Year of the Spectre - Episode II:
"Summer Twilight"
Page 5




        The train car that rattled unsteadily down the Trans-Siberian railroad could have been pulled straight from the movie Enemy At The Gates. Young Russian soldiers, many of them looking far younger than the legal conscription age, were packed into the freight car as tightly as possible, a nervous, swarming pack of humanity. Their uniforms were still crisp and fresh, unsoiled by the calamities of war that they would surely encounter in the near future.

Not since the end of the Second World War had Russia been forced to mobilize to this extent, for not since the Nazi invasion had their Mother Country faced such a grave threat. Their territory had been invaded, violated, and transformed beyond recognition. Almost half of the largest nation in the world had been consumed by the unfathomable, unspeakable evil in less than a year. Official reports – the ones that were kept hidden from the eyes of the soldiers and the eyes of the public – stated more than a million Russian soldiers had already fallen in futile combat against the evil that sucked the lifeblood from their country. Untold scores of civilians had been encompassed by the spreading pestilence and were counted as lost. But the Russian government ordered the fight to continue, for every delaying action and tactic possible to be employed. This was not a war that they – or the world – could afford to lose, for it was a battle against the powers of the Burning Hells itself.

        The train rumbled forward, carrying its ranks of fresh soldiers towards the belligerent evil of the Shadowlands.

        New blood to pour into the battle against the demons, however, was not the only commodity that this train carried. Arrangements had been made to pay the Army an impressive sum if room could be made for three additional passengers on the troop train, no questions asked. The Russians, embroiled in a losing war and strapped for hard cash even more than they once had been, were quite obliging.

        Further arrangements had been made as a contingency for when they arrived.

        Nabob had been staring out the window of the sole passenger car in the troop convoy for days now. He had watched the landscape go from the bountiful summer Steppes to the peaks of the Ural Mountains to the forested lowlands on the outskirts of what had once been Siberia. Now there was no more Siberia, and the terrain had been warped beyond recognition as though to boast of that fact. Before his very eyes the land had begun to change, taking on a reddish, barren look. A broiling brown cloud of noxious evil hung over the entire realm, cloaking all activities beneath it from orbiting spy satellites and rendering the Shadowlands and the bordering parts of Russia in a perpetual twilight. As they drew nearer to their destination, the embattled city of Lesosibirsk, the fear in Nabob's heart had grown exponentially. And so had the hate. No Slayer could look upon this corruption and not be moved to violent tears.

        Beside him in the cramped car, Kali and Torvan had hardly spoken a word during the trip. The entire passenger car for that matter was almost supernaturally quiet for the lack of conversation – most of the others who were in the car with them were seasoned officers assigned to lead the fresh troops into battle. They had nothing to say; they had seen and survived the horrors of the Shadowlands before. They knew well that they likely would not be so lucky a second time.

        "The fight must be going pretty badly," Nabob said, piercing the silence during the final leg of their journey. "Most of the men in those cars looked like they'd never even touched a rifle before."

        "Few of them would have needed to have done so," Torvan rumbled.

        Kali, though, continued to stare out the window at the passing devastation, her face as pale as the grave. Nabob leaned forward and touched her shoulder, to which she flinched as though struck.

        "Are you okay?"

        "No," she whispered, beckoning out towards the dark cloud on the horizon. "I can…feel it."

        "The Shadowlands?"

        She nodded. "The black magic in use there is beyond belief. Jabez was right. We are about to enter Hell."

        He couldn't think of any way to comfort her. Words would not suffice…not here.

        From that point it was not long before they arrived in Lesosibirsk. The city was a rare gem in the long, draining war. It had held out against the demons for months now, even when the front had collapsed on both sides of it. Many in the propaganda department were exclaiming the city to be the Stalingrad of the battle against the Burning Hells. Such fortitude had not come without a price, though; the casualties stemming from Lesosibirsk alone could now be ranked in the hundreds of thousands.

        The military convoy barreled through the city streets. Recently, one of the officers had told them, the demons had been thrown back from the city limits and back over the River Yenisey, making the area secure, at least until their next push. The Russians were wasting no time in preparing for that inevitable counter-offensive. Tanks rumbled through the barricaded streets, while sandbagged machine-gun emplacements were seen around every corner. Nearer the river earthworks and trenches had been dug extensively. All around them, the city was in ruins. The civilian population had either been evacuated or had fled months ago, leaving the smashed, lifeless buildings to be shells of their former selves. This city had been fought over, long and hard. And that fight was far from over.

        Antiquated braking systems sparked and flared as the train convoy came to a thundering halt not far from the front. Nabob could hear the freight car doors sliding open, and the rumbling footsteps of hundreds of raw conscripted soldiers hitting the ground at a panicked run. Shouted instructions were being bellowed out over the teeming crowd. Inside the passenger car, the officers uneasily made their way towards the exit, hesitantly glancing back into the train car as though it was the last thing they were ever going to see. For some, it might very well be.

        The three Slayers followed the officers out. No sooner had the last troops been cleared off of the train than did the doors slam closed again and the train begin to back up – destined to make its return journey back to the west to bring forward even more frightened soldiers.

        "What now?" Kali shouted to Nabob over the hubbub of the organizing regiments.

        "We need to find –," he tried to yell back, but it was no good. The nervous chatter of so many hundreds around them effectively drowned him out. And on top of that, there was a dull roar somewhere in the distance…a roar that was growing louder and closer by the instant. Nabob's eyes shot skywards. There – approaching very quickly – was a shimmer of fiery light descending upon Lesosibirsk. "Look out!"

        "BOMBARDMENT!" shouted one of the officers in Russian, immediately throwing himself to the ground and scrambling for cover. The fresh recruits, however, didn't know as well, and tried to scatter in every direction, a panicked herd of wild animals.

        The shimmer of light descended with horrifying speed, a giant streak of immolating blue fire, and struck the ruins of a large building about a block away. The fiery blast knocked the building to rubble, eliciting frightened screams from all along the Russian lines. Nabob could feel the surge of intense heat press against him.

        More streaks of fire fell from the sky, summoned from miles away by the minions of Lord Nighteye. Gaping, fiery holes were torn in the trench networks, flaming bodies sent spiraling through the air from the concussive force of the blast. The train – still pulling away from the front – was struck by a fireball with staggering accuracy, reducing the empty military convoy to splinters and leaving an immolated hole in the railroad tracks. Another well-aimed one descended amidst the panicking horde of new soldiers, engulfing dozens in the flames in the space of seconds.

        "One's coming right at us!" Nabob shouted, trying to pull Kali away from the doomed spot. "MOVE!"

        But Kali did not budge. Her eyes closed with intense concentration, and the air around her became heavy with the greasy feel of static electricity. A magical barrier suddenly sprang into existence above their heads, stretching out to encompass and protect the Slayers and those around them. The fireball struck it at full force, but the flames danced harmlessly on the shield above their heads. Nabob didn't even feel the heat. He turned and looked at his companion with awe.

        "The Shield of Karvalle…?" he whispered.

        She nodded. "You have heard of it?"

        "It took the will of a thousand Slayers-Cajun to cast that just once during the Great Holy War."

"I know."

        Then the brief bombardment ended, replaced by the moans of the dying, the sobs of the living, and the terrible silence of the dead. It didn't last long, however. A solitary figure – and a massive figure at that – rose from his crouched position in one of the forward trenches and shook his fist in the direction from which the bombardment had been launched. When he spoke, it was with a voice that Nabob recognized.

        "You'll have to do better than that, you sons of whores!" the man roared in Russian. "All batteries, return fire!"

        There was a brief pause, and then the world erupted again as Russian artillery guns, cleverly concealed amidst the ruins of Lesosibirsk, opened fire, sending their high-explosive shells hurtling towards the demon hordes miles away. The roar was deafening, but with it came a profound sense of relief. It might have been a losing battle, but it wasn't lost yet.

        Nabob, meanwhile, had found his contact.

        "Shukhov!" he shouted, running towards the trenches and hollering in English, which he knew that both his man and the Rogues would understand. "Shukhov, damn you, look over here!"

        The man turned, and the first thing that struck Nabob about him was that he looked tired…more weary and exhausted than any man should have been in an entire lifetime. His hair and beard were wild and uncut, and the Russian Army uniform that he wore – that of a colonel – was torn and soiled. He still wore it proudly, though, and the glimmer in his eye and his familiar smile told the Chimneysweep that he was far from defeated.

        "Nabob!" he replied in a mildly accented English, rushing towards his friend and embracing. "They told me you would be coming! Here to help us fight the demons, eh?"

        Nabob's Russian was slightly rusty, but once a Chimneysweep learned a language, very little was ever lost. One of the special perks of the bloodline. "Not…exactly…" he replied, then turned to the two Rogue Slayers, who were approaching the large Russian man with more caution. "Shukhov, my companions, Kali and Torvan." He wisely decided to leave out the details of their origin. There would be time for such things later. "And this is my old friend Vladmir Shukhov…Slayer-Premier."

        Shukhov grinned…an action that made the large man seem distinctly ogre-like. "A pleasure. I got word that you would be coming a few days ago, 'Bob." He glanced around to make sure that none of the other soldiers were listening in. It wasn't the sort of privacy that such conversations merited, but out here it would have to do. "Mission for the ASG, ja?"

        The Chimneysweep found himself choosing words carefully. "You could say that. This mission is going to have a major impact on the future of the Guild," he looked back significantly at Kali. "Perhaps on the whole world."

        Shukhov punched him in the arm jokingly. It hurt. "Always out trying to save the world, my friend? You should be back in America married and raising six kids. Good men like you don't belong in a place like this." The big Slayer-Premier looked around wearily.

        "Of course they do. You're here."

        "I am here because I have nothing to offer the Guild but my blood. At the rate things are going, the whole world will have to fight these demons sooner or later. I would rather be doing it now than dreading what is to come tomorrow."

        "You haven't changed a bit."

        "You have," said the colonel. "Enough of that though. Last time I saw you we were both in Austria. How is that Rae girl they partnered you up with?"

        The silence hung heavily, crucifying the conversation. Nabob looked up at his old friend with pain written across his face.

        "Rae is dead," he said sharply.

        "Oh."

        Another long silence. Shukhov turned away to bark an order at a nearby soldier, and when he looked back it was with sorrow.

        "I'm…"

        "No, don't be sorry," Nabob interrupted. "Help me with what we have to do now."

        Shukhov nodded curtly and gazed at the three gathered Slayers. "You want to go into the Shadowlands, ja?"

        "We do not want to," said Kali, who had remained silent up to his point. "But we must."

        "That is what I meant," the colonel said with a snort. "Nobody sane would want to go in. I hope that this is important to you."

        "Very."

        "You must have made a substantial contribution to our war effort, then, because our government agrees that it is important to them, too."

        Nabob's mind reeled back to Kiev, where he had gotten in touch with a Slayer who was currently working from inside the Russian military high council. The ASG had maintained a presence in that particular bureau – and several others in rival nations – throughout the Cold War, just to ensure that hot-tempered mortals didn't wipe out all life on the planet. Even so, operations such as the one they had proposed were not cheap even under the best of circumstances, so a monetary donation had been necessary to grease the wheels of the Republic's initiative. The Rogues had maintained several secret accounts at a popular Swiss bank for a number of centuries, accumulating large amounts of interest. The money was rarely used, since the Rogues had few worldly expenses, Home providing everything they needed, and as such the numbers had swollen from the original investment. Nonetheless, it had still taken a huge percentage of what they had saved away for emergencies to get the Russians to be agreeable. Nabob still felt rather guilty about that.

        The guilt would subside, though. As Kali pointed out, it was only money. No price was too high for the artifact they had to recover.

        "A small reconnaissance patrol is being fitted to accompany you into the Shadowlands," he continued. "They arrived a few hours ago from Moscow, and they seem to be well-armed and supplied. They have orders to take you where you need to go and bring you back again, no questions asked."

        "These are not men that you know and trust, then?" Torvan asked.

        "I'm afraid not," Shukhov grimaced. "Our all-knowing government has dispatched them personally." He leaned in close. "They reek of Special Operations forces. Don't take your eyes off them for an instant."

        "Perhaps we should go in alone," the Rogue fighter growled. "I do not like to fight beside those I cannot trust." He eyed Nabob warily.

        The Chimneysweep shook his head. "That's suicide."

        "But you said…"

        "I know what I said," Nabob snapped. "But for just one second use that peanut brain that God saw fit to give you. There is an army of demons a few miles across the river, and this is just the tiniest part of the Shadowlands. The place is crawling with horrors. Fewer is better as far as infiltration goes, but eventually you need protection."

        Torvan folded his arms, his perpetual scowl deepening. "We shall see about that."

        Kali touched his shoulder. "Enough. Nabob is right, Torvan. There can be strength in numbers."

        "If you say so, princess. But I shall have to see it for myself."
        
        "Come with me, 'Bob, and I will introduce you to the reconnaissance commander, ja?" Shukhov beckoned, looking Torvan over carefully. Nabob didn't want to get between those two. The Slayer-Premier was bigger, but not by much.

        "Sure," he sighed. "You two try to find some shelter until I get back, okay?"

        "I understand," Kali said stiffly.

        The Slayer-Premier was quick to lead Nabob off, taking him through the winding network of trenches and shelled-out buildings. The carnage left in the wake of the fighting became more obvious as they pressed on, passing several mobile hospitals where the screams of wounded men echoed mournfully over the city. Lesosibirsk was a city of the dead. Most of its current inhabitants simply didn't realize it yet.

        "Your friends," Shukhov said at last. He didn't bother to turn around to speak, but instead continued walking at a brisk pace, leaving Nabob to speak to his back. "I do not know them."

        "No, you wouldn't."

        "They are not ASG, are they?"

        Nabob's breath caught in his throat as they slogged through the mud, and it took him several seconds to get it back again. "No, they're not. I won't lie to you. But what we're doing…"

Shukhov waved a hand, dismissing the idea. "Ja, ja, for the good of the Guild. You've always been a…what do they call it?…a cowboy."

        "I hope you don't disapprove."

        The Russian colonel hesitated. "Ask yourself something, old friend. Ask yourself if you are truly doing this for the good of the Guild. And then ask yourself if the Guild is worth wandering into hell for."

        "What do you think?"

        "I believe that the Guild can suck me sideways," Shukhov sneered. "They assigned me here. Assigned me to this hell. When other agents started dying, they tried to re-assign me. I stay to spite them."

        Nabob's heart sank. "I always thought that you had volunteered – that anyone they sent here had volunteered. I mean, fuck, if half the stories circulating about this place were true – and it looks like they are – then nobody should be sent out here!"

        A fiery barrage in the distance seemed to punctuate Nabob's statement and emphasize his mounting rage. He had been at odds with the ASG organization in the past, but this – this –

        "But they did," Shukhov said, bitterness mixing with sorrow. Not sorrow for himself…the Slayer-Premier had resigned himself to his fate long ago. His sorrow was for the other Slayers who had been sent here, either against their will or not knowing what lay ahead. And for those who had yet to come.

        All of this was for the good of the Guild.

        But for the good of the Guild wasn't right this time.

        "We aren't here for the Guild," Nabob said quietly. "We're here for people. Real people who are counting on our success."

        Shukhov nodded understandingly. "Then I wish you nothing but the best. Come – we are near."

        They had come through the ruins of Lesosibirsk and now approached what had once been a large garage, likely a bus depot or military structure. The larger building that it was attached to had been hit by the magical bombardment – at least once, possibly many more times from the looks of it – but with an effortless bout of strength the Slayer-Premier pulled the garage door up.

        The smell of cigar smoke drifted out.

        Four powerful land rover jeeps, painted pitch black, sat in the dusty, reinforced garage, each one mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun on a rotating swivel mount in the back. Light was provided by a single overhead lamp, a dim incandescence at best. Moving through the half-darkness of the garage were a number of men – Nabob would count thirteen later – dressed in dark-hued Army fatigues. Even through the smoke, the Chimneysweep could see from their body language that they were not the type he would fancy meeting in a dark alley…or at a well-lit social engagement, for that matter. As the colonel lifted the door open, the dull roar of conversation that had been present dropped to nothing. The scent of fresh metal cartridges was in the air.

        "Sergei Amianovich, get your ass over here!" Shukhov barked in hard, Ural Russian.

        One figure moved forward, silently, giving the illusion of floating through the thin veil of smoke that hung about the garage. As he drew closer, Nabob could make out his features better. He had a sharp face, jaded and imposing, scarred in several places. His head was tipped upwards ever so slightly, giving an appearance and aura of vain arrogance. In one crested hand he clutched a thin cigar. The other he used to snap a quick, respectful salute to the colonel. His eyes, though, regarded Nabob with suspicion.

        "Captain Sergei Tyurin, reporting as ordered, colonel," he said briskly. "Is this one of the foreigners whose diapers we have to change on our trip?" A number of soldiers from the reconnaissance platoon guffawed behind him.

        Shukhov scowled deeply at the smaller man. "Show respect, captain, or your balls will answer for it."

        Tyurin, however, gave no indication of being intimidated. "You can't scare me, sir. Not with where we're about to go." He turned and slowly regarded Nabob. "Does he speak our language, at least?"

        "A few words," Nabob replied.

        "Good," Tyurin brought the cigar up to his lips. "Then perhaps we can survive after all. Listen carefully, little man, because I'm only going to say this once." He gently blew cigar smoke out into Nabob's face, causing the Chimneysweep to wince slightly. He'd never been fond of the stuff. "You have your mission, and we have ours. Don't get in our way."

        "Just go where we need you to," Nabob said, returning the glare. "And stay out of our way once we get there. That's what you've been ordered to do."

        The Russian captain regarded him with amusement. "You really don't have any idea of what we're about to get into, do you, little one? The Shadowlands change a man. I know. I've been there and I've survived." He took another drag on the cigar. "That's why they're sending me back. I intend to survive this time as well."

        "Well good for you. Perhaps you'd like a cookie, too?"

        Tyurin snorted. "If you do anything to endanger my men or I, I'll kill you myself." With that he turned and disappeared into the obscuring mist to begin the final preparations for the trip.

        Deep in his heart, Nabob knew that nothing good was going to come of it.

**********

        GAVAL dropped the chains that held Kris Binder in place and adjusted his fedora while straightening up his posture. It was an old habit from his ASG days. When an elder Slayer entered his room he suddenly became very self-conscious. He hated that he always let these superiors intimidate them when they were supposed to be his friends, but he just couldn't stand there slouching and looking like a bum when such spectacular warriors of light like Dick entered the room.

        "This probably looks really bad, don't it?" asked the Cajun as Dick, wide-eyed and in full Rush just looked down at Binder and then at GAVAL. Binder rubbed his wrists where he had been shackled and started to get up.

        "Stay royt thea're on the floo'r where you belong, Noyttbreed," ordered the Chimneysweep as his eyes flared a bit brighter in gold light. He removed a nasty looking war hammer with a silver spike opposite the hammerhead on the attack end of the weapon. A Glock G31 pistol was in his left hand just as quick.

        "Stay your hand, Dick. I've got a lot to explain before you start cleaning out the place. Binder, just do as he says for now." GAVAL stepped between Slayer and Vampire and put his hands out like a traffic cop in a busy intersection. The forces he was attempting to stay might as well have been a pair of 747's but he'd be damned if natural hatred between evil-slayer and kindred would ruin all he had worked for these last few weeks.

        Binder, still untrusting of GAVAL but knowing instantly that this man with the glowing eyes was bad news to him in particular stepped behind the chair he had been shackled too and looked around the room for a place to escape.

        "You 'aven't got anything to explain, Gav. Oy've been watchin' you for a while now and oy know everything."

A Slayer-Chimneysweep had been dispatched to observe GAVAL. This was serious. If any Chimneysweep knew one thing about GAVAL he might as well have known everything. Nothing gets past these guys when they've been given a mark to spy on. Does he really know about the Nighteye pact?

        "Dick, I'm telling you there's more here than even you can see. Just let me–"

        "Aiding and abetting a creature of the night. Unsanctioned training of ASG recruits. Known cooperation with a necromantic entity. Active pursuit of Slayer activity after both resignation and decommissioning. Ignoring direct orders from a superior elder. Did you just wake up and decide to completely ignore the Slayer Honor Code or did you have this planned out of some sick plot to get revenge for what happened to you on Halloween?"

        "Not just Halloween, Dick! Think about what happened right here in Irvine just a few weeks ago? Chalice and Nabob's Spectre raid that led to all those deaths? Think about the two Slayers on the east side taken out without even a trace that they ever even saw Plague-Sever when it killed them? Think of Cabbott taken out in his prime? Coy and Bub killed that very night! Six high-powered CWALers almost joined that list just a few weeks ago!" GAVAL's passion was slowly consuming him as his words grew angrier and more desperate.

        "If you're asking me to agree that any of that justifies feeding blood to one of our sworn enemies like some damned pet, then you must be completely insane!"

        GAVAL adjusted his had and almost spit at the Chinmeysweep's stubbornness. "DICK, you know if the ASG had made some kind of collective effort to kill Plague-Sever months ago we could have rid ourselves of this threat without a fraction of the loss of life we're dealin' wit this year. It'll be a fricking YEAR in October, Dick! A YEAR!"

        "Here's what's going to happen, Gav. We're going to send that vampire pet of yours back to hell and then we're going to New Orleans where your Uncle will decide what to do about this little...hunting party of yours." Binder's eyes grew wide and be backed further away from the two Slayers, looking around for a weapon in Pez's workshop.

        "DON'T JUDGE ME, Dick. Don't you presume to pass JUDGEMENT ON ME." His breathing was growing heavy. His muscles began to tense up. He spit out the flavorless spearmint gum he had been abusing for over an hour and walked towards the Slayer-Chimneysweep aggressively.

        "I'm not going to judge you Gav, but you've gone way too far with the vengeance thing. It's in Gatral's hands now, so pack your things and let's go." GAVAL bit his lip so hard it began to bleed as Dick strolled past him with intent of slaying the nearly helpless vampire cowering behind them.




Year of the Spectre Episode 2 - Page 6