“Looks weird,” grunted Berbatov, squinting in order to avoid the sunlight, as it shone directly into his eyes.
“I couldn’t have expressed it better myself, Sargeant,” said Walters as he gazed pensively at the open gates, from their vantage point.
“We could just walk in, casual like, of course, “commented the Sargeant, his hand flexing on the shaft of his halberd, “and see what was there?”
“No …… I think that in this case, we’ll approach the problem a little differently to normal,” replied the Major, “It’s hard to explain, but something just doesn’t feel quite right.”
“The lack of laser fire, screaming Taurans or semi-insane monsters, perhaps?” added James, joining in the conversation.
“That, obviously, but I get a feeling …” mused Walters.
“Look, Sir,” James was pointing at a group of Taurans who were marching in single file towards the entrance, at first everything appeared normal. They stopped, waited as if listening, and then proceeded on their way. This time, however their steps were forced, jerky, and resistant.
“Can you not hear it, W’ratr?” hissed K’san
Walters concentrated and heard a faint refrain, distant yet enticing. He shook off the compulsion easily, as it appeared had the K’ran and watched, as the Taurans disappeared inside the Fortress.
Inquisitor Artix studied the data once more and frowned, nothing really made much sense. He had combed through many archives and reports, yet the true meaning of the Fortress still eluded him.
Although he was here under the auspices of the Inspectorate, this was more of his own pet project. Neither the forces accompanying him nor the hierarchy of his own Order, really had all the facts.
Sighing, he rearranged the information and began again, the key was here somewhere and he needed to find it, urgently.
“So they are retreating?” asked General Hamner, waiting for Wolfe’s response.
“I am not sure we should really qualify it as that in the true sense of the word,” replied Wolfe. “All that we are really sure of is that the main body of the Tauran Forces are leaving the immediate vicinity of our objective. Before long, they will make contact with our advance units.”
“Why would they move in our direction? Our reports from Arnesson, talk of the disengagement of Walters and his forces who remain in the vicinity of the Fortress still. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Wolfe moved around the table as he spoke, pacing nervously.
“Oh, I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Hamner arrogantly, “I have said all along that Walters is one with them, he and his men have been clearly tainted. They have stayed to pay homage to their new leaders and guard the area.”
“Why then were they fighting?” asked Wolfe sarcastically, “because it seemed like a good thing to at the time?”
“My dear Wolfe,” responded Hamner, condescendingly, “we know well that these degenerates are always warring amongst themselves. That’s nothing new.”
“And what,” queried Wolfe, “exactly do you suggest that we do?”
“We should do exactly what the Inspector asked of us. Particularly, we must commit our main forces against the Tauran incursion and drive them back. We have sufficient resources available to deal with them directly.”
“And Walters? What of him?” questioned General Wolfe.
“We can take care of him easily enough once we have dealt with the main threat,” and here Hamner paused, “And if, by some outside chance, we are delayed, I am sure our friend the Inspector and his allies, will have no trouble dealing with such rabble.”
The main body of his troops remained positioned outside the walls, as Walters and his small group of followers made their way towards the entrance. The imposing stone walls of the Fortress reared skywards, the sheer scope of their expanse intimidating.
He had decided to take only a select few with him, as he was wary of what might be waiting inside for them. Walters had tried to dissuade Berbatov from joining him, but the big man had been strangely insistent. It had been agreed that at the first sign of anything strange, they would beat a hasty retreat. Although Leftenant Wilson by seniority had every right to command the human part of his followers, Walters had spent a long time explaining to him the necessity of listening to Sargeant James’ ‘advice’. The K’ran remained under the leadership of K’ranwon, K’rantu refusing to be left behind.
Therefore it was a strange party that passed through the gates, Walters, Berbatov and his section, K’san, K’rantu and those charged with the role of Walters’ bodyguard.
Tendrils of smoke rose from the hole underneath the altar; as if sentient it reacted to the life forces entering the web it had carefully spun. A dark viscous fluid bubbled slowly into the room, hardening on contact with the cold stone surface. The eerily flickering light strengthened and began to pulse, slowly and in time to the music, which once more began to weave its subtle spell. Spreading outwards, all pervading, its tentacles of sound groped blindly for its prey.
Walters knew when the music started; he felt the push against his consciousness and glanced quickly at his companions. They seemed unaffected; the K’ran had pricked their ears, become more aware, watchful and eager. Berbatov laughed and gripped his halberd tightly, the weapon once more exhibiting the discharge of energy from its blade. The members of his section looked to the Sargeant, glanced at Walters and then seemingly reassured, continued on.
He had noticed the difference in these men too; his transformation in some way had affected them, made them stronger. Their features had changed, become more angular and distinct. They held themselves differently too, their gait lithe, like that of the K’ran.
Without real thought he pushed back dismissively against the pressure in his mind, his disdainful slap causing it to start backwards, if only for a moment. It came back, insistently probing for any weakness in his defences. With a snarl, his eyes flashing, he shrugged it off and strode forwards, entering the inner courtyard determinedly.
The Church forces struck like a hammer blow against the chaotic disorder of the Taurans. No mercy was asked for and none given. Church Guard emptied power cell after power cell into the screaming hordes, artillery fired indiscriminately heedless of individual targets, yet on they came.
General Wolfe had chosen to lead his men; he had come to the painful realisation that, whatever the Inspector’s plan was, his duty was to the Prelate and the Church first. That duty, when all was said and done, was to destroy any spread of Tauran influence, in whatever form. There was no better place, right now, than here.
He screamed with them, emptied his pistol alongside them and cursed just like them in despair as the Taurans attacked relentlessly. It seemed as though, rather than attack the Guard, they wanted to cut their way through him, to escape. Their desperation was unbelievable, the mortally wounded would use their teeth and nails, drag themselves forward on bloodied stumps and only the final shot of release would halt them.
Gradually the Church Forces gave ground, little by little and at great cost, yet they gave ground. Wolfe called for the communications operator to get Hamner for him. There was absolutely no way they would reach the Fortress at this rate, he needed Hamner to inform the Inspector of their failure, and now.
Within the Assault Carrier, Inspector Artix received Hamner’s transmission and was unconcerned. It had never been his intention to use the Church forces in anything other than a feint. A distraction in order to clear the field for him.
Again he heard how this Walters and his men had taken occupancy of the terrain surrounding the Fortress and he smiled. It was quite appalling the extent to which Hamner would go to justify his inadequacy, a jumped up Leftenant was being touted as his greatest foe. Ridiculous in the extreme.
Affectionately he watched as his troops finished their preparation, ready for the forthcoming assault. Actually, they would take offence at being called ‘his’ troops, they served only one master, and oh how they served. Very soon he would lead them down and no opposition would stand in their way, of that he was certain.
Level after level they descended, ever deeper into the bowels of the beast. For that now is what Walters knew it to be, some kind of animal force which both attracted and repelled him. His men huddled closely to him, the now stentorian music resounding all around them.
The K’ran had started a low growling and one by one the others joined in, it was a natural response, the challenge of the pack. Louder came each refrain and louder their defiance followed, step after step, floor after floor.
Hamner had begun to panic, he had tried convincing Captain Arnesson to send a shuttle to pick him up, but Artix had left a clear standing order. No-one was to leave the planet until his mission had been concluded.
Pleading did not work, threats were useless, political connections irrelevant. It was then that Hamner really began to worry, for the first time.
Unannounced the onslaught of sound ceased; no noise sallied forth from the now yawning cavity. The light continued to pulse weakly and intermittently.
Walls and floor were covered in the hardened black shell, whose surface was slick and shiny. Abruptly, the temperature began to drop rapidly, a frost-filled mist forming as if by magic around the entrance of the hole.
Blackness trembled, writhed and staggered forth into the room from the depths therein. Weirdly amorphous, the newly formed beings struggled into existence and cried piteously. As they solidified, they stood erect, a parody of body parts in their being. One by one they moved out of the room and moved to obey their undeniable impulse; to kill.
K’san howled, the call to battle accepted by all swiftly after. Yet they waited, Walters stood silently, sniffing the surrounding air. They again felt the influx of power, the supercharged quality of the air. His form coalesced into the mixture of man and beast, this time, however, the beast took precedent.
Walters flung back his head and roared, no howl this time, but the bellow of an undeniable challenge.
Guest post with D.P. Prior
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