AWD: Knights - Episode 5

by Alexius Steinman

WARNING: The following contains language and subject matter that may not be suitable for all audiences.

Raine took up the lead as the Knights moved into the old compound, followed in pairs by Will and Justice, then Lilith and Sid, with Ark bringing up the rear. Instinct drew them together into a close formation; the corridors of the facility weren’t exactly cozy. It was more like a hellish industrial graveyard. The walls were made of pitted metal paneling, ochre with rust. Derelict pipes lined the ceiling like snakes, gutted in places to allow thick intestines of wire and cables to dangle in the group’s path.

Rank, humid air greeted them in a fetid blast as they pushed forward – nerves made more than one of them think of the breath of some horrid beast lurking in the bowels of the facility, waiting for them. The whole place was bathed in the eerie red glow of emergency lighting. Lilith murmured quietly that Nemesis must have activated the old backup generators when they started to use the place, but everyone else was so focused on the path ahead, she just trailed off into silence.

Sid looked at her. She was biting her lower lip, and fingering her wrench absently as she retreated somewhere deeper inside herself. Her other hand rested on the head of Widget, stroking the metal surface for comfort. The K-9 model combot had been her faithful companion and guardian ever since her cadet years. Sid was shocked as for the first time he saw her not just as the no-nonsense mechanic he’d always known, but as a regular girl about his own age. Trapped in this ugly place, so far away from the familiar sights and sounds and order of her workshop, she seemed so much more vulnerable.

He was so used to seeing her run the workshop where she knew every winch and panel like family, but here she seemed to have shrunk down into the broken depths. He couldn’t remember her ever looking so small. She seemed lost. He turned back to the narrow hall ahead of them, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. He knew how she felt. This place reeked of bad chi; it pressed in on him from all sides, trying to smother him like a suffocating blanket. He tried to clear his mind, focusing his concentration on what lay ahead. He had a feeling he was going to need it...

Raine suddenly held up a hand and they all stopped. Sid had been so busy clearing the cobwebs out of his head that he bumped against Justice’s back. She gave him a look, but kept silent, waiting for orders. Raine turned back toward them, elegantly arched brows knit together in a frown. Everyone behind her saw her animal-keen ears twitch slightly, soft-furred points rotating backward like radars. The tip of her tail flicked sharply.

"Did anyone else hear something back there?"

There was a crash of corrugated metal collapsing as some sort of creature plunged through the ceiling right behind them, hissing and chittering. As it shook itself free of the debris, they could see it was big, the size of an average dog. It was mostly covered with coarse, matted black hair, but there were patches that seemed to have rotted away to expose swathes of scarlet skin covered in boils. Most likely radiation burns. A naked tail as thick as a human arm coiled and looped behind the thing as its lips pulled back to reveal two long, yellowed teeth. Although the thing was severely mutated – a twisted, violent deviation from what nature intended – it was clear what the creature used to be.

"Rats," Lilith moaned in revulsion, unconsciously inching backwards against Will. "I hate rats."

The rat-thing spat at them, its stiff hair bristling as it slinked toward them. Widget leapt forward to protect his master and gave a metallic warning growl, the LEDs in his eyes glowing red. Will and Justice were both pulling their guns, heavy clicks echoing in the humid corridor.

"I don’t think a mere rodent is worth alerting the whole sector with gunfire," Ark said calmly as he stepped forward.

With a practiced grace, he flicked his staff onto the creature’s back. It had time for a quick twitch and a rather clipped screech before it vanished in a pulse of soft blue light. Widget trotted up and began nosing at the now-empty space where the rat thing had stood.

Justice stared, her guns still trained on the spot. "What did you...where did that thing just go?"

"Away," Ark said smoothly, "Suffice to say that it is out of our hair."

Sid gaped at the elf. "You can do that?"

Ark shrugged. "Only with lower animals – their energy is more diffuse than a sentient creature’s, much easier to displace. Fortunately." He leaned his staff against his shoulder.

Raine waved her hand, signaling the group forward. "Let’s keep moving."

Lilith snapped her fingers to call Widget back as they headed further into the twisting depths of the corridors. The close walls gave way a little up ahead, as they approached an open area.

"Watch out for more of those things," Will said as they pushed ahead, his words short. They were almost to the open area now. A small whimper escaped from Lilith.

"I hope there aren’t any more," she whispered, twisting her hands on the haft of her wrench and scooting closer to her K-9.

Sid swallowed hard as the corridors opened up and he could better see his surroundings. "Then you might not want to look down," he said hoarsely. Lilith’s eyes acted faster than her brain, and she looked around in response to Sid’s words. She let out a strangled squeak.

There was a wide gulf ahead of them, a steam-clouded red-lit emptiness that plunged straight down toward what must have been the heart of the facility. Tracing a square around the gulf on every floor were more railed walkways and corridors like theirs, connected by stairs. At a distance, it seemed at first that the surfaces of the walkways on floors below them were moving, writhing and flowing like a dark tide, but a closer inspection revealed the unpleasant truth. Every walking surface below their level was covered in hordes of huge, bristling rats.

"This must be the welcome wagon," Ark quipped, rolling his eyes. Looking around, it was easy to see the stairs to either side leading down onto the rat-infested levels. There seemed to be no other way, but it was obvious that no one was in a hurry to be the first one down. While the rats were ignoring them now, it was doubtful they would continue to do so while the group was wading amongst them. The Knights all remembered with a sharp clarity that the last rat had looked capable of inflicting nasty wounds with those jaundice-yellow incisors. And plenty willing to do so.

Justice reached back and put a hand on Lilith’s shoulder. "It’s okay. They don’t seem to really notice that we’re here."

"Well I sure notice that they’re here," Lilith said unsteadily, brandishing her wrench in front of her like a club while Widget turned in uncertain circles around her, trying to protect her from an enemy on all sides.

Raine seemed deep in thought, her ears pricked forward as her tail unconsciously traced graceful loops in the air. "This explains all the mutations we encountered on the Leviathan Road," she said, half to herself. Will nodded though, catching on.

"We’re getting closer to the source," he said, looking over the corroded rails into the super-colony of rats. A big gray one with an ear missing looked up at him with beetle-black eyes. When it turned its head, Will could see that the opposite side of its face was a mass of scaly scar-pink skin and huge bubbled welts of tissue, except for where it had eroded to reveal rows of molars socketed into the clearly visible bone of the jaw. It gave a grating squeak before turning back to its business. Will turned away, feeling a little nauseous.

"Look at them: this is an entire group of animals that’s developed and reproduced in proximity to whatever radiation or energy is causing these mutations."

"It has to be the Etherium Reactor," Raine said, her face set as she looked out over the sea of fur. "That’s what’s doing this to them; and what made those things we found back on the Leviathan Road."

Justice frowned. "But why would Naz-" She stopped herself, her eyes flicking to Will and then casting away guiltily. "– Nemesis be using it if it’s this dangerous?"

"Let’s not forget to ask once we get there," Will said coldly. He turned determinedly toward the stairs.

"Hey," Sid said, squinting across the long open space to the far wall. "What’s that?" Everyone turned to stare where he was pointing. Slow grins began to break out among the group.

"That," Ark said, "is our golden chariot."

Raine nodded to Sid, a slight smile lighting her features. "Good work," she said approvingly.


" a golden chariot?" Sid asked a few minutes later when the group had clambered into the huge, creaking freight elevator. Ark held up his hands, looking upward through the open grating around the fringes of the elevator’s ceiling.

"In a manner of speaking.", shrugged Ark.

Raine turned to Lilith. "You sure this old thing still works?"

Lilith nodded. She seemed much more comfortable now that she was dealing with machinery again, even outdated machinery. "It’s old, but it’s sturdy. I can see most of the mechanisms through the grates - it’s an earlier heavy industrial design, simple, there’s not really much to go wrong with it. And it looks like all the failsafe systems are intact if something goes wrong."

"Then here goes nothing," Justice said, and pushed the moldy red button on the wall panel. For a moment nothing happened. Then, like an animal waking up from a long sleep and shaking itself off, the elevator gave one sharp jolt before starting a slow, even descent. The mechanisms were loud, protesting their long neglect, but they all seemed to be working fine. The group gave a heavy collective sigh of relief.

"At least something’s going right," Raine said as the signs indicating the building level slid slowly but evenly past the steel-grate elevator walls.


Justice moved innocuously closer to Will. "Will...are you sure you’re ready?" she said in a low voice. "You know what we might find down there. Who we might find."


Will snorted softly. "I can’t blame you for doubting me. After all, it was you that almost got killed when I choked during the ORCHA raid."


"It’s not like that," she said, a quiet fierceness in her voice. "I don’t blame you for what happened, none of the Knights do. You know that." She sighed, frustrated, and ran a hand through attractively cropped shocks of obsidian-black hair. "I just want to make sure that you’re okay..."


Will looked at her. His normally warm brown eyes were cold, as hard and dark as polished tiger’s eye stones. "I failed last time. I let you down, I let Swift down, and I let the whole team down. Four people died because of my mistake." His hand moved to his gun; he ran his fingers lightly over the grip.

"That’s not a mistake I’m going to make again."


A heavy impact rocked the elevator. Most of them were slammed against the nearest wall; Lilith, who had been standing in the center, was thrown facedown to the floor. There was an ugly thunk as her head connected with the unforgiving metal floor panels.

"Lilith!" Sid yelled.

"I’m okay," she groaned, pushing herself up on her hands. There was blood on the floor from the newly opened gash on her forehead. She looked disoriented, and Widget was nosing at her worriedly.

"Something fell onto the elevator," Justice said, peering through the sections of open grating in the roof, trying to maneuver for a better view.

"It looks like a pile of junk," Ark said, squinting. "It must have pulled loose from the ceiling and landed on us. It looks like they have problems with vermin and maintenance around here..."

"Yeah, well it’s not going to be a problem for very long," Raine said, watching the level numbers flash by the walls. "That stuff is dragging us down; we’re descending too fast. We have to clear it quickly."

Sid barely heard her. He was staring up at the colossal pile of metal sitting on the roof. It was so dark in the elevator that the thing was barely more than a silhouette of corners and protrusions, but he was sure he’d seen something moving. Suddenly the pile twisted, uncoiling itself and lurching toward him. Sid was no longer looking at an inert pile of metal. Instead he found himself staring at a dozen glowing red spheres. As they approached, they narrowed, focusing on him...

They were eyes.

"It’s a machine!" he yelled, dodging just as a crimson beam of light sliced through the ceiling and into the wall where his head had been. The beam lanced through the ceiling like a sword through an overripe tomato, tracing out a circular panel that dropped with a heavy bang. An arm of tubes and metal tipped with a menacing pincer plunged into the hole. In that split-second Sid saw Lilith still sprawled on the floor, the arm hovering over her, and he knew he couldn’t get there fast enough.


The pincers darted in and closed over Lilith’s body like the beak of a heron snatching up a tiny fish. She screamed. Widget barked loudly and latched on to the arm, the magnetic pads in his feet activating to hold him in place as he began tearing at the metal apparatus. Then the pincers, the K-9, and Lilith all disappeared as the young mechanic was yanked bodily through the hole and out of the elevator.

"After her!" Raine barked, but Will was already running to the hole and pulling himself up.

What awaited him was a thing out of nightmare. It looked like a giant spider made out of scrap, crouching on the roof with an air of unmistakable malice. Every time it moved, it screeched like gargantuan claws dragging on rusted sheet metal. The brakes on the elevator had kicked in now, but it was a hopeless struggle against so much extra weight, and a geyser of sparks poured down on the roof. The air stank of burning oil, and clouds of steam jetted from joints in the six skittering limbs, each the thickness of his torso. One huge pincer waved in front of the thing, this one not a clamp but a set of gigantic shears poised to cut victims in half. Clamped in the other claw, held aloft and banging futilely with her wrench, was Lilith.

By this time Justice and Raine had leapt up onto the roof with Ark coming up behind them. They spread out to present multiple targets.

"Can you get a shot?" Raine yelled.

"Too risky!" Justice shouted back. "A ricochet could hit Lilith, or us!" Will, sizing up the metal spider as an enemy, knew she was right. It was covered in overlapping armor plates that looked like the panels of old tanks and military vehicles. Latched on to the pincers that held Lilith, Widget’s titanium teeth weren’t making much progress on the metal exoskeleton, and Will knew that even his gun wouldn’t penetrate – he’d have to find some sort of opening in the thing’s defenses.

Suddenly a squall of shrill, almost hysterical laughter echoed through the shaft over the protesting shriek of the brakes. The spider crouched down like an animal preparing to strike, waiting, and for the first time the group of Knights could see the cockpit on its back and a lean, wild-haired figure within. Widget snarled savagely and backed closer to Lilith. With a sinking feeling, everyone in the group recognized the simian features of Jet Aries, engineer extraordinaire of Nemesis.

"Six eggs in a box, take one away, and all the rest come out to play!" Jet chanted in a jubilant singsong, swinging from the roof of his cockpit while pushing buttons with his prehensile feet and pulling a lever with his monkey-like tail. He had goggles on his forehead that pushed up a tangled spray of shock-white hair, and a tattered white lab coat hung from his gaunt frame. He looked as if he’d become half-mad since leaving the Academy with Nazarus.

"I should have known this heap of scrap was your work!" Lilith yelled angrily at her old classmate, struggling against the claw’s vice-like grip. "Put me down!"

"No no no my dear, I don’t think so," Jet sang, waggling a finger at her. "You got away from me once, but not this time. This time you will be mine!" He cackled wildly, his laughter spiking into a monkey’s screech.

"No!" Sid yelled, leaping at the mechanical monster, ready for a ki strike. A leg shot out and knocked him onto the metal roof, his energy evaporated, unused.

"Sid!" Lilith cried.

"Silly boy!" Jet taunted. "I trained alongside you, all of you, and I know your tricks! Your precious Spirit Magic only works on something with a spirit." Jet stuck out his tongue and made a face. "Duh!"

The spider hadn’t broken any of Sid’s bones, but the words hit home. Jet was right – there was little he could do against this opponent. Heat rose to his face, and he bit his lip until he tasted the metallic tang of blood. That bastard had Lilith, had her dangling from that claw like a rag doll, and there was nothing he could do about it. He had never felt so useless!

Lilith took advantage of Jet’s distraction. As quietly of possible, she was frantically plying her wrench on the bolts holding the pincers together, struggling to get free. Suddenly a panel popped loose, and before she could grab it, dropped to the floor with a sharp clang. Jet whirled on her.

"Ah-ah my pet," he admonished, waggling a finger at her. His feet twisted the controls. The pincer spun a screaming Lilith into the air, only to grab her again – this time with her arms pinned securely to her sides.

"I’ll never go with you Jet!" Lilith spat. "I used to feel sorry for you before you were a traitor, but now I wouldn’t go near you if you were the last person on earth!"

Jet’s eyes narrowed under bushy white brows that might have been comical at another time. Now they just looked menacing. "You could have been in here with me Lilith," he said darkly. "We could have been a team." The claw tightened with a creak and Lilith screamed. Widget howled wildly and began tearing and scrabbling furiously at the pincers, trying to get her loose. "Now it looks like I’m going to have to teach you some manners...right after I get done with my old friends!" He yanked a lever, and the unoccupied claw swiped through the air, trying to clear all the Knights in one blow.

They all managed to tumble or jump out of the way. Then the battle was met. Raine launched herself bodily at the spider, sword raised, only to be met by a web of massive metal legs. She swiped at them, her sword glowing red hot and leaving huge gashes with melted edges in the creature, but it just wasn’t enough damage and she barely held her own. Ark slammed his staff into the floor and gestured; metal spikes shot up out of the elevator ceiling and stabbed through the creature’s body.

For a moment the spider was held in place like a butterfly pinned to a collector’s tray, but a swipe of the huge pincer snapped the metal spikes like toothpicks and sent shards hurtling towards Will, Justice, and Ark. They ducked as the sharp metal fragments stuck into the shaft behind them and were whipped up out of sight as the elevator continued its plunge.

"Any more bright ideas?" Justice yelled to Ark as she sighted in vain down her guns, looking for an opening.

"Working on it!" Ark called back.

"Oh, the itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout," Jet sang, a crazed edge to his voice. "Down came the rain and washed the spider out!" He sent the pincer shooting out at Ark. Ark dove to the floor to avoid the hit, whatever spell he’d been working on disrupted. He rolled wildly out of the way as the claw plunged down at him, clanging as it snapped open and closed. Justice grabbed him and yanked him away, taking up a bodyguard position, trying to offer what protection she could. She held Thunder and Lightning to bear in hopes of finding an opening.

Will, meanwhile, was not as patient. Guncase slung over his back, he ran toward the spider. A leg darted out trying to squish him, but he sidestepped neatly. When the leg smashed into the ground, Will used it as a bridge and ran up the struts. Heedless of the jerking mechanism beneath him, he slid one foot in front of the other like a tightrope walker and darted up the swaying appendage. When he reached the knee, he stopped for a second to synchronize his movements with the spider’s, and then took a flying leap towards the massive steel body.

He landed directly in front of the cockpit, and found himself staring into the smirking face of Jet Aries. Operating the machine with one foot, one hand, and his tail, Jet still had a hand free to tap patronizingly on the glass between them.

"Nazarus’ favorite pet," Jet sneered. "You’ve wasted your time – did you really think I would go to all this trouble and not install bulletproof glass?" Jet stuck his tongue out and put a thumb on his nose, waggling his fingers insultingly. Will just stared at him.

"Pulse rifle," he said flatly, and with a rapid clicking of gears a panel on his guncase slid open and a sleek, slim gun with a series of glowing coils in the stock swung out on a retractable rack.

Will grabbed the gun and aimed it at the glass. Jet shrieked in terror and flattened himself against the side of the cockpit as a pencil-thin spear of blue light penetrated the glass and streaked dangerously close to his ear. The cockpit suddenly smelled like burning hair. Jet frantically jammed the controls, rocking the spider wildly and sending a flurry of legs at Will. The Knights’ ranger was forced to jump down or be crushed between the legs and the hull. He rolled as he hit the ground, and came up firing bursts of blue light at the creature.

Sid watched it all, desperation ripping a hole inside him. His friends were in danger! He had to do something! But try as he might, his panic-wracked brain couldn’t come up with anything. Was he really doomed to just sit and watch his friends die?

Raine grunted with exertion as she brought her sword down again and again. She had cleaved a fistful of gouges into the legs and body of the spider, but they were just nicks to a monster of this size. And she was beginning to tire. She heard a choked shout above her, and looked up, struggling to divide her attention amidst the chaos. It was Lilith. Her body was being whipped around overhead, shaken by the thing’s clawed arm; Widget was too busy hanging on to do much to help her. Lilith’s face was turning a dangerous dark red as the claw squeezed her tight. It was clear that she couldn’t breathe, but she was trying to gasp something out. With a wild shout, Raine struck all the arms around her in a spinning attack, sweeping them away for a moment of peace, her ears straining to pick up Lilith’s words. No one else could have picked up the young Knight’s strangled voice in the middle of battle, but Raine’s enhanced hearing could barely distinguish the words.

"Gas line," Lilith choked. "Under the!"

Raine’s mind scrambled to piece it together, frantic that she was watching Lilith die right before her eyes. Ice? What could that mean? Then she understood. With a feral snarl, she vaulted into the air and swung at the underside of the clawed arm. Her sword was no longer the color of molten metal, but the burning blue-white of the utmost cold. Vapors like dry ice fog swirled off her blade as it bit deep into the metal arm. Made brittle, elemental cold, the metal snapped and shattered under her stroke, and she felt the attack hit a central core of softer, more vulnerable parts. There was a sound like a water balloon popping. A hose abruptly whipped free of the arm, writhing wildly and spraying liquid everywhere. The arm fell to the ground, limp and apparently unresponsive, releasing a coughing, gagging Lilith.

Raine smiled blackly. Jet shrieked.

Raine lifted her sword over her head, and plunged the frigid steel into another leg. It twitched like a fish on land, almost yanking the weapon away, then spasmed uselessly to one side. Steadying herself, Raine attacked yet another arm. The spider tottered unsteadily, rocking backwards, unable to balance itself. The belly of the beast was exposed – and on it, Will saw a small opening filled with soft guts of wires, tubes, and cables. He fired.

Jet squealed in rage as the pulse rifle found its mark and tore through the innards of his machine, which began to buck and thrash uncontrollably. Widget had pulled Lilith out from under the pile of thrashing metal, and Justice opened fire on the weak spot while Will sent pulse rifle blasts lancing at the cockpit. Raine continued to deal horrible damage to the spider, freezing its fuel lines and severing its circuits, while Ark summoned another carpet of spikes to hold the crippled machine in place. They were starting to tear it apart.

Jet jammed levers around; the machine gave a heave, forcing Raine to leap back down to the roof of the elevator. Turning, the spider pushed off of its perch and latched its remaining legs onto the wall of the shaft. Jet directed it upward quickly as the elevator descended. Widget barked angrily at the retreating spider, like a flesh-and-blood dog watching a cat on the other side of a fence.

"Coward!" Will screamed. Then the group stared in horror as the one working pincer positioned itself around the elevator cables.

"Grapplers!" Raine shouted, and the group frantically rifled through their packs to find their grappling guns. Time seemed to run slower. Will, Raine, and Justice fired their guns; the harpoon-like heads plunged through the walls of the shaft and anchored there. The two women hooked the guns to their belts while Will grabbed a dazed Lilith under his arm and did the same. Widget leapt onto the wall and clung magnetically; Ark ran to the wall and plunged his staff into the metal, where it sank in as if the walls were sand. Meanwhile, Sid went sheet-white as the blood drained from his face. Surrounded by the scattered contents of his pack, he held his hands out helplessly in front of him. They were empty. He’d forgotten his grappler.

"Happy landings!" Jet called, his maniacal laughter reverberating down the shaft as he disappeared into the darkness. There was a heavy twang. The elevator plummeted downward, taking Sid with it.

There was no time to think. Ark let go of his staff and dove into empty space after the elevator. He heard Will shouting, but the sound was whipped away by the wind screaming past his ears. He could see the elevator falling away below him, trailing lashing cables like a severed umbilical, with Sid clinging desperately to the roof. Ark gouged the nails of his right hand into his left, drawing the blood necessary to evoke the pact. Then he clapped his hands together and said a word that ripped the air apart.

There was a concussive boom like a thunderclap, and with a deafening bellow Dash exploded into being. Claws spread to catch the air, his dark mane whipping like a windswept flag as he plummeted downward. He turned electric blue eyes to his master, and Ark probed mentally for the bond between them – touched it, activated it.

Save Sid! Ark thought, the message manifesting instantly in Dash’s mind as well.

The Ibeni snorted – a puff of steaming vapor that was snatched away by the rushing air. A compelling impulse flowed between master and familiar, signaling Ark to grab a handful of thick, nightshade-purple fur and pulling himself flat against Dash’s back. Once Dash felt that his master was secure, he reached out with his massive arms and caught the wall. His claws dug in as he pushed off, closing the distance between himself and the elevator in seconds; then he flipped himself upright to land on the roof. One of Dash’s long arms encircled the crouching, terrified Sid; the next instant they were rocketing upwards as the familiar sprang free of the roof. They slammed heavily into the wall, Dash twisting to protect his charges from the impact.

The jolt almost knocked Ark off into the emptiness, but Sid had the presence of mind to grab the mage’s arm with both hands and hold on tight. Dash roared as the claws of his feet and free hand sought purchase in the wall as they slid down, throwing off a spray of sparks. With a snarl he shoved his claws against the wall with all his strength. For a moment it seemed the whole knot of people would continue sliding downward, but Dash’s claws finally caught a protrusion and held as the elevator crashed to its death far below them. The familiar clung to the wall, panting heavily, hanging motionless for a minute while he recovered himself. Then he turned with a low growl to check on Ark.

Ark was swinging gently by one arm, his feet dangling out over empty space, held by a white-lipped, white knuckled Sid. Sid gulped.

"I think I lost my lunch," he whispered hoarsely.

Ark looked down at his coat and made a face. "That’s okay. It looks like I found it for you. We’ll call it even if you’ll pull me up." Sid nodded mutely and set his jaw as he lifted the elf up and on to Dash’s back. "The cleaners are going to have a fit," Ark muttered as Dash began slowly picking his way down the shaft.

"Ark! Sid!" It was Will’s voice. "Are you there?"

"We’re fine. I got him," Ark yelled back. "Meet us down here."

Sid felt a stab of shame as he lay dangling in Dash’s arm. First he’d been helpless against the spider and that bastard Jet Aries while his team was fighting and Lilith almost died, and now his stupid mistake had endangered Ark and Dash. If only he could just crawl under a rock and disappear! He felt so terrible that for a moment he even thought that being down there in the crumpled ruins of the elevator might be better than this searing humiliation. He hung his head. It seemed like he couldn’t do anything right.

Eventually, the rest of the group reached them at the nearest floor entrance, repelling down the shaft. Lilith moved a bit gingerly, nursing what was probably a bruised rib or two and leaning on Widget for support, but Sid was relieved to see that she looked okay otherwise. She gave him a tentative smile and seemed about to say something, but she stopped when Raine stepped forward.

"Sid, are you alright?" Raine asked, her tail lashing with worry.

"Yes," Sid said in a voice barely more than a whisper.

"What happened up there? Where was your grappler?"

"It was... I forgot to bring it," Sid said, humiliated.

"I see." Raine put a hand on his shoulder. Sid thought he saw disappointment flitting behind her eyes. "I know that this kind of thing happens, but you have to be better prepared. The day will come when there won’t be anyone to bail you out, and I don’t want to lose you." She looked around at the group. "Any of you."

Sid didn’t say anything, not trusting his voice not to crack, and blinked back the stinging tears that threatened to boil over. He felt like a heel, and somehow Raine being nice about it only made it worse. He would have rather had her yell at him, give him a dressing down. He thought he would die of shame.

Raine turned back to Sid, trying to muster up a faint smile. "Just try to be more careful next time, okay?" she said gently.

Sid just nodded miserably.

"Good, then let’s carry on before something else happens," Raine said, addressing the group.

She looked out into the shaft for the nearest level number on the wall. B37. They needed to get down to B50.

"Right, it looks like we’re on foot from here. I’ll take point; Will and Justice will be behind me and will be responsible for providing covering fire if we’re engaged by the enemy."

"Right," Justice said, refilling the empty chambers of her guns.

"Lilith is the only one here who knows how to permanently shut down the Etherium Reactor – we need to keep her safe. Sid." Sid’s head jerked up as he came out of his reverie of guilt, looking a little startled. "I’m putting you in charge of guarding her."

Sid blushed. "Will do." But he spoke with a confidence he didn’t feel – he didn’t really feel he could do much of anything right now.

"Good," Raine continued as Sid concealed his distress. "Ark, you take up the rear."

The elf mage nodded quietly. He had one hand flat against the wall of the shaft, his eyes closed in concentration. After several seconds, the rusted metal rippled beneath his palm. He pushed into the wall up to his elbow as if it were made of thick liquid. His features wrinkled briefly as he searched for something inside, then his face lit up with triumph. As he pulled himself free, his staff was back in his hand. Once he was clear, the wall reverted to its original solid form.

"I'll send Dash ahead as a scout," he said, turning back to the group. "He’ll be able to communicate with me and alert us to any dangers before we reach them, and he’s more than capable of dealing with most opposition."

Raine nodded. "Good idea. Everyone else, fall in to your positions. Let’s find a stairwell."

Dash moved ahead in a predator’s crouch, his claws clicking on the tile floor as he moved out ahead of the group. The rest of them fell in behind Raine. Sid felt a hand on his shoulder. Ark was looking down at him.

"Don’t take it so hard," the elf said quietly, so the others wouldn’t hear. "We all make mistakes." Sid looked at the red stain on his shoulder, blood leaking from Ark’s palm where he had gouged himself to summon Dash. To save him. Sid winced. Somehow, the words of support didn’t make him feel any better.

Suddenly the corridor was rocked by what appeared to be an explosion ahead of them, just in front of Dash. The floor seemed to erupt in a rain of tiles and a thick cloud of dust, obscuring the familiar and the hallway beyond from sight.

"Land mine?" Raine called back, crouched in a battle ready position with her hand at her sword.

Ark shook his head. "Dash says no."

"Well then what the hell happened?"

"Not sure yet."

"Look!" Lilith cried, pointing at the source of the explosion.

The dust was clearing, settling down to the floor like a rain of ash. They could now see the cloudy figure standing in the hallway, growing sharper by the second as the dust feel away. In moments they could all see him clearly. He was huge, over eight feet tall. He towered even a foot above Dash’s head, and his form filled the hallway. His chest was bare, revealing umber brown skin with texture like cracked stone slabs. Shocking red hair fell all over the place, cascading down his back and chest like lava from an active volcano. Everywhere stony protrusions jutted out of his body, as if a creature of living rock was trying to escape from within. With his every movement, there was a grinding like boulders shifting against each other. Eyes like burning embers penetrated the dust and gloom. Behind him was a massive hole in the floor.

"He...jumped up through the damn floor," Justice whispered, staring ahead in awe.

"Vice." Will’s voice was flat.

"What?" Raine asked sharply.

"Vice Kreiger," Will said. "Rumor has it that Nazarus picked him up from a traveling show somewhere...after murdering the proprietor. And now Nemesis has its very own Jotun."

Raine gritted her teeth. A Jotun – a member of the secretive race of stony giants that lived deep underground. It would be a formidable opponent.

Dash’s growl broke the silence. He was tired of waiting. Independently of Ark’s will, and before the mage could do anything to countermand him, the dark-furred familiar lunged at the Nemesis giant. Dash’s strike was much faster than the Jotun’s reaction, and for moment it seemed the fight would be over before it started as black claws connected with the giant's broad throat. But then surprise at Dash’s aggression turned to shock. His claws had scraped uselessly over Vice’s hide, leaving only dusty white tracks like etchings in stone. Then Vice’s fist came down with a sickening thud on Dash’s spine.

The familiar vanished in a misting of purple light. Everyone stared.

"Shit," Ark said softly. "Not good."

Raine turned to him. "What do you mean, not good?"

Ark was looking straight ahead, at the place where Dash disappeared. "Dash is not a truly physical being; he is merely the corporeal manifestation of a conscious energy, brought into this plane of existence with energy drawn from myself in evocation. A strong enough physical opposition to the will sustaining his material form will cause him to discorporate and automatically return to the Dreaming in order to reconstitute himself."

"And now in layman’s terms?" asked Will.

"Dash is made of energy, contained in the shape of a body. Too much damage to that body causes him to dematerialize, and he pops back into the Dreaming to regenerate."

Raine frowned. "How much damage are we talking about?"

Ark stared at the Jotun, and swallowed visibly. "A lot."

Vice made a rumbling deep in his chest, and began coming toward them. His hands, large enough to palm any one of their heads, clenched into rocky fists.

"Will, take a shot," Raine said, drawing her sword. The rest of the group was readying their weapons. Lilith moved back behind Sid. Will drew his assault rifle, sighted down the barrel, and fired. There was a dull thunk as the bullet connected with Vice’s shoulder, and a small cascade of pebbles dropped from the impact site. Then there was a soft clink as the smashed and useless bullet fell to the floor. Vice had nothing more than a small divot in his hide.

"Time for Plan B," Ark said as Justice holstered her guns and took a hand-to-hand stance.

"What’s Plan B?" she asked.

Ark shrugged helplessly. "Try not to get killed?"

Vice was still advancing on them, slowly, deliberately, filling the entire hallway with his huge form. His head jutted forward, pitted eyes glaring balefully under a heavy brow. It was clear that he had murder on his mind. Raine exhaled sharply, a low snarl emanating from the back of her throat, her hand moving to the hilt of her sword.

Sid looked at his friends. Raine’s sword, Ark’s staff, Will’s guns – they’d all be useless against this monster. The way he moved, the way he shifted his weight and held his arms at the ready – whoever he was, this Vice Kreiger had the look of a martial master. Even Justice wouldn’t be able to defeat him in melee combat; the Jotun’s thick skin would protect him until the Knights were so tired that he could pick them off. Sid knew he had to do something. The young Knight set his jaw. He had been useless against the spider, he had endangered his teammates with his stupid mistakes, and he had let everyone down. Now he had a chance to redeem himself. He took a deep breath, and before he could change his mind, slipped past the group and dashed ahead to meet the enemy.

"Sid, no!" Justice cried.

"Get back! That’s an order!" Raine shouted. He ignored them.

"Hey ugly, over here!" he taunted the big Jotun, waving his arms to attract attention. Vice seemed a bit slow on the uptake, but he got the point readily enough. He shifted his focus to Sid. "Yeah, that’s right, come to Sid." Vice’s lips curled back to expose heavy, peg-like teeth. He lowered his heavy head and charged.

"Come on, Sid..." the Knights brawler breathed to himself. He heard his companions screaming behind him, but he blocked them out. The ground shook with Vice’s approaching footsteps. "Just a little closer...closer...wait for!"

Just as the giant was almost on top of him, Sid dove to the floor and tumbled between Vice’s legs. It was a narrow escape, Vice was much faster than Sid would have expected for a creature of that size and the heavy stone-like fingers had actually brushed his legs. For the first time in his life, Sid actually wished that he was once again shorter than everyone else, as it would have put him a little further out of reach.

But there was no time for hindsight. The Jotun was cramped in the corridor; he had trouble turning and was slow in trying to get at Sid. Taking advantage of the delay, Sid jumped upward, pushing off the giant’s back. He wrapped his arm around the burly neck, ignoring the rough stone-flesh abrading his skin, and channeled a huge amount of negative ki into his free hand. The Jotun was reaching for him, giant hands coming up to smash him like a bug. But Sid knew he was faster – fast enough to save his friends. The young Knight slammed his hand down and delivered a full negative ki strike into the Jotun’s broad stony chest.

A fraction of a second later Vice’s hand smashed into Sid’s upper body and the side of his head with the force of an avalanche. The blow knocked the smaller fighter loose, sending him flying backward through the air to slam into the wall. Sid slid to the ground and lay in a heap, motionless.

Lilith screamed his name, making a desperate hand motion. While everyone else was just overcoming their horror and beginning to move, Widget obeyed her command and raced forward. The K-9 rushed in low to the ground, dodged a blow from Vice that would have shattered cinderblock, and jumped in to attack. The Jotun bellowed in pain, then snatched the metal dog in one of his huge hands and squeezed. There was a whining sound of metal giving way to extreme pressure, and then Vice flung the combot toward the floor. Widget smashed into the tile so hard that his body left a dented spider-web of cracks at the point of impact. The K-9 slid to a stop near the Knights, his body crushed and bent, but they could see that his teeth and mouth were painted red with blood. Vice’s blood.

The Nemesis Jotun stood in the corridor clutching at his chest, his shoulders heaving. Viscous red droplets splattered onto the floor. Between the rocky fingers was a deep, bloody tear across the giant’s ribs where Widget’s teeth had shorn through the skin like cloth. Now the Knights realized what Sid had done. In a radius spreading from the place where his blow had landed, Vice’s skin from jaw to groin was fish-belly pale, and it looked like it was melting. It was obviously soft – and vulnerable.

"Sid’s given us an opening! So make every hit count!" Raine shouted. Almost as one, the group charged. Raine reached Vice first and delivered a quick swipe, fire tracing a long shallow cut along Vice’s abdomen and searing his now-pale flesh. His tree trunk sized rocky arm came up to block her next stroke, but then Justice was there, planting a hard kick under his jaw. Spit flew as his head rocked back and Justice unleashed a flurry of punches into his solar plexus, belting him like a jackhammer.

Vice grunted and swung his arms outward to fling his attackers aside. An acrobatic twist whirled Justice away from the blow, but Raine was thrown backwards, her sword dashed from her hand and skidding to a halt at least a dozen feet away. Raine scrambled to her feet and made a move for her weapon as Justice shoved the heel of her hand towards Vice’s throat. The strike connected and the Jotun choked loudly, but his reach on the counterattack was just too long – she couldn’t withdraw fast enough.

Vice’s fingers closed over her arm like concrete and yanked viciously; Justice screamed as there was an audible wet popping noise. Blue eyes snapped wide with fury. Ignoring the pain of her dislocated arm, she drew back and slammed both feet directly into Vice’s face. There was a crunch like someone breaking a bundle of sticks wrapped in wet burlap. Blood spewed from the giant’s ruined nose, splashing down his chest. He roared at Justice, his shattered face so close that she could smell the cloying scent of his breath. She screamed back at him with equal vehemence and smashed her fist into the bloody remains of his nose. Vice howled in agony. His hand still locked around her arm, he drew his fist back to smash her into the wall like someone beating the dust out of a rug.

There was a drum roll of gunfire and a full clip of bullets riddled the giant’s chest. He grunted heavily and dropped Justice, who rolled quickly out of reach and sprang to her feet, her left arm dangling uselessly at her side. The bullets had clearly penetrated into muscle, but not deep enough to hit bones or organs. Vice lumbered inexorably forward as Will ejected the empty smoking clip from his assault rifle and jammed a new one into place. Suddenly the floor formed itself into thick coils and looped around the Jotun’s feet; sweat beading on Ark’s forehead betrayed his concentration as Raine plunged back into battle, sword in hand. The blade bit into Vice’s shoulder, but he jerked free of it with the sound of steel dragging on stone before it cut too deeply. Then with a snarl, he yanked his feet upward, shattering Ark’s alchemic shackles to dust. Raine leapt back, barely parrying a surprisingly quick follow-up attack.

"We’re just not doing enough damage!" she shouted. "We need something else!"

With an adrenaline-fueled yell, a wild-haired head suddenly popped into view. It was Sid, his arms locked around Vice’s neck and hanging on for dear life. A latticework of glowing lines traced his hand as he pumped negative ki into Vice’s jugular, directly into the giant’s own chi flow.

"You’re okay!" Lilith whooped.

Whatever happens, I have to keep channeling, Sid thought desperately as the Jotun prepared to swat at him. Sid had never attempted a chi-blocking maneuver on someone so large, and he had no idea how long it might take for the living colossus to go down. All he could do was keep siphoning negative ki into Vice’s life stream, and hope that he lived through this. I’ve got to hang on as long as I can!

"Supporting maneuvers!" Raine yelled, swinging her sword at Vice repeatedly in a whirlwind of blades. She was determined to keep the monster occupied to give Sid the time he needed, and the rest of the team matched her efforts. Will, now with a handgun, and Justice - brandishing Thunder with her good arm – both unleashed a hail of precision shots between Raine and Sid, and into the giant’s chest. They may have been only stinging flies to Vice, but it was enough to keep him busy. He snarled and swatted at the projectiles as they thudded into his chest and gut. He flailed his arms in an attempt to shield himself from the bullets, struggling in vain to push Raine and her biting blade away at the same time.

With a roaring war-cry, Raine planted her sword into the ground, sending earth-elemental shockwaves through the floor directly under Vice’s feet. He staggered and reached out for balance just as Ark clanged his staff against a wall. The metal surface warped outward and twisted around the Jotun’s fist, trapping him. In a blind rage, he began lashing out at some invisible opponent, his movements uncoordinated, even drunken. He bellowed one final roar of defiance, and then slowly – almost gently – he toppled forward face-first onto the tiles, unconscious.

"Sid!" Lilith shouted, pushing through the rest of the Knights to run to him. Sid was crawling to his feet, looking shaky. There was a large bruise on his cheekbone that was already starting to go purple, but he looked otherwise unharmed. Lilith practically smashed into him as she swept him up in a fierce hug. Sid’s mouth dropped open in shock. Before he could recover enough to reply, Lilith held him out at arm’s length. "Don’t you ever do that again!" she yelled, letting him go. Suddenly unsupported and still weak from effort, he dropped to the floor. "If you ever scare me like that again, I’ll beat you within an inch of your life!"

"You’re welcome," Sid said, unable to keep from grinning. The grin disappeared when Raine reached him. Unsteady as he was, he tried to straighten up. Regardless of any punishment, he had done what was needed to save them. Now the least he could do was bear the consequences with his head held high.

"Sid." Raine said as she approached, her skin flush with the intensity of battle, "As the person who picked you to come on this mission I must say that I can’t believe you would be so reckless. You disobeyed my direct order, charged into battle without backup like a first-year recruit, and put yourself in serious danger. As your commanding officer, I should have you docked and put you to work scrubbing latrines back at the Academy." She stopped for an intake of breath; Sid braced himself for more. He could take it. He may not have been true to the letter of his orders, but damn it, he had been there when his friends needed him.

"However," Raine continued more quietly, causing Sid to look at her askance. To his surprise, there was definitely a gleam of pride in her eyes. Behind her, Ark and Justice were smiling. "As your friend, and your teacher, I owe you congratulations. There is something to be said for the courage to act under pressure, and you may well have saved us all. Besides," she said, unable to keep a smile from creeping onto her features, "you aren’t the only person who started life with the Knights as a willful Cadet." She winked at him. "So let’s just try to avoid any more theatrics for the rest of the trip, hmmm?"

Sid grinned broadly at her, smiling so hard his face hurt. "Yes, Sir!"

"Good job, Sid," Justice said. She was clutching a limp left arm, but her dazzling smile made him feel dizzy all over again. Will came up to him and put out an arm for support. Sid leaned on it gratefully.

"How are we doing?" Raine asked.

"My shoulder’s dislocated, but nothing broken I think," Justice said. "I won’t be able to do any fighting with it, and it’s going to make a god-awful noise when we pop it back into place, but it’ll work in a pinch." "And I should be able to get Widget back up and running in a few minutes," Lilith piped up. "I don’t think there’s too much damage once a bang some of the dents out of his chassis."

"What about you?" Will asked, looking at Sid. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just drained my energy is all," Sid said. "I’ll be fine in a few minutes."

"Alright," Raine said. "Then we’ll stop here for a bit to regroup."

Ark gingerly nudged Vice’s toppled form with his staff. "How long will he stay out?" They all looked at their fallen enemy. A trickle of drool was beginning to leak out of Vice’s mouth.

"At least twelve hours," Sid said. "Then he’s going to wake up with the worst headache ever."

"Let’s try not to be around when he does," Raine said. "We’re moving out as soon as possible. Quite frankly, I’d like to finish this up and get the hell out of here."


Though the group remained alert and wary of any more surprises, the descent was relatively uneventful, other than Ark grumbling about having to climb down thirteen flights of stairs. Finally they arrived at a set of metal double doors with the marker "B50" covering the entire length. Raine looked back at her team.

"Ready?" she asked. The all nodded. Raine slowly pushed the door open.

"Whoa," Sid breathed.

"Fantastic," Lilith whispered, her face alight. It was little wonder. While the rest of the facility was old industrial style, the space before them was a marvel of engineering. A cavernous room stretched before them, a vast chamber shrouded in darkness and so large that it seemed more like a work of nature than a work of man. The ceiling was so far overhead that they couldn’t see it, and only tiny lights like distant stars marked where the walls were.

The group slowly walked out into the room. The far wall was at least two hundred yards away, but the floor only moved out ahead of them for about two hundred feet. It terminated at one end of an impossibly long, slender span of bridge, which stretched away over a dark gulf to connect with a platform identical to theirs on the other side of the room.

"The architecture is incredible," Lilith muttered to anyone who would listen as she moved toward the bridge, which was edged with lights that traced a gentle arc through the darkness. "you know, bridges are the most difficult structures to create, and getting all the materials this far underground would-"


Lilith stopped, feeling a cold lump settle into the bottom of her stomach. Behind her, she heard Widget’s low growl. She didn’t want to look at what she just stepped in because she had an ugly suspicion that she already knew what she would find.

"Lilith, move back," Raine called from behind her.

There was a hint of concern in the savant’s voice, and warning. Lilith knew she should just back away, move back to the others... Instead, she looked down. Somehow, she managed not to yell or throw up. She was standing in the pale red-washed coils of intestines. They belonged to a man whose body lay twenty feet away. The heavy ropes of innards were strung across the distance between, lying in loops and piles on the floor. Lilith took a step back, then another, her hand over her mouth. There were more bodies, she saw now, about twenty of them strewn across the floor like a child’s discarded dolls. They were all disemboweled or mutilated, their bodies ravaged.

Lilith almost screamed when a pair of hands grasped her shoulders. "It’s just me." Sid’s voice cut through her thoughts, allowed her to focus. Widget nuzzled his head against her leg in concern.

"What..." Lilith stopped and swallowed against the bile rising in her throat. "What happened here?"

"A slaughter," Raine said, kneeling down beside one of the bodies with the clinical detachment of someone who has seen many battlefields and has grown hardened to the ugliness of wars. "You see the splash pattern of the blood, the coloration around these lacerations? They were alive when this happened. Something tore these men apart while they were still standing."

Lilith made a small gagging noise, then darted off to the side to be sick. Ark walked up to one of the bodies and turned it over, inspecting it.

"Raine, these uniforms are..."

She nodded. "Spartans."

A kind of chill settled over the group as they took in the new information. Spartans. They all knew what that meant for them. Spartans were the elite forces of the Laconian military, highly trained commandos. They were some of the finest examples of military prowess in the world, rivaling even Knight savants though they had different training. And some unknown foe or force had killed them all. The group looked out at the walls. Minutes ago it had been thrilling to be in a space so big. Now the edges of the room, hidden in darkness, took on a sinister air. Anything could be out there.

"What could have done this to a whole regiment of Spartans?" Justice said quietly.

"You already know the answer," said Will soberly.

And she did. She had seen a similar display months earlier during the ORCHA raid. The memory pushed through her mental block with sickening clarity.

Soon there was a loud clicking, echoing steadily in the silence, getting louder as something approached. The group turned toward the sound.

"Who’s there?" called Sid.

Will was standing alone out on the floor, looking ahead toward the bridge. He reached back and brushed his fingers along the surface of his gun case, the pressure and location of his touch specific and practiced. A second later, two panels on opposite sides flipped open, ejecting twin handguns into his expecting hands. Crossing his wrists, he pointed the weapons into the darkness and waited.

"We’re about to find out."

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