In the seedy bowels of a seedy mining camp, Cephalo Paul roused from blurriness to found himself at the mercy of an unkindness of anthropomorphic ravens. The lot of them stood on four clawed talons, spoke through horrifying beaks lined with serrated edges, and had too many ruby-coloured eyes. They were in the midst of painting their black feathers blue when they saw him wake.
"Here, look brothers," one squawked, its head tilting hard to one side. "Our nosey octopus is awake." The others paused their work, their plumage dripping with paint. They all tilted their heads the same way to stare.
Paul curled and uncurled his tentacles nervously, and made sure his bowler hat was firmly fixed on his soft head. "Where in tarnation am I?" he demanded, hoping he sounded braver than he felt. "Last I remember, I was bending an elbow at the saloon when...when... you! Yes, I remember now! You bought me a drink, you barrel boarder!"
They all looked amongst themselves a moment, then broke out in stuttering cawing laughter. "A little something in your whiskey, yes," one raven said.
"No one stopped us carrying you out. You certainly weren't making friends upstairs, shooting your mouth off with your sad story," another said.
The light was filthy and low, but Paul could see they were somewhere underground. Pre-fab metal walls, with pipes bolted into rock. Some grey tarps covering up big chunky-shapes control consoles, obviously ignored for a good long while. And from everywhere, the white-noise hum of nearby generators. "Where am I? Where have you shanghai-ed me to?"
One raven dropped his paintbrush darted over to a far corner. There, he pecked at some unopened paint cans before picking one. Bringing it and a fresh brush back, it said, "Not far, not far. Same outpost, just in one of the underground power cores." The raven pried the can open, dipped his brush in, and started painted his waist a yellow-gold. "Good thick walls. Low priority machinery. No one nearby to interrupt."
Paul's eyes went wide as he recognized the colours. "I- I- I know you!" he stuttered nervously. "You're that group of crazies that worship star wizards! You're part of the Sixth Column!"
Immediately, the ravens dropped their brushes. They flapped their great wings. They cawed and cried in voluminous fury. They hopped, talons scratching at the stone floor around him. Paint cans were kicked around. Snapping beaks threatened to tear his to pieces. Paul balled up tightly and screamed.
"Don't call us crazy! We're not crazy! You have no idea what crazy is!" one of them screeched overtop of the others. "They hollow out stars to live in. They torture the laws of nature with their bare hands. They wrestle undefinable horrors beyond the edges of the universe. Crazy would be thinking these terrible beings are not gods!"
All Paul could make out was the slashing edges of feathers and so many red eyes. He inked himself in fear. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
"They're so vast, they shatter civilizations in passing. We're so insignificant, we know them only through catastrophe. Our understanding is so limited, we can't even properly describe them. We don't give them names because names are for simple things; we give them legends! The Small Army! The Unfixed Constellation! The Red Hand! The Great Disaster!"
Beaks rained down around him, making frightening chipping cracks against the rock floor. He flinched with a yelp each time, his cries drowned out by the screeching and cawing. He wasn't fast enough to keep a set of serrated teeth from catching a tentacle. His small frame was suddenly yanked upside-down into the air.
Panic frozen all three of his hearts. In desperation, he broke off the captured limb and fell back onto the floor. "Please! Please don't be killing me!" he begged.
The ravens stopped, stunned. The one of them still had the amputated tentacle wriggling in his beak.
Then they broke out laughing. Two of the massive birds toyed with the tentacle, tugging it between them like a worm. The others picked up their paint brushes and brushed colouring their plumage.
"We're not going to kill you, you spineless coward. You're going to help us."
"What?" Paul squeaked.
"These are dangerous times to be of a small race. The ghost beast slaughtered and eaten. The terrors of hell invading our space. Planets being crushed and broken. MEveryone wants to keep their heads down, praying the ravages of the gods don't wash over them.
"But we heard you above, in the saloon, with the miners and spacers and drunks. Buying everyone drinks and telling tall tales, making no friends no matter how many rounds you shared. You're not praying. You're not hiding. You're trying to book passage... you want an audience with the gods!"
"No I ain't. I was... I mean, I'm just meeting someone, is all..." Paul said. He saw where this was heading and he was feeling worse than before.
"Oh yes. Yes yes yes, you were! We heard. Very hard not to; you got louder the more you drank. You said you knew where a Super Wizard From Space is. Exactly where he is. And you just needed someone to take you there. Well, good news, little mollusk. We will help. We will take you there."
"You will?" Paul asked. He looked around the room, trying to find an exit. The hatch behind the ravens seemed to be the only way out.
"Can you imagine, my brothers! Knowing where! And not inside a star or a sun, but on a real planet that anyone can go to, that anyone can land on. Where the faithful of the Sixth Column can be in the presence of magnificent power. We can worship at his feet directly, where he might notice us! Might acknowledge us! Might show us favour!
"We'll be the envy of all other races within the Sixth Column! He'll take us under his wing, share with us secret knowledge, and bequeath us some of his terrible power. We'll be invulnerable to harm! We'll be able to travel between planets unaided! We'll be able to strike down our enemies with liquid fusion!"
Did the hatch just move? Was it nudging open? Paul had to buy some time, look for an escape. "All... all that?" Paul said, trying to keep them talking. "Just for showing up?"
"For believing in cosmic justice! For wearing their colours! For doing their work in their name!" The raven spread his wings, showing off his gold and blue feathers proudly. "He shall recognize us as Sixth Column when we act in his stead, sacrificing you at his feet!"
Paul's attention snapped back to the raven. "Sacrifice? Wait, you mean me?"
The raven loomed over the little octopus, the curve of his serrated beak making for a menacing grin. "A couple glasses in and you couldn't help but share your plight: your brother, your quest for revenge. You wanted an audience with a god just so you could kill him... you were going to try to kill the Super Wizard From Space to get even for the death of Cephalo Pete.
"Instead, we'll truss you up and peck out your eyes before him. We'll mete out judgement for your ridiculous attempt. A frightened, fat little thing like you alone had no hope, but through you, we can succeed beyond the dreams of this mortal coil!"
"He's not alone," said a new voice, a deep bear-like growl through a tinny speaker.
The ravens dropped their brushes in surprise. They turned in unison, grouping together, standing tall. They stuck out their chests, trying to look large and threatening.
At the open hatch was a humanoid figure in an spacesuit. He was tall, lanky, slouching from a small hump on his back. The design of his suit was primitive and plain, with a sewn on badge on his shoulders in the shape of a large foot. He had his helmet on and the reflective visor down, hiding his face.
"What are you doing down here?" the ravens demanded.
He raised one arm outright at the group. In his gloved hand, he held a thin loop of string with half a dozen ivory horns hanging off it. "I'm the octopus's ride," the stranger said as he shook the loop.
The horns banged together with a hollow clattering sound that exploded in everyone's minds. Psychic blows reverberated in their skulls, crushing thoughts and flattening consciousness.
The ravens clutched their heads and screamed in pain. The sound battered them senseless. Blood welled up at their eyes. One by one, they all passed out in agony.
Paul was roused from a black world of hurt by a hard shake of his shoulders. He feebly fought off the stranger's grip, trying to find his own balance. He felt sticky, from sweat and ink and paint. His new stump had a sharp stabbing that he would be feeling for days.
"Good," the stranger said through the helmet's speaker. "I was worried you'd suffer badly without headgear to protect you, but looks like not having a skull lessens the effects. Lucky."
All the ravens around Paul were on their sides, ruby eyes bulging out, chunky pink mucus filling their lifeless beaks. He felt bile well up. "What... what did you do?"
The suited man put the loop around his neck, letting the horns settle on his chest. "This is my trophy necklace. When soldiers of my race defeat our hated enemies in battle, we scalp them and take these as proof of victory. If we collect enough, we can use them as a telepathic weapon. I'm told it feels like a bomb going off inside your brain. Very nasty."
Paul got up on his tentacles, a little wobbly but full of renewed sense of purpose. His beady eyes were alight, staring at the necklace. "Is that the weapon you promised? You reckon it'll work on him?"
The figure in the spacesuit stood to his full height, a visible effort with the hump. He flipped up the helmet's visor, revealing a bestial face that looked like it didn't fully evolve from whatever savage creature was its ancestor. It was covered in ragged brown fur, had a large low-set forehead that ended in a pronounced brow, and square yellow teeth. "Can you hold up your side of bargain?" it asked.
"Then yes, it'll work. You lead us to Super Wizard From Space and we will have our vengeance... you for your murdered brother, me for the genocide of my race," declared the space-sasquatch.