Right, so I said I would have an entry for the fire contest, and here it is! Think of this as a sequels to one of my unfinished stories from waaaaaay back, Ember in the Dark (which I really need to sit down and finish one of these days). Don't forget to post any comments/criticism below. Enjoy!
Central Business District
November 27, 312 PA Terran Standard Calendar
A chill wind blows through the towers of the largest city on Terra Nova, carrying with it the first snowfall of yet another winter. The gray clouds above the city walls take on a dark, foreboding red as the sun sets on yet another day, a day that could seem so much like any other. The least fortunate huddle in the alleyways and shantytowns around fires as night falls. The traders and brokers prepare to laugh the night away in their towers and clubs and casinos, celebrating their fortunes both legitimate and ill-gotten. Shop owners brace themselves against vandals, robbers, and gang shake-downs, preparing whatever resistance or compliance they may need to defend their livelihood. In Mordark there is little room for compassion, for caring, or even a night’s peaceful rest for many. Day in and day out the same tragedies play out, and so they do today.
But today is different. Today the rejected and corrupt of Terra Nova have a new ruler, and just as the wind blows in the snow, so too it may bring change on this day. As night falls he stands alone in his large and lavish private office atop his tall tower. His back is to the door, his eyes upon the city and the burning glow of the clouds, and his mind upon the future.
The room itself is a contrast to the cold and bitterness of the world beyond its walls. Roaring fires burn in several hearths lining walls finished in polished obsidian and black marble paneling. The floor is open, showing off the largeness of the space, and dotted with finely crafted tables, comfortable chairs of several varieties, and tasteful displays of pottery and sculpture and other art from all over the galaxy. Two large bookcases, each stuffed to the brim with tomes of philosophy history poetry and great literature, flank the massive plate glass window that sits before the large mahogany desk of the new Lord of Mordark.
Here he stands, unopposed, in the best place he could hope for to enact his will, to mold this great refuse bin of a city into something great. But still many things weigh heavily on Lord Zegaldorph’s mind. Variables he had not accounted for, the full realization of the weight and power of the office now settling upon him, and worst of all, the quiet of his transition.
His days of youth in the temples and courts of the Helexith empire had to taught him that silence could be far deadlier than sound, that in a world of schemes and personal agendas and plans within plans it was far better to know your enemies than even give the appearance of having unwavering support. Far above the churning mass of humanity that is Mordark only the sound of the wind can be heard, and Lord Zegaldorph wishes for an uproar, a grumble of discontent, anything to give him a clear idea of his enemies or allies.
A chime rings on his desk. Once, twice, on the third ring he taps a small control panel and a holographic image appears before him. “I’m sorry to trouble you, sir,” the miniature visage of the receptionist begins, “but you have a visitor.”
“I thought my instructions were clear,” he rumbles in feigned annoyance, inwardly relieved to have some distraction, even if only for a moment, “I am not to be disturbed tonight.”
“Of course sir, I’m terribly sorry, but he’s-” her head turns and her eyes widen in shock, all but forgetting her employer as something beyond the imager’s view grabs her attention, “Sir, stop! You’re not allowed to-”
She is cut off again, this time as the large door opposite Lord Zegaldorph opens. “Please don’t worry,” a third voice speaks as its owner comes across the threshold, “I would find it quite hard to believe that your employer would go to so much trouble finding me, only to turn me away when I finally arrive.” He is a mahlok. Oddly dressed, more like a human than any of his people that Zegaldorph has ever seen, his skin duller and slightly darker with age, but he is a mahlok to be certain. The receptionist behind him in the doorway looks terrified, she knows Zegaldorph’s reputation, that he does not suffer incompetence lightly.
Lord Zegaldorph blinks and shakes his head ever so slightly, clearing the shock of the passed moment and bringing his thoughts to the present. “It’s alright, Chanda,” he says to comfort the young woman, “I’ll take care of our guest. See about finding Xernoc, he should be at the Silver Starlight casino, tell him to come here straight away once he’s dealt with our business there.”
“Y-yes sir,” Chanda replies, slightly relieved, but mostly puzzled, “right away sir.”
She closes the door quietly, returning to her station to carry out Zegaldorph’s instructions. The newcomer watches as she leaves, and chuckles lightly once the door is closed. “Your hand is as firm as your reputation suggests,” the other mahlok begins. “So tell me, what can an old man from a little town on a little world near the Harmony border do for the new Lord of the largest city-state in the galaxy?”
“I was hoping you might offer me some insight, Mr. Zaltru,” Zegaldorph answers, directing his guest to a seat at a small table nearby a bar containing drinks of all kinds in bottles of many shapes and sizes. “And, to be honest, to get to know you better. It is, after all, so rare to meet another mahlok outside the Empire, let alone one who has nothing at all to do with it.”
“Ah, the search for a kindred spirit, a quest I can certainly understand. And please, just Komen will do.”
“Of course, of course,” Komen’s host replies, taking two glasses from the bar. “Can I get you anything? The 239 Shardashan Bourbon is quite exquisite.”
“Just a cup of tea, if you don’t mind.”
The request catches Zegaldorph off guard, most mahlok he has known are far more keen to drink alcohol if they were to request any human beverage at all. Then again Komenrozaltru, like Zegaldorph himself, had given up life in the Empire to throw his lot in with the upstart humans, perhaps this is simply something he had never experienced with his kin before coming to Mordark. “I’m afraid all I have on hand is cold, I’ll get Chanda to get us a fresh pot.”
“No need to trouble her, I’ll just take what you have.”
“If that suits you,” Zegaldorph says, handing his guest a full glass, “personally I will never understand the human fascination with cold food and drink.”
“Neither will I,” Komen agrees as he takes the offered drink in his hand. Zegaldorph thinks this another of his guest’s quirks at first, as every mahlok, at least every one he had met, despises the cold and seeks out heat wherever they can in their surroundings. Then he sees the soft glow of flame from around the glass, and in a few moments steam rises from it as Komen drinks. “I must say, Zegaldorph, I am curious as to how you even knew to look for me. I make no claim to be hiding, certainly, but I don’t exactly advertise my presence to the greater galaxy.”
Zegaldorph gestures to a piece of art on his wall, “your work was my first clue.” Komen follows his gaze and hand to a piece of wood hanging on the wall, about the size and thickness of a notebook. A beautiful desert landscape had been burned into its surface, intricately charred to with shades varied enough that it more resembled a monochrome painting or photograph than any simple wood burning. “I’ve seen many an imitation trying to pass itself off as scorch-drawing, but yours is one of the few genuine works I’ve seen since leaving the Empire.”
Scorch drawing is one of many mahlok art forms rarely seen outside the Empire, and highly sought after for this inherent rarity. The artist begins by taking a piece of wood and creating a negative of the desired image with a heavy sketch, once that is complete a plate of glass is then heated by hand and pressed against the drawing. When the plate is removed and the sketch wiped away, a wonderfully detailed image was left burned into the wood.
“Oh? I have seen a few negative burnings in my time that could fool people. What gave it away as genuine?”
“Those fakes all use specialized powders and chalks to try and imitate the effect, but a true artist will use charcoal burned by hand to achieve the desired effect. And there is always some residue left over embedded in the wood no matter how hard you try to clean it.” Komen nods approvingly, apparently glad that the time honored technique he practiced is recognized and appreciated.
“And I suppose that there is some telltale sign that you must know to look for if you ever hope to distinguish something burned by mahlok hand from an ordinary flame. But there will be time for that later. For now, you said you wanted to know me better, yes?”
“Yes, aside from Xernoc and one or two others I haven't met any more of our people who have lived among humans. All of us seem to have different reasons, different paths, and yet here we all are outside of Zuhaxellod's reign. How is it that you came to leave?”
Komen looks thoughtful for a long moment. This is a story he has told many times over the years to many people. To the newcomers and travelers through his small town who are intrigued by what others tell them of “Old Man Zaltru”, and are then driven by curiosity to seek him out. To the odd journalist or historian who comes to interview or simply chat with one of the last survivors of the great Xenocide War still living on Ares. Now the Lord of Mordark will be added to their number.
“I was young, only about thirty terran years old at the time. The call to arms was being sounded throughout the Empire, and my brother and I both found ourselves in the military. For him it was a natural fit, rather too natural some might say, but for me... I had shown some promise in a few fields actually. My parents thought that I might perhaps be well suited to join the Kasazareth, or at least serve the priesthood in some way.” Kasazareth, the Infernals as the humans called them, are among the most elite warrior-priests in the whole of the Helexith Empire. Zegaldorph himself had been one of their order, standing among the masters of the Flame of the Soul which all mahlok possess, like a deity of fire and destruction.
“But first, they thought I needed more direction, more drive,” Komen continues.
“How so?” inquires Zegaldorph, his interest piqued even more now that he knows that he and his guest once shared the same path, “were you already disillusioned with the Empire at that age?”
“Nothing like that,” Komen admits, “but the answer is right there in my name for all to see.”
Zegaldorph frowns slightly. All mahlok are named in their late adolescence based on what is seen to be their greatest flaw, but all he can come up with for the meaning of Komenrozaltru is, “one that does not know the path?”
“Very close, but this is a particularly ancient name my father found, not many still remember the dialect. It actually means 'he who doubts too much'.”
“And what was it that you doubted?”
Komen gives a small sigh, part nostalgia and part shame, as if remembering the naivete of a young man left behind so many decades ago, “In some ways I doubted myself most of all, but as time went on a question kept raising itself in my mind. A question that would always make itself known at just the right moment to make me waver, to hesitate when others would not. Why are we the superior species? Why is the galaxy our birthright?”
Komen pauses a moment, the mixed emotions of his name, the shame of his parents and his own compounded doubts and anxieties as a result, returning to the surface for the briefest of moments. In an Empire where control and strength are held in such high esteem, Komen had lacked both. In order to test him, to see if he could come to gain those qualities, he had been thrust into the crucible of war. There he was shaped by trial and tribulation, by conflict and distress, into the man who now sat with the Lord of Mordark. However, he had not been shaped as anyone had expected.
“At any rate I found myself involved in the invasion of Shimesh, and... Well, you likely know how well that went.”
“Yes, certainly not the greatest of moments in the mighty Helexith Empire's history.” It was an understatement of great magnitude. Shimesh, once a remote colony of the Empire, had been lost over a thousand years before what the humans now called the Xenocide War began. A series of unlikely and untimely events – a lack of a strong religious presence, lost supply shipments, a communication and travel blackout from massive solar activity – had all coalesced to take the shape of a slashrim uprising that had killed all mahlok on the planet. At the start of the war Shimesh, now called Ares by the humans, was home to just over a dozen arguing minor human nations and clans of rogue slashrim in what was considered to be Harmony territory by the aloof and condescending sarran. A bold general in the higher military echelons had seen an opportunity to rectify an age-old embarrassment an cut off Harmony from many of their out worlds all in the same blow, and so the invasion was launched.
What they had not counted on however, was how eager Harmony would be to rid itself of this, admittedly quite minor, human nuisance. As the second wave of Helexith troops made landfall, a Harmony fleet appeared as if from nowhere and laid siege from orbit. Their orbital blockade scattered, cut off from escape and unable to return fire the slashrim soldiers and their mahlok overseers were wiped out nearly to a man. Then, as achmer ground forces and sarran air support descended upon Ares, the real war began.
“I'd heard our forces were destroyed outright, how did you survive the sarran attack?” Indeed, the images and holos of sarran strike craft strafing the second wave were still shown to that day in the Empire, as reminders of their enemies' cowardice and dishonor. Skewed and biased as the propaganda was, there was no denying the fact that no one was known to have survived the encounter or escaped Harmony imprisonment.
“Honestly it was mostly chance. I hid in the mountains for several days and then disguised among the human troops for almost two weeks. But that masquerade could not last forever, and so the humans captured and interrogated me. They never truly seemed satisfied with my answers to their questions, but they tired of the routine eventually and finally admitted I had told them everything I would which was of use.”
Komen reclines slightly in his chair, having finished his tea, and sets the glass upon the table. He looks thoughtful as he continues, “it must have been, oh, almost forty years that they held me as a prisoner. I started out in a makeshift POW camp with a large number of sarran, I'm not sure if they or the few slashrim guards watching us hated me more actually. Then came a more elaborate facility once the planet was no longer considered to be under total occupation, that was around the time my fellow inmates started to trickle out in various exchanges. After I'd say perhaps fifteen years Ares had a treaty signed with the sarran and achmer, and they pulled what little was left on the planet out to handle targets of greater importance. But there I still was, in chains with only the guards and some Aresian soldiers convicted of war crimes. It stayed that way until the Treaty of Womloch. After that, they had nothing more to do with me and I was released.”
“The Aresians never tried to exchange or ransom you off to Helexith?” Zegaldorph asks, dumbfounded as to how this could be the case. Komen simply shrugs in response, a very human shrug that shows just how long he has spent among them.
“From what I heard over the next few years or so, attempts were indeed made, but no response was ever received. I know not if the Empire didn't believe that I was a prisoner, or simply didn't want to waste their time on me, but there I was on Ares with my freedom and little else. I thought about simply chartering a ship back home, but the Empire's border were still very much closed to human traffic, not to mention I had no money.
“But you know, the strangest thing to me then was that I honestly didn't want to go back. True, my time in human company had only been as a prisoner or those brief days pretending to be their comrade in arms, but I saw something in them. Something I had never seen before in the Empire, and I think you have seen it as well.”
“You saw their potential,” Zegaldorph nods in return, “that with the right direction they can achieve greatness beyond what any in the Empire would dare admit.”
“A people as diverse and haughty as the sarran, as ingenious and pitiless as the achmer, as staunch and savage as the slashrim, as driven and arrogant as the mahlok. Humanity has at once the best and worst of each race within them, they need only time and experience before they will rival us, perhaps even surpass us.”
“Yes, yes exactly!” Zegaldorph exclaims, the excitement of this revelation, one he has found so few who have also reached, overcoming him momentarily. “For all of their division and strife, this is a pattern that shows itself more in human history than another races'. Give them the right guidance, the right leader, and they can overcome even that which is thought impossible. Hannibal bringing Rome to its knees, Yi Sun-Shin holding back the Japanese in Korea, the leaders who spurred their rapid expansion into this galaxy and fended off its two mightiest empires. Inspiration and a binding ideology, a certain charisma if you will, always propels them to greatness.”
“This is very true, but it also does not last,” Komen replies, his words sobering Zegaldorph, snapping him back to reality from his visions of grandeur, “after all, Hannibal did not conquer Rome, and I believe the admiral you spoke of was killed in the final battle of his fleet.” He pauses, the silence hangs palpably in the air with only the crackle of the fireplaces to break through it. “Humanity is capable of many things with the right voice to guide them, but that voice will always fall silent sooner or later, and they will stumble and fall from grace not long after. When the geniuses that build empires burn out and die as we all do, who will have the strength to fuel the raging inferno of progress which they leave untended?”
Zegaldorph considers these words. In his mind they ring true, and they present a dilemma which still haunts his plans and actions, casting dread in the form of the future's specter. It is a cycle, a pattern as he said, and every cycle must return to its start in time. Every high point must have a low.
“Now, forgive me if this is a false presumption, but could it be that you see yourself in that grand role of unifier and leader?”
“It really is that obvious, isn't it? Yes I do, not for all of humankind, likely not even for this entire planet. But if I can take this city and turn it into something great, if I can turn the trash of Terra Nova into a shining gem to be the envy of all the galaxy, then maybe I can ignite something within them and inspire others to follow this same path. Maybe I can use what I know, my perspective as an outsider viewing their culture and history, to make something that will spread to their whole race and make them a cohesive, united force to change the very face of the galaxy. I know it sounds arrogant, foolishly naïve even, but I can't shake the feeling burning inside of me that this is what I am meant to do.”
“Your goals are lofty indeed, Zegaldorph. I find your idealism to be most welcome, and indeed it is likely needed in this endeavor. But you must remember to always temper it with reality, especially now that you will being dealing directly with something as malleable and unpredictable as a human populace. If this is where and when you wish to light a beacon to shine throughout the galaxy, then you must take great care to build it slowly, lest it grow too wild and consume all you have worked for.”
“I know, that's why I've asked you here. My goals are achievable, I can feel it, but I am also keenly aware that one wrong move could cause it to slip away and burn out. Which is why I would like you to stay and be my advisor.”
For a moment Zegaldorph worries that he may have been to forward in his request. Komen on the other hand appears to have anticipated the request, but still lets the quiet linger before giving his answer.
“I had suspected that this might be the case, though I am none-the-less very flattered to have your confidence so easily.”
“You've lived among humans longer than any other mahlok I have ever met. You know them almost certainly better than I do, and just from our conversation tonight I can tell that there is a great wisdom in your words. You also know experiences that I doubt I ever will, living in a little town on a planet so far from here. It seems a simpler, gentler perspective than what I have witnessed here in Mordark, and I wholeheartedly welcome it.”
Komen places a hand on his face, over where a human's mouth would be, he seems contemplative for a time before lowering his hand and speaking again, “I am glad that you feel my input would be of such value to you, Lord Zegaldorph, and I would be glad to offer it from time to time, but I cannot stay. As much as I enjoy your company and hospitality, my home is, and has been for so very long now, back in that little town on Ares. I cannot simply leave it behind, not with the storm clouds gathering as they are.”
“I beg your pardon?” the last part of Komen's statement seems to come from nowhere to Zegaldorph. There are certainly troubles in the galaxy, growing tensions between the major human nations, growing piracy on Terra Nova, murmurs of discontent within Xarkon concerning their aging ruler and some rising stars of the military, but surely these are mere commonplace troubles of peacetime, aren't they? “You don't really think that war is on the horizon, do you?”
“Not in the next few years, no. But so much time has passed, the generations that fought the last great wars are gone for many races, and with them the hesitance to fight again that might let diplomacy prevail. Actions from every side are growing slowly bolder, especially what goes on between the human powers on Terra Nova. And make no mistake, while the core world of every other race may often be treated as just another planet of their nation, any spark on Terra Nova could light the galaxy ablaze. The Empire would not hesitate to use the confusion in an attempt to take back old worlds, and Harmony will be right behind to 'pacify' the conflicts near their borders and farthest colonies. So I cannot stay, not when Ares is so likely to be in the crossfire. Anything I can do to help them should the worst happen, I feel I have to.”
The words make sense, all to much sense, and it shakes Zegaldorph to know that he been in the heart of it all on Terra Nova, yet only now was he seeing all too clearly that all signs pointed to an eventual war. The unrest and bickering on Terra Nova would have to boil over at some point, and if that conflict was large enough it would spread through the whole galaxy. No, there was no question of 'if' with the way things were escalating, no matter how slowly, it was only a matter of 'when'. “I see. That is... Disappointing, but I can certainly see your point, Komen.”
Zegaldorph recomposes himself. The idea of war coming so inevitably was not only a major complication, but had greatly shaken him. That he had not seen what was happening on his own doorstep while someone nearly half a galaxy away could had rocked him even more. But he was the Lord of Mordark, the mysterious mahlok who had manipulated and climbed his way into being the most powerful man in the largest independent city in the galaxy, and could not afford to be so bewildered.
“Of course, I don't have to leave right away,” said Komen, refocusing his host on the conversation rather than his spinning flurry of panicked thoughts, “after all, the next ship to the Aresian system doesn't leave for another week. I would be more than happy to get to know you more and share what insights I can in the meantime.”
“Yes of course, I would be more than happy to have you,” Zegaldorph's relief is palatable. For all of his time among humans and their fast paced lives, he sometimes forgets a mahlok's natural patience, as well as just how far others might see ahead. There is still time to plan, time to prepare for whatever storms may come to Mordark and Terra Nova. For now however, “I'll see about getting some more tea.”