Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Art of War, Part two: Plan carefully

"Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small."
- Sun Tzu
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I've gone on metaplanar quests before.  In each of those excursions I've had to confront the Dweller on the Threshold.  The Dweller has confronted me with terrible challenges in each of my quests.  I've confronted the ghosts of the people and creatures I've killed, confronted dead chummers and one dead girlfriend, been called to account for my crimes and sins and had my mind and soul battered.

This time the Dweller must have decided that enough was enough, because he was trying to cut me into small pieces.

"Who dares to approach!" The Dweller bellowed.  The ten meter tall, four-armed giant bore four glowing swords.  Each flickered as if they were on fire.

I was determined to show no fear, even though I felt it to the core of my being.  I shouted my name, my real name, to the Dweller and hoped against hope that it would let me pass.

"Tommy."  The Dweller growled.  "DIE!"  It lunged forward with all four swords.

I felt the heat from those blades as they passed within a centimeter of cutting me into ribbons.  My reflexes, though enhanced by powerful spells, were barely sufficient to keep me from being skewered.  My hand went for my gun by force of habit, only to find nothing there.

"Whimpering pup!"  The Dweller roared. "You DARE,  confront me!?!  I'll cut you to ribbons, then feast on your soul!"

I'm not going to lie to you. I was scared.  The Dweller moved with the fluid grace of a spirit, all quicksilver and shadow.  Swords flashed out at me and it was all I could do just to avoid being skewered.

"There are secrets beyond your grasp mortal!" A giant glowing sword flashed by my head.

"There is knowledge which you shall not possess!"  I ducked under two swords as they streaked above me.

"You think you are worthy to just reach for any knowledge, any power, just because you happen to see it?!?!  Power is not some low-hanging fruit for you to pluck!"  A flurry of strikes came at me. I jumped back, desperately trying not to die while the Dweller was making a fantastic effort to murder me.

"Your time is at an end, mortal!  Whether by my blade of the passage of time, you will die!"  The Dweller pressed his attack. With those swords his reach was every bit of seven meters, making it all but impossible to get out of range. He was fast and looked strong enough to cleave me in half with little effort. "DIE, TOMMY! DIE!"

There was a primal rage in that voice.  I ducked, jumped and spun to keep myself alive but I hadn't managed a counterattack. It was just a matter of time before I would be dead.  The Dweller bellowed his challenge at me, a terrifying prospect made all the more urgent by the flash of blazing steel.  The Dweller raised his swords high, preparing for a flurry of strokes that would leave me as nothing more than shattered soul fragments.

I pointed and loosed the first spell that came to mind. "IGNIS MAGICAE!"

A ribbon of white hot flames shot from my outstretched finger, catching the Dweller in his right eye.  The eyeball exploded and the Dweller howled in rage and pain, dropping a sword as one hand went to his ruined eye.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" I loosed a second spell, catching the Dweller's left kneecap and bringing him tumbling down in a crash of steel and a rattle of the planes themselves.  The castle gate behind him remained closed.

"I forbid your entry.  You shall have to kill me in order to pass." The Dweller sneered as he pushed himself to a seated position.

"Ignis. Magicae." My spell caught the Dweller in the crook of the arm supporting his weight.  Once again he fell, the landscape shuddered as if from a great earthquake.  Steel rang as his swords fell.

"Disgraceful." The Dweller's voice was laced with pain.  "Finish me then, mortal.  Go beyond and claim your blood stained prize."

I raised my hands toward the Dweller. The giant reeked of the sickly scent of burning flesh. There were perhaps a dozen different spells that came to mind.  The giant was powerful but badly injured and another spell would kill him.  I stood there, my hands aimed like weapons, and stopped.

'Why would I kill the Dweller? Is it even possible?  What is the point?" These thoughts raced through my mind as the Dweller stared at me with his one good eye, his face etched with pain and defiance.  I knew at that moment that I had the power to kill him.

I also realized that I had no reason to.

"No." I said.  "I won't kill you.  I didn't come here to fight.  I came here seeking knowledge."

I lowered my hands. "I won't kill you for a convenience. I don't know what all your hostility was about, but we'll see each other time and again as the years pass."

"You? You would show mercy?" The Dweller seemed genuinely surprised.  For a moment, I felt a profound sense of shame.

"You sound surprised." I replied.  "Yes. I grant you mercy. Until next we meet."  I turned, intending to find my way back to my mana flooded home, but encountered the castle gate.  It loomed large and open before me.

"For some, being merciful is a great challenge." The Dweller's pained voice whispered into my mind. "Until next we meet."

*****

I walked through the gate and into a swirling current of water. I kicked up toward the faint light of the surface.  The current was brutal, and kept pulling at me as I struggled to escape. Minutes passed as I fought my way to the surface. In the distance I saw a small island crafted of fitted stones, a single stone pillar rose from its surface. The water around me was clear and the sky above was a beautiful shade of sea-green.  Seven moons hung in the sky.  I turned my gaze from the dark moon, fearful that it might take notice of me. To my right and slightly behind me, a stone arch rose from the depths.  I turned and saw five others that were intact while the seventh was a crumbled ruin. A light blazed atop the pillar.

I intoned my levitation spell, rose up from the water and floated over to the island. It looked just as I remembered it.  Each detail on the pillar was exquisitely carved.  I floated up and gazed at the searing power of the totem capping the top.  The stone arch I had arrived near shone with hellish firelight.  A dozen swirling whirlpools were scattered around it.  Above the blue moon a single point of light crept across the sky. The twin suns were on the horizon, bathing the sea-green sky with a warm red-gold glow.

I watched an saw the same beautiful place I had once taken refuge in.  It was nearing nighttime, the air carried the salty sent of the sea.  Only the whirlpools and the pinprick of light over the blue moon were different.

The suns set and darkness draped the sky.  By the light of six moons and my spell enhanced senses I basked in the beauty of the place.  For a time, I'm not certain how long, I forgot my purpose. When I finally regained my focus, I noticed a something moving beneath the churning waters of one of the whirlpools. I floated over and plunged down into the water to get a better look.

It was a man.

He was dressed in a white suit with a brilliant red tie.  A black pentagram tiepin, held his tie in place.  His hair floated about his head and he bobbed about at the mercy of the currents.  He didn't respond to my presence so I swam out to him, fighting the currents as I went, until I was facing him from a distance of three meters.  His features were locked in an expression of dread realization.

He was dead. I swam over to the corpse, the current tugging at me all the while.  I grabbed his arm, and began to swim toward the surface.  It took most of an hour to pull the dead man from the sea and onto the island of stone.

There weren't any signs of injury so I assumed that he drowned, unable to free himself from the whirlpool.  How a corpse got to a metaplane was a profound question. His suit looked quite modern and the tiepin was imbued with an aura of enchantment.  I went through his pockets, looking for any clue as to who he may have been.  I found a credstick (Which is a REALLY weird thing to find in a metaplane!), a high-end pocket secretary (Equally weird!), and an ID card proclaiming membership in the Fraternal Order of the Garden State Thaumaturgic Union.

My corpse was from New Jersey.

I dropped his credstick and ID card into the pocket of my drenched bathrobe.  His pocket secretary still had power so I pressed the corpse's thumb to the screen and watched as it came to life.  'No Signal' was promptly displayed across the top of the display.  I accessed the calendar and found it indicating an appointment for the early afternoon,'Exorcism?' was noted in the event details as well as an address and contact name.  There were pictures of a woman and two young children in his photo gallery, as well as a text file from a sender indicated as 'Beth' that appeared to be a selection of school supplies.

"Damn, chummer." I said. "What happened to get you all the way out here?"

Thankfully, the corpse didn't answer.  {Hey. It's not paranoia, I've seen that happen before.~ T.}

I was pondering the possibilities when I saw the ghostly outline of a skyscraper take shape in the waters behind the stone arch beneath the blue moon. It was of a familiar, modern design and though it was translucent in the way of ghosts and spirit manifestations it suddenly displaced a vast amount seawater, throwing up a tremendous wave that washed over the island and cast me back into the sea.

The rising suns revealed an additional dozen whirlpools around the gate I had arrived near.  The blue moon above took on a thin sliver of gold that ringed it in the sky. I waited for the sea to calm its fury, then plunged down into waters near the whirlpool I had emerged from.  A spiral of trapped air churned and bubbled in the fierce current that tugged me downward.  I was twenty meters down when I saw a that the sea bed was formed of fitted hexagon-cut stones.  They stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions.  Beneath me, many of the stones were cracked and worn.  Bubbles rose from one broken stone, flowing up the current and into the whirlpool.  Faint light lined the crack that ran the width of the stone. There were a score of stones with similar damage scattered around the stone arch.  Strange shadows, phantasmal terrain, and ghostly figures appeared and vanished in the light erupting from the cracks.

I dove down to the fractured stone. It was six meters across, give or take a few centimeters.  Small bits of stone, broken from the large hexagon, littered the surface.  I picked up a few small bits of the debris and slipped them into the pocket of my bathrobe. The light shooting through the cracks reminded me of the blazing orb in my basement.  The light felt warm there in the depths.  The water held a chill and was rushing into the cracks as bubbles streamed up.

The bits of stone that littered the surface seemed to have come from the cracks.  I picked up one of the larger pieces, found a space along the cracks that it appeared to fit in, lined it up and lowered it into place.  The stone fit seamlessly, and the stream of bubbles became less pronounced. Another stone was fitted into the place, then another. With each bit of stone that was replaced the whirlpool's current weakened and the stream of bubbles lessened.  I fitted all of the pieces that I could see but the crack remained.  It was smaller and the current was far less intense than when I arrived.

I peered down into the crack and saw nothing more than a brilliant light. I found myself falling into that light and was engulfed by it.

I opened my eyes and found myself covered in ectoplasmic goop.  It was disintegrating rapidly but it still covered me totally.  I stood up and found that I was chest deep in the muck.  My bathrobe was drenched and I was very cold.  The elemental spirits had vanished, their service done.

My astral senses showed that the ball of light was still brighter than it had been, but the stream of ectoplasm had stopped.  I touched the engraved circle with my bare toe and exerted my will to deactivate the circle.  Ectoplasm rushed out, knocking over my chair and the candles that had burned down to nubs.

I shivered violently and padded upstairs to see if Aria and the girls had left yet.  I was halfway up the stairs when something buzzed in the pocket of my bathrobe.  I reached in and pulled out the pocket secretary I had found on the corpse.  The display indicated an incoming call from "Beth" and the network connection was busy pulling down several messages.  The small device buzzed incessantly at me until I opened its battery compartment and pulled out the power cell.

My own pocket secretary was upstairs, still sitting on the nightstand next to the bed.  Of Aria and the girls there was no sign.  I thumbed the accursed device and found a dozen messages from Aria asking me to call her when I 'got back'.  The date display was January 10th, and it was almost 1900 hours.  I had been gone for almost two days.

*****

The sudden surprise in the night and the immediate need to evacuate the family struck me.  I spent the 11th and the 12th setting up a new safe house and fitting it with things we, as a family, would need if we ever had to go to ground.  I brought Lilly and Rose there individually, so as not to leave Aria without help.

My ally spirits are my children in every way that matters to me. I also depend on them to protect the family when I am away. We have certain contingency plans in place, what to do if there is a medical emergency with the twins, what to do if Aria gets hurt, what to do if/when I die, and other more mundane plans.  After this incident we had a family meeting.

"Girls, I want to talk to you about the future and another set of standing instructions.  Things to do if particular things happen." I told them.  Lily and Rose looked at me intently while Aria sat close by side, her hand gripping mine.  The twins were playing with a pair of stuffed toys on the rug before us.

"You know we have code words.  Those that we've set up like 'Flashlight', 'Medic', 'Diaper change' and so on.  Today, I want to talk to you about a new code word.  This one is 'Rapture'..."

We discussed the plan in detail.  Neither Rose nor Lily liked it at all, and Aria renewed her insistence that I summon another ally spirit.  The twins played through the entire discussion, giggling and fumbling around until they became suddenly quite silent as Aria made me promise to summon another ally.

"You can't expect the girls to do that without you having another on hand to help you." she said.  "Promise me, Tommy. You'll bring another to help.  Promise me."

I sighed.  Summoning another ally spirit was a good idea if ever we needed to evacuate.  The time and energy it would require would be immense, but I was confident that I had recovered enough power from my summoning of Lily that I could bring forth another without breaking my own magic in the process.  "Okay, honey.  I'll do it as soon as I can."

I was going to say something else.  Provide a rough estimate of when I could conduct such a summoning, but the reason for the twins' sudden silence hit me as the foul stench wafted up from the rug where they sat, blushing.

"Oh, my God!" Aria proclaimed.  "Girls, did you poop?"

"I hope so," I injected. "If not, I can't imagine what it will be like when they do."  I stood up and spun a little magic in the air, lifting the tiny, stinking children into the air. "Rose, Lily, 'diaper change' is in effect."  We walked the girls to the changing tables and did battle the with the stench of filthy diapers. It was terrible. The twins giggled the entire time.

*****
In my basement laboratory, small bits of fractured stone sat in a containment circle I had scribed onto a work table.  They emitted a faint luminescence in the dark and glowed with mana energy to my astral sight.  The fragments had come through in my pocket, just as had the pocket secretary and credstick I took off the corpse.  The tiepin focus I stored within a separate containment circle, just in case.

In the days following this incident, there were sporadic news reports of strange astral happenings at various sites around the world.  I did some matrix searching, public/legit user kind of searching, and found mention of a missing person from the Far Hills area.  The picture matched my corpse.

I began to formulate the design for a third ally spirit, devoting a few hours each night after I came home from work.  I had a plan and I needed to be prepared to implement it if the need arose. Years as a Shadowrunner had taught me to be ready to bolt when you need to.  It only took a couple of years of family life for me to get comfortably settled. It's easy to lose your edge when you're comfortable.

'Rapture', I hoped I never had to use it, but I had to be ready.

*Continued in Part three*

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Thank you for reading my fan fiction!

I hope you are enjoying The Art of War story arc.

I do also release RPG material under the SRD 5.1 OGL (as published by WoTC).  Presently my newest book, Whispers of Persephone, if on KickStarter.  If you would, please do check that out and share the link with others.  I'm placing a link below.  I am also a creator on KickStarter's Drip platform, which is similar to Patreon in some respects.  You can find my Drip page HERE, so please do give that a look too.

Thank you.  I hope you'll check out Part Three.


Monday, October 8, 2018

The Art of War, Part One: Gather information

Art by: Christian Martinez
From: Whispers of Persephone (now on KickStarter)


“Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”
Sun Tzu
_____________________________________

December of 2060 was a tough month.  At work I found myself going through dossiers of potential team candidates.  The number of bodies we had assembled had grown to more than five times what it was when I came on and showed no signs of slowing.  Creep was locked away, heavily medicated and being seen by professionals who (shockingly) declared that he showed signed of psychosis.  Jazz was unconscious.  He had slipped into a coma post-op and was being monitored for any signs of recovery.  I tasked Fey to stand in for Jazz, at least until he recovered, and set myself to vetting another magician.  The remainder of my time was spent in reading up on metaplanar theory, and filing expense reports for training exercises.

Things at home were buzzing with excitement as the mainstream Christmas holiday (mandatory gift-giving day) was approaching.  Aria and I bought new toys for Jasmine and Violet and after considerable thought, bought gifts for Lily and Rose. After the issue at the archology the previous year, we ordered our gifts from the 'trix.

I spent time during my lunch breaks shopping for a gift for my wife, and my evenings playing with my twins and enjoying my family.  The twins liked to be levitated around, which led to the invention of a strange game where I would float them around the room then Aria would have to guess which twin was which.  She always knew the correct answer.

Lily and Rose stayed home unless I called them. Aria's life was easier with them around to help with the twins, and I didn't feel pressed to have them around at the office. I was busy, and spent very little time in my basement laboratory that month.  Venturing down to check my inventory of key supplies, and to reassure myself that the wards on my safe were intact.

Christmas came and there was a lot of joy in the house.  We made it through the conventional holiday season and kept right on celebrating through the Orthodox holiday season as well. Snow fell over the Metroplex in the early days of January 2061, blanketing the city in a veil of white.

*****

January 9th, 2061

Sometime around 0300 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time

I woke up covered in sweat. The hairs on my arms were standing on end and I felt the prickly sensation of a static charge against my skin.  Beside me Aria was blissfully asleep.   Rose lifted her head and looked at me, her thought voice whispering in my mind. "Something is different, there is an energy that passed through the house." 

My answering thoughts reached out as my feet found the cool floor. "Get the twins, gather Lily and bring them here.  Protect Aria and the babies, I'll check it out." 

Rose vanished from the world and into the astral plane.  I padded across the chilly floor, dragging my bathrobe around me as I went. I made it to the hall and saw Lilly and Rose in their metahuman forms, carrying the sleeping figures of Jasmine and Violet toward me.  I waved them into the room then crept down the hall and into my living room.  

The house felt cold, and seemed to be getting colder by the moment.  The heating unit was running, but to little effect. My breath created little puffs of fog and I shivered in spite of the thick bathrobe.  

I opened myself to the astral plan and beheld a misty fog of mana flowing through the house. It was growing thicker, more dense, and the air was becoming chilled as the magical energies continued to manifest in my home.  I felt a rumble of power beneath my feet, and felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There were sounds in the astral plane, a low murmur or buzz like you hear in a large church before services start.  It may have been distant voices or astral echoes surging into prominence with the presence of so much magic energy.  I didn't know what was going on, but I had a bad feeling.

The stairs to the basement were shrouded in a real, tangible mist.  My astral senses were occluded by the mana-mists that were trapped within my home.  The wards were holding well, bottling up the mana and keeping it trapped inside.  My bare feet felt the cold concrete of my basement as I stepped down and thumbed the lights.

My basement was laid out in very particular manner. Everything has its place, the equipment is aligned according to geomantic principles, and I have a circle etched into the concrete.  That circle was six meters across and its center rested beneath the small glowing orb that provided such a steady flow of mana into my home.  My eyes saw a dim light in the fog while my astral perception saw a brilliant light blazing like a small sun hovering over the circle's center.  Dew was visible on every surface I could still see through the thick fog.

This bizarre manifestation of mana energy was something I had never experienced before.  In fact, I had never even heard of anything like that before.  Mana and mist flowed from the mana eruption.  Dew had collected with small puddles of mana within the circle, while so much more was pouring out into my lab.

"Right. First step, containment." I said out loud.  Talking to yourself isn't a bad thing unless you start using different voices, right?

"Father?" Rose's thought voice sounded worried.

I looked about at the mana flooding my basement and calmed myself. My reply was as gentle as anything I would have said to the twins. "It's okay Rose.  I'm fine. Protect the family while I resolve this."

"Yes, father." She still sounded worried.

I scrambled over to the my reagent cabinet and pulled out a sealed glass bottle filled with fine blue sand.  The sand had been collected in the Painted Desert and carefully purified from any lingering pollutants over the course of hours of alchemical refinement.  The powder was always cool to the touch, tingled with the promise of magical potency and was one of my more rare reagents.  I pulled away the wax seal that lined the cork and walked back over to the engraved circle in my floor.

I realized that the mists I could see weren't water vapor.  The spell I had quickened to myself which allowed me to see underwater would have cut through regular fog easily.  No, this was something else.  I passed through it and my skin tingled with every step.  Sparks popped along the glass bottle every few seconds, making me jump at the thought that the glass might break.  It came to me as I bent down to activate the magic circle engraved into my basement floor.  Ectoplasm.  I was seeing a full blown manifestation of mana and the mist were the physical embodiment of mana and spirit energies, ectoplasm.

My hand pressed through the clear plasm I had mistaken for dew and my hand made contact with the engraved circle on the floor.  "Operio" I whispered as I forced the circle closed with an effort of will.  The circle came alive with magical energy, forming a barrier round the blazing point of light that was spilling mana and ectoplasm into my basement lab.  The mists outside the circle began to drift down as they were cut off from the energizing flow of mana energy.  A clear slime of ectoplasm was collecting on every surface. I checked the circle's integrity, noting with satisfaction that the Seal of Solomon I had painstakingly painted on the ceiling above the circle appeared to be acting as a lid as it was holding the mana energies down in the circle. Sparks flashed within the circle as bottled up mana energy was flooding the circle.

"Step two: Identify problem." I told myself.  "Or is it, 'assure safe working environment'?  I always forget which." 

"Father," Lily's thought voice this time. "Mother wants to know what is going on."

"Not certain yet." I replied. "May take a while to fix this. Ask her to call the car service. She and the twins need to be away until I get this contained. Tell her they should go to her mother's place for tonight to let me work on the problem."

"She will not like your answer, father." Rose interrupted.

"I know, but right now I'm not sure what is happening.  Mana is ankle deep in the basement. I'm literally slipping in ectoplasm." I saw mana energies spark within the circle. "Get them out of here safely.  Let me know once you have arrived and notify me if there is any trouble."

"Yes, father."  Lily and Rose's thought voices whispered into my mind.

I turned my attention toward the vexing problem before me.  Mana energy was building up within the circle, I didn't dare to release it as there was simply no way of telling how it might affect the materials in my lab.  I called out to the elemental spirits I held bound and watched as they manifested within the mana heavy environment.  Earth and fire spirits were tasked with reinforcing the circle.  Air and water spirits crossed the circle's boundary with me, as we stepped into the flood.

I stepped into the heavy mist within the circle, ectoplasm clinging to me in a fine layer of ooze. I reflexively wiped at my face, pushing away a layer of ooze that was replaced almost instantly.  The floor was cold, and covered in inches of ectoplasm.  I lay down in the muck, turned my focus inward and let my astral form slip from my body.  The power surging out of the blazing orb had a purity to it I had rarely felt.  There was a faint odor that reminded me of the sea after a storm.

Mana filled the circle, growing more intense as power continued to pour in from the metaplanes.  Minutes ticked by, but the eruption of mana only grew more intense.

"Drek." I cursed quietly.  The elemental spirits looked at me with curious expressions.  "I need answers, and I know where I'm going to have to get them."   I returned to my body, and sat up in the slimy ectoplasm.   It was twenty centimeters deep and had a faint blue luminescence to it.  I called out to the second air elemental I held bound and relayed a series of carefully worded instructions.  It retrieved a box of candles from the reagent cabinet and set them around the circle's at the cardinal points.  It pulled out a bag of salt harvested from the Dead Sea and laid down a second circle to encompass the candles.   A single command to the fire elemental ignited the candles.  The second circle came alive with energy, the candles shooting bursts of flame forty centimeters into the air.

I lay upon the cold concrete, submerged beneath the ectoplasmic slime.

"Spirits of fire, light of the east, I beseech you.  Light my way as I journey the hidden paths.  Cast aside the darkness that I may see."  I intoned the words through slime covered lips. "Spirits of the waters, keepers of the secrets of the deep, I beseech you.  Reveal unto me that which I seek.  Part the deceptions of time, and reveal unto me the truth. Spirits of the earth, foundation of the world, I beseech you.  Support my efforts as I travel the darkened paths.  Guide my steps and strengthen my resolve. Spirits of air and sky, breath of the world, I beseech you.  Watch over my working, blow back the dusts of time, and grant me your foresight." My astral form once again began to slip from my body even as the final words left my mouth. "May your power aid me on my journey." 

My astral form swam through the energetic ooze and soared into the blazing star above me.  A river of power flowed over me as I approached a dark four-armed figure guarding what appeared to be a castle gate.  The Dweller on the Threshold stood ten meters tall if he was a centimeter, glowing swords were brandished in each of his four hands.  "Who dares, to approach!"

I swallowed in fear.  Apparently, the Dweller on the Threshold was in no mood to frag around.

*to be continued in part two*
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Thank you for reading my fan fiction!  I do not own Shadowrun.  This fan fiction is based on game play events and tells the story of one of my favorite characters.

I also design, write and publish role playing game material (not for Shadowrun though).

Recently, I was invited to be a creator on KickStarter's Drip platform.  On that platform I am providing behind the scenes information for subscribers, as well as offering monthly PDF publications.  I hope you'll check it out here: https://d.rip/w-s-quinton

I also have a book project on KickStarter at this time, written for the 5th edition of Gary's game.



 As always your comments and questions are most welcome.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Homecoming and Holiday




November 25th, 2060

0300 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time


My car service sent an immaculate Euro Westwind to pick me up at the office. I rode home alone, having sent Lily and Rose back as I was leaving Djibouti airspace.  It was quiet, dark, wet and chilly in Seattle that night. I felt tired right down to my soul.

For me, years had passed while I was trapped in the tormenting darkness that seized me in the metaplane called the "Place of Gates". Now I was going home, feeling like I had spent an unforgivable amount of time away from wife and daughters.  Had it only been a few days?

The car pulled up into the driveway of my house.  I was home.  "You have arrived at your destination." the navigation app voiced over the speaker system.  I was startled for a moment by the disembodied voice, then opened the door and stepped out into the cold rain.  The front door chimed as I approached, the security system recognizing my biometrics and awaiting my entry code.  It took a long minute to remember the password.

I walked into my house, bracing myself for what I might find.  I knew, in the logical part of my mind, that I had only been away for several days.  But my heart, my very soul, felt as if I hadn't seen home in forever.  I felt old, and tired all the way to my spirit.  Aria was sitting up on the couch as I walked in, the sound of the door opening waking her.

Her eyes took me in and she rose from the couch and took three long strides to me.  She threw her arms around me and pulled me tightly against her warmth.  I dropped my bag and held onto her like a drowning man grabbing onto a lifeline.

"It's so good to have you home." she whispered.

"Home." was all I could say before tears flooded my eyes.

Aria, my beautiful wife and mother of my daughters, held onto me while I shook and cried like a frightened child.  The darkness had done things to me.  Showed me a life of horrors as it picked through my memories and made me experience things I would never wish to see.  I had endured years of watching my wife and children flee from me, die horrific deaths, or be swallowed in conflagrations of my own power.  I had forgotten that they were alive and whole, the darkness wiping that reality from my senses as it tortured my very soul.  I wept, not daring to let go for fear that Aria would evaporate and I would be alone in the darkness.

She held me close, her hands resting on my spine and in my hair, gently holding me fast in the reality that she was there.  I felt my tears rolling down my cheeks even as Aria's fell into my hair.  We sat there for a long time as I cried out anguish and despair.  I was home, and I could finally let it out.  I don't think I would have came through it sane without Aria being there, holding me and telling me she loved me.

When I sobbed out the last of my tears, Aria placed her fingers under my chin pressing my face up.  She kissed my forehead and ran her fingers through my hair, still stiff from the salts of Lak Assal.  "You need a shower, baby."

I nodded, stood on sore legs and let her lead me back to our bathroom.  She started the shower and helped me out of my form fitting body armor.  My skin was raw at every joint from the salts rubbing against me.  She gave me a gentle push and then I was under the warm water of the shower.  Aria joined me, a sponge in hand, and began to wash the salts off my sore back.  "The girls are going to be so excited to see you.  I think they've missed you..."

Aria told me everything I missed while I was away.  I heard of joy and laughter, terrible diapers and new favorite cartoons.  There were adventures with pureed fruits, the joy of discovering cookies, and the misadventures of stuffed animals covered in drool.

I found myself smiling under the shower, asking questions and hearing of wonders.  My wife and daughters had been safe and happy.  Aria had worried about me being gone so long, but she didn't blame me.  I could see that she was worried about me, her heart was breaking at the thought that something had happened to me.  I couldn't tell her the things I had been subjected to, not in the metaplane and certainly not in that hellish cavern beneath Lak Assal. I grabbed the soap and was clean in short order.  Aria rinsed, citing that she had showered earlier, then we were out of the water and drying off.

We climbed into bed, Lily shimmering into existence on the floor at my side of the bed.  Rose was in the babies' room, watching over them. "Get some sleep, baby." Aria whispered as she placed her arm around me and drew herself up against me. "I'll make breakfast in the morning."  With that I closed my eyes, feeling spent and glad to be home.  Sleep seized me, and dragged me down into a blissfully dreamless rest.

*****

0900 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time

I woke up to the smell of bacon cooking and the sounds of Jasmine and Violet giggling.  I forced my eyes open and found Aria sitting on the bed, the twins were between us as they emitted their tinkling laughter while Aria tickled their feet.

"Good morning," I said.  Jasmine and Violet rolled over and started scooting toward me.  I played with them, tickling their feet and asking them about their adventures. They cooed and giggled, squirmed and looked like the happiest human beings in the world to me.

"Mom is coming over in a couple of hours." Aria said.  "She's bringing the turkey."

"Turkey?" I asked.

Aria shook her head at me. "You forgot.  It's Thanksgiving day, baby.  Mom, Rickie, and Crank are coming over this afternoon."

"Thanksgiving."  I smiled. "It slipped my mind, I guess."

"Well, Rose is in the kitchen cooking.  Lily is 'helping' by tasting everything."  She caught Violet's foot as she kicked and squirmed. "Rose said something about you needing to rest.  I think that is a good idea.  Why don't you get dressed.  I'll take the girls into the living room and put on this old flatvid cartoon they like. Honestly, I think that they get that from you. They are very picky about their cartoons you know."

*****

I did my best to savor the Thanksgiving holiday.  Rose and Lily did a fine job preparing the meal with a little supervision from Aria.  The turkey Sheila brought was exquisite. Crank had showered thoroughly before coming over and didn't smell anything like the old landfill he lived in. (Truthfully, he smelled like peaches.  He went through a phase where he was very hung up on scented lotions.) We discovered that the twins loved cranberry sauce, didn't care for the green bean salad, and that they loved to pull on uncle Crank's horns.  Rickie defiled my plumbing, again, and I was quite grateful for the air purification system we had installed while Aria was pregnant.

The day passed in a blur of holiday movies, giggling twins, fantastic food and laughter.  We were being people, and it was so very nice.

_________________________________________________________________

Thank you for reading my Shadowrun fan fiction.  I write these stories for fun and as a form of writing exercise.  These stories are based on game play and the stories of what occurs between them.  I am guilty of sometimes writing my own personal demons into these when I think they make the fictionalized accounts more fun to read.  I do hope you enjoy them.

I also design, write and publish role playing game material (though not for Shadowrun, unfortunately).  In order to fund art for those books I utilize crowd funding and I've had some very good results from that practice.  In a few days I will be launching a KickStarter campaign for my next book, Whispers of Persephone, which is a book on necromancy for the 5th edition of Gary's game. If you have enjoyed these stories, please do check out my KickStarter campaigns and share them with anyone who may be interested.

Art for Whispers of Persephone was created by: Christian Martinez

Screen capture from the playtest version 3.5 of
Whispers of Persephone
Artist: Christian Martinez


I hope to see for the next entry in Tommy's stories.


Thursday, September 6, 2018

Operation Emerald, Part Five: Blazing Madness and Burning Souls (the conclusion)

The dark prodigy Ild
Illustration from "Whispers of Persephone"
Artist: Christian Martinez
All rights reserved

"Out of the frying pan and straight into hell!", Lucas Ramone, AKA 'Lucky Ray' Shadowrunner and accused terrorist, overheard during his arrest for "The Fort Lewis Incident" of 2072.

_______________________________________________________________


Jazz wasn't moving, and my ankle was screaming at me for landing hard on the rough stone. More monsters than I cared to count were preparing to eat me.  On my left, Lily was deftly weaving symbols of power in the air while, to my right, Rose wrinkled up the three faces of her angelic form in disgust.

"IGNIS EXIET ADHIBEO!" Rose's incantation rang off the stones surrounding us.  Flames sprang into existence millimeters from Jazz's right boot, the sole of which began to bubble from the heat.  A curtain of white flame stretching from the roughly carved steps to the cavern ceiling above, roared like a blast furnace as it erupted before us.

 A chorus of nightmarish howls rang out from beyond the flames.  I spared a glance down-slope and felt the cold fear of death hit me as dozens of creatures were rising from the churning waters.

 Lily's gestures ended as her hands became wreathed in flames. "SENTIRE IRMA MEAM!" Fire shot forth from her outstretched hands, engulfing a trio of troll sized monsters who were scaling down the cavern wall.

I yelled into my comm, "CREEP! GET YOUR ASS IN THE FIGHT DOWN HERE!" then grabbed Jazz's armored jacked and heaved. My spell enhanced strength was all that allowed me to move him, but I was able to pull him up to me.

Jazz was a mess.  His face was swollen and purple from the impact trauma.  He was covered in his own blood from a laceration along his scalp.  He was unconscious, and I couldn't tell if he was breathing.

 "Machine!  I'm seeing movement all over down there!"  Simon's voice was insistent but drowned out by the screams and howls raging all around me.

 "Jazz is down!  We are falling back!  Creep, we need fire support! NOW! DAMNIT!"  A gesture and a bit of magic had Jazz levitating before me.  "Girls! We are leaving!"

 "Soon would be best father," Rose shouted over the howls. "There are too many, we cannot hold."

 I scampered up the stones, heading back up to the landing I had leapt from. Creep appeared at the edge of the landing, his demon women laughing behind him.  His face betrayed a moment of terror as he plucked a vial from his pocket.  As I climbed he poured a dark, thick liquid into his palm.  Madness and fear fought for control of his expression as he opened his mouth and intoned a spell I hope I never see again.

 "PAIN OF VICTIMS PAST. FIRE OF SOULS BURNING FAST. ENDLESS SUFFERING COME HERE AT LAST.  IGNIS NUMEN MORTEM!"  Blood ran from the corners of Creep's eyes as mana burned across his outstretched hands.  He had pushed himself past his limits and was paying the price.  A column of flame, five meters tall, appeared in mid-air over the ruins.  It screamed.  It cried out in a sound of purest agony.  I watched, stunned by what I was seeing, as the column took on a woman's silhouette.  It, she, writhed in agony and continued that horrible scream.

 "Father!" Rose cried out.

 I turned and saw the wall of flames reduce a pair of monsters to ash as they forced themselves through.  Below us a legion of the beasts howled in challenge to the flames blazing above them.

 I heard Creep swear a terrifying oath to the flames above, "Kill them all, and you shall be free."

 Lily picked me up and hurried me to the landing while Rose hurled lances of flame at creatures that were climbing toward us.  Hellfire lit the cavern as the six demon-women began to hurl down balls of baneful fire at the monstrous horde.  I made the landing with Jazz levitating before me.  Smoke was streaming from Creep's hair and his hands were covered in blood.

 The screaming flame, the burning woman, fell upon monsters below.  She washed over them, searing flesh from bone.  Rock cracked from the intensity of her heat.  Her screams made my skin crawl.  Creep laughed, a low rumbling chuckle that rose in pitch until he was cackling unashamedly.

 "Girls, see to Jazz." I lowered him to the stone, then joined the demon-women in hurling down death at monsters clawing their way toward us.


1308 hours, Operational area local time

Rose and Lily cast their healing spells on Jazz, maintaining them while Creep, his demon-women spirits, the screaming burning fire-woman and I hurled down death.  I couldn't spare a glance for them, so I trusted my spirit-daughters to see to him and to protect us against anything that came up behind us.

 There seemed to be no end to the monsters who came for us.  They rose from the churning depths to charge into the fray, heedless of the charged corpses of their fellows.  They were terrifyingly fast and utterly fearless.  They died by the score, the air in the cavern becoming thick with acrid smoke and the stench of charred flesh.

 Creep continued to laugh madly. He cackled and cursed, hurled fire and old profanities, shook his blasphemous wand and breathed fire down upon our enemy.  He was insane, a complete lunatic.  But he was OUR lunatic, and he was pointed in the right direction. 

"MACHINE!" Fey screamed next to me.  "We've got to get the frag out of here, omae!  We stay here, we die here!"

 Fires blazed below us and along the cavern's ceiling.  That baneful screaming of the burning woman continued as she flowed over monsters and blazed at the very stones of the Earth.  Creep's demon women giggled and danced on cloven hooves while hurling blazing balls of hellfire down into monsters that continued to advance.  They died only to be replaced by another of their number and no end of them was in sight.

 "Get the rest of the team down here!  Task two to evac Jazz! Cycle Simon and Sherlock out after him.  The rest of us, hold here."  I shouted back to her.

 "We CAN'T hold here!" Fey protested.

 "We can't hold anywhere, but at least here the terrain slows their approach!" I felt a flash of hot anger come over me. "Damnit, Fey get it done!"  I was angry, scared drekless, and exhausted from spellcasting.  Fey, fired three more rounds down at the nearly impervious monsters below, then started calling down the rest of the team.

 "It's like Christmas!" Creep cackled.

 "Father, we've done all we can." Rose whispered in my mind.

 "How is he?" I was dreading the reply.

 "Much of his essence has long been torn away.  The machines in his body make healing magic very difficult.  Whether he survives or not, only time will tell us." Rose's thought-voice sounded sad.  "He fought bravely."

 "He's not dead yet." I replied.  Weapon specialists began to hurry out from the tunnel.  "If you've got incendiaries, use them!"

 We fought with spirits and fire, with grenades and useless bullets, we were battered by defiant howls and the screams of a damned and burning soul.  Jazz was hurried out of the cavern, up the shaft, then up to and out of the airlock.  I heard Zero report that the two divers with Jazz had surfaced safely.

 Below us the monsters were slowly gaining ground.

 I looked out across the flooded, ruined city beneath Lac Assal.  A place hidden from the knowledge of man and filled with monsters who knew no fear.  I heard one of the weapon specialists quip, "Wish someone would turn off the faucet these things come pouring out of."

 What?

 There was something to that. "Lily, stay here and keep up the fight.  Rose you're with me. Fey, I'm going to see if I can cut these things off before they get here." I turned to the laughing maniac, spittle foaming at his lips as he threw death down at the creatures who sought our lives. "Creep, kill them all. Make it hurt."  I reached out to Rose sending my thoughts to her in a blast of insight.  My hand fell upon her mane as she took on her pegasus form, and I leapt onto her back.  With a powerful flap of her wings we lifted into the darkness and plunged toward the flooded streets.

Rose and I were pursued immediately.  A five-meter-tall giant of a monster leapt fearlessly from the scorched stone he had clung to.  Its outstretched hand missed Rose by less than a meter.  The foul creature howled in a frustrated challenge, heedless of the thirty-meter fall into the black waters that foamed from the thrashing of uncounted monstrosities below.  Rose climbed and sped away from the landing, taking us over the flooded streets of the ruins.  Behind and below us the horde of monsters gave chase, only those who were scaling the rocky cavern walls toward the team remained.

"Well, that wasn't quite what I had in mind." I said to Rose.

"Father, we should leave and soon.  They will kill you." Rose sounded worried. "I do not wish to mourn you, nor to tell Aria of your death."

"I'm not dead yet baby girl." My reply sounded weak, even to me. "If I don't survive this, or any mission for that matter, I want you to tell Aria, Jasmine and Violet that I love them. "Rose flew on in silence.  I opened my astral sight and began my search.

The monsters chasing us were not what I expected.  Their auras revealed them as strange spirit beings.  They radiated pain and hunger, thirst and despair, and their cries and howls echoed throughout the astral space within the cavern. I realized they were trapped in the drowned city, buried alive in the darkness.  There was an alien quality to them.  They had no place in our world but seemed determined to consume all they could from it.

Mana energy flooded the cavern and hummed in the stones of the ruins.  The place was alive with raw magic energy that flowed out toward the boundaries of the cavern, splashing against the living stone.  The cavern was a place of incredible power, and the mad creatures chasing me contaminated it with their stench and insatiable desires.  We flew against the mana currents, looking for the source.


1329 hours, Operational area local time

Static erupted in my ear as my comm came alive. "Machine, *static* Fey. We're *another burst of static* here. Please advise."

"Fey, fall back and begin evacuation. We are leaving." I replied.

"*static* again, Machine?" Fey's voice carried a tone of disbelief.  "I say *static* clear."

"Father," Lily's thought voice reached my mind. "The creatures have been destroyed. The team is reloading and awaiting orders.  The one called Fey cannot understand you."

"Lily, tell her I said she is to fall back and begin evacuating. I'll catch up as soon as I can. Stay with them and keep them safe, baby-girl." I told her.

"Yes, father. I shall keep them safe until you get back." Lily's thought-voice had a resolute edge to it.  I closed my eyes and focused on Lily, seeing through her eyes and listening through her ears.  Fey swore vehemently but hurriedly got the team moving back up the tunnel.  It took me several seconds to realize that I didn't see Creep anywhere.

"Lily, where is Creep?'" I asked.

 Lily's thought-voice bore a surprised tone. "I do not know father, I did not see him leave."

The astral currents were becoming thicker as we drew nearer to the far side of the cavern. Rose beat her wings harder as she forced her way through the air and the rough astral seas. I put the mystery of where Creep had disappeared to out of my mind, as my eyes fell upon a waterfall of mana energy cascading from tower carved from the living rock.  The tower stretched to the ceiling above and bright mana energy flowed from large portals carved near its top.  The mana became clouded, murky as it mixed with the existing magical energies of the cavern.

"Rose, head for the that tower.  Get me to the source of that energy." Rose beat her wings, mimicking the flight of a true pegasus.  We climbed toward the cavern ceiling and the tower's topmost level.  My astral sight was dazzled at the sight of mana energy pouring out in colors I had no name for.  It was pure,  pristine magical power.  Below me, uncounted hundreds of monsters churned the black waters as they drew closer to the tower.

Rose shimmered, assuming her angelic form as we touched down in the carved entrance to the tower.  Mana flowed like a river, threatening to wash my astral form away.  I had experienced something like this before, and a nagging suspicion came over me.  I waded through the magical current that rose to my chest, pushing myself along finely carved stone of the tower.  Rose held onto me, fighting her way along even as the currents threatened to wash her away. We pushed forward, wading down a short corridor toward the source.

My hand grasped at empty air as the stone wall vanished beneath my fingers.  My face splashed down into crystal clear waters.  I kicked and surfaced, taking a deep breath of clean air.  There was a small island crafted of fitted stones protruding from the surface of the water.  Standing stones ringed the island, behind me a stone arch revealed a glimpse of the tower's passage.

 "We have entered a metaplane." Rose whispered. "It is beautiful here."

 I had to agree.  The water was clear, and the sky was a brilliant shade of sea-green.  A pair of suns, one small and yellow, the second large and red, warmed my face. I tread water in that sea and stared at the sky, counting seven moons in all.  Each moon was of a different brilliant color and hung in the sky like jewels.  There was a sense to those moons, a feeling that each was its own far flung place of strange wonder.  I knew at once that I wanted to return to that place.  A pillar rose from island ahead of me.  Atop the pillar blazed a fiery light.  I swam toward the light, and that shore of stone.

 I don't know how long it took me to reach the island, or what time it may have been. My chronometer was working while I was in the metaplane.  Time had no real meaning as I swam the short distance to the island, which I found to be a column of fitted stones that plunged beneath the waves.  Only a meter of the column protruded above the gently lapping waters.  I pulled myself onto the stones and marveled at the great expanse of ocean all around me.

 "Rose, keep an eye on the gateway we came through.  If any of those creatures try to come through, put as much fire into them as you can manage.  I don't want them in here." I looked to the pillar at the center of the small island.  It was twenty meters away and climbed ten meters skyward.  A brilliant light blazed at its top.  "I'm going to check that out."

 "Yes, father." Rose replied, then added, "Please be careful."

 "Sure-thing baby-girl. You stay safe yourself."  It was a short walk over smooth stones to the pillar's base.  Its surface was beautifully carved with images of fish, mermaids, seabirds, stars and planets.  I walked around it, taking in the details and admiring the craftsmanship.  A soft incantation and a wisp of power wrapped a levitation spell around me. I floated up, circling the pillar and examining every detail carved into the stone.  At the top I found what I feared would be there, a spindle-shaped totem, capped in orichalcum, blazed with magic power.  I circled the pillar and noticed that the standing stones circling the island were other stone archways, each aligned with one of the seven moons.  The moon above the archway I had come through was a blue orb that hung beautifully in the sea-green sky.

 There were archways aligned with each moon, though the one that sat below the inky black orb of a moon, had cracked and its lintel had fallen away.  I looked up at that moon and suddenly felt it staring back at me.  I was jerked violently toward the ruined archway, a foul pressure falling upon my mind.  Strange images, eyes without end, impossible geometric shapes, screams that tasted like ashes, and sensations so alien I can't process the memory of them assaulted my mind.  I heard a thousand colors and watched as screams rippled through the vast emptiness of time.  There was something there, something reached out to me.  In all that chaos I understood a longing, and a promise.

 "Repair.  Repair." The message there, pressed upon my mind among horrific sensations.  Repair the damage and be rewarded with death and power.  Power beyond anything I could imagine. The presence demanded that I serve, that I repair the damage and invite it to behold and devour the moons.  It picked through my memories, surrounding me with my fears and assaulting me with the memories of dead friends.  I saw Isabellix playing with Pepper's son, my parents rocking Jasmine and Violet, and held Aria while she and everything I knew and loved were devoured in inky blots of soulless darkness.  I screamed, my sanity unraveling as I endured years of struggle against a power I couldn't control.  My presence brought death and all who beheld me worshiped my power and were snuffed out of existence to feed the growing darkness.

Rose screamed in agony, and the sound echoed throughout the darkness that had engulfed my mind. There was only torment. Years of being torn apart and hurled through torments that attacked my very soul.  "Repair.  Repair." it demanded.  The knowledge of how to restore the archway was branded to my memory, my mind was seared with knowledge no one should possess. Repair the archway and achieve godhood, grant the thing access to the seven moons and become an avatar of darkness.  I struggled, helpless against the darkness that held me so tightly.

Rose continued to scream, her pain laced with an anguish I had never heard from her. "Father!"

I could hear her.

My mind had been invaded, my very soul had been abused, but I could hear her.  "Rose, Lily, help me." My thoughts were weak against the intangible darkness, but they heard me.

I felt warm hands on my face as my head was torn away from the tormenting nothingness.  Darkness receded, and I found myself held above the pristine ocean.  Lily and Rose were holding me aloft, while darkness oozed from my eyes only to evaporate in the light of the twin suns.

"Don't look back Father," they said unison.

"Thank you, girls." I gasped. "I think I would have been trapped forever if not for you two."

"We are family," Lily began.

"Family protect each other," Rose finished the familiar litany for her.

We landed on the island and I collapsed in an exhausted heap.  "I don't know how we're going to get out of this one, girls.  Those things are too fierce and there are way too many of them to fight. How long have we been here?"

"Minutes and hours." Lily replied.

"Then we've been here too long."  I looked up at the blazing light from the totem. I couldn't risk taking it with us. "We'll use the power this relic is pouring out into the city to fuel our magic. We burn them to ash and keep our distance as best we can. They climb easily, so watch the walls and ceiling. Keep your distance from them, and don't let them drag you into the water."

"We are going to attack?" Rose asked, clearly surprised.

"We are." I told her. "We're going to hit them with everything.  Char the flesh from their bones and shatter their being.  I don't know what kind of spirit creature they are, but they are corrupt and rotten and eat the flesh of their own.  We kill them all, so they never see the light of day."

"I will do violence." Rose and Lily replied in perfect unison.

"As will I."  I took their hands in mine and we flew toward the archway beneath the blue moon.


1355 hours, Operational area local time

What to me had been years of torment and hours of examining the pillar had passed in span of minutes.  Lily, Rose and I passed under the archway and into the carved stone passage beyond.  We rode the mana currents and shot out into the air above the ruins, magical energy held ready for violent release.

The ruins were draped in flames.

The screaming flame, the burning woman, had been joined by two other pillars of fire.  One took the form of five-meter-tall troll, his pained cry rang from it as it engulfed monsters trashing about on the tower.  The second pillar of flame was shaped like an elf woman and the sound of her suffering threatened to bring tears to my eyes.

Floating ten meters from me, surrounded by six hellfire hurling demon-women, Creep cackled madly.  Streaks of dried, bloody tears clung to his face.  His obscene wand rattled as the teeth tied to it clicked against the wood. "BURN BABY! BURN!!!" He screamed, then resumed his mad laugh.

Below us the water flooding the city was marred with patches of flame that burned at the surface.  Pieces of monsters, those corrupt spirits who had sought our lives since we first entered that hellhole, burned away into nothingness.  The air was thick with smoke and only the spells I had woven to my being allowed me to breathe.

"Machine!" I heard Simon's voice in my ear.

"Simon, sit rep!" I ordered.

"Team is cycling through the airlock but its slow going.  Creep is unresponsive.  I think he's finally lost it.  I've got drones floating around the city trying to find you and restore communication.  Jazz has flat-lined and we're working on him now."  Simon rattled off his report crisply with just the slightest note of tension in his voice. "Orders?"

"We are leaving.  I'll get Creep and we'll fall back to the first cavern.  We're engaged here.  Keep comms up and have Fey grab the torch and a second pair of hands. I want that seal welded back once Creep and I get clear.  Have Sherlock get his ass in the water and prep the dredge, we're back filling that hole before we GTFO*" I flew up to Creep, ignoring the leers of his demonic spirits.

"OI! Chummer!" Creep laughed. "Welcome to my bar-b-que!"  He cackled with laughter at that. "Get it, Machine? My bar-b-que!"

"Yeah, I get it Creep." I said calmly. "Hey, we're going to go ahead and leave.  You wanna come with us?"

He snorted and cackled before roaring with laugher. "Oh, yeah Machine. *snort* yeah." He looked around still chuckling. "Tommy, am I dead?"

Oh drek. "No. No Creep. You're not dead.  Why do you ask?"

"It's just that, I don't like the water.  Now I'm under a fraggin' lake, in a fraggin' cave, surrounded by man-eating spirit beasts. *cackling laugh* Excuse that, will you? They just keep coming. It's like I'm finally in my own hell." He smelled of burned hair, blood, and sweat.  I found myself missing the stink of old tacos.

"No, you're alive. We're just in a shitty situation." I replied. "Come on, I'll get you out of here."

"Are you going to kill me, Tommy?" he asked.

I told him the truth. "Not today, Creep.  Today you saved a lot of lives."

"Damn, that's funny." he said.  Then he laughed and didn't stop.

Fey met us at the tunnel. A dozen weapon muzzles were pointed our way as we soared into the cavern.  Behind us the tunnel was lit from the flames of the tormented, screaming flames Creep had brought into the world.

"Machine. I thought you were dead." Fey smiled. "You're one crazy spell-slinger."

"Good work on getting the team back here.  Any casualties?" I asked.

"Not sure yet." She replied. "Zero says Jazz flat-lined and I haven't heard anything more yet."

"Understood.  Take Creep up with the next airlock cycle.  Sedate him once he's topside."  I turned to Creep, who was shaking with hoarse laughter. "We're going to give you something to help you sleep once you get top-side."

He slapped his knee and croaked out, "...saved a lot of lives today!"

Fey's eyebrows climbed an inch up her forehead.  "A strong sedative." I told her.  She nodded slightly.

*****

We evacuated the cavern as quickly as possible.  Fey and I were the last to leave, pitching a pair of incendiary grenades down the tunnel for good measure.  Fey welded the plate back down, then we added a poly-synthetic spray weld over the top for good measure.

Nothing came tearing through to kill and eat us.

Zero evacuated Jazz and Creep, then returned six hours later.

It took most of a day to disassemble the airlock, then Fey and Sherlock spent five hours back-filling the shaft.  I stayed out of the water of Lac Assal. I didn't trust it.

I had the team clean up all traces of our presence there.  We loaded the dredging rig while Zero cycled up the Osprey's engines.  We left Djibouti airspace in the pre-dawn hours.  Simon set up a satellite link and I filed my final report on Operation Emerald.

Back in Seattle, I was met at the helipad by Danny, the always lovely and terrifying Samantha, and a rather dour-looking Mr. Johnson.  They asked questions, and I told them the truth.  We spent a great deal of time talking about my torment in the metaplane, which struck me as very odd at the time. After hours of debriefing, Mr. Johnson asked "What would it take for you to go back there?"

"Back to Lac Assal?!" I asked, suddenly startled.  Hadn't he been paying attention?

"No, back to the metaplane. The Place of Gates."  The look on his face was wholly unreadable.

"I was thinking of going back there anyway, one day. Why?"  My question escaped my mouth before the realization hit me. 'Place of Gates', he knew of it.  The light coming on in my brain must have shown through my eyes because Mr. Johnson smiled slightly at my epiphany.

"Yes," he whispered.  "you would be curious about it wouldn't, you." Mr. Johnson rose from his seat, a satisfied look on his face. "Go home, get some rest.  We've got real work to do soon."  With that he turned and walked out of the room, Danny followed closely behind him.

I looked at Samantha, her brown skin and lovely elf features hid a well of magical power I held in fearful respect. "How's Jazz?"

She looked me directly in the eye. "Alive. By whatever miracle happened down there, he's alive. There was considerable trauma. He'll need a bone graft to repair the skull fracture, but he should be up and about in a few weeks."

"Thank you, Samantha." I meant it.

"Don't want to know about Creep?" she asked.

"He's insane and his magic is corrupt." I replied. "As it happened, he was exactly the right tool for the job down there.  Doesn't mean I want to work with him again, but if he regains his senses, I suppose I could if I had to."

"He's sedated. Each time he wakes up he starts laughing and won't stop.  He wasn't at all coherent when he last woke." Samantha turned and headed for the door.  "Go home, Tommy.  Get some rest. You're going to need it."

_____________________________________________________________________


Thank you for reading my fan fiction.  I hope you have enjoyed it!  I write this material for fun, and as a writing exercise.  I enjoy writing this material and I'm grateful to you for reading it.

I also design, write and publishing material for role-playing games, though not for Shadowrun(tm). The illustration at the top of this story is from my coming book, Whispers of Persephone which will see its Kickstarter campaign launch on September 22nd of 2018.  That campaign is being conducted to raise money for art to go into the book.  I hope you'll check it out, support it if you can, and share the link to that campaign on social media to help me raise the money to bring that book to the world.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Operation Emerald: Part Four ~ All that Jazz



Enchanted skull Cup
From: Whispers of Persephone (coming soon to Kickstarter)
Artist: Christian Martinez





Enthen mén Skýllē, hetérōthi de dîa Charubdis
"On one side lay Scylla and on the other divine Charybdis"
.... Homer, 'The Odyssey'
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Astrally projecting through natural elements is extraordinarily difficult.  Spirits can manage it easily, if the element in question is the one from which they originate.  Whatever had grabbed Rose had dragged her under the mana charged water, plunging her into an element that would be difficult for her to operate in. Lily had dived in after her.  I dove in after my spirit-daughters, colliding with the element of water.  While a human's physical body is largely at home in water a person's soul is not.  I struggled, pulling after my daughters and falling further behind by the second. 

"It has me." Rose's thought voice reached me clearly through the dazzling haze of elemental energies I was trying to swim through.

"I'm coming, sister!" Lily exclaimed. 

"Hang on baby-girl!  I'm coming to get you!"  My thought voice sounded fuzzy to me.  Trying to force my way through the water was like trying to swim in gelatin.

"I will do violence."  Rose's thought voice rang in my skull.  A moment later, there was a blinding flash of mana energy. 

The water around me was blasted away and my astral form was blown into the air along with the fine spray. I was trying to orient myself when Rose and Lily appeared next to me.  "We should leave," they said in unison.

"If I didn't know better, I would think you were twins too." We flashed away from the flooded streets, found the carved steps and shot up the polished tunnel.  Behind us, a baneful howl reverberated through astral space. Lily, Rose and I appeared in the cavern and were confronted by Creep and his flock of demon-women.

"What the hell was that?" Creep demanded.

"Don't know but it tried to make off with Rose." I said. "It was hiding under the water, grabbed her and dragged her under. Definitely has a physical body, too."

"Well, let's kill it and be done with the thing then." Creep's proclamation was punctuated by a second, echoing howl that rang about astral space within the cavern.

"I've never heard an echo in astral space before, have you?" I asked.

"No, my first time too." Creep replied. His astral form looked pensive and I saw a growing glow of anticipation and tension building in him.

"It is coming." Rose's thought voice was calm. She was facing the tunnel, hands outstretched and readying spells. Lily stood ready at her side. Power was building within them, ready for violent release.

"I don't like the idea of confronting it in the ruin again.  The water concealed its approach.  I never had a hint it was there until it snatched Rose." I nodded my agreement to Creep.  "You're right, we kill it here."

"Groovy." Creep snarled.  Around him, six demon-women laughed.

I turned back toward the carved tunnel and cried out into the astral, "Shut up!  If you're going to growl and fuss about it, come get us you lazy bastard!"

"Thanks, Machine." Creep drawled.

"Remember, girls, it's astrally active or else it couldn't have grabbed Rose. Stay in the astral where you're at your strongest.  I don't want you tangling with this thing in the physical world unless absolutely necessary." I took up a position between them while Creep and his demons flanked us.

"Of course, father." Their thought voices reached me directly.

I was waiting for the creature to come for us and was still surprised by the speed with which it attacked.  One moment I was facing a dead, lifeless hole in the living rock and the next moment I was batted across the cavern to slam into the unyielding Earth.  Pain flared through me as screams of rage erupted from Lily and Rose, drowning out the cries of demons and the manic laughter that rang out from Creep. I was dazed and watched as the monster, for it fully deserved the name, raged and clawed at my girls.  Creep's demons threw sizzling bolts of mana at the thing to no obvious effect.

It was huge.  Five meters tall and three meters broad.  It's body was covered in scabrous lesions that seemed to ooze a sticky puss.  The thing had a stink to it that somehow extended to the astral plane.  It was shaped like some monstrous giant, with a head bearing four eyes and a broad mouth filled with rows of fangs. The monster's thick legs ended in wide, webbed feet and it moved with inhuman speed. The monster lashed out at Lily with a massive, clawed hand as if to rend her to bits.  I saw Lily's face full of rage as she grabbed onto the outstretched arm and twisted with all her might, spinning the beast forcefully to the cavern floor.  Rose drove her fist down into the monster's exposed neck.

Rose beat at the thing while Lily held it pinned fast against the unyielding stone of the cavern.  It howled in rage and pain, and thrashed about trying to escape Lily's grasp.  Creep's demons rained down spells upon it, but it seemed to shrug them off. The cavern rang with unearthly howls.

I pushed myself off the cavern wall realizing, quite suddenly, that I had been badly hurt by the monster's first strike.

"Try this on for size!" Creep laughed. I saw him pull in energy from the abundance of magic in the cavern and weave it into his spell.  The slimy little fragger laughed and babbled as his spell coalesced and flashed into the beast.  I saw it's astral form fracture at the point of impact, and cracks along its astral body began to bleed out essence.  The monster's howls became screams of pain. Lily stepped in, placing her foot firmly between the monster's shoulders, and snapped its arm at the elbow.  Rose struck down at the thing's head, driving its face into the stone.

The fight was brutal.  Creep's demons abandoned their spell casting and fell upon the beast, tearing at it with claws and fangs or stomping at it with cloven hooves.  I watched, my astral form battered and hurting everywhere.  It took about two minutes for the thing to die.

Lily and Rose appeared beside me the moment after the monster's aura vanished. "Let's get back." I told them.  We rose up through the steel seal, up the shaft and into the airlock.  Creep appeared a moment later and we both returned to our physical bodies.

"Oh, frag that hurts." I complained. "Creep are you back yet?"

"Yeah, I'm here," he replied. "What the hell was that thing?"

"Close and seal the hatch.  I have no idea what that was.  I want more people ready to go before we head down there in the flesh." Creep closed the hatch for me as Rose and Lily materialized in the airlock.  It was cramped but their presence was most welcome.

"You are badly hurt." Rose's voice sounded worried in my mind.

"I heard another howl from the tunnel as I was coming back up." Lily reported. "There is at least one other down there."

"It was terribly fast." I said out loud. "We'll need to warn the team before we move on down there. I'll talk to Jazz about how we'll secure our exit route."

"Good idea. I don't like the idea of getting cut off by one of those things." Creep answered. "Assuming, of course, that there isn't only one more."

"Right, assume the worst so you're not disappointed when it happens to be the case." I closed my eyes and felt the pains flaring through my body. "I need you to stay here and cover the shaft.  I'm going topside to report to Control and get some shut-eye.  I'll relieve you in four hours and bring down some back up. I'll schedule our breach of the seal after I speak to Control."

"Looked like that thing knocked you pretty hard.  You gonna be okay?" Creep asked.

I opened my eyes and saw the slimy little fragger smiling at me. "Yeah, Creep, null sheen. I took harder hits than this in the Barrens."  Technically it wasn't a lie, I had been hit harder in the Barrens before. Thankfully, that hadn't happened often.

*****

November 23rd, 2060

0200 hours, operational area local time

Samantha had taken the report of the monster in stride.  She had no insights to offer on what it may have been. She ordered the seal to be breached and for exploration of the ruin, and recovery of artifacts to begin. I recommended that we leave Sherlock behind until after we cleared the ruin of hostile creatures, but Samantha instructed otherwise.  He was going down with us in the first trip.

Jazz and I spoke at length about how to secure our route back out of the ruin and cavern.  Neither of us liked the options we came up with, but we settled on the best plan we had.  Zero was going to be staying top-side, in camp and standing by in case we had to initiate our GTFO* maneuver. Simon would be going down with us to set up comms, and maintain drone recon.

"We don't have enough people." Jazz said flatly.  "We're spread thin between camp and the site."

"What should we do?  Move the camp into the cavern?" I asked him. "I don't think that's a good idea, Jazz."

"Me neither, but it consolidates our firepower." Jazz shook his head. "Of course, it also traps us meters deep in case some random asshole drops a grenade down the lake on top of our airlock. Damn.  We just don't have enough people."

"So, we have Zero keep drone coverage up at camp and we leave Ding up top to cover him.  We bring the rest of the team down and point their guns into the dark and hope we can kill anything that tries to eat us." It was a terrible idea.

"Problem is that makes getting out quickly impossible. We can cycle up to two men at a time through the airlock, that just isn't enough time to get everyone out."  Jazz gritted his teeth and looked me in the eye. "Your call Machine.  There isn't a good option."

"Split the team then. Fewer guns under the lake, but more topside to keep us covered.  Also allows for the potential of a rescue effort if need be.  We can call down reinforcements if we need to, and also cycle out people for rest periods.  If anyone gets injured we can replace them from top-side personnel."  Jazz nodded grimly. "I think it's the best option."

"I'll make it happen." Jazz replied.

"Oh, Jazz, have everyone load silver.  I don't know what that thing was, but it shrugged off most of the spells thrown at it.  Let's err on the side of caution." I said.

"And if the silver doesn't work?" Jazz asked.

"We leave, weld the seal closed, back-fill the shaft and say 'Frag It'." I replied.


1100 hours, operational area local time

I was tired. Creep and I had astrally projected down into the cavern while the seal was being cut away.  Spirits were at the ready and watching for any sign of danger. The cavern walls were alive with the energy of the living Earth and the carved tunnel loomed like a dark maw waiting to swallow us.

Time ticked by slowly.

"Why don't we go look for the whatsit?  Hunt it down from the astral and kill it off with the spirits." Creep asked suddenly.

"No. We wait for the team.  That first one had a helluva punch to it."  I replied.

"We're going to have to head down there sooner or later." Creep murmured.  "Why take the gun-bunnies with us?  They'll just slow us down."

"No.  We wait for the team.  We need the backup just as much they need us." I didn't dare to look away from the tunnel.  "It took all we had to take out the first one.  Don't underestimate these things, whatever they are."

"Sure thing, Machine." Creep replied.

"Creep.  You do know we're going to come down here in the flesh once the fire team is down, right?" My question lingered on the currents of mana for a moment.

Creep's reply was a quiet. "Oh."


1120 hours, operational area local time

Jazz was the first man to arrive in the flesh.  He roped down quickly, his AK-97 coming up as soon as his feet hit the cavern floor.  The team came down one at a time.  Fanning out with weapons trained toward the dead hole in the living rock.  From the astral plane I couldn't tell how they could see in what must have been pitch darkness but they moved well.

I drifted away from the tunnel and hovered near Jazz.  He had squatted down and was rummaging through old bones.  I watched and waited until he stood and raised his arms, crossing them at the wrist.  "Creep. I'm coming down in the flesh. Once I'm down, you come down too."

"Yeah, copy that Machine." Creep's response did not sound enthusiastic.

I opened my eyes, still hurting from the earlier encounter with the monster.  The stink of chlorine and the foul stench of the monster, mingled with a strange smell of old water and earth.  A simple levitation spell lowered me down into the cavern.  Headlamps gleamed from the helmets worn by each of the weapons specialists.

"Jazz, report." I whispered.

"It's dead, Machine." Jazz answered. "Bits of it strewn about, but yeah you guys killed it ugly."

I looked around at bits of the monster we had killed in our earlier encounter.  Its remains were strewn throughout the cavern.  Bones that looked as if they had come from an arm were near Jazz.  On the far side of the cavern, the skull and what could have been ribs lay bare among old bones.  There was no sign of flesh on any of the remains of the thing.  "Jazz, we didn't strip its flesh or scatter its bones.  Something or more likely, several somethings, tore it apart and ate it."

"Just what I was thinking." Jazz replied. "Notice that parts are clumped together in different areas?  Different things dragging off parts to eat away from the rest of the feeding frenzy."

"Yeah.  So five different piles, five different things." I didn't like what I was hearing.

"No, at least six. Those five dragged parts away from the corpse.  Nothing dragged the torso away, just parts of it.  Spine is right there where you said you guys killed it.  It was eaten there, most likely by a few of whatever these things are." Jazz looked at, a strange expression on his face. "What are these things?'

"No idea." I replied. "But they appear to be hungry."


1200 hours, operational area local time

Simon came down with a number of small drones and a pack full of power cells.  Sherlock, came down last.  Jazz put two men behind machine guns to cover the tunnel entrance, and left one behind with Simon who had set up a repeater directly below the seal.  Simon sent a pair of drones down the tunnel, and gave us our first visual of the ruins below.

There was a dim level of ambient light around the ruins.  I couldn't see the source.  The drone cameras revealed that the streets before us were flooded. The stone structures rose to the cavern ceiling overhead.  I saw a sudden flurry of motion as the waters thrashed violently.  I heard an eerie howl echo from the tunnel.

"Weapons free." I whispered into my mic. Creep's demon-women manifested in front of the tunnel. I heard the actions cycle on weapons all around me.  I lifted my Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum (tm) and leveled it at the dark whole that loomed before us, carved from the living rock.

"Drone is picking up motion in the tunnel." Simon muttered.  "Moving slow and coming up quiet. Nothing on visual."

"Creep." I looked at the lunatic and gave him the order he would certainly enjoy. "Fireball. Make it hurt."

His face split into a smile that made my stomach roll.

"Hell's burning light, damnation and darkest night" the incantation rolled out of his mouth as easily as if a normal person were saying 'hiya'. "Feel the pain of burning spite, and suffer the wrath of my might!"

Fire erupted in the tunnel. I felt a blast of heat wash over me causing sweat to break out over my body.  An inhuman screech, a scream out of nightmares, echoed out of that fire blasted hell.  The stench of brimstone assaulted my nose as Creep's laughter rang painfully in my ears.

"How's that!?" He croaked out between his chuckles. "Hey, Jazz!  Fire in the hole! Am I right?!"

Jazz cocked an eyebrow, but otherwise kept his AK-97 trained on the tunnel.

"Jazz, pick three and you're with me.  Creep, fire support for the rest of the team. If anything gets past us, kill it hard. Sherlock, stick close to Simon. Everyone, we do everything we can to keep each other alive.  Nothing touches Simon or Sherlock."  My thought voice reached out to Rose and Lily, "Girls, stick close to me.  I know I'm going to need your help."

We plunged down into darkness.  Acrid smoke assaulting us as we moved down the tunnel.  We found a charred corpse twenty meters down.

Creep's spell had burned the creature's flesh to an ashen grey char.  It had been a biped, with long arms and squat legs.  Its four eyes had exploded in its skull, leaving blackened holes that looked out at nothing.  The stench of the burned monster was unlike anything I had ever encountered.

"Chalk up another confirmed kill for Creep." Jazz said softly.

"Is anyone keeping count?" I asked.

"I'm sure he is." Jazz focused his attention down the tunnel. "Any idea why we couldn't see it what the drone?"

"Invisibility maybe, or perhaps something like the color blending that you see in some para-critters. Not sure, really."  I opened my astral sight and beheld the burning vista of the tunnel I was in.  Ghostly flames licked at the dead walls of carved stone.  The blackened corpse was awash in impressions of pain and surprise.  Small dark motes, grey and fleeting, formed a trail that led down the tunnel toward the ruins.  I had to strain to close my astral sight, the effort earning the beginning of a headache for me.


1235 hours, operational area local time

We made our way down the tunnel and out to an flat stretch of stone that overlooked the ruins below. The air was thick with the scent of mold and open water. Small glowing fungal growths sprouted at random along the walls, looking like clumps of glowing pods on the near wall and like distant stars hanging from the high cavern ceiling and the distant walls.

I heard water splash violently in the flooded streets below us.

"Machine, we have a problem." Jazz had his AK-97 to his shoulder training down the roughly carved steps that led down to the water.

I followed his aim and beheld shapes rising from the water.  Broad shouldered beasts, mockeries of metahumanity, with large sloped heads holding two pairs of red eyes.  There were perhaps a dozen of them, three as large as the one Creep and I had killed hours before, while the remaining were smaller, roughly the size of an adult troll.  They sprang to the steps and hurled themselves toward us.

I shouted, "Open fire!" and reached out to Lily and Rose.

Jazz and the three weapon specialists he had selected, fired a hail of bullets.  Silver streaked invisibly through the distance between us and the monsters. The bullets struck home, to no effect.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" Flame leapt from my out-stretched finger tip, burning across the hide of one of the five meter tall giants.  It screamed in pain and fury, its flesh bubbling and lesions bursting to spray puss a meter into the air.

Lily and Rose cast out their hands, each of my spirit daughters hurling a devastating ball of violent mana energy down to detonate among our monstrous foes.  The spells erupted with the stench of ozone, and no obvious impact on the deformed creatures.

"Machine, we definitely have a problem!" Jazz shouted out.

"Girls, fire based spells, now! Jazz, we're falling back!" I was still calling out my order as I turned to face back toward the tunnel behind us.  Two of the giant sized monsters had somehow scaled down the wall behind us, and landed with solid impacts upon the stone.  Their huge bulk blocking sight of the tunnel, and cutting off our escape.  They opened their gaping maws, exposing rows of shark-like teeth, and bellowed triumphantly.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!"  Lily's voice rang out like a bell.  A lance of flame, as thick as my own arm, roared past me and caught the monster on my left full in the face.  Its head exploded in a shower of stinking puss, roasting brain tissue, and charred fragments of bone. 

The monster on my right blurred forward.  Behind me I heard Jazz scream, 'Grenade!'.  We stood on that patch of rock, dozens of meters below Lac Assal, as the monsters came at us.

In the back of my mind I heard Aria's voice. "You come home to me, Tommy."

The monster coming at me was inhumanly fast, but it had a few meters to close before it could reach and kill me.  I reached out with a spell I often used at play with my daughters, only with this casting I put the full force of my magic behind it.  The levitation spell lifted the beast from the stone. Its forward momentum and churning limbs caused it to tumble in the air as my spell lifted it meters overhead.  It passed over us, thrashing and howling in infernal rage.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" Lily's voice rang out again as her second flame spell seared skyward, cutting off the screams of the giant above us by searing its body to the bone.

"FALL BACK!" Jazz screamed over the muffled blast of the grenade far below, the sound of gunfire and blazing spells.  The rest of the team turned and ran for the steps.  Jazz took a long stride to follow, but a large hand reached over the lip of the carved steps below us and grasped his waist.  The monster jerked him violent backward.  Jazz's head snapped forward and slammed against the stone step before he disappeared into the darkness. His AK-97 clattering on the rocky landing.

I jumped off the landing toward the monster making off with Jazz. Rose and Lily appeared right beside me.  Meters below me, the water flooding the streets of the ruins continued to churn as more of the monstrous creatures erupted.  Below me, Jazz hung limply in a hand of the giant.  The monster lifted him toward its gaping maw as the girls and I plummeted after him.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" My voice was joined by Rose and Lily's.  Our spells shot forward, striking the beast's arm, neck and its malformed head.  The creature's head exploded in a gruesome spray of flesh and bone fragments. Its arm was severed, and fell to the stone steps with Jazz still held fast in its grasp.  I landed hard, two steps above Jazz's limp form. The monsters before us gathered themselves to pounce.

*to be continued in part five*


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*GTFO: 'get the frag out', based on an earlier saying from the turn of the century.
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Thank you for reading my fan fiction.  I hope you are enjoying these tales.

I also write and publish role-playing game material (though not for Shadowrun), and will soon be launching a KickStarter campaign for my next title Whispers of Persephone.  I hope you'll check it out!

Your comments are always most welcome.  If you like these stories please do share them with others.

Until the next installment, where we conclude Operation Emerald, shoot straight runners.