In the previous episode, Lieutenant General Briggs was sent to investigate a number of Missing Persons Reports centered near New Eden’s Stonewall region. The Accord also lost contact with a supply team positioned at one of the farmsteads in the area prompting immediate action. Arriving at Bodega Farm, Briggs discovered that the entirety of the farm’s residents had disappeared without a trace with the exception of a little boy named Paulo. As the only witness, Paulo pointed Briggs in the direction of the abductor encampment; an ominous cave bordering the Melding wall. In its depths she discovers a ritual chamber clad in eerie imagery and atmospheric fanaticism. These people are worshiping the Melding.
The wild display of fanaticism begins to fade with the slowing pulse of the drum beat. Discarding all traces of primal celebration, the previously frenzied men and women assemble in front of an elevated platform. The murmurs gradually build throughout the crowd until a cloaked man ascends the crude stage. Arms outstretched, he stands before the devout flock in silence. Everything about this man makes me feel uneasy. Without uttering a word, his presence commands the room in domineering conviction. Each movement of his body exudes intensity, each fiber of his being demands respect.
“My children,” The man begins. “We are so close to perfection.” A brief pause adds weight to every word. “Through the guiding light of the holy storm we will transcend these bodies of flesh and sinew and enter an eternal plane.” His eyes pierce the loyal herd and his countenance grows sterner. ”Although some of our brothers and sisters have felt the pangs of waning faith, do not falter; transcendence cannot be complete without virulence. It is our mission, no our sacred duty to…“
The soliloquy endures in cyclical madness, each sentiment more depraved than the last. The SIN Beacon in my rucksack highlights the hostiles below but also detects a large grouping of hidden signatures. If these readings are accurate, I’m going to need backup. Attempting to patch into the dropship pilot’s SIN feed, requests for additional Operators are met with static. “I hope he hears this, I don’t know how long I can hide up here.” The white noise grows louder and my hands alone are unable to thwart the swelling audible debacle.
The speaker’s rant ends abruptly. He pauses, scanning the room with subtle diligence. Turning in my direction, his gaze meets my own and my heart literally stops. “Ah, I believe we have a guest.”
Following the leader’s reveal, dozens of enraged cultists turn toward my hidden perch at the mouth of the chasm. As my safety net dissolves, we lock eyes and the charge begins. The burly drummers lead the pack, climbing up the rock face in fluid bursts. Knocking down the ladders didn’t seem to faze them in the least. In preparation, I poise myself for combat; firearm gripped firmly in the right hand paired with the combat knife in left.
“Keep back!” I exclaim as my one and only warning. I may be tasked to bring the fight to the Chosen, but a band of crazies is certainly within my lethal jurisdiction. As the first assailant scurries up to my level, I place my index finger on the trigger and begin to squeeze.
Solitary clapping booms from the stage below. The aggressors freeze, stuck like spiders to the side of the wall. I relieve pressure from the trigger but keep the muzzle aimed right in between the man’s eyes.
“My, my, my, you certainly are a brave one,” the cult leader exclaims in between bursts of guttural laughter. “She has proven herself fearless; she is worthy of witnessing our gift, bring her to me.”
Hesitating to put down my weapons, I count the number oncoming targets. Too many.
“Willing to fight to the end I see, that is admirable. But I can be very persuasive.” The boss meanders to a large tarp strewn across the floor. In one jerking motion, he removes the sheet to expose a hidden room, some sort of dungeon cell. “Wouldn’t it be a shame if something happened to our little captives?”
Chained to the ground of the subterranean cage, the cramped captives barely react to the sudden entrance of light. They must be the Bodega Farm villagers and ARES supply team. Without much of a choice, I holster the weapons and begrudgingly go along with the goons.
Encircled by hostiles, two men pull me by the arms toward the center of the ritual chamber. The Melding’s light reflecting off of the stone floor reveals deep scratch marks and faded stains; the authoritarian approaches.
“I do not care who you are, what brought you here, or what faction you represent, when we enter the final stage of our evolution, such labels and designations become meaningless. One day we will all succumb to the warm embrace of the Melding, its nourishment will lead us to salvation and you will bear witness.”
“You are insane,” I manage to bellow out before the left guard counters with a swift blow to my stomach.
“Insane? I am the Arbiter, humanity’s guide toward the pinnacle of existence. You will join our cause whether you like it, or not.” Snapping his fingers, two followers scamper off to a back room. After minutes of silence, a clattering metal sound rumbles from afar. The two disciples wheel something to the central lair behind me.
“Turn her around.”
With a firm tug I am spun toward the revelation. Housed in a large metal cage, a thing of nightmares meets my gaze. Pale skin, stunted body, lifeless eyes; what stood before me was anything but human. Supported by sinuous legs, the creature’s twisted silhouette exudes an unnatural frailty. Riddled with striations and protruding ligaments, its sunken collarbones and paper-thin skin showcase the ultimate defilement of the human form. Once a human being, this creature has been re-purposed through the whims of the Chosen; robbed of a life and a future. All that’s left is an empty husk, a soulless remnant of its former self.
“You see, humans are a dead end in the evolutionary spectrum. With my guidance, the poor souls who suffer day after day trying to survive in this cruel world, can finally find peace as tools of the Chosen. By entering into the holy water, they shall be reborn.” Reaching out to touch the side of my face, he delivers the coup de grace, “Now you too will play your part.”
With a flip of the dull, rusted latch, the cage door clangs open. The Tortured Soul takes one shallow step forward. Each movement prompts a painful groan from the monstrosity. Another step and I recoil, but there is nowhere to go. Still restrained by the guards the abomination staggers onward. Only an arm’s width apart, the soulless husk jerks sharply then pauses. Its gaunt face barely resembles a human, yet its hallowed eyes exude an explainable sadness. In a jolt of apprehension, it expels a bloodcurdling scream. In one sweeping movement, the soulless husk pivots away from my position and bolts toward the Arbiter. Charging the soothsayer with superhuman force, it slams the Arbiter to the ground. Whether driven by instinct or happenstance, the spawn of the Melding goes straight for the man’s neck.
Screams pierce the chamber as the entity rips at the false prophet’s throat. The men who previously served as my restrainers crumble in horror. I free myself from their grasp and bolt to grab the appropriated gun. Before I can make it back through the crowd, the wails of agony fade into uncontrollable laughter.
“Isn’t this ironic?” The pace of the mystic’s laughter slows to a wavering cackle. “I may not see the grand transformation with my own eyes…but…the Melding…will reign supreme.” The Arbiter pauses, and then lies motionless; a smile still stretched across his face.
Without hesitation I raise my gun. BOOM. A bullet slices through the air entering into the back of the monster’s skull. Its body slumps beside the scene of carnage. Sobbing men and women inch toward their fallen leader in utter misery. With the Arbiter dead and the insane crusade in ruins, I walk over to the holding cell and unlatch the jail door without an ounce of resistance.
– – – – –
After a close call with the Melding’s devout, ARES Operators arrived at Stonewall’s hidden blemish in droves. Apparently my call for backup was received loud and clear by pilot extraordinaire, Sergeant Williams, but the reply was lost within the natural interference of the mountain walls. I was able to personally reunite Paulo with his parents after the rescue which was the most satisfying experience that I’ve had in quite some time. It’s so rare to find an intact family, seeing the smiles on their faces reminded me exactly why I joined the Accord.
Tallying the numbers, the abductors housed over thirty individuals within their makeshift jail cell; Bodega Farm villagers, the ARES supply team, and several missing travelers. Besides mild dehydration, the bulk of the captives were in good condition following the ordeal. Medical samples taken from the hostages suggest some form of incapacitating agent was used during the initial kidnapping, most likely a potent sleeping gas or volatile anesthetic.
A massive investigation is currently underway with the Accord determined to dissect everything they can about the fanatics. Every member of the cult was brought into custody without resistance, most were too distraught to put up any sort of fight. Following the death of the Arbiter, many of the kidnappers became unresponsive making interrogation extremely unproductive. But the few cooperative cultists revealed enough to form a foundation for the investigation.
From what we’ve been able to reveal, these cultists operated as opportunists; watching isolated roads around the Stonewall region for lone travelers or small encampments. The attack on Bodega Farm was their largest attempt thus far. They revere the Melding as a holy transformative entity. Based on accounts, we believe that their victims were forced into the Melding pool. Some were killed instantly while others transformed into monsters similar to the one that I encountered, Tortured Souls. Others were actually…fed to the creatures as sacrifices. The list of transgressions seems infinite, but one thing is clear, they will be brought to justice. There will be no judge and jury for the likes of evil incarnate. Their punishment will be of a different breed, swift, bold, and anything but merciful.
Image Source: 
Originally written for Red 5 Studios during my time working there as Web Content Editor.