Hales dismounted from the military jeep first, stepping onto the cobblestone road that continued past this stop all the way to Vallis. Bregan and Yillo dismounted next. They were at the halfway point between Garghent and Vallis, investigating the location of the most recent attack from Veinbreaker and his crew.
Hales saw the small community, a quaint rest area with a hotel, a restaurant, a fuel supply, a general store and several houses with a nearby goat farm and barn. While the buildings themselves were untouched by the assault, there was a particularly brutal string of decor adorning the old wooden town.
Blood vessels and skin strung up like holiday decorations, lacing over one building several times and connecting to the next. Upon closer inspection, the three Specters realized all of the vessels were joined in an unending display, a hanging lace of human capillaries, veins and arteries carefully and skillfully wrapping the entire rest area like one would a gift.
“This is sick.” Hales muttered.
“No, what is sick is that the veins are still pumping blood.” Bregan pointed out, now that they were close enough to really see the so-called art that Veinbreaker boasted of.
“It feeds into the hotel.” Yillo said.
“You mean they are still alive?” Hales asked in disbelief.
“I don’t know about that, but the mechanism of blood pumping is working. Only one way to find out.” Bregan held his breath as he used a dagger to slash the veins in front of the door. Hales, Yillo and Bregan had seen death and the horrors of war, they had even dealt death to their enemies but like any soldier, there was a line of cruelty that separated man from vile beasts. To deconstruct the body of an innocent civilian and surgically solder one circulatory system to the next victim in order to desecrate a human by turning the remains into an illustration was wholly evil.
Hales felt her own anger swell up even as she could feel Yillo’s radiating. The soldier’s code prevented the explicit and intentional harm of civilians outside of war zones to cause fear. Deo had been responsible and ordered war crimes almost daily at this point. Hales’ fury and disgust was directed toward Deo and not Veinbreaker. Veinbreaker was a psychopathic serial killer given free reign to terrorize innocents at the behest of Deo. She knew Deo’s intentions but he couldn’t simply start wars, he had to break and maim the human race. She could feel his intense gaze when she looked at the veins all strung up. A satisfied and approving gaze.
No, Hales didn’t blame Veinbreaker for she was going to deal swift and resolute justice to him.
“I’ll end your sadistic artist and force your hand to scramble for another piece to use,” Hales told herself.
Bregan kicked the door open when it didn’t budge. A sound like vines being pulled from a fence came from the inside of the door. The vessels that had been hung up in the doorway were torn from their place and fell to the ground, pushed into a clump by the door that was forced open.
They stepped into the darkened room to meet the smell of wet iron rusted through. All feeding into a center mass were hundreds of meters of veins that ran along baseboards, window sills, the staircase that led to the guest rooms and from the ceiling. That center mess they fed to was a cluster of still beating hearts, around twenty of them, wrapped in a bundle of thin viscous flesh.
“So they are alive?” Yillo thought to ask, echoing Hales’ early question.
“No. But we should kill it anyway.” Hales replied, resolution giving her stomach the strength to contain its contents.
There were little words to be said at this grisly sight. The three of them knew what needed to be done, knew who needed to be punished. Hales whispered her Aspect awake and produced a star. She let it fly into the cluster of hearts and watched as the star engulfed the hearts in plasma. Without the pumping of blood, the veins quickly began to oxygenate and bruise, drying up and falling from their place.
“I’m burning this place to the ground!” Hales fumed.
Bregan and Yillo did not argue with that and left as Hales summoned a star big enough to fit inside the lobby of the little hotel. She left the sun in place to completely destroy the whole scene. As she departed from the doomed building, she caught sight of an antlered deer head mounted on the wall and thought of the way in which Deo would compare Veinbreaker’s torture and the trophy hunter and hated herself for finding logic in it.
“Let’s go,” Hales focused on her task instead of her thoughts.
“We’ll patrol the road and look for Veinbreaker. I feel as if he knows we are searching for him. Keep your guard up,” Bregan said and took the driver seat of the jeep.
They had already spent one day on the road coming to this location and were assigned to finding Veinbreaker for the entire week. They stopped at other rest areas along the way as needed, most had not been affected like that last one.
Bregan slowed the jeep down after several hours on the road, replete with frequent stops of investigating the locals of each tiny community or lone house for rumors or sightings of the enemy, when they came across a line of thirty construction workers with a detachment of six soldiers as bodyguards.
Bregan hailed the foreman.
A big, black bearded man raised his hand and boomed his response. “That would be me.”
“You are heading to Vallis?” Bregan inquired.
The foreman was about to say something smart when he recognized the uniforms of the three people in the jeep. Their dark, advanced and unmarked garb was a signature dress of Garghent’s Specters. He stumbled on his words as he switched replies, “We… um are heading to Vallis to begin demolition and reconstruction.”
“There are enemy Specters hunting in this area.” Bregan explained, “we’ll stick with you for a time, a larger group is sure to attract them.”
What started as relief of being escorted by Specters turned to horror as he determined that meant being bait essentially.
“You are more than welcome to travel with us.” The foreman acknowledged gratefully, forcing the words and a smile.
Bregan nodded. “We’ll stay in the back here. We’ll be keeping an open channel if you need to radio us.”
The three Specters moved at an easy pace with the construction workers, not encountering any problems until two hours in.
One of the workers yelped after a spider was spotted crawling on his bald head. Bregan, Yillo and Hales moved to the source of the commotion.
“Damn spiders. It’s nothing, a false alarm.” He apologized to the soldiers and his fellow workers for the scare.
The Specters exchanged glances.
“Take a defensive position.” Bregan ordered.
“One of the enemy Specters uses spider hallucinations. They are not real so don’t panic, it’s a distraction.” Hales explained to the worrisome workers.
“I’m not so sure of that.” A worker said after pointing to another soldier whose face was swollen from a severe spider bite.
“Okay some of them might be real.” admitted Hales awkwardly.
“In any case, let’s prepare.” Yillo said, full of cool wrath.
“Solar.” Hales’s eyes changed into spiraling galaxies.
“Give me fire.” Bregan demanded.
Hales sent him a small blue star and Bregan grabbed a clump of grass while the star hovered over his right hand. “Synthesis.” He activated his Aspect and smashed the two elements together, grass and star. A small ball of combined force floated in front of Bregan. He snatched the elemental force and consumed it. Bregan was now imbued with a blue spray of flammable kindling.
In nearly the same moment, thousands of spiders swarmed from the ground and the side of the road and descended from above.
“Everyone down!” Bregan shouted and sprayed his grassy haze just higher than the laying workers. Yillo and Hales crouched low.
The grass combusted into a blue flash that flayed any real, living spider. Just as fast the grass burnt out and smoke billowed and thinned into the air.
There were some screams as hallucination spiders crawled their way on people but any real spider wouldn’t have survived the heat flash.
Someone screamed a warning.
Lurking behind the group emerged a giant, fifty meter tall spider that hissed venom spittle.
“It’s not real!” Bregan shouted but his voice was lost in the panicked gunfire of the soldiers. The instant their backs were turned a swift claw tore one soldier in half and a chomp crushed the neck of another soldier. Multiple tendrils snaked out and dug into the veins of another pair of soldiers, pulling vital arteries out of their bodies leaving them to a swift death by bleeding out.
The remaining soldiers tried to turn but the enemy Specters were faster and killed the guards before Hales, Yillo or Bregan could reach them.
The thirty construction workers began to panic but a sharp tongue brought them to order. It was the foreman who gave instruction. “Calm yourselves you fools!”
Hales gave the man a thankful look. “If you continue down the road, we’ll stand and fight them. They won’t miss the opportunity to kill us.”
He nodded, needing no further incentive and gathered his workers and their gear and sped away.
Standing with arms crossed and vessels swollen black was Veinbreaker. He let the construction workers pass. Carn was biting into a dead guard, chewing on some bone. He crushed the bone and stood, snarling in anticipation with his dinosaur snout.
Arvin the Arachnomania Specter approached from the side and joined his comrades. “Shall we do this the old fashioned way? One on ones?”
“I’m game.” shrugged Bregan.
Few Specters would decline such an offer given equal numbers. There was pride, the boasting of strength, the testing of ability. Beyond any cause for fighting, the fight itself always took priority.
Reveling in the thrill of a duel is what Specters lived for. The risk of course was that your team would be left alone to die, but such weakness could only be weeded out in this ritual of Specter against Specter.
Carn growled something unintelligible. Arvin translated. “Carn says he wants the hot-headed one.”
“Bring it.” Yillo growled back.
“I would like to humble the great Solar Aspect.” Veinbreaker grinned.
Hales kept her blank, galaxy gaze fixed on him, saying nothing.
“That leaves us.” Arvin said jovially to Bregan.
The six Specters naturally spread out.
Hales brought out two solar systems and began spinning them over her index fingers, one in each hand.
Yillo cracked his neck as his whole body turned yellow then red.
Veinbreaker let his vessel tendrils stretch out of his body.
Carn roared and broke into a charge.
Yillo engaged head on, meeting the dinosaur-man hybrid with an explosive punch, draining his color into a firework uppercut. Carn was thrown up and away, but whipped his tail as he flew, wounding Yillo. Yillo managed to take the hit in his forearm instead of his chest. Yillo turned bright red and the heat cauterized the gash in an instant.
Hales launched her solar disc at Veinbreaker, tethering the gravity to him and throwing it wide so that it would spin around him. Veinbreaker carefully closed the distance while letting his tendrils worm their way closer on the ground. Hales’ other solar disc went directly to Veinbreaker, the bola-like projectile exerting its gravitational field like a rope that tugged on Veinbreaker. He was strong enough to resist its debilitating pull and ducked under the disc. But now there were two discs spinning at high speeds in a wide orbit around him. Eventually the rotation would begin to close in concentric circles like a coin spinning down a bowl.
Veinbreaker controlled his tendrils in a flurry that gave him protection like a mass of whipping ropes. Hales began her launch of stars, asteroids and planets as Veinbreaker closed more of the distance. She flowed in a martial combination, using a variety of sizes and trajectories. Veinbreaker’s tendrils batted them aside. He controlled dozens from different places in his body, forcing them swollen to thicken and strengthen them. In effect, they were muscles or tentacles made of his blood vessels, hardened by distributing his own anatomy to reinforce these tendrils which threaten to pierce the arteries of his enemies to assume control of the body.
Several tendrils snuck low on the ground, seeking Hales as their host.
Hales decided to reserve nothing in this fight. She trusted Yillo and Bregan to be capable of handling their opponents. She was going to use everything.
“Gravity Field.” Hales whispered, preparing herself mentally and physically for this exercise.
Hales drew out an endless stream of planets and stars and asteroids and gas giants and set their gravity to herself so that she had a barrier of celestial objects distorting the very gravity in the space around her.
She advanced with her Gravity Field fueling it along the way. Three meters out, then four. By the time Hales and Veinbreaker were in close proximity, her field extended to five meters from her. Veinbreaker tried to feel his way past the defenses but everytime he sent a tendril into the field, the effects of the gravitational storm would push and pull his tendril in so many directions it was like navigating intoxicated, in addition to the velocity of the objects spinning around hitting his tendrils and knocking them about.
Veinbreaker was forced to lose ground or else be swallowed by the Gravity Field. The discs spinning around him were on their third orbit and closing in. If he timed it right, he could have the discs crash into Hales’ field.
Hales saw Veinbreaker’s intentions and ignored them. She walked at an even pace, keeping a neutral stance in case Veinbreaker found a way in. Veinbreaker’s tendrils worked at destroying her Gravity Field planet by planet but Hales kept refueling them and maintaining her Gravity Field at maximum capacity.
Veinbreaker was banking on Hales not being able to last a long time with that move. Hales knew she could sustain it for quite a while, the problem came when she stopped. The fatigue would kick like a mule.
The discs orbiting Veinbreaker crashed into Hales field but only had the effect of being swallowed by the intense gravity and disintegrating in the mess.
Some distance behind was Bregan and Arvin engaged in a game of flamethrower and spider, close relatives of the classic game of cat and mouse. Arvin dodged and dashed through a line of trees off the roadway while Bregan sprayed flammable kindling that erupted in blue flames. All the while Bregan made sure to cleanse the air around him of any potential spiders. His strategy was solid against Arvin who fought in a less direct way. Bregan’s overconfidence hindered his ability to spot the trap he was entering. Arvin was sending spiders from treetops to lay web on Bregan. His response every time he felt the tickles of thread was to sear the air around himself. Arvin never actually sent spiders within range of Bregan because he already understood his meticulous cleansing process and that it was born from paranoia. Systematically checking yourself for spiders or ticks was an almost formulaic psychological admittance of phobia.
The greater the phobia, the easier application of the Aspect Arachnomania, fatal spider attraction.
Bregan started to fire into the shadows of trees, into patterns that looked like spiders hiding in the bushes and branches of those trees. A hallucination differs from a hologram or a trick of the eye in that the viewer fully believes what they are seeing is in fact there in front of them, indiscernible from any other object in reality. Arvin’s Aspect works in hallucination.
The spiders crawled their way into Bregan’s mind as he shot and spewed ashy flames in all directions.
Yillo saw in Carn the mountain lion that he had triumphantly slain years ago at the Camp of Awakening. The same feral eyes, the same beastial expression and primal desire for blood. Carn was truly a beast. He moved like one too. Unnatural with instincts that trumped Yillo’s.
Paroxysm’s biggest weakness was its all in factor. Whether Yillo delivered or received a blow, the color would drain and leave him without an offense or defense until his rage recuperated. Despite being an Augur who fought in the melee, Yillo was countered by other strong Augurs. A faster, more durable and more vicious brawler forced Yillo into focusing on defense. The only benefit in staying on the defense for Yillo was how much it thoroughly pissed him off. A natural sore loser, Yillo raged harder and harder the more he was being beaten.
Carn delivered a punch to Yillo’s shoulder and then followed it with another hook. Yillo took the hook in his side and staggered. Carn charged with his head, driving his tough dinosaur crown into Yillo’s gut, knocking the wind out of him. Carn kept the pressure up by clawing Yillo’s chest, leaving a streak of blood under Yillo’s body armor.
Yillo fell backwards, rolling with it to distance himself from Carn. He needed only a second to restore his color. He turned a deep crimson as Carn roared and leapt to Yillo. Yillo’s only choice was to hit Carn first and make use of his power to deal damage. He’d have to muscle through any counter.
Yillo stepped into Carn’s leap and landed a punch which detonated in a flash of that same crimson. Carn thrashed out but failed to connect to anything while he tumbled in the air. This time Yillo backpedaled away from the tail that lashed out.
Carn skidded to a halt and spat out blood. He growled and his nostrils flared. The air smelt like fire.
Yillo was becoming unstable. His color, while already bright, had pockets of white and yellow streak out of him like he could burst. Carn hesitated.
“Come on!” Yillo shouted, though his voice was distorted by the heat wave emanating from him. Carn wanted to charge but knew that meant death. In fact every cell in his body demanded that he charge and enjoy the thrill of hunting a deadlier opponent.
But the most basic of his instincts voiced quietly in the background. Self preservation. Survival!
Carn gingerly took steps backwards.
Yillo immediately perceived what Carn was doing.
“No you don’t!”
Carn turned to run.
Yillo pounded down, releasing all that energy and blowing up the ground. A crater formed as lava tore the chunks of the topsoil and rock into the air while tremors split open a cavity along where Carn was running. Yillo turned red again and kicked off the ground, jumping the gap between him and Carn.
Carn struggled over the terrain which was popping and splitting everywhere. Carn dashed on all fours, navigating the destruction with Yillo on his heel. If Yillo couldn’t reach Carn, then he smashed the ground more, causing quakes to tremble and trees to collapse.
Close enough to the radius was Veinbreaker who was struggling to find an opening in Hales’ absolute defense. Seeing the trees get uprooted gave him an idea. He sent his veins to wrap around the nearest large tree. He grunted as he yanked it from the dirt and let it timber down over Hales.
But the tree was torn to bits as it too was swept in the chaos of her Gravity Field. Veinbreaker realized the severity of his plight. Hales was not slowing down and nothing he had could penetrate that gravity zone.
Sure of Veinbreaker’s lack of firepower, Hales decided to increase her pace. She took faster steps, forcing Veinbreaker to turn around and dash in order to keep more than five meters from her.
Veinbreaker saw his error in fighting the Solar. In an open clearing, with minimal barriers and time to anticipate moves and prepare her weapons, Hales outmatched Veinbreaker who preferred to fight in environments where he could sneak his veins into his opponent. He had grossly underestimated her defensive capabilities and his own inability to keep up with her level of projectiles. In short, he shouldn’t have engaged with the Solar Aspect.
He cursed twice and hauled onto a tree with a tendril, pulling himself further from Hales and breaking out into a sprint.
“Don’t let them escape!” shouted Yillo who was pursuing Carn. Hales would have to drop her Gravity Field in order to have any chance of catching Veinbreaker but in that case, he may double back and then she’d be in trouble. She had no choice but to leave her Field up and allow Veinbreaker to escape.
Arvin was just getting started with the mind crushing spider curse he was inflicting on Bregan when he noticed his comrades fleeing. Arvin sighed out of exasperation. “Veinbreaker and Carn have no honor, they value their own lives too much.” he said to himself. The prospect of fighting three Specters on his own was not one he relished. “Doesn’t anyone know Sages need to take their time in a battle?” Arvin had established his power in Bregan. Spiders would flock to him out of attraction. A spider in the shower here, a spider in the shoe there, little things, harmless arachnids simply paying him a visit and seeing him go mad with paranoia.
Arvin chuckled from his hiding spot behind a tree that had grown beside a boulder. “It wasn’t a total loss in that case.” He’d beat his opponent. Not today, but over the next weeks and months, years even. The next time Arvin encountered Bregan, he’d be able to really use his Aspect. “It’s something to look forward to,” Arvin told an orb weaver that lived in his sleeve. Arvin quietly left his spot and escaped, taking a longer route to avoid detection to the agreed upon place.
Yillo gave up his chase as his muscles overheated and strained to keep up with Carn’s superior pace.
Hales let her Gravity Field down as the three gathered together. “They’ll think twice before trying to raid again.” Hales said first. “We beat them pretty handedly.”
“Not enough to finish them.” Yillo said, disgusted with his perceived failure.
Bregan looked pale and sat down. “Damn Sages. They get in your head and screw with you.”
“Still, we’ll finish our week of patrolling and report a successful engagement.” Hales was already thinking of the next session with Edeno. She had already forgotten the brutal massacre of the rest area and even the fight she just had with Veinbreaker or how much she wanted to kill him. All she daydreamed of now were black holes.
Yillo shook his head but finally started to relax. He could tell Hales was already off in another world and Bregan was sour company so Yillo did what he usually did after a fight that didn’t go over well with him. Play it back in his head over and over again, meditating and going through the motions, committing each second to memory.
Bregan scratched at his neck and his hair and his legs and arms while casting furtive glances behind him or under his seat.
Good or bad, the way to Vallis was more secure and Garghent would be pouring in the funds, troops and workers to rebuild Vallis under their control, broadening borders as they furthered the imperial plan to conquer the Sister continent.