Cornelius was definitely in the shit, both figuratively and actually. The sewerage system had reached a dead end, further rubble had blocked the spillway and light filtered in from a large hole above. Blocks of stone provided what looked like an easy exit, but the three Ambryn which scraped their way into and out of the miasma of detritus made things just a little more difficult. There was no way round them and Cornelius steeled himself for what he must do.
As he moved closer, the creatures shifted, attracted by the sound; one slid into the murky liquid, its tail lashing it forward. It sailed right past Cornelius. It was then he realised that it could not see him. Whether it was poor eyesight or the heady scent masking his position, it worked. He gently released Clari, sending her arrowing for the exit. Passing the uppermost of the beasts, she let fly, charring its scaled head. A scream of pain, and his faithful friend’s bugling challenge, deviated all interest. Cornelius waited no longer.
Both knives free, he lunged. Steel slid easily into the nearest monster’s flesh, cutting deeply. Its reaction was instant, teeth flashing to where it thought the attack had come from. Using his blades as climbing tools, Cornelius stabbed his way upwards, blood quickly disappearing into the turgid depths. The Ambryn now reared, providing him with a stepping stone. Now he was actually on the rubble, scrabbling his way towards the next creature.
Clari wasted no time coming to his aid, her sleek shape arrowing down. Her own teeth, no match for the Ambryn’s still did their work. A snap and she was latched onto one eye. A wrench and she was again in flight, a tasty morsel in her maw. Before a lunging jaw could hook onto her, Cornelius had arrived, his rusty garrotte looping round a thick neck. He threw himself back, the razor-sharp wire slicing deeply.
With a twist, he was free, avoiding the falling body and was on his way. He burst from the hole, Clari in hot pursuit. No monsters awaited him and he quickly took advantage of the nearby cover, his breath sawing and gasping in his throat. The smell of rot and decay was strong here, and it took him a moment to realise that he was the source. Once sure there was nothing else coming out of the hole, he picked his way carefully forward, now and again trying to scrape himself clean against the buildings.
“We’re nearly there,” gasped Harms, as they closed on the portal, “the last of the Taurans appear to have disappeared through.”
“How do we know that they won’t be waiting for us?” asked Kam, panting as he tried to keep up with them.
“We don’t!” snapped Harms, “so we’ll go through slowly. I will lead the troopers through, Burns staying with you to cover this side. Once we give the all clear you can follow us.”
“But you don’t know the terrain,” said Kam, “not like I do. Wouldn’t it make more sense …”
“I’m in charge here,” snarled Harms, “and the decision is taken!”
Kam nodded once in acquiescence, Burns watching him closely. For a moment he was sure he saw anger flash across the Taartun’s eyes, quickly masked by his usual inane look, but there nonetheless.
Harms halted their party, his hand signals sending the four troopers forward. “Wait here,” he muttered and followed them through, moving quickly into the dense vegetation.
“Now what?” queried Kam petulantly.
“We wait,” said Burns flatly, already having taken up his guard position, scanning the surrounding area through his rifle’s sights.
“Well?” he asked, as the man switched worriedly between screens.
“Something left that ship, Boss,” he said, “but I get nothing.”
“Spool up the defence systems,” said Johns, patting the man on the shoulder, “if I’ve learnt anything at all over the last months, it’s to trust my instincts.”
“The Bridge is yours,” he said more formally to his second-in-command, “I am going hunting.”
He collected his men and battle suit as he made his way to the hanger and air lock. These suits had been developed for close quarter and terrestrial operations. They could be attached to mobile weapons platforms, which allowed both manoeuvrability and enhanced firepower. No-one could ever think of them as fighters, but Johns knew how effective they could be. Whoever was shooting at them, obviously did not expect much resistance. Johns grinned to himself as he entered the hanger bay and saw his ride waiting for him.
Flagship Unknown Location
The voice bubbled and hissed from inside the blackened and armour-clad figure. Bodily fluids, long decayed spluttered from between rotten lips and the Ori unconsciously jerked back from the lumbering figure.
“There is no time,” hissed the first, drawing a plasma pistol, “we dance to a rather different tune I think.”
His final word was punctuated by the hissing stream of energy exiting the pistol’s muzzle. It boiled what little flesh was left in Shan’s creature and melted non-resistant armour. Two others of Shan’s minions lurched into life and met the same fate.
“Fool!” Said the second of the players, “Shan will not forgive this.”
“I think that he may be a little busy. Even so,” fingers danced over the main screen, “I have no intention of remaining to witness his displeasure. It is time to run again.”
There was a terse nod, and both Ori rose, making their way as quickly as they could to the Flagship’s Main Bay. Whilst they collected what little they had of importance, pods trundled on mechanical rails, being lifted and clamped to the side of a sleek yacht. Neither would run empty-handed and they may yet need a little insurance policy.
“Are we ready?”
What had been a rhetorical question became a scream of pain as a blunt object slammed into an unprotected skull.
“Sorry Brother,” muttered one of the Ori, “Someone needs to remain and take the blame.”
Shortly after, a dull black yacht slowly slid into space, its engines igniting briefly and driving it in the opposite direction to the battle taking place close by. With the minimum of calculation, the lone Ori jumped his ship into Fold Space. When Shan returned he would find a semi-conscious victim ready for his sick ministrations. He could replace one of his followers, but a little sport first would surely be to his liking.
First Contact Unknown Location
Johns heard the cry from the ship and scanned the surrounding area. Energy traces showed from where the attack had come, yet he had no hope of their enemy still being there. Something flashed across his peripheral vision and he reacted, sending out a pod of rockets, whose arcs intersected his hastily estimated enemy’s flight path. There was a flash of intense blue-white light, his visor darkening to protect him, and then he could see one of their attackers. Its stealth capability damaged, the drone turned to attack and Johns waited, eyes flicking for any other movement. His fingers caressed his weapons controls and he grinned in anticipation.
Point-defence guns opened up behind him, thousands of rounds expended as a curtain of hot metal spat towards the oncoming drone. It was effective for lower level missiles, but an intelligent drone easily avoided the onslaught, In return energy weapons flashed, striking the ship and boiling globules of metal into vacuum. Still Johns waited.
The second drone was highlighted by the exhausts of the first’s missiles. Johns fired. SRM’s flashed forward straddling the onrushing drone, but it was the stream of plasma which killed it. A thin whip-like strand covered the rapidly closing distance, draping over the front of the drone for a moment, before it released its potential. The drone was no more.
“Now that’s more like it,” muttered Johns, as he boosted the rockets controlling his mobile gun platform. He aimed at the drone damaged in the initial attack and held his breath briefly, before thumbing his firing button.
“All Hands, all Hands,” Johns heard the clearly pronounced words, “critical system damage will cause an emergency re-entry. Take your Stations...”
“Crap!” Johns was outside and unless he and his men moved quickly, they would be left behind. Death outside the ship, or a good chance of losing their lives within the ship. Great choice.
“Back to the ship!”
His voice was steady and his men responded quickly and efficiently. They had been well trained, Johns hoped that they were lucky with it.
Betrayal hurt. Its pain had faded a little and become the uncontrolled rage of a spoilt child. Viker had lost the two closest of his people, yet their relationship had long paled into insignificance in comparison with the sultry allure of his power. Where others had accepted and grown into their power, Viker listened to the kernel that was Marius and sank further into depravity each day.
There was no high ideal any more, and the young man who had idolised Walters had become spiteful and self-indulgent. The throne room around him stank; decaying food and body parts littered the floor and those who now followed him swayed in the ecstasy of their mistaken faith and the influence of the drugs he plied them with. Nothing worked for him; enhanced metabolism eradicated the chemical substances quickly and his drug reliance hung on the Dark Power he wielded.
Word spread quickly and no more frightened refugees flocked to his banner, rather now they ran from his reputation and ravening disciples. His outward appearance changed daily, stained and tainted by blood and excess. Black wings trailed the floor behind him, feathers dropping to join the pile of refuse there.
Power leached from him into his depraved and adoring people, thinning their bone structure and turning them into his mirror image. Long claws sprang wickedly from bent and broken fingers, and their snouts had lengthened revealing twin rows of sharpened teeth. It was long past time to leave, but something still held Viker here. There was nothing left to wait for, yet still he lingered, an almost pathetic hope for salvation slowly being strangled out of existence.
Fold Space Unknown Location
Fold Space itself trembled in anticipation as Johns and his men drew near. Another point change was occurring and the fabric of reality strained.
The statement was meant both as information and a warning. All through the vessel soldiers prepared themselves for what they knew not, but they believed. Johns smiled to himself; he was a seasoned non-commissioned officer and his job had always been to prepare men and women for battle. They feared and respected him, but he was no charismatic leader. That had been the job of both Walters and Viker, now he needed someone else. He just hoped that Alana had found them.
“Transition out of Fold Space in ten...nine...”
It was an ethereal and disembodied voice which echoed Johns’ sombre mood. There would be deaths, that he knew, but it was better to fight for something than rot in the shadow of evil. The old soldier accepted the fact that he and Alana had a duty to redeem Viker, it was a given. That certainty of purpose was tinged with another; the boy would die, and it would not be pleasant.
Their ship shuddered back into reality, alarm klaxons instantly screaming to raucous life. Some things never changed.
Flagship Unknown Location
The arrival of the ship was clearly unexpected. Rogue Ori and sycophantic adherents of the Game, were the only ones who knew of rendezvous points throughout the Urionverse. No-one, except the Game players themselves knew of this location. It had been a shock when Shan arrived. This, however, was clear grounds for heart failure. An unknown vessel in unscheduled contact with the Flagship could only mean one thing.
“Deploy the drones.”
Shan was occupied elsewhere and old habits die hard.
“What about them,” one of the Ori indicated Shan’s reeking followers whose bodies rotted quietly in their Master’s absence.
“They are nothing but putrescent vessels,” replied his only conscious compatriot, “ignore them.”
Corrupt, diseased and psychopathically loyal, Shan’ followers listened, and waited for instructions.
Hanger bay doors opened, allowing the sleek attack drones to spear out into the darkness. Their matt-black colouration made them almost invisible to the naked eye, and sophisticated stealth technology took care of their thermal profile. These too had been stolen, and were tools of last resort. At the time of their acquisition from a Protectorate Research Facility, they had only been seen as a precaution. Today, that whimsy had been proven right.
Quickly the eight craft took up a twin diamond formation and followed their instructed attack pattern.
Grishak had let his fellow survivors draw the beasts on. A lust for blood seemed to cloud all other senses, for which he was thankful. They were soon past and he followed warily, perhaps they could take care of the Church scum too?
“Why aren’t you shooting?” Harms asked, as Cornelius used one of his knives as a pedicure tool.
“Even I can see that they are running from something," said Butt, disdainfully,"they couldn’t care less about us.”
The Sargeant saw what Cornelius meant, there had been a brief skirmish, but once past the Taurans had kept right on running. Weapons and packs had been dropped in haste and to increase velocity.
Cornelius’ exclamation was echoed by the crack of an auto-rifle.
Harms’ question died almost as soon as it was born. The Ambryn stole his power of speech and reminded him of why he had suffered those nightmares.
Cornelius’ shock caused little delay in his response and less in Clari’s anger. He could have done with a little more air, her tail squeezing his windpipe. One quick slap to her head and a soothing pat and all was well with the world. Butt punched the nearest soldier, wresting an auto-rifle from nerveless fingers. Quickly the weapon was live, spitting jacketed slugs into the body of the nearest monster. Red blood and fragments of flesh were his reward and he grinned savagely.
“Fire at will!” screamed Harms, his actions mirroring his words.
The front line of Ambryn stopped dead, as disciplined fire settled the soldiers. Pace by pace, they backed away from the slithering and hissing mass.
“How far are we from the portal?” gasped Cornelius.
“Too far,” muttered Harms, reloading.
“Ah well,” grinned Butt, starting to run towards the creatures, “then the only way is forward!”
His actions surprised not only his own companions, but the Ambryn themselves. He dropped his rifle, lowered his head and charged. The spiked helmet crunched into one monster, the force snapping one strap. With a curse, Cornelius left it buried in its body as Clari burned through the face of another. None followed him and soon he was lost amongst the sinuous forms.
“Forget him!” screamed Harms, “Retreat!”
There was no ordered retreat, all turned and ran, following the path recently taken by the Taurans. To their surprise, the Ambryn did not follow, but turned snapping and snarling to deal with the diminutive warrior.
Cornelius was talking to Clari, but more out of comfort than expectation of a reply. A sweeping tail drove him to his knees and saved his life. The blood and gore splattered over his body helped, making it impossible for the Ambryn to gain a hold with their weak limbs. Their larger body mass pushed him through, slipping and sliding. His knives continued their bloody work, and Clari’s corrosive breath made sure the Ambryn’s rage did not lessen.
Five of the creatures piled upon him, the floor collapsing suddenly as one of the derelict buildings gave way. Cornelius dropped into what must have been a sewer, the stench testifying to its original use. The pipe sloped down and Cornelius followed.
He could hear the Ambryn behind him, but did not stop to see how many there were or how close they might be. With a gulp of foetid air for luck, he dove down into the awful muck and tried his best to swim.
Grishak watched from cover as the small human charged his enemies. If nothing else, he had to admit that one had courage. When the building collapsed on top of the Ambryn, he sighed. His job was done as far as this warrior was concerned. Now he needed to focus on finding his cowardly brethren and killing the rest of the Church soldiers.
It somehow seemed less of a challenge. Without the small one, things would be just too easy.
High in the atmosphere the deadly light show continued; misshapen lumps fell, their outer skins sloughing off under the intense heat. None were symmetrical; lumps and nodules spotted their surfaces, becoming more pronounced as they came closer to earth. Faint shapes writhed beneath the protective coating, their sinuous movement increasing with each layered removal.
None hit the ground lightly, dust and rock particles shooting high into the air. The thud of these miniature meteorites shook the earth and was followed by distinct cracking sounds. As the air cleared, one small clawed hand broached clear, a sibilant hissing accompanying this first sign of life. Clicking and rattling could then be heard, as first one then another of the creatures called to its fellows. Wings buzzed rapidly although none took flight.
Pale eyes stared upon the rocky landscape, segmented bodies rasped the earth dragging their owners clear of the landing site. Diamond-shaped teeth gnashed in anticipation as monstrous mouths opened and closed. The Ambryn had arrived.
Ruined City Zone II
Clari watched the landing from the safety of a snoring Cornelius’ grasp. She instinctively knew when danger approached, and this sparkling display smelt all wrong. Only one stared as eagerly as she; Sargeant Harms shivered within his blanket and checked his autorifle closely. He had seen this once before, and from a distance. The next morning three hundred were dead, many more to follow as the Protectorate blanket bombed the area. No-one ever explained why. Church propaganda had spoken of an infestation, but had been less than specific with the details.
Harms used the toe of his boot to rouse Cornelius, receiving a hiss of indignation from the diminutive warrior’s guardian.
“What?” snorted Cornelius, “I’m already awake…”
Harms laughed, “Trouble,” he muttered, “time to move.”
Butt rolled to his feet, one of his knives appearing magically in his hand, all semblance of sleepiness disappearing.
“Where?” he questioned, scanning the area.
The Sargeant indicated the lit area with his rifle, his gestures under-pinned with the thump of impact.
“Over there. Let’s wake the others.”
There was no need. Each of the soldiers had felt the earth tremble and woke; battle conditions bred alertness in the living.
Clari stared over Cornelius’ shoulder as the men marched away. A wind had sprung up suddenly, filling her delicate nostrils with a rank stench; rotten vegetation mixed with a spicy musk. Her throat vibrated as she growled in challenge.
“Not to worry, pet,” said Cornelius, stroking her head, “I’m here and I won’t let anything hurt you.”
Harms wanted to laugh, but Cornelius spoke with a vehement sincerity, and for the first time the Sargeant believed.
Grishak too had seen the lights in the sky and sniffed warily, something was wrong. He had found the Tauran soldiers earlier and after a few sharp lessons, including two deaths, they had relatively quickly agreed to follow him. Some rather crude field surgery had seen the shaft rammed through his body and a dirty piece of tunic wrapped around him.
Normally his body healed rapidly, and he expected to be able to go back tomorrow and deal with the Churchmen. It was whilst he was lost in his own brand of reverie, that he heard the first gurgle. That and the splatter of blood which arced across his vision alerted him. The Tauran was amazed, nothing should have been able to get that close. He ducked, avoiding snapping jaws and reached absently up, his thick arms encircling a scaly neck. One sharp wrench and he moved on.
Taurans died around him; flesh ripped free of screaming bodies, limbs dangling out of falsely smiling mouths and an unpleasant smell pervaded all. Grishak knew when the battle was lost and wasted no time; his axe made no distinction between friend or foe, it was merely the key to opening a way out. These creatures were new to him. They looked like they should belong to the Taurans, but there was a mindless hunger which could not be controlled.
He burst at last out of the cordon of monsters and re-oriented himself; he knew of only one portal and was not going to let anything get in his way.
Morning came in a cacophony of noise, rousing them from their apathy with the unwelcome familiarity of the sound of weapons fire. They rather hastily gathered up what little belongings they had and Harms sent Burns out to scout the area. He obviously held little confidence in Butt, and at least knew that Burns would do a passable job.
Cornelius watched the Sniper disappear, his jinking run keeping him close to the scattered piles of rubble which lined the main street. If his supposition was correct, Taurans would be the least of their worries. He would have to be a little more careful in future, Harms was keen on leading their group, but he could not let him interfere with his own plans.
“Run!” screamed Burns, tearing around the furthest visible corner and waving his arms urgently.
Harms grabbed his rifle and scrambled into cover.
“Why are they running?” asked the Tartan.
“What? Oh, I’m not sure …” Cornelius began, but any explanation was halted by the appearance of a horde of screaming Taurans.