Chapter 45 I AM THE WEAPON
The three surveillance drones hovered silently above. Marcus looked up at them, beckoned for one to descend. It came gliding down on silent grav-coils. Marcus let it wait until he was fully dressed.
“I’m done for today. The Maiden will remain in the chamber, same as last night. See that her basic needs are met this time. It’s not a request.”
He looked at the Maiden, sitting naked on the little steel table legs cross, knees pulled up to her chin, auburn locks caressing her pale skin. Emerald eyes followed his every move.
“Your pendant,” the Maiden said, looking at the omega symbol hanging around Marcus’s neck. “It reminds me of something. Samael had one like it. I think Haides did too.”
“This?” Marcus said and help up the jet-black pendant. “It’s a gift from my mistress. It’s an ancient Dark Omega, a memory of a bygone era. When there was a Dominion, it was granted to Archons, Marshals, and the like. Same for the high servants of the other Tetrarchs. The Order still hands them out. Assembly members are given one as a symbol of their office.”
“And she gave it to you?”
“Yes. As long as I’m entrusted this symbol, I speak with her authority—and by extension, the Assembly’s.”
“Tell them to release me. Take me away from this place, and I’ll be a good girl.”
“It’s not that simple. They would still not release you. And abusing the power invested in me would have repercussions. For me, for my mistress, for the Order.”
“Why did Samael have one then? Or Haides, for that matter?”
“I don’t know. I must go, but I will return on the morrow.”
“Can’t you stay?” she said, her voice young and innocent.
“A goodnight kiss then? Or I will be cross.”
He bent down and kissed her briefly on the lips. She tried to make it into something more, but Marcus evaded her advances.
“Goodnight,” he said as he descended the steps.
“Goodnight, my love,” she called after him.
Kwame was on his feet and moving as soon as they were sure Marcus was leaving the chamber. The younger of the two security officers knew precisely where he’d intercept the Draconic legate. There was a spot, not far from the entrance to the crypt, where you could pass through a sealed door, concealed as part of the wall, and move into the central corridor without being seen by any of the cameras.
Kwame made his way there and waited. A minute passed. His pulse was up, his palms sweaty. A clandestine meeting with the Dragon Order. Not how he’d expected this day to play out. He wondered what Amaya would say when he told her. Could he even tell her? He’d have to ask Marcus about it.
Another minute passed by. Where was Marcus? What was taking so long? Kissing his cyborg girlfriend? What if someone else appeared? Not many came down here, to the Ninth, but there were patrols sometimes. It would be fine. He had his armor on, weapon in hand, and helmet on his head. He was on his way to Amaya. The cover was good. Just stick to the story, like Balack had told him to.
Kwame heard footsteps echoing down the stone corridor. A tall, handsome man in a black cloak walked with slow, measured steps down the hallway. His raven hair was slicked back, and Kwame could see the cyber-implants fitted to his temples. Marcus. Finally, here he comes. Kwame’s heart beat even faster, and his throat was suddenly parched. The helmet. Take off the helmet. Let him read my mind. He willed his hand to lift, to open the seal, but the arm wouldn’t budge.
Marcus stopped five paces away. His eyes had turned black as the Pit, but that wasn’t the worst part. The legate stood there, in the glow from overhead lights, but cast no shadows. Kwame’s heart raced like crazy, his stomach roiled, and he broke into a cold sweat. If he had been able to move, he would have run.
Marcus’s extended his right hand, balled into a fist, from beneath his cloak. As the legate spread his fingers, Kwame’s own hand opened, releasing his grip on the halberd. The polearm fell to the ground with a clank. Next, the legate lifted both hands to his neck, aping the movements of a man unclasping and removing his helmet. Kwame, now a prisoner inside his own body, did as Marcus willed. The golden psy-warded helmet came away and fell to the ground.
The world faded to black. Kwame couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t move. He was trapped inside the darkness, utterly impotent. Panic overwhelmed him. He wanted to scream but found he had no mouth. Conscious thought left him, reduced him to something less than a feral beast, a pitiful thing that knew only one thing: fear. For how long it lasted, Kwame could not say. There was no time in the Pit, only an eternity of torment.
When Kwame regained his senses, he wished he hadn’t. The sweet bliss of mind-numbing fear seemed suddenly preferable to knowing he was not alone. He still could not see, but he could feel something, a presence—like someone standing right behind him. Kwame wanted to turn around, wanted to run, but could not. He waited for the fear to overwhelm him, but it didn’t. He was still scared out of his mind, but it was as if something—or someone—kept him lucid.
“Hello, Kwame,” Marcus whispered. “You’ve been watching me, as I have been watching you. You have your cameras and audio feeds, but I have the blood of the Gods flowing through my veins, and the power of Khaos at my beck and call. Did you really think telepathic shielding would be enough to prevent me from seeing? I’m not like you and your ilk, Kwame, limited to the flesh, bound by linear time.”
There was no way for Kwame to reply. Even worse, how could feel something...inside his head, sharing his mind, looking through his memories like they were a book to be read. It was a feeling stranger than any other. He felt violated but was powerless to even object.
“Wait...you came here to warn me? Explain,” Marcus said, sounding genuinely surprised.
The darkness was replaced by a ring of light. Kwame was there, stark naked, Marcus standing, not behind his back, by five paces in front of him, fully dressed. Beyond the light, there was nothing. There would be no running away, even if Kwame could have moved his legs.
“Where are we? What is this?” Kwame said, panic starting to rise again.
“There is no need for fear,” Marcus replied, and the fear went away. “We’re inside your mind. More specifically, inside the mental construct I’ve created. A room inside your head, if you will.”
“I’m not afraid,” Kwame said. He couldn’t believe it. A moment ago, he had been beyond scared. Now there was nothing.
“Fear is a base emotion, easily dispelled. I master my fear; my fear does not master me. Another way we differ. Now tell me why you came to warm me.”
“Can’t you just read my mind? That was kind of the plan—I’d take the helmet off, you’d read my mind, and we’d be on the level.”
“I could, but it would take time. The mind, even a simple one such as yours, is a big place. Very disjointed. You’re much faster at finding your own memories. So, tell me.”
“Balack—that’s Cerberus Superior Astar Balack, my partner and superior—told me about his wife, Imogen. Some men claiming to work for the Dragon Order has taken her hostage.”
“So he turned to me, his best friend, and asked for advice. Together we figured we’d tell you.”
“How noble of you,” Marcus said in a flat voice. “But you are indeed telling the truth. What made you take the chance? I must seem a bad bet, one man against so many.”
“I told Balack as much, but he said you were far more dangerous than I could understand. Now I’m thinking maybe he’s right.”
“And?” Marcus prodded.
“And he’s got no choice. No one will move against the Order, and Balack’s damn sure they won’t let his wife go once this is over. They are not of the type that leaves loose ends if you know what I mean.”
“He’s right about that. His wife. Him. You. You’re all dead. It’s a long shot, but you did the right thing, Kwame, for all the wrong reasons.”
“I don’t understand...”
“The Dragon sent you to warn me. It’s a sign my path is true, that I have His sanction.”
“I knew they were watching me. They tried to acquire me yesterday, as I left the Pentacle. They were unable to, of course. All they did was reveal themselves to me. I considered going after them, but I do not lift my hand against other dragonsworn without good cause.”
“I don’t see how I fit into that,” Kwame objected.
“Do you not see how unlikely, how impossible it is for an encounter like this to take place without divine intervention?”
“Not really, no,” Kwame admitted.
“It’s the writing on the wall, in flaming letters, ten meters tall,” Marcus explained. “The Will of the Dragon has been made clear—I saw it in the Tarot this morning, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it. The Reaper cell must die. They must all perish, so that I may live and follow the way He has shown me.”
Kwame had no reply to any of this. The zeal in Marcus’s voice was not the kind you argued with. They really are as crazy as the stories say. It’s time to get the fuck out. “I can help you,” he said instead, not really understanding why he’d said it.
“Maybe,” Marcus replied. “But I will only take your offer if you’re with me all the way.”
“All the way?” Kwame said, voice uncertain, but truth be told, he knew precisely what Marcus meant. To serve the Dragon, now and forever.
“You would stand against dragonsworn, Kwame, without being one yourself? How many will the Order kill because of that? They will not stand by and see their own murdered by lesser men. Right and wrong do not figure into it. Only vengeance. How severe the Incision? Only you? Your family? Your friends? The entire Pentacle?”
“I’ll take the oath,” Kwame said and swallowed. His mouth was bone dry, his throat raw. It’s only in my head.
“You know what it entitles? You’ve heard the stories? I will not trick you into eternal servitude. You must do it willingly, or not at all.”
“I know the stories. In this life, and all the lives to come, until the end, until Ragnarök.”
“I don’t know about the rest of your education, but you seem to know the important bits.”
“Not according to my Academy teachers.” His scores at the police academy hadn’t precisely been sterling. Part of the reason he’d ended up guarding the Pentacle, rather than receiving a commission.
Marcus grinned. “Humor in the face of certain doom. It’s a trait that will serve you well. We will now recite the Draconic Oath. You know it?”
“Duty to the Dragon,” Marcus intoned.
“Always and forever,” Kwame replied, his heart skipping a beat.
“Valor in Life.”
“Surrender none,” Kwame said. Something clawed at his gut.
“Honor in Death.”
“The Dragon eternal,” Kwame finished. There was a burning pain in his chest, and for a moment, he was sure his heart had stopped. The pain receded. A golden dragon tattoo—if it really was a tattoo—shone brightly over Kwame’s heart.
“You’ve been marked, body and soul. You belong to Him now, my brother.” Markus smiled, and the world came apart at the seams.
He was lying on the floor, granite flagstones against his face, looking at Marcus’s boots and the fallen halberd.
“Get up,” Marcus said.
Kwame obliged. “My head...” It was the worst headache ever.
“It will pass. Does your colleague have a way to contact the team holding his wife?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t ask. But Balack said something about a dead drop after work.”
“A dead drop? That’s all? Are you sure? They seemed very well informed as to my comings and goings.”
“Well, he’s got this code thing. It’s like a flattened black cylinder. It has a little light on it. He connects it to the master computer, and after a little while, the light turns green. I suppose that means it’s downloaded some data. And after work, he’s supposed to drop it off.”
“Yeah...he never had the opportunity. Since you left the Maiden in the chamber, we were stuck guarding her last night—and will have to do it again tonight.”
Marcus considered the information. He couldn’t draw any absolute conclusions, but he was willing to bet the black cylinder both downloaded the data and transmitted it. The technocracy could make neutrino transceivers that small.
“Very well, Kwame. Hurry back to the crypt. Have Balack activate the device. This will let the enemy know that I’m on the move. Make them come to me. It will make them easier to spot against the tapestry of the future.”
“I can help you,” Kwame offered.
“No, you can’t. You will only be a liability. These Reapers are not like me, but they are still out of your league. After you’ve alerted them, go see your woman, Amaya. Tell her you’re breaking it off. Tell her it’s not her, but you. She’ll take it surprisingly well.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know her better than she knows herself. I put something in her mind yesterday.”
“You did what? Balack warned me about this.” The tall, dark-skinned guard glowered at Marcus.
Marcus started right back at him. “The Dragon asks us to sacrifice much. Love is no exception.” He smiled at Kwame. “Don’t forget: I can read your mind. If you’re pissed at me, I’ll know. You can have no secrets from me, so I’m keeping none from you. Don’t worry, she’ll not be harmed. As long as she’s not connected to you.”
Realization dawned, and Kwame’s anger faded. “She safer without me, isn’t she?”
“Much safer. Take a hopper from the vehicle pool. Use this,” he handed Kwame a black code cylinder. “It has the Dark Omega codes for the Pentacle.”
Kwame accepted the device and turned it over in his hand. “It looks a lot like the one Balack has.”
“Yes, they would. Both were made by the Technocracy, using tech that’s not commonly available.
“When the hopper is ready, you must disconnect it from the network. Manually enter Balack’s apartment as your destination. Then wait for me. Your partner must remain in the crypt and cover for you. Do you understand?”
“Yes. No. What will you do?”
“I’ll do what the Tarot told me to do. I will find the Reapers—and kill them. The hunters will become the hunted. Such is the Will of the Dragon.”
“Oh. Who are these ‘reapers’ anyway?”
“Professional assassins, working for the Order. Or, more specifically, for someone within the Draconic Assembly, a shadowy group known only as ‘the Cabal.’ They have their own agenda, one that runs contrary to my own.”
“Take my halberd. The head contains a matter-disruption field. It’s a deadly weapon in the right hands.”
“I don’t need a weapon, Kwame,” Marcus said. “Don’t you understand? I am the weapon.”
He watched Kwame go. The younger man was practically running, brimming with barely contained exuberance. The Dragon does work in mysterious ways.
Marcus was weary from all those hours in the chamber, but nowhere near as exhausted as yesterday. Mentally he was a bit more worn, but he’d kept both sessions short enough to avoid draining himself completely.
Conflict was coming. Physical and mental fatigue could get him killed. Marcus closed his eyes. Took a deep breath, a second, a third. Holding the Dragon in his mind, he opened the floodgates, summoning the protean forces of Khaos to replenish his body and mind.
It wasn’t a pattern threading; it was sorcery, intuitive manipulation of the energies of creation—and entropy. One tiny mistake, and he would be undone. Marcus didn’t make mistakes. He’d sat at Xerza’s knee as she explained the more profound mysteries of the universe and taught him to use—with discretion—techniques forbidden by the Magisters of the Collegium. If they could see him now—there was a cheerful thought. Distraction was another thing he couldn’t afford. Marcus put Haides and his outrageous behavior out of his mind for the time being. There would be a time for the Gatekeeper, but it wasn’t now.
Marcus opened his eyes, all traces of weariness gone. The legate began making his way up the inverted pyramid, passing through the security checkpoint, emerging on the Eight. Moving quickly, but not quite running, he passed along near-deserted corridors until reaching the broad stairs leading up.
By the time Marcus hit the Seventh Tier of the Second Pentacle, he felt a tingling sensation running down his spine. Something terrible was about to happen. The premonition was vague at the moment, but growing in strength with every step he took. It felt a lot like walking towards his doom. It is not my doom; it is yours. None can stand against the wrath of the Dragon.
He ascended the stairs to the Seventh, two steps at a time, wishing for the encounter to come as quickly as possible. The feeling of impending doom had grown strong enough to be noticeable without concentrating. They are here already, inside the Pentacle, hunting me. Good. Let’s get this over with.
Marcus continued walking, boots going tap-tap against the granite floor. His footsteps shouted out his urgency for all to hear. Come. I am ready. It is time for you to die. Kill them all, and let the Dragon sort them out.
Marcus extended his second sight to include the immediate future, not only the psychic auras of here and now. It was the same thing he had done in the Plaza of Loremasters. But today, the future was much more turbulent, preventing the legate from seeing anything beyond the next few seconds. He’d be warned of danger and have the chance to act before his enemies could react, but wouldn’t be able to discern the future paths he might want to take.
He activated a clairvoyance probe for improved situational awareness. There was no point overlaying it with his second sight; the future was too volatile, continually shifting and changing.
He saw them coming from around the corner. Two gold-cloaks, moving towards him, just as he was passing along a wide, deserted corridor. In seconds the men would clear the corner and see him. They didn’t look to be carrying guns, only the Cerberi’s hallmark halberds.
He probed both men telepathically, to determine their identity and intent, but they were wearing their psy-warding helmets. They are moving too quickly, with too much purpose. They are searching for prey and are in a hurry. There was no question who they were: Reaper assassins.
Haides had been right when he said Marcus’s powers were unusual. He didn’t realize how special. Telepathy and prescience were by far the two most common disciplines mastered by psychics. Telekinesis came a distant third. Pyrokinesis, a sub-group of psychokinesis, was rarer still. But Marcus had yet another talent. One so rare that his masters in the Collegium had been forced to call upon Solomon to find him a teacher. Their young student had it in him to master the strange art of metacreativty.
Marcus—and his fellow metacreators—could create something out of nothing. It wasn’t the same as calling an already existing object to you using psychoportation. As a metacreator, Marcus could reach into the Astral and find the idea or ideal of an item, and then have it appear in his hand or immediate vicinity. It was a tricky discipline, and hellishly taxing on the body and the mind, but if done right, the imagination was the limit to what you could create.
The future sight was now clear and undistorted: in a few seconds, the two security guards would come around the corner. A few heartbeats later, they would be within striking distance. Marcus halted to buy himself a little more time.
They would activate their weapons’ phase-disruption fields and tear Marcus apart. Both men were skilled warriors, heavily augmented, individually nearly a match for their opponent. Within the confines of the corridor, there was no way he could defeat them both. If he turned and ran, they’d flush him into an ambush set by their compatriots.
The two men came around the corner. Marcus didn’t need psychic tricks to sense their intent. The guards were like two containers of pent-up violence, ready to explode. The moment they spotted him, they burst into action, conscious thought overridden by hardwired reflex boosters. Had Marcus played their game of cybernetic augmentation, he might have lost the race. But Marcus played his own game, a game whose rules the Reapers didn’t understand. His legate powers let him know the future before it happened. No amount of augmentation could make you act fast enough to prevent something that had already happened.
Before either man could act, Marcus brought up his Syndicate B1B coilgun and pulled the trigger. The gun’s grav-coils spat hypervelocity bullets. At point-blank range, he couldn’t miss. Two gravimetrically fused explosive rounds hit the guard square in the chest, punching through his armored cloak. The shots detonated almost simultaneously, killing the target instantly. No human, no matter how augmented, could survive something like that. His armor hadn’t provided much protection against the shots, but it did protect Marcus from blood spatter.
The second gold-clad guard was just as good Marcus’s foresight had predicted. He didn’t panic or freeze with indecision. He reacted with blinding speed, doing the only thing he could, close the distance before the enemy could shoot again. Like a human roadster, he came down the hall, halberd ready for a killing strike.
Marcus calmly adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger again. One of the coilgun rounds missed altogether. The other one struck the Cerberus’ arm. The armored cloak offered little protection, it was never intended to deal with firepower of this magnitude, but this time there was no explosion inside the target. The superficial wound to the upper arm wasn’t enough to make the fuse trigger. Without the explosion, the hit crippled the attacker’s arm, instead of blowing it apart.
A decapitating halberd strike missed Marcus by a hair’s breadth. The attacker adapted quickly, faster than Marcus could adjust, using his forward momentum to bodyslam the legate. One moment Marcus was standing, gun at the ready, the next he was on his back on the floor, gasping for air and trying to clear the ringing in his ears. He willed the pain away.
Clarity returned. The would-be assassin was kneeling over him, pulling a slender dagger from a concealed sheat. Marcus tried to bring up the coilgun, but it was no longer in his hand. Before the gold-masked man could drive his dagger into Marcus’s heart, the legate linked his mind to the blade.
The weapon became unbearably hot. The assassin screamed, more in surprise than pain—his gloves protected him from burn injuries—and let go of the blade.
Marcus saw an opening and kicked him in the balls. The gold-cloaked assassin reeled backward, giving Marcus enough breathing space to kip up and regain his composure. If you’re wearing an open armored coat, don’t kneel or squat over your opponent. Especially not if you’ve got balls.
The coilgun was on the floor, not two paces away from Marcus—right next to the guard. The words There Will be Death were engraved on it, letter Thorn and everything.
Marcus made no move for the pistol. The assassin had already recovered. There was no way he can reach the weapon before his opponent did. Instead, Marcus stood tall and threw the Reaper his best Starwalker smile.
Death was in the reaper’s hand now, rising to point at Marcus’s chest. The weapon’s physical structure had begun to unravel. Out of their creator’s hands, meta-items had very limited lifetimes. The assassin pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The coilgun was no longer a functioning weapon.
Marcus used the respite to fan his inner flames into a blazing inferno. Hands came up, palms pointing towards his enemy. To his credit, the assassin tried to get out of harm’s way, but could not dodge the hellfire that had come to claim him, body and soul.
His screams could have woken the dead. Marcus felt no pity for the man. He had raised his hand against the Dragon and had paid the ultimate price.
An unseen force gripped the legate, slamming him hard into the corridor wall. The had been no forewarning. Marcus reflexively brought up his arm as a cushion to avoid serious head injury but still hit with enough force to rattle teeth. By the Pit!
Marcus twisted his head. He could see two people, a male librarian with horrible teeth, grinning like a madman, hands raised in front of him as he walked down the corridor, and a tough-looking female librarian with dusky skin and mismatched eyes. Here comes the rest. The legate and his handler, all dressed up like staff. No one mentioned there was a masquerade ball on.
The telekinetic pressure increased, keeping Marcus pinned mid-wall, unable to move. He tried peering into the future, but there was nothing to see. Psychic screen. How clever—and predictable. Marcus waited, fanning his inner flame, waiting for the right moment.
“Kill him! Quickly!” the legate shouted. His voice was frantic. Pathetic. The servants of the Dragon are better than that. We know no fear, but the fear of failure.
The woman responded by pulling out a compact zip gun. Marcus could only watch as she aimed, pressed the trigger. The twenty-shot clip was emptied in a heartbeat.
The shots never touched reached their target, hitting a wall of psychic energy instead, vaporizing in a beautiful display of Khaotic energy. The bullets were specially made to pierce kinetic screens but had no counter to Marcus’s hellfire. That took them down a notch. I don’t need to move to think, you fools.
He used their hesitation to establish a kinesthetic link with the enemy legate. It was the same trick he had used on Haides. Only this time, it wasn’t a counter, but a counterattack. One moment the legate with the bad teeth had the upper hand, and the next, it felt like every neuron in his body was on fire. He let go of his prey and started screaming. Marcus found the sound oddly calming.
Marcus landed on booted feet, thanks to years of martial arts training. He rolled his shoulders and flexed his neck from side to side, waiting for the woman with the empty gun to close the distance.
She turned her head to have a look at her companion howling on the floor, tossed the gun, drew a pair of fractal-serrated punch daggers from sheats fastened to her thighs, concealed by her robes, and advanced on Marcus.
When she was three meters away, he called the flames. Witchfire enveloped his arms from the elbows down as Marcus dropped into the guard position.
Her advance faltered. She was searching for options but finding none. Marcus tried to get into her mind, but she had activated her telepathic wards as soon as the downed legate had dropped the psychic screen.
Marcus started towards her, eyes searching for the anti-psy device she had to be carrying. She started backing away. He saw it, a pendant, partially hidden underneath her librarian’s robes. There you are. Now, burn.
Witchfire leaped from his hand, smashing into her chest, burning the warding amulet to cinders. Marcus reached for her mind, but not quickly enough to stop her from biting down hard on something.
She’s was dead before her body hit the ground. Marcus bent down to look at her. The smell of a hydrogen-cyanide derivate was heavy upon her breath.
The reaper legate had stopped screaming. His neural system was no longer functioning, no longer capable of sustaining life. You lift your hand against the Dragon, you pay the ultimate price. Perhaps you’ll do better, serve more loyally in your next incarnation.
Marcus peered into the future again, searching for additional danger, but finding none. Surely, there must be more than these four? The Tarot told of more, showed me eight. He tried again, but the threat seemed to have passed. A clairvoyance check also came up short. They know they have failed. They are running, regrouping.
A faint noise, like water dripping on stone caught Marcus’s attention. What’s that? He glanced around, saw red stains on the floor. He could recall no injury, but there was a long gash on his lower right arm. The second gold-cloak must have nicked him.
The wound was superficial, but blood was seeping down the arm in sufficient quantity to drip from his fingers. The Red Right Hand. What is the Dragon trying to tell me?