Chapter Five: The Burning Book

Part Three: The Flames of War

Max barreled down an empty alleyway. He paused at the far end of it, chancing a glance at the sky; there were no Cthuli to be seen. He squatted in an effort to catch his breath, and then probed out with his mind, looking for his friends, using an old tactic that he and Syris had set up. It was a sing-along, in the minds of the participants; the one who initiates the session is usually trying to figure out if there is a safe place anywhere around. Those who respond either respond with the song's chorus, which is a code for 'I'm safe, get over here' or the next verse, code for 'not safe, stay low'. A song was used in case an enemy had the ability to receive telepathic communications.

"Weigh-hey, and away we go, donkey riding, donkey riding," Max sent, his hands knotted in front of his head. "Weigh-hey, and away we go, riding on a donkey."

A few seconds later, Syris's voice rang out clearly in Max's head: "Were you ever in Quebec, launchin' timber on the deck, where you'll break your bleedin' neck, riding on a donkey?"

Damn, Max thought to himself. He's in trouble. He then sent another message, repeating the chorus.

Syris didn't send any coherent words, but simply a bit of emotion: Intense relief. A few minutes later, the wolf-man appeared next to Max. "Are you okay?"

Max looked up at Syris. "I'll be fine once we're off this island."

"That might be a while." Syris offered his hand to his friend. "Where do you suppose the others went?"

Max came to his feet. "I saw Tiup lead a few of them toward the center of the city. I lost track of Vo and Zeke."

Syris frowned. "Any idea how to get off the island before Cthulhu comes calling?"

"A helicopter, maybe, if we can find one. If it weren't for that book, we could just teleport home before this thing gets out of hand." He shook his head. "I swear that book is going to be the death of us."

"Be that as it may, we have our orders. We don't bring it home, we don't get paid. We don't get paid, we don't eat. We don't eat…well, we won't die, but let me tell you it's painful."

Max nodded. "Let's get going, then. If we're going to find a way out of here, we have to find Vo, Zeke, and Tiup first."

High above the streets and buildings of Kingston, Tiup's wings beat hard against the air as he tried to lose his pursuers. He glanced over his shoulder, saw a handful of Cthuli closing on him, and put on a burst of speed. He turned his head back to where he was going and stopped short, using his wings to hover in midair. The Cthuli that cut him off swung a blade-hand at him, and Tiup's control over his wings failed. He fell like a rock, helping him avoid the attack.

After several moments of freefall, Tiup forced his wings outward and caught a draft of wind, leveled himself out, and went on the offensive. He looped back up and drove himself down to where the Cthuli squadron had been. He pulled his maces off his belt and began to circle around, looking for his enemies.

The Cthuli frontrunner, the one with the blade protruding from his wrist, came at Tiup from the front. Tiup barrel-rolled, slammed the left-hand mace into the Cthuli's upper back; the Cthuli cried out in pain, a shrill sound that cut above the sound of air rushing by Tiup's ears. The horrible man-beast fell, swearing vehemently at Tiup in the native tongue of the Cthuli. "One down," Tiup muttered to himself, "four to go." Then, as he searched for the rest of his opponents, he sent out a message to his team: "I'm in the skies, boys, and I think I lost the chasers, if you need a spotter."

"Hey, Tiup," Vo's voice said. "Good to hear from you."

"I'd like to second that statement, Tiup," Max's voice chuckled.

"I'll tell you, one of these things nearly killed me," Tiup muttered in his head. "I'm pretty sure I lost the rest of them, though. I hope so, at any rate."

"We're in a bit of a bind," Vo said. "Zeke and I are surrounded on all sides."

"Where are you, Vo?" Max asked. "Syris and I are in the clear; we might be able to help."

"I'm not sure…I'd ask Zeke if he took note of our exact location, but he's unconscious." There was a pause, then Vo added: "He's hurt pretty bad, too. Took a projectile in the shoulder."

"Stay where you are," Syris said. "Max and I will come find you. Tiup, stay in the sky as long as you can, let us know where you see the flying bastards."

"Roger that," Tiup sent. With that, he angled himself downward, gradually wheeling back toward the city.

Syris barreled down the empty street; all the citizens had barricaded themselves indoors when the Cthuli swarm had been spotted over the docks. There was now a small group following his movements from the air, a tactic he had banked on them using. He had hoped, however, that they would use a greater number going after him. After a few yards, one of the Cthuli swooped on him; Syris turned and, careful not to loosen his grip on the package nestled in the crook of his left arm, unsheathed his broadsword. The creature aimed a kick at Syris's face; Syris ducked, dashing behind his opponent as he did, and swung his weapon in a tight arc at the attacker's wings, clipping one of them near the shoulder-blade. The attacker fell to the ground, cursing. Syris ran on past it, using his sword to cut a deep gash along the creature's spine.

Several moments later, Max burst from the cover of the alley that he and Syris had been hiding in. He leapt at a building, kicked off of it, and landed squarely on the back of one of the Cthuli. The star-spawn screamed as Max pummeled him toward the ground. Max reached down, pulled a dagger from a sheath on the beast's belt, and slammed the knife into the base of the Cthuli's neck. On the ground, Max yanked the blade free, placed the sheath on his own belt, and muttered, "I think I'm gonna keep this."

After a handful of similar attacks, having taken out the squadron that was tailing them, Max and Syris paused in front of the book store that Max had been in the previous day. Syris gasped, sank onto the sidewalk, and sat there, struggling for breath. "You okay, big dog?"

Syris waved away Max's question. "I'll…I'll be fine. Just…need…some air."

Without a pause, Max reached into Syris's pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Damn it, I warned you about these." He turned on his heel and pitched the small box into the sky, effectively getting rid of them. "Look, you catch your breath. I'm gonna find Vo and Zeke."

Standing with his palms flat against one another, his arms bending toward his belt buckle, Max once again used his mind to reach out. In his head, he saw his current surroundings; the buildings, the pavement, the sidewalk, his best friend out of breath and wheezing, the view-point rotating clockwise around him…then the scene shifted, carrying his view down the street. At the far end, where there was a three-way intersection, it seemed as though he turned left. Without warning, the scene shifted almost instantaneously, straight forward into a small warehouse. Zeke was propped against a wall, with Vo crouching next to him. And then…he was outside the warehouse, in the sky. What was left of the Cthuli battalion congregated there, and almost as one, they turned their heads toward Max's mind-view.

Back on the street, Max gasped and let out a startled cry. "Shit!" he said, pulling Syris into a standing position. He motioned vaguely toward the warehouse's location as he hastily explained: "There were Cthuli in the air, damn it, and they spotted me."

Syris took a deep breath, and it seemed to have the intended effect. He held it for a moment, then released, and took another, deeper, and held it a moment longer. As soon as his breathing pattern was regulated, he walked to the street corner and peered around it. "Long road," he muttered. "How far is it?"

"I don't know the exact distance," Max sighed. "But it's a straight shot, I know that much."

Minutes later, the two ran side-by-side down the street toward the warehouse. Their plan hinged on whether the Cthuli would move to intercept them; it was less a rescue operation than an assault, and less an assault than a run-and-gun tactic. "Is that it?" Syris asked, pointing his face at a small building in the distance.

Max squinted at the building Syris had indicated. "I…holy crap, that is it!"

"Good." Syris sent a mental image to Tiup, with an attachment: "Vo and Zeke are in there. ETA five minutes and counting."

Max added, "It just wouldn't be a party without you, Wings."

"Roger that, boys. I'll be there."

At the end of the road, Syris flung the book through a window into the warehouse, shouting after it, "Vo! Barricade, now!"

Max and Syris then jumped onto the roof of the building and looked up at the Cthuli. Seemingly out of nowhere, Tiup was in their midst and attacking them. His eyes were glowing fire-red, a fact which the both of the Agents on the roof noted grimly. With heavy hearts, they descended into the building to consult with Vo and attempt to help Zeke. Tiup would not need help for this fight.

"The Hellfire?" Vo gasped upon being briefed on the situation outside. "That's…wow."

Max nodded, eyes closed. "So we have an angel going batshit saving our asses in the sky." His statement was punctuated with the satisfyingly moist thud of a Cthuli body colliding with the pavement outside.

Syris looked up from assessing Zeke's wound to say, "But that still leaves us the problem of getting off this damn island."

"Before Cthulhu gets here," Max added, frowning.

The next few minutes was filled with an uncomfortable silence, frequently dotted by bodies falling to the earth. Vo looked up at the ceiling and whispered, "I hope he survives this one."

Max snorted. "He'll survive, Vo. He's too damn stubborn to die."

"But Marion said…"

"I know. She said it might kill him. Might. Tiup'll survive, damn it, and be tormenting us with his horrible accent for decades to come."

Upon the completion of Max's statement, a heavier body fell from the sky, hit the roof, and rolled off into the street. "Was that…?" Syris wondered aloud.

Vo and Max looked toward the wall that faced the road. "It's possible," Vo said. "And judging by the number of Cthuli that he killed, he finished the battle on his own."

Syris shook his head. "I need a damn smoke…"

Max frowned. "I'm going to check on him. Vo, cover me; Syris, stay here and keep an eye on Zeke."

Vo picked his katana up off the floor and slung it around his shoulders. He loosened the blade from the sheath enough to make unsheathing it a simple and flowing movement, then followed Max out the door.

Max looked at the crumpled body of his old friend and his heart leapt up into his throat. He vaguely recalled the last time that Tiup had tapped into the Hellfire. He had stayed in the power too long, nearly been burned by it from the inside-out and nearly destroyed a significant portion of the surrounding area in a fit of blind rage.

Shivering with worry, Max stepped cautiously toward Tiup. Kneeling down, he whispered a prayer to any god that would listen, and placed two shaking fingers on the angel's neck. The pulse was faint, weak, but it was there. It was enough. Tiup was still alive.

Elated, Max shouted over his shoulder, "Guys, good news! Tiup's still breathing! The Hellfire didn't kill him!"

Vo and Syris let out a unified shout of joy. "That's great!" Syris shouted. "Now bring him in here! When he and Zeke wake up, we can work out a way home!"

Tiup opened his eyes slowly. His vision was blurry; he strained his eyes, willing them to focus, and muttered, "What…the hell happened?"

A gently gruff voice responded: "You were flying."

And then an excited, somewhat overzealous voice added: "And then you weren't!"

Tiup felt a hand on his shoulders and grabbed frantically for his maces. "Are you okay?" asked a slow, soft voice. "Can you move?"

Recognition dawned quickly in the angel's mind. "…Zeke?"

"The one and only. Now, can you move?"

Tiup flexed his arms slightly, experimentally, then his legs, and at last his wings. "I think so," he mumbled, barely coherent. "I can't see, though. What happened?"

"The Hellfire," stated a listless, almost sarcastic tone.

"Ah. Thank you, Max."

The gruff voice spoke again. "It's good you showed up when you did, though. Max and I would have had a tough time fighting them all on our own."

For a moment, the world began to shake; Tiup could feel the foundations of the building beginning to fold. "What's going on?"

Vo laughed nervously. "I guess a few-hundred years of sleep slowed him down a bit."

"Bull," Syris muttered. "He could move a hell of a lot faster, if his goal were to get here and kill us. This is all saber-rattling on his part; nothing more."

"Who?" Tiup asked, panicking. "Who!?"

Syris placed a hand on the haft of his weapon and uttered a single word. "Cthulhu."

Tiup's vision, perhaps enhanced by a momentary spike in his adrenaline, instantly snapped into focus. "Damn."

Max shook his head. "You have no idea how much I agree with that sentiment, Wings. We don't even have a contingency plan for this!"

"We never figured we'd need one," Zeke admitted. "Cthulhu never put any claim to the Necronomicon."

Max put his hands to his head. "I have an idea. He's rattling his saber at us; why don't we rattle ours right back, put on a real show of force?"

Tiup scoffed. "No, Max. That's not how the Agents handle things."

Syris nodded. "When an Agent wants to scare an enemy off, he doesn't do it through big noises and bright lights."

Vo cracked his knuckles. "Right. He does it through action."

With a sigh, Max looked around. "So what's the plan, then? There's no way we can win with a head-on attack."

Vo nodded. Rubbing his chin, he thought aloud: "Judging by the frequency and intensity of the footfalls, I think he's coming straight down the center of the island toward us. If I'm right, we could use a two- or four-pronged attack strategy."

"Vo's plan is solid," Zeke said. "But where does that put me?"

"Your job, I think," Syris said to Zeke, "would be to protect this." He pulled the Necronomicon out of his cloak and handed it to the monk. "And be careful with it."

A few minutes of discussion later, they laid out the finalized plan. "The attack will be three-pronged," Syris said, drawing a diagram on the concrete floor with a piece of chalk."Tiup, Max, you guys are going to form the middle prong, a head-on attack. Cover Zeke while he carries the book. Vo, you and I will be the left and right prongs. When Max and Tiup get Cthulhu's attention, we'll get him by surprise." He looked around at the team. "Hands in, gentlemen."

The paladin, the swordsman, the centurion, the angel, and the monk, each put his left hand, a clenched fist, to the center of the ring. They spoke no prayer; no battle-cry was sounded. Instead, they simply drew on their fellowship, from the confidence that they had in one another, and hoped with all their souls it would be enough to win the day. After several moments of silent meditation, they left the tiny building single file, and then marched shoulder-to-shoulder into battle.

The ground rumbled and shook underneath Vo's feet, pitching the unfortunate warrior to the street. He scrambled back to running, and then he saw it; mighty Cthulhu, the High Priest of the Great Old Ones, looming high above the city, leaving a trail of fire, of death, of sheer destruction and chaos in his wake.

Cthulhu had the body of a man, covered though it was in greenish spikes. He was gargantuan to such a point that the tallest skyscraper that Kingston could muster came only to the beast's waist. In place of a head, Cthulhu sported a green-black octopus-like creature; its tentacles seemed to glow with a dark red hue – it was preparing to unleash its magic.

Instinctually, Vo panicked. But then a man-sized burst of whitish light collided with Cthulhu's chest, knocking the insane giant back several hundred feet. "Tiup," Vo gasped with relief, rushing to join his allies.

The angel flapped his wings, hovering in midair, gripping his maces ever tighter. A delighted sneer covered his face; once Cthulhu had recovered, Tiup roared a solid cry, alerting the others that the time to strike had come: "Attack!"

"Tiup!" Max called out from the ground. "I need a pick-up!"

The angel swooped down, lifted Max into the air, and barreled back toward the giant. Once within range, Max leapt from Tiup's hands and aimed for Cthulhu. As he was falling, he dipped into his soul, channeled the power that he found there outward; he began glowing silver. He used that power to force himself forward at an unbelievable speed. He slammed into Cthulhu, once again toppling the mad giant.

Max landed somewhere slightly beyond where Cthulhu fell. He glanced up in time to see Vo and Syris strike the newly-risen monster one after another, each jumping from a roof on either side of the beast. Recoiling from the attack, Cthulhu blasted a free-standing building into oblivion; none of the people within had even a split-second's worth of time in which to scream. Max's stomach muscles constricted, and he was unable to tear his eyes away from the horrible giant in front of him.

At last, he was forced to take note of the positions of his allies. Tiup was hovering about half a kilometer away from Cthulhu's chest; Vo and Syris were atop opposite buildings on both sides of Cthulhu. Max himself was in a good position to run and strike the back of the giant's knees. As he glanced from Syris to Tiup to Vo, and to Zeke, ducking safely out of the way, Max knew that they were all thinking the same thing.

As individuals, their attacks had failed to do more than stun.

As one voice, the four attackers roared their fearsome battle-cry. "Eternity!"

Max started running, forcing his legs to do more than they were capable of, blasting past humanity's land speed record, and hurled himself feet-first between Cthulhu's knees, digging his hands into the soft flesh behind them, pulling the great beast's legs forward. Cthulhu screamed in fury.

Tiup's eyes narrowed as, yet again, he pulled tremendous energy from somewhere deep within himself. The white light he projected left a trail in the night sky as he spun forward, tackling his enemy. Cthulhu made a noise that sounded like a startled cry.

Vo and Syris glanced at each other through the smoke and debris that clogged the air between them. They nodded in unison; each ran forward, leapt, and struck Cthulhu across the stomach, forming a bloody 'X' in the monster's abdomen.

And then, Great Cthulhu fell.

Syris used a water spout to guide him as he jumped to the ground. Running over to Max as Vo did the same, he howled, "We did it!"

Tiup landed softly behind them, closer to where Zeke had been hiding. Helping the frightened monk to his feet, he bellowed, "You're damned right we did!"

Max coughed and shook his hands, trying to liberate the blackened blood from them. "Now what do we do?"

Vo shrugged. "I guess we go back to Gibson's and try to get a good night's sleep before we leave."

"We can't just leave this here!" Max motioned to the humongous corpse behind him. "The media will…"

"Don't worry, Max," Zeke said, his voice almost lilting. "We've got a deal running with a handful of gods: They'll clean this up before morning. By that time, all the mainstream media will have on it are the words of the people, and maybe some photos that could easily have been faked."

"And the battle?" Max asked. "The Cthuli?"

Zeke shrugged. "We'll let the bureaucrats handle the cover-up."

Tiup, while the others were talking, had been looking up at the sky. "Where the hell did the moon go? And the stars?"

Indeed, a black cloud was slowly sprawling across the sky. The five Agents shuddered as they realized that this cloud was not of a natural origin. This was bigger…more meaningful.

And then the world exploded.

At least, that's the way it seemed to Max, as an explosion sounded from all sides; concrete became shrapnel, glass shattered everywhere, the ground pitched and swayed. The body of the giant behind them rose slowly, its eyes bright red. Then, in a shrill inhuman voice, it cried, "This city shall be your grave!"

A threatening, unwavering, gravelly voice barked, "Hold it, big guy!" All heads turned toward the sky. The black cloud was gone now; in its place was a pale man with dark, deep-set eyes, draped in completely black clothing. He had no wings; he was just hovering there, the stars and sky at his back, looking down on the strange assembly in the street. He dispelled his levitation, fell slowly toward the earth, and snapped at Cthulhu, "What in the name of Yog-Sothoth do you think you're doing, man?" Cthulhu shrugged, which was a startlingly humorous motion for its hulking frame. The pale man covered his face with his hand, and then pointed sternly toward the ocean, keeping his eyes shut. "Go home, damn it! I'll freaking call you when it's time to get up!" The giant sulked as it left the island, disappointed that it had been scolded so harshly. The pale man looked at the agents now. "Okay, you folks…uh, I don't know what to tell you. You can keep the book for now, just be careful with it."

As he turned to walk away, Vo called after him, "Wait! Who the hell are you?"

The man turned, gave a slight grin, and called back, "Your kind have given me many names, pal. But to tell you the truth, I've always liked 'Mister Skin'. Don't worry about the news, either; I've got people in convenient places. They'll handle everything. Tonight never even happened." Nyarlathotep winked. "Take care, you guys."