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Wallace stared into Vared's still face. Unable to bear the sight, he hugged his lord's body tight against his chest, his head back and eyes closed as he rocked back on his heels. Vared, his lord and friend, mentor, benefactor and guide lay dead in his arms. An ache grew deep within him, the advent of suffering, harbinger of greater ills to come.
He reverently laid the body on the black marble floor, oblivious to those gathered around them. His dagger, forever ruined by blood and made worthless, glinted crimson in the reflected light, a thousand years of distinction and place now made void with the forbidden stain. In its stead Vared's blade was his, an honor and advancement in rank but one that offered little joy. For now he occupied the regent's office -- he possessed Vared's dagger and therefore his position -- an office he did not seek, yet one he was forbidden to refuse. With a prayer on his lips for the deliverance of Cembel and her Alliance he stood and sheathed his mentor's blade.
Above the gilded Concord Cathedral heavy artillery phased up. A steady vibration shuddered through the stone, increasing in pitch, the resonance of battle cruisers, an Ami-Den Wolf Pack.
Below, mourners clustered together, black-shrouded images of despair. Richly embroidered velvet draped the queen's coffin, barely visible beneath the crush of red roses, her favorite. Death had sealed her final command, rendered law by her signature. Vared had said as much. They would not return fire when the Jackdaw struck but would suffer the assault without raising a hand in their own defense. He thought it a cowardly action.
A man gripped his shoulder. "Whathappened?" whispered Destazio, his young face ashen. He gazed upon the lifeless Vared.
Wallace withheld an answer and shrugged away the hand, the touch of a usurper he was ordered and sworn to protect. The thought sickened and he drove it from his mind.
Encircling them both, heavily armed black-clad infantry warriors stealthily loosed weapons from scabbards. Eagle feather insignia shone silver on their breasts, the emblem of the queen's Royal Guard. Ferocious men bred for protection and trained for butchery, they were tested at birth. If found worthy they were taken and conditioned for life, refused heritage and denied dagger, and proud to be so. No wives. No children. No family. The finest in all Cembel. And now given over to the Jackdaw warriors of Ami-Den by royal decree. Upon command each man dimmed his visor.
"I asked you what happened?" Destazio demanded, his voice arrogant and cold. Blond hair curled about his face. He gestured toward Wallace's dagger. "Is that not your--"
"Yes." Wallace held up his hand to stay the questions. "It's mine. He took his own life with it." He spoke with great effort, for he had never witnessed an act so irrational or one more forbidden. He looked away from the startled face of the imminent king and glanced at the dead man. Vared's actions had irreversibly mapped his own future.
Two guards of the Queen's Eagle closed to either side of him. "You will come with us, sir," one said, a tall man whose expression remained hidden behind his darkened visor, though accusation was clear in his tone.
Wallace nodded. It was the only action open to them in the aftermath of Vared's death. He dropped to one knee, bent and kissed his mentor's wrinkled cheek.
The face was peaceful, eyes closed as though asleep, skin only beginning to cool. How often he'd seen that face filled with gladness, a smile emanating from sharp eyes, a note of joy in the voice. Dear God, what torment had invaded his lord's mind to bring forth such a wicked act as this? In his heart he bade farewell to his fallen friend, whom he would mourn forever.
The tall Eagle gripped his shoulder. "On your feet." Wallace jerked away but rose as ordered.
"That is your dagger, is it not, sir?" The guard gestured toward Vared.
Wallace glanced at the hurtful image and nodded. "It is, but I've been given his as replacement." From his own sheath he drew Vared's dagger partway.
The guard leveled his weapon. "Step away, sir, and come with us."
Wallace eyed the weapon and reluctantly obeyed. Eagles used lethal rounds of plasma with little concussion, only a snicking sound that left a burned hole in any target, their slim weapons set to kill rather than paralyze.
Destazio stepped forward, all arrogant aggression and ill-concealed hope. "You killed him?" His demeanor was overbearing, his tone belligerent. Wallace glared at his ward. That the question was asked was disgraceful. That it be answered, worse still.
"You are not king yet, young prince. You may question me, your regent, when you become so. Not before."
"That day will come soon enough," Destazio answered, a glint in his spoiled eye. "Watch what you say, Regent. A king has awesome power, and this king possesses a long memory."
Wallace stepped to the side in compliance with the Eagle, offering no reply. This king might have a long memory but he was without mercy and careless of his people.
The usurper thrust his chin forward, his expression sour. He addressed the officer, even though the Eagle's back was to him.
"See that he is well guarded."
He moved from their path with a flourish of his bejeweled hand, his lust for power gleaming from faded, hard eyes. Why had the queen named him successor over her own son? What misplaced loyalty had overtaken Vared that he could support her decision? Cruel questions. And answerless.
The Eagle commander, resplendent in silver trim from shoulder to decorative rosette of gold at his Asp-belt, issued orders via his com. His men reformed, a solid wall of armored flesh. Wallace stood with hands slightly raised, offering no provocation, his back to the balcony rail and the crowd below.
Two Eagles knelt and wrapped Vared's robe of office tightly about the body. Two others joined them and lifted his lifeless form. Wallace looked away from the blood staining the dark floor and raised his eyes to the vaulted cathedral dome while warriors carried the body away. Even from the lavishly decorated balcony the cathedral dome appeared lofty, a vast space crowned with crude stone of purest white, inlaid with golden-encased frescoes and mosaics of onyx and silver. Dust motes danced in varied shades of tinted light, shot by the sinking sun through the stained glass rosette filling the west wall. Any other time the sight would have been inspiring, beautiful.
A moment of silence filled the awesome structure before a solitary voice rose and pierced the crowded building with the high, sad melody of the mourner's requiem. Clear and lovely, the notes trembled in the air and plucked at Wallace's torn heart. A lump rose in his throat. How he would miss them both, his queen and her regent.
"This way, sir." The Eagle commander nodded toward the intricately carved door at the rear of the balcony. Guards took up flanking positions near them. The fragrance of roses hung in the air, the pleasant odor at odds with the pall of death. Wallace lowered his head in resignation and moved upon command.
With a shudder of power only the seasoned comprehended the Wolf Pack idling above burst into a roar of battle readiness. Wallace caught his breath. His heart tripped in his chest. The cathedral quieted beneath the music. All eyes fastened on the vaulted ceiling above, the grand mosaics of Cembelese warriors rushing to battle in phalanx formation, the point man's hand raised above his console's colored lights in a firing position. Angels swooped down from heaven to guard them. The obscured face of God looked on from beyond.
Wallace flinched at the sound, so familiar and now so full of doom. The Jackdaw, a war-mongering and brutal race, sounded their attack. The static air inside the cathedral electrified, a precursor to the actual shot. Eagles looked to their silver-trimmed commander, whose weapon sagged in his hand. His helmeted face turned skyward, toward a ceiling thin as fog against such firepower as the enemy possessed. A shout to his troops died beneath the booming violence of a laser cannon, the first volley.
As with a ripple upon still water, the west corner of the cathedral wavered, then burst inward in a current of shattered stone and glass, flying debris and flame. Below the balcony black smoke roiled across the bereaved.
The concussion slammed the senses and strained eardrums, deafening many.
Instinctively Wallace ducked away and flung his left arm up to protect his face. He drew his own Asp. "Destazio!" he shouted, his duty not forgotten.
The solo voice of the vocalist ended in a scream of agony, a keening wail that died away gradually, fading into echoes of destruction. Beauty died with it. Here was the advent of disaster.
Below, shrieking mourners surged toward the rear entrance in a chaotic wave of terror. The courteous turned brutal; the gentle became ferocious. A young mother screamed for her child who was swept away by the crowd. An old man fell and none paid heed. Countless more were crushed against walls and doorframes or were trampled underfoot in the rush to escape. The ravaged fled the cathedral into the imagined safety of the streets.
Stone dust filled Wallace's lungs, stung his eyes and obscured his vision. Now forgotten by warriors who surged around him he lost sight of his young ward in the upheaval.
A second salvo tracked the path of the first.
Flames burst from the building's corner, rolled outward and engulfed the hapless in great waves of orange and red. The queen's golden casket toppled from its gilded stand in a scatter of smoking, blackened roses. Black smoke billowed upward, dimming the bright ceiling, while it choked the living and swirled beneath arched entryways and corbeled windows.
With a deep roar the third volley came faster and more destructive than the others. The spired west end of the cathedral shattered into spinning, sizzling fragments -- shrapnel disappeared into the crowd, cutting hot pathways through soft flesh wherever fate determined.
Shocked and decimated mourners littered the scene. Some struggled to move. Others lay dead. The screams of the wounded battered the ears of the healthy.
On the balcony, the barrage crushed the air from Wallace's lungs, the feel of immense weight to his chest. As the third blast slammed him to his knees heat flashed across his skin. A fragment grazed his cheek and he fell back, the air around him hot with flaming debris. Stunned by the blast he lay still, his vision blurred and breath shallow. Time seemed stagnant. He prayed for the shock to pass.
At last he drew a torturous breath of fouled air, blinked away the grit and smoke and rolled up onto his knees.
"Destazio!" he shouted, then coughed. Chaotic movement all around him increased disorientation. Smoke rendered shapes hazy and indistinct. He sheathed his Asp, worthless against such firepower. "Destazio!"
From his left came an answer. "Wallace!" The crown prince staggered toward him.
Wallace pulled himself up with the hot balustrade and stumbled toward the voice as a strafing run cut through the balcony. The bright beam sizzled through the building, turning everything in its path to brimstone and smoke.
Destazio reached for him, one bloody arm outstretched, straining to stay upright on the swaying balcony. Shredded, burned remnants of his uniform clung to scorched skin. Flying debris had lashed his face. He acted as though lost, unable to judge his direction, helpless to see his way clear.
Wallace called, striving to be heard above the din of screams, shouts, falling stone and the roar of fire. The future king lurched toward the sound of his voice. He stumbled. Wallace lunged to catch him, grunting from the effort, and was driven to the floor beneath the sudden weight.
Wallace panted for breath, then grabbed the usurper and heaved them both up, swinging Destazio's good arm across his shoulder. He hauled his charge toward the stairs. Behind them stone arches collapsed in a grinding roar. Smoke and dust stormed around them, blinding and thick. Beside him, Destazio groaned, then fainted, a dead weight Wallace could no longer support. He slid to his knees on the stairs, cursing his queen for her treachery.
Eagles rushed by on both sides. They shoved past him, bumping his shoulders, polished boots flashing black against the marble, their sound absent in the uproar. He lost his grip on Destazio, fell several steps and slammed hard against the wall, then regained his feet and fought his way through wave after wave of the black-clad guards.
"Destazio!" he shouted into the thunder of another round. The ruined cathedral shuddered and a wall opened to the outside in cascades of tumbling stone and shattered glass. Half the ceiling gave way, its silver trim now melted droplets that splattered hewn stone blocks and leaked onto the bodies beneath them.
Another volley roared in his ears and the building across the common disintegrated. The Jackdaw were laying waste specific targets, not intending widespread destruction but localized devastation. A black-garbed body tumbled down the stairs, pinning him against the wall, reeking of burnt flesh. He shoved it aside, taking the stairs two at a time.
"Destazio!" The pretender lay on the stairs above, head wedged against the stairwell wall.
Three steps away Wallace lunged, but before his grip was sure the staircase collapsed in an explosion of dust and stone. Again he lost Destazio and fell with the rumbling marble.
Blackness, then a fight for breath, his ribs on fire, mouth filled with grit. Above him, open sky. He coughed up blood, rested his forehead on the hot stone for a moment, then struggled to stand. He braced against the rubble, spied Destazio's limp body on a slab of fractured stone above. He reached, caught the toe of the king's boot and heaved back. Destazio's body fell across his shoulders, the weight staggering.
Outside, the cannon fire had turned buildings and commons into heaps of smoking rubble, and Cembel's trapped and dying citizenry blundered through the wreckage.
Wallace stumbled into the common on the north side of the cathedral, despair matching him stride for stride. Although the Jackdaw had used weapons common to contained and specific targets, they'd used them repeatedly. Devastation filled his view for as far as the eye could see. His city glowed red from the Wolf Pack guns. The azure sky filled with billowing pillars of smoke. Injured Cembelese lay unattended, begging for help Wallace could not stop to render. The dead littered the commons, crowded the concourses and choked the alleyway, those who had survived the cathedral but had failed to escape the guns.
Jackdaw infantry stormed the commons, armored and heavily equipped, firing at will, their Asps set to kill. Children lay bleeding in the gutter. Mothers screamed. Men cursed and shouted and died.
Across the concourse a young girl of perhaps six or seven screamed as she ran, pleading for her own life. Wallace winced, a curse on his lips, as a Jackdaw marksman calmly shot her and moved on to the next.
The hum of the Wolf Pack vibrated in his bones. Small arms fire hissed and sizzled from all directions. Cannon fire roared across the land, the devastation not yet complete. Behind him the cathedral groaned, her structure ruined beyond repair, her strength ripped from her bones. With the power of a detonation and the sound of thunder the ancient building collapsed in a wall of dust, flame and ruin.
He hesitated only briefly, his burden heavier in his heart than on his back. His mind raced. Where to go? What to do? How to keep his charge safe from the slaughter? They mustn't kill or capture the heir, his responsibility. The nearest dock was sectors away and the first of the Keeps much farther. He turned and ran for the alley, his path aflame and hot.
From the corner of his eye he saw Jackdaw infantry, and a marksman tracked his movement.
Behind him he heard the snicking sound of a weapon brought to full cock, and a deep voice shouted, "Fire!"
Copyright © 2004 by E. L. Noel