27th June 1969Edit
It was late in the night. At a location known to few, a group of men and women had gathered together for a purpose just as secret as the location they were in.
“Are you sure it’s the one?” One of the men asked.
Another man, this one fat and rotund, answered the question. “Positive. We’ve spent the past several months making sure of our sources. It’s the one.”
“And when will the attack begin?” Another man, the oldest of the group, asked.
“June the 29th,” the first man replied.
“Lady Maria herself will be leading the assault, I believe?” The old man, who was none other than Saint Veritan, asked.
“That is correct.” Grand Master Adrien Poisson responded.
“Seth is there, I presume?” High Inquisitor Guiseppe Margottini asked. In his mouth, the name sounded like a curse.
Carl Fischer, the fat and rotund man took the question. “We can’t be certain. You know what Seth is like.”
“Supposedly, we’ve killed him on several occasions, but every time he seems to survive.” Veritan shook his head.
The same time
Temple Prime, Sarajevo
The man known only by the name of Seth was indeed at Temple Prime.
“Cut off one head and another will take its place,” he thought. Their enemies were foolish to think they could kill him – indeed, they could – and it would be all for nought, because there would always be another to take his place and assume the identity of Seth.
Yes, he was Seth the Undying. Seth, indeed, was not a person, but a persona and a title. And as long as there was another to take his mantle, he would forever be undying.
Second only to the Messiah, de facto leader of his Brotherhood. It wouldn’t matter if the Talon killed him – they could burn down this entire temple. It didn’t matter – there were always more temples, more cultists. Try as the Talon might, the Brotherhood would never die – their task was a hopeless one! And still, they persevered.
And it was frustrating. The Order may have failed repeatedly to destroy them; but they had foiled plans at every corner, every attempt. They obstructed the Brotherhood’s efforts – as the Brotherhood obstructed theirs.
And so it had been as it had for centuries – two ancient entities, forever sparring, forever locked in an unending struggle.
28th June 1969Edit
Onboard the Crawler Metatron, somewhere in Serbia
The young man’s attention was completely focused on the beautiful woman sitting opposite him.
Lady Maria seemed to take no attention of her bodyguard’s fixation, however.
“We will arrive at the temple by tomorrow.” Claude Lalande and Lady Maria were discussing the upcoming attack on the cult temple in Anatolia.
Lady Maria had insisted that it should be no other than she who should lead the assault on the Cult’s main temple, and the rest of the Grand Circle had agreed.
From outside, one would have been able to see the imposing behemoth of Talon Steel that was the Crawler Metatron, along with a group of escorting vehicles that were miniscule in comparison to the massive Crawler.
The Crawler was the greatest creation of the genius Forgemaster, Aperta Scriptum, at the close of the 19th century. Clad in four inches of Talon Steel, it could survive incredible amounts of damage – and come out unscathed. In all their years of use, only a single Crawler had been destroyed. That was Remiel, of course – the reasons behind it were still unknown – but even then some of it had survived, and now it was being rebuilt.
Accompanying the Crawler was its Crawler Cell. Cleric Tracks, Footmen, Fanatics, Hussars, and Talon vehicles of all shapes and sizes either moved alongside the Crawler or were transported in the safety of the Crawler’s massive bays, until they were ready to be thrown into battle. The Crawler Cell’s Cataphract Land Ironclad was at the front, a massive monster rivalling even the Crawler itself, leading the assault.
There was always the chance that some plane might fly over the army and see it – but that would be the last thing it would see. The Champion Air Defense Walkers were carefully watching the skies in case something like that happened, and if it did happened, they would have to shoot it down. A distasteful action, perhaps, but a necessary one – the Order’s secrecy was paramount.
The Cult temple they would be going up against would undoubtedly be heavily defended – it was their prime temple after all. The cultists were masters at creating chaos – and they did it just as well on the battlefield.
The Order of the Talon expected a long fight, and they were in for one.
The commanding officer of the Soviet forces in Serbia was feeling uneasy. He had good reason to be.
Just earlier this morning, he had received vague reports of strange forces crossing the border.
According to the border guards who had sent the reports, they looked nothing like Allied forces or those damnable Legion Security who were so used to parading around here as though they owned the place. If only he could get permission from Moscow, then he would smash those capitalist pigs like the slime they were...
But he deviated. Back to the issue at hand, he thought. According to the reports he received, the strange forces possessed black and silver vehicles, archaic looking, with unusual eagle emblems on them. They had some sort of moving castle on treads and a giant metal beast with legs...
The commanding officer blinked. Moving castle on treads? Giant metal beast with legs? Most of the rest of it had seemed plausible, if odd, but this... Who did these conscripts think they were kidding? No doubt they had too much vodka to drink. He would have those dammable fools punished for wasting his time on such rubbish. Pah!
The commanding officer paid no attention to the janitor in the corner, who continued to clean the room as always, never once looking up or doing anything to attract suspicion.
And in the corner, the janitor, who was not really a janitor at all, unnoticed to anyone but himself, heaved a sigh of relief. He thanked God that he would not need to burden his soul with the blood of yet another man on his hands.
Somewhere in Serbia
The smell of burning. Everywhere an inferno. At her feet, a dead body, with no face but a mask.
And then, there was more.
Destruction. Madness. Absolute, utter chaos. And -
"Are you all right, my lady?" She felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder.
Lady Maria was suddenly startled back into reality. Claude Lalande was kneeling by her side. She instinctively moved away from his hand. Lalande noticed.
"My apologies, my lady. I was very concerned that you were unwell. You had your ears clasped to your ears, as though you were in pain."
"I will be fine." Lady Maria responded with as much calm as she could muster in her voice.
"Very well, then. You should get some rest, my lady. The assault will be starting tomorrow." Lalande got up and left, leaving Lady Maria to herself.
Was that a look of - affection? Lady Maria wondered to herself. She put the thought aside, and focused her thoughts on the vision she had. A vision. She shuddered.
The first part of it seemed to signify victory over the Cult or something similar. But the second part unsettled her. Why the destruction? Why the chaos? Was the Cult planning something, something that would shake the world? Or was it something else altogether? All these visions. All these images that flashed through her mind.
Lady Maria closed her eyes and let sleep claim her and bring with it oblivion. But even then, a thought plagued her mind.
What did it all mean?
29th June 1969Edit
It started with an artillery barrage.
Well concealed in his hiding spot, Rogue Luis Sanchez surveyed the area in front of him. There were a few cultists nearby, no doubt on patrol. How he would have liked to shoot them, right at this moment, with the longbow that was in his hand. But he waited. It would be foolish - even an act of treachery - if he were to alert the enemy to their presence before they were ready.
The cultists left, continuing on with their patrol. A quick glance about showed that there was no one else around. Sanchez heard the soft squawk from his radio, lying by his side, almost undetectable to anyone not listening intently for it.
"All units are in position. Whenever you give the signal."
The rogue stood up from his hiding spot, and in one swift motion tossed the spotting flare.
Simultaneously, half a dozen other flares were tossed, and the attack began.
In perfect synchrony, a trio of hulking walkers opened fire. The vehicles were Bombard Artilery Walkers, towering artillery pieces armed with three steam cannons apiece. They had been letting the pressurized steam build up over the past few minutes, and now that steam was put to work.
The massive 450mm shells erupted from the guns of the Bombards, even as the elaborate clockwork mechanism present on each of the walkers loaded the next round into the firing chamber, and the massive cannons cycled through their firing sequence again.
The shells did their job, smashing apart the targets that had been marked by the flares of the rogues. The main compound gate and the secondary Cult temples were blown to smithereens by devastating barrages, leaving shattered remains in their place.
That was not all. The second group of Talon artillery, consisting of twelve Wrath Mortar Tracks, now launched their white phosphorous filled shells. The phosphorous stuck to the cultists, easily burning through their clothing and then their flesh.
The Talon had not wasted their time, and already they were advancing before the cultists' confusion ended and they reorganized themselves sufficiently to launch a counterattack.
The first into the fray were the Knights Templar. Even as the shells were still landing, they activated their thermobaric jumpjets as one, propelling them over the compound walls and straight into the compound itself.
Inside Temple Prime, the leader of the Cult had just learned of the attack that was taking place right at this very moment outside in the temple compound.
So they did attack after all. Sooner than I might have expected, though. Seth mused to himself. His fellow brothers knew what to do in the event of an attack. They should be launching their counterattack - soon.
Sir Marius Monet of the Knights Templar aimed his L-25 Leonardo cannon at the figure in front of him and pulled the trigger. What happened next was that a cloud of gas billowed forth from the nozzle, and at the same time, a spark was produced. Not much on its own, but it detonated the cloud of gas, causing a great burst of flame to erupt forth and envelop the cultist entirely, reducing him to ash. Another one down. Sir Monet turned his cannon on his next target, a Scorpion tank...
Elsewhere, the rest of the Talon strike force was just beginning to enter the compound. Large gaps were created in the walls as the sapper teams detonated the charges they had planted, while a large portion of the Talon force surged past the wreckage of the destroyed main gate.
By this time the cultists had alerted most of their forces, and one could hear the hum of the Cult vehicles as they came to life. As the main bulk of the Talon force entered the compound, the vehicles of the Cult sped forward to meet them.
"Target range 200 metres, engaging." The squire fired the 80mm gun of his Cleric Track at the Scorpion tank, which promptly exploded in a glowing fireball as the shell impacted its frontal armour and found the fuel tanks. The other Scorpion tanks responded with a volley of their own, but the 30mm shells barely glanced off the frontal Talon steel plating of the Cleric.
Then, a series of explosions could be felt as a volley of shells struck the Cleric's rather more vulnerable rear, knocking out the treads and leaving the tank stranded, unable to move.
The source of the shells had been a strange one wheeled vehicle, armed with an autocannon. Sir Monet raised his thermobaric cannon to fire at it, but before he could even blink, the monowheel vanished into thin air. It reappeared a few seconds later behind an unfortunate Hussar and emptied a full load of shells into the track's rear, causing it to explode.
The cultists were launching their counterattack. The monowheels were creating havoc amongst the Talon forces; though several were destroyed, most of them were too quick to hit before they vanished yet again into thin air.
The Cult wasn't finished yet. From their carefully chosen perches, snipers fired their needle guns. Brother turned against brother as the drug filled needles found their marks, injecting their deadly hallucinogens into the bloodstreams of their victims. And to add to the chaos, the cultists were lobbing hallucinogen filled grenades, which burst into the noxious aerosols that caused so many to go mad.
The hallucinogens the Cult used were extremely effective at spreading chaos - they worked by inducing visions in their victims, causing them to see things where there are none, and to attack friendly forces in the belief they were actually the enemy.
Such a vile weapon, Lady Maria thought. Turning allies upon each other.
She barely had time to parry a blow from a Fanatic who was obviously afflicted by the drug. After blocking a few more swings, Lady Maria brought down the hilt of her sword on the Fanatic's skull before he could swing again, causing him to crumple to the ground.
A shot rang out, missing Lady Maria barely. Lady Maria turned around, looking for the source of the shot. She found it. A Scorpion tank, closing in on her and no doubt reloading to fire its next shot.
The gunner of the Scorpion tank swiveled his gun and prepared to fire a second time. Unfortunately for him, his prey had been prepared for and he was blinded by a brilliant burst of radiance, overwhelming his senses and leaving him stunned.
Lady Maria, however, was not so affected by the light from her halo, and she struck forward, a blur as her clockwork boosted joints propelled her towards the tank, thrusting her sword through the frontal armour of the tank.
The driver of the Scorpion would never remember what happened next, as the blade penetrated into the driver compartment and passed cleanly through his neck. The cultist died immediately. Lady Maria pulled her weapon out of the tank and lifted it high to deliver the killing blow. The Scorpion tank was cleaved in two, its armour offering little resistance against the ambiarically heated edge of the sword, which was so hot as to burn through metal and flesh with contemptous. The last vision of the cultists operating the tank would be that of an armoured woman, swinging the brightly burning sword that ended their lives.
The driver of the monowheel decloaked yet again and fired, this time blowing apart a Wrath Mortar Track. The cultists were going on the offensive, striking at the rear of the Talon formation. The cultist recloaked and selected his next target. A Cleric exploded as the Ezekiel's Wheel tank shot at its engine compartment, raking the rear armour of the tank with autocannon shells.
The cultist looked around. To his left he could see two of his fellow brothers as they decloaked and poured a barrage of shells into the vulnerable formation of Talon footmen. They were using the Ezekiel's Wheels to their fullest effect, outflanking and ambushing the Talon forces to devastating effect. The Talon forces would attempt to return fire, but the cultist knew that his brothers were too fast for them; the monowheel was swift enough to evade most return fire and could be safely under their stealth bubbles mere seconds after they launched their attacks.
Their counterattack was going quite well, the cultist realised. When they had begun the counter offensive proper and the first barrage of hallucinogenic grenades landed, the Talon spearhead disintegrated into something decidedly less impressive. That was expected, of course, but now the driver noticed the Talon forces had been retreating over the past few minutes, and that there were now few Talon forces inside the compound itself.
Sir Monet activated his jumpjet, allowing it to propel him backwards and away from the temple. The Talon forces had been falling back, in the face of the Cult’s counterattack, and they were now fully on the defensive. He glanced to his right, where the Talon forces were trying to marshal themselves into some sort of defensive line. The Talon forces had taken quite a few casualties to the Cult forces, and he judged the force to be at three quarters of its original strength. Most of the few Talon forces still within the compound itself were covering the Talon retreat. He watched as a Dragoon fell to an incessant barrage of 30mm shells, its cockpit smashed in and its pilot dead.
Right in the thick of the battle that was taking place at the temple’s main gate, Lady Maria was a maelstrom of destruction, carving apart tanks and cultists alike with her ambiaric sword. Bullets just seemed to bounce of her Talon Steel armour, seemingly impervious to weaponry.
Claude Lalande was quite annoyed when he learned that Lady Maria was still in the temple compound. She shouldn’t still be in there. The rest of the forces in the compound consisted of Dragoons and Fanatics, the former wishing to atone for their past sins, the latter all too eager to kill the enemies of the Order in their crazed zeal.
“My lady, you should not still be in there.” Lalande’s voice crackled from the radio.
Lady Maria hesitated for a moment. Lalande had a point, but it didn’t feel right to sit back as others fought. She made up her mind quickly, and replied into the radio. "No, I think I'll stay."
Lady Maria had that tone in her voice, one of iron hard resolve, and Lalande knew nothing he could do would make her change her mind. They would have to proceed as planned.
There was something to be said for the genius of Aperta Scriptum, thought Besieger John Hannigan to himself, as he barked out a set of orders to his crew. He couldn't help but think the thought. Check.
The elegant, elaborately crafted walker stirred to life, its gleaming silver skin now clearly visible as it rose up to its full height. With a mighty roar, the Cataphract Land Ironclad fired its 250mm cannons.
The Monowheel's driver was fortunate in that his vehicle was not caught in the initial blast. No one could have seen his expression on his face, hidden behind a mask it was, but if they could they would find it to be one of something not unlike horror.
A volley of massive steam propelled shells had ploughed straight into the centre of the Cult forces, and with a resounding explosion they shook the battlefield. The cultist looked up for the source of the fire, and found it. His eyes widened further.
A Devil's Executor! The Talon had brought along one of their infernal machines after all. Under the concealing bubble of his vehicle, he was fairly safe as long as he wasn't caught in any blasts, but his brothers were hopelessly outmatched. Another volley of shells ravaged the Scorpion tanks, and now the Talon Cleric Tracks, formed up in an armoured wall, advanced forward, shelling the Scorpions with their guns.
They lured us out! That would be the cultist's final thoughts, as his life was ended in a blinding explosion.
The lure had worked, thought Beseiger Hannigan, as he ordered his walker forward. Hook, line, and sinker. Now, the remainder of the Talon force that had up till this point been kept in reserve sprang into action, pincering the cultists and surrounding them from all sides. The cultists had been baited out of their fortress by the initial strike force - and lured into a killzone.
Now, the Bombard Artillery Walkers, which had been dormant since the start of the attack, unleashed a cascade of artillery shells, their clockwork targeting systems calibrated to bombard the area that the cultists had so obligingly charged into.
The Cataphract itself was impervious to what lacklustre firepower the cultists could marshal against it, as it strode into battle, crushing several vehicles underfoot as it did so.
A frontal assault would have worked, but it would have forced the Order to fight their way through the complex and well fortified temple compound, against an enemy who knew the battleground better than they did. It would have meant unacceptable casualties, something the Order could not afford.
Inside the temple, the Cult leader realised that they were losing the battle. With little other options left, he turned to the wall behind him, and reached for the sword hanging from its centre.
The bulk of the cultist defenders had been wiped out, and now all that was left was to destroy the temple itself. With so many cultists drawn out of their heavily fortified temple, there were few to defend Temple Prime against the onslaught that came now.
The entrance into the temple posed no resistance to the heated edge of Lady Maria's blade, as she cut it open in one swift stroke and entered. A cultist presented his head rather foolishly, only to have Lady Maria hack it off. She strode into the temple, sword at the ready should any cultist appear.
The next cultist that appeared was armed with a sword of his own, and Lady Maria engaged in a brief swordfight with him, before ending his life.
They were nearing the centre of the compound. She could tell. The few remaining cultist defenders that presented themselves were easily dispatched. We really did thin out their ranks, she thought to herself.
She stopped. In front of Lady Maria was an imposing, heavily reinforced steel door. One strong enough to stand up to a tank shell, probably.
It did not stand up to her sword.
Seth had his thoughts interrupted as the door was kicked down, and a woman in shining silver armour and distinctly Arabic features entered, her sword raised. The honour guard that were with him moved to stop the woman, but she decapacitated them both with her sword.
"Maria, Lady of the Talon, I presume?" His voice had a mocking, arrogant, tone to it.
Lady Maria appraised the man in front of her. She could not see his face, of course, being covered as it was with a mask. In his hand, he held a sword of his own, and behind him was a wall adorned with candles and parchment.
"Seth." Lady Maria spat out the name.
Lady Maria leapt forward, sword raised high to deliver the blow that would end the cult leader's life, but Seth had expected the move, and blocked the blow with his own sword.
"So, you make the first move." Seth licked his lips as he thrust his sword at Lady Maria, who instinctively parried it. "This will be interesting."
Over the next few minutes, the two opponents engaged in a whirlwind of swordplay, thrusting, swinging, parrying, while also sparring verbally.
Maria taunted the cult leader. "Give it up. Your cultists are surrounded and by the time any other forces get here, you'll be dead and we'll be long gone." She parried a sword strike. "It won't be like the last time - in the Alps," she added, referring to the battle when the Talon had nearly defeated the Cult, when they were driven off by Swiss forces.
"Ah, but then, you see, they call me Seth the Undying - and with good reason, too." He paused. "You could strike me down right this very moment, and you will find just as alive as I was beforehand the next day. You know that."
Lady Maria shot back. "You're just as human as anyone else, and you know it. Accept your death."
"And what are you? They call you the saviour of the Talon, say you are the reincarnation of a living saint -" His tone was clearly mocking, "they say your coming was prophesied by the Lord Marshall himself -"
"But you're just some Arabian woman. Look at your Order. Does everyone trust you? Prostrate themselves before you like they really believe you to be the reincarnated saint they claim you to be? You find yourself arguing with others - there are factions who are against you. Surely you know that?" he paused to let the taunt sink in. "Why do you fight for these people? They're the ones who killed your parents, no less, and still you work for them. Why?"
Lady Maria tried to ignore the mocking words of Seth, which she knew were meant to poison her mind and distract her from the battle at hand. She parried, thrust, swung, parried, thrust, swung - and then Seth made the mistake that would cost his life, stumbling backwards. For a fleeting moment - but it was enough. Lady Maria thrust forward her sword, and felt it pierce right through the Cult leader.
Dead! Lady Maria let the now lifeless body slump to the ground. At this moment, Claude Lalande entered the chamber, covered in what was apparently the remains of some unfortunate cultists.
"My lady! We must leave now. The temple is burning, and it is collapsing." Leaving behind the corpse of the cult leader, Lady Maria followed Lalande out of the chamber, as its ceiling collapsed, leaving the body buried under the rubble.
As the last of the Talon attack force left, they left Temple Prime in flames. Ablaze and in ruins.
And all of Temple Prime was an inferno.
4th July, 1969Edit
"We are live in Sarajevo, at the site of the mysterious 'Temple Burning'."
"The temple was found by local security forces over the weekend, completely razed to the ground and all its members dead."
"The temple appears to have belonged to a mysterious cult, and seems to be their main temple. This is the third such attack this year, and the closest yet to a major population centre."
"Among several fisted red banners that appear to belong to the cult, security forces discovered the stencil of an eagle. Such stencils have commonly been found on such sites as of late."
"The Allies have mobilised an investigative team to discover the identity of both the cultists and their killers...
"Thank you, Ashley. Moving on to other news..."
It was in the mid afternoon. At the former site of Temple Prime, a group of workers was working to clear the rubble of the destroyed temple.
"Hey, I think I found something!" One of the workers cried out, and the other joined him.
"What is it?"
It was a mask, quite unlike any of the other masks they had found on the bodies they had discovered.
The workers worked to remove the rubble surrounding the mask, and soon the ground was cleared. Near the mask was a sword. One of the workers picked up the mask and examined it more closely.
Beneath the spot the mask had occupied, in the space where there should have been one, there was no body.