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I - Pith
Caiatl's feet stubbornly refused to touch the floor.
She—at least, the loose approximation of her body—floated inelegantly in the Psion's Mindscape. She reached out for purchase as a bit of geometry drifted by, but her hands were as intangible as smoke.
She growled. "Can you increase the… clarity?" she spoke aloud.
An indignant chirp filled her mind, a flutter of yellow, the tensile sensation of bending green wood.
"Then try harder," she said, not without affection.
The floor of the Mindscape buckled and then rose to meet her. There was no sensation as she stood upright. She took a step. The space swirled around her; dense, gaseous, like walking inside a headache.
She peered into the gray, unimpressed. Her tour of the arena where the Guardians and Lucent Hive would fight was proving disappointing. "Is this all there is?"
The Psion sent her a telepathic explanation: hosting Lightless beings in a Psion's Mindscape was like holding up a hazy mirror, reflecting what was held inside. It would be different, more tangible, for the Lucent Hive. For the Guardians.
"For those with the Light," she sighed, and as she did, a yellow glow lit the mist around her.
She turned. Far above her manifested the immense visage of Dominus Ghaul. Dirty white storm clouds swirled to form the peaks of his armor. He burned with Light from within, triumphant even in defeat.
She shook her head. A Guardian with the Synaptic Spear would be able to destroy this aspect, but she was Lightless and could never share the Mindscape with another. She looked up at Ghaul's beatific face with rising anger, ashamed that her image of him was so magnificent.
The Psion sent her a sharp warning in response: regret, guilt, danger.
She understood: you face what you bring with you.
Ghaul's image parted, revealing Torobatl shining proudly in the night sky.
Caiatl tried desperately to change her focus. She willed into being Ignovun and his ridiculous tusked helmet, Commander Zavala and his cohorts, the holders of the blood treaty, but they were faint and small against the open sky. She searched herself for strength, but Umun'arath's form rose unbidden before her, blood pouring from her wounds, howling in victory.
Caiatl drew back.
Torobatl withered in the sky, its greens and blues fouling to reds and blacks. Caiatl choked on the stench of corpses piled on fields of ash, seas clotted with rot. Dark smoke poured from her dead world and framed the screaming face of Xivu Arath.
And something loomed from behind it—something she knew.
Xivu Arath towered in the sky, but now her father's corpulence spread to contain all she could see. His finery was tarnished; his purple silks dripped with rank saliva, his gold armor caked with pus. His form swelled grotesquely as it surged toward her. His wet mouth opened, lips slick with sweet fat. His bulging eyes stared wildly at nothing.
She saw the floor of the Mindscape rise and transform into a barrier; the Psion was attempting to block Calus out.
"No," she commanded, her voice tight. The barrier dissipated.
She walked closer, moving to meet Calus's figure. The floor reformed tentatively beneath her feet.
Calus bellowed, and for a moment, she was a flea on her father's enormous body. She moved through his cloudy form, within his flesh, the air thick with the rancid stink of wine and blood and vomit.
She fought her way inward, through the billowing foulness of him, pushing deeper against the gagging smother of his heat. Her form began to lose definition. It threatened to be absorbed by the fetid system around her, and still she fought, and still she fought—
Until she reached the center, where a form stood at peace in brilliant clarity: her tusks studded with gems, her armor glorious, her eyes clear, her muscles strong.
"There you are," Caiatl whispered, and smiled at herself.
II - Devotion
"You brought your own cup?"
Devrim smiled awkwardly after asking the question. A tea set balanced delicately beside him on the split log he used as a seat. From the other side of the campfire, Saint-14 looked comically oversized as he cradled a blue-and-white ceramic teacup in one large hand. His helmet was off, set in the dirt beside his feet. A slow smile crept across Saint's mouth as he looked at the cup.
"Not that I mind," Devrim continued and motioned with his own teacup. "It's just—normally, people don't come this prepared for afternoon tea. Although, yours looks like it's, ah, seen a few fights." Though Devrim chuckled, his assessment was accurate. Saint's teacup was chipped around the brim; the handle had been broken off at one point and crudely glued back into place.
Saint laughed to himself. "It is a memento," he said. "The cup is nothing special, just ceramic and paint. But it is the damage that makes it important." He finished his tea and offered the cup out to Devrim, who carefully took it to inspect.
"I forget where I got it. Sat on a shelf in my home long before Osiris and I lived together, before he was exiled. One day, he barges into my home looking for an argument…" Saint said, watching Devrim. "Osiris, he gets very heated when he is angry; arms like this!" Saint waved his arms around in pantomime. "Very animated."
Devrim laughed as he handed Saint's teacup back. "That sounds about right."
"We argue. Very loud. He accidentally knocks my teacup off shelf, breaks it," Saint said, lowering his voice. "The argument stops. We both feel bad. Osiris apologizes, I apologize. Then…" Saint stared into the fire. "Then, he touches my cheek. His eyes say things that words cannot. He leaves. I sweep up the shards and…"
Saint's voice trailed off into nothingness. The amusement left Devrim's eyes as he looked down into the rippling surface of his tea. "How is he?" It was the question Devrim had been too afraid to ask. Saint's shoulders slouched in response, and that was almost all the reply Devrim needed.
"Not good," Saint quietly confessed. "He is alive. But… his body is there, his mind is not. It is like he is on a journey and cannot find his way home. Or…" Saint shook his head. He honestly wasn't sure. No one was.
Devrim set his teacup down on the log. He rose and crossed the distance to Saint and then laid a hand on the Titan's shoulder. Devrim looked into Saint's vibrant, mechanical eyes with sympathy. "Marc and I are having Suraya over for dinner tonight," he said with a small, hesitant smile. "I know it's short notice, but you should come."
"I…" Saint looked away. "I shouldn't. I should be with Osiris in case he—"
"Osiris has many people waiting by his side tonight. He isn't alone. You shouldn't be either," Devrim pressed as he let his hand slip away from Saint's shoulder. "Dinner. Please."
Saint stared down at the chips in his teacup, and fell deeper into the memory of that day. He would give anything to be able to live it over again. To have Osiris by his side, to have something as simple as the touch of a hand on his cheek. But that day isn't today.
"Okay," Saint whispered.
And it may not be tomorrow, either.
III - Cold Forging
"Eyes up, New Lights."
The Guardians gathered at uneasy attention, fidgeting in their new armor. Han leapt onto the hood of a rusted-out car so he could be seen over the massive Titans standing in the front.
"You may have heard they're coming for you," Han said. "That the Hive God of Trickery got her claws on the Light somehow, and now she's sending the toughest baddies humanity has ever faced to drain the life from your carcasses."
"You heard right."
The Guardians lifted their weapons and eyed the skies warily.
"They're coming to the Cosmodrome because the stories they're most frightened of have their beginnings here. They want to wipe out a whole generation of Guardians at its source." Han pointed at the Guardians, who were still holding their weapons anxiously. "They think that they can hit you while you're all still green, before you've got your feet under you. They think you'll go down easy."
A haggard crow, cawing harshly, rose from somewhere within the sea of twisted metal. Han smiled and pulled a small canister from his belt, gave it a sharp twist, and tossed it carelessly into the row of cars behind him.
The Guardians leaned forward in anticipation, but nothing happened.
"And that's where they're wrong," he continued.
"They have the Light, same as you. They're strong, same as you. But you kicked your way out of your coffins right here in the heart of Old Russia—like so many of the greats before you—and you found yourself in the Vanguard."
Han waited for a moment as if tasting the air.
"And being part of the Vanguard… that means something. The most powerful warriors the world has ever known are here for you. Ikora, Zavala, Saladin, Shaxx, Saint-14… the Guardians who have driven the Hive back into their holes again and again—they're up in the Tower, and they have your back."
"Show them you're willing to fight for the Vanguard, and they'll show you things you wouldn't believe. You'll learn how to weave a shield out of starlight. You'll learn how to wield a blade as hot as the sun—"
Behind him, a sudden explosion sent a geyser of dirt and rusted metal high into the air. The startled Guardians huddled together.
"—and you'll learn the importance of Tripmine Grenades," Han finished as he turned. Through the settling dust, he could make out the crumpled remains of a Lucent Hive Knight.
"One second," he said.
He crept toward the remains, shot his hand into the clearing smoke, and withdrew it with a Hive Ghost squirming in his fist.
The Ghost's sharp shell dug into Han's palm. Red blood flowed down over its flickering green iris.
"You're all going to die here!" it hissed.
Han leapt back onto the hood of the car, still holding the Ghost tightly. "Ghosts are tough to kill—both ours and theirs," he said. "It takes overwhelming firepower, or a special kind of weapon. Something outside the laws of cause and effect. Something paracausal."
Han fixed his gaze on the assembled Guardians and crushed the Ghost in his fist. It burst in a flash of bubbling flame.
"Something like us," Han said. "Like you."
A roar echoed from the distant forest. Dark flames erupted from the tree line as Wizards took to the sky. The ground shook as a clot of bellowing Ogres tore across the field, flinging the remains of ruined cars aside as they charged.
"You," shouted Han over the cacophony, "each and every one of you are weapons, chosen by the Light. And sure, so are these Hive, and they're every bit as strong as you—when you're alone."
"But being part of the Vanguard?" Han turned toward the Hive army. His gun began to glow a brilliant gold.
"That means you're never alone."
And when the Lucent Hive reached Shaw Han, eager to feast on the New Lights… they met the Vanguard instead.
IV - Shutdown
He kept to the shadows as he made his way up to the H.E.L.M., pushing through the throngs in the Bazaar with an easy grace, inconspicuous even in his recognizable garb. His light movements belied the twist of guilt in his stomach: Saladin had requested him to handle recon on the mission, yet here he was, creeping instead through the Tower like a common thief.
There would be consequences, of course, but he could accept that. We all have to make sacrifices, he thought.
He held his breath as he opened the doors to the Psisorium. As they clicked shut behind him, he threw back his hood and allowed himself a sigh and a smile.
Crow looked up at the Lucent Hive suspended in the holding tanks—not dead, but certainly not alive. The Psion sat in its chair, twitching faintly, its long fingers moving as though tracing through water. Pulses of blue energy radiated out from the Psion's skull and into the depths of the machine.
"I've got some good news," Crow said pleasantly to the Psion as he passed.
The Psion, as always, said nothing. Crow didn't mind. It probably took all its energy to keep the Hive preserved well enough to skim through their memories.
"This war is over, thanks to you," Crow continued. "They sent the Guardian, and when the Guardian sets out to do something, it gets done."
The skin on his neck prickled at an old memory. "Believe me."
Crow approached a display interface covered in Cabal runes. He paged through menus until he saw the familiar Vanguard symbol nestled in a corner. He pressed it, and the language on the screen changed. He shook his head in wonder. "Imagine what we'll be able to make in the future when we're not busy squeezing secrets from the Hive."
Crow frowned, looking up at the holding tanks. "After all this ugliness is behind us," he said and resumed scrolling through the menus. "Now, how do we shut this thing down?"
He found his answer in a hidden directory of commands: SECURITY > OVERRIDE > SHUTDOWN > IMMEDIATE.
He paused for a moment, imagining what Saladin's reaction would be. But he, of all people, should understand. "After all," Crow said quietly to himself, "the right path isn't always easy to find."
Crow executed the command.
He walked toward the Psion as the lights on the machine began to turn red in sequence. "Let's get you out of here, friend," he said as the Psion began to stir. It blinked slowly and opened its eye. Crow smiled and waved.
"Good morning," he said. "Would you like to go get some ramen?"
The pulsing current running through the tubes in the back of the Psion's head slowed, and Crow winced as a white-hot pinpoint of pain stabbed into his mind, shrieking a single word, clear and impossibly loud:
The machine sputtered. Sparks erupted from the central hub. Cracks spiderwebbed across the holding tanks. Electricity arced from the control panel and Crow staggered backwards.
Without warning, the energy current in the tubes suddenly reversed. Waves of blue quickly flowed back toward the Psion. He was pulling at the cables connecting him to the chair when the first blast of feedback hit him. His body spasmed with pain.
Wave after wave of Psionic energy pounded into the base of the Psion's skull. His muscles stood out in sharp relief as he pulled against the cables, his hands desperate claws, his face stretched with terror.
The pulses thrummed faster and faster and the Psion began to scream; a high, thin noise. He beat at his own head with one spindly hand, and reached the other out toward Crow.
Crow reached back as another wave of energy hit the Psion, bursting his retina, turning his eye into a muddy black sphere. Crow recoiled in horror, his mind pierced by unimaginable pain, and he fell to the floor in a heap.
The machine groaned, hissing smoke, the holding tanks boiling, the Hive bodies inside dancing grotesquely in the roiling fluid. The blaring sirens began to overpower the hoarse, sustained screaming.
Something snapped inside the machine and it shuddered to a stop.
And, finally, silence.
V - Rite Proven
Saladin hears Caiatl's voice boom over the endless drone of the imperial cruiser's engines. Grains of bloodied sand trickle from the ceiling of the Cabal-sized elevator and fall against his helm as he rides up to the brightly lit arena floor.
"Guhrn Or'ohk, Valus in the empress's service. You challenge the Iron Lord Saladin Forge, Bracus in the empress's service. You outrank this man." Her words circle the spectator stands, sending a hush through the gathered crew.
"As it should be." Or'ohk, his challenger, stands not ten paces in front of him.
Caiatl presses, "Why challenge him? Did this man slight you?"
Or'ohk turns to her, kicking up sand. "He walks our halls, trains our soldiers, and shares our meals as if he is Cabal. That slights. He is not Cabal. I'm not the only one to say so."
Saladin looks to Caiatl. He'd attempted to stop this, tried to staunch unnecessary violence with reason, but tradition is not so easily denied.
"This is ridiculous. Killing your officers only weakens us." Saladin stepped toward Caiatl. Even seated in her chambers, her eyes were level with his.
"Funny how our perspectives have shifted since we first met," Caiatl grunted.
"Why are you humoring this?"
"Quieting rebellious words does not weaken us. It binds authority in blood." Caiatl looked back to myriad datapads on her desk. "If he submits, no one has to die."
"That seems likely," Saladin quipped sarcastically.
Caiatl stood. "He wants you stripped of your rank and made to clean war beast pens. Indefinitely."
"And that is worth his life?"
"I know pride isn't a foreign concept to you… Lord." Caiatl spat out his title and walked past him.
The empress turned to him as she opened her chamber doors, ushering him out. "What if you lose?"
He huffed so hard he almost choked.
Caiatl nods to Saladin. To Or'ohk. They nod back.
"When the Rite of Proving was conceived, it was to be a level field of battle. We honor that tradition here!" Caiatl slams a fist down for emphasis before pointing to the arena floor. "Single combat by blades. One life, no Light. Death… or submission determines the victor."
The crowd erupts in roars as a weapon rack rises from the floor. Or'ohk lifts a heavy cleaver from the rack. Saladin sees his own axe there; he glares at Caiatl for taking it without permission and lifts the axe.
With weapons drawn, the Rite of Proving begins.
Or'ohk lunges and thrusts the cutting edge of his cleaver toward Saladin's ribs. Saladin sidesteps the massive Cabal blade and bats it down with the haft of his axe. The two test each other's range and speed with a series of back and forth half-committed strikes—until Or'ohk gains favorable footing and bursts forward to swing at Saladin's waist.
Saladin narrowly tumbles over the cleaver. Sparks of contact spit from his leg guards. He lands on his knees and jabs the blunt head of his axe against Or'ohk's exposed throat.
"This is your one chance to yield," Saladin says as the Valus sputters for air and stumbles backward. Or'ohk's cough turns to laughter. He kicks up a cloud of sand and leaps with his cleaver brandished overhead. Saladin wipes granules from his visor and raises his axe to block Or'ohk's heavy swing. The Iron Lord absorbs the shock and controls Or'ohk's blade, sliding it down to catch on his axe-head, and pivoting the weapon's hefty pommel to butt Or'ohk hard in the face.
Or'ohk staggers away and slashes wildly, splitting Saladin's visor and drawing blood. The Iron Lord throws his ruined helm to the ground and wipes blood. He advances, ducking under a deterring swing, parries a second chop away, and severs the Valus's hand.
"Yield!" Saladin growls as blood pours onto the sand.
Or'ohk looks to him, to the cleaver still clutched in his detached hand, and back to Saladin. "Never to you." He dives for the cleaver.
Saladin swings, catching Or'ohk's jaw, spewing blood. Or'ohk tenses for a moment, then falls limp.
The Iron Lord sighs and wrenches his axe free, painted as a warrior in the eyes of the Cabal.
Cheers erupt. Caiatl's voice cuts through the frenzied crowd.
"Rise… Valus Forge!"