Burn Baby Burn

The staircase twisted down from the tomb and deep into the bedrock beneath. Wolfram stood at the top, listening to the gunshots, screams, and explosions echo up from below. The occasional flash of light made its way up as well. On either side of him stood a member of the Strike Team, weapons ready and trained on the dark descent. They were invisible, but not to him.

Sooner than he had expected, the noises from the deep dropped off and he stood in silence. A voice buzzed in his earpiece. "Sir, we're secure down here. Some of the Hand threats found a Way out, but we count fifteen killed. And, well, you should come and see this. Bottom level."

"Thank you, Sputnik," Wolfram said into the microphone at his throat, trying to ignore the shake in Sputnik's voice. He turned to the agent to his right. "Coaster, you and Yeti stay up here and make sure nobody tries to crash the party."

Coaster turned to face him, the massive metal suit's head jerking in something that loosely resembled a nod. Neither of the agents said anything. Even in a combat zone, the members of Strike Team 2401 tried a bit too hard to live up to their motto, 'Silent and Deadly.' With a sigh, Wolfram turned his back on them and descended into the dark unknown.

Sputnik, the strike team's leader, was waiting for him at the bottom of the staircase, what Wolfram had counted to be the fifth sub-level of the facility. The armored behemoth quickly fell into step as they made their way down a wide corridor dimly lit by chemlights and a set of scorch marks on the walls.

"This whole place looks like some kind of prison, as far as I can tell. And this level looks like it was super-max. Whole corridor was boobytrapped to keep something in, but none of it worked."

They arrived at the remains of a large metal door, eerily similar to the kind used by the Coalition for its secure vaults. The corpse of a Hand member was slumped over it, a whole punched through where most of its chest used to be. Something was off about the scene, although Wolfram could not tell what it was exactly. Luckily, Sputnik's OCULUS system was equipped with a material analysis suite and he had anticipated his commander's question.

"The door is ten centimeters of depleted uranium, coated with another two of lead. Composition is close to what we use for containment at Farpoint."

"This facility is thousands of years old."

"And whatever was being locked up down here, it hasn't been gone long."

Wolfram studied the basketball-sized dents in the door, and the block of granite covered in broken chains in the room beyond. "Sweep the facility for stragglers, then bring in PTOLEMY."

Sputnik departed without a word, likely issuing orders over his team's comm channel. Wolfram waited for him to go, then stepped into the massive cell. He picked up the end of one of the chains and felt the weight in his hands. It was the same material as the door, and had been broken just as easily. More concerning were the faint wisps of energy emanating from the larger block of granite embedded in the floor. Over-ebony, double-flat. The shake in Sputnik's voice was suddenly much more understandable.

"And Sput," he whispered into his microphone. "Tell the mages to come straight down here."

For nearly two weeks, forensic experts and archaeologists and mages combed over the facility. Readings were taken, samples were collected, records were restored, scanned, and translated. A trio of highly skilled thaumaturges combed over every inch of the cell on the fifth sub-level, studying the energy leaking from the ground and the residue of the wards and workings that had, until recently, contained the prisoner that had been kept there.

And every day, Wolfram stood at the entrance, staring at the two massive granite blocks and trying to make sense of what they meant. He had talked with Hobbes, and then Director Ukelele, and even the Undersecretary-General herself. The higher his teleconferences reached, the more concerned his superiors became. Concerned with what the Serpent's Hand had gleaned before they had been driven out, concerned with what had escaped from the prison, and especially concerned with whatever it was still containing.

On the first day at the facility, Wolfram requested to sanitize the site, and restated his request during every call he had with his superiors. On the fifteenth day, his request was approved unanimously all the way up the chain. On the nineteenth, the experts all agreed that they were finished going over the site, and caught various means of transport away from Oman.

The thaumaturges stayed to help sanitize the site. Resonators hummed throughout the facility as they accomplished working after working. Every now and then, Wolfram and his Strike escorts would have to avoid bursts of flames or a temporary reversal of gravity as the backlash ran rampant. But Wolfram could handle the inconvenience if it meant that whatever was underneath the prison would remained sealed after they wiped the site off the face of the earth.

On the twenty-third day, with charges rigged to blow and mechanisms in place to erase the entrance from the surface, the thaumaturges left as well. Wolfram made arrangements for himself and the Strike Team to leave the next.

But before that, one final ritual needed to be performed. They gathered all the original books and scrolls and placed them in a pile on the first sub-level. With the copies sent off, procedure was to bury them with the site. Wolfram hated that procedure. So instead, he and the Strike Team gathered around the mountain of ancient literature.

"The Serpent's Hand calls us the Bookburners. I'm sure they mean it as an insult, but personally, I like the name. It is our duty to protect the world from the unusual, the anomalous, the occult. Nobody else can do it, nobody else can stand against the tide. So when they call us Bookburners, it's a testament to how good we are at out jobs."

He took a deep breath, the stench of napalm stinging his nostrils.

"I read a book once, when I was a kid, written by Ray Bradbury. It had a message about totalitarianism and dissension. But the ideas in that book were dangerous to the people in charge. The ideas we burn are dangerous to peace, to normalcy, to humanity itself. But Ray did get one thing right."

And he tossed a road flare into the pile, the light of the flames twinkling in his eyes.

"It really is a pleasure to burn."