Terna ran as fast as she could underneath the heavy bank of slow-moving, snow-laden clouds. A gout of orange blossomed within, and for a brief moment snow became rain, dowsing her body with a chill she couldn’t afford to receive.
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The demon BuyMort. It was needling her again, offering her forbidden things, trying to force her into a state of sin. Terna wished it away, focusing on her now comfortable sprint through the battlefield.
A muffled voice echoed out and reached her ears. It was metallic and crackly, an audio receiver whose transmissions were certainly not very lucid in the increasingly tumultuous weather.
“I see one! She’s got no signal. Total No-Mort, no electronic cookies or preferences in existence.”
Two men in white camo popped out of seemingly nowhere, one slinging her up onto the back of the other. It was a smooth motion, and Terna didn’t even have time to resist, let alone protest.
So natural was the motion that she was now riding on the sprinting man’s back of her own accord, listening in to the crackling conversation coming over his comms.
She looked back and saw the second man had already turned away from them, a rifle gripped in his arms as he stomped back into battle positioning.
“Package received,” the one man said, a strangled reverberation following his broadcast.
“And the others?”
“Negative. So far none found on site. Living, at any rate.”
Terna shivered, hearing the blasts and shots of battles fade away behind her. Despite the snow her questing eyes could see the cracked and faded ruins of a pre-BuyMort city, the towers and spirals of many buildings now lying sideways across the dirt and covered over with snow. Many of them were split open lengthwise, the contents of their bellies spilled out and looted, sold, or rotted back into the earth from which they came.
The occasional BuyMort Demons laired in such places. For her people, they were forbidden.
An angry screaming sounded from the sky. Looking behind her, she saw a forward-sweeping triangle of orange flame streaking through the sky on an arc. Ember fluttered away angrily from its descent, leaving a tail of rose-smoke contrail in its wake.
Her eyes calculated its destination as it swept over them, and she knew that the people fighting for her safety were gone. This thing, it was something hellish from the BuyMort. Its unnatural shape and color told her that they were all about to perish in flame and plague.
The man underneath her stopped and stared at the shape.
“Jonas, either get the hell out of there or dig deep. Tripbangers inbound. Estimated 40 seconds. Gonna be a lot of flame arcs.”
There was crackling spit and a mechanical squeal.
“The fucking bastards. They’re gonna smoke their own people. We need more time!” a desperate voice responded.
“I’m not OpFor, copy? Heads down, then retreat. We saved one. Maybe next time we can save more.”
The man stared angrily at the projectile, watching it blossom into a ready-made and quite savage firestorm. An assortment of flaming tornadoes and red-white electricity swept through the area.
Terna couldn’t imagine the carnage. Staring, wide-eyed, a tear rolled down her cheek and hung to the bottom of one gray-hued, petite hobb chin.
“Who are you?” she whispered. “What is happening?”
“The end of this nuking goddamn world, that’s what’s happening,” the man replied, then sighed. “I’m Crawley. First name, last name, whatever. It’s all I need or respond to nowadays.”
Terna shook her head. “I need to know what is happening. My tribe —”
“They’re all dead or locked up. Ships came through, did a sweep. I’d guess they caught you last since you were being brought in so late. Hunting, were you?”
Terna stared. He was a man. But beyond that she had no inkling of what kind of man he was. He’d taken off with her, presumably to rescue her, but looking at him full-on she realized she didn’t even know if he were human or hobb. Tentatively she reached her hands forward to the thick woolen visored-plastirubber mask that obscured his features.
He turned his head away. “There’s no need to know. I told you I’m Crawley. And I’m here to save you. You and all the other No-Morts. Fucking scavengers are picking you all off from all over the planet.”
Terna pulled her hand back. “They are of the demon BuyMort.” She stated it plainly and the man shrugged his heavy-set shoulders.
“They’re bad old son-uvva-bitches alright, whatever the religion behind it.”
She watched him watch her, and only now noticed that he was armed. A six-inch steel blade gleamed from a badly worn sheathe of manufactured leather, and in his arms he held a scoped long blaster, almost certainly black powder. And she noticed something else. One of his shoulders had been grazed in the fighting, and now was trickling blood from the tear in his clothing in a slow but steady drip drip drip to the snow below them.
His skin was brown, not gray.
He was another human.
“Not exactly,” Crawley answered, following her eyes and understanding her thoughts. He sighed. Look, I might as well share it with you. Just don’t freak out. Then let’s get on out of here and back to somewhere safe. There are going to be a lot of angry people coming this way, and most of them won’t be on our side.”
He raised up a hand to his mask and pulled it away, revealing a head that was half human — and half the white steel of cybernetic enhancements.
He was BuyMort.
Terna raised her voice and she screamed. A sweet puff of gas from his wrist and an exhausted moan later, she stopped.
“It’s a relaxant. Look, I made some decisions when BuyMort came to my planet. It doesn’t mean I’m bad. I mean, we all do it, ya know.”
Crawley put the mask back into place. The fire storms were subsiding, and shots were beginning to pick back up. He reached down and grasped her arm, then swung her back up on his back. She bounced up and down, smelling his sweat and blood through the icy snow of the winter storm.
“Us humans,” he gasped, “none of us on this planet should be here. That, well, it’s all BuyMort. Without BuyMort we’d all be back in the universe or planet that we were born on. BuyMort has a tendency to bring us all to new planets, whether we like it or not. Same with the knowles. And gobbs.”
Terna spit to the side at the mention of those vile beings, a way to ward off their bad fortunes.
“Yeah, I’m not a big fan of them either,” Crawley agreed, and chuckled.
He leapt casually over a stream of bright yellow chem-tainted water as he ran, and Terna could feel the unnatural girth and power of his body beneath her. She considered him. He had fallen to the promises of BuyMort, and it had allowed him to clear that water. Without such gifts he might not have seen the chem-water and they may have fallen through.
And with color of that intensity in chem-water, any person would find themselves stripped of flesh within a minute.
BuyMort’s power corrupted. But it didn’t necessarily make all evil.
“Thank you,” Terna said, having come to her conclusion. “I hope that when your other people come back and my friends and family are also rescued, that we can all come together to find a way to repay you and yours for their kindness.”
He didn’t answer, jogging them through the darkness of night descended. Lightning flashed and in the light of it, for a brief second, she could see that some of the broken towers of glass and chrome still stood in the ruins of the pre-Buymort city. One of them was even ten stories tall! And there were lights here and there within the old forbidden settlement.
She wondered what made it all run. And if it were the BuyMort Demons who kept the electricity flowing.
Crawley’s comms crackled again. The same voice as before speaking through it to the both of them. Terna could feel a slight relaxation in the man’s body despite its exertions, and she knew that the man on the radio was a good friend to him.
“Flame-arcs are out, over. We’re beating feet. Heavy casualties. What’s your sitrep?”
“Light and bounding. Heading for cover from the storm, then rendezvous. You give as good as you got?” he asked, laughter in his voice.
“Yeah, smashed them good. But we lost some good people today. And the rest of the villagers are kaput.”
“Roger,” Crawley said. “I’m going comm silent. See you at rendezvous. Over and out.”
As Crawley continued to run into the night, Terna mulled over the word.
She wondered how badly hurt that meant and she spent the rest of her journey planning all the various medications, treatments, and recipes that would be needed for their treatment.