He had been a soldier once. One of the many soldiers that guarded the West Plains against the constant incursions of the rebel kingdom of Orocan. A hero.
Now he was nothing, the dust that coated the ancient stone floor beneath his feet had more value than he did. He looked up and squinted as bright lights stabbed into his eyes. He could barely make out the silhouette of the judge but his voice was easy enough to hear. It was harsh, cold, and cruel.
The soldier…ex-soldier chuckled to himself, of course the judge's voice would sound like that, the disheveled creature in front of the judge was a traitor. The ex-soldier shifted slightly and he noticed that his two guards (Valoran knights, odd that they would be called to guard him) tilted their heads slightly to make sure of his actions. That he noticed their heads move at all pleased the ex-soldier. Despite all that had been taken from him, his training still remained. It was a small victory, but it was all that he had left. The judge's booming voice broke him out of his reverie.
"Soldier 10642 you have been found guilty of subversive thought, abandoning your post, and conspiring to let the enemy have access to vital supplies destined for the 3rd legion. The nature of your crimes is so severe that there is no possibility of reprieve. However, you will not be executed."
The audience in the small court gasped in surprise, it was rare that a known traitor was not executed.
"I have seen fit to grant you a chance for redemption. The Ecclesiarchy has sent a request for your services and I have granted their wish. On the morrow you shall be placed in the custody of one of their agents. May the High God have mercy on your soul! This court is now closed!"
And with the strike of the judge's gavel the soldier became a servant of the Ecclesiarchy. The sun had barely breached the horizon when they came for him, a large barbarian and a much shorter Technician.
Wrenching him from a troubled sleep, they half-carried, half-dragged him to an airship waiting outside the prison. As he neared it, the soldier noticed that the cigar shaped craft was heavily armed for its size. There were anti-armor cannon and five gattlers on a craft that could not have been over 200 feet long. He was shoved up the ramp and taken into a small cabin.
"You will wait here." said the technician, before leaving him alone in the room.
Left alone the soldier began to take stock of his surroundings. From the light that entered through a grungy window he noticed art that dated from the ill-fated Lonarm Dynasty. Just below the window a gun cabinet held a breecher of a make almost 30 years old. The soldier grunted in surprise as he saw it was in perfect working condition, a quick search turned up ammunition in a small chest.
But just as he began to form an escape plan the room's door opened. The soldier opened fire immediately, the door was torn to shreds and he heard a body fall. He reloaded the breecher and crept closer to the entrance but found no body. Confused, the soldier lowered his weapon and walked into the hallway. That was when his vision exploded. A force like a sledgehammer sent him flying through the air and into the far end of the main hallway. He tried to stand but the pain was too much and he sank back down with a cry of anguish. A man came down the hall towards him, his clothing ripped and torn where the blast from the breecher had hit him. He noted the glimmer of ballistic mail even as the man picked him up and slammed him back into the wall.
"I am a patient man…mostly. But if you continue to act in this fashion I will be forced to kill you." A jagged scar along the man's neck seemed to glow red as if reflecting his inner rage.
"What else do you expect from a traitor?" The soldier let a note of bitterness creep into his voice.
The man sneered, "Do you really think me that stupid? If I really had thought you a true traitor I wouldn't have bothered to have you go through a court martial."
"What do you mean?" The soldier put his escape plan to the side as he digested this new information.
"I mean I know your true allegiances! You are a loyal son of Urm, but you have committed an unpardonable crime. At least, according to the Church you have…" The man let go of the soldier and stood back.
"And what crime is that?" Inquired the soldier.
"Don't be dense; your conversion to the Martyr cult is what condemned you to the gallows. The other charges were merely formalities to mask your heresy."
"You turned me in didn't you? You let the Church know of my conversion!" The soldier was truly angry now.
The Ecclesiarch snorted, "I saved you from certain death. Were any other Ecclesiarch to have discovered your conversion they would not have hesitated to kill you."
"And what do you expect of me then? Gratitude? You have damned me! As a convicted heretic there is nowhere safe for me in Urm!"
"As long as you work for me you are not a heretic but a useful resource of the Ecclesiarchy. No harm will come to you as long as you cooperate."
"Cooperate? With what?" The soldier was still angry.
"Recently Beast activity has been reported in the South Sera Mountain range. The land, however, is hostile to those who do not know how to navigate the terrain. That is where you come in."
The soldier bit back a retort about what the Ecclesiarch could do with his suggestion. The look in the man's eyes told the soldier that though he was the first choice he was certainly not the only one.
"What do you need me for?"
"You are one of the few people who has extensive experience with the layout of the Southern Sera Mountains. If I am to fight the beasts effectively I will need your knowledge."
"So I fight for you and I get to live a little longer." The soldier sighed as he saw the Ecclesiarch nod. "Then I have no choice, 'To live is to praise.' as the Martyr said."
"Good!" Oddly the Ecclesiarch seemed to brighten up at this. "Come, I'll introduce you to the rest of the ship." The soldier found himself dragged out of the room and led down stairs to a door labeled as the mess.
"Oh, one more thing. This airship is the 'Indefatigable', the newest in the service of the Church and the High God."
And with that brief speech Nathan swung open the door and entered the room.
"These are my crew. They have saved me numerous times and I them. The gray-haired old man is Gregor Newark, finest gunman in the service of the Church and once a barbarian. Quite a change wouldn't you say?" Despite the brief description the soldier could see that Gregor really was one of the infamous barbarians. The man was a giant easily 8 feet tall with arms that were thick with muscle and a mustache that reached down to his chest.
The giant sent him an angry glare and the soldier quickly diverted his gaze. The Ecclesiarch seemed not to notice and continued with his introductions.
"And here is Samuel, he used to be an bounty hunter, but a botched hunt left him in my debt. Now he works as my pilot. Over here is the cook Johen. A bit greasy but what cook isn't? The three that just left for the engine room are Felix, Marcus, and Lorral. All disciples of the Innovant cult. Science and technology are what they love, which is why they do the entirety of the repair work."
The crew seemed relatively uninterested in what was going on and only raised their heads to look at the newcomer briefly. The Ecclesiarch then led the soldier onto the command deck where a hunched figure sat in front of a lit projector. Piles of ink stained parchment littered the floor while the clack of a typewriter filled the air. The Ecclesiarch had to yell to get the figure's attention.
"Say hello to our newest crewmember Duchess. He's the convict you dragged out of the prison this morning."
The soldier started in surprise. A duchess here? What Urmin noble would let his wife venture off into danger so carelessly?
"You always choose the oddest people to join us, Nathan. The man is a convicted heretic and you know Gregor cannot stand heretics…" As she turned the soldier could see that she was no duchess of Urm. The augmented eyes that stared at him from a head half encased in metal were enough of a clue.
"This," said Nathan, pausing for effect. "This is Csandra D'eran the XVI. Heir to the Rhin River power plant duchy and my second in command. If you haven't guessed from her many augmentations, she is from the Technocracy of Laburnum." The Ecclesiarch made a mock bow then looked at the soldier.
"That was your introduction to your new home. Your cabin is the last one on the right side of the main hall. Any more questions than that and you can ask the Duchess."
The soldier was slightly shocked at this Ecclesiarch's behavior, one minute he was focused solely on business then the next he was acting like a giddy host. What had he been dragged into?
Nathan noticed the soldier's stunned look and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
"Go, I have to plan a mission. As I said before, you'll know the details soon enough." And with that the soldier was thrust into his new home. If it could be called that.
Csandra waited until she was sure the soldier was out of earshot then turned to the Ecclesiarch, the half of her head still covered in her natural red hair shone in the projectors light.
"Why did you bring this man aboard? There are many people who know the layout of the Southern Sera Mountains. What makes this man worthy of your mercy?"
"I suppose we all need a second chance" Nathan grinned. "Even those of us deemed corrupted."
Csandra huffed, "The Council found you pure…"
"And I have deemed this man pure as well. Trust me, I know what I'm doing."
Nathan walked out of the room and started yelling orders, "Felix I need to use the radio! If its not working again, you'll be cleaning out the waste tanks for the next six months!"
The technician sighed, even after 30 years Nathan was still an oddity. And for a duchess of Laburnum, oddities were an unwelcome distraction.
The next two weeks were spent adjusting to his role on the 'Indefatigable'. According to the Ecclesiarch (whom he learned was called Nathan) he was to be their official guide through the mountains. He was given maps, expedition reports, and aerial photographs of the mountains to study and mark. Most notably, he was educated on the nature of his new opponents: The Beasts. He was taught their tricks and strategies. And most importantly he learned the dark secret that lurked at the heart of the Kingdoms. There was only one race, Humanity. The ancient foe that the Church preached against so fervently was nothing more than the twisted and fallen forms of humans. But he was a lifelong soldier, and such knowledge absolved any lingering superstitious fears. He could kill people.
The rest of the crew while not hostile treated him as a pariah. The barbarian, however, was deliberately belligerent whenever they were near each other. To Gregor the soldier was nothing more than a heretic who was in need of hearing the torments awaiting his damned soul. And on a small ship arguments were common.
"You are a heretic for following that fallen monk. You treat his words as being above those of the High God!" the barbarian was fond of reminding the soldier that the 'Martyr' was only human.
"I claim no such thing. To those who revere the 'Martyr's' teachings, the High God is the ultimate source of redemption. The 'Martyr' merely shows the path to true redemption."
"And yet you claim the High God and the Earth Lord are the same? You would blaspheme the purity of the High God by sullying him with the god of the Beasts?" This point always caused the barbarian to start yelling. It was as if this heresy was the worst and needed to be destroyed by loud words.
"We failed the High God once, so now he tests us with the incarnation of his divine wrath. If we can triumph over the Beasts we will have proved our worthiness and redemption shall be ours."
It was usually at this point that the argument would devolve into a shouting match with the combatants questioning the legitimacy of the other's parentage. The Ecclesiarch did little to stop these 'discussions' (except for when he needed the soldier's help in plotting a course through the Sera mountains). So it was left to the technician to act as peacemaker.
Into the room she would burst, screaming obscenities ill-suited to her social class and with a burst of some foreign tongue send the barbarian skulking outside. After that there would be quiet for the rest of the day.
Csandra always sided with the soldier and when asked why would always reply, "Because it irks Gregor." then promptly leave. On the whole ship, she was the only one with whom the soldier could have a conversation with. She was very interested in his religion (of which she had never heard) and the soldier was grateful for some company. When Csandra discovered the soldier's prison number she quickly gave him the nickname '10', after the first two digits. Much to the soldier's consternation the name stuck.
It was on the last morning of the fortnight that he saw something unusual. The airship had stopped off for supplies at a military base. That in and of itself would not have been odd except for the fact that the Church and Military resources were considered separate, with only a few duel-titles having access.
As he watched from the window of the mess he could see Nathan directing some of the lower ranked troopers as they brought aboard provisions. All seemed to go well until the visibly angry form of the base commander stormed out of the fortress. He began screaming at the Ecclesiarch demanding "What in the void?" he thought he was doing. Barely perturbed, Nathan turned and presented a small parchment to the commander who after reading it, turned white as snow. He began to utter the most profound apologies and even offered the Ecclesiarch the use of his fortress. Nathan polite fully declined and instead gave the commander a list for various sundries and supplies.
The commander bowed his head and left as quickly as he had come. Near to midnight that day the soldier found an opportunity to ask Csandra what had happened.
"The parchment is an endorsement of the Valoran Knights and by extension the Iron Duke Arken II," she replied "But that shouldn't be a surprise since you already know Nathan is the Last Saint."
"He's Last Saint?" he scoffed then stopped as the Duchess passed him a document. It took only a brief glance to confirm the Duchess' words.
"By the Warlord! I shot the Last Saint?" The soldier felt sick. In his desire to escape had he nearly killed the great hope of the civilized world?
The Technician gave him a withering stare, "Yes you did. You're lucky Nathan decided to wear ballistic mail that day. Still, I doubt that you were meant to be the instrument of his demise."
"As a soldier on the rebel border I heard much of the Last Saint from the padres there. But never did they mention his purpose. To those of us on the line he was more of a ideal than an actual person." The soldier paused as he reflected on less confusing times.
The Duchess looked out the window and rested her gaze on the larger of the Twin moons. "I am a Technician, which means I must know both science and religion. As such I have the Church's sanction to speak of the Last Saint's purpose."
She grinned then continued. "The Last Saint is supposed to be a descendant of the Warlord Arcus who founded the modern Kingdoms over 2000 years ago. The 'Ruins' say that the High God entrusted Arcus and his children with the protection of humanity. According to theologians, we are close if not already in the end times. This means that Nathan is in the right spot at the right time."
Curiosity drove the soldier on and questions poured out. "But why Nathan? And if it is him, why give him such a dangerous occupation?"
"The Warlord is reputed to have ruled from the region near what is now the trade city of Osai. Nathan is descended from a long line of farmers who have always lived in that region. As for why he does what he does. That's the fault of the Iron Duke. Everyone in the Church was clamoring to have Nathan kept safe in the capital. Obviously, Nathan hated the idea and told the Church to 'shove it'." At this the Technician turned slightly red and the soldier grinned as he imagined the Ecclesiarch cursing Church officials.
"So what happened?" Asked the bemused soldier.
"The Iron Duke is not a fan of Church politicking and was impressed by Nathan's bluntness. A few Cardinals tried to change his mind but all the Duke would say was: 'Let the boy win his spurs'. And that was the end of it." The Duchess stretched her arms and yawned. "It's nearly 1 A.M. and I need some sleep. Goodnight 10."
The soldier nodded in reply and watched her leave. When he was sure he was alone the soldier pulled out a battered leather book from his coat pocket and began to read. It was the forbidden text of the Martyr cult.
The next day Gregor, Csandra, Lorral, and 10 were summoned to the command center.
"I suppose you're all wondering why I've called you here." said Nathan as he stood at the front of the room.
"Would it have anything to do with the quake bomb you brought on board yesterday?" replied Gregor.
"Ah, you saw that…" said Nathan
The barbarian grinned. "It's hard to hide an atomic weapon on a 200ft dirigible. But I noticed that we only have a warhead. Where's the propulsion system?"
"That is part of my plan. I'll let Csandra explain." Nathan sat down at the head of the table and motioned for the technician to begin.
"18 days ago Nathan sent an Ecclesian expedition on a survey of the southern Sera Mountains in response to local reports that Beast forces had taken up residence there."
"Let me guess." interrupted Gregor. "They never reported back and its our job to find out what got them and kill it"
"If they never reported back then the Ecclesiarchy would have requested a military force to raze the area. No, they reported back. But any Beasts they encountered would flee into the mountains. Attempts to track them yielded no results but they did find several cave systems that riddled the mountain."
"Why didn't they just follow after them? Expeditions are hardly poorly equipped." inquired a puzzled Gregor.
"They reported over 300 individuals sighted in one instance. A 10 man crew would not be enough to deal with that many." Csandra countered.
"Then how are we supposed to deal with them?"
Nathan reentered the conversation at this point. "We won't, at least not directly."
"The bomb?" piped in Lorral suddenly, her tiny voice barely audible.
"Exactly." said Nathan and he pulled out a large map that the soldier had been working on for the flight.
"Thanks to our soldier, I have been able to pinpoint a location on where these creatures would be operating from." He placed a finger on a average looking peak in the middle of the map. "This is slope g12. And it is the center of a large series of caverns that extend throughout the mountain range. According to the soldier, these cave are large enough to house many thousands of Beasts."
Gregor suddenly became very serious. "It's not a raiding party…it's the prelude to a full blown invasion!"
"Yes, we're fortunate in that they haven't finished whatever they're up to. And that's where the bomb comes in. We're going to drop it off far enough down that the explosion will destroy the mountain and seal off the tunnel system forever."
Nathan rolled up the map and stood up. "Gregor, 10, and I will take the warhead. Csandra, you will have command of the ship until I return. And Lorral, you will monitor the weapon. You are responsible for ensuring it remains operational until we can safely activate it. Understood?"
"Yes sir." Lorral was practically bursting with pride at this assignment and it was then that the soldier realized that she could not be over 18. "How young do they recruit people into the Ecclesiarchy?" he thought.
The voice of the pilot crackled over the intercom. "Twenty minutes until we reach the landing site."
"Prepare yourselves, this will not be easy." Nathan dismissed the meeting and watched the crew file out of the room.
The 'Indefatigable' drifted towards the landing site silently and gracefully. Once down, a large boxy sled was driven out and a crane lowered the massive warhead onto the carrier. Bundled against the mountain chill Nathan and the soldier clambered onto the sled where a bemused Gregor waited for them.
"A little chilly for you?" he chuckled and loosened his light leather coat in order to get more comfortable.
"Some of us aren't used to sub-zero temperatures barbarian." Nathan muttered through two scarves.
Gregor burst out laughing again and started the machine up with a lurch. The sled slowly ground its way up the west slope of the mountain. Fortunately, there were no snowstorms so the two hour drive passed with little difficulty. It was not until they reached the outside of the cavern that the soldier realized what a difficult task that had been set for them.
It was a small hole, barely 10 feet tall and only 7 feet wide, but it radiated an air of pure malice. Its very presence seemed to suck up all light leaving only a solid wall of darkness. The barbarian looked at the entrance then back at Nathan.
"You sure we want to do this?"
Nathan kept his eyes on the device carried in the sled, "Positive. Now take us in."
Gregor nodded and soon the little craft was swallowed up by darkness. They spent the next few minutes guided by Gregor's night vision and the soldier's map.
"Stop here! Quick!" Nathan said urgently. Gregor stopped the sled instantly and looked back at the Ecclesiarch. "What now?"
"Look down to your right." Nathan pointed down towards a small depression. "That's a tremor trap. If we'd passed over that the whole shaft would have been dropped on our heads."
He hopped out of the sled and walked further down the shaft. About half-way he turned back and shouted out, "That seems to be the only one." He started back then stopped.
"RUN! GET BACK!" Nathan yelled before hurling himself in the opposite direction.
Gregor realized what was happening and slammed the sled into reverse. The soldier had to brace himself on the bomb or risk getting thrown off. The sled jerked again and the soldier felt his head hammer into the bomb. Before drifting into unconsciousness he saw tons of rubble pouring down towards them.
Nathan brushed the dust off his coat and looked around. He had managed to avoid the collapse but the exit was cut off by tons of rubble. Hopefully Gregor and 10 had managed to avoid the collapse. Walking forward he felt something crunch underfoot. It was his radio.
"Damn…" He sighed softly to himself in frustration. Now he was truly cut off. Ignoring his instinct to stay put and wait to be found. Nathan set off into the darkened tunnel. Already his augmented eyes were adjusting to the new light levels but it would take several minutes before they could fully work. He worked his way further down into the caves.
"By the Holy Sun!" Gregor swore as he surveyed the collapse. "We'll never get through that!"
"Don't worry, there's about three other tunnels that intersect that one nearby. We should be able to meet back up with him." The soldier tottered slightly as he recovered from his concussion.
"Hrm, he can look after himself but I'd better ready the bomb. I doubt we'll find a nicer spot." Before moving the bomb into position, he threw the soldier an extra flare. "Cover my back while I'm busy."
The soldier nodded then threw a few grenades into the passages. The explosions triggered a trap in the left-most tunnel and collapsed it immediately. The gunman glared at the soldier.
"What in the Void are you doing?"
"Checking for traps." Responded the soldier.
"Well let me know first! Could have had me cross a wire and set the bomb off with us next to it!" He shook his head and returned to his work.
Ahead, Nathan could hear the guttural sounds of Beasts. Obviously they were talking about the collapsed tunnels, their distressed tones told him that much. As he prepared to avoid the beasts one voice in particular cut into his awareness and stopped him cold. He peered around the corner and stifled a cry of shock, it was his mother. She was directing smaller Beasts towards the distant sound of explosions while at her side stood a massive gray-black male lizard. Obviously a bodyguard, judging from the size of his head crest.
"Time to finish this." The thought came unbidden to Nathan's mind as he placed his mother's head in between his pistol's sights. A scope extended from his eye with a quiet hiss, bringing her head into focus. It would be unlikely he would get a second chance at this shot. It would be best not to take any chances.
The sudden shudder of explosions took him by surprise and caused him to prematurely fire. His shot tore into the chest of the bodyguard. Chunks of flesh flew everywhere but the bullet failed to kill it.
Nathan's mother scurried away while the big male roared in pain and sent a blast of Ithyr hurtling towards Nathan's hiding place.
"To the void with these creatures and their senses!" yelled Nathan as he felt the explosion wash over the rock that sheltered him. No time for subtlety now, he was going to have to blast his way out. Screaming, Nathan leapt out from behind his cover and sent bursts of gunfire into the crowded room. Before he ducked behind another rock he noticed with satisfaction he had felled some of the creatures.
But there were more, a lot more. And Nathan had to act quickly or be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Too late, a clawed hand reached over the rock and dragged Nathan out into the open. It was the big male, the creature threw Nathan across the cavern and into a nearby stalagmite. Stunned, the Ecclesiarch picked up his pistol and let loose random bursts of gunfire forcing the creature to hid behind the rock Nathan had just used. He continued firing until he heard the ping of a discarded clip. That was when the beasts charged him.
Dozens strong they threw themselves at him like a school of rabid piranha. But the Ecclesiarch was not without his defenses. From behind his back he pulled out an Ithyr blade. A sword that grew stronger as the wielder's skill in twisting the Ithyr increased. Next to the Valoran Star sword it was the most dangerous hand-to-hand weapon available to mankind.
As he pulled it out of its scabbard the blade burst into life, blue flames crept along the edges and caused some of the lesser beasts to flinch in pain. The rest paused; they knew that to be touched by that blade meant instant death.
"Come and have a go then!" he taunted.
"As you wish son!" Spoke his mother as she soared over the crowds of Beasts. The air around him was shredded with Ithyr blasts, but he stood his ground and answered with one of his own. It missed and blew a chunk out of the ceiling that crushed several nearby creatures.
His mother became a blur as she span midair, too late Nathan saw her tail hurtling towards his chest. The impact knocked his sword out of his hands and broke at least two of his ribs, he could feel blood dribble down the sides of his mouth.
"Did that hurt?" cackled his mother. "Let me make it better!"
Nathan dodged the next blow, with his eyes augmentations now fully activated he saw his mother as if she moved in slow-motion. Her outstretched claws dug deep into a stalagmite as he ducked her strikes. At her next attack Nathan leapt straight into the air and grabbed her tail.
"Have you already forgotten the augmentations they give to us mother?" He asked. Even as she snarled a curse at him Nathan had thrown her above his head and prepared an Ithyr blast.
"High Lord hear my prayer, grant me the power to vanquish your foes!" He shouted the last of the mantra as a massive burst of Ithyr coursed its way up his arm and shot towards his airborne opponent.
The explosion threw his mother across the room and smashed her into the remains of an entrance. Other beasts, less adept at twisting the Ithyr, were vaporized immediately. Those that survived were stunned and disorientated. In the confusion Nathan retrieved his sword and limped towards the prostrate form of his mother.
"AAAHHHH!" wailed the soldier as his body was suddenly wracked by extreme pain. Looking up from the quake bomb, Gregor sounded almost concerned. "What's wrong?" he asked a little nonplused.
"It…burns…The pain!" the soldier howled again. Opening one eye he saw smoke rising off of him. He realized with shock that he was curled up on the ground.
"Ah, I see." The gunman mused. "You were never taught how to twist the Ithyr were you?"
"No…" Hissed the soldier.
Gregor finished setting up the bomb and walked over to the fallen soldier. "You're not used to handling surges of Ithyr then. It's like getting blasted by electricity. Means there's some spell-slinging going on." The gunman paused and looked at various passages, he finally settled on one that was partially illuminated by luminescent fungi.
"There that's where we'll find Nathan." Gregor dragged the soldier up roughly and handed him back his auto-rifle.
"The blast wasn't that bad, walk it off. We don't have time for anything else!" And with that the barbarian set off down the tunnel.
Groaning in agony, the soldier followed after him.
Nathan walked through the smoked filled cavern and up to where his mother lay. He saw the wretched creature lying bloody on the ground and prepared to deliver the killing blow. He raised his sword and met his ex-mother's eyes. He saw sadness.
"I can't do it." he half-whispered to himself.
"I was counting on that." replied the beast as her poisoned claws tore through his ballistic mail. Nathan collapsed as the deadly toxin sped through his system. Before the pain overwhelmed him, Nathan saw the large male carry his mother out of the cavern.
The soldier burst into the cavern his rifle carving a bloody swath through the Beasts. He spotted Nathan lying on the ground in front of a particularly large she-lizard. Behind him he could hear the roar of the gunman's vortex cannon as it cooked those who stood against it.
"10 get Nathan out of there! I'll cover you!", shouted the gunman as he let loose another blast. The soldier didn't even nod as he set forth, his auto-rifle shredding a path through the crowd of monsters. The she-lizard had left long before he reached Nathan who was delirious and ranting when the soldier dragged him out of the cavern and into the waiting rocket sled. Gregor came soon after, running at full speed while angry abominations charged after him. The gunman leapt into the driver's compartment and sped off, pausing only to see if his passengers were secure.
"Airship this is transport! We are coming in hot, one wounded prepare the medical room! We're coming from tunnel B13!" Gregor yelled into the radio.
"Understood, reading for your arrival." the soldier could hear the technician's voice in his ear and despite the immediate danger she sounded unperturbed.
The soldier felt a hand tugging his sleeve and he looked down at the Ecclesiarch. His face was blotched from where a poison had begun to take effect.
"I couldn't do it…I couldn't kill her…Why?" Nathan was gasping out the words, the poison was acting faster than the soldier had thought.
"Don't worry about it, we all have our weaknesses!" the soldier wasn't listening to much of what the Ecclesiarch said he was too busy applying anti-venoms and pressure pads. "Besides you're the Last Saint, if you die then the world ends…can't let that happen."
Nathan choked as if hearing something distasteful, "No..."
"Exactly." the soldier wished he would stop talking. It was hard enough to apply first aid when he was hurtling down a rocky corridor. The problem was multiplied when he had to listen to delusional ravings as well.
"No…I'm not the Last Saint…just a trick…", the Ecclesiarch gasped before drifting into unconsciousness. The soldier opted to take Nathan's pulse rather than dwell on what he had just heard. Still strong, Nathan might yet survive.
"Gregor, how soon until we get to the airship?" The soldier queried.
"About…now!" the words had barely left the gunman's mouth when the bright glow of natural sunlight greeted them. The sled shot out of the cave like a bullet and flew out into open air. The soldier realized there was nothing to stop their fall into the yawning canyon below them and screamed.
He was still screaming when Gregor grabbed him and Nathan with each hand and leapt out of the sled. For one second the soldier experienced weightlessness then plummeted down towards the darkness and into the clutches of a heavy duty fishing net. He grasped the net like a drowning man until he felt the hands of the crew pull him into the safety of the airship. Several of the crew hustled the bloody form of Nathan down into the medical facility. Gregor and the soldier were left to sit by the docking port unattended.
"Nice move there with the sled." spoke the soldier. "For a moment I was sure we were dead."
The gunman didn't bother to respond; obviously he had not changed his mind regarding the status of the soldier. They sat in silence for what seemed an eternity until, finally, the bedraggled form of the technician emerged from the medical room.
"He's awake now, fortunately his augmentations managed to stem the blood loss so he won't bleed to death. The poison itself was mostly purged by the anti-venoms that 10 applied." At this, the technician gave the soldier a minor nod of gratitude.
"However, it was not in time to stop the poison from virtually destroying the nerves in his legs…"
"What does that mean?" asked Gregor. "He's not going to die is he?"
"No, but he will never again be able to use his legs to walk without the aid of
prosthetics." the tech sighed, her face ageing as she allowed exhaustion to overtake her.
"He is awake and he wants to talk to you 10. Says he has something important he needs to clarify."
"Did he say what it was?"
"No," the technician shook her head "He won't tell me. Though I suspect he wants to thank you for saving his life."
The soldier snorted in amusement as he walked into the room. If anything, the Ecclesiarch probably thought his vaunted status as the 'Last Saint' saved him from his death. Nathan was lying in a bed that faced a nearby window and the soldier had to cough to get his attention. The soldier was surprised to see that the Ecclesiarch seemed relatively healthy after his close brush with death. If the augmentations of the Technicians of Laburnum were that effective he might have to try and get his hands on some.
"You are here, good, I can get down to business." Though he looked better, the soldier realized that Nathan certainly did not sound better. The man's voice sounded as if his lungs had been inhaling engine fumes.
"You saved my life 10 and for that I owe you a boon." The soldier began to protest this obvious attempt at currying favor when the Ecclesiarch cut him off abruptly.
"Oh, I know there was no altruism in your actions today. Were I to die, you would have surely been sent back to the judge and executed. But I am alive because of your actions and such a debt needs to be repaid."
"How so?" The soldier was now curious. Perhaps this Ecclesiarch was not as foolhardy as he had originally thought.
"Before I collapsed on the sled I told you that I wasn't really the 'Last Saint'. That it was all a trick."
"I'm surprised you can recall that. "
"That is something too important to be forgotten. But, before I divulge the facts behind that statement, swear on your 'Martyr' that nothing you hear will go beyond this room."
"The teachings of the Martyr state that no oaths are to be taken. Our yes is to be yes and our no to be no." The soldier was annoyed at this affront to his religion.
"Spare me your preaching! Swear or you will hear nothing!" flecks of bloody phlegm spattered Nathan's shirt.
The soldier sighed, he seemed to be on the verge of a major revelation and despite his reservations he wanted to know.
"I swear on the Martyr and on the High God that I will tell not one soul what I have heard here."
"Good." Nathan looked down for a minute, then continued. " I am not the 'Last Saint' as prophesied. I am nothing but a hoax created by the Church as a figurehead for the people."
"What? How so?" A self-denouncing saint? This was interesting.
"We have been warring with the Beast for how long? Centuries? Millennia? And what has come of it? Nothing…Every year we lose a few more men to their attacks. Every year a few more converts join their false religion. And every year we find more insidious plots that reach ever father into the depths of the Urmin kingdom. Despite the bold victories that are loudly proclaimed across the land humanity is losing the war for our world."
"But how does this relate to you?"
"I am the fulcrum that the Ecclesiarchy hopes to use to reverse this dangerous course . I am to be the savior of mankind. A role I thought only the High God could fill." Nathan coughed painfully. "It seems the Ecclesiarchy thinks itself wiser than Him."
The soldier sensed this confession hurt the Ecclesiarch more than the poison that had recently ravaged his body. He continued to listen.
"I'm sure that either Gregor or Csandra has already explained to you how I came to be an Ecclesiarch, am I right?"
"You were rescued from a cultist town. The only pure soul in a village of the damned."
"That doesn't strike you as a little odd? That I, a simple farm boy was the only one to survive untouched in a cultist center? And, even more odd that the Ecclesiarchy was unable to find it until my life was threatened?"
"I thought that would have been put as the grace of the High God, proof of your sainthood." replied the soldier.
Nathan laughed at that, or rather tried to laugh. His throat was too raw for such actions and he stopped.
"It was an elaborate plot to fool the Kingdoms into believing that the return of the High God was near. It was supposed to swell the ranks of the military as fanatics prepared themselves for the final battle. They hoped to use me as a tool to stop our gradual decline."
"How did you find this out? I would have thought that the Ecclesiarchy would make sure you were the last to know of this plot?" The soldier was very interested now.
"My old teacher, Gerik told me…the High God guard him. He could not stand the deceit and so he told me. It was quite a shock, learning that my supposed destiny was nothing more than an elaborate deception."
"It seems an awful amount of unnecessary work just to create a false saint."
"Ah, but it was necessary. The Ecclesiarchy is but one of the branches that the Church has to combat the Beast with. They needed to create a plot that was compelling enough to convince them that I was who I was claimed to be."
"And the Beasts just played along with this whole scheme? Forgive me if I seem unconvinced but that would appear to be a major obstruction."
"When I was but a baby, I was placed into the care of two people. One was known to be a cultist the other was an agent of the Ecclesiarchy. When it was let slip that I was supposed to be the 'Last Saint', I was taken immediately. The chance to corrupt the harbinger of salvation was too much to pass up. I doubt they ever realized from whom they had obtained me from…"
"Yes, my…parents. Though the fact that my father turned out to be one of the most powerful avatars of the Beast God probably surprised the Ecclesiarchy. That was most likely the reason for my trials at Oasi, if not for him I would have been hailed as a hero immediately."
"I would have thought that being raised among the Beasts might have corrupted you? And if not then why did you never notice what your parents really were?" Nathan's story was troubling in some respects. What else did the Ecclesiarch have its fingers in?
"If the Beasts were all a bunch of mindlessly destructive abominations then I doubt this war would have gone on as long as it had. They would have been destroyed long ago. No, the lure of the Earth Lord is much more insidious than that. Whispers of power and immortality to all those who will listen. Only if the follower wills it is he turned into a mighty yet grotesque parody of humanity. It was such whispers that seduced the agent sent to protect me, my mother. One year before I was rescued she succumbed to the lure and became one of them…" Nathan stopped there; the soldier could see that this memory was the most painful to him.
"That was why you didn't kill her in the tunnels." Finished the soldier. "You cannot remove the image of her as uncorrupted from your mind."
"And that is why I must ask you one favor. If ever we meet her again, kill her. My sentimentality prevents me." The Ecclesiarch was almost begging him realized the soldier.
"If we meet she will die." he promised. "Now why did I do that?" he thought to himself.
Nathan visibly relaxed and sank back into his bed. "Go now, I am tired. There is much work ahead."
Later on when he was eating in the mess, the pilot asked what Nathan wanted.
"Just to thank me" the soldier replied, and continued eating.
"What do you mean 'The bomb didn't activate'!" Nathan rasped through his injured throat.
The technician, Lorral, shook with fear at Nathan's display but continued with her report. "The device…it was severed from our remote connection when you left the cave…" a trembling hand held out a log with the previous day's events. Nathan rolled over in his wheelchair to examine it in detail.
The rest of the crew stood nearby unwilling to expose themselves to Nathan's fury. Only Csandra seemed to be unperturbed, her optics resting on Nathan to make sure he didn't strain himself.
Nathan looked back at Lorral and for a moment the soldier feared he would explode again. Instead Nathan sighed and threw the log on a table. "Not your fault, I should have realized that she would have figured it out. Has the bomb been turned off?"
Lorral quickly shook her head. "No, only disconnected from the remote activation system."
"So how to set it off then?" mused Nathan.
"A detonator." said the soldier.
"That would be suicide! You have to be at least within 100 feet of the bomb for that to work!" exclaimed Csandra.
"I'll do it!" said Gregor exuberantly. "That would be a glorious end! Burning down your foes in a blaze of glory! Think of the tales my clansmen would tell!"
"No." replied Nathan and instantly Gregor's face fell. "You would never get close enough. Though…"
"What?" asked Gregor.
"I might be able to enter. My mother would love a chance to gloat over her son's failure."
"Absolutely not!" burst out Csandra. "You are the Last Saint! And that would be certain death!"
"We all die Duchess. It's just a matter of when and where."
"Csandra's right! You are too valuable to risk." Said Gregor as he barged into the discussion. "I say we just get a fleet and blast the mountain apart!"
"That would never work. It would take weeks to reduce a mountain that size to rubble and even then we might not get them all." Spoke the soldier. "No, I think our best bet is with Nathan's plan."
"Shut up heretic!" roared Gregor. "You won't kill the Last Saint!"
"Wait Gregor…I think I know what 10 means." Nathan grimaced as a cough shook his body. "Go on." he gestured.
"You're what…6'2", 160 pounds?" Asked the soldier.
"177, but hurry to the point."
"We're roughly the same in build. Give me one of your suits and I'll go in. With a hood and some scent mask, I should be able to fool the beasts long enough to get close enough to activate the bomb."
"That's a good plan, heretic. But why would you volunteer for an obvious suicide mission?" sneered Gregor.
The soldier shook his head sadly. "I was hoping after all the arguments we had over my religion you might have learnt something. I do this not for Nathan, not for glory, but because I must."
"What?" The gunman was obviously confused. Even Nathan had a bewildered look on his face.
"Many times the Martyr had a chance to flee from the Ecclesiarchy. He could have escaped and lived in safety. But he stayed and defied your church. And why? Because his well-being was nothing when he weighed it against humanity's survival."
"So you see yourself as a martyr?" snorted Gregor.
"No." the soldier replied. "Even now you refuse to understand." He turned to Nathan.
"Let's get this over with."
As they walked down the hall the Gunman yelled after him. "You won't sway me Heretic! Pretty words and stories never will!"
Twelve hours later, the soldier found himself walking down the same tunnel that he had so recently escaped. All around himcould hear hundreds of Beasts crawling, snorting, and sniffing in the gloom. Eyes of all colors glared at him as he passed.
"If looks could kill…" thought the soldier.
Eventually, the tunnel widened and he entered a large cavern and in the middle stood the bomb flanked by Nathan's mother and the large male. The creature grinned and the soldier thanked the High God for the hood that obscured his face.
"So you came to see the end of the Kingdoms? We have almost finished excavating the caves and when we do millions of us will pour through into your precious lands!" She cackled with horrid glee and looked at the soldier.
"I must say you recovered quickly from my poison…most never survive."
The soldier crossed his arms in order to stop himself from grabbing the detonator. He was barely 20 feet from the beasts and at that distance they could be on him before he even touched it.
"Well?" She spat out irritably. "Say something son! I have won!"
"I'm not your son!" was his reply and at that moment he threw the two demolition charges he had hidden in his sleeves into the crowd surrounding him.
"STOP HIM! KILL HIM!" screeched the mother before she shot off into the darkness.
It was too late; the explosions tore through the beasts and sent bloody remains flying everywhere. The large male shot towards him claws extended and the soldier had to throw himself out of the way in order to avoid disembowelment.
The large male, however, was not aiming for the soldier but the detonator on his leg. By the time the soldier realized this the beast had shot off down one of the side passages with the precious device tightly grasped in its claws.
The soldier let another demolition charge fly behind his back while he pursued the big male. The charge blew out a large portion of the cavern ceiling and sent debris flying everywhere. Before the stunned creatures could react he was off down the tunnel.
"Take us away from here." commanded Nathan.
"Where sir?" asked the pilot.
"Just…away." Nathan was tired and his injuries were aching again.
Samuel nodded and left for the bridge. Behind him, Nathan heard the soft hiss of Csandra's augmentations as she entered the command room.
"This isn't right Nathan." She sounded as if she had been crying. That was odd, had the soldier affected her that much?
"No it's not. But it's the only real option we had." The weight of responsibility wore him down and he remarked bitterly. "I don't enjoy my job as much as you think Duchess."
She didn't answer, he didn't expect her to. She left as quietly as she had entered leaving Nathan alone. He looked down at the soldier's map and whispered to himself.
"You have a convert soldier. After all the Church has done to stop you, your religion still spreads." Back in her room, Csandra pulled out a small leather book and began to read.
This was bad, very bad. The soldier realized he was in trouble, it was pitch black and he had no night vision. He was begging to get ambushed. He felt around one pocket and pulled out a flare. It would make him stick out like a sore thumb but he had no choice.
The red light lit up the perpetual night and gave him limited vision. He heard a rustling behind him and turned around just in time to see the big male emerge from the darkness. Scaled arms stretched from its side and trapped the soldier in a killing embrace.
Slowly, it began to crush the soldier in its arms. He tried to blind it with the flare but that too was sent flying down the tunnel. He tried punching the large male in the head but it was as hard as steel. The soldier felt a few fingers break.
The creature opened its mouth and prepared to bite of the soldier's head. Reaching down to his leg, the soldier pulled out his last demolition charge and shoved it into the gaping maw of the lizard. The beast dropped him in surprise and flailed around helplessly as the charge deployed anchor spikes inside its throat.
The soldier picked himself up and lurched down the hallway, pain flaring up and down his chest from where ribs had broken. The charge would detonate in less that a minute and the thought of a horde of angry beasts swarming the caves kept him moving. Just when he was ready to collapse he felt the tremor of a detonation. He ran, leaping out of the cave just in time to see rubble seal off the tunnel. The soldier tumbled to the ground while blackened volcanic dust swept over him like a wave, obscuring his vision and fouling the surrounding air preventing him from breathing. Rage filled his mind as he realized he had lost the detonator.
"I will not fail now! Do you hear me? Not now!" he howled.
And then he saw it glint in the darkness. The detonator was lying just in front of him, all he had to do was activate it and this fight was over. He picked it up and spoke into his radio.
"I'm activating the detonator; I suggest that anyone who hears this leaves the surrounding area as soon as possible." He knew it was largely a futile gesture, anyone who could hear the message through the static would be to close to the blast to escape. In the twilight of the tunnels he could hear the sounds of hundreds of furious Beasts trying to break through the cave-in.
He looked up, "Give me strength…" he whispered.
Suddenly a shadow reared out of the darkness and impaled the soldier on a broken stalagmite. The shadow leaned into the faint light of cave fungi and the soldier recognized it as the Beast that had once called itself the mother of Nathan Trowl. He could only gurgle as he felt the blood flow out of his body. The monster in front of him basked in his agony.
"So it seems my son has once again failed. This passage through the Great Pass shall be opened and from it the armies of the Beast God shall pour forth into the Kingdoms!"
The soldier convulsed in pain, he tried to spit one last curse at the monster but blood choked off his reply. The despair he felt at that moment was killing him as surely as the blood loss. Then he remembered the detonator. He lifted it up and paused only to see abject terror spread across the monster's face before activating the device.
The explosion of the quake bomb sent massive shockwaves that obliterated the crust of the planet in a two mile radius of the mountain. The mountain and anything within the blast was consumed by the magma that flowed out of the ragged scar. Several miles away in the airship, Csandra and Gregor watched the devastation.
Gregor shrugged, "At least the Heretic redeemed himself in the end."
"No," said Csandra "He was a martyr."