A wooden valley, deep in the Karna mountain range that forms a natural border between the kingdoms of Athur and Selden. It’s roughly in the northeastern quadrant of the human continent, and nothing marks this place as meaningful in any way.
Few people know that beneath the valley’s floor lies one of the Emperor’s secret laboratories, where the Taint and the demons it produces are studied. Even the researchers working there have no idea where exactly the facility is located.
I, however, know. I escaped from it, after all. And though it was two centuries ago, my memories of that time have not faded. Not in the slightest.
Karim too knows. He’s the one who provided me with the exact maps, blueprints, and schematics of the facility. His last coded message also informed me that he suspected other labs were slated for construction in the near future, but the Emperor hasn’t shared their locations with him, yet. Perhaps, he never will.
Perhaps, he already knows Karim has been compromised.
This idea doesn’t particularly distress me. Although Karim’s leaking of secret information is useful and allows me to strike at the Emperor where it hurts, if I ever learn one day that the spy’s employer has relieved him of his head, I would feel little more than cold amusement.
Our relationship is not based on friendship.
Quite the contrary, in point of fact.
He uses me to strike at the Emperor for whatever reason he believes himself to have. And I do the same. Our objectives may coincide, but nothing more. The moment his uses are expended, I will get rid of him myself.
I have not forgotten who he is.
What he’s done.
And he will pay for it, in time.
“Majorrr, everrryone’s rrready,” a quiet voice rumbles behind me. “We can hit the place whennn you give us the go-aheaddd.”
I turn to face the dwarf Rigelis. He and his brother Anton look identical to all other dwarves I’ve ever seen: a pile of rocks and stones held together in a vaguely humanoid shape by magic. Dwarves seem to have no problem telling each other apart, but to the rest of the majin, distinguishing one individual from the next is a task only possible for the most perceptive. What passes for a face is as blank and bereft of recognizable features as any random boulder one might find in the wilderness. Their voices are all the same, too: rough and deep and cavernous, more the product of gravels scraping against each other than any real vocal cords. And it’s not like any dwarf has ever worn clothing; rocks have no need for modesty, after all. The only reason I can tell that this particular dwarf is Rigelis, rather than his brother, is the somewhat different… haircut, I suppose I could call it… that crowns his head. There are a few, vaguely distinctive spikes and hollows that I’ve committed to memory so that I wouldn’t mistake him for his brother.
Though it’s not like Anton is really Rigelis’s brother, either. Dwarves technically don’t reproduce like mammals or reptiles or whatever else. They don’t reproduce at all. They are just rocks that develop sentience and magic inside one of the so-called Sacred Pits of the dwarves. No one really knows how, though. And I’m not sure anyone really cares. I certainly don’t. Dwarves, dryads, sirens. They’re all elemental creatures, but they’re also people, with roughly the same desires, ambitions, flaws and everything else as any other person. The differences, in the end, are few.
I blink when I realize that I’ve been staring silently at Rigelis for the last minute or so. “Good. Wait for my signal,” I order, my voice magically modified to render it unrecognizable. What comes out of my mouth is strangely buzzing, like insect wings in flight. It also sounds quite intimidating to my enemies, I’ve noticed, which is just icing on the cake.
Another wordless rumble acknowledges my order. Rigelis sinks into the earth and disappears. I turn back to gaze over the peaceful valley. Time to make it not-so-peaceful.
Karim should hold up his end of the operation and keep the Emperor busy. In the meantime, I will wipe this stain off Caldera.
One of the places that killed my sister.
Nothing of the hatred inside me shows on my face or in my demeanor. It’s too old for that. It’s become a cold, icy core inside me, now, rather than the boiling rage it was at the beginning, or the black despair it turned into after I learned the truth from Karim. It has not faded, exactly, but it has aged, been tempered into something harder.
Slowly, I walk through the woods, watching the shallow carpet of fog coil around my calves. The weather is kind, today. The sun is shining brightly, and the fog will soon dissipate. The wide-scale destruction should also help with that.
I stop at a seemingly random point, down in the valley. A boulder is half buried in the earth in front of me, two old trees standing at attention on either side of it. Nothing seems noteworthy about this particular spot, except that it is the geometric center of our formation. I didn’t choose it at random, of course. Everything about today was carefully calculated. Contingency plans were drawn. Eventualities were accounted for. And now that everything is ready, it’s time to strike.
My magic flares up in the signal the rest of my team is waiting for. More spikes of magic flare up in response to mine, and a white wall – not a perfect white, more like sun-bleached bone than pure snow – suddenly rises up high, occluding the sky, surrounding most of the valley like a hollow egg. Everyone is trapped inside, my team and I included. At the same time, the earth shakes under my feet as the same barrier digs deep underground, slicing through the bedrock like a hot knife through butter, excising a vast chunk of the valley right out of the ground.
crrrk, grrnnnn, crrrrrrk…
And then, with torrents of qi streaming through my meridians, the earth lets out a deep groan like a wounded beast, and the entire facility, the entire underground laboratory, is torn from it. An island of rock and stone and metal, hundreds of meters long, wide, and deep, slowly tears itself from the ground, raining down dirt and boulders like rain and hail. Soon, a strange asteroid floats in the sky. The outlines of metal-walled rooms peek here and there from its jagged surface. Broken pipes leak their contents like dirty waterfalls. Fires and arcs of electricity light up some parts of the structure where the strain of gravity’s reversed pull caused too much damage.
And me, still standing on top of it.
Within the heart of this asteroid, more and more beacons of qi gather their strength and muster their magic, preparing to fight off whatever enemy has suddenly invaded their home.
Actually, I wonder if they understand yet that they’re no longer underground, that they’re exposed, that their entire hidden base is bobbing gently up and down on the wind. They might only think someone set off a few powerful bombs in the neighborhood.
In any case, their readiness will not serve them. I am not here to take part in a fair fight, in a pitched and epic battle full of blood and heroism. I’m here to execute some criminals. I’m here to slaughter. And I care nothing for collateral damage. Some innocent victims might still be trapped inside, at the mercy of their captors, here in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But the only victim that mattered to me is already gone.
The rest of them can all be disintegrated for all I care.
I take a deep breath and raise a clenched fist up in front of me. Slowly, I let its fingers slowly open, the gesture helping me focus on another, more delicate spell. Gravity shifts inside the floating facility, the force pushing outward from a point a little ways off from the center.
It takes a few tense seconds for the asteroid to shatter, and when it does, it doesn’t break cleanly. Only a single fragment of it remains relatively intact and afloat on the wind, while the pressure that had been building up inside the rest is suddenly released. Large chunks of stone and metal are propelled in every direction and crash into the white barrier enclosing the area. I’m pleased to note that the facility’s inhabitants are mixed in with the rubble, their screams made shrill and terrified. Some are already dead from the altered gravity I subjected them to; others are still alive despite the same. Of the latter, only a few are capable of resisting the force pushing them, anyway. As for the others, their limbs flail desperately, trying to slow their fall toward their doom.
“Help! Help me!”
The white barrier my team set up doesn’t look very impressive. It’s a plain color, without iridescent patterns nor runes flitting across its surface. It doesn’t exude a sense of danger. It doesn’t contract toward its center to squash anything caught inside it.
However, it is the lynchpin of this attack and the means for our victory.
And not only in that it prevents any escape.
Upon contact with the white wall, both the fragments of the destroyed facility and the people caught in the altered gravity of my spell disintegrate instantaneously. There is no explosion, no sound, nothing visually impressive. All that happens, is that anything that touches the barrier is, all of a sudden, gone without a trace.
I spent quite a lot of effort – and money – getting my hands on that thing to make extra sure not a single one of my enemies would be able to get out of here alive. It took a while to set up, too, like every powerful formation inevitably does – which is what makes them essentially unusable in practice on a real battlefield – but now that I’ve got them trapped inside, I’m assured that none of them will survive.
A few make a good try of it, those who could both survive the strain of my ripping this place from the earth, and fly under their own power to fight off the shackles of the gravity that tried to push them into the deadly white barrier. But they are few and far between. And my team is there to meet them and put them down.
The two dwarf brothers cooperate to blow flyers out of the sky, growing heavy boulders out of their own bodies before flinging them at their enemies like cannonballs. Aran-Riha’s tentacles flap behind him, allowing him to swim through the air like a squid would through water. Beams of light regularly shoot out of the single, giant eye at the front of his body, piercing right through unwary humans. Rangor the setroka turns into black smoke and drowns his enemies in it, filling their throats and lungs and smothering them, or turning parts of his body solid and striking them more directly while the rest remains insubstantial and invulnerable. Higan flies up, the white wings of a tenjin on his back beating against the wind to propel him forward, where he engages his opponents with his bare fists. Tenjins are usually one of the majin species with the best reputation among the humans, mostly because the latter’s culture can’t help but see the former’s dove-like wings as a sign of purity and innocence. Higan gives that idea the lie, though. None of my… employees… are very merciful toward their enemies, but here and now, Higan’s battlefield is the most gruesome, large splashes of bright red blood drawings arcs through the sky as he bludgeons people to death with their own severed limbs.
“If you bastards think you can make an enemy of the God-Emperor of Mankind and live to tell the tale, you have another thing coming for you! Even if I have to die, I’ll take you down with me!”
Eventually, Higan’s brutality pushes one of the humans, an elderly fellow with white hair so long and flowing and lustrous it looks oddly mismatched with his age-lined face, into a desperate suicide attack. With a hoarse cry, he grabs tightly onto Higan and, powering through the fists raining down upon him all the while, soars straight into the white barrier. In his towering rage and vicious satisfaction at taking one of his enemies to accompany him in death, he completely misses the cruel smile on Higan’s face. When the two of them reach the white barrier, Higan simply passes through unharmed. Through the milky surface of the barrier, I can see his blurry silhouette tumble through the air outside, his wings spreading wide to slow and stabilize him. The old man, on the other hand, barely has time to gasp at this sight. His eyes widen in shock and horror as he realizes his mistake. He tries to swerve out of the way, but his suicidal momentum carries him too far. He sinks into the barrier. And dies instantly.
Higan, victorious without having to lift a finger, laughs loudly and flies back through the barrier to rejoin the fight.
…I don’t know what that old human was thinking. Did he really believe the barrier would also kill us? Do we look that foolish? This thing would hardly be worth its price if it was such a double-edged sword that we too died from a single contact with it.
In the end, though, this little incident is nothing more than a footnote in this battle.
No, not this battle.
In this execution.
Contrary to my bloodthirsty subordinates, I stay on the sideline, stealthily wiping the sweat from my brow, careful not to dislodge the hood covering my face. I spent quite a bit of myself to rip the facility out of the earth. If I hadn’t recently reached godhood, it would have been downright impossible for me to achieve that sort of feat. Now, I watch and make sure that nothing untoward happens.
As expected. Good plans usually succeed, and this one has been long in the making.
The fight is brutal but short-lived.
Our side suffers a few injuries, but the lab’s guards just don’t measure up to the gaggle of violent murderers and ruthless assassins I surrounded myself with. The Emperor must have failed to staff his facility with truly powerful individuals. He relied too much on the fact that nobody knew where it was hidden.
Eventually, the noise stops and the dust settles.
After making sure that the only creatures still alive are friendlies, I flare up the qi in my body in two quick pulses, signaling for the few of my subordinates who stayed back from the assault. A few seconds later, the barrier flickers and winks out of existence with the quiet hiss of the wind rushing in to fill the vacuum it left behind.
A vast hole has been dug out of the ground of the valley, the soil and rock that previously filled it gone without a trace. A dozen corpses fell out of the sky earlier, but they all disintegrated upon contact with the barrier. No trace of them remains now.
The only thing left of Wayland Adkins’s state-of-the-art facility is the fragment of the asteroid still floating in the sky beneath me. It remained untouched since my gravity bomb exploded earlier and sent the rest of the place hurtling toward the white barrier in little pieces. Everyone who’d been inside it is already dead, of course. The weapons research wing of the laboratory is the only part of it I wanted to keep intact, but the researchers and guards protecting it are not offered the same privilege. The toys they left behind are more than enough.
Well, looks like I was wrong.
I hadn’t noticed before, with the white barrier in the way, but a few remnants of the facility still remain at the very bottom of the gulf carved out of the valley’s floor, artifacts of grey steel against the dark brown background of the soil around them. The surviving rooms are heavily damaged, the white barrier having sliced straight through some of them. But they are still there.
Were Karim’s schematics wrong? The barrier should have comfortably encompassed the entire facility with room to spare. There shouldn’t be anything left outside of it.
This is… inconvenient.
If anyone was in these surviving rooms while I was busy mopping up the garbage inside the barrier, they may have escaped. I had more people on the outside, watching out in case anything went wrong, so it’s likely no one managed to use that opportunity to make a getaway, but that’s still not the kind of surprise I appreciate.
I blow a sharp whistle, and Rigelis, Anton, Higan and the rest look toward me, waiting for my next orders. I point at what’s left of the research facility down there. “You guys go check it out.”
They return a chorus of acknowledgment, and all of them descend on the shattered remnants of the lab like vultures on a corpse. In the meantime, another group of majin approaches the edge of the crater from the surrounding forest. I alight before them, the weapons research wing floating after me. Its jagged surface of rock and twisted metal crushes trees like kindling as it settles down to the ground, the earth shaking a little despite my efforts to make its landing as light and gentle as possible. It wouldn’t do to damage our new equipment, after all.
I nod at Emilia, a young dryad who, despite the stereotypes usually associated with her species, is one of the most enthusiastic and knowledgable about new technology among all my subordinates.
She returns the nod with a bright grin lighting up her wooden – literally – features. “Major, I take it this is it?” she asks, turning to the huge slab of rock and metal resting on the earth behind me. Her fingers are fiddling with the several space rings hanging from a necklace around her neck, clearly already salivating at the idea of ‘inheriting’ all the new inventions from the humans.
“That’s right. You have 15 minutes. Pack up everything we need. Destroy the rest.”
With a wave, she leads her team forward. They quickly find what’s left of one of the hallways that once linked the weapons research wing to the rest of the facility and invade its insides.
…Perhaps that vulture comparison might be even more appropriate here. Emilia will set upon this carcass and gobble up all the juicy bits, leaving only dried bones behind.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I look around and consider our progress. Emilia won’t be long before she’s done. Higan and the others of the assault party are still inside the remains of the facility down in the crater, but I can’t hear any fighting or feel any qi fluctuations, so they should be fine. The rest of my people are keeping to the loose circle they formed around the valley at the start of the operation, both as pickets and in order to operate the formation that supported that deadly white barrier. They’ll rejoin us once we leave.
Each squad came in carrying an armful of materials to set up the formation, so the logistics on that might have been a concern. But in reality, there’ll be no need to gather all these ingredients back or anything of the sort. Neither will we have to leave them here as evidence for the humans to find. Instead, the barrier was so powerful that the raw materials invested in its creation would have burnt down to nothing the moment it went up. Which, if this operation hadn’t been a resounding success, would have made me cry all on its own, because they really were fucking expensive. A lot of my budget went into that. Yulan might have words with me about this when we return to Mel Senshir.
When I look back at the gaping scar my actions have left in the earth, though, I have no doubt whatsoever that it was all worth it. Truthfully, recovering the weapons research wing was nothing but an excuse to justify all this death and destruction to Yulan, the guy with the money.
That destruction, in and of itself, was what I was after.
“Rigelis,” I reply, turning to look at him as he makes his way up the slope of the crater. Down behind him, I can see a few other members of his squad exit from the remains of the facility I sent them to explore and look up after him. “Report.”
“A prrrison,” he rumbles. “With apostles inside. Young onnnes. And they look a bit differrrent than usual.”
A prison? The holding cells? I don’t remember those being this deep underground back when I was held in this facility, or Thelyron would have had a much more difficult job getting us out of there in one piece. Did they overhaul the layout after we escaped? I would’ve thought Karim’s schematics would have shown such a thing, though.
I frown. “How are these apostles different?”
“Their earrrs and tails and horrrns aren’t cut off. And they look morrre… alive, mmmaybe. When we speak to themmm, they speak back.”
Hmm. Well, that’s not too much of a surprise, all things considered. I already knew they’d been continuing their experiments since the apostles started appearing on the battlefield some years ago. Indeed, there’s no real reason they’d stop just because Akasha and I escaped and Thelyron destroyed some of their records. At best, that’d just set their schedule back a few years.
But what should I do with these experimental subjects, now?
It would have been a lot simpler if all the captive apostles died during the attack, their bodies disintegrated by the white barrier. But they didn’t.
It’s unlikely to be a complete coincidence. I’d guess that Karim knew the cells were there, but he removed any mention of them from the schematics he gave me. Probably in some half-hearted, doomed attempt that I’d overlook them. He must’ve wanted to protect the newborn apostles or something. I know the idiot has a soft spot for them. Though he couldn’t have known I’d use the tactics I did. Karim likely would have considered surrounding the whole place with a disintegration barrier and ripping it out of the ground with gravity magic a tad overkill.
The fact that the apostles ended up actually surviving all this was definitely more due to sheer blink luck than to Karim’s devious planning…
That still doesn’t tell me what I should do with them, though.
“Well, let’s go meet them, then,” I tell Rigelis, walking past him down the crater’s slope toward the ruins at the bottom.
Inside the remains of the facility, my subordinates are guarding a long corridor. Many reinforced doors line the walls on both sides, leading into padded cells bereft of any furniture. All the cell doors are open, and all the cells are empty.
All except for the one at the very end of the corridor, deepest underground.
This one isn’t an individual cell. It’s clearly designed to house multiple people at once. The wrecked remained of bunk beds are heaped in a corner while a line of water taps are installed on one of the walls. In the middle of the room, surrounded by my subordinates, stands a crowd of apostles. There are a lot more of them than I expected, perhaps as many as a hundred, which makes the room feel crowded despite its size and the apostles’ best attempts to sticking as close to each other as possible.
Many glowing red eyes flick toward me when I enter the room, and just as many look suddenly very worried when they actually have the time to process what I look like. I assume keeping my face constantly under a veil of shadows doesn’t help me appear kind and trustworthy.
My eyes slowly rove over the group of apostles before me. They all carry the usual characteristics of apostles – white hair and red-on-black eyes. But Rigelis was right; they all look way too young, and they are much more expressive than the apostles I’m used to seeing on the battlefield. The one at the front, closest to the door, stands protectively between me and his fellows and looks at me warily. The others behind him are an interesting collection. No two seem perfectly alike. Some look vaguely insectoid, others look like bears or cats or other animals. There’s even a girl with wolf ears and a tail restlessly swinging behind her. The sight of her is almost painful. Almost. I’ve long stopped seeing my sister’s shadow in every little girl I cross in the street, and while this one has the same beastly features Akasha did, her face doesn’t look the same at all. There’s no way to mistake one for the other. My eyes still linger on her for a moment longer than the others, but then I turn toward the boy standing at the front, clearly serving as some sort of leader to the others though he looks just as frightened as they do.
“You. What’s your name?” I ask, pointing a finger at him to indicate who I’m addressing since I can’t exactly make eye contact with my hood hiding my eyes.
He gulps, and the gills on both sides of his neck flare and twitch. “We… weren’t given names.” He hesitates for a moment, then shakes his head. “But you can call me… Salem… maybe?”
‘Maybe?’ Did he just come up with that on the spot?
“This facility has been destroyed. All the researchers and soldiers stationed there have been killed.” Fearful – and hopeful – murmurs rise up among the group of apostles behind him. “You’re the only ones left.”
“What… what do you intend to do with us?”
I consider that for a moment. The benefits of killing them all versus letting them live. Of recruiting them and offering them shelter among the majin versus letting them strike out on their own.
“Well, now, that will depend on you, Salem,” I say while I keep thinking. “What is it that you want? Do you want to go back to the humans and fight at their side? Fulfill the purpose you were built for?”
Salem swallows hard and licks his dry lips. “N–No. I don’t. I want…”
He throws a quick glance over his shoulder at the young apostles hiding behind his back and seems to confirm something. When he turns back to me, something dark flickers in his eyes, in all their eyes. Something I know I have in my eyes too when I think about the human emperor.
Murderous, poisonous, festering hatred.
“We want revenge.”