Chapter 24 EYE OF THE DRAGON
Marcus woke early, as he had done every day since he was a Collegium acolyte. He was rested if a little stiff after all those hours spent with the Maiden. Some limbering exercises and martial arts katas chased away the stiffness, leaving Marcus warm and supple.
After a trip to the bathroom—legates had a great deal of control over their minds and bodies but were not exempted from bodily needs—he sat down at the room’s only table. It looked like real teak but probably wasn’t. Marcus ran his fingers along the surface. Synthetic. Without a native biosphere, anything made of natural wood had to be imported to Nuovo Venezia. Interstellar transportation wasn’t all that expensive, but the cost of real wood would be at least ten times higher than a replica made from recycled materials.
A tall, narrow window provided a view of the consulate’s back yard two stories below. The sun was shining—it always did in a city floating above the clouds—but the yard lay in shadow. Between mouthfuls of cereal—the grain was locally grown, in the orbital greenhouses high above—eaten right out of the box, Marcus pulled out his tarot. I’ll grab something else on my way to the Pentacle. No reason to starve like I did yesterday.
The well-worn leather-covered adamantine case was a familiar weight in his hand. It had been with Marcus for many years, ever since Xerza gave it to him as a welcoming gift upon his acceptance into the Arcanum. The case itself was nigh indestructible, and the lock would respond only to Marcus’s unique psychic imprint. Inside were seventy-eight cards, made of the same psychoactive materials the Maiden’s archives were constructed from.
The Order called the deck of cards the Oculus Draconis, literally ‘the Dragon’s Eye’ if translated into Common, but the real meaning was more along the line of ‘the Dragon’s all-seeing gaze.’ More commonly, it was referred to as the Dragon’s Tarot—or just the Tarot. Marcus had also met people, Conclave officials, for the most part, who had insisted it be called the Oracular Tarot since it was, in fact, oracular in nature. Conveniently, it also left the Dragon out of the equation--the priests didn’t much like the idea of a cosmic power greater than their petty gods.
With a full deck at his disposal, a skilled reader could foretell the future, see into the distant past, and reveal secrets great and small. A less talented user could maybe get some vague glimpses of what was to come—or not. It was often said that the Tarot was an old man’s tool, requiring a lifetime of experience to use correctly. I’ve never been a great reader. Never had had the time—or patience. Maybe I’ll get more skilled with age. Probably not. I’ll leave fortune-telling to wizened old legates that have outlived their usefulness.
Marcus called upon the power he kept locked away in the deep recesses of his mind. Psychics. Born of Khaos. Harnessed by the will of the legate. The most powerful and versatile tool of all.
It was the ability to control the protean energies of creation and change that set legates apart for the bulk of humanity. It was not merely a difference in genes. Yes, there were genetic differences, the so-called Nexus genes, that were the most common in scions—the children of the gods. But beyond these markers, there were differences that even the scientists of the fallen Dominion hadn’t been able to fully explain. Not so strange. The ability to change the laws of physics cannot, by its very nature, be quantified or cataloged within a scientific framework.
Marcus willed there to be fire, and there was. It burned bright and warm but consumed neither fuel nor air. The flame was the psychic manifestation of his desires, and it was his will alone that sustained it. He let the fire engulf the tarot case. The lid swung open. Marcus dismissed the flames and slid the cards out of the case and into his hand. They were cool to the touch. And heavy. They were always heavier in his hand than in the case. That’s how it is for me. Legates didn’t experience handling the tarot in the same way, just like they didn’t experience the use of their powers in the same way.
Marcus chuckled. Training as a magisterial legate was a highly regimented affair, yet the uniqueness inherent in every budding legate was ever a challenge for the Collegium teachers. No two legates were ever exactly the same, but they all needed to be taught the same basics: inner focus, outer focus, patterns, and threading. The Magisters would much have preferred to just force everyone to fit into the same mold, but history had proven it didn’t work that way. They could beat and threaten all they wanted, but at the end of the day, they had to adjust their lessons to accommodate each individual legate-to-be.
Marcus shuffled the deck as he chewed down two additional mouthfuls. The cereal was bone dry. He grabbed a carton of protein-fortified beverage—it said milk on the carton but smelled nothing like it—to wash it down. The not-really-milk was sweeter than it should be and spiced with too much cheap vanillin substitute.
Eating helped Marcus defocus. Many tarot readers had to find ‘inner peace,’ but for Marcus, it didn’t help to be all serene. I need to not focus at all. It was easier if he engaged in some form of routine, meaningless activity, like eating cereal right out of the box.
He stopped shuffling and brought forth the query: What manner of unexpected or hidden events will this day hold for me? Keeping the question clear in his mind, he drew seven cards, one at a time, laying them face down in a familiar pattern. Starting from the left and going right, he made the sort of wide inverted ‘V’ that gave the spread its name, the Dragon’s Eyrie. The card backs stared up at him, seven golden dragons rampant, the symbol of the Ordo Draconis.
According to Dominion folklore, the spirit of the Celestial Dragon was supposed to be hovering over the Eyrie, making the spread extra accurate. Marcus didn’t buy into that. Such tales were for the unilluminated. As long as the spread was consistent and familiar to the reader, it would do the trick—the exact number of cards and the pattern they were laid out in didn’t actually matter all that much. He knew over twenty spreads well enough to get meaningful readings from them, but the Eyrie happened to be the spread he was the most familiar with, and the one he kept returning to. I could do the Autarch’s Row, but only three cards aren’t very accurate. The Eyrie is better.
The query burned bright in the most psychically sensitive part of Marcus’s brain. He leaned forward a fraction and placed the center three fingers of his right hand upon the back of the leftmost card. The card went from cold to searing hot in an instant. Agony lanced up through the nerves of his arm and bored into his waiting mind. Never is pain so sweet as when interpreting the will of the Dragon. One of the things Xerza taught me. The fiery pain mingled with his own inner flames. Knowing the connection was stable, Marcus let down his wards and allowed the energies of creation to flow into him. As long as he kept his heart filled with devotion to the Dragon, the cards of the deck would protect him from harm.
The first card, the one to the lower left, was indicative of the past. It could potentially reveal something which has transpired that was relevant to the query. Marcus turned over the card. The Quaestor—the Ace of Thalassa—stared up at Marcus. The same card in the same spot as yesterday. An unusual, but hardly unique occurrence. Besides, yesterday’s query had been the same one as today’s—and the situation hadn’t changed much.
Marcus studied the card. The image was slightly different—the cards’ visual representation changed subtly with every reading—from yesterday. The Quaestor of today was more of a scholar and less of a warrior. The cloak the Quaestor wore was an almost exact match of the one Haides had been wearing; crimson and decorated with embroidery exalting the Gods of the Pantheon. But the man wearing the cloak could not be Haides, for he was much too tall and heavyset. Samael? Is that you? Marcus imagined it was but couldn’t be sure. There were no images of Samael available to the public. Some probably existed in the Assembly’s library, but looking it up would attract all sorts of unwanted attention.
In itself, the Quaestor was a potent card that could have multiple interpretations, even within one reading. With all that was going on, with all that had transpired up to this point, there was really no telling what its exact significance was. Yesterday’s reading had been the same: the presence of the Quaestor had only caused confusion and uncertainty, and the entire session had turned out pretty useless.
Marcus moved his fingers to the second card. Another jolt of burning pain, joining the inferno growing inside his mind. The second card represented the nature of the problem, the essence of the matter, the current state of events. He turned it over—the Pilgrim. The Pilgrim was the only unnumbered Major Arcana, something of the odd man out. The Pilgrim represented new beginnings and possibilities, and its appearance was always significant. Again, the same card in the same spot. The only difference was that today the image was of Marcus, sitting at a table, reading the tarot. So, I’m at the heart of the matter? Reading the tarot? Makes no sense. Same as always.
The third card. By now, the pain was just the ache after a long bout of physical exertion. It hurt, but in a good way, promising to leave him invigorated and calm afterward. The third position was an important one: it could reveal that which was hidden. The things, influences, or events the querent—that being Marcus—could not see, or had overlooked. He turned the card over. The Stranger, the Ace of Olympus. Three cards turned—three cards, two Aces, and the Pilgrim. And so far, the spread was precisely the same as yesterday. Doesn’t happen too often. But then again, my mission has not changed.
The Stranger within the image was wearing the same robe as the Quaestor, but his back was turned to Marcus, and his surroundings failed to give any clues as to his identity. For a moment, Marcus imagined he might be Haides, but the next, he was someone else entirely.
The Stranger suddenly raised his right hand. He was wearing body armor in Haides’s style, black gloves included. In his hand, a bottle of cheap conniaco, of the kind Haides would never touch, even if his life depended on it. The card that is supposed to reveal secrets tells naught but that an unseen force is at work. Completely useless.
The fourth position. The apex of the Eyrie. It told of obstacles or challenges that would appear along the way themselves. Marcus was not surprised when it turned out as the Assassin, the Four of Khaos. The image was clearly of Haides, armed with a pistol and knife. Haides as a kid. Twelve years old, maybe a little more? He would have to wrestle some more with the Gatekeeper today. Not much of a revelation, really.
The fifth card. Indicative of other factors that might come into play. Not secret influences like the third position, but something else, something tangential. Could be the presence and actions of the mystery team, some trait of Marcus’s—or something else entirely. The Portal, the Sixteenth Major Arcana. Is this how it is going to be? The exact same reading as yesterday? Five out of five thus far.
The image on the Portal card was completely different, though. Gone was yesterday’s image of the armored door. In its place, an angelic statue of red Akakian stone lay shattered in the Plaza of Loremasters, the open space just outside the Second Pentacle. Marcus pondered upon the fallen giant for a moment. The card is reversed. It doesn’t represent strength, but weakness. But whose weakness?
He spotted nine tiny figures standing or sitting on top of the statue. Peculiar. Only rarely would a tarot card depict more than one person, let alone a whole group. A grin crept onto Marcus’s face. Now I have the measure of the mystery team. He offered a brief prayer of thanks to the Celestial Dragon, before moving one more position to the right.
The sixth card represented advice, the best course of action to follow. Marcus turned it over, revealing the Martyr, the Twelfth Major Arcana. Again, the same card as yesterday. Me. The Martyr is me. He could clearly see his own face, slightly upturned as if looking intently at someone or something just beyond the edge of the card. His mien was one of bliss and absolute adoration. Death comes for me. Cold gripped Marcus’s heart. He knew he was looking at his own, near-future death. And by the looks of it, he would go willingly, filled with rapturous bliss. An involuntary shiver rushed through him, upsetting his equilibrium and threatening to sever the connection to the tarot cards.
He’d always known that he would die in the service. Death was a constant companion to him out in the field. He’d never let that be a hindrance. His duty to the Dragon was far more important than his life. But he’d never had that tarot tell him that today was the day he was going to die. Could there be another sacrifice he would be called upon to make? For a brief instant, he felt a sense of hope, but alas, that’s was not it. The Martyr foretells my death today. It is certain. Pretending otherwise will not help me.
He flipped over the last card before the session was ended prematurely. It was not the Wasting reversed, but the Reaper. Gone was the pure maiden of yesterday’s reading, replaced by Marcus’s own face, staring up from the card. The dead were heaped around his feet. He recognized some of them as members of the team that had watched the plaza. The others were too badly mangled and burned to be sure.
My watchers must die before the end of the day. That—or I’ll be the Martyr, the one claimed by the Reaper. Pity such measures must be taken, but who am I to argue with the Will of the Dragon?
Thirty minutes later, Marcus was gone. Carefully applied psychic fire had cleared away any physical indication of his stay—fingerprints, fibers, hair, flakes of skin, everything. He’d purged any traces of his comings and goings from the memory stacks and made sure none of the guards or adepts remembered. He didn’t plan on coming back.
The villes flottantes—the floating cities—of Nuovo Venezia had been the brainchild of Archon Raphael I Guillaume. A few years into the Titanomachy, the Coalition and Concordat had clashed over a few border systems. Nuovo Venezia had been hit hard with strategic weapons. It was depopulated and made uninhabitable. Still, they kept fighting over the star system, sitting as it did on a major transport juncture. Fifty years into the Titanomachy, the Coalition had invaded the Concordat in force and seized several critical systems, including New Venice. Raphael Guillaume, now an old man wanting the create lasting monuments to his own glory, ordered the building of five hundred and twelve cities, each capable of housing ten million people.
When the Archon died, only the first batch of sixty-four cities had started construction. In the end, fifty-seven were completed. Four had been lost or abandoned over the course of five centuries, leaving fifty-three flying cities, housing more than a billion and a half—well above the original design parameters. Aphrodite-Eta, where the Second Pentacle was located, was one of the remaining cities that still retained some of the original luxury and splendor. It, too, was overpopulated, but only by about fifty percent, which made it one of the least crowded cities. By comparison, Aphrodite-Beta had nearly fifty million people on board, half of them unregistered dregs.
The walk to the Plaza of the Loremasters was much the same as the day before. Going from the consulate—located in the heart of the city on the upper stratum—to the Pentacle, you passed along wide boulevards and open area, lined with towering buildings. Only the most opulent structures had less than twenty stories—space was a premium atop a floating city. Other than being less crowded and grimy than most places, there was no difference between this city and other crowded and compact human settlements throughout the galaxy. Except this one floats high above the bleak and irradiated wasteland that is Nuovo Venezia’s planetary surface.
Getting into the Pentacle was more comfortable than getting out the day before. The police were out in force to prevent any after-riots from forming. As a member of the Dragon Order, Marcus was outside their jurisdiction and could come and go as he pleased. In theory, at least. With the Dark Omega to back up his authority, he was virtually untouchable. As an added bonus, should the mystery team try to interfere, they would have to go through the police.
Speaking of the devil. He found the watchers pretty much right where he had left them. The servitor team had switched to a different guise, posing now as guild runners, idling in the shadow of the very statue Marcus had hidden beneath yesterday. He made sure they saw him passing through the entrance portal to the Pentacle, but not in a way that might indicate he knew he was being watched. Let them wonder how I got out yesterday. Give nothing away.
Marcus passed Librarian Amaya on the Second Tier, the deepest level she had credentials for. It was not a chance encounter. He knew her psychic profile by now, and it was no bother looking into the future to see when and where he needed to be to bump into her.
She smiled at Marcus. A slight flush crept into her cheeks when he smiled back at her. She looked a bit surprised at her own reaction; she quickly looked away and busied herself with sorting some ancient-looking leather-bound books. The emotional worm was doing its job.
Marcus had to pass through a total of nine checkpoints before he reached the final Tier. The deeper he went, the more stringent the security measures. On the lower levels, the guards were all armored and carried the same silly-looking halberds Kwame had. Higher up, only checkpoint guards wore armor. The rest went about in black uniforms trimmed with green.
He halted in front of the ornamented bronze door leading to the interrogation chamber. The Maiden would be waiting for him inside, unbound. Marcus addressed his unseen watchers. “Do you have anything to report?” he said. They know what I mean.
“Not much,” came the answer from hidden speakers. “She remained free throughout the night cycle. Explored the chamber—did about a hundred laps before she settled down—but there were no escape attempts. She did not attempt to communicate, except to request a flask of water and a nutrition bar. The request was denied—she’s just out of storage and has no need for rehydration or replenishment. Around midnight she returned to her seat and entered hibernation mode. She’s not moved since.”
“Good,” said Marcus, “now get this door open.”
The massive seal began to roll away. Marcus stepped through the widening gap, not waiting for it to fully open. He was already towering above the Maiden when he heard the door close. The door might be able to stop any attack but took a long time to fully open and close—a potential weakness.
He pulled up the other chair and sat down. “Good morning, Lizze.”
“Good morning, Marcus,” she said and smiled at him. “Aren’t you going to tie me up again?” Her lips were as perfect as her eyes.
“Only if you misbehave,” he joked. “Don’t worry—I’ve not grown soft. I’m merely trying to manipulate you to make you feel more at ease.”
“That’s unusually candid, coming from a torturer.”
“Like I said yesterday: as long as you behave and answer my questions quickly and to the best of your abilities, there is no need for me to use force.”
“And humor? Is that allowed? Irony?”
Marcus shrugged. “I’ll let you know if you cross the line.”
“Great,” she said and shook her head. Her hair rearranged itself, growing longer, straighter, and a shade darker.
“Lizzie,” Marcus said, “I would like to get to know you better. As a person I mean.” The look he got in return told him she didn’t believe him. “I really do. You’re not just a machine—you’re a machine and a person both. I had not expected that. Not at all.” He got a tiny smile in return. “But right now, I need to get back to Haides. Is that all right with you?”
She looked like she was about to object—or say something offensive—but had a change of heart. “I know you’re just playing me, Marcus. But I appreciate the civil tone. Yes, it would be all right with me. I’ll be here when you get back. Perhaps we can speak then?”
He let her take his hand. She guided it gently to her breast—it wasn’t a gross boob grab, but a symbolic placement of palm over the heart. Or at least where her heart would have been, had she one.
The walk—and a hearty second breakfast—had given Marcus time to plan the mental architecture for today’s session. It would be mostly the same as yesterday, but he had added an additional subdivision. It would work in concert with the emotional buffer to pick up unexpected attacks and other unpleasantness. The setup would challenge his abilities and drain him physically, but he planned to compensate by dividing today’s session in two, with a long lunch break in the middle. He’d use the break to check up on a few things using the Pentacle’s library. Maybe have another chat with the Maiden.