The Angel of Darkness
Standard disclaimer applies; not my characters or settings or backgrounds. But they are my words.
Lennier crouched by the older male Markab, adjusting a thin blanket around his shoulders. Reaching behind him he pulled a flask of water forward, and offered it to the slumping figure.
Velnor clutched at the blanket, with shaking hands, pink skin spotted with brown, thick fingers slipping on the rough fabric. "Thank you, Lennier. Your clan will be blessed by the Angel for this act of mercy."
"It is an honor to be of service to your people in this hour," replied Lennier. He looked around the room, a large warehouse type space in Grey Sector, shut off from the rest of the station in order to avoid, or perhaps more accurately, to contain contagion. For it was now obvious that the plague of Drafa was within the isolation chamber, as well as raging through the station outside. He spied Delenn in an alcove across from them, administering what comfort she could to a mother whose child lay dead in her arms. There weren't that many Markab left. It was down to dozen, perhaps two or three; some lying still, some moving feebly. Most of them had been laboriously shifted to a central area, where the remains of the supplies were stacked under one of the weak overhead lights. They were all showing signs of infection now, and it wouldn't be long before he and Delenn were the only ones left.
Velnor's breathing was slow and ragged. Lennier abruptly sat down, his legs crumpling from the efforts of the last hours. It had been non-stop activity, with no time to pause and assimilate events. It was all happening so fast, and yet at the same time, it seemed to have gone on forever. Move the dead to the outside, cover them if possible, cross their arms and say a prayer. Move the living to the center, cluster them together for warmth and company if not showing signs of illness, sequester them if ill. Family groups stayed together, even if one or more were ill or dying. There had been the disordered chaos of a large group of intelligent beings at first, but as the Markab died, the situation became ironically more manageable. For all his and Delenn's efforts, there were still too many who had died with no one with them, with no prayers said. He suspected many simply lay where they breathed their last, unnoticed and unmourned.
"Lennier," said Velnor, strain evident in his attempt to speak. "How long have you been with her?" He gestured vaguely towards the alcove where Delenn now cradled the grieving female in her arms.
"Delenn?" replied Lennier. "I arrived at this place to serve as her aide over a year ago."
"I came six months ago. When rumors of the return of Drafa reached Morda. That is the Markab colony world where I was born, and lived. I wanted to be here, in this place, when the Dark Angel returned." Velnor's voice became stronger as he spoke. "Do you know anything of Markab customs, Lennier?"
"I am afraid it is a gap in my education," replied Lennier. "Should you not be saving your strength?"
"For what purpose?" Velnor laughed in a dry wheeze. "I am already dead. We all are. Still, it is something to have been here, to have seen this. Others in my sept were envious of my position. I hope they will be chosen. I wish I could know."
"Chosen for what?" asked Lennier, leaning back against the cool metal wall, eyes shut briefly against the watery illumination from the ceiling grid. He had never been so tired, not even during the three week session of fasts and prayers that preceded his final vows to the Fane. This was a mental and emotional exhaustion, a draining of the spirit that left him weary beyond words.
"For the coming battle," replied Velnor. "I had hoped that coming here would show my determination to fight the Darkness." He shifted, and moaned slightly. Drafa killed swiftly, and relatively painlessly, but his arthritic hips did not take kindly to the hard metal floor. Velnor found himself wishing he had brought a chair. Another bubble of laughter rose in his throat as he pictured himself sitting in a comfortable chair in the midst of this horror. At least his sense of smell had shut down. Thousands of living, and then dead, beings in an enclosed space...even the station's increase in air cycling, through high efficiency filters, hadn't completely relieved the stench that entered through every pore. "I suppose I am too old to fight the Great Enemy."
Lennier sat forward. What did this elderly Markab know of the coming war? "What enemy is that?" he asked, probing gently for answers. He was careful not to press too hard. Velnor's comfort remained his paramount concern.
Velnor chuckled. "You should know your own history better. We Markab are not as advanced as your people, but a thousand years ago we fought them. Soldiers of Darkness came to Morda and set up a base of operations. They slaughtered those who stood against them, enslaved the rest, made us support their forces. The Minbari came to Septis, our homeworld, and enlisted us in the battle, giving us advice and advanced weapons. We fought, won back our colony and defeated the Enemy with your help. For a long time we had suspected there were other races in the stars beyond our system, but this was our first proof. It was a hard lesson." Velnor fell silent, save for his raspy breathing. He struggled upright, then continued confidentially, "Some few years later, the island of Drafa was stricken with the plague that re-visits us now. What remains unknown to most Markab is that Morda was also affected by what became known simply as Drafa. Thousands died on my world. Some of those who survived, those who were never affected, remembered the Angel. The knowledge was preserved among a select few."
Lennier saw that Delenn was going through the remaining food packages. There had been plans to replenish the original stores as needed, but so many had died that it was no longer necessary. Besides, the com system had been disabled early on, by some of the Markab who were determined to isolate themselves completely from the corruption of the outside world. "Who is this Angel?" he asked. There seemed little enough he could do for Velnor; at least keeping him talking kept both of their minds occupied.
"The sept to which I belong to is called Angel of Darkness, and this is who we invoke in our rituals. The Angel will return, we said, for she is a herald, a harbinger, and a judge. She will chose those who are worthy to fight in the coming war. The others she will strike down. She is not merciful, but she is kind. Drafa is her weapon. It is not a bad death. They say it is like going to sleep." Velnor smiled at Lennier, his expression calm and resigned. "I had hoped to be called, but it is some comfort to be here, even if I have been judged unworthy."
Lennier's mind seemed to split into two halves; one carefully noted what Velnor was saying, recording it for later consideration. The other grasped for meaning, "I do not understand..." he began hesitantly.
"We knew as soon as we heard. It was all foretold long ago, by the prophet Valen and others." He recited softly, "A crown will appear in a dark cloud. The enemy will gather in the outer darkness. And the Dark Angel will return to choose her forces." He coughed again, and settled back against the wall, his features shrouded in darkness. "Could you ask her to speak with me, Lennier? It would be a blessing to me." He gestured towards the alcove where Delenn had been working.
"Of course," Lennier replied without thinking, his first impulse, as always, to help. "Delenn," he called as he rose to see if she was still occupied, and offer to take her place. He walked over, and relayed Velnor's request.
Delenn's face was white with exhaustion, strained with fear and concern. "I will come," she said simply, rising from her position by the now sleeping woman. She had finally managed to remove the young child from the female's grip, and laid him out next to his mother, covered by an ornate tapestry in strands of muted orange and golds and brown. It glowed in the dim grey light of the chamber. With Lennier walking carefully at her side, she made her way across the open space, lined with the silent dead, to where Velnor lay quietly waiting.
Kneeling beside him, and pressing his cold withered hands between her own strong ones, she said, "You wished to see me? How may I be of service to you?"
Velnor's eyes opened slowly, and a smile lit his broad, creased face. "I did wish to see you. And now I have. You honor us with your presence."
Delenn shook her head, her dark hair falling forward like a cloud over her face. "It is I who am honored. But can I get you something? Food, some water?"
"I believe I could eat something. If you would not mind." Velnor interjected as Lennier moved to fulfill his request. "No, young one. I would like to speak further with you."
Delenn replied, "Stay with him. I will return in a moment." She bowed her head to Velnor and left to seek out one of the remaining food packets.
Lennier watched her leave, his eyes widening as he finally grasped Velnor's implications. "She is not your Angel," he said to the aged Markab.
"She is," he replied. "She brings death to all who follow her." Looking up at Lennier, his face shining with elation, he explained "Destruction must of necessity precede creation. As she destroyed her old self to form the new, so she is now engaged in the re-making of the world. Did not Valen prophesy this?"
Lennier remembered the words of Valen concerning the eventual sundering of the Grey Council. He looked at Delenn, wondering if that task would fall to her. Whatever came, he knew that he would be there with her. "This is superstition, not prophecy," he said under his breath. Then, staring at Velnor, he asked, "What do you know of Valen?"
"I am right about her," Velnor was gasping now, forcing the words out. "And Valen does not belong solely to the Minbari, as you will learn. He came to Morda for a time, before the first visit of the Dark Angel. The Great War was over, and your people had cast him out. Many considered him a prophet, at the least he was a good and learned man. Lennier, you should understand your choice. It is indeed an honor to serve her, but she will destroy you. If you embrace her cause, you embrace your own destruction. Such is the nature of the Angel of Darkness." He smiled at Lennier. "You are indeed blessed."
Lennier said nothing as he watched Velnor's breath slowly fade, and finally stop. The Markab's eyes dimmed, then fixed with a stare that looked both inward and outward. As always at such times, Lennier wondered what it was that the dead see at that last moment. He removed the blanket; Velnor would no longer need it, and another might have use of it. It was cold in the isolation chamber. With so many people in one space, the temperature had been lowered by station personnel in order to keep it comfortable overall. As the number of the living decreased, the room had grown colder. It was a heavy chill that stole through robes and stiffened joints, but at least it helped stave off the inevitable decay.
Leaving the body sitting against the wall, he said the prayer of Final Release as he crossed Velnor's arms over his heart, and closed the Markab's eyes. He sat back and closed his own, trying not to see the images that crowded behind his eyelids.
"Lennier," Delenn said from above him, her voice edged with sadness as she took in Velnor's departure. She slumped, as if her knees were suddenly weakened, and leaned against the wall for support, the useless packet of food loose in her grasp. "Is he gone? What was he saying? About Valen, and the Dark Angel?"
"He is gone," Lennier finally replied, opening his eyes, which were red-rimmed and gritty from almost nonstop use. He reached up and took the food packet from her. "He belonged to a group that worshiped a Dark Angel. They believed she brought Drafa to them as some sort of judgment."
She noticed immediately that Lennier was avoiding her gaze. His words and Velnor's, as well as the reverential attitude of the elderly Markab clicked together in her mind, and her eyes widened in shock, "He did not think that I..."
Briefly Lennier considered whether the situation justified a false statement to spare her. "He was mistaken," he finally replied, trying to pack his voice with certainty, and not quite sure why he found that difficult. "He died in peace, thinking you were this Angel. The idea brought him comfort; forget the rest. You have nothing to do with this..." at that he looked around the room, filled with silence except for the whir of the exhaust fans and the low throbbing hum of the air recycling system. "He was mistaken."
Her eyes swam briefly with tears of remembrance, of a time when she was indeed the cause of many deaths, and she dropped her head to hide them. "Very well. At any rate, I cannot help him now." Looking around, she repeated numbly, "We cannot help any of them, but still we must try." Groping at the wall to steady herself up, her grip faltered, and she almost fell, catching herself only by grasping the dead Markab's shoulder. As she abruptly let go, his body slumped to one side, his head hitting the floor with a sickening thump. Hysteria rose in her, and she put one hand to her mouth to stifle a cry. It seemed sacrilegious to make a sound in what was now a tomb.
Lennier had risen quickly and put one arm out to steady her. Her hands were trembling and she was swaying on her feet. "When did you last eat?" he demanded.
"I do not remember," she replied. She let him help her sit down, though first she moved a small but obvious distance away from Velnor.
Lennier took a moment to straighten the Markab's body, leaving it prone but replacing the arms on his chest, and adjusting his robes. When he looked back, he saw she sat with legs crossed, back straight, and hands loose in her lap as if she was about to begin a normal mediation in her quarters.
The diversion had given her time to regain a semblance of her normal composure, and she remarked calmly, "It is difficult to keep track of time here." Her voice broke a little as she continued, "The hours have begun to bleed together in this awful place."
He admired her ability to maintain her air of dignity amidst the disorder and death that surrounded them. Opening the food packet, he split the protein bars and dried fruit strips inside between them. As they ate, he said, "Delenn, I would like to ask you a question."
"Of course," she replied. Looking carefully at him, she added, "Is this to do with Velnor? He seemed most anxious to speak with me, but actually said little."
"He spoke to me of history," replied Lennier. "He said the Markabs fought at our side a thousand years ago."
"That is true," she replied. "I have read of this in ancient scrolls in little-visited areas of the Hall of Records back on Minbar. I sometimes feel I have spent half my life researching the last war in anticipation of the next." Sighing heavily, she leaned back against the wall. "It is not an area of study I would have chosen."
"Is that why we are here?" asked Lennier. "Are our efforts in recognition of their past service, or even a device to influence their future cooperation?" He tried to keep the tint of disillusionment from his voice, but it leaked through.
"No!" she replied, shaking her head in emphasis. "I may have mentioned our old alliance as a means of convincing Ambassador Fashar to approve our joining them here, but my reasons are what I stated. They are in need, and when compassion is called for, we must in all honor answer that call." She was visibly distraught now. In despair she continued, "My own motivations are not clear to me any more. Sometimes it seems as if I am blinded by prophecy, guided only by riddles as I grope my way in the darkness."
Lennier seldom saw this aspect of his mentor. He was certain no one else did. "I do not question your reasons for this ministry."
Biting back further doubts, Delenn said with finality, "It matters not what others think. As long as we are honest with ourselves as to our motives, that is what is important." A subtle movement on the far wall brought her slowly to her feet. "You rest a moment longer, Lennier. I will see to it."
Lennier watched her pass the row of Markabs along the walls; they might have been asleep aside from their terrible stillness. Though the full import of the prophecies that swirled around his mentor was beyond his understanding, he believed in her as fervently as Velnor had. That is why he had pledged to stay by her side; that is why he was here, immersed in the reality of the sights and smells and sounds of death. He recalled a saying of Valen's: 'The person may be wrong, but it matters not if the cause is right.' Delenn might doubt herself, but he would entertain no such qualms.
He rose stiffly to his feet, and saw she was helping a young male Markab to sit up, allowing him to take a drink of water. The light from overhead shone down on her like a beacon, outlining her dark hair and brilliant robes. For an instant, he saw her as Velnor had; bright and terrible, bent on war, leading them all towards destruction. Her choices would determine who lived and who died. Glancing around the chill room, the bodies of the dead seemed to reproach him, and also to shout a silent warning of what lay ahead. Deep inside he knew the future held trials more fearsome than mere death. Fear forced his heart to climb up into his throat, and he choked on it, wishing for a moment that he was anywhere else but here.
Then she turned and smiled, holding out her hand to him, seeking his assistance and support. And he went to her, as he always had and always would. His choice was made. For better or worse, Lennier had found his Angel.