Dark Omega

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Chapter 22 LOOK TO THE FUTURE

Xerza’s day had been long indeed, beyond the extra hours caused by Moeral Princeps’s slow rotational period. No matter how long the days, time was the same, marching ever forward, waiting for no man or woman, no matter how highly placed. She was now in bed, well past the start of the sleep cycle, still working.

Lady Xerza was a high-ranking officer of the Dragon Order. She took pride in her organization—her Arcanum—and always sought to improve its efficiency. Many tasks she could delegate to subordinate leaders, but not all of them. Such a large, complex, and delicate operation would still require careful guidance from its supreme commander. If only she could limit her activities to the purely practical, watching the shadows for threats to humanity and the Order. Stuff that Quaestors were supposed to concern themselves with.

If only things were that simple. Xerza was far more than a mere guardian of the darkness. She was a player of the highest rank, heir to Tancred’s legacy. There was no rest, no respite for those who aspired to stand at the very pinnacle of power. All her days, from waking to sleeping, was filled with duties. Time for recreation was nearly nonexistent. As it should be—how could she rest when so much was at stake? But now that Marcus had finally gained access to the Maiden, things were shifting into a higher gear. If the plan succeeded, the Order would have a powerful weapon to wield against the Shadow, one that could tip the scales.

There was no time to lose. The Fimbulvinter—the great cold before the end of the world—was already upon them. She’d read the classified reports of stars inexplicably cooling, plunging entire worlds into eternal winter. And in the dark places of the universe, the forces of the Shadow were marshaling. Nexus psychosis was on the rise throughout the Successor Kingdoms. Shadow incursions were more common than they had been at any point since the Great Betrayal. The Kull were raiding in force again. Sure signs of what was coming: Ragnarök, the final battle. That was a battle humankind desperately needed to win—unless they wanted to become slaves to eternal darkness.

Xerza needed to be more focused than ever. But then there was Aaron—Maximilian. Five years she had been distracted by him. Why had she brought him to her side so early? The question to that was simple: if she hadn’t, he would have burned. Placing the clone into the wild had been a bold experiment and not a wholly successful one at that. She should have let him burn, learned from the experience, and moved forward. That would have been the logical thing to do. Stop fooling yourself, Xerza. The sensible thing to do would be to never bring a man back from the dead in the first place. They will find out eventually. And then my sins will catch up with me, and I’ve worked so hard for will be lost. Why can’t I stop doing it? Why did I send him to Vern? Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?

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Tancred had taught Xerza how to sleep again. He had shown her how to let go of the past, to embrace the now, to look to the future. Maybe that was part of the reason Xerza repeated past mistakes—she had her gaze fixed on what was to come.

Her mentor had walked at her side as Xerza dared let her dreaming mind drift upon empyrean tides, to be cleansed and replenished. Gone were the hungering demons, gone was the back pit. She was free to wander her dreamlands as she willed. She had slept well, all things considered, in the long years since Tancred’s abrupt disappearance.

But on this night, the dream returned to haunt her.

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She dreamt of a little girl named Salt, long since forgotten by the galaxy. Young Salt lived in a small village called Divine Grace, upon the world of Zephyr, somewhere in the great Sixth Circle of the Coalition. Her parents were very devout, as were most Zephyrean folk. As devoted to the Gods of the Pantheon—Horus above all—as they were loyal to the Archon and the House of Dalton.

Salt’s mother was a chandler and a good one at that. Her scented candles fetched fair prices at the market, and the local temple readily accepted them as the family’s tithe payment. Her father had no craft but labored as a stonemason’s assistant. It didn’t pay very well, but it was important work—most of the stone he prepared for the master masons went towards the beautification of the many shrines and temples of Zephyr.

Salt’s father was part of the temple’s militia force, as were .ost of the able-bodied men of Zephyr. The world’s churches told the faithful that men and women had very different roles. The women were housekeepers and mothers, the men workers and warriors. As a sergeant-at-arms with the militia, her father gained in status—and received a modest stipend from the Conclave officials.

When Salt was little, six, or seven years old, she couldn’t quite remember, her father had joined a glorious crusade beyond the edge of the Milky Way—and never returned. After a while, their stipend was annulled. The priest of their local congregation curtly informed them that Salt’s father had deserted in the face of the enemy, and therefore been stricken from the rolls. Her mother had wanted to protest, she knew Salt’s father was no coward, but dared not—she could ill afford to antagonize the temple officials further, now that she was a sole provider.

Her mother was hard-pressed to provide for seven children by herself. Fewer people bought the candles of a woman whose husband had turned out to be a man of little faith and courage. Still, she carried on, secure in the belief that her husband had been true until the end, and that Artemis would provide and protect. Thus it was that young Salt grew up, fatherless and desperately poor, in the shadow of the mountain that housed the fortress-monastery of the Exalted Ibelina, Paragon of Courage, one of the great bastions of the amazons of Athena.

Just two days short of Salt’s sixth birthday—she remembered that part very well—her mother had contracted the wasting illness the old women called the Scourge of Druze. At that time, Salt hadn’t known anything about Druze, or the disease that carried its name. But by the amount of lamentation uttered by the old village hags, she knew that it was deadly serious business.

Two days later, on the day of her birthday, her mother was deep in deliria, her body wracked by painful spasms, her orifices weeping blood and puss.

Four days after the birthday that never was, her mother was dead—and each of her six siblings had contracted the disease. When she looked about, it seemed the entire village was similarly afflicted. The lamentation had abated somewhat, to be replaced by the wailing of the sick and the desperate prayers of those that knew they were about to die.

On the ninth day following her birthday, the village had grown eerily silent. If anyone was still alive, they were doing as Salt did, sitting at the side of their loved ones. Praying for Anubis to ease their passing into the embrace of Hades, beseeching Osiris to judge them lightly, and for Nephthys to protect them from all evil.

More days passed. How many, Salt could not tell. She no longer counted the days, only her dead brothers and sisters. When the last of her siblings finally passed beyond the Veil, she opened the door and went out into the streets, barefoot and alone.

Thinking that her time had come, she went to the communal burial pits that had been dug at the edge of the village. She stood there for a while, at the edge of the black hole, and looked down into madness and despair. She only needed to take a little step, and she would be with her loved ones again. One small step and the darkness would embrace her, and all would be well.

Salt lifted her right leg and willed it forward, willed it over the edge of the abyss. That was when she saw them for the first time—stern-faced girls from the monastery, none of them older than fourteen, decked neck to toe by tightfitting armor that glinted red in the glare of the incinerators they carried.

“Soror-Alta!” one of them shouted, a tall one with close-cropped black hair showing above her breath mask. “We have a live one!” The muzzle of the incinerator swung towards her.

Salt opened her arms to welcome the cleansing fire.

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She had neither taken the plunge nor been cleansed by fire. Instead, she had been taken in by the amazons that dwelled inside the mountain. Salt was kept in solitary confinement and examined by a long procession of doctors and scientists, Conclave priests, and amazon officers.

In the end, the wise men and women had declared her free of taint and let her go. By the Will of the Gods, she was immune to the Scourge—and from her blood, they hoped to be able to synthesize a vaccine that could prevent future outbreaks of the disease. It was truly a miracle, even if it couldn’t bring the dead back to life. The now-orphaned girl was obviously blessed, and the temple officials found it in their hearts to take her in. Her father was declared to be absolved of all sin. Clearly, Salt and her family had been pure of heart and faith, and the Gods, therefore, saw fit to forgive his cowardice. Even at a young age, Salt thought it sounded contrived.

Life in the monastery-fortress was very different from the village life young Salt was used to. Even her name was changed. She had used to be simply Salt, but such a low-born name wasn’t good enough for the Conclave. So they had given her a proper Dominion one, Novicia Salinaria, Novice Salt. A new name for a new life, one of the superiors had explained to her. Salt supposed she was right, even if she didn’t feel very new.

Everything was different, except for one thing: the unflinching devotion to the Gods of the Pantheon displayed by every member of the community. That faith, pure and strong, was the same here inside the mighty mountain, as it had been in the village. Salt knew that as long as she kept faith in the gods, she would be safe. Even knowing that all those she had ever known, her own family included, were dead did not bother her anymore. She had new brothers and sisters now. And should they too die, she would still not be alone, not as long as she remained true to the gods.

Salt’s education was found to be sorely lacking. She could not read or write, and her knowledge of the mundane and the divine was such as is found among the common masses. Fortunately, the new novice had an adroit mind and a desire to learn. Soon she equaled or exceeded all her teachers’ expectations. Sensing a rare talent blooming, they praised her accomplishments, then raised the bar up high. She rose to the challenge.

Along with a proper name, Salt had been given a new birthday: the day she was saved from the pit. When she was sixteen standard years old, she completed the final exam. After came the long, excruciating wait as the novices waited for the elders to decide their future careers.

It came as a surprise to everyone, especially Salinaria, when she was assigned to one of the Orders Militant: the Sisterhood of Athena, one of the most famous warrior sororities in the Dominion. It was quite shocking, really. She had always imagined she would be assigned to one of the Orders Hospitaler. Did she not excel in the gentle arts? Did she not have the healing touch? Why then, did the gods wish for her to fight? For her to become an amazon? She, who had never wanted to hurt anybody. She, whose martial scores were far weaker than her academic ones. Truly the Will of the Gods was inscrutable.

A fortnight later, she was on her way to Olympia, the site of one of the Conclave’s oldest and holiest temples—and the home of her new Order. Salt still did not understand why she had been chosen, and not for lack of seeking answers through prayers, but she made peace with her fate. If the gods demanded she take up arms, she would do so without hesitation. If she was told to kill, she would do so and consider the act of slaying a sacrament. If she died, she would do so knowing that her duty had been done.

Two years of advanced combat training—she already knew the basics from her years as a novice—made her realize that the Gods maybe knew what they were doing. She had a talent for violence and warcraft. This could not be denied. She didn’t particularly want to hurt anyone, but she was good at it.

After her elevation to the rank of Amazon, Salinaria had been handed transfer papers, pointing her towards the remote Amalfian sector, a place she hadn’t even heard of. It turned out the place wasn’t far, relatively speaking, from the world of her birth. The spinward reaches of the Amalfian sector touched ever so tenuously upon the borders of the Montreal sector, within which lay her homeworld of Zephyr.

There was trouble out there on the edge of civilization, and the time for diplomacy and espionage was at an end. A more violent approach would be required to deal with the traitors and heretics gnawing at the sector’s underbelly. And so her superiors on Olympia had seen fit to bolster the Orthodox Amalfian Temple of Athena by granting them a sizeable number of templars: a full commandery, fifteen hundred zealous amazons, sworn to Athena, trained to perfection, and equipped in the manner of armored assault infantry.

Amalfi, the world from which the sector took its name, was as bloated and corrupt as they came. It had, however, long since been replaced by Salerno as the seat of the Duke of Amalfi, and was now relegated to the ignominious role of second most important—and probably least pure—planet in the sector.

Salinaria detested the place from the onset. Amalfi felt too much like her old village had during its death throes. The Sisters’ monastic base was located on a small lunar body in the outer system, some fourteen hundred million kilometers from Amalfi’s surface. Not a kilometer too little. If she tried, Salinaria could still sense the hopelessness and decay of Amalfi’s megacities, especially that cesspool of vice that was Absalom. Or at least she imagined she could.

Fortunately, they did not dally long on their Amalfian base. War had broken out on the world of Protasia between the Coalition and the rebellious local government. An insurrection was not usually grounds for the Conclave to become involved—it was a wholly secular affair—but in this case, the war had revealed something troubling. A congregation of the Word of Light—a heinous and insidious Abyssal cult—had been exposed as a result of the war.

The Dragon Order had sent agents to investigate, and the reports they sent back were troubling indeed. The rot was deep. There was no telling how many congregations there were. The Quaestors had identified five, but they believed there were many more. A cohort of Draconic Knights was dispatched, as was the whole of Salinaria’s commandery.

It is known that the Gods of the Pantheon possesses unfailing wisdom and foresight. That also turned out to apply in the case of one Amazon Salinaria. Her combat training had hinted at her potential, but it was in the crucible of battle her true worth was revealed. The young woman proved to be a more than capable combatant; she turned out to be the living incarnation of Athena’s wrath, a flawless weapon to be wielded against all those who dared threaten the majesty of the Conclave or disparage the inviolable purity of the Pantheon.

Salinaria still considered herself well skilled in the gentle arts; her numerology was good, her command of languages excellent, her social skills impeccable. She also had an uncommon talent when it came to healing. This could not be denied. But there was also no denying that her true calling in life was death. She came to accept that.

Had the gods willed it differently, her sisters whispered behind her back, Salinaria would have become a Draconic Knight, such was her murderous instincts.

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