✘ Cross my HEART 心泥棒 [IC]

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Grif ♥

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Two days ago a beacon was intercepted by the Heart Stealers. It was not a distress beacon, a relatively common occurrence out in the almost endless Marble Wastes, but instead an archaic signal just like those of the Old World. These signals were rare and only meant one thing; a crypt had been discovered, and was sending out a signal to warn the other crypts that it was under attack. The crypts were all abandoned now and there was no-one to receive that message, and all the signal served now was to expose its location.

More importantly, the signal meant that the locked doors of the crypt had been opened, and whatever was inside was free for the taking. Crypts could potentially be filled with any number of things, from ancient artefacts from a world long gone or lost knowledge from the Old World just waiting to be rediscovered. These were the kinds of things that were worth their weight in gold in the five cities, and the contents of these crypts had made some people rich beyond their wildest dreams. Eager to reap their share of the rewards, the Heart Stealers dispatched a small group of their members to the crypt to explore it and gather whatever they could, hopefully before any of the other factions could stick their noses in.

Delta, Ashley Cross, Kallen Brandt, Gerard Karrol, and Bernadette Westerveldt had been the five Heart Stealers chosen for this mission, and had taken a land barge out to reach the crypt as soon as possible. It had taken just over a day and a half to reach their destination, but for its size the Aestlandr was swift and had made record time. They were so close now, and the crypt was only moments away. They just had to hope that the Scarlett Guard, or wastes forbid the Institute had not beaten them to it.

Chapter 1: And Hope to Die

The Marble Wastes were empty this morning, and despite being able to see for miles over the flat, grey, and cracked earth, it was barren for as far as the eye could see. A few trees, long since dead and stained white from the poisoned soil, stood fragile across the landscape, but it was otherwise completely desolate. There was not another person for over a hundred miles, and for all it mattered to the Heart Stealers the nearest city was on the other side of the world. A huge land barge tore across the dusty landscape, the word “Aestlandr” painted in white along the side of its steel hull, the six wheels of the all-terrain transport digging grooves into the earth as it moved. The low rumble of its engines marred the silence of the Marble Wastes. It moved quickly and deliberately, travelling south west towards its destination on the fringes of the known New World, uncomfortably close to the unexplored, thrall-filled southernlands that most refused to go near. It was just another mission for the Heart Stealers, who headed south without worry.

A woman sat in the driver’s seat of the Aestlandr, her bright, turquoise eyes glancing from the path ahead to the navigation device fitted to the vehicle’s dashboard, and then back to the wild wastes outside again. She had one hand on the wheel, keeping the land barge on course as it went, while the other rested on her lap, holding a large rifle weapon firmly close to her lithe body. As the navigation device began to ping softly she looked over her shoulder, calling back to her companions in the back of the vehicle.

Her rose-coloured lips curled into a smile just before she spoke. “We’re nearly there, guys. Half an hour at most. Make sure you’re suited up and ready for anything. This place might be full of thralls.

The crypts had had many purposes in the Old World. Many stored technology and riches from the Old World, but some had been used by people in the hope of surviving the Fall. Some had worked and the people inside had returned the surface in time, but many had not, and had left thrall-filled underground facilities in their wake. This crypt had only been recently opened, but thralls could infest a location in a matter of days, and they had already given them two travelling here. Even if the crypt was “safe”, then the Scarlett Guard or the Gamayun Institute might have beaten them to it, and Bernadette knew from personal experience that, to protect a secured crypt, they would shoot first and ask questions later.

Bernie turned back around and faced the impromptu road ahead. She brought her foot down hard on the accelerator and the engines of the barge roared as the whole vehicle juddered, picking up tremendous speed in an instant. The Aestlandr thundered along for quite some time as the flat wastes turned rockier, stone spires peering out from over the horizon, and the ground became more difficult to navigate. The barge closed in on the stone spires quickly, and before they knew it the Aestlandr slowed to a crawl as it struggled to navigate the stone maze without difficulty. Bernadette drove the Aestlandr more cautiously, weaving in and out of hefty boulders that littered their path, eventually coming to what was a rather sudden drop hidden amongst the stone forest. She drove the vehicle carefully up to the ridge, eventually bringing it to a full stop.

Gerard was in the back, watching the scenery roll by through one of the viewports (as the people that usually briefed them on such missions liked to call windows) just enjoying the trip.

She slowly opened the door of the vehicle and slipped out, her heavy boots kicking up dust as she landed on the ground, and made her way to the edge of the drop. Peering down over the edge, Bernie saw that it was in fact a thin valley that dropped down a good one hundred feet, could see a thin rock passage cut into the cliff side with a small buggy parked beside it. That was a civilian vehicle for sure, which meant they were not too late. Unfortunately, the only way down that was large enough for the Aestlandr to head down was on the other side of the valley, and who knew how long it would take to find a way around?

Bernie turned around and headed back to her companions. “I don’t think there’s a path big enough for us to take the Aestlandr down without totalling it or spending another half a day getting around the drop. There are a few thin pathways on this side we might be able to make our way down though if we’re careful, and then we’re basically on top of the crypt.

She smiled, pulling herself back up and into the driver’s seat of the Aestlandr. She switched the engine off and pulled the navigator off of the dashboard and then clipped it to her belt. She took the rifle that now rested on her seat in her hands and then picked up the three large cylindrical containers that rested by her feet, clipping them to her belt.

So who wants to go explore a crypt?

"I'm game." Gerard toned in with a friendly smirk, making one last check on his equipment. "Spooky old ruins and such don't bother me in the slightest; should be fun."

Gerard's little charge, Ashley, was occupied securing her bag and belongings on the barge. The only equipment she needed to bring was the clothes on her back.

"Spooky ruins?" she asked, quickly growing in excitement as she finished her task. "Are we gonna see zombies and stuff?!"

The scarlet-haired Heartstealer hiked the little girl up on his shoulder and smiled mischievously. "We might; you never know what you're gonna find in one of these places. There might be robots or androids or demons too, or just jerky people that need to be shot."

"Let's hope we find none of those things," Bernadette, replied, playfully ruffling Ashley's hair. "Hey, Kallen! Delta! Are you coming or are you going to let us do all the exploring for you?"

"Yeah, sure," Kallen answered absent-mindedly. Her voice responded, but her brain had a prior engagement. Laying her last three cards down on a messy face-down pile, she called, "Three sixes."

Delta had been caught unaware of how few of Kallen's cards remained. Still, he felt fairly certain that there was no possible way she could possess three sixes when one remained in his hand. "Cheater," he fearlessly declared, sure that she would be caught in a lie.

Kallen set her fingers back on the cards she dropped, turning them over together with a stifled giggle. Three sixes.

A blank look of confusion engulfed Delta. He was so certain, yet still entirely wrong. "How'd you do that? I'm pretty sure you shouldn't have had three sixes."

"I picked up two of them from calling on yours."

"When did that happen?" Delta asked, bemused until he realized that he had only received his current six from the deck after he already laid a pair down near the beginning of the game. "This game is stupid."

"I'll explain again while we're spelunking." Spelunking. She had to have waited a while to use that word. "Maybe we can throw in the jokers next time, too."

The mere thought of making the game more complicated gave Delta a headache. "Sure, why not?"

"Are you two ready to get going or am I gonna have to give those cards some new art? Like holes for instance." Gerard intoned, lazily drawing Umbra from its holster.

"These things just drive me crazy, so go ahead," Delta conveyed, apathetically. "Plus, the art seems so outdated. But yeah, I guess I'm pretty much ready. I just gotta grab my bag."

"Then hurry up! We'd better get moving before anyone else shows up," Bernie called back.

Leading the way for the group she walked maybe a hundred metres along the ridge until she arrived at a thin pathway, just large enough for two people to walk down side by side. "Watch your step," she warned her companions and slowly made her way down the rocky steps, holding her rifle up high in anticipation of something jumping her. Her mind flashed to images of thralls, but she knew they were far from the biggest danger around here. The valley was all quiet now though, and the group successfully made their way down the cliff with no injuries, although the uneven ground had made Bernadette stumble more times than she would like to admit.

She made her way up to the vehicle parked beside the cavern entrance and examined it briefly. It was small, just large enough to hold four people, and it clearly hadn't moved in a few days. It was rugged and heavily damaged, although it still looked functional. Bernie ran a hand through her auburn hair. "Either the people who got here left in a different vehicle or whoever found this place is still here somewhere," she said, glancing over her shoulder to face her companions. "There's no emblem or sign as to who owns it. Might be raiders, maybe? Or just some poor souls who got lost one day."

Gerard scanned the area the entire way down, thumb resting on Umbra in case of trouble. He wasn't a big fan of being tackled off of ridges by monsters, mundane or otherwise. Once or twice along the way he thought of teasing the 'boss lady' about her stumbles. However, besides stubbing his toes a few times himself, he was in no mood for the type of tirade he could expect from a 'strong and independent' woman.

Tentatively the group peered down the crack in the cliff wall and began to make their way inside.
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The light that filtered in from the wastes behind them quickly faded into darkness as they headed further and further into the stone passage, and Bernie pulled a small flashlight from her pocket to compensate. She turned it on, shining a thin beam of light down the cavern to help guide their step. The cave took them down a steady slope that they walked down for several minutes, heading deeper and deeper underground. The wind whistled quietly behind the Heart Stealers and their footsteps echoed with every step, but other than that the tunnel to the crypt was silent.

Eventually the thin passage widened, forming a large, circular grotto. Spears of stone hung from the roof of the cavern, casting thick shadows as Bernie brought her flashlight around, scanning the walls of the grotto. "It should be around here somewhe-"

She quickly focused on the wall that faced them on the other side of the cavern. It was a mostly flat surface and caught the light of her torch, the dull grey metal contrasting with the sickly grey-white of the stone walls that it dug into. A circular segment of the metal wall had parted vertically, blunt teeth lining the sides of the door to the crypt, and leading off into an artificial tunnel. It was an Old World design, and Bernie flashed a small smile upon seeing it.

They had found the crypt!

Very tentatively Bernie stepped up to it, resting a hand against the door of the crypt as she inspected it. She knelt down on one knee, peering into the thick, murky darkness of the tunnel, but barely being able to see further than her own face. She pierced that darkness with her flashlight, and immediately caught sight of something scurrying across the ground and rattling against the metal floor, hiding down one of the darker passageways.

"Sliggs," she said, turning her head over her shoulder to face her companions. "And you know what that means."

Gerard would have loved to pop the sligg they saw before it got out of sight, and find a few more, but chances are something else nasty would hear it. "Yeah, it means we won't be too bored out of our heads, among other things. Shame, sometimes boring missions are nice." He shrugged, personally he much preferred 'boring' when Ashley was with him on missions. No amount of trust or or assurance of safety made him comfortable bringing a little girl to such places."

Ashley, in contrast, was more than happy to take exciting trips and fight at Gerard's side. This, too—traversing a cavern and digging through a potentially dangerous area—was excitement to her.

As Bernie's flashlight seemed less than useful for illuminating the crypt, and the thought that more of those mindless minions had populated it, Ashley soon considered herself useful, and maybe not a nuisance to her caretaker. Opening her palm, a crystalline substance seeped through her skin and swirled into a hollow ball the size of her fist. Once it was complete, she reached up toward the ceiling and charged the ball's interior with electricity, bringing their dark and dreary environment to life.

"Atta girl." Gerard said, gently patting the top of the little girl's head with a smile. "No creepy crawlies or spooks are gonna sneak up on us now." It was things like this that often made Gerard forget that he and his charge were the same age.

And then a creepy crawly snuck up and spooked Gerard... or it might have, if it had been a bit more intimidating. As it was the Heart Stealer raised an eyebrow at the oversized spider on his foot. He gave it a few moments more to curiously crawl up his leg before he kicked and flung it into the wall. "Sorry. Not looking for any pets, little guy, cute as you are."

Bernie fell down onto both knees shortly after, now at eye height with little Ashley, who she turned to and held out a hand to her. "Ashley, sweetie, can I borrow that for one second?"

"Sure!" Ashley turned her palm over, letting the crystal ball drop into Bernie's hand with a smile.

The auburn haired girl ruffled Ashley's own hair playfully when she was handed the crystal, thanking the little girl as she rolled the crystal across her palm. Bernie looked down the passage again and pulled back her arm, then skated the tiny crystal across the ground. It clattered harmlessly on the other end of the room, rattling against metal and echoing out from the chamber. The shimmering blue light lit up the room, and with it came the loud whelp of several sliggs that were desperate to escape the light. They scarpered away quickly, but the squelching sounds they made ended quickly, once again leaving them in silence.

Heavier footsteps soon followed, and Bernie immediately brought her weapon, Ardent Rose, up to face the source of the noise. A vaguely humanoid shadow flit into view for a moment, and vanished just as quickly. Bernie held her breath, watching and waiting silently for another few moments, but nothing else happened.

"Did... did you guys see that?" she asked, although her eyes never moved from the spot where she had thought she had seen the shadow. Hesitantly she took a step forward, sliding through the thin gap between the partially opened doors and appearing on the other side. She opened her mouth to speak, her voice slightly hushed. "I think there might be a little more than just us and a few sliggs down here. Keep your eyes peeled."

After he parted the doors just a bit more so he could squeeze through, Gerard took a step past Bernie and peered around. He leaned back to whisper, trying extra hard to be quiet since it wasn't always his specialty. "Well yeah, I wouldn't expect that car out there to be for nothing. You guys stay a bit back, far enough that if I trigger some trap or get caught you all won't get lumped in." With his position stated Gerard pushed forward, one hand on Umbra's grip, and left no time for any argument.

Bernie gave the taller man a nudge with her elbow as he passed. "They could have just as easily run off scared... But if you want to be the first to run blindly into trouble, I won't stop you!" she teased, sticking out her tongue at him playfully while he was not looking. She turned her head to look behind her, eyes following her companions slowly as they made their way through the doors. "What do you see, big guy?"

"Lots of old stuff, some techie stuff... and more shadows." Gerard muttered. "I think they may have already moved further in. I'm not sure how long they've been here, but I think they may have already explored this place. They don't seem to be looking at anything too closely, either; maybe they're just on patrol?" He watched the shadows move a bit further until he was sure whoever was moving around was out of sight, then crouched and crept forward into the room before calling back to the others, "It's clear."

"Patrol, my foot." Kallen pulled the rifle off her back as she joined Gerard, pieces of metal breaking apart and rolling over her arms into a pair of gauntlets. "If someone got what they came for, they wouldn't be sticking around this kind of place."

"So, they're still looking for their loot," Bernie added. "Either that, or they're here to clean up."

She looked about the room briefly. Old world technology was simple in comparison to what was used nowadays, but it always looked more complex. Wires lined the walls and control panels were built into a few, the dust that once coated them only recently disturbed, likely where the discoverers of the crypt had tried to toy with them. Most crypts had power supplies reliable enough to still work all this time, although it seemed like the people who had beat them to the crypt had some trouble activating it.

Bernie took a step towards one of the panels and raised her hand to rest on it. For a moment she considered playing with it. She had always had a way with machines, and while her experience with old world tech was limited, she was sure that she would be able to turn the lights on at least. The sounds of more muffled footsteps belayed her actions though. They had the element of surprise, at least for a little while longer, and until they found out how many others were here and how well armed they were that could be all they had.

"Don't you know anything about stealth?" Delta interjected, motioning Bernie away from the control panel, and to a hiding spot with the others. He stepped toward the source of the noise as Chameleon kicked into gear, his body, clothes and weaponry fading into the background. "I'll check it out. No reason to go in guns blazing, yet."

With that, Delta set forth into enemy territory. Quiet steps, deep breaths. Delta became little more than an imperceptible force, slowing his heartbeat to a crawl and minimizing his presence as he moved forward, making his way through a tight corridor and into the room adjecent.

There were seven, maybe eight men whispering amongst themselves—words Delta couldn't make out, but their direction clear enough that he could slip by inconspicuously. It was obvious that they weren't exactly secretive. They were clad in dirty brown assault gear that seemed to lack any kind of distinguishable symbol or emblem that might betray their allegiance, and more than half of them were toting an automatic rifle, shotgun, or hefty sword. One of them had an essence motor crafted into their gun's firing chamber, and the sword crackled with essence energy. Most were for the beasts; the motor and the sword, probably for thralls.

Although they could just as easily be turned on other humans.

Delta ducked into another room, staying only within earshot of the raiders as he disabled his cloak and pulled a phone from his pocket. Slim and a little too small for his hands, the primitively-styled flip phone in his palm was the best way for him to communicate silently with the others. Using the Gamayun Institute's patented "Wireless Mesh Network Communications", colloquially "Near", Delta was able to send a brief message to Kallen despite being well underground in a wasteland at this point, letting them know what they were up against.
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