Sunday, December 24, 2023

WoAF - Session 56 - Video Recap

This video was created almost entirely by a Generative AI from a company named Visla.  I pointed it to Session 56 on my blog, and it created the summary, and the voice over, and I was able to edit it to include the correct images from the blog, and add slightly smoother transitions in only a few minutes.  This shows the direction that Generative AI is heading, and how quickly it is getting there.  I am quite impressed. Even though the video is not really quite as thrilling as I had hoped, I imagine it will be truly incredible in a year or two from now.  In the meantime, please enjoy the recap of Session 56!  

Friday, December 08, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 56

Jacob Grant
Jacob pushed himself up against the wall, his purple bubble suit clinging tightly to his body, its shimmering fabric barely concealing the wounds he had sustained in the fierce firefight. Within a few moments Vallnam, ever the diligent comrade, knelt beside Ling, her skilled hands tending to Jacob's injuries with a mix of expertise and urgency.  She noted to herself that the purple bubbles on the suit had clustered over the injury, extended tiny purple veins into the wounds, and appeared to be healing them.  She was surprised, and guessed that the suits, whatever they were, had far more abilities than they had initially guessed.  She puzzled briefly over where they had obtained the mysterious gifts, but her memory on this subject was peculiarly blank.  It made her wonder for a moment, but she quickly put aside such thoughts as she focused on Jacob. 

Meanwhile, Major Hanna Schiller, the indomitable space-pilot of the Moon-Nazi UFO Squadron, stood tall, her blazing eyes sweeping across the chaotic aftermath of the battle. She took stock of her remaining soldiers, their resolve undeterred, and assessed the state of their equipment amidst the crackling sparks and smoldering debris that filled the air. The once-imposing Robot Control Center of General Hertling now lay in smoldering ruins, a testament to the ferocity with which it had been struck.

Yet, amidst the carnage and destruction, a seething anger burned within Hanna. The audacity of General Hertling and Admiral Ludendorf, the Highest and most respected Command Officers of Eisenhelm, conspiring with her devilish rival, the renowned space-pilot Mellita Reich!  How dare they attempt to flee the Eisenhelm in its time of greatest peril!  And no less, in the enigmatic spacecraft she had spent months clandestinely mastering! Such brazen treason ignited a primal fury within her, causing her emotions to boil over with a vengeful and deadly wrath. How dare the leaders she had trusted and fought alongside of, and believed in, turn their backs on their sworn duty?!  The villainy! This thought alone was enough to make her spit blood in rage. No, those three traitors deserved a merciless and painful death. Their vile names would be forever cursed by Eisenhelm's survivors, and their treason recorded on the metallic history-plates for all time!

Hanna's steely gaze alighted briefly on Jacob, who was struggling at the moment with a hacking cough. She regretted that he had briefly dispelled her experience-hardened mistrust of men, stirring a flicker of genuine interest in him.  After all, he had been the first man who seemed to be a real man that she'd ever met, given that Eisenhelm was filled to the brim with power-lusting apes, venomous snakes, or worthless sycophants.  However, that fleeting sentiment, which had been snuffed out by the arrival of his comrade-in-arms, Ling Brisbane, was swiftly replaced with a bitter disdain. With a venomous glare, she redirected her attention towards Ling, the enigmatic Moon Princess of the Modroni, an alien race completely erased from everyone's collective memory, their existence completely forgotten by our heroes.

The control room trembled as another moon quake rumbled from beneath Eisenhelm.  Hanna's violent reverie was abruptly interrupted. Her eyes locked onto Ling, her mind fixated on a singular objective—the location of the coveted Master Key, the one device that held the power to unlock any door within Eisenhelm's hidden depths. Hanna yearned for its possession, for with it she could infiltrate any corner of the vast complex, and from the right position she could gain complete mastery over the entire base. Recalling Jacob's revelation that there were UFOs being repaired in the sealed-off Hangar B, situated 1,200 feet to the west of their current position, a glimmer of opportunity sparked within her thoughts. Despite the destruction caused by the explosion triggered by her Commandos to seal off the outer tunnel, there remained an enigmatic white tunnel system that connected the Robot Control Center to the clandestine Hangar—the dwelling place of the mysterious Shadow Hawk, an interstellar vessel of unknown origin.  It was Shadow Hawk that was the key to her destiny, just as control of Eisenhelm must be hers.  With both she could command the moon, the Earth, and the stars!  She lusted for it all.

Jacob looked at her with questioning eyebrows, his puppy-dog eyes attempting to rekindle that feeling which was lost amid the warfare.  No dice. Hanna's brief glace had no discernable emotion.  Her eyes appeared as icy blue wells, as fathomless and remote as her ambitions.  He tried to convey to her that he loved her deeply, and wished only to embrace her.  The hacking cough, however, was not helping matters.  Yet, he figured if he could persuade her of the sincerity of his love, then things might go well enough for them to get to the UFOs and flee the moon before Eisenhelm quaked itself into a final oblivion.  But the look in her eyes said it all.  In her insatiable lust for power Hanna would step on the him like a bug at her first opportunity.  Hanna's attention at that moment shifted back to her current nemesis, Ling, and the connection between her and Jacob was severed without hesitation.  Hanna no longer had the slightest interest in Jacob, whatsoever.  He coughed up a lung, and slumped miserably as Ling fretted over his bandages.

The treacherous Major considered taking the elevator down the one flight to the white tunnel, her Germanic mind seeking her next plan of action with precision and cold determination.  She turned to Vallnam.

"Jacob promised me verking UFO's in zee Hanger B. Is zis Correct?" she interrogated.

Valnam turned on his helmet radio and tuned to the technician team's frequency. "Rudolf, come in Rudolf."

"Ja?  Rudolf here, mine Leader!" came the static-laden reply.  

"How go the repairs?  Are any of the UFOs space worthy?" he asked, his German stilted by his recent encounter with the Elkron Tarot.  The words came slowly.  His pronunciation probably sounded far too American.

There was pause.

"One is complete.  Vee are ninety-five percent finished with zee other one," said Rudolf.  "No more can be repaired, I regret to say."

"How long for the second ship?"

"Ten minutes," replied Rudolf.

Hanna barked into her radio, "Doctor Hoffman, are you there?"

"Ja, Major Schiller, I am in zee Pillbox.  Zee Obliterator has frozen in place, and is not moving at all.  Vee are safe!"

"Good. Can you get the Doom Spheres from the tunnel up into the pillbox?"

"Ja, Major, we constructed them with zee ability to hover on micro-jets. They are down at zee end of zee tunnel now.  I will bring them up.  It should only take a few minutes."

Hanna looked around the destroyed control center. Smoke filled the air, and sparks were still flying from computer panels in every direction.  She scanned the various exits.  There were still several that she was unsure of.  She sent two of the Commandos to the doorway on the northwest wall to investigate.  It turned out there was a kitchen and pantry there, they reported.  She ordered them to grab provisions, and turned her attention elsewhere. 

Valnam strolled over the large red button on one of the purple computer panels that he had seen earlier but bypassed in all the action.  It was covered by a thin glass dome.  He looked at it.  Underneath the button were words written in German.  The power of understanding languages had been disrupted.  He couldn't understand the meaning.

"Hanna," said Valnam, "would you have any idea what this button is for?"

She walked over and gave it a glance. "It says 'In case of emergency'," she replied, taking note that the man was apparently unable to read German.  She said nothing.  Revenge would come.  But not yet.  She had too few men with her, and the weapons these three interlopers carried were quite capable of mowing her few remaining Commandos down in a flash.  No, she'd bide her time and pretend she noticed nothing unusual at all.

"Well, this seems like as much of an emergency as anything that could happen," answered Valnam, stumbling over his words.  "Why don't you go ahead?"

"You are an idiot," she answered sharply.  "It is probably a self-destruct. Do not touch it.  Do not even get close to it," she barked.

"Why would you want to self-destruct in case of emergency?  That doesn't make any sense," he replied.

She looked at him like one might glare at a moronic child.  "Do I need to remind you of the Obliterator Robot out in the tunnel?  That is how we deal with emergencies in Eisenmelm!  Do you understand?"

"What if it gives you control over something like that, though?" answered Valnam, unphased by her aggressive demeanor.

"This is General Hertling's Headquarters.  He is the Commander of Robot Force. I don't know anything about Robots, how they operate, what their protocols are, or what capabilities they have.  If the emergency button summons robots, I wouldn't have any idea how to control them.  Leave the button alone!" she said with a tone of finality.

"Fair enough," said Valnam, finding her argument reasonable enough. With that he went back to Jacob and took a look.  He wasn't doing so well, and he was coughing quite badly.  While it was true that the purple bubble suit was healing him, it was doing so all too slowly.  As a Warlock Vallnam had studied medical healing in the past, and by now he was quite competent.  He pulled out his medi-kit and bent down.  He opened a foil packet that contained a white ointment and spread it on Jacob's wounds.  It possessed a healing property that had been discovered during the Ultra-War, and it was quite effective.  Jacob looked up.  His breathing calmed, the pain lessened considerably, and even the cough dissipated. 

At that moment they heard a loud grinding noise, and a strange humming sound coming from the southwest doorway.  It came from the large room which they'd cleared out with a hand grenade during the battle.  One of Hanna's Commandos peered around the lintel into the room, and reported over the radio.

"Major Schiller," he said curtly, "there is something moving on the far side of zee room."

She ordered her men to gather together and face the open doorway.  Vallnam was still with Jacob and Ling, between the doorway and the now sealed Inner Sanctum.  Hanna walked cautiously forward, and peered into the darkness of the barracks.  There were several doorways leading out of the room, which itself was quite large.  On the far side there was an entrance into a dark corridor, covered by thin clear plastic strips, like the kind you might find in a warehouse, or medical facility.

Vallnam handed Hanna his XL-2600 Torchlight.  "Do not turn the dial more than halfway, and don't look down the barrel," he advised.

She took the device and marveled at its design.  It was very different than any flashlight of Eisenhelm, which were characteristically heavy, bulky, dark green and had a simple on / off switch.  This was sleek, with burnished chrome, an oval shaped glass lens, and elegant dial that set its power level.  This, she thought, could not have been made by the engineers of Eisnhelm!  Impossible! But then again, neither could the white corridor tunnels, nor Shadow Hawk.  

She tried to connect the dots.  Jacob, Ling and Vallnam, with their unique purple bubble suits, and strangely sleek equipment must be a part of the same organization that created the white tunnels and Shadow Hawk, she speculated.  Perhaps, they were a Japanese contingent that secretly joined the Nazi mission to the moon in 1943, and had remained a hidden force side-by-side with Eisenhelm all this time?  Yet, Vallnam and Jacob were obviously not Japanese. Jacob had led her to believe they were members of an elite SS unit of Eisenhelm.  One she had never heard of, but had access to knowledge and equipment she had never been made aware of. She had originally accepted this at face value because she had no other plausible explanation for their strange look, or presence on the base, and given the civil war suddenly breaking out, it would be logical for such a secret unit to show up during such an emergency. But now it was clear that Vallnam didn't really understand German.  Things stopped making sense, and her mind began to reel, and so she put the question aside.  Something was making noise in the darkened bunker and she wasn't taking any chances.  She turned the dial to thirty-percent and shined a tight beam into the room.  It was a bright blue beam that illuminated a circle of light about 3 feet wide very brightly.

She moved the beam around the room, illuminating everything in one quick sweep. Beyond the plastic strips she saw a hulking figure standing perfectly still.

"Halt!  Identify yourself," barked Hanna.

 A large, bulky black robot stepped through the plastic sheets and walked three feet into the room.

"I - AM - GORTAURUS," it said.


It halted.  "I - AM - GORTAURUS."

"Alright, Gortaurus," replied Hanna.  "Vhat vas your last command?"

"GUARD - THE - CORRIDOR," it replied in its metallic staccato voice.  "NONE - SHALL - PASS."

She looked it over.  It did not appear to be brandishing weapons, but the entire construct gave the impression it was a short, barrel-shaped humanoid tank.  She'd never seen anything like it.  One of Hertling's secret projects, no doubt!

"Ok, Gortaurus, you may resume guarding zee corridor," said Hanna, not wishing to open a new can of worms.  Her goal was to get the Doom Spheres, and usher her people towards Shadow Hawk, and nothing more.  

"NONE - SHALL - PASS," it repeated.

"Vee have no plan to pass this way," she said as she began backing out of the doorway.

"WHO - ARE - YOU?" inquired Gortaurus.

"I am Major Hanna Schiller of zee Ludendorf Space Force," she announced proudly.

"DO - YOU - HAVE - AUTHORIZATION - TO - ACCESS - SECTOR - C3-DZ-A1?" it demanded.

"I am not allowed in zee corridor, but vee are not going there," she replied.  It stood still.

Hanna stared at it for a few moments.  It didn't move.  

"Doctor Hoffman," she spoke quietly into her helmet mic. "vhat is zee status with my Doom Spheres?"

As she waited, she stepped back away from the door.  The Commando next to her glared at the robot.

"Vhat zee hell is that?" he asked nervously.

"I don't know, but I keep seeing more surprises zee more this day progresses," she replied dryly.

"Vhat ze hell is Hertlng up to?" he asked rhetorically, as she passed him, backing away into the main control room.

She was imagining Hertling with Mellita and that fat slob, Ludendorf, all smirking as they fastened themselves into their seats inside Shadow Hawk.  Smirking.  The three of them having a little laugh as Eisenhelm burned into molten slag as they flee Eisenhelm.  SMIRKING!  It was the SMIRKING that drove her crazy with hatred.

"I have not seen anything like this. It's almost like a miniature Obliterator... that talks!" she said, trying to clear her mind.

"I - AM - GORTAURUS!" announced the robot again.  "WHAT - IS - THE - STATUS?"

Unnerved, Hanna shouted back.  "Continue guarding the corridor."


She stared it it, unsure what to say.  It seemed to her that it was potentially dangerous, despite the fact she saw no obvious weapons.  But then, with something like this, who know what its weaponry might look like?  She hesitated.

"WHY - IS - THERE - SMOKE - IN - C3-DZ-A1?" it demanded.

"Because it's not very well ventilated," said Jacob as he shuffled over to the door to take a look.  Between the salve, and the bubble suit, he was no able to walk, slowly, without too much pain.  He took a glance around the doorframe.  "What the hell is that?"

"WHAT - IS - THE - STATUS?" demanded Gortaurus.

Hanna thought it seemed too intelligent for her liking, but she said nothing. 

"Status is: small fire. Under control," Hanna replied to the robot.  "Continue with your last command," she concluded.


"Yes," said Jacob, "the fire is contained."

"Confirmed.  The fire is contained," added Hanna.


"I repeat," barked Hanna, "continue with your last command."

On Gortaurus was a panel situated on his left breast-plate, on which a yellow light began to blink.

"Gortaurus, what was your last command?" asked Jacob, hoping to refocus its attention on the preferred behavior.  No such luck.
"GUARD - THE - CORRIDOR.  NONE - SHALL - PASS," stated Gortaurus.

"Hmm..." replied Jacob, momentarily at a loss as to what else to try.

"ROBOT - N - APPROACH," commanded Gortaurus.

The party glanced around nervously.


Out from behind Gortaurus, from within the dark corridor, emerged a dog-sized thing with a strangely configured white metallic skin. Where the light shone on it, it was bright and reflective, but dark black wherever shadows crossed its outer casing. It's outer surface was rough, and its edges indeterminant.  What type of metal it was composed of was a mystery, but its surface featured long curved lines and two small panels with blinking lights on them.  Overall, it seemed dog-shaped, though quite abstracted.  On the top of its body was a wedge shaped head that appeared to be covered with some kind of sensor array that blinked with tiny red lights.

"A mechanical hound," whispered Jacob.

Hanna backed further into the control room, pressed the button next to the double sliding doors, and they slid shut. She pressed the button twice, and as anyone in Eisenhelm would expect, there was a klack-kang sound as bolts slid into place, sealing the door shut.  She sighed with relief.

They heard a buzz, which began to grow louder.  The door began vibrating.  Hanna took out her Luger and shot the door's control panel.  It exploded into a shower of sparks, and would not be used again.

"Doctor Hoffman, vhere are my Doom Spheres?" she barked into her mic.

"It is a delicate matter to get them up into zee Pillbox, Major.  I am verking on it."

"I don't think vee have any more time," she responded.  She had only four Commandos out of nine who had survived the battle, one wounded, along with Dr. Hoffman, and her prisoner, and the three Doom Spheres, each of which took up the space of two people, being five feet each in circumference.  There was also Jacob, Vallnam and Ling.  She thought about the elevator that led down one story to the white tunnel system.  She recalled that the last time she went through that way the tunnel led directly to the secret Shadow Hawk nexus.  Up one level from there was the Shadow Hawk Hanger control room.  Down one level was the entrance to the hanger itself.  But the elevator could only hold three people at a time.  So to get everyone down would take five trips, and the elevator would take approximately twenty seconds per trip.  So if all went well, it would take approximately sixty seconds to vacate Hertling's smoldering Robot Command Center.  If all went well. Piece of cake.

"Doctor Hoffman," barked Hanna, "you and Otto take one of zee Doom Spheres down to zee tunnel below, and scout ahead."

"Vhat of zee other Doom Spheres, Major?" asked the Doctor, looking at her as if she had told him to abandon his children.

"Vee vill leave them behind, dumkoff!  Vee do not have zee time for them!" she shouted.

Doctor Hoffman looked crestfallen. At Hanna's command one of the Commandos ushered him to the elevator.  Hoffman fumbled with the control box, and ordered one of the Doom Spheres forward.  The deadly machines operated by remote control, and had no intelligence of their own. In fact, the idea of autonomous robots was an idea that the Moon-Nazi greatly feared.  Only a lunatic like Hertling would dare to manufacture such monstrosities.  Hoffman put the other two Doom Sphere's on stand by, and they settled into position and went into low power mode.  The Commando, whose name happened to be Otto "One Shot" Fischer, was the specialist marksman of the team.  He fumbled at the elevator door struggling fit two men inside with a Doom Sphere.  Neither Otto nor Karl wanted to climb on top of the deadly machine. They fumbled around a trying to adjust, but it was hopeless.  Either one of them would have to climb on top of it, or only one man and the Doom Sphere could go down.  As the elevator door closed, Doctor Hoffman could be seen unceremoniously perched on top of the black orb, his face frozen in an expression of anxiety.

Hanna, however, was no longer paying attention to them. The entire party had spun around and was staring at the doorway on the other side of which was Gortaurus and N.  The door had begun to rattle, and now a glowing red circle appeared on the center of the double-doors. 

"That's not good," stated Jacob.

"Vhat weapons do you three have?" asked Hanna nervously.

"Did I, um, get my XL-2600 back?" asked Vallnam.

Hanna turned to glare at him.  "No, I have not given it back to you," she replied as if he were an idiot.

"Can I have my Torch back, please?" asked Vallnam coolly.

"As soon as vee get out of this room," she replied, frustrated by his subtle insinuation that she was a common thief.

"I will hold you to that, Frauline," he replied with his usual calm reserve.

Meanwhile, the red circle grew in size, and the center glowed with an orange light.  Even across the room they could feel the heat coming off its surface. The center of the glowing circle turned white, and the metal began to melt.

"Fan out and take angles on the door," ordered Jacob.  Vallnam and Ling withdrew their weapons and took positions behind two of the smoking computer banks.

"That is a very good idea," said Hanna as she glanced toward the elevator.  The door was closed, her three Commandos stood next to it, machineguns at the ready. "Why don't you three go ahead and fan out."  She was not interested in having a firefight with a new and unfathomable Robot Force.  Let Jacob and his team take them on if they wished.  Her goal was to get herself and her people out of there, and over to Shadow Hawk so she could eviscerate Hertling, Ludendorf and the never-to-be-sufficiently-reviled Mellita!

The double-doors turned white hot and melted into a glowing viscous slag that spread out across the floor.  Everyone scrambled into a defensive position behind some smoldering piece of equipment or other, and trained their weapons on the breach.  When the hole was large enough, the metallic canine entered on indestructible treads, its burnished armor gleaming white, or jet black depending on how the light hit it.  It looked, as far as Jacob was concerned, small, but exceedingly formidable.  Robot N rolled into the room, sparks flying as its treads carried it over the red-hot slag.  Everyone trained their guns on it and paused, waiting to see what it would do.

And that is where we left things this game.

Friday, October 13, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 55

Captain Bruin Hilda crouched behind a rock, peering across the darkness towards the smokey red glow on the far side of the Sever River. She was cold and wet, like everyone else, and it didn't help her mood that the wind was howling wildly through the canyons, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. Her loyal Lieutenant, Kerrington, stood beside her, scanning behind them over the crowd of refugees as they huddled among the rocks.  He noted the flickers of light on the horizon that suggested the war at Panguitch was still raging and wondered how the humans were faring.  One thing was clear; as long as the war was ongoing it meant the Lizardmen of the Manticorian Army had not prevailed.  He took comfort in this thought. 

It was close to midnight. Gregorian chanting could be heard echoing across the waters.  Beyond the glowing pit known as Hell Hole, she thought she glimpsed a gigantic face emerge momentarily from the shadowy haze, but it vanished into the mist before she could get a bead on it. She told herself she had imagined it, and continued scanning. Surrounded by billowing smoke and noxious fumes, the Hell Hole was a wide crater, within which was a bubbling pool of magma that cast an undulating red glow and giant wavering shadows over the nearby cliffs. 

Four knights stood at cardinal points around the pit, each gripping an iron chain that crossed over the magma and attached to the corners of a bejeweled chest suspended above the lava pool. Occasionally, the magma would erupt, violently slamming into the chest, dragging the knights towards the fiery pit within a shower of flaming globules.

She took out her Federation binoculars and turned the Mode nob to the night-vision setting.  The scene became much more vivid in bright and dark green.  There was no trace of the monstrosity lurking in the shadows, but she didn't find that especially reassuring.  She watched for a minute or so and then swung around to scan over the crowd of refugees, huddled among the rocks, wet and exhausted from their flight across the river.  She zoomed in and made a careful sweep, but saw no sign of Wilard, the little mutant rat-druid person whom they'd picked up along the way.  She knew he was nearby, lurking with his rat horde in the vicinity, as he had left piles of lizards and frogs as food offerings to the refugees each morning since they left Panguitch.  She felt cautiously optimistic that he wouldn't actually cause any harm, but her Lieutenants were far less sanguine about his following the caravan.  "No good can come of it, Ma'am," Kerrington had said at the start.  But she didn't have the heart to chase him off, given that he was so eager to provide help and could provide ample amounts of foraged food.  Frog-snake-lizard stew wasn't a bad thing as far as she was concerned.

She considered logistics.  They had eight hundred refugees needing care.  Everyone was hungry, wet, cold and frightened by the terrifying events across the river.  It seemed that wild spirits had invaded the sky and were howling on the winds.  She glanced upward to look at the clouds, which at the moment were concealing the moon.  To the north she could see the rainbow bands of scintillating ionic radiation like a river flowing over the upper atmosphere.  It crackled audibly, and she could see flickers of red lightning along the edges of the band.  Always disturbing.  She looked away. 

"Lieutenant Kerrington," she said, "We need to help the refugees."

"I'm here, sir - ma'am!" he replied coming out of a daze.  "What do you need me to do?"

"We just lost two jeeps on the river crossing. We need to find out what supplies we need, and start some fires to get these people warmed up."

"I'm on it," said Kerrington, and he turned to head off through the darkness to the new encampment.  He found Tom Hanks, the accountant.  Tom had been very good about helping to maintain the supply chain.  He kept track of how much food Wilard brought, how much of it was conserved, and taken care of rationing, as well as requisitioning equipment and resources for the refugees.  He kept careful track of everything, and was an all around good man to have on hand.

"How are we fixed on supplies at the moment, Tom?" he asked.

"Sorry, sir," answered Tom with a shrug, "but when the crowd bolted across the river, they didn't think to carry supplies with them.  Pretty much everything is still on the other side of the river."

"Oh, yeah," replied the Lieutenant as he gazed tiredly over the dappling waters.  The Sever River was deceptively deep in areas.  He glanced over at the two jeeps laying sideways, nearly submerged in the middle of the swirling waters.  They'd started out from Panguitch with seven jeeps.  They were down to four.

"Well we lost some of our weapons and ammo, but we still have whatever was in the other jeeps," thought Kerrington out loud.

"The only food we have is what people had in their pockets when they ran," commented Tom.  

"And how many people exactly do we have with the caravan?" Kerrington asked.

"Eight hundred and thirteen," answered Tom, "Including that odd fellow, Wilard," he added.

"I see, yeah.  It has been a bit of a cattle run here," he commented wryly.

He thought about their forces.  There were four Lieutenants, and about twenty privates who had volunteered to leave Panguitch and help the refugee caravan make their way north.  Most of them probably would have preferred to stay there and fight, but the refugees needed support, and they were good folk who had a sense of duty.  He called the soldiers to him.

"Ok, gentlemen, we just left our supplies on the other side of the river.  We need volunteers to go across and bring back as much as possible," said Kerrington.  "I'm not giving orders.  I'm only looking for volunteers.  If you volunteer, please step forward."

Ten men stepped forward.  They all liked Kerrington, and he was considered something of a leader among them.

"All of the volunteers, go to the jeep and grab an extra clip of ammo each.  I want you all to come back alive.  You are heroes in my eyes," he said, to everyone's approval.  The soldiers wore expressions of determination as they went to the jeep.  They carried Springfield rifles and Brownings FN pistols, and grabbed clips for both.  Then, girding themselves for the unknown, they waded into the waters with their rifles over their heads.  Some of them were in water chest high.  The water was viciously cold, and the current strong.  A few slipped as the waters swirled menacingly around them.  One soldier got caught in the current and almost got carried down river, but he was helped to the shallows by another.  Eventually they all made it across.  Kerrington watched as they vanished into the darkness on the other side.  He trotted back over to where the Captain was positioned.  She was looking out across the waters with her binoculars at the proceedings around the Hell Hole from between the rocks of a small outcropping.  He kept a low profile as he made his way towards her in order to report.

"Okay," said Bruin Hilda when Kerrington arrived.  "I've been looking for brush and grasses that can be used to start a fire.  The whole area is covered in brambles and dried grass.  Get some men and start setting up campsites for the refugees."  It wasn't difficult to gather enough kindling and start fires.  The refugees crowded around them.  Soon there were dozens of fires dotting the rocky landscape.

She hefted her binoculars and took another look across the river.  The night-vision mode gave her a good view of the Hell Hole.  Again she thought she could make out the face of a giant in the smoke on the far side of the pit, but it was elusive and quickly vanished.  The knights were struggling with the chains that held the bejeweled chest above the center of the pool.  She estimated that it must weigh a great deal by the way the knights were struggling.  The lava was bubbling at this time, and plumes would rise up and heave the chest upward, dragging the knights with it.  With iron wills and grim-furrowed eyebrows they held that chain.  The jewels on the chest glimmered and sparkled in the fiery glow of the magma.  It was an impressive sight.

Bruin Hilda couldn't say that the lava had gotten stronger, but she felt it had.  In the winds she heard strange sounds of chanting, moaning, the cries of distant coyotes, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up on end.  When the sounds would waft over the crowd everyone would suddenly go quiet and there was a hush.  She didn't like it.  No one liked it.

"My priority is the people," she said to herself.  As she saw no immediate threat, she thought she would go walk among the refugees, try to calm nerves, and provide any first aid that might be needed.  But at that moment, as she looked through her binoculars at the knights performing their fascinatingly mysterious ceremony, an enormous belch of lava burst upward, dragging one of the knights so that his left foot stepped into the magma pool.  He skidded to a stop, and hurled himself backwards, never for a moment letting go of the chain.  His foot was on fire, and Bruin Hilda guessed that it must have been badly burned and exceedingly painful.  But he gripped the chain and struggled with it on one knee.

Having completed his tasks, Kerrington picked his way over the rocks and came back to where she was.

"Ma'am," said Kerrington, "I sent ten of the soldiers over the river to gather supplies, and the encampment has plenty of fires. No food to speak of, but the men all made it across and will come back with whatever they can soon."

"I want you to calm the people down, get food in their bellies, and let's hope we'll be able to hunker down here for the night."

Kerrington saluted and turned to go.

"Actually," she said, stopping him, "I saw on the other side of the river, one of the knights got dragged into the magma pool and injured his leg rather badly.  I'm thinking of going over there to see if I can provide some medical assistance."

"Oh, Sir, I mean Ma'am, are you sure that's a good idea?!  I mean to go alone?  Why don't I go with you?" asked the loyal Lieutenant.

"Um, yeah," said Bruin Hilda.  "I could use your backup. That's true. Just make sure you tell one of the other Lieutenants to feed the refugees and we'll get going."

Kerrington went to give the Lieutenants and soldiers the Captain's orders.   He looked across the river and hoped the men there would be smart enough to fire up the school bus they'd taken from Panguitch and bring that over, but he wasn't sure they'd want to risk it.  He'd have to leave it in their capable hands to decide.  There was a Lieutenant with them, so hopefully he would figure out the best plan.

He went back and met with the soldiers.  As it happened many of the refugees had been wounded either during the crossing or by the many cacti that dotted the landscape.  They had long pointy needles and quite a few people had suffered piercings, and some seemed to feel they had been poisoned by the barbs, though that seemed unlikely to Kerrington.  

"Ok, well, give them first aid, and see what you can do about feeding people," he told the soldiers.  "I need to go with the Captain back across the river.  I'll see what I can do about helping the men with foraging for supplies, since I feel I should have gone with them in the first place, but the Captain saw someone injured at the pit over there, and of course she wants to help him.  I'm going with her. Ration out what you can.  If anyone has extra food, if they're willing try to store a supply of food for later.  Try to keep everyone calm, and tell them we are trying to get them out of here as soon as possible."

"Kerrington," said one of the Lieutenants, "if you can get some medical supplies over there, we could use them.  The bus has the medical supplies in it."

"Right," replied Kerrington.  "We'll get the bus across the river, if we can manage it.  In the meantime, do what you can.  We'll be back soon."

And with that Kerrington met Bruin Hilda by the river bank.  She was standing in front of a patch of reeds and cattails, trying to find a good crossing point.  The river was roughly two hundred feet across at the closest spot.  It was flooded from a recent rain storm.  Depending on the spot, the water was pretty deep, in some places waist high, in some knee high.  The jeeps had slid from a sand bar into an underwater ditch and gotten sucked down by the fast swirling waters.  She watched the river carefully and noticed there were a several frothing lines that zigzag across to the other side.  She figured the frothing was caused by shallows, and those areas might be able to see a jeep across without too much risk.  Maybe even the bus, if they were lucky.

"Perhaps we should try to take a jeep, and use it to find a clear path across," offered Kerrington.  "Losing a jeep is preferable to losing the bus, I'd say," he added.

"Okay, let's try it," she agreed as she began to haul the weapons stash off one of the jeeps and pack it into another.  She didn't want to risk losing any more weapons in case the jeep couldn't make it across.  She grabbed the mechanics kit, and loaded that off, but kept the medical kit in case she needed it on the other side.    

As Bruin Hilda walked along the embankment to get a better view of the shallows, she heard a splash, and hiss and then there was a sudden dart of movement at the river's edge in front of her.   It didn't sound like a snake.  She jumped back a step, planning to pull out her broadsword and confront the creature.  She was not fast enough.  Something came scrambling at her from the water.  It was too dark to see what it was, but she could hear it hissing as it darted towards her.  She felt a severe bite on her ankle.  

As she leapt backwards away from the water's edge, the creature scrambled back towards the reeds and vanished into the shadows.  The pain was excruciating, and she worried that the creature, whatever it was, might have a disease.  Within a few moments, however, she felt the pain in her leg diminishing, and guessed that the poison was numbing her up for the kill.  She was a nurse, however, and knew what to do. She pulled out her 2700 LM flashlight and set it at 2 lumens to inspect the wound.  She was expecting to see a nasty bite with signs of poison, but in fact her environmental suit had covered over the wound with a cluster of tiny purple veins.  The translucent purple bubbles seemed to be sucking the poison out.  It was fascinating, and perhaps a bit disturbing.  She wondered again where she had gotten this strange purple bubble environmental suit.  She couldn't remember at all, other than vaguely thinking that she had obtained it at some point while on the moon. But how, and under what circumstances she hadn't a clue.  Perhaps, she thought, she might have found it in the UFO they'd captured to escape the moon Nazis. None of which mattered at the moment, but she was glad and relieved to see the suit healing her.  She even went so far as to thank it, silently, and then something made her feel as if the suit had responded.  It was an odd sensation.  She wondered if the suit was actually alive?  What surprised her the most, perhaps, is that she felt no anxiety about the suit at all.  In fact, if anything, she felt friendly towards it and glad to have it with her.

Captain Bruin Hilda turned up the lumens to 30% on her flashlight and shone it towards the reeds.  Amid the shadows cast by the bright beam she caught sight of a large heavy-set rat with dark gray fur peering at her.  As soon as the light hit it, the rat dove into the water and swam away into the dark eddies of the river.  She stared after it with her lips pursed and a raised eyebrow.     

Kerrington was making his way across the rocks to her position.

"I just got bitten... by a rat," she said.

"Ma'am are you okay?  Where?  What happened?!"

"I'm okay.  The wound isn't bad," she replied, not mentioning the suit.

"Did you say a rat?"

"Yes. A rat," she repeated.

"Where is Wilard?" he asked glancing in all directions.  "Isn't he on that?" 

"Yes, he is," she replied with foreboding as she scanned the area with her binoculars.  "Whatever power he has, the fact that a rat bit me is disturbing," she said.  

"Well what should we do?" asked the Lieutenant.

"We need to get to the other side of the river," stated the Captain, not wanting to allow whatever machinations Wilard might be hatching to interfere with her helping the wounded knight.  "I want you to be aware of what just happened and keep an eye out."

"I definitely will, Ma'am," affirmed Kerrington as he glanced around the darkness.

They drove the jeep down to the river bank, rolled carefully into the water, and slowly over the shallows.  They had no problem crossing, to both of their surprise.  Bruin Hilda scanned the area with her night-vision binoculars.  The old camp was dark and empty now, except for the ten soldiers poking through the tents and carts looking for useful supplies.  The wind was howling with an undulating pitch.  She spotted the bus, and it looked like the soldiers were almost up to it in their foraging.  Kerrington suggested that they leave the jeep on the edge of the river as a marker for the crossing and walk over to the men.  She agreed, and so they left the engine running with the lights on, and directed their feet toward the bus.

As soon as she stepped out of the jeep she noticed a very ominous sensation come over her.  Perhaps it was that the sounds on this side of the river were louder?  She heard the wild wailing of spirits in the winds, but then they would die down and the Gregorian chanting would suffuse the atmosphere again.  These two soundscapes warred in the airs around them as they walked. Kerrington noticed it as well, but said nothing while his eyes darted in all directions as they travelled.  They strode towards the bus in silence, heading to intercept the men as they arrived at the bus.  Then she heard a piercing wail in the air, like a distant shrieking.  Then the chanting returned and she felt calm again.  All the sounds were in the distance, and yet each was capable of instantly seeming very close.  It was quite strange, indeed.

Bruin Hilda was a practicing Catholic, to the best of her ability given the circumstances. To her mind the entire situation had become bloodcurdling and deeply religious.  The rise and fall of the spirit worlds as they waged war was both terrible and wondrous, and she was struck by the beauty and terror of it as she watched the half-moon emerging from the clouds overhead.  She turned around to look over towards the pit, now due north of her by a half mile or so.  She could see the knights grimly struggling with the chains, trying to keep the bejeweled chest in the center of the Hell Hole.  Why they were doing this, she had no idea, but whatever the reason, they believed whole-heartedly in their cause.  One of them was badly wounded and struggling to keep the chain under control as he knelt with one leg forward bracing him on the rocks. Though badly wounded he still held himself with dignity as he gripped the chain and held his portion of the chest aloft.  The other knights were equally grim, holding on at other three corners as the priests by the wagon chanted and read verses from the Holy Book.

Bruin Hilda and Kerrington walked to the bus.  The men gathered around.  She explained about the shallows and told them they'd be taking the bus across the river at the spot where the jeep was pointing.  

"Are you taking the jeep back across, then?" asked Lieutenant Johnson who had come over with the other soldiers as troop leader.

"No," she explained.  "I noticed that some of the knights have been injured so I'm going to go over to the pit there and see if there's anything I can do to assist them.  Then we'll head back to the other side of the river with the supplies."

Lieutenant Johnson looked at her with raised eyebrows.

"Ma'am, is that a good idea?" he asked.  There was a pause while Bruin Hilda thought about it.

"I mean, we can all see what's going on over there," he added quietly.  She could tell that the strangeness was starting to get to the young man. 

"Yeah, well, I saw one of them get serious injured, and I want to see if I can help them.  I'm not going to just give up and discard them like that."

"I mean," Johnson pressed, "I'm, um, well, I mean they weren't very friendly to you earlier, were they?"

"No, they weren't, but as a medic, and practicing Catholic, I can't use that as a reason not to help," she answered patiently.

The Lieutenant sighed, "Wow.  Okay, Ma'am. It's your call."

"Thanks," she replied quietly.  "Oh, one more thing.  A warning. On the other side of the river I got bit by a rat," she said.  Johnson again raised two eyebrows. 

"And I have not seen Wilard for a while," she continued. "He may be lurking around. Don't trust him until we find out what's going on, okay?" 

The men all looked around nervously.

"If Wilard turns against us with his rat horde... we'd be in serious trouble," said Lieutenant Johnson, pulling on his collar with a shaky finger.  The others all looked into the darkness and thought that down.

"Yeah, well, it was just one rat," said Bruin Hilda.  "so don't let it get to you.  We'll find out what's going on soon enough.  If it was that bad, we'd all be dead already.  Just keep an eye out, and be careful."

"Yes, Ma'am," said the Lieutenant.

The men began to heap the bus with as much food as they could.  Bruin Hilda climbed aboard and took a quick inventory of the medical supplies.  Everything looked in order.  

"Ok, Lieutenant Kerrington, ready to earn your day's pay?"

"Yes, Ma'am, I am," replied Kerrington, "but to be honest, I probably should stay with the men and make sure we get over the river alright.  We don't want to lose the bus, now, do we?"

And so Kerrington stayed to help the men load the bus, and when they had everything aboard, he took the wheel.  

Seeing as how the pit was a half mile up the road, Bruin Hilda decided to take the jeep after all. She noted that the moon had come out, and it was light enough for them to see the frothing line across the river. Time is of the essence when someone is wounded, and so she revved the engine, and took off up the slope toward the road.  

Kerrington didn't want the men to all cluster onto the bus.  He explained that the path across the river was along the frothing shallows.  "We'll have five onboard, two in front ahead of the bus, and three behind.  Everyone watch all around.  We'll go slow," he said.

"Kerrington," said Johnson, "why don't we tie ropes to the bus.  We can tether to it."

"Good idea," he replied, and they followed suit.  He looked off in the direction of the road, and figured they'd probably cross the river by the time she got there to Hell Hole.  He shook his head and focused on the task at hand.  Driving across the river.  Since she had taken the jeep, the river crossing spot was a little harder for Kerrington to make out.  He drove the bus down to the river's edge and tried to align with the frothing path.  It zigzagged across the river, so it was a bit difficult to follow in a bus.  About halfway across he hit a slippery spot and the bus began to slide to the right and tilt.  Then there was a bang, and the bus was stuck.  

"You two in front," called Kerrington out the window, "go get one of the jeeps from the other side, and bring it here so we can use the winch to pull the bus out."

Bruin Hilda, meanwhile, drove up to the pit and parked the jeep.  Things had gotten very strange.  She thought she saw visages of weird beings floating and whipping around in the streams of smoke.  The sound of the wind was loud and pitched high as it screamed over the canyon cliffs above her.  In the smoke ahead she thought she saw a winged man with a birdlike face fly past and vanish.  Out of the corner of her eye she thought she caught sight of another winged bird-man wearing armor, and whose face had eyes like burning coals, and he carried a glowing sword.  

The chanting rose and fell, and rose to an even higher crescendo.  Weird stuff was going on.  She had no idea if she was hallucinating, or being pulled body, mind and soul into the spirit world.

She contemplated using a special power known as "Indominable Will."  It was a power that would allow her to ward off all kinds of psychic attacks, such as fears and confusions.  However, it came at a hefty cost.  If she wanted to heal that poor knight with the burnt leg, she'd have to use another power known as "Hymn of Healing", which was only slightly less taxing.  And the idea that she might need to use it more than once gnawed at her.  She'd not have the energy to use it twice, unless she forsook the use of the "Indominable Will."  

She walked towards the kneeling knight with her eyes fixated on his wounded leg. 

She felt that the spirits were buffeting her, and should she lose focus she might veer from her path, but the fears and confusions failed to have any appreciable effect on her attitude or actions.  Forward she strode, determined to help the wounded man.  As she was not being deterred, she decided against using Indominable Will, as she had a will of her own and was nearly at her goal already.  She continued walking towards the knight on one knee, ignoring all else around her.

She passed through a ring of burning braziers, and came to the wagon where the priests were chanting. There was the knight on one knee, gripping the chain with all his strength, sweat pouring down his face, his burned leg still smoldering, charred black with terrible blisters.   The winds were whipping against the wagon, the horses neighing wildly, while fiery sparks sailed in long streams upward towards the heavens where they flickeringly vanished.  The howling winds and the Gregorian chants fought fiercely that night.

The knights were suddenly engulfed in yellow light as the magma rose up high and once again heaved into the bottom of the chest, carrying it irresistibly upward, and the four stout warriors with it.  Again they were nearly pulled into the broiling lava in their determination to maintain their hold on the iron chains that bound the chest, and again they evaded disaster by the skin of their teeth.  The knight on one knee managed to hold his ground, and miraculously had not budged.  Around her she could now see quite distinctly, ethereal bodies of winged devils with their smokey beaks and burning read eyes, wavering like ghosts in the wind.  Round and round they wildly winged their way. They were significant spirits, thought Bruin Hilda. Winged creatures of the darkness.

She felt that the spirits had somehow not quite noticed her.  She moved between braziers towards the knight on one knee.  Ahead of her she could see a ditch that had been scratched or dug into the ground around the lava pit, a single long furrow.  She would have to cross it to get to the knight on one knee.  

She crossed over the ditch with her head bowed forward, grimly pushing against the winds to get to him. Once inside the circle she might have, but did not, perceive that the inner circle had an aura of calm that emanated from a greenish colored stone cube laid on a short white pillar in front of the wagon, around which the priests were chanting.  

Nevertheless, she, the stalwart that she was, began to sing.  The Hymn of Healing!  The song was good and her voice strong.  Light shone down from somewhere above, and the knight lifted his eyes and beheld her for the first time.

The moment she began to sing the spirits suddenly took notice of her.  Their rage boiled over at her interference.  But her voice blended so beautifully with the Gregorian Chants, the knight stood up, bathed in light.  He looked bravely into Bruin Hilda's eyes for one moment with heartfelt gratitude, and then heaved the chain once again with his full might.  And across the lava pond the chest was once again secured at the center.  The lava was driven back.  Through the smoke Bruin Hilda thought she saw a giant's face, with dimly glowing indigo eyes, gazing towards the depths and scowling from the cliff tops, but it could do nothing at that moment except rage at her, so strong was her voice. All around the winds weakened, and her song carried far and wide.

The spirits went from wild to frenzied.  She had caused the spirits harm, and now they circled her with their grimacing faces, their eyes filled with the fires of damnation.  It was exactly midnight.

Meanwhile, across the river, Kerrington was wrangling the bus.  The two forward soldiers dashed across the river to get the jeep.  They revved the engine, drove it to the water's edge, put on the brakes and ran splashing to connect the winch cable to the bus.  In a few minutes the bus was rescued from the dark eddies of the Sever River.  Once on the other side Kerrington drove the bus to the center of the encampment and the soldiers began doling out food, and administering medicines.

Kerrington caught sight of a silhouette near a rock outcropping next to the river, not far away.  It was a man, and some large beast-like rat with him, slinking in the shadows among the rocks.  The Lieutenant thought it looked suspiciously like Wilard. He took two soldiers and walked over to the river's edge.  But when he arrived the figures were gone.  Not a trace.  Just the dappling moonlight dancing on the river water.

"Wilard, if you're going to play games, the next time I see you you're going to be in handcuffs," shouted Kerrington into the darkness, but there was no reply.  He spent the rest of the evening patrolling the river bank, while the soldiers tended the wounded and fed the hungry.

Back at Hell Hole, at the height of the Ceremony, shortly after Bruin Hilda had begun singing, the chest with all of its dazzling jewels was carefully lowered into the magma, and as the final tones of the Gregorian Chant completed, it sank into the boiling pool along with the iron chains.  With a final wisp of smoke, it vanished below the lava line.  The lesser spirits wailed, defeated, shrieking as they fled, curses flying like bats from their lips as they faded away one by one.

Time had gone by, and the battle had been won.  Bruin Hilda's Song had caused panic among the greater spirits, and in disarray they spent their fury against one another, and a war between themselves broke out, instead of against their foe, because they perceived the foe was stronger than they.  With Bruin Hilda's aid the knight on one knee had been healed, and this tipped the balance so that the knights were able to complete the ceremony.  It was dawn by and the light of the rising sun was casting its glow across the tops of the cliffs.  The winds had subsided and a chipmunk could be heard chirping from a tuft of grass nearby.   

Bruin Hilda, having stayed through the night in case anything else might have happened, tended to the knights as they came wearily back to the wagon, exhausted, and covered in sweat and grime, and burns.

The leader of the Knights, who had gruffly brushed her off when they first met, now looked at her with respect and gratitude.  

"We would not have succeeded were it not for you," he said plainly. "We are grateful."

"I saw one of your men get injured, and I am here to help heal the people.  Even yours."

"The world needs more healers like you, my Lady."

"I appreciate your words," she said, glancing back towards her jeep.  She very much wished to get back to the encampment.

"You have a gift," he went on.  "You shouldn't squander it."

"I do not feel that helping others is squandering my gift!" she said, annoyed by his implication.

"Not at all.  I agree with you," he said quickly.  "But you could do more." 

"There is always opportunity to do more," she replied, not quite sure where he was going with this.

"I wish to present you with the opportunity, if you wish, and are willing," he said.

She looked towards the other side of the river where there were eight hundred refugees huddled among the rocks in the early morning light.  She could see the school bus there.  People were milling about, and fires were lit and there seemed to be calm in the camp.

"Those people are hungry, and tired, and they need me now," she said.

"Indeed they do," he agreed solemnly.  "The gift before you is an invitation to join the Golden Crusaders. You need not come with us now, but instead you ought to lead and protect the people.  You need only accept the Ceremony, and swear the oath of he Order sincerely, as a loyal and true soul.  With that you will transcend and be a Warrior of the Golden Crusader of Christ Lion, and will from then on wage war against evil with us.  You be a Warrior of the Army of Light, and will obtain the same powers that we have to fight the spiritual darkness, wherever we may go."

There was a long pause.  She wondered if there were any reason for her not to join. She couldn't think of a single one.  

"I, Bruin Hilda IV, would be honored to join this battle with you."

He gazed into her eyes with a solemn look, filled with congratulations and respect.

"You should know that joining the Crusaders is a grave responsibility.  It is not easy.  You will be asked to wage war against spiritual darkness.  We need Warriors against spiritual darkness in this time.  We have not yet made it to the light.  But we will.  And we will conquer, and we will succeed.  But we need your help.  If it seems good to you, we can bring you to The Gate of the Golden Lion.  When you pass through, you will be transformed, and you will be a Guardian of the Light, as we are.  And you will be able to obtain the same powers as we have.   And you will be always welcome where we are, and you will be welcome in the battles and wars that we must wage. Other than that, we ask that you always remember to give alms to the poor, and we ask that you heal the sick, and that you protect the innocent.  That you eschew corruption, and that you keep an honest word upon your tongue.  Can you do these things?"

There was a pause.

"I, in my heart, hope and desire to always live up to these ideals.  I will work and pledge in my heart to keep these rules."

"Good. Priests come forth. Let us perform the Ceremony of The Golden Lion of Christ as the dawn graces the horizon."

The chanting of the priest was inspiring beyond anything she'd ever known.  She was at one with the Golden Crusaders of Christ Lion.  

She was transformed.  Her mind and body had been perfected.  

Then, once the Ceremony was completed, Geoffrey explained to her what the Ceremony of the Chest the night before had been about.

"In the chest we had captured and imprisoned the Chain of Thanatos.  The same one that had been lost by Captain Samwise back in Page, Arizona.  And now, finally, after so many ages, we have sent it back to Hades from whence it came, and where it belongs."

"I think there is a manticore who will be very pissed off to hear that," she commented wryly. 

"Indeed, there will be.  But we shall deal with that when the time comes," answered the Crusader warmly and with confidence.  He smiled.  She smiled.  They obtained a perfect understanding.

"In the meantime, the war continues," said Sir Geoffrey.  "And you must continue on your quest to bring your people to safety.  If you will follow my advice you will bring them to the town of Ely.  It is the safest area in this region.  It has good farmland.  And pure water.  There are settlements there.  The townsfolk of Ely resolve to never use a technology that was invented after the steam engine.  And further west, in the hills, live several bands who resolve to live like our ancestors in caves as primitives.  They are all good people striving to keep the earth whole, and wishing to heal the planet.  Your people will find friendship there."

Bruin Hilda thanked him.  And he thanked her again, and sent her off with his blessings, and those of the priests and the other Crusaders, all of whom saluted her.

"If you ever find yourself in the township of Page, Arizona, you can look us up at the Church of the Crystal Light.  We will be delighted to see you again."

"I would be honored," she replied.  "May I ask what is the next step in your mission?"

 "We will go to the mountain and we will pray.  The next step in our mission is to wage war against the Shadow King, whom you call the Manticore.  We bid you farewell.  May all blessings be with you."

And with that the Crusaders got on their horses and rode off into the dawn.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 54

Moon Princess Ling

Amid all the hell that had broken loose inside of Eisenhelm, the ultra-secret Nazi Fortress constructed near the north pole of the moon in 1943, an especially vicious battle had broken out within General Hertling's Doomsday Robot Force Control Center.  The effects of the Nazi Civil War were on full display. Now, all of Hertling's Nazis were laying dead on the floor, whereas his scientists and technicians had scurried away like rats as soon as the fighting had broken out.  Major Hanna Schiller gloated briefly over the body of her long-time rival Major Hrodwulf, whose forehead she had neatly punctured with one of her Duridium-capped bullets, courtesy of the scientists of Science Center 7, now deceased.  She noted that Hrodwulf's nasty little smirk had been transformed into a grimace of raw hatred and rage, although at the last a disturbing expression of unimaginable horror etched itself into his eyes.  It was not a good look.  A brief enigmatic smile graced her lips as she turned her attention to the action on the other side of the Control Center.

Jacob, still badly wounded, but healing rapidly with the help of his purple-bubbled environmental suit, positioned himself between Ling and the machinegun fire that had erupted from within the bronze-rimmed inner sanctum.  He made a valiant effort to shield her while he removed his new model adaptive combat rifle from its sheath and slung it painfully into the cradle of his arms.  Ling hugged the wall behind him. Having used Ludendorff's Master Key  to open the Bronze Portal, she slipped it back into her pocket and zipped it shut.  She had no intention of letting Hanna get her hands on the key. She well understood the look in that Nazi Major's eye, and she didn't like it one bit.  

Inside the octagonal inner sanctum they caught sight of several men clustered around a door on the far wall.  One of the scientists, clearly shaken by the attack, was visibly trembling as he fired a machinegun towards the portal entrance.  The bullets peppered the side of the bronze portal frame with sparks. Jacob and Ling ducked their heads as bullets ricocheted around them.  They glimpsed an impression of the room as being similar to the outer Control Center, though smaller, more compact, and yet with similar purple paneled computer banks, and a smaller Observation Screen on one wall.  There was a small metal table with a control panel, and a chair.  The room looked like it was intended to be manned by three people, maybe four at the most.

Jacob assessed the the men were trying to escape out the door on the far wall, but for whatever reason they could not open it and so they were trapped there.  Jacob was aware that the scientists of Eisenhelm were not trained for combat, and it must have been out of sheer panic that one of them had picked up a machinegun and was shooting it wildly without looking where the bullets were landing. 

At that instant the wounded Nazi soldier, a ferocious Corporal who spent his free time punching bags of gravel, was beginning to spin around, swinging his machinegun into position.  Having survived the first round of fire unscathed, Jacob took a shot at the soldier with his combat rifle.  The the bullet hit him in the arm, and penetrated his armor plating, but still barely made him grimace.  Ling also took aim with her Lewiston Beam Pistol.  She wondered briefly if the plasma beam might scorch a hole through the wall, which could produce an explosive decompression event if the other side of the wall happened to be another airless tunnel, or even the surface of the moon potentially.  But the wall she was facing had a door on it that looked like an ordinary door, not an airlock, and so, taking the chance, she pulled the trigger.  The thin red beam instantly burned a searing hole through the soldier's leg, and then through the wall behind him.  Nevertheless, he continued his spin, landed on one knee, and aimed his machinegun towards the portal.  The Corporal was a brute with a vicious streak a mile wide, and was tough as nails beneath his armored space suit. 

Hanna, catching sight of the plasma beam, was amazed.  A hand-held Plasma Beam Pistol?!  Such things were unknown on the moon.  Yes, the Obliterators had giant Plasma Cannons, but pistols? Impossible! She looked down at her SC-7 Special Luger with its Duridium-Capped bullets, and suddenly felt it far less exciting than before. Snapping out of the annoying thought, she coldly considered her options.  Currently she only had three soldiers remaining, and one was wounded.  In the Pillbox remained the last of the SC-7 Scientists, Karl Hoffman, with her prisoner.  "That's not going to work," she thought to herself.  She ordered one of her Commandos to get Karl and the prisoner and bring them into the Control Center.  She figured the Pillbox was likely to be incinerated by the Obliterator Robot lumbering down the tunnel as soon as it stopped playing footsie with the Doom Spheres, and she didn't want her prisoner burnt to a vapor.  She wanted him alive!  The other Commando was ordered to take control of Hertling's Scientist, whose finger she had just, quite usefully, broken. Having made her assessment and barked out her orders, she ran towards the bronze portal. She planned to create converts, or clean out the beehive once and for all.

Vallnam, meanwhile, was busy trying to put out the computer fires with the extinguisher he got from the power room. The enormous Observation Screen was cracked and dangling by its cables against the west wall, while the room was being filled with dark gray smoke and showered with sparks from all directions.  He could still see the red blips that represented Giant Nuclear Missile Robots heading towards earth through the screen's shattered surface, despite its fits of static.

Inside the inner sanctum the machinegun toting scientist continued firing wildly towards the portal entrance, his mind quaking with fear, his teeth rattling in time with the bullets.  Nevertheless, his luck was with him and he hit Jacob squarely without any idea how he had done it.  Pure luck. As our hero was wearing his purple bubble suit, and merely a set of riot armor overlaying it, the bullets strafed him along the right side and put him back on the ground, deeply wounded.  His suit immediately set about the healing process, but he down once again.  At the same time, the Corporal, having been hit twice, shot with his machinegun towards the door, but the pain of his wounds threw off his aim and the bullets went stray by mere inches, strafing along the wall next to Jacob's head.  Jacob leaned against Ling, gasping for air. The other two scientists on the far side of the inner sanctum panicked and made another attempt at opening the door.  But door was locked, required a special key, and they couldn't open it. It was impossible. They turned around, one in despair waiting to die, his face haunted with terror, the other glancing around for a new plan, his eyes gleaming with a fierce light.

Hearing the firefight Vallnam turned towards the bronze portal, and saw Jacob and Ling huddled at the door.  He took note that Jacob was badly wounded, again, but Ling was behind him, and he felt she was well enough protected by Jacob's body to be relatively safe for the moment from the machinegun fire.  He believed that the fires, which were starting to billow with flames from the open panels of the computer banks, were the most urgent matter facing them and continued to try to put them out.  Again he noticed that on the computer bank which he was standing in front of, there was a large red button under a glass dome, but he was determined to put out the fire before doing anything else.   

Hanna came running up to where Jacob and Ling were and peered around the edge of the portal door.  She no longer felt much for Jacob, now that she had met Ling, and discovered that Jacob was not really what he seemed.  Perhaps she was jealous. Perhaps Jacob had broken the frozen heart he had so recently, and momentarily thawed.  Either way, it no longer mattered.  Hanna was now back in control of her emotions, and she wasn't about to slip up again.

"All that suave talk from before has worn out, Otto" she said to Jacob.  "You and a Japanese girl, eh? Who knows what you're really up to?" she added as she glanced around the inner sanctum. The scientist and soldier were in motion, swinging their machineguns towards her as the other two were backed against the rear wall.  Suddenly, one of scientists bolted across the room towards the computer bank on the south wall with a fierce determination.  Jacob took shot at him, but he was too wounded to be effective and the bullet went wide, hitting a computer bank, showering the man with sparks, but this did not slow him down in the slightest.  At this Ling began to try to drag him away from the portal, hoping to get him out of the line of fire from within.  There was a good chance that one more hit would kill him.

At this point Hanna stepped forward through the circular bronze portal, taking on the machinegun barrage from the soldier and scientist.  Her Duridium armor deflected all the bullets, scattering them around the room. Hanna put her hands on her hips and laughed mockingly.  She strode to the room's center point and returned a single shot with her Luger SC-7 Special.  The Duridium bullet punctured straight through the armor of the Corporal's left leg, staggering him to the ground in agony. She did not wish to kill him, as she was hoping to convert as many of Hertling's men over to her cause as she could.

"Stop shooting now, or I vill kill you all," Hanna yelled.  Recognizing the tone of command in her voice the Corporal and scientist dropped their machineguns and put their hands up. But the third scientist, a true fanatic by the name of Konrad Schäfer, ran towards the computer bank at full tilt.  He was aiming for a certain red button.  Hanna suspected he was planning to pull the trigger on one of Hertling's Doomsday Traps, of which it had been rumored he had many.  She tracked him with her Luger, planning to put him down before he could do any such thing.

Vallnam was still eying the other large red button, thinking it was very interesting looking indeed,  Yet the extinguishers were specifically designed for electrical fires and thus quite effective, and the fire in front of him was put out shortly, and so without further ado he spun around and ran to where Ling and Jacob were to see what he could do to help.  Ling was dragging Jacob along the floor, a thin slick of blood trailing behind him. Vallnam skidded to a halt by her side, his gaze locking onto hers for a single moment. Then with a glance into the inner sanctum, he deftly retrieved his single Thermobaric Grenade from his satchel.  He prepared to pull the pin and throw it inside. At this Ling's eyes went wide, and her mouth opened as if to scream. Fortunately, a small yellow label on the side of the mighty weapon caught his attention at the last possible moment, mercifully.  It read "Thermobaric Grenades are used to destroy entire three story buildings or their equivalent.  Avoid using indoors unless you wish to die along everyone else within three hundred feet," or something to that effect.

"...Nah..." he said quietly, and gingerly put the Thermobaric Grenade back in his satchel. Instead he pulled out... his Mini Flame Thrower!  Ling raised an eyebrow.  Without hesitation, he aimed the barrel towards the inner sanctum and squeezed the trigger. In an instant, a torrent of fiery napalm erupted from the nozzle, morphing into a sinuous, blazing serpent that coiled its way through the air, devouring the hapless occupants in its merciless embrace. The room erupted into an inferno, its every corner consumed by the relentless onslaught of billowing flames.

"Toast," said Vallnam over the screams of the scientists and soldier as the room was engulf in fire.

"OMG! You stupid oaf!" yelled Ling.  "What if the Robot Force Self-Destruct Computer is in there?!"

"Um, maybe we should close the door," said Vallnam sheepishly, shielding his face from the infernal heat with his arm.  Ling, seeing the utility of not allowing the flames to flood into the main control room, reluctantly slid the Master Key into the lock.  The enormous bronze doors slid silently shut.  She was beside herself as that was likely their last and only chance to to enter the Self-Destruct Sequence into the computer.  "So the earth is doomed after all," she thought with a sudden feeling of overwhelming despair.

Meanwhile, inside the chamber, a bit startled by the sudden blaze, Hanna looked around.  The billowing flames all around her were disorienting, particularly since she was unsure where they had come from.  She turned around to see the portal had been sealed, so there would be no exiting in that direction.  The scientists and Corporal were shrieking and running through the fire with their burning arms flailing helplessly in the air.  The scientist who had been running to the computer bank perished horribly with one blackened hand reaching out towards the button on the computer bank.  She thought it must have been one of Hertling's traps, but wondered how the scientist had managed to trigger it, since he died in a burning heap before making it to the button.  She shrugged and continued scanning the room.  Inside her Duridium armor she felt quite comfortable, actually.  She discovered to her satisfaction that there was no danger of mere fire harming her in the slightest, as the armor was impervious to all forms of energy attacks, hermitically sealed, and had its own internal oxygen supply and temperature control system.  She looked around the room at the burning bodies, computers, Observation Screen, now melting, and purple-hued computer banks, much of which were engulfed in flames.  It struck her all as rather amusing.  

On one of the computer banks which hadn't caught on fire yet she noticed an array of black and white buttons in a checker-board configuration.  This must be, she thought, the panel that the Japanese girl had been looking for.  She walked over to it. Indeed there was a bronze trapezoidal shaped plate above it.  It must be the one!  Unfortunately, she had no idea in what sequence the buttons had to be pressed in order to execute the Robot Force Self-Destruct command.  She was even still a bit doubtful that Hertling would have programmed in such a thing in the first place, as this seemed somewhat out of character for the old buzzard.  Yet, Jacob and his friends believed it was so, and she was willing to believe it was at least possible.  Somewhat concerning was the fact that the black and white buttons were starting to smolder under the intense heat of the blaze.  

"Hello.  Otto.  I don't know what happened," said Hanna into her radio mic, "but zee entire room is in flames, Hertling's men are all dead, and zee bronze portal is sealed shut.  Zee good news is that I have found zee Self-Destruct buttons," she added.  Jacob heard her over his headset.  

He grabbed Ling's arm weakly and groaned, "She found the panel. You have to get in there."  But Ling just stared at him without moving.  She imagined that if she opened the portal the fire would come roaring into the main control room and kill them all.

"Ling, can you hear me over zee radio?" barked Hanna impatiently.

"Yes," replied the Moon Princess.  "I can hear you."

"Good," responded Hanna. "There are only a few moments before zee buttons catch on fire.  Already they are starting to melt.  What do you need me to do?"

"Do you see the bronze trapezoidal plate above the buttons?" asked Ling.

"Ja, I see it," answered Hanna.

"The Master Key is necessary for the buttons to operate. It must be put into the bronze plate, and then the buttons can be pressed.  Without it pressing the buttons will trigger some sort of deadly Doomsday Trap.  The Control Center will explode, I think."

At this, Jacob understood that the Master Key had to be used all along the route to the Self Destruct Sequence.  The Nazis were nothing if not thorough, he thought.  He began trying to push Ling's hand towards the bronze plate that was along the circular rim of the Bronze Portal, but he was too weak to do more than move her arm a little bit.  He sputtered some blood.  She looked down at him, concerned that his wounds would do him in, despite his purple bubble suit's healing powers.

"I'll go in and bring the key to her," offered Vallnam. "After all, my purple bubble suit seems like it might protect me from flames.  I think I can make it.  And after all, it's my fault Hanna is stuck inside the inferno and we're out here."

At this suggestion Jacob reached up and grabbed hold of one of the hanging straps of the Flame Thrower.  

"You don't trust me with the Master Key, Jacob?" asked Vallnam.

"Leave the Flame Thrower here," rasped Jacob, "you don't want Hanna to see you carrying it, do you?"

"Oh, that's a good point, there," replied Vallnam as he shoved it back into his satchel.  While he did this, Ling was puzzling over how they should deal with the young, beautiful and extremely ambitious Nazi Major.  

"Whatever you do," she said, "don't let Hanna get her hands on the Master Key.  In fact, I'll go in myself.  I am, after all, the only one who knows the code. And I have the same purple bubble suit as you, so mine should protect me just as well.  I can do it."

"We'll go in together, then," said Vallnam, with his hand on her shoulder.  They agreed on this and she took out the Master Key and opened the portal door.

Black smoke and flames came billowing out of the inner sanctum, pouring along the ceiling like a malevolent river of seething chaos, casting shadows that danced and writhed eerily all around the entire Control Center. Vallnam was dimly aware that amid the writhing shadows there flitted a dark dog-like shape, like a whirlwind of black smoke streaming from corpse to corpse, each of which was staring into space with an expression of ultimate horror etched into their stark dead eyes.  He shuddered at the recollection of the entity from the outer dark.

Ling scrambled inside beneath the billowing flames, followed closely by Vallnam.  They ran to the far side of the room where Hanna was pointing to the panel, one fist squarely planted on her hip.  Seeing as the black and white buttons were already smoking, and starting to melt, and knowing that the fate of the Earth hung in the balance, Ling was actually extremely nervous.  Her hand trembled as she tried to fit the Master Key into the bronze slot above the panels and she wasted precious seconds unable to steady her hand and get the key into the slot.

Seeing this, and infuriated at the sheer incompetence of her lovely rival, Hanna reached out suddenly to grab at the Master Key.  It was, in fact, vital to her plans that she obtain the key, and this seemed the perfect excuse to do so.  However, before she could, Vallnam interposed his body between them, and turned to Ling saying, "Now, now, darling, just take a deep breath and relax.  You can do this."  Jacob, still leaning against the bronze frame of the portal, conjured a Mental Power that he had learned at Federation Academy, known as "Influence Emotions".  With this he contributed to helping to calm her frayed nerves.  Meanwhile Hanna had been reaching for the Master Key, but could not make it around Vallnam, who held a steady and formidable stance as he rooted himself in front of Ling. Hanna recognized that forcing the issue now was probably a poor choice, and so she relented. With both of her compatriots helping to calm her, Ling took a deep breath, and slid the metallic key into the bronze slot.  The buttons on the panel activated with glowing green patterns on their surfaces.  She recognized the symbols from the deep recesses of her mind, and with an unwavering focus, she deftly maneuvered her nimble fingers across the button array, each press a precise and definitive action. In the span of a few seconds, she reproduced the entire sequence etched into her memory by the long forgotten Modroni who had sent her there.  It was as if the buttons themselves were but extensions of her will.  

They all watched as flickering green indicators across the surface of the computer one by one turned yellow then red until the entire panel was illuminated by tiny flickering red lights.  Then the computer began ticking loudly as a metallic strip passed across a grooved track, while on the Observation Screen the fifty blips that signified The Phalanx on its way to Earth one by one turned gray.  After ten seconds there were fifty gray blips on the screen.  At the top of the screen the following words appeared.   



At that moment one of the computers burst into flames, shattering their brief sense of giddy triumph with a renewed realization of the extraordinary danger they were all still in.  Ling stuffed the Master Key into her side pocket and they scrambled out of the Inner Sanctum as the remaining computers began to explode with showers of sparks and shards of searing metal.  Once outside, Ling sealed the door shut.  They looked at each other with expressions mixed with jubilation, and anxiety.  After all, they had stopped the Giant Doomsday Robots, and thus saved the Earth, and Eisenhelm from utter destruction, but they were still surrounded by innumerable dangers, not the least of which was Hanna, who now lusted for power greatly, and would stop at nothing to obtain it.

"Let's get to Hanger B," said Vallnam to Ling, "My technicians are working on repairing the UFOs to get us out of here!"  As he spoke he felt the power of the Empress of the Elthos Tarot began to fade, and after a moment of dizziness he no longer felt so highly tuned and optimized for physical combat, but at the same time it was a relief to notice that his mental capabilities were also returning.  It occurred to him that he could no longer understand German, and so he used his Mental Power of Knowing Languages to instantly learn perfect German again.  He looked over at Hanna, who had come stalking out of the fiery sanctum glaring slyly at the three heroes in their purple bubble suits. 

Hanna was then distracted momentarily by the voice of Karl Hoffman which broke in over her headphones.  Ah yes, she almost forgot in all the excitement the scientist whom she had left in the Pillbox to try to distract the Obliterator Robot with the Doom Spheres and watch over her prisoner.

"Frauline!  Frauline!" he shouted excitedly.

"What is it, Herr Karl?" 

"Zee Obliterator has stopped moving!"

"Be careful," she replied.  "It might activate again.  Keep your eyes on it.  Where are the Doom Spheres?"

"I sent them down the tunnel towards Cavern 8 as you ordered, Frauline," replied Karl.

Hanna now knew for a certainty that all of the Robots, both the Phalanx of fifty and the Ten Obliterators had been under Hertling's Command.  It looked like the Oriental girl had pulled it off after all.  She allowed herself a moment of glee as she thought about her next steps towards Supreme Command of Eisenhelm.  All she needed to do now would be to obtain the Master Key, avenge Lieutenant Wagner by killing the three traitors Melitta Reich, Admiral Ludendorf and General Hertling (all of whom, as we know, had already been killed by Jacob and Vallnam, but she did not know), and then defeat the monstrosities released from the Science Centers, whatever they were, then quell the Nazi Civil War, and take ownership of the UFO fleet and Shadow Hawk.  Piece of cake!  

She radioed her Commandos to ensure that Karl kept his eyes on the Obliterator, while her prisoner was secured and escorted inside, which he was.  Now she felt at the height of her powers as she issued orders and contemplated her bright future.  Out of the corner of her eye she watched Ling's movements carefully, a thin smile hovering over her lips.

And that is where we left things that night.

Thursday, August 03, 2023

WoAF - Game Session 53

Major Hrodwulf
Major Hrodwulf, the inimical Nazi commander, fixed his gaze upon his arch-rival Major Hanna Schiller, with such a seething revulsion that it teetered on the brink of full-blown insanity. She stared back at him with her steely-blue eyes riveted to his forehead... the target of her next bullet should these negotiations break down any further.

Hanna felt quite convinced that Admiral Ludendorff (whom she did not know had already been killed by Jacob) was in the process of escaping the doomed Nazi Moon Fortress, Eisenhelm, with that conniving witch, Melitta Reitsch, (whom she also did not know had already been killed by Jacob) in Shadow Hawk, the mysterious spaceship the Nazis had discovered hidden in a secret sublunar hanger months earlier.  "If the leadership is going to be so disgustingly craven," she thought to herself, "then why should the rest of us be fools enough to sacrifice our lives for... for what?  So they can escape and we all die?  Never!"  

As it happened Hanna's assessment was perfectly valid.  Not only had Ludendorff and his little trollop Melitta conspired to flee the moon in Shadow Hawk, but General Hertling had also been in on the plot. The three of them had been on the verge of fleeing Eisenhelm.  After all, once Captain Helmund had triggered Plan Delta-Z, the moon fortress was certain to be destroyed by Hertling's Doomsday Robots, the Obliterators, just as earth was doomed to be annihilated soon afterwards by The Phalanx.  Hitler's ultimate revenge against all of humanity could not be stopped.  And therefore the three villains had decided the only logical thing to do would be to escape using the alien spacecraft.  Of course Hanna did not not know that General Hertling had also already been killed by Vallnam, either. And so her plan had been to take her squadron of Commando Elites to battle their way by any  means to Shadow Hawk before the Petty Triumverate could take off, leaving Eisenhelm to disintegrate behind them.  She so desperately wished to kill Melitta with a bullet to the heart she could taste it, thus avenging her one friend in Eisenhelm, Lieutenant Wagner. who happened to have been one of the very few actual gentlemen among the Nazi command elite, and who had been gratuitously shot dead by Melitta on her way to meet the two Great Commanders.  After she avenged herself on Melitta, the Admiral and General would be forced to accept her as their pilot. If not she planned to kill one or both of them without hesitation.  She cared nothing for anyone who might stand in the way of her escape at this point.  She was going to live, and escape with her prisoner, and that was absolutely final!

And yet, since meeting Jacob, her plans had suddenly changed. She now believed it was somehow possible to terminate the Robot Force and stop the evisceration of Eisenhelm. If that could be done, then she planned to find and kill the three villainous traitors in Hanger B where Shadow Hawk was secretly stationed.  Once that was completed she would take the Master Keys from their dead bodies and assume control of Eisenhelm by any additional means necessary.  That was her new plan.  And all it would take would be to gain entrance to the Command Center C3-DZ-A1 and enter the Robot Force Self-Destruct Sequence into the computer within.  And for this she needed the cooperation of a few unexpected purple-suited strangers, doubtless from an ultra-secret parallel command hierarchy hitherto unknown to her.  They had a Master Key, and they claimed they knew the Self-Destruct code.  How hard could it be?  After all she had eight crack Commandos and one of the more brilliant scientists from Science Center 7 with her.  She anticipated victory with relish.  Finally Eisenhelm would be hers to control and command!  Now she just had to make sure that nothing got in her way.

She stared at Major Hrodwulf, his sneer exuding a fantastic level of revulsion and hatred.  She returned his glare with a gaze equally full of utterly ferocious contempt.  What a outrageously stupid fool he was!  Did this arrogant little lapdog of Hertling dare impugn that she, the young, courageous, and utterly gorgeous Hanna Schiller was was his superior?!  How dare he?!  It was intolerable! She felt an overwhelming urge to shoot him between the eyes.  And she had just the weapon to do it with, despite his Class-2 Armored Suit.  Her Lugar was not an ordinary model, but in fact was a specially crafted pistol given to her by the scientists of Science Center 7, now deceased, when they gave her the experimental Duridium Armored Suit.  It came with several magazines of experimental Duridium-capped bullets.  She had been looking forward to an opportunity to try it out.

There was, of course, another matter tickling the back of Hanna's thoughts as well.  Not far down the tunnel outside Pillbox C3-PB-A1 thundered Obliterator Robot #5.   Having just destroyed the Military Headquarters in Cavern 7 it was now lumbering its way down the tunnel towards their position.  It could at any moment let loose with a massive scarlet Plasma-Ray from its cyclopean eye. Such a beam was capable of boring through solid steel in a matter of seconds, and she had no doubt that it could disintegrate the Pillbox with a single blast.  If it wished it could bore a hole straight through the Pillbox doors directly into the Command Center, which of course would mean the instantaneous incineration of them all.  To do this, however, it would need to bore a straight line down Pillbox entrance tunnel, and so it would take extra time for it to get into position in order to do so.  But one thing was certain -- at any moment a blinding red beam could put an end to all of her glorious plans.  Consequently, time was precious, and the sneering Major Hrodwulf had just presented himself as someone in whom she could place little confidence as a negotiating partner.  Her lips curved upwards at the corners, forming a vicious little smile that hinted at the dark thoughts lurking beneath the surface.

Meanwhile, Vallnam stood up inside the elevator.  He adjusted his machinegun, lowered his visor, and prepared to pressed the "up" button on Ling's command.  The shadowy dog-sphinx next to him sat motionless, staring with its infinite black eyes at the elevator door.  In his left hand Vallnam held his Elthos Tarot Card, the Empress, ready to "play" it just before the elevator door opened.  The Power of the Empress should, he believed, give him enhanced reflexes, although it was also likely to cause a notable decline in his mental acuity as that was purportedly the negative aspect of the card.  He gazed at the the Empress's beautiful image.  She looked uncannily like Moon Princess Ling, he thought with a little extra pitter-patter of his heart.  

"Frauline Hanna!" crackled over Hanna's headphone.  It was the scientist-medic, Karl Hoffman, whom she had left behind in the Pillbox to look after the prisoner as her Commandos made their way through the airlock and into the Control Center.

"I'm busy!" she barked as she turned to face Major Hrodwulf head-on.  Her armor was fantastically capable of warding off all manner of attacks, but it was not nimble.  It would take her a second or two to position herself properly. 

"Zee Obliterator has shot three of zee Commandos off zee ladder!" shouted the scientist excitedly.  "It is almost at zee Pillbox now!  I vill try to use zee Doom Spheres to distract it!"

"Draw it avay from zee Pillbox!" she commanded him in a low voice as she stared into Hrodwulf's glaring eyes.

"So, Major," she said, "you think I'm disloyal, do you?  So be it!" 

She pulled the trigger of her Luger SC-7 Special.

Fortunately for Major Hrodwulf, however, he was a crafty old salt, and he was very well aware that he had just provoked his young beautiful rival to the point of rash action.  At the last moment he shifted his bodyweight, causing her shot to miss his head by a fraction of an inch.  He pulled the trigger of his own Luger and took a shot at a spot between her beautiful blue eyes.  However, and quite unfortunately for him, the bullet simply ricocheted harmlessly off the armor's diamond-glass faceplate.  He had certainly not expected that, Hanna gloated to herself as she observed his surprise.

As soon as the first shots were fired, Ling radioed Vallnam, whispering, "Firefight! Come up!"  

With that, the stalwart pressed the indigo-colored "up" button, and the smooth gleaming white elevator began its ascent.  It would take five seconds.  He felt the shadow-sphinx stand up, readying itself to leap into the room, but he did not look.  He shuddered as a cold chill went down his spine.  The horror of the outer darkness devouring the souls of the recent dead was something he felt it was probably better not to see.  It was a fate no living creature ought ever wish on another, that's for sure.

As the elevator rose, he "played" the Empress card. Its subtle glow suffused into him.  He suddenly felt extremely light and agile, but his mind seemed to fog over, and his thoughts became single-minded, focusing on the coming battle.  He slipped the card back into his pocket as he took note that his "Mighty Eyes" power was diminishing, and his vision of the shadow-sphinx was rapidly fading away.  Its Anubis-like head, shrouded in a dark smokey mist, was the last he saw of the nightmare-horror as it faded completely from his sight.  He knew, however, that the monster would leap into the room along side of him as soon as the elevator door opened, and it would devour the souls of those who died there, including his own, should it come to that.  He shuddered at the thought and a cold sweat dripped down the back of his neck.  This would not be a good day to die, he thought.

Hanna strode directly towards her target as she took three more shots at Major Hrodwulf in rapid succession.  His armor was designed to absorb a good deal of damage, but her Luger SC7's Duridium-capped Bullets easily punctured holes through the woven steel-fiber mesh.  He was driven backwards, his suit punctured with three crimson spots.  He was badly wounded, but not yet dead.  As he stumbled backwards three of his soldiers turned the corner of the computer banks and began shooting their machineguns at the invaders.  Hanna turned towards them and stepped into the line of fire to cover her men.  Bullets bounced off her armor with a profusion of glinting sparks and flashes. Nevertheless, one of her Commandos was hit, and he went down to the ground, his hands grasping in the air at nothing.  And so the gallant Commando, Fritz von Eisenhelm, perished in the heat of battle.  

Hanna strode steadily forward, signaling her Commandos to open fire at the armored soldiers as they ran to positions where they could gain line-of-sight.  No one had been expected a firefight to break out so suddenly and so the soldiers had been caught completely by surprise.  The Command Center was suddenly ablaze with machinegun fire.  The Commandos concentrated aim on Hertling's soldiers as they came into view.  Bullets ricocheted off armor plating with a cacophony of sparks, but the concentrated stream took two of the soldiers to the floor, one dead, the other badly wounded.  

Hanna stood front and center, taking the incoming barrage at point blank range.  Her Duridium armor was practically impenetrable, however, and every bullet that hit it merely sparked as it ricocheted off at random angles around the room. The Observation Screen tracking the Phallanx Force on its way to Earth was hit several times, and a spiderweb of cracks appeared across its surface.  Hanna, bullets sparking harmlessly across the surface of her armor, admired herself greatly, and grinned fiercely as the firefight erupted around her.  Yet, Hrodwulf had not been disposed of and still presented a considerable threat.  Hanna was quite familiar with the kinds of diabolical tricks he might have up his sleeve.  

Ling was hidden in the shadow of the Pillbox doorway waiting for her chance to sneak in and start searching for the checkered panel into which she must enter the Self-Destruct code.  There were numerous large mauve-colored computer banks throughout the Control Center, but she had no idea where the Self-Destruct panel was located.  She only knew in her mind's eye what it looked like.  Twelve black and white checkered buttons and a small bronze trapezoidal plate above them.  She scanned the computer banks that she could see from her position but none of them had any panels that looked remotely like it.  

Meanwhile, Jacob, still seriously wounded, but healing rapidly with the help of his purple bubble suit, crawled out of the Pillbox and came to where she was.  He glanced back over his shoulder at Karl, the scientist-medic who was using a small remote control to guide the Doom Spheres around the feet of Obliterator Robot #5.  Occasionally the Obliterator would release a barrage of machinegun fire from its shoulder-mount, but the Doom Sphere had skin that was infused with the same Duridium infused in its own armor plating, and so such weapons had no effect whatsoever.  Bullets simply sparked harmlessly off of their surfaces.  Karl knew, however, that soon the Obliterator would observe this fact and its choice of weapons would drastically change, and at that point all hell would break loose in the tunnel.  But how long would that take?  He couldn't guess.  

Jacob then looked over to the prisoner in the yellow spacesuit, whom Hanna had taken pains to bring with her from the military complex in Cavern 8.  Jacob figured there must be something special about him, but he couldn't imagine what that might be. He waved the man over, and seeing this the prisoner pulled himself along the grated floor and made his way to where Jacob and Ling were secreted.  Through his yellow helmet visor Jacob could see a gaunt face with tawny eyes and a beard peppered with gray.  He wondered who the man could possibly be.  There was something almost familiar about him, but there was no time to find out anything.

Hanna strode to a position directly in front of Hrodwulf as he tried to pull himself up from the computer console he had fallen backwards onto.  He intended to take another shot at her with his Luger, but she shot him straight through the faceplate, penetrating his forehead with a Duridium-capped bullet.  He fell backwards with a look of supreme shock and hatred in his eyes.  And that was the end of the arrogant Major Hrodwulf and all of his grandiose plans.

At that moment the elevator door slid silently open, and out sprang Vallnam with his machinegun blazing.  He saw soldiers scrambling into the Control Center from a set of open double doors on the west wall beneath the cracked and fritzing Observation Screen.  Bullets were flying everywhere.  The computer bank on his left had been hit several times and caught on fire.  A cloud of gray smoke was rapidly filling the room.   

Vallnam quickly glanced around for Ling.  He spotted her tucked away next to Jacob at the entrance of the Pillbox.  Directly in front of him, however, were a number of soldiers. Two were falling to the ground from the barrage of machinegun fire blazing out from the squad of Commandos to his right.  Others were on the floor, now streaked with blood, and several were running up through the double doors on the west wall.  Hanna stood in a commanding position covering her team, her dark gray armor randomly flashing from bullets as they ricocheted off.  One stray bullet whizzed past Vallnam's head, but he took no notice of it.  He couldn't be absolutely sure who was who in the room, but based on the radio messages he had been overhearing throughout, he figured that the central figure must be Jacob's new ally, the star pilot, Hanna Schiller, and the squad in front of the Pillbox were her Commandos.  

He hefted his machinegun and leapt into the room firing as he ran, every shot hitting its target.  He had the vague impression that a shadow flitted across the room from the elevator to where Major Hrodwulf lay on the ground, but he was not sure at that point whether it was the flickering of lights, or the cosmic horror on its way to its next meal.  He chose to leave the thought behind and focus on the fight.  

"Ratta-tatta-tatta-tatta," blazed Vallnam's machinegun, muzzle-flashes brightly illuminating the area directly in front of him. Bullets bounced off armor the plating of Hertling's soldiers, but his aim was perfect, and as a result several bullets landed on the same exact spot, and so more Nazi soldiers fell to their doom.  The defenders were now being attacked from two sides.  

Nevertheless, through the double doors along the south wall more soldiers charged into the room, machineguns blazing.  They focused fire on Hanna, but their bullets merely sparked harmlessly as they bounced off her armor.  Behind her several more Commandos hustled in from the Pillbox to join the squad, and opened fire.  Hanna ordered her men to take cover behind the computer banks while she moved toward the center of the room.   As she strode forward she aimed her Luger at one of the incoming soldiers and took him out with a single shot to the head as he cleared the door.  The armored suits they wore were no match for her SC-7 Special's Duridium-capped bullets.

Vallnam kept a steady stream of fire as he moved, taking out two more of the soldiers, as others came charging through the double doors.  His movement was fast, and his reflexes super-accelerated, and so none of the defenders managed to get a bead on him.  Hanna ran to position where she could see through the double doors to get an idea of how many more soldiers were coming forward from the interior.  Five more were entering in from a side room.  She felt no fear of the machineguns at all.  She smiled grimly as they rushed towards her.

"Fredrich!" yelled Hanna to one of her Commandos, "Vee need a grenade into zee room!"  Fredrich grabbed a grenade from his satchel and ran forward, covered by fire from the other Commandos.

Vallnam decided that Hanna had things under control.  Between the burning computer banks he darted to get to where Ling was still hiding.  Foremost on his mind was protecting her as she made her way among the computers to try to find the panel into which the Self-Destruct sequence had to be entered.  She had been trying to spot it, but none of the panels she saw looked anything like it.  However, she wasn't about to go running into the fire fight, so she had stayed where she was, waiting for the coast to clear.  Vallnam took up a position next to her and Jacob and waited.

Meanwhile, several of the Commandos had been wounded.  One took a bullet to the throat, and went down gurgling.  Fredrich, her top man, had zig-zagged between the burning computer banks and made it to Hanna.  She covered him as he threw his grenade through the door.  It bounced along the floor and stopped just inside one of the side doors along the south wall. There was a terrific explosion and down went the soldiers within, with two of them hurled forward into the Command Center already dead.

The Commandos had little trouble taking out the remaining soldiers and the battle ended as quickly as it had begun.  Hanna flashed a glance over towards the Pillbox entrance.  She had not forgotten about the Obliterator in the tunnel outside, or her prisoner.  But still, she needed to make sure the Command Center was secure.  Looking around she realized that the scientists who had been operating the computers had scurried away as soon as the battle began.  As they were non-combatant scientists they had been completely ignored, but Hanna thought they had fled out through one of the doors on the east wall.  Meanwhile the room was filling with smoke and it was getting hard to see.

"Jacob, let's shield Ling while she searches for the control panel," said Vallnam as he shot the last of the wounded Hertling soldiers in the head to put him out of his temporal misery (and consigning his soul to the eternal torment of the cosmic horror that had entered the chamber by his side, but Vallnam's mind had been dulled by the Empress, and he had forgotten that salient fact in his zeal for victory).  They began to hustle Ling from computer bank to computer bank, but none of the ones near the Pillbox had the panel she was looking for.

One Commando was dead, and one was wounded, and three had been killed by Obliterator #5.  That left Hanna with three healthy Commandos.  She was not pleased at her losses.  Meanwhile, several computers were on fire and the Observation screen was badly damaged, and slid from its mount on the wall, falling halfway to the ground before being stopped by its cables.  Although there was a lot of static on the screen she could nevertheless still make out the red blips and dashed lines that represented the Phallanx, the fifty Giant Nuclear Missile Robots, on their way to decimate the Earth with their arsenal of 500 megaton cobalt-encased weapons of absolute extinction.    

"Karl," said Hanna into her mic, "how are things going back there?"

"Zee Doom Sphere's are distracting zee Obliterator, but it vill not last much longer I'm afraid, frauline."

"I need you to get back here with my prisoner! Can zee Doom Spheres climb up zee ladder from zee tunnel?"

"Nein, Frauline, but they can hover briefly over zee ground" reported the last remaining SC-7 scientist.

"Order them back to Cavern 8 and get in here.  Close the Pillbox door behind you."

"Vat about zee Robot?" questioned Karl at risk of infuriating his young commander. 

"It vill follow zee Doom Spheres?" she wanted to know.

"Vat if it does not do so, Frauline?" asked Karl.  "Perhaps, it would be better for me to continue distracting zee robot with the Doom Spheres.  It is possible I may be able to lead it down zee tunnel by taunting its sensors!"

"Ja, but if it seems like it is not working, then come to zee Control Center and seal zee doors behind you," ordered Hanna.  He went back to working the Doom Spheres.

Hanna marched through the double doors on the west wall, Lugar in hand, and found a wide corridor, about sixty feet long.  There were another set of double doors at the far end, and another opening covered with a plastic sheet on the north wall.  Two wide openings on the south wall lead into a large empty room scattered with debris from the grenade explosion.  There were a number of dead soldiers scattered across the floor. She was reasonably sure that no more soldiers were there.

As Hanna examined the corridor, Ling, Vallnam and Jacob were inspecting each computer bank, looking for the panel.  Ling described the panel to them, but they didn't see any that had anything like the configuration she described: A series of black and white checkered buttons with a small trapezoidal plate above them.  

Hanna came back into the Control Center and issued orders for her men to hunt down and kill any remaining Hertlingians in the complex.  Two Commandos checked a doorway on the north west wall.  Inside they found the kitchen, pantry and dining area.  There was a cook, now deceased.  Other doors lead into a power station room, and storage room.  On the south wall was a large circular door made of solid bronze.  Hanna eyed the door suspiciously.  Suddenly a crackling sound was heard, and as she turned Hanna saw another computer bank explode.  The upper half of the machine was engulfed in flames, and sparks showered the room.  She ordered her men to ignore the fire and continue the searching the premises.  

Seeing that the fires were spreading across the computer banks Vallnam glanced around looking for fire extinguishers.  The Power Station room seemed like a good bet. Suspecting more fires would break out there, he politely asked his purple-bubble suit to afford him some extra protection against heat, and dashed through the doorway.  Within he found one of the scientists cowering in a corner.  He had been separated from is peers by machinegun fire, and had taken refuge behind one of the heavy steel converters.  Seeing him, Vallnam pointed his machinegun at the gaunt little man in the white lab coat, and ushered him out into the Control Center where Hanna took charge of him.  

One of the Commandos investigating the storage room shouted that he found another door.  However, before he could complete his sentence there was an explosion and the Commando was hurled through the doorway, his armor shattered.  He died as he skidded to a stop below the main Observation Screen.  Hanna was down to two healthy Commandos, and one wounded.  She grimaced at the thought.

Inside the power station room Vallnam found a small rack of fire extinguishers and grabbed one.  He ran outside and began extinguishing the largest of the electrical fires.  It was spewing out a great deal of smoke and so visibility in the Control Center was rapidly diminishing.  At that moment a control box on the ceiling exploded with a shower of sparks and the overhead lights flickered out.

Hanna interrogated the scientist who had emerged from the supply room with single-minded ferocity. 

"What happened in there?" she asked coolly, pointing to the storage room where her Commando had just sacrificed his life.

"Things are exploding!" said the scientist, fearfully.  "Look around you!  Zee whole complex is going to be destroyed!  Vee are all going to die!"  he bellowed loudly.  

"Where did the other scientists go?" she demanded with a hiss.

"They vent to their deaths, like good scientists!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.

She grabbed his left hand and with a violent twist broke one of his fingers.  This caught the scientist's attention, and now he was suitably convinced by her brutal gaze and the searing pain shooting up his arm that the young and beautiful Major would torture him without hesitation or mercy for answers, and so his morale instantly collapsed.  He spilled out anything she wanted to know after that, and divulged that the other scientists had escaped through a secret tunnel that was accessible through a secret door in the conference room which could be accessed through the Power Station room.  

As he was struggling to put out the Control Center fires, Vallnam discovered a large red button under a small transparent dome on the computer bank he was spraying.  He wondered what it was for.  He had the notion that it was probably an Emergency button of some kind but declined to break the glass and press it on the grounds that he had no idea what the Nazis might consider a suitable response to an emergency.  He thought it safer to leave not-nearly-well-enough alone.  

"Weren't you people supposed to stop the Robots?!" demanded Hanna with a stomp of her boot. "Why the hell haven't you stopped the Robots, yet?!" she thundered at Jacob, who at the moment was hobbling forward with Ling at his side helping him along.  Hanna had just lost five of her eight Commandos in less than a minute and she was quite a bit beyond "extremely angry".

Hearing this, and realizing that Jacob was not in any condition to argue with the overwhelming young Major, Vallnam shouted back over his shoulder.

"That's what we're doing now, so why don't you shut your trap and help us find the button panel we're looking for?" he yelled over the commotion.  The room was loud with groaning, electrical explosions, and popping, sizzling, crackling computer fires.

"What damn buttons?!" she yelled back.

"We're looking for a panel array of black and white checkered buttons!" said Ling.  

"You!" Hanna shouted at the captive scientist, "Where the is the damn button panel?!"

The scientist wet his pants as he pointed to the large circular door on the south wall of the room.

"Alright, we need to open to this door!" she shouted.  "What happened to the Master Key?"

"I have it," said Ling.

"Over there!" Hanna yelled, pointing to the bronze door, and with this Ling ran forward, followed closely by Jacob who hobbled as quickly as he could behind her.  She took the Ludendorf's Master Key and slid it into the thin slot of the bronze trapezoidal plate next to the door.  As Jacob came up, there was a hiss, and the heavy bronze center-opening doors slid apart, revealing an inner chamber through the circular portal.  It was dark but they could make out an octagonal shaped chamber, filled with whirring, blinking computers.  Before they could take any further action, however, there was a burst of machinegun fire from within!  

Obliterator #5

And that is where we left things that evening.