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Prologue

Mateo watched as the pack closed around Zara and her three companions, his breath caught as the monitor flickered with static. “Don’t make a sound, wait for my signal.” He whispered into the radio. He cast a quick glance around his squad, his three companions stood poised and ready. With a heavy breath, he flicked the switch in his hand and shouted into the radio. “GO!” His comrades bolted through the trees as a wave of fire and dirt consumed the forest behind them.

Twisted branches lashed against his arms as he sprinted through the trees. The layer of dead foliage scattered in his wake. Condensation threatened to form inside his helmet with each breath. A stream of cool air filtered over his face and kept the gathering moisture at bay. He glanced left and right for his three comrades thundering through the undergrowth with him. Branches slapped harmlessly off their Armoured Strike Suits as they hurdled through a wall of leaves. The four burst into a clearing, evening light scattered through the canopy above.

A wall of fallen trees lashed together with vicious barbed vines blocked their path. The soldier to Mateo’s right sprang first, dipping low and leaping into the air, a blue glow traced a graceful arc in the soldier’s wake. Mateo gathered his breath and stooped low in his stride, feeling the tension build in his armour he launched into the air. Thrusters fired to speed his ascent as he vaulted the massive trunks, his eyes darted left and right for movement as he drifted over the dense undergrowth. The four hit the ground with a graceful sweep and were sprinting through the trees once more. Twisting to look back, Mateo saw Zara’s squad split off in two directions.

“Squad two get to the rally point, do NOT split up!” shouted Mateo into his helmet. Three voices bombarded his ears and he failed to make out anything useful.

“Zara!” he cut in, “Get your squad to the rally point.”

“They’re too close, the others panicked and”- Mateo’s breath caught as the sound of gunfire cracked through the trees, “They’re trying to cut us off!” Said Zara

“Keep moving, get to the high ground…” A flicker of movement grabbed his attention, a creature of black velvet loped through the trees alongside him before disappearing into the brush. Mateo fired three rounds into the thicket leaving quivering branches but nothing more. His companions spared a quick glance to each other before redoubling their pace. The dense woodland began to thin into areas of open ground. The group continued to sprint across the landscape, vaulting fallen trees and scattered boulders in their path. More shots rang out behind Mateo, followed by a roar of anguish.

“Zara! You still with me?”

“Still with you.” Came the reply over the radio.

The sun hung low and darkness began to creep across the landscape leaving patches of heavy shadow among the trees. Thermal readings began to feed into his visor as the sunlight slowly died. Red shapes bounded along the thinning tree line to his sides, edging ever closer. Mateo saw his destination ahead, a series of rocky peaks with a system of warrens and caves beneath. Halfway up the hillside sat the entrance. A glance back showed him Zara and her last companion about thirty seconds behind, moments behind them was a mass of bounding red bodies spreading out to envelop his two comrades.

Mateo signalled for his squad to continue without him. He turned mid-stride, skidding to a halt and reaching for a small gun stored on his lower back. He dropped to one knee while the gun unfolded in his hand and snapped a long barrel from his back onto the weapon. Taking careful aim he opened fire with the newly assembled rifle.

Zara slid to her knees scattering a cloud of dust and gravel around her, a mass of rippling muscle and sinew leapt overhead. Her knife flicked out like quicksilver separating tendons and muscle beneath the black velvet coat. The beast collapsed in a heap with a furious roar, its front legs limp and useless as it fought to regain its footing. Zara sprang up while momentum still carried her and was sprinting for the rocks in the distance without a second thought. The creatures were all around, glowing red in the vision of her helmet. She saw Mateo drop to one knee and fire in her direction, bodies convulsed and collapsed around her as the shots tore through flesh and bone. The creatures scattered as their pack mates fell but were replaced in moments by more beasts eager for blood. She reached Mateo who fell in beside her with a brief nod. The first group began to vault up the rocky surface, thrusters fired to speed their ascent, before disappearing into the warrens they scouted the previous day. One minute later Zara, Mateo and their companion followed.

“Collapse the entrance!”

“We don’t know how stable this place is!” said Zara

“Do it!” Mateo shouted to the third soldier.

The soldier retrieved a pack from his belt and sprinted towards the entrance, placing explosives on either side. Mateo fired as a creature pounced over the ledge. The beast landed with a heavy thud and clawed the ground with his death spasms. Three more hauled themselves over the ridge, Mateo killed one with a crack of his rifle, Zara fired a burst into the second. The third descended on the soldier and locked its jaws around his thigh, scooping him up like a rag doll. The jarring scrape of teeth on ceramic armour gave way to a damp crunch. The Soldier brought up his gun and fired into the beast’s skull until it collapsed. Mateo moved to the downed soldier to prise open the creature’s jaws. Zara ran to the cave edge and fired at the creatures scaling the rocks below. The heavy beasts struggled for grip on the loose rock face and panicked as bullet whipped past. Many lost their footing and tumbled down the rock face. She popped out her empty magazine and replaced it with a flourish, her face was slick with sweat and her jaw ached so much she thought she might crack a tooth. Zara spared a glance back, the Soldier on the floor arched his back in pain as Mateo worked his knife into the animal’s jaw and tried to lever it open. She fired again in a series of precise bursts. A snarling maw snapped only half a meter from her feet as she discarded another empty magazine.

“We’re out of time!” she said, kicking a cloud of gravel into the creature’s face as it struggled to crest the ridge. Mateo was hacking at the beast with his knife, its jaw still clamped around the soldier’s thigh. The soldier snapped upright and threw a punch at Mateos jaw. “Run!” he said waving the detonator at them. Four more Beasts clawed their way onto the ledge, Zara glanced at Mateo who was standing frozen and then at their comrade lying on the floor. She grabbed Mateo by the shoulder and the pair ran into the darkness. The crippled soldier screamed a bloody curse to the heavens and threw up his fist and was enveloped by fire.

A massive jolt shook the cavern, loosing cascades of rocky debris from the ceiling, Zara glanced back to see a wave of dust flooding the tunnels. The two slowed their run and a voice crackled over the radio.

“What the hell was that?”

“Entrance has been sealed, work your way to the peak, we’ll meet you there, Mateo out.” He turned to Zara who was hunched over with her hands on her knees.

“I can’t reach the two in the forest,” she said shaking her head.

“We have to go, let’s hope they found somewhere safe.”

Zara tapped her helmet and illuminated the cavern with the light in her armour. Mateo followed suit before storing the rifle barrel on his back, keeping the smaller weapon that was better suited to the tight space. The pair walked with weapons ready, gently stirring the layer of fine dust covering the floor. They followed the tracks left by the first group and moved deeper into the tunnels.

“Damn it!” said Zara as the footprints disappeared beneath a wall of fallen rocks.

“Backtrack to the last fork, we’ll find another way around.” Mateo turned to see Zara remove her helmet and place it on the floor. She angled the torch to Illuminate a portion of the cavern wall. She ran her hand across it, clearing away the mud and dust.

“See this? Tool marks, someone made these tunnels.”

“There are no tribes in this area, must be ancient.”

“Looks new to me.” Said Zara, examining a patch with no mud covering.

Mateo didn’t say anything but gestured for her to follow.

“We didn’t scout this way,” Zara said, pulling her helmet over her head.

“I’m aware of that.”

Matteo paused to listen around the next corner, the muffled clicks of Zara’s strike suit were all he could hear in the stillness of the cave. She stopped behind him crouching and watching the tunnel they had come through. A small gasp escaped Zara’s lips when the radio burst to life.

“Where the hell are you?”

“Cave in, we’re looking for an alternate route,” replied Mateo “Zara’s seen evidence of recent digging, stay alert.”

“We heard movement, thought it was you.”

“Negative, get to the peak and call for transport.” Mateo Turned to Zara “have you seen this crap?” he said, kicking up the layer of thick dust on the floor. “It’s everywhere.”

The thick motes of soot hung in the air for a moment before descending to settle on the ground. The particles slipped over Mateo’s feet like oil on water, refusing to settle on anything but the cave floor. Zara shrugged but Mateo noticed the whites of her eyes more than usual. Don’t get stupid you trained for this he reminded himself, trying to slow his breathing. Zara tapped his shoulder and they moved on.

A series of shots echoed through the tunnel, Mateo and Zara froze in their tracks. A voice crackled through the radio, thick with panic.

“It’s a Manifested!”

More shots followed. Meteo sprinted in the direction of the noise with Zara close behind. The deep red glow of emergency flares bathed the walls up ahead. They ran through a series of twisting tunnels, casting gruesome shadows as they ran. More gunfire rang out, closer now, with the frantic footsteps of armoured feet ahead.

“Squad one! we’re close, what type of manifested are we dealing with?” Said Mateo. A scream of pain pierced the air and a wet wheezing died on the radio. “What glory damn type!” Shouted Mateo again, but the only response he received was gunfire. The pair neared an opening, the chamber was bathed in red light, another shout pierced the air followed by a heavy metallic thump. Mateo and Zara burst into the room, rifles raised, scanning the area. The cavern was carved over multiple levels with numerous dirt ramps leading up and down. Darkened hollows dotted the walls, impossible to tell if they were meters or miles deep. A body lay crumpled in a heap next to the entrance, limbs angled in directions they were not made to go. Another body lay across the room, slumped against the wall. A massive blow had left a large dent in the soldier’s chest armour which left little room for internal organs.

Zara cursed under her breath at the sight, “What now?”

“We get to the peak, we’re not far, one of the tunnels on the top level must lead outside.” Mateo gestured with his chin towards the third level “Kill anything that moves.”

“One of us is still out there.”

Mateo gave a thoughtful nod.

“What are we dealing with here?” said Zara

“Something strong.” Zara gave him an elbow in the side. “Look out for something big and when you see it run the other way.”

“What makes you think there’s just one?” Zara said with a raised eyebrow.

The flares in the tunnel began to die as they edged their way towards a dirt ramp. Massive shadows jumped back and forth in thrashing patterns as the lights began to sputter out one by one. The last flare began to fade as they neared the second level. Mateo longed to bolt for the exits, the encroaching gloom seeped into his mind and pulled his thought towards the dark. Images swam at the edges of his vision; ringlets of smoke flourished in his mind and danced away when he tried to look at them. He felt his heart struggle in his chest, telling him to bolt and leave this place, forcefully he reminded himself that his wits would be needed to keep them alive. The pair reached the second level and spared a glance at each other. Mateo saw the whites of Zara’s eyes punctuated with the same desperation he felt.

“We’ll get out of here, I have no intention of dying in a hole like this,” said Mateo, forcing his voice to stay steady. “Readings say we’re twenty meters below the peak, one of those tunnels on the next level must lead outside.”

“I’m going to spend a day in the shower when we’re back at base. I’m swimming in my own sweat in here,” said Zara.

“Think I’ll join you,” said Mateo, “my own shower I mean! Obviously not at the same time. I mean, you-”

Zara gave Mateo a gentle nudge in the ribs and snorted into her helmet, the tension in his mind eased a little. He regained a spark of composure and the two approached the highest platform. Zara peered over the lip of the dirt ramp revealing nothing but the dust-covered ground. Four tunnels were spread around the platform.

“Take the north tunnel,” said Mateo, “there were caves on the north side.”

Zara nodded and the two began to approach the lip of the ramp. The missing soldier bolted from a hollow on the ground level, sprinting for the ramp. Zara screeched and brought her weapon to bear as a massive figure stepped out of the shadows into his path, it swung a terrible mace into the soldier’s head, sending it rolling across the floor. Mateo and Zara opened fire on the figure and struck nothing but shadows and dust. The body of their comrade fell to his knees and collapsed into a heap “RUN!” shouted Mateo. Zara bolted to the highest level. Mateo followed, casting constant glances around the chamber for the missing figure.

The exit loomed ahead, Zara ran forward eyes scanning left and right. She reached the gloom of the tunnel mouth, her torso snapped to a halt, legs swinging forward as a massive fist gripped her neck. Her rifle slipped from her hand and clattered over the side of the platform, she pounded on the brutes forearms attempting to break the hold around her throat. The hulking figure sauntered out of the tunnel, arm raised, lifting Zara off the ground as if she were a toy. Mateo fired into the hulk and Zara collapsed to the ground gasping for breath. Mateo Roared into the darkness, spinning, searching for the missing body. Zara coughed and struggled to find her breath as she swiped at the heavy motes of soot that were falling around her.

Moments passed, Mateo still furiously scanned the encroaching darkness. A chill gripped his body at the sound of heavy footsteps and metal dragging across the floor. Cold sweat gathered in his palms, Mateo swallowed and turned to see the figure. A shadow in the darkness, swaggering towards them. The last of the red light cast a bloody silhouette around his grisly helm and massive body. Zara rose to stand beside Mateo, blade in hand ready to pounce. The figure began to swing his huge mace at his side, a deep guttural laugh escaped the armoured brutes face. Lights flashed as the last flare died and the battle cry of two soldiers pierced the caves once more.

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