During today’s scheduled outing, our squad lead relayed us information from command, told us that we were to RTB and that our current patrol mission was called off. There was a mix of relief and confusion among everyone. We were supposed to be on patrol for another four hours still, but at the same time, I don’t think that any of us really wanted to keep trudging through the underbrush for the next four hours, so everyone was onboard with these new orders.

We got back into formation as we turned back south, and began our two or more hour hike back to our FOB. About 30 minutes into this trek, squad lead stopped us and looked at his compass. He said something about how we were going the wrong way; according to him, we were going west, not south like we should have been. He didn’t know how long we had been going this direction, because I guess he only looked at the compass every ten minutes or so to make sure we were still on the right path.

He quickly corrected our path back to due south and we continued onward through the thick jungle.

Not long after this, our point man cut through a vine and revealed a clearing that wasn’t there on our way out on patrol. In the middle of the clearing was a small village. Nothing was abnormal about this village; it looked like all the others that we had come across throughout this war: thatch roofs, thin, plant-based walls, bamboo supports.

We soon found ourselves in the middle of the village, a crude stone altar erected in the center of the circle of houses. On this altar was a body, flayed, with all four limbs removed. Inserted into the end of each of the four mangled, bloody stumps were what looked like jury-rigged and flimsy Aether Collection Interfaces. Jon said something about reporting our findings to the Church, but squad lead quickly shut him down and told him we needed more evidence.

Squad lead told us to search the rest of the houses, since there might be more heretics, and we all split into groups of two. Jon and I were together, and we quickly cleared one of the houses. It was empty of people, but in the deepest part of the house, furthest from the only door, were a collection of about 20 blue plastic barrels with what looked like glass piping sticking out through the lids. Jon nodded at me as we silently agreed to put on our filtration masks, and after doing so, Jon slowly opened the lid of one of the barrels.

Inside was a grotesque display of sacrilege. The barrel was filled with some sort of opaque, viscous substance, and within that oil—mostly submerged—was a body. Like the one on the altar, it was skinned and naked, but too much of it was submerged to see if it still had its limbs. Unlike the body on the altar, however, there was a clear, glass tube protruding from the base of the neck, up, out through the lid of the barrel. Jon and I leaned over the barrel to get a better look. My mask’s goggles fogged up.

This person was breathing.

Dunked in what could be motor oil, skinned, and with an exposed spinal column, this body was still breathing. Jon and I looked at each other. We knew that this had to be reported to the Church immediately.

Whatever we stumbled onto, it wasn’t holy.