Chapter 35 HONOR IN DEATH
“Kaminsky!” The shout reverberated down the barren metal corridor running from the communal areas to the supplicants’ barracks.
Kaminsky didn’t bother turning, just kept walking—he already knew who they were, what they wanted. They never learn.
“Don’t you turn your back on me, you arrogant piece of shit!”
As if moved by these words, he stopped and slowly turned to face his would-be assailants. They were wearing the same supplicants’ unitard he was, pure white as befitted aspirants that had yet to be offered their colors. Three narrow bands—as opposed to Kaminsky’s two—tattooed on their right forearms, where they would be clearly visible when making the clawed-fist-over-heart salute of the Order. It marked them as veterans within the training barracks, soon to be assigned to the legions. My brothers, come to hurt me.
Five boys, trained from a young age, molded into lethal, cold-blooded killers. Five boys, augmented almost beyond recognition by the cybernetic and biological wonders of the Technocracy. They were all taller, heavier, and stronger than Kaminsky. Yet he felt no fear, no trepidation—only weariness brought on by the futility of it all. I try to teach them, but they never learn.
“I didn’t,” he replied while they were still outside striking distance.
“What did you say?” replied their leader, a heavy-set bloke who went by the name Arthur, so named after the legendary King of Albion who had wielded the mighty sword Excalibur during the First Shadow War.
Five seventeen-year-olds against one fifteen-year-old. They had trained for ten years, Kaminsky only six. Long odds indeed. So they do learn, however slowly. But they forget: I am of the blood of dead Ares, God of War.
“I didn’t turn my back to you. It was already turned. But I guess the semantics are lost on you, so why don’t we just get down to business?” Kaminsky spread his hands wide, indicating a willingness to avoid violence. Why do I even bother?
“You’ll regret those words, noble-boy,” Arthur spat out, stepping closer, but keeping his arms wide and unthreatening. The other boys started to flank Kaminsky. That felt rather more threatening.
The birthright thing again. Supplicants to the Dragon formally gave up their old lives when they joined the Order. For most kids, that was the end of it, their backgrounds no longer mattered. A few of them might be of noble birth, but not many, and none very highly born. There were definitely no sons of Archdukes. Except me.
It didn’t help that the Order had made him keep his family name—Kaminsky—as his nom de guerre. A joke of sorts, I’m sure. But they would have found out anyway, for the lineage of Kaminsky was too strong, too well known, to remain hidden for long. Names are but labels.
There was another difference, as well. The Dragon Order did not usually take in candidates as old as Kaminsky. Most children were no more than six or seven. Eight or nine was not entirely unheard of, but it was rare enough to set him apart. It shouldn’t matter. Not my birth. Not my age. We are all supposedly equal in the eyes of the Dragon.
Supplicants to the Dragon were born again—literally. Their personalities were left intact, but their childhood memories were adjusted. Not deleted—for such crude techniques invariably led to instability and insanity—but severed from their emotional centers. What little the boys remembered of their past lives became irrelevant. As the years of training and indoctrination continued, the memories faded to nothingness. Only love for the Dragon remained—and hate. Hate for the enemies of the Order. If you knew how different I really am, you would have reason to hate me. Unlike you, I remember. I remember everything.
By the time the Censors had invoked the Right of Conscription, Kaminsky had already mastered ego division. When they took him, he hid copies of his memories, the most precious ones, in the deepest, darkest recesses of his mind. When the process of mind-psyrgery was complete, he had repopulated his mind with those hidden memories. Makes you wonder if the method is as foolproof as the Order would have us believe.
“Come on, Arthur,” the lanky boy named Dante hissed. His third talon mark—that’s what they called the service tattoos—was so fresh Kaminsky could still smell the ink off him. “Someone might come. Let’s be done.” His courage is failing. Unbecoming of a Draconic supplicant. He will not make the cut.
They had him surrounded now. Arthur was in front of him, flanked by two of his supporters, one of them the boy Dante. There were two more behind Kaminsky. One of them carried a metal bar hidden behind his back. I’m a legate. I don’t need to see to know.
To their credit, they saw only a half-trained legate with a psy-inhibiting circlet bonded to his skull. What they did not know was that the inhibitor blocked most of his powers—but not all of them. It was potent enough to dampen even his strongest manifestations—but was poor at multithreading. All Kaminsky had to do was manifest in parallel. A provocateur technique. Thank you, Yorrik. A trick that he had no right knowing. But still, the Keepers who had fitted the inhibitor should have been more thorough. Did no one tell them I was trained? Or did they think the psyrgery would be enough?
Quickly, before violence could erupt, he linked his mind to that of George, one of the two boys behind him. George’s willpower crumbled so fast he didn’t even notice Kaminsky taking control. His mind is soft. He will not make the cut.
“Give me that, I want to do it,” George said to his compatriot, reaching out for the metal bar. Having no particular reason not to, the other boy handed him the makeshift weapon.
Kaminsky could feel George’s hand close around the cold metal. A half-second later, the bar hit his companion, James, with bone-crunching force. Again. And again. So it begins.
The trio in front moved to attack. Kaminsky let go of George and set his mind upon Dante, conjuring forth visions ghosts and nethersprites. The coward turned and ran. You will not make the cut. Cowards never do.
Then Kaminsky’s time was up. Arthur barged into him. The older boy was at least twenty kilos heavier than him—and more heavily augmented. Kaminsky hit the ground. Hard. He was momentarily stunned—and at the mercy of his enemies. Arthur made to pin Kaminsky. “Get him,” the boy screamed. I think not.
The metal bar hit Arthur across the jaw with enough force to shatter even laced bone. The bar came down again, in a two-handed blow that would have killed an unaugmented human. The metal snapped in two. Arthur became a dead, bleeding weight crushing down on Kaminsky. He might still make the cut—if they can fix his skull.
The last boy, Charles his name tag said, threw himself against George, incorrectly perceiving the ‘traitor’ as the more significant threat. Kaminsky let him have his little victory—he just lay there and watched as they wrestled for the remaining piece of metal. He didn’t get up until George had been reduced to a bloody mass of torn flesh, whimpering on the floor.
“That was ill done of you, to turn on a fellow brother like that,” he gave the last boy his most condescending smile. “I fear he will not make the cut.” Kaminsky stepped closer. “And neither will you.”
The Keepers monitoring the supplicants had finally caught on after the incident with the five boys. At first, they had refused to accept the obvious, that Kaminsky had manifested despite the inhibitor. It should not have been possible. So instead of acknowledging the impossible but obvious fact, they came up with theory after theory, each more fanciful than the preceding ones.
Kaminsky could understand why they didn’t want to accept the truth. It would mean admitting that he, a mere boy, had somehow evaded the effects of the psyrgery, lived among the other supplicants for years, right under the noses of those who were supposedly humanity’s finest legates and censors. Acknowledging the truth was so painful to the Keepers’ overinflated egos that it prevented them from even considering it as an option.
In the end, they had called in aid—or perhaps help was forced upon them by the Assembly—in the form of Old Zann. A former keeper turned censor turned quaestor, Zann had long since outlived his usefulness in the field. His mind, however, was as sharp as ever, kept in working order by esoteric technocracy drugs, cybernetic enhancements, and the Quaestor’s own iron discipline. According to some, he was five hundred years old, which would make him the oldest human alive by far. Others said he was more ancient still, that he had served the Order for a thousand years, if not more.
Kaminsky had been chained hand and foot, fitted with an explosive collar, and dragged off by a pair of Draconic Knights to be reviewed by the old fossil. Old Zann had waited for him, not in an interrogation room like Kaminsky had expected, but standing before a set of panoramic windows that looked out at the dead wasteland that lay outside the hab-dome.
The location wasn’t all that came as a surprise. The Quaestor didn’t look like the ancient wizard Kaminsky had imagined. Instead, he stood as tall and proud as any Knight, clad in the hallmark armor of the Order. The suit seemed ordinary enough, angular matte black plates covering the Quaestor head to toe. The gold trim was not usual; it marked the old man as an honorary member of the Palatine. The purple cloak proudly declared him part of the Draconic Assembly, the ruling body of the Order. His death mask was in place, but instead of inscrutable metal polished to a mirror finish, a face was projected onto the plate. A man’s face, wrinkled and worn, hairless, skin mottled with age. Cybernetic boosters were fused to his skull, and Kaminsky could see cables hard-wiring them to the suit. He can never take off his armor. If he does, he dies.
“Leave us,” Zann said in a clear, powerful voice. The image on the face-plate moved its lips in synch to the words, but Kaminsky knew a voice synthesizer was the source of the sound. I bet he can’t even form words anymore; he thinks the words, and the machine makes them.
“Your will, Lord,” Kaminsky’s handlers replied in unison. One of them handed the collar remote to the Quaestor, then both knights did an about-face and marched away. Old Zann did something to the remote, and Kaminsky’s collar fell away.
“You remember,” the Quaestor said after Kaminsky’s arm and leg irons had clattered to rest on the ground next to the collar. It was not a question.
“We all remember...”
“That is not what I meant, and you know it,” said the digital face looking down on Kaminsky. “It’s not that you remember that troubles me. It’s the constant lying to your fellow dragonsworn that is the real matter here.”
“I didn’t mean to lie. I just...could not tell the truth. They would not understand.”
“It is true they would not understand. But the rest is another lie. You created the situation, and then you carefully crafted lies to keep it hidden.”
“That was not my intention.”
“You still lie. To me, a Quaestor, a truth-seeker. To yourself, a Supplicant, a would-be Draconic Keeper. I do not know which is worse.”
“I didn’t ask to become a Keeper,” Kaminsky replied without thinking. I hate you. All of you.
“None of us did. Some of us were taken, others freely given, but none of us asked for this. The Dragon chose us. And once chosen, you either prove that you’re worthy of becoming a dragonsworn—or not.”
I’m not like you. I’ll never be one of you.
"Why did you choose to remember?”
“Because I could. Why shouldn’t I? You are not my friends or my family. You killed Mother, dishonored my House, stole me away, and took me to this dreadful place.”
“I don’t think I’m going to make the cut. I’m doing all right with training, I guess, but I’m not made out to be a mindless killer serving a make-belief ‘Dragon’ god no one but you guys believe in.”
“This is better,” Old Zann said. He sounded genuinely pleased.
“Better? I just admitted I don’t want to be like you. That I don’t believe in the Dragon. That I’ll wash out. How is that better?”
“You speak the truth, finally. Or closer to the truth anyway. But there is more. Let it out.”
“Yes...” Kaminsky nodded to himself. “I did it because I hate you. All of you. The Dragon even.”
"Now you speak the truth,” the Quaestor said. “This is very good. You are not an ideal supplicant by any standards, young Kaminsky, but I do not think you have fallen to Shadow.”
“I’m not in league with the Shadow,” Kaminsky replied, anger flaring. The very notion that he’d be in league with the darkness was offensive. He would never dishonor his family name so.
“Not yet anyway,” the old Quaestor replied. “But if we had not recruited you, it would have happened sooner or later.”
“Never.” He sounded less sure than he intended.
“They all say that, but untrained legates lack focus. And without focus, they end up drawing upon powers they cannot fully control. And with that unchecked power comes the darkness. It’s not something they choose, it’s more like a force of nature. It seeps into them, like water through cracks. You can try to fight it, but it’s like trying to repair a bursting dam with nothing but your own two hands. You lack the proper tools for the job, so you’ll fail.
“Indeed, of all those who fall, only a few start out actively seeking the darkness. In the end, however, it makes no difference. It gets into them, changes them, turns them into monsters. Tartars if you will. Nethersprites wearing human flesh.”
It made Kaminsky think of what had happened to the legate his mother had hired. He went mad one day. Started killing people. But there was something wrong with him from the beginning, like a shadow over his soul.
“You know what I’m talking about, young man. You’ve seen it happen. The darkness gnawing at a man’s heart until finally, he snaps.”
“I have,” Kaminsky said. “Once. It was a provocateur. Mother hired him and two others. To teach me.”
“I’m sorry, Quaestor Zann. Another lie. She hired them to keep my manifestations under control. After the drugs weren’t enough. That’s the truth.”
“You were an early starter.”
“Almost as soon as I was born, I was told.”
“Very early. Very dangerous. Yet so very valuable.”
“It’s the early starters that often have the most potential,” the Quaestor explained. “And to the Order at large, it also means they are trainable.”
“You mean we can be kidnapped and brainwashed into serving the Dragon?”
“Excellent, young Kaminsky. Not only do you speak the truth, but you see it also. Are you perhaps gunning for my job?”
“Was that...a joke, My Lord?”
“What do you think?”
“It was. But I’ve never heard anyone in the Order ever make a joke. Least of all a Quaestor. It’s...hard to believe.”
“Then think about how hard it was for your teachers to accept what you did, how you evaded the system and tricked them all—for years.”
Kaminsky had no reply to that.
“You are a tricky case, Kaminsky. Many think you are flawed, broken, that you represent a danger to the Order. That you should be terminated immediately. I think perhaps you can be salvaged. I hope so, for in you I see great potential.
“I’m convinced that you are not tainted, for those who consort with the Shadow are incapable of such acts of soul-searching and honesty as you just displayed. They are glib and clever, but their aversion to the truth makes them predictable. You do not have this fatal flaw.
“I am willing to teach you, Kaminsky. But are you willing to be trained?”
Was he? Willing to be trained by this strange, old man? Kaminsky was intrigued, but he was also angry. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.
“But are you willing to try? I don’t mind the misplaced anger, but if you don’t want to try, we need not bother.”
“What if I say no?”
“You know the answer to that. No need to ask.”
“True,” Kaminsky admitted. “You’ll kill me.”
“We will,” Zann confirmed. “We kill a lot to things we don’t fully understand. Better safe than sorry is a thing with the Order.”
“I’ve got nothing to lose, so I’m willing to try.”
“Then I will train you. But know this: this will make you even more different. You are already the boy who remembers, the boy who is a duke’s son, the boy who beat senseless five third circle supplicants with hardly a mark on him, and so forth. Your legend grows with every passing day. But this...this will be worse. You’ll be the young freak, trained by the old freak. And when I pass on to the next life, and that day ain’t so far away now, you’ll be on your own, surrounded by people indoctrinated to hate all that is different.”
“Let them hate me. I hate them too.”
“It’s a good start, I think. Hate can make a man strong. But you cannot stand alone. No one can.”
“What do you mean?” Kaminsky said. He was sure there was a point to all this, but he couldn’t grasp what.
“You must find Him; you must find the Dragon. That will give you all the strength you need and more. If you don’t, they will drag you down. If you find your Dragon, they will idolize you and follow you into the Abyss if you ask them.”
“The Dragon? You mean your dragon god?”
“Is he even real?” Kaminsky said. “I know the Gods of the Pantheon are, but the ‘Dragon’...it’s just too weird. A god as old or older than the universe, born from the same void that gave birth to chaos? A god that no one but the Dragon Order thinks of as a god...” he let his voice trail away.
“Yes, that one. The Dragon. The one and only Imperator Draco, the Celestial Dragon. Born of the Void, guardian against the darkness—and destroyer of the universe. Him, yes.”
“I really don’t understand.”
“I know. But when you see him, you will understand.”
“When the day comes, you will stand before Him, and you will understand.”
“Yes. Because if you don’t, that means we’ve failed, master and student both. And I haven’t served the Dragon all these years to be remembered as a failure. So you will succeed, you will know Him.”
Kaminsky had no answer to that.
“It is time,” Old Zann said, breaking the silence of the Draconic shrine.
“Time?” Kaminsky replied, his reverie broken.
“For me to go,” the Quaestor explained as he slowly rose from kneeling position. “To meet the Dragon. To start the cycle anew.”
“I don’t understand,” Kaminsky said, remaining keeling before the golden dragon statue wreathed in incense smoke. “I’m not yet eighteen. My Keeper training isn’t done, not by a long shot—it takes decades. And I still haven’t found the Dragon. I’m not even sure he’s missing.”
The Quaestor’s facial projection smiled down at Kaminsky. “But you will. Find the Dragon. Took me long enough to understand. Some truth-seeker I am.”
“You’re not making any sense at all, my master.”
“I know,” the image projected on the faceplate said. “I don’t expect you to understand. But nevertheless, I must go, and soon. There is an attack cruiser leaving the fort in three days. I mean to be on it.”
“It’s a strike mission. You’re not fit for that kind of duty, master.”
“I still have one good mission in me.”
Kaminsky wanted to protest. That was what the old knights said when they went out, not meaning to come back. Kaminsky knew that well enough; it was part of the legend of the Dragon Order. You served until you died in glorious battle, then you were reborn to fight again, and again, all the way to Ragnarök, the final battle.
“Why now, master?” Kaminsky said, standing up to confront his tutor.
The older man was not intimidated. “I told you: it is time. And stop calling me master. The Dragon is your master. I’m only your mentor.”
“Not a very good one. How did you get the idea that it would be great for a non-legate to train a legate?”
“I used to be one, did you forget?”
“I remember everything,” Kaminsky replied. It was an old joke of theirs, one that never failed to make Old Zann smile. Today he didn’t. “I just think it would be a lot more effective if I was allowed to train under the actual Keepers. Not one who voluntarily gave up his powers to become what? A glorified scanner?”
“Why don’t you say what’s on your mind? The thing you suspect but don’t want to be true? Remember what we are Kaminsky, protectors, and destroyers, yes, but also seekers of the truth.”
“The truth, Kaminsky, the truth.”
“You were tainted, were you not? By the Shadow. Too many years of drawing upon protean energies, despite your training, the wards, and other precautions. That’s why.”
“Yes,” Zann confirmed. “Just a tiny bit, but like water, once there are cracks in the dam...”
“But why become a censor?”
“Some censors are born with a specific talent, but most of us were Keepers once—tainted Keepers. Yet we feel a need to carry on, rather than meet the Dragon. We just don’t talk about it much. Too painful, I guess.”
“No one told me.”
“Need to know basis.”
“What’s it like?” Kaminsky said. “Not being a legate anymore?”
“It’s like going blind and deaf at the same time. Have your skin replaced by dead metal, senseless. Never to taste or smell anything ever again.”
“Words don’t do it justice. But...”
“...the Will of the Dragon is greater than any one man. Yes, I know, you’ve told me often enough.”
The Quaestor rotated his helmet back and forth, trying to make it look like he was shaking his head. “But then, after a while, you can sense something after all. Like a faint glow, an aura that emanates from everything and nothing. The something that tries to fill the nothingness of the void; the colors of Khaos.”
“Poetic,” Kaminsky replied. “Sounds like the Order’s creation myth: From the Void came Chaos—and the Dragon. From Chaos was born Order, the Light of Olympus, the Darkness at the bottom of the Abyss, and every Color of Creation in between.”
“It is poetic, Kaminsky. And beautiful. Every living being with psychic potential shines like a miniature version of creation. But you can’t see that faint shine if you’re glowing like a star yourself. That’s why censors give up their powers. To see the truth. It’s the ultimate sacrifice, but it’s also a gift. One of many the Dragon has given us mortals. Without it, we would find the potentials too late. With it, we can save their souls—and use them as weapons against the Shadow. We’d be lost without the censors.”
“So if I should happen to live a very long time...I would end up like you, shadow-tainted?”
Zann managed a shrug, something that was damn hard to do in armor. “The darkness...it’s mixed with the protean energies now, there is no denying that. But if your faith is stronger than mine, then perhaps...you remember my lessons on focus?”
“I remember everything.” This time the Quaestor smiled. “All psychics draw upon the power of Khaos. No mortal can do that and hope to remain unchanged. So legates need a focus. An idea, an ideal, a doctrine, something to believe in.”
“His focus, yes. His center of being. His zen.”
“For the pietists, it’s their belief in the teachings of the Conclave and faith in the Gods. For the technomancers, it’s their science, their machines, their gestalt webs. For the magisters of the Collegium, their training regimen, and ritualistic pattern threading.”
“And for us: the Dragon.”
“Yes.” Kerensky nodded. “But I don’t believe in Him. Not really. You know this, I know this. By your own admission, I’ll become shadow-tainted, and then we have failed.”
“No, we won’t. Your faith will be pure and strong. We will not fail.”
“I don’t see how,” Kaminsky protested. “I’m not exactly the most zealous of Keepers.”
“I said you would not understand. In three days, I will be gone. Then you will find your faith. I promise you this.”
“Is that so, master? How can you be so sure? The Dragon told you?”
Old Zann reached up and placed both hands against the death mask. The image of his face faded, followed by a soft hiss and a click, and the plate came away. The man behind the metal was even older and more wizened than the projection.
“Yes, he came to me just now,” the real Zann said a voice so thin and weak Kaminsky could barely make out the words, “as we were praying. “I stood before his Pyramid, and he welcomed me to his side, my vigil over at long last.”
It wasn’t the words that got to Kaminsky. It was the eyes. There was a certainty in those old, rheumy eyes that touched something deep inside the younger man’s soul.
“It was such a beautiful sight...just like that time, so many years ago, when He put His mark on me.” Tears were welling up in the old man’s eyes, spilling down his cheeks. “I never thought I’d see Him again on this side of the Veil.”
“But the Dragon isn’t real,” Kaminsky blurted. “He’s not like the other gods. He never speaks to his followers. Never. These people, these dragonsworn, have their faith beaten into them. They are heated and folded and beaten, again and again, like swords being forged, until man and faith are one and the same. But never did anyone see the Dragon, or hear him speak, because he doesn’t exist.” The final words were shouted. Kaminsky didn’t bother mentioning that he was different, that he could never have faith beaten into him. That whatever they did, he would remember. He would not change; he would die before that.
“Of course he exists, of course, he speaks,” the thin voice said. “It’s just that no one listens anymore.”
“Hush,” said the old man, “let me speak now. We’ve only three days, and much to do before I leave.”
“Yes, my master.”
“How do you think I’ve held on for so long? Faith, Kaminsky. Without it, I would have taken that last mission long ago. But I always knew the Dragon wasn’t done with me. So I became a Censor. Then a Quaestor. Then a shadow of one. I was waiting. For you. You were my mission.”
“Why? Why me?”
“Because you remember. You remember who you are, what you are. Like the warriors of old. The ancient heroes of the Shadow War. They were not forged into swords by smiths. They were touched by the Dragon. As was I—and so you will be.”
“The time for buts is over.” The thin voice was weak no more but filled with the same conviction his eyes held.
“You are what you are for a reason. Because you were chosen for a special task. He made you. He brought you here, now, to me. But now my task is nearly done. Three more days and I’ll go meet my Dragon. But you will continue on the path He has laid out for you. This, I know.”
“How do you know that? It makes no sense. There is no proof, truth-seeker. Even if you’re right and I’m chosen, how do you know it’s not the Abyss that chose me? Or some other God? Maybe the One True God even?”
“I know because I have faith. And in three days, when you find your faith, you will know too. Trust me.”
Kaminsky had no answer to that.