Dark Omega

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Chapter 3 OF TWO MINDS

Haides rose, put his hitherto concealed gun upon the desk with a clank. Pulled the stopper from the decanter and poured golden liquid into the waiting crystal glasses. The rich fragrance of the liquor spread across the table. “Seeing as how we’ll be here for a while, I think drinks are in order. Talking—and listening—is thirsty work.”

Marcus turned his attention to the pistol—a man’s choice of weapons could reveal a lot about his personality. It was a massive piece, a B1B Coilgun, chambered for the standard 8-millimeter hypervelocity round. The boxy magazine in front of the trigger guard held twelve rounds—filled with an ultra-compact explosive compound, gravimetrically fused to detonate inside the target—and the energy needed for the grav-coils to fire them. The weapon had sufficient penetration to deal with exo-armor and enough stopping power to take down even cyber-augmented troopers.

Mass-produced by the Syndicate, it was a favorite sidearm with military types and security officers, right across Dominion space. Xerza carried one on those occasions she meant to shoot someone. Marcus wasn’t a coilgun man. He’d trained with them, but given a choice, he preferred pulsers. Accurate and effective, with far less chance of collateral damage.

Marcus’s eyes caught something: ‘There will be Blood’ was engraved into the dark gunmetal. Or to be precise, it said ‘Theyr wilth be Bloth,’ which wasn’t consistent with any of the Dominion dialects in use along the Milky Way’s southern edge. The spelling resembled the Common Dominion used in the Illyrian Concordat. Still, the use of the letter Thorn—‘Þeyr wilþ be Bloþ’—suggested something closer to coreward, perhaps one of the worlds located within the Magyar Marches.

“The inscription, it’s Solomoni,” Haides said.

“I’ve been to Solomon. They don’t use the Thorn.”

“Not anymore. This is Old Solomoni, from way back when the Mordechais reigned.”

The Mordechai dynasty—famous for the potency of their divine lineage, the skill of their legates, and their refusal to bow before the Collegium—had ruled Solomon from long before the founding of the Dominion. The current ruler of Solomon wasn’t a Mordechai by blood, however, but an adopted apprentice. It will take forever if I encourage him to talk about trivia. Marcus made a slight, dismissive gesture, urging Haides to let the matter drop and proceed with the interview.

Haides picked up one of the now-full glasses, stepped around the desk, and handed it to Marcus. This time his smile did contain a little warmth, but Marcus recognized the mummery behind it: Haides’s psychic aura remained colder than the void. I bet lies come easy to those lips. You’d slit my throat still smiling and think nothing of it afterward.

Haides wasn’t exactly short, but neither was he very tall. Marcus pegged him at around a hundred and eighty-four centimeters, give or take a few millimeters. Compared to the impoverished—and often malnourished—masses of the Successor Kingdoms, Haides was a veritable giant. When measured against the gentry, he came out rather average. Athletic, but not heavy, body screaming of lean muscles. Like a sword of folded steel, razor-sharp, with an unyielding edge, yet flexible enough to endure where more brittle blades would snap.

“Used to be one hundred eighty-five, but years of service have taken off a centimeter.”

This time Marcus’s super-charged empathic receptors picked out a faint humorous undertone in Haides’s voice, but the man’s eyes held no gaiety whatsoever. He’s hinting at far greater sacrifices than a few millimeters of height. But that’s nothing special. All who serve the Dragon are expected to sacrifice everything. Why is he telling me these things?

“It has a twin,” Haides said matter-of-factly, “called ‘There will be Death.’ This one,” he pointed at the pistol on the table, “I use for the marks I wish to take alive, but,” he patted something in a shoulder rig hidden underneath his cloak, “this one I use purely for killing.”

Haides walked back around the table and resumed his seat, picking up his own glass in the process. “I hope you enjoy the conniaco. Its like has not been tasted around these parts for a very long time.” He took a sip. A smile found its way onto his face, and for the first time, it seemed a genuine one. “Remarkable beverage, don’t you think?”

Marcus lifted the crystal glass. “To the Dragon everlasting!” he said in a loud and clear voice, a toast to the Celestial Dragon, leaving no doubt as to his allegiance. Marcus had never been a great connoisseur of alcohol, but this particular liquor burned most wonderfully on the way down. He gave Haides a curt nod. “Excellent indeed. At least there we can agree.”

Haides seemed pleased with Marcus’s comment. “I would probably have been a bit taller had I received the necessary nutrients throughout my adolescence. My parents were both quite tall, my brother reached a respectable height, and my sister…but in hindsight, I’m rather glad it didn’t work out that way. Going about unseen is so much easier when you’re average-looking, don’t you think?”

It came out sounding almost like a challenge. As if Haides dared Marcus to gainsay him. Is he testing me? Is that one of the gatekeeper’s functions? What happens if I don’t play along? Let’s find out.

Neither man said anything. After a few seconds, the silence became drawn out, awkward. Two more seconds ticked by. Marcus felt a faint psychic disturbance, almost like a shiver, pass through the connection between his mind and the gatekeeper. There. Something changed.

“If you gained access to the Maiden through legitimate channels, you carry the Dark Omega and the necessary permits,” Haides said, looking intently at Marcus, clearly waiting for a reply.

Marcus kept his face—and his mind—impassive.

There was a pause, shorter this time. “Very few people outside the Order will even have heard of this security protocol, let alone have the means to wield it,” Haides said, voice flat and lifeless.

The Dark Omega was indeed a security protocol—the highest clearance of all—but that was only part of it. The Omega was also the physical symbol of the ultimate authority of the Dragon Order, the Autarch, and the Tetrarchs. All were supposed to bow before it, from the highest to the lowest, man and machine both.

That Marcus carried an actual Dark Omega, an artifact from a more civilized time, given to him by Domina Xerza, meant he spoke and acted with the full authority of the Assembly. At least that was how it had used to be. In the current day and age, things were more complicated. Omegas were a dime a dozen and unlikely to command the respect they once did. Besides, Xerza had warned Marcus not to antagonize the Assembly members more than strictly necessary. His mission did not, after all, have their blessings.

When Marcus still would not reply, Haides feigned interest in the contents of his glass, studying the color of the conniaco as it swirled around and around inside the crystal.

Marcus could feel the gatekeeper trying to probe his mind. It was more than a shiver now, a constant pressure against the Draconic legate’s mental wards. You have to do better than this, Haides. I’m not so easily outdone.

“So that means you’re either a Quaestor—or a trusted servant of one,” Haides continued. He kept staring right at Marcus, but his eyes were distant as if focusing on something else entirely.

The gatekeeper was having a hard time adapting to the silence. Haides pushed and probed, but couldn’t get through Marcus’s mental defenses. Let’s see how far I can take this. Let’s see what you’ll do if I give you nothing.

Another drawn-out silence.

“Duty to the Dragon,” Haides suddenly said.

“Always and forever,” Marcus replied in reflex.

“Valour in life.”

“Surrender none.”

“Honor in death.”

“The Dragon eternal,” Marcus finished.

Haides had forced Marcus’s hand. No faithful servant of the Dragon would fail to reply to the Draconic Creed, the oath of allegiance that bound them to Draco Imperator—the Celestial Dragon—when challenged by another dragonsworn.

“See, that wasn’t so hard,” Haides said. He was grinning now.

You’re a clever one, Haides. I’ll give you that. But I can be tricksy too. Just wait and see.

“Where were we? Ah, yes, your background. You are of noble birth, Marcus, a scion of one of the divine lineages. There is no way to fake that haughty, overbearing mien you wear like a badge of honor.”

Haides wasn’t too far from the mark. Marcus’s family was indeed nobility. Viscount Lucius of Casiere, Marcus’s father, was the last in a long—and increasingly impoverished—line that could trace its roots back into the dim prehistory before the Dominion. But my demeanor is Draconic in nature, not something I’ve inherited from my ancestors.

“Who do you claim as your primogenitor, Marcus? The great Horus-who-is-Ra? The mighty Thor? Someone of lesser stature, perhaps? Wait…is it one of the dead ones? Could it be Balder? No. It’s Apollo, isn’t it? It would explain your psychic talents—the get of Apollo is often so gifted.”

Close. A bit too close. According to the old family legends, Marcus’s divine forefather was indeed Apollo, brother to Artemis the Protector, one of the great goddesses of the Pantheon. Apollo was no more, slain by the Shadow, but his legacy lived on in his scion lineages. Did he read it out of my psychic profile? Is he that sensitive?

“Let me guess: after a display of psychic potential in your early teens, you were handed over to the Conclave. Although required by law and custom both, it still left you feeling betrayed. Held in detention alongside other promising, but essentially harmless candidates. Not a pleasant experience, but as a cooperative latent, you were one of the fortunate ones.”

Pretty accurate. It was, however, a fate Marcus had shared with many other budding legates. Even the great Lady Xerza had been imprisoned in the bowels of a clearinghouse. That’s where Lord Tancred found her.

“You were tested and classified by the all-seeing censors. Good legate material, but much too old to be drafted into the Order—they only take children young enough to be properly indoctrinated. Unfortunate. You would never have the chance to stride into battle under the Dragon banner.”

It was apparent that Marcus wasn’t a fully augmented Draconic knight—all he had was the psych implant, a neural processor, and a subdermal bit-link. He’s grasping at straws.

“Your potential was high, well above the Kappa limit. I’ll wager Xi, possibly borderline Omicron. Valuable enough to be assigned to one of the Collegium’s training divisions—my guess is you were sent to the most prestigious of them all, the Pyramid of Thaumaturgy on Old Earth.”

The gatekeeper was getting closer, but you didn’t need to be a genius to guess that Marcus was a Collegium-trained legate. The good ones were—and all the best had trained on Earth. You’ll have to do even better to impress me.

“Physically fit, mentally stable, good aptitude for violence. Your psychic talents ran in a semi-uncommon direction. The near-universal telepathy and prescience, with a dash of pyrokinesis to spice things up. Rare and valuable enough to warrant special tuition. You were trained to be a warrior, a bodyguard, a spy—or an assassin,” Haides said, sounding very confident.

He’s only making educated—and lucky—guesses. He knows nothing, Marcus told himself, but truth be told, he wasn’t feeling so sure anymore.

“You were drafted by the Dragon Order immediately following your graduation. No doubt causing the Magisters of the Collegium much grief, as your services had already been promised to someone important, someone of rank.” Again that smile that wasn’t really a smile.

Too close for comfort. Marcus was grudgingly forced to accept that Haides’s assessment of his background was too accurate to be conjecture. How does he do it?

“But when the Dragon demands, who can deny him?” Haides asked rhetorically. “How does a promise to a Duke, a Cardinal, or a Lord Marshal, compare to the Right of Conscription? And the irrational dread of what might happen should you displease the Ordo Draconis?”

Marcus felt a sense of relief. The bastard is back to speaking in generalized terms. For a moment there, I thought he had gotten inside my head.

“You’re not really a Quaestor, but you work for one. Rank: Prefect. Make that junior prefect, recently promoted.”

Junior? Ten years ago, maybe, but I’m hardly junior anymore.

“Extensive field experience, tempered by a solid theoretical and psychic package.”

I’m the best at what I do.

“Ambitious.”

Very.

“Possible Quaestor material.”

An understatement.

“At least in your own eyes.”

You little bastard.

Haides finished abruptly, leaned back into his leather-bound chair, cradled his drink, and refused to say any more.

Haides’s assessment wasn’t one hundred percent correct, but it was too accurate to be pure guesswork. The Maiden’s security system must have advanced analytical algorithms, able to infer much from just a few faint clues. But it was also reading bits and pieces directly from Marcus’s mind. The gatekeeper has penetrated my mental wards. There can be no other explanation.

Prudence—and Draconic doctrine—dictated that Marcus should raise his mental defenses in the event of a possible mind-scan. Doing so would, however, sever contact with the Maiden’s psychic archives. It would be a significant setback since he couldn’t take the Maiden with him. Even if Marcus invoked the Right of Conscription, the Pentacle would never release her. The days of utter obeisance to the Dragon were a thing of the past. Instead, the Conclave would demand the return of the chimaera, and Marcus would never see her again. Going turtle is not an option. Returning to Xerza without having learned anything useful is unacceptable.

But years of indoctrination, training, and field experience had taught Marcus that an open mind was a sure way to ruin. I need a compromise. One that would allow him to maintain the psychic link, without granting the gatekeeper full access to the deeper levels of his mind. He settled for erecting psychic barriers around his subsurface memory segments and his ego core. Let’s see how the gatekeeper deals with this.

“If you picked up this outside of channels—or if you’re one of those agents who can’t keep their noses out of the forbidden stuff—then you’re in for a world of hurt. Just by accessing this recording, you’ve set yourself up for a very long fall,” Haides said, voice flat and uninspired as if he didn’t really believe in what he said or cared about it.

Marcus almost laughed out loud—the gatekeeper had been forced back into a non-interactive playback mode, spewing out generic threats. The same kind of nonsense that Prefect Eccard uses during his so-called interrogation sessions.

“But the worst part is that you’ve messed with the Ordo Draconis. You’ve read something they’d rather be kept a secret. That was stupid of you. You don’t mess with the followers of the Celestial Dragon. Homicidal maniacs, the lot of them. Didn’t your mother warn you?”

Hazy memories of a motherly figure were conjured forth from the deep recesses of Marcus’s mind. Portia, Mother. You didn’t warn me, you ran away. Then my own family turned against me, and the Censors came and took me away. After the Collegium, there was Xerza—she gave me an offer I couldn’t well refuse. But don’t worry. I’m not angry anymore. I burned away my feelings for you long ago.

“They will hunt you, and they will find you. They will never let up, never relent.”

That much is true. The Dragon Order did have a long memory. Many an enemy had let his guard down after years on the run, only to find history—and the Dragon—had caught up with him.

“And when they do find you, they will take you, and they will break you. They will break you in every sense of the word. They will break your body. You will beg for death, but you shall not have it. They will twist your mind until there is no ‘you’ anymore. You will be what they allow you to be and nothing more.”

A bit on the graphic side, but yes, such things are possible. The Order rarely bothered with such extreme interrogation techniques, unless the subject was a well-known recidivist—or suspected of outright trafficking with the Shadow.

“And when your body is broken, and your mind belongs to them, they will turn to your spirit. If you weren’t a heretic before, you will certainly become one now. They will tempt and test and pull and stomp upon every fiber of your being until you’ve forsworn the Gods of the Pantheon a thousand times over and spat upon each and every one of your fellow human beings.”

This is getting tiresome. To claim that the servants of the Celestial Dragon turned innocents into sinners was preposterous. If a crime was confessed during interrogation, no matter the techniques used, it was irrefutable proof of guilt. You should know this, Haides—if you were ever really one of us.

“And then, at the very end, you will feel death’s embrace, as the pyrotechnic fingers of the incinerator turn your body to ash. If any living souls remember you at this stage, they will never dare speak of your fate, for fear of sharing in your misfortune. It will be as if you never existed at all.”

Incineration was standard fare for any biohazard material, including the corpses of abominations and heretics. In my case, they would use a different method, for the Dragon Order wisely does not burn pyrokines.

“And on the other side of death’s sundered veil, Anubis awaits, ready to guide your soul to Hades, where Osiris sits in eternal judgment over the souls of the faithful and the faithless alike. He will know your black heart, and he will cast you out into the outer darkness, into the nether pits, into the gaping maw of the Abyss!”

Haides’s eyes bored into Marcus with unusual intensity. Marcus could feel the gatekeeper probe and push against his mental walls, trying to find a way in. This time he was ready for it, blocking every push and probe swiftly and decisively. I was taught by the finest Collegium magisters—including Arch-Magister Caeldabar himself—and endlessly disciplined by mistress Xerza using secret Draconic techniques. You’re not getting through my defenses!

The pressure continued to mount, before suddenly leveling off. Marcus sensed that they had reached an impasse. The time has come. He relaxed his wards just a little, allowing some carefully selected information to bubble up from his deep mental strata.

The response was immediate. “But I’m preaching to the choir here, Prefect-Legate Marcus Aurelian, am I not?” Haides said, having finally been allowed to learn the name of his visitor. “Or should I call you by your family name?”

Deep inside his psychic fortress, the mental equivalent of a smile spread across Marcus’s mind. I threw out the bait. And you just swallowed it, Haides, hook, line, and sink. I have you now, you overbearing twat.

Marcus had divided his mind into two segments. One part, including his ego core and deeper memory strata, resided inside a psychic fortress. The other part, which was a mirror image of the other, sans the hidden inner layers, was left to interact with Haides. Now Marcus had complete control of what Haides read out of his mind without limiting the gatekeeper to the worthless playback mode.

Ego division was a technique known to all magisterial legates. It was a prerequisite for threading psychic patterns, but not everyone was as good at it as Marcus. He could maintain four or five ego compartments. During one trial, he had actually managed seven. Less than one in a million legates could do seven. Left me shaking, vomiting, and bleeding from the eyes. Took me weeks to fully recover. It was worth it—to see the Collegium taskmasters properly impressed. For this, I won’t need seven minds, only two. Two, I can maintain indefinitely.

“Please, call me Aurelian. It’s my Draconic name, my nom de guerre if you will. The name of my forefathers means nothing now. Same as your name, Haides. I’m sworn to the Dragon, in this life, and all lives to come.”

The gatekeeper nodded in agreement.

“You have my measure now, Master Gatekeeper: you know my identity, my affiliation, my faith. And I do have the necessary clearances: I carry the Dark Omega. Is this not enough to satisfy you?”

The gatekeeper looked at Marcus and shook his head. “It’s enough for us to continue. You’ve passed the first checkpoint and may proceed to the next level. But it’s not nearly sufficient to grant you full, unimpeded access to the archives. That’s what you want, no?”

“Yes, that is what I seek,” Marcus confirmed.

“Then, you still have eight more levels to go.”

“Eight more levels?”

“Yes. The Maiden’s archives are divided into an antechamber—where visitors first meet the gatekeeper—and nine security circles, wherein the actual information is stored. You’ve now passed through the antechamber and into the First Circle. It’s not where the real secrets are stored.”

This was an unexpected complication. Marcus wanted to go straight for Samael’s research into immortality. That was what Xerza was after—she planned to use that lore as a weapon against the Shadow during Ragnarök, the final battle. Seems it won’t be that easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is.

The long-dead Quaestor had protected his secrets well and embedded Haides as a safeguard against unauthorized access. If the gatekeeper perceived Marcus as a security risk, he might try to shut him out. I cannot risk that. I’ll play along—for now. But that changes the moment I find a way to bypass the gatekeeper.

“And what must I do to get through the next checkpoint?”

“You must listen to my story. Listen and learn.”

Marcus nodded amicably and gave Haides his warmest, falsest smile. “I see. Then do please proceed. I’m all ears.”

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