Fear The Deer
rating: +30+x

Things had gone to hell and it wasn’t Niles Hessen’s fault. She had cautioned against the scorched-earth approach. She warned that they were playing with forces that could cause reverberations they would live to regret. She had stood at that podium, facing a rounded dais of seven impassive faces, begging them to reconsider. The tallest of them raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t see why we can’t treat this like any other religion that grows out of control,” said the - she didn’t know his position, actually. She just knew that he had clearance far above hers and would decide if they would wipe the Veldt off the face of the earth entirely.

“This isn’t a religion,” she’d said, tone urgent and face flushed. “This is older than that. The scrolls the Arnatsiaq boy showed me - the book we recovered from the den in Cairo - they’re ancient. Ancient. And the things they tell you how to do, they work. We’ve seen it. ”

“And what would you have us do, hmm? Refuse to act, and clean up when the storm is over? Do you have any idea the amount of amnestics it would take to clean this up? What it’s already taken?”

“I don’t know what to do instead. I’m not going to pretend I do. I’m just saying not to do this.”

They thanked her for her time, and she was promptly ignored.

They did come to her afterwards. She proposed the Hiemal classification. A small consolation prize which she was too distraught to enjoy.

When Elle Ives noticed the cracks coming through the concrete floor of the target range, her first thought was that Niles’ math was wrong. But Niles never got the math wrong. She’d said the growth pattern would take two weeks to reach them in the provisional site they’d been moved to, but it had only been three days. It wasn’t that Niles was impeccable with her math - she wasn’t. But she knew this and would double, triple, quadruple check to make sure she was right. She couldn’t afford to be wrong.

So what would make the Verdant target them here? The answer was, of course, the children. She grabbed as much ammo as she could carry and ran, following the thing’s trail to their shared target.

The creature that burst through the floor in front of the humanoid containment cells was serpentine and maggot-like all at once. It was overgrown, translucent, and pulsing, with two vestigial arms segmented like an insect’s, and gave off the sickly sweet stench of rotting fruit. Seeing it rear to strike at a fleeing researcher, saliva and slime dripping from its mandibles, she understood at once why the Arnatsiaq siblings had found the Verdant disgusting. This was a thing that had bypassed fertility into fecundity.

It had already begun to strike at the doors. She couldn't kill it from here. Frankly, she wasn't sure if it was possible - between the size and whatever bizarre, broken biologies kept it going, she didn't know if it could be killed. But crippling it? That she could certainly do.

The light fixture was old, rickety, overly large, and probably not up to code. With a few well-placed shots, the fixture came down like she thought it would, taking a fair amount of the ceiling with it. No one would have judged her for thinking it was dead, given the amount of fluids that burst over the floor. But it was one resilient fuck, and as she made for the door, her leg was caught in a crushing vice.

The arms were short, but stronger than they looked. Elle screamed as they closed around her calf. The thing yanked her bodily into the air and screamed back. She opened fire on it in desperation and blind panic as it drew her towards its maw.

She must have hit something sensitive, as it flung her against the wall with a pained screech. Breathless, she tried to crawl towards the door. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the point of its arm raising to spear her.

The door opened. She was grabbed by both arms and pulled inside, causing her to sob with pain as they jostled her crushed leg. She looked up to see Niles’ face.

The door closed.

Niles held Elle close, heard her whisper “mon cherie” between gasps for breath, their foreheads touching. The three children behind her huddled closer together. Niles turned to them and smiled.

“It’s okay. This is Elle. She’s my fiancee. She’s going to watch you for a while.”


“I’m going to need your gun.”

“Niles, no.” She could tell that both of them were thinking the same thing - this wasn’t how it was meant to be. Elle was the warrior between the two. She could fight that thing and survive - if not for her leg. They both knew that Niles facing the worm-serpent would mean her death.

But Niles didn’t need to win. She just needed time. Time for the reinforcements she’d signalled for to arrive. She turned to see the fire axe in its case on the opposing wall.

“Vasily?” The oldest Arnatsiaq child looked up from where he was holding his sister. “See my jacket in the corner there? Wrap it around your hand, and break the glass to get the axe.”

He did as he was asked, handing Niles the axe. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something. The solidity reassured her, if only a little.

She took a breath to steel herself.

“I love you.”

“Niles -”

But the door had already swung shut.

It swung its barbed tail at her the moment she emerged, and she jerked to the side in a spasmodic reflex, barely dodging the attack. She hoisted the gun and fired, aiming for its eyes. Maybe if she blinded it, she at least might even the odds somewhat. Her hands shook and she kept having to dodge away from its tail and arms, but she managed to burst all but one of its eyes. Three out of four, she thought, trying not to gag as its vitreous fluid spattered over her. It screamed and lunged, leaving a crater in the wall beside her.

Gotta… Gotta get it away. Away from here. Can’t risk it bursting through the wall. Okay. Okay.

“Okay.” She gulped hard and shot it a couple of times in the jaw, and then ran down the hallway.

Just keep buying time.

Something pinged on the computer terminal inside. Elle made to get up, but her leg protested, sending white-hot glass spines into her flesh. Vasily noticed and sent his sister up.

“What does it say, Anya?”

“Comm… communications compromised. Distress signal not received.”

Elle swore silently. Anya looked back at her brother. “Vaz? Are… are they gonna leave us here? They’re not gonna send help?”

“It’s okay,” Vasily said, after a pause. “Someone will come. Someone always does.” He looked fearfully at Elle. Elle gestured for them to crowd around her.

“Someone always comes,” Elle said. “I met Niles - Dr. Hessen - on a day like this. A different day. A different monster. We were in a room together. A little smaller than this one.”

“Tell us,” Vasily said, moving closer and pulling his sister with him. Dimitri remained in the corner, hands clutched in prayer, lips moving silently.

“It was funny…” Elle looked up, trying to hide how much the pain from her leg was affecting her. “I was new, then. They’d recruited me. From the French foreign legion. I was slated to be a field agent, but I was stationed at a Site in Canada while I was waiting for my assignments. It was a small Site. Bigger than this one, but small. You start to recognize faces. And I kept seeing her. I could never really find a good way to talk to her, though. She seemed sweet, and jumpy, and smart, and I - well. I’d done a lot of things I wasn’t proud of. She seemed too good for me.”

She sighed.

“But we ended up hiding in the same office room during the breach. I didn’t even do it on purpose. We talked to pass the time. I asked her about the breach. She wasn’t scared - she knew what had gotten out, how it behaved. She told me how long we had to wait for it to calm down, and she was right. But, you know? I… When the all clear went out? I was sad, in a way. We had gotten to talk a bit about ourselves, and I… I liked her more with every word. I didn’t want to let her go.”

Niles was heaving for breath. She leaned against the wall for support, only to have to jump away when the worm’s tail smashed inches from her face. The gun had been discarded long ago - she’d run out of ammo after managing to blind its final eye. It could still track her, though - sunken pits below its eyes kept flaring and hissing. Heat sensors, she’d realized. Like snakes have. She was bleeding from so many cuts, though none of them had been deep enough to kill. Not yet. She was so tired. She was wearing it down as much as it was exhausting her, and she didn’t think she would be the one to be left standing. But she couldn’t think about that right now.

Its right leg stabbed at her, and she blocked it with the axe, managing to land a good blow in return. She swung, and swung, and swung again, hitting the joint or close to it each time, finally cleaving the segment from the rest of the limb. She sighed and took one moment to breathe.

One moment too many. The barbed tail swung, and half her world went dark. A torrent of warm liquid ran down her cheek, and fireworks of pain exploded along the left side of her face.

“Fuck you! Fuck you fuck you fuck you!” Niles clutched one hand to her ruined eye, gripped the axe, and charged, screaming, not caring if she lived or died, just wanting to see the fucker bleed. She was going to die, but she was going to at least try and take the damned thing with her.

Inside, a boy prayed to every god he’d learned in his books.

One of them listened.

Elle was almost unconscious, the two Arnatsiaq children curled up next to her in a frightened huddle. Before she slipped into sleep, she tasted something that she hadn’t tasted for years. Something she hadn’t tasted since Tunisia.

Desert sand.

The creature shrieked, its tail buried in Niles’ stomach. She felt the barb’s presence lessen until it was gone - she looked down to see it had dissolved into sand, which was growing red with blood. Her blood. A warm red light suffused her vision. Dry, hot wind moved her hair. Two canid creatures walked towards her, sniffing gently at her wounds. One licked at the space where her eye should have been. The other nuzzled at the wound in her abdomen, keening softly.

Footsteps. Niles looked up. A tall, dark-skinned man with the head of a strange dog stood before her, dressed in brass armor.

Niles had spent many, many days in her youth reading myths. She knew their stories instinctively, innately. Even on the verge of death, she knew who she was seeing.

She bowed her head and placed a hand on the ground in supplication.

“Lord Set.”

“Hello, Daughter of Thoth. I cannot say I expected this.”

“I’m sorry, my Lord. I tried, I -”

“You did very, very well. I would not have expected such a valiant effort even from one of my own, to whom war comes so naturally. Sekhmet herself would be proud, little scholar.”

Niles nodded. Everything was starting to go hazy around the edges. She couldn’t quite feel her hands.

“In the other room - my fiancee - the kids - please -”

Set placed a finger to her lips. “I know. Don’t be worried. They are safe.” Niles nodded once more, and collapsed. As her vision went dark, she felt herself being lifted and held in strong arms.

“I’m sorry, little scholar. This wasn’t the path you were meant for, but it is the one we need you to walk. Let’s see if we can’t save you yet.”

Niles woke up in a soft bed with a warm, furry presence beside her. She reached out, thinking it was one of her plushies that she’d knocked away in the night, but she started awake when it moved.

The canid from before, with its strange ears and forked tail, lay on her comforter. It looked at her with bright and curious eyes. Her plushie lay to its side. She picked it up out of habit, and extended her other hand to stroke the creature’s fur. It was softer than she expected. She made to get out of bed, but found her legs shaky. The canid moved to her side, letting her bury her fingers in the tuft of fur at its shoulder to stabilize herself. She made her way down the stairs, the canid’s presence reassuring her that she would not fall.

There was a god in her kitchen. Set was eating graham crackers out of the box and inspecting her favorite corgi mug. Niles yelped and bowed out of instinct.

“My lord, I hope my humble home is to your liking.”

He looked up and chuckled softly. “Relax, little scholar. There’s no need for the formality, eh? We’re at war. No time for pomp.”

“Where’s Elle?”

“Your fiancee is outside, tending to the children and the animals.” Seeing Niles’ confusion, he elaborated. “Her leg has been fully healed. Bone is something we work well with.”

Of course. He’s a Veldt-aligned deity. They mold bone like clay. A broken leg is nothing.

Niles raised her hand instinctively to her eye. Set’s expression changed, and Niles’ stomach dropped.

“I cannot heal what will not grow back naturally.” He pushed her phone towards her, looking apprehensive. She braced herself as she opened the photo app and flipped the camera.

“However, if a substitute becomes available, we can certainly replace.”

She had two eyes. One was its normal golden brown, the same color she’d woken up to every morning.

The other was brilliant orange, the color of some wolf’s eye, or great cat, or -

“Taken from a goshawk. One of the family’s. We didn’t kill him just for this, don’t worry - he died warning us of the Verdant’s presence.”

“They’re coming here?” Niles clutched her plushie tighter instinctively.

“Oh yes, little scholar. We’re at war.” Set looked out the window, his gaze becoming inscrutable. “Don’t worry - your house has been warded. Nothing will get in here unless it is a friend of yours or of mine. The young Arnatsiaq boy - Dimitri - he shows something of a talent for the art. As do you, I think.”


“You’ve got potential. There’s a well within you, young one, and it runs very deep. You could make quite the mage. And you already know the ways of the hunters. Predator behavior and psychology - if you’re going to be a scholar right now, that’s the best possible subject.” He smirked. “You’re certainly not perfect, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Niles decided to take that as a compliment, even if backhanded.

“Eat. We’re headed back to your Site at noon. We’re going to look for survivors, gather information, assess resources.”

He pushed a banana and a half-eaten bag of pork jerky towards her. Niles took it and ate. She had had weirder breakfasts.

Elle embraced her fiancee so tightly that Niles had to wheeze something about her ribs for her to even consider letting go. She didn’t.

“They’ll fix them if I break them, anyway.” She looked her fiancee in the eyes. “I thought you were dead.”

“I -”

“Never do that to me again.” Before Niles could reply, she pulled her close and kissed her hard.

Vasily coughed, and Elle pulled away. “Okay, we can’t all fit in my car, so -”

Set waved a hand. “It’s covered. I’m borrowing a ride.” He gestured, and a burnished, glimmering wooden raft appeared beside them. It had sails of linen and gilded accents. Elle placed a hand on its surface, which was warm to the touch.

Niles’ eyes were wide. “Is that the Solar Barque? The one that rows Ra across the Duat every night?”

“Yes. Well, one of them. We’re just gonna have to get it back by nightfall. Otherwise I’m going to get yelled at by corporate.”

Niles stood there, stunned. Elle looked at her and smiled crookedly. “You heard the man. Limited time offer. Let’s go.”

The site was in ruins when they arrived. There was a hole in the cracked and shattered floor where the wyrm (Niles was proud of that name) had burrowed up and gone on its rampage. Parts of the ceiling had collapsed from the seismic activity. Chunks of concrete and drywall were everywhere.

Set had taken the kids to retrieve their belongings from the site, while Elle and Niles went to search for survivors, with the canids serving as makeshift sniffer dogs.

“Maybe we should split up?” Niles suggested, but Elle looked at her like she was crazy.

“I am not letting you out of my sight for the next week, petit colibri. We’re a package deal. Where you go, I go. At least until we can get some ground under our feet.”

“All right. Can’t promise I won’t get on your nerves.”

“You never annoy me,” Elle said, and took Niles’ hand.

They didn’t find a lot of bodies. They did find some alarmingly large bloodstains and occasional pieces of viscera, which were somehow more disheartening. At least bodies could be identified. You couldn’t bury a bloodstain.

It scared them both when an arm they’d previously thought to be separated twitched. The rubble surrounding it shifted, causing a shower of debris.

“Holy shit.” Niles said.

Elle was already moving chunks of concrete. “Stay still,” she warned. “Don’t move. We’ll get you out, all right?”

Piece by piece, they uncovered the survivor. A short black woman, face colored grey by concrete, looked up at them.

“Hessen? Ives?”

“Harolds!” Niles knelt and hugged her colleague.

“Jesus fuck. Thank Christ. I thought everyone else was dead.”

“They still might be. Are you hurt? Follow my finger with your eyes,” Niles said, testing Harolds’ vision.

“I think I’m okay. Nothing broken. Bruised as hell, but all my parts intact. I just got caught under the rubble. Holy shit, what’s with your eye?”

“Long story. We should check her for compartment syndrome later,” Elle suggested.

Niles nodded, helping Harolds to her feet. “Let’s get her back to the others.”


“Yeah, the Arnatsiaq kids made it out.”

“Really? Holy shit. Wait a second, who are these? Are those 3807’s dogs? Is he here?”

“Yes, but don’t call him that.”

“How the hell -” Harolds began, but was interrupted by the appearance of Vasily Arnatsiaq. The boy had always looked slightly forlorn, with the thin face and dark circles under his eyes, but he looked absolutely defeated now.

“You should come see this. He asked for me to come get you.”

“All right. Show us.”

He beckoned, and they followed. They found Set and the remaining Arnatsiaqs standing in front of a concrete wall - the only one left standing and whole in the entire building. That was not the interesting thing about it. The feature of interest was the enormous topiary of sorts that had grown on it, or possibly out from it. It was ivy and moss and vines, forming an immense, complex, viridescent pattern. A stag’s head, its antlers branched out into tree’s limbs, forming a circlet around the cervine sigil.

They all stared in silence for a few moments.

Harolds broke the silence. “I’m sorry, I’m confused. Is that the goddamn Milwaukee Bucks symbol?”

“It is,” Set explained, “the sigil of our enemy, the chief deity of an ancient primal force that will eradicate this world and remake it into a twisted facsimile of what once was. This is the mark of Cernunnos.”

Niles blinked and stared into space. “Sometimes things bleed over. Over into the non-anomalous. Symbols get borrowed and shared and stolen until no one knows where they came from anymore.” The explanation seemed to be more for herself than anyone else.

Elle clarified. “You know what, sure. It’s the Milwaukee Bucks logo.”

Niles felt the same sense of wrongness that she had felt from watching James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause in a film class in college, and upon seeing Dean’s famous line of “You’re tearing me apart!” being reminded of Tommy Wiseau’s butchered “homage” in The Room. The feeling you had when you learned of the parody or the imitation before the original, and now the order of association is all wrong in your brain.

This was going to be a very strange war.

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