Thursday, January 31, 2013

Work in Progress: The Lizzie O'Conner Project


Lizzie moaned, the memories of the last few hours rushing back to her. Raiding the building had seemed easy at first, until they realized that someone had been raiding it ahead of them. Turned out the whole place was a Task Force: VALKYRIE op that had been infiltrated by Cheiron Group. At least, that was the story VALKYRIE had told them. Lizzie had her suspicions that the government-sponsored organization had hired the company to do this research for them, only to lose control of their actions. Whatever the reasons, with the Task Force’s help, it wasn’t difficult to neutralize the small security force and whatever scientists put up a resistance. 

She hadn’t entirely understood everything that Jade had figured out from what the VALKYRIE technicians explained to her. This was something called Project: ORPHEUS. That was simple enough to remember. It had been designed to allow normal people to explore and patrol the Underworld without danger. She had suspected there was more to it than that, but the agents had been unwilling to give any more information. Regardless, Cheiron had messed with the settings, though no one could figure out what it was that meant. There was only one way to find out, and that was to get hooked into the machines themselves. Lizzie got volunteered fairly quickly, causing her to silently curse her prominence as a Sin-Eater. VALKYRIE insisted that one of their men go along, a rather attractive technician that had done research into the Underworld. Lizzie certainly had no objections to him tagging along (even if all she could do was look).

TO BE CONTINUED

Soon.

I hope.

/cry

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hidden Depths, Darrel January 2013


(There's multiple meanings to this title, most of it is intentional.)

The ancient crypt was the grave marker for more than just the civilization that built it. It was apparent to everyone involved that throughout the ages, many would lay claim to the ancient relics and the crypt itself. All that was left of them were their skeletons, wearing whatever they had on them when they died. Whatever was left of them had remained practically been undisturbed until the next residents moved in. The dry climate and the relative seclusion preserved them for as long as possible. Though in all cases, they all seemed to have died by relatively mundane means, rather than a supernatural event, based on who they were. Based on the tattered fabric and what remained of their armor, the crypt had been inhabited by and witnessed the  deaths of common thieves, a Roman Legion, knights from several different Crusades, and various Arabic armies who were resisting them.

Strangely enough, there appeared to be werewolves in each of the various groups.  It was difficult to tell them apart from the normal humans because a werewolf reverts to human form when he dies, but the remains of klaives and the huge claw marks in both the scenery and on some of the armor indicated that normal humans weren't the only ones to die in this place. It became apparent to Darrel that they weren't the first werewolves to hear of this place or the first to decide to loot it, werewolf or not.

Darrel concluded that the place was meant to serve both as a fortress and as a shrine to fallen warriors, one strangely seemed to be tailored for werewolves, based on the fact that the glyphs on the wall were in First Tongue and the remnants of statues of Gauru form werewolves wielding vicious and powerful weapons. The "cache" really wasn't an armory or a pile, rather, they were the ancient weapons and armor buried along with the warriors that wielded them in the various sarcophagi, most of which remained intact since the day they were buried. Both the archeological team and the newcomers were searching for weapons to defend themselves ever since the siege began.  Sadly, the vast majority of their arms had long since been rendered useless by the passage of time. Darrel had hoped that the spirits sealed within would reduce the effects of entropy and decay, but it appeared with the spirits in slumber for millennia, that was not the case. The same applied to the klaives brought by later vistors. However, there was a ray of hope; while the weapons themselves were inoperable, the spirits had not left their weapons, slumbering unaware that their bindings had fallen long ago. With a skilled blacksmith and some persuasion, it might be possible to sometime in the future, reforge the weapons. Provided that they had a future.

Darrel looked upon the inscriptions of one of the many remaining undisturbed caskets, unable to make out the faded words, but knowing full well what lay inside. "We shouldn't be here," one of his pack members said. It was  Embers-and-Ashes, the Fire Touched member of their group and probably the most devout out of all of them. "I do not know whether they are of the Pure or Forsaken, but we cannot defile this place!" she said.

"We need arms." Darrel replied. "Anything we can get."

She frowned. "We haven't found anything useful in the graves we have robbed, what makes you think we'll find anything else?"

"Yeah," said another, it was Strikes-From-Afar, who had prior to this trip had received commendations to join the Iron Masters. "Some rusted old non-iron swords aren't going to make this fight any easier." He held his heavily customized M4A1 rifle up for all to see. "It's not like we're expecting some sort of ancient lightsaber down here somewhere. Guns'll do just as well."

"Don't dare disrespect the dead," replied Embers. "Or their arms."

Strikes snorted. "It's not my fault that their gear is caveman level."

"Both of you, please, for our Lord's sake, put aside your differences, we have work to do." An older man walked into the room, his hair was graying, but he commanded the kind of respect that made his age seem irrelevant. He wore…armor, not the kind of modern soldiers wear. It was full plate, etched in Latin symbols and trimmed with golden metal. He wore a sword at his waist and on his back was a silver kite shield. Despite all of his belongings being used in pitched combat for over a month, none of it appeared to have any dents or cracks in the slightest. Strikes snorted again, but tried to hide it; Ember on the other hand bowed her head and made a short silent prayer. After that both went on their way.

"Sir Gabriel," Darrel said. "Thanks for the save… you know what happens when we… start to argue…" Arguments and fights between werewolves generally didn't last long, not because they were quick to make a resolution, but because they were quick to bear their fangs. He sighed and looked at the tomb again, resolving not to open it. "Embers is right, we've spent weeks, yet still we've found nothing useful here."

The knight nodded. "In all of my years serving our Lord, I've never dreamed of so many werewolves all buried under the same place," Gabriel said. "Some of them are dressed as Templar or Hospitalers. I never knew werewolves fought in the Crusades before now, let alone that some might have even joined those Orders. I do not know what to think of it."

"We're going now are we?" Gabriel nodded, Darrel sighed in response. "Suppose we do come back, should I continue to search these ancient tombs for anything of value?"

"It's not for me to decide," he said as he held his wooden rosary, "But sometimes, we must have faith in what's been given to us. Also, do not doubt our odds, the Lord is with us, we shall return." Darrel nodded to the older man and they both made their way to the meeting room.

---

The meeting room was probably once large funerary hall, where the living would say their goodbyes before the dead would be forever interned within the crypt. Now though, it served as the main headquarters for a bunch of highly trained, but tired warriors. Makeshift tables made out of displaced chunks of rock were scattered in a random assortment, with large chunk serving as the primary hub.  Most of the stuff actually was found like that when they had arrive, it was likely that one of the last inhabitants at least a several centuries ago were the ones who ended up setting up the furniture for them.

The rocks actually came from a large dug outside of the room, which definitely served as a "waste depository" back then as it did now. Unlike the makers at the time though, would not have expected this little dugout would play a vital role to modern soldiers. The Union equip their agents with a unique artificial lifeform codenamed the "Reclaimer". This creature possessed the uncanny ability to consume and destroy biological materials, including those belonging Outsiders, and convert them into harmless and more useful materials such as munitions for Union organic weapons or food to feed the soldiers. For this expedition, the Union equipped both the archeologists and the soldiers  sent to look for them with at least a dozen Reclaimers each. Every day, the corpses of the fallen enemies, along with any feces and urine, would be dragged towards the pit and consumed by the Reclaimers. After that was lunch time for everyone else. Were it not for those creatures, the siege would have ended much more swiftly.

In the corner of the room sat an unmoving armored hulk. The creature was the result of a strange and top secret science experiment called Project: Lilith. Other than the fact that the resulting creature was very strong and quite capable of taking out any Outsiders that the others couldn't handle, Darrel didn't really know what was under that armor. However powerful it was, it relied on both battery packs to keep it running and needed a human operator to control it, meaning that it spent its out of combat time  sleeping.  For a moment, Darrel wonder if it dreamed, but decided that question was best left unanswered.

At the central table, were the various leaders and representatives of the operation. Gabriel took a seat next to a robed figure. He called himself Amon. Darrel didn't really know him that well, but knew he was both a priest and a native to the region. He was part of the acheological team sent to the ruins in the first place and was from what Darrel gathered a high leading member of the Ascending Ones. He took a drink from a cantee, normal water, not the supernatural and mystical powers granted by his conspiracy's secret alchemies. "I gather you didn't find anything of value," he said, Darrel nodded in reply.

Across from his sat a woman, not much older or younger than Darrel himself was, but she carried herself with an enthusiasm that was simply put out of place in a crumbling old crypt in a desert under a months long Verge. Of all of the people her, she was absolutely excited about where they were right now. She was Catherine and she was a full member of the Loyalists of Thule and professional archeologist. A real life Lara Croft or Indiana Jones might be a good comparison. "A site this big is bound to have something turn up eventually," she said. "Maybe if we had more time."

The last member sat away from the rest. Daniel Smith was ranked as a Captain by the Union and he was the real leader of this operation. Under his command were a dozen well trained and equipped soldiers, all of them armed with varying degrees of biotechnology. "Ever since that last raid, the radio's been clearing up," he said solemnly. "Still not enough to contact HQ, they've been mobilizing for something. Sending in troops left and right."

"It's Vince and the Seed," said Darrel. "The sky has been acting up lately, a storm is brewing and the world outside might be aware of it too. I think he's planning on some sort of ritual with the Seed at the center." No one said anything, but it is very clear that they had the same questions. "We've learned from these ruins that the Seed of Life is named so because it has a connection to all life, but we don't know how that works or how it fits into Vince's plan. We gotta stop him before it's too late."

"Where do we go?" Amon asked. "And even if we did know where he was, would we have the firepower to stop him? Look at how"

Catherine was the next to reply. "We go to where all of the magical energy is gathering. All rituals require a buildup of power before being able to create their effects. If Vince is indeed going to do some sort of magic, then he will be at the place where the energy is being gathered into. As for the firepower…" She looked at the corner of the room at a particular armored figure and knew what she implied. Gabriel and Amon both muttered prayers and Darrel just knew things were that dire. Not everyone trusted the armored creature, but they all knew it would be vital for this suicidal plan to succeed.

Daniel turned his attention towards one of his men, the operator for the creature and gave him the go-ahead. "That explains the troop mobilizations… and why the attacks had stopped since then,"  he said and everyone involved had come to the same conclusion.

"Meaning," Darrel continued, "That Outsiders had been pulled from us to deal with the attack on the Ritual. We must go join then, we must stop the Rite."

Daniel gave a short sigh of discontent. Whether he liked it or not, as the Union representative, he was tasked to making all of the important decisions; and if anything went wrong, it would be on his head. And Darrel making the push to leave their fortified position did not make his job any easier. He had made his decision shortly afterwards. "We're moving out in 0800," he said. "Take anything of value, leave the rest."

---

After months under siege, mobilization was a relatively tricky prospect. When coming here both the Union and the archeological teams were equipped with a number of vehicles meant to travel in the extreme conditions of the desert. Most of these were destroyed since then, leaving at best three worn out and heavily damaged APCs. As such, it was impossible to take everyone into the fight. This meant that archeological team, including Amon and Catherine, would be left behind along with anything too heavy to carry or impractical to use in an attack such as the Reclaimers.

The Union troopers were very heavily armed and armored, with each of them possessing some form of powerful bio-technological weapons system and the most modern military equipment and those in the expedition were no different. With the exception the two wearing Powered Armor and using HMGs, each was equipped with either a Spitter Flexible Organic Rifle, which acted as a combination of several different types of long barreled firearms, a Storm Cannon, which was essentially a lightning shooting bazooka, or both. But the others were not slouches or weren't unprepared for that matter either.

Darrel and the werewolves didn't have much equipment anyways other than normal assault rifles, swords, and, of course, claws. Their real strength however came from what they always had with them, the use of their Gifts and the destructive power of their many forms. Darrel himself had strength that was on par with the greatest humanity had to offer, but when in Gauru form, he could rip apart all but the most resilient bodies with ease.

Gabriel had within him his sword and shield, that much was true, but he was also a member of the Shadow Congregation and as such he had access to the Divine Powers granted by God Himself and he could manifest these powers on the spot if he had to. Darrel had once equated it to having God's speed dial number.

A small member of the Ascending Ones would come along as well. They weren't front line combatants like everyone else in the expedition. Rather they preferred to use subversion and stealth as their main weapons. One of their more elaborate cocktails was an invisibility potion, which not only removed them from sight, but also made them as swift as the wind.

The armored creature as also being taken with them and on the first sign of combat would be activated and would break apart the enemy lines. Darrel still didn't know much about its or its makers, but he knew for a fact that without that… thing this plan of attack was very likely to fail. Whoever their makers were, Darrel was at least grateful that he had that kind of power at his disposal.

Even still, everyone was fairly sure that Outsiders would be relentless in protecting their master, they had little going for them, other than it was likely that a whole army was going to be joining them soon enough. Though Amon and Katherine were not joining the fight, the two did manage to provide details on where the highest concentration of magical energy was and likely were Vince and the Seed were. And armed with that information, Darrel, Daniel, and everyone else left for parts unknown.

---

The sky didn't change much or at all since Darrel had arrived. It had always been the same unabigious gray for the past months, which always made telling time uncertain without the use of digital clocks. It was as though the land itself could not decide the time of day, which in retrospect probably made the siege easier to bear, without having to worry about burning day light periods.

Now though, the clouds almost seemed to be turning purple the further they got away from their home base. As they got closer, a structure was becoming visible in the distance. The details weren't easy to make out, but it was some sort of massive pyramid or something. A Ziggurat? There was very dark clouds over the structure, but as they got closer, Darrel realized they were flying monsters. Below them near the base of the Ziggurat were tall innumerable hulks and creatures, each more twisted and  bizarre than the last. Farther away from the imposing structure, there appeared to be many vehicles and soldiers gathered. "More of our boys, Union, Americans," Daniel said, "Plus NATO and some Iraqis."

The Union Captain opened his radio and began speaking to what was likely the leader of the joint  taskforce, informing them of the situation. There didn't seem to be any sort of fighting yet, but this the calm before the storm. Whatever bits of radio-chatter Darrel heard managed to convey to him that it wouldn't last long. For whatever reason, the Outsiders were not preemptively attacking to prevent the siege. It was up to the humans to land the first blow. What was their plan? Darrel wonder.

A great ball of fire descended likely from the heavens striking the base of the structure. Darrel understood it to be a meteor. It burned for a moment and all of the creatures on and around the structure gazed upon it, as if waiting for something. Then suddenly, the fire was extinguished as a glowing mist began emanating from the massive rock. The mist wasn't any color Darrel had seen before, it was a strange euphoric blend or many and no color at the same time, but whatever it was, he knew it was deadly. Then all of Hell broke loose. The aerial monsters began attacking the ones on the ground, in turn the land based hulks struck back at them and the meteor.  The soldiers on the ground took this opportunity to attack and opened fire on any monster they could see.

"Cover us!" Daniel yelled into his radio. "We need to get in there now!" The driver slammed the gas pedal as far as he could, trying to close the gap to the temple. As soon as Darrel had finally realized what was happening, they had already broken through the line of soldiers and was already past the bulk of the creatures fighting. The drivers had run over several bodies at this point and weren't stopping for anything.

The battle was going three different ways,  with each of the individual forces being powerful enough in the own right. But as great a force as several nations working together were, they weren't going to win on their own, even with the Outsiders apparently having a Civil War. But this distraction was just what the APCs needed to get close. None of the enemy forces seemed to be paying any attention to them and were more content to fight against their apparent allies.

At that's how it was until they were just a stone's throw away from the temple. A massive Creature resembling a bloated and diseased mastodon overturned the vehicles, knocking them off their wheels and turning them upside down. Everyone inside quickly abandoned the vehicles and grabbed whatever weapons they could find. As soon as they exited, the soldiers armed with Storm Cannons opened fire on the massive creatures, stunning them for a moment while they readied their trump card. "Head to the Structure," Darrel heard, but couldn't identify who.

The armored creature, the end result of Project Lilith, gave a savage and feral scream as it awakened, giving a brief pause to the chaos of war. It ran through the thick of battle and lept up on the giant creature's face. Whatever effect it possessed allowed it to fight the monsters so efficiently seemed to cause its enemy pain, causing a panicked reaction as the mammoth thrashed its face to shake it off. The creature fought on regardless, pummeling the eyes, causing even more pain and panic. The create stampeded out of control, attacking and killing any lesser Outsiders that were unfortunate enough to walk in its ways. Soon the mastadon and the creature stuck its face disappeared behind the endless tides of enemies. Darrel couldn't see it or hear it through the chaos, but he had a feeling that the creature was still there, fighting ever more.

Meanwhile, everyone else had already reached the base of the structure, right by where the meteor had landed. The strange gas that had once inhabited it had left and was now hovering the sky above the battle field, concentrated most around the top area of the Ziggurat. The ziggarut itself was showing signs of damage, most of them obviously due to the battle waging around it, but there also seemed to be something else happening on the inside. Flakes and pieces of the structure practically fell off as what was inside was revealed within.

What looked like branches of an utterly massive tree sprouted out from many of the gaping holes. The sheer size of it was enough to say that it wasn't a normal tree, but this tree only shared a passing resemblence to its mundane cousins. Instead of leaves or fruit, it possessed eye balls and what appeared to be long tentacles that twitched and moved as they pleased. These strange appendages lashed out at any fliers, either by tearing them apart with its tentacles or burning them into cinders with its sight alone. The fog moved its way into the branches and Darrel got the impression that it was attacking the mutated tree since the tentacles began frantically trying to strike back at the fog. As Darrel continued to look at it, he realized that the tree was looking back at him, and he felt a sharp physical pain in his guts, like something was twisting his insides. This pain lasted for only a split seconds before Darrel looked away from the tree and the pain abruptly stopped.

Everyone had gathered at the entrance, which was large enough to allow elephants to walk in. With all of the chaos happening around, it wasn't a surprise to see that it was relatively unguarded. The werewolves had shifted into Dalu form, a more beastial and savage version of the human form. They led the way because their strength and endurance made them quicker and more able to take a beating before anyone else. But as the werewolves passed through the entrance, a barrier or invisible wall prohibited anyone else from entering.  "Go inside, we shall guard your way," Sir Gabriel said. He slashed his sword and it tore through Outsiders like they were butter. For all of the advanced technology the
Union gathered, a man with faith and a sharp blade was still better able to combat Outsiders than they were. Daniel gave a nod and ordered his men to set up defensive positions.

Darrel and his pack continued to run. Though the entrance was large enough to allow elephants in, the passages seemed as labyrinthine and confusing as the crypts that had been his home for months. Paths were blocked off by roosts and collapsed rocks and there was often more than one path. None of the werewolves could seem to tell whether there was an up or down. It was frustrating enough having to spend a repeated months in a natural cave system and in a crypt, Darrel was not in the mood to deal with a third puzzle. He ordered his pack to stop, as he readied his most powerful Gift. While it was true that the werewolf had a great deal of abilities suited for use in combat, his greatest power was not normally used as a weapon. Darrel knelt on the ground and gathered a small mote of Essence within his right hand. He gently pushed the sphere into the ground beneath him and he… connected with the world around him. He became aware of everything within his immediate vicinity and then some. He had temporarily bound a portion of his energies within the building itself, and in turn gained intimate knowledge of the building and anything within it. As long as the Gift was active and he was within the building, he knew the exact number of creatures in the building, with some details such as their size and general location, terrain features, and what paths that he was able to travel. This last one was very important, as Darrel became aware that he was right where he needed to be. The Gift wasn't permanent, but it was going to last a while.

The one of the walls to his side was connected with the central chamber, which thanks to his knowledge of his surroundings, was being used for a Ritual. Darrel couldn't tell the purpose of it, but based on the erratic movement of the 13 human sized beings around the tree indicated a sort of… dance… The other 20 were moving in scattered directions in response towards 7 fast moving flying creatures, indicating that while there is a Rite, there was also fighting. Regardless of that, he also knew that while this was part of the ritual, it wasn't the main component. He turned his senses to the sky as far away as he could. There was… a Presence at the very top of the Ziggurat right by the tallest point of the tree. The was a current of energy, a sort of power being collected at that location. Darrel didn't fully understand the process of ritual magic or of how it operated, but he knew that if he interrupted the ritual as the supposed people were casting it, the Ritual would like destabilize and fizzle out. And all that stood in his way was a brick wall.

He stood up and his pack was looking anxiously for his descision. "We're breaking down this wall," he said. "And putting an end to this madness. Crush anyone that gets in your way."

They shifted into Gauru form,  without hesitation. Already bestial faces became more lupine, more animal like, vicious claws and fangs grew, clothing either disappeared or changed to something more primitive as fur sprouted over their bodies. The war form is a sight to behold, a fusion of human and wolf traits united into a single being. This form granted strength that was far greater than most mortal men would ever dream of reaching, more than enough to break through walls. All of the werewolves hammered at the ancient walls with their claws, smashing the stone and giving them a quick and easy means to the next room over.

Darrel's knowledge of the environment proved to be accurate, the room despite being used for a ritual was already under siege by Outsiders. Though, there were details that his senses had not told him; the black robed cultists performing the ritual were protected behind a sort of glowing force field, but the warriors, both the airborne, insectoid monsters (Mi-go, Darrel believed)and the land bound humans, had already suffered great casualties. Excluding the 13 in the barrier, Darrel knew that there were 10 cultist to 3 Outsiders, some new casualties were added just as his pack had broken through the wall.
Now was the perfect time to strike, both sides were caught off guard and heavily weakened, the wave of werewolves ran.

The werewolves attacked the fliers first, as they were the closest and were perceived to be the more dangerous threat. Embers leapt up in the air and caught one of the creatures as it tried to retreat, she violently flawed it with her claws, stripping off its appendages one at a time. Repeatedly she cried  Urfarah, the name of the almost mythical progenitor of her race as she slashed at her opponent. The creature's death scream was a terrifying thing on its own, but the werewolves didn't pay it any special attention. She didn't stop beating stopping the insect, not even when it no longer tried to squirm or resist.

Strikes-From-Afar, even in a form meant for close combat, still preferred to attack range a distance. Of the werewolves, he was the one who traveled the least, but he didn’t really need to get up close and personal to destroy his enemies. He held lightning and fire in his hands and blasted the other Mi-go with  such sheer elemental force that they exploded before they could retaliate.

The rest charged at the humans, taking in gunfire without any concern for the damage. Cultists fell one by one, until all of the soldiers outside of the barrier had fallen, until all that remained of them were the cultists inside the barrier and what Darrel assumed to have been one of their leaders. He was a bald man covered in fiery, glowing tattoos that held some unknown arcane significance. Unlike the other cultists, his robe was a very dark red, making it hard to tell just how much damage he had sustained. He collapsed to the ground with a single swipe of Darrel's clawed hand. The cultists in the barrier stopped dancing and watched, one of them, a teenage girl, tried to run towards their leader, by was held back by the wall that protected them. "It's over," he said. "Surrender and we may have mercy." It was difficult to speak English in warform because of the desire for carnage and the incorrect vocal cords, but it was possible.

"Never," the red robbed cultist said as he struggled to stand up. "We will do what we must to secure humanity's survival!"

"What!?" was he could reply with. That wasn't the answer Darrel had been expecting. His earlier encounters with the cult had made Darrel think of them as crazed zealots who sold out the human race for the promise of power or because of random insanity. Granted though, the man's reason sounded just as crazy as anything he had heard before from a cultist's mouth. "How does this," -He gestured at the eyeball and tentacles tree- "secure humanity's survival?"

"Human beings are frail and weak." The cultist held on to a staff to improve his balance. Darrel could now see (and smell) that he was dripping and oozing blood from underneath his robes, likely from the fighting that had happened. "Look at how you easily had destroyed us," he spat, Darrel felt an unsettling sensation in his gut. "It becomes plainly clear that mankind does not stand any chance fighting against the Endless Void and that extinction is the only possible outcome of such a war. However, our Prophet, the Uplifting-One, has given us a way, a way for our race, your race to survive." Was he talking about Vince?

This just added more and more questions in Darrel's mind. It was clear that they genuinely seemed to want to save humanity, in addition other offshoots of it like werewolves. That made the werewolf question why he was here in the first place, if they really wanted to save humanity, they should then be working together, not against each other. They even somehow manage to piss of the Outsiders. But that just added more questions that he needed to solve. "Why take the Seed in the first place instead of asking for it?" and "What did you do to make Them angry?" Darrel sighed and replied to the man with a single statement: "How?"

The man smiled, "By reaching out and becoming like Them, gaining power and worth that is on par with Their own. They will not need to destroy our race if we were made more like Them." Though the Gift he had casted earlier, Darrel felt movement and stirring near him. Something was happening to the bodies of the fallen cultists and Darrel and his pack knew not to like it. "But before we can do that, we must first learn to overcome the weaknesses of our race. By studying your kind, our Master has learned of the path our race must take."

Before Darrel could react, the cultist dive-bombed the werewolf, with a strength a wounded man should not have been capable of. A bolt of energy sprung forth from the tree knocked the werewolf off balance, almost sending him tumbling to the ground, but he managed to quickly restore his balance, in time to see what had happened to the man. The cult leader was no longer human that much was clear. In his place stood a beast, a monster. Its head was vaguely reptilian, but lacked the eyes that were common in every terrestrial animal; jaws held rows upon rows of monstrous teeth; and every part of its body was muscular and armored by a thick scaly carapace. It was a durable looking creature, and it certainly looked like a predator, enough to make one almost think of it as a sort of warform. And he wasn't going to be only one, Darrel quickly sensed the motion coming from the bodies of the cultist's fallen allies. The corpses were returning to life and transforming into the same kind of monster. Werewolf pack backed away, even the most zealous and blood thirsty werewolves fighting 20 powerful creatures head-on with unknown capabilities was just nothing short of suicide.  Darrel couldn't help but wonder at how this was possible, how both the dead were returning to life and how they had manage to transform.

"Father!" The same teenage girl screamed, as the barrier around the tree and the ritual performers disappeared.

"Go now!" The former cult leader said. He threw his staff at the girl, who picked it up."We shall hold them off while you make your escape!" And she and the rest of the cult ran as fast as they could. Darrel couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for what was going to happen next. Even if he did manage to win, the odds of which didn't look good, he was going to end up killing well meaning but crazed people. Their methods were obscene and just plain wrong, but these were people who genuinely believed in saving humanity… in some weird and twisted way. The daughter, who had run off, was likely to repeat this mess. The werewolf just knew that she was going to be a problem in the future, provided he had one. What made this even worse was the fact that attacking this room didn't accomplish anything, the ritualists had left, likely already completing what they had originally set out to do. The gathering of power was still happening at the top of the structure, maybe, just maybe after they were done here, they could still put an end to this madness. "It ends now…" The former man said.

Darrel pulled out a pair of throwing axes. Both sides readied themselves for the inevitable clash. The werewolves spent a great deal of their focus, reigning in their own instincts bringing themselves under control. Spending an extended amount of time in warform was taxing on the mind. While it offered great power, that power also made a werewolf liable to break into Death Rage, a state where the werewolf savagely and brutally attacks anything, friend or foe. But to shift out of warform now would have been a risk as their enemy was strong and outnumbered them. Before they were weak and badly damage humans, making the fight against them so much easier the first time around. The new monsters were still likely inexperienced with their new forms but that might not have been enough of a disadvantage to put the battle in the werewolf's favor. Now though, it was beyond a doubt a more even fight and no predator liked having a fair fight.

It would have been so good to have a totem Spirit for the whole pack right now, but now wasn't the time for regrets. The werewolf gestured commands to his packmates, a little strategy would never hurt, especially in a situation like this. The werewolves spread themselves apart, forming a line, with the faster and more agile members at the sides and with the more resilient members slowing backing away to bait the oncoming horde. Darrel had once read of this tactic being used by Hannibal against the much vaster Roman Legion, with any luck, it would work. The monsters didn't seem to notice the tactic and just kept moving forward in a wave. The anxiety the werewolves shared was practically audible; if any one broke out into Death Rage or the monsters saw their plan, the trap would fail.

And in a single moment, the trap sprung. The group of monsters were caught inside the U-shape formation before they even realized what was happening. All of the werewolves rushed in, primal howls and battle cries signaling the attack. The clustered up group the reptilian monsters organized themselves worked against them as they became trapped in a tightly packed circle, unable to freely move or attack. As strong and resilient their new forms appeared, they were unable to use that power effectively enough to give them victory. Try as they might, they couldn't attack hard enough to break free or cause any lasting casulties (difficult to begin with with werewolf regeneration).

Darrel threw one of his axes and hit the head of one of the monsters, not causing enough damage to kill it out right, but enough to stun it briefly. With the other axe, the werewolf lunged at its neck and hacked away at it until the head flew violently off. Blood gushed out of its body like it was a sprinkler, drenching everyone involved. The next monster was waiting, and used the fountain of blood to hide his attack and grabbed on to the werewolf and started biting off Darrel's shoulder with its massive teeth, causing him to drop his axe. To respond to this, Darrel pumped energy, Essence, through his body, causing his muscles to harden and stiffen and an aura made from anger and rage surged from his every fiber of his being acting as a protection. The creature suddenly found his bites becoming less effective and causing less harm to the werewolf. The werewolf then followed this up by channeling Essence into his arms, causing his claws to be wreathed in a burning energy. "My turn," Darrel uttered as he tore his claws through the monster's backside, effortlessly ripping apart multiple ribs from the spine at each slice. The monster couldn't hold any longer, giving Darrel the opportunity he wanted. He knocked the monster back and reached for the creature's jaw. His claws were still wreathed in destructive Essence and with that, Darrel grabbed hold of the creature's jaw and tore it off.

Again,  the monsters perished one at a time, their new found durability only serving to extend how long they could suffer before the werewolves killed them and moved on. And again, all that was left of them was their leader, still wearing the tattered remains of his bloody red robe. He was crouched down, exhausted and unable to fight any longer. What's left of the members of his cult was scattered all around him. None of the bodies were whole this time, each was thoroughly destroyed beyond any recognition. The cult leader cursed under his breath. "You may have defeated us this day," he spat blood out of his mouth. "But we have still won…"

"You should have surrendered like I asked you to," Darrel replied. He wanted to spare him, make him realize the error of his ways or serve as a means of gathering intelligence, but he was simply too dangerous to keep alive. He gave the former man a quick death by slicing his head off. It was a far better fate than to die in horrific pain.

The werewolves shifted out of warform, exhausted and unable to stay in that form any longer. Each collapsed to the ground, covered in blood either from themselves or from enemies. Combat wounds were already healing, but they needed a short rest before they could continue any longer. The sounds of conflict still raged outside, still as intense and as furious as they were when the battle started. Darrel had a feeling it wasn't going to end any time soon either.

The Gifts he had used earlier to augment his senses and combat prowess had ended, limiting both his ability to recognize and deal with potential threats. Darrel felt numb all over, like he could barely feel a thing. But aside from this, he felt a strange sensation around him, a feeling like weightlessness, like the ground held no control over him. At first he thought it was just the exhaustion making itself known, but then it started to get more… intense, like he was being lifted. Then he realized it wasn't all in his mind. The werewolf was being lifted off the ground and none of his packmates were bothering to lift a hand to aid him. In fact, his packmates didn't even seem to notice what was happening. Then Darrel noticed that they weren't talking to each other like they always would after a battle, they weren't moving, they weren't even breathing. It was as if they were statues. Some force had used their weakened state to disable the whole pack and spirit away their leader without them able to react. Of course, the fact said force didn't freeze him meant that, it had some ulterior motive. Darrel already knew who it was who had taken him.

The werewolf was lifted outside of the Ziggurat, being raised ever higher and ever closer towards the top of the building. He saw the carnage that was still raging outside, almost as if nothing had changed since he had last seen it. He wondered it the Union expedition was still holding out, still surviving despite facing a nearly endless horde. The view made him sick, less because of  the sheer disgust of it all, but more to do with his dislike of high places, made all the worse since he was being lifted against his will like some toy. The twisted tree still burned and lashed out against both the fliers and the unnatural fog, but none of these things paid him any attention.

In what had seemed like an eternity of drifting, Darrel knew he was at his destination. Next to the top of the mutated tree's canopy was a small tower, signifying the very tip of the Ziggurat. It wasn't engulfed or swamped by the monstrous plant life that surrounded it, instead the tree acted as if it was shielding the small structure behind a wall of tendrils. The vines opened away for the werewolf to drift through, letting him through before knitting themselves back up. All throughout the small room were various implements of ritual: sacrificial knives, incense burning candles, arcane glyphs and symbols drawn and engraved through the floor and a small altar that was kept burning, its fire was a sickly emerald green.

The spell that had lifted him up so easily didn't end there, instead its efforts redoubled, locking Darrel's arms and legs by keeping stretched to their limits. Had he not been so weary, breaking free from this magic might have been a far simpler task; but his muscles had been far too exhausted to fight back so Darrel decided the best opportunity to bide his time.

His captor didn't bother hiding.  He looked more or less normal, other than  his skin being pale, almost ghost like and with eyes that glowed with an unnatural red. He wore a white robe, strangely plain for the leader of a powerful cult. He was reading from a small black book, still appearing relatively new and undamaged. "Forgive me, but I cannot afford to take any chances when dealing with your kind," he said. Darrel had met him before, and he knew who he was. An ex-Union agent, gone rouge and became the enemy. Worse than that, a traitor to mankind.

"So what's the big plan, Vince?" the werewolf asked, not even bothering to be subtle. "You go through all this trouble of making me your prisoner, even after I wiped the floor with your cultists. You must have something you want to say to me."

"Regretable," Vince sighed. "I saw them," his tone was sullen and bitter. "They chose to offer their lives for our cause, even when they could have escaped. Senseless. Pointless. Sacrifices." He shook his head in disgust. "Tell me, why do you fight against me?"

"Because, you're the guy who performing mad rites transforming your own men into monsters and causing a goddamn war," Darrel replied angrily. "You attacked my pack when we quested in the Deepest Pits of the Shadow, without reason and defiled and corrupted the those same areas while you were there. I have plenty of good reasons to want to fight you."

The two locked their eyes together. "Everything I have done, I have done so to secure a future for mankind. This world going to end regardless of whether or not I aid the Outsiders, but I know of ways to spare our race from the planet's destruction."

"By turning your cultists into freaks?" Darrel scoffed. "I seen you do it before, without a giant tree. What's so special about it?"

Vince made his way towards the ritual table. He looked at the impliments and meditates his next course of actions. He pointed at one of the walls and vines loosened at that area, granting a clear vision at the tree. "This Tree of Life has an innate spiritual connection with all living creatures on this planet. By harnessing and manipulating the Tree itself, one gains some measure of control over all life on this planet… Including humankind. Changing merely ourselves wouldn't be enough. No, the whole of the human race has to be converted!"

"What!? And I thought you were insane before," Darrel bit his lips. He wouldn't learn nothing if there

"And you had given me the inspiration for on how I should save human kind," the Prophet said. "After our first meeting, I had begun to explore your subrace more closely. I had seen how much your kind endures and survives even the most fatal injuries only to completely recover within a week, I had seen the feats that you are capable of. If all of humanity possessed those traits, then the Outsiders will see us as a resource that has potential, not as a miserable speck of dust in a vast universe. You had given me both the tools and the ideas that had made this all possible, if you had not went after the Seed of Life in the first place, I might never have seen what our future would look like. I should be grateful, for you have made it so that our whole race will not perish."

The tendril walls of the building rattled as if it was in direct response to those words. It was the fog. "Looks like someone disagrees with you. For someone so quick to work for the Outsiders, they don't seem to like you very much."

Vince shook his head in disgust. "They are merely jealous," he said. "All those who serve the Great Old Ones compete for their favor. They see our potential to surpass them and seek to nip it in the bud." Darrel heard a loud thud and chorus of shrieks that surrounded them, incomprehensible to him, but the meaning and the purpose was clear. "No, I will not be denied by you or anyone what is rightfully ours!" Vince yelled in response, as if he knew exactly what the fog was saying. "We have nothing to fear from you!" The vines that surrounded and protected the two were starting to rot, the fog was starting to break through, though that didn't concern Vince. At least, that wasn't until raindrops started pouring overhead, this seemed to dissatisfy the cultist greatly. "It appears that I will have to cut this meeting short."

"You're leaving?" Darrel stared in disbelief.

"Yes," Vince replied. "I had hoped more could have been done before this location was compromise, but I lacked the time or preparations to have carried out my plan in its entirety." The prophet lifted his hand and Darrel heard a muted sound that reminded him of paper tearing. From where the other man had pointed, a small mote of light glowed into existence and grew until it was the size of a doorway. "Perhaps we shall meet again in the next life," he said as he walked through the doorway. The spell that had kept Darrel restrained had been broken and he collapsed to the ground with a loud thud. He ran to chase after Vince, but the door way he had taken had disappeared.

The vines around the werewolf had all but withered into empty husks, they no longer offered any protection or blocked his vision. The rain grew heavier and lightning arched out of the sky, the fog that had meant to destroy him was no longer able to be found, and the corrupted Tree of Life was dying, its branches decaying at a rate far faster that they should have. Darrel didn't know what was happening, but he wanted to know, he needed to know. Using what little of his energy remained, Darrel fueled one last Gift, binding once more a fraction of his Essence into the world around him. This time, his range was far greater, far more… intimate, like this time, he had complete and perfect understanding of what was around him, something that hadn't happened before. He felt the near infinite hordes of Outsiders around him die one at a time, as the rain burned like acid into their skin. He saw that his pack was fine and that what remained of the expeditionary forces to have survived, if at all barely. The various human armies that had come to challenge the Outsiders had taken heavy losses, but had proved that they had the power to fight back. The armored creature that had saved them once before had fallen in battle, but had found peace in that. The Verge had collapsed around him, the physical and the spiritual planes were once again divided.

Then there was something else, an entity nearby the werewolf that he had no knowledge of until he had felt it through his Gift. It stood right behind him and Darrel got the distinct impression that it was looking at him. Slowly, Darrel turned his head to greet the newcomer. It resembled a werewolf in Gauru form, if werewolves were made of bronze so perfectly sculpted that it was difficult to tell if it was a statue that had come to life or was a werewolf with perfectly metallic bronze fur. That distinction was however, meaningless. It didn't take a Rite Master to know that it was not a truly physical creature, it was a Spirit, manifested into a physical form, a bit one that strangely showed a connection with the Uratha, something spirits were not likely to do. On its back, the spirit wore an anarchism of various pieces of armor that belonged to completely different eras, from the remains of a cuirass to ornate full plate. He held a modern combat helmet in his hand and was busy examining it. "Fascinating, far different from the helmets I have collected before, but so similar." He added the helmet to his back with such zeal and excitement, that Darrel wondered its purpose. "No doubt you have many questions, child, but this is neither the time nor the place for such things. You have my word they will be answered in due time, but now, you must rest." Darrel wanted to say something, anything, but the weariness in his body grew and the werewolf collapsed into the floor without a word.

---

The werewolf awoke, looking up at a familiar looking ceiling, the same one that he had seen for the past few months. "He's awake," he heard, it was Embers. "Hey, uh, it's a good to have you back." It was then he realized his pack was around him, looking rather relieved but contented. Surprisingly he was draped in fine silk sheets, a luxury he hadn't had in a long time.

"You've been out for days, oh before I forget, Happy New Year." Strikes said. Did he really sleep for so long  that it was New Years already? "Well, we've got this place pretty much all to ourselves. Those Union folks left… all we've got are those archeologists now, but they're not so bad."

"Provided they are careful with the Temple," added Embers.

"Well, of course," replied Strikes, the color of his checks turned a bit pink. "It's old stuff, but well, it's our stuff… The Steward of Champions said this… placebelongs to us… All of us."

"The what?" Darrel asked. "I'm sorry but what happened?" Both Embers and Strikes looked at each other, their eye rolled  in a way that seemed to imply blaming each other.

"Our new Patron," Embers cheerfully replied. "Uh, assuming you accept him… He kind of wants to speak to you. He's outside…"  The werewolf then  remembered everything, about the Ziggurat, the Tree of Life, Vince's mad plan, and the Spirit.

Darrel quickly got out of his blankets and went outside. The sky was perfectly normal now, the sun shone brightly, it was the land that was unusual now. What had been before endless expanses of sand and rock had now been replaced by a fresh green carpet. At first Darrel thought that that the reason he hadn't seen them was because of the strange mechanics of the Verge or because of the heavy rain, but he quickly realized that this was far more than any place that could be considered a desert should have.

There he saw the Spirit, sitting on a rock, meditating or pretending to meditate. As soon as the werewolf came close, the spirit said these words. "The land will heal from the Corruption, Gaia had seen it fit that this land be given new life as compensation for what had occurred only days ago." The werewolf didn't really care for why Gaia did what she did, though it did at least make this place more bearable.

"Who are you?" Darrel asked. He had a good idea of its name, after all his pack told him already. But he did not of its purpose or anything else.

"I am the Steward of Champions," it said proudly. "In the age shortly after Urfarah, before either the Pure or Forsaken came to be, I was charged with protecting the great heroes and champions of all Uratha. This Crypt is my Temple, my Throne. After Millennia of long sleep you have awakened me." Darrel considered for a moment just how powerful that made the spirit was. It surely must have been quite powerful, if it was that old and given such an important role. Werewolves even today are very involved about honoring their fallen, it was likely that whatever werewolves the Steward had were about the same. Granted, being a watcher of the dead didn't neccisarily mean it was all that powerful. Like, how did it create a storm that outright melts Outsiders? So he asked that question and the spirit replied. "From every werewolf that had been fully interred into my Crypt, I have taken a small fraction of their Essence, and in turn some of their knowledge and power." That certainly seemed to imply a far larger amount of power than Darrel had originally thought… but that didn't explain everything. But before Darrel could ask, the spirit continued to speak. "As soon as I was awakened, the Celestines: Luna, Helios, and Gaia had charged me with a new role, to use the knowledge and power I had gathered to instruct a new order, a new covenant, with Uratha. To lead them into the coming battle and into the days afterwards. I have chosen you to be my Herald, do you accept?"

Darrel blinked. He came to this desert looking for weapons, not a freaking Wartotem. A Wartotem is… powerful to say the least. By binding itself towards a cause or a mission, a Wartotem was capable of spreading its influence through a very large body of Uratha, gaining greater power, but in turn giving a blessing or boon to the werewolves it bound itself to. Though, from what stories Darrel had heard of them, it was next to impossible to find a spirit powerful and willing enough to become a Wartotem. On top of that, this was a Wartotem that was being tasked to serve as one, by the Celestines… all of the important ones. And we he was just being given one. But at the same time, Darrel didn't want to force the spirit into this role if it didn't want to. "Tell me," Darrel started, "Are you fine with this role put upon you?"

The Spirit contemplated this for a moment and replied. "It does not matter what I feel," it said flat. "But I thank you for the courtesy. Now please answer my question."

"I accept," he said, glad that at least the Celestines were really watching out for them. Perhaps there was hope for this world after all.

"Then," the Steward of Champions said. "I name you my Herald, Endless Seeker of Ways. I grant you and your followers knowledge and power. No longer shall be cursed, nor shall Rage thoroughly consume you. And when you fall in battle, I shall protect you."

Darrel gave a sigh of relief. He felt a trickle of the spirit's Essence enter into him, the same sensation that happened that happened where a spirit taught him a new Gift. Now though, it was the same yet more. Like he was changing, becoming something more. Perhaps this is what it was like to be bound to a Tribe. To belong.

---

Current Event: New Garden of Eden at a Cost.

Heavy losses were suffered by the US, Union, NATO, and Iraqi military forces engaged in a battle against Outsiders in the Black Crescent. Of all of the troops deployed, only 1/10th is expected to return home. As costly their mission was, the soldiers have succeeded in ending the Black Crescent before it grew larger. As a nice side effect of this, the area that was at the time within the Black Crescent has become substantially more lush and prosperous, being full of fresh life. New species of grasses have sprung up unexpectedly and old rivers that had been dry for millennia have started running again. The quality of life in Iraq is expected to improve, after the country adapts to their new environment. Mecca is still deciding whether or not this qualifies as a new Holiday. Due to the joint nature of the events that led up to the end of the Black Crescent, American-Iraqi relations are also expected to go up.

(I've decided to go and break the mold with this. I've got… 16 exp, since I fullfilled all the requirements and put my current event early. And I missed no exp, so as far as I know, no bonus points other than the current event.  5+5+5+1. I am disappointed we've all decided our current events were to be gloomy and sad stuff. As far as I know or remember, I'm the only one who used his Current Event to make a positive impact. And as always, you can veto anything you want Chris.

Also, this whole thing is 9.7k words (excluding the notes), took over 2 weeks to write because of procrastination. It's just barely under how long your entry was Chris. Now if you mind, I think I'm going to do something less stressful.)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Rick's Entry for January 2013

(( Yup, being me, I've decided to go a completely different route for the short story. I'm not quite sure if I fulfill all the requirements for the short story, but since I've basically no point to regain, I figured I could be a little lazy and make my own path for this one. Basically, instead of a short story, this is kind of a longer entry narrating a story, in a first person view. Probably not as exciting to read as other things, but... (Shrug) ...no one here but Kris can really complain about a lack of effort and constancy on this RP so far, and he's not here to do so, so whatever. Here it goes, enjoy-ish! ))


Hello everyone!

Here I was, being absolutely bored, wondering what you guys could be doing, being so silent this month. I probably wouldn't be as bored if I had made some progress on finding a way to unite all the ferals. In fact, that is why I'm writing this right now. Since I couldn't find a clue on the Internet, I figured maybe I would find a clue in the past! We have written so much about our adventures, especially you Chris, so I thought that maybe I would find some divine inspiration re-reading those entries. That didn't really happen, but I did find that entry written by Amelia and I thought 'Hey, I never really told them what happened down there!'. So, here I am, doing just that! Since I'm not being productive, I may as well be entertaining. It's the thought that counts, right?

To refresh your memories a bit, it all happened three months ago. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, the bird were birding and Amelia and I were stuck hundreds of feet under the ground with Austin and that crazy werewolf, I mean... Darrel. As we thought things couldn't get worse, Amelia couldn't help herself and she headed into some dark corner, triggering a trap of sort. I don't remember that part, since I just rushed at her to prevent her from being crushed by falling rocks, then I was knocked out by said rocks. Yeaaah... epic fail there. When I woke up, it was a few hours later (according to my phone. Reading Amelia's letter, you would believe it was days. Girls.) and my right leg was bleeding and bruised, but fortunately, not broken. That would have sucked big time. Speaking of things sucking, you know what sucks the most about being caved in a cave you've never went in before? I mean, other than that? It was just having two bottles of water on us. It's really crazy how quickly water can vanish when you're stressed and stuck somewhere and panicked. Not that I was. I'm not a coward, we all know that. But Amelia, that was another story. I won't go into the details there, it's not really the point of this story.

To summarize  we were trapped in a cave, with one bottle of water and nowhere to go, but down. We figured that if we were going to die, we may as well do so seeing something awesome, so we followed the path downward, using the light of my phone to lit the way. Like awesome heroes. At first, it looked like any other cave. Cold, wet, dark, boring... did I say cold? It's certainly one of the things I will never forget about that place. The air so... frigid, it was like, you know, walking inside a freezer, except there was no reason for it to be so cold and the deeper we went, the more that feeling increased, to the point we had to hold each other close to continue. I normally wouldn't have minded, but it surprisingly didn't help as much as it should have. I probably sound crazy here, but it was as if this cold wasn't natural at all, like some... spiritual, ghostly presence creeping into the depths of our souls. Basically, if that cave hadn't already won first prize in the creepiness category, now it had.

As I started to consider telling Amelia that maybe we should turn back, the air became warmer and we saw a tiny bit of light ahead. I was all "Holy crap Amy, that's the light at the end of the tunnel, we are soooo dead! Like, litterally dead. You know, like..." until she gave me /that/ glare. I guess she didn't like my humor or something. I'm gonna blame the ghosts and Lizzy, their holy mistress. Amen. Then she kind of dragged me into the light and then...

...well, you know that feeling when you go out in the sun after having been a long while inside? It was kind of like that, except that instead of a sunny bright day, we were greeted by another perfectly rectangular room, lit by wells of light coming from the floor. That was no doubt a place made by man, a very dedicated man who somehow mastered the power of making a temple that went unscratched for hundreds of years, if not more. I suspected some crazy Mage magic was at work there, and as you will see later, I wasn't too far off. If you remember that letter my dear foxy wrote, you probably know that she saw some symbols. That was only the peak of the proverbial iceberg. With my phone, I took dozens of pictures of this temple, let me just find them here...

...wow, I really took so many pics of our cat? I must be more bored than I thought. Someone please remind me to delete those later. -.- Either way, there they are, the pictures I took back in the cave.

[Show 3 pictures of a large, rectangular room, with arcane writing all over the walls.]

As you can see, there was four light wells, one in each corner, with a picture next to them, each representing one of the elements. Air, Ground, Water and Fire. There were also a door in each wall, but only the way ahead was open, so the choice was rather easy. Of course, being so brave, I wanted to explore the other paths, but for Amelia's sake, we took the open path. Poor thing wanted to go home. I couldn't blame her, home would have been really nice just then, but when destiny calls you, you don't just sit down and cry for your mommy! With much excitement, we braved into the unknown and walked into opening leading to... well... another room! Picture time!

[Show two pictures of a much larger room, with the same light wells, but more numerous. The ceilling is spherical, similar to a cathedral or a similar religious temple. The room itself is a dead end, and at its center stands a pyramid of stairs leading to an altar.]

Tada! Awesomeness in picture form. Even more awesome to see for yourself and unlike the Underworld and whatever places Darrel always go, no scary monster trying to kill you, trick you or both! There was, however, a lot to see in this room. I'm not gonna bother showing you all the pictures I took, it would take too long to trying to explain them all. What I do want you guys to know is that this pyramid in the middle was a pain to climb, and it wasn't all worth it at the top, it was only some picture of things. Specifically, this picture:

[The picture shows a large pictogram craved in the stone, about 8x8 feet in size. It pictures a human, with light emanating from its body. Some of the light rays are arrows pointing to smaller drawings of pictograms, 8 of them.]

...wait a minute... now that I think about it, I've seen this little symbol up there, somewhere. I will come back to this in a few minutes...

...Oh My God. I can't believe this. The proof I was looking for was in my phone all that time! That symbol is the emblem of the most anciant vampire family! And this one over there? I've seen it before, when Lizzy told me about her ghost-a-thingies! This one here represents Werewolves, this one here is definitely the Mysterium. This claw here probably represents us, the ferals. If I had to guess, the remaining three are probably the changelings, promethians and fae! This picture must mean that was are all humans, or at least, we all descend from the same origin. Our powers may be different, some may be more powerful than others, some may be creepier, or wilder, but no matter our background, we are all brother and sisters, we are all breathing the same air, eating the same food, living in the same world. A world some creepy monsters from a higher dimension are trying to take away from us. That's sure not going to happen. With this picture, I'm going to remind all of us, supernal creatures or not, that our differences are nothing compared to what unites us. That gotta show them, if it doesn't, nothing else will! /totally going on baseless assumptions here

-----

Oh, look, in my excitement in going to post my picture, I left this open, unsent. In fact, I probably would have forgotten it if Amelia hadn't snooped into my things and read it, then got mad at me for sliiiightly exasperating the truth. Now she's sitting right next to me as I finish this. So, first thing first, she wants me to tell you that my aforementioned bravery was kind of a lie and that she had to cope with my constant whining and being scared, wanting to go home and wasting our time taking pictures of everything to annoy her because we weren't going home... there we go. Happy Amy? Darn it, I can't even look like the hero for once... meh... sigh... at least, I can be comforted with the fact that my little discovery, two days ago, had the effect of a bomb on the Interwebs. That, and the emotional speech I wrote along with the pictures I posted on my blog. I've received so many emails, of people all over the world, wanting to join our cause. I had to be careful though, I don't want to reveal the actual location of our hiding place, but I've been able to use the few contacts I've gotten over the last month and the Union to start gathering a sort of Union of my own... with actual members of the Union coming here soon to provide us with actual training material and experience, because fighting isn't much my thing. Yeah...

But more on that next month, when I have more to tell. For now, I will finish my tale of adventure. So... let see... we climbed up stairs... blablabla... we saw the picture... oh, yes, so after taking pictures and all that, we bid farewell to that temple and exited it, back into the cold cave... except not. I don't know what kind of magic powered this place, but when we left the temple, we didn't even get to walk twenty feet to suddenly find ourselves outside again, right into one of the side exits of Austin's underground base. When we looked behind us to make sure we weren't dreaming, the light of the temple was gone, and all we saw was a guard in the distance, guarding a gate to the base, in a cave tunnel that was well lit. Can I say "reaaaaaally creeeepy"? There's no other word to describe what happened that day. After that, we went to my old home, rested for a bit, napped. and... you know the rest, I don't need to say it all over again. Overall, that was a pretty sweet little adventure, albeit a bit short, not that I'm going to complain about that. More importantly, it just provided the mean to advance our cause, I call that being very lucky! Wait till I tell all you guys about... oh... wait... I just did. Silly me.

That's all for now. Still haven't gotten any news from any of you. I hope you see this and, wherever you guys are and whatever you are doing, you stay strong. For me, for all of us, for our world. God knows we all need it. Oh, and by the way, is it me or Chris's sister haven't given news in a looong time. Does anyone knows if she's ok? It would be nice to know. Bye!

-Rick (and Amelia closely watching)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Lower Lights: Christian, January 2013


“If you could hie to Kolob, in the Twinkling of an eye,
And then continue onward, with that same speed to fly"

"Report, Lance Corporal," came the command, short and loud. The uniforms were all black, each dressed in the most state-of-the-art equipment that money could buy. This was a detachment of marines, but not just any marines. The patch they all wore was distinctive enough that even most civilians these days would be able to identify them. The Eagle, clutching the arrows and olives, superimposed on the Masonic compass. This was a detachment from Task Force VALKYRIE, the United States’ proud answer to the threats that came from outside mankind. Since the revelation that mankind was not alone on Earth as everyone had thought, VALKYRIE had swelled enormously, their experimental technology for combating the unknown rushed into mass production. They were the answer to every threat that was beyond human. Like this one.

"There is a vehicle coming. Civilian, by the look of it. A 2012 Chevrolet Malibu, four occupants." The soldier relaxed a little, his report delivered. His weapon, like most of the other soldiers, was a modified M16 A3, with four different munition belts, each one suited to a specific threat. The sensors inside detected the species of the enemy, and automatically switched munition types faster than the soldier could. It would not allow itself to be fired on human targets, theoretically preventing "friendly" fire. Lance Corporal Jones had a very low opinion of that circuit, after watching a good friend of his killed by a pair of very human, and very unfriendly, cultists.

"They’re slowing down. They’ve seen the blockade." It would have been impossible not to, thought the sergeant. The freeway itself was blocked off entirely with large concrete cubes, and the overpass was occupied by six massive tanks. The railing had been removed, allowing three to face in each direction. The blockade was manned by about thirty foot soldiers at one time, counting those manning the sophisticated surveillance equipment. Captain Nelson made a signal, a signal to the soldiers down by the sandbags at the base of the ramp, the only way into St. Louis on the Interstate 270, at least coming from this direction. The civilian population had all been evacuated now — only the crazies and those with more balls than brains were left to "defend" their homes from what was coming. VALKYRIE knew better than to try to save the city, though. There could be no stopping what was coming to St Louis now, only running. Let God have mercy on the poor souls that stayed behind. "Go down and meet them, Lance Corporal. Tell them there isn't going to /be/ a St. Louis in another six hours."

"Right away, Sir," Jones answered, turning back for the sidewalk that led down to the onramp. He didn't get a chance to start running. All eyes fixed suddenly on the approaching vehicle, which was nearing the ramp. It swerved suddenly to one side, straight on to the concrete barricade. Shouts from below, gunfire... but the vehicle was too close to the overpass for the tanks to fire, so it was all small-arms, the quiet rap of silenced machine—guns. It was all Corporal Jones could do to swing stupidly over the edge of the bridge, watching as the car sped straight towards the concrete blocks... and vanished as though it had never been there.

To VALKYRIE‘s credit, the detachment was not caught off—guard for very long. Within a few seconds, someone shouted from below. "They're on the other side!" And sure enough, every eye focused on the car speeding away down the highway, straight into the city they had been ordered not to allow anything in or out of. Captain Nelson's radio squawked from one outstretched hand as all three of his tank operators facing towards the city asked if they should fire. The Captain had just a moment to ponder before he answered. The vehicle, however it had bypassed the blockade, would stand no chance, as the 270 climbed a three mile hill before there was another exit, and during its entire drive it would be in range of all three of his tanks. "Open fire!" He bellowed. “Armor—piercing rounds, full lead!" With that pattern, the car and its occupants would be turned to dust. With one tank firing ahead, one behind, and one dead-on to the car's predicted position, there was virtually no chance of a miss. Sure enough, the computer-coordinated firing mechanisms all initialized together, and the overpass was rocked by three simultaneous explosions. Another second, and three more explosions, all perfectly timed. It was just enough time for Captain Nelson to adjust his field glasses and get a good look. A good look at a car completely untouched, no trace of the three rounds they had fired. It was all Nelson could do to look around in complete astonishment, eyes quickly finding their way to a grassy hillside a hundred meters away, which was now alight with three burning craters. "Again!" Was his shout into the radio. Again the tanks fired, rocking backward for a moment as the force of all three explosions pushed the l6-ton tanks back on their treads. This time he watched, watched as all three rounds swerved out of the way of their target, exploding this time in the center divider, turning the concrete barricade to powder. "Cease fire!"

Captain Nelson was a very practical man. It made little sense to waste perfectly good ammunition on a target that was striking defiantly towards suicide. They might need that ammo later, when something that actually fought back was coming their way. "Let them go," Nelson ordered over the radio, silencing the shouts of his various inferiors as they directed the ongoing attempt to stop the car. "I’m going to call command and radio what just happened. Lance Corporal Jones, you have the command until I return." With that, Captain Nelson turned away from his men, climbing into the back of the armored semi truck that had been parked there for that purpose, slamming the steel door shut behind him. In all honestly, he wished them luck. Whoever those lunatics had been, they really wanted to get into St. Louis. If they wanted to get into a dying city that bad, let them.

“Do you think that you could ever, through all Eternity,
Find out the generation where Gods began to be?“

"They've stopped firing, Christian, you can let the spell down." Aries spoke from the backseat, her voice high. The necromancer had silver hair, which trailed down her back in almost childish pigtails. There was nothing childish about the outfit she wore though, ultra-light body armor made from potent matter magic. They all wore it, under the thin, free-flowing robes of the Arrow. Each had their weapons, though nothing so unified as the blockade they had just bypassed.

Christian let down his hands, and the subtle glow around him seemed to fade, slowly. He was in the passenger seat, heavy iron staff balanced between his legs. "That was easy," he said, though he hated saying it. Christian had never believed in fate, but saying something like that felt like tempting it. And sure enough-

"Knock on wood," Causality added from the driver's seat, looking almost peremptory. "My charms can get us only so far, Christian." Causality was Christian's favorite, an older gentleman with white hair and a short beard. He alone had declined wearing the armor, trusting that fate would protect him. Christian didn't think much on that, but he was an invaluable resource on a mission like this. It helped to have someone with you when you were on an impossible mission. Turn the odds a little more in their favor. "Where do you want us to take you, anyway?"

Christian was not the first to answer. That was Nephi, the stocky young man in the back of the car, a huge hispanic who wielded a traditional South American weapon, a wooden club covered with lengths of polished obsidian. He was by far the youngest of their group, though he was also the largest. Christian liked Nephi too, though he had a woefully inadequate sense of humor. "He already said: Forest Park, by the art museum. We were going to recover one of the pieces. For the Aspirant." Nephi never called him by his name, insisting on the title as Christian never would. But try as he might, he couldn't get Nephi to listen up. That was just the sort of person Nephi was.

And so they drove on in silence for a few minutes, through the deserted city. The highway had been totally cleared, empty now of anything that might be used for cover. This made great driving for them, and they soared along undisturbed. Not that none of them could see the chaos on either side. To the Unseen Sense of a Mage, the city felt awful, like sticking your hand in an electrical outlet. The Unseen Sense was ordinarily a blessing, providing him with warning when something supernatural was about to happen. But in this city, he could feel nothing else. The hairs on his back permanently on end. Sometimes what they saw was much more mundane; terrified faces peeking out of rundown buildings, or pausing to fire a few poorly-aimed potshots.

Then they rounded the bend, and they could see downtown. It was still several miles away, but there was the arch, and Busch Stadium in its distinctive crimson. It was not a welcome sight, not when the evening sky was filled with little figures, like thousands of flies circling densely around downtown. Christian could not see them well from this far away, but he knew they were not flies.

"God, look!" Aries shouted suddenly, rolling down one of the windows to get a better view. Christian was on the opposite side of the car, so he had to strain to look at what she was pointing at. He heard it before he saw it, regular gunfire flanked by shouts, and... song? Was that the Battle Hymn of the Republic? It was a church, a modest little brick building in one of the worst parts of the city, which meant it had bars and barbed wire as well as crosses and stained glass. Light blazed from inside, along with the sound, ghostly on the wind. The men who fought outside looked like the very worst of St. Louis's street thugs, all sagging pants and bling. But there they were, fighting to defend the house of God. And all around. them... the swarm.

The Mi-Go were not overly large creatures, not much larger than men. They were crab-like creatures, with several pairs of hanging limbs. A single set of wings each, which seemed to struggle to hold their heavy loads aloft. It seemed they were wielding weapons too, sharpened polished objects they wielded in several limbs at once, which slashed clean through anyone or anything that got in their way. This included the defending humans, several of which lay mangled and quivering. The Mi-Go had a chitinous armor, but that hadn't stopped several of them from being felled by gunfire.

“We have to help them," Nephi said from the back seat, his eyes not breaking from the scene of battle and carnage.

“A bunch of insane sleepers?" Causality's voice was not cold, but his words sure were. "No time. If we stop, we waste our good luck. If we stop, the one they serve might get here before we leave. Those people are dead in a few hours anyway. I've already seen it. They died when they didn't evacuate."

All eyes were on Christian then, as he knew they would be. He might not be driving their vehicle but this was his mission all the same. The others were friends. New friends perhaps, but friends. All had sworn on their lives to obey, though none knew the true purpose of their mission. He glanced rapidly between the two, then out the window again, turning it over in his head. Abandoning his fellow-men, even the foolish people who had stayed behind, was not in his nature. God did all things for a reason. If they had seen this... "Aries, can you do an anti-air gun? I want to see them in hell within the hour."

Nephi‘s expression made it clear he could have cheered. Causality shook his head, but didn‘t argue. The car swerved and soon they were speeding straight towards what was at the very least a war. "Easy," came Aries in her high, almost childish voice. "I would have even if you hadn't asked," she added, saying a few powerful words and jerking hard on the rest used to hold beverages between herself and Nephi. The little leather pulled out with a mechanical sound, a circuit activated. Even Christian was impressed by the magic he saw next. Matter might be the purview of Moros. Creating tools by modifying existing substance was nothing new. Doing it with such grace, so that it looked liked the changes had been there all along; that was talent. That was part of the reason that Christian had invited Aries along for this mission, the other reason being her vague "deathiness" reminded her of someone he would have vastly preferred. But this was an awakened matter, so the awakened alone had come.

As Aries pulled, the ceiling began to retract, and the trunk folded away. Metallic grinding-sounds as the seat Aries was in slid back along a track, in the perfect position to operate the triple-barreled AA gun. Aries did not even wait until Causality had slowed to a stop to start shooting. The cannon boomed, barrels rotating as the autoloader had just enough time to prepare for the shot to come. With the roof folded away, the awful sounds of shouting and gunfire, the smells of blood and oil and fire, were unrestrained, assaulting them with as much force as the monsters overhead.

Mi-Go had thick armor, but it did them little good against the force of fifty-caliber rounds glowing with phosphorous tracers. As their car skidded to a halt in front of the church, the first of the Mi-Go fell from the air, screeching like a felled bird. The cloud, hideously thick with the monsters, was swiftly thinning now, many of the creatures simply thinking better of attacking. Better to wait a few hours when they would be easy helpless targets. Injured and dying monsters dropped like rain, to the cheers and shouts of the desperate people, along with Christian and Nephi and the rest. They weren't unopposed, however. Within seconds of their arrival, the slaughter had already turned. Turned, as those beings that did not flee all landed, taking refuge behind and around nearby buildings, scattering and surrounding them. Several shouted in voices like tortured hummingbirds, sounding throaty and feeble. "You will be offered to He Who Waits!" One shouted. The others agreed, answering in voices like huge insects that none assembled could understand. The message was clear, though. They were content to toy with these people no longer. Now they were all going to die.

Of all those present, only Christian understood the danger before it arrived. The high-pitched, rhythmic piping as air through the ruins of a building, but far louder and changing pitch constantly, like hideous music. Despite everything he had been through, his face went pale as he pointed in the direction of the threat, and shouted loudly, mostly for the benefit of their ghetto allies. "Get inside now.” He spoke with such confidence, such fear, that they obeyed without question, fleeing into the old stone church and slamming shut the door behind them. Not abandoning them, Christian knew. No door would stop what was coming. Indeed, the street had already began to shake, the piping getting louder and louder. There were only a few second before it would be on them. "Don't try to use physical force or conventional weapons." He warned, talking as fast as he possibly could. "It's a shoggoth. Hopefully not from this world." His companions merely looked confused then. Of course they wouldn't know what that meant! "An intruder! Huge, very dangerous. Resistant to magical alteration and physical damage. They wiped out a whole race that lived on this planet, way smarter than humans-" But that was all he could explain, because at that moment it came into view.

To see a Shoggoth for the first time was not at all unlike witnessing a subway train coming at you headlong, only there were no tracks and no tunnel. The thing was roughly spherical, with thousands of glowing globules emerging and sinking. The sphere did not roll, but dragged itself along, tentacles growing from the slime, forming for just long enough to tug at the ground or a lightpost, which would twist and buckle as the huge monster bore down on them as fast as a speeding automobile. Organs, some sensory and some worse, formed from the ooze in inhuman disunity. The sight was positively maddening. It was 13 tons, and it was accelerating towards the building.

Time slowed for Christian. He saw Causality drop the runes he used for most of his spellcasting and dive behind the church. Nephi, behind Christian, was so stunned that he did not move. Aries at the anti-aircraft gun lowered the barrel and unloaded with everything she had, firing so fast that the barrels quickly lit up orange. Christian too was stunned, unable to do anything but walk as the monstrosity advanced on their automobile and ripped it apart. It did not seem even to notice the bullets, which passed in one end and out the other spraying little spouts of cytoplasm and cells. That was the trouble with fighting a shoggoth - bullets could do nothing when there were no organs to rip apart, no tissue to damage. They could reduce the monster's mass, and eventually it might make a difference, but... not in time to save Aries. The thing barreled it right over, crushing the car and swallowing Aries, still screaming. The screams stopped as she was torn apart /inside/ the monster, swallowed and devoured by a hundred tiny mouths. The shoggoth hadn't even slowed down.

In another few seconds, Christian and Nephi both would have been dead. Nephi was helpless at the sight of his first Intruder, and Causality had fled for his life. Christian blinked, raised his hand, and shouted a single world in Atlantean. The most potent spells were often the simplest. He hadn't caused it to rot away, or used sophisticated combinations of matter and life to transform it to Aether. No, his spell only took a syllable. "UP!" He shouted, raising one arm in an imperial gesture over his shoulder.

The universe listened, and it obeyed. The shoggoth lifted immediately into the air, as its connection to the earth abruptly broke. It might have been able to latch on, to force itself back onto the ground, but it was going so fast that the tentacles it formed were ripped from its body as the mass soared just over the church, still screaming as it spiraled through the air.

That was when Causality reemerged, glaring at Christian for a moment before taking one of his runic dice, somehow back in his hands, and crumbling it to powder in his hands. At that moment, a rocket streaked into the sky from nowhere, fired from somewhere on the ground. The Shoggoth was struck dead-on, and went up like a bulbous gelatinous sun, remaining on its course as it screamed and burned away to nothing. Thus was the power of luck.

With that, the battle was over. If there were other Shoggoths nearby, they fled with the rest of the Mi-Go, fading back into the hidden crevices from which they had come. Once again the sound of cheers shook the church. The doors banged open, gun-toting guards only a few steps ahead of the preacher. The man was a huge African-American, bald and dressed in elaborate blue-and-white robes. He took their hands one at a time, muttering a definitive "God sent you to us." Then, "You must speak to my flock! I told them God would send us protectors!" He raised Christian's arm into the air, which was still warm from the force of the spell. Causality protested that they were in a hurry, but he was powerless at the preacher’s persistence, particularly with the thugs and all their guns behind his words. He embraced them each warmly, then thrust them with a gesture into the humble halls of his church. Not a mention of their lost companion, though Christian and Nephi were both trying to conceal tears.

The church practically shook with the voices of its members, shouting out "Onward Christian Soldiers" with all the enthusiasm a Southern Baptist congregation ever had. Christian was touched by the audience - all poor, many infirm, or old, or weak. Had they not left the city because of a desire to protect their property? They couldn't have much to be worth protecting. And sure enough..

The preacher ascended rickety stairs to a pulpit carved with an ornate gold cross. "I prophesied in the name of the Lord!" He began, his face reddening in what was no doubt the resumption of a passionate sermon. "-that God would protect us! That he would send us angels to watch over us! The Lord has heard your prayers!" A pause, punctuated by a resounding shout of "Hallelujah!" The preacher went on. "These men were sent to protect us! I prophesied that we were being lied to by the representatives of Satan, who took those too weak to obey the spirit I brought before them. Here stands the testament to God's love for us! Like Noah from the flood, God has protected us! You saw them: angels fought beside them tonight!" Another cheer, then the preacher lowered his voice a little, looking down at them as he stepped down. "Please," he said, making it, quite clear he was not merely making a request. "Speak to my flock. You came to us because God inspired you to come. Tell us."

Christian’s mind grasped around at nothing, trying in vain to put together the words that were being asked of him. But before he could, Nephi stood up. There was pain in his eyes, but an urgency too. Christian recognized it well. Nephi was obedient, and Christian had already explained how urgent the situation was. Now that the danger was passed and everything was settled, it was time for them to go. He quickly ascended the steps of the pulpit and spoke loudly, not quite a shout. His words were all deliberate. As was his way, there was no embellishment for Nephi, no symbolism or anything fancy. It was all straightforward. "God sent us to save you," he said, without a shred of doubt. He spoke so confidently that even the Preacher looked impressed. He didn't exaggerate the way the preacher did though, just looked out into the eyes of the assembled crowd with total confidence. "Because he loves each and every one of you, and he knew you would not run. He sent us to show you the way to salvation." With that, he stepped down, turning away from the crowd. Silence reigned, as Nephi had very much seemed as though he were in the middle of something. Christian could see what the others could not, though they could all see the flash as Nephi's spell took effect. Suddenly the rear wall was gone, the huge stained-glass window of various biblical scenes gone as though it had never existed.

In its place was a street, apparently at the base of some mountain. It was obviously in the United States, from the houses all orange and glowing and peaceful. The hill was steep, though not feet away was a glorious building, round and gold and beautiful in vibrant white that lit it up at night. The streets were empty other than a car or two, looking for all the world like there was no war, no old ones, and no werewolves. It was just a street, ending, it seemed, in the very House of the Lord.

"The time to leave is now!" Nephi continued, turning around. “This city will be gone by morning, but you don't have to be in it. You need to go! And so do we." The room broke into chaos, Spellbound silence at his magic shattered like glass hit by an elephant. Arguing, shouts of the preacher, promising that the angels of God would not let the city be taken... it was a din. Some did seem to be standing up though, looking out into the peaceful city at the base of the mountains. Causality gestured to get their attention, pointing to a rear exit. Nephi waited for Christian to nod, which he quickly did. It seemed the preacher's flock was separating into two distinct camps, one who viewed their advent as angels clearly warning them to leave, and the other who viewed them as demons, sent of the devil to scare them away. They did not stay to find out which had won. Causality leading the way, they vanished out the door without glancing back.

"Or see the grand beginning, where space did not extend,
or see the last creation, where gods and matter end?"

The Saint Louis metro system had been one of the fastest in the country. The trains were all electric, which meant they were easy to simply run much faster than they had been designed. Christian did all the magic for that, as of course the power grid had been down for some time. The three stood in silence in the single car they had severed from the others, Christian at the controls and the other two facing out at either of the automatic doors. The city center was the very worst, and strange shapes danced outside the train. If anything noticed them screaming down the empty tracks, nothing got in their way. Nothing but the strange reflections that danced in the windows, and sung in strange tunes when they got quiet enough to listen. The sky had gone deep purple by then, swirling and twisting and dancing and spreading over the whole city. The Mi-Go had all fled into the sky by then, and it was their strange voices that carried so horribly on the wind. But the sound of the train covered that up well enough, so that they could concentrate on their goal.

“So, we need to reach the art museum,” Christian was explaining. "The piece we're looking for is very old. Hellenistic in fact. There is a piece on loan from Greece, called an Antikythera Mechanism - the only intact, functioning example there is. It should be in the basement. I don't think it will have been looted — its power wouldn't even be recognizable to a mage unless they knew what to look for. We just need to cross our fingers that Forest Park is mostly empty."

“It isn't." Causality spoke up, looking grim. "I looked. The timeline where we rush straight in ends very badly for us: there are thousands of cultists, maybe more I could not see. Some of them have power. That is what Yog-Sothoth offers."

Nephi shivered at the sound of the name, which seemed to foul the air as Causality spoke it. "Then we will find another way. The Aspirant has not failed us yet." There was total confidence in Nephi's words, which both touched Christian and made him feel a little sad. If only he had as much trust in himself as Nephi had in him.

He spoke, but probably not what Nephi had been expecting. "Causality, what if Nephi gates us in?" He dug into a pocket, removing a brochure picturing the museum, and thrusting it back towards Nephi. It was a daunting prospect, and he knew that. To form a gate... from a moving train... to somewhere you had never visited was no easy task. That was why they hadn't teleported into the city in the first place. Nephi was good, but he was no Master. It was more than a little dangerous, particularly considering Yog-Sothoth was the Gate and the Guardian of the Gate. Even if none of his worshipers knew what they had done, he would. "Look," he spoke the word slowly, making it clear that look was more than just turning his head. "Will it work?" Prediction of the future was a difficult business, and was at the best of times just a prediction of probable futures, not a guarantee.

Causality was silent for a moment, a few horrible seconds that stretched into eternity. When he did speak, it was slowly, almost as though he did not want to admit what he had seen. He did anyway. "If I help him. I've got enough magic left to twist fate one last time. But if I do, there won't be any more lucky breaks from me tonight. Understand that, Christian. Fate can't be toyed with forever. Eventually she takes her due. I can't ask for any more boons without them turning sour."

He considered this reply for a moment, thinking of their eventual escape. He had been counting on Causality and Nephi’s combined magic to gate them home, thereby removing the requirement of some hasty escape. Nephi had demonstrated he could still reach outside the city. But for how much longer? Christian understood what was happening: Yog-Sothoth was pulling St. Louis out of their reality and into his own. When that happened, the monstrous god would be fully manifest, and only Archmastery could open a gateway home. Archmastery, or some amazing dumb luck. There was no time to wait; he nodded. "Do it."

To teleport was not as Christian had always imagined in the fiction he had written. In his stories, folding space through higher dimensions always involved crossing up into those higher planes, and seeing unspeakable things. But in that he had been mistaken. Pandemonium's higher laws overlapped two parts of the world directly over one another, which is exactly what happened. Just as he had opened a doorway out of a church and into Nephi's hometown he changed the wall of the train seamlessly into the basement of a museum, and they all stepped through.

If they had expected the basement to be deserted, they were sorely disappointed. What they could not see from the portal became frighteningly clear as they emerged into the gloom. Silence lasted only as long as it took the three of them to materialize before they emerged from hiding down a nearby hallway, filled with glass displays containing native—american artwork.

There was no time to think. Christian reached out with one of his simplest spells, turned far more effective with much practice. He tugged the shelves down with a crash, crushing two of the Mi-Go and barring the passage to the others. The sound of breaking glass and screaming alien rang throughout the museum. He had studied the design enough to know that closing the hallway bought them at least a few seconds. “Up the stairs, now!" He shouted, all attempt at secrecy gone. The buzzing shouts of the Mi-Go were all around them in the dark of the basement floor. They didn’t need telling twice to turn at a dead sprint through a room filled with medieval weaponry, up a sloping marble staircase into a room lit by brilliant moonlight. This room was empty of others, and for a few precious moments, they were alone with the rows and rows of identical glass cases, backed by cardboard displays describing their contents in detail. But they were not alone for long. There were shouts from outside, the outlines of many people as they stormed the building. The Mi-Go were not far behind from below.

"Nephi, that glass case there.” He pointed at the Greek display in the center of the room, the one with all the fancy alarms, all dead with the power. "Causality, the stairs. I’11 take the cultists." Christian ran forward, not looking back to see if they had obeyed. Of course they would... he could count on all of them to do their duty. Naturally, Christian had chosen for himself the most difficult assignment, the massive crowd that was even now huffing up the steps, turning glass displays into sparking confetti with the volume of their gunfire. He closed his eyes, then calmly gripped the staff, reciting from memory the words that would bring it to life. "I am a light in the Darkness,” he said, as calm as a summer’s morning. “And the Darkness comprehendeth it not.” The staff melted into white-hot fire, the burning core of the artifact revealed in blinding glory that caught the carpet on fire but could not touch its wielder. With a word, it soared from his hand, down onto the granite, burning a torrent of flame that ascended up and up and up, sealing the doorway to the gallery. Several cultists braved it... All proved to the others how real it was, emerging on the other side as screaming human torches. Christian felt no pity for them - he did not even stay to watch.

“We should be good!” Causality called, meeting Christian in the middle of the gallery. He could still hear the sound of Mi-Go coming, but their shouts were stretched, the usual insect-like calls so low-pitched and long they sounded more like the calls of whales. “It should take them hours to get up those steps now." Christian nodded approvingly, turning on the Mechanism with Nephi standing nearby, hacking at the glass with his sword. They were at his side in moments, the glass crumbling away under Nephi’s blows. The glass gone, and there it was - on display before millions of people - the very key to their salvation. The Antikathera Mechanism was a beautiful piece of Greek machinery, preserved through time by… magic, as they could plainly see. There were no spells active on the object, though. No, the object /was/ the spell. A spell made from matter. With Enlightened eyes, Christian saw the order in its dials. The movement of the stars, the planets. All predicted perfectly, even thousands of years later. Intricate, hand-carved gears. This was the Tool. The Tool that had led to the first Obrimos Awakening. And it would save all their lives.

Or so Christian thought. What happened next happened so suddenly that they were all completely frozen, powerless. The sky outside, in the window, changed almost instantly from black to deep, seething purple. They were all suddenly bombarded with frequencies that none had ever seen before, nor could they. They hadn't, because light did not do that in their universe. The sound from outside had died abruptly, the struggling on the stairs had died... only the flames made a sound. The flames, and their heartbeats. None dared to breathe. That was it. They were too late. Yog-Sothoth had taken the city, and them with it. Ripped from their universe, there was no spell on Earth that could bring them back. They were all dead.

Nephi’s body shook beside them, and he abruptly clutched at his throat. Causality took one arm and Christian took the other, but there was nothing they could do. Light burned in his chest, smoke issued from his throat... then he exploded. Bone and blood soaked everything, and the hideous smell of insides was everywhere. Only /afterwords/ did Christian feel Nephi‘s shielding spell fail, as if to show them just how effective their spells would be against this foe. As though any of them needed telling. Yog-Sothoth had materialized, and he was standing right beside them.

"There is no end to matter, there is no end to space.
There is no end to Spirit, there is no end to race."

Christian had no context to describe the being that had come into their midst. It was utterly unlike anything in the world he knew. At the same time, it was not horrible the way the Deep Ones were. It did not strain the sanity of man the way one's first sight of a Shoggoth might. Yog-Sothoth knew the way the sight of something impossible could make someone unable to talk with him. Unlike the Old Ones, the god who was the Gate and the Guardian of the Gate took the time to talk and even took special measure to cloak most of his presence, to protect the sanity of those who saw. As such, what Christian saw was not truly the Gate, only what his mind could understand. Several different diameter spheres, each glowing with a different shade. Each one was a world, filled with life and people and who knew what else, and they swam through the air, overlapping one another and glowing with their own internal light. When it spoke, the voice came from nowhere, deep and resonating, a voice that shook the glass cases that were still intact. A voice older than creation itself. "Willworker." It addressed Christian, who knew it was talking to him the same way he had known all those years ago that his sister had not died. "You fought nobly. But the battle is over. We do not go on in fighting one another. We converse now. Listen." There were no questions in the god‘s voice. They were commands, spoken with the same tone that Christian used to command the world in his spells.

Christian did, though he did not have much choice in the matter. He released his shield; there was obviously little it would do for him if Yog-Sothoth wanted him dead. It had protected him from the bits of Nephi, which fell to the ground in a sphere around him. He tried not to look, keeping focused on the Outer God. His mind spun desperately, searching for a way out of this. Anything! But there was nothing he could do but listen. He had lost. Now all that remained was to see why Yog-Sothoth had left him alive. He did not see Causality edge slightly away, towards the mechanism. Apparently, neither did the God. Or if it did, it didn’t care.

The voice was not exactly male or female, nor did it conform to any of his predispositions about how a voice ought to be. It had a reverberation to it, as though altered like much modern music. But it was English, even if not arranged quite how one might expect. The meaning was clear. "You fight well, Willworkers. Many of my followers cease in struggling after you." Then a sound like laughter. "Proved them duller. We’re together on this, Willworkers. Seeking after secrets that no others know. This is us. We are alike. Now you are mine. Your city is mine.

There was a pause then, so short it was almost imperceptible. “You serve, no more weak and feeble. Give up your mysteries, I give new. Better mysteries." As it spoke, Christian found his mind assaulted with images, great and terrible. Without knowledge of the Mind Arcana, he had no way to resist them. He saw this city, alone on a dark, bleak world of creatures no human mind could comprehend. But that didn't matter. Humanity need not be doomed! Yog-Sothoth loved humanity, after all. They were better than many of his other servants - easier to corrupt, easier to bend to his will. In the vision, Christian saw himself, exalted above all those in this city, and the many other cities Yog-Sothoth would claim as his own before the end. He was the Hirophant, one of the few who was strong willed enough to meet personally with the God and emerge intact. After all, only the God's servants were left - everyone else had evacuated. Christian could be their king, he could build humanity anew on this alien world. It didn’t matter what happened to earth! Cthulu could never come here! Either that, or Yog-Sothoth could kill him just like he had killed Nephi, and his life would he spent. Better do what good he could, right?

In the end, Christian almost said yes. But as it happened, his hand was in his pocket. It was empty now, aside from a little rock. A rock Liz had given him, taken from the Underworld. But instead of being blinded by the vision, Christian saw her. He saw the world he loved, really loved. He saw children laughing, he saw the magnificent temples and the animals and his ugly town with its dirty streets, and he shook his head. "I cannot serve you," he answered the God, making a gesture with one hand. The fire in the entrance died at once, and his staff soared through the air, returning to his outstretched hand. Not that he expected it to help him. This was a God. He just wanted to die with a weapon in his hand. He looked up, expecting to see Causality nodding in agreement, letting the Outside slaughter then both. His face was grim, contemplative. Then he nodded.

"Defeat was always inevitable. We always knew it." Causality spoke slowly, his head lowered respectfully to the God who floated between them. Whether the alien being noticed, Christian could not tell, but the old man went on anyway. "Change is better than death. I will become your servant. Fate has decided." He looked away, not meeting Christian‘s eyes. He couldn’t. The shame in his face was awful, but there was something else.

"Dammit Causality!" Christian shouted, all his discipline forgotten. "Have you forgotten who this is? See that blood on your clothes? HE did that!" He was crying now, but he didn't care. Death was only seconds away, and he knew it. Death would only he the start

Yog-Sothoth lifted slowly into the air. It had no physical features as mortal eyes could discern, but somehow they could tell he was watching them. "Demonstrate." Came the voice. "Kill the Speaker, and your race will no longer have a voice. You will use my Mysteries and he will cease. Agree."

Christian wanted to protest, wanted to argue, to say anything that would stop Causality. To pull out his handgun and shoot him. But he knew that if he tried that, he was dead. It was all he could do to hope against hope his friend would change his mind. Would remember. Or… that he had some sort of plan in this. If Causality could plan after all was lost, than he was the greater man for it. But he didn't. Christian knew what Yog-Sothoth was doing, without being told. The Supernal was a choice, and when you made it, your soul /belonged/ to the watchtower. The only way to take it away was another choice. Even the God, with all his power, could not defy it. The only way Causality could give up the Supernal was consenting to it. With a word, he would swear his soul to Yog-Sothoth forever, and never lay eyes on the watchtowers again. With a word, he would be lost. "I Agree." He met Christian's eyes then, one last flash of humanity. In those eyes, Christian read the last words of his friend. They said: "Good Luck."

The transformation that happened next was far worse than Nephi's mere death. Christian watched as the soul was ripped from Causality's body, like a hand reaching in where no hand had a right to be. Everything that was good about him, everything virtuous and lovely and bright, was extinguished in an instant. Only hatred was left in those eyes, hatred and absolute obedience. Then blood oozed from his eyes, as they stretched and segmented, becoming closer to an insect’s than a man's. His jaw ripped and flexed, bones and teeth tearing through skin and sharpening into a pair of double-jointed mandibles. Another pair of limbs ripped through his clothes, ending in razor-sharp claws that dripped with poison. His legs melted into tentacles, at least a dozen pairs that grew out and out and tore away at the rest of his clothes. Thousands of little holes like pores, or eyes, opened all along his body, oozing something green and cankerous. Where the fluid touched the ground, it melted through stone, sending up clouds of toxic gas.

"Learn, Speaker. Fight. Learn the power of my mysteries. Cease, and I will take the Light Within. You will still serve, when you learn. Now you suffer first." The last words hit hardest of all, so hard Christian nearly toppled over. "You think your Illusion of a Supernal can stand against a universe crushing down on it? See if you can even reach it. Watch how much help your magic is in the face of reality. Humanity is over. Your soul is not enough. Learn." Then the final command, not directed at him. "Divide the Speaker."

For the second time that night, time seemed to slow. Christian's eyes found his attacker, reaching out with its tentacles, each one ending in a venomous mouth. He saw the ruin of Causality's clothing, and the glint of gold within. The gold of the Mechanism, hidden in the ruins but for an odd corner. But how could he reach it, when Causality was between them? Would he even be able to use magic to defend himself? Could he reach the supernal? And how could he get to it before Yog-Sothoth noticed what he was doing? The answer came at once, as if sent from God. His mind flooded with one of the first tests he had endured as a member of the Master’s Order. His first Wizard's Duel. The spell to create the playing field was one of the simplest he knew. Magic was greatly empowered within it, and the duel was more a conflict of will than of strength. He could not overpower this monster with his body... but he might be able to defeat it with his mind. In the split-second that Christian had left, he spoke the words of a rote he had long since memorized. He squared the circle.

For one horrible instant it seemed as though nothing had happened. As though the Supernal truly was outside his grasp, and his magic utterly stolen from him. But then he felt it, the familiar burning in his chest that he always felt while doing magic. Space flickered and twisted, expanding outward even as it swallowed the several feel around them, twisting them into the mystical playing field of the Duel Arcana. Lines of text twisted across the ground, which was swept clear of all but the heaviest refuse. Christian dropped his staff, watching as the space between him and Causality grew to the fifty-foot gap that the spell created. A boundary of glowing light formed the outside of the arena, a barrier that would be impassable until one of them was defeated. Even Yog-Sothoth was outside the circle now, though whether that was by its own choice or the power of the spell, Christian would never know. The monster that had been Causality was dazed for just an instant... then it charged, baring down on him more quickly than any earthly animal.

In every Duel Arcana, participants fought with a "shield" made of one Arcana, and a "sword" made from another. These symbolic powers took physical form according to the combatant's will, for it was with will that they fought. Christian’s shield formed of his knowledge of Prime, the only magic he had that he thought might stand some chance of stopping causality. Within the circle, it looked like a heavy kite shield, worked of pure light, its outsides flickering with the ultimate potential and glory that burned in Supernal fires. His sword appeared in his other hand, a medieval short sword whose blade was alive with the crackling lightning of the Aether. Robes of light wrapped around him, casting back the purple gloom of the museum.

Causality did not fight with a shield, other than the hardened outer shell of his body. He did have a sword, though Christian doubted there had been much conscious involvement in creating it. The ground smoked and hissed as the acid ate away at it, and the shadows lengthened at every horrible stride. Darkness seemed to thicken and congeal around him, a darkness filled with swirling stars and horrible monsters. It was the darkest reaches of space, utterly devoid of life and hope that any sane mind could comprehend. It was not Supernal magic, but it was magic nonetheless.

Christian had just a second to brace himself before Causality collided with him. "Oak and iron guard me well." He thought the words to an old rhyme, bracing his shoulder against the shield. "Or else I’m dead and doomed to hell." Causality struck him nearly with the force of a semi-truck at full speed, dislocating Christian’s shoulder and flinging him against the rear barrier of the circle. His shield flared up, vibrant illumination that stubbornly declined to die even as its wielder landed, keeping his feet only by some miracle of happenstance. The pain was blinding, and he nearly dropped sword and shield both. But he didn't, holding his ground for a second blow that sent him flying again, this time towards the other end of the circle. The shield grew brighter, so bright that cracks had began to form along its surface from the strain. One more blow, and it would fall apart, and the duel would be over. Causality charged again, screaming in a voice that was utterly alien, four long black tongues lolling from his jaws, reaching out for Christian and the meat that he would soon be. Christian gritted his teeth for another charge, bracing himself against the rear of the barrier, and feeling for Causality's clothes with one of his feet. Only this time, he didn’t stand and let himself be overcome.

At the very last possible instant, Christian dropped the shield, which fell and crumbled to glowing rubble as though it had been made of glass. His sword, entirely unused so far, lengthened into a cruelly barbed pike, which he braced against the corner of the playing field and aimed squarely at the chest of his attacker. Causality’s own weight propelled him straight into it, and cruel flames pierced the armor of his body with ease. The force of the blow drove the sword straight into the ground, and Causality barbed atop it like a wild boar. Christian might have been crushed, except that he dived to one side at the last possible second, taking Causality's clothes to the ground with him. It was a painful jump, but as he slid across the floor, he held tightly to the bundle, protecting it from damage with his own body. His hands found the Tool, and before even Yog-Sothoth had realized what had happened, Christian let loose the spell.

"There is no end to glory, there is no end to love!
There is no end to being, there is no death above!"

Light, so bright it blinded him, so bright it burned away his injured shoulder and all the cuts on his body from the glass, and the bruises of his fall. So hot it burned away at his light-sensitive eyes and the weakness in his soul, leaving him in an agony Christian had not even imagined before. But it was a good hurt. Like the pain after a good workout, it was pain with purpose. Soon enough, it was past, and Christian became conscious of a hand thrust toward his body. He took it and was assisted to his feet. His clothes had changed, but he hardly noticed that. They were standing somewhere, somewhere white and expansive and positively glorious. But he hardly saw any of that in the face of his Master. He recognized the man at once, though his amazement, coupled with shame, was so great that he wanted to drop to his knees and hide his face.

The Master did not have unusual features. Olive skin, brown eyes. His hair was white, his face so warm and so compassionate that it could have melted the iciest heart. Even the maw of the void might have had pause at an expression of such love. Christian felt that his proper place was on his knees, but the man’s expression told him otherwise. Master or not, he watched Christian with the respect of an equal and the love of a father. "Christian," he said warmly, releasing the young man's hand. "I have been waiting for you."

That was it. Christian could resist the urge no longer. He began to sob, embracing the man and letting his tears run freely. The Master held him, as a parent might hold a child. Until he had finished. Then they could talk.

Christian would never know how long he had spent in the Supernal, a place he had never expected to see again. But he could not stay. If he did, the Earth would be lost, along with everyone he loved. Leaving was much harder than saying no to Yog-Sothoth, because he knew the Master would not judge him for it. He could stay, and be free from sorrow forever. Stay, and leave grief behind, and pain. In the end though, he had to leave. He was not ready to stay here, not yet. Nevermind that by leaving, he might never see the Supernal again. The promise of the Master made the difference in the end. "I chose you to be our Speaker, Christian. When you have said what I have taught you, you will find your way back. We will meet again." With that promise in mind, Christian took his staff, which was the only physically transformed part of this whole ordeal. Iron it had been, once. But it was white now, and much lighter. The biblical words remained, along with a warmth that would never, ever fade.

Staff in hand, Christian walked down a road paved with gold to one of the most horrible places in his memory. An old warehouse, the very same one where he had seen Ramira alive for the last time. When he reached the end, it became real around him, and the light of the Supernal was gone from around him. Traffic passed behind him on the street, oblivious to his ordeal. Likely oblivious to the fact that he even existed at all. The door was locked and barred ahead of him, as it had been since that fateful night. Christian reached forward, and the padlock melted away, falling to the ground with a splash of molten iron. The chains came away easy then, and he stepped inside, not caring who watched. The precipitous stairwell seemed to stretch down into hell itself, but he did not travel in the gloom of a flashlight. This time, he brought his own miniature sun, frightening away the rats and far worse things that scurried frantically to avoid the light.

At the base of the stairwell, there opened once again that massive chamber, with ceiling concealed even from the light he had brought from above. The room was empty, deadly silent, though he felt thousands of alien eyes on him, judging his intentions, as well as his power. The familiar outlines remained on the floor, the very same that had meant the end of one of his best friends. Christian searched a moment for a sharp stone, then traced the lines anew, copying the ritual with painful precision. Every line meticulously traced, the awful pall of the Outside began to settle over the circle, waiting only for the invocation. Christian did not know the spell, but he did not need it. He had brought something of Ramira's, a necklace with a d2O on the end that she had given him a few years ago. "Ramira!" He yelled, though not in English. "Come forth!"

Epilogue

"So let me get this straight. You’re magic, our friends are monsters, and the world is ending. And I've been dead for a year." Ramira's voice was weak, as weak as she looked in a hospital gown with tubes going in and out of her. A nurse was at that very minute making adjustments to her medication, which was mostly an anti-anxiety cocktail. Technically there was nothing at all /wrong/ with her; the hospital had just seemed a good first destination to Christian, after she had come back from the dead. Well that, and what Ramira had done immediately after materializing. "Oh, and me too. That stuff I did-" Considering the sheer volume of medication flooding into her, it was a wonder she was even conscious.

Christian reclined in the uncomfortable chair, nodding matter-of-factly. He was dressed in ordinary clothes now, save for the Atlantean glyph on his tee-shirt. The one-word symbol meant “Willworker". Naturally, he’d picked it up online, from an entirely mundane company that made similar self-identification products for every race he knew of, even the ones with just a few members. He suspected that print-on-demand was heavily involved in how the company could stay in business. "That's about right. Rick is a cat, Darrel's a wolf, my sister's… complicated. Lizzie’s dead, and Austin-"

"You didn't tell me Lizzie was dead!" Ramira cut him off abruptly, sitting up in her bed, anger flaring. Despite the medication, the beeping of the pulse monitor became more like a snare drum, beeping almost constantly.

"Relax!" Christian put out one hand. “She's not dead anymore. She's alive, but she was dead. Not like you, you’re really alive. She has..." He trailed off. “It's complicated."

Ramira relaxed, though her expression remained one of deep frustration. She rolled her eyes at Christian and at the panicking nurse. "That's what you said about me. And about Darrel. I think you said it about everyone. Except Austin. But I bet once I ask…" A pause, and Christian nodded again. She sighed, relaxing into the hospital bed. "Great. I dunno if I like this world, Christian. I miss the one I left behind. When I didn't have these awful visions. When nobody was anything, and we played video games in your basement."

Christian nodded in agreement. As beautiful as the Supernal had been, as spectacular as it had felt to wrap Ramira in his robe and help her up the stairs into the light of day, he would’ve traded all of it for a mundane world, a world without magic, and without demons. But this was their world. Whether any of them liked it or not, this was the world they had. It was all any of them could do to learn to live here. And keep living.