From Beyond the Stars
With one man dead, another injured, and a vehicle damaged, the convoy had to reorganize.
The Protectors replaced the damaged tires with their spares. Though they were run-flat tires, they wouldn’t last indefinitely, especially in this terrain. They pulled out spikes that had stuck in the windows and windscreens, allowing the self-healing glass to seal the holes, trying to maintain a modicum of visibility.
They zipped up the dead man in a body bag and placed him in the rear of the last vehicle.
Sam Yung insisted on driving. Wai Kit insisted on placing his Shepherd on autonomous guidance. With his head and hand injury, anything less would be irresponsible. A Protector from Leopard One volunteered to watch over Sam Yung. That freed Leopard Three to take the lead position.
The final hour of the drive took the diminished squad deeper into the valley. The forests thinned out. Stumps dotted the land. The river grew narrower, congested with ancient rocks and packs of floating ice. The convoy slowed, navigating subtle elevations and sudden depressions.
A path opened in the forest. What road there might have been once was now blanketed under generations of compacted snow. As Gam Fong followed the gentle curve, Wai Kit felt a sense of dread creep into his heart. He looked and he looked and saw nothing in the forest, but with every passing minute he developed the unshakable feeling that there was something in the woods, huge and unknowable and hungry.
He emptied his mind, bringing his awareness to his breath. Emotions like these do not emerge without reason. He simply let them go, allowing his subconscious to float the source of these feelings to the surface. But all he sensed were dark ripples across his consciousness, emanating from a distant source—far away, yet too close.
Then he saw the heads.
Severed heads spitted on long stakes lined either side of the road. Leaning in, he needed a second to recognize that they were the heads of Outsider warriors.
“What the devil happened here…?” Gam Fong muttered.
Their eyes and tongues had been plucked out, the fur stripped off, but the carapace and bone remained. Cracks and fissures bore mute testimony to fatal wounds. Empty eye sockets tracked the convoy as they passed.
“It’s a message,” Wai Kit murmured.
The road led to a fortified gateway. Rammed earth walls loomed over the convoy. A man with a heicung guarded the gate. Two more walked the walls. Their mounted bayonets gleamed in the sunlight.
“Halt!” the gate guard yelled, holding out a hand.
“Leopard callsigns, halt,” Wai Kit relayed.
Gam Fong eased on the brakes, bringing the vehicle smoothly to a stop. As they approached, Wai Kit saw hundreds, thousands of spines embedded deep in the walls. Patches of hardened leather covered spots in the wooden gates. The guard, dressed in a heavy fur coat and time-worn boots, wore his exhaustion plain on his face.
As the guard approached, Wai Kit lowered his window, opened the glove box, and removed his cargo manifest.
“Identify yourself,” the guard said.
“We’re Protectors, with a shipment of essential supplies. We’re here from Cungfaa City,” Wai Kit said.
As he spoke, he held up his paperwork, letting the guard see the logo of the Protectors emblazoned across the header.
Relief washed over the guard’s face.
“Wonderful! You arrived just in time.”
Gam Fong thumbed over his shoulder. “What’s with the skulls?”
“The Outsiders,” the guard spat. “They’ve been raiding our town for the past week.”
“I’d heard about that, but I didn’t know it was this bad,” Wai Kit said.
“It’s worse. Elder Che can fill you in. He’s in the big house in the middle of town.”
The guard shouted to his buddies on the wall. The guards on the wall shouted back down. Slowly, ponderously, the heavy gates swung open.
Like most of the frontier towns Wai Kit had seen, everything here was built from wood and thatch. Small and cozy, their steeply-arched roofs shed the constant snow. Children gaped as the Shepherds rolled past, their mothers hovering close by. Armed men patrolled the streets, some nodding or waving at the Protectors. Wai Kit waved back.
Most of the people resembled each other in varying degrees. Wai Kit wasn’t surprised. After all, this town was founded by the Che clan and their retainers. The remoteness of the location ensured little fresh blood came from elsewhere. The scholar in him wondered how susceptible they were to inbreeding and hereditary disease. The soldier in him focused on more important things.
Though the town was peaceful, the air was tense. Everyone was wound up, ready for action, even as they went about their chores. There were no motor vehicles in sight, only hardy livestock penned in yards. Many yards were completely empty.
That was wrong.
Chequn was too poor to afford a dedicated power generator. It relied heavily on coal and firewood for warmth. Yet the stacks of firewood he saw were tiny, what few of them there were. The livestock, most of them horses and yaks, should be out and about, foraging for food, not cooped up in pens.
Chequn was under siege.
And every single person, he realized, was either studying the ground or facing away from the north.
The deeper they drove into the village, the deeper the sense of dread became. Thick and cloying, it weighed down on his heart. Every breath drew more of it into his lungs. Strange shapes darted to and fro at the edges of his sight, disappearing whenever he turned to look at them. At the very edge of his hearing, he thought he heard a stream of soft whispers, trying to worm into his soul.
“Do you feel there’s something… wrong?” Gam Fong said.
“Yes,” Wai Kit said.
“What is it?”
Before he could answer, they had arrived.
Elder Che commanded the largest dwelling in the town. In ages past, his cabin might have been little different from the other houses in the village. Over time, they had added wings to the structure, joined by covered walkways. The original structure was ancient but dignified, while the logs that composed the wings still retained a hint of youthful lightness.
Elder Che stood at his doorstep. Bent over from the weight of decades, the wizened grandfather slowly shuffled over. Wai Kit climbed down from the vehicle, retracted his visor, then punched his right fist into his left palm over his heart and bowed.
“Are you Elder Che?”
The man’s face lit up. “Yes. You must be the Protectors.”
“Indeed. I am Leung Wai Kit, convoy commander. We’ve come from Chungfa with the supplies you requested.”
“Thank you. But I fear you are too late.”
With his thumb, Elder Che pointed to his side.
“Do you see that peak?”
North, down the main road cutting through the village, past the gates at the far end of Chequn, rolling hills loomed above the walls. Shrouded in thin mist, they were blanketed in leafless forests.
Save for one.
Black as pitch, sharp and angular, it peeked between two larger hills, revealing only a small slice of itself, no larger than a thumbnail. Though it must be kilometers out, Wai Kit swore he saw multitudes of tiny eyes opening across its exposed face. Every visible eye turned its gaze on him. In that moment, they poured out an ocean of malice, of hunger, of pure, naked hate, an unquenchable desire to consume, to destroy, to annihilate.
In the face of such cosmic animus, he was but an insect caught in a blizzard, to be buried under a world of snow, to be digested and forgotten and be cast forever into an abyss of nothingness so total no conscious mind could comprehend it.
The Protectors flinched away.
Everyone but Leung Wai Kit.
“Yes,” he said simply.
“You… you can look at it?” Elder Che marveled.
“Not my first time looking upon an Abomination.”
A sovereign among the Outsiders, or more accurately a god, an Abomination was the apex Outsider of the wasted earth. Every Abomination was unique, every one of them an entity that could not exist in a universe governed by rational laws. Accompanied by armies of lesser Outsiders, their arrival coincided with the coming of the Eternal Winter. History did not remember if they were first of the Outsiders to arrive, or the last. But scholars and soldiers alike agreed on this:
Everywhere an Abomination went, death and madness followed.
“You are strong indeed,” Elder Che said.
Wai Kit shrugged. “We are still breathing. We are still sane. Therefore, we are far from its death zone.”
“But we are too close,” Gam Fong whispered.
“It is far outside weapons range.”
“But it wasn’t here yesterday,” Elder Che said.
“When did it appear?”
“This morning. When the sun rose and the morning mists cleared, it was already there. It must have moved through the night, yet the guards swore they had seen and heard nothing.”
“Abominations are unpredictable that way.”
Elder Che shivered. “For ten generations, our remoteness has been our primary defense. We’ve only ever had to fight small groups of scouts and raiders. Now… doom has found us.”
“We must evacuate the town,” Sam Yung said. “The Chungfa City Barrier will hold the Abomination at bay.”
That was the common belief. Countless people over the ages had attested to the Barriers keeping lesser Outsiders from breaking through. No one had ever seen an Abomination approach a Barrier, much less test one.
“If we dump our cargo, we can make room for evacuees,” Wai Kit said. “How many people do you have?”
“Three hundred and fifty-two,” Elder Che said.
“We’ll only have enough room for one-fifth of that number,” Gam Fong said.
“At least save the children and the sick,” Elder Che pleaded.
Wai Kit scratched his bald pate.
“Very well. We will bring them out in the first wave.”
Elder Che blinked. “First wave?”
“Yes. We will evacuate the most vulnerable to the city. Then we will organize a larger convoy to pull out everybody else in the second wave.”
Hope beamed from Elder Che’s face. Tears welled in his eyes.
“Duoze! We can never repay you enough.”
Wai Kit smiled gently. “We are Protectors. We leave no humans behind. And on that note… I’m staying here.”
Gam Fong blinked. “Why?”
“It’s half past noon. By the time the relief convoy gets here, it’ll be well past midnight. Maybe much later. Until then, someone has to coordinate the defense.”
“I can do it,” Sam Yung said.
Wai Kit shook his head. “You can’t fight effectively. Not with your busted prism. Get back to the city and organize the convoy. That’s how you can best contribute.”
“I’ll stay,” Gam Fong said.
Wai Kit blinked. “This is your first job.”
“You need someone to watch your back. And we only need three men to drive the trucks.”
“We’ll be operating much closer to an Abomination than any man has any right to be.”
“We might have to fight a flood of monsters.”
“Your heichung isn’t going to be enough.”
Wai Kit leaned in. “If you want to stay, I’m not going to stop you. But no one will think less of you for evacuating.”
“Why are you staying, then?”
“Someone has to do it.”
“And someone has to watch your back. I’m staying.”
Wai Kit sucked in a lungful of bone-chilling air. “Alright. When this is over, I’ll put in a good word for you. Until then, it’s you and me against an army of horrors from beyond the stars.”
No man would ever be fully ready to face down an eldritch evil. Not until or unless he had survived the encounter. But there was no use telling the kid that. It would merely sap his morale. Instead, Wai Kit turned to his fellow Protectors.
“It’s time for us to save the day again. You know what you have to do. Let’s get to it.”
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