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Heights of the Depths

Peter David

  Crazy Eight Press is an imprint of Second Age, Inc.

  Copyright © 2012 by Second Age, Inc.

  Cover illustration and design by J.K. Woodward and Glenn Hauman

  Interior design by Aaron Rosenberg

  ISBN 978-0-9836877-2-6

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Second Age, Inc. at PO Box 239, Bayport, NY 11705.

  The Hidden Earth

  Book two

  Heights of the Depths

  Peter David

  To all the fans who never stopped asking when this book was coming out.

  The colonel had never expected that humanity would survive. He had not anticipated that he would be proven correct in quite this manner.

  He takes no pleasure in the imminent extermination of mankind. His foresight offers neither satisfaction nor solace. After all, who in his right mind desires bragging rights about the end of his race?

  But the colonel could never have guessed the manner in which this tragedy would come about. Who could have? Who could have imagined such an insane, nightmarish turn of events that even now, at the end, he cannot comprehend.

  All around him there is smoke, blinding him to his surroundings. He stumbles, falls to his knees, and mutters a string of profanities. It is the exact sort of reaction for which he would have excoriated his troops. He has trained them to be focused at all times. To expect nothing while anticipating everything. The colonel would have expected them to remain focused rather than wasting energy in shouting imprecations or demanding that an uncaring God damn this, that or the other thing. Yet now he falls prey to the same weakness of will and spirit that he would have found so unacceptable in his soldiers.

  Perhaps it stems from the fact that all his soldiers are dead.

  All his superiors are dead.

  Everyone. Everything. Dead, dead, dead.

  They are all dead, and he is in hell, consigned there because he was unable to lead them to victory.

  There is no reason for the colonel to take the failure of his forces onto himself. Four branches of military service, hundreds, thousands of officers who outranked him, governments worldwide that acted with confusion or bewilderment or denial when confronted with an enemy beyond any measure of human understanding.

  And yet he does, because that is simply the way the colonel’s mind is wired. He cannot help but feel personally responsible for the outcome of everything in which he is involved, even when nothing he could have done would have changed the way things turned out.

  In the thick underbrush of the jungle through which he is running, he lies in the moist dirt, sweat streaming from under his helmet and down his face. His breath is rattling in his lungs, despite his best efforts to rein in his gasping lest he alert those pursing him of his whereabouts. He is clutching his machete, the only weapon that he has left available to him.

  The weapons.

  What the hell had they done to the weapons?

  When those creatures of myth had intruded so forcefully, so insanely, into the colonel’s world, they should have been easily dispatched despite their considerable number. And dispatching them had been the only option available since their immediate actions upon arrival had left no question as to their purpose or priorities.

  It had been an indelible image, seared into the consciousness of every man, woman and child on the planet. That moment when, all over the world, the skies had turned purple and swirled as if vast whirlpools had opened in the heavens. There had been cries that the Rapture was occurring, that Jesus was about to descend upon a golden chariot, or that it was heralding the arrival of the Prophet. Scientists attempted to analyze it and some were pointing accusing figures at a new superconducting supercollider that had been activated underground and yet supposedly had managed to open up a spate of black holes in the upper atmosphere.

  They had swirled above the Earth, appearing in succession, one every hour until there were twelve of them. People huddled in churches, or in laboratories, or in their homes or home made bomb shelters, while others set up camps so that they could gaze upon the phenomenon and watch and wait and see the glory that they were sure was to unfold.

  The colonel was on alert at Fort Bragg with the rest of his squadron when the moment came, the moment that would be referred to subsequently as the Burst.

  The holes had been churning in the skies, and suddenly every single one of them came to a halt. It was a sight to see, all those energy whirlpools slowing, slowing and then stopping. It was as if nature itself was holding its breath.

  Then there was an explosion that was without noise. The first thought was that the light would be visible and the sound would follow shortly, like thunder after lightning. It never happened. The Burst was, as some wags dubbed it, silent but deadly.

  No one was laughing minutes later, however.

  Astronomers watching through telescopes were the first ones to see the vast containers hurtling through the holes. At first glance they appeared to be vessels of some sort, but they did not seem to have any manner of propulsion or guidance. They were just gigantic shells, ejected from the vortices like bullets from a gun. They hurtled toward the ground, and there was not just one or two of them, but thousands upon thousands. All over the world they spiraled down, at which point the sound finally came. It was the whistling sound typically associated with bombs dropping.

  “We’re under attack!” came the screams from some, while others brushed off such sentiments as alarmist.

  The whirlpools in the sky collapsed in on themselves and vanished moments after their contents had been disgorged. Down came the vessels, and although the world was three quarters water and thus random chance would have dictated that most of them would have had water landings, in fact only a relatively small percentage of them did. All the “bullets” that had erupted from one hole plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean. The remainder came to rest on land. In every instance they managed miraculously to avoid major cities. Instead, without exception, they hit on deserts or forests or other areas that were unpopulated by human beings.

  They came in at angles, not smashing straight down but instead skidding to a stop, leaving trenches dug up behind them that were miles long, crisscrossing each other like a gigantic hatchwork.

  The first contact was made in the Nevada desert. The sun had set, the last fingers of orange light disappearing from the horizon. Army troops moved in, of which the colonel was still not a part. The gigantic shells lay there, smoke still wafting from them, and frost covering their surfaces. There was no hint of movement, no sound of engines powering down, no nothing. The soldiers approached carefully, their rifles out, believing they were ready for anything. Attempts to take readings of anything within the shells were thwarted by the vessels’ exteriors. It was as if they weren’t even there.

  Suddenly there were sounds like guns going off, except none of the soldiers had fired at anyone. They were the sounds of the shells cracking apart, gigantic gleaming metal oblongs as if laid by an enormous mutated chicken. As one the troops stepped back, leveling their weapons. From the back, the commanding officers observed carefully, constantly reporting progress to the White House.

  The shells broke wide, and a creature emerged from within that seemed to be stepping out, not from some manner of spaceship, but instead a book on mythology and legend.

  It was a Cyclops.

  It was gigantic, well over ten feet tall, shielding its eye and blinking against the fading light. Another Cyclops stepped out from behind it, and then more of them. There were audible gasps from behind the squa
d leader, a battle-hardened master sergeant. He told his men to shut the hell up and then, slinging his rifle, slowly advanced upon the foremost of the Cyclops. The creature looked down upon him with a single brown eye and a brow that seemed arched in mild curiosity.

  There was someone of more normal, human proportions standing just behind the Cyclops, but it was also clearly not human. The master sergeant hadn’t noticed it at first, which was odd because it was standing right there. Its skin was sallow, its face triangular in shape, its ears long and tapered, and shoulder-length, purple hair fluttered around it in the breeze. The being fixed its gaze upon the master sergeant and there was nothing but contempt in its eyes, which should have been the master sergeant’s first warning.

  He willfully ignored it.

  “Welcome,” said the master sergeant, “to—”

  The Cyclops stepped on him without hesitation. Before the master sergeant could react, the Cyclops simply took two vast strides forward, the ground thundering beneath him, and then it slammed its foot down on the master sergeant, crushing him with a sound that was oddly like a balloon popping. Blood spread from beneath the Cyclops’ foot. It lifted his foot and scraped it on the dirt as if it had just entered someone’s home and was availing itself of the welcome mat.

  There was no hesitation as the assembled armed forces opened fire.

  The Cyclops, looking positively stunned, went down in a hail of bullets. So did several behind it. Then the purple haired being waved its arms, gesturing widely, and just like that the weaponry ceased to function. More specifically, it functioned in reverse, as the rifles proceeded to backfire, exploding in the hands of the young men and women aiming them. Faces were ripped off, bodies blown backwards. Those that had mouths left went down screaming; the rest just went down. Any who attempted to throw hand grenades had them explode in their hands. Mortar shells detonated within the launchers.

  As the human beings staggered around, bewildered, disoriented, unable to comprehend what was happening and how this amazing first contact scenario had gone so wrong, so quickly, the Cyclops charged. They came pouring out of the ship, a vast wave of them. Scientists who would later study video of the event would conclude that the number of Cyclops emerging from the ships far exceeded anything that the ship should reasonably have been able to contain. It was like watching a real life version of a clown car, except no one was laughing.

  They continued to pour out by the tens of thousands, and then the hundreds of thousands, all from those same fallen shells of ships. And when the planes came swooping in with bombs, a goodly number of the monsters were blown to hell, indicating to most observers that there seemed to be a range involved in what the obvious magic-wielding creature could accomplish. (The scientists disliked the term “magic” intensely, preferring to substitute the phrase “Arcane physics.” None of this mattered as, over the long period of annihilation that followed, almost all the scientists were killed.) But many more of the creatures were not killed at all, and they swarmed across the face of the United States, up into Canada, down into Mexico.

  Had that been the only arrival, humanity might have been able to cope. But there were eleven others, and all around the globe humanity found itself under assault. Minotaurs, satyrs, vampires, two-legged dragons and more. The attack was relentless, and merciless, and eventually, it was successful.

  The colonel was witness to it all.

  Now he runs and stumbles through a jungle, the branches tearing at his uniform, bites from random insects pock marking his skin. He falls back as something hisses directly in front of him. For a heartbeat he thinks it’s one of those dragon creatures—Mandraques, he believes they call themselves—and then he realizes it’s a homegrown snake. He whips his machete around and severs its head from its body in one clean slice. Then he keeps going.

  He hears pursuit.

  The speech is gutteral and booming, and the trees are crashing down behind him. It is unquestionably the creatures.

  They are coming for him. Not enough that his entire squad had been wiped out; they want to be sure to take them out to the last man.

  He wonders if he is indeed the last man.

  He has lost contact with headquarters. He has seen no other humans in days. For all he knows, the entirety of humanity has been destroyed and he is the last man standing. The final and only defender of the human race.

  Your race is run, he thinks bleakly.

  Suddenly there is a triumphant roar directly in front of him. It is a Mandraque, looming before him like a miniature dinosaur. It says something incomprehensible, and its forked tongue snaps out. It wields a double bladed sword that is as big as the colonel’s arm. The Mandraque whips the sword around, and the colonel ducks under it, slamming forward with the machete. It drives home, and the colonel has the opportunity to see close-up what a Mandraque looks like when it is startled. The Mandraque reflexively tries to lunge toward the colonel, but the action only serves to drive the machete deeper into its own chest. The sword slips from the creature’s now nerveless hand and it falls over. The colonel yanks out his machete, spits on the carcass, and then tries to lift the creature’s sword. It is impossibly unwieldy. The colonel is not a weak man, but he can barely clear it from the ground. It is useless to him.

  He hears more snarling, more shouting. He knows that he is doomed, but he is not going to go quietly. Leaving the sword and his enemy’s body behind, he continues to run.

  A creature drops from overhead. It emits a hellacious screech. Without looking he swings the machete and gets lucky, beheading the pale skinned monstrosity. Its head falls directly in his path, its lips drawn back in a frozen sneer exposing twin vampiric fangs. Its body flops around for a few seconds, clawing at the air, and then lies still. By the time it ceases thrashing about, the colonel is already gone.

  He hears the sounds of his pursuers growing. They’re getting closer, and they are making no effort to hide their progress. They do not care if he hears them or not. That is how confident they are in their eventual triumph.

  And they are converging. The sounds are not just from behind him now, but from all around. They are cutting him off, using a pincer movement. It seems like a good deal of effort for one man. He should, he supposes, feel honored to some degree.

  He does not. All he feels is anger. Anger and impotence.

  He trips over an outstretched root, scrambles to his feet, keeps going, and bursts out into a clearing. There is a small rise up ahead. High ground. Go for the high ground, he thinks desperately as he sprints toward it.

  He is halfway to the rise when his pursuers emerge, running, from the forest. Two Minotaurs, another Mandraque, two more of the vampires who are sprinting on their feet and knuckles. They converge upon him and he scrambles up the rise, hoping to lose them, knowing that he is doomed to failure. The magnitude of his failure is evident when he reaches the top of the rise only to see more of them coming from the other direction. “Get him!” shout the Minotaurs, which surprises him because he had been unaware that any of them speak English. Obviously they learn quickly, or at least the Minotaurs do.

  The colonel braces himself, drawing his arm back, trying to see all around him at once, his head whipping back and forth. They know they have him now. They slow their approach, none of them interested in making a precipitous rush, because the machete is blood stained and they recognize that it is the blood of their fellows upon it.

  Then slowly, carefully, they advance, with a combination of snarling and hissing and spitting and stray words of English that are doubtless hurled at him as epithets. And as they draw near, he holds his machete high in the air and bellows at the top of his lungs:

  “Get off my damned world!”

  And then he leaps upon them.

  the outskirts of feruel

  Karsen Foux had absolutely no idea what his destination was going to be, or how he was going to reach it. All he knew was that he was getting there as quickly as he could.

  The Laocoon had never quite be
en the tracker his mother was. Zerena Foux, the leader of their hodgepodge clan of Bottom Feeders, had always had the true nose in the family. Many had been the time when she would stop the jumpcar dead, hop out and land deftly on her cloven feet, and sniff the air with endless patience. She would turn in a slow circle, as if she were listening to what the gentle winds of the Damned World had to tell her. Her nostrils would flare a bit, and then she would turn to her fellows and inform them in what direction a battle had just occurred and where dead bodies were lying, ripe for the picking. She had never been wrong, even though in some instances the site had been miles away.

  Karsen came to the conclusion, however, that it wasn’t that his olfactory prowess was so much less than his mother’s. Instead it was simply the fact that he had never needed to employ his own abilities. Mother had always been there to take charge. Since Karsen had struck out on his own, leaving his fellow Bottom Feeders behind, he was in the unusual position of having to rely on himself for everything. On the one hand it was daunting. On the other hand it was exhilarating, even liberating.

  He was on his own. Really, truly, at last, on his own.

  It had not been an easy endeavor initially. When he had departed the jumpcar, his fur-covered legs had been quivering. He wasn’t certain if his mother or any of the others noticed. He certainly hoped they did not. At a moment in his life where he was trying to appear as strong as possible, he was appalled by the idea of seeming weak even in the slightest. He steadied his jangling nerves, however, gripping tightly the strap of the supplies-filled sack he had slung over his shoulder. A second strap, crisscrossing his bare chest, kept the war hammer that he had taken from a dead Mandraque fixed solidly on his back.

  He remembered the look on his mother’s face when he had made it clear that he was really going to depart their oddball tribe. That was what the group of them had become, even though—aside from he and his mother—no two of them were of the same race. An aged Mandraque named Rafe Kestor who, even on his best days, scarcely seemed capable of stringing thoughts together; Gant, a perpetually depressed shapeshifting pile of ooze who purported to have once been a member of that eldritch race called the Phey; and Mingo Minkopolis, member of a race called the Minosaur, whose formidable intellect seemed at odds with his massively powerful build. They had been as close to a family as Karsen and his mother, Zerena, had ever known.