The Shattering, the first page:
The woman’s face is beautiful, but it is the only part of her still intact.
She lies in an expanding puddle of her own blood on a grassy slope sprinkled with black ash, and a bearded, long-haired man kneels over her, his fine features upset, his right hand delicately caressing her hair as he holds her head in his left arm and repeats, “It’s going to be all right, Thyya.”
Their flamerguns lie beside them on the ground, still hot, their muzzles sizzling and clicking against the burnt grass and charred earth around them; a hulk of a bald man and a petite redhead with a round face stand next to the couple, scanning around, weapons ready. The redhead casts a quick look at the downed companion and spits, “Fucking rats.”
Thyya looks like she’s been nibbled by a thousand small mouths, and a thousand black filaments like long, badly ripped sutures pierce her body everywhere. She is wheezing in agony, and she laughs when, again, the bearded man assures her it’s okay. “Yeah, sure, Berhault . . .” Her laughter turns into coughing, blood staining her peach-like lips and the creamy skin of her square, harmonious face. “You have to go now, we’re close. You know, it may really be the last one, you . . . must.”
Her head lolls back, and her eyes close.
“Thyya . . . ,” he whispers.
But the only answer is a thunder of crumbling ice from the brutal expanse of the Miage Glacier on the other side of the valley, its immense seracs climbing under the fangs of the Aguille Noire, a gigantic weapon drawn as if ready to deliver the splitting blow that will cut the world in two. Above everything, the summit prism of Mont Blanc watches, impassive. The whole sight is made of light as much as granite and ice.
A large, dark hand rests on the bearded man’s shoulder. Berhault looks up to the huge, middle-aged, narrow-eyed man and just nods. Then he recovers his weapon and stands up in a graceful movement, trying his best to steel his quivering lips.
Guns in hands, pistols and knives swinging at their hips, they push on, quickly marching uphill in the dry air, permeated by a sweet, earthy fragrance. The exospines grafted to their backs sway as they walk—they all wear tank tops under the scorching high-altitude sun, and their backpacks wait for them down at their final two-minute stop at Lake Combal, at the base of the slope. Blue glyphs gleam on each carbon-titanium vertebra as the orphic marrow inside flows and bubbles. The spine goes down to their short tails, and up behind their necks in smaller sections. A ribbon-like collar engraved with symbols is connected to it. The exospine ends at their fontanels, where it sinks into their skulls.
“You guys really believe she was right? That it’s the last one?” the redhead asks, drumming a march with her black nails on the tank of her glyph-carved weapon, an underslung canister mounted to the lower barrel.
Berhault is silent.
The mountain of muscles shrugs, “Well, her source was, how may we define it? Unconventional at best. For what we know, we may well be the last ones . . .” and he casts her a sideways look, “Boss.”
She frowns, her black eyes widening between disturbingly long lashes. “What the . . . Oh.” She looks back at Thyya’s corpse. “Really? Me?”
“Last time I checked your insignia . . . ” he nods at the tattoos on her right shoulder.
Her gaze goes in search of Berhault—whose shoulder shows different tattoos: not their simple geometric codes, but beautiful, stylized goat-like antelopes, chamoix perhaps—maybe to ask for his opinion, but the slender man is looking forward, apparently indifferent to everything as he mindlessly puts one foot before the other. “C’mon, technically, but . . . I’m just a sarge, I assumed . . . I mean, both of you are way more experienced than me, and you’ve also actually seen one before.”
“Berhault is a Runner, so you know as well as I he’s outside the COC. And me, sorry, Boss, I’m just a grunt—I’m good at following orders and shooting things. And now, Pilar: I need you to stop whining and do your duty. Am I clear?” He looks her in the eye piercingly, and she snorts an odd smile that craters her moon face, stretching her thin upper lip over the full lower one.
“Fuck you, Gramps. And that’s an order.” Then she calls, “Berhault!”
He turns, but he doesn’t seem to really see her.
“I need you to pull your shit together, Berhault. When we get to that ridge, it won’t be a possessed pack, it won’t be only rats and flies: it’s the real deal. So Thyya’s dead, and it sucks, but now quit that pathetic zombie act. And if we make it out of this alive, I’ll personally blow you tonight to console you for your loss.”
Berhault raises his angled eyebrows, and his blue eyes seem to come back from very far away as he almost manages a smile. “Yessir.”
Berhault takes the lead; the behemoth looks at Pilar, nodding with an upturned smile and showing her his thumb.
Boots rustling on short grass and scraping on sparse stones. Aura of small flowers. The incline decreases.
And there: the ridge.
A man-tall pyramid of stones marks the pass.
The sight opens on the wide basin beyond. A crown of verdant mountains, rolling in gentle curves and baring spines of debris along the ridges, grooved by hollows gleaming with their eternal snowfields. In the bottom an icy lake, deep blue, just like a frozen piece of sky fallen from above, its surface pierced by fang-like icebergs.
And the thing in the middle of it.
A huge creature, at least twenty meters tall. It appears to be made of black, thickly entangled filaments similar to those that mangled Thyya’s body. A trunk or stem is rooted in the ice by a myriad of those filaments, many of which emerge and sink again in the ice and earth all around it, even hundreds of meters away, expanding underground like the mycelium of a fungus; high on the trunk, two thick limbs of filaments spread wide, making a cross; higher, a bulbous shape seethes with even more convoluted threads, like a skein; and from there, two bulky, bendy chitinous excrescences emerge much like bull horns.
Where the arms end, in a constantly waving bush of thinning filaments, vast swarms of flying specks burst out now; while the base of the trunk spews a horde of bigger snarls with tail-like things.
Pilar’s eyes widen as she whispers, “How the fuck do we kill that?” while all swarms, no doubt, point to the trio on the ridge. Moving fast.