11. The Green God
The Temple of Aruk was unlike any temple James Wood had ever seen.
A mossy mound four stories high, from a distance it looked like a hillock, one of countless others in the forest. But it was no natural feature: it was a face.
First he saw the mouth. A gaping cavern that fed into the darkened depths of the temple. A faint light emanated from the mouth, illuminating yards and yards of vines and roots spewing from the hole and crawling across the ground and the mound, as though in imitation of a scraggly beard. More vines burst from a pair of smaller openings above the mouth, flowing around the mouth to form a moustache of vegetation. Two larger holes went where the eyes would be, overflowing with leafy branches that curled up to crown the mound. Deep within the eye sockets burned hellish red light.
And the vegetation pulsed.
The branches and roots and leaves and veins shifted and rustled and twisted and writhed in unison, their movements rippling across the mound, as though moved by the beating of an unseen heart, or in syncopation with an unnatural breath.
Wood’s insides squeezed tight. This was no temple. It was the living face of Aruk.
A procession of men lined up outside the temple mouth, each laden with a huge gunny sack. One by one, they climbed the mound and entered the temple, and emerged empty-handed.
The rest of the stronghold, a collection of huts large and small, radiated outwards from the temple. Elevated above the ground on dozens of sturdy stilts, they were all made almost exclusively of mood and dried vegetation. Platforms and walkways and ladders joined every building to its neighbours. Darkened lanterns hung from posts at every junction. Men with slung carbines stood guard at strategic locations, peering out into the waters and the deep jungles.
None of them knew the STS were here. Yet.
Iron fatigue sank into Wood’s body. The team had stood watch the whole night, waiting for the PSB to summon and deploy a bevy of specialists. Cybertechnicians, neurosurgeons, godtech researchers, the big-brained boffins the PSB maintained on its payroll. After much discussion and debate, and some minor experimentation, they used the controls to bring Santiago down to a state resembling baseline function, and carefully detached him from the machine.
The hunt for the Temple of Aruk began during the flight back to the mainland. Imagery analysts scoured satellite photos of the island, attempting to retrace the path Santiago had betrayed. Psis took to the Aether, combing the swamps for signs of life. Recon drones crisscrossed the skies above the island. Inside STS HQ, operators kitted up and prepared to make war with a Dark Power.
An hour later, the support staff confirmed the location of the stronghold.
In the late morning, the STS returned to the island. Six full teams, plus the Black Watch in their assault armor.
They brought out the big guns for this job. M900 autocannons, the heaviest and most powerful weapons in the STS’ arsenal, so powerful the STS rarely brought them for fear of collateral damage. But with a Dark Power in play, Wood feared it wasn’t enough.
After reaching their landing zone, the operators had trekked silently across miles of hot, humid forest. Despite its apparent bulk, Vanguard assault armor was surprisingly nimble and quiet. Its sensors perfectly replicated its wearer’s motions, reproducing the subtle movements and weight transfers so needed for stealthy movement. All the same, Wood took care to avoid entangling his weapon in the brush.
The suit insulated Wood from the heat and the humidity, the microclimate system kept him cool, and the external microphones picked up even the slightest sound. Still, Wood felt like he was driving a coffin on two legs, cut off from the rest of the world. It felt wrong not feeling the breeze on his face, the humidity on his skin. He compensated by scanning all around, ready to respond to any man-made sound.
Ahead of the Black Watch, the other teams fanned out. None were in assault armor. The soft soil of the swamp forest didn’t lend itself well to heavy metal, and no one knew if the wooden buildings could withstand the weight of the armor. The Black Watch would hang back and provide fire support; everybody else would make entry or pull security.
Sited atop a knoll, their autocannons resting on tripods, the Black Watch watched the stronghold and waited for the go code. Wood chomped down on his hydration tube and sucked down some water. His eyes threatened to close, and his muscles and bones stiffened. Over the radio, snipers and spotters and operators whispered to each other, calling and designating targets. He wriggled his fingers and toes, blinked hard and fast, breathed deep of the filtered air inside his suit. He had to stay alert. It wouldn’t be long before—
“All call signs, this is Cherry. I have control.”
“Stand by, stand by. Three. Two. One. Execute.”
Operators spilled out the forest, charging towards the compound. Crawlers activated their millimeter radars. Red and yellow figures materialized inside every hut. Loudspeakers assaulted the compound from every direction.
“THIS IS THE PSB! PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS UP!”
“STAND TO!” a guard shouted.
“Green light,” Cherry called.
A half-dozen rifles coughed as one. Six guards dropped dead in an instant, their heads shattered and bleeding. Unarmed workers froze and fumbled and dropped their goods and panicked and fled.
Crawlers and operators swarmed the compound, over the walkways and the platforms, up and down ladders, chasing down the remaining subjects. Wood scanned left to right, right to left. He saw corpses, operators tackling subjects and cuffing their hands behind their back, Green Bliss rolling out of abandoned sacks.
A chorus of bestial roars filled the air. The surviving guards—and a few workers—were transforming into Husks. They turned into bipedal crocodiles, walking lobsters, enormous frogs, and other creatures of the swamp.
But the STS came prepared.
Snipers and spotters engaged Husks as they emerged, gunning them down before they completed their transformation. Assaulters fired at the sight of weapons, fangs, claws, everything that wasn’t an unarmed baseline human. With every angle covered, every avenue of escape or retreat cut off, the Santiagos didn’t stand a chance.
As the slaughter unfolded, Wood continued watching.
The last of the Husks died, but the shooting continued. The snipers were disabling every boat and vehicle in sight. Operators delivered insurance shots to downed Husks. A few desperate men jumped into the waters. But at that moment, four gravtrucks swooped in, ready to intercept the swimmers.
The op was going smoothly.
Where was Aruk? Where were the Syndicate’s rumored Elect and pet monsters? If they could summon the giant lobster in Babylon, what would they do here?
Out the corner of his eye, he saw a man fleeing for the Temple of Aruk.
“Cherry, Sierra Four. I have eyes on the HVT. He’s running to the Temple.”
Today’s High Value Target was Raul Santiago. All they had to go on were three-year-old photos. Wood zoomed in, but before he could get a positive identification, Santiago plunged into the temple’s mouth.
Faint babbling flowed from the temple. Santiago must have been shouting something, but he was too far away for Wood to hear. But the words, the sounds, sounded… wrong. They were words that had no place in Babylon, no place in this world. They had come from a place that predated civilization, a place once inhabited by the great and terrible powers that still walked the world.
As Santiago chanted, the leaves and vines and moss shifted and twitched and writhed, reminding him of a squirming mass of snakes. The orifices disgorged more vegetation, more and more and more, layering on the mound like a second skin. Or a coat of armor.
The operators closed in on the mound on all directions. They moved smoothly but confidently, betraying neither fear nor horror. They wrestled down every subject they found, kicked away and rendered safe every weapon they encountered, all the while keeping one eye on the pulsing mound. They came closer, closer, gathering around the entrance.
The operators picked up the pace, charging for the open mouth.
Santiago’s voice faded into a blaring drawn-out sigh, so loud Wood could hear it from where he was. The earth rumbled under his suit. Thick dark clouds roiled forth from the open mouth, engulfing the operators.
“Gas! Gas! Gas!” Yamamoto reported. “Gas in the Temple!”
The operators collapsed nervelessly, some twitching and spasming. Wood’s blood chilled. What other secrets did the stronghold hide?
As if in answer, the ground quaked. The waters rippled. A great rumbling and tearing swelled in the swamp. Two masses of titanic roots burst free from the murky waters, organizing themselves into fingers and hands and arms. The hands clawed at the earth, ripping and tearing the platforms apart, and hauled.
The mound lifted itself off the earth. It wasn’t a face. It was a head. A head mounted on a thick slimy body, slowly rising from the depths of the dark river.
It was the Green God, Aruk.
“Entry elements, pull back!” Cherry ordered. “Black Watch, kill the god!”
Kill a god. Ridiculous. But they had to try.
Swiveling his autocannon, Wood took aim. A bright red crosshair slewed across his display, resting on the enormous green head. More and more vegetation spewed forth from the orifices, pulsing vines with glowing green leaves, drooping down like tentacles. Wood pressed the trigger.
And, as one, the Black Watch fired.
A withering hail of 30mm armor piercing shells raked the monster’s head, shredding leaves and moss and flora. A flurry of shredded green mush blew from its face. The water behind it erupted in geysers.
But still it kept rising.
In his peripheral vision, he saw streaking green silhouettes. A quartet of STS operators sprinting to the Temple. Clad in gas masks, they grabbed the nearest downed operators and dragged them from the gas cloud.
The great giant raised a colossal arm to the sky and spread its hands.
“SCATTER!” Yamamoto cried.
Wood swung his autocannon high and to his left, training the crosshairs on Aruk’s arm, and squeezed the trigger. The autocannon’ enormous recoil shook the armored suit. Loosing three-round bursts, he worked the gun up the arm, saw bursts of green fauna where the shells struck.
The giant hand formed a fist.
The fist fell.
The earth quaked under the colossal hammerblow. Jets of mud burst in every direction. Large cracks formed in the earth.
But the god had missed the operators.
Or not. Bundles of thick veins and roots roped out from the grounded fist, snaking towards the fleeing men. In a heartbeat, they seized the operators, crushing them in a python-like grip.
“Shoot the roots!” Wood yelled.
Aiming at the nearest root-bundle, he walked a burst down its length. The unnatural flora held under the assault. An operator wiggled an arm free and hacked away with a knife, to little effect. A mass of vines swarmed him, sinking and tearing into him. Blood gushed from the many wounds, and the roots drank it all up. Swearing, Wood fired another burst.
This time, the shells sawed away part of the bundle. But as he corrected his aim, the green giant titled his head lifted his hand, taking the operators with it.
A string of shells impacted across the monstrous face, cutting across his eyes. The giant halted, roaring in pain. Aiming at the partially-severed bundle, Wood fired a third burst.
The roots snapped.
The operators fell. Striking the ground, they bounced hard and rolled off. They were all dead, drained and deflated from a thousand wounds. Wood scanned frantically for the other gassed operators. But all he saw were bodies floating in the river.
The green giant bellowed, its voice shaking the leaves and the river. With a final surge of effort, it pulled itself up and out the water.
First Wood saw its torso, green and mossy. Then its hips, its thighs, its knees, then last of all its enormous legs. Rising to its full height, it bellowed a war cry, its voice shaking the leaves and the water.
It was enormous. As tall as the trees around it, Wood had to crane his head to look up at the giant’s own. Twin rubies glared hatefully down at the Black Watch. At Wood.
“The AP shells aren’t working!” Connor called. “We need to use HEI!”
“Roger,” Yamamoto said. “Cherry, Samurai. Are there any surviving operators downrange?”
“Negative! Everyone is clear!” Cherry called.
“Roger! Black Watch, switch to HEI!”
The green god lumbered towards the Black Watch. With every step it shook the world, shattering planks, rocking trees, kicking up mud and dirt and water. It growled in a tongue older than Babylon, older than men, older than the world. Its voice was the grinding of rocks, the shaking of earth, the chaotic rush of turbid waters. Wood felt every alien word, every unutterable sound vibrate in his belly, his bones, his soul. He didn’t understand its speech, but its meaning was clear.
Pure, undiluted hate. Hatred of the aggressor, hatred of the foreigner, hatred of those who had hurt and captured his agents and his followers. It hated the STS, it hated the Black Watch, most of all, it hated him. James Wood, son of the soil, who had come back to challenge the god of his birth land.
Ruby eyes blazing, it glared down at Wood and uttered a ferocious roar.
Wood turned the ammo selector dial. Three letters appeared at the bottom of his feed: HEI.
High Explosive Incendiary.
Planting the crosshairs on its face, he fired. Strings of explosions tracked across the mound, stitching up its mouth, its nose, its eyes. Fire raged across the god’s face, burning its coat of unnatural vegetation. Thick choking clouds of smoke wreathed the green giant’s head.
It raised its arms.
Wood turned and ran.
Branches snapped against his armored torso. His boots shattered twigs and roots. The suit sank into soft mud and quickly pulled itself free. He ran and ran and ran—
The ground jolted. He stumbled and fell on his face. Desperately he pushed himself off the floor, turning to face the green god.
It had planted both arms in the ground. Its head was still aflame, but it ignored the damage. Torrents of vines sprouted from its mossy limbs, snaking towards Wood. Clouds of dark gas crept across the floor. Everything it touched withered, grayed, and disintegrated before his eyes.
“Fuck you!” Wood screamed.
He ripped off a burst at the encroaching wall of vines. The shells exploded on impact, igniting the flammable organics. Yet the vines kept coming closer, closer, ignoring the flames, and with them came the cloud of deadly gas.
“Farmer! Fall back! Fall back!” Yamamoto shouted.
One last squeeze of the trigger. One last string of fireworks. Then he pushed himself off the floor and ran.
All around him, the operators of the Black Watch unleashed hell on the creature. Short, sharp three-round bursts pounded the god in unrelenting volleys, setting the gigantic body aflame.
Everything dies, Wood knew. If the autocannons weren’t enough, the STS could call on gunships, smart munitions, thermobaric bombs. Everything it took to destroy this threat to humanity. He just had to buy enough time to—
Iron-hard roots burst from under Wood’s feet.
Immediately he released the autocannon, tucked in his chin, and held out his palms parallel to his torso. He caught himself as he fell, and immediately twisted around.
Thick roots wrapped themselves around his legs, pinning him to the ground. He grunted, twisted, but he was held fast. Finally, he pointed his right forearm behind him and dropped his wrist.
His personal defense weapon snarled, dumping a hundred tiny bullets in a handful of seconds. Through the thunderous liquid roar he heard the splintering and shattering of tough wood. He pointed his other arm behind him and dropped his wrist.
His shotgun blared, sending a charge of three-inch 000 magnum buckshot into the mass of vegetation. He fired again and again and again, feeling the monstrous vines weaken. When his shotgun went dry he spun himself around. Feeling resistance, he powered his way through.
The surviving vines, shredded and weakened, tore apart. Scrabbling away on his butt, he picked up the autocannon and hunted the giant.
It had one colossal leg planted on the ground. Another lifted high in the air. Its lifted foot was falling.
Screaming incoherently, Wood mashed the trigger and walked the autocannon across the god’s mass.
Fires exploded across its foot, its groin, its exposed knee. Longer extended bursts chattered all around him, the rest of the Black Watch adding their fires. The giant shuddered.
Crashing through the trees, burning arms flailing, spewing pillars of dark smoke, the giant slammed into the earth with the force of a meteorite impact.
The forest exploded.
Huge fireballs erupted among the trees. The shockwave rocked Wood back. Fires raced from branch to branch, root to root, consuming everything they touched. Choking infernal smoke billowed above the woods. In the heart of the smoke, a pair of ruby red eyes glared.
“What the hell is that…?” Wood whispered.
Yamamoto stepped into view.
He had stepped out of his armor. Clad only in his utility suit, he stood before the wildfire, before the lingering eyes of the dying god.
“Samurai!” Wood shouted. “Get back! It’s too dangerous!”
“I have to do this,” Yamamoto said.
“Come on!” Wood shouted.
Yamamoto approached the flames.
Every step was serene and dignified, conscious yet effortless, deliberate yet graceful. He walked with his spine erect, head upright, fearlessly facing the fires and the malicious gaze of the green god. As a wind blew, he walked through a cloud of embers and smoke, completely unperturbed.
Aruk spoke again. It uttered a long litany of curses in a tongue no man spoke, every consonant and vowel and syllable dripping enmity and venom. The sounds were acid burning into Wood’s ears.
Yamamoto stoically walked through it all, completely calm.
At the edge of the flame, he stopped and spoke.
“Aruk! In the name of Almighty God, I am come to end your depredations!”
A black roar emerged from the flames.
“You recruited criminals and killers into your service, turning them against the people! You have twisted and corrupted innocent people into Husks! Through your pawns and minions, you have spilled the blood of countless people and brought immense suffering to the world!
“You have violated the Supreme Law! I denounce you as a Dark Power! I have come to deliver the judgment of Heaven!”
A terrible scream ripped the air. The eyes grew larger, brighter, fiercer, as though trying to burn Yamamoto with the power of its focused gaze.
Yamamoto raised his fist.
A silver cross dangled from a necklace between his fingers.
The god screeched, louder than a freight train, louder than a hurricane.
And still Yamamoto stood.
“Aruk! Satan of the swamp! Spawn of the Abyss! Divine judgment is upon you! In the name of God, I abjure and exorcise you! Surrender now to the power of the Most High! Leave this earth forthwith and never come back!”
A great wind rushed through the swamp. Cutting through the burning brush, it carved a passage through the smoke, exposing the floating red eyes. A ray of sunlight fell on the floating eyes, diminishing their malicious scarlet glow.
A fresh voice spoke.
“I will never leave.”
The red eyes vanished.
The wind faded, the light winked out, and the fires continued to rage.
Yamamoto exhaled sharply, and lowered his cross.
“Samurai…” Wood began.
“Yeah,” Yamamoto said.
Working with local firefighters, the PSB monitored the wildfire, evacuating everyone in its path. Nobody asked why the STS was there, or why there were six suits of assault armor running around the swamp. A brief word and a gesture at the big guns convinced everyone to keep their mouths shut and focus on the flames.
Day and night firefighting aircraft overflew the blaze, dumping water and foam and fire retardant. Ground crews gathered from all over the island, digging fire breaks and putting out localized fires where they could. The Black Watch exchanged their autocannons for excavating tools and cut deep trenches through the forest.
Forty hours later, the firefighters extinguished the last ember.
Two hours after that, the Black Watch was back at the stronghold of the Santiago Syndicate.
There was nothing left. Just a thick blanket of ashes and blackened stumps. The compound had burned down to its foundations, leaving little evidence behind. They found no survivors, only skeletons.
Aruk had left behind a gigantic, vaguely humanoid crater. At its heart, lying bent and shattered on the dead, blackened earth, was a skeleton. A skeleton so badly smashed it was almost unrecognizable.
Armed with field kits, forensic techs swabbed bits of bone and compared them to the national records. The results were indisputable: the remains belonged to Raul Santiago.
Still clad in his Vanguard, looking down at the crater, Wood muttered, “Thus ends the Santiago Syndicate. And the age of the green god.”
“And now comes the New Gods,” Yamamoto replied.
With Aruk out of the way, the game of gods would spread to Moreno Island. The Singularity Network, the Guild of the Maker, and all the other New Gods would now contest more openly in the cities and the swamps, claiming as many souls as they could even as they introduced new technologies and new wealth.
“It’s going to be like Babylon all bloody all over again,” Wood said.
“Oh?” Yamamoto said.
“Gods wrestling with each other, Husks and Elect slaughtering one another, innocent people signing up with one faction or the other. They’ll just do it more openly now.” Wood sighed. “What the hell did we accomplish?”
“We have removed a Dark Power from the world. We’ve avenged everyone it has harmed and corrupted. We’ve broken the back of the Santiago Syndicate. We did our jobs.”
“And we created a power vacuum. The New Gods will move in to fill it. And they’ll play their games again.”
“True,” Yamamoto agreed. “But all it takes is a good man to stop them. A man like you.”
Wood laughed. “You exorcised Husks and gods. You’re better qualified.”
“The exorcism worked only because you destroyed its physical form.”
“I just got lucky. It was about to squash me when I shot its leg. It must have lost its balance, and, well…”
He gestured at the crater.
“Maybe the fall liberated a pocket of underground methane, and the flames ignited it,” Wood continued. “Swamp gas fires happen all the time over here.”
“Perhaps,” Yamamoto allowed. “Or perhaps it was God acting through you.”
“You know I’m not into that religious stuff.”
Yamamoto laughed. “Very well.”
The men continued staring at the crater. Forensics techs eased around them, scrutinizing the dirt for a shred of something, anything, that could be remotely considered as evidence.
“Today we fought a Dark Power,” Wood said. “Tomorrow, it’s going to be a New God. In Babylon, over here, or somewhere else in the world.”
“No question about that,” Yamamoto said. “But so long as there are men willing to stand up to them, men like the STS, even the New Gods will tremble.”
Image credit: File: Ludlow Green Man misericord, Simon Garbutt, Wikimedia Commons
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