Dark Omega

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Chapter 2 GATEKEEPER

“A Dark Omega,” the Officer of the Watch said to his colleague and brushed away an imaginary speck of dust from his black-and-emerald uniform’s lapel, “you don’t see that one often.”

“You don’t,” the man sitting next to him in the dimly lit security crypt replied. “That’s only the third time this year.”

“There was a rush of Dark Omegas back in the day, you know,” the senior officer said, running a skeletal metal hand through the greying stubble that passed for his hair.

“And what day would that be?” replied the junior Cerberus, his multi-faceted eyes glittering in the light from the banks of control monitors lining the walls of the room. “A fine summer’s day, back in hallowed antiquity perhaps?”

“You obnoxious whelp!” shouted the older man, but there was no bite to his voice. This was an old game of theirs, the young pup baiting the old dawg, just to pass the endless hours spent inside the sealed monitoring center. “Back when I apprenticed to Amerath. Back when I was fucking your mother.”

“My mother? Cerberus Superior Astar Balack; you’re much too old to have fucked my mother. More likely, you were giving it to my grandmother—or her mother.”

Chief Security Officer Balack gave a short, meaty laugh that reminded his colleague very much of the sad braying of a dying bull.

“You’re as dumb as a brick, Cerberus Chike Kwame, but at least you’ve got a witty tongue. Now shut up and attend your workstation.”

“Your will, my master,” replied Security Officer Kwame, turning his independently focusing cyber-eyes to look upon the rows of computer displays before him.

Ten seconds of silence passed. Then, apparently satisfied with what he saw, the younger officer picked up again. “This Marcus Aurelian: who is he? I bet his name is made up. Who calls their kid Marcus the Golden?”

“Another mystery, come to join the buried secrets of the Second Pentacle. As for his name, parents call their offspring the strangest things. Just look at your own name: there is nothing god-like about you, Chike.” Balack kept his attention fixed on his own menagerie of readouts, willing the younger man to be silent. Usually, the older man would have loved to keep the banter going. But not today. He had too much on his mind.

“He could be a Lord Marshal perhaps,” Kwame continued, unfazed, “with great armies and mighty fleets at his command. One of the new breed of Federation officers, selected before birth and put through the most exacting training and testing ever devised.”

Balack suppressed a sigh. If he didn’t reply, Kwame’s monologue would grow to epic proportions. “And what would a Federation warlord be doing here, deep inside Coalition territory?”

“The Pentacle is neutral ground,” Kwame replied, clearly having thought up an answer beforehand, “if you have the credits and the connections, all are welcome.”

“True that. He looks tough enough but doesn’t strike me as the military type. More likely, he’s a Count-Planetar or well-placed Triumvirate Tribune,” the older man replied, meaning to lay the matter to rest.

“I suppose, he could be a Conclave Cardinal—or a High Technomancer. Such august personages would have the power needed to wield the Dark Omega.”

“That is true,” replied Balack, nodding, “but he doesn’t look like a priest. And he’s definitely not a technomancer. Those skull implants barely qualify him to speak to the umbrae ex machina—the ghosts in the machine.”

Kwame shrugged. “How about he is a Guild-Commercia Mercator, owner of a thousand merchantmen, wealthy beyond imagining? Or a Starwalker Patronus: immeasurably powerful, obeying no laws but his own.” The last sentence came out sounding like a challenge.

Balack held up his hand as if to ward off further verbal assaults. “Possible. Likely even. But nevertheless, you are mistaken.”

“Very well then,” said Kwame, sounding annoyed for real, “who else could be powerful enough to be entrusted with the ultimate clearance, the Dark Omega, the one that trumps all lesser security measures?”

Cerberus Superior Astar Balack appeared to ponder the question while he entered a series of commands into a receptor plate, using the digi-styluses worked into his cybernetic hands. Only when satisfied with the results, did he turn to face the younger security officer.

“You should pay closer attention, Kwame. Did you not see his signet ring? The dragon rampant? And look at the psy-readings,” Balack gestured at one of the displays, “he’s not doing anything right now, but make no mistake, he’s a legate all right.”

“I don’t…”

“This Marcus the Golden is a legate of the Ordo Draconis—the Order of the Dragon—the most sinister organization in Dominion space. And not only that, he’s almost certainly a Quaestor. That would explain the Dark Omega, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose…”

“If I’m not mistaken, he’s also a scion, nobly born, heir to the power of one of the gods of the Old Era. Now shut up and attend your duties, young man.”

The answer left Officer Kwame momentarily speechless and dumbfounded, his insectile eyes flickering back and forth, seemingly without rhyme or reason. He sank back into his padded chair, oblivious to the smirk spreading across Balack’s furrowed face.

The silence lasted all of thirty seconds.

“Balack?”

The senior officer didn’t reply. Maybe this once, if he kept his mouth shut, Kwame would shut up too. And then they would pass the rest of their shift in perfect silence.

“This Dragon Order,” Kwame continued, “I’ve heard about it, of course, but I’ve never actually seen a Draconic Knight.” A brief pause followed. “I was expecting someone…bigger. Bigger and armored. This Marcus doesn’t seem like anything special.”

“Armored?” Balack struggled to keep his voice calm. “Don’t be daft. This is the Pentacle. You can’t drag exo-suits in here, it’s not allowed. And certainly no weapons. Down here on the Ninth, you’re barely allowed to bring the clothes on your back. You know this, Kwame.”

“Sure. But you have to admit he doesn’t look like a stone-cold killer that could take out a battalion of general infantry with his bare hands.”

Balack folded his metal hands and let them rest on his slightly plump belly. He’d been meaning to work out more, but there never seemed to be time. Or maybe there was time, but he lacked the motivation. Imogen didn’t seem to mind too much, but she’d probably appreciate any effort he made to get into shape. Fortunately, he’d retire soon. Then there would be a lot of time for regular exercise. If only…

“Balack, you with me?” Kwame said, bringing Balack back to the lands of the living.

“Yes,” Balack lied, not wanting to admit he’d been woolgathering. “I just don’t know where to begin.”

“How about: at the beginning?”

“Very funny, boy, very funny. For starters, Marcus isn’t a Knight. He’s a Quaestor. A knight is a warrior through and through. A quaestor asks questions.”

“You mean he’s an interrogator?”

“That too. A quaestor is also a detective, a covert operative, a spy, an assassin. Whatever he needs to be to get the job done.” Balack unfolded his hands, forced himself to relax. “I’m surprised you don’t know these things. What kind of education did you get, son?”

“None at all. Not everyone from Saïda went to university. Some of us had to work for a living.”

“If you call a life of vice and violence work, sure.” Kwame had a history of crime before enlisting in the Coalition Army. One of the benefits of signing up, rather than waiting to be drafted, was that you received an official pardon for all crimes you confessed to. The downside was you were almost guaranteed to see action.

Kwame ignored the jibe. “It’s not like the professors taught classes in Dragon Order anyway. I’ve heard about the Ordo Draconis, but I’ve never seen one of them before today.”

“That’s common enough. There aren’t that many dragonsworn, not anymore, and the Via Lactea—the Milky Way—is a big place.”

“How do you know so much about them, Balack? Unless you’re just making this up?”

“Ha!” Balack harrumphed. “I’m not making it up. I’m an old man, Kwame, I’ve been around. I was a street cop, twenty years chasing scum like you. Then I was a freelance investigator for a while before I ended up down here. Met a bunch of weird people and had to learn a lot of strange shit.”

“Let’s pretend you know what you’re talking about.”

“Thank you, Kwame. So basically, the Order isn’t one organization, but two. One part you know: the Knights. Their job is to blow up shit. Dangerous stuff. Like hostile aliens.”

“Like the Kull?” Kwame said, referring to one of mankind’s oldest and most persistent enemies.

“Like the Kull,” Balack confirmed. “Or tartars.”

“Demons, you mean?”

“No, I mean tartars. Tartaruchi aren’t daimons—at least try to pronounce it properly. Daimons only exist in the Abyss and your imagination, Kwame. Tartars are people who have been corrupted by the Shadow.”

“I don’t see the difference.”

Balack didn’t blame him. It was mostly an academic distinction anyway. And completely irrelevant, since neither of them would ever have to face neither daimon nor tartar.

“Doesn’t matter. The other part of the Dragon Order is the covert branch. While the Knights protect us from external threats, the Quaestors keep an eye on the shadows. Who knows what horrors they find and what they do about it. They keep a low profile and leave the glory to the Draconic Knights.”

“Sounds like a boring job. I’d rather be a Knight.” The younger officer leaned back in his chair, insectile eyes completely motionless for once.

“Well, my young apprentice, I hate to break it to you, but you already have a job.”

“I know,” Kwame replied after a while. “I know,” he repeated and fell silent.

Balack figured his companion’s imagination had taken him far away, turned him into a Draconic Knight, who right now was striding across distant battlefields beneath strange suns, fighting the enemies of humankind. As long as Kwame shut up for the next five minutes, Balack wasn’t complaining. He needed to think, not talk.

------

The instant the connection was made, the Maiden and the interrogation chamber faded to black. Silent darkness surrounded Marcus, a timeless void of total sensory deprivation. In this ethereal realm of the mind, not a single breath was drawn, no heartbeat was felt. How long the nothingness lasted was impossible to say. A moment. An hour. Eternity. Long enough for confusion to seep into the mind. Long enough for a tingle of panic to form. Long enough for the subconscious to conjure forth ghosts to populate the unknown.

Legates were not by nature, immune to fear. Despite the preternatural powers at their disposal, they were still human. And humans were ruled by the same fight-or-flight response that had served the species so well for millennia. In the dark void, there was nothing to fight and nowhere to flee; only pure panic remained.

The Collegium of Magisters, however, trained its students to recognize the onset of anxiety—and taught them a variety of techniques to deal with it. The primary mode blocked any fear response whatsoever, which was useful, but could also put the legate at a disadvantage. If faced with a dangerous situation, being neither ready to fight or flee could get you killed. The higher forms combined the best of both worlds, heightening the legate’s senses and reflexes, without depriving him of conscious control of his actions. As a legate in the employ of the Dragon Order, Marcus had taken it one step further, drilled endlessly until every part of his physical, mental, and psychic being was under his control. I control my nature; my nature does not control me.

Marcus was about to extend his senses psychically when a cone of light suddenly speared through the darkness, forging a ring of welcoming warmth within the dark void. Inside the light sat a large, paneled desk, made of finely carved and polished wood. The desk held a gleaming silver tray, upon which sat a pair of exquisite crystal glasses, trimmed with gold leaf, and a large decanter filled with something the color of liquid bronze.

A lone figure sat upon a high-backed chair: Middle-aged male, average height and build, physically fit, combat-capable. Crimson cloak, expertly tailored from fine cloth, embroidered with both Draconic icons and the holy symbols of the sixteen cardinal gods of the Pantheon. Including those of the least beloved quartet of deities, the Gods of Khaos: Hecate, the Black Witch; Loki, the Trickster; Isis, Betrayer of Kings; and Set, Warden of the Abyss—and sworn enemy to the rest of the Pantheon. A hood cast the man’s face in shadows, but Marcus was able to make out a neatly trimmed blond beard, shot with grey, and icy blue eyes that did not flinch when they met his.

Marcus willed his eyes to see into the emotional part of the spectrum. The stranger’s aura was pale and deathly still, except for the occasional flicker of colorless flame. Marcus had seen such qualities in people before, but rarely with such muted intensity. Coldly calculating. Singularly focused. Utterly unrelenting. Is this Samael, revealing himself at last? It most certainly isn’t the Maiden.

The robed man beckoned with his left hand, signaling for Marcus to take the seat opposite of him. A black glove covered his fingers, part of the armored bodysuit he wore underneath the crimson cloak. His right hand remained beneath the desk, hidden from view. Marcus was sure it held a weapon of some kind. What use are weapons in the realm of the psyche? What message is he trying to send me? A warning? A symbol of wariness? Readiness to defend the archives?

Marcus found himself sitting in the chair. He couldn’t recall having moved. In fact, he had decided to remain standing—it did not become a servant of the Dragon to sit on command. But something or someone had made the transition for him, against his will. I must be wary. All is not as it seems.

The man on the other side of the desk remained seated, motionless, and silent. Marcus was reminded of the Maiden: his was the mouth she should have had, a stern, narrow line, promising to remain forever shut, but hinting at secrets that might yet be shared. The moment of silence became painfully drawn-out. The need to fill the void with words became overwhelming. Marcus tried to speak but found he no longer had a mouth. Panic would have buried its claws deep in any ordinary man, but Marcus brushed it brusquely aside before it could set roots in his psyche. There is no need for mouths amongst telepaths.

Words pooled behind the stranger’s eyes, gathering until they become too many for him to hold. The words gushed forth, a torrent of information, bridging the gap between the two men, boring into Marcus’s mind.

“My name is Haides,” the man said without moving his lips, his voice loud and clear inside Marcus’s head. “Haides Guillaume. No direct relation to the Royal House of Guillaume, supreme overlords of the Coalition of Democratic Star Republics.”

The man’s voice was soft and even, with only the barest hint of emotional content. A deceptively mellow tenor, overlaying a core of iron self-control and calculated viciousness.

“Guillaume is just one of those surnames that are popular in every sector of the Coalition. No doubt having to do with the fame of the beloved Archon Guillaume—one of the great men that plunged the Dominion into the civil war that nearly destroyed humankind.” He chuckled a bit at his own joke.

Haides’s lips were moving in sync with his words now, but Marcus knew it was only his own mind visualizing. Even a telepathic mind had trouble breaking away from its primitive biological roots.

“I’ve carried a lot of names over the years. But Haides Guillaume is as close to my true name as you can get—or perhaps I should say as close as I’ll allow you to get.” He gave Marcus an appraising look.

So this is how the chimera handles access control. Marcus had envisioned some form of protection, some sort of encryption, something to keep the unworthy away from the Maiden’s archives. This Haides figure was that protection, a kind of interactive gatekeeper. If he is a gatekeeper, it follows that he has the power to turn me away—or reveal that which I seek.

“I’m not sure you’d enjoy meeting the real Haides,” the man in the crimson cloak continued. “He wasn’t always a pleasant man. So perhaps you should be grateful you’re only talking to this copy.”

Is he joking? It was hard to tell when voice and body language gave away so little. Marcus compensated by increasing his empathic sensitivity. Another Collegium trick, perfected under Lady Xerza’s tutelage. Small gestures would become evident, minute shifts in emotional state easily detectable. I’ll read you like a book.

“I had expected some form of access control, but not this.”

“What did you expect then? Samael, greeting you warmly?”

“So you are not Samael, but his servant, put here to guard the archives, is that correct?”

“Yes. And no. I am indeed the gatekeeper. But my task is not merely to protect the archives, but also to guide the worthy.”

Haides is hardly your real name. No sane parent would name their child after Hades, Lord of the Dead. You’re the Assassin, the unseen death. You’re the fourth card from today’s tarot spread, the challenge I must overcome to complete my quest. To move forward, I must first defeat you. The question is: how?

“An assassin, am I? But you’re right. I was not so named by my parents. My birth name I buried long ago. But let us not get too far ahead of things, shall we? It will do our relationship no good.” Haides gave Marcus a look of disapproval.

Marcus realized his surface thoughts must be bleeding through, mingling with the telepathic conversation. Xerza would be crestfallen. Her best legate, unable to control his own thoughts. I must do better.

“Have patience. Let me carry out my task: to make sure you are worthy to access the archives. We’ll get to Samael, and his dark and dangerous secrets, eventually. When the stars are right, in the fullness of time, all will be revealed, and so forth.”

“My apologies for my lack of focus. It shall not happen again,” Marcus replied, even as he cleared away any stray thoughts. A more self-important man might have felt foolish, speaking thus to a recording of a dead Quaestor’s underling. To Marcus, it was nothing. He could always select a more confrontational line later on.

Haides seemed to approve of his feigned apology. “This is no simple psychic recording. It is a very advanced psychic recording. If you believe in absolutes, it is actually a one-of-a-kind recording. If you do not believe in absolutes, let’s just settle for it being an ‘extraordinary’ recording.”

Marcus had seen enough strangeness and wonder not to be fazed by a recorder, no matter how complex. I’ve stood before the Great Pyramid of Gaea, the heart of the fallen Dominion; gazed upon the slopes of Olympus, home of the Gods; stalked the ruins of the Revenants, listening to the echoes of their song; crossed blades with Kull and sent tartars screaming back to the Abyss; and seen the Seven Wonders of the Technomancers. Impressed, yes. Dumbfounded, no.

Haides pulled down his hood, revealing a strikingly handsome face. The gatekeeper’s age was hard to pin down. Marcus had first guessed middle-aged, but now his counterpart seemed younger. Haides wore his ash-blonde hair short, in the fashion of warriors across the millennia. The neatly groomed beard was reminiscent of the style favored by wise scholars and senior prefects. His eyes were less cold when out of the shadows, their icy blue color warmed by the light. He smiled, but a pitiless predator lurked behind that sign of friendship and human commonality.

“The recording has a certain interactive potential. You can affect how the tale is told—to an extent—by putting forth specific queries, just as I may pick up on your cues and adjust my narration accordingly. Once you get the hang of it, you should try it out. But not yet. You are not ready. You would just get lost in the myriad fragments of lore contained herein.”

When Marcus did not object, Haides continued. “Let us proceed with my introduction of myself. It will give me a chance to get to know you—and you me. Think of it as an interview. Of the kind you’re put through to get a security clearance. Agreed?” He looked intently at Marcus.

“Agreed,” Marcus replied, voice steady and gaze locked with Haides’s. I’ll play along—for now.

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