Dead Men Walking
Alexander Maern, the only one who'd ever found happiness, smiled into his wife's face, holding her tight, rubbing her swelling belly gently. Neither he nor Alicia spoke, it wasn't necessary -- they both knew each other too well for words, had grown up and lived together for...ever. Forever, in a human sense. Longer than any reasonable people had reckoning of.
The result was as close to a melding of two souls as one could get, and in its own way, it was beautiful.
It was also, in its own way, beautiful, when Traegan Stark came by the next day for a visit and found the two engaged in one final, bloody kiss -- their blood pooling together on the floor.
How does one kill an immortal?
Julian Fang pulled his stocking cap down tighter around his ears, turned up his collar against the chill as he made his way down the sidewalk -- past midnight local, now, didn't really matter. He didn't sleep anymore, easy enough trick once you learned it -- the trick was to stop sleeping. He'd found he could adapt to anything, given the time...
His talent spiked, and his reactions were instant-perfect, his blade was out, live in his hand, searching for threats, but the threat had already found him, and Julian Fang, who had thought he could adapt to anything, found that he couldn't adapt to a foot and a half of eldensteel protruding from his throat.
As he lay dying, he considered who's name he should whisper as his last words, for he had lived his life for others. In his last moments, however, he came to a revelation -- everybody else sucked. His last words were: "So much left..."
Simple -- you just...make him stop caring.
Blackmarlin Rache threw back his head and laughed, then threw back another glass of alcohol -- didn't matter what kind, the appearance was the thing. The blonde he was with rubbed up against him, and he draped a companionable arm around her shoulder, a touch of lifehand causing her to shiver in place, biting her tongue -- they were so cute when they did that. Of course, they were even cuter at the end of the thing, shivering naked on the bed. Humans were such delightful playthings, when you got right down to it. Humans and other creatures.
There was no challenge in these things anymore -- very little pleasure, either, he just did it because it was something to do, and if he didn't have something to do, he'd die, and he wasn't ready to die yet, though he had been once. Then they'd exiled him, and screw that.
Death came for him later that night, in his hotel room, and he was half expecting it. He didn't bother going for his sword, simply accepted the blade into his belly...and with his dying will, exploded his attacker's skull. They only ever found one body, and it was impossible to determine who it belonged to. Marked on the wall in blood was a large R. The blood was determined to belong to Blackmarlin Rache, the notorious criminal.
The handprint that had drawn the R also belonged to Blackmarlin Rache.
True Ascended only die from one cause -- Terminal Apathy
Dysaryn Stark, the most cursed of them all, had waited for this moment all his life. He turned to face his killers, smiling, and he began to laugh.
"Tonight I die the death of god! The Stars shall die with me!"
He sprang forward, Heartsflame in his hand, and he did his legend proud. He, he more than any of them, was the pure, the great, the true -- he was Ascended. Sacrifice to the cause, created to fight, to protect through destruction. And he served his purpose, better than anyone else. And yet...and yet...
And he laughed, and he spun, and Heartsflame, with its blade as red as dried blood, became red with fresh blood, and still they came, and still he killed. He did not stop, could not stop, could not do less than his utmost, and they could not kill him, because he could not die -- because the possibility was simply not in him. He could not, would not die...
The blow came from behind, a slender, blue-steel dagger wielded by a slender silver-haired girl, and he died silently, quickly, from the expert blow. Cut down by the one person he'd loved more than duty itself -- his life was worth little enough by his judgement.
It was said, that things could change. That greatness could arise again...and it was said...
and it was lies.
and we lied, and were lied to.
and we were content with our lies.
but lies must eventually become truth
or truth becomes lie
and we lied until our lies became truth
and told truth until our truth became lies
and eventually, cyclically, our lies, that were once true, now lies, became truth again.
Let It All Burn
And burn it did.
Amidst the ashes, he stood laughing.
Amidst the ashes, burning, burning, scream.
Amidst the dying, laughing stood he.
Amidst the lying, no one stood.
He is the creator
He weaves with his song, his hands outstretched to the dying, touching as he runs, running as he runs, laughing as he dances, cartwheeling through the flame -- his enemies cannot catch him, this silver-haired laughing man, thin and unknowable. Though they tried, they who have slaughtered the hope of a people, they cannot stop the people, the heart, the first.
They have slain his children, but they cannot slay him -- for he has had a long, long rest, a long break from his purpose, and now he is again renewed, ready, at the top of his game, and he dances circles around them, calling up the winds to scatter them, calling back his blades -- Alemar and Jys -- and they flickered in his hands like living brands of lightning, and he danced, and he whirled, and there was death.
He brought them low.
He brought them down.
He made them feel pain.
And he laughed.
When Kendri-Kalis danced -- nothing was certain.
The living died...
and the dying lived.
On frozen Northfell, in the heart of the hearts, the heart of the Wall, that great unknowable construct, a pair of eyes, long closed, long empty, opened.
On forgotten Emerald, on Pride, on Saray, on Gorlan, age-sealed eyes opened.
And on Northfell, Alexander Maern took Alicia Stark into his arms, and sheltered her with his body, whispering to her that everything will be okay, holding his infant son close, while outside, Dysaryn Stark bled from a dozen wounds but did not slow, Heartsflame a molten thunderbolt in the night, laughing at his battle lust.
And on Nexus, Julian Chovas drives a head into a wall, screaming a hundred names in endless chant -- blurring into a wordless scream that was all his own. He lives in the moment, and in the moment he will not stop.
And in a bar, somewhere, Blackmarlin Rache flicks Shadowdrinker through a purple-black skinned being's eye-socket, explodes another with a glance. His longcoat shows mulitple rends, but he doesn't stop -- he is a Gunslinger, still.
And out from the deep halls, they come
The heroes of the Ascended Race
Steven and Paul Stark, Graham Chovas, Ezrah Rache, Bryn Maern, Wraith Blackstar, Stephen Maern, Jory Rache, Jessica Chovas.
And at their head, in their vanguard, leading his hosts, laughing, spinning, whirling -- Kendri-Kalis, the Pancreator, the Destroyer, dancing the death of worlds, the life of men. And at his side...
A slim brown-haired man with strong cheek bones and a wicked smile. He lifts his sword, screams wordlessly, breathlessly.
As Ian Stark lets his sword fall, the Supremacy rises.
As Ian Stark lets his sword fall, a hundred thousand and more years pass in the blink of an eye, and revive.
As Ian Stark lets his sword fall...
The Dance resumes.
The Four gathered, once again, their eyes shaded and grim -- to a man, they had seen too much death, been broken too many times. They were marked different from the rest of their kind by the shadows that followed them. And it showed -- the Ascended who walked the streets of the Supremacy stepped back, uncertain of exactly what they were faced with. There was little of the warmth of the Ascended left.
For Dysaryn Stark, he was only now gaining that warmth, had never possessed it. Only now coming to understand what he had been missing all along, now that his eternal sacrifice was no longer needed. The shadows still tainted his heart, but they were lessening, and he smiled, truly smiled, for the first time he could remember. But people would always be wary of the Master Guardian, the Warseeker Alpha Prime, no matter who he was.
For Alexander Maern, he had long hidden himself away, long thought the only person who could understand him, who could see through the blood -- was Alicia Stark. And perhaps that had been true, but now he had kin again...and he wasn't sure that they understood him, either. Even his father, Stephen, looked at him askance. Wondered what could possibly have caused his son to sit inactive for so very, very long.
For Julian Chovas, who had been the most 'human' of them all, he was simply overwhelmed by it all -- the grandeur of the Supremacy had him in awe. He'd come to terms to being Heir to a Great House of a dead Supremacy -- being Chovas Heir in a renewed Supremacy had him near-catatonic, as the powerful mind-voices of his newfound kin cheered his name, as he walked the halls of Grailhold for the first time in his life, and looked upon the glistening gray-blue fortress that was his heritage, and found himself shuddering. The power in his fingers was unlike anything he'd imagined before.
For Blackmarlin Rache, it was her -- the one he'd near killed himself for, so long ago, and been exiled for his actions following her death...but now she wasn't dead, and he didn't know what to do. He watched her watching him, and he didn't know what to say -- and he knew that she wouldn't speak before him, because she found his speechlessness amusing, and she had always loved being amused. He wanted to speak, to start things off, but the words wouldn't come. They would come eventually, they had to, but not yet -- now, he was content to look at her, one thing at a time. And the greatest threat to the Ascended People, Ever, was held captive by love, renewed.
Ian Stark had never been particularly physically impressive -- shorter than average for his people, thin, with a strong bone-structure, curly brown hair, and gray-green eyes. He dressed comfortably, eschewing the militant fashion of his culture for earth-toned sweaters and comfortable pants.
He had never had the physical ability of his colleagues, never had the immense powers -- merely had a good voice and a serviceable mind, and perhaps a bit too much luck for his own good.
Ian Stark, Lord Stark, First Lord of the Ascended Supremacy, settled into his favorite armchair and looked into the face of a god, the god of his people, and raised an eyebrow.
"You've got a lot of explaining to do, Deity. Not necessarily for what happened to us, not necessarily why I lingered on in those damned caves, alone...but you owe Dysaryn an explanation. You owe Julian an explanation. You owe Blackmarlin an explanation. You owe Alexander an explanation. Because you wouldn't let them live a real life -- because you wouldn't let them be real people, for all those years of distress, you owe them a reason."
Kendri-Kalis, the dancing god, curled up in a big, soft, orange armchair, considered the short Ascended before him, and shook his head.
"Explanations? There are no explanations. There is no reason. Things simply are."
Ian stared at his god, and did not blink, "That's not good enough. For what you did to them? That's not good enough."
The dancing god cocked one leg back, the other straight up, considering the chandelier.
"Perhaps not. Do you want to hear how I was shattered, how parts of me came to inhabit others, how the fault lies with some great malignant force? Yes, you do -- but you also know that that doesn't make sense. Why would that malignant force seek to release me, knowing that it would inevitably lead to their defeat, insofar as that force can be defeated? You already know the answer to your question, why are you asking it?"
The god rotated his head slightly to the side, eyebrow raised questioningly.
Ian looked down for a moment, then back up.
"Because I don't want to believe that you think this is fun. I don't want to believe that this is a game to you, because it's not a game to me."
Kendri-Kalis laughed his bright laugh, "Then don't believe it. I certainly don't, insofar as what you mean. Everything is a game, but that does not trivialize things. What happened happened because it had to happen, even I have my limits. Even I am bound by constraints. And so, too, are you -- and it was our turn to suffer, and suffer we did, and well did we suffer. But now, our suffering ends -- look at me, Ian, now we are whole...and my children, my laughing children, can laugh again -- can dance again. Anything is possible, Ian -- we have returned!"
And the god was gone, though his laughter remained.
Caer Malant, Northfell, Revenia
Adrian D'marek Blackstar-Stark, High King of Revenia and, until quite recently, Lord Stark, settled himself again in his armchair and considered the other men present in his favored sitting room for policy decisions -- more often than not, he met with his advisors in this room rather than in any of the more 'appropriate' conference rooms at his disposal.
Mostly, he considered his uncle and adopted father, Ian Stark. The short, thin, wild-haired First Lord of the Ascended Supremacy seemed to be distracted by something, but he often appeared that way, Adrian recalled. Whether it was a ploy to fool his enemies or a simple personality quirk, Adrian had long been unable to discern...but it was deceptive.
Accompanying Ian were the other three Lords of the Ascended Supremacy -- Deyna Maern, Alistair Rache, and Coran Chovas. Also represented in the room was the Guardian Temple -- here, Stephen Maern, Warprince of the Ascended Supremacy, and Adrian's son, Dysaryn, the Warseeker Alpha Prime.
Adrian spoke first, "So. How does this work out?"
Deyna Maern smiled, not unkindly, "How does what work out, Adrian? You mean your little pet nation, here? Obviously, any worlds belonging to other Houses still belong to those Houses, and whatever gains you have made would be Sept to House Stark. What is so complicated that it needs discussion?"
Adrian raised an eyebrow, "So nothing has changed? All that time -- vanishes? Progress, decay, change of loyalty...none of that matters?"
Deyna shrugged, "In a word -- No."
Adrian closed his eyes, searching for words...but his son pre-empted him, clearing his throat.
"That, Lady Maern, is not our way. That way lies stagnation, and stagnation is death."
Deyna Maern turned to glare at Dysaryn, "I would thank you not to spit child's verse at me, Stark. Why are you even here? The last time I checked, the Warprince represented the Guardian Temple."
Stephen Maern shot his sister a biting glance, perhaps was about to say something -- he objected to being used to score points in such silly power games -- but Ian Stark spoke first.
"I asked him to be here, Deyna, for the same reason that I asked Adrian to be here -- they know, as I have learned, that everything has changed. Or were you not aware that whatever resurgence, whatever 'return' we may have undergone was incomplete? Approximately eighty percent of our held systems remain unresponsive to our transmissions -- system queries are...discouraging."
Adrian nodded, "Yes, thank you, Ian. So, you see, Lady Maern -- everything needs discussion, because nothing is as you remember it. Now, you must see to your own Houses, determine the state of things. Then we will talk further about my 'pet nation' and its position within the Supremacy."
Ian Stark smiled at his adopted son, then passed a firm glance over the Lords of the Great Houses, "Go, find your heirs, speak with them. Yes, that means you finally have to talk to Blackmarlin, Alistair -- it is a reunion that was long overdue before the Fall. The Fall, gentlemen, lady. The universe has buried the Supremacy -- that we are not quite so dead as all of that is a relatively minor point in the long run. This meeting is adjourned."
The Guardian Temple Complex, Seydar, Nightreign
Dysaryn Stark walked the armored basalt hallways of the Temple for the first time in a long time, and the experience was notably surreal. The Temple was constructed in much the same style as Citadel Celestian -- had been modeled after House Stark's military command center, after all -- and the similarity was often uncanny, but, still. This was The Temple. This had once been the center of his life.
It should've been like coming home. Instead, it felt like the great mass of the place was weighing down on him, almost crushing him...but he gritted his teeth and kept walking. He was Warseeker Alpha Prime. It was not proper for him to show weakness. Ever.
So he didn't, much though he wished he could run out of this menacing structure and away from the people awaiting him in Council -- people who hadn't seen what he'd seen, didn't understand the way things had changed. People who expected him to be the same way he was before the fall, which simply wasn't true -- he wasn't the same. How the hell could he be?
Couldn't. Simple as that.
The entry to the Council chamber loomed up before him and he sighed, stepped forward into the scanners. The resultant beep told him that he in fact was exactly who he thought he was -- Master Guardian Dysaryn Stark, Warseeker Alpha Prime -- and that he could just go right on in. Which he did.
It'd been a long time since he'd worn real Guardian Temple formals. Sure, Revenian fashion had been molded around Ascended fashion, but the long coats he'd worn hadn't really been his real Guardian Temple longcoat -- he wore the real one now, and it felt just like it used to. He hadn't liked it then, he didn't like it now.
The Temple Council awaited him -- and while normally the Council Chamber would be almost empty, as there were only a few active Council members at any one team, everyone who could command a seat had chosen to do so at this time, and the Chamber was packed to capacity. Dysaryn picked out familiar faces -- his father, sitting next to Ian Stark. Adrian had a permanent seat as a former Warseeker Alpha Prime, and while few enough remembered, even before the Fall, Ian's service with the Guardian Temple, he had held a War Mage Council seat for a decade before becoming Lord Stark.
Others, too -- Stephen Maern, of course, and, surprisingly, Blackmarlin Rache, his immediate predecessor as Warseeker Alpha Prime...
Dysaryn shook himself mentally and moved to take his seat, struck, as he usually was, by how incredibly uncomfortable these chairs were. Designed that way intentionally, he had always suspected, for some stupid philosophical reason.
Stephen Maern called the session to order, and the shouting began. Dysaryn's eyes lost focus as he attempted to follow the line of debate, but the effort seemed futile. He was aware of his father looking straight at him, but he did not speak up yet -- couldn't have, anyway. He was still, technically, the most junior of the serving Master Guardians, and it would not have been appropriate for him to interrupt his seniors. Pfeh.
Derath Arms, Derath, Armel
Kaelandar Stark, Special Commissioner for Civil Security, pulled a tight black t-shirt on over his lean, muscular torso, much marked by old scars. He stretched, working transit cramps -- he couldn't afford any tightness when he was working. Too many lives depended on him.
He slung his gunbelt into place, buckling the thigh-straps on the tac holsters into place, then taking his paired RevTek APCPs out of the open hardcase on the table beside him and sliding them into place. Magazines were dropped into place, both into holders on the belt and on the holsters themselves, along with an assortment of grenades and several of the white zipties that served SSU as handcuffs.
On over his armament went his signature dark gray longcoat. Then he took a length of cord and tied his flame-red hair back into a ponytail, and he was ready, more or less. Leaving the rented hotel room, he walked down stairs, sighing. Damned Horatrians...
In the lobby, the first team of the Revenian Civil Patrol’s Special Strike Unit were finishing their pre-game, checking each other over, passing out a seventh extra mag, reciting personally significant verse, so on. Kael stepped in to a chorus of hails, accepting them with a nod, then gestured for a huddle.
Before him, in a circle, stood his people, the hand-picked elite he had chosen and trained to go into battle at his side. He bowed his head, his arms rising to drape over the shoulders of the people next to him, the other Strikers following suit until the circle was bound together by interlinking arms. Then Kael began to speak, slowly, words that almost every Revenian, every Ascended, knew by heart – the Seeker’s Oath.
“Upon my life, I have sworn
To seek out they that would do mine harm
And to bring harm to them until they are no threat
And to do so until I find my death.”
There was a chorus of agreement, and then the circle broke up. Kael nodded to himself, then waved over the one person who hadn’t partaken in the circle, who wasn’t wearing a Striker’s flat gray battle armor. Then he waved that man over.
Julian Fang nodded in acknowledgment, stretching his right hand out with his left as he walked over to stand before Dysaryn Stark’s formidable cousin.
Kael looked the young man over, nodding to himself, “You look fit, Fang, the Fleet Marines are convinced you can shoot, but I’m not sure you can keep up with my people, and that means that I need to make sure that you understand what you’re doing. We can’t afford to be slowing down for anyone – two seconds wasted on letting you catch up could mean a lot of bodies at the end of the day, and that’s unacceptable to me. So, Fang, tell me – what are you going to do when we enter the building?”
Julian didn’t hesitate, “I’m going to keep on going, Commissioner.”
Kael nodded slightly, “Good enough.”
Julian took that as dismissal, turned, took a few steps…
Julian turned around to face the Commissioner again, “Yes?”
Kael smiled, “Don’t get shot, ya?”
Julian nodded, “Of course.”
BarlingCross Corporate HQ, Derath, Armel
Kael buckled his command helmet on, flicking the display screen down over his left eye, then accepted a loaded CR-17SC carbine from Jan Olsen, his squad sergeant. He didn’t always bother with the heavier equipment, but this was big enough that he hadn’t much of a choice. The two reloads for the carbine were an unfamiliar weight on his harness, but he’d cope. He always did.
He ran what intel he had over across his screen, though he’d committed the data to memory on the trip from Nexus. Still, there was always the possibility that he’d missed something. He hadn’t, this time, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t possible. Not long, now.
He hopped down from the command truck, low-running to one of the barriers civil patrol had erected. The rest of his tac squad slotted in with him, tasked as they were to frontal entry. An SSU team comprised four tactical squads, allowing for the simultaneous multiple-front entries that SSU favored. Here, his squad would be entering through the front while the other three squads entered via fast-rope, maintenance bay, and the lower-level train terminal.
Lights on his screen flickered to green as his squad leaders declared they were in position, and once two other lights had joined his in green status, he ordered Jacob Pryce’s fourth squad into position. They waited until last because the vertigrav they would deploying from was noticeable – once the vertigrav was committed, there was no stopping.
Ten seconds, then Kael hurled himself up and over the barrier and sprinted towards the front door, his squad on his heels. He brought his carbine up at his hip as he ran and triggered the underbarrel, the entry canister breaking open mid-flight to deploy a webbed net that glinted in the afternoon sun for the instant before it impacted the front doors and exploded with just enough force to shatter the safety glass doors. Kael in the explosion’s wake, his carbine drawn up against his chest by the retention sling, his pistols in his hands. In a clutch situation like this, he went for what he knew best, and Kael Stark came alive with a pistol in his hand.
Julian dropped behind a desk as automatic gravdriver fire shredded the cubicle divider above him, throwing the console monitor three feet into the air in an aegis of shattered glass and electronics. Shrapnel glanced off his backplate, and he swore, even as he moved, throwing himself up around the side of the desk, triggering a burst from his CR-17C down the aisle before ducking behind another desk. It wasn’t that the desk would stop gravdriver fire, it wouldn’t, just that it was in line with every other desk in the room, and there were probably twenty of the things between where he was and where the rebel gunman was – that would stop gravdriver fire. The gunman couldn’t get a good angle on him, and thus his armor had only had to stop shrapnel.
Of course, Julian couldn’t hit the gunman either, which was a problem…
A second ticked by, and Julian moved again, darting across to another set of desks. He could feel the gunman’s anger, feel the pleasure the other man every time he pulled the trigger, and Julian took a cylindrical grenade from his belt. The next time he moved, instead of firing a burst, he threw the grenade. About three seconds later, the grenade exploded. Julian hurtled the desk he was behind, his carbine moving even as he rose, firing the instant he got a clear shot, before his eyes focused. Julian fired three times, splattering the gunman across the far wall. Julian replaced his AP mag, moved onwards.
Kael reloaded his pistols, catching his breath for a second, then moved on. Two ski-masked rebels stepped out into the hallway, old-model gravdrivers low – they didn’t know he was there. Two rounds from his pistols splashed their brains against a framed piece of contemporary art. It was hard to notice the addition. Kael entered the room that the two gunmen had left, leading with his pistols. A rapid double-tap from his right pistol dropped a third rebel, then he was back out in the hallway, moving along.
Julian dropped to his knees beside the woman, his carbine sucked up against his chest by the retention sling. He scrabbled at his waist, pulling out his medkit, his knife. He snapped the knife open, dropped the medkit, cut at the woman’s jacket, shirt. Felt her panic, tried to project calm, will her to calmness. The gravdriver shot had blown the hell out of her shoulder, and he winced as he bared the wound. Gravdriver wounds weren’t pretty as a rule, but this was a civilian – it was different. His hands moved of their own accord, going through the motions – antiseptic, stimulant, sealer. Only other thing he could do was tag her for medical attention, which he did. Had to keep moving…
He hauled himself to his feet, replacing his medkit and knife as he stepped over the body, taking his carbine up again. His vision was blurry, he felt sick, but he couldn’t stop here.
Kael’s left pistol bucked twice, then lowered, mirroring the dead man’s slide down the wall. His screen showed a wireframe display of the building, divided into zones, and each zone was colored green, except one, and as the rest of his squad swept through that sector and found no resistance, that sector flickered to green as well. It was over.
Kael walked stiffly to the large desk in the center of the office and set his pistols down upon it, detaching the retention straps. He pressed his hands down against the cool wood, leaning into them. They hurt now, as the battle high retreated from him. His whole body ached, he’d pushed it hard.
The door opened.
His left hand was pointing a pistol at it, before he consciously registered the action. He lowered the pistol a second later, returning it to the desk. Jan Olson stepped into the office, carrying her helmet under one arm. She looked him over, taking in, particularly, the way his hands were clawed against the desk.
“You alright, boss?”
Kael nodded, “Yeah. Usual cramps. Everything okay?”
Jan shrugged, “Pretty much. Bruises all around, but nothing serious that I know of. Couple of the hostages took it pretty bad, though.”
Kael grimaced, “Always do. How’d Major Fang turn out?”
Jan chuckled, “Danny says he’s got some kind of sixth sense for where the bad guys are. Hostage took it in the shoulder in Three’s sector, guess he took that pretty hard, though. Danny says he’s acting pretty distant right now, but I guess it’s just shock. Always tough the first time.”
Kael nodded, “Yeah, it is. Especially when…,” he cut himself off.
“When what, boss?”
Kael shook his head, “Nothing, Jan. Twelve captured, right?”
Jan nodded, “Yeah.”
Kael dropped his pistols into their holsters, stepping past Jan on his way out of the office, “Good. I want Fang in on the interrogations.”
Jan followed, confusion apparent in her voice, “Why? I didn’t know he was rated as an interrogator.”
Kael glanced back over his shoulder, “He’s qualified. Believe me on that, he is very, very qualified.”
SSU Central, Black Gate Complex, Nexus
Julian Fang exhaled, his breath fogging in the cold. They kept this entire area uncomfortably cold -- psychological. Julian didn't care, barely noticed it. He stood outside the interrogation cell, glancing at the sole occupant on the monitors. Julian nodded slightly, to himself, waving away the sheaf of briefing papers that one of the Directorate people attempted to hand him.
"Nah, don't need it."
No point going further, just grin and make sure he had everything he needed, which was remarkably little. As it was, he'd already tossed his jacket onto the back of a chair, along with his weapons belt. No point in taking in anything he didn't need, safety first and all that. He laughed, shaking his head slightly.
"Let's get this done..."
Julian stood with his hands on his hips, looking the rebel leader in the eyes. He was grinning.
“Let’s get the formalities out of the way, shall we? Tell me where the rest of your organization is holed up.”
The rebel snarled, spat, “Die first.”
Julian shrugged, “Perhaps. Guess we’ll get started, then, Bobby.”
Julian surged forward, driving his right fist into the rebel’s gut, his left hand rising to grab the other man’s chin, forcing eye contact.
“Yes, I know who you are, Bobby. Who you really are. Does that scare you? It should. I also know where your ex-wife lives, where your children go to school…you still think of them as your kids, don’t you, Bobby?”
The rebel struggled, “Kill you, Silver!”
Julian smiled, stepped back, considered the rebel for a moment, then hit him again, roughly the same place. Getting situated, getting a feel for the man’s mind, his pain tolerance…
Julian drove his elbow into the man’s sternum, stepped back, uppercut to the jaw, stepped back, crossed his arms.
“Formalities, Bobby. Care to talk now?”
Bobby spat blood, almost reaching his shoe.
Julian shook his head, “Well, that’s okay. Tell me, Bobby…what are you afraid of?”
The rebel was confused. Julian didn’t care, slipped easily into Bobby’s pain-addled brain…and went to work. He plucked out childhood fears – spiders, his uncle, the schoolyard bully. Plucked out teenage fears, insecurities, rejections. Plucked out adult fears, his wife remarrying, his kids forgetting his name. Wove them together and danced Bobby through his nightmares, until Bobby was screaming, straining against the chains holding his hands above his head, his feet off the ground. Straining, writhing, screaming…
Julian balled the fears up for a moment, “Where, Bobby? Where are they?”
Bobby whimpered. Julian pushed the man back down into his own fear, holding him under, letting him drown in terror, in helplessness…then finally pulling him out, throwing him away.
Bobby was crying, but Julian could tell the words weren’t coming. Once, Julian thought, he’d have been crying right along with the other man…now, not so much. He’d lost of a lot of innocence, but that was alright. Didn’t much like the person he was, but that fit with his expectations – he couldn’t like the person he was. Had to mesh, ya?
Enough time – Bobby was recovering. Julian dove back in, this time sending Bobby’s mind to a hundred different places, each of them worse than the last, playing out any number of scenarios, indescribable scenarios…and like a bridge giving way, Bobby broke.
Julian stepped back, wiping blood from his lip – his talent wasn’t supposed to work like this, fought back against him. But he’d tried the other way, and that’d got him nothing but bruises and depression. This way, at least, he did some good. Walking out of the cell, he nodded at the uniformed Directorate handlers.
“He’ll talk, now.”
Save some lives, hopefully…
Bardell Island, Nexus, Ascended Supremacy of Revenia
(OOC Note: There is no actual event chain here – this occurs at a detach, as commentary to, events occurring elsewhere. On one level, this is ‘real,’ on another it is a mental projection. Don’t think too hard – Ascended are mutable.)
Julian sighed, took another drink from a bottle, contents unknown, turned a page. Lights were dead, he didn’t care enough to change them – he could function well enough in the dark, read well enough in the dark…not that it was helping. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was searching for in all of those dusty pages, but he wasn’t finding it…the pile of discarded books on one side of the room reflected that.
His present apartment was a significant downgrade from his other residences, but it was what he wanted right now. One could call it ‘Spartan,’ but that wasn’t really correct. What it was, was unfurnished. He was sitting on the floor, slept on the floor, curled up, shivering himself to sleep.
Tossed the book off to join the others, stared off into nothingness. Searching for direction, he knew that much. He’d never been an ambitious man, joined the military more because he didn’t want to make his own decisions then for any good reasons, and now he’d just been clued in that he was due a promotion within a few weeks…though there were no command positions open. So, he’d have the option of taking half pay as a Lt. Colonel or retiring as a Colonel, and being quite able to read between the lines…it wasn’t, of course, that there were no positions available. For a truly talented officer, positions would be created if necessary. It was that the Fleet Marines had reservations about his mental balance, and that wasn’t acceptable in a regimental commander. So, he was out.
It was that kind of simultaneity. Get dumped, get killed, get brought back, get fired…at least he was no longer the Chovas Heir. His father could have that title back, with his compliments…
Hand clenched into a fist, mind skipped back – he’d been dumped. That hurt. Hurt then, still hurt – complete and utter failure on his part. Sure, she was maybe just a little bit uncompromising, maybe just a little bit insane, but he’d known that, thought he’d allowed for that…which left the blame solely on his shoulders, left him wondering how he possibly could have misread things as badly as he had. Amazed at how he probably couldn’t have screwed things up any worse had he actually intended to do so…
It wasn’t just emotional hurt, though that was a lot of it. He’d loved her. Instability and all. Obviously, he’d been projecting his own feelings onto her. Obviously he’d been blinded by his own desires. The signs, now that he actually thought about it, had always been there. He just hadn’t wanted to see them. Hadn’t wanted to think of himself as just another exotic face for anyone, much less someone he was attracted to, drawn to care for…
And the pull had existed, for him. He hadn’t constructed it – of that, he was certain. Sure, he’d used it for his own purposes, but, damn-it, he’d known what he was doing, kept that construct separate…still.
Still, he’d screwed up. The party had thrown him, partially, yes – he was never at his best at large-scale social situations, that was part of being Ascended. It was why Ascended parties always broke down into smaller discussion groups, usually in separate rooms. Otherwise, everyone was too nervy to enjoy anything. But that didn’t explain the whole thing. He should have caught himself…should have known better. Hadn’t.
Then he’d gotten angry, and pulled the hole he’d dug in after himself. Objectively, it was probably for the best – her people were seemingly united in their hatred of him, and that could have only ended in pain. He knew that he didn’t respond well to people taking potshots at him, and they’d gone a bit beyond taking potshots…well into actively being hostile. He considered it a personal victory that he hadn’t killed anybody, to be honest…
Sighing, falling back, sprawling on the floor…he was stripped to the waist, as was his habit in times like these. Blew hair out of his eyes, stared up at darkness. Knew he should probably weep for the death of his dreams, but what was the point? What was the point in fretting over the whole thing – talent said she moved on, reason said he should too. Or kill something. That always helped…
Peacemaker jutted from the floor several feet away, he could feel its presence in a corner of his mind, but he wasn’t worthy of the blade at present. Not fit to touch it. Deep breath. Deep breath.
Ran a hand through his hair, sweat-damp, unsure whether he should be angry or sad…altogether helpless. Fuck that.
"No, darling, I am quite, quite certain that I did love you. But that's okay -- that can change. I can hate."
He sprang to his feet, calling Peacemaker to his hand – an easy enough trick, once you got the hang of it. Screw being unworthy. Feet settled into patterns, and the Warblade scythed through the air, slow at first, remembering the patterns, the feel, then faster, faster…pushing himself. He was a former Comp Longblade Champion, and he’d gotten better since then. He could hold his own against pretty much anyone short of Dysaryn Stark, who really didn’t count, the man had spent tens of millennia perfecting his art…
Julian Chovas stepped forward, Peacemaker coming to a position of rest, and smiled. The decision he’d been trying to make, the decision that he’d thought he’d made once, already, was who he wanted to be. That decision had been made for him – the only thing tying him to the man he’d once been had quite thoroughly abandoned him. Yes, it was a different direction this time…but there was nothing for him the other way, so why fight it?
Blackmarlin Rache took a deep breath of cool night air, hands braced upon the balcony’s railing, face turned upwards, looking up at the stars. Clear night like this, he could find Crescent if tried hard enough, remember doing just that many a night when he’d first come to the Temple. He’d been so innocent then. Excited at the chance to serve his people. Heh.
He shook his head, smiling at his own foolishness. He’d been rewarded for his ‘service’ with the death of his fiancé, leading into his own exile. Never really quite gotten over that, he knew, sighing. Hard thing to get over – fundamental betrayal by everyone you’d held dear. Not the exile, but the initial refusal to do anything to save Anna, and then after she’d died…well, he’d snapped true enough, and yeah, he’d crossed a line, doing what he’d done to those people, but he’d had to something, had to do something. Maybe he’d done the wrong thing, but he hadn’t seen any alternatives. Nobody had been real keen on offering him alternatives.
The tears came, then, and he wept for what he’d lost. What no drug could make him forget he’d once possessed, what no woman could replace. His dreams had died with Anna amidst a field of purple wheat on a planet that no longer had a name, and he’d drowned his ideals in the blood of her killers. They’d never had a good count of how many he’d killed, just…too many. It wasn’t vengeance. It was a massacre. He bit back a sob.
“Why’d they let me live?”
His knuckles were white against the stone, tears running freely down his cheeks. Not exactly the image one would expect of a former Warseeker Alpha Prime, but he could care less about projecting the proper image. He’d lost his pride when he lost his heart…
Arms encircled him from behind, and he knew who it was without looking – he could smell it. Taste it. He’d sworn to himself that he’d remember her scent, her being, the vitality of her, the way he sensed her, until the day he died…and he’d kept that promise. She leaned against him from behind, resting her cheek on his shoulder blade.
“I’m here, B. It’s okay.”
He shook his head, turning around to face her – she looked up at him, raven black hair, blue-gray eyes, the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes on…
“No, Anna. It’s not okay. I’m not the person you think I am, not the person you used to love.”
She dropped her arms to her sides, considering him, “Am I that repulsive to you, B?”
Blackmarlin closed his eyes, “How could you even think that?”
Anna tilted her head to the side slightly, “Well, if that’s not it, then what is it?”
Blackmarlin looked up at the stars, again, “You deserve better than an unstable exiled nobody.”
She shrugged, “Maybe, but I want you. Love can’t die, remember? What are you afraid of?”
He smiled, “Getting you back just to lose you again.”
She laughed and hugged him, “I’m not going anywhere, B. You’re here to protect me now, right?”
Blackmarlin shook his head, “I failed there once.”
Anna sighed, laying her head against his chest, “You told me I shouldn’t go there alone, Blackmarlin. I remember it. I remember it all…and I don’t want to be alone any more.”
Blackmarlin put his arms around her, pulled her close, “Damn, you’re good.”
The Temple, Seydar, Nightreign
“So, this is it, hmm? The future – the first class post Resurgence.”
Dysaryn shook his head, glancing over the pictures – his implant fed him details every time his eye hovered on an individual picture. It felt so strange to be back here, doing this. He remembered how this had used to be routine, how he’d gone out with his peers and gotten thoroughly blazed on recreational cocktails and looked over the incoming class, trying to guess who’d excel, who’d barely skate through, and who wouldn’t. It’d been an event.
Stephen Maern nodded, “I can’t imagine what it feels like for you, Dys. We know that time has passed, but we didn’t live it, it’s not real to us. So many people want to just believe that it’s business as usual, but then there’s someone like you, who has lived every single one of the years that we missed, and that’s hard to deal with. For us. It must be hell on you.”
Dysaryn nodded, “It’s been…hard.”
Stephen nodded, then quickly changed the subject, “So, what do you think about the prospects?”
Dys shrugged, calling a few pictures out of the grid, “Julian, here, he’s good. Scary guy, good commander, cares about his troops. He’s a natural leader, and a wicked swordsman. Basically self-taught, he’s unpredictable. Trouble with women, trouble with his past – Kethvae’s kid, which has got to be hard on him.”
Stephen nodded, knowing Kethvae Chovas quite well, “I can imagine what that’d do to him. But you think he’s reliable? Gunslinger material?”
Dys chewed his lip, “He’s reliable, yeah, damn what his AFESSR reports say. Oh, he may have his issues with girls but, well, me. He’s good enough to make Alpha, yeah, but I’m not going to push him into it. You know how that process works.”
Stephen snorted, “Do you really believe in that crap? You’re Prime, Dys, if you say you want someone, you’re going to get him.”
Dys looked anywhere but at Stephen for a while, then moved on to another picture, “He’s good, too. Shay – Shayrathar Callahan. One of mine, old-school. Got pretty messed up in some dreth’karlag mess in Menelmacar – you’ve read the briefs, yeah? Good. But, he’s a good man – fast. Got a bit of a temper, bit of a cold streak. Testy. Bruises easy. Doesn’t play games with group dynamics, if he isn’t ‘in’ at first, he’ll go it solo, and that’s…well, that’s what it is. He’s got the potential to make Alpha, but that depends on how well he takes to the material and whether he can overcome his issues. When he’s good, he’s really, really good, but knock him off his stride and he struggles to get it back.”
Stephen nods, “I know the type. What about this one?” He pulled a picture out of the grid – handsome guy, brown hair, silver eyes. Strong bones, Stark bones…
Dysaryn frowned, digging at his memory, ignoring the info prompt his implant gave him. He recognized the face…knew he did it. It came to him.
“Kieran? Really? Little Kier? I guess he would be about old enough, wouldn’t he? He was a quiet kid, I remember…bookish. No idea how he’ll do.”
Stephen nodded, “Hopefully well. Wouldn’t want to embarrass the house, especially since you’re Prime. Poor kid has a lot riding on him.”
Dysaryn shook his head, “The hell he does. Anyone gives him shit because of me, I’ll skin the bastard, see if I don’t.”
His eyes caught a flash of something, pulled up a picture, “Here’s one for you, Stephen. Go at it.”
Stephen studied the image, smiling, “Kailynn Maern, one of Deyna’s. Takes after her mother. Strongly. She’s got the ability, yeah, but she’s…prickly. And she’s hungry. She’s already asked Alex for help, came on strong about the family honor, about how she can’t let the family down.”
Dys nodded, “Alex blew her off?”
Stephen smiled, “I have it on good authority that he looked at her like she’d grown a second head and gawked. That girl of his, Alicia, let her down easy. Good girl, that. Stable. Deyna nearly blew a gasket when she found out that he’d gotten married. Screamed at him like he’d committed a crime or something. He stood there and took it, then told her that his only regret in marrying Alicia was that it took so long for him to work up the nerve to do it. I have never been so proud of my son as I was then, Dys.”
Dysaryn chuckled, “Good for him. Make sure that Deyna knows that I will be personally offended by any further negative activity towards my very good friend Alex and his new wife. Perhaps even remind the good Lady Maern that Alicia is my cousin, hmm?”
Stephen laughed, “I’ll add that to the list. Anyone else strike your fancy?”
Dysaryn glanced over the grid again, pulled up a face, “Ash De’Valoran. Kral’s youngest, you’ve never met him. One of my father’s circle. Damien, his oldest, is one of my bodyguards. Good man, solid. Don’t know Ash personally, but I think he’ll do well.”
Dysaryn looked over the grid of faces, proud, young faces. Even his people, his Revenians, were young. Old for the Temple, perhaps, but age was a nebulous thing among his people, and no-one went into the Temple old. He didn’t really think it was possible. The pictures radiated life, radiated innocence. Soon, those young people would become killers…
“Who do we have lined up for instructors, Steph?”
Stephen called up the pertinent file, distinctive pause of a man accessing his implant, “Hmm. Senior Adept Beric Kayd is lead instructor, subs are Adept Lory Isen and Adept Geoff Rose. War Mage evaluator is Sarah Taryn – I’m sorry, Dys, but that’s who Vale put forward. She must be up on rotation, or you pissed him off…”
Dys shook his head, “It’s fine. I’m over that. Several millennia over that.”
Stephen shrugged, “Yeah, maybe you are, but she hasn’t had that luxury.”
Dys made a sort of rising gesture with his right hand, “Deal with that if the issue arises. Who’s the Alpha Evaluator?”
Stephen looked subtly nervous, silent for a moment before speaking, “Warseeker Alpha Evaluator is Karl Shaner.”
Dysaryn blinked, “Shit. Karl? Really? That’s going to be hard as hell on Julian, and the poor kid isn’t even going to know why.”
Stephen nodded, his eyes seeing something that wasn’t there, “You should talk with him, maybe. Explain things.”
Dysaryn shook his head, “Can’t. Protocol. No influencing the Evaluator, period. I can’t even remove him, because he knows his stuff, he’s a good soldier, a good Gunslinger, and to be honest with you, he’s got every reason to be pissed at Kethvae.”
Stephen nodded, “Oh, certainly. But Karl’s going to transfer that over to Julian just because he’s Kethvae’s son, and that isn’t right.”
Dys sighed, “Yeah, and if it gets bad, I’ll step in…but, damnit, I don’t want to risk making it an issue before I know that there is an issue.”
Stephen shrugged, “Your call, Prime. Your call.”
Dysaryn winced, “Don’t I just know it.”
Initiate Inprocessing, The Temple, Seydar, Nightreign
Julian was one among many. Just another person in black clothes, duffel-bag in hand, amidst a sea of similar people. The styles of clothing were different, the bags were different, the people were different…but the purpose was the same. The calling was the same. They were all here for the Temple. For the honor, the glory, the respect. The discipline, the skill – this was the defining moment in their life.
Julian fantasized, for a moment, feeling the same way. He didn’t – this was, for him, an escape. Away from the greater Ascended culture that he’d suddenly crashed into, away from his newfound family, away from his dead-end old life. It was a knee-jerk reaction, yeah, the same one he’d made when he joined Fleet Marines – away from actually having to decide what he wanted to do with his life. Away from responsibility and the question of just exactly who he was. Strange that he’d privately consider this the cowards way out, but if he wasn’t beating on himself for something he wouldn’t know who he was in the morning.
He shakes his head wryly, and it begins…
The great doors slide open, smooth, regal, theatric. A man strides out, glances them over, dismisses them with his glance. His hair is cut short, gray, like his eyes. Square-jawed, solid, Julian brushes up against his mind, feeling the strength, the stubbornness. The man is a rock, personified. He wears a longcoat over his Temple Blacks, Senior’s rank insignia on his lapels. Warblade and blast pistol are present – Julian has been feeling the lack of the first since he arrived and was informed that he would be required to turn his in. It was alien and insulting – he’d come to expect such things from foreigners, but from his own people? From the very people who should understand how much that hurt the best? That confused him.
The Senior Adept shook his head, a tick of irritation beginning to show above his left eye. He clears his throat, requesting silence, doesn’t get it. Julian is mentally prepared for what comes next, but nothing, nothing could have prepared him for the whipcrack of command tone…except, he didn’t feel it. Apparently, neither did several of the others. About three quarters of the initiates have fallen silent, others do not, seem not to hear him, not to notice him. Julian doesn’t understand what has happened, doesn’t understand why the Senior Adept is smiling.
The Senior Adept turns, facing backwards into the darkness beyond the great doors, looks expectant. A second figure strides into the light, tall, powerful – hair like a cloudy day, eyes like polished silver, like mercury. Julian knows him immediately, is surprised. Why was Dysaryn Stark here? Did the Warseeker Alpha Prime always make an appearance at inprocessing, or was this a special occurance? Was it merely to lend authority to the Senior, because the Senior didn’t have the oomph to exercise Command Tone over all of his new initiates, many of home would be from prominent houses, some of whom, like Julian himself, were Great House Ascended. Julian found himself wondering who had exercised command tone over Dysaryn Stark at his inprocessing…
Dysaryn looked over the initiates, smiling. His eyes were possessive, his smile gentle, the look of a man reminiscent was about him, of a man performing a task he enjoyed, had once undergone once. Julian reached out to taste his thoughts and…met a blank wall. A chuckle in a corner of his mind, a gentle poke between the eyes. Julian hadn’t known that anyone could block him, it wasn’t an intrusion in the normal sense, but, he supposed, if anyone could, it would be Dysaryn…
Then, suddenly, Dysaryn got to business, opened his mouth, spoke one word. Not particularly loudly, certainly wouldn’t have carried over the clamor of fifty young Ascended running their mouths.
And there was. Immediate, sudden, all-encompassing silence. Several, those who had been talking, Julian thought, seemed to not even breath. Julian felt it like a slap in the face, felt the world-devouring urge to comply. Command Tone. The legacy of a race made to fight the wars of its gods, a people designed to produce the perfect soldiers, ready and able to fight and die for the causes of their betters – his people have spent an eternity fighting its shackles, trying to protect against the damage that can be done by even one charismatic leader. Like Seth Chovas, his great-uncle – the immediate thought, there. He’d learned all about Seth from his father, how could he not? Kethvae Chovas was who he was because of Seth Chovas. Julian didn’t think he was capable of that much hate. Eventually, he’d forgiven everything. Everything but the death of his mother – that, he tried not to think about.
Dysaryn was speaking again, “Good. Now that I have your attention – Senior, the floor is yours.”
The Senior Adept bowed his slightly, an act the two of them put on. Dysaryn lending his authority to the Senior, declaring to the instinctual portion of the Ascended mind, the part that bound their instinctual loyalties, that the Senior was someone worthy of respect because a Great Leader said so – because Dysaryn Stark said so.
“Ladies, Gentlemen! I am Senior Adept Beric Kayd, and I will be your primary instructor during this inprocessing. That makes me, for the duration, the single most important person in your lives. More important than your mother, more important than your father, more important than the Master Guardian here, more important than the First Lord or the Warprince or anybody else, because it is I, and I alone, who will make the eventual decision as to whether or not you may become an initiate in my beloved Temple. Whether or not you have the devotion, the dedication, the potential to become one of the defenders of our great civilization.”
Dysaryn withdrew wordlessly, his cloak sweeping the ground behind him -- Stark white, Julian noticed. A statement, indeed, but to whom? The Senior Adept glanced over the crowd, piercing glance, practiced glance – this man had done this before, Julian was certain. Done this a hundred times. Found it annoying that he still required someone like Dysaryn to grant him authority over the potentials, the nobodies before him…but they were not of the Temple yet, they were still thick with the dirt of the outside, and that made them resistant.
“Some of you have aspirations of becoming Warseekers Alpha – hope to suck up to the Alpha Evaluator to increase your chances. I will warn you now – do not. First, such activity is disgusting, unfit of a Guardian. Second, if I declare you unfit to become an initiate, and I will, without hesitation, should I suspect you of such activity, it won’t matter what the Evaluators think – you’re done.”
There was a pause, and the Senior Adept smiled, “Well, that said…let’s get started. Inside and to your left, get it moving. We’re on a schedule, and I understand that you’re all hopeless but I’d like to see at least a bit of professionalism out of the lot of you, so, no crowding, no pushing, orderly! MOVE!”
They did. The Senior flashed about alongside the stream of people, in the middle of the stream, once appearing in Julian’s face, snarling, before smacking the girl to Julian’s right and telling her to pick her feet up, don’t shuffle, this isn’t your forsaken primary.
No, thought Julian, it wasn’t. But it felt a lot like home.
Initiate Inprocessing, The Temple, Seydar, Nightreign
“Bags in the bin to the left, don’t worry, we know what belongs to who and we are secure in our indifference to the matter. Clothing in the bin to the right – don’t be modest, get a move on. I know it’s embarrassing, and I could not conceivably care less.”
Grumbling, the prospects disrobe. There are heated cheeks, strategically placed hands. Some don’t care, some ogle others openly, some make comments, Julian remains relaxed, controlled. Two hundred young, virile Ascended in good physical condition in one room, and Julian stares straight ahead, smiling only ever so slightly.
The Senior looks out over his charges, nods, leads them onward.
“The bins to your left hold uniforms, undergarments, boots. Take them, wear them.”
Julian does so, smiling at a joke only he hears. The uniforms are black, universal. The top is tight, a simple black t-shirt. The pants are loose, simple, Temple black. They fit perfectly, not exactly the simple cloth they appear. He laces up the boots, grinning now, rises, unable to keep a straight face.
The Senior Adept materializes.
“Something amusing, ‘spect?”
Julian shakes his head, “Not particularly, Senior Adept.”
“Then why, exactly, are you grinning like a fool?”
Shrug, “I don’t know, Senior Adept.”
The knee flashes up, catches him in the chest – Julian lets it happen, doubles over, gasping for breath. The Senior Adept steps back, waiting for Julian to regain his composure. Once he does, he feints a blow. Julian doesn’t flinch. The Senior Adept grows contemplative.
“You’d be the Chovas kid, then, wouldn’t you? Trouble, that means. Think you’re hot shit because you know what I’m going to do before I do it?”
The Senior moves so fast Julian is left gawking, the Senior’s mind is calm, ripple-less, his body is a blur, driving Julian to his knees, to the ground. The Senior pins Julian down with a knee on his back, hand yanks his head up, the Senior Adept’s breath is warm on his ear.
“Not so hot as all that. You’re nothing special – you remember that. All of you remember that. Whatever you were before you stepped through these doors, forget it. It’s meaningless here. You’re all cattle, sheep, children. Clumsy, unrefined. Dangers to yourself and others. If you’re lucky, if you’re good, if you’re determined, you might get a chance to change that. Probably not. We’ll see.”
Julian drags himself up off the ground, gasping for breath, seeing stars. He’d thought he was good, nothing like that. Nothing special, indeed. The Senior Adept didn’t just lack a tell, he hadn’t thought about what he was going to do. Julian had had a flicked of decision, and that was it. Scary.
The Senior moved on. The prospects moved on.
“At this time, you will be broken up into squads of eight. These squads will be further split into two fireteams of four, and ultimately down to a team of two. Each squad will have an appointed squad leader, who will also command the first fireteam. The commander of the second fireteam will be the squad leader’s second in command. The dividing will begin now.”
Names were called, people thrown together, one person given control over the total strangers he or she was grouped with. He waited for his name, heard it.
“Chovas, Julian. Squad Leader.”
Was this a good thing, he wondered? He hadn’t expected it, though he had wanted it. Always had – only after having command barred from him in the AFESSR did he realize how much he wanted it. Way of things. Had expected to have to work hard for it, here, but they were handing it to him on a platter. Well, that didn’t mean much – he was probably going to have to work twice as hard now, because, inevitably, his personal success hinged on the success of his squad, and that meant he had to deal with any issues before they became the Senior’s problem…
The assignments finished, Julian didn’t bother to consider his new troops yet, was still watching the Senior, who had been joined by two other Guardians, both with Adept rank insignia.
“Allow me to introduce Adept Lory Isen and Adept Geoff Rose, they will be assisting me in this inprocessing. You will respect them. They will make you respect them. They are Guardians. You are not. Even squads, with Adept Isen. Odd Squads, with Adept Rose.”
Silent, Julian ushered his squad before him, still just flesh-colored blobs, indistinct faces, snatches of thoughts. Fourteenth Squad, they were, and he herded them along after Adept Isen, a straw-blonde serious-faced woman who reminded Julian of an RSN captain he’d once known. There was nothing of Sandy’s playfulness in the Adept’s eyes, though, and her mind was a cold, cold place. Julian found himself shivering, stopped. Scary woman.
Herded into a bare room, the Adept glanced them over, “You get eight hours. Sleep, fight, kill each other, doesn’t matter. The doors are time-sealed. Work things out, we’ll clean up the bodies tomorrow. Facilities are in the rear.”
The door hissed shut, unyielding gray metal. Julian looked about the room, blank metal bulkheads, eight beds. Door at the back, presumably the mentioned facilities. Attention shifted to his squad. Roughly even male/female split, he tastes them all, finding confusion, shock, and in one case, aggression. Towards him. He faces the source, short girl, fire-red hair, blue-silver eyes. Raises an eyebrow.
“You got something to say, say it, ya?”
She snarls, “There ain’t no way in hell I’m taking orders from you, Chovas. I’ve heard all about you – got kicked out of your little two-bit military so you think you can come here, ya? Foreign bitch saw through you, broke your heart, and now you’re nothing. Senior Adept proved that.”
Julian sighed, “Let’s get this over with.”
She came at him low, like she knew what she was doing. Maybe she did, he didn’t really care, didn’t need his talent as an edge, blocked her first punch, trapped it, tossed her into a wall. Waited for her to get back up then moved in fast, hard, elbow, elbow, knee, backhand. She pulled herself up, came at him again, he let her get a little closer then feinted left and hit her hard right, dropped her. She didn’t get up.
Julian dusted himself off, “Well, that was fun. Anybody else, while I’m up? Good. You, Gwen, that is your name, yes, I know, are my partner. You, the tall one, Spike, right? You’re second team lead. Don’t complain, Gwen, you have just secured yourself my very special attention.”
He smiled then, “You belong to me, now. I will be judged partially on how well each and every one of you do, and a portion of any failure on your part will be attributed to me. I do not enjoy failure. Therefore, I will do everything in my power to insure that it does not occur. You have just seen an example of that – I have identified a weakness and moved to correct it. I hope that I can carry a weak partner, we shall find out – I’ll take the handicap head on rather than letting it fester. On that note, lights out. Get to know your partner, get some sleep. Today, the Senior Adept made an example out of me. I very much do not want to repeat that experience – do not embarrass me.”
He killed the lights with a gesture, one of his bag of tricks. Found a bed, made sure that Gwen took the one next to his. Going to need work, that one – anyone with a functioning brain wouldn’t have bet on her taking him down. Ahh, well. He’d not expected this to be easy.
Adept Isen came for them next morning, Julian had them formed up, neat, ready. The Adept frowned, told them to stay put, dragged him outside the room to talk to.
“Alright, Chovas, what the fuck? Showing off will get you nowhere, or maybe you’ve just proved that nobody in your squad has the fire to make a worthwhile Guardian, you ever think of that? We don’t need drones – we’ve got those, hell, we’ve got combat frames for our AIs and combat avatars, too – but we still come back to our Warseekers. You’ve got them standing at attention, even the little one you beat the shit out of last night, and what was that about? You didn’t need to beat her that hard, but you did. You need better control than that, buddy.”
Julian nodded, “Thank you, Adept, I will take that under advisement. But, if I may be permitted, you’re grasping at straws. There’s nothing wrong with my squad, and maybe I worked Gwen over a little hard, maybe I felt a little obligated – she was trying to piss me off. I’m sure you could hand me my ass, Adept, but, damnit, I know how to lead a squad.”
Isen shook her head, “Maybe you did, Chovas, but this is the Temple. We do things differently here.”
Julian bowed his head, “As you say, Adept.”
The Adept frowned, “Okay, kid, you’ve impressed me. Get your squad out here – oh, and you might want to know. Impressing me is a bad thing.”
Julian allowed himself a slight smile at the Adept’s retreating back, then turned on his heel and got his squad moving, sharply, sharply. He was a sheep dog plying his trade, nipping his squad into conformity, riding their flanks, keeping the line straight, the spacing even. This wasn’t battle, he wasn’t leading. This was drill, he was correcting. No need for inspiration, just perfection – he was going to push as hard as he could, because this was it for him. This was his last resort. After the Temple, there was nothing – he’d never make it in the Watch, not his style. Not yet.
The Senior Adept was prowling, looking for faults to rant about. Julian was determined to not provide him with ammunition, and as the Senior stalked by, Julian felt that flaw-seeking eye take in his squad, his too-perfect squad, and the Senior stopped, caught Julian’s eye, gave him a slight nod, then moved on. Down the line, the Senior threw a slight silver-haired girl up against a wall, screaming at her. Down the line, the Senior laughed at something a silver-haired boy with Stark cheekbones said, patted him on the shoulder, walked on. Down the line, Julian stopped caring.
Adept Rose, the one he hadn’t met yet, appeared.
“Pretty looking squad you’ve got here, Julian. Pretty name, too. Girly. Heard you make jewelry – pretty lame thing for a big man like you, huh? Maybe you’re as soft as they say you are, pining after foreign gash. What’samatter, hmm? Own kind not good enough for you?”
Julian bit down on anger, feeling the whimsy from the Adept, that not able to take the bite from the words as Rose ground his heel into still open wounds. But Julian couldn’t afford to let them hurt, couldn’t afford to slide back down a cliff he’d clawed his way up once already.
“Adept, I was also discharged from the Fleet Marines for medical reasons, psychological reasons. And my father killed my mother. I know my weaknesses, and I know my triggers. Kindly show me at least a modicum of courtesy and let them be? If you want to throw me into a wall, go right ahead. I won’t fight.”
There was a rustle of unease from his squad, but the Adept was too involved in considering him to notice. A few moments later Rose was gone, stalking off, looking for someone else to torment. Julian drew a breath, calming himself. He’d been closer to edge there than he’d have liked, and Rose was a prick, he could feel it. Dysaryn Stark appearing like magic before him sent back a step.
Dysaryn smiled, “Sorry, Julian, didn’t mean to spook you. Just checking up on the lot of you – I was Senior Adept for a while, you know? Hated it. Absolutely hated it. Much prefer this, being the good guy. Soothing. Everything going alright? They fed you yet?”
Julian nodded, “Everything is going fine, Sir. No, we haven’t been fed yet.”
Dys frowned, “Well, that’s no good. SENIOR ADEPT!”
Senior Adept Kayd materialized at Dysaryn’s elbow, “Yes, Master Guardian?”
Dysaryn smiled absently, “Food for the prospects. Simplicity – one cannot function without food.”
The Senior Adept nodded, “Prospects! Follow Adept Isen to mess! Go!”
Julian allowed himself to fall into the hypnotic step, the prospect of food strangely seductive, though he knew it would be simple fare. Perhaps a little luxury, snuck him by one of the cooks – likely, he thought, feeling that Dysaryn would chose to sit with his squad a time, perhaps with others, but attention from the Warseeker Alpha Prime could be a mixed blessing. Singled him out for pricks like Rose to take objection too, it did…typical, unsurprising. He smiled. Day started off well had a better chance of ending well.
Dysaryn Stark meshed his fingers together, stretched, listening to the minute pops as he flexed. Reversed his hands, he worked his wrists, exhaling. Rituals complete, he turned to Adept Danielle Corey and nodded once.
“How’s our guest doing?”
Adept Corey flicked images across one of the large screens with minute finger motions, stopping on one feed that focused on a young-faced, silver-haired, silver-eyed boy with more than passing resemblance to the Gunslinger Prime himself. Corey nodded slowly, swiveled the feed about to show the other seven people moving in concert with the boy.
“Kayd put her in Kieran’s squad.”
Dysaryn frowned momentarily, “Really? I would’ve expected him to put her with Julian, he’s well-equipped to deal with any issues that might arise, and more he won’t let any of his people get left behind…still, it’s Beric’s call, not mine…”
Corey frowned, “You think she’ll be a problem for Kieran?”
Dysaryn shrugged, “I don’t know him well enough to say. I know that sounds strange, seeing as he’s my relative, but you know how the job is, I don’t have the time to stay current with family.” He purposefully didn’t mention the Fall, was trying to train himself to not consider it, since while everyone had experienced it, only a few had survived to suffer through the time until the Resurgence…
Corey nodded, “Well, if she becomes an issue, I’m sure it’ll be dealt with.”
Dysaryn returned his eyes to the feed, “Who’s his second?”
Adept Corey checked her notes, “Umm…Dalton Cray.”
Dysaryn’s eyes lit with sudden understanding, small grin forming, “Ah-hah. That would explain it.” Beyond that, he said no more. Secrets were secrets, and the walls had ears. Or, rather, certain of the prospects had very good hearing…
Kieran Stark sat lightly on the bench, willing the tray of gray nutrient mush to be anything but a tray of gray nutrient mush. It took a directed act of will to pick up the spoon, scoop some up, and bring it to his mouth, and it tasted exactly the way he expected it to – like wet cardboard. He forced the mouthful down, trying not gag, kept his mouth closed as it came back up, waited for the convulsions to past, then forced it back down.
Knowing, immediately, that he couldn’t take another bite, he reached for the only condiment available – unlabeled hot sauce. Unscrewing the cap, his nostrils burned with the scent of capsaicin. Sighing, he dribbled a slight amount into the mush, stirring his spoon through it, capped the bottle, tried another spoonful…
Eyes squeezed shut, watering, but he swallowed, didn’t choke, took another spoonful, another. Burnt all the way down his throat, but it was better than straight. Slightly. Just enough to be edible, as was, inevitably, the point. Everything was a goddamn test, here, he’d known that from the beginning – had studied Paul Stark’s original design documents for the Stark Elite Combatant program that he’d later modified for the Guardian Temple when he founded that program. Just another test, another choice between several difficult situations. Force the mush down unaided, if you could. If you couldn’t, you had the hot sauce, which made the process a little easier, but aided a nice side-dish of pain to the meal. Or you could go hungry, but that wasn’t really an option, not for him. Not when they’d shortly be pushing him to his limits and beyond. Didn’t matter how good you were, they’d push you to the edge eventually. Point wasn’t how long it took or even what it took, point was how you dealt with it.
Little, tiny smile, glanced over his squad, “Eat up, lads, everything a body needs to keep functioning. If you need someone to put you in a headlock, pinch your nose, and force it down your throat, speak up, because if that’s what’s necessary, that’s what’s necessary – they give us dirt, we eat the dirt and like it.”
He tried to look tough, was fairly certain the attempt was laughable. Wasn’t that he was scrawny, he wasn’t, but he wasn’t big, either, and a couple of the guys in his squad dwarfed him, but. But, for now, he a knew a few tricks that they didn’t, and when those ran out, well, he’d figure that out when it came to it.
My hearing is acute, acute enough to know that my squad leader was gagging on his breakfast, despite his well disciplined attempts to overcome said reflex. I just took another bite. I had eaten dirt in the past, though as one might well guess I hadn't liked it and would refuse to like it just because someone 'demanded it'. But with a physiology close to that of a Nietzschean, it was easy to digest such, turning it into useable nutrients. One didn't have to like it; one just had to do it.
Though part of me did wonder of the data crystal that had preceded my arrival included everything about me. Actually I didn't have to wonder. I knew that even the Empress, much less the databanks of the Phoenix Empire, didn't know all about me, and I intended it to remain that way. The Voice in my head preferred it that way as well. Shai had a near mania for privacy.
Quietly, not resorting to the hot sauce, I finished my portion of the noxiously bland gruel, while taking a discrete look over my squad mates once again. The others at the table had introduced themselves to me last night, a hurried flurry before Lights Out. Most of them had silently wondered why a complete outlander was not only allowed into training but part of their particular squad. None had asked aloud and I had not been inclined to elucidate beyond my name. It had taken me but moments to sort their names and faces. Awakening before dawn, not needing any more sleep but laying still as I went though my own limbering exercises I reviewed them. My memory had worked it out while I slept, attaching the bits and pieces of my observations of the others to the more factual data of name, house and appearance.
The uniform felt ever so slightly ‘new’ if comfortable and the boots fit like well worn gloves. The cut and material was unfamiliar, though that brought me no more discomfort than undressing before strangers had. Which was not at all, my origins had exterminated even the concept of body modesty. . I had trained and worked as a First Contact specialist for close to twenty- five years. And one can't be as good as I had been if the new, the unusual, and the outright outré bothers ones psyche. I rested with comfortably proper posture on the bench and hid a gentle smile at my squad leaders attempt at a stern look. He seemed to be earnest enough to have the Voice in my head chuckling had I not figuratively held her lips shut. I didn’t need his attention and if I hadn’t stifled her it might have leaked though. He didn’t need to be thinking that I didn’t take him seriously – I did, but smiles the first day back into yet another Basic Training weren’t Good Things.
And I was even less impressive that he was, when it came to the physical side of things. Barely five four and by looks my figure might run a muscular one fifteen. The first one that tried a strength move on me would discover that despite my lithe figure I weighted close to half again as much, courtesy of what I was. And I had no idea how soon some one might try that, though I figured more likely to be sooner rather than later, given the induction of yesterday.
I'd already come to one conclusion. The Senior Adept was good, very good, as good as the Ranger Colonel and that I did not like the Senior Adept one iota. I tend to not like people that feel they have to make examples of others. The young man, a Julian Chovas, whom he made an example of didn't need it. He felt too much to the Voice in my head like an Empath that hadn't had the proper training. And a powerful one at that.
But both of us, the Voice in my head and I, are running on too little data, too little information about the Ascendancy, their culture and society. And the last two are wholly different things. This learning was certain to be the hardest I had ever undertaken, of that I was suddenly sure. And Shai agreed with me. And we were both eager to be about it. Though deep in the privacy of my mind I chuckled as she wondered at our collective sanity - for there had been a time that the Voice in my head had made me question my sanity. Now I couldn’t imagine life without her.
Room 7-21, The Temple, Seydar, Nightreign
Dysaryn Stark rubbed his temples lightly, trying to remember the last time he'd slept. Inprocessing was always a hectic time, came with the job -- not Warseeker Alpha Prime. The Alpha Prime had very little to do with inprocessing. Unfortunately, the present Alpha Prime was also Master of Initiates, and the Master of Initiates had to monitor inprocessing very carefully, to ensure that nothing went wrong.
Then, in his copious free time, he had to stay appraised of the political situation -- because he was also the First Lord's grandson, and then there was the drama in the Watch, and his actual duties as Alpha Prime, and as one of only a very few instructor-rated Warseekers active in the Temple, he was obligated to perform those duties as well...
Sleep, sadly, didn't come easily. Eventually, he was going to have lock himself a way for a day or three and hibernate, but that was in the future, for the moment, he had a meeting, which was why he was in 7-21, rather than somewhere else. 7-21 was a 'black room,' a black hole for information -- it goes in, not out. As proof against prying eyes and ears as the Guardian Temple could manage. Black rooms had always bothered Dysaryn, because they blocked his Sight -- when he was in one, he couldn't See out, outside, blind to what on inside. He had it from reliable sources that the Chovas talent was blocked as well, as were more mundane methods of spying..
Shrugging mentally, Dysaryn let his head loll back over the top of the alloy-frame chair, eyes closing. Kayd was late. That grated. Too many things to be doing to be sitting on his ass in a black room, but this was important.
Mercifully for his temper, the 'lock cycled to admit Kayd and one of his lackeys, the male, Rose. As he'd requested. Dysaryn didn't need to open his eyes to see, his Sight functioned quite adequately on things within the room, as did his Lifehand sensitivity. Without moving his head, he gestured to the two chairs he'd set up.
"Sit, gentlemen. On a bit of a schedule, so you'll forgive me for being a bit straightforward. Rose, I'm glad you got my message."
Dysaryn straightened up in his chair, opening his eyes, catching the dim light with their metallic intensity. A second later, he was out of his chair, his outstretched hand clamped tighly around Geoff Rose's neck, his knee on the other man's chest, the chair that Rose had been moving to sit in overturned.
"There's a difference between testing and needless cruelty, Rose. You don't get on a prospect just because you don't have anything better to do. Look at me, Adept, stop pretending to choke, you've got plenty of air. Tass Bryant, Rose! You remember him? I do. Bright kid, had a real chance at making Alpha. System guard, he'd had a bit of an incident with a girl he'd met on one of the resort worlds. Bryant's Senior took the issue up with him, discovered that it was still a little raw. Not enough to wash him, easily remedied with time or psych-help. Unfortunately, Adept Michelle Vonn had other ideas, pushed Bryant hard. Hit him a little..."
Dysaryn shook his head, "I was Alpha Evaluator, first person to respond to Vonn's R-Call. Bryant had stabbed her twenty three times with a pen. She lived. If you can call that living. A medical discharge was far, far less than she deserved. Bryant's a War Mage, now, in case you were wondering. Wasn't his damned fault."
He released Rose, then, stepping back off of him, "If you can't see what I'm getting at, I'm going to replace you on the spot -- don't push Julian just because he rubs you wrong, or whatever your idiot reason was. Okay?"
Rose rubbed this throat, rising to his feet, "Some would call that favoritism, Stark."
Dysaryn closed his eyes, but it was Kayd who spoke first.
"Geoff, think about what you're saying and who you're saying it to. The Master Guardian has a point, and it's one that I would've taken up with you...if I'd thought you'd listen. You're a good Warseeker, Geoff, and I know you can do this job, but you've got to think, man!"
Rose shook his head, picking his chair up, "Yeah, alright."
Dysaryn nodded, "Good. Now, Kayd, report."
The Senior Adept frowned, passed over a stack of black datachips, "Everyone seems to be settling in well, expect about the usual cut rate."
Dysaryn nodded, "Very good -- how many didn't eat?"
Kayd looked upwards for a half-second, "Umm, not too many. Twenty or so."
"Cut them -- first evolution will be the Bull's Run. They'll be dead without the energy."
Kayd frowned, "You really think that our...guest...can handle the Run?"
Dysaryn considered a spot on the far wall, "Either she can, or Kieran will carry her through it."
Rose looked up, startled, "You really think that he'd do something that crazy? He's been so by-the-book so far, it's like he's reading my notes."
Dysaryn chuckled, "That'd be because he has. Rather, he's read Paul Stark's notes. Of course, the Run is a later addition...and, yes. I think he'll do something that crazy."
Kayd shook his head, "I read him the same way Geoff did. What makes you think he'd risk it, act so out of character?"
Dysaryn glanced down at his hand, which he was resting on a chair-back, glanced up, "Because I'd do it, Senior Adept."
Rose shook his head, "It's against the rules, we'd cut him."
Dysaryn growled, "There aren't any forsaken rules, Rose. Besides, the possibility exists that she can hang."
Rose snorted, said nothing.
Kayd shot Rose a glance, grimaced, "Damn it. It's the Run, sir. It still kicks my ass. I'm going to have to get Lory to demonstrate with me, and she's going to hate me for it..."
Dysaryn shook his head, "I'll demonstrate, Senior Adept. My evolution, my run."
Kayd frowned, "When you say 'your evolution...'"
Dysaryn nodded, smiling as Kayd grimaced, "Well, I think that covers it. I'm going to go take a nap -- the Run doesn't forgive slackness."
Kayd rose, then blinked, "Ah, who's going to be your partner?"
Dysaryn smiled, "That will be a surprise, I think."
Adept Lory Isen glanced over the assembled prospects, nodding to herself in satisfaction. She was running this one alone, Kayd and Rose off reporting to the Master of Initiates, which was fine and dandy because she most certainly didn't need help to keep a room full of prospects calm while the war mages had a little one-on-one time with each of them.
The War Mage evaluator, Sarah Taryn, was a pain. Luckily, this wasn't her play, not alone -- too many prospects for one War Mage to evaluate in a reasonable time, so there was a whole gaggle of the hooded freaks about, and in more than one case, Isen found herself wishing they'd keep those damned hoods up.
"Watch your thoughts, Adept, some of these 'hooded freaks' don't respect the boundaries of others minds...and are easily offended."
Rhaegar Talmirion wasn't anybody that Isen enjoyed associating with, the Wilder plain gave her the creeps. Eyes were the worst, engulfed in chaosfire, made her sick to her stomach just looking at them. Wouldn't be wise to annoy him, though...
"Thank you, Master Guardian. I will keep that in mind."
Rhaegar nodded once, turned, returning his attention to the War Mages -- he wasn't here as a tester, he was here as insurance. This much power about, an untrained War Mage could be a hellish problem. It was protocol to have some on hand who could deal with it, which generally meant a Gunslinger -- whenever possible, a Wilder. They were so damned rare, though. Isen knew that Dysaryn Stark had often served as watchdog over these sessions when he'd been Alpha evaluator.
But, they had a Wilder -- a mindbreaker. When he wasn't actively suppressing it, his mere presence would shut down magic, psi, Ascended talents, anything within a decent distance of him. A little effort and he could lock a body down, a little more and he could burn them out. Scary stuff. Real scary, when you considered that in addition to all that the man was a Warseeker Alpha...
Of course, he paid for his gifts -- the eyes marked every Wilder, but each also paid in their own unique way. Headaches, bizarre growths -- Rhaegar's canines were overly developed -- things that prevented them from ever blending into normal society, having normal lives. Must suck.
Julian Chovas glared at the hooded War Mage waiting for him by the alloy-frame chair, sat down, irritated. Immediately, the War Mage was poking at his mind, tearing at his mind...
Julian snarled, pushing back, "What the fuck!?"
His attack was a swordthrust, breaching the War Mage's mind like his warblade would punch through armor plate. Once inside, he had to stop a moment and wonder exactly what he intended on doing -- it had been reflex, sheer reflex...
He pulled out, the War Mage falling away, screaming. Immediately, Rhaegar Talmirion was there, and Julian fully expected to never feel anything again as the Wilder scorched his mind, but Rhaegar never let his gift rise, instead frowned, turned, "TYRAN! Where the fuck did you get off to, witch!"
The Wilder bent down, grabbed the War Mage who'd been evaluating Julian by the back of her, Julian only knew it was a her because he'd been in her mind, hooded coat, lifting her up off the ground with entirely all too much ease. Rhaegar pushed the hood back with his other hand, and growled, low, menacing.
Sarah Tyran hurried over, "What, what happened?"
Rhaegar glared at her, chaosfire crackling in his eye sockets. Whether there were actual eyes in there or not was impossible to tell through simple observation..
"Tyran, why is this half-trained Krith'dag fool present?"
Tyran blinked, "Put her down! Mara, are you okay?"
Rhaegar snarled, released, Mara falling to her knees, shook his head, reached down and hauled her to her feet.
"What the hell, exactly, did you think would happen when you tried to force your way into this boy's mind? Oh, you think, he's not been trained, meh-meh-meh. IDIOT. You think anybody is more qualified to teach the Chovas talent than Kethvae, I should scorch you right now, you're a danger to yourself and others."
Turning to Julian, he waved him off, "Get back to your squad, you're no War Mage."
Julian nodded, jogged off. Rhaegar sighed, "Finesse, female. I'm watching you."
Kieran shook his head as his turn came up and one of the hooded War Mages approached to lead him to a chair, "Don't bother -- you really think you'll see something that Ian Stark didn't?"
There was, of course, no answer but 'no' to that -- Ian Stark had left the position of Master of War Mages, the equivalent of Warseeker Alpha Prime, to become Lord Stark upon his father's death.
Down the 8th Squad line the War Mages went, passing over Tora -- there weren't any non-Ascended War Mages -- and 8th Squad's 2nd fireteam leader, Dalton Cray. No words were exchanged, there, just a significant glance and a flicker of Battle Sign.
There weren't any non-Ascended War Mages
'Oh there were not?' Shai was not in the general habit of reading others minds without permission or need, but when it was broadcast strongly, so smugly, that it danced a jig in front of one…
'Master Adept, Rhaegar Talmirion' The crystal clear mind voice that rapped politely at the edges of his shields was respectful if crisply brusque. And held enough authority behind it to let him know that those shields might have been in danger of being broken if the two had met in combat 'how much of this temple do I have to ring like a bell to get properly assessed?'
Shai's own intangible and discrete shields were adamantine but highly flexible and adaptable. Honed by over five hundred years of the most demanding training the Towers could devise, as well as tested and proven in combat even before the majority of that formidable training. Her ability with arcane energies was minimal, she had never had the free time to learn beyond the bare minimums. Being Tenerista Tanara had taken up far more time with administrative duties than she cared to endure. But within the Empire she had been second to none within the realm of psionics.
I almost moved a quarter step out of line so that the Master Adept could see us clearly, but decided not to. I knew that Shai had been able her hold own against every test in the past and I trusted her to hold our own now. Once I had been a complete null, made so by the deliberate destruction of parts of my mind. However the Towers had Healed that injury, regrown what had been taken, and while it might not have had the raw power of the original, she still managed.
I kept a closer ear on the War Mages that were nearest, but did not let the positioning of any of them slip from my consciousness. If there was going to be retribution for her question it might come first from them, but to make assumptions was foolish. Shai would take care of her end of things and I the other. Though I knew that she could move my body with ease should she need to, and while I had resented that 'possession' at first, I more or less accepted it now. I was almost certainly going to be the only body she ever had again.
It also might not be directed solely at us. And while the Voice in my head might have thought it first, yes I can be that paranoid at times. I'd seen group leaders punished for the trespasses of their squad many a time before. And yesterdays performances, and yes they had been just that- performances- had not convinced me that these people had left that failing behind.
Rhaegar growled softly, overriding the instinctive reflex to release his gifts, instead clamping down on them even harder, suppressing them almost entirely so as to be able to actually 'hear' the other's mindvoice. He wouldn't even have noticed had he not been actively suppressing his gift -- the maelstrom of wild energies that swirled about him effectively isolated him from such forms of contact.
Even though he might have been able to suppress his gifts enough to be able to receive a message, he couldn't respond -- his gifts scorched out any talents he might have possessed at birth. Thus, he actually had to take a moment to determine from whence that message had come -- not terribly difficult, whoever it was had gotten his rank wrong, which narrowed things down quite significantly.
He shook his head slightly, subvocalizing a few sharp words into his comm-bead, essentially, 'Leave this to me.' Running a hand through his platinum-white hair, he allowed himself a choice few thoughts concerning the audacity and arrogance of foreigners, then calmly made his way to the 8th Squad line, walking down it, hands hanging loosely at his sides -- a different Warseeker Alpha might have toyed with his Warblade's swordstone, but Rhaegar's warblade was of the oldest pattern, a near five-foot greatsword. His blade made a degree of sense -- he stood near six foot eight, powerfully built.
Finally, he stopped before Tora, taking a few moments to examine her.
"First point -- I am a Warseeker Alpha, my rank is Master -- the proper form of address is 'Master Guardian,' impersonal, or 'Master Rhaegar,' personal. Second, I would take personal offense were you to do anything to harm the Temple structure. Third, I challenge your reasoning. The purpose of this evaluation is to identify individuals who will require additional training -- you are, I think, already capable of controlling whatever gifts you do possess? The sole purpose of this evaluation is to identify prospective War Mages and ensure that they do not do any harm to themselves or others for the duration of the inprocessing period. This is done by placing a temporary block upon a body's capacity to channel the War Mage gifts."
He paused, considered a moment, "The point I am getting at, Prospect, is that we mean no slight to whatever abilities you may possess, but this is inprocessing. No training occurs during inprocessing -- only testing. Before the Temple invests the time and resources necessary to develop a body into a Warseeker, we like to have a fair idea that those resources won't be wasted."
He considered her silently for a number of seconds, "Unless you are trying to say that you feel that you -- or the presence within you -- are a threat to yourself, your instructors, or your fellow prospects due to an incapability to control your abilities, though I do not think this is the case..."
He allowed his words to trail off as Adept Isen's voice cracked over the room, "Prospects! Good news! The War Mages having finished their initial muddling about in your heads, if you were to look to your immediate left, you would notice that our beloved Senior Adept has rejoined us. What news do you bring, oh Controller of Fates?"
Senior Adept Kayd chuckled softly, "Oh, nothing good, Adept Isen. Nothing good. Prospects! Your schedule of evolutions will begin immediately, and to pop your proverbial cherry, the Master of Initiates has selected an evolution that is very dear to his own heart, the very rightly feared Bull's Run. If you will accompany me, we can get the show started!"
Rhaegar coughed softly to hide a laugh, turning to Kieran, "Get your squad moving -- I'll walk with you a time, I think. This should be quite amusing."
The Run was staged in an amphitheatre, of sorts, rowed seating raised up above a central area, seemingly innocent enough. Noticeably, there was a lift to connect the upper level with the floor. Kayd and his Adepts, perhaps driven by a certain nervousness on their part, put in an extra degree of effort in getting the prospects inside and seated. Rhaegar walked lamely along beside 8th Squad, and if Kayd or either of his Adepts objected to his presence, none of them confronted him -- the Temple, quite sensibly, laid few restrictions on its elite, and Rhaegar had more than the usual amount of leniency, considering his gifts.
The amphitheatre was built to hold a far greater number of people than were in the current inprocessing 'class,' and thus Kayd had allowed his initiates to spread out in the first few rows, though he did constrained them to one of the longer sides of the ovoid amphitheatre. At the front of the raised seating area, Kayd was joined by two men -- both obviously veteran guardians, identifiable by the deference they were shown by Kayd and his assistants, even if one did not immediately recognize Dysaryn Stark and Alexander Maern.
Rhaegar chuckled lightly, "Ahh, that explains a lot -- bit of a shame, I would have enjoyed Kayd and...it'd have to be Isen, Rose isn't creative enough, giving their all. Still going to be a hell of a show, just not funny until you kids get your turn..."
Dysaryn hopped lightly up onto the guardrail preventing people from falling the ten or so feet to the floor below, balancing atop it like his feet were welded on. He was devoid of his longcoat, unusual for a ranking Guardian in the Temple, but understandable if he was going to be giving a demonstration. Presently, he wore clothing not dissimilar to the uniforms worn by the prospects, the only truly notable difference being that he wore a weapons harness by which his warblade was affixed to his bag, the hilt protruding over his right shoulder. The harness mirrored weapon retention functions built into Temple powered armor, allowing a degree of freedom impossible with a more conventional rig.
Glancing over the prospects, he nodded his head sharply, "Good, then, everyone is here -- for those of you who do not know me, I suppose I ought to introduce myself. I am Dysaryn Stark. Master Guardian and Warseeker Alpha Prime -- I am also Armsmaster of the Temple, and presently Master of Initiates, meaning that the select few of you who manage to impress Senior Adept Kayd sufficiently that he allows you into the Temple then get to attempt to satisfy me. Before you can do that, though, you must first prove yourself worthy of the Temple, and your very first direct assessment lies in your very immediate future. Luckily for you, Master Guardian Alexander Maern and myself have volunteered to demonstrate this particular little exercise."
He grinned. Widely.
"Now, the Bull's Run is derived from a Warseeker Alpha training exercise -- and by 'derived,' I mean that the original exercise is single-person, whereas almost all inprocessing evolutions are partners -- you have to become a Warseeker before you can become a Warseeker Alpha, gentlemen and ladies, and Warseekers fight in pairs. Now, the difficulty level was preserved. Consider that this is an exercise designed to challenge Warseekers Alpha -- you are not expected to perform at that level. We are simply trying to see how well you do placed in a nearly impossible situation."
He gestured over his left shoulder, at his Warblade's hilt, "Further, Alexander and I will be operating under the constraints of the original exercise -- no armor, armed solely with our warblades. These constraints have not been preserved, but more on that later. For now, Alex, you take left?"
Alexander Maern -- about an inch taller than Dysaryn, with steel-gray hair and silver eyes flecked with a reddish brown -- nodded his head, wandering calmly to the left, shutting the gate as he stepped onto it. He tapped the descent control, overriding the minimum-weight lockout designed to prevent what Dysaryn was planning on doing.
Once Alexander reached the floor, Dysaryn flipped lightly off the rail, turning a neat somersault as he fell to land upon the sand below. Standing erect, he waiting as Alexander walked across the arena floor, leaving visible footprints in the soft, sand-like bottom. Once Alex reached his preferred position, both men drew their Warblades. Alex's was a relatively conventional Temple-pattern Warblade -- a three foot backsword of blue-hued Eldensteel. Dysaryn's warblade -- Heartsflame -- was of a similar pattern, but was noticeably different. Heartsflame's eldensteel blade was tinted -- tainted -- a deep crimson color, rather than the blue of eldensteel.
With a glance across at his partner, Dysaryn spoke, "Load Inprocessing Evolution Nine Ninety Three -- Difficulty Scale to maximum. Participants: Dysaryn Stark, Warseeker Alpha Prime and Alexander Maern, Warseeker Alpha. Execute."
Immediately upon the ending of his last syllable, Dysaryn threw himself to the side, rolling through the landing on the soft sand, rising to his feet -- a meter away, where he had stood but seconds before, a gleaming silver construct, near ten feet tall, bull-headed, recovered from its charge. Dysaryn laughed, dropping lightly into a ready stance.
Opposite him, immediately, though steadily more rounded, Alexander Maern danced the outer-ring, engaging a series of much smaller silver constructs featuring, primarily, a whip-like articulated tentacle. Alex turned a circuit around the arena, working his hardest to keep the smaller constructs from interfering with Dysaryn, for every construct he allowed through would bind itself to Dysaryn, slowing him, making him an easier target for the rushing bull-construct.
Dysaryn danced to the side, his Warblade flashing in and out, lightning-quick, biting into the bull-construct's torso to no appreciable effect, save cosmetic. He was ready to repeat the maneuver when the construct vanished in mid charge, re-appearing behind him, having lost none of its built-up momentum. Dysaryn flung himself to his left, instantly, even then only barely avoiding a goring. One of the construct's clawed hand caught him on the leg, tearing a gash in his pants and leaving a spatter of crimson on the sand.
Near-instantly, the wound closed as Dysaryn punched his Lifehand. Meanwhile, the smaller constructs were spawning at a faster rate, and Alexander was finding himself hard-pressed to keep them off of his partner. Eventually, one slipped by, and the thing's whip-tentacle lashed itself around Dysaryn's ankle while he was in mid-leap, arresting his jump. The bull-construct would have finished him there, but Heartsflame flicked back, severing the tentacle, and he rolled out of the way, just barely. This time, he parried the swipe of claws with his blade, removing two of the talons on that limb.
As he recovered, awaiting another charge, he shouted out, "Little rusty, cousin? Usually another minute and a half before you start leaking!"
Alex growled, deftly executing a tentacle-construct with a thrust through its 'throat,' "Out of practice -- you're going to have to finish this soon, Dys, I can't keep up!"
Dysaryn cursed, side-on to the charging bull-construct, he hurled himself backwards, back arching in the air, turning full about to land on his feet, "I haven't slowed him at all yet, but.."
He danced away from flashing hooves and blurring claws, and he visibly changed -- the smiles and laughter were gone, replaced by an utter, absolute calm, a supreme focus, and Dysaryn Stark, Warseeker Alpha Prime, went to meet his foe. Heartsflame scythed, blurred, taking both of the bull-construct's arms at the elbow, and though the construct would trample him to oblivion in less than three seconds time, he picked his final strike, then launched it, Heartsflame straight as an arrow, his whole body thrown into the strike, directly into the chest of the bull-construct, and as he struck, he let himself crumple, threw every ounce of force he had into his blade, and threw the bull-monster over him, a headlong charge turned into flight. Heartsflame slipped effortlessly free as the bull-construct flew off it, headfirst into the arena wall.
A female voice announced: "Elapsed time, two minutes fifteen seconds. Result, victory by knockout. Participant Stark, Dysaryn: 75th consecutive victory, five second variation from personal best. Participant Maern, Alexander: 60th consecutive victory, two second variation from personal best."
Dysaryn picked himself up, dusting sand from his clothing, and sheathed his Warblade. Then he turned to address the prospects, "Now, you are not expected to perform at that level. Nor will your run be as difficult as mine. As I mentioned, you will be equipped differently -- you will be fitted with a five-charge personal protection shield. If you brought a warblade with you, that will be provided to you for this exercise. If you brought a different but preferred hand weapon, it will be considered. If you have none, a weapon will be provided for you."
He paused, joined Alexander on the lift to the upper level, "Now, the details. As you saw, there are two roles -- one person must engage the bull, the other must somehow keep the grapplers off of the bull-fighter. Isolated, these threats are manageable. But one person cannot handle both at once. The constructs within this evolution are very real, and capable of hurting, even killing you -- do not dismiss them. The protection shield provides you with a margin of error. Once it has expended its charges, it is my suggestion that you 'tap out,' because after those charges are expended, the blows that were being block will go through."
Dysaryn leaned back against the rail, considered the prospects, "Be aware that this evolution is participant-keyed. Meaning that the only person who can end it prematurely are the people in it. I will interfere to save your lives, but I am not obligated to do so, and in so doing I risk my life. This is as much a test of the mind as it is the body -- don't disappoint me."
He smiled, then, "Senior Adept, your first pairing?"
Kayd turned a moment to consult with his Adepts in murmured whispers, then turned back, "Kailynn Maern and Rhaevos Astac, Lead and partner, 5th Squad!"
Dysaryn nodded, waiting for Deyna Maern's youngest daughter and her chosen partner to come to the front. From a distance, Kailynn projected an image of casual ease, confident in her own ability -- Rhaevos was obviously nervous, a noticeable jerk in his pace, though once he got closer he steadied out, handsome face calming as he realized he was on display. Dysaryn nodded as they closed in, produced the small shield-units, mounted on arm bands, from a secure crate that had mysteriously arrived next to him.
Kailynn smiled, sweeping both Dysaryn and Alex with her gaze, "Hello, cousins! I can only hope I do you both proud. It would be a pity to embarass such close kin."
Dysaryn nodded once, "Good luck, Kailynn, and also to you, Rhaevos."
He produced two warblades from the secure crate, handing them over, then gestured to the lift...
Rhaegar winced as a grappler got a tentacle around Kailynn's ankle and she came down hard. She turned quick enough and cut at the tentacle, then scrambled out of the way of the oncoming bull-construct, which was much, much more ponderous than it had been for the demonstration. She got to her feet quickly, screaming loudly in middle ascended at Rhaevos, who was perhaps just a bit over his head...
Shaking his head, Rhaegar exhaled, "That's not going to end well, I don't think. Silly girl should have run the circuit herself -- she's faster than he is, and you don't need much in the way of strength to drop a grappler..."
Then, suddenly, Rhaevos went down -- and Kailynn's body sparkled as her shield began to block blows. Dysaryn stepped up onto the rail, using the secure crate as a step, waiting poised.
Rhaegar growled, twitching, "She should end it -- he's dead in thirty seconds if she doesn't, and maybe she's dead before that..."
Dysaryn sprang from the rail, drawing Heartsflame as he felled, hurtling onto the back of the bull-construct, he buried his warblade deep between the construct's shoulders and rode the blade down. The construct flickered out of existence the instant his blade was clear. Sheathing his blade, he reached down, picking Kailynn up off the ground and dragging her over to the lift, tossing her on before getting on himself. Rhaevos made it under his own power.
Back up top, Dysaryn sent the pair back to their seats, then addressed the prospects, "Kailynn and Rhaevos did well, right up to the point where Rhaevos went down -- and Kailynn took hits. The fault lies in both participants, Rhaevos for falling, Kailynn for not noticing that her partner had fallen and taking action. Action that should, probably, have included ending the exercise. Note that you will not be penalized for knowing your own limits. Senior Adept, your next pairing."
Kayd nodded, "Kieran Stark and Tora T'suki T'sai, Lead and Partner, 8th Squad!"
Kieran blinked, wondering, suddenly, if he'd made a mistake in pairing himself with Tora -- she seemed nice enough, if somewhat strange, and he wasn't nearly as bothered as his squadlings were by her having drawn Rhaegar's attention -- he'd met the Wilder before, liked him, respected him for his restraint and the burden he bore. Rising to head down, Rhaegar patted him on the arm in passing, gave him a smile. Kieran nodded -- no pressure, ya?
Yeah, right. Problem was, there was plenty of pressure -- Dysaryn was his damned uncle, yes, he had to perform well. The question of which position he wanted came to mind, couldn't say -- leaving him decisive as he filed passed Tora's seat, squad leader filed in first, left last -- and collected her. As they were walking down to the base, he murmured soft enough to not carry far, "You want the bull or the grapplers?"
He'd do the other, that way, was confident he'd be equally bad at either position -- good enough, one hoped. He nodded to his uncle as he accepted the shield-band and his Warblade, and contact with the blade set the diamond swordstone a-winking, and calmed his nerves a hundredfold.
Dysaryn looked at Tora, "Any particular preference in weapons? My records don't show whether you brought something with you or not, improperly logged either way, something I will check on later...nonetheless, what would you prefer?"
Master Guardian Rhaegar would have noticed the difference, subtle though it was as Shai came to the fore. Like Tora, as self possessed as any cat, but with a weight of years that the younger woman not yet carried. There was also a self assurance bordering on arrogance, which Tora lacked. Oh Tora had earned her own, but this was difference for it carried with it the coolness of one well used to command. But Shai was also ruthlessly honest with herself, she refused to be blind to her own failings, even if they were born of lack of knowledge. Neither she nor Tora would offer any excuses. Life didn’t accept excuses.
As he studied her, Shai let her apology for her mistake fill her eyes. She did not make the mistake of thinking him overly tolerant – those he chose to personally mentor would have found him a right terror she guessed, but was also sure that they would have had the best training available. And he had not used his height to loom, oh she liked that, and appreciated his tact more than he might ever know.
Shai had to smile a bit inside as Tora grumbled, in the depths of privacy, once again over being so forsakenly short. Better than dead, little one, better than fully grown and dead before decanting came her gently tart reminder. It was only that fact that Tora had been selected at random for use that the clone had been decanted prematurely and thus never had grown to the height her genetics had decreed.
She hated having so little knowledge of these people, errors from simply not knowing more than the barest bones drove Tora to distraction and she reacted little better. But they were learning, bit by bit, though more helter- skelter than either liked. But that was the way it went in First Contact. One learned and hopefully lived to use that knowledge and teach others. And Tora, despite her origins, had proved to Shai to be a better teacher than young woman realized she was.
However she never got a chance to apologize and thank him aloud for the for the correction of her error “Thank you, Master Guardian for challenging and explaining, and no that is not the case.” was all there was time for as the Adept Isen's voice brought attention to her. Shai hoped he 'heard' her but was not sure.
The Voice in my head eased away and left me standing there so to speak, as Senior Adept Kayd returned and announced the next evolution. The Bull’s Run? Oh that had me wondering if some one had been importing MegaBison for a split second of dissonance that disappeared instantly as the exercise was further explained as she sat with the others in the spacious amphitheater. oh Void! This was going to be …painful
The swordsmanship Warseeker Alpha Prime Stark had displayed would have brought tears of absolute joy to the emerald eyes of Warmaster Harr'llun ah'tah mah' Noh Varrr'nn, the Xa’ Cz’inni equivalent of the Warseeker Aplha Prime. They were both scary in the same way the Ranger Colonel was. I had lost myself to everything but their combat for the duration of the demonstration in memorizing it all. The Whiskered One would flatten me if I didn’t add that to the Memory. Master Guardian Stark had in all likelihood just gained a fan club of several billion, for there was nothing the Xa loved more in the way of weapons than the blade. It was a Tao they all but worshiped.
I had only concentrated on sword training for the last ten years, while living among the Xa and while the master who had mentored me had at last pronounced me ‘better than merely adequate’ …big and good beat small and good when time became a factor. Could I end it quickly enough. If I used purely my sword skills…no but nothing had been said about not using other abilities and Stark himself had used his healing abilities.
As we moved down to the edge of the arena…
"You want the bull or the grapplers?" Kieran asked…
“The Minotaur” My mind flashing to images of the Bull Dancers of Crete, and their modern day counterparts on Midgard, leaping and twisting through their dangerous acrobatics. My words were in tone as low as his as I preceded Kieran down to where the Master of Initiates stood. I wondered if he found the plethora of titles burdensome, though his shoulders were wide enough to handle them easily.
Then mentally, directed at Kieran alone, in the non- time of such communication Shai spoke “Can you hear me Kieran? I don’t mean to be rude and intrusive, but if we are to be partners, we should both make use of all our abilities. I would like to place a monitor’s link between us. I know you’ve probably never worked with one before and you don’t have to even be aware of it – we don’t want it to hinder or distract you – but put in simplest terms it would allow me to know the state of your health. It won’t be a distraction for us, Tora’s fought with one running before.” Shai would never force it on him, she had only made the offer so as to aid the pair..
Kieran smiled absently, directing his eyes skyward, or in the direction that the sky would have been, had it been visible. Then, reaching out with his lesser talent -- he wasn't really a projective telepath, but almost every Ascended had a minor capacity for mind-speech, he touched Tora's mind, and the being within...
[i]"Certainly. And...don't worry about me. I'm used to multi-tasking."
By way of example, he showed her a three hundred sixty degree fly-around of the arena, then a view from directly in front of them -- quite interesting, as Kieran was currently trailing behind Tora by maybe three quarters of a meter.
Oh excellent. Tora’s spent too much time working with the mind blind Shai’s voice was pleased but held a wryness to it. The faintest wash of warmth, as if for a heartbeat Kieran wore a second skin –a phantom feel of muscles, heart beat, the flicker of reaction cascades other than his own, then it settled and he would only be aware of Tora’s state as he chose to be.
I looked up at the Warseeker Aplha Prime and gave him a respectful nodas he turned his attention to Kerian. I took the moment to study him, discretely but as thoroughly as possible. His use of Command Voice hadn’t rolled me yesterday, but then again I had already been silent. And having the Voice inside my head had always negated the effects of that upon me to one degree or another…and I blinked once as I recognized something else. What he had done had been more than any generic Command Voice, it had been keyed along species instinct and I wasn’t the same species – oh close enough, close enough to feel the resonances, but just enough different to have disobeyed had I so chosen. But I doubt I would have chosen to under the vast majority of circumstances. His respect would be something worth earning. And that wasn’t going to be easy. But if one didn’t try, one wasn’t living.
"Any particular preference in weapons? My records don't show whether you brought something with you or not, improperly logged either way, something I will check on later...nonetheless, what would you prefer?"
The Kelblade pair, innocous in stasis, hadn’t registered as weapons then, and no one had asked me to explain the two, seemingly inert, shapes with their embedded Starstones, the quasi living psi amplifying Matrix. Though the Starstones should have given someone pause. But this was not the time or the place for explanations.
“If possible please, Armsmaster, a pair of short blades, single edged, slightly curved, light and fast or a naginata.” My voice was deferential as I met his gaze. I'd trust him to chose well on my behalf...damn he feels far too much like the Ranger Colonel, or the Warmaster, for me to be comfortable in his presence. I knew my strengths and weaknesses, and I wasn't very comfortable about being around someone who felt like they knew them better than I did on first meeting. So I blushed, and took a surreptitiously deep breath and dismissed it.
Dysaryn considered Tora for a few moments, then nodded, subvocalizing a quick order. A few moments later, a courier made an appearance long enough to hand him a gray metallic hard case, which he accepted with a nod. Setting the case atop the rail, he held it in place with one hand while flicking the latch open with the other. Within were a pair of Halfblades, thus named because they were half the size of a Fullblade, of which the Temple-pattern Warblade was one. Now, these halfblades were not warblades -- they were not made of Eldensteel, they lacked the slice-field and the slicewire groove, but they were combat blades, and they would suffice. One and a half foot backswords, they were, more-or-less straight bladed as a compromise towards acceptable thrusting. A dedicated-slashing weapon wouldn't be particularly useful against the armor-skinned constructs.
Offering the blades to Tora, he considered her again, glanced sideways at Kieran, "Owen put you through the Sanctus simulations, yes? You recall the fight on that fucking bridge, you know the one? Yes. Remember that fight."
Then he turned away to face the arena, as Kieran led Tora to the lift...
Kieran took his position, glancing about the arena floor, mulling over Dysaryn's words to him -- the bridge fight in the Sanctus sims was an infamously difficult fight that forced a body to make a decision under pressure, and the 'right' decisions were all unpleasant...which might be applicable advice here. He considered that for a time, and instead took two steps further outward, widening his margin of failure but increasing the distance he had to run. Pushing himself a little harder, perhaps, but he could take it -- he didn't have a whole lot of choice, here.
He adjusted his grip on Gracekiller, then considered open air, nodded in decision.
And he began to run, Gracekiller down low, rising swiflty to cut down a grappler, then another, he varied his circuit, leaning out and in to pick up speed, the grapplers were spawning slowly for the moment, slow enough that he could keep one eye on Tora, but that'd change...and, of course, there was little point for any real attempt at tactics, because the constructs weren't intelligent, wouldn't fall for ruses, acted in a predetermined manner...
He swatted a grappler down with his left hand long enough to punch Gracekiller's tip through the weak spot beside the ocular sensor, ran forward, couldn't start bleeding momentum now, had to give Tora as much time as he could. At this level, the limitation was on him -- the bull was ponderous enough that you didn't need the instant-perfect reactions of a Gunslinger to survive, didn't teleport about to reset its charge, had a habit of getting its 'horns' stuck in the arena wall...
I blinked hard at the Master Guardian’s language, then slowly reconsidered, remembering a split second later than I should have that I’d also heard a few choice utterances from the Warmaster. Now one might ask when one as officially lowly as myself had been around such exalted as the Whiskered One. The Mother of Memory, She who Walks The Myriad Ways, She who had taught me how to become part of the Memory, was his mother…and my lips twitched as I remembered her response – she’d chuffed and cuffed him so hard on the ears that his head had snapped about. Her hands had been back to holding the hyper crystal before my eyes had fully taken it in. But then again the Xa’ Cz’inni are that fast. They had been designed to be. As I had been, and hoped to be someday, if I didn’t get myself killed by not being fast enough yet.
The blades were shorter than I had hoped for, but they fit my hands and balanced perfectly. I let my hands grow accustomed to them as the Master of Initiates spoke with my partner. Nodding to myself as I considered the blades and what they implied. More straight line attacks than I preferred, but I’d worked hard not to yield to preferences, though I knew I needed to work more on that. Preferences can get you killed, and little I had done in my life were the sort of occupations were ‘getting killed’ were among the rarer possibilities. Even before I had become one of the Empress’s Hands.
“Execute”… and the dance began.
Shai smiled as Kieran’s mental images of the constructs overall weaknesses flowed through his surface thoughts, and set to work doing her share of the work as Tora lithely danced aside, letting the minotaur charge past her. Watching as Tora’s breathing and heartbeat slowed and her body responded, changing, the junction points of her neural pathways altering in anticipation of action needed. Those changes could happen in a flash, if she needed it, her combat reaction, but if Tora had even the slightest but on foreshadowing, her reaction time afterwards was even more impressively minute. Human reaction time was roughly one hundred and eighty milliseconds. Tora's were less than a fourth of that, and they’d get better after she fully matured, or so the bioengineering specialists that had been consulted advised.
A tight curl around the massive bull headed body, a swaying evasion against a clumsy but still potentially lethal charge. Bent back from the waist, back arched, hair sweeping about -or would have had my thick locks had been free of the tight French braid. Past it’s foreclaws as I maneuvered like a matador and was behind it, one blade striking for a hamstring just above the knee joint , while the other stabbed deep for where a kidney might lie had it been a biological. The blades humming ever so faintly with energy, the molecules along the edge of the lower one, and the tip of the blade aimed for the small of the back, coruscating with kinetic force far greater than even my strength and mass could impart. They struck with near simultaneity and the construct staggered. But it didn’t have the weaknesses of a biological entity, and the damage was considerably less.
Move, don’t stop moving, don’t lose the momentum, my mass- even though I am heavier than I look to be, is nothing compared to the nearly ten foot tall Minotaur. Avoid the horn sweep, forced to abort a final arc that would complete the circle, curse inwardly. Razor edged hooves gouging the sand and nearly me…,
Shai pulled more energy from Tora’s reserves and the effective area of the blades grew, till other sight would see the warping shimmer fully twenty eight inches from the hilts. Keeping a watchful eye on Kieran as he kept the Grapplers off of them.
My mind mulled memories over as I moved and brought up a flicker of an image. It would require very careful timing and abandoning the close, economical movements that left reserves untapped, but the rewards would be high.
Kieran sought the battle high, that peculiar gift the Pancreator had given to the Ascended that accounted for much of their natural combat ability -- it wasn't just adrenaline, though that was the common comparison in humans. It was very nearly a second state of being, a hard shift over to an alternate, highly specialized nervous system that cut out the vast majority of hierarchical sensory chaining. There was more, adrenaline-equivalents that dulled pain and brought focus, and in desperation sources of manic strength and speed, but when Ascended spoke of 'riding the battle high,' he meant the almost painful-sharp clarity, the laser-fine precision of the sensory shift.
One of the core focuses of the Warseeker Alpha program was training the battle high, programming certain responses so they became natural, near-immediate. Kieran lacked that training, of course -- it took time, and it was thoroughly unpleasant to undergo -- but as the initial chill ran through him and everything suddenly became more detailed, as he lost himself to the focus, to the chaos, he wondered exactly how one could improve upon this perfect lethality, this absolute subversion of an individual to the need for destruction.
Of course, it wasn't anything he could maintain forever. The alternate pathways were fragile by their nature, and the threat of burnout was always a very real possibility, which was why Warseekers were not trained in its use, as such -- summoned instinctively, there was little chance of harm, the body regulated itself well. With training, an Ascended could learn to tap further, open further pathways to speed reaction time, open pathways to other senses...and then was when things got dangerous.
A trained Gunslinger walked a thin line between survival and self-destruction, and there was a reason that so very, very few were even considered for admittance to the program -- a 'gung-ho' Gunslinger had a tendency to become a dead Gunslinger, thoroughly wasting all of the resources that had gone into his creation. Thus the intense scrutiny each candidate had, thus the immense amount of training and meditation, thus the huge support network...all for the support of a select cadre of warriors who were...
Who were the foremost symbols of the Ascended Supremacy. The Warseekers Alpha -- the Gunslingers. The perfect warriors. Champions, heroes, they were terror itself to the Supremacy's enemies and symbols of hope to its allies -- it had been said that while other polities developed planet-killers, system-killers, the Supremacy had its Gunslingers, and the effect was the same. Living, breathing weapons of mass destruction.
A part of that, a rather large part of that, was learning to utilize the battle high to its absolute, often likened as learning how to walk -- again. Relearning all the elementary things, then moving all the way up the chain. Oh, that was presuming you had the unusually robust shift-system, and the mental and emotional characteristics, the absolute, underlying, ice-cold calm that was necessary to ride that close to the abyss. There was a reason that so many prominent individuals within the Supremacy were Gunslingers -- the same determination and absolute calm that were necessary in a Warseeker Alpha had a tendency, when accompanied by the similarly necessary intelligence, to generate success.
The analytical part of Kieran's mind saw those traits in himself. On the other hand, he didn't really feel that he had anything to prove, had no driving need to become the best of the best, no deep-set need to become one of the Supremacy's brightest defenders. Put on another level, he was content with his lot in life. Oh, there were the family expectations, but that was external pressure. Inside, he was more-or-less content...and that could very well eliminate him as a prospective Warseeker Alpha right there, no matter how good he was. Lacking that insecurity, that need to prove himself, his chances of sticking out the Alpha training weren't great in light of the rewards, which, to him, were decidedly few. A title and a hulking great responsibility that had devoured far greater men than him. Left Dysaryn Stark a haunted, tortured man, no matter how well he hid it -- Kieran knew. Had always known. He was family -- it was the Stark way, the way of ice and steel, the way of selfless sacrifice...
He let a grappler catch his wrist, caught the whip-tentacle in his hand and swung the construct like a flail, battering another of its kind into the arena wall. As he did this, he kept Tora in mind, and thus in sight, as was his talent. Graceful, agile, swift, and simply reeking of training -- her strikes were targeted at approximate vitals with precision that Kieran doubted he himself could have matched, and if he'd had weapons training since he could walk, well, it was a different kind of weapons training. He wasn't, foremost, a trained killer. His refined skill with the warblade was one born of competition, of sport, and while it served him well enough here, he certainly didn't instinctively -- if not instinctively, a damned well-trained reflex -- strike for vitals. The problem was that the construct-bull didn't actually have vitals. Couldn't be bled to death, just slowed...and halfblades weren't exactly the ideal weapon for a killing blow.
Kieran hadn't actually ever heard of paired halfblades being a legitimate weapon style, only ever the pairing of halfblade and fullblade, usually in the ritual pairing of warblade and swordbreaker, though that was a ceremonial thing -- Kieran had worn his swordbreaker exactly once, at his father's funeral. It was that sort of thing. The Ascended equivalent of white-tie. Of course, the average Ascended female was nearly half a foot taller than Tora was, and it was very, very far from uncommon for females to top six foot. Still.
He got a bit of rotation going, then released the grappler he had by the tentacle, knocking a second off-balance long enough for him to get in range and take them both down. The issue, of course, was that the run wasn't sustainable -- the grapplers kept coming faster and faster, and would eventually overwhelm anyone's attempts to keep them at bay. They were already pressing hard, coming quick and fast, and he was going to have to abandon his circuit soon enough, there was no way he could maintain that and keep the arena cleared, he just couldn't run that damned fast -- once that happened, planning ceased to be an issue, the limiter was how well he could stay out of Tora's way and still keep the grapplers off of her...and, well, maybe there was another option...
The more he considered, in that little corner of his mind that wasn't presently caught up in his task, the more he liked, the more he felt the surge of necessity. To his Sight, Tora fairly bled energy, whether she knew it or not, whether the presence within her was simply following routine or not -- Kieran admitted to himself that he didn't know the extent of her -- their -- capabilities, had only a vague frame of reference, and certainly his own Talent was nothing spectacular, capable of nothing like what he was seeing, but he knew what happened when he used his talent to its fullest extent, knew the price he paid, even knew what he cost himself now, riding the battle high as he was, knew the price that every Ascended paid for their abilities...but the system of price and result under which he worked was one that was supported culturally and biologically, refined over countless millenia. He knew that when he came down from the battle high, he would feel like taking one more step would probably kill him, but he'd been there before and knew that that was purely illusory. Oh, no chance he could call on the battle high again without some sleep and a meal, not without a real desperation response which the tests at the temple were designed explicitly not to elicit -- not a difficult thing, Dysaryn Stark's watchful presence was sufficient. But he'd be more or less capable, provided this thing didn't drag on...
Tora...Tora he wasn't sure about. How much did she have in her? More than he wanted to believe, he suspected. More than his biologically ingrained urge to protect wanted him to believe -- that was the tricky part of the test, why it was so useful to test Warseekers -- one had to suppress that near-imperative level need to protect, to help. Now that he thought about it, now that he realized it, he sourced his prior thoughts, his little idea, and backburnered it for the time, distrusting it thoroughly. The urge was strongest in Great House Ascended like him, all-too seductive because of the pleasure response linked to it. Temple service required a selective repression of parts of the urge, while other parts were nurtured...and Kieran suddenly thought of Rhaevos, understood very clearly where the other boy's mind must have been when he tripped -- Kailynn Maern was a little thing, vicious as hell, mind, but...but there were two sides...
Still, there was a chance...an acceptable variant. Suddenly decisive, he flashed Tora an image package -- it was an old trick, a Stark trick, generally a learning tool, it didn't distract, instead highlighted certain things, unravelled as certain conditions were met. Of course, such things could backfire spectacularly, and Tora -- or the entity accompanying her -- certainly had the power and skill to make such a thing backfire, but hopefully, hopefully also had the presence of mind to recognize why he formatted his sending the way he did...but he couldn't control her, could only offer her the opportunity...
Which he set up, snatching a Grappler out of the air, he thrust it to the ground, and this was the make or break point -- Sanctus sims -- willed it to remain corporeal. Thankfully, thankfully, it did -- mind as well as body, he'd said, remember the bridge, remember the lesson you never learnt -- and Gracekiller bit deep, through the grappler's chassis, into the ground. Slicewire would have invalidated his plot, but the exercise didn't allow it...still, unarmed, he ran, snatching up a second grappler with his left-hand to batter several off in passing then launch across the arena to strike another, buying time, buying time...Fifteen seconds, he thought, max...
Dropping down, he braced himself, drawing the tentacle taught -- and if Tora understood, if Tora could lure the bull -- the thing would run onto an outstretched sword, as Dysaryn had proved, though that wasn't really a viable tactic for lesser beings -- Gracekiller wouldn't hold the grappler in place through the charge, but it would, he knew, knew to trip the thing, it didn't have to last the whole time, just enough to knock it off balance. The force of the charge would rip grappler chassis clean of the blade, but not instantly, he'd situated it so that the pull would be against the flat...on the ground, the bull was meat. It was, yes, a gamble -- and it was a gamble that could work only because Tora had 'bled' the bull, made it even more sluggish than it already was, and also because he'd timed it just right, gotten a feel for the grappler escalation, bought as many precious seconds as he could...and placed all of his money on her, metaphorically speaking.
Atop the arena, they considered Kieran's antics, conversing, though not audibly, not visually, not even with their minds, for Rhaegar was mute in that manner -- rather, technologically, through their implants.
"What the hell is he doing?" Red-flecked silver, Alexander Maern was the Warprince's son and Dysaryn's friend since he'd been Dys' second in inprocessing.
Quicksilver twinkled, Dysaryn's laughter, "Exactly what he's supposed to -- this isn't our run, Alex, though you and I ran it that way. You and I, we're equals. Oh, sure, I'm Prime and we all know that I'm the Pancreator's own gift to swordsmen, but you know what I mean -- I trust you to watch my back. Kieran and Tora? No way. Not bone deep, and riding the battle high, all your dirty little insecurities get aired out. The Alpha run is about reflex and pushing your limits, and it's a set, you do it, what, four times minimum? Switching roles? Yeah. This run, it's about trusting someone you've only just met because they've been through the same things you have, because of what they are -- because they're Guardians. Templars. Kieran just did that."
Onyx rumble, rainbow dance, Rhaegar's paradox, "But, Karl? You don't need recognition to speak!"
Fourth presence, solid, hard, oak and granite, Karl Shaner, "But that's going to hurt his Alpha prospects."
Quicksilver swirled, endless depths, "You say that like you're afraid I'll take offense. Don't -- I see it too, I feel it too. He's too stable to be a 'slinger. Too sane. He's smart enough to know it, too, know exactly the effect what he just did will have -- no matter the result. Command, that one, it's in his blood."
Ruby derision, self-depricating, poking at an old wound in morbid fascination, "In our blood, too, Dys, yours and mine. What's different?"
Quicksilver ripples, gentle laughter, "You hate it, refuse it. I feared it, ran from it -- it found me anyway. Kieran embraces it."
Flame dances on darkness, Rhaegar passes around a file, "Sneak peek from Beric Kayd -- your boy's up next, Dys. You want your candidate, Karl, you look no further -- he's hurting, thinks he's over it, isn't. Dangerous."
Granite looms, "Caught your little discussion with Kayd's dogs, Dys, nobody can hide from an evaluator...though the black room is protocol, I know, and anyway, I agree. He's fragile, prickly, and..."
Quicksilver stills, "and he's his father's son? Bad blood?"
Granite grinds, "He's playing at being a soldier, just like Kethvae did. Running from betrayal after betrayal, but that's no way to solve a problem. Didn't work for Kethvae, we all know what happened there. Won't let that happen again."
Ruby pulses, "You know, Karl, I think the only person who hates Kethvae Chovas more than you do...is his son. I look at him, and I don't see someone running from his problems. I see someone trying to understand them. You keep an open mind there, Karl -- Dysaryn's all wrapped up in that ice and steel honor bullcrap, but I'd like to remind you that I am not so hindered...and my father is Warprince. And we have our own views, and our own rules -- it's in our blood. You do your job right, Karl. No bias. Kethvae burned you, so what? Julian's only started using Chovas as his last name because it's been forced onto him."
Oak rustles, settles, "Fair enough, Alex. Fair enough."
There is a reason that most every ‘civilized’ culture that we knew of aborted undecanted illegal clones, and put down most of those already decanted when they were discovered. All but a vanishingly tiny point of a point of a percentage were at best sociopathic, hyper sensitized instincts unoverrideable by nurture…But Tora hadn’t been most. She may have been tabula rassa when prematurely decanted and impressed with Shai through the Valthuisian Entechly Matrix – and Shai had been fully intending on terminating her when it came time. However on ‘arriva’l Shai had discovered something so unusual that she had hidden myself in the deepest recesses of Tora’s mind to observe her in a state as untainted as possible by her presence.
Enough! Shai turned her attention back to Kieran, looked at the images. Immaterial eyes blinked in delighted pleasure. Passed the packet along…and vanished.
I sorted it and understood, then froze in place as Shai’s consciousness vanished as she had done in the early days before I understood what she was. But with that disappearance she took certain…constraints, and I had to face the place that scared the scared the peace out of me. The place that lived in and for Shiva Descending, the place that had kept me alive from one test-to-all but destruction to the next. The place that got most clones like me put down for, for the greater safety. Another freeze and a mental wail ended abruptly cut off with ruthless discipline. shiver in a corner later you stupid clone, but now be the partner he needs you to be. I snarled to myself…
Honor his sacrifice, he’d left himself weaponless – and I’d seen the way he’d handled his sword. He was leaving himself open to attack to set it up for me. Void! I’ll flay him later!
My breath hitched, steadied, and then with a soundless, belling laugh I leapt, dancing as I had long ago - naked, weaponless, starved and bleeding - senses afire and reveling in the overload. The universe slowed around me, allowing me to see the paths of the Tao. The power and the glory, what had been before was nice, but this was where life was best lived.
Then I was flowing as water, outwardly gentle and serene, inwardly joyous, counting off the nanoseconds in precise, perfect punctuation as I brought the Minotaur about, drew it to me as much by my will as by it’s programming. Half a step before it was to me, barely past the decision point where it could have turned aside, I turn its jerky -to my time slowed, enhanced senses - furious charge into a blind plunging with a brutal telekinetic whiplash of sand, smashed across its optic sensors. I glide aside, leaving no marks upon the sand, and let it be taken by the trip wire that Kieran had sacrificed his blade to create. Grapplers freed by Kieran’s maneuver whirl in but they are slow, too sloppy and I deal with them as the mere nuisances they are, the blades singing of destruction.
Moving with languid perfection, all the while the massive construct falling, falling, as if through heavy syrup, then waiting…pause …There! Sigh of readiness…
Which comes first or are they all as one…
Step up on the broad back as it flattens out, at the precise moment of impact, in perfect balance. Up on the ball of a foot, pivoting for additional momentum as my left blade flashes down in a screaming silver blurr to bite deep into the nape of the construct’s neck. Energies exploding along the blade, decapitating the Minotaur.
And the other blade is a flying dart of silver as well, as fractions of a heart beat before it leaves her hand…
No, it is this by a barest hearbeat, but a knowing that the barest heartbeat is all he will need. he moves so prettily, he's good a dreamstate observation
“DOWN” the word, a slap of sound and mental shove. Kieran has left himself vulnerable as he has thrown his strength and weight into holding the tentacle taut. The half blade is targeted for the Grappler behind Kieran, the one his shield had been expending it few charges against. You protect your partner without hesitation.
Pause again, for not even a heart beat, a waiting to see if he calls Gracekiller to his hand, and ready to send the warblade to him if he does not.
Come down And I can’t. Time refuses to blue shift, the door refuses to close.
Then blackness descends as Shai returns and something hits me like a bludgeon, and all is darkness. I’ll be thankful for that later but right now part of me wails at the loss of the glory.
The downing of the bull construct ended the exercise, the grapplers flickering out of existence even as Tora's halfblade struck the one that had been attempting to get a tentacle around Kieran...the chill left him and he felt his muscles complain at the abuse he had inflicted upon them, the momentary wracking pain as the strength-enhancers his body had generated instinctively when he held his end of the line burnt away, and then he felt the fatigue, the lethargy -- it seemed like he'd used everything he had. That, too, passed, though it lasted longer, lasted while he trudged over to retrieve Gracekiller, ritual and necessary -- the diamond swordstone twinkling in response to his contact with the blade. The comfort of contact with the warblade eased his mind, and hastened the retreat of fatigue as his body purged the waste chemicals, byproducts of coming down off the battle high...mostly.
He turned his attention fully to Tora, then, ensuring that she was physically unharmed and had collected her weapons, then got both of them onto the lift and out of the arena, stoicly not noticing the spatterings of applause that greated them, though the smile on Dysaryn's face was a little harder to take.
"Well done, both of you! I was hoping you'd understand what I meant, Kieran."
Kieran bowed his head slightly, "I wouldn't have, had someone else said it. The Sanctus bridge fight isn't supposed to have a 'good' solution..."
Dysaryn raised his hand in a strange sort of looping gesture, "Which is why you have to make your own, yes. Very good. If you'll return your weapons to Adept Isen here, you can both go relax for a time and enjoy the rest of the show. Senior Kayd, your next pairing!"
Kayd, commendably stone-faced, nodded, "Julian Chovas and Gwen Arahn, Lead and Partner, 14th Squad!"
Julian stepped out onto the sand, breathing easily, Peacemaker loose in his right hand. He felt considerably better with the Warblade in his hand, always had, the blade calmed him, swordplay calmed him, probably one of the reasons he was so bloody good at it -- he'd needed a lot of calming in his time. Of course, his various crafting pursuits calmed him as well, but the fact that he was Kaerah Stark's favorite jewelsmith wasn't going to be much use at a time like this, even though that was how he'd come to know Dysaryn personally...
He glanced over at Gwen, hoping against hope that she was better with a warblade than she'd been at unarmed. He was, that much should have been obvious to anyone when they saw how different he moved with blade in hand. The predatorial stalk, the surge of confidence. He drew a deep breath, closed his eyes a moment, then nodded in decision -- ready or not, here it came.
He wasn't surprised that he felt nothing from the constructs, they weren't even smart machines -- no soul, there. Almost a pity, and he was smiling as the bull committed to its charge, smiling as he lurched to one side, put a little spin to his movement and folding his legs, pivoting, both hands bringing Peacemaker about, right at ankle height. Damned stupid move, he thought, as the transferred momentum threatened to remove his arms, but he wasn't really in the mood to give Gwen the chance to screw him over, and in the end he retained his arms, though he suspected he'd be sore as all hell...it hurt pretty bad when he pulled Peacemaker out of the bull -- he'd tripped the thing up, sure enough, almost cut all the way through. The construct was getting its arms under it, and that just wouldn't work -- he gathered himself, sprang onto the construct's shoulders, and with both hands drove Peacemaker down through the neck.
Freeing the blade, the construct flickered out, dropping him to the arena floor, where he sat a time, breathing. Elapsed time was under a minute, but there wasn't any glory in what he'd done -- he knew that. All glory to the Stark kid, sure, the trip-rope had been pretty damned clever, sure to win him points all around. Julian's actions would, more than likely, win him nothing but more 'attention' from the Adepts. Shaking his head at his own machismo, he collected Gwen and headed for the lift...
"Could I speak with Julian privately a moment, Senior Adept?" And when Dysaryn Stark made a request in that terribly even tone of voice, one had little choice to accede -- Kayd didn't even respond verbally, just nodded, watched Dysaryn take Julian by the arm and lead him out of the arena. Kayd directed Gwen back to her seat, called forward another pair...
"Let me take a look at your shoulder, shields don't block that sort of thing, and I've got a pretty good idea how much it hurts to stop that big fucker."
Julian nodded, let Dysaryn roll up his t-shirt sleeve and poke gently at his shoulder which did, yeah, hurt pretty bad...
Dysaryn winced, then let his surge through the tips of his fingers, making minute changes to the stressed tendons and sore muscles. The other shoulder needed less treatment -- Julian was right-dominant, taken most of the force and most of the damage...
Finished with his work, Dysaryn got around to the real reason he'd pulled Julian aside, "What's the deal, Julian? That was risky as hell -- were you trying to show off, or do you really hate yourself that much?"
Julian shook his head, "Don't know. Don't care. Listen -- I understand the point of this testing crap, but it's hard for me, alright? I'm still coming to terms with the idea of my greater extended family and all-of-a-bloody-sudden the Grandfather I never imagined I had is pressuring me to to come here and do this, and I'm discovering that my father isn't exactly a member in good standing of the Big Happy Ascended Club...and Gwen's just a kid, damnit."
Dysaryn shrugged, "They usually are. Get on back in."
Dysaryn relaxed against the rail, watching prospects run, mind chewing over the thousand and twelve problems on his plate, including the over-arching question of exactly what was happening with the Ascended Supremacy -- wait and see -- to family issues, Chella...his implant drew his attention.
Ruby pulses softly, gentle heartbeat, "Not what I expected, Dys."
Dys' quicksilver flicker was admission and more, a shrug and a nod, "Well, Karl?"
Granite rumbled, settled in place, "He's not Kethvae. He's you."
Ruby gleams, "No. Dys wasn't that confident."
Quicksilver shimmers, soft but firm, "Julian is Julian. He's a lot older than I was when I came to the Temple, more developed...good and bad, that."
Flicker of flame, mystery and void, "Afraid he'll pull a Blackmarlin?"
Quicksilver ripples, denial and more, "Can't. Not big for rages, in case you didn't notice."
Kieran sat next to Tora this time, that had been arranged for already, probably should have happened anyway, she was his partner, but he must've been distracted, whatever. Quietly, he spoke...
"You alright? Hurt at all?"
His right hand bore the marks from where he'd looped the grappler's tentacle around, but they weren't anything more than cosmetic, and other than that he seemed unharmed. Dusty, but unharmed. Quick smile...
"That was pretty well done."
Shai walked their body out of the arena, perhaps not as gracefully but happily any difference went unnoticed by any – or so she hoped. Returning the weapons to Adept Isen as ordered she listened to the next pair being called as she and Kieran returned to their seats. She noted that there had been some rearranging and gave a small dip of the head -acknowledging and thanking them- to those that had changed seats.
Young Chovas’s maneuver was brutal and had her flinching slightly at what strain it had to have put on his muscles. Though the fact that he trusted his partner not at all also shown through clearly…and do they realize how much they had bound themselves to their swords? The young ones give the most evidence, but even their elders…That could be a terribly exploitable weakness…but is it confined to the men?...I don’t have enough of a sample to guess.
Shai stilled her thoughts and attended to watching the rest of the testing, only to be slightly startled by Kieran question, though she realized she should not have been.
“Yes, I am fine, thank you” Turning her eyes, with the weight of years hiding in their depths, to him Shai returned his quick smile with one of her own. Though, as she checked on Tora she frowned to herself. Tora was still under, still fighting the addiction.
“You set it up so that it was well done.” Shai waved away his compliment with her gentle acknowledgement that it had to have been a team effort, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb any one else. “Why though? Very reckless, trusting in a complete stranger, and leaving yourself unarmed”
Shai considered the Monitors Link that still webbed them and was pleased at her readings. Pleased in part that she was able to conceal from him that ‘part of her’- Tora - was …missing; pleased that he had come through the trial with little more than skinned knuckles; pleased that he had seen something that made him trust. She considered letting the web remain but decided that any longer and it would amount to an unacceptable intrusion on privacy; so she withdrew the tendrils with the same skill with which they had been laid.
Kieran smiled, looking at the space of flooring between his boots, "Not so very reckless -- the grapplers are called grapplers for a reason, they just...latch on. I guess that could be dangerous if one got around my neck or something, but they generally go after the person attacking the bull -- slow them down, make them easy targets."
He shrugged a moment, eyes focused distant -- down in the arena, Shay Callahan was loosening up before starting his run...perhaps thinking over exactly why he'd trusted her enough to act as he had, but there was no concrete justification to be had, beyond having no choice. He couldn't have done what Julian had, taken the bull down before the grapplers had a chance to become a problem, and Tora had wanted the bull. Which was...fine. This wasn't supposed to be an exercise that one won -- Julian's performance was an outright fluke, shouldn't have been possible for someone at his level of skill, except...Kieran wasn't really sure what Julian's level of skill actually was. The Senior Adept had made a show of taking him down, which said one thing...but his performance against the bull said entirely another. It'd been crude, brutal, which carried heavy connotations of 'disdain' amongst a people that valued finesse and grace.
Shaking his head softly at his own thoughts, he refocused his attention on the action...
Shay tossed himself sideways, his warblade trailing slightly behind him, the leading edge knicking out reverse-like to nip into the anklish region of the big silver bull-critter. He gritted his teeth against the oncoming pain as his arm was snapped back beyond its limits of flexibility, hurt bad, but he'd live. The pain was not unrefreshing, really. Reminded him of where he was, namely, somewhere that he was functionally equal to teenagers barely out of Primary. Little insulting, sure, but not enough to actually bother him. Of course, Fang's little bit of showmanship was a trickier bite to chew...but he'd manage that, too.
Twisting out of his recovery, he came up facing the bull, centered low, loose, warblade out a little and the halfblade in his off-hand down by his knee, he surged forward, instantly on the attack, arcing wide, spinning loosely about the bull, he writhed under a swinging claw, and was airborne, a slight spin imparted, and his blades struck, warblade going low while the faster, lighter halfblade streaked across the bull's eye-features. The heavier warblade, that close in, would have gotten caught up in the alloy, and he couldn't allow himself to be slowed down this close in. Preternaturally fast, riding the battle high, the syrupy slow words of his partner -- Rhona Chesar -- alerted him, and he released his grip on his warblade vertically, a practiced trick-motion this, the blade kicked up and his wrist turned, catching it reversed in direction, thrust back to catch a grappler -- and his window had closed, he was behind the bull, using its recovery time to normalize his grip.
The bull was on him again, and he went low and left, blades flicking out to strike in passing, he powered forward, rotating, the movement tearing his blades free, and while the bull powered onwards thanks to its immense momentum, he changed his direction, leapt up onto its back, driving his warblade forward, deep, all of his momentum in that blow, then he reached up, and the halfblade buried into the construct's neck, the bull tumbling down. He wrenched his blades free, leapt back as the bull fell, and...
Rhona was beside him, dragging him towards the lift, saying something too fast for him to decipher. Not strictly true -- too fast for him to want to decipher. Few mumbled words got her calmed down enough to be coherent, thankfully, though upon hearing the content -- gushing about how well he'd done -- he tuned it out. It was all crap, anyway -- of course he'd done well. He was a veteran of the War of Reclamation, damnitall, a Devilrunner, Swordsworn, yes, damnit, he was going to do well...
Dysaryn gave Shay a smile and a nod, all the other man expected. Out of all of the prospects, Shay was the one he knew best. Fought with him for nearly three centuries, now, one of the very first of his Swordsworn...good man, though he wasn't exactly in a good place, mentally. Distant, often distracted, it was like the only time he was really alive was when he was fighting something, and that was why Shay hadn't been active duty AFESSR for a while...big mess all around, especially seeing as Shay Callahan was, once, one of Revenia's best combat commanders. Real feel for the ebb and flow of the battlefield. Dysaryn's hope, his earnest, earnest hope, was that the Temple would knock Shay out of his funk, whatever it was, because if that happened...there was little to no question in his mind that Shay would go far. Very far.
Time ticked on, and the bull was run ragged. The best had run, though there were some bright spots. For the most part, prospects saw their limits, acted accordingly. A few times, Dysaryn had to interfere, but those occurances were thankfully sparse, and eventually the prospects were led back to the mess, served the same nutrient mush, to great acclaim throughout, and returned to their compartments for a period of rest, though hardly undisturbed. During the night, further cuts were made, shadowy black figures moving in the night, barely felt presences -- one never quite woke up, strange that. Taken as a whole, the prospect complement had been pared down by almost two thirds. Kieran's squad now numbered four people -- himself, Tora, Dalton Cray, and Jey Denat, Cray's partner.
It was but half an answer, but maybe the other half had no voice able one, or at last not one that didn’t run a million or so words. Shai just nodded and like Kieran returned her attention to what was going on in the arena.--
Not bad, some of the skill levels were impressive, some were lacking, some had other qualities, for in the end this wasn’t truly about one’s swords skills
More of that damned mush, but Shai ate automatically, Tora was beginning to stir and she mostly wanted to get her into a shower where tears wouldn’t be so obvious. It had been a bare thing but she had managed, and Tora was, despite what she might think, getting better at dealing with the aftermath.
I ran through a full session of Blind Cat in a Corner kata while under the needle spray of the shower, welcoming the lunatic sequence of moves. It was perhaps not the perfect workout for the constrained, and slickly, slippery wet, space of a shower stall but it was better than huddled in a corner trembling. It also had a wealth of good memories attached to it. Jason Tenkiller, my last partner, a ‘retired’ Cadre – Cadre never really retired but for official purposes he had been- had taught it to me and I had to laugh aloud as I remembered my own reaction to it the first time he demonstrated it to me. Drunken Monkey was far worse, but BiCeeCee was silly looking despite it’s inherent graceful and subtly decisive movements.
I bit down on the laugh and finished the shower, wondering how Ten, as most called him, was doing. He’d been desperately injured in our last not so little adventure and when I’d been recalled and sent here he’d still been in regen stasis, the damage done to him unHealable by Donas. The hunt for Lady Tomasuza had been savage and with no room for error. We’d brought down the Chaos allied Muri and her organization, but it had been a near thing. Torgatai, Astarte’s partner was still on the High Planes of Heaven, reforming a body himself, or so said the ‘vine at Karak Drakkön. I’d also stopped by there on the way here.
I had one thing to do before I could sleep. I found Kieran. “Thank you.” I left it at that he could take it how ever he liked. The spare but comfortable bed called, actually rather bellowed my name and so I turned away with a nod. Sleep was deep and dream filled, until I no longer needed to sleep which really wasn’t all that long, and I could have, had such been necessary, gone without. I really only need about an hour or two of sleep every thirty six or so. But the lulling as those who had washed out were removed was a luxurious excuse to pay forward on any potential upcoming sleep debt. Having the ‘book’ tilted in one's favor never hurt.
The morning came and I had to raise both eyebrows at the extent of the culling. "I wonder if every squad was decimated"
Kieran nodded lightly as he stretched out from his nap -- he'd never quite drifted to sleep, though not really been entirely awake...couldn't have been, with the compulsion to sleep being so heavily broadcast during the culling process. But, Kieran was Great House Ascended, and was thus far, far more resistant to such things -- moreso since he'd had two years of SEC resistance training...
"Yeah, they'll have cut everyone up pretty hard. Usually don't cut this strenuously this early, but I can understand if they're trying to push this pretty hard."
Though he didn't say why -- that would have been out of line, it wasn't his place to gossip. This wasn't just a test of the prospects, it was a test of the Temple's capacity to perform in its normal manner -- so far, things had been going well, if slightly less formal than usual. Dysaryn was still working back into his official positions, he'd been out of practice for some eighty millenia, after all...
About then, the door hissed open to admit Adept Isen, "Form up, Prospects! We've got a long day today, so you had best eat fast!"
Kieran didn't have much herding to do, what with the vastly decreased number of charges he had to deal with. He'd been true to his word, too -- there had been rather large cuts made during the night, and it didn't take very long to get everyone fed and moving along. They were led to a large open room, seated quickly in provided chairs under the watchful eye of Senior Adept Kayd and his people. Dysaryn Stark was present, off in one corner, Heartsflame peeking over one shoulder of his officer's longcoat...and his cool quicksilver eyes swept the room, alert. He seemed on edge, for some reason...
Kayd raised his voice, "Alright, lads, this is a different kind of evolution than you went through yesterday, primarily in that you don't have to do anything but sit there. What we're going to be doing is evaluating your mental and physical capacity -- your limits, as it were, as nearly as we can approximate them. This won't take long, so relax as well as you can..."
At his final word, a soft droning that had been present in the background rose steadily to a sharp pitch, not quite painful but decidedly unpleasant...and that carried on for several minutes, and Dysaryn Stark's hand rested curiously close to the pistol at his thigh, and then the tone faded off into silence, and the examination ended. Kayd nodded.
"Very good. Adepts, move them on!"
Dysaryn rested his forehead in his hands, wishing he'd found a way to get some sleep along with the prospects, but the twenty three crises he'd dealt with in the night had precluded that, and now there was further bitching to deal with. He wasn't physically hampered by his fatigue, wouldn't be for quite a while longer, but mentally...well, even as he looked up at Karl Shaner, he saw the Alpha Evaluator's carefully contained ire in terms of slightly elevated blood pressure...
Karl glowered, "What the hell, Dysaryn? What exactly is this Callahan person, anyway?"
Dysaryn shook his head, shading his eyes with the palm of his left hand, "Shay caught an artillery blast a little too close than is strictly advisable, really messed him up. Like, pasted him up against the exterior wall of a bunker to the point where he had to pry him off with a spatula. I'm exaggerating, of course, but his spine was fractured in several places, and that was just the beginning. Paralyzed from the neck down, and there wasn't a damned thing I could have done. So he became one of the first Devilrunners. Umm, sortof a crude version of a Combat Avatar."
Karl blinked in sickened understanding, "Couldn't heal him so you..."
Dysaryn nodded, "We refined the process considerably, later on, but back then...Vysarian had just prototyped the first-generation CI implants, and there was nothing subtle about that stuff -- intrusive as all hell. That was the basis, and then we went through and everything that we couldn't mend or regenerate, we hard-fixed...and it was easy enough to enhance from there..."
Karl's eyes went vacant as he considered other data, "I see. Well, interesting to see how he handles the pit, hmm?"
Rather unceremonially, the prospects had been deposited into darkness. Walking along like normal, then the world fell away, leaving nothing but blackness, humid air tasting of metal, and very little else...
Kieran stood very still a moment, simply listening...something was screwing with his talent, because his Sight saw the same thing his eyes saw -- absolute blackness. But he could still hear, and he could still smell, and he could still taste, and with his hands before him, he found Tora...and then he was reacting to something that he hadn't consciously become aware of, throwing himself into motion and ontop of her, knocking his head against something hard and slightly damp on the way down -- but the sudden passage of something moving very fast mere inches above his back validated his instinctive reaction. He rolled off of Tora a moment later, flat on his back on slightly damp rock, eyes closed to prevent them from straining to see...
"Sev'kr d'Ath!" He spat the invective with more feeling than volume, and it fully encompassed his present feelings -- completely blind, his talent blocked, he couldn't even sense Tora, though he could reach out and touch her. He clamped down hard on the panic rising within him, gritted his teeth and waited for it to pass, then pushed himself to his feet, though he stayed crouched low, he sought the wall with his left hand, finding it...
"Tora? Are you alright?" He kept his voice soft, just barely above a whisper.
Julian grabbed Gwen around the waist, threw himself to the left -- straight into a wall, which hurt like hell, but the wind that lashed him as whatever it was passed him by put that pain in perspective -- if he hadn't gotten out of the way, he'd be much worse than shoulder-checking a rock wall resulted in. His closed his eyes, reaching for his talent...and felt nothing but cold and dripping wet, couldn't even feel Gwen, though she was pressed up against him. As long as he'd lived in fear of his talent, being cut off from it now struck him as distinctly unpleasant -- typical, that. You never appreciate what you've got until it's gone, and isn't that a lovely sentiment -- damn it all.
"Julian, what's going on?" Gwen's voice, soft-like, was almost painful to him, but that wasn't her fault, just the way it resonated with the memories he'd dredged up. Maybe he wasn't as over the whole thing as he'd thought he was, because he was suddenly acutely aware of how soft and vulnerable Gwen was, her body against his...and he drew a deep shuddering breath as he forced himself to calm.
His head hurt, his body hurt...psychosomatic, but he couldn't afford to crack right now, not when Kayd and friends were playing games with him. Sharply, he took Gwen by the wrist, picked a direction, and moved. Unarmed and unarmored, he was feeling more than a little bit vulnerable -- he was armored infantry by trade, Fleet Marines. The majority of his career had been as grunt infantry, and this was a bit out of his league...but it was supposed to be, wasn't it? Right...
The noise had hurt; my ears catch a far wider range of the aural spectrum and with far greater acuity than humans do. In fact my senses test out as equal to a Xa’s in most regards, and that's saved my hide a time or two, and endangered it just as many. Senses beyond what most call ‘the norm’ are two edged swords save in that most don’t think to use them against those that have them. However there was more behind the test than pure noise, so I rode it out. I wondered if my slight wince was a negative though.
Oh the darkness was thorough, and effected more than just the normal senses. I could see in very low light levels, but I needed a few stray photons, and here there were none. I wondered if Master Guardian Rhaegar was to thank for this blankness. The instant that Kieran tackled me, began to take me down, I relaxed, went limp, and let him. Tensing would have just gotten both of us hurt. He’d been more alert than I had, and his instincts were spot on. Which saved both of us.
I agreed with his curse, as I twined my hand with his, a tactile gathering of information that sufficed as other – non physical - senses were coming up all but blank. I tried to probe outward and ran into…an all encompassing nothingness past a certain distance. But with contact, and a 'push' I was able to make mental contact. But the push was something I did not usually need, and touch telepathy is normally no effort. This was.
My growl was more felt than heard. I'm fine, Kieran you kept me from injury. Your instincts are good. Rhaegars work? ...No I answered my question, not breaking the silence, every physical sense straining outward. Taking in every stray sound including his heartbeat, a comforting thunder that, and more distant sounds, but most so faint as to be no more than ghostly echoes. And the taste, scent, memory, of dark and dank; the faint dust tease of stone and the dull olfactory resonance of metal.
Opening my eyes now and letting my infravision take in the grayness of a ‘landscape’ much of one temperature, yet with the heat signatures of living beings… but I could not see as far as I normally could have, as if the place ate their emissions I’ve got infravision. But its...restricted, or as if the area itself is... I fumbled for a moment then made a guess at what might be happeningThis place is draining us. My mental tone was frustrated I knew, and I tramped on that hard I can see somewhat but it’s nowhere near my ‘normal’ range much less as defined as 'normal' sight. Kieran, trust your instincts, and I’ll trust you. Together we’re both going to get out of this, and with as many others as will come along.”
I began moving toward the other heat sources in a Tiger crawl, having slid his hand down to my ankle. The Tiger crawl used more energy, but it was faster than a Leopard crawl and not so close to the ground. It allowed a quicker ability to raise the torso on tips of fingers and toes should an attack come up from below. Keep the heart beat steady, no variation, breathing regular, flooding my very efficient oxygenation system with extra, trusting my natural and nano defenses to filter out any toxic gasses. Fingers questing ahead like paranoid spiders, every touch feather light at first. Spider pits and trap doors could open in a soundless heart beat, and I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole involuntarily.
Though part of me giggled at the thought of a conga line of the nearly blind leading the very blind. Better to giggle than to snarl though.
My instincts wanted loose, fighting for release. This was too close to my earliest memories, the first tests to see what my genetic instincts were. The lab that had produced me had no idea what I was, and in the end they hadn’t cared as long as certain parameters had been met. Those had been, and with an ease -that by the time of the raid - had most of the labs personell to the point of not just wanting to but psychologically ‘needing’ to eliminate me. Only the fact that I was the personal plaything of the head of the lab had kept them from disposing of me. However I knew from overhearing several furious confrontations that they were close to going behind his back, regardless of the possible consequences. The raid saved me from that, and Shai had saved me from the fate of the other clones.
In truth I had been pushing them, playing more dangerous and uncontrolled than I was, preferring dead to what had been my lot. Shai had never let me know that possible salvation might lay ahead, but I had known full well what they did to illegal clones. A number of the labs personell had taken great pleasure in taunting me with that fate. Even today the memories of my beginnings are not… pleasant and rouse a part of me that is far too willing to kill to make civilized people comfortable with me around. They, on an instinctual level, know that I lack certain inbred barriers and it frightens them on that subliminal level. I tend to stay far away from civilized society if I can do so. Lonely but safer for all concerned.
Tamped down hard, [i]this is now, not then, move woman, don’t just think, do!. And so I trusted, return to him what he had given me yesterday- Kieran’s instincts to warn us of dangers as I got us to the others. Couldn’t tell who they were, even close, other than male versus female. I hadn’t yet learned scents or core temp patterns. That I should remedy as quickly as possible. Low, as soundless, as possible draw in of scents.... glad of the dark for one thing. On a human flehming looks down right weird. If they weren’t other prospects, I should be able to smell the difference. Though it would be very subtle, we’d only been eating the mush for two days. But as I remembered no one in the group, other than Shay Callahan, had smelled ...interesting. Oh they all had their own unique smell, but he had the tang of something close to a Cadre, close to Ten’s. Massive implants.... yes!
Find Shay, Knowing I might have to trust to luck for finding him quickly but guessing, hopeing, that he might indeed be set up to see in this total darkness better than I could. Look for the heat pattern that was the most different, sure that his iimplants would heat out differently.
As I moved I realised how restricted my infravision is, indeed past but fifteen -maybe twenty feet - nothing... skitter, trust Kieran's instincts, senses at maximum...sudden light and I'll be fried if I'm looking the wrong direction. Pause as I approach the nearest others, waiting half a second to see if my partners intuition goes hokey.
Kieran yanked back hard on her ankle, rising on his toes and fingertips as he pulled Tora off her stride and back, beneath his body, and as he did so, dropped his shoulder, rolling up on his side -- he pressed Tora against the wall, and gritted his teeth...and something raked his back, tearing great rends in his t-shirt and biting into his flesh. He hissed at the pain, but whatever hit him only made a single pass, moved on to seek other prey...if it was even possessed of such urges, which was not at all a given.
Threat passed, he rolled away, coming up in a crouch of sorts, he took a moment, caught his breath, "Just...wait a second, okay? I need to catch my breath -- I'm not...I mean..." He shook himself, rising to his feet, bracing one hand against the cavern wall.
"There isn't any getting out of this -- just surviving. More down here than just us, and most of it doesn't seem very friendly...and it's dark and cold and you have to stay alert or else you're dead, and...I know all these things, I mean, I've read about them -- they throw you down here, take away your talents and your eyesight, and they see how well you do. This is the last test, the old test, and...right now, it's just us down here, us and lots of things that want to hurt us, and the test is, the test is to see if you can stay alive, survive all those things...and ourselves."
He shook his head slowly, meaningless gesture in the dark, "It's not instinct, it's not reaction time. This is in my blood. We've always kept places like this, dark places, because down here...we have to face ourselves. Not the faces we wear in public, not the titles, the reputations, the heritages...these places are our temples."
He stood straighter, his fingertips tracing across the cool rock as he took a few steps along, ignoring the pain from the slashes on his back, "We don't...talk about religion, much. It's something we keep to ourselves, private, you know? We don't have priests, and our churches are places like this, old places. Touched by the Creator, just like we are. It's part of our culture, you go down into the old places and you face all the dangers and you face yourself, just like your father and your mother did before you."
He smiled, of a sudden, "Most Ascended never experience anything like this, because we're civilized, you know? I faced this when I matured physically, a little hole in the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere on Northfell, that's the Stark capitol, my homeworld. But I did that alone. A Warseeker is never alone, and that scares the hell out of a lot of people..."
He closed his eyes, fingertips tracing a furrough on the rocky wall, "Down here, everything is fair game. Every secret, insecurity, fear...everything out in the open, and that scares...everybody."
Julian turned Gwen away from another entity, shielding her with his body -- something lashed across his shoulders like a whip, painful as hell, but pain was no stranger to him, he gritted his teeth and bore it. It was, after all, the way of the world. Threat past, he kept walking, subtly aware that he wasn't really going anywhere, but one place was as good as another, and he wasn't sure he could handle inactivity right now.
"Julian, you're bleeding."
He kept walking, Gwen's hand in his, thoughts elsewhere.
"Julian, you're Bleeding!"
He shook himself softly, stopped, "I am? Okay. What do you want me to do about it?"
"Let me look?"
Her hands were light on his back, probing the lash-stroke. He shivered, suddenly feeling very vulnerable, and he bent down to rub the spot on his calf where he'd once taken a pretty big chunk of shrapnel.
"I guess you'll be okay, you big idiot. Be more careful, though, okay? I'd hate to be down here alone."
Julian laughed because he had to, "Yeah...right."
She laughed and thumped him on the shoulder, and he played along, because in the dark she couldn't see the tears streaking his cheeks. So many things he wished he could change, his mother's death and damnation, all the pain, all the suffering...from the vertigrav crash that had nearly broken him and had broken Tasha, set him up for Alessa, that had, as blind then as he was now, in a way. It wasn't that the feelings he'd felt weren't genuine, it was just that he'd been far, far too demanding. Giggle. For someone with his talents, he'd really misread that one...but life went on. Cry for the poor fool he'd been, though...at least, for a brief while, he'd been happy. For that, he couldn't damn her.
And...that was it. Acceptance. Closure. It was...fine. He was...fine.
Quicksilver splashes, child in a pool, gloating, "Somebody owes me mon-ey. Somebody owes me mon-ey!"
Granite grinds, "Oh, shut up...I guess you want to pull them?"
Quicksilver surges, "Not at all, Karl. Not at all."
Granite stills, "Good."
I waited as he asked, letting him catch his breath but I didn’t let that stop me from checking him. Hiss’s of pain are pretty easily discernable, even if I had ended the Monitors Link hours earlier. ‘Hold still” I grated in a harsh whisper, and slid behind him as he explained further. Tattered shirt, then tattered body, the warmth of blood, both to touch and infravision. Closing my own eyes, I let Shai do one of the things she could do for others but had never been able to do for me. It takes a lot more energy than normal but Kieran’s injuries are healed. His shirt is probably beyond mending however.
Then his last words hit home, and my small voiced exhale was half sob, half verbalized “shit” and then I drew in the deepest breath I was capable of and let it out in a slow sad breath. Oh yes I had my share of secrets, fears and insecurities. But I didn’t think he was much speaking of my extreme, but disciplinable dislike of confined places.
Leaning back against the stone we wrestled inwardly, Shai and I.
Tora child, these here are strangers, what they think of you means nothing. Those that know you, accept you. If these here chose to make a problem of your origins, it means nothing Shai’s voice hit me like a loosed megaton of antimatter.
It does to me! I don’t want to fail, I don’t want … words failed me, but Shai knew my fears as well as she knew her own.
Child, look at you, not even fully mature according to all the studies, for whatever species you are. Dominique made you one of her Hands, not knowing or being put off by that lack of knowledge. Dominique hadn’t cared if Tora was an illegal clone, of some unknown race – in part Shai knew because of the fact that the incredible power a Hand could wield - acting in the Her name with no supervision, no oversight, no need for any justification – meant so very little to Tora, save for what injustices it could solve. You have centuries ahead to explore and solve the mystery of what you are, to find the people you sprang from. You do a damn fine job of being yourself, don’t fret on the other
The Voice in my Head wouldn’t let me run…most of the time. And so too, not now. And Shai leaves, disappearing back into the place where she first hid, and lets me set it all free. Another sad half chuckle sob.
“What I am scares a lot of people, to the point where my kind are aborted before being decanted, when the labs are found and raided. Any of those already decanted are euthanized. I got exempted given the specific circumstances.” Given the Voice in my Head, Shai. I shrug, even thought I know he can't see it.
Words come hard, my voice a whispy whisper in his ears “Cold and dark, pain and hunger… for a long time that was the only state of being I knew. They pulled me out of the cloning pod before any of the knowledge downloads, before I was fully grown” Legal clones were ‘born’, decanted, at nine months, just as the naturally born were, and grew as any child did. Illegal ones were force growth processed to physical maturity, or close to it, generally in four to five years. It cost far less than raising a child and the knowledge downloads gave them the skill sets needed for the purpose which they’d been created.
The memories wash over me. I could be broadcasting them, they are so perfect, lucidly clear and immediate. Am I ? I don’t know and that scares me, but I fight the fear. Fear is the little death, the death of self, it must be used never allowed to rule. Light bringing searing pain spangles to eyes that had never known anything but a dim sourceless glow. Other senses equally tormented, overwhelmed. The other pain, just one among a thundering torrential wash of sensation, as her body was violated for the technician’s pleasure. Only learning what rape was long after those who had used her so were null and void. A shiver runs through her, memories of impotent rage, rage that had long since been accepted, then molded to a need to guard and protect others from what she had gone through. A long torturous road she had slowly traveled on her own with only the Voice in her head for comfort.
“All I knew was pain. Then they threw me back in the dark, only this dark was cold. They were testing to see how, what, their life form of unknown origin would, could do. Figuring out, learning how to roll over. ..oh that was a trip and a half. And crawling? ” I snorted and then sighed. “I’m very good at surviving. I won’t hurt you, I won’t turn on you but I may be difficult to deal with.” Every layer that had been laid over the years, over the core of me was gone, swept away to keep from being a liability. Language, socialization, all that was soft and civilized …
With that I was moving, claws out, as something else approached with what it probably thought was the utmost stealth. My senses had been tracking it from the moment it entered range.
I didn’t need to see that which approaches, not really. It’s movements vibrated along my fine body hairs, the barest of noises thundered in my ears, the faint scent that hadn’t been there before. I stalk, strike, a cautious low energy move designed to turn it away. Will that keep it moving on, leaving rather than engaging? Part of me recognizing that this place hungers and not willing to feed it any more than necessary. Protect partner, deflect or destroy threat, survive.
Small things are more viscious, we have to be - But I will run if necessary, hide and evade one should have no pride when it comes to survival.
Kieran drifted along behind Tora, suppressing the sense of sickness that washed over him, watched her attack something slick, oily...something that didn't seem terribly intent on sticking around once it had been discovered -- it skidded away down a side-tunnel just big enough for Kieran's hand, though it had seemed far larger than that...larger than him, much less Tora...but appearances were often deceptive...
His mind churned -- venturing along lines of thought that he wasn't entirely comfortable with. Lost inside himself, he'd missed what was plainly in front of him, and that hurt, and that he did trust her -- and couldn't even begin to imagine what she'd gone through, that hurt...though, he knew -- because of a sudden he could See, and feel, and...ice in his veins, his legacy, the rage of his House, as cold and terrible as Northfell itself, that icy hellworld that had born him, that was forever his home. He was lost...
"You were right, you know? When you said that I have good instinct, I mean. You remember after the run, you asked me why I trusted you? I didn't answer because I didn't know, not in a way I could put into words. But...Tora, we know our own. More than the physical, none of that matters. What's a body to an immortal? A passing dream in the night, a whim. I think...I think that I Saw, in you, something that deserved trust...and I think I always saw that -- that's why I picked you for my partner, because it's never really been about physical ability, because we're all untrained, raw. What matters, is how far we'll go, how much we'll take."
He jogged to keep up, not caring that his footfalls were ten times as loud as they needed to be -- the threat was only as grave as it needed to be, and he caught her up, dropped his knee out, his hands on her shoulders, pulling her down ontop of him as something passed by above, needless justification, but there it was...
He held her still, his eyes glinting silver in the darkness, as if light struck them, the only things visible, "Tora -- you're going the wrong way. I trust you. I trust you with my life. Do you trust me? Can you trust me?"
Burning with inner light, his eyes cut through the darkness, and his right hand released her, moved beneath her hand, carefully, slowly, but he did not make contact...
Icefire rage – pure and unadulterated by any taint - that burned, consumed, with it’s cold - filling every molecule of ones being. A Rage that would destroy utterly that which it was focused on; but which could also build the greatest good out of its chill conflagration. I knew it, understood it, and felt it burst forth and fill Kieran. I couldn’t speak, I’d stripped that ability away for the moment but I nodded, hoping he could sense that as he spoke of the earlier trial.
I’ve never really understood how I have always, in the first heartbeats of an encounter, known the difference between them, us, and enemy. Part of me knows and has never been wrong. Bring me close and I can tell you which are mine, mine to protect, and those to protect them from. I’ve never tried to put it into words, it is but a integral essential knowing that I’ve never felt any need to explain.
And I had been denying that unfailingly accurate part of me, whining about fears I should be rightfully ashamed of.
Trusting those that were mine to protect was hard, but not impossible, especially as life had been none too kind at times. Anything other than trust for ‘us’ was all but impossible. And for the enemy trust was never even in the equation. Keiran was ‘us’ as much as most of the others here felt like ‘us’, a comfortable, unconscious acceptance and communion. Breathe stealing out of me, draining tension I hadn’t been aware of with it. Hollow for the moment. Sometimes I’m stupid.
And some where deeply warded Shai sighed and relaxed. Well I never claimed to be any good at raising children. Now if she’ll just look at the other
Again Keiran, my partner, saved me taking us down, his large hands warm, strong and yet gentle. I fought myself, not him, but for words, couldn’t yet, though. A layer of that might be a layer between surviving and not. That thought stopped me for a half a heart beat and I knew suddenly how wrong that was. If I couldn’t survive with all of me I wasn’t worthy of surviving. Some times I’m really stupid, and now I had to fight myself.
My hand darted for his, held it as I fought to visualize, lacking words, going for the simplest of thought and emotion pictures. Back to back against the dark, working together, friends, but more than friends – partners. Trusting completely.. Two tears on his chest, unseen crystal drops on the black of the tee shirt. All I had ever had in me. Nodding my head, 'Yes!' Lightly but emphatically against that now damp and dirty tee shirt. Meeting those glowing silver eyes, even if he couldn’t see mine... Oh he had pretty eyes, useful too boot.
I had a sudden feeling that nothing held a Stark down when their justice was up. I wondered for a moment how inconvenient their god found that. Kami would find it the best joke in the universe, Chaos would do it’s utmost to destroy it. Hope their Creator liked a good laugh. Set that aside for later.
And if he could find his Sight in this place, oh that shamed me, and made in determination that much greater. Wrestled with myself more, hard it was, but at last I won. And the rest of me slid back over with a jolt that shot through me with a physical pain, but one that I welcomed. . Winning had never been a need, but it was nice.
My whisper was soft. “Yes, Kieran, I do trust you” I laid my head back on his broad chest, listening to the sound of his breathing and his heart. We who have chosen to leave the Whole, the Infinite; chosen to don the frail raiments of mortality and visit time. What matters where… But a small part of still wished I might, one day, know.
Kieran nodded slightly, ever so slightly, "Good."
And then there was darkness, not repressive darkness though, peaceful darkness...and then unawareness, sleep to draw a very close analogy...somewhere within the mists one received the sensation of motion, perhaps a few faint, distant sounds -- "Well done," a flicker of silver in the night.
The Hall of Initiation was a vast, multiple-tiered amphitheatre, necessary because the Initiations were extremely popular events, though they were not open to the public -- nonetheless, thousands were inevitably in attendance -- Temple membership was for life, thus one could expect vast numbers from supporters alone, when one considered that the initiations were also significant cultural venues...attendances in the hundreds of thousands were not uncommon.
The remaining prospects -- culled down to only twenty individuals -- sat on the amphitheatre floor, smooth black tiles, cold to the touch. There was a raised stage at the center, and upon it were the Senior Adept and the Evaluators, seated upon black stools, faces schooled into serene lines. There was an atmosphere of nervous excitement permeting the event.
Dysaryn Stark entered from a great vaulted passage, resplendent in his formal dress. His jacket was cut relatively high, clearing Heartsflame at his left side, the blade sporting an intricately adorned scabbard, silver on black. Dysaryn himself echoed that, with stripes of silver brocade on his pants, on the arms of the jacket. His cape was the white of his house, and he wore the circlet of his bloodline, Adrian Stark's son, grandson of the First Lord of the Supremacy. He wore Master's stars on his lapels, and the Stark 'hourglass' was emblazoned on the pendant dangling from a relatively simple chain about his neck. There was no indication of honors, as was proper with Temple formal dress. More, none were needed -- the grip of the Swordbreaker hanging opposite Heartsflame was black -- he was a Warseeker Alpha. The Warseeker Alpha Prime needed no identification.
Dysaryn made his way onto the stage, swept the hovering audience with his eyes, and spoke -- there were no obvious microphones, but his voice was audible throughout the hall, undistorted and true.
"I feel no particular need to break tradition, so I won't bother with a speech. Let's get this started." His eyes unfocused a moment as he checked his implant, "Julian Chovas, if you'd be so kind..."
Julian rose, hand running through hair that he'd allowed to grow out recently, made his way to the stage, found the proper spot. Dysaryn nodded in slight approval, gestured with one hand.
"Senior Adept Kayd, your verdict?"
Kayd, relaxed and calm, leaning back slightly in his chair, regarded Julian with practiced dispassion, "He's good, sure, but how much of that is training? Maybe he can lead people, but I don't see him taking orders well. Still, fair enough -- let him in."
Dysaryn nodded, "As you say, Senior Adept."
As Dysaryn bit off his last syllable, Karl Shaner raised one finger, received a nod of recognition.
"Alpha. Unquestionably." Karl had never been given to excessive wordage in public.
Dysaryn smiling ever so slightly, gestured, "Julian Ezrah Chovas for Warseeker Alpha! Who will step forward to sponsor him?"
Distantly, a voice, "I will."
Machine-like, Dysaryn's head swivelled on target, and his smile widened, "Approach, Master Nadya."
Nadya Blackstar was tall with black hair and extremely dark blue-gray eyes, as was common within her House. She was, for courtesy's sake, one of Dysaryn's many cousins -- Dysaryn's father, Adrian, was the son of Ian Stark's sister, Ehlenna, and the (now) Lord of House Blackstar, Wraith. Adrian was then adopted by Ian Stark, thus the full 'Blackstar-Stark' at the end of his name. Dysaryn, having been born after his father's adoption, lacked a hyphenated last name...but his mother, Kaerah, was Stephen Maern's half-sister...and Deyna Maern's younger sister, and wasn't that just the most delightful mess...
Nadya gave Dysaryn a wry smile, perhaps following his thoughts with her own, then stepped up beside Julian, hand on her Warblade's hilt, and Dysaryn stepped before the both of them, subtle gesture sending them to their knees as a hooded attendant stepped forward, Julian's warblade, sheathed, in his hands. Heartsflame sang as Dysaryn drew it, the crimson-stained eldensteel catching the lighting in interesting ways...and Dysaryn's eyes gleamed as he spoke.
"Will you, Julian Ezrah Chovas, swear the Oath as Warseeker Alpha of Our Temple?"
Julian, fighting to stay calm, tears in his voice, "I will."
Dysaryn nodded and the swirling quicksilver of his eyes -- superficially similar to the 'silver' eye-color common amongst his people, but in person so unique -- seemed to hint at something more than just the Warseeker Alpha Prime, more than just the Master of Initiates playing his part...
The attendant offered Julian his warblade hilt-first, and Julian drew Peacemaker, instantly calmer upon contact with the blade, and he reversed it, tip-down, seemed to almost lean upon it, though the bladetip never actually touched the stage's light gray surface. The arena quieted.
Julian knew the common version, the Oath of the Warseeker...
"Upon my life, I have sworn
to seek out they that would do mine harm
and to bring harm to them until they are no threat
and to do so until I find my death."
He'd spoken those words before -- sworn them when he'd graduated from the DSSC, when he'd received his commission in the Fleet Marines, and simply when it seemed right. But that was not the Oath itself, that was the re-affirmation, spoken after the fact. Guardian Oath...He tasted the words in Nadya's mind, and in the great void that was Dysaryn Stark, and he opened his mouth and found the words, as if he'd always known them. Not Nadya's words, or Dysaryn's words, but his own.
"Willingly I will stand, among the brightest of His torches, holding back the darkness. I will fight to allow others to choose not to fight, know war so that others may know peace, die so that others may live. I will stand between them and those that would do them harm, because I can knowingly do no other -- I am a Guardian born. Before my Creator and my peers, I give my Oath freely -- You Have My Sword!"
Heartsflame blurred in a deadly arc, abrupt -- it seemed as if the first indication that Dysaryn had moved was when his warblade was halfway to its target, and the eldensteel blade flashed towards Julian's neck -- and stopped. And withdrew, flashed upwards -- and Dysaryn's voice, subtly different, possessed of some truly odd harmonics, as if he was multi-tracking his words just slightly out of sync.
"We accept your Oath, for there is only truth in your heart. Take your glory, Julian, and may you find your way to happiness. Rise, Initiate. Rise, Warseeker Alpha! RISE!"
Julian stood, feeling slightly foolish, Peacemaker angling downwards at his side, and the Hall erupted with applause. Nadya leaned in, "Enjoy this, Kid, because the paycheck sucks."
Julian smiled, suddenly, laughing as an attendant helped him into his longcoat, and he didn't notice as he pricked his thumb on Peacemaker's blade and returned it to the scabbard that was handed him, that Dysaryn Stark mirrored his motions almost perfectly. Then he was headed off-stage, Nadya leading him up into the seating sections, seating him amidst a sea of black, every mind disciplined and happy, and there were smiles directed his way, quiet congratulations, handshakes...
"Kieran Stark, if you will?"
Kieran flashed Tora a nervous smile as he rose, face betraying the peculiar mixture of excitement and fear that knotted his gut before he forced himself calm, headed up onto the stage. His Uncle seemed taller to tower above him as he came to stand before Dysaryn, and his eyes darted about, uncertain where to settle. Finally, he looked at Dysaryn, expectantly.
Dysaryn smiled, and whatever amplified most of his words didn't catch the soft, "Chin up, Kie." It did, however, catch the next.
"Senior Adept Kayd, your verdict!"
Beric Kayd considered Kieran at his leisure, chewing his lip -- quite the showman, "Umm. I guess he skates through, sure."
Kieran stared at his boots, flushing.
Kayd continued on, "Command track, though."
And that was nearly unheard of -- it took a special sort of person to lead Warseekers, and the vast majority of the Temple's battle officers had been veteran Warseekers before they were ever identified as officer candidates, but there were always exceptions...
Kayd finished, there were no further comments, and Kieran drew a breath.
"Kieran Thomas Stark for Warseeker, who will sponsor him?" Dysaryn's voice, though...
The voice...Kieran closed his eyes against sudden emotion, as little Aunt Meredith took the stage. His mother's sister, she'd half-raised him, clumsy little Aunt Meredith, five foot even and maybe a hundred and five s.pounds dripping wet, he hadn't even known she'd served, was the last person he ever expected to be Temple, about as threatening as a small ball of fluff...
Kieran opened his eyes to Dysaryn's smile, "Will you, Kieran Thomas Stark, swear Oath as Warseeker of Our Temple?"
Gracekiller was in his hand, of a sudden, and he needed the blade for support, Aunt Meredith's smiling face, full of pride, visible out of the corner of his eye -- and Master's stars, showing the deep crimson of a Battle Commander...
Dysaryn nodded, and Kieran sucked in a breath, opened his mouth, and hesitated -- he didn't know the words. Which was impossible, he'd studied them a hundred times...but he didn't know the words.
Softly, in his ear, "They don't come from paper, Kie. They come from the soul. Look there."
He closed his eyes, and found them, and they were his own.
"Willingly I will stand, as I was made to stand -- against the darkness that would engulf all people. I will fight to allow them to choose not to fight, know war so that others may know peace, die so that others may live. I will stand between the innocent and those who would prey upon them, because I can knowingly do no other -- I am a Guardian born. Before my Creator and my peers, I give my Oath freely -- You Have My Sword."
And he did not flinch when Heartsflame brushed against his throat, though it would not have mattered, for he felt...something...both inside him and behind, brush the blade away, and for a fleeting instant he understood...though he could not grasp that understanding.
Dysaryn's voice, booming, triumphant, "We accept your oath, for their is nothing but truth in your heart. Rise, Initiate. Rise, Warseeker! RISE!"
And he stood, unthinkingly catching his thumb on Gracekiller's blade before he sheathed it, everything seeming so distant as the longcoat settled on his shoulders, and he almost didn't notice Dysaryn murmur something to his aunt before she led him off-stage, still surprised when she caught him up short on the last step, confusion in his eyes as he glanced down at her brilliant smile, almost not noticing the roaring applause.
"Dysie said that you'd understand in a moment."
As the applause faded...
"Tora T'suki T'sai, approach..."
Dysaryn glanced back over his shoulder, "Adept Kayd, when you're quite ready?"
One got the sense that if Kayd could have found a way to put his feet up, he would have, "Oh, sure, sure...why not? If she'll swear it let her wear it."
Dysaryn turned his head downwards, grinning in spite of himself. When he glanced up, there was curiosity in his eyes, and his voice was soft and noticeably not amplified.
"Tora, I want you to understand what we're asking of you. You aren't the first non-Ascended to be offered Guardianship, but you are, I believe, the first who was not relatively intimately acquainted with us beforehand. There is a reason that we test before we train, and that is because the majority of sentients -- all sentients -- are not truly suited to the life we live, the sacrifices we make. It takes a special kind of crazy to swear that Oath. We ask your loyalty and your determination. Both of you. When the request first came through to allow you to attempt inprocessing, I argued to allow it. Nobody really expected you to make it through, because so few do -- you understand that everyone presented for inprocessing is extremely talented and capable, and none of that matters. I know the sort of carnage that a Warseeker can cause, and my worst nightmares concern what happens when that carnage is unleashed upon the innocent."
His hand stroked Heartsflame's pommel, lovingly, "Tora -- whatever you were has no bearing on what you can become. If you choose to swear Guardian Oath, you become one of us, and you will learn what we have learned, learn our weapons, learn our technology -- acquire those things, which we guard jealously. In this, we ask your loyalty -- we are not the only armed force within the Supremacy, but we are the only one trained as we are, devoted as we are, and armed as we are. I hate to threaten someone who has become close to my brother's son, but if you betray us...either of you...your actions taint those you represent, and such a threat will be purged completely. I don't say this with any pleasure -- I have seen such a thing done, and it haunts my dreams..."
Closing his eyes a moment, he shivered faintly, echoes of old pain, but the moment passed -- or was repressed, and Dysaryn's voice boomed, "Tora T'suki T'sai for Warseeker! Who will sponsor her?"
Not so very distant, a soft female "Go!" followed by a grunt, then a waving hand.
Dysaryn grinned, mirth edging his words, "Approach, then, Master Blackmarlin!"
Blackmarlin Rache, in Temple formals for the first time since his exile, seemed a completely different person as he stole a glance back over his shoulder at the piece of him that had been missing so very, very long. He looked...whole. Solid. His green cape flickered behind him, and he wore the circlet of the Rache Heir, and his black-gripped Swordbreaker marked him as a Warseeker Alpha -- in fact, he was Dysaryn's immediate predecessor as Warseeker Alpha Prime.
Blackmarlin came to a stop beside Tora, took one look at her, "Umm. Dysaryn? Missing something, unless you've managed to forge her a warblade somewhere along the line...and the Oath must be sworn on a warblade. And she can't use yours or mine, because you need yours and Shadowdrinker doesn't play well with others..."
Kieran, struck with clarity, interrupted from the side of the stage, "She can use mine." And Gracekiller struck a gentle arc as he tossed it like a javelin, and Blackmarlin's hand flashed out, wicked-fast, snatching the sheathed blade from the air, offering her the hilt...
Dysaryn, nodding, perhaps a bit smug, "Well. Will you, Tora T'sai T'suki, swear Guardian Oath as Warseeker of Our Temple?"
Fractions of memory, as I sat with the others, discreetly glancing about the vast amphitheater, filled with not strangers exactly, but none that I knew yet save for those sitting besides me. Some part of me noted that the floor was cold, a distraction thought.
Cold… my thoughts of a sudden flashed back to the chill of the holocrystal that the Ranger Colonel had tossed to me me, hand delivering it on the Empress’s behalf. I had thought it another tasking. Quiet times were times to usually be avoided and always to make one suspicious. I guess I hadn’t been suspicious enough. I had caught the crystal with a happy smile.
It had been a shock, to say the very least, hearing Her image say the words that released me from my oaths as a Hand. Releasing me having a heart's purpose, somthing that I hadn't realised was so important to me. "That I had done nothing that wrong, that she was releasing me only because she wanted me to be free to explore the potentials I was being directed toward." What potentials? My thoughts had stumbled along, a disjointed medley of fractured rather frantic suppositions.
Twenty years gone in an instant. So little I knew, but so very much. I had thought I would spend my life …Soft breath out, stillness and peace.
I had, rather numbly, let the Ranger Colonel strip, from just beneath the skin of my hand, the nano mesh that held the embedded links that proved what I …had been. The only identity a Hand had or needed, keyed to my unique biology alone, impossible to counterfeit or imitate. The all but invisible matrix turning from the subtle twining life glow of crystal silver, blue, and gold to a dusty grey, as it crumbled into ash. Cold
The Ranger Colonel had caught my eyes; hers were peaceful but held a strong sympathy. She said nothing though, and I had remembered how she had had her own time of exile. But I had a deep feeling that this was more than just temporary, it ws a true ending. But I found a smile and thanked her for sparring with me. She had left, duties calling her inextolerably away, her final comment making no sense to me at the time. All I knew at that moment was an over whelming sense of failure.
I had retreated to Warlock, shedding the two tears that I only ever had. Then sat for hours seeing nothing. But mourning can not last forever. And so I had showered, donned fresh clothes and followed the last request held in the holocrystal, though my movements had been slow, graceless as if every part of me had ached.. Beginning the journey that ended here in this vast Hall, finding the ache gone, vanishing as if had never been. Not quite knowing when it had. I look around the arena again, smile inside. If she had ordered me I might not have come, I’m not always the best at obeying orders, but she had known that.
I watch as Julian and Kieran are accepted. I meet Kieran's eyes as he looka at me, and I let the delight that fills me show unabridged. My heart sings with joy for the both of them. Part of me hadn’t thought to have been here at all, in this vast space filled with so many watching…Small but deep breath let out slow stilling all of me…Coming Home, right choice.
Called, I stand with all the grace I can muster, though sudden shyness sweeps over me and there is a half born impulse to edge away that I still as quickly as the impulse is born. Probably I am the second shortest person to ever stand here before the Warseeker Alpha Prime, but that just makes my lips twitch as I make sure that my posture is as it should be.
I had caught the odd resonances in his voice when he spoke earlier, to Julian and Kieran, and guessed that here, in this place, at this time, he was Avatar to their God.
I listen to his words, my dark eyes meeting his gravely. I understood his need to explain; to be sure I understood completely how things stood. I appreciate his thoughtfulness and I can not but honor his concern. My voice is low as I seek to reassure him “I understand, sir. If this eases your concerns, please know that We were freed, are free of all oaths. We are free to accept without hesitation.”
I waited silent after that, as a Master Guardian I had not been introduced Which made what? Nearly ninety nine percent of them? to strides down to stand beside me. He is very solid presence along the edges of my perceptions as he speaks to the Warseeker Alpha Prime. There is a contentment about him that was almost palpable. Master Blackmarlin’s kindness in sponsoring me is immense. “Thank You sir” My voice is low as he mentions my lack of a blade.
I turn my head just enough to catch out of the corner of my eye, Kieran tossing him Gracekiller and a gentle smile tips the corners of my lips up. Covering my back yet again. That is getting to be a habit. Lithely I go to my knees as he offers me Gracekiller's hilt. , Drawing the warblade with a fluid motion, reverent and honoured anew by Kieran’s generosity I hold the sword before me, tip down but not touching the platform.
As I was asked for my oath I look at Him, once again meeting his eyes, mine level and serene, looking up at the Avatar. My own voice was filled with harmonics that resonated far past that of purely physical sound as well. Two voices as one rang out and carried though the spaces of the temple clearly.
“I Stand. I can do no other, be no other. I will stand with all those who have been here, who are here; and all those that will stand here yet to come. Against the Dark- that which would harm- so that others may rest safe. Know war so that they may know peace, give up my life so that they might live. I pledge my life and all that I have been, are, and will be. I can do naught else for I am Guardian born. In the Presence of the Infinite I give my Oath. You have my Sword.”
Dysaryn paused a moment, considered a moment, and let himself go, Heartsflame blurring in and down towards Tora's neck -- and a surge of fear hit him in the stomach, but he did not flinch from it, nor did he show it, and the sigh of relief when the blade stopped a hair's breath from her neck, all the momentum leeched away, was also suppressed, and though he had never really doubted the outcome -- on a level, the outcome was his choice -- still, he was hardly infallible, thank the Creator for that mercy.
Letting Heartsflame fall away, a thought keyed the amplification, "We accept your Oath, for there is only truth in your hart. Rise, Initiate. Rise, Warseeker. RISE!"
And Blackmarlin hauled Tora to her feet, led her off-stage, threw Dysaryn a parting glance -- a shared remembrance, perhaps, of when the situation had been reversed -- Blackmarlin standing as Master of Initiates, and Dysaryn acting as a sponsor...and then Blackmarlin was headed down the short stairs with Tora, and Kieran was waiting below, smiling widely, near-aglow with contentment. Blackmarlin, wearing a wry smile, knew without looking that Anna had cleared seats enough for the lot of them, not difficult when she evoked her lover's name...
Julian cradled his head in his hands, wondering why he wasn't happier. Not that he wasn't happy, he was quite pleased, particularly because Gwen had been called next, and he'd become rather fond of her, temper and all. She'd make a good Warseeker, she had the passion. He didn't -- he understood that. It didn't matter. He needed this. It wasn't a matter of wanting it or of being motivated, this was what he was. What he was meant to do. But it didn't make him happy. Glancing at Nadya, he wondered if she felt the same way, though her mind was defended such that he had little enough chance of penetrating without her knowledge. Still, he doubted it -- not based on what she'd said to him. This, this spectacle, wasn't why did what he did. There was satisfaction, yes, and some sense of belonging...but while a Warseeker was never alone, the same could not be said for a Warseeker Alpha. There was always a degree of separation, a distance from others. The iron control necessary in an Alpha almost mandated that -- it was difficult to feel close to someone who must always part of themselves back, and few could accept that in a relationship. That, Julian thought, was nothing new...
I nicked my thumb as I had observed Julian and Kieran had done and resheathed Gracekiller. Noting that the long coat had been tailored to fit my smaller frame as I stand and helped into it.
Maybe now you'll let yourself grow those five inches I swear you can. Sure it took twenty odd years to grow one, but you haven't grown since then out of sheer stubbornness Shai never let Tora sit content when an opening presented itself.
Among the Ascended, as among the Tanarans, getting to five nine or so is not even going to be 'average'...but I could wear heels I gave Shai good mental vision of a sword fight in four inch spikes, as I replied with a silent chuckle of relieved tension. Rolling my eyes at the Voice inside my Head I followed Master Blackmarlin down from the stage.
My smile as wide as his, I return the warblade to the beaming Kieran. "Covering my lacks again" I tease softly, then far more seriously "Thank you Kieran for the honor."
As I sat next to the others, watching the other candidates be called to where I had stood, I also took a moment to glance around, finding Julian where he sat with his sponsor, and wondering at the faint but perceptible air of glumness that wreathed about him. I envied him more than a little. I am honest enough look at my failings and to know that, despite my hopes, it was my own fears that had kept me from being chosen as he had.
But the concept of the emotion of hope was one the Voice inside my Head had had to teach me. And some times, as it might apply to me, I'm not sure that that lesson has taken. It is supposed to be more than just a physical emotion but a 'spiritual grace' as well. I'm not sure I have a soul so as to have this 'spiritual grace', and apparently hope is not a native emotion in my genetics. However stubbornness I understand, and Shai has grumbled more than once that the two are often too close to call.
However I am content, happy, relieved, honored and anxious to begin the next phase. So many emotions tangled together, I go about muting them down so that they don't intrude on others. It’s taken Shai a long time to teach me to use what the Tower’s Healers rebuilt, but she is, seemingly, pleased with my ability to ‘do it on my own’ should the need be there. Some times I wonder if she is not prepping me for her leaving, but that’s a supposition that makes no sense. I'll never be as good as she.
Blackmarlin sighed, meshing his hand with Anna's as he slid into his seat, hand moving to flick his cape over the seatback then moved to hold Shadowdrinker against his leg as he sat. The motions were deliberate, he'd never sat much in his formals and generally preferred wearing Shadowdrinker over his shoulder for ease of movement. He sighed, then, revelling in Anna's presence at his side, beautiful even to his Lifesense -- the ebb and flow of her very being was graceful. He squeezed her hand, gently, gently, well aware of his own strength, and she squeezed back, dazing him with her electric smile...and he reflected, not for the first time, on how the only thing he feared more than losing her again was what he would do were that to happen. He wished he could simply pretend it was impossible, but he was Warseeker Alpha. Again. Admittedly, not Prime anymore, and never to be again if he had a choice -- he would never be the shining example that Dysaryn Stark was, though he knew all too well how much the need to be that example cost his oft-haunted successor.
Blackmarlin smiled, of a sudden, and considered Tora beside him, who probably didn't begin to understand the statement he'd made by supporting her, but that was entirely to the proper -- there was no reason she should understand, and, indeed, it was advantageous to her that she did not. The less she had to distract her, the better...
He sighed, then, noticing her glance at Julian and the emotion -- or, rather, the physiological response to said emotion -- that followed. He bent his head down slightly, pitching his voice for her ears, "Don't envy him. You may look forward to learning to fight side by side with your new brothers and sisters, an integral part of a fighting unit, protected even as you protect. That is not Julian's path -- he is Warseeker Alpha, part of but forever separate from the rest of the Temple. I would not wish that path on my worst enemy, though I walk it myself."
He smiled, then, though there was little enough humor in it, "Still, do not pity him. He has taken the first step towards being whole, and I pray that eventually he may take the last and know contentment..."
Blackmarlin straightened, then, having said his piece, and Kieran caught Tora's attention, having finished, or at least paused, the conversation he had been having with his Aunt Meredith -- though that conversation had been in the dialect of Low Ascended that was spoken on Northfell, and was thus largely incomprehensible even to most other Ascended, as 'Low Ascended' itself was a courtesy grouping for all the various regional dialects extant throughout the Supremacy...
"Hmm, we're going to have to get you a Warblade, Tora." Kieran did not appear entirely pleased at this prospect.
Meredith patted his arm lightly, "Whatever has you so bothered by that, boy?"
Kieran glanced down at his Aunt -- at six foot one, he was an inch and a foot taller than her, "Well, I don't exactly see any Bladesmiths hanging from the chandeliers..."
Meredith chuckled, "Well, no, that would be rarther undignified, but your Uncle Dysaryn is a rated Master Bladesmith. I thought you knew that. Your sword is one of his, you know. I was there when he made it -- your father worked the bellows and my brother did the electronics. Of course, Tora hardly needs anything so intricate. I certainly didn't."
Kieran blinked, wondering exactly why he hadn't recalled his Uncle's skill. There was no real embarassment there, just a strange curiosity. It wasn't something that he would normally forget.
Blackmarlin cut in, then, "The trouble, Meredith, is that even if you managed to browbeat Dysaryn into making the blade, there's no Eldensteel Forge on Seydar, and Dysaryn couldn't cut a swordstone if his life depended on it. However, I do believe there is just enough time before you're due to start training to prance off and get that done."
Meredith giggled, "Well, I should hope so. Considering that their training begins when Dysaryn says it does, I mean. Hmm, though...Crescent is quite close, isn't it?"
Blackmarlin nodded, "Yes, it is, and I am her sponsor...but I am not quite back in my family's good graces yet, you understand?"
Meredith shrugged, "Oh, fine. I suppose that, somehow, Dysaryn will be able to finagle his way into Northfell's forge...and I understand that you have some small skill where swordstones are concerned, do you not, Master Blackmarlin?"
Anna patted Blackmarlin's hand rather possessively, "There are no better 'stonecutters in the Supremacy, Meredith. Equal, yes. Superior? No."
Blackmarlin lowered his eyes, shook his head, "Word of advice, Kieran, Tora: there are some battles that can only be won by not fighting them in the first place. Still, Ladies, I don't think that Master Dysaryn will be particularly pleased when he finds that you are planning to ferret him away from his duties. A lesser man, such as myself, would relish the opportunity for a vacation, but Dysaryn has always been something of a slave to his sense of duty."
Anna brushed her head against his arm, "Well it's a good thing that you'll be there to protect us, won't it?"
As it turned out, Dysaryn was not nearly as displeased as Blackmarlin had feared. Indeed, it didn't even take all that much prodding from his cousin Meredith to get him to cave in, and once he had caved, he went about organizing the thing with his usual efficiency -- or, rather, he delegated. Which was to say, said "We'll take my yacht," and that was the end of it. Once Wanderer got involved, it was best not to resist.
It seemed that they had only just left Seydar when they arrived in the Northfell system, and indeed that perception was not at all flawed as Wanderer was not at all what one expected from anyone's 'yacht.' Certainly no one other but Dysaryn Stark would have had the audacity to refer to an Interstellar Class A Mark 1 patrolship in such a manner. Blackmarlin never understood how he got away with it, being bonded Captain of such a vessel himself -- his Queen Marguerite would have flayed him alive if she learned that he'd referred to her in such an irreverent manner. But, then, he'd always rather suspected that some fool had put a Battlecarrier's AI into a patrolship's body and stuck him with the result...
At any rate, the point was that the variety of motive mechanisms available to what was tonne-for-tonne the most advanced warship in the Supremacy included several that were more than capable of making the elapsed travel time between Seydar and Northfell essentially nothing, though none of those were employed. Instead, Wendy, Wanderer's AI, settled upon merely arriving very, very quickly. To spare her passengers, of course.
Northfell itself was a winter world, eternally torn by blizzards and the temperature seldom rising above freezing even during summer -- it was relatively distant from it's star, and was not at all the sort of world one looked for when one went out a-colonizing, unless one was specifically looking for an inhospitable hellhole. Still, in it's way, it was quite beautiful -- the great mountain ranges were breathtaking in their magnitude, and the Citadels of House Stark, great fortresses that rose out of the snow, were quite famous for their architecture. For House Stark, this was home.
Kieran pulled up an external view on the large screen in the cabin he'd shared with Tora and his Aunt Meredith -- Wanderer only had two 'cabins', and it had seemed the proper thing to do to allow Blackmarlin and Anna a degree of privacy. Dysaryn's regular cabin was the one that Blackmarlin been given, as he had opted to simply sleep on the bridge -- he'd spent much of the short trip hardwire, anyway. As it happened, the passenger cabin was actually capable of accomodating up to six people, provided they were very good friends or intimately acquainted in neat pairs and willing to share bunks, which seemed designed to be just barely too small for two people to inhabit them without bodily contact. Still, it had hardly been an issue. It'd only been a day's journey, though Northfell was half-way across the Supremacy from Nightreign.
The approach to Caer Malant, the Stark capital city, was one he was quite used to -- the simple architectural styles favored by the Ascended for their general construction gave way to the gleaming white towers of the Inner City, where House Stark's governmental organ resided -- and Revenia's, after it. The two had essentially become one and the same, since the resurgence. Essentially the Star Supremacy of Revenia and Great House Stark had become the same entity -- Great House Stark was Revenia's royal house, and the system that Adrian Stark had established was simply expanded to include the other Stark worlds, though the question of whether the few Revenian systems that had originally owed allegiance to other Houses would return to those Houses was still an open one...and not one that anyone was in a real hurry to answer.
Rising out of the white spires of the inner city was the Old Citadel itself, by far the oldest of Northfell's great fortresses, the ancestral Stark stronghold was the prototype after which all those others had been modelled -- gleaming white towers with intricate black detailwork, massively fortified -- the exterior walls were nearly ten meters thick at their thinnest, and the painstakingly preserved archaic shield installations were surprisingly effective, though far, far larger than the modern installations that had superceded them.
Wanderer was small enough to land in the Old Citadel's internal hangars, and Dysaryn had chosen to do so rather than putting down at Caer Malant's official spaceport or, as would have been necessary for a non-House vessel, putting in at one of the orbital stations. Or, of course, Dysaryn could have chosen to land at his own estate, Starguard, former home of the Supremacy's Swordsworn program and now returned to it's original function -- the home of Great House Stark's Armsmaster and Champion, though Dysaryn, who was both of those things, had not been in residence since the Resurgence.
There was, then, little allowance for sight-seeing as they were swept away to the Stark Forge deep beneath the Old Citadel. Eldensteel was a very special material, and required very special tools to work it -- it 'grew' in the cavern systems below the strongholds of the Ascended Houses, and was forged into Warblades in the Forges of those same Strongholds. The forges also houses the necessary equipment for the creation of the swordstone, as well as the remnant of the swordmaking process. The end result was the Ascended Warblade, carried by an Ascended from his maturity to the day he died. The psychoreactive blades were stabilizing influences on their wielders, the 'swordspirit' a warm confidence in the back of the mind of every Ascended over the age of twenty. Certainly not the aggressive, bloody instinct one would expect from a weapon of war, most Warblades had a calming effect upon their wielders -- which was why Ascended society universally allowed the possession of the blades. An Ascended with his warblade was significantly less likely to cause harm than one in possession of the weapon.
The Forge itself was a relatively unassuming place -- an anvil, some peculiar looking powertools that Dysaryn, stripped to his waist for this task, completely ignored in favor of a large hammer and tongs, and the necessary furnace...though the bellows looked rather peculiar, and the geiger counter sitting next to the thing was rather ominous. Still the whole thing looked rather...primitive. That was, until Dysaryn brought out the bar of Eldensteel -- flat gray and inactive in its neutral state. Also peculiarly weak -- it dimpled where he grasped it, and indeed, he formed the rough outline of the blade with his hands, as if he were working modelling clay.
That first step complete, he fired it the first time -- directing Tora and Kieran to work the bellows, which seemed entirely all too difficult for their apparent uselessness, especially considering his grinning admission that they were quite superfluous to the actual function of the 'furnace,' which was really nothing of the sort -- rather a chamber where focused radiation could bombard the nascent Warblade...the bellows were necessary because the work had to be done -- Eldensteel was psychoreactive, as mentioned.
Removing the blade from furnace, Dysaryn set to it with his hammer, refining the shape significantly, then fired it again, beat it on it some more, fired it, and so on for a good twenty repetitions, using successively smaller hammers until, finally, he set the blade aside, moved to one of the machines, rather quickly input a program which, upon execution, cut the lumpy, abused-looking blade-form into the shape of a warblade with what was essentially a miniaturized capital primary beam. Dysaryn's actual skill only became obvious when he forged the guard, which he slid into place, followed by the grip designed explicitly to fit Tora's hand, and the swordstone setting. Meanwhile, Blackmarlin had been quietly working at an opaque white egg the entire time, employing primarily what appeared to be, of all things, a straight razor...but when he'd finished, it socketed into the setting and didn't pop back out after he'd secured it properly.
The warblade guard contained the slice-field generator and the necessary apparatus for slicewire -- Dysaryn cut the slice-wire groove with a bench-rig, as it had to be absolutely perfect -- even he wasn't that precise freehand. That was a job for machinery. The final product, then, was a thirty-six inch backsword with all the functionality of a proper Warblade. It was merely flat gray, rather than the blue-tone of bonded eldensteel...but before that could be done, the blade must be proofed. Thus, Dysaryn hefted it and displaying none of the his characteristic finesse, proceeded to beat on a large cylindrical object apparently provided for the purpose, judging from its much scarred surface. The 'temple-pattern' warblade was nominally a one-handed blade, though they were often used two-handed with one hand extending over the swordstone which was actually force-sealed to the grip, rather than just set in with pieces of bent metal. Sized for Tora's hands, however, this particular Warblade was definately a one-hander for Dysaryn. This did not seem to affect his determination to break the poor thing, or at least bend it entirely out of whack -- at one point placing it into a vice and balancing atop the swordstone. Impressive on both sides.
He tested the slice-field generator until he was quite satisfied that it was functional, tested the groove, though he removed the spool of slicewire he used for that test, it being the old-style 'straight' wire, lacking a protective covering and thus exceptionally dangerous. Dysaryn was intimately acquainted with the stuff, it being used as a weapon all by itself in the gladiatorial bloodpits that he'd frequented for a time in his youth. He'd lost the pinky and ring fingers on his left hand to the stuff, and had worn prosthetics for quite some time as a reminder of his own foolishness. Indeed, he'd only used his Lifehand to regenerate the fingers relatively recently, when the prosthetics had malfunctioned -- and Revenian technology had not been up to the task of replacing them.
The final test was generally the one where a nascent warblade would fail, because nothing but a warblade could pass it. This one Dysaryn only observed, handing the blade over to a member of the Stark House Guard in gleaming white powered armor with the gold embellishments of a member of the Stark Guard's 212th Shock-Assault Company, the much-renowned Radiant Guard, informally 'Paul's Paladins,' which kept order in Caer Malant and was based out of the Old Citadel itself. The Guardswoman took the blade somewhat gingerly, adjusted her grip -- House Stark utilized gender-specific armor among its guard force, quite unlike the Guardian Temple which preferred a unisex approach -- then drove the blade into a rather thick block of dull dark gray alloy. The servo-enhanced strength of the Guardsman drove the blade six inches into the block, and Dysaryn nodded in approval, wrapping the material with his knuckles.
"Commercial-grade starship hull alloy, this is. Not warship armor, admittedly, without slicewire you'd need a fairly hefty linear accelerator for that...but tough enough, I think..."
The Guardswoman hauled the blade clear, servos straining a moment before it came clear, then returned the blade to Dysaryn, who rather calmly picked a scabbard off of a rack and dropped the blade into it, seemingly immediately satisfied with the fit. Then he set the blade down the anvil and gestured Tora over, taking her dominant arm by the wrist and a taking his folding knife from a pocket of his pants, cut a very shallow, very straight line into her palm -- just enough to draw blood. He took the time to wipe the knife on a scrap of rag, close it, and drop it into his pocket before taking Tora's hand in his own and closing it about the nascent warblade' s hilt tightly. He shifted his own hand down to the scabbard, then, his eyes intent on her.
Kieran, recalling when he'd first received Gracekiller, wondered if the Eldensteel would even respond to her -- he hoped so. A surge of warmth at his side was telling -- Gracekiller agreed, and though the blade was not actually intelligent, merely resonated with Kieran's own mind, essentially a part of himself being reflected back at him, the knowledge that the blade approved of her was, still, encouraging. Actually, that Dysaryn had not struck her down during initiation was, he supposed, evidence that the Eldensteel would react to her -- there it was Heartsflame that judged the initiate, not Dysaryn. Even the Master of Initiates was capable of lying to himself, but his warblade would absorb only truth and act accordingly. He wondered, then, what Tora's warblade would be named. If everything went properly, the name should simply pop into Tora's head once she'd drawn it -- just as the blade itself should be the proper blue of bound eldensteel.
He didn’t understand why I envied Julian. I was used to living with a separation, a pane of glas-steel between me and the rest of the universe. Holding apart, that felt ‘normal’ to me. Now to not need it? That was an ecstasy, but not why I envied Julian...how does one explain when words are so limited. Living in and for Shiva Dancing. Slipping into that altered consciousness of combat was glorious, and frightening. Could I control it, instead of it controlling me? Could I keep Shiva Descending Brahma rising, for just that utterly fleeting moment of destruction become creation, under my command? Destroying utterly is easy, too easy. The nuanced destruction of a surgeon? A universe and more of difference…the destruction that is absolutely necessary for creation but the boundary between that and just ‘destruction’ is so fragile, so…ephemeral. Given my lack grace, I guessed I had not the control. I guess I had hoped for an affirmation that I did.
The mental image of the Warseeker Alpha Prime hanging by his knees from a antigrav suspended chandelier, it’s multitude of hand cut crystals chiming and swaying had me biting my lip to keep from smiling. I do know how to be decorous, but I know the laugher shown in my eyes. I had a feeling that Meredith had her ways of getting her way.
But my lips twitched up openly as I regarded Master Blackmarlin and Anna as he made his comments on picking battles.
The happiness they shared, wove together...No, it was more than happiness, it was as great a shared joy as I have ever encountered – full flowered, rich beyond mere words ability to parse. Just being close to such emotions brought its own contentments. As long as the Universe held such as they, what they had together, I’d do whatever it took to protect it. One doesn’t need to know such emotions oneself to value them beyond all measure.
However, Blackmarlin didn’t know Tora, But Shasi did - he didn’t know that she lived for understanding, asked "why?" with a fearlessness that sometimes surpassed safety, even sanity. However she did have sense enough to choose when and where to ask. Shai just shook her head and listened interestedly when she got around to it….
“Master Blackmarlin?” I caught his attention, and then swept a quick glance around at the others asthe Wanderer took us to Northfell. I estimated that there were few, more like none, secrets among this group, so I took a surreptitiously deep breath and dove in. “If I’m stepping on privacy or sacred grounds, I apologize with utmost sincerity. You can kick my ass for asking and refuse to answer, but why did you sponsor me?”
I had no problems with the cabin set up, there were three bunks, that meant one for each of us. Even if there had been but one or two I would have taken which ever option made the other two the most comfortable. Curling up on a clean dry floor had, at times, been a luxury. Though if I had the option I would have preferred to curl up with Kieran. I’ve learned I like the smell of warm, clean, happy male. Well female too but I don’t at the moment feel comfortable enough with Kieran’s aunt to suggest such to either of them, even in the most platonic way. I still don’t know enough about the culture. I’m barely comfortable making any actions that resemble 'passes' in the cultures I do know. Which was always much to Shai’s unrepressed mirth. Glaring at someone with no eyes to glare into is singularly unimpressive. Not that I’m that impressive any way.
Some of my happiest memories were sleeping in a pile with Che'mere, my gladiator partner, and the others of the slave coffle. It meant we had survived another day’s Games. I dreamed of them often, keeping alive and honoring the memories of those who had not survived. Only I and Che’mere were still alive to be rescued by the team sent in by the Anubian’s brother. Death in the arena played no favorites, even if the odd pairing of a tall, elegant, alabaster furred Anubian- Che’mere had stood fully seven foot tall, not counting her ear - and a short and plain ‘human’. We had some how become the darlings of the noisy, slavering mob that filled the arenas stands to overflowing to watch slaves fight and die…Lock those memories away, no place here for now.
It had pleased Shai to no end to see that those dreams, while harsh, had never been nightmares of the sort that were the hallmark of true damage to the psyche. She was glad that she didn’t have dreams. But then again she didn’t have a subconscious. Shai herself had been used to collapsing in the tangle of her totally exhausted Circle, who had all been so deep into one another’s minds that some times they weren’t sure whose body was whose. The terrible pressures and dangers that kept a Tenerista separate, untouchable, dissolved then, once the energies had drained away.
Northfell was beautiful, and Shai adored it the moment she took in it’s ice rimed beauty. It was so much like Schade, her home world, that for a moment it brought a pang of home sickness. She had left her Schade as a teenager and had only made a hand full of trips back in her life. Too caught up in my own duties, my service to others. Shai commented as she looked through Tora’s eyes.[but my memories were strong, so that managed to suffice.[/i]
“The mountains have an awe inspiring grandeur, and it fits the name, Stark” I agreed, but I liked my worlds a little warmer. Cold, given my earliest times, would never be my favorite, but Shai had shown me that I had a bit of the artist’s gift, to see and appreciate beauty where others might not. Other than some small skill with music and dance, I have little talent in the practical application of that gift.
When the blade making began I probably asked enough questions about what Master’s Dysaryn and Blackmarlin were doing to fill an encyclopedia, or to drive them to distraction. But I so wanted, loved to, needed to learn.
Shai had to bite mental lips as Tora went to work, doing one of the things she did best – learning. In some cultures Tora’s direct, focused attention signaled all the wrong things, but here she felt comfortable that no one would mistake Tora’s intent interest for other than what it was. Tora absorbed knowledge like a thirsty sponge and had no ego to bruise or hold her up when it came to learning. She had no qualms or hesitation admitting to things she couldn’t quite grasp and then proceeded to ask questions until she did. And it wasn’t just rote memorization and return recitation of facts, but the ability to synthesize and integrate, drawing independent conclusions when questioned in turn.
And Tora certainly showed no inclination to shirk her part in the work of forging the blade, watching every aspect with the quiet intensity of a cat outside a known mouse hole. Working along side Keiran with a smile and a ready hand, it ws very evident that she enjoyed the physical side as much as the intellectual side, in fact more.
An EndingAll stories have a beginning, a middle and an ending, and if they're any good, the ending is a beginning... and a beginning...
‘And sword makes three?” That totally unexpected josh from Shai had me blinking. She was absolutely not given to ‘funny’ but I smothered than under a deep breath as Master Dysaryn closed my hand about the hilt. Shai and I had discussed it and were both in complete agreement, despite the dangers inherent. There were reasons, sound ones, that I had had the strongest multilayered shields about me that we could contrive ever since the Towers had regrown, what had been carved from me and it had gone active.
In Humans, what one can do with ones Donas, the psionic Gifts, and how strong one could be, depended on one's genetics. The ragged, abysmal psi- surgery done in the cloning tube that had nulled me hadn’t taken the genes, and when the regrowth was complete my Donas manifested. That was to be expected. While in some focal areas I was little better than null, I had many of the same abilities as Shai had during her life, including one of the most dangerous of all. I could tap into the energy well of a planet. And that had flat out scared me all but senseless when it had unexpectedly manifested. I had proved to not have the physical ability to handle all the energy levels that Shai had been able to. I couldn’t crack a planet, thankfully. Yes, we’d checked.
I am tru-ambi, using both hands equal. However I am, just minimally balanced more toward right brain dominance, or so the testing says, and my left hand is my instinctive offering to Master Dysaryn.
And as my bloodied hand comes in full contact and We draw the warblade, we let every thing down. I won’t say the planet didn’t ring like a bell but this was like nothing I had ever experienced. It wasn’t like Bonding with a Matrix, the quasi living starstones that amplified and focuses one’s psionic Donas. Shai noticed that instantly, but then again she would. There was that reason I chose never to fully Bond with one. The Kelblade pair didn’t require it fortunately…
But this…this was Truth'sHeart
Blackmarlin had smiled, considered Tora for a short time, then spoken with a degree of firmness, "Politics, my dear. That you made it through inprocessing is sufficient proof that you belong here, but there will always be those who do not agree, for any number of reasons. If Dysaryn could have sponsored you himself, he would have -- I'm the next best thing. A degree of responsibility, I suppose -- I was one of the more vocal supporters of allowing your attendance. It is my firm belief that the Creator has touched all living things, and that all those who hear the call should be allowed the opportunity."
His smile became more of a grin, then, "Though I didn't really expect you'd make it this far. Glad you did, mind, vindicates my position."
There was a definite solemnity beneath the overt mirth, the sense of something sacred -- though there was nothing particularly formal about the way the Ascended present acted, it was as if the very informality was in its own way ceremonial. Certainly the sense of the great age of the Ascended surrounded them -- the Old Citadel had been unimaginably ancient when Dysaryn Stark was a boy, eighty thousand years and more ago.
Still, neither Dysaryn nor Blackmarlin minded the questions, though there wasn't terrifically much to explain, for the greatest part of this particular facet of their crafts could not be taught, per-se, only learned through countless hours of practice. Blackmarlin, at least, could explain a degree of what he was doing, or rather, how he was doing it -- the blade of the 'straight razor' had a constantly-ablating monomolecular edge, making it essentially one-use, but also sharp enough to cut through the inert swordstone. Active, they were protected by the Warblade's passive slice-field, as was the rest of the warblade, making them quite impossible to cut.
'What' he was doing was more difficult -- he was cutting the swordstone to be aesthetically pleasing, yes, but more than that -- it had to reflect the unique 'character' of the warblade that would house it, and seeing as that character had yet to be determined, a good 'stonecrafter had to be almost precognitive. Dysaryn had far more difficulty explaining his art -- there was no real rhyme or reason to the number of firings or to the manner in which he struck the blank with his mallets, indeed all of the 'real' work was done by the CNC machine. Except that improperly tempered Eldensteel was useless.
As Tora drew the blade, Dysaryn had stayed close by, and Blackmarlin had taken a step or two forwards, intrinsically sensing what she was doing -- and though neither was overt, both were watchful. The Old Citadel was, of course, protected by more than mere walls and technological shields, but, still...the presences of the two Warseekers Alpha in that moment owed nothing at all to their professed talents or professions, a glimpse, perhaps, of exactly what made them so very similar...
And then there was laughter and clapping and smiles and relief.
Unfortunately, there was not time for much sightseeing, indeed, not even time for a meal. Kieran had been able to have a few words with his father, Jaime, who'd made the trip to see his son, and was then introduced to Tora -- he had more than a passing resemblance to his brother, Dysaryn, though notably his left eye was a deep red prosthetic, the exact color of fresh blood...
Then they were off again, on the way back to Nightreign, Seydar, and the Temple. While in transit, Kieran made a point of making use of Wanderer's exercise area -- unsurprisingly, larger and more lavish than the actual living quarters, to show Tora the basic Longblade forms. While he had a feeling she had a more than passing familiarity with swords in general, the addition of slicewire added a level of complexity to the Warblade that must be recognized, it could be as dangerous to oneself as it was to the enemy, if one were careless.
By way of a surprise treat, Blackmarlin managed to drag Dysaryn down for a short bout -- a rare pleasure for either man, both acknowledged masters with the warblade, Dysaryn generally considered to be the single best swordsman in the Supremacy -- and Blackmarlin his only real competition. And, indeed, they were both very closely matched, as near as one could tell from the speed with which they moved. At times it seemed as if the whole thing was a dance and the two men knew the steps to perfection...
Dysaryn was, perhaps, just a touch faster -- but Blackmarlin was that little bit stronger, and neither man seemed capable of falling for a feint or missing a parry. They fought for fully ten minutes before disengaging entirely, laughing. Blades were blooded and sheathed, and Kieran shook his head glumly. Compared to his uncle and Master Blackmarlin, even at his fastest he was moving in slow motion...
Otherwise, the return to Seydar went smoothly, and training would begin shortly thereafter. For the duration of said training, Tora and Kieran were assigned to Company D, 2nd Training Regiment, Seydar Command. Kieran's command-training was in addition to his regular Warseeker training, taking place during the night...after the thoroughly uneventful first day, the instructors hadn't even made an appearance yet, Kieran had vanished for a full five hours, returning with a massive stack of books and a rather 'deer in the headlights' look to him.
The room assignments were decent enough, generally four to a room, though Kieran's command-training did away with one of those in favor of his console, necessary for the homework he spent most of his free time doing. Tora had been placed with him, and a tall, lanky red-head by the name of 'Stuart,' who seemed to always be smiling. Still, he seemed a decent sort, fiercely loyal and utterly incorrigable.
Tora had regarded Blackmarlin with a new wariness, and sighed “I hate politics, and I have never understood why people so seem to enjoy engaging in them. I have a vast personal dislike for being manipulated or manipulating others.” But her lips twitched into a reluctant grin “But I will do my best not to let your or Master Dysaryn down. I would hate to be the tripping stone.
With careful attentiveness Tora had listened and watched Kieran’s display of the warblades and slice wire. She had fought with vibroswords weapons a time or two, but certainly not under any conventional setting. “They had a some as gladiatorial weapons, but few of us slave gladiators were allowed to use them. Mostly they were toys for the freemen who came around wanting to just carve a slave up to boast about it.” She smirked at some of her memories as she commented “They were very dangerous to their wielders against charged weapons. That tended to result explosion that could take off the user's hand. And when the spared lightly together she was cautious of it, but did show a thorough
solid grounding of skill with the long blade. “I think I’m more used to slashing than thrusting. I know also that what I was taught combat rather than swordsmanship – probably not as pretty or well styled.” She shrugged at that. “And even before the Xa taught me swords, in the arena we had to kill or we would be killed, and even if we won sometimes we died at the whim of the crowds that wanted more blood.”
When the two gunslingers sparred she watched with almost unbreathing intensity. Then shyly she thanked them for letting her enjoy such a wonderful demonstration.
They would learn quickly to discern which of the two they were speaking to. It showed in subtle ways though. Tora had no problem with casual, comfortable skin to skin contact, and her personal space was minimal. Shai on the other hand unconsciously distanced herself from others, careful never to touch or be touched. She was willing to admit to it being a hold over to over five hundred years of rigorous conditioning. “It is just too dangerous, when a Tenerista is directing the energies of up to several hundred psionics, a touch, any disruption really, can be lethal, and so it has become rather formalized to avoid all physical contact. Tora does not have the ability to be a Tenerista, so she doesn’t need the conditioning. But it looks as if it’s habit for me.” Her grins tended to be sharper than Tora’s and a feeling of very different life experiences hovered wraithlike about her.
Tora was willing to talk openly, to those aboard the Wanderer about her past the unpleasant and pleasant alike, but never showed any desire for sympathy and anything resembling a desire for any sort of special treatment was completely absent.
When Kieran returned wide eyed she’d instantly asked “Is it permitted for me to help you study?” He’d already had seen her nearly eidetic memory at work.
Stuart she’d warmed to quickly, liking his ready smile and loyalty. While worrying a little for him that his incorrigibleness might get him into trouble. She’d made the same offer to him. She was also always willing to spar and took to physical training like the proverbial duck to water. Her greatest weakness were in maths, chemistry and physics. Tactics, strategy, economics and politics were areas that she had had little formal training in, but a lot of scatter shot life experience in. Her formal schooling as a First Contact Specialist had emphasized culture, history, psychology, biology, botany and the Xeno equivalents.
Slower to make open up and friends among the others of Company D, 2nd Training Regiment, Seydar Command she never the less was in no way stuck up or unapproachable. She just preferred not to presume, and was slightly shy, and wary, not wanting to trample on any customs inadvertently. Tora preferred to listen rather than talk, but after a few days openly asked everyone “Please, being a real outlander I’m probably going to stumble all over toes without meaning it. So if I do, just let me know, I’m not going to get all chuffed over being corrected.”
Blackmarlin shook his head softly, "Ahh, Tora...how wonderfully simplistic your universe must be! You'll make an excellent NCO some day, or I miss my mark...and of course you'll do your best. If you were going to do any less than that, I don't think you'd have made it through inprocessing."
Kieran nodded lightly, "Well, with slice-wire fixed a cut is generally as good as a thrust. Monomolecular edge, you know? Only thing that'll give it any real trouble is adaptive armor, which is pretty damnably rare. Well, protfields will ablate the edge away before you hit the target, but that's what the slice-field is for. Slice-field defeats fields, slice-wire defeats armor. And Uncle Dysaryn wasn't kidding about being able to ram a Warblade through warship armor -- bound Eldensteel doesn't break or deform, at least that I've heard..."
A moment ticked over as he internalized a few things, "Hmm. How very...Roman. Our arenas...you don't fight to please the crowd, you fight to please yourself. And the greatest show of skill is in letting your opponent live. Still, nothing a reputable gentleman would involve himself in...though in the end we have few enough of those for it to really dampen the popularity of the things..."
Kieran set his books down on his desk, and thankfully the thing was of typically sturdy Ascended manufacture -- simple brushed orbital steel, largely unadorned, very pragmatic. He stood out by having a desk, no such provisions were made for the other Initiates, largely because the practical applications of what they would be taught did not allow them the luxury of extended contemplation and a proper study environment. Kieran, on the other hand, would be immersing himself in tactical and strategic theory, logistics, various higher-level maths and engineering...a Command Warseeker must have a degree of understanding in every area that those under his command operate, in addition to mastery of those necessary for completion of his real job -- leading troops in the persecution of the enemy.
"Yeah, it's permitted for you to help me study. Or, rather, it's not forbidden -- very little is. Every advantage you can get, you know?"
He dropped his jacket onto the back of his chair, unsealed his boots, and collapsed onto his bunk, chewing his lip in thought for a time.
"Umm. One thing, Tora -- we're scheduled to get the full run of implants tomorrow, and the Doc asked me to check if there's anything we need to be concerned about with you -- any pre-existing systems or implant allergies, that sort of thing. We hardjack into our armor to cut out signal lag, all of the HUD overlays are implant projections, the Gunwire system works with the implant for point shooting, and it syncs the armor with our actual body movements, so we can, you know...move."
He smiled at the ceiling, eyes half-lidded, almost-reciting from one of his text books, "The Temple employs an integrated training methodology, building a military demeanor and the skills necessary to perform one's function in the field through minimal instruction and a heavy focus on simulated field operations. A relatively large proportion, roughly two thirds, of these exercises are 'virtual,' employing the Temple implant's capabilities in that field. In addition to this, a Warseeker will undergo focused practice on specific, vital, subjects -- marksmanship, armed and unarmed close combat, individual tactics. A Warseeker is generally capable of fulfilling all functions within a squad, though some will possess a natural aptitude for one specific aspect, and this should then be nurtured -- though Warseekers ought not be, as a whole, Specialists, those with the aptitude to become so should be allowed to do so."
Julian scrubbed at his eyes, fingertips tracing the nearly invisible flap of synthetic skin that covered the interface jacks on his neck, right above his his left shoulder. It was almost unnoticeable, visually, and now it didn't even feel wrong. That was weird -- his old Subjugator CI jacks had been readily noticeable to the touch, bumps beneath the skin. The Alpha implant jacks were more covert, there and at the secondary jack site on his left wrist -- he'd been so used to the jack's presence, lived with it for so long, that he noticed its absence -- Ascended implants were smaller, and designed to be malleable.
He'd been pleasantly surprised to discover that he wouldn't have to get the general-purpose implant he'd been stoicly avoiding his entire life -- the Warseeker implants, even the more capable Alpha implants, were primarily devoted to battlefield duties, especially the interface between Warseeker and battle armor. The functionality of a standard GP-implant was attained by wearing a gauntlet, which was something that Julian was quite used to -- he'd been doing that his entire life. All in all, he supposed that he could live with the changes -- certainly, the interface mechanisms were more elegant in function, as well as in design -- the headaches he'd lived with every time he used his implants --side-effects of the Subjugator system -- were gone, and he retained most of the Subjugator functionality...
What he was, he decided, was sore -- the Temple had implantation down to a science, yes, but they'd had to remove all of his old wiring, re-graft all the nerves the CI system had linked into...it had been neither short nor painless, though the docs had done their very best, he was constantly assured. Not that it made him feel any better, they'd had him under the knife for hours, though he supposed it would probably be worse for Shay, when they got around to him. Honestly, Julian had expected the Colonel to make Alpha, not him. Shay Callahan might be a little flaky, sure, but he'd more than earned the right to be as messed up as he wanted to be, after what he'd gone through...Julian'd barely been out of diapers when the War of Reclamation kicked off, but he'd felt the repercussions all his life. He was named after a casualty of that war -- Julian Ezrah Fang, after Ezrah Yrro, who, in a fair and just universe, should have been his father.
He sighed and wished the painkillers would do more than take the edge off the pain, but, of course, they wouldn't -- he couldn't take strong painkillers, because it'd interfere with the implants' warm-up procedures...which was, of course, the source of the intermittent sharp pain he felt. Sigh. He met Nadya's eyes, and he didn't need his talent to feel her sympathy -- she fairly well shouted it with her whole body. He forced a smile, trying to act cavalier, though all he wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sob until the pain finally went away. But that wouldn't have been proper, not for the man who might one day be Lord Chovas -- and wasn't that a thought fit to bring joy.
Nadya squeezed his shoulder, "Hey, let's you and I go get your gear and find your cell, and I'll show you around Alpha Country, ya?"
Julian winced, not relishing the idea of walking, but staying where he was didn't seem all that much more palpable, so he levered himself to his feet, using the chair he'd been sitting in -- slumping in -- as support. Nadya caught his arm, steadied him, and with her support he managed to walk. Like he was a damned invalid or something. Oh, how the mighty have fallen -- he coughed, half expecting to spit blood on the corridor floor, though that didn't happen, and shouldn't, unless something was really wrong. It was just that he'd only experienced this level of pain and weakness as a result of serious combat injury...
It took what seemed like an eternity to get to the Alpha quartermaster's desk, and the short, barrel-chested man sitting at said desk did not seem particularly pleased at the sight of Julian, in his thin hospital robe and looking like he was suffering from three different terminal diseases. Nadya got him up to the wall -- the quartermaster was behind what would have generally been termed a 'counter' -- and Julian slumped up against it, angry at his own weakness, and exhausted by the trek. It was the implant integration process, sapping his strength, he knew that...but it still felt wrong.
Nadya gave the quartermaster her best smile, "Heya, Tank. How's business?"
Tank -- certainly an apt nickname -- grimaced, "Everything was going swimmingly, until you showed up. Which reminds me, you know you never returned that two-person stealth skybike you checked out for the Jeghis gig?"
Nadya blinked, "I told you -- the locals hit it with a tangler, I had to bail. As far as I know, it's still in the middle of the swamp I left it in."
Tank shook his head, "Not my problem. Log (he pronounced it like 'lodge') is start to bug me over that, and you checked it out. That means you bring it back. Don't make me report you, babe."
Nadya cleared her face of expression, "Tank, I need a basic issue for the kid here. Getting out of those surgery rags will do wonders for his state of mind, I'm sure."
Tank considered Julian through half-lidded eyes, took a pull off a dull gray bottle, sloshed it around his mouth, swallowed, "Yeah, well, Log off my ass will do wonders for my state of mind. You're getting nothing until I get that bike back."
Nadya seemed at a loss for words, for about a second, "You're going to take this out on him? That's low even for you, Tank. Do you want me to go get Dys? He's quite fond of Julian here..."
Tank smirked, "Nuh-uh. Not gonna work. Prime might be death made flesh, but that's all he can do. Log can make me wish I was dead. Take a hike, Nadya."
Julian pulled himself up against the wall, leaning on one shoulder. He felt so weak...
"Listen, Mr...Tank, is it? Right now, I just want to lay down in a bed and not get up until I'm feeling human again, and you're not helping in that aim."
Tank sneered, "Life ain't fair, buddy. Deal with it."
Julian closed his eyes, hating his own weakness, unable to even deal with an asshole bureaucrat...pain garbling his talent...he clenched his hands into fists...
"Is there a problem, here? Julian? What the hell are you doing out of bed?"
Dysaryn's voice. Julian felt powerful hands drawing him up, and a surge of energy as Dysaryn tapped his Lifehand. The pain did not fade, but he could at least stand upright...sortof...
Nadya shook her head, "Tank's giving me crap over a skybike I combat-lossed. I reported it combat lossed. And he's denying Julian his basic issue because of it."
Dysaryn stepped forward, considering the quartermaster, "Bernard, my friend, what the hell is wrong with you?"
Tank narrowed his eyes, "Log is crawling up my ass over this bike, Master Dysaryn. Take it up with them."
Dysaryn sighed in irritation, "Logistics might crawl up your ass, Bernard, but I'm going to sack said ass for incompetance in about thirty seconds..." His eyes unfocused for a moment, then his face grew grim. "The bike in question was properly combat lossed. What has gotten into you, Bernard?"
The quartermaster giggled, "Oh, everything...nothing...what do you think, Changer? What's the worst thing you could imagine being wrong with me?"
Dysaryn's eyes narrowed and he surged forward, left hand knotting in the collar of the quartermaster's shirt, effortlessly lifting him upwards, and as Dysaryn looked into the quartermaster's eyes, his face became devoid of emotion -- a sure indicator that he did not like, at all, what he Saw within the quartermaster. A second later, the quartermaster slipped into unconsciousness -- Lifehand was an immensely versatile talent...
Grimacing, he glanced at Nadya, "Go on, get Julian his issue...I'll deal with this."
Nadya nodded, unable to hide her curiosity, though...seeing what she'd seen...she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know what had just happened...
Shaking my head with a wry smile I replied “I have been told numerous times that I suffer from an extreme lack of the need for personal power, power over others. Shai on the other hand is an old and proficient hand at such…byzantine pastimes. More than once she has declared that while I may loathe them I needs must understand them and become proficient with them. I think I’m fighting a loosing battle.” Speaking low as I looked at my internal prejudices and hesitations with unflinching eyes and sighed “as I know that my refusal stems from the fear of becoming as they were.” My expression was, for a fleeting second, sick at the thought of that happening “The bad side of such seems far more common than the good.”
I hugged him hard for just the briefest moment. “That’s very …delicate…” Oh don’t ever loose that kindness Kieran I think behind my shields “of you Kieran, but it was far less than ‘Roman’ – their gladiator slaves at least in theory, if seldom in practice, could earn their freedom, and there are records of skillful wins leaving their opponents alive and honored for it. The Vandans were nothing like the Romans in that regard. They fed, literally, on death energies.” My eyes went shadowed darkened as I recounted how the independent explorer crew aboard the small, aged but well loved Rising Spring had encountered the profoundly xenophobic alien empire “They were very skillful and practiced at hiding what they were,” I had still been psinull at the time, still suspicious of the Voice in my Head and wary of Shai’s nebulous grumbles. “I was just the newly minted apprentice that was ‘weird enough all ready’ and Kardnethell, he was the vastly more experienced senior officer of the contact section. He wasn’t wary enough” I chuffed, my eyes for a moment filled I know with mingled rage with sorrow as I explained further how the ship had suffered a freak accident as we were leaving the Vandan system. “Those of us who were still alive in the life slips were scooped up, the dead left as garbage. I came to with a coercion collar on me. They didn’t even try to justify what they did, just used us up as food by ones and twos. I felt guilty for long time at not speaking up, going over ‘Neth’s head”
A breath laid it all to rest and I smiled, eyes once again serene “but enough of unpleasant pasts. Show me that maneuver again?” I offered a chance to change the subject, if he seemed at all uncomfortable.
My smile was brilliant as Kieran accepted my offer of help. “ Wonderful maybe it will help me over my dyslexic reaction to numbers.” I laughed. “I can plug them in to the formulas but the answers come out all scrambled.”
When he spoke of medical concerns I twitched my nose as I looked at him then went over to my small locker, pulling out a data crystal. “Then they are going to need this, it’s the full out medical on me. I have three separate systems already, but some stuff I reject. I have one for weapons interface,” Bringing the crystal over I pressed down hard on my flesh to let him see the tiny hardness’s of subcutaneous data ports in both right and left hands - being true ambi I had needed both. “Another as a full C.S. Interface both cerebral and extended.” Base of skull right side as well as both left and right forearms. “I can handle a Psimech interface, they put it one in as a precaution," A Hand often needed unusual issue equipment and I had adored my training in a Psi mech but they wouldn't let me Bond with one permnantly " Now down to the kicker "but I can’t handle a Cadre Pharmacope, that was checked when I was first approached about becoming a Hand. Not for the battle drugs, those I manufacture naturally and they don’t interact well with ‘alien invaders’ but for the anti interrogation section. They tested those drugs on me and the results” I couldn’t help but shiver. Years later my body still had a reaction to the mere memory “erm, weren’t good” I laughed weakly.
The crystal had the data that the Temples physcians would need. Information about the Nano mesh-substrate layer which grows between my skin and my muscles, and makes me highly resistant energy weapons fire. It takes a lot to breach through and injure my internal organd. Though the resulting damage to my dermis looks unsettling as it heals – and while I can’t do psionic healing on myself, only others, I heal fast, very fast, visibly fast. Though not painlessly, oh not at all. But discipline, always and ever discipline.
My internal organs are larger and more effecient as well, with a third kidney, larger liver, hyper efficient lungs and heart. My skeletal structure is not ‘human normal’ either, I grow carbon- titanium nanotubes in sheaths about my bones. That makes it so that my skeleton will deform before and the joints will disjoint rather than allowing the bones to break. My joints are hypermobile, allowing an extreme degree of flexibility and limberness, making me able to assume a wide array of postures normally unobtainable by a biological entity with any resemblance a ‘human’ skeletal structure. But that is not without it's own disadvantages. I can seperate my joints during a strength maneuver if I am not careful. Part of the reason I train so extensively.
These, and other minor differences, are the reason I need a slightly different diet than most humanoids, and normally I have a small pouch of minor mineral dietary supplement capsules with me at all times. My metabolism is also far higher than most’s and I can run through calories in the blink of an eye. I can’t catch the vast majority of diseases that the human range can, but I can also get a few that they can’t.
Kieran nodded slowly, "We'll still have to put our own stuff in, you understand -- it's a control issue. Battle armor is just a wee bit too dangerous to have in civilian hands -- Stark House Guard is the same way, if you don't have the right implants, everything comes through all jumbled and you'll end up doing pelvic thrusts when you want to raise your weapon and shoot somebody."
Slipping his gauntlet on, he wore it on his belt at all times now, he loaded the crystal -- it took a moment for the little silver uniport to generate a reader, and another moment to force-code a translator or load one from the Temple's Databanks or, more likely, RevNet, considering the Temple's databanks were quite outdated in areas such as this. Thankfully, RevNet was not, and if the information wasn't openly available there, the Directorate had dumped the contents of its banks for the Temple, and that was pretty much the end of the that -- the Directorate had, rather than being absorbed by the Darkwatch, the Ascended Supremacy's intelligence organ, instead absorbed the Darkwatch. Which said a lot about the efficacy of Harm Coldfist's quiet gentlemen and gentlewomen...
He ripped the crystal and passed several copies along to those who needed them, he'd been given a list. The 'I got it!' note from Doc Young included a time and a place, and Kieran flashed that directly to his calendar -- like most of his family, he didn't have a GP implant, using a gauntlet system instead -- which, conveniently for him, meant that they didn't have to disable the implant for inprocessing. He'd gotten the command gauntlet with his basic issue, while other Warseekers would be given their...less capable...versions after they received their implants. Kieran, of course, had been implanted when he was still a toddler -- not all of it, certainly not the tac links, but the basic wiring was their, and had grown with him. Which was to say that the hard stuff was already done -- it'd take a tenth the time to fit him out then it would someone who needed the works, much less someone like Tora, who might need certain bits removed because they conflicted with the Temple's systems -- or duplicated extant functions.
"Warseekers don't get enhancement implants, no reason for them -- we fight as armored infantry. Well, some of us specialize in tanks, and we all fly 'strikers, but every Warseeker is trained, first and foremost, as armored infantry. You fly in armor, you drive in armor, if you're deployed, you live in armor. Internal enhancements are for CAs and Pathfinders."
He lay his head back against the pillow then and yawned, "Um, try to get some sleep -- schedules are going to be all screwed to hell for the forseeable future, and part of that is intentional. Times like now, when it seems like we're not doing anything and nothing is going to happen, are intentionally included in the training process to simulate lulls in combat -- plus, Doc Young has press-ganged Master Blackmarlin into assisting with the implant procedure, and, well, Uncle Dysaryn or Master Blackmarlin could explain it better, but from my understanding there are two methods of 'fueling' Lifehand -- a talent can either draw on his own internal reserves or on the internal reserves of whoever he's playing with. So, rest now -- you'll need it." He took his own advise, then, closing his eyes and slipping off into true sleep, rather than the physically rejuvenating but mentally unfulfilling nearsleep that was popularly referred to, now, as 'napping.' But that was just because it was culturally buzzy than the term the Temple (and House Stark) used -- 'LUS' pronounced like 'loose,' and meaning 'Limited Unconscious State.'
Master Guardian Doctor Dorian Young was a tall, leanly built man with short, curly black hair and a neatly trimmed beard showing some slight graying, which was utterly meaningless in an Ascended, considering the general lack of actual aging -- among the Ascended, the body tended to take the form that the mind projected -- in this case, Dorian Young appeared to be the very image of an experienced expert in his field. Presently wearing the signature white coat of his profession over immaculate shades-of-gray scrubs, he smiled as Kieran led Tora in for the scheduled appointment -- whenever possible, the Temple kept a buddy-pair together in order to better forge the bond between that most basic of combat units.
Young shook Kieran's hand warmly, then Tora's, "Excellent. Kieran, I think we'll do you first, simply because it will only take a few minutes. Your original implant work was done by Vysarian, wasn't it? He does excellent work. I suspect he might actually have an edge on me in fresh work, but, then, that's probably because I so seldom get to start with a clean slate..."
He called over one of his nurses, who took Kieran's jacket and shirt, then led him on into the surgery itself. Young glanced at Tora, "You're welcome to come in and watch, if you'd like," and then Young was in the surgery and Tora was beneath his notice -- he was, possibly, the best implant specialist in the Supremacy -- certainly in the top three, and one of the reasons for that was that when he was on the job, nothing bothered him -- he'd performed field operations in the middle of a firefight and had the exact same level of focus he showed in his accustomed environs.
Blackmarlin, noticeably, lurked silently in the background, a slight scowl on his face -- no Lifehand enjoyed the extended use of his talent, even when he wasn't actively drawing on his own reserves. Perhaps especially when he wasn't drawing on his own reserves, because the exhaustion that came with generally dulled the other effects to a manageable level. He'd been doing this all day, and was feeling distinctly sick to his stomach. It was purely psychosomatic, but still irritating...
Kieran lay face down on the table and Doctor Young went to work. The nurse anaesthetist approached -- Young was, himself, a trained Anaesthesiologist -- Temple medical training for actual doctors, rather than mere combat medics, was extremely wide-ranged, and the extra course work necessary to qualify for a civilian specialist license was surprisingly small -- and there was a pay increase for every rated specialty. At any rate, the nurse applied a local, and a few moments later Young went to work -- for this, he wasn't wearing gloves, just his Temple-black gauntlet, externally different from Kieran's command gauntlet only in that bore a red medical cross on the side. Some symbols were universal. At any rate, Young selected a relatively simple hypo, flicking it purely out of habit -- the syringe was loaded with nanite slurry, which sort-of precluded air bubbles -- and made the injection. The local was purely for comfort, here.
Becoming unearthly still, Young had the far-off look of someone fully engrossed in the implant-gauntlet link -- the specialist gauntlet he wore acted as the control unit for the general purpose nanites he'd injected Kieran with. Typically, the Ascended required that there be a functional, moral sentient somewhere in the active loop, even for medical nanotechnology. This needlessly complicated things, but it was just the way they were -- the Revenian aversion to 'drone fighters' that had spawned the RSN's pilot corps had originated with the Ascended aversion to things 'out of their control,' though 'their' was very loosely defined, and included, for example, their controller AIs.
Young, consummate master, worked precisely and expertly, the nanites combining together to form the appropriate bonds -- it was doubly simple since Vysarian Stark had allowed for the addition of the Temple implants in his original work, and included all the proper control runs. Essentially, all Young had to do was 'plug' the additional units into the slots pre-positioned to accept them and flash the interface module with the updated control software. The loss of effective nanonconstruction with the Fall must have hit Vysarian hard, he was a true artist with the things -- but he'd coped, and the system that Young had spent eight hours peeling out of Julian Chovas had been an absolute marvel, considering the primitive methods that Vysarian had had available during its production. One of the reasons it'd taken so long was that Young had made every effort to preserve the thing -- he had every intention of writing a lengthy paper on it, out of personal interest and because it would embarass the hell out of Vysarian Stark, reason enough individually but combined...unavoidable.
At any rate, the entire procedure took maybe five minutes before Young stepped back and let Blackmarlin do a final check. The presence of a lifehand was invaluable in situations like these, in case a body had an unforseen reaction to the implants, as a back-up in case he had to go inside old-school, and for that final check, to confirm that he hadn't unwittingly screwed anything up -- not that he had. Dorian Young was painstakingly precise in his work, and his refusal to cut corners under any circumstances bordered on the outright fanatical.
Blackmarlin nodded, once, shortly, then returned to massaging his temples. At least the forming headache would take his mind off of his nausea. Or the other way around. Either way...
Kieran swung off the table and stretched, sighing, already feeling a little strange as once-dormant runs went active, the gunwire and armor interface links -- there was a gunwire link in his right wrist, now, but it was basically a back-up as normally the system would be channeled through his battle armor. He could now make use of the full capability of his command gauntlet, which was exciting. One of Young's nurses led him to a chair off to one side -- he actually noticed the sterile field barrier as he passed through it, this time -- he could interpret that level of scan data, now. The barrier was a civilized precaution -- though the Ascended immune system was notoriously pro-active, it was not yet time to put it to the test...
Young glanced at Tora as he took a single flat black glove from his coat pocket and pulled it on, "Well, let's get to you then..."
His eyes glazed over -- he was reviewing, again, the rip of the data crystal that Kieran had sent him, the majority of which was only peripherally of interest to him in light of his specialization -- while he generally kept up to date in his various specialties and was ever adding new tricks to his bag, he was first and foremost an implant specialist. He'd made sure that the rip was passed on to the generalist assigned to Tora, specifically, who would fully appreciate the contents of the dump, but his trained eye had picked out the bits he'd needed and moved on. There'd been more than enough to spark his interest in her implants, though the information within was typically limited to ramifications of the existence of those implants. Young, being as much an engineer as a doctor and surgeon (though his personal preferences did lean towards the medical side,) would have liked to know more. As it was, he'd survive.
"Unfortunately, this has the potential to become messy -- replacements inevitably are. Our implant systems are amazingly versatile, but they're also, by design, amazingly pushy. The Temple's battle armor won't link up without our interface software running on our interface hardware -- we engineer in as many fundamental incompabilities as we can, and then we code the armor and the weapons to a specific user. Now, that in mind, I've got several options. One, I can attempt to use most of what you've already got, attempting to interface it with our own stuff. Two, I can cut everything out and start fresh. Three, I can put ours in as a separate installation. Primarily, I'm going to go with the third -- there's nothing wrong with the stuff you've got, other than it not being ours. Now, the implants I'm going to give you are fairly limited in function -- they're not a general purpose implant, we use gauntlets to handle those functions. Mostly, they function as translators between your body and the stuff you plug into. I'll leave your weapons interface implant, even though it won't work with Temple gear, because the basic-level implant we give Warseekers doesn't have foreign-interface capabilities. I'm not entirely sure what a 'psimech interface' is, though my best guess is that is something similar to our Communion interface, which allows our starship pilots to hardlink with their starship AIs. At any rate, I guess I'll leave that as well."
He paused, grinned like a fool for a moment, "Sorry, I think out loud sometimes. Anyway, what I'm going to do in more general terms is put our stuff in and where it conflicts with yours, I'll move yours about. If I mess any of your stuff up, well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, hmm? Now, if you'll just take off your jacket and shirt and lay face down on the table here, we can get to work. Umm, I should warn you that I'm going to use a fairly strong anaesthetic, and I still can't guarantee you won't feel anything. It won't make you lose consciousness by itself, but you're welcome to do so if you want. You should be effectively paralyzed from the neck, including the neck, down -- don't worry about that, mind, we make sure you don't lose continence or whathaveyou, it's all very routine. We don't knock our own people out because there are damned few things that can get by our marvellously infuriating immune systems."
There was shuffling, and the nurse anaesthetist spoke in her professionally syrupy manner, "There'll be a prick, honey, just so you know." One got the sense that the nurse said that every time she prepared to deliver 'serious stuff,' as opposed to the tailored local she'd given Julian. Blackmarlin had gotten a chair, and moved it a bit closer -- one wondered if he was actually as bothered as he looked, or if boredom was part of the equation as well. The promised prick came, and then Doctor Young stepped in and went to work.
He began with an injection of nanite slurry, just as he had with Julian, and went to work. He was performing a 'full install,' beginning with the central interface module, which was primarily the gauntlet interface, and branched out from there, tying in nerves and sensory pathways. It wasn't terribly long before he had to introduce another set of nanites, specialists these, the ones that Young referred to as 'my tiny colleagues.' Commonly, Surgeon Nanites. They were purpose built for exactly this sort of situation, where subtlety was still possible and precision was absolutely key. Dorian Young was an artist with a scalpel, but there were limits...and he was a master with nanites. He deftly freed connections as necessary -- the Temple systems were purposefully uniform, because a specialist of Young's caliber wasn't always available in the field, and damage did occur. Thus, he had to rework the foreign systems instead of simply using alternate pathways for his own. Most wouldn't bother -- would probably tear out the systems in question in entirety, and that was exactly what he would have done had there been enough conflicts to warrant it, but there were just few enough that his concern for Tora's comfort overweighed his desire for haste -- and seeing as he was a very, very patient man and not at all given to haste, he went right on ahead. He also happened to enjoy his work tremendously, and was, indeed, having quite the time indeed. It was a combination of problem solving and precision work that was, in his mind, the second best thing in the universe. The very best thing in the universe was celebrating a hard-won victory, often the publication of a paper, with excellent food, good company, good booze, and going home with a pretty girl. Being a scientific man, he just so happened to be quite aware that the only reason that he rated those celebrations as foremost on his pleasure chart was that he engaged in them quite rarely, whereas he got to practice his trade on a daily basis -- and that was intentional. Like most of his kind, Dorian Young's views on self-motivation would have seemed cynical in many societies, but they weren't, really. He just happened to know which carrots worked best for him and made use of that information.
It took about an hour and a half before the procedure was finished and Blackmarlin did his final once-over, during which he also neutralized the paralytic. He'd spent much of that time assisting Young by inducing certain patterns of healing, and while the effects were subtle to the point of being un-noticeable, there was an inverse bell-curve in the energy drain for Lifehand effects -- the very small and the very large required lots of energy and skill, whereas those in the middle were the easiest. Closing a wound was relatively simple, while regrowing a leg was a pain in the ass due to effort involved. Miniscule, subtle effects like Blackmarlin had induced were draining because of the control they required -- far more energy was burned containing the effect than actually initiating it.
Young nodded in satisfaction, "That went quite well from where I'm standing -- if you have any trouble, don't hesitate to contact me. Also, before you collapse into sleep -- and if you don't want to yet, you will, it's supposed to do that -- be sure you eat a good meal. Have a nice day."
Kieran shook his head slightly and quietly but insistently helped Tora dress -- he remembered when he'd received his original implants, and how fuzzy he'd been then...and he hadn't needed any rewiring or induced nerve growth. Whether she actually needed it or not, he was going to be there for her to lean on. He supposed he might be just a little, just smidge protective, and the thought made him smile his usual self-mocking smile. Of course he was protective, he was wired that way. At any rate, he got her down to mess hall, taking as much of her weight as she needed him to take along the way.
Food was generally good and often excellent -- the nutrient mush the Temple fed prospects was completely absent, being designed explicitly as a sort of amalgamation of 'bad army food' horror stories. Actual Temple field rations were quite good, and typical of the Ascended featured 'the real thing' whenever possible. The nutrient glop one consumed while actively operating in armor could be flavored and textured to taste, the most popular by far being 'chocolate milkshake.' There was a running gag among the career NCOs involving a 'ten-penny nail' setting, and that was merely one of the more traditional peculiar variations. Presently, the meal of the day appeared to be a seafood casserole of some variety, which was quite good if one liked seafood, and if one did not then there were numerous other options available. He also took his regular supplement, which he did with every meal. Lack of the supplement wasn't life threatening, but he would operate at less than his full capacity if derived of it, and it contained tailored proteins and all sorts of other good things to help his body run at peak capacity. He made a note to talk to Tora's assigned generalist -- stopped himself. His command training was kicking in already, he could tell -- if Tora had been, say, part of a platoon he was commanding, he'd have delegated. As his 'unit,' in his mind, was the two of them...but he was Tora's friend, first. That was an accepted part of the buddy-pair system.
There were field commanders who's partners had never advanced beyond straight Guardian -- the rank an initiate attained upon completion of training. There was a potential awkwardness there that never seemed to surface, because buddy-pairs were re-shuffled until they worked. If a field commander worked well at a personal level with a grunt spearcarrier, so be it. The point of this diversion being that Kieran would, instead, have Tora talk to her generalist about whatever dietary supplements she'd need. Making more was not an issue -- there were subtle differences in the supplements 'most optimal' for each Ascended, depending generally on their planet of origin. While Kieran's supplements were probably fairly similar to his father's, Blackmarlin's would lack certain things that his body wanted and have components that he couldn't use. Meaning that the Temple had the capacity to produce a wide variety of the things with relative ease.
He made certain she ate something, reserving judgement on whether or not it was enough. If it turned out to be insufficient, he supposed she'd make that known -- he certainly had when he was recovering from his original surgery. The procedure today hadn't taken much out of him at all, which was a blessing -- he could use the time he'd have spent recovering to get a head start on his coursework for his command classes, which meant he'd be missing less sleep during the first few weeks of actual training...which would probably be a blessing.
I understood all about control, and chuckled to myself. Some people had been near hysterical after my reaction to the anti interrogation drugs. As a Hand I had access to all sorts of data and interesting …things… that even the military or the highest reaches of the Empire’s government didn’t have ready fingers on. The Empress answered to no one on her choice of Hands, but with me she had had to put her dainty food down very firmly. But she had information they hadn’t, such as the Voice in my Head, and another secret or two.
Sleeping on command, which simply entailed closing my eyes and falling into the arms of Morpheus in about five heart beats, was something I’d always been able to do, an inbred, maybe even instinctive ability. A useful skill, and one any military strives to train it’s combat personell in, or so I’ve been told. Part of me is absolutely positive that whatever I am has been bred to be in a military.
Both of us looked the doctor over carefully and Shai gave him a swift approval. He felt like good people and an excellent physician. “Thank you sir “ and chuckled at Shai’s inner urging. She found biology and medicine interesting but she had always figured her odd dyslexia with math would preclude such schooling.
Shai hadn’t been a specialist healer, though as a Laranzista it was required that she had had to learn the basics and genetics had always been a fascination for her. Master Guardian Doctor Dorian Young reminded her completely of the best she had ever met within both the Empire and among the Xa. She really needed to get those two – Ascended and Xa’ Cz’inni – together. That would be a meeting to remember. She urged Tora in to watch.
I passed through the sterile field and found what I estimated would be out of the way enough, but still allow a good field of view, and went hunter still and silent. Breathing light and easy, concentrating utterly on Kieran, though neither Shai nor I had any intent of opening a Monitor’s link.
However that restraint did not keep both of us from checking on Kieran ourselves as he left the table. He is our partner after all, and psionics works differently than a Lifehand does. Something might have been missed, no insult intended to either the magnificent work of Master Guardian Doctor Dorian Young, or Master Blackmarlin. And both Shai and I could tell that Blackmarlin was building up to something that looked like a spectacular headache.
I couldn’t help but grin at his grin and apology “I love seeing a professional enjoying his work, so please don’t stop on account of me. I’m not very squeamish.”
“Pushy Nanos? Oh this will be fun” I muttered with a rueful chuckle as I slid out of my jacket and shirt. “So are mine. Oh well may the best system win " I was greyhound lean, my ribcage showing under the layer of flat muscle. I had enough curves to show me as female but those were the only places with fat. I probably needed to gain another five pounds, and I’d see if I could, and then fight to keep it on.
“A psimech is a multiform fighter, you’ll find that there are psionic matrix crystals scattered through out my system. Matrix crystals amplify psionic energies and are quasi living in a symbiotic fashion. My immune system might not be as infuriatingly robust as the Ascends but it’s held me up through some pretty bad patches, and I’ve got enough autonomic control to both paralyze myself and cut the pain synapses out, but I’d prefer not to. IF I start drifting there’s a possibility of a …rather poor reaction, so I’ll gladly take the anesthesia.”
Laying face down I let myself disappear into the Memory. Remembering one of my very first happy moments, learning to talk.
As always the disconnect from the depths of the Memory was a slid from the ever so slightly alien intensity of the Xa to more normal ebb and flow of thoughts. I sat up blinked hard against a sudden wobble and held a moment before sliding off the table and to my feet. That brought another wobble, that I repressed as firmly as I could. I don’t know how firmish that looked from the outside though.
Shai had watched all from her vantage point, approved unreservedly and knew to let Tora’s system sort itself out without assisting. She looked for a moment thought Tora’s eyes, gauging Master Blackmarlin’s weariness. However Tora’s state was just off enough that she hesitated, gauging Tora’s systems against all the incidents in the past - then offered, with a polite knocking at his mental shields. He had helped them and if the favor, the kindness, could be returned…Master Blackmarlin, could you use a boost?
“Thank you sir…and I think food sounds like…I’m starving. ” I managed not to let my stomach growl.
I was willing to let Kieran help me, I needed his help and foggy wasn’t just a weather pattern. I was aware of what Shai was offering, and while it would be additional weariness that meant nothing, the offer in all honor had to be made. And Kieran’s continued kindness… “Kieran, just because you are Great House Ascended, doesn’t mean it’s fake.” I said softly as I used him for support. It felt weird not to have to be alone, self sufficient…and I realized it was a gift I could give him.
Shai wondered if Kieran had any idea how great a gift he was giving Tora, letting her give in to the reaction and not have to dredge up the strength to walk as if nothing had happened. She knew that Tora was very fortunate in having the partner she did. She just hoped they’d be allowed to stay together. He was a good friend
I had to sit for a moment letting my stomach settle, and then I dug into the casserole with gusto, even hungrier that I had been just minutes ago in the surgery suite. I ate every scrap of the casserole, had a huge salad as well, plus dessert.
Checking on Kieran’s eating as he was on mine, which brought a smile to both mine and Shai’s lips – yes even the Voice in my Head can smile. His might have gone easier, given that they had just adjusted more or less, but it was still a strain on the body. “I think that need to sleep is about to hit.” I sighed, and more than half yawned, as I finished the last of the dessert. With Kieran’s help I made it back to our room before I fell asleep on my feet, but it was a near thing. He had to have been the one that removed my boots and tucked the blankets about me, I don’t remember doing so.
By the time I woke up the two sets of implants had apparently declared a truce, but my dreams had been spectacularly weird and I had some muscle aches, though that may also have been for sleeping so long. And now I was starved, again. I gave a soft laugh at that as I unwrapped the bed linens from about me and sat up.
Blackmarlin shook his head slightly, though he answered mentally: Wouldn't help -- you did all the hard work, I just showed your body how to do it. The reason I'm feeling discomfort is that there has to be a trade-off, somewhere. Everything has to balance out, in the end. Save your strength. You'll need it. He laughed, then, in the enigmatic fashion he sometimes affected. He did, after all, have a reputation to maintain.
Kieran raised an eyebrow, considering what she'd said, "Oh, it's very, very real. It's a matter of magnitude, not a question of origin." He left it at that -- it wasn't taboo, exactly, but it was something of a shared kink, at least insofar as his House was concerned; the subject of many a joke. Nothing to really be embarassed about, because it wasn't anything that could be avoided. But. There was always that looming but...
Kieran had slept sometime during the night -- the fit of his sheets were slightly different than they had been the day before, though still quite expertly made. The Temple generally spared the chickenshit until provoked, when they would come down with both feet on the offending initiate. It wasn't a perfect system, but about three quarters of initiates were system guard or had otherwise already gotten their basic training, and one didn't make it through inprocessing without discipline. Still, he wasn't sleeping now -- was, in fact, paging through one of his textbooks.
He glanced up from his text, grinned, "Ah, awake at last? If we hurry, we can just beat the lunch crush..."
Lunch was the usual variety, from sandwiches to pasta (proper pasta, mind. Proper pasta has red sauce, cheese, and meat), if there was a 'diet food' anywhere about, it was carefully concealed and probably fearing for its life amidst the 'real' food. The selection wasn't really representative of a typical Ascended diet, considering the intended consumers. It was, however, representative of traditional culinary preferences -- the vast majority of the food was relatively 'casual,' and that was telling.
Julian screamed as one of the masked figures slammed a baton into his belly, caught him across the face with the backstroke. Two others, one female, held his arms out. His legs dangled -- he'd tried some exploratory struggling earlier, and gotten a baton in the balls for his trouble. Which had set his eyes a watering and almost caused him to black out -- they'd grabbed him right when the surgery fatigue had abated, and the next stage was hypersensitivity as he became fully accustomed to the new implant feeds. Getting smacked in the balls hurt bad enough normally -- this was...well, dry vomiting while being held off the ground and beaten with a stick was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before, and he'd been shot, blown up, cut, stabbed, had his left arm blown off at the elbow and regrown -- twice...he had, as they say, 'been around.' He'd been beaten to a pulp before, too -- but never this skillfully. The asshole with the baton had paid attention during anatomy, that was damned certain...
The baton caught him across the jaw and he spat blood. The blow had been delivered with exacting precision -- he hadn't lost any teeth. The way things were going, that was probably for later. The most unnerving part, though, was that the only sounds he heard were the baton striking him and his own pained screams and pants. It didn't make sense. He hung loose, tensing in anticipation of the blows...biding his time.
That time came with the realization that he'd somehow gotten out of shape. When he uncoiled upwards in a motion not dissimilar to a kick-up, essentially whip-cracking his whole body to elevate his legs, he should have finished the maneuver by planting both feet in the baton-man's face. Instead, he struck at about sternum level, which was just as effective but significantly less satisfying. He wanted to hurt these people, and the cold rush of the battle high washed away the pain in his arms -- he could have torn his muscles, doing what he'd just done. He hadn't, but he'd pay hell for the abuse he'd just inflicted upon them...not that he could really hurt more, his whole body was a bruise at this point...but such little things were beneath his notice, washed away by the icy clarity of the battle high as his body made the shift over, adrenaline surging through him. His arms were free, as the two who'd been holding them released them, and he fell. They began to put the boot in, but that was what he wanted, hands tightening on ankles and he pulled. They went down, and he went up, ran for the door...which was locked. Well, it'd been worth a shot. Turning, he dropped into a fighting stance...and they came for him, and he greeted them.
Unarmed wasn't his forte, but that didn't mean he didn't know what he was doing. Quite the opposite -- he was instructor-rated in three different unarmed styles. Admittedly, all of them boiled down to 'things to do while you secure a weapon,' but such was life. He deflected a strike with his left forearm, drove his knee in, then unfolded his leg downwards, striking at the ankle. That set up a jab-elbow-backhand combination, which seemed to do the trick there, more or less...and then the baton guy was on him with the one of his minions who wasn't on the floor unconscious with a broken nose and ankle.
His first indication that the situation changed was when the door hissed open behind him -- why the hell had he left his back to the door? Even as he realized his mistake, an arm snaked around his throat and braced. He passed out a short time later.
"The hell are you standing around for, meat? Complacency is death -- you want to live, don't you?"
Julian moaned, his head pounding, groping for stability -- he felt seasick. Something was in front of him, hands rose instinctively, catching hold...for about an eighth of a second, before he was shoved onto his ass, a boot driven into his solar plexus with remarkable precision and he couldn't breathe...
"Do I look like your mother, or are you just retarded?"
Hands caught in his shirt -- he didn't remember dressing, but the sensation of cloth was unmistakable -- and lifted him up. One hand, he realized, because the other smashed into his cheek. He spat blood and got a knee in the gut for his trouble -- bent over, still out of breath, he was pointed in a direction and shoved, with a boot in the rear for encouragement. Vaguely, he was aware of someone screaming in his ear even as he stumbled forward. His vision was too blurry to make out anything but shades of green, though it cleared up some as his breath returned, along with other sensations.
It was hot. Hot and sticky-humid, and the primal howls of animals that probably wanted him for lunch placed him. He was on Seydar's second continent, unimaginatively named Beta, and generally referred to as 'Oh no, not there, anywhere but there!' or, significantly more enigmaticly, 'Goat.' Nobody, to his knowledge, knew the origin of that nickname, but it had stuck -- Goat it was. Goat was covered by swamps and jungles, was universally hot, smelly, and humid, and was generally populated by a wide variety of native and imported wildlife that loved nothing more than tearing into a fresh juicy corpse, and didn't care much what sort of corpse that was. Oh, and lots, and lots, and lots of bugs. Nasty bugs. The sort that bit, and the resulting itch didn't go away for days. As the song went, 'The plants all give rashes and the beasts is bad lays...I'll take Hell over Goat, any time of the day!"
He stumbled forward, only jungle ahead of him. He hated jungles. It was why he'd never gone for Marauder/Recon, though he'd passed the qualifier for what the tab did for his promotability. Ahead of him, he saw other black figures hurrying into the jungle, full assault rucks on his back. Whoever was prodding him along with boots in the rump was beside him, now, keeping pace with ease.
"Gonna stop on, me, huh? See up ahead? That's your only hope -- each and every one of those poor bastards has all the survival gear you could ever one in those lovely rucks. Of course, they've also got weapons...which you seem to have forgotten. And they've all been told the stories of the crazy goonymen who live out here, and instructed to shoot first and ask questions later. They're headed for extraction, you've got twenty minutes before they're gone. I'll see you in a week, hey?"
Then the voice was gone, and Julian was all by himself...rested and pre-gorged, he could go a week without food or sleep. He'd done it before, once, on a campaign. It had been the worst thing he'd ever done to himself, but he'd had no choice then. His mind slipped back in time, not to his Mar/Rec training, but to times before that, back to his childhood. He was from Morgathi, which was about as different from this hellhole as one could possibly imagine...but. He got off the side of the path, ignoring insects and barbed plants, and spattered mud onto his hair and face, especially the hair. His white-gold hair, while unusual and pretty, did stand out like a sore thumb just about anywhere. With a nice coat of mud, that issue was lessened.
He moved forward, low, through the underbrush, the humidity making it difficult for him to breath. His talent surged out, and he felt his prey, wary and alert, weapons in hand. This wasn't going to be easy. Closing in, his tread silent just like he'd learned stalking zetch in their cave-nests as a child -- and compacted underbrush was an easier surface than the bone-mounds that zetch lived on, thank you very much, plus he wasn't working in a damned echo chamber, either. His prey had flankers out, just like they were supposed to. He took to the trees, then -- he was barefoot, which helped right now but wasn't a sustainable state, unless he liked the idea of losing his feet. Scrambling up a tree like a damned spider he went -- he was from Morgathi, damnit. He could glide and climb before he could walk!
He crossed branches with springing ease, then let his talent surge out and tighten around the flanker directly below him. He dropped down, and in moments relieved the poor kid of her rig and weapon. Sparing his victim a second glance, he recognized her -- Gwen. Damnation. She looked at him with fear and aggression in her eyes and mind -- was already trying to wirm out of the hold he had her in, with a strength he hadn't known she possessed. Distracted, she kneed him in the crotch...pain blossomed, and he muffled a snarl, fought to keep his compulsion on her -- don't make a noise, don't make a forsaken noise! Then he tossed her into a tree and was on her like a wild animal, half-remembered -- tall, black-haired, heavily tanned man in loose white robes ran a stone along his blue-gleaming sword, glanced out over the desert, his robe didn't completely cover the uniform of an RFM brigadier general. His smile did interesting things to the vicious scar that dominated the right half of his face. His words were soft but powerful, ringing with absolute truth, "This I give to you, bearer of my brother's name -- my heritage, and his, and yours, for you should have been his. Hear the wind over the desert, feel the simplicity and the purity. When you need it most, the Wind will be there, for you are my brother's son...the Wind sings only truth."
A different world, and he'd been just a boy, then...and he'd forgotten. But he sucked in a deep breath and his hands caught Gwen's as she pushed off the tree for the attack, turned her, drove her into the tree, his knee in the small of her back, and his hand slamming her head forward into the tree -- she went limp. He took a moment to fit her ruck onto his back -- it was uncomfortable, sized for a much smaller frame than his, but he'd endure. Then he tossed her body over one shoulder and took off through the jungle, limbs whipping his face and body -- but he didn't care. He knew what he sounded like, could hear it through the column's ears -- he sounded like a predator chasing down prey. Which was wrong only in that he'd already caught his prey.
Once he'd gotten far enough ahead, he deposited Gwen into the middle of the trail and vanished back into the jungle. He ran for what seemed like hours, before finding a nice rock outcropping beside a winding stream. Hopping up, he dislodged a gray-toned lizard of some variety, which hissed at him. He hissed back, and gave it's simple brain a wave of pure predatory aggression. It left in a hurry, leaving him to explore the contents of his liberated ruck.
There were all the usual components -- field rats, emergency bars, water filtration system, camp gear...the whole thing was archaic as hell, Warseekers didn't deploy without power armor, just like the Fleet Marines didn't. Though when he'd joined, the majority of troops were still equipped with unpowered armor...but that was Revenia, not the Supremacy. Still, the skills were trained for a reason...and they were trained in the convenient hell that was Goat. He pulled out a nutrient bar and choked it down -- it was better than RFM e-rats, which was a blessing, because darling Gwen hadn't packed any hot sauce. Or candy. Or anything that wasn't absolutely reg, by the looks of things. Half of it was crap he didn't need, which he removed and set in a pile. Manual for erection of Type 14 Mark G Field Shelter -- yeah, right. He scanned it over on the off-chance that it wasn't, in fact, the a-frame tent that it appeared to be. It was exactly the a-frame that it appeared to be. Toss. Manual for maintenance of the Initiate's Training Rifle Model Ninety Seven Revision Q. As he glanced through the manual, his hands ran over the weapon he'd taken from Gwen -- he hadn't looked at it much, why bother? Hands quested to find maintenance points...but they didn't match up. Familiar to the touch, and as he really looked at the weapon...well, it made a degree of sense. The SR-24 had been surplused out of service with the introduction of the CR-17, but AMT had put their foot down and snarled -- the CR-17 had won out over their AR-36 for acceptance as the AFESSR's standard weapons family, so AMT had released the AR-36 on the commercial market, which was fine...but flooding said market with surplus SR-24s would have been...bad. Especially since Rev-Tek, AMT's primary competitor, was manufacturing CR-17s as fast as it could to fulfill its contract.
Thus, AMT had essentially paid the AFESSR not to surplus the SR-24s out, and so they'd sat in warehouses, near a million of the damned things...yeah, it made sense that the Temple would end up with them. They weren't light weapons, and they shot 7mm slugs at lower velocities than the CR-17 shot its 10mm slugs...but they were extremely durable, simple, accurate weapons. The CR-17 was 'engineered durable,' the basic gun was extremely reliable but the fancy bits could be a bit prickly. The SR-24 was about as complex as a brick, and he'd been one of the last generation to train on the things in basic. Getting his CR-17 had been like getting handed the keys to a Kal-Drakh Malice-C, after riding a pedal car all his life.
The familiar blocky lines were comforting, in a way -- discarding the useless manual, his fingers caressed the rifle, remembering...and he field-stripped it on the rock, checked it over, touched the diagnostic button on the gravbolt and the green triple-flicker warmed his heart. Re-assembling the rifle, he racked a round in and went back to the rest of the ruck, grumbling irritably to himself. He'd bet money that this little 'exercise' normally didn't happen this quickly, yes he would. The average Temple recruit was a twenty year old kid, barely out primary -- Julian was nearly a quarter of a millenia old, and had spent the majority of that in military service of some variety. He'd been everything from a grunt infantryman to an assault battalion CO, with a nice relaxing jaunt as a merc company CO in there, too...it'd still been a long fucking time since his wilderness survival courses, but he'd earned a Marauder/Recon tab, hadn't he? Except the tab didn't make the Marauder...but he'd live. He'd have lived if they'd dropped him out here naked. Like hell they were getting the satisfaction of retrieving his corpse -- he hadn't come here to die. He could have handled that all by himself.
The SR-24 was in his hands and aimed, the weight of the weapon an old friend -- he knew the weapon like he knew his own body. He knew the CR-17, too, knew it because he'd carried one for, what, a century now? Something like that. But his first service rifle had been an SR-24. He'd never forgotten, and the gravdriver's 'gentle' thump was touched a spot that nothing else ever would -- he'd had a permanent bruise there until the CR-17 came along. For all the SR-24's bulky mass, the thing kicked like a mule. He smiled at the familiar pain -- and rose to fetch dinner. He could already tell it was going to taste bad -- and shook his head in confusion, again. Outside of the first week of basic, you wouldn't find a Fleet Marine without a bottle of hot sauce and his sidearm. In that light, this was going to suck. Hard.
Shai threw back her metaphysical head and laughed. She liked Blackmarlin more the more she got to know him. As you will good sir. Though some day I would like to do a side by side comparison of the differences between your Lifehand Talent and psionic healing. I can ‘feel’, if you will, the differences. It is like sensing the difference between the pressure of sunlight against your face after a long grey winter and the pressure of a breath on your face. Subtle but there and intriguing. And yes I know about how all must balance. Thank you then for the tutoring and may thee and thy Lady rest well this eve.” Momentarily in the mind’s eye, Blackmarlin would see what Shai had looked like in her life.
Nearly a foot taller than Tora the Laranzista had stood, willow slender, inhumanly graceful, with fine, silver burnished skin, flame hued hair, and six fingers on each hand. Her face was generally triangular – from a high, broad forehead graced with winged brows to a small but noticeably stubborn chin. Eyes somewhat too large to be wholly human, were wide set over cheekbones sharp enough to cut one. Those eyes drew one in they were distinctly tip-tiled with cat’s eye oval pupils in irises of constantly shifting and shimmering crystalline gold. Her nose could not be called anything but prominent, not dominating her face but blending gracefully with the whole. Those of Schade had genes that had not only wandered far from human norms, but some that had never been found in homo sapiens.
I smiled to myself at Keiran’s response and let the subject drop.
“Food” I half moaned, as I stretched easing the sleep kinks out -for as he mentioned lunch, my stomach roared to life. “Give me five.” I replied as I grabbed clean clothes, and dashed for the shower, while behind me my bedding telekinetically wafted itself into orderliness.
Okay so I didn’t wash my hair, but I was out in five, if still slightly damp and having to slide into my boots.
“Ready when you are, Kier”
Lunch was my usual pile, salad and sandwiches and pasta, with dessert as a finishing touch. I knew that I often drew stares but I’d long since learned not to be bothered by those. I ate tidily, and if I were putting away what some one a hundred pounds heavier did, I was trying to gain five pounds.
"How goes the light reading?" My lips quirked in a smile. No one would ever consider that pile he'd pack-muled back as anything resembling 'light'. What is a pack mule...oh!? They look ill tempered and smelly. Not at all like Kieran I chuckled inwardly as Shai dredged up a memory. I'd never been to Schade, but according to Shai they'd kept a lot of primitive customs.
Kieran had had a fairly light lunch, particularly taken in comparison to Tora's. He hadn't been doing enough lately to require anything more than basic sustenance -- he would need more and more nutrients as his sustained level of activity elevated, of course, and were he to go long periods without food he'd tap his reserves, requiring a period of near-gorging to replenish them. With his present level of activity, the plate of lasagna he had would keep him good until dinner, with more than a little wiggle room.
Of course, he'd also been up for breakfast, as well. He'd gotten a lot of work done, was now several days ahead in his coursework, which made him happy.
"Good, good. Ahead of the game, which is exactly where I like to be."
He smiled, then, rather broadly, "How're the new implants feeling? They should automatically sync to the Temple's datanet pretty soon now -- there's a break-in period so you don't get overwhelmed with information while you're still adjusting to the implants themselves. Then we've got to visit the armory...and once we've got all that, the actual training can begin. They're just trying to lull us into a false sense of security, you know?"
His unshadowed smile brought my own out “ Then we’ll just have to make sure you stay ahead”
"I think I slept until they called a truce. I'm just going to have to wait and see if my psimech interface is going to try and take on Temple armor." Tora replied lightly. "Or let the new stuff do its job."
She finished the last of her dessert. "Oh don't worry about any false sense of security. The Guild terrifies that out of you first thing. I though my diploma as a Xeno- Specialist from the National University of Ashovia was worth something...then I got to the Tanaaran Explorers Guild and learned just how behind the curve Ashovia, and thus my humble self, was" She shook her head with remembered ruefulness as she explained further.
Ashovia, the single system polity where the illegal clone lab had been located was more than a bit of a backwater. "The Phoenix Empire’s Rangers were only allowed to assist as advisors to the locals, and couldn’t just take me with them without making any one suspicious. The source material was still out there and the trail couldn’t be shut down completely or they’d loose it. So they got me declared an “abducted primitive” far better than being expended as an illegal clone “ given an arbitrary age of fourteen and made a ‘ward of the state.” Once I was declared an adult four years later and managed to get accepted in the University, it had taken me eight years to get through the six year program and to get my degree given that I had to alternate between working and school. I hadn’t been eligible for any scholarships or assistance, since I wasn’t an Ashovian Citizen, but I’d worked hard to get it done
“The Empire was terrifying and exhilarating simultaneously. I though I really had an education, but oh was it ever so lacking. But my apprenticeship application was accepted…and I went back to school. The Guild really does make sure you can handle a vast and diverse array of circumstances. They hate training people and not having them survive to come back with the contacts. But that doesn’t make me a soldier, though I went through a version of the ‘advanced basic’ to earn my Tanaran Citizenship, and got more specialized equipment training after becoming a Hand. But I am sure I’ve got a lot of learning ahead of me”
With no jarring Tora accessed her implants and her ‘calendar’ “So which first? Make an appointment with my generalist to get a fresh set of nutrient nibbles or can we head over to the armory first?.”
Kieran let his face go momentarily still, as telling, in its way, as any other expression, "I pray that everything goes smoothly, really I do. I mean, it has to, doesn't it? It's a hardwire link. You can't interface with Temple armor without hardwiring into it, that's by design."
His left hand performed an odd looping gesture, done without thinking, though having realized he'd done it, "Ahh...that's another thing. I should probably teach you to sign, at least the common cast...of course you'll have to learn Temple Battle Sign, but I don't know that yet, either...at any rate, the gesture I just made" -- he repeated it, a single loop with index and forefinger extended -- "means something like 'out of my hands.'"
He was silent for a time, listening to her talk while he slowly finished a bowl of thick pudding, then nodded, "Yes, there's a lot left to learn. Umm. You'll need to make an appointment with your generalist, you should be able to access her schedule with your gauntlet and pick a time slot. We'll head to the armory now, though -- I went ahead and scheduled fittings while you were sleeping. Rank hath its privileges..."
The armory was its own structure, though of standard Temple architecture -- a low truncated pyramid of a material visually resembling basalt. Inside, immediately, were a pair of guards in armor. Kieran nodded his head slightly, received a similar nod, led Tora through the heavy inner blast door and down a ramp, to emerge into a rather cavernous interior. Shortly intercepted by a gray-jacketed clerk with the rifle and anvil of an Armorer on her lapel, Kieran spoke softly to her -- it was that sort of atmosphere -- and she nodded, responded, then led the way over to a bare table, her eyes going unfocused, though she didn't miss a step. A few moments after, a pair of similarly dressed but somewhat larger Armorer's Clerks pushed a grav-assisted cart up to the table and unloaded several brushed-metal hard cases. Engraved on the id-plates by the handles were names and numbers, indicating that the cases belonged to Kieran or Tora. Kieran took a moment to sight-inventory the contents, simply because it was the sort of thing that one ought to do, then gathered his cases together, waited for Tora to gather up hers -- and ready with a hand if necessary, they weren't exactly light -- then headed off.
The Guardian Temple Warseeker's Battle Armor was the very best personal armor the Ascended Supremacy could mass-produce. Only the Alpha battle armor was better, and that only by degrees and purpose. Flat gray armor plate over a black inner suit, which was the important part. Wrapped in layered protfields, then the hard plates, and the nanofluidics sandwiched between woven composites in the base suit, it was as close to impervious as possible with current technology. That was the primary function of the armor and the sensors, suit gravitics, ECM module, integrated weapons, everything down to the way the left palm-plate had a ridge that made an ideal bottle opener...was all secondary.
Due to the nature of the inner suit, the armor was transported in a discrete units -- breastplate, pauldrons, gloves, so forth. Testing the interface was as simple as putting the helmet on -- the sensation of pressure, then a confirmation beep. Simply a diagnostic, the helmet did not function as a discrete unit. Kieran had a hard-copy of the manual open, checking his armor over the old-fashioned way, because it seemed like the thing to do. He did everything save put it on, that was for tomorrow. He did, however, check the modules -- the blast interceptor, active camouflage cloak, and modular backpack unit. Then he put everything back into its case, and moved to the weapons.
The SFR-12 rifle system was the latest incarnation of the Temple's issue longarm, and the base unit was a bullpup ten millimeter gravdriver, not terribly dissimilar to the AFESSR's CR-17. The major difference was that the SFR-12 fired shroudfielded ammunition -- the 'SF' in the acronym. A less elegant version of a Warblade's slice-field, 'shrouded' shot could penetrate most forms of personal protection at a distance. The distinctive red-orange glow of the SF shot was by design, to make it appear to be an 'energy weapon,' when in fact the 'blast shot' was just a glorified kinetic penetrator. With the base rifle were a pair of scopes, a fighting a bayonet, and several magazines, full. Basic load, nothing more -- there were specialist kits, but neither Kieran nor Tora rated one, as yet. Beyond the rifle, there was a pistol firing the same 10mm ammunition, and several packets for the armor's belt-mount grenade dispensers.
Kieran double-cleared his rifle, then checked the iron sights -- the front sight was of a 'flip-up' design, to clear the rail for optics, while the rear was a rail-mount, stowed beneath the stock's cheekrest. The rifle's integral rangefinding laser also served as a method for checking the sight's calibration without actually having to fire rounds -- the auto-calibrating rear sight was functioning properly, zeroing exactly where it should. The rifle differed from the model used by the Stark Guard only in that the Temple rifle had flat gray furniture instead of Stark white, and that the standard Temple barrel was roughly two inches shorter. The only close quarters combat expected of the Stark Guard would be in the tight confines of the old castles, where it was down to warblades and hatchets, with nothing left but to fight and die for honor's sake. Pretty in parade, to be certain, in their gold-traced white armor, but the Stark House Guard still trained in the methods set down by Paul Stark so very, very long ago...the progenitor of the Guardian Temple. Quiet pride surged at that knowledge -- though the Temple belonged to all of the Creator's children, they fought according to Stark methods.
He nodded in satisfaction, then, and turned his attention to Tora.
Some day, if Kieran was interested, I’d share the memory of what it was like to be interfaced with a psimech. To be the mech, feel it’s servos, psidraulics, armor and weapons as if they were your own muscles, blood, skin and bone.
I grinned at the signing, eyes twinkling. I knew four different sign languages and wouldn’t mind learning more at all. Someone once mentioned I signed in my sleep, which made me blush for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. But signing had depths most never realized, it could give one incredibly valuable insight into a culture and as I was still tiptoeing about Ascended culture I’d take every stray ray of such as came my way. I had picked up a couple of gestures so far, that those I was watching seemed to have used without conscious realization, and I remember seeing one the first day of in processing. Between Dalton Cray and the war mage…
“Kier, what’s this?” I asked doing my best to recreate the flicker of hand gesture between them as I remembered it. Though as I had not been paying complete attention I may well have missed part of the movements.
I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Kieran would never abuse his rank despite his comment about 'rank and privileges'. And Shai agreed with me.
And, Little One, there is a vast difference in what a Warseeker Alpha has to deal with and what Kieran will in the years to come as an officer of the Warseekers. He is going to have to send the people who have given him their trust, as their commanding officer, in to danger and possibly death. He is going to be one of the good ones, a very good one I think, but, Tora, it is never easy and he is going to pay a price with every death. You have not been around the military, not really and now you have become a part of it. Not going to be easy on you either, you are just as protective as he is, but I know you have a core, that I do not know if he has yet. Females, if they have it, seem to get it quicker than males do.
He's my friend I nodded inwardly to the commentary of the Voice inside my Head. There was a adamantine promise implicit in that, and Shai knew it.
Alongside Kieran as we headed over to the armory I slide my issued bracer on. Doing that reminded me, ever so much, of Pip, lost back when the Hybris self- destructed. The handful of survivors had taken to the life slips when the ship’s weirding changes had become impossible to control. The NyxConsortium had blanked out all information on the ultimate dénouement of the non event. I’d had to strip the bracer Pip had ‘lived’ in when it began decomposing as the ship was. Pip had already been dead, her moly circuitry also dissolving in to a acidic gel..I had handful of tiny white scars, just a scattering ‘pinpricks’, on the back of my left forearm from that.
Setting those memories aside, through the bracer I found an open slot and laid claim to it. I studied the exterior, then the interior, of the armory with extreme interest as we entered, though I let Kieran do the talking. The cases were heavy but not outside my ability to manage. Small but far stronger than I look, my main problem is usually one of unwieldy dimensions, but these brushed metal cases were well designed.
And like Kier I had the hard copy open as I looked the…my armor over for the first time. I know my eyes must have looked focused a thousand miles away…
Shai watched too as Tora’s sensitive fingers ran over every part of the armor - inside, edges and out, feeling it, the heft and balance of each piece -‘seeing’ by touch as an ‘unsighted’ person would, texturally memorizing it. Because touch could find things that the eyes could not see.
Once Tora was satisfied with what her hands told her, she slid the helmet on, and both of us held her breath, and beep and a small sigh of relief.
Once that unacknowledged worry was over - Shai liked worrying, and while Tora would not admit it ’hey I was a outworld’s smuggler, and that’s against contract’ she too could worry more than was good at times - Tora carefully returned the armor to it’s locker crate and turned to the weapons.
Any one watching would see that she handled them, with calm but precise professionalism. Tora may have just become a soldier, but she had handled all manner of weapons from before she knew what speech was for. And she had always loved weapons just a little too much for Shai’s comfort, though Shai had never tried to influence Tora away from that.
I looked over at Kieran, my fingers itching to strip the weapon and reassemble it, and grinned with a blush, saying with light ruefulness “Okay so sometimes a gun makes a better date than a guy. It isn’t going to tell me that I am short and weird” I crinkled my nose at him to make sure he understood I was joking “Which was just the ass’s way of saying he was ticked that I was a better shot than he was.”
My internal time sense niggled at me as I returned the weapons to their locker and I shot Kieran a look “Kieran, I need to head to my appointment with my doc. I’ll catch up with you later” Part of me found medicine interesting, but part of me way down deep wasn’t all that easy. The clone labs chief technician had called himself a doctor.
“Anything planned for later?”
Julian kept his breaths short, light, his body taught -- poised for movement. Crouched in a tree as he was, it wasn't difficult -- there were plenty of threats beyond the small party of Guardians threading their way down the path his perch overlooked. The smothering wet heat of Goat in the afternoon was only bearable because he had no alternative, no reasonable alternative. It felt like he was drinking air, rather than breathing it. He stank of the jungle, covered in mud and plant decay -- he blended. Stripped to the waist -- he'd spent his shirt for a headband and bandages for his arm, all the bushes were thorny and some were plain mean about it -- there was muscle under the crap, about the same amount that he'd started with, he'd had a couple days field rats, plus a month-block of e-rats. E-rats weren't meant to keep you fighting at peak, though, and slacking off in Goat equated to death. He'd supplemented the whole bit with foraging and hunting, but he'd been without his tailored supplement packets...which meant that he was already handicapped in the performance area.
It was time.
He dropped from the branch with the silence and grace of any of Goat's larger predators, the ones that had hunted him because he'd been clumsy. In time, he'd come to hunt them, because he was vindictive. He braced the SR-24 at a low ready, muzzle pointing vaguely in the direction of the Guardians whose path he now barred...and he raised an eyebrow.
"Well? Do I pass?"
Light chuckle, flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye -- of course there'd be more, he turned to address the threat but whoever they had flanking him was riding the edge, and he was off his own. He brought the SR-24 up, catching a blow of his assailant's fighting staff with the stock, instinctively twisted around, using the stock as a hook...but the staff wasn't the only attack vector, and his foot was pinned, and his assailant's weight shifted...and down he went. A sharp pain in his head heralded blackness.
"Up and at 'em, Initiate! The day's a wastin'!"
Julian's vision was fuzzy, his whole body felt numb and clumsy. A hand on his shoulder yanked him upright, and then he was pushed forward -- he stumbled, colliding into something fleshy and sentient, his talent pricked on contact, but it was sputtering, as unsteady as he was. A snarl before him, and he was falling until hands caught him, held him upright. Pain blossomed in the pit of his belly, he couldn't breathe, fell to his knees...
He strained for breath, as the world swirled by in vague shapes and colors. He was wrenched sideways as something -- a foot, probably -- caught him on the side of the head, he bounced, lay as he landed, a tangle of limbs and bruises. Something wet hit his cheek, inevitably saliva. Hearing cleared in time to catch:
"-ing worthless little prick, can't even watch where you're going. I should kill you right here, save somebody a bullet."
Julian's vision began to clear, shakily, blurs resolved into shapes, people, faces, walls...he drew a gulping breath, deep, cool air the sweetest thing he'd ever tasted. Then the screaming began...
"UP! ON YOUR FEET, SLIME! SCRAPE YOUR ASS OFF THE FLOOR AND GET MOVING!"
The guy who'd kicked his ass was moving off, back into life, chuckling with his slope-browed peers, back-slaps all around. The screaming was coming from a short, muscular redhead with great tits, and, one expected, amazing legs -- she rolled him three times with her first kick. He lay flat on his face and groaned, spat blood onto the floor -- he'd split his lip, not anything more serious. Thankfully. Pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, then heaved up onto his feet. Wobbled, his vision blacked for a second, then he felt a little better. The redhead was screaming at him, a constant litany of curses, she didn't repeat herself much...he stumbled into motion seconds ahead of her baton, no direction, just away from the pain...
"Initiate, are you purposefully trying to disgust me? Because you are SUCCEEDING! You are unquestionably the most inept, most pathetic, most fundamentally worthless individual I have ever had the displeasure to encounter! You can't even walk in a straight line! How do you expect to accomplish anything in combat if you can't even walk in a straight Dreth'krn LINE!?"
The instructor was a grim, square-jawed man, his face dominated by a scar that ran from his chin up to split his left eye -- the eye didn't look synthetic, but they never did...
Julian gathered his strength, took a breath, "An erratic path presents a more difficult target, Instructor!" Or, at least, that was what he wanted to say -- the actual result was more like...
"Ang errguphkff prg...n angmrrrr..duffkl....guh...ist...rrrurr."
He tensed for the blow, but none came. Only a sigh, "Alright, maybe you can hang." Turning, "Somebody get this idiot some food and water before he dies on the spot, please?"
A voice in his ear, pleasant, gentle, female, "Just hang on, everything is going to be okay, Initiate."
Coolness, then blessed darkness...
"FASTER! WHAT ARE YOU, CRIPPLED! MOVE!"
His muscles burned, but he ran faster, pushed on. The dirt under his boots had been padded hard by use, and the weights in his boots, and on his belt seemed heavier than ever. An instructor paced him, trading off whenever they felt in the slightest fatigued -- and came up behind him with a shock lash, at a dead sprint. He had to stay ahead of them. His back was covered in welts from the lash, and the soft grass by the side of the trail seemed so inviting...he could just collapse ontop of it and sleep for a week...
But not yet. He wasn't giving the asshole behind him the satisfaction of seeing him fall. They'd get him eventually, but damned if it would be this one. He gritted his teeth and forced his legs to move faster. Nightreign's star beat down on his back -- the darkness that the outsystem miners had named the system for was alien to him, Seydar was in-system and it was plenty bright, thank you. Salty sweat dripped down onto his lips, he was covered in dust, smelled like the trail. Like dirt and pain.
His vision blurred, only the red dirt trail before him and blotchy nothingness around -- forward was his only option, and he took it.
He hurled himself forward, taking Melissa to the ground an instant before the rocket did. He screamed as the exhaust and shock washed over him, centimeters from his back. The shirt stopped some of it, but not all -- he'd burn and blister, but that was just more pain, and pain was nothing. He rolled to his feet, his carbine coming back into battery, he identified targets and fired two single shots, not aiming, not really -- hitting the target was enough, precision was just showing off. Down to a crouch, he scuttled along the low embankment -- return fire flayed the position he'd just vacated. One step ahead meant he was still breathing, still fighting. An instant's hesitation was all it took, the difference between life and death.
He kept moving, popping up to fire another pair of shots, both kills. Down, and move on -- one of the many functions of an Alpha, tie up a superior force in a running battle. Bleed them until they were dry. If they chased him, he could run them in circles until their legs fell off. If they ignored him, they had an Alpha in their backfield. Here, he had help -- a squad of Warseeker initiates to support one Alpha initiate, and a learning experience for everyone. A squad of Warseekers was a lot of firepower, more than he could ever home to put out personally...but they couldn't keep up with him, either. He had to learn to accomodate for that, and worse, the Warseeker squadleader was 'senior' to him in this exercise, and wasn't that just a treat. Nevermind that Alphas were nominally outside of the normal chain of command, wars weren't won by freelancing. The trick was knowing what all the pieces did, and this sort of exercise was how you learned...but damned if he was going to let her throw him into the grinder until she figured out that that wasn't the best way to employ an Alpha. Julian had never been much for losing, tended to stick in his craw. Screw that.
He shoved one of the Warseekers down when he tried to rise, the spatter of bulletfire on the trench-back missed them both because of the motion. Julian snapped off a few shots in response, moved on. Then he was at the end of the pseudo-prepared fighting position, and there was nothing but scrub and death. The squad leader was screaming at him, he didn't need the words to know the intent. What in hell are you doing, Alpha?
"Winning. Cover me."
He leapt out of the trench, ran low and hard. A moment later, dirt kicked up around him as the enemy took him under fire -- he felt one graze his arm, twisted, jinking in three dimensions as his run became an acrobatic display. He was leaner than he'd ever been, faster, stronger. He'd been put the grinder a hundred times, and what was left was tough, grizzled, too stubborn to give up, to mean to die. The squad of Warseekers poured out fire, and that directed hostile attention more constructively. Julian dropped behind a rock outcropping, howled at the top of his lungs then stopped moving entirely...for about a second, before he took off at a completely different pace, low and hungry.
The next indication of his existence, he was among them, thirty six inches of eldensteel in his hand, and he danced among them, Peacemaker's crackling slice-field vaporizing blood into red mist, and then he was through them and the exercise was over and he braced himself against a bunker support while his body tingled, hypersensitive. Then the pain came, a legion of angry little demons plunging their icepicks into him with a frenzied glee. He squeezed his eyelids shut and refused to scream, and then it passed and he was gasping for breath, panting.
He couldn't sleep. The warm, vivid presence beside him, mulled in sleep, was no comfort. She'd filled his arms and he'd filled her and the passion had engulfed them both, a primal union, his talent blazing wildfire, giving and taking, a link of being, more than physical -- yet ultimately incomplete. Always incomplete -- there was no acceptance, here, merely need. He filled that need, became the dream...but in the end, he lay awake, listening to her breathing, to the beat of her heart...and ultimately retaining only the satisfaction of a job well done.
He wondered if this was how his father had felt about his mother, when Kethvae had concieved him, and then again when he'd put a blade through Rhya Kel's throat...
Eyes drifted shut, he screamed inside his mind. Gentle fingers snapped him to the present, eyes opened to a mischievous grin. Faded to fire that, in his dreams, burned away his imperfections, leaving only the steel behind...but only in his dreams. Only in his dreams...
Kieran's brow crinkled, "Umm. I have no idea -- conversational sign is incredibly context sensative, particularly covert sign like that -- minimum of arm movement, intent is everything...but if I had to guess, the sentiment is 'don't bother.'"
He watched Tora relatively unobtrusively, meaning he didn't stare, just kept an eye on her as he found other work to do. Thankfully, everything seemed to go okay, and while this probably wasn't the absolute first time a non-Ascended had made successful armor interface with Temple gear, he was personally involved this time, and damnit that was a relief.
He glanced up from his book, nodded, "I've got class. You've got manuals. Have fun and don't break anything."
He smiled to take any possible bite out, then returned his attention to the matter at hand.
Doctor Catherine Seighvan was of middling height, right around five foot seven, and neither exceptionally thin nor overweight in the slightest -- she probably wasn't physically fit by the Temple's standards, but she wasn't drastically out of shape, either, which was sufficient for support personnel such as herself. Beyond that, she was brunette and professionally attractive, just right. She cultivated an aura of respectability and wisdom, and she had a good smile -- a trustworthy smile.
Tora wasn't scheduled for a physical -- the hands-on physical was a rarity in modern practice, replaced largely by quick diagnostics except when necessary. At any rate, she was ushered into Doctor Seighvan's office by a nurse -- male, this one, particularly common in the Temple because the nursing certification rated a pay increase and most major institutions gave retroactive credit for Temple combat medicine courses...
Doctor Seighvan greeted Tora with a smile, "So, do have a seat. I received the specifications for your supplements and they won't be any trouble at all -- we'll have the first batch sent to you when it's ready, shouldn't be more than a day or two. Meanwhile, since you're here, it's a pleasure to meet you -- I'm Doctor Seighvan, your general physician. Anything particular I should know that your records might not show?"
I smiled back at Kieran. But I had to tease, then with a mock sigh “Oh pooh, you’re no fun. I was hoping there wouldn’t be a problem breaking it if I could put it back together afterwards. So, manuals, check, dullness afterwards double check.” With another dramatic sigh I headed for my appointment with my Generalist. “Have fun in class tonight.” I called over my shoulder as I left.
And I’m pleased to meet you, Doctor Seighvan.” And I found that I was at least more than I had worried I might. No worrying it’s not in the contract!…
Some deeply buried, minuscule part of me started to unclench at her smile; it was, given the emotions behind it nearly as nice as Kieran’s, and I returned it with a small one of my own. Someone once mentioned that I seemed to ration my smiles, as if I had been born with only a limited quantity. It wasn’t worth arguing over, but a serene face pisses more people off – or is it off more? - and at one time that was my only hobby. I’ve grown, learned better since then, but I know that part of me is still too watchful, too wary to smile easily, and what my lips do reflexively, in certain situations, might look like a smile but any one who knows predators knows it’s not.
“Actually Doctor, other than the supplements, I also wanted a chance to see if you had any questions. The physicians and Healers who put together my medical records were a bit concerned that parts of my biology might raise more questions than the records answered.”
I hesitated, showing just a hint of uncharacteristic nervousness. Then taking a deep breath I let it out softly. “You have my files and they are clear on my origins, so you might consider it somewhat understandable that I have some trepidation concerning medical personnel. I normally have it under control, but there is an recent incident that I never reported.” I found myself blushing “Apparently I’m not as clear of that as I thought. On my last assignment I got injured rather badly”
If having the heart nearly carved out of one, sans anesthesia, counted as merely severe. Lady Tomasuza was enthusiastic about her sacrifices. Blood and pain, job lots of both were her penchant. Apparently that was endemic among the Chaos godlings, or so Torgatai had remarked with his usual acerbic wit. Ten had ended up in a regen pod and the Kami was regrowning his body on his home grounds. I know I had gotten off light and was thankful that Astarte had been uninjured enough to get us all out of the Muri’s lair before it converted back to E=MC2 . The holos of that had been spectacular, though after-the-fact viewing just didn’t have the same satisfying sensation. But I’d live.
“And the private doctor who tried to treat me.” I gritted my teeth and looked away for a second. “When they started treatment I was unconscious” But apparently subconsciously aware enough to react badly.Oh wan't that an understatement! “I…I injured the physician severely, and if the Voice…Shai… hadn’t gotten control of my body I probably would have killed him Shai says. I wanted...” I hesitated again - truthfully I hadn’t wanted to admit to that shameful loss of control, but I knew that I had to advise the Temple “No, every one needs to know, because when it comes to the point that I get that injured again, my on-board meds probably need to include a paralytic so I won’t be able to inadvertently attack those trying to help me.”
Seighvan nodded slightly, "I see. I will make a note of that for your tags, you'll get those when you start your field training. It would be, umm, 'against protocol' is putting it lightly, to load a paralytic into your trauma kits...somebody might find a way to trigger it inadvertantly, and then you're ineffective. Just because nobody has ever managed to subvert Temple equipment doesn't mean that it isn't possible. However, our combat medics do carry such things and your tags will tell them to be aware of the possibility. Umm. We have other ways of restraining you in a more formal setting."
She considered Tora rather more intently, then, "We already take such precautions with various of our personnel, extending them to you won't be much trouble. I rather wish the reasons were better, though."
She seemed about to say more, then closed her eyes and redirected her thoughts, "We're not exactly unfamiliar with strange biologies, all things considered...I don't see any difficulty at the present time, though if you have any concerns whatsoever, do not hesitate to contact me at any time, you have the information in your gauntlet. If there's nothing else, I'm sure you have things you'd rather be doing than ditting in my office?"
There was no bite in her words, certainly humor in her smile -- but she was also an intensely practical woman, which was part of why she was with the Temple, rather than in civilian service....
Kieran stumbled back from class with a black eye, bleeding knuckles, and several tears in his black t-shirt. His right hand clutched at his left triceps, and having sat down on the edge of his bed, his hand came away sticky and red.
“So do I doctor, but really I’m a lot better than I was” I tried to make it light, and indeed I was better than I had been. She was very reassuring and hadn’t seemed too dismayed at the ‘hitch in my step ‘ regarding things medical.
I’d dutifully gone back to the suite I shared with Kieran and Stuart. The manuals went on to the floor as I made myself comfortable in seiza before them. The choice of posture was deliberate. I’d long ago learned that I could be comfortable for roughly ninety minutes then I’d need to stretch a bit. Yoga would relimber me, though given my hyper mobility it was more to strengthen the joints, and allow me the mental freedom to absorb what I had been reading.
I was in a lazy scorpion (http://www.santosha.com/asanas/images/scorpion-variation2.gif)- forearms and hands flat on the floor, the soles of my feet resting on the top of my head, rather holding them straight or arched . My mind was more on reviewing the manuals than being mindful as well.
All and all what that meant was that I came out of the pose in a clumsy side fall and jackknifed to my feet. I was at Kieran’s bedside as his hand came away bloody.
I hissed under my breath as I looked at that. I pushed down a spike of rage at seeing him wounded. Shai pushed me aside so to speak and began a full monitor’s sweep of him. She would find any subtle, hidden injuries and take care of healing them as well the obvious ones. That eye was going to be a true shiner for a bit
“Kier, please tell me that you just had an aborted class on resisting impromptu interrogation” My voice was warm, almost laughing, though that might have been at odds with the intentness of my eyes, in a carefully neutral face, but my mental query to him was much more sober. I had, without thinking, reverted to older more ingrained protocols. What was said mind to mind was private, between the two of us, and Shai would know if any one tried to snoop, no matter how subtlely.
Kier… partner Yes, I stressed that [/i]what happened?’
Shai broke in briskly Kieran, more than what happened - do we need to preserve your injuries as evidence?”