LEGION I: LORDS OF FIRE
by Van Allen Plexico
from White Rocket Books
The entire party stood only a short distance away from the eye, that great gash sliced into the fabric of reality, and stared up at it with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Beyond just its disturbing appearance, it seemed to radiate an almost palpable sense of danger, of menace—like the eye of some horrific predator, waiting to pounce. It gave even a hardened soldier like Tamerlane the chills. He tried to look away from it, but found it kept drawing his attention back to it. In this universe of swirling fog and dim, pale light, there was nowhere else to look.
“Through there?” the Inquisitor asked, his bloodshot eyes flashing toward Tamerlane. “You’re saying the Emperor passed through that—that blasphemy?” He didn’t seem to truly believe it.
Tamerlane motioned again to Keefe, who held the small tracking device up before her face and turned in a slow circle. Once she’d completed a single rotation, she lowered it again and nodded to the colonel.
“If His Majesty found the level of the Above we’re in now not exciting enough—and how could he not, since all this gray fog is so exciting—then I could very easily see him continuing on to a different level,” the colonel stated, “regardless of whatever assurances he made.”
“The Emperor is quite…headstrong, yes,” Stanishur reluctantly agreed. “But, even so—” His gaze returned to the eye before them and he shuddered. His two assistants exchanged troubled glances.
“The walls of our universe were determined to be thinnest at the location where the Emperor’s yacht was stationed—above NM-156,” Nakamura explained. “It follows that the walls between this part of the Above and those levels even higher would also be thinner here.”
“That they might even be torn in places,” Tamerlane added, nodding toward the eye.
The Inquisitor blinked, taking this information in, then looked back at the eye, his expression still conveying great dislike and distrust of the phenomenon.
“So the Emperor hadn’t found the sword yet, maybe, and he got bored with all the fog here, and simply kept going—right through there,” Tamerlane concluded. “It’s either that, or else someone… or something… came along and gave him no choice in the matter.”
“Let’s hold off on idle speculation for now, Colonel,” Nakamura interjected. He was already walking toward the eye. “Come on, everyone. We know what we have to do. Let’s keep moving.”
Somewhat reluctantly, or at least with less enthusiasm than up until now, the rest of the party followed him. The three Inquisitors came last, and their discomfort was obvious and profound.
When he reached the threshold of the eye, Nakamura turned back and addressed the team.
“I don’t plan on traveling too far on the other side, wherever it might be,” he said, his calm and even voice in stark contrast to the malignant red swirl of the eye.
Tamerlane and the others nodded readily at that.
“Alright,” the general said, his jaw firm and his expression one of resolved determination, “here we go.”
He stepped into the black pupil of the eye, and the darkness swallowed him up. Less than a second later, he was gone.
Tamerlane repressed a shudder, then started to follow after him.
Nakamura’s tether wire dropped to the ground, cleanly severed.
Tamerlane shouted a profanity and rushed forward. Before he could cover the three additional steps between himself and the eye, however, a shape formed within the black and separated itself, moving out into the pale light.
It was Nakamura. His face was drenched in sweat, and he was not happy.
“What happened?” he demanded, before Tamerlane could ask the same of him. “Who cut my cable? And what’s been keeping you?”
Tamerlane was taken aback. He glanced quickly at the others, then down at the severed end of the cable on the ground, then back at Nakamura, who was fuming.
“General—what do you mean? You only just—”
“I waited for more than a minute, but no one else came through, so I started back—but the opening on the other side is different,” he said, his voice strained and angry. “The eye there—it’s not an eye. Just a kind of doorway. And it drifts around. With my cable cut, I had to chase it. And the sounds…” He shuddered.
Tamerlane paled. This was not like Nakamura—not like the virtually fearless soldier that Tamerlane had sworn his allegiance to as a young boy. Nakamura had been all but a father to him for the better part of his life, and never once in that time had he seen the man so unnerved.
“The time differential,” Ling interjected. “Time must move faster on the other side.”
“No,” Keefe argued, shaking her head. “We’re in the Above. Time moves slower. Passing into an even higher level should only make time slow down even further—not speed up, as the general experienced.”
Tamerlane scratched at his chin, considering what they were saying. He looked at Nakamura again, and was relieved to see that the man had calmed himself somewhat.
“I take it there was no sign of the Emperor and his party,” Inquisitor Stanishur stated as he and his two assistants moved up alongside the others.
“No,” Nakamura answered, “but I didn’t have the tracker with me.”
“Then what do we do now, sir?” Keefe asked.
Nakamura breathed deeply of the strange not-air through which they all moved, then nodded toward the eye. “We go through,” he said. “Together. All at once.”
The three Inquisitors made holy signs with their hands.
“What about your wire, General?” Tamerlane asked, nodding toward the few inches of severed end dangling from Nakamura’s belt.
“Since I assume no one here cut it,” Nakamura replied, “I’m guessing the eye did it. I’d guess that’s what happened with the Emperor’s wires, too.”
“We should detach them,” Tamerlane suggested. “Leave them on this side.”
No one objected audibly, but the looks exchanged by more than one of the others clearly displayed their feelings about such an idea.
“No, no,” Nakamura said quickly, seeing the discontent brewing within his team. “The colonel is quite right. We would lose them anyway. Better to leave them here, anchored somehow, so that we will have them when we return.”
As the others somewhat reluctantly began to disconnect their wires and passed the ends to Tamerlane, who was using a tie cable to bind them together neatly, Nakamura stopped Torval from detaching his from his belt. “You remain here with the wires,” he said to the lieutenant. “We’re going to need you to maintain the connection and show us the way back out.”
If there were objections to that plan, no one voiced them. Thus, moments later, the entire group—minus Torval—was gathered tightly together, directly in front of the black tear in reality.
“Hold hands,” the general ordered. “Everyone.”
Each member of the group awkwardly reached out and clasped the hand of the person on either side. Once that was accomplished, Nakamura gave the order and they all walked into the darkness.
Disorientation; disconnect. A sense of falling. Equilibrium gone. Stumbling into one other. The world turned upside down.
Through. Out the other side.
Tamerlane felt the person to his right—Keefe—going down to her knees, wobbly, and pulled her back up. The human chain never broke.
He looked up then, at their utterly different surroundings, and more disorientation followed. He reeled; the gray fog of the previous environment had been replaced by a nightmare vista of bold colors, all swirling about madly. He felt as if he’d been dropped into a bucket of paint—a bucket where all the different shades were being mixed together slowly. The very atmosphere around them felt wet; not wet with simple humidity, but thick and dense as if actually comprised of water. Their movements were sluggish, too, as though they were deep under the sea. And the sounds—like hundreds or thousands of voices, echoing endlessly, forming no understandable words yet conveying an overwhelming sense of bleak uneasiness.
Nakamura had already turned around and was pointing back in the direction from which they’d come. Tamerlane looked and, sure enough, on this side of the tear there was no eye. Instead he was looking at a solid black rectangle, perhaps five meters high and three wide. It didn’t stay in one place but seemed to shift about, ever so subtly, as though drifting in the currents of some dark ocean.
Nakamura grasped Ling by the arm and pointed at the doorway. “Your job now is to keep that thing in sight at all times,” he growled. “Do you understand?”
Ling nodded. “Absolutely, General.”
Approaching Keefe, Nakamura demanded, “What does it tell you now?”
The young woman already had the square tracking device held up and was turning slowly. “That way,” she said, pointing into the nightmare swirl of colors. “The signal is much stronger now.”
“Good.” He motioned to the others. “Let’s move.”
With Torval waiting back on the other side of the eye and Ling remaining behind on their side of it, the party was now reduced to seven: Nakamura and Tamerlane, Keefe and Landau, and the three Inquisitors. With Keefe in the lead, the tracker held up where she could keep one eye on it, they marched into the depths.
“Radiation levels are much higher here, General,” reported Landau after only a few steps, his voice filled with concern. “And the kinds I’m picking up—I have no idea if our shields are able to protect us from it.”
“Not our main problem at the moment, Lieutenant.”
“But, sir—this could kill us within a few hours!”
“Then that’s a matter for a few hours. Our concern at the moment is locating the Emperor and bringing him back.” He motioned ahead. “Keep going!”
They walked on for several minutes in silence, with only those awful disembodied voices to keep them company. Tamerlane was looking around in wonder, his eyes repeatedly drawn to the swirling, cascading layers of color that they were passing through—and that he wasn’t entirely convinced wasn’t passing through them, too. Something about it bothered him on a deep, instinctual level. It was as if the entire environment had been poisoned by some foul and alien presence. The longer his eyes dwelt on the swirling colors around them, the more he felt he could perceive faces within, staring back out at him. Staring with malevolent intent. It made no sense on a rational level, but a powerful feeling of hostility directed at him and the rest of the party grew stronger within his mind with every step they took.
“Are you alright, Ezekial?” Nakamura asked, after glancing back at him and seeing the extreme discomfort reflected on his face.
“Yes, General,” he replied, sobering. “There’s just something about this place—”
“I know,” Nakamura said. “It’s hot, for one thing.” Sweat was again trailing down the sides of his face.
Tamerlane nodded. The heat had built slowly, from the moment they’d crossed over, and now it was starting to get to him, too. “But, beyond that, there’s something…”
“This is no part of the Above I’ve ever heard about,” Landau observed, frowning deeply.
Tamerlane couldn’t have agreed more. He looked back at Stanishur and his two young assistants. “What about you, Inquisitor? Does scripture speak of this place?”
The cadaverous man was looking all around, his expression more dour than usual. “I—I cannot say,” he reported finally. “Certainly it does not match my own understanding of the nature of the Above, but I am only a mere mortal, and cannot—”
“Let’s stay focused,” Nakamura interrupted. “We find the Emperor and the Guard, and we drag them all back out of here. That’s it. We can leave the theological implications of bad weather in the Above to the Ecclesiarchy to sort out at a later date.”
“There is another possible explanation,” Stanishur intoned from behind them. “Though it is not one I truly care to consider.”
The soldiers all turned to face him.
The gaunt figure in black gestured toward the eye. “Taken along with the time flow problem—time should move slower here than outside, not faster—I am beginning to suspect that we are no longer in the Above at all.”
The others all frowned, some of them glancing at one another.
“What?” Keefe asked, puzzled.
“Then where else could we be?” Landau chimed in.
“Of course,” Tamerlane said, nodding slowly. “I think I’ve known it all along.” He turned to Nakamura then. “And I think you have, too.”
The general only nodded. “It doesn’t matter, though,” he growled. “We have a job to do. For the Emperor. So we keep going until we find him.”
“Wait,” Keefe said, her eyes widening and panic creeping into her voice. “You—you’re saying this isn’t the Above? Then—you’re saying we’re in the Below?”
Stanishur reached out with a bony hand and laid it on her arm; it was a surprisingly tender gesture from the dour Inquisitor.
“That is correct,” he said. “That eye through which we passed—it was no tear in the layers of the Above. I was right in calling it a blasphemy, but it was something much, much worse than that.” He faced the others, his eyes burning and his teeth gritted. “It was the gateway to Hell.”
Someone groaned. Others unholstered their weapons.
“General,” Landau said, his voice frantic, “we’ve got to get out of here!”
“Have you forgotten that your Emperor is down here somewhere?” Nakamura barked back. “We can’t leave him. We have to find him—before something else does.”
Keefe screamed. Tamerlane whirled about, looking to where she was pointing.
Something was coming through the swirl of colors, emerging into the open where they all could see it.
Keefe’s gun was in her hand. She fired.
“Wait!” shouted Nakamura, surely wanting to be cautious—but, an instant later, they could all see that the time for caution was past. More shapes were emerging all around them, closing in.
The first one solidified into a snake-form, almost transparent and glowing from multiple eerie light sources deep inside its repulsive body. It moved forward rapidly, closing on Keefe. Whatever it was, her shots didn’t seem to bother it—and now it had formed teeth. Many teeth.
Screaming, Keefe fired again, while next to her Tamerlane raised his heavy quad-rifle and opened fire as well, using two of the barrels—one firing high-velocity slugs, the other a particle-beam cannon. The creature roared in anger and perhaps in pain, though the full effect of their efforts was hard to tell, given its amorphous body.
Now the other shapes solidified into monstrous forms and advanced from all around them.
“Demons!” Landau cried, and nobody contradicted him. “Demons of the Below!”
by Van Allen Plexico