Darkest Dungeon 14

JOURNAL 14

We have recovered that accursed artefact, the monkey’s paw, and the Hag of the Weald has been slain.

We set out this morning, hungry and exhausted, having miraculously stayed along the trail during our flight from the witches. It was only then that I noticed that the further we push into the cemetery, the thicker and wilder the growth becomes. The trees have become more twisted, the roots more gnarled, and a strange fungus has grown rampant, dominating thick trunks and exposed roots. The mushrooms looked similar to those that had grown in the carcass of that slain chimera, and I took care to steer the party clear of them. Our progress was significantly slowed but we still moved steadily forward, and we soon became aware of the sound of a wailing woman. Cole was the first to take notice of this and his manner changed entirely, becoming much more rigid and attentive. He called the wailing to our attention and warned us to steel ourselves for the struggle ahead.

We eventually abandoned the trail entirely, since avoiding the sinister fungus became laborious, and elected to follow the sound of the wailing. There was a haunting clarity to it and it became impossible to not imagine the woman whose body had been wracked by those sobs, overcome by such grief. It quickly wore on the mind, however, and as the hours passed I could feel my tolerance for it start to wane. It echoed throughout the trees, and just when I thought I could no longer bear it we came into view of the Hag of the Weald.

We saw a tomb through the trees and a small, frail figure kneeling in front of it. She was at the edge of our circle of light and had the silhouette of a young woman. Her skin looked gray and ashen, however, and ruined clothes hung in tatters off of her shoulders. Her hair was shockingly white and was long enough to rest upon the ground. Attached to a small rope hung around her neck was the unmistakable monkey’s paw, with two of its fingers folded against the palm while the last clawed finger pointed accusingly towards the ground. I stood uselessly within the treeline, caught off guard by the vulnerability of our quarry, though Cole stepped forward and addressed the Hag directly, demanding the paw. The wailing stopped as she turned towards him and hissed, standing up and clutching the paw between her hands. As he took a step forward, she closed her eyes and said something in the same guttural language the witches used and I watched the last dreadful finger curl against the palm, signifying that her last wish had been granted.

Such flagrant use of the dark artefact enraged Blacksmith and he charged out of the trees with his longsword and slashed at the Hag, though she moved with surprising quickness and avoided his attack. In one fluid movement, she pounced upon him and knocked his helmet aside, leaving his face terribly exposed. Her nails were akin to talons and she clawed viciously at his face, swiftly bloodying it, though Cole knocked her aside with his shield and gave our companion a reprieve. The Hag disappeared into the trees and Cole ordered us to be on our guard, warning that she could strike from any direction. The brutality of the assault had sapped Blacksmith’s fervor and he remained upon the ground, shouting that the foul hag had blinded him. The three of us circled around him as the Hag darted from the trees at us, screaming and slashing with her talons, as we repelled each assault the best we could before she disappeared among the trees. She had begun wailing once more and that horrible noise echoed throughout the Weald, making it impossible to hear her approach and driving a stake through the mind. I cannot say for sure how long we held our position, bracing ourselves against her vicious assaults. I only know that it ended when I splashed her with a corrosive grenade, which had the effect of freezing her in place as she shrieked in pain. Maxwell lunged forward and caved her skull in with a single blow from his club, silencing the Hag forever.

In those first few moments of blessed silence after she was slain, I heard a roar deep within the Weald, though none in our party could make sense of it. Wasting no time, Cole stepped forward and wrapped the paw in a cloth, yanking it free from the Hag’s neck and placing it in a pouch. He also searched her body, pulling dirt encrusted trinkets from her person that bore the symbol of the house of Clarke. I tended to Blacksmith and saw that he was alive with both eyes intact, though blood had splashed into them. The skin of his scalp and face had been badly lacerated, though it will not put him at risk of death.  I have leeched him to ward off fever for the sake of caution, however.

The party is in high spirits now that our task has been completed, the highest they have been since we entered this foul place. Even Blacksmith has laughed, a feat for a man so rattled and wounded by its machination. Maxwell believes that we can place the Weald at our backs in two days’ time, maybe less, if we keep a good pace. The only disturbance to our merriment is the tomb the Hag had been mourning at. There was no indication of who it belonged to though it appeared to be quite recent, and only when the fight was over did I notice that the strange fungus had infested the tomb. Its exterior was covered in mushrooms, and its green tendrils looked as if they had snaked their way inside the tomb through any cracked stone they could find. Or, rather, they had snaked their way from the inside out. As I studied the manner of the tomb, Cole told me to stop my investigation and enjoy our small victory while I can before we set out again. I believe he knows more than he lets on, though he refuses to indulge my curiosity. It is no matter, though I appreciate anything that may allow me to make sense of this awful place.

Soon, I will be able to sleep in my soft bed. That is all the motivation I need to surpass whatever obstacles the Weald may try and place in my way during our exit.

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Darkest Dungeon 13

JOURNAL 13

We were ambushed as we slept by the black tree. Witches, a pair of them. Anselm’s booming bark awoke us, and I was startled to see two strangers standing amongst us, one looming over me with a cruel dagger and the other in the center of our camp. Both were women, with bent backs and warty skin hanging loose off of their bones. They had hair like straw and wore strange trinkets about their person. One appeared to wear a crown of animal bones, while the one standing over me had hung a pan flute from her neck that looked as if it had been cut from the bark of the black tree.

I laid there uselessly, my limbs stiff and unresponsive as the dagger came closer to my heart until Cole’s call to arms shook me from my paralysis. Our party scrambled to our battle positions, prompting one witch to chant something in a low, guttural language I was unfamiliar with. I believe it to be a hex of some sort, because Cole rapidly lost the strength to lift both his shield and his mace, leaving him struggling to stand under the weight of his armor. Anselm rushed the witches, though the one with the pan flute piped several dissonant notes that enraptured our hound, leaving him whimpering and pacified. I lobbed one of my corrosive grenades at the witch that had attempted to gouge me but it fell short, ineffectually splashing upon the ground, and Maxwell lunged forward with his club only to be clawed by the long, torturous nails of one of the witches. While we attempted to repel our assailants, Blacksmith sat upon the ground, as if under some sort of spell, until I shouted for him to rouse himself. This broke the spell that had seemingly been cast on him, and with a zealous shout, he leaped to his feet as he produced some manner of religious scroll from a pouch, holding it accusingly towards the witches. It began to glow with a holy light, beams of it falling upon the witches and burning them, driving them back to the treeline as they hissed at their accuser. Blacksmith lunged forward with his longsword and cleaved one of the foul witches in twain, and our party took advantage of the reprieve to prepare our camp for departure.

Maxwell shouldered Cole’s shield as I took his mace and we dashed into the trees with Blacksmith, who left the remaining witch on the far side of the clearing. The thickness of the trees and the sudden weakness that had overtaken Cole severely limited our stride, but we were quick to put distance between ourselves and the black tree. Our only guidepost during this time was the tombstones of the cemetery, ensuring that we traveled deeper into Weald. We were assailed by strange creatures during this time, Unnatural and twisted beasts, though none as fearsome as the chimera that had injured Maxwell and we were able to dispatch them with ease.

Several hours passed as we continued to travel, and Cole’s strength slowly returned to him. We were able to stop and take stock of the situation, once we felt we were no longer under threat of assault. It was only then we realized we had left half of our rations behind, reducing us to bare sustenance for the remainder of our time within the Weald. With our situation realized, both Maxwell and I suggested that we depart this wicked place and return to the hamlet, taking our knowledge with us so we may be better prepared for a second trip, but Cole would not hear of it. He believes that running would be akin to cowardice, even if it is merely survival, and he will not return until our task is complete. While the hex had left him unable to lift his mace, he still had the strength to lift a bottle, and in his inebriated state he declared that he knew the Hag was close. While we prepared the camp, Maxwell and Anselm scouted further ahead and discovered a trail that looked to be the same as the one we had been following previously. With this news, Cole nodded sagely, and said that tomorrow we would retrieve the trinket. Only then would we be allowed to depart.

After suffering the ambush at the black tree, we have doubled the watch. I am awake with Blacksmith as my company, who is still burning with the fervor of a zealot. His manner has completely changed, shifting from a man nearly broken by the Unnatural happenings in the Weald to a soldier who was self-assured in his righteousness. He is a stout defender, though I hope that in his newfound purpose he does not lose sight of who his allies are.

I can still hear that dissonant piping deep within the Weald. Of all the foul things within, I fear that the sound of that pan flute will haunt me even when this place is merely a distant memory for me.

Darkest Dungeon 12

JOURNAL 12

I have cauterized Maxwell’s arm, much to my chagrin. Upon waking, I inspected his arm over his protests and saw the slightest tint of green in his wound, accompanied by a pungent odor. I wasted no time in preparing a heated blade as Cole gave him a leather strap to bite down upon, moving quickly before he risked losing any of his arm to the Unnatural rot. Blacksmith and Cole held him down as I brought the blade to the wound, the metal burning flesh and growth out. He bore it as well as he could, but I still fear his screams were enough to rouse whatever things may be resting within the Weald.

The procedure has clearly exhausted our master of hound, but Cole is a relentless taskmaster and pushed us forward at the same pace we held the past two days. We traveled for most of the day with little happening that is worth remarking on, except that we seem to be closing in our quarry. I am not a tracker, but the other three all unanimously agree that we are only a day behind, maybe less, of whoever it is we are following. Blacksmith insists that it is important we do not get our hopes up and that there is no way to know if it is the Hag we seek, but believes that whatever we find will help us with our task. He has repeated that several times throughout the day, and I suspect that it is more for his benefit than anyone else’s. The Weald has worn hard on him, and his eyes have become bloodshot from fitful sleeping. He seems to be muttering prayers to the Goddess more often, clutching his talisman in one fist as we traverse through the trees. He has decried the creature we battled yesterday as a result of witchcraft, and it has shaken him. Witches have long been rumored to practice freely among the pagan East, and the idea that they occasionally find themselves in the West is a constant source of fear for peasants and the religious. If he is right, and I have no reason to suspect he is not, then perhaps the foul thing that the elder Clarke loosed upon the world has called out to the witches of the world to gather within this wild place. If there are necromancers practicing their foul art in the ruins of the estate, it is not a stretch of reason to believe that something similar could be occurring here.

The trail we have been following has finally led us to the outskirts of the Clarke ancestral cemetery, where we have seen headstones scattered amongst the trees. A cursory examination of one revealed that its owner had passed within the last century, and Cole broke his customary silence to inform us that the Clarkes had staked their claim on this land at least a dozen generations past, perhaps longer, and that the cemetery sprawled across the grounds. It was once hallowed ground, he said, though no one had been buried in at least 60 years there, and that whatever had made it sacred was long banished. Blacksmith asked if the young Master Clarke had plans to bury the body of his father within the cemetery, but Cole resumed his silence and left the question unanswered.

We have found another clearing to rest in, though this particular one has a queer feeling about it. It is much larger than any others we have found, but the center of it is dominated by particularly thick tree with black bark, the likes of which is unknown to me. The treeline around it fashions a circle, and Blacksmith has discovered effigies similar to the one I hold at the edge of the clearing. He smashed them under his bootheel, declaring them to be the result of dangerous pagan worship. I have kept the effigy I found to myself, having not found a reason to share it with my companions. I suspect that Blacksmith may have once been a crusader that fought in campaigns throughout the pagan East, which is yet another reason to not speak openly of it.

The black tree resisted all efforts to pry firewood from it, so we have been forced to gather from the treeline that encircles the clearing. Maxwell is recuperating slowly and the cauterization is holding, though his arm is too injured for him fight while also maintaining control of Anselm. I am pleased to see that whatever growth that had infested his wound has been burned away and that his arm will remain functional, if not entirely whole.

The weald is quiet tonight. While I have been on watch, tending to our fire, I have heard strange musical notes drift through the trees and to my ears. They are solitary notes, easy to miss, but unmistakable once they are noticed. I do not know what it portends, but the thought of something playing music among the trees chills me to my bones. I hope we can find our Hag and so we may depart this place.

Darkest Dungeon 11

JOURNAL 11

Another day amongst these trees, and the Weald has had its first taste of our blood.

The attack came shortly after we had arrived in this clearing, having spent all day following the trail that we pursued yesterday. Even to my untrained eyes, evidence of humans occupying this space was immediately evident, and the four of us investigated what remained of their visit. It was not much more than a space between the trees, accelerating the search, and I quickly found two strange objects, laid carefully at the edge of the treeline: a small leather sack containing a silver ring that bore the sigil of the Clarke house, next to a strange effigy made of wood and bone. I studied the effigy, believing it to be a pagan relic, and heard a snort from within the trees. Thinking only of the young Master Clarke’s command to retrieve lost heirlooms of his house, I pulled the ring from the pouch and upon doing so a terrifying beast burst from the woods.

My initial impression was of some strange chimera of ram and boar, an Unnatural beast that had grown enormous from the foul energies of the Weald. It stood as tall as a man, its tusks as long as swords and covered in some strange growth, while its curved horns were darkened from the blood of other creatures. It seemed half crazed and half blind, the mysterious growth on its tusks reaching its snout and infecting one of its eyes. I stumbled backwards in surprise and the slavering beast made to gore me, but Anselm attacked and distracted the beast while Cole rallied the men, giving me an opportunity to get to my feet. Anselm had clamped onto its throat as the beast struggled to shake him off, and Blacksmith started hacking at it with his sword. Anselm was eventually thrown free and it lunged for Cole, attempting to impale him upon its fearsome horns. Cole was quick with his shield, deflecting the blow, giving Blacksmith another opportunity to attack.

While the men engaged the beast, I pulled one of the pouches of the corrosive concoction from my bag and threw it at the awful thing. It was more effective than I would have ever suspected as it splashed across the flank of the beast, burning and melting its flesh. The smell of singed hair was unmistakable and the creature gave a furious scream, lunging toward Maxwell. He attempted to evade it but one of those horrible tusks caught his arm. I saw the blood splash onto the ground as he was thrown backwards, causing Blacksmith and Cole to double their efforts against the massive beast. As sword and mace crashed into it over and over, its flesh became matted with blood and its energy started to falter. I pulled another pouch of the potion, preparing to throw it, but Anselm lunged again at the creature, securing his grip and tearing out its throat. The beast started to stagger as blood poured from its wounds; it attempted to make its way back to the trees but fell short, collapsing in the clearing.

When Maxwell had been thrown, the torch had gone with him and dwindled dangerously low. I rushed to his aid once I saw that the beast had been vanquished. He was still very much alive, though bleeding badly, but Blacksmith rushed over to ensure that the torch did not become extinguished. It is perhaps telling that it is only our second day within this place and light has already grown more valuable than companionship, though maybe I am being too harsh on Blacksmith. Perhaps, in the aftermath of the battle, he was more clearheaded than I was.

Maxwell was gored badly in his arm, the flesh torn and ragged, though he will live. His left arm will be useless for the remainder of our journey through the Weald, however. I have slathered the wound in honey to ward off fever and leeched him for the night, though I secretly worry about the strange growth on the monster’s tusks. The way it had taken over the monster’s face shows a capacity to dominate the flesh, but I do not know if that will happen to Maxwell’s arm. If that time comes, I suppose I will have to cauterize the wound, though I hope that the current treatment suffice.

After the battle, when no more attacks came, we established our meagre campsite and ate our evening meal in silence. Maxwell was obviously shaken by the attack, though Anselm seemed no worse for wear and tried to comfort his master. Cole and Blacksmith wanted to use the slain beast to increase our rations, but the Weald had already started to claim its prize. Strange vines had sprouted from the trees and wrapped themselves around the corpse of the creature, and it was quickly decomposing. Mushrooms had already sprouted upon it as well, strange looking growths I have never seen or read of. We left the creature to the Weald’s machinations, resigning ourselves to the idea that we may be limited only to the supplies we have brought with us.

The Weald is quiet tonight. I have not seen or heard the insects that had hounded us last night for the latter half of the day, and I believe we may have passed through the territory of their colony. Perhaps, with the light of day still fresh in my mind, I did not feel trepidation at their presence, though I now suspect that they may have been far more nefarious than I could imagine. I have heard of ant colonies in far off lands that can consume a whole sow in mere minutes, and I shudder to think what those strange insects may be capable of. It is better that I was not afforded a chance to study them, I think.

I have not mentioned the ring or the effigy to any of my companions yet, simply because I see no need to. I am still studying the effigy, trying to ascertain its origins. It is composed of bark from a tree and the bones of a small animal, I suspect, and looks as if it is meant to represent some manner of man. There is a strange addition to the head of the effigy, tiny shards of bone that look as if they are meant to be horns. I can’t imagine what it represents, though Wolfswift may know once I return to the hamlet.

We still have not seen any sign of the ancestral cemetery that sits at the heart of the Weald, so I suspect that we may have to travel much further. This clearing was occupied recently, and I can only imagine that the Hag we are tracking was here. Perhaps we won’t have to venture much further, if we can capture this Hag quickly, and be done with this awful place faster than we anticipate.

An epilogue

WASHINGTON D.C.
PILLAR OF NORTH AMERICA

“NO!”

“GENES!”

“FOR!”

“ME!”

Paddon sat on a bench next to Gray, watching the demonstration take place. The protestors had circled around the Pillar of North America, one of five monuments erected to those lost during the invasion. carrying signs that featured pictures of Sectoids with X’s crossed through them.

“That’s the worst chant I’ve ever heard,” said Gray.

Paddon grunted in agreement, watching the lead protestor call into his bullhorn. The chanting reminded him to take his genetic medication, and he dug the orange pill bottle out of his pocket. He poured the pills in his hand and picked out 2 blue ones and a green, popping all three into his mouth at once. He swallowed them, wincing as they went down, and he suddenly regretted not taking a drink of water.

“It’s good that the docs were able to finally get you down to two medications from that mountain you used to have,” remarked Gray. “Makes me glad I never got my trip to the tube.”

“Not to rub it in, or anything,” said Paddon.

“I’m just saying, the first generation gene mods had some issues. It’s the hazards that come with being the first monkey shot into space.”

Paddon grunted again, pocketing the bottle. He looked at his watch and saw that Maxwell was a minute late, which seemed unusual for a man who had a reputation for being punctual. He glanced around the park, wondering what was so urgent that the man had been willing to fly all the way from Germany to meet them. Gray had been the one to get the phone call, but whatever it was, Maxwell had been riled up by something and needed to see them, in person, as quickly as possible.

Suddenly, Paddon felt an elbow in his ribs and Gray said, “The big man approaches. And with a guest!”

Paddon looked up and saw Maxwell walking towards him alongside Lancaster, who was carrying a manila folder. Both men wore intense, worried expressions, and as Paddon and Gray approached, the first thing Maxwell said was, “We need to find a quiet place to talk. Any bad restaurants around here?”

“In D.C.? Are you kidding? There’s tons. Follow me,” said Gray.

The four men set off, with Gray leading the way. Paddon fell in next to Lancaster, who seemed a little less preoccupied then Maxwell.

“How’s Ravenshaw doing? I haven’t heard from her since we settled in D.C.” asked Paddon.

“She’s doing fine. Still heading up XCOM in the Philippines. The whole nature of their mission has changed to more of a training and analyzing role. She hates it, but she’s a true believer. She probably won’t leave that place until she’s dead.”

“That’s good. XCOM can use someone like her,” said Paddon. Lancaster nodded in agreement, and Gray found the restaurant he was looking for. On the outside, it looked like a sandwich shop that had been looked over by the health department, and the interior looked much the same to Paddon. However, it was completely deserted with the exception a surly cashier, giving Maxwell the privacy he wanted.

“I’ll grab us all coffee,” said Gray. The other three sat down in a booth in the corner of the shop, giving Paddon a chance to ask what was going on. Maxwell cut him off before he could say anything, saying, “Not yet. Let me ask you a question, though. When’s the last time you talked to Burning Man?”

Paddon shrugged and said, “No idea. Right before XCOM got restructured and we all went our separate ways. Why?”

Maxwell shook his head, saying again, “Not yet.”

Paddon nodded and tapped his fingers on the table, looking around the dingy shop. Eventually, Gray returned with four cups of coffee and said, “Their coffee only comes in black and, uh, not black. So I hope you like it black.”

Paddon grabbed a coffee as Gray took a seat next to him, and everyone looked at Maxwell expectantly. He took a sip of his coffee, and then looked at Lancaster, who finally opened the manila folder he had been carrying around. He dumped out a stack of papers, all face down, and before he showed them he said, “Just to let you guys know, as of right now, only 5 other people know about this. Myself, Coach, Wolfswift, Ravenshaw, and Maxwell. You two make 7.”

“That’s all fine and good, Lancaster, but we still have no idea what this is about,” replied Gray.

Maxwell nodded, and Lancaster flipped over the top paper. It was a photograph, and Lancaster said, “This photo was taken by authorities in South Africa, shortly following Operation Red Thorn. Coach led Siren to the EXALT HQ, where they assassinated the EXALT commander and razed their command and control center.”

Paddon looked at the photographs, which showed the interior of a building covered in ash and scorch marks. There were computer bays which had been ravaged by the fire, as well as a destroyed hologlobe unit. Lancaster flipped over the next photograph and slid it towards Paddon, saying, “And this was taken about 3 weeks ago, in the same building, in the same place.”

Paddon took the picture and saw that the interior looked the same, but all of the electronics had been removed.

“Someone salvaged all of the computers?” asked Gray.

Maxwell nodded and said, “We don’t know how long ago.”

Lancaster continued, pulling another piece of paper out. “In the past couple of months, there’s been some paramilitary activity in southern and easterm Africa, targeting aid groups that use Meld technology. A single group has taken credit for all of them, proclaiming a rejection of human modification. Pretty awful scenes, few survivors. By all reports, they roll up in trucks, use some hodgepodge of laser and ballistic weaponry, and then take off before anyone can respond. They call themselves the ‘Defenders of Our Humanity’ and have made it their mission to oppose transhumanism.”

Gray snorted and said, “What a stupid term.”

Lancaster continued. “About 2 weeks ago, they bombed a clinic that provided genetic medication for people who had received biological augmentations. There was some CCTV footage available of the attackers, so we pulled it and got a picture of the person we believe to be their leader.”

He slid the photo towards Paddon and Gray, and Paddon felt his stomach tie itself into a knot.

“No way,” he said.

“That’s Burning Man, former lieutenant and Chimera 7 of XCOM,” said Maxwell miserably.

“Christ,” muttered Paddon.

“When I was working within EXALT, they never quite reached XCOM’s level of technological sophistication, I saw them hit some pretty close approximations. We think Burning took a team to South Africa and salvaged EXALT’s HQ to repurpose it for his own needs. It would’ve been easier than starting from scratch,” said Lancaster.

“His intention seems to be to spread his particular brand of philosophy, and continue to target all things ‘transhuman’. Anyone who receives augmentations, anyone who distributes them, anyone who is any way associated with it. If he has taken all of EXALT’s equipment, it’s worrisome for a lot of reasons. We managed to keep the most dangerous technology locked up, plasma weaponry and gene mods mostly, but the EXALT made pretty good progress in reverse engineering it. If he’s got that data…” said Maxwell.

“And, if nothing else, it shows that he’s getting ready to expand his operations. The EXALT had a pretty impressive command and control suite,” said Lancaster.

Paddon sighed and took a sip of his coffee, processing all the information. He stared down at the photo with Burning Man in it, wondering what drove him to this and asked Maxwell, “So what do you want from us? I don’t think you’re here just to share this with us.”

Maxwell nodded and said, “Well, I want you to bring you on board to our agency. We’ll get you on a payroll, we’ll get you spun up for field operations again. We need-“

“Wait wait wait. XCOM isn’t doing this?” asked Gray.

“No. XCOM is purely extraterrestrial. Trust us, we hoped we could get XCOM on board. Ravenshaw was the first person we talked to, but she’s still under the thumb of the Council. She wants to, but there’s no way the Council would allow it. However, we have managed to acquire some special XCOM assets, courtesy of Ravenshaw,” said Lancaster.

“We’ll fly you guys to Germany, get you all trained up, and then send you to Africa to dismantle the group. Wolfswift is on board and already in Germany. We’ll send her out with you guys to find Burning Man when you’re ready to go.”

“So, that’s it? You two just roll into town, ask us to get back into the saddle and go to Africa to hunt down a former member of XCOM?” asked Gray.

“Pretty much,” said Maxwell.

Paddon drained the rest of his coffee as Gray leaned back, staring at the ceiling. He mulled everything over, trying to decide what the right thing to do was, when Gray said “Screw it. I’ll do it.”

“Excellent,” said Lancaster. “Paddon?”

He pinched the nose of his bridge and said, “Fine. I’ll do it.”

Maxwell grinned and said, “Awesome. Both of you, get your personal affairs sorted in the next week. We’ll get in touch, get you flown out to Germany next Friday. We’ll have you on the ground in Africa by the end of the month.”

Lancaster and Maxwell both stood up, putting on their jackets, and Lancaster said, “It’s a relief to know you guys are on board. Wolfswift was worried she’d be going at it alone.”

Maxwell dug out a card from his pocket and handed it to Paddon saying, “That’s my contact information. As soon as you’re ready to go, let me know.”

With that, Maxwell and Lancaster left the shop. Paddon drained his lukewarm coffee and said, “Well, so much for peace in victory.”

“It’s not that bad. Something was bound to come up sooner or later. It’s just unfortunate it’s this. Do you think Burning is doing this on his own?”

Paddon shrugged and said, “Don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Sounds like we won’t be able to drink for a while.”

Gray slapped him on the back and said, “Come on man, let’s hit the pub tonight. One last chance to enjoy victory before it all goes to hell again.”

Operation Avenger

XCOM HQ
GOLLOP CHAMBER

Crimson stood in the passageway that led to the Gollop Chamber, with Colonel Wolfswift and Lietuenant OBT behind him.

“You nervous at all?” asked Wolfswift. Crimson licked his lips as his heart pounded away in his chest, replying, “Only a little bit.”

OBT clapped his hand on his shoulder and said, “You’ll be fine.”

“I hope.”

Crimson took a deep breath to steady himself and focus. As he inhaled, he felt his head start to clear and his heart slowed down, and as he exhaled he felt himself start to relax. He took several more breaths, feeling relaxation come over him, when the engineer said over the intercom, “We’re totally spun up here. Is the volunteer ready?”

“Yea, I’m ready,” replied Crimson.

“Roger that. Let’s begin the test.”

The door slid open in front of Crimson, revealing the Gollop Chamber inside. He saw the Ethereal Device on the opposite end of the room, and he felt a wash of psionic energy come over him and open his mind. He looked through the window into the control room and saw the faces of the engineers. Path to the device was bordered by pools of water, and Crimson caught a faint whiff of the chlorine.

“Alright Lieutenant, whenever you’re ready,” said the engineer.

Behind him, Wolfswift whispered, “Good luck!” as Crimson took a step into the chamber, feeling the psionic energy increase. He paused for a moment, drinking in the energy, and started walking towards the device. He could feel the power increase with every step, becoming a sort of humming inside his head. As he closed the distance, he started to feel as if electricity was coursing through his body, and he understood how it could have overwhelmed someone who wasn’t psionically trained. He stopped just short of the device, enjoying the energy as it ran through him, amplified by his psi armor, and over the loudspeaker the engineer said, “Alright. Touch the device whenever you’re ready.”

Crimson placed his hand a few inches above the surface of the device, watching tendrils of blue energy wrap around his fingers, and then slowly pushed his hand into the device. He felt his mind open completely as the chamber fell away, replaced by thousands of scenes, all trying to crowd into his brain. He saw a human being vivisected in an alien surgery, a Floater undergoing maintenance, Mutons dragging human corpses. Scenes of death and destruction raced across his mind, and underpinning it all was an indistinct voice. As the shock of sensory overload faded, Crimson tried sorting through the mental images, looking for the source of the voice. It started to become louder, though it was still indistinct, until the image of a helmeted Ethereal crowded out everything else. Instantly, Crimson understood that this was the source of the voice and the source of the invasion. The Ethereal clearly saw Crimson as well as he saw it, and spoke directly to him.

“YOU HAVE SUCCEEDED. WHERE WE HAVE FAILED.”

The Ethereal was gone, and Crimson felt that whatever link had been established was suddenly and violently severed. The images were gone, and Crimson became aware of the Gollop Chamber once more. It seemed unusually dark, so he glanced up at the lights and saw that they were shattered. He looked at the walkway behind him and saw that water had been agitated enough to splash the metal walkway. That feeling of being electrified had not left him, however, and as a test he focused on a nearby pool of water, pleased when he saw it start to swirl around. At the opposite end of the chamber, Wolfswift yelled, “Crimson! Are you alright?”

Turning and walking towards them, Crimson replied, “Yea, I am. I know how to get inside the ship.”

“Good. Ravenshaw wants us in the armory, now.”

———————-

OPERATION AVENGER
TEMPLE SHIP ASSAULT
ENTRANCE

“We’ve got multiple contacts up ahead!”

Blacksmith rushed towards the end of the platform as Ravenshaw trailed behind, watching the Sectoids scatter throughout the chamber, taking cover behind the strange protrusions from the deck of the ship, when two booming blasts from Maxwell’s alloy cannon echoed through the chamber. A fleeing Sectoid was shredded by the flechettes. Blacksmith caught a glimpse of the dark gray of a Sectoid Commander fleeing, and turned his particle cannon towards it, warming it up. The alien flinched away in pain from the particle beam, but the blast was slightly off mark, allowing it to get away. A volley of plasma from Talana cut it down quickly, when a blue light suddenly filled the chamber. Blacksmith watched a strange blue light materialized around the bodies of the slain aliens, obscuring their figure, until it vanished along with the bodies.

Another spark of blue light appeared deeper in the chamber, revealing a pair of Cyberdiscs with complement of Drones. Gray shouted, “Discs incoming!” as a stream of plasma fire streaked towards one, scorching its exterior. Blacksmith looked between the advancing robots as Sectoids still dashed about the chamber when Ravenshaw shouted, “Blacksmith, shoot!”

Blacksmith was yanked out of his hypnosis and leaned forward, feeding power into his grenade launcher, and fired the mortar at a pair of Sectoids. It was a direct hit, their bodies being thrown by the force of the explosion, but quickly being claimed by the strange blue light. He turned his attention to a damaged Cyberdisc and fired his cannon, blowing a meter of armor off the robot and destroying its interior. It fell to the ground with a crash, detonating, and he turned to the second disc. Before he could fire, a storm of blue psionic energy enveloped it and two Drones, rapidly tearing the robots apart. As the machines were ripped into their most basic components, they were pulled round and round as if caught in a great vortex. The psionic energy dissipated, scattering the parts all over the chamber floor, but those too were quickly claimed by that strange blue light and the chamber was quickly devoid of any signs of alien activity.

“That’s pretty god damn spooky,” said Gray over the radio.

“Where the hell are their bodies going?” asked Ravenshaw.

“It’s the ship. It’s, ah, absorbing them. Their energy,” replied Crimson. “The ship giveth and so forth.”

Autoatically, the squad started start to spread out in the chamber, wary of any more contacts. To his right, he saw Gray moving towards an energy door when there was the sound of plasma fire, and plasma bolt hit Gray in his torso. He swore and returned fire at the out of sight enemy while Ravenshaw shouted, “Gray! Gray, are you hit?”

The medic waved an unconcerned hand and replied, “I’m fine. God damn Sectoid was hiding, but my armor took the hit.”

“Good. Don’t be complacent, let’s finish sweeping the room.”

After the ambush, the squad moved much more cautiously throughout the room. While the two low paths in the chamber had an energy door separating this chamber from the next, Blacksmith eyed a catwalk directly across that looked as if it ran above the next chamber. Once the squad had finished their sweep, they took positions next to the doors as Ravenshaw nimbly vaulted over the ledge of the platform, dropping to the deck of the ship and moved towards the catwalk, and Blacksmith followed behind. Ravenshaw crouched at the top of the ramp with her plasma pistol drawn, waiting for Blacksmith to catch up. Once he was in position, Ravenshaw said over the radio, “Is everyone ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” replied Maxwell.

“Roger that, ma’am,” replied Talana.

“Good. On the count of three, we breach.”

———————

OPERATION AVENGER
TEMPLE SHIP ASSAULT
COLISEUM

Ravenshaw engaged the jets on her Archangel armor, levitating above the platform. They squad had entered a massive coliseum, and down below the squad had engaged with a group of Mutons. Ravenshaw had her pistol drawn and once she was high enough to see the aliens below her, she fired several plasma bolts at an exposed Muton. Maxwell’s alloy cannon shredded the armor of a Berserker charging him while Crimson generated a psionic rift in the center of 2 Mutons who were pinning Talana and Gray down, and Ravenshaw watched as they were slowly pulled apart by the forces buffeting them.

As Ravenshaw drifted up and up, she was afforded a look deeper in the coliseum, where she spied 2 Sectopods lying in wait. She looked back down towards the squad and saw them mopping up the Mutons with ease, and called out over the radio, “2 Walkers on the ground floor! Get to the lip of the platform!”

The last plasma shot rang out, killing a fleeing Muton, and the squad started to rush towards the railing. Ravenshaw holsted her pistol and pulled her plasma rifle off her back, trying to steady herself while she was in the air. She definitely had the Sectopods’ attention as she aimed down her scope, trying to find the delicate circuitry that controlled the weapon. She fired, finding her target and damaging the circuitry as the rest of the squad rushed into a firing position. Crimson laid down another psionic rift, one that started to rip the armor off of the robots, as Talana quickly took the rocket tube off her back. The rest of the squad was raining plasma fire down on the robots, melting away their armor, as Ravenshaw lined up another shot. Talana fired her rocket and destroyed the leg one of the Sectopods, rendering it useless, as Ravenshaw fired once more at the remaining Sectopod. The plasma bolt drilled a hole through the robot as it started to sputter sparks, stumbling around until it finally collapsed.

Ravenshaw took a deep breath, thankful that neither robot was able to fire. She found herself practically bumping her head against top of the dome but able to survey the entirety of the arena. That same strange blue light was surrounding the wreckages of the Sectopods, spiriting them away to some unseen place. There were plenty of spots offering concealment scattered throughout, but she could see the entrance to the next chamber on the far side.

“Keep advancing,” ordered Ravenshaw, “I’ve got full view of the room up here, there’s no movement but plenty of hiding spots. Just get to the far end of the chamber, and I’ll catch up once you’re there.”

She watched the squad vault over the lip of the platform and drop to the bottom, spreading out amongst the strange generators jutting up from the ground. Blacksmith marched up the middle of the room as the rest of the squad fanned out behind, and Ravenhaw scanned the far end, looking for any signs of movement. As she was looking through her scope, she heard the sound of a heavy plasma firing echo through the chamber, and frantically dropped her rifle to see where it had happened. There, on the ground, she saw Maxwell sprawled out on the ground with a Muton Elite standing on a catwalk running parallel, preparing to fire again. She was relieved to see Maxwell scramble to his feet and sprint for cover as the rest of the squad opened fire on it. It was quickly cut down by the barrage of plasma, and on the other side of the chamber Ravenshaw saw another Muton Elite creeping towards the squad. She quickly aimed and fired, killing the alien outright, leaving its body to be claimed by the blue light.

“Chimera 1, are you alright?” asked Ravenshaw.

“Yea, yea. I’m fine. Didn’t go through the armor,” replied Maxwell.

“Good to hear. Keep up the advance,” said Ravenshaw. The squad continued their push through the arena, reaching the opposite side of the chamber with no further contacts. Once they were at the entrance to the next chamber, she floated forward and past the lip of the platform, powering down the propulsion and she gently fell to the floor. Once she landed, she sprinted the length of the chamber, reaching the squad on the far end. Maxwell and Talana were passing a canteen between themselves as Gray leaned against the bulkhead, wiping sweat off his face. Crimson was staring intently ahead, at the entry to the next chamber, and Ravenshaw asked, “Any idea what we’re expecting?”

Crimson shook his head and said, “No idea. Just prepare your mind for something vicious.”

Under normal circumstances, she would have written this off as melodrama, but under the circumstances she couldn’t help but believe him. She looked around the squad, watching them rest and gather their nerves, she hoped that she hadn’t led them into a deathtrap, and that whatever waited for them in the next chamber would be the end of the whole invasion.

After enough time, thinking that they had enough rest, Ravenshaw addressed the squad and said, “Reload your weapons. Blacksmith, I want you up front. Weapons free once we’re inside, let’s not waste any time. Let’s go.”

———————-

OPERATION AVENGER
TEMPLE SHIP ASSAULT
BRIDGE

The squad burst onto the bridge of the Temple Ship with Talana on point, and she was surprised to see that the bridge was empty save one alien. A helmeted Ethereal stood on the far side of the bridge in front of a much larger Ethereal device, facing the soldiers. The soldiers froze in place, seemingly hypnotized by the freakishly tall alien, when Crimson shouted, “GET TO COVER!” as that strange blue light suddenly appeared all over the chamber, bringing with it two Ethereals and two Mutons Elite. Talana dashed for a nearby ledge as a plasma bolt from Ravenshaw’s rifle raced overhead towards the helmeted alien, hitting it, and Crimson generated another psionic storm that started to consume the newly arrived Mutons.

“Maxwell, Blacksmith, push into the center!” shouted Ravenshaw, while Crimson yelled, “Focus your fire on the big Ethereal!”

Talana saw bolt after bolt streak overhead towards the Ethereal as Blacksmith and Maxwell rushed the center of the bridge. The Mutons were being torn apart by the psionic energy as the squad concentrated their fire towards the alien, ignoring the Ethereals closing in from the flanks. Talana leveled her heavy plasma and fired a burst at the big Ethereal, but ducked as the plasma bounced off the alien and shot back towards her. She felt the heat of the bolt pass overhead as Gray screamed in pain on the other side of the ramp. She looked over and saw him writhing in pain, trying to resist the mind control of one of the aliens. She stood back up and fired again, the burst striking the helmeted alien. In the center of the room, Maxwell was firing his alloy cannon at the Ethereals that were drifting towards the squad, and Blacksmith shouted, “Talana! Talana, get your rocket ready!”

She saw him lean forward in Vulcan, spooling up the power in one of his launchers. Keeping a wary eye at the Ethereals as they got closer and closer, she pulled the rocket tube off her back and flipped up the sights as Blacksmith launched a mine, sticking it on the platform the large Ethereal was standing on. Getting the alien in her sights, she fired the rocket at the alien. It was a direct hit, detonating directly against the alien, followed by a second detonation as the proximity mine exploded. Suddenly, a guttural scream filled her head, feeling like an icepick was boring its way through her ear, when a voice filled her head screaming the word, “BETRAYAL”.

As suddenly as it had come, the pain and the voice vanished, allowing Talana to open her eyes. She and the rest of the squad had fallen to the deck, overwhelmed by the pain that had followed the explosion, and as she looked around the bridge she saw it was empty. The signs of battle were still present, though any trace of the aliens had vanished. As she staggered to her feet, she heard a rumble echo somewhere deep within the ship as the deck started to vibrate.

“Is everyone OK?” shouted Ravenshaw. The vibration intensified as the squad checked themselves for injury when a trickle of dust fell into Talana’s eye. She blinked hard and looked up, seeing that the ship was shaking itself apart.

“We need to leave! We need to leave now!” shouted Talana, as more pieces of the ship fell from the ceiling.

“Let’s go let’s go! Back to the Skyranger!” yelled Ravenshaw. She stood near the entrance of the bridge, waving people through as Talana crossed back into the coliseum. She was dismayed to see that portions of it had already collapsed, bits of the ship spread out over the wide open chamber. The rest of the squad was passing through when Talana heard Ravenshaw shout over the radio, “Crimson! Crimson, get down here!”

Talana looked through the doorway and saw Crimson sprinting up the ramp to the platform where the Ethereal Device rested, ignoring Ravenshaw. The ship continued to vibrate, slowly shaking itself apart, and as Crimson approached the device he called out over the radio, “Go!”

Talana’s vision suddenly became a blur but she caught the impression of the temple ship racing past her. It only lasted for a few torturous moments before she was in front of the Skyranger, overcome by nausea. She fell to her knees, spilling the scant amount of water in her stomach all over the deck, and she heard everyone else in the squad do the same. She could still feel bits of debris falling on the back of her neck as she struggled to her feet, stumbling towards the Skyranger. The squad followed her, making their way slowly into the Skyranger. Gray was the last on board, and Talana staggered to the pilot and screamed, “Take off!”

There was a lurch as the Skyranger started to ascend that drove Talana into the side, leaving her to grasp for handhold. Looking out the rear of the craft, she saw a whole section of bulkhead cave in on the entrance where the Skyranger had been. In less than a minute, the Skyranger was clear of the Temple Ship, though its massive size still filled the entrance of the ramp. Bits and pieces of it were falling off, splashing into the ocean as the Skyranger sped away, though Talana tried to will the craft faster.

The bottom of the Temple Ship came into view, and Talana realized that it was moving upwards. It was slow, at first, though it quickly gathered speed and ascended into the atmosphere, out of view of the small window that ramp entrance afforded. Ravenshaw and Gray stood near the entrance, craning their necks, when Talana heard a far off explosion and the compartment was flooded with heat and light. She closed her eyes, trying to keep herself from being blinded. Once she felt the light had faded, she opened them and saw flaming debris falling into the ocean.

To Talana, the world seemed unbelievably quiet. All she heard was the steady drone of the Skyranger’s engines and the soft splashes of debris falling into the ocean. Talana felt a sort of numbness take over, and she took a seat on the passenger bench. She looked up at Blacksmith, who muttered, “I can’t believe he did it.”

“It’s over. We won,” said Maxwell.

“We lost Crimson,” pointed out Talana. At this, Ravenshaw replied, “Earth won. That’s why we came here.”

Ravenshaw closed the ramp as the rest of the squad took their seats, trying to process the enormity of the event. One by one, each member of the squad started to laugh and smile, slapping each other’s backs and reveling in the knowledge that the invasion was over.