Disclaimer: I do not own Storm Hawks or the characters, they belong to Nerd Corps Entertainment.
An End to the Fall
"He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future."
What should have been a trivial matter was turning into a headache – one that had dragged itself on for two years. It should be easy to see who was next for the succession of the Empire, the name Master Cyclonis, and a godly goal, but it was not, as Murre was discovering.
Murre was an older man reaching the unforgivable age of his mid-sixties. His skin was starting to crag, and liver spots were spreading across his skin like a disease. His once dark hair had turned ash coloured and was thinning at the temples. His hooked nose that had been thin and aristocratic looking in his youth now was thick at the bridge from age and crooked from being broken.
He had started the Cyclonian Empire at the crisp age of twenty; the thousands of Terras spread across Atmos had been under his command at the prime age of thirty. The years of his reign had run through his fingers like sand without a hitch, only hitting the occasional resistance that was smoothed over quickly and efficiently. He had started the groundwork for a new and better Atmos over the years, but he was slowly realizing that the precious work he had toiled into his dear Empire would fall to waste and would never take root unless he chose his heir carefully.
And that was where his problems had begun. He knew he was getting old, he could feel it in the creaks of his bones and in the stiffness of his joints – so he had started to gone through the task of selecting his heir when he knew he still had the time. Age had not been kind to him, there seemed to be a weakness of the heart that seemed to plague his family. He had been careful not to give his heart any trouble over the recent years, but still, his own father had dropped dead suddenly without warning because of a frail heart. If that was to happen to him, Master Cyclonis, without an heir, his plans would go to ruins and the Empire would fall away only to be picked apart by scavengers.
But the act of choosing an heir had to take care and thought: things that Murre had invested a lot of time to with this decision. After two years, there seemed to be little progress. Murre had three sons – Shrike, Ibis, and Crane – all possible candidates to certain extents.
Shrike was the eldest, being eighteen years of age and the most apparent heir. He was cunning, powerful and merciless, but he was not without his flaws. Shrike was reckless, sometimes careless, and given to blinding fits of rage. He lacked the cool, calculating traits needed.
Ibis was four years younger than Shrike and gave good reason to be a probable candidate for a future as Master Cyclonis. He was fearfully intelligent and calm and collected. He lacked the physical prowess, though, that Murre would have liked but he would have overlooked that it if it were not for the other garish flaws that Ibis possessed. Ibis lacked drive and ambition, preferring to write poetry and court pretty girls with his pretty words and pretty face. He had little interest in ruling an Empire, and had even admitted to that fact. The reasons for his dismissal as a candidate were obvious.
Finally, there was Crane, the least likely candidate. Firstly, being the tender age of ten years old, Crane was currently too young to even be considered technically (but Murre still had considered it). There was however, a more glaring problem with his most recent child. Young Crane was a boy that had been pronounced handicapped both physically and mentally upon his birth. The boy could not focus his attention to any task at hand, was obsessive-compulsive about organization, tended to daydream, had a fierce love for reading and writing that would sometimes make him forget to eat, unfavourable to change, and also walked with a staggering limp. With a sweet and happy disposition his nurses overlooked Crane's disfigured form and loved his personality. Even heartless Murre held some affection for the boy, but could hardly count Crane as a suitable candidate as an heir, especially with how sweet the boy was. Which, Murre found to be a real shame, since his youngest was the only one of his sons to even show a little talent with Crystals. A talent that Murre knew was rare, and he himself being the only the known Crystal Master aside from the boy.
Most, considering the other two candidates, would have never wasted their time with contemplation and would have selected Shrike. Murre did not, and considered his time well spent, if frustrating. Shrike was an obvious choice – he had the power, the mind, and the drive. But he lacked the right ambition and the patience. Murre knew that if he was to give Shrike the name Master Cyclonis that greed and power would quickly spread through the boy's thoughts, turning him into a power mad monster. That went against everything Murre had built the Empire for. He knew that most of the Terras opposed the Empire's rule, seeing it as tyranny. As Murre saw it, it was necessary. The people of Atmos had to be led and shown another way, a better way. Another decade or so would cultivate fruit in the young minds of Atmos and Murre could imagine the realization in their minds that within the Empire that the united Atmos brought more good than evil (even considering the constraints). Eventually, the resistance would stop and peace would settle. Everything would work, like a well oiled machine.
Shrike, however, would ruin such things; he lacked finesse, using only his brawn for commanding. Murre had seen how the young man directed his squadrons – the men that were not cowed by Shrike balked at Shrike's command and were unruly and temperamental. In other words, they spread discord and bred discontent, leading to eventual disloyalty. He had taken Murre a great deal of work to unsow the seeds that had been sown in the ranks by his son. If this happened within the squadrons then Atmos would balk and being discontent as well, leading to the fall of the Empire.
Murre could see this, but what else were his options – a languid, pretty young man and a slow, sweet young boy? Master Cyclonis scoffed from his throne, the sound echoing emptily in the throne room. He was stuck; the only possible heir to Cyclonia would lead to its ruin, what a sickly paradox.
"Master Cyclonis?" A smart looking man wearing Cyclonian uniform called out from the sweeping entrance, waiting for acknowledgement.
"You may approach with your report, soldier."
The Cyclonian approached the rather terrifying seat of the Cyclonian King, bowing lowly before he gave the results of his mission.
"Master Cyclonis, we have succeeded in capturing the traitor, it was exactly as you suspected, sir. We have her in our custody outside. Do you wish for us to dispose of her ourselves or would you like to personally deal with it, sir?"
"Ahh, women are such silly creatures. If she hadn't run I'm sure no one would have noticed, don't you think so, soldier?" Master Cyclonis paused momentarily, but continued before the nameless soldier was able to comment, "Bring her in, I have a few … delicate questions to ask her before I remove her from my services permanently. And make sure you bring both will you?"
Murre stood from his throne, heaving a thin staff of metal that had a cruel looking crystal caged at one end from its hidden cache inside the stone throne. As he engaged the staff -- a harsh light flickering in the crystal and the sound of humming -- a young woman with the rag-tag clothes of a commoner was dragged in by two burly looking soldiers. She was an average looking woman with shoulder length blue hair and could easily be called a plain looking – her only distinct feature being her blue eyes that sparkled with vibrancy. Off to the woman's left another soldier came in carrying a toddler that could be not more than two years of age inside several blankets.
Master Cyclonis inspected his murder weapon of choice as he spoke, "Glad you could join us, Sergeant Celeste. It's been what, two years since you left? Such a shame when you left, you were just days away from being promoted to Lieutenant. You were one of my best Talons, but you gave that up for what … motherhood?"
Murre believed himself to be a fair and just Emperor, but he expected certain rules to be upheld and followed. One thing that he considered permanent was being a Talon. Once a Talon, always a Talon. Your squad members were your family; you needed nothing more – no children, no significant other. The members of his Talons had needs, like any human being, and Murre cared less how they subdued those needs, inside or outside the Talons, they just were discouraged from any permanent relationships. If you gained high enough rank, however, you could be granted the luxury of starting a family of your own, Murre knew he needed loyal future Talons. It was a system that relatively well enough. Murre thought he was being quite fair. The occasional woman and rare man in his Talons, however, found him anything but. They were made an example of, the severity of their punishment dependent on their kind of 'relationship' established and permanence.
A woman of any rank that aborted a pregnancy was given some leniency, but still given punishment usually consisting of loss of rank. A woman of normal rank getting pregnant by 'mistake' and carrying the child to term would have been stripped of her rank, had her child taken away from her to become a nameless servant of the Cyclonian palace, and the mother put to work in the mines.
The male members of Murre's Talons were, of course, subject to the same treatment, but paternal relationship was difficult to discern at the best of times, (unless the mothers were willing to point a finger) making punishment difficult. Some times the fathers went unpunished simply by lack of evidence or even a father's denial of his willingness in the 'accident'.
Celeste, a high ranking officer, had gotten herself pregnant and had hit the ground running, proving her intent on getting pregnant and keeping the child. This would result in the death of both her and the father. It was just a matter of discovering who the father was. The child would be given no name and therefore, no honour, and be forced to work in the palace – be it in the kitchens or scrubbing the floors. Murre thought it was a fair and just punishment.
Murre closed the distance between him and Celeste, the tip of his staff pressed to the thin skin under her chin.
"I do believe I asked you a question, Celeste. Has two years made you forget how to obey orders?" Murre pressed a small button on the staff: crystal energy leaked to the end that was pressed hard underneath Celeste's chin. Within two seconds Murre was granted the quiet sound of Celeste hissing through her teeth, her muscles shuddering and her jaw clenched – all in pain.
A nod from Murre and the soldiers let go of Celeste, who crumpled to her knees. She lay on her side, gasping for breathe and shuddering as her muscles twitched and spasmed from excruciating pain.
Another nod from Murre and the three soldiers made towards the exit, one with something in tow.
"Leave it," Murre said, his voice echoing through the large room, "I'll deal with the problem of them both."
A little hesitant, the soldier holding the toddler carefully put the sleeping tyke down making sure that it was still wrapped well in its swaddling clothes so it would not catch cold on the icy stone floors before leaving briskly.
Once alone, Murre crouched down next to Celeste, who was still hissing in pain. "You know where this is going, so how about we make this quick? You give me the name, and I'll make sure you both die quickly, with as little pain as I can muster."
Celeste, summoning the vestiges of her strength spat at her old Master's feet from her place on the floor. "Go to hell."
Master Cyclonis shrugged, as if he could care less, before he walked to the enfant on the floor.
He was instantly granted a reaction.
"You get away from her!" Celeste called from her place on the floor. She even attempted to stand before curling back into a ball from the pain.
"Do I hear contempt in your voice, my loyal Sergeant? Is that anyway to speak to your Master? I've been most gracious to you, but you are wearing away my patience," Master Cyclonis said softly, but his voice held the ringing echo that held malicious, dark tones.
Celeste inched a little closer -- as close as she dared -- to her old Master. "Please, I ask you only for only this one thing. I have been nothing but loyal to you for these many years. Please, Master Cyclonis, all I want to do is raise my daughter, please just give me that," Celeste pleaded.
A look of disgust curled across Murre's features. "How impudent you are! You simpering female, if you had been ever truly loyal to me, and me alone, and not to your silly little motherly whims do you think you really would be in the mess you are now? For the past two years you should have been leading my armies to unite the Atmos, instead you have been dragged here to me, like a run away dog."
Celeste could not help but wince at the sound of Master Cylonis's voice with its eerie and frightening echo. The voice of an angry Master Cyclonis was an indicator of violence and death. Celeste desperately wanted to plead her case, but knew such an attempt would only lead to more pain, and she was in enough of it already.
"Now," Master Cyclonis said, the anger seeping out of his voice as he picked up the young toddler, "I do believe you owe me the father's name. I'll give you a few minutes to collect your thoughts on the matter."
Master Cyclonis looked at the young girl in his arms, instantly dismissing her as plain, just like her mother. The only distinct characteristics she seemed to possess were a small fleck of mole under the corner of one eye and cobalt blue hair. That was until she opened her eyes.
The young girl had the same beautiful eyes as her mother, but they seemed a tinge darker, as if they reflected the shadows in the room instead of the light. The two-year old held his gaze for a moment longer before turning to his staff and the brilliant crystal caged at one end.
"Ah, pretty!" The child exclaimed, pointing eagerly to the blood red crystal.
"So, you like my little toy do you?" Murre asked his voice soft and all deathly qualities bleached from it.
The child nodded eagerly, a smile spread wide across her chubby little face as she continued to reach for the 'pretty.'
Master Cyclonis obliged, easily flipping the end of the staff so the crystal hung inches above the girl's face, all the while cursing his soft spot for children. He supposed he could grant the child a little moment of happiness before he had to dish out the punishment due to her parent's foolishness.
He had not expected the passive glow of the crystal to spike at the child's touch, turning into a bright red beacon that almost blinded him and had the girl squealing with laughter.
Surprise was written across Master Cyclonis's face, while horrified shock spread across Celeste's. The toddler just giggled.
"I have to say Celeste that you have always provided me with the most interesting scenarios, even since your Academy days. Covering your commanding officer with tar and chicken feathers, putting Blazer Crystals in the ovens, and now you present me with an infant that has the potential to be a Crystal Master? Out of pure curiosity, does she inherit it from your side of the family or the father's?" Master Cyclonis asked devious interest clear in his voice.
Celeste answered with defeat in her voice. "Mine, my great-grandmother had the talent."
"Ah," was all that Master Cyclonis said, choosing to let silence pervade, except for the child's laughter when she made the crystal flare up.
But in Murre's mind, there was anything but silence. What had been presented to him was a gift from the gods, surely. All he needed to do was twist the facts to his liking, and he would finally have the heir that was needed for the Cyclonian throne that could be shaped.
"Celeste, if you wish for a painless death than I suggest you listen carefully. I am going to put you under torture, and you're going to tell me exactly what I tell you to. If you do exactly that I'll keep the torture short, and kill you swiftly."
"And my daughter?" Celeste whispered.
"I'll give her a life with purpose, more than anything you could ever could. Do you accept my terms?"
Accepting the inevitable Celeste said the only possible answer. "Yes."
Murre bounced the recently orphaned child on his knee, her happy laughter making no indication that she was aware of her mother's disappearance, except when she cried occasionally at night. It had been already several weeks since Murre had dealt with Celeste, and the child had already stopped asking awkward questions about her mother's disappearance. In a few more years, when the finally vestiges of Celeste had faded in the child's memory, Murre could then present Cyclonia with its true heir. And no one would question her right to rule either. Celeste's had confessed, under torture, that she had stolen the child from one of Master's Cyclonis's many consorts, hoping to steal away the true heir of Cyclonia and bring the Empire to ruin.
There was just one last little loose end to tie up.
"Master Cyclonis, the Dark Ace has finally returned home from his mission and is waiting outside the door," a Cyclonian in regulation uniform reported from the throne room entrance.
Murre narrowed his eyes menacingly, displeasure written across his face. Master Cyclonis had a strong dislike for arrogance among his soldiers; especially when it came to them giving themselves pretentious names, like the Dark Ace. "Send Brine in if you will, soldier."
A man in his very early twenties walked in with princely arrogance at the mention of his name. The face was ordinary enough, made of sharp angles and strong features that added a feral ferocity to it. Dark hair fell in the young man's blood red eyes, and he had the thin but muscled build common to most of Master Cyclonis's Talons, except there was a distinct sense of dangerous poise in the way Brine walked. He was one of Master Cyclonis's most lethal weapon against any resistance, being brutal and shrewd when completing his missions. Brine, being strong of body and strong of mind, was easily climbing the ranks, despite his young age, and already gaining a name for himself – the Dark Ace. He was Master Cyclonis's most powerful assets, but that did not necessarily make him the most loyal. Murre was going to change that, though.
Unnaturally good natured, Murre asked, "Ah, Brine, how did your mission go? Do you have those so-called 'Sky Knights' shivering in their slums on their pitiful Terras, yet?"
"I doubt they'll cause you too much problems, sir. They're really nothing more than a bunch of amateurs who think themselves as heroes," Brine answered, cautious of the friendly tone in his Master's voice, and also a little at odds at how to react at the bubbly child on the old man's knee. That certainly had not been there when he had left for his mission a few weeks ago. The child was also strangely familiar.
"That's good," Murre thought aloud. The 'Sky Knights' had been a bit of a problem when Murre had started the expansion of his Empire, but he sometimes wondered if he overestimated them. The Sky Knights were the only consistent form of resistance to the Empire, but they were truly nothing more than brutes that had been first enlisted to protect their home Terras from other neighbouring Terras. They had been disorganized, but skilled. Had all the Sky Knights across the Atmos banded together early on in Murre's career he admitted he would probably still grappling for control over more than a handful of Terras. Thankfully, each Terra prided in itself; boasting how their culture was better, their warriors stronger, and the like. It was such pride that had made the many Terras fall under his control, as they seeked no alliances with their neighbours.
Murre surfaced from his thoughts. "Well, I expect a full written report. Details are key."
Brine bowed before his master, and turned to leave, thinking he had done all that was required of him by his master. He hardly realized how close he came to death for such an impudent action.
"Brine, where do you think you're going?" Master Cylonis asked, the hollow echo in his voice, adding a deathly note to the old man's voice.
Brine instantly realized his mistake – leaving before being dismissed – and visibly winced while his mind grasped at an explanation. He had gotten used to getting away with it most of the time with his superior officers – they just saw a rising star among the Talons.
Brine turned, seeing that his master had a strained grin tugging at the corners of Master Cyclonis's mouth, while his eyes glinted violently. Murre beckoned with a finger for Brine to come before him.
Numbly, Brine knelt as low as he could before his master's throne, deciding that it was never too late to suck up.
"Lilith …" Brine dared raise his head a few inches at the sound of Master Cyclonis's voice. His master was talking to the young girl on his knee.
"I'm Lark, not Lilith," the child corrected, a sound of stress in her little voice. It appeared to be a common argument that she seemed to be losing.
"Lilith," Murre said firmly, "why don't you go ask your nurse to let you play with Crane for a little while? I have some work to do."
Brine did not like the sound of that.
"Hmph, I don't wanna," Lilith sulked, her features frowning.
"Then you'll spend your time alone, in your room," Murre said, nodding at a nearby Cyclonian to take the young girl from him.
"Fine, I'll play with Crane," Lilith sulked again, letting herself be led away, but she still stuck out her tongue at Murre when she thought he wasn't looking.
After Lilith and her escort left, Brine and Master Cyclonis were left alone in the echoing chamber. The only sound being the drumming sound of Murre's tapping fingers. Brine sweated nervously, feeling his muscles cramp from his kneeling position.
"I'm curious, Brine, how are you dealing with Celeste's betrayal of the Empire? I heard that you both were once quite close; I think some even considered you her protégé, especially when you first were initiated into my Talons. If I remember correctly, she was the one who convinced you of the power of my cause," Murre pondered aloud, watching Brine closely.
Brine controlled the urge to twitch. He had heard the rumours, but nothing concrete, while he was away from Cyclonia. He had hoped to hell that Celeste had stayed missing. Since Celeste's disappearance two years ago he had done his best to eradicate any and all associations he had once had with her. He had a very good reason to hide his old association, and he just prayed this was not the day Celeste's foolishness was going to bite him the ass.
"Yes, she was the one who recruited me, and was responsible for most of training as a Talon. She had her work cut out for her, though, as I was already a recognized Sky Knight on my home Terra. Until most recently I thought she was the prime example of a Talon, but now knowing what a disgusting traitor she is I am filled with shame." Brine did his best to make sure he paced himself, not rushing through his words; an attempt to make it not sound rehearsed, like it did in his head.
"Ah, here I was under the impression you were both much closer than that – I was sure you both were lovers, up until her appearance, that is."
Brine could practically hear the grin in Master Cyclonis's voice. There was no way he should know so much, it was impossible, he had hid is tracks so carefully. The first waves of panic were starting to well up in his chest as he realized he was slowly becoming trapped in words; adrenaline was being pumped into his blood and made him want to take off running from the room (fighting would be suicidal, despite his master's age).
"She was significantly older than me, sir."
"And I've always been significantly older than my previous consorts; is there a point to this argument or are you just evading the answer, Brine?"
Brine visibly flinched; a harsh tone was creeping into Cyclonis's voice that was hinting at violence. "Yes, were we lovers, up until she disappeared."
"Hmm … did she ever speak to you about leaving, or explain why she would?" Muure asked, easily putting a bored curiosity in his voice that always made his victims sweat under the verbal assault. It had such a disarming effect, like broken glass among the dew covered grass.
Brine lied. "No. I have no idea why she left, or would leave. I was horrified to learn that she kidnapped your consort's child."
"Then it would come to a complete shock to you if I was to tell you that Celeste left my Talons because she was pregnant, obviously something she and the father would have been punished for. Now if one was to consider this information, then they could easily conclude another shocking piece of information; that my consort's 'child' actually could be Celeste's. Another shocking piece of information – I'm not the father of Lilith."
Murre stood from his throne and walked to the knelt figure of Brine and giving him a slight nod before pacing.
"Now, Brine, I'm sure you can see the predicament I am in. I wish to name Lilith, as young as she is, as my successor – my heir. Her validity, however, could come to question if her true parentage was ever discovered. No one knows that Lilith is not my child except for myself, the now deceased Celeste and one other person. The father."
Brine felt the icy cold hand of death rest at the back of his neck, or, rather, the icy cold hand of Master Cyclonis fall on the back of his neck, fingers curled around his throat. One could easily confuse the two.
"What makes you think the father knows about his child?" Brine asked, trying to keep the fear out his voice. He hoped to the gods that his master could not see the way he shook, or hear his voice crack.
"Celeste had interesting priorities. She would have informed the father, that I am sure of," Master Cyclonis dryly commented, squeezing at the tender muscles that were cording at the back of Brine's neck.
Murre knew he had Brine exactly where he wanted him. Murre was being truthful about Celeste's strange sense of priorities – she had no problem committing the most heinous crimes but when it came to sleeping with two men at the same time, well it just did not happen, not with Celeste's sense of morals. Master Cyclonis found that all women believed there was supposed to be a certain amount of honesty and intimacy with someone who were sleeping with (annoying was what he found it) and Celeste was no exception. She had probably created the whole moral code of it.
Really, it almost unnecessary to play the whole scene out like he had, but Murre thought it time that the 'Dark Ace' was knocked down a few notches. Murre refused to have such arrogance that Brine had been accustomed to in his soldiers – arrogance lead to mistakes, and Murre could not afford those. Besides, watching another person cower at the very simple conjuring of words reminded Murre of the good old days, like terrifying the leaders of many Terras into an alliance with Cyclonia. Good times, those days.
Murre squeezed at Brine's neck once more, strengthening the veiled threat in his voice. "Now, I'm quite sure Celeste informed you about certain Talon regulations, but perhaps she didn't, seeing how easily she forgot them. Well, let's just say that Celeste is an example, a very good example, of what could happen to you, Brine. However there might be one thing that might dissuade me …"
Like all human beings clinging to life Brine grasped at the life line thrown to him. "And what would that be, sir?"
Master Cyclonis moved in front of Brine again, towering over him. "You're smart, Brine, as you've probably already figured out that there is likely going to opposition to my new heir, Shrike being the main problem. I need to know that if something was to happen to me, say … a fatal accident … that Lilith is protected by a select group of people who have no interest in furthering their own goals, and are loyal to her and only her; someone who will guard the most precious secret of hers, for if her true lineage was realized, he too will also die. Finding such people is hard, but I think I've found one. So what is your answer, Dark Ace? Do you choose death by my hand and likely the eventual death of your own daughter, or do you choose to serve the Cyclonian heir, and guarantee her safety as long as you live?"
Brine looked at Master Cyclonis, and Murre could already see the answer there. Murre knew what the answer would be; he had the minute he had planned to name Lilith as his heir.
I was slightly inspired by a much better origin story from "From The Ashes" by Malarkay. Really good story, I suggest you read it, soooo much better than this little oneshot. Her story puts mine to shame, when I think about it; however, I wrote this lil' oneshot just to get my POV out there, and maybe to encourage some other people to write (Storm Hawks needs more love).
Also, anyone who can guess who said the little quote up at the top gets an imaginary cookie. I think you'll be unsuprised how well it fits. Speaking of how well something fits – I suggest you wikipedia the terms Shrike, and Lilith … these were names that just really popped up in my head, but they REALLY suit -- frightening well I find.