This Year
rating: +17+x

December

"I can't believe you've survived a year in these conditions." Trench muttered, grimacing as he tried to wipe bat shit off his shoulder, only succeeding in smearing it into his overalls. Aries merely grunted in reply, her masked face impossible to divine any emotion from. She was focused intently on packing the bat shit into a rough humanoid shape, carving sigils into the torso with her fingernails and dripping her blood into the indents.

The radio crackled, Willow’s gentle voice cutting through the gloomy ambience of the cave. “Status report, Sigma-66. Are you in positions?”

Up in the higher tunnels of the cave system, Fenton answered first, voice as deep and velvety as ever. "I'd say we have four or five minutes before these things start to come at us as a group. We've already had to take out one or two who came sniffing at our location." While the dream mechanic's voice was utterly level, Trench got the impression he was worried. “How are you two doing down there?”

"I set up basic wards around the generator to help with power conservation once the hexes trigger," Trench said into his shoulder radio, " but we've run into some trouble with the residents of the cave, so Aries is, uh…" He glanced down at Aries' frenetic sculpting. "What exactly are you doing, Aries?"

Aries pulled off her mask as she finished the golem and tossed it into the great pile of guano, its arms flailing wildly as it arced through the gloom of the cave. She turned to him, the wild grin on her face accentuated by the rivulets of blood running down it from the ring of cuts all around her shaved scalp.

"I'm gonna fuckin' hack the bats."


February

"We'll not survive the year in these conditions" Alvares growled, unhooking a third canister of liquid nitrogen from his belt and placing it roughly by the modified summoning circle Cassandra was tracing on the tiled floor in powdered milk and dipping dots. "First Grenich," he continued, "then Simmons last week - who's next, eh? Fucking meat grinder."

Wretch, their newest recruit, cocked her head in an unspoken question that would probably have been spoken if she weren't in the process of regurgitating over one hundred pounds of steel. The contraption she was vomiting out resembled an ornate manhole, covered in sigils and demonic markings, with a large opening aperture operated by a ridged dial on one side. Whatever the thing was, Davis has emphasised its value during the debrief - the Foundation only had one, and if it was lost their heads would be on the line. That was the point where Aries had pointed out they also only had one of each team member and they didn't seem to be valued much did they, and had received a nice tazing for her troubles.

"Grenich and Simmons used to be members of the team," Aries said, kneeling down by Wretch so she could be heard over the girl's gagging. "We left one behind to die, the other was punched to death by a minotaur."

"Asshole fucking deserved it," Alvares muttered. "Grenich, like."

It was hard to tell whether Wretch's expression of distress was at Alvares' comment or at the simple strain of pushing a 30-inch manhole cover out of a 2-inch mouth, but either way she'd started to cry. Aries bit her bottom lip, then reached forward and started tugging at the manhole, her fingers scrabbling for purchase on the surface, covered as it was with this phlegmy saliva. This close, she could see the large logo stamped into the metal - RICHARD AND SONS. The girl's eyes widened in an expression of either pain or thanks - whichever way, it was better to have the thing out quick so they could have this whole shitty mission over and done with.

Alvares continued as if they'd responded. "This is just an overly-elaborate way to execute us, I'm telling you." He gestured to the summoning circle as he spoke, and Cassandra raised an eyebrow, but otherwise made no indication she was even aware Alvares was talking as she finished off the outer ring, the powder lines glowing a faint blue as the final shapes were added to match the diagram on her tablet's screen. Aries sighed as she realised Cass was leaving it up to her to call him on his bullshit.

"Stop talking out your ass, Dominic. There's no conspiracy here, we're just some garbage they don't care about and they're finding a fun way to recycle us." She'd wanted to say this dismissively, continuing to tug at the manhole, but as she spoke the thing passed its greatest circumference and popped wholly out of Wretch's throat with a slimy smack, sending Aries flying back and landing on her ass right in front of him, just outside the outer line of dipping dots.

"As if you're not in on it, Clara." Alvares sneered, making no motion to help her up. "All that kooky blood witch bullshit to cover up you're part of the system too. Three or four months, bet you'll be creaming yourself at the chance to join the fresh new batch, eh? Guide them towards their trashy horror-film deaths one by one, high-fiving with Davis when their backs are turned." His face turned sour. "And you're such a bitch you decided to kill the magic plumber first."

The only good retort to that, obviously, was to bite his ear off. Aries scrambled up, lunging for his face, and Alvares stepped back, foot landing on one of the cylindrical canisters he'd placed around the circle. He careened wildly, grabbing at the front of Aries' shirt, trying not to disrupt the powder trace while the ritual was still in progress, but ultimately only succeeded in flinging himself farther in, his foot flying out from underneath him and sending the canister whizzing into Wretch's cheekbone. The deafening clunk of that impact was in great contrast to the total silence as his head hit what should have been solid tile and passed through it like a thick gloop, a tiny ripple the only indication he'd ever been there at all.

"Ah." said Aries, "Fuck."


December

Fenton wasn't exactly enthused by the new kid. Nettle hadn't talked once this whole mission except to acknowledge commands. He wouldn't have minded so much if he could judge the kid on other factors, but every bit of them was covered in a dark orange bodysuit, making it impossible to make out a damn thing about them. Even the kid's dream-self was indecipherable, a mass of bad memes and self-destructive tendancies whirling around a core of broken glass and blueberry jam. Not much weirder than what he'd seen in the rest of the team, but still, he wished he could get a read.

It didn’t help that all Willow had seen fit to tell him in the debrief was not to touch them under any circumstances. Then again, Willow had told him hardly anything about this mission. Need-to-know asset retrieval, follow the steps as laid out in the mission docs. Find the cavern at the centre, activate Trench's machine, wait for further instructions.

To their credit, they'd been doing well at the stealth aspect of the mission, their silence working in their favour. The creatures seemed to sense something was wrong about them, though. The slimy beasts would pause and growl as they passed, or just bolt, the inky patterns on their flanks swirling intensely. This did not, in fact, lower Fenton's unease one bit.

They were hiding out in a carved-out hollow in the antechamber of the slime creatures' nest, waiting on the results of the frankly insane claim Aries had made vis-à-vis the bats in the cave system below them. Just as he was shifting to check his watch, he heard a rumbling from the east tunnels. Almost on schedule, as usual. He let himself breathe a sigh of relief, and stepped out from the hiding spot to greet Aries and Trench.

Out of the east tunnel burst a 12-foot tall anglerfish with legs, Trench's lifeless corpse caught in its huge jaws.


May

Cassandra’s laugh rang hollow through the impromptu operating room as the clockwork cancer spread further across her hands, fastening them in place against the screeching clicker priest. She had to admit, she wasn't exactly surprised at this outcome, but it wouldn't have been her first guess if you'd asked her how she'd die.

“Get it? My time is up? Cos, clockwork?” Her shit-eating grin fell back into her standard frown as she observed the serious faces around her. “Come on, guys, it’s not like we didn’t see this coming. I’ve been operating on the equivalent of a sentient magical bear trap, this was bound to happen eventually.”

She turned to the young girl covered in blood for support. “Aries knows how this works." When the girl only bit her lip in response, she looked to the man in the discount skeleton costume. "Wilkes, you’ve been around the block too. It’s not a mission if one of us doesn’t die horribly, right? It’s just … my turn.”

She winced as the gears bit further into her flesh, flaying skin and muscle, and copper piping snaked further up her arms. She could feel hair-thin wires pushing into the cuts, running into her muscles and latticing around and between her radius and ulna. No escape unless she could perform a double-amputation from the shoulders in the next second or two. She breathed slowly, accepting her fate. It would be over soon. She wished she could say she had no regrets, but she had so very many.

Wilkes and Huever were speechless, wrestling with grief and anger respectively. In the other corner, the faceless monk ~ shot her an telepathic :( face as he threw a sigil-stone into the midst of the growing cultist swarm. Their gears stopped dead and they fell to the ground twitching. Aries, standing by Cassandra, wrestled with her impulse to pat the older woman on the shoulder. She and Cassandra had never been close, but she felt like she should be saying something here.

“You should, um…” Aries trailed off, not sure what the right words were. She bit her lip hard, the familiar tang of blood triggering a good thought. “We should-”

The mechanism that had been winding its way down Cassandra’s collarbones met itself, clicked into place and unceremoniously snapped closed, crushing her skull instantly as counter-mechanisms tore open her ribcage. Wilkes doubled over, pulling up his mask to splash his lunch out onto the metal floor. ~ merely broadcast a :/ face. Aries sighed heavily and hit her communicator.

“Davis? Cassandra’s dead, mission’s fucked. Requesting extraction.”


December

The angler thing tossed Trench in the air and swallowed him whole, then let out a bellowing screech that reverberated through the tunnels, receiving calls of response from dozens of slime creatures. Panicking, Fenton tried to reach into its dream self to assert control, but found nothing inside it. This thing was operating on pure animalistic instinct and bloodlust.

Hey, at least Fenton could say he’d died to something cool.

A mass of bats swarmed from an opening in the rocks behind the angler and it turned its head just in time to be smacked in the jaw by a great brown blur. The almost-solid swarm rushing by with enough force to stagger it. Fenton could just about make out a figure in the centre of the flock, supported on a churning, flapping platform of the flying rodents. Here was Aries.

Fenton drew the handgun at his hip and stepped into the angler's line of sight. He fired a couple of shots at the thing, targeting its eyes and the lure that dangled from its forehead. The bullets ricocheted off it uselessly, pinging into the surrounding rock.

The bat swarm clumped and merged into one single blob, a humanoid shape covered in still-flapping wings and furry squeaking faces. It slammed a bulky fist into the creature, making it stumble again. The angler faked out the bat-blob, moving to flinch back then twisting to ram itself sideways into the shrieking mess. As the blob fell on its ass, it burst back into a flock of individual bats, half the swarm falling to the ground immediately, their tattered wings and broken bones rendering them useless. There were more bats flowing in from every tunnel now, though, catching in Fenton’s hair, leaving scratches on his neck and hands as he swatted them away. They flowed into the bat-blob, but the angler had it on the defensive now and it was losing bats faster than they could be replenished. He turned to call to Nettle, to see they had already stepped out from the hiding place and were struggling, uncomfortable, their costume cut and torn. A pile of dead, mangled bats lay at their feet. What?

A yell from the fight and he turned back to see that the angler had Aries caught in its jaws, hanging upside down, one long tooth piercing directly through her calf. She was reaching up to try to tap a sigil carved into her thigh, but the angler was bucking and snapping wildly, tossing her like a ragdoll as the last of her swarm petered out.

Fenton reached into his utility belt, searching for anything he could use against the thing. Something that could hit at primary logic centres? He couldn’t assume it had anything like a familiar brain structure, how did he account for that? Generalised targeted fear attack, distract it? He barely noticed as Nettle brushed past him, a numbing tingle spreading across his arm where they’d come close. He looked up as the numbing hit his fingers, everything from the shoulder down feeling alien. He wanted to challenge the kid on what the hell they'd done, but they were heading right for the angler, calmly pulling off their gloves and rolling up their sleeves, revealing their dark skin for the first time.

“Nettle, get the fuck back, you can’t fucking fistfight that thing!”

Nettle waved Fenton away dismissively over their shoulder, not bothering to even turn their head. “Not intending to, dude!” Their voice was young. Fenton would have estimated mid-teens. The Foundation were sick enough to bring kids into this shit now? He didn’t have time to contemplate long, as Nettle reached out and quietly placed a hand on the creature’s calf.

The fireworks began.


October

“What do you mean there’s nothing left?” Davis’ voice was low and husky, irritatingly calm.

Aries growled at the question, ducking out of the way of a falling pillar just in time, at this point fueled only by fear and spite. “I mean they’re all fucking dead, Via! Tenochtitlan, ~, Eckhart. They’re trapped in that goddamn soul-mangler, and I will be too if you don’t extract me NOW!”

A blip appeared on her heads-up display, accompanied by a little chirp from her comm. “The asset hasn’t yet been retrieved, Berlot. You know just as well as I do I’m not extracting shit until the cosmic daughter is locked down.”

“She’s dead too, you bitch! Get in some people who know what the fuck is actually going on here, clean up this mess, and GET. ME. OUT!”

There was a pause as Davis deliberated, taking her sweet time while Aries ducked under a beam into the cinema atrium, scrambling to get away from the all-too-human barking of the chimerachological monstrosities hot at her heels. This bitch was going to kill her. She was actually going to do it. An icy chill ran through her as Davis confirmed.

“Sigma-66, operation 46, full mission failure and total loss of operatives. Requesting clean-up, specialists in chimera tech.”

Aries wasn’t one to go down without a fight. Obviously. She wasn't one to do anything without a fight. She scrambled beneath the atrium’s grand piano, a plan already forming in her head. She yanked ~’s soul protection stone from her bra, careful to maintain skin contact, and bit hard into her thumb, smearing the blood that welled from it onto the back of the trinket.

The barking was getting louder. They could smell her, she knew, even beneath the cloying smoke that was filling the cinema. Drawbacks of being constantly covered in blood. She rummaged in the depths of her trench coat pockets, her skin shredding against various blades and sharp edges, until they closed around the thing she wanted.

The trigger for Simmon’s teleport mechanism, rusted from all those months tucked away. Totally non-functional, of course, but that hardly mattered to an artist. She swiped the bleeding thumb against that too. Protection, movement, what else? For good measure, she swiped the thumb against the comm in her ear. Location, maybe. Intent.

The dogs were in the room. No time to perfect the spell. As one lunged at her, its plaintive eyes apologising for its vicious intent, she muttered a few words of incantation and squeezed the trigger.

Aries was blasted instantly from her body, straight upwards. She caught a glimpse of her corporeal form being savaged before it was blocked from view, first by the ceiling of the theatre and then by the vast interconnected network of drifting souls that ran like blood cells through the astral highway. Above, she could sense terribly huge things moving sluggishly through the currents, sucking in souls like krill.

Focus. You’re only halfway there.

Aries muttered the follow-up incantation to bring her back to the real world and felt a shift in her gut as she started moving downwards, a lazy arc transforming rapidly into a vicious plummet. Her soul seared, the astral plane’s equivalent of burning up on re-entry acting on every aspect of her being.

Just as quickly as she’d left it, she was slammed back into existence as she knew it, her body feeling so much different now she wasn’t taking it for granted. She was sitting in the command centre, legs up on a desk, the others in the room scrambling to get away from her, knocking over several swivel chairs in the process.

There was something wrong here, their faces showing not just fear - what she’d have expected from an unexpected apparition - but disgust, lips curled and ready to hurl insults the second they were done making sure she couldn’t kill them. “What, you’ve never seen-”

This wasn’t her voice, not even slightly. It was deep, husky. Smoke damage? Frowning, she swivelled to check her reflection in the outdated PC monitor in front of her, discern if there was visible damage.

Oh.

Staring back at her was Via Davis’ shocked face, blood welling from every orifice. Shit, that had worked WAY better than she’d thought. The radio crackled, and she heard Davis’ dying screams and curses, in the familiar voice of Clara Berlot, anartist extraordinaire.


December

The angler didn’t die instantly. Fenton kind of felt like it would have been better if it had. In half a second, cuts welled up all over the creature’s body, its legs broke, its scarred eye burst open and pumped out steaming brown blood. It wrenched its head around to look at Nettle with its good eye, and Fenton heard a sickening crack as the whiplash broke something in Aries. Her body went from struggling and angry to limp and lifeless in a heartbeat, as the creature similarly folded, hundreds of wounds both big and small accumulating to slit its throat. Nettle hopped back as the thing crashed to the ground, Aries’ body slumping beneath it without a fight.

Fenton was speechless, paralysed with shock as Nettle rolled their sleeves back down and pulled on their gloves. They could do that with a touch. He felt his numb arm tingle and imagined it ripped apart, bleeding like the angler had.

“I don’t like doing that. Sorry.” Nettle gestured at him vaguely, as if waving a hand in front of his eyes. “You ok? That can be hard to see even when you’re not the one inflicting it.”

Before Fenton could reply, there was a loud groan from the angler. Nettle whipped around, ready for a repeat of the gorefest they’d just inflicted, but the creature was just as dead as they’d anticipated. The groaning was from underneath it.

“Aries,” Fenton breathed, and they both dashed to heft the angler’s head off her, Nettle keeping a wide berth in an obvious effort not to touch Fenton. She was still, not a twitch from any of her limbs, but her eyes were flickering wildly. Fenton saw the heavy bruising around her neck, and it clicked. She was paralysed. He got Nettle to step back, then reached into the thing's guts and pulled out Trench's corpse. He rolled it over and tugged the backpack off its shoulders. After a half-second of hesitation, he took the time to roll the body back over and close its eyes. He wasn't a fan of Trench, but still, one deserved the right to dream when they reached Corbenic.

The pulled out Trench’s hefty med kit and was in the process of assembling a neck brace on Aries when Willow’s voice buzzed in over comms. “Status report, stat. You’ve got two minutes until asset materialisation, 66.”

To Fenton’s surprise, it was Nettle who answered first. “Uh, Trench is down, ma'am. Aries is incapacitated but still alive, I think. Fenton’s putting together the, uh, they’re bracing her neck. Uhhh, we killed a big monster fish thing.”

“Casualties are acceptable." There was a half-second of pause. "I'm sorry, though. You’re in the antechamber?”

“The - yeah, we’re here. Map says we’re looking for something on the north wall?” Nettle rose from their squatting position by the angler’s tail and scanned slowly.

“Look for an unusually flat section of rock. There should be a big round metal piece inlaid into it.”

Nettle was against the north wall now, running their hand along the rock. The metal circle was clear as day, could they not see it? Fenton finished up with the brace and hoisted Aries into a fireman lift. Risky, but necessary for mobility if they had to run again later. She grunted into his shoulder, her drool soaking through the back of his thin shirt. He chose to interpret it as thanks.

“Ok, I’ve got it. Big circle, ma’am.” Nettle stepped back from the wall, trying to make out the detail in the gloom. “It's just a rim, though, stone again inside. Should I—”

“You don’t need to do anything. I’m activating the circle via a relay in your collar. Lets hope Trench did his job right with those generators.” As she spoke, a hum started up deep below them and the metal in front of Nettle began to glow a faint blue.

“Actually, Nettle, step back. Quick.”

Nettle didn’t question the order, darting out of the way as the glow became a piercing light and, with the faintest of splashing noises, a man careened out of the solid stone wall, tumbling to a stop where Nettle had stood a second before. He wore the same orange overalls they all wore. Who-?

Willow answered his question before he’d asked it, speaking over speaker comms from Nettle’s collar. “Welcome back to reality, Agent Alvares.”

On his shoulder, Aries barked a harsh laugh that turned into a hacking cough, her body rocking with the force of her diaphragm spasming. “Hgfhh, fuggn… Alvrez!” Her speech was spluttered, slurred, but she’d undoubtedly said the man’s name. Fenton turned so she could see him. “Alvrez, yhuu.. Yuh… YHUU WANKR!”

“Merry Christmas, Aries.” Willow cooed happily. “Prepare for extraction, folks.”


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