CHAPTER six:

THE difficulties

“Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.”

Art: Jason Metcalf & Chris Sotomayor

Vanguard, - Alpha Squad: Sutu, Kathryn, Sicarius, Daxia, and Samuel

The capital of Sicarius’s home world, Auxidian, was the only human settlement that Kathryn could refer to as a city. She flew pass villages and hamlets as she made her way to the center of the remaining civilization, keeping out of sight and traveling mainly at night. She flew as low to the ground as she could. During her journey, she never once saw anything indicating Deltria was a natural resource on this planet – her sensor remained unchanged.

 

Unlike the settlements she had seen, the Pyre, as the locals seemed to call this place, was foreboding and impressive, with a massive and intimidating city center. Reaching three hundred feet into the air, the structure was peaked with several metal beams that formed a pyramid-like framework but was open-air with several balconies and terraces interspersed between the enormous pillars.

 

Heavily populated, it was easy to navigate into the city with the crowds of people coming to and from the main gates to the nerve center of this planet. It was the strangest scene for Kathryn, as for all the people there, none of them were talking to one another save for the few people clearing transactions and purchases. No one paid her any attention. Even the plentiful guards ignored her.

 

What did Vita call them? The chosen? The thought of the old woman she had killed just days before did nothing to stir her – she, her husband, and Samuel were all just casualties of her own personal war. Staying outside of the city walls would be impractical for her mission, the commute taking much precious time from her as she would have to walk. While there was public transport, it seemed that everyone was getting around via identification embedded into their bodies, she watched as bare wrists were exposed at the thresholds of all forms of transportation before being allowed to board. The walk itself was pleasant, with something akin to storefronts giving her plenty to look at. The streets were concrete and paved -though it seemed all the buildings were wood framed, a jarring juxtaposition to the bright metals that trimmed edifices and glimmered in the two bright suns.

 

All this sneaking around was much more Sicarius’s pace, she idly thought to herself as she placed one foot in front of the other. During her travel, she had spent a lot of time thinking about the completion of her mission – how it would play out – and what, if any, consequences she would face for having murdered her teammate. She knew that ultimately, Overseer was someone who sought results, and she surmised he wouldn’t care much if she delivered.

 

Sicarius though…

 

The thought of her commanding officer gave her some discomfort, though her face didn’t show any change as she navigated through the throngs of people deeper in the heart of the city. Always hovering over her, she sneered at the thought of Sicarius sending someone as feckless and weak as Samuel to babysit. Although, a part of her couldn’t blame him, he was tasked with keeping tabs on her from Overseer by way of Orthus. Still, she couldn’t stand that kind of scrutiny and oversight. She was perfectly capable of accomplishing a lot on her own.

 

Distracted by her own thoughts, she bumped into someone - a young woman whose dark black hair, fashioned into tight buns on top of her head, shined mercilessly in the sunlight. Her dark complexion was smooth and flawless, and she offered Kathryn an apologetic smile.

 

“So sorry,” she said in passing. Kathryn stopped her, “Oh, no you’re fine! But can I bother you for a minute?”

 

The young lady looked up at Kathryn, a look of slight fear in her eyes.

 

Why was she so scared?

 

“Uhhh…okay.” The woman’s eyes darted around them, as if checking to see if they were being watched.

“I just need to know where I can find a place to stay for the next few nights…” the woman continued to look at her, this time with bewilderment.

 

“Mmm, I’m from out of town, you see,” Kathryn offered her in explanation.

 

At that, the woman seemed to relax, sighing even, “Oh, well all boarding houses are the large establishments closest to the Pyre.”

The Pyre, that must be the capitol building, not the name of the city itself. She catalogued the knowledge neatly in her head. Gathering information was her specialty, and it’s what gave her a leg up in integrating herself into any given situation.

 

Flashing a sweet smile at the young woman, she nodded, “Thank you so much!” And with that, the two of them parted ways, slipping back into the current of moving bodies.

 

Kathryn shifted her rucksack more securely on her shoulder and moved with purpose, now that she knew where she was going.

 

It was then, as she marched ever onward, that she took stock of the eyes around her. The woman obviously felt watched, could it really be by the guards, the chosen? There was an absolute abundance of them – at least ten young men and women per block – all uniformed in attire meant to command authority. But they were poorly designed for functionality. They did a good job of their actual purpose – covered head-to-toe in white, you couldn’t see any of their faces, obscured by a full masked visor and helmet. Draped robes covered most of their body, but she saw brilliant metallic armor peeking out from behind the cloaks. They carried a variety of weaponry, but most importantly, every unit or so had a rifle – exactly like the one she had used to kill Samuel.

 

These were the eyes – the guards – the chosen that Vita had mentioned. She wondered how Vita and Rannic got a hold of the rifle as she turned a corner, snaking her way through the streets to get closer to the Pyre.

 

“I suppose the pride of your own child isn’t the same as the pride of a sibling.” She remembered Vita saying to her when she lied about having a brother in the service in the capital. They must have had a son. Or maybe still have a son?

No. She corrected herself. There would be no reason for them to have the rifle if he were still alive.

 

With nothing but the sound of shuffling feet, bodies, and packages, she finally came to a cross street lined with boarding houses. Tonight, would be for reconnaissance only, but she wanted to make the least amount of notice, even if she were part of the crowd of people inhabiting this city. She needed a busy establishment, perhaps one attached to…

 

She eyed the signs and found one hanging above a busy restaurant, though few people were eating, many were drinking on the veranda. A bar.

 

An easy choice.

 

On the Dominion Homeworld, Sicarius looked across the breadth of troops in front of him with the Ludus as they prepared for the impending Jump to the Dominion’s next targeted planet for occupation and cleansing. Most of them had been through this dozens of times. But only dozens. The Dominion method of scouting was necessary, although it could be seen as brutal – sending in initial waves of Vanguard to either land in peace, fight for survival, or die in the oblivion of space-time when the coordinates proved uninhabitable, or worse yet, unreliable. He knew his predecessor had fallen victim to the vacuum of space. Since then, he had changed protocol that all Vanguard personnel have atmospheric ready modules equipped to their Greys.

 

Scanning through the masses he noticed in his Alpha Group two missing faces.

 

He didn’t see Kathryn.

 

And He didn’t see Samuel.


Lifting his clean-shaven chin curtly, he signaled to Daxia, who quickly obliged his request and stepped out of formation to come towards him.

 

“Yes, sir?”

“Daxia, have you seen Samuel or Kathryn?”

Furrowing her brows, the ridges on her skin rippled at her consternation and she looked at him, head cocked to the side, “No, sir. Not since after your sparring sessions.”

That was three days ago.

 

Sicarius adjusted his posture, straightening his broad shoulders, his mind trying to come up with a decent enough reason for both of their absences and failing.

 

He called out to the remaining Alpha Squad member, “Sutu!”

 

The large, red Vanguard marched his way to the two, keeping his head high, “SIR!” He bellowed.

 

“Perform a readiness cross-check.”

 

“Yes, sir!” The larger man responded, nodding in acknowledgment.

 

“Daxia and I will return as soon as we can. You are not permitted to allow for departure without me here, is that understood?”

“Understood, sir!”

Sutu walked back towards the rank and file of the Vanguard and began to methodically inspect each of the members to make sure they were equipped properly. Standing in silence, Sicarius observed him, knowing full well that Sutu was capable of following through, though his mind was already coming up with different scenarios that he and Daxia would encounter in investigating Samuel and Kathryn’s obvious absence.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

And with those two words, the First and Second of Vanguard Alpha left the Ludus.

 
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The two suns of Auxidian finally fell behind the horizon, leaving a hazy dusk in their departure, and Kathryn knew it was time to leave her room.

 

Having asked for a room facing away from the Pyre, much to the confusion of the concierge of the boarding house, she opened it, the fresh, warm air of the city and all its noises rushing at her. Dressed in her Greys, and equipped with her Deltria sensor, she brought her Screen-Up as she slipped out of her room and flew her way to the top of the building, flush with the edifice of the structure to deter detection.

 

Crouched next to a flue, facing the Pyre, she pressed her body into the angled roof as best she could, navigating her visor’s sensory menus and activating the Deltria module.

 

Her screen lit up immediately.

 

The beams adorning the top of the Pyre were made entirely of Deltria and the brilliant indication lights made her close her eyes. Peeking behind her lashes, she turned down the brightness on her sensor to accommodate.

As promising as this was, there was no way she was going to be able to bring back an entire pillar of Deltria for proof of existence of another fourth dimensional being. She scanned lower, seeing several bright spots in the room directly below the pyramid. Switching tactics, she changed her Screen-Up to heat sensory, and again, her screen lit up.

Kathryn on the rooftop of her boarding house, casing the Pyre. 

There were hundreds of guards fortifying the building – four at each entry, and even more lining the immediate entryways inside of the building, that she could see. There could be hundreds more inside. Looking at all access points, she was encountered with the same information. Too many guards.

 

She didn’t want to start an all-out war, but there was no way for her to bypass that many guards without detection, especially in an unmapped, unknown building, looking for an unknown object, nonetheless. Her mood soured, and her face matched it. She brought up her hand to her mouth, rubbing her knuckle across her lips back and forth as she thought on how next to proceed.

 

All-out assault would be impossible. Even with my powers fully restored, I couldn’t account for that many combatants.

 

The least populated entry still has four exterior guards…and there’s no way I’d be able to silence them all at once without creating a ruckus.

 

It is only dusk…I’ll just wait to see how their shift change goes.

 

And with that thought, she settled in place, finding a solid footing against the rooftop tiles for her boots. Keeping her eyes constantly rotating across the expanse of the building, she kept an eye on the internal clock of her Screen-Up against the passage of the night sky.

 

It’d be an all-nighter.

 

Sicarius lifted his hand, about to punch in the access code to Kathryn and Ellius’s dormitory, but he stopped, instead, making a fist and knocking on the door.

 

He heard movement inside the flat, but no one came to answer for quite a while. He looked over to his second in command, and Daxia’s face was expressionless as ever. He always admired her for that. While he could easily describe himself as stoic, Daxia had the unnerving ability to literally be completely neutral no matter the circumstances, the alien-ness of her face only helping her ability to hide what she was really thinking or feeling.

 

Finally, the door opened, and it was Ellius’s bright red face he saw.

 

“Soldier.” Sicarius acknowledged her.

 

“Sir.” She responded.

 

Looking beyond her, he didn’t see Kathryn.

 

“I’m looking for your roommate.”

Ellius shifted her weight, not answering immediately. Sicarius raised his eyebrow at her, his large brown eyes beginning to narrow at her suspiciously.

 

“She’s not here,” the red head offered.

 

“Where is she?” The tone in his voice was the same tone he used on his own troops commanding and authoritatively demanding an answer.

 

Ellius’s lips tightened as her eyes darted between Sicarius and Daxia, who had lifted her chin and was looking down her nose at the Legion, sizing her up.

 

“Ummm…I don’t actually know.” She was clearly nervous, trying, and failing, to keep a nonchalance about her ignorance of her roommate’s whereabouts. Her hand moved from the door to the frame, where her fingers began to fidget against the cool metal.

 

Sicarius, normally a patient man, was quickly getting irritated at her obvious evasiveness. However, he had no proof of her lying beyond his own observations and could do nothing at this moment to reprimand her based on nothing but his gut feelings.

 

“Daxia,” he didn’t take his eyes off Ellius, dominating their shared gaze with intimidation as he spoke to his second in command, “Search the apartment.”

 

Barging past the woman, Daxia forced her way into the flat, beelining it to Kathryn’s room.

 

Sicarius and Ellius stood in silence, still staring at one another, as the noise of Kathryn’s room being turned upside down in a search for clues to where she had gone clanged through the empty halls of the dormitory.

 

“The Dominion will find her, Ellius.” His voice was quiet, but assured, and he clenched his jaw tightly after, waiting for a rebuff that wouldn’t come, as the soldier remained utterly silent.

 

Things were being tossed aside and the violent crashing of items and furniture filled the quiet apartment. A few doors opened behind Sicarius, as others began to hear the loud noises coming from the end of the hallway.

 

“Go back inside.” He spoke over his shoulder to the number of curious onlookers. He only got murmurs in response, with only a handful listening immediately, several stayed, unsure if they should take his command.

 

“NOW!” He bellowed at them, and a flurry of doors being shut answered him.

 

Turning back to Ellius, he narrowed his eyes further, Daxia clearly not finding anything of note yet, having moved from Kathryn’s room to Ellius’s room.

 

“If we find out that you are hiding something about where she is…”

 

Ellius bit her lower lip, a look of guilt on her face as she searched Sicarius for any sign of empathy. He had none.

 

“SIR!” Daxia’s voice came from the living room, as she dumped a large trunk onto the couch, the heavy thump of it causing Sicarius to break his stare down of the roommate to look at the contents of Daxia’s search.

 

“Kathryn’s rucksack is missing – along with Ellius’s atmospheric modules.”

 

The amber of his eyes lit up as they widened, looking back at Ellius, “Where did she go that she needed your Atmosgear?”

 

Ellius took deep breath..

 

She started, then stopped, then started again, and stopped. Sicarius’s patience was gone.

 

“SOLDIER!”

 

Lifting her head high in defiance, squaring her shoulders, and standing at attention, “I do not know where she went beyond seeking out Praetor Protium, of which I didn’t think it was against regulations for her to do so, SIR.”

 

Clenching and relaxing his teeth in rapid succession, his lips pulled in, so they were a thin sliver of stern discontentment. Sicarius motioned to Daxia while still addressing Ellius, “By Overseer’s sake, you better hope I find her.”

 

Turning on his heel, he and Daxia left Kathryn’s dorm, the rooms now trashed and wrecked from Daxia’s search.

 

With boots heavy against the flooring of the dormitory, they got outside in the brisk morning air before Daxia broke their silence.

 

“Sir, how are we going to access Protium? It’s against protocol…”

 

“I know. But I can’t go to Orthus right now.” He looked down, tilting his head to the side, his chin almost touching his shoulder as he thought out loud, “Daxia…”

 

“Yes sir?” the pale and ridged alien woman looked at him a little side eyed but was otherwise placid in expression.

 

“We might have to go around protocol.”

Daxia stiffened at that, her lips pressed tightly together, “Sir.”

“If you are not comfortable with that, I understand. And you can return to take over Sutu’s inspections and preparations for our mission.

 

In a rare display of emotion, Daxia reached out and touched his shoulder, “You are my commanding officer, and I will do what you ask of me.”

 

They shared a pained smile, fully aware of the wrath that could come down on both of them if this venture turned sideways.

 

“I’m worried about them too, sir.”

 

Sicarius sighed, straightening up, the initial rush of anxiety having passed, “I have no idea where she could have gone.”

 

The next morning, Kathryn successfully snuck back into her room at the boarding house, her body and mind weary from staying prone and still for so many hours. But it was worth it, as she observed the shift change at around one in the morning, which could potentially serve as her opening. But what was more promising was that the guards off duty readily walked across to the establishments surrounding her for food and drink.

 

While ideally, she’d take her time and observe these patterns for more than a single night, Kathryn didn’t have that kind of luxury, as eventually, she knew that her and Samuel’s absence wouldn’t just be noticed but would be investigated.

 

A sudden twinge of guilt over Ellius’s involvement came over her. She quickly dismissed it, rationalizing to herself: That’s why you didn’t tell her what you were doing. Just that you were going to speak to Protium. Protium has no obligation to tell Sicarius the truth and he has no reason to think anything has gone amiss after allowing Samuel to follow me through. Everything is going to be fine…Sicarius can just stew…

 

Exhausted, she barely had time to strip off the Greys before she collapsed onto the bed, reaching over to the end table’s console to have some food sent up to her room.

 

She had just started to drift into sleep when there was a knock at her door and she was forced to pull herself out of bed, her back aching from the involuntary stress position she had placed herself in laying on the roof all night.

 

Thanking the server, she took the tray of food and quickly devoured the meal of salty mashed root, eggs, and fruit juice. It wasn’t long before she once again found herself on her bed, effortlessly falling into a deep sleep.

 

Kathryn awoke sometime later, but it was dark again, having slept through the scorching two suns’ appearance. Her sleepwear stuck to her from the heat trapped in the room and she quickly rolled out of bed and lurched the window open.

 

The drapes in her room billowed at the sudden rush of air coming through the window, it was muggy, albeit cooler than her room, and she relished the feel of it on her damp skin. Peeling the clothes off her, she lightly walked over to where her uniform lay and grabbed the Screen-Up module to check the time against her new schedule. She had an hour or so before the shift change. Making her way to the washroom she turned on the shower and without waiting for the water to warm up, she stepped in.

 

The chill of the water felt amazing and she stood still for a moment, taking deep breaths as she allowed herself this moment of reprieve. Running her hands through her hair, the trickle of water escaping the mass of blonde locks trailed over her naked form refreshing her from head to toe.


Kathryn concluded that she had only a few options for her at this point, as she ran through the scenarios in her head regarding her mission. She reached forward to a lonely bottle on the shower shelf and poured some of the liquid into her wet palm. She was thankful for the rinse, but she couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for herself – a few months ago, she would have laid languidly in a hot bath, taking special care of herself with boutique and exotic exfoliates, gels, and soaps – here she was reduced to a cold shower and a catch-all soap for her entire body.

 

But her mind quickly dismissed the thought, trying instead to focus on the problem before her.

 

She could attempt to storm the four guards on one of the smaller side entrances, and hope there weren’t any more guards inside, something that she highly doubted she’d be lucky enough to encounter.

 

Alternatively, she could try to charm her way into the Pyre via one of the guards off-duty. While risky, she might not have to fight her way in.

Her hands rubbed the soap vigorously into her scalp.

 

She had no idea if it would work, given that she was clueless about the type of mating rituals and rules this planet had.

 

Although, she thought to herself, Rannic and Vita’s relationship seemed pretty normal. And there were couples out and about showing affection…

 

The only other reference point she had was Sicarius. And he was as susceptible to her flirting and charms as a rock. She couldn’t help but roll her eyes, only to get some soap in them.

 

“Damnit.”

Of the two plans, one had the higher guarantee of success.

 

Worst case scenario, if she got into the room, she could always contact Protium with that much Deltria around her. He wouldn’t be happy with her coming back empty handed, but at least she had a potential escape route.

 

Assuming he’s standing idly around waiting for you to call him.

 

Rinsing herself off, she shook her head, as if that would clear the doubtful thoughts from her mind.

 

As the night wore on, Kathryn managed to make herself look not only presentable, but appealing. She lowered the neckline of her blouse, exposing her shoulders, her freshly bathed, smooth skin glimmering from the field lotion she applied. Digging through her rucksack, she grabbed for a pair of skin-tight pants, annoyed that she had only brought a pair of walking shoes to wear. Tossing her hair up in a loose updo, she pulled some hairs out of their binding to frame her face gently. She debated putting some make up on, but she recalled she hadn’t seen anyone on this planet wearing any.

 

This will have to do. She thought to herself as she examined the look in the mirror.

 

Stretching her neck like she was about to start some physically laborious task, she mentally prepped herself one last time before exiting her room with the door automatically locking behind her.

 

In the morning sun, Sicarius and Daxia walked confidently up the many steps to the Vigil, their movements closely watched by both guards and those who passed by. Soldiers of their ilk were rarely seen in the high-ranking coming-and-goings of the Vigil and they were noticed.

 

Stopped at the main entrance, they were addressed by security, “State your purpose.” The guard had his Greys fashioned in the Guardian style, where extra material was lifted, like a skin-tight hood to hide their scalps, the opening of which exposed only their face in a straight-lined pattern that followed their cheekbones and jaw muscles. It was meant to mimic the look that Overseer bore.

 

Daxia stepped forward, “You will address the lieutenant as sir, Legion.”

 

The guard shuffled, standing at attention, “Apologies, sir, we are required to ask, sir.”

 

Sicarius nodded to him, “At ease. We are here to see General Orthus regarding troop preparations for the next Jump.”

 

“Thank you, sir. Please proceed.” The guard touched a keypad like module on his gauntlet. It didn’t open any door, as it was an open-air entrance, but Sicarius knew what it was. He was clearing the checkpoints along his route to Orthus’s war room.

 

Daxia ushered her commanding officer in front of her and they walked past the main entry guards.

Sicarius, having been to the Vigil on many occasions, no longer held it in any great wonder. But this was the first time Daxia had ever been inside these hallowed halls, the large vaulted ceilings overwhelmed their stature and echoed their footsteps as they walked past several decorative structures and doors. The exterior and interior of the Vigil was made from the same material – Deltria. From top to bottom, every structural beam, every wall, was either made entirely or coated in the element.

 

Daxia’s mouth was slightly agape as her eyes took in the sites, including a massive statue in a landing foyer that was made to look like Overseer himself. It glimmered an opalescent black from the light shining through from the brilliant morning sun.

“Sir…” Daxia asked as they walked, following Sicarius dutifully, “Have you ever seen Overseer?” Her tone was hushed and deferential.

 

“Twice,” he responded, “Once for a commendation from Orthus after our Jump to Gamma Three.”

“Oh, I hadn’t realized we received recognition for that.” She stated to him matter-of-factly.

 

“I was able to get us some new equipment after that mission, remember?”

“Mmm.” She offered him.

 

“And then again during Kathryn’s demotion, just a few months ago.”

“Is he an impressive sight?”

Sicarius stopped as they came to another landing foyer, looking down two perpendicular hallways. He could see Orthus’s war room entryway to the left of where they were, two massive Deltria coated columns flanked his doorway.
 

He turned right, away from his General’s office.

 

“He looks like any other man.”

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Daxia &Sicarius in the Vigil, admiring a statue of Overseer

 

“Darling, if I drink ANY more, I won’t be able to get up in the morning…” Kathryn flashed a dazzling smile at the man sitting to her left at the bar. He was a well-built and solid figure, standing a few inches taller than her, he had thick black hair and a thick black beard to match it. Well kept, the darkness of his hair against the lightness of his skin was a striking sight. Even lighter still was the whites of his Chosen uniform. Thick eyebrows currently lifted with laughter, cradled two deep set blue eyes.

 

“Would you prefer another reason to not get out of bed, then?” A rakish grin crept onto his face and Kathryn threw her head back laughing while placing her hand on his knee, letting it stay there.

 

His name was Jaus, and from what she had gathered so far, over the course of three very strong alcoholic beverages, was that he was Chosen in his teens, and had been thus for nearly a decade. His newer post, the Pyre, was an honor amongst his kind.

 

“No need to rush things, my sweet, the night is young, yet!”

He leaned back, his burly frame shaking the stool beneath him, “True…I just think it could be a lot more relaxing for both of us,” He winked at her, a little sloppily. She admired his banter and forwardness. Considering she had picked him because he sat completely alone whereas his other comrades sat together in a corner booth further back of the tavern.

 

She rubbed his knee gently, looking straight into his eyes, “Stressed out? From work?”

“Aye…”

She playfully pushed him with the hand, her other reaching for her cocktail, “Standing around can’t be all THAT tiresome, can it?”

 

Jaus straightened up, “Protecting the Pyre is about vigilance, Vita. That takes focus. Discipline. And strength.”

 

She put her hand back on his leg, this time intentionally a little higher, “My apologies, darling, I was just making a joke. I can see you are a very…” she paused, lowering her lids a little at him, “capable, man.”

 

“Why does the Pyre need all that protecting?”

“Silly country girl, that’s Neros’s palace.”

 

Neros.

 

She remembered the name from the obelisk in the small town where she had met Rannic.

 

“Oh, I had no idea!” She used her ignorance to her advantage, playing the fool, leading him on to tell her more.

“We Chosen are the top line of defense and protection for the Emperor.”

 

Emperor? She thought to herself, What a paltry kingdom….

 

“He’s never there though…” he confessed to her, “none of the Chosen I’ve worked with has seen him in years.”

 

She tilted her head, then took another drink from her glass, “Really? I wonder why.”

Two giant shoulders, draped in white shrugged at her, “He comes and goes as he pleases.”

“So you’re guarding an empty vacation home?” She winked at him this time, and he laughed in response.

 

“Aye, I suppose!” His full belly laughter was infectious, and Kathryn giggled along with him.

 

Shifting herself closer to him, she ran her hand further up, dangerously close to the apex of his legs. She could feel his body temperature rising.

 

“Think you could give me a tour sometime? I mean, since he’s never there and all.”

He had matched her movements, sliding his own large, course hand up the soft fabric of her tight pants, lazily letting the weight of his hand bring it to her inner thigh. But at her question he stiffened.

 

“It’s forbidden, my lady.”

 

She pressed her luck.

 

Wrapping her arms around his neck, tilting her head to the left coyly, she cajoled him, “I would love to see the throne room, just a peek, the girls back home would just die when I tell them.”

Jaus looked down the crooked bridge of his nose at her, clearly no softening to her request.

 

“Just a peek, I promise, I can be very, very grateful.”

 

His eyebrows rose at that, but he didn’t seem moved.

 

It was then that his compatriots interrupted them, “Jaus,” one of his coworkers said, “I think it’s time we go.”

 

Jaus whipped his head around to look at his fellow Chosen, “You go along then. I’m perfectly fine right where I am.” He turned his attention back to Kathryn, “Vita and I are having a very interesting conversation.”

Kathryn turned her head to the left to look at the two men and one woman from the swell of her shoulder, “I promise I will take good care of him.”

 

Suddenly, her face stung, and she was knocked back onto the bar from a slap.

 

“You will address us with the respect we have earned, cropper.” She didn’t see who had slapped her, but Jaus came to her defense, standing between her and his teammates.

 

“Calm you down!” He yelled at them.

 

Kathryn cupped her face, her eyes watering from the abrupt attack.

 

Pushing them back with his sheer size, he forced them out of the establishment and rushed back to Kathryn’s side, where she sat stunned, and thankful to be a little buzzed off the drink.

 

“Are you okay, Vita?”

“Yes…” she whispered pathetically at him, letting him play the hero.

 

“The drinks are on me, but I have to go with them. Will you meet me here tomorrow night?”

She looked up at him, lowering her hand on her face to place on his bearded cheek, “Yes.”

He reached over and grabbed the mug he had been drinking out of, finishing its contents impressively in a massive gulp.

 

“Great!” He quickly leaned over and planted a sloppy but enthusiastic kiss, the feel of his beard rough on her face, but not all that unpleasant.

 

“Let me talk with them, see if I can’t get you that tour.”

Kathryn beamed, composing herself, “Well then, I know where the afterparty will be.” She rolled her eyes up to the ceiling, as if pointing to her room.

 

“Until tomorrow then.” He said to her, smiling.

 

She blew him a kiss and watched him lumber out of the bar, her hand moving to wrap around the delicate stem of her glass. She emptied the contents into her mouth and swallowed, the taste of blood intermingling with the tanginess of the drink.

 

Kathryn couldn’t have planned it better if it had been scripted. Jaus was too wrapped up in his duties and obligations to ever acquiesce to her request. She knew disrespecting them would cause a reaction, but she was pleasantly surprised by the visceral response. His friends gave him the opportunity to rationalize being accommodating to her.

 

Perfect.

 

The next night, Kathryn sat herself at the bar, trying to hide her impatience. Without her Screen-Up she had trouble keeping track as time passed. She knew she had to have been in waiting for over an hour past the time she saw Jaus and his friends come last night. She had ordered herself a drink, putting it on Jaus’s tab. She hoped that the evening went as planned, and that she was able to slip into the Pyre, with an escort, allowing her to look for anything of transportable size made of Deltria. She didn’t need much. Her testimony and physical proof, along with Sicarius’s memories, should be enough for Overseer to re-evaluate her punishment and usefulness.

 

These hopeful thoughts were disrupted by the arrival of her target, his crew in tow.

 

Kathryn smiled warmly at him, waving from her seat at the bar, she motioned him over to her.

 

The brawny man matched her smile and walked over.

 

She addressed all of them at once, deferentially, “Chosen.”

The three teammates grunted, keeping their faces in perpetual scowls.

She turned her attention back to Jaus, “Darling, I was worried you weren’t going to show.” She stood up, giving him a quick peck on the cheek in greeting.

 

“My friends and I wanted to apologize for our behavior last night,” Jaus opened with, “Praedus specifically.” He reached one of his large hands back and pulled his coworker forward. She presumed it was the person who slapped her.

 

“My lady, I’m sorry for striking you last night.” It was all very formal, and Kathryn took it in stride, trying to keep her composure and seem dignified, “Jaus tells us that you are interested in touring the palace.”

“Apology, accepted. The fault is all mine, I should have watched my tongue in your presence,” Kathryn offered cordially, “And yes, just a quick peek, if I could!” She smiled warmly at Praedus, his grimace momentarily breaking to something akin to a smile before returning to its standard glower.

 

“Finish your drink, we can take you right away.”

 

Kathryn instinctually hesitated. Under normal circumstances, she would have solidified her strategy better and over a longer period, but she didn’t have any time, the Dominion would be looking for her and Samuel by now.

 

Unless you really are as disposable as they led you to believe.

 

Kathryn couldn’t help but think this was the trap she was worried about.

 

Then again, these yokels couldn’t possibly think my wide-eyed country-girl act was anything but. This was a closed off planet, with an absent ruler, what could I possibly be accomplishing? To them, I had no motive…

Thrilled at how smoothly this was going, Kathryn quickly drank the remainder of her glass, placing it back on the bar with precision.

 

The five of them left the boarding house tavern and walked the short two blocks to the massive main entry gates to the Pyre. The building was even larger than she had anticipated, being this close up to it, the full scale of it was breathtaking. A long processional roadway, lined with metal barriers and blocks of concrete led to the main doors, sparkling opalescent black Deltria shimmered in the night lights. 

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered to Jaus. She kept up the auspices of fascination as she took stock of her surroundings. She counted the time it took her to get from gate to door, the number of guards she saw on the way – both on the ground and positioned on walkways surrounding this main thoroughfare. By her math and logic, there were fifty more guards than she had observed from her rooftop all-nighter.

 

She was used to seeing Deltria, and to her, this structure paled in comparison to the construction of the Vigil on the Dominion Homeworld.

 

“You won’t find this material anywhere on Neros Two except here in the Pyre.” He explained to her as they crossed the threshold.

 

Neros Two…so presumably there is a Neros One. She extrapolated what she could, realizing the planet had been renamed since Sicarius’s childhood days.

 

What an egomaniac, naming the planet after himself.

 

She noticed there were no real lights on in the building. The brief sheens she saw in the darkness were more Deltria coated fixtures, and with no moon, the starlight barely illuminated their path. She took mental notes of how many twists and turns they took.

 

These guards clearly knew where they were going, navigating the halls with ease in the near pitch-black darkness, and as they turned the corner, they came to a cavernous room with better lighting.

 

She looked up, seeing the open-air ceiling where the giant Deltria pillars were splayed across one another, welcoming in the cool night air. From this vantage point, the pillars looked to be placed in a clockwise rotating motion, their top ends bracing against one another, like a campfire. The size of the room was expansive, almost rivaling the size of the Portal Natatorium. It was impressive, taking advantage of the full height of the building, the pillars dark and sparkling against the late-night sky. It was hard to tell where the glimmering pillars ended, and the starry night sky began.

 

Kathryn let go of Jaus’s arm and she stepped forward, her eyes adjusting to the newly available light, taking it all in.

 

Lowering her chin from peering up at the vaulted pillars, her head suddenly hurt, taking a blow to the base of her skull.

 

As she collapsed onto the floor, she caught a glimpse of an ornate and empty throne, before the darkness took her.  

 
Karnal Confessions