Page 1A fox’s tail twitched to the sound of clockwork chimes marking the early morning hour. The Baron of Argenstrath turned his eyes from the crackling fireplace as a familiar face walked in through the broad parlor doors. Nester would raise the folded slip of parchment to Clay as he approached the baron’s chair.
Jonathan Clay, Steward to the House Delgado, took the page and slipped into the high-back chair opposite the baron. His eyes carefully examined over the words before folding the page again and placing it on the small table between them.
As the baron’s chief advisor began to speak, orange eyes cut through him with a stern gaze.The whole house had been on edge since the incidents at the masquerade. There was rumor of the technocracy tightening its grip, which meant certain freedoms could soon be restricted.
“I understand my baron,” Clay offered. “I’m just as concerned as you are.”
The baron relaxed his shoulders and turned his eyes back towards the flame, his tail idly flipping against the Gelvin rug his ancestors once brought back with them from the Eastern Sun Empire. Jonathan wondered briefly if the Gelvin monks ever imagined a mechanical tail like the baron’s. After all the stories Clay had heard of the once great civilization, something like the sight before him might not have gone amiss.
“But I can assure you Nester that this room and the others have been thoroughly inspected several times by our top men. There are no ears on the estate that we do not already know about. I even checked this room personally, twice.”
The baron nodded briefly, picked up the folded slip of paper, and began to run his fingers against the edges. He looked to Clay once more before tossing the page into the open flame, the paper immediately burst into ash.
“If only they knew.”
Page 2Earlier that evening.
Captain Tiberius growled as he stood there staring into the expansive tunnel with eight members of the baron’s personal guard preparing their equipment directly behind him. They are the infamous Black Sleeves. Water freely flowed freely through the wide sewer system, a maze of cobblestones beneath the city, and into the expansive bay lit only by the light of the full moon.
Known for their stealth and cunning, their speed and marvelous agility despite the heavy plate armor, the Black Sleeves were the unseen protectors of the House Delgado and the city of Argenstrath. No one asked to join their ranks, they were chosen to.
“This won’t be the first time we’ve cleaned out these sewers,” sighed Wrecks. “Don’ t these guys ever learn?” Wrecks had been a bobby, moonlighting as a thief, before he’d been recruited. However bad his past looked on paper, his cause had been noble and there were few among their ranks who could challenge his blade.
Wrecks and Ardan took the time to adjust their black armor as to be best suited for swift close quarters combat. There would be more points vulnerable to ranged attacks, but in this fashion, the very plates that guarded their bodies would become weapons. Cormac and Harte in a similar fashion adjusted their armor for the greatest ease and silence moving through the rushing water. How to wear, adjust and move in their heavy plate armor was crucial to every Black Sleeve. The Umbak-Tai, or “way of the shield,” a technique developed by the Eastern Sun military, had become their trademark fighting style.
“He’s right. This’ll be the third time we’ve cleaned these tunnels this year alone. Why haven’t they graduated to abandoned warehouses or factories yet?” Rothschild gave a sly smirk as he performed a final check of his fire team partner’s gear.
It was the purpose of the Black Sleeves to protect the House Delgado first and foremost, and that meant keeping Argenstrath safe from those who would see the city burn. Of course every city in Antiford had its criminal elements to be dealt with by the local authorities, but some things were best kept from the public eye.
A recent increase in Prush mercenary activity and countless reports of kidnapped Vibranni had caught the baron's attention. The local bobbies saw this as Prush criminals looking to do some robberies and migrants simply skipping town, but the baron had his own theories as dark as they may be. For months now the Black Sleeves raids had been revealing no clues to who or what was behind it all, but strange creatures had been spotted emerging from the outlet they now stood in front of and there was no telling what lurked within those tunnels.
Rothschild and Obrik would work in tandem to create one powerful offense weapon. As an aegis, Obrik wielded a broad, curved bulwark engraved with the House Delgado sigil, and an agile blade while Rothschild, the cannoneer, would discharge his weapon, a K-305 mechanized cannon, over Obrik’s shoulder. Lightweight for its size, the K-305 was an extraordinary weapon produced by Tuff Man. Contracted by the baron himself for the sole use by the Black Sleeves, only a few people knew how many Tuff Man had produced and the Black Sleeves liked to keep it that way.
Despite being vulnerable from the sides and rear, anything in front of them rarely stood a chance. Once the gunner was convinced his Obrik’s equipment was satisfactory, the rows of ammunition and fuel for the rifle strung down his back, he hefted the bulwark in place over the shield’s back.
“I’m not so sure about that,” said Ardan, a bodkin like Wrecks, as he checked his firearm for the third time. Though bodkin preferred the silent sting of the blade, there was always a reason to carry a small firearm in addition to their obsidian daggers. “This doesn’t feel like all the other times.”
“Quiet,” grumbled Tiberius, his single crimson eye glared deep into that black abyss in front of them. His powerful stature spoke more of his veteran status than did his cropped, ghostly white hair or the jagged scar across his face. “This tunnel wasn’t here last week.”
Page 3A chilling calm suddenly fell over the team. Cormac and Harte, the group’s badeken, moved a few feet into the expansive tunnel and closer toward Tiberius who was standing in the shadows as the water flowed past his knees. The rest of the team was close behind as they began trying their best to keep up with the calculating mind.
“It looks like its been here forever,” awed Harte. “How did they pull this off?” As a badeken, he was highly skilled with the pistols he carried, but still rather proficient with throwing light blades. A badeken’s job was cleaning out crowded rooms in a hurry.
“Hmpf.” The chiseled tower of muscle and metal stood unimpressed. He began to point out what to him would seem obvious. “Put your eyes to use. Those drains on the sides don’t lead anywhere; see how the water only flows this way? These stones aren’t right either, probably stolen from some quarry. The rest was probably stolen as well.” The man of few expressions trailed off in thought as he moved in closer toward the first curve in the ten-foot wide tunnel. “No man could have built this.”
“What about a team of men?” asked Gilmore, looking towards his captain. “Fifty or so?”
“We would’ve spotted fifty men, even ten,” rebuffed Ardan.
“And there’s no way they could’ve taken this much stone without us knowing,” added Obrik. “They would’ve needed a massive vehicle just to get it here with half a year’s time.”
“No,” interrupted Tiberius. “No men, no vehicle. Ardan is right. We would have seen them move it. This could only have been brought in one of two ways, through a connecting aqueduct, or by sea.”
“Well then it’s simple,” offered Jy-lot, Gilmore’s firing team partner. “Clearly they brought in the stone through the main city aqueduct on carts. After all, this water is coming from somewhere, right?”
“But smell it!” scoffed Obrik. “You smell that? Me neither! This water is fresh!”
Wrecks gruffly hit Obrik on his expanded shoulder pauldron to get his attention. When Obrik turned to look, the first thing he saw was waste flowing past the team. The gunner grimaced a little before Wrecks smacked him harder this time and pointed to Tiberius who was now holding what appeared to be an arm, severed brutally by the looks of it from whatever poor soul likely never made it out of that dark place.
Obrik turned back to Wrecks who was now fitting the chinstrap to his helmet and air mask. Their investigation was over. The mission was now underway, seek and destroy.
Tiberius was last to slip on his headgear: a light helmet, air mask and blood red goggles. Now that the prismglass lenses aided their sight, the team could now see the tunnel well beyond their position as even the faintest amount of light reflecting off the water would ignite the scene all around them.
The only sound was the steady flow water as the team of Black Sleeves made their way fifty yards deep into dank interior of those tunnels. As they progressed, the amount of details in the tunnel walls gradually became less remarkable as the water gradually became deeper and the stone turned to metal.
Page 4The change in scenery allowed voices to carry from up ahead. Tiberius stopped his team with a gesture and commanded Cormac and Ardan to scout the area up ahead while the rest of the team sidled up against the cool walls.
They would wait in silence for only a few minutes before Ardan returned and relayed what he’d seen. Three armed guards, vulnerable.
Tiberius gestured to Wrecks and Harte to help Ardan clear the path while the rest of the team slowly advanced behind them.
The three of them moved swiftly against the current and were soon coming up behind Cormac. There a few feet further was a large open area with a catwalk system raised above the water. To the team, the place seemed like a staging area of sorts. There were two light sources on either side and enough room for a dozen men or more, but just three armed guards roamed about on the catwalk.
The Black Sleeves readied their blades and submerged themselves; only their black helmets exposed above the surface of that murky water. Together they advanced upon the catwalk from below.
Cormac and Harte made their way to the opposite end of the tunnel and peered into the area ahead to ensure the tunnel was clear of possible interruptions; Wrecks and Ardan took position directly below the mercenaries.
Small darts would whizz past, each taking out a light as the guards whirled about to find the source. They would ready their guns just before the lights at the other end of the tunnel failed them as well. They would squint desperately in the dark. Despite the urgency, they never noticed their killers emerging from the water beneath them, silently making their way onto the catwalk.
A grunt. A hushed whimper. Two splashes into the water.
The remaining sentry dropped his gun and pulled his knife. His heart raced with fear as he tried to control his shaking arm that his mind never registered something that could have spared him a moment longer, his gun never hit the catwalk.
He turned on his feet, checking behind and becoming paralyzed with fear, as inches from his face were two red lenses staring back at him. The mercenary was powerless to stop the blade from slicing across his neck or the blood dripping down his chest.
Wrecks lowered the last body carefully down to Tiberius waiting below with the rest of the team in the water around him.
The commander rolled the body in the current, quickly checking his features, any identification and whatever items he could easily find. It was clear this confirmed the baron’s suspicions he thought to himself. These were clearly Prush mercenaries. That meant whoever was in charge wanted men who would do whatever their buyer asked of them so long as the money was good. Such men could make for good soldiers, but they couldn’t have been the main force behind this group. Tiberius knew these men were just fodder for something much more dangerous, something to be feared.
Page 5From the end of the catwalk, Ardan signaled back to the commander. The area beyond contained six more armed guards and judging by the glow coming through the tunnel it was apparent the next room was well lit.
Tiberius glanced around the room for a moment. With a quick glance, he ordered his team back into the water.
“I hate being in these tunnels,” said the Techno-Prush mercenary Lieutenant Mindle. “Everything is wet and it’s not like anyone is going to come through here anyway, what’s the point?”
“Oh? You’d rather be in there? With those…things?” rebuked another mercenary, Captain Best, pointing at the large steel door directly behind them.
“Well…maybe, I mean…,” stuttered Mindle as he nervously scratched at his short beard.
“Did you forget what happened to Karl!?”
“I’m sorry man,” whimpered Mindle, his face turning a pale green. “I get it. It’s good to be on tunnel duty. I’m good. Really. We can stop talking now.”
“First the creature tears his arm off and as Karl’s lying on his back screaming,” started Best as he began to almost mime the scene he was describing with his wrenching hands, “then the other one just comes up and tries to take a piece of his foot! Karl’s writhing there screaming and kicking, the doctor’s just standing there taking notes like it’s some sorta experiment!”
Mindle quickly shouldered his weapon, took hold of the rail and leaned his body over before releasing his rations into the water below. He arched his back and coughed several times before his body went slack from exhaustion, his comrade continuing with his grilling.
“I’m very happy with tunnel duty!” said Best as he walked over to help his comrade. “You should be grateful they can’t hear you complain about it. What’s going to happen to us out here? Huh? At least we’d see it coming, right?”
Best reached out and grabbed the other sentry by the shoulder to pull him up. “Come on now, pull yourself….Mindle?”
Mindle’s lifeless body rolled against the rail and slumped to Best’s feet with a black blade extending outward from his forehead.
Best snatched his hand back, his eyes opened wide and the color instantly drained from his skin before he was suddenly grabbed him from behind. In an instant, a massive phantom hand twisted Best’s arm about in agonizing pain. The guard captain clenched his eyes shut and cried out in pain.
When he opened his eyes, he could see four black specters leaping upon the remaining sentries. It was all over in a matter of seconds.
Best trembled in fear as the armored figures in front of him sheathed their blades and drew nearer with four more coming in through the corridor behind them.
Together the eight of them silently stood there, their vacant red lenses staring back into those frightened eyes as they watched patiently. Tiberius gave the man’s arm a small, subtle twist of incentive.
“I…I won’t tell you anything!” Best cried. “I know who you are! You…you’re not supposed to exist! When the Technocracy hears you were down here…they’ll…they’ll…”
The eight remained at attention. It wasn’t about what they would do to him, that much was already obvious from the bodies.
“Okay…Okay…if you promise to let me go, I’ll help you and…and…I won’t say anything to anyone, I swear!”
The only sounds were the constant dripping of water and the thumping of Best’s heart as it pounded against his chest as though it were trying to escape on its own.
“Alright, alright! The door only opens from the inside. Thyous wants it that way. He…”
The last thing Best saw as his head twisted backwards was the blaze of that one red eye as it pierced his very soul.
Page 6Tiberius dropped the body to the catwalk, the team waited obediently for his next command. His words were low and without emotion, solely bent on seeing the mission through.
“I want eyes on the other side of this door and get it ready to blow.”
Harte and Cormac moved up past Tiberius and went to work. Harte reached into a pouch hidden beneath the plate on his arm and retrieved a long glass tube with a sphere at one end, a spirit key. Inserting it into the lock mechanism, the gas from the sphere would fill the space and devour the inner workings from within.
Cormac searched for hollows in the door itself using an acoustiscope, a device used to amplify reverberations in metal, and a tiny hammer. Once he had found a few, he began to drill tiny holes with a jester’s twitch until it successfully made it all the way through to the other side. After that, he slipped a flexible tube through and handed the other end to Tiberius.
The commander pulled Cormac back and took the other end of the small periscope. That red eye of his back and forth through the wide-angle lens and immediately Tiberius recognized the room as a prison.
Strong steel doors lined the walls. Each cell had a small porthole to view in and tubes and other strange devices feeding into them in a discouraging scene, but this was certainly not the soldier’s biggest concern.
Tiberius screwed up his eye trying to understand what he was looking at, a strange creature that was carrying several more bodies upon its burly shoulders. It idly dropped a Vibranni corpse into an open grate that fed into the canal beneath the facility.
There were dozens of them, large beasts resembling something between alligators and men. They seemed to grunt and snarl at one another with their long snouts, bearing jagged teeth and pushing one another with bodies covered in mechanical components. Tiberius figured the gears and servos were what enabled them to adapt to their upright position and possibly what was keeping the abominations alive. There were a few Prush mercenaries in the room, but they seemed to be keeping their distance and more concerned about watching the creatures than the cell doors.
Tiberius growled to himself.
The baron had been right in assuming that the mad scientist had gone underground in Argenstrath. The very man who had left the baron forever altered was likely somewhere in those very tunnels. This was what they’d been looking for these last months, but no one could have anticipated the scene they were about to reveal.
Tiberius took one last glance through the periscope before withdrawing it and handing it back to Cormac just as he and Harte had finished prepping the door with an explosive compound. Tiberius gazed at his ready men for a moment before giving them a solemn nod.
“Your duty is first to the baron, then to me and I want you to kill every last thing that breathes in that room. I cannot explain to you what your target is, but know that it will want to kill you before you kill it. If you hesitate, it will kill you. If you fail me, I will kill you. This is it gentleman. This is what we’ve been searching for. We pull the enemy into the kill zone. Cover the exits, hold position and await orders.”
The eight figures saluted their leader; the bodkins and badeken took positions on either side of the door, the firing teams readied their weapons.
Rothschild took position behind his firing partner, Obrik, on one side of the opening with Gilmore and Jy-lot on the other. Each cannoneer would retrieve ammunition from the back of their aegis before opening the stock of their weapon and inserting the exchange canister of Hydrolite and Miterzine. The aegis readied their tall shield and the deadly blade they concealed behind it.
Tiberius stood back and surveyed his team.
“Get ready to see some really weird shit.”
He gave the command. Cormac hit the detonator.
Page 7The door imploded violently into the next room and cloud of smoke and debris instantly overwhelmed the adjacent guards. They could not see the black shadows moving around them nor the darkness they would bring. A slash of a blade and it was over for them as Ardan and Wrecks swiftly cleared the opening with their grim talents.
The cannoneers would slam the back end of their weapons powerfully against the ground causing the compounds inside the canisters to become volatile almost instantly with a tremendous amount of pressure. The gauges on the side of each K-305 would swell deep into the red. Dropping the barrels on the shoulders of the aegis, they pulled their triggers in unison and violent stream of metal spikes began slicing apart any flesh in their way.
The badeken kept low as they fired their pistols, diving beneath the hail of fiery lead screaming through the air above their heads.
The Black Sleeves inside the room would move almost unseen as all the attention was on the steady stream of fire and those creations of nightmares would not hesitate to assault the firing teams. They had no fear in their eyes, only rage in their blood. Those that reached the large steel shields would receive an unwelcoming blade from either aegis or misguided rounds from the panicking mercenaries who were unable to breach those shields.
Ardan and Wrecks made their way along one of the walls towards a small nest of hidden mercenaries. They split up and flanked the enemy. One dark figure would bound over their cover, slashing at the main hand of a Prush. As the other two turned to draw down on Ardan, Harte slipped in unseen behind them. A warm splash against his face would cause the remaining mercenary to cry out against his fate and immediately begin to unload at the silhouette before him only to witness the body of his comrade being used a shield to intercept those wasted rounds. Harte finished the man, turning his scream to a gargle.
It was fortunate for the badeken that the creatures in the room seemed far more preoccupied with the cannoneers. They were withstanding many rounds and though Cormac wasn’t interested in finding out just how many, Harte found one such abomination seemingly unable to operate one of his mechanical legs and decided to get a closer look and perhaps locate a weak spot.
The thing swung its head about violently as it caught Harte moving in from behind. Harte was quick, but the creature was quicker. Those teeth carved through that armor, crushing it like a tin can, immediately pinned Harte to the ground. Cormac dove upon the creature and began shooting it in head repeatedly as it used its bloodstained teeth to wrench apart his screaming comrade’s arm. It took half a magazine before the creature dropped to the ground, the metal plate beneath its scales oozed with dark blood.
“I gotcha,” Cormac panted as he pried apart those jaws. Harte clutched his crippled arm in agony, but the two of them were able to pull back to a safe spot among the cell doors.
“You okay?” Cormac asked as he reloaded and began taking shots at anything that drew near.
“Yeah,” winced Harte. “I think I can still kick your ass.” His arm was a mess, but the pinched armor was slowing the blood loss.
Jy-lot was busy stabbing at the alligator head tearing into the side of his shield that he couldn’t get at the one squirming past him on his exposed flank. Wide, bloodthirsty jaws opened and darted towards Gilmore’s throat. Blood flowed heavily down the chest of the soldier’s armor but he held fast in covering the wounded badeken. Tiberius grabbed the creature’s long muzzle with both hands and pried it open with a powerful snap; the creature immediately fell limp to the ground. Gilmore staggered a moment longer before he collapsed upon his killer. Tiberius caught the rifle from his soldier’s hands and coldly resumed firing, stopping only briefly to load another canister of fuel.
In just over a minute, the team of Black Sleeves had managed to take out eight Prush and over a dozen of those hideous creatures.
Tiberius and Rothschild relieved the remaining pressure in their firearms with a powerful hiss of vapor as the rest of the team took up positions around the room as they secured the area. Wrecks threw Gilmore’s lifeless body over his shoulders and Cormac did his best to refit Harte's armor after Jy-lot had a chance to examine the deep lacerations along the soldier’s arm.
Before the revolution, Jy-lot had been an aspiring young student of medicine. He was seasoned in the field as his first experience treating patients was on the front lines. Where other medics hesitated to brave field of battle, Jy-lot would be dodging enemy fire, retrieving body parts and putting them back together with no complaints and his knowledge of anatomy made him deadly with a blade in his hand.
Tiberius moved into the remains of the prison and with a flick of his hand commanded the awaiting men to move forward deeper into the room and to scan the next one.
“Sir,” said Ardan as he rushed up to his commander and slipped off his helmet, the sweat matting his blond hair to his head. “The next area is sealed off. Someone must have fallen back to alert the others.”
“Ardan, Wrecks,” commanded Tiberius, nodding to the bodkins. “Flank the seal. Obrik, Rothschild, back them up in case anymore come through. Harte, take Gilmore’s gear. Cormac, Jy-lot, sweep the area and check the cells.”
Harte winced and cringed as he hefted the large gun, but in his current state, he was useless in a fight otherwise. He moved in close to the group surrounding the door. Harte had been a dock worker before the revolution and was one of the first to see The Arbiter set sail. But when the docks were seized, Harte banded with a handful of strong men to retake them. There was a fire in his eyes that day that still burned in his heart.
The new door was different from the last. As Ardan quickly discovered in his investigation, this door had no lock, no handle or any means of opening from their side of it. There was a very narrow division between the two segments, but aside from that the segments seemed incredibly dense and heavy with no weakness to be found. The walls around them would crumble to dust before this door would open with any large amount of explosive.
Tiberius roughly kicked aside one tooth-filled head, forever locked in a malicious grin.
“And someone figure out what sort of demon spawn these things are.” The veteran of so many wars and had seen so many strange things in his lifetime, stood there with a mix of thoughts running through that scared head of his. This was something new. He knew Thyous had created the things, but how? What were they and how had they known to attack them and not the Prush?
“Sir!” called out Cormac from one row of prison doors that lined the far wall. His voice gave out an unfamiliar squeak of fear and uncertainty. “You’re going to need to see this.”
Now, there aren't many things in Orr that can surprise a man like the Captain of the Black Sleeves, but for the first time in a long time, Tiberius stood dumbfounded by what he saw through the porthole in the cell. As Jy-lot was steadily gathering up anything that wasn't nailed down, Cormac and Tiberius starred in disbelief at the suspended body of Captain Willhelm Karsett.
Karsett had been blown to bits only months before and here he was fresh and new, not a scar on him. A series of cables and harnesses kept the body in the air as tubes and wires connected it to any number of machines. Aside from the fact the body appeared to be the correct age, he had clearly been carefully groomed to look just as he had the day he gave his life to save his men.
“Get him out of there,” Tiberius said coldly.
Hearing those words, Cormac blinked away his disbelief and shook the chill from his body.
Cormac used to work aboard a merchant vessel, a large one too. He had started as a cabin boy in his early years an worked his way up, that was until they were boarded by pirates. Most of the crew was killed, but they had spared Cormac as a hostage. He spent years aboard that ship, eventually becoming a pirate himself.
The cell door opened with a hiss of rising steam and Cormac moved in quickly and began retrieving the body, unplugging and removing anything attached.
“Put something over his face," Tiberius went on much quieter. "I don’t want any more questions right now that we already have. Let’s finish this and be done with it. We find Thyous and kill him. We’ll figure this out later, understand?”
Cormac took a moment to give the body a brief examination. He was almost overjoyed it was breathing, but kept it to himself for the time being. He tore the shirt from a deceased mercenary hanging on an open cell door and slipped it over Karsett’s head.
“What about the rest of the cells, anything?” Tiberius said. Between everything that he’d seen so far the captain was ready to burn the place to the ground and leave.
“Most of them are empty,” said Cormac hefting up the body. “The ones that aren't…”
“Hey!” called Jy-lot from another section of the cells. “Looks like some of these Vibranni are still alive!”
Deep in the dark shadows lurked an oddly shaped figure, small and slender yet it had an sign of intelligence as it went about slinking around against the stone and steel. It could hear the soldiers move about, but it dare not investigate. It knew what would become of it if captured, and it knew what it had to do. It moved to the large switch concealed in the stone walls. As his cold reptilian fingers slipped around it, Pif knew his master would be pleased.
Tiberius peered through a porthole and saw the captive therein. A Vibranni, or at least what was left of one. As he turned the handle and the door began to open, Tiberius was instantly thrown back with a harsh clang of steel against his armor. A flood of fire had engulfed the room before him so abruptly that it sent the open cell door flying back against Tiberius, sending him barreling to the ground. Jy-lot lunged to grab his commander, dragging him to a safe spot just as the other cells filled with fire all around them.
“No!” cried Wrecks, they could all hear the screams around them. Ardan turned to see Jy-lot and the commander and immediately ran to the open door as it belched out flames. As that happened, Cormac lowered the body and dove for the Karsett’s cell, slamming it shut with his shoulder just as the fire ripped through it as well.
Ardan cringed and growled as he secured the hatch, flames licking at the other side of the porthole revealing brief scenes of the Vibranni inside, well beyond their reach.
“There must have been a fail-safe switch,” Tiberius grumbled. His armor was banged up quite a lot, as was likely the body beneath as well, but he shook it off the impact as he shifted to his feet. “We aren’t alone in here. Find whatever did this. I want its head.”
The three men split up with Tiberius watching their backs, taking a moment to reevaluate the situation. Clearly Thyous had no regard for life, that was obvious, but this was becoming barbaric.
Jy-lot soon began moving quickly through the shadows as he searched only to come across another one of the creatures they’d dispatched moments before, only this one was much smaller. So much so that he hesitated to make sure it was what they were looking for. From his perspective, it could just as easily be another captive. It hissed as it turned upon his approach.
“Ssssstop!” it hissed again, an obscure voice rasping through the swinging speaker box the creature wore around its broad neck. Jy-lot was astounded to see the wires connecting the box to the plugs inserted into the thing's skull. It raised a partially mechanical arm in defense as it began to cower. “I…I cannot hurt. Only assssssssist. Do a good job Pif doesssss.”
Jy-lot turned to the approaching Ardan who was already signaling to kill the creature.
Jy-lot cautiously began moving his blade into a kill strike as Ardan backed him up.
“Wait!” it cried with both its hands above its scaled head, pleading with its narrow yellow eyes. “I can asssssist! Open door! Can perform!”
Jy-lot stopped short and backed up, giving the creature room to move past him though he kept his blade close. Ardan stayed close behind it with his own blade ready to strike.
Tiberius immediately drew his pistol and aimed at the thing's head as the trio came into the dim light. Jy-lot signaled to him that he and Ardan had it covered, but the commander cocked his gun just the same and kept his aim tightly on the creature's face. Its leathery tail slid back and forth with a cunning look to it as those stumpy legs trotted along. Tiberius gave the thing a snarl, clearly not liking this plan, it hissed back aggressively.
The creature shuffled past the firing team, turning back to give them one last a glare. The men kept their distance, but their weapons trained. After what they just went through, killing this estranged beast would be easy and there had already been enough surprises for one night. But if it was capable of getting them to Thyous, they'd humor it for now but they'd put a blade to its throat the moment the door was opened.
Pif reached out a slender arm and ran his scaled fingers against the massive seal. The team observed curiously how the creature seemed to be scratching a pattern of taps and scrapes along the narrow slit in the door before leaning its head in close, placing its head to the metal.
In the blink of an eye, the seal rapidly opened and closed. The creature in front of them vanished in a blink. Tiberius snarled.
“Get those guns ready,” he grumbled.
There began a series of clanks, grinding metal against metal, whirring, then rotating. The walls around them began to shake as dust and stone began to drop from the cracking ceiling above them. A few of the men feared those very stones would be the dirt upon their graves, but as their glances turned to that stalwart, aged face of their commander who stood there with purpose and determination in that one blazing red eye, it would steady their resolve and spur their courage to ready their arms and prepare for whatever happened next.
The door wasn't just coming to life though, but rather something behind it.
The team could now hear the crackling of fire, the crashing of machinery. As door began to split down the center a wall of flame began to lick at the air through the gaps.
“The bastard is burning it all!” shouted Tiberius “In there, NOW!”
Wrecks, Cormac and Ardan rushed the opening doorway and were immediately thrown back by a massive set of enormous teeth. The three men were tossed to the ground like rag dolls, barreling back back at the firing teams who were already charging their cannons for the fight ahead.
"You going to make it?" Jy-lot asked as he locked in Harte's barrel against his shoulder pauldron and readied his shield and blade.
"My arm's burning like hell, but I can still shoot," Harte replied with a wince as he took aim. The Black Sleeve had no expectations of surviving this next fight, but he died it would be standing and protecting his brothers.
Both steel partitions seem to rise up out of the ground into the air behind flame filled opening in front of them. One of those massive doors then burst into the room with a ravenous clawed hand at the forefront. It slammed that murderous hand into the side of the opening and pulled itself through.
A fifteen foot balagore emerged through the flames. It's massive jaws snarled and dripped with thick drool as those deadly, sinister eyes glared menacingly at the black, red eyed figures. The body of the beast was covered in armored portions with those thick steel doors covering its undoubtedly strong arms. The sight would have turned lesser men to quivering puddles of dismay, but the Black Sleeves were no mere soldiers.
Balagore could never grow this large in the wild. Once hunted to protect settlers, then later for sport, the creatures were remarkably rare but incredibly vicious and deadly carnivores. This was clearly another of Thyous creations, but the size is what astounded Tiberius the most with the jaws and hands being disproportionately larger as well. The creature before them had been designed intentionally for one purpose, to kill. To kill without mercy and be unstoppable at it, that is, unless it faced the vigilant guardians of Argenstrath.
The firing teams immediately began showering the creature in a hail of lead as it slowly bore down upon them. It roared out as many of the rounds found purchase in whatever exposed flesh it had, but despite the blood dripping down its armor the creature continued in its task.
"Cormac, take flank," Tiberius barked as he readied his large pistol, he would not fire until he knew the shot was worth the bullet. "Ardan, Wrecks, get behind it and stop that bastard from leaving!"
The beast roared once more as the bullets dug at its armor. It staggered up to the firing teams and swung one powerful arm in a sweeping blow to Jy-lot's shield. The condensed steel cracked and buckled from the impact, shifting the aegis backwards slightly. Jy-lot cringed as the bone in his arm shattered from the impact, but as an aegis he held strong and put his entire weight against his shield should it be hit again.
When Jy-lot opened his eyes, he could see the beast turning to face the other firing team. It's powerful jaws opening wide enough to devour a man whole as it loomed over them. Rothschild unloaded his weapon into that thing's open muzzle, but the ripping flesh barely stifled its rampage. Obrik shouted up at the balagore as those teeth bore down upon him, they snapped shut with an audible crack through the air.
Obrik screamed in agony as he stabbed mercilessly with his free arm at that beast which held him in its jaws. It snapped again and again, biting its way through the hardened black steel of armor and shield, rending both like a knife through a tin can.
Ardan and Wrecks dared not look back as they slipped past the beast and bounded into the room beyond. The place was ablaze with glass shattering and machinations bursting into flame. They pushed past the flames and into the corridor beyond to chase after the arsonist.
Meanwhile, Cormac was firing at the creature's head to draw it away from the firing teams, Obrik screaming again and again as his body was being devoured by the beast. With his last breath he stared into that huge yellow eye and drove his blade into it, causing the beast to reel back in pain.
The balagore was swinging blindly now with both eyes shut in agony as it swung Obrik's lifeless body about. One massive arm collided with Jul-lot’s shield again, smashing completely through it. The aegis tumbled back against Harte and then both fell to the ground. As they staggered to their feet, Harte quickly snatched up the cannon he'd dropped, spotted that it was broken and hastily tossed it at the creature before it erupted in a blast of shrapnel and flame that ripped violently at the flesh on the beast's legs.
“Get out of here!" barked Tiberius. His men were beaten, but he had a plan. "Now! Fall back and go!”
The men tried to continue their fight as Obrik's empty helm clanged to the ground. Rothschild was firing at the thing wildly, shouting cursed at the beast with Cormac falling back to quickly grab Karset. Jy-lot tried to grab Gilmore's body, but it was soon out of reach as the creature used the retreat to advance further into the room where it could now stand fully upright and roar down at the Black Sleeve commander waiting for him.
Tiberius readied his blade as well as the balagore, over twice his height, bore down upon him. It slammed its massive metal arms against the walls, sending brick and mortar flying about the room, but the stubborn soldier held his ground until his men had ample time to reach the door.
His blade sung as it whirled about the air while the creature had trouble keeping up with the man in onyx twirling and shifting about before it. It howled through its blood-soaked, bleached white teeth with each slice against its hide. With speed and precision, Tiberius danced with his blade, carving deep into each bit of exposed reptilian hide he could reach while avoiding those massive lumbering arms of death until one giant hand caught the blade and wrenched it from his grip.
“Commander! Come on!” Ardan shouted from the open doorway with Cormac and Rothschild desperately attempting to push a piece of large machinery behind it to seal the creature inside.
Tiberius looked back to his men and then at the creature effortlessly snapping the blade into pieces within its grasp.
His eye caught Obrik's lifeless body, still impaled upon those massive teeth. The deceased aegis was facing down with his back exposed, which was exactly what Tiberius was counting on.
The balagore roared once more and opened its mouth wide as it drove those powerful jaws towards Tiberius. The commander dove upon the creature’s muzzle and grabbed hold with one hand, firing his gun directly into the thing's eye with the other. The thing began swinging him back and forth in a fearsome attempt to send the commander flying as it howled.
At the right moment, Tiberius reached into that nightmarish mouth and snatched something from Obrik's back just before he let go of the flailing beast and was sent flying across the room.
The beast stormed blindly toward Tiberius with a powerful rage, roaring in a terrifying display of unbridled ferocity and anger.
Tiberius clutched the object in his hand and punched the ground hard enough to fracture the bones in his fist and almost immediately he could feel the small round object vibrating violently against his aching hand.
Ardan, a seasoned member of the squad, stared speechless at the sight before him.
Tiberius roared out in desperate rage as he punched his fist right into the creature's mouth.
Those teeth nearly severed Tiberius arm with the very first bite and didn't let go as they began to swing the man about by the arm. Tiberius cried out in agony as he held on tight, clutching at that canister in his hand.
“FOR HOUSE DELGADO!” was the cry.
The Hydrolite and Miterzine mixture reached critical mass and as it burst, it immediately erupted all the others canisters and explosives on Orbik's body in an intense explosion that sent the beast’s head ripping apart in all directions.
Ardan and Wrecks rushed back into the room as the remains of the beast fell lifelessly to the ground with a resounding thud. They clutched their leader and picked him up as a familiar combination of chemicals ate away at what remained of his arm.
“Get in that room and find what you can," Tiberious panted out his orders. "Kill anything that moves."
The men would storm what was left of the burning lab, but there was little which hadn't been destroyed by the flames and explosions. Thyous had heard them coming and was obviously quick to depart and cover his tracks.
There was no sign of where he might be headed through the seemingly endless maze of tunnels that lay beyond, but as the men examined the dead around them and the body of the once lost captain, it was clear this was not the only hellish lab Thyous had beneath the city streets and certainly not the last of the abominations created by Professor Reginald Thyous, the Dead-Eyed.
“And what of the….well, I guess he's a bit of a mystery isn't he?” Clay asked with an exhausted sigh as he finished reading Ardan's report on the evenings events. He crumpled it up afterwards and tossed it carelessly into the open flame. It was obvious the result of the mission would have a deep effect on the man, but Clay's resolve kept it concealed beneath his noble stature.
The baron turned to his greatest adviser and handed the man a series of documents, the ink not even completely dry yet.
“I see…so he’s awake. That’s good news,” said Clay with some concern as he rifled through pages.
Nester sat up, shifting about in discomfort.
“We all thought the captain was dead, sir. We both know that. You yourself identified what we found of his remains. What you have down there in the lab, that thing that Greskin is examining no doubt, may or may not be Wilhelm Karset. He could be another one of those creatures Tiberius found in that sewer. Maybe he just hasn’t transformed yet or whatever it is they do.”
The baron grew more and more agitated as he shifted further against his chair.
"But what if that is the late captain? What if...and this is just a theory, but what if Karset's body was thrown from the side of the ship in the explosion? It's very possible that Thyous found what was left of him floating along the banks and miraculously brought the man back to life!"
The baron’s chair flew back as he stood up, fists clenched up tightly at his sides in fury as those orange eyes blazed at the fire in front of him.
“I apologize my baron,” sighed Clay before rubbing his weary brow. “I spoke out of turn and I am sorry, but you do need to acknowledge this concern. Why would Thyous have him down there? What was he doing and how is this even possible? We must know! Surely you’re as curious as I am and you should be as frightened as well."
Clay took a moment to recompose himself before continuing. He took a deep breath and began to speak softer.
"Men died tonight, good men. More will die before this is over, but right now Greskin could be next for all we now. What if Thyous wanted us to find Karset? What then?”
Nester balled his fist as he leaned against the mantle piece. With his head solemnly lowered, he gave out a soft sigh. He knew Clay was right, his words had been almost the exact thoughts of the baron, but hearing them aloud had made the situation all the more bleak and disconcerting. They had no answers and yet so many questions.
"And...what of Tiberius?"
The baron turned his head back to look at Clay, a look sadness in those orange eyes of his. His tail flicked a little as he stood there for a moment before making his way to the nearby writing desk. The baron snatched a few more papers from it and dropped them into Clay’s hands.
Nester nodded before turning back towards the fireplace and staring deeply into the flame.
“Oh!? Wait, what’s this?” Clay spoke to himself now coming across something entirely new. “Oh yes. I think he’ll enjoy this. I’ll take these to Buford personally. You have my word my baron and again, I am truly sorry.”
Clay rolled the schematics in his hands, but before he stepped out of the room, Clay unrolled them and took one last look to admire the beauty of such a powerful mechanical arm.
“For House Delgado.”