They stuck the First Court of Hell in the Gobi Desert. I remember looking down on it on the approach and telling one of the pilots, “I think I’ve passed this spot before… maybe back when it was more thataway.” I pointed off in the direction of New Yinpan.
The pilot glanced that way briefly before fixing his air filter more firmly to his face. “As you say, Empress.”
“Oh lighten up… not everyday you get to see me assault Chinese hell,” I swatted him lightly on the shoulder but neither he nor the co-pilot seemed to be in much of a joking mood. I don’t understand. I was having a great time. Fantastic. One of them, though, turned to look to our right.
“Trouble?” I asked.
He continued staring. “Unsure. I thought I saw something, but there’s clearly nothing there.”
“Keep your eyes out regardless. We don’t actually know what sort of defenses they’ve got. Locations, maybe, but our source was of the opinion that they varied defense countermeasures regularly. That’s why I brought a weapon few things can withstand.”
“Smells horrible, Empress,” that one noted.
“I like to think of that as an added bonus,” I told him. “Hurt ’em so bad, they’ll be smelling it for weeks. They practically beg you to break their nose for them.”
“This is it…?” said/asked the other pilot. Checking his view, it was easy to see why the statement became a question. This grand prison consisted of what looked like a single cube-shaped shack of steel, maybe iron. Nothing that, on its own, could hold to many people.
“Well, it is a hidden prison,” I reminded them. “There’s likely more under the surface. I’m going to go down and say hello real friendly-like. I’ll even tell them a joke.”
The pilots shared a look, the one who’d spotted something just saying, “Acknowledged, lowering the rear hatch.”
I jumped out the rear, avoiding our special payload, and left a small crater in the soft sands of the Gobi. Don’t worry, I saved room for desert. I didn’t see anything off about the one-room shack. Just a door with a sliding hatch at eye height and a camera encrusted with so much dirt you couldn’t see the lens. I did not anticipate it would be a problem, so I knocked on the door twice, my lower arms beginning to glow faintly.
“Who is it?” asked someone inside in Mandarin.
“Interrupting Gecko,” I answered back in Mandarin.
“Interrupting-” the person inside started to say before the door flew forward inward, off its hinges, and smashed against the opposite wall while squelching out either someone’s extra large dish of lasagna or what used to be a human being.
“Moo!” I said, stepping in. “Wait, wait, wrong sound. What’s a gecko sound like again?” I thought it over a moment before calling out, “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
Sadly, there was no one left around to hear a Gecko in a desert, which means I technically didn’t make a sound as I checked over the room. It had a small desk, a cot, a stack of novels falling apart, and a hatch in the floor. “I’m hatching a plan!” I said to no one, again making as much sound as a tree in the forest with nobody around, then unlocked the hatch door. I found a set of flimsy stairs leading down into the dark, so I activated light enhancement on my helmet as I headed down. And by headed down, I broke through the stairs and landed about ten feet down in a pile of broken metal.
“Dinner time!” someone called out in Cantonese. I hopped to my feet and went invisible, but nobody rushed around the corner in front of me. After a couple seconds of that, I went looking for the voice. I turned the corner and found myself in an open room, my access to it barred by, well, bars. Kind of basic, actually. The room had some old chairs, a few crates, some old pillows and moldy mattresses. Oh, and people. Quite a few of them. A couple dozen men were in there, most not bothering to move, though a couple waited by the bars.
“Come on!” one of them called closest to me. He had an overgrown mane of dirty blonde hair, which isn’t as expected in someone of East Asian ancestry. The hands he banged on the bars, I noted, had long, sharp fingernails. “Hurry up with these shitty ration cubes!”
I appeared in front of him, startling him back. “I’m interrupting your regularly scheduled programming to bring you… an escape attempt!” I grabbed the bars in front of me and began to bend them. Behind me, someone swung a gate right open and stepped inside.
“It’s nice that you think we’re escaping,” said another man whose skin glistened in places from multicolored scales. “But we’ll never survive outside.”
“I have food,” I turned and told him. “Water. Transport. Hiding places. A light itch in my crotch.”
“That may be, but unless you can fly,” here he looked over his shoulder at a skeleton in a bomber jacket and leather pilot’s helmet seated against the wall, “we won’t survive the journey .”
I pointed at his face. “Don’t play coy with me, whatever your name is.”
“King Koi,” he volunteered.
I pulled that finger back in. “Ah. Unfortunate turn of phrase then. But don’t play coy with me. Whatever’s keeping you here, let me know. I’ve got an aircraft outside.”
“I hope you didn’t land it,” he said, but I ignored that when the skeleton jumped to his feet and stomped forward with the smack of bone on stone.
“Aircraft, you say?” asked the skeleton in a Scottish accent. The visual and accent combined to get a hit on my identification program.
“The Dead Baron?” I asked.
“The very same, lassie,” he said, giving a quick Royal Air Force salute. “I been shot down and dumped in this pit for I dun know how long. Now you said you had a plane?”
“Not exactly a plane. Not a helicopter either, nor did it have to land,” I looked back over to King Koi at that, a smile flickering across his face briefly. “I’m here to rescue y’all, so let’s get the fuck out of this hellhole.”
A cheer went up throughout the prison. “Is this the only floor?” I asked of Dead Baron and King Koi, who at least waited while others began to file through and find themselves at the destroyed the stairs. It didn’t stop anyone for long, though.
“Aye,” Dead Baron asked. “One floor, one way in, one way out, and nought but hostile desert in all directions.”
“None of us have speed or flight, at least on land,” King Koi said before clarifying. “I am swift in the seas, but not in the desert.”
I made sure to get them all up, though the shack up top got crowded. For a bunch of prisoners, they were awfully wary of heading outside. “Y’all haven’t been institutionalized, I hope,” I said as I led them out the door. “Some people have to climb through a river of shit to see the outside like this. Some just do it because they’re into that sort of thing. No judgments.” I stopped and turned to seen none had really gone that far outside the shack. They were looking around, then jumped as sand was thrown up and a reddish thing poked out of the sand.
I stepped closer, at which point the thing zapped me. It might have actually done some damage if I hadn’t bothered hardening my armor against electrical attacks. Still pissed me off, so I went to stomp on it. Instead of smooshing it, my leg disappeared into a hole. When I pulled it loose, I had a red, three foot long, segmented worm thing clinging to it, chewing on the armor. I watched as flakes fell off, then grabbed the damn thing and squeezed until it popped.
I called up to the flyer hovering overhead. “Good news, it looks like we don’t need the big package. Bad news, we’ve got worms. I’m going to need some ropes tossed down. We are not landing in this.”
“Acknowledged, Empress,” said the pilot.
“Look at that!” said the other.
“What, is there some sign of the worms or something?” I asked.
“Empress, we have wormsign the likes of which even the gods have never seen!”
I saw it. It wasn’t hard. The thing threw up waves of dirt, a hint of its disgustingly bloated black and white body peeking through the loose sand. The prisoners began to push and stampede over themselves to hide back in their prison as the giant worm headed our way.
“Ok, flyer… now,” I signaled. A bus-sized worm broke out of the ground, its body striped black and white, black mouth open wide to swallow me, when a whale smashed into it from above. The worm and whale both exploded in a mass of gore that made me real fucking happy I cut off any smells from the exterior of my armor. I still got a wave of guts and fluids washing over me, but at least I couldn’t smell it.
The flyer lowered, anti-personnel guns lining up shots against more worms. It wasn’t so much of a climb for the prisoners, who were suddenly eager to get the hell out of their prison. Though the guy with the claws and the wild hair did complain that, “It smells like fucking fish in here!”
I jumped up and back down, helping them along faster so we could get the fuck out of here. It proved to be a good decision when the pilots called back. “Empress, we have incoming!”
As much as things were exploding today, this one involved fire that barely missed us to blow apart the shack with an actual detonation.
“That would be the artillery base,” said the Dead Baron, rushing toward the cockpit. “Let me through.”
I ran on after him, pushing the button to close the hatch. “Let’s get fuck out of dodge!”
“No, lassie, let’s dodge the fuck out of these,” said Dead Baron. He grabbed the controls and whipped the flyer hard to the side, further than I thought he should have until I heard the barrage of blasts that showed at least an attempt at leading us. There was even one that blew up in midair in front of us courtesy of the co-pilot continuing on as a gunner.
“You blokes shoot, I’ll fly!” said the Dead Baron.
The pilot whose controls the undead World War I pilot had stolen looked to me and I nodded. That one got up and let the Baron sit in his place while he maneuvered around to man gunnery controls without disturbing him.
Immediately, something changed. The Baron’s empty eye sockets lit up with green fire and it sounded like the metal of the flyer itself warped. I sent off a drone to check the external view and found the flyer shifting from smooth lines to something more resembling a flying armless skeletal torso and skull with bat wings. The shift appeared to be purely decorative, which is great. Kinda hard to flap our way out of an artillery bombardment. Shortly after the change stopped, Dead Baron accelerated us forward, leaving my drone to explode when it intercepted a shell that passed us by harmlessly.
The sudden change in velocity threw me and the standing pilot against the wall. From the sound of things in the transport section, we weren’t the only ones not properly buckled in. The Dead Baron flew through that storm of shells like a bat out of the First Court of Hell, dodging things that I’d swear I could see were heading right for us. We’re talking this shit was level with us and he navigated through it.
“You know we have a vertical control too, don’t you?” I asked.
The Dead Baron merely cackled and flew through the storm toward the direction of the assault. He passed overhead a fenced-in base whose giant guns struggled to turn in our direction. The Dead Baron punched the button for the missiles. Green rockets’ flares sped our ordinance along to a fiery end for our assailants, and I swear I could pick out a skull in each fiery cloud. Once he’d had his fun and revenge, he took us up further into the sky before calling back to me. “Where shall we drop this lot off, lassie?”
“To the island of Ricca,” I told him. “Do you know where that is?”
“The land of the Claw Emperor chap? I heard of it,” he said.
“My empire now, and something of a safe haven to those with nowhere else to go.”
By the time we arrived back on the island, I think most of us were ready to leave. Even trained pilots didn’t often pull off some of those moves, though I did have to take the flyer back. We only had so many of them, and so many pilots, and they were all heading out at once. Teams of soldiers, drone operators, and agents were moving out almost all at once to liberate the other prisoners now that we’d confirmed Mr. Feng’s intelligence on the First Court. We even brought in a few mercenaries and supervillains to help out.
The Dead Baron did object to not being a part of that when he realized the flyers were heading off to have more fun. I took one look at the people we’d brought back as they got off the flyer as quickly as possible, including that one clawed guy with the crazy hair nursing a broken nose and muttering, “At least I can’t smell the fucking whale anymore.” The flyer itself had reverted to its normal form once the Baron left the controls, so I doubted he had any supernatural connection to it anymore.
I patted The Dead Baron on the shoulder. “Thanks, but I think we got this.”