The sky is burning.
Burning with unnatural orange flames that twist and writhe within the bloated, festering clouds that have blocked out all vision of the stars. Clouds that roil with shapes best left undescribed.
It hurts to look up. Hurts the mind. Wounds the soul.
Tendrils of truly unimaginable size sway below the clouds, sway like the arms of a decaying jellyfish that has completely enveloped the world. And where those tendrils touch the face of the planet they have burrowed deep into the earth, corrupting the world itself.
Stone and dirt have given way to flaky mummified flesh. Trees replaced with mammoth bristles and claws and teeth. Water festering away into stagnant fens bubbling with embalming fluid.
And anyone still alive caught in these dead-lands has their life consumed and their soul imprisoned within a withered husk of an undead body. Those already dead are fortunate. At least they've already moved on.
One such tendril hangs above Inside.
How long before it descends from that burning sky?
When Missy reaches her childhood home, she finds that the door has been broken down with violence. Inside, there is enough dried blood that it is unlikely anyone survived. But she makes a grim and determined search.
In the end, all she finds is part of her mother's hand, identifiable by the marriage tattoo. But Missy wouldn't have needed it. Who could ever mistake their mother's hands, whether it had been ten years or fifty since they'd seen it?
That her father had been there too, she only knows by some bloody scraps of his clothing.
She carries on her search though. It would have been easier if one of them were alive, but surely they had left something in writing. If they hadn't...
But they had. Missy finds a carved box on her mother's bedside table, and when she opens it, the sight of what is inside takes her breath away. A photograph of a ten year old boy.
She removes her helmet and gloves so she can look closer, touch the picture. Under it are a series of others, one for each year, moving backwards in time, until there is a newborn infant being held by a couple in traditional Orthodox Arnaudin dress. That could have been me and Nathaniel.
My son. That was my son.
She fights back the tears. No time for that now. Under the photos is a small collection of letters. No time for them either, except to get the address.
She has to do a lot more fighting to get through to the home where her son's adoptive parents live.
The whole time, she is haunted by memories. Or rather, one memory. The cry of a newborn, who had just taken its first breath. It was the only memory she had of her... her son. She hadn't even been told if it was a boy or a girl. They had simply whisked the child away and assured her that it was for the best, until she had come to believe it herself.
But now, he needs his mother. And she hopes she isn't too late.
And when she enters the small house of the broken down door, there is hope. Missy's parents had died without lifting a hand in defence, true to their religious beliefs in non-violence. But it seems that her son's adoptive parents are less ideologically pure - perhaps because they had a child to defend. There is a battle going on. A woman is holding a magical ward up, while the man attacka the creature with an improvised flamethrower - an aerosol spray bottle with a lighter.
Missy finishes it off quickly, and scans the area. There is a heat source below the floor, under a rug, below the woman, under the dome of the magical ward. Their son (my son!
) of course.
"Remnant! Thank the Prophet you're here!"
the woman says, her ward dropping. She looks exhausted, with dark circles under her eyes. "I couldn't have kept it up much longer."
"Is there a safe place anywhere? We have a son..."
"Is he hurt?"
"No, just scared,"
the woman says. "Is it safe? Are there any more around?"
"I'll do a quick perimeter,"
Missy says. "Wherever he's hidden, leave him there till I'm back."
Missy isn't gone long, only making sure the immediate area is clear, before she returns. "Okay, let's get your son, (my son!) and I'll try to get us a teleport out. There's no time to pack."
The woman rolls back the rug, and opens the trap door. A boy, dark skinned and stocky, leaps out and hugs his mother (she's not his mother! she stole him from me!
"I was praying so hard, mama. I prayed and prayed and prayed."
the boy says.
"Good boy. The Prophet heard your prayers and sent Remnant,"
the mother says, with tears in her eyes.
"We need to step outside. We'll get a better fix that way,"
"Dad, get The Book!"
the boy says.
the man says.
And with that, the mother freezes, and pushes her son behind her. "Th-that's not Peter."
Missy doesn't hesitate. Moving in a blur she steps between Peter and the other two and sprays him with fire. Lots of it.
Missy tries to ignore the screams behind her as the man melts into ooze, bits of him trying to escape the flames. But Missy is ruthlessly thorough. The boy breaks free from his mother's grasp and tries to run towards the flames, but Missy reaches out and grabs his arm hard.
Too hard. She feels one of the bones in his wrist break. "That isn't your father!"
"But the Book!"
"Oh for **** sake, I have a copy of your **** Book. Now let's GO!"
She activates her radio. "Boss? I need a teleport for three, transmitting coordinates,"
Missy reports in on Edijar's radio.
Locking onto co-ordinates now, and initializing teleportation.
His voice replies. After a moment, there's a shriek of static and an arc of electricity erupts above the city's Blue Zone, fanning out in all directions as it slowly dissipates. There's a long pause before Edijar speaks again. The...the net is down.
He says, a bit shocked. The fire in the sky must have finally killed it. I'm sorry, but you're on your own. Want me to try and reach you by flight?
Missy curses, inside her helmet only. Her two charges are waiting next to her, holding each other and crying for the husband and father they've lost, as their home burns behind them.
If I had come earlier. If I hadn't gone on the supply runs.
She could have asked Edijar for permission to leave earlier. Hell, she could have just left
, permission or no. But she was a soldier, and she had done her duty first.
A mother would have come for her child first.
On the radio: "Yes, but stay low and as cloaked as you can. I think whatever it is might be intelligent."
To the mother and son next to her. "Teleport is down. Let me see your arm."
She takes out some bandage and expertly wraps her son's (He's her son, not mine.
) wrist. "Sorry I grabbed you so hard. I was afraid you'd get burned."
"Do you really have a copy of the Book of Arnold?"
the boy asks, sniffling.
"'Soon will I rest, yes, forever sleep. Earned it I have. Twilight is upon me, soon night must fall.'"
the mother says. "I didn't expect a Remnant to know the scripture."
"Oh I'm full of surprises."
Missy says. She goes to pick up the pair, one on each power armoured side. "If there's trouble, I'll going to drop you. If I do, stay close. As close as you can. Got it?"
Her own suit's antigrav is iffy at best, so she simply takes off running. Hoping against hope that she can somehow get through.
Suddenly there's a massive explosion above them. Missy looks up. Florescent orange slime and mummified meat-chunks and a tentacle-piece the size of a mall are now descending toward Inside.
Missy responds on instinct, hitting the deck, while protecting the two civvies with her body. It likely isn't terribly comfortable for the civvies in question. Heck, if she dropped the full weight of her power armour on them, it'd possibly be fatal. But it's definitely more comfortable than tentacle acid or the rubble that's going to be flying everywhere once the main segment hits. She wonders who had been doing battle in the sky, but supposes she'll never find out. The explosion almost certainly killed whoever it was.
The debris she expected is blocked when a shadowed figure suddenly appears standing above them. Edijar is hunched over slightly, and has his shield deployed. He grunts as a rather large piece bounces off, but otherwise seems okay.
Chunks of meat and bile smash into the ground around the group. That isn't too terrible, all things considered. Just a really unpleasant sort of rain. Except this unpleasant rain begins warping anything it lands on into mummified flesh.
To make matters worse the massive tentacle slams into the ground about a quarter of a mile away. The result is about what one would expect from such a massive object crashing to earth.
Between Missy and Edijar, they manage to keep the civvies from getting hurt at all. Of course, then there's the massive dust cloud raised by the tentacle. and the damage to her armour. Missy doesn't want to think about how the heck her armour has partially turned into jerky, so she doesn't. She pulls out a pair of face masks from her first aid kit. "It won't do much, but it's better than nothing,"
she says. And to Edijar, "Thanks, boss."
The boy obediently puts on the face mask, then looks up at the two soldiers. "We're not going to make it, are we?"
Edijar breathes a bit heavily, audible to everyone. As the dust settles and clears, Missy sees his shield falling to pieces, with his left arm noticably smaller, the armor having withered with the mummification, crushing the arm within. For a moment, he's in excruciating pain, but his armor is still functional enough to administer a heavy dose of painkillers. With a grunt, he reaches with his good hand and tears off the destroyed shield.
The rest of his armor is still in one piece, as is his helmet, so it luckily hides his face. He straightens up and flicks his good wrist, letting a long slender blade slide out. "We aren't too far. Missy, take one, I'll take the other. We'll fly out of here. You'll be safe, I swear."
He promises with complete conviction.
"My antigrav is damaged. I've relegated it to emergency use only,"
Missy says, on the radio line to Edijar. And then, to her son on the speaker on the outside of her armour, she says, "But if we don't, we'll be taken on ships from the Grey Havens to the Paradise Planet. And when we get there, your dad will be waiting."
Missy's suit is mostly airtight still. Edijar's is fairly damaged, but should protect his lungs. But the civvies just have dust masks. Not good.
Missy points out a butcher shop. "They might have an airtight freezer."
They make it inside just before the dust cloud hits. The butcher's freezeris magically cooled and the air magically recycled. Which is good, because otherwise they would be hiding in an air-tight freezer filled with rotting meat.
The mother grabs a couple of jackets that are hanging outside the freezer, supplied for the workers, and wraps her son up in them.
"Your name is Submission-in-Adversity, isn't it?"
the mother asks in a low voice.
Missy meets her eyes, though her helmet partially conceals her face. She knows. Of course she knows. She stayed in touch with Mum after all.
Finally, she nods.
"How do you know her name?"
the boy asks his mother.
"I knew her parents, Halifax"
the mother says, still looking at Missy. "You were named after her- her family."
Missy takes off her helmet, to look at her son. "Hi Halifax. It's nice to meet you."
Edijar keeps one ear on the conversation as he seals the doors to the freezer. A small nozzle slides out of a fingertip and he sprays a liquid over the cracks in the door frame. In a moment, the liquid solidifies, turning to solid metal. "We'll stay here for an hour, then move on."
He informs them before reaching into one of his compartments, pulling out a handful of red stones he passes to the step-mother. "Key word is "Heat". Go ahead and activate them, they'll provide enough heat to warm up the room to an acceptable level."
He tells her, his voice slightly off-kilter as he keeps from slurring, the powerful drugs in his system beginning to take their toll.
Missy turns to Edijar to try and provide what field medicine she can. He activates his comm device to talk to Missy silently, not wanting the others to know how bad his arm is. Don't. The arm is lost. Crushed. I'm already doing best I can to minimize other damage.
He tells her right before there's a slight metallic sound, and the arm falls limp to his side. Inside the armor, a mono-edged iris had shut at his shoulder, severing the arm and cauterizing the wound. He silently tears a strip from his cape as the others talk and ties his arm tight to his body. It was awkward, but if the worst came to be, he could use it to shield himself just a bit more. Missy knows what that sound means, and simply helps Edijar with the cape. She doesn't have her own helmet on, but her cybernetics allow her to hear him just fine. She just can't talk back without being heard.
Halifax snuggles close to his mother. Any machismo from being a ten year old boy is quite lost in being in the middle of an apocalypse and having just lost his father. But thinking about his father hurts a lot, so instead, he thinks about the strange people who are here. "Are you an Arnaudin? Should I call you Sister Submission-in-Aversity?"
"I was an Arnaudin a long time ago, but I lost my faith. My friends call me Missy, but maybe if you call me Sister Missy, it will help me find it again."
"But you carry weapons. We aren't supposed to fight our enemies."
"This is different, Hal. We are supposed to help people instead of fighting them. But the monsters outside aren't people. Sister Missy and her friend are protecting us from them."
His mother says. Missy, turned away from them at the moment, bites her lip. Her own parents would never have made such a concession to her.
"Oh. Okay. Are you an Arnaudin too?"
he asks Edijar.
Edijar is quiet, thinking for a moment before his helmet slides back, exposing his face for the first time to them. He looks paler than usual, and obviously somewhat uncomfortable. "I...am not. My faith and loyalties have always been to the city."
"You can call him Mr Losthold,"
Missy says to Halifax, knowing he would have been taught to address adults by their title. And she looks at Halifax's mother, who she had spent the last ten years of her life hating. "And I'm sorry, ma'am, I don't know your name."
"But Mr Losthold, if you aren't a believer, that means you won't go to the Paradise Planet with the rest of us,"
Halifax says, very worried.
"The Prophet cares for believers and unbelievers alike, remember?"
Sister Sonja says. She was grateful that her son's faith was so strong, but did not want it to become a source of distress for him in what was likely to be his final hours. "That's why we aren't to raise our hands in violence towards them."
She may have been trying to comfort her child, but her words were also giving comfort to Missy, who had left her faith behind so long ago. She had never expected to find a seed remaining still inside her, suddenly finding fertile soil in the midst of this nightmare.
"'We cradle each other's lives, and what threatens one of us, threatens all,'"
Missy quotes from the scripture.
"Yes. Whatever he believes, Mr Losthold is one of us now."
Satisfied with this answer, Halifax says his prayers, and falls asleep, with his head in his mother's lap.
Edijar watches the child fall asleep, feeling a pang of regret at never having his own, but he quickly shoves it aside, thinking of all the wonderful times he had enjoyed with Charity. After a few long and quiet minutes, he reaches into another compartment, pulling out a small flask and a ration bar, offering both to the mother. "You need to eat and drink. Keep your energy going. Take it all, then sleep, we'll keep the place safe, I promise."
Sister Sonja hesitates, and Missy guesses why. "I have more for Halifax when he wakes. But you need your strength for him."
she says, and the hand on her son's shoulder suggests what the gratitude is really for. She slowly eats the ration bar, having to force down every bite but knowing it's necessary fuel for the body.
Edijar stays silent for a while, looking at the others from the corner of his eyes as a dull ache began to seep into his bones. It wasn't the pain of his wounds, even though that was part of it. It was the pain of loss, hopelessness. He knows that all they were doing was buying time. For a long moment, he runs the math in his head, trying to figure out the probabilities of survival in certain situations. Before, they had been somewhat high, but now, with Missy compromised...
He closes his eyes and lets out a deep breath, relaxing and pushing the negative thoughts aside. He couldn't tell them that they weren't likely going to make it. They all knew it anyway, but, no one would say it for the child, and maybe, that much was worth it. Silently, he pulls out a small bundle from yet another compartment and unrolls it, exposing several syringes filled with clear fluid. His fingers dart over them, pausing at one, causing him to think. Cyanide solution...that much would make it silent and painless for the child, near instant...Mother next, make it quick, as painless as possible. One arm would be enough. Missy would be too slow to react likely, and her weapons would be hard-pressed to kill me before I finished her off as well. Chance of survival...negligible.
The thought passes, and so do his fingers as he pulls out a different syringe, passing it to the boy's mother. "Inject that into his shoulder. It'll help the healing process and will help dull the pain of his arm." Edijar tells her before taking a seat against the wall and slumping down, tired, as he pulls in a breathe of cold air. He closes his eyes. "Tell me about the Paradise Planet."
Even though he doesn't believe in such a place, and even if there was one, he believes he won't be going there, the others need to hear something about their own afterlives, to make them feel better, that this wasn't all for naught.
Sister Sonja injects her son with the painkiller and softly recites, "Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back and all change to silver glass….and then you see it. - white shores and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."
Missy nods along with Sister Sonja's words. "It is said that no one sleeps. That to simply to walk among the gardens of the Blessed Realm is to be refreshed."
"The Force will reveal the truth. That we are not these mortal frames, but luminous beings."
"And in that land, there will be no more suffering, for broken hearts... are mended."
And that's enough for Missy to crack, lowering her face and shaking with silent sobs. For ten years, there had been a gaping, unhealed wound in her heart. For the first time, it is starting to heal.
Edijar gets up with a bit of a grunt before moving closer to Missy, kneeling next to her and giving her shoulder a pat. He looks concerned, and completely understanding when he looks into her eyes. With a bit of a nod, he speaks quietly to her. "Command phrase: More Cow Bell."
He whispers. She'll feel a prick inside of her suit after a second before a strong sedative kicks in. As much as he's trusted those under him, there were always things he needed to keep for himself.
Such as a number of phrases integrated into their armor's programming.
Missy gives Edijar a hurt and angry look before she falls asleep, sitting up with her armour supporting her.
After she falls asleep, he stands the rest of the way before taking off the remains of his cape and draping it around the other woman and the child before sitting against the wall.
"Your Paradise Planet sounds wonderful. If...if the time comes, and you find a wonderful woman named Charity Evans there, or another named Rebecca Gale, tell them I'm sorry I won't be joining them."
"She's just asleep. I'll reverse it when we need to move."
Sonja is silent for a while. "I was always so afraid that one day she'd come and take him away from me. Then I saw her, and I wanted to shove him into her arms and send him away to be safe with her."
"She won't. As much as she loves the child, I think she realizes he isn't really her's any more."
He reaches out to gently squeeze the woman's hand. "You did a good job of lasting this long. You need not fear anything. I'll be sure all of you get back safely to the MagCave."
she says, with quiet conviction. She isn't despairing like Edijar and Missy have been. She truly believes that it will all work out somehow. Except... "I wish Peter was here."
She doesn't cry though. She loved her husband deeply, but she can't cry for him yet. Not until they're safe.
Somewhere below the streets of the City the taint of Mantorok finally comes in contact with a small, grotesque statue that had been set up on an alter. And in that moment a window to another realm is rent open.
There will be nothing to see. No visible flash or pulse of power. Simply all the mummified flesh crumbling away into inert clumps of spongy fungus. The plague of undeath will be scoured from Inside and the surrounding regions. And even undead creatures not of Mantorok's fold find themselves destroyed in like fashion.
Survivors find minor wounds healed inexplicably and without any apparent reason as an invisible tide of eldritch power washes over the landscape. The power of life and growth and fertility.
Halifax breathes a bit easier in his sleep as his cracked wrist is healed most of the way, the strain on his young body lessened greatly, and his mother feels the same, most of the aches and tiredness of her muscles leaving her.
Unfortunately, Edijar, even if he notices the effect, doesn't feel it in the slightest. He lifts his head at the sound of Missy groaning, waking as the drugs in her system break down quickly.
As she climbs back to consciousness, Edijar checks his mental map one final time. They aren't too far from the MagCave, but it is still longer than was safe. They can't count on being uninterrupted. It is going to be a risk, but, it one they have to take.
Missy awakes, forcing herself to full alertness as quickly as she can. She considers berating Edijar for drugging her, but she's been a soldier too long. There was a reason soldiers were trained to obey their superiors without question, even if the orders were stupid or wrong. Questioning orders took precious time, eroded discipline. And without discipline, an army was simply a mob of armed men.
"The Prophet sent healing. Did you feel it, Sister Missy?"
Sonja asks in a quiet voice, trying not to wake Halifax.
Missy mentally checks her biometrics, which report numerous injuries healed and fatigue poisons removed from the body, minutes ago. "I did."
Maybe it's a sign? Maybe the Prophet really exists, even in this hellscape? She dismisses the thought. This isn't the time for spiritual meditation.
Sonja strokes her sons hair gently. Dark hair, tightly coiled, kept long and unbraided because he likes it that way. "I think we should tell him who you are. He knows he was adopted."
Missy shakes her head, her immediate answer concealing the turmoil in her thoughts. "No. Not the right time. Maybe after we get to the Cave."
She looks to Edijar. "Is it time to move out?"
"I'm trying to get some external feeds, to find out what's going on. I don't want to unseal this room until we're sure..."
he was about to say 'until we're sure it's safe', but of course it wouldn't be safe. All they can hope for was 'less unsafe'.
"I always wondered... when you left the Order to become a soldier. I always thought you might come and take him back."
The question hangs in the air, unspoken. Missy thinks about it a while, before she finally answers. "Losing him was the worst thing that had ever been done to me. When I thought of being the one to do that to someone else, it made me sick."
"I don't know what to say. Thank you seems so inade-- wait, you didn't give him up? He was taken from you?"
Sonja says, as the implication of the words sinks in.
"Oh Holy Prophet. Oh Missy. I didn't know."
She wants to hug the other woman, but the power armour was in the way.
Missy doesn't answer. She mentally accesses her biometrics and sets them to Maximum Combat Efficiency. Inside her body, artificial signals are being sent to suppress some chemicals and encourage others. The betrayal, the hurt, the love for this child that she doesn't even know, the fear that she's about to lose him again... all of those emotions are dampened. Her senses are sharpened, her muscles filled with energy. "Not the time. We'll talk later. Wake your son. He needs to eat before we move out."
Her voice is blank, emotionless.
Time to move.
Perhaps if Edijar still had two arms, or if one of them had a fully functioning suit of power armour, it would have gone differently. In the end, there are just too many of them. When the skirmish is over, Sonja is dead, and Halifax kneeling next to her.
"She went to be with daddy,"
he says. "She left me. Why did she leave me?"
He moves to take his mother's hand, and that's when Missy sees the wound in his gut. They have minutes to get him to the cave and onto an operating table, where he'd have a roughly even chance of dying on the table. And if he survives, a long, painful recovery.
"Hold her hands, and say your prayers, Halifax,"
Missy says. "She'll hear you."
She looks up at Edijar and holds out her hand. He hands her the cyanide syringe. The child, already in so much pain, doesn't even feel it.
Missy reaches into a compartment in her armour and takes out her mother's hand, and the bloodied garment that had been all she could find of her father and places them on the ground next to her son.
And then, she guesses what Edijar was thinking, or notices something with her heightened senses, or perhaps only imagines something. But she is certain that he is about to over-ride her suit again, and make use of another syringe.
She turns and meets his eyes. "No."
She sees him hesitate, sees him decide. She sees a little more of the life going out of him. "We're soldiers, Edijar. We'll go down fighting."
He gives a tight nod, knowing she is right. There are other mothers, other children to protect. He'd only wanted to give Missy some solace. It isn't right that her reunion with her child should have been so brief, so meaningless.
They cremate the bodies, while Missy chants the Prayers for the Dead. And then they move on.
They never make it back to the MagCave.