Chapter 14: Respite

As the team drove its way back west, radiation storms continued to dog the carriers as they made their trek to the rendezvous. Even though built to endure the harshness of the Grave Tempest, there was only so much abuse the vehicles could endure before sputtering out of commission and leaving the crew and passengers stranded. As such, Wolfgang was forced to make a detour and locate an entryway to the Red Lane Highway.

In the decades approaching the Great War, some in the Soviet Union began taking pages out of their allies handbooks about the rules of logistics. Inspired by guerilla tactics, but wishing to expand so to a conventional scale, various government contractors and associates began work on what was originally sold as an ambitious mining project underneath certain Soviet roadways. In practice, it established a system of interconnected bunkers and tunnels through which the Red Army could move men and material to the proposed western theater of war.

Whether it had served its purpose or not was lost to history, but as things were now, certain entryways had survived relatively intact during the past two centuries and were still able to shelter those looking to escape the blistering cold and sickening radiation. Still, it presented its own share of risks. Much of the Red Lane Highway remained unsurveyed by even the most dedicated Teutonic deep strike teams. Each location garnered the risk of traps, marauders, creatures, defective engineering, and other hazards. Wolfgang braced himself as he saw his recon team return to the parked carrier outside the entryway, only letting out a sigh of relief once they gave the all-clear gesture. The automatic doorway creaked open just enough to allow the carriers inside. Finally, at long last, they had some measure of respite.

Thus far, all such entryways discovered housed facilities to support a local garrison within the checkpoints of the underground highway. It usually housed dormitory-like quarters, a mess hall, a communications area, and other amenities a military complex could be expected to house. To no one's surprise, the locals had already stripped a lot of raw material and salvage, even raiding the pantries bare. Having brought their own supplies, however, the Panzerwolves were unconcerned. Most of the soldiers found themselves in the mess area, focusing on rations and small talk, with their CO and VIP conversing in the corner.

"It's been a while since I've seen you salute, Lockheart," Wolfgang stated as he took a drag on his cigar.

"The alternative would have been embracing you and sobbing," Desmond snarked. "I can't even begin to tell you how relieved I was when I realized you were leading the extraction," he continued, a little more sincere.

Wolfgang smiled. "Easy there, we don't want to risk you getting soft on us now."

"Seriously, I can count on one hand the number of Melanie's assets I trust to both get me out and keep my team intact, and I'd still have fingers to spare," Desmond sighed in relief.

Wolfgang and Desmond's partnership had gone back decades. It started when Desmond led his own extraction within the cursed roads of Albion itself, saving Wolfgang and many other Panzerwolves from enduring ghoulification or worse at the hands of the locals. The favor was repaid with interest when one of Desmond's targets, a Romanian former crime boss with a peculiar mutation, had imprisoned the ghoul in a castle, prompting a battle between Teutonic Reich and the Horde of Dracul. It had been the greatest fight of Wolfgang's life, and Desmond was 97% sure the son of a bitch was dead. From then on, Desmond and Wolfgang had teamed up as the decades continued, facing down everything from raider incursions to uppity clients of their employer. Desmond didn't trust easily, and for the first twenty years or so he hadn't for Wolfgang. Then again, that was sixty years ago.

"So, are we even, or do I owe you?" Desmond asked.

Wolfgang considered the oil tanker incident a favor and believed that Desmond was once again in his debt. It was as he said, he had both rescued Desmond and kept his team intact and unharmed. Considering the circumstances, he was owed favors from the ghoul. Even espionage carried some semblance of honor, as agents feared few things more than accumulating debts to powers their lives depended on.

"…What the hell were you doing separated from the group, anyway?" Wolfgang asked.

Desmond drew out a cigarette, accepted Wolfgang's offered lighter, and took a drag. "…Let's just say Markovich and I have some history. It got personal and I got… arrogant," Desmond exhaled. "I've met him before, you know that? Before the bombs, before the Grave Tempest. Little dweeb was running some Soviet projects the Kremlin would never avow. I've lost quite a few team members to him over the years."

"So you went off on your own, hoping to spare your team the risks, and got jumped," Wolfgang completed.

Desmond laughed, sheepishly. "For the best, I presume. They wouldn't have survived the encounter or incarceration. Aleksandr's servants are wont to "play with their food," literally in some cases."

"Yet he didn't lay a finger on you," Wolfgang noted.

Desmond snorted. "More than likely he was cooking up something personal for me. Either preparing a new interrogation technique or developing another lovely creature with which to feed me to."

"And how do I know you didn't squeal anything to him?" Wolfgang asked, narrowing his eyes.

Desmond set his cigarette down. "…You get a good look at his new pearly whites?"

"Ines may have mentioned something about a physical description of the man himself. Modified extensively, unsurprisingly."

"…Let's just say the new teeth were a bit of a parting gift from the last time we met. Back when I had skin and he had a presumably working cock," Desmond boasted.

"This was from Vienna?" Wolfgang asked. Desmond's smile drooped. "Ines again?"

"She's a good little agent. Reports everything. Care to explain?" Wolfgang asked.

"No," Desmond shook his head. "And if it's all the same to you, don't mention it to Melanie, either. Let's just say Vienna has bad memories all around."

"Well, as soon as we're able, we'll have to report back to Melanie regardless. This Markovich is accumulating a lot more power than our beloved science empress will abide. She'll want an assault as soon as possible, preferably surgical. Failing that, well, we haven't had an all-out war in centuries," Wolfgang laughed.

Desmond grinned, seeing Melanie's wind-up toy revel in the possibility. He was arrogant by design, and couldn't help but feel sorry for him. A side effect from his creator being the most arrogant being in Europe. She saw herself as a deity, above humanity, and she passed those beliefs to her enforcers and servants. Europe was theirs to brutalize, to experiment on, to "govern." The last thing Melanie believed in was something that could challenge her. Well, his hunch had been correct. Aleksandr was roughly two decades away from reuniting with Melanie. And this time, it would be on his terms, not hers.

Malocchio wandered down the tunnels. The Panzerwolves had announced that the immediate vicinity was clear of all hostiles. Malocchio had located a radiation leak, and some fungus growing from the walls. It was still in the juvenile stages, but it could only take hours for the first pods to spawn. So he helped himself to some of the diesel from the APC's, the jerry can filled about halfway.

As he passed through the dorms, he could hear the sounds of running water. Malocchio stopped and noticed steam coming under the doorway of the communal showers. He paused. Most of the Panzerwolves were either in the mess hall or establishing a perimeter just inside the actual tunnel. Haldor was currently sleeping in the gymnasium. That left his other two partners and the foreigners. Two men, two women. 50/50 odds. Malocchio was a man whose circumstances denied him most vices. Voyeurism was really all he had.

He peeked inside, glancing at the clothing folded on the bench. Two pairs of heavy boots, black bodysuit, military-style jacket, and a sword. Male foreigner. Damn. Disappointed, Malocchio continued his route. The moment he turned the corner, the female foreigner exited her room after her quick nap, entered the shower room, and began to undress.

Jiasheng exited the shower just in time to see Xixi stripping off her coat alongside her boots. He ducked back behind the corner, annoyed. "Has anyone in your tribe ever told you the meaning of "privacy?" he asked.

"Has anyone in your hole ever told you the meaning of marriage?" Xixi asked as she took off her wool socks. "It's all a matter of we since my father sold me to you."

Jiasheng looked away. "Do you have to keep saying it like that? He didn't… I wasn't looking to buy anything… anyone," he hastily added.

"You kill the cannibals, you get a prize," Xixi continued as she pulled down her heavy cargo pants. "Seems fair to me," she groused.

"I'm not…" Jiasheng paused as he thought about how to proceed. "I just wanted a place to sleep and some warm meals. I offered the only service I knew I could, I wasn't looking to…"

"So, if you knew what your actions would lead to, what would you have done?" Xixi asked as she stopped stripping. "Left us to our fate?"

Jiasheng said nothing.

"…Jiasheng, are you a believer in love at first sight?" Xixi asked as she slid Jiasheng's bodysuit towards him.

"…I don't think I do," Jiasheng admitted.

"Good. Me neither," Xixi announced as she approached Jiasheng. "As a matter of fact, I don't believe in romance, either. I used to, back before the Triad pirates came and took most of my friends. If Buddha is merciful, their deaths were quick. I spent most of the time since starving during the day and freezing during the night, just being grateful to survive the next day."

"I'm not an idealist, Jiasheng, or a dreamer. I wasn't thrilled when my father bound us together, but I can think of hundreds of less preferable alternatives. I don't… love you, but you've never beaten or sold me, never violated me or left me behind. I respect you, I appreciate you and can admit you are somewhat endearing, but I cannot bring myself to forget that I was sold to you."

"Then what do you ask of me?" Jiasheng pleaded, exasperated.

"…How come we've never consummated?" Xixi asked.

"…In the eyes of the Emperor, this union does not exist," Jiasheng admitted. "Without the bureaucracies approval, should we conceive a child and they deny our union, both you and the child shall be left abandoned and exiled by imperial decree."

"And you would allow this to happen?" Xixi asked as she peeled her tank top over her shoulders.

"…If I am successful in my mission, if I can find the Pale Witch and return home with her, I will be granted the Imperial Favor. I can use it to free someone marked for execution, learn of forbidden knowledge, attain wealth second only to that of the Emperor himself, pardon myself from any crime, and take any woman I want as my bride," he finished as he took her hands into his.

Xixi looked into his eyes, a playful smirk on her lips. "You've practiced that spiel?"

"It came from the heart, woman," Jiasheng snapped.

"My apologies, I mean no offense," Xixi replied, unconcerned. "So, we are married under his Imperial holiness, what then? Shall I become Fan Xixi, Imperial housewife and babymaker?"

"…What do you want me to tell you?" Jiasheng asked. "That the Imperial Court won't look down on you for being a foreign commoner? That you and our children won't be subject to whispers and stares? That you'll ever see the sky again? Or any of your friends on the surface? Because I can promise you none of those things. All I can offer is myself, and apart from the Emperor's Blood, you will be the most important person in my life. I have few friends and no blood relatives, so it will be a lonely existence, but we will be together, that I can promise you."

Xixi finally broke eye contact. Living and dying in a hole would have been unthinkable to her years ago. It sounded like a prison, little better than being shipped away to whatever slave pen the Mountain King saw fit for her. But she now saw an escape, away from the capricious whims of fate on the surface in exchange for stability and some modicum of security. She could be warm, fed, and safe. She would do anything for that opportunity.

"…If being your wife will allow me to sleep peacefully for the rest of my days, then I will offer you myself, and offer it gladly," she stated solemnly as she stripped away the last of her garments. Jiasheng sat on the bench, covering himself with his jacket as Xixi turned to face him. "If it means living in a world where my sons won't be brutalized and my daughters won't be raped, then so be it. From this day forward, I am yours."

"…Take your shower, Xixi," said Jiasheng, looking away from her. As Xixi rounded the corner, Jiasheng took a moment to calm his mind and body. Had Xixi done the same to a triad pirate or cannibal, hell, even to one of these foreign barbarians they found themselves allied with, she likely would have regretted the decision at the very least. Jiasheng was obligated to hold himself to a higher standard, he figured as he suited back up. She deserved it. As a matter of fact, it was probably best that he stand guard until she finished. Wouldn't want any busybody perverts looking for a show.

Malocchio had finally located an extinguisher. Though fire was the best method of clearing botchling nests, allowing a fire to spread underground was reckless, even for him. As soon as the bulk of the fungus had been scorched, he'd finish the rest of the job manually. It was against his nature enough to work so much for free, but if all of his efforts to extract Desmond could come to nothing, his professional reputation would be in jeopardy. The only way to save face at that point would be to kill everyone, and he'd rather not kill Madame Dubois.

Speaking of, as he passed by the officer's quarters that Ines was using as her room, he noticed two familiar blades propped against the doorway next to the rifles. So, the choir boy finally caved to his instincts and gave Ines what she had been long overdue for? He pressed his undamaged ear against the side of the doorway.

"…do this anymore. I don't know what to tell them."

"We made it, that's all that really matters," Ines replied.

"For now, but all of this? Over and over. I can't. I'm not Desmond. I…" he gasped as he muttered some prayers under his breath.

"Mustafa… please. You only did it for my protection. No one else knows," she tried to placate him.

"If Desmond finds out... if SHE finds out… I'm dead," he continued.

"You did it to save me and I… I won't tell anyone," she stated. "They'll never find out if we both just not tell anyone."

"That just means…"

"That my head will be on the chopping block too? Maybe. But you did it to protect me, and I must honor that. You saved my life, Mustafa. It's up to us to decide if the information you told that iron butcher is of any value, and I say we decide it wasn't," she tried to encourage.

"But what if it wasn't to HIM?!" he hissed. "I just gave that thing everything it needed to draw up a blueprint to hit everything to the west of the Tempest!"

"No… you told him how to hit Rictoberg," she slowly drew out. "You told him how to kill those kraut pigs. This information will not affect us because WE will be long gone before anything comes to pass."


"I say fuck Markovich, fuck Rictoberg, fuck the Teutonic Reich, fuck the Inquisition, and fuck the Marquis. We are stuck in a game between two petulant monsters playing God, and I say the best move for us is to leave the board."

"And go where?!" he hissed.

"…I have a plan," Ines whispered. "My local cell has contacts with the Gaelic Underground that I don't believe Desmond is fully aware of. They are looking to make some aggressive moves soon from what I can tell. What I'm thinking is that if we can set them up with some weapons from the Ossani mob with Melanie none the wiser, perhaps we could trade that favor for…"

At this point, Malocchio had grown bored. He had already overheard Mustafa spill some classified information to keep the pressure off of Ines skull. It was no great secret to him, though he knew Mustafa's fears of the rest finding out were justified. That being said, he was surprised by Ines's astute assessment of Europe's condition over the past few centuries. Guess she was more than just a pretty face after all.

Malocchio was in no position to talk, nor did he have the desire to. Still, the Triunifyte was predictable. The guilt would eat away at him until he finally confessed, to Desmond if he was lucky or Melanie if he was not. He'd take the blame for it to spare Ines, with Desmond taking him at his word and Melanie taking liberties on Ines herself.

As for Ines plan, well, best of luck to launch it into action before Malocchio was ordered to wipe out the cell.

As the ghoul sauntered down the hallway, Mustafa rested his head against the pillow of the cot. "The things I've seen and done… it feels like this watch is falling apart."

"Pardon?" Ines asked.

"…One of my old classmates explained it to me like this. Most Triunifytes believe that our duty is to the Almighty and that we all serve His purposes regardless of knowledge or will. Our paths are determined from the day of our birth to our last breaths. All that happens is to His will. If that's the case, then as of late the Almighty terrifies me more and more."

"OK, I think I understand," said Ines, who had stopped believing in God after Gaspard murdered her family. "So what does this have to do with a watch?"

"My friend proposed to me that, rather than some kind of gardener who tends and prunes all things to His liking and knowledge, that perhaps His true nature was that of a watchmaker. The world is designed to function with or without his actions or knowing, like clockwork. So, considering all the things that have happened recently, I've been somewhat pondering which possibility is worse. Is this horrible world we live in the result of meticulous planning at the hands of a callous Almighty? Or is it solely by our own hands we have ruined our futures, and the Almighty has abandoned us to fates of our own making or His own shoddy craftsmanship?" he asked.

"If there is even an Almighty at all?" Ines added.

"…Of these three possibilities, I know not which frightens me more," Mustafa confessed.

Ines pondered this as well. As she did, some interesting perspectives began to fill her mind. "So, if I'm understanding your positions, you fear that nothing is under our control or everything is?"

"Essentially, I suppose," Mustafa muttered.

"…Let's say we put that to the test," Ines said as she rose to her feet and began unbuttoning the top of her blouse.

"What are you doing?" Mustafa exclaimed.

"According to you, exactly what I'm supposed to do or what I am choosing to do," Ines explained as she reached just above her navel. "I'm either entirely responsible for my actions or I am not. And the same such principles apply to you. Do you surrender to fate or make your own, and do you even care if you can tell?" Ines continued as she dropped her shirt.

"Are you trying to tempt me?" Mustafa asked as she unclasped her bra.

"Am I?" she teased playfully.

"Ines, I'm being serious, if this continues I'll…" he stopped as Ines closed the space between his face and hers.

"Here's a conundrum for you," she asked. "If a man makes love to a woman and only the Almighty is watching, how can He be offended if everything was made to His design? That is if He is even watching. Or exists. If that was the case, then really the only thing stopping you from ripping the rest of my clothing off iMMPHH!" she was interrupted as Mustafa planted his lips on hers. He found himself choosing to peel off Ines' trousers while Ines found herself preordained to remove Mustafa's shirt. Theology was odd like that.

As expected, the complex was attached to the cavernous highway. Standing in at roughly ten meters, the massive tunnel stretched into darkness, the power having long since died. The generators they had uncovered were only for the inside of the garrison complex, so the sentries standing outside guarding against whatever lay in wait in the tunnels only had the equivalence of a porch light to aid their limited night vision. As tempting as recon was, Wolfgang was adamant that the perimeter defense was of top priority.

Three of the junior members of Wolfgang's team had been selected to watch over the dark as the rest enjoyed some R&R. They huddled together around a burning barrel, the cold affecting them even through their armor. They did as the rookies were wont to do, grousing about leadership and making plans for leave after returning to the Tannenburg. The small talk and boredom was only disrupted by the sounds of scratching at the door leading to the complex. As the closest moved to open it, he heard some sharp thuds against the door itself.

Opening the door, he saw two malformed and chard fetuses the size of small dogs collapse to the ground, dead with knives buried in their spines. A third bolted past him, diving and weaving through the legs of the guards as it disappeared into the dark. Malocchio appeared in the doorway immediately after, retrieving his knives from the corpses. Looking around, he swiped a flashlight off of the closest guard and immediately darted into the darkness to pursue the last of his prey. The three guards only watched in incredulity as the greatest assassin in Europe continued his enthusiastic bug hunt.

Malocchio's feet pounded against the asphalt as his beam of light trailed the recently birthed bile of the botchling. Allowing it to re-establish a nest for itself, however unlikely, would add extra weeks of clearing within this facility. Even if they were only scheduled to stay for an evening or two, idle hands were the Devil's playthings, and Malocchio was a man afforded few vices.

He continued following the minuscule trail, his instincts having been honed long after most of his senses had been dulled. He'd never been in these tunnels before, but he had two centuries of investigative experience to draw upon in addition to familiarity with the nature of death. He knew he had entered a killing field long before his flashlight crossed over the first corpse. The light trailed up the worn boot to the eviscerated corpse of a man wearing a fur uniform, clutching an automatic machinegun as if its spent life depended on it. Slowly, he scanned over the tunnel. More corpses, and not all of them humans. Some of them were canines the size of Clydesdales, almost completely hairless except for the manes on the backs of their necks. Others looked like amphibious gorillas, these ones with strange apparatuses hooked up to their spines with crude weapons in their hands.

Malocchio felt a weak grip wrap around his ankle. Kicking it away as he leaped back, he shown a light onto the sole survivor of the slaughter. This one was dressed similar to the soldiers, but with some added frills that could only mean this one was an officer. The cap, at the very least, identified them as a commissar for the People's National Union. And she was trying to hold her intestines in.

Her face was caked in blood as she struggled to breathe, each gulp of air an agonizing ordeal. The machine pistol at her side, long since empty, now existed only to prop up her body as she leaned towards Malocchio. The commissar looked towards the upright corpse, trying to warn him as best she could. "…sokhranit'… sebya…" she gasped out.

Malocchio immediately severed her jugular. The commissar gasped in surprise as the assassin cradled her body. Her eyes had widened in pain, but the last thought through her mind was the realization. She offered the humanitarian a weak smile as she passed. Malocchio closed her eyes as she did, resting her body in the middle of her men, a memorial to their sacrifice and last stand. Malocchio knew not their reasons or motives for trying to secure this complex. All he knew was that there was something in here that would pose a threat to his group if allowed to fester. He had a new job to do.

The towering metal legs probed their way through the retrieved bodies. Upon finding a satisfactory corpse, the atrophied old hag on her throne typed some commands into her side console. From the bar sitting across her legs, various surgical instruments sprang out and began harvesting. Brains, kidneys, hearts, stomachs, anything that promised good material for future research. The hag grinned as she tossed the exhausted carcass towards her protectors, the ravenous bipedal hounds tearing into it.

"Today has truly been a blessing, my children. Praise be upon Father Aleksandr. Blessings be upon Elder Olga," the hag announced as her throne stood upright, rising her withered body three stories above the armed pricolici spread out through the slaughter field. They were intelligent and obedient, holding back and protecting their leader while the direwolves and krakonochs attacked the humans. The survivors were busy licking their wounds, a respite the Yaga permitted them in reward for a job well done.

"Well, in any event, it would simply be wasteful to allow such perfectly good material to go to waste. Where is my Fluffy?" she asked as her mining lights over her shoulders scanned over the bodies. Eventually, she found the alpha direwolf, or at least former alpha. No matter. With enough DNA and time, Fluffy would return right as rain. After all, the sixth time was the charm! She typed some more commands into her console, and a cluster of wires swarmed down to grasp Fluffy's corpse by the neck and forepaws, dragging it up to face her. As she dragged Fluffy upright, she took notice of a suspicious wound on his stomach. A cut, straight down, almost from neck to groin. As she watched, she noticed something emerging from the wound. Ten charcoal worms began to break through and pried open from the wolf. The parasitic corpse leaped onto the Yaga's throne. The Yaga's bright blue eyes widened in horror as Malocchio brought down the knife towards her neck.