Dark Omega

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Chapter 32 HERO OF ATHENS

Salinaria’s first assignment after redeploying from Amalfi to Protasia had been the city of Thira. A Draconic Quaestor called Tancred had been appointed to lead the joint force of Conclave amazons, Coalition army, and Ordo Draconis knights. Thira, he had said, was a place where the Shadow-taint ran deep, carefully hidden from view. Swift and decisive action would be required to remove it. There was only one complication: Thira was in rebel hands and must be liberated to get to grips with the problem. That was the Coalition military’s job. The amazons were to follow the Order’s lead and kill the actual Shadow-spawn. He didn’t say what the Order’s role was.

She had been fascinated by the black-skinned—he was the darkest human she’d ever seen—quaestor with the wandering, blood-shot eyes from the moment she saw him. His mind was impossibly sharp and perceptive, his resolve unshakable. He was also insufferably haughty and frequently demanded the impossible of his subordinates. Salinaria went above and beyond, every chance she got, in the vain hope he’d take notice of a low-ranking amazon.

Tancred’s right-hand man, Keeper Kaminsky of the Dragon Order’s Victory of Light Legion, the man in charge of military operations, was another matter entirely. She could feel him watching her from across the room every time they met. Being scrutinized like that by a stranger, a man devoted not to the Gods, but the Dragon was more than a little disturbing.

After their fourth meeting, she had grown a pair and confronted Kaminsky. “Lord-Commander, may I have a word in private,” she had said. Salinaria’s squad leader seemed like she might interfere, but one look from the knight’s mirrored death mask had sent the woman scurrying from the room.

“Yes, you may, Sister Salt,” he had replied. That he knew her given name had come as a great surprise. Had he looked at her file? Why had he taken such an interest in her, the lowest of all amazons?

Neither of them said anything until everybody else had left, leaving just the two of them in the briefing room.

“Why do you stare at me? What have I done?” she had said. Simple and to the point. He had to know what she meant. He was the one staring.

“Nothing,” he had replied. His faceplate had retracted, and his helmet had folded back, exposing a horrendously disfigured face. Salt took an involuntary step backward. It looked like it had been set on fire. The skin had burned away, but the flesh had melted and flowed like vax before setting again. He was also blind, beyond the abilities of the Technocracy to repair: where his eye cavities should have been, there was instead a mass of scar tissue.

I do not stare: I am blind, he spoke into her mind. But by the Grace of the Dragon, I see everything, past, present, and future. Having him talk to her like that, mind to mind, was terribly painful. Every word felt like glowing needles were pushed into her eyes. Yes. That is how it feels for me, every second of every day. Do you have more questions for me, little sister?

“How...” she managed.

I am a Custodian, a Keeper of the Dragon. I have the powers of a legate at my disposal. Your mind speaks to my mind, Salt. Your memories are like an open book to me, your emotions laid bare. Such is the Will of the Dragon.

With every word he spoke into her mind, the pain became more unbearable. It felt like her head was on fire. She could take no more.

“Please,” she begged. The silence the followed was the sweetest thing.

------

Quaestor Tancred had made it painfully clear to all those involved in the cleansing of Thira what would happen, should they fail. Every soul within the city would be consigned to oblivion. Their heavy-handed dragon ‘god’ demanded it be so. That was the role of the Dragon Order: to watch, to assess, to put the city to the torch if they felt like it. It wasn’t right—such weighty decisions should be made by the Gods, not violent men praying to dragon idols.

But they hadn’t failed. The Gods of the Pantheon, their patron Athena in particular, had guided their actions. They had identified the leaders of the cult early on and quickly dealt with them. The Amazons had, with only minimal aid from the Draconic Knights, cut out the rot without killing the host. The city was damaged, of course it was, there was a war raging, but unlike many other cities, it could be—and would be—rebuilt.

That was Salinaria’s first encounter with the World of Light. Many more followed. Sometimes the host could not be saved, sometimes it could, but the dark light of the Word was always put out. Until finally, there were no more Brethren or Bishops left on the planet. There was no need for Tancred and his lackeys to stick around on Protasia. Now they must follow the trail of corruption out between the stars. The Draconic fort in Thira from which they had operated was being evacuated even as Verrigan assumed his style and title.

Salinaria was happy to see them go. Much as she admired Tancred and respected Kaminsky’s battle prowess, in general, the servants of the Dragon were insufferable, convinced of their own superiority, and incredibly condescending towards ‘lesser people.’ Even worse, they put their vengeful and demanding deity, the Celestial Dragon, above the real Gods of the Pantheon. Officially the Conclave supported their peculiar faith, but everybody knew the Dragon was just a false idol. A dragon god? Whose followers were reborn, rather than go to Hades? How quaint was that?

Kaminsky was the worst of a bad lot. Whatever she did, however far she pushed herself, there was nothing Salinaria could do that he could not. She knew it. He knew it. And he knew that she knew. He never said anything about being better. He didn’t have to. His mere presence screamed: I am greater than you. Just knowing that he was nearby made Salinaria feel like a little shit, not the veteran amazon she was.

Then there was the mind-reading. The blind Keeper was regularly reading their minds. She knew this for a fact. In battle, he would mind-speak to them sometimes, or give orders based on knowledge that had been taken out of Salinaria’s mind or those of the other amazons. To have her innermost thoughts spied upon like that made her feel violated. He didn’t care. Of course, he didn’t. To him, they were all sub-humans, little better than bugs.

The worst thing about him, however, was his faith. It was faith so deep and unshakeable it made Salinaria shiver when she thought about it. Salinaria and her amazons were all devout women but measured against Kaminsy’s zeal, they fell short. Only in the eyes and the voices of the Brethren of Light they had killed or caught had she felt such zealousness. It was unnatural.

Since Kaminsky read their minds, he knew exactly what they felt about his alien god. It didn’t seem to bother him at all. Until one day, early in what was spring on the southern hemisphere, right before another battle was to start, he had removed his helmet and turned to look at her as he would have, had he had real eyes.

“Sister Salt,” he said, called her by her given name like he always did when they were alone. “Have you seen the face of your God? Have you stood in her presence and looked upon your Athena?”

She had not, so she shook her head. To see the face of God was insanity, death even. This was known. Besides, faith was about believing, not seeing, was it not? If you needed proof that the gods were real, could you even call it faith?

“Twice I have looked at my God,” the faceless giant told her in his flash voice, and she could tell it was true, “twice I have stood before the Dragon.” Her hands were shaking, her throat parched, and the ground swayed under her feet.

Kaminsky reached out to steady her before she could fall. “Your gods may be real to you, Salinaria, but not in the way He is real to me. Twice his flames touched me—the first time I was baptized, the second I was burned.” She knew he meant his disfigured face. “The next time I see him, I will be dead.” He pulled back his hand. “Be glad you did not need to see the faces of your gods to believe in them. And pray you never come into the presence of mine.” His helmet folded out, and the scarred face was concealed by a mirror of metal.

When he was gone, she had let herself fall to the ground. She lay there for a long time, crying silently into the ground. It was the last time she didn’t give the Dragon his proper due.

------

Soror-Alta—Sister-Superior, the amazon equivalent of a company commander—Salinaria had every reason to be pleased with herself and the amazons under her command. The girls had performed above and beyond all expectations. Working closely with the Coalition’s armed forces and the Dragon Order, they had eradicated the heretical followers of the Word of Light from the surface of Protasia in a long and hard-fought campaign.

One day, well into their second winter on Protasia, Salinaria had received a summons from Prelate Zhukov, the highest-ranking Conclave official on the planet. Leaving her unit, she had traveled by air, escorted by a pair of Coalition fighters, to the new capital being constructed near one of the original beachheads.

Salinaria wasn’t used to dealing with men of such lofty rank, but she needn’t have worried. The Prelate turned out to be as pleasant as he was obese, as down to earth as his palace was ostentatious.

“Captain,” he said to her after introductions and pleasantries had been exchanged, “I’m very pleased with the amazons of Athena. Very pleased indeed. With you in particular.”

“Me?” she replied. “I didn’t do anything special.”

“Nonsense, my dear, nonsense. You have been at the forefront of every action. First in, last out. Always giving it your all. Rising from the lowest rank to command a company in a single campaign. The gods are my witness: you are a true heroine. And a good looking one at that.”

She was about to object, but the Prelate clapped his hands, and the tall double doors at the other end of his palatial legatio had swung open. Two men came walking in, a massive portrait gliding between them on a small grav-sled. Salinaria could only watch in horror as they put the painting on a stand, before retreating from the room.

It was her, only four meters tall, almost reaching the roof of the Prelate’s airy reception room. She was fully vested for battle, save she wasn’t wearing a helmet, but had red lipstick on, and her short, black hair was very long and artfully arranged with diamond pins and a bejeweled hairnet, such as might be worn by a noblewoman going to a ball. In one hand, she had a coilgun, in the other a phase blade. A smoking pulse cannon was protruding over her shoulder. At her feet lay scores of enemies, dead and broken. It was masterfully done in the hyper-realistic epic tradition that had dominated Coalition high art for centuries.

“What do you think?” the Prelate had asked.

She hated it intensely but couldn’t say so to the Prelate’s face. “It looks...epic. But the hair...”

“Yes, yes, artistic expression,” he said and waved any future objections away. “You are magnificent, my dear. This is you in battle, but looking like the lady you should be. I’m glad you like it,” he continued, “because it will soon be on every billboard and every screen on this gods-forsaken planet.” Salinaria wanted to scream, to run away. She did neither. “The war is over, the Dragon Order gone. Now it is time to secure peace and prosperity. You are to tour the cities and villages of our new Protasia. Instill the fear and love of the gods into the remaining natives, their conquerors, and the waves of settlers to come. There is no greater task, no higher honor.” She was trapped, with no way out of this living nightmare. “But first, you must be made to look the part. My staff will help you,” he obviously meant for her to become the woman in the painting, “and work on your social skills. There is work to be done in the halls of the nobility and houses of the planet’s new gentry. Can’t have you acting like the commoner-turned-nun you are.” He clapped his hands again, and Salinaria was whisked from the room. Her old life had ended, and a new one began.

------

Salinaria was back where she had started out nearly eighteen Earth months earlier: the City of Thira-by-the-Lake. Thira had been her first combat assignment, but not the last. This time there would be no battle. Salinaria and her amazons were in full armor, but it was honor guard duty, not war, they were dressed for. First Minister Verrigan, now the Viscount of Thira, second in rank only to Count-Planetar June Grimaldi—now June I Othrys—was arriving to take possession of his fief. Prelate Zhukov, High Priest of the Resurgent Temple of Protasia, had made sure the Conclave’s finest warriors—and their greatest hero—were there to bid him welcome.

------

The newly constructed Great Hall of Thira wasn’t so great as some of the ruins Salinaria had fought over on Protasia. Still, it was big enough to fit hundreds of people and display the opulence of the planet’s second-most important noble. It was also structurally sound and free of bullet holes and dead bodies.

Salarinaria was in the middle of it all, kneeling before the Viscount, surrounded by his court. She had kind of gotten used to a life of fame by now, but nothing could have prepared her for this: she felt like a little fish thrown into a pool full of sharks. She wished she had been allowed to wear her armor, rather than a dress that revealed altogether too much skin. Going into this nest of newly-made and power-hungry nobles made her feel very vulnerable. One sign of weakness, one drop of blood in the water, and the courtiers would go into a frenzy and tear her apart.

“Soror-Alta Salinaria, the heroine of a hundred battles, how good to finally meet you in person,” Viscount Verrigan, First Minister of Protasia said. “Dispense with the formalities, woman,” he said and waved her forward. “I cannot stand to see such a proud and noble creature as you kneel.”

She got up from kneeling and made her way forward. She walked with slow, dignified steps as she had learned. Two hundred pairs of eyes followed her every move, not counting the Protasian citizens watching the audience on their screens.

She stopped just short of the stairs leading up to the Viscount’s high seat. She bowed her head in deference to his rank.

“Look at me, woman,” he ordered.

She raised her head, and they looked at each other. The Viscount was a tall, handsome man. His hair was thick and almost as dark as Salinaria’s, but his neatly trimmed beard was shot with flecks of grey. He was athletic in a sinewy way. Long, dexterous fingers played with the bloodstone capping his rod of office. His eyes were dark and hinted at mischief. He was nothing like the demure man his image suggested.

“I see your portrait does you scant justice, Lady Salinaria,” he said, mirroring her thoughts. “Isn’t she the most beautiful thing you saw?” he said to his court. His voice was deep and dark and mellow. She wanted him to keep talking.

“I’m no lady, My Lord,” she said, trying not to smile.

“You dare tell the liege lord of Protasia he is wrong? In front of his court, no less. You are as brave as they told me.” A hundred people chuckled in tune to the Viscount’s joke.

“Nevertheless, My Lord. I am no Lady.”

“We’ll see about that,” he said and snapped his fingers. “Seneschal,” he said to the man who appeared from behind a drapery. “Make this woman a noble. Find her a proper title and a piece of good land. Have the priests look at her family tree—I’m sure they can find a link to some lesser lineage.”

The entire court cheered and clapped their hands, but their eyes were cold, their faces stony. Salinaria could feel their growing resentment. A commoner, a soldier of the Gods, raised up to peerage without warning. And the Viscount had, in front of everyone, declared she was a scion, a child of the gods, without a shred of proof to back it up. Indeed, he’d ordered the Conclave to find—or make—the proof. It was unheard of, improper.

“I’m rarely wrong,” the Viscount said. “And when I am, I make sure I end up being right after all.” He winked at her. Those standing close enough to see laughed. The rest wondered what they had just missed.

“Protasia has suffered horribly from this war. But the fighting is over, finally, and we can begin to recover, to rebuild. Thira is better off than most places, but much work needs to be done here as well.

“To commemorate this new start, I have decided to rename the city ‘Athens,’ after your goddess Athena. I hope you approve?” he said, and Salinaria felt he was speaking to her alone.

“Yes, my liege,” she said without hesitation. “I approve, and I’m sure Athena does as well,” she continued, giddy with pride.

“Good,” Verrigan exclaimed. “It is settled then. You may retire now—I would not have you suffer this...” he said and waved his rod at the court. “But come to me after, and we will speak at length about the future of Athens.”

Salinaria bowed at the waist in the manner of a Coalition officer and strode from the room. She’d made a hundred new enemies, but she cared not. She, lowest of the low, was a noble scion and a hero, and she had been invited to a private audience with the Viscount of Protasia.

She was so proud of herself; she forgot all about the gods for the rest of that evening—and the nights that came after.

------

Xerza awoke in the middle of the night, her dreams too troubled for sleep. She lay in bed for a spell, her breathing heavy, her body slick with perspiration. She glanced over at the holographic timepiece over her nightstand, nearly five o’clock. Not yet morning, not by a long stretch. Moeral Princeps’ day lasted twenty-eight hours, and few people got up before eight in the morning.

Xerza closed her eyes and massaged her temples. Salt. That had been her name once, several lifetimes ago. The little girl named Salt had gone away, transformed into Sister Salinaria. The amazon warrior had lasted for a while, but then she too had to go, replaced by the Hero of Athens. After that, Xerza hadn’t been allowed a name, only a designation. There had been plenty of epithets, however: traitor, witch, and heretic, amongst others. The witch thing was right enough, even if totally involuntary. But traitor and heretic? Traitor to whom? The Gods? And a heretic? Not in a million years. They had even called her whore, which was as far from the truth as you could get—at least until she met Verrigan.

Salt. Salinaria. Hero. Whore. Traitor. Witch.

Those had been old versions of her. They were in there, still part of her. The young girl, so gentle and full of faith. The hard woman, who wanted nothing more than to kill in the name of the Gods. The witch, able to bend reality to her will. They were still part of her, but she was someone else now. I am Xerza. Domina Quaestor Xerza. High Servant of the Celestial Dragon.

Xerza wormed her way out of crumpled and damp linens, tossed her blanket on the floor, and got out of bed. She did not bother to robe. In the privacy of her rooms, there was no need for propriety. She started towards her boudoir, stopped halfway, and turned around. Her shadow still languished lazily in bed, apparently in no rush to catch up. Xerza snapped her fingers, and her darker half fell grudgingly into step.

She walked over to the boudoir, opened a small gilded box, and picked up its contents: a simple fleur-de-lis, the symbol of Sisterhood of Athena, upon a burnished adamantine chain. Tancred had retrieved it from her confiscated belongings and given it to her as a welcoming gift. She had kept it as a reminder of past lives lived.

Reality hit her like a battering ram between the eyes.

Past lives lived! How could she not have realized? The dreams of the past had started again. Her temper was short, the urges stronger. The signs were all there. Why did she never see it coming?

She extended her senses psychically, searching for Maximilian’s mental signature. She almost missed him. He was in the aquarium, but his imprint was very faint. Not the aquarium again. She had lost one to the waters before. She didn’t want to have to live through that again.

Xerza dashed to the door, tore it open before the porter-menial had time to activate, and ran down the hall, stark naked. Modesty was not a thing for Xerza—she could not care less about such matters—but it was not becoming of a Quaestor to go streaking through her offices. Lacking clothes, she gathered the next best thing around her—darkness—wrapping her own shadow around her body like a cloak of invisibility.

There is still time.

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