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 New Story, "A Way Out"

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Archmage_Bael
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Sun Oct 28, 2012 11:19 am

Ah finally got around to reading the rest of this. It's a very well done story so far, the descriptions made it easy to envision what was going on. Though I'm a bit surprised that the predators didn't take lots of fire themselves. Sounds like a dangerous situation, especially for a bigger target.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Wed Dec 05, 2012 11:47 pm

Installment Nineteen

Rhodou was pushed to take point in light of his recent inquiry. A worse place to be, there was not. Smoke and drifting debris blocked all sight. Radio communication and IFF scanning were still malfunctioning from the latest wave of ether charges. Sporadic gunfire continued for a time, giving at least some semblance of a correct direction to head. The slope had gotten steeper and more rocky as he and the other Deluran infantry had advanced uphill. Often an outcropping or large stone formation forced a complete change in route. Grappling hooks were used often, and to good effect. But as always great caution had to be taken, as ambushes were still alarmingly likely. Gilead's forces had sprung back up to their fortress in a great rush, and left many wounded behind. Just as always, she had ordered this deliberately. Often the most harmless in appearance had the greatest opportunities to deal damage. Every body encountered along the way had to be painstakingly checked for lifesigns, as well as weapons. One or two mounted a bold attempt at revenge. Rhodou was nearly hurled off the cliff's edge when an incoming round barely creased his weapon, tearing it from his grip and losing his footing in the process. He did, however, manage to draw his pistol and return fire in a frenzied moment, spending eight rounds on a task that should only have needed one or two.

When the dust had settled, he winced at the sight of his attacker. A young woman, likely a whole decade younger than he. She wore the draped camouflage cloth of the ruakh class, smeared with blood top to bottom. At this point it was difficult to tell exactly how many rounds had made it into her midsection, but this detail could be set aside at the sight of the heavy pistol round that had impacted into the side of her combat mask. It had dug a deep crater into the optic slit, punching straight through. Sparks continued to spray from the opening, accompanied with the occasional twitch as the neural tissue was repeatedly jolted. Rhodou was surprised at the effectiveness of his own handiwork. He collected up his carbine, but saw fit to toss it right off the cliff edge as the one long rifle shell that snagged it had all but split the upper receiver in two.

“Damn, corporal. A little brutal, don't you think?”

“Shut up. She startled me.”

“You're still on point. The next time one of the stragglers might be packing AT mines. We can't risk our transports rolling into that.”

“I feel amazingly expendable.”

“Good, that means you have an accurate assessment of the situation at hand. Now get moving.”

Rhodou exchanged his pistol's magazine and once more shifted to the front, muttering about his lot in life. He continued up the ledge, affixing the next anchor for the grappling hook's cord. As he did so, the second man in the lance stood over his shoulder, keeping a carbine raised. In time the ether flares began to die down and electronics could reboot, one system at a time. It was a great sigh of relief when the IFF and heads-up-displays came back to life, highlighting the terrain in a friendly yellow-green. With no menacing red blips in sight, they advanced. Further uphill, the wind and rain began to pick up. The debris and smoke cleared, but was quickly replaced by a rolling cloud of fog. All the same, with targeting systems quickly returning to full capacity, the lance felt enough confidence to proceed further, that is until something strange caught Sarge's eye. He promptly lifted a clenched fist vertically, signaling the others to hunker down and prepare for the worst.

“Where is it? Where are they coming from?”

“Quiet! Check the east ridge, something was there!”

Scanners flared and targeting lasers quickly swept over the stones to and fro, searching for a valid target. Tensions rose high, and when the IFF at first found nothing, detection settings were loosened. Red pings sprung to life across the ridge, top to bottom. In nervousness, the target identification parameters were made so loose that small birds and other local fauna appeared as valid targets. This made the task only more complicated. More time was spent setting the software to proper tolerances, leaving lance exposed. A single ping, however, remained blinking suspiciously. Visors were lifted and the spot gawked upon with bare eyes. It appeared to be just another loose stone, until it appeared to lean forward and settle back into the cliff. Two long narrow eyes came alight in a piercing blue glow, to the Sarge's shock and horror. The figure straightened, revealing a pointed combat mask and a body wreathed in an ornamental cloak of dark cloth highlighted with thin stripes of gold.

“Officer! Priority target! Open fire!”

At this, the lance tapped off their first bursts of small-arms fire. The figure slipped away into the fog, its IFF blip seeming to dance over the rocks before it slowed to a stop again, peering over the ridge. Gunfire resumed, but the round guidance was rendered ineffective as the signal flickered shakily. The figure did not return fire, and merely observed from the ridge above. It appeared to be counting, foot soldiers, armored personnel carriers, squad divisions, et cetera. When magazines ran dry it had the chance to peer again, resuming its work. Rhodou was the closest, and still being the pointman, scrambled up the rock face to bring his pistol within range, clutching the grappling cord. When he approached to less than five meters, the figure looked down on him, seeming confounded at his presence. As if swatting a fly, the figure unholstered a small-arm, firing a single shotshell that severed the cord holding Rhodou up, sending him tumbling down into the rest of the lance. The figure let loose a rasping chuckle, turning away and vanishing into the mist.

Rhodou, Sarge, and the others collected themselves and returned to their feet, appalled at having missed the chance to down such a prime target.

“That was no woman. It must have been one of Gilead's sons, maybe a nephew. And he didn't come here to take us out, 'mama wolf' must have sent the 'cub' just to see what we're made of.”

“You were close enough to ID him? Was it one of the big two?”

“No, too young. A smaller princeling more likely. Don't think this one was even registered. What's his name, I wonder?”

“We can stick to 'Cub' for now. Watch your footing, he's nowhere close to the front of the line to mother's footstool, he doesn't have much to lose. Next time he may grow a pair and do something nasty. And the maidens will be desperate to lay down their lives for his. The reports about this kind of thing have always turned up FUBAR.”

“So we have a rotten kid with nothing to loose and followed squads of expendable fanatics at his whim. Oh just [foxtrot]'ing beautiful. The [sierra] hasn't been this deep since the insurrection.”

“You're still on point. Get moving. They may have scouted our position but they don't have AT capable gear for terrain like this. APCs should take the brunt of the labor if we can just keep them clear to the next rally point.”

“That's starting to get old. When do they move on point?”

“When we run out of human shields to absorb fire for them.”
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Mon Dec 17, 2012 9:47 am

Installment Twenty

Not long after the 'cub' disappeared from sight of the Deluran advance teams, he regrouped with a number of war-maidens wearing Hebron's emblem. They swiftly pulled back to the southwest, avoiding the collision between the two forces already in play.

“Did you succeed, my lord?”

“Yes, sister, I have. The accursed whore's daughters have been pushed back and the foreigners are in hot pursuit. Both sides have been worn thin. Father will be pleased.”

All the while, the jackal had been trying to rebuild his own forces in the region. With the ascarlin he'd pilfered from the wreck he could easily buy hordes of new mercenaries, however finding them in the middle of a warzone would be difficult. Moreover, leaving the region to recruit from elsewhere would allow his own presence to be further neglected by other factions. Still, he had no subordinates of his own for intelligence gathering purposes, leaving him vulnerable to shifting scenarios that likely would unfold in his absence. Accepting this risk, he began the lengthy eastward trek to the nearest settlements. He had told Diana to avoid him for a time, but deciphering his intent she had kept on his trail. After all, his mercenaries had typically been a crucial part of her diet in the past. Guessing how many would likely be expendable, she relished the thought of getting easy pickings and the opportunity to taunt the jackal in the same move. But tracking him soon became difficult. Once past the ascarlin mountains and into the woods south of Negav, the trails sprawled in many directions. Each led to a possible recruiting haven. Which had the jackal chosen, she wondered. Or had he sensed her intent and broken off the trail much sooner? Only when after looking more closely at the road to Negav did she catch a sign. A series of incendiary either mines studded several trees, at roughly navel-level relative to Diana's frame.

She grinned, knowing the 'game' hadn't yet ended. Still, this 'friendly warning' was hardly a laughing matter. It could well have just been an unnecessary precaution on the jackal's part, but if he was willing to set the mines in the first place, then his antics could go in a brutal new direction. He had threatened to kill her in the past, and had nearly succeeded more than once. Often what had stopped him was little more than sheer dumb luck. She knew full well how badly he despised her, and worse still how badly he despised her elder sister. He would eliminate either if he had the chance, and upon gaining fresh troops such an opportunity would exist. With her newfound size, Diana had grown into the bad habit of thinking herself invincible. Jackal's assassination attempts had likewise thinned, leading to the false impression that he had come to tolerate her presence. This dysfunctional relationship continued as such for the better half of a decade, and jackal had turned to deception and manipulation to get his way. He used Diana as a mere tool for intimidation of rivals and convenient removal of disobedient mercenaries. Finding a means to dispose of her, in turn, was simply a matter of time. But a juvenile naga was no easy creature to kill, and the closer she grew to adulthood only made the task more vexing.

And Diana was no fool- she knew all of this to be the case from the beginning. But the reality of the jackal's plan coming to completion only made the 'game' more enjoyable. If anything, all of her affections towards the jackal arose from him being little more than a challenging opponent in sport. Thwarting his plots, staying alive, and best yet stealing his troops as food were only made so enjoyable because doing so elicited such an amusing reaction out of him. She wouldn't dare kill him, that would end the 'game' once and for all. Whom else would then amuse her so?

“Negav? That's strange. He hates the Negavites. Is he so desperate for me to lose his trail that he would wait there of all places? Or would he lure me into cannon range of the walls, and pay off the gunners to take me down? No, no... too direct.”

She lowered to the forest floor and took drew in a deep breath, sweeping her tongue over her nostrils, perking at the jackal's scent.

“He was here. Must have passed by more than a whole day ago. He really could have made it to the city, and right about now would be more than ready to move on to the next settlement. He expects me to be bogged down while he slips away. We'll see about that.”
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Tue Jan 15, 2013 10:53 am

Installment Twenty-One

It was by this time that the jackal had seen fit to emerge from a small improvised hide not far from Negav's main gate. He merged into the crowds moving to and from the bridge, and attempted to blend in. Much to his own discomfort, the day was bright and the clouds were far too sparse to shelter his pale skin and sensitive eyes from the glaring sun. He kept his cloak and combat mask out of sight in a bundle on his back, attempting to appear as one of the locals. He spoke as infrequently as possible, to avoid revealing his accent. His typical weapons were hidden back at the hide, and while inside the city he instead relied on a foreign pistol for protection.

As the crowd neared the gate, he took a moment to strain his eyes to open wide enough to get a good look around. Contrary to his expectations, the guards didn't appear any more numerous or active than usual. If the Negavians were in fact privy to the situation across the mountains, they were handling it much more delicately than the norm. The jackal guessed that smaller sections of the magiocracy were tending to the matter, while the larger government was paying little attention at all. This made passage more difficult, as it would be near impossible to distinguish which authorities would then become a threat. He would have little choice but to avoid all of the Negavian authorities.

Passing over the bridge and through the main gate, he kept close to the densest crowds until well clear of the watchful guards. He soon split from the others and veered away into the back alleys of the city until he found one of the shafts that would take him to the lower levels of the city. Relieved to be out of the sun, his posture straightened and his eyes shyly opened from the mere slits they had been erstwhile. The further below ground level he traveled, the closer he got to the more clandestine markets, and away from the reach of the authorities. It wasn't long before some of the local mercenary outfits and private military contractors were selling their wares in full force. In no time, some of his previous sellers took notice of him.

“Lord Nadiel returns so soon? What happened to the last platoon we contracted to you?”

“Butchered by the she-wolf. One of the ghost squads caught us off guard, wasn't pretty.”

“You did keep them well supplied this time, right?”

“Yes, not that it helped. You know there aren't any rules of engagement out there. And Gilead loves to leave plenty of corpses behind her as a warning to newcomers. Guess she didn't get her fill of Hebronites that day.”

“Well, we're still selling at the usual rate. One month contracts are two-thousand skevols per enlisted man. You did bring money, didn't you?”

“Naturally.”

Some time before he had broken the chunk of ascarlin into a number of tiny fragments. He pulled the smallest of these from his pocket slowly and discretely. As soon as the contractor caught sight of it he was silenced.

“Very good then. For that amount you'll get an infantry regiment, plus gear. You want the usual 50-50 anti-predator loadouts?”

“No, that part's mostly covered. Make it 80-20. Good antipersonnel is more important this time. And don't skimp on the illegal stuff. I want land mines and flamethrowers.”

“That'll draw attention. Lots of it.”

“I told you before, there are no rules of engagement out there.”
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Mon Feb 25, 2013 2:17 pm

Installment Twenty-Two

In short order the purchase had been made and the first squads of mercenaries were geared and assembled under the jackal's command. He made a deliberate point of inspecting their equipment, and was often frustrated in a clear lack of preparedness for the outside world. Ordinarily he would have filled in the gaps with his own inventory, but this far away from home other methods would be used. With a good deal of ascarlin still unspent, he turned to buying fresh crates of arms. He favored unconventional tools for the job he had in mind, and distributed a number of heavy weapons to his ranks. In an unexpected amusement, the contractors had been dealing with the jackal long enough to have readied patchwork on the mercenaries' shoulders and headgear, adding an emblem caricaturing his mercenary corps. It resembled his own crest of three diamonds in a stack, tilted askew and lined above with a jagged thunderbolt.

As the assembly of troops became large enough to begin drawing attention, the jackal led the mercenaries away from the market to a more secluded portion of Negav's catacombs. He spent a moment trying to identify officers present in his ranks. The one squad leader willing enough to face him flicked on an electric lamp, revealing a very dark tone of skin and a puckered face. Next to the jackal's paleness, he and his kinsfolk were made conspicuous. The two were made aware of their differences, and were mutually disgusted with one another. The jackal avoided talking by instead lighting his pipe, and the mercenary squad leader did the same with a thick cigar. The two kept silent until the rest of the force had been gathered and armed, and only then did the jackal take the reins.

“It should go without saying that I paid good money to put the lot of you... mutants into a great deal of harm. Make no mistake, I'm not your friend, nor am I your patron saint. I am, however, your new employer. And the little bit of ascarlin that bought your expendable, nameless, genetically-inferior corpses is just a drop in the bucket next to what we'll get if this job works out. You're probably going to hate me for what I'll order you to do in the next few days. Remember, I hate you too. But I'm sure we can all learn to loathe eachother respectfully when we're swimming in riches. We're leaving the city by river. We'll hitch a ride on the next cargo ship to split from the docks.”

The mercenaries followed his command without question, but spoke to one-another quietly behind his back.

“We really gonna do this'n boss?”

“Yah, dat old boy what hired us sound'a bit nuts, but ya can't argue with that juicy payment he done gave out. And it'll be worthwhile ta let him think we ain't bright enough ta know better. If he loses it, we can always ditch him.”

“Ya think he was foolin' when he said there was more stones in it fo' us?”

“No way ta be sure. But the rumors been going 'round that the hillbillies up in the mountains stirred up some major [sierra]. Maybe this creepy fella's one o' them.”

“All the way out here?”

“Who knows? Sunuvabitch is whiter than a bedsheet, matches what everyone says about the cave folk. Story goes they look like they ain't never seen the sun. 'Sides that, I like his taste in smokes. Gear, too. Last boss didn't buy us a damn thing.”

“Suppose he tries to kill us off once we find the ascarlin?”

“Dumbass gave us he money, and the heavy weapons too. Got nothing fo' himself. If it hits the fan at the end, we can take him, grab a trophy or two, and beat it on home.”

“What if he got friends?”

“If he did, he wouldn'ta hired us.”

In time the column were able to divide into small enough groups to work their way to the docks without drawing too much attention. One group after the next, they boarded a large vessel heading south, stowing themselves and their gear in a hold below decks. What they did not expect was the large continent of Negavian forces doing the same on the main deck just above. The ship left port in the dark hours of the night, with both parties none the wiser.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Thu Mar 14, 2013 11:59 pm

Installment Twenty-Three

It was only a few short hours before the Delurans had swept through the snares, minefields, and ambushes all the way uphill to the entrance to Gilead's fortress. A number of short salvos of cannon fire from the Avalon-class gunship overhead were more than sufficient to blast a trail right through the earthworks, clearing impediments along the way for the advancing infantry. Rhodou was the very first in line to mount the rim guarding the entrance, keeping his pistol trained ahead. A tap on the side of his helmet, and the scanner pack strapped to his back raised its antennas, searching ahead for threats. Quite unlike Gilead's usual aggression, the outside staging area was completely empty, stripped of all but the most rudimentary equipment and supplies. But further inside, thermal and movement scans were abuzz with activity.

“She-wolf is in there, no doubt about that. How we going to dig her out of that den?”

“We'll send in the 'ferret' to have a closer look.”

A small unmanned drone was readied as the outside perimeter was secured. Armored personnel carriers scaled the walls and encircled the platform. Fresh troops disembarked, reading weapons for the inevitable charge inside. The drone rolled into the opening on six small wheels, skidding along quickly and darting from one debris pile to the next. Its cameras transmitted to the mobile command post, parked precariously just outside. As the 'ferret' rolled further inside, sunlight soon faded away and night vision was relied upon. The chambers of the lair were methodically checked, but none seemed to hold so much as a trace. Even the pots and cookware from the antechamber in the back had been hauled away.

After a great deal of exhaustive review (plus the deployment of two additional 'ferrets') a passage was found from the lair to the beginning of a network of naturally-occurring caverns. Seismic scans followed shortly, but revealed only that this network stretched a long distance. There was no way of knowing exactly how many routes through the mountain Gilead could have used to escape. Sensors still pinged activity just further within, and so the drones were driven forward to investigate. Defense systems were put into play, and several holograms split from the drones, mimicking an advancing squad of foot soldiers to draw attention away from the drone itself.

An optic cable was extended from the drone, snaking its way along the cave floor and through its twists and turns, coming to observe what lay on the other side. Just as it arrived on the source of activity, it was swamped in a large pile of bodies. Many already dead, some only wounded, trying desperately to claw their way to the top of the heap to avoid suffocation. For the most part, these were Gilead's own dead, plus captured or felled Hebronites. Only a scant few had come from the Deluran expeditionary force. The drones could hardly tell the difference, apart from the few IFF transmitters hidden in the pile. Against the better judgment of some of the veterans who had already read this feint, high command had already sent the order to have friendly POWs freed. Automatic monitoring would ensure this order was followed to the letter, though immediately afterward all drones were modified to only transmit to the base when allowed.

Much to Rhodou's chagrin, he was once again the most expendable element, pushed to the very front of the first team to investigate the lair and its innards. The foremost squad was of regular infantry, behind them were the specialists, clad in their hazmat suits and gas masks. The former stacked just behind the opening of the lair, and with a slap on the shoulder from the sergeant the lance was in motion, sweeping through the rooms and assembling once more just behind the drones. The latter crept in using a much more dispersed formation, spreading out in smaller groups and laying in wait for the inevitable ambush, counterattack, or whatever other calamity would soon ensue. As the regulars came around the cavern's bend to tend to the wounded, the specialists lingered behind in the hall, safely out of harm's way.

Right on cue, when the lance of regulars came around the bend into the cavern holding the wounded, the trap was sprung. Charges detonated at the lair's bottlenecks, blocking access with rubble. Long rifles emerged from splits in the ceiling and from among the wounded, firing at an irregular rhythm. Incendiary muzzle-grenades whizzed through the rising clouds of dust, scattering droplets of burning ether as they burst on whatever crossed their paths. The regulars immediately sought cover at whatever objects were within reach, most huddled at the craggy cavern walls or by piles of fallen debris. Their superior optics in play, they returned fire immediately. Carbines echoed through the space in dense bursts of high-pitched tapping. Having kept closer to the entrance, the specialists had taken the brunt of Gilead's strike, and the few that had not been maimed by long rifle hits or fried by the ether quickly sought to reopen access to the outside. They placed plastiques into the largest of the piles of rubble, blasting these aside and kicking up an even more dense cloud of dust and smoke while sending a gigantic plume of earth and stone flying from the mountainside as the ceiling was breached. Orchestrated from afar, a pair of the smaller two-seat gunships plunged into the shaft and hovered over the lair's floor, parting the haze with their thrusters. Each only bore one 40mm autocannon, trifling next to the Avalon's battery of six. But the two ships in unison racked the cavern walls with a rapid barrage of shells and paved the way for more Delurans to invade the interior, rappelling down the shaft in droves.

At this, Gilead's war-maidens saw fit to fall back, scattering ether flares and quickly gathering up their wounded from the pile, hauling them back amidst the confusion. In a twist of foul luck, Rhodou had been mistakenly gathered up and taken away with the others. At the onset of the skirmish, he had been knocked down by a grazing hit to his backpack and had kept to the pile of bodies for cover. Knowing better than to fire and reveal himself, he had remained still until he had been yanked from his position and dragged away. Realizing their mistake, the Gileadites tossed him down to the cavern floor as soon as they had gotten around the stony bends to safety, keeping him pinned under a menacing bayonet point at his chest. Unbeknownst to them, his transmitters were perfectly functional and as soon as the flares began to die down he began to send a live feed of his surroundings back to command.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Thu Apr 11, 2013 3:13 pm


Installment Twenty-Four

The cargo ship steamed upstream to the south, meaning to heave cargo as far as the Kjol cliffs. Both the jackal's mercenaries and the Isolon Fist contingent aboard had other plans. Both had seen an opportunity to get ashore much earlier and swing around westward to the far side of the mountains. The jackal had gone through some trouble to bribe the ship's crew into giving his men a chance to disembark discretely, however the ship came to a halt hours ahead of time, as demanded by the Negavians. It was only then did the jackal and his men realize their predicament. They quickly hid in shipping crates as the war-mages shuffled through the lower decks, gathering supplies as they landed ashore.

In no time the ship had continued down the river, its crew completely unwilling to uphold their bribe while still in the sight of the first party. Angry, the jackal ransacked their lower cargo hold until he happened across a series of inflatable rubber rafts. A little improvised welding, and the emergency hatch on the side of the ship's hull was popped open, the mercenaries spilling out in the rafts and drifting towards the shore. The weather had turned foul, thick rainfall and rolling fog masking their escape. The jackal was anything but amused at the finding of Isolon Fist deployments right under his nose. He and his mercenaries followed their path, trying to discern a heading.

Unwilling to risk an advance through the jungles amidst poor visibility, the Negavians had set up camp to bide time. Much like their namesake city, they had assembled a tall, narrow structure in the center of their encampment, crowned with a shining crystal. Defying all logic, it created a protective glowing bubble that repelled the rain and haze. Bright rays stretched from it, as if actively seeking threats like searchlights. The Jackal and his newly appointed second-in-command observed through binoculars.

“What'dya make of that, boss?”

“Filthy Negavites and their damn sorcery, I can never make much sense of it. But whatever that little blinker of theirs is for, its dangerous.”

“Ain't you wonderin' what they here for?”

“That's obvious. They want the ascarlin, just like we do.”

“We gonna let 'em take it?”

“Hell no. More competition is the last thing we need. The other clans are already tied up in warfare with one-another. The Delurans pushed much deeper than I was expecting them to, now this...”

“Heads up! I think that's their chief. Low at one-thirty, by that fire.”

The dark-skinned mercenary gestured to the Negavian sporting the most elaborate armor. A pure elf, he stood easily a whole foot taller than his comrades, and in great affluence had his outer coat of plate mail decorated in gaudy colors and socketed with numerous defensive runes and mana-laden gems.

“What a peacock! Everyone within eyeshot could pick him out from the crowd. How dangerous could he be?”

Having raised his voice too loud for that moment, the protective tower's bright searchlights converged close to the jackal, turning in color from soft white to an angry red. On the alert, the mages took up their staves and begin to hurl bolts of lightning in their direction. These boiled the falling rain to dense clouds of steam, striking rocks and foliage in deafening cracks and starting small fires in their wake. The jackal and his second retreated away with all possible speed, readying the other mercenaries as they expected to be followed. The crowd quickly dispersed into the brush, raising weapons and preparing for the worst. Surprisingly, there were no pursuers. The jackal had reasoned that the rising billows of steam had prevented them from seeing what their sorcery had deemed a threat. Perhaps they had even been jaded against it marking indigenous wildlife unnecessarily.

Wasting no time, they regrouped further west, seeking a more defensible position. But in light of the destructive sorcery hurled against them, they opted to conceal themselves and allow the Negavians to make the first move and perhaps expose their flanks in doing so. Amidst the unpleasant downpour and accompanying winds, the force split into many small divisions and scattered, ready to begin the methodical poking and prodding of guerrilla warfare in the drenched jungle.

All the while, the Deluran front had become focused on one point of interest. The bulk of the advancing forces had ringed around the opening to Gilead's fortress, eager to plunge in and capture this final bastion of resistance. But for them this would be a costly endeavor. The cavern passage leading further inward became too narrow for vehicles, and just on the other side the bulk of Gilead's sharpshooters lay waiting ready in entrenched positions. The combat engineers repeatedly attempted to lay charges to widen the gap, but each advance only incited a more furious hail of retaliatory fire.

Mistress Gilead was enthused to have the chance at seeing the enemy first-hand. She paced to and fro as Rhodou was held captive, shamelessly discarding away pieces of civilian garb and putting on her old officer's uniform in its place. As soon as the leggings and combat boots were strapped tight, she advanced on him and firmly planted a foot just between his legs as he remained pinned to the floor. The metal hooks on the underside of each sole were stretched outward like a cat's claws as she arched the foot for a moment, and were immediately retracted.

“Well well, so I have the privilege of speaking to the foreign ambassador myself, do I? Oh whatever shall I demand of him? Perhaps I should tell his comrades to lay down their arms in exchange for his life?”

She didn't wait for a response. Rhodou's helmet-mounted camera was in plain sight, and she quickly guessed its purpose. She leaned in close, momentarily fogging its lens with her breath, all the while extending the metal hooks from her boot again, causing them to tap impatiently against the rocky floor just shy of Rhodou's groin.

“Hello? Can you hear me? I shan't be bothered to tell you my name. I'm the one who ordered the killing of your men. Ah, my mistake, I used the past-tense just now. I am still ordering the killing of your men. And you can rest assured that I will continue to do so until the last of you falls. My ultimatum is as follows. Run. Run for your lives. Flee as fast as those metal wings can carry you. Show me the proper respect by disappearing from my sight, and I may see fit to let you go.”

At that she grabbed the camera from his helmet and crushed it under her boot. She turned to Rhodou again, lifting him off the floor as a number of her cohorts stripped away his weapons and equipment, setting them aside in a pile of similar foreign plunder. Gilead's voice suddenly turned disturbingly sweet and friendly.

“And you, little fellow. You'll be the one to tell me how that flying castle out there works. You can probably guess what'll happen to you if you refuse. You see, I don't very much care for your kind. But I know someone who does. Bluish scaly tail, bright golden hair, stands about fifty cubits high... sound familiar? I hear your tribe has had quite the relationship with this one. She'll be thrilled to meet you. And languishing in her innards, melting to slop, you'll have dearly wished to have dealt with me instead. I may be harsh, even cruel. But I am most certainly the lesser of two evils. Get the picture?”

Rhodou was horrified, and was tempted to gasp as Gilead smiled warmly at this.

“Now now, if you don't give me an answer soon I shall have to pluck out your fingernails one by one to be sure you aren't mute.”

“Ah... alright. I'll talk. ….may I compliment you on having soundly defeated my nation's forces time and again.”

He spoke in complete sarcasm, but Gilead always sought flattery and interpreted the message in the literal sense.

“My, what good manners. And here I was led to believe such qualities were lost on the foreign lot. Have you anything more to say on the brilliance of my conquests?”

Rhodou assumed her to be likewise sarcastic and continued, inadvertently finding himself distanced from the chopping block, at least for a little while.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Thu Apr 21, 2016 10:19 pm

Interlude- 20 Years Later

The Jackal sat in his study, cross-legged on the floor. The room was small, dimly lit, and disorganized, littered with seemingly random bits of machinery and loose papers covered with nonsensical scribbles and sloppy drawings. A single lightbulb dangled from the low ceiling, buzzing and flickering irregularly. A small incense burner was tucked away in the corner, just beside the foot of a desk that slowly whined and creaked under the load of various cannon shells stacked atop it. The burner had been running for several days now, and the study had filled with smoke so thick that it choked out the light and snaked its way out of the keyhole as a warning to any passerby to keep their distance.

Usually these 'vacations' didn't last so long. A day or two and the Jackal would soon be so tired if it that he'd march right back down to his armory and resume whatever job that had frustrated him in the first place. But a week? Unheard of. Perhaps he had suffocated and died, the orphans gossiped. But even as they egged one-another on to pry open the door and see for themselves, no volunteers spoke up. The last time someone had even knocked on that door, the Jackal was so angry that he emptied an entire magazine of rifle fire down the hallway just to get his point across.

What he saw in that haze was anyone's guess, but drug addictions were simple enough to understand. This time, however, he could not resist the vision that had come to him. The creature he feared the very most, the naga Crisis, now apparently having multiplied. A second Crisis, one that he could have eliminated, but did not. Not Diana, the failed experiment, but a successful and faithful recreation of the original, appetite and all. In the vision, standing confidently, wearing a brilliant necklace of gold chains, dozens of church-bells dangling from it but not a single one ringing. Her identity could not be clearer.

Finally having taken in the message, the Jackal sprung to his feet. He clumsily tripped over the clutter of the room and knocked over no less than two bookshelves and one filing cabinet before finally regaining enough of his balance to walk again. He kicked open the door, letting the smoke out. On his feet he was tall enough to rear his head above the haze and breathe normal air again. The transition was harsh, as to be expected. A mad dash to the outhouse and a bucket of vomit later and the Jackal was finally himself again. And just when his eyes finally came into focus once more, the one thing he really didn't want to see was creeping up behind him.

"Blaire, this is not the time."

"You were in there for a week. A whole WEEK! The food almost ran out and your mercenary buddies started poking around in places they shouldn't have."

The Jackal twisted his neck to peer over his shoulder and cast a disapproving glance at the bulge in the nagaling's midsection.

"I thought you said the food ran out."

"I said almost ran out. Lucky you, that sale you were chasing went through even while you were zoning out by your lonesome."

"How much?"

"Twenty-five thousand."

"That's my girl."

The Jackal turned the rest of his gaunt frame around and staggered a little closer to playfully drag his forefinger across the nagaling's cheek and into the tip of her nose. Her growth spurt was close now, in just a few years he would no longer be able to reach her face at all. But until then, she was the pride of his brood of various misfit orphans. His eyes then fixated on the bell hanging around her neck. He kept giving her bigger ones in the vain hope of keeping tabs on her movement, but at this point they had become a mere fashion accessory along with her frilly yellow sun-dress and matching wide-brimmed hat.

He wouldn't even think of telling her what he had seen, but the look on his face was enough of a hint that something was amiss. And she, in turn, wouldn't think of asking. He would just lie about it anyway. Still, this issue merited further investigation so Blaire followed the Jackal all the way back into the shop and down the stairs into the armory. He didn't seem to notice. Deep in thought, the Jackal shuffled through a crate of liquid incendiaries. He hadn't even stopped at the shop counter to start inspecting the twenty-five thousand that he was told was waiting for him. Now that was odd. Normally he'd be in a rush to count the money himself. Blaire hadn't told him that it was really closer to thirty-thousand, and was waiting to be praised when he found the surprise. Another perfectly good plan in ruins. She tried to nudge him into returning upstairs, but he wasn't having any of it. Something had his attention, and it wasn't thirty-thousand Skevols.

"Who are you, and what have you done with Nadiel?"

(More to come.)
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Sun Apr 24, 2016 7:41 pm

Interlude- Continued...

The Jackal was instantly annoyed.

"Don't be coy. Papa has grown-up work to do now. Run along."

The nagaling was no more reassured than before. She remained close for a moment, debating to herself how and when to voice her concerns but thought better of it. If the Jackal wasn't going to be helpful, she'd just have to find someone who was. But now she was short of options. The missus was off on an 'errand' and the proper heiress was being trained by the tribe in the mountains. The mercenaries were friendly enough, but certainly not trustworthy. And the other orphans were perhaps even less trustworthy than the mercenaries. She'd have better luck with the livestock. So the natural course of action was to seek help elsewhere. She was lost in thought and didn't notice that the Jackal was less than amused that she was still clinging to him.

"I said git!"

And with that the nagaling bolted off to lord knows where. The Jackal turned back to the crate of incendiaries. Ideas occurred, perhaps the mighty nagas could be destroyed with a little creativity in the delivery mechanism. But the more pressing question was just which naga had to be destroyed in the first place. Blaire was of course the easier kill, but she was still innocent in all this. She could still be tamed, if it weren't for Crisis' influence on her. Time passed, nearly a day and a half later the Jackal had sorted out his priorities. Intelligence-gathering had to come first, but getting close enough to recon the deadliest naga in the region would take preparation and cunning. A very great deal of both.

With that, the Jackal began the process of gathering tools and exhaustive regimens to make himself inconspicuous to a predator's senses. Humans have a particular scent, so it took no less than a week of sitting amongst the filth in the boar pen to conceal it. Human breathing and heartbeats stand out, so the Jackal had a brief bypass surgery to have his bloodstream flow through an artificial pump and aerator strapped to his back. With this, his bodily functions would be well masked and his metabolism could be modified at will. All the more important, as a very slow metabolism would interfere with the sixth-sense that the predators uncannily used to notice them seemingly without explanation. A few more items assembled, and finally the night had come to begin spying on the golden-haired monstrosity.

The Jackal gathered all of his supplies and instruments, strapping them to the back of the eldest of his captive kensha pups. The six-legged creature carried the Jackal to within a few kilometers of the Great Tree, disembarked everything, and was promptly sent back. All of the goods were thoroughly hidden in an improvised shelter and left for later. The Jackal carried only the bare minimum to preserve mobility and began stalking through the undergrowth to find a vantage point. Several hours of this, and finally he'd creeped his way high enough up one of the neighboring trees to get a useful survey of the terrain. Lo and behold, there was wispy plume of smoke rising from a clearing a ways further north. Here he'd wait. It would only be a matter of time before Crisis would come looking.

A few adjustments to the aerator and his metabolism was brought to a near-standstill. The Jackal nestled himself into the mess of moss and parasitic plants growing out of the tree's massive branches. He covered himself with a burlap net, set up a recon scope, and lay still. Even a very perceptive predator would have a hard time perceiving his presence, and an even harder time still figuring out that he wasn't already dead. The smell of boar waste had attracted flies, all the better to enhance the illusion. But this sort of meddling had its price. His perception became blurry and his reaction times slowed. Still, they'd be quick enough to keep an eye on things until dawn.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Mon Apr 25, 2016 9:37 pm

Interlude- Continued...

At the crack of dawn the time had come to get to work. The Jackal made an adjustment to the aerator, not changing his metabolism but instead introducing enough stimulants into his bloodstream to make himself more alert and focused. He dialed in the recon scope to the camp ahead, measuring distances. Just under one klick to the bait. He began video and audio recording, so that his observations might be studied later.

"...And on the first day, there was light. But lo the world remained formless and darkness still covered the deeps. Does the creature still lurk within the shadows, I wonder?"

The adventurers camped on the forest floor below had little idea what was about to happen. They merrily rose out of their tents and started their bonfire anew to cook the day's rations. Half a dozen of them, feebly armed, and entirely unaware. It couldn't have been an easier haul for any predator worth its salt. Surprisingly, 'Goldilocks' was taking her sweet time with this one. A whole hour passed uneventfully. Perhaps she was elsewhere? Or she might have even found such low-hanging fruit to be beneath her talent. Who was to say, there was always the off chance she too was observing from a distance, settling some whimsical curiosity. And then all at once she dashed the Jackal's second guessing by hurling herself right through the camp, snatching up the startled adventurers as she passed by, and grinding to a halt through the flora some distance on the other side.

By the time the Jackal had even re-focused the scope, Crisis had already gulped down four of them. She teased the remaining two for a few minutes, but was soon bored and swallowed them as well. The entire lunge barely clocked in three and a half seconds. And just to emphasize everything the Jackal loathed in her, Crisis rolled over onto her back, giggling as the added weight in her protruding belly caused her to flop over to her side. Obnoxious, but this presented an opportunity. Her back was turned and she was distracted. The Jackal raised a long, thin rifle that spat out a tracking dart with a whisper-quiet puff of air. The dart was embedded just under Crisis' left shoulder blade, where she wouldn't have an easy time digging it out. Now he could follow her movements on his sensors. At least while the tracer's batteries still had some juice in them.

And then, to his torment, a familiar face wandered into his scope. The nagaling Blaire had been traveling for many days trying to find someone trustworthy to confide in and just at this moment had caught up to Crisis, her mentor. The Jackal had warned her dozens of times to avoid the woods up north, to avoid the great tree, and most of all to avoid blonde-haired nagas. This act of disobedience crossed the line. But this too presented an interesting opportunity. What would they do, he wondered. They were too far away to eavesdrop, but body language spoke for itself. Clearly, this wasn't their first meeting. And it likely wouldn't be their last unless the Jackal did something drastic. His vision came to mind, and was now certain he couldn't stand idly by any longer.

Ironically, his response was to stay as still and quiet as possible to let the video recording continue. Blaire leaned in close to one of Crisis' ears to whisper something, and at once there was terror in the Jackal's eyes as his nemesis' gaze started darting around between the most likely vantage points. His mission had been betrayed.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Thu Apr 28, 2016 10:49 pm

Interlude- Continued...

The Jackal strained to keep his heart rate in check. The aerator was doing all the work, but instincts couldn't be helped. His heart and lungs were compelled by the sudden rush of adrenaline to sputter back to life. Breath rasped through his teeth, followed by a puddle of bile and spit that had been accumulating over the last few days. Thoroughly filthy, but still very quiet. A quick injection of depressants and his rambunctious organs softened their tune. The Jackal wiped the fluids from his face and short beard, grimacing at the thought that even this brief malfunction may have just cost him his life.

But lo and behold, Crisis didn't pursue. She was still flouncing about on the forest floor below, coddling Blaire. Could it be that his presence wasn't revealed after all, or was he just more low-hanging fruit that could be picked at leisure later on? No way to be sure. He focused the spotter's scope on the two of them, trying to get a read on their dialogue. But they remained too far away for the microphone to pick up anything. The Jackal would have to creep closer. But not during the daylight hours, that would be suicide. For now, he'd just have to wait and watch.

Three times in less than a minute, he found himself rolling his eyes in disgust of their antics. In particular he hated to see Blaire envying Crisis' rumbling, prey-filled gut. It would only be a matter of time before she had to imitate the act herself. Hours came and went, the two wandered a little, had a dip in the river, and then laid out in the sun to nap, not a care in the world. The Jackal kept tabs on them from his perch, either through direct visuals or instead via the tracer dart's signal when they slipped out of sight. Eventually the evening light began to fade and a curtain of low clouds drifted in, enough cover to make a move at last.

Rainfall thickened as the Jackal rose from his vantage point and rappelled down the side of the tree. Fortunate. This would mask sight, sound, and smell, at least for a little while. The Jackal doubled back to the improvised shelter to gather a few important tools. After a whole day of tracking Crisis' movements, he pinpointed a few spots that she visited often and began hiding listening devices. Every time he planted one, he coupled it with a satchel of C4 and a secondary charge of pure ether. Always the off chance one of these might come in handy. And it pays to have a convenient way of sweeping up one's own fingerprints later on down the line.

Several charges later, and the rain had only gotten heavier. At this rate, the Jackal might just have the chance to get away with something a little bolder. He checked the tracer's heading, and started the unthinkable task of skulking in that direction. The nagas had found a dry spot halfway up one of the thicker trees. They had already settled in for the night, but even so it would not augur well to get much closer. The Jackal wormed his way into a crevice in the side of the tree some few hundred meters right below them. Close enough to eavesdrop at last. At least when the weather died down.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Sun May 01, 2016 9:16 pm

Interlude- Continued...

Dawn came sooner than expected, and the Jackal was jolted from his rest by the sweeping rush of intense movement as Crisis descended the tree in typical breakneck fashion, Blaire in tow. Cautiously, he peeked out of the knothole to stalk behind them. The nagas settled in a small clearing to take in some sunlight for a brief moment, giving the Jackal a chance to at last listen in and glean useful information. The conversation between the nagas started with coquettish gossip and other trivial nonsense as it had likely been the day before. Suddenly it took a serious turn as Blaire revealed her purpose in coming this far.

"So... you remember that human I was staying with, the crazy one?"

Crisis' face went blank. She spent a few moments contorting it while trying to conjure a memory, but it just wasn't meant to be.

"Not really."

"He's been acting weird.... weirder than normal. I think he might end up doing something really, really stupid."

"So?"

"Just promise me you won't eat him."

While Blaire had been working up the courage to make that request, Crisis' arm had been wandering through the undergrowth and had found a pair of travelers who had gotten very lost. By the time Blaire had even finished the sentence, Crisis had already swallowed the both of them without even casting a glance.

"Sorry, didn't hear that last bit. What did you want me to not do?"

"I said, please don't eat him."

A loud belch crept its way up Crisis' throat right when Blaire tried to repeat herself. Blaire was finally irked into spilling the beans with a small but surprisingly emotional outburst.

"Don't eat my Papa!"

"Your Papa?"

Crisis' expression transitioned from shock and disbelief to hearty laughter. Blaire immediately covered her mouth and went silent, realizing that she had revealed a little too much. Crisis rolled about the forest floor, mocking the phrase as Blaire blushed. When the moment finally died down, the mentor flashed a wry grin to her student.

"Now what would your mother say about this 'Papa' of yours?"

"I wouldn't know. Haven't seen her in ages. You haven't run into her, have you?"

Suddenly the Jackal was relieved as he overheard this. Crisis hadn't produced offspring after all. The resemblance between the two was uncanny, but coincidental. Perhaps his vision was misinterpreted. Still, he hadn't come this far just to let his adopted daughter be corrupted in any case. And he still had a score to settle. Eventually he would get his chance to separate the two, so he continued to watch and wait. The conversation continued a little longer, but quickly descended to triviality just as before and in no time the nagas were off again to look for more food.

By the time the Jackal had caught up to them once more, they were stalking a caravan passing through the woods. Well-armed, numerous, and more experienced, this would finally present a challenge. And if they fired, it would be the perfect cover for the Jackal to finally make his move. He put on his combat mask and checked that his tracer dart was still broadcasting. A couple clicks and a radio channel was raised to the nearest company of his mercenary outfit.

"Garrison 32, fire mission. Now sending coordinates. Commence bombardment when ready. And boys, a ten-thousand skevol bonus to any gun crew to land a direct hit."
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Sun May 01, 2016 9:28 pm

Man, this is getting intense. Blaire is just as cute as ever too.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Mon May 09, 2016 10:20 pm

Interlude- Continued...

The 155mm shells from the 'Long Tom' batteries always arrived first. Their muzzle velocity was higher and their trajectories much flatter than those of the stubby eight-inch howitzers. Crisis was in the perfect position to learn this lesson first hand. She had meandered her way through the greenery to within spitting range of the convoy, watching proudly as Blaire had gotten even closer without being noticed. At last a straggler made the mistake of peeling off from the group just barely far enough for Blaire to jump him. The fore-stomach at waist height was not yet ready to handle an entire man, but nagalings of such a young age were incredibly elastic and the secondary stomach in her tail was up to the task. But just before she could prove this, the warm bonding moment was interrupted as the first shells of the barrage came screeching in through the trees.

Right on cue, the straggler and Blaire alike made the same startled cry in unison- "Artillery! Scatter!"

The convoy broke into a loose cloud of activity as each individual sprung to the nearest piece of cover. The Jackal observed through his recon scope, his turn to be proud for a brief moment as Blaire was so quick to react. Crisis was the odd one out, keeping still as the barrage crept slowly and haphazardly closer to her hiding spot. Only when a stray shell created a light show by tearing open one of the convoy's nearby fuel trucks did she finally see fit to move. The slower eight-inchers now began to descend just behind the bend in the road where the convoy was brought to a halt. Suspiciously, a grouping of them converged on the spot that Crisis had just abandoned. And just to confirm her suspicions, the next volley of "Long Toms" seemed to trace her path away from the first position to the next. She launched herself right over the bewildered survivors to pluck Blaire from the undergrowth and bolt off into the distance. Only after this had all transpired did the convoy's leader squeeze off a burst of automatic fire in defiance.

Naturally, the Jackal was less than amused. Artillery shells weren't cheap and he'd just wasted a great deal of them on this failed gambit. He didn't yet realize that he had revealed more than he bargained for, and collected his scope and camouflage net to move to the next position. It took several hours to catch up to the nagas once more. Who could tell how many denials Blaire had made over this span of time, but lo and behold she was still pitching the thought that the artillery barrage could have been anyone's doing. Crisis didn't seem as bothered as anyone else would have been. Perhaps she even found it amusing. Her giggling had been constant from the moment it had even crossed her mind that the attack might be deliberate, which didn't make anyone any less uneasy.

Before the Jackal had even re-established visual contact, their voices jostled his headset. A stroke of luck, Crisis had come to rest at one of the clearings that had been rigged with a listening device the previous day. He sought shelter in the nearest crevice and tuned in to eavesdrop.

*Laughter* "You know, its kind of cute. Mister human trying to save his precious little nagaling..." *Laughter*

"Its not funny! And it probably wasn't him! Lots of humans fight like that."

*Laughter* "And let me guess, the shots veered right at us because reasons, right?"

"There was a lot of tree cover! Who knows what they were aiming at."

Crisis just stared blankly in response, her left eyebrow slowly raising before she cracked into another giggling fit.

"I like this game."

"Its not a game! Just you wait, I'll fix this. And remember your promise!"

With that, Blaire separated from her mentor to try and get to the bottom of this situation. Once she was well out of sight, the Jackal spoke into his headset, his voice being amplified by the crude speakers hidden in the listening device buried somewhere under Crisis' coils.

"You there, Goldilocks?"

With that, she sprung to attention, uncoiling and doubling back.

"Down here."

Curious, she knelt to get her ear close to the source of the sound.

"Perfect. Just a few words of advice for you, from an old friend. Stay. Away. From. My. Daughter."

Crisis blinked, vexed but amused at this.

"So this is what she meant when she said he might end up doing something really, really stupid..."

And with that, the Jackal pressed the detonator for the charges hidden with the listening device. The C4 erupted first, blossoming into a dull orange orb, crowned with a ring of dust and debris. The ether charge emerged from this a moment later, the scorching droplets scattering in all directions, tracing jagged lines of bright blue in their wake. For the first time in weeks, the Jackal cracked a smile. But it was short lived. Just a moment later Crisis swept right past the crevice, dashing for the river. Bewildered, the Jackal looked on as she appeared to have sustained only a few glancing hits. The ether continued to burn, but in no time she doused her wounds in the river and found relief.

"Unbelievable..."
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PostSubject: Interlude- Continued...   Sun May 07, 2017 10:51 am

The Jackal was frozen in place, angrily muttering at his own failures. Was the charge poorly fused? Did the ether detonate too late? Or was it just bad luck? And yet there before him the accursed 'Goldilocks' frolicked at the riverbed, all but unharmed. He had played his best hand and worse yet announced himself in the process. He lay in his vantage point, glaring ceaselessly. His left eye began to twitch, in equal measure from rage and abject terror.

"She's on to me now. She won't be surprised. She won't be tricked. Must flee. Cannot win...."

And then, he noticed something that was oddly absent. Blaire was nowhere to be seen. She must have seen the fireworks, must have known who was responsible. And she was familiar with the Jackal's handiwork, but not familiar enough to chance a guess that just about now he was good and ready to run home, tail between his legs. He imagined that she'd be waiting for him, ready to say "I told you so..." or whatever else would sound insufferable to his ears. The more he thought about it, the more charming it seemed. Anything would be better than laying in the parasite-ridden filth of the undergrowth, cursing the futility of it all.

But before he'd have the chance to form another thought, a searing pain suddenly erupted in his upper back. He twisted his neck to look over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of Blaire raised over him, grasping the sparking power cable for his cardiopumonary implant in her thin fingers. The implant ground to a halt, forcing the Jackal to use his own heart and lungs for a change. They had been dormant for several days now, and having them abruptly churn back to life left the Jackal writhing in agony.

"Daddy, you can't hide any longer. Now your only option is to run. Please, just go, before you get yourself killed. Don't you get it? She thinks its a game, and she plans on winning."

Enraged at what he saw as an unexpected betrayal, the jackal turned over on his back to stare upwards at his adoptive daughter. Blaire released the power cable that once connected the implant to his backpack generator, and he immediately plugged it back in. As the system rebooted, his heart rate slowed and his demeanor chilled from outright anger to a calmer but more malevolent spite. His combat mask still concealed his face, leaving the moment tense and awkward. After some internal deliberation, he finally spoke up.

"I want you to pass her a message."

She leaned in close, cautiously optimistic that she may finally have changed his mind. Ironically, that's exactly what she had done.

"Game on."

And at that moment, he burst a small glass vial that he had been holding behind his back. A puff of smoke rose around them, causing Blaire to suddenly fall unconscious as soon as she breathed in the haze. The Jackal rose to his feet, his mask filtering the air. For a time, he was conflicted. His hand seemed to move on its own to the holstered pistol at his side, but before he could consider the unthinkable, he looked back at the riverbank. Crisis had moved on. And thus, so did he.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Sat Jun 03, 2017 10:31 pm

Interlude- Continued...

The bait for the next trap had already been placed. The now unconscious Blaire and the brief murmurs of the Jackal's own heart and lungs at this treetop perch would be more than enough to snag Crisis' attention. The Jackal wasted no time, revealing a small spool of razor wire clipped to his belt and anchoring the end to a nearby branch. He leapt from branch to branch, trailing razor wire behind him in an unsightly cobweb pattern. By the time he had made it to ground level he was already conjuring images in his mind of the dreaded 'Goldilocks' suddenly being robbed of an arm, or perhaps with more wishful thinking, that innocent-looking head of hers getting lopped clean off. But before he could complete his daydream, the spool ran dry and he anchored the opposite end to the nearest tree root before diving into the undergrowth.

He crawled, slowly and quietly, to get clear of the convenient bait he had been given. By the time he had dragged himself through a couple-hundred yards of filth and prickly thorns, he heard a sudden cry of pain behind him and excitedly turned with the highest of hopes. Hopes that were soon dashed when he observed Crisis nursing a bloodied fingertip. His brow furrowed as he watched through the greenery carpeting the jungle floor. "Damn her luck" he thought to himself, feeling cheated for the price of the expensive wire trap. Seething with spite, he lowered himself back into the muck and continued to crawl until he had made it back to his cache of supplies.

Evening descended, and with it an unseasonable cold gust that wouldn't ever come to a complete stop. The Jackal huddled in his supply cache, plucking out parasites from his skin, stitching shut holes in his fatigues, and trying to come up with a better plan as he complained to himself about the cold. All of the good ideas had already been tried. The remaining options were either crazy or outright stupid. But if there's one advantage he could capitalize on, it would be a naga's ego and false sense of invincibility.

In the dark hours he trudged to try something a little less orthodox. He dragged a wheeled frame behind him, creaking as it went. When he finally had gotten it into a good position he lifted the canvas covering atop it to reveal a pair of lightweight belt-fed automatic cannons that normally would have been used to swat at low flying aircraft. He leveled the twin guns at what he guessed would be Crisis' neck height as she used one of her common routes, and attached a cable to the triggers so that he could fire them remotely. Some camouflage netting and some scent vials to make the contraption blend in, and then he took to a new vantage point a stone's throw away to observe.

Right on cue, dawn roused the naga to her routines. But as she approached the pass, she slowed to a halt. The Jackal held the end of the triggering wire, itching for Crisis to slither just a little further forward to be in the line of fire. But instead she suddenly lunged right at the hidden gun emplacement, slapping it down with cold prejudice. Odd for her to have a good enough understanding of it to react so decisively, but then her ignorance was betrayed as she picked the gun up and held it just in front of her eye, looking right down the twin barrels. Just when she noticed the wire trailing from the opposite end of the breech, the Jackal triggered it to open fire. One of the two cannons had jammed, but the other spat out a noisy stream of explosive 20mm shells at Crisis' brow.

"Damn those reflexes!"

The Jackal, practically under Crisis' shadow, was in such a state of discomposure that he uttered the phrase aloud. But his vantage point in the thick moss and rotting logs was impeccable, his metabolism had been brought to a complete standstill, his scent fully masked, and his opponent, clutching at her left eye.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Tue Jun 06, 2017 9:23 pm

Interlude- Continued...

The sight was just too good be true. Crisis, wounded, out in the open, not 100 yards away. She groaned, sounding as if having been roused from her slumber than pained by the salvo of 20mm cannon shells that had struck her. She tilted her face askew and leaned slightly onto her left palm, a trickle of blood dripping from between her fingers. The Jackal regained his composure, grinning under his combat mask and thinking to himself- "Bullseye!"

But the job wasn't done yet and this opportunity couldn't be wasted. He rose slowly from his vantage point, pulling a disposable launch tube from his back and leveling it at her. The moment had to be savored, so he took his time pondering which part of her would be most amusing to see blown off. In the end he settled for her pretty golden scalp, and aimed high. But just when his visions of perfection materialized before him, Crisis lowered her hand and opened both eyes in a flash of bright teal that made the Jackal shudder. The wound was higher than he expected, the chain of shells having cut across her brow and temple. Bleeding profusely, but once again only a superficial blow. And in his sheer astonishment and dread, the Jackal's heart beat a solitary thump.

This one weak heartbeat resounded to Crisis' sixth sense like a dog-whistle. In the blink of an eye she her gaze was focused on the Jackal and her coils unfurled, heaving her right at him. Her expression still innocent, but the crimson streak of blood had twisted to something wicked and profane. The rocket was launched before the Jackal had even realized what he had done, but it swerved high and Crisis lunged low, parting her locks and striking a tree some distance beyond. The light show on the close side of the tree was subdued, but gouts of fire erupted angrily from the opposite surface.

The distraction was barely worth a blink. Crisis had closed the distance to the Jackal's vantage point before the rocket had even struck, but in her haste allowed blood to drip into her eyes and overshot him. It only took a moment to wipe her face clean and lunge again, but just as she got her eyes opened wide they were greeted by the most unpleasant surprise conceivable. The Jackal had a long glass cylinder in hand, split at the center into two compartments that were each filled with a transparent fluid. At first glance it could have been mistaken for an odd hourglass. Only too late did she realize that he had gone to very self-destructive lengths to play this game with her. The pin was pulled and the Jackal was already leaping for cover as he tossed the cylinder upwards.

An ordinary ether flare would be the length of a man's index finger and contain only a spoonful of fuel. This tiny thing, when ruptured would create a blinding flash of light, heat, and enough electromagnetic interference to make just about anything regret looking in its direction when it went off. What the Jackal had done was to simply multiply the proportions tenfold. Reckless, but spectacular. When that much concentrated ether fuel ignited, it didn't burn quickly and cleanly, leaving behind a single point of light as the typical ether flares do. Instead it rumbled and sputtered with a thunderous roar, splashing droplets of burning fuel in all directions. The sheer heat kept the reaction aloft in the air as it raged and convulsed. Below, the greenery was ablaze. The light shining from the pulsing fire flickered and shifted, alternating between a bright white and a deep blue. In time, the reaction stabilized and the staccato cry became a low-pitched hum. Individual globs of fuel that reached stability hovered in place, each shining as a miniature sun unto itself. The bluish constellation slowly lowered to the ground, melting little craters of glass into which they would rest until the reaction eventually died down. For the smaller globs, this would be a matter of minutes. But the largest glob of fuel at the center had the mass to stay burning for weeks to come.

The Jackal's overcoat immediately caught fire and he had little choice but to dive into the nearest muddy pond to put it out. The shutters over his mask's optic slits closed tight and for good reason. He ran, all but completely blind, away from the inferno he had created and didn't dare look back.
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PostSubject: Re: New Story, "A Way Out"   Sun Jun 11, 2017 11:02 pm

Interlude- Continued...

The Jackal was fortunate to have escaped the firestorm, and even more so to stumble onto his supply cache while all of his electronics were fried. The cardiopulmonary unit was a complete wreck, his combat mask and its sensors would take ages to repair, his generator could barely grind out enough power to spark some kindling, his radio gave him nothing but static, and worst of all he himself was badly burned across his left arm, neck, and back. His ruined equipment had all but fused to the blistered skin to which it was strapped, and prying it free was a slow, exhausting torture session that the Jackal was forced to inflict upon himself. His cries of pain were subdued to slow, rasping groans not from discipline but by the deteriorated state of his own lungs.

Here in his greatest misery he lay in the small crevice formed by a pair of tree roots amongst his trappings, pressing wads of Felaryan soil onto his wounds. He kept his rifle loaded and close, knowing that with the cardiopulmonary unit in shambles any passing predator could feel his every breath and heartbeat. Waking moments came and went, all the while the Jackal slowly crawled backwards deeper into the crevice, his bayonet pointed at the opening. One pain was replaced by another. As the burns began to heal and the Jackal's metabolism slowly returned to him, he was reminded what hunger was. But his rations were few and were soon exhausted. He could do little but scrape at the dirt for worms and pluck maggots from his own wounds, never before having been laid so low.

And all the while his thoughts drove him to madness. He envisioned Crisis unscathed, giggling at his struggles, confident, arrogant even, and justifiably so. She could at any moment crush him like an insect, swat him away like a buzzing fly, and none of his attempts would change that. In this vision, she was invincible, her ego untouchable. Her fearlessness was proof of his failure, and doubly so knowing that his adoptive daughter would thereby be corrupted. She would inevitably become the next Crisis, followed by another, and another after that. An unending plague unto humanity, and his eternal shame. And then a new vision crossed his mind. He saw the smoking craters of the inferno, trees roasted to black pillars of ash, glowing remnants of the ether reaction, and sprawled amongst them, a gigantic skeleton still draped with the odd strip or two of dried skin. And flowing from the back of the skull, a single thin lock of golden blonde hair. The creature finally defeated, but not a soul found to stand victorious over the remains.

The two opposite visions clashed fiercely for what seemed a lifetime until both were washed away by a bright light. The sun shone through the jungle canopy down to the crevice, out of which the Jackal had found himself oddly exposed. He lay face down in the mud a few yards from his shelter. Had he crawled his way out during his stupor? His back and shoulder felt oddly heavy and warm, he figured the burns hadn't yet patched and reached for them with his hand, only to pass his fingers through a silky head of hair. He looked back to see Blaire snoozing, coiled atop him. She stirred at his touch and woke.

"How long since you caught up to me?"

"Four days."

"Supplies?"

"None left."

"Crisis?"

Sudden silence. A non-answer like this was damning as it is, made worse by whom it came from. The Jackal slowly and shakily rose his way back onto his feet, keeping Blaire wrapped around his shoulders. True to her word, all that was left of his supply cache was the rifle and a sparse few rounds of ammunition. The rest was either inoperable or bartered off for the food and medical supplies that would have surely been needed in the meantime. Blaire had been busy.

"I need to know how it ended. Where is she?"

"Head for to the tree, you know which one."

And without another word the Jackal began the march towards the Great Tree at the heart of these woods. Parts of the puzzle refused to come together. Thought had to be focused on the mundane- sidestepping the local flora and fauna, negotiating the terrain and other obstacles. Two days of shambling and skulking and the pair came within eyeshot of the clearing where the Jackal's accursed foe made her home. They climbed up to a tree branch roughly a klick away and lay low in the foliage. The Jackal still took no chances. He peered through his scope, observing a scene the likes of which he couldn't have dreamed of.

Crisis was sprawled in the late afternoon sunlight, surrounded by a motley entourage of various companions and acquaintances. Remnants of burn marks pockmarked her tail and arms. How severe the wounds had been was anyone's guess, but at this moment they were patched to remarkably good condition. The Jackal all the while still ached under his bandages. Already he was grumbling that all his work was in vain, but the intensity of Blaire's gaze suggested that he had overlooked something. And then Crisis moved her arms from a high yawning posture to reveal that her eyes were still covered by a protective blindfold. It was mottled with spatters of the dull brown of dried blood, and suddenly the Jackal felt thorough vindication.

"What happened to those pretty eyes, Goldilocks? I'll bet they were boiled right out of their sockets. Serves you right! You won't soon forget this. You won't soon forget me."

Unclear just whom the Jackal was speaking to as he continued to mumble aloud. But Blaire was still transfixed ahead and in time the Jackal was as well as he saw Crisis begin to remove her blindfold. And once more he was rendered silent as she opened her eyes and warmly smiled to her circle of friends gathered round. As they praised her recovery the Jackal smoldered. He pulled back the rifle's charging handle to chamber a round and began making holds for wind and distance. And then he felt Blaire's warm little hands atop his own, her cheek against his temple.

"Enough, daddy. You've done enough. She won't forget this, and neither will I."

He lay silent for a few moments, musing over her sweet little lie and finally making peace with his defeat. He then collected himself up, swung his rifle over his back, and began rappelling back down the tree the way he came, Blaire in tow. The trek home would be slow and arduous, but in the end he would find himself back in his little smoke-filled study, plotting and driving himself mad just the same as before. His one solace in knowing that at least one naga had been taught that an arms dealer with a chip on his shoulder wasn't to be taken lightly, even if it wasn't the one he wanted. But what he didn't know is that his little game had unforeseen consequences.

At the Great Tree, right as Crisis removed her blindfold and was greeted by the smiling faces of her friends, she couldn't help but notice the branch of a tree just a kilometer away and the strange glint of light coming from it. Just when she convinced herself that it must have been nothing more than a big dewdrop, she thought she heard the faintest whisper of a metallic 'clack-clack' in the distance. And then she flinched.

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