Chapter Four – The Fall Of Ikiris
Charnel stepped into the evening air. Three moons hung over the fence of tall trees surrounding Ikiris Outlook. There was a crisp chill to the night air. It was alive with the screams of his many prisoners.
They held most of the prisoners in the courtyard where they would be at the mercy of the open night. Others were kept in the dungeons. Those were usually the unsalvageable ones, the real ugly cases. Charnel did his best to ignore that section on his patrol. The courtyard was bad enough.
One prisoner raised its head to sky and let out a scream as its skin was peeled away like a suit. The scream dwindled into nothing under the moonlight.
Another squeaked as it was split in two. Another as a soldier carved its skin with a hot knife. And many more spread across the courtyard lit up the still night air with their symphony of pain.
Charnel nodded approvingly and started towards the command centre. It was at the north of the outpost and operated as both the heart and head of the entire operation. Twenty-foot-tall walls fed through it and enclosed the back courtyard. A long, reinforced glass tunnel snaked around the wall. Here and there a defensive armament rose out of the ground. They were huge, barbaric-looking weapons capable of blowing freight ships clean out of the atmosphere and could liquefy organic matter in a single shot.
Near the front of the base, a bird soared high and then dipped down, and then vanished. Feathers and blood streaked into a gruesome star, and for a moment the air around it shimmered like a bubble, and then went back to normal.
Between the armaments hundreds of guards stood on constant watch, studying the skies and the surrounding forest. If there was any movement, they would open fire. The early defence detectors would alert them if something stronger was circling.
In total there must have been about three thousand soldiers stationed there. The dungeons ran deep, and nothing less than a full army could operate the above ground defences. Nothing less than a full army would be trusted to defend it, and nothing less than a full army could be expected to challenge it. Even torture duty demanded a sizeable drain on their resources. It was arguably one of the best defended outposts in the Pantheon’s extensive roster.
And all of them; Charnel, the soldiers on both levels, the tortured Vanguard prisoners, every single one of them was going to die tonight.
Charnel strolled through the glass tunnel. He was pleased with the heretics’ suffering, and he was not an easy man to please.
The command centre was quiet. There were the usual routine checks, scanning the surroundings, the planet, and then further afield. Occasionally there was a blip and they would have to confirm with their ships in orbit above the planet that nothing dangerous was on the way. Cosmic fluctuations, Ol-Tor had explained to him once. Charnel didn’t know anything about that and didn’t care to learn. The way he saw it, if it never came to anything then it was nothing to worry about.
There were about forty people inside the centre that night. Soon there would be none.
‘Good evening, sir. It’s smooth sailing for Ikiris today.’
Hakan and Krull were his second and third in command. Hakan was a towering brute who enjoyed fighting like others enjoyed breathing. Being cooped up in the centre made him anxious and impatient, and he often paced around the room eager for confrontation. He lived on it. And with his massive size eclipsing most of the other soldiers, he lived well and rarely lost.
Krull was the exact opposite. He had a body like a snake and a mind like a scythe. Charnel appreciated his strategies but beyond that he couldn’t stand being in the same room as him. He inserted himself into conversations that had nothing to do with him and insisted on taking command when Charnel wasn’t there. He’d rather have Hakan in charge, he at least knew how to lead and how to fight properly.
He stood with his hands behind his back and looked out of the window that hung over the front courtyard. Two crescent moons grinned in the distance.
He blinked, suddenly roused from his thoughts.
It was Ensign Prell. She was ambitious and smart and Charnel liked her.
‘I have some disturbing readings here,’ she said.
‘What is it?’
‘It looks… it looks like Optivarr.’
Charnel turned on his heels. ‘What?’
The others in the centre stared at her. She must be wrong, they were thinking, hoping. It couldn’t be them.
‘I could be wrong but…’ She gestured at the screen in front of her. ‘This amount of energy, I’ve never seen it before. Unless I’m mistaken there’s nothing else it could be.’
Charnel forced himself to stay calm. It wouldn’t be them, it couldn’t be. Not here.
He checked over the screen. Prell pointed a slim finger. It looked like a frequency band and under normal circumstances it would float and drop in gentle rhythm with the universe’s background noise and vibrate softly whenever an anomaly was detected. Right now, it was like a trapped rattlesnake. Like Prell, he’d never seen anything like it.
‘It’s them,’ he said gravely.
Nobody waited for orders. Alerts were activated and alarms blared across the courtyard. The wall armaments were manned. Distress calls were sent off-world and off-universe. A simple message, begging for a saviour. Charnel prayed Ol-Tor would receive the message and come to their aid before it was too late.
He checked over the defences on the screens. They were well prepared, one of the advantages of being so overbearing. He knew they’d thank him for it one day.
‘Do we know how many?’ he asked. ‘Do we know who?’
‘I believe it’s only one,’ Prell said. ‘It’s difficult to tell, detecting Optivarr isn’t an exact science. Based on these readings it shouldn’t be more than one.’
‘One is more than enough,’ said Krull.
‘That depends,’ said Hakan. ‘The one Vox fought doesn’t have any power, if it’s him then there’s no fight to be had here. We’d flatten him.’
‘He survived Vox,’ said Krull. ‘That is reason enough to be cautious.’
Hakan scoffed and pointed at the screens showing the base’s many fortifications.
‘He can’t take all of this on alone!’
‘Provided he’s the one attacking and there’s no guarantee of that,’ said Charnel.
‘What now, Prell?’
‘With energy readings like this, I find it very unlikely it could be Jack,’ she explained. ‘It has to be one of the others, they’re exuding so much energy the landscape is starting to warp around them.’
‘And there’s no way of knowing which one it is?’ said Krull. ‘Do we not have recon in that area? What about the defense ships, have they reported anything?
‘No recon, sir,’ said one of the other ensigns. ‘Not anymore. This flood of energy is disabling any vision we had in the area. And the last contact we had with any of our ships was a report that all readings were normal. We’ve tried to contact them but there’s been no response.’
‘Will someone find out who it is?!’ Charnel roared. ‘And get me through to the Pantheon! Get me through to anyone!’
‘Sir, it doesn’t matter who it is,’ said Hakan. ‘We can deal with any of them. Put me on the field and let me fight them.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Krull argued. He put himself between Hakan and Charnel. ‘You can’t possibly be considering fighting them. You’ve heard the stories. They fought Vox and lived to tell the tale. What makes you think you can fight them?’
‘Yes, yes, I know,’ Hakan said. ‘That doesn’t mean we can’t beat this one. They’re alone and they’re attacking us here. Here!’ He raised his hands and shouted. ‘The finest Pantheon outpost in a million universes!
A cheer went up from everyone inside the centre.
‘We can take this fight,’ he said, pounding his chest. ‘We can take them!’
Charnel was very aware that the alarms were still going and the beeping from Prell’s detector was getting louder, more insistent.
‘You can’t possibly know that!’ Krull argued.
‘Even if they are powerful, they’re alone,’ said Hakan. ‘Let me out there. My men and I will show them the All-Mother’s might.’
Charnel looked at Krull and then at Hakan. He reached a decision.
‘For the glory of Lilith,’ he said. Hakan grinned savagely and made his way to the front courtyard.
Krull shook his head but said nothing. Charnel went to the window and searched for the incoming attacker. There was a rustle of birds far off in the forest. Some of the trees were bending in strange shapes and the dark clouds that had gathered were moving with unusual speed, like they were following something.
Hakan was with his squad. His weapon of choice was an oversized mace scratched and worn by battle and time, he swung it experimentally and then barked some orders at his men. They took up a V position behind the gates.
Charnel felt so on edge he was worried his head was going to explode. All his training hadn’t prepared him for this. Not for them.
‘The energy flow is disrupting our instruments,’ said Prell. The beeping from her detector was becoming ferocious. ‘We won’t be able to lock on to the signal, you’ll have to do it manually.’
Charnel’s heart was racing. Prell’s detector was a machine gun of noise. Birds flew off in a mad panic and this time they were close to the base. He wished he could join them.
There was an intense pressure on his skin. It started off as a strange prickling at the back of his neck but it built and built until it felt like he was leagues underwater. His mind was muddy with panic. Was it panic? He couldn’t tell. It was panic or it was the thing moving towards him through the forest.
He wasn’t the only one feeling that diving bell pressure. Prell was leaning forward into her palms. Krull’s thin grey lips twitched and Hakan’s meaty hands were squeezed tight around the handle of his weapon.
He thought about firing at where the Optivarr was estimated to be. He was secretly hoping they would pass the outpost without incident. It was a fantasy, he knew, but he had to hope. Besides, if they missed then they’d lost the element of surprise. It was better to wait until it exposed itself, and then they could launch the attack.
‘… mad with grief,’ he heard someone say.
‘They were all mad in the first place,’ someone else replied.
‘Think they’re here to die?’
‘Probably.’ The speaker didn’t sound confident. ‘We killed one of them and now someone’s turned up alone? That’s suicide to me. They know they’re not going home after this. Question is, are they going down with a fight or are they here to be executed?’
Charnel focused on the forest’s threshold where the trees thinned and opened to the empty plain.
But that wasn’t where it came from. Not far from the threshold the forest canopy rustled and split, and a figure hovered above the treeline.
It rose alone into the dark sky, sharing a horizon with the three crescent moons. It hung there like a star.
Charnel stared at the figure. It was a girl. He couldn’t make out much more than that from the distance, but he could see her hair was long and red.
Oh, fuck. Not you. Not you.
He did a last-minute check on the defences. It all looked in order. His heart was thumping.
The girl hadn’t moved. She was floating peacefully high, high above the world. Charnel got the uneasy sense that she was looking right at him.
The entire base watched. The girl hovered like a waiting missile.
Charnel clenched his fists, then pushed the switch that would broadcast his voice across the base.
All weapons across the base were armed. The wall armaments were loaded. Prell leaned forward.
The girl’s arm went up. Charnel’s blood froze, but the arm went at her side, pointing upwards and creased at the elbow.
He wouldn’t be bullied or scared, not today. This was an historic moment. By the grace and might of the All-Mother, he would blow that heretic out of the sky and parade her corpse around like a trophy.
All weapons turned and trained their sights on the floating girl. Krull was on his toes. He couldn’t take his eyes away. Hakan was staring up into the sky with a vicious smile, a barracuda circling in the depths.
Then the girl’s arm straightened and her fingers extended, thumb pointing skyward. She pointed a finger gun directly at him, aiming down her forearm.
Charnel froze. He was sure, although he couldn’t really see her face, that she was smiling.
His determination suddenly crumbled. He couldn’t think. He needed to say the word but he couldn’t find it.
Looking right at me! Smiling.
Before he could say anything, she pulled the trigger.
There was a delayed reaction as light spilled into the command centre. But it wasn’t coming from the front window, it was coming from the back.
Charnel turned quickly and saw a cat’s eye of fire widening across the courtyard. A figure came crashing out of the dark slit like a meteor.
Soldiers rushed to stop it. It raised a sword that glinted along its edge with a fiery light. No, not fiery light. It was wreathed in a blue flame that seemed to curl around its arm like a serpent.
The soldiers opened fire. The figure barely moved and they flopped like lifeless sacks.
In the front courtyard, Hakan was staring at the girl when she suddenly wasn’t there anymore. There was an explosion that knocked him flying backwards and he slammed into the wall. When he opened his eyes, his soldiers were gone. He thought he saw one flying off into the distance, tossing in the air like a ragdoll, but it disappeared behind the treeline. There was an electric shiver as the shield surrounding the base fizzled away.
He was up, his mace raised. The girl was on the ground, an impact crater curled up around her feet. He moved towards her, ready to swing. She had an unnerving grin plastered on her face and he was eager to free her from it.
He brought the heavy mace around in a huge arc above his head, and using his powerful muscles he swung it back around the way it came and around the mace swung. The heavy end connected with the girl, right in her soft squishy neck.
The pain was instant. It started in his fingers and spread along his arms and settled in his back and shoulders. Hakan dropped the mace; what was left of it, anyway, and stared numbly at his broken wrists.
The girl hadn’t moved an inch. The mace’s ball end was squished into a flat plate and it dropped like a stick.
Without passing through the air, her hand was on his throat and his feet left the ground. He struggled, but it was like wrestling the tide. He was lifted like a doll, and then she ripped him in half from groin to scalp as easily as ripping tissue paper.
Charnel watched the glowing cat’s eye swell. It was impossible. It was a breach in the universe. Someone was ripping the universe apart to create a hole to another universe, and anything could come through. No wonder they’d only detected one Optivarr.
Prell was screaming at him. Her detector was going haywire.
‘It’s all of them!’
It was too late to save themselves and Charnel knew it. He’d been a fool to think they stood a chance. There was an off-universe teleporter but it was at the other end of the courtyard. Their ships were docked inside the outpost but it was too dangerous to get to them now.
Krull had rounded up the nearby soldiers and a line of them faced the back window with their weapons raised. The orange glow was getting brighter, like the glass itself was on fire, and the ground shook beneath them.
I won’t die here. I’m not dying like the rest of them!
Charnel broke into a sprint. Everyone else was so fixed on the light spilling in through the window that nobody even noticed he’d gone.
The light got brighter and brighter until it was almost blinding. Krull was shaking but he didn’t want the others to know that. He had to be a leader now.
He couldn’t see out into the courtyard, the window was a solid orange and red block, but he could just make out that there in the fire was the figure of a man. He was holding a long sword and the fire that coiled around the blade was different, it was deep blue and it moved unnaturally, like it had a mind of its own.
Krull saw silver eyes gazing out of the fire and knew that anything that stood in the path of them was doomed. He understood then an awful truth he had so far managed to ignore.
He was going to die. Everyone around him was going to die. And they all knew it too.
It happened quickly. The glass exploded inwards and the man in the fire followed. Krull was the first casualty, the blade went through his chest and threw him backwards and then pinned him to the floor. He died instantly and was one of the lucky ones.
The other soldiers fired but it wasn’t enough, it was never going to be enough. They fell around him like little plastic toys. One was thrown into Prell’s detector and exploded in a shower of sparks. Another had his head caved in with a single punch, and another was flung into the wall with such force he crumpled up like a paper ball.
Prell herself was armed only with a small handgun and managed to fire off one successful shot before the man crushed her skull in his palm like he was cracking an egg.
The smarter in the group realised it was a hopeless cause and edged towards the door. They were screaming and firing blind.
The man raised his arm and pointed it at the soldiers. Blue fire surged forward and leapt off his fingertips. It snaked around the soldiers and where it touched them, ignited them in huge blazes. They were bright blue smoking pyres and then they were bubbling puddles.
The man turned his nose up at the smell. Then he collected his sword from Krull’s bloodied corpse and started towards the tunnel. His job was not done.
Charnel was standing in the glass tunnel, looking out at the courtyard where a river of fire streamed into the base. Everyone was burning. The wall was molten lava and the flames were rising tall and strong and lit up the tops of the distant trees with its hauntingly beautiful glow. Black smoke billowed up to the clouds and could be seen for miles across.
The soldiers were running towards the teleporter as the avalanche chased at their heels. Most were too slow, and became a shadow quickly swallowed in flame.
He saw there were a few walking unscathed beside the fire. He couldn’t figure out why or how until they turned and looked directly at him. Directly through him with piercing silver gazes.
Seeing them made it all so much more real. It was impossible to believe it was really happening but here they were, in the flesh. They were more powerful than they’d been warned.
He checked the other side where the base looked out to the northwest, and another river of fire curled itself around the centre and streamed out like a flood. There were more of them there, too. He was trapped on both sides. They looked at him with those piercing silver eyes and he knew there was only one escape.
But he had to try. He launched into a sprint. He pushed and pushed as hard as he could to get away from it all.
It was just him and the glass tunnel. Fire rained around him, huge chunks of metal smashed across the tunnel. He kept running forward. He didn’t stop for the burning pyres screaming his name. He didn’t stop for the fire that snapped at his back and his feet. He didn’t stop as burning bodies were tossed in his way. He didn’t stop when he saw their blistered faces sneering up at him.
He dodged a metal beam that almost flew into him and he stumbled. It threw him wildly off track and he had to use what was left of the wall to pick himself up, but it wouldn’t stop him. It wasn’t pride, he had to admit, or a willingness to keep living that drove him onward. It was fear. Fear of the thing prowling in the sky behind him.
The tunnel veered left. Parts of it blasted apart in front of him. Pieces of metal and rubble screamed past him. He focused on the end of the tunnel.
He pushed harder now he could see the way out. His armour had started to melt and jagged parts of it stuck in his ribs like little knives, but he pushed on.
Fire rushed around the teleporter. He made the mistake of looking behind him. The girl was soaring through the sky and fire poured out of her like a fountain, explosions erupted wherever she pointed. She lazily swiped her hand and half the tunnel was swept away in an instant and took his feet out from under him. On the ground beside him, making their way across the courtyard as his army burned into little screaming piles, the rest of the Optivarr advanced.
They strolled like nothing in the world would rush them. Nothing in the world was urgent. He knew why. It wasn’t because they had nothing to worry about, it was because they were thorough. When you purify an infection with flame, you burn until every last shred of it is gone.
He sprinted towards the exit. The many corpses around it wouldn’t deter him. It was so close. A window to another world, another place, far from here. He could almost smell the freedom.
Catastrophe swarmed around him. He was reaching for the way out and the fire snaked and swelled and the girl in the sky was raining destruction and the Optivarr were closing in and the tunnel was collapsing and he was reaching and reaching and reaching and then everything went dark.
When he awoke, Charnel was lying on his side in the rubble and stars were falling from the sky. They landed on his forehead and burned.
No, not stars.
He tried to heave himself up but he couldn’t move. The air was busy with ash and dust and embers. The sky still burned a deep orange and the smoke was thick and heavy and tall. There were no screams, no weapons fire. Just the silent ash drifting in a stiff breeze and the many silent dead. All that was left of Ikiris Outlook was a broken silhouette swaying in flames.
There was also something moving very slowly in the sky, something he almost missed. He thought it was another attack, but Charnel eventually recognised the broken skeletons of his defense ships, drifting and derelict.
There was movement on the ground. He craned to see a figure moving among the dead and the smoke and the rubble, as if it were searching for something.
No, no, no! No!
He tried to move, squirm away. The man saw him.
Then he was coming at Charnel. He redoubled his efforts, trying to wriggle free but he couldn’t, his arms and legs were buried under rubble.
The man was the man from the fire. Charnel struggled, then stopped. There was nothing he could do. Even if he somehow got free and made a run for it, he wasn’t getting away. There wasn’t some last-minute heroic he could pull. He was going to die.
The blade’s tip pressed into his neck. Charnel recognised the man from the files Ol-Tor had insisted his subordinates memorise.
This was Sean. Charnel remembered reading about him but the memories escaped him now.
The blade pushed into his skin, just enough to draw blood.
‘You serve Ol-Tor?’
It felt like he was agreeing to his own execution but he nodded. Very carefully nodded.
He came down to Charnel’s height, the blade never leaving his throat. His eyes blazed with a hatred Charnel had never seen before.
‘You speak to him directly?’
‘Yes,’ he managed. It took a few tries; his throat was on fire.
‘Then I hope you were paying attention when I killed your friends because you’re going to tell that freak exactly what you saw here. I want you to tell him how easy it was.’ His eyes were silver fires, the sword edged closer to his jugular and drew a bead of blood.
‘I want you to tell him that I’m coming for him and when I find him – and I will find him – I’m going to gut him like a wild animal. And when that freak is good and dead and gutted and strung up, Vox is next. I will tear through every universe if I have to, but I will find them. Be a good boy and make sure he knows. I don’t want him thinking we’ve forgotten.’
He turned away from Charnel and sheathed his sword.
‘Trust me, we have not forgotten,’ he added quietly over his shoulder. ‘Not a single thing.’
The ash fell and Charnel passed out.