A God and a Marine

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Gunfire erupted from the north of the forest, accompanied by inhuman screams and death cries. Private Iqbal al-Rashim charged towards the direction of the cacophony, his armored boots crushing the twigs and dried leaves, its soles sinking deep into the slippery mud beneath. The heads-up display link of his faceplate's eye lenses illuminated the dark surroundings. The shadows between the distant tree branches appeared to be still-standing silhouettes; Iqbal wasn't sure if they were hostile creatures or if his paranoia had grown and influenced his exhausted mind.

He glanced behind and saw his three fellow Privates, firing in the direction of their pursuers. They were the remaining members of a relief team sent by NORLUZCOM1 to assist a beleaguered joint task force comprised of AWBn Marines and the Mahari-Likhan people of the Igur'at Tribe, the realm's powerful hunters. But as fate would have it, the relief team ran into an ambush that decimated their numbers. The rescuers became the victims.

Command had given them their primary objective, which Iqbal and the others still intended to accomplish: respond to the distress signal broadcasted by the joint task force and extract them, or what remains of it. As to the purpose of the joint task force itself and who its leader is, the information was withheld, and Iqbal could only guess.

Iqbal whispered a prayer of gratitude to Allah as he reached a tree trunk. He lifted his M60 in the general direction of their pursuers and screamed for his fellow megos to get out of his line of fire, which they obeyed as they scrambled behind him as soon as they reached the tree line. Beyond, he caught the impression of several men and women in black and grey body armor, helmets, and faceplates of blue glowing wide-eyed visors. They were told, in the briefing, that the armed group was a cell of the Chaos Insurgency called the Black Alphas, who frequently sell their services to local armed groups in exchange for anomalous items. Their motives remained a mystery, but the top brass has already coordinated with the Intelligence Divisions of all Paranormal Combat-capable Units to keep an eye out for the armed cell in case they ever decided to launch an all-out war against the government with the amassed ano-weapons.

He squeezed the trigger; the large weapon in his hands shook him to the very bone, but his planted feet and proper posture prevented him from toppling to the ground like an inexperienced idiot. Across in the receiving end, he heard loud wet snaps and garbled screams issued from voice filtering devices. The weapon became lighter in every round that was dispensed. He did not stop until movement finally ceased at the opposing end of the no-man's land.

Iqbal took cover; his forehead was soaked wet in sweat. He was lucky that their pursuers did not have sniper support, otherwise, he was a target waiting to be shot. A squad machine gunner is the ticket of a fireteam or a squad to victory due to the firepower they possess, but it also made them favorite targets of enemy marksmen.

"Reloading!" Iqbal yelled. Privates Carlos and Guarin peeked around the tree trunks weapon-first to see if there are any surviving Black Alphas. Seeing none, they signaled at Iqbal.

He gently pulled free the belt of 7.62mm AMP (Anomalous Material Piercer) rounds hanging diagonally across his body and fed it inside the weapon. He was glad to have the weight removed from him. The moonlight seeping through the treetops overhead illuminated the blood that covered him.

But the blood does not belong to him, but his fallen brother Marines.

The Black Alphas and their shape-shifting Aswang allies sprang an ambush against the relief team to prevent them from reaching the joint task force. It cost them their Sergeant, the Corporal, and the two PFCs. They managed to escape the ambush when the drone-fire support provided by Command finally arrived. Thaumaturgic camouflage had disguised the death machines from the unsuspecting Insurgent operatives and ferocious Aswangs.

As soon as he was done reloading, he led the team ahead, sticking close to Private Guerrero, the team's radioman, to protect him. If they lost him, they will have no ticket home.

The team pressed on further, following the sounds of gunfire. Iqbal glimpsed at beams of light and fire, which were surely conjured by the anomalous Mahari-Likhans. He also noticed the thunderstorm despite the clear night sky; the bolts of lightning appeared to be brighter and faster than the ordinary ones, streaking from the heavens above to the direction of the fighting in an unnatural rapid succession, hinting at the presence of a more powerful entity on the battlefield.

He prayed to Allah that the djinn would be on their side.

The clearing was a gruesome sight. Portable deployable barricades were strewn around, riddled with bullet holes and dented with scratches; corpses of Anomalous Warfare Battalion Marines and Mahari-Likhan tribesmen were strewn about, along with mutilated cadavers of Black Alpha Insurgents and biped cryptids with shriveled pale skin. Spent casings and keratin fragments were littered across the grassy field. Blood glistened under the moonlight like spilled oil, which reeked of raw meat and corroded metal. Iqbal was familiar with the scent and it never failed to nauseate him.

The air smelt of cordite; the area was alive with the staccato thunderclaps of weapon discharges from his remaining fellow AWBn Marines. The strong scent of burnt flesh permeated through the respirator of his faceplate, failing to stop the smell from reaching his nostrils.

In the middle of the battlefield were the surviving members of the joint task force, taking behind the barricades arranged in a semi-circular manner. The outer perimeter was manned by a handful of Marines from the Beta Company and the remnants of a platoon of the 3rd Occult Warfare Command Company "ADARNA" - an AWBn Company specialized in the neutralization of violent anomalous extremist groups and cults.

Behind them were several men and women equipped with primitive battle armors made out of either stones or leather skins, which Iqbal realized were extracted from the skins of horse-headed Tikbalangs and bloodthirsty Aswangs. Runes glowed on the surface of their armor and the air around them. They wore wooden masks painted with the faces of Bathala or Apollaki in an angry expression; the Igur’at people, the skilled hunters of Mahari-Likha. They were armed with crystal-tipped spears that glowed rhythmically, and steel-reinforced mirror-surfaced shields that occasionally emitted beams of light. Charms and pendants hung around their necks, ankles, forearms, and spears.

In the middle of the group was a man, or a deity, of tall stature. His finely chiseled torso was marred with scratches and riddled with bullet holes, but none were deep enough to be fatal. He wore a golden band around his head, decorated with Baybayin letters, its significance eluded Iqbal. He wore plate-reinforced trousers and a pair of steel-toed spiked boots, its greaves were carved with imagery considered sacred to the Mahari-Likhan religion. His body was tattooed with Baybayin letters; Iqbal knew a little alibata for him to know that the scripts were prayers to Bathala, the Chief God of the Mahari-Likhans and the Filipinos.

He gripped a gayang fashioned from a stone in one hand and a gold-laden scepter in the other. The man commanded with a voice that sounded like a roar to Iqbal, and the men under his command continuously fought the combined Black Alpha and Aswang forces, but more replaced them despite the joint task force's efforts.

Iqbal watched in awe as the man waved his scepter and pointed it. The night sky above them illuminated in a strobe as bright streaks of lightning hit the ground. A larger streak landed, sending mud and soil in the air. A fearsome hound made of thunder emerged from the crater, surrounded by an aura of plasma; its eyes glowed a sparkling emerald. It proceeded to bite the approaching enemies without pause, incinerating their bodies to a crisp, before flying back up towards the sky.

The relief team approached the joint task force. The man turned to regard them with irritation as if they were a mere nuisance.

"You're the relief team that the mortals sent?" The man asked, his tone finally clear and audible. "How pathetic. We needed a company-sized men and your leaders sent us a handful. Were you sent to die along with us?"

Iqbal couldn't answer as he was in no position to speak for his seniors. If only his sergeant is alive-

"Who is the leader among you?"

"Dead, sir." Iqbal mustered the courage to speak. "We were ambushed earlier by the Insurgency operatives; it's a miracle we survived."

"No," the man said. "It is not a miracle; you have saved yourselves. Perhaps Father Bathala allowed you a moment more of existence to fulfill another purpose such as being our meat shields." After looking overhead, he glanced back at Iqbal. "I am Tadaklan, the Lord Over Thunder. If you will serve under me, then you must at least know me by name."

Iqbal nodded. He recognized the god from the mythological tales that the village elders used to tell them; one of Bathala's many sons, although he wasn't sure if the fictional adaptations were the same as in reality. But it was a widely known fact among those who were aware of Mahari-Likha and its denizens that Tadaklan is a champion of Madya-as, who have slain many monsters and rebelling deities.

A lull in fighting had occurred as the enemies reassembled for a renewed attack. Iqbal ignored it and looked up to Tadaklan to deliver the message issued by their superiors but the god spoke again.

"You and your fellows have not been introduced yet. How am I going to command you if I do not know what you are called? Do you want me to call you foolish names instead?"

"al-Rashim," Iqbal said with a hint of annoyance at the deity's arrogance. He nodded at the other Privates looking up at the god with wonder. "That's Carlos and Guarin." He thumbed at the man with a radio strapped behind his back. "And that's Guerrero. I am to deliver a message to you, commander." He hoped that the title would please this djinn. He will not call Tadaklan a god; for him, there is only one god and that is Allah.

"And what is this message you wish for me to hear?"

"You are to pull out, regardless of whether you have accomplished your objective or not." At the sound of this, Guerrero had already set down his radio from his back and was preparing to contact Command for additional drone-fire support to aid them in their retreat. The Marine Radioman looked up at the god, asking non-verbally for approval. If the other Marines in the joint task force also heard the retreat order, they showed no signs of it, but Iqbal knew they were either pissed or relieved.

"Your leaders are cowards," Tadaklan said. "And you let them smear your images by following their stupid orders."

"I would call it living to fight another day, commander," Iqbal said. "Besides, whatever objective you have, if you have not accomplished it by now, your targets were probably alerted and have already relocated."

The brief silence was full of tension and Iqbal could see the contempt in the eyes of the god that he thought he would sic his dog at him any moment now. But after a few moments of reconsideration, the god finally spoke, "So be it."

Iqbal nodded at Guerrero, who began requesting Vulture Drones support. The Private walked past the radioman, feeling the gaze of the god behind him; he dared not look back. He propped his squad automatic weapon atop the nearest barricade alongside Carlos, Guarin, and the members of Beta Company, and prepared for the upcoming attack of the Black Alphas and the white-skinned Aswangs beyond.

The Aswangs appeared from the shadows first; the grunts of the forces of darkness bellowed a blood-curdling howl before charging with a discordant sprint. The violent cannibals were the most commonly hired or enslaved by either a rebelling Mahari-Likhan deity or some upstart warlord leading a terrorist group, a criminal syndicate, or a combination of both. They were mostly found in secluded barrios, related with one another as a clan and reproducing through in-breeding or inter-clan marriages. Some of them broke away from the clans and operate alone in urban cities and rural provinces, selling their expertise to the highest bidders. And then there were a few Aswang Clans consisted of humans who were turned against their will or Aswangs who have grown to love humans and everything about them, and have taken refuge in Mahari-Likha, the good-natured ones who were exiled by their species. They were eager to fight against their own to protect humans. These Aswangs subsist in livestock grown on Mahari-Likhan soil.

Their appearances and their cannibalistic tendencies depended on the clans they belonged to, as well as their behavior and traditions. Some looked like humans with slight abnormalities, others looked like large werewolves or small wounded stray dogs; some appeared as humanoids with wings, others appeared as tiny ravens; but all of them are capable of morphing into their ordinary human forms, which threw off curious eyes.

They needed to wait for a few more minutes before the drones reach their position, and the retreat can be carried out. The enemies renewed their assault once more; the Black Alphas fired from the trees around the joint task force without warning while the Aswangs suicidally charged at them. Iqbal recognized the clan the Aswangs belonged to; they call themselves the "Mamumuksa", known for their brutal assaults and savagery.

The Marines fired at the Aswangs while the Igur'at tribesmen activated the effects of their shields to temporarily blind the Black Alphas and allow the Marines to eliminate the more dangerous threat. Iqbal fired his M60 and cut down a large group of Aswangs in one sweep. The Aswangs managed to get close, but the spears of the Igur'at hunters thrust over the heads of and between the Marines, impaling the unholy creatures that managed to get dangerously close, parts of their corpses burned in a geyser of fire.

When the tide of Aswangs was stemmed, the defending forces focused on the Black Alphas. The Igur'at kept their shields aimed at the Black Alphas, illuminating them for the marksmen attached to both the Beta and 3rd OWCOM Companies. Iqbal fired in short controlled bursts at the Black Alphas he could see, taking down a man or two. He would occasionally duck when a bullet strayed too close for comfort before resuming his attack.

To Iqbal's surprise, Carlos yelled a blood-curdling scream before a spray of warm red liquid covered him. Iqbal turned and saw the casualty on the ground with an exposed ribcage. Another burst of air was heard, and an OWCOM Marine in the distance dropped to the ground dead with a blown-out limb.

Iqbal ducked once more and decided to crawl to the now-vacant barricades nearby to hopefully confuse the enemy marksman. The Marines around him, as well as the Igur'at hunters, were going down one by one. He risked a peak and fired wildly out of paranoia before ducking back down.

If they were sniper shots, why is he not hearing any?

"The drones have arrived, al-Rashim!" Guerrero called.

Overhead, a pair of Vulture Drones, which looked like Philippine Eagles at first glance, approached, its chin guns began firing at the ground below as soon as they arrived within firing range. Black Alpha Insurgents and Mamumuksa Aswangs exploded in red bursts. Hope returned to Iqbal, but suddenly, the drones stopped firing. He frowned at this and looked up. He watched with a horrified expression as they sped towards one another and collided. They exploded midair with a bright orange flash, illuminating the dark forest below like noonday.

"Fuck! Fuck!" Iqbal yelled as he looked down at Guerrero, who was as shocked. Guerrero barely had time to speak when his head exploded just like the rest of them. Instead of ducking, he sat on his ass flat on the ground, his hands clutching at his head as if it would save him from the unseen force. He did not notice the weapon he dropped to the ground.

"Allahu Akbar," he whispered. "Allahu Akbar." He repeated as he let out a cry. "I'm a Marine, dammit!" He grabbed the fallen M60 and rushed towards the Igur'at, past the fallen bodies of headless and limbless Marines. "Oorah!"

He looked up at Tadaklan, who was now aiming his scepter at an unseen figure above the forest controlled by the Black Alphas. He wondered what he was aiming at when the lightning dog struck from above and hit something. A humanoid figure in black robes and armor appeared in view. The figure fell with a thud, half-buried in the mud. Tadaklan strode towards the fallen figure with an imperceptible speed and engaged it.

The entity was as large as Tadaklan. His hair was long and lustrous like the night. His skin was white as porcelain and his yellow glowing eyes contained a malicious stare. Dark flames danced around him, flickering in and out of view at random times. Tadaklan sheathed the scepter and snatched his secondary smaller blade from its scabbard with his free hand by the time he reached the figure, who now stood up at full height. It grinned at Tadaklan.

"Sitan! I should have known that you are behind this!" Tadaklan yelled.

Sitan is the equivalent of the Devil in the Mahari-Likhan religion, except he wasn't exactly a demon, but rather, a god who had fallen from graces and brought many of his siblings with him. Iqbal was aware of his story, as he had been in operations where they fought Sitan's followers and cults. The god was not just only known for his malevolent nature, but also for his favor for people who wanted revenge and justice. He was known to be conjured by the oppressed, and he never failed them.

"You…" Sitan stood up, coughing blood and grinning. "You and your pathetic soldiers. The Lord Bathala never learned that you're all just meat for the grinder."

"Abandon your ambition of usurping the Father's throne and surrender to us now! It is not too late for you, Madya-as might give you a fair trial and a reasonable verdict!"

"Reasonable? Do you hear yourself? When do hypocrites become reasonable, brother? Bathala will be more than happy to drive his tabak down my throat than forgive me."

"You have coerced many of our brothers and sisters to rebellion. You have soaked your fists red with the blood of our own." Tadaklan watched as Sitan assumed a fighting stance. "What do you think?"

"If Bathala had step down and let me took control, none of this would have happened! We would have won against the Spanish Empire and my subordinates would still be alive! I have seen many of my Katipuneros die at the hands of the Inquisition for merely asking my assistance…" Sitan paused as he clenched his teeth to stave off the anger that would lead him to blind rage. "And now, because of your spineless pacifist of a father, the Catholics have ultimately buried us in the past, forgotten!" He cracked his neck with sideward bobs of his head. "I will avenge the humans who followed me. If there is a murderer here, it's your Father!"

Sitan drew his kampilan and struck at Tadaklan. The lightning god deflected the first attack, sending sparks everywhere. He sidestepped and parried the second strike away. Lightning streaked from Tadaklan's weapon, which struck a tree and sent it burning. Tadaklan executed a spinning roundhouse kick and planted the heel of his foot on the chest of Sitan.

The shadow god took a step backward and laughed.

"Tadaklan, brother. You should do better than that!" Sitan attacked with a renewed vigor; Tadaklan moved out of the way as the shadow lord struck the soil accidentally which shook the ground. Iqbal steadied himself after he tripped off balance. He noticed that both the Igur'at hunters, the Black Alphas, and the remaining Aswangs stopped to watch the two battling gods.

Tadaklan wasted no time and charged at the distracted Sitan. The shadow lord grinned as he aimed his right free hand in the direction of the attacking god. Streaks of serpentine shadows swirled from his fingertips and impaled Tadaklan. The lightning god fell to his knees while Sitan’s grin widened.

"Bow before the new king, brother. It is fitting." He raised his sword overhead, prepared to behead his brother.

Iqbal raised his M60 and opened fire at the deity. The 7.62mm AMP rounds did their magic as they pierced through the shadow god's armor, and eventually, flesh. Sitan was caught off-guard and Iqbal was just as surprised by his actions. He was pretty much fucked up at this point.

Sitan roared at the AWBn Marine and sprinted at him like a Kapre who lost his tobacco. Iqbal continued to open fire at the charging deity when a bolt of powerful lightning struck the shadow god from behind. Sitan fell to a knee, muttering a string of curses in Bisaya before fading away from view. Behind is a bloodied Tadaklan, his body was riddled with dime-sized holes, which looked fatal.

"I will be back!" A fading voice screamed in the dark.

The fighting around him renewed once more. It was more violent than the last time. Iqbal was the only Marine remaining fighting alongside the surviving Igur'at hunters. They managed to eliminate the remaining Aswangs while the Black Alphas were forced to retreat. The hunters pursued the Black Alphas deeper into the forest; Iqbal followed them. Several of the Insurgents sacrificed themselves by detonating a thaumaturgic bomb they had on their persons. The blasts dazed Iqbal and found himself rolling across the ground.

Silence soon ensued as the sharp ringing in his ears slowly dissipated. Sweat dripped from every pore of his body and his throat was dry like sandpaper. Every muscle and joint ached and wondered if he had been injured in the combat. With an effort, he removed both his helmet and faceplate, letting the cool air that carried a bad stench dry his face.

He savored the serenity and respite when he remembered Tadaklan. He stood up and retrieved the kit he discarded before he rushed towards the bleeding god.

"You…" Tadaklan spoke. "You did not leave us in the time of calamity."

"Why would I do that?" Iqbal asked.

"You were only sent here to cover for our retreat and not to fight alongside us, yes?"

Iqbal nodded his head.

"You have a choice to leave us, but you didn't." Tadaklan grunted in pain. "Leave me now, let a god rest eternally in peace. I've had enough of this war. I have killed many of my siblings, and seen them die by my side."

"No, I'm not going to leave you," Iqbal said as he glanced at the pile of Igur'at corpses. He walked towards them.

"That's an order," Tadaklan said. For a dying entity, he spoke with clarity, Iqbal thought. Iqbal rummaged through the corpses and found what he was looking for, a feather of a Sarimanok soaked in blood.

"The hell are you talking about? The Black Alphas might come back to finish the job, or worse, capture you. I'm not risking that so I'm not leaving you here behind."


"What you said, about fate and all that crap. There's a reason why you're still breathing." Iqbal genuflected behind him. He dried the feather by rubbing it against the sleeve of his Type-B BDU while he produced a zippo lighter from his pocket. "And I am a Marine, and Marines don't leave a brother behind." He burned the feather, and everything was engulfed in bright light.

"Call the Marine named al-Rashim for me."

The Yfogo Kadangyan Priestess bowed at Tadaklan's bedside and exited the room. After a few seconds, the familiar face of the Marine appeared from the doorway. The god felt the sense of camaraderie return. The Marine saluted at him, which he waved away.

"No, you're my brother, al-Rashim," Tadaklan said as he forcefully tried to sit up. "We are equals now. "

"Commander, if you still can't-"

"Do you mistake me for a weakling, Marine?" Tadaklan asked as he planted both his bare feet on the concrete floor of the circular chamber. "I am the Lord Over Thunder, let me remind you that." He grabbed his scepter laid on the next bed and motioned at the open balcony of the room. "Please, join me."

Iqbal followed the wounded god towards the balcony. His open wounds were sealed by an adhesive patch of some sort. A rune glowed on the top of it, a Baybayin word that Iqbal doesn't know the meaning of.

Below them was Mahari-Likha, viewed from the infirmary of Mount Madya-as, the abode of the gods and goddesses. Iqbal was one of the very few mortals who ventured into its halls, and the other mortals were revered as heroes such as Bernardo Carpio, the nigh-immortal warrior with immense strength who had fought with Lapu-Lapu against Magellan's forces as a Pintado, and eventually, against the Spanish Empire as a Katipunero; the Hunter-Princess Maring, the archer who killed a three-headed Bakonawa, along with her husband then-lover, Duque, after the monster killed the Princess' suitors in a ceremony held by her father, which led to the island where she slew the monster being named after them: Marinduque; Abyang Baranugon, a warrior who killed Saragnayan, one of Sitan's generals and a lord of darkness who killed the warrior's father; Dumasig, a powerful wrestler and a human gate guardsman of Madya-as who aided Dumalapdap in his quests-

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Tadaklan gestured below. The moon and the sun above Mahari-Likha and beneath Mount Madya-as co-existed together. Apolaki, the Sun God, and Malyari, the one-eyed Moon Goddess. He knew the tale of the two sibling gods that fought for rulership: Apolaki wanting to rule over all because of his strength, and Malyari suggesting equal rulership instead. Apolaki's temper got the better of him and blinded Malyari with the Kamagong or a Sibat she gifted him, depending on the version of the tale one would read. His remorse won at the end of the day which resulted in co-rulership in the sky.

Beneath the sun was the coast where Mauro fisherfolks sailed for seafood while beneath the moon was the forest shrouded in everlasting night, the home of the shadow people of the Aeti tribe. Between them is the main city of Mahari-Likha, populated by Tagaloags and other tribes. The palace of the Rajahnate and the Lupon ng Limang Datu2 stood in the center, beneath Madya-as itself. Good-natured monsters and beasts coexisted with humans in Mahari-Likha, and together they fought side-by-side for the protection of this realm and the realm outside of it, the wider Philippines.

Its recent discovery by the SCP Foundation and the Paranormal Combat Department led to a mutual agreement. The AWBn and the 666IB offered to work alongside Mahari-Likhan assets for the protection of the Archipelago and the preservation of The Veil. The Deities and the Mahari-Likhans gladly agreed to these terms.

"Yes, I agree, commander," Iqbal said. Thoughts formed in his mind, but he found no strength nor the words to either ask or say them. Instead, he enjoyed the cool air and the beautiful view below.

After a long while, Tadaklan finally spoke.

"You have heard our conversation." The lightning god said. "When I fought Sitan, you're listening, yes?"

"I am," Iqbal said.

"Then you are aware of the threat we are facing."

"And the threats you are not aware of, commander," Iqbal replied as he remembered the myriad of other anomalous dangers, outside of the Mahari-Likha concern, that the Battalion fought daily. Tadaklan smiled at him.

He looked down at his scepter briefly before handing it to Iqbal.

"What is this?" Iqbal asked.

"I bestow this weapon to you," Tadaklan said. "This had brought me too much weight to bear. I needed to rest first. Fighting a seemingly eternal war wears even the strongest of gods." Tadaklan looked back at the view below. "And I am not even the strongest."

Iqbal frowned.

"Take it before I hit you with it."

Iqbal took the scepter, which felt heavy in his hands.

"I will take it back when the time comes, but for now, take care of that for me. That scepter commands Kimat, my most loyal hound. I know you have seen him once back there in the forest. You know how terrible he is."

"But…why me?" Iqbal asked.

"Bathala works in ways that were not unveiled to us," Tadaklan said.

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