Changing of the Guard
We’re closing in on the end, I suppose.
It’s hard to tell with all that’s going on, but listen, you’ve come in at an extraordinary time! If you were here a few hours earlier, you may well have been turned to dust from orbital bombardment, had your head cracked open by an Emberwing, or cut down with an Intrahyperial blade. Such things would have only marginally different ways to go; either would have been quick, and all three would have given a good sense of what happened here. Before you die, that is.
In any case, being outside in Gorla-Perelius — ah, Gorla-Gahrin, apologies — right now is anything but safe. You should really head indoors. Maybe try the local shops, or at least any foolish enough to release their locks, open their doors to let you in. Perhaps the local bombardment shelter could take another person or… no, that’s highly unlikely. Everyone important enough has made their way in by now.
A Spire? Not the worst idea, yeah, but I have a sense that you’re not a native Sinerian, are you? Well in that case, you can forget about it. They’ll turn you away just out of principle.
What about the sewers? A rancid, unpleasant place that smells of excrement and half-eaten slop, but what other choice do you have.
Hurry away now, ragged child. Not long left till the war is over, one way or another.
The war is over.
In a sweeping victory over the forces of the Bronze Emperor, the rebel military forces have taken the capital planet of Perelium. The many legions of Gahrin-Kai of Perel, grandson to Perelius-Siej of Annag, who once vanquished the Council of Sept and built the First Ashen Empire through naught but the strength of his hands, have taken the last bastion of hope out from under the remaining loyalists of the false imperator, who had once himself dared wrest control of the True Ashen Empire from its rightful ruling clan.
And now Kai has taken back his birthright, through his use of newly developed personal shields, Hyperial weaponry, and those ruthless, armored soldier-commanders known as Red Sentinels… or ‘Reapers.’ There is a reason Kai’s enemies called him ‘Reaper-Kai,’ I suppose expecting this to result in the rabble being afraid of him. In truth, for historians like myself, it gave him an almost divine sense of retribution; like the Council of Sept before him, the Bronze Emperor failed to distinguish his personal perception of the world around him from that of the common castes of the Empire. And in so doing, he turned Kai’s secret little rebellion into a righteous crusade. Foolish, you say? Indeed. But then, we are writing such things through a retrospective lens, and with the benefit of hindsight to guide us. The Bronze Emperor, cruel and calculating and cold as he was, could only work with what information he had. Perhaps, even within his Grand Spires, he saw every crook and shadow as a hiding place for veiled daggers. An usurper must always be wary of being equally usurped, as you well know, and now it seems his fears were well founded.
Although — and I am aware of what I, Ruvloi-Iconn of Perel, risk for even writing this — we must admit that our precious Perelius-Siej, the First Emperor, was himself a usurper. But such is the way of things. It may well be regicide all the way down, and I am old. I am not afraid of death.
Though I must confess that I am scared of going out there, in the streets. My bones are not as strong as they once were, and there is little money in the coffers of a senile historian whose greatest achievements thus far have been biographies for White Army captains of admittedly little note, but who possessed sizable wealth and even greater hubris. I am afraid that the muscle injections I had procured for just such a day will give out early while I am among the rabble of the streets, leaving me helpless on the soot-soaked earth. Death? That is fine. It is but simple pain that I fear.
And yet… oh, Asimos, my lord, I cannot resist the call to arms. I have yearned to glance at the face of our new Emperor, to see those mighty Reapers of his in the streets. I cannot resist the urge to stand there in the crowd, staring up at the Grand Spires and watching history be made before my eyes. Even now, I stand at the window and see the streets flooded with those who think themselves free. A naive notion, I’ll be the first to admit, but I haven’t felt such a severe feeling of hope since before my bones started aching. I wish to feel it again.
Through the painted glass of my humble loft, I see the robed masses make their way towards the terminus of the Imperial Sector. I see those using powerful jets of mixed chemicals to get the streets back to how they looked before the onset of the war, red banners bearing the new Emperor’s seal aloft over them. I see the upstanding citizens of the Empire, those that mend and create and build, walking towards the center, joined by those cretins that can only break and destroy. The Medicant walks side-by-side with the Injectionist. The Urchin Friend stands just in front of the Loan Warden. A young, ragged child crawls out of the sewers, covered in filth, and is helped to his shaking feet by Child Catchers who temporarily find themselves without need for their unsavory labor.
Many are dressed in cloth that obfuscates their features due to wounds sustained during the siege, and many more to hide their species; they are afraid that our new Emperor is like the old one in some ways, and will raise True Sinerians above the ranks of the rest, even of those only a few genetic leaps away from purity. They worry that they will be made to stand many leagues away from where Emperor Gahrin-Kai, Sinlord, Reclaimer of the Empire, The Returning Dragon, ‘Reaper-Kai’, will make his first formal appearance to the people below. I worry that I will be made to stand far, far away…
I’ll do it. Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll leave.
Where did I put that injection capsule, anyway…
And that meant people. So many, and in such a wide range of shapes and colors. True Sinerians, and many Secondsine and Thirdsine indeed, but so too were there Velse and Yuold and Orun and Khaori and more. They flooded the streets, only recently held by legions of soldiers loyal to one crown or another, and brought the celebration of life to a place filled with evidence of the dead. Oh, the bodies have been cleared and all the blood and guts have since washed away — the city’s cleaning services work through sun and siege alike, it seems — but the remnants still linger. The ghosts linger.
Namuu-Oyor did not expect to become a Cleaner, and certainly not in the hallowed Old Market Crucible near the foot of the Grand Spires. Though the work itself was monotonous at best and downright gruesome at worst, the honor of being able to spend so many of his waking hours in such a place outweighed the unkind principle behind his reason for being there.
Oyor stood in the middle of the street, staring up. The light from the star encased by Perelium stared back at him, though the intensity of its cosmic rays was heavily diluted through the protective structure made to absorb its light. Sometimes, Oyor wondered if any of them saw Perel, the star itself, at all, or if the light being tossed their way was a fabricated energy far less intense than the true source. Perelium, a mechanical world built to encase the mighty star, would never starve for energy. It’s people were another case.
It didn’t matter, he supposed. Someone of his caste would never climb so high as to be able to discover the inner workings of such a machine. To Thirdsine like himself, two genetic leaps away from the original Sinerian bloodline, it was not meant to be.
Well, under the Bronze Emperor, that is. Some part of him hoped that some things might change, but he dared not hope. He had hoped before, when tales of the Copper Rebellion filled his ears. His hope had died when the ringleaders were hung, and his eyes had been treated to sight of a childhood friend hanging upside down with her dark hair twisted around a bramblevine crank.
A body shoved past him, causing the Cleaner to stumble. It was an older man, wearing a traditional sash with a curved sword at his waist. His hair was tied in a low knot that swung past his shoulders and was kept together through a thin silver chain, identifying him as a local torturer. With him was a woman, whose scalp was shaved clean and marked with a collection of intricate blue splotches that identified her as his concubine. The Torturer glared at the Cleaner, with his baggy sanitation uniform that had clearly gotten the worst of the street refuse so far, and moved on without a care for Oyor’s well-being. The woman gave him little more than a glance.
Oyor frowned, at both the rudeness and their stations in life, but dared not act. No one would come to defend him if the torturer drew his sword. Not under the old regime, at least. So he simply brushed himself off, imagined the Torturer’s head on a spike, and moved on.
But now he couldn’t help but wonder: Would that same torturer, that cruel man who existed only to bring forth pain, soon have any place in this new world, and the ability to even hold concubines by weight of their status? Would the existence of concubines be acceptable to a more forward-thinking head of state? Would Cleaners like Oyor, those that made problems go away instead of trying to bring them to light, be of more use to the new establishment than traditionally valued professionals?
Only time would tell.
Some early satisfaction finds him even now, however. Oyor spots in the crowd a thing of legend, a soldier of stars beyond that he had heard of but never seen. And though he is not fully sure if the being before him is that which he believes it to be, the sheer weight of its presence confirms his suspicions almost immediately. It is a Reaper, the elite shock-troopers of this new Emperor of theirs. The Red Sentinels all look alike with regards to their otherworldly attire. They are dressed, from head to toe, in overlapping scales of armor intricately laid out into a lattice plate. Their helmets obscure all features, but are clearly Sinerian-like in appearance; he does not know what their species is, or if they are all Pure Sinerians like so many gullible sycophants believe, but their thin visors indicate that they at least have eyes — whether two or in some other quantity.
But most intriguing of all is their Emberwings, floating hunks of metal around their persons. To call them wings is not entirely accurate, for they are closer shaped to long square-based pillars than they are to bird-like appendages. All four are not attached to the Sentinel, but rather seem to hover above the ground, two on either side, and stay close at hand should they need to use them. Oyor does not know how the Sentinel commands their wings, but imagines the owner having some psychic link with whatever crystalline intelligence lies within each of them.
The Reaper stepped before the Torturer and his Concubine, causing both to shrink momentarily at the sight of it. The Torturer took the woman’s hand and attempted to sidestep the looming Sentinel, but found that the two Emberwings on the side he was moving towards had spread out to block his entrance. Each wing was as tall as the Reaper itself, and now hummed with a violent red energy.
“What is the meaning of this?” Said the Torturer, “Let me guess, you want tribute? Coin?”
The Sentinel stood still.
“Submission, then? You want us to kneel, do you, you naive tools of that insipid upstart of an Emperor?”
The Concubine looked up at her master with a worried look.
The Reaper did not take kindly to being spoken to in this manner. It did not move to strike the man, however, and instead stepped forward, the Emberwings shuddering before moving closer to its back. Then, it reached out, grabbing the Torturer by the collar and lifting him with a single hand. He grunted in surprise, slapping helplessly at the mailed glove that had lifted him, and watched with fear at what it might do.
For several moments, the Reaper did not move, allowing the Torturer to flail wildly without so much as a twitch. Instead, it simply looked at the Concubine, watching her silently. The masses around it continue moving, each afraid to meet its gaze. Oyor noticed a small, ragged child running, stopping just short of the scene in order to admire in awe the legendary appearance of the Reaper, then rushing off ahead once more.
After what seemed an eternity of deep contemplation, the Concubine stood up and fled. Once she had disappeared into the crowd, the Reaper dropped the Torturer back down again, watching him sink to his knees in fear. Then it walked away, letting the waiting crowd disperse for it. Most had not even noticed the interaction at all.
Oyor did not know what it all meant.
The war had concluded, but Nayla did not enjoy playing the peacekeeper. She preferred it when things weren’t quite so gray.
Fighting the forces of the Bronze Emperor, whether in bombed-out deposits filled with precious metals or flying head-first into an armada, was so much simpler than dealing with civilian politics. Her people, those that had come from that molten planet they themselves had made uninhabitable through personal hubris, were hardy folk. They preferred it when war was a simple thing, and when the enemy was on the other side of the armor. When she fought out there, amongst the stars, she never had to really take in the toll; that was for the regular soldiers, those that mopped up the mess afterwards. Her kind, the greatest of her people, was not for such things. As Gahrin-Kai himself had said to her once, the Red Sentinels were the cutting saw, and everyone else was there to shape the wood afterwards.
But the war was over, and Nayla Feint found that she was having a crisis of consciousness. She had not truly considered what it would be like after the war. When she had lived in their floating towers above her old world, which so resembled the Spires of the True Ashen Empire that it seemed strange the two structural archetypes had been independently developed, her life was training, practicing, and going down to the burning earth to fight beasts and rivals alike in search of Truth. They’d found that truth, with Kai. They’d left their homes, with Kai. So much had changed with Kai.
Emperor Gahrin-Kai, Nayla reminded herself. Such familiarity would not be looked upon favorably anymore. Even in her position as one of the original Red Sentinels to join his crusade to reclaim his family throne, she knew such things had their time and place.
And now she walked the streets of Perelium, the greatest planet in the Empire and one of the few Solar Orbs in the known galaxy, and her job was to intimidate the lackeys and bullies of the old regime as they walked barefoot in the streets. How the mighty had fallen.
She had found herself an isolated alleyway to rest in, sitting down with her back firmly placed against the brick housing structure behind her. The Emberwings continued to hover nearby, their energy reserves still having a long way to go until they were depleted. The downtrodden inhabitants here had clearly left to go see the new emperor being crowned at the apex of his victory, as was tradition. Nayla had thought it strange, that the victor would be given his title so soon after murdering the prior wielder of those powers, but at least it provided her the brief respite she needed to recollect herself after hours spent intimidating those too helpless to stand any reasonable chance against her.
Her head felt heavy.
Nayla reached up and undid the kinetic locks keeping her helmet in place. She heard the satisfying click sound the helmet emitted when the auxiliary magnetics loosened and allowed her to slip the helmet off.
The Sentinel couldn’t help but wonder if the Sinerians might be disappointed at how… normal she looked, really. It was clear that her physical build was similar to that of the average Sinerian — though there were apparently some that harbored a strange notion that her Emberwings were a part of her body, however foolish that idea might have been — but some part of her wished there was more to tell them apart. Her skin was ebon black like the night, unlike the lighter tan of the others, and her eyes were pale, unlike the strange, red eyes of Pure Sinerians and the muddled offshoots of orange or yellow or brown for the Secondsine, Thirdsine and beyond. Many had compared her kind to the Rock People of Tyntic legends, who did not sleep nor eat, save to devour murky gemstones and shit out diamonds.
She swept her dark hair out of her eyes, only to see that she was not alone.
In the alley, digging through a torn bag of food waste, was a ragged child looking through the muck. He was thin, malnourished, with a gaunty frame of face. One eye was only half-open, with black parts near the nose and brow. He was dressed in scraps.
Nayla watched him dig. She briefly contemplated helping him, but… but what? She had no food on her, nor time to go find scraps for every street urchin she happened upon in a backwards locale like this. And if she gave him some, then pity would triumph over duty, and she would need to give him more.
And… oh, he looked her way. That wasn’t good. They’d been told to keep their helmets on in public, to avoid the masses seeing them as anything other than divine retribution for the Bronze Emperor’s sins quite yet. And now he had seen her.
Nayla’s hand put her helmet back on before she could stop herself. She stood.
Part of her wished there was far more to tell them apart. Then, perhaps, she would not recognize the fear in their eyes when she lifted them off their feet with ease. She would not be able to tell when a woman realized she was free, but unable to comprehend what to even do with her freedom. She would not be able to catch the loss of innocence in the eyes of street children when they realized nothing, absolutely nothing, would change for them, whether the emperor was young or old, old or new.
The child reached out, thin fingers curling around something imagined. He looked up at her, tiny eyes terrified yet hopeful that this veritable angel might help him out of his suffering.
Nayla did not look back when her wings left the ground, her body pulled up through their magnetic force. She dared not look.
All alone again, I see.
Ragged child. Spawn of unkind parentage. Abandoned, on the streets of Perelium, the greatest planet in the True Ashen Empire. Afraid, under the Great Sun of Perel, shining light of hope and progress, of what is to come.
Do these sights look the same to you as they do for them? Those masses wandering through the streets, staring up at the nameless armada that has destroyed the remnants of the Bronze Legions, do they see hope? Do they look at those ships and imagine them going out into the great unknown and restabilishing centuries-old alliances with the other species’ in the galaxy? Of rebuilding the Council of the Imperial Flame and providing opportunity for all in a time when professional growth has become stagnant? Do they see a better tomorrow?
Do you see anything at all, little one?
I can hear you crying. It’s alright to cry, all things considered. Hunger is a terrible beast, one that gnaws at you insistently. Not many have felt true hunger like you have, when the stomach seems intent on devouring itself, hoping to stave off your internal organs strangling themselves to keep that empty feeling at bay.
The pain helps, strangely enough.
But look there! On the pedestal, far away into the shadows, on the highest floor of the Grand Spires, there stands a figure dressed in blood and gold. He wears a mask of inscrutable expression, appearing joyous and mourning and wrathful all at once, and he is the new Emperor.
Are you not pleased to see him, ragged child? Are you not happy?
Don’t you want to become a part of his story?
I see him!
The emperor stands at the peak of the Grand Spires, at the edge of a looming cliff that overlooks the city. He stands without guards nor protections, at least none that I can plainly see, and it is because his enemies lie strewn before him under the cold soil. He has no need of such protections, for why would he? This is the new Emperor, different from the old Emperor, and the people shall rejoice at his coming.
There is a strange emotion that overcomes my being, and I realize then that it is pity. Yes, pity for those who could not be here today, when for the first time in a generation, there is hope for a better future. Pity for those that lie still from the ravages of war and time, and who could not continue to exist until this moment when the world changed. I pity those that are too small, or too far away, and cannot see him.
I, Ruvloi-Iconn, will attempt to write this feeling of elation, of hopeful dread, into words. So that others might someday feel a fraction of what I feel.
Up on the pedestal, dozens of floors above us, Kai is a spectacle even at this distance. Many of us fight for the rangegivers that allow us to see him up close, and are fascinated when we see the mask he wears — a traditional, haunting thing; its make is white porcelain of some sort, and where one half is light and mirthful, grinning wildly, the other is scowling, enraged, ready for combat. Even with the rangefinder, at this distance we cannot glimpse the eyes that might lie under the mask sockets.
He is inscruitable. He is otherworldly.
And perhaps that is for the better, for his next words are a confusion to us all.
The figure up on the apex raises his hand to speak, and within moments, though not without the assistance of the Spire Guards, the crowd falls into silence.
Kai looks down. He seems to be scanning for something, perhaps even for someone. I wonder briefly if that mask allows him to also look down, seeing us far more clearly than we see him. But then he looks up and stares at seemingly no one in particular.
“We are living in a time of change, in which all things must come, and all things must go. Such is the will of History, great mother of stories, and of her executors, of whose company I now find myself standing in.”
His voice booms out across the surface of the city.
“I have only one thing more to give, before it too is swept away: ‘Because I am, I forever will be.’ Take this to mean what you will. May it influence how you speak of the story, my story, which you have found yourselves bound to.”
With that, Kai leaves the pedestal.
The knife in the ribs is a cold, slow death, and with all the commotion around me of people talking and shouting over one another in confusion, no one notices an old man collapsing under the heat of an artificial sun. My killer slips back into the crowd, and by what little I see of his coif, he has stolen my purse and little else. A common thug.
My blood spills from the cut in my cloth, and yet all I can think about is what I have left behind, not that there is nothing left for me ahead.
Perhaps they will read my notes. Perhaps, after my passing, I will become a part of his story.
I am yours now.
Hours later, the Cleaners swept after the rabble. Of the several millions of civilians that spilled into the city center that day in spite of the blockade, over fourteen thousand bodies were found piled up on the ground. By the Cleaners standards, that was a far better margin than they usually got, especially compared against the Autumn Roundings. Perhaps things truly were changing for the better.
Of course, Oyor thought to himself as he picked up some old historian and placed him with another set of decaying flesh in a compactor, these people probably didn’t feel that way. Their kin likely did not console themselves afterwards with some comfort that at least their dead were unlucky, not common practice.
Oyor pitied the dead. And, from what he’d heard second-hand from someone that had been here when the New Emperor stood up on the pedestal, this ‘Kai’ pitied them too, in his own way.
Well, at least he felt something about them.
Did the Emperor’s words mean that there was worse turmoil ahead than there had been in the past? Did it mean things would only get worse from here, and this was just a slight reprieve from the coming storm?
A time of change indeed. But was the Emperor not the one enacting it? Why even tell the people such a thing — for clemency, or understanding? If that was it, then this Kai did not understand the Empire’s denizens. They were a superstitious bunch, and took little at face-value.
Or perhaps he knew them better than they knew themselves. Oyor did not know what it all meant. Such grand ideas were beyond his station in life as both a simple Cleaner and a Thirdsine, or so he believed .
He had always known the truth: That he would play a small, barely perceptible part in the story of the Empire.
In a few weeks at most, I’m sure he’ll be mine too.
And then there’s you.
Alive, I see, against all logic and reason. How does the flesh manage to keep from slipping off the bones when all other organs are at the brink? Why do the muscles continue to lumber forward, when they should have rightly ceased functioning by now and torn one another to pieces? You smell like open sewage and burnt oil, your torn cloth fluttering in the midnight breeze, and yet you soldier on.
What drives you, ragged child? Why do you fight?
You’ve arrived at the plaza where the Emperor gave that first speech of his. A curious jumble of words, and not at all meant to incite confidence in the new regime. But then, perhaps that was not the point. Perhaps this Gahrin-Kai, this new Emperor, did not believe such platitudes had a place during what was sure to be agonizing months, or even years, while the True Ashen Empire slowly kindled its old flame. And he is right, of course. For look at the prime example of this transition, slipping on the rain that had since befallen the cobblestones and weeping from the resulting scrape on his shins.
Ha. Pissed yourself, have we? Make sure not to slip on that as well, I say.
Parched, hungry, tired, diseased… a pitiful thing indeed. But rulers have little time to pity the dregs that rummage in the refuse of those more fortunate than them, for they know that no one will remember them.
You had a name once, didn’t you? Ragged child, what was it? Can’t you remember?
Lost your name, lost your reason. Only real goal left is to survive, to clamber over the rocks with the hope that the Cleaners missed some speck of grain, some rotting morsel of roast gutter rat.
There is none to be found, of course. You know what this is — the end. Of your story.
Yes, lay down. Lay down at the base of the fountain, shaped like a hulking Sinerian hero of times long past. Lay down at the feet of Asimos, Protector of the Empire, the Twin God, the Chain of the Moons and Stars, and stare up at his perfect marblecast features. Lay down and forget, forget your own name, forget the hunger driving a stake through your heart, and forget the names of your parents, and your Urchin Friends, and your friends, and all those others that left you here to die.
I understand your pain. I do. I’ve seen many, from historians to Cleaners to orphan children like yourself, who thought they had a part to play in some grand design, and they never did. They all ended up slipping on something or another.
There it is, that hollow feeling. Do you feel that? It creeps up on you, I know, but as soon as it begins to infest the quiet corners of your mind there is little doubt when it comes to what is next. And don’t cry. I can’t abide fear in the face of such things. What good does crying do but irritate me, anyway? Do you think I want to be here, collecting the broken pieces of the dead and taking them into the darkness?
Ah, you’re fighting to the end. It would be admirable if there were some chance that you could survive, but there is none. You, and so many thousands like you, are dying out there in the big wide world, in spite of its beauty and all the hope that a new regime might fester in the misguided hearts of young optimists. You, ragged child, will not be there to see it. You, like the rest of the unlucky multitudes flattened after the dawning of a new world, will be mine.
Up above, in the sky. You hear that too, don’t you? It is the exhaust sound of plasma particles colliding within those robust engines of theirs. It is the way the wind breaks from the pressure, booming quietly as it makes way for the weight of the armor. It is the fiery, glorious descent of Emberwings, breaking the fall of a Red Sentinel.
A Reaper. The figure is just above you, standing on the rain-soaked stone. Open your eyes, ragged child, can’t you see it?
She’s reaching out. Her hand is outstretched towards you, but you have to take it. Her kind only takes the strong, those who have the will and determination to fight through the worst of it. She will not lower herself or her brethren by saving a broken body, but she will take a future comrade-in-arms back into the light if they have the strength left to take what the future will hold.
Yes, look at her — you know who it is. You recognize her even with the helmet on. Against her better judgment and the laws of her kind, she is offering you a new lease on life.
Take her hand, ragged child. Take her hand. I do not want you, but she does. Please, just take her hand instead of mine.
Good. Well done, ragged child. You are stronger. Stronger than I gave you credit, at least. Others that lack that strength through no fault of their own, drifting far away, will learn what it is like to die. I must attend to them now.
Oh, you will be mine someday, but not today. Today, she will guide you, and you will learn what it is to be living in a time of change. A terrible, dangerous time, yes, but you will live.
You’ll become a part of her story.