The Church always sought grandiosity within its monotony. One need only look to the abbeys to see it, the union of that self-same blandness coupled with the kind of engineering prowess and creativity that had catapulted the Turian Ecclesiarchy into the stars to begin with.
The outside dominated its surroundings in both width and height, the former to permit the faithful and initiated alike to make full use of its services, the latter simply to remind all of the ever watchful gaze of the Church and those who served as its faithful hands. Straight pillars of smooth white stone held up the thick roof, whose top lay ridged with cold spikes of steel. Embossed on to the pillars were the Five Commandments, the only advice one need ever give a turian in times of doubt. General Desolas recited the first as he proceeded past.
Stone Mind: What use is there in compromise when steeped in the rightness of our teachings? Be as firm and unyielding in your belief as the temptations arrayed before you. Your body is a strong foundation, but the mind must serve as shield against the stronger elements. Should the mind fall inward, the body will decay as surely as any building deprived of its top.
The two pillars adjacent to either side of the gaping entrance bore different art, instead depicting the first and last battles the Ecclesiarchy fought in the Unification War, a reminder of the sacrifices made to bring their nation to greatness. At the top, the victorious chained sun, symbol of the Church, shining down on the broken bodies of dissidents below.
In the center, humbled yet unbowed, the great masked ranks of the Church stood shoulder to shoulder, weapons bloodied and armor dented, yet straight-backed and unyielding. Desolas had heard it said that the original Reunification Pillars at the entrance to the Palvanus Cathedral featured no less than four hundred turian soldiers, all visually distinct courtesy of some long forgotten artist. He had never worked up the nerve to remain at the Cathedral entrance for more than a few seconds, however. The Palvanus looked on disapprovingly, and always the tolling bells called him inward.
At the bottom, of course, a single figure. The last two turians to ever accept his mark, hopefully for the span of history. The Church had long sought to bury their names under a bevy of distinctive yet all equally derogatory titles, from the Twin Traitors to the Final Heretics. Yet the Terminus still knew their names, spat them at the faces of the Church faithful in blatant spite. Desolas knew this experience firsthand. He endeavored to forget regardless, for the safety of his body and mind. Especially at a time such as this.
The pillars gave way to the building proper, the interior as cold and featureless as the abyssal deep. Desolas's footsteps rang against the solid marble with reassuring firmness and rhythm, a reminder that his body remained sure in its grip at the least. Twin staircases led up and around a grim statue of Ecclesiarch Telvus Fedorian, first of his name, a heavy stone book gripped under one robed arm, a sword lifted with the other. Knowledge and strength. Arm yourself with each, and do not fall astray.
A single Palvanus waited at the foot of the statue, an omni-scroll extending from his wrist. At Desolas's approach, the scroll snapped back beneath the glove of the Palvanus, who adjusted his steel mask and offered a stiff bow to Desolas.
"The sun lies vanquished and broken," said the Palvanus.
"Many others fill the night sky," replied Desolas, mandibles twitching. "I am ready. This is critical."
The Palvanus extended a thick gloved hand to his left and strolled carefully before Desolas, only a single backwards glance cast in his direction to ensure he followed. Desolas did not disappoint him. Two sets of ringing booted feet echoed through the expanse. Behind Desolas, the bells began to toll, signaling the afternoon reception. For the first time in his life, he would be walking away from their clarion call.
Most of the side doors and winding lower staircases went pointedly ignored by the uninitiated. The sheer size and thickness of the wood and steel that comprised their structure was typical of the Church's architecture, straightforward and enduring. The paths that lay below did not, and were not made for the use of anyone outside the Palvanus. The uninitiated possessed only two reasons to ever descend into the dark: penitence or cleansing. Would that I came here out of penitence.
The door opened with a drawn out creak, the Palvanus digging in his heels to pull it open all the way. Despite himself, Desolas craned his neck around the Faithful's struggling body, desperate to see whether the hammering of his heart would be immediately vindicated or not. To a mix of both relief and disappointment, he saw only a spiral stone corridor leading downwards, lit by candles. The Palvanus bade Desolas follow, and he did, feet feeling lighter than they had done a few seconds before. Then came the drawn-out creak again, and Desolas turned to see the heavy door close of its own accord, slamming shut with a decisive thunk. Probably automated. Probably. He tried not to dwell on the lack of any visible electronics attached to those ancient hinges.
The air grew cold and musty, Desolas's lung burning slightly with each intake of breath. The shadows shifted and danced along the walls, the candles flickering at their passing. No longer could Desolas hear the sound of bells. Now there was only the sound of breath, and the stifled pounding of boots on stone.
After about fifteen seconds of tense descent, Desolas offered a small sigh of relief at the first door. The Palvanus pushed it open with greater ease than the entrance, again offering only a single backwards warning glance to ensure the General's obedience. Desolas followed, the unease growing in his gizzard. Again, the door shut behind them without any indication as to how.
The temperature became frigid as a tomb, Desolas's breath now coming out in hazy clouds. Before them both lay a sizable room, held up by four iridescent black pillars equidistant from its center, which glittered with a thin layer of sand. Lit torches adorned bulging black walls; the stone's surface no longer remained smooth, instead having apparently been roughly carved from the unwilling earth itself. Nevertheless, another wooden door found purchase across the room from them, its outer layer coated in ebony paint, a chained golden sun painted upon it. And at the center of it all, a bleeding turian stood tied to a stiff wooden post, his back open with bleeding blue cuts. Behind him, a Palvanus carried an uncoiled barbed whip, his attire and armament alike flecked with cobalt-colored blood.
"Abott Tibor," called out Desolas's Palvanus, but the other Faithful only held up a bloody finger.
"Do not weep," instructed the other Palvanus, flicking his whip and readying a muscled shoulder. The entangled turian drew in a deep, shaking breath. "Sometimes to cleanse the mind, we must cleanse the body. First with steel, and then with soap. You have done well. The final blow comes upon you. Do not lose consciousness."
With surprising speed and abandon, Abott Tibor let loose a final lash that made Desolas wince. The air cracked with vicious thunder, and the turian grunted as his back rent open at the final blow. His body tensed and then slackened, and for a moment his head turned to Desolas, as if asking for approval. That is not my place, Initiate. Desolas still looked away in case he inadvertently smiled. Tibor dropped his whip to the sand and came close to the turian, grabbing him by the chin and turning his face, inspecting him closely.
"Palvanus, see that his wounds are cared for." Tibor did not turn to Desolas's guiding Palvanus, his eyes remaining fixed upon the turian he had just torn open. "This one shows promise, and I would not see that promise squandered due to an errant infection. Leave the General to me."
The Palvanus bowed and made haste to undo the Initiate's bindings. Tibor arced an imperious finger at Desolas and strode to the blackened door. This one did not open without so much as a squeak.
With one final look at the bloodied post, Desolas left his brother behind, a fierce pride burning in his heart, a blazing lighthouse shining through the darkness of his fear. Well done, Saren. May your wounds heal well. Desolas wondered how many of the Palvanus bore similar scars on their backs under their robes and their armor. No. The Fourth Commandment. Fret not on matters outside your dominion … I still have faith.
The door shut behind them with a snap, revealing a cramped chamber consisting of little more than a single guttering black candle, and yet another statue of the First Ecclesiarch, sword scraping against the cavernous ceiling. A small smoothed patch of marble stretched over the floor before Telvus Fedorian.
"Sit." Tibor did not have to point where. Desolas sat before the Ecclesiarch with his head bowed, his bottom and back already aching from the hardness of the stone, at the inability to gain any relief due to its smoothness. Desolas waited for Tibor to continue.
"Do not worry for your brother. He has endured his trials without complaint or weakness." This time Desolas did permit himself a small smile, hidden as it was with his head bowed. "We do not strengthen ourselves in routine and comfort, but through adversity and faith. If we cannot withstand the sight and feel of our flesh tearing, then how can we hope to repel the same assault on our minds?" Lengthy fingers gripped Desolas's chin and lifted it upward. He stared into the mask of the Faithful, the fringe adorned with the image of a chained sun. "That is why you have come, is it not? An assault upon the mind?"
"I saw his face," replied Desolas, voice a hair above a whisper, heart skipping a beat at the mere admission. The candle flickered and smoked. "The Outsider."
"In the past, some misguided fools have told us this in the hopes of gaining the public's attention." Tibor's voice became as chill as the air that surrounded them. "A foolish notion. A pitiful notion. Others have conducted sordid rituals in armored basements, ended up mistaking jumping shadows for his attention and approval." Tibor sniffed, Desolas held his breath. "But you … you are a general, famous in his own right." Tibor brought his face close, and Desolas caught a whiff of warm and rancid breath.
"Tell me what you have seen."
"He came in a dream," replied Desolas, trying to follow his brother's example and contain the pain in his back and joints. "Pale of face, black of eyes, the strange coating of fur upon the head. He called us … tedious and predictable."
"As he is wont to do since the Rebellions." Tibor released his grip upon Desolas and took a step back, cocking his masked head. "So it is written. Did he make you an offer?"
"Yes." Desolas looked down at his own shaking hands. "He … he told me that soon the galaxy would change forever, and that the Ecclesiarchy would be the heralds of a doomed age. I had the makings of greatness within me, he said, several paths laid before me that could avert the coming end … his end…"
"The Outsider has no end," replied Tibor, voice barbed and steely. But he paused again, waited for Desolas to continue.
"I refused him and recited the Five Commandments." Desolas breathed heavily, entire body slowly becoming afflicted by little tremors. "I did not want what he offered, and I would not hear his lies. I turned a deaf ear to his words, to the howl of the Void wind, to the snatches of whale song I caught on that infernal breeze." Desolas looked up again. "The ground gave way, and I fell into blackness."
"Is that when you woke?" Tibor's mask glinted in the dim candlelight.
"He stood on a jutting edge of dull rock and caught me by the wrist." Desolas rubbed his right wrist, remembering the strength of those pale fingers. "He said … he said that this more or less reflected the galaxy. He could pull me to safety and avert the roiling dark below, but only if I permitted him to. He said he offered me rescue."
"But you are no wanton asari, so swayed by such promises." Tibor's head inched forward, scanning every minute detail upon Desolas's face. Saren's blue blood ran down his garb in little azure rivulets, making Desolas wince despite himself.
"I refused him again, and plunged into blackness." Desolas shivered. "I … awoke to the sound of a great horn, a deep resounding bellow. It wormed its way into my gizzard, shook my ailing spirit. But I was free. The horn faded, to be replaced by the clear tolling of bells. The bells above."
Desolas rose, trying to ignore the cracks and pops that heralded the straightening of his figure. He kept his eyes on the Abbot, who watched his every motion as if it were of the utmost importance and interest.
"Many have withstood the trials of the flesh, as you have witnessed," murmured Tibor, sharp eyes almost glowing from beneath his dull gray mask. "Few can withstand lengthy trials of the mind. We would not expect one outside the Palvanus to understand the … significance … of seeing his face within one of your dreams. He might watch us all, but rarely does he deign to extend his foul presence as fully as he did to you." Tibor took a step closer. "To resist … it goes beyond doing one's duty. It exemplifies it, exalts it. You did well coming here."
"Thank you." The invisible tight knots and chains around Desolas's chest loosened, and the air no longer felt nearly as cold upon his lung.
"I will notify the Prognosticators of your encounter." Tibor pulled an omni-scroll from his wrist, recorded a quick message with a few taps of an extended finger. "Perhaps it was foretold. The words of their order have become portentous of late, great cosmological disturbances..." His gaze flicked to Desolas. "You would do well not to relay that to anyone else."
"I trust in the Ecclesiarchy's Faithful."
"Go now. I will bring word to you if any action on our part might be required." The Palvanus flicked his omni-scroll back under his sleeve. "As it stands … impressive. Most impressive. Do not lose sight of the vanquished sun, General. Do not forget the blood that forged its chains."
"Many more suns remain." Desolas crossed his arms across his chest and bowed. Abbot Tibor beckoned him follow, and they ascended the steps together in silence, occasional drops of blue falling from Tibor on to the stones. Desolas did his best not to tread on any of it. He breathed easier as Tibor opened the heavy door and light flooded the passage. They stepped into the foyer, the high chant of the chorus's blessed mathematics resonating from the nave above.
"We will be in touch, General, if only to congratulate you again on resisting the greatest temptation any one man can experience." Abbot Tibor crossed his own armed and inclined his head. "The Ecclesiarch himself may wish to have words with you. This is the first sighting in living memory to a turian. In a sense, it is disappointing he would even make the attempt. In another sense, it is reassuring that he regards us as predictable in our refusal." The Palvanus's mask seemed to grin at Desolas as he said this, but the gray metal in truth remained unmoving. "You have our thanks. I am sure you have duties to return to."
And so Desolas did. With a lingering glance upwards at the heavy sealed doors atop the stairways above, Desolas exited the church intact of both mind and body, his very being feeling lighter at the confession and congratulation. He stood before the city now, in all its reassuring order. Desolas took in the familiar square shapes of the buildings and rigid the rigid street layouts that sliced between them. Smokestacks rose from the distant buildings like the jutting ribs of a slain whale, belching the fumes of progress. Air carriages both automated and manned streamed between the towering structures in an unending tide of motion, softly shining under the soft sun. Behind Desolas the bells sang clearly, their splendid chimes underscored and enhanced by the chorus that accompanied them.
Naturally, the moment did not last. A distant roar from above overshadowed the city's muffled scurrying. Desolas looked up with a frown, unable to recall any scheduled landings until at least half an hour hence. The roar grew louder, and Desolas hurried forward, staring up at the gray sun-streaked skies above.
A whaling vessel limped through the heavens, its aft trailing thick smoke, and judging by the lack of armament poking from its dark blue hull, its cannons and harpoons looked all but spent. Unusual. And worrying.
The ship roared overhead with a clap of thunder, making the ground quake. Desolas watched it hurtle over the visible skyline towards the starport, and quickly brought his wrist up to check in with the local fire and air crews.
"It's locked in, General," came the reply of the crew chief manning the main tower. "It might look like it'll crash, but the velocity's fine. The ship will need extensive repairs however … and they want to see you."
"Is it the batarians again?" asked Desolas, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "Their truculence has only grown since their expulsion from the Council. Perhaps this will finally allow us to secure more stringent whaling rights on our own borders."
The crew chief did not respond for a moment, so Desolas took the time to call an automated carriage to take him to the starport. He descended the stone steps, the previous fear washing away in favor of annoyance at more batarian disruption, particularly when he saw people stopping and pointing on the streets, their duties and schedules temporarily forgotten in favor of the sound and fury.
"No, it's not the batarians, General," said the crew chief, uncertainty nibbling at his tone and making Desolas cock his head in mild confusion. "They're sending for the chief chirurgeon, too. It's something new."
In the space of about two hours, Desolas had visited two of the facilities no ordinary turian would want to visit even once in their lifetime if possible: the lower levels of the Church for cleansing, and now the alien chirurgeon's work study. The material of the waiting area was at least charming enough, polished wood still gleaming with a fresh coat of resin, and the couches were as sumptuous as any chirurgeon's office could claim, black leather over soft feathers … but reputation preceded the good doctor, even if Desolas did not know her personally. Desolas sat with legs crossed, trying to dismiss his own preconceptions as the hearsay they were.
Alien children's toys, baubles and the like for asari and salarians, sat in neat piles next to curious interlocking wire structures on which hung fat colored beads, doubtless for moving around and marveling at the effects of gravity. Several awards from far-off alien universities stuck lifeless to the walls, each stamped with curious markings unpleasing to Desolas's eye. And the smell … sterile and polished, like all offices, but even stronger than any Desolas had visited. The General did not know whether to feel relieved or anxious upon the opening of the chirurgeon's door.
"General," said Dr. Secunda, her work outfit spattered with red blood, much like an asari's. "The subject is recovered and … reassembled, for lack of a better term. If you would come with me."
"Yes," replied Desolas, immediately wishing he had said something more professional and less blunt. He rose and followed the doctor into the hall beyond, nostrils flaring. It took only a short walk to reach the surgery room.
The room looked blue and cold, lit only by a single lamp hanging above from a chain. Curious organs and pieces of preserved flesh rotated in bubbling containers atop rows of shelves, each carefully labeled. Jars of blood too, in all colors, sat peacefully next to boxes of vicious looking syringes of various lengths, making Desolas flex his fingers even if there was next to no likelihood they would be used on him.
And of course, in the center stood a thick metal table, covered in white cloth. The shape underneath looked humanoid, but Desolas could determine little else.
"The Dutiful Hands pulled in alongside a whale and began harvesting without difficulty," said Dr. Secunda, wringing her own hands slightly. "The process went as planned, the beast mortally wounded in the opening ten minutes … but two ships appeared, bearing unfamiliar markings. After a brief attempt to hail the Dutiful Hands, they attacked concurrently and attempted to take the whale for themselves."
"They attempted to hail?" asked Desolas, wondering what pirates would bother to do that. Not batarians then. Terminus trash? What scum would dare attack a turian whaling vessel?
"Neither side could understand the other. The attackers attempted a boarding action. The merchant marines cut the boarders to pieces." Secunda gestured to the sheet. "They had to beat a retreat, lest their shield be overwhelmed by the attackers' cannons; it seems the two vessels may have been military, or equivalent. But, well…" Secunda stepped forward and pulled the sheet off of the corpse.
Desolas took one look at what lay under it and felt his insides churn with fear, shock, and above all, familiarity. Pale white flesh, severed at the right arm which still dripped a thick red-black fluid, a head coated with black fur at the crown and jaw … this beast was heavier set than the apparition that had plagued Desolas, it shoulders broader and its limbs corded with thick muscle, but there was no denying what he saw.
"Is this a joke?" asked Desolas, unable to wrench his fevered gaze from this wretched being, warding himself with shaking hands. "This … this must be some kind of batarian prank. Or salarian, perhaps. There is … absolutely no possibility-"
"The Dutiful Hands brought no less than twenty-three "pranks" with them," replied Secunda, a little sharper than Desolas liked. "This is real. I felt the organs, ran a scan. This is no modified drell, or batarian, or asari. As far as I can tell it is male, levo-amino based, non-biotic. And it does not possess his mark, either."
"It wouldn't need his mark, would it?" snapped Desolas, baring his teeth. "It wears his same face, carries the same features! What color are its eyes?" Desolas dared not approach. The doctor stepped up to the hastily reassembled body and pulled open a fleshy flap that covered the creature's right eye.
"Brown, it would seem." Secunda let the flap slide back and straightened, turning to Desolas with a heavy frown. "Not black." She paused, and then fumbled for something in her garb, dropping it with a heavy thud against the slab. "And we found this."
Desolas warded himself. It sung slightly, and the bone shone even in the slight dim. Desolas thought he could hear the whispers again, the snatches of whale song-"
"Take it and see that it is destroyed," grunted Desolas, looking away as he fell back and leaned against a wall, trying not to look to either the bone charm before him, or to his right where another shelf lined with bubbling brown organs hung against the wall. "Secunda – we must send these to the homeworld at once. The Ecclesiarch and the Primach must be notified, the local fleets readied-" he stopped, realizing there was no reason to tell the chirurgeon any of this. To her credit, she only nodded and returned to looking at the body. "This is it. Long have we wondered if the race that plagued us with him still walked amongst these stars … and here they are. Hostile and heretical."
"Their biology is not too dissimilar from an asari's," noted Secunda without emotion, tracing the jaw of the creature. "Second place would be a batarian. The same pair of lungs in case of both, sexual dimorphism resulting in larger males like a batarians'…"
"Make ready all bodies," commanded Desolas, shutting his eyes and briefly running through all five commandments. "As presentable and intact as you can. I will make the other necessary preparations." Desolas nodded to himself, slowly at first, and then progressively faster. And we are to be the heralds of doom? I think not. The herald lies before me, broken apart at the hands of our merchant marines. "The Ecclesiarch. And the Primarch." And the fleets. Ready the fleets.
Ships gathered overhead, the shuttles flitting back and forth as the marine complements boarded their respective vessels and readied their bodies and minds for what was to come. Loaded cannons and heavy music boxes sat fixed and prepped for the onslaught that awaited the Ecclesiarchy. In a scant two weeks, the orderly city Desolas had known and cherished became a swarm of martial activity, resembling more of a shoal of fish at the approach of some dark predator than an ordered military machine. Despite his best, the tales of the whalers had slipped from some fool's mouth. All knew what they had found. But their presumed capabilities only swelled with each passing day.
"I heard that the Outsider granted them all the ability to swallow flame and belch it forth at will," one sailor would swear up and down. "They have mastery over all fire, as he wishes it."
"They can summons swarms of these bugs with a wave of their arms," another would proclaim, waving her own in an exaggerated display. "They'll go right through your shields, slip through the cracks in the armor, and nibble at your guts until you bleed from the eyes!"
"They don't even need weapons," one shaking marine would state half in his cups. "They rip your blade out of your hands and bite through your armor with these great pointed teeth. Then they snap the blade with one hand while the other reaches for your neck, so they can drain your blood for sustenance."
And so on, and so on, the tales went. Desolas did his best to remind everyone he saw that the local merchant marines aboard an aged and damaged whaling vessel had not only repulsed these creatures, but rather decisively at that, but he was one man amidst a sea of rumor and fear. Even the tolling of the clear bells could not bring order and reassurance. The city bubbled with doubt and dread.
For Desolas however, things took on a certain shape. It was difficult to worry about his dream and the otherworldly appearance of the corpses when the logistics of what promised to be at the least a massive patrol action reared its ugly head, leaving him with little enough time to feel anything but impatience.
Even as Desolas stood beneath the fleet-drenched skies, directing the last of the munitions crates aboard the straggling corvettes, he felt only irritation as the docking crew fumbled the crates aboard, each halting moment carrying the munitions between them a fresh source of annoyance. It was only when his omnitool finally registered a low tone indicating a high priority message that the emotion came snapping back, and Desolas looked to his wrist with slightly narrowed eyes. He opened the message, hastily punching in the security code.
Both the Ecclesiarch and Primarch had sent their own respective orders. Desolas's free hand clenched into a mighty fist as he read them.
Ecclesiarch Primus: Take a small force. Locate their base of operations. Reflect on the Third Commandment.
Primarch Fedorian: I have alerted the Union and Republics. They are deliberating as we speak. Obey the Ecclesiarch, but do not strike with your full strength. The future is uncertain, and the corpses bear no taint of the Outsider outside that single bone charm. Tread lightly.
Desolas nodded, wondering if the Ecclesiarch knew what the Primarch's message and intentions were. It did not matter. Desolas stared up at the gathered fleet above and breathed a heavy sigh.
"Man the stations!" he bellowed, and the cry echoed across the city, carried from sailor to sailor with astonishing speed and force. "The Ecclesiarch has spoken! The sun lies vanquished and broken, yet many others fill the night sky!" And today, we must try to chain a very important sun…
Desolas thought back to his dream and shivered. Third Commandment: Outstretched Talons. Repulse the heretic wherever they might be found…
The fear slowly gave way to duty.
"Rough streets," commented David, jerking a thumb in the direction of the nearest alley. Two thugs leered at them from the dim squalor within, their eyes practically flashing red as rats when Jack glanced at them, hand held before his hound to make clear that they were no threat … yet. "This one may not come from the most honest of backgrounds."
"All metal starts untamed and unrefined, buried within the cold earth," replied Jack, lip curling under his mask as the two thugs retreated further back and out of sight. Valor offered a low warning growl but heeded his master's instruction. "It is only through application of fire and hammer that it becomes something of worth and use. Whitecliff will determine the lad's true value, as it did each of us."
David nodded but kept his eyes fixed on the road before them. Cars halted at their crossing of the street, and people averted their gaze as the overseers visited an otherwise untouched part of the Shanxi colony proper. Discarded fish wrappers and empty bottles of whiskey lined the sidewalk, practically forming an over layer to the pavement in places. One dirty man lay unmoving on a bed of newspapers, and Valor offered another warning growl as they passed him by.
"Easy girl. He is only the Watch's concern." Jack sighed, wishing his mask did more to blot out the stench of poverty and misery the wind carried, an aroma more pungent than even the sovereign sea that lay glistening not half a mile away. Would that we had the manpower to affect a cleanup ourselves. Wherever the rats and filth gather, shrines to the Outsider spring up like mushrooms after a rain…
"This one." David sniffed, stopping and pointing at a yellow painted door. "See the gang signs? Truly the bird entrails must have been a sight to behold, to find such raw potential buried under such a heap of rubbish." He turned to Jack, arms folded. "Do you want to take this? I am told you have a way with children."
"Hardly. I simply do not resort to beatings and screaming scripture at them to force compliance." Jack shrugged and stepped up the three concrete steps, almost slipping on some brown liquid at the top. David snorted. "It is an ill thing to laugh at another's misfortune, brother."
"We are permitted precious few amusements outside the Fugue Feast. Allow me that one." David waved Jack off and turned, keeping a close eye on the streets. Valor's rear claws clacked against the steps as he followed his handler to the door. "Be quick about it. The faster we return to the abbey, the faster we can ship the boy off and enjoy a warm meal." Callous. But this is not a duty that rewards compassion.
Jack rapped the door swiftly three times, each knock with greater force than the last. Almost immediately he heard someone shuffling to the door while someone else came pounding down a flight of stairs. A man yelled, and a woman screamed something back. With a sudden jerk, the door came open two inches, held forcefully in place by a chain. A thick woman with black curly hair falling about her neck like moss over a storm drain stared resentfully at Jack through the ajar door. Jack instinctively raised a hand before Valor, whose teeth had already begun to show.
"Bloody overseers," she hissed, drawing back. "Danny! Dan! It's the bloody overseers. About time, too." The door shut and the sound of scrabbling followed, the chain removed so as to allow entry. When the door reopened, the woman now stood next to a man of equal thickness and blotchy complexion, his eyes bloodshot and narrow. A heavy cleaver stuck through his belt on the left side, a bottle of unknown contents stuck through the other. It does not take a Natural Philosopher to guess what gang you belong to, brother.
"The hound stays out," grunted the man, pointing a hand thick with cheap yellow rings at Valor. Valor offered another low growl.
"She tends to fly into a rage if I am not nearby to calm her," replied Jack politely, turning slightly so as to make his filled scabbard be more visible. "I'm afraid it would be best if she accompanied me. I assure you, she is quite well trained."
"Fine," spat the man, apparently expecting the rebuff. He parted to the side and pointed to the squalor inside his house. "Get in, then. Gotta make this quick."
Jack crossed the threshold with a wrinkled nose under his mask, trying to ignore the scent of rat droppings and alcohol as he entered the house. The hound followed faithfully behind, undeterred neither by the suspicious glares of the inhabitants, nor the putrid odors within. Jack passed by the rubbish-strewn staircase and entered a small kitchen. A small table covered nearly completely in whiskey bottles sat in the center of the filthy room, three chairs scattered about it. Nearly all of the drawers and cupboards lay open, their contents practically spilling out of them in various states of decay.
The two parents followed Jack inside, gesturing at the only chair with a missing leg, the man taking a bite out of a brownish Morley Apple as he sat. The woman busied herself at a suspect looking coffee machine. Jack waited briefly for an offering that did not seem to be forthcoming. Ah, well. Could only have refused it anyway.
"The boy," said Jack finally, as the man only took another bite of the apple and eyed his hound with hostility. "Is he packed? Is he ready?"
"How the bleedin' hell are we supposed to know if he's ready?" asked the man, taking one final bite out of the apple and then leaving it on the table. "He's packed his things, all four of 'em. But I don't know what Void-forsaken nonsense you choffers get up to when it's time to snatch up all the kids. All I saw was the coin." He leered at him. "That's still comin', right?"
"Cash transfer will occur at the end of this transaction," said Jack, lip curling now as much from distaste at this man's behavior as the smell. Would that it were the old days. They would have begged for the honor of having their son chosen, and the Abbey would not owe them a coin. "You will be well compensated."
"And the boy?" the man asked, leaning forward. "He'll … he'll be all right? You don't torture yourselves into becomin' real religious, right?"
Jack cocked his head at this. The man's tone remained brusque, but he could see pleading in his piggy blue eyes.
"He will be well fed and watered, unless duty demands otherwise," replied Jack, hand folded neatly beneath the table, his right just ever so slightly tilted towards the hilt of his blade. "We do not select the unexceptional, sir. To become an overseer is a struggle, but a righteous one. He will have a far better chance at serving the empire under the Abbey then he would with the Bottle Street Boys."
Jack expected a reprimand at that remark, only for the man to nod, his lip suddenly wobbling.
"Right. Right. Lemme just … lemme just fetch him from upstairs. You can meet us at the door." He stood and turned to his wife, who now poured steaming black coffee into two shiny red thermoses. "Eh … you want to fetch him with me, or…?"
"At the door," replied his wife, no longer looking nearly as hostile. The husband nodded and shambled in the direction of the stairs, his boots kicking up dust with each heavy footfall. Jack made for the door, only to be stopped by the wife, a thermos in each hand.
"One for the both of you," she said firmly, pressing the hot containers into Jack's gloved fingers. Jack opened his mouth to refuse them, only to nod, and clip them to his belt. Two for the boy, you mean. We are forbidden caffeine.
Valor loped behind them, ears pricked up at some unheard sound. At a small whistle and a pointed finger, she waited outside, sitting on her haunches and occasionally glancing upward. Likely a whaler vessel entering the atmosphere. We're due for one or two. Jack kept his own attention locked at the top of the stairs.
The boy lacked the same thickness as his parents, but doubtless a lifetime running with lowlifes and from the Watch would have afforded him their physique eventually. He was a small lad for his eight years, the sack tied to his back almost looking too big for him, even pitifully small as it was. Jack thought he could see a toy sword poking out of a corner, doubtless attached to some figurine. Ah, my child. It will be the first thing to go when you reach Whitecliff, and it will be for the best.
The boy did possess the same reddened cheeks and black hair of his parents, but none of the same impudence they had displayed at their first meeting. He instead stared with surprise at the hound at the door, as if such a creature's presence at his home was unthinkable.
"Alright, boy," said the father as he reached the landing, making the lad turn and face his much larger father. "You're gonna be off to a nice place, where they'll teach you how to be real religious. Don't you screw it up, or you'll get a right clip 'round the ear from your ol' da. Right?"
"Yes, da," said the boy, a little scared and confused. After a moment's pause, the father reached down and pulled his son in for a tight hug. "Um, when do you get to visit?"
"You can ask the Overseers about it," said the man gruffly, pulling away from his son and suddenly finding intense interest in the crooked portrait nailed to the wall next to him. "But don't you start cryin' about this and that. It's … it's not what men do."
"Good luck," said the woman, who did not bother to contain the own tears welling at her cheeks. Jack sighed and rolled his eyes under his mask. This could have been over with five minutes ago … surely my own choosing did not warrant such fanfare? He could not in all honesty recall it. Only the sensation of being hungry. "Go up there and show 'em all what Shepards are made of. You don't have to be all high and mighty to be an overseer."
"Yes, ma," said the boy, not crying, just looking ashen and scared, clutching the sack with renewed urgency, his small fingers whitening. The woman patted him on the back and he turned at last to Jack, eyes wide.
"With me now, lad." Jack motioned for the door and gave a sharp whistle. Valor began her own descent down the steps, and David waited below with folded arms. "There is nothing to be frightened of." Reserve your fear for the Outsider.
The door shut with a hurried click behind them, a dry sob following them as they reemerged on to the streets David rightfully designated as "rough." David nodded at the boy, who did not notice. Shepard instead stared at the hound with wide eyes.
"We could take the railcar back," David suggested, tone suggesting that he would greatly prefer that option. "It's a long walk, and I trust these streets no more than I would a choppy sea."
"A long walk will be good for the legs, and will allow the boy some time to get his bearings." Jack whistled again, and Valor joined him at his side. The boy watched with a mix of wariness and awe. "Have you seen a hound before, boy?"
The boy shook his head, the sack rattling with a depressing hollowness. Jack stuck two gloved fingers in his mouth and whistled again, the hound sitting at his command.
"Give her a pet. She is quite well-trained."
The boy stepped forward, extending a shaking hand to Valor, who waited patiently. He ran three hesitant fingers behind her right ear, which twitched at the touch. The boy made no sound, instead giving the hound his rapt attention as he ran the fingers from fang to fur, feeling the transition between scaly flesh and soft hair.
"That will be enough," said Jack, and the boy withdrew his hand. "Up!" The hound rose again, and reassumed its place at Jack's side. "Come. We walk to the abbey."
"For whatever reason," grunted David, but Jack pretended not to hear him.
"Do you have a hound too?" the boy asked David, making Jack chuckle.
"Not at present," said David through gritted teeth. "We have yet to find a suitable match."
"David is an ill-tempered beast, and we have yet to find a wolfhound that matches his aggressiveness and ferocity," said Jack, smiling under his mask. "It will all happen in due time. He has only recently completed his own training as a Warfare Overseer."
"Is that a different kind of overseer?" asked the boy. He asks pertinent questions. Good.
"Warfare Overseers fulfill the more martial duties of the Abbey of the Everyman," replied Jack, wondering if he should slow his pace to allow the child's smaller legs some relief. But Shepard kept pace without issue. "We fight with blade and pistol, shield and mathematics. Wherever we tread, heretics tremble in fear, their foul magics failing them. We root out corruption and put it to the sword with a swiftness." Jack glanced back at the child, who stared at him in awe. "In time, you will understand the importance of this duty, as well as the difficulty as its execution."
"Everywhere you go, people carve bone charms," grunted David, not looking at the child. "People hold séances. They raise shrines. They try to attract the Outsider's attention. The lucky ones are met with disappointment. The unlucky ones are pointed out by the Oracular Sisters, and then we start beating down the doors."
"Should overseers come to call, know your strictures one and all," recited Jack. "Do you know the Seven Strictures, lad? How dutiful were your parents?" The lad did not respond, but Jack could not feel surprise at this. "Do not fear. You did not choose ignorance. You will be taught."
The sullen streets gave way to brighter avenues frequently trod by the feet of the Watch. The boy followed the Watch's movements with a fearfulness borne of experience, and one officer even looked back with some hint of contempt borne of recognition. But of course, the boy walked with two Warfare Overseers and a hound of the Abbey. His days of being molested by the Watch were over.
"They seem nervous." David pointed a gloved finger to a small congregation of watchmen assembled before an officer, who seemed to be drilling them relentlessly. Others hurried to and fro, hands fixed to the pistols slung across their chests. Just as Jack opened his mouth to respond, both of their omnitools pinged.
"Oh, what is this, now?" Jack held up a finger, making both boy and hound stop. He activated his omnitool, only to be surprised by the stamp at the top of the message. High importance. Oracular prophecy. Jack's eyebrows jumped beneath his mask.
A flock of birds will shadow Shanxi, dragging a chained sun behind them. A ray of blackness will shine on one of our own in the final hour. The storm must be weathered, a bright dawn following red slaughter.
"It is rare that this is shared to all of us," muttered Jack, glancing to David to make sure he heard. "And it is even more cryptic than I am used to. This is no announcement of blight or good season for crops. And it mentions Shanxi by name."
"Someone has to pay attention to this forsaken place." David shut off his omnitool. "A flock of birds dragging a chained sun? I have seen such images tattooed on the arms of drunken Pandyssian whalers. I cannot fathom what it could be beyond that. A whaler's fancy."
"Do not be so quick to dismiss our Sisters in the order, brother." Jack advanced a step to underscore his point. "They are well-versed in all matters, and pay far closer attention to the stars than we ever could. Such messages are not relayed to us without heavy deliberation and research. To dismiss it so falls short of heresy … but not short of folly."
"I will remember this," replied David stiffly, motioning with equally rigid arms. "Come. We are almost there."
No sooner had they taken but a few steps forward, the loudspeaker began to blare, making the boy to jump backward in shock. The hound's ears flattened against her head.
"Attention Shanxi citizens," began the loudspeaker, pausing uncharacteristically for a few moments. "There has been some kind of atmospheric disturbance. All citizens are advised to retreat to their homes and await further instruction. More information will be relayed as it becomes available."
"Now what?" Jack spread his arms wide. "Hmph. Best hurry to the Abbey, then."
The Watchmen's movements became even more hurried and frantic, barking orders to one another and motioning with a quickness borne of … fear. Jack quickened the pace and considered scooping the boy into his arms. The abbey loomed at the top of the hill. Perhaps we should have taken a railcar.
A high whistling filled the air. Jack looked up just in time to see something smash into Shanxi's city shield with incomparable force, shards of hot metal flying in all directions. Valor began barking furiously, teeth bared and ears lying flat against her elongated skull, aware that something was terribly wrong. The boy only stared in dumb shock, uncertain of what was going on.
"Attention Shanxi citizens," began the announcer, "we under attack by-"
Loud familiar droning drowned out his still measured words. Jack stared up in naked surprise as the roar of the purest ancient mathematics rained down from above, doubtlessly snuffing out any and all supernatural activity in the city, assuming there was any. What is this? No pirate would do this. No pirate would dare…
"The abbey," said Jack again, grabbing the boy around the middle and hoisting him up. "We must get to the abbey."
Several more muffled booms announced more useless volleys directed at the trans-eezo barrier, and Jack quickened the pace, Valor bounding alongside him with her hackles raised.
"Ships!" bellowed a Watchman, pointing her blade upward, voice barely audible over the droning. "Ships from above!"
Jack took one desperate look upward, the boy held tightly in his arms. Boxy shuttles rode in from beyond the ocean, dozens of them. The Watch gathered against all alleys and building corners, facing the oncoming onslaught. They intend to take this city conventionally, lower the shield from within. Jack quickened the pace. The droning became underscored with the hum of unfamiliar engines.
The other overseers gathered in the yard, arrayed in battle lines, pistols clinging tightly to their uniforms, hounds at many of their sides. Overseer Oleg walked up and down their lines, barking harsh instructions and insights to the assembled men, most of which likely went unheard as the coastline cannons began their barrage. Oleg turned to the three of them as they approached, looking Jack up and down.
"David, take the boy inside," said Oleg without a beat, and Jack handed the wide-eyed child to David without question. "Brother, with me. We will have need of you and Valor. The enemy approaches. The Outsider's servants, no doubt."
"Is this what our Sisters spoke of?" asked Jack, only to be brushed off. He assumed his own position in the line, one fist held against his chest, braced against the hardness of his pistol.
Shouts and swordplay rang upward from the streets below, and alarms began to bounce off the sides of buildings, creating a horrible racket. Still the mathematics droned on. How can they be servants if they use the mathematics? But Jack only shook his head. Errant mind, errant mind. They seek to destroy us, that much is clear. Whether they are allied to him does not matter.
"Two shuttles approach!" Oleg pointed, and indeed two dark silhouettes now descended directly from above. "One volley!"
"Firing!" The overseers drew their pistols from their harnesses and aimed carefully. They fired as one, an echoing crack that cast smoke all about them. The shuttle's hull flared and shook, minor dents appearing at the impacts. But it seemed they bore shields as well.
"Shields active! Sword to sword! Cover your brothers and do not let them be flanked!"
Jack ripped his blade free and clenched his free fist, activating his shield. The hum of energy around him felt most reassuring. The shuttles opened and the enemy fell from above, their profiles strange and fearsome. The first hit the ground with a rattling roar, a serrated hatchet clutched in one hand. Its face almost resembled a hound, elongated and strange.
Others fell to the ground, their armored boots absorbing the worst of the fall. They gestured and screamed, pounding the flats of their blades against their armored shoulders and charging, a chant going up as they ran.
"For the High Overseer!" shouted Jack, his own voice muffled by the various shouts of his brothers and the snarling of hounds. He met the enemy in a clash of faith on steel.
The first blow he dealt was hurriedly thrust aside, the beast's hatchet catching the blade and thrusting it away, the beast screaming at him from beneath its own gray metal mask. Jack pressed forward, the Seven Strictures flashing through his mind, unwilling to be intimidated. The beast fell back with a surprised snarl as Jack adjusted his footing and swung again twice, neatly turning to the side to dodge the creature's own fearsome swipe.
"I'll see the future in your entrails!" screamed Jack, driving forward and forcing the beast back. A blow snuck through, nicked the armor on the shoulder. The beast lashed out with a series of quick swipes, only for Jack to nimbly draw back. Then he smiled.
Valor collided with the beast full force, knocking it to the ground. With a gurgling growl she reached past the armor and ripped at the throat, the blood coming free in a spray of blue. Jack nodded and turned to his brother at his side, hard-pressed. Jack pulled his own pistol free and aimed clean.
"Clear the line!" His Brother took a hasty step backward. "Firing!"
The beast took the round square in the chest and folded, clutching where the round had struck in pain, clearly winded, a massive dent in its armor. The shield remained unbroken – but a blade could always sneak through. Jack's Brother stepped forward and planted the blade neatly through the beast's neck, the armor giving way to the pinpoint pressure of his sabre. He muttered a thanks to Jack and resumed his task.
Steel on steel. Screams met by screams. More beasts fell from the heavens, their shuttles gathering overhead like flocks of the prophesied birds. A grenade burst at the center of a small pack of them, scattering them like rats. Brother and hound fought on, their jaws and blades bloody. The mathematics above soon ceased. The alarms below did not.
Jack grinned underneath his now askew mask. Some of the beasts now bore similar blades, straight swords with thick handguards. One met his blade with a grunt, their weapons meeting with a shriek of tortured metal, locking and shaking against each other. Jack braced himself and pushed forward, body aching from the fighting. The beast pushed back, screaming at him, strange mandibles appearing from beneath its own helmet. After a moment of struggle, it surged forward. Jack stumbled, and a meaty fist met his face with a crunch.
Jack fell to the floor with a groan, blade in hand only barely. He raised it up instinctively as the world bucked and swam, the gray skies above twisting as he stared upwards with unfocused eyes. A pistol shot rang out, leaving a trail fading smoke in its wake above him. A gloved hand lifted Jack upward.
"Up the stairs," said David, pulling Jack back. Jack nodded and gave two sharp whistles, hoping Valor still survived amidst this chaos. Up the stairs, girl. A treat if you survive this.
The other Overseers fell back in waves, kneeling and firing their pistols to unsteady their enemy, drive them back. The wounded clutched the shoulders of the fresh, and too many lay stiff and still in the courtyard soil, their masks bloodied and trampled underfoot. Too many hounds lay atop their masters, their lives given in service of a higher cause they would never fully understand. Jack could not bear to look for long.
At the top level, Oleg ushered in the survivors through the thick doors, his mask missing, his brow cut and bloody. Jack saw no sign of Valor … or of any hound for that matter. She was a good girl. May she find rest in the Void.
"Can you still stand?" asked David as they crossed the threshold into the abbey proper, and Jack nodded, relinquishing his grip around David's shoulder. His feet faltered for a moment, and then the world ceased its spinning. With a grinding of gears, the great doors of the abbey swung shut. Then the room shook.
"They have landed cannons and great armored ones," said Oleg, standing before the doors with hands on his hips. "Confound these beasts, they will not have one of us alive!"
Jack breathed heavily and lifted his blade before his face, examining the fresh nicks and the blue blood that coated it. His other hand felt for his pistol, only to find it missing. Ah. A pity. Perhaps someone else has a spare?
"Grenades. Take grenades." Two of the Brothers deposited a great chest in the center of the hall. The still-standing Brothers converged upon it, clutching multiple grenades to their chests, hurriedly fastening them to their belts and harnesses. "They bring great armor. Grenades to break them."
The doors shook, and rubble fell from above. Jack looked up in time to see the cracks spreading across the John Clavering mural above.
"Cannons," grunted David. All overseers spread out, standing away from the door, some clutching pistols in one hand and sabres in the other. Jack took position behind the closest pillar to the door's right, one hand firmly gripping a grenade. The doors rocked again, and the beasts began their infernal chanting.
The building shook hard, and Jack gasped as he was jerked away from the pillar. He looked up just in time to see a section of roof fall from above, the gold paint cracked and dusted. It falls far from me. Yet Jack still covered his face as it fell with an almighty crash, spraying dust and rock everywhere. Jack felt a sharp pain at his right temple, and temporarily collapsed, a muffled scream beginning a jagged dance inside his ears. With a jerk his head hit the floor, and his vision blackened. Only for a moment though.
When he raised his head … something had changed.
No cannons sounded, no alarms blared. Now only the howl of wind could be heard, and of his brothers Jack saw no sign. The doors of the abbey stood askew, and a dark sky could be seen beyond it. Jack unsteadily rose to his feet and realized he had lost grip of his blade. It remained nowhere to be seen on the partially cracked ruin of the floor.
"David?" Jack peered around the pillars, looked up the stairs above. No one could be seen. "Oleg? …Valor?" Restrict the Wandering Gaze that looks hither and yonder … nevertheless, Jack took his first reluctant steps outside the abbey. Then all became clear.
Great chunks of purple rock hung in an endless void, the odd lamppost clinging to one or two. Dark clouds and whale song bore themselves upon an eldritch howling wind. Jack's heart beat faster. The ground he stood began in the abbey's rock, but it quickly gave way to the strange purple sheen of the Void's surface, defiling the august imagery with its sorcerous stink.
"Restrict the Wandering Gaze that looks hither andyonder for some flashing thing that easily catches a man's fancy in one moment, but brings calamity in the next," recited Jack, falling to his knees and shutting his eyes, knowing exactly where he was, and exactly who was coming. "For the eyes are never tired of seeing, nor are they quick to spot illusion…"
"You may as well skip to Errant Mind," said a strange voice, making Jack's skin crawl and his heart buck as a vessel besieged by storms. "That is the main concern here, is it not?"
Jack looked up. Ribbons of black formed and merged with the sound of an arrow being loosed, a man with abyssal eyes forming out of the nothing. His dress was archaic, and his feet did not touch the ground. He folded his arms and watched Jack with a smirk, and Jack could only stare back, the dull pulse of his veins coursing through his ears.
"You and the turians … so dull these days." The Outsider's smirk disappeared, replaced by annoyance. "Clinging to your old hatreds and traditions, as if they can truly hold back the waves of dissatisfaction and doubt that plague your nations. You, at least, have a chance to make a change."
"Restrict an Errant Mind before it becomes fractious and divided," gasped Jack, turning away from the Outsider and folding his head inward against his chest. "Can two enemies occupy the same body? No, for the first-"
"Silence, now. At the very least, you will listen for a time." Jack's voice caught short, as if the Outsider had stolen his speech from his body. The Stricture went on in Jack's mind, and he refused to look up. "Your persistence is admirable, but it will cost you the life of everyone inside your abbey. David, Oleg, yourself … Shepard."
Jack looked up, despite himself. The Strictures ran on, but he could not take his eyes of the floating figure.
"The fragment of rock from the falling ceiling knocked you unconscious. It will last only for the span of four seconds." The Outsider extended a hand. "Not much time, but time has little meaning here. When you wake, the doors will burst open. The turians will storm the inside with a mix of power armored units and their usual infantry. It will be a slaughter."
Jack opened his mouth to reply, but his voice remained stolen. He stared up at the Outsider, the hatred churning within him, mixing with genuine uncertainty.
"This is a tedious outcome; too many amusing timelines will be cut short." The Outsider arched an eyebrow. "Yours among them. Can you believe that, Overseer? You stand out amidst your faceless colleagues. I find you, well, not interesting at the moment … but you could be. You could be. The fact you have not thrown yourself off the edge into the Void is at least somewhat encouraging." The Outsider smiled, and Jack felt a chill run through his spine. He glanced at the edge, but did not move.
"I am here to offer you a choice," said the Outsider, and Jack reflexively flinched. I dreamed of this day … the day I could spurn him and win the favor of the High Overseer. The first overseer in generations to speak with him. "It is a simple one, and I will not lie to you about the immediate outcomes of each. Accept my mark. Repulse the attack with my blessing. Save everyone in the church. You will be a pariah … and their savior."
"You would ask an overseer to accept your blessing … while he stands on abbey ground?" Jack's voice sounded hoarse now, his speech returning with a rattling gasp.
"The other outcome: you remain faithful. You remain foolish. The turians storm the abbey and slay everyone inside. Man. Woman. Soldier. Servant. Child." The Outsider shrugged. "You lack the strength to repel them, and the turians are swift in their retribution. Your resistance has enraged them, and they believe you my servants."
"You did this." Jack rose, the anger flaring. "You set these monsters upon us!"
"I did not." The Outsider remained unmoved. "I do not set peoples on one another. They are capable of that entirely of their own volition. The turians act out of mistaken hatred. It will pass. But first you must choose either survival or service. You cannot have both."
Jack glanced at the edge of the Void, at the sheer drop that waited. Whale song drifted across the emptiness, more haunting than anything Jack had borne witness to in the waking world.
The Seven Strictures … the Seven Strictures… The face of Shepard and his parents swam into view.
"Think of it this way," said the Outsider, still floating with an indifferent posture. "It would be a sacrifice: your honor for the lives of one hundred and seventy-six people. Including your own. I do not give my gift to those who do not want it. And I do not give it to those who cannot make a difference."
"The Abbey teaches…" breathed Jack, but he could only glance back at the ruined mockery of his abbey within the Void and wonder … wondered if anyone would know or care about his decision to remain pure. I would not die a martyr. I would just be another stiff corpse, brought low by these creatures. Valor … Valor would have died for nothing. Just another stiff corpse…
Life. A sweet thing. But an ephemeral thing, destined to be pulled back into the Void eventually. Most would do so clean of any of the Outsider's influence. Many others would be pulled back too soon. Like Shepard will. Like Valor did.
"We have all the time there is," said the Outsider, spreading his arms wide as Jack looked up. "What will it be?"
"You would let me work black magics." Jack clenched his fists, heard one of the knuckles crack. "You would have me serve you."
"No, I would not have you serve me," replied the Outsider, his tone growing incredibly bored. "You may do as you please. You may even chop off your hand once the turians are dead and loudly proclaim your hatred of me as your comrades look on, I don't care. The only choice I care about is this one. Accept?" The Outsider's smile disappeared. "Or decline."
Jack lifted his left hand and stared at the wrist. Yes. I can take the mark … on the left hand. Sever it. Watch the cleansed blood spill free … after I save everyone.
"I do not work your will," grunted Jack through gritted teeth. "I do this only to save the lives of my Brothers."
"As you will." The Outsider shrugged, and Jack shut his eyes as the back of his left hand burned. He opened his eyes just in time to see the wretched symbol glow through his clenched glove and then fade. It lies underneath, now. Jack breathed heavily and looked up at the Outsider.
"I cannot give you much. And I cannot even guarantee my gift will be enough to drive them back." The Outsider's lips grew thin. "But it will give you a chance. It's up to your skill now. Take your blade with one hand … take time with the other. Feel its ripples."
Jack gripped his left hand with a great tightness. The symbol beneath glowed hot, making Jack gasp at the sense of electric power coursing through his veins. He released his grip, the symbol fading, snatches of some ancient language mixing with the whale song. The world turned gray and monotone, and all slowed to the pace of a snail.
"See the distant rock?" The Outsider vanished, reappeared at a floating chunk of stone well beyond the reach of any man's legs. "Reach it."
Jack, feeling giddy now, clenched his fist yet again, envisioning his feet standing upon the stone, somehow knowing it was possible. The world stopped entirely as he stood there, all turning gray and dull. He released his hand, and stood beneath the floating Outsider.
"That is all I can give you, for now." The Outsider smiled. "And it should be more than enough."
Jack's vision blurred, his head jerking with the sudden consciousness. He felt strange, memories swimming in and out of his skull – a great invasion, steel on steel, a floating figure. None of it made any sense. He moaned and propped himself up on his elbows, his temple throbbing. He wiped the blood from his face and looked around. It is a battle. It must be. David called out his name – and the doors burst open in a shower of splinters.
Turians. He knew their name now, but his head throbbed, blocking all knowledge of the how and where. His blade clanked against the stone of the floor, clutched so tightly his knuckles hurt. His other hand … his other hand bore nothing, yet strength pulsed from it all the same. I … yes.
The turians stormed through the door, screaming in their raucous voices, bellowing in high-pitched triumph. The first drove a blade through the prone figure of an overseer without realizing the man was already dead. The others rushed forward, a tall and heavily armored figure bearing a massive blade striding in their wake … and Jack remembered. Jack knew.
Jack rose, left hand clenching. His gaze met the first turian, his blade pulled from the corpse with a thick new coating of red. Jack smiled, the Outsider's mark burning beneath his glove. He released his grip, and the wind changed.
Jack ran forward with a cry, all others walking as if through molasses. He drove his blade clean through the neck of the first turian, its eyes widening in surprise at the speed Jack moved at. He ripped it clean with a shower of sluggish blue droplets, the turian falling in comical slow motion. Jack directed his will behind the door and appeared there with a whisper, the wind roaring in his ears. The turians presented their vulnerable backs. Jack did not hesitate.
One fell, the blade driving between helmet and suit and finding the vulnerable neck. The gurgle he let out was nothing short of beautiful. Jack pulled his blade free and drove two deep cuts at the next, the first rending armor aside, the other leaving a deep azure gash that wept freely.
Time snapped back, and the turians stopped in confusion. Jack did not slow. The first blow parted head and body of the first turian to turn and double back in shock, a cobalt fountain left in the wake of his blade. The power armor turned and Jack envisioned himself behind it. The armor's large arm cannon sounded twice, scattering fire and stone where Jack had once stood … but Jack leapt and drove his blade deep into the back of the right arm joint. The armor's sword fell with a heavy clatter.
Overseers shouted behind him, their guns sounding and making the armor stagger, fall to a knee at the raw kinetic force bleeding through the shield. Jack lunged forward and found the weak spot under the chin, his sliver of sharp moonlight parting first a membrane of metal, then of flesh. The power armor buckled back and convulsed, thrashing in place.
Jack leapt nimbly over it, the adrenaline flowing freely, his blood roaring. Turians ran up the stairs, shouting with what might have been panic. Jack called on time to slow, and it obeyed … for what Jack sensed would be the last time for the moment.
Jack drove himself down the steps, a whirlwind of vengeful death and magic-infused madness. Limbs fell free in a flurry of blows, and Jack had to remind himself to not use his full strength, lest the shield likely trigger. Turians began to turn in slow motion, preparing for a hasty retreat down the stairs. His blade met their backs all the same.
Time snapped back, and Jack stood amidst a field of corpses. Turians backed away from him, pistols drawn, shouting instructions. Overseers charged from above, joining Jack on the field, sabres rattling. Jack breathed heavily, his left hand burning, his mind reeling at the strain and the implications of what he could now do. I … I saved them. I saved them all.
The turians fell back to the abbey gate, their numbers reduced to under half a dozen. Twice as many Warfare Overseers now gathered at the courtyard, weapons drawn, bellowing insults at the beasts as they screamed to one another. Jack laughed and stepped forward … only to feel a hard hand clamp on his shoulder.
"Heretic," said David simply, driving Jack down with a cry, a sabre held at Jack's throat. "Brothers! He commits heresy!"
No one paid David any mind for the moment, but Jack knew that would not last. The turians retreated beyond the gate, likely regrouping with a larger contingent of their brethren. They would have plenty of time to swiftly slay the heretic. And do I not deserve it? I accepted the mark and did my duty. They are saved.
The corpses of too many hounds and Brothers stared back at Jack, making that statement ring untrue. Atop the corpse of a turian … he could see the familiar coat of Valor, nuzzle a glowing blue. Ah. Died a true hound of the Abbey. Despite himself, the tears welled up under his mask.
"Brother Oleg!" David beckoned Oleg over, and the man stood over David, tall and severe, his head wound still bleeding freely. "Black magic."
Oleg nodded and kneeled before Jack. He removed his mask and stared into his eyes with a furrowed brow, dropping his mask with a small clatter.
"Black magic in service of the abbey," murmured Oleg, eyes narrowed, stroking his chin. "Black magic that saved our lives."
Shuttles flew back into the heavens, a strange turian voice booming from what might have been some distant loudspeaker.
"How long?" asked Oleg, voice quiet, staring intently, hungrily at Jack. "How long have you worn the mark?"
"I fell unconscious as the ceiling struck my temple." Jack kept his voice low but steady. "He told me I could save the abbey."
"And so you did." Oleg stood. "Release him, brother."
"Brother?" David protested but pulled the blade from Jack's neck. "Oleg?"
"Go," said Oleg, not looking at Jack, only standing and keeping his gaze fixed on David. "Take to the streets if you can, save others. Do not return."
"This is heresy." David took a heavy step forward, brought his face close to Oleg as Jack rose unsteadily, the distant rooftops beckoning. He … is right.
"This is justice," replied Oleg, folding his arms. "We could not have held them. I am willing to grant a head start at the very least." The other overseers now approached, blades drawn, the Seven Strictures muttered under their breath. He … is also right. "Go!"
Jack envisioned the distant rooftops. Soon after, he ran atop them, left hand burning, mask discarded, belonging to no one any longer.
Loudspeakers blared the same news over and over again across Shanxi. Partial victory, thanks to the strong arms and wills of the Watch and Overseers. Death counts for each district, the numbers far too high. And the same tired speech over and over again, haltingly translated, declaring a ceasefire courtesy of the A-sar-i Union. Jack kept his head down and his hood up through all of this, the only vestige of his past life being his blade.
The death carts hovered through the streets, bearing turian and human alike. Red and blue alike ran in the gutters, creating not the expected purple but instead a nauseating pale brown that made Jack sick to look at. He trod lightly through the streets, meeting no man or woman's eye as he walked to the Bottle District, where Shepard had been retrieved. His blood hummed as he approached the streets, an electric tingle that he knew only he could feel. A shrine. Close.
Jack's stomach growled as he walked down the corpse-strewn streets. No food for a heretic overseer, unless of course he chose to disobey the Third and Fifth Commandments. And I am not there, yet. He sniffed, the hunger turning to nausea.
The Watch had not yet seen fit to clean the district, for it truly mattered little in their great scheme of things. Did the Empress care if the slums were a little slow to be tidied? Did the nobility? Jack gritted his teeth at the scenes of carnage before him, children running between bodies still clutching heavy cleavers, prying the rings and other jewelry off the dead. Could have been the Shepard boy.
Jack stopped before a white house, seemingly untouched by the devastation that otherwise surrounded him. A brown painted door sat invitingly before him, and flowers of various stripes and colors adorned the windows. Of course. In the most unlikely of places. Jack shook his head. His blood hummed. He knew this house to be it.
Jack knocked on the door hard before loosening his left glove. After a few moments, the door opened a tad. Jack thrust his fist at the crack, revealing the mark.
"I know you have a shrine," said Jack. Take me there. Now."
The door slid open, and a man in a whaling uniform sans mask gestured for Jack to enter, his skin pale, his brown hair balding. Looks like a captain. The man's blade, secured beneath his belt, looked like no cheap piece of work. The door shut behind Jack with a snap.
"No questions," said Jack, wondering how it came to this. Easy. It came to this through a single sacrifice. How many lives did I save? "Take me there."
The man bowed and strode to a gleaming staircase. He pulled open a cupboard along its side, and then unlocked a hidden trapdoor below, buried under a black sheet. The smell of the Void wafted from beneath.
Descending into an armed stranger's basement … folly. But it did not matter. Nothing mattered. Jack had magic, and the fool heretic knew it. No lock could bar him. No blade could dissuade him. How can you stop a man who can stop time itself? It made Jack almost tremble to think of it. But … with the entirety of the Empire arrayed against you…
He had to make him take it back. That was a reasonable request. Jack had done his job, and now the Outsider would have no more use for him. Not really part of the arrangement, and Jack knew he could never return to the Abbey, but there was other work. Honest work. Honest work that would require two working hands.
Jack climbed down the metal rungs, his feet and hands pounding a rhythm with his heart. When he turned about, his breath caught. A shrine. Twisted metal and carved bone, combined into a strange beast of magic and art. A rune sat upon the sigil-coated surface of the shrine, and Jack felt its pull, the hunger that now resided within him. Restrict the Rampant Hunger or…
Jack stepped forward, gloved hand outstretched. The rune called, and he took it carefully in his hand, marveling at the way the light caught on the Outsider's mark adorning it. Time and space collapsed around him, replaced by howling purple Void. Jack stared up … and he appeared.
"That was commendably fast." The Outsider folded his arms. "You're quite resourceful, aren't you?"
"Take it back." Jack thrust his ungloved hand upwards, facing the mark at the Outsider. "I did what you wanted. I fought well. Take it back and let me live my life. Free of the Abbey, perhaps, but not its teachings. I want no part of you."
"Then take a knife to your hand." The Outsider shrugged. "As for the mark … no. It is yours now, to do as you will with. I have no need of it. And it will be a far more entertaining display to see what you do next, even if it as simple as leaving a bloody stump where the hand once was."
Jack's breathing sharpened, and he tried to move, only to find his feet rooted. The Void swirled and howled.
"No," he growled, staring up at that smirking boy, that devil. "You cannot … I only wanted to save them, and I did! I do not want this! Truly I do not!"
"Is this really worth bleating over?" The Outsider looked annoyed, but only mildly so. "Don't you realize – you can do anything, now. What can stop you? What can sway you? The Overseers already hunt through the streets, they already prepare Oleg for trial and execution. There is so much you can do with that mark." The Outsider frowned. "Or … you can throw it all away. But not with my help. I have given you the key to all doors, both physical and mental. It has been so long since a human has accepted my blessing … and you are the first overseer to ever do so."
"No." Jack shook his head. "No."
"Seek my shrines. Seek my runes. Unlock your fullest potential, become as illusive as the shadows you once hunted." The Outsider spread his arms wide. "Or don't. Become a cripple, or a simple thug. Die in some gutter, to be picked at by urchins. You are freer than any man in the Empire, perhaps the galaxy … and I will not take that from you." The Outsider folded his arms. "Goodbye, Jack."
"No, wait!" Jack reached out, but already the Outsider was gone, the purple fading. Soon he stood once more in the dusty basement, facing that hideous shrine, a rune clutched in his hand. A polite cough sounded behind him, and Jack closed his eyes, jaw clenched, hard tears erupting from his exhausted eyes.
"Did he speak to you?" The man asked, sounding excited, far more excited about heresy than anyone had any right to be. "What did he say?"
Jack took in one long breath. Oleg. Oleg freed me. He did me this … kindness. And I know where they will hold him. Jack stared at the mark on his hand, clenched his fist. It glowed with tremendous untapped power. Jack grinned a hard grin. I can do anything … might as well do some good.
"He said we have work to do."