The door slammed open and Banes strode in to the hotel room. With one arm he ripped off his mask, revealing a sweat-slicked face; with the other, he tossed Jack a small bundle of scabbards and pistols.
"Get all of 'em?" asked Jack, turning over the leather with his hands, counting each blade.
"Yeah," replied Banes, sitting down on the bed and wiping his brow. "Watch all over the shop, but they were more interested in grabbing evidence than checking out the armory. Had to put one of them to sleep." He grinned at Jack. "Saw them wheeling out a big old corpse. You really killed a krogan on your lonesome?"
"Yeah." Jack took his own blade and tossed Miranda hers. She swiped it out of the air and pulled it free, inspecting it for any new nicks. "Battlemaster, too. Swiped at me with his biotics a few times." The galaxy has lost something precious. Rare.
"Outsider's eyes, Jack," laughed Banes, leaning forward and clapping him on the shoulder. "Didn't think you had it in you." Jack looked up at Banes. The mirth drained from his eyes in an instant. Tired. Banes wiped his mouth and looked away for a second. "Do you, uh, do you reckon the Bitch Queen will take issue with what you did to Dantius?"
"I kept my word. She has to keep hers." Jack shrugged. He wasn't positive, but he had a good feeling about that at least. "It's just the way of things."
"What's our next move?" asked Miranda, sheathing her blade and tossing it to a nearby desk. "We got our next breadcrumb, right?"
Jack looked up at her, the weariness gradually going bone deep. Oh, Miranda. I always wondered whether this day would come. For a moment he considered saying nothing, or perhaps lying. But … she was there at the beginning. And if we both have our way, she'll be there at the end.
"Your father, Miranda." Miranda's lips instantly tightened, becoming a thin line of deliberate ambiguity. He saw something in her eyes, though. Something rare. Fear. "The Duke of Shanxi. His motives, at least, we can understand. His colony burned."
"What are you planning?" asked Miranda, her voice a peculiar monotone. Jack shrugged.
"Talk to him. Privately. And at length. Oleg should be able to get us a way in."
"I can get us a way in," replied Miranda, partially through gritted teeth. "I used to climb all over that palace – without transversals. I've been in his office, his bedroom, his private bloody Outsider Shrine. You'll need me."
Need? Perhaps. Jack gave her a lingering look. She glowered back at him.
"We'll talk it over with Oleg." Miranda did not look away as he said this. "Miranda – I cannot treat this like any other mission. If Oleg judges it best, I'll bring you in. I swear it."
Miranda grabbed her blade from the desk and made for the door. Despite closing it behind her as softly as Jack could imagine, it still somehow felt like a slam. Banes sighed and rolled on to his back, staring up at the ceiling above.
"You're not bringing her on that mission."
"Not if I can damn well help it." Jack tossed his blade aside and lay back, his joints aching from the day's ridiculous exertions. "Especially if what I've heard about the man's experiments in Natural Philosophy are true." And if they are … Outsider help me, I might put the blade in him myself.
Had things been different, Jack might have enjoyed a few days in Illium - to coalesce if nothing else. The Goddess changed things, damn her, and now he could not help but feel he was leaving this place with his tail between his legs. The alternative is a justicar. Focus on that. Jack felt under his tunic with his right hand for that old scar – just an inch from his heart. Should have studied human physiology a little better, ma'am. Not quite the same as an asari's.
"Outie, patch me in to Oleg." The omnitool flickered to life, a spinning sundial indicating progress. After a few seconds, Oleg's weathered and branded face appeared as a glowing yellow image.
"Jack. Still alive, I see." Oleg offered him a small smile. "All is well in Illium?"
"All is not well, but the job is done and justice is served." Jack could not help but share Oleg's little chuckle after saying this. "We've got our next target. It's uh, a blast from the past." Oleg raised a thin eyebrow but said nothing at this. "I'll provide more details when we get there."
"Right. Could you provide a specific time?" Oleg leaned in, waiting. Jack glanced up at the Nos Astra terminal's clock.
"Given time changes and the run over there? About five o'clock, Korlus standard. I expect a Dunwall dinner when I get there."
"Whiskey and cigars, of course." Oleg tapped his head in acknowledgement. "We'll be waiting with bated breath, Jack. Be well. We'll see you soon." Oleg's head winked out. Jack rose and stretched his sore limbs. They cracked as he reached his full extension, and when he tried to stand straight, his back still remained a little bent.
"You look like shit, boss," said Banes, grinning like the little shit-eater he was. He lounged back in his chair, shutting his eyes contentedly. "Last mission was barely a warm up."
"Says the man who just had to hold down an office," muttered Jack, thinking back to the three people he had killed. I hope they were choffers. Most krogan are. He glanced at the clock again. A few more minutes. He glanced at Miranda. She wasn't the most talkative when on the job, especially when with him, but this level of silence usually meant … trouble. Trying to talk her up wouldn't do anything, though. She'll speak when she's ready. Plenty of time to mull over how to tackle her father.
Jack left Miranda to her ruminations for the water fountain. Under his glove, the mark burned. Somewhere in the galaxy, Saren Arterius came a little closer, left hand drenched in his own blood. Jack grimaced as his left hand turned the dial, and the glowing water came up. He sucked it down eagerly.
"It's full of eezo," commented a passing asari, voice mild but still concerned.
Jack wiped his mouth and turned to the asari, who slowed, right hand gently reaching for her sword belt at the expression on Jack's face, likely more on instinct than anything.
"That won't be what kills me."
Jack never quite felt relief when looking down at the smog-choked skies of Korlus from orbit. It might have been his home, but part of him swore he could smell the choffing place even through the vacuum of space. It gets into everything. Clothes, hair, skin…
Still, he could at least feel satisfaction at making it home in one piece when so many others did not. Jack stretched contentedly in his seat, some of the past pains now replaced by only a faint tingling. Next to him, Miranda stirred from her sleep, blinking at the light through the window.
"Yeah." Jack stifled a yawn and looked over the top of his seat. Banes still slumbered, jaw agape, his head resting dangerously close to a salarian businessman who alternated between glancing at his newspaper and glaring at the human. Jack left them both to it.
The landing went as smoothly as any in Korlus, the vessel skidding to a halt as the docking clamps took hold and kept it in place. The three of them emerged, blinking, into the strained Korlus sunshine, noses immediately wrinkling at the smell.
"Sure we can't move our operations somewhere else, boss?" asked Banes, fumbling for the whaler's mask on his belt. "Ugh – never can get used to this reek."
Jack opened his mouth to reply, only to stop. A trio of batarians stood before a sky carriage, a plastic board proffered before them, a single word scribbled on to it in large angry letters. Hounds. Jack took a closer look at the face of the batarian holding the sign. Fuck.
Jack motioned for Banes and Miranda to follow behind, closely. Balak wiggled the sign in mock delight as they approached. His two comrade maintained stony expressions, the folded hooked spears of their people protruding over their backs.
"Jack! It is good to see you, my old friend!" Balak gave Jack a wide smile, exposing a row of needled teeth. He gestured to the sky carriage. "If you would…"
Jack gave Balak a searching expression. …fear? There was genuine friendliness, yes, he could see that. But … something was wrong. Jack looked back at his compatriots. Miranda pursed her lips, but gave a nod. Banes just kept a hand on his sword.
Jack returned the nod and took the passenger's seat. Balak breathed a sigh of relief and grunted some harsh command to his fellows, who took the very back of the carriage. Banes and Miranda took the middle seats, exchanging worried glances as they sat. Balak plunked himself in the driver's seat and started the motor. The carriage rose into the air with a smoothness Jack did not expect.
After they cleared the spaceport, Balak sighed and gave Jack a quick look.
"Sorry about all this. Needed to get clear of the eyes and ears." Balak licked his lips. "Jack, you've got a problem."
"I've got several, Balak. You'll have to specify."
"Your base. It's been compromised." Balak kept his voice even, but Jack's heart immediately began to hammer. "A team of Warfare Overseers landed on the planet yesterday. Just two hours ago, they made for your base."
"Oleg." Jack lifted his left arm for his omnitool, but Balak reached out, gripping his wrist hard.
"Don't be a fool, Jack, they'll just zero in on our location." Balak at least had the grace to sound apologetic. "I wasn't finished, either. You'll never guess who was leading them."
"High Overseer Boyle." Jack leaned back in his chair, teeth gritted. This day. We knew this day would come. "Ever since I-"
"Half right, Jack. I did say you would never guess." Balak gave another smile, this one vicious and strained. "Boyle is among the group, but he does not lead them. That role goes to another. One I believe you are familiar with. A certain Royal Protector."
"Samuel Murphy?" Banes's head shot forward, hitting the back of Jack's seat. "You've got to be fucking kidding."
Something plummeted in Jack's stomach. His insides chilled. Time seemed to slow as he shut his eyes, his breathing growing low and shallow. No. No, this can't be happening.
"If he's here, it's because the Empress sent him," said Miranda, her voice echoing and muffled, as if through water. "Jack – the Empress wants us. For the good of the Empire, she wants us-"
"I know what this means, damn it!" snapped Jack, head swiveling back towards Miranda. "I know what this means, and it doesn't need saying!" Jack glared at Balak. "How'd they find us?"
"I cannot say, Jack. I only know what we saw in the entrails: a Protector and a Hound, blades locked in a tower of swaying ships." Balak gave another thin-lipped smile. "I imagine your people are already captured or dead, my friend, and I cannot ask you to confront some of your most prominent countrymen-"
"Shut up." Balak's smile dropped from his face. Jack stared at his gloved hands, his mark burning, his fists clenched. How? How do I negotiate the duty that binds us to country and the ties that bind us to kin? He would have asked Oleg, for Oleg would know the answer, but…
"Boss?" asked Banes, voice tremulous. "Are we…?"
"We cannot abandon our brothers to their fates." Jack looked up, seeing his own faint reflection in the glass of the car window. He removed the sunglasses, staring straight into his own eyes, so changed from the years of being … special. "And we cannot harm those who are merely doing their own duty, for Empress and Abbey." Jack planted a heavy hand on Balak's shoulder.
"Balak, get us close. We'll take care of the rest." Balak nodded, sparing Jack only the smallest, most worried of glances. "And … thank you."
"Our fates are bound, Jack," replied Balak, turning the carriage right, towards their distant lair. "We do not require your gratitude. But you're welcome."
Once, the sight of the tower of three ships leaning on one another filled Jack with relief. Here was home and haven to Hounds, the only refuge in miles of blasted ruination. Now, his heart skipped a beat as he clambered the last hill of scrap overlooking their headquarters, Banes and Miranda panting behind him.
"No sentries," said Jack, eyes picking up immediately what they otherwise might have missed, had they not been warned. No Hound stood tall atop the Montovesto, keeping watch on the south and eastern approaches. The Lady Vengeance similarly showed no signs of life. Jack squinted his eyes, passing a finger in front of them. At this distance, in the bright Korlus daytime, he could only barely make out the glowing figures strutting inside the ship … as well as those lying prone or tied up beneath them.
"Boss?" asked Banes, sidling up to Jack and frowning at the three upright ships. "Boss, what do you see?"
"Just enough." Jack let the Void gaze fall away before turning to Miranda. "Miranda, make sure that no lives are taken unnecessarily. These are men of the Empire, same as us. Even as they bare steel on our number, you must spare them." He glanced back to Banes. "Understand?"
"I'm sure this is all just a big misunderstanding," replied Miranda. Jack caught the faintest whiff of sarcasm, but he could not be certain. Miranda crossed her left arm across her chest. "You intend to split up, sir?"
Jack grimaced. Somewhere in that heap is the Royal Protector. Perhaps he can be reasoned with. But Royal Protectors were not usually chosen with regards to their flexibility. If nothing else, his fate is my responsibility. My people cannot be held responsible. But … it must not come to that. It will not come to that.
"I intend to deal with the head of the serpent while you take the tail unawares." Jack looked back to the two Hounds, hands on the hilts of their blades. "Free the others. Spare the overseers. Do not avenge the fallen." I doubt they entered the tower with the intent of causing a massacre … but if they touched Oleg … Jack's hand clenched against the hilt of his sword. Lips tight, he nodded towards the tower. "Shall we?"
The two of them disappeared into smoke. Jack felt a pang of alarm as he surveilled the area one last time and could not see them, but the anxiety quickly turned to pride. Good. If I cannot see them, the overseers certainly will not. Jack vaulted over the edge and made his own approach, the ships looming dark as the sun disappeared behind them.
The hair on Jack's neck prickled as he came to the moat of sludge ringing the headquarters. I can hear it. Music, the kind of music that made one's teeth vibrate and their insides clutch together as if reacting to poison. The overseer's mathematics. Funny. It always made me feel sick, even when I was … before I became a Hound. Of course, admitting as much back then meant a long visit to a dungeon while such weakness was scourged from his body, so Jack had kept his mouth shut. Now he let himself openly gag as the faint noise made the air vibrate.
The sun fully gave way to shadow as Jack blinked towards the top of an outcropping of rock, placing a hand against its smooth surface and buckling his legs. Maintaining a low profile, he brushed a finger before his eyes. Now, at the foot of his former workplace, he could see everything that transpired.
Overseers patrolled the catwalks with blades drawn. Some maintained a steely vigil over the bound figures of Jack's Hounds, an arm pointed at them, letting their omnitool blare its infernal mathematics at his helpless people. Jack's fists tightened beneath the gloves.
Looking downward, four figures waited at the bottom of the headquarters – two standing, one sitting, and one flat against the floor. The one in the chair – Leng. Jack could feel it. As he watched, one of the two standing man – the one broader of shoulder, with an angry swagger to his step – strode forward and struck Leng across the face, making the chair rock. The Royal Protector. Almost certainly. The other two remained a mystery for the moment.
Jack turned his gaze upwards. An overseer leaned against the railing, staring out over the sea of gleaming garbage. He pushed off against the rail with a sigh before stretching, gloved hands raised high over his head. Then he turned away, boots clanking against the old steel of the ship. He did not hear the second set of footsteps from behind him.
Jack brought his arms around the overseer without hesitation, bringing his neck into a tight embrace and angling himself downward. The overseer lifted into the air, legs kicking, his throat gurgling as he tried to suck in air, as he fought to free himself from Jack's enhanced grip to no avail.
It took only a few moments. The overseer fell limp in Jack's arms, and Jack lowered the overseer to the floor with a sigh, stopping only to make sure the man's chest still rose and fell. Then he rose into a half-crouch, staring about himself. The catwalk ringed the three ships and was what Jack considered to be the "fourth floors," insofar as their ramshackle headquarters had some kind of order. Two Hounds writhed in pain around the corner, an overseer pointing an outstretched finger at them. The air distorted in Jack's Void vision. Mathematics.
Jack crept up to the corner and stared around it. The overseer remained stiff and unwavering, demonstrating no discomfort at his own proximity to the grinding tones of the music, each pulse like shards of glass scraping against both rough gravel and smooth granite at the same time. Jack's teeth clenched as he crept forward, stomach tying itself into knots. Without warning, his throat convulsed and he gagged once, twice, stopping several feet away from the overseer. Can't…
It was a waste, but Jack ran the real risk of his stomach's contents emptying out on to himself and possibly on to the overseer, something the man was likely to notice. Instead, he produced his own omnitool and pointed it at the man's back. It fired once.
The overseer paused the music with a grunt, his free hand reaching back to where the sleep dart quivered in his left shoulder. He turned in place, but his foot flew free of the floor as his mind's wishes and his body's capabilities parted in a huff. The overseer fell like a ragdoll tossed by a petulant child, his mask's cheek tapping against the floor once as he collapsed into a heap. The overseer sighed once, and then rapturous silence fell on Jack's ears.
"Master," gasped the closer of the two Hounds. Hackman. And Rogers. Jack pulled his blade free and crouched down. Without resistance, the metal parted the plastic that bound their wrists. Each man stood, rubbing where the bindings had cut into their arms.
"You'll live?" asked Jack, keeping his voice low. Rogers grunted and turned, letting a dark patch of red on his left shoulder catch the light.
"They poked me some, sir. It hasn't stopped bleeding."
"Saw others poked worse," muttered Hackman darkly, glancing down at the pit below. "I'm fine, master." He nudged the fallen Overseer with a dirty boot. "What do we plan to do with these fools?"
"They are servants of the Empire, the same as us," sat Jack sharply, making Hackman's head turn sharply to his, the lens of his whaler's mask glinting. "We have powers, they do not. We will spare each and every one of them."
"You didn't hear the High Overseer or the Royal Protector, did you, sir?" asked Rogers in a low voice. "They want your head. They're killing one of us for every hour they don't get it."
Hackman coughed into a glove. "It's been two hours. Sir."
A chill settled somewhere deep inside Jack. Already I am too late. Who did we lose? But he could not show how he felt. His bearing stiffened involuntarily, but he kept his gaze level with his two subordinates.
"We have powers. They do not. And I will not validate their reasons for attacking us." Jack gestured to the pit. "Banes and Miranda are freeing the others. Link up with them – you'll see the marks of their handiwork soon enough. And I trust that you will heed my instructions … and that you will not be caught so easily this time." He smiled grimly. "And I will take care of the Royal Protector."
Both Hounds saluted, albeit a little more stiffly than usual. A small trickle of reddish brown ran down the folds of Rogers's sleeve. Then they vanished, leaving Jack alone with the guilt and the doubt. He walked over carefully to the railing, then looked down far below.
Even with Void vision, he still could not make out the exact features of the people below. The broad man struck the Hound on the chair across the face yet again, but Jack could see little else. He focused his energies instead on a hanging hook, dangling just fifteen feet from the floor on a great dangling chain – a remnant of the days these ships could take to the skies.
Jack breathed, and the chain jingled once before he steadied it, keeping his arm and both legs locked out against the chain and hook respectively. His left hand he kept free. Now, he could see. Now, over the distant thrum of his own pulse, he could hear. He directed his gaze below, and winced when he heard the muffled thud of a fist's impact.
"You keep laughing boyo, but I guarantee I'm the one having more fun," growled the broad-shouldered figure. Closer now, Jack could see the salt and pepper sideburns of Samuel Murphy, Royal Protector, the dome of his bare head visible even in the dim lighting. His garb stood out sharply compared to the overseer's – where the others wore the gold and blue coats and snarling masks of their order, Murphy's face went bare, but his breast glinted with steel, the front plate emblazoned with the Empress's seal. When he walked, his boots clanked against the soil, and the air hummed with electricity. Armor and shielding. So he'll be slow but protected…
Then Murphy turned, and Jack realized with a pang that this would not be the case. A smidge of wiring ran into Murphy's right eye, which shone with its own luminescence. Half of his face bulged slightly, as if a metal plate had been shoved beneath the skull. Likely because they shoved a metal plate under the skull. Jack gritted his teeth. Would a sleep dart even work?
The rest of Murphy, on closer inspection, similarly alternated between bulging and angular, leaving Jack to wonder how much of the armor he wore was external. His right arm looked just a smidge longer than the left, and his upper body's carrot shape, now that Jack thought of it, looked a little improbable on a man pushing ninety. But Royal Protectors do not resign. They die, or their empresses do.
The figure on the chair spat a gob of blood on the already wet floor. He flashed a smile at Murphy that would have been dazzling, had half the teeth not been missing.
"I just didn't realize you liked me this much, Mr. Murphy," said Kai Leng, eyes alive with a perverse glee. "You feel the connection, don't you? Are you sure you're enjoying this more than I am?"
Samuel Murphy rounded on Leng and cracked him across the face once more, hard enough for the impact to ring in Jack's ears for a few seconds afterward. Jack held his breath … and Leng just burst out laughing, spraying Murphy with pink.
"Is this all you can come up with? Beating a nobody, who knows nothing, for no reason?" Leng spat another gob of blood into the soil. "Mr. Murphy, if you're going to penetrate me with that big blade of yours, best just get it over with, aye?"
"The heretic's mind is sicker than I had anticipated," announced the shrouded figure next to Murphy in cold tones. Boyle. Even through the mask, he somehow managed to direct a withering glance at Leng, who just licked his lips with an exaggerated slowness. "Murphy – another hour has almost passed. This one has offered nothing but lewd suggestions and loose teeth. It is time to make an end."
"I don't want to give the choffer the satisfaction." Murphy crossed over to where the limp Hound lay in the dust. He lifted him upward with a grunt, holding the man upright with a single arm. "This one is useless." Murphy gestured with the body towards Leng. Oleg's head lolled lifelessly. "And this one still has too many teeth and too few manners."
No. To Jack's surprise, Leng bared his teeth, his face twisting in sudden rage, his blood-streaked face taking on the visage of a predator, blood dripping from the mouth of his latest kill.
"Oh, that's a coward's trick, Samuel," growled Leng, actively struggling against the ropes binding him to the chair, now. "I earned that ticket to the Void. Begged for it. And now you're sending another in my place?" Leng leaned forward. The chair lifted slightly. Boyle flicked his wrist at Leng, sending a blast of withering music his way. Leng slammed back, the air forced from his lungs. He sat there, limp. Boyle turned to Murphy, who hoisted Oleg's body once more.
"This one has no mark, Murphy," said Boyle. "His face is branded, his clothes stink of the Void, and he dwells in a den of heretics, but he never crossed the final threshold. All here deserve death – but he should go last."
"If Jack's a-lurking, spilling this one's innards on the soil is the only way to flush him out." Murphy shrugged. "We don't have the girl. We don't have the Serkonnan. I've beaten the Ghonny half to death, and if he's here, he doesn't care about it." Murphy ripped his blade free from his scabbard with his free hand. "This is the way forward."
The High Overseer tutted but made no move to stop the Royal Protector. Jack took careful aim with his free hand, the omnibow flaring into life. Quick!
The bow thudded once, then Jack swung on the hook, and fired it once more. The first bolt landed quivering in the High Overseer's back. The second landed atop Murphy's bare head. Jack let himself fall, not quite nimbly, from the hook, clenched his left fist, and landed, actually nimbly, in the dust. The two men turned to him, the High Overseer absentmindedly reaching for his back.
"Ah, there he is." Murphy tossed Oleg's limp body aside as if it were filled with straw. The old man landed in a heap, making Jack's face flush. Murphy, blade still in hand, took a step towards Jack before pausing. He reached with thumb and forefinger for the bolt lodged in his head, and tugged it free. He gave the bolt a quick look and then flicked it aside contemptuously. The High Overseer meanwhile, staggered in place.
"Did he…?" Boyle teetered, one hand reaching for his pistol.
"You'll live," called back the Royal Protector without looking. "He's not here to shed blood, lad. This one still thinks himself a hero of the Empire. Doubtless he thinks this is all just a misunderstanding." Murphy cocked his head, his sideburns seeming to bristle. "Isn't that right, boyo?"
"I mean none of you any harm," replied Jack, putting his two hands in front of himself, despite his fingers itching for the hilt of his sword. "I know I made a mistake-"
"Oh. Good." Murphy gave Jack a warm smile. "Then you know what you need to do to fix it then." He flicked his blade downward towards the earth. "Lie down then, Mr. Harper. I assure you that I will work with a quickness."
Jack's opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Fall over, damn it. I've seen those bolts slow down men half again your size.
But Samuel Murphy gave no indication of slowing. He merely paced hungrily before Jack, legs tensed, eyes never leaving Jack's face.
"What? Scared? You know what has to be done." Murphy gestured to the ground again. "Lie down, Jack. Empress's wishes. She needs your head to make peace with the turians. I know it ain't in your nature to sacrifice-"
"Don't you dare!" Jack produced his own sword, air whistling as he brought it ready. He could see movement up above, in the corner of his vision, but no one called out. No one started running. "All of this, I did for her."
"Really now?" Murphy's voice became a low growl. "Right. Accepting his mark, accumulating all that wealth, killing all those people for batarians – all for the benefit of the Empress. I understand, Jack." Murphy gestured once more, for what Jack assumed would be the final time. "But now the choice is to kill me … or accept some damn responsibility. And I would love to know how, exactly, killing me will be for the good of the Empire."
"I can still fix this!" Jack retreated as Murphy advanced, all glimmer of even feigned friendliness fading from his features. Jack's left hand clenched. I killed a krogan. I know I can take you if I have to. "Please – I am trying to make up for what I did!"
"And I am giving you the fastest means of doing that." Samuel advanced again, careful footsteps kicking up puffs of dirt. "Jack … last chance. Your men walk free, what's left of 'em. We have it on good authority those party tricks of theirs won't last once your head's resting on a pike. They'll be no threat, and free to fuck up their life again at least one more time." Samuel cocked his head. "But you? It's the choice between one destructive element and the Empire's wellbeing, Jack. The Empress made the right call. Now – you gonna do as you're told?"
Jack lifted his left hand and fired, once, twice, three times into Samuel Murphy's neck. The bolts hung, emerald and quivering, for a few moments. Murphy's eyes widened. His stance, once tight and poised, suddenly slackened, his feet skidding against the dust. Jack stepped forward, breathing a sigh of relief, ready to catch the older man as he fell. Jack took a step forward. Then another.
As Jack took the third step forward, Murphy's blade flicked out with a bark of laughter. Jack yelped as it bit into his chest, skating across a rib and leaving a short red line. Murphy straightened and leapt forward, bellowing like a demon, all pretense of being massively drugged suddenly forgotten. Damn him!
Jack retreated, blade risen upward. Murphy's first horizontal cut met Jack's blade in a shower of sparks and an impact that jarred Jack's arm, leaving a tingling numbness. But Jack held. The next diagonal slash, he stepped aside and left the air whistling, before sending out a blow of his own. Murphy darted backwards, face contorted in a rictus of concentration, old scars and new wrinkles fighting for dominance on his weathered face.
Jack, breathing heavily, knew what he had to do. Murphy stood there, watching, eyes briefly darting to Jack's left hand. He knows. Too bad. Jack lifted his left arm, mark flaring…
Murphy punched into the air with his free arm, his omnitool coming alive. A blare like a foghorn ripped through the air, making Jack's ears pop. His insides shuddered with revulsion, and he fell to a knee. Murphy looked little better, his teeth bared in obvious pain, his left arm shaking with exertion, but still he kept it lifted.
"A song fit to dance to, eh Jack?" laughed Murphy mirthlessly, taking his first hesitant step towards his foe. Heavy footsteps clattered overhead. Murphy looked up and smiled. "Oh … I can see they agree." Murphy took another step forward. With a snap, the music shut off, and he lunged the rest of the way.
Hot strength flooded Jack's arms, and he lifted his blade upward. Murphy's embossed sword skidded against Jack's plain blade, a small spark lifting from the impact. Jack, despite himself, let his own blade flick out in a riposte. It nicked Murphy's shoulder, only for the man's shields to spark to life, almost wrenching Jack's weapon from his grasp. Murphy grinned at him.
"Don't lose your temper now, Jack."
Footsteps thundered down the gangplank behind them. Jack did not dare turn around, but he knew what was coming.
"The traitor! Strike now!"
Murphy smiled and lifted his arm again. Jack staggered as the impact of the sound struck him. Feet pounded against dirt, growing closer-
A shrill whistle echoed from the catwalks above, cutting through the music. Jack looked up. Miranda crouched on top of a railing, crimson robe fluttering in the slight wind carrying through the gaps in the three ships. Several Hounds stood around her, blades clutched tightly in gloved grip.
As one, the Hounds vanished. A great poof of dust went up as the weight of fifteen odd people suddenly pressed against the earth.
Murphy swore but kept his arm upraised. The Overseers shouted as their advance on Jack was stymied by a surge of leather clad heretics, their magic bound by infernal song, but their wits and muscle still (mostly) intact. A frenzied melee erupted behind Jack, who tensed himself and lunged forward, blade whistling through the air.
Once again, it skidded off Murphy's shields, but Murphy still took a step back, wincing at the force against his ribs. With a grimace, he lowered his omnitool, letting the music fade.
"Spare those you can!" shouted Jack as the music faded. He advanced on Murphy, right foot in front, left foot perpendicular behind.
"Converge on the Illusive Man!" shouted someone from behind him, but his shout came followed swiftly by a sound of ringing metal as someone struck him about the face. Murphy rolled his eyes and reached for his pistol holster.
Jack focused his attention upwards and transversed, appearing once again at the hook. With a cry, he plunged downward, directly for Murphy's puzzled face. The Royal Protector lifted his arms.
Samuel Murphy took Jack full on, his arms juddering once at the weight and momentum of his opponent before throwing him aside. Jack rolled on the dirt and brought his blade upward once more. Murphy simply squeeze the trigger on his pistol.
Jack grunted, shields flashing as the bullet sent him reeling. Murphy took a running jump and was on Jack like a Pandyssian pox, his blade a blur of sharp motion.
Jack rolled out of the way, leaving Murphy's blade embedded in the soil while he stood. To his left, an Overseer gaped at him as he stood, his blade locked with a Hound's, only for the Hound to press his distraction and deal a dizzying blow with the hilt of his blade.
Jack ignored the sound of gurgling as the Hound established a Tyvian Hold, however, keeping his eyes on Murphy. The Royal Protector took a quick glance around him, shrugged, and tapped his gun. The symbol of a flame shone above the sight. Shit.
Taking only a second to glance to his right, Murphy fired once to his right. An ungodly shriek went up as a Hound's leathers caught fire, sending acrid smoke into the air. Murphy laughed and shook his gun. The flame appeared again. He took another glance to his left. Damn it!
Jack transversed, appearing behind Murphy. He reached out and took hold of the man's enormous torso with all the strength he could muster, feeling the mix of muscle and metal buried beneath his flesh. Jack exerted himself through the Void, pulling his arms as tight as they would go. Come on … please…
But while he found purchase, he also found resistance. Murphy only laughed again before wrenching his neck forward. Jack's grip slipped away as if thrown by a krogan, and he tumbled through the air. Jack landed on the flat of his back, the wind knocked from him. Pounding footsteps followed his descent. We must…
Jack lifted his left arm and called out to time itself. At his command, it halted its inexorable march, if only for a few seconds. Jack pushed himself to a knee, gasping. His men moved around him unfazed, taking the time to position themselves behind their opponents. The sounds of choking filled the room. Yes … spare them.
Samuel Murphy stood, mid-charge. A Hound took a tentative step up to the man, only for Jack to wave him off.
"No good. Too strong. Finish the others." Jack wiped his mouth and stood, pulling his own pistol from his holster. He aimed at his foe's legs, trying to ignore the sound of wet gurgling from a few feet away. Someone dying. One of mine. I led them to this … Jack fired once, and the bullet hung in the air, heavy and bristling with heat. He took aim at the other leg and fired again, leaving a twin bullet beside the first. Jack took a deep breath.
Time resumed its regular schedule. Overseers fell with a clatter, their will to kill overridden by a sudden bout of unconsciousness. Murphy yelled as the two bullets hit either leg, his shields shattering with the sound of breaking glass. Jack ran forward and transversed one last time, letting the momentum carry his swing. Murphy gasped as Jack struck him full force, the point of his blade driving into his unprotected shoulder. Blood welled up as Jack drove the point home, only sinking further as he fell on top of Murphy, his face now shone with sweat. Surrender. Surrender, damn it!
"I don't think so, Jack," gasped Murphy as Jack gritted his teeth and drove the point in further. Jack opened his mouth to retort, but it turned to a bang and then a scream. Something sent Jack straight up into the air, his own shields breaking. As he fell in a crumped heap, he felt heat. He looked down to see flames, dancing, dancing from his chest.
With a yell, Jack began to roll, kicking up dust as he went, the heat sending red pain through his chest and abdomen. His side struck against something hard, and he looked up into the mask of an Overseer. The Overseer lifted his blade.
The other end of a sword snaked through his abdomen in a shower of red. Miranda pushed her blade all the way up and through the Overseer, who began to shake uncontrollably. No. This shouldn't be happening. Miranda pulled the blade back through the man with a sigh, letting the blood flow freely. The Overseer fell, partially on Jack, his blood now leaking on to his smoking leathers. And all the while behind, Murphy ploughed the dust and the melee, hunting for his foe.
"Jack!" Jack stood, legs trembling, face contorting. Murphy fired another incendiary shot at a Hound locked with an Overseer, and both went up in flame. Murphy cursed and gave Jack a venomous look.
"Men of the Empire, Jack! All men of the Empire. Their blood is on your hands!"
Jack had no energy left for magic. He lifted his gun and fired once at Murphy. His shields took the blow, and this time he did not even break stride. He brought his sword arm back, and it was all Jack could do to lift his own.
"You will not touch him!" Miranda stepped before Jack, her own bloody sword raised. Murphy raised his pistol, but when he pulled the trigger, Miranda faded away while Jack took a scrambling lurch left. Murphy grunted in confusion before the blade licked his side, sending up another fresh surge of blood.
The Royal Protector's blade wheeled about, catching Miranda's full on. Miranda almost fell flat on to her arse as Murphy's sword struck her own, but she stayed steady. The next blow she dodged, ducking to the side while she raised her left ar. Her omnibow blazed forth. She fired a single glowing bolt at Murphy's face. It struck the side of his skull and bounced off with a sound of metal on metal, another ember sent to be smothered by the dust.
"You're going to need a bigger bolt, lass." Murphy grinned and carried forward. No. No!
Jack, arms shaking, levelled his pistol at Murphy's back and fired. The blow took Murphy's shields full force, and this time he did stagger from the surprise of the impact. Jack let the adrenaline flow through him and ran, full-tilt, at the stunned Royal Protector. They collided with bone crunching force. This time, Murphy fell flat on his front, his gun hand faced away from Jack.
Jack reached for the man's throat this time, finding a reassuring softness. He began to squeeze, knowing that this would be a poor idea on a normal human being, and hoping it would be just enough force to put the man down without killing him.
Murphy thrashed, elbows lashing backwards, his pelvis thrusting up and down in the dust, trying to throw Jack from him. As Jack's grip began to slip, he felt a weight against him – Miranda throwing herself on top of the two of them. Then Banes. Then others – McCullum, Yaxley, Trimmons – all of them piled on top to force Murphy to stay down. Jack's grip did not loosen. Murphy's thrashing slowed from a constant flurry of activity to a few pitiful final shakes of his torso.
With a final grunt, Samuel Murphy fell still and silent. Jack released his grip. A thin whistle of air went through the man's lips. When Jack stood, it was in an arena of the dead, dying, and unconscious.
"Bind him," said Jack urgently, and a Hound hurried past him with his omnitool ready. "Bind them all. Then bring the Protector and the High Overseer to me." Jack glanced at the stillest bodies. Not all of them wore golden masks.
It did not take long to separate the living from the dead, nor for the survivors to be "tended to." Six Hounds had not survived the melee, and five Overseers likewise would not be returning to the Abbey. No one went unwounded – even Miranda sported a fresh cut on her left leg, which sported a steadily reddening dressing. Out of the chaos, Oleg Petrovsky rose, clutching his balding head and looking around blearily.
"Oh no," he said when he realized what he had awoken to. "Oh no, oh no."
"It's all right. Oleg." Jack stepped forward with a bloody hand outstretched, but Oleg recoiled as if the hand were covered in maggots. "Oleg?"
"No," said Oleg again, his eyes fixed on the High Overseer, now bound and sitting upright against the Royal Protector. "No, this … this cannot be happening."
Kai Leng spat a gob of blood into the soil. He smiled at Oleg, his mouth containing far fewer teeth than Jack was used to seeing.
"Sorry, old man. You owe me a few teeth."
Jack stood over the two enemy leaders, his hands flexing and unflexing. Bentley, Jirard, Simmons, Staver, Loxley, and Stewart. All dead. Five of yours as well.
And … a traitor. I think I know who.
"Wake them." Leng grinned and pulled Boyle's mask free from his face. A shock of blond hair fell free, revealing the surprisingly unaged face of High Overseer Boyle; his cheeks might have collected one or two wrinkles, but he looked much the same now as he had twenty years ago. Leng slapped the man about both cheeks before administering the antivenom from his omnitool. The High Overseer jerked awake. Murphy, meanwhile, stirred after the first blow.
A heavy silence fell. The two men took a lingering look at the stacked bodies of both sides, then at the bound forms of their remaining men. High Overseer Boyle tried to stand, only to find himself bound to Murphy. Murphy only gave a high laugh.
"Congratulations, boyo!" he shouted, before spitting a heavy gob of fluid at Jack's boots. "You won. The Empire is saved."
"Someone revealed our location," said Jack, voice carrying clearly. "Someone betrayed us. Someone is responsible for all these deaths. And I think I know who."
Jack turned around and pointed. Jacob Taylor gaped at him.
"Our newest member. Where were your biotics?"
"They broke my amp, sir." Jacob Taylor turned his head, revealing a heavy bruise. "They knew who I was."
"Convenient." Jack flicked his eyes once. Jacob Taylor doubled over as Miranda struck him in the stomach and then kicked out his knees, forcing him to the ground. Jack glanced back to the two captives for a reaction. Boyle only muttered the Seven Scriptures under his breath. Murphy just grinned widely at him.
"You really are a choffin' eejit, aren't you, Jack?"
"Your loyalty cannot falter without your powers also fading!" shouted Jack, turning to the assembled Hounds that remained. "Only the newest amongst us are the exception. The Royal Spymaster sent Taylor as a killswitch against us!"
"Marines don't … snitch … sir," gasped Jacob Taylor, one hand braced against the ground while the other clutched his stomach. "I … didn't…"
"Bring him forward."
Rough hands shoved the sprawling marine to Jack, who drew his own blade forth. It has to be him. It does not fit anyone else. He took another glance at Murphy. The man gave him a wide and bloody smile, and then tilted his head towards Jacob Taylor. The marine looked up at Jack, not pleading, just … afraid. Is … is it…?
Jack's arm trembled. Then he spoke, as authoritatively as he could muster.
"The penalty for betraying us is death." Jack grabbed the blade with his other hand and lifted it high. He met Jacob's eyes. "To the Void with you."
"Jack, no!" Oleg sprinted forward, arms outstretched. He stepped between Jack and Jacob, eyes wild, the brand twisting on his face. "Jack, no, please, it was me! I … I did it." Oleg stopped, panting before Jack, his mouth flicked with spit. "Jack … the boy is blameless. I turned over the Hounds."
Jack shut his eyes, Oleg's words bouncing through his skull. Oleg. The man who gave him life all those years ago. Who had stood by him when the Abbey would not. Jack opened his eyes. The room now stood dead silent. Jack could not even hear any breathing.
"Why, Oleg?" asked Jack, finally.
"For the Empire." Oleg looked over Jack's shoulder at the two bound men. "I never wanted to kill Desolas. I knew it was a bad idea but … I could always have been wrong. You had gotten us this far and … you had done more good than bad."
"That was the Empress's reckoning too, lad," said Murphy from behind them, his voice thick, possibly with blood. "You were our dirty secret, our totally deniable black ops. We didn't give a toss if you died. We could send you wherever to do whatever … but you had to take jobs from the batarians, didn't you?"
"You said you could make it right, Jack," said Oleg sadly, his eyes not meeting Jack's own. "And I disagreed again. And this time, I acted on what I knew to be right."
"I followed you on the Citadel," said Jack, heart beating faster, hoping desperately that this was … something. A prank, a bad dream, something. Something not real. "You spoke to your family."
"I knew you would be suspicious, Jack," replied Oleg. "So, yes, I met with my family. Then, when I knew you would leave, I went to the Empire's Embassy. I told them everything. I even gave them your flight schedule, for all the good it did."
"I sent you the money you needed…"
Oleg blinked once. Two streams of moisture rolled down each dirty cheek.
"You had to make it difficult, didn't you, Jack? The first thing I saw after speaking with the Empress … that message. "For love of family.""
Oleg knelt before Jack, his head bowed.
"I will not ask for forgiveness, Jack. The only forgiveness I ever desired was for conspiring to murder Desolas. This was the result." Oleg looked up. "The penalty is death. I have long eluded that sentence … thanks to you. But no longer." His pale fingers snaked beneath his leathers and pulled. Oleg bared his pale chest to Jack, exposing his heart. "I am your traitor. To the Void with me."
The blood thundered within Jack's skull. The Hounds stared on all around, gazes obscured beneath the masks. The penalty is death…
Jacob Taylor stared with mixed awe and fear at Oleg's kneeling form, his own misery forgotten. The two prisoners watched with mute if detached interest. Jack looked down at his already bloody blade. You know what you must do.
Jack reached down and pressed the tip of the sword against Oleg's chest. He gasped at the cold, but did not look away from Jack. Jack took a long hard look into the man's eyes. At the brand that twisted on his face. The brand I should be wearing.
Jack lowered his blade, then let it drop completely. Hounds murmured all around him, some with an undercurrent of anger. Jack gave a flick of his gloved wrist and turned away.
Oleg did not move. "Jack…"
"Leave!" screamed Jack, rounding on Oleg, the spit flying from his face. "Leave, Outsider curse you! Leave and do not come back!"
Oleg stood, his bearing stiff. He took one last look around the room. Then, with poise Jack was not certain he himself could muster in the same situation, he turned and made for the gangway. He left Jack's sight. His footsteps faded away. Then, Oleg was gone.
"Sorry, Jacob," muttered Jack, extending a hand to the marine. The marine did not take it, but instead rose and dusted himself off. "I … I thought…"
"Yeah," replied Jacob, turning away and returning to the crowd. "Sure."
"Guess he plays favorites, lads!" called out Murphy, winking at the assembled Hounds. "You sure you want him as your boss?"
"Let me kill him," begged Leng, wringing his hands and staring at the Royal Protector with naked hatred. "Please. It is owed. You let one bastard walk away that should have died-"
"No one else dies," retorted Jack, but Samuel Murphy only laughed.
"No, Jack, I'm afraid at least one more has to go. That's the way of it."
Jack kneeled down to Murphy's level.
"I'm not killing the Royal Protector. The Empress would never forgive me."
"You are correct." Murphy inclined his head. "She won't. Are you volunteering to take my place, then? Because only one of us is walking away today. There is no alternative."
"I am letting you live, Sam-"
"Don't you fucking call me by my first name you ill-bred turd of a heretic." Murphy spat again, this time catching Jack in the face. Jack grimaced and looked away, wiping the liquid free. The Hounds began murmuring again, louder this time.
"Just kill him, boss," snapped Banes with an angry gesture. "He put some of ours in the ground, it's only fair."
"I am letting you live, Murphy," repeated Jack through gritted teeth. But Murphy only smiled and sucked on a cheek. This time, Jack evaded the gob of liquid.
"Enough, Samuel." High Overseer Boyle's words stopped the Royal Protector short. "You need not debase yourself like this. The Empress would shudder to see it."
Jack crossed over to Boyle's side. The blond man stared up at him with the palest eyes Jack had ever seen. There was no trace of anger, nor fear, nor even disgust. It was like gazing into a sheet of ice. Cold. Unyielding.
"I am letting you and your men live. Do you accept?"
"I am not honor-bound as Murphy is. I follow the Seven Scriptures." Boyle inclined his head. "There are some High Overseers who would have thrown their men into death for the sake of the Abbey's ideals. Some might even think I were capable of such. But these men would do more good alive than dead."
"How the fuck is he being more reasonable than Murphy?" asked a Hound from the crowd. Jack just raised a hand.
"So, you will leave peacefully?"
"Yes. And then regroup. And then bomb this site from orbit." Boyle stared at Jack without pity. "And know this: of all the things the Abbey has done, you are its greatest mistake, Jack Harper. I should have throttled you as you slept, that night they brought you to the Abbey. "Ill-omened" the Sisterhood called you, but I saw only a boy."
Even back then … ill-omened? Jack stared down at the man who had once been his leader. Someone he had even admired, from a distance.
"We will be gone by then," said Jack, but Boyle only shrugged.
"I will cleanse the stain of your memory from these ruins. And I need not dwell on your continued existence for long, for He is coming."
Jack felt a chill down his spine. His eyes widened. A flash of gold went through his mind.
"Yes," breathed Boyle. "You know of whom I speak. How improbable, that the Empire's fate would rest in his hands."
"Enough!" snapped Murphy, and Boyle fell silent. "Point is, Jack, you're fucked. I'll offer you a gentler death than He will, I guarantee it."
Jack straightened. "Unbind him. Let them walk free."
With grunt of disapproval, the Hounds converged on the Overseers. Some stood unsteadily, others had to be carried by their comrades. High Overseer Boyle rose with shaking knees, and then wiped the dust from his coat.
"Samuel," he said turning to the man, "I suspect this is it." His voice took on a soft tone, making Jack cock his head. "It … has been an honor. Despite our differences, I always respected your dedication."
Murphy grunted. "Likewise, lad. Now, get your masks out of here, and let me and Jack settle this like the men one of us is."
The Overseers tramped out, leaving only Murphy. Leaving only the Hounds. Leaving only Jack.
Murphy stared up at Jack with naked contempt in his eyes, blood and saliva running down his sideburns.
"Well, choffer? What's it going to be?"
"I'm going to set you free," said Jack. "You will tell the Empress I mean no harm."
"You will set me free, and then I will snap your neck." Murphy chuckled and shook his head, then gave Jack a sad look. "You don't get it, do you, Jack? Royal Protectors do not resign. They live until they don't, or until the Empress … until there is a new Empress. Or Emperor. And a Royal Protector who cannot fulfill his purpose is no longer worthy of the title." Murphy gave a pointed look to the bodies of the fallen Overseers. "And I have failed."
"Murphy." Jack kneeled down to his level. "It doesn't need to be like this. You can choose to walk away."
"Don't." Murphy gave Jack a cool look. "He came to me in my sleep, Jack. Same as you. Said only way I could win was with his choffing mark. Same as you."
"And you didn't take it…"
"Don't talk to me of choice, Jack." Murphy gave a shake of his head. "We always have choices, even if they're all bad ones. I could choose my honor or my life, and I chose my honor."
"Murphy." Jack shut his eyes and breathed heavily. I … have nothing to say. The better man stood before him. Should I just … lay down and let it end?
"I'd be quick, Jack," murmured Murphy. "And I bear your lads – and lass – no ill will. It could end right now, if you want it to. I don't have to die today. Unless you will it."
"I have to fix this, Murphy," said Jack looking away from the man's tired eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm going to untie you." Please, don't. The Empress will never forgive me.
I will never forgive me.
Jack undid the omnibinds with a slice of his blade. Then he rose and turned away. From behind, he heard Murphy stand … and then rush forward. Jack raised his left hand.
Time stopped. He turned slowly. Murphy stood, mid-charge, fists balled, face twisted in a desperate grimace. He knows the Hounds will kill him, even if they got me. It was a choice between his honor and his life. Jack stepped closer, readying the point of his blade. I'm sorry.
Jack placed his left hand at the back of Murphy's thick neck, and pressed the point against his throat. With a quick jerk, he pushed his head forward. The point went in several inches, and then came out, bloody. Blood fountained out and then hung, motionless, in the air, the droplets hanging like crimson crystals from a chandelier. The Hounds all watched and waited for the moment time would return, and the world would realize Samuel Murphy had been dealt a mortal wound.
The grayness fled from Jack's vision. Murphy catapulted forward with a gurgle, and this time he fell like a sack of Morley potatoes. For a few seconds he thrashed, his heavy hands seeking the source of the bleeding, but then he slowed. From his prone position, he lifted his head and let his lips twist upwards one last time as he smiled at Jack, the grin widening with every slowing pulse of blood.
Then, as the ground reddened around him, Samuel Murphy slumped over and fell still.
The Empress protects. She does not forgive.
Jack looked up at the grey skies of Korlus above. Obscured by smog and cloud, the sun grew a little brighter.
The end drew a little nearer.