Nota Bene: It does help if you read Shepherds first, as this is a continuation of that.
Mary-Ann opened her eyes to see the darkness of her bedroom. She was sitting up, gasping for breath, one arm outstretched, reaching for something. Alexander was out the door already, leaving nothing but a warm, circular depression by her right leg.
She shuddered, drawing her hand back in. The dream-images had already faded into an indistinct nothingness. That hot terror that came with it had not.
She ran a hand through her hair. With the other, she reached for the bedside lamp. The clock said 3:18 in neon-red numerals.
The light was harsh for the first few moments. She blinked, grabbing her bearings again, not letting them go. This was her bedroom, and it was safe. The apartment building was safe. There was nothing out there in the dark. She was alive, and unharmed, and unlikely to be harmed. No one was in danger.
Her heart still hammered away at her chest, like some animal trying to gnaw away at her ribs. No use trying to go back to sleep now. She needed something to calm herself down. Some tea, a book, maybe some music in the background.
That would do it. Tea first.
The water was heating up when Johnny Cash started singing from the bedroom.
You wired me awake and hit me with a hand that broke a nail…
Phone calls at this hour involved two things: someone was drunk and needed bailing out of something, or there was trouble with work. Mary-Ann hoped for the first and expected the second.
She went back to the bedroom and picked the cellphone up off of the nightstand.
This was not a good thing.
“Hello?” She dreaded what was on the other end.
“I will be there in half an hour to pick you up.”
“What? Salah, what’s going on?”
“I’ll explain when I get there. Just get yourself ready.”
The call ended. Mary-Ann stared at the phone in her hand. Salah was worried, that was obvious. He was never worried, or at least never showed that he was worried. If he was worried…
Mary-Ann grabbed her backpack off the floor.
As he had said, Salah’s car pulled up in thirty minutes. Mary-Ann had been waiting in the lobby, changed into something more practical and packed up anything of use into her backpack: an extra change of clothes, a book for the ride, toiletries, some granola bars, a bottle of energy supplements.
She slid into the passenger seat, holding her backpack on her lap. Salah’s hands were tight on the wheel. His whole body was tense. He was never tense. As soon as the door shut, he took off down the street. He was even driving more forcefully than usual.
“Okay, what’s going on? You’ve got me freaking out, Salah.”
“The Children of the Scarlet King have returned.”
A memory dragged itself out of the database, a name and a date and a single paragraph describing a cult and how they had been destroyed by the Foundation. Everything else was a big blank space filled with hearsay, rumors and whisperings tricking down from those who had seen it and still opened their mouths.
“Every agent in the district has been called in to the chapterhouse,” Salah continued. “Project command is taking no chances with this. Messages have already been sent to the Foundation and the Coalition for whatever support they can lend us.”
“How’d we manage that?”
“A few old arrangements were dredged up from the last time, enough that command hopes to get a temporary alliance. I have my doubts that the agreements will be honored. The Coalition will act of their own self-interest, of course, but they are hardly allies. The Foundation, they can be bought off by throwing them a few artifacts of no importance.”
Mary-Ann remained quiet, trying to piece together the situation. The Foundation and Coalition rarely got involved with the Initiative, primarily in that they were far more interested at glaring at each other from across the metaphorical dinner table and sneaking snide insults in with the small talk. When they did, the interaction was generally the same: you have something we want, give it to us, no we are not going to compromise, yes you should do what we say because we have more guns than you. This situation pulled a Prague on the established order of power. Exactly what it turned it into, that would require more thought, but there were three and a half hours on the road for that.
Salah reached down between his seat and the center console, removing a manila folder. He handed it to Mary-Ann.
“Everything in here has been declassified for this mission. It’s a Babel-5 cipher. Destroy it when you’re done reading it.”
Words lapsed into silence as the car continued down the lonely black road.
Robert Hensen had seen a fight break out over a man inadvertently bringing a ham sandwich to lunch. He’d seen blood drawn over translation errors. He’d heard enough brick-headed smack-talking to qualify the entire organization as a professional wrestling circuit.
This particular web conference was not the most frustrating thing he had experienced, but it was very, very close. He had a Foundation Overseer on one end, a Coalition Director on the other, Director DeMontfort on the third, and none of them wanted to play nice with the other. DeMontfort had just finished berating the Overseer for wanting to recover everything the Children had instead of destroying it, though it was nothing close to his usual fire-and-brimstone tone. He seemed tired enough to talk like a civilized person for once.
“At this stage, it is possible that the process may be stopped without losing the host. Total destruction would prevent study of the phenomena, inevitably leading to a disadvantage when confronting them in the future.” This was the Overseer, with his smugness.
“Oh?” The Director’s voice raised the eyebrow absent from the logo on the screen. “Tell, me, Overseer. When was the last time the Foundation actually produced results from your studies? I can’t seem to recall anything recently…rather sad, when NASA has a better track record than your entire organization.”
“The scientific process does not provide instantaneous results, Director.”
“And in your case it does not seem to provide any results.”
“May we get back to the situation at hand?” DeMontfort said. “We’re getting nowhere with this idiocy. Mr. Director, your hostility is not helping matters at all…”
“The Initiative is currently in possession of numerous anomalous artifacts without the resources nor experience to properly contain them. You are a rogue element, and not in a position to make demands.” The Overseer was having none of this. “And, may I add, these items are used by agents in the field.”
“They have been tested.”
“Have they? Director DeMontfort, I mean no offense, but your personnel are hardly the foremost in the field.”
Hensen pinched the bridge of his nose. Time to say something.
“Can we just shut up and cut the bullshit?”
That got them to pause.
“We could do this alone, as it stands." Hensen continued. "The Initiative has one hundred and ten agents in the district, a sufficient number to raid the compound if pressed. Numbers are not the issue here. As a matter of fact, the issue here has nothing to do with the Children and everything to do with the fact that our organizations are so busy trying to strangle each other that we can barely see what’s going on in front of us.”
“That is a simplistic viewpoint that doesn’t…”
“January thirteenth,” Hensen cut the Overseer off. “Initial recovery of anomalous individual 091 by Foundation agents. March fourth: Coalition raid on a Foundation holding facility, unsuccessful termination of AI-091. March sixth, Initiative raid on Foundation facility, AI-091 recovered. March tenth: Coalition raid on Initiative facility, AI-091 escapes. June first: AI-091 acts under command of hostile organization, and is killed by Foundation agents after significant collateral damage and over two hundred civilian casualties.”
He let that sink in for a bit.
“I will be honest, I’m using the Children as an excuse to push another agenda, because I doubt I’ll have a better excuse any time soon. I propose a non-aggression pact between our organizations, with protocol for determining possession of items, on the basis that it’s time someone here did something reasonable. A joint operation against the Children of the Scarlet King, using Coalition magekillers, Foundation augmented operatives, and our own Project Malleus and Shepherd corps would serve as the springboard to this pact.”
"You have no authority!" DeMontfort's anger had returned.
"No, I do. Tribunal permission, in fact. I sent you the file, DeMontfort."
The priest looked like he was going to turn into a beetroot.
“And if we don’t comply to your request?” the Director said.
“Then enjoy finding the cult on your own, after they’ve had time to grow stronger, and I will make sure this information is withheld from you. We could have an exact repeat of nine years ago, all because you wanted to keep on with your feud.”
“Now then, I am sending you all copies of the proposal…”
Salah knew he needed sleep. Mary-Ann had taken over driving halfway to the chapterhouse, and while he had set the seat back and closed his eyes, he didn’t sleep. He couldn’t, really.
He was scared. Who wouldn’t be, after reading those documents? He hadn’t been part of the original mission nine years prior: All of those agents were dead now. But he had heard stories, horrible stories. They were nothing when compared to the real thing. Dread sat in his stomach, dense and cold.
Unlike a great many of the groups the Initiative fought, the Children of the Scarlet King had an actual god at its core, and that was not a title given out to every anomaly that attracted worshippers. The Scarlet King was very much real, and very much to be feared, from what had been pieced together of its nature and the Children’s beliefs. The King gloried in violence and depravity, calling to it the psychopath and the deviant, who then attempted to summon it and bind it to the world, as the King could not make avatars of its own. Rituals spanned from the proper preparation of a person for consumption, to methods of violation, to the summoning of the King’s servants, and all pointed towards the singular purpose of reshaping the world of man in its own image.
The biggest problem, Salah thought, was how one went about killing a god. You could burn its scriptures, wipe out its worshipers, kill its avatars, but that would only ever delay it. Eventually it would come back, whispering, and the whole cycle would begin again. It could wait forever.
Salah tried to focus on finding Mary-Ann amidst the bustle.
The chapterhouse was abuzz, crawling with agents and operatives. The majority were of the Initiative, men and women Salah had worked alongside for years. Scattered amongst them even now were a few Foundation and Coalition representatives, trying to avoid each other as much as possible. The Coalition agents were grizzled veterans, with wary eyes and hardened faces. The Foundation agents had a stiff plastic look to them, like they had been pushed from a mold. The Initiative agents almost seemed out of place: most of them looked like they had just walked in off the streets. A motley bunch if there ever was one.
Shouting in the next room. A fight had broken out. He was surprised that it had taken this long. The crowd had formed the traditional circle, with combatants at the center. On one side was a Coalition agent in camouflage, with a scar over one eye. He was holding a portable white-board in one hand. On the other side was a woman with blonde hair down to her waist and robes covered in writing, just barely restrained by Rabbi Arnheim and Smitation-Of-Evil-And-Trampling-Of-Sinful-Things Toton. She looked to have been trying to brain the Coalition agent with a book.
“Unwriter! Unwriter!” She screamed at the agent, who looked thoroughly confused. “Wordkiller! Let go of me…”
Salah stepped through the circle. Time to do what he was good at: smooth talking.
“Good morning, Di. Read anything good lately?”
“One moment, Salah, just have to dispense some justice to this agent of the Censor.” Her tone of voice jumped right from howling for blood to bubbly cheerfulness.
“Perhaps I could persuade you otherwise? He looks like a man who files his paperwork. This was a mistake, true, but I think we could consider him enlightened to his wrongdoing, don’t you? Can’t hold the ignorant at fault.”
Di relaxed somewhat, her restrainers letting go of her arms. She glared at the Coalition agent.
“Don’t do it again.”
The agent, with an expression of pure “what the hell just happened”, nodded and walked off. The circle broke down. Di came bounding over to Salah, a big smile on her face. He was quite sure she was bipolar.
“As a matter of fact I have read something good recently you see I was in this little used book store just off the interstate and…”
Di kept talking, blissfully unaware of anyone else in the room. Salah nodded occasionally towards her, directing his actual attention to Arnheim and Toton.
“Thank you, Salah. I doubt we could have held her back for much longer.”
“Ah, it was nothing. It’s good to see you again, Aaron. How’s the family?”
“Oh, they’re doing just fine. Just finished putting an addition on the house, so the kids have their own bedrooms now. There was a lot of celebration with that, let me tell you.”
“And you, Soeantost?”
“Quaking in fear and awe of the Lord, as usual.”
There was a tint of self-aware humor to the statement. Toton was good with that. You had to be, when you were the woman who had a habit of belting out “He Shall Crush the Sinful ‘Neath His Blessed Feet of Burning Light” at the top of her lungs.
“Have either of you seen Mary-Ann around?”
“Nope,” Toton said. ‘Haven’t seen her at all, actually.”
“I saw her maybe half an hour ago, up on the third floor. Looked like she was about to fall asleep right then and there.”
“Ah. She probably has. I should find some place to rest as well.”
“…and what’s really interesting about that character is his relationship with his father, which parallels…”
“Mm. We’re in dark times again, Salah.”
“They come and go, and we know more than we did then.”
“So do they.”
“True. God willing, we’ll be able to prevent things before they escalate.”
“So hope we all,” Toton said.
“…and that’s the end of the book, and while there are a few shakes in the writing it’s a wonderful way to spend an afternoon and I recommend it highly.”
“Sounds good, Di. I’ll have to check it out.”
A short time later, Salah found Mary-Ann asleep on a couch in the third floor lounge. He left her there.
Time passed. Plans were made, some amount of restless sleep was had, gear was doled out, prayers were said. A muted cloud fell over the chapterhouse as deployment time approached, the bustle and worry of the morning turning into a calm dread.
Then, it was time.
The group descended on the compound under darkness, unsuspected. The Coalition ritual hackers broke through the outer wards, allowing the armored personnel carriers to drive up right to the doors. The wind screamed, the earth burst open with a misshapen brood, and battle was met.
Mary-Ann ducked into an alcove, just avoiding a stream of black acid shot down the hall. As soon as the splatter stopped she leaned around and fired off two shots: one miss, one in the shoulder. A Foundation agent in the alcove on the other side of the hall downed the creature.
They kept moving, ignoring the spindly corpse with the marbled skin. The compound was crawling with them, more so than the actual Children. Those were easily dealt with: they had no guns, no survivors were taken. Mary-Ann had not seen any captives yet. If there had been, it would have been an act of mercy.
The place was very wrong. Apparitions would flit in and out of vision, screams and cries of pain would sound from the distance, but there was never anything there.
Mary-Ann was working automatically. Questions like how the Children managed to make a complex this large and ornate without anyone noticing were brushed to the back of her mind. The existence of these little creatures scrabbling all over the place made it feel like a scene out of Aliens, except the horror was undercut by the fact that she had night-vision goggles. Given the artisans the Initiative procured most of its high-end equipment from, those goggles were covered in iconography and had a heads-up display in Latin.
According to the radio, the other teams had had much the same. The whole event was a blessing in disguise: the Children had no time to prepare for a force of this size. Compared to what they were before, compared to what the stories had been, it was almost a letdown.
Things blurred together. The statues of various acts of violence and debauchery, the paintings, the creatures, the few men and women in red robes, usually found cowering in corners, everything blurred. The gunfire, the shouts, the commands, everything blurred.
Eventually, after many shots, the group of five came to a pair of doors, big ones. Big doors mean important things on the other side, it was a rule of life. The agents positioned themselves, and two opened the doors. They creaked as they swung outward.
A massive circular room with a domed roof stretched out before the group. The dome was covered in a painting, like some sort of twisted Sistine chapel, covered in horrifying beasts and great orgies of people surrounded by further scenes of graphic depravity. Columns lined the perimeter of the room, etched with symbols of some language that was better off unknown. Hundreds of candles were arranged just so, the wax dripped on the floor just so, tiles in the floor arranged just so, writing out rows and layers of symbols on the floor. Deep red tapestries and banners hung about the place.
In the center of the room was a blue whale, lying on its back, smeared with whorls and swirls of blood. A lone man was standing in front of it. He was middle aged: short black hair and a biggish nose. For a flashing moment, Mary-Ann wondering what had driven him to do this, who he was, what his history was. Would he be mourned by parents who had lost a son, a wife who lost a husband, children who lost a father?
The man got out a half-shout before a bullet passed through his skull and his body dropped to the floor. The echoes died away, and everything was silent in the room.
Mary-Ann had no idea how the Children had gotten a blue whale this far inland. She decided it was better not to pursue an answer.
All that was left was to kill it.