Chapter 99 Aceldama Logs II

Aboard the low space orbiting mothership known simply as TREE, Aulus, Lo and Winnow talked quietly in their quarters. As members of Aceldama, the planet’s first line of defense against cataclysmic threats, they had exclusive access to use orbital travel. Aceldama was neutral in all political and social conflicts, and jointly funded by almost every metropolis on both Brother and Sister continents. The expense and technology required to maintain an operating air base was costly and no city-state wished to see its rivals with that power. The treaty enacted to establish Aceldama remained valid so long as Aceldama stayed neutral, only targeting forces deemed dangerous to world order. The ability to traverse the Great Tidal Wall and reach either continent was a level of mobility too advantageous to fall into any one city’s hands. 

Despite this agreed upon neutrality that defines Aceldama from exploiting its credited use of the orbit and the technology of the drop pods and the space station, Garghent wished to control TREE and dominate all air space for its own military purposes.

Aulus talked in a hushed voice to Lo and Winnow. “I’ve received contact from the Generals of Garghent. They want us to initiate their plan to take over Aceldama.”

Lo had been growing his beard since his first strand of facial hair appeared and was now thick and full, adding to his flat, hardened features and muscular arms left bare in his fur lined jerkin, all characteristic of his mountain ancestry. He scratched that beard as he responded. “We’ll follow you, whatever you decide.” His voice was tough and the dialect shaped by the mountains he grew up on which caused his consonants to be exaggerated and the vowels to be lower, an effect of the deeper breathing required to live in mountainous terrain and the constant need to speak slowly so as to avoid hyperventilation and shortness of breath.

“That’s why I’m telling you. This isn’t my decision to make alone. I know my answer, but we should all be in agreement.” Aulus replied. In contrast to Lo, Aulus was clean shaven and hair cut close cropped. His features were sharper and eye narrower than the broad Lo. They were brothers of battle, close friends for over a decade and considered among the strongest warriors of their graduating class. “What do you think, Winnow?” Aulus asked.

Winnow inhaled the smoke from her pipe, which was both food and fuel to her body and Aspect, her biology having been altered to be composed of smoke. Their quarters on TREE had a special filtration system that allowed Winnow to maintain her health by means of her pipe without damaging any of the delicate equipment or their oxygen supply. “What Lo said, we follow what you decide.” Winnow was the tallest of them and a powerhouse of athleticism. Her hair was all arranged in a broad three strand braid accentuating her small nose and round eyes. Her otherwise soft features were tempered by years of training, turning innocence into steel.

Aulus nodded twice “Garghent would ask us to eliminate all our comrades aboard this ship, unhonorably in assassination, to enhance their schemes and if that is not possible then we are to return to Garghent. Garghent is my birthplace, yet my only allegiance is to the path of the warrior. The world cannot afford to lose Aceldama for Garghent’s empire and Aceldama cannot afford to lose any Specters. If we abandon Aceldama, the world suffers. There is no part of me that desires to rejoin Garghent, even if it damns me from entering the city ever again.”

“Aye.” Lo agreed. “Aceldama means battlefield, that is where we belong.” 

“You’d have not made it back to Garghent alive.” Winnow said, grinning. 

“Garghent maintained contact with us hoping to win over our allegiance when we were first recruited into Aceldama with the aim that we could one day hand over TREE to Garghent. It was a stretch that their plan would work, but Garghent is always trying to pry their hands in where they don’t belong. We decline the operation to betray Aceldama.”

Winnow refilled her pipe and stood. “We have a meeting now. Someone on this station is likely a plant from Garghent.”

“A Specter?” Aulus asked.

“Unlikely. Just a station worker somewhere. Any Specter receiving similar messages would behave as we are. No one here would betray their comrades.” Winnow answered with confidence.

Lo shook his head. “They wanted us to take out the other members of Aceldama while we are gathered in one place in meeting.”

“Garghent’s lack of honor is disappointing.” Aulus led the trio out of their quarters and traveled down the narrow halls of the ship to the largest room.

They were the last to enter and found seats where they could. They numbered thirteen Specters. Tel Samil, leader of Aulus, Lo and Winnow’s squad, along with Darius and Vare. There was another team of six led by Zeh and then Gray, the director and recruiter of Aceldama. They were missing another squad who were killed in action on their mission trying to stop the invaders of Vallis a year ago.

Aceldama had hundreds of other personnel who worked as engineers, pilots, medics, informants and technicians. Thirteen was the number of Specters, the fighting force of Aceldama, the first line of defense for the planet.

“Now that we are all gathered,” spoke Gray in a soft yet commanding voice, “we can begin this strategy meeting.” Gray, whose skin, hair, lips and teeth were all stained gray and wearing only gray clothes, was the monochrome leader of Aceldama and a Specter possessing the Gray Aspect, one of few with a Color class Aspect.

“Attempts at recruiting another team of Specters have failed. The cities are safeguarding their Specters as tensions rise between the metropoli. We are one team down with no hopes of replenishing those numbers in the near future. This is the entirety of our force. Each Specter here is an invaluable asset for the protection of the planet. I approached each one of you with the prospect of growing stronger, honing your skills against adversaries of unknown origins and unlimited potential for destruction.”

Gray’s unnatural gray eyes found the eyes of his Specters one by one. “What blips on our radar now is the very reason we exist. There are two Fables moving from city to city, presenting a tale of this Diamak entity. The same Diamak our cultist friends claim to be in allegiance with. The two Fables were spotted heading towards Dienberj, the northernmost city on the Sister continent.” Gray paused for a moment, allowing his Specters to process what they knew he was about to say. “We have positioned TREE to their coordinates. The thirteen of us will land on them and battle them.”

“A suicide mission?” asked a burly Specter by the name of Gabber.

“It may very well be.” Replied Gray honestly. “What we are doing is scouting them out. We have no intention of being down there longer than what is necessary to gauge their power. Talis Ranis was a Fable and no one here could hope to beat him in battle. Two Fables is likely impossible. Yet we have no choice in this mission. Should their claims of Diamak be truthful, then we will have to face that thing which has destroyed multiple cities without a trace on top of two Fables and possibly the cultists.”

“If we can hurt them, even a little, then this mission will be a success.” Tel Samil informed them. “Do nothing heroic. Hit them with your Aspect and survive. That is our goal here.”

“Extraction will land alongside us. Reports indicate that these two Fables are not interested in fighting. They ignore threats and any provocation is met with swift retaliation only to the instigators. Then they merely continue on their way. According to those reports, we believe they will not pursue us should we leave successfully.”

“What happens if we hurt them?” Vare asked. His voice and his head were distorted by a field of static electricity, the result of his Archon Aspect. 

“The parameters of the mission remain the same. We attack and then retreat.”

“What of my Aspect, I must be wounded in order to activate it.” Darius questioned, a bald and brawny fighter with a similar build to Lo. 

“Our engagement time is exactly three minutes. That is when extraction is ordered to arrive. Anyone left beyond that time limit will be left for dead, we have no way of saving someone in that situation.” Gray replied.

“Wouldn’t it be wise to wait longer before trying this? To prepare ourselves better?” Aulus asked, not out of fear but tactics. 

“We have no way of knowing whether the Fables will make another appearance. This is the last city to be visited by them. Maybe they will travel to the Brother continent, maybe they won’t. As for preparation, we will never be truly ready for this engagement. What we can learn from fighting them is priceless. Our duty calls us there. Keep your wits about you and from this experience grow stronger. The total number of Specters is increasing almost daily and the strength of each Aspect is expanding tenfold. Perhaps Talis Ranis predicted something was coming and wanted to give humanity a chance, certainly something came for him. Maybe it was Diamak, maybe it was these two Fables, maybe something else. Aceldama pledged to the world to be the vanguards of doomsday. This is our duty. May the strong survive.” 

Lo’s booming laughter was perhaps out of place, but it shattered any illusions of fear and anxiety. His brown eyes sparkled like the madman he was. “Now this gets the blood boiling!” 

Lo always turned any potentially life ending situation into a competition, a show of strength and willpower. His fearlessness was infectious, though the veterans of Aceldama needed no motivation. Still, seeing someone so excited for the prospect of an overwhelming fight was bound to get the most reserved warrior riled and eager to fight.

“When do we leave?” Zeh asked, captain of the other squad in Aceldama. His Specters were all older than Tel Samil’s young group who were all in their early twenties. Zeh had veterans in their thirties and forties, physically at their peak and hardened by experience. Zeh had asked Gray only to recruit Specters whose powers dealt with water in some manner. Gray had delivered, providing Zeh with a squad suited for any maritime threat. Zeh himself was a former sailor and his Aspect was Wetwork, the business of killing people. 

Gray answered. “The Fables will be at our target location in an hour. If there are any questions, voice them now. If you wish to retire from Aceldama, do so now as well. If not, ready yourselves. The drop pods are being prepped as we speak. We land on them and engage on my mark. Remember, three minutes and we retreat. I will be at the bridge until we are ready.” Gray departed from the meeting room as there were no further questions from anyone.

The thought of leaving Aceldama did not enter a single Specter. 

Tel Samil gathered his squad. 

“This is the first time we’ll be fighting with Zeh and his group. They are specialized to work as a team, employing the element of water. Be sure not to get in their way nor disrupt their element.” 

“If Zeh formed a team based on water abilities, what did you form our team on?” Winnow asked out of curiosity.

“Warriors who live for nothing but the thrill of fighting.” Tel Samil said plainly.

“The Propheteer and the Interluder, that is what they go by. Do we know anything about their powers?” Aulus wondered.

“No. We will be the first group to draw their power out and live to study it.” 

“I will be in the exercise room warming up,” declared Lo. 

“I need to commune with my Myrmidons.” Aulus departed as well. 

Winnow had been doing the only thing she could do to prepare, inhaling her pipe and building up her Ash Aspect.

Darius joined Lo in the exercise room and Vare returned to his room to meditate.

Tel Samil let his squad use their hour to prepare however they needed to. He left the meeting room to allow for Zeh to strategize with his team.

Tel Samil approached Gray in the bridge of the flagship looking out the observation window, on a planet that appeared fragile from their distance in low space orbit.

“You’ve done well training your squad.“ Gray complimented.

Tel Samil bowed.

“I will not allow any of them to die.” Gray vowed. “They will be needed for what comes after this, whatever that is.” Gray turned to face Tel Samil “How is Uthlen?” 

Uthlen was Tel Samil’s Aspect, a giant python that lives inside of him.

“Uthlen trembles. He senses the battle to come.”

“And rightly so. It is concerning that none of the younger Specters here are afraid.”

“I had the same concern on our first mission against the cultists. They are not foolishly brave but cool-headed and prepared. So long as they have each other, I think they will be impervious to any sense of terror. Their bonds are tight, they motivate and transform each other’s fears into something like trust and courage. They’re a valorous bunch.”

“That is what concerns me. They are close comrades who would readily put their lives in harm’s way to save one another. But what happens when one of them falls in battle? They will break. The strongest bonds split the furthest when they crack.”

“But first they have to crack.” Tel Samil countered.  “They’ll not fail. I’ve never seen a more able group, especially for their age, barely in their twenties.”

“You were barely twenty when I found you.” Gray pointed out.

“Yes but you found me in a cave while I was deep in ophiolatry, I wasn’t exactly normal.”

Gray just smiled, revealing his like-colored, filed teeth. “Go console Uthlen. We depart in twenty minutes.”

Tel Samil bowed again and left the bridge.

Gray handled the optics as his pilots and technicians lined TREE with the trajectory required to land right in front of the Interluder and Propheteer. Their evac was already in place, a half dozen off road jeeps with drivers prepared to move into a dangerous battlefield and pick up a Specter or two without so much as slowing beyond what was necessary.

“All systems are running without flaw, Director. Drop pods are filled with oxygen and the dual vibrators are functioning at full capacity.” The admiral of TREE announced. 

“Very good. Should our mission fail, and the world descend into mayhem and destruction in the following years, you know what to do.”

The old admiral saluted. “It won’t come to that, Director, we’ve not even begun to face the end.”

“That’s what bothers me. Things are happening before Diamak even appears. Wars and genocide on the Sister continent, chaos and destruction on the Brother continent, the death of Talis and the discovery of the Master’s cave. There are bad omens in the air.”

“That is why we are above the sky, Director, we can stop those bad omens before they come to fruition.”

“Don’t let anything happen to my ship while I’m gone!” Gray snapped with humor as he started to leave the bridge.

The admiral chuckled. “Then come back or she’s mine!”

A robotic and prerecorded voice sounded off in the intercom system.

“Attention, all Specters please report to the drop pod zone and prepare for departure.”

The message repeated several times as the twelve Specters gathered with Gray at the launch wing of the ship.

What Gray saw were the finest Specters on the planet eager to face this mission. What the twelve Specters saw was their illusive director, dressed completely in gray, ready to join them with a calm and stoic demeanor. 

No one had ever fought a Fable before. It was the secret fantasy of every Specter to battle Talis Ranis, to prove their strength with the best. For these thirteen Specters, they would have that opportunity times two.

The intercom changed to instructions for properly equipping their gear and entering the drop pods. Technicians helped the Specters put on their gear and fasten them to the drop pods. Vitals were taken and measured, instruments were double and triple checked, ventilators were placed over mouths and then the pods were filled with water. The vibration generators powered up and the water molecules were kept in a constant state of disruption to prevent them from becoming like concrete at the moment of impact from the low orbit drop.

“Commencing launch in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…”

The drop pods plummeted to the planet, falling at top speed within moments. The Specters meditated during their descent, readying their Aspects to activate the instant they touched ground.

Adrenaline was high from the intensity of falling from near space and the anticipation of the subsequent fight they would be in.

The several minutes the drop pods took to reach the ground passed by, despite how long those minutes felt and how terribly short they actually were.

The ground rumbled and the pods depressurized. Water drained and the doors flung open as steam billowed around the thirteen pods.

Standing across from Aceldama were the two Fables, some fifty meters away. Tall and bizarre, the Interluder and Propheteer stood still as the newcomers barred their way. The landscape was a snowy clearing near a forest and a small, recently thawed lake.

The Interluder balanced on one leg, white gloves covering his spindly fingers and the mask that covered a blank face floated just centimeters from his actual body. The Interluder’s coattails billowed slightly in the cold breeze of the northern winter. The Interluder’s carnival appearance, a macabre and devastating sight, inspired the kind of fear a child has for a freak clown in an oddity show at the circus.

The Propheteer’s nose and mouth were substituted for a horn and the eyes within eyes stared ever blankly. Long robes and scarves draped over and around her body just as her earlobes hung like two curtains, blending flesh and cloth as one. The triple layered crown adorning her head pointed up in contrast to the robes that dragged along the ground.

There the two Fables waited patiently for the group of humans in front of them to move out of the path.

Gray’s gray boot crunched snow as he took a step from his drop pod. His voice was as always even and soft, as monochrome as his appearance. “Now.” Pouring forth from Gray’s hand were tiny gray cubes, pixels that hovered and moved in the direction he indicated. They were like a gray mob that grew and approached the two Fables with evident hostility.

Aceldama activated and unleashed their Aspects. 

Aulus summoned his two Myrmidons, the black garbed Ladotatus and the bronze clad Irokles.

Lo called his Sunder and materializing in his hand was a massive, translucent bluish astral sword.

Winnow exhaled a smoke cloud to cover Gray’s own pixel cloud.

Vare’s Archon Aspect entered into his Mahadeva form at the touch of his fingers to thumbs. Four arms of energy appeared from his back and these he focused into finger guns aimed at the holes provided by his two real hands, shaped in circles with his fingers and thumbs still touching.

Darius ran two small blades across his arms, drawing his own blood and allowing for his Ichor Aspect to begin forming. Baldr, a bearded axe in one hand, and Herakles, a double barreled revolver in the other. The weapons were made of his blood and fed into his body as ammunition.

Tel Samil unsheathed his sword. 

Zeh had a rain cloud directly over his head. It extended about seven meters from his body, creating the kill zone of his Aspect, Wetwork.

Gabber, one his squad members, wielded a trident and called his own Aspect, Leister. He waved his trident and summoned nearby water, directing its flow and sending it like a river that floated in the air toward the Fables. A small portion of his water was poured into a large ceramic bowl held by a Specter named Pellie. Her Aspect Lecanoscopy, required that she stare into her reflection in water.

Jenuion, the Hyaline Aspect, converted some of the river water flowing at the command of Gabber, into crystal clear sheets of glass and razor thin mirrors. She controlled the glass and mirror sheets as a Mancer, using her hands to direct their positioning. She was building a house of mirrors and false mirrors.

Sedrock called his Aspect Selkie and dove into the flowing water, transforming into a gilled, grotesque weremer creature with a dozen rows of razor teeth and sharpened fins and hardened scales surrounding rubbery skin. 

Hemree the Argosy Aspect pulled out a half dozen miniature model ships in little glass bottles. He threw these on the ground and shattered the bottles that trapped the ships. His miniature fleet of model frigates came to life and he placed them on the flowing river as well.

This all happened simultaneously in the first several seconds after their landing.

No Specter missed a beat. 

The Interluder giggled uncontrollably as he hopped from one leg to the other to meet the rushing Specters head on. The Propheteer stood motionless behind.

Gabber directed the river to run alongside the Interluder and curve around him in a circle. He adjusted the flow to match the Interluder’s position so that there would be a constant whirlpool of water flowing around him. This gave Sedrock the Selkie Aspect the first strike, hidden in a mesmerizing river of mirrors that made the river appear infinite as one image of the river bounced off another and another and back again. Sedrock lashed his razor fin-hand at the Interluder. 

Despite the confusion of the river and mirror combination, the Interluder contorted his lanky body, folding as if there were no bones in his body and dodging the swift strike. Sedrock flowed with the current and swam to encircle the Interluder.

Hemree’s Argosy fleet joined the encirclement and fired a barrage of miniature cannon shots that packed a punch disproportionate to their size. They rang like full cannons and packed as much force, just contained into a pinhead sized explosion. The Interluder dodged or caught all of the dozens of shots from the six frigates. A simple wave of his hand and the cannon pellets all ended up in the palm of his white glove, which he then dropped to his feet.

The Interluder pretended to grab the sun but ended up with a fireball in his hand. He tossed this to his other hand and then pretended to grab water from the river. A waterball appeared in his hand and he juggled this with the fireball.

While juggling, the Interluder fake grabbed multiple other objects and before long had a dozen elemental balls which he juggled on one hand while dodging attacks from Sedrock and Hemree’s fleet.

“Stop the water!” Lo shouted to Gabber. The Leister Aspect tsked but redirected the flow to open the encirclement, keeping Sedrock and the frigates out of the way.

Lo brought down his astral blade with a heavy step and a heave, forty meters of glasslike astral weaponry cleaved down on the Interluder. With his free hand and still on one leg, the Interluder stopped the astral sword with a single finger tip. The touch being too soft for the blade to shatter as it was meant to.

Lo tried to move the blade but it wouldn’t budge.

The Interluder began launching his elemental balls at breakneck speeds to each Specter. 

The bronze warrior Irokles sprinted across the snowy field blocking several projectiles with his large round shield. 

Tel Samil destroyed one with his sword.

Everyone else successfully weaved or blocked the attack. 

The Interluder’s mask changed expressions into a characteristic sad face. 

As Aceldama gathered to counter attack, the Interluder, still holding the astral sword by one finger, snapped the fingers with his newly freed hand that no longer juggled..

A multitude of light projections materialized around him. They were creatures with monstrous features. Distortions of real animals made into horrific light show apparitions.

They charged Aceldama, reflecting blinding light from Jenuion’s water mirrors. She changed their angle with a motion of her hand so the Interluder could not use it against her. 

The light creatures were upon the ready Aceldama Specters. Darius battered one bearlike creature with his axe and when it recovered he fired his blood revolver into its side. It attacked him again without relenting.

Irokles engaged with another that resembled a sabretooth tiger. His shield kept it from landing a bite on him while his spear lanced it again and again, though to no real effect.

Vare found himself staring head on with an ostrich bearing a shark’s head. His finger guns fired energy shots while his two free energy arms fought it in melee combat. The shark headed ostrich rammed Vare and forced him to lose ground.

There was another eel creature that swam after Sedrock and the frigates in the river.

A turtle sloth creature lumbered toward Gabber who was busy controlling the water. Pellie’s Lecanoscopy Aspect activated. Her body remained staring into the bowl of water but a copy that appeared like a soft rippling water reflection stood from the bowl. Her distorted water form had immense strength and beat back the turtle sloth with slaps that sounded like ultra fast water whipping at an object.

Tel Samil rushed through the fighting and headed straight for the Interluder.

One unsuspecting gorilla creature entered into Zeh’s rain cloud and was immediately shredded into ribbons of light that plumed out like blood. Zeh continued his slow approach to the Interluder without stopping. He could only travel as fast as the rain cloud over his head could move, but anything in his radius would be delivered a swift death.

Winnow gave further protection to Lo who was still struggling with his blade. She used a highly condensed smoke club to bash any creature that got near Lo. Aulus provided support for Lo as well but he sent Ladotatus to engage with the Interluder.

Meanwhile, the Interluder took comically large steps toward Lo all the while holding the sword up with a finger, only now the Interluder’s long index and middle finger ran along the blade as if the fingers had to move on their own to catch up to his enormous stride.

Ladotatus reached the Interluder first, striking out with a flurry of his dual swords. 

The Interluder never lost its fingers on Lo’s blade and managed to turn, bend, leap and twist out of Ladotatus’ strikes with apparent ease.

Finally the Interluder backhanded Ladotatus, breaking the warrior’s neck and sending him flying into the snow.

Aulus cursed as his Myrmidon disappeared, having been defeated. 

“Winnow,” Lo spoke through grit teeth. “Hammer my blade down.”

“On it!” Winnow exhaled into her hand, blowing and condensing smoke into a club to match Lo’s blade in scale. It would take time.

Aulus, being down one Myrmidon, meant he could perform better in combat himself. He engaged with Winnow’s creature and held it off with a short sword. Aulus sustained several wounds from claws but managed to keep the creature occupied.

The Interluder was half the distance to Lo when Tel Samil engaged the Fable. Zeh was close behind.

Tel Samil lunged for the Interluder, who dodged in his contorted way but when he swung his arm to hit Tel Samil in retaliation, the Aceldama captain retreated, never having fully committed to the lunge. 

The Interluder pulled out a handkerchief from his breast pocket and flapped it once, turning it into a cane. He flipped the cane over and it became a small stick. He twirled the stick in his fingers and it became a small tube. The Interluder put the tube up to his face, which was just a mask, and turned around to Zeh who had finally reached the Interluder.

Despite not having a real face, the Interluder blew air into the tube. A torrential gust dissipated Zeh’s rain cloud and tossed the Specter far back. 

Tel Samil used that small opening to unleash Uthlen from his chest. The great python erupted from Tel Samil’s sternum and struck out at the Interluder. It wrapped its jaws around the Interluder and held him in a vice. 

Uthlen was far bigger than a human and had no trouble in pinning the tall Interluder.

“Do it!” Tel Samil shouted at Lo and Winnow.

Winnow swung her thirty meter long smoke club down to hammer Lo’s astral blade into the Interluder’s finger that had yet to be dislodged from holding aloft Lo’s Sunder sword.

As Winnow’s smoke club came bearing down, the Interluder simply shifted his finger to drop the blade to his side, which would land right on Uthlen’s body, possibly severing Tel Samil’s serpent.

It was too late for Winnow to stop and for Tel Samil to retract Uthlen.

The club came down on a free falling blade over Uthlen. 

Pellie’s water form, who handedly defeated her creature, slapped the astral blade and shattered it into a million particles that spread and disappeared. 

Winnow’s club still came down but for this the Interluder merely flicked his finger and burst the smoke weapon into a puff.

Jenuion supported Pellie by moving mirrors around her water distortion body, making the blurry Specter even harder to spot.

Uthlen released its hold on the Interluder and Tel Samil stayed wary, taking a defensive stance while Uthlen remained ready to spring.

Somehow, perhaps it was the mirrors, Pellie managed to get a full slap on the Interluder. The thunderous pounding of water clapping against the Interluder deafened all other noise. 

The Interluder’s mask turned into a happy face. 

With a lanky cartwheel, the Interluder moved out of the way and walked into one of Jenuion’s water mirrors as if it were a portal leading to another door. The Interluder in fact came out of one of the false mirrors with as much ease as if the two points were windows occupying the same space.

“I can’t control them!” Jenuion shouted in warning. The Interluder took over her mirrors and began poking and leaping out from one mirror to the next. 

In one moment the Interluder palmed Pellie, bursting apart her distorted water form, the next moment the circus Fable chopped the river water with his hand, splitting the water into two and cutting off Gabber’s river. 

Sedrock was isolated and bleeding from multiple wounds. Four of Hemree’s Argosy frigates were sunk but they managed to destroy the eel creature engaged with them.

The Interluder started pulling on the other half of the water stream still under the control of Gabber’s trident like a rope. The Interluder continued to pull the water, feeding it into one of the mirrors and disappearing the water from sight despite Gabber’s attempt to tug the water back. Gabber had no influence on the direction of the water as the Interluder pulled the rest of the water into the mirror and jumped in after it.

The water crashed from above, landing on Pellie and Hemree who stayed in the back. The water thrashed them about while the current took Pellie’s bowl far from her.

The Interluder leapt from a different mirror near Tel Samil and batted Uthlen to the ground with an easy smack. Tel Samil lashed out with his sword but the Interluder was already gone.

“Everyone down!” Aulus shouted a warning and dove to the ground.

Lo summoned another astral blade but swung it horizontally in a wide sweeping arc. The members of Aceldama in Lo’s radius managed to dodge in time for the astral sword that cleaved in a half circle. Lo shattered the mirrors, losing his own sword in the process. Millions of shimmering particles obstructed the view until they were all gathered into a dense crystal ball by the Interluder who was standing unharmed on one leg again. The crystal ball balanced on a raised palm as the Interluder let it slide down his arm, around his back shoulders and down to his off leg. That leg kicked up the crystal ball and the Interluder began to juggle it with his one leg while the other leg hopped around.

Before anyone else could react, the Interluder kicked up the crystal ball, went into a handstand and then booted the crystal ball while upside down in a shot that broke the sound barrier.

The crystal ball zoomed toward Lo who was saved by the bronze Irokles who took the hit on his shield.

The crystal ball smashed through the shield, breaking Irokles’ arm and punching him back to collide into Lo. The two were sent flying back further still. Aulus raced after Lo to check on him. Having been defeated, Aulus’ second Myrmidon disappeared.

The Interluder folded back and slowly stood back up into an upright stand.

There was a moment of inaction from Aceldama that had seen each attack get turned back to them.

They all lived for now. Darius and Vare took out the last of the light creatures while Sedrock limped back to his comrades. 

Zeh and Tel Samil remained on either side of the Interluder, standing cautiously some distance from the Fable.

The three minutes were up and the vehicles could be heard approaching.

The Interluder stood watching but did nothing, evidently disinterested in furthering the fight with Aceldama if they were retreating.

“He toyed with us the whole time.” Lo grumbled as Aulus helped him to his feet.

The jeeps slowed enough to allow for the Specters to climb into the back seats. They withdrew without losing sight of the Interluder who stood motionless. Tel Samil and Zeh were the last two Specters to be picked up. 

They rode off in a convoy. Tel Samil looked around, counting heads. “Where’s Gray?” he asked.

“There.” Winnow pointed to a smoke cloud where Gray was engaged with the Propheteer, though no one could see past the smoke to tell what was happening.

“Turn my jeep around!” Tel Samil ordered his driver.

“Can’t do that.” the driver informed, following his direct orders to get in and out. 

Tel Samil swore. 

“Lo!” Tel Samil shouted to the other Jeep.

“Ready!” Lo recklessly jumped out of his jeep and rolled to dampen the impact. The snowy off-road terrain forced the jeep to drive far from max speeds and the soft ground cushioned the fall enough for Lo to recover into a thrower’s pose as he summoned a massive green spear.

Tel Samil jumped out of his jeep as well and ran in front of Lo, leaping into the path of Lo’s mighty spear throw.

Lo’s Sunder allowed him to use astral weapons which shattered on impact and spectral weapons which couldn’t damage anything but instead went through objects and chained them to whatever they landed on.

The spectral spear went through Tel Samil, chaining him to the spear as it sailed through the air, not following the rules of weight and mass.

Tel Samil was carried far and high and when the spear’s momentum waned, Lo deactivated his Aspect and Tel Samil was freely flying through the air.

*****

Gray moved past his comrades fighting bravely against the Interluder. He was hidden by Winnow’s smoke cloud and the general chaos of the fight. His Aspect made it deceptively difficult to find his presence. His all gray attire seemed to fade into background as the optic nerves failed to process the eigengrau pixels. So unsuspecting were these gray cubes that the brain physically fails to recognize them as anything but the gray color of optic nerves firing in the absence of light. The brain did not read the gray cubes as real objects but only holes in its vision.

Gray moved with his pixel cloud through the cover of the smoke screen and made his way to the Propheteer.

She stood expectant, the concentric irises naturally seeing Gray, even through the smoke screen.

She said a single world in a strange echoing and muffled voice. The sound coming from the horn that replaced her mouth and nose.

“Mexamerilliom.”

This gave Gray pause. No one on the entire planet had ever learned his name for he had never spoken his name to anyone.

He shook off the surprise, she was called the Propheteer so he could expect some level of noetic and Sage based attacks.

Gray launched his cluster of pixels at the Propheteer sending the slow moving cubes into a blitz. 

The Propheteer raised her hand and split the cluster as they bounced harmlessly off of her and sailed by, crashing into a tree behind her. The pixels swarmed the tree and any part of the tree they touched, ate away at the tree and converted the wood into more gray pixels. 

Gray called the pixels back, leaving the tree with a large whole that caused the top half to lurch and collapse.

That sort of effect was supposed to be dealt to the Propheteer. The Propheteer turned around, her robes flowing with the motion, and brushed the returning pixels aside once more.

The Propheteer reached into the folds of her robes and produced a papyrus scroll. She unfurled the scroll and revealed an ink sketch of Gray. The sketch became animated and depicted a boulder falling from the sky to crush Gray.

Gray looked up to see the same boulder falling from the sky. He moved his pixels to engulf the boulder, crumbling the large rock into even more pixels. 

The Propheteer discarded the scroll and pulled out a new one. This one revealed the jaws of some alligator like creature bursting from the ground beneath Gray’s feet to chomp him to death.

Gray jumped in the air as he gathered his pixels under his feet. He lifted himself out of the way of the snapping jaws which caught a few of his pixels and obliterated them.

Gray’s mind sped to the conclusion that the Propheteer was “predicting” ever more deadly situations. Based on the results of the boulder and reptilian jaws, his pixels were already losing to the Propheteer’s powers.

Gray landed back on the ground and sent his mass of pixels on the offensive before the Propheteer could read another scroll. He directed the pixels to surround her in the hopes that it would stop her from using another scroll.

An image flashed in his brain, a scroll with an animated drawing of him being struck by lightning multiple times.

While his working theory that the receiver of the Propheteer’s scrolls needed to see the scroll in person to be hit by them was not wrong, Gray did not consider that she could project the images to his mind.

Gray dove to the nearest tree and squatted low, balancing on his toes only, minimizing contact with the ground and covering his eyes and ears by tucking his head. The lightning blasted the tree protecting him and he felt the heat and current of energy course through him painfully. 

A second bolt exploded the tree and sent Gray hurtling several meters back. A third bolt struck where Gray and the tree were just at. The second blast had in fact saved him from the third.

Gray stood up, sustaining burns and wood shrapnel but alive and still capable of moving.

As predicted, he was severely outclassed by the Fable. 

“Unacceptable.” Gray told himself.

He recalled his pixels to float by his side.

The Propheteer discarded the scroll and pulled out a new one.

It showed two spinning saws coming from opposite directions to rend his body to pieces.

Gray split his pixels into two portions and spread his hands. The pixels would serve as a barrier from both saws. 

He closed his eyes and focused. He produced only the eigengrau in his mind’s eye and summoned more pixels out of each hand simultaneously.

The saw blades wizzed and grated against the pixels, destroying most of them but finally losing their edge before being consumed and transformed into more pixels. Gray studied one of his hands. It was bleeding from a large gash in his palm. The saw had nearly taken his whole hand.

Gray survived another scroll attack.

But still another was on its way.

A thousand small stingers fired from every direction around Gray. All he could do was create another barrier of pixels to encompass him. 

Most of the stingers were blocked by the pixels but a dangerous amount slid by gaps in Gray’s defense and pierced deep into his skin.

Death by pincushion was narrowly evaded.

Gray sent his pixels to attack once more and the Propheteer produced a sonic noise from her horn. The pixels trembled and then shattered.

Gray was breathing heavily. Nothing was effective against the Propheteer.

This enraged Gray in a way his usual calm demeanor was unused too. 

Time meant nothing to him now. He knew the three minutes had finished now. He knew as director of Aceldama he had a responsibility to his Specters and the planet to live to fight another day.

Gray survived for three minutes against a Fable one on one. The entire purpose of the mission was fulfilled.

He didn’t even know what became of Zeh and Tel Samil’s squad. Did they perish by the Interluder? Did they escape? Was the Interluder wounded at all?

One way or another the Interluder would join with the Propheteer and he hadn’t stayed to watch the Interluder’s powers or fighting style.

That excitement forced a smile from Gray. An untamed part of Gray was ashamed of Aceldama for retreating. His Specters should stay and do battle to the bitter end. How could one obtain glory if they ran from every challenge that reared its terrible head their way?

They could not.

The bloodlust had thoroughly filled Gray’s brain and body.

“Yes, I am Mexamerilliom. But you will call me Gray, for that is the last color you will ever see.”

Gray inhaled and felt his chess swell up, the stingers in his skin biting him for the movement, and brought his arms up to support his strained lungs. He breathed in again, packing his lungs with air.

He breathed on once more, forcing his lungs to stretch.

He held his breath and felt a zap go through him as his body tried to force a blackout, the natural defense mechanism of the body to stop itself from self-suffocation.

Gray denied his body’s reaction and forced himself awake as his vision blurred into blankness. 

The image of a scroll being opened entered his mind. Gray was in the perfect state of eigengrau and washed the image of the scroll down in grayness, denying the Propheteer’s prophecy.

Gray released his breath and staggered but righted himself immediately. Streaming from his hands were hundreds of pixels.

The Propheteer perked up at having her scroll foiled. The concentric irises narrowed separately, starting from the innermost iris outward. 

The pixels hit the Propheteer by the dozen, and although they didn’t do much but bounce off her cloth-skin, the Propheteer was at the very least experiencing some form of pain or mild discomfort. 

Gray didn’t relent with his stream of tiny gray cubes, he felt so overwhelmed with the color gray that he needed to exhaust his body.

Thousands of pixels had poured from his body like a bottomless font. The volume and speed at which he generated these pixels only increased with time. 

The Propheteer walked through the endless pixel fountain and approached Gray. He discerned her approach by the way the pixels bounced around closer to him than they had before. All the pixels that passed the Propheteer were sent to loop back around so that a vortex storm of these deadly pixels centered around the Propheteer.

Her slender hand reached through the pixels. The sheer force of the pixel storm began to slow the Propheteer and her hand moved inexorably closer to Gray.

“Gray!” shouted a familiar voice from the sky. 

Propelled by Lo’s spear and catapulted further by Uthlen, Tel Samil flew into the smokescreen and soared on by. Neither Gray nor the Propheteer stopped what they were doing, but they both glanced in the direction of the flying Tel Samil.

Tel Samil disappeared from sight but out of nowhere a massive python reached around Gray and coiled him tightly before swinging back to Tel Samil, spinning everyone around and tossing Gray further from the Fables. Uthlen then bit into a tree trunk and flung Tel Samil after Gray. Uthlen released its hold on the tree and retracted most of the way back into Tel Samil’s chest before launching out again, this time forwards, to break Gray’s fall. Tel Samil landed in the snow and Uthlen slid them to a halt before finally retracting all the back into Tel Samil’s chest which closed when Uthlen was sealed. 

Gray stood, dusted the snow off himself and glanced back. The Propheteer and the Interluder just gazed their way before turning around and continuing in the direction they had been going just minutes before.

“Let’s get you to a medical ward.” Tel Samil suggested.

“No need.” His mannerism returned to its normal, unchanging self. 

Gray’s Aspect, in that moment of stacking inhalations beyond the body’s ability to remain standing, and forcing himself to stay awake nonetheless, in the heat of an impossible battle against a superior foe, transcended into Mastery. 

Unification with the Aspect. Tel Samil noticed how Gray’s painted body did not smear in his fight or the landing in the snow. His body itself was completely, unalterably gray.

Gray’s hands were clasped behind his back as he walked serenely, the direction hardly mattered.

“Come Tel Samil, we will return to our base in the sky and plan the next move.”

“At once.” Tel Samil responded. “Everyone made it out alive.”

“Excellent. Report back to TREE that our mission was a success.”

Gray offered no explanations and Tel Samil knew better than to ask his illusive director any questions.

Something occurred to Tel Samil struck him hard, leaving him standing still as Gray continued to walk… that Gray achieved something never before seen in the world. 

A Color Aspect reaching Mastery.

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