The long Return to Banshee (17)
Sunday, 07th of February 2094
The stench of blood. The biting reek of spilled guts. A slight singe of burning electronics. Gunpowder. The smoke of explosives. Wide spatter-patterns of crimson on every wall.
Headbanger chips had taken out most, the rest had ripped each other or themselves into bloody chunks. This whole room reminded me of the village near Sand Lodge.
XJ-332. The one the Puppeteers had ripped through.
Masters of the ‘Meat Puppet’ power, they’d developed a really strange secondary power. They captured a single Anouk, joined up as a squad, created a Psychic Link, then used Meat Puppet to send the poor sap into his village. Every other warrior he touched would become a conduit to one of the squad’s Sykers who’d ‘infect’ the touched with Psychic Link and Meat Puppet. They’d spread until they had a full twenty warriors under control, then start slaughtering everyone concluding in them disembowelling themselves. In the beginning they’d let the women and children run away in panic. As the war dragged on and Warfield kept reprimanding them… with a team as linked as they were it took only a single one to go over the top. Once. Then again. And then it was too late. What were ten more Anouk children? Twenty? Thirty and a blood-stained commendation from the general himself?
That thing up ahead, in the darkness… it didn’t even need that. In a way it might be more innocent. It just did what it did because that was it’s nature. Unless of course the things Shio-zu Sensei had told me once during a J-SEP training session had grasped a deeper understanding of how the cosmos worked.
‘Aku no tamashī ga jigoku ni akuma narimasu…’ The evil of the soul is going to become the demon in hell. If the akuma… the manitous had once been men, committing sin and returned in their demonic form to the world… well then that thing that was standing in the middle of the room, eyes glowing green after taking full control of the Grandmaster was even more guilty than me. Either way it had to be dealt with.
I cursed a bit, looking over the carnage. Edwards was resurrecting (hopefully) the leaders of the Iron Alliance, and I didn’t have the power of peace of mind – although I felt I might be ready to learn. I’d made my peace with a lot of the demons that kept hounding me. Well, maybe some other time. We’d have to go with Biletnikoffs’ Plan B for this.
Simon turned, the green sheen in his eyes accentuating the mad smile on his face.
‘Ahhh, more playthings. I’ve hidden too long in this mortal shell. I’d forgotten how good it is to exercise my full power.’ In front of our eyes the demon rose, and then rose above the size the man had been – it was a disturbing sight as he stretched the very form of Simon into something bigger. Nastier. Deadlier. It was still Simons’ body, but it looked as if something under his skin had stretched out. Stretched its horns, its snout, its hooves. Nasty. Then his features contorted, painfully, and for a couple of seconds the pain-filled face of the Grandmaster reasserted itself, hands flailing at each other.
’I’ve been played for a fool!’ he gasped. ‘I can see now the monster’s been hiding in my body and ravaging the innocent!’ Even in the grip of a demon, Simon was still about as slow as molasses in January. ‘Now it wants to make a mockery of everything I’ve stood for! My anger’s let the beast into my soul, but I can do one thing! I will hold it here with me. When it dies, it dies for good! End this, once and for all!’ I would’ve sadly shaken my head at the presumption and general unawareness of the man, but my blood was starting to pump with adrenaline as the demons’ face reasserted itself.
It stared, puzzled for a moment, then howled in rage as it realized that Simon had it in a hold. Back to Jigoku with you. At least Simon had offered us that.
Raphael started to pipe up, shouting in an old British accent about honour and Camelot and a knight’s duty. He’d obviously lost it when Simon had changed into Baphomet. It didn’t however stop him from shooting at the beast but in the darkness that swirled around it it didn’t look like it was hit.
I jumped for the only piece of cover available – the remnants of a heavily cybered Blackhat – and focussed an energy blast from my forehead directly at the beast. At the last second it dropped its head, the beam of energy hitting the horn instead of Simons’ forehead. Then I felt something I hadn’t felt since Banshee. The Skinnies had gotten fantastically good at controlling humans against their will. Taking them over, making them do their dirty work. It’d been a while since I’d had to protect platoons full of marines from the probing of an alien mind, intent to take them over.
I felt it now.
Baphomet was making a grab for Athena, but it was too weak. He’d been playing with hapless civilians in Boise and then with idiotic Blackhats here, not willstrong enough to resist the temptation of the Combine – it had been like a turkeyshoot. Athena might not be focussed, but she was willstrong. Tough luck there, Akuma. It grunted in frustration, then charged for us in long, bounding steps. No. the path it was taking would take it to the exit. It was fast, too.
Athena – blissfully unaware of the fight for her soul – shot a grenade at the beast, but there was no appreciable effect. And the horn my energybeam had cut off (also to no appreciable effect) had regrown in the time it took the demon to start its charge. This was going to be Modeen all over again. Son of a bitch.
Embezzler tried to fill Baphomet with lead, but the presence of the thing actually seemed to distort space. The shots went somewhere into the swirling darkness. All the while, Raphael was shouting again in his old British drone, challenging the thing to a duel or to stop in the name of Arthus of Camelot or something along those lines. The demon must’ve been as confused as I was, because it actually stopped and stared for a second. Enough time to send another beam of concentrated energy from my forehead, this one boring itself into the chest of the thing, leaving a burned hole. Not enough damage.
Rick was now wreathed in his glowing shield and started running at the thing. You had to admire his guts, but smart was just not something that boy did. Had Rick been an infantrymen on Banshee, he would’ve survived about a week while his squad was able to cover him – and the first time they’d not be able to, he’d gotten a new, permanent haircut by a Chakatl. He was lucky that Baphomet didn’t have one of those sharp Tannis axes.
What it did have was the ability to control its enemies. It grabbed Ricks’ mind and as his eyes started glowing green, he came to a tumbling stop and turned off his shield again. Then he turned around his energy spear and shot himself in the chest. The good thing was that he was a terrible shot.
Embezzler charged at Rick, wrestling him to the ground and locking his cyborg hand over the spears’ trigger – the two of them ended up in a clump of limbs within seconds. Meanwhile Sandriel charged at the Demon, Evanor swinging in a wide arc and ripping through the biceps of the strange amalgamation. Athenas’ bulk charged at the thing, the power-armour lending her steps a feathered, unstoppable gait and by the time she barrelled into the demon, she’d gotten her Ripper knife out and gashed a jagged rip into its other arm. And with just that, the demon took a deep breath and like with the horn before, the wounds simply faded. The laws of physics would weep had they had the ability to.
Sandriel and the demon were caught in a deadly dance as it tried to grab Simons’ sword from her hand. Ha. It had just made its last mistake. It had massive, sharp claws and its wounds closed at the drop of a hat – it didn’t need the sword to even the odds. It needed the sword so it would not end up being cut by it – again. I hoped Sandriel would pick up on the fact. Embezzler was now trying to slap Rick, shouting ‘Snap out of it!’ but the two were still locked in a struggle of limbs and his hand landed in the mess of a dead blackhats’ blown head instead. Rick was a pacifist and a healer (Junker healer, but still) and was about the worst and best choice for Baphomet to have taken over – worst for him, best for us. True, we wouldn’t have his mystic healing abilities at beck and call while the demon had him in his grasp, but he’d be right as rain as soon as we’d murdered that demon. Then he’d still be able to look after anyone injured and during the fight he wouldn’t hurt anybody – and the demon wouldn’t target him, having him under its control anyway.
I saw Raphael trying to grab onto Sandriels back – He’d really taken this whole demon business bad. Then I felt Baphomet make a grab for Sandriels’ mind. If it did that, it would be able to have her hand him Simons’ sword and then our duck would be cooked, as they said. I hadn’t been able to do much to the thing in this past fight, but this I could do. Just as I had countless times with the Skinnies, I locked in on the source of the demons’ power, then stifled its attempts of grabbing Sandriels’ mind. It lost a step, looking baffled again and Sandriels’ left hand came thrusting forward, stabbing the demon in the guts with Simons’ blade. She pulled back the sword and as the thing bent over in pain, she made an almost funny little flourish that ended with the sword stuck right between Baphomets’ eyes, the tip sparkling from between the horns on the back of its head.
‘DID YOU SEE THAT?!’ she screamed, as the demon slowly collapsed and the strange contorted visage went back to being the Grandmasters’ countenance. ‘THAT WAS A PERFECT NUMBER 41 FLOURISH!’ she continued, shouting and whooping as we gathered around the fallen Grandmaster. He pushed out a last breath, a ‘Thank you’ carried on the last wings of his lungs.
Then he lay still, looking pristine in death, no blemish upon him. As Rick was hugging the living hell out of Embezzler, thanking him profusely, I closed the Grandmasters’ eyes and started gathering up some pieces of metal and a couple shirts, fashioning a gurney. Plan B would still need to be put into effect.
When Sandriel had calmed down, she took one rung of the stretcher, Raphael moving to her side to take the other one and Athena taking the other side by herself. She made an impressive figure, walking the back in her power armour. In silence we made our way through the tunnels – three hours of marching after Buck Masters in which no one uttered a word. But the wheels were turning, and apparently they’d turned quite well for Embezzler.
As we emerged into the sun we made our way into the emergency-tent city that had been put up and we continued to carry Simons body in an honour-guard fashion to the steps of the Town Hall, where Embezzler went up a couple of stairs and then turned, a solemn expression on his face. Biletnikoff was fidgeting like a madman, but soon Embezzler speech put him at ease. The man had a way with words, I had to give him that. He spun an epic tale about the ultimate sacrifice that Simon had offered, in order to keep the Combine from having victory here today, disrupting the efforts of all people in the Wastes to work together against a threat that was bent on destroying them. He painted a tragic picture of Simon, taking on hidden Combine Drones and Automatons and Cyborgs in the bowels of Junkyard, ready to strike at the unsuspecting citizens and giving his life to protect the people of the Wastes. It was a powerful message with a spin that made the Templars look good, painting the Combine as soulless cutthroats and evildoers, much closer than the citizens had expected and the noble thought of the Iron Alliance (even though the name of it was still a secret) was a cause that was not only worthy – but unmitigated necessity.
As Ike went to give a speech as well, Biletnikoff took us to the side and we brought the Grandmasters’ body to a place where he could hold deathwatch over him. As we met up with Edwards we were given to understand that his sarcophagus thingy had actually worked – Him, Tom and Blossom had done as I’d asked and taken the bodies to the roof where they instructed the Ultralights to bring them to the spiritbus, after which they’d hauled ass to get there themselves and Edwards had performed his arcane techspirit thing and burned GhostRock by the pound – but all of them had made a complete recovery.
Throckmorton had won nothing today – he’d lost his sleeper cell in Junkyard, he’d lost his Raptors in the attack on Sky Raider I, he’d lost his shot at disrupting the Iron Alliance (actually convincing the factions of its necessity), and the only thing he had managed to do was kill Simon – and we’d used the opportunity to spin the story to the Iron Alliances’ favour while getting rid of the Baphomet problem. Luck favours the prepared, but this time it had favoured the skilled and quick-of-thinking. We’d proven a hard and fast Elite Squad, capable of taking out nasty threats as they’d popped up and had managed to beat Throckmortons’ nose bloody.
At that night we met at Edwards’ for a chance at winding down and going over our victory. Even Embezzler and Raphael were invited, though they’d joined the whole fun late and very late. In the distance we could hear the rumbling of the Rattlers as we each had a burger and busied ourselves with various tasks of cleaning or relaxing. This had been a good days work.
Monday morning I got up after having a shower and a good clean and some stretches in my new apartment, then went to find Edwards. The massive man was right chipper this morning. Apparently the leaders of the various factions had thanked him profusely for dragging them back from wherever they’d spent their time dead and he’d gotten quite into their good graces. I was just glad it had worked, and even though we’d missed Echo and Tom at the fight, I was glad to have asked them to look after the representatives – the Iron Alliance was stronger because of it.
‘So, Edwards.’ I started.
‘You know your way around Junkyard.’
‘Do you know someone with a forge that I could rent? Proper tools?’
‘What, like a toolforge?’
‘In a pinch. Something where I could forge a sword.’ He answered in a shot.
‘Sure do. I work at Sven’s whenever I’m in town and he has everything you’d need. Want me to introduce you?’ I was taken aback a bit.
’That’d be great, yea.’ He started bustling me down the ramp and over to the market, almost dragging me along to a storefront.
‘Hey Sven! Sveeen!’
It didn’t take me long to hammer out a deal with the friendly owner of the place. I’d get the forge for two or three days and help him in his workshop for a likewise time. Sounded like a fair deal to me. I fasted the following two days as I melted down the blade that I’d gotten for graduating J-SEP and applied the various techniques that I’d learned from the manuals from Sacramento and the little tricks that Edwards had shared with me while we were driving through the Wastes.
By burning GhostRock under the steel as it melted (and wearing a good gasmask and thick rubber gloves while doing so), the mysterious properties of the coal would be absorbed into the steel.
It was as much of a symbol as a practical action. Ghoststeel was more sturdy and light, compared to the ‘normal’ Tamahagane the blade had been forged from, but I could’ve bought some new steel and forged that above the burning soul coal. But this was the sword I’d been given as I graduated Japanese Syker Education Program, so it was at least as much a symbol of my breaking with my past military life. None of these people still lived, nobody on Faraway was in range – I felt quite justified in my setting myself a new goal: Working on battling the two greatest threats the Wasted West was facing and then going on to save the world. And maybe Faraway, while I was at it.
Twelve years had taught me a thing or two about the Wastes. And I was going to do whatever I could about the sad state of affairs. I’d been idle too long and while my goals were akin to the opium dreams of madmen, it was a goal worth striving for. And even if I’d never reach the final step, every foot in front of the other was necessary and would help a lot of people. Less about the goal, more about the journey as they say.
Paradoxically I felt more connected to my Great-grandfather (a swordsmith who’d – at least according to my grandmother – played Go against akuma and spirits) at that moment, as the green sparks were glowing behind the glass of my gasmask.