Something about the ocean always terrified me. It's the sheer depth of it - all that darkness waiting below the surface - and you have no idea how far it really goes. You're just treading water, and in that moment, you are prey. People don't seem to extend the same courtesy to the cosmos - but they should. It's just so inconceivably vast that there's no real frame of reference for it. The challenger deep is 11000 meters below sea level, but when we look up at the sun, sitting on that pale, blue curtain that hides us from the beyond, that's millions of kilometers - thousands of trips around the Earth - and that's less than a pinprick on the universe's skin. It doesn't even register. So many people are eager to see what lurks behind the threshold, but they never ask themselves if they should, because sometimes, our insignificance is our shield.
I remember when the sky started to change, sitting back in the osprey with Jefferies, Barry, Tanner, and Sprite, another BREACH fireteam seated across from us. We had no idea what was about to happen, but we could taste it, when the clouds began to twist into the violet, roiling chaos of the unknown, and the air was like raw meat upon the tongue, the stench of blood and fuel riding on the wind. We had been dosed with psilocybin as a precaution against psychological trauma, but out there, it was useless. We could all feel it - this horrible, existential dread as the ocean passed beneath us, and adrenaline flooded through our veins, even when we were still so far away from danger.
I remember thinking about that moment when we were cowering in the safe room at HQ, the bomb at our backs while the Traveler and command stood before us.
"And what help are we going to be, compared to this guy?" asked Jefferies, eyes on the towering, armored figure, the dark plating of his design swimming across him like liquid metal.
"It is your duty to serve," bellowed the deep, half-mechanical voice of the Traveler. "The spawn of the elemental are a stain upon existence. They must be cleansed."
"They will help us," command clarified. "But even then, victory is not at all guaranteed. We are combating a sentient universe that they call an elemental - an aspect of a primal concept or emotion - and the ascendants have nearly rejoined it to this plane. It's in its naturally dormant state, right now, hence the event that severed it before Blood Siren, but any connection with our world is a danger, and when it wakes up, the first thing it will do is assimilate our universe."
"And the bomb?" asked one of the other BREACH operators. The Traveler looked at him.
"A contingency to ensure the purity of our blessed reality," said the Traveler. "The smallest iota of corruption is as much a threat as the largest, but the destruction of this divine cosmos is not a matter that we take in stride. The elemental endures a cycle of death and creation that it is bound to follow, marked by two cataclysmic events. Just as you require oxygen to survive, it must require the essence of its making, and the cycle ensures that it always has room to feed, for death begets life, when life requires a garden to flourish. You were blessed to have been invaded during the first of these events, which severed its grip upon this universe. You were not so fortunate, however, to have harbored the presence of ascendants on this planet, for they indeed have the power to draw this universe back into the mindless jaws of the enemy."
"And what are the ascendants?" asked Jefferies. "What are we fighting?"
"They are living embodiments of whatever profaned aspect this elemental represents. In this case, it is surrender," said the Traveler.
"Thanks to the Prometheus Mandate, the elemental never strictly invaded us, per se," said command. "It was only a matter of time before it traditionally did so, but it was only here because of their meddling. The town you secured on Blood Siren was a site of their experimentation. They exposed the entire population to the psychic proximity of the elemental, destroying their minds, and compelling them to create the portal within the sewers - the smaller breaches were merely incidental. The portal was weak, however, and only three ascendants managed to cross."
"Any number must be purged," said the Traveler. "A lone ascendant could conquer this universe without effort."
"Quite right," said command. "And thankfully, we now know exactly where they are. This attack was a bit of desperation on the part of Prometheus. I imagine they were only granted darkling assets for the sheer amusement of the ascendants. They wanted to capture the fallen paladin in your previous operation, and use his knowledge of souls to disarm the bomb, but thankfully, you were able to get to him first. Prometheus was very much under the darklings' thrall, but they were more of a plaything than a resource. The darklings do not need help assimilating a universe."
"So, you know where they are," said Jefferies. "Then what's next?"
"Simple," said command. "When we have recovered and prepared, we will launch a full-scale assault on the darkling stronghold in this world, with the aim of assassinating the three ascendants, and permanently sealing the portal that they are attempting to open. The Travelers are willing to combat the three ascendants on our behalf, but they will need our full support if they are to stand a chance."
"Do they really?" asked Barry in disbelief.
"Do not forsake your value," said the Traveler. "None of our kind have ever slain an ascendant in single combat, and even when our numbers are great, a moment's lapse in concentration can spell our doom. You must cleanse the lesser darklings that defend them if we are to be effective."
"And that we will," said command. "We will be enlisting the aid of several countries in our attack to cover for our weakened numbers, and will strike by land and sea, but as I said, success is not guaranteed. If that portal opens, there's no telling what might be waiting on the other side. If our benefactors so much as get a hint of a full-scale invasion ..." they motioned to the bomb. "Our universe is forfeit."
Sometime after that, before we deployed, we were each given a device of sorts, that we were told would seal the portal forever. All we had to do was cast it inside as soon as it became active, and assuming that the Travelers could kill the ascendants - all of this would be over. The thing about plans, however, is that it's not always about the destination. Sometimes, it's about the journey, and that journey can be more cruel than you can imagine.
I fiddled with the small sphere in my artificial hands, watching the violet light of the sky reflect upon its metallic surface. We passed over a fleet of destroyers, headed in the same direction, while several other transports flew alongside us, the blades of ospreys and UH-60Ms chopping upon the air. Sometimes, we would hear the roar of a jet engine, and a sonic boom would crack through the atmosphere in the wake of a B-1 Lancer. The Travelers were flying at a safe distance from the rest of us, because the proximity of their ship would give us brain damage, but they would support us as soon as we made landfall. We were all equipped with as many electrical cannons as possible, but only a handful had been scavenged from the offworld bunker, so most of our forces were still using railguns. In our own fireteam, only Jefferies and myself had the ability to seriously harm the darkling legionnaires. The rest could only do what they could, because R&D had no way of replicating the Crest technology, and the weapons of the Travelers weren't meant to be wielded by the human body.
Sprite was being unusually close with Jefferies, that day. He actually let Jefferies hold him, sitting next to me in the osprey, while my eyes were locked on the darkening sky behind us. A red glow began to shine through the interior, and I turned to see a full moon break through the clouds from the cockpit window, shimmering with a crimson light beyond the purple, noxious miasma. It was like we were staring at the moon of another world, and yet somehow, it was here. The radio crackled to life.
"Command to all fireteams. Drop ETA in two minutes. Take the beachhead, and mark strike locations. Over."
"We've got a visual," said one of the pilots. We all looked to see the island in the distance, set beneath the glow of the red moon. Tangles of meat wound up from the water to form living beaches, coalescing around a towering ascent of shifting flesh. Bizarre structures jutted up from the mountainous viscera, forming walls and fortifications of ebon stone, their architecture caught between an otherworldly eroticism, and a nauseating horror. The curvature of every surface, and every spire of blackened razors, seemed to hint at some perverse, carnal equivalent, vicious thorns lining the ruinous battlements as though set to hang the flayed corpses of any would-be intruders.
That was when everything went wrong.
I watched as three figures rose into the air above the island, their dark cloaks riding the wind like oil upon water, until at last they fell still. Even from so far away, I recognized one of them as the ascendant beneath the town in Blood Siren, instilling that very same sense of otherworldly fear. They each gestured with their hands, as though performing a dread ritual, and the air around them began to ripple and bend. I heard the radio crackle to life, but before another word could be said, an immense shockwave ripped outward from the three ascendants, throwing back the clouds, and sweeping across the ocean. The concussive blast slammed into us, and I was knocked back against my seat as the metal interior caved in around me, and the osprey swung into an uncontrollable spin. Through the back of the aircraft, I could briefly see the remainder of the shockwave overtake the fleet of destroyers, overturning them all in a massive tidal wave as the other ospreys and transport ships plummeted from the sky. I almost thought I would pass out, the g-force bearing down on my body as the world spun violently around me, my friends holding on for their lives at my side.
With a deafening crash, I was suddenly thrown out of my seat, and up against the tattered ceiling of the osprey as we smacked straight into the ocean, a flood of water rushing into the interior. I tried to gain my bearings, but the oncoming wave slammed me back against the cockpit, the blood of the severed pilots dancing across my vision while we rapidly sank into the murky depths. The water failed to penetrate my armor, but I couldn't breathe, and I was so flooded with adrenaline that I couldn't tell which way was up. Then, Jefferies grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me back into the interior. Getting my mind on track, I saw the others swimming alongside me, and apart from the pilots, we had no casualties among our number. Emerging from the sinking wreck, I saw the violet light of the clouds shining through the surface in great, scintillating rays, and I followed my compatriots up into the glow. I surfaced above the crashing waves, taking in a deep breath of air as the sound of battle immediately met my ears. A B-1 Lancer tore overhead, and loosed its payload upon the island beyond, consuming the unseen distance in streaks of billowing white phosphorous.
"Swim to the shore!" yelled Jefferies. "Hurry!" I began to swim through the crashing waves that threatened to pull me under at every advance, while Sprite surfaced ahead of us, and tore forward above the sea, unleashing a volley of laser fire across the flesh-hewn beach in a streak of pluming flames, where several legionnaires fought with the landed forces. Each clad in a full plate of blackened razors, they cleaved their vicious, medieval weapons through all who assailed them, while the BREACH fireteams unleashed electrical shockwaves from their cannons that disintegrated them in bursts of flaming gore.
I soon felt my boots hit the earth beneath the waves, and I crawled forward onto the shore, rising to my feet on the blood soaked surface of knotted viscera. A legionnaire immediately charged toward me, greatsword raised in the air, only for Sprite to lash his lasers across his face, knocking him back, and giving me enough time to raise my electrical cannon, and pull the trigger. The weapon kicked back against my shoulder, and loosed a thundering shockwave that instantly vaporized the legionnaire's upper body, the remainder of his corpse collapsing to the ground.
"Command to all units," crackled the radio. "Naval bombardment has been compromised. Move forward, and support the Travelers wherever you can. The closure of the gate is our number one priority. Do not fail us - our universe depends on it."
Ahead of us, twin spires of blackened razors stood atop a range of mountainous flesh, creating a wide choke point that marked the ascent to the center of the island. A contingent of legionnaires rushed down from the steps of winding meat and dark, hexagonal tiles, railgun blasts uselessly sparking against their armor from the advancing soldiers at our side. The legionnaires began to conjure eldritch spells within their grip, and quickly lashed them at us, volleys of fireballs exploding against the wicked terrain, and blasting men to pieces, while a bolt of lightning struck me dead-on, knocking me to the ground, and seizing every muscle in my body in a surge of overwhelming pain. My armor was burnt, but not broken, and I watched as Jefferies, Barry, Tanner, and Sprite opened fire with the other BREACH operators, bombarding the darkling forces with a cascade of electrical shockwaves. Then, a legionnaire conjured a freezing wave of ice that rushed against us, and locked the others where they stood, chilling tendrils of crystallizing water vapor ensnaring their armor. The strength of their exoskeletons began to free them, and I rose to my feet to lend my aid, breaking chunks of ice off Barry's joints while Sprite started to carefully burn the frost away from Jefferies and Tanner. The legionnaires were advancing, however, and quickly closed the distance, charging into the soldiers and BREACH fireteams with their weapons swinging.
Then, a piercing whine cut through the air, and a seething light shone down from above. I looked up, and saw the flowing, arrow-like ship of the Travelers descending from the clouds. Waves of crackling electricity flowed down the arcs of the vessel, before lashing forth at the choke point ahead of us, streaking through the legionnaires in a flash of blinding radiance. I felt the heat of the blast rush against me, but when I opened my eyes, the legionnaires were gone, wisps of ash drifting upon the howling wind in their wake, while the flesh of the terrain had been scorched into a charred blackness. I looked back at the ship, struggling to maintain eye contact with the shuddering and painful sight. Twelve Travelers dislodged from beneath the craft, floating down through the air as though gravity had no meaning, before landing in the unseen distance ahead of us. The ship began to turn, but before it could, a dread shape shot forth into the sky. It was an ascendant, and yet it wasn't, as though it had abandoned any pretense of humanity, shedding its skin for a form of fluidic, smoke-wreathed teeth and coalescing, insectile limbs that refracted through a thousand angles at once, appearing and disappearing in several different places around the ship before ensnaring it in its winding grip. With a resonating groan and a thunderous explosion, it ripped the craft in two, hurling its remains into the ocean. The ascendant whirled back into its earthly visage, its cloak dancing in its wake while a staccato of sonic booms cracked through the air, and three F-16s rapidly flew toward it, loosing a volley of missiles. The masked ascendant raised its hand, and the flight of aircraft instantly disintegrated into clouds of billowing dust, the missiles harmlessly detonating against it in a series of fiery explosions.
We moved up through the passage, several fireteams of soldiers advancing ahead of us, while just above, insectile horrors swept across the sky, like shrieking, airborne spiders kept aloft by their tattered, bat-like wings. I almost thought I could hear drumming in the distance, beneath the echoing booms of combat, beating through a fevered, ritualistic chanting. The moon burning overhead, we emerged upon a rising field of ruined, otherworldly structures, while beyond, a massive ring of woven corpses stood at the highest peak, a gem of void hovering within it, while two ascendants poured their energy into its design. The weapons of the Travelers flared and thundered in the distance, but their battle was obscured by the walls of flowing, ebony metal, entangled by roots of sinew and thorns.
Gunfire rattled upon the air as the soldiers met with another contingent of legionnaires on the right side of the ruins, and two BREACH fireteams moved to support them, while we and another group moved to the left, taking what little cover we could behind the blasted walls, that for all I knew, looked like they had been indiscriminately teleported from an alien world. Braziers burned with violet fire, while smoking tents of flesh were stricken across the expanse, like the demolished campsite of an occult gathering, brought together to witness the apocalypse. Cages of bone and runic metal held the burnt cadavers of the darkling captives, felled in the bombings that preceded our arrival, while crosses jutted up from the wicked landscape, displaying the crucified and disemboweled remains of innumerable men.
They had been bringing people there to feast upon their suffering, and feed their souls to the portal, yet still those adherents writhed beneath the seething moonlight. Scorched, bleeding, and on the verge of oblivion, countless celebrants beat their drums and danced across the battlefield, naked and scarred with vicious runes, while others were joined in blasphemous orgies, moaning in delirium as their flesh melted and boiled upon their bones. The soldiers gunned them down without pity, yet the adherents didn't seem to mind, welcoming the pain of death as though it were only a step on a long and terrible journey to come.
One of the massive, flying arachnids descended from the sky, and slammed down upon the team ahead of us, impaling two of their number on its sharp and skittering limbs. The others opened fire on it, knocking it back with electrical shockwaves that tore against it in bursts of vaporizing gore, but then, it recoiled, and loosed a spatter of viscous spit that ignited and exploded upon everything it struck, blasting us all back against the ground, and outright killing several men. Shaking the flaming saliva from my armor, I snatched my weapon off the corrupted earth, and fired at the advancing aberration, the others joining in until the beast finally collapsed to the bleeding earth. I moved forward, and started to help Tanner up while Sprite attacked a legionnaire, blinding it for a fireteam of soldiers that slowly brought it down with their concentrated railgun blasts. Tanner buckled under his own weight, falling against me. That's when I noticed that he was missing his legs.
"Stop," said Tanner. "I can't." I carefully set him back down, Barry and Jefferies quickly joining us, but they were only stricken with superficial burns. Jefferies swore, examining Tanner's injuries.
"You're not bleeding," said Barry. "Burnt the wounds right shut - don't worry, man. You're gonna' survive this."
"I can't feel my lower body," said Tanner. "Everything's numb."
"It's just the shock," said Jefferies. "We'll get you back down to the beach. Don't worry. Just stay awake, okay?"
"No," said Tanner, shaking his head. "You move up, and you don't look back. You need to do this. All of you. If I'm gonna' live, then I'll be right here. Give 'em hell." Jefferies nodded, gripping his weapon tight.
"You can count on that," he said, rising to his feet. "These things fucked with the wrong planet."
Leaving Tanner behind, Jefferies led us forward through the twisting ruins, gunning down several legionnaires as we quickly approached the center of the island, and the rent corpses of three Travelers slipped into view. It was beyond disturbing to see them dead, when I had witnessed one of them single-handedly save us from Prometheus at HQ.
In the distance ahead, an ascendant fought with four Travelers, flashing toward each other in a melee that moved so fast that it almost appeared like a skipping film, the combatants teleporting through the air as their armored fists cracked against the ascendant so hard that concussive shockwaves were loosed from every blow. The ascendant wove through their attacks like liquid, dodging the majority of their attempts, before retaliating with a blast of burning antimatter, knocking one of the Travelers back. It snatched another up in its grip, and effortlessly ripped him in two, casting his remains across the earth in a splatter of blood and cybernetic organs. Another Traveler engaged the ascendant in melee, while a second raised his hand to it, projecting a beam of void that sliced through the air, and cut through the distracted ascendant in a spatter of indigo blood. The ascendant stumbled, and the Traveler next to it rammed his fists into its skull, striking it again and again in a cascade of thundering booms. The ascendant split open where it had been cut, revealing a vertical maw of razor-sharp teeth that clamped down on the Traveler, and swallowed him whole. While it messily chomped upon the armored corpse, it raised its flayed hand to another Traveler, and telekinetically suspended him in the air. It clenched its fist, and the Traveler imploded with a sickening crunch, blood squirting out of his shattered exoskeleton.
"The flesh is weak," whispered the ascendant in a voice that paralyzed every nerve in my body. "But the soul is eternal. You shall be remade in our image."
Another BREACH team reached the battle before us, and opened fire on the ascendant with their electrical cannons, momentarily distracting it while the surviving Traveler flashed toward it, and grabbed hold, his armor glowing with crackling power while he screamed with rage. Raising his fist, he plunged it into the ascendant's flailing maw, and the ascendant exploded with a shockwave that knocked everyone to the ground, my ears ringing as the toxic clouds were thrown back above me. Shaking off the disorientation, I scrambled to my feet, and saw the strewn remains of the ascendant, and the Traveler who had sacrificed himself to kill it. Its splattered flesh bled into the earth like starry wounds in reality, but ultimately, it had been destroyed. These creatures were not immortal.
Our rallied forces advanced toward the summit, where the second ascendant fought five of the Travelers back, and the third guarded the portal while the hovering gemstone gathered its power, the air lensing around it like a well of tremendous gravity.
"Silence," rasped the second ascendant in a thousand scraping voices. It loosed a telekinetic shockwave that slammed into the Travelers with a vicious crack, and knocked them back across the bleeding earth. "You are not our prey, mortals. You are the recipients of our gift. Open your eyes, and let them burn upon the gates of paradise."
The third ascendant raised its hand to the air, and the gem burst into an infinite blackness, spreading out across the frame of the portal until it was little more than a slate of utter darkness - but that darkness called to my mind, drawing it in with an unshakable gravity as the world around us began to shimmer and blur. Time seemed to slow, and a horrifying sense of dread overwhelmed me, until everything came crashing together at once. As though the island itself had been catapulted across the ocean at the speed of sound, the sky ripped back into a stellar void, and with a deafening boom, a dread fortress shunted into existence from across the distant waters. It was like an occult citadel of bleached, white stone, set upon a backdrop of absolute darkness as the stars shuddered deliriously above, and at its farthest peak, a crescent of marble framed the full, pale moon, burning in the sky as though superimposed upon the world.
"I beckon thee, Lord in White!" rasped the ascendant, the wave of existential dread overtaking me. "Wake our sisters, for the traitorous flesh yearns to be tempered!"
The moon split open into a massive, dilated eye that locked upon us with a ravenous hunger, its iris stained with all the colors that broke my mind, and burned my skin for even existing in their presence. Then, it was like time stood still around me. Pebbles and dust began to rise above the ground, as though suspended within an unnatural gravity, and as the terrain beneath me started to blur and sink into an inky viscosity, a scourge of tiny, ebony roots pierced the veil of reality, slowly poking up through the hellscape that surrounded me. I began to cry uncontrollably, like my mind was suddenly flooded with emotion, and I wanted nothing more than to escape from whatever was coming, but my brain was so overwhelmed with stimuli that I couldn't even crawl away if I wanted to. The other soldiers and BREACH fireteams started to charge the portal, clutching the objects that would seal it forever - but it was useless. The air itself seemed to rush into the third ascendant, and with a deafening boom, it loosed a psychic shockwave of staggering power, surging toward us in the blink of an eye. Yet in that moment, Sprite swept down before us, and summoned a shield of flickering energy. The shockwave hit, and the other fireteams were instantly disintegrated, their gore splattering across the earth. We, however, were unharmed, save for Sprite, who laid motionless upon the ground. He was gone.
I stumbled back, rivers of blood flowing beneath my boots, while Jefferies looked down at Sprite in shock. The second ascendant exploded nearby with a deafening boom as the Travelers overcame it, nearly knocking me off my feet, but the final ascendant was still alive.
"Irrelevant," it said, unbothered by the death of its kin. One of the remaining three Travelers tried to slip past it, and seal the portal, but the ascendant snatched him out of the air with its mind, and ripped the soul from his bones, devouring it with a rasping hiss, and tossing the empty shell of his body to the ground. It turned to us, then, raising its hand, and paused in a brief moment of recognition. I knew, in that moment, that it was the one we had spoken with. "Fear not," it whispered through my thoughts. "Death is not the end."
It loosed a psychic shockwave, and Barry vaporized right in front of me, his blood splattering against my armor as I was knocked to the ground, and every bone in my body shattered instantaneously. I screamed in absolute suffering, the taste of blood flooding my mouth. It hurt so much that it was almost numbing, and nearby, I saw Jefferies in the smoking ashes. His armor had been blasted away, and his wounds were gushing blood, but he had been knocked aside by the blast, and was still well enough to move. He crawled to his hands and knees, looking over at me with tears in his eyes, and with a single, uniform purpose, he snatched Barry's discarded coms equipment off the ground, and sprinted toward the open portal. The ascendant never noticed. It was too occupied with fighting the remaining two Travelers, sucking the soul out of one, and blasting the other back in a burst of antimatter. My vision began to darken, blood leaking from my wounds, but the last thing I saw was Jefferies, leaping headlong into the blackness of the portal, and disappearing within. The void imploded in his wake, as though everything were collapsing upon a single point in space, and then, the loudest sound I ever heard shocked through the air, and the world went dark.
I didn't expect to survive. I shouldn't have survived - but I did. I woke up at what's currently passing for HQ, but now, it's mostly just a holding cell for the bomb. BREACH is dead. Everybody's dead, except for command, and nobody's told me anything. I can't describe the level of pain that I was in, when I came to. Physical pain is one thing, but I felt like I had been hollowed out inside. My best friend was killed right in front of me, and I can't get it out of my head, like it's been burned into my mind forever. It was just so sudden. Jefferies is gone, Sprite is dead, and only Tanner and I are left. Tanner's paralyzed, and will never walk again, and neither will I. I'm being kept alive by the things they did to me, but I don't feel like describing it. I don't feel like doing anything.
I don't know.
Other than that, I'm stuck here. Tanner and I are confined to a coms room, and I'm writing this out while we wait on any sort of signal from Barry's nav gear, which Jefferies took with him into the portal. I doubt that Jefferies survived, but it's the only thing keeping the two of us going - keeping us distracted. Otherwise, our thoughts can get a little too dark.
In any case, our mysterious benefactors are all dead, and as for the darklings - I'm not entirely sure what happened. There was one surviving Traveler when I was knocked out, but I find it unlikely that he was able to kill the last ascendant, and nobody's telling me anything. Even if he did, they seemed to be quite unconcerned with dying, so a part of me is afraid that they still exist in some incorporeal form that only needs another body to possess. We don't know what's going to happen with the bomb, either, but it's not like the Travelers will be reporting back, unless it turns out that command was one of them.
A handful of survivors were evacuated, along with any Traveler tech that could be salvaged, and then we nuked the island with one of the Crest cobalt bombs. You won't hear a whisper about it on the news, so don't bother, but I'm guessing some sea life is about to die.
Hold on, something's beeping.
It's him ...
I don't know how - but we just got a message from Jefferies. The brass is coming in here right now, so I have to go, but I'll keep you all posted.