Chapter 47 DEATH WILL SET YOU FREE
After the aquarium, Xerza had cloaked them in shadow and snuck Maximilian into her chambers. They had done in the bed more of the things they had started in the sand. Gods, I’ve missed him.
She opened her eyes just a little. The latest Aaron clone was still in her bedroom, now rummaging through her personal stuff like the insolent cur that he was. She opened her eyes all the way. The Shadow will come for all of us soon enough, but right now, life isn’t so bad.
“Is that you?” he said and turned over a printout to let her see.
It was her, all right. On Protasia, all those years ago. Or rather, that damned painting of her.
“In the painting, I mean. Yeah, it’s you. You’re a fucking amazon, only you look like you’re going to a ball.” He looked at her. “Were you? An amazon? Did you look like that inside the armor? Damn, you’re vain, woman!”
“Give me that,” she said, slid out of bed, and tried to grab the image, but he snatched it away. “The real Aaron would know,” she tried. “Who are you, and what did you do to him?”
“You know, let’s stick with Maxi or Maximilian. I may have been that Aaron guy once, but not anymore.” Maxi put the image back into the pile he’d dug out of her drawer. “Don’t remember everything yet. How long does it usually take?”
“Varies,” she told him. “Yes, I was an amazon. But no, I didn’t look like that. That’s propaganda. I had short hair and had never used makeup in my entire life.”
“Who is this guy,” Maxi said and held up a private photo of Viscount Verrigan.
“A mistake,” she told him flatly. “One of many, but without doubt the worst.” She would have thrown the picture away, but every time she meant to, she was reminded of her mistake. Some things, however painful, must not be forgotten. So Xerza kept the damn thing.
“Your ex then,” Maxi concluded. “Noble? Looks like a scion to me. Same look Marcus has. Hard to fake that stuck-up mien. If he was so bad, why keep the pic?”
“There was nothing noble about him. And I keep it so I may never forget.”
“That bad, eh? What’s his name?”
“It was Verrigan. Viscount Verrigan. But better known to the Order as Soul-taker Verrigan.”
“Shit,” Maxi said, his look a mixture of shock and awe. “I remember what they said about that guy.” Then he started laughing. He laughed so hard he lost his balance and fell off the desk. Xerza let him laugh. It took a while for him to stop and get back up.
“So you were an amazon. A virgin amazon?” Xerza nodded. “And you slept with one of the most infamous villains in living memory?” Maxi went down on one knee. “Xerza, my love. There are none like you in all of creation. Nothing comes even close. I’ve no ring for you, being a poor man, but my love is true. I would marry you if you would have me.”
“Oh, you stupid man. I’m not marrying you. You may, however, ravish me on this desk, right this moment.”
Maxi pretended to think it over, shrugged, and said: “I guess I’ll settle for a good shag. Marriage is overrated anyway.” He grabbed her hand and pushed her against the desk.
She pretended to struggle a little, and then let him have his way with her.
Xerza was standing in her usual spot by the false-glass windows, looking out at the projection of the nighttime cityscape. Her appearance was the usual one: high-heeled boots, tight-fitting pants, a top that clung to her curves, corset, hair up high, lips, and nails painted. Her demeanor, however, wasn’t the calculated calm she usually affected. She was frowning as if something she saw outside both intrigued and confounded her.
Maxi wasn’t in his usual spot. He was sitting at Xerza’s desk, looking through today’s reports. He had the Dark Omega, so his clearance level was golden, but he still lacked project clearance for half the things that landed on the Quaestor’s table. Xerza wasn’t bothered by this breach of security. Indeed, it was she who insisted that he read the stuff. Claimed Maximilian provided her with ‘valuable insights.’ Maxi was pretty sure she was trying to dump her chores on him now that they were lovers. Lovers and confidantes. More of the former, less of the latter. She’s still Xerza. Secrets and lies, layer upon layer. I’m not even sure she’s doing it on purpose. It’s just part of who she is.
Maxi put down a stack of printouts. “You see anything interesting out there, Domina?”
Xerza didn’t reply.
“Dragon calling Xerza. Please come in,” he said, much louder.
Xerza turned around and looked at him. “Sorry, you were saying?”
“I said: you see anything interesting out there, Domina?” Maxi repeated.
“Sorry, love. I was woolgathering.”
“Really? I couldn’t tell.”
“Hey,” she said and started towards the desk. “No need to be clever. I’m your mistress still. You better behave.”
Maxi smiled noncommittally at her. “Much as I’d love to fuck you on the desk,” he said, “I think we should focus on business.”
“Why? Anything interesting happen? More interesting than me?” Xerza said and started to unbutton her armored corset—using her telekinetic powers.
Maxi ignored her. “I’ve received a report from the Second Pentacle. Asset Omicron-Tau has been activated and has taken steps to establish a connection with Marcus.”
“Omicron-Tau? The woman you were talking about?” Xerza stopped in her tracks, a meter short of Maxi.
“Yes. Chief Librarian Calpurnia Pisonis, one of the bigwigs.”
“Pisonis?” Xerza said. “Then you didn’t actually recruit her, did you? She was handed to you, no?”
“Yeah,” Maxi admitted, not sounding the least sorry. “I was trying to impress you. Can you maybe button up? It’s very distracting.”
“Flatterer,” she chided and turned her back to him. “You do it. It’s much easier to pull it open than close it up.”
“Xerza, please...can we just focus on work? I had this through the EPC network.”
Xerza turned around to face him again, using her powers to ‘button up’ as Maxi had called it. “Do we trust the Technocracy with this now? I gave express orders not to.”
“She’s using a highly secure double burn code. A code she would only use if she fears an astral projection might be interfered with.”
“Go on,” Xerza prompted.
“Marcus has interfaced with the Maiden, has spent hours linked to her both yesterday and today. As we speak, he’s doing the third session.”
“Quite the little overachiever. Always so eager to please.”
Maxi smiled at her. “Too obvious. Not taking the bait.”
Xerza smiled back at him. “You’re supposed to be the rogue—yet all of a sudden, you’re the adult and responsible party?”
Maxi ignored her again. “So he’s going through her archives, searching for whatever secrets you’re after because there is no way they’d release the chimaera, correct?”
“Marcus is a stuck-up piece of shit,” Maxi said. “But he’s probably the cleverest fucker I’ve ever met. If he needs days to find what we’re after, I think we have to assume he’s run into some security.”
“Probably. We expected as much,” Xerza said.
“How long will it take?”
“We’ve no idea. Why?”
“The Reaper cell, the Cabal kill-team, has acquired him. Actually, they were already in place, waiting for him when he arrived.”
“Shit,” Xerza said, all playfulness gone from her voice.
“Indeed,” Maxi commented drily and got out of her chair.
Xerza sat down and accepted the transcript handed to her. “How do we know?”
“The asset reported it. She’s gotten close to Marcus in a very short time. Much closer than I had anticipated.”
“I’m not surprised,” Xerza said with a sight. “She’s a very resourceful lady.”
“And we know this how exactly?” he said, even though he was entirely sure of the answer. Always so clever. It’s going to bite you in the ass one day, love.
“I’m the one responsible for recruiting her. And for encouraging her to give up her legate powers. I didn’t know what had become of her...but now that she’s on the Pentacle staff...I’m not surprised. She really is a bit like me, Maxi. Driven. Mysterious. And Marcus is so attracted to mysteries. If he can’t read her with telepathy, he has to try and understand her with his intellect alone.”
“Kaminsky and the Harbingers are still maybe ten days away, a little less if they hurry.”
“He’ll hurry. I told him to do it in two weeks. He’ll take that as a sign I want him to break all speed records going there.”
“Still more than a week out though. Can’t go faster than that. Just not possible.”
“That cruiser is fast,” Xerza said. “And Agrippina is probably the best helmswoman there is. I picked her myself.”
“Let’s call it slightly less than a week if what you say is true. But it’s still a week. Marcus is one man alone. Aided by an older woman. A librarian. Who incidentally is a psychic null, which does nothing but interfere with Marcus’s powers. Sorry Xerza, but Marcus is a dead man. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
“Marcus is far more dangerous than you realize, Maxi.”
“Sure. A proper demigod. But he’s up against an entire Reaper cell. And he doesn’t even know what’s coming. It doesn’t matter if he kills five of them if they have a ten-man team. Even nine out of ten won’t be enough. By the Abyss, we don’t even know if they have a backup. They could have a whole company in reserve for all we know.”
“Very well. Send a reply to the asset. Have her warn Marcus. But also remind him the Maiden cannot be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Cannot. Under any circumstances.”
“I will. Just so we’re on the same page here: he’s to terminate her rather than let her fall into enemy hands?”
“No. Absolutely not. She’s priceless, possibly the only path to victory over the Shadow. Marcus knows this. Just remind him of the gravity of his mission. He’ll understand.”
“I bet he will. I’m the only one who doesn’t, it seems. But,” he continued in a loud voice to stop Xerza’s protests, “I don’t mind. Solving mysteries isn’t only for Marcus. I know a thing or two about mysteries myself. Soon as I have all the pieces figured out, I’ll solve it.”
“I...” Xerza tried.
“Speaking of mysteries, I almost forgot: Marcus is talking to her as well.”
“Talking? What do you mean ‘her’?” Xerza sounded genuinely confused. But Maxi knew she was notoriously hard to read.
“According to the asset, the Maiden has a very talkative mouth—and she has a name. Marcus is calling her Lizze, and they are chatting about ancient history and whatnot.”
“He can split his mind,” Xerza replied, without actually saying anything of substance.
“I know. Seven parts. Quite something. He told me himself. Didn’t think it was possible. I have trouble with keeping two things in my head at the same time.” Maxi laughed at his own joke. Xerza didn’t. “You didn’t know, did you? That she could talk?”
“Last time I checked, she was as quiet as they come. No mouth. Very symbolic.”
“So you do know more about her than you’ve been willing to share with me,” Maxi said. He didn’t mean for it to sound confrontational, but it probably seemed that way.
“I haven’t had time to fill you in on everything,” Xerza said. She didn’t sound offended; her voice was perfectly level and controlled.
“This confused me no end.”
“Past tense? So you’re no longer confused?”
“Nope,” he said and sat down on the edge of the desk, looking her in the eyes. “I thought about going to see Vern again, then remembered I had beaten the poor fellow bloody.” He held up his hands, showing her the recently applied synthskin covering his knuckles. “But I didn’t need to go see him. I already did. Several times. During past lives. So I sat down instead and tried to remember. Can’t say that it was easy, but I managed to piece together a thing or two. Turns out, Vern has a lot of interesting things to say about the Maiden.”
“What things? You sure he was telling the truth? He’s a notorious liar and manipulator.”
Maxi shrugged. “I’ve spent several lifetimes surrounded by liars and manipulators—no offense intended—and I think he was sincere. He could have left stuff out, but what he did tell me, I think, was true enough. From his point of view.”
Xerza did the frown thing again. “Let me hear it then. I’ll explain why Vern can’t be trusted after.”
“Fair enough. Once upon a time, there was a girl named Lizzie. She lived on Earth before the Gods fell from the heavens, before the Black Dragon and the Tartaruchi tried to wipe out humankind. She fell in love with a dragonsworn, and they made babies. Fast forward a few millennia, and this Quaestor called Samael happens upon Lizzie’s reborn soul. It’s not that strange. The Dragon keeps recycling his followers, you know. Realizing what she is, he helps recover her soul’s memories. Much like what Vern does to me. You follow?”
“I do. Go on.”
“This Samael chap wants to be a God, no less. Serving the Dragon isn’t enough for him. Needless to say, the Draconic Assembly isn’t thrilled. So they declare him rogue and send another Quaestor after him. Tancred. Dark as night skin, white hair, funky eyes. I think maybe you know him? Ah, that’s right, he’s your old master. How could I forget?”
“You can dispense with the theatrics, Maxi.”
“So the Sam guy cuts the Maiden’s throat,” he made a slashing motion across his neck, “and hands her dying body over to his good friend and servant. That being Vern, of course. It’s a small galaxy. Or maybe the knowledge of soul memories is restricted to only a handful of people across all of creation?”
Xerza nodded him on.
“They put some of her flesh into this fantastic machine body, turning her into the most advanced chimaera the universe has ever seen.” He looked at Xerza, daring her to gainsay him. “Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But she was certainly something special because they transferred her soul over.”
“The Technocracy knows how to transfer the human mind into a digital format,” Xerza said.
“Sure. But can the technomancers also transfer a person’s soul? Because apparently, Vern did that too. I’ve never heard of such a thing. Are souls even real?”
“Yes. Souls are real. And yes, they can be transferred. It’s terribly complicated, and most techniques only transfer some parts of the soul.”
“The soul has parts? How many?”
“Depends on who you ask,” Xerza replied. “Some say three, others five, seven, or even nine.”
“How would a soul transfer be done then?”
“Psychics, you mean?”
“Kind of. They’re related, but not exactly the same. Psychics try to create order out of Khaos. Sorcery dances along with the entropy. It’s dangerous, but rewarding if done right. But you’re doing well, keep going.”
“So Lizzie got rebuilt, turned into the Maiden. Better and stronger. A self-repairing machine, virtually immortal. Like I said, they moved her mind over—and apparently also her soul.
“They didn’t do this for fun. She had a particular purpose: to find Samael’s reborn self, guide and teach him, awaken him to his ancestral memories. This is where it stops making sense to me. Why not move Sam into a machine body? Why go to all this trouble?”
“They must have had their reasons.”
“Probably did,” Maxi agreed. But Vern was vague—perhaps purposefully.”
“Could be having a machine body isn’t conducive to godhood? Or that it interferes ever so slightly with psychics? Sam was probably a legate, don’t you agree?” Xerza said.
“Makes sense. Good guesswork there, Xerza. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you already knew everything I know and more.”
“Humor me, love.”
“But something went wrong. Tancred and his pet killer got to him. You know him too: Lord-Commander Kaminsky, aka Asset Sigma Draconis. The most dangerous man alive.”
Xerza frowned again.
“You shouldn’t do that. It makes you look older than you are.” He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “This is where you start filling in the blanks.”
Xerza started reaching for Maxi, her hand stopped mid-air, she pulled it away and sat back, arms crossed.
“You’re the one saying you want me to be your lieutenant, your companion. That my mind complements yours. That I see stuff you miss, and vice versa. But I work best if things are in the open. Be level with me, Xerza. I won’t hold it against you, no matter what.” A pained expression flashed across Xerza’s face. Not the frown, but something less tangible, yet more substantial at the same time. “You can trust me,” he added.
“I don’t trust anyone,” Xerza said.
“Not even me? Who has given my life in your service, several times over?”
“You’ve betrayed me once before. My own fault. Should have seen it coming. But no, I don’t trust you. I mean,” she hastened to add, “I trust you more than all the rest of them put together, but I still can’t go all the way. To be fair: it’s not you, it’s me.”
“I betrayed you? I can’t seem to remember any of that,” Maxi said. Betray her? Why would I do that? There is nothing in my memory.
“You didn’t stab me in the back or anything. You just put your fucked up bromance with Haides before me. Before us. That hurt. Still does. A long time ago, but it still hurts.”
“Who’s being melodramatic now?” Maxi said and laughed. When he saw the hurt look on her face, he regretted it. “Xerza. For what it’s worth: I’m sorry. But I can’t understand what I can’t remember. Explain it to me.”
“Don’t worry about it, love. You’ve more than made up for it. You’ve far less reason to trust me than I you.”
“I don’t blame you for my deaths. I gave my life—my lives—willingly. Besides, I feel pretty good for a dead guy. Had a swim, met the most beautiful woman in the universe. Made love to her, stayed the night, ate some cereals. Went to the office. Had an excellent work session with my boss. She made a move on me, though. But I totally told her to fuck off.”
Xerza put her long legs on the desk and leaned back into the chair, arching her back. “You’re going to massage my back afterward. And you’re going to like it.” She settled down. “And I’m getting a more comfortable chair,” she added as an afterthought.
“What’s the deal between Haides and me anyway? I remember some stuff, but to be frank, most of it is pretty negative.” It was true. He could remember bits and pieces of Haides, but almost everything had to be classified as bad memories. Haides treated me like shit most of the time. Why did I bother trying to be his friend?
“Maybe it will come back. Telling you won’t do it justice. It’s complicated. He was as close to you as he was able to be to anyone.”
“He wasn’t quite like the rest of us, was he?”
Xerza shook her head. “No, he wasn’t. There was always something...different about him.”
“He was very intense,” Maxi said. “The way he looked at you...”
“You only knew him during that first life. He didn’t like clones much, not even awakened ones. So perhaps it was for the best.”
When Xerza didn’t say anything else, Maxi sighed and scratched his neck before crossing his own arms. “Please, Xerza. Can you just not be Xerza, the Player for a little while? Stop deflecting me. Stop making me drag bits and pieces out of you to try and piece stuff together. I’ve got lifetimes of that stuff already in my head. I just need you to tell me what I need to know. What you need me to know.” He clamped his jaws shut for emphasis.
The silence became a drawn-out thing. Each second they sat there staring at each other felt like an hour. Finally, Xerza relented. “I have trust issues. That’s on me, not on you.”
“You already told me.”
“Shut up, love. I’m just warming up.” She smiled at him with blood-red lips. It was a warm smile, genuine and friendly, designed to make the recipient feel calm and welcome.
“Stop that,” Maxi told her. The smile disappeared.
“Sorry, love. Habits. Just the facts from now.” She got out of the chair and walked over to her spot by the window. “Kaminsky is very good at killing. He can kill stuff that can’t usually be killed—or things that won’t stay dead. He’s not only a veteran knight, but he’s also a Keeper, a legate, and his faith in the Dragon burns strong.”
“Is he really blind?”
“He is. Claims the Dragon took his eyes in return for a boon. Thinks it’s a blessing.”
“Doesn’t seem blind to me.”
“The future isn’t veiled to him. He doesn’t see the now with his eyes; he sees what’s about to happen with his mind’s eye. And if you’re not shielded, he’ll read your mind like a book.”
“He’s a bit creepy,” Maxi admitted.
“Creepy? He’s more than that. He’s the Order’s deadliest weapon. He’s also a mad zealot, as likely to kill you as help you. Claims to answer only to the Dragon. If ever you cross paths with Kaminsky: don’t antagonize him.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Promise me,” Xerza said with great intensity.
“Sure, if it’s that important to you. I promise not to get in Kaminsky’s way. Speaking of which: how come you of all people get to order the Order’s toughest cookie around?”
“We have a past. I’m the only one who has a shot at pointing Kaminsky in the right direction.”
“And this guy you gave the Oculus Draco, the finest attack cruiser in the Order’s inventory, and command of the Harbingers?”
“Gave? No. You don’t understand at all. To the Harbingers, Kaminsky is their High Priest. He’s the man who speaks to the Dragon when no one else does. His words are literally the Will of the Dragon. They’d follow him to the Abyss and back.”
“Ah. So Kaminsky does what you tell him to—until he doesn’t. Gottcha.”
“It was Kaminsky who took down Samael. The Maiden waited, ready to bring him back, but he never showed. Something had gone wrong.”
“Kaminsky’s special skills,” Maxi said.
Xerza nodded. “So she started searching for his lost soul. Kaminsky had killed Sam’s body—and part of his soul, but there are some things that even a Keeper can’t destroy.”
“Because the soul has many parts?”
“Precisely. In life, the khet—the physical body—is the receptacle for the soul. Conversely, the sah—the spiritual body—is what keeps the parts that make up a person together. Kaminsky didn’t kill just the khet; he destroyed the sah as well.
“The ka—the spark of life—is at the core of every living being. It has always existed and lives on after death. It’s not a person, just the idea of one.
“Melbiniou’s ba—his true nature—was also lost, or perhaps changed is a better word. Without a physical or spiritual body, it reverts to a primordial state.”
“The ka and the ba are both needed for a person to be a person. That, and the original body, or something close to it.”
“That’s why you clone me?“Maxi shot in. “Or I wouldn’t be me when I awaken?”
“Yes, love. The ba is the core of your being, but for you to be you, the body—the khet—must be the same, or close to it. Otherwise, your ib—your personality won’t be the same.”
“And the memories? Why can’t I remember?
“Your ka is always new—new life, new ka. Your clones have the same ba, but the ka is unique. You remember when Vern brings back the original ka. It’s a complicated process that involves the use of your True name, you ren.”
“Why don’t I go to the afterlife when I die?”
“I use sorcery to bind your soul to mine—and to hide your shut, your soul’s shadow, from Anubis. As long as he can’t see you, he can’t take you away. So your soul, your sah, remain with me until you are cloned, and the process of bringing you back can begin. First, your ba, then later the ka.”
“And I end up with pretty much the same ib because it’s the same body and the same soul parts? That was complicated. Anything else?”
“There is also the sekhem, your divine power if you happen to be a scion, like Samael. It might remain with you in death, or not, depending on circumstances. Which brings us to the final part, the akh, your afterlife form, but it’s very complicated and not really relevant to us now.”
“How does this relate to our dead Quaestor?”
“The Maiden was designed to pull him right back and into a preprepared body. But Kaminsky’s actions forced her to improvise. She used his True name to bring back his ba. But all she could do was have it be reborn somewhere.”
“Somewhere is a big place.”
“Very big. But the Maiden could narrow it down to descendants of Samael, so she didn’t have to search the entire universe.”
“And the big reveal?” Maxi said as he walked from the desk over to stand next to Xerza.
“She found him on Protasia—or Akakios as the planet was called back then. There was a boy, born years after Samael died. He had the ba.”
Haides is from Protasia. This can’t be just a coincidence. He moved to stand between her and the window, put his hands on her shoulders, looked into her dark eyes. “Haides? Haides is Samael?”
“No,” Xerza gripped one of his hands, kissing it. “Well, yes. But just a little bit. The Maiden could never bring back the ka. Couldn’t restore the ib. Haides is descended from Melbinous, most likely his great-grandchild or some such, and they share the same ba, but they are not the same person.”
“Look at me,” he said, as gently as he could, cupping her chin with his hand. “The asset—Chief Librarian Pisonis—told me something more: that Marcus was talking about one Haides Guillaume, a native of Protasia. Something along the lines of a copy of Haides having been uploaded into the Maiden’s archives. Acting as some sort of Gatekeeper. Haides is dead, but he’s living inside the Maiden? Some sort of mind-copy? Or is this another soul-thing?”
“It’s complicated...the long game...”
“Don’t give me that crap, love. You need to tell me. I don’t think I can go back to Vern and ask him—I was so angry when I awakened. Beat him up pretty bad.”
Xerza got the same vacant expression she had earlier.
“Xerza? Is there a problem?” Maxi said.
“I’m not sure. I just had a feeling, a premonition of doom. I need to consult the Tarot.” She tore away from his grip. She took a couple of steps over to the desk and pushed a button on the comms panel. “Bastille, this is Xerza, report on the status of subject XR-1113.”
“Domina Xerza, this is Bastille. The subject was listed as deceased as of o-eight hundred this morning, local time.”
“Why wasn’t I informed?” she snapped.
The voice on the other end of the link seemed reluctant to answer. “Maxi...Maximilian, Lady Xerza. We...”
“He beat the prisoned to death, is that it? And you assumed he’d tell me? True?”
“Yes, My Lady.”
“Sound general quarters,” Xerza said calmly. It took less than a second before the alarms started blaring. “Prefect Eccard is in command of security for the duration,” Xerza continued. “I will be in my quarters, consulting the Will of the Dragon. I am not to be disturbed.”
“What’s going on, love?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is that it’s bad—and has to do with Vern’s death. I must consult the Tarot, try to divine what’s going on. You make sure the Arcanum is closed tight. No one comes or goes, and no one is to approach Vern’s corpse. In fact, seal the whole Bastille until further notice.” Xerza, still naked, got her tarot case and started shuffling the cards.
“Yes, my Mistress,” Maxi said and did the clawed hand over heart salute before letting himself out of Xerza’s bedroom.
More secrets? Only just awakened, and everything’s a quagmire of lies and ulterior motives. Life is never boring at Xerza’s side.