Dark Omega

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Chapter 49 MY DRAGON’S KEEPER

Kaminsky and Old Zann were both in their exo-suits, standing alone at the edge of the grey slate cliff, staring out at the vast expanse of white clouds pushing against the rock but never quite making it to the top.

“How can you know that?” Kaminsky asked.

“You remember, don’t you?” Old Zann replied.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The old man was oftentimes impossible to follow. It was part of the lessons, though, to make Kaminsky ‘think outside the box’ as he put it. Having a flexible, inquisitive mind did have many advantages, one that could quickly adapt and improvise, that wasn’t so hard to see. But when you compared it to the close-minded dogma that dominated the Dragon Order’s mindset, it felt very much out of place.

“Every pattern you have been shown, you remember, yes?”

In theory, a legate could do literally anything at the drop of a hat, using the energies of Khaos to reshape reality according to his will—caring nothing for the laws of physics. In practice, such improvisation quickly led to Nexus psychosis and stigmata, if not outright death—with no guarantee that the effect was the desired one. Consistent use of psychics required knowledge of specific templates called patterns. Each pattern was a hideously complex mental puzzle and obstacle course rolled into one. The more accomplished the legate, the more patterns he or she knew.

“Those I’ve been shown, yes. But that’s not so very many. You take ages to teach me even one, Master.”

“Every little bit of every pattern you’ve ever been taught? Every swirl, every twist, every impossible knot?”

“Yes. Those few you’ve shown me, I have mastered.”

“And you can recall every variation, every combination, and every isolation?”

Many patterns could be changed ever so slightly to adjust their effects or woven into other patterns to create more complex outputs.

“Yes. But like I’ve said before, I think we spend too much time on the little details when you should be teaching me more patterns.”

“And how many disciplines are you able to use?”

There were eight disciplines, although a legate could never master more than seven, as the eight—abolition—was mutually exclusive. Telepathy and prescience were the most common, followed by several variants of kinesis—telekinesis being the more frequent. The last four disciplines were rare.

“I don’t follow, Master.”

“Let me rephrase: How many of the disciplines could you master—if you wanted to?”

“All of them, I suppose, except abolition, of course. But I haven’t...”

“And there you have the answer to your question: You already know more than enough. You’re just refusing to accept that you’ve grown up, become a Keeper. You’re clinging to a childish need for support, for recognition.”

“Master...”

The old man turned to face him, putting his face place so close to Kaminsky’s they were almost touching. “I have helped you build the foundation. It is the rock we’re standing upon. What lies before you is an ocean of clouds.” He gestured towards the ever-swirling whiteness. “You think you can swim this with just a fixed set of patterns? Do you think twenty patterns will be enough? A hundred? It won’t, young Kaminsky. You need to be able to adapt, change existing patterns, merge them, and even make up things on the fly.”

“They teach us not to do that. The risk...”

“With your memory, Kaminsky, you could eventually learn every pattern there is. But still, it won’t be enough. I have been trying to have you understand that you can’t make memory a crutch. If you do, one day, someone will take it away from you, and you’ll keel over.”

“But drawing upon Khaos, threading a makeshift pattern on the fly, it’s too risky.”

“It is risky, yes, and so must be saved for when there is no better alternative, this is true. A great Keeper knows when to use tried and true patterns, when to adjust them—and when to run free, unfettered.”

“If you say so, Master.” He let out, ‘but look at what happened to you.’ If he brought it up, Old Zann would just twist it around as ‘proof’ he was right.

“Hah. If you say so...yes, I do say so. But there is one piece missing, my young apprentice.”

“And that is?”

“You remember my lessons on the Inner and Outer foci?”

“You know, I do.” Of course, he remembered. Even had he not been blessed with divine memory, he would have recalled that lesson. “The inner focus protects from the protean energies as you thread the pattern. The outer focus aids with the threading.”

“Go on,” Old Zann prodded.

“The outer focus is simple enough: it’s typically a psychically attuned object, prepared ahead of time. The most common external focus is the ring: symbolizing infinity, cause and effect, the beginning and the end, and many other things besides. For us keepers and other dragonsworn, the ring is typically a golden dragon biting its tail. The sword—or another melee weapon—is often used as a focus for destructive patterns. A rod or similar object can be used to enforce your will upon others—or even on the material universe, becoming a focus for telekinesis and other uses of psychokinesis. The tarot is commonly used when precognition is involved, especially when foretelling the future. I could continue, but those are the most common. You don’t need a focus to thread—but it helps.”

“Indeed, it does. Indeed, it does,” the old man confirmed. “And it helps a lot to have an inner focus too, yes?”

“Supposedly it does. The more you believe in the tenets of your tradition, the more power you can safely draw upon. The technomancers believe in their machines and their spirits. The pietists of the Conclave zealously believe in the Gods of the Pantheon. The Collegium magisters are tied by a very dogmatic approach to psychic powers. And we of the Dragon, we’re supposed to have unflinching faith in the wisdom and power of our God.”

“Supposed to, yes. And that is the real issue here. All the rest you can handle. You’re more than qualified to be a legate-warrior. ”

“I don’t feel ready. How can I be ready when I don’t really believe in the Dragon?”

“You can’t,” Old Zann agreed and turned to look at the clouds again. The clouds were picking up speed, and with that added speed, some of them were able to climb out of the valley to make their way around the two Draconic Knights watching from the top of the cliff.

“Then you’ve wasted your time. I’m a lost cause. And when you leave tomorrow, the others will make sure our failure is rectified.” They’d cut him from the program for sure. Maybe he’d be put down. Perhaps he’d end up in a lab. But his days as a supplicant would be over. He’d never graduate, never be assigned to any Legion.

“Don’t worry, Kaminsky. The Dragon hasn’t led you this far, into my clutches, so to speak, only to have us fail. He has a plan for you, I know this.”

“Easy for you to say. You already believe.”

“That I do, that I do.”

Kaminsky didn’t answer. Old Zann had taken to doing that—saying the same thing twice—more and more often. I hope I never get so old that I start repeating myself.

“Tomorrow at this hour, you will stand here again. Filled with faith in the Celestial Dragon. You’ll feel foolish for not understanding everything before. But don’t be. It’s all part of His Great Plan.”

“If you say so, Master.”

“So, what should we do with our remaining hours?” Old Zann said. “Throw rocks at the clouds? Go flying among the ruins? Have a nice cup of tea?”

“You could teach me some more patterns?” Kaminsky said, hopefully.

“No. You can learn more patterns from the other Keepers. They are better at it than Old Zann. I’m not even a Keeper anymore, did you forget?”

Kaminsky shook his armored head. “Hilarious, Master.”

“No more lessons. I’ve had enough lifetimes of that.”

“Then tell me some stories, old man. They say you’re five hundred—or more—years old. Surely you’ve seen and done some great things?”

“I am very old,” Old Zann said, his voice suddenly tired. “Too old. Too old by far. I’m well over five hundred, nearing eight in fact. I was born when the fires of the One God burned across the Dominion. I knew the last Autarch, Mikaela, personally. She was a much great leader than history gives her credit for. She was also the most enchanting woman I ever met. There was even a time where I imagined I would have walked away from the Dragon had she asked me. She didn’t.

“I was there for the Great Betrayal. I was there when the Semper Loricatorum—known to posterity as the Obsidian Legion—turned upon the rest of the Order and nearly destroyed us all. If fought my own brothers and sisters, killing all that stood against me, against the Dragon. But after it was over, I knew that nothing would ever be the same. The Order endured, but it was no longer the Order I knew.

“I lived through the Titanomachy: a century and a half of unlimited warfare, rarely taking part, but watching from the sideline as humanity tried so hard to destroy itself. The destruction, Kaminsky, the death...you are a warrior, you will see and do terrible things...but pray that you never have to endure anything like it.

“In the aftermath, I witnessed lesser Successor Kingdoms squabble over the leftovers, competing fiercely with power-hungry Triumvirate—Conclave, Technocracy, and Collegium—officials. This is perhaps the heaviest burden I have had to bear: all I see I see in the light of past greatness, and all fall short of my expectations. There is little enough left of the Dominion now, and the Order is weaker and less united than ever. How far the mighty have fallen. So Kaminsky, what tale do you want me to tell?”

“You know, I’ve changed my mind. Your stories are too much like history lessons. Let’s throw some rocks at the clouds. Then we go flying among the Revenant ruins. After we can head inside and have some tea. How that sound?”

“Smartest thing I’ve heard somebody say in centuries. Let’s do it,” the old tutor said.

They had thrown rocks at the clouds for a while, using telekinesis to make them skip, like stones on water. Frivolous use of psychics, not something the Dragon Order approved of. According to Old Zann, the Order didn’t approve much of anything these days. When Kaminsky had asked how it had been in the old days, he had ignored the question, leaving Kaminsky none the wiser.

After they had run their exo-suits at full speed across a desolate landscape of grey rock and gravel until they arrived at their destination: the city of the Revenants. The alien ruins never ceased to amaze Kaminsky. Old before humans first walked out of Afrika, the city had a timeless quality. The shattered spires seemed impossibly graceful and peaceful despite their advanced state of decay.

Not for the first time, Kaminsky tried to imagine how the city must have looked before it was destroyed. And not for the first time he failed. He’d seen images of Revenants, they didn’t look too different from humans, taller and thinner, almost like ectomorphs, but there was an intangible something about them that made his mind reel. So it was with their city also. He could almost make sense of it, but not quite.

During a previous field trip, Old Zann had explained that the Revenants had been attuned—whatever that meant—and that Kaminsky’s senses were being affected by psychic afterimages. When pressed, he’d elaborated a little bit, explaining that they did indeed have legates, but that the majority of the lost race had been more akin to scions, gifted with innate powers not entirely of this world.

Flying among the ruins of the crystalline structures was exhilarating—and didn’t require any imagination, only that you stayed sharp. Both Kaminsky and Old Zann were wearing apex assault armor, the most heavily armored exo-suits available, with flight units strapped to their backs. The flight units precluded the use of a weapons harness, thus denying access to heavy weapons, but gave the wearer the ability to fly for extended periods using a combination of contra-grav, inertial compensation, and directional thrusters. Without the flight units, the exo-suits were limited to grav-assisted jumps only.

Mellarion’s modest .7 gravities supercharged the units, making it feel like you had a massive rocket strapped to your back. They raced each other through the cloud-wreathed ruins at breakneck speeds. Only cyber-enhanced reflexes combined with the precognitive abilities of a fully trained Keeper kept them alive. Less gifted men would have torn themselves to shreds against splintered crystal or run headlong into a wall obscured by clouds.

How does he do it? He’s no longer a legate; he’s a censor. Yet Old Zann kept outrunning his pupil. Kaminsky pushed even harder, using telekinesis to pull off maneuvers the flight unit couldn’t have managed on its own. But as soon as he got past his tutor, the old man came streaking up him from behind. He had retracted his death mask, exposing his frail physique to the poisonous atmosphere of the planet.

“You’re too slow, Kaminsky. You have to do better to catch me!” the old man shouted, his frail voice loud and clear over the roar of thrusters and the rushing of the wind.

It’s only a dream. Kaminsky was dreaming of things that had happened during the day. They had skipped the stones, run across the grey land, flow between the fallen crystal spires—then had tea. Never had either of them retracted the death mask. Nor had the old man been able to catch him while racing. It’s only a dream.

Old Zann pulled ahead and up, going faster than the flight unit could possibly have propelled him. Kaminsky followed suit, willing himself to keep pace. Up and up they went. When they cleared the clouds, he was right behind the old man, almost close enough to touch him.

That’s when he saw it, the alien spire—untouched, pristine, not a shattered ruin—reaching up above the clouds. The strange structure was backlit by the setting sun, but the spire itself was the darkest shade of black Kaminsky had ever seen. It was like a collapsar, absorbing every photon that struck it, or close enough to it. That’s how the Revenants generated power—hyper-efficient photon conversion.

While Kaminsky was distracted, Old Zann had crossed over to the spire and landed upon its highest point. The younger man followed and landed on a platform no more than ten paces across. Old Zann was there, his back turned to Kaminsky, staring towards the sunset. He took two steps forward...

Kneel, Keeper Kaminsky, a million voices whispered inside his head.

He fell to his knees, not of free will, but out of necessity. No man could resist that command.

It is customary to kneel in the presence of your God, a thousand voices said. And to show your face, a hundred voices shouted. Only a God may choose not to show his face, ten voices screamed. Are you a God, Kaminsky? The voices had become a single one, loud as a million.

His faceplate retracted, and the helmet folded away. “No,” he somehow managed.

But you are, just a little. You are of the Blood of Ares, God of War. Your lineage, your birthright, is strong. You could make it even mightier, through great deeds or by stealing the power of other scions. You could become a demi-god. Claim a place in the Pantheon. Do you want to be a God, Kaminsky?

“No,” he said, his voice more steady now. “I do not.” Become a god? The idea was alien to him. He knew the old legends, of course, of the great Heroes of the Shadow War, who had risen to become gods. But seeking divinity for no other reason than wanting to be something greater than your fellow men? It had to be the ultimate expression of hubris. It was not something Kaminsky could relate to.

Then what is that you want? Tell me, I would know why you have called me here.

He wanted to protest, tell that he had not called, that he was an unbeliever. Then he realized that he had been searching, looking for a sign, something to show him the way. Perhaps he had called. “I wish to believe, so that I might serve, always and forever.”

Do you? Not so long ago, you said you didn’t believe in me. Now you want to serve me, not only in this life but in every life to come, until Ragnarök, the Final Battle? Pardon me for not believing in you, mortal.

“I called you here because I wished to believe. Believe, so that I might serve as Your Keeper. I was uncertain, a foolish young man who thought he knew what was real and what was not,” Kaminsky spoke loudly now as he struggled to rise. “And now I wish to stand in the presence of the Dragon and see His face.” With a herculean effort, he was able to get up.

Then rise and see and be forever changed. The man that wasn’t Old Zann turned around, and Kaminsky saw the face of his God.

God had no face. There was only light, streaming out of Old Zann’s open helmet. It shone so bright Kaminsky was blinded in an instant, yet still, he could see the light. Before his ruined eyes, the light engulfed the body of the old man, setting it ablaze. The fire grew and grew until it had taken the form of a mighty Dragon.

Kaminsky’s skin caught fire, his flesh burned, his bones were charred. He couldn’t stop screaming, but the voice of the Dragon drowned out the noise.

The Order is not what it once was. It saddens me, but the hearts of men are easily corrupted, and nothing can resist the siren call of entropy forever. You have come to me now, as the universe turns. Your soul is mine now. That is what matters. Even if you serve me for only this one life, it shall be enough. Will you be my Voice, Kaminsky? Will you be the one to turn back the darkness—or undo creation if the Shadow cannot be stayed?

“Yes,” his mind screamed at God, even as his bones turned to ash.

------

When he woke up at four-thirty on the third day, he knew the real Zann had already gone. The particulars were not known to him, but he knew the old man had slipped away during the night. Not much for goodbyes.

They came for him after breakfast, in the tunnel running from the communal areas to the supplicants’ quarters. Not five of the third circle this time, but...all of them?

“Kaminsky!” a hundred voices shouted. He could barely hear them.

He stopped, drew himself to his full height, and spoke into their minds, his back still turned. I am the Custodian, I am the Keeper, I am the Voice. I have stood in His presence, seen His face, and been baptized in His flame. I have sworn the Oath. I do not harm my brothers and sisters, but anyone who raises a hand against me, raise a hand against the Dragon. Anyone who raises a hand against the Dragon must die. Such so it has always been, so it will always be.

He turned to face them, arms spread wide to indicate a willingness to avoid violence. The golden dragon tattoo over his heart shone with an inner light that was clearly visible through his unitard. It was a physical symbol of the Dragon’s blessing. According to Old Zann, not many carried it in this day and age.

Arthur was the first to go down on his knees. They had been able to fix his skull, but his injuries had set his training back several years. The rest of the supplicants followed suit: first in ones, and twos, then faster and faster as group instinct kicked in until finally, they were all kneeling.

Kaminsky walked towards them, slowly, arms wide, palms turned upwards. “Rise, my brothers, rise, my sisters. We are all equal before the Dragon. Was not I the least among you? Now I am blessed. Walk with me, let me show you the ways of the Dragon, and you too shall be blessed.”

The men looked at one another, seeking affirmation, but finding none. They looked at their Keeper, and in his face, they found the answers to all their questions.

------

Before the day was over, he took the other supplicants to the edge of the cliff. None of the instructors or officers interfered or asked any questions. They just went about their business while the young men and women suited up and went outside, following their recently baptized Keeper.

Assembled at the top of the cliff, he held his first sermon, reading from the Book of the Dragon, reciting the deeds of great Knights of ages past, and guiding his brethren towards finding the Dragon for themselves.

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