Beneath the glittering mirror dividing worlds,
Swims the Naggaterroth, long and sharp.
Eight senses it has, to hunt its prey,
But sight nor sound nor touch,
Can reveal the way.
Unknotted the knot becomes,
So easily untied, it never was.
In the dark dark deep,
In the dark dark deep.
They had gathered in the cage tonight. There hadn't been any wanderers for a few days now, so they all had a chance to rest for a bit. It had been this way for weeks, or months. After so much time it became hard to tell. Sometimes the darkness was restless, sometimes it was quiescent, other times it was just there. Tonight it was somewhere else.
The three Venturenauts had brought in something resembling food. Matteheus had become very skilled at building shelters and just as quickly tearing them down and moving on. The cage they inhabited now could actually be moved, which they did anytime the general area looked like it no longer offered any food or water to sustain them. They had gathered some supplies over the past year, enough to get by on this dead world. Egg was a great boon for them, allowing them to survive far longer than they otherwise would have, by turning up life underground and locating hidden rivers.
While on lookout, the burrowing Venturenaut came tearing back to the cage. Erupting out of the ground in front of them, the little thing motioned frenetically. It was a common signal, though rarely so urgent. The mists were coming.
"Everyone get up!" yelled the Wanderer. "Time to move." The dark one looked down on the burrower curiously. It was pointing back the way it had come. There was something special about this. Lifting his staff, he followed up the hill.
As they reached the top of the nearby hill, they could see over a great distance. They chose this place because of this, to get early warning of anything that might sneak up on them. But there was no hiding for what was coming.
It looked like a sea of roiling black snakes covering the landscape. A sand storm of vile evil, rolling terrifyingly fast towards their encampment. For the first time since the mists first broke through, the Wanderer felt dread. There was no way to escape that torrent, no way to avoid it. It spanned kilometres in both directions. There had never been such a concentrated mass like this before. What would cause it to surge so strongly?
"What's up there?" pointed Matteheus. Glancing up hopelessly, the Wanderer spied a strange set of stars moving across the black sky, in front of the churning dark wave. Six shooting stars. But these stars were directly approaching them and getting much larger.
"Rescue ships!" exclaimed Matteheus, recognising the general design of engine thrust and safety lights. His excitement was tempered by the raging storm just behind those vessels.
"They're the ones that have awoken the mists. They've brought us death. There is nowhere we can escape that tide," said the Wanderer grimly.
From down at the camp came some rough yells, then they saw a light figure flash past them and over out into the dark sky. It was Egg!
"What's it doing?!" exclaimed Matteheus.
Out of breath, the tentacled Venturenaut met them at the top of the hill, exclaiming, "Egg just started acting distracted, then suddenly twisted the cage up and when we tried to stop it, the little guy flew away!"
"I didn't realise Egg could fly," noted the Wanderer softly, glancing down at the camp. The cage had been crushed, flattened at the bottom, with only four support beams meeting at the centre in a sort of pyramid shape. Their supplies were gathered in the centre of the cage floor, which was now somewhat concave. Looking up at the approaching vessels, the Wanderer nodded. "Let's wait for Egg in the cage."
Shooting him curious looks, they followed anyway. The cage no longer offered any protection. It was nothing more than twisted metal with skeletal tent poles overhead. As they waited, the sound of the approaching darkness grew, as did the roar of multiple vessels. They all looked up. Five fighter jets and one large shuttle approached. The shuttle swung down sharply, lowering some sort of mechanical grappling arm below it. Everyone gripped the sides of the cage nervously.
Almost without slowing down, the shuttle's manipulator grabbed the top of the cage and lifted it off the ground, thrusting back into the sky. Wind tearing at their faces, they watched as their cage scoop was lifted back to the loading doors. As they opened, they saw Egg standing inside, almost with a smirk on its little face. A rather irritated looking fellow stood at the back, operating the controls. He was short, with long thin ears, long feet, and several peculiar spheres orbiting his head, each seeming to have a face with a different expression. The doors closed, and the mists were sealed out.
Rion launched into the air, taking Stickman along with it. Cat raced after them, having no interest in being on the receiving end of that progressively larger mass of metal light. In the distance the sphere swarm drew near, slowing as it neared them. The now huge mass of amorphous light vaulted overhead and came plunging down behind them. Feeling the displacement of air behind him, he looked back, slowing.
The thing had landed exactly where the three had exited that cursed planet. It swirled viciously in the air like a drill tearing through space. With frenetic energy it felt and searched that space, quickly shrinking and hardening until it came to rest as a bizarre branched ring, encasing where the portal to that other world once stood.
Another displacement of air summoned Cat's attention. Several of the bubble ships had appeared right beside him, landed on the ground now. He could hear scuffling some distance away where Rion and Stickman must have gotten caught. Solemnly, Cat awaited whatever may emerge from this small pod.
The door slid open, revealing darkness. Then a seemingly terrified man stumbled into view, staring about. When he spotted Cat he shrank back into the pod, but a short stubby tentacle from below jabbed at his ankle.
"Get out there, Fruit Juice. Assess the situation," barked a voice from within.
Looking at Cat nervously, the suited man ventured to ask, "Wh-what are your intentions?"
Relaxing somewhat, Cat smirked and walked briskly towards the pod, stepping around the man evidently named Fruit Juice. Just inside the door he spotted an Octopousse wearing a jaunty bowler hat with a leaf in it. The little tentacled creature stared up at him aghast and quickly scuttled away, grabbing up a spray bottle and misting the air furiously.
"Back dimensional intruder! We are the first line Andonian defense force! You will be purged!" squawked the being.
"Well I am an Andonian ambassador returning from delivering an alien ho---me," Cat said, trailing off suddenly at the remembrance of their failed mission.
"You are? Then what is that?!" exclaimed the Commander, pointing beyond Cat to the silent round statue in the darkness.
"I'm not sure. We arrived here through some kind of portal, and that's where it used to be, but it closed after we were through," replied Cat.
Squinting suspiciously at Cat, Commander O'Snap poking his knee, "Closed? If it's closed, then can you tell me how that thing got through it?"
Snapping around, the feline looked behind him. The landscape was bathed in a brilliant light coming from the centre of the statue. Within the ring lay a different world, the hallway of the nightmare they had escaped from. And standing before it was a twisted creature of bone and flesh. Its skull was empty, yet it had a mouth that opened sideways, revealing many fine inwards facing teeth. Its body was gaunt and had one large hole through it, seemingly natural. Its arms and legs were split, with smaller appendages at the upper joint. Each step it too seemed new, feeble, but it was rapidly gaining familiarity with this world and how to move. It turned to face them with its sightless face.
Staring at it, Cat backed into the pod. "Do you have my friends in custody aboard your ship?" asked Cat.
"Of course, as will you be!" said Commander O'Snap.
"Great. I think we'd better get out of here."
The small royal was but a black spot on the winter landscape. Trailing behind, the others dragged their unconscious companion over the snow on its smooth shelled back. Their former guide had gathered her senses and was now drifting nearer to the front. Biting winds cut over the top of each hill. None of them would last long in this environment.
Cresting a hill, the snowy black hat motioned for them to hurry. They had located their point of escape it seemed. Gathering atop the hill, they peered down below on a copse of snow covered trees. Beneath the canopy lay an arrangement of crystals around a portal. The guards had been seen fleeing towards this spot and it was now evident why. Looking carefully about, they noted no sign of any remaining forces. The temperatures had dropped far below what they would consider tolerable.
Dashing down the hill, all of them ploughed forward, excitement growing at the prospect of escaping this wretched world, its horrible enslavement along with this new freak blizzard. But most of all, many of those running felt the excitement of returning home.
Suddenly a vile wind caught them all, blinding them temporarily. Fighting to protect their faces, they could only hear the howling scream of snow and air tearing around them. But then another sound neared, a growing droning buzzing. It reached a fevered terrifying pitch and everyone was able to spot its source. A swarm of guards, fleeing the mountains, was being tossed and rolled by the torrent. Unable to control their flight, they crashed with a muffled thunder into the ground below.
All of them were standing still on the down slope of the hill, aghast at this turn of events. The guards righted themselves one by one, and readily spotted the large entourage nearing the portal. Bringing their weapons to bear, they began to march towards them, a grim determination in their eyes.
Only their subterranean guide dared face them. Her slender form moved across the snow without leaving a mark, her tattered clothes flapping furiously in the wind. This was the first time any of them had really had a chance to see her clearly, for the caves had been dark, lit only with bizarre lights. Here she was before them, demonstrating her own power, not that of the underground. It was a different power than any of them knew.
A grim look took her visage and she flicked an arm up before her. Mumbling some careful words that only she could hear, she tensed her fingers and concentrated on the approaching enemies before her. A ripple of fear passed through her body and suddenly a horrifying black jet of dark air shot out from her palm. In multiple slices it cut through all of the guards, severing limbs and bodies. The caster's body went rigid, her face aghast, and then she fell into the snow.
Seeing the instant obliteration of the only opposition to their escape, those waiting quickly surged forwards, avoiding the wet remains. The foreigner of the group slowed to look at their defender. She held her face in her hands, her body shaking. Lifting her face from her hands, he could see she was crying.
"It was only supposed to blow them away. I didn't want to hurt them. It was only supposed to... not that. Not that..." she wept.
The black hatted one observed her carefully, considering her, then moved on, towards the vortex, with its people.
Sailing through the air in a torrent of blinding dust and deafening sound, the Gentleman flipped head over heels, losing sight of Mushroom and fearing for his head when he was soon to hit the ground. But the ground did not come as soon as he had thought it should. Straight up he flew and at the pinnacle of his flight, he looked about and saw the plains of Andonia spread out below him. A fine day it was, apart from the explosion below him.
He fell, a terrifying fall. It was unbecoming of his station, but he did let out something resembling a scream as he plummeted back into that white cloud. His frail form punched through the airborne debris without resistance and his body reacted to hitting the ground at the point he should have hit it, but wind still tore at him long after he recovered from the gut wrenching feeling. He was falling, deeper and deeper into the earth. It must have been a pit that opened, and now he would strike with even greater effect. Hopefully he would make a respectable crater.
Oddly, his fall slowed, but through no effort on his part. The Gentleman began to make out sights and sounds, as the wind slowed and the air around him cleared. It was darker in the hole, but not pitch black. His feet began to seek a resting place, for he felt now that should he come to reach some physical surface, it was not assured that he would become the puddle he'd expected a moment ago.
Braving a look down, he could see islands in a sea of pitch darkness. Some creatures flew or swam through that darkness, others on the islands. Moving his arms somewhat, he tried to guide himself down onto one of the smallest islands that did not appear to bear anything of interest. The air relented and guided him with a light bounce on a long tall pedestal of rock, adjacent to a much larger plateau.
Looking about, he felt ill at ease. The air was wrong, the clouds above could not possibly be actual clouds, for he was in that hole in the ground. But this place seemed like a vast world of its own. There was no hint of a ceiling or cave walls. A thundering gallop interrupted his sight-seeing.
Before him, on the large plateau, skittered what seemed to be some sort of spider with a melon shaped head. Its eyes were nothing more than toothed holes with skin stretched over where the pupils should be. A doubly split mouth opened slightly, spreading its four jaws outward, revealing a toothless interior. Some sickly substance dripped from within, however, and even the air that touched it sizzled and steamed.
The thing came to a rapid stop just at the edge of the drop-off and turned its head down to examine the Gentleman. On his tiny platform, separated by mere metres, the Gentleman felt ill at ease. Leaning forward on his cane, he ventured to speak to the horror before him.
"Would you accept this most sturdy cane in exchange for your entire kingdom?"
Beeping. Something was beeping. He hadn't heard that sound in months. Racing across the dirty landscape, Joxx ploughed into the cockpit of his fighter. It was receiving an Andonian transponder signal. A cargo shuttle. His heart leapt with excitement.
"Amam, Netori! Hurry, come here!" said Joxx through gritted teeth, daring not to yell in the night. Over their radios the two other pilots responded in turn, inquiring as to the urgency. "They've come for us! Finally come for us!"
Clicking off his radio, he began to pack up the camp. They would be going home!
Over the ridge came the only pleasant sight in this dead world, five of his co-fighters. Amam and Netori bore radios, while the other three, Onol, Litres'ka, and Poq, stuck together with them in teams for safety.
"Are you sure it's Andonian? Not one of their ships?" asked Netori, concerned.
"You've seen this world. Nothing survived that attack. But the transponder is definitely Andonian, there's no way they could have, especially in their state, broken into our fighter's systems," replied Joxx.
"Good enough for me," said Onol, dropping some collected supplies into one of the fighters.
"Once we're airborne, we're not going to stay hidden for long," said Amam.
"Then we'd better be quick. Assume formation beside the shuttle and accompany it wherever it goes. Its equipment will likely be the same as the fleet's, so we'll need to stay within range of it to get back," ordered Joxx.
One by one, the five pilots boarded, prepped, and initiated launch of their craft. It had been a long and harrowing year for them, trapped in that dead world. With great anticipation, their engines fired up, and as one they launched.
They quickly located the ship. It was definitely of Andonian design. Long and boxy, it clearly wasn't intended for orbital flight, but rather transporting equipment, such as used by the research teams. Flying in a diamond formation, they pulled alongside the craft.
"Andonian rescue shuttle, we are survivors of the fleet commanded by Captain Visch. Please advise," sent Joxx.
The cockpit windows of the craft were dark. The communication channels remained silent. The path of the ship remained steady. On they flew, across the misty dark night.
Consciousness suddenly returning like a tide held back, Visch's senses returned. Just out of the corner of his eye he caught the dark form scrambling out the door, down the hallway. His breathing systems were unaffected, but some of those on the bridge lay on the floor, either unconscious or dead.
One of the officers had managed to right herself and looked at Visch uncertainly, scared. "Sir!" she said, realising her half-kneeling position.
"Get us out of this system," muttered Visch. Then he quickly swung out into the hallway, hunting the alien intruder.
More bodies littered the ship's hallways. Some were sitting up, stumbling about, others were breathing shallowly, some only exhaling, long past the point of their lung capacity. This was very, very wrong.
Reaching the engine systems room, Visch found everyone here fallen. The dark mist wisped about here, visibly pooling around those crewmen that remained here. Gasping sounds surrounded the grand serpent. Suddenly one of the fallen rose up and stared at the Andonian captain.
The man's eyes were foggy and a dark vapour dripped out of his mouth. His feet and body were encircled with the dark mist. It seemed to block the light not by its thickness but by its hunger. Tendrils of the stuff reached out, seeking anything alive, anything moving.
Another crewman burst into the room, agitated and afraid, but clearly unaffected by the mist. His eyes locked onto the man, then back to the mist. It sensed the arrival and darted for it hungrily. Screaming, the crewman tripped and frantically clawed across the floor, trying to get away from the nebulous mass. But it filled the room, and slipped around behind him. Visch moved quickly towards him. Then the mist touched the serpent.