“Approaching destination coordinates sector seven-one-B overhead of Cavus metropolis in T-minus ten minutes.”
The pilot informed over the intercom.
Tel Samil looked over his squad of elite Specters. None of them showed any of the typical signs of anxiety and fear. No fidgeting, no furtive glances, no bouncing legs or tapping fingers. Even the more suppressed symptoms were either expertly concealed or, and this was Tel Samil’s personal opinion, nonexistent in the young warriors. Things like biting on the tongue, or chewing on the inner cheek or forced breathing or unfocusing the eyes… subtle cues that indicate a fear of death.
“This Cult of Diamak, they are strong?” Lo asked in his rough mountain dialect, exaggerating the consonants. His manner of speaking was always straightforward, demanding simple answers that didn’t overcomplicate matters.
But it was the casual conversation they could participate in that truly displayed a confidence and courage seldom seen among first-timers.
“According to what we know, they claim to be followers of an entity called Diamak. They are crediting the destruction of Avalaes, Arandac and Tul to this figure. They’ve caused some chaos around the countryside, including the sacrifice of a few hundred humans in attempt to summon or attract this Diamak.” Aulus explained.
“No one knows for sure if they are behind the obliterations of those cities, but they are fear-mongering and romanticizing the idea of an apocalypse.” Vare added in, his voice electric and his words accompanied by static. His entire head blurred by electricity, a feature of his Aspect.
“But are they strong?” Lo emphasized his question.
“It’s unknown, Lo. If they have the ability to wipe out cities off the face of the world, then they are powerful beyond comprehension. If they are simple anarchist cult followers with too much time on their hands then they will likely be weak. The third option is that they are a strong group trying to team up with whatever is actually wiping cities.” Winnow outlined the most probable of the potential possibilities that they were faced with. Smoke billowed from her mouth when she talked the same way cold air might in the winter
“They are strong then.” Lo confirmed.
Tel Samil joined in the conversation now, “how do you figure?”
“The weak try to assimilate themselves into the mighty. The strong seeks to be recognized by the mighty.”
Tel Samil nodded, satisfied by the answer. Out of the whole squad, Lo had the best instincts.
“If you’re right, Lo, then this fight won’t be easy.” Darius spoke, his voice deep and his features bold.
“Aye,” Lo answered, “but the good ones never are.”
Darius grinned. There was something almost animalistic in the way Lo and Darius treated warfare. They cared less for righteousness and valor and more for glory and thrill, the latter was preferred among Aceldama.
“We should enter our pods now.” Though it sounded like a suggestion, Tel Samil was the leader and everything he said was an order.
There were six pods in the space station, one of Aceldama’s special aircraft capable of flying the outer edges of the atmosphere. The word ‘TREE’ was written on the exterior and the great winged panels of the ship turned over, slowing the ship’s momentum to a stop. Being the only military organization allowed to travel via planetary orbit, the combined resources and technology allowed for a highly advanced spacecraft with drop pods that could launch its special forces soldiers anywhere in the world. The advantages and implications were obvious, global reach alongside near untrackable positioning and instantaneous travel. Aceldama was funded by nearly every city from both continents for the sole purpose of dealing with world problems beyond the ordinary power struggle plaguing mankind. Right now it was the mysterious destruction of three metropolises in the last decade that had the attention of the world’s first line of defense.
And now a cult was trying to invoke the destruction of a fourth city, Cavus, right outside its walls.
Tel Samil stepped into his pod and reached above to draw down the breathing apparatus and set it over head head. He locked it in place, and the other Specters did the same in their own pods.
There were two dozen other technicians who maintained the TREE spacecraft and they started the preparation for launch.
Buttons were clicked, latches were harnessed and communication buzzed, not frantically but professionally.
“All systems are green.”
“Life support is at full.”
“Releasing waterbeds.” The pods began to fill with water, encompassing the full interior of the water and submerging each Specter completely.
“Initiating subsonic vibrator.” A loud whirring engine started in the pods and the water began to tremble and resound. The idea of shooting pods from the edges of the atmosphere was met by an equally ridiculous problem. Using a parachute to slow the descent would all but defeat the purpose of an instant appearance in front of an enemy. Any force strong enough to catch the attention of Aceldama could reasonably annihilate a slow-falling team trapped in metal pods. Parachutes were out of the question. Years of research on this problem led scientists to devise a solution that enabled Aceldama to avert the disability of such an entrance. What they developed were the ‘waterbeds’. By filling the pods with water they could create a bubble of safety inside the pod which would allow the passenger to survive the sudden impact of the ground. The waterbeds had a fundamental flaw, however, at such speeds water becomes a state near to solid steel, due to the special bonding properties of water. At this point the passenger would still be torn to pieces upon landing.
The missing ingredient was sound. By placing two oscillating vibration engines, one opposite to the other, water could be manipulated to abstain from bonding. The binaural sounds were set antithetical of each other so that the waterbeds never settled on a single frequency.
The durability of the pods surviving a drop from terminal velocity and extreme atmospheric pressure had been invented years before. An oxygen mask was added so the passenger could breathe during the eight minute fall. In the most simple and dumbed down explanation, the waterbeds created a zero gravity bubble inside the drop pods.
Tel Samil was more nervous for his team than his team was for themselves. It was their first full scale drop from sixty kilometers above the planet’s surface. The waterbeds could not stop the intensity of the fall or the mental strain that falling from what was essentially space placed on someone. On top of that they had to immediately spring into action upon landing and fight in a life and death situation. Failing to activate the Aspect could mean defeat and death. Such adrenaline inducing events inhibited the mind’s ability to reach the center required for the activation of the Aspect.
Tel Samil worried his team might be too relaxed for what they were about to go through. But this team was special. Lo, Aulus, Winnow, Vare and Darius were perhaps the strongest group of Specters in the world right now, at least of their generation. Aceldama had done well recruiting them nearly two years ago, though their luck was assisted by the fact all five of them had been in the same tournament together. Such serendipitous groupings were never to be ignored.
“Target is acquired, we’ve narrowed the landing to a deviation of point two kilometers. You’ll be right on top of them. Everything is set, releasing pods!” The pilot communicated, the speaker reaching inside the pods as well.
TREE released its pods, or seeds as the crew members often referred to on this specific spacecraft, where the name came from in the first place. The creator of Aceldama had quite the idealistic mentality.
The pods were launched and the Specters got to experience the exhilarating sense of traveling impossible distances in unreal speeds that felt oddly slow. The view was breathtaking and one that very few lifeforms ever got to see in person. It was the world from above. They could see the continents, massive cloud and storm systems, the ocean the vast metropolises… Most notably were two features of the planet that stood out from the rest. The super massive mountain towering over twenty kilometers high where the metropolis Labyrinthum was built into. The other was the Great Tidal Wall which divides the two continents at their closest point in the ocean.
Lo, Winnow, Aulus, Darius and Vare all shared a similar memory as they plummeted to their first mission. It was about the time Aceldama approached them in the tournament after the five of them had finished their bouts and were eliminated. They were in a medical room being treated for their injuries, none of the warriors bearing any ill will toward the other, just a massive of respect and an instant friendship. The light conversation was interrupted by a newcomer.
That’s when Gray appeared. It was a code name obviously. His hair was dyed gray and he was dressed in a silk and leather gray suit and bore the insignia of Aceldama, a nameless field waylaid with the ruins of a battle.
“I am Gray.” He said simply, introducing himself. “I represent Aceldama. The five of you have the choice of leaving your current lives behind and joining the most elite task force in the world.” His voice was light, though it still had the edge of a warrior. There was balance in his walk and a calmness to his words. “We have been watching you since the awakening of your Aspects. Aceldama is in need of recruits. What we offer in return is access to training and the life of a warrior battling things mortals fear.” Gray had a peculiar mannerism, as if someone so obsessed with his life’s work that he became poetical in his everyday vernacular. A fanatic of his own obscure work defending the planet.
“What is it you do?” Aulus asked, referring to the organization itself.
“Aceldama is the final battlefield. What conflicts arise to threaten the world, we end.”
“A planet defense group, eh?” Darius said rubbing one of his wounds.
“Yes.” Gray replied simply.
“If we join it is not as followers of peace or protectors of the planet but as followers of power and battle.” Lo stated honestly.
“We would not have offered this to you if we thought otherwise. The line of work we do does not lend itself well to zealots or activists. Aceldama is, and will always be, neutral. We simply require Specters who live to fight. We want the best and have the capabilities of nurturing those with talent. Garghent has done well training you, but Aceldama can take you to heights beyond your dreams and nightmares, literally.” He smiled for the first time at that last part, revealing filed teeth, stained gray.
“When do we start?” Winnow asked for the group.
“Now. Preparations have been made to null your contracts. There are no ties keeping you here.”
Vare gestured, “lead the way.”
Like a rush waking from a dream suddenly, the drop pods landed and reality changed from the majesty of the view to the intensity of war.
The pods opened, vapor and oxygen steamed out as the water drained. The doors flung open and Lo was the first to activate his Aspect.
“Sunder!” The shocked cultists regained their composure, grabbing for weapons and abandoning the tied victims ready to be sacrificed.
There were close to forty cultists, all dressed in an off-purple and black jacket and dark pants. It was obvious they wore body armor under the jackets as their torso’s were exaggerated. They were certainly not the average robe and mask wearing occultists but a legitimate militant organization.
“Myrmidon!” Aulus called as he hid behind his pod, which would provide decent cover as he summoned his warriors.
Darius charged, needing his own blood drawn in order to actually use his power.
“Archon.” Vare said electrically. “Mahadeva form.” Four astral arms erupted from his back.
“Ash.” Winnow opened a pouch and produced a pipe. She pulled a handful of grass and stuffed the pipe. She flicked her thumb and lit it. Taking a huge puff and aiming right below herself, she exhaled steadily, creating a large smoke screen for her whole team.
It was just in time as the cultists opened fire with machine guns.
Darius took the brunt of the shots as they concentrated on the first person in sight. “Ichor!” Darius’s blood coagulated and started to form weapons.
“Herakles. Baldr. Belos.” His body formed the revolver, scimitar and ax. The first cultist had his chest riveted with the bloodshot. The man died as he fell. The cultists charged Darius with daggers and pistols.
A massive, spectral sword swung overhead. Lo’s sword shattered on another cultist, killing him but losing his weapon. He summoned a spear threw it at one with a rifle. The ghostly spear zoomed through the air and took out half the cultist’s face as it shattered.
A warrior clad in bronze with spear and shield joined the fray, thrusting and bashing left and right. Another black-garbed warrior with two swords decapitated a cultist with a long dagger. Winnow breathed burning ash to disintegrate the flesh off of a small group that entered the smoke screen. Their screams were muffled by the thick smoke surrounding them.
Vare shot out a bullet of energy from his extra arms as he charged with a short, spectral blue staff. Upon impact with cultists, their bodies suffered electrical burns and the force from the rod smashed bone to splinters.
Tel Samil shot round after round with his modified marksman pistol into the mass of remaining cultists. His aim was never off.
Lo and Darius finished off the rest of the cultists with a flurry of blood weapons and a massive, crashing astral sword.
When the glass particles of his sword finally dispersed, out came a final cultist.
He was dressed the same as the other cultists, except that he wore a mask of a dragon. The style was more ancient and the dragon had more equestrian features than the typical modern depiction of a dragon.
“You’ve crashed my party.” The masked man said with apathy and sarcastic observation. The dead and dying cultists strewn about the area certainly contrasted his words.
The Aceldama Specters had suffered a score of minor injuries, their advanced and flexible armor provided decent enough protection, but still, weapons tend to always be more effective than the contemporary armor they are pitted against. They were breathing heavy and unprepared for the next move.
“Who are you?” Tel Samil asked as he slowly approached.
“I should ask the same question. But you did ask first so it is only polite to answer before you.” His voice was so conversational that, had the context of fighting been ignored, they might have been seen as coworkers or mutual friends. That is until his next line. “I am Diamak reborn,” his voice was suddenly intense and filled with violence and his eyes glowed red through his mask. “The eldritch dragon! My catatonic body sleeps deep below the subterranean bowels. I will awaken Diamak!
“Take him alive.” Tel Samil told his team.
“Simulacrum.” The cult leader said. He locked his fingers togethers. “Life-link.”
The victims tied down started to writhe and shout in pain and terror. There were many more than the few in the center of the clearing, the screams came from all around and dozens at least.
The dead cultists began to stir, and then they rose.
“Life transfer!” Tel Samil exclaimed, seeing how the sacrifice victims died while the slain cultists came to life, free of wounds and injuries.
“I’ll take the leader! Hold off the army as long as you can!” Tel Samil sprinted through, dodging cultists who came to fully aware and ready to fight. It couldn’t be their first resurrection, judging by their adjustments.
Simulacrum is a devastatingly strong Aspect, thought Tel Samil.
“Uthlen.” Tel Samil whispered his own devastating Aspect.
The cult leader drew a sword, ashy gold in color and curved around the end. It was ornate and of a metal Tel Samil had never seen before.
Tel Samil fired his pistol at the cult leader’s leg. The masked man staggered but whispered something. Another victim shouting gave away the cultist’s motivation. He healed himself and lunged at Tel Samil with his sword. The cultist was fast and gashed Tel Samil’s shoulder, slicing through the armor easily.
Tel Samil stepped back and fired another round into the cultist’s chest. Another scream and the leader rejuvenated. Anticipating another shot, he dropped the ground. The shot sailed over him and he dove forward, tackling Tel Samil. The cultist tried punching but a series of bullets tore his stomach. Tel Samil shoved the body off and risked glancing around. His team was fighting hard but the number of sacrifices was diminishing, most of the cultists were staying dead.
The masked leader rose to his feet again and swiped his sword in a vicious arc. Tel Samil leapt back, dodging it. He knew his pistol was out of ammo so he holstered it as he unsheathed a machete.
The first attack he blocked, but by the second one, his machete was split in two. The superior metal of the strange sword giving no quarter to the industrial steel machete. The cult leader was fast and had the better weapon, but Tel Samil was a veteran of many years, a master of swords, guns and of course hand to hand.
With his right hand he caught the cultist’s sword wrist, held it back as he delivered a punch to his sternum then twisted the wrist until it broke in one fluid string of moves. The cult leader grunted but had no muscle control over the wrist anymore and dropped his blade.
Tel Samil moved fast to take the next action, but the cult leader used another sacrifice to heal his wrist, caught the blade before it fell and stabbed Tel Samil in the side.
Tel Samil’s reflexes allowed him to roll to the opposite side and the blade only penetrated a few centimeters deep.
The cult leader saw that most of his men were dead, with no more sacrifices to use. Tel Samil noticed this as well. It was becoming increasingly difficult to take the cult leader alive. There was no way of knowing how many bodies he could draw from or the distance that it worked from or even the requirements for who can be sacrificed.
His team was rushing over to help detain the cult leader, but they looked haggard and wounded. The cultist would kill them with his golden edge.
“Damn it fine, you can have him.” Tel Samil said, grimaced to himself.
The masked man recognized the look in Tel Samil’s eyes. Tel Samil could hear the smile behind the wicked dragon mask. “When next I see you, I want my blade back.”
A snake burst from Tel Samil’s chest, a giant python far larger than a man and certainly larger than Tel Samil’s chest. Still attached to the chest, it lashed out and bit off the upper half of the cult leader. It swallowed him and retracted into Tel Samil’s chest, impossibly fitting inside of him. His chest closed over and no sign that it burst open existed.
All the cultists were dead.
Tel Samil was proud his team all survived. Lo had the worst injuries and was bleeding freely from multiple areas. He still stood on two feet.
Aulus looked haggard, though he didn’t physically join the fight, controlling two of his warriors at the same time would result in painful headaches and be taxing on his physical body.
Darius’s only wounds came from the ones he used to create weapons. The progression of his tentacles and blood eye indicated he nearly reached his limit, the point when too much blood is used and therefore death results.
Winnow had depleted most of her smoke, diminishing her body to a frail version. She was perhaps half the weight of her normal self. She was already preparing a fire in order to eat the ash and restore body. She’d have the quickest recovery of everyone despite looking the worst.
Vare found a seat and the others slowly gathered around, trying their best to keep appearances up.
“So their leader is dead?” Aulus asked first.
Tel Samil shook his head. “That was just another one of his life-links. The real body could be anywhere.” Tel Samil examined the recovered blade, noting the scaly designs and the old language characters on it.
“Still, we completed the mission. There’s a lot to process. Even if they don’t have a real connection to what’s destroying the cities, they have a powerful Specter.”
“He said he was Diamak, could that really be the name of the thing taking out the cities?” Darius questioned.
“Honestly it could be. But his assumption of a reborn vessel is probably a result of some mania. I’m sure he’s convinced himself completely.”
“I’ve called for evacuation. We’ll get patched up and give our report in the next meeting.” Tel Samil added.
It was just as they were heading back when a deep, grumbling bellow followed by the quaking of the ground made them all hold their breath.
“We’ll make it an emergency meeting.” Tel Samil said humorlessly after the rumbling ceased.
The end of arc 5: The siege of Garghent