The intruders moved through the ruin city like shadows, passing by the memory of homes, places of learning, eateries, and merchant outlets, as if the ghosts of summer’s past set down their coffees and toffees to go answer a knock at the door, but never returned. The city’s buildings and steeples, broken down from disrepair and time, loomed high blocking out the sun as it shrouded the detachment of men and women in its crisscross of alleyways. One could easily become lost in this maze. One atop another over and over again with narrow streets and even tinier passages, bridges here and there, almost like the city had no concept of open air. The buildings still displayed faint hues of green and blues or pinks and purples, washed out like ancient watercolor, so different from the desert world outside the ruin’s battleship-like walls.
Communications Sergeant Ginko Raga halted behind one of the team’s two engineers as a shriek echoed throughout the heavens. It seemed close, but then Sergeant Raga knew the city’s sounds bounced around and could have come from anywhere. In her research of this Kuno metropolis called Kuchinawa, some said the city was a place of dreams, where one’s desires and memories came to life.
Nightmares, more like.
Shadowy figures stood about rooms and streets, frozen like their owners simply vanished. Down one alley, she saw the black misshapen forms of children playing a ball game. Their arms stretched out and ready to lunge or legs prepared to kick or stopped mid-run, a girl’s dress caught in the wind, and another fiddling with a hat. But the ball had no shadow as it lay a few streets down a set of stairs, grungy and deflated. She remembered they passed an old man sitting on a bench, his face, unlike the others, still formed and colored and serene as a flock of black pigeons pecked at nonexistent breadcrumbs at his feet. One expected silence from these statues, for Sergeant Raga didn’t know what else to call them. Translucent, shadowy, ethereal statues.
This city exuded the rustle of noise that one hears in the deepest and darkest nights when you were but a child, shivering under the covers as you peeped one eye out to watch for the monster in the closet that lived there. Now, it lived here. With others of its own kind. Down every side street and in every doorway, behind the misted glass of aged windows, lurked something. When she turned her gaze towards the lurking fear, nothing but a feeling of being watched remained. Once or twice out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the haze of a moving shadow. These demons chit-chatted in the depths. A growl here. A shriek there. Yet the city was a ruin. No one lived there. Even the Kuno claimed no living soul resided here so, Sergeant Raga had to wonder what then, what made those sounds? The Kuno called it holy ground, the paradise where their God-King dwelled. Up in the highest tower at the center of Kuchinawa and these demons were its gate-keepers.
She watched as her detachment moved forward. It seemed odd to her, at first, running and hiding like someone might follow them in this ruin of a town. Yet, they couldn’t be too careful in land beyond their furthest forward operating base. They crossed one-by-one through an intersection and passed the remains of a massacre. The figures seemed to be floating in their half-images, colored on one side, black blanketing their faces. A man, face diverted towards the sky with axe in hand, stood over the bodies of a family of four: a mother and her three children. She could tell by the shapes.
“Oh dear father, what have you done?” Sergeant Raga hushed as she stepped over the last physical evidence: rusted stains of blood. She hefted her rifle and continued on. Never could she shake the itch of being watched.
Nary had an hour passed as the team of twelve moved into a main road. The air oozed of desolation and drifting with the scent of freshly cooked soup hanging in the air. The smell reminded her of the noodle porridge from Auntie Mariella in the foundry of Old La Norrium. The remembrance of taste, the lure of home to draw one in. Only to what? Sergeant Raga rather not think on the possibilities, despite everything she’d read.
Her team spoke no words as they communicated.
Keep straight. Captain Tam Hirsi signaled. Targets not yet sighted. Epicenter ahead.
They ran on, running, crouching, looking this way and that as they made their way towards the center of the city and around figures, boxes, and everyday items left in the street. Sergeant Raga could see the beams of the day’s decreasing light filter between the distant holes in the walls. There, rising high into the sky stood tall the tower at the center of the city. They halted along a wall, just outside the broad winding walkways encircling but never touching the main tower.
Although Sergeant Raga only caught a glimpse of the open space, she spied how high in the city they had traveled, the tower dropping down in to the dark depths just as high as it escalated, out of sight at both ends. Bridges spanned at intervals from the surrounding walkways and Sergeant Raga cheered in her mind. Their targets had given good Intel. Her team moved out and waited at the edge of one of the bridges where ornate red pillars arched above, a symbol of a private entrance and, Raga assumed, the only one for the pillars stood tall and thick with characters of Kuno writing in vertical lines etched in black. Prayers. This was the gate to the main chamber. The gate to the Kuno God-King.
She glanced at her captain. Captain Hirsi nodded and pointed, picking himself up and moving forward. The left-tenant crouched to the side, watching as Raga and her teams members passed him by and with a last look around, brought up the rear.
Sergeant Raga wanted to stare up at the pillars and the dusty glowing specks trickling through, whispering [komorebi *change] in the back of her mind, a Kuno word for light filtering through trees. She almost forgot the horror of Kuchinawa as the place echoed of an otherworldly reality. Yet, Raga followed her team, not stopping or slowing for the dangerous vulnerabilities of bridges.
The main chamber’s gate lay shattered in splinters on the floor, but they ignored it, moving into the room with the rifles raised and pointed searching every nook and cranny of the darkened hall. Despite the light outside, the chamber burrowed within itself, like a hunched old man, its draperies hanging low and tattered, beams and bones broken, and a jumbled mess of valuables strewn across the floor and an equally broken altar and a black-burned throne. Everyone’s gaze shot towards two lanterns that hung beside the charred throne. They flickered once before going out. Raga suppressed a shiver running up her spine.
Captain Hirsi held up a fist and her team halted. Stop. Listen. Was the flickering light a trap or merely the remnants of an old ruin giving away its last vestiges of power? Her team crouched, glancing this way and that into the depths of the room and through the torn curtains about windows and back through the broken door. Tell-tale drips echoed, not an unnatural sound. The wind of the desert. Similar to before, no sight or sound of any animal or creature.
Stay low. Secure the room. Hirsi signaled again. He stood from his position next to the too blackened altar, large and slumping, and approached the throne, giving a steely eye to each of the lanterns. Quick footsteps trooped about him as each of the team members went about their jobs. Raga walked past the altar, but stopped, standing next to Captain Hirsi. Her mouth dropped open.
Sergeant Raga knew technology. Lived and breathed it, aside from her love of languages. Those lights looked electric, of what little she knew from ancient books and fool-hardy quests for the energy-equivalent of gold, a power source so rare, it had not been seen since the Silence and the Sundering, over ten-thousand years prior.
“Sergeant?” Hirsi nodded. “What do you make of these?”
Sergeant Raga inched forward, careful not to step on anything unbeknownst in the dim light of the waning sun while she peered up at the darkened lanterns. Streaks of acrid black stretched inside and out, creating a sunburst of ash around them. They sat high on the wall, but she see just enough underneath, confirming her suspicions: ancient stripes of metal called wires.
Turning back to Captain Hirsi, she said, “Old, sir, ten-thousand years or more. Not a technology known to us, or anyone still alive. But the ash-burst looks newer, in a sense. Historically, we know Kuchinawa was abandoned about a thousand years ago and I bet these lanterns blew around that time. However, why they flickered now, I have no idea. As I said earlier, sir, they’re –“
“Old, very old.” Hirsi interrupted.
“Permission to speak openly, sir?”
“Proceed,” Hirsi said, coming to stand and analyze the lanterns as well, rifle resting in his hands. She knew he could raise it and fire at any moment.
Squaring her shoulders, she said, “Because this is such an ancient technology, I can’t imagine how any power could have lasted this long. It means that the lanterns must have been fixed. Even our steam technology would run dry in a thousand years. I suspect a trap, betrayal by our informants in a worst-case scenario, or at the very least, a signal. I suggest we gather the all the documents we can find and head back out to FOB.”
Captain Hirsi smirked, revealing pointed teeth. “This place has you on edge, Sergeant.”
“I don’t imagine anyone who couldn’t be, sir.”
“I agree with you,” he grimaced, turning to survey the room, his stance set and proud. “Unfortunately there’s no evidence of danger besides a creepy feeling in a gigantic ruin. Our orders are to decipher the documents, engage the informants, and continue on with the mission, wherever it leads us. We must stay and await our foreign friends.”
This was news to her. “Continue the mission?”
“Yes. This isn’t our last stop. Whatever those documents tell us, our commanders presume will reveal the location of whatever the Kuno are planning and that something is somewhere in this city. Thank you for you input, Sergeant Raga. Go help Sergeant Witz.”
“Yes sir.” Sergeant Raga saluted and spun, picking her way over torn papers and broken vases, household objects, and other indistinct devices. Raga bent and picked up the papers, shuffling them into a small pile, brushing aside the dust on the floor. Below, she saw faint lines of art, abstract, she thought, mostly swirls and seashell-type designs. Her research spoke nothing of the Kuno being fascinated with the sea, although worshipping the opposite of their desert home didn’t seem farfetched. Water was a major reason they started this whole damn war in the first place, but not without precedence.
She stood and pausing as she bent next to her fellow communications sergeant, Raga’s brow furrowed. Captain Hirsi’s lack of disclosure to his team unnerved her. He stood tall and proud, like the yvoux of old. Yvoux, humans who were given animal attributes at the same time of the Silence and Sundering, the whole reason for the historical event and Captain Hirsi exuded the calm of a great wolf. But he wasn’t Yvoux. He was human, with short grey hair, a square jaw, and eyes of impenetrable grey steel. No, never Yvoux, like she and Witz. Raga looked away, her own black eyes trailing across the lines of smeared ink in the Kuno language, lines of dots – Morse code – and watered stained images of great and terrifying figures.
It made sense to keep certain secrets safe, things she as an enlisted soldier didn’t need to know. However, not telling the team they had far more to do than gather a few documents seemed rather necessary to her. She frowned.
“Wizzy,” Raga whispered, sidling up to her and setting her rifle against the atlar. “What have you got?”
Wizzy twitched her nose, her prairie dog-like whiskers shaking with irritation, and jabbered in the way-too-quick, nondescript way of her kind, “We don’t have much. I’m doing a quick read of these old religious texts. What about you?”
Raga laid the papers down on the altar, “Mostly charred remains of the same text I think you’re reading.” She held one piece up to the light. “Much of its gone, faded from age and it looks like someone tried to rub out most of it with paint.”
Raga huffed, setting aside the useless pieces until she came upon several pages stuck together. Picking them apart, she counted a total of four. Four pictures of creatures she had only seen the likes of in the most obscure research of the Kuno religion. Deformed versions of animals with glowing eyes and wide jaws, teeth too sharp, tongues and limbs too long, and a human face meshed onto the body. Not like Yvoux, who were once human and gained attributes of animals. These creatures deceived with their very forms: faces with the intelligence of humanity, but all the primal intuition of a crazed beast.
The first, she saw, a lion, or rather the body of a lion with a great mane of golden hair and two huge eagle’s wings jutting from its back. The face, like all of them, human, but a white mask with red and gold swirling from its bushy brows, gold eyes set deep, and a red mouth gaping and wide, ready to devour. Two wooden wheels sat on the back like gears, sitting between the two wings with a grove and water pouring down from them to make the tail of the lion.
“Liver-taker,” she said, looking at the title underneath then skimmed similar vertical lines of words surrounding the image of the beast in an oval. “This is some kind of prayer or chant.”
Wizzy didn’t look up from the text she glared over, scribbling down notes on a tiny pad of paper. “Does it say anything about what its powers are?”
Sergeant Raga squinted her eyes at the tiny lettering and archaic language. “This chant is only about how to ward it off. Only power I see here is liver-taking. Let me glance over the others. They might hold more clues.”
Wizzy harrumphed, nose and whiskers twitching yet again. “Get to it, foxy. We don’t have much daylight left.”
Raga declined to retort with the fact that she could indeed read in the dark, being an Arctic Fox Yvoux. She picked up the second: A gigantic blue bear with three heads, human faces again, two with no mouths, the middle with three each chewing on a human arm.
“Flesh-eater,” she whispered.
The third depicted a leopard with four heads and four eagles wings. Raga shivered as she realized that each spot on the leopard’s coat was an eye. Each of its human faces were plain, save for a third eye in the middle of their foreheads.
The last showed a dragon bent low on four legs with bat-like wings and ten horns made of the strongest metal, robustious, a black matte-colored alloy that never shined. Looking closer at the words, she glanced at the picture, realizing the beast had foggy eyes. It was blind.
A little unnerved, she turned back to each image. “Nothing. They only mention wards and their most prized body part to thieve.”
“You only mentioned four. There should be a fifth.”
Raga felt shame wash over her face as she shuffled through the pages yet again. “Right. Kuno do everything in fives because the number four is bad luck…but there’s nothing here. Just faded and painted over texts. That one must have been burnt.”
Wizzy quietly swore.
“You’ve seen these before?” Raga asked surprised.
“Seen, no,” Wizzy finally looked up. “But I’ve heard of them. If you think of the old legend of the gatekeepers a little like our home guard, then you’ve just found one of the only recorded images of the God-King’s generals. From what little I have gathered, there are five gate-keepers and each is able to trick you in some way.”
“Trick? How so? They seem massive and snarly and rather hungry. I wouldn’t want to be between them and a piece of juicy steak. I might end up being the steak.”
Wizzy sighed in exasperation. “For a fox, you’re not that cunning.”
“Oh, very funny. Ha. Ha.”
Wizzy ignored her, “You have to remember that we’re not dealing with natural-world creatures. These are on the level of the preternatural, maybe even super. They can influence your mind to not see what you’re really seeing, or hear, smell, feel, or even think. These are the creatures that probably turned this entire civilization into those shadowy statuesque things. You never read about a great exodus from Kuchinawa, correct?”
“Correct,” Raga nodded. She always wondered about how a great city such as this could become so empty. She assumed that people left over time and finally the place lay deserted and uninhabitable. Then it dawned on her. “All the citizens of this city were sacrifices to the God-King. What for?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
Raga turned back to the pages, mumbling. “You’d think the International Preternatural Agency would have something on their shelves about this… and if you say, ‘you should know’ one more time–” Raga cut herself off with a look from Wizzy.
“No. This isn’t something that they would have.” Wizzy said returning to her text, “We both know that the Kuno discourage writing down their ancient religious texts about the God-King and his closest cohort. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. They’re so Eall-damned secretive about their beliefs. Elitist cultural mentality, I think it is.”
“But whatever they’re planning with this war, it has something to do with the God-King and this city and our country.” Whether it was a bomb, assassinations in the form of alchemy – despite that it didn’t exist – or whatever other kind of warfare the Kuno sought to appease their supernatural ruler, Raga hummed. All they knew was it would probably take the form of mass sacrifice and the Kuno had chosen their country of Oyr as the target. They just needed to know how they planned on going about their end goal, where their primary targets were, and what they could expect.
Frustrated, Raga huffed. She stared and stared at the four creatures as if she’d seen something like them before in this city. She spun to look at the floor, eyes wide.
Dropping down on her knees, Raga started picking up and pushing away items.
“What are you doing?” Wizzy hissed.
“It’s on the floor.”
Raga stood pointing at the first uncovered mosaic. “The beasts.”
They looked down at the black dragon. She wasn’t looking at sea-shells, but scales. The swirls were the dragon’s tufts of blue fire at its ankles, tail, and head.
“Maybe for a fox, you are a bit cunning,” Witz said.
Raga gave her a wry smile. “Thanks.”
“Sergeants?” Captain Hirsi turned from his spot on the far side of the room and crossed over towards them. “I hope you’re not cleaning to waste time.”
“No sir.” Sergeant Raga said. “These are the creatures that supposedly haunt this city.”
“Something ate the citizens here, sir. You saw them. It wasn’t a natural death.” Wizzy said with unwavering belief in her voice. “I bet that whatever caused such a mass death may still live in this city, if they are as paranormal as the Kuno claim. And if not, there’s a high likelihood of descendants or else this place would have been taken over by criminals and runaways long ago.
“That’s a lot of ifs, Sergeant Witz.”
“We’ve been hearing shrieks, growls, and chit-chatters ever since we got here,” Raga said. “No matter what our informants say that nothing lives here, I can’t ignore those sounds.”
Captain Hirsi and Sergeant Witz stared at her.
“What? You don’t hear them? They’re so loud sometimes, I swear they’re going off in my ear.”
“No, we don’t.” Captain Hirsi said.
“Dead silent save the natural sounds of the desert wind,” Witz agreed. “Are you sure? Not tiredness plaguing you?”
“Fit as a fiddle and as sure as the tufts of my pointy white ears,” Raga said.
Captain Hirsi pinched the bridge of his nose. “You two are the only Yvoux on the team and if only one of you heard it, I don’t blame you for not mentioning it, Sergeant Raga.”
“You may have a special gift when it comes to hearing the unearthly or power of the sound espriti has found you,” Witz, for the first time since they met, gave Raga a bewildered yet caring gaze.
Raga swallowed. She wondered why she heard strange things all her life and no one else did. Or why she always scored so high on listening sections on language tests. So much for aptitude.
“You can clear the floor,” Captain Hirsi stated. “Witz, first report on what you have so far.”
As Sergeant Witz relayed all the information Raga found and then all Witz discovered which, was nothing besides the verses, “Where shall the God-King create his own? His seat of wild serenity is found at the base of his own measure,” taking that to mean the underbelly of the city. Measure existed as an old word symbolized by the belly when thinking about the human body. Belly, being a vague word either referred to one’s desires measured by contentment aka serenity with his own portion. Otherwise a satiated stomach. The Kuno had a knack for allegorizing the human body and Raga could really go for an MRE right then, but focus! Or the belly referred to the womb, the foundation of the land, and the very well of the God-King’s…something. They were still working on that part. Unless, she thought –
“Shiz-wad.” Raga groaned, interrupting her own thoughts.
Raga uncovered the last of the floor. A square slab of wood lay in the middle and she picked it up, leaning it against the altar. She didn’t bother with the tiny bits and fragments and only cared to move the big stuff. In the center of the room and between the burned altar and throne lay a great mosaic circle and in the four corners were the same beasts as were on the papers. However, the center, the fifth gate-keeper had been scorched. A controlled fire that burned straight through to the floor below, destroying whatever image that had been there.
Raga scrambled across the floor, taking cover behind the altar. All around, her team members tensed, holding their positions and rifles up and out. Captain Hirsi pointed his at two figures standing on the bridge.
They raised their hands. The tall one spoke, “We mean no harm. You Captain Hirsi, yes? No person is here. Only us. We give information. My name is Sabel and this my friend, Joop.”
Captain Hirsi beckoned the two forward, but never lowered his gun. The pair approached, hands still raised. Once at the entrance of the room, the captain spoke again, “Search them.”
“Promise. We mean no harm,” Sabel repeated. A sallow-faced older man with fraying wisps of black-grey hair stood tall and his thin limbs became all the more pronounced when he raised his arms as their Weapons Sergeant Sidnei patted them down. The other, Joop, could have been Sabel’s twin save for color of his hair – reddish browin instead of Sabel’s black – his too pointed nose and the cleft chin.
“They’re clear,” Sidnei said.
Captain Hirsi lowered his gun and pointed a bony finger at the two, “You’re late and gave no sign of where to find you. And your Intel is proving unserviceable as the only evidence of these religious texts of yours are burnt to a crisp.”
“But not everything, yes?” Joop asked.
Captain Hirsi waved the two in, “Sergeants Witz and Raga. Can you find any useful information from the documents here?”
Raga stood from her hiding place as did Wizzy, who had crouched in front of the altar.
“You did not say you bring yvoux with you,” Sabel froze mid-step, Joop just behind him.
“No. We no help. Your team leave now.”
“You have a problem with my soldiers?” Captain Hirsi growled, stepping into the informant’s path.
Joop hissed and pointed at Wizzy. “We no work with yvoux. They are animal. This one is groundhog.”
“Prairie dog,” Wizzy hissed back. “Big difference.”
“Dirty foul creatures,” Joop shot her a glare then turned his gaze on Raga. “That is fox.”
“Arctic, thank you.” Raga curtsied.
“They cunning and untrustworthy. Most evil of creatures.”
“And all I wanna do when I go home is play in the snow and drink hot soma. Didn’t know that included evil plans to take over the world.” Raga murmured to herself.
Wizzy suppressed a snort of laughter. “It must be the snow. Completely foreign to these desert-dwellers. And you know how snow is. When it comes, it takes months to melt.”
Raga grinned. She heard a few sniggers from her team members about the room.
“Soldiers.” Captain Hirsi snapped. “Act your rank.”
“Yes sir!” Both Raga and Wizzy saluted.
Raga suppressed her cringe at Captain Hirsi’s face. They were acting like children in a potentially dangerous situation. He glared at the pair of them, “Sergeant Witz, answer the question.”
“Practically, no sir.” She stared at Captain Hirsi, her stiff stance only shifting as she flickered her eyes towards the newcomers then back, “What’s left is insubstantial, based on myth and guesswork. Any action on these documents would be relying on a small hope and intuition.”