The Prelude - On Finding Babel
The man's heavy armour creaked as he stepped over a broken column and looked out onto Babel.
His brow furrowed, deep knots of scar-tissue and age breaking what had once been young, smooth skin.
The knight groaned, slowly, letting the long exhale go in a drawn-out sigh. He sank, slowly, to his knees.
Babel was gone. Long gone. The ruins of what must have once been a sprawling and mighty city now lay, white marble thrown down and weathered on cobbled streets that stood empty, the ghosts of a bustling city-centre tickling Gileas' ears and ruffling his hair.
The sky suddenly seemed far more bleak, the blue-grey of the clouds now oppressive and smothering, and Gileas felt the wind colder now than he had done in a long time.
A wolf howled, somewhere, and Gileas for once sympathised with it. It sounded lonely, isolated, and almost in mourning.
Babel. Eight had left the dying lands of Albion to find it. To find a ruined city. The quest to save a world, a way of life, was over. Three years, Gileas had quested. Three years. He had lost friends. Made enemies. Fought...he looked at the scarred stump that had once been his left arm...and lost.
All for Babel. All for...ruins.
The distant trickle of well-worn stone breaking and crumbling underfoot didn't make Gileas turn. The sudden intake of breath, that almost echoed in the dry, dusty air of the city. Like a museum. Or a mausoleum.
He didn't raise his head. Didn't look.
Spoke in the slow, wearied tones of a broken man.
"Looks like we found Babel."
He heard the scrape of steel as the man behind him drew his sword. Gileas sighed, once more, but now his breath was short, measured.
He once more felt the familiar feel of his sword at his side, the weight on his hip; aware, as he had been trained to be, of the distance from hand to hilt. The time it took to crouch, draw, and guard.
Felt it, and smiled, softly. He wasn't utterly spent as a knight, then. No more would he quest, but the sword-canny wouldn't leave him. Not ever.
He was a Knight. Through and through.
A sound. The soft step of old leather moccasin on ancient stone cobble. Gileas spun, the blade twinkling as it came out, sparkling in the bleak, grey dying sun.
He took the stance of the guard instinctively, without thought. A seamless merging of training, reaction, and deliberation. Sword drawn, held before him, body crouched, low, free hand flexing, held back, waiting to deliver a fierce uppercut or sieze an unwatched weapon.
Except there was no free hand. Only a shapeless protrusion of flesh and bone came where once a talented, battle-hardened hand had relaxed and clenched, tense and attune to the craft the Knight worked to such proficiency.
The last of the Arthurian knights crouched, on guard, and waited.
The man he now faced smiled, grimly. Lifeless white hair, matted now to an angular, pale face, grew long and unkempt. Pink eyes, all too young, all too innocent for the man they served, watched unblinking as Gileas slid perfectly into his knight's stance.
The man held out his hand, something clattered to the cobbled street.
A short sword, cheap and rusting, skirted to a stop, clattering and echoing in the sleeping grey city.
Gileas' eyes moved, reluctantly, to the metal piece held in the man's other hand.
Glorious God... he swore, blinking.
The Gunslinger had found one of his guns. His thumb moved, with practised grace, and cocked the hammer back, with a click that sounded louder and more ominous than a death knell, Gileas thought.
The albino gunfighter's smile waned, and he almost seemed to grimace.
"I'm sorry, Green Knight. This is not the fate you deserve."
Gileas laughed, bitterly. "You tricked me. I thought you only had a sword. It was fair."
"Nothing's fair, Green Knight," the albino said, glumly. "You know that better than most."
Gileas braced himself, expecting the metal slug to tear its way through his chest and bury itself into his heart any second.
With some dim, impulsive, instinctual part of his brain, he judged the distance between the two men, hurriedly calculating the speed, the surprise...the waking part silenced it.
This was it. He had had enough. That Dirge was to kill him here was meaningless, he was simply an agent of fate.
Gileas had failed his quest.
He had failed his quest.
The revolver held by the albino now was simply justice at work. Babel was gone. Long gone, were the crumbling marble towers and halls to be held to any account.
There would be no saviour found here. No redemption. For Gileas or his world.
"I assume you only have one shot."
The albino - Dirge - nodded, his matted white hair picking up, suddenly, in a cold wind that rattled down the dead street and make him shiver. Gileas didn't flinch.
"Then here," the knight pointed to his forehead. He knew the place. Not always of use when you used a sword, but a gun... "It's quick. Painless."
Dirge nodded, again. He flexed his trigger finger, reluctantly. Gileas chided him, softly.
"I've seen you make harder shots than this, albino. Don't twitch now."
"I won't," Dirge agreed, steadying the gun.
"I will say my death rites," Gileas said, steadily. "and then you will shoot."
The albino nodded, and looked up.
The city was vast. Hidden by mountain passes and secret tunnels, the desolate ruins seemed to strangle the low basin they sat in.
Broad green squares that may once have been orderly parks now grew like jungles, creepers and vines snaking up towers, choking some and dragging them down, breaking rock and stone, smothering what remained of humanity's greatest jewel, the greatest city to ever grace the Earth and the greatest people to ever stand in defiance of God.
The Green Knight was here to save what pitiful mess of humanity lurked and mewled its last breath to the far west. He quested to find Babel because he thought - they all had - that it would save them. Save everyone.
Dirge smiled, wanly. Babel held great power. There was no denying that. Gileas may have expected to find people, to find the cure, but Dirge had known better.
Babel was dead. Long gone. It had stood and spat in the eye of God and He had torn it low and asunder in punishment.
But the streets still hummed. Still breathed, exhaling power, blowing it all around them. Dirge could smell the magic, ancient and sacred, still at work.
Gileas, the Green Knight, the last of the chivalric orders of Arthur, long dead, had come to save humanity. In the forgone hope that some of the greatest men still lived in Babel, that they would hold the answer, the cure to humanity's coming doom.
Dirge, the albino, the outcast gunslinger, a sadist without principles or love, nor honour nor duty, hadn't come for the same reason. He didn't want to save humanity. He wanted to save himself.
Babel had stood in defiance of God. What power still clung to these decrepit stones? These archaic masonry still wept tears of power, did they not?
Why could he not reap the reward the people of Babel had strove to create? Walk the path they set?
With the right knowledge - knowledge Dirge had - a man with the right intentions could do anything with all that power...anything...could not only oppose God, but form themselves anew, an equal, a God himself.
The Green Knight could not comprehend such ambition. Such wanton, unbridled craving. Perhaps fear, too, Dirge noted, distantly. Fear of death. Of what lay beyond. Of what he had been fighting to escape all his life.
The Knight thought pragmatically. Of swords, and tactics, and surviving. Of going on, never going up. Dirge wasn't like that.
He would achieve where the Knight could not. There were no great men left in Babel to save Gileas' world.
But they had left power. The power Dirge wanted. The power Dirge needed.
Crouched low, his sword now resting, held like a cruciform before him, Gileas intoned the last of his rites. The ancient, and most sacred code of all the codes his past had taught him.
"Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Dies iræ, dies illa. Solvet sæclum in favilla," Gileas closed his eyes, and kissed the silver hilt of the sword before him. "Amen."
Dirge fired, suddenly, sharply, and Gileas, the last of the great Arthurian knights, fell back, the slug burst through his forehead and driven through the grey mass beyond.
Thick, gloopy syrup dripped from Gileas' broken skull, and he died, quietly, on the ancient cobbled street of Babel.
Perhaps the last thoughts that went through his mind before he went to the darkness of nothing were fantastic, and epic in their grandeur.
Perhaps he thought of the years of questing, of the quest's conception and hard birth, of the pain and anguish he...and his companions...had suffered. The losses. Of the Balloonist, of Valentine and Gulliver. Of Cordello, and the Detective...of his left arm...and of Lalaine.
Perhaps the thought of Lalaine stung him most, as he went, silently into a world of silence.
And perhaps he thought nothing at all.