The Underfoot Cathedral
Terminas was stranger than I'd thought it would be. Steel spires rose to the sky, similar in form to the wooden oil derricks in the hills of Guonan. They were relatively recent additions to the skyline, given the polish of the metal and frenzy of construction. The concentrated stench of decomposing organic matter wafted out of that disgusting refinery, keeping any inquisitive locals at a distance. According to my lovely redheaded guide, Professor Sabia Martell, it was a pilot project that started from the University of Saint Kristoval's Engineering Department. According to our sources, that was where we needed to investigate.
We'd waited for almost an hour, observing the workers clambering up and down the lattice of pipes and ladders. They wore helmets and damp rags on their faces, undoubtedly to keep from breathing in the pungent vapors that came from the central tank. As we observed from behind a tree, we saw a horse-drawn cart arrive. Men in long coats drove a cart that smelled of death, despite carrying their cargo in sealed casks. The other workers paid them no attention, as they unloaded the barrels. A bored-looking clerk paid them for their delivery in a handful of silvers, and the cart galloped off. Two workers, dressed head to toe in protective suits, pried open the barrel and poured a slurry of rotting meat into some vast machine. We moved after the cart, glad to be away from a place that stank worse than a midden heap. I could not help but look back at the facility.
It greatly contrasted its environs. It was like a coiled serpent of steel pipes in a jungle of carved stonework. Terminas was a hub for more than sea travel, since the refinery produced the fuel used by its famous paddlewheel river-boats, which sadly bore the stink of the engines used to drive them. Outside of its gaslight streets were ornate stone buildings, much of which still bore the damage of the war that saw the city fall to the Holy Kingdom of Adelos. Vibrant Devlosi architecture and sculpture was contrasted by the dour stonework of the invading Adelosians, but the contrast enhanced a few buildings.
Chief about them was the two-towered Terminas Cathedral, which I could see over the distant rooftops. The morning sun reflected off the stained glass windows, showing scenes and figures from the local religion. I could see the immense statue of an armored woman thrusting a sword downwards, which Sabia told me was an Adelosian figure called Saint Aster. The expression on her face suggested an intimate ecstasy beyond what the Adelosian church typically allowed, from what I understood. The fact the statue was so iconic saved it from destruction after the city's capture, as Sabia explained.
I did not care to learn more about the local superstitions than I had to. I was here to accomplish a mission, and get back to Xianjing. Either they'd think I was dead, deserting, or both. To be honest, I doubt anyone would really care. My family was still my unit, and they were an ocean away. If I could help our allies by striking a blow against some degenerate cultists and smugglers, so be it. Sabia was eager to learn more about Xianjing, so I had Ma talk with one of her colleagues at the University. I had my limits, but I trusted his judgment with what to disclose about our homeland.
We passed down a narrow alley between rows of single story-houses, all built into the same stone wall. The refinery grew closer, but we were not alone. Six strange men mobbed around a cowering young man. They were clad in strange armor, with claw-like gauntlets, bird-cage like helmets, and a slightly angled breastplate. Despite the overpowering stench of the refinery, they bore the unmistakable the stench of a reptile house. The armor looked thin and light, perhaps a cheap imitation of some local military unit's armor, stead of the real thing. Nevertheless, it concealed the identities of the goons inside, which was probably its real purpose.
"Reverend Ashe, your sermons remain…incorrect," hissed the tallest of the goons. "You have not taken the Exarch's lessons to heart."
"I will not spread lies about our Lord Cyril Adelos," he said, spitting defiantly at their leader. "The Devlosi and Kharsi are as much his children as the Kendrenosi!"
The goon picked him up by the throat, and pressed him against the nearby wall. The Reverend brought down his fists on the goon's hand, and the large man's clawlike gauntlet lowered. Ashe thrashed a bit more, and for a moment, I thought he was about to wriggle out, but two other goons precluded that. They raised their clawed gauntlets, and they slashed along his exposed bicep, drawing lines of blood. By now, all of them had noticed our arrival. The leader, the armored thugs, and the Reverend all turned their heads to acknowledge our arrival.
"Hey!" I said, thinking before acting. "Let him go!"
"This does not concern you, foreigner," another of them hissed, a short man coiled back in an almost ophidian manner.
"It concerns me," Sabia said, raising her fists in front of her face. "He's my friend."
The leader stepped towards us, leaving his underlings to pin the Reverend against the wall.
"Don't worry, miss," the leader hissed. "We just need to teach this one a lesson, a little informal excruciation to absolve him of his sins."
I'd heard of those excruciations before, but I'd mercifully not witnessed one. These mobs would go around, inflicting whimsical tortures and humiliations on anyone unlucky enough to draw their ire. I had my weapons in my bag, but there was no reason to escalate things if I did not have to. I wore a heavy duster and wide brimmed hat to conceal my own armor, but as any soldier knows, armor itself can be a weapon. With that, I put my fist through the armored grill of his helmet.
My assessment of his armor's quality was accurate. My gauntleted fist punched through his helmet's grill, and it stopped once it hit something soft and fleshy. I heard him growl in surprise, so I pressed down on what I assumed were his eyes. Around me, his underlings sprung to his aide. The closed in like feral wolves, without strategy or grace. I slammed their leader's head into the wall, and I turned to meet them. About time I got some exercise.
I saw Sabia out of the corner of my eye. She wore two velvet gloves, which concealed brass knuckles. She effortlessly dodged each of the blows coming her way, as though she knew where they were going. Given how awkwardly they telegraphed their strikes, it didn't take much to recognize these thugs weren't used to people fighting back. Reverend Ashe looked on, very confused about the turn of events. A slash towards my face brought me back to reality.
My closest opponent raked the clawed gauntlet across my face. He only grabbed the brim of my hat, and pulled it off to reveal the helmet underneath. I saw him recoil a bit, as he realized just who he was up against. I countered with an armored elbow to his throat, which dropped him into a moaning heap on the ground. I smashed my fists together, trying to draw as much attention as I could. These bullies used their strange outfits and hunched postures to frighten people, rather than fight them, but they still had numbers. There were four more standing, and only one of me.
"Incoming!" Sabia shouted.
I stepped back as another goon tumbled through the air, striking the wall on his way down. His cheap armor rang like a bell, and I kicked him for good measure. The two holding up Ashe had dropped him, so they could focus their attentions on the rest of us. Assuming Ashe was with us, it was now three on three. I liked those odds, but I knew I couldn't get cocky. All three rushed me at once, confirming my worst fear at once. The first of them pressed me against the wall, and the second clawed futilely at my breastplate. The last of them went for my neck, where he correctly guessed there was a gap in my armor. His claws shot through the air, but never reached me.
My third assailant instead doubled offer coughing. Reverend Ashe pulled out a small device, some kind of smoke pellet or bomb, and shoved into his face-mesh. His helmet looked like a sputtering dragon, unable to breathe fire. Ashe produced a silver book with a metal cover from his sleeve, and brought it down on his opponent's head, sending his foe sprawling to the ground. I still had two foes, one of which held on with surprising strength. Since I was unable to break his grip, I redirected it.
I pivoted on my hips, sending that would-be grappler flying towards Sabia. "Saved one for you!"
"Thanks, but he's yours!" she replied. I saw she grabbed the man as he staggered forward. She dropped to her knees while pivoting. She sent the man hurling back at me, now flailing even more haplessly than before. I stopped his confused journey with a mercifully quick hammer-fist to the head. His armor neither protected nor helped him, instead being his own worst enemy in the fight. The last one, who'd been keeping back, turned tail. Reverend Ashe stuck out his foot, and the man went spilling over onto the ground. He banged his head into a lamppost, deeply denting his helmet.
"Hao, we should leave," she said. "The City Guard may be here soon, and they will not like this."
"We were defending ourselves from thugs. Why wouldn't they?" I said. "Even back home, the most corrupt guards won't care if people defend themselves."
"Because these were Correctors," the Reverend interjected. "Self-appointed moral guardians that 'correct' any mistakes through beatings, excruciations, and worse."
"So I've heard," I said.
I redoubled my pace away from the unconscious men, hoping none of them were dead or comatose. The last thing I needed were unintentional casualties, since that could compromise me even further. Visitors from Xianjing were rare, even in a port city like Terminas. If reports of a strange foreigner circled, I'd lose what little advantage of surprise that I had. We continued to move deeper into the narrow streets and alleyways, as every footfall echoed loudly behind us.
"Sabia, who's this?" the Reverend Asked.
"Jeremiah Ashe, this is Hao," she said. "He's the reason I made it back."
"Well, Hao, welcome to our fair city," he said, extending his hand. "I have to thank you for your help. Not my first run-in with the Correctors, and thanks to you, not my last."
"Jeremiah, what are you doing here?" Sabia asked.
"Let's talk somewhere private," Jeremiah said. He stopped behind a small alcove, walking up to a metal door. He knocked twice, and three knocks came back. He pounded on the door three times, and waited. The door opened a crack, but I saw a small chain locking the door. An older woman appeared for a moment, and then the door rapidly closed. I heard the release of several locks, which sounded like a machine activating. The door opened, and he quickly ushered us in before closing it again.
Inside, I saw a middle-aged woman standing over a desk covered in maps and letters. The worry on her face was obvious as she saw the bruises on Jeremiah's body, as well as Sabia and myself. She looked me up and down, as though she was sizing me up as a threat. While she was not as strong as officers I'd met, I immediately felt overwhelmed as she spoke. This woman moved and acted with the authority of a drill instructor, something I immediately related to and respected.
"Sabia, what brings you here?" she asked. "And who is this?"
"They saved me from a mob of Correctors, Jeminda," Jeremiah replied. "Out by the refinery."
"Sabia, I didn't expect to see you back so soon," Jeminda said. "What happened on your expedition?"
Sabia looked at me, and then she chuckled nervously. This would be a hell of an explanation to give. Nevertheless, Sabia tried to cram as much detail as she could into her answer. While she spoke, I surveyed Jeminda's house. I saw an abacus, papers with all sorts of numbers on them, forms in duplicate and triplicate, and all manner of references to taxes and revenue. I smiled to myself, as if be-struck by some sublime epiphany that bureaucracies were the same the world over. However, a quick view of her desk suggested this Jeminda was up to more than tax collection. Maps of the region, pencil sketches of various figures, and red ink crossing off some of them suggested something more insidious and lethal. I'd known annoyed clerks to be gruff and surly, but this was something else. Something more interesting.
"Well, Sergeant Liu, it's an honor to have you here," Jeminda said, her eyes opened and gaze softening. "If what you say is true, I fear it's worse than you think."
"What do you mean?"
"My associate hunts slavers and cults. He reported that a foreigner was heading for an estate outside town," Jeminda explained. "An estate owned by a local man of wealth and power."
"If you know that much about this man, have you been watching him for a while?" I asked.
"My contact long suspected his involvement in smuggling people and contraband, but he never had a chance to fully investigate," Jeminda said, pointing to one of the penciled portrays on the wall.
The sketch was a side profile, and it was good enough to discern his features from: a hawkish nose, deep-set eyes with pupils downcast, and a contempt-filled sneer. The sketch identified him as wearing a dark coat, but little else about his person. I read the name beneath his sneering face: Sir Jakob Eckhart. Already, I imagined some large, brooding figure in a huge manor, surrounded by sycophants, guards, and underlings. I felt we'd be getting to know him in the near future.
"Sir Jakob Eckhart is a former Knight, and he's donated a lot to the University," Jeminda explained. "But primarily for developing new machines for farming and war. He's got a reputation for dealing in curiosities of all sorts. He's been selling rotten meat from his slaughterhouse to the refinery, so he's making a killing from his original investment."
"Perhaps literary," Sabia said.
"That may be the case," Jeminda said. "His property is just outside the city."
"So, we paying him a visit?" I asked, turning to Sabia. I already knew the answer from the grin on her face.
"Excuse me, my fellow children of Adelos," Jeremiah interrupted. "But may I tag along? If he truly is involved in slavery and dark witchcraft, I find it only fitting that we deliver him unto Our Lord's justice."
"Sabia, will he be a liability?" I asked. "If these Correctors already know him, wouldn't we gather unwanted attention?"
"The Correctors only caught me after I'd distributed literature in public," he said. "But I can hold my own, as I hope I've demonstrated."
"Don't worry about him, Hao," Sabia said, running her hand down my arm. "It might not seem like it, but he can be subtle when he needs to."
"Two conditions: First, you do not speak unless I order you. Second, you carry a real weapon. Are those acceptable?" I asked him.
He nodded, and we made our plans to move out. Jeminda opened a small cabinet underneath her desk, which sparked in the dim sunlight reflecting through the blinds. I saw knives, daggers, blades, guns, crossbows, and a few things I could not quite identify. It was a handy arsenal in a compact space, packed with an efficacy my old quartermaster Ling would've admired. I picked up a weapon I presumed to be a pistol, a single-handed gun with a gas cannister beneath the barrel, and I handed it to Ashe. He looked quizzically at it, but Sabia demonstrated how it worked.
Sabia explained it was a gas-powered gun, using canisters of the same fuel the refinery made for ships. Regular black powder was often ruined by the ambient moisture, so the often-explosive gas guns were their primary substitute. She told me to cover my ears if Ashe ever used it, and I did not press her on that point. I hoped any opposition would be dead before then. One angry nobleman and his guards, I though. How hard can it be? I was about to learn a fresh lesson in humility.
I ensured the others were armored and equipped as best we could, before we set out. Sabia told me how she knew the Reverend, how he helped people escape from slavery and indentured servitude at sea. One of those people he saved was a student of Sabia's, and mutual friend of Jemina Aniki. Ashe handed me a printed pamphlet about the Order of Saint Maria, his patron saint, a corsair who ravaged enemies of the faith at sea. She spread a milder version of the Adelosian faith to the Devlosi, and she was an ardent foe of the slavers that once raved the coasts. I did not care for any local deities, any more than I cared for the gods back home. Whether it was ancestors or ascendant mortals that looked over me, I did not care. I hoped my enemies' gods would show them mercy, because I would not.
Terminas itself was a dozen worlds compressed into the space of a single city. There was the soaring architecture of Kendrenosi-style mansions and brooding towers, the classical Devlosi style cathedrals and scultures, and the ramshackle hovels of poor. A dense necropolis of winding tombs opened into a plaza were evangelists preached alternatively of salvation and damnation. I saw Correctors lashing a humiliated man in a crowded amphitheater, not far from a library where secretive scholars gathered. I saw the rebuilt walls of the Eastern Quarter, where the undesirables, plague victims, and other victims were hidden. I am sure Sabia could spin me a lecture on any of those winding streets, but I was not here for sightseeing.
Sabia hired a carriage to take us north, past walls that had been outgrown by the city they were meant to protect. The density of the city decreased, as tight streets became muddy paths. Houses melded into homesteads, and the greenery of the surrounding swamps encroached ever-closer to human habitation. According to Sabia, it was lucky I arrived in early spring, or else I'd be sucked dry by mosquitos, stirges, and other biting parasites. Nevertheless, I saw what might've been an alligator in the sparse brush, but I had no urge to provoke it. We'd have enough of that to come. Our intelligence pointed to Jakob Eckhart, and I hoped that assessment was correct. If not, I'd be a fugitive in this new land, as well as a deserter in my homeland. Either way, my new comrades had nothing but contempt for him, so I did not feel uneasy about any violence that would ensue. In combat, your conscience can easily become that of your compatriots.
Eckhart's manor was larger than I thought it would be. It was surrounded by a waist-high stone fence, topped with broken glass. Servants tended to livestock and fields in the surrounding lands, but one could easily get a feeling of something amiss in the area. The servants did not look up to acknowledge the arrival of newcomers. The animals stood in one place, leveling beady black eyes at us. The plants were abnormally tall and larger than others I'd seen of their size, but their stems were full of grotesquely swollen nodules. The carriage driver hurriedly put us off, and I saw men emerge from the manner. The carriage vanished around the bend when it started.
Men clad in gray robes formed a human line, brandishing pitchforks and scythes. They formed a human line and marched at us, and for a moment, I was almost inclined to break and route. They wanted us gone, and I was certain they meant us harm even if we left. I saw Ashe almost turn and run, but I held him back. My normal compatriots would draw too much attention here, so I had to make do with the comrades I had. I spun the hammer out from my coat. It was time to open the way with my Master Key.
The armed guards pulled small, spherical objects from their robes, and hurled them at me. I told the others to scatter, and I dove for cover behind the low, stone wall. The firebombs exploded a minute later, scattering burn mud and shrapnel all over the road we were stand a moment ago. Sabia closed her eyes and tapped my weapon. I knew exactly why. Ashe was feverishly preying to himself, holding the pistol in one hand and his prayer book, his Silver Codex, in the other. I ordered them to attack, and I led by example, as a Sergeant is supposed to.
My first blow came down on the closest enemy, a man in a heavy gray robe and hood. My hammer came down on his head, painting the muddy ground with bloody bits of shattered skull. A pitchfork stabbed at me, but glanced off my armor. I brought my weapon around to the offending enemy, bashing the pointed head from the weapon. He held up that shattered head of the weapon, staring at it with wide-eyed terror, when a crossbow bolt pierced his eye. I turned to see Sabia retreating back into cover, undoubtedly to reload her weapon. I did not see what Ashe was up to, but I saw he wasn't where I left him.
Two men with sickles rushed me, so my hammer rushed them. In one giant swing, I brought the hammer through the first one's chest, hearing bones crunch like dry twigs. That glorious sound was interrupted by the manic ululations of his short comrade, who ran at me with an alacrity I'd thought him incapable of. He slashed at my already dirty coat, but my superior height and reach ensured my second blow finished him. Almost a shame, because I could've used a fighting spirit like that in my unit. I recalled there was a least two other enemies, but I could not see them. Unfortunately, they saw me.
A scythe arced through the air, its blade aimed directly at my neck. I did not have the time to duck or parry, and I wondered if this was finally my end. The polished steel flashed in the sun, but its trajectory diverted at the last moment. The man with the scythe was motionless lying on the ground, and Ashe's hands were clasped tightly around his neck. He'd used the book to choke my almost-killer, and he delivered a coup de grace with the oddly weighty tome. He pointed back towards the manner, where I saw the last of our welcoming committee.
At first, I thought he was running to get reinforcements. He stood in the mansion's doorway, addressing another figure within. "Protect the sample with your life!" shouted someone within. I tried to look, and I thought I saw a face like that of the sketch I'd seen earlier. I blinked, and the second man was gone, but the first was still in sight.
"Bring it out!" that last guard shouted to unseen assistants.
I charged across the yard, with the others behind me. Now was time to deliver the deathblow, and turn this house upside-down if we had to. I was up to the porch when heard Sabia tell me to duck. I didn't question, but I did stop. The fact no more enemies emerged was curious and concerning, as my instincts considered my prediction. The house was a natural defensive point, especially for gunners or crossbowmen. The fact we hadn't received any incoming fire was curious, even though this culture had both types of weapons. If Eckhart invested so much into weapons, why weren't his guards been better equipped? Or perhaps they were merely buying time for their comrades to prepare?
I stood up for a moment, and I dove back beneath the porch when I saw the answer. The guard that got away had set up some tremendous machine in the doorway of the house, a multi-barrel monstrosity that roared like an angry dragon. It smelled of that rot-gas with each discharge, as a hopper fed bullets into the mechanism. The front of the machine was mounted on a mobile carriage, so it could be turned and pivoted in all directions. For now, it was turning towards us, as we cowered beneath the porch. Bullets kicked up an angry dust storm as splinters punched into my skin. I dropped to my belly, and I inched my way across the ground like a snake, waiting for the gunner's next pass.
A second later, it stopped. I heard swearing from inside, and cautiously peaked out. The man, and a new assistant, were trying to clear a jam. The first man tried moving the barrels, while the second re-attached gas cannisters to the engine. Seeing an opening, I drew my crossbow and fired. The bolt missed its intended target, but drew their attention. They drew daggers and charged me, since I was already through the doorframe. My hammer dashed the first one in the head, and a crossbow bolt from behind dropped the second one. I turned to see Sabia, with her crossbow's string still vibrating from the recent shot. I bashed my downed foe in the head, just for good measure.
The mansion was too empty for a building its size. We checked through the upper floors first. There were beds with rich, embroidered sheets. There were smaller rooms for servants, cramped and claustrophobic closets with chains and manacles. There was a study of false books, but with titles that Sabia readily identified. There was an office of paperwork, all dated to several years prior to the current date, undoubtedly revised to conceal suspicious activities. Things became more interesting once we found the false wall.
We were overturning furniture in a vast, empty dining room when Sabia pressed against a cupboard. It slid to the side, revealing the concealed door within. On the back wall, I saw a strange symbol that caused Ashe to gasp. Sabia immediately brought her weapon to bear, but I felt uneasy just looking at it. It was a skull painted in black, against the backdrop of a skeletal hand.
"Heresy!" Ashe exclaimed. "Eckhart's going to answer to Our Lord in Silver for this!"
"That's the symbol of Narghos, an ancient death god," Sabia explained. "It would make sense for them to have a wealthy patron like Eckhart."
Our discussion was cut short by footsteps echoing up from below. Cultists filed up the stairs, pistols in hand. I saw strange goggles covering their eyes, the likes of which I'd never seen before. I saw Ashe draw a small spherical object from his belt, a firebomb like they'd thrown at us outside. I recalled him grabbing one from the dead gunners, and I pressed myself against the wall. I exhaled, as the blast seemed to draw the oxygen out of our room into the tunnel. Much to my horror, the enemy still came. Their suits, I suspected, were flame retardant. I raised my hammer and got to work. It couldn't be that easy, could it?
I drove my hammer into the chest of the first one, knocking him directly into the others. One of those pistols went off in close quarters, and I saw a torrent of flame track the bullet's tail. The cloud of gas made it hotter, and made me sweat beneath my armor. The bullet struck my torso, and forced me back. I felt the wound with my hand, and I felt a substantial dent in my armor. It mercifully did not penetrate my skin, but it hurt like hell. Of all the scars on my chest, that was the first one I'd got on this continent, and I suspected it would not be the last. The five gunmen left were still disoriented, so I charged down the stairs at the mob.
Seizing the initiative in combat is half instinct and half luck. I had plenty of the former, and slightly less of the latter. I charged into the darkness like a blind bull, using my strikes to try and repel any incoming blows. At times, I felt those lucky strikes, where my hammer's head struck bone and brain. I descended the stairs in an adrenaline-soaked charge, but my enemies were not helpless. They moved with a celerity nearly matching mine. I got shot twice more, but thankfully in the ridged center of my breastplate. My hammer arced down at one of the gunners that got lucky, and I scored a thrust to the chest of the second one. The other bodies formed a bloody pile at the bottom of the stone stairs, and the last two joined the heap as my hammer came down on the fifth, and last adversary. As messy as those remains were, they were nothing compared to what we found at the bottom of the heap.
At the bottom of the stairs was a cool, dimly lit cavern. It was about the size of a wine cellar, if all the racks of bottles and casks were removed. Along each of the opposite wall was manacles, with rust-red stains beneath them. On the wall closest to me, I saw prison cells with thick bars, but no captives. There was a single wooden bucket in each, which smelled as bad as the latrines I dug back in Xianjing. In the corners of the room were torture implements, a rack with a rotting torso hanging from it and a spiked wheel covered in blood. I thinking about how it was used sent a chill down my spine. Nearby was a pipe that emptied a thick charnel paste into an overflowing cask. The piping vanished down a stairwell, beyond which, the trail vanished in that chthonic maul.
"Put these on," Sabia said, handing me a pair of googles from the dead cultists. I pulled them over my eyes, and I immediately saw everything in that room, albeit with a jadish tint. It was as though my eyes were some mechanical insect's, and all that I saw was my hive. I turned towards that dark tunnel, and I saw the piping descend alongside the stairs. Instinct told me to follow, since I presumed our goal was Eckhart's sample. Sabia handed me a pistol from a downed cultist, but I was a little hesitant. I didn't trust weapons I didn't train with, but we had ammo and gas for it, so I couldn't complain too much.
The staircase descended in a spiral, as though we were walking down the stairs of some insane wizard's tower. The pipe thrummed and pounded, resonating with a metallic clangor. The reverberations echoed up from below, as though some immense engines stirred beneath us. I recalled Sabia mention in order to move so much fluid up from the ground, there needed to be a huge pump. Dread welled up inside of me with each step I descended. I could not shake that sensation that something powerful stirred beneath us. Whatever it was, Sir Jakob Eckhart was intimately involved with it.
The bottom of the stairs opened into an arched doorway, beyond which was a cavernous open area. I did not know how far underground we were, but it was deep enough we could not see the top of the stairs. The area beyond the door was the truly overwhelming sight, as I had to remove my goggles to believe it. It was easily twice the height of the mansion above, but with a geometry hard to classify as anything carved by human hands. It was a like an Adelosian cathedral, but swollen at the base. Triangular symbols and geometric glyphs covered its outsides, which gave off a soft blue glow. The best way I could describe the entrance was a circular orifice wrought from stone, with the pipe running through the middle. There was no question: this was an Old World artifact, and I immediately knew what I had to do.
In the antechamber, the Narghosite symbols were painted on the walls of that underfoot cathedral, but the context was not what I first expected. It was drawn over the old sigils and inhuman signs, as though the Narghosites claimed dominion over this building and all the powers it contained. As I'd never heard of a single person using one of these artifacts and having it end well, it just served to heighten their arrogance in my eyes. They had weapons wrought by human ingenuity, but the powers they dealt with were utterly unnatural. I felt I was being watched, but I saw nothing but the shadows that tried to envelop us.
They were waiting for us in the main room. I saw the man from earlier, Sir Jakob Eckhart himself, standing at the vanguard of his cultists. Beside him was another man from Xianjing, dressed in the garb of the Narghosites. Behind them were two of those repeating guns from earlier, trained directly at the door. The dozen or so cultists gathered around a large machine. The piping system terminated here, with two large, bladed wheels spinning above a pool of human blood and shredded bones. Eckhart's involvement in smuggling human prisoners was now clear, as this machine was well-feed on mangled bodies. The decomposing leftovers, I presumed, were shipped to the refinery in casks like we saw upstairs. The length of pipe terminated on the altar, emptying into blood-filled channels.
It was surrounded by a glowing mesh of some kind, perhaps a spell or machine powered by the altar. As blood flowed down the altar's blood-filled channels, it pulsed and expanded. It was a squamous mass of black, throbbing tissue that seemed to glow like a black light. It brushed against the mesh periodically, as if testing it for weaknesses. It was like a necrotic tumor pulled from the corpse of a dead god. It gave off a purely malevolent presence, as though it would squelch all life in its vicinity, given the chance. Eckhart stepped in from of that cyst, that abomination, as if risking it all to defend it. His lips moved, but the fight already started.
Sabia's crossbow bolt hit one of the machine-gunners between the eyes. I fired my gas driven pistol into the assembled mass of cultists as I sprinted forwards. I struck the Xianjing man in the neck, causing him to stagger backwards and plunge into the whirling blades. I saw the other cultists aiming at me, but a grenade landed in their midst. They instinctively dove for cover, only for Ashe to dart out and execute the one manning the other gun turret. I vaulted over the dead cultist's body, and I whipped the machinegun around. The machine roared once more, but this time, it roared for me.
First to die was Eckhart. He drew a sword and charged me, trying to dashing in a zigzag to try confusing me. Instead, I simply led with the weapon a bit and unleashed a salvo in his general direction. He kept going after the first few rounds, but the second burst truly did him in. The third cut out his thoughts from under him, and he screamed as he bled out futilely. By that time, I'd already turned the weapon towards the other cultists. If they worshiped an ancient death god, I'd be happy to give them a firsthand experience. As I expected, they were utterly ungrateful for the experience.
Ashe made quick work of the cultists on his side of the room. I mowed down a few more, but the problem came after mine jammed. The remaining cultists, who'd been taking cover behind the altar, got bolder and rushed me. Ashe brought the weapon around, spraying as the barrel moved in my direction. I'd already drawn my hammer and smashed my broken machine-gun to bits, but fate had other plans. Ashe was a less experienced marksman, and most of his shots ended up striking the altar. Each bullet caused the ground to shake, as though it was some key structural component to this entire horrifying structure. When it finally shattered, the three remaining cultists immediately stopped their assault, staring at its broken remnants.
Above us all, the unholy mass slipped through the mesh that encased it. It drew the blood from the dismembered, liquefied bodies in the pits before us. The sickening fluid stank of a million mass graves, as it defied gravity on its upward path. The blood formed a tremendous spiral around itself, as though it was the center of some eldritch gyre of dark power. I saw Ashe chanting and aiming his machinegun at the sanguine vortex, and he unloaded everything he had at it. The bullets passed harmlessly through the bloody mess, as this was a threat I felt was beyond my ability. As the vortex grew in size, I was already running.
The cultists abandoned their fight against me, but the growing vortex pulled them up like ragdolls. Inhumanly, invisible forces pulled them inside out as it drew them upwards. Their entrails were pulled out through their mouths and rears, creating streamers from tattered intestines and pulverized stomachs. Their skin melted like candle wax, their faces frozen in abject terror. Ashe vanished somewhere behind that red vortex, but I didn't stick around to see his fate. I would've felt sorry if I hadn't been running as fast and as far as my legs could carry me.
Sabia ran ahead of me, so I decided to follow her. Behind us, the ever-expanding vortex of blood gorged itself on the contents of Eckhart's plumbing. It ripped out of the Underfoot Cathedral, hurling rubble at the cavern walls. The Narghosites' sigils vanished beneath that expanding tornado of carnage, but I was too occupied to watch. My feet pounded against the cavern floor, never looking behind me. Even that was barely enough, because behind me, the roar of that infernal wind drew ever closer. I sprinted towards the stairs, even as that unnatural gravity pulled me onwards. Stones crashed down from above, and I wove between boulders that would've flattened me in an instant. That horrid whirlwind continued regardless.
I was nearly exhausted by the time I made it to the stairs. Sabia was panting heavily ahead of me, but she forced herself to keep moving. I picked her up and carried her, even as we heard that horrid cacophony of shrieking winds and falling rocks. The ground shook and vibrated, as though at any moment, the steps would collapse at any moment. I pressed on, because merely being crushed by rock sounded better than being telekinetically flayed by the bloody winds beneath. Somehow, we managed to make it all the way to the dungeon, as the tunnel finally collapsed behind us. I stopped to catch my breath, and I collapsed from exhaustion. I did not move again, for what seemed to be a very, very long time.
Officially, Sir Jakob Eckhart died when his manor burnt down. Among the papers pulled from his study included evidence of slavery, money laundering, dealings with organized crime, assassinations, and more. The fashionable names in Terminas quickly distanced themselves from him, and he was washed into the memory hole, same with all his victims. Such was life in that city, much as it was elsewhere. Officially, the ship from Xianjing departed as quickly as it left. It vanished from among the crowded harbors, the well-sailed sea lanes, and the warm waters for an unknown destination.
Yet we did not sail east. That would be how our enemies would expect us to come. The documents recovered from that mansion gave us other links, to other lands, and to other names. No matter how I think, I cannot help but think of the Xianjing man with Eckhart. It is unsurprising that our enemies would deal with people like him, but I cannot help but think there are more. While traveling abroad has become greatly restricted, others still do it. There is money and power to be made with these Old World powers, and until that changes, we cannot return. So, my war continues. May it never end.