By then, something had happened with the Travelers. Those seismic readings we were getting from Libya were there for a reason - probably controlled detonations. We thought they were building some kind of underground outpost, and as far as I know, they still are. We sent UAVs and even some guys on the ground, and they couldn't find a way in, but that didn't necessarily surprise us. They were so far beyond us that anything we did was likely to just antagonize them, and there's only one thing you do to a mosquito on your arm. I heard people are getting paranoid, though, and are starting to consider more hostile options. I hope, for our future, that they don't.
They made some minor improvements to our railguns, this time, and some not-so-minor improvements to their scopes. Since we could selectively power our shots between ‘subsonic stealth' and ‘blow through sixteen city blocks and kill somebody's cat,' we now had the ability to track movement through walls, provided they weren't too thick. Unfortunately, our shitty cloaking fields still made us look like discount predators, and our armor was truly uncomfortable. R&D was busy trying to counterfeit the self-replicating nanomachine tech from the Traveler, but stopped when they realized that their prototype nanomachines were about to turn the planet into nanomachines.
For this operation, we were also given what we were pretty sure was a bomb, packed in a featureless, hexagonal cylinder with a little crease along the middle. It'd pop open with a hiss, revealing a keypad and the black metal that shrouded the internals. Barry pointed out that there used to be lettering on the inside, but it was intentionally scratched off. I don't know where they got it from, but it wasn't our tech, and a part of me doubts it even came from our planet. I only heard so much from the other squads, and there are some things they just wouldn't talk about.
Eventually, the sky began to flash with lightning, a massive storm brewing overhead that foretold our destination. Our objective was to infiltrate the compound of an organization called the Cult of the Veil, who had apparently made contact with an unknown deity, and traded something in exchange for an artifact that could summon storms. We knew this, because a first nations community had lived in the area for hundreds of years, and in the span of a day, was reduced to a flaming ruin. You could see the storm from space, like a cyclone had formed in the middle of a continent.
As for why they gave us a bomb, well, they apparently came upon the information that the cult was establishing contact through a stable portal to another universe, so our job was to figure out how they were doing this, and deliver the ‘package,' so to speak. We deployed about two klicks off from our destination, because any closer and the bird would get zapped from the sky. We were at least authorized to communicate with our handler at HQ, this time, because unlike the Prometheus Mandate, a cult that was previously only known for huffing paint fumes wasn't going to intercept our calls.
Looking through our night vision, we moved through the woods as quick as we could, our armor insulating us from the cold as the sky flashed with lightning overhead. Barry led the way with his coms equipment, our cloaking fields shimmering upon the air while we passed through the trees. Slowly, the terrain began to rise as we moved up a mountainous incline, large rocks jutting out of the snow.
"Hold on," said Barry, his blur pointing at a section of stone that was chiseled flat, and painted with a rune in dried blood. "That's Elder Futhark - a reversed thurisaz rune."
"Meaning?" asked Jefferies.
"A lot of things - none of them good. Point being that it's an ancient Germanic alphabet that has no business being here, so it's probably a marker put down by the cult."
"A marker for what?" I asked.
"That." He disabled his cloaking module, and we looked at where he was pointing. "The shadow, right there."
I looked ahead, and saw a thin, black line tracing across the ground between the rocks, and then past them, disappearing into the distance. It didn't catch the light at all, even when the sky flashed with the storm.
"Sierra, this is Sierra One," said Jefferies. "I think we found some kind of ward. It's like a shadow, but it's just black. Barry says it's marked with a reversed thurisaz rune. Please advise - over."
"Sierra One, this is Sierra," said HQ. "The ward is passable, but lethal if touched. Proceed over it, ensuring nothing - including debris - makes contact. Over."
"Roger out," said Jefferies, moving forward as Barry reactivated his cloaking module. Carefully, Jefferies stepped over the shadow, and surveyed the other side. "We're good," he said. The rest of us followed, and as my feet passed over the ward, I felt the air humming around me, like pins and needles on my skin. "Keep an eye out for any more. I don't want to know what those things really do."
Barry took the lead again, and we crept forward at a noticeably slower pace, searching the ground for wards with every step as sleet began to patter against the trees overhead.
"Lights," said Barry, stopping to look through his scope. We moved up behind him, and I began to see the flicker of torchlight in the distance as the terrain leveled out, a powerful wind howling against us. I raised my gun, peering through the scope and increasing the magnification to see the glowing outline of a man in robes, moving through the darkness beyond the trees. Jefferies motioned us onward, and we crept closer until we could see the cultist in the torchlight that danced before the mouth of a cave. He was wearing the skull of a caribou, bleeding runes carved into his skin.
"Tanner, you're up," said Jefferies. "Make it quiet."
"On it," said Tanner, moving ahead while we slowly followed behind, the wind and freezing sleet howling through the trees as the storm cracked overhead. Jefferies signaled for us to stop, and we watched as the blur of Tanner crept up behind the man, who was stumbling and mumbling as though heavily intoxicated. Tanner jammed his knife into the base of the man's skull, cutting through his brain stem before catching his body and slowly easing it to the ground. Grabbing hold, Tanner dragged it off into the trees before rejoining us. The faint sound of a rasping song echoed from the cave beyond, warbling through a distorted pitch that could not have been produced by human vocal chords.
Jefferies took point, and we followed him into the cave, the eldritch song reverberating through the torch-lit stone, runes slathered upon the flickering walls.
"Sowilo," said Barry. "Sunlight, or safety."
"Reassuring," said Tanner.
As we continued onward, the tunnel slowly opened up into a wide cavern, filled with rows of tents crafted from the hides of animals, torches burning before them. In the center of it all, hundreds of men and women sang the distorted song, naked and carved with twisting sigils, yet beyond their gaping mouths was only a starry blackness. They danced and swayed in a circle around a massive pile of books, and at the top, a man sat in a high chair, voraciously reading a massive tome as he twitched and shuddered in place. Behind him, a woman slowly massaged his skull, yet her fingers seemed to sink into the bone, working through his brain while the man violently flipped to the next page, his frothing, black saliva dripping from his chin.
"I'm not even gonna' ask," said Barry.
"There," I said, pointing as I noticed a massive, obsidian archway at the end of the cavern, two ‘guards' standing before it with wooden staves, deliriously rapping their heads against the rock.
"We're going around," said Jefferies as he carefully crept down the rock face. "Keep it slow, and stay behind cover. We don't want to catch their eye."
We followed behind him, making our way down to the cavern floor, and taking cover behind a tent. A writhing, tentacled shadow stirred from within, and began to cry like a human child. Wasting no time, we moved from tent to tent, slowly working our way to the end, and then keeping low near the open archway.
"Look," said Barry, pointing at a massive, ornate hammer that sat within the flames of a bonfire, its gleaming surface sparking with electricity. "I think that's it."
"Not our objective," said Jefferies. "The cleanup crew will pick it up after the smoke's cleared." The man in the high chair started to yell something in another language, his barking intonation grating upon my ears.
"That's Danish," said Barry. "Who the fuck are these people?"
"What are they saying?" asked Jefferies.
"Fill my skull," said Barry, sounding confused. The man was repeating the same thing, over and over again. A high-pitched whine began to screech through the cavern, and I clenched my teeth in pain. Then, it faded. The man stood up from his chair, and made his way down from the pile of books, the crowd parting before him as his eyes split apart within their sockets, making way for several thin, spider-like legs that wrapped around the back of his head. The guards next to the archway rose from their stupor as the man strode with confidence toward them, and disappeared into the chamber beyond, the guards shambling in his wake and muttering incoherently in an excited tone.
"Move up," said Jefferies. We followed him into the chamber, which was crafted entirely from the bones of massive, inhuman arms, winding together into a cradle of hands and long, tapered fingers. In the center, the skeletal design dipped into a black and fleshy pit that hummed with a sickening radiance. Slowly, the man crawled to his hands and knees, and crept into the pit, disappearing in the darkness. The guards shambled back outside, where one collapsed to the ground and immediately fell asleep.
"My equipment's saying this is it," said Barry. "Down there."
"We're really gonna' go in there?" I asked.
"I think you know the answer to that," said Jefferies, getting onto his knees and crawling into the pit. For all we knew, it could've been a sacrificial altar that would kill us all before we even processed it, but we followed nonetheless. I went last, slipping into the darkness as I slowly worked my way down across the fleshy walls. A strange, tingling sensation ran over my skin, and I suddenly felt gravity reverse itself, like I was being pulled up into the sky, but I fought against it as my eyes met the light of day, and I climbed up onto the surface, nauseous and disoriented. Tanner grabbed my hand, helping me up, and I surveyed the world that now surrounded us.
Switching my night vision off, I saw that it was daytime, and we now stood within a massive, circular library that seemed to tower forever into the sky. Beyond the marble pillars that surrounded us, the ruins of a city spanned to the horizon, and the sun looked as though it were slowly disintegrating, its glow overtaken by a creeping, black malaise. A spiral staircase wound upon the walls that were lined with books all the way to the top, and upon it, the man with legs jutting out from his eyes slowly made his way up the steps. Others rocked in delirium nearby, clutching their staves of winding wood. Far above, the library was open to a roiling, localized storm that flashed with lightning, yet through the blackened clouds, I almost thought I saw the shape of a massive, crimson eye, my heart seizing in my chest as its gaze briefly fell upon me. The sky flashed again, revealing a spanning chasm of teeth that disappeared into the gale a second later. Something was up there.
One of the men nearby started to scream and shout in Danish, brandishing his staff as he seemed to be looking straight at us.
"Can he see us?" asked Barry.
"I don't -"
The staff flashed with light, and Jefferies was blown back against the wall with a thundering boom, his cloaking field crackling away as books rained down on him from above. I ducked just as the man turned to me, a bolt of lightning tearing overhead and lighting the shelves aflame as I charged the capacitors of my gun, and unloaded a uranium slug into his chest. The man was bisected by the round, blood and organs splattering against the tomes as the cultist from the caverns began to run up the steps, nearing the top. A low growl reverberated through the air as Jefferies crawled to his feet, reactivating his cloaking module while it fizzled with distortion. Another cultist rose from behind the rubble that surrounded one of the pillars, slowly shambling toward us as he retched and twitched with insanity. Barry asked him something in Danish, leveling his gun at the man's chest. The cultist only continued forward, Barry repeating his question, until several long, spider-like limbs erupted from the man's mouth. Barry backed away while Jefferies shot the cultist with his railgun, blowing him back in a spatter of blood.
"We're not getting anything out of these guys," said Barry. "Let's finish this."
"Thane, set up the bomb," said Jefferies. As I took the bomb from my pack, a flash of lightning cracked from overhead as someone fired at us from the stairs, the blast igniting the ground, and barely missing me. Tanner opened fire on the enemy, who was clad in the blood-soaked skull of a caribou, which promptly exploded when the slug tore through it and blew the remains of the man against the wall, books clattering down from above. I opened the bomb, and began to arm it, giving us sixteen minutes to get clear of the blast. An inhuman scream cried out from above, and I looked up to see the man from the cavern being telekinetically lifted into the sky as a massive, suckered tentacle descended from the clouds. It latched onto the man's skull, and bored inside, the fleshy appendage pulsating with hunger while it drank the knowledge from his mind. The bomb lit up as it armed, and I locked it up, Jefferies and Tanner firing at someone overhead.
"We're good," I said.
"All right, get back," said Jefferies, firing again with a loud bang while an arc of lightning lashed against the nearby wall, flaming pages blowing through the air. An enormous, misshapen hand descended from the heavens above, coated with a black gangrene as its claws slowly reached for us. The others fired at it, forcing it to flinch back as its flesh was blown away, the sky rolling with thunder. "Hurry! We'll cover you!"
I got onto my hands and knees, and quickly crawled back into the pit as the others helped Jefferies fight back the claws of the eldritch deity, their gunfire booming from above while I sank into the darkness, and switched on my night vision. Gravity reversed around me, and I eventually found myself crawling back up through the other side, rising to my feet in the cavern as Barry came through behind me. Tanner followed, and then Jefferies, his cloaking field malfunctioning from the massive burn stricken across his torso, where the metal of his armor melted into his skin.
"Looks like we're getting out the old-fashioned way," he said, charging the capacitors in his railgun as I took a grenade from my pack, the song of the cultists still rasping from the cavern beyond while another man twitched upon the chair. "Sierra, this is Sierra One, we need evac ASAP. Over."
"Sierra One, this is Sierra, evac is inbound in three minutes. The coordinates have been forwarded to your navigator. Over."
"Roger out," said Jefferies.
"Got ‘em," said Barry, looking down at his map.
"Then let's get the fuck out of here," said Jefferies. "Thane, you do the honors."
"My pleasure," I said. Ripping the pin from the grenade, I ran forward and tossed it into the ring of singing cultists as Tanner and Barry slit the guards' throats behind me. The grenade detonated, blowing several cultists to pieces as the rest were showered with burning shrapnel. The others opened fire with their railguns while we quickly advanced straight through the cavern, blasting glowing holes in anyone we saw. A blinding pain cut through my nerves when a bolt of lightning struck me in the shoulder, my cloaking field crackling away while the man in robes began to charge another blast upon his staff, only to be decapitated as Tanner unloaded a round into his skull. A woman ran toward us with a knife in hand, screaming in a deranged madness. I charged my railgun and fired at her, blowing her back across the cavern as her organs splattered against the tents that writhed with shadowy tentacles.
Taking out another grenade while the others gunned down the cultist guards that fired upon them, I pulled out the pin and tossed it into one of the tents before whatever was inside could tear through the hide. It exploded, a piercing, child-like shriek echoing upon the stone as a flaming cacophony of tendrils and screaming mouths spilled across the ground, needling my mind with an aura of raw depravity as I struggled to keep my bleeding eyes on the nightmare.
"Contact right!" I yelled, my vision blurring in delirium. The others turned, unloading their railguns into the shrieking aberration before it could close the distance, and blowing it back as it quickly burnt to death upon the rocks. Reaching the end of the cavern, we ran up into the narrow cave, a bolt of lightning bursting against the ceiling above and raining sparks on us. Slipping away, we hurried out of the cave as Barry took the lead, the sky flashing overhead while the storm of sleet lashed against us. We ran as quickly as we could, and I glanced back to see the flickering lights of the cultists in the distance, slowly beginning their pursuit.
"Stop!" yelled Barry, stumbling to a halt, and pointing out the ward that was stricken across the ground. Carefully, he stepped over it, and we did the same, just as a cultist wielding a massive knife came screaming out of the forest behind us, his face carved with bleeding runes. We didn't even get to fire before he stepped on his own ward. All I heard was a sickening crunch, a splatter of blood smacking against me as he was sucked into the shadow within a split second.
"Barry," said Jefferies. "When we get back, remind me to buy you a beer."
"Yes, sir," said Barry, continuing forward while the torches of the cultists drew closer in the distance. As we made our way down the incline, a light gleamed from overhead while the sound of an osprey cut through the storm, hovering above us in the howling wind. The M240 gunner tossed down a rope before opening fire on the advancing cultists, and we began to climb it, the strength of my armor carrying me up as I gripped the cord tight, and pulled myself up into the helicopter, joining with the others while the gunner fired another burst.
As we sped away, I could see the lights of the cultists below, yet before they could try to shoot us down, a blinding flash canceled the night. The hill that contained the eldritch cavern erupted in a massive explosion, throwing off a tremendous shockwave that blew back the trees and lit them aflame. The osprey shook as we rose into the clouds, speeding away as quick as we could, and I looked back to see the remnants of a fiery mushroom cloud, scorching the sky with a deep, orange glow.
I swore, my body still shaking while a numbing pain coursed through my skull. When the others took off their masks, I saw that they were feeling the same, slumped back against the interior of the helicopter as they struggled to catch their breath. When I became more lucid, and the adrenaline wore off, I began to wonder how the Canadian government was going to explain away the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Then again, until I came along, BREACH was always good at keeping things quiet, and blaming seismic events on fracking was a favorite of theirs, much to the displeasure of the petroleum industry.
Some other teams went back to clean up the mess, but thanks to everything being vaporized, they didn't find anything of note beyond the hammer - and yes, they're calling it mjolnir. It's currently powering another outpost that's being used for the development of an artificial intelligence, on account of them being too terrified to even touch the Traveler's antimatter core.
Speaking of covering things up, I got a visit today - just not at my apartment. There's a special kind of ‘oh shit' that you feel when you get cornered in an alley by four guys with submachine guns. Turns out that they don't particularly care about me running my mouth, because anyone that's heard of these is under the impression that they're works of fiction. They do want to keep an eye on me, though, in a very close and personal way. I'll be joining my old squad, for whatever it's worth, and they made it clear that it wasn't a request.
I can't say I'm looking forward to it. The camaraderie was great, but at the end of the day, I got out because my mind was starting to break. Nobody's meant to see the things we've seen, and if something major's about to happen, I'd rather be freezing in Alaska than fighting on the front lines. I heard another small town got overrun by the roots in North Dakota. They firebombed the whole place, and removed any trace of it from the internet, like it never even existed. Here's hoping they figure out how to stop it.
Next up, if I'm still breathing, I'll tell you about the one in Egypt. An archaeologist found a hidden passage in KV62, or the tomb of Tutankhamun, and it led to an upside down version of Earth. Until then, thanks for reading, and don't drink the tap water.