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Lilian Rook     'The Siberian Operation'. It has no name, because it appears on no documents, and likely never will. Not officially. Even a clandestine operation is at least acknowledged with something suitably impenetrable, just so it can be referred to by high officers in the know, but this doesn't seem to be the sort. This is a man's mission. The personal crusade of he and his followers, aged soldiers all, which will never see a desk.

    It's a private airfield where you meet, small and out of the way in the sub-taiga countryside, on some irrelevant stretch of land bought from some long evacuated charter porter for cheap and re-cleared some years ago. Hidden by tall, dark pines from most sides, it amounts to little more than a habitation outpost, a weatherproof hangar, and several stretches of lines asphalt, cracked by winter and repaired every summer, with a single wire launch catapult and two landing pads for helicopters. Enough to smell of fresh sealant and old oil, but seeing too little use to keep wild grass more than a few meters from the old wire fences.

    Even near the end of the summer, it's brisk enough outside for short sleeves to be uncomfortable. It isn't loud enough to be somewhere so rural. It's almost a shock when you first hear a singular bird chirp, after half an hour of waiting in the middle of a sunny day. No feathered kin responds to its call. Only the lonely chirping of a grasshopper, somewhere in the long grass.

    The man you meet there is Commander Volkov, formerly of redacted, now part of the G.D.F redacted. Along with him are twenty two men that have known and followed him through several promotions spanning almost sixty years, though you wouldn't know it by looking at any of them. From the moment you lay eyes on them on the almost vacant runway in the sparse taiga countryside, you can tell each one is clearly a veteran of war, beginning to reach the expiration date of their service.

    Strong, robust, straight-backed men of discipline and resolve, with faces lined and hair and stubble salted with the improbably slow, yet inexorable onset of age. In a few more years, the growing aches in their joints and the gradual fatigue in their muscles, will become a liability in the field, despite their best efforts to push the limits of their fitness, but at least for now, they are able to stand tall in full battle dress, grey fatigues almost invisible under layers of hard plates, gear harnesses, and censor equipment patterned in shades of arctic camouflage, a great backpack and electromagnetic battle rifle to each man. Lined up by the pair of dated helicopters ready for you, packing away cards, letters, dog tags, they wave or salute in turn as you arrive.

    Volkov himself looks as if he could be perhaps fifty five. One visible scar above the neck looks like shrapnel, one more looks like an animal wound, and one more looks to be a leftover from a surgical removal. Ugly things that ruin the symmetry of hairlines, top to brow to facial. He greets you with gratitude, considerable strength still left in full arm shakes. Though he is easily a full foot taller than Lilian and at least twice her weight, he gives her the greeting gesture of an equal officer.
Lilian Rook     "They were right to tell me that I would not be disappointed." he says after the initial exchange. He has the slight rasp of a chain smoker's twilight years. "I am glad you understand. And I am glad to see that we might look to the west of Europe for allies once again." Lilian smiles in return with only the corner of her mouth. Her own outfit is distinctly the opposite colour to blend into the snow, and severely under-armoured by comparison, but she's also the only one completely without a helmet, and carrying a sword. "Don't get too sentimental, commander. What would it say about me if I left someone with your background to run at a Level Dragon on your own? The least I could do is bring some ablative bodies." He laughs.

    "Is that it?" he asks, glancing over her shoulder to the undisguised black hilt. "You should understand that I did my research when I looked into who might be receptive to this kind of call. You have the Extinguisher classification, but even I do not have the clearance to access the particulars. But I do know you use a special weapon that the ublyudok hate." She replies "It is. But don't assume I can carry you all the way to the finish line on it. I know this has to be an unsanctioned operation. You must've funded it out of pocket. So your intelligence on this is concerningly poor. Especially with this level of enemy, knowing their abilities, and choosing tactically advantageous matches, is of paramount importance." Volkov only replies enigmatically "Aye, but I know this white whale."

    You're offered space on either of the transports, though they don't seem to want everyone to ride in the same one, for purposes of eggs and baskets. The craft are more or less modern by contemporary standards, but obviously old and repeatedly refurbished here, well-loved as far as helicraft go, and probably privately owned projects. The frames audibly creak and ping in the changing temperature, under the droning of rotors. Even with the doors properly closed, at low altitude, you can feel the air changing as you ride north.

    Too much. When it comes time to circle and set down, the ground outside is covered with at least a foot of snow. The ground is frozen solid beneath it, and black pines are piled under the groaning weight of a full winter's precipitation. A flat lake would have poured through an old and broken down concrete dam nearby, if it weren't frozen solid. Though it is stating the obvious, Lilian checks her coordinates to be doubly sure, and says "Even if we're in Siberia, it's still only August." She's met with taciturn nods from the increasingly grim-faced soldiers while the choppers find clear patches of frost-coated rocks to hover over, requiring a short descent by cable ladder.

    It isn't hard to guess how unnatural the light snowfall is here. The drifts on the ground grow increasingly heavier towards the north, the patterns of their unblemished white surface lightly brushed in an eastwards swirl, as if persistently dragged towards a central point by constant, low winds. Steel grey clouds hang heavy in the air, weak rays of sunlight still visible to the south, but quickly drowned out in the northward direction, leaving the barren landscape permanently cast under a late night darkness, though there isn't a single rumble of thunder to be heard.
Lilian Rook     It's easy to understand how a nuclear facility could be here 'without existing'. The final coordinates are just as in the middle of nowhere as the private runway had been, though the snowed-in complex extends over considerably more area, connected to the hydroelectric dam on both sides. Old fences have caved in under the weight of accumulated drifts over many years. Open areas have cracked down to the rebar with the expansion of ice in their fissures. The transport vehicles still left in the yards have frozen solid to the tarmac. Supply crates are encased shells of glassy ice several inches thick. Industrialist concrete buildings, designed to be as generic as possible, unidentifiable to a satellite for being bare of even a radio mast, have largely caved in. Much of the damage is due to weather and age, but many of the great potholes and husked structures, including the dam, were obviously once the victims of significant violence.

    One of the massive steam stacks has been crumpled in like a tin can. Chunks of lead sheeting and graphite lie scattered like marbles for a mile around. A section of supply yard has turned itself inside out from underground, metallic, hexagonal obelisks twenty feet tall littered around a gaping hole into a dark abyss. The dam itself has been split down the middle as if bitten into by a colossal axe, down two thirds of its front. The whole area reads as lightly radioactive, though only a few chest x-rays' worth for now.

    The storm that tore this place apart is not one that came and left just like that. Approaching the facility marked on analogue maps on foot, the four squads of soldiers begin navigating around certain trenches of snow as if by instinct, or more likely, memory. Those new to the scene are liable to begin stumbling upon things buried in the drifts. Discarded helmets. Empty rifles and machine guns. Jumbles of bones slumped in broken body armour. Trenches and potholes literally filled with shell casings. The hulks of gutted armoured fighting vehicles. The far-flung remains of crashed drones. Bits of missile casings. All of it all but lost to decades of snow, entire mass graves encased in almost solid blocks of glistening ice, should one feel the morbid urge to dig.

    Towards the nuclear facility, the wreckage quickly becomes a tangle of spent military forces, and the frozen bones and blood of the enemy. Lifeless corpses of four-legged creatures are entombed alongside human remains, blackened by fire and riddled with holes, laid out in broad, jumbled piles. The skeletonized remains of unidentifiable things lie together with the bones of men, rusted knives embedded in their spines in exchange for the scythe-limbs embedded in broken ribs.

    Hulking hills of blue-bloodied carapace have decayed away to the point one can see briefcase-sized uranium slugs settled into them, surrounded by small fields of broken personal equipment, drenched in the cyan stains of viscera owed to bullet and bayonet wounds on their undersides. Gelatinous bits and pieces, preserved in ice, lie strewn around blackened craters and burned, perfectly straight trenches. A solid three kilometers is nothing but a massive charnel field

    What must be the main reactor building looks as if some enormous, blackened tree had grown out of it, lifted high up on tangled roots like a swamp mangrove, and then been abruptly terminated at the base of its trunk, ripped off by a hurricane wind, leaving only the weave of its supports behind. They still reek of a certain amount of crackling radiation, and lie at the epicentre of the unseasonable, perpetual winter zone.
Forte There's a call to defeat a powerful threat. Forte responds. That is about the long and short of it. Is he responding for the opportunity to face down a powerful threat? To take on a difficult mission? Or is he responding solely for the simple sake of responding - seeking self-definition by action, any action? The reasoning is not quite clear, even to Forte himself.

They're brought to an empty field to wait for half an hour. Forte simply hovers there, silently, no sign of annoyance, curiosity, or other emotion crossing his face, as though he has infinite patience.

Throughout introductions, Forte doesn't speak unless spoken to, and even then answers questions with the minimum amount of communication. "Forte." "The Watch." "Because you put an alert out." Responses like that.

After that, he remains mostly in the background - taking a corner seat in whatever transport is offered, eyes shifting slightly to examine the war-torn scenery that passes by.

A few minutes after the group passes into the irradiated area, and then once every few minutes after that, a scan line passes down Forte's body, traveling vertically from his head to his feet and then vanishing. It's brief and small - like a VCR that has its vertical tracking just a bit off; just a little bit of visual glitching. Forte himself doesn't seem bothered, or to have even noticed.
Gawain Arriving at the private airfield, Gawain is already equipped in full armor. He's not too worried about the cold affecting it, as his sword is sheathed at his side for one. When he approaches Commander Volkov with the others, after Lilian speaks, he nods. "You likely already know, but I am Sir Gawain, Knight of the Sun, Warden of the Paladins. This must be a very dear mission to you. Do not worry, for we will do our best to accomplish it tonight."

He takes the least-full chopper, knowing Tamamo will go with Lilian and the like, and taps at his knees briefly before being quiet. A Dragon, huh? He's slain dragons. But something tells him this won't be like Vortigern at all.

When they touch down, he shivers briefly, but pushes past it into the cold. He sticks near one of the squads of soldiers, as he walks. They can fight, but they're likely to take casualties if he doesn't help them out.

Instead, he spreads his senses outwards, looking for sources of 'magic' and to pinpoint where they are. Hopefully, such a thing helps them detect the Antegent, but he's aware it might not do anything at all. Hopefully it helps give him a direction!

<"Tamamo, I must ask of you a favor. Could you summon more sunlight when the fight begins? Otherwise, I will be at a disadvantage.">
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Answer the prayer

    Phrase that differently.

>Arthur: Take quest THE SIBERIAN OPERATION

    Arthur is here. No armor adorns him, but his god tier robes are lined inside with fur and somehow seem to thrum with more magely nature than usual -- as if he's tuned them to optimal magical conductivity. They might be just a little bit fancier in the look and feel today.

    Arthur's usual shenanigans are still on display. He still does his best, of course, to barrage Volkov's no-doubt heavily-scarred hand with a series of coolkid handshake maneuvers that boggle the mind. But he seems to be kept at a constant wary tension level. Lilian hasn't ever really talked up a threat this bad before -- and it's one that exceeds all the Antegent that Arthur's fought until now. He seems to play that Nintendo DS on the way mostly to keep his mind off this, and when they arrive...

>Arthur: Exit helicopter

    Arthur clambers out slowly, checking around and sweeping his eyes over the environment. They press on towards the objective, and eventually he finds those bones along the way. Those awful, awful corpses. He immediately looks off his game the minute he sees a corpse. "Jegus. Let's find this thing fast. This is your White Whale huh? What's it look like, at least?" Working on focusing on the task at hand, you know! "I'm ready to rumble and all, but we need to know where we goin' so we can get there and it can't get us." They come upon the reactor building itself. "Don't tell me it's in there, with all that nuke shit. It's not awake, right? Urgh... Guess this is part of the secret-keeping. Can't be that bad if it's indoors, I guess..." Is that it? Arthur makes sure to cue up RADIATION RESISTANCE before diving into the spot for all this, if they've gotten to the right place.

    Oh right, and of course, during the walk, he has something particular for Strawberry Princess. "Keep ahold of this one, wouldja?" He asks, handing off something small, with a lime-green blinking light and a soft "bip! bip! bip!" noise. "KEEP AHOLD of this thing for me, would ya?" He intends something, it would seem.
Tamamo     Tamamo arrives together with Lilian, wearing that English tailored coat she's become fond of, and will stick with her for the ride over (as Gawain surmised). Chills, as ever, disagree with her. The increasing, notably unsummery weather bothers her all the more. The observed sun rather weakly reaches their destination.

    Though she has a particular reason (apart from anything to do with who else is here) for taking on this task, she says little on the way over, trusting that her reputation has either preceded her or is not yet of consequence. A three-tailed fox-woman in the company of certain individuals is fairly easily identified. "I wish to see, for myself, the further depths of danger that the enemy presents," is what she's willing to say aloud. That might be misleading.

    Speaking to her radio, "Oh, of course, sir Gawain. I would prefer a great deal more natural warmth, for myself. Make good use of the light, and I shall trust in your strength."

    When they land, her first priority, after being helped down to the frozen ground, is to reach out with all senses, to find and, with some luck, partially, understand what's not yet visible. The mirror floating beside her is an effective conduit for simple spells of detection, and no less effective as the arcane constructions spelled out by muttered word and gesture and intuitive push of unseen forces grow more and more complex. 'Radiation,' as a concept, she knows well enough. Heat and cold are not at all difficult. Finding the sources of things, life and motion and magic, that's more immediately important. Each addition to her array of augmented senses is intended to better answer those questions, 'what caused this,' 'where is it,' 'how is it happening,' and so on.

    Protective talismans hanging from her wrists grow warm. They'll be sizzling, at the least, before the time here is through.
Strawberry Princess      Strawberry arrives at the initial private airfield in atypical fashion: a small black jet of an unfamiliar, vaguely modern design. She comes down the foldout airstair alone, but given the pair of people in dorky white labcoats briefly visible through the door behind her, it isn't terribly hard to guess the craft's provenance- the Project must've given her a ride so she doesn't waste her wand's fuel flying.

     Also atypical: her outfit. In grave situations like this, she usually comes already in costume. For now, though, she's taken the chance to bundle up warm: extra-thick hoodie, mittens, a nice little scarf. Her magical wand is tucked away in a black duffel bag slung jauntily over one shoulder, and her breath fogs the air with little puffs of vapor as she breathes through an anxious smile.

     The overall effect is almost comical. Some organization has gone to great trouble to deliver you a slouching, awkwardly tall, hoodie-bedecked zoomer with no perceptible qualifications except the ugly scar on the side of her head. She sits through the Russian's introductions with zoned-out patience, her eyes tracing the sky out of a dogfighter's long habit. Something about it doesn't feel right.

     She makes a pleasant, if retiring, companion on the transport ride. Though visibly depleted and anxious, she's got a painfully sincere uplifting word for everyone. "Thank you for coming. It makes me feel- less worried. You know?" "It always touches my heart, to see this many people be so brave. Please be careful too." Even the old soldiers might be roused to smile a little.

     The three-kilometer long charnel path visibly jars her. The monster corpses don't scare her, but the first time she steps on frozen human remains beneath the snow, she stops dead for five or ten seconds. Her eyes are staring, unfocused, through the mess of bones as if to find something behind them. Her mouth is slightly open. There's no sound, but a visible puff of exhaled vapor as she lets out a long, hitching breath.

     After that, she follows in the soldiers' footprints and stares straight out at the horizon, only walking where they've already tread. Arthur's interruption momentarily brings her out of her reverie; she palms the blinking green thing, then stuffs it into her duffelbag after a moment's thought. "Oh! Thank you, Arthur. I'll- take good care of it. I promise."

     His DS starts flashing a green notification light. She's Streetpassed him. Her most recent game shows as 'Nintendogs'.
Tony Stark "Ablative bodies... Isn't a very kind way to refer to the rest of your team, Rook." Tony Stark calls as he strides up to the Last Ride Brigade, dressed down to a black collared shirt, a silver tie that flaps in the wind as he approaches, hands jammed into the pockets of his charcoal slacks. "You gather this many hard boiled operators one mission from retirement and you're begging for the cliche." He smirks towards the team and Lilian.

Behind him, one red-and-gold Iron Man armor marches, flanked by a dozen of the cut down Iron Legion drones in mechanical lockstep.

"Gentlemen. Dame Rook. It will be a pleasure working with you." JARVIS announces from the lead suit, the twelve drones saluting crisply.

From the transport ramp, Tony adjusts his tie. "Told you I'd bring the bodies."

<ONE FULL PAGE LAYOUT LATER>

The Model 42 joins Tony as soon as the team disembarks from the ramp, opening in the back with retracting plates for him to step in.

The twelve Legion drones lift into the sky, spreading out in a search pattern to canvas the area with more physical scanners, seismic analysis, and threat analysis.

"Volkov, was it?" Tony asks conversationally as his helmet's HUD populates and wakes up from automatic mode.

"How did you draw the short lot? Since Lilian respects this, I can only assume it's a big league threat. Please don't tell me your Avengers wear grey-white drab."

He sighs performatively. "It'd never sell an action figure."
Lilian Rook     Gawain's assertion is met with a grim nod from more than one man. When the men have descended from the aircraft, which quite quickly leave to a safe distance, he rejoin the knight, and replies with "This is a mission to put the souls of many fallen comrades to rest. While there is still strength left in these bodies, we cannot escape that duty."

    He sounds like he means that in a traditional sense. One rife with a special kind of meaning that comes only from soldiers who serve in times of great need, rather than for steady pay and prestige. His statement may be less figurative than he believes. The moment Tamamo begins looking around after dustoff, the myriad ways that this place is Wrong strike her all at once.

    To every one of her senses, this is a cursed battlefield. A place of regrets and grudges and dark emotions, worse than any crow-scavenged slaughtering field of the warring states, too haunted to be picked clean by human scavengers. Every bit of her is assailed with the malign shivers of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ghosts, hanging so thick in the air that the multitude may as well be a single, monolithic fog. Yet, no individual spirit is recognizable. No shape or name or consciousness is clear enough to be intelligible. It's all smeared together in a haze of death. Ghosts that are here and yet aren't. The mass grave feels far too fresh. Though it's supposedly forty years old, it feels as if the fallen had passed only yesterday.

    Furthermore, the wrongful 'weather' appears to be the remnant of some old, very large spell or ritual, which should have frayed and worn out decades ago, yet still exists in a state of zombie-like stasis, long run out of power, yet unable to fully scatter and die away. The closer to the dam and reactor, the more intense the feeling of inappropriate 'stagnancy' is. It's very much a feeling that it might all resume at any minute. The storm might brew again. The lake might boil and overflow. The dead might rise from the grave and fight once more.

    There is a very large, very severe, very unnatural disturbance here. It cannot be merely the scarred aftermath of some singular calamity. There is an open, existential wound on the land here. It is beyond 'salted earth'. The reactor going critical and poisoning the land would have been preferable. The root-like Antegent remains at its center feel like shrapnel lodged in it, the continuity of the events around it ready to bleed freshly at the slighted disturbance.

    The nature of this irregularity feels Important.
Lilian Rook     Tony's mass scanning gets a crystal clear picture of the battlefield that once was. Some massive convergence of antegent had formed at the base of the cliff that the dam occupies, and climbed up over the top. Patterns of movement indicate that thousands of individual entities had assembled from perhaps hundreds of miles, piling into a singular trench and poured into the lake area like water.

    There is literally too much data on the sheer variety of their corpses to compile all at once, though there are a dozen 'common strains' that lie dead in vast numbers, and two stand-out superorganisms. One of them is a torn, frozen, gooey sort of flayed mass that oozes exo-energy, surrounded by a perfectly circular, perfectly clear space. The other is a many-limbed armoured behemoth he can't find a head or a tail to, only superficially damaged by hundreds of heavy weapons strikes, almost drowned in its own blood by mysterious means.

    The south side looks like it was hit with a massed assault from a gigantic use of military force. There wasn't a fighting retreat from the facility, but rather, an almost suicidal assault on the same spot at the same time, from a strategy that amounts to pouring every available man into the strike, in an all-or-nothing gamble. What must be hundreds of aerial passes have gone over this area, some of them drops, some of them airstrikes. It looks as if, somehow, they pushed all the way up to the fences themselves, and managed to infiltrate the compound in small numbers. The heavy armour was never able to push beyond the southernmost lake edge, making for a half-kilometer no-man's land where both sides had suffered the same exaggerated casualty count as the most ill-conceived WWI trench charge.

    Notably, there are no signs of any strikes from especially long-ranged artillery or cruise missiles. Nothing was able to fire into the area from over the horizon at all. Perhaps due to the storm. Deep penetrations of the complex find that it had probably been sabotaged by hand. Blown with charges by small teams, maybe. There's so much shielding, meant to be impervious to reconnaissance scans, and give off no energy signature, that it's hard to tell for sure, but it wasn't cracked from the outside. The 'roots' seem to go all the way down to the main turbines, specifically into the flow of superheated water that would generate electricity, and even into the core itself. The only remaining point of interest seems to be the skeleton of a large, non-human, non-antegent creature, crashed in the hangar yard, accompanied by a single human body and many dead enemies, roughly at the center of a massive lightning strike.

    All of this tactical information feels Important.
Lilian Rook     "I inform you, with mixed feelings, that no lots were drawn." Volkov says to Tony. "This is a place we once knew. A battlefield that we are returning to, of our own volition. Our leaders say they have more important things to concern themselves with than these remains. We here disagree. It is a thing that needs to be done, even if we had no chance of success. With you here, I believe we have as fair a shot as any."

    "The Dame Commander is well-advised to take this seriously. Though the classification did not exist at the time, I agree fully that it should be coded posthumously. A disaster that cannot be measured in force of arms, or in blood spilled to quell it. Though we are better armed and learned than ever, in this modern day, there are things out there, that were and there are, which can only be met by a certain few, and fortune alongside them. We will need your wits and your good luck as much as your strength." he says.

    To Arthur, he points to the mess of terminated root-structures rising from the shattered nuclear complex. "This enemy, this Povtoryayushchiysya Koshmar--" He says it specifically as a proper noun. A name he's given it, perhaps. "--is defeated, but it is not dead. A weed, burnt to the soil, but its roots remain. Even out here, it calls to unfortunate souls. They arrive here, and they are drowned in it. Each hopeless man it devours, it regains a little of its strength. It is deemed that it will take many years to become worthy of fully destroying, but we cannot go into our graves knowing that it still lives. Not for all the men who cannot rest."

    He grunts. "That is not mere poetry. We cannot know every detail, but those who end up here 'enter' it, and disappear. The beast is not the bones you see before you. The tip of an iceberg. Its totality is Elsewhere. A place we cannot see or reach, without also 'entering' it. Its burrow, where it lives in torpor, living out its own death over and over again, dreaming that it might find a way that it might have survived."

    his Russian dialogue also feels Important.
Forte "Defeated, but not dead..." repeats Forte, seeming to come to life finally.

"Povtoryayushchiysya Koshmar..."

"... If it dreams of seeking out its own survival and victory, it seems that the answer is a simple one."

"We either prove to it that it does not even have a chance of victory in its literal dreams..."

Forte raises an arm, pointing at the facility.

"... Or we find these roots, and delete them. Down to the very last bit. This is true for any source of infection."

His arm drops. The floating navi turns, regarding Volkov.

"The question becomes, then, how to get to... 'elsewhere'. Assuming we are not to march straight into the main entrance like so many other damned lost souls."
Arthur Lowell >==>

    Arthur is a bit taken aback by the intensity of the curse, the profound feeling of incomplete work done here, and the general sense that all of this, whatever it is, represents a sustained, ongoing failure to complete what was started or the antegent failing to concede that it was finished. He grits his teeth. "I bet it's weird time shit." He mutters.

>Arthur: Can you fuck around with that old fraying spell minigame?

    Arthur can't help but recognize the magical baleful influence as he presses in. Importantly, he identifies the spell -- or, no, at least he identifies that there is one. Arthur is an expert in the supplying of power to mechanisms both magical and mechanical. He reaches out with his spiritual supply and sees if he can juice it up in some way that would allow him to navigate it. A bunker meant to be secure, metaphorically, can be more easily navigated when its blast doors and airlocks have power, and Arthur tries to see if he can apply the same principle to the spell.

>Arthur: Use Space Analysis on "Elsewhere"

    He also seeks the space beyond this space. There was an Elsewhere -- capital E. This tactical approach perhaps speaks of an effort to breach an alternate space by hand. So, can Arthur find this alternate space? Can he check the folds and twists of space and see if he can identify somewhere and somehow to advantageously access Elsewhere and face the totality of this entity in some easier way? A thorough geometric analysis should do the trick.
Tony Stark "Then I'm sad to say, Commander, that this isn't a proper suicide mission." Stark jaws, helmeted face impassive even while his tone clearly indicates cavalier joking. A pan of the area - and the aggregated data that populates every item and path, labels too small to read that expand and blow up into depth-based models. All 'the same'. All strange.

JARVIS elucidates aloud: "The Antegent seem to have concentrated their number along specific trench-lines, while resistance struck perpendicular for a massed break-through. Were I to synthesize a guess: While the conventional forces fought a ground war, the Antegent acted like a cardiovascular system - combat forms and maintenance forms failing to maintain the superentity's physical homeostasis."

The worrying readings, the method of attack - 'drowning' the creature - that was used used, the pulse of exoenergy, and the forboding name all click, as Iron Man full-body turns towards the Russian commander. "So you're saying this 'Dragon' is in a *coma*?"

"Literally: 'recurring nightmare'." JARVIS asides.

"Yes, thank you for the language lesson." Tony deadpans. "Lowell, can you suss out the connection between here-and-there? I agree with him." Thumbing to Forte. "I'd rather not waltz in to church wearing my sunday best to see if God will strike me down with thunder."
Gawain Gawain, sticking with his squad, frowns at the lesson. "Comatose...hopefully, we can find an entrance. If we do, allow me to take the road of distracting it, should it be able to sense us. As long as there is sunlight, I can survive almost anything."

He watches Arthur carefully from a distance, trying to see if he finds the entrance, while looking thoughtfully up at the Antegent 'weed'.

"I assume trying to befriend you would go as poorly as last time, huh?" He chuckles softly to himself, the knight trying to figure out what to do next. He turns to the squad captain of the one he's piggybacking on as they approach. "What's your plan, as far as you can share it? My goal is to make sure you survive the night victorious, and cooperation is appreciated."
Tamamo     "As he said," Tamamo adds, after commander Volkov, "there is little poetry in this. This land suffers a curse far worse than any laid by mere bloodshed, no matter how grand the scale. There is the impression of thousands of spirits, though I cannot distinguish them, whether that is the fault of a lack of self, or some malady placed upon them by the same curse. It is a far more serious matter than the slain left without the ferryman's fee. The flow of... rather, the sense of timing is also strange. There is none of the aging, the decay, the settling of bone and sediment that should come with time, the quieting of forgotten places. All is held as if on the far edge of life and death, readied to be brought back to violence with a sufficient spark."

    Her hands come away from the mirror, done with her search, for the moment. "The land is wounded, and the Antegent is the obvious source. It should be no surprise, perhaps, that that one so mar the planet in its death throes as they do corrupt it in more vigorous life."

    Arthur gets onto space matters. That's his strong suit. "If you could find the shape of the path from here to elsewhere, Mr. Lowell, it might prove useful to find some aspect of its space outside the main entrance. It is the difference between the main gate and the unbarred window, do you see? I would feel more comfortable piercing the dragon's heart than trying to navigate its teeth, I should think."

    Though that's not the only means they have of fighting the problem. "What of the portion of the enemy that *is* here? Can we not destroy the roots with which it clutches to the land, that it might fall away into that other place, and cease its feeding?" She begins gathering and sorting through a number of talismans from inside her coat, bundled and strung paper strips with scrawls of black and red ink. "And perhaps, if we were to make this land too inhospitable, it might wake itself out of desperation, and come to fight us on our own terms. Would this not be preferable, should we manage it? It will take some time--less with some assistance, but if I may spread these focuses throughout the area, I might enact such a counter-ritual. I would need to cover a great portion of the space, and then have such time as needed to call upon that essence of myself. It would be simple, in some respects, but neither swift nor easy."
Lilian Rook     Volkov considers Tony's turn of phase, then nods his head in agreement. "Yes. That is a fine way of imagining it." He taps his head. "Its brain is damaged. It cannot move or think, or fight, but it has a pulse. It has some reflexes. Someone in a coma might wake up at any minute, and slip away as easily."

    "It is Cipher-class." he says to Tamamo. "It is a monster that exists in patterns and signals as much as flesh and bone. Living thought, or a living code. It will not die completely until the last of those signals is terminated." He adopts an ugly grimace when she mentions the dead. "It knew it. Somewhere deep in these bones, I knew it. These men, our comrades, cannot be free of this war while that thing still draws breath. Let us end their battle, and put this long nightmare to bed."

    The squad captain Gawain is following, one of four, shakes his head slowly, putting on and sealing his helmet as they approach. Noticeably, it doesn't have a real visor or eye-holes, but only small cameras set into a solid faceplate. "Don't talk to it." he says. "You'll start thinking of it like a person, or at least an animal. You may as well be talking to the storm. Or a heap of shit. Our plan is to follow the call to where all the others disappeared, and tear out its stomach from the inside. It was killed once, with enough force. We will kill it again with more."

    This might just be a viable approach.

    It's actually Lilian who puts forward an answer on the subject of the 'roots'. She does, after all, sit through lectures and labs on this kind of thing. "If we burned out every last trace of it, it'd probably die, but there's no chance we could get away with it without it reacting to us. Antegent have been known to recover from the verge of death through these kinds of coma mechanisms before. They don't undergo any kind of recovery process without some kind of automatic defense. The higher level types usually resemble something 'designed' rather than evolved or animalistic. We can make it our goal, but I doubt it'd be easier."

    Arthur mostly seems to confirm her estimate. The distortion he senses is almost completely aligned to the bounds of the nuclear plant. Specifically, the man-made construction. It conforms quite neatly to the furthest pieces of things that human hands once wrought. Simply approaching it closely enough would take them there, but there seem to be 'deeper', more 'direct' gashes in space around the intended doors and gates of the facility, as if they were low points into which more 'stuff' had settled naturally.

    This is slightly Important.
Lilian Rook     However, he doesn't detect a pocket space or nicely described sub-dimension. It wouldn't be as simple as hopping into an extradimensional battlefield through a gate. The problem seems to only be partially his wheelhouse. The best reference he has, in terms of his spatial and geometry expertise, is that of a hypercube. The intangible presence of the slain monster's Wrongness contracts 'inwards' and vanishes when it reaches a point beyond the sensible understanding of 3d space. It's mostly a black box from the outside, for that reason.

    The cold, lifeless thunderhead above, though, is definitely magic. As in, that thing humans use and Antegent cannot. Jolting it with some extra energy causes the clouds to begin sluggishly stirring. A faint, chill breeze brushes around him. He can see a flicker of lightning play out in eerie slow motion, as if 'playing out the rest of the conjured storm' were something very heavy, or stuck, that he has to push forward.

    This is probably Important.

    Both Lilian and Volkov need a moment to analyze what Tamamo is putting down. "If you think you could drag it out here, it might be better than us walking right into the place it probably wants us to be." Lilian concludes. "Though, maybe we appear inside a stone and are torn to pieces." Volkov shrugs. "But the odds of that must be lower than those of appearing on the tip of its tongue, should we engage on its own terms." He scratches his chin. "But I remember this place well. I dream of it every night. I will tell you where."

    This is probably a viable approach.
Tony Stark Tamamo requests an accurate map - which Tony has, thanks to the penetration mapping of the area by his Legion drones. Adjusting so Tamamo has the best view, the suited Stark extends a hand, palm up. The emitter lens placed into the hand glows a cold blue as the air begins to fill with first light, then discrete hovering 'particles'. The voxels of holographic data swirl and settle like a snow-globe with pulses of definition falling into the hovering map like weathering rains of detail-granting definition.

As the suit fills in the data from the drones, the back of the suit opens up, Tony swinging out to walk besides the Model Forty-Four. He rolls his shoulder, pressing his fingers into the creation of light and figures. "There was... a strange corpse in this area." He touches the map, placing a yellow dot where the unknown corpse had appeared. "Oh, by the way, you can interact with the map and add things to it. There's enough exoenergetical reactions I couldn't possibly venture a guess at.

For '''some reason''', while the concentrations of antegent subform corpses are represented by seas of red pixels whose density creates deeper shades, there is tastefully no locations of fallen humans and merely labels suggesting 'where they had been' and battle lines.
Strawberry Princess      Strawberry lays her duffel bag down in the snow, unzips it, and starts rifling through its contents. "Safer to draw it out than cut it off, Tamamo. It's- in a chrysalis now, right? Trying to make itself right. If we blow up the 'roots', that might strand it somewhere else for good. Or it might just keep growing, and someday come back and be really really bad. You can't leave these things to fester like that."

     She pulls out her pretty crystal-tipped wand, its black Reignition reactor as sprawling and tumorous as ever (or perhaps a little moreso), and flips a couple of switches on the side. It isn't powered on- she's saving that for the proper fight- but its screen is still intermittently flickering a timer at 00:00.

     "Alright. Arthur, can I please get a boost? I'd rather not start the timer, you know, until I have to." She holds the wand out to him, fingers extended so he can interlace his with her grasp, and pulls a cell phone out of her pocket with the other.

     When he lends her some energy, a hundred invisible specks of awareness radiate out from her and flit over the snowdrifts, feeding a jigsaw of scattered sensory information back into her mind. She flits into the air with him (if he'll come along) to snap some birds'-eye-view photos of the area, but they aren't her real source of information. She hastily MS-Paints on more details that couldn't really be grasped by the human eye from that distance. Despite her visible discomfort, she doesn't shy away from displaying the locations of the human corpses now. It's For The Mission. so she has to push through it.

     Carefully swooping back down with Arthur still (hopefully) in tow, she touches down in the snow next to Tony and Tamamo, flashing them the scribbled on photo. "Hey, I got- oh, that's perfect. Mind if I touch that up with some details, Mr. Stark?" She gives him a very slightly strained smile.
Forte "Interactable holograms... interesting technology."
Forte reaches out to touch it. "I'd like to get a closer look at this point here. I'm assuming you pinch to zoom, as you would a-"

He stops. The area of the map that his fingers have touched has vanished. The map data there is just gone.

Slowly, he withdraws his hand and takes a step back.

"Someone else should interact with it."
Tony Stark "Not at all, Princess." Tony shrugs, gesturing at the map. "Go right ahead."

Forte leaves a hole in his map. The independent-for-now suit helmet turns to focus on the point, a few passes turning the hole into a best-fit blur...

But that data doesn't come back. Tony pats Forte on the shoulder. "Try the voice commands, champ."
Strawberry Princess      Strawberry removes the stylus from her phone and artistically paints on a few dots and shapes in pretty colors. After a moment's thought (and a few nagging pangs of OCD compulsion), she scribbles to complete the Forte-erased chunk in a sort of impressionistic style, significantly touching up Tony Stark's fatfinger finger-painting.

     "I think that's everything," she says quietly, still looking a bit off-kilter. 'Everything', here, mostly means all the dead bodies.
Tamamo <J-IC-Scene> Tamamo says, "Ah, but for the geomancy... might someone supply me with a very detailed map?"
<J-IC-Scene> Tamamo says, "So long as I may use it to indicate a set of points to those assembled, any material will serve. Ah, but do include the elevation and the locations of the slain, if possible."
<J-IC-Scene> Tamamo says, "The form of the earth is the most important, but for these purposes, the lines that matter may be marred, warped by the gravity of their suffering... ah, but any explanation may prove to meander. I shall do as best as I am able with what we have, but I thank you for any assistance."

    There are plenty of things that Tamamo could say about the situation, but Volkov doesn't need any more help from her to understand just how terrible this is. Just the phrase 'trapped souls' about covers it, as a Wrongness of such degree that it should never occur, that it never need occur, and that only a horrifically Wrong thing could make it possible to occur. Perhaps it's better, even, if she doesn't stretch the awareness of others to the necessary extent that they can appreciate how much better a mass slaughter of the innocent would have been than what actually happened here. And so, she focuses on the work at hand.

    Lilian and Volkov seem to approve well enough of her plan, and Tony and Strawberry are filling in a map. She waits until they're largely done, including a last-moment deletion and restoration, before she starts drawing lines around it, curving and spiraling, crossing, forming an intricate series of interlocking and self-similar shapes that would look too perfect to be artwork, were it not for all the irregularities that, based on how carefully she added each one, must have been done on purpose. The perfect geometry is warped as if mapped against a warped space that she can see, but not effectively show, pulling the orbital lines this way and that.

    It's not hard to guess the reason for this, as she'd already said.

    "To each of these points, where the lines intersect... here, and here... here... and to each of these." Each one is pointed to, every additional point marked by another tick, so every joining of two or more curves becomes an objective marker. She pulls out the thick sheaf of talismans. "Might your comrades assist, command Volkov? Or perhaps your armored suits, Mr. Stark? Ah, but one must be careful. No particular skill is necessary to merely place the talisman upon the ground at the marked location, but they *are* made of paper." They looks, and feel, like very old paper. They're only very slightly tougher than they look.
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Use ENERGY BONUS

    Arthur's form surges with light. The surface of his body becomes electrified and the wellspring opens up for Strawberry Princess. A quick drift to her side lets her get easy access! It's also something he can leverage for the weird storm. Can he push through any more here? What would that do? "Might as well be talking to the storm." He mutters. "Huhhhh..." He pushes more energy. More ENERGY BONUS should do this. More and more energy on-tap should help, right?

>Arthur: She wants to draw it out, so get the storm ready to do it

    Arthur looks to what Tamamo is doing. "You're doin' that draw-out stuff, right? Shit, keep that up, I think I've found an older trigger to pull. Looks like something ran out of power before it could kill this bastard, maybe I can power it up and bring it down on this son of a bitch." He explains, as his body gleams with more and more flickering weird lights. "Otherwise we're just diving in through these doors and shit."
Forte Forte takes a stack of the talismans in hand. He is making a point of handling them with care.

"At the spots indicated, right?" He says, glancing at the map, being careful to look with his eyes and not his hands.

Once his locations are confirmed and he's plotted out a route, he takes off. There's no jet-burst of wind or heat (or on the other end of the coin swirls of ambient magic) or even any stirring besides the slight displacement of air and the fluttering of his cloak as he travels, he just... goes, as if his personal acceleration is something that just spontaneously happens.

He flies series of low arcs, speeding up on ascent and slowing to a halt on the descent, carefully placing a talisman on the ground at the indicated spot before taking off again to the next point.
Lilian Rook     Checking on Tony's mapping, Volkov doesn't even look around him to check the map's veracity. He only indicates the extraneous crash point and the unidentified corpse, and grunts "Solomonari." When Tamamo lays out her plan, he concludes "We should take it on our terms, when we have been given this opportunity. Not its own." He uses hand motions to bring over his soldiers and have them each take their allotment of talismans, then he transmits the map data to each of them, where they break up and head to the indicated points to help set up the circle. "Do not take it as rudeness when I say that I hope you know what you are doing." He adds, before moving away himself.

    The 'halted' storm remains receptive to 'more energy', but it doesn't seem to be a lack of energy leaving it like that. The full completion of the spell is stopped by some kind of inertia. Energy is needed to overcome that mysterious resistance and see it through to its end. It definitely matches the terrain, meaning it absolutely should be there.

    When all of the talismans are properly placed, and Volkov calls his men back, he pings the map to indicate the very southern side of the lake, just where the river begins to feed into it, frozen in the modern day. He radios "Be no further than this line when you begin. No matter what happens, I should not say that any further north is wise to be near. Imagine that the battle still rages around you. Where would you be? What would you be doing?" His own men take his advance. "Whenever you are ready, we are."
Tamamo     The talismans really don't look like much. Anyone who's seen some late-20th-cen East Asian horror movies has probably seen them plastered over something. That may be intentional, as they're particularly fragile magical items, right up until the moment they activate. And even then, 'tearing the paper' is a frequently effective counter.

    Once they're all placed, though, Tamamo looks around, orienting herself against the map, and waits a moment, as if to feel which way a current of disturbed lakewater pushes against her. She moves with the unseen tug, tall geta sandals keeping above the snow and frozen mud, arms wrapped around herself for warmth, but moving with a purpose, even if there's nothing especially interesting about the spot at which she stops. It's appropriately central, yet not in the center. It's the center of the not-center, the secondary focus, the place outside the origin of the curse, the root-like structure, with the most influence on its surroundings.

    "Lilian, please stay with me, would you? I respect the commander's concerns, but I must be within the space to finish it. I know you can keep me safely away from harm."

    Tamamo glows. That happens, sometimes. 'Light Aspect,' Arthur once said. She'd put it a different way, and the important distinction now is that it's a very, very warm glow. The snow melts around her, the ground beneath it thaws, the mud hardens once more, and she carefully lowers herself to dry, hard earth, kneels, and begins to write. The ink from her brush flows directly onto the ground, then burns into it, filling it with lines like molten metal. The design is as archaic, arcane and esoteric as any could ask for, but she had said that this part was simple. It's a purification spell, powered by the metaphysical (rather than physical but notably distant) strength of the Sun, though that's quite a simplification. It's not an attempt to interact with the Antegent, directly, at all. They are, after all, quite alien, as far as she's concerned, and making up new magic on the spot is rather less reliable.

    Instead, specifically, this is a spell that interacts only indirectly. The Antegent has chosen to interface with 'the world Tamamo knows' by means of trapping and feeding on the dead. By preventing the dead from approaching, by wresting their spiritual essence away from the edges of the trap, by cleaning away all trace of their grudge, by sanctifying the ground in the opposite direction that it had been corrupted by death and curses, Tamamo is trying to make an environment exactly opposite, in all known and meaningful respects, to what the elsewhere-monster requires for its recovery, not stopping at 'ceasing to bring it more food,' but by surrounding it in a palpable field of 'food (The Dead) cannot exist.'

    Time is on her side, here. Her resistances against background radiation will hold out for far longer than it takes to repeatedly reinforce her ritual field, up to the point that, if the entrance is so easy to enter, it begins to infect that Elsewhere. It will only be slow at the start.
Gawain As Tamamo sets up her plan, Gawain smiles. "A good plan! I'll play the role of 'tank', as those MMOs say!" Another joke, trying to diffuse the situation, as he heads forward with the soldiers, hoping to keep casualties to a minimum by taking aggro for them.

Once everyone's in position, Gawain speaks. He keeps his senses heightened for the beast, trying to find exactly when it appears so he can be ready, before radio-ing to the Elites. <"Once the sun is up...well, let's hope it doesn't have much besides pure physical force. I won't be able to deal with mental afflictions via my Numeral of the Saint.">

"Ready!"
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: You need to kickstart it. Bring in the Big One
>Arthur: Dangerous to bring it all in, could get hit by any Antegent nearby
>Arthur: You should use the big one for SP!
>Arthur: Get a Gate as a compromise imo

    Arthur needs to fix the *inertia*. That means a huge kick of energy to spark the fire, to turn over the engine. Contemplating it extensively in a conflicted way, he comes to a conclusion. The others are preparing a wide effort, and so Arthur will prepare one too.

    While the setup efforts are underway, he sets up something himself. Maintaining his wellspring for Strawberry Princess's benefit, he begins working on something else, something more: A rather large spirograph tracing just above the clouds. Shining green lines arc, visible up in the sky. A Gate large enough that something *very* large could find its way through. He can't afford to bring it into orbit around this Earth, there's too many Antegent that could possibly make a home out of it. But if he needs to bring out all the big guns, he can at least compromise, one that should allow a good fraction of a huge power boost through. The Gate is slowly readied.

>[S] Arthur: Summon the LOSAF Directed Energy System
Forte Forte, returning from his trip, descends to a halt approximately back where he was standing before. "If you're the tank..."

< <AUTONAVI SLOT IN> >
VAR__SWORD F - EXECUTE
AREA_STEAL F - LOADING


"I suppose that makes me the damage dealer," he says, dryly, as twin energy blades sprout from his wrists.

"Once it's down, just get out of my way... I'll make sure it's not just dead, but *gone*."
Tony Stark Tony, whose total suggestion for this remains 'lol dunno fire a huge science gun at it' -- and, failing that, the appearance of Arthur summoning his own large magic science gun to shoot at the problem -- has little to contribute beyond his good looks and excellent taste in armor systems.

What's a paranoid battle-anxious bezosoid to do?

Stepping back into his armor as the map floats freely in the air, the armor system expands-and-contracts a single time, little flaps and greebles extending as the suit runs a full action check.

"Well, Commander, you've blown your window for ominous setup or making sure everyone's coming out of retirement for one last ride. We'll just have to get everyone back to base so you can do it right later."

Surprisingly gentle comes Tony's verison of a gallows humor pep talk.

"Right. Everyone ready?" Asks the guy with no active role.
Lilian Rook     The effort to neutralize the perversion of space and time here is successful. There is too much time and too little impediment not to be. The effect is one of turning the hypercube inside out. Of slamming the edge of the world and flipping it over, standing on what was previously the underside of the table. What was hidden, what was Elsewhere is forced into existence all at once, and with it, all of you are forced into it as well, in all its glorious terror.

    It is exactly as Volkov had said. Whether he meant it poetically or not, here and now, now and then, the battle is not over. The dead do not rest because they are still fighting. The Antegent does not die because it has not yet been killed. You are surrounded, sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and terror, by what has been going on, on this spot, over and over and over again for forty years, in a place that doesn't exist and a time that already happened.


    --But to understand the sheer enormity of what has happened, it is necessary to describe it in great detail. As every single facet of a major battle has been resurrected here in painstaking detail, from every individual face to every individual bullet fired, any or even every factor of the reborn conflict could be a factor in the anomaly that swallows everything. Perhaps even all of it might be.

    Every human, and every Antegent, here is already long dead, yet they play out the exact role that lead up to their end without fail. All alien forms and eldritch abilities, and all human tactics and strategies, are applied at such a large scale that the environment itself is warped and restructured by them, and needs to be noted more specifically than the snowy lakeside you'd seen. The function and role of each force present has enormous strategic weight on this, the site of a tactical massacre, and could make or break things with any given interaction, now all too pressingly your concern.

    Next, the threat needs to be catalogued and understood to be survived for long, for the danger to yourselves is very, very real. Maybe, perhaps even countered in some way. Long-dead allies must at least be noted to draw any conclusions from how they prevailed once before. The totality of what has been forced out of the land, extracted from its bloody wound like an old bullet, is so much bigger than any one person -- even any one Elite -- that only by seeing and knowing the place of all the pieces, can one make informed decisions about how to use any of it to their advantage. Maybe changing the tide. Maybe discovering a more important pattern.

    However, the fundamental fact at the core of it is exactly what Lilian says; her first hoarse, half-strangled words upon seeing it herself. "Nothing with this kind of power would do all of this unless it were important. Bringing back its dead allies to kill us isn't good enough; if it already lost this battle before, we could do nothing and it'd only replay its own death."

    A dry swallow. The frantic search of eyes over the overwhelming assault of the scene. "Like the Commander said, this is a Cipher-class ability, at an extremely high level. The manipulation of information. Patterns. Something encoded into the battlefield. It's still alive because it hasn't allowed this to 'finish happening' yet. Because we're here, it might be able to change how it happened. And because we lack this ability, I don't know what the consequences are if *we* change what happened. Be careful."

    This sounds very Important.
Lilian Rook     THE ONSLAUGHT:
    The snowfield has gone from a chilling graveyard, to a vision of hell.

    The permanent, lifeless thunderhead that hung above, like a dormant volcano, is the epicenter of a raging storm of biblical proportions. The sky is pitch black for the miles of evil clouds massed above; itself a midnight without stars. The wind rages so ferociously that it becomes an endless, inescapable scream, howling away without any sign of respite. Lightning forks and flashes above with such constancy that the flickering light is enough to see by alone, though it makes the snowy landscape blaze searing white, liable to render one blind without goggles. The sound of thunder roars without pause, sounding like the rumble of an all-night artillery barrage from a more archaic war. Lightning ceaselessly hitting the ground adds to the illusion, blasting down over and over, three or more bolts glassing the ground at any given split second.

    What isn't lightning making landfall is a hellish carpet of earth-shaking fire, to the north and south. On one end, it is an endless inferno of exploding shells and flash-melted terrain, surrounded by bonfires of corpses that have caught fire sheerly from nearby heat. On the other, it is a sea of flashing guns and blazing exhaust, crackling, booming, shrieking, competing with the storm as if both are trying to drown out the other, and filling the air with so many streaking tracers and fiery rocket lines that the breaks between the lightning are still like being on a well-lit evening street. Both sides are, perhaps, just as bad as the other. The surface of the lake churns under the sonic violence, and its surface physically steams under the heat of fire passing over it.

    Even outside of the way the unnaturally frigid air claws at your lungs, it's almost impossible to breathe for the stench of charcoal, ozone, and heavy metal fumes. Blood and gore is almost undetectable on the palate; there almost isn't time for it to spill in the chaos around you. There is no place for the dying to lie in the fields, nor for the wounded to be dragged back by their comrades. It only takes a single glimpse of the battlefield to realize that the only fate that awaits one here, human and antegent alike, is either being torn to ribbons in an instant, or carbonized on the spot.
Lilian Rook     THE LAST HOPE:
    Beside you must be at least a thousand-strong force of former Russia's finest, stretching along a battle line that encircles the entire lake, almost horizon to horizon. You're practically packed in with them. Shoulder to shoulder, lost in a crush of swarming bodies, mostly passing ahead of you to push the line forward, clambering over embankments set up by combat engineers twenty minutes ago and already burnt to crisps. A moment's hesitation means being swept along in a living tide, unable to find space to cover and maneuver, shielded by the flesh and blood of the men ahead in lieu of any defensible position in this suicidal killing field.

    Soldiers in unfamiliar fatigues, wearing patches you don't recognize, placed only by the flag stenciled onto the ceramics of tactical suits that seem to barely matter. Hundreds of units share little uniformity between them, cobbled together out of many different ethnic regions, and armed and outfitted in variations of weapons and uniforms that can only be due to a supply chain that is simply unable to outfit every soldier with the newest technology. Some of the men, and even women, you see are so young that they can only be desperate volunteers that have picked up the rifles of yesteryear, reclaimed from the bodies of the soldiers that fell before them, several times over. Even the freshest amongst them are so gaunt and haggard and pale-faced that they look like walking ghosts, awake, perhaps fighting, for days, running sheerly on adrenaline, fear, and fury.

    The fact that you stand out so greatly amongst them is barely noticed. Their hollow eyes scarcely have the attention to spare for a sidelong glance at you as they rush past. The scream of jet engines overhead heralds the crash of chunks of plate metal hitting the ground, springing up into fortified positions of heavy cover that signal the assault to surge ahead, running headlong over corpses so thick on the ground that they can be sprinted across without one being slowed down by the snow. The heat of so many freshly dead bodies has created a meltwater swamp, dyed almost completely red with blood, thick and soupy where one's boots can't find enough wreckage to stand above it.

    But the bodies aren't all human. Moving ahead, past the wrecks of the previous round of beach head drops, the swamp turns violet with the mix of blue and indigo added to the read. Slick chitin and living metal creates slippery and treacherous terrain, rife with spines and claws that tear more than one leg open with a slight misstep. Where passes from the airforce can't deploy enough artificial cover, pileups of soldiers take temporary refuge behind the bloodied heaps of dead monsters, scarcely two of them alike, but at least heavy enough to absorb incoming fire for a time, and slow down the living carpet of 'smaller' creatures crashing against the assault line, equally heedless to their own deaths, giving men time to stand atop the pile and rain fire down on them.
Lilian Rook     THE ENEMY:
    Directly ahead of you, the enemy army is equally as overwhelming in number, if not moreso. The lakeside, the cliff, the ruined facility; all of them are a writhing carpet of black and white and blue and violet bodies. Raking claws, bristling spines, whipping tendrils, flashing bioluminescence.

    Swarms of quadrupedal monsters race across the open ground, large as horses, hurling themselves thirty meters into ranks of soldiers and extending impossibly folded limbs to carve through bodies and heavy armour alike, blasted out of the air or gunned down in the field in turn, en masse, by fire so thick that it can't possibly miss. Excessively tall and ghastly thin silhouettes march forward in swaying lines, popping lights emanating from their faceless heads and firing lancing rays of energy that cause the ground to explode and bodies to disintegrate, trading fire with snipers and battle tanks that pick off their limbs to stumble them and blow off their upper bodies. Lumbering multipeds shield themselves behind joined front limbs of heavy armour, stopping to spew masses of fluorescent acid over wide swathes of territory, targeted with prejudice by missile strikes and artillery.

    Arrowhead-shaped masses of translucent metal and screaming organic vents shriek through the air like miniature jet fighters, dive bombing the ranks to physically bisect unfortunate squads and rise back into the air, carrying away screaming soldiers who are likely to be put out of their misery by anti-air fire as anything else. High-flying tentacled shadows spray the ground with writhing darts that shoot wiry tendrils in every direction, snagging and pulling in everything they can, before blowing up in domes of white hot fire. Floating blobs of pulsating soft matter advance inexorably under massed gunfire, protected by fields of flickering energy, some eventually giving out under the pressure and allowing the soft organism behind it to be torn to pieces, others holding firm long enough for the floater to reach the main line, and emit an invisible pulse of energy that causes ranks of soldiers to collapse in screaming fits, turning their guns on themselves in mass suicides.
Lilian Rook
    THE TITANS:

    Two specific titans stand out amongst them. One seems to be a highly 'evolved' version of the levitating blobs, shaped with the curled, top-heavy contours of a foetus, looking like blown glass, housing an entire hanging garden of blue-black vegetation inside a domed 'cranium'. It is at the center of a maelstrom of heavy combined arms fire, blocking out everything that can be thrown at it, inside its impregnable field. Nictitating 'eyes' around its circumference blink open, causing the AFVs and airdropped bulkheads to be pulled to millions of swirling pieces wherever they gaze. Other times, they stare into ranks of approaching soldiers, constricting their pupils, and causing the front line to turn on the line behind them, only to be shot dead by their comrades behind them without hesitation, having already seen this trick repeat itself over and over again. It is holding its ground completely, but quickly being surrounded, lacking the ability to actually kill everything being thrown at it.

    The other is a six-legged palindrome of a monster, without discernible front or flank, clad in meters of thick black carapace, and tall enough to rise above the battle, crushing smaller beasts below its massive footfalls. Its central body is barely visible beyond the monolithic cover of its leg-plating; if it were to draw all its legs together, it'd form a completely sealed bunker. It weathers the attack with purely physical might, making short charges into the ranks that come too close to it, which have no choice but to flee backwards or be crushed. From the gaps between its legs, it releases long, diffuse columns of total incineration, leaving nothing but charred, conical trenches where it spews fire from shielded maws. A specialized tank that is the size of a multi-storey building is rolling up against it, aiming to meet it in a head-on confrontation.

    However, on humanity's side, there are figures who stand out in this charnel mayhem as well. There are three men who take to the air, wearing only the barest trappings of military allegiance, otherwise clad in thick, furred cloaks wrapped around them in many layers, masks pulled down over their faces, to ward against the wind and the cold of flight. Each of them sits astride the back of a gargantuan beast only passingly similar to a sea serpent, possessed of wickedly clawed lower legs, but otherwise almost all swollen muscle, beating demon-wings, and perversely decadent golden scales, all of them sprouting multiple heads from the same shoulders; two of them are three-headed monsters, and the largest has seven. Their faces are altogether hideous, being mostly distended maws of bristling teeth, but their riders have worked glittering golden bridles into them anyways, which they use to guide the airborne monsters.

    It is the three of them that both create and control the storm. They themselves are the epicenter of the dark and terrible hurricane. They call the winds with terrible shrieks, send down the snow with the thunderclaps of their wings, summon the lightning with the gnashing and snapping of their sparking jaws, and send down javelins of ice and hail with the sweep of their tails. Each of their heads seems capable of vomiting great, horrible gouts of napalm-like fire, making them terrible weapons in their own right. Their scales easily shrug off attacks from both the grounded and airborne antegent fodder. Their riders appear to strike down the flying antegent that attempt to approach them with their own storm magic.
Lilian Rook     THE DRAGON:
    The three sorcerers are engaged with what can only be the prime Antegent itself. It rises hundreds of feet into the air from its roots deep in the reactor core, splitting the sky with its image, and parting the storm around its head, creating a hemispherical vacuum in the tearing clouds. It doesn't look like the tree one might be forgiven for imagining it, from its remains. It looks like, if anything, a partially melted human body with its legs removed; a humanoid torso that terminates into a dangling, slug-like bottom, pale and grey, stained with red at its head and tail, supported by two arms that are exactly where they should be, but extend and extend and *extend* down to the ground, where its hands split into dozens of ultra-long fingers, which split into even more branches themselves, plunging deep into the earth and forming the 'roots' you'd seen earlier.

    It looks as if it'd climbed over the cliff with those arms, and then intentionally taken root here. Perhaps usually dragging itself. But it's upright here. A living building with a house-sized swamp-corpse at its head, oversized, infant-like head and everything, blind and featureless save for an oversized bloodstained mouth. The thing screams like a siren. Non-stop. Audible even over everything else, as a constant, grating, maddening undertone. The army won't even fire at it. The odd missile or shell that flies wide is instantly destroyed by the hideous creature twisting its neck around however many degrees it has to in order to spit some kind of liquid stream from its throat and skewer it with clockwork precision.

    The three riders appear to be trying to hold its attention as much as they are trying to kill it. Their mounts dogfight with the stationary monster, evading sprays of high-velocity fluid as best they are able, their riders having to heal the grievous, corrosive injuries with magic where they are struck. The grotesque thing soars through the air merely by flexing its elbows, its arms being so long that it is equivalent to flying. It is somehow able to dodge and intercept not only fiery breath from up to sixteen heads at once, but even spit down the lightning from above, as if it knows it's coming in advance. It's neck-breakingly fast, even nauseating to watch.

    It is also growing more powerful with time. The sorcerers are constantly applying and reapplying all manner of Slavic hexes and curses as fast as they can to weaken it, but the choice of the reactor's tainted and boiling water supply must have been intentional on the Antegent's part. It's deriving something from it. Not nuclear power, obviously. But something.

A geometric web of faint golden lines runs through the ground, barely shining through the water.. A tremendous Green Spirograph hangs in the sky, barely shining through the clouds. The first thing Lilian does is instantaneously spirit Tamamo far, far away from that no-man's land.
Arthur Lowell >Arthur: Remember Skaia

    Piles of bodies. Running and blood. Choking air. Screaming metal above. Screaming men below. Pain and filth coat everything. Arthur remembers Skaia -- the Battlefield. This does not match its size. That doesn't make it better, it makes it worse. That makes it scarier.

    There is no refuge here. No space that is unoccupied.

    Arthur breathes deep. He has been here for five seconds, and already he wants to cry. It has been a long time since he was unable to feel the tempting tug of Expiration in his mind. It was comforting in its own way. Here, even at his greatest, he would die. Godhood wouldn't save him. It'd make it worse.

    Can't find God in the trenches. He wouldn't survive.

    The Antegent onslaught is like a tide. There is a thousand times more biodiversity than the Carapacian mutants. There are a hundred thousand times more bodies than the Derse loyalists. What Arthur barely survived with the help of over forty powerful Elites at the height of the Union and Confederacy collaboration, he is now asked to win victory against with the help of a half-dozen. He has to hope that storm those three mages are whipping up will sustain through the energy. That tipping the scales with power is enough. It won't be enough, and on some level Arthur knows that.

    This is an impossibility. This much fear could obliterate reason.

    "Weren't kidding about this danger." He whispers. He brandishes his broom. A heavy key is slammed into a mechanism and turned hard. Around him, a half-dozen text entry fields input passwords. Authorizations are accepted. Safeties are released.

               -------------------------------------------------                
              |   ACTIVE   |    DANGER    |      CRITICAL       |              
              | ---------- | ------------ | ------------------- |              
              |            |              |                     |              
              | ********** | ************ | ******************* |              
              |            |              |                     |              
               -------------------------------------------------                

    Deep breaths. This might be the big one, Art. This might be the one that keeps you from Expiring. If it is, you better make it count. You better see every dying face and feel every synaptic spark of pain. You better be all the hero you can be, before you can't anymore.



>Arthur: Strife
Arthur Lowell ----------------------------------------------------------------------------
|                KING BROOM SYSTEM                |                          |
|              SETTINGS AND FUNCTION              | [X] POSITRON THRUST      |
|                                                 |                          |
|                                                 | ------------------------ |
|                     ,gM00@M~'                   |                          |
|                  _g000~                         | [ ] PURGE TO NEXT        |
|                 p000'                           |     ROCKET STAGE         |
|                p00P                             |                          |
|        _f     j00F        _pg00000&g_           | ------------------------ |
|       _#      000       p000000000000&,         |                          |
|       0f      008      0000@~`     ~M00&        | [X] BLACK PROTOCOL       |
|      j0      j00f     000~            ~M&       |                          |
|      00      J00f    j0F                "&      | ------------------------ |
|      00c      00f    40       __         ^Y     |                          |
|      00&      #00    4f   _p00000&g       ^     | THRUSTER MODES           |
|      #00       #0&   4I  g0M~~~M0000g           |                          |
|       000       "00g  # #^       "0000g         | [ ] DASH                 |
|       "000,       `~@*-|ag,        "000g        | [ ] CRUISE               |
|        "000&,        p'l  ~0&g      ^000        | [ ] CHARGE               |
|          M000&g,_,gg0' J6   M0&       00&       | [ ] SPRINT               |
|           ^M000000M~   4#    #0&      400       | [ ] ESCAPE VELOCITY      |
|    `          `~`      #0     00f      00       | [X] UNSTOPPABLE FORCE    |
|     #,                j08     00&      00       | [ ] PLAID                |
|      0g             _g00'     00&      08       | [ ] UP A GODDAMN NOTCH   |
|       M0p,_      _gM000'     j00f      0        | [ ] LET'S DO THIS SHIT   |
|        "00000MM000000@       #00      j'        |                          |
|          "M0000000@~        j00F      !         | ------------------------ |
|               ``           p000      '          |                          |
|                          _g00@                  | BLENDER MODES            |
|                        ,g000'                   |                          |
|                   .qgM00MP^                     | [ ] STIR                 |
|                                                 | [ ] CHOP                 |
|                                                 | [ ] MIX                  |
|                                                 | [ ] PUREE                |
|                                                 | [ ] LIQUIFY              |
|               WARP RELEASE CODES                | [ ] CRUSH ICE            |
| ----------------------------------------------- | [ ] CRUSH BONES          |
|   ACTIVE   |    DANGER    |      CRITICAL       | [ ] RIP/TEAR             |
| ---------- | ------------ | ------------------- | [ ] ATOMIC DISASSEMBLY   |
|            |              |                     | [X] ANNIHILATION         |
| ********** | ************ | ******************* | [ ] LET'S END THIS SHIT  |
|            |              |                     |                          |
----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Arthur pulls the ripcord. The metal screams. So does the man. If he can ascend through the thicket of aerial enemies high enough, he can reach the Spirograph, complete the Gate, and call down the starlight onto Strawberry Princess and onto the storm.
Tamamo     A great many things happen at once. Tamamo attempts to focus on as many *important* matters as she can. She speaks, and her voice is carried over the usual frequencies. These are words that may be helpful to others. Lilian has seen to her own safety, and for this, Tamamo is far less immediatelyl concerned, no matter the massive destruction, the repeated death, the carnage and the mindless--but no, it's not mindless, is it? Except in the way that 'words' are mindless. She speaks.

    "'Cipher-class.'" Her words are low, oddly calm, and have a subtle rhythm. "A code, an encrypted message, a pattern. The enemy is not the flesh, but the pattern, the idea, and the information. An idea fears neither sword nor cannon. This one still grows, but to where? To become what? Into what form does it seek completion?"

    She takes in the variety of enemies, searching for the pattern. "Clumps of flesh, encased in protective fields, floating. A fetal form, still protected. The small body of an infant, if only compared to its head, it screams after the vulnerability of birth, it vomits, it thrashes, it struggles for life. And also, this one, it sets down roots. What does it seek from tainted water? What *idea* does the cipher show in its scream? Oh, if only I were a musician, I would know the sound's destruction." This describes the primary problem, as well as one of the next two biggest problems, and a host of other ones.

    Those are hardly the only issues, and the solution is not yet evident. "The arrowheads carry the men aloft, but to what end? Whither does it seek to take them?" It's awfully inefficient as a method of killing them, if that's all it is, especially compared to bombs, tentacles, and unfolding blade-arms.

    "Where are those who came most late? Into what position have they been added?" Finally addressing someone in particular, "Commander Volkov, can you recognize them? Can you see the piece of the pattern to which those consumed most recently have been added? From there we may glimpse its conclusion."

    She continues, again speaking to all, "Be certain. This is not a battle. Do not be led astray. This is a nightmare made manifest. This is a curse."

    Curses are her business, and the groundwork of the blessed purification, the counter-curse, has already been laid. It should work perfectly well on the humans in the battle, but for the Antegent, this is far from likely. She doesn't yet know why the dead were necessary to its pattern, but she knows they were, and that leaves clear what should be done--but not the 'when.' "If the spirits are freed from this tragedy, will their opponents cease to be? Will the pattern begin to collapse, or will it reach some other conclusion?"

    Tamamo is left with many questions, and few ways to answer them, except to look, to hope others can see what she has yet to find, and to pull the trigger on that one ritual she's already set up. She hesitates, but even as she does nothing, the ritual is already active, as it had to be for it to be noticed by the opponent, and its exorcising effect will inevitably free the ghosts, regardless, unless efforts are made to disrupt her field of talismans. The living could accomplish such a disruption easily, but for those affected by the field, it would be a colossal effort.