The Maw from Whence they Came

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Their craft of four descended upon a world of shadow mountains and grim gray clouds that threatened storm. Metal walls trembled; thrusters beat back the air with iridescent blue fire, hissing, and piercing winds howled past them that screamed like dying things. Cleye held his breath with all the dearness of life.

There's another,” Rorj urged with finger to the glass. “I told ye well and true, kapetan, unnatural things be round this secter.”

Cleye saw it too. Someplace off and abaft, a flicker of lights and prisms burned against the blackness of the night sky, crystal like. But then you’d gaze for a moment only and it’d vanish into thin air. That was the third one they had seen since taking orbit a relative fortnight back, and counting still perhaps. Yet their radar was mute at every occasion, and Cleye could feel the water in his belly rise, the fear steal up on him like a stalking hunter.

“I’ll have quiet,” Kapetan Grover Baines commanded with iron indignation, “Let them play their tricks. They mean to scare you. Have they succeeded in this task?”

Rorj regarded him coldly. Insofar as this lawful pursuit was considered, the capital-educated officer and the gutter-born master-at-arms had been at odds in their accounts. “The dead don’t play no tricks,” Rorj insisted, “them pirates float ice cold and silent in the black o’ space. No more ships will be sufferin’ their raids.”

“Cold and quiet,” Baines laughed with wry amusement, “A pleasant prospect to you.” Then the kapetan spoke to a sphere of light suspended in the command room’s nucleus. “Overmind, level us at 3,000 feet. I would have us come in quietly, and scout the area.”

The inanimate auto-pilot obeyed.

Initiating stability thrusters.”

A new shaking took the ship, more fierce than the first. Rorj did not let up. “Ye heard them plenty, kapetan. All them townsfolk had a word to say ‘bout queer happenings in these unknown parts.

27-Oct-2016 20:46:54 - Last edited on 29-Oct-2016 03:37:21 by tmac attack

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This secter’s scarce been charted, no one knows what terrors these outlands hold for us,” he looked the crew down with hard eyes, “I say we heed them folk’s warnings and start back for that Legion’s redoubt. Tell ‘em what we saw.”

"The rumors and gossip of crofters and wild settlers,” Baines observed, “I submit no merit to a peasant’s testimony.” They passed through the thick of cloudlines. Then the landscape rose upon them; dark, gloomy forests, black as night, blanketing spiny ridges. “Seasoned commanders garrisoned in this colony seek to disagree with you. Do you suggest we weigh the words of penny-squabblers against learnt field marshals?” Baines asked the amply rhetorical, smiling cruelly.

Cleye could feel Rorj fight back his fury. Obedience be its worth, the old man would brook no leverage from this officer. He had the years on him, and raw experience triumphed any fancy academy grooming, Cleye reflected privately. Rorj could bolster thirty years of wardenship, an old hand at hunting the unlawful.

But this felt not like a hunt. Tonight, an unease had stricken their squadron, with a stiffness about the air so taut you could break it with a whisper. “We are but four in strength. Five with the golem,” Rorj pointed out, “Any pirate band bold enough to assault His Majesty’s trade ought to be well armed and numbered. They could have a dozen, two dozen maybe.”

“Or a few,” Baines suggested, “Cleye, inform our worrisome master-at-arms what fate beheld of these men when you scouted the perimeter of their war-galley?”

Cleye glanced at Rorj with a sadness. He spoke the truth he wished were not so.

"Their dock was full, Rorj. 'Cept for just one huddle pod.” When their ship Shadow Hunter first arrived at the lone, distant colony aptly named Greyholm, the war-galley they found in orbit was but a crippled heap of torn metal.

27-Oct-2016 20:47:42 - Last edited on 01-Nov-2016 02:12:20 by tmac attack

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The trader vessel these pirates had raided was not without stalwart cannons and a damn bold kapetan, that much was apparent. She had lost her goods in the boarding, the trade ship, but not without punching ample holes into her besieger’s hull, and radiation had leaked like foul blood when Cleye had been sent in his scouter-craft to view the remains of their old galley. Anything with a beating heart within come such a leak was as dead as dead warranted. A few he had glimpsed himself through the glass, grotesque bloats of the damned tangled in the wirings and wayworks of the ship.

A sly smirk drew across Baines’ lips under the black tuft of his beard. “And with that crude of a ship model, Cleye, how many a man should fit in such a pod?” he gauged a fluorescent cartridge into his rifle.

“Five, six maybe. I can’t say, they were desperate, fumbling around as the leak took ‘em… perhaps none were lucky enough to make it in, kapetan.”

“I think not,” Baines happily finished. “The Wardens are not in the business of half-hunts. I want confirmed kills, nothing more. Now, six at capacity, if that, would leave scarce room for supplies and armaments.” His eyes gleamed. “Easy prey. We will make quick work of them.”

Rorj glowered at the old steel serjeant, his eyes black and hard as cruel metal under the cast of a dark hood. "Aye, kapetan. You'd be preying on skeletons."

Cleye could see the muscles in Baines' neck tighten. "Greyholm is the unlawful backwash of this secter, a harbor for these raiding scum. Their duke is an utter fool. Should these men have comrades to aid them, they would be here.”

By now, the shaking had ceased, and Shadow Hunter came to a soft glide, then hovered. The ship was still as stone now, a lone luminous dot above a misty landscape dappled in shadow. Twilight had struck here, and queerly, the color of a dark wine.

27-Oct-2016 20:47:42 - Last edited on 01-Nov-2016 02:14:29 by tmac attack

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It was nightfall on a world in which a Warden had not stepped foot upon in three centuries, if Cleye could believe the tales.

"We cannot simply trust they perished without any means of confirmation." Phillipe Greensworth said with the kind of tone a pompous pedagogue might carry, "I remind you, attacking a trade vessel in His Majesty’s domain and seizing its merchandises with impunity demands terminal punishment.”

Cleye labored to hold his tongue on that one. Greensworth was as green as grass so far as he was concerned. In truth, if Baines was the shepherd, Greensworth was the baaing sheep. Both were capital men, and held themselves in all mannerisms as befit a capital man. Yet Dorian had only a silver-gold family name to bolster, some pup picked from the litter of a distant capital merchant of whom had enough wealth in merchandise to rummage space for glory. Baines was made of very tougher stuff, Cleye had no doubt. Two decades he had served in His Majesty's Imperial Legion as a steel sergeant before donning the Warden cloak, and the old oft-spoken adage that a steel sergeant was as hard as his rank's namesake was well confirmed in this case. Cleye drew some comfort from that, he supposed.

“I know the damn creed, boy,” Rorj muttered, “and I killed my first buckler when ye still were sucklin’ at your mother’s swelling teats. Our do ye still need mummy’s sweet milk to keep your pants up?”

Greensworth deigned to reply, but Baines had run short of patience. “Enough of this gum flapping.” He unseated himself from the cockpit bindings and stood, tall and menacing. “Overmind, display our terrain projections.”

27-Oct-2016 20:47:42 - Last edited on 28-Oct-2016 03:48:00 by tmac attack

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The orb of light that was the Overmind dispersed into a myriad of luminous numbers and symbols, then forged itself into a hovering map. But it was incomplete, the mountains vaguely placed, the basins and ridges indecisive on where they rose and fell. The week prior, their crew had convened with ghostly troops that occupied this strange land.

“Ghosts troops from the Grand Duchy,” Rorj had whispered to Cleye when they roamed the dim streets of the colony’s heart-settlement, “aye lad, this lot's bout as bad as the pirates we chase, 'cept this lot fights for some lord.” Cleye shared his suspicions. He knew these men in some sense.

Cleye had come from the old colony Anchorstone, under not the King's sovereignty but rather that of twelve duchies. So it was that they bred their own militia of hydroponic farmers and engineers and merchants, and so it was that his father was of their ranks, a ship-builder, until Duke Holton dispatched a set of regiments to convey his pique about that. Cleye brought what he knew of ship-building to the Wardens afterwards, as to find purpose when Anchorstone offered none.

Here was different though. This world was cold, and remote, tucked in the lonesome corners of the Forlorn. The men he had seen here concealed themselves in black-cloaks and shadows, and spoke little. They had accents he had never heard before, strange accents… but Baines was their commander and he cared little for the politics, only the hunt. He met their superior, a cold faced marshal, there was a brief exchange, a holo-disk packed with some maps and hastily drawn coordinates was given, and that was that.

And now they were half away across this world, away from man’s metal cities, into the unknown wild of black woods and solitude.

“This valley,” Baines pointed to the glowing topography, “the marshal was certain they fell here. Four leagues due east. Shrouded in the trees.”

27-Oct-2016 20:47:43 - Last edited on 29-Oct-2016 03:44:22 by tmac attack

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“He spoke of caves in the cliffs, kapetan,” Greenswort put in, “perhaps they took refuge within.”

“If they emerged from that crash alive and well, refuge would be all they sought,” Baines said. “No man would dare face these outlands openly,” his smile was cocksure. “Take us over the valley. Arm up and ready. I want full ordinance and ancillaries. Rorj, ready us Disciple X.”

Grunting, Rorj obeyed and disappeared into the armory to activate the air golem.

They flew now in a half worried, half eager silence. A short voyage and yet so long. Cleye scoured his rifle with nervous fingers, secured compression bolts in his armor, and donned his full helm. Little time had passed before Baines had them drop in to beam their searchlight at the remains of a huddle pod etched into scorched earth. That was easy enough to find. There were ashen skeletons of gray sentinel trees, and blue lights still flickered in the darkness like some beacon off the sky-fallen craft. By then, the crewsmen carried some eighty pounds in gear and armaments per, battle ready. A recon droid they dispersed returned with images of an abandoned vessel. “It seems our men have walked,” Baines decreed before veiling his black visor. “Land us in, Overmind.”

And so it was, they would land and no one could daresay otherwise. They found ground to come in at where the thick woodlands surrendered to a modest copse of saplings and shrubs. As they hovered lightly downward, Cleye spotted the outlines of distant dark mountains ripping through the earth like horns of a beast, shrouded in ghostly mists. They were nameless mountains. It was all nameless to him.

The ground came up in a haste. Overmind would keep guard should anyone come to their empty ship, though of that Cleye doubted such this far into the wilderness. The bay door creaked open like a shrieking banshee. Four shadows and a fifth airborne emerged from the light.

27-Oct-2016 20:47:43 - Last edited on 29-Oct-2016 03:46:55 by tmac attack

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There was a brisk air to greet them, a coolness reminiscent of coming autumn. Cleye opened the valves on his helm and felt a piney, sweet flavor mingled with his tongue.

“Not one of the terraforms, this one,” Greensworth said, and picked a single mossy leaf from a tree."The Lord Father is generous."

“Best leave her like this,” Rorj looked to the darkening sky, “I knew many a man who came to these far-worlds in the Forlorn hungry for riches, and now I know many a man who be ghosts forever. Lord Father don’t seem so generous then.”

Baines crowned their file and addressed, “Enough superstitions. Disciple will keep forty yards our front. Rorj, bring up the rear.” Orange moonlight played off his dark visor. Standing there in the Warden armor, no one could submit that this kapetan did not establish a commanding presence. Baines was the tallest by a large margin, and broad shouldered at that. The gear made him even larger. He wore armored plates colored slate and ivory, reinforced with white-steel fibers that glistened in the fiery moonlight. His gloves were plated, and his forearms, knees and shins and thighs and all, and he wore great armored boots so large a man's head risked collapse should it find itself under its soles. He had a thin black undersheath visible at his joints for flexibility and his plated gorget made most of his neck invisible. Gadgets and devices danced shining lights about his belt plate and in up the alcoves of the abdominal plating. His full helm was slate, and sharp and brilliant, with a great decorative-tri crest of mauve that stipulated his rank. The black glass visor betrayed no face. His cloak was sufficiently impressive, swathed over his breast in almost royal fashion, falling behind him in great heavy ripples of mauve and a dark red trim like a deep vintage. Their own habiliments were all of copy, mauve and slate and ivory, save for the tri-crest.

27-Oct-2016 20:47:44 - Last edited on 29-Oct-2016 03:51:24 by tmac attack

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Yet Greensworth and Baines maintained a quality aesthetic to their armor, one Rorj and Cleye lacked--their cloaks were faded and torn by use, the plates of their gear scratched and dented, mute testament to their lengthy service.

Baines’ rifle of choice was so large an average man was not fit to carry it in general measure, but his strength made exceptions. Massively barreled, and cylindrical, and a sheen on its black skin like obsidian, its glass core radiated a fluorescent plasma blue as the lightning. Its model was made for heavy assaults, best mounted as a turret. Yet Baines, as he oft put it, loved to “blast things into oblivion.” At his hip, a glowing fire blade breathed red-white light, should things resort to melee. Pray he did not need it, Cleye thought…

They made their way through the shadows of the woods. The sound of their boots crunching twigs and crusted leaves filled the air. Rorj followed behind, alert. Cleye was in front, taking in the strangeness of the land he knew little of. Black trees huddled over them that wove thick canopies with their spiny claws, claws that scratched at the sky. An orange moon creeped through ash colored clouds. What must have been insects squeaked a shrill symphony, but peculiar and foreign. Disciple X made a droning sound as it hovered ahead, dodging the branches, cerulean light dancing with the gyroscopic apparatus that kept it afloat. They would make their way to the foot of a ridge that rose high and mighty, a short walk from the landing sight. Baines’ consulted his wrist-apparatus and commed in to Disciple, “I want cannon on full charge come contact.”

A faint wind tugged at their cloaks, disturbed the foliage overhead. The sound of some creature howling sounded through the valley.

“You feel it too?” Rorj whispered. His voice had the faintest hint of terror.

Lightning cracked the world above them, pouring white light into the dark ether. Thunder followed, a low, sonorous boom.

27-Oct-2016 20:47:44 - Last edited on 28-Oct-2016 03:59:25 by tmac attack

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Cleye felt many things, he reckoned. He had done some fifty hits in his days as a warden, and yet none so nearly frightening as this very one. “I don’t know, I… that priest from town said these outlands have nothing but death.”

Rorj let the memory hang in the air for a while. “That he did,” he finally said. “Keep your ears and eyes sharp as knives, boy. Never felt such a thing in me life.”

They were picking their way over a stream of black water when Disciple suddenly sent warning back.

The woods had receded, and their mechanical golem awaited them at the base of a huge cliff. It loomed over them like a giant, with jagged slates of rock and black earth jutting from its breast. The mouth of a cave roared up upon them, like the maw of some mountainous leviathan. Stone teeth hung from its entry, and a blackness so deep filled its core Cleye wondered if it had an end.

“As suspected,” Baines announced, “there, on the ground.”

Stones dyed red were positioned in great number on the leafy floor, forming a great X-shape. It was a common thing, outlaws would retreat to the country lands of colonies, into lands they and their comrades knew intimately to shroud their clandestine activities. It was not by happenstance that this pod fell where it fell with well resourced and organized raiders.

Baines kicked a stone over. “Markings for their friends. They mean to be rescued.”

“Shame we saw it first,” Greensworth added.

"It’s … quite dark in there, kapetan,” Cleye said. Gray clouds hovered over, and an incipient rainfall began to clatter off their armor.

“Yes, caves tend to have that effect,” Baines replied, “are you hesitant? No? Good, put on your searchlight and dispose of your cravenhood. Disiciple¸ fire up your beams. We will need much light.”

27-Oct-2016 20:47:44 - Last edited on 28-Oct-2016 21:28:52 by tmac attack

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“Kapetan, a storm brews,” Rorj warned, “it’s not safe to fly if it’s what I fear. None of us know the weather here half so well, and some planets have storms, I hear, that rip dreadnaughts right outta the sky.”

“Yes, a storm. The gods weep for me, cursed with such a cowardly crew. File in.”

He entered first, no signs of hesitation. Reluctantly, they filed in. Slowly, the world turned into nothing as the sky vanished. The air felt tight, moist, and cold. Water dripped like slow blood from the dangling roots. Cleye shot the beam light about the walls. Dirt, rocks, gravel, typical … but the smell. It hinted at something metallic, like copper, but rusted and damp and offensive. The taste of it left in his mouth.

They journeyed through the darkness for a while in stark silence. The cave swallowed them further, and sometimes Cleye swore the walls were closing on him before his eyes. They veered right, then left, down some, and right again, left.

Then they came upon a dead end.

"They're been rescued, perhaps," Greensworth suggested.

“Don’t be foolish,” Baines felt at the walls, looking for lose spots. “Scan this wall. They are clever. But rats can only burrow so far.”

Cleye obeyed slowly, Greensworth pounced on the opportunity to appease, but Rorj was still as stone.

“This is a trap,” he insisted, “we ought to start back to the ship.”

The hulking kapetan turned to him with a slowness that made the air freeze around. Somehow, under all that plate and alloy, Cleye could feel a face teething with rage.

“You need to do as you’re commanded,” the kapetan ordered.

27-Oct-2016 20:47:45 - Last edited on 28-Oct-2016 04:23:38 by tmac attack

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