After Nathan Carpenter had effectively destroyed the Entity, the so-called 'Soul Stealer,’ with but a touch and an utterance of Forgiveness, the hulking mass of the Blue Steel Zero staggered out of the ruined alcove that was once a Merrill Lynch office. The massive armored suit fell to its knees as if someone had cut the strings on a marionette, its immense weight seemingly supported by the still smoldering chaingun. At first glance, the dark blue and silver Prototype XSWAT power armor seemed suddenly overburdened, almost broken.

Inside of the cockpit, Sergeant Tyger gripped the controls to the armored war machine, his heavy breath rasping against his helmet and loud in his keen feline hearing. He remained like that for what seemed like an eternity. With a sudden feeling of claustrophobia, the Clade slammed his fist against control panel. In one calm, clean, mechanically fluid motion, the pilot’s compartment slid open, allowing its pilot to escape into the fresh air.

The acrid scent of cordite mixed with the stench of rapidly decomposing Entities mingled with the dust of battle and blended with the cries of pain and anguish from the wounded. Ignoring the sights sounds and smells assaulting his senses; Tyger vaulted from the now exposed cockpit and threw his helmet aside. He supported himself with one hand against the armored monstrosity of the Blue Steel Zero and retched.

This is insane! Tyger screamed to himself between dry heaves. I have never lost control before! What in the fuck happened to me back there? What did I do? Tyger fell to his knees, much like his Power Armor, one hand resting against the machine for support. "Marcy.. Yiska... I—I’m so sorry..."

Tyger was well aware that he had, miraculously, managed to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. Considering the location and the possibilities present for a horrible mishap, none had occurred. He knew that he not only did not shoot one of his squad mates, but most likely saved his life. But he also knew that in whatever haze of bloodlust he had gotten wrapped up into, he knew he was more than willing to turn the ESPer into a bloody smear. That fact, and the fact that he could have just as willingly done the same to anyone else in those fleeting seconds made Tyger sick to his stomach.

As the memories of what happened in the parking lot slammed into the most recent events, Tyger deposited what was left of his most recent meal at the base of the inert power armor. It was several moments before he would be willing to move again....

"Hemelshot to XSWAT HQ. Situation contained on level five, Merrill Lynch business. One class three and four class twos neutralized. Significant civilian peanuts and popcorn—estimate fifty and twenty so start the ambulances rolling. I will remain OIC and direct rescue efforts. Also recommend civil engineers be notified of possible structural damage. Out."

His voice a grim monotone, Hemelshot snaps his communicator off. The silence of the wreckage is cut by the rustle of paper, the groans of the damaged walls and unsupported ceiling, and the screams of agony from the wounded and dying. His eyes close and he inhales deeply, holds it for a moment, then explosively releases as his eyes snap open. Time to get to work.

"Carpenter! You're in charge of triage—go set up in the atrium about 50 yards down that way. Karuk! Search and Rescue—go through every store and make sure there's no one hiding. Brogan! Are you mobile? Good. Go set up a second rally point down that way...."

What a Charlie Foxtrot. Two of my men flat-lined. Someone will pay.

There was blood on the ceiling.

Her blood.

Jamadagni Renuka blinked her eyes clear and lay for a moment, listening.

The thing that had been Barry Sullivan was gone, destroyed not by fire, or maser, or even the Blue Steel's chaingun, but by the healing power of Carpenter's touch. Now all that was left were the wounded and the dead, whose cries could be heard faintly amid the sirens, the shouting, the faint crackle of something burning, and absurdly enough, the sound of Christmas muzak from the mall's hidden speakers. Perhaps, she thought for a moment, that was the explanation. Entities weren't "evil" per se, they were "un-life," beings inherent inimical to the natural order of life on Earth. That would be why they made people sick simply by being there—their reality was lethal to Earth life, and pure life, or pure life-energy was almost instantly lethal to them. She'd have to ask Carpenter and Hemelshot about that.

Provided she could get up.

With the battle done, all the aches and pains came flooding back into her battered body. Sullivan's supernaturally sharp claws had cut right through her armored XSWAT jacket, as well as her dress shirt, skinsuit, and the flesh underneath. But now? One questing hand told her all she needed to know. Her skin was whole—no gaping wounds, no ropes of intestine hanging about her waist, no lifeblood pouring out into the table and floor. She was (for the most part) healed. Made whole by the power of Director Alice Cadbury, spirit of California.

"'I can call spirits from the vasty deep'," she said out loud, ignoring the cluster of store patrons who stepped back startled as she spoke. "And they will come when I call them." She grinned, almost maniacally, and then sat up, heedless of how her boots swept entire regiments of miniature soldiers to the floor as she swung herself off of the table. Her landing made her double over for a moment, gasping with the realization that while her body might be appear whole, she still wasn't totally healed. Wincing with pain, Jama sighed slightly, she was going to end up Angelus General's XSWAT wing again.

Grasping the edge of the table with one hand, Jama slowly stood, taking a deep breath as she did. Her ribs (rebuilt after the Squad's trip into Omega) seemed to have held up, but she knew she was going to be black-and-blue all over come the morning. The sound of Hemelshot's voice, giving orders, came to her. Well, the squad had made it through intact it seemed. She wondered if anyone else had been hurt, and if so, how bad.

"Uhm... officer, ma'am?"

Jama turned her head to see a young man, probably still in his teens, wearing a shirt that read simply "Blood for the Blood God!" in letters that dripped with presumed gore. He held a black t-shirt in one hand, looked faintly embarrassed, and seemed bound-and-determined to look at her hair, the far wall, the ceiling... anywhere but her face or lower.

"Yes?" Jama was surprised at how her voice sounded. There was a cooler of drinks in one corner, and she was seriously thinking of getting one before going any further.

"You might want to put this on."

A glance down at her front confirmed what the back of her mind had been telling her. Sullivan's claws had opened her jacket from belt to neck, leaving just a shredded tangle of armor cloth and fabric behind. Her equipment belt was almost severed while her jacket and shirt were little more than a bloodstained rag. Only her skinsuit was providing any coverage and precious little at that. She almost sighed, but held it, as any deep breath would provide even more of a show to the scattering of young men who stood in almost respectful (if nervous) silence around her.

"Thanks." She accepted the shirt, which read "For the Emperor!", and turned away from the small crowd, undoing her bound-up hair with her free hand. No sense giving them any more of a show then necessary. Staring at the far wall, and the colorful stacks of displayed product, she spoke to the store at large, "An XSWAT containment team is on its way, as are emergency teams. This wing of the mall is now closed. I suggest you gather your things and go home." She paused and smiled slightly, "And as an XSWAT sorceress I'll know if any one of you are watching as I change, so if none of you wish to wake up as a small frog, I suggest you all look somewhere else." Shaking her waist-length hair down over her shoulders, Jama began undoing what was left of her belt, dropping it and her ruined jacket to the floor. Lieutenant Hemelshot was going to just love this....

Were the lights flickering? No, that was his eyes—he rebooted them and everything looked... even worse, now that he could see it alright. Somebody said "Situation contained." Sounded like the Lieutenant. Right. Brogan scrounged up a C-90 reload, checked his weapon and looked around.

Situation contained? Well, the entities were gone, as far as he could tell. Brogan guessed this would be the closest thing to "success" he could expect when fighting entities. How many casualties? Oh shit, Jama! He went limping back to the ruined shop next door, and couldn't believe his eyes. (But CCD's never lie.) Seconds ago he had seen her lying on the floor, bleeding out right in front of him, but now she stood there, in a brand new "For the Emperor!" black t-shirt, three sizes too large, healthy as could be!

"You okay, Renuka?"

Stupid question? Actually, she looked okay until she saw him, then she looked pretty shocked. Brogan realized what kind of condition he must be in.

He winced and looked himself over. Entities had double-teamed him at least twice during the fight, maybe three times, and it showed. Gore covered his arms halfway to the elbow. His uniform was shredded, like the one Jama had discarded in favor of her new t-shirt, and Brogan's old burn wounds were plainly visible, along with fresh burns and vicious lacerations inflicted during the battle. Fortunately, most of his nerves were dead so he didn't feel much pain. He'd be back in surgery for sure, though.

His leg, however, would be a job for the cyber-techs. The reactive polymer skin had been shredded off most of it. A few strands of piezo-electric musculature still clung to the ceramic-composite knee joint, but most of them flopped uselessly out through the gashes in his leg. Brogan reached down and checked the joint—bits of crushed teflon cartilage fell out as he carefully moved the kneecap back into place. Damn.

Something wasn't quite right here. He'd been over lots of after-action reports and case studies about combat with entities, and as far as he could recall, none of them documented entities using this kind of teamwork and tactics. And the X-SWAT team hadn't prepared an adequate response for this—not enough armor, firepower, manpower, coordination, hell, not enough anything! No, that wasn't true. After all, they'd won, somehow.

How had they done it, exactly? Brogan wasn't sure, but he could tell, he had a lot to learn from these people. When guns, armor, cybernetics, ESP, magic, paperwork, and foul language all failed, they'd still find a way. Somehow, they'd deal with the entities. But as he looked around the wreckage of the Silver Hills mall, Brogan realized there was something that scared him much more than any supernatural soul-devouring entities.

"Internal Affairs is gonna eat our friggin' lunch!"

Okay, Brogan, note to self: calm down, you know how this works. You'll be on medical leave for a while, so you've got plenty of time to write a nice, long, detailed, extra-boring report. Those bastards love paperwork, so bury 'em with it! Attachments, addendums, and appendices galore—this thing's gonna be six inches thick when you're done. And find out who signed off on this operation so you can pass the buck—whoever they are, they're in as much hot water as you are, now.

Hey, why is Tyger tossing his cookies?

Carpenter kneeled in the ruins of the Merrill-Lynch office, his weight resting on his sword, a familiar post-battle image for the veterans of 9th Squad. An astute observer would have observed, though, that while before the officer would be praying over the souls of the victims, this time his posture and demeanor seemed somewhat... empty.

In response to Hemelshot's barked orders, Carpenter stood up, absently sheathing his sword, and moved to obey. Through it all, his eyes seemed unfocused, as if looking at a point a thousand miles away.

The sensation of pain let Yiska know that he was, in fact, still alive. The pain also made him wish he wasn't. He hurt inside and out, badly. He head was pounding as if someone had tried to hatch an elephant in his brain. The stench of Entity hung about him, the familiar hiss of the decomposing carcass was loud in his ears. Where he wasn't covered in broken glass and furniture, his skin was red and pussing from the digestive juices of the thing that was trying to eat him alive. As he begrudgingly gets to his feet, he hears an odd sound as dozens of distended bullets fall from his jacket onto the floor. He makes his way across the wreckage of the bank to where his team mates are caring for the wounded and controlling the situation.

He walks up to Lt. Hemelshot, grabs the remainder of his jacket, (more for stability than as a threat), and growls, "Sir, Permission to @$#%!#& sleep in my clamshell from now on?"

It took some time for Tyger to recover some measure of his senses. Upon doing so he immediately began to appreciate the situation a little further. His senses were assaulted on all angles; the stench of burning flesh, the cries of the wounded, the acrid burning of his eyes and nose caused by fires and dust. Tyger stood slowly, almost as if he were unsure of himself, and wiped his nose and mouth with the back of his hand. It did little good to aid his appearance and blood, his blood, still stained his fur around his nose and ears.

A quick perusal of the chaos that surrounded him and his recent actions assaulted his memory like a fifteen pound wrench to the back of his head. "I am so fucking hosed...." But I guess it can't be helped. How were we to know that Entities would just manifest like this? ""...and they're getting better at this... and nastier to boot." Tyger took one look back at the new Blue Steel Zero and found that he could not repress a chilled shudder. It had taken one hell of a hit; one that would have the hulking suit of power armor in the shop for several weeks and him in the hospital for as many days due to the neural feedback. But so are we.... The Clade could not help but smile ruefully, even if it was short-lived.Tyger began to pick his way through the wreckage and debris as he sought out Lieutenant Hemelshot. At some point along the way, he collected his helmet and tucked it under one arm. As he approached his commanding officer, he took in the sheer scope of what had happened to his teammates.Jama would need a new uniform... but yet she was on her feet? Now he knew the Blue Steel Zero was a prototype and all that, but he also knew how to read sensors, and he knew she went down. Despite all of her knowledge and sorcerous power, the poor girl could never take a hit. And yet... here she seemed to be on her feet with barely a scratch on her. He wouldn’t ask questions, it would only make his head hurt.Brogan looked like something out of a cheap comic book, oozing oils, coolant and pretty much anything other than blood. Yeah, the cyberdocs were going to be really happy with this one. Tyger couldn’t even think of looking in Yiska’s direction, much less consider his condition. And Carpenter had that Thousand Mile Stare. Fuck. That ain’t good.He finally made his way to Hemelshot. The man looked about as good as he usually did in this situation and so the Clade didn’t bother to give that another thought. "Umm... sir, I don’t know what you need me to do, but I’m ready and able to do whatever needs to get done." He paused for a moment and cast a glance back to the inert Blue Steel Zero, the Clade visibly shuddering at the sight of the armor. "...if possible something that won’t involve me getting suited up if it can be helped."

Feeling oddly naked in just her skinsuit, boots, and an oversized cotton t-shirt, Jama tucked the remains of her jacket under one arm and tried not to look at the blood-soaked tabletop that marked where she’d landed after Sullivan had hit her. She gave a nod to Brogan’s question, not really hearing it, then stopped dead as she saw what Sullivan and his minions had done to the 9th Squad’s newest officer. They had virtually shredded him, tearing not only his uniform, but his synthskin and internal cybernetics to bits. He bled lubricant, and small bits of... of... something fell off of him as he moved. Her reaction must have been visible on her face, as Brogan paused and then turned away.

Stepping out of the store (which was rapidly emptying of patrons, despite the presence of a semi-naked female), she looked over to the Merrill Lynch office. It was a smoking ruin. The floor to ceiling panels of frosted acrylic had been reduced to splinters, while the faux-wood desks had been shattered and strewn all over the floor. Imprints marked where Sullivan had walked as well as where the Blue Steel had stood. Spent shell casing glittered amid the debris, along with blood, ichor, fallen ceiling panels, dust, and smoke.

And to think it was only going to get worse.

Pausing, Jama closed her eyes and took a long-needed breath. Brogan was muttering to himself, and she could hear Yiska say something about sleeping in his armor. And Tyger... Tyger and Carpenter both seemed numb. And under it all she could feel...

...she could feel...


Jama’s eyes snapped open as she took another, almost furtive, glance around the ruined mall. Sullivan had crowed something about her being a fitting bride for The King in Yellow and having done the Entity's work for them. She had made it easier for them to gain access to this world. She had called to Director Cadbury in a time of need, asked for her aid, and... the Director had answered. The Director had turned her attention to Jamadigni Renuka and away from Omega Sector. If only briefly.

And the world had changed as a result.

Feeling more than a little sick, she walked unsteadily over to where Hemelshot and Tyger stood. Her face pale, she replied to their questioning glances with, "’I am become death—the destroyer of the worlds’."

His mind a blank, Hemelshot continued to react on autopilot to the receint blaze of violence. Some things were cystal clear—the splash of gore where Renuka had been, the smell of ozone and incinerated flesh, the sound of a child crying in the distance. He was able to block other things—such as Carpenter's silence and Tyger's skitishness—until the crisis was over. It would hit him then, the realization that people had trusted him to keep them safe, gone about their lives with the belief that the police would enforce the law, and protect them from danger. Except he had failed.


He tapped him com. "Carpenter. Hemelshot. You're in charge of the first aid station—feel free to save as many people as you can. Try and be discreet, but you've already got a cult following so don't feel you've got a secret to protect." At least he can heal. All I do is... No!. Later.

"Tyger. Good work on taking out that entity that had Karuk trapped—make sure he's ok, then head out to the main breezeway and run traffic control. We need someone to guide the emergency teams in here, and make sure the evacuation doesn't turn into a panic." There would be many eager to leave, and too many that no longer had the ability. Would never move again.

He spun on his heel towards Brogan, words dying on his lips as he focussed on the man. When his harness monitor had failed Hemelshot had a cold ball of loss and anger form in his gut, only to fade as the sounds of combat continued. He'd assumed it was a wardrobe malfunction, or the harness being ripped off, that had caused the vital signs to flatline, but apparently not. Brogan was a grotesque parody of a man, dripping blood and oil in equal parts as he stumbled across the floor.

"Brogan! How the hell are you still—nevermind. Get yourself over to the first aid station and report to the first medic that you find." Hemelshot allowed himself yet another few seconds of staring in disbelief that a human body could take so much punishment and remain mobile, then forcably turned his attention elsewhere. It was unfortunate that his gaze came to rest on the corpse of a young woman, lying sprawled in a sun dress. Her left shoulder had been blown apart by a stray blast, splatting her and the surrounding area with blood and bits of gore. The magnitude of the violence rose in his gorge, then was forcably suppressed. There would be a time to be haunted, later.

"Renuka. I'm glad you're not dead, and please don't confirm you said what I just heard you say unless it has a direct bearing on this emergency cleanup." He stopped for a second and thought about what he had just said, then closed his eyes and gave his head a quick shake. "I'm sure the AAR will be fascinating. I'd like you to escort Brogan to medical, then take over communications until an EMS coordinator arrives. We'll need someone to talk to XSWAT, the police and the mall cops, so set yourself down somewhere and talk to them." Their voices would be replaced by others, and these would not be so easily silenced.

He would hear them at night, mostly.

He looked past Renuka, down the hall. "Tyger—I meant in your armor." Tyger froze, then—at first hesitantly then with increasing speed—moved towards the Blue Steel Zero. "Take your time moving out there, Tyger. There's no emergency and we don't need any more structural damage in here." A nod. "Tell the incoming medical personnel to check in with Renuka, then Carpenter" Another nod. "Remember to lock out your weapons." The subtle stiffening of the spine told Hemelshot he'd hit the mark. Wonderful—that meant a detailed review of the gun cameras ASAP. There was a sick sense of relief that perhaps he wouldn't be the only one with nightmares, then a foul taste in his mouth at wishing such a fate on someone else. Tyger was a fine man and didn't deserve that.

A distraction brought some relief. "Karuk, I'd like you to scan for active minds in the nearby stores. Do a quick scan for those in pain and get them to medical, then do a more detailed scan and find anyone unconsious. The engineers should be here by then, so link up with them and see if they need a hand to stabilize this place—if not, report back to me."

"Questions, anyone? Suggestions?" He glanced about, and managed to not look at the mangled baby carriage that had been blasted into a store front. At least I won't have to be on body recovery this time.

I just have to explain how this happened on my watch.

It was going to be a very long afternoon.

Tyger looked over to Hemelshot when he gave the order to actually use the Blue Steel Zero and frowned slightly. "But... sir, I..." He then silenced himself when he realized Hemelshot's mood and saw his grim expression. "...yes sir..." he mumbled instead.

Tyger gave no real response to Hemelshot's request for further suggestions or questions. He simply snapped the pilot's helmet into place and stepped off towards the inert power armor, looking for all the world like a lone knight walking towards a dragon's den with nothing but a broken sword to his name. Yes, it was going to be a very long afternoon indeed.

"Brogan! How the hell are you still—nevermind. Get yourself over to the first aid station and report to the first medic that you find."

Brogan had a feeling he'd be hearing that question a lot in the future.

I'll tell you how, Lieutenant. X-SWAT made me this way. I'm not a human being any more--I'm just another weapon system. They turned me loose with a Dragon Mark 2, and partners who gun down entities when they double up on me, so I can keep fighting.

Then the Entities PISSED ME OFF! You heard what Sullivan said—I don't even have a soul worth devouring. The reason they can't kill me is, I'm already dead.

His attention drifted back towards Hemelshot. He wanted Renuka to help him. WTF?

"Renuka. I'm glad you're not dead, and please don't confirm you said what I just heard you say unless it has a direct bearing on this emergency cleanup. I'm sure the AAR will be fascinating. I'd like you to escort Brogan to medical, then take over communications until an EMS coordinator arrives. We'll need someone to talk to XSWAT, the police, and the mall cops, so set yourself down somewhere and talk to them."

So, Hemelshot's barking orders 90 clicks a minute and Renuka's spouting cryptic weirdness. For the moment, that makes them both 'back to normal', I guess. Tyger's got a problem with Blue Steel—that's not good. He usually wears it like a second skin, or something even closer. I can't even guess what's going on with Carpenter and Yiska—figure it out later.

Brogan turned towards Renuka. "Ready when you are. Not too fast, though...." He turned to follow her through the office wreckage, and realized how much of it was his doing, directly or otherwise.

They told me these cybernetics were designed for combat, but this is all-out warfare!

Brogan looked at C-90 blast points, walls he'd crashed through, the effects of blasts which had missed him, and the wreckage caused by entities he'd punched across the office. And it dawned on him that he hadn't succeeded in killing them, nor they him. For all the destruction he, and they, were capable of, it wasn't enough. How was this possible? Brogan would have to say something about this in his report....

He wandered through the crowd lost in thought, heedless of the effect his appearance had on the other survivors, most of whom got out of his way as he approached the aid station. Brogan suddenly came back to reality, face to face with a very shocked young medical technician, staring it him in disbelief.

Brogan really didn't want to hear the young man repeat Hemelshot's question, so before he could say anything, Brogan grinned. On Brogan's ruined face, the effect was truly devastating.

"You should have seen the other guy, laddie."

"...then take over communications until an EMS coordinator arrives. We'll need someone to talk to XSWAT, the police, and the mall cops, so set yourself down somewhere and talk to them."

Talk. Right... she was supposed to talk to people. Right now she wasn’t sure she could even walk straight and Hemelshot wanted her to direct traffic. The initial euphoria and giddiness of being alive (and of having summoned Director Cadbury to aid her) had worn off and now she could feel all too clearly how injured she really was. Cadbury may have saved her from death, but she wasn’t whole. Not yet, anyway.

"Ready when you are. Not too fast, though...."

"Hmmm?" Jama blinked and looked up at Brogan’s tall form. "Ohh... right. I think it’s over here."

She turned to lead him through the ruined office and paused, looking back over her shoulder. "I’m not exaggerating, you know. I think I’ve done something terrible... and may have hastened the doom of us all."

Brogan snapped out of his daze for a moment when he realized Renuka was addressing him. She always catches me off guard—I'm usually the last person in the world a beautiful woman would speak to. But what the hell is she talking about? I can't follow all this metaphysical 'occult' stuff, whatever they call it.

He looked at her blankly for a moment, then realized she was truly worried about... something. Most of the time, Brogan couldn't follow half of what Renuka said, but she knew her stuff. If she said the entities were going to bleed salsa, he'd bring a load of chips. Now she said the end of the world would be arriving sooner than expected. Damn.

What could he possibly say to that, after what they'd both just been through? Actually, he wasn't even sure what she had been through, not exactly, considering her near-death and miraculous recovery.

"Renuka, whatever happens, we'll deal with it. Whatever you've done, the Lieutenant's right—we'll have to talk about it later. And if our doom comes early, I promise, I'll be right there with you. I wouldn't miss it."

There's nobody I'd rather die with, Renuka. Sorry, but that's the most comfort I can offer you or anyone else now. I just don't have it in me any more.

"I...." Jama sighed and her shoulders sagged. "Thank you. I just hope Director Cadbury is okay."