Dark Omega

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Chapter 57 ONLY THE BEGINNING

Marcus remained standing. If he sat down, he was likely to fall asleep, and he couldn’t afford that. Marcus did, however, let himself lean against the wall. If he didn’t, he might fall over when the inevitable spells of dizziness hit.

Balack, Imogen, and Kwame sat together around a coffee table, the Maiden hovering nearby. Their host, Amaya, had disappeared into an adjoining room, carrying some bed linen.

The apartment wasn’t nearly as large as the Balack-Imogen place, but still bigger than Marcus had expected. There was no balcony, but the floor-to-ceiling holo-display could provide any view—currently, it was set to show Nuovo Venezia’s landscapes from before the devastation. No mere librarian could afford a two-bedroom on the middle level of the three-tiered city. Amaya had inherited money from her great grandmother and invested in real estate.

Marcus had called Amaya after leaving the Pentacle—knowing that the mind-worm had matured sufficiently to ensure her cooperation—and the woman had promptly arrived to pick them up from the hotel balcony. All traces of her arrival and their departure had been wiped from the hotel’s systems and the traffic control mainframe. Another hotel guest might have seen them leave, but without an electronic trace to follow into the overcrowded city, an eyewitness account was close to useless.

Staying at Amaya’s place wasn’t ideal. There was a tenuous link between her and Kwame. They both worked at the Pentacle—but so did thousands more—and they had been intimate. The affair had been passionate but brief and low-key. It was likely somebody knew they had been lovers. A dedicated opponent would be able to find the link, then learn Amaya had her own apartment and an aircar. Statistically, however, it would take quite some time and require the cooperation of both the Pentacle staff and the local police. That feat would only be possible if the Cabal still had agents in place. Otherwise, no one would ever learn what had happened.

The prearranged safehouses Marcus could not trust at all. The security surrounding his trip to Nuovo Venezia was severely compromised. Marcus had to assume the opposition knew everything he knew—and more. Prefect Eccard could be a double agent. Or one of the astral legates. Even Xerza’s motivations were, to some extent, suspect.

Hotels and other public accommodations were also out of the question. It would be too easy for a tracking algorithm to find them—even the local police could manage that. Splitting up might help, but a good AI would be able to correlate disparate bookings, and dividing an already small team would weaken it further. The final alternative was braving the streets and sublevels of the floating city. That option presented a whole other set of challenges—and a large element of chance. Marcus didn’t like leaving things to chance.

Amaya’s place was all things considered, their best option. They could stay low there for a few days while they arranged for off-world transportation. Haides had offered to show the way to his brother’s old ship, conveniently cached on Nuovo Venezia. Marcus wasn’t too keen on taking him up on the offer. For one, he didn’t fully trust the Gatekeeper, nor did he want to rely too much on his aid. Even if Marcus took the offer, and the ship was still there, they had no way to know if it was still operational after so many years. And who would crew it?

The logical course of action was to acquire transportation through normal channels: booking passage on commercial transports or chartering a smaller vessel. Unfortunately, that was also where the enemy was most likely to require them. Marcus had to assume they were still being hunted. He couldn’t risk exposing the Maiden now. It was necessary to arrange transportation covertly.

After arriving at the apartment—in the middle of the night—Marcus had taken time to talk with his companions, underlining the importance of their shared mission. The Maiden must be kept out of enemy hands, he had stressed. All their lives meant nothing if the Cabal got to her—the Shadow would win and the universe be destroyed.

As a precaution, Marcus would continue interfacing with the Maiden and mine her archives. He didn’t say it out loud, but everyone—the Maiden included—seemed to understand the need to have a backup of the secrets she carried.

The team building session was partially for Amaya’s benefit. She needed to be brought up to speed and sworn in. Marcus hadn’t planned to make her a dragonsworn—if she was taken and interrogated, the mind worm would absolve her of blame—but Kwame had insisted it was ‘the right thing to do.’ Marcus had relented, not because he felt morally obliged—service to the Dragon didn’t work that way—but because it served his needs.

There was another ulterior motive behind his speech. While he talked, Marcus split his mind. While one part of him was explaining the importance of their mission, the other went through his acolytes’ heads, one after the other, erasing doubt, strengthening resolve, and fortifying their loyalty to the Dragon. The swearing of the Draconic Creed had turned out to be the perfect culmination to the session. Even Marcus had felt strangely moved as he called forth the dragonmark and placed it over Amamya’s heart.

He also made incisions and numbed certain areas of their minds, ensuring the four recruits had at least some modicum of defense against telepathic interference. It wasn’t a perfect solution by any means, but it would have to do. If any survived the mission, there would be time to properly indoctrinate and condition them.

So far, so good. But now Marcus was nearing the limit of his endurance. The last three days had turned out very differently from what he’d anticipated, pushing him to limit—and beyond—time after time. Marcus had held up well enough, but he’d lost control over the fire spirit, which was a direct result of accumulated fatigue. If anything, he was in worse shape now than he had been then. Calling upon Khaos to replenish his strength, as Marcus had done in the Pentacle, was not an option. Too risky to repeat the feat so soon and in his current state. He needed to rest and sleep, regain his strength. But there was no time for rest. Too many things needed doing, and only Marcus had the skills necessary to see them through.

The Maiden—no longer looking like Cal, but wearing the librarian’s robes still—looked at Marcus from across the room, but said nothing.

Kwame did speak up, however. “Boss. You really should get some rest. You look like you could fall over at any moment.”

“That bad?”

“He is right,” Amaya added upon returning to the living room. “You can have the guest room. I’ve made the bed. That way, you won’t be disturbed.”

“I’m not that tired,” Marcus lied. “Besides, I’ve got lots to do. We cannot stay here long. Transportation must be arranged as soon as possible, without alerting potential enemies.”

“We can find a way off this planet,” Balack interjected. “I’ll hit the streets, talk to some of my contacts. If I go immediately, I’ll be well ahead of our enemies. Meanwhile, Imogen can jack in and trawl the network. Kwame will stand guard. The Maiden can do whatever maidens do. Amaya will have to go to work in the morning, pretend nothing out of the ordinary is going on.”

“You take the opportunity to rest, Boss. We can’t have you passing out when we really need you,” Kwame finished.

“I see. Not yet a day, and my minions are in full revolt.”

The others—except the Maiden—laughed. She had been unusually quiet after leaving the Pentacle. Marcus wasn’t exactly worried, but he did wonder why her behavior had changed. Maybe it was her humanity kicking in. Years locked up and in stasis, and now she had a shot at freedom—but with the threat of recapture hanging over her head.

“Before I retire: Amaya, you don’t have a couple of beers, do you?”

“Sure. Do you want some?”

“Yes, please. Two bottles, unopened.”

“Your wish, my master,” she joked and slipped into the kitchen. Even the Maiden smiled at that.

After getting the bottles, Marcus bade the group good night and retired to the guest room. Asking Lizze to join him was out of the question. Not that he didn’t want to. But duty—and exhaustion—had to take the front seat.

The bedroom held a double bed, a desk, and a wardrobe—there wasn’t space for anything more. Marcus put the bottles on the desk, turned on the table lamp, and sat down. He fanned his inner flame, and the tarot case opened. The cards slid into his hand, cold and heavy.

He put seven cards on the table, face down, in the familiar inverted ‘V.’ Pain and fire joined, becoming as one. Marcus turned over the first card. The Scion—the eight major arcanum—reversed. Instead of a heroic demi-god, the card displayed a dark angel with tattered bat-wings. The past, filled with lies and obfuscation. Next came Love—another major. The Maiden, in her Lizzie-form, was on the card. Marcus could almost taste her sweet lips on his. Then she became Cal, before turning into a series of women unknown to Marcus. I don’t understand. Surely she doesn’t love me. It’s her love for Samael that guides her actions. Osiris, Knight of Chthonia, was the third. His skin was black, like a Kull’s, and he carried a sword and magisterial scepter rather than his usual trappings. Resurrection. Eternal life. How fitting.

The eight of Khaos—the Tartaruchi, the Shadow-spawn—followed at the apex of the spread. The Reapers were only the beginning. Worse is yet to come, but at least we’ve been forewarned. The fifth card was not new, but the Five of Khaos—the Assassin. Haides was on the card, wearing his usual garb, but carrying one of the Cerberi halberds. His right hand was red to the elbow, and the dead were heaped at his feet. I guess you’ve still got a part to play, murderer.

The second to last card took Marcus’s breath away. Deus Draco, the Celestial Dragon, his God and Master. The Dragon almost never appeared in Marcus’s spreads, and if he did, it was in flight, briefly glimpsed, or in the distance. Today he was perched in his full divine glory atop a structure that could only be one of the floating cities of Nuovo Venezia. Marcus was filled with the same sense of awe and wonder he had briefly felt when reciting the Creed with Amaya, only this time it was a thousand times stronger. The Dragon comes. His enemies tremble and despair. I am humbled by Your presence, Lord.

With trembling fingers, Marcus flipped the last one over. The Nine of Thalassa, the Champion. The image was of Marcus, clad for battle, his right hand red to the elbow, dead enemies heaped at his feet—and the Maiden covering his back.

All these years, and I’ve never grasped the Will of the Dragon. I’ve only ever tried to glimpse the future—I never listened. But finally, in our hour of need, I understand: the Dragon promises victory over the Shadow, and I will be the one to deliver it. But first, I must follow Haides to the bottom, into the Maiden’s Ninth Circle. Only there will I find the answers—and weapons—that I need.

Marcus got to his feet, grabbed one of the bottles, and moved over to the bed. He rearranged the pillows, pulled off his boots, and slumped down. He twisted the cap and waited five seconds for the contents of the bottle to cool down, then had a sip.

“Hello, Haides,” Marcus said to the man sitting in the chair he’d just vacated. In the light of the table lamp, he could see his guest was wearing a crimson cloak over black armor. “Would you like a beer? I left one for you.”

“Beer?” Haides replied and grabbed the bottle. “I treat you to the finest beverages, and this is what I get in return?” He twisted the cap and had a large swallow, not bothering to wait until the beer had chilled. “Lukewarm beer,” the gatekeeper shook his head, “you’re even more twisted than I thought, Marcus.”

Both men chuckled at the joke.

“Any chance of letting me go directly to the final circle? To learn the things kept locked away by the Dark Omega?” Marcus said. “I have the Dragon’s blessing in this,” he added.

Haides shook his head, more in response to the beer than anything else. “No. That blessing means we can continue. But it’s only the beginning. You still have to prove yourself worthy, willing to ignore the warning signs, and to pay the price.”

“There is a price?”

“Nothing is free, Marcus. Least of all the Dragon’s blessings.” Haides smiled a broad, warm smile that left Marcus chilled to the core.

ABOUT DARK OMEGA

Welcome to the magical future!

Dark Omega is science-fantasy: a fantasy story in a futuristic setting, drawing upon tropes and elements from both genres. More specifically, it tries to blend the archaic and the very high-tech. Think the Renaissance meets the hyper-advanced future. Then toss this mix into a setting reminiscent of the many dynastic wars (Hundred Tears’ War, Wars of the Roses, Thirty Years’ War, to name a few) that tore apart Europe throughout our history.

The world of Dark Omega was inspired by many things, but I’ll keep it brief: Dune, by Frank Herbert, for that futuristic-yet-medieval atmosphere. Heinlein’s works, especially Starship Troopers. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Asimov’s Foundation saga. I’d also like to mention the 2000AD magazine—stuff like Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Durham Red, Rogue Trooper, and other series had a colossal impact on my young, malleable mind. Works of fantasy include Michael Moorcroft’s work on Elric and H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, both of which have influenced the cosmology of the Twilight Millennium. I’d also like to mention the AD&D Birthright Campaign setting produced by TSR that brought the concept of divine heritage and right to rule to a whole new level. Plenty of elements have been inspired by real-world history, cultures, and religions. I narrowed it down to Norse, Greco-Roman, and Egyptian influences to keep things manageable, but the universe is infinite, so the rest is out there somewhere.

The roots of Dark Omega stretch back a decade and more, to a handful of sci-fi short stories I wrote. The common denominator was that they took place both in the mind and the physical universe—and that it wasn’t always possible to tell the two realms apart. Magic and science co-existed—and it was hard to tell the two apart when the results they produced were similar. What’s the difference between a computer-generated virtual reality and one made using magic?

The very first draft of the story that became Dark Omega was written prior to 2014. It was quite limited in scope (focusing heavily on the mental duel between Haides and Marcus) and set in another universe (the Dark Omega setting wasn’t ready until 2016). The bulk of Haides’s background and everything that happens to Marcus in the outside universe was added in later revisions.

The first draft also experimented heavily with PoVs, using 1st (the character that became Haides), 2nd (the ‘you’ character that evolved into Marcus), and 3rd person (other PoVs) to differentiate between characters, and also used a mix of past/present tense for similar purposes. It was a fascinating experiment and learning experience, but not really suitable for public consumption. The final draft of Dark Omega is very different: purely 3rd person past tense (which is what I personally—and the majority of readers—prefer).

It’s a complex story. On the surface, it follows Marcus as he tries to unlock the Maiden’s secrets. Some alternate PoVs are concurrent with Marcus’s adventures: Maxi and Xerza; Kaminsky and the Preacher; and Balack and Kwame, to mention the most important. Also, Marcus must not only contend with Haides in the psychic realm, but he must also follow him back in time to see events as they happened in the distant past. Mostly from Haides’s PoV, with a few others mixed in.

The story has two parts (there is a limit to how long a single book can be): Dark Omega and Parting the Veil. Dark Omega is a standalone work, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the same time, it’s part of a larger story, and if you liked this novel, you’ll probably want to read the sequel.

And those two volumes only represent the beginning of the adventures of Marcus, Haides, and the Maiden. The richness of the setting also lends itself well to exploring other characters, times, and places. Who knows what great stories are as yet untold?

Felix M. Bloom

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