“Would you like to join my fan club and be my pet?”
C’s Office, Camelot
In the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Northern Skeleton Coast, where no one is permitted to enter, lies… something. The US Military, a delegation of which is currently standing in C’s office looking at a handful of Hunters with suspicion, has called in a favour: only if the Hunters accept the mission will they find out anything about it. This has got “TOP SECRET” and “If you talk about this we will kill you” stamped all over it. (Right there on the bottom right corner of the manila file, in red ink. They have an actual rubber stamp for that.)
Hibachi-chan, James Burke, Phil Nhiles and Elres stare back with expressions ranging from coquettish to sceptical.
Do the military not have their own special agents for dealing with spooky stuff? Well, yes. They do. The Men Who Stare At Goats would absolutely have been asked to deal with this. So what happened to them? Nobody’s talking.
“You haven’t accepted the mission yet.”
What could possibly lie in the heart of Forbidden Territory, the region the Bushmen call The Land God Made In Anger, that could interest the US Military so much?
“You haven’t accepted the mission…”
Why would the Covenant agree to help the US on a mission to one of the most hostile places on the planet? It’s not like they have any ongoing agreements. Do they?
“You haven’t accepted…”
In the privacy of the Hunters’ thoughts, C says she’s not going to make them go. She’ll just keep scouring the ranks until someone says yes.
But of course, there’s no need. They all do.
C waits until Jakes has escorted the military delegation from her office. Just as she follows them out of the door, Jakes shoots a pointed glance back over her shoulder. C’s eyes narrow. She shakes her head, almost imperceptibly.
She taps the file. “As you know, in World War II the Nazis were keen to get their hands on anything that might give them a supernatural edge against the Allied forces. The Ark, Excalibur, the Grail… They even sent expeditionary forces to Iceland and Norway looking for Mjolnir and Gungnir, because nothing says Aryan Supersoldier more than wielding one of the weapons of the Norse gods.” She pauses, her gaze becoming distant for a moment. “Needless to say, we were very busy for a few years, even with help from the likes of Elizabeth St George.”
Her gaze focuses again, her expression sober. “The Americans recently uncovered some documentation that suggests the Nazis were looking for something of significance in Namibia, in what is now Forbidden Territory. They believed it to have been a secret cargo on the ill-fated Danish barque Kjøbenhavn, supposedly en route to Greenland, and carried into the desert by seven survivors in December 1928 or January 1929. Rather than doing the sensible thing, and asking us about it, they sent a team to look for it.” She sighs in the manner of a schoolteacher explaining to a parent that their child inadvertently murdered the class hamster. “That team vanished. They sent a spider to catch the missing fly, so to speak, in the form of a special forces unit. Two of them returned, in as much as the team sent to rescue them found two men in the desert. One of them was burned so badly he was mistaken for a corpse. He died three days later. The other had broken every single bone in his body and is still in recovery. He has not regained consciousness. Now they have asked for more specialist help, which the Covenant has agreed to provide.”
She projects a map of Namibia onto the wall. A red circle sits on the coast, around 70km south of the Angolan border. “This is your landing zone. Right on the edge of the Kaoko Belt. The US will provide equipment and supplies. As far as they are concerned, you are under their command while on mission. As far as we are concerned…” She shrugs, smiling a humourless smile. “Covenant business takes priority.”
LATER, OUTSIDE ONE OF THE COVENANT HQ MEETING ROOMS
Igraine opens the door to the Cardigan room. This isn’t the Maze — the meeting rooms here are decked out in wood panelling, with antique weapons mounted on the walls, old tapestries, cabinets hand-built by artisan carpenters sometime in the Nteenth century, and creaky floors. A heavy oval table made of oak polished to a dull sheen by centuries of use and care takes up most of the space. The chairs around it are high-backed, also made of wood, carved with knotted beading.
Standing at the far end of the room, looking out one of the leaded windows at what little he can see of the grounds from that angle, is a thick set, stern man with a military buzzcut wearing an American army uniform. Sitting at the table is another American soldier, in standard fatigues and sporting a dubious moustache. Neither of them looks comfortable, but dubious moustache man looks like he has an urgent need to be elsewhere.
“Do you need the bathroom?” Igraine asks brightly.
Moustache clears his throat with a grunt. “No. Thank you.”
The other man surveys the team with a thinly disguised look of disdain. “Colonel Moore,” he says. “Good to meet you.”
“Known in certain circles as King Kong,” says Moustache. “You might have heard of him.”
“And this is Master Sergeant Jon Cropredy,” Moore says. He keeps his face stern, but the more sensitive on the team get the sense he enjoys the epithet and Cropredy knows this. “We are here to brief you on further aspects of the mission that are important vis-a-vis getting you all adequately onboarded and intelligence-provisioned.”
Cropredy, staring at his own thumbs while he twiddles them, snorts to himself. Moore ignores him.
“We became aware of attempts made by the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany to penetrate the deserts of Kunene, an area of what is now known as Namibia, back in World War 2.” You can see him mentally adding, which we totally bailed you out of. You guys are basically French. “Initially, we thought maybe this was intended as revenge for the Herero Rebellion, but then we found notes and documents produced by Nazi scientists referring to some kind of artefact in the desert. We sent two missions to look for this artefact. The first one didn’t come back. The second one, made up of an entire unit of Special Ops, lost all but two men. Both of them came back severely injured.”
Cropredy doesn’t look up when he says, “There’s something in the desert that eats people, and I don’t mean the lions. There’s an anomaly there. I can sense it.”
The team realises that Cropredy is one of the Men Who Stare At Goats, a member of the Stargate Project. That makes Moore one of the Special Projects Division commanders.
“We had limited comms with the men on the ground while they were on task,” Moore says. “Much of what we could hear was garbled, with heavy interference.”
He puts a small device the size of a thick cellphone on the table and presses a button.
“KKKKKKSSSSSSSHHHHH-CLICK-SSSSSSHHHHHH What the fuck IS that? SSSSSSSHHHHHHKchurrrrrrrrr I’m out! I’m out! I’m jammed! SHHHHurrrrrrrrrr-CLICK-KSSSSSSS Me too! Me too! Fuck! Fuck! Nooooooo! I’m BURNING! KKKKKSSSSSHHHHHH“
The recording disintegrates into static punctuated by screaming.
“There’s more,” Moore says, “but that gives you the flavour of it. As far as well can tell, there’s something in the desert that stops weapons working, and it’s well defended by means we have not previously encountered.”
“Can you imagine?” Cropredy says, still staring at his thumbs with a weird, crooked grin. “We could end war.”
The team share the same funny feeling that he doesn’t quite mean that the way someone else might.
“This is why we need your help,” Moore says. “This is Top Secret, with the highest classification. I was going to ask you to sign NDAs, but your commanding officer told me that she would not permit that. She has, however, agreed to let you come under our command while on task. We have a vehicle outside to take you to the airport, where we have transport waiting.”
ON A BEACH IN NORTH-WESTERN NAMIBIA
A form suddenly appears by a shipwreck. The form is enormous, resembling a cross between a lion, a bear and a gila monster, apparently made of living woven black rubber. The figure looks around with an expression of puzzlement. A voice that might be made entirely of thought, or perhaps whispers on the wind, says, “What they intend for you need not happen. What could happen here need not happen. You can help. Wait here. They are coming.”
Vermifrax settles down on a handy piece of shipwreck. Thon had just been about to try the pastries at that new bistro. Thon had very much been looking forward to lunch. But that voice was not the normal, annoying, loud, somewhat deranged peanut gallery usually responsible for interrupting thon’s peaceful mental real estate. This voice was softer. Vermifrax hasn’t been around that long, just long enough to know that thon really likes those little pancakes you get with smoked salmon and caviar and start to wonder how thon has the means to pay for them, but thon thinks the words that go with that voice are kind and compassionate.
Maybe someone will be along with some lunch soon.
COVENANT PRIVATE AIRPORT, TOULOUSE, FRANCE
Merlin and Ffred are there to see the team off. This is unusual. They are all big boys and girls. Ffred rarely ventures outwith the Maze these days — makes it harder for people he doesn’t want finding him to find him
“Be careful,” Merlin says. “I don’t trust these Americans. I’ve fitted you all with bodycameras, and each of you take one of these. It’s an emergency beacon. If things go sideways, push the button.”
“Did you design these?” Elres asks suspiciously.
“For once, I am willing to admit that my devices can’t always be relied upon to do what you need them to in a moment of crisis, and so these are off the shelf. The only change I’ve made is to isolate them onto the Covenant network, so they can’t be received by anyone else, and nor can they be jammed by anyone else.”
“These American boys are up to something,” Ffred says. “There’s something important out there in the desert, and they want it. I don’t think they’ll want to share. So just be careful and watch your backs.”
Moore barks orders at his troops, extra loudly even though they are right there next to him. The team takes the hint and they get their gear on board.
The plane is an experimental VTOL craft. It has no insignia, so it’s not clear whether it’s a Covenant vehicle or it belongs to the SPD. It’s larger than an Osprey, and three jeeps are nestled in the hold in a line, as if waiting to be shat out. The accommodation is sparse, with most of the room being taken up by supplies, weapons, and the platoon of Black Ops soldiers who have come along to lend firepower. As well as the Black Ops, Moore and Cropredy, the SPD brought a translator with them, Warrant Officer Talia Sasser. She does her best not to stare at the Hunter squad, but there is a 17th century pirate, a Japanese schoolgirl, a bowtie-wearing nerd, and someone dressed as an Elfin warrior woman.
It’s not normal.
After several hours of flight, Cropredy calls, “If you would care to look out the port side, ladies and gentlemen, you will see the River Kunene. Make the most of it; it’s the last fresh water you will see outside of what is in those jerry cans until we’re done here.” He grins, and there is no humour in it. “It is HOT out there. If you run out of water, you die. A man dies of dehydration long before he starves. If you get separated from the rest of us, you die. If you get eaten by a lion, you die. There are many ways to die out there, and all of them involve you not paying attention and listening to what we tell you. Understand?”
He takes silence as confirmation.
“We’re coming in low to avoid the Namibian Defence radar.” Moore says. “No one is supposed to come here. It’s supposedly to protect the wildlife, but we don’t believe that and neither should you. If they find us, they will shoot on sight and shoot to kill, so the best bet is not to be found. From the moment you stepped on this plane, you came under my command, and I expect you to follow orders. You are here to assist us. We land, we get out, we offload, and the plane is leaving. If it stays here, we’ll be spotted, so all hands on deck to get the gear out.”
As he says that, the plane settles on a flat area near the sea, and everyone scrambles to get out and unload.
Burke takes one look at the shipwrecks and screams, “This coast be accursed!” Everyone looks at him. He’s not wrong.
Hibachi-chan unfurls the parasol she got from Merlin and skips daintily along the sand until she spots a strange figure sitting on one of the wrecks. “KAIJU!” she yells in absolute delight. She transforms into her magical alter-ego, Hibiki-tan, then star-steps over to the wreck in a cloud of pink glitter.
“Um, hello,” Vermifrax says.
Hibiki-tan offers a polite bow. “Konichiwa! Ikaga desu ka?”
Vermifrax is bewildered. “Konichiwa?”
Hibiki-tan squeals. “I FOUND A BABY KAIJU! I AM ADOPTING THE BABY KAIJU! Would you like to join my fan club and be my pet?”
“Is lunch provided?”
“I am sure the others have brought something to eat.”
“Then yes, lunch sounds marvellous.”
Hibiki-tan star-steps back to the others to tell them the monster is coming to tea. Burke takes one look at the shaggy behemoth ambling towards them and lets out a string of inventive 17th century expletives.
Moore sees Vermifrax and barks, “What the fuck is that?”
Immediately, an entire platoon of black ops soldiers bristles with weaponry, the business ends all pointed at Vermifrax.
A steely glint flashes in Hibiki-tan’s eye and Po-Po Kun, her magical racoon dog yokai companion, throws up a shield using his scrotum. Vermifrax peeks around the edge of the hairy, oversized ballsack and says, “Someone mentioned lunch?”
“Hello,” Elres says. “I’m Elres.”
“Oh. Thank goodness,” Vermirax replies. “Someone civilised. I am Vermifrax.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“It’s the strangest thing. One moment I was anticipating a rather splendid lunch appointment, and the next thing I knew I was here. And there was a voice — I often hear voices, telling me things, telling me what to do, so loud and so annoying — quite a lovely voice, really, telling me that I could help. Seemed very odd, but here you are, I suppose.”
“Yes. Here we are. You had better come with us.”
Hibiki-tan is obviously prepared to protect Vermifrax, and who is going to try to shoot something protected by a pink, sparkly, Japanese kitten girl and a magical yokai nutsack? Moore is not impressed, but Elres tells him it’s Covenant business.
Loading up the jeeps, Moore had intended to split the Covenant team across the vehicles, but no one else is willing to share a vehicle with Vermifrax, so Elres ends up driving one jeep with the rest of her team and Vermifrax on board. Moore and Sasser are in another with half the platoon, and Cropredy takes the third with the other half.
They head off into the desert, Po-Po Kun leaving a small pile of what looks to be gold nuggets behind him. It is hot, oppressive, like driving inside a giant oven with no respite. After a few miles they reach a scrubby tree and the convoy screeches to a halt. Sasser checks her watch.
“Where is she?” Moore demands.
“She’ll be here, sir. They have their own ways of telling time.”
“You can’t rely on primitive people,” Moore says. “Probably don’t even understand time. Can’t make a watch out of mud, Sasser.”
If looks could kill, Moore would be a pile of ash.
“She will be here,” Sasser repeats. “Sir.”
A few more minutes and then a beautiful woman steps out from behind a scrubby bush that could not possibly have hidden her. She is wearing a skirt made of calf skin and heavy strings of beads. Her skin, hair, and jewellery are covered in a paste of red ochre and butter, make her gleam like polished terracotta. There is something about the tilt of her smile as she greets Sasser, and the gleam in her eyes. This is a very intelligent woman.
“Watuwamo says we must move quickly,” Sasser says. “One of the village elders is very angry that she is doing this.”
“Why?” Elres asks.
“Women are not supposed to go to the Angry Land. No one is, but women especially so. It is the men who have the connections to their ancestors. Watuwamo is very unusual because she can speak to spirits. She has only agreed to help us find our lost men, but the man she calls Tate — his name is Mukuva — does not want her even to do that. He says we had no right to be there, so it is our own fault.”
“She will help us achieve our mission objective, Sasser. That was what we wanted her for,” Moore says.
“She is only helping us to look for our men, sir. The gods will not be angry with us if we only want to recover our men.”
“We’ll recover our men all right, assuming we find them on the way. Tell her we will do that.”
Sasser speaks to Watuwamo again.
“Why is the land angry?” Elres asks.
Sasser relays the question and the reply. “Mukuru — that is, God — was angry the day He made this place, and since then has come here whenever something has made Him angry. When you see God here, He is angry. It is a very dangerous place.” To this, Sasser adds, “Watuwamo’s village is about 12 miles that way.” She gestures with one arm. “If we really get into trouble, we may be able to find help there.”
Watuwamo leads them west, away from the coast. As the convoy sets off again, Hibiki-tan sees what looks like an old man on a mule watching them from a ridge about a quarter of a mile away. She star-steps over there, but he is gone. Mule tracks in dust lead in the direction of the village, and it seems Mukuva has been spying on them to see if Watuwamo would go against his word.
The way is slow going, although Watuwamo is a surprisingly fast walker given the terrain. The desert here is scrubby and stony, the ground hard-packed, although they can see the start of the dunes to either side of them. About an hour later, they are crawling over what might have once been a dry river bed when they spot a lion crouched over her kill.
Without warning, Vermifrax leaps from the vehicle and attacks the lion, cutting into the side of her with a huge sword. The lion fights back, biting deep into Vermifrax’s shoulder. Hibiki-tan leaps to Vermifrax’s defence and has no choice but to kill the lion, which is unlikely to survive with these injuries. Vermifrax sets about eating the lion.
The Special Ops soldiers bristle their weapons. It appears to be their standard response to anything.
Watuwamo shrieks. Some of the soldiers aim at her, confused. The convoy skids to a halt in a cloud of dust. Gesticulating furiously, Watuwamo yells at Sasser for about a minute and then walks away into the desert.
“What happened?” Elres asks.
“She says the lion was minding her own business, not hurting anyone, “Sasser explains. “That the lion belongs her, this is her place. There was no need to kill her, and now we have made the spirits angry. She did not come with us to hunt and kill, but to find out lost men. She will not help us any more.”
Moore swears, then glares at the Hunter team. “You wanted that thing. You got the thing. Keep it under control or I will shoot it myself.”
“I didn’t know I couldn’t eat it,” Vermifrax says mournfully. “I didn’t even really know what a lion is. I just thought maybe it was what counts as lunch around here. I am so hungry.”
Cropredy grins at them, and although it reaches his eyes, there is no humour in it. “We’re close enough for me to feel it, now. I can get us there.”
They climb back inside their jeeps and drive on, following Cropredy’s internal Stargate compass.
They leave the scrubland behind, and enter an area of stone and sand, mountains far ahead of them in the distance, the trunks of long-dead trees rising vertically from the desert floor like clutching, skeletal fingers. Lying on the ground is a skeleton. It is fully intact, an American-issue sidearm in one and a bottle of beer in the other. Draped across the collarbones is a set of dogtags. Cropredy lifts them with a stick, reads them, lets them drop.
“One of ours,” he says.
Phil climbs out of the jeep and scans the skeleton. The readings say that the bones have been exposed to some sort of reality tear, and the pattern resembles the one he saw when he scanned a pookle. These bones were living less than a week ago, yet the clothes are gone and the flesh is gone. It wasn’t scavengers — they would have scatted the bones. Something stripped everything from this man bar his gun, his tags and his beer, and left his remains lying in the dust.
They move on.
After a while, they see two piles of rocks, sitting in the middle of an otherwise barren expanse.
Burke feels a shiver in his bones. He leaps out of the jeep without waiting for it to stop and runs over to the ricks. Sure enough, his guts tell him he must take a stone from the ground and place it on one of the piles then pass between them without looking back. Having done this, unable to turn round lest he see the piles, Burke sends Wee Mara back to stop the jeep before Elres drives it through the gap.
Wee Mara runs back, jumps into the jeep, and bites Elres on the ankle. Elres stamps on the brakes.
“Ye need to take a stone and add it to the pile, pass between and NOT look back. It be a gateway,” Burke yells.
The others shrug. Could be superstition, or could be something else. It can’t hurt to do it.
Everyone except Elres gets out of the jeep and follows Burke’s example. Elres opens the door enough to lean down and pick up a rock, then drives slowly between the piles. She lobs the rock onto the pile with graceful accuracy and drive on through. Vermifrax finds a boulder and tosses it onto the nearest pile. The boulder is about twice the size of the pile it has now crushed into the sand.
“Ye need to tell the others to do the same thing!” Burke says, seeing the other two jeeps passing the boulder piles either side, neither of them even slowing down.
Elres picks up the radio and tells the other two jeeps they need to stop, come back, and follow Burke’s instructions.
“Ignore that!” Moore barks across the channel. “We are not here to pander to silly, primitive superstitions!”
Phil grabs the microphone from Elres. “You asked us here to help you. This is magic. This is Covenant territory. We’re the experts here. You’re not. You know nothing about this. We do. We are giving you good advice that will keep you safe, and you’re dismissing it as a primitive superstition as if you know all there is to know about it when really you know nothing. Do as we say.”
“You’re here to take orders, not give them!” Moore snarls back.
At that moment, they hear a strange noise. It sounds like thunder, like pigs at a slaughterhouse, like a pack of hungry dogs closing in on their prey. There is a pulsing, blood-curdling rhythm to it.
Hibiki-tan flies up above the jeep. Arrowing in on their location from either side and ahead are clouds of dust with something big and black galloping at the centre of them.
“Something’s coming!” she calls, then flies across to Moore’s jeep and snatches Sasser from the passenger seat. She jumps backwards, landing awkwardly, but dropping Sasser close enough to reach the rock piles. Sasser grabs a stone and adds it to the pile before closing her eyes tight and walking forward to join the others.
“I am telling you,” Phil says. “Get back here and do as you are told!”
“Listen to me, you jumped up little weirdo—”
They never get to find out what Moore has to say for himself. At that moment, a monster the size of a small rhino slams into the side of Moore’s jeep and rolls it over. Seconds later, another one hits Cropredy’s jeep. The third stops, looks at the team huddled together by the piles of rocks. It looks something like a rhino, something like a wild boar, something like a painted dog. It is a Namibian Dog-headed Pig monster.
Vermifrax rushes to where Moor’s jeep is lying on its side and shoots the DHPM in the head with a hand cannon. The monster totters back a few steps then shakes it off, snarl-grunting, and attacks Vermifrax, biting into him with huge, tusk-like teeth.
Vermifrax staggers backwards and collapses, seriously injured. Hibiki-tan squeals in horror and casts a heal spell on Vermifrax, wincing as it takes its toll, then special move GREEN REFLECTION to surround Vermifrax with a magical barrier. The DHPM examines its own reflection briefly, then returns to attacking Moore’s jeep.
As gunfire rattles the air, Elres tries to Banish the DHPMs. But these are not lesser creatures. They have a power and weight she has not experienced before. Instead, several small, silvery beings like anthropomorphic moths fly out from about her person, making Hibiki-tan clap with delight. They are spies put there by Queen Maedhbh, who no longer trusts Elres to report on everything. When Elres speaks to them, they tell her that the DHPMs are not of the Fae. They are protectors. They are supposed to be here. This is their job. They are not interested in the team because the team did the right thing when entering the Angry Land and paid their respects to the gate spirits. The men in the other two jeeps did not. The only reason the DHPM bit Vermifrax was because Vermifrax attacked it.
Cropredy staggers over, grabs a rock, adds it to the pile. “Come on,” he says.
“What about everyone else?” Burke asks. “What about yer men?”
“What men?” Cropredy asks with that crooked not-grin. “Look. There’s something out there, and I’m going to see it. With or without you.”
Vermifrax has to travel on the jeep roof to make space. They drive on until they reach a vast plain. The plain is home to coarse, wiry grass in which perfect circles have formed. They are everywhere, not a scrap of vegetation growing within them.
Phil takes one of his scanners and uses it on the closest circle. “The readings remind me of what I was seeing with the pookles,” he says. “Just like that skeleton, but much, mouch stronger. I think that means there is some sort of interdimensional reality tear happening here.”
At that moment, in the distance, they see a shimmering column of silvery-lilac form, perfectly cylindrical where it meets the ground, twisting into a more sinuous shape as it disappears into the atmosphere. Another one springs up not far from them, and for the briefest moment, a bayonet emerges.
“Maybe this is why they called it the Angry Land,” Elres says. “They saw these tears and thought it meant God was angry.”
“Let’s go,” Cropredy growls. “That way.”
They head out across the plain. Around them, reality vortices punch down to or up from the ground — sometimes simultaneously — at frequent but irregular intervals. When column springs up right by the jeep, Elres manages to wrench the wheel to one side, avoiding it, but Vermirax falls from the roof, landing with a thud. They stop the jeep so thon can get back on, and in that twisting column of torn reality, see some distant, possibly far-future city being razed to the ground.
Vermifrax hoiks the cargo net over thonself and bangs on the roof.
They roll to a stop at the bottom of a ridge at the far side of the torn land. The jeep can go no further. Now they have to go on foot.
Vermifrax grabs water and some rations, easily able to carry one of the 30 litre containers. As the team climbs the rock, an aeroplane drones in over head, and they see a line of parachutes like specks in the sky.
“Namibian Defence troops,” Cropredy says, his grin widening for a moment. “We’d best get moving.”
The air carries the ypping, chattering call of hyenas. Behind them, half a dozen animals like large dogs with an odd, lopsided gait are heading towards the drop zone where the defence troops are coming down.
“They didn’t pass through the gate,” Burke observes. “Poor bastards.”
Hibiki-tan conjures Love Boomerang Melody and throws up a barrier between the Strandwolf and themselves.
At the top of the ridge they can see out across what appears to be a river of sand a mile or more across. Right in the middle, an island in the stream, an outcrop of rock gleams obsidian black.
“There!” Cropedy calls, pointing at it. He’s already most of the way down the ridge. “It’s over there!”
“Wait while I cast me bones,” Burke says, taking a small leather bag from around his neck and emptying its contents onto the ground. A fistful of knuckle bones tumble over one another into a haphazard arrangement. As he tries to focus on their destination, it feels like the inside of his mind is on fire. An astronomer might liken it to the Big Bang. A Trekkie might liken it to the Genesis Device.
Burke’s a 17th century pirate. “That feels like the Hand of God,” he whispers.
From the sands below, three giant elephants charge towards them. Another pack of strandwolf, coming at them from either end of the ridge, see the Onjou and trot back down to join the other pack defending their part of the territory.
The first Onjou tramples Cropredy into the sand without slowing. One of the others approaches Vermifrax at ramming speed, grabs thon with its trunk and slams thon into the ground. A great vibration comes from the Onjou, infrasound so loud it makes the sand quiver and liquefy. Vermifrax finds thonself up to the waist in the sand, the ground packed tightly around thon.
Another Onjou smacks Phil around the head with its trunk, and gores him.
Vermifrax digs thonself out of the ground and cries, “Wait!” The apocalypse engine within thon’s chest rotates once, reaching out with its innate power. Cracks shiver in the fundament of the world.
One Onjou turns and peers at Vermifrax.
“We mean no harm. What is this place?”
“This is the Cradle, where we protect the Earth Power of Life. It is one of the Great Powers, and it is the meaning of our existence to protect it,” the Onjou says.
“That sounds very fulfilling,” Vermifrax replies.
The Onjou stops. “Yes. It is. We only exist because of it. Our purpose is to protect it. Our being is to fulfil that purpose. In protecting the Life Power we find fulfilment.”
“We do not mean to harm it. There’s no need to kill us,” Vermifrax says, “although I suppose you must take some enjoyment from it, as it is a means of fulfilling your purpose.”
“Our fulfillment comes from ensuring the Power is protected.”
There is a muffled scream. One of the other Onjou has squashed Phil into the sand.
“You have no need to protect it from us.”
Vermifrax quickly relays what thon has learned to the others, then says, “Thank you,” to the Onjou.
The Onjou bows, bending one knee and lowering her head. “Well met, Vermifrax. I hope you find your own fulfilment.”
She moves away, leading the other two Onjou to stand.
Cropredy levers himself to his feet, draws his side arm and aims at an Onjou. Hibiki-tan yells, ” HONEY MIST THUNDER!” and smacks him on the head with her demonic yo-yo. Cropredy focuses on her, staring. His face turns puce with effort. He is trembling. Hibiki-tan feels a crushing pain in her chest. “HENTAI!” she screams furiously, and twats him over the head with her wand.
“We were here to help the Americans, were we not?” Burke says, looking at Cropredy. “For the only help we can give him now is to obtain the assistance of a sawbones. That place is touched by God, and I have no desire to approach any further.”
“Agreed, Burke-san,” Hibiki-tan says. “We must get help for Phil-kun. We should go no further. This place is protected, and rightly so. This is the time to use the emergency beacons that Merlin-san gave us.”
“Someone find Phil’s box,” Elres says, and they go through his pockets until they find it.
Vermifrax grabs Cropredy and drags him closer, bringing everyone close so they are ready for pick-up. Thon goes to Phil and lifts him out of the depression in the ground where he has been stomped into the dirt. No one stops thon. Hibiki-tan doesn’t see what thon is doing. Elres was raised by the Fae and was prevented from doing her first aid at work training by the arrival of pookles. Burke is from a time where they hadn’t even developed germ theory yet. Vermifrax simply hasn’t existed long enough to know not to move someone with suspected spinal injuries.
Phil had three displaced spinal fractures. Vermifrax’s well-meaning but ill-advised assistance severs Phil’s spinal cord at the C2 Axis, killing him.
Within ten minutes of pressing the button, a shape appears in the air. It is Dante, and they are carrying Kowalczyk, one of the Cleaners. Dante lands and Kowalczyk surveys the damage.
“What the fuck do you call this?” the Cleaner demands. “You are like children. You shouldn’t be allowed out without adult supervision.” They mutter some complex code into a radio clipped to their jacket near the collar, then take a gleaming metal device from a box Dante was carrying. In moments, Phil’s skull and what can be salvaged of his spinal cord are in a cryogenic preservation unit.
A chopper arrives not long after that, and the team departs, watched by three Onjou and a pack of Strandwolf.
“Oh no!” exclaims Hibachi-chan as they pass over the north African coast. Everyone turns to look at her. “We forgot the translator!”