Dark Omega

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The world had come undone. Roaring fire, darkest shadow. A sense of falling. Then nothing—until now.

There were voices, familiar somehow, two male, two female, arguing. One woman and one man did most of the talking. Back and forth, they dueled, but Marcus could neither make out the words nor make any sense of it. He tried to focus. His head hurt like it had never hurt before, but he kept at it until gibberish became words, and the words gave meaning.

“Absolutely not,” the talkative woman said, her voice full of authority. She was used to issuing commands, to getting her way. “The Maiden will remain in the chamber. I do not have the authority to release her. Even if I had, I wouldn’t. There’s a reason she’s down there. She’s extremely dangerous.”

Marcus knew he’d heard her voice before. White clothes, blonde hair. Freshly baked bread and real butter. Creamy skin, round breasts, a golden dragon tattoo over her heart. A mind he could not read. Cal? Is that you?

“More dangerous than the men that attacked Marcus?” the quarrelsome male said. It was a younger man, sounding confident—or maybe impetuous was a better description. Like somebody who knew they were way in over their head, but refused to back down, because that would only make it worse. Dark skin, tall and powerful. Metal eyes wide open, watching the future unfold. Chike Kwame.

Memories of the car chase started filtering into Marcus’s head. It was a blurry mess, but he recalled the essential parts. Swearing in Kwame as a servant of the Dragon. The Reapers attacking as he passed through the Sixth Tier. The mad race aboard the hopper. Calling the witchfire...and then, nothing. Nothing, except the sense of burning up from the inside. I lost control. The fire was let slip.

The safeties installed in Marcus’s skull implants had saved him and Kwame—and who knew how many bystanders. The neural protocols had knocked the legate out cold, severed his connection to Khaos, and strangled the witchfire inferno before it could grow large enough to become a threat to everything and everyone.

“Far more dangerous,” Cal replied. “These people were hired guns, assassins—possibly thieves as well—but they are not locked up down on the Ninth, are they? The Maiden is—and she’ll remain that way. In fact, I’m confident the management will shut down this whole sordid interrogation affair and send her back into storage.”

“How is he doing, love?” the second male said. His voice spoke of older age and command authority, like Cal’s, but he spoke softly. And the way he said ‘love’ told Marcus a lot about his relationship with the other woman in the room.

Do I know you? Marcus considered trying to open his eyes and have a look, but just thinking about it made the world start to come undone again.

“He’ll live,” a woman’s voice said, right next to Marcus.

She was younger than Cal, but not young in an absolute sense. Other than that, her voice was harder to place. It was a contralto, dark for a woman, reminding Marcus of Xerza. But this woman’s voice contained none of the calculated control his mistress had. I’ve no idea who you are.

Marcus tried reaching out with his mind, but there was nothing. Lockouts are still engaged.

“He took a beating when you crashed into the terrace, and his right arm is cut up a bit, but I have patched him together and given him some juice. Actually, he should be awake by now. But he ain’t, which could indicate a head injury. I told you we should have taken him to a proper hospital.”

“No,” Kwame said. “We stay here. It’s not safe in any hospital. Two of them may have gotten away; I didn’t see them go down. At any rate, they could have allies. Hell, I don’t even know if here is safe,” Kwame’s voice continued, still confident, but frustrated at the same time. “They definitely had someone on the inside. But at least here we have some semblance of control.”

“Relax,” Cal’s voice said. “First, we return the Maiden to storage. We can’t leave her unattended for long. Then we can bring a doctor here—I know one we can trust—and...”

Marcus heard an antique revolver being cocked. “You touch that comms panel, Calpurnia,” the older man said, “and your brain will join that shitty artwork on the wall.” It wasn’t a threat or a bluff. It was a statement of fact. The man with the gun would pull the trigger without hesitation.

“I...” the voice that was Cal started to protest, but was cut short by the sound of a metal barrel hitting flesh and bone. There was a yelp, followed by the sound of a body falling awkwardly to the floor.

“You will speak only when spoken to. Is that clear? Nod if you understand me.”

There was no sound, but judging by what came next, there had been a nod.

“You ain’t fooling nobody in this room, Chief Librarian Pisonis. Well, maybe you’re fooling Kwame. Kid’s got a good heart, but he ain’t too smart. But you’re not tricking me. Before I came here to work as a guard, I walked the sub-levels of the floating cities for a lifetime. It ain’t all light and air down there, lady. I got to know your kind down there: the liars and the thieves. You think you’re so fucking clever, but the shit inside shows on the outside, you know.”

“Balack, are you sure?” Kwame said, his voice wavering.

“As sure as I’ve ever been, son. You have done well, but this is my turf. Gotta trust me on this one.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Kwame replied, all insecurity gone. “Let’s move her over to the chair. I’ve got my handcuffs.”

The older man barked once. Had not the situation been so severe, Marcus was sure he would have laughed his ass off. What’s the joke here?

Marcus could hear somebody, presumably Kwame, moving someone else, presumably Cal, over to her office chair, and then securing her with a pair of handcuffs.

“I can see defiance on your face, Cal. Can I call you that?” There was no reply that Marcus could hear. “Good. You’re keeping your mouth shut, so that means you know I’m serious. It will be easier on the both of us if you knock off the defiance and just come clean. You’re going to talk anyway, so why make it painful?”

“You wouldn’t dare!” The outrage in Cal’s voice was not feigned.

The sound of a metal fist striking flesh. A yelp of pain. Curses. Threats. The metal against the flesh again. And repeat. Before, finally, silence.

“Kwame. Go watch the door. Here, you can have the big gun.” Followed by the sound of something flying through the air, to be deftly caught by flesh-and-bone hands.

“Sure thing, boss.”

“Imogen, love. You might want to go into the other room.”

Imogen. Balack’s wife. The world suddenly made sense. The final two people were Balack, Kwame’s superior, and Imogen, his wife. Who’s watching the Maiden?

“I’m good, love. Just do your thing.”

There was a brief pause. “I don’t want you to...”

“Don’t worry about it. If this bitch is with the assholes that held me captive...just do your thing, and I’ll gladly watch.”

“I love you, Imogen, you know that?”

“I know. Make her squeal.”

“With pleasure. But first: I have to give the lady a chance to come clean. What do you think, Pisonis? You wanna just come clean, and we can get on with our lives? You may reply.”

“I’m not talking,” came the defiant reply. “And if you touch me again, I’ll make sure they don’t only take you, but your precious little wife as well. And Kwame. Anyone you care about: I’ll make them burn.”

The little speech was followed by the sound of spitting. And laughter. Balack’s laughter.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had someone spit on me during interrogation. Never thought I’d say I’d missed it. But after years in that tomb...it’s a good thing that you’ve decided to skip the denial part. Me finding holes in your story, chipping away at your lies, until you’ve got nowhere to hide. Very boring, actually. Plus, it can take time. Time we don’t have.”

Marcus thought she might have tried to speak, but any words were cut short by Balack’s metal hands hitting her again. “I didn’t say you could talk. I’m talking now. I’ll let you know when you’re required to respond. Did you forget?”

There was no reply.

“Cal, by skipping the denial part, you’ve told me you wish to cooperate. You might not think that you want to, but some deeper part of you does. This is good. It gives me hope I won’t have to use this.”

There was a clank as a knife was tossed onto a wooden surface.

“This is my knife. I’ve had it since my cadet days. We’ve done a lot of work together, my knife and me. Not so much here in the Pentacle. I thought I left all that behind when I got married and got a job here. But seems my past has come back to haunt me.”

“Your pathetic threats are hollow, meaningless. Touch me, and you all die horribly. And still, I won’t talk.” Followed by the sound of metal striking flesh and yet another yelp of pain.

“You forget your place quickly. None of what you said is actually true, Cal. It’s not a threat, it’s fact. If you don’t talk, I take this knife to your lovely face. And trust me on this: when I’m done, no man—or woman—will ever look at you again. I could say to nod if you understand me, but I see that you do, so don’t bother.”

Marcus could hear Balack sitting down on the edge of the desk. He picked up the knife, deftly spinning it around and around with metal fingers.

“It’s your pride and your weakness, that pretty face of yours. We both know it. And we both know I will do it. And we both know you’ll take a while to talk. Long enough for honor to be served—but not long enough for me to permanently ruin you. Am I right?”

“They’ll make you burn!”

“But they won’t, Cal. You see, Kwame already swore the oath. Soon as Marcus wakes up, I’ll have him swear me in as well.”

Another slap. “Eyes off my wife, Cal. If that’s what it takes, I’ll ask her to join the club as well.”

“It makes no difference,” Chief Librarian Pisonis replied. “I still won’t talk.”

Her voice was angry and afraid at the same time. Fear? Unbecoming a servant of the Dragon.

“And that’s another untruth—you will talk.”

The sound of a knife cutting through flesh. Not quickly, elegantly, but a slow gruesome sawing. The screaming lasted for a long while. At some point, Imogen left for the bathroom. She puked her guts out, but to her credit, she returned to watch the rest.

“That was one ear. Does it hurt? Let me see.”

There was more screaming as Balack ran his chromed fingers across the raw wound. This time Imogen breathed heavily but did not leave.

“You should have that looked after. Looks ugly. You still have one more, though—still one good side. Maybe I’ll let you keep it. Just cut up one side.”

There was no reply, only heavy breathing.

“Why so glum, Cal? This is what you wanted, right? The defiance, the knife. Despite the futility of it, you hope to appease your Dragon god, yes? Between you and me: I don’t think he cares about you. Not one bit. Gods rarely do in my experience.”

There was a long line of cruses, most of it in High Dominion, directed at everybody in general and Balack in particular. The old policeman didn’t seem to notice.

“What about a little smile for old Balack? Put a little effort into it. Or I can cut you a new smile...from the corner of your mouth, all the way up...”

“By Freya, Balack,” Kwame shouted. “Give the knife a rest. You’re worse than my old crew. At least give her a chance to explain.”

Cal didn’t say anything in reply.

“I’ll fill in for you, Kwame. I’ve already figured out most of it. But first, Imogen, can you power up the desk workstation?”

“Yes,” Imogen replied, voice hoarse.

The sound of metal hands patting down a woman in librarian’s robes.

“Use this override. It will bring up a feed of the Maiden’s chamber.”

“That’s impossible,” Kwame replied.

“Not with this little trinket. You remember the one I showed you in the crypt? It was never reliant on any dead drops. The dead drop was only an excuse to get rid of me after. It somehow transmits through all the security wards. Don’t know how, but it does. Cal wouldn’t be much of a spy if she couldn’t see anything, would she?”

“He’s right. It’s a neutrino transceiver. Only a barrier field can block it, and for obvious reasons, we don’t have any of those on the inside of the Pentacle,” Cal’s voice, pained. “I’ve been watching you all along.”

“And you used emergency hardlines to pass the info through the exterior shielding,” Balack interrupted. “Thought as much. Pretty clever. Keep talking.”

“You’re probably right about the ‘dead drop’ thing. Nobody said anything about it, but it makes sense. They knew you’d be locked in for the duration of Marcus’s stay. So when the time was up, get rid of the device—and you.”

“I appreciate the honesty. Go on.”

“Can I ask a question,” Cal said.

“You get one. A question for an ear. Sounds fair.”

“How did you get out? Of the crypt, I mean?”

“Never underestimate the power of boredom, woman. Lock two guys into a chamber of days or weeks on end, and they’ll get bored. And bored people sometimes become very imaginative. How many ‘escape-proof’ prisons have there been throughout history? And how many turned out to be only ‘almost escape-proof’? There is always a way around static security. Always. And your little device, it was only watching Marcus and the Maiden, not the watchers in the crypt.”

Something clicked inside Marcus’s mind. The lockout had lifted. He tried reaching out telepathically, but it brought only pain and nausea. Not fully recovered. I don’t have time for this.

“Why don’t you tell us about the two factions? Marcus’s and yours? Why are you fighting over the Maiden?”

Marcus opened his eyes. The ceiling lights burned, and his head swam, but he used every mental technique at his disposal and got himself under control. “There is no need to ask her. I will tell you. As soon as you’re sworn in. What I have to say is for the Order’s ears only.”

“You’re awake!” Kwame shouted. There was a great deal of relief in his voice.

“I am,” Marcus confirmed. He managed to turn his head around to look at the Draconic freshman. Kwame was armed with a massive antique handgun, the kind that used brass cartridges, and a revolving magazine. The security man looked like a million livres. The stupid golden armor cloak was gone. In its place, a black-and-emerald uniform. It was torn, dusty, and covered with blood. Marcus wasn’t sure whose blood it was. “Sorry about passing out. What did I miss?”

Kwame abandoned his post by the door to move over to the couch Marcus was resting on. “Not much. You did the fire-demon-snake-thing. It swam out of the hopper to get the Reapers. Then you fainted. I had no clue what to do next, so I did what I would have when I was in the Army: I attacked. Only all the apartments looked the same. But I saw someone with a big gun on one of the terraces. Figured I had hit the jackpot. Sorta used the hopper as a battering ram to nail the evil dragonspawn.”

Marcus’s brows came together. “Don’t call them that. They are misguided fools, but they are not evil. Not that kind of evil anyway.”

“She shot me a couple of times, but the armored cloak—and the windscreen—kept me alive. The last one had me cold, but Imogen used her superpowers to break out of the restraints. Then she shot the bastard in the back of the head with this.” Kwame held up the gun. The steel glinted blue. Imogen held up her bandaged hands and wrists.

Marcus swung his legs over the edge and planted them firmly on the floor. Kwame made to help him, but he waved him away. “I’m all right,” he lied. Do not show weakness. Give them the brave face.

“That was incredibly foolhardy—and brave. The Dragon surely favored you. Those were Reapers, trained killers of the highest caliber. For you to have killed two and lived...it almost defies belief. But, here you are, victorious.”

“Marcus,” Cal’s voice cut in. “You have to tell them to unhand me. I’m of the Order. They are not.”

Marcus looked at her from across the room. If he tried to get up, he’d fall. Better have this talk sitting down. “I heard everything, Cal. And I’m inclined to believe Chief Balack here is right. You let the reapers into the Pentacle. Which means you’re a double agent. And responsible for all this. Your ear included.”

“This is preposterous,” Cal shouted. “We operate with the blessings of the Assembly. That fucking bitch Xerza...”

Marcus nodded to Balack.

The metal fist hit the librarian’s good side. Cal’s head snapped back, hitting the headrest, then fell forward. Blood and spittle and broken teeth spilled from ruined lips. Steel fingers grabbed the mass of bloodstained blonde hair. The first was raised, poised for a second blow.

“Wait,” Marcus’s voice cut through the soft sobs and gurgles coming from the injured librarian.

Balack didn’t strike again, but the hand remained raised.

“You fundamentally misunderstand the situation, Cal. I deliberately avoided a confrontation yesterday. I have only acted in self-defense. You, however, raised your hand against the Dragon’s servants. That’s an automatic death sentence. For you, for your compatriots. The only reason you’re still alive is that you may still be of some use. So no more defiance, no more tricks. Nod if you understand.”

She nodded, as much as Balack’s iron-fisted grip allowed, but there was still defiance in her eyes.

“But first things first. Balack. Imogen. Are you willing to serve the Dragon, as Kwame does? Are you willing to swear the oath? Willing to serve in this life and all lives to come, until Ragnarök?”

“Sure,” Balack replied. “If it means I get to beat up bad guys like her, I’m all in.”

“How noble of you. And you?” Marcus said, looking at Imogen. “I sense a certain reluctance?”

“I’m not exactly a believer...the Gods of the Pantheon, sure, but your Dragon...”

Marcus shook his head. “I do not expect you to understand the Dragon. Few do. A handful of Keepers, a few others perhaps. I don’t fully understand myself, so it’s not a requirement. But you have to realize what you’re offering up. Or you might end up like her,” Marcus said and looked at Cal’s bloody form. “Whether or not you believe in the Dragon, the Order will expect you to adhere to our rules. And that includes never quitting. Not in this life—and if you believe in such things—in all your lives to come. That’s no small thing to give away. Especially when the main motivation is avoiding retribution from the very organization you’re asked to join.”

“Will they really kill us? For defending ourselves? They came after us, not the other way around,” Imogen said.

“They will.” Marcus didn’t elaborate. There was no need to. He could see Imogen accepting the inevitable. “I wish things had turned out differently, but here we are. Do you know the Creed?”

Both Balack and Imogen nodded.

“Then reply when challenged. Kwame? They are your friends. I would be honored if you would join me in calling out the challenges?”

A big, white smile lit up Kwame’s dusty and blood-smeared face. “Sure thing, boss. But what about her?” he said and waved the Blood Eagle noncommittally in her direction.

“As soon as you’re all sworn in, she’ll help us get the Maiden out.”

“If she doesn’t?” Kwame asked.

Marcus forced himself to smile. “Then one of you gets to blow her brains out. Let the Dragon sort out his own.”

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