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14 Days Left
Trencher for Life
Ailín numbly entered the training room with the rest of his class for their bi-daily instruction in Brotherhood Martial Arts. A mere hour before, he was roused from his cot by a Fourth Directorate representative on behalf of his uncle, Revisor Malcolm Fergan. The representative had sad tidings.
“Missionary Ailín, it is with a heavy heart that I bear a message from your uncle on Mercury. Imperial launched an expansion campaign there, codenamed the ’ Gideon Offensive’. Your father, I regret to say, was killed in action during the Mishiman counterattack. The Cardinal be with you, my son.”
After they were all situated their trainer, Brother Daniels, strode in with a sneer on his face and a chip on his shoulder. Prior to being a drill instructor, he was an Elite Trooper in the Brotherhood’s armies. After taking shrapnel from a Legion bombing attack, he was unable to return to the front lines, and it infuriated him. His way of venting his bitterness was to take it out on the new trainees. In all of his training classes, he had a ‘punching bag’, a hapless soul to demonstrate maneuvers for the rest. This class was no different. After giving the Second Directorate Missionaries the once over, he began the course.
“Ailín, front and center,” Daniels barked. No one moved and the punching bag did not respond.
“AILÍN! Get your sorry ass before me! NOW!” Daniels shouted. A few moments later, the young Missionary appeared before the class. His face was expressionless, as if his mind were on the far side of the solar system.
“So glad you could join me so we can teach the class the next set of maneuvers,” Daniels said sardonically. Ailín said nothing, but stared blankly at the floor. The Missionary’s lack of focus grated on the trainer’s nerves and today he would make a special example of his punching bag.
“Penitent’s stance, Ailín,” Daniels ordered. His charge did as he was told; spreading his feet shoulder length apart, his left arm guarded his face, and his right arm spread to the side. Daniels mirrored his partner’s maneuver.
“Today we will learn three maneuvers. The Aegis of the Cardinal, the Wrathful Whirlwind, and the Arc of the Heavens. I want you all to pay very close attention. Ailín, you may engage me when you’re ready.” The student made a half-hearted advance and performed a frontal push kick towards his teacher.
Daniels darted inward, avoiding the kick and deflected it away with his guarding hand. Spinning from his hips, he twirled like a top and moved further into Ailín’s space; sending the fully torqued guarding hand into the side of his opponent’s face in the form of a back hand strike. His punching bag staggered at the hit, but still stood. With a scornful smile, Daniels performed the Arc of the Heavens, a backwards handspring that sent both heels of his feet into Ailín’s face. The student went airborne and landed painfully on the training mats, gasping for air.
“As you can see, all three are very effective when used in tandem,” Daniels said, ignoring his victim’s groaning. “The Aegis is best used for deflecting kicks, but with punches it is usually better to simply feint with the Walk of the Faithful. The Whirlwind, by itself, takes a bit more effort but when used with –“
He stopped his lecture when he heard Ailín sobbing. Anger spread over Daniel’s face like a coming flash storm.
“What’s a matter, boy, did your mommy die?” Daniels maliciously hissed. Snorting disdainfully at Ailín, he turned back to address the class when he noticed that the sobbing had ceased. He turned back to look at the object of his contempt.
The boy was still on the ground, but something was happening to him. His fists were clenched so tightly that his knuckles were the purest white, all of his muscles quivered like compressed springs. With a growl, Ailín quickly regained his feet and faced his teacher. Anger enflamed his countenance as he paced towards Daniels, who smirked at his student’s advance.
“So, you want to go another round, boy?” Daniels asked, going back into the Penitent’s stance.
Ailín eschewed any form of defense, but simply closed with his teacher. “No guard? Your funeral,” Daniels said as he slid forward, tucking in his balancing arm to perform an elbow smash to Ailín’s head. The strike connected and Daniels let loose a melded grunt of surprise and pain. It felt like his elbow had just struck a brick wall. Ailín’s face barely moved from the hit, who brought up his hand and savagely struck his teacher’s right cheek with his hardened fist, sending him staggering back several paces.
“If you must know, Brother Daniels,” Ailín spat, “my father died.”
Daniels was incensed. Not only was his student being disrespectful to him, he was slowly on his way to embarrassing Daniels in front of the rest of the class. He arced his body forward into a forward handstand, twisted his hips, and split his legs; performing a hammer kick aimed at Ailín’s temple. Again, the strike connected and a bloom of pain sprang out from Daniel’s instep. He felt as if he was fighting a marble statue.
Before Daniel’s attacking leg was able to complete its circuitous journey, Ailín grabbed it by the ankle and shoved it forward like a spear. Daniels’s balance broke and his head cracked itself on the mat, dazing him. While he was prone and defenseless, Ailín ferally pounced onto his teacher, unleashing a steady stream of increasingly powerful punches and heel strikes. Daniels’s face became bruised and bloodied, his jaw and cheeks fractured.
In the back of his mind, Ailín heard an unfamiliar voice. “Ailín, stop.”
Disregarding the voice, he continued pummeling his sadistic teacher far more brutally than he ever did to him. His hand was cocked back to rain down another blow, but was stopped by a gloved hand clamping onto his wrist.
“Ailín, stop,” the voice said in his mind. This time, commanding. All of his limbs locked. He found that he was able to move his head somewhat and looked behind him. There, standing over him, was a Keeper of the Art; one of the Brotherhood’s most powerful mystics of the First Directorate. The Keeper’s face was covered by an ichthys helmet, his body was enshrouded in white and blue robes. On his back, humming with energy and color was a power stabilizer; making him look as if he had a peacock’s tail.
“Ailín, listen to me,” the mental voice continued in a relaxed, quiet manner. “You must calm down, my son. You have roused the Art inside yourself. If I did not sense your Awakening when I did, this tableau would have been far worse.”
The words felt, not spoken, in Ailín’s psyche made the miasma obfuscating it to become clear. Looking down upon the recipient of his punishment, he was suddenly filled with remorse and guilt. Tears flowing from his eyes, he cried, “What have I done?”
Gently, the Keeper helped Ailín to his feet and maneuvered him to his awestruck classmates. “See to him,” the Keeper said, finally speaking for all to hear. “I will see to your teacher.” He went to Daniels’s side and knelt down next to him. Placing his hands upon Daniels’s disfigured face, a halo of blue light spread from them and covered it completely. After many moments, Daniels regained consciousness and moaned loudly.
“What hit me?” he asked, his hands gingerly touching his mostly restored face.
“Brother Ailín,” the Keeper responded as he stood up and returned to the young Missionary’s side.
“Am I to be censured, Keeper?” Ailín asked, frightened.
“Oh, no, my son. On the contrary, you’re being promoted in a way. People who possess an affinity to the Art are few and far in between. Being a Missionary does not behoove your talents. You will be relocated from the Second Directorate Missionaries to begin receiving instruction on becoming an Inquisitor, which is a far better way to utilize them.”
Malakai started slightly, broken out of his reverie by his second in command, Inquisitor Gir. His subordinate also hailed from Imperial, from the Clan Dunsirn. His original name was Girhampton Dunsirn V, which he shortened to ‘Gir’ after being ordained as an Inquisitor. He entered the Brotherhood at a much earlier age than did Malakai, when it was found he had the mental fortitude to utilize the Art. The boy’s talent was also a shortcoming, for it robbed him of his childhood; the Second Directorate’s conditioning and education turning him into a grim and serious young man. He was paired with the senior Inquisitor to determine if he was ready to work independently as opposed to being a second to a Majoris.
“Yes?” Malakai asked.
“How much longer? We have waited for several hours and nothing has occurred. Perhaps the Seers were wrong?”
Malakai smirked, its appearance unseen underneath his helmet. “If there is anything I do know that is worth knowing, is that the Seers are never wrong in their predictions.”
“Come on, meat puppets, we’re burning daylight,” Aradiel muttered to the three squads of damned souls that followed him. Their faces were twisted in agony, their eyes glazed; their gait was nothing more than a shambling walk. They were Heretic Legionnaires, fools who pledged their soul to the Eternal Liar for materialistic reasons, and in the end, received nothing but endless suffering in return.
The Nepharite cared not for their pain, for he was the one instrumental in giving it. Humans were so easily duped for the most asinine reasons. Make me rich, make me prettier, I want a promotion. They squandered their immortal soul for a temporal gain. Always too short sighted to see their folly until it was time to pay the price of their request. Aradiel enjoyed it most when they begged.
Humans were not the only ones who were easily duped. Followers of his Apostle’s siblings were just as malleable. Take Nososmandius, for example. Aradiel told the walking pile of pus that an attack on Valley Forge from the Rust Desert would gain him many subjects for him to experiment on, not to mention weaken the human defenses on the planet.
He told Nososmandius that the most direct route would be the shortest way there. Alas, Aradiel forgot to mention to him that the direct route also had the most armed resistance. Being no strategic genius, Nososmandius marched his forces through it, losing at least half of his force prior to getting to halfway to the city by Aradiel’s estimates. He also knew that the fool would dawdle after each fight, greedily snatching up the dead and nearly dead to bring back to his Citadel. All that would do would give the humans time to muster a defense and, eventually, make a strong counterattack. In the coming days, Nososmandius and his host would be fully eradicated.
However, while the humans were directing their attention to the obvious cancer; the unnoticed, and more malign, one would fester and grow. The plan was simple, yet effective. Distract the humans with an obvious threat and that would give him time to stake out a new location for his latest Citadel. His Citadel in the ruins of Edison was too far removed on Mars to be used optimally. He needed something closer to a populated city, but not so close as to attract the Brotherhood to it should he reside there.
He had to finish his field trip quickly, for his spies in the Brotherhood told him that they were aware of something other than Nososmandius’s raid. Their pitiful Seers were only able to see through an opaque lens. Semai’s power had no such hindrance.
Always a fly in the ointment, Aradiel thought. Damnable Brotherhood. If I could blind half the First Directorate’s Seers, that would be a good start.
The Nepharite and his entourage entered a small valley, where the ground sloped downward and curved off to his left. Along the valley’s crests, large rocks and sand blasted stones lay strewn about. They provided the perfect place to hide for an ambush. Aradiel held up his hand, indicating that his troops should stop.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” the Nepharite shouted, his voice echoing eerily.
To his right, a group of five armed figures emerged from behind a stand of boulders thirty meters away. They formed a line, ostensibly to block his path. Their slate gray armor covered them from head to toe. Inscribed on their closed helmets was the arrowed cross of the Brotherhood. More movement attracted his attention on his left. A lone Inquisitor Majoris stalked down the valley’s bank and stood near his troopers.
“This is as far as you go, Nepharite,” Malakai barked as a quartet of figures followed him down and stood behind him. Their armor was markedly different from the troopers. It was baroque, ancient looking, and the color of blood. They were the Sacred Warriors, the Cardinal’s crème de la crème. Their sole mission was to fight the Dark Legion, to destroy them utterly. In their hands they carried the Retributor carbine, sheathed on their sides was the hallowed Avenger broadswords. Their leader was a cold beauty of womanhood who scorned wearing a helmet.
“Ah, a welcoming committee from the Brotherhood,” Aradiel said as he folded his arms and smirked. “What? No gifts for me, Malakai?”
Malakai inwardly flinched. “It appears that you have me at a slight disadvantage, Nepharite. You know my name but I do not know, nor care to know, yours. You are nothing more than a disease to be excised. Prepare to meet your craven master, demon.” He raised his free hand and both squads raised their weapons to fire.
“My, my, I appear to have forgotten my manners, Your Grace. My name is Aradiel, humble servant to Lord Semai. At your service.” The Nepharite made a gregarious bow to Malakai. “Might I ask a request, Inquisitor Majoris? May I, and my puppets, be allowed to pass by your ardent men unmolested? I promise to be good.”
“No. You shall not pass.”
Aradiel sighed, looking crestfallen. He looked over the Malakai’s shoulder, to the female Sacred Warrior sergeant behind him. “Are you coming out to play, boo’ful?” he asked.
The sergeant’s eyes darkened, then shut. A massive howl of pain echoed in the valley as she held her head in her hands, dropping her rifle. Her squad stood by, watching her in surprise. Malakai spun to see what the matter was.
The leather gloves she wore split at the seams, revealing flesh that was rapidly expanding and darkening to the color of crimson. Hair fell out in clumps, the venerated armor she wore rent and buckled as it quickly became too small for her to wear. Her back arched and her howl became a low bellow of rage. Her head became distorted, expanding nearly twice its original size. Teeth elongated and turned yellow. Irises and pupils disappeared into the milky sclera. Muscles rippled under reddening skin.
Its transformation complete, the Metropolitan Prophet turned on its former squad, pieces of armor falling onto the ground. Drawing the Avenger sword, which now looked nothing more than a stick compared to the thing that held it; it said in a low, raspy voice, “Hello boys, COME PLAY WITH ME!”
Malakai watched the Prophet cut down the Sacred Warriors in stunned silence. He did not know what shook him more, the ease in which the Legion infiltrated the Brotherhood or the fact that they were able to ascend to that high a position amongst the Cardinal’s finest fighters.
Aradiel leered obscenely at Malakai. “What do you think of your precious Brotherhood now, Ailín?” the Nepharite asked, his voice changing timbre. “Nae one is safe, not ev’n ye.”
Malakai’s attention snapped back to the Nepharite with a righteous and furious anger. The thing mocked him in his brother’s voice.
“Your death will be slow and painful, demon!” Malakai cried, using the Art to harden his skin. A retort from a Retributor came from behind him and Gir yelped in pain. Glancing up to his right, Malakai saw Gir slump back against the rock he used as cover, raising his hand as he did so. A soft nimbus of light surrounded it. There was a flash of radiance behind Malakai. Turning further, he could see that the Prophet was no longer behind him. He looked back to Gir.
“I teleported it away from us! Don’t worry about me, Majoris!” Gir yelled.
“Are you going to attend to him or to me, Malakai?” Aradiel asked, his voice changing again. “You certainly know how to make a woman feel wanted!”
A cold spot formed in Malakai’s stomach at the sound of the new voice. It was Millicent’s.
It knew. How did it know?! he thought, his teeth gnashing in a mixture of anger and anxiety.
“Stop, Ailín. Cease your meditation and clear your mind”, Keeper Xavious intoned, moving to him to break the Initiate’s stance. “I sense that you are trying too hard to make the Art do what you will. That is not the way, my son.”
“I- I’m sorry, Keeper. Let me try again,” Ailín pleaded.
Xavious put his gloved hands on the young man’s shoulders. “The Art does not work in that fashion, Ailín. It is instinctual, it is intuitive. You must learn to fully relax and concentrate. It does not come to you, you do not go to it. You must meet it somewhere in the middle.”
“I understand, Keeper,” Ailín replied, with head down and fists clenched.
“Do you, my son? Mentally, you mask it well but your actions today belie it. Your anger, whilst helpful in your Awakening, is no longer beneficial to you now. It is an impediment rather than an asset. Anger clouds even the best judgment; to fuel the Art in that way will lead to nothing but suffering, Ailín.”
“I’m sorry, again, Keeper,” Ailín said, tears of frustration welling in his eyes.
“Do not be, Ailín. The Art is not an effortless path to follow. It is not mastered easily. However, you will not progress in my instruction much less become what you desire, an Inquisitor, if you hold on to the anger of your past.”
Ailín looked at his teacher in disbelief. The Keeper smiled.
“No, I do not know what feeds your rage but I can sense it as easily as the warmth of a fire.” Xavious paused before continuing. “Only you can lessen your burden. A strong step in that direction is cutting off former ties to your old life, which you should have done long ago. The Brotherhood is your new life. ” Ailín’s face fell at the Keeper’s words.
“As for your uncle, he is no longer that. He is Revisor Malcolm. He does not have a familial bond to you, but a Brotherhood one. Your aspirations offer you new possibilities as well. A common tradition amongst the Second Directorate is to change your name. The purpose is twofold, it divorces one from their past and gives them the ability to dispense the will of the Cardinal with impassivity.”
There was a long moment of silence before the Initiate responded. “I have chosen my new name, Keeper Xavious,” he said, his eyes locking with his teacher’s.
“What is it, my son?”
The Inquisitor Majoris breathed slowly, allowing his emotions to ebb away like an ocean at low tide. He passively observed as a group of Heretic Legionnaires surged towards their position, screening their master, firing their Kratachs. The bullets flew wildly, exploding against ground and rock, but not with their intended targets. With military precision, the Troopers went to one knee, took aim, and returned fire. Legionnaire bodies jerked as they were struck by the torrent of bullets, four of them collapsing to the ground, leaving only three. They seemed oblivious to the fact that they had just lost half their number. Another squad of Legionnaires surged past Aradiel on his left and formed a veritable wall of flesh to cover the Nepharite. In response, the remaining squad of Sacred Warriors moved into an anchoring position on the east crest to support the Troopers in the event that the Legionnaires advanced further.
“I’m waiting!” Aradiel said in Millicent’s sultry tones, ending his taunt with a laugh in his true voice. The sound filled the valley, almost drowning out the firefight. A bullet ricocheted off of Malakai’s shoulder pad, leaving an ugly gouge.
“You know what?” the remaining Sacred Warrior sergeant screamed, drawing his Avenger, “I LIED!!!” He spun around to face his squad and swung his blade in a lateral arc. His first target ducked, but the second was taken by surprise and she was decapitated. Reversing his grip, the sergeant launched the point of his sword backwards. The sword penetrated the armored chest of his victim, blood spewing from both the wound and from underneath his helmet. The sergeant leveled his Retributor at the last Sacred Warrior and opened fire before the soldier had a chance to act. The bullets cracked through armor and the man fell to earth.
With a laugh, the sergeant lept from the crest and landed by the picket line of Troopers, who were turning to face him. The sergeant cocked his sword arm back and launched it forward, sending the tip of his Avenger through the Trooper’s visor and on into his skull. Shaken by the betrayal and swift ambush by one of their own, the Troopers backed away from the Sacred Warrior, who now seemed to falter in his assault.
“Stand your ground, brothers,” Malakai’s ordered. “He was possessed by the Nepharite, but is no longer. Advance!” The Troopers did as they were told, rallied by their commander. The Sacred Warrior sergeant fell in line with them, murmuring to himself of what in the Cardinal’s name had he done.
Malakai charged towards the Heretic Legionnaires that blocked his path to the Nepharite, firing his AC-40 as he did so; purging yet another follower of the Darkness.
Inquisitor Gir leaned out from behind cover with his head and a free hand. In his palm, a distorted globe of gases coalesced and grew larger. When he could no longer contain it, he pitched it forward at the blockading Legionnaires. It struck one of them in the chest, the globe cracked like glass and exploded noisily, snuffing out the Legionnaire’s life and one of his compatriots. “The Light take you and purge you!” he cried.
Malakai turned to his charge and ordered, “Gir, the Nepharite must be stopped. Keep his minions at bay!” The Majoris pointed to a new group of Legionnaires rushing to advance, on their heels the Prophet stormed after them. Malakai paused briefly, attuned himself to the Art, and supplicated it to augment his reflexes. The power agreed.
In a blur, Malakai crossed the open ground as quick as blinking, heading to impede the progress of the Prophet. As he passed the first wave of Legionnaires, he slashed at the nearest one with his chain bayonet. It connected, slicing off the Legionnaire’s left arm at the shoulder. The lost soul took only a stride more before collapsing to the ground.
Moments later, he fell upon the Prophet, bellowing a war cry. Malakai’s bayonet slid past the behemoth’s guard and struck its left shoulder. However, the teeth of the chain bayonet were warded away by the thing’s dense skin. Undaunted, the Inquisitor thrust the bayonet at the Prophet’s chest, only to have it turned away again. Malakai stepped back into the Penitent’s stance, his left arm guarding his face and his weapon arm parallel to the ground for balance.
Another volatile ball of gas exploded in the midst of the blockading Legionnaires, killing two more.
“So, the mighty Inquisitor wants to play,” the Prophet grumbled, circling his opponent. Swinging its Avenger at Malakai’s head, it cried, “THEN LET’S PLAY!”
Malakai rotated his balancing arm upward, deflecting the sword away with his own weapon. Without missing a beat, the Prophet swirled its arm back over its head and brought the sword up in an underhanded swing. This time, Malakai moved too slowly. The sword caught the edge of his helmet, notching deeply into its side and tearing it off his head. Blood flowed freely from his temple.
“So, you can bleed,” the Prophet said with a guttural chuckle as it thrust the Avenger at its opponent’s chest. Malakai darted forward on the Prophet’s unguarded side, crouched, and swung out with an outstretched leg. It connected with his enemy’s ankle, knocking its foot upward. Its balance lost, the Prophet fell hard on its back; the ground shaking with the impact.
“And you can’t seem to keep your feet,” Malakai retorted.
Aradiel sighed irritatedly, drawing out his Voriche. “No, no, no, boo’ful. This is how you kill an Inquisitor!” He pulled the trigger multiple times. Malakai crossed his arms in front of his face and braced himself. The bullets from the pistol struck him with the force of a sledgehammer, causing him to skid backward, his boots digging troughs in the dust. Aradiel lowered the smoking gun and waited for the human to slump lifeless to the ground.
He did not get his wish. Malakai lowered his arms and stared defiantly at the enemy of Humanity. Aradiel sneered.
“Puppets, kill him,” the Nepharite ordered. The blockading Legionnaires charged Malakai, swarming over him. They pummeled him with the stocks of their rifles; they attempted to cut him with their cruel, sharp edges. But, they could not harm him as long as the Art protected him.
The Prophet regained its feet and stalked towards Malakai, shoving aside a Legionnaire that blocked him. “Out of my way, fool. He’s MINE!” It swung its sword laterally at the human’s head. Malakai countered it by moving in slightly, blocking the Prophet’s wrist with his guarding arm, and stabbed the Prophet with his chain bayonet. The teeth sank deeply into the monster’s side, flaying flesh and bone. The Prophet cried out in pain and stepped back, jerking the bayonet out of it while doing so. The human pressed his adversary into a defensive stance, sending a flurry of strikes with the bayonet in its direction. Its skin deflected some, but not all of them. More flesh was shredded, more dark blood was spilled.
Meanwhile, the Troopers took aim at the remnants of the first wave of Legionnaires and opened fire. The duo sagged to the ground when their bodies could take no more punishment. Emboldened, the Trooper sergeant gave the order to advance and they did so, unleashing a vibrant cry. To meet them came a new wave of Legionnaires, their Kratachs firing. Two Troopers fell dead, along with the last Sacred Warrior. The last two Troopers turned and fled, heading for the protective cover of the rocks above them. With nary a sound, the Legionnaires shuffled forward, pursuing them.
In order to buy some time for the retreating Troopers, Gir centered himself, concentrated and sent another explosive sphere into the center of the Legionnaires that followed them. Half of them were blown skyward in pieces. The ones that remained still trudged forward undeterred. The heavy sound of rapidly approaching footsteps caused Gir to turn. Before he could react, the Nepharite grabbed him by the throat and lifted him off his feet.
“You are quite annoying, young one. Do you know that?” the Nepharite asked his slowly suffocating prey. The Inquisitor’s feet jerked while he vainly tried to break the beast’s grip on his throat. Aradiel raised his other hand up to Gir’s face. “Time for an attitude adjustment.”
The Nepharite's hand became shrouded in dark flames. Aradiel then grabbed the lower half of the Inquisitor's helmet and squeezed. Gir shrieked stiflingly in pain, writhing as the Nepharite molded helmet and flesh together. The shrieks of pain trailed off into a gurgled whimper and then into ragged gasps for air. Gently, Aradiel put Gir to the ground and patted his head. “There now, all better.”
Still wheezing, Gir dazedly nodded at the statement.
Malakai turned and saw Gir's condition. “What in the Cardinal’s name did you do to him!?” he shouted. A blow from behind sent Malakai staggering forward and he ended up on his knees. He found himself being disarmed and then restrained by both the Legionnaires and the Prophet. Aradiel approached Malakai.
“Let's chat, shall we?” The Nepharite's voice was polite, but carried an unmistakable edge of menace. “Your little attempt to stop me, while entertaining, was utterly pointless.” Malakai's head rocked to the side as Aradiel backhanded him with a fist like stone. While disoriented, the Nepharite grabbed the nape of the human's armor with one hand and lifted him up off the ground.
“What do you see, Inquisitor? TAKE A GOOD, LONG, LOOK!” Aradiel bellowed as he swung his arm before him, pointing out the crumpled and savaged corpses of Brotherhood soldiers. “This is the cost of opposing us. This is the price you must pay! How many lives must be shed in this manner, Ailín? Hmm? How many? How many more will be sacrificed in this conflict, only to end up as instruments of my master or his siblings?” He then focused the Inquisitor's attention to the dead Legionnaires.
“As for them, they are a Crown a dozen. For every one that you kill, ten more fools will take their place at my side. Gladly, I might add. You see, they all want something. Something my master can provide and they can't turn their soul over fast enough for it.” Aradiel turned Malakai to face him and stared into ice blue eyes filled with impotent rage.
“So, what is it that you want, Ailín? Hmm?” Aradiel asked pensively as he searched the human's eyes for an answer. The Nepharite's face broke into a wide grin and he chuckled. “I know your secret,” he said in a sing song voice. With a whip of his arm, Aradiel sent Malakai flying into the valley wall. The Inquisitor's breath expelled from his lungs in a fleeting rush and several of his ribs cracked and broke. He crumpled to the ground, gasping for air.
Aradiel was on him again, yanking his head up by the hair. “You thought that by joining the Brotherhood, you could forget about her? You forgetting her is like forgetting how to breathe.” The Nepharite slammed Malakai's head into the Martian soil before pacing away. “Admit it, in the back of your mind, you were glad that your brother was killed. A rival removed and an ex-lover hurt. You relished it.”
“No, mon- monster, I did not.” Malakai spat out blood and staggered onto his hands and knees. “I never did. I played my part.”
Aradiel spun and laughed derisively at him. “'Your part'? You honestly believe that what the Seers previse cannot be changed? Or are you such a blind lapdog to your faith that you cannot think on your own?” The demon tapped the side of his head vigorously. “Think, Ailín!” His statement was punctuated by a swift kick into Malakai’s midsection, the force of it lifting the human into the air a good meter before he crashed into the ground. A gurgling gasp for air rattled from Malakai’s lips.
“The Seers lie, Ailín. Contrary to what they ingrained into your skull, you can change what they foresee if you have the will to do so. The ‘dire consequences’ of altering what they predict that they blather on about is nothing more than an ego defense to protect themselves from being wrong, and to deny the fact that they are fallible.” Aradiel gave the downed Inquisitor a wistful sigh. “As much fun as this is, I have places to be and I have tarried here long enough.” The Nepharite signaled for his remaining forces to form up around him. Once there, he spread his hands and a swirling, multicolored fog poured out of them; obscuring everything. When the fog dissipated under a strong Martian wind, Aradiel and his host were gone.
Malakai found it hard to breathe, blood choked his throat. He figured he was hemorrhaging badly and it would only be a matter of time before his heart stopped. For a moment, he had a transitory thought, a momentary impulse. He wanted to give up. He was tired, so very tired. Of the fighting, the killing. Of the futility of purging heresy. Of living.
“What do you plan on doing after Paxton, Ailín?” Millicent asked, snuggling closer to him under the woolen sheets. Her head was on his chest, her warm breath caressing his skin. He ran his fingers through her hair and stared at the vaulted ceiling.
“Dunno, aye ne’er thought about it, really.”
“Honestly?” she asked incredulously, raising her head to look him in the face. Feeling the weight of her stare, Ailín looked at her sheepishly.
“You seriously don’t have any idea what you want to do?”
Ailín shrugged. “Aye guess go t’work for my Da n’ th’ clan’s cattle business.”
“You didn’t have to go to Uni for that, especially not to the best military university your father’s money can send you and your brother to,” she said quietly.
“Aye only went t’Paxton because my Da wanted me to. Initially, aye thought aye would like it once aye got there. But, as time went by, aye discovered tha’ me n’ th’ military are a marriage not ta be. Wot about ye?”
Millicent was silent for a long while. “I thought I might join the Blood Berets or the Golden Lions after graduation. I have not decided.”
“Why join them? Aye kin giv’ ye as much action as ye want!” Ailín said lasciviously, encircling her in his arms and kissing her.
No. Not yet. Questions needed to be answered.
“Blessed Cardinal, to You we look for strength and from You we receive sustenance to our starving souls,” Malakai wheezed out, beginning his meditative prayers. He painfully rolled onto his back and pressed his gloved hands to his chest. “To You we look for guidance and from You we receive counsel.”
His hands became suddenly warm and soothing to his battered body. In his mind’s eye, bones knitted back together and blood vessels began to seal themselves. “To You we ask for forgiveness and from You we are granted clemency.” Malakai took in a deep breath. It was painful, but becoming less so with each passing moment. He moved his hands to his aching and bleeding head. “Loving Cardinal, pray for us so that we may be shepherded from the Darkness and into the Light. Amen.”
An hour passed and the surviving Troopers returned, along with three additional squads and Ophanim transport aircraft. They found Malakai kneeling, in a meditative stupor, eyes closed. His lips were soundlessly repeating prayers. It took several shakes to fully arouse him. When he became cognizant of his surroundings, he looked the recovery leader straight in the eye and said simply, “Take me to San Dorado. Take me to the Seers.”