TIME: 08:00 CURRENT LOCATION: Site L-14 ASSETS: STL/RH-IX-S: Hocus Locusts
ACF - 4722
ACF - 1949
ACF - 1003
1- Armored Personnel Carrier ESTIMATED TIME OF ARRIVAL: 11:00 TARGET: Instance of ACF-1003-A located 145 kilometers outside of Site L-14 THAT-WHICH-BINDS
ACF-1003 stood very still and stayed very quiet as she was outfitted with the various trackers and other objects the Foundation required she be attached to when she left her Containment Unit. They consisted of the following: one ankle tracking bracelet, one heart monitor, one shock collar-set low-, a set of painted goggle so she could wear them comfortably and not see where she was being taken, and the detached leg of a toy she had recently been given-for comfort.- All in all, ACF-1003 was wondering if she should have given her promise of helping to remove the artifact connected to her.
But Cody had asked so nicely…
So ACF-1003 waited patiently and quietly as she was brought up the elevators and stairs, blinded by the goggles, through the winding and maze like corridors of the facility to the surface. For the first time in five years, ACF-1003 could smell the outside air again. It was hard not to smile, but she kept a stoic face. This was a work call, after all, and not something to be undertaken for pleasure. She vaguely heard a security officer speak,
“Alright, she’s all yours. The collar is to keep her awake if you feel her heart rate drops too low. Whatever you do, don’t let her fall asleep near you.”
Then, gently, she was pushed forward. It was time for the fun to begin.
———Audio Log: Pre-mission Debrief———
“Not much is known about A-C-F one thousand three dash A, only that the massive effigy we found upon recovery of A-C-F own thousand three was, definitively, dead. It’s dismantlement was relatively easy, however the sheer number of civilians that were constructing it and worshipping it gave hesitance to the Foundation in simply destroying it. However, after extensive study, we are unable to understand exactly what it was designed to do through experimentation.
“Interviews with A-C-F one thousand three dash B instances have lead the Foundation to believe the sculpture was not only supposed to be alive, but that upon its divine resurrection all of them would be ‘saved’ by The Goddess. Due to an increasing number of these sculptures being found in the residences of members of GoI “Absolution,” the Foundation has increased pressure on civilian governments to remove and destroy all instances of A-C-F one thousand three dash A. It is incredibly important to note that all instances previously discovered have been nothing more than inanimate sculptures of bones and rot.
“A living instance of A-C-F one thousand three dash A, henceforth referred to as A-C-F one thousand three dash D, has been found. The Foundation is loath to include A-C-F one thousand three in the destruction of this artifact, but time is of the essence. A-C-F one thousand three dash D has registered a hazardous field around itself extremely similar to the anomalous properties of A-C-F one thousand three herself.
“The field nearly instantly annihilates any living creature that enters within a, currently, twelve point three meter radius around the anomaly. We say ‘currently’ as the field is growing approximately point two meters per hour. Additionally, the artifact seems to be growing in size with each passing hour. Priority one is to find a way to contain the growth of A-C-F one thousand three dash D so that it can be contained and studied. Should this prove impossible or impractical, utilize any means necessary to destroy it.”
The sky above the meeting place outside of L-14 glooped. One moment it had been gray, and the next it was black and ichorous and seemed to have a thousand-million purple eyes, looking around furtively as strands of the ichor began to drip downwards towards the floor, landing globularly in five big lumps, which dripped off of five individuals in ACF security armor, all of whom seemed to think that this was completely normal and didn't even warrant a pause.
"So like I was saying, we're in the courtroom and I'm looking at this man on the proposed jury and it's pretty obvious that's not going to be a good idea. I'm trying to be professional about it and just say 'This man is known to me,' right? He keeps asking how and saying he doesn't, and I'm just repeating myself hoping he'll get the hint, and then all of a sudden he just blurts out 'Wait, you're the [EXPLETIVE] I was doing lines off of at New Year's!' And I'm just like, 'My brother in Cthulhu, you can't just say that in a court of law.' So that one got real interesting. Hey, L-14s, good to meet you. Don't mind the goop, it'll clear up after a few days. Where's our godbait?"
Duet had first met 1003 shortly after her team had been assembled. Recapturing her had been one of their first missions, which had gone about as smoothly as could be expected. They'd gone in, established to a bunch of cultists that they were not [EXPLETIVE]ing around and really were willing to kill them all and let their Goddess sort them out, and all of a sudden people thought standing down was a great idea.
It hadn't been her first experience with cults, of course - or, by that point, even her second, third, or twenty-eighth. People thought they were all the same, but people were stupid.
1003 looked pretty much the same. Actually, she looked exactly the same. Anomalies, man - better than a Brazilian butt lift. The collars and the blindfold were new, but Duet was perfectly fine with that.
"Okay, team. Tech, you've got eyes on all the metrics. You heard the man, if her rates fall, let us know and we drop the anomaly. If you lose connection with the tech, let us know and we drop the anomaly. If we don't hear from you on the established schedule, we drop the anomaly. Stay outside fifty-five, eyes on target, see if you can start reconfiguring local news networks for damage control. Rest of you are with me. Ghost, prep our bonus anomaly for me."
A presence neared ACF-1003, with a light little laugh, almost a giggle. The blindfold was pulled back, which would reveal a young woman with long white hair, frosted blue at the ends. She wasn't wearing a helmet like the others, but an extremely large man was carrying a second one under his weighty arm.
"Hey babe! Don't mind me, just gonna put this on you." The girl applied, to ACF-1003's forehead, a sticker. It was blue, and in the shape of a star. The girl raised her hands, chanting something utterly incomprehensible that seemed to make the inside of people's heads itch, at least given the reaction of the L-14 personnel. The strike team either wasn't affected or just didn't care. "Got it. Should be able to give her a little wakey-shakey if she starts dozing. Don't worry, it'll be fun! We're gonna be besties. I haven't talked to a deity since last Tuesday - oof that one was a doozy, am I right? What was up with those cows?"
Apparently this did not merit further comment. The extremely large man handed the girl her helmet, which she obligingly put on.
"Good start. Okay, team, you know the plan. Head out to the infected area, slow on the approach. Godbait, stick by the big guy. I'd say not too close but you're probably fine with being blown up a few times. You let us know if you've got anything useful for us. Let's go, people."
ACF-1003 did not respond as the voices and words jumbled forth from the mouths of the team to the innermost parts of her ears, she stayed completely still and completely quiet. She stayed that way until the moment the blinding goggles were removed from her eyes, then she looked up. The sky was a myriad of deep, purple, seeking eyes, and blackened ichor dancing across their furtive glances. For the first time in years, Ira smiled.
It was not a creepy or weird look on ACF-1003's face, but it was a rough and difficult motion to make in exercising those largely ignored muscles. While a woman with white hair- white hair with blue tips! could humans even naturally grow these colors?- stuck a sticker on her head and spoke, the security from L-14 attempted to converse with the leader of this group of humans.
"No- no no! Do not drop the anomaly! It's possible her anomalous factor is linked to her heart rate, not the actual dropping in and out of consciousness with sleep. If that drops to zero, in the best case scenario- nothing happens, worst case- we have yet another permanent dead zone here on Earth."
The itching buzz sounded in the heads of L-14 personnel, giving a rough and unintentionally harsh edge to the security officer's attempt to lecture the leader of the surface team. Then, they left the Hocus Locusts to their work. As much as most of them would rather the surface team come home without ACF-1003, the possibility of creating an 'instant death circle' was not preferable either. But ACF-1003 did not care about any of these, she was too busy watching the white-haired woman and the eyes in the sky.
ACF-1003 and the team loaded up, the Armored Personnel Carrier was a large, green-painted truck with a covered back and reinforced steel surrounding most of the vehicle. The back was, surprisingly, quite comfortable. Seats with cushions and a nice little white light at the top. No windows, as that could compromise the integrity. The covered back additionally had been outfitted with 15 cm of rolled homogenous steel, enough to stop more than a few bullets. The front cab was piloted by a state-of-the-art computer, eliminating the need for a driver, but could be controlled from the back manually if necessary.
It would be roughly thirty minutes of riding in the back of this vehicle, with ACF-1003 staring intently at each and every face of the surface team before the anomaly would say anything. She had been carefully studying their faces, at least what she could see underneath the helmets, and memorizing their features. One of them she felt she might even recognize, but it was a vague memory from so long ago that she did not rely on it. It was like trying to remember a dream, the more she thought about it the more it faded.
But it was after all this thought, all this deliberation, all this careful analyses of her newfound companions, that ACF-1003 finally spoke up.
"I demand explanation! Cows? Those are?"
And this was said with all the extreme seriousness that an eleven-year-old could muster. Education was never something that ACF-1003 had been granted in Foundation custody, though not from a lack of care. ACF-1003 seemed to have an almost innate knowledge of language and complex concepts, so most believed that extended to simpler concepts as well. It did not.
The man from L-14 advised, quite strongly against the idea of dropping the anomaly, and there was a... pause.
It was very much the wrong sort of pause.
Four helmets were turned towards the agent - the fifth stayed on 1003, because they were [EXPLETIVE]ing professionals. One of the helmets - formerly the girl with the tinted hair - leaned closer in to another.
"Is he for real?"
There was somewhat of a confused motion. "I don't know, maybe he missed a memo?"
"Man, can you imagine what Strings would say if we came back and told him we'd accidentally created an anomalous death zone out by L-14?"
There was another one of those wrong sorts of pauses.
"Let's do it again, but this time on purpose." This statement seemed to be quite widely accepted by the rest of the team, and there was another one of those pauses that implied the idea that none of them would have any problem with that at all.
The largest of them, presumably the 'big guy' that the girl had referred to earlier, clapped an armored hand on the L-14 agent's shoulder. Since the 'big guy' was built like a linebacker, this had a decent amount of force behind it. "Heh heh... you're funny, kid, I like you." His thumb pointed towards the armored carrier, his helmet turned towards 1003. "Hokay, in the truck, buttercup."
The next few moments were spent getting on the road, the not-true-silence of movement eventually punctuated by 1003's extremely strange inquiry.
"Cows are anomalous." The white-and-blue-haired girl had popped her helmet off again, and it was sitting on the floor by her leg, across from ACF-1003.
"Wh- No they aren't. Don't be inaccurate, you'll confuse the anomaly. Cows are a four-legged herbivore in the genus bos, family bovidae-"
"Oh, like that won't confuse it-"
"-And were domesticated several thousand years ago and are traditionally raised for meat or milk. You like milk, kid?" The man asking the question sounded as if he actually cared if the kid liked milk, but probably not for the same reasons that other people cared when they asked if a kid liked milk. This question was the sort that had for research purposes written all over it.
"They were also traditionally used for sacrifices to local deities!" Ghost was grinning at that, because it was probably the worst thing to say to someone who thought they were a god, and that made it funny.
"Ghost, for [EXPLETIVE]'s sake!"
There was another one of those giggles, from someone who was having way too much fun with all of this.
"I thought it was funny." Another pronouncement from the woman who hadn't been saying much so far, which was again accepted as canon by the rest of the team.
"...Okay, yeah, that was funny." It seemed like the large man had changed his mind about it. Things could still be funny, even if they were absolutely a terrible idea. "Hey, kid - you hear the one about the anomalous tractor?"
The L-14 personnel did not respond to the surface team's reply, they expected their 'recommendations' to be followed even if not agreed with. Their worlds were very small, and outside of their own surface team, many of them just wanted to avoid more personal paperwork. They already had enough local security officers who thought paperwork was an 'enjoyable hobby.' So they turned about and left the Hocus Locusts to start on their mission.
ACF-1003 listened very closely as the team spoke, half to each other and half to her, appearing to not react to anything they said. Then, as the final joke was stated, she nodded deeply and turned to each one that spoke to her. First, the large man, "A joke, hilarious. I shall retell it."
Then, the white-and-blue-haired woman, "Sacrifices-? Of thousand year domesticated? Abhorrently cowardly."
Finally, she looked at the man who gave her a proper explanation. With all the seriousness of someone bold-faced lying, Ira answered his question, "Yes, I... -Like- milk."
A new voice crackled over the earpieces the team would have embedded in their helmets. Anyone wearing their helmet still would hear it clearly, and anyone holding a helmet would hear someone attempt to contact them. "Surface team Left-Right Hand nine S of site L nine, this is surface team Left Hand six B, please acknowledge. Over." Upon any form of acknowledgment the voice would continue, "We're tracking a massive increase in activity from the ACF-1003-A artifact, affected area has increased approximately seventeen meters in diameter since your departure from site L-14 and has shown no signs of slowing down. Monitoring teams are pulling back. Over."
A pause, an indistinguishable background voice, then the STLH-6-B agent would speak again, "Surface team be advised we are tracking an unidentified anomalous entity that just emerged from the ACF-1003-A artifact." The agent on the other end was as calm as if this kind of thing happened every day- and to him and the members of Hocus Locust, it did. There was no reason to be alarmed yet, problems like this were always arising in their line of work. "It's on a direct collision course with your vehicle moving at a land speed of 110 kilometers per hour. E-T-A ten hundred hours. You have approximately sixty to ninety minutes of playtime to set up an engagement strategy. Over."
"LH-6-B, this is Ambi-9-S, we read you." Duet's voice was courtroom professional, the chatter in the van ceasing for a moment without a need for a request as they listened to the information from the other team. The anomalous zone was widening, which was expected, and they had an incoming bogey, which wasn't. "Appreciate it. We'll update you in a moment."
The connection was silenced, and the long-haired girl and the large man stared at each other, and then said, simultaneously: "Dibs!"
The big man raised a fist, in a surprisingly non-threatening manner. "Rock, paper, scissors you for it." The girl raised a fist as well, the traditional one, two, three occurring in silence, but a little stray motion of her off-hand and the large man's hand flattened from a rock to a paper, leaving her scissors victorious. "You cheated- I don't know how, but I know you cheated."
"Of course I cheated, I always cheat. It's a valid strategy."
"Aw, come on. Duet, tell her she can't cheat."
"Cheating is a valid strategy. Ghost, your call."
"I want the incoming, if we can stop the van thirty minutes out and let me get my circles set up, I should be able to hold it there. Tech can stay back with me since he can work from anywhere, the rest of you take the zone."
This information was relayed to the LH agent on the other side of the radio. It was, of course, completely inaccurate - but anomalies were listening. Hocus Locusts knew each other well enough to strategize in lies and half-truths and understand each other while doing it. They'd stop just as they were about to intersect the anomaly, drop the team's blasting strategy, and let Ghost set up quietly around the bigger zone and try to get that contained.
There were an awful lot of people that didn't need to know that, though. The large man's hand descended on 1003's head. "You know anything about this, kid? Of course, she might lie to them again, but that didn't mean there wasn't information to be found in lies and half truths.
Ira's eyes widened as it dawned on her exactly what was happening. Any of the agents in the truck could tell the sudden shift in her eyes, her body language, and the slight uncontrolled increase in heart rate. Pulling her legs up in the truck, she stood on her seat for half a second before squatting down with her heels on the ground. Putting her elbows on her knees and resting her head on her hands, she closed her eyes and entered deep into thought. She would not speak, not yet, not for roughly twenty minutes of drive time.
Then, abruptly, she looked to the big agent and started talking as if no time had passed for her at all, "Not mine, can't be mine. Impossible to be mine. My children, no, impossible. Too soon, they are- not ready. Too soon, too young. But, but, could be, not mine. If not mine-?" Then, looking directly at the group as a whole, smiled, "If not mine, destroy it. Smash, annihilate, tear, shred. Make it suffer. Make it scream." Then, she giggled profusely and attempted, through giggles, to add, "Turn -hehe- into a field!"
The beast moved so much unlike anything should move, seven awkward legs flung over themselves in frantic heaving motions to throw its body through the air only to latch once more onto the earth and throw again. Its legs were more spikes than anything else, digging deep into the ground with every slamming, smashing motion, before springing again and again. Its body, panting and screeching, was no more than a curled mass of tentacles and bones. Less like a true body, more like a bundle of trash from a failed Chinese restaurant. How it breathed, how it made any sound at all, could not be seen. But it certainly could be heard.
Rocks, bushes, trees, and anything else in its wake was utterly annihilated. A forest lay between it and its quarry now, its body, nearly twelve feet long and nine feet high, broke tree trunks apart as if they were naught but thin paper barriers laid in front of a marathon runner to signal the end of a race. As it entered the forest, so close, so [EXPLATIVE]ing close, it released a wave of emotion. Emotions were the currency of The Dark World, that place where all terrible things must come from, and they were being spent generously. Anything within a twelve-kilometer radius would feel exactly the same things that this monster felt. Desires, intentions, and hatred above all, it shared all of this with anything who possessed the capacity to feel emotions.
And all of it directed at the little Goddess. Because it hated her, it wanted everything to hate her. It needed her to die, whether by its hands or anyone else's. The feelings of hatred, the desire to destroy her, would be completely overwhelming to any normal human. Any normal human would have to immediately devote their life to the destruction of the Goddess, or go insane. If the beast had its way, it might not even reach the hated Goddess before she perished. Oh it hoped to have its way.
The anomaly seemed somewhat distressed, which wasn't unusual for anomalies, especially around L-9 personnel. When it chose to put its head down and close its eyes, though, that was a cause for more concern. The monitoring of the equipment became very diligent, and the agents kept an eye on the anomaly's physical body as well, switching off regularly so that no one was lulled into a false sense of security.
Not that they were particularly big on security over at L-9. After no ill effects for several minutes, Damsel calmly pulled out a small green plush representation of Cthulhu - it looked nothing like the real one, actually - and balanced it on 1003's head.
This could be because unbalancing the plush might be a sign that the anomaly was falling asleep, and it was almost certain that Hocus Locusts would use that as an excuse if they needed plausible deniability about this particular action.
After about twenty minutes, 1003 perked up again and started babbling not-quite-incoherently, which was much more interesting. Damsel managed to catch the miniature Cthulhu on its way down and set it on the seat. One had to be careful with Eldritch deities, after all, even if they were toys.
"Here we go." The armored vehicle drew to a halt with a sense of muted excitement as whatever-it-was drew nearer, and the strike team unloaded themselves and 1003, since there was no way they were leaving it in there alone, and the vehicle was too big and too easy a target. 1003's designated guard/guardian this time was the man who'd actually answered her questions about cows. He was in ACF armor like the rest of them, but with a squarish pack on his back that had a standard red cross logo on it. He carried what looked like a paintball gun, of all things, though looking into the chamber suggested that the little pellets weren't exactly paintballs. Some of them looked like standard pellets, though what liquid was in them was anyone's guess. Others looked more like... eggs, something pescine or amphibious in its natal form. Others looked like eyeballs, watching anyone who seemed to be looking at them.
The rest of the team had spread out a little bit - Tech was fifty-five feet back with a high caliber rifle trained on 1003, just in case. Ghost had walked forward a bit, taking a little vial out of her pocket that held something that looked a bit like the common burrs that a person got walking through a field in the late summer - except common burrs didn't generally have tiny tentacles instead of prickly parts, and they didn't go "Wheeeeeeeee!" when they were tipped out onto the ground. The seed glooped into the earth, a miasma radiating out that looked an awful lot like whatever it was that they'd dropped out of in the sky at first. Ghost leaned down and reached a hand into it, pulling out an improbably large scythe made of some sort of crystal and affixed with runes painstakingly drizzled on in metal alloys. She probably shouldn't have been able to lift the thing, but people at L-9 had never been good at listening to rules, even those involving physics.
Damsel was standing to her side, calmly holding a shotgun and muttering to himself. Some...thing... seemed to ooze up from beneath the armored boot, an oddly shaped blob that floated in a lazy circle around his ankles, weaving in and out and leaving little trails of fog in the air and a hint of frost on the ground beneath it whenever it got too close. Frost was generally a better bet than fire with most anomalies - too many of them liked a good blaze, which Damsel felt was completely understandable.
Duet stood up front, holding only a briefcase.
The secondary anomaly closed in, twisting opinions with a feeling of vile hatred for the small variant of 1003 they had brought along. Duet was the first one to tap her helm, and the others followed suit: Glyphs etched into the helmets of the strike team flared to life, activating a negation halo against mental meddling, a little something that Duet and Ghost had cooked up on one of their off nights. They had gone through quite a few interns to get the process working properly, but it was fairly reliable by now, at least for them. It seemed like it only worked if you had a particular mindset or enough exposure to mind-altering entities in the first place. Oddly enough, Leech had discovered that enough exposure to amnestics could also trigger the effect in certain interns, which was definitely a matter for later research.
The thing was visible now, all oddness and stringy garbage bits and spiky parts. Ghost bounced a little bit in place, the excited "Oh, it's cute, let's keep it!" not at all unexpected by any of the team there.
The rest of them waited, with more or less patience, until it was close enough, and then Duet stepped forward, quite professionally.
"Greetings. Can I interest you in an occupational opportunity?"
Ira watched with vague disinterest as the surface team took up their positions and prepared themselves to face the hunting monster. She did not sit or rest, rather, she stood in front of the transport truck and crossed her arms. She watched as they drew tools of esoteric design and purpose, likely to fight the monster that was to come. Ira hoped they'd be effective, but she didn't know for sure. Then, at once, she stood a little more attentively. A voice had whispered in her ear, demanding something of her, and she obeyed.
She made a mental note to ask each and every one of them about each and every tool they utilized, but that would have to wait until after the hunting beast had been taken care of. The woman with the interesting hair, Ira would need to ask her name after this, remarked about it being cute. Ira didn't see it, she voiced her opinion upon it out loud as the team leader stepped out in front to attempt to communicate to the beast, "Cute? Incorrect. Shoddy, unhinged work. I create better."
All at once, ignoring the words of Duet, the beast threw its body into the woman in front. It screamed and thrashed, completely unaware of whether or not its spreading hatred had any effect. It knew only one thing, it needed to destroy the Goddess. All else was merely inanimate objects in its way. Its tentacles, unraveling themselves, stretched dozens of feet out from its body. They swung like immense and horrifying tree trunks, attempting to slam into each reachable member of the team before reaching for the Goddess.
They would reach for her to try and rip her limb from limb, but Ira did not move. She would wait and see if the team was as capable as they acted.
1003 was apparently not impressed by the oncoming anomaly, for professional reasons. If anyone could respect that, it would be people who spent a great deal of time around Councilman Strings. She offered to make a better one, and Ghost's little squee of excitement was quickly followed by an enthusiastic "Oh, could you? Because I would love to have a little-"
The anomaly attacked, tentacles unfurling from its being and snapping out towards the team. Ghost didn't even pause, whipping the crystal scythe up like a glowing crystalline serpent to lop a few of them off with a little snicker-snack. "-squidgy tentacled guy just following me around, and maybe I could teach it to roll over-" Another step, another swish of the scythe, not a single pause in rhythm: "-or play undead or we could play hide-and-seek in the intern's bathroom..."
Meanwhile, Duet had been at the forefront of the attack, the closest to whatever compromised the main body of the anomaly. It hadn't been interested in talking, so she had simply dropped the briefcase, tilted her head sideways ever-so-slightly, and then reached out her hands to grab the nearest two tentacles, using them to pull herself right up to the central mass, and head-butting it in whatever region seemed like the closest approximation of a face. She twisted one of her arms into the tentacle she had been holding, which usually confused anomalies - mostly because that was generally what they had been going for in the first place.
This was Duet, though, and once she switched over, it was very much a case of I'm not stuck in here with you, you're stuck in here with me. She hummed softly to one of herselves, released the second tentacle, and planted her hand on the body to tear the first one free, then promptly turned back and slapped the anomaly with it.
"Welp. There she goes." Damsel still thought it was pretty [EXPLETIVE]ing wild. Duet was far stronger and faster than she should have been once she went right-moded, which would have almost been enough to recommend the idea of possession as a combat option, except apparently demonic hangovers were "the [EXPLETIVE]ing worst," and he was given to understand that she had a lot to compare them to. For his own part, he made like the name he'd picked for himself and squealed like a little girl.
In a much more manly and dignified manner, for reference, but the idea behind it was the same. The frost globlin schlorped its way up the nearest tentacle, turning it to brittle ice as it slowly progressed towards the main body as well, and the contracts that Damsel had etched into his skin beneath the armor took form, his armor leaking semi-material things from various points that resolved themselves into entities that the team had collected from other places. If Ghost had her way and convinced 1003 to whip her up a tentacled pet, he'd probably end up with a contract with that sucker as well.
For now it was the ice globlin moving forward, his little rolly-moley digging itself down into the earth and bringing up a wall of heavy dirt and rock in front of 1003, and an ethereal shrieker screaming words that took physical form as glyphs that left patches of rot wherever they landed. Damsel had no idea what the [EXPLETIVE] she was actually saying, but whatever it was was apparently pretty caustic.
It did not take long for the fight to be over. It was not that the assassination attempt on Ira was badly performed, or even that the beast was badly created. What it all boiled down to was truly an essence of being 'badly timed.' It was a monster among monsters, capable of growing more and more tentacles as they were lopped off. It could crush bones like twigs and slice through flesh as if it were partially melted butter. But it was fighting a team of hunters that eat, breathed, and slept killing monsters like this one.
It was out of its league.
Any tentacles that attempted to go Ira's way were sliced off or slammed into earthen walls. The main body, rotting and freezing and pinned so much like a useless sack of flesh, screeched and thrashed against its battle opponents. But none of that mattered. Within a minute, it was dead. The moment that life left its pitiful, horrid form, the tentacle mass melted into a thick, viscous red ichor. Watching it die, Ira remarked, "Red of Sphere, not field. Disappointing. Whatever." Then she turned to Ghost and asked, "Biology, please. Cows, explain more. I desire exact details. More completely constructed than -that- yes?" And she headed back toward the truck.
At that moment, once more, the radio inside Duet's helmet would crackle to life. "Ambi-9-S this is LH-6-B please respond. Over." Once more, a pause for confirmation, then the voice would continue, "We have confirmed containment of the expansion of ACF-1003-A artifact's affected radius to approximately forty-five meters in diameter. However, reality has begun to warp at an alarming rate from the center of the artifact, and multiple repeat bogeys have manifested. We are monitoring the situation, but the eggheads believe they are setting up a defensive perimeter to combat your team's arrival. They haven't left the affected radius yet, will update you if they leave or begin an engagement route. Over."
Ira, still not really listening to the voices in the helmets, sat back down inside the truck and sighed. In her eyes, this was all going too smoothly. Of course, the beast would be defeated by the team most capable of taking it down, and the little Goddess had no doubt that they could take down any more than began to manifest. But what was bothering her was the fact that any of this was happening at all. The artifacts weren't supposed to be alive, not yet- yet this one was. On top of that, threats of the Dead God emerged from them. She needed to take a look at what the heck was going on.
For a few minutes, things were pretty entertaining. There wasn't a lot of talk - aside from Ghost's nigh-constant level of background chatter that everyone was more or less ignoring - but the team didn't really need to talk to communicate. They'd been working together for five years at this point - a bit less than four on Damsel's part - and by this time they'd worked out all the details of who was doing what. There was an understanding that didn't need to be vocalized, a synchronized chaos to the action of it all that left whatever it had been in pieces, slowly dissolving into ooze in the field.
"Huh." Damsel stared at what was left of it, then shrugged his gratuitous shoulders. "You were right, kid. Not too well put together at all."
"It's even less put together now." This was another one of those statements that wasn't exactly incorrect. Ghost pulled another one of her little glass vials out, scooping up some of the ichor inside it. The little anomaly didn't seem to care about it too much one way or another, and had refocused its attention on... cows.
Of course it was cows.
"I don't even like cows!" This was apparently a matter of protest.
"How can you not like cows? They're farm animals-"
"I know they're farm animals, have you ever watched them? They stand there and they stare at you and they chew their cud and they just stare. What the actual [EXPLETIVE]."
"...I think they're kinda cute. They're fuzzy and they moo."
"They have four stomachs."
"You like weird stuff like that."
"Four stomachs full of cud and they chew it and they stare at you. I hate cows!"
"They have best friends! We could bring one home and you could keep it as a pet!"
"It might be best to ignore the two of them for now." Leech stepped up to 1003 with a somewhat conciliatory tone. "Come sit down back in the vehicle and I'll tell you about cows. We can look up some pictures if we have a signal out here. Anatomical diagrams or... just pictures. Whichever you'd prefer." Leech had a feeling this might be the sort of anomaly that preferred the anatomical diagrams.
Duet was pacing, making sure that the thing was really done for and there wasn't another one coming at the moment, then moving to pick up her briefcase again, letting her attention be semi-diverted to the instructions from elsewhere. "Reading you, LH-6-B. AOE's stabilized but we've got more offshoots and reality's unstable. We're heading over that way now, keep us posted on any motion or changes." She wiped the ichor off the briefcase, but didn't seem to care to do the same for the armor she was wearing. It was just going to get dirty anyway, after all. "Damsel, recall your contracts. Ghost, get a disintegration circle down, I don't want to leave this out for someone to find. Back in the car as soon as you can, we have a zone to approach."
The one called Damsel confirmed Ira's initial analsys as correct, of course it was correct. If anyone among those collected was a master of crafting flesh and shape into life, it was certainly Ira. But then, he started to argue with the white-haired woman, Ghost, instead of either of them answering her demands. Ira's annoyance at the pair arguing was palpable, but the one known as Leech came over to assuage her frustrations with an offer of anatomical diagrams.
Smiling, Ira nodded and spoke whilst getting into the vehicle, "Anatomical diagrams indeed. This to be desired. Demonstrate! Display! Please~!"
The beasts moved to an unsung Rythmn as they began to construct their 'fortifications.' Three of the tentacled beasts, identical to the one that assaulted the group initially, circled around the inside of the perimeter established by the Foundation personnel from site L-14. For all that site L-14 was not L-9, they were not entirely inadequate at their jobs. A series of runic circles and bizarrely shaped, yet perfectly smooth, geometric shapes were being utilized to form what was known as an 'Alpha Containment Barrier.' The statues were a crude creation, something L-9 personnel may have even balked at, but they were perfectly acceptable at containing low-grade eldritch anomalies, fields, and reality warps without breaking the sanity of everyone that looked upon them.
One tentacled beast seemed to 'look' at one of the statues, screech, then continue encircling their small arena. It was, to use more American terminology, roughly half the size of a football field. Inside, the little outcropping of the wheat field looked almost completely normal, if it weren't for the beings that moved about inside it. But if someone were to watch the field section long enough, and the Foundation certainly watched it, they might observe a bird or small animal wander into the contained field section.
Then promptly explode into a red mist.
Behind the three encircling tentacle monsters, two entirely different beasts pace back and forth around a small statue of bones, muscle tissue, and sinew. The two beasts were entirely different from their tentacled minions, they possessed far more logical shapes, though certainly still the wrong shapes. Each stood ten feet tall on six long, spindly legs. Their bodies were foot-long segments of bone joined together by thickened layers of exposed tendons and muscles. Stretched across the bones were thin layers of skin that radiated a hue of constantly shifting colors. They possessed dozens upon dozens of small 'fingers' protruding from their bone segments which they utilized to make small adjustments to the living shrine between them. Their bodies possessed no faces, no eyes, no mouths. How they communicated was not immediately obvious, but they moved in perfect synchronization with each other.
The final beast, the sixth monstrosity, was the least horrifying of the group. Its grey body stood sixteen feet tall, though it was not currently standing. It possessed legs and arms, four legs and four arms to be exact. At the end of each appendage was a hand, and it seemed that both ends were the correct end as it moved by rotating its body over and over like a spinning stick. It too possessed no 'head' or 'face,' but it did have eyes. Eyes opened and looked about from each shoulder joint, locked in prey positions as it looked about its entire body at the same time. No vantage point would take this beast by surprise. It possessed a mouth as well, one at each end of its body, and would speak from the end that currently resided at the 'top,' whichever end that was when it stopped moving.
As the truck approached, little Goddess certainly in tow, the largest beast rotated its way from its middle position toward the edge of the perimeter, aiming for the direction of the truck's arrival location. 'Sitting' as best it could, it folded its hands together and waited. If any of the warding glyphs on the L-9 agents' helmets had degraded or worn off, they would most certainly need to be reapplied as the tentacled monsters radiated hatred of Ira out to all that could feel emotions in their vicinity. The greatest beast radiated emotions as well, though they were not of blind hatred. It was a dull, incensed frustration. The emotions of someone that had been working very hard on something for a very long time, only to be thwarted at the very last second.
Assuming no immediate acts of violence, the greatest of the beasts would speak. Its voice sounded very much like a human, but to hear it evoked the innate feeling that all humans knew deep in their subconscious. It was like hearing a woman scream for help in the middle of the woods, but knowing it was not a woman's voice that called out. Like hearing a parrot or bird in the woods mimic a human crying, but turning to look for it and finding only a glowing pair of eyes looking back. It sounded human, but it was not human.
The containment setup was an inelegant mess. L-14 might have been self-conscious about that, but Hocus Locusts had an excellent appreciation for inelegant messes. The statues seemed to be stonewalling the anomaly, and that was all that was needed for now.
It was, as Ghost would have said, primarily about intent. She'd hexed down an abyssopelagic eel-demon once with a bit of toothpaste and some dental floss, because it just wouldn't be right to bite someone's arm off when your teeth were nice and clean. Most of Ghost's occult magic only made sense if you looked at it sideways through a mirror, and it often didn't work for anyone else, because most people's brains just didn't work that way. It was a mind over matter situation, in that with the right mindset, nothing else mattered.
This was, of course, why she really wanted to poke at L-14's constraint system with a pointy stick: to figure out what they'd been thinking when they made it. She didn't, though, but only because she was just barely more of an agent than a researcher. She'd have absolutely stood guard and offered suggestions while someone else poked it, though - but apparently that wasn't happening right now.
The zone seemed stable enough, which was to say that none of them trusted it for a moment. It had claimed several small animals already, which led to Ghost and Damsel quietly putting bets on every bird that got close as far as whether or not it was going to sploit.
Ex-sploiting the situation for personal amusement would also have to be a later process, because Ghost had been strictly forbidden from trying any more resurrections after the third attempt. She was up to 8 now, which was very standard any time anyone tried to strictly forbid her from doing anything.
There were more of the things inside, and another miasma of I sure do hate 1003 whirling around, which was duly noted and promptly ignored. Ghost took up her place a few paces from Damsel, her seeding tube back in her hand in case she needed to gloop up something offensive.
The tallest of the things had approached them, though, and started talking. It wanted a discussion. Ghost didn't need to look over to recognize the sound of a briefcase snapping open - Duet had standardized parlay agreements prewritten these days, six pages of tiny writing in demonic tongues, Eldritch, Latin, or English-written-with-an-Alabama-accent, whichever she happened to think fit the situation. It was funny how a well-placed all y'all could mystify some of the oddest beings out there.
Nonetheless, the document had been specifically designed to make sure that a parlay remained a parlay, and that there were strict penalties often involving banishment to another dimension if any party happened to break the agreement with violence or offensive action against the other party. Hocus Locusts had been in enough backstabbing situations before that it was always good to get that sort of thing codified - less because they couldn't deal with it and more because it was funny when something tried to eat them and ended up in a confused 2-dimensional realm enjoying a new life as a triangle.
"I would be happy to talk," Duet stated, with the smile of a shark - or a lawyer. She could talk things into pentagrams, given enough of an opportunity. "Sign here."
For the entirety of the ride over, Ira had been quite talkative. Something about Leech going out of his way to sit there and show Ira anatomical diagrams of cows really brought the little beast out of her shell. She loved everything about cows, their many stomachs, their methods of digestion, their constant feeding. Then to learn that they were what hamburgers came from, now that was a truly magnificent revelation. Perhaps it might've been off-putting, but knowing that her food suffered and died to create cheap meals brought even more joy to the anomalous creature.
But then they were out, then they were before the monsters, and Ira's demeanor soured. Her face twisted into a scowl as she looked at each and every monster that moved within the containment zone. Specifically, she stared at the largest among them who had spoken to Duet. She watched it with cold disgust as it gently took the paper from Duet as it was passed into the containment zone, signed it, then passed it back. For all its many eyes seeking and searching to look at anything and everything around its body-
it did not meet Ira's gaze.
The beast nodded, signing its name upon the parchment. It called itself Annihilation. These beasts did not communicate naturally in the words and sounds of the denizens of the Earth, but in the fluid emotions that rode upon the winds of The Sphere that Hates. So at that moment, as it signed its name, the meaning of WHY it was called would be immediately apparent to Duet, and only to Duet. It did not share its emotional meaning with anyone else, least of all ACF-1003.
The act or process of SELF-DESTRUCTING.
The condition of having been removed from existence by a purposeful course of action taken with intent. By one's own hand; utter destruction.
Annihilation sat down on the edge of the containment zone, forcing the tentacled monsters to circle around behind it whenever they made their screeching, angry passes. Folding its hands together, it attempted to speak once more. Its tone had been 'corrected' this time, no longer did it sound as though it should not be. It sounded human, very human, despite its words still not reflecting proper human inflections or any known speech pattern.
"Thanks I give for your grace, she-Who-Sits-Before-Me. With respect to you, I accept your agreement. Before we continue please understand this. This language of sound and motion is strange to me. In all my words, I mean no disrespect. I do not wish to be, threatening. I hope our first greeting was accepted with great agony, it is with elimination of life that all productive relationships begin. Now, your steps have brought -you- to -me- and I can thank only The-Great-Death that you stand before me instead of-"
It stopped, it did not look at ACF-1003. Its eyes simply looked away for a moment before blinking slowly and deliberately. Then, lowering its voice to be a little quieter, it spoke once more, "You travel with, with-" It seemed to be trying very, very hard to say something else, but the words it detested slipped forth nonetheless, "The Goddess. This is strange to us. Knowing Her infinite evil, you bring Her to one of Her nexus' of power? Have you wish of annihilation as well?"
Duet didn't comment on what she had learned from the contract, because it wasn't advantageous to do so at this time. The creature took a seat in front of her, so Duet sat down as well, because it wasn't like she was going to be any taller than the creature while it was sitting, and she might as well be comfortable. With some of these entities, talking could take quite a while. It seemed like this might be one of them, because the creature started in on a speech that had all the hallmarks of going on for a very long time. Duet listened attentively anyway, because one never knew what important bits were going to be buried in a long and boring speech. Duet had made it through law school, after all - dealing with anomalous entities was more or less like taking client statements.
This speech, however, was truncated, as the newcomer noticed 1003. Apparently it had a few things to say about that.
"Thanks, Annie. We appreciated the offering." This, for the first part of the speech. Would the anomaly have something to say about its 'first greeting' being referred to as an offering? Or something to say about being called Annie, for that matter? Both were very much in the form of poking a bear with a stick, but... well, if there was anyone who knew how to stir up a swarm of Locusts...
Duet hadn't been nearly as long-winded about the introductory parts, since apparently they had other things to discuss. She looked over her shoulder, nonchalantly, then returned her gaze to Annihilation. "Oh? Of course I mean no disrespect, but do you mean to tell me that you don't have a means to counter the detestment miasma?"
Annie was, of course, the most likely source of the aforementioned miasma, but Duet wouldn't have been a very good lawyer if she didn't know when to play innocent and let her opponent talk themselves into something stupid.
The monster, the one known now as 'Annie,' nodded its upper body at Duet's mention of accepting his offering. It seemed that those two things were taken entirely in stride. Perhaps it was a mutual understanding between them, born of a shared experience of speaking and living unlike the denizens of this world. To Annie, Duet was no more human than he was. Duet said the right words, possessed the proper powers, and did not flinch at the correct way of doing things. The only real difference that Annie even considering when speaking to Duet was that, unlike himself, Duet was not Spawned of the Goddess.
Therefore, Duet was the lucky one.
Folding his six hands together, two sets in front of his body and the third above, Annie crooked in confusion for but a moment before seeming to come to an understanding of what Duet meant by the 'detestable miasma.' Smiling, as horrible beings are wont to do, Annie responded as though the two of them were already good friends having a conversation over tea. "Oh, the cries of babes. It is understandable that your steps have not brought you to experience the outbursts of angry children. Forgive them-" He gestured to the circling tentacled beasts, "They know nothing else. Born into hatred, it is all they can share. It bothers us naught, for I would speak lies if I claimed to possess any less hatred myself. For we do hate Her, we certainly do."
He paused again, decidedly not looking in the direction of the angry child. His eyes focused on Duet and he asked with hopeful optimism, "We only seek to deny the Goddess access to this Nexus, we do not wish to come into direct conflict with potential allies. Subsumed this Tether, we have, and contain it, you have. From your steps and Her shape, it seems you do not serve Her? Would you be interested in helping us eliminate- help us destroy- help us- stop Her." Emotion welled up with every attempted statement, an intense well of hatred completely unlike that of the miasma exuding off of the others. Annie's was focused, internal, and he desperately tried to contain it. He spoke and felt about Ira as though she were the devil incarnate, come to destroy the earth. So, having finished his speeches, he waited for a response.
Ira beckoned Leech, Ghost and Damsel to follow her as she walked the outer circle of the containment zone. At each strangely shaped pillar, a small group of L-14 personnel monitored the situation and largely ignored everyone else. They too had glyphs inscribed upon their helmets and clothing against the emotional storm, but theirs were far more crude. They blocked all emotion, inside and out. However, they were effective. As effective as a hydraulic press is at pressing a nail through a block of wood. Overkill, but it certainly worked.
The child ignored all of this, however, focusing entirely on the two monsters that crouched over the living shrine. Their large bodies obscured much vision from it in the field, but as the child walked around it became more and more apparent as to the shape and design of the shrine. To the others, it would look like nothing more than another monster slowly growing out of the ground. Like a twisted, nasty tree, its form took the shape of a skinny, naked humanoid holding itself tightly and bound up in a thin membrane of flesh. Almost like a silicone blanket had been hard pressed around their entire body. Many vestigial limbs, bones, teeth, and other fleshy matter grew from it, occasionally pruned and cataloged by the many-fingered monsters beneath it.
But Ira was focused on something else about the shrine. The top, where a small, thin layer of black hair had begun to grow. Growling and holding an expression only a hilariously angry eleven year old could, she whispered to anyone near enough to listen to her, "Filthy curs. Insane peasants. Revolt, writhe, rage against me. I feel nothing." Then, looking around to see if she had been followed, Ira would speak to the team if they accompanied her, "I protect you, you protect me. To the center take -me- with -you- I demand it. Necessary. Undoubtably. Immediately... Please."
The kid was wandering. In most cases this would be a situation where the team did something to stop it, but Hocus Locusts weren't exactly known for playing by the rules. If the anomaly wanted to take a little walk around, then the question wasn't should it be doing that but rather what will happen if it does? There was one of those silent discussions among the personnel which led to Leech and Ghost following along with the anomaly while Damsel kept up his position near Duet, since leaving her alone with a many-handed horrifying monstrosity was a terrible idea.
For the many-handed horrifying monstrosity, of course. Duet would probably be fine.
"Serve her? No, of course not. On occasions like today where she might be useful, she is permitted to serve us. Under supervision, of course." Duet gave a quick little smile as she corrected Annie's view of the world it was thinking about annihilating. "Usually we keep her in a box. I think we'll have to decline the offer to help destroy her at this time. You see... we're not done with her yet."
Indeed, they were not. At the outer perimeter, 1003 was complaining about the situation and demanding things that were bad ideas. It was much like dealing with a toddler... or with a Councilman. Leech and Ghost were on very familiar ground.
"We won't be heading into the center until Duet gives us the go-ahead," Leech said calmly. "That'd likely count as a breech of contract, and I don't think she's done picking apart your friend there just yet. We're going to be patient. Besides... it's more rewarding to get something you've been wanting for a while rather than just getting everything right away." Something for the anomaly to think about, maybe. Or maybe not - you never knew with anomalies.
"So what do you want to go in there for?" Ghost inquired, quite enamored of the idea mostly because it sounded like utter chaos, "What's in there, anyway?" She was marking little symbols on the ground as they walked, every two meters or so. What they'd do when she was done with them was anyone's guess - it could be anything from sinking the anomalous zone into a secondary Atlantis to blowing it into an Azathothian void to transmogrifying it into a pirate hat. Ghost was the sort of person who took you can't do that as a challenge rather than an instruction, including and especially if it meant defying the laws of physics, metaphysics, or reality.
Annie did not respond immediately, nor even in a manner that would denote he had properly heard Duet when she spoke. His eyes closed for a moment to ponder and absorb everything Duet had said, then, he began to smile. His smile might've been off-putting to another, too many teeth and far too wide, but surely that was nothing new compared to the Hocus Locusts' daily engagements.
"Really? Reeeeaaally? Keep her in a box, you do? Permit her to serve, you do? Use her, you do?!"
Then, it began to laugh. The monster laughed with its whole body, hands dancing up in the air to praise unseen gods while its eyes blinked in uneven patterns. His voice shook like the barking laugh of a hyena, far too hard and far too loud. Clasping its hands together once more, Annie continued, "If, in your steps, you have crafted the means to restrain her, then praise you we do-!" The twin monsters by the tree-body shook in hyena laughs, praise? "Praise be to you, great restrainer! Praise! Please, assuming there is naught but truth between us, we beg a way to thank you. How might we aid in your travels along the path?"
The twin finger beasts behind him began to work in fervor as their leader spoke, they were getting closer to- something.
"NOT FRIEND!" Ira screamed at Leech, rage welling up in her face. He was trying to teach the little kid something, but those two words had been latched on the instant they left his mouth. Turning away from him, she growled and continued her encirclement of the containment zone. Ignoring whatever runes or symbols Ghost seemed to be drawing and marking on the ground, Ira stopped at the exact opposite end of the containment area. She did not answer Ghost immediately, the anger that consumed her shook her little body. Eventually, she calmed down enough to unfurl her brow and unsnarl the rest of her face, but still, she shook with rage.
"It corpse. Not alive, should not live. Cannot live. Flesh is wrong. Bones are wrong. Everything- wrong... Cur should know that. Know bones are wrong, know flesh is insufficient. Cur knows that..."
Well, Annie seemed to be having a great day. Duet didn't say anything in response to the praise, mostly because accepting it might have created an obligation, and she didn't need any more obligations than she already had.
"I don't think we need to work out any deals."A way to thank you would have set off alarm bells for anyone who'd been at L-9 for more than about five minutes, and she wasn't about to get sucked into agreeing to something she wasn't prepared to accept.
"What are they up to, back there?" She'd noticed the two in the background, of course. Duet had a feeling she wasn't the only one here who knew the fine art of talk at them for a while to keep them busy while everyone else sets up. It was just going to come down to a matter of who was better at it, in the end.
And on the side of setting up, Ghost was still scratching idly in the dirt, and Leech was occupied with a suddenly very irate 1003, who really, really did not like having friends.
"All right. Not a friend." Leech didn't mind agreeing to that, since he'd only been using the term in the antagonistic sense. His researcher's mind had sharpened, honing in on what she was saying - not just the general shape of it, but the specifics, the chosen words, the Names. "Who's 'Cur'?"
Ghost was looking inward, towards the center of the containment zone, peering past everything back to where the others were having their little discussion. "If it's a corpse... think we could resurrect it?"
Just because she hadn't succeeded at a resurrection yet didn't mean she wasn't inclined to keep trying, after all.