Chapter One – Justice In Chains
He slit the old man’s throat with only the shadows watching.
He hadn’t set off a single alarm, he hadn’t even been seen. It was a thing of beauty, or at least it would be if he could enjoy it. But that was dangerous, and he couldn’t think like that.
The old man looked up at him as the life left his limp body. His eyes dulled and the expression of surprise and pain slowly relaxed into a grey, featureless mask. The deed was done.
Mevoine left the sad old corpse on the bunk. It started to bleed into the fabric and he resisted the urge to spit on it. It wouldn’t be fair. Justice was served, anything extra would be indulgence and he had to be careful, detached. As much as he hated the thing splayed on the bed and its smiling neck, his blade had delivered its penance.
The rest of the ship was silent. The sensors and security systems would be useless. They couldn’t detect him if they’d tried, and they wouldn’t be trying because they had no idea he was there in the first place. Aila would make sure of that.
The dry dock wasn’t too far away. High-ranking commanders were given dorms close to the dock in case of emergency, it gave them priority if they had to abandon ship. Just thinking about that made Mev’s blood boil.
Of course that’s how it worked. They could get out at the first sign of trouble but the other soldiers on board were left to find their own way out, to fight their way out if it came to that. It was expected. Their last sight would be their commanding officer scurrying away to find a little hole to hide in. They’d be applauded as the brave survivor and the dead would be given a number and a final toll.
But that’s why he was doing what he was doing. It was his job to achieve what the Vanguard were too corrupt to achieve.
He was running through the shadows when he almost fell straight into Aila coming around a corner.
She cursed, ready to launch a tirade. Mev brought a finger to his lips and pointed at the wall. She couldn’t see it like he did but there were two soldiers on the other side. They were playing some sort of game he didn’t recognise that involved what looked like little rectangle pieces of paper with markings on them.
She nodded and the two of them made their way towards the dock in silence. Now that they were together, Mev could do his trick much easier and he relaxed a little. The further apart he was from someone, the harder it was to do correctly.
They moved down another empty corridor and he gestured it was okay for them to speak.
‘Is he dead?’ Aila asked.
‘Did he suffer?’
She scoffed. ‘He should’ve suffered the same way Aya did, bleeding out, crying, alone. You should have killed him slowly.’
He would’ve liked that, keeping the old prick alive all the way through so he’d feel every last shred of pain, but that wasn’t the path he’d chosen. It would be easy to forget his mission and lose himself in the killing. He remembered Vrasen Gel’s warning when the bloodlust threatened to sweep him away.
‘Justice is vengeance in chains,’ he had said. ‘You can’t let that restraint up, not for a second. The moment you start enjoying it is the moment you’ve become consumed by it.’
‘Can’t do that,’ Mev said. ‘It’s n-n-not the right thing.’
‘I could’ve,’ she said.
‘Yes. But you didn’t.’
‘Aya deserved better than for that bastard to die a quick, easy death. She suffered for years because of him, and who knows how many other people he did the same thing to? The Circle just let him away with it. If you’re going to serve your own personal brand of justice, you should get something out of it.’
He made one concession in his approach. When he killed, he killed with more than his blade. When he slit the old man’s throat, it wasn’t only his hand guiding the sword across his pale neck. Everyone he had lost held it too, and when he killed, he killed with them. Vrasen, Willow, Lorle, Durane, Samir, Monsoon, Berrel, Lyrik and Syna. He had folded their names into his heart, they fought with him, and they would die with him.
The last two still stung. He couldn’t stop himself thinking about Lyrik’s death. Syna overcome with grief, her mouth frozen open in horror. There was the bone-chilling scream and Lyrik’s chest opening as Belacqua’s energy blade burned through it and –
He stopped it right there. It had to stop. Instead, he thought about breaking Belacqua’s defence and smashing his skull into little bits. He couldn’t remember the whole thing. There were a few heavy punches and the murderer’s skin started to break and his skull opened, then Mev’s vision went completely red. What he did remember was the savage relief he felt as the murderer’s skull split under his knuckles. Then that one fatal slice that separated broken head from neck, and finally Lyrik was avenged. It was enough to lighten the shadow weighing down his heart.
Morombe and Belacqua were two kills he allowed himself to enjoy. Their deaths were not justice, not really. They’d killed his friends, betrayed the Vanguard. Those two got exactly what was coming to them.
They were almost at the dry dock now. He could tell by the way space had begun to bend in unfamiliar shapes.
Mev grunted. It never got easier, he reflected, to adjust your perspective to fit the impossible architecture. Sometimes a corridor went on forever, sometimes it devolved into a series of vaguely connected staircases, other times it hurtled you into a pit that would spit you out into the cold vacuum, you never really knew what you were going to get when you turned a corner.
Aila would call it charming, unique, quirky. He would call it stupid, pointless and harmful. Another example of why the Vanguard needed change. It was pompous and unnecessary. They didn’t need the extra frills, they didn’t need to bend space to suit the design of their ships. But it was never about what they needed,it was about what they could achieve, and it had been that way since the Dawn. Because things have always been done one way, they must always be done the same way, and there’s little room for growth in the cramped greenhouse of warmongers.
‘I love it when it does that,’ Aila said with a huge grin.
The tunnel tapered and geometry bent and curled around them, and then they were inside the dock. Aila looked a bit unsteady on her feet. While sudden perspective changes like that had adverse effects, Mev was a little surprised she’d reacted that strongly, usually it didn’t affect her. In her own words, she loved ‘it when it does that.’
‘I’ll tell Aya’s friend you ripped his heart out,’ Aila said. ‘It’s a better story and he’ll need it.’
Their ship was hidden behind a large freighter. Hundreds of other ships were docked around it, hanging in invisible fields like ornaments. Because Nephilim ships were designed by madmen the dock itself wasn’t the same size as the outside dimensions. It went on nearly forever and housed thousands of ships inside it.
‘People like that psychopath don’t deserve easy deaths,’ she said. ‘It’s sick what they get away with. I like what we do, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s the right thing to do, but it never seems like it’s enough. I can tell Aya’s friend whatever he needs to hear but it’s not the same, it’s a fantasy. At some point, there has to be real punishment for the things they do.’
‘Death isn’t en-enough?’
Aila considered this. ‘No. Death’s an absolute, you can’t punish someone after they’re dead, that makes no sense.’
‘And Aya w-w-w…’ He gulped. ‘Would Aya feel any better if he’d suffered?’
‘Well, she’s dead. So obviously not.’
‘So he gets off easy because his victim can’t enjoy his pain? That doesn’t seem like justice to me. Justice is like death, it’s an absolute state, it either is or it isn’t.’
‘And it is. He’s dead.’
They had ‘borrowed’ their transport ship from a soldier currently marooned on Veldanfjoll. Plied with Serin until he couldn’t speak, they’d liberated the ship from his possession and flew off to right what they viewed a most unjust wrong.
It was, after all, what he had ordered them to do.
‘Chase down corruption. Find where it nests and tear out its roots. We will burn a path through them with vengeance and fury, we will deliver justice on the edge of a blade. You stand with us or you stand in the way.’
The vengeance he would leave to them, he had decided, and the justice he’d keep for himself.
They were almost at the ship when he suddenly froze, stuck to the floor.
Aila grabbed his shoulder.
‘Are you all right? What’s wrong?’ One hand was on the gun at her hip, ready for anything.
It was a sudden wrongness in the world, like it had been flipped upside down. But it was more than that; it had direction, velocity, purpose. It was driving forward and forward, a huge comet chased by a fiery tail plummeting across star-studded nothing…
It was coming towards them.
Aila felt it too. Her expression tightened as she tried to grasp the sensation, everything going wrong, the universe spinning and spinning.
The vertigo intensified and Mev doubled over. Aila steadied herself on a nearby ship.
Mev could feel the universe curl in on itself like a dying spider. He could feel the disturbance on the outside pressing into its skin and forcing a hole open like a cigarette burn.
‘We will burn a path through them.’
He dragged himself free from the nearby ships and looked out of the dry dock where the slip gate met the open landscape of space and there it was, forming in front of his eyes.
It was a huge storm. It must have been about the size of a planet. It started off as a small green eye poking into the universe, then satellites began to swirl around the singularity, bringing waves and curtains that swished and swayed in the black gulf. The universe tore apart. He could feel it as if it was a part of his own body.
There was a persistent screeching sound. He wanted to plug his ears but it wouldn’t make a difference, the sound was coming from everywhere and everything. It was a universe screaming in pain.
The storm flourished and opened like a burning flower. Glowing waves flooded out. Gold lightning flashed and crackled and left blazing ribbons hanging in the darkness.
Aila couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. Mev nodded and managed to pull himself up.
‘Oh god,’ she said. Her eyes shone as the storm’s reflection danced on her features. ‘They said it would happen soon but I didn’t believe them. It seemed so far off, like a dream.’
The storm grew. It looked like some huge sea creature about to swallow the ship whole.
‘It’s really them,’ she said dreamily. ‘Does that mean it’s time?’
‘It’s our call to arms,’ he said.
The storm grew until it was all they could see.
Chapter Two – The Hunted Rook
The snowfall on the Shynoi home world was unusually heavy this season. The snowbanks permanently fixed on the tundra swelled by six or seven feet and the permafrost lakes dotting the planet were covered over. Towering snow-covered mountains rose out of the tundra and loomed over the snow-sunken valleys snaking across the white emptiness.
It was a dead, empty world. It hadn’t once supported life and that’s why, when searching for a home for his new followers to live and train in, Elodan Dimarrzio had chosen it. The permanent snowstorms blanketed the planet in an eerie silence and only the strongest fighters could survive its harsh environment. The perfect breeding ground for assassins.
A figure dressed in white crept across the miles of snow dunes. Under the Shynoi’s tutoring, it had become a brutal killer, an instrument of death.
It took immense pleasure in watching its target die. Watching it struggle, watching it suffer. Sometimes they begged. Sometimes it made them. Like trapping a bug and pulling its legs off one by one.
There was a cruel satisfaction in killing your target. Some people saw it as a job, but the mark of a good Shynoi, a truly gifted hunter, was the ability to find joy in the hunt, in the chase, and in the kill. If you didn’t enjoy it, what was the point?
Another mark was ambition. You couldn’t rise through the ranks unless there was space to move up. So, you made space, by whatever means possible. It fostered competition, and you had to dig deep to find that ambitious spark or, like all competition, you would be eliminated, and elimination within the Shynoi was critically literal.
The figure was Immodan and he had murdered, slaughtered, ravaged, and destroyed his way to the number two spot, which would be a fine position to stay if not for ambition. That deep, deep hunger. No perch would ever be good enough if there was another one higher up. It was the Shynoi way, inherit a role by emptying it.
Immodan would take the lead and command the Shynoi, he would one day be remembered as the greatest leader they had ever had.
The one thing standing in his way was the current Rook – Edjin.
He’d been waiting for an opportunity like this for years. The sudden snowfall had been the catalyst for change, it was a slim opportunity and he had to take it. And so the pursuit had begun.
The old man was crafty but he’d lost his edge. He’d forgotten to cover his tracks and Immodan had gained on him, following those quickly filling footsteps trailing across the tundra. He’d tripped and fallen down snowbanks, Immodan could tell by the fading impressions left trailing in the snow. It was almost sad to see the once blood-thirsty Rook losing his famed sharpness and cunning. It had been so easy to track him fleeing across the planet. This was a mercy, really.
He stopped at the peak of a bank and peered into the blizzard. The wind whipped at his cloak and clawed at his face, there was once when the cold had bothered him but now it drew only needles of icy sensation. He could barely see it, but out there in the vast white plain there was a hunched figure dressed all in black. He recognised the armour and his heart leapt.
He had to stay calm. It was the moment he’d been waiting for and if he let himself get excited, he might make a mistake.
Slowly and carefully, he unsheathed his blade and gripped it tight at his side. The wind howled over the edge of a barren cliff.
The Rook was a lonely dark figure with his back to Immodan. There were tracks that led directly to him and he was on his knees, head bowed. He must’ve given up, Immodan guessed. Finally accepted it was time to pass on the torch.
His step was light as he crept towards his target. He kept his blade close, point angled upwards in case this was all a trap and the Rook snapped around at the last moment. He may have been old and tired, but he’d still managed to ascend himself to the head of the Shynoi and that took craftsmanship and cunning. Immodan wouldn’t underestimate him.
The blizzard covered any sounds he might have made. He brought the blade up as he approached and raised it above his head. His heart was thumping so hard he was worried the old Rook would hear it, but he couldn’t stop now, he wouldn’t stop now. Just one swipe of the sword and it would be done. He had to make it count. Just one final cut.
The blade went high, high into the air. He put his heart into it, his soul. It would strike like the Creator’s anger. The metal sung as it swept down and down…
And then it was over. One slice was all it took to finish the job. It was a fine slice, too. His head was briefly two heads. One half slid off the other. The soft white snow turned a sweet pink and then a deep, deep crimson.
That was how Immodan died.
Edjin wiped his blade clean. Immodan had been ambitious and a very gifted swordsman, but he’d also been young and foolish and reckless.
He didn’t begrudge the young man’s ambition. It was the way their chapter had dealt with things since Dimarrzio himself had languished on his death bed. He did however disagree with the young man’s recklessness. It had been far too easy to trick him. Surely he’d taught him better than that.
He just never understood sacrifice, Edjin reflected as he buried his student and retrieved his own armour from the snow. Shynoi sacrificed everything to get ahead. Edjin himself had lost his left hand during the fight with his predecessor, where he had finally and viciously claimed his title. Then he’d lost his eye to that Veil psychopath a few decades later. He’d heard rumours they’d fashioned his old eye into a pendant and bragged to anyone that would listen about how they’d beaten the Rook and stolen his eye. That had tickled him.
With Immodan buried, Edjin began the long journey home. He’d only left the Soundless Valley because of his student’s murderous ambitions, and now that was done with it was time to return to the others and prepare them for what was coming next.
‘They w-w-will come,’ the boy had warned him. ‘They will crack the sky. And you must answer their call.’
It was the first contract the Shynoi had refused in centuries. It was his decision and he hadn’t expected it would be so controversial.
To him it made perfect sense. Even if they somehow managed to kill one of them – and they wouldn’t – the others would come for revenge, and when it came to the Optivarr, revenge would be fatal. It was self-destruction in exchange for bragging rights. They had to be smarter than that.
And why couldn’t the boy have joined with them? He cursed himself for letting him get away. The first time they met, Edjin had tested him with his third best swordsman and was quietly surprised that the boy claimed an effortless victory, and then surprise turned to frustration when he refused to deliver the kill. You had to kill in the Shynoi. You took what you earned by blood, and blood alone was their currency. Honour had no place here.
He would’ve made a fine Shynoi, Edjin reflected. A shame he refused it for something as silly and infantile as honour. The protection the Optivarr offered him would have been useful, too.
‘When they come for you, you m-m-must answer. They mean to end the w-war and if you’re not there to help them, they’ll end you too. Be ready.’
Then the storm came.
It cracked the sky and turned the distant white horizon into an explosion of blue and gold and green. It screamed as it swelled and within a few minutes it had become the sky. Lightning struck at the ground around him and the snow lit up in brilliant flashes.
Edjin reeled backwards. He could feel the power on the other side of the storm, he could feel it swell and push like a river bursting at the dam. It made him feel dizzy and sick.
He understood what the boy had said, even though it seemed stupid at the time. He thought about what would have happened if he’d accepted the contract. Self-destruction.
He looked into the massive storm throwing its immense shadow on the snow, and prepared for war.