Prologue TRUE LOVE
The universe is vast, perhaps infinite, but for the most part, it is barren and outright hostile to life. Of all the worlds surveyed during four thousand years of interstellar exploration, only a handful had been an instant match for colonization. More numerous, but still rare, were worlds that could be made habitable given time and sufficient investments.
Nuovo Venezia was one such almost-earthlike world, located nearly fifteen thousand lightyears rimward and antispinward of the Sol system. It had taken centuries to terraform its atmosphere to a state where humans could walk the surface without protective gear. Mere weeks were required to reduce it to an irradiated hellhole, wreathed in noxious fumes, utterly unsuitable for habitation.
Deep underground, in the central chamber of one of the fallout shelter’s private apartments, the glare cast by a plasma lantern struggled to keep the subterranean darkness at bay. The suite’s rooms had once been lavishly furnished, but scavengers had long ago stripped it down to the nanocrete.
The current occupants had more modest needs than the long-dead owners: a field bed with a crumpled blanket and a pillow, a tall metal locker with the doors ajar, a well-used computing desk stacked with print sheets and data ledgers, and a row of old filing cabinets lined up along one wall. The only luxury, if it could be called that, was a hand-knitted rug done in a pattern that was ancient even before humans walked among the stars.
There was nothing modest, however, about the collection of weapons scattered about the room. Two heavy pistols—coilguns judging by their heavy barrel shrouds—in a well-worn shoulder rig on the floor by the bed, an elegant sliver pistol partially disassembled upon the desk, a massive pulse rifle with an advanced scope sitting on a bipod on top of the filing cabinets. A box of anti-personnel grenades placed next to a case of military-grade implosive devices.
And blades, many blades. Auto-balanced throwing knives. Fractal-serrated punch daggers. Stilettos etched with matter-disruptive microcircuitry. Short stabbing swords made of dark matter, slightly out of phase with reality, rendering them almost invisible—and nigh unblockable. Longer slashing swords, their curved cutting edges made from super-dense materials honed sharper than a razor.
The weapons were not collector’s items. All were plain looking, devoid of the ornamentation many warriors favored, yet of exquisite quality. The arms of a true craftsman. Made to kill, nothing more, nothing less.
Next to the bed, two naked figures stood close, their lean bodies locked in a fierce embrace. She was tall, he was taller still—the crown of her head reached no further than his lips.
“My love...” he began, but she put a finger to his lips.
“There is no need to say anymore, Sam. We’ve gone over it a hundred times. The shadows have grown long, and the servants of darkness are getting bolder. Even the Order is not immune to the seductive whispers of the Abyss. We must do this, now, or risk losing everything. Such is the Will of the Dragon—the readings are clear and consistent.”
“I wish there were another way, Lizzie...”
“But there isn’t. I will die. Shed this mortal shell and be remade. So that I can find you and guide you. Not in this life, but the next, and the ones after that, all the way to the end, to Ragnarök.” Lizzie tossed back her dark hair and tilted her head back to look up at her lover, emerald eyes glittering in the glow of the lantern.
“I know, but for once, I find myself conflicted,” Samael said, staring above her head into the dark nothingness beyond the ring of light. “I will not fail to fulfill my duty. Never that. No matter what is required.”
Sam’s voice left no room for doubt. It never did. This was the closest he came to displaying uncertainty.
“But being here...alone with you, with my true love...it makes me wonder what life could have been, just for the two of us. No Dragon. No unbreakable vows. No end of the world coming. Me and you. Two souls united forever.”
A single tear had formed in his left eye. Or maybe it was the poor lighting and Lizzie’s imagination playing tricks? “Two bodies united, you mean. Two bodies bumping and grinding into eternity,” she said and grabbed his buttocks for emphasis.
Sam shook his head and chuckled. The tear—if there ever was one—was gone. “My love…”
“You will not shy from your duty, and neither will I. I honor the Creed no less than you do, Quaestor Samael. Whatever is required of me, I will do it.” She tried to break free from his embrace, but he was much too strong for her.
“Very well,” Sam said and caught Lizzie’s eyes with his. “Let’s be done with this then. The Dragon doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Those piercing blue eyes were what had drawn Lizzie into Samael’s orbit in the first place. Only a scion, heir to the power and majesty of the gods of yore could have eyes like that. Lizzie was sure, even if Sam had never claimed so himself—or admitted to it when asked.
“Duty to the Dragon,” Sam intoned, voice soft, but firm.
“Always and Forever,” Lizzie replied. She tried to look away but could no more break free from those eyes than she could his arms.
“Valor in Life,” he said and slowly let go of her.
“Surrender None,” she said and stepped back.
“Honor in Death,” Sam added, his voice sounding distant and sad.
“The Dragon Eternal,” Lizzie finished, ending their recital of the Draconic Creed, the oath of allegiance that bound them to their God and Master.
His eyes let go of her, and Lizzie was able to look away. “How will it be done?” she asked, unable to bring herself to look at him again.
“It’s already done, my love,” said a distant voice.
“Sam...” she said, feeling light-headed and suddenly confused.
“A warrior’s death,” the voice said from someplace far away. “For the brave Maiden who gave her life in His service. The full honors due a Draconic Knight. You deserve nothing less.”
That was when she noticed the blood. All that bright red blood, gushing out of her. She wanted to say something. Tell him that she trusted him. Tell him that she was afraid. But she was out of breath, out of time.
The last thing Lizzie saw before she crashed into darkness was Sam’s face, set into a stony mask, eyes cold and distant as the void between the stars. Samael, my one true love, I will see you again on the other side of death’s sundered veil.