Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Cyrus

Cyrus rocketed towards the horizon in the East. Below him stretched on the sands of the Sahara. Even up in the lower stratosphere, he felt the heat radiating from the desert below. His mind wandered, the view below him just as monotonous and brown as it had been thirteen hundred years ago the first time he’d flown over the area.

The sands of Babylon remember. Babylon, not Baghdad. No one cares about Babylon anymore. There’s only one reason the dragon girl would desperately scream that at me. But that reason is impossible. Taauth’s dead, gone, and buried for the last three thousand years. But he’s the only possible reason.

Cyrus adjusted his course, turning north towards the coast of the Mediterranean. There he could doubtlessly find a town or city to get new clothes. He still wore his MHU uniform with a face concealing helmet that stuck out like a sore thumb. Local clothes would be better for blending in.

He willed his bubble of air that kept him aloft to descend. From his current height, the sparse and scattered small towns would be nigh impossible to spot. Flying over a densely populated area like Europe was just asking for trouble. Any government that couldn’t monitor their airspace for techie planes and flying supers wasn’t long for the world. If all else failed, Egypt would be fairly hard to miss. It’s been too long since I’ve visited the Nile last. I wonder how much smaller the Pyramids are now.

After a few minutes, he caught sight of a grey smear in the distance. A small city, then. That works. He headed for the desert just outside the city, and landed near a rock formation jutting from the sand. The helmet was the first to go, followed by the battered dark grey flak jacket. He placed them out of sight on the top of a tall rock. His pistol he tucked under his belt, out of sight.

That done, he shot into the air, buoyed by solid air beneath his feet, and memorized the brown swirls of sand and stone below. Once he had a good mental image, he came down close to a road on the outskirts of town. Do they still speak this dialect of Arabic? It’s been a century since I’ve spoken it last. Oh well, I’ll make due.

Sweat soaked his undershirt and heavy dark grey pants as the afternoon sun beat down on him. I’ve been in one place for too long. He caught a ride from a truck driver to the center of the city. The rough roads jostled him and the cargo in the back, the large bags of rice almost toppling on top of him. The driver dropped him off next to the market near the center of town.

He caught some wary and hesitant looks from the locals as he searched for someone who sold clothing. From his dress and features, he obviously wasn’t a local. Only long experience kept his face neutral. Ha, and Westerners think everyone between Morocco and Pakistan looks the same. And my skin isn’t pale enough to be some rich Westerner exploring the world.

The call to afternoon prayers sounded off from a minaret overlooking the area, catching him off balance. What do I need to do? It’s not Friday, is it? No, it was Tuesday when I left, and now it’s Wednesday here. Has Ramadan started? No, I passed an open cafe with customers. Shia or Sunni? Is there a difference in their prayers? Too many things to keep track of, to remember. Too much. Cyrus bowed in meditation, rather than prayer.

Once prayers ended, he resumed his search through the market. Despite his foreign-ness, vendors still hawked their goods at him. He kept a hand on his wallet in his front pocket. American dollars were usually taken anywhere except Europe and East Asia, and this small city on the Libyan coast proved no exception.

Eventually, he found someone in an out of the way area with clothing. Though his Arabic was rusty, and the vendor spoke a different dialect than Cyrus was used to, pointing and nodding worked anywhere.

Several minutes of haggling later, he fiddled with the last button of the simple red button down shirt before loosely wrapping the brown and grey checkered scarf around his neck. Another outbound truck brought him to the edge of town once again. The moment he was certain no prying eyes watched him, he shot into the air once again.

***

Baghdad came into view as the sun set. Cyrus brought himself to a stop and hovered upright. He dispersed the bubble of still air he kept over his face when he flew. This place is much nicer now that there’s no Mongols killing everyone in sight.

From vantage point, the area looked calm. Even with night falling, most buildings were lit up. There were people on the streets, even as the sun vanished from the sky. All in all, the city seemed calm. He’s adapting much faster than I thought he would. This place was a war zone of different Islamic metahuman factions a month ago.

His search for the largest, most ostentatious building didn’t take long. Overlord had several palaces built for him and his trusted underlings during his reign. Not all had been leveled by the invading US forces or the resulting years of upheaval and insurgency.

It would be just like Taauth to use one. That one with all the flags looks like a good place to start. And all those men on the roof, they’re watching for something. All the fanciest technology in the world is just now getting as good as a few pair of eyes. And men cost less.

Cyrus retreated to the edge of the desert. He pulled the scarf over his beard, closed his eyes, and extended his grip on the surrounding air, allowing himself to let loose and stretch himself almost to his limit. Ah, home. The sheer mass of air resisted his will for a moment, before it began to spin. The massive howling sandstorm, over a mile in diameter, formed with him in the center. He formed a bubble of calm air around himself, the sand bouncing off of it.

A smile formed on his face. The feeling of power, of absolute control, overwhelmed him for a moment. Right concentration. He willed himself, and by extension the howling winds, back towards the city. Though the sand blocked his sight as it would anyone else’s, that did not stop him from sensing the movement and shape of all the air under his control.

His sandstorm tore through the city, the wind blocking out all sound around him. He headed directly for the palace. People rushed indoors, their lungs fighting against the sand and dust in the air. And so the Haboob makes an appearance once more. He let the sandstorm go the moment his feet touched the roof of the palace. The guards had vanished, no doubt seeking shelter indoors. The sandstorm around him lessened, no longer under his control. Momentum kept it going.

He found the door leading to the interior of the palace and blasted it open with a wall of solid air. No alarm sounded. He took the stairs down to find several guards waiting for him.

He threw them against the walls with a burst of expanding air in their center. Until he knew more, he wouldn’t mindlessly butcher everyone in his way. For all he knew, and in all likelihood, these were just local men working for a small paycheck and with no real devotion to Taauth. In all of Cyrus’ experiences, most draftees had no real love for their officers.

Without breaking his stride, he grabbed one of the guards struggling to his feet. “Taauth,” he said, his voice low and calm.

Behind them, another of the guards had recovered enough to draw his sidearm. Cyrus smacked him in the hands with a hard gust of air, and his own gun smashed into his face. Cyrus kept his eyes on the guard in his hands. The others were either unconscious or not willing to get up again.

“I… I don’t know. I don’t know where he is,” replied the terrified guard in Arabic.

“This building?” asked Cyrus in the same language.

“Maybe.”

“Where would he be?”

“Down, one story.”

Cyrus released him and strode off down the stairs. He poked his head around the corner. Before he had a chance to register what he was seeing, twenty rifles opened fire on him. He pulled back as a bullet grazed his head. His skull knitted back together and the pain receded immediately. Trap or just bad luck?

He felt out the large room beyond. Twenty guards took cover behind the lines of columns, their breathing fast and nervous. They’ve heard the stories, same as their fathers, and their fathers before them. At the opposite end of the room was a large double door. And behind them sat a man behind a desk, breathing normally. Found him.

He burst into the room. The air howled around him, more for show than anything else. If he so chose, he could have simply ripped people’s lungs from their chests. He’d done that several times before, though he always felt sick after. No number of centuries of grisly sights had ever inured him from the disgust.

Within ten second, he had formed a whirlwind in the center of the column room. Off balance, the guards’ shots went wide. The fight, if it could be called that, didn’t take long. He sent a punishing strike of air at shin level, breaking the legs of anyone not behind a column. The few that were left got caught up in the whirlwind, and found themselves slammed into the walls hard enough to crack ribs. He marched forward threw open the wooden double doors.

Within sat Taauth. Darkness silhouetted him, swallowing all the light of the lightbulbs in the room. All the files on the large wooden desk sat under large metal paperweights. Someone was definitely expecting me. Taauth himself simply leaned in his high backed chair, his expression unreadable under the strange grinning mask he wore. I’ve seen that before. That’s Skulker’s mask. What’s he doing with it?

“Hello,” said Taauth in English.

“Give me one reason I shouldn’t kill you again.”

Taauth slammed a hand on the desk and roared with laughter. “Again! You were lucky. Had I not been otherwise occupied you would have been crushed like the gnat you were and are.”

“I’m not the same acne covered kid you met in Babylon. I’ve been alive and well for the last two millennia. You’ve been gathering dust in the dirt.”

“It makes no difference,” replied Taauth with a wave of his hand. One of the paperweights rose into the air and hovered. With a flick of his wrist, it began flowing like a liquid.

“No. If I have learned anything age does not equal wisdom. It is experience that matters,” responded Cyrus.

Taauth leaned forward. The metal began flowing in an infinity symbol. “Perhaps. But they go hand in hand, do they not? You have no doubt discovered you have time aplenty, just like me. Have you not more wisdom?”

Cyrus frowned. He held on to the air in the room, ready to crush Taauth’s head at a moment’s notice. Just like me. “What are we?”

“Does it matter?”

“I don’t remember my mother’s tongue. Do you?” Taauth paused. The metal froze. Cyrus continued, “Are we even human anymore?”

“I believe so, but I do not know. I do know that there are others. What do you know of them?”

“The German woman is insane. And I’m not sure about Cuauhtémoc.”

“And the Chinese girl?” Damn. I thought the Chinese government had their secret weapon under lock and key. How did Taauth figure out she even exists?

“I haven’t met her yet.” Too many aliens in China, too much to do in Westward. Too much. It’s always too much. “You definitely won’t.”

Taauth sighed. “You think me a mere usurper. Do you know where our powers come from?

“No, and I wasted three centuries trying to find out. I spent another…” he trailed off. Another century trying to reach Nirvana, or anything that would mean I could stop. “It doesn’t matter. No one knows, not really. Faith has changed, but still no one knows.”

“Indeed it has. Merciful gods rule now.” The floating liquid metal resumed its twisting.

“Not just them. An Aztec high priest will tell you that the world will end as they believe it began, in fire and death as those chosen by the gods wreak havoc. Every fifty years they insist it is the end of days and then the world keeps turning. Talk to a Christian priest, he’ll tell you the same kind and loving God is the one that allows men to use their supposed god given powers to kill and maim to their hearts’ content. Ahura Mazda, Allah, Yahweh, all the same, really. They don’t really know where powers come from, no matter what they claim.” I’ve said this rant too many times before.

“Everywhere there is faith. It is a part of man.”

“Faith in what?”

“I do not know,” replied Taauth.

“Neither do I.” Cyrus straightened. “And it doesn’t matter right now.”

“Indeed. How many have died in your new home while you piddle your time away here with me? I did not know you enjoyed conversation so much.” Taauth reached for a manila folder on his desk. “I very much doubt you came here to discuss the nature of God with me.”

“No. The dragon girl screamed ‘the sands of Babylon’ at me. That was your doing?” asked Cyrus, though he already knew the answer. He likes talking. Perhaps his mouth will get ahead of him.

“Of course. I needed a sturdy messenger who could find you.” So he sought her out. I’ll need to find a dreamwalker and a psychological mage later. “I assume you flew directly here. You haven’t heard the news.”

He waited. After a moment, Cyrus asked, “What news?” Spit it out.

“A nuclear device was detonated in Venezuela. A very large one, at that. The Siberians have become agitated.” Cyrus kept his face still. Right in the middle of two invasions from the Overlord and the US. Correction, disposable old bots of Overlord, and the US. “And it appears as though there was a computer glitch in the French defense network. Several standard missiles of theirs have detonated in the Mother’s territory. She has sworn revenge.”

That’s how the last two world wars started. Is Overlord insane? “Divide and conquer,” murmured Cyrus.

“Quite. Overlord’s attack dog, Slim Jim. Have you met him?’

“No. I’ve heard stories.”

“Yes, pleasant fellow. Overlord did not leave much behind when he was ousted from this country. None the less, I have tracked down some of his former collaborators. For some of them, their memories were addled by drugs, but I was able to extract everything in this folder. This information is old, true, but there are a few things you may find significant.”

Cyrus took the folder Taauth offered. He opened it up and thumbed through some of the papers within, keeping half an eye on Taauth. This is… disturbing.

Taauth spoke up again, “Find Slim Jim, and you find the bunker.”

“How can I trust this information?”

“I thought Babylon the height of what man could accomplish. I have been wrong before, and I will be again. It does not matter. I will not lie to you in this matter. I am confident that Overlord must be stopped. Now go.”

Darkness enveloped Cyrus in an instant. He lashed out and found his strike obliterating a sand dune in front of him. The palace, and any signs of human habitation, were nowhere to be seen.

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Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Revenant

Olivia found herself falling in a featureless grey void. Usually she could just spread her wings, but they remained limp no matter how hard she tried to move them. She just fell and fell. A soft white glow appeared before her.

The falling sensation vanished. Without warning or impact, she found herself lying face first on a rough, brown stone floor. Where… She climbed to her feet and took in her surroundings. A short man with his back to Olivia stood between her and a solid stone table jutting out of the floor. Restraints of stone pinned a bizarre, scaly creature to it. It arched its body and let out a guttural scream that echoed on the walls. Eyes wide, she backed away slowly until her back hit something. A small gasp of surprise escaped her lips.

Before she could blink, the man whirled around and pinned her against the wall by the throat, too fast for her to see. He barked what sounded like a demand in a strange, incomprehensible language, though for a brief moment she thought she recognized his voice. She brought her foot back and kicked him in the stomach. The man didn’t flinch, instead pulling his arm back and slamming her against the wall for her troubles.

“How did you get in here?” he demanded, his voice low, deep, and calm. His dark brown eyes bore into her.

Olivia choked, prying at the man’s hand without success. Black, smoky tendrils formed in the air and circled her head. She jerked her head to the side as one probed at her temple. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the others shoot for her. No, no.

The man’s eyes glazed over. After a moment, he relaxed and smiled.  “Ah. Appearances are deceiving. You are not truly human, are you girl?” He released his grip on her throat and stepped back.

Olivia scrambled back as she held her normal, clawless hand to her throat. Her back, not her wings, pressed against the unyielding stone wall behind her. She searched frantically for a way out.

Stone walls encircled the room, the bumps and crevices in them cast flickering shadows along their length. A glowing orb embedded in the ceiling filled the room with golden light. Olivia couldn’t find an exit of any kind, just stone. She slid along the wall, away from the man. He made no move to follow her, instead simply maintaining eye contact.

“You may call me Taauth,” he said, his low voice almost strong enough to shake the stone walls. The back of her mind screamed danger. I know that name. “Still afraid? Cautious? We may have a common enemy in this Overlord.”

Olivia froze. OK. Who is this guy? After a few seconds she found her voice and said, “You’re… you’re that guy in Iraq, right? The Islamic guy?” Why do you care?

“Ah, yes, you have heard of me. And no, I am not Muslim. Though the Muslims are… fascinating. Have you seen their Hajj, their pilgrimage?” he asked, his gaze growing distant.

Olivia shook her head. What does this have to do with anything?

His eyes returned their focus on her. “A pity. To see what the beliefs of men can bring… but no matter. We have something else to discuss.” He waved a hand, and two chairs of stone grew out of the floor opposite each other. “Come, sit.”

Olivia made no move towards the new chairs. No thank you. “What about that?” She glanced towards the scaly creature on the table in the center of the room. Its four thick limbs strained against the solid stone restraints.

Taauth displayed no such hesitation. “I believe they are called Siberians. One must know the enemy’s mind to defeat them, after all. This is mankind’s planet, not theirs,” he said as he reclined in a chair.

“What are you going-”

He cut her off. “Pay it no mind.” With another wave of his hand, the table and its occupant plunged into the floor. Another guttural howl from the Siberian was cut off by a sheet of stone materializing to cover up the new hole. Taauth looked at her expectantly.

What do I do? What do I do? She looked around the room again. No exits had materialized in the ten seconds since she’d checked last. He can help get rid of Overlord? She searched her memory. How did I get here? There were… Overlord robots. And drones. And a guy with an axe. Then something exploded. Why aren’t I in that parking lot then?

“How did I get here?” she asked, not moving from the wall.

“You are asleep. This is not the real world.”

“How do I know this is real?”

“Only my word and your own conclusions.” OK? This can’t be real, can it?

“And… you can help? Against Overlord?”

“I will. I saw your memories. I would not stand for such a man to rule.” Taauth cackled. “The machine man. He, along with everyone else, has forgotten. Forgotten the old gods, the old ways. He would have all humanity reduced to slaves. Even in my homeland he has tried to exert an iron grip on men.”

Well, he sounds like he’s telling the truth. Maybe this isn’t so bad. But this all seems… wrong. He’s a warlord. Why would he be nice? He had that alien thing restrained. It was thrashing and stuff.

“Then why haven’t you done anything? Like… looked into his mind like this or something.”

“Dreams are complex. There is a certain logic to their layout, though I do not know it. Finding a certain person in the quagmire is impossible, even in the old days. Now, with billions of people on the planet? No, attempting to find him here is futile.”

Hold on. Olivia’s eyes flickered over to where the alien had been. “What about that Siberian?”

“I did not choose that one specifically. But an alien’s mind is different from that of a human. They are distinct. I chose one to… study it. That principle may be why you are here. An untrained human’s wandering mind cannot enter here, but you are not truly human.” He extended his hand to the free chair. “You will not sit?”

It’s got a backrest. “No thank you.”

He sighed. “Very well.” It slid back into the floor without a trace. “You do not trust me?”

She shook her head. Why would I?

He grinned wide. “Wise. But you need me. With my guidance humanity’s potential is boundless. With Overlord it is doomed.”

That’s not right. Olivia’s hands opened. “Your guidance? What makes you so much better than Overlord? You’re a warlord yourself!”

Taauth leaned forward in his chair. “Because I can enact change, and because no one will stop me. Anyone could, but they do not. A man may accomplish anything if he commits himself fully to it. Few do. Very few. That Overlord is making an attempt to bring his own goals to fruition is admirable, even if his endgame is severely flawed. If I succeed in my goals, then I have succeeded. If not, then I have spurred change. I have spurred mankind to overcome me, to prove my vision wrong and set themselves on a better course than my own. In essence, I cannot lose.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“It amuses me to do so. And you will not remember anything I don’t want you to.”

Olivia’s eyes widened. No, no, not forgetting. She pushed herself off the wall and spread her feet in a stance that Ben had taught her. Taauth roared in laughter as he stood from his seat.

“Ha! You are no human. All your strength means nothing here. This is my dream, my mind.”

“I don’t care about Overlord. Let me go!” Olivia growled.

Tendrils of stone from peeled off the wall behind her and wrapped around her arms and legs. They yanked her back so more could pin her against the wall by her hips and shoulders. She struggled against them as Taauth sauntered over to her. Dark smoke appeared around her head. A threatening hiss escaped her lips.

“Then you may go in a moment. First there is something I’ve been meaning to do. And I must thank you. You provided the last piece of the puzzle. I had my suspicions.” He locked eyes with her. “Find the Persian, you will know him when you see him. Tell him the sands of Babylon remember. He will understand.”

The smoke shot forward. Her vision went blurry and a massive headache erupted in her skull.

Over the pounding in her head she heard Taauth say, “Oh, and I doubt we will see each other here again, though the future is uncertain and my work is just beginning. No matter. You may awaken now.” Her world went black.

***

Above Olivia, a voice spoke. The back of her mind screamed danger. Someone opened her eye. She snarled and shot forward, ready to fight. Her hand wrapped around a neck and threw its owner to the ground. Leave me alone! Around her, people shouted.

She froze. Her scaled hand wrapped around a choking Ben, pinning him to the floor. Chris ran up to her and tried to pull her off. He sounded like him. That guy. That… who?

“Olivia!” Chris shouted.

She released Ben, shot to her feet, and backed away. Oh no. What happened? Why’d I do that? Everyone in the lair shot her confused, fear tinged looks. Miya and an armored man were halfway out of their seats. Rob rushed to Ben’s side, next to the bean bag Olivia had been laying on. She’d had torn a ragged hole in it with her feet in her haste to get away from Ben.

I need to find him. Wait, what? What him? She shook her head and took a hesitant step forward. Ben gasped for air on the floor.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Is he OK?” she stammered. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” Stupid me. Stupid.

“The fuck was that?” said Rob.

Olivia shrank back. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m so sorry.”

“Easy,” Rob murmured to Ben. Miya rushed to his side. Olivia saw a flash of red as she touched Ben’s neck.

Ben’s breathing returned to normal. “I’m alive,” he said as he sat upright. He massaged his throat. “Gonna feel that in the mornin’. Also, what Rob said. The fuck was that?”

“I don’t know. I thought you were… I don’t know. I didn’t mean… I didn’t-”

“Calm down,” ordered Chris. He faced her and raised a placating hand. “What do you remember?” It’s OK. Calm. I’m calm. Don’t mess up again.

“Um, the robots. A light and an explosion. That’s it.”

I need to find him. She looked around the lair. Not here.

“Alright, take a seat. It’s OK,” said Chris. “You were just jumpy.”

“I’m sorry,” Olivia repeated.

“I believe ya. Jus’, ya know, don’ do that again, please,” said Ben.

Olivia let Chris guide her to her chair with the sawn off backrest beside Amanda. The whole lair settled into an uncomfortable silence. Rob helped Ben back to his feet.

I need to find him. Olivia let out a small hiss. Stop that.

“You OK?” asked Amanda.

Olivia shook her head. “No. I hurt Ben. And…” Something stopped her from continuing.

“And?” prompted Amanda.

“Nothing. Just… nothing.”

“OK. You had us scared there for a bit.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I overreacted. And… wait, when did Chris get back?”

“He got back when the rest of us pulled you and Ben out of the fire. Oh, and Purifier too.”

“Who?” Olivia sniffed. Someone else is in here.

“Him.” Amanda nodded towards the armored man. Olivia noted the enormous axe strapped to his back. Bad, bad. Amanda must have sense her discomfort. “Don’t worry about it. Ben is alright, and we’ll figure something out.” Olivia nodded and let the conversation die.

I need to find him. Olivia got up and headed for the back door.

“Where you goin’?” asked Rob as she passed.

“I… I don’t know,” she replied as she left.

“Something’s not right,” she heard Chris say before the door closed behind her.

She took flight, following the path she and Ben had taken earlier. She heard gunfire all throughout the city, broken up by the occasional siren. What looked like a military convoy burned in the streets. She gave the billowing smoke a wide berth. A car started behind her.

I need to find him. What is that? Stop it. She dropped onto a roof. Find who? He could be anyone. Why won’t this go away? She hissed and took a passing swipe at an air conditioning unit, leaving a series of long gouges in the metal. I need to find him.

Maybe… maybe this guy can make this stop. She took flight again. What else can I do? She sniffed the air as she approached a familiar apartment complex. A certain scent caught her attention, beneath the smell of smoke and oil. There. I remember. Make it stop. She followed the scent, past a ruined tank. Debris was scattered everywhere in the area. Make it stop.

The scent led her to more wreckage. In someone’s lawn, a squad of robots surrounded a kneeling Cyrus, with a few drones hovering with their spotlights overhead. Found him. She dove. Her wing took out a drone as she aimed for a bulkier robot that stood head and shoulders above the others.

The moment her wing made contact, the robots scattered in all directions and fired up at her. Two grabbed Cyrus and began dragging him away. She collided with the big robot on the sidewalk and slashed. It rolled with her, using her momentum to slam her into the ground with it on top.

She hissed, heedless of the bulk of the robot weighing down on her. She dug a hand into its metal casing and ripped a chunk free. The robot didn’t make a sound beyond the movement of its limbs. It rolled off of her and slammed its arm into her chest. The concrete below her cracked under the impact.

She snarled and hooked her claws into its arm as it pulled back. It pulled her upright, allowing her to get her feet back under her. She reached forward as the robot tried to escape and tore the arm off. Bullets bounced off of her.

Three normal sized robots dogpiled her, knives flashing. She lost her grip on the larger robot. Her tail snapped out, catching one and taking its leg off. She twisted, dislodging the one in front of her. The final one stabbed down towards her shoulder, the knife digging into the muscle between the shoulder and neck.

She roared in pain. The robot let go of the knife and jumped off her back. The dislodged one ran back to her. She slashed with her uninjured arm and carved a massive chunk out of its chest.

“Power nullifier!” shouted Cyrus, pointing at the large, receding robot she’d lost track of. Cyrus tackled the robot behind him and wrestled with it for its rifle.

She tore into the last robot, the one that had stabbed her. The remaining ones kept their distance, firing incessantly. Then, a massive gust of wind obliterated them. Olivia’s attention snapped to Cyrus.

He stood over a ruined robot and pulled a knife out of his leg. His wounds vanished before her eyes. I should say something.

“Are you… the… I don’t know. Arab guy?”

He stiffened and turned around to face her. “I’m Persian, not Arab. And what does-”

That’s the word. “Yes! I’m… I’m supposed to say something.” The sands of Babylon remember. “The… the sands… of… of Babylon remember.”

Cyrus’ head snapped back. “Repeat that.”

“The sands of Babylon remember. The sands remember. That’s all I know now make it stop!” she screamed.

Cyrus flew off without a word, leaving Olivia staring at empty space. She whirled around to catch a glimpse of him rocketing eastward, away from the mountains. No, no, no. That’s it? I found him.

Gunfire and familiar smells caught her attention. Uh oh. She spread her wings and flew towards it. Ben, and Miya exchanged fire with a group of robots across the street. They took cover behind Ben’s car, with three blown out tires. Chris, in liquid form, squared off with two others in the center of the street. Why were they following me? She tucked in her wings and dove as fast as possible towards them.

She spotted a group of battered and clawed robots approach the fight below her. One towered over the others, sparks shooting out of an empty arm socket. The moment it came within twenty feet, Ben collapsed, holding his head. Miya and her golem didn’t seem affected. But in the middle of the street, Chris snapped back to human form, off balance. Several robots shot him point blank.

No.

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Sand Man

Let’s get out of here, Sam. This place is fucking strange. After a militant attack on the archeological dig they protected in Iraq, Sam and Little Man found themselves in a bizarre ancient underground dungeon, one that Little Man would like to leave as soon as possible. Assuming there’s an exit. But no, the kid just stared at that mask he’d just picked up.

“You’re not keeping that are you? There’s no way this shit’s not haunted.”

Sam flipped it around, shining his flashlight on the interior. It appeared as the inverse of the smiling face on the front, all shiny grey metal. “It’s not quite the same,” he said.

“Huh?”

“It’s not quite the same. My brother, a techie, put a bunch of stuff on the inside of his, like a really good filter, some paddin’ so a punch to the head doesn’t beat yer face up, lenses to block out flares an’ shit, stuff like that. Made it all from scratch.”

“That’s a pretty diverse techie.”

“Nah, tha’ was his techie overdrive, when his power went apeshit an’ expanded to a bunch of other stuff for a bit.”

Pretty rare for that to happen. Like, once in a techie’s lifetime rare. From what Little Man knew, the overdrive would only last for so long, and wasn’t permanent. The techie would remember how to maintain and repeat what he or she built in that time, but no new information would come to them outside of their specialty. But during that time they could make damn near anything even tangentially related to their field.

Sam remained quiet for a bit, staring at the mask. Eventually Little Man said, “Come on, let’s find a way out of this place.” I’ve never known this kid to be quiet before.

“Yeah.” Sam put down the mask and helped Little Man hobble out of the dark stone room.

God, I’m a fucking invalid right now. This sucks many penises. Shrapnel from the explosion that got them into their current predicament burned in various parts of Little Man. Small bits, and while he’d managed to stop the bleeding before he’d woken Sam up, they still hurt like a bitch. His ankle remained swollen, and attempting to walk on it did not quicken the healing process. Probably sprained, maybe broken. Don’t care which, still hurts.

The general bruising and battering from plunging down with a rock slide after an RPG exploded left him dead tired. Also, the last five hours (at least I think it’s been five hours. Sam’s phone died an hour or so ago, and my watch and phone were broken) had been spent in a lifeless, dead silent ruin with only a flashlight for illumination.

As they resumed walking down the endless corridors at a hobbling pace, Sam asked, “Hey you ever think of somethin’?”

“What’s that?”

“Maybe we’re dead, an’ the door to purgatory or heaven an’ infinite blowjobs was behind us, but we missed it an’ we’re happily marchin’ our merry way to hell.”

Little Man snorted in laughter. Ah, what the hell? Might as well laugh. We’re going to fucking die in here. Both of them knew it, both of them refused to simply acknowledge it.

After another ten minutes of hobbling (I swear we’re going in circles, but we’ve only turned once this whole time and the hallways are completely straight), Sam asked, “How is any of this still intact? It sure as fuck can’t be magic.” Little Man knew that whenever the caster was killed, the magic would eventually dissipate within the hour. Longer, if the magic was particularly powerful.

“What did the pencil neck tell you? How old this-gah!” he said as he put too much weight on his bad foot. He continued regardless “-was?”

“What was it? 600 BC I think. So tha’ makes this ‘bout… twenty six hundred years old. No way there’s any magic left in this place.”

“We’ve come across some collapsed stuff, so whatever is holding this place up isn’t foolproof. An RPG did get us down here in the first place.”

Sam sighed. “Fuck if I know what’s goin’ on.” Right there with you.

They came to rest in the corridor. Sam passed the flashlight to Little Man, then stripped off the body armor, keeping only the essentials like the last of his water and two knives. He stuffed everything into his pockets and belt, then took the flashlight to let Little Man do the same. Why didn’t we drop this stuff before? Their unspoken intention was to get up and keep moving after that, but instead they just sat in the corridor in mutual exhaustion.

Sam took a swig of water, then passed the bottle to Little Man. He took a drink, the water turning the dry dust in his mouth into mud. It didn’t matter. Water was water and therefore delicious, especially in the miserable desert that was Iraq. It’s not even cold down here. Aren’t underground caves supposed to be around fifty degrees no matter what?

“You still got yer flashlight?” asked Sam.

“Yeah.” They had used only one to light the way forward. So this meant that only one was needed, so they didn’t need to waste the battery life of the other. Normally I’d be cautious, especially in a place like this, but I haven’t heard a goddamn thing besides the two of us. I don’t think anyone’s been down in a good thousand years or so. No, wait, two thousand. That’s twice as long.

“Jus’ makin’ sure. Sleep sounds good, actually.”

Little Man nearly made a point about how they needed to keep moving, but his intended statement sounded hollow in his head. He knew Sam would obey. Little Man was his sergeant and Sam said he would follow orders. After a full year Little Man had yet to see him disobey an order, despite the fact that one of Little Man’s dumber, more misinformed plans nearly got him killed one time. He’d get up and get moving, but let’s not waste anyone’s time here. And besides, we don’t have anything more productive to do than sleep.

“Sleep? Fuck it, why not?” he said. Sam laughed.

Don’t know how you still have such high spirits, but whatever works for you. Better than arguing with each other. It was hard to get Sam riled up over anything, he usually just sat back and let things happen when bullets weren’t flying. The only time Little Man could remember Sam ever getting angry was when another mercenary mistook easygoingness for weakness and started calling him a liar, just to get a rise out of him. Sam took him by surprise and stabbed him in the dick. Not easygoing, just relaxed. So much paperwork I had to deal with after that, though. At least Sam bought all of my alcohol for two weeks for letting him stay in the company

They settled down (ah, it feels good to sit down again) and got themselves as comfortable as possible, stretched out across the hallway.

“Hey,” said Sam, “maybe if we turn off the light some horrifying abomination will come an’ flay our souls from our bodies.” Sam flicked off the flashlight and the entire world went into absolute darkness.

“Thank you for that,” said Little Man, humoring him. “Don’t lose track of that flashlight.” He fingered his own, just for reassurance. The conversation trailed off.

Little Man eventually passed out to the sound of Sam snoring.

***

Little Man woke with an immense urge to piss. Right. Tomb thing. Fuck, I’m hungry. And sore. He fumbled around, blind, until he found his flashlight and turned it on. No idea what time it is. Need to take a piss. He limped a fair ways down the hallway, back the way they came, and relieved himself. He came back, trying to remember if they had any rations on them, when something shiny caught the beam of the flashlight.

Is that that mask thing? It rested on Sam’s shoulder as he lay on his back. Sam didn’t appear to have moved at all since they went to sleep, though he looked a bit more sweaty than usual. He gripped that knife that had been back there close to his chest. Through his sleepy haze he thought, Huh? Whatever, he wants a souvenir, that’s more for him to carry around. I’m going back to sleep. Not that it matters. He turned his flashlight off, and the last thing Little Man though before heading back to unconsciousness was, didn’t he say he would put it back?

***

The next time Little Man woke up, he could see just fine. Everything had a yellowish tint, but for once all of his surroundings were illuminated. Crudely carved stone without adornment, the same drab brown color everything in Iraq seemed to have, made up the walls. He could now clearly see the dusty earthen floor he lay on. It took him a couple seconds to process this.

“Hold up a sec,” he muttered to himself as he got up and looked around. Still underground. Of course this light isn’t from the sun. Globs of gold light were stuck at random intervals along each wall. The fuck? That’s magic, I think, but where did it all come from? I’m looking at about a dozen. Who can maintain that many?

He put a hand on his knife, the standard issue steel one. The rockslide down here having beaten the iron one into uselessness. He didn’t see anyone, but he could see the globs. This is going to suck. I’m in no condition to fight.

“Sam, wake up,” he said urgently. No response. He took a break from scanning the area, not that there was much to see, to look at the kid. Still asleep, gripping the dagger so tightly his knuckles had turned white.

“Sam!” Still nothing. Is he breathing?

Right before Little Man could confirm yes or no, Sam shuddered to life, taking a huge gulp of air. He grunted and rolled over. The mask against his shoulder clattered to the floor. He slowly got up, grabbing the mask as he went, facing away from Little Man. Sam muttered something.

“Sam,” said Little Man. I’m getting tired of saying that. “Look alive, some’s here.”

Sam again muttered something. It definitely wasn’t English. The fuck? Come on, you’re the only one in decent shape, and you haven’t cracked or choked before.

Little Man grabbed Sam’s shoulder, “Hey, you all there? You hear me?” Sam just jerked his head to stare at Little Man’s hand. Something’s not right. Little Man tightened his grip on his knife, slowly pulling it out of its sheath. In hindsight, I definitely should have noticed the mask thing. I’d be screaming at my own stupidity if this were a movie.

Sam must have noticed, because he said something incomprehensible, in a far deeper and more malicious voice than normal. Or possible. That was not his voice, and I’m going to go on a wild guess and say that that was Babylonian or some demon shit. Fuck. We were joking about the possession shit.

Right before Little Man could bring his knife up, not-Sam, in English, said, “I do not recommend doing that, soldier.”

Not-Sam turned to face Little Man fully as he talked, his stretched grin wider than should have been possible. He sounded more amused than anything else, drawing out his words deliberately, and Little Man swore his bones vibrated at that voice. Definitely not his voice. Gotta kill him, because I have no idea what else to do, and I doubt Sam wants whoever this is walking around in his body. Sorry about this, Sam. The light near not-Sam began to dim.

Not-Sam glanced at the rifle he’d left on the ground. “Much has changed, it appears. Such a strange language of yours, this is.”

Little Man lunged as best he could given his condition, knife held with the bottom of the handle towards his thumb, aiming down directly for Sam’s throat. Not-Sam’s attention snapped back to him, and barely managed to shy away from the blade. Little Man still left a nick on his chest. He brought the knife back in for another stab, when Sam took a step back, and all light vanished. Shit. He turned towards where the sounds of footsteps came, bringing his arms and knife up in a defensive position, doing his best to protect his chest and by extension his vital organs. He took a few steps away from the noise of Sam. Then something stabbed him directly in the heart. The lights returned. Dagger.

Sam stood five feet away, the maniacal grin had not wavered. He walked forward. Right before Little Man collapsed, he managed one last defiant swipe at not-Sam’s face. Not-Sam apparently hadn’t expected him to stay on his feet longer than five seconds, because he barely moved out of the way. Again Little Man left a shallow cut on his face, but not-Sam took no notice. The knife fell out of Little Man’s hands as he collapsed on his back.

Not-Sam casually knelt by Little Man’s head, blood dripping down his face like they were in some sort of cheesy book or something. “I told you not to do that. Though it is good to know that man has not grown weak in my absence.” How the fuck am I still alive. I’m looking at a dagger sticking out of my heart out of the corner of my eye right now. Even though the glowing balls did not change their luminescence, the light around Sam began to dim again.

“It is good to be back again. So much to do, now. The world has changed. Too chaotic for my liking, too lacking in direction.”

“Who… the fuck… are you?” gasped Little Man. Chest hurts, can’t feel limbs. Don’t know how… Still breathing, short rapid breaths that hurt a lot. No blood flow. Can’t move. Fuck this.

“Hmm?” said not-Sam, lifting an eyebrow. “This one,” he gestured to Sam’s body, “did not know me, but I perhaps thought he was an anomaly. Does the name Taauth mean anything to you?”

After a moment with Little Man not replying in the affirmative, Taauth said, “Unfortunate. I was the one who roasted the Assyrian king alive in front of his own city and court before I razed it to the ground. I exterminated the horse savages when they threatened civilization itself. I humbled the witch-queen, sent her scurrying back to, what do you call it now? Egypt. I had her severed arm preserved, it should still be around here somewhere if that room didn’t collapse. I am the god king of all mankind. And forgotten.” Bit of a… bit of a… megalomaniac.

“This one,” Taauth gestured to Sam again, “is an interesting one. I can see all he has seen, know all that he has known.” He chuckled softly to himself. “Smile, tomorrow will be worse. I like that. And… ah, his brothers. That is why he was drawn to my mask.” He lifted the mask he held to his face and let it go. It stayed over his face, despite the fact that nothing visible held it there.

He started laughing when the lights went out again. Little Man heard the mask clatter to the ground, followed by a body. Taauth let out a strangled sound. Am I dead yet? Did he just… die?

“Fuck, shit, cock, fuck,” said Sam, in Sam’s voice. “Fuck this, fuck him, fuck everythin’.” What… what do you know? Sam isn’t… isn’t dead. Sounds like he’s… suffering. Sam flicked on the flashlight with shaking hands. “Fuck. Sorry, Little Man. Fuck.”

From the light, Little Man saw Sam crawl over to the rifle on the ground. He grabbed it, then sat with his back against the wall. “Fucker’s in my head, fucker can’t get out, fucker’s strong. Fuck. He’s gonna do shit, too. World domination type shit. No time.” Some clicks.

Sam laughed and murmured, “Seven six two millimeter. Full metal jacket.” Now? Really? He held the barrel to his head, finger on the trigger. Shit. A click. Nothing more. Sam laughed hysterically, banging the back of his head violently against the wall with each word. “Of course. Goddamn motherfuckin’ thing’s beat to shit. Fuckin’ jammed. Fuck. Ow.”

A sigh. After a few moments the lights came back. Oh… shit. Why the hell… am I not dead? He better… better turn me into a… kickass zombie. Can’t talk, barely think. Cold. Sam, now with the wide grin back in place, got up from where he sat and laughed, and Little Man swore the corridor shook. The dagger sticking out of his chest began to glow.

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