Graystorm (Complete)

YBA Jul 31st, 2015 (edited) 5,630 Never
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  1. The engine of the ancient land rover sputters in clunking run-on long after you shut it off, long after you hop out and long after you slam the door. The blistering one hundred and twenty-eight degree heat and the howling wind evaporates every drop of sweat as fast as you can make it.
  3. Today’s suffering is just beginning. It’s barely ten thirty in the morning.
  5. Sand swirls in a carpet at your feet. Only the sound of distant artillery echoing like thunder across the cloudless sky hints at life in the old wastes of Gypthania, the infamous hellhole the locals call Monthura. When a particular patch of desert is a hellhole to the desert dwellers, you know it’s earned the name.
  7. “God damn it’s hot.” You grumble. This whole trip sounded much better when you were sold on it in a nice air-conditioned office two thousand miles and a world away. All that traveling just to be here, watching the heat haze shimmer off crumbling stone poking halfway out of a dune.
  9. “That’s the fifth time you’ve said that today.” Thirty-eight complains in her own way, voice projecting from her helmet-like face with trademark golem monotone. “It’s three degrees below average recorded for this date and twenty less than the record.”
  11. “It’s still goddamned hot.” You jab at the nearly featureless machine.
  13. The Coalition Army war golem gives you a look with those clockwork eyes, the only expressive part of her, holds up six carbon fiber fingers, then pulls on some leather gloves to protect her joints from the abrasive sand. The ubiquitous red dust is the enemy of anything mechanical in this place. Seeing your eyes linger just a moment out of frank curiosity -golems are so rare outside the military- the battle machine grabs your hat and pulls it down over your eyes faster than you can blink. By the time you straighten out the bill, she’s already retrieving the tools and cases from the back of the vehicle. You’d almost think she got embarrassed.
  15. For your part, you open up the icebox to rouse the leader of your expedition, the only one napping in cool comfort.
  17. “Doctor Gilly.” You accentuate with a prod of your little finger. “We’re here.”
  19. Doctor Fuckswell-Gilligan, Dr. Gilly to anyone who can’t tell if her maiden name is pronounced ‘fucks well’ or ‘fuck swell’… which is most everyone, flutters her gossamer wings and stretches lazily. Either way it still sounds both appropriate and ridiculous somehow. Anglicized names registered since the Contact War are very one-tracked, a part of the old Gatelands culture where it’s an advertisement of personal quality more than a badge of history among peasants. The amount of Lovegoods is staggering, especially when they all insist they’re not related. You guess Dr. Gilly’s mom wanted to stand out from the crowd back then. Well, mission accomplished.
  21. It takes a couple more prods to really get your advisor moving and stop spooning a bottle of Tej. In a morning daze, she finally clambers up to the lip of the cooler where the baking desert wind slaps her across the face.
  23. That wakes her up.
  25. “Hotter than Darkwater tar out here.” The Leanan Sidhe archaeologist moans.
  27. “Damn hot.” You agree and grin at your armed escort. Thirty-eight just shakes her head while she double-checks the state of the generators for the flood lamps. Normally someone who wanted light would use torchstones and similar cantrips, but old Gypt tombs have a habit of reacting badly to magic. Arcane traps age so much better than physical ones, and are almost exclusively what you find in these places. It’s just smart to bring surplus Earther gear for this rodeo.
  29. The fairy perks up noticeably when she glimpses the rubble of the ruined offertory, barring the entrance of what you all came here for. Her fundamental Leanan Sidheness soaks up the architecture and history like a sponge. Anxious to get started, the busty professor buzzes into the lee side of broken pillar, expertly maneuvering her wings to keep from getting carried off by a dry desert gust. You always thought fairies would make some kind of musical sounds when they fly before you started uni. But listening to them flutter is much more like a cicada; they bzzzzzrrrrrrrrrrzp like a giant bug. You’ve accidently swatted at her once or twice since you became an undergrad assistant, hard to break old habits.
  31. The expedition leader examines the stone-sealed mastaba of the old tomb carefully: zipping along every seam, looking for cracks and weaknesses, studying the warnings carved into its surface, writing microscopic notes and making sketches in her shrunken fieldbook. Halfway through, she turns her stern little face to you. “Don’t just sit there gawking you Brobdingnagian. Get the camera and the GPS and start documenting. Remember ‘Proper-”
  33. “’-notes and procedure is the difference between an archaeologist and a grave robber.’” You finish the quote for her. “If you’re that impatient, you could get big yourself and lend a hand.”
  35. “No.” She squeaks shrilly and wags her miniscule finger at you. “Too easy to miss details at that size. Being big is only for hauling and cuddling. Since I have you wonderful people for the first and my husband is not here for the second, it’s nothing but small work.”
  37. “Yes, ma’am.” Wiping the salty film from your forehead and adjusting your hat, you grab your backpack, camera gear and put a new notebook in your field belt.
  39. Fishing a matchbook out of your pocket for scale, you set about photographing the rectangular limestone slab doorway in a carefully-spaced grid: by the book, the way you learned it. The click click click of the aperture gets lots of shots for each section, ensuring something good will be in the dupes. Two hundred button mashes and several pages of grid notations later, and your immediate task is finished. Time to retreat back to the vehicle to give the ladies some space for the finer work. There you can take some raised shots. There’s less distortion of the structure in photographs when you’re nearer the center axis, even if you do look kind of stupid propping your tripod up and standing on the jeep roof.
  41. You get some really quality pics as the sun rises higher and drags temperature up with it. But your fiddling compared to Dr. Gilly’s obsession is nothing, her miniscule pencil sketching lithograph quality figures into her microscopic notebook. But even a magic culture fairy takes a while to catalog this sort of thing. To kill a little time you take a stroll around the front of the structure to the sides where it’s a bit more raw. The whole grave is burrowed into solid limestone, dug into an outcrop of ancient seabed now overtaken by mountain of migrating sand. Your sweaty gritty hands take the odd photo and build a panorama while Doctor Gilly marks the drill points for the golem to anchor the detcord at the tomb entrance.
  43. You can almost hear the Sidhe’s tirade on the rushed and crude nature of the whole affair from way back here. This slapdash skeleton operation is straight out of Indiana Jones and she hates it. Thirty-eight nods along politely, but you suspect she’s filtering out the sprites’s voice to focus on the delicate demolition work.
  45. Right as the charges seem set, the sand-choked sputter of a two-stroke engine signals the arrival of the last of your group. An old motorcycle, as worn out as your 4WD, cruises down the goat trail the locals charitably call a road, the rider expertly navigating the regolith around the outcrop to park in the shade of the rover.
  47. The monster hooks her goggles into the crook of her helmet while croc-covered paws boot down the venerable Armstrong’s kickstand, and she swings off the seat. Her big triangular ears poke up through the H-shaped headgear and jawless fangs decorate the bandanna pulled across her mouth. Only, it’s not any of that or her tawny mane that stands out the most: that would be the five feet of gleaming chitin terminated and the giant up-curled spike hanging over her shoulder. A gem-studded silver band ornaments the vicious venomous syringe, and she flaunts it proudly. If that’s not a wedding ring, you’ll eat your hat.
  49. The rare lowland manticore barely acknowledges you with a glance, heading toward the golem in large purposeful strides. “Quit flirting with the boy, Lucky, and help me figure out what to do with these damn Gypts we’re going to be saddled with any minute. These maps they gave us are borderline useless. Newsflash, sand dunes move a lot in fifty years no matter how good your cartography is. And I don’t think theirs was that good to begin with. I bet that’s how this stupid tomb got overlooked until they were almost fighting on top of it.”
  51. “Aw, c’mon, Handy? How can I flirt from way over her?” The war machine huffs up as well as something without lungs can. “And you know I hate when you call me Lucky.”
  53. “You’d be done by now if you hadn’t been flirting. Don’t ask me why when you got that whole Barbie doll thing going on downstairs.” Handler Guerrero stretches and pops her cricked neck back into place. “And you know you’re my little good luck Thirty-eight.”
  55. You tune out of the rest of the banter as the two mercs move the vehicles away from the blast area, catching some vague snatches about setting up a guard and the details of transporting artifacts back to base camp. Then the talk fades out and you don’t understand why. You don’t notice the vibration until the rumble of engines dies.
  57. It begins softly at first, making you think it’s just a trick of your imagination or your blood pounding with excitement. But second-by-second it grows until each shock works through your legs and your bones, a deep thud thump thud that shakes your whole body as it drums its way closer through the sand.
  59. The sound is mesmerizing and terrifying, but what crests the dune is downright bizarre: a camouflaged Frankenstein of ceramic and steel.
  61. It looks like a stripped surplus Bradley chassis covered in runes, all the wheels and treads replaced by armored legs and claws. Each works together to carry the hulk over the sand like a giant scorpion.
  63. It’s like a goddamned lifesized Attack Pack toy.
  65. The custom raised turret sweeps back and forth, scanning the horizon with its periscope, the twin tines of a Demonkiller gadstick replacing the traditional gun mount. You’re not a military buff, but even you recognize an old cobbled-together Gypthanian rebel junker when you see one. Just makes sense they’d keep using them after the empire Balkanized you suppose.
  67. You have to fight the instinct to knock the professor out of the air as she buzzes up to rest on your shoulder in the shade of your hat. The fairy points to some hieratic scribbled on the side of the walker in bright white. “Scavs from the Daughters of Set, 2nd Legion, Fifth Cohort.”
  69. “Soldiers?” You cringe unconsciously. You may not remember the scars of Contact, but you’re old enough to recall the dark days of Big Gate, the look on your father’s face when he got the news your uncle had been killed at Anpunaptra.
  71. “They’re from supply.” The manticore interjects as she and the golem take their place in front, Handy waving over the vehicle with a golden paw. The machine, composed of no less than two different worlds’ and three countries’ different used parts, somehow coordinates a perfectly level stop on the nearest dune. A hatch in the top of the walker pops open with a clang and two of the biggest fluffiest canine ears you’ve ever seen poke out attached to some kind of sunburned midget.
  73. The fox in uniform waves back to Handy and speaks into a rock; you swear, a plain red pebble.
  75. More tremors shake the sand as a pair of crawlers lumber up beside the IFV, true old Gypt dynasty cargo modrons wrought in the shape of giant desert tarantulas. Tarp covers are rolled up the sides, letting the scorching morning breeze blow through the open beds. Half a dozen curious insectoid heads poke out of each. The nearly-identical arthropod girls all have short frames, four exoskeletal arms, blood red skin and compound eyes right where the normal pair should be. Huge ebony mandibles fold into their cheeks, and tall whip-like antennae sprout from the crowns of their heads. Whatever they are, they’re just about the most monstrous monstergirls you’ve ever seen.
  77. “Blech, formians.” The golem spits in her deadpan. “They give me the creeps.”
  79. Her handler snorts and spits for real. “Not exactly what I thought of either when the Gypts said they were sending some oversight and extra hands.”
  81. “What do you expect? Big Gate left them with almost nothing but Auxilia.” The war machine laughs, a disconcerting dry lifeless sound. “Hell, gals like me are almost three quarters the Gateland home army these days.”
  83. The hybrid IFV settles onto its belly and three real Gypthanian soldiers emerge carrying sabers and gadsticks, those magical firearms named after the weapons placed in the hands of men during the Darkwater Rebelion. Their leader, the four foot woman with the giant triangular ears, gives the body a tap after they dismount. At her behest, the walking junk pile stands back up grudgingly, a tired animal denied rest.
  85. “Professor.” Your chimeric feline guard tries to pass the fairy something, and the Leanan Sidhe waves it off to you. “I’m fluent. Give the boy a chance to learn.”
  87. Hard straw-colored eyes probe your face before a furry paw palms the item into your hand. It’s a ring. The scorpion-tailed creature makes a sign for you to put it on before turning to meet the people who call this place their home.
  89. The small Fennec kitsune, obviously the ranking officer, puts a fist to her forehead in the traditional respectful hello. “You got a big mouth, construct.” She says in fluent, if thickly-accented, English. Those ears are certainly more than show.
  91. “Nothing I wouldn’t say to your face, Centurion.” The golem responds in kind, holding her fist higher and bowing slightly in deference.
  93. You zone out of the introductory formalities as your eyes drift to the other two soldiers standing at a respectful distance, both giants compared to their diminutive leader. You’re not sure what the first one is in modern rune-warded battle dress, other than leggy and incredibly well-endowed. Stubby furry ears, a tufted tail and hooves scratching at the desert sand are your only clues. Maybe a camel?
  95. The latter, ho boy, where do you start? She’s an anubis, no if’s and’s or but’s about it. The canine looks like she stepped out of the hieroglyphs on a temple wall. Ancient royal battle armor, circa the reign of Khama'at III, gleams in ancient glory. Heavy gold embedded with enchanted lapis and old aquamarine power stones weighs more than you can imagine even as it only scarcely covers her modesty, the soft yellow metal nearly three times the density of steel. Once the absolute last say in defense, the modern mass-produced warded cloth of her comrades is almost as effective at a pittance of the cost and weight. Only the strongest or proudest would wear something so grossly outmoded: her hard muscled abdomen bare, headache-inducing tiara clamped over the base of her ears, mantle barely covering her pert athletic breasts; even her long black hair is weighted down against the desert wind by more gold and stones.
  97. As you stare at the soldiers, they stare at you. Their mouths move in unfamiliar language as they gossip to each other.
  99. The ring on your hand warms.
  101. The young jackal’s bright green eyes study you with a mixture of keen interest and pity. <What a strange man. He’s so pale and skinny, and he smells funny. Is he sickly? Is that why he’s not married at his age?>
  103. <There’s nothing wrong with him.> Hips ‘n tits mumbles under her dustproof face wrap. <He’s just some farlander stag. Things work differently there.>
  105. Black ears perk straight up. <That’s a farlander?> She whispers in awe. <I heard they have no souls. Is that why he looks that way? And he smells too clean for someone from a world called ‘Dirt.’ Back home, our priestesses say…>
  107. The sharp brown eyes of the worldlier soldier meet yours and sense your understanding. She interrupts the jackal, stamping a cloven hoof hard on the toes of her black paw. <You’re making the rest of us look bad you clodpicking throwback.>
  109. <Gawrsh. I don’t mean nuthin’ by it.> Canine shoulders slump at the rebuke before she catches herself and straightens to polished attention. The old arcane accessory has some trouble translating the thick rural Gypthar accent. Or maybe it does its job too well.
  111. The sharp pinch of a fairy grabbing a fistful of your cheek brings you back to the immediate gathering, already breaking up and going its separate ways. Dr. Gilly says something and you have to ask her to repeat it.
  113. “I said get back to the jeep and cover your ears!” She squeaks. “This is going to be loud.”
  115. The centurion whistles over one of the baker’s dozen of antlike formians unloading from the cargo modrons, a little horde setting up the tents to prep the expected artifacts for transport.
  117. The four-armed girl, barely taller than your waist, speaks in some dialect your magic item can’t convert. Up close now, you can see the shining multifaceted eyes mounted in an armored plate that starts above the mouth and extends to her hairline. She waves her arms and antennae subtly: her feet dancing in half steps to accentuate her words and the sharp clicks of her jaws, the beads in her hair jangling like a carillon. The furry centurion seems to understand just fine, and performs a slightly more comical dance of her own as she communicates with the short red bug, stamping and clicking in rough imitation of the insectgirl. The rest of the formicid females stop their activity, sound a chorus of chittering clicks, and start moving in unbelievably-coordinated overtime.
  119. Your plodding pace to the rover comes to a halt as you watch the seemingly-impossible phenomenon. One sees you stare and a round of hissing clicks echoes across the makeshift camp, their creepy jewel eyes all on you.
  121. “How do they do that?” You ask halfway to yourself. But your mumbling is like a loudspeaker when you have a tiny passenger on your shoulder. Dr. Gilly gives you another five-fingered pinch to get you moving, then answers in her teeny tiny voice. “Formian sisters have a hive mind. That’s why they’re always together, even in the military.”
  123. Three minutes later and you’re sheltered behind a balding tire of your jeep as the final seconds count down, hands clamped tight over your ears.
  125. The golem rattles them off in the one language everyone present can understand.
  127. <Three.>
  129. <Two.>
  131. < One.>
  133. You feel the explosion more than hear it, the dust blowing past either side of you, the automobile rocking on its raised suspension. A heartbeat later, chips of stone begin to rain down in a plinking pattering hail.
  135. The good doctor yanks on your hair as she cringes under your hat. “If they caved in anything in the complex with that, I’m going to kill somebody.”
  137. The ant girls are already shuffling the remains of the door into neat out-of-the-way piles by the time you feel it’s safe to poke your head up. Thirty-eight stacks the lighting gear near the door, and Handy gives the Doc a small grin when the pair of you peer into the narrow shaft dug into the rock by ancient claws. It should air out before even considering exploration, but then using an explosive on the door was unthinkable as well. Thirty-eight hands you a respirator, being in need of none. The flesh and blood monsters are just as hardy and only concern themselves with the business of lights and cables and crates while the smell of old must and cool rock wells up from the tomb.
  139. “Smart, bringing the kid along, professor. He’ll be able to walk right through the traps.” Handy congratulates your boss while she dusts chunks of debris from her wingless shoulders. “How did you ever find a virgin his age in MGC, even in a university?”
  141. Your face reddens with embarrassment and a touch of righteous anger. “I’ve got experience.” You protest loud enough to drown out the fairy’s response.
  143. “Well, you smell unclaimed and that’s good enough.” The manticore whips the hat off your head with a quick strike of her poisonous tail and tosses you a headlamp, laughing when you flinch in surprise. “Like my sweet Ernie would say, your only girlfriend is Rosy Palms right now, and I don’t mean the singing dryad. Didn’t you catch the little red shortstacks catcalling you earlier?”
  145. So that’s what that noise they were making was about.
  147. Mask pulled over your mouth and lamp on your head, you look more like a spelunker than a student playing at Monument Men. Your heart races, blood pounding in your ears. You’re excited, but you’re not dumb enough not to be scared. This is probably the most hazardous part of the whole endeavor.
  149. Gilly buzzes like a Junebug at your side. “Take it slow. You’ve practiced this a hundred times back home. Eyes open, one step at a time. Step, stop and look. It’s plenty dangerous even without worrying about booby traps. Don’t want you falling into a burial shaft or a water trap.”
  151. Nodding, barely aware of her words, you breathe hard in the full face respirator, the clean smell of new filters already being overwhelmed by the sweat pooling in your mouthpiece. Condensation begins to form in thick drops on the no-fog faceshield.
  153. A mechanical hand gives you a reassuring pat on the back that’s half a shove, and you take your first stumbling step into the dark.
  155. You take another and another, heart racing, the rectangle of light at your back growing smaller and smaller behind you, the blue-white beams of the LED’s on your head driving back shadows that have lain undisturbed for almost six thousand years.
  157. Your mind turns to everything you know about the carved mosaics of symbols that could cause such wariness in the fearsome creatures outside. The power stones for the traps will be low, where a child could reach them, but hidden. The priestesses would have had a young boy set them originally; men were a powerful part of the old religion’s iconography. The old temple pundits in MGC from the Gatelands and Gypthar and Gypthania and every last state of the old Gypt and Zip empires still rail on about it to this day; that one day monsters will no longer have to miser and meter their numbers of men, that there will be enough for all and they shall have sons of their own.
  159. The time of that coming is like apocalyptic and genesis stories of Earth. Every culture has one, and every one is different. But they all share certain themes.  And they played no small part in the ferocity of the first wars sparked between worlds.  Many believed in the early days of confusion that Earth might have been the mythical cornucopia promised by their gods. How else could a world squander the invaluable treasure of men in such blasphemous combat?
  161. Even that is twisted. The land of the Five Eagles, last of the human nations of the Gatelands, was ruled by human men and women until it was finally conquered less than fifty years before the Contact War. They fought and bled for their home, but when has the truth ever stopped anyone with an agenda? Then again you can’t imagine the culture shock of the sheer overwhelming proportion of men in the armies of Earth: the technology, mechanization and utter lack of magic. It would have shaken even those hardened monsters who faced men in battle at Rhoam and later during the Darkwater Rebellion.
  163. Grounding your thoughts, you continue down the passage. White stone walls stretch farther than your lamp can reach, carved from the living rock. Limestone alternates with marl and shale in thin bands. Here and there you can pick out the preserved shell of an ancient sea creature. But you spy no marks or runes of traps, not even smoothing and plastering of the walls. It looks raw. Even with your limited education, you can see this place is older than the façade, or maybe rushed, or the resident not so wealthy. It’s just not what you expected. Usually it’s the outside that’s understated, to deter thieves.
  165. You press on, deeper and deeper into the dusty crevice as it twists and turns. One slow step at a time, seeing nothing but rock and rock and more rock. The only sign of anyone is a little set of footprints preserved in the dust, ones you take pictures of as you follow religiously.
  167. You’re unsure how far you’ve gone: a hundred feet? A thousand? You should have been counting your steps, instead too focused on looking around you. Once you passed the first slow curve, the yellow sunlight of the exit became a memory. Now, only the cool stark light of the LED’s shows the way as the path slopes ever downward. The temperature has already dropped to the yearly average of the desert, cooler than the blistering outside but still in the seventies. Here the rough walls shine. You touch them gingerly, and feel the bacteria-slick damp. Bits of the passage have given way over the years, just little loose chunks as the clay in the interbeds crumbles. A large crack courses through the ceiling over your head but no cave-ins block your path. You just have to carefully step over stray cobles and boulders to continue on your way.
  169. A stressful claustrophobic however-many-footsteps later, the narrow tunnel finally opens into an antechamber and the faint footprints disappear completely into the gloom. Your lamp reflects off a stalactite-laced ceiling, dripping aragonite. Young stalagmites sprout from what was once a leveled and polished floor. Natural columns of stone support the low roof, and in the far reaches, you see three arched openings that yawn into the dark.
  171. This is wrong, all wrong. A tomb should be dry. Even with magic, nobody would go out of their way to dig so deep into this wet subterranean realm for a regular burial. Maybe…maybe the climate or water table has changed? It’s been thousands of years.
  173. ‘Who knows?’ You shrug inwardly. This is the part where you turn around and get the expert. You sure can’t go exploring all those branches on your own, much as your heart leaps at the thought.
  175. You pay just as close attention to your surroundings on the way back. Missing a single trap would be disastrous for the entire party. Once again, only bare stone stands against your scrutiny. It seems so much shorter; return trips always do. This time you count your steps: Fourteen hundred and thirty five, a good long way, almost ten times what you’d been led to expect for a lesser noble’s tomb. The only things you’ve heard of like this are communal necropoli and royal crypts. A primal thrill pounds through your veins. You were promised strange and exciting, and here it is. You can feel it.
  177. When you finally emerge back into the blinding sunlight of the Monthura Erg, you’re greeted at gunpoint by the three Gypthanian soldiers. For a heart stopping moment, you see them tense up in unison. Your befuddled brain grinds to a screeching halt while your numb body just stands there, petrified like a spotlighted deer, your notebook shaking in your hand.
  179. Then the fox lowers her two-pronged magic killing stick and smiles. “Looking good farlander. You took so long, we thought a gru might have gotten you.” The smile doesn’t touch her eyes, and you see the anubis’s paws shaking when she follows the Fennec’s lead in pointing her weapon away.
  181. A soft thump behind you and Thirty-eight stands at your shoulder, sheathing a runic knife into her vest. “We were about to go looking for you. Then we heard something coming back out. You never know if the dead have gotten to one of these places first, sealed or not.”
  183. You can’t help but picture your flashlight falling on a half-rotted corpse in the dark, the empty pits in its skull slowly turning toward you, instinctually drawn to living flesh. A cold chill creeps up your spine. “Hadn’t thought of that.” Your skin crawls at the thought.
  185. The professor sits at a safe distance tucked into the manticore’s mane, tiny sundress billowing in the wind from their lookout on the rover roof.
  187. You remove your sweltering mask and shoulder your way past the troops -you swear the anubis sniffs you curiously and the busty one bumps against you with her soft hips on purpose- before stumbling your way to the Doc and telling her everything you can about the mysteries below.
  189. It takes some time, but Gilly looks at your digital pictures, the preview screen on your DSLR like a fullsize monitor to the sprite as you walk her through your notes. From time to time, the chimeric mercenary by your side interjects and asks questions of her own while the golem has to shoo off the formian girls who seem fascinated by the truck and pelican cases full of lighting and recording gear.
  191. An hour later and you’re back at the end of the tunnel, helping the others set up the floods and laying trip guards on the long cords to the generators outside. The Gypthanian soldiers survey the workings and chat with each other, the fox whispering into her small worn piece of jasper every so often. You think they’re down here to take advantage of the cool air as much as anything else.
  193. Distracted by a particularly annoying piece of uneven tunnel hampering your work, you miss the shuffling clinking sound that creeps up behind until a tall figure casts a shadow over your stooped form. You’re ashamed that you squeak in surprise and leap to your feet, visions of old black and white Boris Karloff movies swimming in your mind.
  195. Your terror clears when you see it’s just the Anubis guard in her ancient outfit, looking as surprised as you, bristling all over. When her fur settles back down, she gives you a sloppy clenched fist salute. <Centurion Akilla said I shud stay with you since men need extra protection. I’m a tanka more than a geeard, but histree is my hobby. I’m good with magic and can read the old language.> She tries to present herself as prim and proper but anyone can see her goofy smile and her bushy black tail wagging like mad, her accent getting thicker in her excitement. <Tombs like this were all looted long ago back hoam in Gypthara. I am Acenath, theerd daughta of House Tutankhset, and I am ohnured to assist you in enah way I can.>
  197. Returning a salute and a mumbled introduction through your respirator in your own clumsy half-confused manner, you get back to work. You’ve already been hit on by pretty much every unattached monster outside your own expedition since you got across the gate; you’re really not much in the mood to deal with some dog who still thinks it’s the heyday of the empire. Just better to be professionally distant. She’ll get the hint…you hope.
  199. Shouldering her gadstick, the overgrown pup gets on her knees on the wet stone beside you and wordlessly helps you force the heavy rubber mat into position. Then you move on to the next section and the next, her helping diligently, the pleated armor of her skirt separating when she kneels down exposing huge muscled thighs above her damp knees and a conspicuous bite-shaped scar. She really is a full-fledged soldier, but she must be at least three or four years younger than you. Still strange to think about how young monsters are still expected to become adults here, like the men of old Earth. Only the occasional stolen glances and low hum of a song in her throat indicate her thoughts. You begin to wonder if she’s genuinely just interested in a stranger as a distant foreigner and the history of her homeland. Most other girls would have made an excuse to bump into you or touch you by now.
  201. You get your answer when the job is done, walking together back down the tunnel to where you started. The canine opens her mouth for the first time since her introduction.
  203. “You true faerlosh, faer oun chappa ai?” The borrowed ring leaves the hodgepodge of words totally up to you to decipher.
  205. The Gyptharan girl fidgets under your confused stare. “What?” You answer before you can really think.
  207. “Eearth?” The jackal asks clumsily in English.
  209. You make a show of nodding to answer as much as the words that follow. “Well, yeah.”
  211. The living idol of judgment wags her tail, encouraged. “ ’I-is it a des-ert country?’ ” Her speech comes haltingly, but she mimics the words perfectly. You’re impressed. You can barely make out the written alphabet of this country, much less speak its language. And this soldier girl can at least express herself brokenly in yours.
  213. “ ‘It is a fat one.’ ” You laugh and can’t help but smile. “That movie has certainly been on my mind since I got here. You like movies? I didn’t know they’d taken off out here.”
  215. Acenath seems very pleased with herself for a moment, then flushes with embarrassment, turning her head to mutter at the dark. <You praise me too much. I do not know what it means. But mah Centurion said it wud be clever to say. She is cleverer than me.> The Anubis peters out when she notes the disappointment in your face and the two of you lapse back into awkward silence.
  217. Putting one foot in front of the other, eyes on your toes, the soft chink and jangle of her armor eventually draws your eye, gold glimmering in the sparsely-lit passage. The stones in her tiara and bracers glow softly in the half light, less bright away from their solar power source. The tomb you’re in could be the same age, and your team might not find such treasure in such immaculate shape as this.
  219. The jackal seems unsure whether to be proud or shamed when she sees you staring, perhaps hoping your eyes would be probing her toned curves instead. Her tail hangs low, almost between her legs. <I’m the runt of mah famuhly, so the ancestral arma fits.> She clicks her teeth, the Gypt equivalent of a shrug. <No Setet has ever died in it. I’m not so smart or stronk as my sisters so I need all the help I can get.>
  221. If six-foot-plus, six-and-a-half-plus if you count the ears, is a runt, you don’t want to know what they consider normal. It doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots when she sees you looking to the top of her ears over your head and guessing at her height.
  223. <Y-you can understand me, right?> Acenath asks with  a crooked canine smile. <Then whahy won’t you talk to me where I can understand you? You wear the ring, but you ah nhawt gypas?> She shakes her head. <I suppose not. You would not be alone and wud speak with your hands.>
  225. “I can’t speak the language.” You shrug, and forget it has a completely different meaning in her culture.
  227. <You need not worry about looking silly.> The obscenely dressed tank gunner assures you. “I make stupid noise von hachept Englaesh or Gypthar.” <We all say peeckle instayd of sausage sometimes.>
  229. You’re sure part of that is lost in translation.
  231. Any thought you have to continuing the conversation is drowned out by the splendor that blinds both of you as you step back into the leaky antechamber.
  233. Light shines behind the dripstone columns, revealing hidden silhouettes of statues long swallowed by the aragonite. The entrances to the three passages reflect the lamps back brightly, each barred by massive gold-leafed doors covered in the intricate picture language of ancient Gypt. The ropes and seals that once tied the handles have long rotted away in the damp, their remains lying in hairy lumps on the floor. But still, the doors are closed, seemingly untouched.
  235. Dr. Gilly flutters from one to the next, angry and excited, scribbling madly in her sketchbook. “One day. Damn Gypts expect one day for this kind of find? Do I look like Howard-mummy-barbecuing-Carter?”
  237. She spies you and your camera with a shrill shout. A handful of terse shrieked instructions later and you’re helping her photograph everything. The manticore and the golem help out with some spare recording equipment, taking lidar measurements of the chamber, the big block on a tripod swiveling back and forth. Formians carry padded cases, boxes and crates from outside a near-contiguous stream, preparing them for artifacts. Palettes and free lumber flow on the backs of the little porters, reserves to build containers for anything that doesn’t fit. The bulk of the soldiers take turns rotating through the entrance passage and guarding the main room, only leaving the jackal behind who copies down the ancient hieroglyphs to modern hieratic even faster than the professor can write down the originals. It’s amazing to watch her work with such focus, such tight control over her huge black paws. You can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the unflaggable energy of all the monsters, like you were only dragged along as the necessary expendable dick.
  239. The frenzied activity continues at a breakneck pace until everyone’s sweating like dogs in the cool underground. In the middle of the commotion you never even notice the faint rumble of artillery drawing closer.
  241. Gilly furrows her brow in consternation. “All I see so far is a bunch of historical accounts and prayers for the dead, more like a shrine than burial chamber. It’s got all the classics from the split from demon rule to the formation of the empire from the tribal vassal states, just with a lot more detail than usual and nothing newer.” The Leanan Sidhe wipes her inky grimy hands all over her work dress and drags you over to the center door. “Alright, time to crack this piggybank. Our main goal is to get the body or bodies out of here. The dead will lose all interest if we can do that at least. Then we might be able to finish this right another day if the Gypthanian army can get their act together.”
  243. Acenath stands to the side observing one of the crystal-covered statues with sharper eyes than a human, making profile sketches, only her tail twitching irritatedly at the comment.
  245. Distracted, you nearly leap out of your shoes when Thirty-eight stuffs a pair of work gloves and a heavy sack of tools into your arms, split foot of a crowbar sticking out one side.
  247. That’s right, even the taint of having monsters pull on a tow rope could be enough to set off a booby trap depending on the runic configuration. Since the doors are sealed, it has to be you to muscle it open. Nobody really expected you to carry this duty. A tomb is almost never found intact, just plundered in eras past, sometimes with a trap or two untripped. These tools in your arms were brought along more for moving rubble than jimmying doors.
  249. You really wish you had taken weight lifting instead of bowling for your core credits last semester.
  251. Clearing away the mess left from the seals on the floor carefully, you deposit the lump of fibers and wax in a small case for future study.
  253. Everyone pauses their work to watch as you wrap a hand around the corroded bronze handle and give it an exploratory jiggle. The metal still feels solid. You look to the hinges, but they’re hidden in the walls behind.
  255. “Look at the scratches on the floor. It opens outward. Give it a good yank!” The doctor squeaks from a safe distance.
  257. You wrap both hands around the handle and tug, gently at first, then harder. The giant square of gold-leafed wood doesn’t budge a millimeter. Even the center doesn’t bow out at all. You pull as hard as you can, leaning back and adding your weight to the force applied. Still nothing.
  259. You hear a wave of noise pass through the ranks of formian girls that sounds decidedly like a bug snicker. A quick glance over your shoulder reveals all eyes on you. Now even the other Gypthanian soldiers have joined the crowd.
  261. COME ON!
  263. Bracing one hand against the opposite door, you push and pull at the same time, trying to gain some extra leverage, sweat pooling in your mask even in the cool cave air. The thick green patina smears into your gloves while you give it a hard yank, trying to jostle it loose any way you can.
  265. <You can do it. Put your back into it, skinny!> The contralto bellow of the voluptuous soldier breaks the silence. <Come on. I know those arms ain’t just fer huggin’!> She tries to encourage you.
  267. The vulpine Centurion next to her scoffs. <I’d say send him back to the kitchen, but you know the old saying, ‘Scrawny boys can’t cook.’>
  269. That was uncalled for, short sexist little literal bitch. So what if you’re not a monster? So what if you’ve just got knobby-knee’d human strength? You’re still a man damn it, and what kind of man can’t open a door for a lady?
  271. Forgetting care in your efforts, you prop a boot on the opposite door and HEAVE. Your back bows as you strain with all your might, thinking any moment the handle is going to come flying off and make you look like even more of a fool. Instead your efforts yield a mighty creak, and you see your reflection shift in the golden surface. You keep it up. Static friction is always way harder to overcome than kinetic friction, and you got it moving now. The creak becomes a groan as the lip of the door slides inexorably past its twin. Stuffing your fingers in the growing gap for more grip; you work your arms and legs in concert. What little muscle you call your own bulges with effort as the crack widens a hairwidth at a time. The light of your headlamp begins to fall on the great unknown, the razor edge of discovery, bright shining gold, untranslated writings full of unknown ancient wisdom… and another pair of crusty rusty bronze handles.
  273. Your strength suddenly leaves you.
  275. “What can you see?” The professor pipes up.
  277. Laughing into your sweat-soaked mask, you almost choke. “'Wonderful things and everywhere the glint of gold.'”
  279. “You have the chance to make your mark, and you regurgitate a quote.” The archaeologist shakes her head. “Just like my husband.”
  281. You point back at the future promise of sprains and aches behind you. “See for yourself, just another fucking door.”
  283. Only then do you see the ancient power gem as big as your fist on the backside of the gilded wood, nestled in a tangle of etched runic circuits. “On second thought, give me a minute.”
  285. <Did he just say he mates with doors?> Acenath asks her cohort with the funniest mixture of confusion and disgust you’ve ever seen on a woman’s face.
  287. <Sex is used as an epithet sometimes for them.> The camel girl –you’ve no doubt now that’s what she is after you’ve seen her spit- answers in a whisper.
  289. <Savages!> The anubis exclaims before she realizes you’re watching. Furry black ears droop reproachfully.  <Oh gawrsh. I deedn’t mean…I just…>
  291. You fish a small flathead screwdriver out of the duffel bag and get to prying the massive beryl arcanum from its socket. Adrenaline still bolstering your strength, you wedge the thin high-carbon steel into the nickel cradle as carefully as you can. This time there’s not even a breath of the watchers that reaches your ears.
  293. Easy. Easy. You’re not entirely sure this thing won’t go off in your face if you short across the traces, magic trigger or not.
  295. Click.
  297. You flinch so hard you almost fumble the thousand carat stone as it falls free, your hands shaking, the screwdriver clinking as it clatters off into the darkness. Clutching the gem to your chest, you back away slowly. Two deep calming breaths later, you bring it over to the good doctor to examine in the light. Everyone crowds around and gasps at the craftsmanship, the crystal inlaid with shining gold, the stone carved and shaped into a scarab the color of deep sea ice.
  299. Dr. Gilly runs her microscopic digits across the magic rock over twice her size after you set it in a padded box. “Absolutely astounding. This is a several century stone, slow grown in natural sun. Why use it here? Even the pharaohs were never so wasteful. I need to get a look at the circuit to see what else it was for.”
  301. <You could power the barrier on an old dynasty battle scorpion with that thing.> Acenath whispers, awed. A quick glance over her outfit and you see the stone you pulled out is fifty times the size of any set into her armor.
  303. <More than that.> The archaeologist goes into full teacher-mode and motions the jackal closer, her bright blue hair glowing with energy from the sheer amount of ancient artistry she’s surrounded by. <See how there’s no growth layer separation like Gate-era rush jobs. You could power the whole thing, legs, tail and all.>
  305. You’re educated enough to know this is like having a bazooka in your home for self-defense. The other soldiers grumble to each other about the limited resources of their small splinter state, and what they could bring online with something like that. You have a feeling this particular part of the find won’t stay in the museum collection for long once their apophis warlord gets wind of it.
  307. Handy catches your shirt with the hook at the end of her tail and draws you close, “Time’s ticking. The professor will gush over every little thing if that’s just the first taste of what’s in here. We need to get back in gear.”
  309. So you find another screwdriver, a little smaller than the last, and poke your head through the gap in the doors. On the backside of the one still stuck in place, you find a mirror of the pattern on the first, another massive power stone glowing faintly. This time you attack it with more confidence, knowing where the rosin adhesive is placed in the cradle. And still, working like a one-handed man, you almost drop that one too. The great aquamarine joins its brother in the lights of the antechamber, and the eyes of all marvel and glint with greed.
  311. A final check for any smaller stones in the traces, accomplished with a flashlight and a mirror, and you can finally hand off the door opening to someone else. To your astonishment, one of the small formian girls rolls up the sleeves on her robes and saunters up beside you. You look into her blank multifaceted eyes and wonder how she acts like she can see so well, maybe more by touch or smell than sight, maybe natural sorcery. She gives you a couple gentle prods with her massive probelike antennae and for a moment her sisters let out a delighted whistle. The scritch scratch of her ruby red feet sounds in the quiet as she locks her talons down against the limestone floor and wraps all four of her sharp three-fingered hands along the door to spread the force more evenly.
  313. Then, almost effortlessly, like she’s being careful instead of exerting herself, the door creaks open with a shower of dust and a bellowing groan. The disarmed trap laid bare in the light, you hear the collective held breaths released, and even one “By the pitch.” in a distinctive monotone.
  315. You think about offering an ‘I loosened it up for you.’ but smartly keep your trap closed instead. A step back and you give her room to repeat the process with the fully closed door just as easily as the first. The ancient bronze hinges protest in a violent shower of patina but hold. To really rub it in she squeaks it back and forth with just one carmine hand the size of a child’s, following it up with a tap to her bicep from the lower arm on the same side. Her ebon mandibles click at you once and she smiles, revealing sharp teeth the same color. Freaky.
  317. The diminutive ant turns to her sisters and holds up all four fists like a champion to their chittering approval. The she walks back to them, her hips sway enticingly under her loose plain robes while she rejoins their ranks, blending into the crowd.
  319. The professor copies down the newly exposed hieroglyphs and you take the proper pictures before trying the doors on the left antechamber tunnel, then the right. But no other budges to your grunting efforts and the titters of the peanut gallery, enjoying staring at your ass if nothing else. There’s talk of crowbars and axes but the good doctor in her frantic buzzing seems to think you’ve already opened the door of the main crypt and that’s where you should focus. Keeping the other seals intact will be better for the future study of this site.
  321. So you return to the gleaming doors when Gilly signals you to force open the second set.
  323. The secondary gate is less trouble than the first. Your arms burning, they at least finally give way, scarcely corroded compared to those exposed to the humid outside. The same traps are disarmed with ever more confidence, though the Leanan Sidhe seems to think they do more than keep others out. Especially the fact that they share the same configuration seems to debunk their primary purpose being traps at all. They amplify one another, like multiple lenses stacked in succession.  The process repeats with the third and the fourth. Wonder becomes tedium as you strain against door after door, each less tarnished and stuck than the last, each a shrine nested within another like a Russian doll. The power stones stack almost into piles.
  325. The hieroglyphics continue to confound both the professional and the jackal amateur. Blessings upon blessings, prayers to the gods, and old tales of heroes. But where are the names? Who is the person laid to rest here? As far as either know, it’s unique among known finds in that regard.
  327. The seventh doors are the ones that give pause, nothing but bare lumber still soaked in ancient honey and rosin. You can smell the half-fossilized mess from here. Only the traces of the runes glitter with metal, surrounding a pair of rubies mounted on the front, two interlocking halves of a winged and haloed scarab different from the rest, the symbol of the heart. Corundum arcanum, never ever seen outside the old dynasty crown jewels. That draws new rounds of whispers and exclamations from everyone, even the jaded foreign mercs. There’s certainly nothing like this left in the treasury of Gypthania, perhaps one squirreled away by an old family that survived the bloody rebellions, like the anubis standing behind you.
  329. They too are added to the growing riches, thrumming vermillion power warming your very hands like a real beating heart. The wood of the interior shrine creaks and groans like a dying beast once the final magic is removed. The very walls seem to bleed in the red light.
  331. Sore shaking fingers grasp the sticky handles. These begin to open smoothly, as if greased, as if there’s something that wants out. Warm air pushes out from the seams and washes over you, blowing them open. Inside, nothing but darkness.
  333. Nobody steps forward, everyone sniffing the air strangely but not wrinkling their noses as if it is unpleasant. In your supposedly-unfoggable fogged-up respirator, all you smell is the clean chemical sterility of the filters.
  335. A floodlight is hastily dragged into position. The big block reflector clicks and hums as electric rays of pure manmade light reveal the sanctum within.
  337. Roses, lilies, daffodils, and a hundred others you don’t recognize.
  339. Flowers upon flowers in wreaths, bouquets, arrangements of every shape and size and kind, all strewn over every inch of floor, stacked knee deep. And each of them robust and living, soft petals begging gentle touch. Every shade of the rainbow seems represented in the floral offerings. Yet even as you watch, the wondrous sight begins to fade. The petals begin to shrivel and die, the colors turning to wrinkled black and bleached pastels. You tear the gloves from your hands, honey sticking to fingers that fumble for your camera before it’s too late.
  341. Pure muscle memory guides the camera’s setting wheel to ‘speed shot’. Slowing your breathing and steadying your hands, almost in a trance, you mash the shutter button and capture the timelapsed death of ancient tribute as best you can with clouded mask and no tripod. There will be more frames in focus for research than pure video.
  343. At great risk to herself, the professor buzzes to the threshold and grabs the liveliest blossom within reach, bringing it back and sealing it in a vacuum case meant for the most delicate reactive artifacts. For the good doctor to be so reckless boggles the mind, until you remember she’s Leanan Sidhe, and watching this perfectly preserved shrine crumble on itself in an orgy of decay must be like having her heart ripped out of her chest.
  345. The shutter chatters as you dutifully take pictures until the last bud dries to nothing, the plants audibly crackling while they shrivel. Finally, when the last of the ancient flowers turns dead and brown, everyone can gaze on the polished plinth at the center of the room.  Sitting on a raised bier, a great limestone sarcophagus lays sculpted from the living cave. It’s harsh and forbidding, not peaceful in the least, a frightfully realistic hawk’s visage skillfully carved in place of the death mask.
  347. Dr. Gilly caresses the one flower she saved in the case. “It’s just so sad.” She says it so softly you barely even hear her. Tears coalesce on her cheeks until they’re almost as big as her eyes before they spill off her face. A sad little hiccup and she wipes what she can onto her dirty inky sleeve, smearing black all over herself.
  349. The formians more closely parallel your own thoughts, backing away toward the exit and clicking fearfully.
  351. <This place is cursed.> The dromedary gives voice to their untranslated terror.
  353. <No.> Acenath’s tail twitches. <This pwace is holy.>
  355. The manticore and the centurion whisper to each other in the background. Only now does the whumping vibration of Gypthanian artillery register above other concerns to your human ears. At first you think it’s the walkers outside, but the scattered rumble varies too much. The short fox mutters dourly into her pebble. Thirty-eight is made conspicuous by her absence.
  357. The fanged grimace Handy shows you is all too clear. You’re running out of time. She shoos you toward the burial chamber with a free paw, the other gripping the pistol holstered at her side for comfort.
  359. It’s unconscionable, but you wade into the mess of brittle stems and leaf litter, doing a double take on the inside for any more traps. The thought that power stones could preserve life or a moment in time, you’ve never heard such a thing. But then you remember that magic itself is tied to life, the same way that matter is to energy. Maybe it’s something lost, like the process of monsterization. At the least, the insane cost and type of beryl arcanum needed is massively prohibitive. The old empire could probably have scraped together a dozen burials like this if they stripped the stones from every working construct and weapon. But here in the wastes, they couldn’t do even one.
  361. Your sweaty hand waves Gilly inside while you wonder ever more intensely about the overall objective of the focused runes. The offerings could not be the main purpose, just the most blatant observation of effect. What’s inside the coffin? And is it even now rotting away when it was perfectly preserved only moments before? Doubtless, the professor is wondering the same thing, but she probably has an inkling of the truth. Whereas you, you’re just lost.
  363. The fairy joins you, cleaning herself off on your perspiration-stained t-shirt before pulling out her pencil and sketchbook. Together, you approach the massive monument of soft translucent aragonite, white symbols and runes sunk into its entire surface. Wings decorate the sides with characters carved carefully into each feather. This is the coffin of a queen, a pharaoh of Gypt, in a style you’ve never seen. Animal masks were things of myth, reserved only for the gods.
  365. Even the most amateur layman can recognize the distinctive oval surrounding a set of hieroglyphs. Here. Now. You will find some of the answers weighing on the minds of everyone in the expedition.
  367. “What’s the name on the cartouche?” You ask.
  369. “That can’t be right.” The sprite ignores you and checks the symbols twice, wiping her puffy red eyes again in-between. “Khonsu.”
  371. “Khonsu of what house?” You don’t understand. “What lineage?”
  373. “Don’t rush me.” She snaps and crawls like a tiny cockroach over the entire surface.
  375. The jackal in her infinite curiosity wanders up beside you, muttering prayers with each crunching step, twigs and thorns catching in her jet black fur.
  377. Gilly scratches her matted sweaty hair, muttering to herself in the old tongue. <Here rests Khonsu of Gypt, daughter of Monthu, daughter of Maut, in the line of Amun-Ra since the descent. She struck down Demon Lord Liliales Aurum for the freedom of all Gyptians. May her children live forever.>
  379. The canine shoulders you aside to get a closer look. <The whurding is strange. The symbowl for reast here impelies sahleep.>
  381. “Photograph the sarcophagus, then we’re cracking this thing.” The archaeologist orders before she begins muttering again. “Hawk mask. Why an animal mask? It can’t be.”
  383. The robe-clad insectoid workers crowd cautiously around the door, waving their antennae and shining smaller stolen lights around the sanctuary.
  385. “Well come on!” Gilly shouts in her tinny little voice. “Save all you can of the plant remains. Double time!”
  387. They clamor, clack and whistle, but still none cross the threshold. Behind the blood red monstergirls, there’s no trace of their vulpine commander, only the manticore and rune-warded ungulate soldier looking increasingly tense. Time’s almost out.
  389. When it’s clear nobody else is going to enter the tomb, Acenath draws herself up straight and tall in the spitting image of heroes past: powerful, graceful, glittering. None could doubt the noble blood that flows through her veins. Faint green light wells up from the pinhead stones scattered across her golden heirloom, and she bares her teeth. <What does it say of a woman who dares not tread where even a man walks?> She speaks it slowly, coldly, every word carefully enunciated.
  391. You don’t know if the formians understand her, but they sure understand the tone. By leadership or shame, they’re cowed into action. Half of them turn back to prepare cases, and the rest start to collect the fallen angiosperms.
  393. The click of your camera and the pulse of the flash turn the next moments into a kind of time lapse in your mind’s eye. The bright phosphoresce lights the room in stark relief with each shot of the flowstone sarcophagus, busy ants caught in motion while the whole floor clears with a speed that astounds you. Then again, this type of shifting vegetation in the cramped dark is most likely exactly what they are built for. They are giant ants, if not as cuddly as the gateland monstergirl variety.
  395. Several of the superhero-strong insects drag big floodlights into the chamber to properly illuminate the room for more recording and photographing. Looking around with wide eyes, you see the cleared debris has begun to uncover a map in places, drawn upon the floor representing the original Gypt territory: Ariak, Thembis, Wadi Anubi, and the other ancient cities and oases clearly marked. At the center, in the location of the bier, the mythical Mountain of Light: the very flattop claimed to be its base but a scarce few miles from this tomb. You’d wager the flowers would match with species grown in their corresponding plots on the map. What honor, what tribute paid to such a person.
  397. It’s all so wrong for a tomb of Gypt.
  399. You wrestle with these thoughts, burning through the second battery for your camera, while the professor directs the arthropod sisters to the greatest moment of this dig. Your skin prickling with pins and needles, the blue electricity of excitement taking hold, you abandon your duty for a moment to be a part of the truly momentous, joining the rest of the audience gathering around the sarcophagus.
  401. Four of the formians take cardinal points around the ancient carbonate coffin, each wedging all four of their sharp armored hands into the seam of the casket. Sixteen arms strain in perfect unison. Black dagger-toothed mouths grimace with strain.
  403. Nothing.
  405. Not even the gritty scratch of stone on stone rewards their efforts. Wordlessly, another sister steps up and adds her hands to their number, then another and another and another. In the end it requires eight of the ant girls to raise the solid stone lid, easily over a ton of rock.
  407. A crane would have been needed by anyone else, but their coordination, their oneness, sees them through. You’ve long since given up trying to predict what you will find on the anticipated inside. Nested coffins like the shrine? What of the strange death mask, will that too be on the mummy? A real mummy, not the remnants of monsterized human inhabitants of these lands but a wrapped and embalmed corpse?
  409. You hold your camera ready, determined to capture the very moment it comes to light. Only, what the sisterly hive reveals is as the rest of this day has been, beyond wildest dreams.
  411. No nested coffin. No bandages. No wrappings. Just, just…
  413. “Wings.” Is the only thing you can manage, struck dumb. And to top it all off, you forget to take a picture.
  415. Radiant is the one single descriptor that forces its way to the forefront of your bedazzled mind. A woman lies in state before you in even better shape than Lennon, her nut brown skin covered only by a simple linen burial dress adorned in the amulets of the dead. Scarred arms cross over her chest, strange ornamental bowl in place of rod or crook. Great ivory wings cradle her in her coffin, alabaster feathers even now glowing with pale light. A extravagant mask of gold, lapis, obsidian and jasper, mirroring the stone hawk of the coffin in full colorful regalia, hides her face. Only fine braids of flaxen hair creep out from underneath, almost seeming to blend into her funerary clothes. The impossibly-preserved body is soft and hale, with none of the pallor of death upon it.
  417. But it’s not that that freezes your tongue and your hands. It must be a trick of the light, seen through foggy respirator. The slightest twitch, the barest shift of millennia-old cloth.
  419. “She’s breathing.” The professor voices it first.
  421. Even the anubis seems to understand that, dropping her notebook with a clatter and unshouldering her gadstick.  <I do not heyar a heart.>
  423. <You don’t need that. > Dr. Gilly makes a quick gesture, an equivalent to crossing herself in the ancient ways. <An angel can only be alive or dead, not an abomination in-between.> The fairy points to a purple tattoo’ed crest covering the back of the age-old hand. <She bears the mark of the Light. And look here, no claw nubs at the crux of her wings. There’s nothing else she could be.>
  425. <Wheech is she?> Sharp green eyes remain unconvinced. <Alive or dead?>
  427. The miniscule sprite can only shake her head. <I don’t know.>
  429. The archaeologist orders the formian auxilia to take the cover outside and prepare one of several casket crates brought along to hold the mummies she expected to find here. The excitement boils over all present. This here is completely, UNCONTESTABLY, the greatest known find in all of modern Gyptology.
  431. Only Dr. Gilly’s exuberance is tempered even as the promise of more grants and fame than she’ll know what to do with hangs in front of her like ripe fruit.
  433. It has long been argued that some of the old gods of this land might have been of the heavenly race, an ancient tribe of cherubim or valkyrie. But none have ever been found, and only the wingless pharaohs have ever claimed to trace their ancestry directly back to Maat.
  435. Again your mind turns back to the myths of the cultures here on the first world of Arga: how some say the ancient gods cursed demons who broke a sacred pact and punished the infernal’s monster children eternally for it. All they created would never bear the men they loved so much. Only when every follower of the Light was extinguished and the great one’s throne usurped could it ever be undone. So a very great many say. So a few still believe.
  437. To this day, the gentlest sweetest monsters wouldn’t hesitate to destroy everything here and cleanse it with fire if they thought for a minute it could give them sons. Here in the desert, even after reconstruction and conservation, humans are less than ten percent of the population, much less than the Gatelands. That’s barely one man for every twenty women. Some cities have no human quarter at all. Is it any wonder Big Gate was as bad as it was? Desperation breeds madness.
  439. This will have to be kept quiet, and the body secreted back to someplace secure. Riches are bad enough; power is bad enough, but extremists wouldn’t stray from killing a man, a hundred men even and a mountain of their monster sisters, to get their hands on a true angel. Dead or alive.
  441. It makes the traps you faced in here look like a joke. But survive it, and you could make your mark on history. This place, this find, is enough for three careers of Gyptologists or more. Dr. Gilly won’t be able to handle all of it. This is your ticket to the bigtime. That ambitious thought greases the gears of your mind back to action, and the click of your camera to ensure your place.
  443. Only fate is not so kind. Before you finish the final detail shots of the war-like death mask, a musical jangle worms inside your ear, not from the sarcophagus but the canine soldier by your side.
  445. Acenath holds her bracer before her eyes, focused on a gold-capped vial hanging from a fine chain. The small tincture appears filled with a fine ash. The gray dusts whirls and crashes violently against its enclosure, ringing upon the metal of her armor.
  447. The young soldier’s face flickers with fear, then clouds over with ingrained training and discipline.
  449. <GRAYSTORM!> She bellows, carefully forming the word. <THE GRAYSTORM COMES!>
  451. Ignoring the protests of the good doctor at your side, she says a prayer and pumps a shot of some kind of blue bolt from her rifle-like weapon into the body of Khonsu. The ancient queen twitches, electricity coursing through her like a dead frog. Spasms ruin her poise as she drops the bowl to her elbow. Nothing else changes, the heavenly breast continuing to slowly rise and fall.
  453. Whatever was supposed to happen, the anubis seems greatly relieved, and follows the already-scattering ants toward the exit tunnel.
  455. It’s not a panic, but all hurry with sudden purpose. Handy is the only one that strides against the tide, grabbing you by the arm with the iron grip of her paw before beckoning to the fairy. “We have to go. There’s no worse place to be trapped now than underground. Just throw a tarp over the coffin and leave everything. I promise we’ll return, maybe as soon as tomorrow.”
  457. The lowlander lets you go as soon as she sees the growing fear in your eyes, and she’s sure you won’t tarry, more worried about the heart-torn Leanan Sidhe. Bearing down on the sarcophagus, she scoops the doctor bodily into her claws, a giant cat catching a butterfly. Once the professor is safely stuffed into her fluffy mane, the feline pulls an oversized pistol from her belt and gives it a once over. The handgun is something big and old, trigger guard sawed off to accommodate furry manticore fingers as thick as bananas.
  459. The automatic fits in her massive paws perfectly, the handle extended via a larger magazine, like a scaled-up version of a normal handgun. You catch the barest flash of Desert stamped in English on its stainless side. You can’t imagine a human using such an unwieldy thing, but by the looks of it, that’s what it was originally built for. The monstergirl handles it as easily as a plastic toy. Pistol at the ready, Handy only pauses a moment to look wistfully at the cases containing the few power stones not yet moved, then follows the rest of the crew out. Your own boots almost step on her furry heels.
  461. The tunnel is a long way, long enough for you to calm down enough to ask just what the hell a ‘graystorm’ is anyway.
  463. The lioness’s slit yellow eyes glance back in annoyance, then soften with empathy when they lock onto yours. You know that look, that’s the look of a monster thinking of her own man somewhere. “We have to burn bodies to deny them to the dead. But even the ash answers their call.” It’s short and terse but at least it’s something.
  465. You don’t really understand until you reach the scorching exit and find the rest of everyone either gathered in a huddle or scattered to flee. In the direction of now-silent artillery, still miles away, is what the Anubis was shouting about. A cloud of ash, a very wall of gray, stretches across the horizon and thousands of feet into the sky, a simoom of the undead. You can’t even imagine the number of bodies that compose it or what might hide within.
  467. The formians pile as fast as they can into the cargo modrons, only taking a scarce minute to secure the sarcophagus lid and the other treasures removed so far. While they scurry and scamper, the walking IFV, the only armed vehicle here, scouts the first leg of the path back home.
  469. The mercs hold council with the soldiers. Following your escort, you wind up with the military sum.
  471. “We can’t outrun it in the rover.” Thirty-eight grumbles in her plain golem way, cradling her surplus Coalition gadstick retrieved from the jeep. “Once the ash catches up, the air filter will choke before we get two miles.”
  473. “It’s crazy, this long after Mon Grave. I’ve never seen one this big. You dirty Gypts knew too. It all makes sense now.” Handy’s frown intensifies, sharp fangs biting her lip as she points her tufted ears at the onrushing khamsin. She closes her eyes, listening.
  475. “Of course we knew there were dead out here! Who do you think we’ve been fighting?” The Gypthanian fennec shakes her head, whispering in English so her troops don’t hear her. “But not this, nothing like this. My cousin’s cohort was out there. I can’t raise them on callstone; I can’t raise any of them.”
  477. “Centurion, do you hear it? The noise…it’s wrong somehow.” You escort’s frown becomes a grimace.
  479. The short fox listens carefully to the storm, great ears swiveling like radar dishes. <That sound….roundwings…old models, mist cats and an indian.> She has to be making that shit up. All you can hear is a howling pink noise, growing stronger with each passing moment.
  481. <Coalition?> Gilly asks in their tongue.
  483. <If you think they’ve given noijetat about us since the fall of the empire, you’re crazy.> The kitsune spits, glaring with her permanent squint from a lifetime of looking into the sun. <No. These are undead booty, probably from when they sacked Moeris, the machines converted to horrors.>
  485. The sprite scoffs. <The dead don’t have tech like that anymore.>
  487. <Open your ears!> The vulpine centurion clenches her dark brown hands and turns away, removing the jasper pebble from a pouch. She whispers into it again, waits with bated breath and is not pleased with the result. Her brow furrows, plans spinning in her mind. Ears perk straight up as she snatches on an idea and breaks from the meeting to accost the antgirls. Grabby paws wrestle a crate from the rushing insects and haul a plundered beryl arcanum free. The exquisite scarab is even more beautiful in the natural light, growing darker as it slowly replenishes lost reserves from the sun.
  489. The officer licks her chapped lips, finding the flattest contact on the back of the stone. With bristling hair, bunched muscles, and gritted teeth, she gingerly presses the pair together.
  491. Nothing.
  493. She touches them again, more forcefully this time.
  495. Nothing.
  497. A frustrated unbecoming yip and she strikes them together, the smallest spark forming between.
  499. A soft whump permeates your very bones as the aquamarine ignites, shining brightly as a star. It sears the eyes, too much to look at, and the magic washes over all who stand around. The strange energy hits you full force, kicking open a door into a musty unused part of your mind. In it, you catch a snatch of voices and whispers, strange and familiar, before the light fades and silences them.
  501. The commander looks to her subordinates in the aftermath, rubbing her watery eyes furiously. <Home is sending the Iron Vulture from Wadi Anubi for support. They’ll be here in about half an hour.>
  503. It may seem silly to anyone raised on Earth, but Arga is still a wild world, with no commercial satellites, and tower repeaters limited to the metropoli of the gatelands. To speak over mountains, far to where radio cannot reach, is still a rare thing. And she just brute forced it with a rock from a god’s resting place. It’s hard not to be awed, even with the looming threat of the graystorm rushing ever closer.
  505. Her soldiers feel much the same way until they process the totality of her message. It’s the well-endowed camel instead of the dark-furred canine who voices concern. <They send us the gettatan Dirt-made rustbucket?> She waves at the encroaching wall of ash. <Against that?>
  507. <That rustbucket has farlander howitzer, cannon and sidewinders mounted in it, with anti-dead rounds.> The fox counters. <We’re lucky she’s in the area on exercises.>
  509. <Bunch of propeller-driven backwards-ass hand-me-down Contact War shit.>The dromedary says it, but not with bile. Her commander lets her vent without recourse. She’s just afraid, afraid it won’t be enough for what’s coming. Everybody is. Who could look at a storm as wide as the mountains and twice as high, hiding unknown terrors, and think otherwise?
  511. The creeping panic takes solid root in your own heart, to see such unease in even your veteran escorts who fought in Big Gate and Mon Grave.
  513. It threatens to seize your lungs when the giant cargo crawlers stretch their legs to leave, absent the rest of you.
  515. <Doan’t look so wurried.> A gentle black paw places itself comfortingly on your shoulder. <You ride with us in the deesert scorpayon. It’s much saefer and faster. Theay need the head start.>
  517. It doesn’t take the clothtop tarantulas long to lumber out of sight, the remainder of your number taking refuge behind the rubble piles at the entrance of the tomb, waiting for the junker walker to return. Each second passes interminably in the sweltering heat. But watching the malevolent storm approach, your skin is clammy and cold. You stick close to Thirty-eight. You feel safest with her, the only one literally built to deal with this kind of situation.
  519. The rhythmic tremors of the running Frankenbradley precede the ramshackle weapon itself, your soul soaring as it appears, skittering over the dunes like a spooked bug, its rune-covered joints making a popping chicka-clunk-thunk as the legs dig deep into the sand. Anyone riding in that is going to be shaken like a martini at full speed and you couldn’t care less. You just want out of here. The icy horror that emanates from the roiling ash reminds of you of a very old recurring nightmare, of shadows lurking in mist, trapped with no way out.
  521. The scrapheap comes to a shuddering stop on the desert pavement by the prep tents. No belly flop this time; a bandage-wrapped hand throws upon the hatch and tosses a rope ladder over the side. Carbon fiber fingers grab your hand and pull you toward the strange vehicle, wrenching your shoulder in their haste. Your field boots pound like your heart.
  523. But you never make it that far.
  525. Rrrrrrrrruma KaBOOM!!!
  527. The Desert Scorpion disappears in a wave of red-brown sand that slams into you with the force of a tsunami: tearing your hand free from Thirty-eight, tossing you like a doll, crashing over you and burying you completely.
  529. Sand, sand everywhere. You have no idea which way is up, twisted into a knot and buried alive. Your mind doesn’t even touch the what-ifs of what just happened, that your ride probably just got blown up, that you’re likely stranded minutes away from having the biggest graystorm ever witnessed swallow you all up. You just feel the sand straining to enter every orifice, working into your nose and ears and mouth, the claustrophobic-inducing pressing airless darkness. That’s it, your subconscious decides. That’s enough.
  531. Time to panic.
  533. Every bit of you claws and kicks like an animal, struggling to scratch your way out of this shallow gritty grave. But it’s no good. You can barely move. The weight of the wind-frosted grains is like two people sitting on top of you. And every time you scoop some sand away, the desert happily pours in more. Your muscles ache with the burn of lactic acid. Yellow and blue electric spots dance in your shut eyes. You’re running out of air.
  535. It’s the golem that saves you. Strong artificial fingers dig down, grasp your collar and haul you out, still flailing like a maniac. The war machine tries to quiet you down, placing a gloved hand over your mouth. Your oxygen-deprived brain, still in full primitive survival mode, just lashes out as hard as it can at the thing trying to shush you.
  537. The bone-shattering crack of your knuckles when they slam against her smooth plated face though, that registers. Only a little bloody sand sticks to her for your mad efforts, but you swear you see real care in those bright mechanical eyes as she puts a finger to your lips, then drags you bodily back to cover.
  539. Back to where you started.
  541. The rest of the group avails themselves of the shelter of the tomb and facade, all accounted for except the professor who’s better at hiding than anyone else. All the adrenaline rushing, you tune out the throbbing of your busted knuckles to gaze back out to the desert, where all hell has broken loose. The Desert Scorpion is still intact: flat on its back, legs flailing to gain purchase, mangled turret trying to assist. The dune beside it lays scattered all over the wind-swept pebbles of the interdune. The dislodged sand spreads in a fan all around a single explosive point.
  543. There. There at the origin of the sandsplosion lays the biggest living breathing thing you’ve ever seen in the flesh. Its antennae-covered nose alone is twenty feet tall and just as wide, capping an impossibly-long tube-shaped body. And that’s just the locomotive on this train. The rest hidden in the depths of the erg must be at least a hundred feet long. Bright red scutes the size of cars cover it. Black chaetae as big as fence posts run in pairs down its sides, the spikes that propel it through the loose regolith. A hundred parapod gill fans carve a shrieking whistle from the blowing wind.
  545. “It’s just a sandworm fleeing the storm.” Handy whispers in relief. “All the wind noise must be like running blind. She just went for the loudest thing she could this way. Dumb girl nearly beached herself. Maybe she can tell us what’s…”
  547. “No.” The Centurion shushes her. “See the markings? Khorkhoi.”
  549. It’s then the sightless creature opens its jaws. Sensory whiskers around its maw retract and a pair of serrated obsidian mandibles unfold from inside its cheeks, big enough to cut an elephant in half. There’s no cute girl hiding in its gullet, just a tentacle-like tongue and a cavernous pit filled only with hunger.
  551. They still have cattle, dogs and birds in the monster lands. You suppose there’s no reason other animals should not still exist, strange and incredible as they might be. This is just like deer fleeing a forest fire. That doesn’t make processing what you’re seeing any easier. You could carve a canoe out of just one of those pincer teeth. Hell, somebody somewhere probably has.
  553. Using the weight of its metal limbs as a counterbalance to rock over, the Gypthanian ramshackle machine finally rights itself, the once sharp tines of the powerful gadstick in the turret bent and twisted into uselessness. Lime green light spills from broken rune structures in the legs and back, bleeding out the magical lifeblood of the machine. It backs away from the great worm warily like a wounded animal. But it still works, one damn tough construct.
  555. The great worm weaves its head back and forth, feeling out the threat in front of it. None of the small arms your escorts carry are enough to deter something that big. Everyone waits in dead silence to see what will happen.
  557. The fennec whispers into the jasper, then looks to your mercs. “There’s almost always a pair: the male and the female.”
  559. The old rebel junker moves with purpose now, small doors springing open on a long box bolted to the side of the turret. Conical warheads peek out from its recesses.
  561. That’s when you feel the earth shake violently beneath your feet, followed by the explosive burst of sand that accompanies the surfacing of another Khorkhoi.
  563. When you clear the dust from your eyes, the first thing your dazed mind notices is the color, pale white in the place of red. The second is the smell: nauseatingly, unbreatheably thick; the noxious reek of putrefaction. An abomination lays partially exposed in the sand. Great sections of rotting flesh slough from the metal latticework built around the body of the worm. Runes in grotesque mirror to those carved into the bones of the golem beside you power the gigantic artificial skeleton puppetting the corpse. Ragged pieces of metal and cloth cover the sections where massive holes have been blown through the exoskeleton of the creature. Sand sticks in great wet clumps to the flesh that’s already beginning to blacken and liquefy.
  565. The living worm nudges its deceased partner lovingly, its tiny brain knowing something is wrong, terribly wrong. But it refuses to abandon its other half.
  567. It’s just…it’s just so fucking terrible. You can almost hear the gargantuan animal crying. You’re going to be sick. And you are, coughing up a puddle into the blistering sand.
  569. That’s when the Desert Scorpion opens fire, and everything descends into chaos.
  571. You see the antique TOW missile leave its tube for a fraction of a second: fins extending, flare of the motor in a sharp bright cone, thin wire trailing behind; then Thirty-eight shoves you back down into cover, just in time to be deafened by the explosion only a hundred yards away. It’s followed in quick succession by a second and a third that you feel more than you hear over the high-pitched ringing in your ears.
  573. The war golem shouts at you to stay down and cover your head, at least that’s what your deafened self guesses when she stuffs you under a small overhang and forces your hands on top of your head. A hearbeat later, the rain of twisted steel and smoking rotting chunks of flesh begins. You can hear it clink and patter off the dirt and the rocks. The thick crunch of glass signals an end to your land rover as a massive slab lands on the roof and smashes it into the seats.
  575. The shriek of twisting and straining metal much thicker than the flattened beer can of a jeep draws everyone’s attention, fluffy ears of every type poking up over the rocks to get a good look. Only the manticore and the kitsune use mirrors instead, older and more cautious than the rest. Thirty-eight just hovers over you, protecting your frail human body while she awaits orders from her handler.
  577. You see a fraction of the scene in miniature, reflected in the polished lenses of the war golem’s eyes. Viscous yellow ichor pours from gaping mortal wounds in the gigantic red worm. In its dying rictus, it coils around the slapdash Gypthanian war machine, crushing it like a great constrictor. Chaetae snap against thick armor, some of them stabbing deep enough to set off the reactive charges. Muffled whumps of the armor exploding sound in your recovering ears as massive jaws tear the turret from the vehicle and toss it aside like a toy. A single bandaged hand throws the hatch open, and starts to haul out the woman attached to it. From your limited view, you catch the faintest hint of the crown of her head, hair catching in the desert wind, before the Khorkhoi wraps over the top of the vehicle and mashes down with all its dying might.
  579. The behemoth spends its last breath protecting a mate that’s already dead. The arachnid legs shear from the side of the ifv, and with a final tortured scream of metal fatigue, the Bradley body collapses in an explosion of green runic light.
  581. The raw liberated magic washes over all present. The world dims for a moment as it soaks in, beckoning you crawl closer, whispering of what-if’s and could-have-beens…until something falling from the sky hits you in the back and knocks you down into the dirt. Then the potential gains purpose, direction. A uniformed mummy huddles here in place of the anubis, having won instead when lots were drawn among the crew for who would stay and who would go. Bright red inquisitive eyes have watched your every move from setting up the dig lights to photographing the tomb, flicking away when you catch them staring somewhere private. Quiet girl, but with a hidden smile, and creeping gold-covered fingers that try to find their way into your own while you chronicle the dig.
  583. Then, just like that, the vivid dream fades, and you’re back facedown in this scorching rock and sand.
  585. The first thing your digits brush is something oddly reminiscent of the dreamed past. It’s a hand. You’re touching a hand, a warm bronze-skinned hand covered in burnt wrappings and purple runic tattoos. Familiar gold rings glint on its fingers, too familiar. Your gaze follows up past the wrist, to the forearm, to the elbow, and no further. It just ends in a wet mess of pink and red, yellowed bone sticking out behind.
  587. Your body rejects it physically while your brain rejects it mentally, refusing to acknowledge the gory minutia. Only, there’s nothing left to expel up from your guts, and not even the horror at your fingertips or the smell of one hundred tons of burning rotted titanic worm can conjure up more.
  589. The wall of ash will be here in scant minutes. Even now, the graystorm casts its shadow far in advance of the khamsin blowing across the wind-blasted landscape. The thundering simoom races to cover everything in unnatural pallor. Sweaty shivering weakness grips you, and your chest becomes tight. Your breath comes fast, too fast, black spots beginning to dance in your eyes.
  591. You’re going to die here.
  593. You’re never going to see home again.
  595. You’re never going to be remembered for this find, even as a footnote.
  597. You’re going to be ripped apart by things so terrible you can’t even imagine, maybe even done in by the ash itself, the final curse of a hundred thousand incinerated corpses given form.
  599. You’re certain of this, more certain than you’ve been about anything in your life. Your hourglass has run down to its final grains and no-one will be there for the next turn.
  601. You’ve tried; damn if you haven’t tried. But you just can’t take it anymore. Like some hysterical damsel in an old adventure movie, you lose it…completely.
  603. “Shut him up!” Handy orders her partner who seems to have the exact same thought. Before the merc even finishes, the war golem clamps a gloved hand over your screaming mouth and uses the rest of her body to hold you still, universal joints in her body giving her more flexibility than any humanoid. It doesn’t help. You struggle like a caged animal. Maybe if you can get loose, maybe you can run for it. Maybe you don’t need to outrun the storm. Maybe it’s like the old bear joke. You only need to outrun the girls. Being a live coward is better than being a dead hero. The motorcycle might still be in working order. Senseless plans crash through your desperate mind, underscored by an even worse thread of futility. Adrenaline surges, muscles strain, and your eyes start to roll back in your head with the effort.
  605. A dusty ebon paw strokes your hair the way it would pet a scared fluffy-eared child.  It’s Acenath, young tanker as scared as you are, struggling to put on a brave face. She’s comforting you the only way she knows how.
  607. The jackal manages to find her tongue and gives you a shaky smile before whispering to you in gentle English. “No be scared. We keep you safety. Mon are for fight. Men are for make smiles.”
  609. She says it so sincerely, so kindly, her words do reach you. Your terror-fried brain starts to spark with a hint of reason again.
  611. Yes. Your best bet is with the soldiers and the guns.
  613. Your fate lies with them, and you should just keep your head down and out of the way. The golem feels you relax and pushes you off of her hard chest, retrieving her weapon from the ground.
  615. Handy’s reaction to the canine’s words on the other hand is to snort and giggle into her paw. The anubis looks worriedly back to her squadmates to explain. An unhinged human boy is a hindrance. A mad manticore would be a catastrophe.
  617. Their Centurion is the one who sheds light on the cackling lion.
  619. <That’s ‘Handy’ Guerrero. Her husband’s Ernesto the Dragonslayer, one of the most decorated men of Big Gate.> The vulpine commander whispers too low for anyone but them to hear over the howl of the wind. But the ring on your hand doesn’t care about volume. <She just wishes he was here.>
  621. The vixen mouths a silent prayer and pockets the jewelry from the amputated arm, more for your benefit than hers. Then she turns her hard squinty eyes to the remains of the long dead Khorkhoi, the great white abomination looking like someone blew up a train of putrid meat. And the smell, oh god the smell. Twisted ribs of metal scaffolding stand interspersed with slightly more intact sections. Dead or undead, it’s not going anywhere anymore. The missiles did their job, only they left the mess on the expedition’s doorstep. It still quivers from broken runes in the armature, or maybe… something else.
  623. In the headless body of the rotting worm, something stirs.
  625. Vaguely humanoid shapes cut their way free of the wreckage and gore: one, then two, then ten, then twenty. You can’t tell much about them other than they have big weapons -actual manmade guns plus huge cavalry sabers- and most sport thick reptilian tails.
  627. <What are they? Sebek?> The top-heavy ungulate asks her CO under her cloth-wrapped mouth. <Hachu?>
  629. One of the dark sillouettes shouts a sharp tak tak tak and trills a whistle. At the sound, several of the creatures group together and begin to navigate the wreckage of the Desert Scorpion, no doubt looking for bodies to swell their ranks.
  631. <Stillbirth and divorce!> Whispered curses in words far fouler to the Gypts than they are in your tongue. The fox’s face creases with grim certainty. <Lizarda.>
  633. <Arran’t thay extinkt?> Acenath’s big  paws scratch divots into her weapon from clutching it so tight. You finally notice the hieratic on the large switch above her thumb. You would have guessed it to be the safety, but the simple symbols are only of two things: death and fire.
  635. <Think how long these shamblers have been fighting.> Handy muscles up beside the fox. <I’ve never seen a ‘goon in the rotties.>
  637. <Don’t let them get close.> The Centurion growls. <They’ll slaughter in hand-to-hand.>
  639. The grizzled fennec looks disparagingly at the small compliment left under her command: a dreamy tanker and a busty MP; not crack firefight material. <Just stay steady, keep to cover and make your shots count. Drop ‘em then torch ‘em. We only need to hold out long enough for reinforcements to arrive.>
  641. The undead platoon breaks off several small scouting parties while the bulk rushes to salvage equipment from the remains of their disgusting transport. One group follows the tracks of the departed cargo crawlers while another pair of the ghastly reptiles works their way toward the tomb, focused on the wrecked jeep and the stacks of crates. Less than twenty yards from where you cower, the two gravetouched corpses pick through the toppled prep tent almost buried in sand.
  643. Halfway through a bag of packing peanuts, the bigger one stops, sniffing the air like a feral animal. It rises, scaly claws swinging the barrel of its old Earthmade Contact War big bore up to aim at the rubble. Any Earthside kid born after the war would recognize the huge rifle as a Barton Ballistics fifty cal: the Bitch Blaster, that same gun used in every post-Contact action movie ever made. The more recent Gypt-made arcane sight bolted to the stock glints in the sun as its magic eye scans through the rock and sand.
  645. The jig is up.
  647. The trio of Gypthanians pop over the rocks and open fire. Blue beams of light lance through the desert air, each imitating the faint flicker of an industrial laser. Two of the bolts find their target, slamming one after the other into the unholy creature. Ancient runes etched into rusty iron armor flash and absorb the first, cracking as already fractured magical circuits overload and blow out. The second strikes it in the shoulder, and drops the abomination like a puppet with its strings cut. A faint wisp stands over the body, a silent shade of smoke and light. The sad reflection wrings its ethereal claws, trying to coax the cadaver back up.
  649. Everyone picks out new targets except Acenath who flips the switch on her gadstick and fires again, holding the trigger down. The rifle-like weapon hums with the sound of a giant magnetron antenna, the twin tines vibrating in unison as a deadly tuning fork. The fallen ghast just lays there as blue electricity sparks across its metal armor like a fork in a microwave. A moment later, you see the smoke wafting out from under its armor, the exposed skin beginning to sizzle and pop, before the entire carcass bursts spectacularly into flame.
  651. Behind the pyre, the smaller reanimated reptile never has a chance to raise its gun before it too falls silently to the azure hail of weaponized voodoo.
  653. But the rest of the skeletal scalies, they see the line of billowing smoke driven almost sideways by the wind…and they know.
  655. Almost as one, they drop to the sand: weapons tucked under one arm, bodies held up on one hand and the tips of their toes, scarcely inches from the ground. The dead break into a three-legged sprint, their muscular tails balancing them as they serpentine your way. Limbs contort in locomotion they never could have in life, making themselves as small a target as possible.
  657. Holy shit, you’ve never seen monsters move that way.
  659. The living try to halt the charge, but they are too few to stop enough corpses at a time. And without the precious seconds to burn them, it only takes moments before the fallen are up and running again, pieces of rusty armor falling from their ratty garb.
  661. Those that get close enough set up behind the crates and the wrecks. Their suppressing fire is much more effective; the dead barely worry about getting hit. Stolen battle rifles hurl a bulletstorm at the entrance of the tomb, while the anti-material guns wait for any living dumb enough to pop out of cover. At this range, even you couldn’t miss.
  663. Light flashes back at the ghasts and ghouls in nearly blind bursts. The only answering gunfire is Handy’s massive pistol, aimed by a mirror hung on the spike of her tail, banging out rounds at a fraction the velocity of the incoming fire. It’s some crazy stunt out of a trick shooter show, but amazingly, she hits something about a third of the time. It’s enough to blow open the skull of a nasty looking cadaver missing a bite-shaped chunk out of its side. That one stays down. You’ve never seen anyone shoot like that, bullshit monster coordination or not, and you don’t think many could replicate it.
  665. One last deafening bang and the breach slams open and holds. No more bullets and no more magazines.
  667. The dead’s bullets will run out too before the power of the Gypt weapons. But the dead are playing their own game for time. They only need to last until the graystorm blinds you all, the dark cloak of its shadow already darkening the sky to dusk, the first tendrils of ash mixing with that of the fresh smoke, feeding upon it, drops added to an ocean. A few tens of seconds more is all that remains before the rest will roll over you.
  669. Thirty-eight passes her gadstick to the empty-handed manticore then rolls up her sleeve and fiddles with a small inset lever on her right wrist. She obviously expects something to happen. It doesn’t.
  671. “Some days I really hate being made by the gods-damned lowest bidder. I’d kill for the build quality of an old ticker.” Those dull-sounding words, empty of her boiling frustration.
  673. “I told you they stopped using internal weapons for a reason, Lucky.” The chimeric merc adjusts the gadstick grip to fit her huge paws so it can be fired. “But you just had to turn down the refit.”
  675. The war golem ignores her, bright camera eyes focused intently on her arm as she smacks it against a rock.
  677. “Go” Whack.
  679. “Go” Crack.
  681. “Gadget” Slam.
  683. “Grenade launcher!” Her monotone a decibel higher in victory as her hand opens up.
  685. Carbon fiber fingers slide back onto her wrist. The steel bluing of a barrel and tube assembly projects from her irising palm, bolted to her rune-covered aluminum bones. An oval panel slides open on the outside of her arm. It doesn’t look like a grenade launcher to you at all. It looks like your gramp’s old shotgun.
  687. “Head down.” The automaton shoves you face-first into the sand with her left hand. Her mechanical brain calculates the arc needed for indirect fire, like artillery. It takes less than a second. She points up and into the wind. No second guesses, no hesitation. She fires four successive shots, each angled slightly different than the other. One of the smoking twelve gauge shells lands next to your cheek. Printed on the side in Gateland script is something you can barely read. Something ‘sphere’ or ‘ball’?
  689. You don’t figure it out by the time the rounds return to earth, dropping in from the same direction as the encroaching ash. There’s no seeing them hit when you’re laying in the dirt, but you hear them, each within a split second of one another. Boom, hssh, whump and shssss.
  691. There’s a term for this. You heard it once from your uncle. ‘Fire for effect.’
  693. The heat washes over you with a pair of the hissing sonic concussions, sucking the air from your lungs and popping your ears. You snare of a glimpse of the destruction from Handy’s makeshift periscope, gobs of magical napalm burning hot enough to fuse sand into glass. Not quite dead things and pieces of dead things twitch and smolder in the inferno eating up the supplies and the tent.
  695. “Shit Lucky, why didn’t you tell me still had some cleanser and fireball shells from the old days?” The flightless manticore cackles and chuffs. “That’ll slow those rotties down.”
  697. “ ‘And I shall not be afraid of the pestilence that walks in darkness.’ ” The war machine says it almost smugly with her singular voice while she loads a handful of more shells into her magazine. “That was the last of them though, just Auntie M slugs left.”
  699. In the lull, while the others attempt to spot hidden remnants and burn what’s not yet burnt, the weight of your dirty camera pulls at your neck and at your greed and ambition. Swallowing hard, you scrape together enough gumption to try and take some pictures. Nobody would ever believe this back Earthside without some proof: something you just might live long enough to provide. Or at the least, leave a record.
  701. The snap of the shutter sees what you can from your cramped spot cowering behind the rock pile, the biggest graystorm since the end of the Mon Grave War. The wall of dry ash flashes with lighting and the crack of thunder. The static electricity of the grains rebounding against each other discharges in spectacular yellow-orange display. It may just be normal sandstorm behavior, but here it’s evil and ominous, though it could be your fears of what hides inside.
  703. Shaking free of the creeps, you’re even able to get a few shots of the titanic Khorkoi remains through a small gap in the rubble, only seconds left before the main front of the cloud will overtake you all. It’s then when you hear the faint sound over the wind, that sound the monsters were talking about when you first glimpsed this unnatural disaster.
  705. Helicopters.
  707. A trio of black silhouettes come screaming out of the cloud to the pounding beat of rotors just a few hundred yards away, flying low and fast. Theres no noise of engines, just the spinning blades themselves chopping through the air. You zoom in with one hand and focus with the other.
  709. A pair of old Tigers and an Apache, at least that’s what you think is underneath the hodgepodge of repairs that make them look like something out of The Road Warrior. A thick layer of dust covers the cockpits, making it impossible to see inside, and the pilots flying blind. How can they fly when they can’t see?
  711. You turn to warn the others when a lion’s paw stuffs a peanut-sized crystal into your hand. “Put it in your mouth. Don’t swallow.” The merc warns.
  713. If you were thinking straight, you wouldn’t have bothered with any warning. What you can hear and see, most of them can tell way before. They knew, knew since way back when they first brought it up. Everyone else but the golem is popping the little blue stones into their mouths and tucking them into their cheeks. You don’t understand it, but you do it anyway, even if your mind is swimming with irrational thoughts of cyanide tablets. That’s stupid. It would only add some perfect bodies to the armies of the dead.
  715. The choppers circle around for a pass, half a dozen airscreen wipers engaging on each of them to clear away the heavy soot. Bright indigo light wells from within, exposing the horrible truth, they’re dead empty.
  717. The veteran fox and the manticore look at each other, then to the tomb behind, and silently agree. They won’t wait for the big weapon pods on the stolen surplus copters to swing around. They’ll retreat underground. The kitsune make a few hand motions to the rest of the group, and they all prepare to run. Handy grabs your collar and hauls you to your knees, pointing you in the same direction, razor sharp claws gripping tight to keep you from scattering until the time is right.
  719. Acenath, at a sign from her officer, is the first to leap for the tomb entrance. She digs her dirty back paws into the sand and literally jumps for it. Massive toned quadriceps contract hard enough to snap the ligaments on a human, launching the jackal into the air from a dead cold start.
  721. The moment she sails out from behind the rocks, the report of an enemy rifle echoes, sound a fraction behind the fifty caliber bullet.
  723. Ancient scanty battle armor comes to life with powerful defensive sorcery. The marksman was stupid good or stupid lucky, rune-inscribed jacketed round trying it’s damndest to penetrate the spot right under her ears.
  725. With a brilliant flash of magic and light, the golden relic she’s wearing actually stops the projectile, copper and lead vaporizing into plasma. But even magic has its limits. And one-hundred-and-fifty generations of use and abuse take their toll when the armor tries to dissipate twenty kilojoules of pure kinetic energy.
  727. The gem mounted in the center of Acenath’s tiara explodes spectacularly into a thousand fiery aquamarine shards.
  729. Dazed, or unconscious, the young canine crashes head first into the stone doorway and lays there, groaning and twitching sluggishly. At least she’s out of the line of fire.
  731. The sniper doesn’t have the chance to wait for anyone else when the graystorm finally overruns the camp, the undead shutting the blinds on the world. Ash swirls in living eddies all around you as the landscape goes dark, the noon sun shining less light than a pale moon. The hair on your arms stands straight up from the static in the air as lightning flashes in the heart of the unholy necromantic tempest.
  733. Here and there, drowned out by the sound of the wind and thunder, are whispers that seem to come from all around at once.
  735. Even then, the thumping rotors of undead flying machines beat closer. Any second now, those rockets and machine guns are going to open up and leave nothing but craters.
  737. But it’s okay.
  739. <Peace> the whispers in the ash say.
  741. Not scurrying like a rat from fire and not restless like them, but real peace.
  743. Eternal and undisturbed.
  745. And you are tired.
  747. <So tired.> They echo.
  749. You don’t want to be afraid anymore.
  751. Or ever again.
  754. Do you smell something burning?
  756. The stone in your mouth grows hot, and red light with the sharp stench of ozone blasts out your nose. The venting miasma just keeps growing stronger until it completely shatters the spell. It’s awful, like breathing burning electronics mixed with chlorine, but it drives the ash away from your face, even as it starts to collect on the rest of your sweaty exposed skin. Every moment the gray thickens, like it’s purposefully trying to weigh you down.
  758. Handy gives you a push toward the tomb, and you run as fast as your trembling feet will carry you. Field boots dig deep into the desert pavement, your eyes on the hazy silhouettes of quiet horrors flying and crawling and marching all around, circling closer. You look at the danger everywhere, and carelessly miss the one right in front of you.
  760. One foot comes down hard, and keeps going farther than it should.  There’s that precarious moment of confusion when you stumble. Then the curse when you feel your boot catch in the hole, repeated twice when your ankle twists in a way it was never meant to, right before you fall flat on your face. The crack of the lens shearing off your camera drowns out the snap you feel in your ankle.
  762. You’re so jacked up on adrenaline, you don’t even feel the pain when you scrabble out of the piling ash and to your feet. All you know is one of the traitorous limbs won’t hold your weight, and leaves you hobbling in cruel imitation of a crippled old man. Like a fucking girl in a pre-Contact action movie who twists her ankle! This is going to be a really stupid way to die.
  764. You see the sputtering lights of Gypthanian gadstick fire made blinding by the colloidal dispersion of the storm. The real soldiers are trying to hold off the charge. The dead are almost upon you. No way you can make it now.
  766. Powerful hands pick you up and toss you over a muscled shoulder like a sack of potatoes. It takes a second for your panicky brain to realize the person is soft and warm and very much alive.
  768. The uniformed camel girl barely slows down with the effort of carrying you, red glow leaking from every orifice on her head even under her tightly-wrapped face. She looks like some demon, but she’s alive, alive enough to jostle you when you accidentally knee her in her massive tits.
  770. The Gypthanian scav only stops at the entrance to bend over and drag the wounded jackal up by the arm.
  772. <Get up cavepup!> She shouts at the disoriented Anubis, fine trickle of blood flowing from a cut in the canine’s forehead. <You can’t quit when there’s a man here that needs protecting. You make me listen to your chivalrous bullshit all day long. TIME TO BACK IT UP!>
  774. Emerald green eyes try to force themselves back into focus. A paw grips a sister’s hand, and two Gypts with their man-damsel luggage flee into the tunnel of the tomb, leaving the death and ash behind.
  776. <I’m, I’m oahkay.> Acenath regains herself before you reach the end of the winding path to the antechamber. <Sinturayon?>
  778. <Behind us-> The thick soldier scrapes you against the rock of the narrow corridor when she looks back at her comrade. <-with the freelancers.>
  780. In the tunnel, passing the occasional lamp with only the scuffling noise of three people, the hell outside could almost be imagined.
  782. Then a distant explosion jars dust from new cracks in the ceiling. That puts a hard stop to that particular illusion.
  784. Head fimly pointed backward from your perch, gazing past the ragged anubis, you fear the worst. That cold feeling of certain doom that makes muscles go limp buzzes the creeps through every nerve in your body. Every turn you expect flickering shadows cast by the intermittent lights to show the shapes of half-rotted abominations creeping up behind you.
  786. The jackal stares into your eyes with grim determination, her sharp mind revving back to speed. There’s something more there you think, something wild under the scorched headband as her scanty heavy armor clinks, looking for all the world like some kind of feral Gypthar Xena. Maybe it’s the leather strip skirt.
  788. You can’t match her intense gaze. You don’t dare look behind her again. Closing your eyes only leaves you with nightmarish thoughts and motion sickness. You need to focus on something, anything to keep from freaking out again. Screaming panic would reduce your chances for survival from slim to none if you got dropped and left behind. Knowing that doesn’t stop the urge though, the irresistible urge to howl like a banshee and run as fast as you can away from those corpses even with a fucked-up ankle.
  790. So you look the only place you can, straight down, and try to zero in on the dusty path. The old trail has been completely stampeded over with dozens of new tracks, coming and going. The only record of the original steps lays in the compact flash card wedged in the destroyed camera around your neck.
  792. It seems like you were taking your first steps in here a lifetime ago, though it’s barely hours. It was scary, but you were almost smug then. The last person in here had been a man. It felt right that a man would be the first to set foot in here again after thousands of years. But you’re so far out of your fucking depth. It seems almost mythical that guys your age during your grandfather’s generation fought the Gatelanders to a standstill in the Contact War. Then again, the dead are making good use of those very same old human weapons right now.
  794. Your mind turns to the thing in the sarcophagus, conjuring visions of it raised in the same mockery of life as the long dead reptiles outside: slowly sitting up and casting off its sheet like Frankenstein’s monster, crawling out of its tomb and waiting for you all at the very place you rush towards.
  796. Impossible, the professor had said. She also said this trip would be safe. ‘Absolutely no chance of anything bad happening except some girls catcalling you and playing grabass. Skirmishes with the remnants of the dead are rare as hen’s teeth, and Gypthania is one of the most ordered and stable of the Gypt splinter states.’
  798. This doesn’t feel like some little skirmish either. It feels like a war, one kept hidden from the civilized world by lack of mass media and limited travel. How easy it would be for the local Apophiship to write you off as lost in a massive sandstorm. Freak accident. A natural disaster. It happens. Just some squirrely academic and a dumb Earther cityboy assistant who got unlucky. They wouldn’t even need bodies, just a little paper slip sent to your families offering their condolences and your personal affects from base camp.
  800. There’s that overwhelming primal urge to scream again, followed by the desire to just reject reality and black out.
  802. You gotta get a grip. Look at something, anything, just get your mind on something else. But it’s like a toothache. The more you try not to think about it, the worse the bubbling hysteria gets. Your scrabbling mind finally catches on one thing.
  804. The dromedary’s dusky tail swishes back and forth just out of reach of your dangling hands, the dark brown tuft at the tip the same color as the messy strands poking out from under her hood. It’s regular, calming, like a hypnotist with a pendulum. Unconsciously, your simmering brain works your eyes higher up her tail, noticing the cute little sleeve her cauda sticks through on her tight warded BDU’s. The same tight cloth accentuates every curve of her hips and ass. You suppose it’s fortunate the girl stores her fat in the very best places instead of having some kind of hunchback. Getting the same food and water rations as the rest of her unit, she’s living like a queen, the spitting image of a stereotypical Hathorite. No wonder everything looks two sizes too small on her. You’d bet she’d survive longer in the desert than the rest of the expedition combined, even if her uniform was hanging off her like a sheet at the end. Not that you’d want to see that version.
  806. Equal parts muscle and fat, bouncing just so with each jogging step, bump your fingertips. That size, that shape, that most delicate balance between soft and firm gifted by random combination of magic and genetics. Everything a man could ever hope to know about the perfect butt could be found here if he understood it completely. There’s only one word for it, profound. She has a profound ass.
  808. Okay, so it’s lowbrow, but who cares? You’ll take it. Half the women since you got through the gate have ogled you so why shouldn’t you get to do the same? There’s worse things to die staring at. The only hard part of the rest of the way is well, not getting hard. When you begin to hear the terrifying scrotum-shrinking sounds of something else chasing not far behind you all, it’s not as difficult as one would think.
  810. Finally you all reach the end of the crude tunnel, the well-lit antechamber is a welcome change to the battery-powered running lights in the corridor. Graystorm or no graystorm, the generators must still be running outside. The luminescence throws into stark relief the three of you all covered in ash from head to toe. You look more dead than the corpses chasing you.
  812. The busty camel props your busted self up behind a dripstone column, and Acenath deposits her gadstick into your lap.
  814. The MP tries to instruct you how to handle it with the fewest words possible while the jackal makes a beeline for the storage crates.
  816. <Hoooold it tiiiiight to your shoulder.> The soft soldier speaks slowly as if you were a child and taps her own ash-covered uniform to mime it out. Then she forces you into a firing position, her voluptuous bound chest pinning you to the pillar. <Shoulder. Understand?>
  818. <Garsh, hee undawstands you.> Growling, the anubus yaps in her stressed drawl while she fights the clasps on a pelican case with her paws. <He just caint spehk well.>
  820. <Just being clear.> Leaning against you, the plush ungulate rests her own gadstick on a box to steady her aim. <Hurry it up.>
  822. Fishing out a coveted pair of the massive power stones, the only two left in the rush, the jackal’s tail wags in victory. <Nheed soamthing-> She calls. <-to hyuld it on. >
  824. You know you saw something that could help earlier. You were carrying it, though it seems like eons ago. Something silvery pokes out from the bag of tools left by the door to the nested shrines. It’s a roll of duct tape.
  826. God bless duct tape.
  828. You start to point and the camel crushes your fingers down to the Gypt weapon. But her eyes aren’t on you. Shadows move in the dim light of the entrance. Dark forms turn the last corner at full speed, a flash of cloth and fur.
  830. The soldier holds her fire for some reason.
  832. Terrified halfway out of your mind, you don’t.
  834. In the clear air, no light flickers from the gadstick, just the fading glow of the bolts striking surfaces and the hum of semi-modern arcane technology in your hands. You miss five times in half as many seconds. Finally, a blue flash tags the lead on the sixth burst, the creature stumbling. Now you just need to hit the furry little bitch again and figure out how to keep her down. Something about that thought doesn’t sound quite right.
  836. You just about process what’s not right about it when the titty monster next to you tears the weapon out of your hands.
  838. “Watch where you’re shooting that, kit!” The vulpine Centurion barks from the tunnel in perfect English. <Limp ’n impotent, that stings.> She curses in her own language under her breath.
  840. Okay, you fucked up. But at least nobody was hurt.
  842. The rear guard arrives one short, just the fox and the manticore. You hope Thirty-eight is okay, but you have the sinking feeling she’s not. The golem is nowhere to be seen, and Handy looks madder than hell. The crimson glow of a purifier in the mane of the merc gives away Gilly’s hiding spot, the professor conspicuously quiet since the shooting started. There’s some big pros to concealment at her size. You’d hide in a crack in the wall if you could right now.
  844. “Well, where’s the door you were talking about, Doc?” The scorpion-tailed escort looks back over her shoulder at the dim lights, double-checking for pursuit. Handy nods like she got an answer, and you realize the tiny fairy has probably not been so quiet to monster ears. Not like the old ring would translate English to hear her like the others.
  846. The actual soldiers confer with each other while you lay against the pillar trying not to think about what’s coming or your busted knuckles or your throbbing ankle, already a nasty black and blue.
  848. The fennec commander breaks away first to organize the Gypts into new defensive positions. You flag her down, to offer quick apology but mostly for a quick go-between to the jackal, to let the dark canine know you found what she’s looking for. The giant-eared vixen raises one eyebrow at your words but repeats your message about <‘water bird rope’> then reprimands the tanker for lending a weapon to a <‘dumb panicky Dirt dick’>. But before she leaves, she gives Acenath a third stone. Bad idea or not, she seems to think it’s worth a try. Then when she’s sure her two grunts are hard at work, the centurion returns to conspire with Handy.
  850. The whispers between the two veterans confirm that the pair of them sealed the exit somehow to buy some time. Dr. Gilly is obviously in league with whatever they’re up to, and buzzes furiously around the burial chamber. All you can imagine is running out of air trapped down here. It’s already hard to breath with this filthy crystal in your gums.
  853. The anubis drags you over to her pile of crates once she gets her ramshackle barricade together. It takes some goofy miming and pointing but she finds the silver roll of duct tape and fetches it for you. It’s hard to focus when you see everyone on edge, counting the seconds. It’s still a long time before the gunship will show up, if it ever will.
  855. Green eyes follow yours as Acenath spies you watching the others, your terror growing like some evil weed rooted deep in waking nightmares. Your distracted busted human hands wrap her furry forearm in sticky strips, adhering the giant aquamarine beetle to her bracer.
  857. <You know, I don’t think you’re dumb. You’re just not a warrior.> Acenath says it carefully so she doesn’t slur the words.
  859. Not a warrior? No kidding. But no one would make the mistake of thinking that about her as she rubs the dried blood from her forehead. Sharp fangs glisten when she tries to give you a smile and attempts a little English. “Deayd scary.”
  861. “Yeah.” You agree, tearing the tape with that satisfying sound only duct tape makes. “The dead are real scary.” Ignoring the electric tingling in your skin, you repeat the process with her other bracer, then attach the third to her ancient mangled tiara. She makes you tape it to her head, to hold the topheavy armor in place. Half a roll of tape later, the Gypthar girl looks like a three year old tried to fix a broken antique statue, a really dusty statue.
  863. If this is the best you got, you’re all going to die. You don’t know dick about magic, but it seems like three stones big enough to power the ancient Gypt equivalent of tanks jacked into a skimpy little suit of armor will more likely explode than do anything else.
  865. You are most definitely going to die.
  867. Hands start to shake as the numbing prickles of terror spread from your head down to the tips of your toes.
  869. <We will keep you safe.> The jackal assures you, then shakes her head as she rethinks it. <No, I will keep you safe.> An ash-covered paw thumps her chest. <By the honor of Tutankhset.>
  871. She’s really laying it on thick, but those bright serious eyes mean every word. There’s something to be said for earnest girls with cheesy lines. Is it really cheesy if it’s genuine?
  873. The warm comfort she gives evaporates when the lights go out, and the purifier tucked in her cheek transforms her smile into a wall of flaming jack o’ lantern teeth.
  875. <Guess the ash finally clogged the gennies.> The camel behind you remarks as she snatches you up under one arm. A whistle from their Centurion and the jackal stands to follow. Acenath gives the dromedary a look that’s not all friendly, and the stacked monstergirl hugs you tighter against the side of her pillowy chest just to needle her squadmate. <Get your head out of the sand, pup, and quit dreaming about men. You need your mind clear and your paws free.>
  877. Everyone retreates to the inner sanctum, one eye on the tunnel behind. The good doctor bobs up and down like a firely with her little carbide lamp, tracing the paneling. The antique is a familiar sight on her desk back home, made from some rare old bicycle light.
  879. Her office, back at the university. Classes and tests and your cramped little dorm room, it all seems like another life.
  881. Camel girl stands close enough to the action that you can get a good at the professor for the first time since the shooting started. Other than the purifier smoke coming out of her ears like some cartoon character, she looks green, sickly green. Dr. Gilly squeeks something low to Handy and the mercenary steps forward. The disheveled fairy sobs into her dress.
  883. Then manticore raises her scorpion tail and you understand why. Brilliant. Unthinkable, but brilliant. There should be a secret passage between this sanctum and the husband’s tomb, a sacred way for the lovers to meet for their journey. The way would well-hidden to keep lonely spirits from taking him, but the path would be trap-free unlike the main entrance. Should be an exit from his tomb as well, from the original excavation in case of a cave in, even if it was filled in with chippings and regolith when the crypt was sealed.
  885. That’s what the doc was looking for. She found it. Smart. Real smart. That’s why she’s the professor and you’re the assistant.
  887. The ex-Coalition merc at the center clears some swinging space, winding up her tail like an ankylosaur, minding the vicious curled spike. With a thunderous ROAR, she smashes her chitinous mace into the wood façade. Paneling splinters and cracks in an explosion of fine dust and ancient paint. Handy roars again, her heart in it, and busts through the wall of the first shrine. Each heavy blow that follows rattles the whole room until she clears a man-sized hole, the history the space represented destroyed forever.
  889. Then she starts on the next one, furiously battering down the old cedar. Tears burn in the sweaty ash-covered manticores eyes as she unleashes all her frustration. You can’t imagine what it’s like to lose such an old friend as the golem was to her. Someone who was still kind and looked out for you just in the short time you knew her, after all the terrible things she faced in wars much worse than this, just to be gone. You don’t even know how.
  891. You’re still too shocked and numb to do anything but stare, cheek firmly pressed into a uniform-upholstered breast. But even your heart sinks to the floor when the final wall shows itself, blank unmarked stone.
  893. <FUCK! FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!> The tawny manticore bellows in her native Gate as she hooks her stinger under the paneling and tears at the boards, flinging debris every which way, showering the rest of you in splinters. The old lowland shock trooper destroys the impossibly rare artifacts viciously, relentlessly demolishing the shrines until her tongue lolls from her fanged mouth. Wildfire blazes in her slitted feline eyes. Sweat mats her fur and turns the ash caked on her to mud. She unsheathes the razor-sharp hooks of her claws and rakes them down the unforgiving rock until they dull and break.
  895. Eventually she wears herself out enough to come to her senses. Straightening her uniform, she turns her sharp predatory eyes back to the problem at hand, pupils reflecting green in the murk of the crypt.
  897. The cloud of wood particles finally begins to settle and soaks into your own skin, itching maddeningly enough to make you forget your throbbing ankle and hand.
  899. But what does it matter?
  901. End of the road. Even if you survived long enough for reinforcements to get here, they would probably get shot down anyway.
  903. The other mon don’t look nearly as devastated. Maybe they’ve already accepted the inevitable. Maybe you’ve never understood monstergirls at all. Everybody looks like they know something you don’t.
  905. It’s the wise old fox that paws away the splinters from huge manticore-made gash in the shrine. She holds her grungy furry fingers to the base of the wall, and even your poor human eyes see the fur ripple in the half-light.
  907. A breeze.
  909. <It’s widening.> She announces confidently, and the mood in the cold mausoleum improves tremendously.
  911. The half-naked duct-taped anubis and the merc, the two strongest in the group, grab crowbars and wedge them into the fine crack. Panting and sweating, they heave. Toned muscles a hundred times stronger than your own bulge on their feminine frames. The stone doesn’t budge. They try again, and keep forcing harder until the tool steel snaps with dual explosive twangs.
  913. “Xawalaat must be five tons.” The lioness curses and discards the broken lever in disgust.
  915. The jackal doesn’t understand all of it, but definitely knows the part you don’t. <Watch yoar layngwage een froant of the man.> Her tail bristles, even in the middle of all this.
  917. It actually makes the manticore sigh and smile at the pup. Then she makes some kind of twirling gesture with her paw you guess is an apology.
  919. Trapped like rats with corpses doing their damndest to make you all corpses too, how can they be so calm? Everyone seems like they have a special kind of insanity. Maybe that’s monsters or maybe that’s war. You’re no soldier, what do you know? You’re the one who can’t stop shaking like a leaf.
  921. Eyes still red from tears, the professor zooms into the space between the last shrine and the rock door. You can hear her buzzing around in there like a fly trapped between a window and shut blinds. A minute later and she reemerges, face covered in grit and sooty dried grease. “It’s a sun valve.” She says breathlessly. “I’ve never seen a working example. The graystorm is blocking the light, so the door is opening like it would for night. No way for me to get at the mechanism proper either. It’s mounted up somewhere near the surface. In any case, it’s mechanical, not magic. We just need to wait a little longer.”
  923. The two veterans hold conference with the fairy, speaking low and in English for the most privacy from you and the grunts.
  925. You strain your ears toward them.
  927. “…wouldn’t count on…time.”
  929. “…have the boy reset…booby…”
  931. “…wedge a couple doors…tunnel…”
  933. The archaeologist shakes her marble-sized head and raises her squeaky voice. “You know how much power the stones contain. We’d get vaporized in the backwash!”
  935. Handy nods her reluctant agreement. “So we buckle down and wait.”
  937. <So we wait.> The vulpine commander repeats bitterly.
  939. The fennec settles everyone hastily behind the shoddy bulwarks of dead lighting equipment and crates thrown together while the professor was searching for the door. All four gadsticks aim tensely down the tunnel. The soft MP keeps you close beside her and her makeshift fortification. No use keeping the cripple by the door in case there’s enemies on the other side. Though you’re all royally screwed if that’s the case.
  941. Every eye glitters in the dark but your own, waiting for the stone block to raise enough for the fairy to scout ahead. The red glow spilling from your mouths is the singular grotesque illumination in the tomb itself, contested only by the dim guide lights near the entrance. Dark, dark, everything is dark. Still no movement from the tunnel, no groans or moans or shifting rock. No tendrils of ash creep along the floor yet.
  943. A few minutes of strained silence and the slab budges the inch needed for your miniscule boss to crawl under. She sucks in her gut and folds her wings tight to her body, worming her way underneath like a mouse under a door jamb. Fairies are crazy flexible. You heard somewhere once that most of their skeleton is cartilage, same as a newborn babe.
  945. More time ticks by, each moment only counted by your racing heart. The massive cut boulder inches upward. A handspan, then more, almost enough for the short kitsune to squeeze through. Finally, Dr. Gilly returns with a triumphant buzz and alights on the chimeric lion’s shoulder.
  947. The professor strokes her chin with sooty fingers. “I don’t understand it.” She wonders in her shrill little voice.
  949. Handy has no patience for the fairy’s musing. Nobody does. “Well is there a way out or not?!”
  951. “Of course.” The minute Gyptologist stares hard at nothing at all, nibbling on her crimson purifier the same way a squirrel chews on a nut. “The infill is even cleared out of the tunnel. It’s just that it’s spread all around the burial chamber, like something dug its way out. And the sarcophagus is opened and empty.”
  953. “The dead can’t raise men!”  The giant-eared Centurion practically shouts from the next barricade over, faintest tremor in her voice. For that to be what rattles her: someone who certainly fought and killed men in Big Gate, who lived through bloody rebellion and has battled the undead. Some things are still too terrible for a monstergirl to imagine.
  955. “No. It’s old, and the grave goods are disintegrating but all there.” Her ingrained discovery fetish bolsters the voice of the sickly Leanan Sidhe. Her brilliant mind whirrs. “It doesn’t make sense.”
  957. “Worry about the details later.” Handy pinches the fairy’s skull and makes her look directly into one giant yellow cat eye. “It’s all clear?”
  959. The pointy-eared sprite nods.
  961. The merc turns to the Gypthanian fox. “Then that’s the way we go.”
  963. <A small dick is better than no dick.> The foreign veteran spits the strange axiom and takes a final glance at the quiet corridor before readying herself.
  965. The vulpine Centurion ducks her way into the sanctum and slips under the door: army crawling with weapon in front of her, saber dragging at her hip, ears and tail laid flat to squeeze through the less than half a foot of clearance.
  967. As if it was waiting for the group to split and break cover, and maybe that’s exactly what it was doing, the ash cloud pours through the main entrance. The haze of crematoria comes as a wall all at once, a fog covering the march of scaly undead and drowning the dim lights of the tunnel.
  969. You can’t see a damn thing, but your plush sentry throws you down to the hard rock just as the report of gunfire deafens you, echoing like a bomb in the cave.
  971. You’re deaf and blind. The faint red light pouring from the noxious crystal in your mouth only reflects back from the graystorm, a small foglight trying to penetrate pea soup, bone soup, dead soup.
  973. Blue flashes answer the gunfire and burn blinking yellow lines into your vision. The mist swirls around you, murmuring darkly, the crimson magic stuffed in your cheek choking you as it burns the cloying voices away.
  975. Then, as soon as it began, the explosive cacophony of guns peters out, leaving only the screaming ringing whine in your ears.
  977. In the deep dark of the cave, the cloud begins to glow a faint luminous blue, pale as moonlight. Shapes flit through it, some light, some shadow, all vaguely humanoid, some with claws or paws or wings.
  979. Worn and fractured protective green runes flash in the dark, drawing energy from the mist, and the fog thins around it. Ragged cloth and armor stands out in faded silhouette. Dark green scales shine black in the phosphorescence, some places stripped down to pale gray flesh. One Lizarda, just one, stands close enough to see her dead red eyes, lit from within by unnatural blue fire.
  981. <Your toy had more honor than you continentals.><…continentals…> The ghast speaks in the growling dead language of its long gone home, and the air echoes its words in a thousand terrible whispers. <Fight like monsters! With blood. With FIRE. EARN YOUR PEACE!> <…peace…peace…>
  983. Gadstick blasts assail the easy target. Primal terror sinks its teeth and claws deep into you as the beams scatter and dissipate in the glowing patches of ash surrounding the scaly creature. The graystorm itself is protecting the abomination.
  985. <So be it then.> The infernal undead throws down its rifle with a clatter. Broken claws connected to fingers that are as much bare bone as scales draw its saber. The polished blade, chipped and snaggletoothed from a hundred battles, held together only by runes of strength, slips from the scabbard with practiced flourish. <Wretched scum of the Wastes, PREPARE TO DIE!> <die…die…die>
  987. As its final words rebound in the crypt, another three sets of armor flash to life, and the remaining living know it’s time to retreat before the abomination’s words become truth.
  989. The Gypthanian camel sets the barrier alight with her gadstick, the shockproof plastic first melting under the rays, then whipping into orange flame, blocking the scales’ line of sight and billowing thick black smoke. A strong soft arm slips around your waist and hoists you up with less effort than a man would pick up a small child.
  991. Acrid smoke stings your eyes while her hooves grip at the slick aragonite. She gets to her feet, taking one sprinting step, then two, building her momentum.
  993. The crack of gunfire erupts from the darkness, muzzles flashing through the dim phosphorescence of the malicious cloud. None of the other gravetouched were as eager to abandon their tech as the one who issued the challenge.
  995. You can’t hear the rounds, or see them, but you feel the impact of the old metal-jacketed death strike the warded cloth beside you, one grazing your unprotected thigh. Modern Gypt battle dress flares brightly, the sacred glyphs bending reality back on itself, unmaking the first bullet then the second then the third, faster than you can count. The protective matrix begins to short as the very threads that make up the wards overheat and burn.
  997. Another burst splatters over her back and shoulders, tripping her up just outside the burial doors. Soldier girl has to make a choice between dropping you or her weapon to catch herself. She chooses you, and the gadstick gets left behind.
  999. But really, it doesn’t matter.
  1001. You don’t even pass the first door when another bullet finds its mark in her back. Big or small, you don’t know, only that this time the scorched and blackened wards don’t do a thing.
  1003. It pierces cloth and flesh and bone, burrowing right through her heart before blowing a softball-sized chunk out of her chest on its way out.
  1005. Death is instantaneous.
  1007. Two hundred pounds of hard muscle and harder bone swathed in deceptive softness crashes down on top of you. No twitching, no gasping. She’s just…just gone. You realize you never even knew her name. And that feels criminal for someone who went out of her way to try to save your life, just some worthless college boy lost in a place and a battle he doesn’t understand.
  1009. You lay there shellshocked, oblivious to the evils nipping at your heels, tears burning in your eyes like a small child. People like her deserve a better end than this, her and Thirty-eight and the poor mummy in the desert scorpion.
  1011. One second, one minute passes, you don’t know in your state while a pool of something warm and sticky soaks into your shirt that smells of raw meat and iron. Time ticks by. The ash slowly and inexplicably thins. You glimpse the secret door ahead of you, lit by a flare tossed in the gap. Ten feet of solid stone thick, three wide, and god knows how tall -at least eight feet- lowering much faster than it raised up. A barrier like that would stop even the dead for a good long time. Maybe if you had two good legs and half the energy of a monster you could make it. As it is, you have to struggle to get the dead weight off your back, the handguard of the Gypt’s saber catching on your belt.
  1013. The victorious growls of the reptilian ghasts echo closer.
  1015. What do these things even do with captured men? Kill them? Almost certainly. But in what way? Every zombie movie you can remember with actors chewing on beef organs and prop limbs flashes in your mind’s eye. Maybe you should just start hoping it comes quick and painless? There are things worse than death, so much worse.
  1017. Eyes peer back at you from the other side of the door, the manticore and your own small advisor waving her hands for you to get up, willing you to join them before it’s too late. To their credit, they don’t turn away until even a cheetah couldn’t make the distance in time. But they both have people they love more than life itself waiting for them back home. While it’s an ugly thing, it’s no real choice for them at all. Returning home to a husband is worth infinitely more than dying for a stranger.
  1019. You stare down the empty corridor, watching the flare burn out, waiting for the end to come. Only someone standing next to the door could make it through at this point. Your attention turns to your side. Your broken and bloody hands pull at the sword by your leg, hoping to at least end things yourself. You probably won’t have the guts to do it, but what’s left but to try?
  1021. The damn blade won’t even budge from the scabbard, meant to be drawn by monstrously strong hands, and you can’t help but laugh and cry at this final absurdity.
  1023. The click of bone and claw on stone approaches from behind, drawing near with a hiss of muffled joy.
  1025. <A Dirt man here? And not a soldier?> Sharp reptilian talons kick the body off of you and roll you onto your back. <Well, aren’t you a rare thing.>
  1027. A wretched creature stands over you, all rags and scales and pale white skin. It’s dead so old it no longer smells, embalmed by magic and the ages. Knicks and cuts cover its alabaster face. Great chunks are missing in several places, hacked away by blades and torn by claws. Huge swaths of the armored scales of her arms and legs have worn down to the diamond-patterned dermis below. Eyes that were blue once have long gone milky. But the ethereal thing that moves the old bones does not need them to see. Claws touch your twisted leg and cold numbness spreads up and down your limb. You can’t wiggle your toes. Soon you won’t be able to move at all.
  1029. Your paralyzed brain doesn’t quite process what happens next: a blur of black fur, the sound of two bracers striking one another and shining emerald light blazing forth, throwing the dead back like a solid wall.
  1031. Acenath towers over the Lizarda scrambling to their feet. The three great power stones gleam in glaring retina-frying beacons. The runes of her ancient armor passed down through her family, seven times as old as these walking corpses, lay cracked and destroyed, every lesser stone blow to bits by the massive arcane surge. You can hear her flesh sizzle from the heat. You can smell her fur burn. The trinity of beryl arcs beams of pure possibility from one to another. No circuits, no limiters, no control, no purpose but that given by the will behind it.
  1033. The jackal pays no mind, unsheathing her sword. The raw unadulterated power travels along the forged Gypthanian steel, wreathing the entire blade in aquamarine flame. Her face turns to you for just a moment, too bright for more than a glimpse of her radiance, and you finally understand why she talks the way she does. Under her piercing green eyes, a tongue longer than any you’ve ever seen hangs from her fanged mouth. The very tip drools onto her chestplate. Her visage is that of a predator: hungry, wild and feral.
  1035. This girl, like a monster from two hundred years ago, one who never had to fight armies of men, who never had to learn to harden her heart against their deaths, who still thinks of a male as the most valuable thing in the world whether he is hers or not.
  1037. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Naïve, but stunning all the same.
  1039. Even the dead seem shocked by such an animal. But they didn’t unlive this long by hesitating during a fight. The one who demanded honorable battle steps forward, brandishing her hoary blade, inviting the canine to single combat.
  1041. The young Gypthar tanker doesn’t even seem to acknowledge her, just sees her first target and hones in for the kill.
  1043. Gunfire erupts from the sides. The dead didn’t make it this long by fighting fair either. But against the power plants of three Dynastic Battle Scorpions, it’s less than a nuisance. The stones just burn brighter, melting the duct tape holding them into a plastic and fiberglass mess and blowing back every hint of the graystorm that invaded this sacred place, leaving the undead on their own.
  1045. Guided by instinct and half-remembered training, the anubis lunges forward, slashing at the lead ghast. It’s a clumsy attack, and the much more experienced Dragoon easily gets its sword up to block the blow. Lizarda bones and corroded armor rattle at the impact.
  1047. Acenath just leans into it, the enemy’s sword trying to dissipate the magic of her fiery blade until the old glyphs of the dead reptilian empire are finally overwhelmed. The steel shatters like pig iron, and your heroine cleaves her saber through armor just as easily until her saber burns deep into the undead’s chest.
  1049. The flames burn higher, catching onto the rags and rotten leather. Even then, the thing does not die. The gravetouched monster tries to grab at the jackal with its paralyzing claws. It should never have tried to come so close to the source. Flesh melts from bone. Bone grows so hot it explodes.
  1051. That’s enough for even the most durable abomination. The one-armed torch tries to flee to the safety of the ash.
  1053. It never makes it half that far.
  1055. Acenath howls that eerie coyote-like sound that jackals howl. Then she tears the thing apart. Fangs sink into cold white flesh and rip it out in great hunks. There’s no blood, nothing but cartilage, yellow bone and muscle the gray-green of rotten meat. Formless blue phosphorescence glows where the savage canine digs too deep, the very same as the shades in the mist. The fire burns hotter, the burning flesh sloughing off in a sick parody of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, until there’s nothing left to bite, until the entire struggling abomination is nothing but a crumbling scorched skeleton. Then that too turns to ash. Only the blue thing inside remains, screaming silently, not in pain but in sorrow. But you are beyond feeling sorry for it as it slinks back to join the other restless spirits in the storm.
  1057. The remaining trio of dead leer at the weaponless anubis, just beyond her range while she looks for any opportunity to destroy them. Only protecting you anchors her to the burial chamber. They know if it’s a waiting game, the creatures that have no need to eat or sleep are going to have the advantage. An hour from now, ten hours, they’ll be just as attentive and alert. And while the power stones will last, the jackal won’t. Every passing moment, the magic that empowers her eats into her.
  1059. But it’s not long before more monstrous dead start to trickle into the cave, in ones and twos and threes, lizards and scorpions and spiders and cats and dogs, every kind from everywhere. Some like the Dragoon wear their ancient armor. Others wear Coalition rags from Mon Grave or Big Gate, some fellows of Gypt in ancient and modern dress, even a single knight in the colors of the Five Eagles with an RPG propped up on her gilded shoulder. And those are the only ones you recognize, there’s more: all kinds from throughout the ages carrying swords, spears, guns, gadsticks, missile launchers, rockets and mortars.
  1061. The whole place glows blue from the spirits gathered mixed with the bright green shine of your protector. Each of them whisper in their horrible echoing voices in a mix impossible for your borrowed ring to make sense of. You don’t need to hear the translation to know murmurs of darkness and death.
  1063. All of them part as one when the worst of them strides through the entrance.
  1065. An archaic dragon, older than all but the most ancient in the assembly strides into the tomb with singular purpose, huge sawed-off autocannon from an aircraft in one hand and the shells to feed it strapped on her back. Broken horns crown a ruined face. A single wing folds over her chest like a cloak, the blue spectra bound to the corpse shining in place of missing bone and sinew. A massive striped purple paw, furry and full of razor-sharp claws, makes up her right arm. The rest is little more than a skeletal jumble of scales and talons.
  1067. It’s real fucking tough to kill a dragon. It’s got to be damn near impossible to kill the walking corpse of one. No wonder they survive to become animated piles of replacement parts.
  1069. This one bows her head and raises a fist in slight respect to the radiant Gypthar. Then she speaks, in the girl’s own native tongue, the way it was spoken almost five hundred years ago. <It’s been many years since I’ve seen a guard dog of the Pharoah. I commend you, Daughter of Set, for surviving so long slowed by the weight of a man.>No smoke escapes her cold black lips. The fire inside her died long ago. <So I make you this offer. Surrender and accept the great honor of eternal peace and rest. Or force this to the end and we’ll take apart the boy slow, then raise you to join us.>
  1071. The rabid Gypthanian animal subsides, and a hint of the gentle girl within peeks through. Her long tongue rolls back into her mouth. <Let…let him live.>
  1073. If by some miracle you both survive this nightmare, you’re going to love that woman twice as hard as any romantic fantasy she’s ever had. This is someone you could honor, someone you could strive to be better for, who deserves far worthier than you. But men are rare enough out here she might never get one at all. That’s absolutely unacceptable.
  1075. An angry ripple surges through the crowd. They say it in a dozen different languages, but it means the same in every last one. <‘Only when the living are dead, will the dead be free.’>
  1077. The dragon nods once, the bullet holes gouged in the bare bone of her cheek punctuating the finality of the movement. <‘Only when the living are dead, will the dead be free.’>
  1079. The ghouls and ghasts raise their weapons as one. The draconic abomination opens fire first, brass shells half the size of your arm spewing from the ejector of the antique Mauser BK-27 in her claws. The mutilated autocannon throws ten pounds of bullets at the anubis every second, thirty full-metal-jacketed pieces of hot screaming death pelting into the jackal’s burning green shields, each one half again more energetic than the sniper’s round that nearly took off her head outside.
  1081. And the Gypt just tanks it.
  1083. Then the machine gunners add their fire, then the lights, then the assault rifles, and then the marksmen with their anti-material bitch blasters building in ear-bleeding cacophony.
  1085. The three power stones blaze brighter than the sun, atomizing your body weight in lead and copper every heartbeat and dissipating Gigajoules of momentum. Behind Acenath, the inferno of heat washes over you, the awesome power keeping you both alive slowly cooking her at the same time.
  1087. Seconds pass, and the projectile orchestra peters out as weapons overheat and magazines run dry. The revolver canon alone continues its vicious assault without pause among a smattering of smaller arms.
  1089. KABOOM!
  1091. A rocket, a grenade, or something equally as terrible, explodes in the jackal’s face. Ancient shrine doors and walls transform into flaming tinder, the arcane shield protecting you two living from the worst of it. The sudden impact sends your savior stumbling back, her claws tripping over your prone form. It’s almost funny, in a crazy sad way, how she hops twice on one paw before crashing into you, the pair of you a tangle of scorched hair and limbs. Her tiara brushes against your arm, the stone searing your skin, sizzling a brand into you with bacon-scented pain. The carved scarab crystal dims at your touch.
  1093. The anubis’s eyes roll back in her head, every bit of her conscious will bent on forming something from the raw energy at her fingertips, almost passing out from the burning agony of it. She looks like someone grilled a dog. The arcs between crystals scour dendritic scars into her sepia skin like artificial lightning strikes. Her armor bites deep into her flesh, almost hot enough to melt.
  1095. Poor girl. You stroke her hair, even as the overflow roasts you at the same time. Your skin blisters in the furnace that protects you from the manmade weapons of the repulsive undead.
  1097. Then the Mauser goes silent and the hurricane of lead finally dies.
  1099. The beryl arcana fade to cool blue-green, and the unbearable heat fades with them. Acenath tries to sit up, to stand. But she’s all used up. She’s done everything she can. It’s more than anyone could expect of her or anyone else. For this exceptional jackal, she’s facing the reality that dying honorably is not nearly as glorious as it seems. There’s something about the flame of hope flickering up from embers just to have it blown out, an unmatched devastation. She sags into your arms and you hug her tight.
  1101. “I’m so sorry Acenath.” Your own selfish heart feels more for her than your imminent bad end, the first time you can remember feeling so in a long time. “You should have left me. You should have lived. But…thank you.”
  1103. The rotting dragon alone approaches with murder in her dead eyes.
  1105. The canine doesn’t understand it all, but she gets the gist. She licks your face, like a mother comforting her pup. <Doan’t look aet thaym.> The anubis whispers. <Doan’t look.>
  1107. Paws wrap around your throat and start to squeeze. But you know it for the mercy it is. There is only one last thing to do, and you can’t call it quits before you’ve done it. You stare into her eyes, those wonderful emerald eyes wet with grief. Beautiful girl. Tough girl. She’s still thinking of others when she’s hurting so much, inside and out.
  1109. You kiss her chapped and blistered lips, pouring your affection into her, unspoken promises of what could have been. There’s nothing more you can tell her. Choking in her paws, you couldn’t say it anyway. Her grip shakes before coming back harder than before. She mumbles ancient sayings, so dense with religious context that only scattered snatches about a feather, a lake of fire, a journey and the land of eternal reeds reach you.
  1111. <Praying?> The blighted wyrm actually snickers and builds to a raucous <Ahaha ahaha AHAHAHAHAHA!> Plundered cat claws heft a mace from her thigh, little more than a steel engine block etched in glyphs on the end of an I-beam.
  1113. It’s not her that interrupts the grim performance before it can conclude the final act.
  1115. <Desecrators!> The voice seems to come from everywhere, as if from the heavens itself to your oxygen-starved mind. <DEFILERS!>
  1117. The whole cave quakes with each infuriated syllable. A pure radiance blossoms in the crypt, not the soft pastel blue of a phantom or the harsh acid green of runes. White light erupts from glittering aragonite walls.
  1119. <You dare rob us!> The floor cracks and splits as if the small room cannot contain such rage. <You dare spill blood in OUR divine halls!>
  1121. Glowering in front of her own sarcophagus is a creature of greatest living antiquity, Khonsu of Gypt.
  1123. Artificial eye’s swivel in her falcon battle helmet, the enchanted lenses an age-old progenitor of the magitech used in golems. Her resplendent ivory wings extend halfway across the burial chamber, glimmering pinhead ruby power stones woven into the immortal keratin. Sharp Gypthanian steel glints in her hand. She brandishes the camel’s saber like she was born to wield it.
  1125. This was no gentle ruler. Khonsu was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, warriors of her day: the goddess that myth says slew the last true Demona Rex, the Blue Lilly, and began the breakup of the primordial demon realm that once spanned the known world.
  1127. The dead are not easily intimidated. But it’s not the goddess that gives them pause; it’s the enveloping radiance that comes with her: an antithesis of the soul and soot soup of the graystorm. The intangible bonds that shackle the phantasms to putrefied flesh start to wither and degrade, the bodies beginning to slip off like so much baggy cloth.
  1129. The ragtag ghoulish platoon can barely stand, much less raise their weapons against the glittering dark-skinned legend.
  1131. The centuries old draconic corpse, standing so close, takes the full brunt of her presence. Khonsu flares her wings like a hawk braking before it sinks razor talons into a snake. The network of priceless pidgeon-blood corundum arcana in her wings amplifies her heavenly wrath.
  1133. Scales and bones slough off into a neat pile at the ghast’s feet. The makeshift mace plummets to the floor first, still attached to the stolen paw as her frankensteined body unravels. The still-smoking Mauser cannon gouges a divot in the natural carbonate floor with a clang. Wounds of a hundred battles have left little inside the abomination: no intestines or kidneys or spleen, just one lung to talk that’s not even her own and a mangled gray heart.
  1135. Each piece that tumbles away reveals more of the thing underneath. The force that tears at the flesh bolsters the spirit, the pastel blue shade growing brighter, scouring away the corruption of unlifetimes like rust from good steel.
  1137. A great screaming hiss fills the air. The lesser abominations stumble, slink and crawl away, on their hands and knees if they have to, leaving a trail of weapons, armor and body parts behind. For something ostensibly not-alive, they have an extremely strong sense of self-preservation. They wouldn’t still be around after the Mon Grave War if they didn’t.
  1139. At last, only you, the anubis and the dragon’s naked wraith remain in the presence of the antediluvian celestial.
  1141. Standing in the remains of its mortal coil, the apparition of the wyrm is more solid than ethereal. She appears as she was in life, a stunning beauty of icy blue eyes and long moss-green hair. Elegant ebon horns twist skyward, decorated with the brass rings of long-forgotten Dragoon rank. Garbed in black armor over blacker scales, a single stirrup hangs from her ghostly belt, mourning the lost rider who could never be replaced.
  1143. Those phantom eyes, filled with malicious intelligence, scry every inch of the battle hawk in burial dress. <You are no Pharaoh.>
  1145. <We are Khonsu the Eternal: silver light of the moon, eater of hearts, enforcer of Maat and lord of pestilent souls.> Every word rings your bones like a gong. <Look on us and know your master.>
  1147. The scaly revenant stands straight and tall: defiant, proud and unbowed. A whisper of the same twisted voice of the ash protests weakly against the immutable authority of Gypthanian providence.
  1149. Kohnsu rears back and beats her mighty wings in a whirlwind of holy light. No pretty words, just brute strength to force submission. It whips at you in the anubis’s arms, like the purifier jammed in your gums but a thousand times more powerful. Every breath of city smog that ever lodged itself in your lungs pours out in acrid smoke from your lungs. Heavy metals, the legacy of a childhood near the old Ibex mines, collect and bead out of your hands in fine dust, turning fingers plumbus gray.
  1151. You feel like you’re going to die as it purges every contaminant from your body. Acenath herself cowers from Khonsu, overwhelmed by fear and awe, the way any Bible story mortal acted when Old Testament God called down his commands. Your own mind has been reduced to little more than a recorder. It’s the only way you can keep everything from turning off.
  1153. Under the same assault, the last tenuous link to the rest of the dead snaps, and for the first time in nearly five hundred years, the spirit of the great flying reptile is completely and utterly alone. No hivemind, no distant necromancer susserates into her ears. What remains is lost, staring wide-eyed all around. Untethered from control, the revenant is also unfettered from the here and now. You’re not even sure the ‘goon can see any of you anymore. Her claws lift from the floor as she drifts lazily into the air.
  1155. Khonsu folds her angelic wings and approaches the pile of gore underneath the haint. Her lapis and ivory-inlaid war helmet begins to fold up like something out of fucking Stargate, the faience reflectors clinking as they collapse into a gilded gorget around her collarbone. Dozens of beaded silver braids rattle on the compacted armor, now exposed as not a death mask but part of some missing larger armor set. A halo of sterling fire crowns her head, symbol of her rule.
  1157. Crimson sclera take in everything with cold fury. What must it be like to have been worshipped by thousands upon thousands, only to wake up to this mess? The dead dragon ignores her as the goddess sinks her arm elbow-deep into the pile of flesh already beginning to liquefy into black slime. The Gyptian idol grabs hold of what she wants and the sword follows, stabbing deep into the mush, cutting through a quartet of thick arteries and veins. A good yank and she pulls the heart free, the absolute embodiment of soul in ancient Gypt, nevermind the inattentive thing idly floating above. Or maybe it’s the resting place the Baa returns to? You were never clear on the finer points of the six versions of the Gypt book of the dead.
  1159. The preserved organ begins to beat again once in the celestial’s divine grasp. Barely awake five minutes and already the warrior goddess’s hands are slick with blood.
  1161. If she’s not a true god, she’s a force of nature, or something far beyond what most people ever encounter even in this world of unbelievable sorcery. Khonsu turns her brutal gaze to the burnt anubis: spotlight shapes dancing in her pupils; morphing from circles to hearts, chevrons to spades.
  1163. Bushy ebon tail between her legs, Acenath pushes you facefirst to the floor in supplication as the almighty heroine of her culture advances on both of you. She prays fervently, awaiting judgement.
  1165. The heavenly warrior simply deposits the cor of the dragon in front of the prostrating canine. <Go ahead. Do what you were made to do.>
  1167. The jackal looks up helplessly, seared skin covered in scorched armor and melted duct tape, every movement untold agony. A fearful yip is the only noise to escape her throat.
  1169. She wants the canine to render verdict on the wyrm’s soul. She wants that hallmark of the true Anubis, the very first who gifted her name to an entire race. Is she fucking kidding? Nobody can do anything like that anymore.
  1171. <Where is your feather? Where is your scale?> Khonsu bellows at Acenath and her crown of flame crackles ever higher. <Do you not serve a daughter of Maat?>
  1173. <Fourgave may. Fourgave may. Mercy greayt Khownsu, proatectur of Geeypt and all who traevel through eet. I beg you.> Brave sweet girl finds her tongue but can’t quite wrestle it under control.
  1175. Holy radiance sears your eyes as Khonsu’s frustration builds. <Blasphemers. Heathens. Agnostics. Traitors. Ammit and faerlosh!> The roof quakes and shudders, every punctuation another jarring shock. Stalactites crack from their moorings and shatter in glittering ruin on the stone below.
  1177. The primeval goddess covers her face in her hand, and the blinding light and cleansing silver flames subside, leaving only lonely coldness in its wake.
  1179. <We were never meant to be awoken by such as you.> She whispers. <My husband and Thoth and Set, even my children…everyone is gone.> Divine lips forget the royal we in revealing her profound sadness.
  1181. You don’t dare wonder how the Bird Divine knows such things.
  1183. Gathering the pieces of her stoic expression back together, she pulls the whimpering canine to her feet. <Stand.> She thunders.
  1185. Acenath sways on her feet, ready to collapse. Only her iron will and her fear and respect of the creature before her hold her up.
  1186. Khonsu’s gory fingers pluck a pin from a single bejeweled feather in her own wing, removing the imping that held it together. Now that you see her so close, you notice how many of her feathers are imped and broken, all disguised by skillful repair for her long sleep.
  1188. <Your kind have learned much.> The angel stares hard into the anubis’s bleary eyes, seeing far beneath the surface. <And you have forgotten much. But we will show you, this one last time.>
  1190. She retrieves the beating heart from the floor and places both it and the feather in the jackal’s paws.
  1192. The lamentable restless shade hangs two steps away, unconcerned with anything around it. For how does the living world affect the truly dead? Their time in it is done. Even regrets are merely anchors, and not forces of change.
  1194. <Answer us dolorous spirit.> Khonsu growls and trills the dead Dragoon language with the goddess’s gift of tongues. <For what purpose do you inflict such hate upon our people?>
  1196. <Purpose? You mean my orders…> The phantom stares absently into space for a long moment before it latches onto something in distant dusty memory. <I’m hunting down cowards and deserters from the battle.>
  1198. <Battle?> The divinity presses, inflicting her great will upon the revenant.
  1200. <Battle of Hollow Mountain.> And it looks afraid. <You don’t understand. We have to stop them. They could be infected. If we don’t halt it here, it will be too late. We have to kill them. We have to kill ALL of them.>
  1202. Hollow Mountain? Some long forgotten battle of an almost-forgotten people.
  1204. <I-I doan’t undawstand her.> The anubis barely manages, more whisper than speech.
  1206. <You don’t need to, you gormless child.> The goddess mutters into her ear, the words dripping with divine influence. <Just listen. Hold her heart. Is it heavy? Is it light?>
  1208. Acenath woozily clicks her teeth, the old Gypt ‘either/I don’t know’, and collapses into heavenly arms.
  1210. That’s enough for Khonsu as she lays the unconscious-god you hope it’s just unconscious-jackal on the floor of her tomb. The crown of silver fire leaves her head, hissing twisting and stretching into a tall oval door. Within the towering flaming hoop is a place not so different from where you are standing, full of dark tunnels and raw stone. Great famished beasts shriek far out of sight in the unfathomable depths.
  1212. But you recognize the look, the smell, of this kind of magic. You’ve seen it and stepped through it once before. This is a gate, a fraction the size of the monstrous portal at Port Babylon. Only, it doesn’t lead to Earth.
  1214. The dragon’s wraith turns restless at the sight, intangible eyes gaining focus and purpose the same as when she was connected to the rest of the dead. Ghostly tarragon ears fan wide to a call only she can hear.
  1216. <Titus?> She croaks. <My Titus…my beloved, is it really you?> Disbelief slowly blossoms into joy. Tears of bliss would stream down her cheeks if she could still shed them. <I’ve missed you. I’ve missed you so much for so long. I never thought…I never believed…>
  1218. The insubstantial dragon leaves her heart where it fell on the ground, the piece of meat once again still. Her ticket has been punched, and now all that’s left is the stub.
  1220. <Wait for me just a little longer, my love.> The insubstantial Dragoon draws a scimitar from her uniform that’s mere memory and approaches the portal wreathed in sterling flame. <Wait for me where the five rivers meet.>
  1222. Then she passes through. For just a moment, the spirit seems solid and real. Metal accents flash. Armor clinks over scales. Smoke billows from her nostrils. The creatures lurking in the deep call out their voracious hunger. She roars an orange inferno in return. The smell of dragonfire wafts back through the rift.
  1224. Then the scene wavers and disappears. And you’re left to wonder just what is real, and just where that place was. It’s so hard to think over the burns and the pain. You only know you have to make it where Acenath lays. You have to know that she’s alive. But she’s on the other side of Khonsu, and there’s the portal between you.
  1226. The rebounding ripples of the gate settle once again. Another forbidding landscape looms large in its depths: dark and cold and full of snow. Faint red sparks drift down in fiery rain from an inky starless sky. Maybe it’s not snow at all. Maybe it’s ash.
  1228. Khonsu stands before the gateway, searching with the white highbeam lights of her eyes. Thousands of years and worlds apart, and you can still tell from her face that what she sees is more unexpected bad news.
  1230. The legendary warrior girds herself and tucks in her vast wings. Then she turns her terrible gaze on you. All you care about is your fluffy protector. You inch toward Acenath with a busted hand and a twisted foot on a numb leg. Please let her be alive.
  1232. The goddess does not offer a helping hand or holy relief to either of you. She just speaks in that awful migraine-inducing voice from everywhere. <Be at ease. The Acheron will sanctify this place and make all as it once was, as it should be.>
  1234. <We must leave you now.> Khonsu steps through the gate, the fire slowly closing in behind her. <We have our own questions that need answering.>
  1236. A pathetic shower of argent embers, like a tiny New Years sparkler, is all that signals her exit from this plane. The holy ambience snuffs out without her, and once again, everything is gloom. Dim battery lights in the tunnel still sputter their soft illumination, cheap Chinese junk that’s weathered more sorcery and firefights today than most modern Coalition magitech.
  1238. Forget the dead and the gods and all the rest. Your only concern is the canine, her fur clearly smoking in the dusky light. You crawl up to her, feel the relief pour through your entire body as you see her chest rise ever so slightly. She looks worse than Khonsu did in her coffin.
  1240. You see the pallor of her cheeks, feel her tremoring muscles.
  1242. ‘She’s going into shock.’ Your mind says what your lips dare not.
  1244. What can you do? You have to do something! You can’t…you can’t just do nothing. Her armor is still red hot to the touch, soft brown skin seared all over. The only first aid kit was in the rover, and that’s not an option. You stroke her frazzled and scorched hair, and your heart aches while your barely-rational brain schemes.
  1246. Men can’t use magic for shit, except true Gypas and the warlocks of the gatelands that were hunted to extinction. Earthside has no magicians at all. But maybe you should still try to use the power of the stones to heal her. Even as resilient as monstergirls are, you don’t think she’ll survive without treatment. But what if you screw it up?
  1248. She saved you.
  1250. She sacrificed herself for you.
  1252. You owe it to her to try.
  1254. Caressing one of the beryl arcanum melted to her lovely paw, you concentrate, willing the force of possibility to answer your call.
  1257. Nothing.
  1259. You will it harder, every last bit of your resolve bent upon drawing out the spell you need. Your one good hand holds her heavy paw over the other. You drop it and strike two of the stones together in the same way the monsters did to kickstart them.
  1261. CLACK!
  1263. There’s no spark, no light. The sculpted crystals lay dormant and cold.
  1265. ‘Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Zippo. NOTHING!’ Anger and despair cascade from your heart, building like an avalanche. There’s no fear or terror left, only frustrated rage.
  1267. “FUCK YOU ALL! FUCK THE DEAD! FUCK GYPT! FUCK THE GATELANDS! AND FUCK YOU KHONSU!!!” Your lungs work fine enough to shout, echoes booming from the walls. “PROTECTOR?!! YOUR PEOPLE?!! WHY DIDN’T YOU HELP HER? SHE’S BETTER THAN ALL OF YOU! SHE’S THE ONE WITH A HEART! SHE’S THE ONE WHO CARES! GO AHEAD AND RUN AWAY!” A sob catches in your throat. “We don’t need gods like that.”
  1269. A deafening crack splits the floor of the burial chamber, right through the middle of the central bier, opening toothy fissures along the great mural of ancient Gypt.
  1271. You get the feeling you just did the same thing as crossing the seal in the Last Crusade, and you don’t give a damn. The crevices in the sundered rock widen to chasms, swallowing equipment and bodies and bones. The sound of rushing water boils and gurgles from far below.
  1273. Something niggles at the small rational corner left in your mind. ‘The Acheron.’ Where have you heard that before? Acheron, that’s not a Gyptian name.
  1275. The gurgling grows louder and the whole cave vibrates with the force.
  1277. Great gouts of water erupt from underground in a massive artesian fountain, welling up along every joint and fault. Frothy torrents throw around flotsam made from anything that fell down the bottomless fissures. The large puddle quickly spreads to a pool, filling the low spots of the cave with a fine even sheen. And it just keeps on rising, higher and higher, inevitably splashing near your heels. Drowning in the middle of the desert, you could almost laugh. Yeah, that would be par for the course today.
  1279. The water soaks into your socks and your boots, slowly lapping up your legs. Cold sogginess spreads up both your shivering legs, and into the seat of your pants.
  1281. Wait a minute. Both. Your. Legs.
  1283. You can feel both of them now, the ghast’s paralysis gone. You test your bad ankle and it pops loudly back into its proper place. No pain.
  1285. That’s it! The water! This is THE legendary Acheron, the river of woe!
  1287. ‘I take it back Khonsu. I take it all back.’ You grin, splashing your busted knuckles in the half inch deep water at your fingertips. You can almost hear the bones knitting back together, and you can actually see the torn skin return to normal.
  1289. Cupping your hands into the water you splash the rejuvenating liquid all over the unconscious Anubis. You dare not miss a single spot: lifting up her armor, drenching every part of her, careful only to keep it out of her mouth. Horrific burns heal over with the smallest wash and even hair regains its silky luster. Only the scars remain, great networks of interconnected bolts in the shape of lighting all up and down her arms.
  1291. Finally, the color begins to return to her lovely brown face as she breathes peacefully. You’d hoped she’d wake but you’ll have to be satisfied with one miracle at a time. You have to make do with what you have. The water is above your ankles now. You can’t drag her out. She must be over four hundred pounds with her armor on. Probably two hundred and change with it off. No way these skinny exhausted arms can do that either. Not that it matters. Most of the catches on her gold plates were flash-welded anyway.
  1293. So you’ll let the water help you.
  1295. You navigate the treacherous footing down into the antechamber. Fresh currents push at your waterlogged boots, trying to sweep you off your feet. You search feverishly among the wreckage of the expedition, already piling up in soft whorls of eddies, finding the most buoyant of the watertight pelican crates and shoving them back into the burial chamber. You gather half a dozen and begin to tie them together with straps and electric cord from the flood lamps, hacking at the copper strands with your tiny swiss army knife. They’re flooded flood lamps now. You shouldn’t chuckle at that but you do with a hint of the old hysteria as the water rises to your knees.  You look back; it’s almost to the anubis’s chin where she lays propped against a lighting stand. You need to hurry. The icy swirling fluid is getting harder and harder to push through.
  1297. But you see something, catching the light on the inky water. Floating in the rest of the mess of lumber and twigs and flowers is a singular coil of silvery gray caught on a two-by-four. You’ve said it before and you’ll say it again. “God bless duct tape.”
  1299. With that vital salvage, you’ll be able to lash the unbelievably heavy jackal in her even more unbelievably heavy armor to the slapdash raft of pallets and crates.
  1301. It’s amazing. You feel almost giddy, when the regular you would have been a jibbering wreck. Hope. That’s what it is. You both have a real chance of making it out. Might be a battalion of dead waiting outside, and there’s certainly a hundred miles of desert between here and civilization if there’s not, but you can’t ask for more than the fortune you’ve gotten.
  1303. Grunting and straining every muscle you have, adrenaline pumps hard through your veins. The water washes away torn ligaments and strains as they happen, all while you leverage the monstergirl onto the pallets laid over the floats. The subterranean pond grows ever higher and colder, until you start to lose feeling in your toes. Well, the river of pain wouldn’t live up to its name if it was all good.
  1305. You have to tape Acenath to the raft as much as tape the raft together. You use up the whole roll, the jigsaw of floats struggling to pop apart and bob around the massive weight pushing them down. But it holds. The water rises to your thigh and there’s a nerve-wracking grinding as the makeshift raft scrapes bottom and finally lifts free.
  1307. Sweating even in the freezing water, you make a tress from another extension cord as fast as you can, wrap it around the almost-cocooned jackal and start toward the exit. You’ll need all the lead time you can get, or you’ll be swimming the last leg. You won’t be able to budge four hundred pounds then whether it’s floating or not.
  1309. The miniature barge wallows, overloaded and low in the growing lake, aquic magic sloshing over the side. But as long as you can move it and it keeps her mouth above water, that’s all that counts.
  1311. Determined legs pull the raft with careful urgency. If this thing capsizes, she’s dead. You don’t have the strength to right it if it goes over. You guide the jury-rigged watercraft through growing currents, floating debris, and the odd rotting limb of a corpse -Jesus Christ you’re glad nobody can see you flinch and scream when one of those brushes you in the dark- as you make your way toward the tunnel exit.
  1313. There’s only three things on your mind: checking Acenath every few seconds, noting the water level -almost up to your chest now- and the distance to the slope of the rough entryway.
  1315. And if the dead collapsed the tunnel on their way out…
  1317. Okay. Four things. But you can deal with numero quatro later. Right then. Positive thoughts. It’s been nothing but extreme luck today: extremely good and extremely bad. Keep banking on the good.
  1319. The raft holds together with nothing but prayers and duct tape until it beaches on the narrow slope of the main exit tunnel. The sharp walls catch on the life-raft, worse than pulling a couch around a tight corner in a hallway. You have to get it unstuck, but the rushing water just jams it in tighter. Clambering over the top of the jackal to get behind the raft, you push and you strain, leaning into the crates with your shoulder. Come the fuck on!
  1321. Another damn piece of corpse bumps against you at that exact moment and you channel that terror into a mighty heave, the weathered limestone wall crumbling against the hard plastic of the raft. Fuck YES!
  1323. You hope there’s not too many places like that further up the stupidly long corridor. You just eyeballed the size of this thing after all. Well if the rock is rotted and mixed with clay, then that’s what you’ll attack next time and get out of the jam much easier.
  1325. You’re so engrossed with patting yourself on the back, that it takes a second to realize the thing that brushed you didn’t just brush you. It’s latched on. You turn and another hand shoots up from the water, grabbing onto your shirt for extra pull, perfect and fresh and icy cold, attached to something much bigger in the black depths.
  1327. You try to shake it loose. You back up and scream, but there’s nowhere left to go. And you have no weapon.
  1329. A monster rises out of the inky pool, soaked robes clinging tightly to what was a dynamite body, horrifying and tragic at the same time. It’s camel girl, dead as a doornail. Well dead’ish. Blue light shines faintly through the hole in her chest and in her eyes, soft brown eyes. You never noticed the color before or the lush lips hiding under her face wrap. She was a beauty, and for all her no-nonsence attitude, just as young or younger than the jackal behind you.
  1331. With Khonsu gone, whatever malevolent force connects the dead is here. Your own clothes are soaked with the mythical border between worlds. It’s folly to think they would be completely driven away. Your purifier flares up, quieting the whispers in the still air. But no gray, no ash.
  1333. The dead soldier stands at arm’s length in her bloodstained uniform. Unlike the wicked rotting things, the newly-raised corpse just looks sad, a deep dark sorrow.
  1335. You can actually hear the water sloshing around in her body cavity as she steps close, melancholy expression right up in your face. A cold palm caresses your cheek even as your scream peters into a terrified wheezing rasp.
  1337. The icy hand combs stiffening fingers through your dripping hair, fascinated with your warmth and life and hating it at the same time.
  1339. <To think I’d die here.> She opens her mouth and speaks in that chilling echoing whisper of the undead. <Mom always said not to get my hopes up for glory or a man. The odds are real long for a poor Hathorite girl either way.>
  1341. The gravetouched ghoul sighs with sincere regret, calloused fingers reaching for a dagger in her belt. <Guess she was right in the end.>
  1343. She moves so fast, you never even catch the flash of the blade before it plunges deep into your chest with a wet shunk.
  1345. Oh, oh shit...
  1347. <What a waste.> The camel means it, even while she twists the knife in your liver with white flashing pain.
  1349. What she doesn’t realize is your wet clothes are healing you as soon as you’re wounded. You aren’t dying or bleeding out. That still doesn’t stop the torment or bring much comfort when the razor sharp steel is still inside you. You can feel it in there, cutting you anew with her every twitch.
  1351. <Shhhh. Shhhh. Don’t struggle and it will be quick.> The dead Gypt whispers in your ear.  <You can let go. I promise she won’t suffer either. She won’t come back.>
  1353. “I’m begging you.” You croak with tears washing down your face. “Please. The fight’s over. Just let us go. She was your friend. Please!”
  1355. The ghoul leans in, forcing the short blade deeper, aiming for your heart. Blackness threatens to overtake you and shield you from the insufferable torture. <‘Only when the living are dead, will the dead be free.’>
  1357. You reach back to the raft trying to grab anything you can. Something sharp and hard would be good. If you can cave in her skull, she should stay down. You hope that’s what killed the one Handy shot anyway.
  1359. Your fingers brush Acenath’s bracer, the melted mess of duct tape, and the lump of mystical crystal at its center. This time it isn’t dead. You don’t know why but some sort of terrible feedback arcs from the stone. The ancient sorcery travels in burning lines up your hand and through your arm, spreading over your whole body and everything connected to it. The raw magic leaps from the dagger in your chest to the corpse in front of you, wreathing you both in aquamarine fire.
  1361. And before the darkness overtakes you, you have the faint sensation of falling…a long long way.
  1363. ***
  1365. Sunset paints the dunes of the Monthura Erg all the colors of the rainbow, each lesser one fading from red through green until only the dark purple of midnight is left, pinpricked by stars and the twin moons of Arga.
  1367. You’re sitting in your family tent, burning bits of sedge to get the cooking fire going. It will be bustard chowder tonight. The real trick isn’t the cooking at all; it’s plucking the bird without boiling it first. It will be a couple days before the tribe arrives at the next oasis, and water is tight until then.
  1369. ‘Ah crap, broke the skin again.’ You still haven’t learned to do it quite right.
  1371. You sigh and feed the scrap to your hooded falcon, tied to her perch with a tether. The raptor accepts the meat happily, stripping it from the feather with her razor sharp beak. She’s still undergoing manning, but maybe she’ll hunt for you soon.
  1373. The cooling night air blows over your sweaty robes when someone quietly slips into the tent. You don’t need to turn to know who it is bringing the last ingredient for supper. Two massive soft weights settle on your shoulders and mold themselves to your back. A familiar light brown hand places a fresh jug of cream, skimmed from gallons of milk, into your lap. It better be familiar. It belongs to the woman you swore yourself to.
  1375. Your wife’s luscious lips pull at your hair, absently chewing at it like grass as she hugs you from behind. That’s not good; she only grazes on you when she’s really stressed. Shadda doesn’t say anything for a long moment, just enjoying your warmth and nibbling at you while you yank out handfuls of bustard down. She only speaks up once the bird is cooking in the pot.
  1377. <You know ‘Adid milk is better for you than Holstaur milk?> The loving dromedary relaxes further, using you as a shelf for her breasts to take the load off her back. <More essential nutrients and even the lactose intolerant can drink it. That’s where all the old stories about priestesses of Hathor having milk anyone can partake came from. You can survive off nothing but ‘Adid milk for months. It’s that balanced, because we’re the ones built to travel the sands and care for our husbands and children. The holstaurs may say that they share Hathor’s image, but we’re the ones who carry civilization on our hips.>
  1379. She’s rambling. That’s extra not good, her roundabout way of trying to bring up something that will cause a fight and hating any fight at the same time. She’s so kind. But you’re going to head this one off at the pass.
  1381. <I know where you’re going with the history lesson, Shadda.> You kiss her hand. <The answer is no.>
  1383. She grumbles a burbling camel grunt, like a lion roaring through a clogged drain. Those incredible I-cups press harder against you, the forceful nudge begging you to relent. <Please? Mom would stop nagging me. I know you love doing it. What does the place matter?>
  1385. <It just makes me uncomfortable, okay?> You say for the hundredth time. <I don’t like doing that sort of thing in public.>
  1387. <It’s normal for ‘Adid. And you are now ‘Adid, so it is normal for you.> Monster teeth nip your ear hard. <Perhaps you would prefer my older sister share your bed, hmmm? Or one of my cousins or my aunts or my second cousins? Maybe Mom? She’s awful fond of you.>
  1389. Boy, she can get passive aggressive when she doesn’t get her way. But you understand the pressure she’s under. It’s just that it’s creepy, having everyone watch you all the time. There’s at least three busty relatives staring at the both of you right now, having entered since Shadda did, getting their evening entertainment watching the newlyweds. And there’s more coming in as the smell of dinner wafts around camp.
  1391. You can’t exactly blame them. You are the only man here. Shadda’s father was already old when she was born, and the ‘Adid have had to make do since he died with paid dick on their rare visits to a city. A husband is a great prize, and one the tribe feels should be shared more than Shadda shares you.
  1393. It’s worse on the older women than the younger ones. They remember what it was like to have a man in their bed who loved them and whispered sweet things in their ears. And they miss it terribly. Shadda’s mom actually burst into tears when you hugged her the first time you met.
  1395. You don’t know what to do. After all these months, you’re still getting used to this alien place. The only thing you’ve sort of learned is the language. But you do know one thing with all your heart.
  1397. <Shadda.> You reach behind your head to scratch your wife’s little fluffy ears, almost lost in her tangle of auburn hair. <You know you’re the one I love. You saved me, and I will always be yours.>
  1399. Her tufted tail slaps indecisively against her thick thighs as she thinks, trying not to get distracted by your affectionate petting. Then your wife makes up her mind. And once she does that, nothing on heaven or earth can stop her. She stands up and spins you around to face her, and you have to lean back in the sand to see her impish grin hiding behind her twin mountains. <Then show everyone how you love me.>
  1401. Dinner is definitely going to burn.
  1403. Shadda kneels down and pushes you prone with her chest alone. The ‘Adid’s powerful childbearing hips grind into your lap, incredible ass pinning you to the ground as she straddles your growing erection. Strong hands undo the knots of your robes and play over your naked chest. Fiery lips meet yours and your heart swells as your return the kiss with equal vigor.
  1405. Her osculations mark a hickied trail across your cheek until her lustful breath pants in your ear. <Show them your love in our people’s way.>
  1407. There’s a shrieking crackle of breaking glass followed by an explosive crack like a giant lightbulb blowing out, and you feel yourself drifting free once again as everything slips into nothingness.
  1409. ***
  1411. What? What the fuck was all that?
  1413. It was you, but it wasn’t. You saw and smelled and felt and knew things. But it wasn’t this you pulling the strings.
  1415. The light comes back gradually to gloom: a thousand watery reflections of dim battery LED’s and the faint blue flicker of a bound soul in a ruined husk. The Gypt holds her stance scarce inches from you, bloody dagger in her hand and out of your chest.
  1417. <‘Only when the living are dead, will the dead be free.’> The undead dromedary repeats the mantra of the army of the damned, thoughtfully this time, the trapped spirit inside of her glimmering in her eyes.
  1419. You look into them and you know. You know she saw what you saw.
  1421. The ‘Adid sheaths her blade, and leaves you gasping against the raft.
  1423. “Shadda…” You start and are shushed by icy fingers.
  1425. <Well, it’s not like you’ll live forever. I suppose I could let you go.> She hugs you, a soggy sad hug even for a corpse. <Just. This. Once.> Then she kisses you, lovingly, passionately. It’s not like you remember in the vision. She’s freezing cold, and she tastes like death and blood.
  1427. <We could have had something special couldn’t we? Another time. Another place.> The abomination takes the protective menat from around her neck, ward against the evils of the underworld and symbol of her religion, and hangs it around yours. <Take care of the cave pup, farlander, and she will take care of you.>
  1429. Shadda turns away. You’d swear if she was alive, it would be so that you couldn’t see her cry.
  1431. You start pushing the makeshift barge, just in case whatever evil that brought the camel back has a strong enough grip on her spirit to make her change her decision.
  1433. You don’t dare look back until you’re far along the tunnel, following the path of the rising tide.
  1435. Acenath still sleeps, oblivious to the close call. Good. The jackal has done enough. She didn’t need to see her friend like that. You look her over again, seeing if you missed the smallest cut or burn. It’s near impossible to tell in the dying lamps of the limestone path, but she looks perfect, just exhausted. Who isn’t? Your own burning muscles have been screaming at you to quit since five hundred steps ago.
  1437. You really wish you could dump the armor, even more than before, but they come as a package deal. It’s so pointless. The half-melted artifact will likely be junked after this or relegated to a museum, so warped and ruined. Only the huge power stones retain their value, most of them anyway. One beryl arcanum that had enough magic to power a living tank for a thousand years lays cracked and black and dead, completely drained of all its power. Only the one, the one you touched. The other two thrum with untapped potential.
  1439. You wonder, as you will wonder again and again, just what you saw and what took so much ancient voodoo to make work.
  1441. The thoughts swirl in your tired mind as you slog through the water like a machine. You’re almost detached, unfeeling, just going through the motions. It continues for what seems like years. Looking back, you have no idea how you actually muddled through.
  1443. That all changes when you see the square sunlight of the exit, red setting sun falling behind the far away mountains, and the jackal opens her beautiful emerald eyes. Somehow, deep down, you know this is the end of this adventure.
  1445. But not the last one before you get home.
  1447. _____________________________________________________
  1448. Epilogue
  1449. _____________________________________________________
  1451. Time seems to speed up, your feet skipping over the ash-covered ground, gray covering the sand like three feet of snow. Moments flash by in quick succession, lasting as long as your toes touch the sand.
  1453. The weeklong journey through the burning desert.
  1455. Sleeping during the day. Traveling at night.
  1457. Always looking over your shoulder for the dead, and never seeing anything. No ghouls, no corpses. Like they just vanished.
  1459. The first time you made love with Acenath under the stars, both of you wanting to be close to someone, but the beginning of something deeper and more real than lust and comfort.
  1461. Stumbling on the remains of the Iron Vulture, sticking out of the sand like the plane in goddamn Thunderdome.
  1463. How the canine kept you from dying of thirst at the very end with her own saliva.
  1465. Your detainment and interrogation by the Gypthanian patrol that found you.
  1467. The questions and interviews from the Gypthanian army that lasted for weeks.
  1469. How they took every bit of proof you had but the stones Acenath carried.
  1471. How the jackal never let anyone take you away from her, never let you out of her sight.
  1473. How her family finally bribed the right people to get you both out.
  1475. How it only worked because you proclaimed yourself hers and only hers.
  1477. The horned viper Centurion didn’t want to let you go. An unclaimed farlander, already declared dead in the rest of the world, would be worth a fortune to the right person. And when men are only five percent of the population, there’s a lot of right persons, even vipers who’d rather have children than a fortune.
  1479. The first time you saw the green of date palms and the sound of running water in the irrigation channels of a place that gave you peace.
  1481. That still gives you peace.
  1483. The kaleidoscopic hurricane of scenes finally ends.
  1485. You open your eyes in a bed in the villa of House Tutankhset, in the oasis city of Kerajor: your bed, your villa, your family, your home. The brightening sky preparing the sunrise washes your silk sheets in soft pastel blues and greens. Acenath is already up and staring wide-eyed at you, ears straight up, awoken by your muffled screams. The anubis whines like a sad puppy and nuzzles your neck.
  1487. <The dreams again?> Your wife asks carefully with loving concern.
  1489. God, it kills you to see her worry like that. The blood rune on your chest, twin to the one on the jackal, prickles with ambient magic. You sigh and give her a comforting smile to tell her you’re okay even if you’re really not feeling it. It’s just the seer sickness. Deja vu gone wrong, the one unique sorcery of Earth, near dead. Sometimes magic can jar the tendency loose, though farlander men can’t hold the power within.
  1491. But living in Arga, the old world where enchantment is everywhere, if you have even a drop of the blood of an oracle, you will at least have the dreams: what was, what might have been, perhaps what was in another place or will be. Amazing to some, but utterly useless. For there’s no control, just haphazard visions dredged up from the unconscious mind.
  1493. You haven’t had a real vision since back then, but the dreams make you relive that day over and over and over again, just as real and visceral every time. Then there’s the questions it left. You never found out what happened to Doc or Handy or the others. Even the oasis that sprung up overnight around the tomb remains a forbidden zone. Nobody goes there, military or otherwise. And stories of skirmishes with the dead continue to trickle in, near mythical, of storms and armies that appear and disappear in the wind of the deepest most desolate deserts.
  1495. Secluded out here, you haven’t even been able to get word to your family back through the Gate. They probably buried an empty casket by now. You had to shed that life to make it out here. You don’t even look the same, toned whipcord muscle having long since overtaken your gangly limbs. Ace likes you that way, and you like helping in the orchards and vineyards, even if in reality your strength is still like a child compared to everyone around you.
  1497. At least the tormenting memories come less often now. You hope one day they disappear entirely. You’d like that, to be able to focus solely on the future with the one woman you love more than anything. One for now; that number is going to grow very soon. Though you’re not sure if you’re ready for it.
  1499. Your wife rubs her gravid middle with a fluffy paw, her once rock-hard abs subsumed by motherly hormones and all the cravings needed for a strong pup. It’s rare for a monstergirl to get pregnant so soon after marriage, and not for lack of trying. That happy news started superstitious rumors of virility out here. Combine that with the exotic genes of Earth, and it’s an irresistible mix for many man-starved houses in the city. That’s why they’ve been so aggressive lately. Like you don’t cause enough problems for this wonderful woman. She still has to fight to keep you to herself.
  1501. Ace frowns at the thinking lines on your forehead and gives you a sweet lick on the cheek with her supremely long tongue. <Wyuld you do me a favor, my husband?>
  1503. ‘Gozi : MY husband.’ She loves that Gypt word and the singular bond it implies.
  1505. <Mmmm hmmm.> You mumble back, pulling your fingers through her long black hair and playing with her tall fuzzy ears.
  1507. <Can you get the oil for me?> Morning dog breath washes over your face while she snuggles up to you, her pregnant belly pushing into your abdomen. <My scars hurt.>
  1509. Sly dog. Making you get up and move so you don’t mope. That’s your better half, your desert rose. It makes you smile just thinking about how much your moods feed off each other, always superior to being alone.
  1511. You retrieve the glass bottle of fragrant date oil off the stone vanity, pressed from the pits of your house’s orchard, just as valued today as it was to the Pharaohs of the past.
  1513. Ace stretches to the sound of popping joints and sits up, her silky hair extra mussed from you playing with it. A little rough around the edges now, but when you finish with her morning preparation, brushed, anointed, and made up, she’ll look like a goddess. To be honest, she looks like a goddess to you all the time. This just lets other people get a glimpse of her true radiance. She pulls her locks forward, exposing her sepia back and arms crisscrossed with a lightning network of scars. Coating your hands in the precious oil, you sit behind your wife, kissing the nape of her neck softly before you begin. Gently, you massage the fruity liquid into the spiderweb of red and white coursing through velvety soft brown, coating her back and shoulders in a fine reflective sheen. The muscles there are just as defined as they’ve ever been. She’s still strong, terribly strong.
  1515. Once you take care of the old marks, you turn your attention to her front, and start to tease her, groping her swollen tits, fondling her dark nipples and caressing the taut skin of her distended belly.
  1517. The canine’s tongue lolls from her mouth in bliss, huge bushy tail thumping against your thigh. <Nhow, wuld yuu seeng for may?>
  1519. ‘Why you gotta make me all embarrassed first thing in the morning?’ You mutter silently in your head.
  1521. The anubis knows your body language, and feels you stiffen just a bit at the request. “Pleahz habbibii?” She adds in a mangled mix.
  1523. So your biggest admirer wants some ambience? Well, you can’t say no to that. After all, she’s the only member of your fanclub. <It’s not so great without music. I don’t know why you love it so much.> It takes a second to shift gears to the English she finds so romantic. You barely speak it anymore, only to her.
  1525. “Wild thing. You make my heart sing…”
  1527. She has the happiest goofiest fang-toothed grin the entire time, her exuberance absolutely infecting. The anubis always knows just how to cheer you up, and have her fun too.
  1529. You’ve scarcely finished the last note when Acenath squirms, turning in your arms and wrapping you in her paws. She presses against you with maternal softness, both of you already sweating in the growing heat of the morning. It dawns on you, you’re both going to be late in all your duties. You haven’t even started to brush her. You’ll have to call in a couple maids to help, as much as you rather tend to her yourself.
  1531. Ace doesn’t care. She’s in full shower-the-husband-with-affection mode, wagging her tail and licking your face with her nearly-prehensile tongue. Kissing is very erotic and exotic to the anubis. But it’s been introduced so late to her culture, when she really wants to love up on you, it’s all tongue all the time.
  1533. Okay, this is definitely more than normal, even for a pep cuddle after night terrors.
  1535. Ace finally has to stop and catch her breath, panting lewdly near your ear. <I felt our daughter kick last night. Do you know what that means?>
  1537. You really don’t. So you take a stab in the dark.
  1539. <That I have to go make another offering to Hathor?> You guess. <What do we have to sacrifice this time? A dove? A goat? I think they like our candied dates and oil the most.>
  1541. She shakes her head and grabs your hands in her paws, fur tickling you as she forces you flat on your back in the bed.
  1543. And a miss. Tally another for the guy that barely grasps the culture or the language. <Then you have another craving?> Previous errands flash through your mind. <Please don’t make me go looking for carrion again. I can’t deal with the smell.>
  1545. Your young bride nibbles at your ear. <Eeet’s a craving, of a sort…>
  1547. The illegal marriage rune on your chest sparks, and its partner on Ace’s thigh mimics the display, amplifying the thrilling tingle between you a hundred fold. Just touching her is intoxicating, flooding your mind with base pleasure. Only you two can relish this feeling, and only together, one feature of the blood red glyph, a final safeguard against anyone who would try to steal you away.
  1549. Ace can barely contain her bubbling excitement, and doesn’t wait for any more guesses. But she tries extra hard to speak clearly so there’s no misunderstanding. <Once the baby kicks, my husband, it means the end of anal only. It’s been months, and I did the whole abstaining rite like the priestesses demand for a healthy little girl. Now, I want the real thing. We’re going to make up for all that lost time.>
  1551. Oh…OH!
  1553. Who could say no to that? She’s gone full wild eyes, literally drooling with anticipation above and below, saliva dripping in slimy strands onto your neck and face.
  1555. Your heart races. She really is the most magnificent creature on this planet. You sink one hand into her supple brown ass, and use the other to tease a swollen breast. You’re definitely gonna play hooky today and have bruised hips tomorrow.
  1557. A yipping howl behind you both interrupts you in mid-erection, right before you get to the best part. OH COME ON!
  1559. A muscled seven-and-a-half foot monster of an anubis, bigger than all but the largest werewolves, leans against a column near the foot of your bed, arms crossed over her chest. She flashes a nasty set of teeth, even sharper and more feral than your wife’s. <If it isn’t the runt and the albino, slobbering over each other like usual.>
  1561. <Raabia!> Your wife makes no attempt to cover her modesty as happiness to see her kin and irritation at being bluballed war for dominance on her pretty face.
  1563. Ace’s elder sister just beams a teasing grin. <How’s my favorite family?>
  1565. <What brings you so early in the morning?> Your bristly jackal finally settles on a mild pout, her face still flushed with passion. <Shouldn’t you be in council?>
  1567. Your big-sister-in-law, despite her brutish appearance, is a consummate anubis, everything planned and ordered and on time. Whatever she’s here for must be extremely important if it breaks her precious schedule. She’s just as much of a sweetheart as your wife, but grounded where Ace is a dreamer. She has to be. She’s the house head, and she has the gray hairs and scars to prove it.
  1569. Raabia’s smile fades as she unfolds her arms, revealing a scroll in her mismatched paws. Magic hieratic glows softly on her prosthetic hand as she rolls it open. <A courier just delivered another breeding petition for Doc Savage over here from the Typha’s.> Her mannered face twists with distaste at the name of the sender. <This one has a stupidly large sum attached and an offer of Cleo Typha’s first man of the house for use myself.>
  1571. There’s obviously more to it, especially since they appealed to Raabia herself instead of Acenath. Your jackal, a diehard romantic, has declined plenty of offers for you since the pair of you married. In such places where the population of men is so small, it’s not that uncommon to spread some genes around to continue a family line. Obviously, some people are pretty upset at your lack of participation.
  1573. Even Raabia is a little envious of her sister. She fought in Big Gate, Mon Grave, and for Gypthar independence. But no children. No husband. All she has to show for it is a missing arm and unending nightmares. But to her, you’re like the fairytale couple that hasn’t been seen in generations outside the royals and the most influential monsters of Gypt. It really pisses her off when anybody tries to fuck with that. She’s just as diehard a romantic as Ace in her own way. These canines mate once and for life after all. They never really took to the house system very well; it’s why there’s so few of them left here in their homeland.
  1575. The jackal-in-law glances over the lengthy letter again, brown face coloring just skimming the passive aggressive insults and demands. <There’s the usual ‘selfish’ and ‘uncooperative’ and ‘greedy’ and other language you’d expect from the sphinxes. But here’s the relevant part.> The hulking anubis raps the scroll with her metal humanoid hand. <‘These continued slights against our clan and our community shall not go unanswered if you fail to do your civic duty this time.’>
  1577. The phrasing seems significant but you still have not picked up most of the finer references of old Gypthar. You look to your wife.
  1579. Acenath’s face hardens into a grim mask. <Thu’re demanding a duel.>
  1581. No! No fucking way you’ll let this happen! You’ve seen duels out here, usually over unmarried men. And they always ALWAYS end in blood, sometimes death. The fucking birdcats just had to hit the anubi where they’re weak, right in the honor and tradition.
  1583. <You can’t fight.> You try to calm her with gentle words and gentler petting. <Look at you. What about our little girl? Ignore them. Let them say what they will.>
  1585. Your wife snarls viciously, fangs bared, surely ready to launch into a tirade about how after facing down an army of dead, no self-entitled cunt scares her in the least, how she only needs to get her jaws around that arrogant catnip-huffer’s throat to shut her up once and for all. And being pregnant, her protective impulses are stronger than ever. You can almost see the gorey thought’s dancing behind her emerald eyes. ‘They think they can threaten my family? Those cowards think they have a right, a RIGHT, to my husband? MY HUSBAND! We’ll see what they think when I mount Cleo Typha’s skull on the gate of my house!’
  1587. <He’s right. > Raabia barks attention to herself with the authority that comes from a lifetime of giving orders. <That is why I came here to tell you I shall be your second, little sister, and fight in your stead.>
  1589. <Eeat’s may husband.> Ace protests with a dangerous low growl. <Eeat’s may fayight.>
  1591. <I’m the head of our house, and they insult me as much as you.> The elder anubis lays down the law with her own terrifying snarl. <I will fight. It is my decision to make and I have made it.>
  1593. They stare each other down, the tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. Then your wife’s blood cools and her expression softens. Wrapping a sheet over her shoulder, she leaves the bed and gives her big sister a great big hug. <I won’t forget this, Raabia.> She slurps at her cheek affectionately, smearing the elaborate black eyeliner. <You’re the best.>
  1595. <Hey, we’re family.> The alpha jackal pats your wife on the head like she’s still a child -old habits die hard- and returns the lick with a normal-sized tongue. <But in the future, when you two decide you need a quiet evening alone together, I won’t forgive you if you let one of the mummy maids babysit your pup instead of her dear Aunt Raabi.>
  1597. You thank Raabia too, and join your wife in giving her a strong familial hug. Instead of a lick, you grant her the old traditional Earth peck on the cheek for luck, lips lightly brushing her brown satin flesh. Even knowing what it means, the burly monster flushes like a shy schoolgirl. Everything from her nose to the inside of her ears turns three shades darker.
  1599. News given, task accomplished, the blushing house head excuses herself, muttering about schedules and finances, massive foot paws tripping over a carpet on the way out. You never thought just being a guy could make things so difficult as it does here. But it amazes you every day how wonderful and kind some people remain in the face of such fierce competition for resources. And make no mistake, that is exactly what you are, as essential to a monster society as food and water.
  1601. This is a strange land, with strange customs, and you might always be a stranger in it. But as long as you have Ace, you wouldn’t live anywhere else in this world or any other.
  1603. God damn it’s going to be hot today.
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