Saturday, March 18, 2023

WoAF - Interlude - King Top Mountain Inscription


Dark cavern Nexus, River Styx runs through, 
its icy waters memories erase forever. 
In dread silence the three evil races endlessly scheme.

Styx runs over the edge down into the fathomless deep, 
Tartarus awaits below, 
the Elder Elkron in thrall, 
dreaming eternity.

Lord of the Lamasu, 
golden and shining, 
in pride and arrogance stole one chain. 
Transfigured to madness, 
destroying innocence.

World of men; agony despair. 
Young Elkron bound 
the Shadow King with Angainor; 
twice a thousand years, 
then awoken to rage.

Nexus Cavern still the border of three evil races, 
River Styx still flows to the depths of darkness; 
Elder Gods still yearning for release.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 46

2036 A.D.  Panguitch, Utah.  Desolate.  A smoldering ruin.  

As the encroaching Lizardman Army arrived with a phalanx of tanks from the south, the town's people had fled under the leadership of Federation Command's newest Captain, Bruin Hilda IV.  Panguitch itself had long been a war-torn warren of vacant burned out two story office buildings, suburban houses, storefronts, churches, tunnels, trenches and barbed wire.  The people there had suffered enormously during the Ultra-War due to a vicious biological weapon that had turned half of the denizens into zombies, and the other half into psychically supercharged animal mutations. Those two factions waged a ceaseless, yet futile war against one another for several years.  Now the poor town lay nearly empty and burning.  The sounds of crackling fires, and collapsing buildings was ever-present.

Nevertheless, still intact and unscathed in its midst stood the militarized fortress-hospital, Garfield Memorial. It was the last truly operational military command center remaining in the area, along with the small but competent Mech-Force stationed at Panguitch Airport under the command of Major Sekston. Deep in the bowels of Garfield, two teams of scientists and doctors had spent years working feverishly to unravel the NL-5-Kz virus.  They were all members of the 19th Division of the US Army, under the command of Dr. Zachariah Mordesh, Chief Medical Officer of the secretive biological warfare unit attached to the 19th, and Dr. Jeremy Rogers, one of the most talented scientists to ever emerge from the US Army.  In due course, both men had been infected by the NL-5-Kz virus, and both had with dogged determination held on to their sanity, focus, and brain power in order to successfully create a neutralizing agent for the virus. Finally, with the help of our heroes, they completed work on a reasonably effective antidote to its dreadful effects.  The entire town had been treated before departure, and so most of the citizens had returned to near-normal, with a few tragically notable exceptions.  Doctor Mordesh being among them.  Along Route 89 they marched northward under the leadership of Captain Bruin Hilda.

Although two days previously the Battle of Panguitch had been won with the aid of Captain Samwise and his fearless Federation AGV crew fighting in support of the US Army, it was nevertheless believed that the the Lizardman Army had only been temporarily rebuffed and might return at any time.  This mysterious force had come to be known as the Manticorean Army as it was being led by the Shadow King of Las Vegas, whose banner featured a Manticore.  Many rumors had spread about the Manticorean leader.  Some held that he was a mutant byproduct of some Ultra-War experiment gone very wrong. Some held that he was a manticore from ancient days, awoken by the thundering violence of the Ultra-War.  And some held that his name was Abaddon, and was the Devil himself, come from hell to wreak God's vengeance on corrupted mankind.  And some held that he was just a man like any other.  A clever, shrewd, extremely intelligent man with a profound understanding of human psychology who spread these rumors himself to enhance his power, and ensure his victory.  No one knew for sure.  The enemy was for all practical purposes a complete mystery to nearly everyone.

There was a flurry of activity on the perimeter of the town to the south where US Army units were busy repairing, refortifying and entrenching.  Outside the Hospital, but within its formidable defensive barrier, the AGV was parked in front of Engineering Bay 4.  Fred had been working on necessary repairs while Captain Samwise recuperated from the wounds he sustained during the Battle of Panguitch.  "Guns" Gunnison had gone off with the troops to the south of town to help out where he could and took their hitchhiker, Rusty, with him.  However, Rusty wasn't that keen on doing a lot of ditch digging, so he wound up wandering off on his own, probably to explore the ruins to see what made Panguitch tick.  Meanwhile Penelope had joined Dr. Rogers at the hospital to help the remaining science team pack up the more delicate equipment in preparation for their departure north.

Captain Samwise lay on his bed reflecting on the battle, and considering a map of the region.  After they had somehow managed to fire the AGV's last remaining Plasma Cannon cartridge at the mysterious energy source in the center of the crimson lightning storm, causing it to dissipate, the Lizardmen army suddenly bolted from the field and fled south towards the city of Saint George.  Fortunately, medical technology had been vastly improved during the Ultra-War, and so the doctor attending Samwise was able to give him the good news: his leg should be fully recovered within a few days.

Fred had been working on the repairs since they arrived two days earlier.  He had made significant progress.  He had poked and prodded every electronics component in the AGV at that point, but saw no sign whatsoever of the mystery AI that had aimed the Plasma Cannon for them and successfully hit the energetic target hidden within the lightning storm.  Somehow the AI had known what to do, and executed its plan with perfect proficiency.  It had even conducted an elegant series of psychological techniques on Fred to obtain its objective. Fred pondered these things while he worked.  Foremost on his mind were three questions.  One, where was the AI now?  Two, exactly what form of AI was it? And three, what were its true intentions?  Fred was himself a Cybernaut, and extremely well versed in AI, having fought many battles against them over the years.  But this one seemed unique.  And that was disturbing.

There was a knock on the AGV door.  Fred looked sideways without turning his head.

"Hey, Fred, how's it going?" asked Penelope as she walked in through the open portal.  

"Fine," said Fred without any hint of enthusiasm.  "What's up?"

"Oh just thought I'd come by and see how you're making out," she said, stiffening up at his lack of interest.

"I'm not making out at all with anyone, or anything," he replied while soldering a microcircuit to a board on one of the radio panels, "or any other intelligent entity."

"Okay.  Okay.  I'm getting the picture then.  So you're pretty lonely, is it?"

"Yes, obviously," he barked.

"Well I just stopped by to see if I can lend a hand.  Do you need any help?"

"Well, um, no.  Um.  You know what, why don't you go ask one of your doctor friends if I can get some Quid-pills?  That would help me out.  Oh and some water.  Those dry me out when I take them."

"Oh.  Well.  I, guess I can do that, sure.  I guess.  I didn't know people can do repair work on Quid-pills," she said with some hesitation.

"I can," he replied with a snub.

"Okay, well, I guess I'll just be going then," she replied as she turned to leave.

Fred took a look.  Her white lab suit hugged her figure.  He noted that she was an attractive woman, and that only made her more annoying.

"Ok, well, I'll go see what I can do for ya.  Order of Quid-Pills, okay," she said as she made her way out.  "Oh, one thing, Fred, I almost forgot to ask."

"Yeah?"

"You didn't happen to notice any strange equipment issues or... unusual anomalies in the electronics recently, have you?"

"Well, we did get shot by tanks," he replied, not looking up.

"Yes, that's true, but I mean something like the equipment taking over...  itself," she queried vaguely.  "Did you happen to notice anything like that?"

"I noticed we didn't die," he said gruffly.

"Well, yes, of course --" 

"YUP," he barked.   

"Okay, well I just thought I'd ask," she said, taking the unsubtle hint.

"Yup.  I get it," he said trying not to sound too dismissive.  He liked Penelope after all, in his own way.

And so she went back to the hospital and Fred found himself once again alone.

"She knows," he said quietly, and mostly to himself.

Fred continued working on the repairs.  He triple checked all of electronics. It was slow and tedious work, but he found it reassuring.  The Ultra-War had destroyed everything normal in the world, but there was still material science.  He poked everything again, but saw nothing unusual at all.  He wanted to know if the AI was still there, or if it had disappeared for real.  So far it looked like at some point it vanished without a trace.  Where to, he wondered.

Fred had already repaired the three gaping holes in the hull that had been caused by tank shells during the battle.  It had been rough brawny work, and he liked that.  Gazing at his repairs checklist, he figured the entire job would take about a week.  He looked forward to a thoroughly re-vitalized AGV!  It was good of Major Sekston to offer him the use of the Engineering Bay at the hospital.  There was another one at the airport, but she was occupying it with repairs on the Rhino, their one remaining serviceable Mech.  

The next day Penelope returned with a plastic container inside of which were several baggies, each having a small assortment of colored pills.

"I hope this will do," she said.  "Quid-pills are a rare commodity, so I got an assortment as best I could.  You'll find a few aspirin in there, too," she added.

"Yeah, it'll be fine," he answered tossing them in his pack.

"So, mind if I check things out here?" she asked.

"What for?" 

"Well, just to test things out, I guess.  Check how things are working. You know, radio equipment, navigation system, that sort of thing.  Just thought I might put myself to use.  Pays to have a second pair of eyes, they say."

"Well, I guess that wouldn't do any harm, but I want to keep the AGV on a closed circuit, okay?  You know, to prevent any power surges from the base short circuiting anything.  Get it?"

"Sure, sure, no problem," she replied as she slid into the chair at the radio console.  She was extremely professional.  Starting from the bottom at the most basic level she checked circuit by circuit, node by node, switch by switch, dial by dial, from point to point, and back again three times each before moving on to the next.  She was thorough, efficient, and fast.  Within fifteen minutes she had completed a comprehensive system validation that would have taken Fred a couple of hours.  She knew a few tricks that allowed her to simultaneously validate multiple array systems with linear bypasses, cutting the time considerably.  It took a steady hand, but she was nothing if not steady. Fred became painfully aware that his ability to bullshit her was going to be extremely limited.

Once she got to work she became tightly focused on the task at hand.  As soon as she was finished with the communications console, she moved on to the navigation system, and when she finished with that she took a short breather.  It had been two hours and she'd covered about a quarter of the systems already.  Fred was amazed.  This girl was damn good at what she did.  Damn good.

"Nice job," she said.  "I didn't find any anomalies at all.  Well, I think I'll move on to the antenna array, if that's alright with you?" she asked

"Sure, sure, go ahead.  I can work on some of the hardware repairs in that case."

And so between the two of them they did the same amount of work it would have taken a professional repair crew several times as long, and the quality of work was far higher.  There were tons of points of calibration that still needed adjustment, and so they got busy.  Even at their rate of repair it would still take another two days to finish.  And so they worked in silence, which suited them both just fine.

Meanwhile Captain Samwise was doing much better.  He figured a few more days of R&R and he'd be good to go.  He took a stroll on his crutches but hardly felt he needed them anymore.  He wanted to find out what the team's current plans were.  As representative of Federation Command he was hoping to get a meeting of the major players.  That would be Major Sekston as representative of the US Army, Dr. Rogers as Lead Scientist, and Commander X of the Western Militia who arrived while Sam was convalescing. He approached Major Sekston first.  She immediately agreed that such a meeting of the minds would be a good idea so long as he felt up to it, which he did. And so a meeting was arranged that evening.

In sub-basement level 4 there was a conference room, and at 7 PM sharp the meeting began.  After a brief series of greetings and handshakes, they got started.  Captain Samwise spoke first.

"Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice.  As most of you know, I am Captain Samwise of Federation Command which is located along the east coast, and we are trying to re-establish civilization over there.  I know Doctor Rogers, and Major Sekston, but I'm unfamiliar with the representative of the Western Militia.  Perhaps an introduction to start is in order?"

The person he addressed looked vaguely familiar.  She was quite handsome with a small upturned nose, square jaw, and tawny colored eyes.  He suddenly remembered her.  When they had passed through Phoenix, Arizona, there was a Mech Commander who tried to get Samwise to join forces with the Western Militia, and warned them to avoid Las Vegas. At the time her head was helmeted, so he could only see her through the glass plate, but he realized it must be her.  She smiled, and greeted him.  

"I see by your expression you recognize me from Phoenix," she said.

"Yes, I do believe so," answered Sam, "but I don't recall your name."

"My people call me Commander X and that suits me fine," she said. "It seems you are recuperating well.  I'm glad to see that."

"Thank you.  So, you've come up all the way from Phoenix.  That's a long way," said Samwise, fishing a bit for additional information.

"Yes, well, we came up with our Mech Force when we discovered that the Manticoreans had invaded north of Saint George and were engaging the US Army.  We were able to assist along the west flank which is why you folks only encountered eight tanks, instead of eighteen.  Still, I have to say, you did a remarkable job.  We watched the battle by drone network.  Your AGV packs quite a punch, Captain."

"I should say so," said Sam with some restraint.  The implication was that Federation Command might be militarily more capable than the folks out west, and maybe they were not necessarily comfortable with that fact.  So Sam demurred further comment.

"I will say that whatever it is you did up on that mountain, the effect was instantaneous.  Every Lizardman in the fighting force bolted for the hills at the same moment.  We saw the beam, but it was hard to tell what happened.  It looked like you shot it into... a storm cloud.  At any rate, whatever you did, the effectiveness of that attack is indisputable.  The Manticoreans fled south, and it's been three days since we've seen a single one of them."

Again, Sam nodded his head but declined to comment. 

"At any rate," she added, "we were not winning that battle. But your attack from the AGV turned the tide.  So for that you and your crew have our gratitude.  You saved the alliance from what looked like imminent defeat," she finished and sat down.  

"I am glad that we've been able to help," said Sam. "But I should say that what we fought on the mountainside was something that is difficult to describe.  I'm not sure you would believe me.  I'm not even sure I believe it myself." 

"We're all here to listen and learn, and we're very curious as to what happened.  Even our best reports are all too vague on the topic. Please, go on," said Commander X.

"Let me ask you. The Western Militia has been fighting the forces in Las Vegas for some time.  What do you know about the leader of those forces?"

"Very little, actually," she answered slowly. "What we have mostly are rumors, and a few scraps of information that amount to nothing more than hints and clues.  The banner that they carry shows the image of a manticore.  On that we all agree.  But what the significance of that is, we don't know, other than the manticore is a legend out of India, an ancient evil which defies logic or reason.  We also have a few reports, not generally believed, from some of our warriors stating that they saw just such a creature lurking on the edges of some of our battles with the Lizardmen.  However, our doctors believe their reports were not necessarily reliable, and that they may have suffered from delirium or hallucinations.  But whoever leads the Lizardmen, they have been extremely effective at advancing their forces outward from Las Vegas.  Even our combined efforts have thus far been unable to do more than slow their advance.  Until you arrived.  That was the first instance of their retreating from the field thus far."

During the speech someone yawned audibly.  It was Major Sekston. "That's all a load of barnacles," she said.  "I don't believe a word of it.  Manticore, my ass."

Samwise was taken aback by her confrontational attitude. And he was even more surprised because of the fact that she had been in the AGV during their own battle with the Manticore.  But as he thought about it again he realized that no one but he had experienced the actual presence of the Manticore, or heard the delicately scintillating voice, or the soul-swaying sing-song of that horrific nursery rhyme.  No one else heard the conversation he had with the creature, or even knew for sure that such a creature had actually beset them.  The only reason Samwise believed it to be a creature of nightmare was because he and his crew had seen it's silhouette atop Shitpot Mountain, and had physically fought it, twice, outside of Page, Arizona when it had come seeking to reclaim the Chain of Thanatos from them.  No one else would have any actual knowledge of its existence.  And Major Sekston had been the most skeptical of the entire lot all along.  So in fact, her objection made sense to him on second thought.

"I think everyone in the AGV was hallucinating on Fred's drugs which must have gotten into the air vents or something," said Major Sekston.  "Now granted there was the storm, and it was flashing crimson lightning, which is unusual, I admit.  But then we have radiation storms frequently since the Ultra-War and who knows if the scarlet lightning storms are simply another manifestation of the hyper-ionized and radioactive atmosphere.  Who knows?  Maybe the crimson lightning storms cause hallucinations? But one thing, for sure, I never saw a manticore. I don't think anything like it actually exists."

Everyone looked at her and the conversation paused.  So she continued her line of thinking.

"Look, rumors have it that the enemy is some ancient being from the underworld, or something.  I don't buy it.  Now we do see Lizardmen, which is strange, but those have got to be mutations, just like all the other Ultra-War mutations out there.  Maybe this creature, if it exists at all, is a mutant.  That I might be able to swallow.  But some sort of mystical monster dredged up from ages past climbing out from the depths of the earth?  I don't buy it.  My guess is that it's either a mutant, or a person who has bioengineered an army of semi-intelligent Lizardmen.  That's it."

Sam replied with his usual even keel. "Even if it's not the ancient monster people believe it to be, it may be something else, that's true.  It's possible that the creature my party encountered was not an actual manticore. But one thing is definite. The Lizardmen fled all at the same time when we shot the plasma cannon into the crimson lightning storm.  And at present we don't have an explanation of how they all knew to flee at the same moment. It may have been a psychic command telling them to flee. Or it may have been a vibration they felt from the world of spirit when their leader was struck that frightened them off.  How would we know the difference? But if anyone here would know of such things, it would be Doctor Rogers, who himself achieved an incredible level of psychic capability.  So either way, what we should accept is the possibility that we are confronting a creature, whatever its past, of tremendous psychic force."

"I think we can't rule out anything at this point," said Doctor Rogers, stroking his beard thoughtfully.

"If the creature is mutant similar to Doctor Rogers in power, then it will be difficult for us to contend with.  Our goal now should be to determine a strategy to do so," finished Captain Samwise.

"I think it's important to know what the nature of the enemy is, before we make any strategic decisions" said Commander X.  "We need to determine if it's a mutant, or an ancient being risen from the deep,  Major Sekston I understand your reservations and am sympathetic to your point of view.  So I would like to mention the item you showed me earlier. Something eyebrow raising, for sure. I think that should be addressed now."

"I was going to bring that up next," said Major Sekston.  "When we were up on the mountain in the AGV, just before the lights went out, I was scrambling to get away from the banging from the cubby when my hand landed on a scrap of paper.  I didn't notice it at first, but later realized I had been gripping it tightly in my fist the entire time."  

She pulled out a piece of tattered and burned yellow paper which she laid on the table.  "It's this.  A pre-war poem named 'The Second Coming'.  What that was doing in your AGV I have no idea.  But it was there.  And I find it quite revealing."

"Yes," said Captain Samwise, remembering the poem and its mysterious arrival inside the AGV, something he never did find an adequate explanation for.  It had simply appeared on the floor next to the welded cubby just before the Chain of Thanatos escaped from the metal cabinet during the battle with the Manticore south of Page, Arizona.   It seemed like ages ago, but it was really only a couple of weeks at most.

"Look," said Major Sekston with a note of accusation in her voice, "if this poem is what has inspired your idea of who the enemy is, that's what I'm objecting to, Captain.  I mean, we have to drop the romance, and look at the enemy with hard cold factual eyes, figure out what its military capabilities are, and fight it on those terms.  Now if this poem has swayed your mind in some way to make you believe that the enemy is something that it isn't, then that represents a threat to our success.  We need to clear that up." 

She passed the poem to Doctor Rogers, who was already familiar it from before the Ultra-War, since it was quite a famous poem in his circles.  He read it again to himself just the same, his eyebrows furrowing as he did.  

"Yes, this poem did show up, somehow, in the AGV," retorted Sam. "But our first view of the Manticore came from before we ever found that. This is not a case of our reading the poem and then imagining manticores.  The Manticore came first.  Then the poem."

"Is it possible the Manticore planted it in the AGV?" asked Major Sekston.

"That's possible," said Sam, and paused to think about that.

"I would point out," said Doctor Rogers, "that the poem suggests something far more powerful, and evil, than a psychic mutation resulting from the outrages of the Ultra-War.  Allow me to read to you the section I find most concerning."

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. 
The Second Coming! 
Hardly are those words out 
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert 
A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it 
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. 
The darkness drops again; but now I know 
That twenty centuries of stony sleep 
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, 
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

"Thus, the implication is that we are dealing with an ancient being of great power, tied in some way to the coming of the Christ child into the world, signified by the cradle," said Doctor Rogers with a somberness that took everyone by surprise. 

"I'm not going to completely deny these possibilities. In my travels here I have seen many strange things that I can not explain since the Ultra-War destroyed this great country of ours," said Sam.

"Okay, I do agree there may be more to this than meets the eye," agreed Captain Sekston. "But to dig deeper I think that the other members of your crew should be asked to join the deliberation, since they may have insights that we don't have, and maybe they experienced these things from different angles than you have, Captain.  Perhaps their insights would prove helpful.  Let us call in Fred, and Guns, and Penelope, since they were there with you.  I think we should hear what they have to say as well."

"We should at this point attempt to understand the enemy as fully as possible," agreed Commander X.  "Who is this enemy?  What are its motives, and what is it capable of?  The answers to those questions would would help us to form an effective strategy."

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Commander X continued soberly.  "If the enemy is a mutant, highly intelligent, and perhaps even with super-psychic powers, I think it would be fundamentally a very different enemy, with very different motivations than those of some long forgotten creature arisen from the depths to wage war against the Christ child.  We need to determine which of these we are facing.  If we mistake the enemy's motives and capabilities it could well mean the difference between victory and defeat," she concluded.

"If this poem is an indication of the nature of our foe, we need to take it seriously," added Doctor Rogers, "and we need to get as many eyes on this as possible.  The poem came to you under mysterious circumstances.  It may have been planted, or it may be, if the implications are true, an artifact of the spiritual world, placed in your keeping as a harbinger of what was to come."

"We also need to discuss the refugees heading north. Have we had any word from them, or Captain Bruin Hilda?" asked Captain Samwise.

"Radio communications at a distance are no longer possible, as you know," replied Major Sekston. "Unfortunately, at this point, we haven't heard anything."

"We need to figure out whether or not we are going to assume that the war here at Panguitch is finished," suggested Sam, "and if so, send out a team to bring the refugees back... or are we convinced that the war is merely on hiatus and we need to continue with our plan to usher the doctors and scientists with their equipment northward and follow the refugees into the wilderness?"

"This is a good question," agreed Doctor Rogers, "but one that we can only answer after we have decided whom we believe the enemy to really be.  Let us pick up this question afterwards.  In the meantime, let's take a break and reconvene with the other members of your team in an hour, if possible."

And so it was agreed, and they took a break for an hour. Samwise contacted the crew members by wrist-comm.

"Whatever, man," answered Fred into his comm.

"I want to go, too," said Penelope from over his shoulder.

"You sure?  It's gonna be boring," he said as he put his soldering pen down.  The two of them made their way to the conference room.  They met Guns on the way into the Hospital. He was covered with mud and grime, and so took a few minutes once inside to wash up.  In a few minutes everyone had gathered together in the conference room and the conversation began anew.  Doctor Rogers reiterated what had been discussed earlier for the benefit of the new arrivals.

"If this is an ancient power, what does that mean in terms of how we should deal with it?" he asked the group.  He read the poem again out loud.  Everyone listened in silence.  

"Why is it trying to be born again after two thousand years of stony sleep?  And what does it mean 'vexed to nightmare by rocking cradle'?" he asked to no one in particular.

"Obviously the rocking cradle refers to the Ultra-War," said Fred impatiently.

"Perhaps," replied Doctor Rogers, "but the poem is about the second coming, isn't it? I get the impression the rocking cradle refers to the birth of the Christ child, and it seems to me that the 'rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem' is the the monster's second coming as well.  It seems to suggest the Manticore was in fact awoken after ages of stony sleep by the second coming itself.  As if he had waited in darkness for the Christ child to be born into the world and is after the child... hunting him down, so to say."

"Well, yeah," said Fred, "but to my mind the imagery suggests that the war itself summoned this thing.  I mean we're in an apocalypse here."

Doctor Rogers intoned a nursery rhyme to himself while thinking over what Fred had suggested.  "When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all..."  

"That speaks to the first stanza of the poem, which it seems to me is all about war," he continued.  He read the first stanza again.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

"It's interesting.  The falconer is a type of hunter.  Like the Manticore, perhaps.  Yet, notice his falcon can no longer hear him, and it disobeys his commands. Everything is falling apart, the world can not hold itself together.  Even for him.  Not only civilization is collapsing, but everything in the whole world.  Nature itself, I suppose.  The hope and promise of it, drowning in the blood-dimmed tide," he went on, half to himself.  "And then there is mention of the Spiritus Mundi, the spirit of the world."

"Isn't that a Norse reference?" asked Fred, vaguely recalling some haunted story from his childhood.

"Indeed, that could be," said Rogers, now deep in thought.  "But the Spiritus Mundi is also a reflection of something else as well.  A third force, perhaps."

This suddenly reminded Samwise of his encounter in the desert with the old Indian chief at the trading post just beyond Mech Base 12.  He had given him the totem of the 'Kachina', which the Indian had said was, what?  "The spirit of the world"? Sam was trying to remember the exact phrase.  Now he recalled how he'd actually seen the Kachina several times, though he couldn't say for sure whether or not he had been dreaming. He'd caught sight of it, gigantic, towering against the storm that bore the Manticore towards them for the battle of the Chain.  It had seemed greater than any giant, or any creature he'd ever imagined, or perhaps ever could imagine.  His vision blurred recalling the Kachina as if he were still standing beneath it, while sliding over the desert towards them was the Shadow of the Desert, the Manticore.  But memory passed in a moment and he found himself back in the conference room.  Yet it reminded him that it was just after that dream of the Kachina in the desert that the poem had appeared in the AGV.  And he recalled the small totem pole that the Indian chief had given him on their second meeting.  He had hung it on the windshield of the AGV.  It gave him a sense of peace and resolve to remember that it was still there, dangling from the mirror, and that it had survived everything.

Captain Samwise gave a brief account of these recollections, and Doctor Rogers came to believe that the Kachina was a representation of the Spiritus Mundi.  He encouraged Sam to tell them about the battle with the Manticore, which he did, in brief.  Everyone listened to the tale with great curiosity.

"Let us remember," said Commander X after a brief pause, "that our goal is to figure out how we are going to deal with the enemy.  Whether or not it is some mystical monster from ages past, or a powerful mutant who perhaps wishes to pose as an ancient power."

There was another pause.

"What I mean," continued Commander X, "is that if it's a mutant on a rampage of conquest, it's motivations are going to be quite different than if it's the dark lord of hell hunting down the Christ child.  Where it goes and what it does will be very different in either case, I think. And that difference is something that we should understand because the strategy against one would not suffice as a strategy against the other.  If we fail to understand its motives, we won't be able to anticipate its movements."

"It's end goal may be nominally different," said Fred, "but what difference would it make in terms of how we fight it?"

"Well, in one case we're dealing with a spiritual opponent.  In the other case a psychic power.  Those two are not the same thing, and can not be treated the same way."

"You deal with your enemy by marshalling your resources as best you can, and marching on the enemy with all guns blazing," stated Fred, frustrated by the subtleties of these nuances.

"But which resources?" asked Commander X.  "Let me tell you something.  The Western Militia has a battalion of Warlocks known as The Castinedas, holed up southwest of Phoenix.  They tell us that their war is against the ancient powers, and frankly, most of us think they've lost their minds.  They are, however, dedicated to a kind of spiritual warfare, and the enemies that they whisper about do seem to have a profound effect on our forces.  I've seen the effect, though I won't pretend to understand it.  But I have seen it.  And I will tell you, it's frightening."

"Yes," agreed Doctor Rogers.  "There are psychic powers, I know quite well from my own experience, that can be thwarted and attacked with psychic strength and skills.  But the world of the spirit is something else entirely.  I've come to realize that since my encounter with Brain V.  Misunderstanding the difference is likely to result in disaster.  We can't afford to make such a mistake. We have to understand as well as possible what exactly we're dealing with."

Everyone lapsed into silence again.

"Well, let me ask this, then," said Commander X.  "Does anyone here have any information that we have not yet examined that would help us to understand the enemy?  Anything that has not yet been put on the table thus far?"

"Well, there is the matter of the Paladins," said Captain Samwise.

"Paladins?" murmured the group.

"Go on," said Doctor Rogers.

"There was a physical beast that we fought with in the desert.  It was definitely real, and monstrous, though whether or not it was flesh and bone, that I can't say.  But we fought it, and with physical weapons, though not the ones you might be thinking of."

"What did it look like?" asked Doctor Rogers.

"It was strange.  At first we couldn't see it at all, as it seemed to be invisible, shrouded in a terrible lightning storm which I assume it had manifested.  When it first attacked we saw it as a massive energy outline of a lion-like head penetrating through our AGV's Plasma Shell.  All we saw at that point was its head and one giant paw.  We managed to get an improvised EMP off and that ended the first battle.  It vanished completely after the blast.  A few days later we fought it again, but this time it appeared as a great black lion with wings and a scorpion tail.  Fortunately, we were aided by Paladins of the Golden Crusade who had come to our rescue out of Page, Arizona.  They wore magnificent plate armor and fought the beast with golden-bladed Holy swords and golden shields.  One of our members, Pita whom I'm sure you remember since he's our team Hero, fought it with one of the golden swords that he'd picked up when one of the Palidins was slain, but it was so heavy he could hardly manage to wield it.  The same was true of the shields.  However, in the Crusader's hands the weapons seemed quite effective and it seemed to me that they managed to wound the creature rather badly.  It was however able to leap through the air flying on its wings, and its scorpion tail was filled with deadly venom.  It killed one of the Paladins before their combined attacks forced it to retreat into a cave, whereupon we lost track of it.  The fact that the Crusaders were able to chase it off is likely due as much to the strength of their faith as to the power of the Holy Swords they wielded.  At least in my opinion."

There was another pause as people considered this new revelation.

"Well," added Guns, "Don't forget about the chain."

"Uh, yeah, the chain," added Fred.

"Oh yeah, the chain," said Major Sekston.  "What was going on with that, anyway?"

Samwise sighed.  "Ok, yes, the chain.  Well, during our journey from Phoenix, we met a man who had metal hands that were connected to a long chain that he could control, it seemed, with his mind.  At first he acted like a friend, but I soon realized his motivation was to gain control of the AGV.  I shot him through the forehead with my Lewiston just before the chain killed me.  Afterwards I took the claws and the chain, hoping to learn how they functioned and how they were powered.  My efforts were in vain, however, and I could not discover their secrets.  But while we were transporting them, from time to time, when a storm would pick up, the claws would become energized and start reacting.  They became more and more destructive, to the point where I felt the need to keep them inside the cubby and weld the door shut. In the meantime, after the EMP, the chain had vanished.  When we met the Paladins, they told us that the Manticore had come north searching for the chain, and that the chain itself had incredible powers of its own.  They had found it in the desert after our first battle and secured it inside the Church of Crystal Light.  I decided they were better guardians of that artifact than we, and so we left the chain with them."

Everyone thought about this story.

"One other thing regarding the chain," added Sam, "Pita has a power known as Psychometry, which allows him to touch an object and see some portion of its history.  When we first found the chain he tried his hand at that, and discovered that the chain had been present during the 4th Crusade in Byzantium, and had been instrumental in destroying the Crusader's fleet, killing many of the Paladins there.  I assume the Golden Crusaders were aware of that when they sought the chain and understood its nature and powers.  They also hinted that the history of the chain goes back further in time than that, but we didn't find out anything more from them as we had something of a falling out soon afterwards.  What we did find out is that it is known by the Crusaders as 'The Chain of Thanatos,' which is what we have been calling it since then.  Lastly, their intention was to prevent the Manticore, whom they called 'The King of Shadows,' from obtaining the chain at all costs."

What Samwise did not mention was the conversation he had regarding the chain during the Crimson Lightning storm, during which he was offered the chain, along with a great deal of wealth and power.

There was nothing else that anyone had to offer.  And so they contemplated all the facts that had been put on the table.  The facts of greatest interest had to do with how the Manticore was fought, and which weapons did, and did not, have an effect on it.  Ordinary weapons, such as bullets and laser beams had little to no effect.  An EMP bomb was able to cause it to retreat, as was attacking its power center in the storm with the Plasma Cannon, the results of which remained to be seen.  The Holy Swords of the Crusaders were able to wound it.  And their Holy Shields were able to defend against its attacks. 

Samwise stood up, and leaned on his crutches.  He spoke to them with the earnestness of someone completely convinced of his view.  He told them that given all of the facts, the monster demonstrated powers that no mutant had demonstrated in the past, and that the whole picture points to the fact that they are dealing with a dark spiritual force, not a mere mutation with psychic powers.  The evidence being most heavily weighted by the fact that the Crusaders' Holy Swords were thus far the only weapons that had done it any visible harm.  And their understanding of the Chain of Thanatos, and the Manticore's historical connection to it, suggests that they have a better understanding of it than anyone else, and so they should, as a fighting force, consider it an ancient spiritual being.  Everyone was persuaded, even Major Sekston.  And so it was decided to treat the enemy on that basis.

"I will have the Castinedas come up from Phoenix to join us," said Commander X.  "They've been preparing for something like this for a very long time."

* * * 
Meanwhile, far away on the moon, in the Fortress of Eisenhelm, Vallnam stood over the dead body of the Nazi guard, whom he had just shot in the back.  He was in a very long white and chrome corridor that vanished off into the distance ahead of him.  Behind him was the elevator leading up to the control center that he had beguiled the guard into leaving.  

At that moment Jacob was at the door of Hanger B, beset by a set of deadly spheres that had already killed one of his technicians.  He was not sure if he could outrun them.  The closest defensive spot was a pile of large rocks that had fallen from the ceiling during one of the recent moon quakes, about sixty feet due west.  He and his two remaining technicians might be able to make it before the next sphere swooped in to run them over if they sprinted.  One sphere was heading directly towards them, one was circling around, and the third was, Jacob thought, still on a trajectory away from them, having killed his man on its last run.  The spheres were jet black, and in the darkness they were very hard to see.  Only the dim green light from the seventh floor of the Science Center cast any light at all. At this point he was using his Ray Gloves on low power to see ahead of them as they made their way across the cavern.

Vallnam stood silently staring at the pool of blood spreading out across the white floor from the dead Nazi's spacesuit.  He was trying to decide where to go.  The map showed there were a series of red and blue tunnels, but he still wasn't quite sure which set he had entered.  He thought hard about it.  Finally, he noticed the legend on the map which indicated the distance marker for the tunnels. It took him some time but he eventually figured out where he actually was.  He realized that the room he saw last was actually behind the secret door leading out from Pillbox C3-PB-A1.  That was the control room they had been looking for.  He contacted Ling.

"I have found out what's behind your secret door.  There is a control center filled with scientists and soldiers.  There's a lot of computer equipment in there as well.  I think you do not want to open that door right away.  The soldiers have machineguns and I imagine bursting in on them will prove a fatal mistake."

"We have no choice but to go into that room," replied Ling into the comm.  "That is where the computer is where we must enter the Self-Destruct Sequence for the Giant Nuclear Missile Robots.  If we don't get to that panel and enter the code then the entire Earth is doomed."

"Ah, yes. That's a good point, for sure," replied Vallnam.  "Hmmm... where is Jacob now?"

"Jacob is outside Hanger B.  He's locked out.  I think something bad just happened over there."

"Oh. Yes.  Let me see if I can get him on the line," said Vallnam.  "Jacob, can you read me?"

"Yes, I'm here," replied Jacob, his voice static-laden due to the distance.  "We're under attack from a set of large metallic spheres outside of Hanger B.  One of my technicians is dead.  The other two spheres are circling in for the next attack!"

"Do you have any way to get through the hanger door?" asked Vallnam, "Any hitherto unknown skills that might do the trick?"

"Not that I know of, and frankly, there's no time to try anything.  We need to make a run for it," answered Jacob as he drew his Lewiston Beam Pistol from its holster.

"Ah, yes, I know exactly what spheres you're talking about.  It was to keep those out of the Hanger that I had the technicians use a crane to pile up the derelict UFOs against the hanger door.  That's why you can't get in, by the way."

"What?!?" cried Jacob fiercely.  It suddenly had dawned on him that their lack of communications had put them all at serious risk.  He was likely to be killed in the next minute or two, and knowing that there was a squad of Doom Spheres in the cavern outside of Hanger B would have saved him and his men the deadly peril.  One man was dead already.  It was galling.

"Okay!  How do we stop these things?" shouted Jacob as he tried to get a bead on the sphere that was barreling towards them.

"Well, actually, we didn't stop to find out.  We ran into Hanger B and barricaded the door.  We never even tried to fight them."

"How do we get into the Hanger?!"  shouted Jacob.

"What?"

"How do I, and the technicians with me - get - into - the- hanger?!" shouted Jacob.

"Well that's what I'm trying to figure out.  Do you have a torch with you?"

"Great!  No!  We don't have time to try to use a torch to carve a hole into the eighty ton hanger door!" shouted Jacob fiercely.

Vallnam thought about it.  He could, he conjectured, run the thirty six hundred feet back to the elevator, and from inside Hanger B order the technicians to use the cranes to move the UFOs off of the hanger door, but that would take a while.  He thought about what else he might be able to do, but nothing much came to mind.

"Well, it was nice knowing ya, Jacob," he said with as much cheerfulness as he could muster.

There was a pointed silence from the other end of the radio.
 
"Well, okay, I'll tell you what.  I think you should try to get out of the cavern as best you can and make your way back to the Pillbox to join up with Ling.  That's probably the only practical plan at this point," offered Vallnam.

Jacob was furious.  Why hadn't anyone told him about the Doom Spheres?!

"Did Ling know about this?" he barked.

"Um, well, no," said Ling over the comm.  "I've been pretty focused on Captain Helmund here, and besides, you guys weren't exactly keeping in contact, as I recall."

"Okay.  Fair enough," he sighed.  He aimed his Lewiston and took the shot. It was very hard to see due to the darkness and the fact that they were jet black. The yellow-orange beam struck the rolling metallic sphere on its side causing a molten spot to appear, boiling some of its metal surface into a small pool of molten slag.  This, however, did not stop it, or even slow it down.  

"Head for the rocks!" he yelled to the two technicians.  They ran.  Jacob followed close behind them.  He tried as best he could to get between the sphere and his men, but it was useless.  The sphere was too fast.  It rolled over one of the technicians, whose scream was suddenly snuffed out in a spasm of explosive decompression.  The other technician ran pell-mell towards the rocks.  As Jacob ran past the downed technician he glanced down to see that the man's suit had been shredded in a dozen places.  

The spheres were coordinating their runs.  They had it timed so that each one could make an attack every six to ten seconds. The rock pile seemed incredibly far away.  Jacob and the tech ran as fast as they could but the sphere was moving faster.  Jacob took another shot.  He hit again.  But it was a glancing blow, and the beam diffused off into the distance as a cone of deep red light.  The damage seemed minimal, and the sphere raced along the ground towards the technician.

Just before the man could make it to the rocks the sphere slammed into him, knocking him violently to the ground, shredding his spacesuit, and killing him instantly. 

Jacob kept running.  The third sphere was lining up to make its run.  But he was within ten feet of the rock pile, and with a final sprint and leap he flew into a cleft of the rock pile.  The sphere rolled past and immediately started curving into a new trajectory.  The other spheres lined up with it, and together they formed a circular pathway around the rock pile.  Every few seconds one rolled past Jacob's hiding spot at high speed.  He sheathed his Lewiston and frantically radioed in to the others.

"I lost my whole squad!  I'm dying over here.  I'm in terrible danger!"

"What else is new?" asked Vallnam with a chuckle.  Jacob sighed.  It was good, he thought, to have teammates who could keep a sense of humor at times like this.  He shored up his nerve and decided to take a shot with his combat rifle.  It was the famous New Model Combat Rifle.  A real beauty.  He unslung it from his shoulder and removed it from its protective case.  Nice looker, he thought.  He pulled it up to eye level, shouldered, kneeled, and steadied his hand.  He took a breath.  The next sphere came into view from the right.  He exhaled softly and took the shot.  It was a good shot.  The bullet ricocheted off the sphere's metallic surface with a tiny white spark.  No effect whatsoever.  He sighed.

Jacob flipped a switch on his comm and made a general sweep of all frequencies, into which he yelled, "Help! Help! Anyone! Help me!"

Meanwhile, Vallnam considered his options.  He figured he could try taking a route down the white corridor, back up into the main rock tunnels via PillBox C3-PB-A4, and then through the cavern where Jacob was, but he estimated it would take a long time for him to get over there.  Even if he ran at a sprint, he figured he it would take about five minutes, assuming he didn't meet up with any obstacles.  He considered the chances of meeting something along the way were pretty high, actually, and that he'd likely not get there before Jacob was crushed, hacked and slashed to a meaty pulp anyway.  He leaned his head to the side and thought it probably was not a good plan.  What else could he do?  He thought about it some more.

"This is not good," he thought. "This is not good at all."  He pondered.

"So Jacob," he spoke calmly into the comm.  "You're just trying to get back out into the tunnel and they're blocking you, right?"

"Yes.  Well, I'm trying to just not die, at this point," replied the stalwart. 

"Do you have any, uh, thermobaric grenades?"

"Nope."

"Do you have any smoke bombs, maybe?"

"Nope."

"Don't you read Batman?  You're supposed to come with tons of gizmos and stuff."

"This is Batman at 3 AM.  He's run out of stuff.  He's running on fumes.  Ok?!"

This caused Jacob to remember something.  Gadgets! He had Night Vision Goggles.  He flipped the switch on his arm control and they slid down over his helmet and turned on.  Oh man, that really made a difference!  He wondered why he had forgotten about them earlier.  He must have been exhausted, and famished, and confused.  He grimaced as he realized they had used their Ray Glove lights to cross the cavern to the Hanger B door and that's probably how the Spheres of Doom noticed them to begin with.  He looked around.  Yes.  Night Vision Googles illuminated the terrain quite well as the slight amount of dim green light coming from the Science Center made everything including the black silhouettes of the spheres quite visible.  

He reflected on the one good decision he made recently, which was to leave the locksmith, Nick, and Hans, the two best technicians in Eisenhelm, with Ling.  Had they come with him they'd both have been unceremoniously killed.  

"Well," said Ling over the comm.  "It seems to me that I've got to come down there and rescue you, Jacob."

"No, you need to stop the Giant Nuclear Missile Robots from reaching Earth and exploding.  Stay on target."

"We have no choice.  We need you to help us break into the command center," she said.

"Oh, yeah, well I do agree with that."

"Hans," said Ling, "you and Nick will stay here while I go and rescue Jacob, okay?"

"Ja," he replied.

"And if Helmund wakes up, you have to shoot him.  Okay?"

"Nein," he said, shaking his heads no.

"Ugh," shouted Jacob.  "Hans!  Hans, listen to me.  You have got to get this through your head.  Deep down inside where it really counts, you are an Aryan.  A killer.  You can do this."

"Nein," said Hans sheepishly.

"Ok, yeah.  Never mind, Jacob.  That's not going to work.  Even if he had the spirit, Helmund would just make mincemeat of these two anyway.  He's a real killer.  I better stay here and send them to help you.  You two ok with that?"

"Ja!" he said, nodding his head enthusiastically.

"Are you sure about this?" asked Jacob looking out at the three dead technicians lying in the dust of the airless cavern.

"I'm not seeing any better options," replied Ling.

"What about Nick.  Did he open the satchel?"

"Actually, in fact, he is outside in the tunnel preparing to do that now.  I'm watching him through the Pillbox window.  He's been at it since you left.  I'm not sure how it's going, but it must be a tedious process.  And dangerous."

At that moment Nick waved his hand over his head three times and held up the satchel.  He began walking back to the Pillbox.  

"Oh, great.  He did it!" shouted Ling enthusiastically.  Had he not, there would likely have been a white flash of light or something and Nick would have been no more.  Nick climbed back up into the Pillbox holding the satchel with great care.  He delicately removed the contents.  Inside were a number of items but the only one he cared about was the flat metal card with the thousand tiny indentations.

"This is it," he said smiling. "The master key!"

"But we can't just open the door, can we?" asked Ling.  "Vallnam just told us there are soldiers and scientists inside the room.  We need a plan."

"I could open the elevator door and toss in a thermobaric grenade," offered Vallnam.

"That would destroy all the computers, and probably kill you as well," she pointed out.

"Well at least it would destroy the Nuclear Missile Robots," he asserted, but she and Jacob pointed out that this was not at all likely.  

"That's not how computers work," said Jacob.  "She needs to plug in the code."

"Okay, I could go in with my flamethrower," said Vallnam.

"Will that work?" asked Ling.  

"No," said Vallnam on second thought.  "There's no air in there. They're all wearing their spacesuits. Flames won't fly.  Okay. I could run in with my broadsword and just start hacking away at them as a distraction.  Then you open the door, and sneak over to the panel in the confusion and plug in the codes."

"That could work," they all agreed.  

"It would be better if we rescued Jacob first," said Ling.

"Is that because I'm physically capable?" he asked.

"Yes.  We need you for the assault.  The more distraction, the better our chances," she replied.

"Makes sense," he said.  "But first, can you kill Helmund now?  We don't need him.  You have the master key.  Just kill him now please before he wakes up and does something."

"Wait," said Vallnam.  "You could use him as a hostage."

"What?" asked Ling, wondering if this was a good or bad idea.

"Well, you can hide behind him and use him as a body shield, so long as he doesn't wake up.  The technicians can hold him up in front of you."

"That's an interesting thought," she admitted.

They tossed around a few ideas, Vallnam advocating for Ling to open her door first to make herself the distraction so that he could then attack the soldiers from behind with his machine gun.  Ling thought this an atrocious idea since it put her in danger first, and defeated the whole purpose him being the distraction so that she could sneak over to the panel to enter the Self-Destruct Sequence.  

"Well, we still need to rescue Jacob," she said.

"Well since that's the control room, so why wouldn't we be able to shut down the Doom Spheres from there?" asked Vallnam.

"How would we know which buttons to press, or even if we can do so from this room?"

"The scientists would know.  I bet they are even wimpier than the Technicians.  One punch in the nose and they'll squeal all the buttons we want," retorted Vallnam.

"I suppose that's possible," she said, "but still, shouldn't we have Jacob here for the attack? Wouldn't our odds be that much better with him?"

And with that question lingering in the air, we left them there for this game.  

Thursday, March 02, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 45

Captain Bruin Hilda stood gazing at the sacks of snakes and lizards on the back of the jeep.  She estimated it ought be enough food for a few days at least.  They had eight hundred mouths to feed, and this haul was probably going to help quite a lot. Wilard, the king of rats, twitched his nose, and stared at her with eyes full of expectation.  He was trying to persuade her that he and his rat horde should go north with them along route 89, but she and Lt. Kerrington had found the idea palpably unappealing.  

"After all, a rat horde is called 'a mischief' for a reason", Kerrington had quietly whispered to Bruin Hilda.  Tom wiped the sweat from his brow, rubbed his hands together to dry them, and heaved the last of the burlap sacks onto the back of the jeep.  He had already made a tally and recorded how many creatures had been captured, and was calculating the number of lizards that they could distribute to each of the caravan refugees.  His tally had it that there should be enough for approximately 1,750 meals.  

"My rats can do a lot for you, you know," stated Wilard as he stood in the midst of his mischief.  One of them had crawled up on his shoulder and was nodding as if in full agreement with what Wilard was saying. He gave a look of earnest hope, and tried to look as sincere as possible.  "Foraging for food and water, you know.  And keeping an eye out for enemies at night! Lots of things," he said as he scratched his ear with his left paw-like hand. "Rats can be very handy, you know!"

"Well," said Bruin Hilda, "I was thinking that you all might fare better in the hills east of Panguitch.  There's a forest there that you could thrive on.  But we're heading into inhospitable desert, much of which is completely devoid of life.  I would think your rats wouldn't be likely to make it through the dead lands very easily.  Most of them would die, I think."

But Wilard was not having it.  He wanted to go with them, and that was the goal he had set his beady little heart on.  He was going to follow along, by hook or crook.  There simply were no two ways about it.  After all, they needed his services.  He screwed up his nose into a scowl and squinted his eyes fiercly.

"Wilard, there's going to be conflict between the refugees and your rats," said Bruin Hilda slowly.  "Knowing people, they will probably try to kill your rats, believing they are dangerous vermin.  I do not see a positive outcome with you and your rat horde traveling with the refugees.  I'm sorry."

She paused.  "But, I know that south east of us there is plenty of forest and you and your group can survive there quite well.  It is the best plan for everyone."

Wilard blinked hard a few times.  He had very mixed emotions.  He was trying to keep his rage in check.  His nose twitched.  His upper lip began to quiver.  He looked like he was on the verge of freaking out.

And so Captain Bruin Hilda decided to try a bit of mental persuasion.  She had learned, from a source she could no longer remember at all, the ultra-rare mystic power known as Modroni Mind-Clouding.  This should have had the effect of causing Wilard to become confused, befuddled and indecisive.  While in that state, Bruin Hilda planned to drive away. Hopefully Wilard, bewildered, would wander off to the south east where he and his rat horde belonged.  The power was difficult to control, and would cost her a fair bit of mental energy, but she had the expectation that it would help resolve what otherwise appeared to be a brewing confrontation.  It was worth it, she thought.

Unfortunately, due to a spasm of bad luck, a fly had landed on her eyelid just as she was focusing and she was distracted, and so the power went astray. She began wiggling her eyebrows, and rolling her eyes.  Wilard stared at her, and blinked a few times.  She began twitching and looking around in random directions.  Wilard twitched his nose and scratched his chin.  What was she up to, he wondered.  Her behavior was certainly confusing.

"So," said Wilard, "we're all good, then?  We can go with you, eh?"

"Well, um, I... I... um... well, sure, why not?" replied Bruin Hilda, having completely forgotten what they had been discussing.  She couldn't remember a damn thing, or who these people were, or why she was standing there. She was grasping at straws trying to remember.

Lieutenant Kerrington and Tom looked at her with expressions of shock and amazement.  

"Well, great then!" cried Wilard with a little squeal of delight. "We'll go off and hunt more food!  And water!  Lots of food and water!  We bring it to you later!  Come on, children, we're going on an adventure with fair, good, honest Captain Bruin Hilda!"  And with that Wilard darted off into the foliage and all the horde of rats followed him.  In a moment they had vanished without a trace.

"Boss, are you crazy?" asked Tom.

"Yeah," added Kerrington, "What gives?  I thought you were going to send them packing, Captain."

"Huh? What were we doing again?" asked Bruin Hilda, as befuddled as could be.

"Gee, Captain, you better sit down," answered Kerrington, now concerned. He and Tom sat Bruin Hilda down in the back seat.  After a few fruitless minutes of her trying to recall what was going on they drove back to camp.  

"You know, I should have just shot him," said Kerrington along the way.  "It likely would have saved us a lot of trouble later."

"Shot who?" asked Bruin Hilda, still utterly befuddled.

"Never mind," said Kerrington mystified, "It's water under the bridge now."  

By the time they got back Bruin Hilda's mind had cleared.  She wasn't quite sure what had happened exactly, but at least she could think clearly again. She asked Kerrington where Wilard had gone, but he just mumbled something under his breath, and so she let it go.  

They decided that the refugees should smoke the reptiles for the journey ahead.  The townspeople were good at this sort of thing, and in short order a host of smoke sheds went up and woodsmoke filled the air around the camp.  Cooked lizard and woodsmoke had a nice smell.  People were generally enthusiastic, and everyone was looking forward to putting as much distance between themselves and Panguitch as possible.   

While they waited Bruin Hilda pulled up her map. The road up 89 had not been explored in a very long time.  The map had no details.  Since they had a few hours until dark she ordered Kerrington to join her on a scouting expedition, and so they got in the jeep and headed north on 89.  She wanted to see what the road ahead looked like.  Scouting was the best way to find out. With a cloud of dust trailing behind them, they sped northward into the unknown. 

89 was truly desolate.  And the road was severely cracked and had been worn away by severe weather conditions. The further north they went the worse it got.  Bruin Hilda figured they might make it 25 miles up to Monroe and still make it back by dark, but with the road as bad as it was, that seemed doubtful after all.  As Kerrington drove she scanned the area ahead with her binoculars.  It was sweltering, and as rains had fallen recently there were mists in various low areas along the river which wound its way following the road on their right.  Things got pretty choppy about five miles north, so they slowed down and Kerrington had to weave his way past various ditches and other obstacles. 

About ten miles up they came to a long ridge.  The base of it began at the road where it sloped upward some two hundred feet to the west, and then continued on to become part of a chain of hills and sheer cliffs.  Kerrington slowed the jeep down to a crawl.

"What is it?" asked the Captain, her eyes glued to the binoculars.

"I dunno, Ma'am," said Kerrington, "but I thought I saw something up on the top of that ridge ahead."

"Well, let's drive up slowly then," she agreed, and focused her binoculars along the ridgeline. She saw a whisp of smoke move along the top and whisk away swiftly into the west.

"That's what I saw, Ma'am," said Kerrington.  "It was just some smoke, I guess."

Bruin Hilda had him drive to the base of the ridge and stop the jeep. She looked up the long slope.  It was rocky, and covered with a thin forest of pine trees.  She figured they could make their way to the top by foot and then look over the edge and see where the smoke was coming from.  She went ahead, and had Kerrington follow behind at fifty feet, covering her from behind.

She took out her pistol and in a crouching run she darted among the boulders and trees until she got to the top of the ridge.  There was a wind blowing from the east. She made it to where the ridge line began to fall off to the north and smelled sulfur in the air.  She crouched behind a large boulder and scanned the horizon with her binoculars. Kerrington made his way up to her position. They took cover and with bellies down crawled up to the edge and took a peek.  

They looked downward and saw that the ridge fell off steeply, and at the bottom of a vale to the north they saw a huge crater from which a thick white smoke was pouring out.  The crater was about two hundred feet wide.  The smoke was being carried by the wind up the ridge, making it to the top, and then getting swept to the west.  Bruin Hilda looked for signs of life.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing. Not a blade of grass, or insect, or any form of life whatsoever.  Kerrington had his binoculars out and focused on the rim of the crater.  The entire area around the crater was completely devoid of life. 

"What do you think, Captain?"

"I wonder if that smoke is poisonous?" she said.  "I've known of places where coal mines have caught on fire and burned for years.  Or it could be volcanic.  Or maybe it's a result of the Ultra-War.  Some bizarre weapon maybe."

Kerrington took another look and by the dim red glow along the rocks he figured the crater must have magma boiling in it, just below their line of sight. 

"Yep," he said.  "Looks volcanic." 

"Still, it seems like the road is clear enough for us to pass by.  I don't see any direct threats here.  Let's continue scouting north."

And so they made their way down the slope to the jeep.  They drove north, but didn't get more than a hundred yards when they came to an old wooden sign.  It was broken and had fallen over, but the worn painted lettering could still be read.  "Hell Hole".

"Hmm...," said Bruin Hilda.  "I remember reading about something like this in the old history books."

"You know, the refugees are likely a superstitious lot," commented Kerrington, "I wonder how they'll react to this."

"I understand what you're saying, Kerrington, but I don't think there's a better route," she said. 

"We could take 20 West," offered the Lieutenant.

"Oh no, we don't want to go that way.  I don't think we should be heading towards the Blackwind Facility.  I think we're done with that."

"So what then?"

"I was thinking we should head south, ultimately.  I'd like to get back to Federation territory somehow."

"That makes sense, but I don't know how the refugees will react to that either.  None of them have even heard of the Federation before.  Most are still American loyalists, you know."

Bruin Hilda nodded.  Some people might have an issue with it, but where they could settle down was something she still needed to think through.  She knew Federation territory while far was at least generally hospitable.  This region up north seemed like it would be filled to the brim with perpetual hazards.  But convincing the refugees to go so far south might not be easy.  She'd have to think that one over.

She decided to continue north and after another score of miles they came it to a completely desolate town.  They passed by as there was literally not a house or building standing higher than three feet above the ground. They drove on and after a few miles came to a large weather beaten metal highway sign that had been folded down the middle by some violent event some time ago.  The paint was worn away but the word "Junction" could still be read. Bruin Hilda checked the location on the map. 

The town of Junction. From their position they observed a number of intact buildings scattered around to the east at some distance.  Some of them were not completely ruined and it seemed like there might be a few working farmsteads between the road and the river.  Not much was growing there, though. They could see trees and some of the land had plowed rows, but there was no sign of crops, or livestock, dogs, or people.  Most likely a failed community that had been abandoned.

They continued north until the came to a mostly dried out reservoir.  At the bottom there was a long shallow pool of greenish water. As it had rained recently, the water appeared clear enough to drink, but it would be hard to tell for sure without proper testing.  Poisons abounded in the post-Ultra-War world.  No one would dare drink from a water source without testing it first.

"Why don't we check to see if the water is fresh?" offered Kerrington.  With that they took a trek down to the water's edge and used a testing kit.  The water was clean enough for human consumption.  That was good news as there was plenty enough for the refugees and this would be a welcome sight for them all after the long trek this far north. They could camp along the rim of the reservoir, and maybe hole up here for a few days.  

They to continued north to Maryville.  There were massive craters covering the entire area of what used to be a town.  Some massive battle had occurred in that area and all that remained was rock and dust.  There were no buildings whatsoever.  Only craters of significant size, and foul pools of black water.

"Should we head back, Captain?" asked Kerrington, noticing that it was getting on towards the end of the day.  At that point it was a long way back.  The Captain agreed and they began the drive south. When they returned to Junction the Captain decided to have Kerrington turn east down route 62 to see how that road looked.  According to the map it should wind around to the south if the road was clear.  However, once they went east for two miles the road became broken and parts of it looked impassible by the jeep.  They could off-road it, but it appeared a bit too perilous.  She was curious whether or not the road's condition improved further on, but there wasn't a good way to tell from where they were as the hills blocked their view.  So they turned around and made their way back to 89.  Along the way Bruin Hilda noticed some movement in the doorway of one of the dilapidated farmsteads.  It was a young boy, maybe ten years old or so. When he detected that he'd been noticed he took off and darted into the shadows of the barn, and then reappeared around the back running along a dirt path towards an outcropping of rocks and trees.  Bruin Hilda was in no mood to go on a wild goose chase after the boy, and so they continued to 89 and then turned south.  Whoever that kid was, he'd have to take care of himself.

"Well, I guess there are some locals around.  I think we better tell the Lieutenants to keep an eye out when we come up this way," said Bruin Hilda said thoughtfully. What the disposition of the people up here might be was yet another unknown.  And possibly an unwelcome reception might await them.

From there they drove back to the campsite.  By the time they got back, it was getting dark.  Bruin Hilda called the Lieutenants together and they discussed the Hell Hole, and the other findings northward.  The Lieutenants listened attentively. 

"The original team that went north had taken Route 20," said one of Lieutenants.  "Why don't we take that route, and try to make our way to Beaver?  Wasn't it relatively safe on this side of Garrison?"

Bruin Hilda listened and nodded affirmatively.  "It's under consideration," she said.

"My goal is to lead the caravan back to civilization," she added. "And to my mind that means Federation territory, down south.  I'm looking at Arizona."

"Well, that isn't a bad idea," said Kerrington, "but again, we have eight hundred people, not all of whom are likely to want join up with the Federation.  There are still plenty of American Loyalists among them."

The other Lieutenants agreed with this point, and everyone said that it ought to be thought about carefully before anything is said to the refugees.  In the end, they'd have to discuss it all with refugees to gain consensus, and which route to take would be the next challenge facing Captain Bruin Hilda.

On the bright side, in the morning when they woke up they found several mounds of fresh snakes and lizards.  Wilard had been true to his word that time.  The refugees cooked up a lot of snake and lizard stew that morning, and everyone was feeling like the trek ahead might not be so bad.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the town of Panguitch, Captain Sam had been brought to Garfield Hospital and was recuperating after surgery.  He was speaking with Major Sekston, who had re-assumed command of the town's militia. She filled him in on the details of the current situation.  It turned out that the Lizardman Army had been shaken when the AGV had blasted the three tanks from the mountain side, but it wasn't until it blazed a hole through the crimson lightning storm that the Lizardmen actually panicked, broke and fled south back in the direction Saint George.  Everything afterwards had gone well for the Western Militia and US Army forces.  They had managed to deal a serious blow the Manticorian Army, and the troops were in a celebratory mood.  However, Sekston made sure that they didn't rest on their laurels for long.  There was a lot of hard work to be done.  They re-entrenched the town, and dug in special fortifications now that they had some idea of what the Lizardmen forces were capable of.  Every available soldier was busy on the trenches, operating machinery, restocking ammo dumps, and repairing whatever could be repaired. The airport was also being fortified as well, and a great deal of effort was being put into repairing the Rhino before the next engagement. The one thing the Major was sure of was that had not seen the last of the Manticorians.

As this all was going on, Doctor Rogers, who had returned to Garfield Hospital with the Mechs, got busy reuniting with Penelope and making plans for the future.  The old salt, "Guns" Gunnison, pitched in to help with the re-entrenchment wherever it was needed, while Fred spent his time working on the AGV.  What no one except Fred knew was that the AGV had been infected by an unclassified Artificial Intelligence.  One that had decisively turned the tide of the battle in favor of the US forces, but one that he was also nevertheless extremely wary of.  This was not a mere Class-C AI as he had original thought when they discovered it at Mech Base 12 all those weeks ago.  Oh no.  This was by far the smartest, and most mysterious AI he had ever encountered.  And Fred, being a Cybernaut, had encountered his fair share.  No, this was definitely something different.

* * *

Meanwhile, far under the earth in an enormous cavern a hundred miles or so to the north, Pita and Vilar braced themselves against the fierce sandstorm that had kicked up around them.  It was pitch black, and they could only see by the dim illumination of their Lemurian helmets' Night Vision.  They had been moving slowly along a narrow stone path through a forest of giant arrowhead-shaped stones jutting upward from ground like enormous teeth.  Even with the Night Vision they could barely see ten feet ahead.  At the moment they had taken refuge in a small alcove that had been worn out of the side of one of the great arrowheads.  The stones seemed almost evenly spaced at about ten feet, were made of some type of obsidian, were roughly eighteen feet tall, and their edges were razor sharp.  They looked like they had been deliberately chipped into shape, and were likely, thought Pita, the handywork of some ancient race of stone giants.  Such a formation could scarcely have been entirely natural.

As they hadn't any idea where they ought to go, they pushed further into the alcove, and there found a small enclosure that served as a temporary refuge from the storm, in which they had a chance to rest.  Pita took a look at Vilar's shoulder. It was still bleeding, and his bandages were soaked with blood.  The bat's vicious bite had done more damage than Pita thought.  Vilar had lost a good deal of blood.  His eyes were sunken, and he was parched.  Pita gave him some water from his canteen.  Vilar nodded in thanks, but was unable to muster the strength to talk. Pita recalled the class he had taken at Federation Academy on Medical Healing.  He took out his medical kit and gave his attention to the wound.  It was jagged and blood flowed freely out of it.  He poured a packet of pain dampening medication on the wound, and then got busy with needle and thread.  In a few minutes the wound was sutured up reasonably well.  He gave Vilar more water and waited.  Within a few minutes the young scout seemed to be doing a bit better.  After a while Vilar sat up and wrapped his cloak around himself more securely.

They had no desire to head back out into the sandstorm. Pita had one card up his sleeve that he hoped he could play to some good effect.  He had tried it once before, but at the time it had failed to do anything noticeably useful.  But he thought he ought to try it again now, given that under the circumstances their progress through the sandstorm was incredibly slow, and fraught with the risk that they would get buffeted by the wind and hurled onto one of the sharp edges of the arrowhead stones.  And that, he was certain, would be disastrous. He lowered his head, got down on one knee, and began to focus his mind, and all his mental energy into a single point of power.  And the thing that he wished to will into being was known as Alter Weather.  If successful, and it was a very difficult thing to do, the sandstorm would abate, and they could make progress far more easily.

Unfortunately, the weather proved to be of incredible strength, and once he had invoked the power he realized that the sandstorm was supernatural in nature.  There was no way he could avert it, or even temper it at all.  And so he was pushed backwards, and he collapsed against a wall from the effort.  Sweat poured down his forehead and his hands trembled.  No, this sandstorm was here to stay until it decided of its own accord to abate or wander elsewhere.  Perhaps it was their own invasion of these secret lands that had invoked it begin with, he thought.  He had an impression of the sandstorm being a kind of guardian spirit.  He rested his back against the stone and gazed at Vilar without expression.  

Pita went to the mouth of the alcove and turned on his Ray Gloves, pushing the lumens up to the maximum of 2600 and pointed them into the dark sand-shrouded storm.  This improved his ability to see, but at the risk that they might also be seen.  Pita deemed it a risk worth taking.  

They decided to push on.  Once outside they found that the sandstorm had increased in intensity.  They crawled forward against the wind on their hands and knees in order to avoid being blown onto the edges of the arrowhead stones.  They made some distance, moving between the stones when up ahead they discovered an area that was devoid of arrowheads for some distance.  They struggled against the wind to make their way forward when they came upon a single giant arrowhead stone in what Pita took to be the center of an open space, maybe a sixty feet in diameter.  They made their way to it, and braced themselves against its smooth cold sides, hoping to gain a respite against the wind.  When they touched it, Vilar and Pita both noticed a shimmering blue light flickered within the stone. They looked more carefully and Pita lowered the lumens of his gloves. Pita thought it must be a reflection but indeed. the stone was illuminated with a fiery blue flame that undulated within the stone itself.  They crawled along the side of the arrowhead and discovered a new alcove.  They went inside and found a narrow tunnel that led into a more spacious cave than they expected.

Vilar stumbled and slid against the inner wall of the cave.  Blood from his bandages smeared against the stone wall, and where it did the stone briefly sparkled with blue fire, covering the blood and evaporating it.  It only lasted for a few seconds.  He pushed away and sat himself against the opposite wall, frightened by the idea that the flame had devoured his blood.  It was still glowing internally with a wavering misty light.  He pointed to it.

"Do you see that?" asked Vilar.

Pita looked at the wall, and saw that it was pulsating with a distant multi-hued flame.  He took out his rifle and put it across his knees, and then took out his Lewiston Beam Pistol.  Vilar put his hand on Pita's shoulder.  

"Those won't do us any good in here, I think," he said as he pointed to the flickering flames within the wall.  As they looked they saw the flames differentiate into patches of light and dark, and shapes began to emerge from the shadows.  In a few moments they saw the shapes transform into a scene.  Vilar gasped.  The scene became ever more vivid as they watched.

They saw a vast cavern in the murky blue fires.  A being stood alone in the center.  It was walking.  It was a lion. It unfurled a set of eagle wings.  It looked arrogant and bold, and it smiled with radiance and confidence, its golden mane shining with light.  It walked with its head held high towards an enormous cave entrance that was rimmed by gigantic carved stones, the capstone of which held a symbol of warning, but the observers knew not what it was except that within the cave's infinite blackness there lay something that ought never to be disturbed.  Something about that symbol caused Pita and Vilar to shudder and they both began to tremble.  The infinite blackness seemed to swell and pulsate invisibly as the lion approached the entrance heedless of the warning or the danger.

The vision continued.  The lion walked down the center of a river that ran into the cave and then vanished as it rushed over the edge of a roaring waterfall down into the darkness below.  The lion, its golden mane suffused with a golden light, its great blue eyes sparkling with fierce fascination, spread his winds wide.  He came to the waterfalls' edge and lofting himself up soared swiftly through the archway and suddenly plummeted downward with his great paws outstretched. On his great eagle wings he sailed downward into the darkness, forming long graceful spirals in the air until he came to the base of the cavern where the waterfalls crashed onto the black rocks below with a deafening roar.  There was a high tunnel that the river flowed through from there, and the lion padded along the shore next to the rushing waters.  The tunnel walls were resplendent with gold, and diamonds, and lapis lazuli, and veins of countless nameless gemstones. Although it was pitch black, the observers could nevertheless see the lion and his surroundings in the flickering blue fires.  The waters became lazy and wandered into a vast cavern so dark that its dimensions were unfathomable. 

In the cavern the lion walked for some distance.  The air was utterly still and silent.  He came upon a great chain emerging from the ground.  The chain's links were the size of his head.  He stopped and looked up and his gaze followed the chain links as they vanished upward into the darkness.  He continued walking and there was another chain that also vanished upward into the darkness.  He spread his wings and flew up following the links as high as he could, and finally landed precariously on a link, the size of which was greater than his entire body.  He overlooked the vast domain of infinite darkness into which the chains vanished above and below.  He looked to his right and saw an enormous head next to him, the eyes half shut, the mouth open slightly, the nostrils wide.  Although he could only see the head, the lion perceived that the body of the Being was held up by the chains.  The Being was singing a song but the words were so incomprehensible that they sounded like the wind, or the roaring of waves, or the sound of the absolute silence within the outermost reaches of deep space.  Enigmatic, and mind warping were those sounds.  The words were far beyond ancient. They were words from beyond all known time and space, beyond all possible comprehension, beyond reality. 

As the Being sang, one of the links of the chain was being pulled by the lion.  He pulled and pulled and pulled with his paws until the link slid out from the others and the chain began to unravel from one limb of the great Being. Its arm came loose.  The lion flew down with the chain for miles and miles until it came to land on the rocky plain beyond the Being's reach.  He turned to look at the Being towering in the darkness.  It was free with one arm, and it looked all akimbo against the blackness of the infinite night, its eyes filled with a terrible pitch black brooding from which there was no possible defense.  It was so terrible it seemed as if all eternity must fall into it eventually.  And all of a sudden the lion was shaken to the core of his being, and filled with terror.  And he ran pell-mell at full speed heedless into the darkness, clutching the chain.. or was the chain clutching him?  He glanced behind him as he ran, his mouth flecked with foam, his eyes wide and rolling.  All around the Being that had one arm freed there was a dark space that had begun to twist into fragments like lightning moving in slow motion, tearing the fabric of reality into crystalline shards, dazzling in its dark magnificent beauty. The lion felt the space around his feet begin to twist in a way that was beyond comprehension.  It was not that the ground had moved, or folded, or fell away, but rather that the fabric of reality itself was being pulled and crushed and shredded all around him.  The reality in which his own being had any meaning was being shorn away like so many pieces of cloth, and burning away in some vast invisible fire.  He ran and flew and tumbled and clawed the air and gasped and frothed at the mouth until he could not see, tears streaming like molten diamonds from his eyes, his voice a cacophony of terrors utterly unimaginable.  And all the time the chain, had grown smaller and tighter and wrapped itself around him and was crushing him so that he could not breathe. Up and up he flew, following the waterfall until he flew out from the horrifying cave into the first cavern, holding the chain in his jaws, and the chain holding him around his neck.

The lion landed on the sands next to the river and slumped to the ground and lay there for a long time. Ages seemed to pass before he stirred again.  His visage had become black as coal, and his eagle's wings had transformed into bat's wings. Over his head arched, instead of his tail, a scorpion's sting. His eyes became brands of scarlet fire. And in them was a madness that could never be quenched. And he began to prowl, his eyes filled with terror and insanity and an everlasting hatred without hope or reason.  The lion's voice echoed throughout the cavern like a terrible whispering wind.  "What have I done?  What have I done?  What have I done?" 

And with that the smokey blue fire within the walls of the stone faded, and the stone slowly grew dark and cool, and the wind outside howled, and Pita and Vilar were stunned and frightened by what they had seen, and their bodies were covered in sweat, and they were trembling uncontrollably for a long while.

Pita thought about the chain that Captain Samwise had taken from the Iron Talon Monk before he shot him through the forehead with his Lewston Beam Pistol.  It was this chain that the black manticore, known as the "Shadow King", had been seeking when it had stalked them to Page, Arizona.  And he remembered its terrible relentlessness, and its merciless gaze.  And Pita reflected on these things and wondered.  

"That was terrifying," stammered Vilar weakly after some time.

"I've come across such a beast, and a chain like that, in my travels," said Pita quietly. "And both were terrifying, although I myself wasn't scared because I'm, um, me, you know.  But that's besides the point," he concluded as he shook the terror off and came back to himself.

He looked at Vilar.  The poor Lemurian Scout looked terrible. The vision had really shaken the lad up.  Pita realized that if he didn't act soon Vilar would likely succumb to a form of despair that might cause him to relapse, and make it impossible for him to carry on.  He decided another bout of healing was going to be necessary if they were both to get out of that dreadful place alive.  And so he chose another healing method from his bag of tricks.  This one was known as Mesmeric Healing, and it required a great deal of concentration as it had a spiritual component that was used to heal psychic and emotional harms. He focused his mind on the lad's heart and began to hum inwardly a special tune that only a few adepts from the Mentarian Order knew.  And lo, after a few minutes Vilar stopped trembling, and after a few more minutes he looked much more like himself. In fact so much so that the lad stood up.  He said he felt he could walk.  Pita was greatly pleased to hear this and so they prepared to depart together. 

"I hate to tell you," shouted Vilar over the wind as they came to mouth of the alcove, "but I have no idea where we're going!"

"But you're my guide!" shouted Pita in reply.

"I know!" shouted Vilar, "but we wandered into an area that I have never traversed before!  In fact, I don't think any surface human has ever been here before in the history of the world!"

"Well, of course, I would be the first, naturally!" shouted Pita with a toothy grin.

"Well, we're on our own!" shouted Vilar as he prepared to step forward into the sandstorm.

Then Pita heard a lovely voice in his head.

"Pita?  It's Linda!"

"My love!" exclaimed Pita loudly in his mind.

"Are you ok? Where are you?" she asked.

"I'm in some sort of mystic cavern.  My guide and I are as lost as we can be.  But we're ok, I think."

"I'm not far from you. I just need to know how to get where you are," she said. 

"How are you not far?  Aren't you at the palace?"

"I was, but then... well, after you left, I snuck away," she admitted sheepishly.

"By yourself?" he asked.

"I did. I snuck away by myself.  I think the Queen is likely to be quite upset about it, but I couldn't bear to leave you to head off into danger without me to back you up.  After all, we're both Federation Command Officers and we're on the same team.  How can I just sit in the Palace waiting around sipping Margaritas while you're risking your life?"

Pita considered putting up his Mind Shield.  He wondered if it was really her.  She was too smart to just head off into such danger as this on her own.  But then he considered how brave she had been on so many occasions. And after all, she was one of Lieutenant Brisbane's twin daughters. Acts of extraordinary courage did seem to run in the family. 

"Well, I'm at the bottom of a vast cavern," he began.

"I know that," she cut in.  "I followed you up to the point where the cavern opens onto a narrow ledge.  There's a huge spider web made of crystalline threads wavering along the cliff face.  You recognize where I mean?"

"Whatever you do, don't speak out loud," he advised.  "No matter what, don't make a sound."

"I'm with somebody," she said.

"Really!?  Who?" he asked, utterly surprised.

"The Queen's handmaiden, Talara," she replied.

Pita turned to Vilar and shouted over the wind, "Have you ever heard of a Queen's handmaiden going by the name of Talara?"

"What? Why?" shouted Vilar.

"She and my future bride happen to be in the cavern where we entered beneath the crystal spider web, and --"

"Talara?!!" shouted Vilar as he bolted upright.  "Talara's here?!  Talara is my fiancĂ©e!"

"Well, she and Linda are up on the ledge path that we came from," said Pita, now confident that it really must be Linda.

"But why would she be here?" shouted Vilar. "Talara shouldn't be here!  This place is far to dangerous!  The Queen wouldn't send her here!   Why would she be here?!" 

"Well, I have my suspicions," said Pita.  

"The Queen sent Talara to come find me after I snuck away," said Linda into Pita's mind.  "Talara in fact was here before me.  She had been sent to keep an eye on you two, but when things got too dangerous the Queen ordered her to return.  However, when she discovered that I had gone missing, she sent Talara after me.  And now we're together."

"Ask Talara if she knows anything about the stairs that descend from the far end of the ledge and if she knows of the plain of giant Arrowhead stones," suggested Pita.

"Well, we will likely need to ask the priest about that," said Linda.  

"The priest?" exclaimed Pita bewildered. "You have a priest with you, too?" asked Pita, now wondering how large a party had come down to find them. 

"Yes, but it's just the three of us. The priest came to protect Talara on her way here, and Talara came to protect me on behalf of the Queen," she said.

"And who is protecting the priest?" asked Pita, growing increasingly amused.

"I am," she said.

"So it's a circle of protection, is it?" he quipped smiling broadly.  

"Something like that," she said.  "Anyway, my ambition now is to get to where you are."

Amorathane
"Well, you'll need to make your way along the ledge, completely silently," instructed Pita, "and absolutely avoid entering the cave on your right no matter what happens.  After that you'll come to a plaza, but don't step out onto it.  Just before the plaza begins, if you look carefully down and to your left you'll see an ancient flight of stairs along the plaza's left wall,  It's very difficult to see from above, so keep your eyes open.  Take that stair down the two flights until you get to the bottom.  There you'll find a stone path that winds its way through enormous stone arrowheads.  Do not touch the edges of the stones.  They're incredibly sharp!  At the bottom you'll find yourselves in a sandstorm. You better set your Lemurian helmet and cloak to their most powerful protective settings or the sand will chew you to shreds.  Keep to the path as it winds through the stones and eventually you'll come to an open area within a circle of arrowhead stones.  At the center is an even larger arrowhead than the rest.  Vilar and I are there.  Oh yes, and beware - the cavern has bats!  And they bite!  And heaven knows what else may be lurking down here! Be careful, my love!"

"We will be there as soon as possible.  Don't go anywhere," said Linda.  And with that she, Talara and the priest, one Lucius Amorathane, made their way along the ledge towards their destination.  It took some time, but in due course they braved the terrors of the cavern, and the fierceness of the sandstorm, and finally arrived at the cave where Pita and Vilar were resting.  They entered the little alcove and made their way down the short narrow passageway until they entered the inner cave.  Pita and Vilar knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only were these two who they claimed to be, but they were also two of the most beautiful women ever to live in this world.  And so they sat down, sheltered from the stand storm, and made formal introductions.


And that is where we left things that evening.