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BREACH - Episode 7 - Operation Gladiator

Hey guys - Thane here. It took us a while to get healed up, even with the medical tech at HQ, but we're back in action until further notice. I get muscle spasms from where the legionnaire stabbed me with a magic icicle, but otherwise, I'm trauma free on the physical front. We all went under the knife in a bid to replicate some of the Traveler's cybernetics, and our bones are now reinforced with a titanium foam, so every BREACH squad will be a lot more difficult to kill. No nanotech brains just yet, but our cerebrospinal fluid was replaced with a sort of gel that better cushions the brain from impacts, kind of like how a woodpecker's tongue is wrapped around its own, as the surgeon put it. Even in plainclothes, we were a force to be reckoned with.

No word from the Travelers, or whatever was controlling the legionnaires, but seeing as the invading universe punched more than a couple holes in our own, we've had our work cut out for us, even after the connection was severed. Our numbers were decimated after Blood Siren, so command has been pushing recruitment from the main branches of every NATO member, with an emphasis on special operators who can keep their mouths shut. Why I'm still alive, on the other hand, I have no idea. Like I said before, I guess it's not a problem if only one guy's doing it, and the shit we do is so unbelievable that it practically does its own OPSEC - hiding in plain sight, and all that.

For this op, we were deployed to Italy. Castel Madama, to be specific - a municipality about 20 miles inland of Rome. It was being used to house an underground fighting ring that pitted random dopes that wouldn't be missed against the kind of monsters we were vaporizing on a daily basis. It was attracting some heavy-hitters on the world stage, and got a little too popular for its own good. It wasn't long before the brass got wind. Only thing is, this would normally be a low-priority case for us, given the comparative threat level, but an informant gave us a hint that got everyone real interested. The arena staff were used to small game - stuff that could tear a man to shreds for the pleasure of the audience, but would buckle under gunfire, or electrified restraints. Apparently they got brave, and picked something else up - something that was a lot more deadly than they were equipped to deal with, but it didn't go on a rampage and waste everybody, like you'd expect. Instead, it willingly decided to stay there. It liked it, so long as the bodies kept flowing.

Going off the description, command thought it was a bonafide legionnaire, so we were being dropped in to interrogate it as best we could, and kill anything that got in our way. The shutdown of the arena was not a priority, and we were to enlist the staff if they were in any way amicable. Given that these things actively wanted to assimilate our universe and turn it into meat moss, command was not thrilled about the prospect of any remaining on Earth. So, they were hoping to figure out where the thing's controller went - nuclear arsenal on standby.

We flew in from an outpost on the coast of Croatia, packed into a UH-60M with all our gear from Blood Siren. It was myself, Jefferies, Barry, Tanner, and Sprite. The others had their railguns, and I got to keep my electrical cannon. The boys in R&D even made some improvements, installing a desperately needed safety, and making it accumulate a passive charge, so all I had to do was pull the trigger every five seconds, and a small army would cease to exist.

We hovered near some farmland, east of the town, and rappelled down into the cover of the trees, Sprite drifting in overhead. Barry got us oriented with his gear, and the bird flew off, leaving us to it.

"It's underground, just past the highway," said Barry. "We can get in outside the cemetery."

"Peachy," said Jefferies. "Lead the way."

We activated our cloaking fields, and made our way through the trees. The cover broke into a small, empty road, cracked pavement splitting beneath our boots as the land began to dip into the highway beyond, green hills rising across the cloudy, blue horizon. Jumping over a fence, and moving down the hill through what looked like a small orchard, we made our way over the grassy highway underpass, keeping out of sight as the sound of cars rushed upon the air. Cutting through the trees and past another road, we moved between the buildings of crumbling masonry and pale, pastel shades of concrete, the sun shining brightly through the clouds. It was almost pleasant, compared to our usual destinations, and seeing people moving through the distant streets was a welcome reprieve, even if I knew it wouldn't last.

Walking past a small, empty parking lot, and between a gathering of cramped homes, Barry's shimmering blur pointed to a rundown building of weathered brick, the cemetery rise towering in the background. It almost looked abandoned, and a rusted, metal fence ran the perimeter of the property, overgrown weeds shifting around me as I followed the others up to the building. There was a door out back that almost looked like a boarded-up entrance - but it wasn't. It was only made to look that way. There was a white handprint smeared in paint upon its center, like the door in the sewers of Blood Siren. Barry counted us down, and gently pushed it open with a whining creak, railgun aimed into the darkness it revealed. Beyond the door, a staircase led beneath the structure, extending down farther than we could see.

"Tanner, you're up," said Jefferies. Gun at the ready, Tanner descended into the shadow, and we followed closely behind. A dim light soon flickered in the distance, at the bottom of the stairs, and as we reached it, we stepped into a long, disused hallway, a steel, bloodstained door standing at the far end. Broken, fluorescent bulbs blinked and hummed overhead, lighting the dirty, molding concrete that surrounded us, and offering the only semblance of noise in the otherwise silent catacomb. I would've thought that an underground fighting ring would be louder. Sprite beeped, flying ahead of us to stop Tanner from going any further. It decloaked, and shook back and forth, as though warning us off.

"You see something we don't?" asked Jefferies. Sprite bobbed up and down in the air, as though nodding. "Will it hurt us?" Jefferies asked. Sprite remained still for a moment, and then shook to say no. Jefferies examined the walls ahead as he thought to himself. Kneeling, he picked up a small stone, and tossed it down the length of the hall. Nothing happened. "Barry, is this the only way down here?" he asked.

"As far as I know," said Barry. Jefferies nodded.

"Okay," he said. "This is gonna' suck. Sprite, hang back and keep an eye on us. When they take us, follow in and figure out how to spring us loose. Don't get caught, and call for backup if you have to. God knows we should already have another team down here." Sprite cloaked once again, and flew off back the way we came.

"What do you mean by 'when they take us'?" I asked.

"They'll knock us unconscious, and then take us in," said Tanner.

"Couldn't have said it better myself," said Jefferies.

"Ain't that jumping to conclusions, sir?" asked Barry. Jefferies laughed.

"I'll bet you a hundred I'm right," he said, stepping forward. Barry shrugged, and we all followed closely behind. As if on cue, iron gates slammed down from the ceiling in front and behind, boxing us in as the walls around us slid up with a mechanical hiss, revealing smooth, reflective planes of intricately traced runes, each slathered in glowing blood. As the runes flared with light, a ringing blared through my ears, and I began to feel faint. Losing control of my body, I collapsed to the ground, and the world around me faded to darkness.

I woke up in a cold sweat to a horrible screeching sound, coming from somewhere in the near distance. I was in a concrete cell with the others, save for Sprite, and we had been completely stripped of our weapons and armor. My head was pounding, and there were strange sounds echoing from the dark and decrepit hall beyond the bars, spatters of dried blood coating every inch of the mottled concrete.

"The others are gettin' rowdy, eh Thane?" said Jefferies, leaning back against the wall. "They can smell us, like fresh meat."

"You sure inspire a lot of confidence," I said, shrugging off a splitting headache. "Any word from our spherical friend?" Jefferies shook his head.

"Not yet," he said. "Just a matter of time."

"Never know what hit 'em," said Tanner.

"What about people?" I asked. "Have you guys seen any, yet?"

"Two guards passed by a little while ago," said Barry. "Surplus AK-47s and chainmail. I guess they were expecting to get bit."

A buzzer sounded from down the hall, and the screeching from the other cells intensified. Footsteps clattered through the distance, and in short order, six men revealed themselves, stepping out in front of our cell. The jailer among them had a keycard in his hand, and the others had their rifles, just as Barry had said.

"It's showtime, boys," said the jailer through a heavy Italian accent, swiping his keycard against a reader, and unlocking our cell door. "Don't do anything stupid." The men with guns backed up like a firing squad, keeping their weapons trained on us as the jailer beckoned us to follow. "Single file," he said. We followed behind him, passing by the cells of chained and tentacled abominations that thrashed and snapped at our side. Near the end of the hall, a spatter of saliva smacked against me from a hissing, skinless cat, its tail replaced by three scorpion-like stingers as its massive claws raked against the concrete and struggled in its restraints. "Oh, don't worry boys. The manticore's not for you. You've got something special coming your way. You had some real interesting hardware, coming in here - best to mark the occasion, eh?" He glanced back with a wink and a smile, and led us up a set of stairs, the armed contingent keeping a healthy distance at our rear as the sound of distant cheering grew upon the air.

At the top of the steps, we emerged within a large, metallic chamber, a plague of rust creeping across the walls and into the two elevators that stood at opposing ends of the room. Directly across from us, a door stood closed, vicious claw marks embedded in the solid steel. We were lined up in the center of the room as the men kept a watchful eye. It sounded like the cheering was coming from directly above us.

"You there, big guy," said the jailer. He was looking directly at Jefferies. "You head into that elevator over there, eh?" He pointed at the one at the far end of the room. Jefferies nodded at us with a smirk, and made his way over to the elevator. When he stepped inside, a barred gate slammed down in his wake, locking him within. "The rest of you, since you're all acquainted, get front-row seats," the jailer continued. "We're gonna' throw you in there, one by one, all against the same opponent. Sounds easy, eh? Maybe we don't even get to the last - you guys look tough - bunch of fighters here." He walked over to the closed door, and opened it with his keycard. From there, we were led down some sort of research block, the rooms at either side filled to the brim with expensive electronics and supercomputers, where men and women poured over tabled maps and whiteboards scrawled with intricate designs. One of the rooms, to my lack of surprise, had my electrical cannon, which looked like it was being scanned by a large x-ray machine. This didn't look like any backwater operation - they were being funded. "I'm guessing you boys already know where you are, eh? Coming prepared like that," said the jailer, beckoning us to follow him up a long ramp, where the roar of the unseen crowd grew louder with every step. "I'll save you the song and dance, then."

At the end of the ramp, a large, metal gate stood closed, decaying scraps of flesh splattered at its base, with a security camera watching us from above. The gate slid open, revealing a large, sandy arena, and the roaring crowd that surrounded it, cheering in adulation upon the bleachers as we were led between them, and ordered to stand before a row of six pillars. The three of us were each shackled to our own, facing the arena, which was protected by a humming forcefield that shimmered upon the air with a low hum, a rim of glowing, arcane runes surrounding the bloodstained pit.

"You boys have a good time, eh?" said the jailer, patting me on the shoulder before walking away with his guards. On either end of the arena was a sealed gate, each linked to what I assumed were the elevators below. Without Sprite's intervention, I had no idea how we were going to get out of this. My eyes searched the men and women that observed from the stands, dressed in elegant fineries and drinking the supply of absinthe that was endlessly served to them, in stark contrast to their dirty and bloodstained surroundings.

"Ladies and gentlemen," boomed an unseen announcer from the speakers overhead. "This evening, we have a treat for you! It turns out that a certain insidious group of men planned on shutting down our fine operation! Where are these men now, you ask? Chained to the pillars, and awaiting their chance at glory ... in the arena!" The crowed booed at us, the nearby patrons splashing us with their drinks. I swore, the alcohol stinging my eyes. The gate on one side of the arena slid open, and Jefferies stumbled out, shielding his gaze from the blinding lights. When he regained his sight, he looked up at us, giving the thumbs-up as though completely unconcerned. The speakers whined overhead as the announcer resumed his introduction. "One by one, we're gonna' educate them on the finer points of what exactly we do here, as they face off against a crowd favorite: Astragoth, the Destroyer of Souls!"

The gate on the other end slid open, and a towering legionnaire stomped out of it. He had been deprived of his weapons and armor, though he was still a seven-foot wall of muscle, marked by bleeding runes that were carved through every inch of his body, and a sigil of a weeping willow that was sliced across his chest. So much for the interrogation. The legionnaire grinned sadistically, his sharpened teeth glinting in the light as he looked down at Jefferies with an unrelenting cruelty.

"Captured in Portugal, off the Atlantic coast, by a team of no less than twenty men," boomed the announcer. "Astragoth was a force to be reckoned with, but he has cast aside the call of the sea, to slaughter and kill for your entertainment! Let the battle begin!"

The legionnaire summoned a ball of fire in his hands, and whipped it at Jefferies, who rolled out of the way as it burst against the sand in a flash of searing heat. Jefferies deftly rose to his feet, and the legionnaire charged toward him, his thundering footfalls thumping upon the sand as he recoiled and readied a mighty blow. Just as he swung, Jefferies ducked and rolled between the legionnaire's legs, coming up behind him, and kicking him hard in the back of the knee. The legionnaire buckled off-balance, enough for Jefferies to roundhouse him in the back of the head, his shin cracking against the titan's skull. Growling in annoyance, the legionnaire turned just as Jefferies was about to throw a spinning back kick to his stomach. The legionnaire caught his foot, and ripped Jefferies off the ground, swinging him overhead before hurling him across the arena like a ragdoll. Jefferies slammed against the metal walls, collapsing to the ground as the crowd roared around him.

"What in the bloody hell is he doing," muttered Tanner. "He should wait it out."

Jefferies crawled to his feet, grinning through the blood in his teeth while the legionnaire slowly advanced toward him, and threw a hard blow at his head. Jefferies ducked under the legionnaire's fist, and angled out of the way when the titan swung again, barely missing as Jefferies circled out behind him with a smile.

"What's wrong?" asked Jefferies, raising his arms in his best 'come at me' gesture. "You can't hit me?" The legionnaire laughed as he advanced forward.

"You think death is the worst that can happen to you," he said with a deep and bellowing voice. "You will be my plaything, meat, and I will instruct you well in the true definition of suffering." The legionnaire charged forward, and swung with all his might. Jefferies rolled under the blow, the titan's bloodied fist sailing overhead as Jefferies came back up, and jabbed at the legionnaire's face before throwing a hard cross to his jaw - yet the attacks seemed to have little effect. The legionnaire smacked him, knocking him to the ground before stepping forward in a bid to crush him. The legionnaire brought his foot down with a thundering stomp just as Jefferies rolled out of the way and rose to his feet, spitting a mouthful of blood to the sand.

"Oh, I know perfectly well how bad things can get," he said with a grin. "I just don't give a shit." With a snarl of rage, the legionnaire whipped a ball of fire at him, and Jefferies ducked as it sailed overhead, detonating against the walls of the arena in a booming explosion. "So what were you doing at the ocean, huh?" asked Jefferies. "You don't look like the sailing type." The legionnaire smirked.

"You expect me to stand before you and spout some villain's exposition?" he mocked. "I have been tempered by a pain so exquisite, that it is indistinguishable from the most lurid of pleasures. You will get nothing from me but death."

A blur overhead caught my eye, speeding across the domed ceiling of the chamber. It was Sprite, cloaked from sight, though what it was doing, I had no idea. I watched as the legionnaire swung at Jefferies again and again, who only dodged every blow and kept his distance. A flash of light flared from where Sprite was now running its lasers across the ceiling, as though trying to cut a hole straight through it, though nobody else seemed to notice, captivated by the display as Jefferies failed to slip one of the legionnaire's punches, and caught a hard cross to the jaw with a resounding crack. Blood and teeth flew through the air as Jefferies stumbled back, clutching his face in pain, though kept alive by his cybernetic enhancements. That's when I noticed the warmth upon my arm. It was a drop of his blood, trickling down my skin - but that would mean that the forcefield that protected the arena was no longer in effect. Sprite had found a way to disable it.

"Guys," I said, getting the attention of the others as I motioned to the drop. They quickly caught on, looking up at Sprite as it finished slicing a hole in the ceiling, the cut-out section falling down and landing in the center of the arena with a tremendous thud of shattering concrete. Jefferies and the legionnaire both turned to see what was wrong, just as something fell through the hole from above. It landed in the sand, and immediately slithered toward Jefferies like a snake, though I had no idea what I was looking at - its surface was like a clattering machine of scintillating light and writhing metal. Jefferies backed up, unsure of what to do, just as the machine snapped onto him and scaled his body in the blink of an eye, binding itself to his limbs. Jefferies, however, was not harmed. He stumbled back in confusion, looking down at the bizarre powered exoskeleton that now traced across his body. It was the technology of the Travelers, far beyond anything BREACH had ever been capable of producing.

That's when Sprite opened fire on the audience, raking its lasers through the crowds in streaks of fire and explosive death, blood and ashes splattering across the bleachers as the guards opened fire upon the cloaked drone, though to no avail as their shots collided with its crackling forcefield. Sprite turned to them, and vaporized them all in a blast of laser fire. Down below, the legionnaire charged toward Jefferies, who effortlessly slipped his punch, and rammed his fist into the titan's gut. The legionnaire buckled over in pain just as Jefferies hooked him across the jaw, dislocating it in a spatter of blood and teeth. Looking down at his new armor in amazement, Jefferies backed away with a smile.

"Welcome to Earth, motherfucker," he said, throwing a hard kick to the legionnaire's head, and instantly caving in his skull with a deafening crack. The titan's body fell to the sand, and Jefferies stumbled forward, like he was suddenly being controlled by the armor that enveloped him. He placed his hand on the legionnaire's fractured skull, his armor emitting a low drone as it presumably scanned the contents of the man's brain. Then, it ceased, and Jefferies was allowed control once again. Shrugging it off, Jefferies effortlessly leapt up onto the platform that held us, and started to pry our shackles apart.

"I guess that takes care of the interrogation," he said. He was missing half his teeth from where he'd been hit.

"Where in the fuck did that thing come from?" asked Barry. Jefferies shrugged, too overjoyed to care. The gate behind us that led to the research block slid open, revealing two men that immediately opened fire on us. A bullet grazed my shoulder, and I took cover behind my pillar, gritting my teeth in pain as the shots sparked against the metal, but Jefferies only advanced toward them, raising his hand and projecting a bolt of lightning from his armor that instantly incinerated one of the men. The remaining guard fired his rifle at Jefferies, but the bullets only sparked against a crackling forcefield. Stopping before the man, Jefferies snatched the rifle from his grip, and punched clean through his skull with a sickening crunch, blood and brains smacking against the walls as the now headless corpse collapsed to the ground.

"Well shit, now I'm jealous," I said, Sprite drifting in overhead as it disabled its cloaking field. Jefferies patted it, and it beeped in alleged satisfaction. I glanced back at the arena, where hundreds of mutilated bodies burned in the crackling flames.

"Well, let's go get our guns back," said Jefferies. "Then we can all have some fun."

We followed Jefferies through the open gate as he cleared a path of destruction and carnage through every guard contingent that advanced against him, effortlessly vaporizing them one by one with powerful arcs of lightning that chained from one man to the next, the windows of the research block shattering to pieces as the cascade of fiery explosions rippled down the hall. Reaching the room that held our guns, Jefferies ripped the metal door off its hinges and tossed it aside. We filed into the room, the electrified bodies of several researchers slumped against the bloodstained electronics. The others retrieved their railguns from the tables, and I removed my electrical cannon from the x-ray machine. It was a struggle to hold without my exoskeleton, but through the haze of adrenaline, I barely even noticed.

"I am not firing this thing without my armor," said Tanner, looking down at his railgun. "I respect the continued existence of my shoulder, nevermind my ear drums."

"Just take it with you," said Jefferies.

"Anyone see my coms gear?" asked Barry. I looked around, though saw nothing, shaking my head with the others. "Hold on then," he said, taking a seat at one of the computers and bringing up a Bash prompt. "I need to contact HQ," he said, typing on the keys. "Huh, this belonged to the Prometheus Mandate."

"What were they doing here?" asked Jefferies.

"I don't know," said Barry. "Their records are all gone - somebody cleared everything out. The logs say it was a remote connection, though. If it wasn't another Prometheus outpost, somebody must've had a backdoor in the network."

"And how's that evac coming?"

"I just sent the message," said Barry, tapping his foot impatiently. Just outside, Sprite sliced a fleeing researcher in two with its lasers, blood splattering against the shattered glass and molding concrete. "There," Barry continued. "ETA five minutes. We need to get topside." Barry closed the connection, and we followed Jefferies out into the hall.

Striding through the destruction, we left the research block and arrived back in the chamber beneath the arena, where the manticore from earlier was tearing apart a contingent of guards. Casting the body of one aside, the last man fired upon it with his rifle, the feline abomination snarling as it slowly cornered him, and then jabbed at him with one of its tails, impaling him through the stomach. The manticore lifted the guard into the air, and with a horrible sucking sound, the tail pulsated and drank the internal organs from the man until he was completely hollow. Casting the withered corpse aside, the manticore turned to us with a hissing growl. It jabbed a tail at Jefferies, who snatched it out of the air so fast that even he was surprised, ripping it from the creature's body with his tremendous strength before stepping forward, wrestling its thrashing form to the ground, and stomping on its head with a loud crunch, killing it instantly.

"I really hope I get to keep this," said Jefferies, grinning wildly as he led the way into the prison block. Downstairs, the hall was filled with thrashing, tentacled abominations, all feasting upon the corpses of the guards. Someone had opened all the cells, giving the nightmares free reign of the complex. "Barry, did you do this?"

"No," said Barry, shaking his head.

"Thane, you do the honors," said Jefferies. I nodded, kneeling down as I braced the electrical cannon against my shoulder. Just as the creatures began to take notice of us, I pulled the trigger, and the weapon kicked back with a thundering boom, loosing a shockwave that ripped down the entire length of the hall in an explosive surge of vaporizing gore. Rising to my feet, I looked down the corridor with a demented grin, the ceiling and walls dripping with blood and smoking flesh. My ears were ringing, and my shoulder felt like it was on fire, but I didn't even care.

Jefferies continued forward, and we followed close behind, making our way past a security checkpoint, where an undulating mass of black, oily tendrils slathered its tongues through the intestines of the dead jailer, drinking his blood with a ravenous hunger. Jefferies fired a bolt of lightning at it, and it loosed a piercing scream that cut through my mind and bled my ears, shifting and thrashing as it smeared its necrotic blood across the monitor banks, and finally collapsed in a smoking heap.

Continuing up an old staircase marked by the same flickering, half-shattered bulbs that we saw on our way in, we arrived at a heavy, steel door, opening it to reveal the hall that we first came through.

"Sprite, is it safe going out through here?" asked Jefferies. Sprite drifted ahead, and then beeped, bobbing up and down in the air as if to say yes. Jefferies patted the drone and advanced forward, leading the way back outside without incident. I breathed in the fresh air as the night sky met my eyes, happy to be back on the surface. Jefferies swore when his new exoskeleton ripped away from him, and shot up into the sky faster than my eyes could follow, disappearing into the clouds above.

"Good while it lasted," said Tanner, Jefferies frowning in disappointment. A short moment later, and we began to hear the sound of helicopter blades chopping upon the air. We looked up, and saw the UH-60M fly down from the sky and hover just above us. The gunner tossed a rope down, and we quickly climbed up, piling into the helicopter, and getting out of there as quick as we could before too many locals started to wonder.

The injuries from that op were comparatively minimal, and I'm thankful for that. Jefferies needed a neck brace and some dental work, but apparently all his teeth were already implants from being knocked out some time in the past, so it was basically another day at the office for him. We don't know where his exoskeleton came from, apart from strongly suspecting that the Travelers were still monitoring our universe. Sprite, though, was sent an encrypted transmission that nobody at HQ has been able to crack, and we assume that it was directed to cut the hole in the arena ceiling, but what information is really out there, and what's being deliberately kept from us is still a mystery.

A few days later, while Barry and I were having a beer, he told me that he and some others were doing network maintenance back at HQ, and they found out that the entire coms system had been bugged. Meaning that whoever did so would have full knowledge of any active operations, as well as any still in the pipe, and Barry insisted that it wasn't there when he had checked it in the past. The weird part is that as soon as he brought it up to anyone in charge, he was immediately dismissed with some bullshit excuse that kept changing every time he asked. We're thinking that BREACH is in contact with the Travelers, whether they want to be or not, but for anything more than that - we just don't know.

The cleanup crew did a full sweep of the arena after we left, but any guards that might've survived our escape had been eaten by the creatures that were released down there, and there was nothing on file that clarified the involvement of the Prometheus Mandate. Barry's current theory as to what went down was that the Travelers heard people talking about a legionnaire on coms, so they sent their exoskeleton to gather information from its brain - probably the exact information that we were looking for - but we did get something out of it. The announcer mentioned the Atlantic ocean, and while that doesn't exactly narrow it down, it at least gives us a place to look, and ever since we found that out, BREACH has been pouring all its resources into doing exactly that.

Anyway, thanks for sticking with this. Word is that we're being sent to China next, where the bodies of more than a couple farmers have been turning up half-melted - or half-eaten. I'll update you guys after we've deployed. Until then, stay safe, and avoid the city of Edmonton on March 42nd.