Blackcinders, Red Minister of Concordia, admired power.
“Even black holes can be tamed,” she spoke to herself, looking through the front windows of her mothership. A black spot, the Dark Verge, tainted the pictures of stars clusters, star clouds, and magical phenomenons. Since Blackcinders’ magic allowed her to see the gravitational currents, space looked like a sea to her; currents and forces pushing against one another. Black holes were ancient maelstroms, swirling hurricanes, bottomless maws.
Her mothership, the Vigilance, remained at a safe distance, just close enough to observe the remains of destroyed star ships orbiting the black hole. Destroyed husks, ravaged hulls, flying engines, and frozen corpses, she could see every tiny detail from here.
Blackcinders’ clutch had hatched on Concordia, back when it was still called Midgard; but it was there, at the Dark Verge, that Blackcinders was truly born.
“Minister?” One of her bullmen officers, Bishop EL-16, dared voice his incomprehension. Blackcinders did not tolerate her men speaking out of turn, and her officers had developed a sixth sense to anticipate when she wanted an audience, or silence.
“A black hole is a wild animal,” Blackcinders said. “A ravenous hunger, might without intellect. Fearsome enough to eat light, and dangerous to approach. Yet I tamed it.”
She remembered that battle with great clarity, in spite of the centuries that had passed. She had replayed it thousands of times in her mind.
Concordia had been a new power back then, instead of the mighty behemoth of today. Strong-willed, talented, yet fragile. The rival power of Gintargo had sensed the glorious future that awaited Concordia, and in fear tried to crush it. The Concordia-Gintargo war had been the first interstellar war the Empire had fought, sparking its four centuries of expansion.
Gintargo’s fleet matched Concordia’s own in size, even exceeded it. After three years of fighting, the two forces met in this sector for a final engagement. If Concordia’s fleet had fallen there, Gintargo would have invaded their homeworld. The Grandmaster had elected to command her troops personally in this critical battle, crafting a simple yet effective strategy. The fleet vanguard would engage the Gintargo fleet, making them believe they fought the bulk of the Concordian army; then fall back and lead them close to the edge of the black hole as safely possible. The rest of the Concordian fleet, hidden by stealth shields and spells, would flank Gintargo by surprise and force them past a safe orbit, trapping them in the black hole’s inescapable gravity pull.
Few wanted to join the vanguard. Any wrong move, any mistake, and they would suffer the same fate as Gintargo, trapped in an inexorable course towards death. Blackcinders, though, had made the leap of faith. She had believed in the Founders’ vision since the beginning. She would gladly lay down her life for Concordia’s glory, and so she offered to lead the charge.
Her eyes retraced the path the battle took, pausing at areas where her own ships had fallen. At the peril of her life and those of her troops, Blackcinders had led the enemy to the very edge of the gravitational well, then blocked the enemy’s escape as the main fleet ambushed Gintargo. Three-quarters of the vanguard had died pulling it off, but the blow forever destroyed Gintargo’s ambitions. Their world fell three weeks later; Concordia’s first conquest.
The defeat of the Gintargo fleet had been her finest moment, the one that brought her the Grandmaster’s favor. After decades of efforts and dutiful services, Blackcinders had climbed the ladder to the rank of Red Minister.
She had never forgotten where she came from, however, and returned to this interstellar graveyard at least once per year to relish in her victory. Watching the corpses of defeated enemies brought her everlasting joy.
She could spend an eternity watching, but she had duties to attend to. Blackcinders tilted her head to the side, glancing down at the silent hive that was her command center. As the largest dragon on record, Blackcinders had grown so large her new mothership had had to be tailored to allow her to move inside.
Her bullmen officers were little more than mice in comparison, and the dragons under her command looked like mere children before a true titan of their kind. Blackcinders’ body had long since adapted to the vacuum of space and ship environments, growing metal scales over her flesh, and turning her wings into solar sails. Her eyes were red pits of Red Flux, her veins crimson circuits; and her tail itself ended in a sharp stinger blade. To outsiders she looked more like a black machine shaped like a dragon, than a creature of flesh and blood.
“Open the communication.” Blackcinders never raised her voice, yet her officers always listened. She had selected them among her elite and trusted them to listen to her strategic discussions, so as to enforce her will on their own.
Her mothership’s guiding intelligence answered her command, five spheres of light flashing around Blackcinders’ head. Each shone with a different color — Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue and Violet — and revealed a hologram at their core.
The six Ministers, the ruling body of Concordia, beholden only to the Grandmaster herself, had gathered for their regular meeting. With one exception. After a minute of waiting for Loctis to join the meeting, Blackcinders focused on the empty green light, wondering what the Green Minister was up to. He had the habit of retiring in complete reclusion for months, only to return with world-shaking breakthroughs like the UB system.
A shame. Blackcinders had sent him multiple unanswered mating invitations, and would continue until successful. Loctis had yet to sire a clutch, and his genes were too precious to die with him. If their clutch had half their father’s genius and a quarter of her strength, they would crush the Empire’s enemies with ease.
Better than her latest clutch.
With the Grandmaster and Loctis absent, it fell on Blackcinders, as the senior Minister, to administer the meeting. “Greetings, my fellows.”
“Greetings, my Dark Muse. You look radiant like a star today.” The Golden Prince, the only other dragon present and the Yellow Minister, had a sweet, singing voice that charmed worlds into surrender. Making others feel better through words and flattery had become almost second nature to him.
“Indeed. Relishing old victories makes one brighter.” A bullman hiding under multiple layers of illusions so as to become near unrecognizable, Aster spoke too fast for his sentence to feel natural. While the Golden Prince’s words had a true warmth to them, the Blue Minister calculated each one of his words in advance. Even his compliments sounded vague, depersonalized.
Blackcinders noted that he knew of her location, though. Nothing escaped the head of Concordian Intelligence.
The Orange Minister didn’t waste time with politeness. “Get down to business. I have a factory inspection and I will not delay it.” Grimsour, the chairman of the leading state conglomerate in the Empire, was the ideal hob: greedy, cunning, and no-nonsense. Tall and lanky for his kind, with sick yellow skin and two horns as long as the rest of his body, he wore top of the line golden combat armor day and night.
Only the Violet Minister, Brina, remained as silent as stone. A humanoid warrior most mistook for a human at first glance, she was there and not there at once. She listened, yet rarely voiced her thoughts. Even her hologram flickered at random, shrouding her appearance. Blackcinders herself knew little of her and her history. As far as she knew, Brina just walked into her post at the Grandmaster’s behest with no one voicing a single question.
Blackcinders’ eyes kept shifting at Loctis’ empty green spot. With his absence, non-dragons had a majority in the discussions and she disliked it. While Concordia promoted loyalty and talent over species, even at the highest echelons of power, dragons shared a strong bond of brotherhood. She could trust Grimsour to put money above all, Aster to have a plan, and Brina to surprise her, but she could only trust the Golden Prince when the chips were down.
His next words made her eat her thoughts. “I believe we should first discuss the potential disarm of the Damocles on Terra Firma’s moon.”
“That is not your call,” Blackcinders replied. Her territory. Her rules. “Terra Firma is part of my clusters. One that remains uncivilized.”
“This is exactly my concern,” the Golden Prince replied. “Local rebellions are nothing new in recent colonies. However, Terra Firma is the first one where you built an orbital laser pointed at the population, which has become a standard policy in your territories. A decade after the start of your experiment, it is time to examine the results.”
“I ordered the Damocles built to enforce obedience in the population and destroy the Black Tower should its power grow unchecked.” So far, its dreadful energies had remained manageable. “It succeeded. The uprisings remained a minor nuisance, even for a token garrison.”
“Yet the uprisings last. They endure and cultural assimilation takes longer than on other worlds. The dominions where you put other Damocles also boil with resentment, and they should. How can we preach peaceful integration while reminding them we can kill them at anytime?”
“That is the entire point,” Blackcinders snapped.
“Which is a misguided strategy. We look like occupiers instead of civilizers.”
“Are you questioning my judgment?” Blackcinders eyed the Yellow Minister with a cold hard stare. She hoped the fool would take the hint and back down.
“I am. Have you yet to meet a problem you didn’t try to solve with force, Blackcinders?”
“Have you yet to meet a problem you did not try to talk to death, Golden Prince?” She almost spat the last two words. The Yellow Minister had his uses, true. Knitting the colonies together under a common culture, the velvet wings to Blackcinders’ iron fangs. Yet he often forgot his place. Too many feelings and not enough thinking.
“Your attitude is encouraging revolts. Building orbital weapons in our territories? Citizens should look at the skies with pride, instead of fear.”
“I agree with him, this is a stupid policy,” Grimsour said, albeit not for sentimental reasons. “Your Damocles are bottomless drains on our finances, when we could create more Gearsmen Colossi and warships. Same for your so-called ‘superweapon’ initiative.”
“Keep to your graphs and leave the military strategy to me, Grimsour,” Blackcinders rebuked the hob. While he might worry about Concordia’s economy, she kept their dominions safe from worse threats than budget cuts. Threats beyond any conventional weapon.
“We will defeat neither the Maleking nor the Seeker with Colossi.” Fortunately, the Violet Minister shared her common sense.
So did Aster. “The Grandmaster authorized these projects, including the Damocles initiative. Are you implying our leader’s trust in Blackcinders’ judgment is mistaken?”
None of them dared to voice doubt in their supreme guide, although the Golden Prince looked ready to choke. None brought her into the discussion either. The Grandmaster rarely attended these meetings, trusting the Ministers to handle the day to day administration while she focused on higher matters.
“Let us settle this with a vote,” Aster declared. “Who is in favor of suspending the Damocles initiative? Aye or nay.”
“Aye,” the Prince and Grimsour said.
“Nay,” Brina, Aster and Blackcinders countered.
“The hardliners have it,” Aster declared, much to the Prince’s annoyance.
“Discussion closed.” Blackcinders ended the debate. “The moons will remain armed.”
They had those pointless discussions more often than she would like. Over time, Concordia’s High Command had divided into moderates and hardliners. While she, Brina, and Aster advocated strong, decisive solutions, the Prince and Grimsour prefered soft negotiations and trade over force. Loctis could swing either way, although he often tipped the balance in the moderates’ favor when he bothered to attend.
“Since we are on the subject of maintaining peace on the new colonies, I denote a strong Malebranche activity among them,” Aster spoke, artfully moving the debate towards a common enemy instead of internal bickering. “The Maleking grows more active with each solar cycle.”
“Our officials remain protected by your measures and vigilant gaze, though?” Blackcinders pushed. That insidious dream demon had a fondness for turning military officers into time bombs.
“Yes, but they are not the true threat. The Maleking is setting up cults among local populations, furthering unrest and radicalizing colonized people. Groups my Ministry infiltrated all share common elements. Loose organization, devotion to the Maleking or one of his chosen Horsemen, and a belief higher initiation will grant its members the power to overthrow Concordia.”
“This is new,” the Golden Prince picked up the implications. “So far the Maleking has focused on keystones, so to speak. Surgical strikes against elements of our regime, instead of building a following among the locals.”
“He is chaos embodied,” Grimsour replied. Many of his factories had been targeted in the past, halting weaponry production or causing localized shortages among colonies. “These groups will turn violent at some point.”
“You said he promised power, Aster,” Blackcinders noted. “What kind?”
“The Maleking remains vague, and higher echelons of his cult have proven difficult to infiltrate. Since the Maleking and his Yellow Sorcerers can enter dreams, they quickly root out spies. We require another, subtler strategy.”
“No power can match Concordia, and certainly not the Maleking,” Blackcinders spoke. “Deal with those cults like any other pawn of his.”
“Of course. I wished to voice my belief that our enemy may pursue a broader strategy than we thought. His growing power is also cause for concern. We know the Maleking is sealed on a world called Cocytus, and his increased activity would imply his bindings are weakening.”
Finding the Maleking’s prison and reinforcing his seal had been a primary goal of Concordia since they gained awareness of the fiend’s existence. So far they had little luck, and the few people who might hold the answers were out of their reach.
Should the monster manage to escape, they would need to call upon the Grandmaster.
“What about Famine?” Grimsour spoke up. “We killed the last Horseman, and there’s been little news ever since. Did it reincarnate already? Into whom?”
“Into a human, I heard,” Aster said. “I will not make a judgment yet. Not enough information.”
“We will destroy his vessels as many times as needed,” Blackcinders cut off the discussion. “What else, Aster?”
“With the Crimson Epoch coming, Arcadian reaver activity is down. Their leader, Lord Revel, will attend the event with most of his court.” Aster left a short silence, as if expecting Blackcinders to push for an open assault.
Nothing would please her more, but only in due time. Concordia needed a few more years to stamp out the Malebranche infection first before looking to the Arcadian territories with hunger. “Their time will come,” Blackcinders said. “What about the Seeker of Life?”
“Seeker, Seeker! It just wants to help, but it will make you wish for death!”
“Harvesting a star cluster in the Trion Sector. It remains away from our dominions but is always at the edges. Prodding for weaknesses.” Since they had managed to push it back one century ago, the entity had wisely decided to bide its time. Like a ravenous interstellar predator, though, it would attack again. It may take years, or centuries, but it would emerge from deep space to threaten the border worlds. And Concordia would be ready for it. “Before you ask, Pandoria remains dormant for the time being.”
“The Shadow Queen?” Blackcinders voiced the second-to-last concern on her list of threats to interstellar security.
“That petty warlord?” Grimsour’s voice oozed with disdain. “Should we even discuss her? She is no threat to us.”
“Leave one weed alone, and you may find the garden overrun,” Blackcinders replied. “Aster.”
“She subsumed Green Mandrake’s survivors, but little news,” Aster replied. “I set one of my elites on the case. We will deal with her.”
“And the enemy we shall not name?”
“Which is to say, dead,” Grimsour snapped in annoyance. “Ghosts shouldn’t waste the livings’ time.”
“As much as I wish you were right, we cannot let down our guard on that case,” the Golden Prince said the first sensible thing in the entire meeting. “Overconfidence cost us much in the past.”
“If Aster’s answer remains the same for a century, then I shall stop asking. Not before.” Blackcinders turned to Brina next. “What about the Gates? Any new pathways uncovered?”
“One star cluster,” the Violet Minister replied, without elaborating much. “Primitive inhabitants. Waiting for my explorers to send reports before I establish contact.”
“I am starting to lose track of them,” the Golden Prince joked. “The stars.”
“Not me,” Grimsour replied. “I will check those worlds for resources. With more ore, we may increase our warship production by one half a percent by the next production cycle.”
“What else?” Blackcinders pushed. She had another, personal matter to attend to.
“I would talk about my new cultural festival, but we all know only Grimsour will attend it,” the Golden Prince said.
“A premature judgment,” Aster countered. “What about my proposition?”
“I am unsure if putting Blue spells inside music to increase happiness levels is safe for our population,” the Golden Prince replied without much enthusiasm. “Why not test them in a nice, safe, contained environment first?”
“We have registered astonishing success on Electon prisoners. I will gladly show you the results, if you have time.”
“With pleasure. When would — ”
“Next,” the Red Minister cut them off, moving on.
The rest of the meeting went by uneventfully. Grimsour gave them the latest economic results, the Prince said that the soul gems harvests remained stable, and Blackcinders disclosed the latest energy production reports. With all matters settled, Blackcinders concluded the meeting with Concordia’s battle cry. “One order across the stars.”
“One order across the stars!” The other ministers replied, with various degrees of enthusiasm. Aster and the Prince’s voice boomed with the strength of their belief, yet Brina and Grimsour were barely audible.
As the holograms vanished, the Red Minister didn’t waste time. “Open the line to Terra Firma,” she commanded, two white holograms manifesting where the Ministers used to be. “Smokefang. Captain Kresnik.”
Were it not strategically placed near their border with the Arcadian territories, Blackcinders would have left Terra Firma to rot and happily forgotten it. The planet’s appearance in one of her star clusters had made her act decisively to bring it into the fold, leaving her newest children to tame its barbarian inhabitants. They had made great progress, and the Red Minister had identified which of her children were ready for greater assignments.
Smokefang wasn’t one of them. His closed, bloodied eye was proof of it. “You lost, son,” Blackcinders said with clear displeasure.
“Mother, I can explain —”
“Silence.” Her spawn shut up at her cold words, cowering. I cannot believe he’s my blood. “Your incompetence is only matched by the shame you cast on me. How could you let Firman vermin get the better of you?”
Her son wisely remained silent, not daring to raise her ire further. Blackcinders turned to Kresnik next. “Report, Captain.”
“We waited for the group to undo the seal on the Occult Matrix, then attacked with Gearsmen reinforcements. The raiding party included two sorcerers, a boy and a girl, backed by a humanoid fighter in a stolen old Knight-Class armor, and Mur, a Midnight Market thug-for-hire. The sorceress cast two Green spells, and she wielded a Yellow-aligned Lock. Someone also cast Berserk on Mur prior to the fight.”
“How strong? The spells?” Blackcinders pushed.
“Dot One. I would peg Shroud’s glass control as Orange Dot Two.”
“Shroud?” What a ridiculous codename.
“The leader. His men called him that during the battle. I heard them. Mur, Sol, Yoshikage, Shroud. They could communicate without our radios intercepting their messages. Unlike his accomplice, the Shroud used multiple opposing colors. Blue, Red, and an Orange glass manipulation spell. His Lock smells of strong Blue.”
“Another dabbler.” Untrained sorcerers often tried their hands at multiple colors, wasting their full potential for mediocrity. “Malebranche?”
“The leader was under a curse from the Maleking,” Kresnik said. “However, he did not fit the profile of true devotees. I suspect he was blackmailed into the act.”
“Two of them for Shroud. Jack Powells, and Mathias Martel; I suspected Victor Martel, but he had an alibi for the Everglades attack and a different body type. No suspect for the girl yet.”
“Martel?” The name sounded vaguely familiar. How bothering. “How did they disable the Occult Matrix’s protections?”
“The Shroud… spoke to the machine?” Captain Kresnik struggled to put words into what he saw. “I felt a strong flare of Blue magic, similar to a mental connection. Stronger than a Metalmesh spell.”
“It interfaced with the artifact?” Both Smokefang and Kresnik nodded at her question, confirming the Minister’s suspicions. The pieces fell into place. Blackcinders recalled where she had heard the name Martel. “The boy, Martel, tell me more.”
“Most of his file was protected beyond my Dot level authorization,” Kresnik said. “So was his mother’s. Alice Martel. He’s seventeen, near eighteen.”
Blackcinders had already connected the dots at the ‘Alice Martel’ part.
The Terminal incident.
Could it be?
“Mother?” Smokefang dared speak again.
“Quiet, child.” Blackcinders pondered the possibilities at hand. What were the odds that a Blue Sorcerer with the ability to interface with ancient artifacts had showed up in the exact same location as the Martel spawn? Blackcinders had lived long enough to not believe in coincidences. The Malebranche variable also presented its own complications. “Who else knows about the artifact incident?”
Smokefang took his mother’s subdued tone as the threat it was. “Just us, and the Evermarsh UB that recorded the event through the Gearsmen.”
Blackcinders remained silent, the tension almost palpable. Her two underlings froze, perhaps expecting her to execute both of them for learning too much. Not that she would cross that line — Kresnik was a loyal scion of Concordia, and while his weakness disgusted her, Smokefang was blood.
“The Martel child is bait for a Dot Five threat to Imperial security,” The two straightened up. Dot Five was the highest rank possible, reserved for existential threats such as the Maleking, the Seeker of Life, or the city of Pandoria. “We let the boy run around because we expect the true prize to come and collect him at some point in the near future.”
Aster’s idea and responsibility. Had the Blue Minister faltered in his duties? His department did have a conflict of interest on the case. Blackcinders pondered if she should arrest the boy, even at the risk of threatening the plan. With Terra Firma under her jurisdiction, she could get away with it.
No. She could not risk jeopardizing a sensitive operation on a hunch. Not without proof.
Neither could she let the Maleking add two new spellcasters to his growing collection. They had enough trouble containing his influence, and Concordia’s power relied on its monopoly on magic. The Empire couldn’t coexist with rogues.
Either sorcerers joined the power structure, or were crushed by it.
“Smokefang. You are a disgrace and a failure.” Her brood cowered at her judgment. “However, considering the circumstances, I shall give you one, and only one, second chance to prove my opinion wrong. Succeed, and I will recognize you as worthy for higher responsibilities. Fail again, and I will banish you to the farthest corner of the measliest colony. Am I understood?”
“Yes, Mother. What will you have me do?”
“Capture the leader, Shroud, alive, and bring him to me. Alive. Cut off a few limbs if you need to. Captain Kresnik, you will assist my son until he succeeds or dies trying.”
“And the girl?” Smokefang’s tone turned venomous, as Kresnik’s expression darkened.
“Beyond her magic, she is of no use to us. Recruit or kill her as you wish.”
A savage gleam lit up in her spawn’s remaining eye, filling her with motherly pride. “I will go with kill as soon as I regenerate my eye.”
“You will not.” Blackcinders narrowed her head against the holo-projector, so as to give her spawn a better view of her own scars. Her flesh might have been mostly metal now, but the thin lines maring her scales reminded her of previous battles all the same. “Every time you look at your reflection, you will remember the price of overconfidence. Never underestimate the enemy. Let one get the better of you, and thousands will follow. Never forget this sharp lesson, or you will lose more than an eye next time.”
Blackcinders ended the call before her son could reel from the rebuke.
Soft hearts like the Prince condemned her parenting, but Blackcinders knew better than most the cold, unforgiving harshness of space. The cosmos didn’t care for gentleness, only for strength. The best thing she could do for her son was to be brutal with him at every turn, so he would grow into the toughest dragon he could become. Her own sire had taught her this way, and while she hated it as a child, she would not have survived this long without it.
One day, Smokefang would understand that this was an act of love. With his birth defect, he needed it.
After the day’s work, she allowed herself one last moment of pleasure. “Move the ship in position.”
She moved to her ship’s window, glancing as ships of her fleet pushed the remains of a star cruiser near the Vigilance.
That ship had belonged to the armada of a small planet Blackcinders had recently conquered. They had barely begun to colonize their cluster before Concordia fell on them like wolves upon lambs, and offered little challenge. The Red Minister had claimed their region of space in less than a week. “Engines?” she rasped.
“Discarded,” Bishop EL-16 replied.
All dragons hoarded. They found an obsession, an object of desire they accumulated until they died. The larger the hoard, the greater their status, and their psychic strength. Most fixated on tangible matter like gold, or art, or even people. Some preferred abstract treasures, like knowledge or favors. The greatest of all was the Grandmaster’s grandiose hoard of stars and planets.
Blackcinders found no pleasure in those things.
“Graviforce.” Altering gravitational forces with her spell, she pushed the husk towards the black hole until it remained stationary in orbit.
She found joy in conquest instead. A dragon’s worth was determined by the worth of its enemies, and she had had plenty of them.
Blackcinders would come back during the next solar cycle, and she would do it again, adding another trophy to her growing collection of corpses and dead hopes. She would ponder on the fact she was, and had been, one mistake away from ending up the same way. That only strength kept her alive, and the empire safe.
The Minister’s eyes turned away from the darkness, to the distant stars. So many worlds in need of guidance, and a firm hand to teach them discipline. Blackcinders had heard her scientists speak of other worlds, other dimensions, beyond the frontier of their reality. If they existed, they would find them.
One speck of space dust at a time.
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