"Brother Silvershell," Martine greeted the Sledge Brother walking onto the bridge of the Cult of Belome's submarine, "welcome aboard the Predator."
"High Priest," the former captain of Kamek's guard replied with a bow, "it is an honor to be here."
"I trust your trip went without incident?"
"It did, High Priest, but we should submerge before Kamek realizes what's happened."
Martine nodded. "Helmsman, dive to 250 ft." As the helmsman went about submerging the ship Martine returned his attention to his newest arrival. "So tell me, what does the Koopa Empire know of our intentions?"
"They know we intend to revive Great Belome, and they know we are close," Silvershell's expression changed to a grin, "but they have no idea how close."
"The Devourer has blessed us indeed," was Martine's reply. "Do they know of the artifact?"
"They know nothing of it, High Priest, but I've watched them tracking this ship. They can, and will, follow us all the way to the Devourer's temple if they must, and they will find out."
Martine frowned. "If they can detect us, then can they attack us as well?"
Silvershell shook his head. "Baron Ludwig is searching for a way to fire on submerged targets, but it's been to no avail thus far."
"Baron Ludwig?" Martine asked, confused. "He's on Fallen Angel?"
"No, High Priest. He's on Amadeus, which is hovering directly over us undetected, along with her sister ships Peacemaker and Free Bird."
Martine spun around toward the viewscreen. "What? Where?"
"You can't see them, High Priest. They're using some kind of stealth system designed by Baron Ludwig."
All color faded from Martine's face as he replied, "Does this system have any flaws, Brother?"
"Only one, High Priest. The device uses up so much power that the ships can't fire when they're under stealth, or immediately after deactivating the device."
Martine nodded slowly. "Then we are safe from attack, but not detection."
"And the squadron is vulnerable to attack, but not detection."
"I see. Well, I'll meditate on this, and on the need for a way to hit an unseen airship. Belome willing, insight will come to me. In the meantime, we must proceed to the coast of Land's End. Brother Cassius will be arriving soon.
"Baron Ludwig," Kamek reported over the ship-to-ship radio, "our security has been seriously compromised."
"What is it now, Kamek?" Ludwig groaned.
"It seems the Captain of my Guard has defected, Baron."
Ludwig was silent for some time. "Kamek, would you repeat your last report?"
Kamek sighed. "Baron Ludwig, the Captain of my Guard just bailed off my ship, and the time he left was exactly the time that the enemy vessel surfaced."
"And you're certain this is no coincidence?"
"Kammy tracked the Captain's descent into what looked like an airlock on the submarine."
"Then why, Kamek, did you not attempt to open fire on the craft when it was above the surface? You knew we didn't have time to lower our stealth and attack."
"Baron," Kamek sighed exasperatedly, "what would have been the point? Fallen Angel couldn't have done any significant damage in the time it was surfaced, and we can't hit it when it's below the water." Kamek allowed a note of sarcasm to sneak into his voice before adding, "At least that's what you've said."
"Watch your tongue, Guildmaster," Ludwig growled. "In either situation, the problem at hand is this: what information has your Captain given to the Cult?"
"Well for one thing," Kammy interrupted, "they know Fallen Angel isn't alone up here."
Ludwig spat. "Then the advantages of stealth have been utterly squandered."
"I'm afraid so, Baron," Kamek replied.
Ludwig bit his lip until his one large front tooth drew blood. "Then we'll have to continue tracking the ship until it resurfaces."
Kamek rolled his eyes. "So we're to continue playing games," he muttered. "Fallen Angel out."
"Brutus, are you certain you know what this artifact is that the letter spoke of?" Fortinbras inquired again as the Legion Commanders hurriedly left Cassius' office in the direction of Archangel's hangar. "I don't want to find out I pulled the Archangel crew back onto active duty for nothing."
"I'm certain of it, Milord," Brutus replied adamantly. "The letter refers to a relic called the Tooth of Belome. It's an ivory dagger used to spill the blood of the High Priest's acolyte during the final sacrificial ceremony of Belome's awakening."
"And you know where it can be found?"
"In the Sunken City."
"The what? Talk to me, Brutus."
"In ancient times, Belome's worshippers lived in a hidden city. That city was wiped off the face of the planet by a volcanic eruption six thousand years ago. Centuries later, the Cult found the ruins of the city, and Belome Temple was built on top of it. In fact, a section of the city is still intact beneath the temple, but..." Brutus slowed his pace until he came to a stop.
"But what? Time is short, Brutus," Fortinbras reminded him.
"The entrance is underwater," Brutus explained. "The only way in would be with a submari..." Brutus was unable to hide the shock from his eyes as the realization finally came over him. "The Predator!"
This time it was Julius who spoke up. "Come again?"
"The letter said something about 'boarding the Predator,' didn't it?"
"Lord Fortinbras, Predator is the name of a ship, and I'm willing to bet it's a submarine." Brutus paused to let Fortinbras' mind wrap around the implications of that statement before repeating, "The Cult of Belome has a submersible vessel." Before Fortinbas could reply Brutus had him by the arm, practically dragging him to the hangar at a full run with Julius close behind.
"High Priest," the cultist at the helm of Predator announced in a chilling voice, "we've reached the coordinates given to us by Brother Cassius."
"Prepare to surface," Martine replied.
"No," Silvershell intervened in a voice that made the entire bridge crew jump. "High Priest, the Amadeus and her sister ships may still be up there."
The helmsman looked at Martine, waiting for further instructions.
"Keep us submerged," Martine instructed. "We'll surface when Cassius signals us."
"Yes, High Priest."
As the bridge crew went about their tasks Silvershell stepped inconspicuously toward the High Priest. "And what do we do about the Koopa ships when we finally do surface, Enlightened One? I don't think this ship will last long against them in sustained combat."
"There won't be any sustained combat," Martine explained. "When we hear from Cassius we'll surface long enough for him to board, then dive again. After that, we'll be on our way to the temple, and I doubt even the Amadeus can follow us there. Besides," his eyes flashed with an unholy fire, "if the Baron does decide to show himself, we'll have a little surprise for him."
"All hands, report," Fortinbras commanded over the Archangel's intercom. After delivering this order he turned to Brutus, who was sitting in what would normally have been the First Officer's Chair, attempting to look inconspicuous. "Brutus, I really hope you remember the Belome Temple's hidden chambers as well as you say."
"I do, Milord," Brutus assured him quietly. "The only question is whether or not we can beat the Cult there, for time is short. Once they reach the temple it will be only hours before they find the Tooth and begin the sacrificial ceremony. After that Belome will return, with his power completely intact, and everyone in this world will be destroyed, both body and soul." This explanation was given in a flat, unemotional tone that somehow failed to lessen its chilling impact on Fortinbras.
"All decks report ready, Minister," Ensign Raz Dayweather reported. "Prepared to engage liftoff sequence on your command."
"Excellent," Fortinbras returned his mind to commanding his ship. "Take us out, Ensign."
"Aye sir," Raz complied. "Engaging primary thrusters." Feeling Fortinbras' gaze, Raz turned around to face him. "Is something wrong, Sir?"
Fortinbras strared at Raz for a long time. Indeed something is wrong, Ensign, he thought. But how can I tell you that you may have to open fire on your own wife before the day is over? "Nothing, Ensign," he lied. "I'm just thinking."
"Sir," came the voice of Lieutenant Commander Hinopio, "it may not be my place to ask, but what are we here for? We were just called back to active duty only a day after returning home, and we don't even know why." The rest of the bridge crew voiced their agreement by turning to face Fortinbras, eagerly awaiting his reply.
Fortinbras sighed. The crew was accustomed to following orders, even if they didn't understand them. He knew he could simply dismiss this inquiry and they would perform their duties without question, but something about the situation told Fortinbras that the crew needed to know how crucial this mission was. "I'm afraid I can't tell you everything," he explained with only a slight note of apology in his voice, "because for one thing there isn't enough time. What I can tell you is that I would not have pulled you off of your hard-earned leave unless there were a crisis demanding the attention of the finest crew ever to fly. Now we are up against a force that serves an almost demonic authority, and what is at stake today is more than any of you can imagine."
This explanation, however vague, seemed to convey the message Fortinbras had intended, and the crew responded by turning their attention back to their duty stations, all with faces set as if carved out of granite. "Course and heading, Sir?" Raz asked.
"Set course for Land's End, Ensign, Mach 6," Fortinbras said with his characteristic regallity. "We're going to the Belome Temple."
If the crew made a connection between Fortinbras' speech of 'demonic authority' and the Belome Temple, they didn't acknowledge it as the juggernaut began its liftoff sequence and departed from the hangar. Fortinbras, however, was occupied with something else. Brutus was clutching his hand, wincing as if a sharp pain had struck it. "Are you okay, Brutus?" Fortinbras asked.
"I'm fine," Brutus assured him, "but I believe it would be prudent to make haste to the temple."
Fortinbras didn't understand what Brutus' hand could possibly have to do with the Cult or the mission, but he acted on the Legionnaire's suggestion. "Ensign Dayweather, increase speed to Mach 7."
"High Priest," Silvershell reported, "we have arrived at the coordinates Cassius sent us, but there's no sign of Cassius."
Martine smiled. "I know."
Silvershell looked confused. "Perhaps the High Priest would enlighten the rest of us."
"I have been in meditation," Martine explained, "and the Devourer has revealed to me that Cassius is already inside the temple. The reason for the change is unclear to me, but it is irrelevant."
Silvershell bowed. "Then what is our course of action, High Priest?'
"We proceed to the tunnel," Martine replied. Glancing beside him at Raini, he placed his hand on her cheek softly. "I do so regret that we must soon part, M'dear."
"As do I, High Priest," Raini replied sorrowfully, "but the will of Great Belome must be served."
Before Martine could reply a high-pitched, whining sound was heard all around the bridge. Soft at first, it grew into a piercing cry, followed by a deafening roar as the ship reeled from an explosion.
"What in Belome's name was that?" Martine demanded.
"It's Fallen Angel," Silvershell gasped. "Kamek's found a way to fire on us!"
Martine clenched his fists in rage. They had been so close, and now this. Desperately, he looked out the forward window. The tunnel to the Sunken City was close. He could see the entrance from where they sat. If they deployed the mini-sub right now... "Silvershell, prepare to launch the mini-sub. Sister Raini, come with me. Brother Silvershell, you are in command."
"Yes, High Priest," Silvershell responded, "but what am I to do about Kamek?" The last was emphasized by another explosion, this time much closer to the bridge.
"Resurface," Martine instructed, "load Booster's new weapons and eliminate him.
"Success, Baron," Kamek crowed. "We've hit it."
"Excellent," Ludwig replied. "The thermal guidance system is working. We're preparing to drop stealth and open fire."
"I wouldn't do that, Baron," Kamek cautioned. "They know you're up here, and in the time it takes you to drop your cloak they could resurface and..." Kamek was cut off as his ship rocked from an explosion on its ventral side. "Report!" he commanded.
"It looks like they've surfaced," Kammy informed him. "And, they're not happy."
"Evasive action," Kamek ordered. "Lock breaker beams and return fire!"
Before the helmsman could reply he was thrown from his control panel as a blazing fireball erupted from it, courtesy of a rather brutal series of hits as the enemy sub's cannons found home.
"Great Astral Forces," Kammy gasped as the fire control squad quickly made their way across the bridge to the helm, "what're they hitting us with?!"
"Commandant," Karma snapped as she watched Fallen Angel get assailed by a volley of missiles from the enemy submarine, "give me a threat assessment of that thing."
Karma's blue-shelled Paratroopa commandant immediately jumped to the nearest radar readout. "It's a deep-submergence vessel," he reported, "with reinforced titanium armor and fifty-two Bill Blaster ports."
"Fifty-two?!" Karma shrieked.
"There's more," the commandant said worriedly. "The Bullet Bills they're using look like Booster's Magnums.
"Great. Lower stealth and prepare to fire."
"No, wait," Jazzman interrupted over the ship-to-ship radio. "You heard Kooky. Y'drop your cloak and you'll be a sitting duck while your weapons power up again."
"Well what do you suggest I do, Jazzman?" Karma barked. "Call up the Cult and ask them to go easy on Kamek?"
"If we all three lower our cloaks at the same time," Ludwig offered, "we may disorient them long enough to make up for the power delay on our weapons."
"Well whatever you do, do it quickly," Kamek screamed as Fallen Angel rolled end-over-end from a barrage of Magnums. "I can't keep taking shots like this!"
"Hang on Kamek," Karma urged. "Let's do this. Free Bird, powering down stealth."
"Peacemaker," Jazzman reported, "powering down stealth."
"Amadeus," came Ludwig's voice, "powering down... wait a minute. This is impossible.'
"What? What's impossible, Baron?" Kamek demanded.
"My ship's stealth controls are not responding."
Karma's eyes flew to her status display. "Neither are mine."
"Mine either," Jazzman confirmed Ludwig's suspicions.
"Kamek," Ludwig announced, "I think the cloaks have been sabotaged. We'll get right to work solving the problem, but for now you're on your own."
Fortinbras sat in the command seat of the Archangel and skulked. "I can't believe it," he muttered, "one of my own officers."
"What was that, sir?" Julius asked.
Fortinbras sighed. "I was just thinking how embarrassing it is that this Priest of Belome managed to rise so high in the Military without being discovered." He shook his head sadly. "And to think, I hand-picked Cassius out of all the candidates for the rank."
Julius shrugged. "I hate to say this, Milord, but I'm not surprised."
Brutus and Fortinbras both looked at Julius with raised eyebrows.
"I mean," Julius clarified, "I don't know why, but the Legion Commanders from Muda have a long track record of betrayal. First there was Legionnaire Macbeth, then Legionnaire Benedict, and we can't forget that psychotic quack from Toadtown... what was his name again?"
"You mean Wario," Fortinbras grumbled as memories came flooding back. "How did that lunatic become a Legion Commander?"
Julius chuckled. "Sir, just like you said about Cassius, you hand pick every Brigadier or higher."
Fortinbras shook his head. "Yes, and with so many positions to fill by myself, a lot of nutcases seem to be slipping through the cracks." As an afterthought he added, "especially in Muda."
"Then perhaps, sir," Julius jested, "we should come up with a new way to select Legion Commanders for Muda."
"Such as what, Julius?" Fortinbras countered.
"What about public opinion polls?" Brutus offered.
Fortinbras threw back his head and laughed. "Public opinion polls, for a flag officer? I'd like to think I'm running a military force, and you'd have it become a circus. I could see opening the issue to debate among the other generals, but the entire population? Every soldier, retiree, and child? I think not."
"Public opinion indeed," Julius joined in the joke. "Why don't we host a gameshow for the job while we're at it?"
"I can see it now," Fortinbras added. "Good evening, Sarasaland. Let's play 'Who Wants to be a Legionnaire'." At this the bridge crew enjoyed a much-needed round of laughter.
When the laughter died away Brutus shrugged. "I suppose you're right," he conceded. Before he could say anything further he was distracted by another sharp pain in his hand.
"Brutus," Fortinbras asked, genuinely concerned as his comrade winced from the pain. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"It's him," Brutus explained. "It's Belome." He pulled his left hand away from his right, revealing a vivid red burn-like mark in the shape of a claw mark. "The Signet of the Devourer," he explained to Fortinbras. "The Priests of Belome all have their hands marked with it so we can know when Belome is stirring."
"And he's stirring now?" Fortinbras pressed.
Brutus nodded. Before Fortinbras could push the issue any further he was interrupted by his radar operator. "Sir," the ensign requested, "you'd better come take a look at this."
Fortinbras rose from his seat and stepped toward the radar readout to see what the ensign had found. "Well, well, well," he mused when he saw what was on the screen. "Helmsman, increase speed to Mach 8."
"Baron," Kamek pleaded, "please tell me you've solved your stealth problems. I don't know how much longer I can hold out against this kind of bombardment."
"We're trying, Kamek," Ludwig complained. "I have every engineer searching, but we can't do anything until we can lower stealth."
Kamek was about to reply when another explosion rocked the bridge of his stout ship. As a section of the deck exploded from the impact, a piece of the debris hit Kammy squarely between the eyes, knocking her unconscious and sending her flying into Kamek.
"Helm," Kamek cried out in defeat, "prepare to retreat."
"Guildmaster," Kamek's radar operator alerted him, "we may not be able to. There's another ship approaching fast, and it appears to be Archangel."
Kamek threw his wand onto the deck and spat every curse in the Koopa tongue before his communications officer looked at him in confusion. "Guildmaster," the Sledge Brother reported, "incoming transmission from Archangel."
"Transmission?" Kamek asked in disbelief. "Put it through."
At that moment the voice of Lord Fortinbras Toadstool, unmistakable even through the static, brought an unforeseeable ray of hope to the Fallen Angel bridge crew. "You look like you could use a hand, Kamek."
"This is it, Sister Raini," Martine whispered as he climbed out through the entry port of the tiny mini sub. "The sunken city."
Raini climbed out behind Martine and looked around. "I can scarcely see a thing," she complained.
"Yes," Martine relished. "Such darkness... glorious, isn't it?"
"Quite so, High Priest," Raini agreed, "but how will we see?"
There was the sound of a Fire Flower being crushed as Martine removed one from his robe and used it to light a torch he had brought with him. Raini and Martine both gasped as the gloomy hall was revealed. It seemed to be an old cathedral of some kind, eerily preserved through the years in isolation. The ancient ceiling was held up by four rows of colossal stone pillars running the length of the hall, and each pillar was covered in what looked like algae. The walls and columns were carved out of a strange black rock, and at the base of each column, facing out in four directions, stood six-foot-tall gargoyles carved from onyx. Finally, at the opposite end of the hall, there was a gargantuan obsidian obelisk looking like an altar of some sort, bearing carvings of Belome's face. The dim light of the torch bathed the ancient hall in its macabre light, adding to its unworldly feel.
"By the Devourer," Raini gasped. "I've never seen anything so magnificent."
"And this," came a voice from the shadows, "is only the beginning."
Raini and Martine both turned toward the sound of the voice to find Cassius, holding on his right shoulder a large metal tube with a handle with a single button on it. In his other hand was an ivory dagger, with a handle made of silver and inlaid with gold.
"Brother Cassius," Martine hailed. "How great it is to see you." As Cassius held up the Ivory dagger in his hand, Martine added, "and already with the artifact, I see."
"Indeed," Cassius nodded. "Fortinbras ordered me to search through the archives in Muda for information about the Super Scope project, which I wasted no time doing as you can see." At this he indicated the weapon on his right shoulder. "What he didn't know was that this gave me the chance to search through the Sarasi archaeological index as well, and as I suspected, there was another entrance to the Sunken City, and it lead straight to the Chamber of the Tooth."
Martine grinned. "Cassius, you never cease to amaze me. No doubt you will be rewarded when the Devourer rises again."
"As will all the brotherhood," Cassius affirmed. "Well," he held out his hand, pointing toward the front of the cathedral hall, "shall we commence the sacrifice?"
"Alright Fortinbras, we're only going to get one shot at this," Kamek's voice cut through the thick static, "so listen carefully. They probably don't see you yet, or..." the static became too garbled for Fortinbras to hear.
"Kamek? Are you still with us over there?"
From Kamek's reply, Fortinbras was able to piece together only a few scattered words. "I'm here. You'll... under radar... Booster's weapons... Hurry!"
Fortinbras took his seat and, clenching the arms of his chair, ordered, "Helmsman, increase to assault speed: attack pattern Kilo four two."
"Increasing speed," Raz answered. "Approaching enemy vessel from 7 o'clock, passing starboard. Firing range in 15 seconds."
"Starboard cannoneer deck," Fortinbras called over the intercom, "prepare to fire, full spread on my command."
Not a sound was heard on the bridge except the sound of the engines below as the Cult submarine grew larger in the forward window. "This will be our only shot," Fortinbras thought. "If we don't do some kind of damage in this pass, surprise will have been wasted."
"Firing range in five," Hinopio broke the silence. "Four, three, two, one."
"CANNONEERS, OPEN FIRE!" Fortinbras trumpeted, and Archangel's 32 starboard cannons ravenously lambasted the submarine as they flew past. "Damage report," Fortinbras' order fell flat as the assault ended.
"We've taken no hits, sir," Brutus reported, checking the status display on the arm of his chair. "We caught them off guard."
"Damage to the enemy vessel?"
Brutus checked his readout once again and, not believing what he saw, checked again. "None," he gasped.
Fortinbras' eyes turned slowly back toward the window as Raz instinctively turned the ship around to make another attack run. "What kind of armor does that thing have?"
"Is everything in place, Brother Cassius?" Martine's voice dripped with anticipation as he spoke.
"Yes, High Priest. The altar is set." He glanced at Raini, then back at Martine. "Your acolyte?"
"Willing and most eager," Martine replied. "Have you prepared the implement of sacrifice?"
Cassius produced the ivory dagger from the Sarasi uniform he still wore. "All is ready."
Martine looked up toward the towering obsidian altar before him. "Then clear your minds of all thought," he instructed, "and let us begin."
"Guildmaster," Kamek's acting guard-captain whispered over the unnerving silence on the bridge of the Fallen Angel, "Archangel has completed her attack run. Fortinbras managed to get their attention, but minimal damage to the enemy vessel, and they're handing Archangel the same beating we got."
Kamek clenched his fist tightly and hammered the arm of his chair with it. "What's our own status?" he demanded.
"We're still able to fly, but barely," the commandant answered. His attention was drawn to a radar report and he added, "Archangel's making another run."
Kamek's eyes turned back toward the forward window. "Do we still have weapons control?"
"Helmsman," Kamek commanded, gasping, "divert all available power to the engines and prepare for another attack run. We'll see how they fare when faced with both the echo and the voice."
"Lord Fortinbras," Julius cried over the cacophony on Archangel's bridge, "casualty reports coming in from all decks. If you have a plan, we need to hear it, and fast!"
Fortinbras looked wildly from one disaster to another as the bridge crew struggled to maintain order on the juggernaut. "Think, Fortinbras," he mumbled under his breath. "You're a Legionnaire, and Defense Minister. You can handle this."
"Milord?" Julius urged him.
"Weapons check," Fortinbras shouted desperately.
"Cannoneer decks report heavy casualties," Hinopio answered, "and the cannons won't be much use against that thing's armor anyway."
"Flamethrowers?" Fortinbras groped in the dark for a solution.
"They'll be ineffective against metal, especially in water."
"We must retreat, Milord," Julius suggested.
"No," Brutus and Fortinbras both responded vehemently. "No. We can't let the cult revive that creature."
"Then what do we do?"
Fortinbras stared stone-faced out the
window. "It has to have a weakness," he thought to himself. "EVERYTHING
has a weakness. Our cannons are useless against their armor, and flamethrowers
will be ineffective, so...
...That's it!" he finally spoke up.
"What's it?" Julius demanded.
"Helm," Fortinbras directed his answer at Raz, "bring us about for another run. Gunner, bring the liquid nitrogen cannon online."