The Travelers are here. We don't know what they want, but we've seen their ships in the skies. A fisherman off the coast of Morocco recorded a video on his phone, and posted it to the internet. BREACH had him killed, along with everyone he knew, and wiped everything they could before it managed to take hold and spread. They were always quite good at that. The video showed something decloaking in the sky, all the clouds rushing away from its design like they were somehow frightened to be near it. It almost looked as though it were half alive, spines trailing down from this bizarre, angular ship and riding the wind like liquid metal, throwing off a low frequency sound that made your ears bleed even through the recording. Barry said it reminded him of a broadhead arrow, but I never saw the resemblance. We could barely even stand to look at it without a dose of acid. There are at least three, as far as we know, and they're only ever seen over the ocean. Maybe they're looking for the legionnaires - I couldn't say. Maybe I should be grateful, because if they thought we were doomed, they'd just detonate the bomb.
It's not like we could stop them.
All the real bullshit started with Operation Bushido, and I have to say that I didn't see it coming. It was just some dumb, routine op in Japan. A ‘necromancer' from the parasitic universe was supposedly summoning and devouring the souls of the dead, according to HQ. I don't know how they figured this out, but the operative word to keep in mind is ‘soul.' None of us know what that really means, or if it implies there's any sort of afterlife, but the way it was explained, our bodies are like vessels; an interface for the soul - the seat of consciousness - to interact with the physical world. We later got the impression that was exactly why BREACH was so interested in the necromancer, because it turned out that souls were what powered the bomb - and command knew it, long before we ever deployed. According to the books that we recovered after the op, the level of energy they could output was beyond anything we had ever thought possible, and with enough control, you could somehow use them to manipulate reality; change things, create something out of nothing, or unmake an entire universe. It just depended on the will of the wielder, should they actually have the power to use them. Humans do not, but legionnaires, their controllers, and presumably the Travelers, absolutely do.
Our destination was in the Akaishi mountains. I'm not allowed to say anything more than that. Our objective was simple: kill the necromancer. Afterward, I remember finding it odd that they didn't want him captured alive at all costs, given what he could potentially know about the bomb, but no ... for some reason, they wanted him dead. Either way, things don't always work out the way you plan them. It was me, Jefferies, Barry, Tanner, and Sprite, packed into the back of a UH-60 modified for stealth operations, our packs holding all the equipment in the world that we never actually used, because every single operation was so quick and violent that camping out was never an option, save for one or two times. Maybe I'll tell you about them, someday. The others had their railguns, and I had my electrical cannon, courtesy of whoever the fuck the Crest were. We still didn't know, having been cut off from their frozen bunkers in the other universe, but we sure did appreciate their gear, and Sprite was always a welcome addition to the crew.
We hovered off the side of a mountain just before sunrise, an expanse of trees blanketing the range for as far as I could see. Everything we could make out in the faint, pale light of the morning was green, except for the summit, which was barely exposed and covered in snow - and that was exactly where we were headed. We said our goodbyes to the gunner, and rappelled down from the helicopter, Sprite following just behind us as our boots hit the ground. The ropes were pulled back up, and the bird got out of dodge while Barry took out his nav gear to orient us.
"Hope you guys are ready to climb," he said, taking the lead. We all activated our cloaking fields, and followed him up the ever-ascending incline, grass and twigs crunching beneath my boots in the near darkness that lurked under the forest canopy. I switched on my night vision, revealing the steep rock face that waited for us at the top of the hill.
"Sprite, move up and scout for us," said Jefferies. "Don't engage. Only report." Sprite did as he was told, and floated ahead.
"Isn't it just the one guy?" asked Tanner.
"This isn't a job that keeps its promises," said Jefferies. "Best to assume we have no idea."
We dropped to our hands and knees when the incline became too great to stand, crawling up the mossy earth until we hit the towering rock face.
"Thane, you're up," said Jefferies. I took the grappling gun from my pack, and loaded it with a charge. Holding the gun against my cheek, I took aim up at the mountain, searching for a spot that looked stable enough to hold our weight. When I found it, I pulled the trigger, and the hook shot up at the target, the rope trailing behind it before it hit its mark, and projected an anchor into the rock with a soft thunk. I detached the gun, and put my full weight on the rope, testing its strength.
"We're good," I said.
"Ladies first," said Jefferies, nodding at me.
"Yes, sir," I said, grinning inside my mask. I pulled myself up onto the rope, and attached it to my pack as a precaution, letting the strength of my exoskeleton carry me as I quickly climbed thirty feet up the rock face, and set down on the broken ridge that flanked the mountain, a sparse few trees jutting out from the mossy cavities that lined the entire way up. "I'm here," I called. Sprite beeped an inch away from my face, nearly giving me a heart attack. I could never see him like our own cloaking fields. I gave him a pat as the others slowly followed, making their way up to us. When they were all with me, Barry led the way around a narrow ledge that snaked over a hundred foot drop, staying as close to the rock face as possible. When we passed it, we continued up a ragged incline, where it looked like a landslide had taken a chunk out of the mountain, massive, jagged boulders impeding our path at every opportunity. The snow was starting to make itself known, streaks of white carrying down the nearby paths, until our own boots started to crunch upon it, our armor insulating us from the biting cold. The wind was picking up, but Barry said we were almost there.
"Right up ahead," he said, pointing at a cliff about twenty feet up. I loaded the grappling gun with another charge, and shot it just above our target, the hook slamming into the wall of rock beyond it. I detached the gun, put it away, and tested the strength of the rope. I climbed up as quick as I could, Sprite flying just ahead of me, and pulled myself up onto the snowy cliff.
"I'm here," I repeated, scanning my surroundings as the others made their way up the rope. We were getting closer to the summit, the ledge winding up into a narrow, rocky path obscured by two columns of stone that almost appeared to be manmade. It was getting brighter out, and the sun would soon follow. The others climbed up next to me, and Barry pointed at the pillars.
"Should be right through there," he said. "No more heights, far as I know." Jefferies nodded.
"Tanner, you're up," he said. Tanner moved ahead. We followed him between the pillars, and up the winding path, before we emerged upon a small, snowy clearing surrounded by looming cliffs, the summit towering just overhead, and beneath it, the entrance to a dark cave yawned open before us. Something about it gave me a sense of foreboding, the way it lurked in the pale, blue light of the morning, gray, rocky spines jutting out around it like a pair of teeth ready to snap shut upon its prey. Jefferies called in.
"Sierra, this is Sierra One," he said. "We've got eyes on the cave. No contact yet. Over."
"Sierra One, this is Sierra," said command. "You're free to engage, over."
Tanner advanced toward the entrance, and we followed close behind, slipping into the darkness of the cavern. We emerged upon a small ledge that led down into a placid river of blood, stalactites hanging from the ceiling like a hundred spears ready to fall. Following the rocky trail through the shadow, we sank into the stagnant pool, our cloaking fields flickering as it wavered around our passage. Just ahead, it ran through an archway of stone like a fetid blood gutter, and with our guns at the ready, we followed it into a larger chamber. The sounds of motion stirred ahead, echoing faintly upon the broken walls, until we arrived at a path that led up to the bizarre, hexagonal ceiling of a ritual chamber, inscribed with a massive sigil of a stylized sun. I recognized the four runes that surrounded it from what Barry had told me after Operation Thunderbird; they were a part of the Elder Futhark, but I wasn't sure what they meant.
Twin braziers flanked the ascent as they burned with a violet, otherworldly flame, and all the way to the top, the feathered bodies of dead crows laid splayed out upon the blood-soaked stone, layered atop a bed of nameless, avian bones. Slowly, we crept up the path, the feathered corpses crunching beneath our boots no matter how much we tried to avoid them. It wasn't long before the entirety of the ritual chamber slipped into view, a sigil of a crescent moon marked upon the blood-stricken stone, while in the center of it all, a conglomerate of twitching birds had been fused together in a horrific mockery of an altar, flesh and feathers merging into each other in a mound of shifting meat and chittering beaks. Somehow, they were all still alive, but they didn't sound like birds anymore. I couldn't describe the grating, insectile chaos that I heard in that cave, but I remember the feeling more than anything. It was the feeling that something was broken - that it wasn't working the way that it should - and for the sake of my sanity, I could only pray that it continued to malfunction. It's like it was trying to connect to something far beyond our reality, but it lacked the ability to actually do so.
Atop the altar, a massive crow had been splayed out over the others, its drooping wings shuddering and shaking, while a runic dagger that had been wrapped in human flesh impaled its chest. At least, that's what I thought I saw. I thought I saw a crow, but it wasn't. It was something else, the way its body contracted and warped, breaking through the fabric of existence like a skipping film. The guise of the crow was what my mind applied to it, to shield me from the horrifying reality of its true nature. The air warped around it with a gravitational lensing, like it was struggling to implode into a black hole, but was prevented from doing so by the dagger that bound it, and standing directly behind it, was our target: the alleged necromancer. He was clad in the armor of a samurai, surrounded by the bookshelves of a small study, tables of alchemical ingredients scattered around him and his assembly of hanging, rune-marked scrolls. He didn't seem to notice us standing there, even with all the noise that we had inadvertently made. That, or he just didn't care. I raised my weapon, aiming at him alongside the others, yet something about him bothered me. He seemed old and frail, weakened by age, but he moved with a strange sort of jittering swiftness that almost frightened me, scanning his open books with a look of despair and frustration.
"Tanner, take him out," said Jefferies.
"Yes, sir," said Tanner, bracing himself next to me. A deafening bang echoed through the chamber as he pulled the trigger, and the necromancer snapped to the side faster than I could perceive, dodging the projectile entirely before it harmlessly exploded against the wall behind him. He looked in our direction, trying to see us through our cloaking fields.
"Who goes there?" he called.
"Weapons free," said Jefferies. The others opened fire on the man, who miraculously dodged every shot, flickering and weaving from side to side in a sudden blur like he was moving faster than the speed of sound. Bracing my gun against my shoulder, I pulled the trigger, and launched an electrical shockwave that caught him off guard, slamming into him with a shuddering boom, and knocking him back against the wall. His skin was blistered, and he grunted with pain, but he was otherwise unharmed by a shot that would have utterly disintegrated a legionnaire.
"Cease this futility at once!" he snarled, his eyes locked upon our position. A slug from Barry slammed into his chest, denting his armor and temporarily winding him, but he quickly dodged the barrage of the others, carefully advancing toward us as he bobbed and wove through the onslaught. "I said cease," he repeated. I was about to fire another shockwave, when Jefferies decloaked and raised his hand, signaling for us to stop. The necromancer paused in his advance, eyeing us with curiosity. "Who are you? What is this world?" he asked, his voice deep and weathered. Nobody answered. "Why does the conduit stutter in this place? I have slain a watcher by the teachings of Bor-Geth, but I fail to even hear his whispers."
"We were sent here to kill you," said Jefferies. "Any idea why that would be?" I looked at Jefferies, unsure of his motivations. It wasn't like him to potentially endanger us for the sake of his own curiosity. The necromancer studied us carefully, examining the shifting outline of our cloaking fields as though attempting to determine our numbers.
"The Astral Lords," he said. "They sent you, didn't they? Are they so vindictive that they would follow me to another world? All I want is to live my life by my own rules. Is that so much to ask?"
"I have no fucking idea what you're talking about," said Jefferies. "Who are you?" The man looked at us with confusion, as though perplexed by the response.
"I was a paladin of the Astral Lords ..." he said, like he was explaining a well-known fact that we should somehow be aware of. "You don't know of whom I speak? Where am I?"
"I think he got cut off," said Barry, deactivating his cloaking field. "He's from the other universe, right?" He turned to the necromancer. "You probably found your way here, and got stranded like the legionnaires."
"What?" said the man. "I don't understand. Legionnaires? What business do the darklings have with this world?"
"But why would BREACH want him dead?" asked Tanner through our radio. "He's an obvious asset."
"Unless ... this place is beyond the Lunar Fortress," said the man, seeming to understand something that was known to only him. That understanding quickly faded to a creeping, existential horror, his eyes widening with absolute fear. Stuttering beneath his breath, he pulled the knife from the bizarre crow that laid atop the altar. We all raised our weapons in alarm, aiming at him, but he only laughed in utter bewilderment before beginning to remove his armor. "You're afraid of me?" He began to hastily carve an intricate, runic symbol into his own chest with the blade. Jefferies started to speak.
"What are you -"
"I'm destroying my soul," said the man, finishing the symbol, and beginning to work on several others. "The truest gift that Bor-Geth ever granted me. If you're smart, you'll copy these marks and follow in my step, because if the ascendants and their darklings capture you, you will wish that death was the greatest of your concerns. I know that you don't understand the dangers of my world, but trust me when I say that the cessation of your existence is the only merciful path you can take."
The man plunged the dagger into his chest, and the runic markings flared with a ghostly light. Twitching and convulsing, he collapsed to the ground before falling completely still. He was dead. I was utterly lost, still unsure of what to make of the situation.
"Objective complete?" I said, deactivating my cloaking field alongside Barry. Jefferies shrugged, still confused and alarmed.
"Where's Sprite?" asked Barry. The rattle of gunfire suddenly echoed through the cavern, coming from back near the entrance. Then, it stopped.
"Tanner, take point," said Jefferies. We all reactivated our cloaking fields, and followed Tanner back into the river of blood, moving through the sloshing liquid as quickly as we could. When we emerged on the other side, the light of day was shining through the entrance to the cave, illuminating the decimated bodies of six soldiers clad in black, spent brass and M16s scattered on the ground next to them. They had been sliced apart by laser fire, their wounds still glowing and wisping with smoke. Sprite decloaked nearby, and beeped. Jefferies chuckled, and gave him a pat.
"What do we got here?" he asked. I knelt down and unmasked one of the soldiers, revealing the lifeless face of a bearded, middle-aged man. His skin was carved with bleeding runes, not too dissimilar from those of the legionnaires, and even in death, he radiated an aura of utter insanity. His arm, however, had a patch that I recognized.
"Prometheus Mandate," I said, pointing at it before crawling to my feet.
"This is bad," muttered Barry, wandering out into the daylight at the snowy entrance of the cave. A bullet exploded against the nearby rock, and Barry hit the ground for cover, the report of the gun echoing through the distance a second later. He swore, scrambling back over to us as the sound of a helicopter passed overhead. Jefferies switched on his radio.
"Sierra, this is Sierra One," he said. "We've got hostile contact at our position - Prometheus Mandate. At least one sharpshooter to the east, and a bird overhead, but we don't have a visual. Requesting immediate evac, over."
"Sierra One, this is Sierra," said command. "Has the target been neutralized? Over."
"Acknowledged, evac is inbound, ETA three minutes. Stay in cover, and clear snipers with your drone. Over."
"Roger out," said Jefferies, turning to Sprite. "Take out those sharpshooters, and stay out of sight. We're counting on you." Sprite beeped, activated his cloaking field, and flew out into the daylight. We waited in the cave with our guns trained on the entrance, the Prometheus helicopter passing over us again. A shot rang in the distance, followed by a scream that was abruptly silenced by something.
"Right ahead," said Tanner. A group of three Prometheus soldiers came up from the snowy path, rifles trained on the cave entrance, but they couldn't see us through our cloaking fields.
"Thane, you're up," said Jefferies. Taking aim at the oncoming force, I pulled trigger, and the electrical cannon kicked back against my shoulder, throwing off a burning shockwave that utterly vaporized the three men, their blood and decimated organs splattering back across the snow. A blur rippled through the space before us, and Sprite decloaked, beeping as he drifted next to Jefferies. The sound of a jet engine began to roar in the distance, until a sonic boom cracked overhead, and a deafening explosion shuddered through the air. Flaming debris ricocheted across the snow outside, raining down from the sky while the sound of another helicopter started to get closer.
"Sierra One, this is Sierra," said command over the radio. "Evac is at your position, over."
"Sierra, this is Sierra One. Roger, we're moving up. Out," said Jefferies, waving us onward. Tanner took point, his railgun trained on the path while a modified UH-60 hovered above us, the M240 gunner throwing ropes out from the side before opening fire on something we couldn't see, spent brass raining down from the sky as gunshots rattled through the air. I slung my weapon onto my back, and took hold of a rope, quickly ascending alongside the others before pulling myself up into the helicopter, the deafening shots of the machine gun booming right next to me. Two bullets clinked against the side of the aircraft, and I peeked out over the edge, where I saw a fireteam of Prometheus soldiers taking cover behind the two manmade pillars, several of their number laying dead in the snow. When the rest of my squadmates piled into the helicopter, the pilot took us up into the sky, flying away while the sound of a jet engine screamed through the air behind us, followed by the crack of a sonic boom. I looked back, just as the aircraft's payload detonated along the side of the mountain in a cascade of thundering explosions, streaks of fire and debris pluming into the clouds while the cliffs dislodged in an avalanche of rock, incinerating any remaining Prometheus soldiers.
Turning away, I laid back in the helicopter alongside my friends, Jefferies holding Sprite beneath his arm with a smile. I remember being thankful that at least none of us got dismembered, this time, but the reaction of the necromancer still bothered me. He genuinely thought that we were completely doomed. Maybe he didn't realize that the parasitic universe had been severed from our own, and came to his own conclusion in his mind, but either way, he seemed absolutely terrified, and that made me wonder what exactly we were up against. Why would he destroy his own soul, rather than face whatever was coming? None of us really had an answer for that, but it spoke volumes that the Travelers were willing to annihilate our entire universe in order to prevent it from happening.
Anyway, that whole area was apparently the site of a long-dead Karasu-Tengu cult, where they had killed a very large number of crows for an undisclosed reason, presumably for some sort of sacrifice, though Barry tells me that doesn't make any sense. The necromancer wasn't using the souls of dead humans, either. Instead, he was using the souls of the birds to fuel whatever sort of altar or conduit he had made in there - he wasn't consuming them at all, if he even could. Only thing is, that altar didn't work the way it was supposed to. What that would've meant for us, we're still not entirely sure. The cleanup crew recovered some books that the Prometheus raid missed, which gave us an idea of what was really going on, but they got everything else, including the body, and whatever creature in there was pretending to be a crow. They didn't get to keep it for long though, because one of our jets intercepted the transport and shot it down. The only thing that survived were a couple chunks of the necromancer, but the runes he had used were lost, and the footage from our recordings was too grainy to make them out. All we know is that they were linked to the entity known as Bor-Geth - the blindfolded horrorshow that we encountered back in Operation Osiris. The books claimed that it ruled over a race of occult practitioners known as warlocks, in a frozen wasteland called the Stygian Reach, and we assume that these warlocks were the flying, hooded creatures that nearly killed Jefferies. The ‘darklings' that the necromancer had mentioned, on the other hand, were likely the legionnaires and their controllers, the latter of which he referred to as ascendants, but there was no mention of either in any of the books, nor anything about the Astral Lords or the Lunar Fortress.
Something of particular interest, though, was the blood of the necromancer. According to Barry's contacts in medical, if you injected it into living tissue, it would heal pretty much anything. It cured cancer, diseases, injuries - you name it. Except a couple days later, it would turn you into ... something. I never saw the creatures that came out of those experiments, but they apparently all resembled birds, in the loosest possible definition of the word. The most dangerous variation happened when you injected an actual bird with it, which resulted in a fourth-dimensional monster that could fly through walls like they were air. I'm told it ‘disassembled' several researchers before they finally figured out how to kill it. We don't know how the necromancer managed to tolerate the blood, but we're guessing that's what granted him the ability to dodge bullets given that he wasn't actually eating the souls he had collected.
Another fun, but comparatively useless discovery, was the violet fire that burned inside the cave. You could spread it onto anything that would normally catch fire, but it would take thousands of years to actually consume its fuel, and was resistant to things like water and wind, so in the ideal environment, it would burn forever. It was maintained by a swarm of highly efficient, self-replicating organisms, but they didn't fully inhabit the third dimension, so our ability to study them was limited.
We don't know what Prometheus's interest in the operation was. They never attacked one of our squads before, in the entire history of BREACH, even after we had killed plenty of them. They knew they couldn't stand up to us, so they must have really wanted something out of that cave. Just yesterday, Barry had a theory that we were sent there to kill the necromancer so that Prometheus couldn't capture him alive, but we're still not sure why we wouldn't want him alive as well, unless the knowledge that he possessed was somehow too dangerous to remain in the world, no matter who had control of him. Even still, now that we know what powers the bomb, he could've at least helped us disarm it. Then we wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. Isn't that what we want?
Anyway, we've been on temporary lockdown at HQ for the time being, and all our resources are going into finding the Travelers, and whatever it is that they're doing back here. Prometheus has been moving out in the open, as well. A lot of chatter on their dark web sites, but we can't decrypt their codes yet, so we don't know what they're planning. They're gearing up for something, though, and their numbers are a lot greater than we gave them credit for. We don't have any operations in the pipe, but all the guys say hi, including Sprite, and I'll let you know if anything happens, if it doesn't make it to the news channels first.
Until then, stay safe, and if you see something moving under a family member's skin, kill them and burn the body - they aren't the person you remember.