Chapter 41: "Detroit or Bust"

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"If your ego starts out, 'I am important, I am big, I am special,' you're in for some disappointments when you look around at what we've discovered about the universe. No, you're not big. No, you're not. You're small in time and in space. And you have this frail vessel called the human body that's limited on Earth."

- Neil deGrasse Tyson

"The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time."

- Mark Twain


The Old I-94 TrailWest of Old Detroit

Ten miles through unnatural darkness and the overgrown ruins of a once great civilization. Two hundred fifty-three warriors rallied and marched from the small city of Red Rock towards the ruins of Old Detroit, known to the locals simply as "The D." There were ten times as many volunteers in Red Rock ready to march toward certain death but, in the end, Meg made the final call. Only the least injured of the defenders were selected for this, the final act of the war. All races, all sexes, and all disciplines were represented in the small cadre. Red Rocker, Lazloian, Hetran, Black Needle, Olympian, and Asgardian arrayed together under the leadership of the Grey Bears.

"If you'd have asked me what I'd be doing for Christmas this year, I would never have said marching to my death to fight the oldest evil in the Megaverse," Rudy said from his seat in the Grey Bears explorer.

"We can all hear you," Miranda answered on the Grey Bear circuit. The elf was currently almost half a mile above the convoy, keeping watch on the desolate wilderness between Red Rock and The D.

Adam laughed from his position on the oversized couch. Blood soaked bandages covered sections of his body, but despite his injuries no one, even Meg, had the heart to tell the giant he had to sit this one out.

"Of course, you can hear me," Rudy snapped, "I am well aware of when the radio is and is not on. I'm an Operator, not some barbarian sword-swinger!"

"So that time you were talking to me about Miranda's ass on the open circuit you meant for her to hear it?" Adam asked, doing his best to laugh when he did.

Rudy said nothing.

"Do you think Santa will come this year?" John asked. The young mage flew below Miranda but still far enough above the convoy to react either up or down as the situation may require.

Before anyone could respond, Meg broke into laughter. The rest of the Grey Bears were too shocked to hear it to cut in. Since the decision was made to try her suicidal plan, the young woman, to so many of the survivors now the Pulchra Angela, had been nearly silent flying at the head of the convoy.

"What's so funny?" John finally demanded, sounding miffed.

"Santa, Johnny?" Meg asked and for a moment, they all heard the voice of the wide-eyed girl they'd come to love in such a brief span of time. "Next thing you're gonna tell me the Easter Bunny and the Great Pumpkin might show up."

"I don't know about the Easter Bunny, and I have no idea what the Great Pumpkin is," John answered.

"Classical reference to mid-twentieth century America," Adam supplied.

"But," John continued, "Santa is very real, Meg, everyone knows that."

"You're fucking with me," Meg said, not believing a word.

"Not at all," Miranda chimed in, "I saw him once, at a distance. It was three years ago near Tolkeen."

"I'm still pissed you didn't get his autograph," Rudy grumbled. "I mean for fuck sake, Randa, how many times does he physically appear on a plane outside of the Yule Season?"

"He was a little busy at the time, Rudolph," Miranda shot back irritably. "I think the orphans had more cause to demand his time than me."

"Wait," Meg said, connections clicking in her mind, "Santa Claus is real? I don't believe it."

"Why?" Adam asked.

"What the hell do you mean why, Adam?" Meg snapped. "He's a child's story."

"Are you kidding me, Meg? You've met gods and goddesses," Adam laughed. "Are you telling me it's so hard to believe that Santa is real too?"

"I—" Meg started then stopped.

"If you say 'yes,' you'll get coal in your stocking, if you're lucky," Rudy laughed.

"And if I'm not?" Meg asked, trying to sound stern but failing. The idea that Santa Claus was a real being was too wondrous for her to ignore.

"Black Pete and The Krampus, sister," Rudy answered, dead serious.

"We have a signal from the ruins," the voice of Lieutenant Khyber Lin cut into the chatter, "It's on the Grey Bear frequency. It's a repeating message."

Since the final confrontation with the Great Beast and Meg's devastating attack, communications beyond the immediate range had been wonky. Rudy said it was a combination of electromagnetic and mystic energy released in the fight and that it should dissipate in a few days. But after that contact with YJ and Books had been cut, there was no way of knowing if the two Grey Bears still lived or not.

"Put it on the channel, Lieutenant," Colonel McCoy ordered. It was the first time the warrior had interrupted the banter since they'd set out. In moments, the relatively clear sounds of the command circuit were replaced by a static-filled signal.

"If anyone can hear me, this is Books. I have no idea what you did, but things here have gone crazy since the explosion. Hell, I don't know if any of you survived the blast, but it's sure freaked the Thorns out." The sounds of someone talking off mic could be heard, "YJ's still alive too but... he's in some trance; he keeps repeating the same thing over and over."

Static filled the channel and is then replaced by the voice of YJ.

"All is dark; the night covers the sun, stars, and moon. We are but meat for the great beast. Once more he will rise and none will stop him. Not the Mortals. Not the Immortals. Not the Gods, old or new. Not the magics. Not the sciences. Not even the Speaker of the Word. All will be the joy of death and chaos."

More static and then the voice of Books was once more on the channel.

"That's what he's been saying since that explosion." Books' terror was clear even through the distortion. "If you're alive and have a plan, you better move soon. The place is nearly empty, but the King of the Thorns and his elite guards are still here and they're feeding people one after another into the crack." For a second the signal cleared and Books' voice softened, "Meg, please, we need you."

The transmission ended.

"There's an embedded timestamp," Khyber Lin said, "It's been repeating for half an hour, more or less."

Flying at the head of the column, Meg Carson hardened. The broken spires of her home grew ever closer and as they did, so did the gnawing darkness of the beast beneath. She knew she should be afraid; she was not. She knew she should be angry; she was not. She knew the old Meg would have been second guessing everything. She would have asked for someone else to make the decision. That Meg was silent. The Pulchra Angela knew what had to be done, and if she had to die to accomplish it then so be it.

"This is it," Meg finally said, breaking the shocked silence on the channel, "You all know the plan."

The anticipation of the Warriors was palpable as they waited for the word. They didn't have to wait long.

"Attack!" Meg ordered.

To Be Concluded

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