish devotion.

Different paths laid themselves out before the Hyena, each junction in the bridge offering a different hope for salvation. But, like something out of a horror game, the Mantis appeared at each intersection even while she pursued him from behind, herding him along the path intended by whatever sick developer had designed this experience.

And then suddenly, the bridge stopped - its previously infinite lengths cut short by an unforeseen dead end.

The mists thinned as the Thing Below coiled its unfathomable tendrils, waiting to receive him, almost inviting the Hyena to step off the bridge and simply Fall.

The temptation loomed-

-but no.

Never again.

He had already fallen once, and the Horror that had been born that day hunted him even now, marching in perfect lockstep behind the Mantis.

Accordingly, the Hyena turned, searching for another way-

-the Mantis was there. Blocking the only escape route.

When she had first met him - when she had first deceived him - she had worn the avatar of a short, slight human woman, delicately featured and light brown in complexion.

Her true self stared back at him now.

Shimmering rainbow hair cloaked her entire body, falling to her insectile green ankles in a fashion that somehow failed to hinder her in her pursuit. Lies of love, of pleasure, of security and safety if he would only submit dripped from her fanged, bulging jaws, hissing into steam as they fell into the hellfire that smoldered beneath her boots.

The same fire that, in the distance, consumed the final remnants of the Hyena's home.

And behind the Mantis, locked into her shadow like some NPC follower, there stood the Horror.

In turn, the Hyena felt his feet involuntarily take a step back towards the ledge.

Because it was him.

His face, lips swollen from kissing and neck marked in vivid detail by the Mantis' love-bites. His body as it truly was, not the idealized shape of muscle and fur he had chosen for himself online. His voice, droning insensate praises to the Thing Below and muttering its delirious love for the Mantis.

It was him.

The Horror was him.

Denial and terror boiled inside the Hyena's brain as the Horror began to stride towards him, answering the commanding, infrasonic shriek of the Thing Below.

Suddenly too fast to dodge, it locked forearms with him and shoved. The face of his birth, trying to hurl the face of his choice into the mists that churned beneath the swaying bridge.

At first, the battle was easy. His other self had always been weak, a mask that shielded his inner thoughts when needed and was easily suppressed when the time had passed.

But then it started getting stronger.

Muscle began to shift and grow beneath the Horror's dark brown skin, its jaws bulging, its canines falling out to be replaced by lengthy, baboon-like fangs.

A once ordinary baseline human, turning twisted and feral.

The Hyena felt his claws skid backwards a few centimeters, his grip momentarily lost on the slick, mist-dampened planks.

He didn't want this.

But it was happening all the same.

And behind the Horror, where the Hyena could not reach her, the Mantis too began to change. Her abdomen swelled to grotesque proportions, turning lumpen and lopsided as something moved inside her. Her growth then complete, she squatted deep on the bridge, entire body heaving-

-as that same something clawed its way out from between her legs.

The Hyena slipped back another few centimeters.

Too fast to see, the resultant larva shambled across the bridge, instantly adhering to and being absorbed by the Horror.

Which only made it stronger.

The Horror's mutations accelerated, spiraling out of control as the Mantis birthed more and more of their deformed, twisted offspring, each of which added their own power to that of their sire. Its braincase shrunk, its brow beetling, falling backwards over the thin line that separated humans from beasts.

And pushing the Hyena back more and more with each step.

"Crucify the old man," it grunted out through a jaw overcrowded with fangs.

The Hyena's back foot slipped into the void-




-and Omondi woke up with a shuddering gasp.

There was nothing to impede him as he bolted upright in bed, for all the blankets were bundled around the still-sleeping form of his posthuman 'wife,' Hui-Ying.

His posthuman captor.

His posthuman enslaver.

She and her people had come out of the stars to subjugate his planet in the name of their God, slaughtering its defenders and almost burning its cities to the ground.

And Omondi had been part of the spoils.

Before the first shot had even been fired, Hui-Ying had marked him as 'her' share of the plunder, her chosen reward for a masterful infiltration job.

A far more visceral kind of 'mark' reannounced its presence on his shoulder as the last dregs of sleep fled from him - the dull ache of a love-bite left by short, sharp fangs.

Those same fangs peeked out from Hui-Ying's bulging jaws even now, her lips flapping as she lightly snored.

A face that had not evolved, but had been designed.

Designed to kill, to savage and maul other sapients when all other weapons had been exhausted.

Omondi's eyes drifted across the rest of her sleeping body. To the mark he'd left on her own skin a scant few hours ago, just barely visible between the sheets snuggled to her chin and the rainbow-dyed hair that now fell to her shoulders.

To the soft gleam of the mantis hairpin on her nightstand.

He wanted to hate her.

Wanted to want to fight back, to find whatever resistance was left hiding in the shadows, to do anything other than this acceptance of his personal occupier.

And he hated himself, because he didn't hate her.

Because he didn't want to fight back.

Because when the fighting was over, and the captives had been divided, he had willingly allowed himself to be married off to Hui-Ying.

Too scared to say no? Maybe. Happy that someone had finally wanted him after years of heart-crushing loneliness? Yes.

He hated himself for that too.

…traitor, Omondi's subconscious spat at him, flagellating what was left of his conscience with the word. Collaborator.

His eyes flashed with memories of nights past, of Hui-Ying giggling under him as he kissed her repeatedly, circumstances forgotten as he allowed himself to simply be happy for once.

The memories soon drowned under a tidal wave of self-loathing.

The sound of his captor grunting in her sleep cut his self-recrimination short, followed shortly by her eyes fluttering open as she squirmed beneath the covers, trying to alleviate some newfound discomfort.

Her eyes caught his, and the man frantically stuffed all his dissidence behind the mental Mask he wore while she was awake. The Mask of a different Omondi, an Omondi who was still sad about the occupation but was… happy with his marriage to Hui-Ying. An Omondi who was still skeptical about her God but was ever so slowly coming around to the concept.

It was getting easier to hide his thoughts behind the Mask these days.

"You're awake too?" Hui-Ying sleepily muttered before a yawn cut her off, lips peeling back over her too-long jaws to further bare her fangs.

"Bad dream," Omondi answered through the now-settled Mask.

"Your son must've felt it too," she said with another yawn, clumsily shucking her blankets aside-

-to reveal her heavily pregnant body.

Growing, undeniable proof of Omondi's treason.

Of his collaboration.

Of his submission to this particular invader.

Another wave of self-hatred threatened to unseat the Mask.

"He's kicking like crazy right now," the gene-modded woman spoke, seemingly oblivious to his inner turmoil as she sat up herself to lean against his side.

She was smaller than him, designed to fit more easily into transports and into armor.

Or in this case, so very neatly under his arm.

His own body was the one to betray him now, reward hormones chewing into his brain as her pregnancy-enhanced bosom ghosted along the side of his own chest - an entrancing point of softness on her otherwise combat-muscled body.

Wordlessly, Hui-Ying started to paw for one of his hands, softly inching it towards her womb.

Despite it all, Omondi didn't hate his son - only himself for being so weak. He… cared about this child. Wanted what was best for them. And the Mask…

…the Mask was allowed to be excited about fatherhood.

So he also allowed it to comply with the woman's gentle tugging, actively reaching for her abdomen to feel the palpable distortions within.

"He loves you," his wife said simply, nuzzling deeper into Omondi's shoulder.

By accident or yet another strange coincidence of her design, the length of her prognathic jaws put her fangs at his jugular.

Not biting. Not pulling or tearing or anything like that. Simply… there.

"I love him too," Omondi said at last.

He could feel her smile against his neck at that, her breath tickling the nerves there.

He liked it when she did that, despite everything.

"Just like I love you," the Mask suddenly added of its own accord, earning it a giggle and a 'proper' kiss from the girl.

A kiss that Omondi and the Mask both deepened at once, eager to at least ignore their troubles for a while.

And in the back of his mind…

…he heard the desperate scrabble of claws on wood, slipping closer to the edge.





Originally published on substack here

A Tale of First Contact

Humanity had thought itself alone in the universe.

Wasn’t as preposterous of a supposition as it had seemed in the past, back when we could only gaze at the stars and wonder. With the invention of the Kimura-Tomczak Drive over two centuries ago finally allowing FTL-travel, humanity had discovered hundreds of habitable worlds, had colonized dozens of those, and had spread its reach across thousands of lightyears. Before, we could only look.

Now, we could explore.

Alien life had been found of course, but no civilizations, nothing more advanced than pre-sapient lifeforms on par with apes or elephants. After such a long and fruitless search, there were many who began to espouse the idea that perhaps we were alone, perhaps all of creation was for our sole benefit.

The attack came without warning.

At first humanity didn’t even realize it was under attack, only that communications with a recently established colony in NGC 6752 had been disrupted. A squadron sent to investigate never returned. This was deemed unusual. Further inquiries were scheduled, but the incident was quickly forgotten. Not a cause for concern.

Taunrak Secundus was attacked three weeks later.

Taunrak Secundus was the oldest settled planet in NGC 6752, home to 4 billion people, and the Taunrak system was the homeport of the 11th fleet. At the time of first contact there were 124 ships, roughly 42,000,000 in battle fleet tonnage, in the system. Nearly half the 11th’s full strength. These were further supported by planetside and orbital defense-and-denial systems and thousands of smaller ship-based and terrestrial attack drones. Just counting humanity’s forces made it the single largest space engagement in history.

It was over in less than an hour.

The first indication something was wrong was when an interstellar recon station reported a solid mass 2 lightyears across approaching the Taunrak system at FTL speed. Estimated time of arrival 38 hours. This was flagged as a sensor malfunction, but by the time a command prompt to reboot and run diagnostics reached the station it failed to ping back. Multiple Taunrak installations detected the anomaly 16 hours later.

Impossibly, it was not a malfunction.

The 11th was mobilized. Priority comm was sent to all vessels out of port to return to Taunrak system immediately if they could do so within 18 hours. All other vessels were ordered to fall back to 47 Tuc and rendezvous with the 6th fleet at Tau Coronae. Contained in the communication was all telemetry collected on the anomaly so far, to be transmitted back to Earth.

Emergency evacuation of Taunrak Secundus was ordered at the same time.

Admiral Jones, commanding officer of the 11th, knew it was impossible to get 4 billion people off-planet in less than a day, but the attempt had to be made. Every commercial and private vessel that was within range was mobilized and put to work at the effort. Tens of thousands of flights were coordinated between the surface of Taunrak Secundus and orbiting stations, where passengers were transferred aboard commercial vessels that had jettisoned their cargo into Taunrak’s star, ships so massive they had to be constructed in orbit and could never land planetside. With their holds hastily atmoed by siphoning from Taunrak Secundus’s atmosphere, each could carry hundreds of thousands far and fast enough to get them to 47 Tuc. All told, the actions of the refugee armada saved 1.8 billion people.

That was the only victory to be had that day.

Meanwhile, Admiral Jones deployed the 11th outside of Taunrak’s gravity well in a single loose battle line that stretched for three lightseconds. A gravity minefield had been hastily deployed in a rough arc two lightyears in front of the battle-line, in hopes that the anomaly would be crippled or destroyed, or at least forced out of FTL.

If the approaching anomaly had detected danger, it did not alter its course or speed.

The anomaly slammed into the minefield. Hundreds of small stars sprang to life in an instant, only to careen wildly off of each other and then collapse, creating a swirling mass of miniature black holes that existed for a fraction of a second before evaporating themselves. Any human ship that had found itself within the minefield would have been torn apart instantaneously by the wildly fluctuating gravity, and the ensuing micro-gravity storm prevented any FTL travel through local space for hours. Sensors indicated that the portion of the anomaly just beyond the minefield had dropped to sub-light speed, but the rest was still traveling at its previous speed and trajectory. Worse, despite it now being shown to be impossible, the sensors were still reading the anomaly as a solid mass.

According to the instruments, the anomaly had sustained no damage.

Now that at least some of the anomaly was moving at sub-light speed, Admiral Jones ordered visuals.

He could barely comprehend what he saw.

The anomaly was not a single entity. Within visual range were thousands of what must have been ships, if ships were constructed of chitin and flesh instead of ceramic and steel. Creatures of nightmare, some larger than the largest ship Admiral Jones had under his command, and so numerous that they fully obscured the stars behind them. They advanced in their horrific multitude, seemingly as ignorant, or perhaps as contemptuous, of the fleet arrayed against them as they had been of the minefield.

At five lightseconds fire-at-will was ordered.

The swarm made no effort to avoid the onslaught. Hundreds of the approaching monstrosities suffered explosive decompression as their hides were raked by invisible laser-fire. Seconds later kinetic rounds accelerated to near-relativistic speeds smashed through that had survived, slicing through multiple ranks before their ballistic energy was finally spent. Within a minute of this sustained cannonade thousands of the approaching things lay dead and floating.

Behind them lay thousands more.

The 11th continued to unload on the enemy bearing down on Taunrak with ferocity, but humanity’s weapons systems were not designed for such prolonged, sustained abuse. Within minutes there were reports of ships overloading their heatsinks, of ships almost melting their gun barrels. No human engineer had conceived of an enemy that could absorb such concentrated destruction with disinterest. A general retreat was ordered. One-hundred and twenty-four ships withdrew to within the gravity well of Taunrak. Not a single ship had been lost.

The enemy had not even deigned to return fire.

Once within the system Admiral Jones redeployed his fleet into three lines of defense between the swarm and Taunrak Secundus, screens constituting the first two lines, battleships and carriers behind. Now that the engagement distance had closed precariously Admiral Jones ordered all carriers and Taunrak Secundus to launch their support wings. Thousands of unmanned fighters and bombers took up preprogrammed positions to further screen the larger ships and protect the flanks. In the future there would be those who questioned why Admiral Jones would stage a desperate final stand instead of ordering a full retreat to preserve the fleet, but none of them had been there that day. They had never been faced with such a choice, where saving yourself meant sacrificing countless others. They did not have to gaze at Taunrak Secundus and see the continued evacuation, hear the fear and panic over civilian comms. Every second the 11th delayed the inevitable was another thousand lives saved, every minute another ship disembarked for safety. For Admiral Jones, there was no choice to be made. As long as it could still fight, the 11th was going to buy as much time for the fleeing civilians as it could.

Soon after the fleet had taken up positions the enemy entered the system.

A message was broadcast on all bands, civilian and military, a message that has entered history as Admiral Jones’s last words.

The message was this:

“Men, it's been an honor to be your commanding officer and to serve alongside you. I don’t expect any of us to survive what is to come, but I promise you this…”

“I’ll be damned if they’re going to continue to ignore us.”

The Heavens were set ablaze.

Orbital platforms across the system opened fire. Each station had firepower comparable to a small fleet, and was tens of miles in size. Because of this each was able to support weaponry a magnitude greater in size and power than even the heaviest battleship. What they fired at wasn’t simply destroyed. It was obliterated. The beasts that had menaced the system simply disappeared, as did those behind for almost a twentieth of a lightsecond. A second barrage scythed through those who had been shielded by their now dead comrades, inflicting even more massive carnage. Admiral Jones had been a man of his word.

The swarm was finally forced to take notice.

It separated into whirls and gyrations, resembling a flock of birds in flight. No longer was it implacable. Instead of approaching along a single vector the swarm swelled and expanded in all directions, as if to encircle and swallow the entire system as an amoeba digests its prey, subsuming it entirely within itself. The 11th employed volley-fire to maintain a constant curtain of laser-fire and wall of shrapnel in all directions, burning or shredding any portions of the swarm that threatened to slip past and endanger the refugee armada. The orbital stations continued to fire at the main body of the approaching swarm, but there was no end to its numbers. Suddenly, as if driven by some singular, horrible intelligence, the swarm moved as one and turned its full attention to that which was preventing it from achieving its goals.

The swarm finally returned fire.

It responded with kinetic projectiles, slow by the standards of space combat, far slower than had been achieved by human ingenuity with our own kinetic weapons.

But, as the swarm had already amply demonstrated, quantity has a quality all its own.

There was little time for the 11th to take evasive maneuvers, and there was no place to escape to anyway. Hundreds of drones sacrificed themselves to intercept projectiles and automated point-defense systems sprung to life, but not even AI-targeting systems could keep up with the sheer volume of incoming. Forty ships were destroyed or disabled by the initial volley, and no ship escaped without some damage.

A second salvo ended the Battle of Taunrak.

Again the swarm fired its kinetic projectiles from all sides, but following in the wake of these came a roiling wall of darkness, millions of attack-craft, barely half the size of the average man, far smaller than the drones humanity employed. These attack-craft overwhelmed any defense the 11th could muster, blanketing every ship and boring into their hulls with some sort of plasma cutters. Not even the meters-thick armor of the orbital platforms could long withstand such an onslaught.

The final refugee ship to safely escape Taunrak’s gravity well reported that, prior to engaging their KT Drive, their sensors recorded a series of explosions on the far-side of the Taurnak system consistent with known FTL collisions. It is believed that Admiral Jones’s final command had been the scuttling of what remained of the 11th fleet by ordering a jump to FTL within the gravity well, taking as much of the anomaly as it could with it.

The first battle for humanity’s survival had been lost.



This wasn’t an invasion, not in the classical sense. This was unbridled consumption.

An Infestation.

After the defeat of the 11th at Taunrak there was nothing to halt the Infestation’s advance. The three other colonized planets of NGC 6752, Baku Sextus, Norvegia Primus, Ponnell Quartus, were evacuated much as Taunrak Secundus was. Many escaped.

Many more did not.

Entire worlds were stripped of all biomass to feed the ever growing swarm. Billions of species were rendered extinct. The Infestation was voracious. Insatiable. Feeding itself only to grow in number and increase its need to feed itself.

It was this ravenous hunger that was humanity’s only hope.

As the Infestation encountered more and more worlds containing life its progress slowed, more and more of its time and energy spent converting biomass into itself. What had been a solid line of advance when it had entered NGC 6752 became disjointed and piecemeal by the time it had reached 47 Tuc, tendrils slithering through the darkness between the stars towards any sustenance to be found.

Humanity refused to resign itself to defeat and extinction.

Hope was not lost, for humanity held two advantages over the Infestation: engagement range and mobility. The battle of Taurnak had proven that Infestation ships had an effective engagement range far inferior to that of humanity’s, relying instead on overwhelming numbers, and, though whatever propulsion system it used to move itself through space was capable of FTL travel, it was far slower than the Kimura-Tomczak Drive that had been perfected over the centuries. It had taken the swarm three weeks to travel between the unnamed colony in NGC 6752 and Taunrak Secundus, a trip of only 28-hours by KT Drive.

A counter-offensive was quickly planned and executed.

All colonies in 47 Tuc and the Vela Ridge were evacuated well in advance of the Infestation. A defensive line was established stretching from NGC 6397 to the Orion Nebula, and every available fleet was deployed to sterilize any world supporting life between that line and the growing Infestation. It was hoped that by doing so the swarm itself could be starved.

The second part of the counter-offensive was more proactive.

Raiding fleets were organized to strike at the Infestation swarm anywhere it could be defeated in detail, using their superior speed and range to attack quickly and withdraw before the Infestation’s vastly superior numbers could be brought to bear. Death by a thousand cuts. The Infestation’s advance slowed even further, and was finally halted hundreds of lightyears short of the 6397-Orion line.

Two years into the war, it was decided it was time for humanity to push back.



General Terry, Supreme Terrestrial Commander, wondered why his thoughts had turned to the beginnings of the Infestation as his ship began its descent to Eremus Prime. Since the start of the Great Offensive progress had been slow, but steady. The Infestation had been pushed back to almost the edge of 47 Tuc, and now planets that could not be sterilized years ago were being purified of Infestation in a deliberate manner, bypassing heavily defended or strategically unimportant worlds to instead threaten the Infestation’s operational-cohesion and supply-lines. It was a campaign of General Terry’s design, and already Siegawa Sextus and Erteda Tertius had been successfully purified. Eremus Prime was the next domino in that line poised to fall.

General Terry wished he could feel better about his accomplishments.

The General forced himself to stop being so morose as his transport touched down and he quickly disembarked. As soon as he was clear the ship knifed upward towards the stars and disappeared. There were only two ways humanity could hope to safely travel within space contested by the Infestation: with alacrity, spontaneity, and overwhelming force, as with raiding, landing, or resupply operations, or by being so insignificant that the Infestation couldn’t be bothered to send a single drone to investigate.

General Terry had chosen the latter.

As he walked towards the building nearest to the spaceport, General Terry saw two men exit said building and make their way towards him. He recognized the first as soon as he saw him, as well he should. They had both come up through the ranks together and were close friends. General Terry hadn’t considered any other for command of the Eremus Prime campaign.

General Harrison saluted as soon as he was within twelve paces, always a stickler for procedure. His companion, a Staff Sergeant General Terry did not recognize, mirrored his commanding officer. General Terry returned the salute with a smile.

As soon as the formalities were seen to General Terry closed the distance and offered a handshake that General Harrison accepted graciously.

“Sir, welcome to Eremus Prime.” General Harrison said, releasing his friend’s hand.

“Good to be here William. How goes the war on the ground?”

“Well Sir. We’ve sanitized more than half the planet’s surface, and even though resistance has become increasingly fierce we are still making progress. At our current rate of sanitation, we should achieve purification a month ahead of schedule.”

“I knew I could count on you William.”

General Harrison accepted the compliment gracefully, and then responded with a question of his own.

“Sir, how goes the wider war?”

General Terry took a moment to collect his thoughts before answering, “The fleet is keeping the Infestation occupied in interstellar space, chasing shadows and its own tail, but we need Eremus Prime sanitized to initiate the next step. The fleet cannot operate through the Eremus system safely as long as Eremus Prime remains infested, and we can’t afford to lose even a single ship. Not when the Infestation can lose a hundred and still come out ahead in the exchange. Eremus Prime is the only habitable planet in this sector, and the Eremus system is the lynchpin of the enemy’s frontline. We drive them off Eremus Prime, we finally control the system. We control the system, that allows us to strike deep into infested territory, cut reinforcement to their right and threaten encirclement of their left. Their entire line will collapse.”

General Harrison had understood the importance of the Eremus Prime campaign, but to have orders relayed to him was one thing.

To have his friend state it was another.

“You can count on me, Sir.” he replied.

“I know I can, William.”

“I have to ask Sir, why visit Eremus Prime now? Things are progressing, but it’s not exactly a risk-free venture, especially given your importance to the war-effort.”

A shadow passed over general Terry’s face.

“Do you know how many men we lost taking Erteda Tertius?”

General Harrison turned somber as well.

“I haven’t seen the official numbers, Sir.”

“I have. Twenty-two million men.”

“It was necessary Sir. Without that, we wouldn’t be here.”

General Terry sighed, “It might have been necessary, but that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. I was the man who gave the order. Those men’s deaths are on me. Twenty-two million families that lost their sons. How many more millions are we going to lose here? That’s why I have to be here William. I have no place ordering these men to die if I don’t have the courage to look them in the eye first.”

General Harrison reached out and firmly grasped his friend’s shoulder, offering him what solace he could.

“Sir, I’ve never known a commander with more consideration for the well-being of his men than you, and I know that the men know it too. They don’t follow you because they have to, they’ve always followed because they want to. They’d follow you to Hell itself, Sir. Gladly.”

General Terry barked a short laugh, bereft of mirth.

“Given what we’re facing, it may come to that William.”

Throughout the entirety of this personal exchange the Staff Sergeant had stood motionless exactly where he had first saluted, stable and stoic, seemingly not hearing or not interested. General Harrison must have seen General Terry glance in the Staff Sergeant’s direction, because he turned and walked back to stand next to his companion.

“Sir, allow me to introduce you to Staff Sergeant Mazyr. He’s a man I trust implicitly. He'll be in charge of your Personal Security Detail as long as you're planetside. I’ll introduce you to the rest of your detail later. ”

Staff Sergeant Mazyr sprang to life, giving a second salute with his introduction, and General Terry took a moment to take the measure of the man as he returned it: shaved head, deep-set eyes, square jaw, thick neck, broad shoulders, muscular without being overly-so, and tall. The Staff Sergeant stood a head taller than General Terry, and General Harrison, never a tall man himself, barely came up his chest.

He looked like he had just stepped out of a recruiting poster.

“Sir, I look forward to working with you.” the Staff Sergeant said after a moment.

“And I you, Staff Sergeant.” General Terry replied, then turned his attention back to General Harrison, “Alright William, enough self-pity and doubt. There’s a war to be won. But first, there’s something we need to address. Two weeks ago you sent me a personal message. You mentioned Gertrude. We both know you’d never willingly discuss Gertrude, so what was it you felt was so important that you couldn’t risk putting it in a report?”

For the first time General Harrison looked uneasy.

“Not here Sir. Follow me.”



General Terry followed General Harrison as he led the way to a waiting car, parked discreetly in the shadow of the building he and the Staff Sergeant had exited. The windows were tinted, and an opaque divider separated the driver from his passengers. General Terry and General Harrison sat in the back, Staff Sergeant Mazyr rode next to the driver. General Terry thought the cloak-and-dagger escapades overmuch, as it would be impossible to keep the Supreme Commander’s visit to Eremus Prime secret for very long. Someone must have seen him disembark at the starport, and that someone must have already told someone else.

If there was something soldiers did more than fight, it was trade scuttlebutt.

Their destination was a short drive away, a massive building, almost a hangar in size, placed as far away from everything else at HQ as it could be whilst still being on the grounds. General Harrison whisked General Terry inside, Staff Sergeant Mazyr a step behind.

They walked into an abattoir.

Dozens of examination tables were laid out end-to-end, and dozens of specimens, no two alike, rested upon them in various states of butchery. Attending to this bloody task was a frantic mob of scientists, no two moving in the same direction.

Those specimens too large for the tables simply lay on the ground.

Along one wall lay a particularly massive cadaver, a full fifty feet in length and twenty in height, resembling in shape a massive slug, if a slug possessed armor, spines, and far too many teeth. Ladders had been laid against its bulk and scaffolding had been erected around it. Scientists swarmed upon it like ants, or ancient mariners flensing a whale.

The trio moved quickly as they could through the chaos.

Approximately three quarters of the length of the larger building was devoted to this massive bullpen and a smaller section separated by a free-standing wall along the wall opposite the slug-thing, but the last quarter was reserved for a smaller building erected within the first. Stationed at the entrance to this building were two soldiers, the first two General Terry had seen since walking into this madhouse. They quickly saluted and admitted both Generals.

The Staff Sergeant seemed to drift in as an afterthought.

Within this inner-sanctum the energy was more sedate but still tainted by madness. Outside the specimens at least resembled animals, nightmarish as they were, but here scientists bent over lumps of flesh twisted into mockeries of weapons and machinery. General Terry had of course seen pictures of the Infestation’s equivalent of a rifle, read reports describing its form and function in clinical but exhaustive detail, but to see one in the flesh, no pun intended, was a sight he would never forget.

Thankfully, they soon reached their final destination.

Within the innermost inner-sanctum was a laboratory that was meticulous in its presentation: two examination tables bisected the room parallel to the back wall, upon which lay two specimens completely covered by simple white sheets, and sitting upon a metal stool was the only scientist General Terry had seen motionless, almost as if he was waiting for them to start the demonstration.

General Harrison made the introductions.

“Dr. Proust, this is General Terry, Supreme Terrestrial Commander. Sir, this is Dr. Proust, foremost expert on xenobiology we have.”

“General, a pleasure.” Dr. Proust said as rose from the stool and crossed the room to shake General Terry’s hand, “I’m so glad for the opportunities you’ve afforded me to further my studies.”

General Terry was familiar with the name “Dr. Proust”, but he had never had a face to place to the name.

The face he had now was disquieting.

Dr. Proust was beyond old, ancient even, his face one unbroken web of wrinkles, and as bald as an egg, lacking even eyebrows. When standing he hunched forward, holding his arms as a praying mantis would hold its claws. When he looked at you his eyes burned with an intensity that bordered on ominous, as if the good doctor was contemplating the best way to go about taking you apart, same as he would any other specimen. If you told the average person to imagine a mad scientist, they would imagine Dr. Proust. General Terry reminded himself that, appearances notwithstanding, Dr. Proust was indeed the foremost xenobiologist humanity had to offer.

No one had felt the need to introduce the Staff Sergeant.

“Now,” Dr. Proust continued, “before I get to the main attractions, I have to ask General: how acquainted are you with Infestation biology?”

“Assume I’m not Doctor, and proceed from there.”

“Very well. Utterly fascinating creature. I almost wish we had made contact when I was a younger man, when I would have had a lifetime to devote to the study of It. Alas, so little left now.”

“We didn’t ‘make contact’ Doctor. It attacked us.” General Terry replied, his voice perhaps harsher than he had planned.

“Yes, yes, as unfortunate as it was unavoidable, but anger at such an inevitability is misplaced General. The Infestation is what It is, as are we all. I assure you, It harbors no hatred towards humanity. From my observations, I sincerely doubt It experiences emotion at all. It is not malicious, nor does It see what It does as cruel. It consumes and It expands. It survives. That is all. One must at least respect the candor of It.”

“There are less harmful ways to survive, Doctor.”

“Not as the Infestation is capable of seeing it. It doesn’t understand the concept of ‘harm’ because It has no concept of morality. Humanity developed morality, General, because it was required of us as a prerequisite for more complex social structures. Human civilization required cooperation between distinct individuals and morality, at its most basic levels, is the recognition of self in another, to assign ethical worth to something not-self due to an understood connectedness to self. Civilization and morality evolved in a mutualistic relationship, where increased social complexity begat moral expansion and vice versa. From families, to clans, to nations, to all of humanity, animals, even abstract concepts that include inanimate objects, like ‘the environment’. From the family, to the tribe, the polis, the state, the international order, the interstellar order. Do you see?”

General Terry had to admit he did not.

“The Infestation never developed morality because it was never forced to do so in order to increase Its social complexity. See, the Infestation isn’t a species as we would understand it but a single consciousness spread across an almost infinite number of bodies, a hivemind. Its civilization, for lack of a better term, developed along a completely different path than ours, a eusociety consisting of one individual. It never had to take that first step, never had to recognize Itself in another, because there was never another self to recognize. Due to its lack of moral framework, to the Infestation there is nothing outside of Itself. It is not evil, or immoral. It is amoral.”

The Doctor was truly getting going now, his words coming faster as he continued.

“Truly, the Infestation is a fascinating collection of contradictions. For every simplicity It demonstrates a corresponding complexity: It possesses the moral agency of an insect combined with intelligence likely exceeding our own. It may be single-minded in Its pursuit of food, but It does so in ways that indicate rationality, strategic-thinking, long-term planning. All of the Infestation’s technology is biological in nature, and yet within that singular field Its understanding and capabilities exceed ours by centuries. Did you know that every single Infestation drone is a chimera of multiple disparate genomes? So far we’ve managed to identify 163 total. The most we’ve identified in a single drone is fifteen. The DNA of fifteen different species, broken down and knit together to express a desired selection of traits. I’ve been studying what the Infestation does for three years now, and I’m no closer to telling you how than I was at the start.”

“Doctor,” General Harrison interrupted, “I believe it’s time we moved on to why we’re here.”

“What? Oh yes, yes, I apologize General. Sometimes I simply lose myself. As I said, fascinating. I realize your time is precious.” Dr. Proust replied, as if only now being reminded he wasn’t talking to himself.

Dr. Proust walked behind the examination table to General Terry’s left, and motioned for him to come closer. The Doctor gripped the sheet above what appeared to be the specimen’s head, but paused before revealing what was underneath.

“I’m going to warn you General, what you are about to see is disturbing.”

Dr. Proust slowly removed the sheet.

General Terry had thought the Infestation rifle was something he would never forget.

What was under the sheet was worse.

The specimen had a head, two eyes, a mouth, two arms, two legs, its body covered by pink skin. Even had brown hair. It had clearly been sculpted in the likeness of a human.

Which made the difference all the more grotesque.

It had two eyes, yes, but those eyes were set in what should have been the forehead, far larger than they should have been, bulging, and compounded, but not as an insect’s eyes were; instead, multiple recognizably human irises stared up at the ceiling from each, clouded in death.

It had a mouth, yes, but that mouth was a circular, gaping maw lined with barbed-quills that covered the entirety of where its face should have been, leaving no room or a nose.

It had two arms, but those ended in hands that had eight fingers each; two legs, but with knees that bent backwards; pink skin, but in a shade that more closely resembled that of a pig than a human; and finally brown hair that sprouted in random tufts across its body.

General Terry felt a wave of nausea sweep over him.

Thankfully Dr. Proust only revealed the specimen for a few seconds before quickly re-covering it.

“Three months ago we started to see those appearing on the battlefield. They were obviously the first attempts by the Infestation to integrate human DNA into Its chimeras. As you can see, the results were… unsettling, but I showed you that so I can show you this.”

As the Doctor spoke he crossed over to the other examination table, once again beckoning for General Terry to follow.

“Now, I had to bring this one out of the freezer, so I apologize that it's not fresh.”

This specimen was as mundane as the previous had been monstrous.

Concealed beneath this sheet was an ordinary man, though one that had obviously suffered a traumatic death. He was missing his left leg below the knee, his right arm passed the elbow, and his left arm was gone entirely from the shoulder. His torso bore the tell-tale Y-shaped incision, sutured close, indicative of a forensic autopsy, and his calvera had been cut through, his brain removed, and the bone replaced.

General Terry felt his face grow hot with anger at this travesty.

“Who is this Doctor, and why is he here in this charnel house?”

If the Doctor noticed the General’s anger this time, he pretended not to.

“This was Private John Palek. A month ago he was listed as MIA following an offensive. Three days later he was found by a reconnaissance patrol. The doctors gave him the standard battery of tests. Everything appeared normal, and he was cleared to return to duty. Two days later he goes AWOL, and two days after that he sabotages two of our forward listening posts, allowing the Infestation to launch a major offensive.”

“What happened?” asked General Terry.

General Harrison continued Dr. Proust’s narrative.

“The battle lasted for six days across thirty miles of the front, but thankfully we were able to push them back and encircle and destroy numerous enemy forces. Private Palek’s remains were found and recovered during a brief counter-offensive into enemy territory. By that time we had uncovered evidence that pointed to Private Palek’s betrayal, so we turned his remains over to the Doctor here to figure out what the hell happened.”

General Terry turned his attention back to Dr. Proust once General Harrison had finished speaking.

“You think the Infestation turned him somehow?”

“I deemed it unlikely, because if it was some sort of environmental contagion we’d be dealing with more than a single traitor, though it was the first hypothesis I refuted. I ran extensive tests for unknown viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites and found nothing out of the ordinary. I ran multiple DNA sequences as well, and every one came back 100% human, and a perfect match for the sequence we had on file for Private Palek. I then performed the autopsy and removed Private Palek’s brain. It was when I was dissecting and testing his brain structure-by-structure that I finally found an answer.”

The Doctor turned his back to his audience and retrieved a small tray from the shelf behind him, placing it upon Private Palek’s chest with a flourish as if he were a magician performing a trick. Upon the tray was a small bottle of formalin, floating inside of which was an even smaller piece of brain tissue. Dr. Proust paused for a moment, perhaps anticipating applause.

When none was forthcoming, the Doctor reluctantly continued.

“I found this small node attached to Private Palek’s pons. Visually it is indistinguishable from normal brain tissue, but genetically it is the only part of Private Palek that contains DNA that matches a known Infestation genome. More specifically it matches a genome that is shared across all Infestation drones, which we have tentatively deduced is responsible for connecting drones to the hivemind. Strengthening this supposition, though far smaller in size, it bears similarities to far larger, more robust, structures found within the brainstems of more conventional drones.”

For a second time General Terry felt himself grow momentarily queasy.

“So what are you saying, Doctor? That the Infestation captured Private Palek, grafted this to his brain, forced him to become part of its hivemind?”

“Thankfully no. Despite how advanced the Infestation may be in biological science, there is no way surgery such as that could have been performed without leaving some sign. No, the node was a natural part of Private Palek’s anatomy, and its existence helped shed light on an anomalous finding that had confused me during Private Palek’s autopsy, and finally led to my unraveling of this particular mystery.”

Dr. Proust paused a moment to collect himself before the grand reveal.

“During the autopsy I noticed the absence of Private Palek’s appendix. Now that in-and-of-itself was not unusual, as Private Palek’s medical records stated he had had an appendectomy at age nine. What was unusual was that there was no visible scarring, and fresh trauma was observed to both the blood-vessels that supplied the appendix and to the cecum. At the time I thought perhaps it was a result of Private Palek’s violent death, but after discovering the Infestation node I came to the only logical conclusion: this Private Palek hadn’t had his appendix removed eighteen-years prior to his death, this Private Palek had his appendix removed a week before his death. This was not the original Private Palek, not our Private Palek, but an Infestation drone cloned from Private Palek and left where we would find it, designed for infiltration and subversion.”

This time General Terry was tempted to applaud.

“Great work Doctor. Now that you understand what to look for, is there any test or tests we can use to discover these infiltrators?”

The Doctor’s face gave General Terry his answer before his words did.

“Short of a brain biopsy, no. And even with a biopsy there’s no guarantee you’ll sample the correct portion of the pons. As I said, in all ways save genetic the Infestation node appears to be normal human brain tissue. I’m attempting to discover a substance that will bind to the Infestation node and make it visible to a non-invasive scan, but despite weeks of experimentation on that front I have no successes to speak of.”

“So we have no idea how many of these infiltrator drones there are among us, and no reliable test to discover them. All we can do is wait for them to betray us.”

General Terry decided to stop focusing on what he couldn’t control, and focus on what he could.

“How many people know about this?”

General Harrison provided the answer.

“Only the men in this room and a handful of senior staff. The official story is Private Palek is still AWOL, and all off-planet transport has been suspended due to increased Infestation presence in the system. The last thing we want is for an infiltrator to get off-world.”

“Where was the Infestation offensive that this fake Private Palek engineered?” Both Generals and the Doctor startled at the interruption.

They had all forgotten there was a fourth man present.

General Harrison turned towards the Staff Sergeant.

“Along the Kursk-Tremble line.”

“How far away from MOB Potemkin is that Sir?”

“A hundred and twenty miles, give-or-take.”

“How big was the salient?”

General Harrison took a moment to remember.

“Thirty miles wide, ninety miles deep.”

“So it reached within thirty miles, give-or-take, of MOB Potemkin, Sir?”

General Terry felt the need to come to General Harrison’s defense.

“What are you getting at Staff Sergeant?”

The Staff Sergeant answered General Terry with a question of his own.

“Sir, how long ago did you inform General Harris about your plans to visit Eremus Prime?”

Now it was General Terry’s turn to try and remember.

“About a month ago.”

“Longer or shorter than about a month ago, Sir?”

“Longer. Five weeks. I sent an encrypted communique to General Harrison personally.”

“Sir, did you mention wanting to visit MOB Potemkin?”

“No Staff Sergeant. I mentioned wanting to visit a MOB, but not Potemkin specifically. Potemkin wasn’t decided upon until General Harrison and myself had corresponded back and forth several times.”

“About twenty-six days ago Sir?”

“Yeah, about.”

Staff Sergeant Mazyr nodded to himself, as if General Terry was confirming he already knew.

“Does no one else here find it suspicious that a week after you, Sir, send word to you, Sir, about plans to visit Eremus Prime, Private Palek is replaced and returned, and a day or two after MOB Potemkin is added to your itinerary, Sir, the drone impersonating Private Palek goes AWOL and orchestrates a massive offensive that just so happens to approach within thirty miles of the precise MOB that you plan to visit? That’s too many coincidences for comfort, Sirs.”

The Generals both mulled over the Staff Sergeant’s words slowly, but it was General Harrison who finally responded.

“I’ll grant you it is a hell of a string of coincidences, Staff Sergeant, but the Infestation offensive didn’t breach the third-line of defense, let alone the fourth. It would have had to breach both to reach MOB Potemkin. Additionally, we were in constant communication with MOB Potemkin throughout the six-days of the battle. There’s no way the Infestation could have replaced everyone at Potemkin in such a short period of time without someone noticing or raising an alarm, and since the offensive was crushed there’s been no Infestation activity anywhere near the Kursk-Tremble line.”

“Also,” added General Terry, “I can assure you this Staff Sergeant: not once since the beginning of the Great Offensive have our cryptologists detected any attempts by the Infestation to breach our emission or transmission security, and my personal encryption is randomized every two weeks. In fact, now that I think about it, it had been randomized the day before I first reached out to William. Even if the Infestation had somehow cracked my previous encryption, a fact I highly doubt, that would have never have helped it to crack my new encryption in a matter of days to act in real-time upon the intelligence.”

General Harrison gave the Staff Sergeant smile, to help smooth over his words.

“You’re asking the right questions, Staff Sergeant. There’s a reason I put the safety of my friend in your hands, but sometimes coincidences are just that, coincidences.”

Staff Sergeant Mazyr refused to be mollified.

“Too many coincidences for comfort, Sir.”



The transport that carried general Terry and the sixteen men of his PSD was escorted by two AF-68 Tarns, and a more deadly atmospheric aerial had yet to be designed by the hands of man. General Terry had insisted that any threat to his person could easily be handled by their escorts.

Staff Sergeant Mazyr had disagreed.

The Staff Sergeant had demanded full battle-rattle for the PSD, as if they were deploying to the front-line and not visiting a heavily fortified MOB over a hundred miles from it, and a nanofiber ballistics vest for the general. General Terry thought the Staff Sergeant was being paranoid, but he could not, in good conscience, countermand the recommendations of the man responsible for safety.

The flight to MOB Potemkin was uneventful.

The transport performed a routine landing and lowered its rear ramp. They were greeted not by a ravenous horde of Infestation drones but a welcoming committee numbering about fifty unarmed men at parade rest with their commander at their center, slightly before. General Terry calmly descended the ramp flanked by his PSD. A few seemed almost embarrassed to be harnessed as if they were occupying the MOB instead of visiting it.

General Terry knew the Staff Sergeant had been paranoid.

The commanding general of MOB Potemkin strode forward to greet General Terry, meeting him and his security detail alone in the empty area about halfway between the transport and his own troops. He snapped to attention and gave a quick salute, which General Terry returned. The Tarns did not land but, having delivered the package, silently wheeled about and began their return flight to base.

“Sir.”

“Shi,” general Terry replied, pleasure clear in his voice , “no one told me you were out here.”

Brigadier General Yousan couldn’t keep the pleasure out of his voice either.

“I go where they send me, sir.”

“At least this isn’t Fior Quintus.”

Fior Quintus was a particularly unpleasant rock located within the Rosette Nebula. Barely habitable. Back when Supreme Terrestrial Commander General Terry had simply been Major General Terry, Shi Yousan, a Colonel at the time, had served under him during the Fior Quintus campaign against the Yassadf separatists. When later asked about the experience General Terry had cribbed from an ancient historical text with his answer: “If I owned Hell and Fior Quintus, I’d rent out Fior Quintus and live in Hell.” Needless to say, there were few pleasant memories from that time.

General Yousan noticeably grimaced at the reminder, but corrected his superior on one salient point.

“Sir, at least there we were only fighting people.”

“That’s why I’m on Eremus Prime, Shi. I want to see, as best I can, what we’re up against. Not just reports, not just numbers on a screen.”

“Well Sir, we can certainly show you, no doubt about that.”

General Yousan motioned for General Terry to follow him, turning to lead the group off the landing strip and into the base proper. General Terry heard the soft hum as the transport revved up its engines to take alight again, and took a step to follow.

Suddenly there was pandemonium.

“JOHNNIES! JOHNNIES!”

General Terry had little time to comprehend those words before he was forcefully dragged backwards by his shoulders. Two men of his PSD quickly placed themselves between the two Generals. A third came from behind and attempted to usher the General back towards the transport, but the General refused to be moved.

“HOLD!”

Everyone froze as General Terry bellowed out his command. He took a moment righting himself before turning and marching to the source of the interjection.

“You will explain yourself, Staff Sergeant”.

Even though General Terry was shorter than Staff Sergeant Mazyr he managed to glare down at him whilst looking upward.

“Sir, we need to get you back to the bird right now.”

The transport was on the same frequency as General Terry’s PSD. Another security measure the Staff Sergeant had insisted upon. Even though its engines were full-throttle it had yet to raise the ramp or take flight, waiting.

One must always have a way out.

“Is something wrong?” General Yousan asked, chest-to-chest with the two men who were holding him back.

“Keep it back!” barked Staff Sergeant Mazyr.

General Terry was having none of that.

“Let him through.”

The men immediately desisted, stepping to the side to let the General pass. General Yousan approached, concern clear on his face.

“Sir, what’s going on? Your men got the boys on edge.”

General Terry could see that the welcoming committee had broken rank, drawn forward by the ruckus.

“As soon as I find out Shi, I’ll let you know.”

General Terry’s PSD had established a cordon around the general during the initial confusion, alert for threats. They kept the other troops back as a matter of course, but they seemed just as confused as everyone else as to what was going on.

General Terry was hellbent on solving that.

He once again addressed himself to Staff Sergeant Mazyr, “You will explain yourself. Now. Completely”

Staff sergeant Mazyr appeared pained with his response, “Sir, I cannot explain myself at this time, but we need to get back on the bird, sir.”

That response would not satisfy the general.

“Do I need to repeat myself, Staff Sergeant? Do I need to remind you about the punishment for insubordination?” General Terry was working himself into a fine lather, the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since he was an NCO. He almost relished it. Give him a few more minutes to shake the rust off and he would be flaying the flesh from the Staff Sergeant’s bones with his words alone.

Unfortunately, General Terry was not granted the luxury.

Staff Sergeant Mazyr was barely paying attention to General Terry as he laid into him. General Terry realized he was instead trying to watch both General Yousan, who was now almost directly behind General Terry, and General Yousan’s men at the same time. General Terry was just about to launch into a scathing diatribe that would bring into question Staff Sergeant Mazyr’s parentage when he finally got a reaction. The Staff Sergeant raised his rifle to his shoulder, set himself. Firing position.

“I should have had him disarmed.” the thought flitted through General Terry’s mind, detached, the last thought he thought he would ever have. He heard the rifle burp forth a three-shot burst.

General Terry opened his eyes to find he was still alive.

His left ear was deaf. His right was little better, white-noise keening. He was in a fugue. A massive body tackled him to the ground.

“PROTECT THE GENERAL!”

Even though he was functionally deaf, General Terry heard that.

Hell broke loose.

General Terry heard muffled weapons-fire from all sides and muted voices, like a conversation a room over. He felt buffets of air against his body as the transport took to the air. Further buffeting told general Terry that it hadn’t departed but was simply hovering above the fray, waiting for further instruction.

The weight removed itself from General Terry, but the General remained on the ground, still shaking off his fugue. He idly turned his head to the left.

General Yousan lay next to him, his face missing.

That finally shocked General Terry out of his stupor.

He struggled to his knees, looked around. His PSD was living up to its name, maintaining a protective ring around him, in the center of which was only himself and Staff Sergeant Mazyr. More than half of the welcoming committee lay dead or dying on the ground, and those that survived were, irrationally, charging directly into the barrels of his men’s rifles. Within seconds they had joined their fellows in the dirt.

General Terry could make no sense of it.

He rose to his feet and looked towards MOB Potemkin. He saw men, hundreds of them, swarming forth from the base proper towards the airfield.

Most of these men were armed.

There was no cover to be had on the empty ground, but the General’s PSD redeployed themselves in a line to shield the General with their own bodies from this newest threat. By this time General Terry’s hearing had recovered enough to hear what Staff Sergeant Mazyr was yelling into his comms.

“Raptor-1. Raptor-2. We need immediate air-support. We got hostiles. Potemkin is compromised. We cannot extract. Need support now.”

The Staff Sergeant suddenly realized that the General was standing and lunged forward, forcing the general back to his knees.

“Stay down Sir.”

The PSD started receiving fire.

Staff Sergeant Mazyr used one arm to throw the general to the ground behind him, then continued yelling into his comms. General Terry couldn’t see much, but he saw that most of the horde was sprinting across the airfield towards them, which meant that those firing must have been shooting through their own men. Just as before, it didn’t make sense.

One of the members of the General’s PSD went down.

A second went down on the wing, followed by a third shortly after. More men came running out of the base. The Staff Sergeant gave up on the comms and moved to take a place on the firing line. General Terry regretted that these men he had known for less than two days were going to willingly die on his behalf.

The walls of the base exploded.

Men were thrown to the ground by the concussion or lofted like rag dolls, and pieces of those less fortunate rained down even as far as upon the heads of the PSD. Two shadows streaked across the ground, silent and impossibly fast.

The Tarns had returned.

A ragged cheer rose from the throats of General Terry’s men as the Tarns executed their grim work. Multiple explosions wracked the base proper, and as one Tarn loitered and continued to rain death down upon the already burning base, turning everything below it into a massive conflagration, the second turned back sharply and strafed low across the airfield, parallel to the General’s men, shredding apart anything still moving and many things that weren’t.

Within minutes it was over.

Both Tarns broke off and hovered high above, the better to intercept any threats approaching from the air. As General Terry stood he heard the swelling roar of the transport’s engines as it returned. In the confusion, he hadn’t noticed it had withdrawn. The General was sure everyone was anxious to leave, but decided that extraction could wait.

First, he had to see to his men.

The first who had been shot was dead, a third-eye weeping blood between his normal two, just below the rim of his helmet. An incredibly unlucky shot. “Private Lewis”, General Terry thought to himself.

He promised himself he’d remember that name.

The other two men were wounded, but not critically. Staff Sergeant Mazyr was rendering aid to one man who looked as to have suffered a through-and-through in his upper-leg, the second was already back on his feet, though the field dressing applied to his right shoulder displayed a slowly expanding crimson stain. The rest of the men were deployed in a loose defensive parameter, alert for any additional threats.

“Staff Sergeant, a word.”

“Yes Sir.”

Staff Sergeant Mazyr passed off care of the wounded soldier to another and slowly approached the General.

“Care to explain, Staff Sergeant?”

“Not yet Sir.”

The Staff Sergeant raised his voice to address the PSD.

“Men, make sure they’re all good and dead.”

As he waited for the men to put an extra bullet into the head of every corpse still sporting one, Staff Sergeant Mazyr wandered back over to where everything had first gone wrong, halting next to the body of General Yousan.

It was only after the last corpse had been killed again that General Terry repeated his question.

“Now do you care to explain, Staff Sergeant? Dr. Proust was of the opinion that there was no way to identify one of these infiltrators, yet you did almost immediately. How?”

Staff Sergeant Mazyr smiled, “With all due respect, Sir, the Doctor is a brilliant man, but he was thinking like a scientist, only concerned with theories, tests, experiments. It never crossed his mind to do some simple detective work.”

“Continue.”

“After what we heard from Dr. Proust I tracked down Private Palek’s platoon Sir. Told them I was an MP investigating Palek’s going AWOL. Asked if he had said anything, done anything strange or peculiar between the time he returned to active duty and when he disappeared. They told me he was withdrawn, but normal. Seemed himself, nothing off-note; but two of his platoon-mates said something that stuck with me: they said there was something wrong with his hands.”

“Wrong? How so?”

“That’s what I asked, Sir. They said it was strange that they had never noticed before, but after his return they noticed that his hands looked wrong. Couldn’t be more specific, but as I said it stuck with me. Didn’t know what they’d meant until a few minutes ago.”

As he was speaking, Staff Sergeant Mazyr bent down and lifted up General Yousan’s hand.

General Terry truly looked at it, and suddenly realized that the proportions were all off. All wrong. General Yousan’s middle-finger and ring-finger were the same length, and his index-finger was longer than both. Staff Sergeant Mazyr accentuated his point by bending Yousan’s index finger towards his palm.

General Terry couldn’t be exactly sure, but it definitely had at least one extra joint.

Staff Sergeant Mazyr dropped his grisly visual aid and straightened up, “Once I saw that Sir, I knew you were in danger. That’s when I alerted the men.”

“Johnnies?”

“Sir, since the first one was Private John Palek. I didn’t tell the men anything about what we learned from Dr. Proust, but I told them that if I said the word “Johnny” or ‘Johnnies’, they were to get you to safety, and trust no one that didn’t get off the bird with us.”

The gravity of the situation finally hit General Terry.

“I was going to be replaced, same as Private Palek, same as General Yousan. The Supreme Terrestrial Commander would have been working for the enemy.”

“Seems that was the plan, Sir. They knew about your trip, the decisions, details, arrangements, everything. They used Private Palek to open a hole in our surveillance network, and used the offensive as cover to infiltrate MOB Potemkin and replace the men here. Probably been at it for weeks. COMSEC must be immediately reviewed. Fortunately for us they didn’t think their deception would be discovered so quickly, if at all.”

“What makes you say that Staff Sergeant?”

“Sir, if they thought there was a chance we’d see through them right away these Johnnies would have been armed, and they would have been ready to deal with the Tarns.”

General Terry appreciated the truth in the Staff Sergeant’s words.

“Staff Sergeant, you saved my life, and greater than that you saved the war, and the lives of millions of men. I think that deserves a bar or two.”

“Sir, thank you Sir, but I must decline. I’m a good staff sergeant. Don’t know if I’d make a good lieutenant, and I doubt I’d make a good captain.”

General Terry threw back his head and laughed.

“Very well, Staff Sergeant.” General Terry started after his laughter had subsided, “How about a transfer? I could use a man like you on my staff.”

Staff Sergeant Mazyr smiled.

“That I could do, Sir.”

General Terry swept his gaze across the carnage around him.

“I just hope that the Infestation never figures out how to do hands properly.”

“You and me both, Sir.”

A year had passed since my encounter with the group of Reds turned deserters in the woods. Life had continued in its relentless struggle, and my wife and I had managed to survive, thanks in part to the supplies I had received from those Reds that strange day. But the war still raged on, and the Reds' grip on the city had become sloppy and violent.

I sat alone in the dimly lit corner of a small, out-of-the-way pub, nursing a cup of coffee to ward off the biting cold outside. The room felt alien, the walls had been untouched by the war. The patrons were a mix of weary souls seeking refuge from the never-ending conflict or the blistering cold. Their faces etched with exhaustion and resignation.

But what caught my attention, as I sipped my coffee, was the stranger who had entered the pub a few moments ago. He was dressed in a clean, tailored three-button suit, an outfit that seemed wildly out of place amidst the practical survival clothing worn by the rest of us. He exuded an air of confidence, his hair was clean and in place and he looked…. clean.

I had received a note in one of my stashes, offering to meet in this very pub. The note was cryptic, offering little explanation but promising a chance to change the course of the rebellion. I had little to lose, and curiosity got the better of me.

How did they find my stash and know to leave the note?

As he approached, the stranger didn't hesitate to light a cigarette and took a long drag, his eyes never leaving mine. The nearby patrons all turned at the sound of the lighter. Cigarettes were all but forgotten in this war torn land. I could almost fell their envy.He looked like a man who was accustomed to getting what he wanted.

"May I join you?" he asked flawlessly but accented in my native tongue, gesturing toward the empty seat across from me.

The note had directions how to proceed.

“I think my cows won’t survive the winter,” I said.

“At least the corn can resist the snow,” the man replied.

I nodded, my voice cautious but curious. "You're the one who wanted to meet?"

The stranger sat down, exhaling a plume of smoke as he did. "Indeed, I am. I've been following your efforts against the Reds for some time now, and I must say, I'm impressed with your resourcefulness. That bit with the blimp," he kissed his finger tips, “chefs kiss. You are clearly a man with training and resolve and we want to support it.”

I leaned forward, my curiosity piqued. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

He leaned back in his chair, taking another drag from his cigarette. "I am an agent from a country far from here, one that has no love for the Reds. Don’t bother asking wich one, I wont tell. We've been monitoring the situation in this city, and we believe it's time to offer support to your cause."

My eyebrows shot up in surprise. Foreign aid was something that the rebels had only dared to dream of. "Support? What kind of support are we talking about?"

The stranger's eyes bore into mine. "We can provide weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, and even training for your fighters. We have resources at our disposal that could turn the tide of this war."

My heart raced at the possibilities. The thought of finally having the means to stand up against the Reds was tantalizing. But I knew there had to be a catch. "What do you want in return?"

“What?” the man smiled. “Can’t we just care about the plight of the rebels?”

“If your country cared,” I replied. “You would have sent an army, not a man in a suit.”

He took a long sip of his coffee before answering. "I see. Well, we want your help with a mission. There's something we need, something that only someone with your skills can accomplish."

I leaned in, my curiosity growing. "What kind of mission?"

The stranger leaned forward, his voice low and intense. "There's a secret facility, a research lab hidden deep within the city. The Reds have been conducting experiments there, experiments that are a grave threat not only to your people but to the world. We need you to infiltrate this facility and retrieve the research data they've been hiding."

“Why not send your trained men in?” I ask.

“You are a local,” he replied. “Plus you already have knowledge of the city. And-”

“And,” I cut him off. “If I die, your country stays in the clear.”

“I see we are of a common understanding,” he said.

My mind raced as I considered the enormity of the task. The risk was immense, but so was the potential reward. "And what's in it for me?"

The stranger smiled, a hint of a sly grin playing on his lips. "In addition to our support for your cause, you will receive a new identity, a passport, and safe passage out of this city for you and your family once the mission is complete. You'll be free of the Reds forever."

It was a tempting offer, one that held the promise of freedom from the oppressive Reds and a chance to secure a better future for my wife and I. But I also knew that the path ahead would be perilous, and the secrets hidden within that facility could change everything.

“I am not interested in freedom,” I replied. “Only vengeance.”

“Ahh,” sighed the man. “An Idealist.” He leaned forward. “Let me sweeten the pot. I can give you a weapon to take in with you.”

“What sort of weapon?” I asked.

The man leaned back and raised quickly opened his hands and softly said, “poof”

“How much ‘poof’?” I asked.

The man thought, “half a mile.”

That is a lot of dead reds.

“I agree,” I said. “How do we start.”

Two weeks had crept by since the clandestine meeting in that dimly lit pub. The agent, in his crisp tailored suit, had handed me a waterproof package, containing the bomb and a sheaf of detailed instructions.

Under the next new moon, I ventured into the devastated streets. The city was a bleak canvas of destruction, where once vibrant neighborhoods now lay in ruins, and the air was thick with the acrid scent of smoke and death.

I knew these streets as well as I knew my wife’s body. Each curve i could walk blind. I knew where to go to avoid the patrols and what ways gave the most cover. I was now a creature of the night, at home in darkness and silence. Distant gunfire punctuated the eerie silence, a constant reminder of the perilous world I navigated.

The research facility was in the old jail converted to house prisoners and hide the experiments they were running. I did not know of the more sinister design of the facility until I had read the briefing from the agent., The agent's guidance led me to a manhole cover, a dank and grimy entrance to the city's sewers. I removed the heavy lid, straining to remain silent, revealing a foul abyss below. The stench of decay and filth hit me like a physical blow as I descended into the subterranean underworld.

Crawling through the cramped, filthy tunnels, I could feel the muck and grime seeping into my clothing, clinging to my skin. The darkness was oppressive, and the echoes of dripping water and distant rumblings added to the disorienting atmosphere. Rats scurried away at my approach, and I tried not to think about the countless horrors that lurked in the shadows.

I finally reached the access point to the facility. It was a small, unassuming grate that led to a series of maintenance tunnels. Slipping inside, I found myself in a labyrinth of pipes and conduits. My heart pounded in my chest as I followed the agent's instructions, my senses on high alert. This was new territory for me. Unexplored area I had dared not come before.

I soon came upon a metal door and push it open slowly. It’s metal squealing in protest. Inside a chamber with rows of showers, the cold tiles glistening with moisture. It was here that I would need to execute the most delicate part of my mission. Inside one of the showers, a technician was showering, his back turned to me. I could hear the steady stream of water, the sound masking my approach. He was humming a song as he scrubbed

I crept closer, my heart pounding in my chest. As the technician shampooed his hair, I lunged forward, wrapping an arm around his throat and clamping my hand over his mouth. His muffled cry of surprise was drowned out by the cascading water.

Struggling to maintain control, I wrestled him to the ground, my training taking over. In a matter of moments, I had subdued him, rendering him unconscious. I dragged him back to the maintenance tunnel and tied and gagged him

I knew I couldn't linger in the filth of the sewer any longer. The scent of decay and muck clung to me, and it was a dead giveaway. I stripped and stepped into one of the showers, I turned the faucet and let the hot water wash over me. The dirt and grime of the sewer slowly washed away, and I couldn't help but feel a sense of renewal, both physically and mentally.

Ecstasy.

I had not had a hot shower in years. I cleaned my body and watched as the mud flowed down the drain. I had to fight to find the will to leave this luxury. Eventually my will and desire for vengeance won out.

Dressed in the stolen technician's uniform and clutching the access keys, I ventured further into the facility. The corridors grew narrower, and the air became denser with a sense of confinement.

Dimly lit hallways, adorned with chipped paint and echoing with the melancholic whispers of the past, seemed to converge endlessly. The occasional iron-barred door, remnants of its former life, served as a reminder of the facility's origins. I shuddered as I walked through one such door, picturing the countless souls who had suffered within these cold, unforgiving walls.

Following the map given by the agent I continued down a set of stars into the underbelly of the jail. I was unsure how the agent had such detailed layouts of this facility.

The scent of antiseptic and decay hung heavy in the air as I approached the section of the facility housing the research labs. The dull hum of machinery and the occasional murmur of scientists deep in their work formed a discordant symphony that resonated through the corridors.

As I slipped into the bustling laboratory area, I couldn't help but marvel at the stark contrast between the sterile environment and the dank mess of the floors above. Scientists, oblivious to my presence, darted from station to station.

I moved pass a set of double doors into the next chamber. The sight that greeted me inside the laboratory was a grotesque tableau of suffering and horror. Rows of beds, like macabre hospital wards, stretched out before me. In these makeshift beds, emaciated and pallid figures lay in various states of agony. Their sunken eyes bore the torment of endless torment, and their frail bodies were contorted with pain.

Blood-soaked sheets and curtains, stained with the remnants of unspeakable procedures, painted a grim picture of the inhumane experiments that had been conducted here. Some of the patients were missing limbs, others were devoid of eyes, and a few had had their tongues cruelly removed. The stench of illness, despair, and death hung heavy in the air, making each labored breath a testament to the cruelty that had transpired within these walls.

They were experimenting on the prisoners.

Stepping carefully through the chamber of horrors, I approached one of the patients, a frail and trembling figure who met my gaze with eyes filled with fear and despair. In my heart I vowed that an end to the pain was on the way, that their suffering would not be in vain.

As I continued to investigate the laboratory, my heart ached for these victims, and I vowed to do everything in my power to bring their tormentors to justice.

The next room was the data storage room. Filing cabinets lined the walls, each one holding a trove of classified information. The agent had been specific—the files I sought were labeled "Project Perseus." but in the foul language of the Reds.

I began rifling through the cabinets, pulling out files and scanning them for any mention of the elusive project. Time seemed to both crawl and race as I meticulously combed through the documents, my heart pounding with the knowledge that every passing second increased the chance of me being discovered and killed, or worse, used as a test subject.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, I found it—a file marked "Project Perseus." I carefully extracted it and place it in my coat.

My objective found, my mission was far from complete. My thoughts turned back to the suffering souls in the makeshift prison. They deserved their freedom, and I couldn't leave them to perish in the impending explosion.

I retraced my steps, back to the chamber of horrors, my heart heavy with the sights and sounds of suffering that surrounded me. These souls were past saving, only death would be a relief. I needed to find those still whole.

Ascending the stairs, my heart pounded like a relentless drumbeat, each step echoing my urgency. I had to find the keys to free the captives, and time was slipping away. The lone guard patrolling the corridor ahead presented my best chance. As I approached, I kept my movements steady, just another staff member doing his job.

Drawing nearer, I could see the guard's weary expression, a testament to the horrors he had likely witnessed. My eyes darted to the keyring dangling from his belt, the salvation for my people.

I had to get close enough without arousing suspicion, and the moment came when he passed me by, close enough for me to act. In one fluid motion, I lashed out, connecting with his nose driving it into his brain, he is dead before his body hits the floor. I loosen the keys from his belt, my heart thundering in my chest.

I tried the keys on the nearest door, my trembling hands betraying the urgency of the situation. The locks resisted my first few attempts, but on the fourth try, a satisfying click echoed through the corridor. I pushed the door open slowly, revealing a gaunt figure huddled in the dimly lit cell.

The prisoner's eyes widened with a mix of hope and disbelief as he saw me. "You... you're not one of them," he whispered, his voice hoarse from despair.

"No," I replied, my voice barely above a whisper. "I'm here to help."

With trembling hands, the prisoner rose to his feet, he struggled to support his frail form. We pulled the guard into his cell and the prisoner quickly exchanged clothing.

Once dressed we raced cell to cell freeing prisoners. Our group grew and would draw attention soon.

We had to move quickly. The prison break would undoubtedly draw the attention of the facility's guards and personnel. I knew that my mission wasn't complete yet.

I turned to the prisoner now dressed as a guard and handed him the map from the agent, “take this and lead the rest down to the showers. Crawl out through the sewers. They headed off as I set to my last errand.

My journey through the maze-like facility led me deeper into the heart of darkness. My mind held the image of the map and the signs, still in my native tongue form before the occupation, led me to my goal. I arrived at the ominous entrance to the facility's boiler room.

The door creaked open, revealing a dimly lit chamber filled with monstrous machines, hissing pipes, and the rhythmic thud of the massive boilers. This was the pulsating heart of the facility, the source of its power.

I could hear the alarm claxons above. The prison beak had been discovered. I can only hope they made it out.

I carefully removed the bomb from the waterproof case. I pulled the instructions from the agent out. My hands trembled slightly as I began to set the timer. I gave myself twenty minutes, more then double what I needed to escape.

With the timer set, I stashed the bomb below the central boiler, where it would cause the most damage.

As I sprinted through the facility, my footsteps echoed through the labyrinth of corridors. The distant screams of alarms and the pounding boots of the Red guards grew louder as I ascended. My heart raced, and every breath felt like fire in my lungs.

Turning a corner, I came face to face with a Red guard, his rifle raised and yelled in his angry language. There was no time for negotiation, only action. I held up my stolen ID card and walked slowly to him, he turned at the sound of a yell.

I lunged at him, and a desperate struggle ensued. My years of survival in the war-torn city had honed my instincts, and with a burst of adrenaline-fueled strength, I managed to disarm the guard, sending his rifle clattering to the ground.

With no time to waste, I left the dazed guard behind and continued my frenzied dash through the facility.

As I neared the showers I stopped. The way back was blocked by a group of Red guards converging on my position. There was no turning back. I had to improvise, and my only option was to evacuate through the front door.

I calmed myself and slowed my breath. As I approached the front door, I could hear the distant sounds of chaos and sirens. The facility was in utter turmoil, and the guards were occupied with the prison break. This was my chance.

Guards were ushering out the civilians. I flowed into the crowd and out into the streets. I made my way to the sewer man-hole cover I had entered before.

Time stretched out. I ad no idea how powerful the bombe may be, but I know I needed to move ‘half-a-mile away.’ My internal clock had hit ten minutes. I need to start running now or risk being caught in the blast.

I could her their voices and I yelled down into the blackness, “run, there is a bomb. Run until you are a mile away.”

I hear them clamber up the ladder and I help them, one by one, up to the street.

“Run,” I yell. “Get away, don’t stop.”

With the last one up I run. An elderly prisoner has fallen. I pick her up and carry her in my arms. I run. Visions of my wife flash through my head.

Is this where I die? To a bomb I set in motion.

With the elderly woman in my arms, I continued to run through the war-ravaged streets, desperately seeking refuge from the impending explosion. The sounds of chaos and panic reverberated around us as the city reacted to the prison break.

As we turned a corner an idea sparked in my mind. There is a bank near here, the bank's vault, a place designed to withstand all manner of disasters, could potentially shield us from the blast. It was a risky gamble, but with time running out, it seemed like our best option.

I reached the bank's entrance, my heart pounding in my chest as I pushed open the heavy wooden door doors.

I pushed open the weathered doors of the abandoned bank. Inside, the atmosphere was eerie, with dust-covered furniture and shattered windows bearing witness to the passage of time and neglect.

I approached the heavy vault door, my heart pounding in my chest. I began to examine the complex locking mechanism. Dust and cobwebs clung to the dials and handles, but miraculously, the door still appeared functional.

I spun the wheel, revealing the entrance to the bank's vault. The vault was a cavernous space, its walls lined with countless open deposit boxes and ransacked shelves. The once valuable paper strewn to the floor.

With the elderly woman still in my arms, I rushed into the vault, followed by the few other former prisoners who stayed with me. The heavy vault door creaked shut behind us, sealing us in a world of concrete and steel.

Time seemed to slow as we huddled together in the dimly lit vault, waiting for the inevitable explosion. The sounds of the outside world were muffled now, and all we could do was hope that the vault's sturdy construction would hold true to its reputation.

In the suffocating darkness of the abandoned bank's vault we could feel the explosion.

As the vibrations reached out bodies, a collective gasp escaped our lips. The force of the blast reverberated through the walls of our shelter, a small sample of the destruction that had just taken place outside.

After the initial shock subsided, we huddled together in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. The elderly woman clutched my arm tightly, and I could feel her trembling with fear and exhaustion. The others, too, were in a state of shock, their faces illuminated only by the feeble glow of a flashlight.

The hours passed slowly, marked only by the soft sounds of whispered conversations and the occasional cough.

“We will stay here tonight and tomorrow,” I said. “We will go our separate ways in the cover of the following night.” I turned off my light to save the battery.

As the night wore on, fatigue and anxiety gnawed at us. The elderly woman, overcome by exhaustion, had drifted into a fitful sleep, her head resting on my shoulder. In that moment, I couldn't help but reflect on the incredible journey that had led us here, to this vault of despair and hope.

We had no sign of the passing time save for my watch. The whole world was darkness. When the day had passed and the new night had cast its cloak across the land I decided to open the door.

I turned the massive wheel of the vault door, the rusted mechanism protesting with a screech. With collective effort, we pushed the door open, revealing a cityscape that bore the scars of conflict.

The city we emerged into was unrecognizable, a nightmarish landscape of destruction and desolation.

The once-familiar streets, buildings, and landmarks had been reduced to rubble and ash, their former existence erased by the merciless force of the explosion. It was as if a malevolent hand had swept across the city, leaving behind only devastation in its wake.

We stood there, our faces pale in the dim light of the moon, surveying the grim tableau of destruction that stretched out before us. The blast radius, a mile in every direction from the prison facility, had turned the heart of the city into a wasteland of twisted metal, shattered concrete, and charred remains.

As we ventured further into the ruins, the full extent of the tragedy became apparent. The streets were littered with the remnants of Red bodies. The air was heavy with the acrid scent of burnt wood, concrete dust, and blood.

I had to fight to hide my smile.

In the distance, the prison facility itself was barely recognizable, a grotesque skeleton of its former self. The walls that had once held prisoners were now reduced to jagged fragments, and the guard towers lay in ruins. It was a grim testament to the havoc we had wrought in our bid for freedom.

Three days later I am sitting across from the well-dressed agent in the dimly lit pub, my frustration and anger simmered just beneath the surface. The events of the past days had left me weary and disillusioned, and I had little patience for half-truths and empty promises. The agent thumbed through the documents I had brought.

"You told me the blast radius would be one-half of a mile," I said, my voice edged with anger. "It was double that, and the devastation is beyond anything I could have imagined. People died, innocent people."

The agent, his expression unreadable behind his polished façade, leaned forward slightly, his fingers drumming thoughtfully on the table. He finally spoke, his voice low and measured.

"Sometimes, in the fog of war, the situation changes rapidly," he said, his words offering little consolation. "I assure you, our intentions were to minimize civilian casualties."

I clenched my fists beneath the table, struggling to keep my emotions in check. The agent continued, "But let's not dwell on the past. We have more pressing matters at hand."

I leaned in, my eyes locked onto his. "You promised aid to the rebels," I reminded him. "I held up my end of the bargain. Now it's your turn."

The agent nodded, acknowledging my demand. "Indeed," he said, exhaling a plume of cigarette smoke. "We are prepared to provide the rebels with the necessary supplies and support.”

“And my credentials?” I asked.

The agent slid a yellow envelope across the table, “two sets of papers to get you out of this country and into ours.”

With a nod of acknowledgment, I pushed the credentials into my pocket. "I'll be leaving then," I said, a sense of weariness settling over me.

The agent's response was curt but final. "Go. And remember, we may call upon you again in the future."

A surge of frustration welled up within me, but I knew better than to voice it. The agent represented a larger, shadowy force that moved in the shadows, indifferent to the individual lives it impacted. The rebels, like me, were but pawns in a greater game.

Chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 1


The white raven perched on a grave marker. Its pale feathers, the color of bleached bone, ruffled as it stretched its wings and preened. Gaiur eyed the little beast with wary suspicion, glowering at it as she brushed stray strands of her blue-black hair away from her eyes. She’d been traveling Stenise’s southern trade roads for a few weeks now, ranging from its northernmost reaches down into its southernmost hills and valleys. A journey of hundreds of miles made difficult by the heavy snows at the end of winter and the heavy rains she encountered through the spring. But intermittent bad weather and the length of the journey were comparatively small hurdles against the culprit which chiefly delayed her - uncertainty.

Since she left Valdun a couple years ago, Gaiur hadn’t ever really been sure where she was going. There was no real destination in mind when she turned her back on that place which had spurned her, just a driving sense that the isolated far northern village wasn’t where she belonged. The wilds were more of a home to her than her tiny house, and they were more welcoming of a pariah like herself. So with her gray furred greatwolf Varro at her side, she eked out a living by hunting, trading, and on occasion offering her axe and Varro’s teeth to the rare caravan she did encounter along the way.

What changes occurred that suddenly drew her back to civilization, she couldn’t rightly say. Perhaps months upon months of living alone with naught but an animal to keep her company finally wore on her, and it was a desire for simple human interaction that finally made her stick to the roads. Or maybe it was driven by simple necessity and the rigors of living off the land had become just a bit too much. She didn’t have much confidence in either of these answers, though, especially considering where she’d finally ended up. Jötungatt was a considerably larger settlement than her ancestral home, Valdun, being a proper town of a couple hundred. There was little in the way of bustle, though, and while the people weren’t of the same standoffish and superstitious stock as she was, they weren’t warm and welcoming, either.

In truth, Jötungatt only had two things of significance to its name. The first was the graveyard, a sprawling field of the dead that stretched out along the road and surrounding hilly fields for nearly two miles from the town’s northeastern border. For reasons Gaiur couldn’t understand, this place of interment had been erected on either side of the main road leading into town. Why the people had built it this way was a mystery, but it was apparently so large that it alone nearly doubled Jötungatt’s border. At least, that’s what the traders she encountered a few days back at the last crossroads had said. From what she’d seen as she walked that main road, it seemed to be true. But how had this town produced a graveyard of such size?

The white raven cawed and Gaiur’s heart skipped a beat. She hadn’t realized she’d become lost in her thoughts, not until that damnable bird startled her out of them. It watched her with its head held low and tail raised, as if it planned to launch off the grave marker to try and pluck out her russet red eyes. She scowled at the thing as it regarded her with its own red eyes, bright like gemstones where hers were the earthy colors of rust. It hopped along the top of the wooden marker, an old plank of wood that had a name carved into it with runic letters decades ago. The wood was old, gray, and split in so many places that it made the name impossible to read.

Again the raven cawed, its beady eyes fixated on her as she passed. Gaiur shouted and flung her arms out at it in hopes of shooing it away. Even Varro joined in, giving a loud bark and growl as he bared his fangs at the bone white bird. But the raven simply tilted its head back and forth in that odd jittery manner birds are known for and cawed at them again before taking to the sky and gliding along in front of their path.

For three days now the raven had been following them, a thought which unsettled Gaiur’s mind. Ravens were often seen as omens or portents. They were believed to be animals which bore the words and wisdom of the Gods, or which bore their ill will. Gaiur admittedly hadn’t heard any tales regarding white ravens before, but that did little to ease her mind. To be followed by a raven like this was already considered a sign of ill fortune, but hers was the color of bones and bore eyes red like thinned blood. What’s more, the damnable thing had followed her through a graveyard and had stopped twice now to seemingly mock her for it. She had a hard time viewing that as anything but a bad sign.

After a couple minutes the raven descended again, this time perching on a fence post a ways down the road. Behind the bird stood a small and sturdy log house, followed by others behind that and a large arching stone structure behind them. That must’ve been the giant’s gate, the second thing of significance for which the town was known. The stone structure loomed nearly twice as tall as the houses which surrounded it and was the source of the town’s name. Triangular in shape, it seemed to be built from two massive pillars of rough hewn stone that were then leant against each other. Varro, her well traveled late husband and the man after whom she’d named her wolf companion, had told her stories of similar megalithic structures that he’d seen when adventuring with Esbern in the southlands. Most of them were found in the desertified lands that were scoured by the Bayelan Calamity some hundreds of years ago, or so he said anyway. Being a Valdunite who’d been far removed from much of Stenisian civilization at the time, a civilization which itself was sparse and spread across hundreds of miles of land spanning from the Great Northern Range that marked their southernmost border all the way to the arctic glaciers of the Glimmerfrost near to Valdun, Gaiur had no real concept of that empire or the sorcerous calamity which felled it.

“Hawr!” cawed the white raven as Gaiur finally passed through the cemetery gate into Jötungatt. Once more she shooed it off, and once more it took to a new perch to continue its spying.

There were three things which stood out to Gaiur as she made her way into the town proper. Firstly, the gate wasn’t standing on the other end of the town it had appeared. Instead it stood directly at its center, reaching up a good five or six times her own height. Secondly, she saw the surrounding structures formed a ring around the gate, and that the closest eight had tall, narrow runestones standing in the ground before them. Each of these was as thick as her thigh and stood about waist height. Runes were carved into them as she would expect of most standing stones, but they were alien to her, made up of a mix of dots and long, sweeping curved lines where the Stenisian runic alphabet was more angular and rigid. But it was the third detail which stood out to her most of all, because it was impossible not to notice. Despite it being early afternoon with the sun still high in the cloud spotted sky, Gaiur couldn’t see or hear any people.

Someone must be living here, clearly. A sizable herd of long haired Stenisian aurochs still grazed the fields outside the town’s borders. Their bulky and shaggy forms were visible from the graveyard as she came in and she could still see them now between the widely spaced houses and workshops. And it wasn’t just cattle, either. Goats and fowl wandered the town and broke the silence with their occasional bleats and clucks and honks. No Stenisian would abandon healthy livestock like this, even if they were being raided. The milk, meat, eggs, and furs they provided were simply too valuable to give up. They’d either stand and fight or bring as many of their animals as they could when they fled. Besides that, there were no recent signs of battle to be seen. No blood or bodies, be they animal or human. No arrows sticking out of the dirt or buildings where they’d missed their mark. No dropped or broken weapons and shields, no abandoned tools, no damage to be seen whatsoever. Just an empty town that had no reason to be empty.

“Hawr, hawr!”

The white raven again. It cawed from above her, its hoarse cry equal parts annoying and unsettling. Why had it followed her to an empty town? She would’ve thought after three days of trying to chase it off the bird would realize she wanted it gone. Was it desperate for some scraps of food? Did it just want to harangue her purely for its own entertainment?

Gaiur realized her irritation with that damned bird was quickly turning to anger, and with that she also realized she’d been asking herself the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions. She’d pondered the purpose of the white raven’s coming for a long time, wondered why the bird would follow her so insistently despite gaining nothing from it. She knew full well what a persistent solitary raven meant among her people, her culture. Messengers from the Gods bearing omens ill and fair, they carried fate in their little black talons. Up until now she’d assumed it’d been following her. It didn’t cross her mind to consider that perhaps she was being led by it. But if that was the case, why? For what purpose did the white raven lead her to Jötungatt? What fate did it carry for her, what purpose?

Maybe she was overthinking this. Gaiur’s entire reason for traveling the trade roads was for the sake of finding a place to stay and work, at least for a time. Jötungatt just so happened to be the first she learned of, back when she encountered those traders at the crossroads. But Jötungatt wasn’t an especially large community. Larger than Valdun, yes, but that wasn’t difficult to achieve considering Gaiur’s birthplace lay two days walk away from the glaciers and ice floes of the Glimmerfrost. The region was simply too harsh to support a village larger than the thirty or so people who lived there. Continuing south would’ve been the better option where work was concerned, no matter the form it took. Larger settlements like Høyfjord which was well known for its fishing and dairy trades or Stenbeck with its steel and ironworks would’ve been smarter choices, though she’d have to find something to do about Varro. Even the ancient mountain fortress Isenhalle, the closest thing the loosely unified people of Stenise had to a capitol in their pseudo nation, would’ve offered better opportunities for coin or hacksilver than this small farming community with its unusually large graveyard.

A few days since she met those northbound traders. A few days since she’d taken that westward turn at the crossroads. She lingered on those thoughts for a little while, mulled over them. How many days? The raven had been with her for the last three. She didn’t recall exactly when she’d noticed it, only that at some point on that first day she’d realized its shadow had been keeping pace with her and Varro. But was that before or after the crossroads and if it was after, by how much? Moving over by one of the runestones Gaiur took her broad bladed axe from the sling across her back and sat down in the grass near to it, moving her plain cloak of tawny wool out of the way. Then, with the axe resting across her lap, she tried to recall just how many nights had passed since she saw that family of traders.

It’d been morning when she found them, and she remembered how many there were. Four in total: the father who drove the solitary aurochs which drew his wagon; his two sons, one coming into manhood and the other still in his youth; and their grandfather who minded them and the wares. They’d been startled to see her on the road, though that was much more Varro’s doing than her own, and then had been equally amazed to see that she’d tamed such a magnificent and sizable animal as he. Varro still wasn’t fully grown yet. She’d only had him under her care for a couple years, and when she found him he was a pup of little more than a few months, but already he stood at the height of her shoulder and she wasn’t more than half a head shorter than the men. By the end of this year Varro would overtake her in height.

Superfluous details, she silently chided. How many days since she met them? They talked for a short while, offered some food in exchange for a little hacksilver, and when she asked them of nearby settlements they told her of Jötungatt. At first she’d assumed they were from there, but in actuality they’d come from Stenbeck with a shipment of picks, shovels, and hammers for a mine in one of the canyons further to the north.

“We’ve traded with them before, though, mostly tar for waterproofing their homes. They make excellent yoghurt and grow sweet gooseberries, but it’s the graveyard and that strange stone gate they’re most known for,” the father had said. He’d then gone on to explain that the townsfolk were friendly enough with traders like themselves even though having to pass through the graveyard to get into the town was more than a little eerie. Like Gaiur, he and his kin also couldn’t figure out just why that graveyard was so big, either. But what else? She began to tap the head of her axe with a finger. Closing her eyes, her nose scrunched up and her lips pursed into a thin, crooked line as she tried to remember.

“I don’t know how much work you’ll find there. They always seem to have plenty of hands.”

By Luthmor, how could she forget? The man told her expressly that there wasn’t much work to find! Then for what reason did she bother to come?

“Hawr!” called the raven, and Gaiur nearly jumped out of her skin!

“Little bastard!” she spat. It perched on the runestone and she swiped at it with a backhand she knew wouldn’t connect. Sure enough, in a flurry of fluttering feathers the raven took to the air again, only to circle around and land on the stone once more, eyeing her with those jewel-like red eyes.

“Why did you lead me here?” she asked, finally deciding to accept the notion. It cawed again, then hopped around to face west. Peeking back at her, it cawed for a final time then took to the air, circling overhead until she stood, slung her axe back over her shoulder, and started to follow it.

The white raven guided her to the far end of the town, flying from roof to roof and fence post to fence post until it stopped at the rear fence of Jötungatt’s furthest removed home. At least, furthest removed among those that surrounded the stone gate. When she came near the bird took off again, flying out over the fields of grass, over the bushes of gooseberries and currants, and over the grazing cattle towards a single structure that lay atop a hill some short ways off in the distance.

“Come, Varro!” she said, and together they hurried after the raven. After a couple minutes she could see that the structure was made from rough hewn stone, similar to the gate. After five she could see the ring of runestones that surrounded it, and after seven she could hear the murmurs of ritual chanting.

Gaiur ducked low as she approached, obscuring herself behind a nearby gooseberry bush. Peering between its leaves and the still ripening fruits she saw the townsfolk gathered around what appeared to be some kind of stone altar. Most of them were down on their knees, their heads bowed in supplication, but a few in the middle were standing. The town’s leaders, most likely. Whatever they were doing seemed similar to the ritual sacrifices she and the other Valdunites would offer Gods like Luthmor, Craich, and Sheyla, or to the spirits of the wind and wood which past experience taught her were very much real things. Usually these sacrifices were of a small animal in its prime. They’d select a healthy young hen or goat or sheep to slaughter, paint the necessary runes upon its body, then spill its blood and prepare the meat for feasting while the bones would be arranged by the Ealdorman and the other village leaders into an effigy that would stand until the next sacrifice needed to be made. Sometimes the sacrifices were greater, though, and would involve burning the carcass so that all that the animal was would be offered instead of just its blood and bones.

Try as she might, though, Gaiur couldn’t see an animal on that altar. She’d counted out the people standing there, six in total. Most were older folk, their skin leathery and wrinkled from age and decades of laborious work, but there was one girl among them who couldn’t possibly be more than Gaiur’s own age of nineteen summers. Fair skinned and beautiful, she had lustrous blonde hair and was dressed in finery that appeared regal next to the sturdy woolen and leather clothing of her fellow townsfolk. A robe of flowing green silks was draped over her slender but shapely body, her figure betrayed by the gentle breeze that tugged at the lightweight fabric. She was naked beneath it and the breeze might’ve accidentally exposed her breasts had it not been for the necklace of gold pendants that weighed down the loose garment at her chest.

Gaiur found her attention and curiosity drawn by that necklace. Nearly a dozen heavy pendants of gold hung from its chain. At its center, the largest pendant was inlaid with red and green gemstones. It was incredible, a single item which contained within it more wealth than Gaiur had ever seen before. But where or how did these people get hold of such a thing? They were farmers, stable in their livelihoods, yes, but that was a king’s treasure! It wasn’t the sort of thing that simply fell into the hands of simple townsfolk.

The murmuring in the crowd grew louder, the muttered words fading into humming that didn’t quite have the tenor of song. The people raised up their heads and hands, humming in unison as they stared up at the sky. Gaiur shifted a little so she could see between their raised hands. A seventh emerged from the crowd, an old woman who’s hunched body was draped in a heavy black robe. She doddered along a path up to the altar, leaning heavily on a gnarled staff of birchwood. As she approached the oldest man, whom Gaiur assumed was the town Ealdorman, and the young woman both moved to help her up to the platform. A bench was brought out and placed in the middle of the altar. Then the old woman removed her robe, revealing a woolen tunic and slacks of pale blue and tan and a necklace, armlets, and bracelets made from woven finger bones.

She was a Völva, one of the old seers, a reader of bones who interpreted fate and the will of the Gods. She handed off her staff to the young woman and with the Ealdorman’s help, she sat on the bench. Then she started unlacing a pouch at her waist. Likely the bones the woman would use to read the Gods’ will. What did they hope to interpret, though? Maybe the sacrifice they’d need to make? Gaiur watched intently as the woman reached two of her thin, bony fingers into the pouch, but as she did so Varro began to whine with impatience.

Gaiur cursed under her breath. As soon as the greatwolf made that sound, the people nearest to them looked back over their shoulders in surprise. Naturally, the moment they realized a wolf bigger than a man was hiding in the bushes just outside their ritual circle, they panicked.

“Wolf!” they screamed, and the cry was soon echoed by the rest of the crowd! Varro’s hackles raised. He started to growl, then bark, then snarl as the panicked crowd realized the apparent danger that slipped in under their noses. Gaiur tried to calm him, placing one hand on his shoulder and the other under his jaw. She scratched and whispered and shushed him, but the panicked crowd had panicked him, too. His haunches were tightening. He was ready to strike!

“Hawr!” The call of the raven cut through the air and suddenly all eyes, even Varro’s, were upon it. It circled over the altar, slowly descending in a mesmeric spiral until it perched on the bench alongside the Völva.

“We have nothing to fear from those two,” she said. Her voice was reedy and paper thin, but she spoke the words with utmost confidence. The people seemed to believe her, though they kept their distance from Gaiur and Varro both. Then the Völva finally drew her thin fingers out from the pouch she’d been keeping them in until now. They were stained with red, almost as bright as the raven’s eyes. She lifted her hand, first motioning for Gaiur to approach, then the young blonde in the silks.

Reluctantly, Gaiur did as she was bade, keeping Varro close at her side while she approached and watched the other young woman kneel before the Völva. Realization finally struck her as the old seer raised her red fingered hand and started painting the young woman’s face in the dots and sweeping lines of the runestones. Young, nubile, and in the prime of her life, this young woman was the oblation these people had prepared.

“Very good,” the Völva said. Wordlessly, the young blonde rose and took her original spot near the edge of the altar. As she did, the Völva’s eyes, made milky by cataracts, fell on Gaiur. “Now you.”

Gaiur stopped in her tracks, her russet eyes narrowed. In a single swift motion her axe was out of the sling in her back and firmly gripped in both hands. “My wolf and axe will carve through the whole of you before I let myself become another’s sacrifice,” she growled, as did Varro with bared fangs beside her.

“Sacrifice?” said the Völva. “You misunderstand, girl. You are to be the witness.”

Gaiur didn’t lower her axe, but a click of her tongue saw Varro’s demeanor calm. “Witness?”

The Völva rose, and though the Ealdorman protested and rushed to her side with her gnarled staff in hand, the old woman ignored him and stood as straight and proud as Gaiur herself. Then she held her hands out wide, and Gaiur swore she saw the old seer’s wrinkles fade and saw rich, dark brown returned to her age-whitened eyes and hair.

“I saw you in the bones,” she said, approaching the still armed Gaiur without the slightest hint of fear. “The woman who rears a wolf as her son shall be guided into the shade of the boughs, where she shall bear witness to new birth.”

Then she paused. Dipping her first two fingers in the pouch of red again, she held them out just above Gaiur’s forehead. “You are that woman. That is why Hunin brought you here.”

The raven cawed behind her, but Gaiur resisted the urge to glare at it again. “Why me?”

“I don’t know,” the Völva said as she started to draw the rune. Gaiur realized suddenly that she looked just as old and feeble as she had when she first climbed up onto the altar. She was even holding the birchwood staff again, though the young, dark-haired woman had no memory of the old seer fetching it. “It’s not for me to know. I only see what the Gods show me through the bones, and they showed me you.”

A second later, and the Völva was finished. Stepping back, she turned and rejoined the other elders on the altar. Gaiur lowered her axe, watching them all with a mix of confusion, trepidation, and powerful curiosity. What had she just agreed to by staying her hand? What, exactly, was she going to witness? As the Völva turned to address the people of Jötungatt, she supposed she’d soon find out.




Chapter 2


Gaiur followed the Völva and the other elders back to Jötungatt. She walked alongside Varro and the other young woman, the blonde who appeared simultaneously as her like and her opposite. Both were young and shapely. Each was beautiful in her way, too, though Gaiur knew the hardness which formed in her features thanks to the rugged and largely solitary life she’d led these past two years wasn’t so appealing as the smooth skin, fair features, and high cheekbones of the young lady beside her. Next to her slender and nubile form, Gaiur’s lean muscled and scarred body would certainly have appeared positively beastly in comparison, had it not been hidden beneath weathered clothing and a chain hauberk. It was funny. She wasn’t used to feeling self conscious like this. Appearances weren’t the sort of thing she cared about in many years. Yet, she couldn’t help but compare herself. Just to her right walked an idyllic beauty, blessed with hair of gold, eyes blue as the sky, and lips as soft and pink as some of Spring’s earliest blossoms. With her own nearly black hair, reddish brown eyes, and travel roughened features, it was hard not to feel a little jealous.

Did she really care this much, though? Or was she simply focusing on this feeling to distract herself from how utterly strange it was to be dragged into a ritual for which she had little concept in a town she’d never visited before. Strange might’ve even been too soft a word for it. She was given a position of importance in all of this, whatever this truly was. A position important enough that she was all but heading this procession into the town’s center. She was to bear witness to new birth after being guided to the shade of the boughs, that’s what the Völva had said. But what would that entail? Gaiur couldn’t even begin to guess.

What birth? What boughs? There weren’t any trees growing near the town. The closest she’d seen were miles and miles off, beginning near the crest of the taller hills that eventually grew into the next range of mountains to the south. Would they be marching that far? She doubted it. More likely, this had something to do with the monolith in the town’s center, that gate, as everyone kept calling it.

Her confusion must’ve been plain to see as they neared the homes at the town’s edge. The other girl, who one of the elders said was named Agnete, drew closer and spoke. “Are you afraid?” she asked, her tone hushed.

“Should I be?” Gaiur replied, her tone equally low.

Agnete shrugged slightly. Gaiur could just see the motion in her periphery. More than that, she could see the other woman’s fear, too. With increasing intensity it painted her features and soon it stood more stark than the red runes that lined her face. She wasn’t sure at first if she should be afraid, but as they drew closer to the gate at the town’s center she started to wonder if her axe might’ve been put to good use earlier after all. Agnete tried hard to hide the disquiet she felt. She stood a little more upright and put on airs of pride and grace as she walked. But as soon as the circular town center was in sight those plush red lips were pressed into a thin line meant to hide how they started to tremble. She wasn’t just scared, she was terrified.

“What’s all this about?” Gaiur demanded, careful to keep her voice as low as possible as they started on those last few steps toward the gate and its runestone ring.

“New birth,” Agnete said, the tremor in her voice impossible to mask.

“The new birth of what? What does that mean?” The procession was slowing, starting with the Völva and the Ealdorman as they stepped into the ring of runestones. Then would be the other three elders, and finally Gaiur and Agnete.

“Quickly,” Gaiur hissed as the Völva and the Ealdorman knelt before the gate and the three remaining elders filed in behind them.

“After the last time, they told me I’d be next,” Agnete muttered. She almost choked on the words as her panic rose. “An honor for me and my family, but I don’t want this honor!”

Gaiur glanced around. The elders within the ring bowed before the gate, as did the people surrounding them. She leaned in close and whispered, “Sacrifice? You’re to be offered to the gods?”

Agnete shook her head and Gaiur got the impression that something worse than ritual death awaited her. She sorely started to regret staying her hand earlier, though she still wasn’t sure why she had. Then the girl turned to her, grabbed her by the arms, opened her mouth to speak, but words never came. A hollow clack echoed through the silent town. The Völva’s birchwood staff, Gaiur realized. With that sound Agnete’s eyes grew dim and empty. The small, soft hands which clasped at Gaiur’s arms fell away and the other woman stood upright and proud, turning to face the gate. It was alarming, but not as alarming as the fact that despite her own mind telling her otherwise, Gaiur felt herself doing the same.

“The Vessel and the Witness have been gathered,” the Völva said. Once again, much like she seemed to do when she spoke to Gaiur at the altar, the shriveled old woman stood upright with arms held wide. Then she held her hands out to them, like a mother beckoning her children in for a loving hug or the boughs of a tree inviting rest and respite beneath their shade. "It’s time. The sun reaches its peak. Now come and join us.”

Despite the fears she showed mere moments before, Agnete approached without hesitation or a single word of protest. Gaiur felt her body trying to do the same. The muscles in her thighs flexed and tensed as they tried to move against her will, but she wouldn’t let them! With a great thrust of will she stilled herself, though her body tried fiercely to resist her. Swiftly the tension in her muscles moved down to her calves and up into her glutes, abdomen, and lower back as well. They ached, then they burned. All over her body she felt as if she’d been stood too close to a roaring bonfire, its heat pricking at her skin. Then the heat gave way to piercing cold. It lanced all the way down to the bone, made her want to clasp her arms around her torso to help fight the chill off, but somehow she knew if she moved at all that her will would be broken.

“Come along,” the Völva said, beckoning to Gaiur with a little wave of her fingers. “There’s no reason to be afraid, we simply need you to bear witness.”

Gaiur clenched her teeth, felt her fury boil her blood! She hadn’t felt a rage like this since the days before she left Valdun, since her encounter with that monster in the Glimmerfrost and the Wolfwood. Right now she wished for nothing more than the chance to draw her axe and charge into slaughter with Varro at her side, to punish this seer for trying to compel her and steal her will away! And Varro seemed to be of the same mind. She saw him move along the edges of her vision. Lean muscles rippled beneath his gray fur as he stepped forward, ready to pounce and sink his teeth into the five elders and anyone else who dared come at them!

But he didn’t pounce. He hadn’t even lowered his head. The hackles on his back weren’t raised, his ears weren’t bent back, and his teeth weren’t bared. He didn’t even so much as growl, just whimpered as he looked back at Gaiur with a curious tilt of the head, as if he asked why she was stood there like that? That’s when Gaiur’s will faltered. That’s when, against her own will, her body walked alongside her greatwolf, then sank to both knees in front of the gate with Agnete to her left and Varro laying down at her right.

The Völva and the other elders formed a half circle behind them. Again the old woman clacked her staff against the ground. She started to speak then, to tell of lofty things like service and honor and how Jötungatt would always remember and be grateful for their deeds this day. It made Gaiur sick to her stomach, especially as the people began to sing praises to them. Did they know she and Agnete had been compelled? Did they understand what was being done wasn’t by their choice? Agnete had mentioned the last time this happened. How many times, how many others were put up for sacrifice in such a way? These people, did they truly believe the Gods so bloodthirsty as to demand they sacrifice their kith and kin?

Were they right?

Gaiur didn’t believe that. There were monsters enough in this world without the Gods demanding such horrid tribute. The blood and bones of beasts were always enough to sate them save for times of war, of which these weren’t.

The jubilant praises of the people of Jötungatt soon shifted into sibilant chanting. It matched with their chants from the altar and as they spoke the indiscernible words Gaiur felt a strange crawling sensation upon her skin, as though thousands of insects were crawling over her bare flesh. The feeling shifted soon after, turning into tingly pinpricks which poked at her all over her body. Then the elders started chanting, too, and the Völva along with them. The old woman crossed in front of her, stepping gently over Varro’s snout. The wolf didn’t so much as stir even as the sole of one shoe brushed against his paw.

She stopped in front of Agnete. Holding both hands out, she urged the girl to her feet and led her by the hand to stand before the gate. Then the runes upon her face moved. First they undulated, then squirmed and writhed like earthworms trying to escape drowning as they burst up out of waterlogged soil. Then the red markings seemed to slither across her skin, before finally they grew out. They grew from her face, curling and branching down her neck and collar to eventually sprout from underneath the sleeves of her robe to mark the backs of her hands. Probably every other part of her, too. Then she sank to her knees again and with both hands raised high into the air, threw her head back to stare with mouth agape at the pointed crest of that rough hewn monolith.

High in the sky the sun sat above the gate, its golden brilliance nestled in the space between where the gate’s twin stone pillars leaned against each other. Gaiur found herself looking up at it, watching as it began to slowly darken. It was a sliver at first, just a tiny little curve of shadow creeping up along the sun’s edge. But as the minutes passed it further darkened, and as it darkened Gaiur felt that feeling of crawling pinpricks return to her skin. The Völva stood before her now. She leant forward and took both of Gaiur’s hands in her own. They were cold to the touch. The wrinkled skin felt like old parchment and she could feel every knob of the slender bones that skin covered. But it was her own hands which stole her attention. As the Völva raised them up, and herself up with them, Gaiur could see the very same markings which had branched across Agnete’s skin did the same on her own, albeit in differing forms that were more jagged and angular.

“The way opens!” the old woman said, her weak and reedy voice now powerful and full of vigor. She turned to look up at the eclipsing sun, her hands raised up to match Gaiur and Agnete. “Day gives way so that the womb of night may once more receive!”

The darkness from the eclipse deepened as she spoke. What light from the sun could be seen formed a ring of white fire around the shrouded moon, and all around it the blue sky dimmed to starless black. In the span of just a few short minutes, midday had turned to the eerie darkness of midnight.

Gaiur willed herself to move again. Inside her mind, she screamed for her body to answer, to follow her urgings! Draw your axe and swing! Drive the spike into the fell seer’s heart! Stir Varro from his lethargic slumber and with blade and tooth bring bloody death to these lunatic fools! But her body would not listen. She stood where the Völva had stood her. Looked where she was urged to look. Watched through eyes she knew were hers, but which felt like the eyes of another.

The white fire which ringed the eclipsing moon started to move. Swaying and swirling, it flowed to the bottom of the ring, where it then trickled down onto the monolithic gate. Drops of golden white light rolled along the stone’s surface. They slipped into cracks and flowed along and around its many rough edges. One drop fit its way perfectly into a crack between the place where the pillars touched. When it did its light vanished, then the dark of the ring lit night undulated and billowed in the space between the stones.

The chanting grew frenetic. One by one the eight runestones that surrounded the gate illuminated and the undulating, smoky darkness churned with growing ferocity.

“Let her bear witness!” sang the Völva’s voice. Gaiur wasn’t sure when she’d moved behind her, nor when she came near. She was immediately at her back, and once more her mind screamed for movement! This time her muscles nearly answered, spurred into tension by the cold, withered hand that gripped beneath her chin.

Something moved in front of her eyes then. In the midst of the darkness that spilled out from the gate it was impossible to tell what it was from sight alone. However, the horrible agony that pierced into her left eye told her enough. Knife or needle, it didn’t matter. Gaiur screamed in pain and rage and finally her body responded! She threw an elbow back and caught the Völva in her ribs! The old woman wheezed and fell away, but when Gaiur clasped the haft of her axe and tried to draw it from its sling she felt the weight of the four remaining elders fall upon her. Old men or not, it was impossible to throw all four of them off quickly with her eye stabbed out and her body still recovering from the alien compulsion that’d overtaken it.

“Varro!” she shouted.

The wolf looked up at her lazily, his eyes half lidded and only barely visible in the billowing dark. Then she felt the Völva’s cold hands upon her again, faster and more forceful this time. She threw her body back and forth, tried with all she had to extricate herself from the grip of the five elders, but too late. With agony to match, that same sharp tool plunged into her right eye, too. Blind and screaming, she flailed as she was let go and stumbled into the dirt and darkness. And yet, despite both eyes having been stabbed out, she somehow saw through a blood red haze. She saw Agnete, still kneeling on the ground with her head thrown back and both hands held high. She saw Varro, suddenly spurred to action at the sounds of Gaiur’s screaming, with teeth locked around the throat of an elder as the townsfolk bound him in chains.

And she saw the darkness. Pulsating, undulating, it seemed to take on vaguely recognizable form. Two legs, two arms, a torso, all formed of that black cloud. It stepped out from under the gate, bent forward to pick up Agnete. Then Gaiur fell, and that bloody red finally turned black.




To Slay a Myth

Paladin Draco glared up at the southern face of the Triones Mountain range. The mountains were in the northern reaches of the Aurelian Empire, though they were a part of the empire in name only. They lay far beyond the center of Aurelian power, and the population was sparse.

Draco had traveled far to reach this place. His current home was in the Solar Cathedral, the center of worship for the Lord of the Sun. The cathedral was located in the world capitol on an island far to the south of the Aurelian southern coast. The capitol was outside the jurisdiction of the six great empires and served as a neutral location for inter-empire politics to take place.

It had taken Draco a full month just to arrive at his current destination. That had included sailing the fastest ship in possession of the Church of the Sun and a trip on the new rail carriage that had brought him to the northern reaches of the civilized land. Now, here he was in the Aurelian wilds. That was his first irritation.

The second was his apprentice, Paladin Squire Khepri. She was from the southern continent, the Iteru Empire. Her skin was a dark bronze color, hair black and curly. She had a delicate face that seemed at odds with her strong, athletic body. She wore a uniform similar to his own, white with golden-yellow and crimson trim. Over the clothing, both wore a breastplate, gauntlets, and greaves, each lightly enchanted to resist damage. This standard issue gear was kept pristine via the use of magic, one of the first uses of magic any apprentice learned after learning to mask their presence from voidlings.

Khepri, being from the much warmer Iteru Empire, had been whining about the cold since they had departed the rail carriage a week and a half ago. Despite his best efforts to tune her griping out, the incessant buzzing in his ear was grating on his nerves.

And, that brought him to the third annoyance. Arrayed behind him was a century of soldiers. Led by Centurion Otis, they were stationed in the north, and it was clear by their uncouth attitude. They were a foul-mouthed, unsanitary lot, with barely more discipline than an untrained mob. His own days as part of a century in his youth screamed at their lack of order.

His final irritation, and the ultimate reason he was here, was the object of his glare. High in the mountain, above the snowline was a jagged black hole. It appeared to have been formed explosively, in a fiery blast. The rock around the newly formed cave was bare of snow, and appeared to be scorched.

A month ago, before setting out, Draco had been informed of the report leading to his current assignment. Centurion Otis had picked up rumors of a creature that had been raiding farms along the southern border of the Triones Mountains. Intrigued by the rumors, Otis choose to investigate, despite the affected region lying outside the normal patrol of the Aurelian Empire. He had concluded that the creature in question was a drake, a lesser type of dragon, and called for backup from a Paladin.

And so, Paladin Drake had traveled north to this backwater part of his homeland. Despite his irritation at his apprentice's whining, he did agree that it was cold. And it would get colder if he wanted to investigate the blast zone more closely. Sighing, he began calling upon ether, the energy readily available for use in magic, and channeled it to decrease the heat leaving his body for the surrounding environment.

Satisfied with the warmth, he turned to Centurion Otis. Speaking in Low Aurelian, he addressed the man. “I am taking my apprentice to investigate the blast more closely.” Draco scanned the chaotic century arrayed before him. “While I am working, I want you to get these men in shape. This camp is a mess, and if we are to use this location for a base, it needs addressing immediately.”

The centurion cocked an eyebrow, but did not argue. He turned and began summoning his octs, the leaders of the squads of eight. Turning from the centurion, Draco summoned his apprentice with a twitch of his finger.

“Sir!” she rushed to his side, snapping briefly to attention. Her posture was broken before he had a chance to comment, as she huddled back into herself, tucking her hands under her arms.

“We are going up the mountain to investigate the blast. I have not yet shared my opinion with the centurion, but I suspect this was not, in fact, a drake.”

Khepri's eyes widened. “What could have done that then, sir?”

Draco turned to face the jagged hole again. “I fear this may be more than any drake. We could well find ourselves against a true dragon.”

“But...” Khepri began, before shivering harshly. “Sorry...” she said between chattering teeth. “It's so... cold.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “I had thought that perhaps the cold would be a good teacher for you. You are good at using the tools you already possess. However I have yet to see you extrapolate from your tools, or use any of them in any way you haven't been explicitly taught.”

Khepri bowed her head. She had heard this lecture before. “Sorry sir,” she mumbled.

“Read my ether.”

She looked at him, her dark brown eyes lightening in color slightly as she channeled ether to them. “Ohhh!” she cried. “Its so obvious now.”

Draco sighed. His apprentice was quite clever, and had proven adept at learning anything new. But, she was not innovative. She would likely never push the boundaries of magic.

Leaving that thought behind, Draco began channeling a small stream of ether to his legs. When he felt they were sufficiently strengthened, he bounded up the mountainside, each jump calculated to land on a stable position further up.

Behind him, his apprentice followed. One thing Draco did give her credit for was her strength and endurance. She was able to use ether as well as any full fledged paladin, and that was on top of her already tremendous physical ability. She followed Drake exactly, landing in his footsteps a mere moment behind.

Drake landed before the edge of the snow drifts and came to a stop. Khepri stopped beside him, pausing for a moment before leaning down to pick up a scoop of snow. She mashed the handful in her fist before letting it trickle to the ground. “Fascinating,” she whispered, attention fixed on the trailing flakes.

“Yes, the snow is all well and good. We can stop to play after the assignment is complete.”

“Spoilsport,” Khepri moaned in mock sadness.

Draco snorted and began marching through the snow. Fortunately, the hole was only a short distance from the snow line, they wouldn't need to enter deep drifts for this investigation.

Stopping where the snow ended once more, Draco was surprised to find the air temperature had gone up, rising until he no longer required his warming magic. Channeling ether, he began looking upon the scene with his magic sight. His breath stopped when he saw the rocks surrounding the hole. There was a massive amount of ether pooled in them that was slowly bleeding off as heat.

“Master,” Khepri began before her words caught. She took a deep breath. “Are you seeing what I'm seeing?”

“Yes.” Whatever had caused this explosion had enough ether to cause the nearby mountainside to store more energy than Draco could use in a day. And that was after a month of radiating the energy off. “Let's move. We don't have the luxury of time.” Draco strode across the blast zone.

Khepri hurried to catch up to him. “Can we beat this thing?”

Draco stopped, peering into the cave that had been unveiled in the blast. “I told you, there is a chance this is a true dragon. Nobody has seen one, let alone fought one, in generations. We can assume, based on remaining evidence, that it can use powerful fire magic. Other than that, we're in the dark. The myths have enough variety that we should be prepared for a dragon to be capable of literally anything.”

“Light of the Sun protect us...” Khepri breathed.

“Indeed. I fear we have little chance otherwise.” Draco knelt to examine the rock at the edge of the cave. His eyebrows rose involuntarily at what he saw. The rock looked to have been melted near to the cave. “Khepri, look.” He gestured for his apprentice to join him.

Khepri moved to squat next to him. “How...?”

Draco snorted. “Better question. Where did the rest of the rock go?”

“What do you mean?” Khepri cocked her head to one side.

“Did you see any rock that looked melted on the way up? How about rock with more ether than you could channel in a day?”

Khepri's eyes widened. “What did happen to it then?”

“That is the best question. If you were a dragon who had just woken from a long slumber, would you bother tampering with evidence? You're the most powerful being around, you don't care if you are followed, and you likely have better things to do than move rocks.”

“No...” Khepri bit her lower lip. “So, if the dragon didn't move the rock, where is it?”

“Right,” Draco said, standing. “Based on the ether remaining in the surrounding mountain, I suspect that the rock directly in the blast zone was vaporized.”

Khepri's eyes widened further and she fell backwards onto her butt. “What!? Could you vaporize stone? What about one of the Arch Paladins?”

“I cannot. There are some of my status that could probably melt stone. As for the Arch Paladins, I cannot say. They generally stick to political matters. Let's see if we can learn anything else inside the cave.”

Draco moved into the cave, channeling a trickle of ether into his breastplate until it glowed with a soft, white light. The cave itself was fairly small, about the size of a small home. In the back, there was a section of floor that glowed with ether to his magic vision. However, it was not radiating warmth as the rock outside had been.

“Sir, look at this!” Draco turned to see Khepri, breastplate glowing like his own, gazing into a small alcove. He crossed the cave to stand beside her, and saw immediately what she had been looking at. The alcove had several open chests piled with valuables, gold, silver, gemstones, and the like.

“Good find. Seems more and more like that this is, in fact, a dragon. Search through this stash and see if you can find anything that might be useful in a fight.”

Khepri gave Draco a nod and turned to sifting through the chests. Draco crossed back to the spot that glowed with ether and sat on the floor to examine it closer. After several minutes of considering, he decided that the most likely cause was from the dragon itself. Best he could figure, the dragon leaked excess ether as it slept, and enough had built up in the stone floor to be noticeable. That was problematic. Everybody had heard stories about how dragons were unstoppable killing machines, when they wanted to be, but the evidence he was seeing painted a clear picture of just how strong that meant.

“Sir, I think this might be what you are looking for.” Draco wheeled at Khepri's voice. She held an arrow, tipped with a black metal. He had crossed back to his apprentice and taken hold of the arrow before he realized he was in motion.

“Adamantine...” he whispered, examining the arrowhead. “And it's enchanted...” Draco focused closer, trying to discern the magic signature that would tell him what the enchantment was exactly. “Wait, is this a dragon slaying arrow?”

“That was the conclusion I came to!” Khepri said, excitedly. “Why would a dragon keep an arrow designed to do maximal harm to it though?”

“If someone made a weapon that would instantly kill you, where would you want it?”

Khepri considered for a moment. “On my weapon belt, I suppose. I can keep a close eye on it that way.”

“Exactly. Lucky for us, this dragon must have forgotten about this in its haste to do... whatever it decided to do when it woke.”

“What now? We have a chance of killing it, right?”

“Yes, probably. Let's reconvene with Centurion Otis and see if we can put together a plan to hunt this thing down.” Draco crossed back to the mouth of the cave and peered down the mountain to the century camped below. He sighed heavily. “I don't like our odds. If things look iffy, I want you to flee. Someone has to inform The Council that we have a true dragon awake once more.”

Khepri nodded, eyes wide and teary.

“Now now, I'm not dead yet, so don't go killing me off just because.”

“Yes....” Khepri's reply was cut off by a piercing roar that shook the stones near their feet.

Draco realized a moment later that he was on one knee, hands clamped over his ears. He channeled ether to his ears, dampening the sound to free up his hands. He signaled to Khepri who nodded. They both grasped their holy symbol, a stylized sun, in hand and felt the power of the Lord of the Sun fill them. This was a special power granted by the god to those who followed and used the power to advance his aims. In this case, slaying a dragon that threatened one of the empires.

The dragon swooped into sight, a great serpentine beast with dark red scales that darkened to black. It was diving towards the century below. “Khepri, go! Aid the century. I will fire the arrow. If I miss, or if you feel there is no chance, then run!” She nodded, handing Draco the dragon slaying arrow before sprinting down the mountain, the power of the Lord of the Sun causing her to glow brightly and allowing her to plow through the short snow drifts with ease.

Draco drew his bow, and felt the power he was borrowing flood the weapon. He nocked the arrow, and turned his sight to the dragon. It had completed its dive, blasting the men below with a mighty stream of fire. Even from the height, Draco could hear their screams. But not all the men were hit. Most of the men had split, forming groups of eight, their squads. They had pulled bows and were firing arrows even as the dragon was pulling out of its dive. Most glanced off of the dragon's scales, but some managed to find purchase in the gaps.

The dragon flew back up, following the slope of the mountain. As it passed Khepri on her descent, it made to snatch her with a claw. Draco grinned as he watched her quickly slide under the dragon's claw and connect a slash with her sword. Where the mundane arrows of the century had been largely ineffective, a sword backed by the power of the Lord of the Sun managed to slice a serious gash. Khepri recovered from her slide and attempted a second attack, but the dragon had sailed past her before she was able.

And now, the dragon was eye level with Draco. It snarled when it saw him standing in its cave. “You. What are you doing in my home? Why have you stolen one of my possessions?”

“I could ask why you decided the first thing to do upon waking was terrorizing the citizens of my empire.” Draco retorted, watching the dragon warily.

The dragon snorted. “Your pathetic people haven't advanced one iota since I began my hibernation. I have long believed that humans should be culled to a manageable level. You would be better off led by beings truly greater than you, rather than allowed to writhe in your squalor. If you had seen the world as I have, you would beg for our rule.”

“Yet I'm the one holding a weapon of slaying.”

The dragon snorted in laughter, coming to a slow landing on the mountain outside the cave. “So you have one way to kill me. You must think yourself mighty. Know that I have dozens of ways to kill you, each more painful than the last. Shall we see how long you can last under my handiwork, Paladin of the Sun?”

The dragon breathed in and Draco threw himself to the side. A powerful stream of fire blasted through the air where he had been standing. Turning his dive into a roll, Draco landed in a crouch, bow ready. He drew and fired with only a moment to sight. The arrow flew true, on target to strike the dragon under its foreleg. It would certainly hit a lung, if not the heart.

Draco's hopes were dashed as the dragon unleashed another jet of flames. He barely had time to watch the arrow swallowed in the blaze before the flames reached him. The agony! Even through the enchantments from channeling ether, and the power granted him by the Lord of the Sun, the fire seared his flesh. His entire body turned bright red instantly, and his skin began to peel away.

Gritting his teeth, eyes closed, Draco dropped his bow, which turned instantly to ash. He drew his longsword, the might of his god allowing him to wield the sword in one hand, and a shield. With the shield interposed between him and the dragon, and a substantial flow of ether reinforcing it, the stream of flames finally became manageable.

It was not a permanent solution. Draco could already see the edges of the shield start to glow a dull red. His best hope now was that Khepri would be running. He could delay the dragon long enough to make it inconvenient for it to chase her down, giving her an opportunity to report to The Council. He could feel his breaths passing over a dry, ragged throat.

Closing his eyes again, Draco wondered how long the dragon could keep breathing fire, when all of a sudden, the flames ceased. They were replaced with a pained roar. Confused by the turn of events, Draco peered out from behind his shield to see the worst possible sight. Khepri had disobeyed his orders and attacked the dragon from behind, leaving it with another great gash in its hind leg, opposite its already bleeding fore leg.

Before Draco could react, the dragon whirled on Khepri, pinning her down with its uninjured fore leg. Its massive head swiveled to look back at Draco. “Your apprentice? You can watch her die first.”

He began to snort a jet of flame, when he was interrupted by a hail of arrows striking his flank. Like before, most of the arrows skittered off the dragon's scales, but it was enough to distract it. Both the dragon and Draco turned to see the remainder of the century, formed up and advancing. The front ranks held shields to cover the back ranks of archers. Draco noticed that the century mage had erected a spell to protect against fire. It overlapped with the shields, and so would hopefully provide some measure of real defense.

“I see you didn't have enough the first time,” the dragon gloated. You cannot harm me. I on the other hand...” the dragon exhaled a blast of fire that exploded against the shield wall. The center of the front line buckled, and several men were sent flying over the rear ranks. “I can harm you.”

Centurion Otis strode out of the ranks, his century mage at his side, clearly using every bit of ether at his disposal to empower his commander. Shrugging off the shock at seeing the men marching up the mountain, Draco made a coordinated charge with Otis, aiming at the dragon's opposite side.

The dragon did not hesitate, striking Otis with its tail, sending him flying over his men. Draco used the opening to slash at the claw holding down Khepri. The dragon recoiled and sent Khepri rolling out of his grasp. It snarled as it turned, glaring at Draco. As it did, another volley of arrows rained into its backside. Draco found himself feeling both gratitude and awe at the soldiers' bravery.

“Enough distractions. I kill you and this whole charade falls apart,” the dragon said, ignoring the soldiers behind him.

'He's right,' Draco thought. 'What options do I have? If I fall, not only does my apprentice fall behind me, so do several dozen men far braver than I gave them credit for.' Striking on a last, desperate idea, Draco called out, “Lord of the Sun! You who hear all that is spoken by your faithful servants! Give me the strength to overcome this obstacle! I desire only to protect your people, but I cannot do it as I am!”

The dragon gave a roaring laugh. “You think that old fool give one whit what happens to you? I was there when he ascended the throne, and he is as much a pretender today as he was then.”

Draco felt anger begin to boil. The attacks on his comrades, he could understand, but to scorn the Lord of the Sun? Unforgivable. He took a step forward, and as his foot hit the ground, he felt a blaze light within him. The pain! It burned like even the dragon's flames had not. The power was too much for him to contain.

He looked up to see shock in the dragon's eyes. “Yes, that's the sort of face you should be making. You insulted my lord, and he will smite you for it. I am his vessel!” Draco leapt forward, sword held point out in front of him. The dragon swatted at him with a claw, and Draco couldn't dodge. He didn't need to. As he hit the ground, head rebounding from the shock, he saw that his sword had pierced the dragon's claw. It roared in agony, before focusing a narrow beam of fire onto Draco.

Draco felt the fire bathe over him, splashing around his armor, no warmer than ocean water in the summer. The stream of fire cut off, the dragon's face contorted in agony. “It burns!? How do you have a fire that burns me?” It pulled its claw back, letting Draco free.

Draco jumped to his feet, feeling stronger and more awake than he had in years. The heat that suffused him was still a bother, but it was distant. No, the real issue was that this dragon was threatening those under his protection. This ended now.

The dragon struck first, lashing at Draco with its mighty tail. Draco held his ground, meeting the tail with a slash of his own. Several feet of the dragon's tail went flying and it bellowed in agony. Dimly, Draco could see the others around him holding their ears, but he was more focused on the task at hand. He leapt forward again, and this time, the dragon was unable to stop him.

Draco felt his sword plunge into the dragon's neck, and he immediately pulled to the side, leaving the dragon half decapitated. Not one to leave a job unfinished, Draco followed up with another slash, and the dragon's head rolled from its corpse in a tide of crimson blood.

As the head hit the ground, Draco felt the fire leave his body. He slumped to his knees, and only then realized that his sense had tuned out everything in the world apart from the dragon itself. He could now hear Khepri as she called his name.

“Draco! Draco!” She was rushing over to him. “Are you okay?”

Draco took stock of himself. He was exhausted, to a degree he had never felt before. Worse, everything ached, as though he had truly been on fire mere moments ago. He felt as though he had been consumed from the inside, leaving him no more than a husk.

“I... I don't think so,” Draco whispered. He could see the century mage rushing towards him, a couple of soldiers with mundane first aid trailing him.

“You were amazing,” Khepri whispered to him. “You were blazing like the sun itself. White fire everywhere.”

“I think... I think the Lord of the Sun lent me power... It came at a cost though...” Draco murmured, his thoughts beginning to go hazy.

“What! No!” Khepri exclaimed. “You can't mean...”

“I am dying, Khepri. No amount of cajoling will help.” The century mage slid to the ground beside him and began probing with his magic. Draco didn't bother to warn him off. Khepri could explain later. “Listen. You are strong.”

“No, no,” Khepri moaned. “Not without you...”

“Listen girl!” Draco said as forcefully as he could. “You need to learn to be decisive... Don't hold back, pick your path and take it...”

“And be more creative?” Khepri asked, eyes now welling with tears.

Draco smiled. “And be more creative... I believe in you... You have what it takes to go as far as you want...”

Khepri pulled Draco into a hug, tears flowing freely now.

“And Khepri, I loved you as I would a daughter...”

“I love you too!” Khepri wailed. “Watch me, from wherever you are. I will make you proud!”

Draco smiled as he passed. The century mage and soldiers backed off as Khepri sobbed over her master.

Later, after Khepri had cried until she couldn't anymore, she met with Centurion Otis, who had broken both legs in his fall. “Girl, your master is a certified hero, you know it?” Khepri nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Nobody has even seen a dragon in centuries... millennia even, and now he's gone a slain one. You'll have whatever support you need to make it back home.”

“Thank you, centurion,” Khepri whispered.

The man talked a while longer, while Khepri half listened. Soon enough, the time to depart had come. Khepri faced her journey home. She was alone for the first time, but as she looked west, the setting sun just peering over the trees, she could feel Draco there, watching. Just in case, she gave a salute. She would make him proud.

In the Mists, a Hunt Continues

In his dream, he was a Hyena again.

Strange. He hadn't been a Hyena since the servers had gotten shut down.

It felt… good to be back in his old avatar, in the body that he had chosen for himself in the days before everything went wrong.

He looked down at his torso, suddenly glad to see his baseline human anatomy replaced by idealized muscle and digitgrade legs, covered with spotted brown fur.

Perhaps, some part of him dared to hope, this was reality. Maybe it was the other life that had been the nightmare, a reminder of why it was a bad idea to fall asleep while brain-jacked into the Network.

But then… if he was back on the Network, then what in all the worlds was this server?

Thick, impenetrable mists swirled around the Hyena, enveloping the narrow rope-and-plank bridge that creaked and swayed unsteadily beneath his feet.

No other players were in sight, not even an NPC that needed to be beaten in order to progress.

Then suddenly, the bridge began to wobble wildly under his feet, as from behind him there came the rapid-fire rhythmic thunks of something running right for him.

And in his heart, he knew it was the Mantis - the one who had destroyed the only life he'd ever known.

She was coming for him. He had to run.

So he did, galloping away as fast as his clawed legs would carry him.

If he slowed, even for a second, he could hear her chitinous talons clicking on the boards.

Could hear her catching up to him-

-so he kept running.

Already, the Hyena could see the sky and the mists behind him turning a deep, bloody orange, dyed by the flames that he knew were burning his home to the ground.

Ahead of him, there was only the bridge, twisting and forking as it stretched endlessly towards the horizon.

His claws caught in the gap between two planks, tripping him. His sheer speed then sent him sprawling, almost hurtling off the bridge and into the mists below, where a Thing with the voice of a lion continually roared loud enough to shake all of reality.

Desperate to escape his pursuer, the Hyena almost dragged himself off the bridge entirely - but then he remembered:

The Thing Below had sent the Mantis after him.

So he got back up and kept running.

His side ached from the fall, exacerbating the building fatigue from his headlong flight.

But he couldn't stop. Couldn't slow down. Couldn't even look back to see if it was safe to do either.

Because he knew that if he slowed down, then the Mantis would catch him. Knew that if he stopped, she would devour him whole, just like the Cross she bore on her shoulder.

Knew that if he looked back, then he'd see the… Horror that hunted him alongside the Mantis, following after her in slavish devotion.

Different paths laid themselves out before the Hyena, each junction in the bridge offering a different hope for salvation. But, like something out of a horror game, the Mantis appeared at each intersection even while she pursued him from behind, herding him along the path intended by whatever sick developer had designed this experience.

And then suddenly, the bridge stopped - its previously infinite lengths cut short by an unforeseen dead end.

The mists thinned as the Thing Below coiled its unfathomable tendrils, waiting to receive him, almost inviting the Hyena to step off the bridge and simply Fall.

The temptation loomed-

-but no.

Never again.

He had already fallen once, and the Horror that had been born that day hunted him even now, marching in perfect lockstep behind the Mantis.

Accordingly, the Hyena turned, searching for another way-

-the Mantis was there. Blocking the only escape route.

When she had first met him - when she had first deceived him - she had worn the avatar of a short, slight human woman, delicately featured and light brown in complexion.

Her true self stared back at him now.

Shimmering rainbow hair cloaked her entire body, falling to her insectile green ankles in a fashion that somehow failed to hinder her in her pursuit. Lies of love, of pleasure, of security and safety if he would only submit dripped from her fanged, bulging jaws, hissing into steam as they fell into the hellfire that smoldered beneath her boots.

The same fire that, in the distance, consumed the final remnants of the Hyena's home.

And behind the Mantis, locked into her shadow like some NPC follower, there stood the Horror.

In turn, the Hyena felt his feet involuntarily take a step back towards the ledge.

Because it was him.

His face, lips swollen from kissing and neck marked in vivid detail by the Mantis' love-bites. His body as it truly was, not the idealized shape of muscle and fur he had chosen for himself online. His voice, droning insensate praises to the Thing Below and muttering its delirious love for the Mantis.

It was him.

The Horror was him.

Denial and terror boiled inside the Hyena's brain as the Horror began to stride towards him, answering the commanding, infrasonic shriek of the Thing Below.

Suddenly too fast to dodge, it locked forearms with him and shoved. The face of his birth, trying to hurl the face of his choice into the mists that churned beneath the swaying bridge.

At first, the battle was easy. His other self had always been weak, a mask that shielded his inner thoughts when needed and was easily suppressed when the time had passed.

But then it started getting stronger.

Muscle began to shift and grow beneath the Horror's dark brown skin, its jaws bulging, its canines falling out to be replaced by lengthy, baboon-like fangs.

A once ordinary baseline human, turning twisted and feral.

The Hyena felt his claws skid backwards a few centimeters, his grip momentarily lost on the slick, mist-dampened planks.

He didn't want this.

But it was happening all the same.

And behind the Horror, where the Hyena could not reach her, the Mantis too began to change. Her abdomen swelled to grotesque proportions, turning lumpen and lopsided as something moved inside her. Her growth then complete, she squatted deep on the bridge, entire body heaving-

-as that same something clawed its way out from between her legs.

The Hyena slipped back another few centimeters.

Too fast to see, the resultant larva shambled across the bridge, instantly adhering to and being absorbed by the Horror.

Which only made it stronger.

The Horror's mutations accelerated, spiraling out of control as the Mantis birthed more and more of their deformed, twisted offspring, each of which added their own power to that of their sire. Its braincase shrunk, its brow beetling, falling backwards over the thin line that separated humans from beasts.

And pushing the Hyena back more and more with each step.

"Crucify the old man," it grunted out through a jaw overcrowded with fangs.

The Hyena's back foot slipped into the void-




-and Omondi woke up with a shuddering gasp.

There was nothing to impede him as he bolted upright in bed, for all the blankets were bundled around the still-sleeping form of his posthuman 'wife,' Hui-Ying.

His posthuman captor.

His posthuman enslaver.

She and her people had come out of the stars to subjugate his planet in the name of their God, slaughtering its defenders and almost burning its cities to the ground.

And Omondi had been part of the spoils.

Before the first shot had even been fired, Hui-Ying had marked him as 'her' share of the plunder, her chosen reward for a masterful infiltration job.

A far more visceral kind of 'mark' reannounced its presence on his shoulder as the last dregs of sleep fled from him - the dull ache of a love-bite left by short, sharp fangs.

Those same fangs peeked out from Hui-Ying's bulging jaws even now, her lips flapping as she lightly snored.

A face that had not evolved, but had been designed.

Designed to kill, to savage and maul other sapients when all other weapons had been exhausted.

Omondi's eyes drifted across the rest of her sleeping body. To the mark he'd left on her own skin a scant few hours ago, just barely visible between the sheets snuggled to her chin and the rainbow-dyed hair that now fell to her shoulders.

To the soft gleam of the mantis hairpin on her nightstand.

He wanted to hate her.

Wanted to want to fight back, to find whatever resistance was left hiding in the shadows, to do anything other than this acceptance of his personal occupier.

And he hated himself, because he didn't hate her.

Because he didn't want to fight back.

Because when the fighting was over, and the captives had been divided, he had willingly allowed himself to be married off to Hui-Ying.

Too scared to say no? Maybe. Happy that someone had finally wanted him after years of heart-crushing loneliness? Yes.

He hated himself for that too.

…traitor, Omondi's subconscious spat at him, flagellating what was left of his conscience with the word. Collaborator.

His eyes flashed with memories of nights past, of Hui-Ying giggling under him as he kissed her repeatedly, circumstances forgotten as he allowed himself to simply be happy for once.

The memories soon drowned under a tidal wave of self-loathing.

The sound of his captor grunting in her sleep cut his self-recrimination short, followed shortly by her eyes fluttering open as she squirmed beneath the covers, trying to alleviate some newfound discomfort.

Her eyes caught his, and the man frantically stuffed all his dissidence behind the mental Mask he wore while she was awake. The Mask of a different Omondi, an Omondi who was still sad about the occupation but was… happy with his marriage to Hui-Ying. An Omondi who was still skeptical about her God but was ever so slowly coming around to the concept.

It was getting easier to hide his thoughts behind the Mask these days.

"You're awake too?" Hui-Ying sleepily muttered before a yawn cut her off, lips peeling back over her too-long jaws to further bare her fangs.

"Bad dream," Omondi answered through the now-settled Mask.

"Your son must've felt it too," she said with another yawn, clumsily shucking her blankets aside-

-to reveal her heavily pregnant body.

Growing, undeniable proof of Omondi's treason.

Of his collaboration.

Of his submission to this particular invader.

Another wave of self-hatred threatened to unseat the Mask.

"He's kicking like crazy right now," the gene-modded woman spoke, seemingly oblivious to his inner turmoil as she sat up herself to lean against his side.

She was smaller than him, designed to fit more easily into transports and into armor.

Or in this case, so very neatly under his arm.

His own body was the one to betray him now, reward hormones chewing into his brain as her pregnancy-enhanced bosom ghosted along the side of his own chest - an entrancing point of softness on her otherwise combat-muscled body.

Wordlessly, Hui-Ying started to paw for one of his hands, softly inching it towards her womb.

Despite it all, Omondi didn't hate his son - only himself for being so weak. He… cared about this child. Wanted what was best for them. And the Mask…

…the Mask was allowed to be excited about fatherhood.

So he also allowed it to comply with the woman's gentle tugging, actively reaching for her abdomen to feel the palpable distortions within.

"He loves you," his wife said simply, nuzzling deeper into Omondi's shoulder.

By accident or yet another strange coincidence of her design, the length of her prognathic jaws put her fangs at his jugular.

Not biting. Not pulling or tearing or anything like that. Simply… there.

"I love him too," Omondi said at last.

He could feel her smile against his neck at that, her breath tickling the nerves there.

He liked it when she did that, despite everything.

"Just like I love you," the Mask suddenly added of its own accord, earning it a giggle and a 'proper' kiss from the girl.

A kiss that Omondi and the Mask both deepened at once, eager to at least ignore their troubles for a while.

And in the back of his mind…

…he heard the desperate scrabble of claws on wood, slipping closer to the edge.





Originally published on substack here

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