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Prologue - Slumber She slept. If you can call this thing of nightmare a her; dragon scales rippled with a watery sheen and the ever-so slight rise and fall of her breath. Each scale shone as if it were comprise both of darkness and the tiniest slivers of light. It was once said that, to stare at them was to be lost in their shimmer, and for a moment witness destruction spanning thousands of years in a single second. Seeing her was to court madness. She dreamed. She once roamed the Earth, free and the world trembled. She inspired legends of terrible djinni, fiends from worlds beyond, all were tales of her or her many, many children. She incited madness, lust for power, and ultimately the destruction of all she and her children touched. Sodom and Gomorrah were both victims of her wrath. Mad prophets would later claim it was some other god. Soon after, she consumed said prophets; mangy, stringy things, which stuck in her teeth and gave her a bout of indigestion, but could never find all of the books that took the credit away from her and were later published. Thinking of those mad prophets made her think of dusty Babylon. Brilliant Babylon knew how to treat a being of her stature, they worshiped her, revered her and gave her the proper homage until they too betrayed her. Cast her into darkness, silenced her destruction. As a parting gift she destroyed their Hanging Gardens and left a seed that would ensure their ultimate destruction. They could not kill her, she was a god. But they could imprison her and cast her into a darkness that lasted for millennia. A cooling soothing darkness, one which softened her rage, quieted her powers and hid her from the view of man. The darkness was connected to the Void 1| P a g e

and the Void was everywhere and nowhere. And for a time, she was forgotten. Many of her children were destroyed by heroes of various ages, eventually forced into hiding or exile, lest they too be destroyed. And they too were forgotten. The darkness hid her terrible bulk, shuttered away beyond the light from the early morning. The green canopy overhead blocked all but the most determined of misty light and kept much of her from view. The monolithic temple hid the rest of her. She was not a thing most humans would want to see. In fact, no human had seen her this way for over a thousand years. Those that had, inspired new religions, talk of serpent gods and the destruction of the world. She slept easily during those times. They made sacrifice to her and she grew strong again. But she could not attract attention. So during the night, one night a thousand years ago, she drew her new people to her into the Void and they waited, serving her, making new things, and waiting. No human had seen her since. And she preferred to keep it that way, until the prophecy spoken of two thousand years ago came to pass. This dragon, this monstrosity of scales, this frightening creature of myth and legend, this mother of monsters, eater of men, ravager of worlds, slept deeply and dreamed of mad prophets who said she would return to the world. She had a special penchant for those mad prophets, who even today, preached the revelation of her return, free from constraint, free from morality, free to sow and reap humans like the wheat of dusty Babylon. Such dreams gave this living monstrosity a fearsome shudder and the humans nearby for a thousand miles, in every direction experienced an earthquake. These quakes were becoming more common for them, more powerful, some causing nightmares. Dreams of more terrible quakes to come, some that spoke of a time, where monsters 2| P a g e

would rise up and slay men and bathe in their blood. No one ever spoke of such nightmares. Even to acknowledge them seem to drive men to madness. So most kept doing what they always did, living lives of quiet desperation. Even in her sleep, their fear and terror fed her, pleased her, and for a moment excited her. Then she returned to sleep, a deeper sleep, and in that sleep, she dreamed again. And often those dreams were the stuff of human nightmare, capsizing ships, destroying buildings, releasing volcanoes. Today she dreamed a dream of modern life, putting on a business suit, dark blue, carrying a slim and stylish briefcase and going to work; an insurance firm in New York City, specializing in insuring the rare, the expensive and things so valuable they were irreplaceable. She would not work there very long. Just long enough to ensure that some of those things would cease to exist, through unfortunate accidents, hostile takeovers, theft, extortion or murder; a woman simply has to have hobbies between attempts to destroy the world.

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Chapter 1 He woke. The first thing he noticed was the chill. It was a pervasive thing, it felt as if it froze the very marrow of his bones. Not normally affected by weather, he found the sensation unpleasant, but not unbearable. Standing up, he began to take in his surroundings. There was no light -- no that is not right, there was no normal source of light. No lantern, no torch, no lamp, no light bulb; yet the room gave off a subtle luminescence, centered on where he sat. Driving his vision further past the illumination, he noticed that there was a radius to the field of unlight and the area he was sitting in was larger than he was able to initially perceive. "Curious." The sound of his voice, flew free. Encoded with his desire, it fled into the darkness and did not return. The very nature of its failure told him everything he needed to know. This subtle use of his power told him he was not in the world as he knew it. He realized he must be in a nearby Shard or worse, lost in the Void. As he considered this, his apprehension began to take shape. Almost casually, he inspected himself and found everything seemed to be normal. He was still wearing the grey and black suit and vest common to his attire and the last thing he remembered wearing to work. His shirt was still the silken, Italian blouse he favored for formal meetings. He was wearing his favorite leather shoes, with an added non-slip surface beneath them. Not that he ever feared slipping, but it was a habit from a bygone era when one's footing might cost one's life. And until now, He had been very careful.

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He looked down at his hands. They were still the strong hands of a Roman soldier, a bit more weathered, a bit less callused, but still capable of relieving a man of his life with a variety of tools. But the thing he was looking for was gone. His ring was missing. The sigil of his power was missing. This did not mean he was powerless, it meant that for his duty to continue, the ring moved to his successor. That meant he could not leave this prison. And that his power was in the hand of a mortal, for the first time in two millennia. A mortal He truly loved but had poorly prepared for this day. He could only hope that his impressions all those decades ago were right. * * * The Director tried to wake from a dream that seemed overwhelming real and quite visceral. It was not his normal condition to dream, having not done so for many years since coming to work at Death, Incorporated. Having not dreamed in decades, left him open to the strange, surreal nature of this dream. He was standing in the middle of a field surrounded by monstrous creatures of all shapes and sizes, wielding a sword of ice and shield comprised of a field of force laying waste to everything around him. In the distance, he could see demons and angels flashing swords of flame and lightning, illuminating the battlefield. This seemed to last days and nights and then with a final flash of lighting, the battle ended. He was the only thing standing unscathed on the field. Taking in the horrible vista, he wept, openly. Time passed.

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Sensing moving in the corner of his eye, he turned and dropped his terrible, ice-sword, which froze the very air near it and the blade shattered as it struck the ground. It was an Angel still moving slowly, feebly trying to remove the corpse of some horror draped across it. The Director found himself striding toward the Angel with a strange ambivalence in his core. Grabbing the nearest limb of the giant white gorilla, he flung it from the Angel, who sat up. "Did we win?" the Angel croaked, his voice dry and likely burned from angrily flung cocoastrum during the battle. "I can't see you, please come closer." "No, I do not think your side won," the Director intoned gravely, "we are the last things alive here, so I can safely assume, my side did not win either. Do you have a name?" "I was once called Malik, the Guardian, and I guarded the doors to Hell," the Angel glowed visibly upon the recitation of his former station and for a moment seemed more majestic than his current condition, covered in the blood and offal of other creatures would allow. "You may call me, Aurelius," the Director said. "I think I was once the general of this army but now I am not so sure." "Well met, former general of a once mighty army. You must have been formidable to have defeated this mighty Host..." Malik began. "I cannot remember why we were fighting, though General. Do you have any memory of the conflict?" The Director seemed surprised by the Angel's confession and had to think deeply himself. "To be honest, I have no memory of why or how this battle took place. I am willing to forswear any further conflict if you are Malik, of the Angelic Host," the Director's feeling in this regard seemed sincere, even as this very real dream transpired.

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"General Aurelius, as much as I appreciate you taking the time to free me from confinement, I am not able to forswear violence toward your person. There is still the matter of the Heavenly Host who even now, tell me to rend thee, limb from limb," Malik seemed pained to admit this and sat back on his haunches and spread his wings. While he was sitting, he appeared to slowly get cleaner and his injuries began to shimmer and heal themselves. "Perhaps we could simply sit a bit longer and see if we can untangle this since there is no one here but you and I. Perhaps we can come to an agreement." General Aurelius - the Director took in the scene and for a moment was surprised by the carnage - there seemed to be a variety of warriors from a variety of ages, lost in time and space, vast incredible armies with amazing technologies all lay about the battlefield. The General's senses transcended the five and with his extended awareness could see ripples in time and space where these armies were snatched and conscripted. He could also sense the ruptures that the enemy used to reach this battlefield between Time and Space. Until he used those senses, his awareness was limited to this place, this space, this time, suddenly he was aware of a thousand times, a thousand places, where He reigned and suddenly realized where and who He was. "Malik, Angel of the Host, I declare this conflict completed. And as an act of Mercy, I shall allow you, the final survivor, to return to your Host. Remind them, this is our final conflict. The next time we meet, I shall destroy you and your utterly. Know this and never return," the pronouncement was clearly delivered and chilled the very air around the both of them. There was a weaving of force, of malice, of murderous intent in those words. The General was sure his words were relayed to the Host, even as he said them.

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Malik, clearly shaken by the tone, and the message, stood and suddenly his twelve foot stature, seemed to overshadow the tiny General before him. "General, looking around the battlefield, it is clear that you and I are at the locus of something terrible, but I do not believe that you are in any position to make demands, or to cast threats. From where I stand, it is you, who should be looking at surrender. I am Malik, the Guardian, the warder to Hell, the hand of God and Sealer of Doors. You are in no position to make demands." Malik suddenly burst into white flames and a blue flaming sword appeared in each of his hands. The General looked at the Angel and was momentarily in awe. "Beautiful." With a momentary pause, he whispered, "I'm sorry." The General raised his hand and suddenly the Angel appeared to be in a fearful wind, his flames flickered and were blown backward, wisps blasted back as the wind increased. Malik roared and leapt forward, blades flashing forward, blue fire glowing like the sun. The General Aurelius, the Director, watched in horror as his outstretched fist clenched and some unknown force exploded forward and simply erased the Angel Malik, Guardian and Warder to Hell, Hand of God and Sealer of Doors, from existence. The Director screamed, a long wail that caused fear in all who heard it, and then he woke, his right hand burning. On his hand was the ring from his dream, bearing the Aspect Skull of Death backed with a nuclear plume, the symbol of the destroyer of Worlds.

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Chapter 2 War laughed. The sound was discordant with the scene of blood and eviscerated corpses all around him. The god of War stood over a battlefield and enjoyed the early morning smell of charred flesh and destruction. The bitter stench of brimstone and gunpowder wafted on the morning breeze, tingling his nostrils and reminding him of battles in other places and other times, each as memorable, in their own way, their signature of violence, unique in that moment. He surveyed the landscape with a practiced eye and was pleased with what he saw. The conflict, while relatively small, was satisfying for all of its human suffering. War was not like the other younger gods. War was not unnerved by the loss of human life. The Others felt that the younger gods should strive for harmony with mankind, harvest their worshipful energies, teach them how best to serve, and glut themselves on that spiritual effluvia. War had no such compunction. If anything, he had no interest in the direct worship of man. Instead, man was his plaything, his action figures; he felt humans were built for war; petty, selfish, mean, childish, hateful. They had so many handles that could be manipulated. It was only natural for them. This did not mean he did not respect them. No, War had a healthy respect for the destructive nature of man, the same way a dog trainer was cautious with a breed of dog known for biting, he trained men to bite everyone but him, and then sent them to attack other men when they got the idea to attack War instead. They were so predictable, it was almost no fun.

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Through the fog of the early dawn, the landscape promised to be arid, dry and hot. There was not much left to see but the rising smoke from the fires, dirty soldiers making their way back to their field commands, and occasionally stopping to put a man out of his misery. They did not shoot those men. Bullets were expensive, so the work was very personal. War was pleased. He began walking toward his tents, where his retinue were packing up and preparing to move on to the next campaign area. His troops were mostly child warriors from nearby Darfur, with a smattering of older and more experience soldiers, really bullies mostly, leading these groups. There were about a dozen mercenary groups hidden away at a nearby base awaiting instructions. They would arrive by helicopter only if the expendable troops were not able to get the job done. War was dressed in the body of Mani Kunjufu, an African warlord, about two meters tall, strongly built, well fed, with a harsh countenance that his troops found unnerving if he stared too long in their direction. He had a terrible scar on his face, running down his right cheek from a knife wound. It had healed badly and had a puckered, unhealthy appearance. War was sure to show that scar to anyone who would question his authority. The tale associated with it was told around the camp whenever he was not around. One of the bully guards was beating a child soldier at the end of an encounter. The boy had failed to hold his ground and ran from the fight. As the bully was disciplining the boy, he made the mistake of impugning Kunjufu's desire to engage in combat; something about him being weak, dirty and unable to fight like a man, hiding behind his soldiers. Before War claimed him, Mani Kunjufu might have been all of those things. War did not choose him because he was a good soldier. He chose him because he could do what was needed. It was clear that he did not know about War's possession, having only recently been hired and like most bullies believed his own bravado and toughness could not be matched by some new warlord come to town. 10 | P a g e

Unfortunate for him, War was nearby and keenly aware of the discourse. When the bully guard was finished beating the boy, he retired to his tent and waited for one of the camp whores to show up. War visited his tent, instead. When War was seen leaving the tent, he was covered in gore, and there was a deep cut on War's face, oozing black blood. Each drop of War's blood hit the ground and burrowed sinuously into the sand. The man was found in his tent, from the neck down, flayed to the bone, blood and organs everywhere. His throat had not been cut and yet he did not make a sound. A knife handle was found in his hand, but the blade was nowhere to be found. The next day, his tent was gone, viscera and all. No one knew what happened to it; everyone was too afraid to go near it. Rumor was that giant black worms rose from the ground and consumed it, body and all, in the night. No one contested those rumors. There was no more dissent. War, a consummate professional, his uniform was a set of local khakis, dun in color and baggy. He only carried a relatively small 9mm on his hip. Finishing another cigarette, he looked around and noted if he needed a firearm, there was a surplus of them all around him. And if he was really pressed... well let's just say, he had been killing men for several hundred years now, and knew of dozens of ways to get the job done with and without using Essence. As he was leaving the battlefield, his sharp senses heard the snap of a twig two or three hundred feet behind him. Turning, his senses already targeting the unknown movement, he could already tell several things about his target. Tall, physically massive approximately 125 kilos, deliberate movement, not making any attempt to hide, moving in his direction, confidently but haphazardly, as if he were lost or drunk; first this way, then that. War found that strange but waited patiently while nearby carrion birds screeched their pleasure at the excellent feast before them. 11 | P a g e

The man approaching him seemed to be out of place, his brow furrowed in the morning light. Clean-shaved, also wearing a set of khakis, but it was not apparent what was wrong with the look of him. Then War realized what it was. The man was crisp, tidy even. No blood, no dirt, no offal, no debris, as a matter of fact, there was not even dust from the road on him. He appeared cool, even in this blistering Congo morning and he carried a small clipboard as he stepped officiously through the carnage. He was making marks on the clipboard with some regularity, and occasionally would stop to roll a body over before moving on. "A lapdog here to do his master's bidding I see," War's sarcastic tone was unconcealed. "We have a mutually beneficial relationship, and I am simply doing company business. I am sure you understand," was the polite reply, punctuated with the grunt of a body being turned over and a notation being made on a clipboard. "If your master were doing his own work, he would not need me to fill the graves and your tallies, Reckoner." "My Master appreciates your work and knows that you are simply fulfilling your destiny. It has always been in his best interest to work with you, despite your alarming propensity for grandiose displays of destruction--would you mind stepping over here, I need to see that man's face." "What is the point? All of these men are dead, why even bother to mark their passing?" War steps aside while the Reckoner continues his task. "Their deaths mean nothing to your office, you are the god of War. Their dying needlessly and aimlessly is your specialty," a tone of bitterness tinged the Reckoner's remark, but

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he continued his work, attempting to maintain his objectivity. "I on the other hand, must reckon with the dead, their lives, their families, and their spiritual continuance, of which you know nothing, care nothing and discount as empty mummery, not even worthy of your respect. I am merely a servant of an Aspect. You would do well to remember that." The Reckoner stops his work and turns to the god of War. "Ah, some backbone after all." War smiles and lights a local cigarette. "Want one?" The Reckoner looked at him, shook his head and replied, "no thanks, those things will kill you." "You know," War began after a deep drag on the cheaply made cigarette "your Master will not always be here to protect you and yours. Rumor has it your agency will be experiencing a change in management. If I were you, I would make a point of deciding where you stand when that happens." "We hear the same rumor, every sixty years or so. Not much ever comes of it. But thanks for the warning," was the chilly response. "Here he is." The Reckoner pulls a number of bodies off of a young teenager. "Lumumba Kisimba, age 16, survivor of the Shaba massacre." The Reckoner pulls the boy to his feet, turns him about and inspects him. "No lasting injuries, just a couple of scratches. Are you well, boy?" the Reckoner's voice is quiet and non-threatening. "Yes, sir," was the meek reply. The boy is looking at War and moves behind the Reckoner.

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"There are no survivors of the Shaba massacre, Reckoner," War's voice was low and threatening. "He will not be leaving here, these people are dying to make a point, resistance is futile. If he survives, he threatens that." "Be that as it may, I was sent to recover the boy. Are you saying your reputation might be stained if one boy survives? Surely you can bear it." the Reckoner's voice sounds almost jocular in its pronouncement. War flexes his muscles and grabs a hunting knife from his belt with one hand and pulls his nine millimeter with the other. "Give him to me, I will not be denied. Nor will I ask you again." The Reckoner, turns his back on War, putting his arm around the boy and begins walking away. "You would not violate the Compact to try and kill me, War. I claim the boy as a Hero-intraining. He cannot be touched by you or anyone else until he is done or dies in training. His name is Lumumba Kisimba, War. Remember it, I am certain he will remember you." "He will not be remembering anyone. He is not a Hero yet." War's combat knife began to glow with ethereal Essence. His 9mm begins to shimmer as well with a darker flame. "Give him to me, Reckoner. I have no quarrel with you or your Master. But this deed must be done completely; no survivors." "No," the Reckoner turned toward the boy and the air began to shimmer like the desert on a summer day. Sand began to swirl at his feet, a subtle power began to build. "Damn the Compact, there is more at stake!" War's weapons, both glittering with Essence, let fly. The knife is thrown with deadly precision. The Reckoner, turns and using his

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clipboard as a shield, catches the knife, its blade clearly penetrating the surface, but stopping short of cutting through the board. As their two powers meet, there is a displacement, partially physical, partially spiritual, akin to an exploding shell and the boy is blown backward to the ground. The gun's staccato voice resounds in the morning air, a killing sound, literally; the carrion birds and anything else within a quarter mile, drops dead. Meanwhile its projectiles appear to streak in slow motion toward the boy. Lumumba Kisimba, Hero-in-training, sees his death and is resigned to it. He sees War as he truly is, a monstrous being of dark energy, barely contained within the shell of the evil warlord, Mani Kunjufu. He sees War extending his tendrils of force toward him, but those energies are moving slower and slower, as if he were watching a film that had stopped. Then he looks at the Reckoner, and sees him for what he is, a man powered by a more powerful and more ominous force. As powerful and fear-inducing as War is, when he looks at the Reckoner, it takes his breath away, this overwhelming spiritual pressure. Which makes the next sentence he hears even more strange and impossible sounding. "Listen carefully to me, child, for in a moment, I will be dead."

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Aspect War - Double Spaced - Indented  

later claim it was some other god. Soon after, she consumed said prophets; mangy, stringy books that took the credit away from her and were...

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